Sunday, June 27, 2004

'Green' homes starting to flower despite cost

Although still small in number, "green homes are becoming more propular. The initial cost still scares people away but these homes are constructed of recycled products, and are energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Rising energy prices have helped to make them more attractive. In 2003, 29,000 green homes were built, compared with a total of only 19,000 between 1990 and 2001.

Jim Hackler is the director of the Earthcraft House Project, one of 26 local green building programs nationwide. The Atlanta organization has helped produce 1,600 green homes in Georgia in the past three years and has plans to expand to Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

Hackler attributes the green building growth to an industrywide marketing effort.

"They are working on transforming the concept from being equated to inaccessible renewable homes that are a specialty item into a common technique that is both relevant and affordable," he said.

According to Joan Kelsch, who works with the Arlington County Environmental Planning Department in Virginia, homeowners are now on the pulling end of the green production cycle.

"People are becoming more aware of energy costs, toxins and fresh air flow," Kelsch said. "And just in general, that green building is not only beneficial for the environment, but for your personal environment [health and productivity], and as a result people are demanding more products."

Building green no longer signals digging deep into the wallet as more and more off-the-shelf environmentally friendly materials are becoming available and affordable.

Green designer Sigi Koko, who has offices in Pennsylvania and Virginia, believes that green building is close to becoming a piece of the mainstream residential market. She did some green design work for the Montgomery Park Business Center in Baltimore.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Replacing fossil fuels in a "clean energy" economy

A new solution to the pollution and acid rain caused by coal burning power plants is coming in the form of "woody biomass"

Burning woody biomass has not always been considered a clean technology, since it often aggravates air pollution and exacerbates respiratory disease. But a combination of some new processes with wood's natural advantages over coal can turn wood into a low-emissions energy resource. Burning woody biomass instead of coal can reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (the primary cause of acid rain) by more than 95 percent and reduce nitrous oxide (the primary component of smog) by more than 70 percent.

Public Service of New Hampshire, the company that owns and operates Schiller, plans to modify the station by replacing one of its three fossil-fuel boilers with a high efficiency, wood-fired boiler. The plant will get its fuel from locally generated wood chips, sawmill residue, and other clean low-grade wood materials and wood byproducts such as tree tops and branches normally left behind in the wood-harvesting process.

"It is a very exciting project," said Gary Long, president of Public Service. "It will create an important new market for New Hampshire's wood industry and the workers and suppliers who depend on that industry for their livelihoods."

While generating enough electricity to power approximately 50,000 homes, the boiler's conversion may spur the reduction of more than 380,000 tons of emissions annually. According to Craig Wright, a clean air official at New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, "These reductions could have notable environmental and public health benefits in the surrounding community."

Some environmentalists are cautiously optimistic. Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says the company must guarantee that the wood waste is free from toxic contaminants and that the low-grade wood materials are harvested in an environmentally responsible manner. Since errors such as mixing lead paint-covered shingles or arsenic-treated planks into a load of wood chips can create a hazard worse than coal dust, Greene calls the decision to burn waste wood "a complicated issue."

Public Service's decision to switch to a renewable energy source is influenced by innovative policy decisions made by neighboring states to the south. Massachusetts and Connecticut have both recently passed Renewable Portfolio Standards that require utilities in those states to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable power sources. These new regulations are establishing a market for renewable energy credits (RECs), which can be sold to companies that are required to either produce renewable energy themselves or buy paper credits representing the environmental benefits of an energy project.

Although just buying a credit may sound much less environmentally friendly than building a wind turbine, for example, in fact the benefits are almost identical: Revenues generated from the credits create the financial incentive for another utility to build a wind turbine or, in the case of Schiller, to convert a filthy coal boiler into a cleaner biomass boiler.

New England–based energy policies aren't the only political force driving new wood power projects in the United States. The federal departments of Energy and Agriculture recently awarded $23 million to fund 19 biomass projects with appropriations from the 2002 Farm Bill. Last July, the Department of the Interior joined with Energy and Agriculture to sign a memorandum of understanding on "Woody Biomass Utilization" that establishes consistent policies and procedures to support burning wood for power. In the West, some states that feel vulnerable to forest fires are actually offering to pay power companies to harvest more wood for fuel.

Obviously there are limits to how much woody biomass can be harvested--but that is the central dilemma we face as we enter the age of limits.

