Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My name is Adam, and I am 13.7 billion years old

I’ve been spending my free time between semesters trolling scripture for a green ministry class I’m teaching this spring. Among others, I read from Genesis a couple of chapters I’ve read dozens of times and found a remarkable lesson. In the second account of creation (the one that appears in the second chapter), we find:

7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

The earth’s physical attributes and every living thing we find here – past, present, or future – are inextricably connected. The surface of our planet is largely covered with water, which is full of salts, leached from rocks over the eons. Water vapor also permeates our atmosphere, which is itself mostly nitrogen, with some oxygen, carbon dioxide, ozone, argon, and other bits of this and that. Much of the solid portion of our soils (as well as the cocktail of dissolved solids in soil-water) is the result of rocks being physically and chemically picked apart.
From this nonliving environment bacteria, protists, plants, fungi, lichens, and animals build soil, fix nitrogen into chemicals useful to living things, and spin carbon dioxide and water into sugars and (with those useful nitrogen bits) proteins. We see that in a literal sense, living things, including humans are made of the nonliving “dust” of Genesis, along with the “breath of life”. We’re composed of the recycled leftovers of the begininng of the universe, squashed into stars and blown apart, squashed again into our Sun and Earth, worn ragged and perfect by relentless physcial and chemical action.
But we are not an end result. We are not the owners of all of this mineral wealth that is our physical selves. Instead, as we see in Gen 3:19, we will return all of this. Implicit in the “to dust you will return” is the macabre fact that our remains will wind through the long, slow cycles to become carbon dioxide, perhaps limestone, perhaps sea salt, and certainly part of other animals, plants, and living things so insignificant, we don’t bother to learn their names. Moreover, with every breath we take from the moment of our birth until we expire, we participate in this conversion of nonliving into living, and living into nonliving.
So what do we get out of this? Another somber reminder of mortality on the eve of a new year? No, instead we see that we’re blessed with much, but that we’re only caring for these gifts for a while. We see that we are temporary participants in creation, sharing everything with other living things, and that we are not alone in this role. Our gifts and responsibilities belong as much to our grandchildren’s grandchildren as they do to us and to our ancestors. We have a responsibility to take care of them.

Image source: Freer + Sackler Galleries

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Google Earth versus the bad guys!

One of the great things about Google Earth is its ability to show the world what's really going on around the world. An excellent example was its exposure of the destruction in Darfur, with burnt villages marked for all to see.

So this morning I got the brilliant idea (about five years after everybody else) that it might be nice to examine the extent of surface coal mining. As it happens, a quick Google search shows a number of websites that use aerial photography to present compilations of environmental damage:


I'm sure that there are more, but I was unable to find them without digging through lots of unrelated material. I'd therefore like to request readers to present links to any such compilations of which they are aware.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem, I present coordinates for a number of sites that I found in a small region of central West Virginia:

Lat 38º 20' 46" Long 81º 01' 25" 6 mile diameter
Lat 38º 26' 42" Long 80º 36' 37" 2.5 mile diameter
Lat 38º 29' 13" Long 80º 35' 45" 1.0 mile diameter
Lat 38º 23' 34" Long 80º 44' 22" .64 mile diameter
Lat 38º 25' 24" Long 80º 40' 59" .25 mile diameter
Lat 38º 24' 13" Long 80º 40' 58" .25 mile diameter

This last is an older surface mine site that has been partly grown over. What's interesting is the paucity of foliage. It appears to have some grass, but little else. And once you see that and learn to recognize the pattern, you'll find sites like this almost everywhere. 

Not all non-forested areas are old strip mines. There are areas cleared for farms or homes; those are identifiable by the fact that they tend to line up in the drainage valleys. The valleys are often marked with public roads; if you see a line of open ground adjacent to a road, it's unlikely to be old strip mine. Structures are also contraindicators to strip mines. You might also be fooled by logging areas, which are brown and are most easily identified by a series of parallel dirt roads on a hill slope. 

