Friday, February 29, 2008

How green do we really want to be with recycling?

Do we really, truly care about conserving gasoline, water, electricity? How serious are we about recycling? Are we as green as we want to be? Are we as green as we think we are?

This is a continuing series into the exploration of just how concerned we are about caring for our environment when it comes to our personal comforts.

In the previous issue I explored how changing our driving habits could save fuel and force gas price decreases. This issue covers the recycling game and how we enable waste to maintain a clear conscience.

Our conscience is tested at the grocery store when asked "paper or plastic?", we trade our incandescent light bulbs for energy efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, yet we buy our water in non-degradable plastic bottles by the caseload. We further ease our conscience by tossing a few token items in the recycle bin at home yet when we are away from home we absent-mindedly throw many other recyclables in the trash.

"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is the mantra of the environmentalist movement. Yet just how many of us apply these three words as a guideline in determining what we purchase, use or throw away?

Recycling touches almost every aspect of our everyday lives, from the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, to the products we buy. Almost every product we use can be recycled or is in some part made from recycled materials, from toilet paper, to cars, to the roads we drive on, and even the caskets we are buried in.

Are We Participating?
We have non-profit recycling centers and municipal recycling programs around the country. Many communities have recycle bins issued to every resident and they ask us to separate our recyclables from our trash and then have separate recycling trucks come around on a regular basis to empty them. But do we fully participate in recycling or do we put up an appearance by setting a partially full recycle bin at the curb for pickup? Some of us want our neighbors to think we are doing our part, which is fine as long as they are doing it, but some people just don’t care. My community in Utah picks up recycling every other week, when I lived in California they picked it up every week. I always have a full recycling bin, but in both of these neighborhoods, I see recycle bins sitting next to the house on trash pickup day while trash cans at the curb are overflowing with recyclable objects.

Many products we throw onto the trash heap can be reused or recycled but we get our biggest participation only when there are direct and recognizable financial incentives. Why aren’t we conscientious enough to make it work as a matter of principal? I don’t aim to be overly harsh against those people trying to do their part, but we can all be a little more conscious of how our lifestyles affect our environment.

Recycling paper, plastic, electronics, even cars has become a big business. But is it really helping our environment? The Environmental Protection Agency has set a national goal to recycle 25 percent of out national waste. Only 25 percent!?! This seems to be an awfully low target to me. Not a very lofty goal at all.

Only a small percentage of what we intend to be recycled actually goes for that purpose. What actually happens to the items we think are being recycled? What becomes of the items we donate to charity to be recycled? We feel good about helping our favorite charity while at the same time doing some house cleaning, but sometimes the charities actually receive very little money in exchange for hosting what amounts to a neighborhood cleanup. The items collected are taken away by salvage operations that go through the items for useable products that are then sold for profit. The items that cannot be salvaged are often delivered to landfills, either here in America or to foreign countries where they are not as regulated which leads to ground contamination by toxic materials. Some of it ends up in the oceans! When I learned this it sickened me.

There is a vast expanse of plastic debris, referred to as the Pacific Garbage Patch, growing in the central Pacific Ocean that is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This ‘patch’ is the size of a continent. This drifting “soup” stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan. This plastic doesn't biodegrade, it photo-degrades, which means it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for anything to digest. Yet marine life is ingesting it. If you have the stomach for it, sorry about the pun, read about it here.

Of course there are some charitable organizations that can be trusted. The American Institute of Philanthropy is a nonprofit charity watchdog organization that helps donors male informed giving decisions.

Landfills around the world, loaded with items that could be recycled, are increasing in size. Besides the increasing number and sizes of landfills being a problem they are rife with hazards ranging from fatal accidents (e.g., scavengers buried under waste piles), infrastructure damage (e.g., damage to access roads by heavy vehicles), pollution of the local environment (such as contamination of groundwater and/or aquifers by leakage and residual soil contamination after landfill closure), offgassing of methane generated by decaying organic wastes; harboring of disease vectors such as rats and flies, particularly from improperly operated landfills, which are common in Third-world countries, injuries to wildlife and simple nuisance problems (e.g., dust, odor, vermin, or noise pollution).

