Tuesday, June 30, 2015


It was 10 years and about a month ago when I wrote this post that starts with this quote:

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. ... corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.  U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864.

Ten years ago, I was convinced that the only way to save ourselves and our planetary nest was to begin to create new inventions of social contract that transcend the geographic state.  I offered that these new cyberstates or cybercoops would bring human kind to higher levels of cooperation and understanding.

I still am.

Since that time, so much has happened and yet so little has happened.

When I wrote these words a decade ago, there was no Facebook.  There were no smart phones, and there was no Uber, and no so called sharing economy, even though I predicted they would come.  There were no plug in hybrid vehicles, but we would soon start a successful campaign to create them.  There was no Tesla and there were no Nest thermostats.

Most of us still used desk top computers.  Wireless was just becoming ubiquitous.

Hardly any one knew who Barack Obama was.  But in three years, many of us would be enthralled with a new vision of hope and a "can do" attitude.

Soon after the election, the plutocrats ran to their Supreme Court to get their Citizens United decision which would allow the Corporations to give any amount they chose  to the political process because it was "corporate free speech".  The internet  fund raising techniques developed by the Obama campaign was thus neutralized.  And the Corporations kept their hold on government from slipping any further.

Miraculously, the first semi-progressive health care law based on Republican think-tankisms was enacted with democratic majorities in both houses. Even though it still lined the pockets of the 1%, the Affordable Care Act was attacked before the President's signature on the bill was dry.  And just this month, like grateful abused partners and children, we all celebrated its survival from the judicial political attack of the power hungry opposition.

In the meantime, Republicans who once supported climate change actions became emboldened as the "thank you for smoking lobby" managed to confuse those who were looking for something they could tell themselves that would make them see themselves as something that wasn't just plain evil.   Pope Frances has now pretty much fixed that.  Still, humankind lost 10 years of action that may prove to be critical in our combined effort to right the wrong we have brought upon ourselves.

Fortunately, the solutions to climate change have matured.  Wind is the most cost effective way to generate electricity.  And now, just in the last few years, Solar has become the new wind with pricing that coal, nuclear, and gas plants just cannot compete with.  And like the Citizens United solution to people electing their leaders, some plutocrats would take away the tax advantages for renewables that simply level the field with the carbon competition, while leaving the depletion allowance and drilling write offs for oil and gas in tact.

And as I look forward to our third Bush or our second Clinton, without the intoxication of our first non-white President, the vision returns.

We can achieve what we can imagine.  And we can do some of that through our geographic state, or through our local community.  Most of the good work that I have accomplished in the last 10 years has been local.  Within a few years, Austin will be 75% carbon free.

But we can do so much more for ourselves as we begin to understand that soon, very soon, we will be able to help ourselves and one another in new forms of social contract.  New forms of internet family will emerge. Your Facebook family will be replaced with a functioning electronic family.  New neural networks will grow in the fertile human social soil at exponential rates.

These families will provide housing, food, the energy, mobility, communication, the finances, the entertainment, and security to those who choose to create the solutions to the 1% domination that 99% of us must endure.

And in time, the domination of the today's Corpus of Corporations will give way to a Confederation of Cooperations.

There might even be an Earthfamilyzeta.

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Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Unified Energy System: White Paper

Last month, I was asked by the Sustainability office of the City of Austin to write a White Paper on what I call the Unified Energy System.

So here is my latest try at depicting the kind of energy system we need to adopt if we are to move forward with a low carbon world.

I also want to thank Lucia Athens and her staff for making my writing better. Writers always need editing, no matter how much we may think we don't. 

A Unified Energy System: White Paper
By Michael Osborne
Chairman, City of Austin Electric Utility Commission 

In today’s energy environment, there is a growing need and expectation that our energy systems must become more and more carbon-free. And indeed, renewables are gaining larger shares of the energy pie. Last year alone, over 70 gigawatts of wind and solar were installed globally. Where a goal of 35% renewable energy seemed aggressive just a few years ago, new goals of 55% to 60% are now becoming the new markers of progressive energy policy. Such is the case in Austin, Texas. 

However, in order to reach even higher percentages, we need to rethink the current system. 

In today's world, the stationary energy grid is our electric system. And in this system, large utilities produce and sell energy to their customers in the form of kilowatt-hours. And in the world of transportation, almost all energy comes from oil. Sure, there are electric subways and the like, but most of the energy comes from oil. 

