Building the World

Year 2016: Energy



Fire, the first energy source? Photograph by Pedroserafin, 2007. Image: wikimedia commons.

Fire, perhaps the first energy source discovered and harnessed by humankind, may be the critical issue of our time. As the world’s population expands, more energy will be needed. Yet, climate change, caused by energy overuse, already threatens, as the United Nations Paris Agreement declared on 12 December 2015, in an effort to stabilize earth’s environment. How can our world sustain energy use, while continuing to explore purer and more effective vessels to hold the sacred fire?

Myths and legends

“Prometheus Brings Fire,” by Heinrich Füger. Image: wikimedia commons.

Thief of the flame

Prometheus, whose name may mean ‘fore thought,’ gave fire to humans whom he helped to shape. But such a gift came at a cost. The myth reveals aspects relevant today:

So spake Zeus in anger, whose wisdom is everlasting; and from that time he was always mindful of the trick, and would not give the power of unwearying fire to the Melian, race of mortal men who live upon the earth. But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk. And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire. Forthwith he made an evil thing for men as the price of fire.

– Hesoid, “Theogony,” lines 560-66.

The myth of Prometheus describes fire as “unwearying;” today we might term this aspect renewable. The quest for energy that is unwearying compels development of sustainable methods for obtaining heat and light. Hesiod also describes fire as “far-gleaming,” indicating the change in civilization when night became illuminated. Today, lighting dwellings and streets, factories and facilities such as schools, hospitals, office buildings, transport systems from cars and trucks to trains, ships, and airplanes is an increasing challenge. Also of interest in the Promethean myth is the need for a container to carry fire. Prometheus uses a fennel stalk; today, we use pipelines, batteries, and fusion containers. Finding better ways to store energy may drive the future. But actions speak louder than words: in the myth, Prometheus stole the fire from the gods. Other fire myths also portray the forbidden. Finally, after crime comes punishment. Prometheus suffered a terrible punishment by Zeus; artists over centuries thus portrayed the hero. Fortunately, Prometheus was rescued from this fate. But the myth of thief of the flame lives on, as does the quest for the unwearying fire.


Fang mask for ngil ceremony. Louvre Museum. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen 2006. Image: wikimedia commons.

Fire, the forbidden

Kaang, lord of the universe in San legend, gazed fondly at his creation. He had just finished formation of humans, after having fashioned other animals: of four swift feet, two majestic wings, fine fins. To the newest creatures, Kaang gave the gift of the earth. But there was a cautionary price: humans must promise not to use fire. All was well until evening. Other animals snuggled down in their nests to sleep, but humans became afraid. They were cold; and in the darkness, they could not see each other. In a discussion huddle, it was decided to build a fire. Soon the community was cooking, feasting, laughing, and telling tales around a crackling blaze. But another blaze flashed: Kaang appeared, remind humans of the dictum; as punishment, the creator announced that people and other animals would no longer live in peace upon earth. The African creation myth reveals the inherent dichotomy of fire: danger and desire.


Nuns of the fire

“The Vestal Virgin” by Jacques-Louis David. Image: wikimedia commons.

Chosen from among the leading families of ancient Rome, vestal virgins dedicated their maiden years to the service of the fire, professing a marriage echoing a traditional wedding vow: “Tu, amata, capio — You, my beloved, I do take.” Devoted to Vesta, goddess of the hearth, girls began apprenticeship between the ages of six and nine, serving ten years maintaining the fire, and their final decade as teachers for the next acolytes. Punishment for letting the fire go out was whipping; for breaking the vow of virginity, entombment alive with a small dish of water. When service was satisfactorily completed, after 30 years, the women were introduced to the finest levels of society, often marrying distinguished leading citizens. June 9 was the feast day of Vestalia. But one sees few statues; the goddess dwelt in the form of flame.

Current Progress

Let there be (a liter of) light

Liter of Light is building a better world, one bottle at a time. Image: wikimedia commons

Some plastic liter bottles are recycled, many are discarded, but a few become the miracle of light.

