How are you spending Earth Hour on March 28th?

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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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Boost gas mileage with LRR tires

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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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The latest news on carbon credits

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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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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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10 Steps to a Healthy Ocean: Protecting our Oceans from Pollution

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The ocean covers more than 70% of the earth’s surface, and it’s a major part of the ecosystem that we rely on. Phytoplankton are responsible for about half of the oxygen produced worldwide. More than 1 billion people rely on fish for a significant part of their diet. The ocean provides food, recreation, clean air, carbon mitigation, inexpensive transport, and many other things that we take for granted. Yet, we’ve been treating the ocean like a dump for centuries. That may have been fine when society produced trash on a very small scale and all of things we threw away were biodegradable, but technology has changed that.

There are thousands of phantom fishing nets that keep killing fish after being abandoned. Sunken ships leak millions of gallons of oil and billions of styrofoam cups end up in the water every year. Even when these events happen thousands of miles away, they have a ripple effect that’s felt worldwide.

The ocean is one continuous body of water. Each sea and bay is connected by strong currents and migrating animals. That means damage done to one part of the ocean will eventually affect all the connected bodies of water. After oil spills happen in the Arctic Ocean, traces of petroleum spread to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans too.

The oceans are one of many areas around the world where the environment has a direct effect on human health and industry. For example, the rain forests convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and affect climate. Coral reefs nurture schools of fish and they offer passive protection to ports. The organisms that make these areas work are resilient – they’ve survived centuries of natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. Yet some of these areas are under constant stress caused by humans.

Stress factors that threaten wildlife include contamination of water supplies, climate change, human development, and invasive species. Abandoned mines are leaching hazardous chemicals into rivers and lakes. Mangrove forests are being cut down to build beach resorts. River deltas are clogging up with invasive species like zebra mussels and Wakame kelp.

In the face of all these threats, what can we do? Here are a few steps that anyone can take to help protect the health of our oceans.

1) Restore damaged ocean habitat

In areas that have been fished out or poisoned by industry, native species have often been wiped out. But, that doesn’t mean that Cod have been permanently wiped out in the Atlantic, or that scallops will never return to the Virginia fisheries. Jennifer Rich is planting sea grass in an effort to restore the scallop breeding grounds of her home state. She led a volunteer effort off the coast of Virginia to replant eel grass in environmentally damaged areas. Her effort is ongoing, and similar replanting projects could use your help. Wetlands and mangrove forests are especially valuable because they filter sediment, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff before they get to the ocean.

If you’d like to get your hands dirty in another way, plan a beach vacation off of the beaten path. Once a year, the Ocean Conservancy does a worldwide project to remove trash from the shore. Last year, volunteers cleaned up more than 30,000 miles of shoreline. In a single day, more than 7 million pieces of trash were collected for proper disposal. Check with your City Hall – many towns are happy to supply trash bins, rubber gloves, and even boats to anyone who wants to clean up local waterways.

2) Protect natural buffer systems.

Biosystems are nature’s utilities – they desalinate water, absorb carbon, liberate nutrients from the ground, and provide other services free of charge. The plants and animals that make up these systems are often treated as commodities, but killing the goose that lays golden eggs will only put food on the table for a day. Protecting biosystems can pay dividends for years to come.

Forests are an essential buffer for the oceans. Old growth trees neutralize the pH of rain and absorb harmful chemicals before they reach the ocean. Trees that grow in estuaries and along riverways are especially important, but those areas also face increased development pressure and they are easy for loggers to access. Shoreline habitat is being destroyed to build giant shrimp farms and resort hotels. Luckily, there are now sustainable forestry and aquaculture options available. Sustainable logging allows limited harvesting of resources without destroying the natural processes that we benefit from. The next time you buy lumber or land, do some research and check for certifications of sustainability.

3) Substitute organic fertilizer in the place of chemical fertilizers.

When a lawn is overfertilized, the excess fertilizer will usually wash off into the surrounding environment. Fertilizer pollution causes eutrophication in waterways – it saturates the water and promotes algal blooms in nearby lakes. A significant amount of fertilizer runoff will eventually make it out to sea, where it can cause red tides and elevated amounts of harmful bacteria. Surprisingly, residential property has higher levels of fertilizer runoff per acre than agricultural land – possibly because farmers are smarter about how they use fertilizers.

“12-50% of all surface water pollution originates with urban runoff. Additionally, whereas agricultural runoff tends to be limited to nutrients, runoff from roads and parking lots contains a wide variety of additional pollutants including oils, road salts, nutrients, and sediments, as well as hazardous and solid wastes.”

Using organic fertilizers, mulch, and compost can reduce these problems. Not only are these fertilizers slower releasing, but they also contain nutrients in forms that are more easily absorbed by plants. Chemical fertilizers have other problems too. They can form a crust on the top of soil that repels water (blocking soil absorption, increasing runoff, and promoting erosion). Some chemical fertilizers will also kill soil fungus, soil bacteria, earthworms and insects, all of which play a vital role in aerating the soil and helping anchor it to the ground.

4) Landscape with native plants

Plants have evolved to live in just about every area of the country. These native plants are adapted to local soil and weather conditions, so there’s very little need to fertilize or water them. Many beautiful native plants are available. A yard landscaped with unusual plants can really stand out, especially during a drought when all of the neighbors yards turn to dust.

Using native plants to conserve water is known as Xeriscaping. It can be a very effective way to cut your yard’s pollution footprint, and xeriscaped lawns also offer natural habitat to native animals and migrating species. Since native plants are heat and drought tolerant, they also work year round to trap dust, block wind, and prevent erosion.

