Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why we should use clotheslines, or at least natural gas dryers.

"..the saturation of electric clothes dryers...was 84%. The average number of loads per household is about 6.6 – call it 7. Doing a little ballpark math; with 117 million households in the country, guesstimating about 85% have their own laundry equipment, we have available 106 billion kWh to dry clothes. That is equal to 24 typical 500 MW power plants running full tilt every hour of the year..."

106 TWh. One Hundred Six Terawatt Hours. To dry people's clothes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Normalizing the price of energy sources

How much would the price of natural gas have to rise to make other fuel sources more price-competitive? Seeking an answer to this question led me to look for a way to normalize the prices of each in order to give the numbers meaning. In order to do this, let's start with the Btu per unit of a handful of common fuels (numbers are approximate, within 1% or so):

  1. Natural gas = 100 kBtu/ccf
  2. Propane = 92 kBtu/gallon
  3. Heating oil = 138.5 kBtu/gallon
  4. Gasoline/ethanol blend = 112 kBtu/gallon
  5. Electricity = 3.4 kBtu/kWh 
The price, per unit, of the above fuels are from the Energy Information Administration, with the dates they were collected, in dollars:

  1. Natural gas = 1.08/ccf, May 2012
  2. Propane = 2.78/gal, March 19, 2012
  3. Heating oil = 4.11/gal, March 19, 2012
  4. Gasoline/ethanol blend = 3.84/gal, September 17, 2012 (personal purchase)
  5. Electricity = 0.11/kWh, June 2012
 So, using algebra (study hard, 7th and 8th graders!), we come to the following prices for each kBtu of energy:
  1. Natural gas = 1.08¢
  2. Propane =  3.02¢
  3. Heating oil =  2.96¢
  4. Gasoline/ethanol blend =  3.42¢
  5. Electricity =  3.23¢
It isn't a coincidence that the price of the other fuels are relatively close. In the long run, prices will tend to level out as people switch back and forth between fuels. The price of natural gas is so low because of a glut in supply due to hydraulic fracturing.

So, the price of natural gas would have to triple (!!!) in order for other fuels to be price competitive with it. When organizations talk about using natural gas to generate electricity, they are trying to take advantage of this extraordinary price. However, if (when) the price of natural gas goes up, it will be considerably less competitive.

On a side note, while electricity is competitive with the other four, it has instantaneously lost at least 60% of its potential energy if it is coal generated. Only about 40% of the energy in coal is converted to electricity at your outlet.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Addicted to Energy

Despite my love for the green movement, I often find that my cynical nature prevents me buying into a lot of the potential environmental solutions that are tossed around. This distrust of pie in the sky dreams is probably why I enjoyed the Elton B. Sherwin's book "Addicted to Energy" so much. Rather than pondering what the technology breakthrough of the future may be, Sherwin examines what solutions we have available right now and explains how they can be effectively implemented. The book draws from his experience as a green venture capitalist and is written as a letter to a state governor. Sherwin briefly describes roughly a hundred of the best ideas that he has come across from his work and then explains what steps the governor must take to implement them in his or her state.

Rather than going into a lengthy review of the book - it's good - I'll instead talk briefly about the two ideas that Sherwin identifies as being the most critical. Luckily, they also relate closely to what Green Iowa does. How swell!

The first solution is to attach an energy grade to every home and building in the state. This project would have to be undertaken by energy companies who have access to large amounts of energy usage data. By comparing energy usage across similar sized houses in the same climate zone, the energy companies could roughly rank how energy efficient each home is. This ranking system could then be easily translated into an A to F scale, with the highest-performing 20% of buildings receiving an "A", the next 20% receiving a "B" and so on. While this system does not differentiate between usage habits and building performance, it still provides a useful comparison tool.

There are two main reasons for implementing this system: information and incentives, both of which appeal to me as someone who has studied economics. In order for people (or businesses, for that matter, but they are really just groups of people) to make sound economic decisions, all parties must have equal and complete information. Put simply, some people may not realize they are spending more money than they need to.

Once the information is made available, then home and building owners now have incentives to improve the efficiency of their structures. If a homeowner receives an "F" grade and is told that on average a similar home that receives an "A" grade spends, for example, $100 less on their energy bills every month, they now have a monetary and more tangible incentive to improve their home. Looking past the monetary incentives, people also do not like to lose. It's easy to see how someone who receives an "F" grade could feel like they are being beat and would want to improve simply so they are not left at the back of the pack.

