June 27, 2013

Tar Sands are Incompatible with new Climate Change Plan

President Obama's new plan to combat climate change makes much of energy efficiency, which is a much more popular way to go than advocating a lifestyle change (political suicide) or less gridlock-inducing than a carbon tax (the fastest way to effect lifestyle change). Instead, Mr. Obama chose to highlight the EPA's tightened fuel efficiency requirements for new cars (CAFE), and upcoming efficiency standards for appliances and building construction.

These are all steps in the right direction, but the president was vague on the approval or not of the Keystone XL, the pipeline that is to transport bitumen from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for refining. The controversy around the Keystone XL pipeline tends to centre around the environmental risk, job creation and US energy independence.

It seem foolhardy to rip out boreal forest, dig a 10-mile gash in the surface of the planet, and cart it all off, risking highly toxic spills through fragile environments (the original Keystone pipeline had more than thirty spills in its first year), only to sell the oil on the world market. On top of all that, tar sands have terrible energy efficiency.

Satellite image of oil sands operation at Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The days of gusher oil wells, where all you have to do is drill into the ground at the right place (not very deeply), and oil comes bursting out, are long gone. These days you have to spend energy to get energy: you need to drill deep, or sideways, or you need to pump the oil out, or carefully inject water to keep the pressure up. Hydraulic fracturing of shale takes immense amounts of both energy and water. The sun and the wind come to us for free, but harvesting their energy takes the building of wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, and that takes energy.

So the question we need to ask is, how much energy does it take to get one usable unit of energy from the various sources in our reach?

June 23, 2013

How To Dispel EV Range Anxiety

Sales of electric cars have picked up in the US, now that prices are starting to come down. But while the price cuts have made EVs much more affordable, range anxiety still runs rampant. After all, this is a big country, and American like to roam it. So a single-charge range of less than 100 miles is simply underwhelming, when compared to a range of more than 300 miles for most gasoline-powered cars. Especially if you consider it takes five minutes to fill a gas tank, but hours to recharge an EV battery.

Photo jepoirrier

For shorter trips, the EV is ideal - especially if you manage to power it from renewable sources. So it is very popular with car sharing schemes in cities, where the trip distance tends to be quite small, and the number of charging stations high.

Even outside large cities, the average American daily commute to work is about 16 miles. Even if you lived 30 miles from work, the 75-mile range on a Nissan Leaf will do just fine, with some margin for unexpected detours. If you can plug it in at work, that would increase your range by a factor two.

There are several ways to extend the range

June 19, 2013

Greening Our Vacation

It's easy for the Man of Steel: Whenever he's tired of saving the world and needs to retreat to his Fortress of Solitude over on the North Pole, he simply takes off and flies there, on his own power. The rest of us are not superheroes, and for us travel to remote places means we need to board a bird of steel (or, more accurately, some aluminium alloy).

Poster by Hamlet Au Yeung for Do The Green Thing

You can't deny that airplane travel is fast, but it also has a huge carbon footprint. It is true that any given scheduled flight / train / bus will depart whether or not you bought a seat on it. This argument certainly holds for travel on Amtrak trains, which tend to have a low occupation (outside of big travel holidays like Thanksgiving). So the marginal carbon emissions - the emissions due to the extra person travelling on that half-empty train - is quite small.

But airlines have removed from their schedules those flights that tend to be half full, and consolidated them with other flights, so most airplanes are filled near capacity these days. This means that on the aggregate, the more of us are looking to fly a segment (say Boston to San Diego), the more flights the airline will schedule on that segment.

June 13, 2013

Review: Honda CR-V

Bucking the trend, the very popular Honda CR-V has not grown over the years: since its introduction in 1995, its size has stayed pretty much the same in the length and width directions, and it has actually become less tall, going from about 70 inches for the early SUV to 65 inches for today's crossover.

While in the early days it looked like a utilitarian box on wheels much like the old Jeep, the CR-V has gradually moved its image toward sophistication, to the point that the sides now resemble a Lexus SUV. (There's some poetic justice in this, since the earliest Lexus RX, in my humble opinion, resembled a pregnant Honda Civic: what goes around comes around).

