Be green, and bank some green with these contests

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Photo courtesy of Shira Golding

Earth Day has come and gone, but there are still a lot of contests going on that focus on environmentally friendly ideas. If you have green skills or an innovative idea, here are some fun contests that offer a chance to keep changing the world:

Show Us Your Green Contest from Threadless T-Shirts:
Prize: $3813.74 (and growing as more people participate)
Method of entry: Digital Picture on Flickr or Tweetpic along with a typed description on Tweet
Deadline: April 27, 2009

Spring Dream Challenge from Lowes
Prize: $301-2672 (different prize packs based on the entry category)
Method of entry: YouTube video
Deadline: May 3, 2009

Escape to Alaska or Bust Contest from Alaska Wildland Adventures
Prize: 8 Day / 7 Night Lodge stay with a wildlife expedition
Method of entry: Up to 33,000 characters in essay format
Deadline: May 22, 2009

The Green Effect Contest by Frito Lay’s SunChips & National Geographic
Prize: $20,000 to spend on a green cause
Method of entry: 100-250 word proposal for improve the environment, with up to 4 pictures in support and up to 3 minutes of video explanation
Deadline: June 8, 2009

How are you spending Earth Hour on March 28th?

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Photo courtesy of Earth Hour Global at Flickr.com.

Once a year, environmentalists around the world turn out the lights for an hour. This year, Earth Hour falls on Saturday, March 28th, and many different homes, offices, and government buildings are taking part. The organizers of Earth Hour hope to raise awareness of how much energy we waste with inefficient lighting systems. For one hour a year, everyone can take part and see the beauty of the natural sky that’s lost due to light pollution.

The World Wildlife Fund and other environmental organizations are hard at work planning activities for Earth Hour 2009, ranging from star watching and recycling events to tree plantings and slumber parties. Find an Earth Hour event nearby, or if there aren’t any, you can plan one yourself with help from the Earth Hour Facebook group!

Now’s the time to raise your voice and take part. Are businesses and government offices in your town participating in Earth Hour? Check the latest Earth Hour news, and if City Hall isn’t taking part, now is a good time to ask pointed questions of your elected officials. While they’re on the line, why not ask about steps that the city is taking to retrofit energy efficient devices into public buildings and legislation that improves local air quality?

Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate how we destroy the night sky for the other 8,765 hours of the year…
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Photo courtesy of fyngyrz at Flickr.com.

How to plant a victory garden

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Photo courtesy of Sunfell at Flickr.com.

Everything old is new again. This is doubly true for trends that never went completely out of fashion, like vinyl records and Victory Gardens. Originally conceived during World War I as a way to ensure food supplies for troops, these community gardens took off in a big way during the second World War. By 1944, up to 40% of the vegetables on American tables came from a Victory Garden.

Now, with the rising price of staple foods, increasing awareness of the environmental cost of industrial farming, and increased interest in self sufficiency and independence, Victory Gardens are making a serious comeback. The Smithsonian Institute has a new exhibit on Victory Gardens, and vegetable rows are replacing ornamental bushes nationwide.

Modern-day Victory Gardens look a little different – gardeners are now blogging about their successes and even using Twitter to send gardening updates!

Success with Victory Gardens is snowballing into more awareness of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Urban food pantries are stocking up with fresh fruit gleaned from “ornamental” trees. Believe it or not, some HOA’s are embracing community gardens. There’s even a campaign to start a Victory Garden on the White House lawn:

Benefits of a victory garden:

  • Cut grocery bills
  • Gain access to fresher food
  • Boost vitamins in your diet
  • Increase the health of your soil
  • Insure against food shortages
  • Reduce exposure to pesticides and other chemicals
  • Avoid disease (or ensure access to your favorite veggies if an outbreak occurs)
  • Preserve oil supplies / reduce dependence on foreign oil
  • Grow produce for sale or gifts

So, let’s say that you’ve been bitten by the Victory Gardening bug. Where to begin?

It can be a bit daunting to start your first Victory Garden. There’s a lot to learn about soil, planting seasons, and local weather conditions. Hit the books! The library is a good place to start – a little bit of research can go a long way in getting the best results. As the old saying goes, an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of perspiration. Your state’s Extension Office can also be a good source of information and expert advice.

Try looking for help from your neighbors – local gardening clubs often know the best times to plant and which species do best in your area. Find a local Gardening MeetUp, and you’ll find a pool of knowledge and maybe even people willing to lend you seeds or cuttings from their favorite plants. No matter which plants you choose, PBS is a great resource for beginner gardeners.

In the past, Victory Gardens were all laid out from a universal template. That didn’t work out very well for people who tried to grow the same plants in California as they did in Maine and Florida. Instead of a cookie cutter layout, you should tailor your garden to local conditions. Work with your climate to choose the best plants. For example, even if you love rice, it may not make sense to grow rice if you live in the middle of the desert.