Additionally, if more information is released, the incentives will also increase. Let's say, for example, that homeowners are not only given a grade, but also told where they rank on their street or neighborhood ("your home ranks 9th out of 11 houses on your street). Now that the rankings are more personal, some amount of neighborhood competition may enter into the equation. Maybe instead of a neighborhood competing for the best Christmas light display, they could compete for the most energy efficient home.

The last measure that could be taken for this solution is the most drastic and controversial, but would likely have the largest impact: making building grades public. In this system, homeowners would not only be able to see where their house ranks, but also where all other homes rank. The problem is obvious: privacy. Most people will not like having anything that relates to their financial situation released publicly. However, there are two major advantages to publicly releasing the records. First, the vain one: the incentive to improve your "F" home is drastically increased if all of your neighbors now know you have received an "F". People will not want to publicly fail anything, so it is likely that they will try to improve as fast as possible. From a green perspective, the beauty of this system is that the grades are a moving target. The grades are based on performance relative to other homes, not some set level, so if every "A" home improves, then every "B" home will have to improve even more to move up a grade. The system establishes a never-ending battle to improve. The other major advantage is that if the records are public, then the grades can enter into purchasing decisions. If two houses on the market are exactly the same except that one received an "F" and the other an "A", it is likely that the "A" home will sell for a better price. Now it pays to have an energy efficient home.

If you've made it this far and still have a functioning brain, you may be thinking exactly what I was at this point while reading this book: the plan sounds great, but where will the money come from? Most people do not have the money necessary to make drastic home improvements, and the people who cannot afford the improvements are often the owners of the homes that need the improvements the most. Incentives are pointless if people do not have the means to make improvements. This problem is addressed with Sherwin's second major solution: Energy Savings Accounts (ESAs).

The idea, at the core, is simple. Each month, charge homeowners some percentage of their energy bill and put that money into a savings account. This money, which would be attached to the home rather than the homeowner, would only be made accessible for investments in energy-saving improvements for the home. The percentage required of each  homeowner could be related to the building's grade: a building with an "F" grade might be charged an amount equal to 15% of the energy bill each month, where a building with an "A" grade would only be charged 5%. This system would force homeowners (or, said more nicely, provide incentive to homeowners) to steadily grow investment potential.

Still with me? If so, you may be thinking about major problem number two: well great, now we're just creating higher bills for the people who couldn't afford the improvements in the first place. How is this helping? Well, if you're reading this blog, you probably know enough about energy efficiency in homes to know that many investments will pay for themselves in savings very quickly. With that in mind, one necessary feature of the ESAs would be the ability to take out interest free loans for investments with short or mid length payback periods. This would allow homeowners to make improvements on their homes without having to wait to save up the money. Since they will be putting the money into the ESA with or without the energy-saving improvement, the interest free loans allow for immediate results without risk to either party. If these improvements are done wisely and correctly, the savings experienced by the homeowner could partially or even entirely offset the payments being put towards the ESA. Additionally, since the investment should lower energy use and possibly improve the home's energy grade, the investment should lead to lower bills and thus lower the amount deposited in the ESA each month.

There is one issue at this point that is still not resolved in my mind: if ESAs were put into law today, and all homeowners were to take advantage of the no interest loans, where would the capital come from to pay for all of these improvement projects? The government would likely have to set aside a large amount of cash that could be tapped into for ESA loans and then repaid through ESA payments. While there is still little risk in this system, the money would have to remain available at all times to support the potential amount of investment projects. I don't see that as a popular solution. One thing that Sherwin mentions only in passing is that the money could come from the fines gathered through other "green taxes" (carbon taxes, cap and trade systems, pollution permits, etc.). Creating a store of "green capital" through these taxes is a realistic option, but it requires these other systems to be in place, many of which are not up and running today.

