Safeway, Biodiesel, Recycling and Wind Power

A couple of years back a bunch of us stood in the street and watched the book store of the local university burn to the ground in the middle of the night. The next day the only things left were the once familiar walls of a former Safeway grocery store filled to the brim with charred rubble. Try as they might the distinctive look of the exterior walls that every Safeway in the area always had could not be hidden.

I grew up thinking that Safeway was a synonym for grocery store; I can’t honestly remember going to any other until Safeway pulled up stakes and left Texas. The familiar buildings still stand all across my home town. So I was glad to hear that the company I grew up with is one of the most environmentally conscious out there; even though they abandoned us.

Recently Safeway switched to using B20 Biodiesel for all of the 600+ trucks in its California and Arizona Fleet. The fuel is produced from domestically grown Virgin soybean oil. By switching in these two states alone almost 70 percent of their diesel consumption is biodiesel; Co2 output is reduced by 23 metric tons per year.

In addition, Safeway opened their first solar powered grocery store in September; the first of 23 such stores. The companies 295 fuel stations have been powered by wind energy since 2005; making Safeway the largest purchaser of green energy in California.

And if that wasn’t enough, Safeway stores recycle much of their waste diverting over 85 percent of their solid waste away from landfills. That’s over half a million tons of recyclables in 2006 alone. It would be interesting to see how other grocery stores stack up.

Coal Gasification is taking off in China

Photo courtesy of jbrussellphoto at

China emits a staggering amount of carbon dioxide (more than the United States by some accounts), and the future will bring even more CO2 production from inside the Great Wall. According to several chemical companies, coal gasification is surging in China.

China offers fast-track permits and relatively easy financing as well as “cheap labor and minimal regulations” — factors that allow coal conversion plants to be built quickly and at 2/3 to 1/2 the cost of a similar project in the U.S. or Europe.

Coal gasification is a process during which steam and oxygen are injected into coal turbines to produce a cleaner burn. With this technology, it may be possible to double the efficiency of coal power plants (they currently operate at only 20-35% thermal efficiency). Theoretically, this higher efficiency would reduce the amount of coal we consume to fill our needs, which would extend the world’s coal supply and reduce pollution along the way. The improved efficiency of these power plants means less coal is required per watt of energy, but without regulatory pressure the efficiency of these plants may lead to the use of dirtier, cheaper forms of coal.

The potential environmental benefits to gasified coal include easier containment of pollutants, the ability to use bio-mass instead of coal, and the production of hydrogen during the gasification process. Yet, many of the green aspects of this technology require an incentive for companies to take advantage of them. Without hydrogen cars on the road or a cap-and-trade system for CO2 in place, there are few incentives for the gasified coal plants to capture these waste products.

In China’s current regulatory environment, gasified coal plants are simply bigger, more profitable pollution machines. If pollution controls are lacking, then the environmental effects will be felt beyond China’s borders. The average Chinese citizen is beginning to be affected by runaway levels of pollution, but the environmental movement is only just now gathering momentum in China. This is a country where agitating for change can be very dangerous, and arguing against “progress” is considered counter-revolutionary.

In the face of all this, China’s growing economy is creating an increasing demand for electricity:

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

So, there’s a good and bad side to this news. China is ramping up its production of CO2 faster than most people expected, but the new gasified coal plants in China may lead to technological advancements that will spread to other countries. In the coming years, perhaps America will be able to adapt green technology that was pioneered in China!

Photo courtesy of mykmyk at

ps; Coal Gassification is not the same thing as Coal Liquefication. Here are some thoughts on Coal Liquefication and what it means for our gas tanks.

Solar Streets: using the heat from asphalt for energy

There was a loud crash, and I got up out of my chair in time to see my vintage British motorcycle laying on its side in the parking lot of the apartment complex I was living in.  I could see a group of kids running away and I yelled after them; gaining the unwanted attention of my neighbors afterwards. 

I explained to one of the parents that the kids must of knocked over the bike; these things don’t just fall over by themselves.  To my embarrassment I watched out the window later as it did just that.  The asphalt had softened in the Texas heat and the side stand simply sank into the pavement and the bike fell over.  I move it to the sidewalk and tried not to look anyone in the eye after that. 

Motorcycle riders and well… anyone who has had to walk across a black asphalt street in July in Texas can tell you that the streets hold in a substantial amount of heat.  Heat is energy, and if it’s there we can and probably should use it.  According to The Wall Street Journal a Dutch company has found a way to do exactly that.

Solar energy collected from a 200-yard (180-metre) stretch of road and a small parking lot helps heat a 70-unit four-story apartment building in the northern village of Avenhorn. An industrial park of some 160,000 square feet (14,864 square metres) in the nearby city of Hoorn is kept warm in winter with the help of heat stored during the summer from 36,000 square feet (3,344 square metres) of pavement. The runways of a Dutch air force base in the south supply heat for its hangar.

Plastic pipes are put in place under the roadway and the asphalt is laid over them.  Then water is pumped through the grid. After it is heated by the sun, it goes back into the natural aquifer, where it maintains a constant temp of around 68 degrees.  Months later it can be pumped back through to de-ice the road.  In addition cool water is pumped from a separate reservoir for cooling buildings.  

There is more to solar power than just photovoltaic panels;  combine systems like this with solar powered water heaters, geothermal heat pump systems, and responsible building designs and we can really make a difference without having to wait 50 years for it to pay for itself. 

NanoPower windows convert sunlight into electricity

When I think of power windows I get a feeling of dread; like some just stepped on my grave.  This is because I own a vintage European car and while the drive train and suspension are second to none, the electrical system is often…well…European. 

Over-engineered (read overly expensive) little rocker switches control the windows from the center console instead of the door.  My personal record is three out of four windows work (more or less) like they should albeit with a surprising array of interesting sounds. 

