Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Post # 62: Green Energy - It's All About Density

My attention was drawn today to a real zinger of an opinion piece in the January 18 issue of the Wall Street Journal and also available here.  The piece, written by Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute, is a simple, but scorching analysis of what it really means to be green when it comes to electricity production.

Entitled, "Small Is Beautiful – So Go Nuclear", the short piece reminds us that forty years ago, E.F. Schumacher asserted the essence of  environmental protection is embodied in three words, "Small is beautiful." Bryce then goes on to examine the land usage practices associated with food production - arguing that our modern evolution to higher and higher food production densities (i.e. increased gain production per acre of land used) has enabled us to feed the world's ever-growing population.  Adopting density as the lens through which we should analyze and compare energy production options, Bryce examines the electrical energy production densities of wind, coal, and nuclear.  The bottom line, as stated by Bryce is,

"The greenness of density leads to two conclusions. First, those who make environmental policy should consider density a desirable goal in nearly all the issues that they confront. And second, the real environmentalists aren't the headline-seeking advocacy groups. They're the farmers, urban planners, agronomists—and yes, even natural-gas drillers and nuclear engineers."

It is simple arguments such as these, pointing to the small footprint of nuclear generating facilities, that have led some environmental organizations (such as the Nature Conservancy) to re-examine their view of nuclear power.

Fascinating - and encouraging...


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Post # 61: Gasoline In 1981 and 2011

According to a recent press release from Ford Motor Company, the price of gasoline, as a percentage of the average American household income is at it's highest level in 30 years.  Per Ford and the Oil Price Information Service, 8.4% of the average family's income is now spent on gasoline – averaging $4,155 annually per household.  The last time gasoline took such a large chunk out of the average family's budget was 1981.

This caused me to wonder about the comparison between the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for 1981 and 2011.  It turns out, the 1981 U.S. CAFE standard for passenger vehicles was 22.0 MPG (and something close to 16 MPG for trucks).  The 2011 CAFE standard for passenger vehicles was 30.2 MPG.  That's a President Obama has proposed a combined (autos & trucks) CAFE standard of 35.5 MPG in 2016.  In July of last year, he announced an agreement to increase the combined (auto + light-duty trucks) standard to 54.5 MPG by 2025.

Not everyone, of course, drives a new vehicle.  And the CAFE standards are averages.  So, your mileage may vary.  But I do find it interesting that during a period (1981-2011) in which the automobile CAFE standard increased by 37%, the annual average consumer price index (CPI-U) increased from ~ 91 in 1981 to ~ 225, or ~ 145%.

So during the last thirty years, the overall cost of goods and services we purchase has gone up by 145%, and (equating "share of income" to "share of expenses" - which isn't precisely correct) the share of that 145% increase consumed by our monthly addiction to gasoline has increased by ~ 8%.

During this same period, the inflation-adjusted median U.S. family income has risen from ~ $18,000 (nominal) or $44,000 (CPI/inflation adjusted) in 1981 to ~ $49,000 (2011) last year.  Thats a 172% increase in median family income (non-CPI adjusted).

So, compared to 1981, we're making 172% more money, our cost of living has increased (only) 145%, CAFE mileage standards have increased by 37%, and the share of our cost of living spent on gasoline has increased 8%.

I have to reflect a bit on what all of this means, but I think it means (1) we are better-off, from the household economics standpoint, than we were in 1981, but (2) gasoline price trends are undercutting our economic prosperity despite the ongoing improvement in automobile technology.

Nothing shocking in this, but it's interesting to dig below the press releases to examine the numbers and their context.

Just thinking...


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Post # 60: My (Failed) Quest For A Sustainable Floor

I'm deep into the process of converting an upstairs bedroom in our home to an office.  Actually, the job is almost complete.  I'm just waiting for the new furniture to arrive.  But I thought I would share some of my experience here...including my failed quest for a "sustainable floor".  I must confess I did not fully appreciate the adventure before me as I contemplated the job a couple of months ago.

The subject bedroom was that of our daughter, who's now grown and on her own.  The legacy of my daughter's habitation of the room included over 100 phosphorescent stars that had been attached to the ceiling with permanent glue, a similar number of flattened glass marbles and soda can "pull-tabs" that had been hot-glued to the wind facings, and (probably) 10,000 thumbtack holes in the sheetrock walls.  Luckily, we had never papered the walls.  So it was (simply, I thought) a matter of removing the stars, marbles, and pull-tabs, spackling the thumbtack holes, and repainting everything.  Several trips to the Sherwin-Williams paint store, three gallons of paint (had to try a couple of different trim colors), and over two weeks later, this part of the job was complete.

Next came the removal of the bottom wall trim and carpet (I'm on a quest to remove every square inch of carpet from our home).  No problem.  The removal went well.  The next step was installing over 200 screws to secure the sub-flooring to the floor joists to assure the floor would not squeak once it was installed. Wallah!  No squeaks.  Now I was ready for the new flooring.

Time to tour the local flooring sources to survey my options.  This is when the trouble began.  First, because my home was built in 1981, it has sub-flooring that is not compatible with either nailed or glued hardwood floors.  So my only choice was so-called "floating floor" systems.  No problem – there's lots of them on the market.  But I love South American and African hardwood floors.  The problem is I deplore what is being done to the South American and African forests to obtain the wood.  So I decided months ago that those beautiful floors where not in my future.  I wanted (you guessed it) a "sustainable floor".

Right now, it seems the king of sustainable floors is bamboo.  If the marketing hype is to be believed, bamboo grows to harvestable size in only 8-10 years – rather than the many decades required for American, South American, or African hardwoods.  Shazam!  I'd found my solution.

