Sunday, March 30, 2008

Earth Hour 2008, it’s a start

As the sun set around the planet last night, so too did a symbolic ‘setting sun’ take place for one hour to signify our understanding of what life would be like if we did not have electricity to light our homes and commercial districts.
For the second year, civilization, beginning in Auckland, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia and continuing across the Asian continent and through Europe and Africa lit candles instead of light bulbs in a show of solidarity with the Earth.
North and South America dimmed the lights from Nova Scotia to Times Square to Las Vegas to the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco.
Earth Hour 2008, promoted by the World Wildlife Fund and the Sydney Morning Herald, was embraced by people across all walks of life and political boundaries. The demonstration is an attempt to bring about a greater awareness of our dependence on electricity, which the production of contributes to carbon emissions, and is estimated to have reduced electricity consumption in Sydney by between 2% and 10% for that hour.
Estimates of carbon dioxide reduction vary greatly. In 2007, the Bangkok Post claimed 102 tons were saved, the WWF put the figure at 41.6 tons. Toronto Canada claims it saved close to 500 tons. Separate studies show the savings was much less. No matter what figures you subscribe to, anytime we can reduce electricity dependence we are reducing carbon output.
Some critics say the timing of the event, so close to sunset, negates its advantages and that photographs and figures are manipulated to embellish the effectiveness of the event.
It is estimated that the entire world emits around 27 billion tons of CO2 each year, through transportation, electricity use, deforestation. Americans have the biggest annual carbon footprint at 20 tons, each. That works out to about 6 billion tons from the U.S. alone based on population statistics as of July 2007. Critics say that turning off electrical appliances for one hour is not going to have much effect on our overall damage.
Critics be damned. The event took place and will take place again next year. This represents action instead of talk. We were only asked to give one hour. If the critics would rather find fault in every attempt to reverse our detrimental effects on this planet then they are going to do it no matter what. This is something that needs to be supported. We need to show our unity towards a commitment to finding a solution to climate change.
This years event was a greater success than last years and I am sure next years event will bring more participation. And along the way other events will take place that will lead to yet others, and so on. Collectively, every event adds to a positive momentum to reduce our dependence and increase our awareness of the problem. We can make a difference, and we will, with or without the naysayers.
The first step in finding a solution has been taken, and that is admitting there is a problem, i.e. global warming does exist. Now politicians, always a few steps behind, need to be convinced. The next step is doing something effective. We enjoy showing off our ‘greenness’ by changing our light bulbs or shunning plastic water bottles and shopping bags or turning our lights off for one hour, but these actions alone are not going to reverse the mess we have created. We need to convince politicians and corporate leaders that issues such as the search for alternative energy, development of sustainable living practices, and climate change are the most pressing issues for our future.
Earth Hour is just a start but I am still asking Are We Green Yet?
Toronto’s the

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Educating for a greener future

Several universities are beginning to offer degrees in renewable energy. The rising challenges of global warming and the search for alternative energy schemes have long necessitated the need for more diverse technological and design skills.

The Oregon Institute of Technology has developed the country’s first four-year undergraduate degree program in renewable-energy systems. This year the program is training 50 students and will graduate its first class.

Illinois State University will start offering a bachelor's degree program focused on renewable energy. The school's Department of Technology will run the multi-disciplinary program that will also include major components in economics and public policy. Students in the program can also choose to concentrate in wind or ethanol.

The New York State Education Department and the State University of New York (SUNY) approved a four-year Renewable and Alternative Energy Applications program that started in the Fall 2006 semester at SUNY Canton.

Arizona State University began offering students undergraduate and graduate degree programs focusing on Alternative Energy Technologies in the fall of 2007.

Many other smaller colleges are offering similar course study.

Most core programs are centered around engineering, computer languages, public policy, etc and additionally require further specialization in photovoltaic, wind, biomass hydropower and geothermal energy development.

Our green future is beginning to look brighter.

When I attended college in the early 80’s Environmental studies was one offering from the geology department. We have come a long way and its good to see the increased interest.

Personal vehicle redefined

Several new versions of the personal vehicle have been making waves lately in our quest for better fuel economy without looking geeky. Depending on your definition of ‘geeky’ these vehicles may or may not be for you. But they do offer fuel economy. As you can see they are to be considered either upgraded motorcycles or downsized cars.
The French built Lumeneo Smera is a fully electric, four-wheeled ‘capsule’ that can easily maintain 80 mph (130 kph) for a distance of up to 93 miles (150 km) between charges. An onboard computer controls what’s called a tilting function so that the vehicle will safely ‘lean’ up to 25 degrees into a turn.
The 770 pound vehicle has an overall length of just under 8 feet and is 2.6 feet wide, easily able to squeeze into any available parking space. The Smera is rear-wheel driven powered by two 20hp electric motors. The lithium ion battery pack can be charged by any standard electrical outlet.
Leather upholstery makes for a comfortable ride. Like most motorcycles, you can carry a passenger but there is no room for anything else.
Lumeneo is keeping a tight lid on the price.

