In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethanol isn’t the only biofuel

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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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How to save gas – 5 green driving tips

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There are plenty of things you can do to save gas while driving. Check your tire pressure. Remove antennae balls. Drive slower. But, in the real world, we’ve all got limited attention spans. Changing habits is hard work, and few people are prepared to make drastic changes to every stage of their drive.

So, what really matters? Is it more important to use cruise control or take the flag down from the gun rack? Luckily, Consumer Reports has tackled the issue. Their real-world study has some hard numbers and surprising conclusions.

After reading the list, I realized that no one had prioritized our options. So, here are the 5 biggest changes you can make to save gas, with estimates of fuel saving potential:

1. Get your lead foot off the gas pedal (save 5-10 MPG)

If you’re going over 55 miles per hour, slowing down increases fuel efficiency. On their test car (a Toyota Camry) Consumer Reports found that slowing down from 75 MPH to 65 MPH resulted in a 5 mile per gallon performance increase. Slowing down from 75 MPH to 55 MPH saved 10 miles per gallon!

2. Eliminate drag (save 6 MPG)

Engineers hate drag. Every piece of a car that sticks out (from the rear view mirrors to the radio antennae) reduces fuel efficiency and acceleration. The one thing engineers hate worse than drag is customers who modify the cars that they worked so hard on by adding more drag. That’s what happens whenever we attach a car-top carrier, clip a bike onto the spare wheel, or even tie a ribbon onto the antennae. All of these attachments hurt fuel efficiency more than most people realize. So now’s a good time to streamline your car – those truck balls aren’t fooling anybody, anyway.

3. Combine errands and keep your engine warm (save 4 MPG)

Combining errands saves gas in two ways – not only does it prevent driving over the same route again and again, but combining errands keeps your engine from cooling down. A warm engine is at the right temperature for optimally burning fuel. Parking in the sunlight can help to a limited extent, especially if “cold” is your hometown’s default temperature.

4. Maintain a steady pace (save 2-3 MPG)

Accelerating and decelerating constantly can take a real toll on your gas mileage. Going a steady pace makes inertia work in your favor, boosting gas mileage and also preventing unnecessary wear and tear. One of the easiest ways to set your pace is to use the cruise control. Also, try to accelerate gradually up to speed when entering the highway, and coast down to speed when using an exit.

5. Keep tires properly inflated (save 1.3 MPG)

When tire pressure gets low, the tire starts to sag like a limp balloon. This means that more of the tire comes in contact with the road, which, in turn, increases friction. Tires that are underinflated by 10 PSI rob cars of about 1.3 miles per gallon. If you’re not sure what pressure is the right pressure, check the floor well inside of the drivers door. On most cars, the ideal pressure is printed either there, or in the owner’s manual.

If you tally up the gas savings from all these steps, they total 24 miles per gallon. That can be a bit misleading though – each of the fuel saving calculations was done in isolation. Following all of the advice probably wont take your car’s gas mileage from 20 to 44 miles per gallon, but there aren’t many cars that can get 20 miles per gallon while making glaring mistakes.

The scary truth is that gas prices are rising, and there’s not much we can do to affect the price at the gas station. Don’t worry though – our European neighbors are happy to tell us that fuel prices in America are still relatively cheap. The only realistic way that we can cut down on gas related costs is to change our driving habits and use less fuel. Remember when gas only cost less than $3 a gallon? You can get there again, even if the pump is charging $4. Boosting fuel efficiency from 20 mpg to 30 mpg can cut your fuel bill by 33%! Start with the easy, effective steps and incorporate these 5 tips into your daily commute.

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Biofuels and the Law of Unintended Consquences

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An increasing number of scientists and activists are raising concerns about the impact of biofuel production. The ethanol boom has its roots in a corn surplus that depressed prices – now, shortages of corn are causing food prices to skyrocket and there’s a fear that high commodity prices are pushing farmers to expand cropland. The resulting deforestation is releasing more carbon than the biofuels are saving:

There was just one flaw in the calculation: the studies all credited fuel crops for sequestering carbon, but no one checked whether the crops would ultimately replace vegetation and soils that sucked up even more carbon. It was as if the science world assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots. The deforestation of Indonesia has shown that’s not the case. It turns out that the carbon lost when wilderness is razed overwhelms the gains from cleaner-burning fuels.

This situation illustrates the Law of Unintended Consequences. This law, which is more like Murphy’s Law than a scientific maxim, states that “for any action one can conceive, there will always be results that were not predicted.” For example, when city planners first came up with suburbs, they expected these housing developments would reduce traffic and overcrowding in downtown areas. Instead, many of these suburbs made traffic worse because they increased the size of the workforce commuting into downtown.

