Saturday, June 28, 2008

refrigeration without electricity

There are extraordinary inventions happening in the world.

Adam Grosser, engineer and venture capitalist, was captivated by the problem of refrigeration (necessary for live saving vaccines, and food safety) in a world where nearly a quarter of the people have no access to electricity. So he brought together some of the brightest minds in physics to come up with an inexpensive and elegant solution.

This is just one of the great ideas that TED works to spread world-wide.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Less is more: More on the personal scale

I met with my pastor a couple of weeks ago to talk about starting a green ministry. He asked me if he should buy a hybrid car. I told him that in his situation, I wouldn’t.
This reminded me that I’ve heard a number of friends, and a family member or two talk about buying a hybrid for commuting to work. Like many people, they don’t really understand the hybrid technology or the situations in which it creates a benefit. In fact, I find a great many well-meaning people who have had the “green-living aha!” seem to think that all we have to do is swap-in a bunch of CFLs, trade-in the family car for a hybrid, and then we can all get back to doing whatever the hell it is that we do. As a group, we’re missing the point.
While to some extent it is easy being green, the real trick is in thinking green and shifting that thinking into the way we live. This is what I’ve (inartfully) tried to express in my last couple of posts. We need to make resource conservation as important as managing our finances or having a job. This needs to be part and parcel to our social contract with our families, friends, and neighbors.
The mindset that drives a resource-conservative lifestyle means understanding what is useful, what is valuable, and what we really want. It also means understanding how things work- both human made things and natural things- and seeing costs. It means being less self-centered.
Rather than looking merely at replacing a few products with more resource-conservative ones, we need to think about how we live and how we achieve what we want. Instead of (or in addition to) buying a hybrid car to reduce fuel consumption during a 45-minute daily commute, we should strive to live close to work. Instead of expecting the exact same products will be sold all over the country and all over the world, we should recognize that Omaha is geographically, culturally, and ecologically different from Orlando, Oakland, Ottawa, and Odessa, and so will be many of the things we consume there. Living in a way that naturally reduces the demand for resources and minimizes waste is much more effective than trying to create technological quick fixes.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Less is more: First steps at the personal scale

In my last post, I brought up energy independence in pursuit of a sustainable energy economy. I don’t care to dwell at this time on activity at the big scales- the national and regional levels- not only because this becomes ponderously abstract, but because these scales focus on someone else doing most of the thinking and work, while everyone else sleeps through the changes. Besides, as Messrs. McCain and Obama begin to do what politicians do, the broader scales will get plenty of attention.
While a roughly sustainable energy economy will require a sea change in peoples’ thinking, there are opportunities everywhere to make simple personal choices that contribute to energy independence, such as:
In a typical home, unplugging devices that aren’t in use is a good way to save energy. Most electronics and appliances draw-down some current, even if turned off. CRT televisions actually draw a fairly large amount when not in use. Plugging groups of devices into a surge protector can achieve a similar effect, and allows you to simply flip a switch to “unplug” several devices. A little over a year ago, my wife and I spent about $30 on surge protectors, and immediately experienced a 5%-10% drop in our monthly electricity bill.
Don’t buy things you don’t want or need. This may sound obvious, but it’s worth stating. Just about everyone makes pointless purchases every now and then. If you look around your home and find stuff you don’t want or need anymore, sell it or donate it to someone who might, rather than throwing it away.
Recognize that it’s colder in the winter and hotter in the summer. Buy some sweaters and some short-sleeved shirts and adjust the thermostat accordingly. It turns out that Ebenezer Scrooge had a good point about coal and waistcoats.
Use your local museums, libraries, and archives. Art, science, history, literature, and similar pursuits offer potentially infinite value, in many cases with very limited resources.
Combine trips and favor local businesses or clusters of businesses. Similarly, find out if anyone in your home needs to run errands at the same time. This evergreen advice saves time and money, even when gas prices aren’t extravagant. It makes even more sense when prices are high.
Whether you call it vintage, pre-owned, or used, buy stuff that wasn’t made a week ago. Books, exercise equipment, camping gear, and music are great candidates for this.
Build relationships with people in your community. Just like the museums/libraries/archives, this creates value that doesn’t require acquiring things. It also means that you can trade some tomatoes that you’ve grown for some pole beans that your neighbor grew.