The Naro has been around since 2004 when the Narrow Car Company was licensed by Prodrive to develop the project. What made this concept unique to motorcycle type vehicles is its height. The higher center of gravity requires the vehicle to lean into turns to prevent toppling over. Unlike a motorcycle, the Naro has four wheels and the occupants, one driver and one passenger, are enclosed and therefore protected from the weather.
At less than one third the weight of a typical European sedan it requires just 25 percent of the power to drive it. The Naro is powered by a 400cc, single cylinder 4-vlave engine the produces 20hp. Current mileage it is rated at 100mpg. it isn’t one of the sexy hybrid darlings of the automotive world but it will help stretch your gas

Venture Vehicles has announced a two-passenger plug-in hybrid that gets 100mpg with a top speed of over 100 mph. This three-wheeled vehicle is still a concept using the working name VentureOne. Tilting is once again a key factor in this design and the patented Dynamic Vehicle Control tilting technology from Dutch-based Carver Engineering allows the vehicle to tilt through turns while keeping all three wheels firmly on the ground.
A zero-emission all-electric version is also being developed that will have a range of nearly 200 miles.
Pricing is around $23,000 US for the all-electric and the hybrid will sell for around $20,000.

If you are a motorcycle enthusiast you may miss the wind on your face, and the bugs in your teeth, enjoyment that only a true motorbike can offer, but there is something to be said for the mix of style and comfort these models provide.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Typical politician kowtowing

Now this is just too easy. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both talking up coal in a coal producing state. Who knew?
While campaigning in West Virginia this week, they both said they were in favor of "the cleanest coal possible." Gee, is there such a thing as “clean coal”? Since there isn’t then I guess it is safe for them both to say they are for the cleanest coal possible and still feel very middle of the road.
Besides the act of burning coal pouring tons of pollution into the air we breathe and ultimately our lungs for years to come, the most common practice of ripping coal out of the once pristine wilderness of West Virginia, referred to as strip-mining and mountain top removal, the countryside pays just as high a price.
Is this scar clean?

How about this one? Is this one the cleanest possible?

Obama made the statement that he wishes to create "up to 5 million new green jobs ... including new clean coal jobs." I personally didn’t realize that clean jobs and coal jobs could co-exist. So this one is new to me.
These guys don’t seem to want to push the idea of giving up on coal and getting into some other cleaner, more environmentally friendly form of energy production.
Hey guys, just because your predecessors ripped the earth apart for coal and suffered from black-lung disease doesn’t mean you have to.
Why haven’t they gotten the message yet, that Americas citizens are tired of breathing that old symbol of industrialism?

Kansas strikes down another pollution producer

Is this state legislature for real? With all the proof of global warming landing like a brick wall squarely on their heads, the Kansas legislature has the temerity to introduce a bill that would not only allow the spewing of 11 million more tons of greenhouse gas into our atmosphere, they also had written in the bill excusing energy producers from adhering to the state’s stricter-than-the-EPA-standards of pollution.

Sunflower Electric power Corp tried twice in the last year to obtain approval to add two 700 –megawatt units at a facility in western Kansas. I can’t believe anyone is still pursuing this outdated filthy form of power generation. It is morally irresponsible to actually want to add pollution to our atmosphere. Sunflower president Earl Watkins had the nerve to threaten Kansas families with higher electric rates saying that if the bill did not pass it would “punish our Kansas workers and industries”.

Just who does this guy think he is fooling? Pollution to our bodies and our planet is a far greater threat than the increase in home and business utility rates that we have come to expect almost annually anyway.

"Of all the duties and responsibilities entrusted to me as governor, none is greater than my obligation to protect the health and well-being of the people of Kansas," Governor Sebelius said in her veto message.

Thank-you governor for showing some common sense against outdated dirty energy producing power plants and legislators who cannot see past the dollar signs being waved in front of them.

Sources: Kansas City Star, Reuters, Associated Press

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Earth’s tide as a power source

A planned tidal farm off the coast of South Korea could provide enough power to support 200,000 homes. We have all heard of wave farms converting the power of ocean waves into useable power but what sets this endeavor apart is that the turbines will sit on the sea bed and use the oceans tidal force to generate electricity.

This idea is not new, but the fact that it has not passed out of fashion shows the continued commitment to harness the power of nature to our benefit. And in my opinion, it is an evolved method of using the ocean as a power source over wave power units.

Tidal power is more dependable than wind due to its predictable nature providing a power source available 24 hours a day, in four 6-hour periods. The environmental impact of these units is less also, due to their smaller size and since the blades turn at a much slower pace they are not a danger to marine life.

Some of these massive units sit unobtrusively out of sight on the oceans floor. Pictured here are the 2,500 ton units that British tidal power company, Lunar Energy will deploy in the South Korean Wando Hoenggan waterway. Lunar Energy has been contracted to work with Korean Midland Power Company to install 300 of these one megawatt turbines.

Pictured here is Marine Current Turbine’s concept of a small tidal stream farm. A maintenance vessel is inspecting a raised turbine unit. Marine Current Turbine was the first company in Europe to employ an off-shore tidal marine turbine. This photo represents phase three based on their original concept.

Here’s an interesting concept called a tidal fence. This structure allows a roadway to be built that would be used to connect the shoreline near the City of Richmond, California to the nearby East Brothers Island in the San Francisco Bay area. This 1,000 foot long causeway will produce between 70-100 MW of electricity. This project will be built by Blue Energy Canada and Ocean Energy Inc.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Building for energy efficiency

The 10th Biennial Conference on Business and the Environment was held in Vancouver, British Columbia this past week involving Canada, the U.S. and Mexico concerning the construction of residential and commercial buildings.

A report issued by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation at that conference stated that “green” construction could cut North America’s climate-warming emissions faster and more cheaply than any other environmental measure.

Traditional building techniques have resulted in North America’s buildings releasing more than 2,200 megatons per year. This represents 35% of the continents total greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. If the construction industry would take advantage of currently available and emerging energy-saving technologies this figure would be reduced by 1,700 megaton emissions in 2030! A cut of this size would nearly equal the CO2 emitted by the entire U.S. transportation sector in 2000.

