Thursday, January 29, 2009

Going skiing. In North Carolina.

It's my birthday, so I'm cutting out, taking the day off, forcing my six-year-old daughter to play hookie from kindergarten, and going skiing. In North Carolina. On a mountain with all human-made snow (which uses an unconscionable amount of energy to create). But if skiing with my kids on my birthday is wrong, I don't want to be right...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Hang it all! Your semi-daily sustainability tip (and hypocrisy rating).

You can reduce your electricity bills by more than 25 percent if you hang your clothes to dry, as opposed to putting them in the dryer. Your carbon footprint will also be drastically reduced.

You can even do it in the winter, by putting up a drying rack in the basement or in the bathroom.

Practice what I preach? Between June and October, we didn't use the dryer in our house at all. Our electricity bills plummeted. Much more than 25 percent. But in the winter, I've largely been using the dryer. Dr. Wife, MD, puts clothes on a drying rack (she's much more conscientious than I am), but I've been doing most of the laundry lately. I'd give myself a mild to moderate hypocrite rating on this one, given that for half the year, the dryer sits lifeless in our basement.

California discovers that green technologies create jobs. No duh.

The number of green jobs in California grew 10 percent between 2005 and 2007, a new report says. About one-fifth of those jobs were in manufacturing. (Of course, the landscape isn't quite so rosy in 2009.) The report also notes that the companies in California that were the most energy efficient were also immensely more profitable as a result of their efforts.

So let's see:

--Green technology production is rapidly creating jobs--including a sizeble number of manufacturing positions.

--The use of green technology makes companies more profitable.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Largest US Venture Capital Investments in 2008

Here are the seven largest venture capital investments in the country last year. Notice a trend?

1) Nanosolar Inc. (San Jose, CA) $299,999,700 - Produces solar electricity through solar-cell technology.
2) Solyndra Inc. (Fremont, CA) $219,277,800 - Designs and manufactures photovoltaic technology for solar energy.
3) SolarReserve Inc. (Santa Monica, CA) $140,000,000 - Develops utility-scale renewable energy solar power plants.
4) OptiSolar Inc. (Hayward, CA) $132,000,000 - Manufactures photovoltaic modules and produces power.
5) Range Fuels Inc. (Broomfield, CO) $130,000,200 - Develops cellulosic ethanol production technology.
6) BrightSource Energy Inc. (Oakland, CA) $115,000,000 - Develops utility-scale solar power plants.
7) AVA Solar Inc. (Fort Collins, CO) $103,999,800 - Manufactures thin-film photovoltaic (PV) modules.

Get it while supplies last!

The Washington Times is selling a commemorative coffee table book on the W. presidency.
“W” is packed with gripping pictures and stories all beautifully presented in this historical keepsake presentation of all eight years of the Presidency of George W. Bush. Be the first to own this memorable book and be proud to share it with your friends and family.
They're also selling a W. commemorative cigar. No word on if there's a Clinton cigar, too.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Compost! Your semi-daily environmental tip

Compost your vegetable waste instead of throwing it in the trash (or chewing it up in the garbage disposal). One third of waste that goes to landfills could be composted (and in a landfill, it doesn't biodegrade because it's buried, and not exposed to air).

--So composting reduces trash costs, and the amount of energy (and emissions) to transport trash.
--Compost rich soil also requires less water for irrigation.
--It reduces the need for fertilizer (which requires a lot of energy--and chemicals--to produce and ship).
--It captures more carbon dioxide in the soil, keeping it from enhancing global warming.

Practice what I preach? I generally compost all organic waste. We have a ceramic jar in the kitchen, which I empty into a black composting bin in the back yard. Last week, though, it was cold outside and I didn't feel like heading outside. So for a couple of days when the jar was full, I didn't empy it and threw all of the vegetable scraps into the trash (when Dr. Wife, MD's back was turned). I'd say I'm not so much of a hypocrite on this one.

Obama allows states to self-govern on emissions

For the past several years, the Republicans (at the behest of the auto companies) have denied states--most notably California and Vermont--their rights in setting their own car emissions (and fuel efficiency) standards. Today the Obama people are going to reverse this stance. It's a big deal.

Fan mail

I got this friendly note from a (not so) big fan of the latest Outside magazine online column I wrote, about grease-car drivers not paying road taxes. I think being called a "green peace, tree-hugger" is supposed to be a bad thing here.