When Alfredo Moser observed, during an electrical power outage in his Brazilian town, that only the factories were illuminated, he pondered how light could be provided for households too. Moser took a liter bottle, the kind often found in dumps, filled it with water and a bit of bleach to retard algae growth. Then, he stuck the bottle in an improvised hole in a roof, capturing solar energy that proved the equivalent of a light blub. Soon, Moser’s idea found great use around the world where electricity is needed, due to poor infrastructure or sudden disaster. As a result, Liter of Light is building a better world, one bulb at a time.

When 2013 typhoon Haiyan struck Tacloban, and a four meter (13 feet) storm surge destroyed the airport, Philippine President Aquino announced a state of emergency. In Tacloban, more than 6,000 people perished. Tacloban, the second capital of Leyte, was the result of a decision in 1830, to relocate the capital because of port access and better shelter for essential facilities; Republic Act No. 760, on June 20, 1952, made Tacloban the official capital. Loss of a capital during disaster is especially crippling, because communication of government services is affected. A similar problem impacted Haiti when Port-au-Prince was devastated by hurricane. But thanks to ingenuity of solar lighting made from Moser’s Liter of Light program, Tacloban was able to recover from the disaster more quickly and the capital city got back to functioning. Now, the Liter of Light innovation has spread around the world, bringing light during disaster recovery and also to rural areas or places with intermittent power. Will World Bank exploration of how Moser’s ‘Liter of Light’ can be shared, and improved, help to spread illumination when and where needed?


Can recycled laptops provide electricity? UrJar lights the way. Image:IBM ThinkPad, wikimedia commons.


Can failure power success?

Energy recovery from what is otherwise deemed failure may be one of the methods of the future. IBM’s Vikas Chandan developed the UrJar, a device capturing the charge still left in discarded laptops traded in by those upgrading computers. UrJar (the name combines Hindi Ur meaning “energy” with Jar meaning “box”) is part of a community-level energy shed combined with UrJar devices individually owned by households as a mechanism for DC electrification in rural areas of the world. Street vendors in Bangalore, as well as residents in outlying areas, find the device essential.
In India, 44.7% of the population of 2012 did not have access to reliable electricity. In areas serviced by the grid, power outages lasting up to 15 hours are not uncommon. Some households turn to kerosene as a fuel and lighting source but attendant health risks are known and serious. UrJar offers a better, cleaner, safer source of electricity that could improve the lives of 40% of the world’s population.


Roskilde Cathedral, and a new energy icon, Denmark. Image: wikimedia commons.

Near Copenhagen, Denmark, a ski slope is not uncommon, but what distinguishes the sportstrip atop Amager Bakke “waste to energy” plant is the incinerator beneath. Burning 400,000 tons of garbage annually, Amager Bakke will supply 150,000 households with both heat and electricity. Europe is home to some of the world’s most advanced waste-to-energy operations; the Confederation of European Waste-to-Energy Plants reports that in 2011 more than 11 million tons of residential and industrial waste transformed into fuel through operation of 454 plants, according to William Lamb, of Dwell. What distinguishes Denmark is combining industry and art. Bjarke Ingels designed Amager Bakke in a shape that gives form to the ski-slope, thus attracting beauty, sport, and tourism.
A Waste-to-Energy power plant in Denmark was designed by Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat to echo the outline of the area’s 13th century landmark Roskilde Cathedral, with towers that echo the majestic spires of medieval 13th century iconic house of worship.

British Horse Society Green Roof. Image: wikimedia commons.

Raise the roof

New construction law enacted in Paris, France in March 2015 dictates that all new construction in business zones must have roofs covered either in solar panels or with insulating greenery. Earlier, Toronto, Canada passed similar legislation. Green roofs now adorn cities around the world including Chicago whose City Hall is covered with green. Or consider England’s British Horse Society Head Quarters, pictured above, whose green roof surrounds an ancient oak tree beloved to many a steed and those astride.

Current Energy Use

Some of the earliest forms of energy involve wood — chopping it down and burning it. But over the past century, three major fuels have dominated the energy palette: petroleum, natural gas, and coal. In the United States, these three sources have supplied 87% of the energy marketplace. However, predictions indicate that non-hydroelectric renewable energy will double by 2035.