But this concept in power windows, while being only slightly more complicated, is quite a bit more interesting and beneficial to mankind in general.  We are talking nanosilicon photovoltaic cells.  Using a process of electrochemical and ultrasound identically sized nanoparticles of silicon are  produced that provide “varying wavelengths of photoluminescence and high quantum efficiency” 

I haven’t a clue what that means. 

But the short of it is that they create a clear film that can be placed over existing windows and convert sunlight into electricity.  In addition, this same film can be placed over existing solar panels increasing the performance of the solar panel 60 to 70 percent.

“The exceptional power performance of these silicon nanoparticles is a substantial achievement, and is especially significant since our use of these same nanoparticles is key to the development of Octillion’s transparent glass windows capable of generating electricity, an innovation that I believe can potentially reduce the harmful environmental impact associated with traditional electrical power generation,” explained Mr. Harmel S. Rayat, President and CEO of Octillion Corp

In addition to increasing the performance of the solar panels the film should increase the the lifespan by reducing UV heat. 

The NonoPower Windows are a project of Octillion corp.

Compact Fluorescent Bulb Disposal Tips

bulbThe king of all cheap, environmentally conscious things that everyone can do; the compact fluorescent light bulb. These little gizmos generally save 30 bucks in energy over the life of the bulb and save about 2,000 times their own weight in greenhouse gases. In addition they produce 75% less heat than incandescent bulbs; a major concern for those of us in warmer climates.

According to Energy Star (a program of the US environmental protection agency):

If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars.

On the downside, each of these blubs contains a small amount of mercury. As their popularity increases this is turning into a real concern for landfills. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association released this statement in March of 2007:

“Under the voluntary commitment, effective April 15, 2007, NEMA members will cap the total mercury content in CFLs of less than 25 watts at 5 milligrams (mg) per unit. The total mercury content of CFLs that use 25 to 40 watts of electricity will be capped at 6 mg per unit. NEMA is launching a website,, where CFL manufacturers conforming to the voluntary commitment on mercury will be listed.”

According to the EPA, once the compact fluorescent reaches the end of its lifespan you are encouraged to recycle it. is the perfect resource for finding out where you need to take these, and other hazardous materials.

In addition, care must be taken when cleaning up after a broken compact fluorescent bulb. The EPA recommends that you:


1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.


2. Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed plastic bag.

  • Use disposable rubber gloves, if available (i.e., do not use bare hands). Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the plastic bag.

  • Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.


3. Place all cleanup materials in a second sealed plastic bag.

  • Place the first bag in a second sealed plastic bag and put it in the outdoor trash container or in another outdoor protected area for the next normal trash disposal.

  • Note: some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a local recycling center.

  • Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.


4. If a fluorescent bulb breaks on a rug or carpet:

  • First, remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner, following the steps above. Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.

  • If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

Please note: were not talking about love canal here. The amount of mercury in one of these is about enough to cover the tip of a ball point pen. For all the good they do the environment, the risks and negative impacts are minimal.

There are a lot of things that we should be doing to improve the environment that are just flat out of the reach of most of the population. But this is one thing everyone can do. When a bulb burns out, replace it with a compact fluorescent. It’s that simple, it will save you money, and it’s the right the right thing to do.

CDTA Switching to Biodiesel For Buslines.

hb.jpgThe Capital District Transportation Authority in Albany, New York has just announced that they will be switching to biodiesel for all of their diesel powered buses.

(Albany, NY) – In a move to make bus travel even more environmentally friendly, the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) plans to convert its entire bus fleet to biodiesel fuel by year’s end.  A study by the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture in 1998 found that biodiesel emitted 78 percent less net carbon dioxide than traditional petroleum diesel.  

This is in addition to the CDTA’s 6 already green diesel/electric hybrid buses

Compared with the diesel buses they are replacing, hybrid buses reduce emissions by up to 90 percent! They also use up to 30 percent less fuel, provide smooth, seamless acceleration and run quieter than a traditional diesel bus.

Some specifics:

  • Particulate Matter (PM) reduced by up to 90 percent

  • Carbon Monoxide (CO) reduced by up to 90 percent

  • Hydrocarbons (HC) reduced by up to 90 percent

  • Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) reduced by up to 50 percent

Now if that wasn’t impressive enough, the CDTA also is using solar power to light their bustops. 

Coming from a part of the country where public transport is sketchy at best, it’s refreshing to see a city transit authority that takes it’s duty to the environment and the citizens seriously. 

Biodiesel Powered 60’s era generator

According to Channel 11 in Houston, Texas a biodiesel company has converted a 1960’s era turbine generator to run off of pure biodiesel. 

“There are 2,200 of these units around the U.S. There is no reason for them not to run (on) biodiesel,” said Bell. “We have not found another in the world of its size. What it does, is show that we can have a commercial renewable project.”

Bell said the power output from the turbine in Montgomery County is huge.

“This site should do over 50,000 homes. It is going to combine steam and combined heat steam to generate power. All generated with 100 percent biodiesel,” he said.

The generators were generally retired because of the pollution issues they caused, but running biodiesel makes it a viable alternative.  General Electric, the turbines manufacturer, had said that these units would never work on bio-fuels.  But in the real world apparently they do.  This gives me hope that many of the new cars coming out that the manufacturers say won’t run on biodiesel will in fact.

“We have the capability to run just about any type of biodiesel in there,” said Bell.

From various vegetable oils to animal fats.

“This site has run all of those vegetable oils and all of those animal fats in the last six months,” said Bell. “So we have to alternate the feed stock based on the availability and the price.”

This generator apparently was surplus from Elgin Air Force Base.  Like many of the old diesel cars and trucks that are finding a new life in the biodiesel revolution, maybe some of these old units will be able to take up some of the slack over more polluting or fossil fuel dependant methods. 

