Water-default swap crisis

Worse than the credit-default swap great recession that we are slowly recovering from, America is depleting our future by squandering our water resources. Once our fossil water is all flushed down the drain, it will not be coming back.

Julie Jacobson/AP

The American illusion of water abundance – latimes.com.


Cellulosic dawn

Ken Childress for KiOR

The decades-long pursuit of fermenting woody plants into fuel aka cellulosic biofuels is now a commercial reality with two pilot plants just opened and more under construction. This renewable fuel – not made from corn or other food crops – has one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide compared to petroleum-based fuels. If those forests get, then it could even be claimed that cellulosic fuels are carbon neutral. Of course, there is the ecological footprint of chopping down forests for energy – but that is a debate that is yet to come.

In Columbus, Miss., KiOR has spent more than $200 million on a plant that is supposed to mix shredded wood waste with a patented catalyst, powdered to talcumlike consistency. Its process does in a few seconds what takes nature millions of years: removes the oxygen from the biomass and converts the other main ingredients, hydrogen and carbon, into molecules that can then be processed into gasoline and diesel fuel…

And Ineos, a European oil and chemical company, is putting the final touches on a plant in Vero Beach, Fla., that would cook wood and woody garbage until they broke down into tiny molecules of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those molecules would be pumped into a giant steel tank, where bacteria would eat them and excrete ethanol. – NYTimes.com

KiOR’s Columbus, MS Plant

Ineos Vera Beach, FL Plant


via Alternative Fuels’ Long-Delayed Promise Might Be Near Fruition – NYTimes.com.

Fall mid-review

The public is invited to attend the fall mid-review presentations for LA301L and LA401L at Cal Poly Pomona on Monday, October 29th.

301L teams are identifying culturally relevant sites along the LA Aqueduct and discussing the landscape character. 401L students have mapped the water-energy nexus for Los Angeles and are selecting sites to enhance the resilience of the Aqueduct (plus there is a team who are hoping to win the EPA’s Campus RainWorks Competition).

Guest Jurors

  • 301L: Andrew Kanzler, Perry Cardoza
  • 401L: Robert Lamb, Jonathan Linkus

Cal Poly central campus map [pdf]

Please send a note if you are interested in being a guest juror for either mid-review session or final presentations (November 28th)

Price of Infrastructure

Ben Jacobs asks a basic question in the Washington Monthly: why is infrastructure so much more expensive to build in the US then elsewhere in the world? A great question, but then Jacob fails to follow up with any answers – a clear case of journalistic malpractice, especially when he doesn’t even use original sources, but just relies on second-hand reporting, and ends up comparing apples with oranges. Pity, as this really is an excellent question worth digging into.

So off the top of my head, here are some of the differences that start to pile up costs of infrastructure projects in the US – and no, cheaper labor elsewhere isn’t the primary cause.

The comparisons used up by Jacobs are the California High Speed Rail (US$89b) versus Chinese High Speed Rail  (US$276 billion & counting), and New York CIty’s 2nd Avenue Subway versus London’s Crossrail.

2nd Ave Subway is being dug through  the middle of a vibrant urban core with active business and residents straddling the route, unlike Crossrail which over half are through the still mostly vacant east london docks

As to California High Speed Rail costs, one of the largest expense of the project is that  real estate prices are several orders of magnitudes greater in the Golden State than China (even with corruption and a billion+ more people). There are also significant differences in seismic risks that are present for the entirety of the California route compared to China’s ring of fire – requiring more robust construction. That the China can built infrastructure cheaper is also a myth that has been debunked (WashPo & FastCo). Turns out that most large infrastructure projects in China have significant layers of hidden costs attributed to corruption at all levels of their government, bad accounting practices, and the possibility of  causing the catastrophic collapse of Chinese Banks if there is a default on the infrastructure bubble debts. Then there are the safety shortcuts that are proving to have a high human cost (California has much better oversite, so what was engineered is actually what gets built). Turns out that if we compare apples with apples, the true costs for HSR – no matter where the track are laid – are similar around the world.

Via The Expense of Infrastructure in the US

Solar Southwest

The Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Solar PEIS) from by the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Energy’s EERE have just issued the final report for public comments that identifies 17 zones covering 445 square miles of public land in the Mojave Desert appropriate for fast-tracking large-scale industrial solar energy development along with the mitigation strategies, policies and regulations. If all the sites get developed, they could generate 24,000 megawatts of carbon-free electricity by 2030. (But what about their water consumption?)