We’ve learned a lot in the last 50 years, and it’s easier to start a vegetable garden in your yard than ever before. Incorporate this knowledge in the layout and composition of your victory garden, and you can achieve amazing results. Our grandparents didn’t have much practical experience on designing to minimize erosion or using cover crops that naturally fertilize the soil, but there’s a wealth of useful information on these techniques. Here are some other research topics that you might want to consider:

Even if you have limited space or no yard, Victory Gardens can be grown in containers and indoor planters. Hanging planters can turn any patio or balcony into a vertical garden.

If you don’t have a patio, many plants will thrive in window planters or grow boxes. There are also light boxes and grow lights that can turn the deepest, darkest basement into an oasis of life. Indoor plants not only make rooms beautiful – they also can help reduce sick building syndrome by providing fresh air and absorbing indoor pollutants.

Not a gardener? No problem. There are entrepreneurs eager to turn other people’s yards into gardens. Also, there are other steps you can take to promote food safety and sustainability.

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Photo courtesy of mental.masala at Flickr.com.

Boost gas mileage with LRR tires

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Photo courtesy of Negaro UK at Flickr.com.

For years, auto designers have been using wind tunnels to improve car designs. Wind tunnels make it easy to see how different features affect aerodynamics. Hoods, spoilers, and even mirrors have been engineered and re-engineered due to wind tunnel testing. This is because friction consumes roughly 80% of all gasoline that’s used while driving. By reducing friction, wind tunnel tests improve gas mileage and boost performance.

There’s one thing that wind tunnels miss though – the friction between a car’s tires and the road. This overlooked detail has gained new attention recently. Due to tightened CAFE standards, many cars now come standard with tires that improve gas mileage.

Expected improvements are in the 1-2mpg range in highway driving, depending on the vehicle and the previously specified factory tire. The gains aren’t enormous, but as Scott Miller, GM’s vehicle performance manager for full-size hybrid trucks said, “Every bit helps.”

Unfortunately, these factory issue tires are often replaced with gas hogging aftermarket tires. What makes some tires get better mileage than others? It’s all about friction, or “rolling resistance”. Rolling resistance is a measurement of how much friction a tire produces. Tires with low rolling resistance (LRR) convert less energy into heat and noise.

So, what’s the trade off?
In the automotive world, there’s never a free lunch, and low rolling resistance tires are no exception. There are certain trade-offs that come with reduced rolling resistance. In order to minimize rolling resistance, LRR tires are designed with less surface area in contact with the road. That saves gas, but it also reduces traction and increases stopping distances.

Tires with low rolling resistance are stiffer and flex less. This means LRR tires can feel uncomfortable because they provide less cushion on rough roads. Some LRR tires are also less durable and wear out after 30,000-40,000 miles. They are also slightly more expensive than other tires, but they can save money over the life of the tire (the savings can be substantial on cars with low MPG ratings).

How do you actually find tires with low rolling resistance?

This is where things get tricky. Tire companies have been slow to report the rolling resistance ratings on their tires. Rolling resistance values vary based on the testing situations (different cars produce different rolling resistance values), so a raw number isn’t meaningful to all customers. Also, the testing process can be time consuming. Here’s how Bridgestone responded when we inquired about why rolling resistance is not listed on their website (emphasis added):

Rolling resistance has traditionally been measured thru SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) test procedure called J1269. It measures the force required to roll a tire against a dynamometer at a fixed speed of 50 mph. Within Bridgestone/Firestone, we have over 1,300 passenger and light truck products in the Bridgestone line alone and, conceivably, each one could have a different rolling resistance. The tread compound is a major factor, but construction, size, and even tread pattern can have an influence. At least 3 tires must be run in each configuration to get a good average. At approximately 1 hour per rolling resistance test, this amounts to 3,900 hours or over 6 months just to run the Bridgestone brand.

This explains why these values are estimated. We have some data, however it frequently does not line up with those sizes or patterns requested. Therefore, estimation is required.

The weight of the tire will have some affect on gas mileage. What is more of a factor, though, is the tire “footprint”. This term refers to the actual area where the “rubber meets the road”. The same size tires may have different contact areas and therefore different gas mileage implications. More rubber coming in contact with the road can create increased rolling resistance. Generally, taller, narrower tires are better for fuel economy, if you retain your current wheels. Increasing the tire aspect ratio, for instance from 70 to 75, will provide additional load carrying capacity.

Your local mechanic may be slightly more helpful, but don’t count on it. Right now, the best way to find a tire with low rolling resistance is to find a chat board dedicated to your car and surf the wisdom of the crowds. There are also several non-comprehensive lists of LRR tires, but they may not be available in your area and the lists quickly become outdated as new models are introduced.

Hopefully, this situation will change soon. A California law went into effect in 2008 that requires all companies to list RR ratings for replacement tires sold in the state. As more people become aware of green tires, there will be rising demand. This demand will drive innovation and may also bring prices down. In the near future, we may even see a Green Seal on tires with Low Rolling Resistance, just like the Energy Star label on appliances.

