Archive for category Climate Change and Energy

What They STILL Don’t Know About Climate Change


Let’s face it, some people are either too dense to understand basic science or too selfish to try. It’s no more difficult to understand the causes of climate change than it is to be a German shepherd trapped in a hot car with the windows rolled up. (The carbon dioxide that blankets our blue-marble planet is of course the windows, and the panting dog is us.) If climate change deniers can handle a little grade-school science, here it is: ultraviolet waves come into the car but heat-inducing infrared waves can’t get out. Okay?

Years after the hellish Holocaust, we’re still stunned that we didn’t stop Hitler soon enough to save millions of lives. What will Americans say 75 years from now when coastal subway systems are fish tanks? When the insurance companies are bankrupt, and earthquakes from mindless fracking are as common as sunrise? They may say, “We thought reports about ‘icebergs the size of Delaware’ were just fake news, and besides we liked it when it was shorts-weather in December. But now, when our cities are too hot to be outside and air conditioning has gotten so expensive, we realize we probably should have done something…”

We should do many somethings, like redesign more sustainable towns and cities; cut way back on meat and palm oil consumption; incorporate greenhouse gases into major industry products like plastic, packaging and cement; transition to a less invasive agriculture; switch to electric cars powered by wind, solar, hydro, biogas, and geothermal energy; cogenerate heat and electricity in factories and power plants; continue to make our buildings and appliances more efficient; walk more; grow more food locally and eat less energy-intensive, processed food… These are some of the things we can do right now, each of which will create lots of jobs, lots of profit, and lots of satisfaction. Keep America Great! Terrific!

Humans are not the primary cause of climate change? Really? Do the deniers ever consider that our exhalations alone contribute huge amounts of carbon dioxide? (Then throw in all the power plants, factories, decimated rainforests, cars and trucks, consumer goods, and synthetic fertilizers – that’s a lot of gas, folks.) I’m not suggesting we can stop breathing but we can surely stop putting our fingers in our ears, because here’s the deal: Even if humans were not the primary cause of climate change, we’d still have to do something about it – quickly – to keep the German shepherds, children, and cornfields from keeling over. This is the weak link in the deniers’ argument: They assume incorrectly that if humans are only a minor contributor (not true), we also don’t need to respond to the crisis. What? Acknowledging that the world’s weather has gone completely haywire in recent decades, we need to mobilize WWII-style to reduce greenhouse gas emissions no matter who or what put them there. Unless we want Earth to become another Venus, where the average temperature is 864 degrees Fahrenheit – hot enough to melt lead. Why is it so hot there? Clouds of carbon dioxide that built up in the planet’s atmosphere, partly because there weren’t any plants to recycle it. It’s irrelevant that humans aren’t to blame for climate change on Venus; what matters scientifically is that CO2 – along with other greenhouse gases – is the cause of the massive overheating that makes Venus permanently uninhabitable.

Why can’t the deniers admit, under oath, that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels have increased 30 percent to their highest levels in more than ten million years? That methane and nitrous oxide concentrations – even more powerful greenhouse gases than C02 – have also skyrocketed? Come to think of it, aren’t these deniers the same people who believed (or pretended they did) that tobacco, radium, chlorofluorocarbons, and leaded gasoline were harmless and that coal dust didn’t cause Black Lung disease? The same sort of people who insisted the Earth was flat? They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

I want to cordially invite deniers by the droves to the April 29, 2017 Peoples Climate March in Washington, where there will be plenty of lemonade and cold beer vendors because probably even in April it will be record-setting warm. I’ll personally buy anyone a refreshing drink who volunteers to sit in a hot car with all the windows rolled up.

Prospecting for Energy Savings in Business

U.S. business will play a key role in achieving President Obama’s call for 80% of U.S. electricity from clean energy by 2035 or before, and the billions of dollars saved can also put people back to work. Forward-looking companies and federal incentives have stimulated industrial process innovations, lighting upgrades, and fleet fuel efficiency improvements, but there is still a mother lode of opportunity to generate much less industrial energy per unit of product – a third to a half less.

Profit isn’t the only stimulant.  Especially important in the U.S. are renewable energy standards set by twenty-nine states, mandating that increasingly percentages of electricity must be generated by renewable technologies in specified time periods. (Another five states set ambitious voluntary goals.) Together, these states consume close to half the country’s electricity; when New York called for 24 percent; Illinois 25 percent, and California, 33 percent, renewable energy as an industry swiftly moved from fantasy to reality. EPA’s declaration that greenhouse gases would be indeed be regulated as air pollutants was another stimulant, as is the virtual guarantee that Congress will eventually pass a climate change bill, putting a price on carbon emissions.

