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.

People Making a Difference: An Interview with Preston Koerner of JetsonGreen.com

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Today we’re featuring an interview with Preston D Koerner of JetsonGreen.com as part of our series on “People Making a Difference.” Since 2006, Preston has been working on JetsonGreen.com, a popular blog devoted to green building and green business.

Koerner graduated from BYU with a B.A. in History and a minor in Japanese in 2003. In May 2007, Preston graduated from SMU with JD and MBA degrees (not joint degrees). At the Cox School of Business, he focused on finance, marketing, and real estate. At the Dedman School of Law, he focused on transactional legal courses.

He lives in Salt Lake City where he is studying for the Utah Bar Exam and working hard on JetsonGreen.com.

Enjoy the interview and thanks again to Preston for agreeing to do the interview for us!

1. First of all, tell us about yourself and how you became interested in green building and green design. When did you decide to turn your interests into the Jetson Green website?

When I was living in Japan in the late 90s, the culture and mentality really turned me onto conservation, energy-efficiency, and environmentalism. In Japan, it’s about the small things like not wasting a grain of rice, monitoring the electricity meter, and using the heating/cooling equipment in moderation. I think this is when my awareness for these issues began. So in the Spring 2005, I was in an MBA business plan class and wrote a plan for a mid-scale, modern, trendy, green hotel for young professionals. I couldn’t see the financial success of the hotel brand without the green elements. Some of my classmates didn’t agree with the need for building a LEED hotel and recommended building a modern hotel with energy-saving technology. To me though, green is about more than energy, it’s about the air, the water, and the materials. At that point, the cross-section of sustainability and real estate was perpetually on my mind and I decided to start a blog for two reasons: first, to learn the technology of blogging, and second, to enunciate my thoughts and research on sustainability and real estate.

2. For people who don’t know much about sustainable/green building design, what are some common design features that make a building truly green?

Well, I like to think about design and green features in terms of buckets that sometimes lop over into each other: indoor air quality, resource efficiency, and environmental impact. For example, indoor air quality (IAQ) has to do with what design elements you use and how those elements affect the mixture of toxins and particles in the air. Resource efficiency has to do with the resources that a structure uses going forward. Mainly, this is about the energy mix and the water requirements. Environmental impact has to do with the life cycle of materials, from cradle-to-cradle, or from the beginning to the next step. What did you do to the earth to get those materials? What do you do to the earth when the materials are no longer needed? Can waste equal food? With these three buckets in mind, common green design features include no- or low-VOC paints and varnishes, low-flow dual flush toilets, reclaimed or responsibly harvested wood floors, Energy Star appliances, recycled content countertops, rooftop photovoltaic panels, double-pane low-E tinted windows, native landscaping, and efficient heating and cooling systems.

3. You’ve seen a lot of cool green buildings and projects out there. What are some of your favorites?

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I really like 111 South Wacker, which is a Chicago building that received the USGBC’s Gold rating, the second highest distinction in green certification. Not only is this building incredible to look at, but it’s an example of the financial case for green buildings. 111 South Wacker cost about $270 million to build, and it leased up almost immediately. About a year later, the building was sold for roughly $386 million. That’s pretty incredible if you’re looking at green buildings from the investment perspective.

On a smaller scale, I really love the combination of modern and green. I hate to say it, but I’m a snob for straight lines. There’s a cool development in Dallas called Urban Reserve, which is a 13-acre neighborhood with 50 modern, green homes. The neighborhood is in very early stages, but homes are starting to get built. Many, if not all, of the lots have sold signs on them.

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WIRED LivingHome by LivingHomes

Also, I follow the green prefab makers such as LivingHomes, Michelle Kaufmann Designs, Hive Modular, and Office of Mobile Design. The budding developer in me has grandiose dreams of building a vacation retreat in Park City, Utah, with about ten, green prefabs from these cutting-edge, home building experts.

