May 2008 Archives
May 10, 2008 |
With the installation of a single residential solar system, the city of Townsville in Queensland, Australia embarks on an effort to turn itself into a leader in sustainable energy. The system is located on Magnetic Island just off the coast of Northeastern Australia, where Townsville aims to create a "solar suburb." Up to 500 residents and businesses will have solar PV systems installed free of charge. About 1700 other islanders will score consolation prizes ranging from smart meters and in-house energy use displays to CFL bulbs and low-flow showerheads.
In all, the city will receive $30 million (in Koala Bucks or whatever) of state and federal government assistance for the project. Other parts ofTownsville's sunny outlook include plans for a 150 house solar village, an upscale energy-lite apartment complex, and a big-idea sustainable building experiment in the central business district. The city expects to save 50,000 tons of GHG over the next seven years through the improvements.
The project is part of a $75 million (Didgeri-dollars) solar tech trial run by the Australian government intended to demonstrate the viability of solar energy and efficiency innovations. Townsville is one of four 'Solar Cities' chosen from around the country. In other Aussie energy news, Queensland is about to start exploring for local geothermal as well.
During the writing of this post, I found out that Queensland calls itself "The Sunshine State" - Florida to demand a recount I'm sure - and that the City of Townsville is also the setting for the superhero cartoon "The Powerpuff Girls." This 2nd item caused me substantial confusion for some time.
Green building is gaining popularity, but how about what goes in those buildings... the furniture? It turns out that there is an emerging market in furniture that actually biodegrades
The furniture and housing goods production process involves a significant amount of chemicals. They're used to treat, process and preserve the woods used, flame retardants are applied to textiles, plastic derivative polyester goes into cushions. In general, home furnishings can be pretty toxic stuff. But some textile and design entrepreneurs are focusing on ways to eliminate toxins, opting instead for neutral chemicals and more natural fabrics.
Designer Michael McDonough set the standard in 2002 when he wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, articulating the implications of cradle-to-grave impacts on furniture. Other designers have followed suit, putting significant effort into ensuring that the processes we use in home furnishing are as careful as the ones so many builders apply to green building.
Despite what appears to be faux controversy about what these advances might do to heirlooms, biodegradable furniture would not immediately break down. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to toss a broken chair into the compost heap rather than into the trash? There aren’t LEED standards for furniture yet, but it looks like that's the direction on the horizon. Watch out Ikea!
Read more at the New York Times.
On a down note as we prepare to enter summer travel season, it turns out that airplanes produce even more emissions than previous studies reported. Air travel apparently generates the equivalent of half the emissions of the EU, a full 20% more than past estimates.
A partnership between the EU and U.S. produced a report, “Trends in Global Aviation Noise and Emissions from Commercial Aviation for 2000 to 2025," indicating that emissions increases will outpace technological advances. This ‘suppressed’ report, kept in the twilight zone after not being featured at a conference last year, indicates that airlines have a long way to go if they're to be fuel efficient, let alone carbon neutral.
Airlines, not included in the Kyoto protocol, have suffered enormous fiscal losses this year, in part due to rapidly rising fuel costs. The top three airlines (American, Delta and United) have begun to charge a $10 per trip fuel surcharge to address the issue. Industry representatives explain that, environment aside, the airline industry has plenty of motivation to focus on efficiency. Continental is testing alternative jet fuels and new models boast 20% fuel savings on 737s.
Something has to give; this year has been one of the worst years for airline customer satisfaction ever recorded.
Read more at Wired.
All joking aside, the Uno does seem like a pretty cool (and far more comfortable) little toy, employing the gyro technology first seen in wide use on the Segway scooter. Tech specs are a bit lacking at the moment (especially top speed and maximum rider weight, the two things likely to be of most concern to Americans), but the device weighs a mere 120 pounds and runs 2.5 hours on a single charge.
While clearly a hit among the tech-savvy and eco-friendly in the
You might recognize real estate agent Jim Bob Duggar from his famous Discovery Health series, or from the posters of his two congressional campaigns. Still don’t think you can recognize him? Well, that’s ok—just look for the guy walking around with 17 children.
Oh, and number 18? It’s on the way.
Taking an average American carbon footprint to be 20.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide-per-year, then multiplying that by the twenty people that will soon be in the Duggar family, we find that it would take over 40,000 citizens of
I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty darn impressive. And think, that’s just carbon. Imagine the dent the Duggar would put in the environment if you’d calculated their waste footprint, too.
Man, remember 1998? I sure do. Good times, people. The peak of the greatest economic boom in the history of mankind. Sky-high presidential approval ratings. Septuagenarians in outer space. Forget drawn-out foreign conflicts and and foreclosures. Our biggest concerns were “sexual relations” and “irrational exuberance”. Oh, and gas? 98 cents a gallon.
I guess it’s a bit of an understatement to say that thing have changed since then. And while it’s easy to think of a lot these of these changes as negative, some fairly good things have come out of them. People are realizing they can’t simply expect a house to gain value just because its a house. As a nation, America is now far more aware of its impacts on the rest of the world. And, perhaps most importantly, people in America are looking for new, and more environmentally friendly ways to get around.
One of the biggest growth areas for non-oil powered transit has been in bicycles. As the most energy efficient means of transport yet created, bicycles offer tremendous benefits in terms of carbon footprint (despite what a few naysayers might think) and in saving space, especially in urban environments. Not to mention the tremendous improvements in air quality, general fitness, road surface longevity, and reduced dependence on foreign oil they provide.
The problem with bikes, however, is that from a motorist’s prospective, they get in the way. The internal combustion engine, while currently struggling with the obviousness of its own mortality, is still king of the urban roadway, and intentionally or not, it feels compelled to remind cyclists of this on a disturbingly regular basis—even in some of the bike friendliest cities in the nation.
While European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have had tremendous success integrating bike lanes into the urban landscape, efforts in America have been—how shall I put this?—somewhat less successful. Part of the problem may be that even cycling advocacy groups can’t seem to agree on how to best implement lanes. Some say separated lanes are the only way to go, others say they’re inherently more dangerous.
So what’s an eco-savvy cyclist to do? My advice, as a long-time bike commuter is to stay clear of the lane issue. In my experience, anything that tries to make drivers more aware that cyclists are present, and in fact, welcome, on the roads will make motorists more aware of them, if only slightly. The lanes and signs also encourage more citizens to look to the bike as an alternative means of transport. As seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong says, what cycling—and America—needs is a few hundred thousand more bike commuters.
After all, it’s not 1998 anymore.
Photo by Jeff Archer
If we really want to avert an irreversible global climate crisis by drastically reducing carbon emissions in the next 50 years, we must intensively overhaul our collective and individual plans, according to the first speaker, Patrick McCully, Executive Director of International Rivers. Global reduction in carbon emissions can and must be achieved by promoting wise investments, such as photovoltaic panels on existing rooftops, instead of hydroelectric dams built in developing countries for an often subliminal, misguided reason: generating carbon credit revenue.
Hydroelectric dams may seem like a good option at first glance, but deeper investigation by organizations such as International Rivers exposes flaws in the system. McCully outlined the current situation as viewed through his group's eyes. Nearly 10 years ago, the Kyoto Protocol created the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), now the main program used for international carbon trading. Its goal is to promote sustainable, clean technology in developing countries by cutting costs through the sale of carbon credits.
McCully says the CDM is actually contributing to sales of fake credits with little to no environmental benefit, worsening the climate crisis. The biggest issue at stake is that this baseline-and-credit carbon offset system (as opposed to cap-and-trade) creates legal property rights for something that he believes are false commodities: how can you sell credits for carbon that is "not being emitted"? He asks, are some dam projects only happening because they can get carbon credits? Developers stand to benefit from these lucrative projects for the wrong reasons; in turn, the hydroelectric dams they build can also severely diminish biodiversity and put local human populations at risk.
Rooftop photovoltaic solar panels may be a better option, says Danny Kennedy, President and CEO of Sungevity. Kennedy, who in running a solar power company has a clear self-interest, argues that like the recent global boom in cellphone use, photovoltaic panels can benevolently follow suit. With 14 current rooftop PV options available to homeowners, design and cost will be optimized for widespread use by 2050, potentially earlier with strong political support. As an example, Kennedy cited Germany's desire to accept responsibility for the current climate crisis ten years ago, when it incentivized the uptake of renewable energy solutions like solar and wind power. If Germany did it, why can't the U.S.?
Kennedy argues that rooftop PV panels avoid loss or destruction of habitat when compared to solar projects in western deserts, for example. But I'm not sure that it is the wisest option, or that U.S. adoption will lead to lower prices for solar in developing nations. He says that such panels, though sometimes produced using energy from coal plants in China, pay back this energy in as little as two to three years. Kennedy believes that PV panel use will not only cut your household's energy bill, but it will also help to eventually make the commodity affordable in developing countries desperately seeking electricity.
Increasingly, I hear that we must support "watchdog" organizations such as International Rivers and businesses that promote seemingly brilliant, sustainable tech solutions like Sungevity. IR states that they work to halt benefits to hydro developers through CDM's imperfections, as well as fix the cracks in the system. I'm interested to read about their efforts to change an oft-labeled bureaucratic regulatory mechanism. My previous discontent at the United States' refusal to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol has turned into genuine wonder- is there a silver lining to this? If we keep CDM out of the US, we might do ourselves a favor by lowering overall carbon emissions.
McCully believes that between one-third and two-thirds of CDM offsets are in fact fake. I find such a large percentage difficult to ignore, even if it is one person's opinion.
For further information about dams and their local impact, check out the well-reviewed documentary, "Up the Yangtze".
In what can only be described as an epic win for headline writers everywhere, New Scientist is reporting that some species of birds are learning to adapt to the changing climate.
