Archive for March, 2008
In as nonpartisan a way as I possibly can say it: this speech Barack Obama gave yesterday is pretty darn amazing. I can’t help but think that he actually cares about truth and reality, and has the ability and desire to say what he understands about truth and reality to the public.
Now if only he would look past the nostrums of Israel as the exclusive victim and publicly recognize the legitimate complaints of Palestinians, I’d be ready to give this speech an almost-perfect 10. (His use of the modifier “potentially” with “devastating climate change” is another fraction of a point off a fully perfect 10.) By the by, here’s a transcript of the speech.
This is cool news: you can now send most any electronics related junk to a recycling center through the mail, postage free. BusinessWeek’s Green Biz has the low-down. I suppose this is a tidbit we’ll have to add to future editions of our little green guide, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: An Easy Household Guide.
Clean energy advocates of wind power are meeting stiff resistance in Vermont from those, including environmentalists, who don’t want their rural mountain views obscured by wind turbines. I understand this, but it sure comes at the expense of their mountain cousins in the south who actually don’t really have to worry about ruined mountain views, just ruined mountains. [cont’d]
Yes, I must agree that the two sets of complaints are not on equal footing. The literal destruction and elimination of entire mountains–and all the waste and poisoning of rivers that comes with it, not to mention the climate damage resulting from the coal that is at the bottom of it all–is unquestionably and significantly worse than marring picturesque views of mountain ranges with a bunch of wind turbines.
Now, it should be said that putting up wind turbines does more than just change the view. Wind turbines require access roads for their construction and maintenance, so mountains will be scarred by those roads as well as the turbines themselves. So turbines placed on mountain tops do come with real, negative side effects. Considering the alternatives, however, these seem to me to be lesser and necessary evils in this day and age.
It should further be said that wind turbines, as fabulous as they are, don’t generate enough power to be able to replace coal entirely given how much electricity Americans use; and eliminating the burning (and mountaintop removal mining) of coal is absolutely necessary, sooner rather than later. That means that it’s not enough for Vermonters (or others in America and other high-energy-consuming places) to agree to have wind turbines placed on some of our mountaintops. We must also reduce our electric consumption, significantly, so that our consumption falls within the range of what wind and other clean generation methods are capable of producing.
BusinessWeek’s GreenBiz blog tipped me off to a recent BW article on carbon labeling. Carbon labeling means to label consumer products with an indicator of how much greenhouse gas was emitted in the production and distribution of each product to the point of having it on the shelf in front of the customer. The idea has been around for a while, but only recently have manufacturers (like Timberland shoes) and retailers (like Tesco, a British chain of mega-grocery stores) started to implement carbon labeling programs. As it turns out, according to BW’s article, carbon labeling is tricky for a few reasons. First, it can be tremendously difficult to squeeze all the aspects of modern, globalized manufacturing into a single numerical measurement of greenhouse emissions. Second, for such programs to work, there needs to be a fair bit of consumer education so that people will have any idea of what these carbon labels actually mean. (If a label says, “50 grams of carbon,” is that good or bad or what?)
Here are some thoughts suggestions that probably have been thought of by other people as well, but what the hey:
1) The ideal carbon label will be structured similarly to the energy guide labels on refrigerators and other appliances we see in the US. That is, on a line that shows the minimum-to-maximum amount of greenhouse emissions caused by similar products to the one in your hand (like all canned vegetables or all pasta products or all color televisions) as well as an indication of where on this line the individual product falls. If canned vegetables incur anywhere between 10 and 100 grams of carbon-equivalent greenhouse emissions (using made up numbers for sake of the example), and the can in your hand incurred 30 grams, then you’d see something like “10—–30————–100″. That’s the first part of the labeling scheme, and would be called the “Manufacturing & Distribution” count. For some products, like canned vegetables, that would be enough. For products like TVs that require the ongoing consumption of energy in use, there would be another line (like the existing energy guide labels on refrigerators and such) that indicates the relative use of energy going forward, based on the average greenhouse emissions of the electric grid across the country. This would be the “Usage” count. Finally, for products that have both counts on their label would be a third measurement line called “Expected Lifetime” which would be a combination of the “Manufacturing & Distribution” count and an estimate of the probable cummulative lifetime “Usage” count, for example the combination of M&D plus 10 years worth of normal usage of a TV. Some products might have high M&D counts but be more efficient in use, and therefore their lifetime impact would be lower than an alternative product that had a lower M&D count but was inefficient in usage.
