Eco-news you can use for September, 2009

PE - Green News 9-2009 - FL Steve Rhodes newspapers curbside
Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes at Flickr.com

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

A company in Salt Lake City is developing a new type of deep storage battery. When used along with solar panels, backyard wind turbines, or biofuel microturbines, these could be a key component in a decentralized power grid.

There’s a pilot project in Boulder Colorado that could be the shape of things to come. It combines smart meters with some other neat tricks. The result is a power grid that gets more usefulness with less emissions. This type of system may be deployed nationwide in the near future:

The stimulus package includes $11 billion toward modernizing the electric grid, including the development of renewable energy.

While scientists and entrepreneurs are working on building a more efficient and green power grid, other research is showing surprising side effects from pollution. A small study in New York found a solid link between exposure to prenatal pollution and child development. This study is likely to strengthen the voices of people living in communities downwind of smokestacks or downriver of factories.

Advocates for environmental justice are also raising concerns about emissions from shipping. When cargo ships operate in international waters, they often burn some of the dirtiest fuels available. Many ships currently burn bunker oil; a low-grade fuel that is more like tar than the gasoline found at a corner gas station.

If these emissions are covered by an international carbon tax, there will be a huge incentive for shipping companies to use cleaner fuels. Already, many countries regulate emissions around their port cities, and the shipping lines switch to cleaner, more expensive fuels near shore. Because of this, most ships already have the capability to burn cleaner fuels, yet they choose to use cheap fuels that have dangerous emissions.

In the near future, the ocean may be the source of clean burning fuels. Exxon has made its first big investment in algae derived fuels, and the potential market for these 2nd generation biofuels is huge. Of course, that market could collapse if the oceans boil away first.

There are several major engineering proposals on how to combat climate change. These so-called “geo-engineering” projects include some pretty crazy ideas, such as putting mirrors in orbit to deflect sunlight or covering glaciers with insulation. A recently proposed idea is to stimulate algae growth in the North Sea. Transforming the North Sea into a huge carbon sink would have about as much effect as replanting all of the rainforest in Brazil, with the added benefit of stimulating devastated fish hatcheries. The side effects of massive engineering projects like this are largely unknown though, and that’s a major cause for concern.

Finally – here’s an interesting article about clam shell packages. It includes tips for safely opening these tricky containers (try a can opener) and a discussion about the environmental impact of heavy plastic packaging. By 2012, it’s estimated that roughly 1.1 billion pounds of resin will be trashed from these clamshells alone. As a result, there’s increasing interest in biodegradeable packaging that can also provide security for its contents.

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Photo courtesy of Derek K. Miller, penmachine.com at Flickr.com

Pollution makes you fat?

Photo courtesy of Joe_13 at Flickr.com.

Pollution has been blamed for a wide variety of health ailments, including heart disease, asthma, various forms of cancer, and toxic shock. New evidence suggests that pollution may also be contributing to the worldwide obesity epidemic. The research focused on a particular pesticide (Hexachlorobenze) and monitored babies from birth until the age of 6 and a half years old. It found a sharp increase in obesity rates for children with the highest exposure to HCB.

This study suggests very strongly that exposure to HCB in the womb causes an increased risk of obesity. The mechanism is unknown, but exposure to chemicals can trigger the expression of certain genes, and chemical exposure can also alter the blood chemistry of women who are pregnant. This study is worrisome because even though HCB has been banned, there are many similar chemicals that we’re exposed to every day in our cosmetics, drinking water, and food supply.

Experiments have shown that many chemicals fed to pregnant animals cause their offspring to grow up obese. These include organotins, long employed in antifouling paints on ships and now widely found in fish; bisphenol A (BPA), used in baby bottles and to line cans of food, among countless other applications; and phthalates, found in cosmetics, shampoos, plastics to wrap food, and in a host of other everyday products.

These pollutants – dubbed “obesogens” as a result of these findings – are so ubiquitous that almost everyone now has them in their bodies. Ninety-five per cent of Americans excrete BPA in their urine; 90 per cent of babies have been found to be exposed to phthalates in the womb; and every umbilical cord analysed in the new Spanish study was found to contain organchlorine pesticides such as HCB.

