Mike Connor

Extreme Green

The two most abundant elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity; hydrogen can easily be produced in a controllable form from water; and stupidity will either misapply it ... or just plain keep it suppressed.

A heavy metal guitarist named Carl Cella doled out the preceding bit of wisdom back in 1995 in an article about how to run a car on hydrogen extracted from water. He included specific, hand-drawn schematics that looked like they might actually work, but I just don't trust "the madman behind the heavy metal band Rampage" enough to install a homemade reactor in my trunk ... yet.

Fortunately, headbangers aren't the only ones getting lean, mean and green. There's a gaggle of supersmart greenies developing all kinds of cheap, clean sources of energy that have nothing to do with fossil fuels, and that are often much safer than driving around town with a homemade reactor in your trunk.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's credibility on environmental issues is going up in smoke. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that the administration, in an unprecedented move, wants to take away the power of individual states to make their own environmental regulations, superseding them with new -- and weaker -- federal guidelines. What that means is that some of the stricter controls that some states have adopted regarding everything from air quality to clean drinking water are threatened.

Granted, the regulations aren't directly impeding the progress of green technology, but yet another backward stride toward a dirtier environment doesn't say much for the administration's leadership role in a move towards cleaner, more efficient sources of energy -- plus it just sucks.

In the face of this horrendous knuckle-dragging leadership at the national level, greensters are nevertheless pushing forward with all manner of kick-ass environmentally friendly technology. Even conservatives are waking up and smelling the biodiesel. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently exhorted President Bush to "embark on a Manhattan project to increase fuel efficiency and slash the cost of alternative energy sources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Yes, it will take time, but gradually it will make us more secure as a nation, it will shrink the price of oil."

All true, but Friedman doesn't have the luxury of sharing with you all the groovy pie-in-the-sky possibilities of green energy, most of which already exist today. We're talking cars driven around powered by algae, booze, vegetable oil or just plain old water. We're talking about mushrooms to save the world. And yeah, we're talking about plugging a toaster oven -- or a power plant, for that matter -- right into the giant capacitor we call Earth.

Sound impossible? Tell that to a man who carved out his place in history playing with lightning.

A Short Tribute to Nikola Tesla

No, I'm not talking about Thomas Edison, although the Serbian inventor extraordinaire Nikola Tesla did work with Edison as a gofer for a while. But while Edison fathered direct current (DC), Tesla invented the alternating current (AC) that has since become the basis of power as we know it. He also invented radio. Stories of a high-powered death ray with which he accidentally incinerated a huge chunk of forest in Siberia, and of a microwave beam he used to send Nazi submarines into another dimension, are the stuff of legend and are great fodder for fascinating conspiracy theories.

But he is most famous for the visually stunning Tesla coil, the largest of which reportedly created thunder audible from 15 miles away, and discharged 12-million-volt, 100-foot-long electrical sparks. His dream was to create a machine that would produce unlimited amounts of energy, which could be transmitted wirelessly through the earth. Despite many attempts, Tesla never got the funding he needed to give it a go. Even still, he's the unsung hero of a legion of science geeks and conspiracy theorists who believe that Tesla held the key to unlimited free energy.

But without further paranoid or sentimental ado, here are some projects in the works that would make Nicola Tesla proud. It is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a cool one, so enjoy.

Runnin' on Moonshine

WHAT IT IS: If ecologist and alcohol guru "Farmer" David Blume had things his way, we'd all be driving around with a belly full of brandy -- a car belly full of brandy, that is. Some of the earliest combustion engines ran on alcohol, which is virtually pollution-free when it's burned. And with all the subsidized farming surpluses in the Midwest, it's obvious there's a gold mine of potential fuel (corn). Plus, Blume points out that the by-product of alcohol production from corn is a highly concentrated and nutritious feed with which we can fatten up our livestock. Sure, vegetarianism is better for the planet, but even still, the question still remains: Would you like fries with that?

HOW IT WORKS: Booze-powered engines function like gasoline-powered engines, with minor recalibrations to the air/fuel mixture. Older cars can be converted relatively easily (Blume says less than $1,000), but the newer, fuel-injected cars take some doing.

French-Fried Fuel

WHAT IT IS: Biodiesel fuel is about 80 percent vegetable oil, cut with methanol and a dash of lye. Ray Newkirk, a contractor and editor of the Green Press, makes his own biodiesel with used oil he gets from restaurants. A biodiesel seller's permit requires mountains of paperwork and regulation, but biodiesel aficionados make it work by forming co-ops, which aren't regulated. And the feds are foiled again! For now.