This list presents a very strong case for the elimination of landfills and incineration. Fortunately new strategies such as recycling, anaerobic digestion, composting, mechanical biological treatment, pyrolysis and gasification establishing themselves in the market, are allowing completed landfills to be reclaimed for parks, golf courses and other sports fields. Office buildings and industrial parks can make use of this land after extensive methane capture is carried out to minimize explosive hazard.

Of course, the simplest way to eliminate landfills would be to recycle everything we use. Wouldn’t it be great to have this ability?

An interesting fact: Paper plus cardboard combined make up 73% of the materials in landfills. Does this sound like we are doing all we can?

We have come a long way, but we cannot afford to backpedal. I believe most of us do care about our environment but are confused about what can be recycled.

What is Recyclable?
The most commonly recycled household items are paper and cardboard; metal, glass, and plastic containers and packaging; and yard waste. Recycling the recovered materials is simple for metals and glass; they can be melted down, reformed, and reused. Yard waste can be composted with little or no equipment, as a gardener I have the ability and joy to be able to use this precious natural gift. Paper, the most important recycled material, must be mixed with water, and sometimes de-inked, to form a pulp that can be used in papermaking. Plastics recycling requires an expensive process of separation of different resins.

Speaking of plastic, today’s plastics come in several grades. Do you know which ones are recyclable?

On just about every plastic container there is a raised number (1 through 7) in a triangle that tells you what type of plastic it is. Not all plastic is recyclable. Knowing which numbers can be recycled will help determine what to do with the container.
Some municipalities require you to sort your plastic according to these numbers, others will take everything tossed together and sort them themselves. You can call your county's Department of Public Works or recycling center to determine what type of plastic to recycle and where to take it. Also call 1-800-CLEANUP for state recycling information.

Type 1 (PETE) and type 2 (HDPE) containers include some plastic bags, detergent containers, and milk, soft drink, juice, cooking oil and water bottles. These can typically be tossed into recycling bins.

Type 3 - plastic food wrap and vegetable oil bottles, should be thrown in the trash. While some of these are recyclable, the plastics industry is still in the early stages of recycling and does not recycle these in most cities unless it is through a test program.

Type 4 (LDPE) are plastic grocery bags (sometimes type 2) and can be recycled at your grocery store or thrown in the recycle bin. Most people have a secondary use for these such as small trash can liners, carrying lunch to work, or picking up dog poo. Plus, you can take back to the store and use them again. Clean out bags before recycling, which means the dog poo thing is out of the question.

Type 5 - yogurt containers, syrup bottles, diapers, some bags, most bottle tops and some food wrap - should be thrown in the trash. While some of these are recyclable, the plastics industry is still in the early stages of recycling and does not recycle these in most cities unless it is through a test program. Take caps and pump spray tops off of plastic containers unless they are marked with a number. They are often made from a type of plastic that is different from the main part of the container and generally are not recyclable.

Type 6 (EPS-expanded polystyrene) is foam packaging and plastic utensils. Call the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, (410) 451-8340, or visit their Web site to find a local recycling center in your area. Plastic utensils will most likely need to be thrown out. Alliance..

Type 7 - layered or mixed plastic - should be thrown in the trash. While some of these are recyclable, the plastics industry is still in the early stages of recycling and does not recycle these in most cities unless it is through a test program.

We have the common misconception that when plastic gets recycled we will use it again in the form of another plastic container. This is not true. Some plastics are not recycled into other plastic containers, but are made into new secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber which are all un-recyclable products. This does not reduce the use of virgin materials in plastic packaging. "Recycled" in this case merely means "collected," not reprocessed or converted into useful products.

Type 1 plastic (PETE) can be recycled into items like carpet, auto parts, paint brushes and industrial paints and type 2 plastic (HDPE) is recycled into products like detergent and engine oil bottles, trash cans and recycling bins.

Of course, there are many ingenious ways in which we can reuse plastic containers in our own homes. Gardeners use various sized plastic containers as everything from cloches, to seed starting, to watering our plants and even to catch water under potted plants. Pet owners use plastic containers to keep pet water bowls full.

For a very interesting article concerning the plastic recycling issue see Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling presented by the Plastics Task Force of Berkeley California.

