Friday, February 27, 2009

Tax and health care burden combined: the rich make out better.

Okay, I know that the tax rates and health care have nothing to do with the environment, but this is a pretty important issue.

Here's something people don't realize: really high income people complain that too much of their income instantly vanishes into taxes (almost 32 percent for the highest echelon). But if you add tax payments and health care payments together, they're shouldering a smaller burden (percentage-wise) each month than middle and lower income people.

Here are the tax rates:

Lowest quintile: 4.3 percent
Second quintile: 9.9 percent
Middle quintile: 14.2 percent
Fourth quintile: 17.4 percent
Percentiles 81-90: 20.3 percent
Percentiles 91-95: 22.4 percent
Percentiles 96-99: 25.7 percent
Percentiles 99.0-99.5: 29.7 percent
Percentiles 99.5-99.9: 31.2 percent
Percentiles 99.9-99.99: 32.1 percent
Top 0.01 Percentile: 31.5 percent

Now let's add the cost of health care to taxes.

For instance, my family just falls into the middle quintile. So we pay 14.2 percent of our income in taxes. This year, with good health insurance coverage (and my wife being a resident MD), we're still paying 20 percent of our income to health care. So 34.2 percent of our income automatically disappears for health care and taxes. For someone in the top .01 percent (meaning they're making well over a million dollars a year), health care counts for well under 1 percent of their income (but we'll be generous, and round off the number to a full 1 percent) So their tax and health care payments equal 32.5 percent of their income.

Taxes and health care for me: 34.2 percent of my family's income.
Taxes and health care for rich: 32.5 percent.

Who's getting ripped off now?

Coen Brothers direct Clean Coal ad

Here's an ad for Clean Coal directed by the Coen Brothers.

New York Times plagiarizes the Greasy Rider blog. Again.

Once again, the New York Times is looking to the Greasy Rider blog to lead its news coverage. Here's my column on Outside magazine's web site from two weeks ago, on tissues and the environment. Here's the NYT's coverage of the same subject yesterday.

George Will just wont quit on this global warming thing!

He wrote another column today, defending his misleading one from last week. Honestly, I hope George Will is right, and that 99.9 percent of the world's climatologists are wrong. I hope that global warming really isn't happening. I'm just wondering when he became a scientist.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Grease-powered car loaded up and happy

The car is now all loaded up on grease, and driving happily around the roads of Asheville leaving the scent of french fries behind it. Now that the weather is warming up, the car is heating up faster, which means I can switch from diesel to fry grease more quickly.

Again, the brakes seem a little testy. I'll really find out how they're doing when I head to Black Mountain with the kids on Saturday. We've got to drive down this really steep, windy mountain road.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why does George Will get his panties in a bunch about global warming?

When Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Price, columnist George Will compared him to Hitler in his back-page Newsweek column. Personally, I thought the analogy was just a wee bit of a stretch. Then, in a piece tearing into global warming scientists that he wrote last week for the Washington Post, he totally exaggerated facts, and even attributed statistics to an environmental organization that never released such numbers and knew nothing about them. Here's a rundown of his errors.
Why is he so panicky about denying global warming? Is he secretly cheering for the earth to heat up so his beloved baseball season can stretch longer?

Clean coal? Come on.

The president mentioned "clean coal" as part of the country's energy solution. That was pretty much a pander to western Pennsylvania. There's no such thing as clean coal. Google it and see for yourself.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

If the economy's going down the toilet, will it at least reduce our carbon emissions?

Sadly, the anwer appears to be no.

"Figures for the past five years ­suggest carbon emissions have risen by 2.5% each year, which indicates they could still rise by 0.25% this year, despite the economic downturn. The rise will continue to be driven by ­coal-fuelled economic growth in China and India, Bowen said, but more slowly than before.
Pieter Tans, a scientist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which ­monitors CO2 in the atmosphere, said: "I see no sign of any slowdown of the global trend." Carbon dioxide levels have risen by between 2 and 3 parts per million (ppm) each year over the past decade. Tans said a 6% drop in emissions — equivalent to a near 7% drop in GDP — would reduce that annual growth rate only by 0.24ppm. "This is well within the year-to-year natural variability of the CO2 increase we have observed over many decades."
Preliminary measurements show the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reached a new high of 386.6ppm in December 2008."