The spike in gas prices in 2008 has focused attention on several ways to improve mileage without adopting radical technologies, and low rolling resistance tires are only one of several inexpensive ways to get significant improvements.

Before you go out and buy new tires, there are several ways to reduce the rolling resistance of your current set. Start by removing any excess weight from your car – all that junk in the trunk is pressing the tires down against the road and increasing the contact area. Also, check the air pressure on your current wheels:

The easiest way to reduce rolling resistance… is to make certain that the tires are properly inflated. A vehicle that requires its tires to be inflated to 35 psi (based on the vehicle’s tire placard) will have an increase in rolling resistance of approximately 12.5% if the tires are allowed to become underinflated to just 28 psi.

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Photo courtesy of Tamaki at Flickr.com.

The latest news on carbon credits

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Photo courtesy of Azure Bleu at Flickr.com.

The Kyoto treaty is in the news again as the Obama administration considers implementing a cap and trade system for carbon dioxide. It turns out that a lot of participating countries have fallen short of their Kyoto commitments, and are now required to purchase approximately $46 Billion of carbon credits to make-up for surplus CO2 production. This could mean that the price of carbon credits is about to spike upwards from their current low levels.

So, what exactly is a cap-and-trade system?
Cap and trade is a regulatory framework for controlling the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that affect the climate. It is one of several proposed systems, with the largest alternative being a carbon tax. The cap in cap-and-trade refers to a limit set on the level of emissions. This cap can be company specific, region specific, national, or international. When participants spend more than their allotment, they can trade credit with other participants who haven’t produced as much as their allowed.

What are carbon credits?
Carbon credits are warrants that represent carbon neutralizing behavior (ie; maintaining a forest, sequestering carbon underground, or breaking down greenhouse gases). In some countries, factories and power plants are required to purchase carbon credits that offset their pollution. These vouchers are used to fund the development of clean technology and conservation, and they also make green business practices more competitive by putting a price tag on externalities. A cap and trade system promotes land conservation by placing a value on pristine wilderness areas. In turn, this reduces carbon emissions by deterring development.

Many different companies offer carbon credits and carbon offsets. If you’re interested in purchasing some for your personal use, there are plans that you can use to neutralize the impact of a plane trip, counterbalance your home’s expenditures, or to offset your daily commute. Here’s a price survey of various companies that offer carbon credits.

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Photo courtesy of Dianne Pike at Flickr.com.

There are concerns with how carbon credits are computed. Critics argue that carbon credits are often miscalculated, that they’re rewarded for projects that were going to be built anyway, or that the expense is not justified by the results. A recent report by the US General Accounting Office offers some support to these criticisms. Projects that have applied for carbon accreditation under the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) were found to have serious problems. Several of these projects involved displacing Chinese farmers to build hydroelectric dams, and construction on some of the dams had even been underway before the project managers asked for carbon credits.

The end users of carbon credits are increasingly demanding third-party validation. In order for carbon credits to be more than modern-day indulgences, there are some important stipulations that need to be met. The carbon savings must be measurable, unique, and independently verifiable. This prevents unscrupulous carbon dealers from selling non-existent credits or selling the same credits over and over again. In the terminology of the Clean Development Mechanism, only actions that provide “additionality” are eligible for carbon credits:

If I buy carbon offsets, I make the implicit claim that I forgo reducing my own emissions (i.e. I still fly) but in exchange I pay someone to reduce their emission in my stead. If I buy carbon offsets to “neutralize” the emissions I caused during air travel from someone who would have reduced their emissions anyway, regardless of my payment, I, in effect, have not only wasted my money, but I also have not neutralized my emissions.

Currently, the majority of projects applying for CDM accreditation involve hydroelectricity. There are only a finite number of suitable rivers in the world though, so future savings will have to come from new techniques and green technologies. Microturbines fueled by waste are one of the largest areas of potential growth, and US companies are spearheading development in that area.

San Antonio recently became the first city to deploy a power plant that uses methane from sewage to generate power. Burning this renewable resource is a clean solution, because methane has more than 20 times the impact on climate change that carbon dioxide does. There’s no word yet on whether San Antonio is applying for carbon credits on this project, but it’s certainly more useful than methane flare projects that are already cashing in.

Several states are pursuing a different tactic to reduce their carbon footprint; they’re attempting to reduce overall power use. A California law is now in effect that requires all state facilities to reduce their energy use by 20%. There have been some unexpected results. In addition to new systems at government offices and service centers, Corrections facilities around the state have also been forced to go green. California’s not alone; many prison facilities nationwide are adapting energy saving technology. From prison gardens that use compost to water boilers that burn wood waste, cleantech is saving thousands of dollars and introducing prison populations to some innovations that were originally developed for the Hollywood elite. With state budgets feeling a pinch, how long do you think it will be before San Quentin starts selling carbon offsets?

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Photo courtesy of MrGluSniffer at Flickr.com.