Friday, June 25, 2004

A green roof for a healthy city

Toronto has picked up on a green idea that the Europeans have been using for the past two decades; rooftop gardens of bergenia, blazing star, coneflowers, white lambs' ears, lavender, and other low-maintenance grasses, mosses or succulents. The idea is spreading as city and federal environment departments and a private coalition called Green Roofs for Healthy Cities spread the word about the benefits.

Green roofs absorb storm water, slowing the runoff into city sewers that carries dog waste, road oil, roof tar and lawn chemicals into lakes and rivers.

They insulate buildings, moderating hot and cold temperatures and reducing energy use.

They release oxygen into the atmosphere, countering excess carbon dioxide levels from industrial and auto emissions and helping to reduce the "heat-island effect." That effect is the roughly eight-degree difference between the temperature of a city and that of the surrounding countryside, and it promotes smog.

They also extend the life-span of a roof to 30 years from 15.

Environment Canada has calculated that greening 6 per cent of Toronto's rooftops would yield huge environmental and economic benefits for the city; an annual, direct reduction in air pollutants of 30 tonnes, a 5- to 10-per-cent decrease in smog-alert days each year, a drop in greenhouse-gas emissions of 2.18 million tonnes a year, annual energy-cost savings of $1-million, a reduction of the urban heat-island effect of 1 to 2 degrees.

Green roofs are the best of both worlds; they benefit the environment and they save money too. It's time to give this ideawider use.

Friday, June 18, 2004

The necessity of sustainability becomes clear when you pull on one thread of our current society and begin to realize how much begins to unravel as a result. For example, greenhouse gases are warming the planet, making ever growing amounts of land uninhabitable, which only lowers the number of people the earth can ultimately sustain.

In the U.S. the drought in the West could be worst in history.

The drought gripping the West could be the worst in 500 years, with effects in the Colorado River basin even worse than during the Dust Bowl years, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey say.

“That we can now say with confidence,” said Robert Webb, lead author of the new fact sheet released Thursday. “Now I’m completely convinced.”

The drought has produced the lowest flow in the Colorado River on record, with an annual average flow of only 5.4 million acrefeet at Lees Ferry, Ariz., during the period 2001-2003 , adjusted for the effect of Glen Canyon Dam. By comparison, during the Dust Bowl years, between 1930 and 1937, the annual flow averaged about 10.2 million acre-feet , the report said.

In other parts of the world, climate change is turning land the size of Rhode Island into desert wasteland every year, threatening to send millions of people fleeing to greener countries.

One-third of the Earth's surface is at risk, driving people into cities and destroying agriculture in vast swaths of Africa. Thirty-one percent of Spain is threatened, while China has lost 36,000 square miles to desert -- an area the size of Indiana -- since the 1950s. ...

'It's a creeping catastrophe," said Michel Smitall, a spokesman for the UN secretariat that oversees the 1994 accord. ''Entire parts of the world might become uninhabitable."

Slash-and-burn agriculture, sloppy conservation, overtaxed water supplies, and soaring populations are mostly to blame. But global warming also takes a toll.

Each facet of the problem aggravates another facet, causing an ever growing snowball effect, that can only be solved by a drastically smaller population.

Monday, June 14, 2004

An oped piece by George Will -- George F. Will : yesterday exhibits many of the typical "everything's OK--nothing bad will happen" arguments about oil--plus adding in his own poor analysis for additional flavor. It is worth looking at because much of the population either doesn't think about these issues or buys the head in the sand approach taken by Will.

Oil produced the modern world— its ways of work, warfare and recreation — and soon, we are told, the end of cheap oil will produce abrupt, wrenching changes in the way we live. Changes, certainly, but not convulsions, because the modern world responds to price signals.

That is why U.S. energy efficiency — energy consumed to produce a dollar of GDP — has roughly doubled since the oil shocks of the 1970s. America's less than 5 percent of the world population consumes more than 20 percent of all oil. Surging demand by India and especially China will cause prices to rise. And terrorists, or chaos in Venezuela — America's fourth-largest supplier, behind Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico — or Nigeria, the fifth-largest, could cause prices to soar.

However, in 1920 the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline was twice today's. To match 1981 prices, a gallon of gasoline today would have to be $3.50. Inexpensive gasoline is one reason why since 1988 the average gas mileage of U.S. passenger vehicles has declined, and why in the 2003 model year, for the first time since the mid-1970s, the average weight of a new car or light truck was more than two tons (4,021 pounds).