5) Replace impermeable groundcover

When rain falls on bare ground, about 90% of the water is normally absorbed in the first 30 minutes. On developed land, the surface is usually covered with impervious materials such as asphalt, concrete, and cement. For every 20% of the ground that’s covered with impermeable surfaces, the amount of runoff will increase by roughly 100%. These impervious materials block water from soaking into the ground, but the water has to go somewhere. As a result, residential areas are prone to flash floods and rapid erosion which harm the water quality of nearby rivers and lakes.

You can use this information to make smart landscaping decisions. Instead of putting a sidewalk in your garden, consider using flagstones or building a gravel pathway. If your driveway needs to be resurfaced, check into using permeable cement. There are even companies that build living rooftops – these green roofs not only help insulate your house, but they also protect your roof from heat damage, hail, UV degradation, and animal damage. Permeable areas act as natural buffers to pollution because they help contain runoff.

6) Improve landscaping

Runoff is often caused by poor landscaping. Many older homes have design flaws that cause water to flow much faster than necessary. Not only are these flaws easy to fix, but reducing the speed of runoff will also protect your home from flood damage and erosion. On sharp slopes, you can grow plants with deep roots like prairie grass. Other solutions include placing bales of hay on the slopes to soak up the water or installing terraces. If your building has rain gutters, installing silt fences on the gutters will slow the speed of drainage and reduce the energy of flowing water before it reaches your foundation. If you want to make an even big difference, consider putting a rain barrel or rainwater garden under your downspouts.

When planning these projects, make sure to check local building codes. It’s also important to schedule construction projects for months with low rainfall. While the projects are underway, there will be a lot of exposed soil that can be carried away. Tarps can be used protect bare ground, and sewing quick growing plants will quickly cover up any worrisome spots.

7) Clean up after pets

Housepets are another major source of pollution – pet waste has concentrated forms of some toxic chemicals as well as harmful bacteria that can do serious damage to the ocean. Even the nutrients found in sewage can cause problems because they promote the growth of anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria create an Anoxic zone of seawater, where all of the oxygen has been depleted and many organisms are unable to breathe.

Dog droppings and cat poo contain many of the same pathogens that human waste does, such as e coli and salmonella. While human waste is at least partially treated in sewage processing plants, dog waste is often left to decompose wherever the dogs leave it. When it rains or the sprinklers turn on, harmful bacteria in pet waste is spread over the surface of your whole lawn. Runoff will carry this bacteria down the storm drains and eventually out to sea.

One way to reduce the impact of pet waste is to bag up the poop and flush it down the toilet. Septic tanks and sewage systems use good bacteria to breakdown waste into harmless material. It doesn’t matter if the waste comes from a person or a pet – the treatment processes they use can handle almost everything. One thing that you shouldn’t put down the toilet is soiled cat litter. Cat litter is not biodegradable and can also cause damage to pipes.

If you have a cat, you might want to go a step further and change your cat litter. The most common types of pet litter is made from bentonite clay and silica. Not only is do these materials prevent decomposition, but they are also produced by strip mining (and strip mining causes water pollution in its own right):

“Clay-based cat litters are not a by-product of the manufacture of something else, but produced by strip mining. The clay, known as bentonite, is found under several layers of soil, which are removed in the mining process. The first few inches of clay are discarded, and the final clay is removed and processed into cat litter.”

There are natural alternatives to conventional cat litter. Check with your local pet store, or consider making your own cat litter with shredded paper, sawdust or wheat bran. Also, some cats prefer not to use kitty litter. Cat droppings on the ground can be scooped up just like dog poop.

If you use biodegradable pet litter or scoop up pet poo, then you may also want to try composting the pet droppings. There are tumbling composters and vermicomposters (worm composters) made especially for pet waste. It’s important to keep pet poop separate from food scraps and grass clippings. That’s because the harmful bacteria in pet waste are largely inactive and they will only multiply if there’s an available food source. A Pet Waste Composter is effective at quickly reducing pet droppings into useful fertilizer.

8 ) Take endangered species off the menu

It’s not easy being tasty. Our search for exotic flavors has pushed many different species to the edge of extinction, and fish are in serious trouble. Fishing trawlers are catching fish faster than they breed, which means that the fish available at the supermarket are getting younger and thinner. Some species, such as Swordfish and Orange Roughy are frighteningly rare in the wild. As certain species of fish disappear from the ocean, they leave a gap in the foodchain. The things that they feed on will multiply because nothing is controlling their numbers, and the fish that feed on the missing species will be stressed as well. The biodiversity of the ocean is in jeopardy, and people who rely on fish for a major portion of their diet face starvation due to overfishing.

What can you do? The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great pocket guide to bring with you to the supermarket. This guide lists many fish that are abundant, and offers alternatives to endangered species that you can eat with a clear conscience. Greenpeace publishes a Red List of fish which should not be eaten under any circumstances. These are fish that are critically threatened by overfishing, disease, or habitat loss. There are many other fish that are in the gray area – hundreds of species are at risk but not necessarily endangered. Memorizing these lists is a bit tricky. If you have a less than photographic memory and your wallet doesn’t have room for a cheat sheet, another way you can shop for fish that are plentiful is to look for the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label.