I really do believe that the systems of building grades, bill disclosure and ESAs have the potential to be real solutions to some of the energy issues we face today, but I am unsure if the correct green infrastructure is in place to support these programs. Hopefully once the environmental moment gains a little more steam, these systems can be successfully put into action.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Fire Tornadoes, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Green Iowa Americorps

My ten month service term with Green Iowa AmeriCorps (GIA) has been the most diverse work experience I have had to date. Part of this is due to my relatively short employment history, another part seems to be the general flexibility needed by anyone working in nonprofit.  But the mission of Green Iowa has given me unique opportunities to learn about our daily lives as we teach and assist the Cedar Rapids community.

Take waste management, for example. And get your mind out of the gutter, I’m talking about landfill waste not sewage.

The Linn county Solid Waste Agency, fondly referred to as SWAG, has been a gracious mentor of the GIA team. SWAG's education program, headed by the energetic Jason Evans, gave Green Iowa the opportunity to learn more about the details of trash disposal and teach Cedar Rapids sixth graders about the proper disposal of our trash.

What did we learn and teach? For starters, recycle! Our team has gained insight about recycling that so much of the public is unaware of; in fact, we have learned so much that I hope to dedicate an entire article to recycling. But that will have to be an article for another time.

Back to waste management! The landfill, throwing stuff away right? If I may be so bold to assume what other people think, it goes like this: recycle what you can, check chemicals for hazardous symbols, and let the garbage truck deal with the rest. A fairly straight forward thought process that should avoid major catastrophe, right? Not exactly, trash disposal is far more complicated and perhaps that also deserves an article of its own, but for this article I want to explain the black cloud that hung over Iowa City for several weeks in June 2012.

For those of you not in Iowa City, or within 30 miles of Iowa City, let me tell you a story. On Saturday May 26 at 6:41 pm the Iowa City Fire department received a call from the landfill reporting a fire in one of their cells (trash holes). While landfill fires are not an uncommon occurrence in the U.S. they do present several causes for concern. Intuitively you can guess that a landfill contains a lot of very burnable trash that can potentially fuel a very large fire, you can also assume that not everyone disposes of their flammable, explosive, or poisonous chemicals properly. Which in turn can lead to an especially nasty fire with nasty fumes.  What most people do not know about landfill construction is exactly what caused this Iowa City fire to burn for several weeks.

Luckily, landfill construction is what Green Iowa learned about and taught to sixth graders in April. I will give you a quick lesson on how an average landfill is built.

Like most things in life a landfill is more complicated than what it appears to be, a great big hole in the ground. Because landfills are often close to cities, but just far "enough" away from cities, there is an inherent risk that the trash byproduct may contaminate local groundwater. Trash byproduct is liquid that filters through all the trash, and carries the undesirable characteristics of the trash with it, i.e. poisonous and harmful characteristics not mention just plain gross characteristics. 

The simple graphic of a landfill, not too complex.

This liquid is called leachate (pronounced leech-eh) and is carefully monitored and prevented from entering our groundwater by a horizontal draining system under the landfill, covered by 4 feet of compacted clay, covered by a non-porous geomembrane, which is covered by a porous substance that allows liquid through but keeps solids from sinking through the membrane and into the ground. All of that is what goes under the actual trash, it is quite the safety net. In the past, the Iowa City landfill used sand for this porous material but landfills are bowl shaped depressions and sand would often slide down the plastic surface of the geo-membrane. Shredded tires were used instead since they stayed in place, unlike sand and still allowed liquid through while keeping solids from sinking. The key difference between the two? Tires burn.

Leaping Landfills Batman! That’s a whole lot of design just to hold some trash.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that this is not a criticism of the Iowa City waste management. Tires work better than sand, their decision to line the containment cells with tires was the best decision for waste management, and the risk of improper disposal should not prevent the landfill from making the best management decision for their containment cells.

Unfortunately, the risk here is that rubber fires are hard to extinguish and the Iowa City Landfill fire is believed to have been started by improper disposal of a hot object such as cooking coals. Now throwing away hot coals is obviously destined to cause problems. So if you learn nothing else from this article, please please please do not throw away anything still on fire. Thank you.

The Iowa City fire department responded to the fire by setting up multiple fire breaks, working through the night to beat the spreading flames and operating heavy machinery amongst fire tornadoes. Fire tornadoes. You read that correctly. High wind speeds and large flames created these cyclones of destruction to assault the fire department and landfill employees in the night. Forgive the hyperbole, but this is right out of a movie script. Bruckheimer may have already bought the rights to this story.

