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Sierra Daily: April 2012
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18 posts from April 2012

Apr 30, 2012

Smart Meters: Threat or Menace?

GR_opener

By the end of this year, more than 52 million smart meters are planned to be installed in the United States. These devices track near-real-time electricity use, transmit that data back to the power company via wireless network, and can enable smart-grid innovations like variable electricity rates and friendly neighborhood energy-efficiency competitions. Smart meters also allow people who produce their own juice through solar panels to monitor what they're sending into the grid and get paid for it. John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance calls the meters "a tremendous opportunity for people to be more energy efficient."

Yet in many places smart meters are being greeted with lawsuits, petition drives, and tinfoil—the latter used to prevent the devices from transmitting. Consumers in places like Dallas and Bakersfield, California, have claimed that the meters overcharge them, while some Tea Party activists believe them to be a United Nations plot. "The real job of smart meters is to spy on you and control when you can and cannot use electrical appliances," charged Cher McCoy, a Lexington, Virginia, Tea Partier in February.

Opposition is also strong on the left. In liberal enclaves like California's Marin County, some worry about the radio frequency radiation the meters emit and complain of nausea, fatigue, and headaches. Others cite possible long-term risks of brain cancer and leukemia. Some objections have elements of plausibility. One utility company discovered that its meters, when overheated, overcharged customers, and the Energy Department's inspector general found that many utilities didn't adequately protect the grid—or customers' private data—from hackers or a cyber attack. And while most of us get far more exposure from our cellphones and wi-fi networks than we would from smart meters, they do emit radio frequency radiation in short, powerful bursts. In addition, for the network to work, a few meters must act as relays, sending data from as many as a thousand others and using a more powerful signal to do so.

The American Academy of Environmental Medicine opposes them on the grounds that "chronic exposure to wireless radio frequency radiation is a preventable environmental hazard that is sufficiently well documented to warrant immediate preventative public health action." (The group, it should be noted, also opposes fluoridated water.) David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany's School of Public Health, says that the health risk from a smart meter probably depends on how close it is to your bed or your easy chair. But he also suggests weighing that risk against those from dirty energy, an archaic grid, and climate change: infectious disease, lung damage, famine, heatstroke, fire, and flood. "In terms of a body count," Carpenter says, "that's orders of magnitude more significant."

—Dashka Slater / Illustration by Chris Gash

Apr 27, 2012

What's Your Water Footprint?

Watergraphic
By now, you're likely familiar with the concept of the "carbon footprint"—the amount of carbon dioxide that producing some item or performing some activity releases into the atmosphere. Illustrated below is a water footprint: the amount of H2O it takes, whether via irrigation or industrial process, to make the common objects of our daily lives. Given a growing U.S. population, limited water resources, a deep drought in some parts of the country and looming shortages in others, and the wild card of climate change, it's a metric we'll all be hearing more about soon. [Click on image for larger version.]

Illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey

HS_PaulRauberPAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

 

 

Apr 26, 2012

Survival of the Cutest

Somali wild ass iStock_000005911840XSmallThe pygmy raccoon and the Mindoro dwarf buffalo don’t capture our attention as much as lions, tigers, elephants, and pandas. But they should, according to a recent paper in the journal Conservation Letters (and noted by the New York Times Green blog and Mongabay.com). Our penchant for caring about large, furry critters with forward-facing eyes has skewed how we spend conservation dollars, says the study.  

Researchers found that only 80 of a possible 1,098 “flagship” species were the subjects of 59 international wildlife campaigns. “Critically endangered” species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List of Threatened Species” were no more likely to garner human support than “vulnerable” species, and 61 percent of wildlife conservation funds raised go to protect a species itself rather than its larger habitat.

Hoping to prompt interest in overlooked (but still charismatic) species, the researchers came up with a list of 183 critically endangered primates, carnivores, and other mammals that they hope will become “Cinderella species” – lifted from obscurity by human princes. They highlighted five: the African wild ass (pictured), the Talaud bear cuscus from Indonesia, the Pennant’s red colobus of West Africa, Mexico’s pygmy raccoon, and the Mindoro dwarf buffalo from the Philippines.

“Now that we have a list of species,” study author Robert Smith, a conservation biologist at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, told the Times,  “Maybe some N.G.O’s will say, ‘Oh, we didn’t really think of that species, but it would fit in with our plans.'”

Photo by iStock/haylocka

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas Ever Thus.” 

 

Apr 24, 2012

The Dead Squirrel

SquirrelIt turns out that Craigslist founder Craig Newmark is really into squirrels. So much so that he promises to donate a dollar to our friends at the National Wildlife Federation for each Tweet (up to 5000) that employs the hashtag #Squirrels4Good.

