October 15, 2014

Robotics: How Capitalism Is Making Conditions for Its Own Demise

by @ 10:52 am. Tags:
Filed under Capitalism, Cybernation, Technology, Unemployment
For as Little $20,000, Machines Handle the Tedious—With No Lunch Breaks; 'Fred, Hand Me That Wrench'

Robots Working Their Way Into Small Factories 

Photo By Taylor Glascock, WSJ

By Timothy Aeppel

SolidarityEconomy.net via The Wall Street Journal

Sept. 17, 2014 - Robots aren't just for the big guys anymore.

A new breed of so-called collaborative machines—designed to work alongside people in close settings—is changing the way some of America's smaller manufacturers do their jobs.

The machines, priced as low as $20,000, provide such companies—small jewelry makers and toy makers among them—with new incentives to automate to increase overall productivity and lower labor costs.

At Panek Precision Inc., a Northbrook, Ill., machine shop, 21 shiny new robots hum as they place metal parts into cutting machines and remove the parts after they are done. It's a tedious and oily task once handled by machine operators who earn about $16.50 an hour.

One new robot doubled the output from a machine that was previously operated by a worker "because robots work overnight and don't take lunch breaks and they just keep going," says Gregg Panek, the company's president. In some cases, the robots, which are single articulated arms, can even hold a part while it's getting cut since there is no danger of injury.

Robots have been on factory floors for decades. But they were mostly big machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had to be caged off to keep them from smashing into humans. Such machines could only do one thing over and over, albeit extremely fast and precisely. As a result, they were neither affordable nor practical for small businesses.

Collaborative robots can be set to do one task one day—such as picking pieces off an assembly line and putting them in a box—and a different task the next.

Some are mobile and able to range freely inside a factory. The use of advanced sensors means they stop or reposition themselves when a person gets in their way, solving a safety issue that long kept robots out of smaller factories.

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October 8, 2014

In the Works: Totally Transparent Solar Cells Could Turn Our Windows Into Solar Panels

by @ 10:09 am. Filed under Green Energy, High Design, Solar

‘Ultimately, we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.’

By Ben Shiller

SolidarityEconomy.net via Fast CoExist 

In the future, you'll be able to charge your phone just by placing it in the sun, and you'll generate electricity through your windows, not just from the panels on the roof. How? By covering glass in a material that captures energy from the invisible parts of the light spectrum, but still lets in visible light. In other words: translucent solar cells.

"When you look at tall buildings, there is a tremendous amount of surface area. They can act as efficient collectors throughout the day," says Richard Lunt, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University. "In many buildings, we are already installing films to reject infrared light to reduce [heating and cooling] costs. We aim to do something similar while also generating power."

Molecules in the film absorb energy and "glow." The glowing infrared light is then pushed to the sides, where it's converted to electricity using edge-mounted strips of solar cells.

Lunt has co-founded a company, Ubiquitous Energy, to commercialize his team's work. He reckons we could see the first applications within five years.

It's likely the films won't be as efficient as solar panels, even today's relatively inefficient versions. At the moment, they convert only about 1% of incoming energy, compared to a typical rate of 20% for today solar panels. But the films could be cost-effective if spread over large areas--say on the side of skyscrapers. They could also be a useful addition to tablets and smartphones.

"Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there," Lunt says.

Ben Schiller is a New York-based staff writer for Co.Exist, and also contributes to the FT and Yale e360. He used to edit a European management magazine, and worked as a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels



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October 1, 2014

High Design: Breakthrough in Storage Makes Wind and Solar More Affordable

by @ 10:39 am. Filed under Green Energy, Green Industry, High Design

Led by Professor Donal Sadoway, the team at MIT has produced a new all-liquid battery with improved life and a lower cost than previous versions (Photo: M. Scott Brauer)

MIT's improved all-liquid battery could make renewable energy more competitive

By Nick Lavars

SolidarityEconomy.net via Nature

Sept 24, 2014 - By playing around with materials, researchers have reduced the operating temperature of an all-liquid battery to 450-500° C (842-932° F) (Image: Felice Frankel)

By playing around with materials, researchers have reduced the operating temperature of an...