Actual fire tornado from the actual Iowa City landfill fire

If you are wondering why the fire department did not simply try to put the fire out then you have discovered why I told you about the tire lining in the landfill cell. In addition to being flammable the tire lining creates a chemically fueled fire that requires more water and fire retardant foam than the fire department could muster. The fire department actually used a combination of 750 gallons of water and fire retardant foam on a relatively small area of the fire, the fire itself was suppressed but the ground temperature was well above 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and simply reignited.

Instead the city has been using a stir burn and cover method to suppress the fire. A fire needs three things fuel, flame, and oxygen, the stir, burn and cover method uses the dirt and trash itself to smother the burning material denying it the oxygen necessary to sustain a flame.

I quite like this method for suppressing the fire, it is clever and certainly saved thousands, if not millions, of gallons of water and foam from being sprayed into the containment cell. And clever solutions typifies the response to this fire overall. I heard plenty of complaints about how long the fire left smoke hanging over Iowa City and to be honest I joined in the complaints until I took some time to learn more about the response. The fire breaks that the Iowa City Fire Department created kept the flames from spreading and creating a larger cloud to hang over the city. Had the firefighters began combating the flames directly it is likely they could not have doused the flames before it spread across the cell. As it happened, the fire fighters contained the flames, protecting the rest of the containment cell from the flames and buying the city time to develop the best response.

Containing the fire is not the same as protecting the fire

I hope that this article has shed some light on the Iowa City landfill fire. After watching the Iowa City briefing on the landfill fire I felt there was a great story to tell and that some of the crucial details had been ignored by the news media. It was also a moment where I realized I had a greater interest in something as strange as a landfill fire because I had spent a good week teaching about the landfill. Regardless of how interested or disinterested you are in landfills themselves, I hope you learned something in this article.


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Senate File 2342

Senate File 2342

PDF Signed Copy - Gov. Terry E. Branstad http://coolice.legis.state.ia.us/linc/84/external/govbills/sf2342.pdf

Iowa Legislature Web Copy

Before I begin, a quick explanation. The following is not a verbatim copy of the bill. The above links are, instead I have placed my own summary of the language I personally deemed important in normal text (like this) and my own explanation is in italics. I hope to provide a more thorough piece on Senate file 2342 with additional info on how one receives the tax credits and where to find qualified solar installation professionals.

The Good
Div I Sec 2 Sub-section 38 (Geothermal energy)
a. The value added to the home from the Geothermal system installation (parts and labor) shall be exempt for 10 consecutive years from property tax in the form of a geothermal heat pump tax credit.

A section of this bill that has not gotten a whole lot of attention is the tax credit for geothermal systems. Cedar Rapids GIA has, sadly, not had the opportunity to work on a house that uses a geothermal system but we like the sound of these systems. Incredible efficiency and with a decent return on investment (at least compared to the ROI of solar power) it is hard not to like these systems. Now the state of Iowa offers even more incentive for residents to get these installed in their homes.

The Ugly
Div II Sec 7.1
a - 50% tax credit of the federal residential energy efficient property credit (defined in section 25D of the Internal Revenue code) Basically this gives the taxpayer a tax credit equal to the sum of
30% of qualified solar electric property expenditures made by taxpayer during the taxable year
30% of qualified solar water heating property expenditures made by the taxpayer during the taxable year
30% of the qualified small wind energy property expenditures made by the taxpayer during the taxable year
30% of the qualified geothermal heat pump property expenditures made by the taxpayer during the taxable year
   of which a taxpayer can only receive 50% of this in Iowa, not to exceed $3,000 

b -  50% tax credit of the federal energy credit related to solar energy systems as provided in section 48 of the Internal Revenue Code (Energy credit valued at 30% of the solar expenditures of an “energy property” (long list of qualifications but if it uses solar power it is considered an ‘energy property’))
   of which a taxpayer can only receive 50% of this in Iowa, not to exceed $15,000