Taking into account the life-expectancy of a building, residential or commercial, we would be taking a huge step toward preventing a very large chunk of future greenhouse gas emissions.

We already know it works. Newly built green buildings routinely reduce energy usage by 30-50% over conventional buildings, so these figures are not just ‘blue-sky’ theory. The most efficient buildings perform more than 70% better than conventional properties.

Municipalities around the world are getting the message and taking steps to ease the transition toward a more responsible habitation with our environment.

European Union leaders have agreed to commit to legislation setting firm targets for a 20% reduction on CO2 emissions before 2020. They have also agreed to reduce energy imports, liberalize internal energy markets to increase competition, reduce taxes on environmentally friendly products, and to achieve world leadership in renewable energy technologies.

Kate from Hills and Plains Seedsavers informed me recently that her home town of Adelaide in South Australia, has passed an ordinance that requires all new construction have rain water collection systems built into the home. Yeah! Great Idea! How about going a bit further and requiring all new buildings, residential as well as commercials have solar power panels installed. A good point she brought up would be to have money collected on your electricity bill go towards having them installed on every existing and new homes.

Back in the U.S., ten states have been identified as the best for solar power, but its not based solely on number of sunny days. The criteria for getting on this list is rebate programs, loans, tax exemptions, regulatory policies, and strong support for setting renewable energy usage targets.

A number of cities around the country, including San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Scottsdale, Arizona, are leading the way with laws that require new public buildings to be green. So far, 54 cities and 23 federal agencies have adopted LEED standards for buildings, says Bill Browning, senior fellow for Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of Green Development: Integrating Ecology and Real Estate. An industry has blossomed around the concept. At least 12,000 people, a record, attended the GreenBuild International Conference and Expo in Denver last November.

Clean Energy States Alliance tells us that more states are turning toward solar thermal heat and hot water heating, because of their efficiency and affordability, as well as their stable technology, and focusing on affordable housing to expand the market for solar.

The marketplace is always ready to supply us with what we need.

There are several companies that are currently making roofing shingles out of solar panel material. This one comes from OkSolar. Another step in the right direction.

Open Energy Corp has innovated the use of solar panels by embedding its “SolarSave” panels onto 4-foot-long plates that roofers can attach to wood, without needing an electrician which in turns can minimize labor costs.

Why aren’t we mandating these types of forward thinking improvements into new construction? Just adding better insulation and sealing cracks around windows and doors isn’t cutting it anymore. Consumers are a pretty savvy bunch. We know these products are out there. We know prices are coming down because of the proliferation of the technology. We also know that by changing the way in which buildings are currently being constructed we can save not only future money in lowered HVAC bills but cut down on the amount of carbon dioxide our buildings put into our atmosphere.

So what’s the hold up?

Green construction often adds less than one percent to the cost of a conventional building, but the payoffs can include energy costs cut by one-third.

Residential builders are slow to catch on to the trend, as they tend to look at what sold yesterday when deciding what to build today. Homebuilders mostly use the same means, methods and materials used 30 years ago. Architects and designers are rarely employed for homebuilding, and most would eagerly jump at the chance to design an energy efficient building. Small companies build most houses and they can’t afford architects, so it’ll take a while for the green trend to filter down.

This is a radical change to traditional building practices so naturally resistance is to be expected. People want energy efficiency but are not willing to pay for customized homes. What we need are a few brave small building companies to build these ‘customized’ homes in hopes that they will become the norm. This will lead the way to more companies selling this type of home and before too long everyone will be building them.

Another problem is the trend towards over-sized houses some of them outfitted with a full-body shower spraying more than 20 gallons of water per minute—enough to fill an entire bathtub in one minute. This type of extravagance should be taxed heavily to make the purchase of them less attractive, in my opinion. “Every three people putting in these shower systems negates the efforts of 100 people putting in efficient products,” wrote Alex Wilson, president of Vermont-based BuildingGreen, executive editor of Environmental Building News and author of Your Green Home. Federal regulations require low-flow, 2.5-gallon-a-minute showerheads. Yet these new multiple-head systems spray 10 times as much or more, “a small portion of which may briefly contact your body,” Wilson wrote, “en route from your water heater to your sewer line.”

“You can build a pretty mediocre house from an energy standpoint at 1,200 square feet and it will probably use a lot less energy than a state-of-art green home that is 3,500 square feet. And that’s a factor we need to be conscious of,” Wilson says.

Okay, so it’s clear that the green building movement is growing and it’s equally clear that not everybody cares about the environment, but those of us who do should be able to do something about it without it financially ruining us. Obstacles remain but it is vital to our health as well as the health of the planet that we not be discouraged. Toronto-based designer Bruce Mau, keynote speaker at the Building Energy ‘05 conference in Boston said “Now that modern technology has put us in a position that we can do anything, what will we do?”