Global warming has brought earlier springs to the
Still, the clever birds have adapted, and what’s truly striking is that the behavior is almost certainly learned. True evolutionary change would take generations, and likely would not happen quickly enough to adjust to changes brought on by global warming.
But those attempting to marginalize the effects climate change would be wise to note that the great tits’ (had to write it once) success probably cannot be duplicated on a larger scale. As biologist Marcel Visser puts it:
As any yuppie or DINK worth their salt can tell you, mainstream media and marketing conglomerates love to take large groups of vaguely similar people and cram them into tiny little categories, usually with fun-sounding names.
Time was, anyone who expressed concern about the environment was simply a hippie; tie-died shirt, VW Beetle (not to be confused with the VW Bug), unshorn and bad-smelling. Not so these days, as markets catering specifically to LOHAS and more recently, LOVOS have taken off.
And just in case your head isn’t spinning enough from realizing that you’re not a BoBo anymore, CNN announces today that if you’re a person of means who cares about your environmental impact while shunning the consumerist lifestyle, you may, in fact, be a “Yawn”.
I’ll just give you all a moment to let that sink in.
The Energy Bioscience Institute, funded by the major English oil company BP, is funding its first 49 projects with approximately $20 million. These initial projects fall into four categories:
- feedstock development
- biomass depolymerization
- biofuels production
- socio-economic impacts of cellulosic biofuels development
A complete list of the projects funded is available on the Energy Bioscience Institute website. These 49 projects were determined to be high-priority research, sorted out from over 250 proposals by Institute management and placed in one of two categories: projects (small, speculative research projects) and programs (large-scale focused research). Programs are receiving funding between $400,000 and $1 million per year and may be funded for up to ten years. Projects receive an average of $150,000 per year for up to three years.
The Institute expects to begin its second round of funding later this year, and plans to focus on fossil fuel bioprocessing. In total, BP has funded the Institute for a 10 year program of distributing $500 million.
BP established the Energy Biosciences Institute as a public/private consortium — it’s currently the world’s largest — along with three public partner institutions, the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The Institute’s mission is to advance the application of bioscience research to the energy sector. There have been some concerns about the interactions of the public and private sectors in the person of the Institute — the privatization of public universities is a key concern.
Funding research into alternative energies is one of the best things an oil company can be doing these days. Fossil fuels are unquestionably finite, and the cost of extracting them (as the easy-to-reach fields run out) is rising. The only option for a sensible energy company is to be investing in other sources of energy. Of course, BP is only funding the Energy Bioscience Institute with $500 million. I say ‘only’, because the company’s 2007 revenues were reported as $291.438 billion. The cost of the Institute’s research is approximately 0.001 percent of those revenues. And considering BP’s environmental issues in years past, I’m not quite ready to give them a big old pat on the back yet. Funding research is a step in the right direction, but I want to see BP keep going down that path. They’ve made plenty of advances — offering carbon offsets, an $8 billion commitment to alternative fuels, etc. — but they’ve also been on the receiving end of accusations of manipulating propane prices, human rights violations and involvement with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and its associated safety and environmental issues.
Yesterday morning, BizzEnergy, an independent energy provider, announced that the company had installed its 1000th Smart Meter at a UK business. BizzEnergy’s Smart Meter system is meant to put an end to customers’ complaints about the inefficiencies of estimated energy bills. But there’s been some surprising side affects to the installations of Smart Meters, which use GPRS to send actual meter readings to energy suppliers. Businesses with Smart Meters have dropped their energy usage by as much as 20%.
Smart Meters allow customers to track their energy usage, as well — down to the half hour. It also provides information about the costs of energy consumption, which has motivated many business owners to try to reduce costs (and tangentially, environmental impact).
Smart Meters aren’t available in the U.S. at this time, but the specific system isn’t necessary for business owners to learn more about their own energy consumption. Considering the fact that many businesses are experiencing cash flow issues due to the rising cost of energy, I think just having a few hard numbers on a business’ energy consumption is all it takes to motivate owners to make their companies more energy efficient.
Photo — Fatty Tuna
Millipore, the international biosciences company, has made a commitment to cut its carbon footprint by 20% over the next five years. The company’s plan specifically targets waste production and the consumption of non-renewable resources. The company has already began exploring a number of pilot programs, under the leadership of David Newman, Millipore’s director of sustainability.
Millipore has had a number of sustainability programs in place for several years (recycling programs, processing waste water, heat recovery systems, etc.) and the company’s three largest manufacturing sites are certified as ISO 14001. But, according to Newman, Millipore is taking it to the next level:
"We're replacing fleet vehicles with Toyota Prius and Camry hybrids, we've saved over 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year through energy efficiency programs, and we're matching 10 percent of our energy usage worldwide with renewable energy sourced from U.S. wind farms…Over the next few months we'll be stepping up our efforts in all of these areas and exploring additional ways to reduce our environmental impact -- through our products and packaging, manufacturing processes and LEED-certified building construction."
Millipore’s annual revenues are $990 million a year and is listed on the S&P 500. Millipore has made a huge commitment to sustainability — and has also made a commitment to developing products geared towards a more sustainable world through environmental applications and healthcare.
The Philadelphia Phillies have gone to bat as the first Major League Baseball team relying on renewable energy for 100% of the electricity needed to run its stadium. Citizens Bank Park will now rely on Green-e Energy — the leading certifier of renewable energy — to provide the stadium with 2 million megawatt hours.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Phillies’ purchase marks the largest renewable energy purchase to date in U.S. professional sports. The team is racking up plenty of firsts to go with their baseball records. The team is also among the three largest purchasers of renewable energy in the city of Philadelphia and in the top seven in the state of Pennsylvania. The initiative is being supported by the Pennsylvania state government, as well as the Philadelphia municipal government — both the governor and the mayor were present for the initial announcement.
The team is in the process of reducing the overall environmental impact of the stadium in other ways:
- Plastics and serviceware used in the stadium must be biodegradable or recyclable.
- Frying oil from stadium concessions is recycled to produce bio-diesel fuel.
- Glass, cardboard and plastics used during games are recycled.
- The team wears green caps for some games to increase fans’ environmental awareness.
- Rain run-off water is used for landscaping.
- Full-time Phillies employees (including coaches and players) receive a one-year credit for using renewable energy at home.
- Lighting is being converted to LEDs.
Phillies president David Montgomery refused to put a price tag on the team’s environmental efforts for an article on MLB.com, but did say the following:
"It is a significant number, but we don't exactly know what it is. We're not sure how much it's going to run. When you're in, you're in. We decided it's the right approach to take. We're excited to join MLB in bringing the awareness to fans about the environment and how to be more conscious about it.”
Major League Baseball has made an overall commitment to encourage teams to go green and have offered support and coordination through their Team Greening Program. As other teams follow up on the Phillies’ lead, commenters may run out of baseball metaphors — the EPA’s administrator, Stephen Johnson has already used a few: "EPA applauds the Philadelphia Phillies for 'playing ball' and protecting our environment by purchasing green power. By being the first major league baseball team to join the Green Power Partnership, the Phillies have hit a grand slam for the environment."
The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have taken their first step towards completing their joint Clean Air Action Plan, which was created last year. The ports have convinced a number of trucking companies to lower emissions from trucks. They also plan to lower emissions from ships, equipment and other port sources. The goal is to lower total emissions by 45% over the next five years, and truck emissions in particular by 80%.
A key step in the plan is replacing at least half of the 16,000 diesel trucks operating in and around the port with trucks running on liquefied natural gas. The ports are beginning by banning any trucks made in 1989 or earlier from the port as of October. Carriers including TTSI, South Counties Express and California Cartage have already agreed to make the switch over.
The port authorities have committed approximately $500 million to the change over. They’re working with Texas-based Clean Energy to create local fueling stations, and Clean Energy has already built a $70 million distribution center in the Mojave Desert to service the ports and nearby cities. The fuel distributed by Clean Energy comes from Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and California. More information is available from the Long-Beach Press-Telegram.
Photo — Junk_ID_09
Verysupercool, a greeting card company out of Austin Texas, is Carbonfund.org’s poster child. They are one of only two greeting card companies that use only 100% post-consumer waste paper. And the carbon emissions necessary for their business — shipping cards across the country to the more than 100 stores carrying Verysupercool’s products, for instance — are offset with the help of Carbonfund.org.
Verysupercool is a member of the CarbonFree Small Business program run by Carbonfund.org. Meant for companies with 10 or fewer employees, the program offers an option for carbon offsets that fits into a small business’ budget. The program has effectively zeroed out Verysupercool’s carbon footprint.
Sue Rostvold, one of Verysupercool’s co-founders, advocates small business carbon offsets:
"Our affiliation with Carbonfund.org seemed like a natural extension of our mission. We are excited by the work that Carbonfund.org is doing and are proud to be a part of it. We feel it's important to raise awareness and show other businesses and individuals how easy it is to make our planet healthier for everyone!"
Verysupercool’s green efforts were honored in last month’s Greeting etc. — the trade magazine covering the stationery business.
Image courtesy Verysupercool
Turbine designs like Swift’s quiet, round design (pictured) or Aero’s Parapet turbines, are creating more options for architects and landowners working with zoning limits and aesthetic goals. Rather than erecting a large turbine in the back yard, these small-scale systems provide reduced noise, fuss and investment.
Turbines are stereotyped as giant, lumbering metal towers that shred migrating birds, when in fact they don’t need to take up much more of a footprint than a weather vane. This duo of fresh new designs both harness new types of wind energy and are aesthetically kind. Small, roof mounted turbines have an advantage because they not only can use general wind energy, but their location also allows them to take advantage of the thermals hitting the building and moving upward.