My goodness, taxes. The language of taxes. Ugh, what a headache! From what I can parse out of this bill and with some additional research into existing law, this new Iowa bill adds state credit to the existing Federal credits. I’m working on checking the facts but this is my understanding. Picture a cake. Or a parfait, or an onion, or an ogre, just picture something with layers. Seems to me that the Iowa legislature has made this bill another delicious layer in the tax benefit cake of renewable energy. Important to note: this bill is not providing cash benefits for Iowans to install solar power. I’ll say that again: this bill is NOT providing cash benefits for Iowans to install solar power. If only the state were offering such sweet incentives. Instead, when you fill out your yearly taxes you can write off some of your energy expenditures based on how much electricity your solar power system generated, once for the Federal tax credit and again for the Iowa state tax credit (again, I am not 100% sure on this, but this is what I am understanding from the language of the bill). So that means that the caps on these tax credits, $3000 and $15,0000, can only be reached if you install solar systems large enough that 30% of your property expenditures on solar energy is equal to the credit caps. I’m guessing these limits are aimed at large businesses.

The Bad
Div II Sec. 3
b - “A tax payer who is eligible to claim a credit under this section shall not be eligible to claim a renewable energy tax credit under chapter 476C”

Well it’s not all sunshine and free energy. Politics is the art of compromise and if our politicians seem to forget that when talking to each other they certainly do not forget that when offering their constituency benefits. The “Renewable energy tax credit under chapter 476C”, or just Iowa Code Section 476C, is a program that rewards participants (a “producer or purchaser of energy from an eligible renewable energy facility” - producer here being the person with a solar panel installed) for all of the energy they produce. Approximately $0.015 per Kilowatt-hour of electricity produced through renewable means. (Note: this is based on 2009 numbers, the rate may have shifted since). While this does not seem like a lot of money (frankly, it is not) in 2006 four individuals claimed $10,148 dollars in tax credit and in 2007 twelve individuals claimed $17,297 in tax credits. There were some businesses that claimed nearly one million dollars, but my focus here is on the little guy. Remember this is all from the state of Iowa alone.
With the new bill, those who wish to received the state tax credits in addition to the federal tax credits may no longer be allowed to file a claim under 476C. And thus miss out on their $0.015 per Kilowatt-hour of electricity. Whether the new bill will prove to be more effective than Section 476C for rewarding solar energy remains to be seen. The development of solar technology could use all the help it can get and taking away an existing incentive (though some may argue this incentive has merely been replaced) does the renewable energy market no favors.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Earth Day: A Brief Glimpse at the Beginnings of a Global Movement 

For me, April is one of my favorite months of the year here in Iowa. The weather is getting warmer, trees are budding, and our lovely state is once again covered in a lush green. People are out enjoying the outdoors, working in their gardens, biking and appreciating all the gifts Mother Nature has to offer this time of year. I think it is no accident that April is also home to Earth Day; a time to give back and raise environmental consciousness. Though most people know of Earth Day and by its title alone, realize its purpose, what many people don’t realize is where this day came from and the impact it had on us as a nation.

When Earth Day was born April 22nd, 1970, over 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment and the lack of accountability of pollution created by factories, oil spills and destruction of habitat.

Earth Day achieved a rare thing at that time, enlisting support from both political parties, rich and poor, urban and rural alike. The first Earth Day eventually led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the passing of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. At a time when our country was in great turmoil, environmental awareness was able to take center stage for the first time, opening doors for programs like ours to continue to educate communities, engage volunteers and create tangible solutions to the environmental crisis of today.

Ashley Wolter, Program Director

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Maybe Its Just Indigestion: Review of Gasland

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.
Ansel Adams

I have a confession to make. I love “This American Life”. Now this isn’t just a shameless plug for NPR, but before I get into my discussion on the documentary Gasland I want to touch upon what makes “This American Life” special, besides Ira Glass’ voice. “This American Life” is, simply, good radio. It is engaging, its personal, it is thought provoking, it combines artistic elements in radio with thorough research. The show lays bare the very personal stories of the individuals but retains a cool and calculated structure to guide us through the highly emotional narratives. The result, a radio piece that leaves listeners with an experience that is at once personal and educating.
This, in summary, describes my experience with Gasland.

Initially, Gasland strikes me as something that is misdirected. It has the artsy feel of cinematography major and the narrative mechanics used to set the stage are by no means revolutionary. Yet it is all effective. The narrator uses a level, almost deadpan, radio voice and when combined with the aesthetically pretty camera shots the film becomes the documentary of a journey.