Geothermal Heat Pumps

coober_pedy.JPGCoober Pedy Australia is a rather hot and forbidding place to live. Temperatures in the summer hit 114 degrees and the first tree in the town history was welded together out of scrap steel. The town industry is primarily opal mining with a sideline of providing alien deserts for the movie industry; abandoned space ships litter the country side. But the opal miners figured out quite quickly that it was reasonably cool in the mines and expensive to air condition houses on the surface; so houses, churches, hotels and business often are mined right into the rock to take advantage of the stable temperature of the earth.


You see, once you get down a ways into the earth the surface temp doesn’t matter. Freezing or frying, the temp below remains a constant year round. It’s why well water tastes cold on a hot day, and miners in Coober Pedy stay cool beneath the surface, and it’s why pipes when laid below the frost line don’t freeze in North Dakota. It’s also the fundamental principle on which geothermal heat pumps work.


Heat pump technology is not new by any means; it’s how a refrigerator works. To oversimplify greatly the heat pump takes the heat from the inside of the refrigerator and transfers it to those coils on the back of the unit. Traditional home heat pumps do the same thing on a big scale. They take the heat from within your house and transfer into the air outside. When reversed it takes the heat from the outside air (I don’t care how cold it is, there is some heat) and concentrate it into the house to warm it. Heat pumps are not so efficient in very cold climates for obvious reasons.


What is relatively new is that the Geothermal Heat Pump (purists cringe at this name because geothermal properly refers to taking heat from the earth’s core) instead of trading heat with the widely varying outside air temperature exchanges heat with the more stable temperature of the earth. To accomplish this in a closed loop system pipes are placed underground, either vertically or horizontally (depending on the available space and environment) and the heat pump is attached to pump liquid through these gshouse.jpgpipes. The heat pump then distributes the (or pulls the heat out) by way of air or water circulation through the stricter. In a open loop system pipes are sunk deep into the aquifer and water is pulled from the ground, through the system then returned; using the water in the ground as the transfer partner. In some situations a closed loop system can be placed at the bottom of a pond.


So, while this system costs several times the amount of your average traditional heating and cooling system the typical payback period is under five years. Energy usage is reduced anywhere from 30 to 70 percent overall. The systems are smaller, quieter, and last considerably longer than traditional home heating and cooling options. If you want to learn more about geothermal heat pump options, visit the Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium.

Planning a Green Vacation

If you’re looking for a vacation that will inspire jealousy and earn eco-cred, perhaps I can help. There’s a wide variety of sustainable tourism options, and you don’t have to damage the world’s beauty to see it in person. Below are a few useful tools and inspirational ideas for planning your next green vacation.

1) Choose green transportation

If you’re like me, a vacation is all about the destination. We choose to take a trip because of the places we want to see and the things we want to do. Transport is often the last thing we think about, but that’s backwards.

In many cases how we get where we’re going is just as important as what we do when we arrive. Airlines, cars, trains, and ships create a lot of pollution. According to this Carbon calculator, a flight across country produces about 10% as much carbon as everything that the average American does in a year.

You can exercise control by choosing a low impact method of travel. It’s easier (and less expensive) to avoid putting carbon in the atmosphere than it is to remove carbon dioxide from the air. For example, if you can replace a jet trip with a train ride, that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 85-96% and can save 20-50% of the cost to travel too! Trains are one of the most efficient means of travel, and they offer quite an amazing experience if you can spare several days to travel. If not, prop planes produce slightly less carbon per mile than jets, and cars produce slightly less than either type of air travel.

When you take a car trip, put some thought into choosing the right car for your needs. Driving a hybrid instead of an SUV can cut your carbon footprint in half, but using a less efficient vehicle (such as a minivan) can also be your best option if it allows you to take one car instead of two. No matter which type of car you take, here are a few things you can do to get the best possible mileage:

  • Accelerate gradually.
  • Let your car brake itself.
  • Drive at the speed limit on highways and freeways.
  • Use cruise control.
  • Use the air conditioner and heater less.
  • Accelerate before hills.
  • Clean out your car.
  • Check your tire pressure.
  • Change your air filter.
  • Get a hybrid car.
  • Green travel isn’t always an option, which is why Carbon Offsets exist. These offsets are a way to undo the damage caused by long-distance travel. With the help of companies that sell carbon offsets, you can balance any harm you do by supporting environmental efforts. Expedia and Travelocity even offer the option to buy carbon offsets at the same time that you book your trip. These C02 offsets are used to fund green initiatives that reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Typical projects include building solar panels, planting trees, and retiring inefficient industrial equipment.

    There are many competing companies that supply carbon offsets, and you can choose the type of development you’d like to fund by finding a supplier that shares your goals. The Tufts Climate Initiative has some in-depth information about how different carbon offset companies invest their money, and their free report includes a comparison of effectiveness and cost.

    2) Find eco-friendly lodging

    A hotel is more than just the place you sleep at night. The accommodations you choose have a major impact on the location where you’re staying. When you take a shower, turn on a light switch, or use any of the hotel’s facilities, the hotel’s environmental policies will affect the sustainability of your vacation.

    Photo courtesy of D.James at

    There are almost as many different environmental policies as there are different hotels and resorts. Several hotels define their brand based on sustainability, but many others engage in practices with far reaching consequences. Some of the harms that resorts can cause include water pollution, wasted electricity, and loss of native habitat. When golf courses replace mangrove forests, or rooms are chilled to 50 degrees in the tropics, that puts a huge strain on the ecosystem surrounding the hotel. Does it have an eco friendly mattress? Do you want to visit just another slice of suburban America, or are would you rather experience all the charms of your destination?

    One way to choose your hotel is to ask if they take part in the Green Hotel Initiative. This industry program offers best-practices standards and accountability. Also, let hotels know that environmental concerns affect how you spend your money. You can print this guest request card and encourage wherever you stay to adopt more sustainable policies.

