Thursday, May 24, 2018


Costa Rica is remarkable in many ways. It's a stable democracy in an unstable region. It abolished its army in 1949. It protects 25 percent of the country as national parks or other conservation areas--the highest percentage in the world. It has a 98 percent literacy rate, a universal healthcare system, and a thriving high-tech economic sector. Renewable energy, mostly from hydropower, meets close to 100 percent of the country's electricity needs.

 La Fortuna waterfall, Costa Rica
Credit: Boris G

Now, to put the icing on the cake, Costa Rica is determined to be the first country to achieve total freedom from fossil fuels by powering its transportation sector with renewables within a few years.

Recently elected president Carlos Alvarado ran on a platform that set the goal of decarbonizing transport by 2021, the country's 200th anniversary of independence. “When we reach 200 years of independent life," he proclaimed, "we will take Costa Rica forward and celebrate … that we’ve removed gasoline and diesel from our transportation.”

It may not be possible to reach that lofty goal in just three years. However, even setting that as a national goal is an impressive step, and given Costa Rica's stellar history with respect to the environment and the quality of life of its citizens, it may well be the first country to achieve it. Hopefully, given that from 15 to 30 percent of climate destabilizing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from transportation, it will not be the last.


Sunday, May 20, 2018


Clearly, it's not for everyone, but new research shows that if you consistently exercise for 30 minutes or more four of five times per week, chances are your heart and major arteries will stay young and flexible as you age. While less frequent exercise still has many health benefits, it seems to take high frequency exercise to keep the biggest arteries in the body from stiffening with age.

 Cardio-box class; one form of heart-healthy exercise
Credit: Universidad Europea de Madrid

The new research, published in the Journal of Physiology, studied the lifelong exercise patterns of 102 men and women 60 years old or over. The researchers divided the participants into four groups--sedentary, casual exercisers, committed exercisers and master athletes, based on how frequently they had exercised over time. The results were clear--casual exercisers (two to three times per week) showed some heart and artery benefits, but it took four or more exercise sessions per week to be associated with preserved flexibility of the major vessels such as the carotid artery.

Human heart and major blood vessels
Credit: Bryan Brandenburg 

Of course, these cross-sectional findings alone can't pin down cause and effect, and the study was not designed to sort out other factors that might influence heart and arterial health, such as the type or intensity of exercise, diet or social and economic factors. However, they strongly suggest that consistent frequent exercise can help keep a person's heart and central arteries healthy and flexible into the later decades of life.

The researchers are using these preliminary findings as a guidepost towards exercise programs that could make a positive difference to people who don't have a lifelong history of frequent and consistent exercise. Benjamin Levine, at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at the University of Texas in Dallas, hopes not just to preserve heart health, but to turn back the ravages of time. "Our current work is focusing on two years of training in middle aged men and women, with and without risk factors for heart diseases, to see if we can reverse the ageing of a heart and blood vessels by using the right amount of exercise at the right time."


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Friday, May 18, 2018


At its peak, in 1923, the US coal industry employed 863,000 people, just over two percent of US workers at that time. Today, coal employs just 50,000 workers, less than .04 percent of the current workforce. Despite Trump's claim that his administration has "ended the war on beautiful, clean coal," and will ". . . put our miners back to work," those jobs are no more likely to come back than those of the blacksmiths and farriers who shod the 25 million horses that plowed furrows and pulled wagons in the US a century ago.

The reason is simple: coal is not only dirty, dangerous and a huge source of climate-disrupting greenhouse gases, it can no longer compete economically with oil, natural gas or renewables. Forbes reports that by 2020, power generated by wind farms and large-scale solar installations will market at an incredibly low price of three cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Compare that to the 10 to 14 cents per kWh for coal-generated electricity. You don't need an economics degree to foresee the results.

The prediction by Forbes may already be out of date. In early June, 2018, the Central Arizona Project, the agency responsible for pumping water from the Colorado River throughout Arizona, signed an agreement with Origis Energy USA to buy solar power at the incredibly low rate of 2.49 cents per kilowatt-hour, less than one-quarter the going rate for electricity from coal. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Northern Indiana Public Service Company, which currently generates 65 percent of its electricity from coal, plans to phase coal out completely within ten years. It will replace coal with a mix of solar, wind, energy storage and demand management. Expected savings to consumers--$4 billion over the next three decades.