Some species that are at risk in the wild are being raised in fish farms to supplement wild stocks. Farmed fish account for an increasing percentage of total fish caught. There’s some controversy over whether farmed fish or wild seafood are more sustainable though. The footprint and operating procedures of fish farms vary considerably between different locations. Some aquaculture operations are very earth friendly, while others turn pristine shoreline into industrial farmland and introduce devastating diseases that affect nearby wild populations. It’s important to research where your food comes from and choose responsible suppliers.

9) Reduce CO2 Emissions.

When most people think of pollutants, they picture ooze pouring out of factory pipes. Due to environmental regulations and pressure from consumers, almost all of these pipes have been cleaned up. Yet we still affect the environment by releasing chemicals with less immediate effects. Greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are changing the way that our planet heats up and cools down. If the greenhouse effect is left unchecked, we could see drastic changes in the temperature of ocean water, reductions in ocean salinity as the polar ice caps melt, and shifts in the paths of major ocean currents (which would cause further temperature changes).

In addition to climate effects, CO2 emissions can have a huge direct impact on the health of ocean life. New research suggests that salt water is becoming more acidic as it absorbs increased amounts of carbon from the air. Changing temperatures and increases acidity are some of the many factors bleaching coral reefs. Elevated temperatures increase the effect of acidity by boosting the rate at which carbonic acid dissolves calcium. Changes in the pH balance of the ocean are also affecting the metabolic rates of various animals, making it harder for many fish to breathe. That’s bad news on top of overfishing and other forms of water pollution. Even highly adaptable species like the Humboldt squid are showing changes in their behavior.

10) Reduce Noise and Light Pollution

Loud noises and bright lights cause major disruptions in the natural world. Animals rely on their sensitive ears and sight to evade predators and find food, yet the oceans are becoming a deafening, blinding place. All creatures have natural rhythms based on the sun and moon, day and night. These rhythms control sleep, breeding, migration, and hibernation, yet the natural rhythms are being disrupted by constant mixed signals due to human activity. The homes of many nocturnal animals are lit up 24 hours a day by beach floodlights and fishing lure lights, and the ocean is filled with the noise of motors, sonar, and mining activity. All this noise and wasted light is a serious form of pollution.

Every year, we waste hundreds of millions of dollars worth of electricity on light that goes in unintended directions. Globe and acorn shaped streetlights are a prime example – they send light out in all directions, yet only 15-25% of that light reaches ground level. The efficiency of these spherical streetlights can be vastly increased by putting a simple reflector dish on the top, and replacing the light with a lower wattage bulb. Redirecting the light can save 75% on electricity costs, and it will also protect animals that are already endangered by human development.

Skyglow and light trespass are also nuisances to human beings. These effects of errant light were first noticed by astronomers and other night owls, but an increasing number of people are finding that they can’t turn off the lights at night. Light pollution has a direct effect on human health, it drags down property values, and it destroys the natural beauty of the night sky.

Some cities, states, and countries have started passing laws to protect wildlife from luminous pollution. These laws will likely become more stringent over time. Unfortunately, there are many sources of light pollution in the ocean, and very few of them are regulated.

Here are some things you can do to reduce light pollution:

  • Upgrade exterior lights to full cut-off fixtures and other dark-sky friendly products
  • Install bulbs with lower wattage lamps
  • Turn-off lights when you’re not in the area
  • Replace automatic timers with motion detectors
  • Discuss the issue with your family, friends, and neighbors
  • Use curtains on all of your windows (this can also pay dividends in insulation)
  • Campaign for regulations that protect against photopollution in your town
  • Demand strict enforcement of light control ordinances

Every year, thousands of sea turtle hatchlings and young seabirds are killed by lights on the beach. These lights cause reflections on sand that look just like moonlight on water, disorienting the young animals and causing them to wander away from the ocean. Instead of going for a swim, baby turtles and birds are hit by cars, eaten by predators, and die of exhaustion. Reducing light pollution can save many species from extinction.

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Sound pollution also kills many wild animals every year. The scale of the problem is unknown, and scientists are just beginning to study the effects of man-made noise on wildlife. Early results show that loud motor sounds can deafen animals who rely on their sensitive hearing to find food and evade predators. These noises can also drown out mating calls and distress signals. There is suspicion that navigation systems such as sonar are responsible for an increasing number of whale and dolphin beachings. High intensity sound waves can cause internal ruptures and induce symptoms similar to the bends.

Water conducts sound waves much better than air does, so loud noises can travel much further in the ocean than they would on land. This is worrisome, because the noise level in the ocean is increasing rapidly. Between 1948 and 1998, the average volume of sound in the ocean increased about 15 decibels. 15 decibels may not sound like much, but that’s the difference between the amount of noise in a regular office and a busy street.

So, how can we reduce noise pollution in the oceans?

  • Move shipping paths away from marine sanctuaries
  • Install noise baffles on boats and ships
  • Reduce the use of high intensity sonar
  • Protect sensitive habitat from oil and mineral exploration

So, that wraps up a ‘quick’ ten-list. But, there’s one other thing you can do to save the oceans.

Buy from environmentally responsible companies

The policies that companies follow can make a huge difference on the health of our oceans. Since the United States put pollution controls in place, we’ve seen remarkable recovery in many of the worst affected waterways:

“Oxygen levels in New York Harbor, for instance, are now 50 percent higher than they were 30 years ago. In the Southern California Bight, off Los Angeles and San Diego, inputs of many pollutants have been reduced 90 percent or more over a 25-year period, and the ecosystem there—including kelp, fish, and seabird populations—has greatly recovered. “

A lot has been accomplished, but we can still do better. Comparing modern emissions to emissions from the 1970’s, is sort of like comparing a Boeing 777 to the Wright Flier – we’ve come a long way in a short period of time, and we should expect major improvements. Unfortunately, many companies are still stuck in the seventies and see nothing wrong with dumping wastewater directly into rivers that feed into the ocean. Not all of our factories and processing plants are using best practices, but it’s easy to find companies that devote resources to improving their environmental record.