Many of these choices revolve around merely appreciating what is of value, and what is waste. Developing a mindset of pursuing value while reducing waste reveals other opportunities. As record high gas prices bring the role and presence of energy to the forefront of our thoughts, now is a good time to put this understanding into practice.

Image source: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Monday, June 23, 2008

Less is more

Vice President Dick Cheney famously declared in 2001 that “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy”*. This remark belittles the obvious economic and strategic importance of conservation. Earlier this month, Secretary Bodman (US Department of Energy) said, "All nations must be better at conservation, and the U.S. is at the top of that list." Unfortunately, I don’t imagine this about-face is indicative of some grand enlightenment that has taken place among our elected leaders, but is simply the result of public ire about gas prices.
Despite the reasons for this change, forward-thinking Americans must take this opportunity to move toward a sustainable energy economy. A sustainable energy economy would reduce the burden on family budgets and the threat to public health and safety that stems from our fundamental reliance on fossil fuels. A sustainable energy economy would make the most effective use of widely available, low-cost energy.
The first step in the journey toward sustainability is energy independence. Energy independence does not simply mean trading one energy source for another and expecting government and business to realize an invisible transition. Instead, energy independence must be built at every scale, spanning personal, local, regional, and national levels.
The national and regional levels are familiar to many people insofar as they receive attention during campaign seasons. The personal and local levels are perhaps not as widely understood and are built on a change in thinking. Personal choices such as where to live, how to get around, and what to eat all weigh on energy independence. Local choices, like community planning, public transportation, and building codes are also major factors. I’ll begin to address these in greater detail in future posts.

*It’s often overlooked that in the same speech, Cheney actually called for some measure of conservation. However, his core message was to provide resources to petroleum companies.

Monday, June 16, 2008

What gives, Sierra Club?

I’ve been getting a lot of literature from Sierra Club lately, and this has me a little perplexed. Obviously, nonprofits are very much in the business of begging for money and volunteers. This doesn’t surprise me, nor does it bother me. What vexes me is that everything I’ve gotten from Sierra Club over the last 12 months has been in the mail. This creates paper waste and uses fossil fuels.
Like people with even a passing interest in conservation, I’m familiar with Sierra Club. After all, it’s one of the largest, oldest, most widespread environmental groups in the US. There’s no confusion about how to make a donation, if the notion should ever strike me. But why would I donate to an environmental group that seems to be so wasteful?

Image source: National Park Service

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The $2.99 gas boondoggle

Recent Chrysler adds encourage car buyers to purchase certain new Chrysler/Dodge vehicles and receive three years of gasoline at $2.99 guaranteed. Given that gasoline prices are currently a dollar higher than this, hovering around $4 a gallon across the nation, this may seem to some like a good deal. But is it?

The official rules for the Chrysler program are rather complex. First of all, you must have a VISA or MasterCard credit card account to participate. Chrysler then provides the buyer with a special card (see graphic) to be used only for gasoline purchases that is tied into that credit card account. This special card provided by Voyager Fleet Systems, which is honored at many types of stations, but not all. So the purchaser will need to know which stations will honor the card and which will not. In my region, a large number of the gas stations on the major north south route have been bought out by the Valero chain; a chain that does not honor the Voyager Fleet Systems card.

If you are one of those people who pay off his/her entire credit card balance each month, then this will have little effect on the cost. But for those who carry balances, using credit cards means adding to balance upon which interest is calculated. Since many people have credit cards with interest rates of 18% or higher, this raises the actual cost of gasoline at least a few cents per gallon (3 to 4 cents) each month above the $2.99.