I'm a fan of urban survivors, and for that matter, I've been told I can get a little squirrelly, and more than once. . I've already set up a squirrel board on Pinterest, and so has the National Wildlife Federation. We're excited to get started, and can’t wait to see all those squirrels from around the world taking over social media.

Craig, it just so happens that I have here in my hands one of the finest pieces of squirrel literature ever written, a submission to a Sierra nature writing contest back in the dawn of time (i.e., 1991). Ms. Dorothy Halls of Woodland Hills, CA, did not win for her entry, but her verse deserves the special brand of immortality that only the Internet can offer. I recommend that you do as I have and commit it to memory; it serves admirably for those occasions when one is invited to recite something. Without further ado, "The Dead Squirrel":

My mate, my love, with the frisky tail, why do you lie so still? You're swifter far than the fastest car--surely it could not kill? Glancing each way, I'll dash in the street, nuzzle your neck and lick your feet. My mate, my love, with ways so sweet, why do you lie so still?

Up in the treetops, I'll make moan, and with my teardrops mourn you, my own. We, born of squirrel, are fated to die. Ours but to suffer and not ask why.

Now I recall how you chased me around, up in the elm tree, down to the ground, up in the evergreen--leap to the oak! Then I remember how sharply you spoke, scampering and chattering and clacking until--the big wheels rolling, the blood, the chill. My mate, my love, with endearing ways, why is your tail so still?

Feel free to RT this link, and don't forget the hashtag to benefit our bushy-tailed friends.

Photo by iStock/steverts

HS_PaulRauberPAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

 

Apr 23, 2012

Can a Wind Farm Float?

0059385  - Hywind on location - Photo Trude Refsahl - StatoilU.K. and U.S. energy regulators are looking to collaborate on the development of wind farms that float far offshore, according to the Guardian (via the New York Times Green blog). What seems like a precariously impractical idea actually relies on proven technology that is used in the offshore oil and gas industry. Instead of being mounted in the seabed in shallow water near a coastline, a wind turbine can be “slack anchored” in deep water, and moves with the seas.

The advantages include strong, consistent winds and -- no small matter -- less chance that coastal dwellers’ views will be marred. The much contested Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, scheduled to begin operating in 2014, is 5 miles from the nearest land; an anchored facility could be 10 or so miles out. The Norwegian company Statoil has operated a floating turbine 7 miles off the Norwegian coast in 200 meters (656 feet) of water since 2009, and the company has proposed a facility that would sit 13.8 miles off the Maine coast in water as deep as 500 feet, with construction starting in 2016.

Photo by Trude Refsahl / Statoil 

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas Ever Thus.” 

 

Apr 20, 2012

River + Ocean = Electricity

Osmotic 4075064934_c871173026

Tapping the power potential of the difference in salinity between fresh water and salt water could supply electricity for 520 million people, according to research funded by the Environment and Water Industrial Development Council of Singapore. Pressure-retarded osmosis (PRO) is an alluring process because it is available anywhere fresh water and salt water meet: Less-concentrated fresh water naturally wants to mingle with more-concentrated salty water. When the fresh water is run through a semi-permeable membrane, pressure from the flow can be tapped to drive a turbine that generates electricity—with no carbon dioxide emissions.

The Norwegian renewable-power company Statkraft has operated a prototype PRO facility near Oslo (at left) since 2009. By 2015 the facility is expected to produce 25 megawatts, the equivalent of a small wind farm.

Researchers Menachem Elimelech and Ngai Yin Yip calculate that the target of a half-billion customers could be reached by relying on one-tenth of the world’s river water flow. They note that the same amount of electricity produced by a coal-fired power plant would release over one billion metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. 

Photo by Statkraft.

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas Ever Thus.” 

Apr 19, 2012

Fossil Fuels Are Cheap

NPR's All Things Considered had a cheery story the other day, "As Gasoline Goes Up, Natural Gas Cheaper Than Ever." The idea is that thanks to the miracle of fracking ("new ways of extracting natural gas out of the ground") gas prices are dropping, making possible cheaper cookies and lawnmowers and much, much more:

There are all kinds of possibilities - natural gas cars and trucks, or even more likely the U.S. maybe could become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, exporting it around the world.

Sounds awesome! As long as you ignore the climate change part. And here's more rosy economic news via Reuters: "U.S. coal exports to China may double in 2012." The reason? Cheap freight rates and "a fall in domestic demand in the United States." (Take a bow, Beyond Coal!) 

"Exports to China could reach over 12 million tonnes this year based on the annualized numbers," [coal exporter Xcoal] Chief Executive Ernie Thrasher told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday. "I think there is enough demand in Asia to absorb enough U.S. cargoes to stem a decline in prices."

