Solutions & sustainability - June 26
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'Green chemistry' pays off
Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
There's a globby problem mucking up the nation's search for alternative energy sources.
When farmers take soybeans or corn and turn them into biodiesel, they end up with a whole lot of glycerin, a colorless, viscous, slick liquid that's the primary ingredient in clear soaps.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that when U.S. biodiesel production hits its stride, it will make about 1 billion more pounds of the glycerine than the market needs per year.
Enter Galen Suppes, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Suppes and his team have developed an efficient way to turn that unwanted byproduct into a cheap, non-toxic substitute for antifreeze.
Which is why on Monday Suppes is being honored with a coveted Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award in Washington, D.C., according to officials at the EPA and the American Chemical Society. The recipients, whose work prevents pollution through better chemical design, are chosen yearly by a panel of distinguished chemists. The program, administered by the EPA, is awarded by the president.
Suppes created a process that fulfills numerous green chemistry goals. It takes something that would be a waste product and makes it useful. It finds a way to replace something that isn't renewable (current propylene glycol antifreeze is made almost entirely from petroleum) with something that is, in this case corn and soybeans.
(25 June 2006)
Think globally? Act domestically.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Christian Science Monitor
An investment in slowing global warming - and saving money - begins at home
Consumers eager to slow global warming increasingly have a financial incentive to think close to home when making choices about where to invest.
Efficiency-enhancing systems, from triple-paned windows to water-saving washers offer more than a boost to a home's long-term value, experts say. They also immediately slash onerous energy bills and shrink a household's "carbon footprint" - the emissions that contribute to global warming.
"The good thing about the recent run-up in energy prices, which is overall tough on a lot of people," says Judi Greenwald, director of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va., "is that it makes the payback for investing in efficiency much quicker,"
Example: Natural gas prices were 50 percent higher this past winter than five years ago. At these new prices, homeowners who pony up an extra $500 to get a high-efficiency feature on a new furnace are likely to see their investment recouped in savings in just two or three years, rather than four or five.
Such demonstrable synergies in the home between what's good both for the planet and the bankbook come at a time when critics are lamenting trade-offs associated with other ethically minded investments. Socially responsible mutual funds, for instance, have in recent years underperformed their unscreened rivals who have invested without hesitation in highly profitable oil companies and weaponsmakers
(26 June 2006)
A New Way to Ask, 'How Green Is My Conscience?'
Christine Larson, NY Times
WHEN Anne Pashby moved to Baltimore last year, she was dismayed by the complexity of recycling in her new city.
"I can never get it right about which day is paper versus cardboard versus cans," said Ms. Pashby, 38, a human resources manager. "So I've given up on it."
But she wasn't ready to give up on the environment. Looking for an easier way to make her life greener, she tried a "carbon calculator" at the Web site of the Conservation Fund (conservationfund.org). She learned that the events of her everyday life, like driving the car, heating her home or taking plane trips, produced about 14 tons a year of carbon emissions, or "carbon footprint." The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group in Arlington, Va., offered to neutralize that amount for $57, by planting 11 trees in the lower Mississippi Valley - enough to remove 14 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She happily complied.
"It felt pretty good," she said. "I could pat myself on the back and not lay out a whole lot of cash."
Call them green upgrades: easy ways for consumers to help the environment without changing their behavior. Such upgrades have been proliferating: Skiers, for example, can spend an extra $2 at some resorts to offset the pollution produced in a drive to the mountains; the money goes to environmental organizations. On Web sites like TerraPass.com or CoolDriver.org, drivers can total a car's pollution for a year and direct a corresponding sum to clean-energy projects.
... Green upgrades appeal to a sense of personal responsibility. ...The challenge for consumers is to understand exactly what their money goes for, and how much the upgrades actually help the environment.
(25 June 2006)
Vancouver to Halifax on a Gallon of Gas - 3,145 mpg
A team of engineering students from The University of British Columbia has built a vehicle so efficient that it could travel from Vancouver to Halifax on a gallon of gasoline.
The futuristic-looking, single-occupancy vehicle won top prize at a recent international competition, marking the UBC team’s fourth win in as many years.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Supermileage Competition took place June 9 in Marshall, Michigan. Forty teams from Canada, the U.S. and India competed in designing and building the most fuel-efficient vehicle.
[UBC Engineers Create Vehicle that Travels from Vancouver to Halifax on a Gallon of Gas]
“We achieved this level of efficiency by optimizing many aspects of the vehicle design, including: aerodynamics, light-weight construction, a small displacement engine (54 cc), and conservative driving habits,” says Team Captain Kevin Li.
