Energy News ArticlesExcerpts of key news articles on energy
Aidan Dwyer, 13, went to the woods and had a eureka moment that could be a major breakthrough in solar panel design. The 7th-grader ... noticed a pattern among tree branches, and determined (as naturalist Charles Bonnet did in 1754) that the pattern represented the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. Aidan wondered why, and figured it had something to do with photosynthesis. In a pretty innovative experiment, this intrepid young scientist set about duplicating an oak tree, comparing its sunlight-capturing abilities to a traditional rooftop solar panel array. He copied the pattern using a computer program, and built an oak tree-shaped solar array out of PVC pipe. He next built a flat-panel array mounted at 45 degrees, like a typical home rooftop array, and attached data loggers to each model to monitor voltage. Aidan's award-winning essay ... walks you through his experiment design and his results. But the short story is that his tree design generated much more electricity - especially ... when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky. At that point, the tree design generated 50 percent more power, without any adjustments to its declination angle. He determined the tree's Fibonacci pattern allowed some solar panels to collect sunlight even if others were in shade, and prevented branches on a tree from shading other branches. Now Aidan is studying other tree species and improving his PVC model to determine how it could be used to make more efficient solar arrays.
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Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed a new flow battery that stores energy in organic molecules dissolved in neutral pH water. This new chemistry allows for a non-toxic, non-corrosive battery with an exceptionally long lifetime and offers the potential to significantly decrease the costs of production. Flow batteries store energy in liquid solutions in external tanks - the bigger the tanks, the more energy they store. Flow batteries are a promising storage solution for renewable, intermittent energy like wind and solar but today’s flow batteries often suffer degraded energy storage capacity after many charge-discharge cycles. The Harvard team was able to engineer a battery that loses only one percent of its capacity per 1000 cycles. “Lithium ion batteries don’t even survive 1000 complete charge/discharge cycles,” said [researcher Michael] Aziz. “Because we were able to dissolve the electrolytes in neutral water, this is a long-lasting battery that you could put in your basement,” said [researcher Roy] Gordon. “If it spilled on the floor, it wouldn’t eat the concrete and since the medium is noncorrosive, you can use cheaper materials to build the components of the batteries, like the tanks and pumps.” The Department of Energy (DOE) has set a goal of building a battery that can store energy for less than $100 per kilowatt-hour. “If you can get anywhere near this cost target then you change the world,” said Aziz.
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Power plant turbines might be getting smaller. The tech is still in its early stages but GE Global Research is developing a turbine that - though only the size of the average desk - could someday power entire towns. The principle behind it could have a big effect on the future of turbine power. Instead of being pushed by steam, like most power plant turbines, the "minirotor" as [steam turbine specialist at GE Global Research Doug] Hofer calls it is pushed by CO2. Not gaseous CO2, or liquid CO2, but CO2 so hot and pressurized that it forms what is called a supercritical fluid, a state of heat and pressure so extreme that the distinctions between liquid and gas basically cease to exist. The tiny turbine's design is intended to harness the power of this specific (and weird) state of matter which could make the turbines as much as 50 percent efficient at turning heat to electricity, a significant improvement over ~45 percent efficient steam turbines. On top of that, these turbines should be relatively easy to spin up or down as demand shifts allowing power plants to more accurately tweak supply on the fly. The prototype design is a 10 MW turbine, though GE hopes to be able to scale the tech to enough to power a city, somewhere in the 500 megawatt range. The first physical tests are scheduled for later this year.
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842 megawatts is ... more than enough to power all the homes in the Denver metro area. It’s also enough to keep about 15 percent of Google’s data centers humming. On Thursday, Google announced that it had finalized contracts to buy 842 megawatts of wind and solar energy from plants in the US, Chile, and Sweden, nearly doubling the company's total clean energy capacity. The contracts ... help to give the energy companies financial stability to be able to build additional clean energy facilities. Renewable energy now provides about 37 percent of the total energy consumed by Google’s data centers worldwide. This purchase is the largest of its kind ever made by a non-utility company, but Google isn’t the only tech giant shifting over to clean energy. One of Facebook’s five data centers is powered entirely by a nearby wind farm, and the company says it plans to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2018. Amazon’s cloud computing division announced last year that its operations would eventually be powered completely by clean energy. And in 2014, Apple announced that all of its offices, stores, and data centers in the US were being powered ... renewable sources. Google was one of 13 large companies that collectively invested more than $140 billion in new clean energy projects in July as part of the American Business Act on Climate Pledge. Apple and Microsoft were also part of the pledge; both companies said their operations would eventually be 100 percent powered by renewable energy.
