Friday, May 20, 2011

My review of "Burning in the Sun" - I loved this unique eco-documentary

"Burning in the Sun" featuring Daniel Dumbele. Note the film-festival awards across the top.

My husband loped into the living room while I was watching the DVD, "Burning in the Sun". He had hoped to turn on a baseball game, but he stopped, watching a scene on the DVD. After a minute, he sat down.

"What's this?," he asked me.

"It's a documentary I was asked to review," I told him. "It's the best film I've seen about solar since Jeff Barrie and 'Kilowatt Ours'. About this young guy in Mali who makes solar panels by hand and distributes them to villages that have no electricity. It's really good."

Ken stayed and watched the whole thing with me.

Charismatic Daniel yearns to help his country
"Burning in the Sun" is the most memorable environmental documentary I've seen in a while. But it's also a compelling personal story that would be interesting even if the star, charming Daniel Dumbele, were selling shoes instead of PV panels. It's a plug for non-polluting, affordable solar power, but it's also about parental influence, about youth struggling for meaningful livelihood, about West African rural culture - all of which are fascinating to me.

Can't help but love this lad: equal parts European and West African
Daniel was raised in Mali by his European mother after his West African father died. Growing up, Daniel helped his mother install 350 wells throughout inpoverished rural Mali, saving lives by providing clean and safe drinking water. Said Daniel, "For me, it's nice and normal to be trying to help my people." At the age of 26, Daniel decided to start his own project: he learned how to make solar PV panels for $200 instead of the usual $1000, by piecing together broken PV cells discarded by American corporations. He uses all local materials to make the panels, except for the broken PV cells he carefully trims and fits together like puzzle pieces.
Daniel hoists a panel he made to a rooftop in Mali

As the DVD unfolds, Daniel sets out to distribute the completed panels, with more requests for them than he can fill. He focuses first on the village of Banko, holding a workshop for local people to teach them how to install the panels and set up the wiring. He's assisted in the beginning by a solar physicist and a female solar engineer, as he masters the circuitry for getting energy from the panel to the lightbulbs - which turns out to be quite simple. Click here to see a film trailer.

Daniel's panels profoundly affect students' exam results
After Daniel's efforts, the school in Banko is illuminated for the first time, and the students (girls and boys) flock into the brightly lit room in the evenings to do their homework.  The film tells us that the year before getting lights, only 20% of the Banko children passed their national exams. The year after, 97% passed!

Micro-loans make panels affordable
Daniel explains that he plans to sell the panels in the city, where customers will have to pay him cash. Then he will be able to offer "micro-credit" or "micro-loans" to the rural villagers, most of whom are farmers, allowing them a year to pay him back for their panels. Or even allowing them to barter for the panels.

Daniel finds a way to help the world while supporting himself  - a feat that still eludes me
The documentary caught Daniel at precisely that point in this life where he's trying to figure out how to help his people in his own way, while at the same time making a living. As a mother of two twenty-somethings myself, I was moved by Daniel's search for livelihood. I also know from my own struggles that it's not easy to make a living by serving a cause. I still haven't figured out how!

Afriq-Power attracts big clients
Daniel is making it work. In 2006, his company "Afriq-Power" opened a storefront in Bamako, Mali's capital city. His clients now include USAID, Geekcorps, and the US Embassy. Daniel's company electrifies health centers and schools, and installs solar-powered pumps in rural Mali. Daniel recently won a $30,000 contract to build 400 panels to power radios in Malian villages.

Ken's students were intriqued by the DVD
As I watched the captivating story of Daniel's journey, my husband Ken was sucked into it too, and forgot all about the baseball game he'd intended to watch. Ken was so enraptured with the DVD, he watched both versions (83 minutes and 22 minutes), and then took the film to work to show his classes. The next evening he told me that it had sparked class discussions about the association between the education of girls and reduction of birth rates, about the concept of microloans, about the diversity of races at work on the project and the inclusion of both genders as solar "experts". Most of all, after studying global poverty in the abstract, his students really enjoyed the personal nature of "Burning in the Sun." Me too!

I strongly endorse this film
I recommend this inspirational and informative documentary to anyone - for personal viewing at home, to fuel family discussions, to illustrate multiple issues to students - poverty in developing nations, grass-roots solutions to our environmental crises, communities working together learn new technologies. "Burning in the Sun" is perhaps the most fully-fleshed out documentary I've seen yet - a very human story about the monumental problems that threaten our planet.