The UBC design, which required the driver to lie down while navigating it, achieved 3,145 miles per US gallon (0.074 litres/100 km) -- equivalent of Vancouver to Halifax on a gallon (3.79 litres) of gas -- costing less than $5 at the pump.
(20 June 2006)
Via Groovy Green
A Slow-Road Movement?
Robert Sullivan, NY Times
...At least since the 60's, the Interstate has been the system that all state roads and, more recently, many local suburban roads have sought to emulate. And, frankly, the Interstate System is amazing. Just look at how it has moved us; according to the Automobile Association of America, in 1956, Americans drove 628 million miles; in 2002, 2.8 billion. The even bigger story is trucks. In 1997, according to the Department of Transportation, the Interstate System handled more than 1 trillion ton-miles of stuff, a feat executed by 21 million truckers driving approximately 412 billion miles.
But the Interstate System has also given us a lot that we didn't expect. In building it during the 60's, the U.S. destroyed nearly as much public housing as it put up. Then again, in a backhanded way, the Interstate System helped spawn the modern environmental movement, with the battle over I-40 through Overton Park in Memphis, for example, and with the fight over I-75 though the Everglades. It gave us historic preservation, after wiping out middle-class black neighborhoods in New Orleans. It also gave us sprawl. It gave us Atlanta. It gave us the modern South.
The first Bush administration's plan for a second Interstate System thankfully never took off, and the alternative has become new state-grown plans to build different kinds of road. State highway departments have been taking big roads and narrowing them, adding bike lanes and trails. In the last 10 years, engineers have increasingly looked for ways not to speed cars along but to slow them down. "You can design a road that addresses mobility but also makes them want to get out of the car," says Tom Warne, a former executive director of Utah's Department of Transportation who is working with New Hampshire's D.O.T. "It's the stuff that's along the street - windows, benches, street furniture, greenery. There's meandering." In Pennsylvania, where general traffic increased by 63 percent and truck traffic by 82 percent between 1984 and 2004, there are plans to make communities across the state more walkable, to build new highways at grade rather than elevate them, to build on Route 202 in the eastern part of the state what looks less like a freeway and more like an old parkway.
It's nothing short of a revolutionary change in thinking in about what -in a nation where the average number of people in a household (1.8) was recently passed by the average number of cars (1.9) -can still seem so mundane.
...Call it the Slow Road movement, but not the No Road movement, because another thing that a 50-year-old crumbling Interstate System brings is opportunity, a chance for a giant retrofit. The entire system might be regeared for rapid-transit buses (see Bogotá, Colombia) or for regional trains (see China) or for light rail (see Los Angeles, where they're not quite sure what to do with the system just yet, as well as Denver and Phoenix).
(25 June 2006)
A Waste of Energy
Editorial, NY Times
The House leadership has proclaimed this week "House Energy Week," as if nomenclature alone could conjure up a useful response to the country's dependence on foreign oil, or the threat of global warming, or even $3-a-gallon gasoline, which - let's face it - is what really worries our elected representatives as they head home to face the voters over the July 4 recess.
As the nickel-and-dime agenda suggests, "energy week," which may not last even five days, is a joke. There is one bill calling for further research into hybrid cars, another subsidizing solar demonstration projects, another encouraging more efficient tires. All are useful, all terribly modest given overall needs. And then there's our personal favorite for the fox-in-the-henhouse award, a proposal to give $10 million to the automobile and oil industries to teach the public how to save gasoline.
The only big item is a bill from Representative Richard Pombo, the California Republican, that would end a longstanding federal moratorium on oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, subject to state approval. While perhaps three-quarters of known coastal oil and gas reserves are already open for drilling, mainly in the Gulf of Mexico, and while the environmental problems of further drilling are obvious, Mr. Pombo's proposal would be worth entertaining if it were linked, say, to a serious effort to reduce demand by sharply raising fuel economy standards.
But the House is dominated by people who believe that a country that consumes one-quarter of the world's oil while possessing 3 percent of the world's reserves can somehow drill its way to energy independence. And that means that the worthy proposals that do exist to increase conservation and efficiency won't get the time of day.
If there is any serious conservation to be had this year on energy, it is likely to take place in the Senate, which has before it two similar, comprehensive bills aimed at reducing oil dependency and, in the bargain, sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These bills would require that oil consumption be cut by 50 percent over the next quarter-century and would provide a broad array of tools to get there - loans, direct subsidies, tax breaks and other incentives to encourage the production of fuel-efficient cars, for instance, as well as alternatives to gasoline like cellulosic ethanol.
Just getting a start on one of these big bills would be a plus. House members have introduced 267 energy-related bills this year, and senators have introduced 210. Everyone wants to be seen to be doing something. What those numbers really add up to is close to 477 excuses to do next to nothing.
(26 June 2006)