Archive for February, 2009

There used to be an argument. There used to be a stalemate. But now there was a beat. And it grew louder. And it grew more in step. And with it grew the corn. And ethanol took off.

Somewhere along the line, the ethanol downside (that it took more energy to create ethanol from corn than the energy it saves) was buried deep in the fields of Iowa, allowing dreams of ethanol-powered cars to rise up. And after ethanol came other crops. Sugar is 5 times more efficient to make into ethanol, but it’s also harder to grow. So farmers turned to any and all crops to create any and all biofuels. And the government was more than happy to hand out subsidies.

Then 2007 hit and people started to wonder, ‘where is all the food?’ Farmers had been neglecting growing crops for food, instead selling them to make biofuels (that actually used more energy to make than they saved). With the mass production of biofuels came a worldwide food crisis, as prices rose and millions went hungry. The rush to use crops for biofuels overlooked our old use for crops – eating them. And so a lesson was learned – look for unintended consequences.

This is all a precursor to a topic that sped up last week, but doesn’t seem to be officially part of any legislation right now. The country’s secretary of transportation mentioned in an interview that he was intrigued by pay-per-mile programs for drivers. You have a transponder (no, not a GPS like some people think) and it logs your miles at certain checkpoints. It’s not too far removed as a civil liberties issue than the idea of using EZ-Pass and the technology is years away from ever being implemented here – although it’s actually law in Oregon.

The pay-per-mile plan had recently been brought up by the Patrick administration in Massachusetts as something that politicians want to replace the gas tax. They believe it’s more equitable to pay a minor amount for each mile you drive in the state rather than slap a 50-cent tax on a gallon of gas. Other states such as R.I. are also reportedly mulling the idea, but let’s look at the unintended consequence.

Fuel-efficient cars are at an advantage under the current structure, while gas-sucking SUVs and trucks pay more. Should the government, which is passing tax credits for fuel-efficient cars and forcing automakers to meet fuel-efficient standards, really be trying to level the playing field for owners of gas guzzlers? As fair as the pay-per-mile system sounds, it has an unintended consequence of taking away an advantage for drivers of fuel-efficient cars. Something we shouldn’t be doing.

After the transportation secretary’s comments, President Obama said he isn’t considering any such pay-per-mile plan to replace the gas tax. Let’s hope he keeps driving down that road and he gets other states to join his caravan.

Climate change was a key agenda item on Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to China, says the New York Times.  This Times article discusses Britain’s use of cooking oil as motor fuel.  Earlier in the week, the paper reported that the EPA will likely begin regulating carbon dioxide.

This Washington Post article says the prospect of climate change is influencing some people’s relocation decisions.  Earlier, the Post had news of a possible new international treaty to reduce mercury emissions.

Green technologies face a number of scientific hurdles, says this LA Times article.  The paper also reports that thawing in the Arctic could release huge pockets of methane into the atmosphere.  And earlier this week, the Times said that a requirement to retrofit heavy construction equipment became a casualty of the state’s budget crisis.

The Dallas Morning News says the outlook is bright for solar power.

In its bid for the 2016 Olympics, Chicago promises to host the greenest games ever (MSNBC).  MSNBC also has news of NASA’s new Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which is scheduled to launch this week.  (*Update* The launch failed on Tuesday.)

A slow cooker is environmentally friendly, using 75- to 100-watts over 7 hours.

You know that family on your street that has all the new items before anybody else? They had Laser-discs and DVDs. They replace their iPhones with iPhone 3Gs and they have Nintendo Wii and X-Box 720. Heck, they even have an Amazon Kindle. You know the one, right?

Yeah, neither do I. I’m not quite sure buzz works like that anymore. Most of it is online rather than in person nowadays. Buzz for electronic gadgets spreads through the blogosphere. And there is a lot of buzz right now – the conservation movement has a few gadgets in the works that not only are useful to the consumer in saving money, but are also useful to saving energy (and thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.) So not only are the companies behind these products hoping they take off, but all those environmental voices Terry talks about in his Friday blogs are hoping they work too.

