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Imagine a future where:
- Half of the America’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants which remove pollutants from smoke stacks (a process known as “scrubbing”) and pump CO2 emissions into underground caverns (a process known as “carbon sequestration” – only experimental at this stage).
- Energy independence from foreign oil by converting America’s vast coal resources into synthetic fuel (“synfuel”) again sequestering the CO2 in underground caverns. Minus the sequestration, conversion of coal to synfuel was a process used by Germany in WWII to fulfill over 90% of their aviation and 50% of their automotive fuel needs.
There are two major problems with this picture disregarded by the peddlers of the clean coal economy. First, generating electricity and fuel from coal is cheap and competitive only when done without carbon sequestration, but quite expensive when done with it (cost of producing electricity can increase by nearly 50% from an estimated $56 per MWh to $79 according to Jeff Gogell in “Big Coal”). Second, mining coal is still dangerous, an environmental catastrophe and one of the most inadequately compensated jobs (average wages have actually decreased by 20% in real terms over the past 20 years even though worker productivity has tripled).
Proponents of clean coal deflect to the “near future” on the first problem and completely punt on the second (“we’re much better than China when it comes to coal mine mortalities and we’re using more cost-effective technologies everyday” say mining executives, I’m sure not directly to the families of the Utah miners or the residents of West Virginia who have witnessed entire mountains removed in a process aptly called, “mountaintop removal mining”). Advocates like governor Brian Schweitzer (D) of Montana, would like us to believe that cost-effective clean coal is around the corner and that synfuel processing plants and coal power plants going up today can easily be converted to include carbon sequestration tomorrow. They obfuscate concerns over global warming with patriotic claims about national energy security and cheaper fuel:
“Like all Americans, Montanans are… tired of paying $3 a gallon gas, tired of supporting the kind of tyrants that young Americans have spent two centuries fighting and dying to defeat.”
Yes, clean coal technology will be an important and necessary component of a diverse energy economy in the future but not for the reasons the advocates are loudest about. Clean coal is not the cleanest, nor the cheapest option setting aside the myriad problems associated with coal mining (which one has to hope will be more harshly regulated and better compensated with higher scrutiny on the industry).
Coal, is however, the most abundant resource in exactly the countries which have the largest energy needs: the US (which has an estimated 270 billion tons of reserves, enough for 250 years worth of generation), Russia and China (which constructs 1 coal-fired power plant per week to meet it’s growing energy demands, read more in a NY Times article). In order for China and Russia to budge on clean coal, the US will not only have to walk the walk to prove that the technology is viable, but be strong leaders in the international community on carbon capping policies that would make clean coal cost-competitive with coal plants not sequestering carbon (by adding a carbon tax to the cost of generation). Furthermore, I have yet to see an energy proposal that suggests how the US, which now derives over 50% of our electricity from coal, will meet our energy needs in the future without coal (even if a new generation of nuclear power plants were commissioned).
I support clean coal as a realistic second best, but I find it troubling that more public debate has not been devoted directly to the topic considering it’s magnitude and importance.
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Ask yourself this question: when was the last time you went a full day without throwing away a wrapper, a container or other piece of packaging? My guess is you can’t. I don’t think I can. We have the highest solid waste per capita in the world (see here for list). We live in an age of disposable razors, paper coffee cups and Swiffer sweepers. I call it single-serving America. It is easy for us to forget about how much garbage we produce because once a week the truck comes along, sweeps up that trash and whisks it away to a landfill out of sight and smell.
Why should we care? Packaging, especially plastics, is high in energy cost and carbon emissions. One alarming statistic I referred to in an earlier blog is that the energy usage associated with a bottle of water is equivalent to filling that bottle one-quarter full of oil (see source). According to MakeMeSustainable’s calculations, cutting your bottled water intake by one bottle per day represents an annual carbon emissions decrease of nearly 150 lbs, and cash savings of about $550. Similarly, using one less plastic bag per day (the average American uses 3) decreases your carbon emissions by about 130 lbs and results in annual cost savings of up to $36 (see here for more).
Plastic bags and water bottles, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Look in your kitchen and see how much of your food is packaged and re-packaged. Granola bars and cereal are wrapped in plastic and boxed. Vegetables often come pre-packaged in plastic and even single-serving plastic packets. Have kids? Think about single-serving yogurts, lunch foods and snacks.
So what’s the solution? Pass on the plastic. Embrace reusable containers, tupperware and farmers’ markets. If you’re going to buy yogurt, try the larger family size, which produces half the container waste that 4-6 single-serve containers would. Reducing one container per day can save up to 300 lbs of carbon a year (see MakeMeSustainable). Buy cereals, grains and pasta in bulk and bring your own container. As for the newspaper you read every morning, determine whether it’s really worth it or if you can go paperless and read online. According to Backpacker magazine’s September 2007 issue, New York Times home delivery is responsible for approximately 300 lbs of carbon.