Small-scale wind is cheaper, easier to maintain and fix, and is likely to neutralize what can sometimes become a battle with the zoning board. In most cases, roof mounted turbines do not change the height of the building enough to require a special permit. Though compact turbines do provide less power than their large scale counterparts, they can still usually pay for themselves in less than a decade.
Read more at Inhabitat.
The International Bicycle Design Competiton (IBCD) saw a new generation of bicycles that transform into their own container, like jackets that pack down into a pocket. The bicycles can fold, breakdown and pack into an array of types of wheeled luggage.
Shape-shifting bicycles are poised to solve the pesky problem of taking a bike on the bus, plane or subway when you also need it where you’re going. Part of the success of these bicycles is reducing the wheel size. Wheels in shape-shifting bicycles are generally minimal and durable, changing the traditional bicycle profile. This allows the bicycles to reduce the size and structure of other components, like crossbars. All the bikes can break down in some way, and competition favorite Everglide (pictured) folds into its own attached backpack.
The bikes also feature other cool clean tech innovations, like chargers that use the kinetic energy generated by riding the bike, or get this, built in windmills, to power cell phones and ipods. Most bike are made of lightweight aluminum and composite construction to make them easy to carry around. Though not particularly useful to the long-distance tour rider, these bikes might be the saving grace for commuters and travelers who both bike and use public transportation.
The Rocky Mountain Institute’s ‘Built Environment’ Team released a new report, “Barriers and Breakthroughs for Multi-Tenant Developments” to address multi-tenant buildings, a logistical pain in the butt for green innovators.
Selecting effective incentives to encourage multi-tenant buildings to adopt green upgrades is proving difficult for an array of reasons. Not only are tenants often contractually prohibited from making substantive changes to their rentals, but if they do, the benefit stays with the landlord, who can also retain the tax benefits. Additionally, landlords have been slow to adopt green design, doubting their return on investment. Environmentally minded tenants are left to lobby their landlords to argue the case for greening.
This is where the Rocky Mountain Institute’s BET comes in. The RMI-BET seeks to make it clear to landowners that making energy and clean-tech investments pay off, in the short and long term, for both tenants and landlords. In fact, it seems that environmental investments in real estate can raise the value of the property and may result in higher rental rates. The RMI-BET report also points to improvements in leasing procedures that can remedy issues, such as incorporating infrastructural upgrades into leases, anticipating renters’ realistic square footage needs, also suggesting strategies for marketing and financing. Read more or get the report at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
Mayor Gavin Newsom wants the citizens of San Francisco to recycle. Everything. Or else.
Newsom, who described himself as “intense” about recycling, is preparing a proposal for a new recycling program that would make recycling mandatory, with violations punished by suspended trash privileges.
San Francisco’s success, manifested in the highest waste diversion rate in the nation at seventy percent, is the result of an array of innovative waste management tools. One is specialized garbage trucks, which keep glass shards from mixing with paper, easing the recycling process and producing higher quality recycled matter. Another is a creative rate structure, where citizens pay higher rates if they generate more waste. In turn, this encourages participation in a municipal compost project. San Francisco’s compost then fertilizes California’s growing zone, the San Joaquin Valley. San Franciscans also recycle concrete from renovations, which end up back in sidewalks, as well as paint, which is filtered, remixed and supplied to local nonprofits.
San Francisco’s recycling campaigns are getting noticed, more often in China and Germany than in the Midwest, where waste diversion rates lag (but, are ahead of Alaska). San Francisco environmental staff are ‘big in Japan’, frequently called upon to speak to foreign governments about waste reduction strategies.
Read more at the NYTimes.
NanoMarkets, a Virginia-based industry analyst firm, has issued a new report on the potential market for organic photovoltaics. The company says the market for organic PV could reach as high as $1 billion by 2015, pretty impressive considering that the technology hasn't really hit the market yet.
The advantages of organic PV, compared to traditional panel technology, are that it's lighter, more flexible, lower cost, and easier to manufacture. Not to mention that it doesn't need to be made with pricey silicon and its non-toxic (hence, the organic). The material also has the potential to be printed into sheets with special silicon inks, which could send the cost of solar plummeting faster than Hillary's campaign - ok, not that fast.
The NanoMarket study says that building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) - building materials with solar inside - will account for almost 1/2 the organic PV market. The best OLEDs, organic/inorganic hybrids, are squeezing out about 11% efficiency in the lab, only 2-4% shy of commercial PV panels. Even better, the authors say that the integration of fullerenes could double the efficiency within a couple of years. Man, those buckyballs can do anything.
With some leaps in technology, like increasing its useful lifetime, OLED solar could take over the industry. Traditional PVs are bulky and, let's be honest, only beautiful because of what they are. The demand for sun power you can feel, but can't see will only grow over time andBIPV just make sense. Why blight the landscape with endless acres of solar panels, when the juice can be produced in the big cities, where it's needed most?
- this presentation from some workshop has a great description of OPV technology.
EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson found himself on the business end of an Al Kamen flaying in the pages of the Washington Post today. It seems the former chemical executive found the old back just too darn sore to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this morning, marking just the latest in a series of non-appearances by the EPA chief.
Come to think of it, there hasn’t been a whole lot of protection going on down at the EPA of late, either. The agency doesn’t seem to think it’s their responsibility to regulate greenhouse gasses, or to control air pollution from oil refineries, or to set reasonable mercury emission controls, or even to punish chemical companies for the release of toxic waste.
Correct me if I’m wrong, here, but wasn’t the EPA founded—under President Nixon, of all people—with the mission of “protecting human health and the environment”? Since that time, hasn’t the EPA scored some major environmental victories, such as the Endangered Species Act and Superfund legislation? So why the sudden impotence? Has the EPA simply lost its relevance in the modern era?
The answer is a resounding “no”. As it turns out, the hearing Administrator Johnson skipped this morning addressed recent findings that suggest the EPA’s fall from its perch as environmental protector has been due not to any change in legislation or loophole, but to direct and intentional interference by private influence and the reigning Presidential administration.
Indeed, the survey in question, published just last week, indicates that political interference with science and the law is rampant at the Agency. Among the more concerning findings:
“394 scientists (31 percent) had personally experienced frequent or occasional ‘statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists’ findings.
560 scientists (49 percent) knew of ‘many or some’ cases where political appointees at other federal agencies had inappropriately involved themselves in decisions.
889 scientists (60 percent of respondents) personally experienced at least one incident of political interference during the past five years.
507 scientists (42 percent) knew of ‘many or some’ cases where ‘commercial interests have inappropriately induced the reversal or withdrawal of EPA scientific conclusions or decisions through political intervention.’”
Fortunately for the American people, the report has been well received by legislators, despite the unwillingness of administrator Johnson to directly address the topic. At a separate meeting yesterday, Senator Barbara Boxer (D, California), already a bit miffed at the timing of a recent trip Johnson took to Australia, was particularly pointed in her criticism of the agency.
Though the days of the current administration are numbered, it’s clear that the EPA needs to retake its old role as a watchdog and objective voice protecting the security of America’s environmental resources. Regardless of who resides in the Oval Office, the specter of private sector interference in EPA research is ever present, and represents a tremendous threat to the same “health and environment” that the Agency is charged to protect.
The auto manufacturer announced yesterday that it would cover all gas costs above $2.99-a-gallon for three years with the purchase of a new Chrysler vehicle. It was at this point that 3rd graders everywhere did some quick math and realized it was anything but a good deal.
According to David Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “the buyer of an average Chrysler vehicle would save $400 a year under Chrysler's deal. But a mere 3-mpg boost would yield the same savings.” Indeed, this meager mileage improvement would yield a $3,000 savings over the life of the car.
This is just the latest in a long history of eco-lulz from Chrysler, which boasts some of the worst fleet economy statistics in the world. The company was on the losing end of a landmark eco-law case last year, and has yet to announce plans for hybrids in a size smaller than “land yacht”.
Guess they must have seen what a hit GMC’s Yukon hybrid was with the intelligentsia…
At first, you may have mistaken it for more ranting from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. But do not be fooled: $200-a-barrel oil could very well be in your future.
You know, I never thought I’d find myself referencing Glenn Beck twice in the same week. Then again, I never thought I’d find a Republican presidential nominee (ok, presumptive nominee) singing the praises of the French.
Yes, in his complete misinterpretation of a recent Nature article on the illustrious Mr. Beck’s radio show, John McCain added his name to a long list of high profile politicians peddling nuclear power as an easy solution to the problem of global warming.
Now, don’t get me wrong. In a country like America, where the fully half the nation’s electricity is produced by coal, nuclear power has some obvious advantages. It produces no direct carbon impact, and is free of the sulfur and heavy metal emissions that are part and parcel with the combustion of fossil fuels.
Additionally, as McCain pointed out, nuclear power has been successfully implemented on a large scale in other countries, which is something many of the newer and relatively untested low-carbon energy sources cannot boast. Recently, other nations looking to reduce their carbon impact have turned to nuclear, in part because fission can boast a relatively strong safety record compared to other power sources.
Of course, when things do go wrong with nuclear, they go wrong in a big way. American attitudes toward nuclear power soured in 1979 after the Three Mile Island incident, and while the nation has fortunately never experienced anything on the scale of the Chernobyl disaster, as you can see from the incidents reported this map, nuclear safety in America has a long way to go.
At any rate, the long-term viability of of nuclear as a clean energy source is questionable: Deforestation for clearing plant sites releases carbon into the environment, and then there’s the thorny matter of what to do with the nuclear fuel once it’s been used up. Even the climate-friendliness of uranium extraction has been called into question:
“The extent of economically recoverable uranium, although somewhat uncertain, is clearly linked to exploration effort, technology and economics but is inextricably linked to environmental costs, such as energy, water, and chemicals consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and broader social issues,” say Gavin Mudd and Mark Diesendorf, authors of a recent study on the “eco-effeciency” of uranium mining.