Sunday, March 16, 2008

I’m dreaming of alternative energy

I’m dreaming of a future with alternative energy. Residences with wind and solar devices that provide all of their energy needs. Vast fields of switchgrass and other crops grown for ethanol production that effectively cut our dependence on foreign oil.
Decreased destruction to our environment due to decreased need to search for more oil in our national parks and reserves.
OPEC shrinking in world importance because of a lesser demand for their natural resources. Wars becoming a less viable option because we don’t need to covet our neighbors oil resources.
Maybe this is only a dream but there is no denying it is one worth struggling for. And we can make it happen. If only we were motivated enough to commit to it. Our lack of motivation to implement alternative energy policies has become very costly.
For instance, in our rush to secure continued access to global oil reserves we are spending billions on the military to that end. Money that would be better spent for research of alternative energy sources. While we are playing this hand, other countries, such as France and Germany, have already developed alternative energy policies and have decreased their dependence on oil rich countries. This is turn increases the cost of oil to America, because of the rule of supply and demand. OPEC wants to keep their revenue stream fat and if other countries don’t buy from them then the countries that do have to take up the slack, meaning higher cost to us.
The cost of a barrel of oil is far higher than OPEC’s asking price. The true cost is in its kilowatt/hour ratio. Billions are spent each year in securing of oil, in searching for oil, in the mobilization of our military to assure its continued flow to the U.S. The value of American soldiers lives has no price tag but must be included in the cost of our dependence on oil to squander on oversized SUV’s and transportation of products that consumers can live without.
The U.S. has the a more highly evolved, technologically advanced military than anyone else but we are being left behind in the race toward technological developments of more efficient renewable energy systems. This, to me, is a gravely missed opportunity that will eventually cost us dearly.
Alternative energy will greatly reduce our dependence on the natural resources of other countries. This alone would do more to ease political tensions than any diplomat could ever hope for. It will also reduce the need for such a large military.
To believe in the need for reduced greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints to have a healthier existence is a no-brainer. Yet we are convinced that the cost of alternative energy is too prohibitive. How do these costs compare to the number of deaths from smog-related heart attacks and lung cancer, asthma suffering, costs to clean the air we breathe, costs to clean up the huge stretches of shoreline every time a monstrous oil tanker breaks apart, cost to the environment from searching for a few barrels of oil in places like the Alaska wildlife reserve and Colorado’s national parks or the continued removal of coal by strip-mining the West Virginia landscape. The loss of lives and the continued destruction of pristine and beautiful places such as these is unforgivable when we have valid alternatives.
To make the change from what we have always done to a healthier and less expensive existence takes a leap of faith.
It is human nature to take the easy approach to what we do. Right now it is easier to just plug into the grid because it is already there. We only seem to be motivated to implement an alternative when what we have is taken away from us. Forward thinking people see that we will someday be without fossil fuels, someday our ability to create electricity from water will have diminished due to the increasing demand of an ever increasing population.
We are a part of this ecological system, we do not have to be a slave to it.
The state of California and Texas have incorporated wind energy into their energy programs. Other states such as Massachusetts have been stymied by Senators like Ted Kennedy, who claims wind turbines are great but are unsightly and a threat to birds. This idiotic statement illustrates our greatest problem with moving forward with alternative energy. We need to get people like this and others who are in big oils pockets, out of congress and replace them with people of foresight, people who place the threat against our soldiers lives and the environment above the threat to a few birds.
Replacing ‘old school’ politicians is only part of it. Consumers need to do their part by demanding the market supply alternative energy appliances.
Companies are developing small residential wind turbines and cheap portable solar panels.
Stormblade: the first truly quiet residential wind turbine
Residential solar kits are available
Governments are beginning to respond as well.
South Australia, through new solar feed-in laws, will pay householders and small energy consumers using solar panels twice the value of electricity they put into the electricity grid.
Arizona lawmakers are pushing legislation to create tax breaks for solar energy providers and to attract solar energy use for homeowners.
Maybe my dream for alternative energy isn’t very far off after all.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Your favorite product may not be green!

It was inevitable! Marketing loves to jump on the latest hottest selling trend, and with buzz words like “natural” and “organic” it is easy to slip some shady characters into the mix.
Tests conducted by the Organic Consumers Association, a consumer advocacy group, have found a cancer causing chemical in nearly half of the 100 “natural” and :organic” products sold in markets across the country. Leaders in the natural products industry, gathering today in Anaheim for a national trade show, worry that the test results will taint the industry in the eyes of the public. Well, yeah! And rightly so!
The affected products are soaps, shampoos and other consumer products sold under well-known brands, including Kiss My Face, Alba, Seventh Generation and Nature's Gate products, sold in retail stores across the nation.
47 products had detectable amounts of 1,4-dioxane, which the EPA has declared a probable human carcinogen. Some companies said they would review their ingredients, while others lamented that eliminating the chemical, 1,4-dioxane, would mean using alternatives that irritate the skin or reduce cleaning effectiveness. So, does this mean they think causing cancer is the best alternative? I have a better alternative, use one of the other 53 products.
"For companies to knowingly or even carelessly put a carcinogen into commerce in this day and age is barbaric, I think, particularly products that have the moniker of natural or self-proclaimed 'organic,' " said consumer advocate and author David Steinberg, who directed the study.
They continue to work on the issue, says Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation: "We're not there yet. We have more work to do."
Just remember to not believe everything you read, see or hear. Especially when it involves advertisers.

U.S. Army is turning ‘green’

Purdue University News reported in February of last year that a group of scientists had created a portable refinery that can convert food, paper and plastic trash into electricity. The machine was originally designed for the U.S. military to allow soldiers in the field to convert waste into power. If successful it could be used in civilian applications in the future.

The biorefinery is able to process several kinds of waste at once, so you don’t have to go through the tedious job of separating everything first. Trash is converted into fuel via two parallel processes. The system then burns the different fuels in a diesel engine to power a generator. The machine's ability to burn multiple fuels at once, along with its mobility, make it unique.

It’s portability reduces the potential danger associated with transporting waste and fuel. Also, from a purely military standpoint, the elimination of garbage remnants protects the unit's security by destroying clues that such refuse could provide to enemies.
Testing of the device showed that it produces about 90% more energy than it consumes.
The complex processes involves separating organic food material from residual trash, such as paper, plastic, Styrofoam and cardboard. The food waste goes to a bioreactor where industrial yeast ferments it into ethanol, a "green" fuel. Residual materials go to a gasifier where they are heated under low-oxygen conditions and eventually become low-grade propane gas and methane. The gas and ethanol are then combusted in a modified diesel engine that powers a generator to produce electricity.