But where you see open, sparsely forested land away from a road, with no structures on it, it's probably an old strip mine. I think you'll be appalled at how much land is covered by them. And this does not show all the land that's affected. A lot of the spill goes into the watercourses below.

So take a Google Earth stroll over West Virginia sometime. 

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bee the solution -- grow a meadow

Like most Americans who pay attention to the news, especially environmental news, I had heard of "Colony Collapse Disorder" that has been killing off about one in three North American honey bee colonies each of the last several winters. However, I was not aware, until watching this TED presentation by Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture, was that native polinators like bumble bees, and bats, are also disappearing -- bats are disappearing at an alarming rate. The majority of fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat depend upon pollination by honey bees, so this, like all environmental problems, is a human problem and an economic problem, not just a "bee" problem. Watch, enjoy, and learn!

The most interesting and valuable suggestion that Dennis vanEngelsdorp makes in this video, is to replace your lawn (or at least part of it) with a meadow. Here's a way that ordinary citizens can be part of the solution to an environmental problem. A few years ago, I heard a speech by a horticulturalist who advocated (for a variety of environmental reasons) leaving a six to ten foot radius circle around major trees in your yard. We immediately instituted that practice in our 2/3 acre lot. There's lots of benefits of this, in addition to creating more habitat for polinators -- less time wasted on mowing the lawn, less gasoline is wasted, less noise and pollution is created, less greenhouse gases created, and many more butterflies, birds, and other wonderful creatures will find their way to your yard.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

We need clearer price signals

In economic theory, price is supposed to act as a signal to consumers as to the relative scarcity or importance of some good or service. In a perfect capitalistic system, the price allows everybody to balance their values against the availability of various resources.

Unfortunately, the market in the real world falls short of the ideal in several important ways; I would like to address what I consider to be the biggest shortcoming of the market: its steep discount rate. To put it another way, the market doesn't take the future into account very well. 

An obvious example of this is the market for fossil fuels. Right now, lots of people are bidding for the earth's oil. But there are also lots of people who aren't participating in that marketplace: the unborn. Fifty years from now those people will need oil, too, but they don't get to put in their bid. Because they are not represented, the price of oil is cheaper than it would be if they were bidding, and so we consumers get a false price signal: burn up the oil now, it's cheap. Which means that fifty years from now those future folk won't get as much oil to use as we have. Not very fair, is it?

This problem should, theoretically, be handled by speculators. They should be buying up oil today and saving it for the future, figuring on making huge profits fifty years from now. But that's not happening, for two reasons.

First, nobody who has the money to buy up lots of oil today will be alive in fifty years. What's the point of investing money if you won't live to see the return on your investment? The life expectancy of a human being puts blinders on our investment strategies. It forces us to plan for the short term. If there were people with life expectancies of 900 years, you can bet they'd be investing in future oil. But since nobody will live that long, we just screw future generations.

The other factor that inhibits long-term investments is the uncertainty of the market. Hey, fifty years from now, civilization might be destroyed by thermonuclear war -- your ROI wouldn't be much in such a case. They might have gotten fusion energy working by then, in which case nobody would even want your stupid oil. Or the government might have confiscated your oil in a crisis. Who knows? There are so many uncertainties, it's just not safe planning that far ahead.

This innate economic short-sightedness also undercuts our efforts to stem environmental degradation. Who gives a damn about global warming -- it sure won't be a problem before I'm dead. It's a problem for future generations -- let them deal with it. Similar reasoning subverts all other efforts to protect the environment. Why should a 2008 person suffer in order to make life better for 2058 person?

What this really boils down to is a fundamental question that every society must answer: how much do we want to pass down to future generations? How much do we want to sacrifice to improve the lives of our descendants?