In 1977 President Carter said we "could use up all the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade." But today known reserves are larger than ever. Reserves and production outside the Middle East are larger than they were 31 years ago, when a State Department report was titled "The Oil Crisis: This Time the Wolf is Here."

In 1971, a year before Texas output passed its peak, U.S. production was more than two-thirds of the nation's needs. Today the nation imports 54 percent of the oil it uses. M.A. Adelman of MIT notes that in 1971 non-OPEC countries had about 200 billion barrels of proven reserves. In the next 33 years they produced 460 billion "and now have 209 billion 'remaining.'" Note Adelman's quotation marks. To predict actual reserves would require predicting future exploration and development technologies.

However, the rate of discovery has been declining for several decades. Of course, oil supplies are, as some people say with a sense of profound discovery, "finite." But that distinguishes oil not at all from land, water or pistachio nuts.

Russell Roberts, an economist, says: Imagine that you love pistachio nuts and are given a room filled 5 feet deep with them. But you must eat them in the room and must leave the shells. When will you have eaten them all? Never. Because as it becomes increasingly difficult to find nuts amidst the shells, the cost of the nuts, in time and effort, will become too high. You will seek a substitute — pistachios from a store, or another snack.

Oil over $40 a barrel accelerates exploration for new fields, and development of known but technologically inaccessible fields, including some fields four miles below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, where there may be at least 25 billion barrels. High prices may also prompt development of hitherto economically unfeasible sources, such as U.S. oil shale and Canadian tar sands. Tim Appenzeller, writing in National Geographic, says tar-sand deposits in Alberta "hold the equivalent of more than 1.6 trillion barrels of oil — an amount that may exceed the world's remaining reserves of ordinary crude." Alberta, a future Saudi Arabia? Perhaps. Full-throttle production of oil from tar sand is not economical. So far.


MIT's Adelman notes that even before 1800 — before the coal-fired industrial revolution — Europeans worried about exhausting coal supplies. "European production actually did peak in 1913 and is nearly negligible today." Billions of tons remain beneath European soil but are uneconomical to remove. So far.

"Reserves and production outside the Middle East are larger than they were 31 years ago..."

Yes, reserves and production are higher than they were three decades ago, but what is key with oil is not how much is left, but how fast can you pump it, since--as Will notes--demand is surging. There are two points that Will overlooks with this argument. First, two thirds of all proven oil reserve claims are in the Middle East; in other words--OPEC--and OPEC lies about its reserves. In the 1980s OPEC set its policy of allocating production quotas on the basis of the proven oil reserves claimed by each country. Within a year or two of this decision, every OPEC country had doubled the amount of proven oil reserves it claimed--even when no significant new discoveries had been made. These claims are almost universally considered to be overstated.

The second problem with Will's statement is that reserves can increase at the same time that production falls. For example, ChevronTexaco has reported six straight years of increasing oil and natural gas reserves, a cumulative increase of 14 percent, more than one billion barrels. But at the same time production has fallen for each of those six years. The company's annual output has fallen by almost 15 percent, and the declines have continued recently despite a company promise to increase production in 2002. Other companies have experience the same problem.

The majority of the world's oil production comes from only a few hundred giant and super-giant oil fields. Thousands of smaller fields won't add up to the production that these majors put out; and the majors just aren't being found anymore.

"In 1971, a year before Texas output passed its peak, U.S. production was more than two-thirds of the nation's needs."

Will very nearly hits on the core of the matter here. Not only did Texas production hit it's peak, but production for all of the U.S. peaked and rolled over into decline. Even when Alaska and offshore production were brought online, they were not enought to stem the decline. In 1970, the U.S. produced 10 million barrels of crude oil a day. Today we produce less than 6 million barrels a day. This "Hubert Peak" will happen worldwide at some point.

"Oil over $40 a barrel accelerates exploration for new fields, and development of known but technologically inaccessible fields..."

But it doesn't necessarily produce higher rates of production. The oil shocks of the 1970s lead to the biggest oil drilling boom in U.S. history in the 1980s, but we still ended the decade pumping less crude than we began with.

"tar-sand deposits in Alberta "hold the equivalent of more than 1.6 trillion barrels of oil — an amount that may exceed the world's remaining reserves of ordinary crude." Alberta, a future Saudi Arabia?"