Our ability to store energy has proven a big hurdle in the adoption of renewable energies. But now a team of researchers from MIT has developed a new all-liquid battery system that extends the life of such devices while also costing less to make, a development they say could make wind and solar energy more competitive with traditional sources of power.

Donald Sadoway, a professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT, has been exploring the potential of electrical-grid-scale liquid batteries for some time. These batteries comprise layers of molten material, the varying densities of which cause the layers to separate naturally, much like oil and water.

With magnesium used for one electrode, antimony for another and molten salt serving as the electrolyte, these systems needs to be heated to 700° C (1,292° F) to operate. But the researchers found that exchanging some of the materials, using one electrode made from lithium and another from a combination of lead and antimony, reduces the operating temperature to 450-500° C (842-932° F).

What truly surprised the researchers was the benefits of both the antimony and lead when mixed together to create the electrode. They had anticipated that the higher voltage of the antimony would be compromised by the lead, and the lead's lower melting point would be compromised by the addition of the antimony. Rather, they found that, while the combined melting point lay in between that of the individual materials, the hybrid metal retained the higher voltage of the antimony.

"We hoped (the characteristics of the two metals) would be nonlinear,” Sadoway says. “They proved to be (nonlinear), but beyond our imagination. There was no decline in the voltage. That was a stunner for us.”

Because the new version of the battery can operate at a lower temperature, the researchers say it will be easier to design and have a longer life, in addition to a lower overall cost. In testing, they found that after 10 years of daily charging and discharging, the battery should maintain about 85 percent of its initial efficiency. They claim this initial efficiency to be around 70 percent, a similar level to pumped-hydro systems which require both large water masses and hillsides to function.

"The fact that we don’t need a mountain, and we don’t need lots of water, could give us a decisive advantage,” says Sadoway.

He and his team will explore the effects of other metals on the battery system and are hopeful of further reducing its cost and operating temperature and improving overall performance.

The team's research was published in the journal Nature.



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September 27, 2014

High Design: How to Make Stronger, ‘Greener’ Cement

by @ 5:51 am. Filed under Environment, Green Industry, High Design

Analysis of material's molecular structure leads to a new formula that could cut greenhouse-gas emissions

By David L. Chandler

MIT News Office

Sept 25, 2014 - Concrete is the world’s most-used construction material, and a leading contributor to global warming, producing as much as one-tenth of industry-generated greenhouse-gas emissions. Now a new study suggests a way in which those emissions could be reduced by more than half — and the result would be a stronger, more durable material.

The findings come from the most detailed molecular analysis yet of the complex structure of concrete, which is a mixture of sand, gravel, water, and cement. Cement is made by cooking calcium-rich material, usually limestone, with silica-rich material — typically clay — at temperatures of 1,500 degrees Celsius, yielding a hard mass called “clinker.” This is then ground up into a powder. The decarbonation of limestone, and the heating of cement, are responsible for most of the material’s greenhouse-gas output.

The new analysis suggests that reducing the ratio of calcium to silicate would not only cut those emissions, but would actually produce better, stronger concrete. These findings are described in the journal Nature Communications by MIT senior research scientist Roland Pellenq; professors Krystyn Van Vliet, Franz-Josef Ulm, Sidney Yip, and Markus Buehler; and eight co-authors at MIT and at CNRS in Marseille, France.

“Cement is the most-used material on the planet,” Pellenq says, noting that its present usage is estimated to be three times that of steel. “There’s no other solution to sheltering mankind in a durable way — turning liquid into stone in 10 hours, easily, at room temperature. That’s the magic of cement.”

In conventional cements, Pellenq explains, the calcium-to-silica ratio ranges anywhere from about 1.2 to 2.2, with 1.7 accepted as the standard. But the resulting molecular structures have never been compared in detail. Pellenq and his colleagues built a database of all these chemical formulations, finding that the optimum mixture was not the one typically used today, but rather a ratio of about 1.5.

(more...)