So while the debate continues to rage over the sustainability of nuclear power, it’s clear that as a nation, America cannot simply forget about “global warming and concentrate on other things like Social Security”, as Mr. Beck puts it. As the technologies of green energy continue to evolve, new solutions will emerge, and governments worldwide need to focus on implementing those solutions wisely, based on the best available data.
Two large-scale carbon sequestration projects — the West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership and the Midwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership — landed a total of $126.6 million in U.S. Department of Energy funds. The cash will be used to test carbon sequestration technology in California and Ohio. The two projects are the fifth and sixth projects the DOE has funded to improve carbon storage technology.
Both projects are intended to demonstrate the CO2 injection process, from pre-injection characterization to post-injection monitoring, and between the two projects, the DOE expects to see injections of one million tons or more of CO2. So far, the DOE has pursued similar tests in the Plains, Southeast and Southwest regions, through similar regional partnerships. DOE acting deputy secretary of energy Jeffrey Kuper alls these projects “the most promising of the major geologic basins in the United States.” He followed up in a press release from the DOE by saying that, “Collectively, these formations have the potential to store more than 100 years of CO2 emissions from all major point sources in North America.”
Carbon sequestration is a pretty costly investment. John Gartner wrote about the issue late last year, and it's still as problematic as it was then.
PepsiCo has unveiled a new bottle for several of their products: a 500 ml bottle made with 20% less plastic than older bottles and labeled with a smaller label size. As a further measure, the bottles will also require 5% less shrink wrap to package in a group.
The bottles will be used for non-carbonated PepsiCo products, including Tropicana Juices, Lipton Iced Tea and several varieties of Aquafina products. They’ll be sold in 12-packs and 24-packs. No word yet on other brands under the Pepsi umbrella: Gatorade and, of course, Pepsi itself.
PepsiCo is branding their repackaging plans as part of the company’s “Performance with Purpose” mission — a company-wide plan to growth sustainably and reduce environmental impact. The plan also comes on the tail of fairly significant troubles for beverage sellers on the packaging front, including bans and special taxes on the sale of bottled water within such cities as Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle.
Robert Lewis, the vice president of PepsiCo’s worldwide beverage packaging development unit, heralds the new bottles as a trifecta, meeting the needs of the environment, consumers and PepsiCo’s equipment needs:
"The challenge was to deliver significantly lighter packaging that would provide the same shelf life as the heavier bottle, withstand the manufacturing and distribution process yet not compromise aesthetics."
In another entry for the “disaster that could have been lessened by sound environmental planning” file, according to Surin Pitsuwan, head of ASEAN, the damage from the tropical cyclone that recently devastated Myanmar (or Burma, depending on who you get your news from) could have been significantly mitigated if mangrove forests still protected the shoreline.
Mangroves, which include several different species of tropical trees and shrubs that grow in the mud and salty water along coastline, can remain rooted through the force of a tropical storm, and quickly regrow leaves, allowing them to act as both a natural wave break, and as protection against shore erosion.
However, mangrove plots worldwide have been vanishing rapidly, largely due to human encroachment into previously pristine areas. Resort developments and expanding shoreline industry are fingered as the major culprits, and with all the other high-tech efforts aimed at protecting oceanfront communities taken since 2004, you’d think someone would have taken the time to plant a few more mangroves.
Emphasizing that the technology to be green does exist, the American Institute of Architects announced their top ten U.S. green building projects of 2008, highlighting a wide range of creative green building strategies.
For example, the Macallen Condos (pictured) in Boston incorporated the location of its site into its LEED certification, building the 140 unit complex at a hub of transportation options, including subway, bus and air. The Macallen condos boast an innovative green roof, two feet of greenery that filter air, control runoff, and help to insulate the building. The Cesar Chavez Library, located in Laveen Arizona, used earthen mounds to insulate the building and stabilize temperatures. Additionally, the roof is designed to collect rainwater and long overhangs shade the building. The Lavin-Bernick University Center’s renovation, at Tulane in Louisiana, though interrupted by Hurricane Katrina, won a spot on the AIA’s list this year, boasting a passive cooling system sufficient for all the cooling needs for half the year.
The projects honored by the AIA are important to show builders (like those recently studied by Calvert) that there are manageable, cost effective ways to implement green building techniques. Further, those techniques can be as simple and passive as extending eves and landscaping berms near buildings. To read more, visit Building Green.
Socially responsible investment fund Calvert rated the top dozen publicly funded homebuilders in the nation based on their sustainability. Only KB Homes of Los Angeles, which has has built 15,000 Energy Star rated homes, impressed.
On a positive note, some homebuilders studied have set ambitious green building goals for the future. Sadly, the builders haven't substantially launched these programs yet, nor were any willing to make green building a central principle in their business practice. However, traditional biases against green building materials are changing, in part because builders are forced to keep up with evolving building codes set by states and municipalities.
Calvert hoped that its study, “Greener Pastures for America’s Homebuilders? A Survey of Sustainable Practices by the Homebuilding Industry” would help homebuyers make informed real estate investments and reward sustainable companies. Greenbuilding and renovating is widely considered to be the easiest and highest impact means to carbon reduction and energy efficiency.
Nonetheless, some builders are flatlining on sustainability. The lowest ranked homebuilders register no indication in any media materials that they know of or employ any green building strategies, nor prioritze any environmental protection in their business practices. We’re talking to you, NVR Inc., Standard Pacific, K. Hovnanian and MDC Holdings!
The University of Wyoming is ready to research clean coal and wants proposals from both academic and industry organizations. With the help of the Wyoming state government, they’ve arranged for up to $4.5 million in research funds — which can be matched by non-state funds.
State funding comes from two specific appropriations made by the state legislature. One was made during the 2008 legislative session for $3.8 million. An additional $677,519 remains from a previous appropriation.
The state government is focused on finding better ways to use Wyoming’s coal deposits. Mining is the state’s most lucrative industry and is crucial to the local economy. The state has an estimated reserve of 68 billion tons of coal. That number, combined with the $48 million the state government collects in sales tax from the mining industry in a given years, makes it an unusually ideal place to explore clean coal.
Ron Harper, the chair of the School of Energy Resources’ Energy Resources Council, commented:
"Wyoming can play a pivotal role as our nation moves toward a goal of less dependency on foreign sources of energy and at the same time balancing the needs of our environment."
The University of Wyoming is specifically soliciting proposals on the following:
- pre-combustion and pre-gasification
- combustion and gasification design
- post-gasification gas clean-up
- advanced cycle technologies.
- air separation
- carbon capture and sequestration
- in situ gasification
- coal to liquids or coal to hydrogen technologies
- economic analyses
Proposals are due by August 1, 2008 and further information about the proposal process is available on the University of Wyoming website. They will be evaluated specifically on the benefits that a given course of research will have for the state of Wyoming, as well as the potential for improving the use of the state’s coal resources. Furthermore, the results of any research funded through the program will be publically available.
The past few weeks have seem phenomenal amounts of money being made available to companies willing to invest time in cleantech. This offer from the state legislature of Wyoming and the University of Wyoming is only noteworthy because of the specificity of the the funding offering. Wyoming legislaturers know that the taxes that come from the coal mining business are going to stop if burning coal is no longer an option for energy production. It sounds like they’ve thought about the situation and are working hard to make sure that they aren’t put in the uncomfortable position of pushing for coal use despite environmental issues. It’s a great display of adaptability on the part of the Wyoming state legislature.
The rulers came out today at the EU, and tonight, nine member states—a full third of the EU—will be nursing swollen knuckles.
The discipline stems from the collective failure of Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain to conform to UN pollution control statutes. While the punishment this time around is merely a written warning, second offenses carry heavy fines.
This is just the latest in a long line of environmental snafus for Greece. The Mediterranean nation, whose capitol, Athens, features some of the worst gridlock in the world, found itself suspended from the UN’s carbon trading program last month for failing to maintain an accurate measure of its greenhouse emissions.
The offense is something of a surprise for the Netherlands, which boasts some of the best developed and most widely used bicycle infrastructure in Europe, not to mention a few bunch of other really cool green innovations. Anyone out there have inside information on the causes behind the Dutch slip up?
This morning, the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office announced that the Climate Trust will be responsible for implementing the Colorado Carbon Fund, a program intended to help Colorado establish a “new energy economy.”
Specifically, the Colorado Carbon Fund will provide Colorado residents with easy access to verifiable carbon offsets. It’s only one part of an over all Colorado Climate Action Plan, which includes funding community-based clean energy projects and offering incentives to cleantech companies who operate in Colorado as well as research funds.
The part of the Colorado Carbon Fund’s approach that I think is especially worthwhile is the fact that the carbon offsets offered to Colorado residents will be the result of Colorado based programs, rather than nebulous credits that occur ‘somewhere.’ Colorado residents will be able to see the direct results of the Carbon Fund. That sort of direct involvement is key in expanding interest in carbon offsets to Colorado residents who may not spend much time thinking about the environment.
"Okay, fine, so how do I get the best windows? That’s not so easy. It looks as if the big name window manufacturers carry only windows of average to good energy efficiency while the super efficient windows are made by someone named Karl in his woodshed. And my builder doesn’t know Karl."
Essentially, the market hasn't caught up to demand yet. There's a demand for energy efficient homes (even if buyers have to remodel to get them), but quality materials seem to be out of reach. And demand is only going up: with energy prices rising, well-off cartoonists aren't the only people looking to make their homes more effiicient. Making materials available to conumers — as well as the information needed to choose between them — is going to make the trailblazing companies a whole heck of a lot of money. Right now, though, everyone's waiting on real estate agents and building material suppliers to make some changes in the way they do business.
We all know disappearing ink as a must-have in any self-respecting spy's toolkit, but is it also a legitimate tool for energy conservation?