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A revolution of sorts is brewing in the clean energy field, with the emergence of fusion and "low energy nuclear reaction" (LENR) energy. These processes, unlike fission reactions used in conventional nuclear reactors, need not emit dangerous radiation, nor do they produce radioactive byproducts. The fuel is plentiful and free. One pioneer in LENR is Andrea Rossi, an Italian-American inventor-entrepreneur ... who recently formed a venture to commercially market systems based on an LENR process he has developed. Many are understandably skeptical of Rossi's claims; yet he reports that he has a full-scale working prototype, delivering 1 MWatt continuous net output power, which is already seven months into a one-year acceptance test at a commercial client's site. Several observers have seen the system in operation, and have reported that it is working as claimed. On 25 August 2015, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Rossi a patent for his process. Given the potential importance of these developments, scientifically, economically and environmentally, we have been following progress in this area in earlier Huffington Post articles (HP#1) and (HP#2). "We foresee applications for central heating of commercial buildings, heat production for industrial processes and electric power generation. My dream is for domestic heat and power generation," [said Rossi]. "We have already obtained safety certification for our industrial plants. Domestic systems are still on course in the certification process."
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Some 1.3 billion people worldwide live without electricity, affecting health, lowering incomes, and making education difficult. An increasing number of advocates ... are promoting the use of solar power to [increase] access to clean energy across the globe. Solar is a low-cost energy source in the long run, but it has high initial costs. Some solar manufacturers and energy distributors are helping people skirt these up-front costs through creative financing models. In programs such as these, customers can finance their own solar systems for less than what they would otherwise be spending on kerosene ($40-$80 per year on average). Barefoot College developed a training program for grandmothers, who ... learn how to install, maintain, and repair the solar systems and, upon graduation, receive a monthly salary for their work. Solar Sister trains rural African women in sales and entrepreneurship, empowering them to become active participants in the economy while acknowledging that “women invest 90 percent of their income into their family’s well being.” Lighting a Billion Lives trains local entrepreneurs to manage their own solar charging station, from which they rent out solar lamps for a modest price to the local population. The organization also offers microloans and subsidies to facilitate such entrepreneurship. Grameen Shakti (Bangladesh), SolarAid (Africa), and Kamworks (Cambodia) operate with similar values. In this way, solar companies are ... empowering families [and] communities.
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Arizona’s largest utility company has been at odds with the solar panel industry for years. Now, APS [Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility] is asking the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on solar companies. But they didn’t ask them directly. Six Arizona Congressmen sent letters to federal regulators asking them to investigate solar leasing companies. Reporter Evan Wyloge ... has the original letter and proves it’s actually APS spearheading the effort. Arizona Public Service [is] one of the largest campaign donors for the group of lawmakers. The APS-authored, congressmen-signed letter comes as the latest in an ongoing effort to stymie third-party solar panel companies, whose business has grown tenfold over the past half-decade, presenting a challenge to the long-term business model of traditional utilities like APS. The high-profile fight between the traditional utility and newer rooftop solar panel companies is not unique to Arizona. Similar struggles have emerged in other states. On Nov. 19, Democratic Reps. Ron Barber, Ann Kirkpatrick and Kyrsten Sinema asked [regulators] in a joint letter to ... look into solar panel leasing practices. Then, on Dec. 12, Republican Reps. Trent Franks, Paul Gosar and Matt Salmon sent a similar letter to the FTC. After both letters were sent, the Arizona Corporation Commission voted late in 2014 to open a docket on consumer complaints about solar companies. Initial hearings are expected to begin this spring.
Longmont [Colorado] has become a cautionary tale of what can happen when cities decide to confront the oil and gas industry. In an aggressive response to a wave of citizen-led drilling bans, state officials, energy companies and industry groups are taking Longmont and other municipalities to court, forcing local governments into ... expensive, long-shot efforts to defend the measures. Two years ago, [Longmont] residents voted to ban hydraulic fracturing from their grassy open spaces and a snow-fed reservoir. In Colorado, the energy industry, which argues that cities lack the authority to outlaw fracking, has already won rulings overturning three fracking prohibitions. Longmont, which sits near the juncture of rolling plains and jagged mountains, has spent about $136,000 fighting — unsuccessfully so far — to defend a 2012 measure that outlawed fracking. In July, a district court judge tossed out the ban, and the city is appealing. A judge also overturned a fracking ban last year in Fort Collins, Colo., and denied pleas from the city to keep the ban in place while local officials went to court to defend a five-year fracking moratorium. In Broadview Heights, Ohio, energy companies are suing the town — and residents are suing the energy companies in return — over a bill of rights that outlawed fracking and the disposal of its byproducts. While the Longmont City Council voted unanimously in August to defend the fracking ban, other towns have decided it is just too costly a fight.
