Getting there..

I was so exhilarated after finishing a huge paper this morning that I actually enjoyed the Christmas music playing on the bus on the way to Uni. The halls, computer labs, and study rooms are filled to the brim with panicked, stressed, yet inexplicably well-groomed students (that’s Iceland – fashion above all else). Below, the (censored, I couldn’t very well let you in on all my academic secrets!) assignments in green are those I have left to complete, each bringing me closer to the warm embrace of the United States customs line at Dulles International Airport. Just kidding, family and friends and all that.

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Can YOU solve the world’s energy problems?

Hello again! I’d like to say I’ve been spending all my time since my last post prudently sitting in the library, my pince-nez perched atop my nose as I gaze down at the reading, never losing focus. I’d like to say that – and although I have been drinking enough coffee to warrant such action, I’ve been spending a lot of my time enjoying my last few weeks in Iceland, as I prepare to head back to the land of the free mid-December to work on my thesis through the spring. I’ve been biking, cooking, playing volleyball, spending time with family, and of course, completing my last semester at the University, despite being hampered by a mild case of senioritis.

But in the name of scholarly pursuits I’d like to share with something I found through my latest assignment, which is surprisingly fun one aimed at understanding the intricacies of energy planning into the future. Many countries have set ambitious goals for themselves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a certain time, usually through 2050, and different countries employ different policies and incentives to reach those goals. From carbon trading to a reduction in consumption, there are myriad ways to achieve a healthier energy future. DECC, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, has developed a handy tool available to anyone who wants to see what goes in to this complex decision-making process. Here’s a screenshot from the main page:

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As you can see, the factors of each category are listed below, and it is up to the user to change the quantity in order to affect the 2050 outcome. If I increase wind power, for instance, the model will replace the mix of coal and oil to account for that, and in turn the emissions will be lowered. On the demand side, if transport becomes more efficient, there will be less energy required overall. This is an incredibly sophisticated and comprehensive model based on numerous assumptions about energy in the UK, which can be viewed in the accompanying Excel manual.

Moving on to some of the other tabs, “Flows” presents a striking visual which allows the user to see the life cycle of each source:

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I’ve actually included a similar flow diagram from EcoFys in a previous post about global GHG emissions, and I still think this representation is an excellent simplification of something that is incredibly complex.

Finally, what is probably most important, the cost – dun dun dunnnnnn:

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The model allows you to see the cost of your future energy scenario in relation to other plausible outcomes, as proposed by different entities.

Although this is specific to the UK, the model is super useful for understanding the impact even the slightest energy change can have on daily life and expenses, political frameworks, and the economy. I’d definitely recommend checking it out and playing around with it a bit – who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to figure out the answer..

Stuff from my Notes Vol 1.

Hello there! I mentioned in my last post that I occasionally read my old papers. I also read my old (and not-so-old) class notes from time to time, partially to study and partially to see if I can even understand what I wrote down. Sometimes concepts seem so concrete when your professor explains them and then only a few short days later they elude you, and your haphazardly jotted notes provide no solace. So it’s important to write more than you think you should, just in case your brain does what mine tends to do – bury that interesting bit of information deep down, to be resurrected at inopportune times, namely to bore the person you’re sharing a coffee or beer with, instead of when you need it, for instance on exam day!

So ANYWAY I wanted to share this little tidbit that I came across today from my Energy Economics class last week. I thought it was such a nice, concise way to visualize an integral concept to technological development.

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Yes, I see now that to someone who is not me this doesn’t seem very revolutionary, and might not make any sense at all. Essentially, this is the way in which price drives innovation. We’d all love to believe that inspiration strikes all of us at random times, that technology is at the fingertips of wizards in their fields and forms a nebulous forcefield around those individuals, impenetrable by the layman. Technological advancement just happens! This isn’t necessarily the case, however. Changes and improvements to our lives come about out of necessity, and the most important driver of necessity is price.

Fossil fuels have always polluted the environment and we’ve always known about the detrimental effects, but they’ve dominated the market as the cheapest source of fuel and so for a long time it’s been unnecessary to provide substitutes or alternatives. However, once gas prices rise (the p ^), innovation in, for instance, renewable resources, becomes more palatable, because they may well end up less expensive (price down) as supply of the new resource rises to meet demand. The next time a technological advancement is needed won’t be until the price of current technology rises for the myriad reasons that prices do rise. So high prices lead to new discoveries and innovations, leading to lower prices, and lower demand for new innovation. Cue the Lion King soundtrack! Now we’ll both remember this for our exam..