    3) Select a green destination

    Your eco-tourism options will vary from city-to-city and country-to-country. National Geographic Traveller’s Center for Sustainable Destinations offers the best review of eco-hotspots that I’ve ever seen, but it has an overwhelming amount of information. If you already have a particular type of trip in mind, you might also find these niche guides useful: ISLAND Magazine publishes a dream list of destinations with their Golden Eagle Awards.

    Photo courtesy of sfclay at

    Okay, so now that I’ve outlined some things to bear in mind, I’d like to brag a bit about my upcoming vacation. After a long and intensive search, I found a trip that fits my dreams without compromising my ethics or breaking the bank. Even before the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out, I wanted to take an island hopping cruise.Unfortunately, the average cruise is about as sustainable to operate as a waterpark in the desert. Cruise ships burn thousands of gallons of diesel. For example, the Queen Mary 2 is less fuel efficient than a fleet of Hummers.

  • Fuel Consumption: 18.05 tons per hour, or 433 tons per day. This is equal to six of the ship’s swimming pools.
  • The ship’s fuel oil tank capacity of 4,381.4 tonnes is sufficient for 10 days’ sailing at 32.5 knots, equalling 7,800 miles.
  • One gallon of fuel will move the ship 49.5 feet; with the previous steam turbine engines, one gallon of fuel moved the ship 36 feet.
  • While researching mega-cruise ships, I learned that there are certain things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint. You can start by choosing an itinerary with as few stops as possible. That helps because starting and stopping are very energy intensive events. If you’ve ever pushed a heavy object (such as a desk or stalled car), think back to how difficult it was to get it moving from a standstill. Once something is moving, inertia works in your favor to keep it moving. Since cruise ships operate on water, they have to use almost as much energy to stop as they do to start moving. The really big ships can take 5 to 10 miles to slow down!

    The high price of fuel is causing many cruiselines to try innovative new technologies. Fuel saving steps include many proactive ideas such as adding motion sensitive lights, running engines at slower speeds, and plugging into shore power. Some ships are even supplementing their engines with sailing kites.

    Photo courtesy of Willie Waw at

    In my opinion, all of these ideas are positive developments, but they’re like painting the elephant in the room to match the wallpaper. For a cruise experience that’s carbon neutral (or as close as possible) I had my heart set on a sailing yacht. After researching the different options out there, I booked a week long cruise on the Arabella – the smallest ship with scheduled cruises in the Caribbean.

    The Arabella is a world apart from the usual cruise experience. Unlike the floating palaces operated by Royal Caribbean or Carnival, the Arabella is tiny. With berths for a maximum of 49 people, I expect to meet everyone on board. All of the cabins are on a single deck and there’s a small hot tub instead of 3 or 4 Olympic sized pools. I don’t think I’ll miss the casino, on-board climbing wall, or disco lounge. But, thoughts of sunshine and ocean spray get me through the day!

    Photo courtesy of Gregg M at

    So, how green is my vacation? I paid a little bit extra to take a more direct flight through Fort Lauderdale (instead of Chicago!) and chose a prop plane for the second half of the trip instead of a small jet. Then, I offset my carbon by investing in a company that builds wind turbines in China. I’m staying on board the ship, which complies with US laws against dumping but I’ll also bring along a GHI guest card and report back in February about how my green dream vacation goes. Is there anything else I can do?

    If you’ve recently taken a green vacation, we’d love to hear about it! Please share some details in the comments section below.

    Blame the landlord: United States could easily cut 28 percent of greenhouse gases, but probably won’t.

    Today’s NY Times writes about a study that says the U.S. could reduce greenhouse gases by around 28 percent with widely available technology at a reasonable cost. Even better, we’d all save money over time by doing it!

    A large share of the reductions could come from steps that would more than pay for themselves in lower energy bills for industries and individual consumers, the report said, adding that people should take those steps out of good sense regardless of how worried they might be about climate change. But that is unlikely to happen under present circumstances, said the authors, who are energy experts at McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm.

    The report said the country was brimming with “negative cost opportunities” — potential changes in the lighting, heating and cooling of buildings, for example, that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels even as they save money. “These types of savings have been around for 20 years,” said Jack Stephenson, a director of the study. But he said they still face tremendous barriers.

    Among them is that equipment is often paid for by a landlord or a builder and chosen for its low initial cost. The cost of electricity or other fuels to operate the equipment is borne by a tenant or home buyer. That means the landlord or builder has no incentive to spend more upfront for efficient equipment, even though doing so would save a lot of money in the long run.

    Another problem, the report said, is that consumers often pay no attention to energy use in choosing gear. Computers, for instance, can be manufactured to use less power, but with most users oblivious to energy efficiency when they are shopping for a computer, manufacturers perceive no competitive edge in spending the extra money on efficiency.

    I’d like to point out that it isn’t just landlords and builders who have this kind of short term thinking that only looks at initial costs and not long term operating costs. Anyone who has bought a new air conditioner or furnace has faced that exact issue. The much higher upfront cost for the most efficient unit might take 5 years or even longer to recoup. Most Americans don’t stay in one location for 5 years, so they’ll never see the payoff in hard dollars and cents.

    Hybrids Still May Not Be Financially Viable.

    A recent Wall Street Journal article reported on the economic benefits to be found in buying a hybrid and from the looks of things there really isn’t much of anything.  The article states that:

    Americans get a tax break for buying hybrids — the starting amount varies by model — but the more hybrids an auto maker sells, the smaller the tax break becomes on any hybrid models from that maker. After a manufacturer sells its 60,000th hybrid, the tax break starts to phase out

    Well, in perfect world we wouldn’t need a government subsidy in the form of a tax break to make it make sense to buy a hybrid; but just in case you live in the same imperfect world I live in every little bit helps.