Here I will indulge myself in grand hypothesis-building. We all know that civilizations rise and fall, and theories as to what forces push a civilization through that arc are a dime a dozen. So here's my own $0.0083 worth:

I suggest that one of the factors driving the rise of any civilization is its sense of destiny. A civilization that considers itself to be on the cutting edge of growth into greatness will make lots of sacrifices for its children. I believe it was George Washington (well, it was certainly one of that crowd of tricorn hat wearers) who said, "I am a soldier today so that my children can be farmers and engineers, so that their children can be artists and poets." That's the spirit of sacrifice for the future. That Roman chap who stuck his right hand into the brazier just to show off to the Etruscan king just how tough he and his fellows were was doing the same thing. Societies on the rise are full of people who have seen too much suffering and want to build a better future.

But at some point, people in a society start to wonder why they should be making any sacrifices for the future. They undergo a fundamental shift in outlook: instead of seeing the world as a place of pain and suffering, they see it as a place of pleasure and leisure. That shift dooms a civilization; once people start thinking in terms of getting theirs while they can, they stop building for the future and start eating their capital.

I believe that America has crossed that point. You can see the shift in a thousand small places. Look at the response to oil shortages -- "Drill baby drill!" That's about as short-term as you can get. Or the response to global warming issues -- "Why should we have to suffer?" Or any of a thousand other problems. 

But the most compelling indicator, to me, is the expansion of the national debt. The national debt is our way of borrowing from our children, a negative bequest of wealth. The gigantic rise of the national debt in the Bush years proved beyond any doubt that this country has given up on its future and seeks only to enjoy life while it can.

It could be argued that we are already bequeathing a huge amount to our descendants. For example, kids today are much better off than when I was a kid. They have great toys to play with, cell phones of their own, and computers. Lots of high school and college kids have cars of their own -- in my generation, most people didn't get their own cars until sometime in college or after. Plenty of kids get to travel to foreign countries -- my first trip outside the country came when I was 31. And air travel -- I think I was 24 the first time I flew. So there's no question that kids today are better off than they were 40 years ago.

But that doesn't mean anything about how kids 40 years from now will do compared with kids today. Past success doesn't imply future success. You've got to keep working at it all the time. And I think Americans are losing their sense of dedication to the future.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are full of optimism and excitement about the future of their civilization. They're saving their money to help their country grow, and they're planning for their kids' futures. In fifty years, China will be the world superpower, and the USA will be like Britain is today.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rising earth greets Apollo VIII astronauts

While orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the three-man crew aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft—Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders—offered live holiday greetings from outer space. After describing the desolation and bleakness of the lunar landscape, the astronauts read from the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis. Commander Frank Borman concluded the historic interplanetary telecast—sent to an audience of half a billion people around the world—with the message: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”

This photo, taken forty years ago, reveals the second greatest gift humanity has ever received. In this oft-repeated image, we see how small and isolated our home is. We are reminded that this is a gift that we share with every member of our human family, including all of those who have come before us as well as generations to come.

Image and caption (italicized) from the National Archives and Records Administration

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Coal River Wind -- a better way

Coal River Mountain, West Virginia is slated by Massey Coal to become the next casualty of mountain top removal strip mining. This form of mining blasts the tops of mountains with dynamite, then hauls away tons of rock and soil, dumping this overburden in nearby valleys covering up streams and habitats. The photo on the right is Marsh Fork where some of the overburden of the projected Coal River Mountain mine will end up.

On the top left is Coal River Mountain as it looks to day, before any mining commences. The photographer is standing at the edge of an existing mountain top removal strip mine of what was once Kayford Mountain, looking southwest to Coal Mountain.
The bottom left an aerial view of what is left of Kayford Mountain, WV: an 11,000+ acre Mountaintop Removal coal mining site that sits just to the Northeast of Coal River Mountain.

A.T. Massey has already received permits that would allow them to engage in mountain top removal and valley fill operation on more than 3,000 acres of Coal River Mountain, and have two additional areas mapped, that would add and additional 3,000+ acres.

Local residents concerned about the impacts on the quality of life in their communities formed the Coal River Mountain Watch, and joined with regional and national environmental groups to suggest an alternative to mountain top removal -- a wind farm that would capitalize on the strong persistent winds on these West Virginia mountain ridges.