4. It seems like the U.S. is a little behind countries like Germany in terms of green architecture. What do you think we can do to help us get on board and move our country to a more sustainable future?

Continue reading “People Making a Difference: An Interview with Preston Koerner of JetsonGreen.com”

People Making a Difference: An Interview with Andy Kruse of Southwest Windpower

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For this installment of our series on People Making a Difference, we are very pleased to present an interview with Andy Kruse, the co-founder and Executive Vice President of Southwest Windpower. Southwest Windpower is the World’s leading manufacturer of personal size wind energy systems. Southwest Windpower makes the Skystream 3.7, which is a small wind generator designed specifically for the grid-connected residential market.

Mr. Kruse has been involved in renewable energy since 1986. He has worked in over 70 countries promoting wind energy. He has a background in Management and International Marketing.

Kruse is the author of various articles about renewable energy and has won several awards for export development. He also sits on several advisory boards for renewable energy.

We thank Mr. Kruse for taking the time out of his busy schedule to do the interview!

1. First of all, tell us about yourself and how you began working in the alternative energy industry.

I don’t really like writing about myself so we will leave that part to an interview. : ) I got into the renewable energy business just over 20 years ago. I was living on a ranch in Northern Arizona that had no access to grid electricity. I thought there must be a better way than rebuilding the Ranch’s diesel generator every couple of years. At that time, we were spending as much as $300 a month in fuel. I then decided to build a small solar PV system to supplement the generator. I also thought it would be great to have a small wind generator that could charge the battery bank. After trying and failing to build one myself, I learned about a neighbor that live several miles to the north who had built several machines for friends. His name is David Calley. I inquired about his machines. After having seen his invention, I thought this would make a terrific business opportunity. The ranching business never proved profitable so after leaving that life, David and I built Southwest Windpower.

2. People have a lot of misconceptions about wind power. What would you like to share with our readers about the benefits and potential issues associated with this technology?

Continue reading “People Making a Difference: An Interview with Andy Kruse of Southwest Windpower”

Barbara Kingsolver Talks about Eating Local

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Today I heard a great interview with author Barbara Kingsolver on the radio program “Living on Earth.” In the interview, Kingsolver discusses the idea of a “paradigm shift” for our eating habits. That paradigm shift is basically eating as local as possible and eating in season. Kingsolver and her family conducted an experiment with eating local for a year to reduce their impact on the environment. Why? Kingsolver says,

We were led into this project for so many reasons. For me, it’s because I grew up in a rural community among farmers and I’ve always considered the local farming economy to be important and frankly an important part of food security. We are now, as a nation, putting almost as much fossil fuels into our refrigerators as our cars. Every item on average on the American plate has traveled 1500 miles so add up all the items on your plate and you might as well order room service from the moon!

That’s an incredible amount of fossil fuel, an incredible amount of carbon emissions going into the atmosphere, warming up the globe just to get a grape from Chile, a tomato from Mexico so I can eat a tomato in January.

So, Kingsolver embarked on this fascinating journey of creating community, eating locally, eating in season, and growing a lot of their own food. The results of their experiment with eating local are the subject of her new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.

The interviewer, Steve Curwood, points out the fact that Kingsolver and family live on a farm and therefore have the opportunity to grow a lot of their own food. But for the rest of us, what do we do? Kingsolver has some great advice. For example, buy at local farmers markets, get a plot at a community garden, etc.

I personally volunteer at a small organic farm during the growing season and get a big bag of veggies once a week for my efforts. We also have a pot luck dinner at the end of the harvest day, so it’s like a big community party every week.

I also think that you don’t have to go 100% local to make a difference either. You can grow a small plot of tomatoes, or herbs, or buy at a local farmer’s market and not give up the occassional non-local goodie like coffee or imported cheese.

Want to learn more about Kingsolver’s project? You can read a transcript or download the audio of the interview at the Living on Earth website.

