This May Require Sacrifice

To use an analogy: Your roof has a slow leak. You can’t detect the leak from inside the house, because the water is just soaking into the structural supports and causing them to rot. Fixing the leak is going to cost money, and you don’t have extra money, so you’ll have to give up something to get the leak fixed. Not fixing the leak means, someday, the roof will collapse. You or your family may be injured or killed, and your home will become unlivable.

You may approach with this problem in several ways:

1) You could deny there is a problem and ignore it

2) You could acknowledge the problem and hope it goes away or that the roof holds up long enough that it becomes someone else’s problem (like your children or grand children).

3) You could choose to make some sacrifices to address the problem before it becomes a catastrophe.

Clearly, only choice #3 is a solution. Ignoring a problem is not a solution and kicking the can down the road is just going to make things worse for future generations.

This is my analogy for anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Every time I read about a proposal to address AGW or climate change, I hear someone complain that it might slow the economy, make us less competitive in world markets, increase unemployment, etc. Before I address those points, because I don’t believe those things will necessarily happen, I want to return to my analogy for a second. If we do need to make sacrifices to save our home and protect the future of our children and grand children, that’s what we must do. This isn’t a game we’re playing where we can rewrite the rules. If we continue as we are, our world is going to change for the worse and things could get pretty ugly. The only thing that is unclear about the science is exactly what is going to happen and when. We’ve already had a taste of the future, with extreme droughts in some places, flooding in others, tropical diseases moving northward, catastrophic wind events, etc. Do we really need a detailed map to see that where we’re heading is not where we want to be?

Getting back to the claims of economic gloom: Our society will always need energy, whether we get it from fossil fuels or directly from the sun. If jobs go away in the fossil fuel extraction industry, there will be new jobs in the renewable energy sector. Renewable energy is the future. Every country on the planet knows that. The country that innovates and produces the best renewable energy technology is going to be an economic winner, so it pays to be a leader in renewable energy development.

Furthermore, the biggest drain to our current economy is health care. A leading cause of lung problems and cancer is dirty industry. One of the dirtiest, and most dangerous industries is the fossil fuel industry. By moving away from polluting technologies and towards cleaner technologies, we will reduce our health care costs and lessen the drag on our economy.

Moving to clean energy is a win-win in the long term. There may be sacrifices we’ll have to make in the short term, but we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. The sooner we get serious about our carbon dioxide emissions and other environment pollution, the better off we’ll be in the not-too-distant future.

I don’t ask anyone to do anything I haven’t already done. I lead by example and I understand that not everyone can do what I do. All I ask is that people advocate for progressive government policy and think about how they can reduce their energy consumption and dependence on non-renewable energy. Combining trips to the store, eating local food, driving a more fuel efficient vehicle or riding a bicycle are all things the average person can do. If everyone does what they can, it will make a difference to our future and the future of our planet.

Do the Math premiere

You can (and should) view the “Do the Math” movie on-line on YouTube. The movie was produced by 350.org. The movie is a call to action to stop or substantially reduce carbon emissions before our planet warms more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

On a lighter note, solar panels (photovoltaics) can now be purchased for under $1/watt with a 25 year warranty. That is a pretty good deal, even without government subsidies. I have never filed for tax rebates, as a matter of principle. But, I digress …

I’ve been looking into adding a wind turbine to my energy production. The turbines that sell for under $1000 do not impress me. They have small blades and only produce any real power in high winds (25 mph+). It is getting windier, where I live, but a turbine that could harness a 15 mph wind would serve me much better. I’m looking at building a turbine, specifically designed for lower wind speeds. I’m also thinking of purchasing some additional solar panels. At $1/watt, I can’t go wrong. The catch is that my charge controller would need to be replaced, and I might have to add some batteries.

I just got a letter from my electric utility. Electric rates are going up 5% in May, and the facilities charge (a fixed monthly fee) is also going up. I’ve been debating a grid tied inverter, so I could make better use of my photovoltaic output. As it is now, I have excess capacity most afternoons; especially on sunny days. With the increase is the monthly connection fee, I’m tempted to invest my money in going off grid, completely. Going off grid is an attractive idea, but the ramifications of going off grid are nothing to sneeze at. I would have to be able to provide for peak demand, and I’d have to have backup power for when the sun didn’t shine and the wind didn’t blow. For now, that is just not an option. For now, the goal will be to get the electric bill as low as possible.