Hey Greg,
I just read your Greasy Rider Q&A from January 23, 2009 regarding tax evasion. I thought your high and mighty answer to a serious question was pretty crappy. I hope you don't think you'll be able to convert people over to your green ethos with an attitude like that. The only thing you're going to do is prove that green peace, tree-huggers like you have their heads in the sky and aren't properly grounded.
I though it was a legitimate question deserving of a serious answer, and instead you flippantly turned into a bashing of the people who don't agree with your beliefs. Maybe you should try again.

Friday, January 23, 2009

No fair!

Sarah Palin has hired a literary agent who's now peddling a book deal for the Alaska governor. Industry insiders estimate she could wrangle as high as a $7 million advance. First of all, I think the word "literary" probably has no business being used in the same sentence as "Sarah Palin." Second of all, $7 million? Are you kidding? That's just not fair to hard working hacks like me!

EPA chief update

The Senate will move ahead with the proposed EPA chief's nomination.

Car thought part 2

Creating a car that's as good as (or even slightly better than) a Toyota or Honda isn't going to get people to buy American anytime soon.

Instead, US auto companies have to create revolutionary products. (And ones that are so elegant and beautiful that everyone wants one.) That's what Apple does in the consumer electronics industry. It enjoyed its best quarter ever at the end of 2008.

The auto companies need a Steve Jobs-type in charge. Someone who's instinctively tapped into what Americans crave.

Car thought part 1

Imagine what US automaker sales would truly be if sales to the federal goverment, state governments, local goverments, police forces, fire departments, public works departments, highway departments, and rental car companies were taken out of the equation.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

GOP senators anonymously blocking climate change action. Already.

GOP senators have put an anonymous hold on the nomination of Lisa Jackson to head the EPA. She supports taking strident action against climate change. For instance she's for allowing states to set their own auto emissions standards (something the Bush administration fought tooth and nail against in court, because Republicans apparently don't believe in states' rights on this matter). Thus the reason for the hold.

Plastic before paper? Yes. Your semi-daily sustainability tip.

Okay, you're going grocery shopping and you've forgotten that all-important reusable shopping bag at home. (You really should carry at least one extra bag in your Prius. You do drive a Prius, right?) So when the cashier asks you for paper or plastic, you automatically choose paper, because it's better for the environment. Wrong choice. Though plastic takes, like, 17 quadrillion years to biodegrade (alright, I exaggerate), here's why it's slightly less of an awful alternative: producing a plastic bag requires 20 percent of the energy that producing a paper one does; paper bag production creates 50 times more water pollutants; and it takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a plastic bag than a paper one. You can find all of the info here.

Practice what I preach? I practically bust the hypocrisy meter on this one. I now get plastic bags instead of paper when I forget to bring my reusable cloth shopping bag. But truth be told, I've never recycled a plastic bag. (In my town, I can't throw it into the recycling bin I keep by my trash can. I need to take it back to the grocery store, and stuff it into a special "plastic bag recycling bin" there.)

Should I stop eating sushi?

From my green advice column on Outside magazine's web site:

Okay, so 90 percent of the world's large fish are gone, says Sylvia Earle. Do I need to stop eating sushi? Santa Fe, New Mexico

That's a great question. At this rate, you really have two options. A) Keep savoring every last morsel of tuna in each maguro roll, and eventually watch the planet’s big fish disappear. Or B) Stop eating tuna altogether and still eventually watch the planet’s big fish disappear.

A famed marine biologist and former chief scientist for NOAA, Sylvia Earle is no alarmist—it's her facts that are alarming. Since the rise of commercial fisheries in the 1950s, stocks of large predatory fish have dropped 90 percent. Overfishing is rampant, and it's largely driven by the luxury food market and government subsidies, she points out.

Don't believe her? Then follow the money. According to a recent UN and World Bank report, the world's commercial fisheries are now losing $50 billion a year because they have to spend so much more capital to find what little is left of the oceans' vanishing fish stocks. The Japanese government gives out nearly $3 billion a year to its floundering fishing fleet, the EU gives about $1.7 billion, and the US gives $1 billion.

Earle has stopped eating fish, but neither she nor you can change the world by turning down sushi. Instead, you should follow her lead by mobilizing, enhancing awareness of the problem, and becoming politically active in the solution. (This advice could really be applied to any facet of environmentalism.) Unless governments like ours become more aggressive in tackling the problem sustainably—and do it soon—big fish will vanish, and our tax dollars will have subsidized the commercial fishing industry to its own demise.