Not in terms of daily production. It's much more difficult to get oil out of tar sands than by poking a hole in the groundmore takes mroe energy and tremendous amounts of water. Canada is alreadysignificant significan portion of its oil production from tar sands, but it will never replace conventional oil.

"Of course, oil supplies are, as some people say with a sense of profound discovery, "finite." But that distinguishes oil not at all from land, water or pistachio nuts."

Will's most amazing mistatement. Yes, land, water and pistachio nuts are finite, but they are either renewable (water and pistachio nuts) or need to be conserved to prevent a catastrophe (soil.)

"When will you have eaten them all? Never. Because as it becomes increasingly difficult to find nuts amidst the shells, the cost of the nuts, in time and effort, will become too high. You will seek a substitute — pistachios from a store, or another snack."

Will almost gets it, but not quite. Implied in this statement is the fact that consumption will decline, although the implications are totally ignored. Unlike pistachio nuts, there is not readily available substitute waiting at the store; nothing produces as much energy or is as versatile as oil. Finding the alternatives when oil production goes into decline is at the heart of producing a sustainable economy, and it is not an easy problem.

"Billions of tons [of coal] remain beneath European soil but are uneconomical to remove. So far."

The final fallacy--that money drives everything. Most of the oil ever made, as well as most of the coal remain beneath the ground and always will. The problem comes not from how much it costs to get it out, the problem comes when it takes more energy to get it out of the ground than you get from it. Then it is no longer an net energy source, and it won't matter how much the price goes up. Net energy gained, not the market will drive the future of energy production.

Friday, June 11, 2004

The Province of Prince Edward Island has set a gola of producing 100% of their electricity with wind energy by 2015. This ambitious goal would make them nearly impervious to the looming energy crisis. Anybody who has ever experienced a Canadian winter knows the necessity for maintaining a reliable energy source there. With this action Prince Edward Island may be able to ride out the storms that are coming/

Province Moves Toward 100% Electricity from Wind Power

he province of Prince Edward Island (PEI) plans to introduce renewable tariffs later this year, the first jurisdiction to do so in North America. The tariffs will be used to develop community-owned wind generation on the island.

The renewable tariffs are part of a comprehensive proposal to produce 100% of the island's electricity with wind energy by 2015. Wind turbines at North Cape currently produce 5% of Prince Edward Island's electricity, the highest percentage of wind generation within a province in Canada.

Prince Edward Island's ruling Progressive Conservative Party endorsed the renewable energy proposal at its recent caucus. The caucus will table enabling legislation this fall.

"This is the most far-reaching proposal of its kind in North America," says Paul Gipe, acting executive director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA). "I hope that the federal political parties make note of what PEI is doing."

Canada is in the midst of a bitter election campaign where wind energy has become part of the debate. The ruling Liberal Party has been duelling with both the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois over who will do more for wind energy. Neither the Conservative Party nor the Green Party have made any specific proposals. None of the federal parties have proposed renewable tariffs.

"It's heartening that the federal parties are finally paying attention to the potential of wind energy in Canada," says Gipe, an expert on the topic, "but none of the party platforms compare to PEI's proposal. Let's hope that PEI's plan lights a fire under the federal parties."

Prince Edward Island's renewable tariffs are patterned after those used for nearly two decades in Denmark. Germany used renewable tariffs until 2000 when it introduced a more advanced tariff program. Spain also uses renewable tariffs. The three countries are the world's leading manufacturers and users of wind turbines. Collectively they employ nearly 80,000 in the wind industry.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Baby steps toward green energy.

Community Works With Solar Power

This old mill city built prosperity from the force of its waterways. So there was a legacy of renewable energy when the local electrical utility sought to thrust Gardner into the age of inexhaustible sun power, ahead of everyone.

On a summary evening in June 1985, Massachusetts Electric Co. dispatched three managers, two engineers, and an analyst to demystify photovoltaic power for about 70 mostly working-class locals gathered in a college auditorium.

Panels that convert sunlight into electricity had been powering satellites. Now they could electrify Gardner's homes, not to mention its library and even the Burger King. They would help the country save oil and coal used by utilities to make electricity.

People listened politely. But what got them excited -- and helped launch the first photovoltaics test on a community scale -- was a question:

How would you like to save up to 40 percent on your electric bills?

Sun-catching panels soon covered rooftops of 30 homes and five other buildings around town. The experiment is still running today, almost 20 years later.