    It seems that although hybrids are marginally more economical to operate due to the increased fuel efficiency; the higher sticker price tends to absorb any savings and then some.   For example:

    Toyota’s Prius, which gets a leading 46 mpg combined but no longer qualifies for the tax credit, costs over $7,000 more than the auto maker’s compact Corolla. It would take nearly 18 years to recoup the premium, or more than twice the time you might expect to own it

    They go on with a helpful chart that lets us know how equally disadvantaged the other hybrids in the group are. 

    If we are going to depend on our government to make up the difference; well I don’t personally think that is the horse we want to bet on.  Now what may be  a more realistic plan is to start requiring better mileage and less emissions to the point that manufacturing has to keep up  to stay in the game but then we wind up with straining our already battered auto industry and inadvertently encourage more people to stick with older more polluting vehicles as they can now no longer afford a new car. 

    I think the realist position is that if hybrids are in fact the answer; we aren’t there yet technology-wise.  The general population has proven time and again that in order for something like this to work it has to not put them at a financial disadvantage.  I always hope to be proven wrong on this.

    Soybean, Corn, Energy and the Enviroment

    We’ve all heard it. Whenever the topic turns to bio-fuels someone pipes in with “you know that ethanol takes more energy to produce that it yields…” Well, not according to the latest science. The University of Minnesota has released an extensive study on the overall energy used to grow, harvest, and process as well as the environmental impact of the fertilizers and pesticides used in the entire lifecycle of bio-fuels. The results show that both soybean based biodiesel and corn based ethanol produce more energy than is required to make them. Soybean took the lead, producing 93 percent more energy than it took in while the ethanol eeked out only a 25 percent gain over the energy used to produce it. Energy that we use to produce it that is. Energy is not truly created but merely changes form. Both the corn and the soy crops are constantly absorbing energy from the sun and in effect we are using them as a means to harness that energy. Solar panels are a more efficient way, but until we get the cost down on solar energy…well, we’ll save that for another day. We’re talking bio-fuels today.

    So what about the environmental impact? Growing any crop in a large quantity requires fertilizers, and insecticides. You cannot ignore the impact of the runoff of these chemicals in to streams and rivers. Still, soy based biodiesel produces 41 percent less greenhouse gas emissions (and better by some studies), and ethanol produces around 12 percent less. Soy based Biodiesel requires less fertilizers than corn, so if only more vehicles in the world were diesel based soy would be the clear winner.

    Dedicating all US soy and corn production would create only a small percentage of the currently needed gasoline and diesel supply. Farms that were struggling to sell all they were producing are now having to gear up to plant and produce more. Many consumers are noticing a sharp increase in the cost of everyday food items as demand exceeds supply. This may or may not be a temporary condition as a lot of farm land has gone unused in recent history.

    The truth is that benefits to both ethanol and biodiesel are probably worth the downsides. Even in small quantities, as an additive, they both oxygenate fossil fuels which cause them to burn more completely resulting in reduced emissions. And while at present they cannot come close to the production levels that would be required to replace fossil fuels; the facilities and techniques being used and developed now for ethanol and biodiesel will be put to use for the next generations of bio-fuels.

    Studies done just a few years ago pretty universally slammed bio-fuels as all requiring more fossil fuels to produce than they deliver; it goes to show that technology does not stand still. Throughout history this has always been the case. The first cars, televisions, home computers, and airplanes all started out as less than practical in real world applications.

    An environmentally conscious consumer may not be making a huge impact by driving a biodiesel car, subscribing to a wind power electric company or installing solar panels on the roof. But demand is what drives the market for these things and as more and more people start showing that they are willing to make these choices you can bet there will be someone on the supply side that is listening. You have to crawl before you can run.

    An introduction to Biodiesel

    There is no such thing as a biodiesel conversion. Biodiesel Pump

    I found that phrase scrawled across the wall of the bathroom of a bohemian college coffee house.  It wasn’t hard to track down the person responsible;  A biodiesel awareness group met there every week and I did a bit of asking around.  Like many people when I heard the word “Biodiesel” I thought of those guys I’d seen on TV who drove around picking up used grease from all the fast food restaurants and dumped it into specially modified cars with all kinds of line heaters and special filters and tanks and all manner of mad scientist add-ons.  Apparently I was mistaken, like most people, and it was time for an education.

    The diesel engine was invented in the closing days of the 19th century to replace the steam engine in industrial applications.  They were designed to run of a variety of fuels from coal dust to peanut oil but until recently were primarily run off fossil fuels.  But the combination of rising fuel costs with environmental concerns, political concerns, and the availability of 80’s era diesel powered autos at prices that encourage experimentation has brought about some interesting fuel options.

    The three major alternative fuels for consumer diesel engines are:

    • SVO: Standard vegetable oil. Just what it sounds like, you just run off of straight veggie oil like you use to cook with.

    • WVO: This is what most people incorrectly call biodiesel. Basically you take oil straight from a restaurant and filter it.

    • Biodiesel: This is plant based oil, usually soybean oil, which is processed to be used as a direct replacement for petroleum diesel.

    SVO and WVO require modifications to be made to the vehicle in before it can reliably be used as a replacement for conventional diesel.  WVO has to be carefully filtered and there are contaminates that can escape filtering and can cause some rather severe damage to rather expensive parts.  In addition it tends to solidify so the fuel lines have to be heated to keep it flowing properly.  All in all it requires more dedication to do it right than most people are willing or able to provide.  It wasn’t for me in any case.


    Biodiesel is a different story entirely.  There only four things to keep in mind when switching your vehicle to biodiesel.