In a Unified Energy Grid, utilities still sell their product to customers, but customers also sell product back to the utility. Instead of the transportation industry running exclusively on oil, it begins to slowly become transformed by electric cars and other transportation appliances that connect not only to the utility, but also to dwellings that are also energy producers. And as the future arrives, those electric-powered vehicles will be able to provide energy and voltage support to the utility on the occasional peak load demand day. Moreover, larger plug-in vehicles with on-board generators can provide critical support and community resilience in times of unplanned outages. 

This triangle of generation, load, and transportation, each feeding and supporting each other, is then encompassed within a sphere of intelligence, the Smart Grid. A Unified Energy System is made complete with smart roads, smart buildings with smart appliances, and networked smart transportation options. 

This grid is further supported by smart policies at the community, regional, and global level that foster and implement what R. Buckminster Fuller called a “Dymaxion World,” defined as “the use of technology and resources to maximum advantage with a minimum of energy and materials.” 

Energy needs to flow in this new unified system from the increasingly green utility to the house and to the car. Energy also needs to flow from the house to the car. And energy must flow in the other direction as well, from the car to the house (if the house is off the grid), from the car to the utility, and from the house to the utility.

With an integrated, unified energy system, we would no longer have the waste that exists at a typical football stadium parking lot where more generation capacity sits idle on the pavement outside the stadium than exists in the whole community's electrical generation portfolio. With plug-in hybrids and other electric transportation appliances, that capacity would no longer be stranded. 

A decade ago, these ideas were considered to be outside the bell curve of accepted public policy. That was before John Wellinghoff, former head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). While he never used the term Unified Energy System, he preached it. During his tenure as the longest serving chair of the FERC, Wellinghoff worked to make the U.S. power grid cleaner and more efficient, by integrating emerging resources such as renewable energy and demand response, and including energy efficiency and local storage systems such as those in plug-in hybrid and all electric vehicles. 

He championed the agency’s landmark Order 1000, which required grid planners and public utilities to coordinate regional power line projects and encouraged the integration of solar and wind installations. That is exactly what Texas did in building the CREZ lines in the western part of the state. 

And it was before Elon Musk of Tesla began to actualize his vision. 

According to Lyndon Rive, Elon Musk’s cousin and CEO of Solar City, "Thanks to the economies of scale that will come from Tesla's gigafactory, within 10 years every solar system that SolarCity sells will come with a battery-storage system, and it will still produce energy cheaper than what is available from the local utility company." 

The vision of a unified world of energy where renewables, electric cars, and energy storage work together to bring about a transformation where energy is swapped and sold and moved about through the energy economy primarily as electricity is revolutionary. In this near future, this “photonic energy web” will ultimately become an “energy internet.” 

And its embodiment will be a Unified Energy System. 

In the same manner that hydropower in the northwest United States powers southern California through DC intertie, wind fields in the Texas Panhandle may soon help meet peak demand in Phoenix, even as solar fields east of El Paso provide peak power to Dallas, Houston, and Austin. As we sleep, the great nighttime winds of the Llano Estacado will charge our cars for the next day’s urban commute. After we commute to work, these same cars will take on excess early morning solar power from local rooftops that will then be repurchased by the system operator in the afternoon at premium prices.

Through this unification of effort and design, humankind will not only meet the great challenges that face us, we will create a better and more resilient world.

Michael Osborne is the former Special Assistant to the General Manager for Energy Development at Austin Energy. He served as Chairman of the Austin City Council appointed Generation Resource Planning Task Force, which resulted in an adopted plan that will bring the nation’s 8th largest public power utility and the 11th largest city to 55% renewable energy. 

Mr. Osborne is an author, inventor, and policy maker. He has served on the steering committees of the Texas Energy Policy Partnership and the Sustainable Energy Development Council under Governor Ann Richards, and on the Texas Energy Coordination Council appointed by then Governor George Bush. 

As one of three founding members of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association, he has been at the forefront in making Texas the leading renewable energy state in the United States.


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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Salgado's Salt

We went to see the new documentary by Wim Wenders about the great photographer Salgado this weekend.

As we left,  a couple that looked as dazed and overwhelmed as I felt looked at me and said, "I'm not sure what to do after seeing a movie like that."  I told them I wasn't sure if i wanted to go drink, go pray, go cry, or go fast. 

First of all, if you don't know the work of Salgado,  I suggest you google his last name and then go to images. You will be amazed. Now, imagine these images on a giant screen with the soft narration of the photographer telling the story of the shot and who died and who lived on.

Sebastião Salgado was born on February 8, 1944 in Aimorés, Minas Gerais, Brazil. He is known for his work on The Salt of the Earth (2014), Looking Back at You (1993) and The Spectre of Hope (2002).

