Sierra Daily: June 2011
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24 posts from June 2011

Jun 14, 2011

U.S. Military Gets Serious About Energy


As Edward Humes reports in "Blood and Oil" in the new issue of Sierrathe Pentagon is getting serious about alternative energy--not so much out of concern for global warming, but because of the heavy toll its position as the world's single largest consumer of oil takes in blood and treasure. He does note, however, that "A fundamental hurdle facing the military's green mission is that despite the ambitious goals set by each branch, there is still no overarching strategy from the Pentagon."

Today, the Pentagon did so, announcing its "Operational Energy Strategy," a formal move away from oil and toward alternative energy.

The strategy has three basic components. The top priority, called “More fight, less fuel,” boils down to basic energy efficiency – using less energy, spending less money. That means investing in new technology that can power the same tanks, jets, and aircraft carriers with less conventional fuel, such as hybrid and electric engines. It also means low-tech solutions like lightening cargo loads and finding new, shorter aircraft routes . . . 

The second priority is “More options, less risk.” This translates into a drive to diversify energy sources. Today, almost all military operations rely on petroleum. The idea is to create different sources to do the same work -- using solar power instead of diesel to operate bases, as two bases in Afghanistan’s Helmand province are doing, or biofuels to fly jet planes

The third is “More capability, less cost: Build energy security into the future force.” The idea there is to build the goals of reducing energy use and increasing energy options into all the military’s long-term planning – an approach that could yield deep structural changes in military operations in decades to come.

For much more detail, be sure to read Humes' story.

--Paul Rauber    

Image: The F/A-18F 'Green Hornet' strike fighter runs on 50 percent biofuel. | U.S. Navy/Liz Goettee/Released

Jun 13, 2011

An Apple A Day…Oh, Never Mind

Appletree The Environmental Working Group's seventh annual analysis of pesticides in fruits and vegetables has identified some bad apples. The organization’s Dirty Dozen list, released today, says that apples were found to have a high amount of pesticide residue even after being washed and peeled; ninety-two percent of the apples the group tested contained two or more pesticides. In fact, apples leapfrogged celery, peaches, and strawberries, the 2010 list’s worsts, to land at the top of the list. That may give the favorite gift of every teacher’s pet an unexpected sinister intent.

"We think what's happening to apples is more pesticides and fungicides are being applied after the harvest so the fruit can have a longer shelf life," EWG analyst Sonya Lunder told USA Today. "Pesticides might be in small amounts, but we don't know what the subtle, long-term effects of many of these pesticides are yet."

The top five worst offenders on the new list are, in order, apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, and spinach. EWG recommends eating organic, or at minimum picking from its Clean 15 list, which includes some surprisingly enticing offerings, such as corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, mangoes, and watermelon.

--Reed McManus

Renegade Electric Bikes

Others43 Today's New York Times brings word of the biggest thing to hit the Chinese takeout business in New York since badly printed menu flyers: the electric bicycle.

The battery-powered bikes — which can travel faster than a pedal-powered bike and, let’s not forget, don’t need to be pedaled — are revolutionizing the trade of delivering Chinese food in Manhattan by extending the range for restaurants and speeding up the service.

The bikes have brought a small measure of ease to a profession that is virtually cornered by poor Chinese immigrants.

One small hitch, however: They're illegal, because many of them do not meet federal motor vehicle standards. The New York legislature is now considering a bill that would leagalize bikes with top speeds of 20 m.p.h. and that use less than 7,500 watts. (The feds already consider ebikes with top speeds of 20 m.p.h. or less to be bicycles rather than motorcycles.) Meanwhile, however, workers at takeout restaurants who earn below minimum wage are being fined $65 for using them on New York streets.

Never ridden an ebike? Neither had Sierra contributor Lynn Rapoport--until we put her up to it. Read what happens when a cycling purist meets the "cheatercycle."

--Paul Rauber

Image: EV-Global E-Bike LE

Big Plastic vs. the Bag Monster

BAG_MONSTER_20110110_180-2The dude at right is Andy Keller, inventor of the ChicoBag, a small, compressible alternative to the plastic shopping bag. He appears here in his " Bag Monster" persona, in which he wears 500 single-use  plastic bags--the average number used by the average American.