Secondly, Chrysler has established in advance the amount of gallons it will cover at $2.99 for each type of vehicle, based on average estimates of vehicle fuel efficiency and on the 12,000 miles per year driven by the average American. For example, Chrysler has estimated that the Dodge Durango SUV will get 15 miles per gallon fuel efficiency. Using 12,000 miles per year, Chrysler calculates total gasoline consumption for a year as 800 gallons, and allots for the three years 2400 gallons of gasoline. If the purchaser drives more than 12,000 miles in a year, or gets less than 15 miles per gallon on average, he/she will have to pay full price (using some other method of payment) for any gasoline purchased above the allotted 800 gallons per year. Consumer Reports has tables to show many of Chrysler's estimates of gas mileage efficiency are above those found by their own testing teams.

Third and perhaps most importantly, one can purchase vehicles with greater fuel efficiency, that will cost less to operate even over the first three years, and certainly cost less over the longer life of the vehicle (unless one plans to buy a new more efficient vehicle at the end of 3 years). Simple comparison: purchase a 2008 Dodge Durango SUV that gets on average 15 miles per gallon at an estimated Kelly Blue Book Price range between $25,211 and $33,110 (depending upon trim, options, etc.) or purchase a 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV which gets an average 32 miles per gallon (more than twice as much) for an estimated Kelly Blue Book Price Range between $27,577 and $29,312. At 15 mpg for 2400 gallons over three years, and $2.99 a gallon the Dodge Durango will cost the buyer $7,176 for gasoline. At 32 mpg for 1125 gallons (more fuel efficient), and let's say an average of $6.00 a gallon (let's hope not, but who knows), the Ford Escape purchaser will pay only $6,750 in the same three years.

So in the first three years, while the $2.99 gas program is in place, the Dodge Durango purchaser will actually pay more for gasoline than the purchaser of the more fuel efficient Ford Escape Hybrid. The initial cost of the two vehicles is very similar. So who got the better deal? The real kicker of course comes in that fourth year, when the $2.99 gas is all gone, and now the 15 mpg Durango owner will be paying the going rate for gasoline ($6+ ??), and be hit by a much larger fuel bill than the Escape owner who still has a vehicle that gets 32 mpg. Consumer Reports has made several such comparisons on the relative costs of owning various Chrysler/Dodge vehicles versus more fuel efficient equivalent vehicles. Unfortunately, unlike my own comparisons, Consumer Reports uses only the price of fuel at the time the article was published (in May 2008) which was about $3.68, and does not take into consideration increasing cost of gasoline (as my own comparison above does).

Of course, the really prudent vehicle purchaser might opt for the Toyota Yaris, a conventional gasoline powered subcompact, that also gets 32 mpg, but costs between $12,856 and $15,007. Thousands of dollars saved up front, and years of lower gasoline costs.

So, putting completely aside for the moment, any discussion of environmental issues, the $2.99 promotion by Chrysler does not make good personal economic sense for the individual consumer.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Stamp out obesity -- fill your gas tank with sugar

Think of all the teenagers who filled gas tanks with sugar to disable a vehicle -- who knew they were forward looking environmentalists.

The United States and Brazil lead the world in the production of ethanol, a substitute for gasoline. In the U.S. the primary feed stock for ethanol is corn, but those wily Brazilians produce their ethanol from sugar cane.

Highly placed spokespersons for the Brazilian ethanol industry, acknowledge -- off the record -- that their goal is not only to provide automotive fuel, but to lead the world fight against obesity. Diverting sugar cane into fuel production instead of the production of cakes, cookies, candies and ice cream, is all part of a plot to raise the price of those artery clogging goodies to such an extent that your average couch potato will have to turn to healthier treats while channel surfing.
Image from My Chocolate Heaven blog April 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

ice watching

Anyone who is interested can observe the day to day measurements of sea ice in the Arctic on the National Snow and Ice Data Center's page Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis. This is today's updated graphic. The gray line at the top is the average (1979 to 2000)extent of ice for each date, the dotted green line is the actual extent of sea ice on each date in 2007 (the minimum extent recorded so far), and the blue line is this year's (2008) current measurements. As you can see, this year has, until recently exceeded the 2007 minimum, but fallen below the twenty year average.