On an unrelated note, I found time to rebuild my robot car. It’s been fun, writing the software for autonomous navigation. I’ll have to return to my robo-car in a future blog entry. That’s a lot more fun than talking about the destruction of our planet.

Home, the movie

I have had “Home” on my DVD wishlist for a while, so I was very excited to find it on YouTube.com. The movie opens with some background on how our ecosystem formed. It’s not a detailed account of all 4 billion years, but it hits the highlights; especially the ones that are important for understanding the rest of the movie. After that, the movie talks about the humble beginnings of homo sapiens, from hunter gatherers, to subsistence farmers, and on through the industrial revolution. Then the movie expounds on the many ways in which man has changed the environment to suit himself, with many devastating effects. It paints a sad picture of a planet being consumed at an unsustainable pace. Home ends with signs of hope, and a call to action.

What I loved most about the movie was the beautiful cinematography. The movie is mostly a series of high definition aerial clips that are sometimes breathtaking, and sometimes bleak. I imagined, while watching it, that some people might come away with a sense of pride, at how much we’ve “accomplished”. There are many shots that illustrate the power and ingenuity of our species. I, however, felt a very strong sense of doom. When I see giant machines, I see massive destruction. When I see a precisely engineered military weapon, I don’t see national security, I see death and suffering. In my experience, machines have the potential to improve our lives in many ways, but they are usually deployed by soulless corporations that are motivated only by profit.

But, I digress. The mid segment in Home brought tears to my eyes. The movie did end on a high note. I suppose that’s a good thing, but it may not be realistic. It sure looks like the Keystone XL pipeline is going to get approved, and the tar sands of Canada will be exploited at any and all cost to the environment. I hope I’m wrong, and Transcanada gets stopped in their tracks. However, as I write this, the US Senate is drafting legislation to do an end run around the President. It may save face for Obama, if they can pass it over his veto, but the end result will be devastating for Alberta and the entire world.

The other thing that made be sad, while watching Home, was the shots of the elephants. Elephants are such amazing, intelligent, and social creatures. They have extended family systems, they care for their own, and they mourn their dead. Yet, they are being slaughtered for their ivory in record numbers. The number of elephants in the wild has reached an all time low, and they could be wiped out in 10 years, if the current rate of poaching continues. How can people buy something made of ivory, knowing that a majestic, sentient creature was slaughtered for it? Maybe it’s just ignorance. If it is, I hope people wake up before it’s too late. If we’re the caretakers of this planet, we’re doing a piss poor job.

On a final note: I highly recommend the movie, “Home”. It covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes. I think everyone who lives on this planet should see it.

Forward on Climate Rally in DC

solar panelsThe Forward on Climate rally was yesterday in Washington DC. Somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 people attended. I would say it was a grand success. The best coverage of the rally that I’ve found is here.

I know there are lots of reasonable people who believe that the Keystone XL pipeline is going to help with our economic prosperity. I can even understand their reasoning. However, I firmly believe that the benefits do not outweigh the long term costs. Today we got confirmation that the tar sands tailings ponds are leaking toxins into the ground water. The Canadian government had denied that any chemicals were leaking from the ponds, but zero leakage seemed unlikely to me.

I’ve spoken before about the externalized costs of fossil fuels. Here are a couple of articles that go into more detail on that subject, and provide sources for further research.

I also got some very bad news on the state of the arctic sea ice, this week. It looks like the arctic will be ice free in the summer by 2020. That doesn’t bode well for the gulf stream, which is already slowing down. That seemingly insignificant fact could have catastrophic implications for the east coast of the United States. The slowing of the gulf stream will add to sea level rise here, on the east coast. It could mean as much as a meter of extra sea level rise, over and above the global sea level rise. That could spell disaster for many coastal communities near my home.

I warned you, a couple of posts back, that there would be more doom and gloom. I’m afraid the news from this past week is even more dire than I had anticipated. I sure hope Obama decides to scrap the Keystone XL pipeline. We don’t need more pollution or more CO2. Jobs are no good to us, if our food supply is devastated by drought, or the Mississippi river dries up, or our rivers die from toxic pollutants. Our children deserve a healthy planet. Our economy is already being severely burdened by the cost of health care, and skyrocketing food prices. We can’t survive in a toxic environment.