2) I realize that this notion of an ideal carbon label still ignores the difficulties in actually figuring out accurate counts for greenhouse emissions; but if you can get decent estimates of the emissions, then I think that’d be a good way to do the labeling in a way that consumers could interpret and make meaningful choices between products. You have to have the relative position of each product on a scale for the number to mean anything.
3) If you want to educate the populace on how to use these things, teach 10 year olds about it. They will quickly and insistently instruct the rest of us, treating us like absurd fools until such time as we master the system as well as they have.
4) The trickiness of figuring out accurate and consistent greenhouse emission labeling is an argument in favor of using carbon taxes/cap-and-trade systems. Sorta. On the one hand, the financial tool of carbon tax/cap-and-trade — implemented on upstream sources of carbon (and other greenhouse gases) — easily introduce an effective alternative to the carbon label into the economy. Product prices will rise relative to the amount of extra cost their manufacturers & distributors face as a result of the greenhouse gas emissions incurred during manufacturing and distribution. The can of corn that involved more greenhouse emissions will incur a greater carbon-cost increase than the alternative can of corn that involved less emissions. However, this isn’t totally satisfactory, because so much else is involved in pricing: the “price signal” is terribly noisy and prone to distortion and/or misinterpretation. In addition, there are some — how many? — people willing, even eager, to pay more for products that they are confident involve less greenhouse emissions. Working the greenhouse effect of a product into the product’s price is a good thing, but that doesn’t obviate the usefulness of a more fully informed consumer as a second level for reducing carbon footprints. One further thought on this, though: it’s possible that if a carbon tax is implemented, the tax itself could be used as a tool for measuring the greenhouse emissions on a product and therefore be the basis of the carbon label. Businesses already keep track of the taxes they pay, and so the added burden of accounting should be less than trying to account for a new system of purely physical carbon emission counting. Right? Because the carbon tax itself is predicated (or should be) on a carbon-equivalent scale, it would be an easy translation to take the cumulative taxes paid on a product through its manufacturing and distribution lifetime and restate that as an amount of carbon emitted during the process. The increasing use of rfid chips in distribution chains only makes this easier to implement, as you have better tracking going on and the ability to link movement of materials and goods to the taxes those materials and goods incur for the businesses making and moving them. (Having said this, I still favor a Peter Barnes’ style cap-auction-trade-dividend approach over the carbon tax approach.)
5) I gotta get back to work!
Inspired by our new Green Guide, Greening Your Office, I’ve conducted a little experiment with the power consumption of our office water cooler. We’ve got two of them, one in our main office and one in the set of satellite offices down the hallway.
Last year for my birthday, when my parents asked me what I wanted as a gift, I asked for a Kill-A-Watt electric usage meter. (Yes, I’m a green geek.) This is a nifty little thing that plugs into any regular 3-prong outlet. You plug your appliances into it, and it tells you how much energy the appliance is using. It’ll give you measurements for a moment in time or cumulative over time.
So I brought the Kill-A-Watt in to work and plugged our main office water cooler into it. (The cooler also has a hot water faucet, but for simplicity I’ll just call it a cooler instead of a cooler/heater.) The thing normally is plugged in and on all the time, including at night and weekends when the office is empty.
Our water cooler doesn’t get a lot of use, relatively speaking. Not many people in the office are heavy tea drinkers, so don’t rely on it for hot water, and I haven’t noticed heavy reliance on it for cold drinking water. It gets used for sure and I’m glad to have it in the office, but I’m sure that in other offices there are greater demands on the water cooler.
Anyhow, I left if plugged in to the Kill-A-Watt for 13 days, and here’s my estimates and conclusions about whether it makes sense to install one of those outlet timers so that the cooler is automatically shut off each night.
I’ve tried to be conservative in my estimate about how much power the cooler draws and how quickly an outlet timer will pay back.
Assumption #1: Nighttime power use (7pm to 7am) is 1/2 of daytime use (7am to 7pm) because nobody is getting water out of the cooler, so it doesn’t have to cool or heat new water. In other words, in a 24-hour period, one-third of the electricity used is at night and two-thirds is during the day.