Many scientists, however, expect that because a much larger extent of the sea ice is thinner one year ice (because of the previous years minimum extent), that melting will accelerate and drop below even the 2007 minimum.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Texas, a leader in wind energy generation

T. Boone Pickens is a man who knows a good business opportunity when he sees one.
Pickens is investing $2 billion in the Pampas Wind Project on 400,000 acres of the Texas Panhandle. That money will purchase hundreds of wind turbines from General Electric and jump start a plan that will eventually cost $10 — $12 billion and power 1.3 million homes.

Pickens is also a man who recognizes the necessity of government action to make wind power economically feasible. Pickens said: “I believe that Congress will recognize that it is critical not only to this project, but to renewable energy in this country, that they enact a long-term extension of the Production Tax Credits.” (May 28, 2008 Celsias)

The federal Production Tax Credits provides tax credits of 2 cents per kilowatt hour, to utilities that generate electricity from wind power. The bill is set to expire in December 2008.

Texas has been a major center for the development of wind powered electricity generation. This is partially due to the vast, windy open spaces in Texas – but many other mid-western states could say the same. What really has set Texas apart, has been far thinking, activist state government.

Texas’ leadership began in 1999 when model Renewable Portfolio Standard was signed into law by then-Governor George Bush. A renewable energy standard is government policy that requires utilities to provide a certain amount of renewable energy over a specified time.

Texas State Representative Steve Wolens, one of the sponsors of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, says he had to fight the utilities to pass the legislation: “ They [utilities] didn't want to be required to do any more than they would have to. And they resisted the renewable and the reusable, number one, because it was a lot. It was a lot more than they'd ever been required to do, because in Texas, they had been required to do nothing. And they didn't know what the expense was going to be. They did not want to have the expense forced on them.” (PBS interview 2001)

But once the law passed, it created an incentive for firms like FPL Energy to build in Texas some of the biggest wind plants in the country, and sparked a nearly decade long boom in wind generation in Texas. Even with the Renewable Portfolio Standard, federal tax credits still have been important. The Production Tax Credit which is due to expire December 2008, has expired several times in 1999, 2001 and 2003, said Real de Azua a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association. Each time the credits expired wind power installation dropped significantly in each year following expiration of the credits, and resurged each time the credit was reenacted. (May 28, 2008 Celsias).

Industry analysts expect that wind power, (like other government subsidized technologies such as integrated circuits) will eventually stand on its own without government subsidies, but still requires tax incentives to reach that point. (Christian Science Monitor 2006) A fact clearly acknowledged by Mr. Pickens.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Let's not take a back seat to China

Not long ago, the current U.S. administration used China's lack of movement on curbing carbon emissions as an excuse of the U.S. to do nothing as well.

Well watch out. The World Watch Institute reports, that since the Chinese government enacted a national renewable energy law in 2005, the development of wind energy in China has exploded.

By 2007, overall wind installations in China exceeded 5 gigawatts (GW) -- a goal initially set for 2010 by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China's top economic planner. The Commission's target for 2020 was 30 GW, a level that is now projected to be reached by 2012, eight years ahead of schedule.

China has developed its own domestic wind turbine manufacturing industry, which is rapidly expanding its capacity, and its technological capabilities. Wind power is already showing itself to be more cost effective than oil, natural gas, and nuclear power generation in China. Many analysts believe that wind power will be able to compete with coal generation in China by as early as 2015.

If China can do it, certainly the U. S. can!