France held the first international showcasing of electricity, in the Paris Palace of Industry’s 1881 exhibition. France also led the world in discovery of nuclear energy when, in 1896, Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered natural radioactivity. Marie and Pierre Curie harnessed the capability, making medical history. In 1945, General de Gaulle initiated the Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique.

Charles de Gaulle founded the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA) in 1945. Image: monument of Charles de Gaulle, Warsaw, wikimedia commons.

Currently France has advanced renewable nuclear energy, producing 78% of the world’s supply while consuming 17%, making it the largest world user of nuclear energy.

Brazil is a different story; since 1975, emphasis has been on developing bioethanol fuel. Pull into a filling station in in Brazil and one finds the option of ethanol, gasoline, or premium gasoline, and often natural gas.

“Flex” cars in Brazil can run on hydrous ethanol or gasoline. Image: wikimedia commons.


Fracking the Future

According to Harvard Professors Michael B. McElroy and Xi Lu, a newly available form of energy, one of special interest to areas that possess deposits previously inaccessible, may provide a short-term solution to a long-term energy problem. Or it could destroy the planet.

Shale oil and natural gas energy deposits were previously known, but not easily reached. Recent technology, termed hydraulic fracturing, changed the energy marketplace. Under high speed and force, water, mixed with chemicals, is injected into shale rock to access natural gas trapped within; the force of the injection shatters or fractures the rock, and the resource can then be mined. Of course, since water is a key instrument in hydraulic fracturing, the process requires tapping into aquifers. As Michael McElroy and Xi Lu observe, fracking has dangers but its lure holds too much promise to imagine this form of energy exploration and exploitation will go away. Instead, could fracking be carefully deployed as a short-term strategy towards a more renewable and sustainable energy future?

“Texans can be assured they will know more about what is going into the ground for fracturing than what goes into a can of soda,” claimed Elizabeth Ames Jones, past chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, the regulatory authority in that state (“Fracking secrets by thousands keep U.S. clueless on wells” by Ben Elgin, Benjamin Hass, Phil Kuntz. Accessed December 1, 2012). It is true that there is some declaration required regarding the mix of chemicals added to water used for fracking. But rules vary according to specific states. Texas allows chemical trade secrets while North Dakota requires chemicals to be revealed, through supervision of a regulatory association, FracFocus. However, FracFocus is funded by the industry and bylaws allowing participating companies to determine which parts of their chemical combinations constitute a trade secret that may be kept unreported.

Bakken Deposit. Image:

North Dakota’s Bakken fields added 41,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012. The areas fracking fields, with rigs illuminated at night, create a cluster of light so bright it can now be seen, as pointed out by NPR’s Krulwich, from the International Space Station.

Bakken is big business. McKenzie County Hospital in Watford City, North Dakota saw an increase in debt of 2,000%. But it is a hazardous business: traumatic injuries in the area increased 200% from 2007 to 2012; ambulance calls doubled; emergency room hospital visits grew from 100 per month to over 400. Some workers, like Charles Q who migrated from Mississippi for economic opportunity, labor under trucks while they are running.


Far away from Bakken, in New York State on a farm “where the Catskill Mountians curl up into little kitten hills,” legendary John Lennon bought a piece of land where he brought up his young son, Sean. One morning, Sean Lennon, awakened on the farm and saw something in the back yard besides spring robins. Gas companies. The young man decided to attend a town meeting held in the village school where he learned about the arrival of the fracking industry. Lennon was shocked: “Hundred of families have been left with ruined drinking water, toxic fumes in the air, industrialized landscapes, thousands of trucks and new roads crosshatching the wilderness, and a devastating and irreversible decline in property value.” (“Destroying precious land for gas” by Sean Lennon, The New York Times, August 27, 2012.) Joining with other artists including Lady Gaga, Sean Lennon is part of Artists Against Fracking, founded by Yoko Ono.

Yoko Ono, founder of Artists Against Fracking. Image: wikimedia commons.