This comes from the NY Times in mid March of this year:

Sebastião Salgado has won every major prize a photographer can receive, with his crisp, compassionate black-and-white images, many of them from war zones and other locations of human suffering, hanging on the walls of museums, galleries and private collections around the world. His books, including “Workers,” “Migrations,” “Sahel” and, most recently, the nature-oriented “Genesis,” have consistently met with commercial and critical success.
 Now, as if to complete the picture, a documentary film about Mr. Salgado, 71, and his work is about to opens in theaters across the United States. “The Salt of the Earth,” a collaborative effort between the German director Wim Wenders, who is also a photographer, and Mr. Salgado’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, was nominated for the Oscar for best documentary film, won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival last spring and last month was also awarded a César, the French equivalent of an Academy Award.
 I have seen Salgado's coffee table books over the years and probably have a couple in my art book collections,  but these images take on new power and depth on the screen. They actually seem to come alive.

According to Variety, "Influential critics such as Susan Sontag and Ingrid Sischy accused Sebastiao of turning misery into an aestheticized object for Western consumption, yet reducing these photographs merely to beautiful images corrupts their intent and meaning. Certainly he has a trained eye for striking compositions, but his artistry lies in the way he combines beauty with sensitivity to the inner strength and dignity of even his most wretched subjects. The satisfying beauty of the shot doesn’t work against empathy but rather ennobles those he photographs, resulting in moving, synergistic compositions of deep humanity and drama."

Earlier in the day, at our Sunday brunch, one of our wise ones said something about images and how they effect the brain.  He said that they have a unique pathway to our consciousness that the language mind can't filter.  Like music, they get under our skin and into our hearts where we become transformed and perhaps transmuted into a different kind of human being.  Some images seem to be particularly powerful.

When you have perhaps the greatest photographer of all time working with one of the great cinematographers of our time, it is imaginable that the synthesis of the two might not work.  The opposite happened.  And like any great movie, the third act comes just in time to rescue the viewer from a wrist slit.

The result is a work of cinematographic art that has the power to change any and all of us.  It should be seen on the biggest screen you can find.

It's still on a big screen in Austin.

Don't miss it.

For We are the Salt of the Earth.










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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Merchants of Doubt

I started reading Merchants of Doubt in anticipation of the new movie that was released in March. The book by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway is so beautifully written, it hardly reads like a science book, but a science book it is.  But it is so much more.  It puts into focus how this country has been bamboozled into two decades of denial and inaction on not only the most pressing issue of our time, but also other critically important issues that demanded regulatory attention due to market failure.

And those failures of course are legend.

This from Wikipedia:

Oreskes and Conway write that a handful of politically conservative scientists, with strong ties to particular industries, have "played a disproportionate role in debates about controversial questions".[5] The authors write that this has resulted in "deliberate obfuscation" of the issues which has had an influence on public opinion and policy-making.[5]

The book criticizes the so-called Merchants of Doubt, some predominantly American science key players, above all Bill Nierenberg, Fred Seitz, and Fred Singer. All three are physicists: Singer was a rocket scientist, whereas Nierenberg and Seitz worked on the atomic bomb.[6] They have been active on topics like acid rain, tobacco smoking, global warming and pesticides. The book claims that these scientists have challenged and diluted the scientific consensus in the various fields, as of the dangers of smoking, the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, and the existence of anthropogenic climate change.[5]

Seitz and Singer helped to form institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Marshall Institute in the United States. Funded by corporations and conservative foundations, these organizations have opposed many forms of state intervention or regulation of U.S. citizens. The book lists similar tactics in each case: "discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, and promote doubt"

In seven compelling chapters addressing tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole, global warming, and DDT, Oreskes and Conway roll back the rug on this dark corner of the American scientific community, showing how the ideology of free market fundamentalism, aided by a too-compliant media, has skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era.

The movie however, which finally came to our home town for a very short stand was good, but not great. Rotten Tomatoes describes it:
Filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the curtain on a secretive group of highly charismatic, silver-tongued pundits-for-hire who present themselves in the media as scientific authorities - yet have the contrary aim of spreading maximum confusion about well-studied public threats ranging from toxic chemicals to pharmaceuticals to climate change.
I'm generally not one of those people who says that the book was better than the movie.  But it was.  It tells a much more in depth and sinister tale.

The book tells a story about Al Gore's professor who turned him on to the whole climate change story when he was in college.  Towards the end of his life, one of our villains, Fred Singer, asked  professor Reveille to co-write a paper  with him.  He agreed, but soon thereafter he had a stroke and his health began to falter.  Even then, Reveille made notes on Singer's paper which Singer never included or changed.