When you make purchase decisions at work or for your home, are you buying from companies that publish an independently reviewed environmental report card? If you can convince even one of the companies you do business with to adopt these guidelines, that will multiply the effects of your choices. Here’s a list of the a top polluters in the United States: these are companies that might reconsider their record if large numbers of customers demanded that they act responsibly to protect the oceans.

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News that has nothing to do with Election 2008

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


“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 you can monitor the progress of the team and even see video feeds from the car.

The right power cords save power and money

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Many of us have a blind spot for extension cords. We tend to treat these power cables as interchangeable parts, but not all extension cords are the same.

Length is important. The longer the extension cord you use, the more energy is lost in transmission. If you only need to add 5 feet, it doesn’t make any sense to use a 100′ cord!

The thickness of the wire is also important. Thin cords lose power faster, and they can also heat up dangerously with heavy power loads. When using extension cords, it’s important to make sure that the wire is thick enough to safely and efficiently conduct electricity. Wire thickness is often referred to as “gauge”.

Gauge numbers are rather tricky. Even though it seems counter-intuitive, thicker wires have a low gauge, and thin wires have a high gauge. Many power cords are available in 18, 16, 14, and 12 gauge sizes. Of these choices, 18 is the thinnest and 12 is the thickest. Thicker wires are generally more expensive, but they can save substantial amounts of electricity. Thick electric wire can also handle higher amperages than thin wires without bursting into flames. That’s good to know if you want to avoid burning your house down or melting your tools.

So, know your cords! Pay attention to cord gauge and length, and they’ll pay you back with a reduced electric bill.

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Ethanol isn’t the only biofuel

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Mista Fitz at
There’s currently a bit of a corn shortage, driven by rising food consumption, ethanol consumption, and changes in diet in developing countries. Luckily, corn isn’t the only alternative to oil.

While ethanol made from corn gets the most attention, there are all sorts of other biofuels under development. There are companies working on producing ethanol from straw and other farm byproducts such as coconut fiber and cotton seeds. There are factories working on producing diesel from landfills, turkey processing waste, algae, canola, old tires, and other low cost sources. In fact, the US government is actively promoting development of alternative fuels, especially alternative fuels made from non-corn sources (would that be alternative, alternative fuels?):

The government is pushing to get the industry off the ground. Legislation passed last year mandates the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year by 2022, less than half of it from corn ethanol. Almost all the rest is supposed to come from nonfood sources, though the requirement could be waived if the industry faltered.

The future of our fuel supply is going to be very different, and there are positive signs that we’ll be using more green biofuels sooner than anyone expected.

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jurvetson at

Eco news of the week

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Brooklyn Bridge Baby at

Here are five big environmental stories that you might have missed this week:

1) Saudi Arabia is planning for a future without gasoline. The Kingdom is investing in education and hopes to develop new industries and exports that will supplement oil in the near term and replace it in the long term.

2) Small is big. Due to rising energy costs and environmental awareness, architects are finding a surprising demand for smaller homes.

3) Have you heard of It’s a carbon calculator site that’s different from the hundreds of other calculators out there. Instead of focusing on environment harms, the site reinforces good behavior with instant feedback about the progress you’ve made. After all, even minimal impact can be discouraging to focus on.

4) Speaking of carbon – Al Gore and T Boone Pickens are both pushing aggressive energy plans. These gentlemen, who come from very opposite sides of the political spectrum, are stressing that carbon free electricity is more than an environmental issue. They opine that moving away from coal and oil will make a huge difference in the US trade deficit, bolster national security by increasing energy independence, and position American companies to prosper against global competition.

5) Did you know that the Prius fails Georgia’s Vehicle Emissions Test?

Beat high gas prices – ride the bus or train!

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George Morris at

I recently rode an Amtrak train from Chicago to Dallas, and every seat was full. Compared to my previous experiences on Amtrak, that was an amazing change. Just 6 months ago, I remember that there were 4 empty seats for every one that was claimed. When I asked my fellow passengers why they chose to ride, the hot topic was the high price of gas. Fuel prices are driving up the price of airplane tickets (just last weekend, fares rose $20!), and 3 major airlines died in the first quarter due to oil shock. Drivers are also becoming aware of every drop of fuel that they use – no one likes to see a $50 or $100 charge at the pump!

The silver lining of this is that we’re starting to see the cost of different modes of travel mirror their real price in terms of pollution. High gas prices are making environmentally friendly transport more and more competitive. In effect, this is a preview of how a carbon tax could change the face of travel.

Train and bus ridership are growing like crazy:

As gas price keep climbing, a growing number of Americans are leaving their cars in the garage and getting on board trains. Commuter train lines around the country are reporting big jumps in first quarter ridership: up 15% in the suburbs of Seattle, 13% in the communities north of Miami, 7% in the region surrounding Minneapolis-St. Paul, and better than 5% in New Jersey.

Subways and bus routes are feeling the boost too. People are leaving their cars at home and hopping on public transport. Unfortunately, since many of these commuter services use petroleum based fuel, their costs are rising too. Increased ridership can offset these increased costs in the short term though. It costs almost as much to run an empty train as it does to run a train with 40 people in it. Additional paying passengers add minimal costs while bringing in much needed revenue. Fuel prices are also rising for train and bus operators though. When commuter services charge the same despite rising prices, this can eliminate any efficiency gains.

