Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Climate Change update

One area where I spend the most reading time is Climate Change. If you have read my prior posts on this topic, you know I haven't been fully convinced we (the world) have a real handle on the issue.

An area I recently needed to better understand was CO2 in the atmosphere. We generally hear pundits, scientists etc. all point to the idea that CO2 is put into the atmosphere where it resides for hundreds of years. Every day we compound this problem with another car, cow or human.

But that isn't really true. CO2 is a natural part of our global system of air, water, land, plants and animals. We are carbon based life forms. So in reality, carbon is a big system cycling from air to land or water etc every day. Limestone is the result of carbon trapped in sediment and shells. Trees are 50% carbon. Water dissolves carbon, even in the air, so rain washes carbon from the atmosphere.

So what's all the fuss about? We humans take a lot of long-term carbon like trees, oil, coal, natural gas and we burn them. Taking hundreds to millions of years of stored carbon and releasing it into the air to start the cycle over. Another example is making cement, it takes limestone and heats it releasing lots of carbon stored millions of years ago.

So what we (you and I) do is take long term carbon and turn it into very short term carbon in our atmosphere. There it blocks the sun's earth-reflected radiation from escaping back into space.

But it is rained out, deposited into the water and onto the land as part of the natural cycle. So, the good news is it isn't up there forever, the bad news is, the earth can't deal with it all as quickly as we can make it.

Bottom Line 1 - Atmospheric CO2 is part of a natural cycle. Some of that cycle is long term, and some is short. What's at issue is that we take too much long term CO2 and turn too much of it into short term (atmospheric) CO2.

One has to remember that our earth is a closed system. The only things that leave or enter our environment is solar radiation and the odd meteor. We, including Mother Nature, don't create any matter or elements, we just convert them. The amount of CO2 is fixed, the only question is the form it takes.

Bottom Line #2 - The older the carbon is and the longer it takes to make it into a given form, (oil is old) the more we are artificially changing the CO2 cycle.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Story of Stuff

If you are conscious about sustainability issues you become aware of all of these areas where our system needs work. Usually in discrete pockets like recycling, pollution etc.

This video tells the whole story. http://web.1.c3.audiovideoweb.com/1c3web3536/StoryOfStuff.mov

It's 20 minutes, so take a break from the daily routine, you won't feel guilty at the end for taking the time...I promise.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fuel news

I don't normally post on the news of the day but I think there might be a glimmer of direction for us consumers. Specifically in the area of transportation.

The administration announced today they they are discontinuing funding for hydrogen powered transportation! That narrows the field for other technologies.

The second bit is the recent data that suggests that biofuels (fuel from plants essentially) would probably be best if turned into electricity rather than fermented to make a liquid fuel. The preliminary numbers are impressive when termed in miles per acre. Ie, if you took an acre of switchgrass and burned it in an electric plant and made electricity to run a car.

Compare that to taking an acre's production and fermenting it to make a liquid biofuel.

The reason I thought this was significant in that it further directs us to electric for transportation. If you weren't convinced an electric car is in your future, you should be now.

Bottom Line - Electricity looks to be the winning fuel for our 21st century personal transportation fleet. Can you imagine how quiet and clean it will be?

Green cars

"Green cars" is probably an oxymoron. But greener cars? We have lots of those coming.

But that doesn't mean that you couldn't find a whole bunch of non-green cars down at our Dallas Auto Show. There is a Dodge truck dualie that tows 16,000 pounds! If I were an oil sheik, I'd get one!

But as I said, we have a whole plethora (new from KIA?) of more energy efficient cars coming this fall. Some from the brands you know and love and a few from unheard of car makers. Here is how the technologies break down.

Neighborhood electrics - Limited to 25 mph, this allows them to slip through regulations for street use without crash testing. They are like a fancy golf cart in most cases. Plug-in recharging.

Electric three wheelers - Exploits a regulation loophole by classifying as a motorcycle to go faster but without crash testing, some are available now.

Plug in electric - Recharges via household current, range is limited, cars are mostly small, a number of options will be available in 2010 - 2011.

E85 cars - Uses 85% ethanol blend in a gas engine - there are no fuel stations in Texas but models are currently available.

Fuel efficient gasoline engines - The Smart for example. There are lots to choose from now.

Diesel - They are generally more efficient and thus give more mileage per gallon. Diesels are big in Europe and are expected to grow in the US. Bio diesel use is possible but buyer beware, many manufacturers don't want you to use too much in the fuel mix. Available now from mostly German manufacturers.

Light Hybrid - Power is regenerated through braking to charge batteries and has an electric motor that restarts the gas engine to move the vehicle. Available now.

Hybrid - Uses electric motor, gas engine and regenerative braking. Both motor and engine drive the car together or it can just use the electric motor, and recharge the batteries. Most of what is available now is this type of hybrid. Many more are coming.

