Orion Blog, page 2

Concrete Progress: The Fifth Mode of Transport

A rendering of the Hyperloop's passenger pod and elevated track. Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

A rendering of the Hyperloop’s passenger pod and elevated track. Courtesy of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies.

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


When I lived in Santa Cruz, California, sometimes I’d drive to Los Angeles. It took a solid six hours. With something called the Hyperloop, I could have done it in thirty-five minutes.

I’ve been excited to share the Hyperloop with you since I started writing this column. It is, in my estimation, nothing less than the most innovative, futuristic subject in all of infrastructure. The Hyperloop will be the fifth mode of transport, after planes, trains, cars, and boats. It will be the biggest leap in transportation since the Wright Brothers. It will truly change the world. If it works.

Here is the basic idea: Think of a pair of metal tubes, about seven feet across, with the air pumped out to create near-vacuum conditions. The expected pressure in the tubes is 0.015 pounds per square inch (psi); ordinary air pressure at sea level is 14.7 psi. A pod full of people will start down a tube (one tube will take people north, the other south) and, with minimal air resistance, zip along at speeds above 750 miles per hour. The pod will ride on a cushion of air, much like a puck on an air-hockey table. The front of the pod will have a large fan that sucks in air, pushing some of it out the back, circulating some inside the pod, and using some of it to help the pod levitate. This will cut air resistance to hardly anything, so travel will demand very little energy once things start moving. (The system’s most important energetic demand will be pumping air out of the tube to maintain low pressure.) The tubes will stand on pylons, so land uses beneath and around the route won’t have to change. Solar panels on top of the tubes will produce all the energy the system needs. The pair of tubes would follow existing highways, for minimal disruption and maximum efficiency—if they have to turn a lot, the pods will only do about three hundred miles per hour, so sites along straight roadways are probably best for them.

The idea of the Hyperloop belongs to busy futurist Elon Musk, who is clearly a benevolent visitor from some more advanced planet, and who has already given us PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. Musk saw the plans for California’s long-debated high-speed train system and found them pitiful. In 2013, he and some colleagues put together a white paper laying out their vision for the Hyperloop. Musk estimates that the Hyperloop plan would cost a small fraction of the proposed train’s price tag and be much, much faster and more efficient. The only mode of transportation as remotely energy efficient would be—as Musk self-servingly but accurately notes—a Tesla Model S. Which would still take six hours to get from San Francisco to LA.

Now, I am not an engineer. The Hyperloop may fail due to technological problems that I cannot diagnose. But, while there are some concerns (heat in the tube, for instance), I have found no convincing argument for why the technology won’t work. The task now is to build it, and that effort is very much underway.

For several reasons, the SF–LA route is the focus of Musk’s white paper: the bullet train proposal, the fact that Musk lives in California, the ready-made customer base—six million people drive between the two cities every year. But the most compelling reason, to me, is that driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles is slow-cooked despair. At either end of the journey there is vile, crazy-making traffic, and in between you roll down a section of I-5 that contains mono-cultured farms and lung-scouring smog, with only the occasional rural slum and anti-environmental billboard to break the monotony. It always seems unbelievable that two of the world’s most dynamic cities, in one of the country’s most beautiful states, are connected through such desolation, but that is, in fact, the case.

But if the Hyperloop is not yet real, why write about it? Well, last year was a big year for the Hyperloop’s transition from an alien idea to a physical reality. A group called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), is forging ahead and preparing to build a test track in Quay Valley, California. Its engineers do this work more or less in their spare time in exchange for future stock and glory. This past summer HTT announced a partnership with some of the most prestigious engineering firms in the world. SpaceX is running a pod-designing competition, which, if all goes to plan, will send pods zipping through a tube sometime next year. It’s important to note here that while Elon Musk got the ball rolling (or the pod going), he’s not actually involved in building the Hyperloop—he just wants to encourage it. HTT is building components of the eventual loop and pods. This is happening.