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September 17, 2014

High Design Solves Solar Power Problem

by @ 5:51 pm. Filed under Green Energy, High Design, Solar

Scrobby: The autonomous solar panel-scrubbing robot

Scrobby is an autonomous robot prototype designed to keep domestic solar panels clean and ...

Scrobby is an autonomous robot prototype designed to keep domestic solar panels clean and clear

 

By Colin Jeffrey

SolidarityEconomy.net via gizmag.org

Sept 16, 2014 - Solar panels need regular cleaning to ensure they are working at their optimum efficiency, and spraying them with the hose from the ground or relying on a heavy downpour won't necessarily get the job done. Like the windows on your house, they need to be scrubbed and polished for maximum effect. Enter Scrobby, a solar-powered, autonomous robot prototype designed to keep domestic solar panels clean and clear.

Designed to wash and scrub solar panels positioned at angles of up to 75 degrees, just one Scrobby is purported to be able to clean a solar array measuring up to 10 x 20 m (32.5 x 65 ft) – and this is only because its wire tether will only stretch that far.

The wire tether, however, is only for safety so that Scrobby has no chance of falling off the roof and destroying itself or, worse, hitting some unsuspecting passer-by on the head. Scrobby actually takes user commands from an app contained on a smartphone or tablet and also sends details of its schedule to the same app via Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity.

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September 16, 2014

Vermont’s Largest City Now Using 100% Renewable Energy Sources

by @ 7:28 am. Filed under Green Energy, Solar, Urban Problems, Wind Power

by Jen Hayden

SolidarityEconomy.net via DailyKOS

This is awesome:

    Vermont’s largest city has a new success to add to its list of socially conscious achievements: 100 percent of its electricity now comes from renewable sources such as wind, water and biomass.

    With little fanfare, the Burlington Electric Department crossed the threshold this month with the purchase of the 7.4-megawatt Winooski 1 hydroelectric project on the Winooski River at the city’s edge.

The system isn't without a few hitches, like occasionally buying power from other areas, but they often generate more than they need and sell to other areas, so the two offset each other.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic ocean, Germany is going all-in on renewable energy:

    Of all the developed nations, few have pushed harder than Germany to find a solution to global warming. And towering symbols of that drive are appearing in the middle of the North Sea.

    They are wind turbines, standing as far as 60 miles from the mainland, stretching as high as 60-story buildings and costing up to $30 million apiece. On some of these giant machines, a single blade roughly equals the wingspan of the largest airliner in the sky, the Airbus A380. By year’s end, scores of new turbines will be sending low-emission electricity to German cities hundreds of miles to the south.

    It will be another milestone in Germany’s costly attempt to remake its electricity system, an ambitious project that has already produced striking results: Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Many smaller countries are beating that, but Germany is by far the largest industrial power to reach that level in the modern era. It is more than twice the percentage in the United States.

Come on, America! It's time to get on the ball and tap into our renewable energy power—from sea to shining sea.



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September 13, 2014

Migrant Farmworkers Find Paths Out of Poverty Through Incubator Farms

Incubator farms help seasonal workers start their own businesses, where they get better pay and the support of a community.

Octavio Garcia and his brothers now manage their own 6.5 acres leased from ALBA. Photo by Nancy Porto / ALBA.

by Lisa Gale Garrigues

SolidarityEconomy.net via Yes! Magazine

Nine years ago Octavio Garcia was a seasonal laborer, spending long days bent over another man’s field in California’s Central Valley, picking strawberries for $6.25 an hour. Today the 24-year-old is manager of his own 6.5 acres, growing strawberries, tomatoes, garlic, and other produce on land leased to him by ALBA, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association in Salinas, Calif.

ALBA is one of a growing number of “incubator farms” across the United States dedicated to training the next generation of farmers. According to NIFTI, the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative at Tufts University, there are currently 111 new or planned incubator projects in 38 states—up from 45 projects at the start of 2012.

More than half the 5,700 aspiring farmers they serve are refugees and immigrants who will help fill an important demographic gap as current farmers age out of the profession. The average farmer, according to USDA Census of Agriculture statistics, is now over 57 years old.