How does a person living off the grid dispose of trash?

Deep thought

Now that the Republicans in Washington are irrelevant, I miss being angry at them. It's like a piece of me has died.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire edition of today's blog

In honor of last night's Oscars, I present this statistic:

The carbon footprint of the average person in India is one-seventeenth smaller than the carbon footprint of the average American.

We should still be freaking out about the breakneck pace at which India is consuming coal-fired power plants. But they use one-fifth of the amount of electricity, in total, that our country does--even though their population is three times larger than ours. Let's get our own house in order.

Pitching green in China

When the US tries to tell China to reduce its carbon emissions, the people there have a pretty effective response. They usually say something like, "You heedlessly polluted the air for more than a century, starting with the industrial revolution. Why are you trying to hinder our industrial revolution?"

It's a pretty effective argument. So last week when Hillary went over there, she countered with a new approach. She said, something to the effect of, "You have a right to improve your standard of living, but we'd like you to follow greener practices so you don't make the same mistakes (regarding the enviroment) that we've made." It's a surprisingly humble approach.

Viable plug-in electric? Let's just say I won't be selling my grease-powered car anytime soon. Sadly.

Plug-in electric cars may be hitting the market soon. But it's going to be a long time before they're built at an affordable price. (The battery alone costs "in the tens of thousands.") So the car companies will have to subsidize the cost for buyers. Good thing Detroit is in such good financial shape. It should be no problem for them to take a loss on a whole segment of car sales.

Here's a lively, well-reported NPR segment on it this morning.

On a very petty, personal level, this makes me happy. It means my grease-powered car won't be obsolete for a while, and I can keep being really smug.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The good news and bad news about my grease-powered car

The good news is that when Dr. Wife, MD, and I moved to Asheville a short while back, we found a place that was centrally located. So we could walk and bike more to places with the kids, rather than drive.

The bad news is that we're not driving much so I'm stockpiling lots of grease in the garage. Lots of grease. We're moving in six weeks to another house, so I'll be giving much of this stuff to the local biodiesel cooperative before then (and using the rest). In the new place, there's no room for me to stockpile (there's no garage), so I'll be sending the stuff straight to the coop, and I won't be storing any of it. Would it be a sin for me to get all my fuel from the coop once I move? (No more fuss, but I'll have to pay for the fuel.)

This is my very high-tech and complicated filtering system. I pour the waste grease through this felt filter bag and into a bucket. Then I pour it into the car's grease tank. Voila!

This is the back of the car. Now you know why Dr. Wife, MD, calls the Mercedes the "junky car." As in, "I don't have to drive the junky car today, do I?" She prefers our Toyota Highlander hybrid.

Long Lost Greasy Rider Video Footage Found! Part III

This is a clip from when Iggy and I were in the Midwest. We were trying to lash our oil supplies on the roof. As you can see, it didn't work out so well...

Home solar getting cheaper

By about 28 percent in the past decade, and it continues to drop. But installing solar panels on your roof is still prohibitively expensive without big tax breaks by state and federal governments.

Right now, the only cost-effective use of solar on the home (without the tax breaks) is to install a solar water heater. It'll pay for itself within five years, and then you'll be getting your hot water (which is a huge part of your utilities) for free.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Swiss bank account names revealed. I'm in so much trouble!

UBS, the Swiss bank, is being forced by the IRS to release the names of some of America's richest people, who have been stashing money in the bank to avoid paying taxes.