Xerox Corporation seems to think so, working in conjunction with research subsidiary Palo Alto Research Center to develop a resilient paper and printer that work in concert to save resources.
The paper, planned to be reusable, is to be paired with a specialized ink and printer. The ink on the paper fades within a day in response to light, and the paper is ready for reuse up to one hundred times.
Xerox is capitalizing on the familiar environmental principle of reuse, with the idea that reusing an item saves the resources that would otherwise be spent manufacturing another, identical item for single use. Printing on the specialized paper requires only 20% of the energy used to print a normal 8" x 10" document.
Though presenting some interesting complications for contracts and legal documents, and loaded with opportunity for sit-com chuckles, the concept of disappearing ink does appear to have viable practical implications. According to Xerox, almost half of the documents we print are intended for one-time use, and with trillions of documents printed a year, the aggregate effect of Xerox’s new technology could be tremendous.
Read more at CNET
The USGS recently worked with Afghanistan to survey that nation, revealing significant stores of fresh water, non-fuel minerals, oil and gas. The survey was accomplished via flyover using sophisticated equipment due to the mountainous terrain of the country. The same mountainous terrain complicates extraction, increasing risks and costs.
The resulting data is meant to inform investors and policymakers in developing Afghanistan’s economic base. Yet considering the outcome of proposed product sharing agreements of oil in Iraq, which would only marginally benefit the Iraqi people and then not equally based on sect, it is unclear whether renewed US interest in Afghanistan’s resources should be considered a good thing for Afghanis.
Product Sharing Agreements are contracts with international extraction corporations that provide the signing country with the infrastructure and expertise to extract their resources, while the contractor gets a share (often hefty) of the profits. Afghanistan is also the key to a natural gas pipeline connecting the Iranian oil reserves in the Caspian Sea to India. The pipeline will pass through Afghanistan and is poised for Russian approval.
The USGS study coincides with a possible increase of US troops in Afghanistan, ostensibly to make up for withdrawn NATO troops. The latest Afghanistan surge would bring troop levels up to post 9/11 levels.
Read more at Science Daily
Photo by USGS
It appears that New York state is getting serious on energy efficiency. The effort is being led by newly-minted Governor David Paterson. The state has committed to reducing overall electricity demand 15% below projected levels by 2015, he's folding the state's biggest utilities into the plan.
Powerhouse electricity provider National Grid, for its part, is adding $1.50 to the bills of its customers to beef up energy-efficiency programs. They expect the new actions to save 4.4 million megawatt hours of electricity and more than $350 million for their customers. The programs will focus on incentives for green building, low-power heating and cooling, and Energy Star appliances. The utility explains that simple energy-saving steps can ease the pain in the pocket: "For example, by replacing just five old incandescent light bulbs with new compact fluorescent bulbs, an individual ratepayer can save an estimated $9 per month on their electricity bill, which outweighs the estimated monthly costs of implementing these programs.”
Long Island seems to be figuring importantly into the efficiency equation. The Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) - a partner with National Grid - has announced that it will charge its customers an extra $1 billion over ten years to pay for efficiency initiatives there. The $3/month increases are planned to help pay for rebates for eco-conscious appliances and energy savings at local businesses.
LIPA is also looking to get into the solar business, requesting proposals for 50 megawatts of solar-generated power on Long Island. They expect photovoltaic arrays to cover such choice locals as rooftops, landfills, and brownfields. The plan is part of LIPA's Solar Pioneer Program and will add up to 1% of the utility's total annual demand.
If Long Island becomes the green energy capital of the U.S., then we truly are on our way to a carbonless economy.
The U.S. Department of Energy has opened its checkbook for concentrating solar power (CSP). The government agency will be letting loose of $60 million over the next five years to support research and development of thermal-based solar technologies. The move is part of the Bush Administration's Solar America Initiative, which aims to make solar competitive with other electricity sources by 2015.
The funding will be available to industry and educational institutions for between 10 and 25 projects in total. $10 million will be budgeted for each of fiscal years 2008 and 2009. In all, private cost sharing could push the funding total to over 75 million buckaroos.
DOE's announcement comes on the heels of a $13.7 million allocation for university research in photovoltaics and $5.4 million for its 2008 Solar Cities.
Concentrating solar power, using gathered sunray heat to power energy-makers, comes in 3 varieties: parabolic trough, dish/engine, and power tower. Parabolic troughs use curved mirrors to heat oil, powering a steam turbine. The dish-engine setup uses a concentrating dish to heat a fluid and power a small internal engine, with the energy used to run a generator.
Now that you know the technical break-down, here's my take. The trough system sounds like it belongs on a farm feeding pigs, but I'm sure it works just fine. The dish engine has a geeky tinkerers appeal, especially the old timey stirling engine. Still, my fave is definitely the power tower. It has a cool name, it runs on molten salt, and looks kinda like a death ray.
Seth Godin wrote a post this weekend on marketing green products. He started with a few words on a marketing campaign from Tumi Luggage:
The initial public activities surrounding this campaign start in Spring 2008, with the launch of Tumi's new generation of classic travel and business accessories, the Alpha Collection. Tumi is sponsoring a "Go Green, Get Green" program that rewards consumers with Tumi $100 Gift Certificates for qualifying purchases and where Tumi has pledged to plant 100,000 trees in various reforestation projects administered and overseen by the long-standing leader in the field, Global ReLeaf.
I'm in agreement with Seth: 100,000 trees for buying suitcases? How many trees per bag? Half a tree for a handbag? What's the real number here?
Numbers are Seth's point: Marketing is all about telling buyers why your product is better — which is often easiest if you can just compare simple numbers. I drive a Prius because it gets 50 miles per gallon, which is a clear numerical advantage over my old 20-miles-to-a-gallon Buick.
Even with companies adding labels like "cleantech," "green" or "sustainable" to their products, their marketing efforts will go better if buyers can spot a numerical advantage:
- the distance a piece of produce has traveled
- the amount of space a recyclable won't be taking up in the landfill
- the cost of the energy an energy-efficient appliance is saving
One organization that I think is doing this right is EnergyStar. Consider its efforts to encourage consumers to use compact fluorescent light bulbs: The Energy Star website points out that CFLs last 10 times longer than the average incandescent bulb and saves about $30 over the course of a bulb's lifetime. There's a clear financial advantage, evident by looking at the numbers. But very few companies focus on the numbers when trying to sell green products. Instead, the focus seems to be a nebulous feel-good concept that comes with buying something that helps Mother Earth — a sort of environmental altruism that only targets a fraction of potential consumers.
Seth made one final point that really highlights the opportunities in green businesses today:
People notice a number, and they work to improve it. If every car sold in our country had a real-time gas consumption meter on the dashboard and the rear window, things would change very fast.
Whether a company is making kitchen appliances more efficient, or a company is working to eliminate trash in landfills, there are very real numbers at stake — numbers that everyone, no matter their interest in a sustainable lifestyle, has some level of interest in seeing.
TerraCycle, a company specializing in the reuse of waste: among other things, it makes pencil cases out of Capri Sun drink packages and binders out of reused cardboard. Office Max is now planning to stock these used-to-be-trash products, and is teaming up with TerraCycle to develop more office supplies.
What I’ve seen so far from TerraCycle sounds good: not only is the company keeping trash out of landfills, it's offering schools and other community organizations a way to raise funds by collecting all sorts of ‘waste’ products — and considering how many Capri Suns the typical elementary school goes through, even at 2 cents a package, there’s an opportunity to raise a reasonable amount of money, as well as a chance to demonstrate recycling and reusing waste, rather than carting it off to the dump.
TerraCycle has even managed to settle a David/Goliath match they had with Miracle-Gro after the introduction of TerraCycle’s first product, a fertilizer packaged in old soda bottles. There were some accusations about TerraCycle’s packaging and Miracle-Gro sued — and then settled — last year. TerraCycle is now branching out, using their experience reusing used containers as a starting point.
Image courtesy of TerraCycle.
Generation Investment Management — the investment firm chaired by former Vice President and all around green guy Al Gore — announced over the weekend that it has set up an investment fund for green start-ups. The new Climate Solutions Fund reportedly has $683 million in its coffers. This announcement comes on the heels of last week’s new fund from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — a venture capital firm in which Gore has a significant leadership role. Reportedly, a sizable amount of the $500-million Kleiner Perkins fund came from Generation.
Between these two new funds, both Generation's CEO, David Blood, and Gore are heavily invested in developing green businesses. While their exact investments have not been disclosed, they’ve made it clear that they’re putting their money where their mouths are: Blood told the Financial Times that he believes that green investments are the only way to go in a tough market:
"A fear expressed by some is that the first thing to go in a downturn is the nice-to-have sort of investment. Some people put green investments in that category, but we think that is nonsense. This is not nice-to-have - it is fundamental finance . . . because the transition from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy is a ginormous step that is going to happen quickly.”
Not sure how many Glenn Beck fans we’ve got out there (I’m hoping none), but a month ago, the CNN pundit wrote an article about how we should love our big oil companies, instead of demonizing them. After all, oil companies “give” us so much (by selling us oil), and the sizable (18 cent) gas tax doesn’t give us anything (except roads).
While reasoning may not be Mr. Beck’s forte, I decided maybe I ought to step back for a second and try to objectively re-evaluate my feelings about the oil industry. After all, the oil giant is apparently mass-producing light and efficient lithium-ion batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles, and has licensed out some proprietary catalysts to help build a greener rubber band.
Still, for the most profitable company in the history of the United States, that just doesn’t seem like much of a nod. And the shareholders—including a few descendants of the crotchety old robber baron that started it all—seem to agree with me.
So what are your thoughts? Will big oil always do more harm than good, or will it eventually adapt to greener technologies?