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Garcia heard about ALBA from a fellow migrant worker. He went to an introductory talk and decided to take the five-year training. “My earnings are not huge,” he says, “because I am still investing most of what I make back into the farm. But they are more than $6.25 an hour. And what I really like is being my own boss, the freedom to do what I want when I want.” Garcia looks forward to buying his own land with help from California FarmLink, a nonprofit organization that offers loans and matching funds to beginning farmers.

There are currently 111 new or planned incubator projects in 38 states.

Chris Brown, executive director of ALBA, believes the program is a good model for ending poverty among seasonal farmworkers. For farmworkers, he says, “It’s very difficult to break out of poverty. We’re trying to help them pursue their own business.”

(more...)

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September 9, 2014

Replacing Capitalism: Alperovitz and Harvey Start the Dicussion

by @ 4:45 pm. Filed under Capitalism, Socialism, Solidarity Economy


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September 4, 2014

The Future of Robot Labor Is the Future of Capitalism—and Its Pending Replacement

By Jordan Pearson

Motherboard

September 1, 2014  - You’ve seen the headlines by now: The robots are coming, and they’re going to take our jobs. The future really doesn’t look so great for the average, human working stiff, since 47 percent of the world’s jobs are set to be automated in the next two decades, according to a recent and much-publicised University of Oxford study.

Some see these developments in apocalyptic terms, with robot workers creating a new underclass of jobless humans, while others see it in a more hopeful light, claiming robots may instead lead us to a future where work isn’t necessary. But fretting over which jobs will be lost and which will be preserved doesn’t do much good.

The thing is, robots entering the workplace isn’t even really about robots. The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that’s been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.

 

The best way to understand how this all works and where it will go is to refer to the writings of the person who understood capitalism best—Karl Marx. In particular, to a little-known journal fragment published in his manuscript The Grundrisse called “The Fragment on Machines.”

Whether you love him, hate him, or just avoid him completely, Marx dedicated his life to understanding how capitalism works. He was obsessed with it. In “The Fragment,” Marx grappled with what a fully automated capitalist society might mean for the worker in the future.

According to Marx, automation that displaces workers in favour of machines that can produce more goods in less time is part and parcel of how capitalism operates. By developing fixed capital (machines), bosses can do away with much of the variable capital (workers) that saps their bottom line with pesky things like wages and short work days. He writes:

The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency.

Seen through this lens, robot workers are the rational end point of automation as it develops in a capitalist economy. The question of what happens to workers displaced by automation is an especially interesting line of inquiry because it points to a serious contradiction in capitalism, according to Marx:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.

In Marxist theory, capitalists create profit by extracting what’s called surplus value from workers—paying them less than what their time is worth and gaining the difference as profit after the commodity has been sold at market price, arrived at by metrics abstracted from the act of labour itself. So what happens when humans aren’t the ones working anymore? Curiously, Marx finds himself among the contemporary robotic utopianists in this regard.

(more...)

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September 3, 2014

3-Way Energy-Transport Merger to a Clean and Green Solar Future

by @ 10:17 am. Filed under Green Energy, Green Industry, High Design, Solar

The convergence of solar PV, storage batteries, and electric vehicles to revolutionize industries

Price History of Silicon PV Cells $/watt

By HoundDogFollow for SciTech

SolidarityEconomy.net via Daily KOS

Sept 2, 2914 - Peter Diamandis of Forbes calls up his friends Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk to bring us some astonishing visions of the future of the solar photovoltaic, solar storage, and electric vehicle industries and how they are converging, which he reports in Solar Energy Revolution: A Massive Opportunity. Their view and the remarkable background data he presents overshadow his "Six D's" analysis which seems somewhat trite compared to his blockbuster opening paragraphs.  Here are the best parts.