Soon after the passing of Al Gore's mentor, the bogus Singer report was published in a non peer reviewed journal.  Its key take away was that there is no need to act now on Climate Change....something Reveille never said nor ever believed.  Yet, the Merchants of Doubt hung that nonstatement around Al Gore like a necklace of Dove Turds.  These people are not just liars....they are mean.

Their belief in the efficacy of the free market  and its importance to a free society in general, over our ability to save ourselves through joint action other than in war is folly, and folly of a high order.

Because you see, according to Fred Singer, an environmentalist is a watermelon...green on the outside and red on the inside.

The merchants of doubt on the other hand are white men with black hearts.

Anyone concerned about the state of democracy in America should read this book.”—Former Vice President Al Gore


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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Stromer Spondylosis

After our nice trip to the left coast, I came home to wrestle with a condition that I had never heard of.  I had lumbar spondylosis, bacically, a herniated disc.  And as for pain, on a 10 scale, it was an 11.  It occured in a  bicycle accident event when I adjusted my seat height too high. Yes, that's it. I didn't fall, I just extended my left leg a little too much to keep from falling.

My partner and I had just purchased some really cool electric bikes called Stromers.  They don't have a little throttle like my last electric bike  (an A to B), they have a little computer on them where you set the amount of power you want when you apply energy to the pedals.  And its very satisfying.  You end up riding more or less effortlessly depending on the setting ranging from eco to power.  In a crowded urban roadway, these Stromers are the best, fastest way to travel.  And their 22 mile per hour speed is plenty fast.

So, once we got back from the coast, my partner suggested we get some images.  That seemed reasonable.  And thus I got my first MRI.  MRIs are curiously noisy.  And after about 25 minutes in that long donut, I was more than ready to get out of there. Later that day I looked up MRI and found out that it was invented by a guy named Damadian.  Raymond Vahan Damadian was a violin player who just happened to figure out that potassium ions might provide image potential. This from Wikepedia:

Damadian's early work on NMR concerned investigating potassium ions inside cells.[8] He found that the potassium relaxation times were much shorter compared with aqueous solutions of potassium ions. This suggested that potassium was not free but complexed to ‘fixed-charge’ counter-ions, as he had previously determined.

Damadian predicted that cancerous cells would have longer relaxation times, both because of the disordering of malignant cells and because of their elevated potassium levels.

Curiously, others got the nobel prize for his discovery.

And so thanks to Raymond and the rest of his cohorts, I got to see my spine like never before.

Now, let me set it straight.  I have had a bad back ever since the time I was coming down a 500 foot cliff in Colorado and the last ledge before we got to the ground broke off with me on it.  It was a  good thing actually, because a few moments before there were five other 14 year olds on that ledge with me.  As the the ledge broke off, I turned and tried to find something on the cliff to hold on to.   After a few seconds of doing my best impression of Wylie Coyote, I pushed off, opened my arms into flight mode and glided to the earth like a rock.  Remarkably, I walked away.

Ever since that fall in the mountains of Colorado, I've known I had a trick back.  And fifty years later, after running 10 K a day for twenty years or so, and running and working out more than most folks for another 10 years, I got to see the pictures of that day thanks to Ray and my new neurosurgeon Dr. White.

Dr White told me to forget about doing anything other than resting.

And for the month of February that is what I did.

And I am better.

Might even try the Stromer in May.


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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Santa Las Vegas

We spent the Christmas Holidays in Santa Monica and Las Vegas this year.

My son was turning 40 and he couldn't decide what he wanted to do.

Venice, New York, Paris?

They are all in Las Vegas.

I have always loved Santa Monica and have never really been to Las Vegas.

It always seemed a little icky to me.

Here is my version of it.

You can google it by searching Michael Osborne and Family do Las Vegas.

The Fireworks at the end are pretty cool.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Doing it Right

It was the last meeting of the Austin City Council of 2014.  There were more than 200 items on the agenda.  And not only was it the last meeting for the year, it was the last meeting for the elected at large system with six council members and a Mayor.  The next time the Council would meet, there would be 10 members, each elected from their district only and a Mayor elected at large.

Of those 10 members, only one would have experience as a council member.

Of all the big issues, and there were a lot, the biggest was the issue of the generation plan for the City.  Back in July, the Generation Task Force had released their report.  Then in August,  Resolution 157 was adopted which embraced many of the Task Force Recommendations.  In response, the Utility, which had earlier indicated that the Recommendations would cost billions, offered a compromise which would accomplish much of the goals in Resolution 157 yet was deemed affordable because of the inclusion of 500 MW gas plant.  This 500 plan became the Utility's new position.