Assumption #2: The landlord is paying 12 cents per kWh for power to this building. (I don’t know what the commercial rate is for electricity here. Green Mountain Power charges me about 18 cents/kWh for my residential use, so I think cutting that rate by a third counts as a conservative assumption.)
Results: Based on my measurements of total draw by the cooler over 13 days combined with assumption #1, the cooler draws about 0.58 kWh per night. Applying assumption #2 gives us a cost for leaving the cooler on of 6.96 cents per night. An outlet timer costs $10 at the local Home Depot, though I’ve seen them for as little as $6.88 on Amazon.com. Going with the $10 timer, it would therefore pay for itself in 144 days, or a little under 5 months. Going with the Amazon.com cheapo timer (and ignoring shipping costs), it would pay for itself in 99 days, or about 3 months and a week.
If the rate for electricity is more than 12 cents/kWh, or if I was too conservative in my assumption about nighttime power consumption of the cooler, then the payback period would be shorter. (An additional conservative aspect of my estimate is that I treated weekends like regular work days, even though a timer could be set to turn the coolers off for the full duration of the weekends.) If my assumptions were not conservative enough, then payback would be longer. Either way, the payback period seems pretty good as investments in equipment go, dontcha think? I’m hoping our landlord sees the light and installs timers for the two water coolers in our offices and other offices in the building.
I was interested in biking to work before we started production of this new Green Guide to carbon-free commuting, but the fact that we’re doing the book has gotten me thinking about bike-commuting issues during my now-daily rides. (Starting in September, I’ve been biking or taking the bus to work pretty much every day. My wife, two daughters–one baby and one toddler–and I seem to be surviving a-ok with only one car. Hooray!)
One thing has really been irking me in the ride, and I hope that transportation and road construction planners will keep this in mind if they hope to make biking easier and more common. There are a couple stop lights on my route that rely on sensors in the pavement to trigger the switch from one direction having a green light to the other. That’s a great idea from the perspective of keeping automobile traffic moving as efficiently as possible. However, because these triggers rely on the magnetism of the car to make the switch, me and my bike don’t get noticed. Frequently, there are no cars in the same lane I’m in waiting at the light, and I have to sit through four or more cycles of the light before I get a green go-ahead. As a result, I’ve had to resort to civil disobedience and go through red lights to make any progress. (Normally, I obey all driving rules when biking–if I expect cars to give me some respectful space, I feel like I owe cars the return respect of enduring the petty annoyances of stop lights and such that they do.)
My suggestion is to use a different sort of trigger to change the lights that will recognize a biker. Another option would be to have one of those pedestrian cross-walk buttons placed somewhere so it will be more accessible to a biker; pushing it could either give the pedestrian green light or it could be wired to the cars’ green light for that direction.
Maybe they have this sort of thing in places where bike commuting is a big deal, like out in Davis, California, but in “regular” places like the Upper Valley area of Vermont/New Hampshire, biking is still far behind cars in terms of infrastructural support.
Meanwhile, a fellow Chelsea Greener who’s a motorcycle enthusiast has pointed me in the direction of an alternative to civil disobedience—a magnet that you mount to the underside of your motorcycle that triggers the light to turn green. I’m not sure I want to cart around a magnet on the bottom bracket of my bike, but it’s something to consider.
Further meanwhile, my bus and bike commuting is paying off in more ways than one. The local carpool-promotion organization, Upper Valley RideShare, had a “Curb Your Car” commuter challenge in November. I kept track of how I got to work each day, and for each day that I avoided commuting by driving myself and nobody else, my name was entered into a prize drawing. Score! I won a $20 gift certificate to Brattleboro Books. So after you get into the bike commuting habit, rally your local public transportation organizations to do a similar thing and encourage your neighbors to get into the action.
Vive la cyle-ucion!
All those people who said they wanted to move to Canada when Bush won in 2004, and those who say they’ll want to do that if McCain wins in 2008–why not try The People’s Republic of Vermont? From firsthand experience I can tell you it’s a marvelous place to live, starting with the fact that there are NO billboards along our highways–you can actually see the mountains and farms! The latest reason: only in Vermont do enough citizens give a rat’s ass about preserving what’s good in our Constitution to actually do something (symbolic) about it.