Tuesday, July 18, 2006

When I peruse major news sources, renewable energy news occasionally appears, but not nearly as consistently as war, and rarely as one of the leading headlines. Given the deep global impact that renewable energy could have on the economy, international relations, and the environment--in sum, its key role in the future of our planet--I think that it is worth the extra effort to seek out renewable energy news.

A quick online search for renewable energy news from the past week or two yielded some interesting fruit:

China plans to invest $200 billion in renewable energy in the next 15 years

Chinese developers unveiled the world's first "full-permanent magnetic levitation (Maglev) wind power generator." I am going to be honest here--I have no idea what a full-permanent magnetic levitation wind power generator is. But the article does report that this new technology could increase wind energy production by as much as 20% over traditional wind turbine technology, and effectively cut wind farm operating expenses in half. The article takes an interesting perspective on the relevance of this development, focusing on its potential to bring electricity to the 70 million Chinese households that do not have access to electricity, using a renewable approach that could be less costly than expanding the power grid into remote regions.

While in Mali, I thought about this possibility quite a bit. Cell phones leapfrogged landline technology in much of Mali, reaching remote areas of Mali that would be difficult and costly to reach with landline infrastructure. Similarly, if solar or wind renewable energy technology were to become more affordable, such off-the-grid solutions could leapfrog the electricity grid and spread rapidly where electricity infrastructure has not yet reached. Project Muso's partnership with the Malian National Program for Renewable Energy and the Advancement of Women inspired me to start thinking about this issue. Some people I know in Mali are already saving up to buy solar panels, so that they can power a light bulb and their children can do their homework at night. While the solar panels currently available in Mali are still too expensive for most people, if prices of solar panels were to drop, I think this would spur a rapid adoption of this path.

Speakers at SOLAR 2006 in Denver CO highlighted the importance of developing and implementing building design techniques to reduce fossil fuel use. Buildings account for 48% of US energy consumption, and are thus a key target for reducing energy consumption. The speakers outlined the "2030 challenge," calling for all new buildings to be designed as carbon-neutral by 2030. This, they note, will require a considerable education initiative to integrate carbon-conscious building techniques into architectural education curricula and building design tools currently employed by architects. The fact that it might even be possible to have all new buildings be designed as carbon neutral in my lifetime is quite amazing, a goal worthy of our efforts.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Albert and Lionel, raising the sparks.

Just as rivers are much less numerous than the underground streams, so the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what men and women carry in their hearts, unreleased and scarcely released. Mankind is waiting and longing for those who can accomplish the task of untying what is knotted and bringing the underground waters to the surface.

–Albert Schweitzer

Four days a week, I take the 54 bus to the top of a hill in Oakland, Merrit College, where I am tutoring students in Chemistry. On most days, Lionel takes me there. Today I had my bike with me—I had never taken a bike on public transportation before, but I heard that the Bay Area Rapid Transit system prides itself in being bike-friendly, so I decided to give it a shot. But I could not figure out how to get my bike onto the rack in front of the bus—I just could not figure out the geometry of it. Lionel got up patiently from the driver’s seat, and came out in front of the bus beside me.

“Lift the bike and place the front wheel vertically here in this groove, then you take this hook and pull it over the front wheel.”

His words were slow, deliberate. Each syllable, well articulated. This is the way in which he always speaks, whether he is explaining a bus fare or engaging in an intellectual discussion. So I knew that this was his way. He did not speak slowly in a way that belittled me or my complete lack of coordination with bike racks.

“Use your strength,” he said. Yesterday, I had suggested to him that my parents gave my brother and I names meaning “lion” and “strong” in order to endow us with strong characters. He smiled faintly as this allusion to yesterday's discussion. He showed me how to secure my bike to the front of the bus, with astonishing patience, especially for someone who is paid to be exactly on time to a different place every minute. Then, a teenager in a wheelchair arrived at the bus. With no less patience, he pulled out the ramp, and helped him attach his seat.

About midway through the ride up the hill, a woman stood up and asked, struggling to find the English words, if we were going to Chinatown. She was clearly disoriented and concerned. We were quite far away from Chinatown and not getting any closer, but Lionel did not miss a step.

“Would you like to go to Chinatown?”

After some discussion with her, Lionel discerned that she did not want to go to Chinatown, she was going to 35th street but was in fact concerned she was going in the wrong direction. “We will get you to your destination. Do not worry.”

I like watching how people change when they interact with Lionel. Most of these interactions are not that extensive—an explanation about how much a student transfer fare costs, a question about whether we have arrived yet at the Safeway—but the change in people is visible. They speak a little more confidently and openly. They smile. They breathe a bit more deeply. They sit more calmly, and they give small blessings as they walk off the bus.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Smoking and Halacha

The Rabbinical Council of America just released a report declaring that smoking violates Halacha. My thanks to Jewschool for bringing this to my attention. They rule that no additional Rabbinic ban or edict is necessary because an analysis of Halachic sources, in light of current medical knowledge about smoking, makes it clear that Halacha already forbids smoking. The report is quite interesting, and available for free online, along with a press release from the Rabbinical Council of America

Here is their summary conclusion:

Accordingly, this analysis must lead to the unambiguous conclusion that smoking is clearly and unquestionably forbidden by Halacha and that this should be made known to all who care about the Torah and their health.

A final note is in order: People who smoke are not, Chas Vechalila, doing so in an attempt to flout Halacha. In fact, most would dearly wish to quit, but shedding an addiction is no simple matter. While it is important to make clear that Halacha prohibits smoking, it is also important not to condemn those who struggle with this issue. Rather we must offer our full help and support to aid them in their quest for physical and spiritual health.

At least as important as declaring that smoking is forbidden by Halacha is this final note. Given the ruling that smoking is forbidden by Halacha, dangerous to health and destructive of the holy bodies that G!d gave us, given that smoking is still quite pervasive (the report notes that approximately 25% of adult Americans smoke, and that in some portions of the Jewish community the rate is higher than this), what now? What is our responsibility, communally, to those who struggle with smoking, and with any dangerous addiction? It is my hope that we will not only take to heart this final note, almost an aside in the 11-page report, but that we will also continue to strive to deepen our understanding of our moral communal responsibilities, to explore the actions we can take to help those who struggle with addiction.