For more information and a way to contribute, see the website for the film.

Keywords: Burning in the Sun Afriq-Power solar panels PV Mali Daniel Dumbele documentary

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Orangutans on Borneo are observed using tools to catch fish

Mother and baby orangutan at a refuge on Borneo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Field researcher Anne Russon of York University in Toronto monitored orangutan behavior from 2004 to 2007 on the Indonesian island of Borneo. She observed orangutans scavenging fish that had washed up along shores. She also saw them grabbing live catfish out of small ponds. The orangutans immediately ate the fish.

In 2007, Russon stocked a small pond with catfish and videotaped orangutan visits to this pond. She reported that several of the red apes learned on their own to jab at catfish with sticks, provoking the fish to flop out of the ponds within reach. The orangutans then ate them.

Using sticks to frighten fish out of ponds qualifies as "tool use," an ability that was once thought to be unique to humans. Other primates and crows have also been observed using tools to obtain food, and sometimes making tools. Chimps have been filmed making spears to stab and remove small primates from treeholes and then eat them. (The spears are made by sharpening sticks with their teeth.) Chimps also use sticks to remove termites from holes to eat.

If any of you readers can tell me other observations of meat-eating or tool-use in orangutans, I'd like to know.

Russon reported her observations of orangutans catching fish at the 'American Association of Physical Anthropologists' meeting in Minneapolis on April 14, 2011.

For further reading on primate conservation and behavior, and my observations of wild orangutans on Borneo and Sumatra, check out some of my earlier primate posts:

Some of my earlier posts about primates:
Orangutans are lefties; chimps and gorillas are right handed April 14, 2011
Trade a major threat to primate survival March 21, 2011
We are family: new evidence of our close link to chimps Feb 16, 2011
Is males' attraction to trucks and balls genetically based? Jan 14, 2011
Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss Dec 6, 2010
Wildlife trade rivals drug trade in profits September 20, 2010
Laws flaunted: flourishing pet trade threatens orangutans' survival August 23, 2010
My search for a wild orangutan in Borneo and Sumatra August 16, 2010
Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations August 3, 2010
The great apes are losing ground March, 2010
The U.S. imports 20,000 primates per year. February, 2010
Baboons are Africa's most widespread primate. Females rule! December 30, 2009
Mama monkeys give in to tantrums....when others are watching. April 23, 2009
Angry chimp reveals a "uniquely human" ability. March 21, 2009
Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle. September, 2008
Chimps' short-term memory is better than humans'  April 2, 2008
Chimps share human trait of altruism August 3, 2007

Some of my previous posts about tool use in wildlife:
Animals making tools...what else are they capable of? May 28, 2009
Wild monkeys use tools...and choose the right one Feb 20, 2009
We're not so unique: Research shows birds have human qualities. Oct 18, 2007

Keywords: orangutan orangutans Borneo Indonesia tool use Anne Russon York University Toronto orangutans catching fish orangutans eating fish apes eating fish

Saturday, May 07, 2011

We took a stand against Duke Energy's nukes and coal

A demonstrator outside Duke Energy. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Dozens of protesters demonstrated outside Duke Energy headquarters in Charlotte on Thursday (5/5/11), prior to a meeting of shareholders.  The demonstration included speakers, picketers with signs, and street theater - the actors portrayed utility customers whose money winds up in the hands of legislators.  The demonstrators protested the use of coal from mountaintop removal and the construction of two new nuclear units in Cherokee County, S.C.

The most eloquent speaker I heard was Mickey McCoy (above), a Kentucky native who grew up in a town devastated by mountaintop removal. Jim Rogers said Duke tries to avoid buying coal extracted by mountaintop removal, but only when they can find other coal sources that are equally cheap (unlikely since mountaintop removal is the cheapest method). Photo: Sally Kneidel

A banner held by protesters outside Duke Energy on Thursday. Photo: Sally Kneidel

At the shareholders meeting indoors, 20-30 people lined up microphones in the aisles of the auditorium to pose questions to Duke Energy CEO and President, Jim Rogers. I was one of those people - my purpose was to point out to Rogers and the shareholders the risk involved in building new nuclear units in South Carolina, on a river whose flow is inadequate to provide consistent cooling of the units.

My comments to CEO Jim Rogers at the meeting:
"I'm concerned about the consumption of water by the proposed nuclear units on the Broad River. Duke Energy and its shareholders face serious financial and public relations risks from Duke’s use of so much water.