1. Green Drive – This device tells you when to slow down, speed up or keep your pace in order to advise you on the most economical way to drive. For example, it knows when a stop sign is approaching in .3 miles and will tell you how to ease into it.  The idea being fewer unnecessary accelerations and braking will save you fuel and money by allowing you to drive more efficiently. The creators of the device say an aggressive driver will save 50 percent of their fuel costs, but more cautious drivers will save a lot less. They say most drivers will save about 25 percent, which sounds worth it to me. If they were able to merge this device with a GPS, thus allowing you to get directions and save money, then I think it could take off. Although, some people might not like being told how to drive, a device would be pretty persistent and hard to ignore after a while. In a way it’s a little like those Smartmeters in that it gives consumers the power to do something more efficiently simply by changing their habits.

2. Modified electric cars – There’s all sorts of different car prototypes, but this one Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed piece about, which Terry then stuck in this week’s links. It has solar panels on the roof of an electric car that is plugged in. A 6-hour charge gets you 90 miles usually, but the solar panels now provide 10 percent more energy for the car. I think plug-in cars are a little bit of a tough sell, especially for one-vehicle households but the addition of soslar panels could add enough energy life to a car to make it useful. And there is one good use of an electric car – give it to a teenager. He/she can only cruise it around town for about 100 miles before it dies, so they have more of an imperative to get home before curfew.

3. Mobile phone chargers – All mobile phone manufacturers will be making the same chargers starting in 2012. The universal charger is expected to fit all new phones (so if you get a new phone you won’t need to get a new charger for your home and car – a huge plus for the consumer), to be sturdier and to be more “green.” Right now, phone chargers still use energy while they’re just plugged in, regardless of whether the phone is in them. Estimates have the constant plugged-in energy use at about 75% of when they are actually charging. The universal charger will use 50% less energy. These will really sell because if you get one, you’ll pretty much be set for the future on buying these things. The only issue is it seems like iPhones won’t follow all other phonemakers and use the charger. Oh well. In order to not drum up backlash, I’m guessing they’ll have to at least adopt the less energy feature for their chargers on future models. I’m sure that family down the street will pick it up right when it hits shelves. … riiiiight ;-)

Plastic film with low E-coating applied to old windows can reduce heat loss by 40%.

This Washington Post feature talks about the rewards and dilemmas of household conservation.  And this article describes yet another warning that climate change is happening faster than had been estimated.  Earlier this week, the LA Times reported on a study that said global warming is affecting bird migration in California.

The New York Times talks about the use of wind turbines for private homes and asks if America is ready to quit coalThis column from Thomas Friedman talks about a plug-in electric car that’s complemented by solar power.

This Boston Globe article says that marine conservation is having some success.  The San Diego Union-Tribune says that water conservation is still a tough sell for some in California, while the San Francisco Chronicle says that water agencies in California are debating desalination.  The Chronicle also has this profile of a green building consultant.

The Boston Herald talks about Massachusetts’s plan to use money from the stimulus package to tackle energy projects.

If the old cliche states that knowledge is power, then knowledge of power must really be powerful. That’s what Google’s announcement yesterday was all about. The company once known simply for its search engine is now discovering a whole new way to get involved with people’s lives – by helping them save energy.

Google announced plans yesterday for its PowerMeter, which will sync up with chips in your household devices and with “smart meters” to give you a detailed usage report on your energy. It’ll tell you how much energy each device is using and when the optimal time to run the device would be. Google is betting that if you know specifically how much energy each device uses, you’ll be more conscious of its use and more likely to conserve energy.

Google’s application isn’t the actual smart meter, but it will read your smart meter (the government hopes about 40 million of which will be installed during the next three years) and feed you the info. It’s a technology aimed at reducing energy consumption and would actually allow us here at Lights Out, Green In an even better way to monitor usage of lights during the day when ambient light is sufficient.

The feeling here is: good work by Google.

Sealing leaky ducts at home can save you energy that is wasted during heating and cooling.

The New York Times says that the California Conservation Corps may become a casualty of the state’s budget crisis.  This article compares and contrasts the Obama administration’s environmental policies with those of the Bush administration.  Also, there’s news about the use of cooking oil as an alternative fuel.

This Washington Post article talks about Brazil’s challenges in slowing deforestation.

This Boston Globe article says that climate change can also take a mental toll.

The wildfires in Australia have prompted questions about whether they are connected to climate change (Reuters UK).