    • Biodiesel is a solvent: When you run your first tank full of biodiesel it will go to work dissolving all of the gunk built up in your fuel tank, your fuel lines, and your injectors over the years. While this is a good thing, for the most part, it means that your fuel filters are going to be catching a whole lot of debris the first few tanks. If you don’t know how to change your own filters, this can run into some labor costs, and even if you do your own maintenance it means carrying around a few tools and spare filters.

    • Rubber Lines: The rubber fuel lines used in old cars are susceptible to the same solvent problems that I mentioned above. Over time when exposed to biodiesel they may break down and begin to leak. You can either replace them all, or just keep an eye out for any seepage for a while. My vintage Mercedes has been running on biodiesel for some time now and has never had a problem with the lines. Other people report problems within a few miles. To be safe, perhaps it is best just to replace all the lines.

    • Efficiency: Biodiesel contains less energy than petroleum diesel. That means that you will get slightly worse mileage, and also you may notice a slight drop in power. Since a diesel already gets as much as 40 percent better mileage than a gas motor its not that big of an issue, and honestly; If I was looking for performance I wouldn’t be driving a diesel.

    • Availability: This can be a deal killer for many people. Some cities have multiple outlets where biodiesel is readily available. Some have none.

    So checking off the above list, I had no problem with changing filters, lower mileage, loss of performance, or replacing fuel lines.  All that was left was to find the stuff.

    price signA quick Google search revealed only one retailer in my city; and it revealed a different decision to make.  Biodiesel is sold in different blends with petroleum diesel.  When you see B20, that means the fuel contains twenty percent bio, and 80 percent petroleum.  With B100, you get all bio and no petroleum.  In reality, most B100 is really B99.9.  A small percentage of petroleum is blended in because our government in their infinite wisdom gives a tax break for petroleum with bio added, but not for just plain bio.  The end result is adding a tiny amount of petroleum to B100 results in a significant savings to the provider.  Most of the sources I consulted recommended starting out with something like B20; Once your system is all cleaned out and you’ve gone through a few filter changes then you switch over to the pure stuff.

    Depending on the market for biodiesel in your area your first trip to the biodiesel fuel seller may result in a bit of a culture shock.  While many retailers are simply normal fuel stations (you have to get used to not calling them gas stations) with a  biodiesel pump on the island along side the regular gas pumps, the one in my city bore a closer resemblance to something out of a post apocalyptic action thriller.

    DFW Biodiesel

    Above ground tanks were scattered about a lot in a predominately industrial area with fuel trucks parked prominently displaying DFW Biodiesel on their tanks.  A small unoccupied booth sat between two functional but antique looking pumps.  Beside the empty booth a lone terminal stood with a credit card slot and a display.  From this out of place looking island of technology you swipe your card, select which pump you wish to use (B20 or B100), and then by following the faded instruction sheet you fuel your vehicle.  I personally found I didn’t really miss the aisles of soda, candy, and cell phone accessories.  In the entire time I have purchased fuel from them I have yet to see anyone working there, and that is ok with me.  There is a certain do it yourself mentality that comes with using biodiesel; it’s certainly not for everyone…not yet anyway.

    So, why go with biodiesel?  First of all, the environment.  Biodiesel produces 60 percent less carbon dioxide than regular diesel, It’s non toxic , and best of all it is available most places right now.  At some point I sincerely hope to see the day that we are driving primarily electric vehicles using power produced by solar and wind but that’s not today, it’s not tomorrow, and it is not next year.  Your average working person can’t afford a new electric car but many people can afford an older diesel Mercedes or Volkswagen.  Sometimes you have to take what you can get until you can get what you want.

    terminalSecond, biodiesel extends engine life because of its cleaning properties and its superior lubrication properties.  I can tell the difference by the sound my engine makes when I run regular diesel.  It runs much quieter on biodiesel.

    Third, I have to admit there is political element.  To me we have a choice of purchasing fuel from countries with a very questionable human rights history, or purchasing our fuel from our own farmers.  While biodiesel will not replace petroleum in its entirety by any means, every drop of biodiesel we use is that much less we have to import with all the nastiness that goes along with it.  I don’t know how much of a difference it makes in the grand scheme of things, but doing something is better than nothing.

    You will notice that the above does not include saving money.  You won’t save money by switching to biodiesel.  At the present time in my area it is priced a few cents less than regular diesel.  Given the extra distance I have to drive to get it and the decreased economy I’m not saving any money.  Occasionally depending on the price of oil Biodiesel will actually be a few cents more.  Some things are just worth doing because they are the right thing to do.

    Holistic Management Conference

    An interesting educational opportunity is coming up for those interested in land conservation. Holistic Management International is hosting a conference in a couple weeks about healing damaged land with special land management techniques.

    What’s this Holistic Management stuff all about?

    HMI works with people around the world to heal damaged land and increase the productivity of working lands.

    By healing the earth’s desertified lands, and by managing healthy land in concert with natural processes, we can repair our malfunctioning ecosystem while achieving a “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental and social sustainability.

    Holistic Management® has been proven to work, even in drought, for over 23 years.

    More info on the conference:

    HMI is proud to host International Gathering 2007 “From the Ground Up: Practical Solutions
    to Complex Problems”

    Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town
    Albuquerque, New Mexico
    November 1-4 2007

    Sessions and Workshops Cover:
    Soil health
    Animal behavior
    Multi-species grazing
    Partnering with Nature
    Taking sustainability to the next level
    International community development
    Global climate change
    Sustainable genetics
    Working effectively with groups
    Solar dollars
    Diversifying income
    Carbon sequestration

    Here’s the conference website so you can check it out with more detail.

    Wal-Mart hits goal of 100 million annual energy efficient light bulbs early

    Flickr photo courtesy of Clean Wal-Mart.

    Talk about a mind boggling number of light bulbs! Wal-Mart announced a while back that they were going to push hard to sell more compact fluorescent lightbulbs, with a goal of selling 100 million of them per year.