What happened to the sanctity of being able to hide your dirty money in a Swiss bank account? I'm in so much trouble now. That's where I've hidden my billions in profits from Greasy Rider. (I feel I can admit this now, because the truth will soon come out, anyway.) To soften the blow in the eyes of the public, I'm planning to hire A-Rod's public relations agency.

I'm already practicing my lines: "I was young and stupid. My cousin hid the money in the account for me. I didn't know I was evading taxes. I was too young and stupid."

Coal ash spill cleanup could cost $825 million

The coal ash spill from that TVA power plant in eastern Tennessee in December could cost $825 million.

I love that coal.

Greenhouse gas pollution endangers public health and welfare. No duh.

Well, to the US government, this is a big revelation. If greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, then the feds can regulate emissions. The Supreme Court said gave them this power just a couple of years ago. But the Bushies, for some strange reason, decided not to act on it to protect the environment. There's a shocker. The Obama people, on the other hand, are expected to announce soon that they will. This is huge news.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

GM needs Steve Jobs

A mere year ago, Bob Lutz the chairman of GM North America said he thought global warming "is a total crock of shit." He added that hybrid cars "make no economic sense."

Yes, that was just a year ago. Today they're asking for $16 billion more taxpayer dollars to dump down the tubes.

Why don't I have a lot of confidence that this guy is the visionary to lead the company back to viability? They need a Steve Jobs of cars. Or Steve Jobs (if he's still alive).

The biggest energy bill in history

An editorial in the New York Times today points out that the stimulus could be called the biggest energy bill in history, because it allocated $80 billion to transportation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. It also points out that much, much more needs to be done to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The new renewable economy

A lot of renewable energy companies that were freaking out over the economic meltdown are now hopeful they've weathered the storm, as Obama signs the stimulus bill at a science and energy museum in Denver today. He'll no doubt be emphasizing the great potential for private sector development of renewable energy, and how the industry has the potential to carry our economy in the future. It's almost as if he's read Greasy Rider.

Samsung's new solar-powered, recycled-plastic, touchscreen phone

It was unveiled yesterday. It's made from recycled water bottles, and contains no toxic chemicals. This is no gimmick. You'll be seeing more like these.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The sky really is falling, part 3,684

The Washington Post reported this weekend that climate scientists now believe the planet is warming much more quickly than they thought. It's being spurred mostly by coal-fired power in India and China.

Start freaking out any time you like.

Coal, I wish I knew how to quit you...

In Sunday's New York Times, coal power's death is greatly exaggerated. Still, I'd like to see it happen. The 600 coal-fired power plants in the US account for one-third of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Throw away that tissue, or flush it down the toilet?

Find out the answer on the latest posting of my Outside magazine online column...

Long lost Greasy Rider road trip video footage found! Part II!

Here's footage from when Iggy and I picked up a hitchhiker, and decided to sing.

Here's what made the cut in the stimulus bill

Energy transmission and alternative energy research:
$11 billion for smart grid
$7.5 billion for renewable energy and transmission-line construction
$400 million for the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy for the development of alternative energy sources and efficiency
$4.5 billion for energy-efficiency improvements to federal buildings
$6.3 billion for local government energy-efficiency grants
$2.25 billion for energy-efficiency retrofits for low-income housing
$2.25 billion for the HOME Investment Partners Program to retrofit community low-income housing
$5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program for efficiency in low-income households
$510 million for energy-efficiency retrofits for Native American housing programs
$420 million for energy-efficiency improvements at the Department of Defense
$300 million for Department of Defense research on energy efficiency at military installations
$300 million for the appliance rebate program for Energy Star products
Mass transit and advanced automobiles:
$8.4 billion for transit capital assistance programs
$8 billion for Amtrak and intercity passenger rail
$300 million for the purchase of more alternative-fuel and hybrid vehicles for the federal fleet
$300 million in grants and loans for technologies that reduce diesel emissions
Green jobs training:
$500 million for green jobs programs through the Workforce Investment Act

Here's what didn't.