If the price of oil stays at these levels, there’s likely to be widespread demand for better public transportation:

Five dollar gasoline may be enough to force some people to give up steady use of their personal cars and seek other solutions. For others, the quitting price may be ten or twenty dollars per gallon and for the very wealthy even $100 a gallon gasoline ($80 or $100 thousand a year) would be an acceptable price to pay for the convenience of the private car.

In the case of slowly increasing gasoline prices the problem is one of forming a critical mass that will make economic sense for greatly expanded mass transit. Such a critical mass is likely to come for long distance travel first, for as soon as discretionary air travel becomes unaffordable, the demand for better train and bus service will increase rapidly. Long distance automobile travel may fill some of this gap especially for moving multiple passengers or if cars become significantly more efficient, but for the lone traveler, a long distance car trip could become very expensive.

If you’re undecided about taking the train, here are 9 underappreciated benefits of train travel. Compared to travel by air, the benefits of train travel boil down to lower cost, increased comfort, and reduced hassle from security. Air travel still wins on convenience, reliability, and prestige. Long distance buses are also a great option – some studies suggest that intercity buses the most fuel efficient travel available today:

Based on mileage and passengers in 2004, highway buses achieved an average of 148.4 passenger miles per gallon. That’s more than double achieved by intercity trains which achieved 74.1 passenger miles per gallon. Airlines managed 40.9 passenger miles per gallon, while cars came in last at 35.4 mpg.

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Conserve electricity with an induction stove

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PålLøberg at

The cost of electricity is rising quickly due to increased demand. This summer, we can expect high bills from running the air conditioner and charging batteries. The best way to get on top of the problem is to get ahead of the meter reader by trading in your prehistoric stove for an induction stove.

Unlike other stoves, which cook using radiant heat from gas or electric coils, an induction stove cooks using magnets. It generates a magnetic field that rapidly heats up metal pots and pans, delivering heat right where you need it. In the process, induction stoves consume about half of the energy that conventional stoves use. They also deliver quicker results, heating up cookware in half the time because more of the heat is going where it should:

Induction cooking uses 90% of the energy produced compared to only 55% for a gas burner and 65% for traditional electric ranges.

Best of all, saving power in the kitchen has a multiplier effect! When heat is wasted, it has to go somewhere. With conventional stoves, the waste heat warms up your house (which isn’t great in the middle of summer) and then has to be cooled down with energy intensive air conditioning. When you use an induction stove, you save power twice!

As an added bonus, you can use all your steampunk cast iron and stainless steel cookware – aluminum and glass wont even heat up on the stove.

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theTeaLeaf at

A green revolution is taking place at Walmart

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In Las Vegas, Walmart is opening a new type of energy-saving store. According to company sources, stores like this one will serve as testbeds for ecofriendly technology. Over the next couple years, the big box retailer hopes to incorporate the features that work into all of its locations.

Wal-Mart has said it is the biggest private user of electricity in the world and has huge potential to cut back on greenhouse gases from fossil fuels burned to create electricity. It aims to use technologies proven in the pilot stores to develop a prototype in 2009 for all new Supercenters that will be between 25 percent and 30 percent more energy efficient.

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The two previous testing sites (in McKinney, Texas, and Aurora, Colorado) are still open for business and doing well. They showcase a variety of innovations, from solar panels on the roof to water permeable concrete in the parking lot. I toured the one in McKinney and was impressed by the complete package. There are a lot of small design features that add up and complement each other.

One thing about Walmart – if there’s a way to pinch pennies, the company will do whatever it takes to embrace those savings. It probably doesn’t hurt that the PR of opening green stores makes Walmart look less evil.

The rollout of clean technology is just getting started, and hopefully we’re going to see more and more businesses embrace cleantech to get an edge in the marketplace.

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How green is your cell phone tower?

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In the developing world, where electric grids are less reliable, many cell phone towers have to generate their own electricity. With diesel generators, that means that energy costs can add up to 2/3 of the total maintenance costs. Theft and vandalism are also a big problem with these systems.

As a result of these high energy costs, many cellular providers in the Third World have adopted green power supplies. In addition to wind and solar power, some of these cell phone systems incorporate biodiesel.

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Designers are also rethinking the traditional cell phone tower. In 2007, Ericsson introduced the Tower Tube – a self contained concrete tower that has less visual impact and a smaller carbon footprint. Since they use concrete instead of a steel structure, and have no need for a perimeter fence, these towers release approximately 20% less CO2 than conventional towers. Other companies are getting rid of cell towers entirely by using trees!

If you look closely, the cell towers near your house may already be using solar or wind backup power supplies. Here’s an example of a solar panel that powers weather monitoring equipment on a cell tower.

Save Energy with a Thermal Imager

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Most of the energy our homes use is spent heating and cooling the air to a comfortable level. By some estimates, 50-70% of energy is used on HVAC systems.

So, one of the best ways to cut energy use is to add insulation and seal any cracks in the home. But, how do you identify where insulation is needed, or where a draft is sneaking in? Rather than use subjective means, it’s now possible to use a Thermal Imager to spot energy leaks. That way, you can apply insulation and caulk in only the places where it’s really necessary, and you can limit the use of more expensive housing improvements to the places where they’ll do the most good! Here’s an example of what a leaky door looks like:

Photo courtesy of CBC || Thermal at

If you don’t have a thermal imager hanging around in your closet, your friends may have one you can borrow. Alternate places to check include your local fire station, housing association, or community college. Many such organizations have equipment available for check out or rental. If nothing else, you can buy a camcorder with a thermal function from an electronics store, use it for an energy audit, and then pay the restocking fee to return the camcorder. Not that we recommend such shifty behavior, cheapskate.