Some shale deposits are within the United States entirely, but others are transboundary. This is also the case in other countries. The world arguably is not lines on maps, although political boundaries are defined and critically important, but resources shared by contiguous partners.

Trans-national Resources: United States and Mexico

What should be done about shared resources, and dangers? For example, Eagle Ford, west of Dallas, is a large shale deposit with part in Texas and part in Mexico. There are 2000 wells producing on the Texas side, and 5000 more in permit stage. Large industrial interests are represented by companies including EDG Resources who purchased land for $500 per acre, later owning 500,000 acres that are estimated to produce 900 million barrels of oil equivalency. South of the border, it’s PEMEX. When President Enrique Pena Nieto won election in 2012, just five wells had been drilled, but while the new president declared when he visited Washington DC days before his inauguration on December 1, 2012 that there were no plans to privatize PEMEX, a more open door would encourage specialists from around the world. Eagle Ford employs 4,000 people in 23 counties of Texas. EDG is not alone: shale rich real estate is owned by Statoil/Talisman Energy JV, Marathon Oil, Rosetta Resources, Plains E&P, Pioneer Natural Resources/Reliance JV, BHP Billiton, Newfield Exploration, EOF Resources, El Paso E&P, ConocoPhillips, Chesapeake Energy/CNOOCJV, SM Energy, Anadarko, Murphy OIl, Swift Energy, and Apache (Source, Rystad Energy). What agreements should be in place between the United States and Mexico regarding the Eagle Ford shale deposit?

Texas seen from space. Image: NASA.

Mexico and the United States could consult Public Law 109-448, December 22, 2006, 120 Stat. 3328, “United States-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act” The Act prioritizes transboundary water resources including Hueco Bolson and Mesilla aquifers stretching among Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico; Santa Cruz River Valley aquifer and San Pedro aquifer uniting Arizona in the United States and Sonora in Mexico. Also relevant to these transboundary shared water resources may be the “Water Resources Research Act of 1984” (42 U.S.C. 10303).

Mexico and United States: Santa Cruz River Valley. Image:





In 1972, a prescient Donella Meadows and team published a book entitled “The Limits to Growth” (Potomac Associates, 1972. ISBN: 0-87663-165-0). Based on principles of System Dynamics, commissioned by the Club of Rome, research findings of Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William Behrens foretold a troubled future.

The Limits to Growth (1972) is credited by many scientists as a milestone in addressing the world’s environment. Image: wikimedia commons.

Looking at five key variables: population, industrial growth, environmental pollution, agriculture, and natural resources, the scientists determined that if the global population continued to expand, the world would run out of essential resources.

During COP21, the Eiffel Tower served as signpost. Will the world follow the Paris Agreement? Image: wikimedia commons.

Building a better world: energy

Fast forward to 2016. Record drought, floods, extreme weather may be only the beginning of climate change. Will pledges for environmental improvement, made by nations attending the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, COP21, honor decisions agreed in Paris on 12 December 2015? Might ITER succeed in development of nuclear fusion or space solar power light the future in 2040? How might decisions, made now, help to build a better world?

Ra, Egyptian sun god, is drawn with the face of a falcon and the sun disk inside a cobra atop his head. Artist: Jeff Dahl, based on New Kingdom tomb paintings. Image: wikimedia commons.

Peter Glaser, pioneer of solar power from space, filed a patent that rivals the mythic Prometheus, or even Ra. Why not draw power from the infinite fire, warming the earth, and all who abide on the planet? Satellite solar power turns on the lights in the International Space Station. Will 1973 become a turning point in history? That year, Peter Glaser received an unusual Christmas present: the patent for his invention. While solar panels on rooftops are a very good idea, what about combining the technology of satellites with solar power — from space?

For more about space solar power, with special appreciation to Jacques Horvilleur and Lucien Deschamps, Société des Électriciens et des Électroniciens (SEE), Société des Ingénieurs et Scientifiques de France (ISF), please visit:

Until the world transitions to renewable energy, how can climate change be addressed. Maybe C-ROADS can point the way. On a chilly Friday in December 2015, a certain patisserie in Paris opened to a line of customers even longer than usual. How could that many people want a fresh croissant?