The LA Times discusses the challenges of developing clean energy on a large scale.  Also, there’s this article about people trying to save energy by drying clothes the old-fashioned way.

MSNBC says states that laid the groundwork for green jobs are now poised to reap rewards.

This CNN article is from Wednesday (meaning the figures may have been revised), but it gives a general sense on the extent to which green initiatives could benefit from the proposed stimulus.

“We will modernize more than 75% of federal buildings and improve the energy efficiency of two million American homes, saving consumers and taxpayers billions on our energy bills.” - President-elect Obama, Jan. 8, 2009

During the transition, President-elect Obama set some ambitious goals on energy. One person whose job it will be to help meet those goals is Carol Browner. Officially, her title is presidential adviser on energy and climate change. Unofficially, the former head of the EPA has been dubbed the energy czarina. She will serve as Obama’s point person on energy and will work in conjunction with the subjects of my last two blogs, Energy Sercretary Dr. Steven Chu and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. (This is the last of a three-part series.)

Browner was the longest-serving EPA administrator in history, sticking around for all 8 years under President Clinton. With that in mind, she has a substantial record to sift through.

Let’s start with the negatives that have come up so far: During her time as EPA chief, she was reprimanded for directing a lobbying effort of “green” groups against Republicans – a blatant misuse of powers. She also, according to some reports, was found to have asked technicians to illegally delete files from her computer before she left her job as EPA administrator. More recently, questions have been raised over her husband’s ties with the energy lobby as well as her ties to a group called the Socialist International’s Commission for a Sustainable World Society (a group that has 8 words in its name, but the one causing the stir is the first one – Socialist). Finally, Browner has been dubbed partisan, by many at a time when President Obama is publically pushing bipartisanship.

Since Browner’s position didn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate, we don’t have her side on many of these charges. One thing that is known is in regards to the Socialist International’s commission. Browner was at one point termed a member and other political organizations involved with SI are Britains’ Labor Party and Israel’s Labour Party – not exactly radical movements. If Browner wanted to overthrow Obama and make us all socialists, she isn’t exactly in the best position to do so.

On to the positives: During her 8 years leading the EPA, she helped push through ammendments to the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. The first ammendment helped give the EPA the powers it has, so it can weigh in on things such as California’s emission standards. She also pushed through more $1 billion worth of cleanup at waste sites (Although billions more have yet to be cleaned up). The other thing on her record is that she was a very big proponent of the Kyoto Protocol, although she was unable to get the Senate to confirm the climate change treaty.

Browner has already been invited to preliminary talks in April on creating new international standards for greenhouse gas emissions to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. never followed. Here’s a story on her from 2004 talking about America’s place in the world in relation to climate change.

In discussing the role of the private sector in environmental progress, Browner said that one of America’s strengths was being “willing to set standards, even if we don’t know how we’ll meet them” because it encourages the private sector to invest in discovering new technologies that are effective, often cheaper than first expected, and which create jobs.

That certainly sounds promising and reminiscient of what America did in the Space Race in the 1960s. She also has backed a carbon tax in the past, but is now in line with Obama’s insistence on a more business friendly cap-and-trade approach outlined in a YouTube video. Also interesting is an interview she did with the Washington Post last month.

This is true whether we are thinking about individual homes or big office buildings. We look at how are we using the energy today, whether it be in terms of lighting, in terms of heating, in terms of cooling, what are the windows, what are the insulation, and what we find over and over again is for some relatively modest investments we can get dramatic reductions in energy use, and every single ounce of energy we don’t use has a correlation in terms of greenhouse gas reductions.

I’m gushing over these comments, which fall in line with Lights Out, Green In’s mission.

In the end, however, she will need to do more than just talk. She certainly looks like she might be willing to play the role of bad cop in negotiations, given her reputation for being anti-business. She seems to be the most partisan and politically seasoned of the 3 top members of Obama’s energy team. This could direct her into some mishaps, which she has shown a propensity for making, but that same guile could be needed to get Congress to sign off on any environmental stuff, whether it be emissions standards, “green” job creation or a new international treaty struck in Copenhagen. Her skills are unique to the Large Trio, but help round it out: the science guy (Chu), the savvy vet (Browner), and the pragmatic dealmaker (Browner). Let’s hope they make a difference for the better.