Fast forward five years. The test track works, the pod works, and the first functioning Hyperloop gets built—say, LA to San Diego in fifteen minutes. Once the line is established and people are whizzing back and forth day after day, surely every other part of the country will want one. It will change everything about the way Americans travel. You could work in Minneapolis and live in Chicago. You could live in Portland and have season tickets to Seattle Mariners’ games. You could live in Toronto and date someone from Montreal. Suddenly, we would live not so much in cities or counties as in regions. There would be far fewer cars on our highways and far less carbon in the atmosphere. The Hyperloop will allow more and more people to live where they want instead of moving reluctantly for work. It will keep families and friends connected throughout their lives.

Assuming that the technology works and tickets are not too expensive (Musk estimates twenty dollars), I think the only problem would be public acceptance. This is truly a new thing under the sun; people will not quite know what to think about it. It will change the psychology of distance, much as trains did. Once upon a time, horses and sailing ships were just as strange and revolutionary. I hope the Hyperloop works.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 

Concrete Progress: Cow Power

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


Here’s the Vermontiest story you’ve ever heard. Green Mountain Power (GMP), the biggest utility in that state, is making electricity out of cow manure.

Vermont, for those who haven’t been there, is a state that prides itself on being rural and traditional and artisanal—and also creative and progressive and environmental. It wants you to feel that Robert Frost lives around the corner from the Ben and Jerry’s factory, and that it’s always autumn and always ski season and also always maple-sugaring time. And I have to say, Vermont succeeds: look at the rise of Hill Farmstead and the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders. As they say these days, its brand is strong. So I was not surprised, as I drove through the state in August, to see a GMP vehicle with cow power on its side. Vermont is the ideal place to find renewable energy in bullshit.

The story began in the early 1980s, when a few innovative Vermont farmers started to use digesters to consume their cows’ manure. After seeing that these worked pretty well, Norman Audet, of Blue Spruce Farm, began to wonder whether he might be able to get power from the waste that his dairy cows produced day after day after smelly, smelly day. The Central Vermont Public Service Corporation (which later merged into GMP) studied the situation and cobbled together funding. By 2005, Audet’s cows were producing electricity.

Here is how Cow Power works. First, the cows poop—the average dairy cow produces about thirty gallons of waste a day. The manure is collected and put into a digester, essentially a big, covered concrete tub. The tub is kept warm, about 101 degrees, to mimic the temperature inside a cow and allow digestion to continue. (Cow digestion is not 100 percent efficient, so the manure still has stomach bacteria in it.) Digestion takes three weeks. The manure releases methane—natural gas—and leaves behind a mix of liquid and solid waste. The methane runs a generator, much like the landfill gas I wrote about last year. The generator’s excess heat—I thought this was really cool—maintains the cow-stomach temperature in the digester. The leftover liquid waste makes for good fertilizer, and the dry waste, now odor free, makes perfect bedding for the cows. In the old days, farms could bed their cows on sawdust from the local sawmill, but as many of Vermont’s mills have closed, bedding has come to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year for many farms. With Cow Power, farms produce their own, for free. Blue Spruce Farm, as one example, would have to buy a fifty-three-foot trailer of sawdust every week without Cow Power.

How do farmers get this system running? GMP’s project coordinator connects interested farmers with federal, state, and utility incentives. These allow them to buy and install the digester, generator, and other equipment. The incentives amount to about 45 percent of the total cost; the farmer borrows the rest.

Once the generator’s up and running, GMP puts a four-cent/kilowatt-hour premium on the power, which power users can choose to pay. People and businesses that want to support the dairies pay this premium on top of their ordinary electricity bill. The money goes straight to the farmers. Obviously this makes power more expensive, but the extra charge only amounts to about six dollars a month for the average Vermont household. With the four-cent surcharge, the farmers can pay back their investment in six or seven years.

When Vermonters pay the Cow Power premium, they’re also paying for better water and air quality, a little less greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and a lot less manure odor. (I’ve lived in rural Vermont, and I’d pay six bucks a month to avoid that last part alone.) And they’re also paying to support their farming neighbors and to maintain the rural character of the state. Most of the customers who buy Cow Power belong to ordinary households, but the program has also had a lot of buy-in from Vermont businesses, like Woodchuck Cider and Killington ski resort, which get to support their fellow Vermonters while simultaneously becoming more sustainable by using hyper-local power. I am drinking, right now, as I type this, a bottle of Woodchuck Granny Smith cider. I felt it important to do my part.