The recent trend away from offering plastic shopping bags in many communities across the country is a way in which we have refined our dedication to protecting the environment. Or is it? We originally began using plastic bags as a way of saving our trees. The slogan was “save a tree-ask for plastic”. Everyone jumped on the band wagon and while were all busy saving trees by using plastic bags, marine life began dying from accidentally ingesting the non-recyclable, non-degrading plastic bags that were supposed to go into landfills. In the intervening years, paper recycling has matured and a lot of paper bags are now made from recycled paper. But this recycled paper only consists of between 10% and 100% recycled paper with the remainder coming from paper pulp which is made from about 43% of harvested wood. Plus, paper can only be recycled 4-6 times. So, we are still killing trees to make paper. As an option today, we have reusable canvas and cotton bags to carry our groceries. There are arguments that support the use of all of these alternatives but people will always go with the cheapest solution.

Sam Aola Ooko wrote an excellent post on eco worldly just one day after I published this post and it is so impassioned for the discontinuance of plastic shopping bags that I just had to include it here. Please check it out.

How can we do more to ensure recycling is working? Generally, we are at the mercy of anyone who claims to be a recycler. When you contact anyone for the purpose of recycling your cell phones, computers, printer ink cartridges, etc ask what they do with the items, make sure they are going to EPA approved disposal sites. We can also put ourselves in the mindset to reuse as much as possible. Buy products with as little packaging as possible. Learn what is recyclable and follow your conscience. Compost your kitchen and yard waste.

We really do need to work together and try to keep a clear picture of why Reducing, Reusing and Recycling are important. And spread the word.

This is part of a continuing series that explores just how dedicated we are to saving our planet and ourselves from our polluting and energy-wasting ways.

Come back for the next installment when I explore our wasteful water habits.

And, as always, please feel free to leave comments.

For further information
Cell Phone Donation
Who Buys Cell Phones
Cell For Cash
Aluminum Recycling Facts
Paper Recycling Facts
Recycling Facts

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How green do we really want to be with gasoline?

Do we really, truly care about conserving gasoline, water, electricity? How serious are we about recycling? Are we as green as we want to be? Are we as green as we think we are?

This is a continuing series into the exploration of just how concerned we are about caring for our environment when it comes to our personal comforts.

We toss a few items into the recycle bin, our conscience is tested at the grocery store when asked “paper or plastic?”, we trade our incandescent light bulbs for energy efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, yet we buy our water in non-degradable plastic bottles by the caseload. We fool ourselves into thinking we are environmentally friendly and that we take energy conservation seriously and then, daily, we participate in the most egregious, blatant, resource-wasting activity we know. We drive our cars and trucks in the same manner as we did before the words fuel and shortage were ever uttered in the same sentence.

This one area of our daily lives has the greatest potential for being a major turning point in the battle against global warming and yet we refuse to take that step.

Sure, automobile manufacturers and a handful of private citizens are devising ways to make cars more fuel efficient but that is only because the federal government and certain market conditions are forcing them to. We Americans, on the whole, are fighting it tooth and nail. We continue to purchase the latest ‘big and powerful’, whether it be a car or truck instead of going for small and fuel-efficient. We expect auto manufacturers to come up with ways to allow us to keep our ‘American Muscle’ so we can drive at top speed (and to get to top speed quicker than ever before) while simply giving the appearance of doing our part to help conserve our dwindling oil supply. And our federal government puts on a dog and pony show of pretending to be environmentally friendly, by passing legislation worded in such a way as to allow auto manufacturers to continue to produce the very same ‘big and powerful’ gas guzzling, heavy-weight vehicles they always have.

We hear a lot of talk about the rising cost of fuel and each time those prices increase we begin hearing speculation of how someday these higher fuel prices will affect our driving habits and force us to conserve. Well, from what I have witnessed so far on our nations roadways, very little has changed, with one exception, the oil companies are reaping record-breaking profits. I am not an economics major, but even I understand the law of supply and demand. Our demand is increasing, therefore, the prices increase. As though sheer numbers is not enough to increase demand, our selfish driving habits increase the demand.

The price of oil just recently broke the $100 a barrel barrier. Was that enough to change our driving habits? No. You may ask why does the price continue to go up? Is there a fuel shortage that forces these prices up? No. The oil companies see that we are not going to change our driving habits therefore nothing compels them to not raise prices. Truly everyone can understand that if we stopped driving altogether then the price of oil would take a drastic nosedive resulting in gasoline so cheap they couldn’t give it away. And yet we continue on our merry way speeding down the freeway, needlessly passing everything on the road, hurrying to where we are going, guzzling excessive amounts of fuel to have the latest biggest and most powerful vehicles, because it has become a habit.