As with anything ethanol related, there’s some controversy about whether ethanol use is what’s driving up the price of corn, or whether the cost rise is driven by population growth and global wealth. As consumers in Asia and India develop disposable income, we’re seeing a sharp rise in the consumption of animal protein. The residents of third-world countries are developing an appetite for more meat, which means that the cost of grains will continue to rise (because raising chickens, pigs, cows, and other farm animals consumes a lot of feed).

There’s some symmetry to the Law of Unintended Consequences – the ethanol boom itself may have been created by accident. According to, corn prices were historically about $2.50 a bushel after adjusting for inflation. It was only after changes in US law drove down the price of corn that it became an affordable feedstock for ethanol plants:

Nominal corn prices have been low and declining since the 1996 Farm Bill shifted U.S. commodity policy to promoting over-production.

The oversupply of corn created a decline in value, which, in turn, led farmers to seek new markets (such as ethanol) and pressure their representatives in Congress to subsidize these markets. So, by this line of reasoning, the 1996 Farm Bill led to a sharp increase in the price of per bushel. There’s some tasty irony for you.

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Food costs are rising – and soon, so will the price of electricity.

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Recently, many commodity prices have gone through the roof. You don’t have to look any further than the gas station to see the effects of $110 for a barrel of oil. A visit to the grocery store will quickly reveal that prices are also jumping for corn and wheat, as well as chicken, pork, and beef. The high price of transporting food (as well as the secondary effects of corn being diverted for ethanol production) is directly tied to high oil costs, and these rising food costs are creating serious problems for the working poor.

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Even if you’re a model of self reliance and walk everywhere while growing your own food without chemical fertilizer, try this on for size – increased worldwide demand is causing a coal shortage. Since about 50% of the US electric grid relies on coal power plants, this means that rising coal costs are likely to cause rising electric bills (and/or increasing outages). That will affect the cost of green power purchased on the open market too – which makes solar panels look a lot more attractive (more marginal benefit from power savings and higher resale prices on grid tie-ins). Always look on the bright side!

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Fighting Ethanol Fires

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This may be old news to you, but it caught my attention: many Fire Departments are unprepared for ethanol fires.

Ethanol burns at a slightly higher temperature and reacts differently to fire-fighting foam. So, industrial accidents with ethanol (such as train derailments) and some car accidents (not all, but those involving flex-fuel vehicles) require special fire fighting tools. Check with your local fire department. Do they have special foam in stock for dealing with Ethanol fires?

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Ethanol: More harm than good?

It’s a complicated issue to be sure and there and the one thing that you can be certain about here in the 21st century is that anyone who shows up on your doorstep with a simple solution to any of the complex problems we face today need the door slammed in their face.

Take this article on NPR about Ethanol and Global Warming; If you look at biofuels in the light of the study done by Tim searchinger at Princton we need to go back and rethink our biofuels strategy.

“The simplest explanation is that when we divert our corn or soybeans to fuel, if people around the world are going to continue to eat the same amount that they’re already eating, you have to replace that food somewhere else,” Searchinger says.

What the study actually shows, rather than a clean cut this is bad, that is worse; if we keep going at the rate we are going, using the same technologies we are using for the next 30 years we are going to wind up with the net effect of doubling the overall CO2.

But it’s not that simple. We aren’t at full capacity yet; not all the farmland we have available is being used to plant anything. Since the fall of the USSR we haven’t been planting as much land as we could. Tobacco lands are being used for growing Canola oil (Rapeseed oil, in other words) for use as fuel and few would argue that that’s a bad thing; certainly it isn’t producing more C02. The shortage we have been experiencing and the reactions to it are more growing pains than long term effects.

What is vital to keep in mind is that ethanol and biodiesel are stopgap measures at best. If we are still using huge amounts of ethanol or biodiesel in 30 years, or even in 15 years something is terribly wrong. Biofuels are a way for us to wean ourselves off of the internal combustion engine while finalize solar and wind and perhaps safer nuclear plants and cars that can be effectively powered by them. The much smaller number of remaining internal combustion powered cars will not put a huge dent in the farmland production especially when you factor in garbage to biodiesel, air to biodiesel, and plants that will grow in places crops won’t.

While I agree with some of their conclusions, such as how we should be looking towards other than crop sources sooner than later, I can’t agree with the level of urgency that they deliver that message with.

Harmarville PA company developing new biodiesel from feedstock technology

According to this article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; The National Institute of Science and Technology has awarded  Thar Technologies Inc, a Harmarville PA company $1.9 million to develop a new single stage process to extract bio-diesel from feedstock. 