Just say “No” to Keystone XL. Forward on Climate!

Back to Doom and Gloom

It seems the anti-green people will go to great lengths to resist sustainable solutions; in this case, a wind farm. An offshore wind farm is being sited about 35 miles from me, not too far from Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. The opposition have recently decided that the wind farm might get in the way of military training exercises. They say there is a chance the air station may be closed in the future, due to limitations imposed on it by the proximity of the wind turbines.

First, let me say that the Federal Government (i.e. the Marine Corps) had veto authority on the siting of the wind farm, and they did not veto it. It is obviously not in their critical flight path. Next, I’d like to talk about the bigger picture. If you accept the best science available to us, today, if we don’t do something to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we’re going to see more than a meter of sea level rise on our cost in the next 50 years. We’ve already had 8 inches of sea level rise, here on the North Carolina coast. A meter of sea level rise would be devastating to our coast and our coastal economy. Even the military bases would be impacted. It seems to me that the wind farms are, at least, symbolic of our attempt to prevent an ecological and economic disaster. That, in my opinion, trumps a perceived, potential threat of a base realignment that would result in the closure of the air station.

People probably get tired of hearing me say this, but if we’re going to head off an¬†apocalyptic climate disaster, we’re going to have to get serious. That means everyone has to do their part. Individuals, governments, and commercial entities must all find ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Many of us will have to make sacrifices. I have made sacrifices, and I expect to make more.

On the flip side, wind farms are hardly a sacrifice. The wind industry creates jobs and spurs economic growth. It helps us reach energy independence without polluting our precious environment. Wind farms even save millions of gallons of water. Developing better renewable energy technologies will help the U.S. remain competitive, and help us balance our trade deficit. If you’re against subsidizing industry, then stop subsidies to fossil fuel companies and balance the playing field. Also, make the fossil fuel companies pay to clean up the messes they create, and the health problems associated with their pollution.

The days of cheap energy are coming to an end. Investing in sustainable, clean technologies just makes sense to me.

In Honor of Becky Tarbotton

Some of you may already know that Rebecca Tarbotton died on December 26, 2012 in a swimming accident at the age of 39. She was an amazing activist. I’m still suspicious about her untimely death. She was an avid kayaker, and outdoorsperson. She was practically an unstoppable force of nature, and she was in perfect health. As the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, I’m sure she made some very powerful enemies. That’s why I’m not ready to just accept the alleged circumstances of her death. You should google Rebecca Tarbotton, if you’re not familiar with her. There is a wealth of information about her on various news sites. Everyone seems to agree on the cause of death. It’s all a little hard to swallow, for me. How hard would it be to poison someone’s drink and pay off the coroner while they were on vacation in Mexico?

Here is a video, in case you have never heard Becky speak …

The little things

I’ve been really busy these past couple of weeks with work. Last weekend the weather was dark and rainy. Today, however, the sky was blue and the sun was shining all day. I took full advantage of the sun’s bounty. I did laundry and hung my clothes out to dry on the clothes line. I baked bread in my SunOven, and I warmed my house with passive solar and a solar air heater. Of course, all of the hot water I use is solar heated.

The solar thermal systems are by far the most cost effective. You may not think of a clothes line as a solar powered appliance, but it really is. Reducing your carbon footprint doesn’t have to be expensive, or technically daunting. My solar oven from SunOven.com is a very simple device, and it works great, as long as you can do your cooking while the sun is shining. Food cooked in the SunOven even tastes better, for some inexplicable reason.

My motivation for writing this came from a story I heard on the radio. I feel very fortunate in that I have the resources to take advantage of renewable energy. I realize that some people just can’t afford to invest in renewables, even though it would probably save them money in the long term. Actually, the best reason for a person with limited income to reduce their dependence on the grid, is that it saves money and offers some peace of mind, knowing that if the power gets shut off, you’ll still have some basic needs covered. It’s also a lot easier to pay those energy bills when they are a whole lot smaller. From a “save the planet” perspective, people who live modest lifestyles are not the biggest concern. Large office buildings offer a much more significant target for real carbon reductions. People who live in 6000 square foot homes, could obviously convert those into apartment buildings and move into something more practical. However, I doubt any of those people are reading my blog.