Possible civilian uses would be in disaster situations where emergency crews could use the machine to turn debris into electricity to aid in lighting, heating, and communications. An added benefit would be, in some small way, in aiding in the cleanup effort. Also, it could be used as supplemental energy for factories, restaurants, stores, etc.

After successful testing, the U.S. Army installed one of these units in Iraq, at a cost of about $1 million, including the cost of development. The unit weighs about 4 tons and powers a 60-kilowatt generator. A second unit is now under construction.

Photo credit: Purdue Agricultural Communication photo by Tom Campbell

Friday, March 14, 2008

Switchgrass instead of corn please

With the price of everything that uses corn going up, we need alternatives to converting corn into biofuel. USDA completed a 5-year study that shows Switchgrass could very well be that alternative.
Here’s the scoop, switchgrass grown for biofuel production produced 540% more energy than needed to grow, harvest and process it into cellulosic ethanol, according to estimates from a large on-farm study by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The test covered farms from Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota who grew the prairie grass as a biomass fuel source and showed that yields were significantly higher in energy than is consumed in producing and converting the grass into cellulosic ethanol, said Ken Vogel, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service geneticist in UNL's agronomy and horticulture department.

This is great news for everybody concerned, with the exception of the people selling all of that fertilizer to the farmers that gets washed down into the Gulf of Mexico.
"This clearly demonstrates that switchgrass is not only energy efficient, but can be used in a renewable biofuel economy to reduce reliance of fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance rural economies," Vogel said.
The study also found greenhouse gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass were 94% lower than estimated greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline production.
Sounds like a major winner to me.
Researchers reported their findings in this week's (Jan.7-11) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research paper is available online for those of you who like to exercise your scientific mind.
In the future, perennial crops, such as switchgrass, as well as crop residues and forestry biomass could be developed as major cellulosic ethanol sources that could potentially displace 30% of current U.S. petroleum consumption, Vogel said. Technology to convert biomass into cellulosic ethanol is being developed and is now at the development stage where small commercial scale biorefineries are beginning to be built with scale-up support from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Now, will you please, return corn to its rightful place as a food source and away from the biofuel fanatics who are driving our food prices up.
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Would you live in a dirt house?

Here’s a trivia question you could pose to your friends. What is the most common building material in the world? You probably won’t have to wait very long for an answer. And that answer will most likely be wood. Through that big grin on your face you could then truthfully tell them the true answer is dirt. The very soil we walk on, garden in and spend lots of money cleaning off of our cars, our clothes and our bodies.
For centuries on end, earthen construction has been the popular choice, and in some parts of the world, the only choice. The use of earth as a building material is actually far more sustainable than wood, drywall or even concrete.
Earthen construction advocates cite many virtues over conventional construction such as: very low environmental impact, high thermal mass, permeability, low-energy building methods, universal availability, and it’s ‘dirt cheap’. In most cases it is non-toxic depending, of course, where you dig it up from.
Another benefit of its use is that it breathes. Its permeability and ability to absorb and release moisture makes for a very healthy indoor environment.
So why haven’t we seen more of this type of abode sprouting up in our ‘burbs? Quite simply put, Labor Costs.
The construction industry is very heavily driven by the ability to build as many and as quickly as possible. The basic techniques involved in building earthenware homes does not lend itself to the typical cookie-cutter piece-together prefab building technique of today’s modern builder. I read someone who said ‘this class of architecture has often been referred to as the housing of choice for the idle rich and idle poor’. When considering building earthenware structures the only people with lots of time on their hands can feasibly do it. And even if you had lots of time, you couldn’t build them in urban or suburban settings due to housing codes.
There are several ‘non-traditional’ forms of housing that have met with varying levels of success throughout history. The most notable being the adobe house. You can find many adobe homes throughout the American southwest. Here is an example of an adobe house built near Santa Fe, New Mexico. As is common practice with modern adobe homes, the architect, Mark Chalom, also incorporated the Pressed Block and Rammed Earth techniques to make this home a little sturdier.

Pressed Block is the second most popular method, the most notable difference from adobe is that a drier mix of earth is used with a stabilizer such as cement. The mixture is loaded into a press machine, typically hand operated, and building blocks are then formed. Using a mechanical device to compress the earth would yield higher-density and more uniform blocks.

Rammed Earth construction has been adopted to multi-storey earthen construction. This technique is most commonly used in China and France. Rammed earth uses wooden or metal forms for the skeletal structure and then a cement stabilized earth mix is poured in and compacted by pounding with hand tools or with a mechanical compactor. Metal rebar is often added to further increase strength. This method opens itself for the adding of different kinds of earth or mineral compounds to each layer creating a decorative striated layers of colors resembling sandstone. A main advantage to Rammed earth over Adobe blocks is its higher strength and higher insulation value. This photo is of the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Center on the Osoyoos Indian Reserve in British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

There is a great blog called Rammed Earth is for Everyone. Check it out for ideas and some more beautiful examples.
Super Adobe is a recently introduced technique of architect Nadar Khalili and Cal-Earth Institute. It’s origins are in both Middle Eastern earth building techniques and the earth bag building methods. Earth bag construction is very strong and can be built very quickly. It has evolved from military bunker construction techniques, and temporary flood-control methods. This method involves laying down successive layers of sandbag tubes filled with a cement stabilizing earth or sand mix to form the walls and each coil is locked to those below it by coils of barbed wire. Super adobe offers great reduction in construction time and labor and is therefore a favored method of constructing emergency shelters.
Straw bale construction may at first seem out of place on a list of earthenware construction techniques but the stacks of straw bales are covered in a mesh lathe and then plastered with adobe. The stacks of straw is ‘nailed’ in place by long metal pins, and load bearing walls must have heavy wooden, steel, or concrete posts standing upright between them, or concrete is poured into holes drilled through the bales, in order to support beams. These buildings offer high insulation and fast construction. As you can see from the photo, you would not be able to tell that this house is made from straw and adobe.