Original PDF [18mb] here

 As significant as defining appropriate sites for development, the Solar PEIS defines exclusion areas like the Ivanpah Valley on the CA/NV border where BrightSource Energy is already building two projects.

Thirty-two categories of lands are proposed for exclusion from solar development through the Final Solar PEIS (see Final Solar PEIS, Chapter 2). The exclusions proposed include (1) explicit exclusions that will be delineated in the Solar PEIS ROD by a land base that would not change except by future land use plan amendment; and (2) implicit exclusions that will be defined in the Solar PEIS ROD by the presence or absence of a specific resource or condition where the land base may change over time (e.g., critical habitat). Implicit exclusions will be determined at the time of application for individual solar ROWs, and based on information in applicable land use plans as amended, Species’ Recovery Plans, or similar planning or guidance documents, and verified by site-specific information as necessary.

For the purposes of the Solar PEIS and its associated NEPA analysis, the BLM has mapped and estimated the acreage for proposed exclusions in the aggregate based on best available existing information. Data were available to map the following exclusion categories:

  1. BLM-administered lands where development is prohibited by law, regulation, Presidential proclamation or Executive Order (i.e., lands in the National Landscape Conservation System [NLCS]),
  2. Lands having slopes greater than 5%,
  3. Lands with solar insolation levels less than 6.5 kWh/m2/day,
  4. BLM Areas of Critical Environmental Concern,
  5. Critical habitat for USFWS designated threatened and endangered species,
  6. BLM Right-of-Way Exclusion and Avoidance Areas,
  7. BLM No Surface Occupancy Areas,
  8. Special Recreation Management Areas (note these were not excluded in the State of Nevada or in a portion of the Yuma East SRMA in Arizona), and
  9. Greater sage-grouse habitat in California, Nevada, and Utah; Gunnison’s sage-grouse habitat in Utah; and Desert Wildlife Management Areas, Flat Tailed Horned Lizard habitat, and Mojave Ground Squirrel habitat in California.

As desert tortoises are the charismatic megafauna most impacted by solar farms and a favorite topic of infrascape design, I couldn’t resist sharing this picture accompanying the LATimes article on the PEIS:

Mark Boster/LAtimes

Unvailing Levitated Mass

The official dedication ceremony for Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass is set for 11am on Sunday, June 24th at LACMA. Christopher Knight of the LATimes has an early review of the work with photos by Mel Melcon (all the images used in this post). Knight’s piece is a solid review that pulls in a myriad of non-obvious precedents, potential influences and narratives that haven’t been part of the discourse to-date.

“Levitated Mass” is a piece of isolated desert mystery cut into a dense urban setting that’s home to nearly 10 million people. A water-hungry lawn north of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion was torn up and replaced by a dry, sun-blasted expanse of decomposed granite. A notched gray channel of polished concrete slices 456 feet across the empty field, set at a slight angle between the pavilion and 6th Street. Like a walk-in version of an alien landscape painting by Surrealist Yves Tanguy, quiet dynamism inflects a decidedly sepulchral scene.

What really, really surprises me about the installation are the hefty steel brackets that the monolith is mounted to. All preliminary descriptions evoked a rock sitting directly on the concrete walls of the trench, not mounted on massive steel corbels. The maximalist brackets are a significant shift towards structuralism and away from from Heizer’s minimalist material palette of soil, stone, and concrete (artificial stone). If hidden mountings and connections had been utilized for the rock (I’m thinking about Brian Murphy’s Hopper House) or other highly refined mininalist architecture, then we could have experienced the illusion that the boulder was hovering. As detailed, those gusset plates express the shear mass being supported and bring the levitating mass crashing back to earth.

Lots of architects have used similarly proportioned gussets with Cor-Ten structural elements – this is no Gehry, Eric Owen Moss, or Thom Mayne building though – perhaps Michael Rotondi is part of their lineage. (Here are some images of similar details: 1, 2). The artists that pop to mind from these brackets include Mark di Survero with his structural steel sculptures and Serra for his pioneering use of weathering steel.

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