Friday, January 29, 2010

Energy Security: Way more than just changing lightbulbs

Changing lightbulbs is a step, but a mini-step, toward meeting energy security. Far bigger steps are needed. Below, reasons why, and some ideas from Blue Planet Foundation on how.

Switching to fluorescent or LED lights can save a few bucks, and reduce the amount of oil-burning for which you're responsible.

But the state spends $6 to $7 BILLION on oil each year. That's roughly $5,000 for every human on the archipelago. Figure $10 grand for a couple—and for a larger family, you can do the math.

How are you using that

About a third is electricity, of which 90 percent or so is produced from oil. It's the power we burn at home, at work, and the power that's being used at the store, the doctor's office and all the other places that are a part of our lives. Directly or indirectly, we're paying for all of that.

Another third is your family cars. That $50 you pump into your tank every week? Hello! That, and the fuel for barges that haul our supplies here from the Mainland, and then inter-island.

The other third? That trip your neighbor took to Vegas? A really big proportion of that airline ticket was the price of jet fuel. Your inter-island trips to visit auntie, or to shop, or to see a UH football game—a third of fuel use in Hawai'i is for air transport.

It adds up to huge money, huge addition to our global climate change load, and a huge security risk--a couple of tankers don't show up for whatever reason, and Hawai'i goes dark. Whether you're an environmentalist wacko, a national security nut or a suburban homemaker, that's a spooky scenario.

To change the dynamic, the Hawai'i-based Blue Planet Foundation has outlined some recommendations in its Clean Energy 2010 report.

The foundation would implement a $5/barrel tax on oil. Somewhere slightly north of 10 cents a gallon (42 gallons in a barrel). In theory, the increase would encourage efficiency and conservation, and the $150 million the tax would raise would be used for energy programs and to add some cash to the strapped state general fund.

Blue Planet says a December survey indicated two-thirds of residents support a tax of this kind.

One of the issues with getting your own house in energy order is the up-front cost—the few hundred bucks for efficiency improvements, several thousand bucks for solar hot water, the tens of thousands for photovoltaics, as examples. Blue Planet recommends Property Assessed Clean Energy or PACE funding. The government gets a bond to pay for such improvements, and to the degree that you borrow some of it, you pay it off through your property tax bills.

The Blue Planet energy plan would pump up the state Public Utilities Commission with some extra cash, so it can hire the resources to better study and manage the state's move toward improved energy security.

It would put an immediate ban on new fossil fuel power plants. It calls for more energy efficiency built into new homes, including wiring them to ease the installation of photovoltaic power.

And a tax credit for biofuel plants. And a tax credit for electric vehicle charging stations.

Used to be, every service station had free air right next to the gas pump. Often today, there's no air available, or you need to pump coins to get air. The Blue Planet plan calls for free air and gauges at all gas stations. The theory: Car tires that are properly inflated have less resistance, and reduce gas consumption.

The plan would place a Public Benefits Fee on electric bills to pay for more aggressive energy efficiency. The theory: “Energy efficiency is the fastest, cheapest, and most effective method of reducing Hawaii’s dependency on imported oil.”

One final step: Blue Planet calls for a state constitutional amendment on energy security. Here's the proposed language:

Energy Security
For the benefit of present and future generations, the State and its political subdivisions has the obligation to ensure the provision of clean, indigenous, and renewable sources of energy and shall promote the development and utilization of these resources in a manner consistent with their conservation and in furtherance of the energy self-sufficiency of the State. It shall be the goal of the State to become energy independent.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Odd connection: Hawaiian suntans and near-Earth asteroids

Like a Hawaii visitor to Alaska, near earth asteroids approach our planet with a tan, and depart looking pale.

(Image: The asteroid Itokawa, viewed from the Japan spacecraft Hayabusa. Credit & Copyright: Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.)

For the human tourist, it's about the sun, or the lack thereof.

For the asteroid, it appears to be the Earth's gravity, according to a team of astronomers that inclkudes two from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

Schelte Bus and Alan Tokunaga, of the university's Institute for Astronomy, are part of an international group looking into the change in the shade of asteroids.

Their assessment is that the darker color is the color of ancient, weathered rocks that have been passing through space for a very long time. The paler color appears to be that of unweathered stone. And they found that paler asteroids appeared to be those that had survived a near-miss with the Earth.

Their conclusion is that the Earth's gravity causes landslides on the asteroids, burying the dark rock and exposing new stone surfaces.

"We now suspect that most asteroids are loose conglomerations of rocks and boulders, rather than strong, monolithic objects," Bus said.

“Landslides on the asteroid cause the dark weathered areas to be covered by fresh, lighter colored rocks. Hence the asteroid's color, after the encounter, will appear paler than before."

