Energy Use and Greener Buildings

Energy prices and atmospheric temperatures are rising—putting energy efficiency on everyone’s front burner as a smart environmental and business practice. Reducing energy consumption—particularly from nonrenewable sources—will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and operating, manufacturing, and consumption costs.

Buildings consume approximately 37% of the energy and 68% of the electricity produced in the United States annually, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The good news is that by increasing efficiency, businesses and industry can also save money. Energy-management practices and energy-efficient equipment can reduce a plant’s energy costs by at least 20%—a net savings opportunity worth more than $11 billion by 2010 for the U.S.

But that’s not the whole story. Carbon-dioxide emissions from energy consumed by the commercial sector have jumped nearly 30% since 1980, the fastest rate of increase of any sector in the United States. Industry is another big emissions culprit: In 1997, industrial users burned fossil fuels to run motors, generate heat, operate machinery, and light buildings, consuming 37% of total U.S. energy and sending approximately 1.5 billion metric tons of emissions boiling into the atmosphere—a dangerous brew of carbon-dioxide, methane, and nitrous-oxide gases.

The upside is reduced long-term costs. Many energy-efficiency measures do not require additional first costs. Those measures that do result in higher first costs often create savings realized from lower energy use over the building lifetime, downsized equipment, reduced mechanical space needs, and utility rebates. Payback periods for many off-the-shelf energy efficiency measures are generally short.

Use of on-site renewable energy technologies can also result in energy cost savings, particularly if peak hour demand charges are high. Renewable energy can be generated on a building site by using technologies that convert energy from the sun, wind, and biomass into usable energy. On-site renewable energy is superior to conventional energy sources such as coal, nuclear, oil, natural gas, and hydropower generation, because of its negligible transportation costs and impacts. Utility rebates are often available to reduce first costs of renewable energy equipment. In some states, first costs can be offset by net metering, where excess electricity is sold back to the utility.

Link Greener Buildings | Backgrounders

Solar Energy Powers Water Treatment Plant

San Rafael, California – July 23, 2004 [] Summer time in Northern California used to mean people would plan when to water the lawn according to times set by the water utility. But South Feather Water and Power Agency wanted to give their customers more options for water use, so they commissioned Sun Power & Geothermal Energy to design and install a 566 kW DC electric solar photovoltaic (PV) system that would cut back on the plants reliance on the electric grid. The 2.2-acre solar system is situated on unused land adjacent to the freshwater treatment plant, and it provides all the electrical power for plant operations during the day.

The treatment plant runs all day, every day of the year. It will still use grid power at night and on rainy days, but surplus energy produced by the PV system on sunny days is automatically sent to the grid for credit with the California utilities company Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) through net metering. The combination of solar energy consumed by the treatment plant and utility credits from PG&E should eliminate the agency’s net annual electric bill completely by 2024 when the system is due to be paid in full.

“Going solar allows us to have more control over our rates,” said Michael Glaze, general manager of South Feather Water & Power. “As PG&E’s rates go up, our ratepayers’ water rates have to go up, too. I can’t imagine that a public agency would sit around and continue to pay an ever-increasing electric bill. When they can have the power for less money, doing nothing just does not make sense.”

Energy costs are one of the largest expenses in running a water treatment facility. In 2003 South Feather’s electric bill exceeded US$ 160,000, and that was up approximately 17 percent from 2002. The 566 kW PV system should generate the equivalent energy needed to supply 200 homes. Having the on-site power source removes South Feather’s demand on the public utility grid and adds energy to the grid during afternoon peak demand periods when California needs it the most. The state has a shortfall of energy on hot summer afternoons when air conditioning is in high use. This is also when solar produces the most energy.

The PV system includes 3,060 Sharp 185 W panels, two Xantrex PV225 inverters and one Xantrex PV45 inverter. The arrays are tilted at a 22.5-degree angle to collect the most sunlight during peak periods on summer afternoons at South Feather’s latitude. Because the silicon panels perform better when they are cool, they are mounted on open steel supports to allow air to flow across the top and bottom of the panels. For those extra hot California afternoons there is a water misting system in the panel supports that turns on when the air temperature reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius). A separate water spray system rinses dust off the top surface of the panels during dry periods to keep them clean and productive. South Feather supplies water for the misting system.

The total cost of the PV system was US$ 4 million, and the company received a $2 million rebate on the installation from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Link Renewable Energy News | Half-MW Solar Energy System for Water Treatment Plant

Which fish should we eat? has developed a method that translates information about fisheries and aquaculture into ranked lists of seafoods.