"Already, NC’s electric-production sector has one of the largest rates of water withdrawals in the nation, over 9 billion gallons every day – about 80% of our state’s total water withdrawals.

"I understand that some of the water withdrawn by nuclear power plants is returned to the lakes it’s drawn from. But much of the water withdrawn to cool the reactors is 'consumed' or lost by evaporation. The proposed units on the Broad River will have a consumptive loss of 35-40 million gallons per day.

"Right now, most people are unaware of how nuclear plants impact our state's water - including loss of aquatic habitat, releases of radioactivity, and the huge evaporative losses. As you [Jim Rogers] said yourself, 'water is the new oil' – because of growing water shortages due to population growth and climate change.

"Soon the people of NC will find these losses of water and habitat unacceptable. Duke will be taking a huge risk to squander even more water at new nuclear plants. Likewise, with 70% of biologists predicting mass extinctions this century, the loss of aquatic wildlife due to dams and thermal pollution will become increasingly objectionable to the public.

"The increasing water shortage also creates a high financial risk for Duke. Because of coming droughts and periods when water is too warm to cool the plants,the proposed plants are likely to be idle at times or operate at reduced power - a public annoyance and a loss of revenue.  As the Broad River diminishes over the years, the useful lifespan of the $11 billion units is also likely to be cut short. So the ratepayers [not the shareholders] will wind up paying for nonfunctional nuclear plants.

"Do you, Mr. Rogers, believe the Broad River will have enough water to support these plants?

"In other states Duke is investing more aggressively in energy efficiency, wind, and solar, which require no water. Why doesn’t Duke invest more in efficiency, wind, and solar here in its home state, thereby minimizing the risks to Duke and to all North Carolinians of our dwindling water supplies?"

Rogers' response
Jim Rogers answered my question about the Broad River by saying "That's a good question." He went on to say that Duke is studying the issue and they plan to create a reservoir (by damming the Broad River). Which was no answer, really. Every nuclear plant has a reservoir of some kind. The question about solar, wind, and efficiency was posed by several people. He said wind turbines take up too much room. The real answer to the efficiency question is that Duke makes more money when customers consume more energy, because then they pay more money to Duke. Duke had strong 2010 earnings, and this past week had first-quarter growth that moved its stock to the highest price in 3 years.

Street theater outside Duke Energy.  Seated "rate payers" hand over money to the "legislator" dressed in black. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Keywords: Duke Energy nuclear coal mountaintop removal water shortage demonstration Mickey McCoy Jim Rogers

Thursday, May 05, 2011

April tornadoes caused by climate change, population growth, and pavement


April's 297 devastating tornadoes were unparalleled in the U.S. Of the four biggest tornado clusters ever recorded here, two occurred this past April. What caused so many deadly and tragic tornadoes in a single month?

Meterorologists say chance is partly to blame. One little thing can set off a tornado, or not.

We do understand a lot about factors that cause tornadoes, though. They need warm, most air interacting with cooler, faster air. A thunderstorm coupled with something to create rotation, such as wind shear, can create a tornado. Are those conditions occuring together more often these days?

Changing climate is partly a factor, say meteorologists. Jet stream forces in April were among the strongest ever recorded, contributing to wetter, stormier weather than usual in the middle of the country. (I wrote a post recently about how warming Arctic air has sent the circumpolar jet stream shooting off southward, leading to the massive snow falls the U.S. experienced this winter.)

The stormier April was also caused in part by warm air from the U.S (warmer than usual due to climate change) colliding with cooler Canadian air - conditions that can spawn tornadoes.

Population growth and pavement contribute to number of tornadoes

More people are living now in "Tornado Alley" - the nation's midsection and the South - so more tornadoes are observed and recorded.

Some of the states hit hardest by tornadoes this year were also among our fasted growing states - such as Texas and North Carolina. The South has grown 14.3% in the past decade, compared to 9.7% for the nation as a whole. According to Kirk Johnson of the NYT, much of that growth occurred in areas of flood plain, where water used to spread out and be absorbed. But now that the areas are developed and paved, water runs off quickly, heated by the pavement, and is much more likely to cause floods of warm water. The evaporation of warm water can lead to storms, and collisions of air masses of different temperatures and densities. Ingredients for tornadoes.

Climatologists have long predicted that climate change will lead to stronger storms as we head into the future. Apparently that will include not only hurricanes, droughts, blizzards, and floods, but also tornadoes.

Keywords: tornado, tornadoes, climate change, population growth, pavement, April tornadoes