The coalition of groups funded a four month study of the economic potential of both the planned mountain top removal and the proposed wind farm. In sum, the study found that because the power generated by wind could continue indefinitely ("forever" as the fact sheet states), while the mine would be played out in 14 to 17 years, the proposed wind farm would generate both more energy and more dollars. Moreover,

"when externalities such as public health and environmental quality are factored in, a mountaintop removal mine ends up generating an economic LOSS of $600 million over its expected 17 year life. A wind farm on the other hand would remain profitable over the life of the wind farm. This means that when the true costs of mining are considered, the wind farm option wins hands-down." Rory McIlmoil, Coal River Wind.

The Coal River Mountain Watch and its partners are asking for support from you and others like you around the country, to generate more public awareness of the problems of mountain top removal and the possibility of economically viable, clean, renewable energy alternatives. Another goal is to create support for the national Clean Water Protection Act that would drastically restrict where the overburden from mining could be dumped, which would limit the scope of strip-mining and mountain top removal substantially. You can learn more about your own personal connection to mountain top removal and what can be done about it at I Love the Mountains.

Re-use, recycle, regret

Benjamin Franklin was truly a remarkable fellow. He was the most famous and accomplished American until the Revolution, when he was eclipsed by Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the rest of that crowd. I've always felt that Franklin was that most honorable of accomplished people: his accomplishments were not glorious victories or the amassing of huge wealth, but instead subtle small things insinuated deep into the culture. And one of his most successful means for doing that was Poor Richard's Almanack, which he peppered with clever adages extolling the virtues of thrift, hard work, and a reserved tongue. 

I've been re-reading some of the old gentleman's adages, and I have found a few that are worthy of repeating:

Death takes no bribes

One good husband is worth two good wives; for the scarcer things are the more they're valued.

The poor have little, beggars none;

the rich too much, enough, not one.

Waste not, want not.

This last has now become a standard of our extended language, and it certainly plays a large role in my thinking. I feel badly about wasting things; it seems not just dumb but out-and-out wrong. Sending something to the dump when it still has some value bothers me a lot. If I do find it necessary to throw something away, I usually disassemble it to recover any parts that might be useful. Sometimes I take this to silly extremes. I once had to replace a shattered drive shaft from the power takeoff from my tractor. The break was at one end and so, when I removed the broken part, I found that it was a good three feet long, a 3/4" steel rod weighing at least ten pounds. This I just couldn't throw away. Fortunately, with 40 acres and three outbuildings, there's plenty of space for these odds and ends. And who knows, perhaps someday I'll find a good use for a ten pound steel rod. And if I don't, after I die the executors of my will shall have an odd time figuring out how to get rid of all the junk I've squirreled away.

But today I would like to relate another tale of the dark side of recycling. Two days ago a small fan of mine failed. It has been running continuously in a corner of my house for the last five years. Why? Because that corner is a nook that holds our upright freezer, which is a little too big for its nook. Accordingly, there's very little airspace for the air to circulate around the cooling coils, which means that the deepfreeze is quite inefficient. Did you know that your refrigerator and freezer are probably the biggest guzzlers of electricity in your house (unless you have electric heating)? That's because they run 24/7. So anything you can do to improve their efficiency is a good thing. That's why I set up this little fan.

It ran well for five years, but finally it developed some sort of mechanical problem and began making noise. So I dragged it up to my workroom and took it apart. The bearings appear to have locked up, so I cleaned them out and re-oiled them. It was a rather time-consuming task, and as I worked I wondered at the wisdom of spending so much time repairing a fan that could be replaced for ten dollars. But my sense of aesthetics demanded that I continue, so I got everything clean and smooth and re-assembled it. It didn't work. More disassembly, more diagnosis. After another hour of poking around, I finally realized that an internal connection in the coil had been broken. That's where I draw the line on repairs. I could probably fix it, but a small error on my part could have made the fan a fire hazard. So I gave up. All that saintly effort was a total waste of time. Not wishing to retire from the field in total defeat, I retrieved a few screws and nuts from the thing to put into my supplies. You never know when another screw will come in handy.