It has also become a habit to complain about the higher prices, yet we refuse to do our part to keep prices low. We have the power to dictate lower prices at the pump. Don’t believe me? Then read the following list of habits that will illustrate our wastefulness and help explain my logic.

Excessive idling
Millions of Americans, every cold wintry morning, start their cars and leave them to idle for 5, 10, 20, up to 30 minutes in their driveway while they stay inside in the warmth of the house because we all want to ride in a comfortably warm car. We allow our vehicles to idle in fast food drive-thru lanes. We allow our vehicles to idle at the curbside while we run into the store ‘just for a minute’. We adopt the mindset that, oh, it is only costing me a few pennies, if we bother to think about it at all. Yet not a single thought is given to how much fuel it is taking away from the rest of us. We are oblivious to how much extra pollution we are putting into the air by letting that car unnecessarily idle, and we are obviously more concerned with our personal comfort than we are in the price of gasoline.

Hard acceleration
After idling your car in the driveway for your personal comfort, you drive off to your destination. Do you slowly get up to speed or do you hard-accelerate to get up to and over the speed limit as quickly as you can? Do you follow this same pattern of hard-acceleration from every stop sign, from every red light, around every car that is moving slower than you want to drive? I see all of these things taking place every day. I see my neighbor pull out of her driveway and take off like she is trying to set some land speed record to get to the next stop sign. Everyday! Clearly, this is nothing more than a habit. Why does she drive like this? I see guys do this too, so don’t think I am being sexist by singling her out. Do you know how much gas could be saved by gently accelerating to and driving at the posted 25 mph speed limit on our residential street? Multiply that savings by driving more conservatively on every street. How many people do you know actually drive the posted speed limit? If you know of any, I’ll bet you could count them on one hand. I drive the speed limit and I am constantly harassed by impatient drivers who don’t like having to slow down to the speed limit. And these drivers represent every age group and both sexes.

Excessive speed
Once you get on the road to wherever you are going, do you move along with the traffic flow or do you feel this blind, impassioned need to pass everyone as if they and you are in a race to get to the finish line first? They are not going to the same place that you are, so why do you have to pass them? I see drivers who seemingly feel they cannot stand to be behind anyone. Do they think everyone will be impressed with how fast their car can go? Zoom, zoom, zoom! Speed limits are widely viewed as suggestions. In every community I have ever driven in, people drive over the posted speed limit. By simply modifying our behavior to drive the speed limit, to obey this law that we have already paid people to determine what the safest speed should be, could save millions of gallons of fuel per year which would result in lower gas prices due to lesser demand and save more gas for all of us in the long run.

I see a car in my rearview mirror speeding up to me and I think where does this guy have to get to in such a hurry. He passes me, zooms on ahead and a few seconds later we are both sitting at the same traffic light. What did he gain by getting to that traffic light first? How much more, in fuel and money, did it cost him to get to that traffic light than it cost me? That little extra amount of gas that he burned up in getting to that traffic light ahead of me, compounded by the millions of drivers who do this everyday amounts to a lot of wasted gasoline. Gasoline that could, if saved for future use, allow all of the rest of us to drive a little bit further if we could only have it available to us. But for his personal, foolish pleasure, the rest of us won’t be able to drive that little bit further. Driving more conservatively in this instance would decrease gasoline demand and therefore decrease gasoline prices.

Combine trips
Driving to the grocery store several times a week compared to just once a week wastes a lot of gasoline too. We have all heard the urging to consolidate our trips yet how many people actually put this into practice? How many times have you made a ‘quick’ run to store just pick up a few items? Make lists, make meal plans, plan your trips more wisely. These little things all add up.