If you, or someone you know, has never read, seen, or heard of The Grapes of Wrath, a vacation down under may be in order. The years-long drought on the island nation will now require several years of consistent, above-average rainfall to correct. And The Land Down Under isn’t the only place suffering.
Global warming, if it isn’t directly causing the problem, is certainly a complicating factor; most analysts predict that farming will become far more difficult as the climate continues to warm, and some even expect that the problem will spread to other areas. And did I mention this is at a time where global food demand is skyrocketing?
The good news is that policy makers seem quicker to adapt to these changes, rapidly shifting support to a farm bill that focuses less on thirsty corn biofuels, and more on biofuels made from byproducts and grasses. Whether this unusual agility will continue through the legislative process, however, remains to be seen.
It's official: Biofuels have been D-listed. Food prices are escalating, causing starvation and food riots, and word is getting around (finally) that corn ethanol isn't the great green hope Midwestern farmers thought it was. Ah, the unintended consequences of interest-driven politics.
To encourage backpedaling on such poorly-planned policy, packaged food manufacturers have decided to fight lobbyists with lobbyists. The cost of corn, wheat and cheese is wreaking havoc with their profits. Kraft posted a 13% drop in first-quarter earnings and even companies tangentially related to these markets - like Coca-Cola, which buys corn syrup by thev atful - are getting squeezed. I can't imagine what this must be doing to the profits of nature-snack Pirate's Booty, made from wheat, corn, and cheese. MPs in Britain and the UN's top food advisor Olivier de Schutter are piling on.
Meanwhile, a scolding column in Canada's Times Colonist rebukes environmentalists for the destruction the planet in the pursuit of biofuels. In support, the author cites Amazon clear-cutting for sugar cane and palm oil along with the wasteful nature of corn ethanol. He finishes by saying, "But whose hectoring, lobbying, advertising and scaremongering created the political pressure that has compelled politicians and executives to go 'green?' The environmental movement. That's who's behind the disaster of biofuels."
First, let's step back and realize that among the environmental community, the carbon problems of corn ethanol and the tragedies of slash-and-burn biofuels have been expounded for years. Nobody listened. In part, that's because corn growers and politicians - repeated in variation elsewhere in the world - have created a comfortable cabal for ignoring these issues and whipping up billions for the wrong kind of ethanol.
Second, if you want to talk about global ecological destruction, you might want to start with generations of overzealous and ongoing logging, fishing, building, burning, growing, and consuming. Changes brought about by global warming play an increasing, but less clear, role.
Moreover, it's hardly reasonable to assume that biofuels are singly causing the worldwide meltdown in staple food markets. It's always a safe bet to link China with any major market change nowadays and this crisis is no exception. The country is consuming ever more products like rice and wheat and larger numbers of Chinese families are able to afford to eat meat. Hundred-dollar-a-barrel oil, of course, is doing its part, as well.
I think cellulosic ethanol is on the precipice of real viability. There also seems to be reason to believe that we're finally learning our lesson on first-gen biofuels (aka, meth-anol). There are myriad causes for our food woes; unwise biofueling is simply aggravating a much bigger problem. Biofuels are going to be a critical part of our future energy mix, but we have to realize that this is something we cannot lobby (or editorialize) our way out of. It will take focused, smart, sustainable planning.
Green IT. It just rings in the ears. It is tech, it is eco. It also sounds like a greenwashy way to make nice on the eco front while doing carbon-intensive business as usual. However, a new report by McKinsey & Company and the Uptime Institute says that data centers are big, expensive CO2 polluters that are poised to cause big headaches for IT Managers nationwide.
It may now be a common fact that the price to store or transfer a megabyte of data is quickly approaching zero, but in many ways the cost of IT is still going up. The installed server base is expected to reach 41-43 million by 2010 and energy consumption per server is growing by 9% per year. Spending on equipment, energy, and maintenance is growing so quickly that it has the potential to reduce profits among major companies.
For many industries, the greenhouse gas output of IT is shaping up to be a big problem, especially as companies start to look closer at their carbon footprints. The authors warn that even with immediate increases in efficiency, enterprises and their equipment providers can expect their tech-related GHG emissions to balloon, quadrupling by 2020. Some of the major culprits are insufficient IT planning across organizations, inefficient equipment, and wasted capacity.
To conteract these trends, the groups recommend a doubling of IT energy efficiency by 2012. How will this be accomplished? They say that companies must make IT energy management a priority by appointing internal "Energy Czars" and taking into account data center costs in business decisions. The authors also push for the establishment of voluntary automotive-style Corporate Average Data Efficiency (CADE) standards that would measure data center efficiency across an organization and set escalating target levels to aim for.
Quick fixes like maximizing data center space usage and shutting down underused or "dead" servers can save a ton of cash and carbon. Still, larger improvements like cooling servers with outside air, green facility design and internal auditing of IT-related business processes will be needed to make significant gains. In short, corporations need to treat their IT management with as much cost scrutiny as they do other parts of their business.
The world's data centers pump out 170 megatons of CO2/yr, more than the countries of Argentina and the Netherlands. As a percentage of total world carbon dioxide output, these digital warehouses may soon pass up the airline industry. With numbers like that, and greenhouse gas legislation marching its way through Washington, data centers may soon be expected to put the brakes on their kilowatts per gigabyte.
No matter who wears the pants, trucks should be fitted for skirts. A recent public-private partnership in the Netherlands yielded that "side skirts" for the trailers of freight trucks reduce aerodynamic drag.
Side skirts are panels that attach to the sides of the trailer and extend the length of the trailer closer to the ground. Side skirts reduce air friction by minimizing currents under the vehicle. Reducing friction in this way appears to cut air resistance by nearly 20% and fuel consumption by 10 to 15%, subsequently reducing emissions.
Adding other parts that "close the gaps" and streamline trailers are similarly quick and relatively inexpensive means to trucking efficiency. Many of these parts are already typically available, such as roof fairings (the curved hood above the cab), a cab extender (flaps that help the sides of the truck meet the trailer), and a front air dam (extension of the bumper from the grill), leading to modest efficiency gains of up to 5%.
Additionally, truck manufacturers often offer aerodynamic models whose more expensive initial cost will soon be quickly balanced by the increased cost in gas of driving inefficient models. In 2007 alone, SC Johnson Co. saved a reported $1.6 million through efficiency measures.
Read more at:
Green Car Congress
Fragrant after cutting and ticklish between the toes, lawns may be the quintessential symbol of suburban living. The lawn is facing increasing competition from moss, however, due to the latter's relative sustainability, resilience, and easy maintenance requirements.
That lush green carpet we all know and love has serious environmental costs: NASA estimates that turf is the U.S.’s most irrigated crop, logging in at thirty two million acres, equivalent acreage to most of the states in the Northeast combined. As of 2006, the U.S. spent as much as three times more water and pesticides on lawn maintenance than on agriculture.
In addition to having monumental water use requirements, the harsh pesticides and herbicides necessary to keep lawns green and healthy normally runs off into local water supply, causing eutrophication in creeks, ponds and golf course lakes. Cutting lawns produces emissions from fossil fuels used in mowers, which is not balanced by the small amount of carbon absorbed by the lawn.
Enter moss, a healthful, sustainable alternative. Moss is a soft, low-growing plant that reproduces through offshoots and spores. Moss is available in a variety of colors and heights, and can grow without soil, on rocks, or in poor soil conditions. This is because moss lacks a deep root structure, instead ‘knitting’ itself onto the top layer of soil or substrate.
Heidi Masucci of Moss Acres, which was recently profiled by the New York Times, extolled the benefits of moss, saying that “Once moss is established, it generally needs less maintenance, little weeding and no mowing. It doesn’t need fertilizer and likes crappy soil with a low pH. Clay, sandy or rocky type soil is fine, because it gets its nutrition at top of the plant, from the air.” Masucci continued to explain that moss readily survives winter and drought conditions.
Like lawn, moss is easy to grow from transplanted sod. Moss also does particularly well as a green roofing material because it isn’t heavy and grows with so little soil. Green roofing, a trend becoming popular among US green builders, helps to keep buildings insulated and controls runoff.
Moss grows best in indirect sunlight, flourishing on forest floors, so sunny yards may need to also plant trees to provide shade. Because the shallow moss roots hold onto particles of topsoil or rock, it can’t withstand high traffic like dogs or football games. So while lawns may always have their place, moss is one easy way to take the pain out of xeriscaping. Moss’s popularity is forecast to increase tremendously as fresh water becomes a scarcer commodity and global warming incites intense droughts like those seen in the southeast in 2007.
Economists say that the McCain/Clinton gas tax suspension plan is without merit, primarily serving to whip up populist angst over gas prices and taxes. The national gas tax, an 18.4 cent per gallon excise that goes to the Highway Trust Fund, finances highway construction and mass transit.
While gas costs have skyrocketed, the reason is due to constricting global supply and big-oil pricing fixing, not increasing taxes. Economists explained that if the gas tax is repealed it will only help Big Oil, who will likely still raise prices, tax or no tax. Where McCain and Clinton frame suspending the gas tax as taking money away from Big Oil, economists say all it does is take money away from federal mass transit programs, not oil companies. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has been quoted as stating that suspending the gas tax is “about the dumbest thing I've heard in a long time from an economic point of view.''
Obama differs critically from Clinton and McCain. Instead, he advocates levying a tax directly on oil companies for every barrel of oil they sell over eighty dollars a gallon, predicted to cost Big Oil fifteen billion dollars a year. Obama’s plan concerns big-oil’s record setting profits, which have risen tremendously even while gas prices drive Americans into a recession.
Read more at Bloomberg.com
The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification has dominated the eco-building scene for years. As building codes get more sustainable and green building goes mainstream, the trend is seeping into the residential market. However, LEED standards were created more for the corporate set than the nuclear family with a backyard swing set. In response, USGBC recently released their LEED for Homes standard. But a new challenger has entered the green house arena.