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Printable Solar Panel improves efficiency for photovoltaics

tax-northwestern-university_140x105.jpgNorthwestern University Researchers have been working on a new flexible Solar Cell that has a 40 percent improved efficiency over organic photovoltaic cells, according to this article in the Chicago Tribune.

The new flexible panels would be made using similar technology to that used in conventional media and package printing. Tobin J. marks co-leads the the project with Robert Chang.

“You could incorporate flexible organic photovoltaics into roofing shingles,” said Marks

The flexible material could be used for a wide variety of applications from portable roll up panels for camping or remote location use to massive farms covering hundreds of square miles. I’ve been through West Texas, we have room out there. Really this would allow the installation of cheap solar production in any area that exposed to sunlight.

The panels consist of two organic compounds that when hit by sunlight give off both electron and hole current. The anode of the electrode is nanocoated with nickel oxide in order to allow the hole current but block the electron current which flows towards the cathode. The researchers have filed for a patent on this technology and are working to improve the process further still.

“We see this as more than an incremental improvement,” Marks said. “We see it as a breakthrough.”

Can biodiesel become the new petroleum? And should it?

Flickr photo courtesy of Robbi Baba.

In just a few years, biodiesel in the U.S. has gone from an incognito fringe fuel to a mainstream media darling, and has recently been under fire as just another excuse for people to clear cut rainforest.

If this first biodiesel wave has somehow missed you, and you have no idea what it is, there are many great resources to catch up, including articles on this site, which also address the commonly confused difference between straight vegetable oil and biodiesel.

The purpose of this article is to push beyond the basics and evaluate the current state of biodiesel and take a look at the road ahead. Will it be filled with efficient diesel vehicles and smell like the local Wok Town restaurant? Will it be any cleaner or more peaceful?

The Promises

A cleaner, greener and more peaceful world — these are the reasons most biodiesel advocates began using and producing this fuel, because it promised to solve some of the problems created by the petroleum industry. These are certainly the reasons I chose to embrace biodiesel by creating an organization called bioTrekker, traveling the country in a biodiesel-powered motorhome to investigate and advocate this alternative fuel. I know I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm and I know I’m not alone in saying that, if biodiesel can’t live up to these promises, I will no longer embrace it.

Not many individuals seem to be happy about our extremely heavy dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum, and if Americans can once again produce the majority of their vehicle fuel domestically, the biodiesel theory goes, they would no longer need to entangle themselves in places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.

In addition, as a cleaner burning fuel, biodiesel could have a global warming benefit. Pure biodiesel is biodegradable and non-toxic, and when combusted, it emits as much as 78% less carbon dioxide than petroleum, 100% less sulfur dioxide, 55% less particulates (soot), 45% less carbon monoxide and a reduction in all cancer causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Depending on engine type and age, it can increase or decrease nitrogen oxide emissions by five to 10%. Supporters also point to the fact that biodiesel closes the carbon loop. When petroleum is burned, it releases carbon dioxide that was removed from the atmosphere by now fossilized plant matter. When biodiesel is burned, it releases carbon dioxide that was harnessed from the atmosphere we’re breathing now, thus closing the loop.


These are the biodiesel promises, and after a few years of growth in the American biodiesel industry, we now have a record of reality that we can evaluate. In 2008, the biodiesel industry report card looks something like this:

Energy Independence? F +

To be honest, when it comes to using biodiesel to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and the handful of companies that control the production of that oil, we’re not doing so hot. In 2006, the U.S. produced roughly 250 million gallons of biodiesel, and the total estimated tally for 2007 could reach as high as 400 million gallons.* Still, we consumed more than 60 billion gallons of petroleum diesel and 150 billion gallons of gasoline.* What’s more, roughly 75 percent of the biodiesel produced in the United States was exported to Europe and used there.* Europeans pay higher prices for fuel, and no good capitalist is going to ignore that. In addition, a loophole in the fuel tax laws of Europe and the U.S. allow U.S. biodiesel producers to “splash and dash” and claim a tax credit in both the U.S. and Europe, letting them subsidize their production with tax payer dollars on two different continents. Even with this miserable performance, there is still hope, which is why I’ll go with an F+.

*Information comes from the National Biodiesel Board

Community-based Energy Production? C+

The biodiesel industry has been driven by a combination of consumer demand and a strong Midwestern farm lobby, however, most insiders know that it wouldn’t exist without the consent of the petroleum industry, especially on the distribution side. But most production at this time does seem to be outside of the hands of the oil company majors. As of January 2008, there were 170 U.S. biodiesel plants in existence.* Most use soybean oil as a feedstock.

While some of the larger facilities have ties to big petroleum, such as Chevron-backed BioSelect Fuels in Galveston, Texas, many of these plants are financed by groups with farm ties and most have a capacity smaller than 30 million gallons a year. Even most of the largest in the country — such as Washington state’s Imperium (100 million gallons a year), Texas-based GreenEarth Fuels (90 million), and Indiana’s Loius Dreyfus Agricultural Industries (80 million) — still seem to be independent of big petroleum ties. The production and distribution system may not be ideal, but it’s still decentralized.