I wonder about the deeper motivations for my behavior. Is it a fear of irreversibility? Am I afraid that someday I'll be kicking myself, thinking, "If ONLY I had saved that tractor PTO drive shaft, I'd be able to deal with this problem today!" After all, I can always throw it away tomorrow. Am I prudently preserving my options are am I obsessively evading the inevitable? Is this, at some deeper level, a distant echo of a fear of my own mortality? It seems that obsessive saving of things is more common among old people -- is there some sense of identification with the discarded item? "I'm old and worn out, too, but I don't want to be thrown out, either!"

I really don't know. But I think I'll put this essay into my archives.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I respectfully dissent

Since President-Elect Barrack Obama named evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, there has been no shortage of ire. The decision has been called “Appalling” by gay-rights activists. Others in the blog lines and a variety of media sources have suggested that the choice is antithetical to the idea of an inclusive administration, or that it is divisive. While I'm on the subject of Pr. Warren's positions, I disagree with him on a few points. So, apparently, does Mr. Obama.
But, I applaud this choice. Far from “divisive”, this choice suggests a legitimate commitment to a dialog between dissenting opinions. It could also be regarded as a statement to those who voted against Obama that he plans to work for them as well as his supporters. Ending division isn’t accomplished by squashing dissentors (see US political history, 1776-present).
Only time will tell whether the Obama administration will actually part with the tradition of banishing and scapegoating those who disagree with the reigning party, and exacting four years of blind revenge on the leaders of other parties and ideologies. However, Obama’s invitation to Rick Warren suggests that the President-Elect acknowledges that a diversity of opinion and belief exists, and that disagreement on one issue doesn’t preclude cooperation on another. Moreover, this selection recognizes the plain truth that leaders from across the ideological spectrum can and must work together to realize meaningful change.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Regulating CO2 Emissions - a cautionary tale

Last month, November 13, 2008, to be exact, the Environmental Appeals Board of the EPA, handed down an important decision [the complete text of the decision can be read here]. The decision concerned a permit granted Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, which would have allowed construction of a new waste-coal-fired electric generating unit at Deseret’s existing Bonanza Power Plant, located near Bonanza, Utah.

In 2007, the Sierra Club presented a challenge to this permit, and sought to have it reviewed on the grounds that a) EPA's Region 8's office that granted the permit " failed to adequately consider “alternatives to the proposed facility;" and b)Region 8 failed to "apply “BACT,” or best available control technology, to limit
carbon dioxide (“CO2”) emissions from the facility." The first issue (a) was set aside and not considered by the Environmental Appeals Board. It was on the second issue that the ground breaking decision was made.

The Environmental Appeals Board determined that EPA Region 8 had inappropriately dismissed the application of a BACT (best available control technology) standard out of hand. Region 8 argued that had not imposed "a CO2 BACT limit in the Permit" because "it lacked the authority to do so."

The Environmental Appeals Board essentially said that the EPA (and EPA Region 8) DID have the authority to impose a CO2 BACT limit, and therefore must consider such a limit. The Appeal decision does not require a BACT limit to be imposed in this case, only that the reasons given (lack of authority) could not justify the lack of a BACT limit. The Appeals Board decision stated:

"Accordingly, we remand the Permit for the Region to reconsider whether or not to impose a CO2 BACT limit in light of the Agency’s discretion to interpret...what constitutes a “pollutant subject to regulation under this Act.” In remanding this Permit to the Region for reconsideration of its conclusions regarding application of BACT to limit CO2 emissions, we recognize that this is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding. The Region should consider whether interested persons, as well as the Agency, would be better served by the Agency addressing the interpretation of the phrase “subject to regulation under this Act” in the context of an action of nationwide scope, rather than through this specific permitting proceeding."

This ruling recommends that the EPA to develop "best available control technology" (BACT) limits for CO2 emissions that would apply across the nation to all new construction or additions to coal fired electrical generation facilities.