So, if you want to build a new house with cheap, readily available materials just look beneath your feet. And sit back and dream what you could with all that money you will save without a house payment.

Consumer goods transported underground

If goods could be transported underground, we eliminate tons of air pollution and save millions of dollars in fuel costs. Imagine a subterranean network of distribution tubes, driven by air, that could deliver goods right to your own basement saving you from having to drive to several different stores. Delivery time would be cut drastically as well.
Just such a system has been used under Paris and Berlin until the 20th century. Lines were built in the U.S., the UK, Canada Russia, Japan and Germany.
Trying to solve the problems associated with pneumatic air systems may make this idea too expense but with the introduction of electromagnetic drive such as that used on Maglev rail systems around the world, this idea might be worth further study.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

EPA gets tough on smog

Everyone has noticed it, it is no secret how the very air we breathe has been slowly deteriorating to the point that many cities now regularly post air quality warnings on their television, radio and newspaper news broadcasts.

After failing to enforce air quality standards imposed by the EPA decades ago, they are going to try again. Obviously, if those standards had been enforced when first introduced we would not be in the mess we are in today.

So, what is the EPA going to do differently this time? To start, they are ordering a multibillion-dollar expansion of efforts to clean up smog in cities and towns nationwide. Sounds like a plan. Corporations will of course not be bothered by it because they will slow-dance around in the court system delaying the requirements crying that they are too cost-restrictive for them, just as they did before, and nothing will ever come of it.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced it was tightening the amount of ozone, commonly known as smog, that will be allowed in the air. But the lower standard still falls short of what most health experts say is needed to significantly reduce heart and asthma attacks from breathing smog-clogged air. Falling short. Sound familiar? It should. The recent attempt to get automobile manufacturers to improve their cars fuel mileage and lower emission levels fell short too.

This government is more about talking a good game than actually taking the steps to do anything about it. All the while insuring that their corporate buddies don’t suffer any loss to their bottom line.

Admittedly it is a very big problem and just writing some stricter standards is not going to change anything.

The ‘most stringent standards ever’ claims EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. But they are only going to be enforced in 345 counties out of the more than 700 monitored. That means that 355 counties are still going to continue polluting at their current rate. Fifty percent seems to be on par with the output level of the EPA. This is what we commonly refer to half-assed.

This new ‘get tough’ policy comes from the same people that refused to allow California and a host of other states to get tough on automobile pollution within their own states.

This administrator is ignoring two of the EPA’s own science advisory panels on air quality and children’s health by lowering the ozone parts per billion from 80 to 75 when the panels have proof that it needs to be lowered to 60. In this move, Administrator Johnson is leaving the most vulnerable members of our society, children, the elderly and asthma suffers to fend for themselves. Then he has the nerve to make the statements that “…I adhered to the science” and the new standard will ”yield health benefits valued between $2 billion and $19 billion."

Sure its going to cost us more to clean up this mess, this is what happens when you allow polluters to not adhere to standards for so long. Since you did not enforce the previous standards what makes us believe you will enforce these?

The utility and oil companies of course opposed stricter standards, even at this very minute level, saying it will increase their costs and therefore ‘hurt the economy’. Give me a break. The oil company is especially being audacious when they claim to care about the economy in light of the fact they are instrumental in raising oil prices to record level.

George W. Bush, in his usual corporate-profit driven mindset, wants to over throw the 1970 federal Clean Air Act that says costs cannot be a factor when setting health standards.

Health experts and environmentalists view the setting of health standards without consideration of cost as essential for assuring public health. As well they should. This clearly shows Bush and Johnson as protecting corporate profit over protecting the public.

Corporations are complaining about the stricter standards now as a preliminary for lobbying for more protection from the government in the form of tax breaks and incentives, which they will most likely get. They care very little about the economy because the government will always bail them out.

The setting of this new standard is nothing more than setting up corporations for getting more money from our government. It has nothing to do with protecting us or our environment.

Once again we see more talk and a little less action.

Monday, March 10, 2008

How green can we be with water?

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? Can we even be green as we want with our water?

"Water is the driving force of all nature."
Leonardo da Vinci

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 the recycling game and how we abuse the redistribution of useable items. This issue covers the necessary use of water vs. the wasteful use of water and just how safe our water really is.

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 or LED’s, yet we buy our water in non-degradable plastic bottles by the caseload. Are we just environmentally confused or are we fooling ourselves into thinking we are environmentally friendly? We take energy conservation seriously only around the time we pay our monthly bills. Or do we? Water usage is another resource that we continually use more of than we need to. Gasoline is the other. The difference with water is that it is a renewable resource and gasoline is not.

Water is necessary for the life of every living thing on this planet. We need it to keep our lawns green, to flush toxins out of our bodies, to rid our homes of our bodily waste, to cleanse ourselves, to keep our cars and nuclear power plants running cool, and for recreation.