Since publishing our first seafood guide (5), we’ve produced wallet-sized guides and more detailed evaluations in our book Seafood Lover’s Almanac (6) and on our website Consumers have shown surprising interest and willingness to act. Consumers who understand, for example, that Chilean seabass is a market pseudonym for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and that rampant illegal fishing is depleting toothfish and killing endangered albatrosses, are more likely to make another choice.

Our ranking process is standardized, transparent, and updateable. We evaluate wild species and farmed seafood to account for the different conservation concerns associated with wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture. Our analysis is based on five criteria: for wild species, life history characteristics, current level of abundance, habitat quality, management effectiveness, and bycatch. Farming systems are evaluated for their on-site operations (e.g., open net pens versus closed re-circulating tank systems), feed composition, water quality, biological effects (e.g., species is native versus nonnative), and ecological effects (e.g., sensitivity of surrounding habitat). By answering a suite of questions within these categories, we create a comprehensive profile for each species, probing and citing published government reports, scientific journal articles, and industry and trade reports. We use information in the profile to score each species and then for clarity, convert the score into a color-coded seafood recommendation.

For more information about why we shouldn’t eat endangered fish species: Society for Conservation Biology (SCB)

via World Changing

How Thinking Goes Wrong: Resisting Change

The War on Terrorism: Do our leaders and military really understand that we are not fighting another country in this war? It appears that we are really fighting several elusive networks of small groups that have no geographical base. Can our military and intelligence change their traditional focus?

Environmentalists have been crying wolf about running out of oil since the late 1960’s. Americans have learned to ignore the warnings. Are we approaching the point where demand exceeds supply? Are we prepared for $60, $80, or $100 a barrel oil?

Global Warming has been dismissed as a tree-hugger fantasy by many commentators on Talk Radio. Recently, the evidence accumulated by scientists has been given credence by many major corportations (BusinessWeek cover story, Aug 16, 2004). Can the leaders of the industrial countries cooperate to make the necessary changes?

Most of us are threatened by new ideas.

In day-to-day life, as in science, we all resist fundamental paradigm change. Social scientist Jay Stuart Snelson calls this resistance an ideological immune system: “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions” (1993, p. 54). According to Snelson, the more knowledge individuals have accumulated, and the more well-founded their theories have become (and remember, we all tend to look for and remember confirmatory evidence, not counterevidence), the greater the confidence in their ideologies. The consequence of this, however, is that we build up an “immunity” against new ideas that do not corroborate previous ones. Historians of science call this the Planck Problem, after physicist Max Planck, who made this observation on what must happen for innovation to occur in science: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning” (1936, p. 97).

Psychologist David Perkins conducted an interesting correlational study in which he found a strong positive correlation between intelligence (measured by a standard IQ test) and the ability to give reasons for taking a point of view and defending that position; he also found a strong negative correlation between intelligence and the ability to consider other alternatives. That is, the higher the IQ, the greater the potential for ideological immunity. Ideological immunity is built into the scientific enterprise, where it functions as a filter against potentially overwhelming novelty. As historian of science I. B. Cohen explained, “New and revolutionary systems of science tend to be resisted rather than welcomed with open arms, because every successful scientist has a vested intellectual, social, and even financial interest in maintaining the status quo. If every revolutionary new idea were welcomed with open arms, utter chaos would be the result” (1985, p. 35).

In the end, history rewards those who are “right” (at least provisionally). Change does occur. In astronomy, the Ptolemaic geocentric universe was slowly displaced by Copernicus’s heliocentric system. In geology, George Cuvier’s catastrophism was gradually wedged out by the more soundly supported uniformitarianism of James Hutton and Charles Lyell. In biology, Darwin’s evolution theory superseded creationist belief in the immutability of species. In Earth history, Alfred Wegener’s idea of continental drift took nearly a half century to overcome the received dogma of fixed and stable continents. Ideological immunity can be overcome in science and in daily life, but it takes time and corroboration.

Link How Thinking Goes Wrong


Ocean CO2 may ‘harm marine life’

Nearly 50% of the carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the atmosphere over the last 200 years has been absorbed by the sea, scientists say.

Consequently, atmospheric levels of the potent greenhouse gas are not nearly as high as they might have been.

But the heavy concentration of carbon dioxide in the oceans has changed their chemistry, making it hard for some marine animals to form shells.

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Ocean CO2 may ‘harm marine life’

via Synergic Earth News

Ranchers who practice Holistic Resource Management

Some positive news about the environment.