You can also find out how to grow some of your own food and purchase produce more locally at the Urban Gardening Help website.


Ron Mader Discusses Ecotourism in Mexico

If you enjoyed our interview with Ron Mader, the founder of the website Planeta.com, check out a continuation of the interview at Florcanto.com.

Here, Ron answers questions specifically about ecotourism in Mexico.

Ron Mader is a one of the most vocal proponents of ecotourism in Mexico. He lives and works in Oaxaca.

Planeta.com is an online resource for global ecotourism and responsible travel. Ron founded the website in 1994. His work in ecotourism has also won him numerous awards and Ron is profiled in the book American Environmental Leaders (Abc-Clio, 2000).


People Making a Difference: Bob Hetherington of Earthtoys.com

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Today I’m very pleased to present an interview with the founder of Earthtoys.com, Bob Hetherington.

Earthtoys.com is a website devoted to the alternative energy industry. It features an e-magazine and web library, and also includes a news service updated hourly and an events calendar.

Bob founded the website in 2002. Since that time, it has served as a very popular resource for all those interested in alternative energy technologies. They have over 60,000 visits each month.

Bob says about the website,

“We provide an open and unbiased platform where new ideas, systems and solutions can be expressed, shared and cataloged for use by our readers.”

Enjoy the interview and make sure to visit Earthtoys.com! Thanks again to Bob Hetherington for taking the time out of his busy week to do this interview.

Tell us about yourself and how you became interested in the world of alternative energy.

I’m a mechanical engineer by profession and was in university in the early 70’s when the first gas crisis hit hard. Our faculty entered the Urban Car Competition at that time and we built the winning entry (beating out the likes of MIT and the US Army). It was a LNG (liquid natural gas) powered small sedan with many innovative features that made it not only energy efficient but safer, not polluting and very economical to operate.

I guess that’s when I got interested in alternative energy and I went on to do other projects at school such as studying the feasibility of using a flywheel to store energy in a car etc.

Unfortunately, I got busy paying mortgages and having kids after that. Reality sets in and some of our dreams must be delayed for a while. Unfortunately the alternative energy industry seemed to go into limbo too. The world went from economical small cars and practical living spaces to Hummers, SUV’s and monster homes while politicians and professors kept talking about how nice it would be to save energy and stop polluting the environment.

Too much talk and posturing … no practical products built and marketed.

How was the idea for the EarthToys website born?

Continue reading “People Making a Difference: Bob Hetherington of Earthtoys.com”

An Interview with Tabitha Tucker and Shirlee Bucknall of Earthy Family

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Today our series about “People Making a Difference” continues with Shirlee Bucknall and her daughter Tabitha Tucker, two of the founders of Earthy Family. Earthy Family is a website with articles and information for families who want to raise their children in a more environmentally friendly manner. The website is based out of Victoria, BC, Canada.

Their mission statement says,

Earthy Family is a family owned and operated business dedicated to fostering family wellness and natural interactions within our physical, social, emotional and spiritual environments. We want to expand the frontiers of the parenting community and enhance meaningful relationships within families, communities and the world.

While environmental awareness is a core part of their philosophy, Earthy Family is now working to increase consciousness of world cultures. Their world travels section is very popular with visitors.

I myself found their website after my wife and I had our son a couple years ago. I was looking for information on using cloth diapers, and found that the website had tons of great information to make informed decisions as parents.

I also noticed they were looking for writers for a new series of family oriented world culture ebooks, and so my wife and I contributed an ebook about Mexico to their site. My wife is from Mexico City and I have spent over 3 years living and working in different parts of Mexico.

Thanks again to Shirlee and Tabitha for taking the time out to do this great interview!

If you’d like to submit an article about natural parenting or an ebook about your favorite country, you can contact Earthy Family here.

You mention on the website that Earthy Family is a project started by families who wanted to create a resource for other families interested in living more harmoniously with the Earth. Can you tell us a little about how the project came to be and who was involved in the beginning?