I next located a "solid click woven bamboo" product my wife and I loved, at a local supplier.  The stuff was beautiful, 3/4-inch thick, 55-year guarantee, hardness rating of "5" (as hard as they come).  Perfect!  So... we order the flooring – about $5 per square foot.

Three weeks later the flooring is delivered.  Two weeks after that, the installer appears – a really nice husband and wife team who clearly knew their business  (I know this because they were suitably impressed with those 200 screws I had put in the floor.)  They began to work as I sat downstairs finishing my breakfast, sipping my morning tea, and reading the newspaper.

Forty-five minutes pass.  The phone rings.  It's the supplier telling me there's a problem with my floor.  What?  The installer is just upstairs and I've head nothing of this.  I go up stairs.  The installer meets me coming down the stairs.  "Mr. Greene, I think you should look at this before we go any further. Our protocol required me to call the office before I spoke with you."  Not promising.

I peek in the room.  Approximately 1/3 of the flooring is installed.  It's absolutely beautiful.  Then the installer says, "walk on it".  I took a step.  "Snap!".  Another step.  "Crackle!".  A third step.  "Pop".  I thought I was listening to a vintage 1960's breakfast cereal commercial.  It was awful.  Every step was followed with a chorus of sounds that only a depraved, acid-dropping percussionist would enjoy.  "What's the problem," I asked.  "We don't know.  Some of the flooring is warped, but it's all within the manufacture's specification.  We could probably stop the squeaking by gluing it down, but we called the manufacturer and they said don't do it.  That would void the warranty."

"So what do we do," I asked.  "The manufacture says to go ahead an install it. It should stop squeaking after about six weeks.  If not, they'll come out and inspect it.  Then they may choose to replace it."  "No way," says I.  "Rip it up and take it back to the store."  Then, with a sheepish grin, the installer says, "That's what I thought you would say.  After I saw those 200 screws and the trouble you went to to eliminate all of the squeaks in the sub flooring, I knew this wouldn't be acceptable."  They spent the next hour or so ripping it out, carrying it out to the truck, and cleaning up the job site.

I spent that afternoon researching that specific flooring product and similar floating bamboo flooring systems, focusing on the squeaking issue.  The consensus seems to be that current products are indeed beautiful.  And they are rugged, long-lived systems.  But... practically all of the floating bamboo floor system squeak.  Though disappointed with this state of affairs, I prefer to think the real truth is that all these systems were engineered for installation in Japan, where the famous "talking floors" were used for centuries to alert sleeping nobility of a ninja attack...

The bottom line:  I failed in my quest for a sustainable floor.  It seems the technology (at least for floating floor systems) simply isn't there yet.  I now have a high-end laminate flooring product installed.  It's beautiful, has a lifetime warranty.  And NO SQUEAKS!

But I still dream of that beautiful bamboo floor...

It's tough to be sustainable...

Just Thinking,


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Post # 59: New Year's Resolutions ???

Happy New Year!

I wanted to take a moment to convey my well-wishes to each of you who frequent my blog, and to share a few of my New Year's Resolutions related to Sustainable Energy.

Studies show that, while most New Year's resolutions aren't kept for more than a brief period, those who do make specific resolutions are ten times more likely to achieve their goals than those who do not.  It's also true that even if one isn't totally successful at keeping a resolution, the act of "failing-forward" generally leaves one in a superior state relative to one's beginning.  So make those resolutions and either succeed, or fail-forward!

I tend to categorize my resolutions into two categories: HEALTH (Spiritual, Physical, Emotional, Financial),  RELATIONSHIPS (God, Family, Friends & Neighbors, Colleagues, Clients, Society, and Planet Earth and the Biosphere I inhabit).   These two categories aren't completely independent, of course.  You may use other categories such as "personal" and "business/career", etc.  But I find if I take care of my health, and invest in the people in my life who are dear to me (my relationships), everything else takes care of itself...

So here are four New Year's Sustainability Resolutions (from the last Relationships category) I intend to pursue:

1.  Reuse, Repurpose, and Recycle more.  I've been amazed to see that we've begun recycling ~85% (by volume) of our household refuse since curb-side recycling came to our neighborhood.  This year I intend to maintain or improve further upon this metric, while giving more attention to personal reuse and "re-purposing" of "stuff" that no longer serves its original purpose in hour home.

2.  Increase my personal consumption of drinking water, while decreasing my overall household water consumption.  My wife constantly tells me I don't drink enough water.  (I don't).  So I intend to pay more attention to person hydration.  But clean water is an endangered resource around the globe.  Beyond that, the connection between surface water and energy production is an intimate one.  So we'll endeavor this year to reduce our household "gray" and waste-water production.

3.  Turn off the lights when I leave the room (Mom said so!)  This feels right.  Though I must admit I haven't fully investigated this practice from a life-cycle issue.  I do wonder whether the frequent cycling of household lighting systems (of all technologies) tends to increase their failure rate and thus the overall life-cycle dollar and environmental costs of lighting.  Are there usage patters or technologies in which it makes more sense to "let em burn"?  I will investigate this issue and I welcome your comments on the subject.


4.  Simplify!  De-clutter!  Everything.  My life.  My time.  My home...  Less really can be more!  So let's go explore!

Again, I wish each of you a joyous and prosperous 2012!  And let's remember... over a billion people in this world live their lives without the benefits of electricity.  Another three billion or so live with significantly less access to electricity than we enjoy in the western world.   Let's commit ourselves to the goal of improving their lives while improving our stewardship of this wonderful planet we inhabit.

Just Thinking...


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