Reduced Greenhouse Gases? D+

It’s true that the actual combustion of biodiesel produces fewer GHGs (greenhouse gasses) and toxic gases than petroleum, and general lifecycle studies showed that biodiesel could lower GHG levels worldwide. However, these studies didn’t foresee that a biofuels boom could create tremendous land-use changes in developing countries.

For example, the huge corn-based ethanol push in the U.S. has created a soybean vacuum, which has Brazilian farmers slash and burning their Amazon rainforest to plant more soy. Malaysian palm growers are also slash and burning their rainforest to meet European and U.S. demand for palm oil based biodiesel. Needless to say, if you want to lower greenhouse gases, slash and burning the rainforest trees is the exact opposite of what you should do. Recent studies have demonstrated that biofuel-production could actually contribute to global warming if these land use changes are factored in.

So why the plus on that D? Well, it’s not exactly fair to blame a non-toxic, less polluting substance for the stupidity of those producing it. Chocolate is a wondrous, plant-based product that brings people pleasure, but I wouldn’t blame chocolate if people got rid of all the other trees and plants in the world to mono-crop cocoa beans.

A balanced, GHG lowering approach to biodiesel is possible, and it is happening, although on a smaller scale. For example, there are several biodiesel producers around the country who have made a commitment to produce biodiesel in a sustainable way. Most of them are using waste grease recycled from restaurants and/or source their biodiesel from locally grown feedstock oil such as canola, mustard or soybeans, grown on pre-existing farmland. The U.S. has an advantage here, because we’ve already clear-cut most of our forests.

The Solutions, or Why I Still Carry the Bio-Flag

It’s easy to project two very different futures for biodiesel, and reality will likely fall somewhere in between. On one side of the spectrum, a biodiesel gold rush could very well cause more problems than it solves. Most have already been mentioned, but biodiesel-caused problems include food shortages in developing countries, increased food prices in developed countries, the clear cutting of virgin forest to plant biodiesel feedstock crops, and I’m pretty sure they’re responsible for the recent writer’s strike in Hollywood.

In addition, if the biodiesel industry becomes controlled by mega corporations that profit by centralizing the production of energy and exploiting resources and cheap labor in other countries, then it will probably create or aggravate the same political, military and economic problems that petroleum has.

So what’s the point in supporting biodiesel if it’s already getting D’s and F’s and if this is the future? Well, it doesn’t have to be the future. There are solutions to the current challenges, and if we embrace these solutions, the future will look much different. Here are just a few examples:

1.Help create communities that embrace mass-transit and make it easy to walk and ride a bike, developing in ways that will reduce the need for long commutes. Rather than simply ramping up supply to meet an astronomical demand, we can bring the demand down by using our energy wisely. A specific example would be getting involved with an office of sustainability like we have here in Portland, OR. If your town doesn’t have one, why not start it yourself?

2. Clamor for better energy efficiency, such as diesel-electric hybrid engines. This is another way to bring down astronomical demand. People are good at clamoring and seem to enjoy it, so here’s something to clamor for. Support manufacturers that sell high efficiency products and perhaps suggest the idea to those who aren’t.

In this way you can help create a bigger market in the U.S. for biodiesel, which will help curb foreign exports of the fuel. They’re already getting the hint, but here’s one place to start clamoring:

3. Support sustainable biodiesel production. It’s clear that not all biodiesel is created with the same intentions and priorities. As a consumer, ask questions of your local fuel distributors and try to get to know your local producers. Is the fuel coming from local fryer grease or local farmer coops? Is it being shipped in from overseas? Are they committed to sustainable practices? If you’re producing biodiesel, do the best you can to minimize waste and pollution in the process by researching best practices. Consumers and producers can also join the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, ( a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable biodiesel practices.

4. Incentivize biodiesel produced from waste products and crops on existing agricultural land or fallow land. Currently, biodiesel producers who use waste grease as a feedstock don’t receive as much of a tax credit as those who use virgin oil: this should be changed. And in addition to asking legislators to close the tax loophole that allows “splash and dash” producers to exploit domestic and foreign subsidies, we can ask them to reward producers that source their feedstocks from waste grease, existing agricultural land or land that was previously fallow. And, of course, we can incentivize it ourselves by patronizing companies that engage in these practices.

5. Rapidly develop non-food biodiesel feedstocks by investing in research and development. Of course, even if we drastically reduce our consumption, we still can’t make enough biodiesel from cropland or waste oil to reach fuel self-sufficiency. Fortunately, there is promise in one of the fastest growing organisms on the planet: algae. Algae can have extremely high oil content — oil that can be turned into biodiesel once extracted. What’s more, algae can grow in wastewater and brackish water so it’s feasible that algae production would not create the same land use issues as soybean, canola or other cropland biodiesel.

There are several companies currently working to commercialize algae production worldwide, including LiveFuels Inc., Solazyme, Solix Biofuels, GreenFuels Technologies, GreenShift CleanTech, and AquaFlow Bionomic.

Initial studies of algal oil yields indicate that it may be possible to produce enough algal oil biodiesel to offset upwards of 50 to 100 percent of the petrodiesel that Americans consume, however, there are significant obstacles. The big one is how to produce algal oil as cheaply as petroleum. The other obstacles revolve around this, but a few include the challenge of extracting algae from vast amounts of water, the challenge of extracting oil from algae, and the challenge of creating a system that is energy efficient and resistant to other contaminant strains of algae.

Still, biodiesel produced from algae is happening now, and could become available on a small commercial scale in the next two to five years. Algae experts, such as John Sheehan VP of Strategy and Sustainable Development for LiveFuels, say that large-scale commercial algae production probably won’t happen until sometime between 2012 and 2018.