The palette of the High Plains is subtle. From the moment the sun rises in the enormous sky until the moment it sets in the mountains, the land is flooded with sunlight. As the light hits it wrings out the reds and the greens, drains even purples and oranges into submission. There is color here, but no contrast.
The valley known as Iron Creek would be no different were it not for the fence that runs down its center. The pasture on either side is as muted as the rest of Wyoming; if you saw only one of them, it would blend into the hills without remark. But here, side-by-side, the two places are like night and day.

Undeniably better looking is the east side, Jim Gould’s land. It is thick with native grasses, and the field they make is bumpy and golden. They even wave in the breeze as if consciously trying to look idyllic.

The west side is gray. Its surface is dusty dirt checkered with dried manure and big sage, the official plant of parched lands. Jim tells me that in summer the cows there poke through the barbed wire to drink from his side, for the springs on their land have gone dry. “It’s really that bad,” he says.

Jim calls himself an environmentalist. As caretaker of this land, he values the individual plants, the wildlife, and even the predators that most locals loathe. Yet if he had to choose, he’d call himself a rancher first. His family arrived at this spot in Meeteetse, Wyoming, in the 1870s, and they have raised livestock on it every year since. His work is the same as the guy’s on the west side of the fence; what’s different is how he does it.

A new way of understanding rangelands

Jim Gould practices Holistic Resource Management (HRM). (HRM is also known simply as Holistic Management, or HM.) The first word is meant less metaphysically than literally: cattlemen like Jim think of their ranches not as commodity-producing businesses but as entire ecosystems—wholes. With HRM, cows go from being the sole focus, the raison d’etre, to being tools that serve a larger system. The land does the inverse: it goes from being merely a place to grow cattle to an end in itself. HRM practitioners often call themselves grass farmers rather than cattle ranchers, but really what they are growing is nature.

It is a slow process. The changes begin as soon as you take action, but before you can do anything you must understand the concept. This takes more than reading books; it requires learning to see the land differently. All four ranchers I visited in Wyoming this spring told me it was several years between when they began studying HRM and when they actually changed their operations.

Link GRASS FARMERS: Seeing the big picture

Another Great River Is Being Neutered

China wants to turn the Mekong River into a canal.

The Chinese government has begun building a series of eight dams on its part of the Mekong. This new system will not result in a huge rise in the water level, as with the monstrous Three Gorges Dam project; the goal on the Mekong is to create hydroelectric power and widen the river’s course so big ships can cruise all the way from Yunnan to export markets and raw materials downriver.

Two dams have already been completed on the upper Mekong. Since they were built, floods have resulted in hundreds of deaths and endangered the livelihood of thousands of farmers who pursue traditional agricultural methods, as far south as Cambodia. An ongoing phase of the Chinese plan is dynamiting the many rapids and shoals that have long prevented through-navigation of the Mekong down to the sea. You might expect that there would be an outcry in Laos over the proposed dam scheme, but there’s almost no such thing as news reporting here; few people outside the handful of cities have any knowledge about the world beyond their village. (It really isn’t in the Lao nature to complain, anyway.) More electricity, more trade, galloping development—a glorious future with no downside, it seems, except the destruction of some of the most spectacular river terrain in the world.

Link National Geographic Adventure Mag.: Mekong River Trip

Kayaking the Etowah River

Ann and I kayaked down the Etowah River with a group of friends on Saturday. On Sunday, the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper displayed a photo of some people on the river in kayaks, accompanying an article about dangers to the water quality of the river (Tourists, developers set off alarms over N. Ga. river ).

This beautiful little river provides drinking water for many thousands of Georgians. The river was running high due to the recent rainfall. One tributary that we passed, a large creek, was red with sediment. Subsequently, the right side of the Etowah was red for several hundred yards below the confluence. Too much sediment!

Etowah Falls, a class 5, ten-foot drop, was roaring with power and turbulence. Everyone portaged around it. Smart.

Thanks to Candace Stoughton for organizing the trip. I know why we don’t see many old guys in kayaks on big whitewater. My back was sore! I hadn’t been in a kayak since a two-day trip down the Klammath River in northern California in 1997. I still have some paddling skills, but the muscles don’t respond or recover like they once did. We rented "sit-on-top" kayaks.

The kayak that served me well on the Ocoee, Chatooga, and Nantahala Rivers in the 1980’s has been retired — it rests in peace in our backyard, home to various insects and small critters. The "sit-on-top" represents a breakthrough in kayak marketing — now anyone can paddle a kayak without learning how to roll (not a trivial process). It handled enough like a whitewater kayak that I had fun, and Ann didn’t feel like she could drown at any moment. Good stuff.