Your next commuter car could have two seats, three wheels and get 84 miles to the gallon. Elio Motors wants to revolutionize U.S. roads with its tiny car, which is the same length as a Honda Fit but half the weight. With a starting price of $6,800, it's also less than half the cost. Phoenix-based Elio plans to start making the cars next fall at a former General Motors plant in Shreveport, Louisiana. Already, more than 27,000 people have reserved one. Elio hopes to make 250,000 cars a year by 2016. Because it has three wheels — two in front and one in the rear — the Elio is actually classified as a motorcycle by the U.S. government. But Elio Motors founder Paul Elio says the vehicle has all the safety features of a car, like anti-lock brakes, front and side air bags and a steel cage that surrounds the occupants. Drivers won't be required to wear helmets or have motorcycle licenses. The Elio's two seats sit front and back instead of side by side, so the driver is positioned in the center with the passenger directly behind. The Elio has a three-cylinder, 0.9-liter engine and a top speed of more than 100 miles per hour. It gets an estimated 84 mpg on the highway and 49 mpg in city driving. Elio keeps the costs down in several ways. The car only has one door, on the left side, which shaves a few hundred dollars off the manufacturing costs. Having three wheels also makes it cheaper. It will be offered in just two configurations — with a manual or automatic transmission — and it has standard air conditioning, power windows and door locks and an AM/FM radio. More features, such as navigation or blind-spot detection, can be ordered.
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This week's U.S. air strikes in northern Iraq are being accompanied with an undertow of "it's all about oil" talk. Take for example, Columbia School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll's observation in The New Yorker, that "Obama's defense of Erbil (capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region) is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state." It's no secret that Iraqi Kurdistan has an abundance of oil reserves, nor that U.S. oil companies, like [Chevron] are busy exploring there. Chevron has three "production sharing contracts" with the Kurdish government, covering a combined 444,000 acres, north of Irbil, where it's in the early testing and drilling stage. And it likes what it sees. Asked for an update, a Chevron spokesman said Monday, "We continue monitoring the situation. We remain in regular contact with the Kurdistan Regional Government and are dedicated to supporting the (Kurdistan Region of Iraq) in developing its natural resources." A potentially bigger worry for both Chevron and the Kurds .. could be if Iraq did stabilize and unite, with Kurdistan under its umbrella. For Chevron ... a new arrangement in Iraq could entail the renegotiation of contracts it has with the Kurds, which by the way, Baghdad refused to recognize. Kurdistan's oil pipeline via Turkey continues to pump out oil - 120,000 barrels per day.
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Energy companies are fracking for oil and gas at far shallower depths than widely believed, sometimes through underground sources of drinking water, according to research released [on August 12] by Stanford University scientists. Fracking involves high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to crack geological formations and tap previously unreachable oil and gas reserves. Fracking fluids contain a host of chemicals, including known carcinogens and neurotoxins. Fears about possible water contamination and air pollution have fed resistance in communities around the country. Fracking into underground drinking water sources is not prohibited by the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempted the practice from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But the industry has long held that it does not hydraulically fracture into underground sources of drinking water because oil and gas deposits sit far deeper than aquifers. The study, however, found that energy companies used acid stimulation ... and hydraulic fracturing in the Wind River and Fort Union geological formations that make up the Pavillion gas field and that contain both natural gas and sources of drinking water. “Thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and millions of gallons of fluids containing numerous inorganic and organic additives were injected directly into these two formations during hundreds of stimulation events,” concluded Dominic DiGiulio and Robert Jackson of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences.
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In a quiet announcement that has sent shockwaves through the scientific world, NASA has cautiously given its seal of approval to a new type of “impossible” engine that could revolutionize space travel. In a paper published by the agency’s experimental Eagleworks Laboratories, NASA engineers confirmed that they had produced tiny amounts of thrust from an engine without propellant – an apparent violation of the conservation of momentum; the law of physics that states that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. NASA’s engineers have tested an engine known as a ‘Cannae Drive’, a machine [that] uses electricity to generate microwaves, bouncing them around inside a specially designed container that theoretically creates a difference in radiation pressure and so results in directional thrust. In an ordinary engine the rocket moves forward as fuel is flung backwards - the momentum of the rocket (a measure of both its mass and velocity combined) is 'conserved' because it is moved from the rocket to the fuel. However, with the Cannae Drive there is no fuel - the microwaves aren't expelled from the engine. NASA’s scientists tested a version of the drive designed by US scientist Guido Fetta and found that the propellantless engine was able to produce between 30 and 50 micronewtons of thrust – a tiny amount (0.00003 to 0.00005 per cent of the force of an iPhone pressing down when held in the hand) but still a great deal more than nothing.