It’s important to remember that correlation doesn’t guarantee causation. For example, ice cream sales and deaths from drowning both increase during the summer, but it would be ridiculous to say that reducing ice cream sales would save people from drowning. More study is clearly needed.

In the meantime, there are some fruits and vegetables that are much more likely to contain pesticides. You may want to cut down your consumption of peaches, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, apples, and other heavily contaminated foods, and instead substitute foods with lower pesticide exposure, such as sweet corn, avocados, onions, mangoes, and pineapples. If you can’t live without your peaches, organic produce is available for many of the highest risk items.

Photo courtesy of fwickafwee at Flickr.com.

Cut back on fertilizer and help save the Gulf of Mexico

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Photo courtesy of Ken-ichi at Flickr.com.
Fertilizer doesn’t belong in the ocean.

Every time it rains, excess fertilizer washes off into rivers that eventually feed into the sea. Unnatural levels of phosphorous encourage algae to grow, and algal blooms suffocate fish or poison them with neurotoxins. The effect happens so fast that animals don’t have time to run away – they die in huge piles just like the people caught in Pompeii.

Many people who overuse fertilizer don’t realize that they’re causing an environmental disaster. Also, fertilizer abuse runs up huge, unnecessary bills. Money spent on excess fertilizer is literally poured down the drain. Homeowners and amateur gardeners are the worst when it comes to overusing fertilizer. According to the National Academy of Sciences, homeowners use 10 times more fertilizer than farmers do per acre.

The Gulf of Mexico is one area where runoff is particularly bad (since the Mississippi river manages to catch a lot of fertilizer). This year, research suggests that the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be larger than it has ever been before:

The zone off Louisiana reached a record 7,900 square miles in 2002. A recent estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Louisiana State University shows the zone, which has been monitored for about 25 years, could exceed 8,800 square miles this year, an area roughly the size of New Jersey.

And excess fertilizer isn’t the only problem facing the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf has a large oil drilling and refining infrastructure, and accidents happen far too often. For example, the Mississippi was closed today due to a messy collision between an oil tanker and a barge. That’ll leave a mark.

Unless people raise awareness about water pollution and fertilizer abuse, 2010 will see an even larger dead zone. Now is a good time to start reversing the trend – 8,800 square miles of dead water is already far too much. Be part of the solution – talk with your neighbors about how much fertilizer you use, and suggest natural alternatives that are low in phosphorous and nitrogen. Instead of high NPK values, try using compost tea and promoting helpful lawn bacteria. With the help of microbes, plants are able to get more benefits from the soil in a process called nutrient cycling.


Photo courtesy of
mrjoro at Flickr.com.

Beat high gas prices – ride the bus or train!


Photo courtesy of
George Morris at Flickr.com.

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

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

Train and bus ridership are growing like crazy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo courtesy of
VSPA at Flickr.com.

The Dark Side of Solar Power


Photo courtesy of Mischief 78 at Flickr.com.

A major producer of polysilicon is under investigation in China for dumping waste on public land. This flagrant disregard for the safety of local workers has caused many solar power advocates to take a closer look at the business practices of the companies making solar panels. Since many of these companies rely on venture capital to finance their research and expansion (with P/E ratios several times higher than the market average), this black eye could become a major setback. Then again, this negative publicity could produce some pressure on China to enforce environmental regulations by creating demand for safely produced solar panels.


Photo courtesy of nvaughn at Flickr.com.

Side note: Neither solar power companies nor China have an exclusive lock on this kind of hypocrisy. A bio-diesel plant in Alabama was also recently caught illegally dumping waste material.

The human impact on the world’s oceans is rising


Photo courtesy of coolskipper at Flickr.com.
A new study shows that 40% of the world’s oceans are “heavily affected” by human activity. But what does that mean?

Human efforts are turning mangrove forests into beachfront resorts, and creating dead zones off the coast of estuaries. There are even sections of the ocean where plastic debris blocks out sunlight. It’s time for a change.


Photo courtesy of milford cubicle at Flickr.com.

Coal Gasification is taking off in China


Photo courtesy of jbrussellphoto at Flickr.com.

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 Flickr.com.

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.