Their paper, in the Jan. 21 issue of the journal Nature, is entitled, Earth encounters as the origin of fresh surfaces on near-Earth asteroids.

The researchers studied the color of the asteroids. Rocks that have been rolling around in space for as little as a million years “weather” to a redder color than normal. But some rocks that have passed near our planet don't have that same reddish tint.

“Tidal stress, strong enough to disturb and expose unweathered surface grains, is the most likely dominant short-term asteroid resurfacing process,” the team wrote in Nature.

“Although the seismology details are yet to be worked out, the identification of rapid physical processes that can produce both fresh and weathered asteroid surfaces resolves the decades-long puzzle of the difference in colour of asteroids and meteorites.”

How is this information useful?

For most of the public it may be the stuff of science fiction movies, but it could play a role in some future threatened impact of the Earth by an asteroid.

"The more we can learn about what holds an asteroid together, the better chance we have to reduce or eliminate damage to Earth," Tokunaga said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Urban green ain't so green

That little patch of grass in an urban Honolulu or Wailuku or Hilo setting, breathing out a little oxygen, it's a good thing, right?

Sure, for any number of reasons, but not because it helps improve air quality.

Actually the opposite is true.

It may cool the area, may be nice to sit on, and might even make you feel better, but a new piece of research suggests that it ain't doing anything for the atmosphere.

Indeed, it's a big negative—largely because of the amount of effort trimming and mowing with gas-powered appliances that pump greenhouse gas into the air, plus the use of fertilizer, which also releases greenhouse gases.

“Lawns look great — they're nice and green and healthy, and they're photosynthesizing a lot of organic carbon. But the carbon-storing benefits of lawns are counteracted by fuel consumption,” said Amy Townsend-Small, Earth system science postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Irvine.

She and co-researcher Claudia Czimczik conducted a study on the issue, which has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The scientists studied both ornamental picnic areas and actively managed athletic fields. They evaluated soil samples over time to determine how much carbon was being sequestered. They sampled the air above the grassy areas to determine emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizer. And they calculated the carbon dioxide cost of these lawns from the groundskeeping procedures, from irrigation to mowing.

In general, all that active management releases four times more greenhouse gas than the lawns are capable of sequestering, they found.

“It's impossible for these lawns to be net greenhouse gas sinks because too much fuel is used to maintain them,” Townsend-Small said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010

More CO2 means noisier deep oceans: UH researchers

Among the weird effects of our continued dumping of carbon-dioxide into the environment is that oceans are getting noisier.

(Image: Waves are among the sources of low-frequency ocean noise. Credit: SOEST.)

Here's how that works:

Researchers are finding that as carbon-dioxide is absorbed into the ocean, the ocean is getting more acidic. A more acidic ocean absorbs less sound at certain wavelengths—essentially low-frequency sound. That may mean noise is louder, farther.

Oceanographers Tatiana Ilyina and Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawai'i's School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, and Peter Brewer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, described the phenomenon in a recent issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

“If we continue to emit carbon dioxide at business-as-usual rates, the pH of surface seawater will drop by 0.6 units by the year 2100. As a result, the absorption of 200 Hz sound would decrease by up to 70%”, Ilyina said.

This range of sound frequency is used by some marine animals, and is produced by weather effects like rain and wave action, as well as by human action like shipping, ocean construction and some sonar systems

What all this might mean to marine creatures, or to the military's use of sonar, is not entirely clear, the authors said.

“We don’t fully understand what the impacts of these changes in ocean acoustics will be. Because of decreasing sound absorption, underwater sound could travel farther, and this could lead to growing noise levels in the oceans. Increasing transparency of the oceans to low-frequency sounds could also enable marine mammals to communicate over longer distances,” Ilyina said.

The paper:

Future ocean increasingly transparent to low-frequency sound owing to carbon dioxide emissions. Ilyina, T., R. E. Zeebe, and P. G. Brewer. Nature Geoscience. Advance Online Publication, Dec 20, 2009, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo719

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New county energy sustainability plan draft released

The County of Kaua'i has a new draft plan designed to guide us to a sustainable energy future.

Of course, it's got some issues.

There are the things that are going to make it hard to adopt—like a proposed $.50-per-gallon county gas tax. That's designed to promote energy efficient cars, drive people to buses, and fund energy solutions.

And there are things that seem overly hopeful—like producing 45 megawatts from hydroelectric power. It'll be tough to find enough streams without endangered freshwater creatures and waterfowl in them to meet that goal.

And the draft plan seems to miss the boat on several pieces of the energy puzzle. It walks away from wind power and waste-to-energy, and, for some folks who talked at a recent public meeting, it doesn't spent near enough time on energy conservation and efficiency.

But it's a draft, and it should be and will be tweaked before it's final.