Thar President and Chief Executive Officer Lalit Chorida said that to date, bio-diesel production has been a two-stage process — first, hexane is used to extract vegetable oil from oilseed, then the vegetable oil is converted to bio-diesel.

In Thar’s proposed single-stage process, carbon dioxide replaces hexane, a toxic solvent,

 The new process reduces the energy required to produce the fuel by 25% while reducing the cost of production by 14%.  With improvements such as this and with rising fossil fuel prices this will make subsidy-free biofuels even closer to reality.

In addition to biodiesel production, the process can also improve ethanol production, and can even be used for non-biofuels such as shale oils.

10 percent Ethanol? Why not 20%?

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Last week, Congress passed a new law promoting Ethanol use. This will likely accelerate the spread of Ethanol from the heartland to fuel pumps nationwide. If you look carefully at your gas station, you may see a sign that says “This fuel contains up to 10% Ethanol.”

This low concentration of ethanol was chosen to prevent damage to cars that aren’t designed for ethanol. Very few cars on the road today are flex fuel vehicles, but all cars can use a 10% blend of ethanol without damage. At 10% concentrations, ethanol can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18-29%. Ethanol also cleans up other emissions from the tailpipe – engines burning ethanol release fewer smog causing compounds, less heavy metal, and fewer particulates.

One of the big concerns with ethanol is that it has a lower energy density than gasoline – which means that you get less mileage per gallon. A gallon of ethanol only has about 65% as much energy as a gallon of 88 octane gasoline. This begs the question – if you have to burn more ethanol to get the same performance, does ethanol still have a positive effect on the environment?

Well, an experiment performed by the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center and the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research yielded some surprising results. Their results suggest that 20-30% concentrations of ethanol may improve fuel efficiency even compared to regular gasoline! If future tests confirm these results, it wont be long before we see pumps that offer 20% and 30% ethanol options.

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ps: There’s an urban legend floating around that ethanol takes more energy to produce than it supplies. According to some scientists this may have been true when the technology was less developed, but it isn’t true today. (Link goes to PDF file.) Also, some of the non-renewable products that are used (coal and natural gas) have domestic sources.

We estimate that on an energy basis, only 0.13 BTU of petroleum are used to produce a BTU of ethanol. Since the root of our short -term energy problem is related to liquid fuels, ethanol should be viewed as an extremely effective way to convert natural gas and coal into liquid fuel energy.

Ethanol is great! (If you’re a corn farmer.)

The Wall Street Journal writes today on the front page about how enthusiasm for corn based ethanol is cooling in the United States.

The fortunes of many U.S. farmers, farm towns and ethanol companies are tied to corn-based ethanol, of which America is the largest producer. Ethanol is also a cornerstone of President Bush’s push to reduce dependence on foreign oil. But the once-booming business has gone in the dumps, with profits squeezed, plans for new plants shelved in certain cases, and stock prices hovering near 52-week lows.

Now the fuel’s lobby is pleading with Congress to drastically boost the amount of ethanol that oil refiners must blend into gasoline. But formidable opponents such as the livestock, packaged-food and oil industries also have lawmakers’ ears. What once looked like a slam-dunk could now languish in pending energy legislation that might not pass for weeks, if ever.

Ethanol’s problems have much to do with its past success. As profits and production soared in 2005 and 2006, so did the price of corn, gradually angering livestock farmers who need it for feed. They allied with food companies also stung by higher grain prices, and with oil companies that have long loathed subsidies for ethanol production.

The U.S. gives oil refiners an excise-tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of ethanol they blend into gasoline. And even though it’s the oil industry that gets this subsidy, the industry dislikes being forced to use a nonpetroleum product. The U.S. ethanol industry is further protected by a 54-cent tariff on every gallon of imported ethanol.

This year, even as the production glut was driving down ethanol’s price, critics and opposing lobbyists were turning up the heat. Environmentalists complained about increased use of water and fertilizer to grow corn for ethanol, and said even ethanol from other plants such as switchgrass could be problematic because it could mean turning protected land to crop use. Suddenly, environmentalists, energy experts, economists and foreign countries were challenging the warm-and-fuzzy selling points on which ethanol rose to prominence.

I think there is definitely room for growth in the use of biofuels in the United States, and I also think that ethanol can work as a potential option.

But let’s face it, if we as a country really believe in ethanol as a solution, then why are we putting a 54 cent tariff on every gallon of imported ethanol, which prevents us from bringing in much cheaper sugarcane based ethanol from places like Brazil?