Continue reading “An Interview with Tabitha Tucker and Shirlee Bucknall of Earthy Family”

An interview with Ron Mader of Planeta.com

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Photo courtesy of Planeta.com’s Flickr collection

Today we are featuring an interview with professional journalist and activist Ron Mader.

Mr. Mader is a journalist, photographer and founder of the award-winning website Planeta.com, which for over thirteen years has served to explore ecotourism and sustainable tourism around the world.

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Based in Oaxaca, Mexico, Ron organizes grassroots tourism fairs and co-founded a local rugby club. Ron received his Masters Degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas in 1990 and his Bachelors Degree from Indiana University. His work has garnered numerous awards and Ron is profiled in the book American Environmental Leaders (Abc-Clio, 2000).

This interview is part of a new feature on the Practical Environmentalist called “People Making a Difference.” If you know of someone working in the environmental community who would like to share their story, please leave a comment!

Now to the interview….

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in sustainable tourism.

Let’s see. I’m a US expat who lives in Mexico. I conduct workshops and give presentations in Latin America, the United States and Australia.

Some background. In the late 1980s I embarked on a radical change — exploring and explaining Latin America to a Gringo audience. Something was pulling me South, so I decided to pursue my interest in Latin America at the Institute of Latin American Studies in Austin, Texas.

The focus of my studies was the then new buzzword ‘ecotourism.’ This was a great window into the culture of a region that otherwise does not receive much coverage in U.S. media.

Austin was a great place to study and later on I developed a long-standing friendship with Bill Christensen who developed the Greenbuilder website.

I have written for numerous publications, including Transition Abroad and have written nature guidebooks to Mexico and Honduras.

What was your role during the International Year of Ecotourism?

Continue reading “An interview with Ron Mader of Planeta.com”

A Profile of “Green” Architect Ed Mazria

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We’re starting a new series of posts here at the Practical Environmentalist about people in our local and global communities that are doing their part to help the environment. If you’d like to recommend someone who’s making a difference, please leave a comment!

Our first profile is of “Green” Architect Ed Mazria. Mr. Mazria was recently featured in an interview by the Weekly Alibi, a free weekly publication distributed throughout central New Mexico.

Here is some information about Mr. Mazria’s work and some excerpts from the interview.

Ed Mazria is an architect based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is also the founder of a green architecture project called “Architecture 2030.” Architecture 2030 is a nonprofit organization and their goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are related to building design. Their website states the motivations for their work:

“Unknowingly, the architecture and building community is responsible for almost half of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions annually. Globally the percentage is even greater.”

Mazria says that this is due to many buildings’ gas-fired furnaces and hot water heaters (about 10 to 12 percent of the total carbon emissions), lights, heating, air conditioning, computers, copy machines, etc.

So, how does Architecture 2030 propose to deal with this issue? Mazria and other architects have created the 2030 Challenge. And how does the challenge work?

Participants in the challenge are then expected to further reduce the emissions of the buildings they design and construct by 10 percent every five years so that by 2030, all buildings designed, redesigned or built in that year by participating members will be completely free of carbon emissions.

….their plan is to make buildings increasingly more efficient, thereby reducing demand. At the same time, they plan to encourage the creation of more alternative (meaning carbon-free) energy sources like wind and solar.

And the response has been pretty amazing, according to Mazria. Organizations that have accepted the Challenge include: The American Institute of Architects; the American Association of Heating, Cooling and Refrigeration Engineers; the United States Green Building Council; and the United States Conference of Mayors.

According to Mazria, the only major players missing from the sector are home builders’ associations and building trades unions, but Mazria believes they’ll be along.

Want to learn more about the 2030 Challenge? You can check out their website here. You can also read the complete interview with Ed Mazria here. (Assuming that the Alibi.com doesn’t drop the interview from their website!)