 Four Corners coal generating plant, San Juan, New Mexico

This isn't the case just in the US. According to CleanTechNews, the renewable energy sector employed 10.3 million people worldwide in 2017, adding 500,000 new jobs in the previous year. Large renewable energy projects are currently being bid and contracted at three cents per kWh or less in Dubai, Chile, Abu Dhabi, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, utilities closed 30 coal-fired plants in 2017 in the US alone, and more in the first months of this year--more than 270 since 2010.

High desert wind farm
Credit: Winchell Joshua, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hammering one more nail in coal's coffin, on June 13, FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, voted unanimously not to approve Trump's attempt to use a law dealing with energy distribution in a national emergency to keep coal and nuclear generating plants on life support.

Sorry, Donald, neither the US nor the rest of the world is going back to "beautiful, clean" coal, no matter how many clean air and clean water regulations you remove.


Update: Here's a link to an article pointing out that in many areas it's now cheaper to get energy from a brand-new wind or solar installation than from an existing coal-powered plant.

And here's another report that 75 percent of existing coal-fired generating plants can no longer compete with renewable power sources.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018


Last year, Elon Musk made the State of South Australia an offer they couldn't refuse. He promised to install the world's largest lithium-ion battery in 100 days and at a bargain price in order to store surplus power from the Hornsdale Wind Farm and use it to stabilize South Australia's power grid.

The crash project has been enormously successful. In the first four months of operation it saved the state government $35 million (Australian dollars, equal to $26.3 million US). That's an amazing return on investment, given that the project cost the state just $50 million (37.5 million US). It looks as though it will pay for itself within its first 18 months.

Hornsdale Power Reserve battery with three of the Wind Farm's 105 turbines in background
Credit: David Clarke 

The giant battery's primary function is to stabilize the frequency of electricity flowing through the state's power grid. When a generator or transmission line goes down, the grid frequency drops until backup power can fill the gap. If there's insufficient backup, disruptive brownouts or blackouts occur. But even if a backup plant comes on line or power can be purchased from a neighboring grid, the price of that stopgap power can soar. A grid operator might have to pay $10,000 or more per megawatt-hour, compared to a normal price of $150 or less.

Most of the $35 million that the huge battery saved the South Australian government came from the battery's ability to switch on and re-stabilize the grid extremely quickly--within 200 milliseconds, far faster than other kinds of backup power plants. According to RenewEconomy, the battery now commands 55 percent of the stabilization market in South Australia, and has reduced the cost of back-up power by a stunning 90 percent.

By the end of 2018, the savings surged to an estimated $40 million.

Critics of renewable energy cite intermittency--the fluctuating supply of energy from wind and solar--as a major obstacle to the urgently-needed transformation to renewables. Although the Hornsdale project shows convincingly that batteries can solve the short-term back-up power problem, the battery doesn't store enough energy to make coal or gas power plants obsolete. But it's clearly a step in the right direction. South Australia agrees, with several giant battery projects being developed in the state, and several more in other parts of Australia.


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Saturday, May 05, 2018


It turns out that Finns and other sauna lovers have been right in touting the health benefits of frequent sauna bathing. A long-term study that followed more than 1600 middle-aged Finnish men and women for 15 years found that people who took saunas 4 to 7 times a week had roughly one-third the risk of stroke compared to peers who took just one sauna a week.

That risk reduction was similar for men and women, for people of different ages and social-economic status, and for people with other medical conditions.

Modern sauna

Most people associate saunas with Finland, where it dates back at least to the year 1112 and is still extremely popular. However, we know that the ancient Romans also valued similar heat treatment, as shown in the caldaria  or hot rooms in the public and private baths found throughout the Roman Empire. Many traditional societies also valued heat treatments, often combined with aromatic herbs, as part of healing ceremonies. Examples can be found in the temazcals found throughout Mesoamerica in archaeological sites, codices, and in current use, as well as in the sweat lodges traditionally used by Native Americans.

Prehispanic temazcal

Reduced stroke risk is not the only benefit from sauna bathing. You can read about a wide range of research-supported physical and mental benefits here and here too. This seems to be one area where ancient and traditional knowledge is holding up under current scientific scrutiny.

I don't know about you, but after my next workout, I'm heading for the sauna.


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