EXTREMELY Local

I was reading through my old papers this morning (something I do both for fun and as inspiration for new ones – yes, in spite of this I have managed to snag a man) and I came across my applied project for Ethics of Nature, which I took my first graduate semester last year. The aim of the project was for the student to undertake a task for a significant part of the semester with the goal of, for lack of a less clichéd term, doing good for the environment and “getting closer to nature.” I know, right. I may be in the Environment and Natural Resources program but those phrases still make me cringe a bit. I think it’s because they are so transparently anthropocentric; they see nature as something non-human to be enjoyed by humans.

So for my applied project I was at a bit of a loss for ideas. My classmates tried vegetarianism (I hopped on that bandwagon a few years ago) or riding the bus (already my only form of transportation as a car-less Icelander) so I had to come up with something different. In the end I focused on the thing that changed most about my life that first semester, which was exercise. Yes, that might sound like a total cop-out because what does exercise have to do with the environment, but WAIT! Let’s hear what 2013 Frida had to say in her paper:

“In learning about all of the obstacles facing a healthy earth and a healthy civilization, it became a simpler task to focus within a smaller scope on my own body. This kind of extremely local thinking gave me something I could at least attempt to control, rather than exasperatedly give up on as a lost cause, as is easy to do with looming environmental issues. The tension created between the individual and nature is immense, but I think merging the two enhances the awareness of body and spirit. The further removed we become from our physical bodies and their capacity, energy, and ability, the further removed we are from nature.”

Ok, ok, I know I used the phrase “body and spirit” like some cracked out yoga instructor but hear me out! I still stand by this project of mine. Literally everything in my life became easier when I started working out – focus, confidence, getting to the top of a mountain, getting out of bed in the Icelandic winter darkness. Just yesterday I could not stop myself from singing loudly in the car after a particularly grueling volleyball practice, and yes, it was incredibly annoying. But this newfound relationship with endorphins allows for a more positive and eager perspective on the environmental calamities facing mankind today rather than the gloomy one typically inspired in many of my lectures.

Similarly, you cannot “get closer to nature” (shudder) if you physically cannot get closer to it. I would wager to guess that the hundreds of millions of  adults and children struggling with health issues including and leading to obesity around the world are typically excluded from being “the outdoorsy type,” and it follows that their resource consumption is less responsibly informed. Naturally these are broad, blog-based generalizations, but these musings fueled my project and I thought it prudent to share. What do you think, Reader? Is there a connection between personal and environmental health?

Sustainable Cities: There’s an App for That : Energy Priorities Podcast

In my endeavors to narrow down a thesis topic (I know, I know, I thought I’d only just begun also!) I’ve been branching out to…wait for it, other podcast categories. Don’t worry Wait Wait, Freakanomics, Radio Lab and This American Life I haven’t forsaken you completely – I still find time for your captivating social experiments and hilarious weekend trivia, but I’ve allowed more time to applicable, environmentally themed choices as well.

A particularly interesting conversation had on a 2011 episode of Energy Priorities discussed sustainable growth in cities. As many of you may know, 3.5 billion people currently reside in urban areas, and it is estimated that by 2030 the number will grow to a whopping 5 billion. While higher populations living in cities is more efficient in many ways, it also poses unique threats to the environment and infrastructure within. This episode discusses potential solutions for these obstacles through sustainable design and architecture, transportation reform, and smart data analysis. The way we build and rebuild cities in the future relies on economics, policy, and politics, but it is imperative that the system be well-integrated in order to be successful.

Occasionally in searching for an educational podcast all I find is a professor droning into his recorder, but this was both stimulating and enlightening. The contributors are well-informed and concise, and the dialogue provides great insight into this issue. While a few years old, I found it still relevant and also a good springboard for looking into the progress of some of the initiatives mentioned. Give it a listen here!

Sólheimar Ecovillage

During my time with SIT this summer, one of the first locations we spent time in was Sólheimar, a unique township about an hour outside of Reykjavík which is almost entirely sustainably run and provides shelter, solace, and community to individuals often on the margins of society.

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A photo taken earlier this summer of Vala, the store where visitors can buy items crafted by Sólheimar’s inhabitants.

It’s a lovely and verdant place replete with gardens and craft workshops, built on the values of Sesselja Hreindís Sigmundsdóttir, its founder. The Reykjavík Grapevine, our local English-language publication, recently published an article which is worth reading about this fascinating place. Check it out here!