But here I am, two paragraphs into my review and I haven’t even told you what Gasland is about. Josh Fox is the narrator and the muse for this film. The son of two Pennsylvanian self proclaimed hippies Josh has lived in the Pennsylvanian backwoods. Exploring the creek that runs behind his house, plucking at his banjo, and presumably learning cinematography in his ample spare time. Josh’s story begins like so many others who also live in rural areas, he receives a letter from a gas company informing him that his property sits over a large deposit of natural gas, in Josh’s case the Marcellus Shale. How large? The Marcellus Shale alone extends across the states of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia. And this isn’t the only massive deposit of natural gas in the United States.

Go google a map of natural gas deposits in the U.S., I’ll wait.

So Josh receives a letter informing him of the deposit of gas that sits under his property. The deposit that makes up the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” and the company offers Josh over four thousand dollars per acre of land to drill for this gas. For Josh, that would have been $100,000 dollars, for a signature.

The film weaves in and out of technical descriptions about the methods used to extract natural gas from the ground, hydraulic fracturing (fondly referred to as fracking), and the personal narratives of Josh and those affected by the fracking. The film is highly personal. Josh carries it with him everywhere and there are more than a couple off center shots of him driving through the nation as he visits homes where tap water explodes into flame, the hides slough off of cattle, and meets individuals who have leased their land only to lose their sense of smell, taste, and their way of life.

What impressed me most was the level of detailed research and the accessibility of these complex and well concealed processes. The gas companies did not willingly give up any information and often times the individuals Josh interviewed did not seem to know as much about the fracking process as Josh. The film showed just how horrible and mindless the fracking process is and the clear lack of concern from the gas companies.

If I had to level one complaint at Gasland it would be that the full complexity of this issue was not explored. If you have seen the film you will understand that this film is already quite complex. But lets go back to “This American Life”. I heard a similar piece about gas drilling in the Pennsylvania area. Similar health issues were described, the burning water coming out of the tap, dying animals, contaminated water, this really is four horsemen types of awful. But the NPR radio piece found those individuals who leased there land and were happy for the money. Throughout Gasland you wonder, how can this still be going on. When I hear that over 596 chemicals are dumped into natural drinking water supplies I don’t need to hear much more to know that this fracking cannot be good. But the money paid to landowners has divided the affected populations. A cool, quick $100,000 can turn a good neighbor into a political rival. This issue was largely ignored by Gasland and, I believe, is critical to understanding the difficulties associated with fighting the corporate exploitation of our most precious natural resource, water.

In today’s world of the occupy movement, the populist movements and the springtime of revolution it is interesting to see one individual dig deeper and do the work to uncover such well concealed information. It remains to be seen what the public can do with such knowledge.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Anecdotal Case Study of Programmable Thermostats

I have had a programmable thermostat in my humble abode for a couple of months now. I thought I'd share the benefits I've seen from using it, the settings I use, and why I choose to use them.

Leading off with the benefits. Due to the settings I've chosen to use, I've seen my summer electric bills drop by almost $40/month compared with the same months last year--despite this summer being warmer than it was last year. For a typical programmable thermostat, costing about $50, this creates a payback period of five weeks and a Net Present Value over the course of five months (months of likely AC use) of nearly $150 (4% discount rate); that is, given an investment return rate of 4%, you could put $150 in your pocket today and end up with the same money. It has most certainly generated positive value.

These savings were achieved with the following settings. In the overnight hours during weekdays (9p-7a), I have it set for 70°. From 7a-9p, I leave it set for 85°. On the weekend, I have it set for the same 70° overnight and 75° during the day.

While I concede that these are by and large very warm settings (especially for the evening hours after work), they clearly make an enormous difference in the bottom line. However, by keeping those settings that high, especially during the hottest days, I am paying a huge dividend to both my utility company and to the environment.

On hot days, utilities achieve what's called "peak demand" or "peak load." When this happens, especially to utilities that do not have their own generation capabilities, the companies have to go onto the open market and pay spot-market prices for electricity. These can be several dollars (or several hundred dollars) per kilowatt-hour in five-minute increments. Considering retail prices are less than ten cents/kWh (here in Iowa), this is a HUGE markup. By having my thermostat up, I reduce the system-wide demand and reduce the need to pay exorbitant prices on the spot market.