The draft Kauai Energy Sustainability Plan's most controversial proposal, based on testimony at a public meeting last week, is this one: “The Kaua`i County Fuel Tax should be raised an additional 50¢/gallon on gasoline and diesel to disincentivize their consumption, while building a Sustainable Ground Transportation Fund to provide incentives for alternative transportation, more efficient vehicles, and an integrated refinery for the Island, etc.”

(As a writer, I can't pass up the opportunity to comment on the use of the horrific word disincentivize. We all occasionally make an unfortunate choice of words or use a word in an unfortunate way. But, I think what the author means here is discourage, which would have been a much better choice. Disincentivize, an ugly word and a waste of syllables, suggests that you're removing a previously existing incentive—and it's not clear here what that incentive is. So much for this neoantidisestablishmentarianistic rant.)

The plan promotes hybrids and electric cars, and is a big, big supporter of biofuels—growing crops for energy production, through biomass conversion to electricity and the development of liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel.

Its assessment about the amount of hydropower available on Kauai is likely to be cut, we would think by as much as half.

The plan assumes the island has such great potential for renewable fuels that it will have a glut of power at low-usage hours—the middle of the night—and that hydro and biomass could then conveniently charge up thousands of plug-in hybrid electric cars.

It recommends the county adopt Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards for commercial buildings and the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) for new homes. It recommends the county hire three new experts to promote efficiency in government and commercial buildings. They would be a County Energy Efficiency Manager, a County Facilities Energy Manager and a County Policy Manager.

And the draft plan strongly promotes feed-in tariffs for the local utility, the Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative. This system, which provides higher-than-normal prices for alternative energy production, is designed to promote renewable energy development.

The plan downplays waste-to-energy as a power source like O'ahu's HPOWER plant, saying there are questions about its potential on Kaua'i. It also dismisses wind power, asserting that wind development is on hold due to bird strike issues, even though small wind plants are actively being developed, and developers are working hard on finding technological and regulatory ways to get wind projects approved.

To help ensure that the plan moves forward, it identifies a sponsor: a new energy panel charged with enacting its recommendations. The Sustainable Energy Coordination Team (SECT) would include representatives of: Kaua'i County, the energy utility, the Kaua'i Economic Development Board, state Department of Business, Economic development and Tourism, energy investors, environmental groups, and members of the committee that helped develop the energy sustainability plan itself.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Environmental shade shifting: When green's not enough, go blue

If you've seen the movie “Avatar,” you know you couldn't get away from the green.

The green jungle, the green floating mountains, the green theme.

But look out. The new color of the environment is blue, like Avatar's blue people, the Na'vi.

A few weeks ago, Hawai'i students celebrated project the Blue Line Project, in which folks used blue chalk to mark the projected inland stage of the ocean as sea levels rise.

Blue is clearly about conservation of the oceans. It's also about water conservation. A Canadian site, Go Blue, looks at drinking water issues.

A British site, The Green Blue, mixes the message. It has interesting conservation information like a new sailing cargo ship that can deliver the goods without burning oil. “The Green Blue,” it says, “is testing out practical projects, conducting research and providing advice, to help recreational boating go green.

In Hawai'i, organizers of an event Wednesday, January 13, 2010, are urging people to wear blue to support ocean conservation.

Hawai'i folks are being encourage to wear blue attire and to attend an event on the fourth floor of the state Capitol building, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., (A group photo is scheduled at noon.) It's in support of a strong national oceans policy by the White House Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force.

More on the task force here. And take note of the color theme on that page.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Friday, January 8, 2010

Electric cars: Price is all about range

With electric cars, it seems that what you pay for is range.

And generally, range means battery size, although certainly vehicle weight and aerodynamic qualities play a role.

(Image: The THINK City car. Credit: THINK.)


The golf-cart-looking GEM car gets about 30 miles, and costs under $8,000 in its most basic model.

Need a pickup truck? Zap has one with a 30-mile range at $15,000.

There's the Dynasty electric vehicle, with a 30-mile range, with a basic model that sells for $14,000.

Those three are low-speed models, generally with a 25-mile-an-hour maximum. For street cars, though, the per-mile-of-range pricing isn't a lot different.

BG Electric cars is promising a Chinese-made, 45-mile-per-hour sedan with a 60 to 120-mile range, depending on configuration, for $16,000 to $27,000. But it seems to be having difficulty bringing it to market on schedule. It was promised last year.

The THINK car, which is to be manufactured in the U.S., may be on sale late next year at $25,000 with a 100 miles range.

The Mini Cooper electric car, the Mini-E, gets about 150 miles to the battery charge, and runs in the $50,000 range.

The super-hot Tesla Roadster gets 200 miles of range out of a list price of $109,000.