HOW IT WORKS: The finished product can go right into any diesel engine. The only modification required is to swap out the old rubber components in older cars with stainless steel or special noncorrosive rubber tubes. The emissions are 90 percent cleaner than standard diesel, and smell like barbecued potatoes. In the event that your local restaurant can't deliver the greasy goods for a while, fear not: Biodiesel is 100 percent compatible with standard diesel, meaning that the engine will run fine on any mixture of the two types of fuel. For more info, Newkirk recommends reading "From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank," by Joshua Tickell, which many consider to be the bible of biodiesel.

The Solar Chimney Power Plant

WHAT IT IS: As you read this, a company called Enviromission Ltd. is searching for a suitable site in Australia on which it plans to erect the highest man-made structure on earth. Simple in its design, the solar chimney is basically just a 3,290-foot-tall greenhouse (nearly 2.5 times as tall as the Sears Tower in Chicago), with a circular base that covers six square miles.

HOW IT WORKS: As the sun shines into the dark, insulated interior, the giant tube collects heat. The hot air rushes ever upward, creating a constant flow of wind that propels wind turbines throughout the tube. This puppy will provide around 500 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year, which can power roughly 200,000 homes. But it sucks because the extra heat captured in the tube actually contributes to global warming (although there are zero greenhouse gas emissions). Smaller-scale models have also proved to be successful, but the concept is most efficient when it's realized on a biblical scale. Some people find the gigantic structures off-putting, but I think those people are just not imagining the entire tube tinted an attractive teal, with cute little swirly designs etched into it.

Guerrilla Solar

WHAT IT IS: OK, so you've got your little solar-powered photovoltaic array in your backyard, but the local power company is dragging its feet when it's time for your refund. For some hardcore solarites, that's their cue to go guerrilla.

HOW IT WORKS: "Net metering" is a logical concept wherein people pumping electricity back into the grid get credit from the electric company for their contributions. According to some solar users, the process is a nightmare of red tape. But with a little illegal finagling, solar users can have their meters spinning backwards in no time! Not that we advocate that sort of thing.

Mushroom Bioremediation

WHAT IT IS: Mushrooms to save the world! According to "renaissance mycologist" Paul Stamets, mushrooms aren't just houses for Smurfs anymore. Besides being a tasty appetizer, some fungi can assist in the decomposition of hazardous waste materials.

HOW IT WORKS: In a recent Salon article, Linda Baker wrote, "In collaboration with several public and private agencies, [Stamets] is pioneering the use of 'mycoremediation' and 'mycofiltration' technologies. These involve the cultivation of mushrooms to clean up toxic waste sites, improve ecological and human health, and in a particularly timely bit of experimentation, break down chemical warfare agents possessed by Saddam Hussein." Just don't expect them to taste good on pizza.

Gusts of Improvement

WHAT IT IS: Anyone who's driven over California's Altamont Pass knows what a wind farm looks like: thousands of wind turbines spinning in unison, hypnotizing vulnerable drivers to do their every bidding.

HOW IT WORKS: The wind (caused by the sun heating the Earth's surface unevenly) generates electricity by turning the turbines of giant windmills. Wind turbine technology has improved in leaps and bounds within the last five years, with some oil companies sinking millions of dollars into turbine research. Over the next 10 years, Exxon-Mobile alone will donate $100 million to a Stanford University renewable energy research project. But before we all start wetting our pants, let's remember that the same company will spend approximately $100 billion on oil development projects in the next 10 years.

Tidal Power

WHAT IT IS: Simply speaking, since the tides are powered by the gravitational pull of the moon, then capturing the natural energy of the tides is like (indirectly) harnessing the power of the moon -- and I totally wrote a poem about that once! Although it involved a loincloth and a flaming chariot, but still ... the point is that there are already plants in France and Canada that are making the moon their bitch.

HOW IT WORKS: The simplest and most common method is the ebb-generating system. Basically, it's just a dam built across a bay, which opens as the tide is coming in, and then closes and traps the accumulated water as the tide moves out. The trapped water then has no choice (sucka!) but to flow back out to sea through energy-generating turbines. It's a clean and simple concept, but it ain't cheap to build, and depending on local geography, the system can adversely affect shoreline ecosystems. Tidal fences and tidal turbines are less obtrusive, and similar to wind turbines in their design, acting like huge, underwater turnstyles to the passing water. All aboard! Except for some marine life, which may be "disrupted" into little pieces by the spinning blades (they're still working on that one).

Wave Goodbye to Energy Woes

WHAT IT IS: Surfers know all too well the awesome power of waves. Some may find a certain poetry in the thought that the same energy that pounded them face-first into the ocean floor can be used to power the portable massager used to soothe aching neck muscles the next day.