Plug in hybrid - Recharge batteries via household current (120 volts AC) and has a gas engine to either move the vehicle or charge batteries on the go. This extends the range of a mostly electric vehicle.

Simple right? Well there are even more choices coming including diesel hybrids, bio diesel hybrids, natural gas and we are still working on hydrogen fuel cell cars along with who knows what else.

But here is what's important: Oil, sent to us in tankers from unfriendly nations, power our transportation sectors almost exclusively. We don't use much oil for anything else in comparison. Secondly, transportation is a big greenhouse gas problem. Third, cars etc. spew a lot of other pollutants.

Bottom Line #1 - Burning lots of fossil fuel in your car is a problem on multiple levels. So the coming green car of choice will provide you either guilt free driving or reduced guilt driving. It's also very possible these vehicles will save you a lot of money. When (not if) gas returns to $4.00 a gallon, you will cherish your environmentally friendly vehicle.

Today, batteries are the holy grail of our next generation of vehicles. How much of a charge, how much they weigh, how long they last and how will they be disposed of at the end of their useful life are all challenges for engineers the world over. While we sleep at night they are trying to improve batteries on all those fronts. (Root for US engineers to win the day).

We also may want to think of our transportation as a long haul vehicle (hybrid) and city car (plug in electric). Charging your car at home will cost you around a third of the cost of gas. Renting, rather than owning your long haul car may make even more sense.

Bottom Line #2 - Buying a car will require a whole new thought process if you want a greener choice. Hybrids will become mainstream, and plug-in electrics will get a good start this year. You should be able to buy what you like, this Fall, from reputable manufacturers who will be around tomorrow.

Before you get that eco-car, consider this (my head hurts every time I read about it). When deciding if upgrading the efficiency of your vehicle makes sense, you have to look at fuel savings differently.

The problem is we perceive that fuel consumption falls in a linear fashion as mpg increases. In other words, we think that a 50 mpg car compared to a 34 mpg car is better fuel savings than a 28 mpg car compared to a 18 mpg one. The first one saves 16 gallons, the second 10, right?

Well if your car gets 18 mpg currently, upgrading to a 28 mpg one offers more than double the fuel savings over 10,000 miles, than the 34 mpg car compared to a 50 mpg one! You math wizards out there get this probably...I prefer to consider it magic.

Bottom Line #3 - The reason this is important is that trading in your inefficient car for a mildly efficient one is way more important than trading in your efficient ride for a super efficient one.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It's compostable!

I see more and more products claiming compostability. I wandered through a local "green" store recently and found a few items worth looking at...

First were these cool, really thin bamboo plates. They were designed to be used one time and composted, for $12.00 per pack of eight! A $1.50 a plate! I don't really have any "compostable money" but this sure looks like the equivalent.

Then there are more practical compostable plates made from "bagasse", in this case, sugar cane stalks. They look and feel like thick paper and are a nice shade of a creamy grey color. These seem infinately more practical that bamboo throwaways, so I ask about them.

The idea is, because the plates aren't recycled, (because they will be dirty), they are thrown away! They should go to the landfill where in theory they will quickly decompose. Or, they advised, they have a friend who runs his used plates through the lawnmower and then composts them???

There are so many things wrong with this I dont know where to start.

First, assuming that a plate will decompose anerobically in a landfill is a stretch. If it does in fact decompose, it will produce methane, a virulent greenhouse gas.

If you want to start up that two cycle lawn mower to mulch up your plates you're contributing black carbon and regular CO2 to the atmosphere. Then, if you or any guests have had meat on their plates (this person referenced could easily be a vegetarian), then adding that to your compost heap would in fact attract critters in droves. The plates are compostable but maybe not digestable.

I do have a "plastic" fork made from corn that is advertised as compostable...so far its been in my compost heap for seven months and looks brand new. It may eventually break down but a bunch of those in my pile would have made the rest of the compost useless unless I picked out all this so called "compostable" stuff.

Bottom Line - I feel sorry for the companies making these items, and the purveyors of such goods. It's not sustainable. You would be better off using reusable plates...and cleaning them, or just buying the cheap paper ones and throwing them away. If they were made from recycled paper, that would be better still.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Monopoly update GUD 9530

Just an update on the previous post. This line item is the result of the regulators finding that Atmos did not prudently handle their hedging or storage activities. It appears this means they are reviewed on lots of things and if they somehow spend money that is deemed imprudent they can be required to refund it to rate payers.

This is how we regulate a cost-plus monopoly. If they are stupid with their costs and we catch them we get some money back.

It does beg the question that if you were a customer during the time of imprudence and then left the market, how do you get your refund? (You don't). I would assume that new customers are also getting this refund???