Or so he says! Keller's anti-plastic bag statements have now got him into big trouble with Big Plastic. Keller is being sued by Hilex Poly Company, LLC, Superbag Operating, LTD., and Advance Polybag, Inc., three of the largest plastic-bag manufacturers in the country. They claim that Keller's statements about their products have caused them "irreparable injury," and that statements that appeared on his Web site, sourced to the EPA but subsequently removed from the EPA's Web site, were false and misleading and constituted an illegal attempt to appropriate their customers.

"I don’t think this lawsuit is really about the facts," says Keller. "I believe it is simply a way for the industry to squash the competition and scare all of us into silence.”

He notes that the threat of legal action by the same plaintiffs scared off the city of Oakland, California, from banning single-use plastic bags, and that the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, whose members include Hilex Poly, has also filed suit against would-be bag-banning California communities of Marin County, Palo Alto, and Manhattan Beach. The latter town has pursued the case all the way to the California Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on it this summer.

Despite the fact that ChicoBag is also located in the California town of Chico, Big Plastic chose to file its lawsuit in South Carolina, a state that doesn't ban SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuit against public participation). Had the suit been filed in California, says Jennie Romer, an attorney who founded plasticbaglaws.org, the industry would have been forced to show that they had a probability of prevailing, and would have been forced to pay attorney's fees if they did not. In South Carolina, she says, Keller can look forward to a protracted court case. The suit, she says, "is definitely designed to get ChicoBag to stop talking about plastic bags." It's an indication, she says, of the seriousness with which the plastic industry is taking environmentalists' attempts to ban disposable bags: "It's a tipping point issue for them."

--Paul Rauber

Jun 09, 2011

Let A Hundred Thousand Subcompacts Blossom!

Deng2-in-the-red-flag-car General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson has some jarring words for his friends at the country club: “This will make my Republican friends puke,” he told the Detroit News in a recent interview. “We ought to just slap a 50-cent or a dollar tax on a gallon of gas."

Automakers tend to favor higher gas taxes over improved fuel-efficiency standards, in part because customers walk into showrooms already knowing they want cars that get high miles-per-gallon. But  Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Global Insight, points out a small stumbling block: “It's career suicide for a politician to call for raising gas taxes," she told the paper. (Akerson may have once been in charge of global buyouts for the Carlyle Group investment firm, but that didn't stop the conservative Washington Times from characterizing his tax thoughts thusly: "Ripping off motorists is key to the leftist agenda.")

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is considering new fuel economy and emissions standards for vehicles produced between 2017 and 2025. Automakers prefer a conservative approach that would mandate annual average increases in efficiency of three percent, which would boost the fleetwide average to 47 m.p.g. by 2025. Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, want to double that pace, which would get us to 62 miles per gallon by 2025.

Akerson isn’t the first auto exec to call for hiking the federal gas tax. But he seems to have greater flair for sound bites than some of his predecessors. In the same Detroit News interview,  here’s how Akerson characterized the shifting culture at GM as the corporation emerges from bankruptcy and faces ever-stiffer global competition: "It's just like the Communist party in China in the 1960s,” he said. “There has to be a cultural revolution here."

--Reed McManus

Short Shelf Life on Gingrich Caricatures?

Writing and illustrating stories about current events within the long leadtimes of a bimonthly magazine can be challenging, to say the least. Early in my career at Sierra, we had to do some emergency late editing to a story about the 1992 presidential candidates when Ross Perot unexpectedly took himself out of the race. More heroic was the effort by staff-favorite artist Victor Juhasz to edit Perot out of his hilarious illustration for the piece. (You'll have to look it up--it's pre-pixilization.)

That episode was brought to mind by today's news that Newt Gingrich's campaign staff had resigned en masse. ("Gingrich presidential campaign implodes," headlined the Washington Post.) I loved Victor's illustration to my story in the current issue about the climate denialsim rampant among the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, but given Gingrich's, er, volatility, kept my fingers crossed that nothing would happen before the issue hit mailboxes. So what a relief, then, to hear that despite the exodus of his entire staff, Gingrich today declared his determination to run "the substantive, solutions-oriented campaign I set out to run earlier this spring. The campaign begins anew Sunday in Los Angeles.” 