Utilities that have generative capabilities can use generators to meet peak demand. These usually use an enormous amount of relatively expensive fuel, relatively inefficiently. My utility company has such capabilities. Instead of making it necessary to use that fuel and pollute, I choose to suffer mildly until 9pm.

Why 9pm? If the answer hasn't made itself evident yet, that's the time at which there is significant drop-off in load demand. Moreover, by using electricity overnight, I help smooth overall load demand--which is a topic for another post!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Environmental Book Reviews (Round 2)

Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution
By Heather Rogers

While reviewing recently published environmental literature, this book really looked like it had potential. The author argues that the problems in the environmental movement have little to do with technological shortcomings or lack of will among voters. Instead, the environmental movement has been unsuccessful because it has been pulled into the same old economic system that it should be trying to reform. This can be seen in modern environmentalism’s new-found materialism. The author’s introduction provides an example by talking about the increasingly common re-usable shopping bags. I am going to go a step further and post this article on buying green televisions. While I obviously have respect for the authors of that article, it seems to have never occurred to them that a person can live a fulfilling (and very sustainable) life with no television at all.

Overall, the book was well researched and clear in it’s writing. However, my biggest critique seemed to be that the information gathered by the author was not used to it’s full potential. The author seemed to build up an interesting series of arguments only to stop short of applying all of this information to the big picture. This was especially strange because clearly the author had opinions in this area. One example is this excerpt: “Capitalism’s market imperatives, which have remained mind-bogglingly unchallenged in the pall of economic collapse dictate that profitability comes first.” This quote is surprising because it seems to have been casually mentioned as a well established fact in the middle of an otherwise bland chapter on green automobiles.

Despite falling short of being truly ground-breaking, this would be an excellent read for someone who is just getting introduced into environmentalism and trying to live a more sustainable life. It provides a unique prospective on many different aspects of sustainability.

Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization
By Richard Manning

With some books, it takes a few chapters to figure out the author’s bias and motivation for writing. It’s refreshing that you know what you are in for by the time you finish this book’s title.

The first portion of this book lays out the history of agriculture with a strong bias against the effects of sedentism and grain production. While doing this, the author selectively picks facts from the archaeological record and ignores any that might support other conclusions. Reading his arguments, this book reminds you that with a big enough data set, you can pretty much argue any conclusion. Additionally, the author insists on connecting trends in ancient agriculture to modern agriculture. Although interesting for the sake of argument, these connections are generally weak and require more data to be convincing.

This books gets interesting once the author moves beyond more ancient history and begins to discuss the worlds food culture in the last 100 years. There is an especially interesting section on the historical roots of America’s obsession with food. This section alone makes the book worth reading.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.

The title of this post comes from a Chinese proverb and I thought it a fitting assessment of a project undertaken by members of Green Iowa Americorps in Cedar Rapids recently.  Eric Nost and Thor Anderson have been working with Trees Forever and the City Arborist, Todd Fagan, to plan a large-scale tree planting in the Wellington Heights neighborhood of CR.  Yesterday our detachment of GIA, along with a handful of community volunteers, planted 35 trees.  Today we will plant 20 more.  The benefits of these "street trees" are many and wide ranging.  When planted in cities, trees do two things of exceptional importance to our organization: they provide shade to houses in the summer--thereby lowering fossil fuel use and residential cost for air conditioning--and they sequester carbon (and in turn produce oxygen, a sort of subsidiary benefit).  These benefits only increase as the trees mature.  Which is why, of course, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  We'll have to settle for now.    

Monday, May 16, 2011

Its Already Here

Last week I finished reading Bill McKibben's latest book, Eaarth, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which another member reviewed previously.  In one of his central theses, McKibben argues that climate change is not exclusively an issue for future generations, but that we humans and our industrial activities have already radically altered our home planet, enough so that it requires another name.  Hence "Eaarth."  He goes through a litany of commentators, all of whom trot out the same bequeathing-a-spoiled-planet-to-our-grandkids line that has been environmental conventional wisdom for some time.  But that line is no longer serviceable: the climate is changing nowHere's a video from The Weather Channel (via climateprogress) that makes this point enthusiastically.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Corridor Cities Plan for Nature

The Cedar Rapids Gazette briefly mentions our collaboration to plant trees in a Cedar Rapids neighborhood in an Earth Day article about what Corridor cities are doing to plan for nature.