Open Source and Sustainability

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As strange as it may sound, switching to Open Source operating systems and software can save a lot more carbon emissions than changing your lightbulbs.

I myself have switched to Firefox (instead of Microsoft Explorer) and Open Office (instead of Microscoft Word) and plan to download Linux soon to replace Windows. As a community organizer for 30+ years, Microsoft has been the bane of my existence. Most of the activists I work with use MS Word (and before that MS Works) to create documents. Predictably Microsoft has come out with a new version of Word that is unreadable by older versions. Clearly this is a calculated maneuver to force customers to continually purchase new upgrades.

Opening Pesky Docx Files

This time, however, I followed the advice of a fellow Green Party member and downloaded Open Office, provided free by Sun Microsystems Open Source software. Thanks to the Open Source movement, every time Microsoft comes out with a new word processing program, Open Office offers upgrades to translate the new program to either Open Office or an older version of Word. Not only does it open those pesky docx files, but it creates spreadsheets and slideshows and allows you to save graphics as either PDF or JPG files. It probably does lots of other things I haven’t discovered yet.

The other great thing about Open Office is that, like other Open Source software, it runs faster than Microsoft programs, crashes less and is less much likely to have security problems. This is because Sun Microsystems makes Open Office code freely available for other programmers to improve and build on. Computers aren’t like soup. By involving more people in creating code, you make it far more likely someone will find all the bugs and security problems.

Download Open Office Free at https://www.openoffice.org/

New Zealand residents have their own Open Office site: http://www.openoffice.org.nz/

How Open Source Reduces Carbon Emissions

So, people ask me, how does this reduce carbon emissions? There are obviously small energy savings (related to DVD production, packaging, transportation, etc) when an individual downloads software instead of buying it off the shelf. However the big emissions savings occur when large companies that maintain vast amounts of data switch to Open Source. Recently the Bank of New Zealand vastly reduced their energy costs and carbon emissions by converting their front end systems to Open Source.

They save money and energy by  speeding up and simplifying their data processes with a single (Red Hat Linux) program, instead of relying on three or four programs for different functions.

Companies Going Open Source

In response to the global recession, the immense cost savings is leading many government agencies and Fortune 500 companies to switch to Open Source for part or all of their data processing. The best known are BART (Bay Area Transit System), Burlington Coats, CISCO, Conoco, the Mobil Travel Guide (Exxon’s consumer website), Royal Dutch Shell, Panasonic, Hilfiger, Toyota Motor Sales USA, US Army, US federal courts, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and the US Post Office.

Countries Going Open Source

Third world countries are also benefiting from Open Source cost savings. Brazil was the  first to mandate Open Soft systems for all their government offices.  In 2013, 16 third world countries (Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, India, Kenya, Guatemala, Botswana, Rwanda, Togo, Lesotho, Mali, Ghana, Namibia and Chad) saved over $100 million dollars by installing Open Soft software to track their health care workforce.

Open Source Design: Reclaiming the Commons

Engineers, architects and climate change activists in the Open Sustainability movement are expanding Open Source Design beyond its computer applications to ensure the rapid spread of ideas and technologies that reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

Examples include

    1. Open Source green architecture and renewable energy technologies
    2. The Creative Commons – a nonprofit California organization devoted to expanding the range of inventions and creative works available for others to share and build on.
    3. Singularity University – “a grand scheme to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies to address Humanity’s Grand Challenges.”
    4. Public Library of Science – a nonprofit open access scientific publishing project aimed at creating a library of open access journals, with the eventual goal of making all scientific medical research freely available to the public.
    5. Wikipedia – a free open source encyclopedia (which I discuss in my next post).

photo credit: guccio@文房具社 via photopin cc

End Taxpayer Subsidies for Nuclear Power

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Sign the Public Citizen petition!

One week we learn the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant has contaminated the entire North Pacific with via the daily discharge of  300 tons of radioactive water into the ocean. The following week we learn that Britain has approved the first new, “totally safe” nuclear power plant in 35 years, at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The snow job being perpetrated on the British and American public is that nuclear energy creates electricity without emitting carbon dioxide and that it’s cheaper than renewable energy. Neither is true.