June 12, 2013

Arctic Sea Ice Visualisations

Arctic sea ice is melting apace, and will soon leave a watery expanse where the earth used to show a white-capped north pole. The diminishing of sea ice at the polar region is already altering the jet stream and making extreme weather events more extreme and of longer duration. There is worrisome evidence of the spread of disease as temperatures are rising around the north pole.

The movie "Chasing Ice" gives a glimpse of the enormity of the melting of the vast Greenland ice sheet. When that ice sheet releases ice into the sea in the process of calving, it does so in chunks the size of Manhattan - only quite a bit taller. The scale of that ice sheet is hard to comprehend.

But the area covered (still, so far) by arctic sea ice is even larger than Greenland. And it looks like all that is melting away as well, at an ever increasing rate since the 1980s.

Andy Lee Robinson, who is at that rare cross-roads between geeky techno-savvy and highly creative artistic talent, has made a movie that shows the total volume of arctic ice as the years go by: basically we're witnessing the melting of a gigantic ice cube.

The graph shows all the data; but it doesn't hit you in the gut like the movie does. Make sure to have sound on.

Arctic Sea Ice minimum volume 1979-2012. (31 secs)

June 6, 2013

Green Is Frugal! Reducing Car Use and Meat Consumption

In a recent survey, readers of the Reduce Footprints blog said that the toughest challenges in green living are reducing the use of the car and reducing meat in our diet. I totally get that: Like with most people, my mouth starts to water when I catch the smell of a nice steak on the grill (why, even writing about it gets it going). And the car is so convenient. Besides, even if you tried you couldn't get away from it, since many of us live in suburbs or small towns where you don't get anything done (work, play, groceries) without a car.

Photo SpaceMonkey

But while biological imperative and the pressures exerted by an inherited infrastructure can be strong, that doesn't mean that we have to let go all the brakes and jump in our SUVs to drive to the nearest steakhouse. We can put up a resistance.

Ah, you say, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I get that too: personally, I particularly shine at energy conservation when we're talking about physical energy that my body has to exert. On cold or rainy days that car really beckons to me.

So I need a motivation that's stronger than the objections my wily self can put up (and she is wily, my evil twin).

June 5, 2013

EV Price Slashed: Now Is It Competitive? -
a Cost Comparison Tutorial

Electric vehicles are touted as the way to drastically reduce the nation's transportation carbon footprint, especially once we have managed to transition our electricity grid away from fossil-fueled utilities, such as coal-burning plants. But so far sales of EVs have been anemic.

The disappointing sales figures partly stem from the driving public's doubts about the batteries, that are optimised within a narrow temperature range, and which are expensive to replace. But even without this concern, the hefty price premium on most EVs are a real deterrent, even if you take into account the $7,500 support the Federal government offers towards the purchase of an EV.

That is about to change, as several manufacturers of EVs have decided to drastically cut the MSRP of their EV offerings. The Nissan Leaf went from $35,200 to $28,800, and the monthly lease on a Honda Fit EV went from $389 to $259 a month. With these hefty cuts, EVs come into range for a lot more people.

So let us sit down and see if now it makes sense to buy an EV rather than a conventional gasoline-powered car. Obviously, there is some math involved here, but I promise it's nowhere near as bad as, say, your Federal tax return. If you've passed middle school, you can do this.

Like all good tutorials, from building a tool shed to sewing cloth diapers, I will show the finished product up front. (Sorry, no pretty pictures in this post: this is a cost estimate. After all, there are no pretty pictures on your tax return forms, either).


  Nissan Leaf Honda Fit EV
Purchase Cost $ 21,300 $ 9,324
Operation Cost $ 4,854 $ 1,567
TOTAL $ 26,154 $ 10,891
Comparison Vehicle (gasoline) Nissan Versa
Honda Fit
(1.8S Auto)
Purchase Cost $ 15,460 $ 7,700
Operation Cost $ 21, 429 $ 5,806
TOTAL $ 36,889 $ 13,506
EV Savings $ 10,735 $ 2,615
Annual Savings $ 1,074 $ 872

Figuratively speaking, this forms a pretty picture indeed: in the long term, there are big savings to be had from choosing an EV over a conventional car. Read on to see what assumptions go into these numbers, and how to do this estimate for yourself.