As individuals, we can speed this process by spreading awareness of this technology, investing in it ourselves if we are able, and by urging our local, state and national lawmakers to guide public investments in this direction.

How We’ll Use Our Tools

If the future of biodiesel is to be one that creates a cleaner, greener and more peaceful world, the solutions above will likely play a huge role. If they do, biodiesel will truly move beyond a fringe fuel and become one of the most important fuels in the next 20 to 50 years as we begin to transition to renewable energy, especially if coupled with the jump in fuel efficiency that would come with a major influx of diesel, diesel hybrids and electric passenger vehicles.

The cleanest future is probably one where we run all vehicles on electricity produced from a renewable energy powered grid, but it looks like that transition could take at least a few decades. In the meantime, if we do it right, biodiesel could be a very beneficial in that transition.

The beauty is, we can choose to have a say over how it’s done, especially in our own communities.

And this is the reason that I have not lost my enthusiasm for biodiesel as a very useful tool – one of many tools that we can use to shape a better world for our children and grandchildren. But like any other tools, from ropes to knives to gunpowder, I have learned that biodiesel can only be as beneficial or destructive as the people who use it.

Seen in this light, the important thing becomes the philosophy behind the tools. We can live in a society that achieves self-sufficiency by making it a priority to lower its energy needs and producing most of its energy on a community, state and regional level. We can live in a society where we mimic nature by creating systems where everything is used and “waste” becomes a forgotten concept. This is the society I choose to embrace and this is the peaceful, affordable and comfortable future that sustainable biodiesel can help create. We’ve just got to get our grades up.

Ty Adams is a freelance writer and editor who takes on way too many pet projects in Portland, Oregon. In 2006, he left his desk job, sold his house and traveled the country for a year in a biodiesel-powered motorhome as part of a project called bioTrekker. The project continues to evolve and now has Ty living and breathing all things renewable and sustainable. It is available online at

Start Drinking Organic Millk

For some, going completely organic with all of your food purchases is overwhelming and often expensive. So consider starting out small, buying a few organic products and building from there. Did you know that a lot of people make the leap to organic products with milk?

Organic milk is a familiar sight in most dairy sections around the country, so it’s an easy gateway to other organic products.

Organic milk has several benefits. For starters, to be labeled by the USDA as “organic,” it must come from cows that have not been treated with any Bovine Growth Hormone. Just to be clear, if you are drinking regular milk, the growth hormone doesn’t show up in your milk just because it is given to a cow. But it gives you peace of mind knowing that the milk you are drinking wasn’t conjured up by giving artificial hormones to cows. Another benefit of organic milk is that it only comes from cows that were not treated with any antibiotics. But you don’t have to worry about the cows. If a cow gets sick, it can still be treated with antibiotics to get well, if they are necessary. Those cows just can’t produce milk with the rest of the herd for one year. Finally, cows that make organic milk also have to be given feed grown without organic pesticides, whether it is grass or grains. And the cows must have access to pasture.

Most organic milk is ultra-pasteurized. That means instead of being heated to 162 degrees for 15 seconds like regular pasteurization, ultra-pasteurized milk is heated to 280 degrees for two seconds, then chilled. The sell-date on ultra-pasteurized milk can be several weeks after the date of purchase, so for a small family or business that doesn’t use milk every day, organic milk is a great way to not be wasteful because it lasts longer. If your milk at home sometimes goes bad before you have a chance to drink it all, then you might actually save money by drinking organic.

Organic milk also uses less energy to produce and creates less waste than non-organic milk since there are no pesticides and chemicals and all the stuff that goes along with that involved. Using less energy to create something just as good or better just makes sense.

So next time you head to the grocery store or super market, try out the organic milk if you aren’t drinking it already. Unless you’re vegan. In that case, go with the organic soy.

Hawaii’s clean energy initiative

Hawaii is already ahead of a lot of places when it comes to solar energy. The government is entering into a an agreement with private industry to install solar panels on government facilities, and Costco just converted some of their businesses in paradise to solar.

Hawaii was the 2nd state in the US to establish a cap on greenhouse gases. On the islands research is being conducted to turn algae into biofuels, garbage is used to create electricity, wind and solar plants are going in and companies are installing geothermal plants to take advantage of the volcanic activities. The Hawaiian Clean Energy Initiative comes as no real surprise…although it is welcome news.

According to the agreement Hawaii would get at least 70 PERCENT of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.

“This innovative, unprecedented partnership builds on the progress the state has made to increase energy independence by decreasing Hawai’i’s reliance on imported oil,” Gov. Linda Lingle said in a news conference today. “Our islands’ abundant natural sources of energy, combined with the considerable capabilities of the Department of Energy, will help Hawai’i lead America in utilizing clean, renewable energy technologies.”

The plan calls for converting the smaller islands to 100 percent renewable and the utilization of local crops for producing energy.

The plan also draws upon information from federal agencies and research laboratories to develop solar, wind, and biofuel solutions to the islands energy needs. The eventual goal is to make Hawaii one of the worlds first clean energy economies.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Hawaii understands that just about everything you get on the Islands carries with it the costs of transportation. So much more than in more conventional states fuel has to be transported great distances and has the dubious distinction of having the country’s highest prices at the pump. To repeat a much overused cliché, “necessity is the mother of invention.” While we here on the mainland may not have the drastic need that Hawaii has, we will eventually benefit from the advances made by them.