But what is the "best available control technology" when it comes to limiting CO2 emissions? Although "clean coal" has been bandied about by the coal and electricity industry for several years, the actual technologies this term applies to are still for the most part on the drawing board, or deployed in small scale research settings only. Short of carbon capture, some existing technologies that reduce CO2 emissions include co-generation (of heat and electricity) or recycling, and co-firing with biomass. Simply determining the minimum possible CO2 emissions of existing highest efficiency conventional coal-fired technology is a challenge that will have to be met.

Many environmental organization and blogs hailed this decision as a triumph that would put a complete stop to permits for new coal-fired electricity generation. But the decision falls far short of that. EPA Region 8 can decide against imposing BACT limits on CO2, it just cannot use the same set of reasons (lack of jurisdiction or authority to set such limits).The Appeals board only recommends (nor requires) that Region 8 consider its decisions as part of a larger national policy. While the ruling makes the development of CO2 BACT limits more likely, the imposition of such limits on any particular new construction or expansion of an existing plant must also include considerations of economic impacts.

It could take months, or even years to establish meaningful BACT limits for CO2 emissions. Environmental Appeals Board decision does not require that all new permits for coal-fired generation wait until those limits have been established, although it certainly can be seen as recommending this action. Much will depend upon how the new Obama administration decides to respond to the Appeals Board ruling.

Friday, December 12, 2008

From crappy Pampers to happy campers

This was a tough one. I try to do my part to minimize my negative impacts on my local environment, and I make time to volunteer and undo other people's negative impacts. So every time I threw away a disposable diaper, I cringed a little. Diapers are made of plastic and paper, which means landfilling persistent waste and cutting trees. But, I cringed even more at the thought of everything you have to do with cloth diapers. I also thought about a diaper service, but this still means dealing with cloth diapers and it means the diaper van makes a couple of trips to the house every week.
As it turns out, I was dead-wrong about cloth diapers. The image that kept creeping into my head, that of trying to work origami out of a cloth square, in the dark, while wrestling with a squirming baby, is just a piece of historical fiction. Unbeknownst to me, cloth diapers had secretly become smartly designed and easy to deal with at some point in the recent past. Several vendors make fully reusable diapers, and at least one makes what I'll call "hybrid diapers" that include a disposable pad in a reusable shell. Forget big cloth squares and safety pins. The new ones are contoured, don't require a bunch of folding, and rely on Velcro.
My wife and I have been using Bum Genius diapers (one of the fully reusable types)since the baby was about 10 weeks old (he's now 9 months old), and they've been working great. They're easy to get on and off and they clean easily and completely. We haven't had any more problems with leaks than with disposable diapers. My back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis tells me that we've already recouped the initial investment, even allowing for some very rough recurring costs for water and energy to keep them clean.
That said, it does take longer to change the diaper, because it has to be rinsed after use. And, once in a while, there is that moment of abject panic when I open the diaper and realize that I have to clean it. Also, this is not a solution that lends itself to being away from home for long. My wife and I still use some disposable diapers when we're out. However, we've cut our use of disposables by about 3/4.
Be aware that this involves the Fundamental Waste-Water-Energy Trade-off. When we trade a disposable product for a reusable one, this generally means that we increase our local use of water and energy to maintain the reusable product. This becomes even more confusing, when you consider all of the water and energy that goes into producing the disposable products vice the reusable one, and all of the energy (and potentially water) that goes into disposal. Of course, disposable diapers are also largely made from pulp, which is made from trees; there are some petroleum-based plastics and adhesives thrown-in for good measure...
Needless to say, a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis would be tedious and time-consuming (I might use the word "torturous"), if not impossible. So we have to use what we know about our respective situations, toss in some common sense, and make our best estimate as to whether or not this is a good choice for a particular household.
If you live in a place with water issues like Phoenix, Atlanta, or near the Ogalala Aquifer, washing lots of reusable diapers probably isn't an environmentally sound decision. In those areas, water conservation is likely a more important issue than the municipal solid waste stream. For someone like me, living on the edge of Megapolis, in an area with ample water, the reduced waste that comes with the reusable diapers is a good option.
Think about your own situation and decide whether or not this works for you. If you're not sure, ask friends who know local environmental issues, consult Google, or post some questions here.
Oh, right, "Be the solution."