Around the house drop the Swiffer in favor of a broom and mop. I can’t quite advocate for using a straight edge razor for fear of health issues. Just remember, just pass on the plastic…move away from a single-serving lifestyle.
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My colleague wrote an entry earlier this week about the energy bill put forward by the House of Representatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. As he mentioned, the bill’s strongest feature is a national 15% renewable energy portfolio standard to be implemented by 2020 (the target was reduced from 20% earlier this month as a compromise to southern states who don’t have the same level of hydro and wind resources). Noticeably absent, were new Fuel Economy (aka “CAFE “) standards, which were the landmark feature of the Senate’s energy bill passed earlier this summer.
Enter the conference committee, which will convene September 4th to reconcile the two bills. House majority leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-California), has not been shy about her advocation for higher fuel economy standards. Her comments after the bill passed on Saturday without it’s inclusion only confirmed what many believe was a strategic play to drop it from the house bill, only to push it’s inclusion in the consensus bill put forward by the conference committee. In her words, “I don’t want to be coy about it — it’s something I support.”
Enter concerned citizens like ourselves. We have less than a month to write letters and make calls to our state representatives lobbying for the most important features of both bills (do not doubt that industry lobbyist are beating the war drums). I have outlined my list from the two bills below (please add to and comment):
- Roughly 40% increase in Fuel Economy Standards by 2020 (overall fleet average must increase from 27.5 to 35 MPG), with SUVs, small trucks and vans falling under same regulation as passenger cars.
- 36 billion gallon renewable fuels standard by 2022, including the specification that at least 60 percent of the requirement must be met by “next generation” biofuels like cellulosic ethanol.
- New appliance and lighting efficiency standards, as well as a requirement that the federal government accelerate the use of more efficient lighting in public buildings.
- $50 billion of federal loan guarantees for innovative power plants generating clean energy (notably includes Nuclear generation, which the House’s $7 billion guarantee program for energy and water specifically excludes). I will not venture an opinion on Nuclear power here, there are too many issues surrounding the true costs of projects and the long-term environmental damage associated with waste – best left to another entry.
- Repeal of $16 billion in tax breaks given to the oil and gas industry, shifting the money into programs to boost biofuels, renewable energy and efficiency programs.
- $3.5 billion to install E-85 pumps and expand production of cellulosic ethanol.
- 15% National Renewable Portfolio Standard (“RPS”), which notably allows a 4% contribution from Energy Efficiency Measures (a good idea, but somewhat mis-leading, RPS = 11%, especially considering that EE measures would probably occur autonomously given market incentives and the corresponding technology improvements).
These are some of the most salient features of both bills which I hope are included in in the consensus bill (I don’t necessarily agree with the Senate’s $50 billion in loan guarantees for 28 new nuclear reactors, mainly because if Nuclear generation had to compete evenly with renewables and clean-coal I think the truer costs of nuclear generation and waste would become clearer).
Get on your podium, turn on the loudspeakers and get behind the congressmen who need our support. Similarly, let’s make those like representative, John Dingell (D-Michigan) aware of the consequences if they continue to block meaningful legislation to protect the special interests that support them.
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Going to the supermarket was one of a my favorite activities when I was a kid. After watching TV all week with cartoon ads about cereal leprechauns and chocolate milk bunnies, I would head to the store with my mother and lobby for each of their products. I would marvel at the variety of cereals, chips, sodas and ice creams all of which were lit to perfection in wide aisles that towered above my pudgy 9 year-old frame. The supermarket is where I learned to become a consumer and the playing ground for my development of brand recognition.
I mention this here, because beyond being a great educator and propagater of consumerism, supermarkets are also major energy hogs. You need only think of your last trip to the store, with its bright lights and open freezers/refrigerators to imagine the wasted energy.
I do quite a bit of energy research and modeling, but was absolutely amazed by some of the facts about supermarkets revealed by George Monbiot in his latest book, Heat:
“The heaters over the doors each have a rating of 50 kilowatts. This is roughly 17 times as powerful as domestic fan heaters. The aisles are lit to an intensity of 1,000 lux, which is about the same saturation as a TV studio, and two or three times that of an office. The counters are brightened with spotlights – at up to 2,000 lux. Fish, in particular, must sparkle, so they are lit with ceramic discharge metal halide lamps, which are otherwise used to illuminate castles and cathedrals at night. [Also remember] that fish have to be kept on ice, while lamps of this brightness could fry them… Between 20 and 25 percent of [the] chain’s energy budget is spent on lighting. Most of the rest – 64 percent – is used for refrigeration. (p. 192)”
This might seem like conspicuous energy consumption, but in the store managers’ defense, supermarkets are an extremely competitive industry and they need to sell stories as much as they do products. In order to succeed, they must match the clarity of the images portrayed in ads with crystal-clear illumination of the associated packages and brands in their aisles, or at least that is what the current distribution and supply chain calls for.