A joint effort by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the International Code Council (ICC) has proposed the "National Green Building Standard", which they hope will become the final word in sustainable suburbs. The group believes that soon they'll gain approval from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which sets benchmarks for everything from electrical outlets to medical testing equipment.
The standard would provide a voluntary measure for residential green building that can be adopted by building programs and agencies to ensure uniformity in design. It will build on the "Model Green Home Building Guidelines" created by the National Association of Home Builders in 2004.
The group took pains to be inclusive, bringing together a broad committee to design the NGBS, which included builders, architects, product manufacturers, regulators and environmental experts. They also held public meetings and waded through 3,000 public comments.
The Green Building Standard would include different measures for site development, rated with 1-4 stars, and the building itself, rated on a LEED-esque Bronze, Silver, Gold, Emerald scale. Points would be awarded in categories that include "Water Efficiency," "Energy Efficiency," and "Operation, Maintenance, and Building Owner Education" with minimum thresholds for each level along with some mandatory requirements like a waste management plan. It includes similar provisions for remodeling.
When I wrote about green building codes last month, I found that where standards existed for residential construction, everyone seemed to be following a different metric. Now, it seems, we'll have two competing standards for greening neighborhoods.
I think a little competition is good for LEED. It will be interesting to see if USGBC and NAHB engage in a Blue Ray vs HD-DVD-like cage match for green home supremacy or simply fill different niches.
Photo by Danielle Johnson
Last week, a bright sales manager at Rocky Mountain Mattress asked a higher-up for an opinion on the best way to dispose of a mattress. Rocky Mountain Mattress, as a company, has made a commitment to being “earth conscious” and the sales manager thought that should translate into ensuring that the old mattresses being replaced by those sold by Rocky Mountain Mattress don't find their way to the local landfill.
The idea, I think, is good: a company that helps a consumer recycle the old, worn out item that they’re replacing is doing more than helping the environment — that company is giving buyers a good reason to choose them. Have you ever tried to get rid of a used mattress?
But there are two problems I see here: execution and scalability. Rocky Mountain Mattress’ response to finding green solutions to disposing of old mattresses is to offer up a list of “helpful suggestions to dispose of their old mattress the green way" to each customer purchasing a new mattress. Problem is, that’s not enough to motivate customers to: a) buy from Rocky Mountain Mattress for the convenience of someone else dealing with the old mattress or b) the "greenness" of Rocky Mountain Mattress’ business practices. And, to be honest, Rocky Mountain Mattress’ suggestions aren’t the most useful, either, consisting of extremely obvious information, on the level of "try selling your mattress on Craigslist" and "contact your local municipality to find a recycling program in your area."
Furthermore, Rocky Mountain Mattress has effectively limited its audience. First of all, the company only distributes its less-than-handy tipsheet to new customers. Second, your "average Joe" only disposes of an old mattress every ten years or so. While there are plenty of mattresses floating around, the real disposal issues are found at local motels. Big, fancy hotels replace mattresses every few years, usually selling them to a liquidator. The liquidator then typically sells them to small hotels and motels, who in turn put several more years of wear and tear on a mattress before hauling 25 or 50 of them off to the county dump at a time.
If Rocky Mountain Mattresses is sincerely committed to being “earth conscious,” the least the company could do is actually look up recyclers willing to take mattresses in the vicinity of each of its stores, instead of offering up such general tips that wouldn’t convince anyone that recycling a mattress is worth the effort.
Investors.com is reporting that many homeowners around the U.S. are cashing in mineral rights to their properties. Many of these rights were effectively worthless in the past, but as high-tech extraction methods have advanced and the need for fuel has skyrocketed, those rights have become valuable. Even a relatively small property can bring in more than $6,000 in upfront cash, not to mention royalties down the road, provided it’s sitting on top of a resource like natural gas.
At best, though, the sales of mineral rights are a stop-gap measure for energy companies. We’re not talking about any sort of renewable energy here. Yes, homeowners are getting some money out of the deal, but this money will run out just as soon as the natural gas pocket (or whatever else is under their houses) runs out. However, until that time, energy companies are doing a booming business in picking up small mineral rights — and not so small when they can convince a whole neighborhood or homeowner’s association to take a collective deal. It will hold off the need for renewable energy and clean technology just a little big longer for energy companies.
So far today, two power companies have announced requests for proposals for long purchasing renewable energy resources.
Public Service Co. of Oklahoma (a subsidiary of American Electric Power) is looking to purchase up to 200 megawatts of renewable resources. The company stated that any proposals must use commercially-proven technologies — no wild ideas accepted.
Beyond Oklahoma, AEP plans to add 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2011. Within the state of Oklahoma, PSO is already the largest supplier of wind energy — if you’ve seen Twister, I’m sure you know why! — and has a renewable energy capacity of over 390 megawatts.
Also looking for RFPs: Florida-based Seminole Electric Cooperative. To meet the needs of the 10 electric distribution co-ops (and 1.7 million customers), Seminole needs another 250 megawatts of energy, which they want to come from renewable energy sources. Seminole already has over 100 megawatts of renewable energy capacity. Although the company has had the most success with biomass resources, such as landfill gas and municipal solid waste, they’re open to proposals for any type of renewable energy.
Tree-lined streets aren’t just for inflating property rates and hanging lost gloves from anymore. A new study from Columbia University found that children who lived on tree-lined city streets suffered asthma rates of only nine percent -- extremely impressive, compared to an overall rate of 50% across most urban areas.
Asthma, now the leading cause of hospital admittance for New York City children under the age of 15, has been on the rise for decades. For those about to remind me that correlation does not prove causation, the study also corrected for sources of pollution, population density and affluence, yet still found that the beneficial effect of the trees remained.
The investigators did concede that the nature of the connection between trees and asthma rate is unknown. Some have suggested that the trees provide added incentive for children to go out and play, while others speculate that the trees improve air quality.
Pet theories and additional wild guesses are welcome in the comment section.
Photo by Dash Panache
In a move lauded by environmental groups nationwide, Massachusetts-based energy firm NSTAR has unveiled an option that will allow customers to buy up to 100% of their electricity from fully renewable energy sources.
The service, dubbed NSTAR Green and developed with in conjunction with the Union of Concerned Scientists, involves long-term deals with two Northeastern wind farms, and will cost customers a small premium over (around $7 per month) over existing rates. Though the actual service does not take effect until July, over a million of residents in the greater Boston area are already able to pre-register for the program online.
Much like increased sales of hybrid cars and compact fluorescent light bulbs, this drives another nail into the conventional wisdom that consumers will be unwilling to pay extra for environmentally-friendly products. Feel free to leave comments with your own examples of fast-selling, premium-priced, eco-friendly products.
In this era of inconvenient truths and carbon footprints, it seems almost baroque to talk about something as seemingly trivial as old-fashioned air pollution. After all, its effects are largely local, often short-term, and far more readily addressed by environmental solutions.
But as the American Lung Association’s new State of the Air report shows, just because it’s not as common a concern doesn’t mean it’s something that should be ignored; more than 40 percent of Americans currently live in areas of unhealthy ozone or particulate pollution.
The Sate of the Air report breaks pollutants into three major categories by type. The first is ozone, which forms when nitrate emissions react with air and sunlight, and can irritate asthma, lead to chest pain, and permanently impair lung function. The second two types are short-term and long-term particulate pollution, formed by extremely tiny pieces of soot, diesel exhaust, metal, road dust, or any other solid matter emitted into the air through a variety of processes.
“Particulate has been associated with more deaths than ozone. If you had to pick your poison, you'd rather have ozone than particulate matter,” says George Leikauf, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health. The Pennsylvanian city was something of a surprise as the top spot in this year’s short-term particulate matter rankings, even though, according to Leikauf, most of the city’s pollution is actually carried on the wind from power plants in Ohio.
This highlights a major difference between traditional air pollution and global warming emissions: air pollution is highly localized. Strategies like cap and trade, in which pollution levels are capped by the government, and polluters are given the ability to buy, sell, and trade pollution credits if their emissions are higher or lower than the government levels, aren’t particularly useful. Pittsburgh’s air becomes no cleaner if the Ohio plants polluting it buy permits from cleaner plants in another part of the country, even if overall amount of pollution nationwide decreases.
Still, because the effects of these more traditional forms of air pollution are immediately noticeable, they help draw public attention to the longer-term problem of global warming. Many of the same processes that create carbon emissions, such as over-reliance on automobiles or coal power plants, also lead to pollution by ozone and particulate matter. Car-heavy cities such as Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles have dominated the State of the Air listings, and this year has proven no exception.
The need to address traditional air pollutants is especially pressing in the context of climate change, because their accumulation in the atmosphere may in fact be making the effects of global warming harder to detect. The phenomenon, known as global dimming, occurs as particulate pollution reflects sunlight back into space, and temporarily reduces the obviousness of global warming. This provides fodder for climate change deniers, and sets the world up for a sudden and pronounced change when the continued increase over global carbon levels beings to overcome the effects of global dimming.
Photo by Ben Amstutz
When I think of energy and sustainability issues, Newt Gingrich isn't the first name that comes to mind. But his background as an environmental studies professor, as well as his ongoing push for entrepreneurial environmentalism, has led to the Virtual Energy Forum to ask Gingrich to give the keynote speech at their upcoming online forum.
During his speech, which will be presented as a live, interactive webcast, Gingrich will focus on business partnerships that solve environmental problems. The forum is targeted for business executives, but admission is free and anyone can listen in. Gingrich's speech is scheduled for June 10, 11 AM EST.