And why are coal prices declining?

Although still the largest single fuel for electricity generation, coal's share of monthly generation in the United States dropped below 40 percent in November and December 2011, a level not seen since 1978, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed.

The EIA forecasts coal demand by the power sector to fall by nearly five percent this year to 884 million short tons, the lowest level since 1995 as the fuel continues to be forced out by the flood of cheap gas following the shale gas boom.

Sounds awesome! As long as you ignore the climate change part. And finally, the Wall Street Journal reports that "Gas Futures Point to Pump Relief."

After a sizzling start to the year, gasoline futures prices are sliding, easing pressures on drivers and the U.S. economy and raising the prospect that prices at the pump could be headed lower still.

Gasoline futures, a key yardstick for wholesale prices, are down 6.3% from their high for the year reached on March 26, as the price of crude oil that gets refined into gasoline has dropped a similar amount amid easing tension over Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil producer.

Sounds awesome! As long as you ignore the climate change part. Which, conveniently, nearly everyone is happy to do. Without some kind of price on carbon, this is what you get.

HS_PaulRauberPAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

Apr 18, 2012

Sewage Cars

Irvine seawage wastenot_110822_01_sz_c228x152Talk about a renewable energy source: Fast Company reports on a sewage-treatment facility in Fountain Valley, California, that has been successfully converting its waste gases into electricity, heat, and hydrogen for fuel-cell-powered autos since last fall. 

According to Jack Brouwer, associate director at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California at Irvine, the project is the first of its kind in the world. The Orange County facility can handle about two dozen hydrogen fill-ups a day, but researchers imagine sewage-derived hydrogen powering as many fuel-cell car we can produce in the near future.  "It doesn’t have greenhouse emissions, it doesn’t have particulate emissions, and it doesn’t depend on foreign imports,” Brouwer says. “It’s a holistic solution that addresses all of those challenges."

Photo by Steve Zylius, University of California, Irvine  

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas Ever Thus.” 

 

 

Apr 16, 2012

Efficiency Starts at the Grid

Utility iStock_000016702791LargeDrive an electric vehicle in California, the Pacific Northwest, and much of New York, and you’re doing the environment a huge amount of good. In Rocky Mountain states, not so much.

The Union of Concerned Scientists studied the emissions that electric vehicles create from charging off the electric grid, and found, not surprisingly, that in regions where the local utilities rely on renewables and natural gas as their fuel sources, EVs slash global warming emissions compared to gasoline-powered vehicles and gasoline-electric hybrids. In nearly half the country, the emissions generated by an electric car are lower than a car that gets 50 mpg, topping the best hybrids available. And “in places like California and most of New York, EV’s environmental performance could be as high as an 80 mpg gasoline-powered vehicle.” About 37 percent of Americans live in areas where the climate impact of driving an EV is equivalent to driving a 41-to-50 mpg gasoline vehicle—similar to most hybrids. But in heavily coal-energy-dependent areas like the Rocky Mountain region, an EV produces global warming emissions equivalent to a gas vehicle with a fuel economy rating of 33 mpg. That means that an EV driver in Denver impacts the environment about as much as that of a driver of a gasoline-powered Hyundai Elantra (33 mpg) or Ford Fiesta (34 mpg).

Every EV driver stands to save money on operating costs -- $750 to $1,200 per year compared to a conventional compact vehicle, according to UCS. And they all gain the not insubstantial satisfaction of consuming less oil.  (For information on the national-security implications of oil dependence, go here and here.) “No matter where one lives in the United States, electric vehicles are a good choice for reducing global warming emissions and saving money on fueling up,” the report concludes.

Photo by iStock/ZU 09

Blog photo   HS_ReedMcManus (1)Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked at the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term.  For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas Ever Thus.” 

Apr 13, 2012

U.S. Drought Outpaces Climate Models

DrmonThe Winter That Wasn't has left 61% of the Lower 48 states in "abnormally dry" conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Half a billion trees have died in Texas, drought is leading to an increase in rabies, and Western states are bracing for a dangerous fire season. (For an ugly look at current conditions, click on the Drought Monitor's map at right.)

Current conditions are already outpacing climate models, like this study in Geophysical Research Letters, which forecasts a 7.5% drop in winter precipitation in the Southwestern United States in the years 2038 to 2070. As of mid-March, precipitation in Arizona and New Mexico was 50-to-70% of normal. Texas experienced an unusually wet winter for a change, but, warns meteorologists, it would take a hurricane this summer to end the state's catastrophic drought.

HS_PaulRauberPAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 


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