Another key policy strategy that may soon be on the table is the incremental shifting of subsidies away from the coal, oil and gas industries – which annually amount to $47 billion or more – and toward renewable energy. Belgium, France and Japan have phased out subsidies for coal, and Germany intends to phase out the entire industry.  encouraging innovation and helping to shift automakers toward efficiency.  Another great idea is share the profits of efficiency improvements along the whole supply chain, making designers, builders/manufacturers and marketers stakeholders in innovation.

Where Industry Spends Energy, and How to Spend Less of It

Industrial Processes (these percentages are author estimates based on various sources)

40% petroleum refining and chemical manufacture

19% steel

8% other metals

9% paper

7% cement

5% food processing

Heat generated in industry and power generation often goes up the stack or into the nearest river. Yet energy expert Tom Casten estimates that the waste heat could provide up to 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs (up from its current 7 percent) if it was used to turn turbines. The concept is simple: when you have waste heat, generate electricity; when you generate electricity, use all the waste heat. Called cogeneration, this technology is already widely used in metals, glass, and silicon manufacturing. Waste heat can also be used to heat or cool (with absorption chillers) buildings and campuses. Denmark and the Netherlands generate 40 percent of their electricity with cogeneration, and also widely employ “district heating” in buildings.

The petrochemical industry uses more energy than any other manufacturing sector, yet certain trends may begin to significantly reduce energy consumed. For example, research is expanding in the field of green chemistry, using chemicals that come from living organisms (such as microbial enzymes or soybeans) rather than once-living organisms (such as fossil fuels). Green chemistry pathways typically use less energy per unit of product because they take place at room temperature and have fewer intermediate steps. (However, this transition will be gradual because some chemical pathways and reactions are centuries old standard practices.) If organic agriculture takes a larger share of the market, less energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizer (which comes from fossil fuel) will be necessary to produce the same yields. Trends that may reduce energy consumed in the manufacture of energy-intensive plastics include a backlash against plastic containers because of health and environmental effects; a trend toward localization, reducing the need for plastics in shipping; and a gradual transition to plastics made with green chemistry.

By using recycled rather than virgin steel, paper, aluminum, plastics and other materials, the worlds’ most energy-intensive manufacturing industries can radically reduce energy use. For example, the recycling of steel cans in the U.S. is currently only 60 percent, but as that percentage increases, more efficient equipment that utilizes recycled materials can be used. According to the Environmental Policy Institute, if three fourths of steel production were to switch to electric arc furnaces using scrap, energy use in the steel industry could be cut by almost 40 percent. Similarly, if all cement producers worldwide used the most efficient dry kiln process in use today, energy use in the cement industry could drop 42 percent.

It’s a similar story throughout the industrial sector: recycling and changing the processes in energy-hungry industries like paper, cement, aluminum, transportation equipment, and fabricated metal products can reduce overall energy consumption in manufacturing by 50 percent or more. However, in some cases, cultural change may produce larger reductions than efficiency improvements. For example, more than one-sixth of the energy used in the food processing industry is used in animal slaughtering and processing. Only a reduction in meat eating will significantly reduce energy use in this case. About half of the paper manufactured is used for packaging and wrapping paper; about 30 percent is printing and writing paper; and 20 percent is newsprint and household uses. With a noteworthy trend toward more regional buying; the failure of many newspapers and magazines; the reduction of paper use from cost-conscious changes in office policy; and increased use of electronic products like Kindle, only toilet paper is likely to remain at current levels of production. (And even there, a transition to a narrower width and less “fluffy” paper can reduce materials and energy use).

The innovative European experiment with “extended producer responsibility” (also known as the Take-Back Law) may well lay the groundwork for a radically different flow of materials through the global economy. This law requires manufacturers to take their products back at the end of their useful lives. Rather than ending up in a landfill at the end of their useful lives, packaging, electronic products and other goods are collected at central locations and sent back to manufacturers. This brilliant political innovation encourages designing for durability, modularity, and non-toxicity in products, and increases recycling by closing the loop in the flow of “nutrients,” just as nature does. EU countries have also adopted industry-altering efficiency standards for 23 different appliances and electrical end-uses, from battery chargers to street lighting. Even more ambitious is Japan’s Top Runner program, which sets appliance standards based on the most efficient products already on the market. Though voluntary, this program successfully relies on Japanese pride in quality products to set – and mentor – new performance levels.

Commercial (Service-providing offices, businesses and government.)