Other speakers taking part in the Virtual Energy Forum include David Chamberlain (Raytheon's principal energy engineer), Christian Belady (Microsoft's power and cooling architect), Dick Munson (author of From Edison to Enron: The Business of Power and What It Means for the Future of Electricity) and a whole slew of other people involved in the day-to-day efforts of companies seeking to make their businesses sustainable.
If you're interested in listening in on Gingrich's speech (or any of the other offerings of the forum), you can register at the Virtual Energy Forum site.
In case you missed the ‘06 Academy Awards or the ‘07 Nobel Prize presentation, environmental awareness is very much in vogue. Car dealers can’t keep hybrids in stock, municipalities seek out energy independence, and bikes overwhelm lanes and bike paths from Portland, OR to Cambridge, MA.
Never ones to pass up trying to profit from a trend, massive corporations have been quick to tout (and in many cases, invent) a few green credentials to entice consumers. Though this phenomenon of “greenwashing” is by no means new, its popularity has skyrocketed in recent months, and claims have gotten bolder and ever more brazen.
Fortunately, most examples of greenwashing are fairly transparent, and nearly all can be uncovered by with the investment of a few minutes of research. The most egregious greenwashers have already been exposed, and are only a Google search away. Newer and more insidious examples can be harder to pin down, but resources are abundant for those intent upon doing their own greenwashing investigations.
Feel free to sound off in the comments section with any notable greenwashing examples you've identified and would like to share.
Despite their urban environments, some in cities are going "back to the earth." The rising cost of food and consumer goods has renewed interest in do-it-yourself basics like food production. Homesteading techniques, once popular only among pioneers, hippies and off-the grid enthusiasts, are finding their way back into the mainstream.
For example K. Ruby of Oakland, California has founded the Institute of Urban Homesteading. The institute offers classes on a range of sustainable living techniques, such as bee keeping, fermenting, soil reclamation and graywater collection. She encourages even people living in apartments to manage small gardens and collect excess water.
Another group doing similar work is SOL, or Sustaining Ourselves Locally, who manage community gardens and animals in commercial parts of the Bay Area. They encourage small-scale farming and animal husbandry.
Many cities and neighborhoods already offer community gardening options that have converted empty lots to productive plots. If you can’t spot a community garden in your neighborhood, visit the American Community Garden Website and search for your zip code in their database to find the community garden nearest you.
Following E.F. Schumacher’s ‘small is beautiful’ credo, reclaiming urban spaces for basic food production can be fun, cost effective and help the environment.
Read more at San Francisco Chronicle
Photo by Betsy "Grandma BJ"
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Menlo Park venture capital group, confirmed yesterday that it is starting a cleantech fund. Rumors have been flying for weeks, sparked by targeted hiring and pitches the firm made to limited partners. Rumors fell a little short of actual events, citing the capital figure as a number almost $100 million below the actual funds Kleiner Perkins put together. The fund will be managed by Kleiner Perkins partner John Denniston and Ben Kortlang (who left Goldman Sachs for this position).
Denniston was one of a Kleiner Perkins team responsible for launching the company's Greentech investment initiative. He is also a key participant in the Greentech Innovation Network (a group of policy makers from business, academia and government focused on green technology and policy).
The new fund, known as the Green Growth Fund, has $500 million with which to fund new ventures. Any company trying to talk the fund managers into a little financial aid will need to be able to show that they can speed up adoption of solutions to climate issues on a global basis. Furthermore, companies must have already reached their growth phase — no barebones ideas here!
While the exact amount has not been disclosed, a significant amount of the fund's capital comes from Generation Investment Management. Generation is nicknamed "Blood and Gore" for its leadership: chairman Al Gore and CEO David Blood. Kleiner Perkins and Generation have collaborated previously.
In addition to the Green Growth Fund, Kleiner Perkins is forming a $700 million fund focused on funding cleantech ventures, as well as IT and life sciences companies. KPCB XIII, as the fund will be known, will back entrepreneurs in the early stage of their products.
Kleiner Perkins' website states: "Greentech could be the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century. It is an unprecedented challenge that demands great innovation, speed and scale." No matter what altruistic reasons that the company may use to justify their choices of ventures that they fund, the investors behind Kleiner Perkins know that there is big money to be made in cleantch. Beyond the demonstrated need for cleantech technology, sustainable companies make for better investments and Kleiner Perkins is ready to make the most of that fact. Since the firm's establishment in 1972, it's been able to get in on the early stages of information technology and biotechnology, both of which have paid off. The firm also earmarked a significant chunk of its main fund ($600 million) for early stage greentech initiatives in 2006.
Battling a sluggish economy, near-collapse in the real estate sector, and steadily increasing inflation, consumers are looking for relief from what is widely forecast to be a summer of record high gas prices. But the “gas tax holiday” backed by Hillary Clinton and John McCain is a foolishly shortsighted response.
Aside from saving the American people next to nothing at the pump (well under three dollars for the average 15-gallon fill-up), repealing the tax would also increase vehicle usage without a corresponding bump in the revenue that maintains the road network those vehicles rely on.
High prices, while unpopular, are beginning to motivate the necessary and inevitable change away from unsustainable car-based transportation, as evidenced by a recent drop in gasoline demand. Repealing the gas tax, even temporarily, will undo these gains, and open the door for more wasteful fuel consumption in the future.
A far more sustainable solution would involve creating a tax benefit for non-automotive travel. This would further incentivize consumers to use alternatives, thus lowering overall demand, so that people without a non-driving option would further benefit from lowered prices.
Waste Management and Linde North America have announced that they're teaming up to build what will be the world's largest plant for making liquefied natural gas out of the gases released from garbage decomposing in landfills. The partnership is ideal: Waste Management runs numerous landfills, from which they collect plenty of gas. Linde North America is actually a division of a German company (also named Linde) which specializes in engineering gas systems.
The plant will be located at the Altamont Landfill near Livermore, California and is expected to turn out up to 13,000 gallons of natural gas each day — the same stuff, in fact, that Waste Management uses to fuel its garbage collection trucks. Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fuels available for diesel trucks (there's a relatively simple conversion process needed).
No word yet on future plants, but Waste Management operates one of the largest networks of landfills and has plenty of decomposition gases that the company is willing to process, as well as a commitment to green their garbage collection processes as much as they can. The price tag is surprisingly reasonable ($15.5 million for the plant, which is expected to open in 2009), especially when you take into account the fact that Waste Management is cutting its costs on fueling its collection trucks significantly.
Biofuels—fuels made from biological matter—have been one of the highest-profile and most highly touted clean energy solutions. But recent changes in the world economy and new studies show that the emerging technology is still in need of major refinement before becoming a viable clean energy resource.
At first glance, biofuels have a number of traits that make them an ideal source of clean energy. They’re renewable, so the world can rely on them for the foreseeable future. They integrate easily into the existing infrastructure (you’re already using them to help fill your gas tank), and for countries that consume more petroleum than they produce, biofuels offer the politically stabilizing prospect of energy independence.
Most importantly, on paper, biofuels offer a significantly reduced carbon impact over fossil fuels. Though the combustion of biofuels still results in the release of carbon dioxide, in theory, there’s no additional carbon being added to the atmosphere, because that plants that the biofuel was made from absorbed that carbon from the air as they grew.
But recent research has shown that existing methods of biofuel production do not offer nearly that great an advantage. Initial biofuel studies neglected to calculate the impact of converting existing forests, bogs, and swamps into arable farmland. This quote, from a Princeton University study published in Science this past February, paints a fairly grim picture:
“By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.”
Also, industrially produced crops—corn in particular—require large amounts of fertilizer to grow and and prosper . The nitrogen in these fertilizers can contaminate water supplies, and increase emissions of nitrous oxide, itself a serious contributer to ground level ozone, stratospheric ozone depletion, and global warming.
Further compounding the problem, world food markets have seen a surge in demand during the first part of 2008, leading to widespread food shortages, famine, and political instability. Because current biofuel technology relies almost entirely on food crops such as corn and sugar cane, world leaders have been quick to attack production of biofuels in the developed world, and politicians have proven eager to distance themselves from it.
This isn’t to say that biofuels should be written off entirely. Nearly all studies critical of the use and distribution of food stock biofuels are also quick to point out the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of developing biofuels from agricultural waste and biproducts, like corn husks. Additionally, non-foodstock perennial plants, such as switchgrass, require very little fertilizer and don’t have a direct impact on the global food supply.
So while problems with the current biofuel industry are evident, there remains significant optimism on the part of researchers and clean energy proponents that newer technologies will deliver the benefits of biofuel without the shortfalls. But until these new production methods are proven, many high-profile environmental organizations remain unwilling to fully endorse biofuels as a clean energy solution.
In a Jetsons-like twist, some aerospace engineers predict that Americans will soon find it easier to commute via small, personal aircraft than cars. With sky-high jet fuel costs stressing commercial airlines and driving up the cost of flights, consumers are looking for new air travel options. Engineers and airplane enthusiasts who gathered at the April’s Electric Aircraft Symposium in San Francisco marveled at aircraft of the future, from plug-in and hybrid two-seaters to ultralight engine designs.
Aviation company Pipistrel is leading this sector, winning NASA’s Personal Air Vehicle Centennial Challenge. Pipistrel is set to roll out the first round of innovative Taurus Electro two-seater gliders this year. The Taurus Electro is predicted to be capable of flying a thousand miles a day and takes as long to charge as a cell phone.
Financial and regulatory challenges still remain. While the Bush administration slashed funding for NASA’s personal aircraft research and development, the EU shows strong interest, funding twenty percent of Pipistrel’s costs to develop the Taurus. Though FAA regulations currently limit electric aircraft, the Experimental Aircraft Association has appealed to have rules changed to encourage investment and access to electric aircraft.
Though currently only available to the likes of Larry Page, Google founder who attended the symposium, fuel cell and battery advances make electric aircraft a promising possibility for off-the-grid travel.
Read more at News.com