The problem of the current system is obvious and it’s amelioration not far from the source. In his research Monbiot also reveals that the wharehouse attached to the supermarket (which all the goods pass through) uses 1/20th of the energy the store itself does and that the fuel used to make the round-trip to the store is 70% greater than a truck delivering the same groceries directly to the home. Meaning that if people were to purchase their groceries through an alternative mechanism, like the internet and circumvent the store entirely, they could reduce the energy for distributing their food significantly – some 95% in Monbiot’s research of the UK. Moreover, the branding and packaging surrounding the supermarket distribution system would also become virtual, reducing the millions of tons of waste associated with the unnecessary packaging of otherwise indistinguishable products.
Internet-based grocery shopping is not a novel idea, Tesco in the UK (which is the subject of Monbiot’s research) and services such as Fresh Direct and PeaPod in the US have been doing it for years. They are a more convenient option than going to the grocery store, especially for busy families and provide one less justification for owning multiple cars (given that 10-25% of car trips in the developed world are for shopping). And if you worry that I am forgetting the local farmers market, virtual grocery shopping should increase rather than retard their patronage. People will still crave the personal interaction of the market and when offered through the internet, supermarkets will have a tougher time providing the illusion of fresh produce and baked goods which combined with one-stop convenience is how they out-compete farmers markets currently.
Wide-scale virtual grocery shopping sounds somewhat ridiculous in the US and in some rural areas quite inefficient, but in comparison with the current system is a great way to reduce a huge source of carbon emissions and energy demand without completely reinventing the wheel.
Food for thought…
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Saturday the House of Rep. passed several bills requiring utilities to up their renewable energy contributions by 15%, cutting $16 billion in subsidies to oil companies (because they really do need the money…) and outlawing 100 watt incandescent light bulbs by 2012. Despite the innocuous content of the bill, President Bush has promised a veto if it passes the senate.
Why is this bill innocuous you might ask? Well, first it fails to address the biggest greenhouse gas emitting source: automobiles. Raising the MPG standards would not only significantly decrease the environmental impact from the American auto fleet, but would also create a huge economic benefit as we reduce our dependency on foreign oil, insulating us from OPEC price spikes and create thousands of new American jobs. See more on this Win-win-win situation.
The 15% renewable energy portfolio standard increase should be doubled. Instead of subsidizing oil companies and gasoline, subsidies should be moved towards renewable, achieving a 30 or 50% renewable energy mix for utilities, but enabling utilities to only pass on a fraction of those costs to consumers.
Finally, Australia has already banned all incandescent bulbs by 2010. As the worlds most developed country and free market economy, it is time we took the lead on at least one environmental issue. Just like our lagging auto makers, our politicians are content to play follow the leader, adopting small measures (we could call them eco appeasements) for show, while refusing to implement any significant change. Australia represents the second worst carbon emissions per capita behind the U.S.
What does this mean for us? The reality is, in 2008 we have to vote! The current government agenda has been clearly big business, big oil and anti-environment from the beginning. Surprised? Furthermore, until the 2008 elections we need to vote with our feet, pedals, public transportation and wallets. America is a consumer driven nation, and when we consumers get behind an idea with our dollar bills politicians and big business alike take recognition. Green jobs are surfacing and they will continue to drive the next economic boom provided we continue to support the environmental movement from the ground up and the top down.
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When did we forget how to trade, barter and haggle? It feels as though if it’s not new, it’s not the best. I miss trading baseball cards, pogs and marbles on the playground at recess. You got one set of them for Christmas or a birthday, then it was an endless trading post. We didn’t know it, but we were helping the environment (and our parents’ wallets).
So how can we reconnect with the playground exchange? Garage sales, vintage stores and Ebay are a few examples of some of our current resources. They have the old Rolling Stones LP I’ve been dying to get my hands on, but I still have to pay for it. What about somewhere I can trade the aging 8-track for the Stones LP?
A site called Swaptree allows you to trade books, DVD’s, music and video games all online, all for free. Basically you list what you have, what you want and begin to trade. You pay for shipping, but otherwise the site is free. I’ve started using the site and am pining for Point Break DVD. Can’t wait.