My friend Ray Kurzweil projects the U.S. will meet 100 percent of its electrical energy needs from solar in 20 years. Elon Musk is a bit more conservative, pegging it at 50 percent in that timeframe. While the growth of solar may seem slow to some, it’s fair to say it’s in the midst of its “deceptive phase,” on the road to disruption. For example, a 30 percent increase in solar energy production per year, means 1 percent today grows to 1.3 percent in 3 years. It also means that in 20 years (7 doublings), we’ll see a 128-fold increase. Either way, if Ray and Elon are even close, there is a trillion dollars up for grabs (as well as the future of our planet), and the future is bright. Let’s take a closer look at the converging technologies driving this future… The cost of solar panels is dropping exponentially. The first and most important technological change is the falling cost per watt of silicon photovoltaic cells over the past few decades. Check out the plummeting cost from $76 in 1977, to less than $0.36 today.

attribution: None Specified

The International Energy Agency predicts that we will produce 662 GigaWatts of solar energy by 2035 following a $1.3 trillion investment in this area, but frankly this estimate is “highly conservative.” The second technology at play is satellite-Earth imaging, which enables companies like solar City to make rapid and accurate decisions on solar panel installations. These days, an installer can check out your rooftop on Google Earth and determine in minutes if you are a good candidate. Super-simple. Energy Storage Mechanisms Are Improving Rapidly The third key technology transforming our energy economy is battery storage. The ability to take solar energy captured during the day, and time-shift it into the night. Here to the change has been very significant, with a 50%+ reduction over the past four years, and an additional 50%+ reduction by 2020.

Elon Musk's Telsa Gigafactory is planning on producing 35 Gigawatts worth of battery power by 2020 in one factory.

Diamandis also reports that Tesla's Gigafactory is going to support the production of 500,000 electric vehicles per year.

He predicts these three major price trends are going to come together to enable everyone to produce and store their own power for equal to or less than buying power from utilities by 2025.

(more...)

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August 30, 2014

‘Low Road’ Capital Tries to Fetter High Design and Muni-Socialism

by @ 10:29 am. Tags:
Filed under Economic Democracy, High Design, Technology

Chattanooga's Gig: how one city's super-fast internet is driving a tech boom

The city is one of the only places on Earth with internet as fast as 1 gigabit per second – about 50 times faster than the US average. Despite Big Cable’s attempt to block the Gig’s expansion plans, money keeps flowing into Chattanooga

By Dominic Rushe in Chattanooga
SolidarityEconomy.net via theguardian.com

Aug 30, 2014 - Loveman’s department store on Market Street in Chattanooga closed its doors in 1993 after almost a century in business, another victim of a nationwide decline in downtowns that hollowed out so many US towns. Now the opulent building is buzzing again, this time with tech entrepreneurs taking advantage of the fastest internet in the western hemisphere.

Financed by the cash raised from the sale of logistics group Access America, a group of thirty-something local entrepreneurs have set up Lamp Post, an incubator for a new generation of tech companies, in the building. A dozen startups are currently working out of the glitzy downtown office.

“We’re not Silicon Valley. No one will ever replicate that,” says Allan Davis, one of Lamp Post’s partners. “But we don’t need to be and not everyone wants that. The expense, the hassle. You don’t need to be there to create great technology. You can do it here.”

He’s not alone in thinking so. Lamp Post is one of several tech incubators in this mid-sized Tennessee city. Money is flowing in. Chattanooga has gone from close to zero venture capital in 2009 to more than five organized funds with investable capital over $50m in 2014 – not bad for a city of 171,000 people.

The city’s go-getting mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat tipped for higher office, is currently reviewing plans for a city center tech zone specifically designed to meet the needs of its new workforce.

In large part the success is being driven by The Gig. Thanks to an ambitious roll-out by the city’s municipally owned electricity company, EPB, Chattanooga is one of the only places on Earth with internet at speeds as fast as 1 gigabit per second – about 50 times faster than the US average.

The tech buildup comes after more than a decade of reconstruction in Chattanooga that has regenerated the city with a world-class aquarium, 12 miles of river walks along the Tennessee River, an arts district built around the Hunter Museum of American Arts, high-end restaurants and outdoor activities.

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August 25, 2014

High Design: Small Homes for Incomes of 15K or Less

by @ 12:34 pm. Filed under High Design, High Road Economics, Urban Problems

This Genius Project Would Create Tiny Homes For People Making Less Than $15,000 A Year

By Robbie Couch   
SolidarityEconomy.net via Huffington Post

Aug 22, 2014 - Another American city is embracing the idea of small homes that'll make a big difference.