    It’s only the beginning of October, and they’ve already hit their goal for the first year. Not bad.


    Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reached an annual target of selling 100 million energy-efficient light bulbs ahead of schedule after heavily marketing them as a way for consumers to save money and fight global warming, the retailer said Tuesday.

    The world’s largest retailer set the target, which roughly doubled its previous annual sales, late last year as part of a series of green policies. It expanded shelf space, cut prices and ran ads for the swirly compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs.

    Environmentalists and manufacturers said Wal-Mart’s push has helped boost national demand for the efficient bulbs.

    Backers including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say CFLs use one-third the energy of a traditional incandescent bulb, last up to 10 times longer and save $30 or more in energy costs over their lifetime.

    Last year, an estimated 150 million CFLs were sold nationally, and the number may be twice that this year thanks to Wal-Mart’s contribution, said Noah Horowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    Everyone says they want to be green, but that’s not where their money goes

    A Wall Street Journal Energy Roundup blog post points out a new study showing that consumers are starting to become skeptical about the concept of going green.

    “Even with all the talk today about consumers seeking to save energy costs and help the environment, the shaky housing market and other recent economic uncertainties prove that wallets are still driving many Americans’ green purchase decisions,” Shelton Group CEO Suzanne Shelton said in a press release. “As it stands, ‘energy-efficient’ is consistently equated to ‘more expensive’ in the minds of consumers for products across the board,” Shelton said.

    Consumers want proof that an energy-efficient home will save them money in the long run in order to justify the generally higher cost of such a home, Shelton claims. Otherwise, according to the survey, consumers would prefer to spend their money on aesthetics. When asked what they would buy if given an extra $10,000 to build a new home, 26% of survey respondents chose granite countertops, compared with 24% who favored an energy-efficient HVAC system. Twenty-one percent chose “additional tile or hardwood,” the same percentage who favored “upgraded or additional energy-efficient kitchen appliances.”

    When asked how they would spend an extra $10,000 to improve an existing home, most respondents preferred to upgrade their flooring, kitchens, bathrooms and paint. Replacing windows, which might improve a house’s energy efficiency, was only the fourth-most-popular choice.

    Frankly, this doesn’t surprise me, even though it does disappoint me.

    I can only guess that it is a rational economic decision based on that fact that the average American only lives in particular house for 5 years or less. You can buy granite countertops that would impress your friends and neighbors and make your kitchen look nice and help sell your home when you move, or you can put in new windows that might pay you back in 6 1/2 years in increased efficiency – 1 1/2 years longer than you’ll probably be in the house. And since no one appreciates energy efficient windows, it wouldn’t help you resell the house later either. (Don’t believe me on that one? Ask your real estate agent.)

    It’s a bit frustrating to me, because you can’t even get most people to take the easiest step of all in energy efficiency: changing out a few light bulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent. The payback period for that is in mere months.

    Anyone out there who has made an energy efficiency upgrade to their home lately besides me? Tell us what you did, and why!

    Dishwashers, Energy Star, water efficiency and the environment. A consumer guide.


    Flickr photo courtesy of fixedgear.

    Do you hand wash your dishes because you don’t want to “waste” water and energy by using the dishwasher? If so, then consider this:

    If you run hot water through your sink and keep it running, you are using at least 2 gallons of water for EVERY MINUTE that you have the sink turned on. And that is assuming that you have an efficient kitchen faucet. Does it take you 10 minutes to do the dishes by hand? Well, then you just used at least 20 gallons of water!

    No way, you say! I don’t keep the water running. I fill up the sink and wash my dishes that way. Well, how long does it take you to fill up the sink? More than 3 minutes? I just did a test with my own kitchen sink. It takes my faucet 30 seconds to fill up a 1 gallon container, so my faucet is putting about 2 gallons per minute. After 4 full minutes, my kitchen sink was just over half full. That’s 8 gallons of water.

    Not too bad, right? Wrong!

    Want to know how much water a new Energy Star dishwasher uses each time that you run it? Just 4 gallons! Okay, so what about a regular new dishwasher? How about a mere 6 gallons. It’s right there on the Energy Star site for you to see for yourself.

    Want to know how much it will cost you to use your dishwasher for a whole year under average conditions? Try under $30!

    Don’t believe me? Look at the government mandated EnergyGuide label at your local appliance store and see for yourself. Outside the USA? The Australian government requires both Energy Ratings and WELS water ratings to be provided on every unit. EU Energy labels also show the specific amounts of energy and water used, with a grade scale from most efficient to least efficient.

    Even if you think the EnergyGuide label is overly optimistic, then double their numbers and you’re still around $60 a year.

    Compare this to taking a shower, where you’ll use 2.5 gallons per minute if you have an efficient showerhead. Just one person taking a 5 minute shower will use 12.5 gallons of hot water. And you were worried about the impact of your dishes!

    From a strictly practical perspective, I could stop right now and sum up this post with one sentence that says, “Use your dishwasher to save water and energy.”

    Want some extra eco-credit? Here’s what you do:

    1. Only run full loads. You’ll be using even less energy and water than if you run twice as many half filled dishwasher loads.

    2. Air dry your dishes instead of using the heating element. If you run your dishwasher at bedtime, you won’t unload it until the next day anyway, so there’s plenty of time for the dishes to drip dry. That makes your dishwasher even more energy efficient than it already is!

    3. Take it easy on the pre-rinsing. I’m not going to lie and tell you that modern dishwashers don’t require any pre-rinsing at all because they work perfectly and your dishes will sparkle happily ever after. I own a brand new Energy Star Kitchenaid dishwasher that had high reviews from Consumer Reports, and I still have to pre-rinse. But I only have to scrape most plates and only use a brush under the faucet to get those stuck-on cheesy areas, and the dishes come out clean. Test out how little pre-rinsing you can get away with using your own dishwasher! You aren’t being lazy, you are saving the environment.