Parisian croissant. Fuel for thinking about climate change? Image: wikimedia.

On that morning, it seemed the whole world was waiting for Paris; Paris was ready.

Soon, that same crowd gathered inside an auditorium in the shadow of the venerable Eiffel Tower. As delegates took their seats, a hush spread over the group. Stepping on to the stage, in the role of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, a professor from MIT spoke: “Who here is from the European  Union?” Hands went up. “OK, you will represent China.” The speaker continued: “Anyone here from China?” More raised arms and hands. “Great, you will represent the United States.” The leader of the forum was John Sterman, from the MIT System Dynamics Group.

Professor John Sterman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Image:

Along with Tom Fiddaman of Ventana Systems, Juliette Rooney-Varga of Mass Lowell Climate Change Initiative, Peter Senge, Jack Homer, Susanne Moser. Chris Soderquist, Angela Park, and Travis Frank, among others, Sterman led the Paris group through an exploration of how to address climate change through factors including the carbon cycle, other Green House Gases, Global Mean Temperature, and Sea Level Change.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, during the Paris Climate Accord, met with C-ROADS’ John Sterman of MIT. Image: wikimedia commons.

Later, Dr. Sterman addressed United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the need for deeper emissions cuts. C-ROADS has now been experienced by over 10,000 people in more than 50 countries. And it’s downloadable, so you can explore too:

Energy, the effects of using fossil fuels for energy, may be one of the world’s most pressing problems. Some pessimists would say we have already gone too far to heal the earth; global warming will continue even if we halt emissions. But optimists might point out that it often takes a crisis to impel change. Already, renewable energy is outpacing fossil fuels. Pricing for solar panels has dropped considerably. In 2015, solar prices dipped to record lows, installations of rooftop systems improved by 5%, while big solar-farms reached price reductions of 12%. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Reports: “Tracking the Sun” documents the drop in prices and the rise in technical improvements. There’s a new acronym: PPA (price of solar power purchase agreements). In 2015, PPA fell below $50 per megawatt-hour. Solar will soon match the regular market price of electricity (from non-renewables) that is currently $30-40 per megawatt hour. For more, see “The Price of Solar is Declining to Unprecedented Lows,” by Robert Fares. Scientific American, 27 August, 2016.

The price is solar is dropping to near that of fossil fuels. Image: “Fixed Tilt Solar Panel” wikimedia commons.

The wind deities might be smiling. According to a Dong Energy A/S, Danish utility that has become the leader in installing windmills at sea, the price of building offshore wind farms fell 46% in the last five years, and an impressive 22% just last year in 2016, in Europe. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the cost of building wind turbines in the seabed is $126 per megawatt-hour — well below the $155 per megawatt-hour for new nuclear and nearing the $88 price of new coal plants. Denmark is a leader because the government sponsors and promotes wind energy development. Vattenfall AB supplied electricity from North Sea turbines for a price agreed on by 2020 of $64 per megawatt-hour. In the United States, Rhode Island has commissioned a wind plant; North Carolina and New Jersey are considering the same. Why put turbines in the water? Sea breeze. In Europe, where mariners of yore navigated by wind and sail, winds average 22 miles her hour (on land, the wind slows down – a lot). Offshore wind investment tallied up 40% in 2016 from the year previous, adding up to about $30 billion.

The first automated wind turbine was built in Cleveland, Ohio, USA by Charles F. Brush, in 1887. Image: wikimedia commons.

How will wind and solar affect the electrical grid — in need of rebuilding to respond to renewable power? It might link to battery storage capacity. Because the sun does not always shine; nor the wind blow. There’s good news there too. Battery storage costs dropped 40% since 2014, according to Jess Shankleman and Brian Parkin, authors of “Wind Power Blows Through Nuclear, Coal as Costs Drop at Sea,” Bloomberg, 8 March, 2017.

The wind gods may be smiling. Image wikimedia.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License


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