30% lighting

14% heating

13% cooling

10% office equipment

7% water heating

6% water heating

6% ventilation

4% refrigeration

“We can compost and conserve all we want at home,” writes Time Magazine journalist Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. “But as soon as we hit the office, we turn into triplicate-printing, paper-cup-squashing, run-our-computers-all-night-so-the-boss-thinks-we’re-working earth befoulers.” A single office worker can easily go through 10,000 pieces of copier paper a year, in cahoots with computers that collectively burn $1 billion worth of energy a year when they are not even being used. Offices, stores, and public buildings consume more than 70 percent of the electricity used in the U.S., and are responsible for more than a third of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. Heating, cooling and powering the se buildings has become one of humanity’s biggest energy challenges.

The challenge is to design and construct (or retrofit) greener buildings that provide light, heat, coolness and electricity for equipment far more efficiently. At the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge River Plant, a 10.4-acre, heat- absorbing roof surface was replaced by a “green roof” of hardy plants that keep the building cooler in summer and warmer in winter, reducing energy consumption by 25 percent. Two New York City office buildings – one recently constructed and the other – the iconic Empire State Building, built back in 1931 – are also raising the bar of green building design. The 4 Times Square Building, 48 stories high and with 1.6 million square feet of office space, was designed with sophisticated energy software to ensure that lighting, windows, and heating/cooling systems work together optimally. 15 kW of photovoltaic panels were integrated right into the sides of the building – doubling as a construction material – and two large fuel cells supply 100 percent of night-time electrical needs and 5 percent of peak load needs. The hot water by-product from the fuel cells helps heat the building as well as its potable water.

The Empire State Building project, which will save building occupants $4.4 million a year, demonstrates that a combination of computer-age logic and upgrades to windows, lights, plug-load controllers and air conditioning systems can reduce energy consumption by forty percent in existing buildings – a critical finding since at least 10 percent of the energy a building uses in its lifetime is consumed in construction and demolition. The U.S. Green Building Council, which administers the coveted LEED certification awards for building efficiency, has recently added awards for building retrofits. These include installing automatic shutoffs – occupancy sensors – for lighting, and snooze controls that power computers down automatically after 15 minutes of idle time, cutting a machine’s energy use by 70%.

One of the most interesting heating and cooling innovations for a large building is the Eastgate Centre, Zimbabwe’s largest office and shopping complex. Convection tubes used by African termites to keep their mounded, high-rise colonies cool inspired this passive cooling design. Taking advantage of large temperature swings from dusk to dawn, the design breathes fresh, cool air into the building, reducing energy consumption by 90 percent compares with conventionally cooled buildings. A similar strategy has recently been used at a London building across from Westminster Palace.

And the British are also front-runners in the adoption of LED lighting.  Buckingham Palace has recently been given a royal makeover, including the conversion of 60-foot high ceiling lights, chandelier fixtures, and exterior lights which last as long as 22 years. So stingy with electricity are the LED bulbs that lighting the palace’s entire façade requires less electricity than running an electric teakettle.

There’s no doubt that compact fluorescent bulbs have already led the way to light bulbs that are semi-permanent, more like plumbing fixtures. But currently designed, CFLs contain mercury, which typically becomes a hazardous waste when the bulb finally burns out. Most CFLs are not dimmable, so they always use maximum power regardless of how much light is needed. Still, they have saved a lot of energy and reduced a lot of greenhouse gas emissions already; from 2001 to 2006, global sales of these energy miser bulbs more than tripled, from 750 million bulbs to 2.4 billion. Maybe CFLs just need a deposit system that ensures they’ll be recycled.  And since LED bulbs have a few problems of their own, CFLs are likely to be around for awhile. LED light works better as a spotlight rather than a multi-directional light. Although their lifetime is up to four times as long as a CFL, the quality of light degrades over time.

However, one thing is certain: the Edison bulb, which converts 90 percent of its electricity to heat, is headed for the museum, unless it can be radically upgraded.  Various studies suggest that completely converting the world’s fixtures to LED technology could slash carbon dioxide emissions from lighting by up to 50 percent in 20 years. In the U.S., lighting currently consumes about 6 percent of all energy use. With a boost from federal stimulus funds, lots of cities have already installed the low-maintenance LED bulbs for street and parking garage lighting. Three major California cities, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco have by 2010 installed about a quarter of a million bulbs.  The next major market is likely to be office, retail, and government buildings.  There are about half a million federal buildings alone in the U.S., according to Earth Policy Institute, and they will pioneer the use of LED lighting.

As a result of these many converging and interacting forces, governmental policies are beginning to yank global energy systems in a new direction, just in time.

Getting Carbon Out of Our Systems, Now

Media moguls must take Americans for a pack of idiots, assuming we’ll never pay attention to anything that requires responsibility, let alone “sacrifice.” Yet beneath the predictable plotlines of celebrity-studded media, there’s a laser beam of solid reporting on the web, public radio, and cable TV about what’s really happening. And there’s a quickly growing legion of citizens who are paying attention. Many try to keep up with the eco-emails that pop into their inboxes every day. They realize that our decisions should be grounded in good science, whether or not it makes us feel “happy.”