    4. Use a phosphate free dishwashing detergent. Phosphates are a good thing to avoid because they encourage algae growth when they get into our waterways. The good news is that Consumer Reports rates several phosphate free dishwashing detergents highly. “The Ecover tablet and powder, Citra-Dish, 365 Everyday Value, and Seventh Generation do a good to excellent job cleaning.”

    Anyone else have any good dishwasher tips or anecdotes they’d like to share? Leave a comment!

    PS When I was looking for photos for this post, I noticed a disturbing number of photos of cats playing in dishwashers on Flickr. What’s up with that?

    PPS It isn’t just cats, either! There are plenty of dogs, and even a goat.

    Clothesline users of the world, unite!

    Photo courtesy of Flickr.

    Today’s Wall Street Journal writes about how the trend of using a clothesline for the eco-friendly reason of using less energy is running up against many homeowner association rules designed to keep a neighborhood looking “nice.”

    The clothesline was once a ubiquitous part of the residential landscape. But as postwar Americans embraced labor-saving appliances, clotheslines came to be associated with people who couldn’t afford a dryer. Now they are a rarity, purged from the suburban landscape by legally enforceable development restrictions.

    Nationwide, about 60 million people now live in about 300,000 “association governed” communities, most of which restrict outdoor laundry hanging, says Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Community Associations Institute, an Alexandria, Va., group that lobbies on behalf of homeowners associations.

    But the rules are costly to the environment — and to consumers — clothesline advocates argue. Clothes dryers account for 6% of total electricity consumed by U.S. households, third behind refrigerators and lighting, according to the Residential Energy Consumption Survey by the federal Energy Information Administration. It costs the typical household $80 a year to run a standard electric dryer, according to a calculation by E Source Cos., in Boulder, Colo., which advises businesses on reducing energy consumption.

    Alexander Lee, founder of clothesline advocacy group Project Laundry List in Concord, N.H., says the clothesline movement is “an outgrowth of interest in what-can-I-do environmentalism.” Mr. Lee says he gets more and more email seeking advice on how to hang a clothesline despite neighborhood covenants restricting them.

    Ten states, including Nevada and Wisconsin, limit homeowners associations’ ability to restrict the installation of solar-energy systems, or assign that power to local authorities, says Erik J.A. Swenson, a Washington, D.C.-based partner at law firm King & Spalding LLP, who has written about the policies. He says it’s unclear in most of these states whether clotheslines qualify as “solar” devices. Only the laws in Florida and Utah expressly include clotheslines.

    One can only hope that parking an abandoned car on top of cinderblocks in the front yard never creates an environmental advantage, because I’m pretty sure that homeowner associations don’t go for that either.

    For more information, visit the Project Laundry List site.

    Alcoa tests new geothermal method of making aluminum

     Photo courtesy of Flickr.

    A Wall Street Journal Energy Blog writes that Alcoa is testing a new geothermal energy powered aluminum smelter. They claim that the geothermal system will provide “almost limitless, clean, natural energy.”

    “The technology we hope to develop in Iceland should be applicable wherever there is high temperature geothermal potential,” said Alcoa Executive Vice President Bernt Reitan.

    Supported by Alcoa, the Iceland Deep Drilling Project consortium will collaborate on a deep drilling pilot project, which will investigate the economic feasibility of producing energy and useful chemicals from geothermal systems at what are known as “supercritical conditions.”

    Essentially, these are natural systems where underground water becomes super-heated by close proximity to almost molten rocks deep beneath the earth’s surface. Pilot plant testing will be completed by 2015.

    It takes an enormous amount of energy to make aluminum. A recent NY Times article about China wrote, “China’s aluminum industry alone consumes as much energy as the country’s commercial sector — all the hotels, restaurants, banks and shopping malls combined, Mr. Rosen and Mr. Houser reported.”

    So let’s hope that it really works!

    Getting paid to conserve electricity

    The Wall Street Journal reports that electric utilities have found a lot of success over the past summer with offering programs that reduce electricity usage by getting customers to use energy more efficiently.

    So why would a utility that makes money by selling power encourage someone to use less of it? The short answer is tight supply. Rather than paying higher spot prices to get more electricity onto the grid in times of peak usage, it is actually cheaper to set up these programs so that they can reduce consumer demand instead.

    The clear trend in many areas is to pay companies and other consumers sums pegged to what it would cost utilities or grid officials to acquire equivalent amounts of power on the open market or to build and operate new power plants. In the mid-Atlantic region, payments arranged by the grid operator to firms that have cut energy use are running ahead of last year, $19.3 million through July 31 versus $18.3 million for 2006 and $14.9 million for 2005.

    Some companies get lower rates in exchange for agreeing to cut use when asked. In California, especially, many users cut back when pleas went out from the ratepayer-funded Flex Your Power campaign that works with utilities, grid officials and businesses to conserve energy.

    Companies have sprung up that recruit firms to demand-reduction programs run by grid officials or utilities and help them automatically go into energy-saver mode. EnerNOC Inc. of Boston, which went public in May, had 1,852 locations signed as of June 30, more than triple the number the prior year, giving EnerNOC 756 megawatts of customer load under management, up from 234 megawatts.

    One participant is Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., a unit of Netherlands supermarket giant Ahold NV. The chain is able to cut energy use by 40 megawatts when asked, an amount of power equal to the output of what is known as a peaker plant that otherwise might be fired up to meet high demand, through various measures.

    At Exelon Corp.’s Commonwealth Edison Co., Chicago, 2,173 business locations have signed up for utility programs this year in which they, collectively, are paid to cut use by 647 megawatts. That compares with 22 sites totaling 25 megawatts last year. Customers decide when to cut energy use, not utility or grid officials, and it is often based on the market price of power they will receive.