Based on my experience with energy conservation, there are several things you can do to get started saving some of your hard earned cash without investing anything. You may already be doing some or all of these things, but they are worth mentioning.

1) if you drive, plan and consolidate your trips so you drive less.

2) turn down your thermostat, don’t leave the frig door open, turn off lights, etc., etc. You’ve probably heard most of those tips 99 times.

3) if you don’t use a lot of hot water, you can turn your water heater thermostat down to 120 and save some power.

4) use a clothes line instead of the clothes dryer whenever you can. It may be inconvenient, but if you do it often, you’ll save some real money.

5) water can only get so hot before it turns to steam. If you’re cooking something in boiling water, lower the heat to where it will just barely keep boiling. Put a lid on it, if you can. There are some things that call for a rolling boil, but in my experience, most things cook the same whether the water is boiling fast or slow.

6) turn off your TV when nobody is watching it. Actually, you’d be doing yourself a favor if you left it off most of the time.

7) put your computer to sleep and/or turn off the monitor when it’s not in use during the day. Shut it down at night.

Those things won’t cost you a dime, but they could save you a bundle. If you can make a modest investment, replacing tungsten bulbs with more efficient bulbs will pay off in a year or two, depending on how much you burn your lights, and the bulbs you buy. I have a couple of 7.5W LED bulbs in my kitchen that were an experimental purchase. I’m sure they’ve saved some energy. My kitchen light is the one that is on from the time it gets dark until I go to bed. It is where I spend most of my time when I’m in the house and I’m not working or sleeping. I wish I could say that the LED lights are performing flawlessly. They are probably about 1 year old and one of them has taken to flickering. An LED can last for 100,000 hours of use, but they run on low voltage DC current, so an LED version of an AC bulb (one you’d screw into a standard socket in your home) requires some electronics to convert the AC high voltage power into low voltage DC current. Apparently my bulb is defective, or it was cheaply made. I may bust it open and see if I can repair it. However, the 12V LEDs I’ve been experimenting with will likely replace my ceiling lights. I will have to run wires around the house to connect them to the battery bank that is charged by my solar panels, but once I do that, I’ll have bright, cheery, low voltage lighting that is also highly efficient and will be there for me, even in a power outage.

You might think I’m rich, but I’m not. I live on a very modest income that is well under half the national average. I use the money I save on my energy bills to buy parts, I salvage and fabricate whatever I can, and I do all of the work myself. I do spend money on my solar projects. Of that, there can be no doubt. My recent battery purchase was $400, and I’m afraid those batteries may not pay for themselves before they need to be replaced.

The fastest payback with solar electric systems is to use a grid-tie system where you don’t store anything. You use the energy you generate while you’re generating it. If you generate more than you can use, your electric meter runs backwards, and when the sun goes down, you rely on the grid for your power needs. The problem with that system is that, when the grid goes down, so does your solar production. You have all that potential, but you cannot use it when you need it most.

I’m more of a boyscout than I am a shrewd business person. I want my solar power to provide me with some security against outages. My solar panels charge a bank of batteries and power some nominal loads during the day. At night, I run some lights and computer equipment off the batteries. You lose 20-30 percent of your power when charging batteries, and when the batteries are fully charged, the potential of my solar panels is often underutilized. The advantage is that my system is completely independent of the grid. It’s like a giant uninterruptable power supply (UPS).

Since I have admitted that I’m not the shrewdest business person, I might as well mention that I have taken no tax credits on my investments. I don’t need the government to subsidize my choices. There are some pretty lucrative tax credits to be had, and I don’t blame anyone for taking advantage of them. That is just not my way.

Hurricane Sandy may have been the storm of the century, but there are going to be more like it in the next 5 years. Of that, I am pretty sure. People should be talking to their neighbors about how they’re going to weather the next big storm. A distributed power generation system is much more reliable than a centralized one that relies on miles of wires to deliver power. At least me and my neighbors will have a place to charge their cell phones. It’s too bad all the cell towers will probably go down.