When Central Vermont Public Service began the program, part of its goal was to build up a form of renewable energy that fit Vermont—and by tapping agricultural waste as a fuel source, they’ve succeeded. As a damp, temperate, wooded state, solar and wind have less potential there than they do in Wyoming or Arizona. By now, Cow Power has expanded to thirteen farms, serving three thousand customers. It could easily go further: there are almost a thousand dairies in Vermont, and the extra income and savings from the program may help them endure when the price of milk is low. GMP (which has a variety of farm-centered sustainable energy programs) is looking to build a similar program in which it would partner with a farm by installing and maintaining generators and selling power; in return it would give farmers the benefits of bedding, fertilizer, and odor reduction.

The idea can work, of course, wherever there are cows. There are digesters and generators running on dairy farms from British Columbia to Indiana. It makes me wonder if Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, our enormous factory farms, could use their horrible lagoons of cow manure to create power—one such CAFO pumps out more waste in a year than a big city. On an even larger note, turning livestock poop into power could help save the world’s forests. In the developing world, subsistence-farming families often rely on wood to heat their homes and cook their food, but with a digester/generator system, their pig or water buffalo may be all they need. Perhaps Vermont is the future after all.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 

“Sensing Place”: A New Exhibition at the Clark Art Institute


The Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a longtime neighbor and friend to Orion, for reasons of both location—it’s a short (and beautiful) drive north of our office in the Berkshires—and mission. For over fifty years, the Clark has been a home for visual art that explores the connections between nature, culture, and place. A new exhibition, open through October 10, investigates a landscape in flux.

A landscape is more an event than a thing, a confluence of life cycles, organic and inorganic, that overlap in time. Seasons change; living things emerge, reproduce, and die; natural and human actions reshape the topography. In an instant, what was is no longer.

As globalism and virtual technology redefine our once-fixed sense of physical and cultural order, an exhibition at the Clark asks us to consider the meaning of place and our relationship to it. “Sensing Place” takes as its focus an aggregate of pasture and woodlands called Stone Hill that rises just over 1,000 feet at the south end of the Clark campus. Both a scenic view from the museum and a point of view over the surrounding Taconic and Green mountain ranges, it is an upland nature refuge traversed by well-used hiking trails that touch upon the residential neighborhoods surrounding it.

What Stone Hill appears to be today, however, is only the present moment in a 500-million-year period of flux that is still in play. As the exhibition illustrates in maps, objects, time-lapse photos, and videos, this pastoral landscape is an arena of relentless competition among living things for space and sustenance. It is shaped by endless geological shifts and changes in climate.

Organized by Mark C. Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia University, and Henry W. Art, professor of biology and environmental studies at nearby Williams College—both of whom live on Stone Hill’s slopes—the exhibition could have simply been a display of archaeological artifacts. And to some casual viewers it will be. But it is the reflections in wall texts or audio-guide narratives by historians, naturalists, scientists, artists, and philosophers, many associated with Williams, that bring it to life with penetrating, often artful insights:

  • An artist counts multiple human lifespans in the growth rings of a buckthorn tree; a biologist observes birds marking their territories not by physical barriers, but by songs and calls.
  • A historian reflects on the cataclysmic geological shifts 500 million years ago that created mountains here as high as the Alps, now eroded to Stone Hill size.
  • A local farmer describes his family’s long history in agriculture here and how the “side plow,” developed in 1875, allowed for the advance of contouring furrows on the slopes to prevent erosion.
  • Viewers can follow the purposeful tracks of a raccoon, ponder a rifle that killed more than 100 bears and learn how a beaver family created a vibrant wetland through dam building—only to have it revert to meadow once the rodents abandoned their engineering project.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert exhibits monolithic soil borings from diverse localities on Stone Hill and ponders the impact global warming may have years hence, as curator Henry Art, the biologist, envisions communities of wildflowers taking turns at life in the annual cycle of seasons. And his curatorial colleague Mark Taylor ponders a cow skull and how bones become records of our lives before vanishing to nothingness.