The city of Portland, Oregon, is nearing approval of construction for tiny home communities on public land in order to house homeless and low-income residents, the Oregonian reported. Josh Alpert, the city's director of strategic initiatives under Mayor Charlie Hales, said it's not so much a question of if, but rather, when the homes will be built in partnership with Multnomah County, according to the news source. The city will ask various public branches in the area -- including Portland Public Schools -- to provide surplus land for the homes.

"Before people can get back on their feet and take advantage of job training and drug and alcohol counseling, they need a place to live," Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury said Wednesday, according to the Oregonian. "This helps accomplish that."

Creating tiny home communities has proven to be a successful strategy for other cities around the country combating homelessness. Similar projects in Wisconsin, Texas and New York have put permanent roofs over heads in recent years, Reuters reported, allowing residents to focus more on moving forward in other areas of their lives.

"It's exciting. I've never owned my own house,” Betty Ybarra, a formerly homeless woman who'd lived in a tent in Madison, Wisconsin, told NBC 15 News last December.

(more...)

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August 21, 2014

High Design: Meet Baxter, a New Kind of Industrial Robot

by @ 10:03 am. Filed under Cybernation, High Design
A smarter, safer new industrial robot could bring automation to new areas of manual work and help many U.S. manufacturers regain a competitive edge.

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August 18, 2014

Why Can’t the United States Build a High-Speed Rail System?

Image

The problem isn't geography, demographics, or money—it's federal will.

By Yonah Freemark

SolidarityEconomy.net via CityLab.com

Aug 13, 2014 - Virtually every wealthy nation in the world has invested in a high-speed rail network—with the striking exception of the United States. From Japan to France, even from Turkey to Russia, trains travel through the country at speeds of 150 miles per hour or above, linking city centers and providing a desirable alternative to both air and automobile travel. Meanwhile, outside Amtrak's 28 miles of 150-m.p.h. track in rural Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the American rail network is largely limited to speeds of 110 m.p.h. or less. There are few reasons to think the situation will change much in the coming decades.

So why has the United States failed to fund and construct high-speed rail?

The problem is not political process. Most of the countries that have built high-speed rail are democratic, and have submitted the projects to citizen review; others, like Germany and Russia, have federated governments similar to ours that divide general decision-making between levels of authority.

Nor is it geography. The British and French completed a 31-mile tunnel under the British Channel 20 years ago, while many American cities are located in flat regions with few physical construction obstacles.

Nor is it the characteristics of our urban areas. While U.S. cities are less dense than those of many other countries, the Northeast is denser, more transit reliant, and more populated than most areas served by high-speed rail abroad. Nor still is it money. Though the United States invests less in infrastructure than other developed countries do, America nevertheless remains an immensely wealthy nation perfectly capable of spending on new rail links if desired.

What's missing is a federal commitment to a well-funded national rail plan.

(more...)

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August 12, 2014

Low-Road vs. High-Road: The Carbon Burners Blocking Solar Energy

by @ 9:32 am. Filed under Green Energy, High Road Economics, Solar

installing-rooftop-solar-panels-shutterstock

No solar, please — we’re Florida

By Heather Smith

SolidarityEconomy.net via Grist

At the beginning of this year, I made a short list of predictions about what the future held for environmental activism in 2014. I was right about a few of them —  divestment has gone mainstream, environmental organizing has shifted from big infrastructure like Keystone to regional infrastructure like power plants and coal terminals. But there’s one huge thing that I missed: solar.

So far, this has been a precedent-setting year for how solar power is going to play out in this country. The technological breakthroughs in storage and affordablity began a few years ago – but this year is all about figuring out how to fit this new technology into the hairball of regulations that surround American utilities.

Examples have ranged from the laid-back and sensible (the state of Washington developing streamlined statewide rules for solar, which lowered the cost of installation by up to $2,500 in some communities) to  the litigious (a long-standing court case in Iowa was resolved in favor of solar power, possibly setting a precedent for the rest of the midwest).

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