Gray wolf gets reprieve

On inauguration day, the Obama people have blocked all pending environmental rule changes that were being implemented by the Bushies. One of the rule changes was the plan to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No sense of irony

So my son and I are at the organic grocery store yesterday. I've got my reusable shopping bag in hand, and my locally produced organic food on the register conveyor belt. My cashier seems like a nice young girl, with her dreadlocked hair shoved inside a huge knitted cap atop her head. My son, who's four, grabs one of those wooden dividers that you can use on the conveyor belt, so your stuff won't get mixed up with the customer's stuff behind you. He starts playing air guitar with it. He looks pretty funny, and the cashier and I share a laugh. Then, surprisingly, he turns the stick into a gun and aims it at the cashier. My wife and I, being the pacifists that we are, don't have any toy guns at home, and we don't exactly play shooting games. I'm not sure where he learned to turn a wooden divider into an M-16, but there you have it. The cashier is totally appalled, and gives me this look that says, "I can't believe you teach your son stuff like that!"

So I turn to him and say, "No, we ever don't do that. That's not nice at all. Say you're sorry to the nice woman."

The cashier says, "No worries, it's all good." But clearly, she's really bummed out. A little more than she should be, frankly, given that my son's only four years old. (Did I mention that already?)

Then I say to my boy. "We never, ever aim guns at anyone. You got me? Unless they're Islamic terorrists of course, or communists, or immigrant thieves who have come to steal our jobs."

He doesn't know what the hell I'm talking about. But the cashier--with no sense of irony--starts not-so quietly freaking out. She can't get us out of her sight fast enough. Ah well...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Save the Planet, Damnit tip for the day.

Stop drinking bottled water. More than 38 billion plastic water bottles are thrown away by Americans each year. They can take a thousand years to biodegrade. More than 17 million barrels of oil are burned producing bottled water in the US each year, and 2.5 million tons of greenhouse gases go into the air.

Get an aluminum SIGG bottle, fill it, and carry it around with you, instead. If you don't trust the tap, put a water filtration system in your house. You'll save money over buying the bottled stuff pretty quickly.

Practice what I preach? I bought a water bottle yesterday for the kids. They were thirsty and nagging me (because I had just bought them popcorn). It was Dasani, by Coke--which is water that actually comes from the municipal Atlanta water supply, apparently, not mountain springs. (Oh the irony.) It pained me to do it, and was the first time I had bought water in a while. We have a bunch of SIGG water bottles that we carry with us everywhere.
On the hypocrite meter (the higher number, the more hypocritical) I'd give myself a 2 out of 10.

The Save the Planet Damnit tip for the day will become a regular feature.

My Mercedes no likey the cold

With temperatures in Asheville dropping down to about zero a bunch last week, we weren't burning much vegetable oil last week. In fact, the veggie car was pissed off about even having to start up in the morning. I made Dr. Wife, MD, drive it to work, because the heat takes forever to start pumping out, and I didn't want to be uncomfortable when I was carting around the kids to a couple of things last week. So I took the Highlander hybrid instead. I could toast marshmallows on the heat vents of that thing.

Trashy energy

A Massachusetts-based company has created a system for generating gas and electric power through trash. It's about the size of a tractor trailer and can be used by schools, hospitals, or large businesses. On the one hand, it saves money by creating cheap energy, while also reducing trash removal costs. It'll answer about 15 percent of a building's energy needs (depending on how many units and the size of the building).

Basically, you put the trash (without metal or glass, but just about everything else) into the contraption, it turns the trash into pellets, and then uses those pellets as fuel (using a process I'm too dumb to understand called gasification, rather than burning them).

It'll pay for itself within four years.

My computer was mauled

My computer was mauled by many nasty viruses. They even blocked me from downloading and installing software to kill them. It sent me offline for a few days, there, but everything's up and running now.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Greasy Rider excerpt, page 1

The kids have a snow day today, so instead of my usual enlightening posts, I bring you an excerpt from page one of Greasy Rider:

'Grease on earth'

I drive a 1985 Mercedes 300TD wagon. It runs on waste oil from restaurant deep-fat fryers. Like nearly all (of the many) kooky ideas that arise in my cozy Cape-style home near Burlington, Vermont, the one to convert a diesel car to burn grease came from my wife, Ann Marie. She is a devout saver of the earth. She feels guilty swatting a mosquito. She cleans and reuses Ziploc bags. She forces me to use organic toilet paper, which is far from cottony soft.

I began lobbying for a second car not long after she was accepted to medical school at the University of Vermont because our soon-to-be-crazier schedules would no longer allow us to get by on one vehicle."I want a pickup truck," I told her. "A big, old one."She shook her head. "Why would you ever need a pickup truck?" Having been married to her for seven years, I knew exactly what the question and her body language implied: (1) a pickup truck burns too much fossil fuel, so it wouldn't be cheap to drive or environmentally friendly, and (2) I, of all people, would have absolutely no use for one."What do you mean?" I asked in a defensive tone. "I could totally use one. I'd haul stuff. I'd get compost for the garden. I'd clear brush from the yard. I'd...get a snow plow."