A Little Problem of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear energy only looks cheap and carbon neutral if you take plant construction and nuclear waste disposal out of the equation. The US, British, French, Chinese and other governments driving the current nuclear renaissance don’t want you to think about nuclear waste disposal. This is because the technology required to safely neutralize and store spent plutonium that remains radioactive for 10,000 years has yet to be invented. Finland has come the closest, with the launch of a $3 billion excavation of an underground depository at Onkalo. Since the US site at Yucca Mountain was defunded in 2010, most countries have been leaving their spent fuel rods lying around in containment pools. At Fukushima, the spent rods were on the roof of the stricken reactors – before they melted down and spewed immeasurable amounts of radiation into the air and groundwater. In Britain, most nuclear “decommissioning” happens at a former nuclear weapons site called Sellafield. Despite a government allocation of more than ₤67 billion to the facility, the spent rods are still lying around in open pools. No one can figure out what to do with them.

Nuclear Affordability Depends on Massive Subsidies

Aside from the unsolvable nuclear waste dilemma, nuclear power plants are also incredibly expensive to build, owing to extensive  safety/containment requirements. None have been built anywhere without major government subsidies. Prime Minister David Cameron boasts that Hinkley Point will be the very first to be constructed without government support. Instead of committing taxpayer funds to its construction, Cameron is guaranteeing that British consumers will pay a price for Hinkley Point power that is double what they currently pay.

At present the British public pay an average of ₤0.05 (7 ½ US cents) per kilowatt hour (kwh) for electricity produced by existing coal and gas powered plants. In sealing the deal with the French-Chinese consortium building Hinkley Point, Cameron has locked British consumers into paying twice that – ₤0.092 or 14 cents per kwh – when Hinkley Point comes on line in 2023.

Deceptive Claims About Renewable Energy

Cameron’s claims that the above price will be competitive with renewable energy are also extremely deceptive. Fossil-fuel based electricity continuously increases in price over time. This is due to growing oil and gas scarcity and the prohibitive cost of clean coal technology. In contrast, renewable energy costs keep coming down, as cheaper technologies come to market and increased volume slashes per-unit production costs.

Already the price the British government (and the BBC) cites for solar energy is out of date. They incorrectly list the current cost of British-produced solar electricity at ₤0.125 (19 cents) per kwh. However, thanks to the recent availability of cheap Chinese photovoltaic cells (PVCs), a British solar unit installed in 2013 produces electricity for 11 cents per kwh. This rate is expected to drop as low as 3 cents per kwh in coming years – and even lower as cheaper alternatives to silicon come on board. In Seattle, the cost of solar-based electricity is already down to 7 cents per kwh.

Ignoring the Cheapest Renewable Sources

For some reason, nuclear proponents always fail to mention the two cheapest forms of renewable energy: mini-hydrogeneration* and geothermal. As with the production of solar energy, there are minimal operational costs with either one. The per unit price of power production is almost entirely based on upfront construction and installation costs. With mini-hydrogeneration, the average per unit price tends to be half that of wind energy, which in Britain is ₤0.10 (7 ½ cents) per kwh

The cost of geothermal energy depends on the type of plant and where it’s located. There are two main forms of geothermal energy. The first is the surface geothermal energy captured in volcanic regions, where boiling water bubbles to the surface owing to cracks between the earth’s tectonic plates. The second is deep geothermal in non-volcanic areas, where deep bore holes are drilled into subterranean hot water reservoirs. Owing to the expense of drilling, deep geothermal technology is more suitable for providing direct heat rather than conversion to electricity.

At present the US is the world’s largest surface geothermal electricity producer at an average cost of 5 cents per kwh. In Iceland the average cost is 4.3 cents per kwh and in NZ 7-9 cents per kwh.

In non-volcanic areas of Europe, it’s more practicable to use deep geothermal technology to provide heat for homes than to produce electricity. The average cost of geothermal heat across most of Europe is 8 cents per kwh.

Five days after Cameron made his announcement about Hinkley Point, the city of Manchester announced the approval of a geothermal project by the Irish Company GT energy to deliver affordable, renewable heat to local homes and businesses.

Obama’s Nuclear Obsession

Obama, of course, is even more pro-nuclear than his British counterpart. According to Zero Hedge, his 2013 energy policy includes $14-16 billion dollars in loan guarantees for 8,400 Megawatts of new nuclear power. In other words, six or seven new nuclear plants. This is despite warnings by Congressional Budget office of a 50 percent risk contractors will default on their loans. According to the CBO:

 “The key factor accounting for the risk is that we expect that the plant would be uneconomic to operate because of its high construction costs, relative to other electricity generation sources.”

As usual, Obama is less concerned about taxpayers than his friends in the nuclear industry who helped finance his political career.

*Unlike dam-based hydropower, mini-hydrogenerators are designed to operate in streams with a steep downhill gradient.

photo credit: Abode of Chaos via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice