Solar Rope Lights: an Overview

Solar rope lighting is useful and decorative. You may just string some along a pathway, or the edge of your swimming pool. And that would be sufficient, until you think of other uses for it. Maybe you’ll go a little overboard and cover your entire house with it during the holidays. Really, you could do whatever your heart desires, but before you do, there’s some things about solar rope lighting that you should know.

First of all, what are solar rope lights, anyway?

Solar rope lighting is a woven strand of Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs). It is then encased in clear plastic, to protect the LEDs. This also enables you to wrap the lights around a pole, or lay them in straight lines. A small solar collector is attached to the LEDs. During the day, the solar collector charges a small, rechargeable battery that powers the LEDs. It’s important during the day that your solar collector get enough light, or else you’ll get no light or dim light at night. A light sensor determines when light is low enough to turn your lights on. Solar rope lights comes in white, or a single color, or, festively, many colors. You can get a woven strand of LEDs, or a strand with individual lights (like holiday lights).

Solar Powered Rope Lights
CC flickr photo courtesy of Robert Hruzek

Continue reading “Solar Rope Lights: an Overview”

Solar Lights for Gardens

If you like entertaining in your garden at night, or don’t want to step on your flowers in the dark, and you crave sustainable energy in solving this problem, you need to consider solar LED garden lights.

Solar Lights for Gardens
CC flickr photo courtesy of lozwilkes

Solar lights for gardens come in a variety of styles:

  • stake lights
  • hanging lights
  • rope lights
  • spotlights

Bloom Box: a practical, clean energy solution for homes?


Photo via CNET.

Like many people, I just started hearing about the Bloom Box from Bloom Energy. It isn’t the first time that 60 Minutes has come up with a story about some type of miraculous energy source that seems too good to be true.

Indeed, free energy scams are as old as energy itself!

But here’s why the Bloom Box isn’t actually a scam. It doesn’t ever claim to be a device that creates free energy. It’s just a fuel cell device that makes ultra efficient use of methane or natural gas to generate electricity cheaper and cleaner than buying it from the grid.

And look who is actually using these devices right now:

http://www.bloomenergy.com/customers/

Wal-Mart, Bank of America, Google, Staples, Ebay, FedEx and others. These are real companies, using a real, functioning device.

Makes you wonder things like, how well would it run on propane? Could you power an entire house off the grid? And how long would the propane last?

Would it be cheaper and/or cleaner if you have a natural gas hookup at your home to use a Bloom Box to generate your electricity instead of getting it from the grid?

How much will they cost for one suitable for a house? What will the payback time be in years?

Want to learn more about the Bloom Box?

The Bloom Energy official web site is starting to offer more details about the device, now that they are actively seeking out media coverage.

CBS 60 Minutes had a segment about the Bloom Box.

CNET has also been covering the Bloom Box, and even live blogged one of their media events.

Readers, do you have anything interesting to say about the Bloom Box?

Was Cash for Clunkers a success?

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Photo courtesy of natashalcd at Flickr.com

The jury is still out on the Cash for Clunkers program. The last paperwork was filed on Monday, August 24, 2009, but crushed cars still waiting to be recycled. The final numbers are in – so how did the program score?

All told, C4C took 690,114 clunkers off of the road:

84 percent of consumers traded in trucks and 59 percent purchased passenger cars. The average fuel economy of the vehicles traded in was 15.8 miles per gallon and the average fuel economy of vehicles purchased is 24.9 mpg. – a 58 percent improvement.

That sounds wonderful, but a lot of people are wondering how effective C4C really was. Some argue that the program was a handout to car makers, that it was economically ineffective, that it increased consumer debt, or that it will create a price bubble for used cars.

There’s some truth in each of these claims, and policy makers are hopefully taking notes. Cash for Clunkers generated a lot of strong emotions. Even among environmentalists, there was spirited debate over the program. For example, ethanol lobbyists and wind turbine manufacturers opposed the program because it threatened their funding.

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Photo courtesy of cluestream at Flickr.com

The Federal Cash For Clunkers program is also being blamed for distorting the value of carbon credits. Depending on the vehicles involved in the trade, the government set a carbon price of between $237 and $500 per ton. That compares with an average price of $5 to $40 per ton for carbon credits available on the open market.

Critics have argued that the low fuel efficiency requirements for replacement cars will have minimal impacts over the long term. Under the program, some trucks were replaced with other trucks that “only” received a 2 mpg improvement (18 mpg –> 20 mpg). That is more than a 10% improvement – and improving the mileage of a work truck has a much larger impact than improving the mileage of an economy car.

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Photo courtesy of shimonkey at Flickr.com

One of the strongest arguments about C4C is that the environmental impact of making new cars may be greater than the benefits provided by improved fuel efficiency. Mining ore, molding rubber, welding parts, and moving the finished product to showrooms are all processes that produce carbon emissions:

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted to produce a new car has been estimated to range from about 3.5 to 12.5 tons, or an average of about 6.7 tons. So buying a new car means an extra 6.7 tons of CO2 emissions — you wouldn’t have emitted all that pollution had you just kept your old car.

Yet, the bulk of CO2 that a car releases comes from day to day operation:

According to a literature review by the Pacific Institute, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the life-cycle carbon emissions of the average car come not from driving but from manufacturing and disposal.

The other 80-90% comes from driving. It doesn’t take a large increase in efficiency to make up for the carbon released in making a new vehicle.

So, is it worthwhile to replace the less fuel efficient cars with fuel sipping models? Does it produce more pollution to build the vehicles than it takes to operate older, less efficient engines? Setting up a formula is pretty simple – let’s say the 690,114 cars produced for C4C released average amounts of carbon dioxide. 690,114 x 6.7 tons = 4,623,763.8 tons of CO2. That’s how much Cash For Clunkers caused to be released.

On the other side of the equation is how much CO2 saved by getting gas guzzlers off of the road. The average American drives more than 13,000 miles per year. The vehicles that were replaced would have burned approximately 596,511,828 gallons of gasoline per year ((13,657 miles x 690,114 cars) / 15.8 mpg). The replacement cars would only burn 378,509,513 gallons ((13,657 miles x 690,114 cars) / 24.9 mpg). That’s 218,002,315 gallons saved per year.

Each gallon of gasoline that’s burned produces about 19.4 lbs of CO2. 19.4 lbs of CO2 is ~0.008799692 metric tons.

So, after all that math, C4C is currently reducing our CO2 emissions by approximately 1,918,353 tons per year. In less than 2 and a half years, the program will “pay” for itself in terms of CO2. The average passenger car is driven for 7 years or more, so over their lifetime, Cash For Clunkers vehicles will save approximately 13,428,471 tons of Carbon Dioxide.

With numbers this large, sometimes it helps to put them in perspective. A large elephant weighs approximately 6 tons, so 13,428,471 tons of carbon weighs more than 2 million elephants!

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Photo courtesy of ECU Digital Collections at Flickr.com

CO2 isn’t the only pollutant that the program has reduced. It isn’t even the type of emission that new cars have the greatest impact on:

Older vehicles emit conventional air-pollutants, such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, at rates as much as 100 times higher than newer vehicles, he says. That’s because they have less-sophisticated pollution controls and because emission levels tend to worsen as vehicles age.

Most of the greenhouse gas released in the US comes from other sources. We cause more pollution with coal power plants, oil refining, chemical extraction, and other industrial processes. So, the Cash For Clunkers reductions are really just a drop in the bucket:

…on average, every hour, America emits 728,000 tons of carbon dioxide. The total savings per year from cash for clunkers translates to about 57 minutes of America’s output of the chief greenhouse gas.

Cash for Clunkers isn’t going to solve our emissions problem. But it’s a start.

As a side note – $2B of funds were added to extend the Cash For Clunkers program. Unfortunately, those funds were taken from the $6B set aside for other green technology. This means that there will be less investment in wind turbines, energy efficiency upgrades, power storing devices, smart grids, and other uses that may have delivered more of an environmentally friendly bang-for-the-buck.

There are also plans to mirror the program with rebates for energy efficient appliances.

Photo courtesy of Uncle Bumpy at Flickr.com

What do you think about Cash For Clunkers? Would the money have been better spent on public transportation, alternative energy generation, research, or other uses? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

How to clean a solar panel

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Photo courtesy of naturalturn at Flickr.com

Over time, solar panels will get covered with dust, grime, and even bird droppings. These obstructions block sunlight and will reduce power production. The solution is simple though – clean your solar panel when it gets dirty!

Each solar panel is different, so make sure to review the instructions from the manufacturer before cleaning the panel. Some panels are sensitive to certain chemicals, and others may have fragile components that you should be aware of. So, read those manuals first.

If your panel is a standard design, then cleaning a solar panel is just like cleaning a window. The “live” electrical components are isolated behind glass or plastic shielding, and all that needs to be cleaned is the outside. Before washing the glass, make sure that there aren’t any cracks or loose wiring. If there are, it might be a good idea to call a technician instead!

Here are the supplies you’ll need:

  • *A bucket full of water
  • *A soft sponge or towel
  • *A drying cloth that wont scratch the panels
  • *Cleaning soap (optional)
  • Green cleaning supplies do a great job on glass and solar panels. There are several varieties of streak free glass cleaner available commercially. You can also cook up non-toxic cleaning solution at home. Here’s a simple recipe for eco-friendly glass cleaner:

    Make a great all-purpose window cleaner by combining 1/4 cup vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon liquid soap or detergent, and 2 cups of water in a spray bottle.

    Use the soapy water to wash the surface of the solar panels, and brush away any visible dust or streaks. Gentle scrubbing may be necessary. After wiping away dirt, it’s a good idea to dry the panels off. Dissolved grime has a tendency to move around rather than wash away. Wiping up the wet areas does a thorough job of removing all of the silt and it also prevents water spots.

    That’s it! Compare the output of your solar panels before and after cleaning. When output starts to fall again, it’s probably time for another quick rinse.

    PE - how to clean a solar panel - bkusler FL resized
    Photo courtesy of bkusler at Flickr.com

    For solar panels in hard to reach areas (ie; on the roof of an isolated lighthouse or attached to a satellite in space) automatic cleaning systems are a popular option. Most of these automatic systems work like windshield wipers, brushing dust away from the solar panels with a spray hose and mechanical arm. Automatic cleaning devices add a little bit of cost to a solar panel system, but they may be worthwhile in dirty or hazardous settings.

    Just a side note – roof mounted solar panels are sometimes laid out to be self cleaning. There’s less need to clean a solar panel if it isn’t dirty!

    Interested in building your own solar panels to save money? Check this out.

    Biking to work – a beginner’s guide

    This year, June 15th was “Ride Your Bike to Work” day. When I saw other people riding to work, I decided to give it a try.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work - sportpictures FL
    Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

    This is remarkable because my bike has been quietly stashed in my garage since last Christmas (when I received it as a gift). I took the bike out for a few spins, but the two of us had an understanding. If I kept it safely stored away, it wouldn’t try to buck and throw me over the handle bars.

    Before June 16th, I had never ridden more than 5 miles in a day in my entire life. I’m not your typical bike rider – I’m 20 pounds overweight, I’ve never tried an “extreme” sport, and I live in one of the hottest cities of the Southwest. So, if I can commute to work on a bicycle, anyone can.

    Have you considered riding a bike instead of taking your car? It’s a great way to save gas while burning calories and getting more time outdoors in the fresh air. Bicycling can help you be more productive by reducing blood pressure, stimulating serotonin, and helping you arrive at the office fully awake. Bike riders also stand out for promotion – if you’re having trouble catching the attention of management or just want to be known for your dedication, riding a bike is a great way to climb the corporate ladder.

    There are some hurdles to commuting by bike. If you’re not a dedicated bike rider, these hurdles can seem impossible to overcome, but I’ve found out that there’s no reason to let fear or uncertainty keep you stuck in traffic.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -   StewBl@ck cyclist silhouette
    Photo courtesy of StewBl@ck at Flickr.com

    Distance

    For most people, distance is really a question about endurance. How far can you comfortably ride on a bicycle? It takes a lot more energy to pedal a bike than it does to press the gas pedal on a car. But it can be less draining that driving a car while giving other drivers the finger and shouting loudly (you know, the typical American commute).

    Everyone has a different comfort level. For most people, a 1 mile commute is going to be a breeze, a 3 mile commute is going to be exercise, and a 5 mile commute is going to be painful (but doable). If you live further from work than 5 miles, you may want to consider multi-modal cycling. That means riding a bicycle part of the way, and using a bus or train to cover the rest of the distance. If you have a folding bike or large car, you can also take a multi modal route by using a parking garage along the way.

    The best way to calculate distance is to use one of the free online mapping services. Mapquest, Google Maps, and Yahoo maps can all be used to find the shortest routes between two points, and it’s easy to avoid highways or other danger zones by altering the route. Online maps are easy to use, and in some areas they even offer real-time traffic reports along your route (that’s handy to check before you hit the road). Here are a few other things to consider when choosing a bike route.

    These maps do have one weakness though – they’re primarily set up for roads. Bike trails, parks, and paths are invisible to the software, so the routes they recommend may be longer and more dangerous than they should be. That may change soon (for example, Google recently rolled out a “pedestrian” route option that can map pathways and sidewalks), but until it does, you may want to check out other routing tools such as Bikely.com.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  kansasliberal FL bike lane shit happens
    Photo courtesy of kansasliberal at Flickr.com

    Safety

    Safety is a major concern for urban cyclists. Not only are we at risk from vehicles that we share the road with, but bicyclists are also exposed to street crime and muggers. It’s important to exercise high situational awareness at all times – that is, pay attention to what’s going on around you. Keeping eyes open and looking out for trouble can prevent risks from turning into injuries.

    First things first – bicycling is not as risky as you may think. Per mile, pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be injured than cyclists. Motorcyclists and drivers on the freeway also have higher rates of serious injury. Believe it or not, the more bicyclists there are, the safer bicycling becomes.

    That doesn’t mean bicycling is a risk free mode of transportation. The first car accident in American history took place between a car and a bicycle – and it killed the biker. Every year, 600 to 800 cyclists are killed in America. Those death rates are among the highest in any developed country. To avoid becoming a statistic, it’s important to follow a few basic cycling safety guidelines:

    1) Always wear a helmet. 75% of all deaths on bicycles occur from head trauma, and many injuries can be prevented or reduced in severity.

    2) Ride with the flow of traffic
    – it’s much safer to go the same direction as cars in your lane. A case study in Washington found that many fatal bike accidents involved cyclists riding in the wrong direction, where head-on collisions are much more likely to cause serious injury.

    3) Yield when entering a road
    . Bicycles have less visibility than cars – it’s important to follow the law and behave just like a car, but it’s safe to act under the assumption that other drivers don’t see you.

    4) Check over your shoulder when merging lanes
    . Even if you use hand signals, signaling does not give you the right of way. Cars behind you may not see a gesture, but it’s easy to spot an oncoming car.

    5) Stay in the proper lane.
    If you’re turning left at an intersection, don’t try to turn from the right lane. Yielding the high speed lanes to cars is a common mistake of beginners: instead, always go to the proper lane for your path of travel.

    6) Stay visible at all times.
    Wear bright clothing, use reflectors and headlights at night, and avoid riding in the blind spots of cars or other bikers.

    7) Maintain your equipment.
    Make sure your brakes are in working order, and that your tires are properly inflated.

    It’s important to find a route where your nerves are steady. If you’re uncomfortable around traffic, that can cloud your reaction times and make you more accident prone. There’s no need to ride like an adrenaline junkie to make your way in to work.

    In many cities, there are bike lanes and bike paths that insulate riders from the flow of motor vehicles. While some cyclists disagree about the wisdom of building these features (some cyclists feel that bike paths reduce attentiveness to the road and some riders consider bike paths a form of segregation) but the number of paths is steadily increasing. However you feel about the situation, it’s important to find a route that you’re comfortable with.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  jesse! bike cash
    Photo courtesy of jesse! at Flickr.com

    Cost

    Compared to a car, riding and operating a bike is cheap. You only need a bike and a safety helmet (both of which can be rented if you want to try before you buy). It can cost less than $250 to get all of the tools you need, although it’s also easy to spend more than $5,000 getting top of the line gear.

    There are plenty of bicycles available at all price levels. For a commute to work, just about any bike will do. Whether you prefer a road bike, a racing bike, a mountain bike, a commuter bike, a recumbent bike, or any other style, there are many choices available in all price ranges.

    Other supplies you might want to consider include biking gloves (to reduce pressure on your palms), sunscreen, exercise clothing, headlights, reflectors, blinking tail lights, a bell or horn, and a hydration backpack. In my opinion, biking gloves and comfortable clothes are one of the best investments you can make. I’ve also found that a chilled hydration pack really helps if you’re riding in triple digit weather. Oh, and good footwear also matters – you probably don’t want to bike around in sandals or high heels.

    Riding a bicycle can save you money in the long term. Bike riders will generally enjoy reduced healthcare costs and fewer sick days. Contact your insurer or HR department, and ask if there’s a discount or incentive available. Healthy living programs sometimes offer reimbursement for equipment, promotional pricing on gear, and other perks. In 2009, there’s even a Federal Tax Benefit available for cyclists – you can get $20 of your monthly paycheck declared tax free:

    Spearheading the campaign for a bike commuter bill was Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. “We have legislation that is designed to promote cycling and to provide a little equity for the people who burn calories instead of fossil fuel,” he says.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work - sportpictures FL
    Photo courtesy of sportpictures at Flickr.com

    Work appropriate clothing

    The clothes we wear when cycling probably aren’t very well suited for work in a cubicle. Loose fitting shirts and shorts are ideal for biking, but even if your job has a casual dress code, it’s a good idea to change out of sweaty clothes. An easy way to have the best of both worlds is to bring a change of clothes with you.

    If your job has a locker room, changing clothes is easy. If not, consider using the break room, gym, closet, or even the bathroom. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box – Superman used a phone booth for crying out loud.

    If changing isn’t an option, you can also bring clothes to put on over your workout clothes. Bike in an undershirt, and then put a dress shirt and jacket over the undershirt. Bring a hat to cover helmet hair, or dress pants to put on over biking shorts. Or, you could change your standard of “work appropriate” clothing.

    PE - a beginners guide to biking to work -  5150fantast FL bike pimp
    Photo courtesy of 5150fantast at Flickr.com

    If you’re a manager and would like to encourage workers to start riding bikes, here’s a great bullet point list of ways to build a bike friendly workplace.

    Greening the Military

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    Photo courtesy of Army.mil at Flickr.com

    When you think of environmentally friendly groups, Greenpeace, REI, the Sierra Club, New Belgium Brewery, and Seventh Generation are some of the green companies and organizations that are likely to come to mind. But what about the US military?

    The armed forces are surprisingly green. For example, the Air Force is the third largest buyer of alternative energy in the US. The US Army is also rapidly seeking energy alternatives. Officers are trying to adopt solar, wind, and bio-diesel energy sources to reduce logistics problems and conserve resources:

    The effort will have to be really serious, as their energy costs have increased a full 40% during the last seven years, even while they have cut consumption by almost 8%. According to their latest numbers released this week in Washington, D.C., right now they are spending $2 billion on fuel every year.

    Reducing energy use in Iraq and Afghanistan is a top priority. By reducing the need for fuel convoys, energy efficiency reduces exposure to IEDs. It also protects soldiers from toxic emissions that come along with diesel generators. In recent years, the focus on energy conservation has really started to pay off.

    That’s all well and good, but helping the environment is clearly a fringe benefit for most military planners. There are signs that a green culture is growing within the armed forces though. Several branches of the military are working to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in everything from paint and electronics to fuel and explosives. For example, the US Navy is testing lead-free bullets.

    If these bismuth alloy bullets perform as expected, there’s a good chance that shooting ranges will soon be lead free. Cleaning up lead is a huge expense, and lead dust is a major health danger that affects cleaning crews at every gun range. Also, lead can leak into groundwater from outdoor berms and harm the environment.

    In recent years, environmental activists have also been successful in forcing the military to adopt several earth friendly policies. Protesters are increasingly likely to raise environmental issues. While the supreme court rejected arguments against the use of high intensity sonar, other efforts have resulted in legislation prohibiting sewage release in the ocean and disposal of toxic paints in furnaces. Due to environmental concerns, the US Marines are currently looking for eco-friendly ways to dispose of toxic ordinance and recycling mothballed equipment.

    pe-greening-the-military-scottpartee-fl
    Photo courtesy of ScottPartee at Flickr.com

    Activists are crucial to enacting change – just look at Vieques. Vieques is a small island in Puerto Rico and the area was used as a naval firing range for most of the 20th century. After decades of public outcry, the Navy was forced to stop using Vieques as an ordinance testing ground.

    There is a surprising twist to the story. Due to the Navy’s use of the island, Vieques has higher biodiversity than many surrounding areas. The firing range prevented development while most of the Caribbean was covered in resorts and boardwalks. Believe it or not, firing high explosive at wildlife is less destructive than building permanent structures. As a result, Vieques is currently booming as an eco-tourist destination.

    The military still has quite a ways to go, but there are encouraging signs that the armed forces are becoming much better stewards of the planet.

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    Photo courtesy of Brent and MariLynn at Flickr.com

    How to use solar power without installing a solar panel

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    Photo courtesy of London Permaculture

    Under new Federal laws, you can get tax credits for 30% of most solar panel installations. Some states have additional incentives, and many utilities are also encouraging customers to install solar panels so that they don’t have to build new coal power plants.

    Even with these incentives, photovoltaic panels are pricey. In these tough economic times, it’s important to remember that there are many other ways to take advantage of energy from the sun. Here are a few low-cost options:

    Install a solar water heater – Passive solar systems cost a fraction of what solar panels cost and they are much more efficient at heating water (because they generate heat directly, without the need for inverters or battery storage of energy). Solar water heaters are also eligible for a 30% tax credit, the same amount that photovoltaic panels can earn. There are many different designs for solar water heaters, and some are more suitable for different parts of the country.

    Use a clothesline – For the cost of a sturdy rope and some clothespins, you can unplug your electric clothes dryer. Even on a cool day, a gentle breeze will suck the moisture out of clothes. Clothes that are dried on a clothesline last longer (there’s less wear and tear from tumbling in the dryer), they smell better, and they’re naturally sterilized by UV light from the sun. Switching to a clothesline can cut your electric bill by 10-15%.

    Turn out the lights – When the sun is shining, there’s no reason to keep the curtains closed. Instead of using a couple of hundred watts of electricity to power lightbulbs, turn off those lights and let the sunlight in! If Peeping Toms are a worry in your neighborhood, install slats or polarized window coverings for privacy. These window treatments will also filter out UV light and reduce carpet fading. Or, you can plant a window box full of kitchen herbs and obscure the view with tall plants while still letting in natural light.

    Build to take advantage of the sun – When drawing blueprints or choosing a place to live, remember that a building’s layout can make a major difference in the amount of air conditioning and heating that’s needed. One thing to consider is orientation – building short walls on the east and west sides reduces the surface area that’s exposed to early morning and late evening sunlight. Another thing to consider is solar massing – using thick, heat absorbent materials like adobe can insulate a building against hot weather during the day and cold weather during the night, cutting heating costs by up to 65%.

    Use trees – Trees provide wonderful natural shade, and they also capture solar energy the old fashioned way, by converting sunshine into firewood. Tree choices can also complement the way that buildings capture sunlight in the winter and block sunlight in the summer. One popular landscaping choice is to plant deciduous trees on the east and west sides of a building. That way, the leafy trees block sunlight in the summer (when leaves are full) and let sunlight through in the winter (after the leaves fall off).

    Try a solar cooker – Sunlight is a great way to boil water and cook food. It’s easy to focus sunshine with collectors, and simple solar cookers can be made for less than $15 using just about anything and aluminum foil. Here are instructions for making a solar cooker out of a used pizza box. There are compact solar cookers tailor made for camping and larger models suitable for crock pot cooking.

    In many developing countries and off-grid locations, solar cookers are reducing indoor air pollution by replacing firewood, charcoal, propane, and other fuel sources. These solar cookers can save thousands of lives each year, while also reducing deforestation and reducing conflict over limited resources. Since sunlight is free, solar cookers drastically cut the cost of boiling water for sanitation purposes. If you want to take advantage of sunlight without buying a solar panel, here’s a great recipe for Solar Baked Brownies!

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    Photo courtesy of AIDG

    In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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    Photo courtesy of WallyG at Flickr.com

    Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

    Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

    There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

    Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

    Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

    Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

    Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

    Green ways to travel

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    Photo courtesy of Saw You On The Flipside

    For some people, travel is an unpleasant necessity. They travel to meet clients or commute. For other people, travel is a joy and the reason that they work. They save up money for vacations and sight seeing. Whether you’re in a hurry to get home or if you’re taking the chance to satisfy your wanderlust, there are plenty of opportunities to add some green to your itinerary.

    From hiking boots to luxury jets, we have more transportation options today than ever before. Most travelers weigh these options based on comfort, price, and time. Yet an increasing number of adventurers and businesswomen are factoring in the environmental impact before they buy tickets.

    When choosing transportation with a small carbon footprint, it’s important to compare apples to apples. One way to compare the environmental impact is using passenger miles. Passenger miles are calculated by taking the total fuel consumed and dividing by the number of passengers. For example, consider a car that gets 40 miles per gallon. If the driver is the only person in the car, then the driver is responsible for 19.4 pounds of CO2 for every 40 miles driven or 0.485 pounds per mile (19.4 / 40).

    If we add a passenger with heavy bags, the car’s MPG will decrease slightly to about 39 MPG, but the amount of carbon dioxide generated will stay roughly the same. That footprint is spread out over 2 people instead of one. (19.4 / 2) / 39 = 0.249 pounds per mile. This is because so much of the energy used in moving a car is used to move the car itself.

    In short, vehicles that travel full are more fuel efficient than empty vehicles, and passenger load can greatly affect the pollution produced per person. While trains are often more carbon efficient than buses, a fully loaded passenger bus may even be more efficient than a train. Then again, rail systems in some countries have the edge.

    The most common way to compare different fuel sources is to use Miles Per Gallon equivalence (MPGe), but some fuel sources are dirtier than others. For example, generating 100,000 British Thermal Units (BTU) from coal will produce about 42 lbs of CO2, while natural gas will produce the same amount of energy while emitting about 14 lbs of CO2. So, a coal powered train may be more energy efficient than a natural gas powered bus, but it would produce more pollution to travel the same distance. Hard numbers for this “pollution efficiency” are difficult to pin down.

    And that’s not all… some situations can magnify the effect of emissions. For example, pollution from airplanes is released in the upper atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, water vapor and other byproducts behave differently in the upper atmosphere than they do at ground level, multiplying their effects. For more information on this subject, look at how various scientists calculate the radiative forcing factor. As a rule of thumb, each pound of airplane emissions is about 2.8 times worse than emissions from other forms of transportation.

    From lowest impact to highest impact, here is a rough guide to transportation options (including some data from the US Department of Energy Transportation Energy Data Book and manufacturer’s sites):

    On foot / Walking
    Bicycle
    Horseback Riding
    Rickshaw
    Electric Motorcycle / Scooter
    Vanpool or Shuttle (1,322 BTU per passenger mile)
    Motorcycle (1,855 BTU per passenger mile)
    Train (2,816 BTU per passenger mile)
    Ultra Efficient Passenger Car (ie; a Prius)
    Average Passenger Car (3,512 BTU per passenger mile)
    Passenger Trucks/SUVs (3,944 BTU per passenger mile)
    Bus (4,235 BTU per passenger mile)
    Turboprop Passenger Plane (for short distances)
    Fuel Efficient Passenger Jet (for long distances)
    Piston Engine Passenger Plane
    Older Passenger Jets
    Small Prop Plane (ie; Van’s Aircraft’s RV-7: ~36 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
    Ferryboat
    Helicopter (~20 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
    Cruise Ship (~17 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
    Motorboat (~15 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
    Jet Ski (~10 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)
    Executive Jet (~0.8-5 MPGe per passenger at full capacity)

    Are there any transportation methods that I’m missing? It’s hard to quantify the MPGe for a hang glider, sailboat, submarine, electric pogo stick, or jet pack, but if you have the scoop on how to rank an unusual form of locomotion, please drop a note in the comments at the bottom of this page.

    So, how can you use this list? Before you book a trip or reserve a hotel room, make sure to check out all of the options that are available. Instead of flying cross country, do you have time to take the train? Instead of staying at a hotel across town from a conference, can you find a hotel within walking distance and skip the rental car?

    A few more tips for carbon efficient travel…

  • Maximize the capacity of your vehicle: carpool, combine taxis, choose a party boat instead of a dozen jetskis
  • Travel light: ditch 2 suitcases and you may be able to fit another passenger in your car or cut your weight in half on an airplane
  • Choose direct flights: up to 80% of a plane’s fuel consumption happens during take-off and landing, flying direct also cuts out unnecessary miles in the air and, as a bonus, can reduce the amount of tax and airport fees charged
  • Pick fuel efficient cars, planes, and motorcycles: newer vehicles are often much more fuel efficient (ie: the 737-800 airplane gets about 35 percent better mileage per seat than the MD-80 it is replacing).
  • Make the captain a passenger: get certified to operate your own riverboat, learn to fly your own plane, or (if you have one) ditch the chauffeur back at the mansion
  • Often, the green choice will yield a more pleasant trip and save money at the same time!

    green-travel-svanes-flicker
    Photo courtesy of svanes

    Be green, and bank some green with these contests

    green-contests-tofurky-fl-shira-golding
    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

    The latest news on carbon credits

    carbon-offsets-azure-bleu-fl
    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.

    carbon-offsets-dianne-pike-fl
    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?

    carbon-offsets-mrglusniffer-fl
    Photo courtesy of MrGluSniffer at Flickr.com.

    Green news is good news (mostly)


    Photo courtesy of Ted Abbott at Flickr.com.

    A lot of news about the environment lately has been good news – there are huge solar arrays being built, energy efficiency is improving by leaps and bounds, and more people are recycling today than even knew what recycling was 20 years ago. But, there’s some bad news on the environmental desk too.

    For starters, the ailing economy is threatening to undermine recycling programs nationwide. Demand for commodities has fallen so quickly that we have a surplus of many raw materials, and those surplus materials are exerting negative price pressure on recycled ingredients. Don’t worry though – runaway inflation in the first quarter of 2009 should “solve” those problems.

    A controversy is brewing in the world of organic food. Several large organic suppliers have been caught using unapproved farming techniques in their overseas operations, and the FDA is reviewing their certification. This is a little bit of a good news / bad news situation, because the problem was caught before harm was inflicted and it’s a sign that the internal reviews are working to catch abuse.

    A lot of politicians are burning the midnight oil before their terms in office expire, and this means that some poorly crafted laws, rules, and regulations are on the way. One of the most worrisome developments is that the Endangered Species Act is being undermined by rule changes within the Fish and Wildlife Department. The department has assigned only 15 people to review more than 200,000 unique comments… that means a lot of comments are going to be brushed off and ignored, and that the rule changes will likely face a legal challenge.

    Okay, now on to the good news.

    With automakers begging Congress for a bailout, there’s a lot of attention focused on their business plans. Last year, they were offered a $25 Billion line of credit to develop fuel efficient cars, and these green strings have been cut from the older loan. Just to confuse things, the Big 3 are asking for another $34 Billion dollars to fund their operations, which really makes you wonder if they forgot about the treat they were already given. Now that the funds have been released for GM, Ford, and Chrysler to use at their discretion, there’s still a good chance that some of the money will be used to make fuel efficiency improvements. Consumer preferences have shifted towards improved mileage, but there’s no consensus about how green the cars of the future will be.

    There are a lot of competing standards for determining the “greenest car” on the road. Some carmakers stress miles driven per gallon of fuel, while others focus on the grams of CO2 emitted per mile driven, or the amount of smog causing particulates that are released. These competing claims can be very confusing, and the confusion allows some car makers to greenwash their dirtier vehicles with misleading claims. Until recently, there hasn’t been a clear mechanism to weigh the eco-credentials of competing cars. Now though, the Environmental Protection Agency has created a new standard that combines air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The new SmartWay Certification Program, is designed to highlight best in class vehicles just as the EnergyStar rating system highlights efficient appliances. Honda was able to secure the first top rating for a vehicle – they earned Smartway Elite certification with their Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda GX (a natural gas powered car). Hopefully, American car manufacturers are following close behind.

    Cars are raising environmental awareness in other ways too. Daniel Bowman Simon and Casey Gustowarow are driving cross country to gather signatures for the White House Organic Farm petition. The bus was donated by Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s fame) and has a very unusual container garden built into the roof. If you see a strange bus that looks like it had a collision with another bus and kept driving, ask for Daniel or Casey.

    To bring this post full circle, here’s some good news about recycling. If you still have any McCain, Obama, or other political signs sitting around from election 2008, don’t throw them out. Waste management experts have found a way to recycle corrugated plastic campaign signs!

    News that has nothing to do with Election 2008


    Photo courtesy of ecupaintingguild at Flickr.com.

    With all the news coverage focused on the election, there are a lot of important and/or awesome things that have escaped attention. Here’s a quick overview of environmental news that’s worth following:

    First off, it’s common to get a craving for pumpkin pie around this time every year. But it would take hundreds of people to eat a pie made from this enormous 1,900 lb pumpkin. This behemoth is expected to set a new record for giant pumpkins (a record that has grown bigger every year in recent memory). Maybe this is the monster that Charlie Brown’s been waiting for.

    I’m sure that pumpkin wasn’t grown naturally, but no one tried to stick an organic label on it at the store. On the other hand, some businesses have been caught making false environmental claims to sell their products. It can be challenging to tell greenwashed products apart from their legitimate green competitors, but one way to make informed choices is to research the companies involved. Many large companies now publish yearly ‘Corporate Sustainability Reports’ that describe their environmental track record. Corporations are also assigning a dedicated board member to oversee environmental performance. Many of the pro-environment changes that companies are adopting also contribute to the bottom line, and make great economic sense while money is in short supply.

    On a related note, the credit crunch is slowing down plans to build new wind farms. Even though wind power accounted for about a third of all new power capacity built last year, the credit climate is making it really hard to line up investors. Wind energy is also running into some problems of scale. Windy days in Washington state are causing salmon deaths in a weird series of unintended consequences. As the wind picks up, wind turbines generate more and more electricity. The excess electricity floods the transmission lines, and automatic controls kick in to shutdown other sources of power. In some cases, this causes hydroelectric dams to idle their turbines and dump water over spillways. If only there was an efficient interstate transmission system, or a better way to store electricity, this whole chain of events could be avoided.

    But what if we lived in a world without any need for a power grid? Bloom Technologies is trying to create a lower pollution future based on efficiencies of micro-scale. With small fuel cells, the company hopes to eliminate power loss from transmission lines and bring electricity to the third world. As a bonus, they are designing fuel cells that produce hydrogen as a byproduct – that waste gas could be used to warm homes and fuel vehicles.

    Whether cars burn hydrogen or gasoline, tailpipe emissions are pretty much inevitable. This waste product has something that is surprisingly useful though – untapped energy in the form of heat. Researchers are developing new thermoelectric systems that can harvest electricity from tailpipe emissions. If they can keep cost and weight to a minimum, these devices will likely be incorporated into a wide range of hybrid vehicles to boost mileage. The energy recovery isn’t 100 percent, but it can really add up to a serious boost in efficiency:

    GM researcher Jihui Yang said a metal-plated device that surrounds an exhaust pipe could increase fuel economy in a Chevrolet Suburban by about 5 percent, a 1-mile-per-gallon improvement that would be even greater in a smaller vehicle.


    Photo courtesy of fensterbme at Flickr.com.

    Links, links, green links. Get them while they’re hot!

    Photo courtesy of A. Kotula at Flickr.com.

    Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture here. This week, a lot of exciting things are going on.

    Discarded fishing gear is a major problem in the ocean. Lost nets and traps can get tangled with animals, catch boat propellers, and damage fragile coral reefs. Covanta Energy is doing something interesting – they’re offering a free waste disposal service that converts marine waste into electricity by incinerating it and filtering the emissions. The Fishing for Energy program is about to get a windfall too – thousands of yards of fishing line are about to become obsolete due to new laws about floating rigs. Instead of paying disposal fees, many fisherman were expected to dump the line overboard. Now, that rope can be used to reduce the amount of coal and natural gas burned in 2009:

    Derelict fishing equipment can threaten marine life, impair navigational safety, and have serious economic repercussions on shipping and coastal communities. Since the program was launched in February, more than 80,000 pounds of fishing nets, trawl gear, crab pots, and fishing line have been collected and converted into energy.

    Speaking of the ocean, new studies have shown that methane gas trapped under the ice caps is escaping. As glaciers recede, this greenhouse gas is accelerating the melting process. Since methane has more than 20 times the heat trapping powers of carbon dioxide and the amount of methane involved is enormous, this could have serious climate effects.

    Since the news lately has been a bit dark and scary, it’s important to focus on some of the amazing things that are also going on. For instance, have you seen what kids these days are up to? What were you doing when you were 12? This kid won a prize for designing next generation solar cells. That certainly trumps the tree house I built back in the 90’s.

    There are also some exciting things happening in our neighbors yards. Believe it or not – it’s possible to grow more than 10,000 tomatoes in a typical yard. Wouldn’t you get tired of eating tomatoes after about the 5,000th one? And, the next time you’re mowing grass or digging holes for new landscaping – keep an eye out for Paleo-Indian artifacts. That, and buried pirate treasure.

    Ever hear the adage “Everything that’s old is new again”? Companies catering to green tourists are using this truth to their advantage, with a rise in carbon neutral activities such as geothermal steam cog railroad trips, sky trams powered by water pressure, bookings on river steamboats, and even horse riding tours! Although, if you’ve ever been on the south bound end of a north bound horse, you know that carbon emissions aren’t the only thing there is to worry about.


    Photo courtesy of yourpicturesarejon at Flickr.com.

    Queen of England plans array of offshore wind turbines, including biggest turbine ever built

    Her Majesty -FLA
    Photo courtesy of ceebee23 at Flickr.com.

    The Queen of England once enjoyed direct rule over 2/3 of the earth’s surface. Her personal authority is a bit less these days, but she still has control over the territorial waters of Great Britain. And, with the backing of the Crown Estate, Queen Elizabeth II can afford to do some really impressive things in her domain. Like building an array of offshore windmills, including the biggest individual windmill in the world.

    Her Majesty’s windmill will produce 7.5 megawatts, which is more than twice as much as the previous record holder (GE’s 3.6 MW Offshore Turbine). The company that’s producing the turbine is Clipper Windpower, based in California. They have a proven history building monster wind turbines – including the largest turbine built in the US: the 2.5 MW Liberty Turbine. Details are still being worked out about where the giant wind turbine will be produced, and how it will be shipped to England.

    The average British person uses 10-15 kilowatts per day (half of the average American energy consumption), which means that on a windy day this monster turbine will meet the needs of roughly 500-750 people. And the British Crown plans to build multiple turbines, all far out to sea. Many will be invisible to people on land, but the biggest windmill in the world will be nearly 600 feet tall and should be visible for about 18-19 miles.

    Windmill array -FL
    Photo courtesy of yakkerDK at Flickr.com.

    Is there a green lining to the economic bailout package?


    Photo courtesy of Gemma Kate Thorpe at Flickr.com.

    The $700 Billion bailout bill has stirred up mixed emotions. On one hand, relieved sighs have been heard from Wall Street, but many people are spitting mad. In the aftermath of the bill’s passage, some key sections of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 have been overshadowed by chaos in the stock market.

    From an environmental standpoint, the biggest news is that the bail out bill renews the tax credits for alternative energy. After the bailout bill was defeated, language from the recently defeated Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 was added to the second version. It provides tax credits for wind, solar, fuel cell, micro turbines, co-generation, and geothermal systems and the benefits have been extended as far as January 1, 2017. Also, tax incentives were added for “marine and hydrokinetic renewable energy” (new technologies that capture energy from waves and tidal forces).

    The bill contains a few other surprises. The ceilings were raised on just about every type of tax credit. For instance, the maximum incentive for fuel cells was raised from $500 to $1,500. Wind turbines that produce less than 100 kW are now eligible for up to $4,000 of credit (that means projects up to $13,333 are eligible for a full 30% tax credit). Heat pumps qualify for up to $2,000 of credit. And solar panels now have an unlimited credit. Here’s a concise summary of the new tax benefits and other impacts.

    Also of interest – the Emergency Economic Stabilization Bill allows for up to $800,000,000 of Renewable Energy Bonds, with those bonds split between public energy providers, government bodies, and private energy providers. There are also tax breaks offered for “clean” coal, coal liquefication (for use as a gasoline substitute) and coal gasification (a process that improves burn efficiency within coal turbines). One of the biggest surprises is that the bill now rewards power companies and steel producers for capturing carbon emissions. There’s a requirement that 65-70% of carbon dioxide produced from coal must be captured and sequestered to receive credit, and the projects that sequester carbon better than their competitors are given the highest funding priority.

    That’s right – the benefits offered to coal producers and consumers come with strings attached. The bill even gives a tax credit for carbon sequestering! From page 175 of the 451 page bill:

    ‘‘SEC. 45Q. CREDIT FOR CARBON DIOXIDE SEQUESTRATION.
    (a) GENERAL RULE.—For purposes of section 38, the carbon dioxide sequestration credit for any taxable
    year is an amount equal to the sum of—
    (1) $20 per metric ton of qualified carbon dioxide which is—
    (A) captured by the taxpayer at a qualified facility, and
    (B) disposed of by the taxpayer in secure geological storage, and
    (2) $10 per metric ton of qualified carbon doxide which is-
    (A) captured by the taxpayer at a qualified facility, and
    (B) used by the taxpayer as a tertiary injectant in a qualified enhanced oil or natural gas recovery project.

    Since many oil companies are injecting CO2 into the ground already to boost production, it’s questionable whether the second half of this carbon credit will create any new benefits to the environment. There is also some concern that carbon dioxide injected into the ground can increase the acidity of groundwater and escape over time. But, if you have any great ideas about how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, now is the time to put them into practice. It may be a bit tricky to get financing though – despite the passage of the alternative energy friendly bill, many green companies are having trouble securing financing and now might not be the best time for an IPO.


    Photo courtesy of Gemma Kate Thorpe’s at Flickr.com.

    Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008

    H.R. 6049 (warning, PDF) was passed today: Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008 which gives us tax incentives to the tune of 18 billion dollars for

    “investment in renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration demonstration projects, energy efficiency and conservation”.

    It also provides for extensions on expiring tax breaks, 37 billion worth, that have absolutely nothing to do with Renewable energy. I support most of them, but come on…It’s hard enough to get these things passed as it is.

    The bill grants an extension on the “placed in service date” for a number of types of renewable and alternative energy services receiving a tax break in the previous bill that were set to expire and extends the tax credits available to solar, fuel and micro-turbines and extends this credit to public utilities.

    In addition, the bill extends the credit for residential solar till the end of 2014

    On the transportation front (I’m a car guy, so this is where it matters to me) we get an expansion of benefits for cellulosic alcohol, biodiesel production including a greater credit for B100 over blends.

    We get a new plug in electric vehicle credit, some incentives on improvements on big trucks, fringe benefits for bicycle commuters, and tax breaks for alternative refueling stations until 2010.

    All in all it’s a good bill, and it passed but a surprising number of our representatives voted against it. In fact, here you can find out if your congresscritter voted for it, and here for your senator. If you disagree with their vote, let them know.

    Save on heating with alternative energy


    Photo courtesy of Channel Myrt at Flickr.com.

    Keeping warm is hard work. When the days get shorter and cold weather creeps up on us, there are many different ways to keep winter at bay. The most common sources of heat are natural gas, heating oil, coal, electric furnaces, and wood fueled fireplaces. As the costs of these heat sources skyrocket, many people are looking for alternatives.

    Natural gas is one of the most widely used energy sources inside homes – about half of all American houses use natural gas to stay warm, and that number is increasing as natural gas systems dominate in newly built homes. Natural gas is available in many parts of the country, it burns relatively clean, and natural gas systems don’t require much maintenance. The price of natural gas has stayed low for several years, although lately the market price has been volatile. In the last six months, natural gas has traded between $6 and $14 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs). A typical home will use about 111 million BTUs during the winter, so heating a home for the winter would cost between $700 and $1,500, plus monthly service charges.

    Heating oil is very popular in the Northeast. For instance, 80 percent of the homes in Maine rely on heating oil to keep warm, and the average home uses more than 800 gallons per winter. Heating oil is not a very clean burning fuel, and it releases plenty of CO2 and particulates. With the price of heating oil going up sharply in the last several months, price is a major concern. As I write this, heating oil is selling in the range of $3.40 – $3.70 per gallon. That adds up to a heating oil bill of about $2,500 to $3,000 for the winter, plus delivery costs. Delivery costs can be substantial, and typical customers will need 2-4 deliveries.

    Coal furnaces are also widespread. Coal is cheap and it’s a domestic energy source, but there are some serious downsides. Coal furnaces cost more than other heating equipment (three times the cost of natural gas heaters), they require constant supervision, they’re messy, and they create obscene amounts of pollution. As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, “From mining to processing to transportation to burning to disposal, coal has more environmental impacts than any other energy source.” The price of coal is also up sharply this year, with the price of the cleanest burning types of coal rising the most. The average cost for a ton of heating coal has tripled – a ton of coal with 25 million BTUs of energy costs between $140 and $180 as I write this and is expected to go up further. Heating an average house at these prices will cost $600-$900 this winter, plus delivery.