Rising CO2 levels from human industry

A recent eco-email from the Earth Policy Institute reports that 2010 is tied with 2005 for the hottest year on record, and that last May, millions of Pakistanis wilted as thermometers spurted to 128 degrees F., an industrial-era high for the Asian continent. Images of cracking farm soil come into our minds, along with urban flashfloods two and three stories deep and hellacious dust bowls swirling across the parched plains of China and Africa. But we remain in a media-induced stupor, certain that there will somehow be a happy ending, like there always has been in our lifetimes.

It’s true there are many hopeful trends to report. Farmers markets and light rail systems continue to be launched in one city after another. Wind energy already installed in the U.S. provides enough electricity to power 8 million American homes! Renewable energies like solar, wind, and hydroelectric already supply more juice than the world’s 400 nuclear power plants combined. Electric and hybrid plug-ins seem destined to challenge the gas guzzlers in 2011 showrooms and there are also monumental shifts in the way we think about the food system. For example, 2010 was the first year in many in which the number of farms increased rather than fell, an indication that small, information-rich farming may be on the rebound. There is growing evidence that Americans are willing to change their priorities, for example, spending more of their household budgets for high-quality food and less for products like clothes (which the average American now buys at the rate of one new item every five days) or electronics that are out of style before we even get them home. Food is increasingly seen as a smart buy – a way to spend more time with friends and less time with the doctor.

If we are an intelligent generation, an over-arching goal should be to absorb greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from the air and put them back in the soil, which is precisely what organic farming does. Increasing the average amount of spongy black loam in soils stores carbon, retains water, and produces healthier food, all at the same time. So when we shift our priorities to buy organic food, we are helping prevent climate change. Cover crops like clover and alfalfa naturally fertilize the soil, reducing the amount of energy-rich fertilizer that is needed while also absorbing carbon dioxide in the off-season. Grazing livestock on grass we can’t eat but they are designed to eat reduces the amount of fertilizer-hungry grains required per unit of meat. Eating no meat on a given day is the energy equivalent of driving twenty-five fewer miles in an average-sized car, so if the whole country eats just one less meat-centered meal a week, it would be like leaving eight million cars at home. The web is teeming with delicious meat-free recipes.

Will future generations shake their heads, asking why we remained as silent about global weather shifts as the Germans did about the rise of Hitler?

Yet many of us wonder, impatiently, if we will win or lose the war on warming. Will future generations shake their heads, asking why we remained as silent about global weather shifts as the Germans did about the rise of Hitler? On national polls of the most pressing political issues, climate change seems to rank just below bridges to nowhere. We each seem less concerned about the droughts, floods, tornadoes, and monster cold fronts that degrade our quality of life than we are about which color and brand of cell phone expresses us best.

With thanks

When was the last time a politician planning to run for re-election spoke up about climate change? Elected officials don’t feel secure supporting major policy changes until voters demand them in convincingly large numbers, yet a sleepwalking majority in America remains silent. After all, researchers paid by the fossil fuel industries tell us reassuringly that humans are simply not capable of affecting the weather. One eco-email warns that glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and oceans are acidifying, but another announces that as many as 7 billion trees – one for each of us – have been planted in the past ten years.

Are we doing enough? Experts tell us there are at least $1.2 trillion dollars of efficiency savings if we invest in existing and emerging technologies. For example, the heat that usually goes up industrial and power plant stacks could instead turn turbines to meet up to 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs.

Renewable technologies can help us go cold turkey on fossil fuels, too. For example, solar hot water heaters could easily provide half the world’s residential and industrial hot water, reports the Worldwatch Institute. Recent experiments with algae show that this tiny plant could collectively soak up massive amounts of climate-changing carbon dioxide – for example in the emission stacks of coal-fired power plants. Venture capital is betting big money that CO2-absorbing algae can also be deployed as a far more efficient bio-fuel than corn. In industry, large companies like Calera and Novomer are finding ways to incorporate CO2 directly into energy-hungry products like cement and plastics.

If we act on some of these opportunities, we can prevent the need for humans to stay indoors in afternoons of the not-too-distant future. We can prevent utility bills from creeping steadily upward, and prevent catastrophic weather events that could ultimately bankrupt the insurance industry We can count on steady, dependable rains to water our gardens and fields, and we can throw our fellow species a lifeline – species that purify our water and pollinate our crops. If it’s rational, bottom-line decision making we want, we should make sure all the benefits are accounted for, and quickly chart a course for a planet on the rebound.