HOW IT WORKS: Oscillating water columns, which look a lot like a fireplace and chimney, are situated on the shoreline where the waves crash. The water of an incoming wave rushes into the base, and as the water runs back out, it creates a vacuum effect that draws air through a wind turbine in the chimney (can you say "gravity bong"?). The more friendly-named "salter ducks" are teardrop-shaped buoys anchored offshore, where they are rotated by passing swells to generate energy.

The Hydrogen Economy

WHAT IT IS: Proponents of the so-called "hydrogen economy" (not to be confused with hydrogen bombs, which involve all sorts of nasty nuclear reactions) dream of a time when the hydrogen derived from water will power the world. In a heartening bit of news, the world's first energy station featuring hydrogen and electricity co-production opened in Las Vegas, Nev., last month. And with enough luck at the tables, you just might need that hydrogen to fill up your brand new space shuttle.

HOW IT WORKS: When it's burned as fuel, hydrogen burns cleaner and more efficiently than gasoline. It's also much more dangerous to work with (see: the Hindenberg), but it can be used safely (see: most of the space shuttle flights). Pollution-free fuel cells aboard the shuttle produce on-board electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen. Astronauts drink the only by-product, which just so happens to be water -- perfect for making Tang! Ford and DaimlerChrysler expect to be mass-producing hydrogen-powered cars within five years.

Welcome to Civano

WHAT IT IS: If cookie-cutter housing is a reality that we have to face, at least communities like Civano in Tuscon, Ariz., are making an effort to stay green. Once you get past the weird Stepford Wives feel of overplanning on the website, the Civano model is actually quite commendable for the ant colony that it is.

HOW IT WORKS: Civano homes are designed to use 50 percent less energy than a typical home of the same size. And, simply stated, it's cheaper to get energy-saving materials and designs in bulk for the same reason that buffalo wings are cheaper to buy in a box of 500 from Costco, except without all the indigestion.

Algae Farts

WHAT IT IS: Spirulina is that highly nutritious algae that makes your Odwalla Superfood that funny greenish-blue color. It and other algae produce small amounts of hydrogen as they grow. And then some clever scientists at UC-Berkeley, in conjunction with the Department of Energy, discovered that if you starve it of sulfur and oxygen, it produces even more hydrogen, which can be used for fuel. And speaking of farts (methane gas), landfills produce large quantities of methane, which can be easily converted into hydrogen.

HOW IT WORKS: Metabolism au naturel! Except for the algae starvation part.

Mike Connor is the music calendar editor of Metro Santa Cruz.

Raving Mad

We all know that youth culture has already gone mostly underground. Even the most respected promoters run into trouble putting on anything remotely edgy for the under-21 crowd, and the word "rave" in particular has become a dirty word over the last decade.

But you ain't seen nothing yet. If a couple of extreme pieces of legislation being considered by Congress go through, even that cute little sock hop you've been dreaming about having could end with SWAT teams crashing through windows armed with high-powered odor-eaters and a warrant for your arrest. All because someone at your event was doing drugs -- even if you didn't actually know about it. After you pay a fine in accordance with Title 18 of the United States Code, we'll see ya when you get out of the slammer -- in about nine years or so.

That's an exaggeration of course -- SWAT teams aren't equipped with odor eaters. But the proposed legislation is real, and although it's couched in broader legislation attempting to battle methamphetamine use nationwide, the vague wording and draconian penalties have many promoters worried about the future of live entertainment as a whole.

Meth Mania

The main bill in question is called H.R. 3782, and has one of those annoyingly clever little acronyms -- CLEAN-UP, which stands for Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, Neutralize and Undermine Production of Methamphetamines. If passed, the bill would hold promoters responsible for drug use at their events by amending Section 416A of the federal Control Substances Act to read as follows:

Whoever knowingly promotes any rave, dance, music or other entertainment event, that takes place under circumstances where the promoter knows or reasonably ought to know that a controlled substance will be used or distributed in violation of Federal law or the law of the place where the event is held, shall be fined under title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned for not more than 9 years, or both.

The bill, which already has 66 co-sponsors in the House, was drafted by Congressman Doug Ose (R-Calif.) in response to the growing methamphetamine problem. H.R. 3782 is a comprehensive plan to increase funding to police task forces, educational outreach programs and environmental protection programs.

Ose's press secretary, Yier Shi, says that 80 percent of the country's methamphetamines are produced in Northern California, mostly in Sacramento.