This resource is finite, in that we cannot create more of it. It has been used over and over in countless billions of cycles, from ocean to clouds to rain to lakes to man-made water filtering systems to our homes to sewer drains to man-made sewage treatment systems and eventually back to the ocean. When man took his first drink of water and then peed it back out onto the ground, he became a part of that cycle and we have been striving to improve the system ever since. Only after our demand for usage of water increased to the point where Earth’s natural filtration system, earth itself, was not cleaning it up well enough before it got back to us to drink again did we realize the necessity to clean it up ourselves and to not pollute it.

Yet we continually find evidence that not all of us are doing our part in keeping it clean.

A recent Associated Press investigation found a vast array of pharmaceuticals contaminate the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.

Last month, March 2008, Los Angeles shared the honor, with Clearbrook, British Columbia, as having the best tasting water in an annual international contest and yet Los Angeles is on the list of cities where the pharmaceuticals were found. With contradictions like this how can we trust what anyone tells us about our drinking water?

Clean and tasteful are relative terms.

Water providers rarely disclose results of pharmaceutical screenings, unless pressed, the AP found. For example, the head of a group representing major California suppliers said the public "doesn't know how to interpret the information" and might be unduly alarmed.

From this admission it can be concluded that they think the general public is too undereducated to handle the truth and therefore we should remain ignorant.

We live in the information age and yet not all information is readily available to us until a news story spins the facts to appear more sensational than they should be. Then we panic. But only briefly, because after realizing there is very little we can do, we do nothing. Life goes on and we buy more bottled water and lose a little more faith in those who are paid to protect us and those who are supposed to report facts to us.

How much water is available to us?

Water parks, golf courses, residential use, food production, and the booming bottled water industry are putting a very large demand on our water resources. And every year we spend billions of dollars to clean it, to transport it, and to distribute it to where we can use it.

Of all the water this Earth has to offer, an estimated 13.6 billion cubic kilometers (including the oceans and polar ice caps), only 3% is useable freshwater. And rainfall runs off too quickly for efficient use.

Water pollution is a persistent, barely manageable problem, more so in third world countries, but it occurs in every country. Pollution of rivers and lakes reduces accessible freshwater supplies. Each year roughly 450 cubic kilometers of wastewater are discharged into rivers, streams and lakes. To dilute and transport this dirty water before it can be used again, another 6,000 cubic kilometers of clean water are needed - an amount equal to about two-thirds of the world's total annual useable fresh water runoff.

How much do we need?

The amount of water that people use depends on basic needs and how much water is available. Withdrawals of water have grown to meet demand for all types of use - for irrigated agriculture, industry, and municipal (household) purposes. As the world continues to urbanize at rapid rates, the demand for potable water for municipal use is expected to soar, out pacing the capacity of most cities to provide it.

Population growth, globally, is nearly 80 million per year which translates to an increased demand for freshwater of about 64 billion cubic meters a year - an amount equivalent to the entire annual flow rate of the Rhine River.

In 1995, 31 countries, home to nearly half a billion people, regularly faced either water stress or water scarcity. In 2025, 48 countries containing about 3 billion people will face water shortages. By 2050 the figures will be 54 countries containing 4 billion people, or 40 per cent of the projected world population of 9.4 billion.

A substantial portion of the total freshwater supply is needed to sustain marshes, rivers, coastal wetlands, and the millions of species they shelter. As humanity withdraws a growing share of all available freshwater, less is available to maintain these vital wetland ecosystems. Already, over 20 per cent of the approximately 10,000 freshwater fish species in the world are either endangered, threatened or going extinct.

Are we wasteful with our water?

Freshwater mismanagement has created deserts, poisoned millions of acres of land with salt and killed entire lakes (see the Aral Sea disaster).

We are experiencing floods where there never used to be floods. We are experiencing droughts where there never use to be droughts. Are these ‘unnatural’ occurrences due to how we use our water? Building a dam cannot help but alter the environment both upstream and downstream. But are we destroying the environment by doing so?

The way in which we use water to distribute fertilizer and pesticide to our food crop is not necessarily wasting water. After all using the water to produce food cannot be considered wasteful. In fact, since water is a renewable resource, meaning it all gets recycled and we use it over and over countless times, are we truly ‘wasting’ water when we use it?

You can argue that we overspend for the use of water when we look closely at how much water we use in our daily lives. Maybe we don’t need to leave the water running while we brush our teeth, or maybe we take a little longer than necessary in the shower. But are we truly wasting water? It is more accurate to say that we are wasting money.

We abuse water when we throw garbage in our rivers instead of disposing of it in a proper manner. It can be considered wasteful when we take into account the amount of water used to keep a golf course green compared to the number of people who use that golf course and then take into account the amount of water needed to keep a city park clean compared to the number of people who use that park. But in the end, all of the water we use to support golf courses and parks returns to the Earth and is then returned to us to use as we see fit.

I have to confess to allowing tap water run a little too long when I am hand washing pots and pans and when I brush my teeth, etc. These are habits that I am ashamed of but am consciously trying to change.

I don’t use automatic car washes anymore, opting to wash my cars by hand and not as often as I used to. I throw the soapy water on the lawn so the water soaks into the ground instead of down storm drains where it has to be filtered and cleaned. The soap does not harm the grass. Rinsing the car off does send soapy water down the street gutter but I don’t feel I am using as much as an automatic car wash.

How many of us have a dripping faucet that we plan on getting around to fixing some day? Did you know that a faucet dripping just 2 drops per minute can amount to almost nine gallons a month! How many drops of water is coming out of that dripping faucet per minute? In most cases it is a matter of replacing a washer that costs less than one dollar!