Whether this tapestry of processes is guided by a supreme intelligence or is mindlessly self-sustaining—and whether globalism and virtual realty are upward trends or downward spirals—are left to the viewer to decide. For Taylor, who once made a study of the final resting places of famous people and has already planned his own (near Stone Hill), the answer is: “What has no place is not.”

Charles Bonenti is a freelance art and architecture critic based in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Concrete Progress: No Driver, No Problem

A promotional still from Google's driverless car project. (No, we're kidding -- that's below.)

A promotional still from Google’s driverless car project. (No, we’re kidding—that’s below.)

Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.


Suddenly, my rear wheels slid on a patch of snow, sending me into the oncoming lane. My Camry spun across the road, tipped over the shoulder, and started to pinball through the trees down the hill. I was sure I was going to die. I didn’t, though—a manzanita bush caught my rear bumper and I sat shaking in the driver’s seat, looking straight up at the sky. I’d been going too fast, getting too casual, and that was why I ended up spinning off the road. It was my fault.

Most of the truly frightening moments in my life have occurred while riding in a car, and I bet yours have too. Almost one hundred Americans die in car accidents every day, and the majority of car accidents, at least 90 percent, come from human error. But still we drive, filling the roadways (86 percent of workers go to work in a car, truck, or van, most of them driving alone) and taking our lives in our hands—not to mention burning hundreds of millions of gallons of fossil fuel. You could argue that people shouldn’t drive cars. Soon, we won’t.

In the near future, our cars will drive themselves. Some of them already do. My daughter—she just turned two—might look at her own children and shake her head as she tells them how, in 2016, their grandparents drove her around themselves. The elimination of 90 percent of automobile accidents will transform travel. No drunk driving, no sleepy driving, no road rage, no texting at the wheel, no speeding in the snow. The personal/economic/cultural/social benefits are obvious too—we’ll be able to work, or read books, or catch up on sleep during the commute. Age, blindness, and other physical disabilities will no longer force people to spend their days at home or rely on a chauffeur. The environmental benefits of self-driving cars are potentially just as transformative.

Driverless cars will burn far less fuel than conventional automobiles. A few years down the road, when car accidents are relatively rare, automakers will do away with the heavy, bulky things that human drivers require for safety—steel frames, for instance—and cars will subsequently become vastly more fuel efficient. The other advance in fuel efficiency will come from cars knowing where other cars are without requiring visual cues, as human drivers do, to judge one another’s behavior. This will let them save fuel in many ways: from drafting on one another like cyclists (this alone can reduce fuel use by 20 percent), to shutting off the engine in traffic jams (or not getting into them at all), to simply parking efficiently. In some cities, 40 percent of total gas use comes from people trying to find parking, which is one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever heard.

The second big environmental benefit of driverless cars comes from slimming down infrastructure. To cope with how bad people are at driving their cars, we have stoplights and rumble strips and concrete dividers and enormous shoulders and parking lots the size of Delaware (they cover a third of the acreage in some cities!), all of which we build and maintain at great financial and environmental cost. KPMG, a big consulting firm that has put together a terrific and very readable report, estimates savings of $7.5 billion a year in infrastructure spending. Over time, the new paradigm could remove millions of tons of concrete from the landscape. Imagine the potential for ecological restoration as we tear up concrete and convert what are now car lanes to human-powered transport. Imagine a dedicated bike lane, once known as “the passing lane,” the entire way along I-90.

The main advantage, though, is that there will be many, many fewer cars on the road—70 percent fewer, according to one expert, with even greater impacts in urban areas. At present, our cars can’t go without us, so they sit unused 90 percent of the time, like microwaves or lawn mowers. A driverless car can give people rides while its owner is at work or asleep, turbocharging the sharing economy by allowing many people—especially poorer people or those who live in dense areas—to rent or own shares of a car rather than buy their own. Zipcar, among others, is already doing this sort of thing, but is hampered by having to use normal cars. Fleet ownership by car-sharing businesses will probably mean better maintenance, too, with the efficiency and safety benefits that that implies.