Say it ain't so, king coal. Looks like so-called "clean coal" funding has been stripped from the stimulus. So has about $50 billion for nuclear power plants. I still don't know what to make of nuclear power. It is carbon-free, and could drastically reduce greenhouse emissions if we switched over to it. Then again, there's the impact of mining uranium (which is massive), and the problem of nuclear waste.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Greasy Rider named one of the 10 Best Environmental Books of the Year

Booklist, published by the American Library Association, named its Top 10 Books on the Environment: 2009.

What was included in the list? Greasy Rider, of course--right above Tom Friedman's "Hot, Flat, and Crowded."

Here's the blurb:

"Melville’s larky tale of a coast-to-coast road trip in a car running on french-fry oil, including stops at a wind farm, a renewable energy lab, and a green home, is splendidly entertaining and educational. "

Corn-based ethanol is on life support. And here's why you should be bummed out about it, even though it was always a huge corporate boondoggle.

Here's an excerpt on the industry's troubles from today's Times:

VeraSun Energy, one of the nation’s largest ethanol producers, has suspended production at 12 of its 16 plants and is planning to sell production facilities. In recent days Renew Energy, Cascade Grain Products and Northeast Biofuels have filed for bankruptcy protection. Pacific Ethanol said it would suspend operations at its Madera, Calif. plant.
Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group, estimated that of the country’s 150 ethanol companies and 180 plants, 10 or more companies have shut down 24 plants over the last three months. That has idled about 2 billion gallons out of 12.5 billion gallons of annual production capacity. Mr. Dinneen estimated that a dozen more companies were in distress.

No biggie, right? I mean, the corn-based ethanol thing was always a giant corporate boondoggle for the mega agribusinesses to make even more money off of corn. This is the market correcting itself.

Well here's the bad news: research for cellulosic ethanol (or ethanol that comes from plant waste like sawdust, or corn stalks, or grass) is suffering greatly as a result of the overall industry's collapse. And cellulosic ethanol could be one huge key (or maybe THE huge key, along with plug-in hybrids) to solving our fossil fuel (and emissions) problems. This is a big and disappointing setback.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

W's economic advisor with a sensible stimulus proposal?

Greg Mankiw, a respected economist, Harvard professor, and former chairman of George W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, proposes an interesting stimulus that involves raising the gas tax. He's not as shrill as Paul Krugman, but probably just as smart. Here's one snippet, but read the whole thing for yourself.

I would institute an immediate and permanent reduction in the payroll tax, financed by a gradual, permanent, and substantial increase in the gasoline tax. I would make the two tax changes equal in present value, so while the package results in a short-run budget deficit, there is no long-term budget impact. Call it the create-jobs, save-the-environment, reduce-traffic-congestion, budget-neutral tax shift.I recognize that some state governments are now struggling in light of the macroeconomic crisis. For the next two years, I would let each state governor have the authority to divert a portion of the payroll tax cut in his or her state and take the funds instead as state aid. This provision would essentially be giving governors the temporary authority to impose a payroll tax on his or her citizens, collected via the federal tax system. Those governors who think they have valuable infrastructure projects ready to go would take the money. When designing a fiscal stimulus, there is no compelling reason for one size fits all. Let each governor make a choice and answer to his or her state voters. It is called federalism.

Why is the idea of imposing a gas tax always such a non-starter?

Bernie Sanders, senate's new Green Jobs chairman.

Vermont's independent senator, Bernie Sanders, is going to head a new "green jobs" subcommittee in the Senate. I have no idea what this means.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The future of sustainability? Look on campus.

You want to see the future of sustainability, go to your nearest college campus. You'll find students leading the charge to promote recycling drives, proposing energy efficiency measures, and working with the school to reduce its solid waste and consume biodegradable cleaning products. You'll also find the schools completely embracing these efforts. The students have an eye to the future of the planet. The schools have an eye toward economic sustainability--they're forced to squeeze as much mileage out of a penny as they can, and they realize the tremendous cost savings in energy efficiency and waste reduction.