Thanks Newt! Please hold on until our July/August issue mails next week!

--Paul Rauber

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

World Energy: Where It Comes From, Where It Goes

I admit it: I have a weakness for Sankey diagrams--a kind of directional flow chart, says the Chemical Engineering blog, "where the width of the streams is proportional to the quantity of flow, and where the flows can be combined, split and traced through a series of events or stages." They even have their own blog, at Sankey Diagrams ("A Sankey diagram says more than 1000 pie charts"). They turn out to be exceptionally well suited to representing energy flows--witness the example below, by Cullen and Allwood, of world energy use. (Click for larger image.)

Here's how to unpack it. The leftmost bar shows energy sources. The second is clear enough: the direct use to which that fuel is put. The middle bar is another way of envisioning the conversion of the energy in the first bar, this time to motion, heat, or light. Fourth shows where the energy goes--to vehicles, factories, and buildings. Finally, the rightmost bar sums up the eight major fields to which energy is put--a few joules of which you're reading right now. Our task: Increase the size of that blue line for Renewables.

--Paul Rauber

Jun 08, 2011

Deep Roots


Apple CEO and San Francisco Bay Area native Steve Jobs recalls when today's Silicon Valley was covered with orchards instead of office parks. Yesterday the 1972 graduate of Cupertino, California’s Homestead High School unveiled his own small idea for reminding his hometown of its roots: Apple’s new headquarters, to be built on the site of an old Hewlett-Packard facility, will be a four-story “spaceship” housing 12,000 employees – and landscaped with some 6,000 trees, many of them apricot. According to a presentation Jobs gave to the Cupertino City Council, the new campus will reduce the acreage devoted to surface parking on the current site by 90 percent while increasing trees by 60 percent and landscaping by 350 percent. The futuristic circular building – no corner office for anyone! – will be powered by natural gas, relying on the utility grid only as backup. The company hopes to break ground next year and move in by 2015.

"I think we do have a shot at building the best office building in the world," said Jobs with uncharacteristic bravado.

--Reed McManus

Australian Climate Scientists Face Death Threats

And you thought the climate debate was nasty here in the United States! In Australia, leading climate researchers are opting for unlisted phone numbers, scrubbing their social media sites, and even going into hiding after receiving numerous death threats.

Prof David Koroly, of the University of Melbourne's school of Earth science, told the ABC that he receives threats whenever he is interviewed by the media. "It is clear that there is a campaign in terms of either organised or disorganised threats to discourage scientists from presenting the best available climate science on television or radio," he said.

The threats of violence come amidst a nationwide debate on putting a price on carbon--a policy advocated by Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and very publicly supported in a nationwide TV ad by actress Cate Blanchett. The policy has been harshly attacked in the Australian media--a large stake of which is owned by mining mogul Gina Rinehart. Among the lead attackers is Andrew Bolt, a widely read columnist and TV  host--who is also the butt of this awesome satirical rap video featuring genuine Australian climate scientists. (Please don't watch if you're offended by strong language.)


--Paul Rauber

Jun 07, 2011

Did You Ever Think Of Barbie As A Serial Killer?

Ken2 bc4d5c3a-4d0b-4e82-b3d2-418c2c084bc7_300 To highlight the destruction of Indonesian rainforests for pulp paper used in cardboard packaging by the world’s largest toy maker, today Greenpeace protestors unfurled a banner at Mattel’s El Segundo, California, headquarters with a very sad Ken-doll announcing, “Barbie, it’s over. I don’t date girls that are into deforestation.” It’s all part a campaign, complete with animated video, to raise public awareness about the swaths of rainforests leveled by Asia Pulp and Paper, a supplier to Mattel’s Chinese packaging printers.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “El Segundo police arrested eight protesters, including a woman dressed as Barbie in pink and blue Spandex, who was driving a bright pink bulldozer half a block from the scene.”

--Reed McManus

Image: Greenpeace

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