Mass transit and carpooling
Car pool lanes and mass transit were sold to us as means of easing traffic jams and saving fuel. Yet how many people actually use these properly? Very few. My community shares a commuter bus line with other neighboring communities to get residents from outlying areas to the main bus and train lines. At the end of this month that service is being cancelled due to lack of ridership. After more than one year of operation, each of the previous seven months has shown a total daily ridership of three. Does this show that mass transit is working? Certainly not in this city. This story is repeated across this country. People just do not want to give up their personal vehicles. They do not want to have to walk even two blocks to get to and from their place of employment or shopping. On the flip side, mass transit does not get most people close enough to their places of employment to make it a useable solution. Around the world, mass transit systems are in decline while operating costs continue to increase. Our tax dollars continue to be thrown at a broken system that not enough people want to use. Mass transits answer: ‘more modern, attractive public transit systems’. It’s good business for bus and train manufacturers, it keeps some people employed, but it does nothing to serve its original purpose.

Carpool lanes are abused as means of passing slower traffic. Additional revenue is raised by municipalities through charging for HOV passes that allow single occupant vehicles to drive in these lanes, because the original concept, of forcing people to ride-share to decrease the number of vehicles on the road, has not been realized. Again, because we don’t want to leave our personal vehicles sitting at home and because we don’t want to walk a few extra blocks. We shun public transportation because our own personal comfort outweighs the good it would do for our environment.

Tire pressure and routine maintenance
Other gas saving strategies that are overlooked is tire pressure and routine maintenance. How many people actually check their car’s tire pressure? Keeping all four tires properly pressurized can mean pennies in savings but they add up. Keeping your vehicle properly tuned and oil changed regularly really do add up to savings.

Driving the speed limit can mean pennies in savings. Gradually accelerating to the speed limit can save pennies. Consolidating trips can save pennies. All of these pennies can collectively add up to an unbelievable savings in the fuel supply and in the amount of money we pay at the gas pump. Have you ever tossed your loose change in a drawer or jar every time you come in the house and one day count it only to be surprised at how much you have collected? Think of changing your driving habits, saving pennies here and there, as a savings account. Only this savings affects everyone else on the road too.

It just seems to me that most people are mindlessly driving everywhere they go, which, basically, defines a habit. We need to be more conscious of how every aspect of our driving affects the amount of gas we use to get from point A to point B. Do we really have to beat everyone to the next traffic light? Do we really have to be out in front of everyone on the freeway? Do we really have to take our personal vehicle with us everywhere we go?

There is a whole field of psychology behind why people drive the way they do, and why they cherish their personal vehicles so much over the environment, and these issues are beyond the scope of the post, but come on people, what is the rush? Do we really have the right to complain of high gas prices while at the same time sustaining those high gas prices?

The bottom line is that extreme driving habits is taking fuel away from the rest of us. And it is keeping fuel prices up, for all of us!

So, are we really trying to be environmentally friendly and are we taking energy conservation seriously or are we too stubborn to give up old habits?

It seems personal comfort trumps the environment.

This is part of a continuing series that explores just how dedicated we are to saving our planet and ourselves from our polluting and energy-wasting ways.

Come back for the next installment when I explore the sham of recycling.

And, as always, please feel free to leave comments.

Resources: performed these tests and published their results here.

Daily Fuel Economy Tips

Sunday, February 17, 2008

How fast do we have to have our food?

Run out of ideas on what to do for 30 minutes while waiting for pizza delivery? Well, Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a pizza oven that cooks two 12 inch pizzas in 90 seconds.

The thing about this is that it works on pizzas that you make from scratch. So, that should take some of the worry out what to do with 28 and a half minutes.

If it would only work on frozen pizzas it would be a real time saver. At $250 I’m not giving up on my favorite pizza delivery just yet. Besides, then I would have to worry about what to do with my ‘free’ 90 seconds.

Natures refrigerator

Mother nature provides us with refrigerated air every winter, right? So, why not use that free cold air to keep our food cold?

Ben Hewitt posted his energy efficient refrigerator idea on his webpage green homes to show everyone it can be done.

The only drawback is that you have to live in the frozen north country where winter temps hover around the ungodly lows of your electricity-chomping freezer.

The idea is to build an area against an outside wall and use small computer fans to suck in the outside air so it circulates through the insulated fridge. You can get the details on his webpage.

Sounds super easy, right? It is. Of course, he can only use it from mid-November to early-April, but this counts for a nice savings on his electricity bill. The temperature in the homemade box stays at 40F. And for the rest of the year the space can still be used as, oh, say a closet.

I wonder what he does with the fridge when he is not using it to keep his beer cold? I’ll bet he stores his empties there until it’s warm enough to take them to the recycle-bin. Maybe, Ben, you can come up with a DIY freezer for your frozen dinners.