Hot rocks energy moves one step closer.

The process of producing electricity from hot subterranean rocks is set for another step forward.

Minotaur Resources' off-shoot Petratherm Limited is the latest to develop the process in conjunction with Adelaide University.

Petratherm will hold a briefing session for potential investors in Adelaide tonight, with others to be held later in Melbourne and Sydney.

If successful, geothermal energy could provide electricity for the next stage of the major Roxby Downs copper-uranium mine.

Shell, PPM Energy dedicate Colorado Green Wind Power project

Scottish Power PLC unit PPM Energy Inc. and partner Shell WindEnergy Inc., Houston, dedicated the Colorado Green Wind Power project in Lamar, Colo. in mid-May. Construction began in December 2003 and the commissioning phase began in February.

Situated on more than 11, 000 acres south of Lamar in southeastern Colorado, the wind farm—the fifth largest in the country—can deliver 162 Mw of power from 108 General Electric turbines. Prime customer Xcel RFP said that, compared with the current high cost of natural gas, the wind farm is expected to save its customers about $6 million/year.

And yet, for all the progress being made in renewable energy, the Department of Energy still predicts that 20 years from now, renewable energy will amount to less than 7 percent of Americans' fuel. By then oil production will almost certainly be in a steady decline. Meeting the energy demands 20 years from now will be extraordinarily difficult.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

When men can't be fathers [June 05, 2004]

This is what might be called a feedback loop--one of nature's ways of ensuring sustainability. Environmental pollution caused by man is leading to low sperm counts in a growing number of men, supressing the birth rate.

In almost 40 per cent of couples who present to fertility clinics, it is the men who are infertile.

Causes of infertility include sperm production problems such as low sperm count and low sperm mobility, to the blockage of sperm from the testes and, in some cases, hormonal problems where the brain does not produce adequate hormones to stimulate sperm production.

Low sperm production is the most common of these causes, affecting 60 out of 100 men who are diagnosed. ...

Professor John Aitken is a bio-chemist at Newcastle University in NSW who believes that increases in testicular cancer are just one of the signs that pollutants are playing havoc on male fertility and the health of babies.

"Oxidated stress from environmental pollutants are damaging the health and fertility of men. Smoking is a leading factor," Professor Aitken explains.

"Oxidated stress means the sperm can be unable to fuse with the egg but it also means that the sperm that do fuse may contain damaged DNA.

"The children of these men are four times more likely to have childhood cancer."

Overseas research also points the finger at environmental pollutants.

Studies in Florida swamplands in the US have shown that male alligators' external genitals are changing due to exposure to DDT, a chemical used to control mosquito populations.

And last year a study in Italy, published in Fertility and Sterility, showed a decreased sperm count in men who collected tolls on major roadways.

While this may be a personal tragedy to the men involved, it is a necessity if a sustainable society is to be achieved. Unfortunately, low fertility rates may be too little and to late to avoid much more seriour "feedback loops" such as starvation and disease from bringing the human population back to sustainable levels.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Financiers tell Governments to "Get Real" on Renewable Energy

A new study released today at the International Conference for Renewable Energies Bonn shows a US$1.9 trillion potential for renewable energy markets in the next 15 years, but only if "real concerns" by the financial sector are addressed.

"The world needs more energy, but conventional sources are unsustainable and finite", says Mr. Thomas Loster, Head of Weather/Climate Risks Research at the Munich Reinsurance Company and Chair of UNEP FI's Climate Change Working Group. The most important thing that policymakers can do, he says, is create confidence in the long-term future of the renewable energy market by policies that make "the deal on the table" financially attractive.

One of the study's major recommendations is for governments to create "tough targets and 15-year schedules for the production of renewable energy".

Calling for a "better deal" for renewable energy, UNEP's Executive Director Klaus Toepfer says "it's time to get down to business".

Affordable finance will be needed to implement the International Action Plan being developed at the Bonn Conference, he says, while agreeing with financiers that Governments need to "get real" with the policies to make that happen.

"Sustainable development needs sustainable energy, but sustainable energy needs investment", Mr. Toepfer says, encouraging the 275 people attending the Sustainable Energy
Finance Event at the Bonn Conference to develop new products for the rapidly evolving renewable energy sector.

Time is growing very short for the development of a sustainable economy. The means are being developed but they won't save us without a major committment by all countries to make renewable energy a part of their public policy.