I didn't really plan to get a snow plow. And we could borrow a friend's pickup on the extremely rare occasion when we needed to haul something or clear brush. But I yearned to feel the power of a V-8 engine, revving at the slightest touch from my leaden foot. I dreamed of shifting into four-wheel drive, and crushing a Prius beneath my fat tires. My truck would be red, its chrome bumpers gleaming so brightly they'd blind passing motorists. I looked pleadingly into Ann Marie's eyes, but her stony expression didn't soften.

She said we should buy a diesel and convert to vegetable oil. Therewas an article in one of her green living magazines about someonewho had done it. "You'll be the only guy on the block with a veggie car," she argued. I didn't care. "You're always ranting about politics. Now you can walk the walk." All right, I was listening."You'll save a lot of money." Very good point. Then came the kicker. "Dick Cheney will hate you for it." Done deal.

In many ways, I'm the yang to her yin. I only take a stand onsomething when I think I'm getting screwed, and to me, potentially paying four dollars per gallon at the pump--and watching my hard-earned money get split between already-rich oil company executives and already-richer sheikhs--is getting screwed. Burning used french-fry grease did seem intriguing. Restaurants usually pay to get it disposed of, so they're happy to give it away for free, Ann Marie told me. Yes, free. As in, 'I won't have to pay for the fuel that goes into my car.' While it's true that I did have a slightly more than passing concern for the environment, I mostly saw a veggie-powered car as my chance to stick it to The Man.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Deep thought

If the Chevy Volt really ends up costing more than $30,000, who's seriously going to buy the thing? My old Mercedes cost me about $4,000. Let's just say that at Chevy's prices, I won't be making the switch anytime soon...

Chevy Volt will create new US jobs?

GM announced yesterday that it will assemble its lithium ion batteries for the Chevy Volt in the US--creating new American jobs. They imply that they're doing it out of benevolence, but the fact is, it's cheaper for American companies to produce first-generation technologies in the US than to farm it overseas. That's why sustainable and "green" innovations hold so much promise for our economy. This is yet one more example.

Ah, the good old days of SUV tax breaks. How I miss them!

Remember when the Bushies created massive tax breaks for SUV owners? If the vehicle was huge enough (over 60000 pounds--so it had to be a Land Cruiser, or Hummer, or something like that) you could deduct $75,000 from your taxes. In other words, the federal government was encouraging people to buy (and companies to produce) the biggest, 10-mile-per-gallon behemoths on the market. That was in 2003.

Now, of course, the Bushies are pointing the (middle) finger at the auto companies for having been too reliant on big SUVs.

Like I've said before, I'm gonna miss these people.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pirates release oil tanker! But the ransom's more about getting the crew back than the crude back

The Pirates released the Saudi supertanker (carrying the equivalent of nearly one day's production of Saudi oil) over the weekend. The payment they received: a measly $3 million. Though hijacking an oil tanker ratcheted up the world's attention (and media coverage) to their acts, apparently oil doesn't fetch much ransom--given the fact that there's plenty more of it coming out of the ground, for now. (The $3 million was probably more about getting the crew back than the crude back.)

Still I was wrong in my prediction that they wouldn't get a cent for the tanker.

Ironically, several of the tanker pirates then drowned in rough seas during their escape to land. The body of one washed ashore with $153,000 in his pocket.

Algae-fueled jet tested

On Friday, the first passenger jet partly powered by algae-based biofuel took off (and yes, landed safely) in Houston. The test was run by Continental Airlines, on a Boeing 737. The airline companies have suddenly become aggressive in their attempts to find alternative fuels. (They realize that going green could potentially save them a lot of money.)

What's interesting is that when I was working on Greasy Rider, I interviewed one of the top biofuel guys for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (the federal government's top energy research lab). In the book, I remark how NREL is totally not swinging for the fences with biofuels, sadly. In fact, during my interview, the biofuels guy told me that no airline would be interested in biofuels for jets because "no one wants to mess with jet fuel." Maybe he should have talked to the airlines, before making that assumption. Because it sounds like Continental does, and Air New Zealand, and Japan Airlines.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Greasy Rider is nonfiction book of the week, join in the forum!, an online book club connected to 3,000 public libraries across the country, has chosen Greasy Rider as its nonfiction book of the week for next week. Click here on Monday, join the club, and you'll be able to discuss the book online. I'll also be making entries there throughout the week.