Now, If only we can use the heat of Summer to keep food cold then we could toss our fridge for good. But then we wouldn’t be able to get water and ice from the door.

This is an ingenious idea to get off the grid, even for a short time. Every bit of electricity we don’t use keeps a few pennies in our pocket and lessens our carbon footprint. Kudos to you Ben for a truly green way to replace an everyday energy sucking appliance.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Forests are becoming a memory

In the U.S., many people value our National Parks system for the relaxation and the chance to commune with nature that these great, legally protected, expanses provide. It’s the solitude that make these destinations so desirable. The ability to escape the concrete and asphalt creep that claims so much of our natural surroundings, more and more every year, is priceless.

Trees, with their almost magical ability to immediately sooth the wary soul with their presence and grandeur, is what most people mention as their reason for traveling to our national parks.

The world’s rainforests, and the life-sustaining qualities they impart onto the world as the single most important buffer between clean air (providing 20% of our oxygen) and the destruction of our atmosphere, are disappearing at alarming rates. Not from what nature itself has wrought against them, but from mankind’s quest for survival.

Deforestation, by ranchers, farmers and timbermen, is occurring at the rate of 60 acres per minute! Take a moment to let that figure sink in. Every second, one acre of this world’s tropical forest is destroyed. For perspective, this amounts to an area the size of Mississippi being cleared every year!

Twenty years ago, tropical forests were cut down at the rate of 50 acres per minute, now it’s 60 acres per minute.

Warnings go unheeded
Warnings from scientists, conservation groups, religious leaders and others were repeated at December's climate conference in Bali, Indonesia and remain unheeded while the world’s consumers continue to support the very reason that these forests are being cut down.

It may surprise you to learn, it certainly surprised me, that Africa is now the leader in deforestation. Almost 1 percent (10 million acres) of the forests of Sudan, Zambia and Tanzania are lost every year to small-scale farming.

South American forests are replaced for cattle ranching and growing soybeans.

Southeast Asians cut down or burn forests for giant plantations of palm trees for the palm oil they produce. This palm oil is used in food processing, cosmetics and other products.

Clearing these forests for profit has led to the extinction of animal and plant life, soil erosion, changes in weather patterns, loss of forest peoples’ livelihoods, and the increasing threat of climate change. None of these considerations have any effect to motivate those responsible for deforestation.

Deforestation creates pollution
Not all trees that are cut down make it to the lumber industry, some are not suitable, some are in areas that make it unprofitable to haul them out, so they are burned where they fall, or they are left to rot. The pollution from burning these trees accounts for 20 percent of manmade emissions. This number blows me away. Only the burning of fossil fuels creates more pollution than the burning of these trees.

To exacerbate the problem of pollution, hauling ‘profitable’ trees away by truck, cutting trees down with chainsaws (much larger ones than you see at your neighborhood home improvement store) and tearing trees down with tractors, all add to the fossil fuels pollution numbers.

What is the alternative?
The more trees we lose to individual profiteers the fewer there are to absorb the global warming carbon that is emitted by cutting them down. The effect of pollution increases with every tree that is removed. Growing new trees is not the answer, they grow too slowly and they are not planted where they are needed most. You simply cannot replace tropical rain forests by planting trees elsewhere. Rain forests have grown where they have because that is the best environment for them.

If we are going to allow the continued destruction of earth’s ability to absorb our pollution then we need to find a replacement for these trees. We must have ways to absorb the huge amounts of carbon we create or we are going to destroy ourselves either from the increasing temperature of the earth or by suffocating ourselves due to lack of usable oxygen.

In light of this, is deforestation necessary to continue to feed the world’s ever increasing demand for beef, biofuels and other products? Is deforestation necessary to provide livelihoods for the farmers and ranchers to support their families, their communities and the rest of the world?

If moving industries to third world countries in order to give those populations jobs so they stop replacing our forests with farms, then that is what we need to do.

Food supplies are decreasing due to global warming and a shift to farming for biofuel and cattle feed. Deforestation is the cause of the former and the result of the latter.

The world has large-scale farming operations and industrial concerns that grow food crops to help feed the world’s human population. A larger percentage of this production is being redirected towards feeding beef and for biofuel, both of which add to deforestation.