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Last week ... the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day. For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar. “Negative pricing” moves, as they are known, are not uncommon. But they are only supposed to happen at night, when most of the population is mostly asleep, [and] demand is down That's not supposed to happen at lunchtime. Daytime prices are supposed to reflect higher demand, when people are awake, office buildings are in use, factories are in production. That's when fossil fuel generators would normally be making most of their money. The influx of rooftop solar has turned this model on its head. The impact has been so profound, and wholesale prices pushed down so low, that few coal generators in Australia made a profit last year. Hardly any are making a profit this year. State-owned generators like Stanwell are specifically blaming rooftop solar. The problem for Australian consumers [comes] in the cost of delivery of [electricity] through the transmission and distribution networks, and from retail costs and taxes. This is the cost which is driving households to take up rooftop solar, in such proportions that the level of rooftop solar is forecast ... to rise sixfold over the next decade. Households are tipped to spend up to $30bn on rooftop modules. It is not clear how centralised, fossil-fuel generation can adapt. In an energy democracy, even free coal has no value.
The energy world is not keeping up with Elon Musk, so he's trying to take matters into his own hands. Musk, chairman of the solar installer SolarCity, announced [on June 17] that the company would acquire a solar panel maker and build factories "an order of magnitude" bigger than the plants that currently churn out panels. Musk is also a founder and the CEO of the electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors, which is planning what it calls a "gigafactory" to supply batteries for its cars. In both cases, Musk's goal is to make sure that the components critical to his vision of the future — electric cars and solar energy — are available and cheap enough to beat fossil fuels. Musk's future customer could ignore traditional energy companies completely. They'd have SolarCity panels on their roof that would generate enough power [to] charge up a Tesla [car] in the garage. A Tesla battery could then power the home at night with stored solar power. Musk has made a career of thinking far into the future. He is also the CEO of SpaceX, the rocket company with an ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. SolarCity says it won't try to turn out more of the garden-variety panels now clogging the market. Instead, it wants to make panels that are more efficient, and make them at a low cost in huge factories in order to reduce the overall cost of solar electricity. Just as he drew customers to electric vehicles by making sleek, fast sports cars, Musk wants to attract homeowners to solar with pretty panels. "We want to have a cool-looking aesthetically pleasing solar system on your roof," he said.
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Open source is going commercial. Once an esoteric philosophy that called for people around the world to collectively create and give away software, Silicon Valley is increasingly embracing the open source ethos as a way to make money. To expand the small market for electric cars, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk this week said he would share the company's technology with competitors. He follows industry leaders like Google, which has long allowed outside companies to customize its mobile operating system at no charge. Even Facebook is extolling the virtues of open source, which enables outside programmers to spot security flaws and helps preserve a spirit of innovation. As defined by the Open Source Initiative, the phrase ... means people not only can access and modify software code but redistribute it for free. The valley is starting to sense that enforcing patents doesn't always make sense. "Patents are so incompatible with the open source software philosophy," said Daniel Nazer, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That's Musk's mantra. The Tesla CEO didn't decide to give away his company's technology because he is a nice guy. Instead, Musk realized that electric cars won't gain mass acceptance if he is the only one making them. "Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport," Musk said this week. "If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property land mines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal."
Electric car manufacturer Tesla has confirmed that it will be opening up its patents to other manufacturers in order to boost the adoption and technological development of electric cars. Tesla’s billionaire founder Elon Musk said that the decision had been made “in the spirit of the open source movement” and “for the advancement of electric vehicle technology”. “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal,” wrote Musk in a blog post announcing the move. Tesla's first electric car has been launched this month in the UK. The Tesla Model S, a luxury saloon car priced between Ł50,000 and Ł100,000, has a range of 300 miles and will be supported by a fledgling network of Tesla's 'supercharger' stations. Musk notes that there is a global fleet of some 2 billion cars with 100 million new vehicles added to this every year, and that if electric cars are to help address the carbon crisis they must be produced in far greater volumes than they are currently. In comparison Tesla only sold 22,500 Model S cars in 2013 and even the best-selling all-electric vehicle (the Nissan Leaf) has only sold 100,00 units. “Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day,” wrote Musk. “We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.”