Kill the vampire: Your semi-daily sustainability tip, and hypocrisy meter

About 5 percent of the energy consumed in the US is from electronics that are still sucking your power when they're turned off or in sleep mode. This costs people about $3 billion. A plasma TV can cost you $160 alone each year. A DVD player: $9. A desktop computer: $35. The clock on the microwave: $3.85.

Now they sell power strips that will basically shut off all power to peripherals when the TV or computer is not in use. So if you shut off the TV, it'll kill the electricity to the DVD player, and the stereo receiver, etc. If you use it on the computer, it'll shut off power to the monitor, printer, speakers, etc., when not in use.

In the long run, these power strips will save you money--and they're just one of many examples of how simple energy efficiency can dramatically reduce our energy needs and carbon footprint.

Hypocrisy meter: I'm mid- to high-range on the hypocrisy meter for this one. I turn cut off the power to most of my computer peripherals, though I do leave the modem and router on (which I shouldn't do). My old TV doesn't suck power when it's off, but I don't cut the electricity to the DVD player when it's not in use. I've been meaning to get some of those power strips, like this one. It's about time I finally did it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Obama visits RV capital of the world today.

To sell the stimulus and the need to create 21st century green-oriented jobs while weaning our country off the dependence of foreign oil, the president is headed to the RV capital of the world, Elkhart Indiana. It's where a bunch of the big manufacturers are based, and where unemployment has risen from 4.7 percent to 15.3 percent in a year.

I point out Elkhart in Greasy Rider, and frequently mentioned it in my talks about the book. In many ways, the town tragically epitomized our unsustainable free-spending lifestyles during the housing boom--and passing through it was the beginning of my awakening about the importance of sustainability.

From the book:

All Hail the RV.
By that time, the rain subsided and we were in northern Indiana, where the board flat scenery shifted from Ohio's farm fields to golf courses and woods of oak and pine. In Elkhart we passed a muddy construction site behind a giant sign that read THE FUTURE HOME OF THE RV HALL OF FAME. When completed, the building would house about fifty-six thousand square feet of floor space, an area slightly larger than Notre Dame Stadium's football field in nearby South Bend. It would serve as a celebration of recreational vehicles, motor homes, and the visionaries behind the RV industry's growth and innovation. If I was searching for some sign of newfound energy awareness along America's highways, this future monument to unleaded-chugging behemoths wasn't one of them.

"I wonder if there will ever be a hall of fame for veggie-oil cars," Iggy said, staring at the site from the driver's seat.

"I've got to hold on to this wagon here, so that the future, massively endowed Greg Melville Foundation can donate it some day," I said, knocking on the dashboard.

Soon we crossed into Gary indiana, where billboards overhead tempted us with bargains (CIGARETTE DISCOUNT OUTLET), a fun night (SHOWGIRLS, DOLLS), even self-help (BED-WETTING?). As close to Shangri-La as these signs made the city seem, we forged into the sprawl of Chicago and turned onto I-80, headed southwest in the thick of the evening commute. A passing thundershower congealed traffic flow even further. We exited the highway in Joliet, by a spot paradoxically named Wilderness Mall. The deeper into the side streets we penetrated, the more bulldozers and dump trucks we spotted on former farmlands soon to be reseeded with housing developments and shopping centers...

Friday, February 6, 2009

Senator Susan Collins, what are you smoking?

Susan Collins of Maine is one of the small handful of Republican senators negotiating on the stimulus bill. She wants to shave $100 billion from it before she'll get on-board. One of the big cuts she's demanding: $5.5 billion to make federal buildings more energy efficient.

What is she smoking? One of the big goals of the stimulus is to spend money now on things that will create jobs, AND IN THE LONG RUN, WILL SAVE THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT AND TAXPAYERS MONEY. (You know that whole saying about an ounce of prevention...)
More money in the federal budget goes to heating and cooling bills than any other expense. Yes, you're reading this correctly. Making federal buildings and military installations more energy efficient will create jobs, save us money, wean us off our oil dependence, and help the environment. Read the chapter in Greasy Rider about the example the Fort Knox Army Base is setting in this regard.