If improving the production of these farms, through bio-engineering or whatever other means, will stop deforestation, then this is what we need to do.

Meat producers spends millions in advertising trying to sell us on the health benefits of eating more meat. The resulting debate between the pro and con issues of eating more or eating less meat will go on forever. The bottom line is that it is a personal choice. But, here is another issue that needs to be considered, the drive to produce more beef is destroying our forests. And this falls heavily on the side against eating more beef. We are destroying ourselves by trying to ‘eat healthier’, if you buy into what the meat producers are saying.

Do we really need more cattle for beef? Do we really need the extra farm land for biofuels? The argument for diverting our trend from a meat-based diet and towards a grain-based diet has never been as keenly felt as it is right now.

If we have to become vegetarians in order to save ourselves, then that is what we need to do.

If we have to turn these rainforests into living museums and promote ecotourism to protect them, then this is what we need to do.

If we have to declare rainforests as medical research labs in order to protect them, then we need to do it.

Why should so few, take away so much, for so little, that which means so much to the world’s future?

Mankind has gotten very proficient at destruction. It seems we dedicate more time, energy and money at improving ways of destruction than what we spend on anything else. Many people have tried to change this course to one of preservation but not enough is being done. The importance of maintaining these forests for what they represent as well as how they actually serve us is not being taken seriously enough.

In the opening to this post I mentioned that our national parks are legally protected. But, how long will it be before the profit mongers are able to convince a financially strapped administration to allow them access to our forests and begin the destruction of that which the rest of us prize most?

Do you think the law will protect our national parks? The U.S. Forest Service, one of those financially strapped administrations, granted a foreign mining company the rights to drill for uranium just miles from a popular lookout point in Grand Canyon National Park!

Will survival of the whole outweigh the profits to the few? Has it ever happened in the past?

For more research on rainforests:
Rainforest facts

Research shows dollars and sense in protecting rainforests

Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Foundation

Rainforests books for children

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Are bigger wind turbines really the answer?

Wind turbines have proven their usefulness over the past several decades for generating electricity. This wind farm, consisting of 4,000 windmills, at Tracy, California has been generating clean, renewable electricity for two decades.

The design is very simple: the main rotor shaft and electrical generator sit at the top of the tower and must be pointed into the wind for maximum effect. On larger turbines, a wind sensor, coupled with a servo motor, directs the propeller into the wind and a gearbox magnifies the propeller rotation to get more suitable electrical generating power from the generator.

Historically, wind mills have been used to turn machinery which was then used to grind grain, or to pump water from wells into tanks, or to pump water from low-lying areas.

Modern wind turbines are generally used in wind farms to generate electricity. They use computers to control the servo motors and propeller speeds to provide the most efficient electrical generation even when the wind is not at its most optimum speed.

At the end of 2006, worldwide capacity of wind-powered generators was 73.9 gigawatts which represents just over 1 percent of world-wide electricity use. The U.S. reached the 10-gigawatt milestone in 2006, enough to power about 2,500,000 average American homes. A gigawatt is one billion watts of energy.

In striving to generate more electrical power, the Enercon E-126 has been designed to be the world’s largest wind turbine. It is billed to produce over 7 megawatts of energy. Assuming a household consumes 938 kWh per month, one of these wind turbines can supply almost 1,800 homes.

The efficiency of a wind turbine has been proven to max out at 59 percent. Since wind flow can not remain at a constant optimum speed, wind turbine output is never constant. This difference between theoretical capacity and actual productivity is called the capacity factor, which is typically 20-40 percent. Size does not matter when it comes to wind turbine capacity factor.

Therefore, when evaluating a wind turbine’s productivity, it is important to refer to the capacity factor to determine real-life output. A 1 megawatt turbine with a capacity factor of 35% will not produce the advertised 8,760 megawatt hours in a year, but only 0.35x24x365 = 3,066 MWh.

The main advantage to building larger wind turbines is that you don’t have to have as many to get the power you need.

The main disadvantage is their size. The FAA has raised concerns about tall turbines’ effects on radar in proximity to air force bases. Other disadvantages are: too many of them can be an eyesore, they are noisy, and the environmental impact is such that birds are being chopped up by the tens of thousands.