Cost of bottled water

I buy bottled water from Costco. I am only mildly ashamed of this fact. My city government has, in the past twelve months, issued three notices about our drinking water. Each notice informed us, 4 months after the contamination, that routine testing had revealed coliform bacteria contamination. Lovely. So, for two very obvious reasons, one being that the bacteria was found, and two, that it took so long for us to be notified, I drink bottled water. FYI, coliform bacteria is used as an indicator of the presence of other pathogenic organisms of fecal origin. Fecal pathogens include bacteria, viruses, protozoa or parasites. In those notices, we were never told what those other pathogens were.

In my family’s case, it is far cheaper for me to purchase bottled water than to take the chance of getting sick.

I learned of another expense of recycling plastic that, while not exactly money out of pocket, still costs tons in wasted water used in cleaning the plastic. During the process of recycling plastic, a variety of harmful acids and detergents are added to the water to separate the labels and glue from the plastic. Deflocculants are then added to pull the solids out of the wastewater. Finally, the wastewater is treated with chemicals to balance the pH level of the water. This process leaves the plastic sanitized and ready to be recycled. Annually, approximately 40 million gallons of wastewater, complete with harmful detergents, chemicals, acids, bases, deflocculants, and contaminants are flushed down the drain and back into our fresh water supply. This system is considered a lesser evil than creating plastic from scratch.

After decades of countless billions of gallons of contaminated water being introduced to our water tables, a new process of preparing plastic to be recycled has been discovered by ECO2 Plastics. Using a biodegradable organic solvent made of sugar beets and corn (in conjunction with liquid CO2). In the entire process now uses no water or harmful chemicals, and the liquid CO2 is distilled and used over and over again, as is the solvent.

Is there more we can do keep our water clean? Is there more we can do to use our water more efficiently? The answer is yes to both of these questions.

We use water to make money, we use it to make other products that make us money, we use it to keep ourselves healthy, doesn’t it make sense to take better care of it?

Since we cannot stop using water let’s think more intelligently about what we put in it.

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 use of electricity.

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


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EPA Ground Water & Drinking Water frequently asked questions

Friday, March 7, 2008

Buy a rainforest, save a life

We have all seen these signs on the side of our freeways that say Adopt-A-Highway and then highlight whatever business has contributed money to keeping that section of freeway clean. Well, there is a similar program in effect that adopts rainforest acreage.

When I heard of this my inner-skeptic said ‘yeah, I’ll bet the money goes to saving the forest’

Okay, once I settled him down and began investigating I learned that there actually are some very helpful well-meaning organizations that do put the money to good use. And by good use, I don’t mean lining their own pockets. For instance, Yachana Foundation (formerly Funedesin) has been able to purchase 4,300 acres of rainforest in Ecuador from the approximately 4.3 million dollars collected in donations and other sources. This land was later declared by the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment as a protected forest.

Now 4,300 acres is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what is being lost on a daily basis. See Rainforest Facts.

Yachana understands that just adopting a rainforest is not going to save it from destruction. Through their dedication to educating native Amazonian youth and the money they raise through ecotourism and sales of cacao chocolate they were able to establish the Mondana Medical Clinic, 17 community banks and 21 schools throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon.

These are pretty impressive accomplishments for anyone. To ensure continued financial support in order to buy more forest land, they developed an eco-tourist trade that attracts thousands of international visitors each year. Their Yachana Lodge, built amidst 4,000 acres of primary and secondary rainforest, allows guests to view thousands of species of exotic plants and animals in their natural habitat. Their dining room serves local dishes prepared from locally grown ingredients.

They grow what is billed as the world’s purest and healthiest chocolate. Yachana Jungle Chocolate, sold under the Yachana Gourmet label, is made from all-natural ingredients such as “cacao nacional”, the most aromatic and rich variety of chocolate bean on the planet. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Yachana Gourmet is recognized by the Fair Trade Federation as a responsible operator and 100% of profits support the rain forest conservation and sustainable development programs.

They also produce Jungle chocolate with Pineapple, Macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, Coffee, and Coconut. For more information click here.

My inner-skeptic is beginning to relax.

But then I read about tree theft and wonder if we are ever going to get serious about saving our planet. Rainforest Action Network tells of trees being stolen from U.S. National Forests by companies such as Weyerhaeuser.

The Rainforest Alliance is trying to help by raising funds for conservation groups in tropical countries that work to stop rainforest destruction. they are currently supporting groups in Belize, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicarauga.

They have a learning site filled with free, complete lesson plans stories, presentations, articles, posters and background descriptions of conservation projects for schools to bring awareness to kindergarten through sixth grade age children. Through their multidisciplinary curriculum they teach the importance of protecting the world’s natural resources while providing students with opportunites for direct action.

The Nature Conservancy has the Adopt an Acre® program to help protect the dense forest of Costa Rica’s Osa Penisula.

A site called Hope For The Rain Forests provides a list of organizations dedicated to protecting endangered rain forests through monetary contributions.

EcologyFund is set up so that if you click on a button describing the wild land or rain forest project you want to see saved, advertisers will donate to that project. You can only donate one time per day to each project. Personally, I am too skeptical to believe this works without me actually giving any money but I cannot find anything derogatory about its legitimacy. If you find something, please let us all know.

We all know the importance of saving the rain forests but we hear so much of it that after awhile we tend to block it out. But, if you are willing to do something, hopefully I have been able to enlighten you as to a few organizations that seem worthwhile to donate to or buy from. Try some of that Jungle Chocolate, it is really good.

If you know of a fraud, concerning one of these organizations, or some other organization. Or, if you suspect you are the victim of a fraud of any kind, tell the world and check out these sites. These sites also give you tips on how to avoid fraud.