Image courtesy of the author.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Some Questions.

Here are some questions (loosely themed) that have been provoking some thought that I thought best to just propose:

1. What happened to the symbiotic relationship between employer and employee?

2. Related to above, why has society allowed this relationship to degrade?

3. Is there a happy medium between the two extremes of hyper capitalism and hyper socialism?

4. If fidelity to the prosperity of our children is a stated ideal of our morality, then why have we as a society knowingly let it slowly degrade over the past decades?

Friday, December 5, 2008

We Can Do It!

I’ve written before about the importance of conservation, though in many cases, I’ve assumed that its impacts go without saying. I recently ran across a simple analysis that may help me to articulate why I see energy (and other resource conservation) as the crux of an energy solution, rather than icing on the cake.
Consider the example of an incandescent light bulb in a lamp in your home, powered by electricity from a coal-fired power plant. This is a typical, though somewhat simplified scenario:
Coal is a source of chemical energy. Converted to thermal energy (heat) in a furnace, we lose about 15 percent of its energy to inefficiency, limitations of insulation, moving fluids and fuel, &c. We convert this thermal energy to mechanical energy by means of a turbine that loses more than half of the remaining energy overcoming friction and other impediments. The generator loses another 5 percent, while transmission, distribution, and grid congestion claim almost 10 percent more. The bulb itself converts electricity to light with about 5 percent efficiency (95 percent of the energy is wasted). The end result is that the light from the bulb represents a more than 98 percent loss of energy from the original coal. Put another way, every unit of light energy saved conserves 60 times as much chemical energy in the form of coal. That doesn’t include the energy spent mining, processing, and transporting the coal to the power plant, nor disposing of the 1000 tons of waste that a medium-size coal-fired plant produces in a day.
It turns out that Mom was right. We really should turn out the lights when we leave the room. Evidently, it actually conserves about 60 times more energy than it seems to. How’s that for an easy way to be the solution?

Image source: Victoria & Albert Museum

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mountain streams on the losing end

On Monday December 1, 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a rule change by the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) that would allow the dumping of rocks, dirt and sludge from mountaintop removal in stream areas. The rule change essential exempts mining overburden (the rock, soil, and sludge removed to access coal in strip mines and mountain top removal) from the definition of "waste" that is prohibited from being dumped in seasonal and ephemeral streams.

This rule change has been eagerly sought by the coal mining industry, while opposed not only by environmental organizations, but also by top government officials in coal mining states such as Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Kentucky Congressman Ben Chandler, and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. Grassroots citizens organizations such as "I love Mountains" and "Kentuckians for the Commonwealth" which include hundreds of coal county residents among their numbers have actively campaigned against this rule change.

This change sought by the Bush administration has already been approved by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. The Department of Interior, which includes the Office of Surface Mining will make the change to the rule final in December after briefing members of Congress, and it will go into effect in another 30 days -- roughly about the time that the new Obama administration is sworn into office.

Administrative rule changes like this take time to develop. This particular rule change was first introduced in 2004. A complex process of hearings, comment periods, and reviews by other agencies (such as the EPA) are required before rule changes can occur. While the Department of Interior must brief members of Congress, there is no requirement of legislative approval. Consequently, it could take as long to undo this rule change (should the Obama administration make that a priority) as it did to create it. In the meantime, thousands of additional miles of streams in central Appalachia will join the more than 700 miles of streams that have already been buried due to lax enforcement of the existing rules.

The consequences of this rule change extend far beyond the central Appalachian mountains, to all the urban and suburban areas that are dependent upon river and stream fed lakes for their municipal drinking water.