A market for residential wind power is developing for small wind turbines to produce electricity to cut your dependency on the local utility but homeowners are facing opposition from neighbors who don’t want to see a tall, noisy wind mill in the next yard.

Single small turbines, below 100 kilowatts, are used for homes, telecommunications dishes, or water pumping. Small turbines are sometimes used in connection with diesel generators, batteries, and photovoltaic systems. These systems are called hybrid wind systems and are typically used in remote, off-grid locations, where a connection to the utility grid is not available. They can generate enough electrical power for up to 6 average homes.

Larger turbines, typically used in wind farms, on average, produce up to 6 MW each (now 7 MW with the Enercon E-126), which can provide power to 1,500-1,800 average homes per year.

To address the need for larger scale energy production, turbines need to be better designed, not bigger. They need to be less noisy and have less impact on the environment.

For residential use, a long vertical rod with blades along its axis, and attached to the home's roof line at the top of the house or hanging under the eaves would look a lot better than a tall wind mill. Of course the efficiency would have to be tested to see if it is feasible.

There has got to be a more acceptable method of harnessing the wind than with larger propellers and towers.

What is your opinion?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Island runs on renewable energy

Imagine living in a community where all of your electrical power needs are furnished by wind, water and sun. This sounds like an environmentalists dream.

The people of the Isle of Eigg Scotland have decided to make this dream a reality. They have embraced the renewable energy promise and have adopted a 24 hour dependence on sun, water and wind to provide all of their energy needs. I applaud their faith and look forward to tracking their attempt to prove, or disprove, the premise that we can live in comfort without fossil fuels to provide heating, air conditioning, lighting, cooking, etc.

Many communities talk about lessening their carbon footprint but this small community, of just under 100, actually put the idea into play. On Feb 1, 2008, their tiny island, 9k (5.6 miles) long and 5k (3.7 miles) wide, began the great experiment to see if renewable energy can be accommodated within distribution networks.

In the past, the people of Eigg had only limited access to electricity depending entirely on black-smoke-belching, unreliable diesel generators. These old generators have been updated and will now be relegated to the role of backup in case of emergency. It seems they cannot completely remove themselves from the oil companies umbilical cord just yet.

Their power grid now incorporates a 9.9 kWp Photo Voltaic system, three hydro generation systems (totaling 112 kW) and a 24 kW wind farm of five wind turbines that will utilize a bank of batteries to guarantee continuous availability of electrical power. Power is distributed to the island's 45 households, 20 businesses and six community buildings via a 6-mile long buried cable. A load management system has been installed to optimally distribute the energy captured.

The battery system
The systems' twelve battery inverters are the heart of the system and control the system voltage and frequency, and manage the balance between loads and generation by controlling the power into and out of the batteries. Additional system control will be provided by load management at times of high renewable generation.

The inverters make up four clusters, each consisting of 24 batteries with a total energy storage capacity of 212kWh.

Solar Panel array
This array will be at its highest value during summer month when hydro generation and wind turbines are expected to be at their lowest output phases. This is where the diesel generators are most likely to be needed to provide continuous electrical power.

The array consists of 60 modules connecting the network via grid-connect inverters which will allow the PV output to feed the island loads directly. Surplus output is stored in the batteries.

Wind turbines
Four turbines on 15m towers each connected to inverters are sited at the Southern end of the island where the best wind exposure is obtained.

It is estimated that this complete system will save 10 tons of CO2 per year. Note: I have not found any information on how much CO2 this island created previously but I am certain that this 10 ton figure is based on what the island would have created had it been electrically powered 24/7 by those old diesel generators, which it had not.

But the success of this test will go a long way to providing much needed encouragement for other off-grid communities to adopt these cleaner, more sustainable resources for their electrical power, as well as provide proof that renewable energy can be incorporated into existing networks to help achieve co2 reduction targets.

The island made history once before when it became the first successful community buy-out. In 1997, after decades of mismanagement by absentee landlords, the island was bought by the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, a partnership between the residents of Eigg, the Highland Council, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Visit for more information.

I am interested in learning how far the people of Eigg are willing to take their commitment to a more sustainable, greener lifestyle. Do they recycle? Do they grow their own food? What do they do with their garbage?

If anyone knows the answers to these questions I would like to hear from you. I will do some research to see what I can learn and post it here.

Now, go out and green your world.