Working with the Utility, the Sierra Club agreed to the basics of the Utility plan with some major important changes and amendments.  The Sierra Club then attempted to smooth their deal with the rest of the broad environmental community and in doing so, improved the plan substantially.  Solar was increased to 950 and a 55% renewable energy target by 2025 was established.

After lots of amendments and drama, the amended plan was passed 6 to 1 with the always unhappy Mayor Leffingwell voting no.

The next day Public Citizen wrote:

New Austin Energy 10-Year Plan is a Step Backward, but Benefited from Community Involvement
The Austin City Council’s vote last night to adopt the Austin Energy Resource, Generation and Climate Protection Plan to 2025 brought to an end a year’s worth of work by numerous advocates and engaged members of the public.

While the result was disappointing, I find myself being immensely grateful for the many people who took time out of their schedules to stand up in support of the strongest renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy storage goals and in opposition to Austin Energy’s continued use of polluting fossil fuels.

Many of the people who we worked side-by-side with over the past year have spent years trying to improve Austin’s energy policies and their past work has been critical in getting us as far as we are now. Others who hadn’t been very involved in energy policy also got engaged. Some had to put in a lot of effort just to get educated on the complex facts that surround energy policy. What united us all was a common belief that not only is a transition to clean, renewable energy sources possible, but that it is the only responsible course of action.
 We joined forces with people and organizations who are concerned about climate change, health impacts of air pollution and water pollution, water use, affordability, and equity. It is clear that when the costs of the many negative impacts of using fossil fuels – including the mining of coal, fracking for gas, and then burning those products – are taken into consideration, clean energy alternatives are by far the better deal. Even without those important costly externalities included in the equation, wind power, solar power, energy efficiency and demand response (strategically reducing energy use at key times) are now all more affordable than energy from a new gas plant.
For all those reasons, we made incredible progress with the policies that the Austin City Council adopted in the Affordable Energy Resolution on August 28. Unfortunately, as a result of losing a big piece of its political cover, Council passed a plan last night (December 11) that rolled back some of those gains and opened the door for Austin Energy to build a big new gas plant.
On the other hand, others saw it in a different light:

Austin adopts generation plan setting big renewable goals
 Mayor Lee Leffingwell votes no, citing cost implications
 Austin Energy plans to phase out two fossil fuel generating plants while more than quadrupling the municipal utility’s solar generation goals to 950 megawatts (MW) under an ambitious plan approved by Austin City Council, 6-1, last night. 
Under the plan, the utility will phase out its Decker natural gas plant and Fayette coal plants while speeding up its renewable energy generation goals by 2025 from 35 percent now to 55 percent. That goal exceeds the highest state goal, Hawaii’s, which is 40 percent for the same year. 
The adopted 2025 Austin Resource Generation Plan powers down Austin Energy’s most polluting fossil fuel plants while setting historic commitments to solar and other renewable energy. It also strengthens commitments to demand response (paying consumers for cutting peak demand energy use) and energy efficiency while starting energy storage investments.
It's hard not to notice that the new gas plant doesn't make the first three paragraphs of this report.

Upon its passage, the plan did not actually OK the gas plant, but it did provide a road map for it.  It was this study that became the most contentious element of the plan and was the most amended.  Activist successfully rebranded it as a gap study....a study to determine how the energy gap from retiring two fossil fuel plants could best be met. Another amendment required the Utility to consider its unique position as both a generator and retailer in its hiring of the consultant.

And it is this study, and the hiring of the consultant who would do the study that is now front and center in the generation plan debate and the action has now moved over to the Electric Utility Commission.

Nora Ankrum's Pioneers or Settlers piece in the Austin Chronicle does a good job of  telling the story. Her story closes:

"Everybody got really excited, upset, etc. about the Gen Plan, but it's a living breathing document that will change," says Reed. With little else guaranteed to happen under the plan in 2015 – aside from the issuance, likely this month, of an RFP for the gas plant study – there may be plenty of time for new rounds of dabbling, perhaps prompted by a brand new Council. Ulti­mate­ly, the plan is not so much about what's written in the document now, but how well it serves as a guidepost in the coming years. As Pipkin says, "It's really a framework of how we value and position energy as a part of our community ethos."

Apparently Act Three is a long one.

"It's important to be a leader not only in the sense of being the first person to do something but the first person to do something right,

Michael Osborne


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