    Electric furnaces are commonly found in areas with mild winters, and they are built onto many air conditioning systems as a backup. These central heaters are very expensive to operate – they generally have very poor efficiency, and the price of electricity has been rising along with the price of natural gas and coal (these are the primary fuels that electric power stations use). A typical electric heater can convert 1 kilowatt of electricity into about 3,300 BTU. Assuming electric costs of 12-20 cents per kilowatt, heating a home with electricity over the winter would cost $4,000 to $6,600, plus service fees. (To estimate the cost based on your utility rate, multiply your cost per kWh by 33,000).

    Firewood is still used to hold off Old Man Winter (especially in parts of the country where trees outnumber people). The carbon produced by burning wood is the same amount that’s stored within trees as they grow, so sustainably harvested firewood is carbon neutral. It’s often possible to find “free” firewood – many industries have to pay to dispose of their wood scraps and will appreciate your help transporting their waste away. Try checking in with landscapers, tree surgeons, carpenters, and local recycling centers – but make sure to choose wood without varnish or paint. Treated wood can release toxic fumes when it’s burned. Dried (aka ‘cured’) cords of firewood have the highest energy content per pound. Green wood has less than 6 million BTU per ton, while cured firewood has approximately 13.5 million BTU per ton. Cords of firewood cost from $150-$250, so heating a home with cured firewood can cost $750 to $1,300, plus substantial transportation costs.

    For the most part, these heat sources come from non-renewable sources. Using lumber from deforested areas and fossil fuels from the ground contributes to climate change while also damaging air quality. The US supply of oil and natural gas is inadequate for current demand – huge amounts of these fuels are imported every year. Heating oil depends primarily on foreign sources – more than 60% of all heating oil comes from imports. About 85% of all natural gas is produced in the US, and most of the remainder is imported from Canada.

    Consumers and scientists are experimenting with various ways to reduce the cost of heating a house. There are plans to produce natural gas from landfills, and pilot projects are testing to see how biodiesel performs as an additive to heating oil. There are also long-term projects to clean up coal and produce electricity from green sources. Those developments are years or even decades away, so here are some alternative heating options that you can try out today:

    1) Consider a pellet stove.

    If pellets are available in your area, you may want to consider this unconventional stove to cut down on your bills and reduce your carbon footprint. Pellet stoves burn waste material that’s been processed into convenient pellets – the compressed sawdust and wood chips look a bit like animal feed. Pellet stoves are designed for particular fuels, and there are even some pellet stoves that burn pellets made from corn husks, cherry pits, and other agricultural waste. By matching a pellet stove with a cheap fuel source in your area, you can cut costs and intercept trash before it makes it to the landfill. Ash from a pellet stove also makes an excellent fertilizer. A pellet stove burning premium (low ash) wood pellets currently costs about $1,000 to $1,600 plus transport fees to heat a home through winter.

    A pellet stove burning Biomass pellets can cost even less. Compressed corn straw pellets (where available) cost about a third as much as premium sawdust pellets. A pellet stove running on biomass can cost $300 to $1,000 to fuel. Many pellet stoves come with self-feeding hoppers that can go a day or so without supervision, but storage of the pellets takes a lot of space and can add to the cost. Pellet stoves are in short supply though, so you may want to check non-conventional sources to pick up a used one.


    Photo courtesy of lisatomt at Flickr.com.

    2) Apply dark paint to your roof and outside walls.

    Dark colors do a great job of soaking up the sun’s energy, and paint is a low cost way to heat up your home. Many town recycling centers have partially used buckets of paint available for free. Blending these paints will usually produce a heat absorbing brown paint.


    Photo courtesy of lolla_sig at Flickr.com.

    3) If you use electric heaters, ask your utility company about a time of day meter.

    Electric heaters run most often during the night, when demand for electricity is low. Some utility companies offer discounted rates during these off-peak hours and you can cut your bill simply by installing the right kind of meter.


    Photo courtesy of Fragments of Eternity at Flickr.com.

    4) Install a geothermal loop.

    The temperature 50 feet underground stays fairly constant year round. Even when it’s snowing, you can tap the warmth of the ground to heat your house. Geothermal loops work by running water through underground pipes and up to heat exchange units. Not only can they cut heating bills by 30-70%, but they can also be used to cool your house in the summer.


    Photo courtesy of tomm12723 at Flickr.com.

    5) Add insulation.

    Honestly, this should be the first item on the list. Insulation is cheap, easy to apply, and it cuts costs by reducing the need for heat. For the best results, use a thermal imager to identify “hot spots” – the places of your home that are leaking the worst and focus on insulating them.


    Photo courtesy of abrunglinghaus at Flickr.com.

    Willie Run-coast to coast on one tank of biodiesel

    willie logoThe red headed stranger has always been a major supporter of bio-fuels.  Start a conversation anywhere in Texas and Willie Nelson will invariably wind up with at least a casual mention.  So Nik Bristow and Brian Pierce, a couple of copywriters for Fitzgerald, have launched an attempt today to make a coast to coast drive from New York to California running entirely on BioWillie brand Biodiesel.  From the trips website:

    “Some of the biodiesel we’ll be using is is derived from Beef Tallow.  The rest will be from waste vegetable oil.  biodiesel is a very diverse fuel and can be made from a variety of sources.  We think it’s one of the biodiesels greatest strengths”

    The vehicle in question will be a Diesel powered Volkswagen Jetta with a modified gas tank.  The trip will be made entirely without stopping for fuel or food.  They will stop only to switch out drivers every few hours for safety reasons.

    The journey starts in midtown Manhattan, and will continue on across the country passing through over 400 cities on the way to the final destination in Santa Monica. As for the math, the Jetta has been modified to hold 75 gallons of BioWillie brand biodiesel. The Jetta gets 40 MPG which gives us a theoretical range of 3000 miles. A quick check of Google maps gives us a distance of 2,809 miles, so they have a small margin of error.

    From PR.com

    “We’ve had a lot of people asking why we’re doing this. Well, not only are Nik and I are longtime biodiesel supporters, but

    we are also communicators by trade. We’re lucky to be affiliated with Fitzgerald+CO, where we’re connected with a large group of enlightened, innovative folks who have made this run a reality. It’s good to be able to put your skills to work for something you personally believe in,” said Pierce.”

    The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, known in popular culture as the cannonball run, was an illegal race that followed this same route Back in the 70’s. The best time was achieved in a Jaguar XJS in 1979 of just under 33 hours. That averages out to 87 mph average. While there is obviously a connection here, ascertions that they will be following the exact same route are incorrect. The original  ended up in Redondo beach and there was NO set route specified. And the most obvious difference is that instead of trying to set record speeds they will try to make the journey on the least amount of fuel possible.

    At willierun.com you can monitor the progress of the team and even see video feeds from the car.