But the bill is also designed to clean up methamphetamine use at entertainment events. Though raves are most commonly associated with ecstasy (and indeed a couple of anti-rave bills target that drug specifically), police also consider them a serious meth problem. According to Shi, police were frustrated by situations where drugs were sold openly at raves.

"Currently if you are knowingly promoting a rave with drug use," Shi says, "the only people who are responsible are the ones with the drugs and the owners of the property."

H.R. 3782 would change all that. Promoters who know or "ought to know" of any type of drug use at their shows -- whether it be meth, ecstasy, marijuana or any other controlled substance for that matter -- will be held criminally responsible for drug possession or use by anyone in attendance.

Granted, there have been cases where event promoters knew of and even promoted drug use at their shows. It's no surprise that they're going to get busted -- they're practically asking for it. But most promoters say they aren't promoting drug use at their events (though it may of course happen anyway); they just want to promote music. This includes everyone from lovey-dovey rave promoters who want everyone to get blissed out on trippy natural highs to the stadium concert promoters who, despite security precautions like mandatory pat-downs, still can't control the actions of every single person in attendance. They're concerned that the language concerning promoters who "reasonably ought to know" about drug use at their shows is alarmingly vague.

Organizations such as the International Association of Assembly Managers -- an industrial trade association composed of more than 3,000 managers of stadiums, arenas, theaters, convention centers, amphitheaters and auditoriums -- are actively opposing the section of the bill quoted above.

In a letter to James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, IAAM attorney Turner D. Madden expresses his concern that the sketchy wording will discourage people from promoting any entertainment events when faced with such broad responsibility and strict penalties.

"It sounds rather ridiculous, but law enforcement officials could charge multiple defendants under Section 416A (the promoter, the arena manager and the others) for one musical event where one instance of drug use occurred at the event because all of them knew or reasonably should have known that one of ten thousand college students would use drugs," writes Madden.

The Enforcement Dilemma

When asked how it's possible to determine which cases should be punished, Shi says, "That's the judgment that law enforcement officers need to make, to prosecute those who knowingly promote drug use."

Not everyone may be comfortable with the thought of police enforcing laws based solely on their own discretion. The truth is, however, it's often a fundamental part of the legislative process. Legal experts say it's routine for the legislature to draft laws using very broad language, which are then refined through appeals. Unhappily, not only do people have to get arrested in the first place for this to happen, but somebody also has to appeal a decision and win, which usually costs money. It's a process that, while seemingly lazy or cowboyish on the surface, is nevertheless typical, considering the endless conceivable circumstances of a given type of crime.

The principal issue in this case, though, is the limits (or lack thereof) of third-party liability. IAMM attorney Madden points out that "it is a well settled principal of law in many states that businesses are generally not liable for the criminal acts of third parties, absence a showing of a special relationship or negligence."

He cites a parallel case regarding premises liability, Noble v. Los Angeles Dodgers, in which two people were attacked on the way to their car in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium. The couple sued the stadium for insufficient security. They won the case, but an appellate court overturned the decision, saying, "It can be said that in this day and age anyone can foresee or expect that a crime will be committed at any time and at any place in the more populous areas of the country. We understand the law still to require that a plaintiff, in order to establish liability, must prove more than abstract negligence unconnected to the injury."

Drug War Draftees

Similarly, it might also be said that in this day and age, anyone can foresee or expect that a joint will be smoked at any time and at any place in the more populous areas of the country. But under this new legislation, promoters of entertainment events will be responsible for the criminal behavior of others, even if they've taken preventative measures.

Some promoters say the bill's meth angle is a sham, while tthers say it's simply unworkable and, more importantly, unfair. Pulse Productions owner Michael Horne points to specific difficulties: "There's a lot of substance use that comes with the business, and it's tough to find the point where you intervene. I host cultural events, just like going to movies. What people do before or after or during these events, I'm not sure how much control or input I should have, because what constitutes reasonable intervention?"

"Why should event promoters suddenly become drug war officers?" asks another event promoter. "Although we try to secure our events as much as we can, it is impossible to control every individual's actions."

"This legislation would make event promoters less likely to allow drug prevention organizations and harm-reduction groups to distribute their information inside an event for fear of self-incrimination," he adds.

H.R. 3782 has recently been referred to four separate committees in the House for review, and a voting date has not yet been determined.

Although he doesn't think they should necessarily be off the hook completely, one Deputy Sheriff Kim Allen sympathizes with the promoters' difficulty of completely eliminating drug use at their events. "I think there's an area of liability with the promoter, but then there's activity which you possibly can't ever abate, at any event. If you can get these drugs in jail, how are you going to keep them out of the general population?

Mike Connor is the music calendar editor at Metro Santa Cruz, where this article originally appeared.