Some worry about driverless cars’ impact on sprawl—won’t they enable people to live far from work? They might, but in this way they’re not very different from hybrids. While driverless cars will make a two-hour commute easier, they will not make it desirable to spend hours in a metal box, and I would be shocked if they pushed, say, Atlanta, or Mexico City, out much farther. No one wants to spend four hours a day in transit, and many people want to live in vibrant city centers.

Now, computer-driven cars can make people nervous, and understandably so. We’ve all had our computers crash on us; I’ve even seen someone dress up as Apple’s rainbow pinwheel of death for Halloween. A crash in (or hack of) the steering program, for example, would be utterly terrifying, and the biggest challenge I imagine for this system (other than political resistance) is the socio-cultural backlash after the first bad accident. But computers are much better at computing than people are at driving—your car is already run largely by computers. On that snowy commute of mine, my Camry, with data on just how much friction there was between tires and snow, would have gotten me to work on time. My main concern with driverless cars, honestly, is of a panicked person overriding his car’s driving program and getting into an accident on his own.

The biggest driverless project that I’ve heard of comes from our friendly masters at Google, who, along with running the world, have been putting specially designed autonomous cars on the road (with backup drivers, just in case) for the last six years. The cars have sensors that allow them to accurately read the area around them all the way down (claims Google) to “seeing” shopping bags blowing in the street at a range of two hundred yards. Google’s cars are ridiculously cute—like a combination of R2D2 and Thomas the Tank Engine. They have driven 1.9 million miles, and there have been zero accidents while the cars drove themselves. (The total accident tally? Fourteen, eleven of which were rear-enders by a human-driven car. It’s been suggested that these humans were on their phones at the time.) Obviously these cars are not yet being driven in the most challenging of conditions—but the networking effects that will make driverless cars that much better aren’t in place, either.

There’s more. Just this month, Uber announced that it will receive a fleet of driverless vehicles. This is a natural next step, partly because much of the expertise that has pushed this technology forward emerged from Carnegie Mellon, which entered into a collaboration with the ride-sharing app back in 2015. If you live in Pittsburgh, where the university and something called the Uber Advanced Technology Center are located, you may, as soon as you’ve finished this column, be able to order up an autonomous vehicle and go see a Pirates game. If you’re nervous, never fear—the cars will have human attendants to make sure that they don’t make mistakes.

So, we’re doing this. Legislatures are debating how to regulate driverless cars. Futurists are ecstatic. Insurance companies and emergency room doctors, surely, cannot wait. Some people will be sad; America is a car culture, and many people love driving. There will always be some who drive, just as there are still some who ride antique bicycles. But we may see—I think we will see—a future full of much safer and cleaner transport options.

There’s a ton of great information out there about driverless cars. Some good places to look, beyond what’s linked in the story:

Google’s website dedicated to self-driving cars.
The Oatmeal’s typically enjoyable description of riding with Google.
The Economist’s intelligent analysis.

Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. A professor of environmental studies at Wofford College, he is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments. 

Coming Soon: The Summer & Fall 2016 Double Issue of Orion

An issue of Orion on press.

As summer’s heat peaks and falls away, it feels natural to pull together the things that’ve grown during the season of growing – whether they’re fruits and vegetables, stories and memories, or writing and art. It’s in that spirit of harvest that we’re excited to announce the next issue of Orion, a special double issue of the magazine, containing the journalism, essays, poems, and visual art that have germinated and come to fruition during the long, hot days of summer.

In the coming weeks, check your mailbox, your favorite bookstore, and our website for the next, special issue of Orion, in which you’ll find a collection of voices discussing the intersection of race and the centennial of the National Park Service; a report from an indigenous community in Panama making bold moves in the face of climate change; an essay on the unexpected communities of motherhood; images of the dinosaurs of Manhattan; and much, much more.

For those who’ve been eagerly awaiting the next issue, we thank you for your patience, and for those who’ve just discovered Orion, we can’t wait to share the summer’s bounty with you.