In an almond orchard outside Turlock in the Central Valley, two large tanks hold water, minerals - and more importantly, energy. The tanks ... are part of a "flow battery" that stores energy from nearby solar panels. It's the largest battery of its kind in the world. And it could play a role in California's push to develop bigger and better ways to store large quantities of energy. This particular flow battery ... was built by EnerVault of Sunnyvale, part of the Bay Area's fast growing energy-storage industry. Like most of its competitors, EnerVault is young, founded in 2008, with about $30 million in venture funding to date. Some companies try to perfect the lithium-ion batteries found in laptops and electric cars. Others, including EnerVault and Primus Power of Hayward, specialize in flow batteries, which store energy in tanks of electrolytes. The fluid is then pumped through the battery's cells when power is needed. In contrast, the batteries found at a grocery store contain the electrolyte, cathode and anode all in one package. "Flow batteries are batteries turned inside out," said Jim Pape, EnerVault's chief executive officer. His company's flow batteries use iron and chromium, blended into the water inside its tanks. Both materials are safe to handle. Iron and chromium also have the benefit of being cheap. "That's our special sauce," Pape said. "Iron and chromium are very, very abundant, and abundance equals low cost."
Germany has set an ambitious goal: to run its economy almost entirely on renewable energy by 2050. The energy push, known as the Energiewende, or energy transformation, is often compared in scope to the country’s postwar reconstruction. It will require wide-ranging changes in German society — not just in energy supply but in architecture and agriculture, urban planning, and economic markets. Treading onto this unknown territory, Germany has called on its universities to help make the transformation work. While Germany is supporting university research into solar power and other clean energy, perhaps the biggest innovation in higher education is how the Energiewende has triggered the creation of new interdisciplinary approaches, pushing institutions to develop new courses, degrees and departments. Green technology is not necessarily where the breakthroughs need to happen, said Karl-Friedrich Ziegahn, head of the renewable energy department at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’s School of Energy. In terms of the transformation, Germany’s biggest challenges today, he said, “are socioeconomic in nature: public awareness, cost and community involvement.” Germany has already made enormous strides in clean energy generation. In roughly a decade, it has expanded its green power supply to account for a quarter of its electricity — which is twice the United States’ share of renewables. On especially sunny and windy days, when wind farms and solar parks churn out power at peak volume, more than two-thirds of the country’s electricity needs are covered by renewables.
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At long last, the Koch brothers and their conservative allies in state government have found a new tax they can support. Naturally it’s a tax on something the country needs: solar energy panels. For the last few months, the Kochs and other big polluters have been spending heavily to fight incentives for renewable energy, which have been adopted by most states. They particularly dislike state laws that allow homeowners with solar panels to sell power they don’t need back to electric utilities. So they’ve been pushing legislatures to impose a surtax on this increasingly popular practice, hoping to make installing solar panels on houses less attractive. Oklahoma lawmakers recently approved such a surcharge at the behest of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative group that often dictates bills to Republican statehouses and receives financing from the utility industry and fossil-fuel producers, including the Kochs. [The] group is trying to repeal or freeze Ohio’s requirement that 12.5 percent of the state’s electric power come from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025. Twenty-nine states have established similar standards that call for 10 percent or more in renewable power. These states can now anticipate well-financed campaigns to eliminate these targets or scale them back. The coal producers’ motivation is clear: They see solar and wind energy as a long-term threat to their businesses.
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Of all our daily human activities, what we eat has perhaps the largest direct impact on the environment. Agriculture uses an estimated 70 percent of global freshwater to grow our food, and in the U.S., 22 percent of all our energy use is gobbled up by the food system. [In addition], the agriculture sector produces about a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases. A common myth is that the food system uses so much fossil fuel because we ship food around the globe. [But] our addiction to “convenience foods” uses far more. From the making of fertilizer [to] running your refrigerator, the food system uses an enormous amount of energy. Not only are most of those fast and packaged foods higher in sugar and lower on nutrients. They are also wasting valuable energy resources. ‘Conventional’ food uses far more energy than organic [food does]. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2007, U.S. agriculture used more than a billion pounds of pesticides. The USDA also reports farmers used 22 million tons of synthetic fertilizer in 2011. The amount of energy used to create synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (more than 13 million tons) could heat 5.5 million homes for a year. Junk food wastes money and precious resources. In 2013, Americans drank close to 39 gallons of soda per person (at a cost of about $150 per person), and in 2011, roughly 25 percent of the calories we consumed came from snack foods. And yet we willingly pay 1000 times more for that can of soda then what it actually costs. It turns out, it is not organic food that is the rip off.
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