The travel offset ripoff

What's really happening when I offset my travel at a website or with an airline?

Dear question-asker,
Thank you for lobbing this softball right into my rhetorical wheelhouse. The quick answer to your question is that I haven't the foggiest clue what's really happening when you offset your travel and—problematically—pretty much no one else does, either. So next time you consider the purchase of carbon credits, keep these three words in mind: Don't do it. Nothing annoys me more than to see some fancy event like the Academy Awards boast that it’s completely carbon neutral because its organizers bought carbon offsets for everyone there. Who are they kidding? In my book Greasy Rider I even take the prophet Al Gore to task for claiming he leads a carbon neutral life because he buys offsets to cancel out his private-jet travel and immense energy consumption. Some critics—me included—compare this system to medieval indulgences, when rich sinners were absolved from bad deeds by paying others to perform good works. Except in this case, the so called "good works" are dubious.

The largest of many problems with carbon offsets is that there's no regulatory agency in the US overseeing where your money goes. If you spend $5 to plant a tree, how much of that money is going to the actual tree planting? Is the company actually planting a tree? Was the land cleared by a gas-guzzling bulldozer before the tree was planted? What kind of tree was planted? Was there a bunch of carbon dioxide in the soil that was unwittingly released during the planting?

The Tufts Climate Initiative at Tufts University found that half of offset companies operate for profit, and some allocate up to 75 percent of revenue on overhead. There are no set rates for what should be paid to offset, say, someone's flight from New York to Los Angeles. And it's not unheard of for an offset company to direct its funds to the cleanup of a dump that was already required by law to be cleaned by its owners, or the construction of a wind farm that was already going to be built, anyway.

Anja Kollmuss, one of the Tufts report's authors told me, "If I could give advice to people, I would say, do offsets as a last resort because they cost you money. There are so many ways you can reduce your emissions that will save you money, like by buying an energy-efficient refrigerator, or insulating your home better." Well said.

Why the pirates do what they do

There's an interview in this week's Newsweek with a Somali pirate leader. It provides some pretty good insight into the motivations behind these guys.

The pirate leader (should we call him a pirate captain?) said that all of his gang were once fishermen, and that they originally only targeted foreign fishing vessels (which have nearly depleted the waters off Somalia). Then they realized they could make more money by boarding bigger boats.

His final comment is on the captured oil tanker. They've threatened to empty it of oil if they don't get their ransom:

And we know the risk of spilling the oil shipment. But when evil is the only solution, you do evil. That is why we are doing piracy. I know it is evil, but it is a solution.

Like I've said before, consider this a preview of things to come. As resources dwindle (whether it's fish or fresh water or, some day, oil) people will resort to doing bad stuff to survive. "When evil is the only solution, you do evil."

Bushies heart vast swaths of ocean.

It's great that the president moved this week to protect huge swaths of the Pacific. (Places that aren't especially in peril, where there are no corporate interests in fishing or fossil fuel extraction. Hey, it's great that this is being done, but it won't change the abysmal Bushie environmental legacy, or even make for a convincing talking point in his defense.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Oh Montana!

The outgoing presidential administration has just flipped the bird at Montanans with both hands. That's quite a feat. The first bird-flip is a new last-minute change to Forest Service policy that will make it easier for developers to turn forest land into housing subdivisions. The new rule is specifically designed to let Plum Creek Timber in Montana to pave 900 miles of roads through Forest Service land, which will open huge swaths of land owned by the company to luxury home development. (Think of the ecological carnage of cutting the trees for the roads, clearing the land for the homes, and the fuel burned by the people driving their Land Rovers out to these homes.) Bottom line, too, is that the people of Montana don't want it.

The second bird-flip is the administration's new decision to allow 18,000 natural gas wells to be drilled on 1.5 million acres of federall owned land in southwestern Montana.

"The Powder River Basin holds a type of natural gas known as coal-bed methane, which companies can extract only after pumping vast quantities of water from underground aquifers that trap the gas. That's the same water ranchers in the arid region depend on to irrigate fields and fill stock ponds."

Bushies to ranchers: sorry. Ooops, no we're not!

Will your town stop taking your recycling soon?

For quite a while, recycling programs have been money-makers for municipalities. Old newspapers, plastic, and glass were mostly shipped to China, who had a huge appetite for the stuff. With the rotten economy, the bottom has officially fallen out of the recycling market. There's no demand now, and city trash collection agencies are losing money by picking up your recycling. It shouldn't be too soon, now, before recycling programs are phased out by some municipalities...