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face...

Dodge the drafts: your semi-daily sustainability report, and hypocrisy meter

About 60 percent of annual energy use in the US goes to heating. So plug the drafts in your house. Weather-strip the doors, seal cracks in the windows, and--most importantly--go to your basement and place insulation between wooden beams above the concrete foundation (that's a HUGE energy-sucking spot).

You can reduce your heating bills by 10 percent by doing that. Over the years, that adds up to quite a bit.

HYPOCRISY METER: I'm a big hypocrite on this one, but there's a caveat. Almost a year ago, Dr. Wife, MD, and I sold our home in Vermont, and moved down to North Carolina with the kids for her residency program. We're renting a house, and I feel like I'm out of bounds investing in these types of improvements for a house someone else owns--even though I know I'll get that money back in energy savings, and I'm helping the environment.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

9 degrees in Asheville this morning

The old grease-powered station wagon was none too pleased to start this morning, though it did start. I had to swear at it alot during the whole process. That seemed to help. The car was especially responsive to f-bombs, I found.

Climate change bill? Whatever.

Barbara Boxer said yesterday that a climate change bill, creating a cap and trade system for carbon emissions, could come out of the Senate within weeks. Good luck with that.

At least Rush Limbaugh is intellectually honest about the matter.

I'm for the basic stimulus plan, as heavily flawed as it is. I want to see a new energy grid, and a push toward sustainable energy sources and more fuel efficient cars.

But if I were a Republican member of congress, especially in the Senate, there's no way in hell I'd support the stimulus. I'd want to see Obama go down in flames. Country (and environment) be damned. After the New Deal pulled us out of the Depression, the Democrats remained in control of Congress for four decades. So if this ambitious and sweeping stimulus works, there's the chance that no sitting Republican member of congress will ever wield any power. Ever. No committee chairmanships, no speaker of the house, no majority leader, nothing. The lobbyists won't even kiss up to them and offer them free golfing trips to Scotland anymore. Most members of congress are power-hungry and ambitious. I don't mean this in a bad way. But they wouldn't get elected if they werent. At least Rush Limbaugh is intellectually honest about it.

That's why I can't figure out Republican senators Snowe and Collins from Maine. They're both essentially liberals. If they help the Democrats pass this bill, they might as well flush their chances at any leadership posts down the drain. But if they don't pass the bill (and Maine is hurting right now), they'll totally be acting against their liberal convictions. They might as well just become independents, caucus with the Democrats, and be done with it. They're popular enough (and Maine is turning liberal enough) that it won't hurt their reelections.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Step away from the Cascade! Use phosphorus-free dishwasher detergent. Your semi-daily sustainability tip.

The big-name dishwasher detergents contain high amounts of phosphates--ingredients that kill the oxygen in waterways, and promote algae growth. (A recent study by the state of Minnesota found that dish washing detergent makes up 2 percent of the phosphorus found in its waters.) Meanwhile, Consumer Reports has found that all-natural, biodegradeable dishwater detergents work just as well as the standard phosphate-filled ones.

Hypocrisy meter: I escape unscathed on this one. We use Seventh Generation all-natural dish detergent. It works great. No streaks or spots. (We buy a giant box of the stuff at Costco. As for the environmental impact of shopping at Costco, we'll save that for a later date.)

Wind turbine projects across the country halted. Industry praying for bailout bonanza.

Wind turbine projects are being put on hold just about everywhere due to the Great Recession. The renewable energy industry is just one more group of people praying for bigtime help in the Bailout. According to reports, the Senate plan being crafted is much more generous to renewable energy (about $109 billion in subsidies) than the House one.

Democrats and paying taxes

It's pretty hard to take the moral high road on not reducing taxes when your cabinet members mistakenly forget to pay theirs.

Just a thought.