It's not a linear chart, but generally, what you pay for in an electric car is range. Based on the numbers above—and clearly they may change with time and alterations in design and capacity—you get a mile of range for somewhere between $250 and $550.

The most basic vehicles are in the lower end of that range. Hotter cars like the Mini-E and Tesla, move up the range.

With the GEM it's $267 a mile of range.

The ZapTruck is $500 a mile.

Dynasty is $467.

BG's promised price works out to $225 to $266.

THINK is $250 a mile.

Mini-E is $333 a mile.

And Tesla is $550 a mile.

The GM Volt, promised late this year, runs more, near $1,000 a range mile, (40-mile range at a price less than $40,000), but it's not a pure electric car. It will have an on-board gas-powered range extender, making it more akin to a hybrid.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dishwasher/handwashing: It's all in the (hot) water

To hand-wash dishes, or not, which is greener?

There are so many folks out there with half-baked opinions that you might never get to a supportable answer.

That said, here's ours, which contradicts popular counter-intuitive “green” thinking: If you have a solar water heater, and you're an efficient washer, hand-washing has dramatically fewer environmental impacts.

You can waste a lot of water before you overcome the cost of the electricity for the washer's electric motor and the environmental cost of building and shipping that dishwashing machine.

On the other hand, if you're paying a utility to heat your water, either alternative will be an expensive one, and the judgment comes down to how much more hot water is used in your style of hand dishwashing than the dishwasher you select.

All kinds of green gurus are arguing that running a dishwasher has less impact on the environment. Mostly, they justify this position with a deplorable bit of analysis—they consider the amount of water used, and ignore electrical costs and the inherent environmental cost of the existence of the dishwasher.

Here's an example from a Hawai'i newspaper. The average dishwasher uses 8.7 gallons of water per load, while hand washing can use 10 to 20 gallons, depending on whether you leave the water running. Therefore the dishwasher is greener.

Here's an argument that dishwashers are greener than hand washing.

They are, of course, both wrong in almost every scenario. [They're pretty much only right if 1) you're using a very efficient dishwasher, 2) you're a very inefficient hand-washer, and 3) you're using fossil fuels to heat your water.]

The best electric dishwashers can do the job with five gallons, more or less, and the worst with 15 or so, but there's far more to dishwashing than water.

Let's call the detergent use even. And for the purposes of this assessment, let's call water heating even, assuming you have a solar water heater and aren't drawing electrical power to heat water.

In that case, figuring a 1000-watt dishwasher that runs for an hour, you'll pay electric costs of $.30 to $.40 per load, depending on where in Hawai'i you live. And the water costs about 3 cents for 10 gallons. (The electrical cost of pumping the water out of the ground is built into this price.)

Anybody paying attention? You can use two 55-gallon drums full of water hand-washing before it costs as much as the electrical cost alone of one dishwasher load.

That calculation is child's play. It gets trickier for those who don't have a solar water heater, and who are paying the electric utility or the gas company to heat water. From various sources, I've come up with about .2 kilowatt hours to heat a gallon of water from tap cold to dishwashing hot.

A 20-gallon hand-wash then costs 6 cents for the water and $1.20 for electricity to heat it, for $1.26. An efficient 10-gallon hand-wash costs $.63. For the dishwasher, the total costs depends in part on how much of the heated water comes via the household water heater and how much from the washer. Let's say $.30 to $.40 for electricity plus a $.32 hot water bill (5 gallons plus the water cost)--about the same as an efficient hand-wash, and less than an inefficient hand-wash.

But the upshot is that if you use a lot of hot water, and you're using electricity to heat it, it's going to be a costly venture either way. If you're an inefficient hand washer and you're paying the utility to heat your water, the dishwasher might indeed make more sense. (If you use more efficient fuel-based water heating like gas or heat pumps, the calculation shifts back toward hand-washing.)

But if you're using the sun to heat your water, you can be awfully inefficient as a dishwasher before you overcome the significant cost of running the machine.

I like this note from Dave Brook, energy extension agent at the Oregon State University: “Studies showing an advantage to one method usually assume less-efficient practices for the other—such as leaving rinse water flowing continuously when washing by hand. Because there’s no clear advantage of one method over the other, the main benefit of automatic dishwashers is convenience, not energy savings. Many people find dishwashers are a great place to store dirty dishes out of sight before washing them.”

As a University of Bonn study says, “while on the water there is a clear advantage of using a dishwasher, on energy in real life the situation is more complex as distribution and generation losses have to be taken into account as well.”

But once again, all those assessments assume you're paying to heat the water. If you're not, the choice is abundantly clear: wash 'em by hand and your environmental impact is minimal.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Monday, January 4, 2010

Barefoot beats most running shoes

One of the key recommendations for runners has always been, “Wear good shoes.”

New research is now suggesting that may be bad advice.

Not that you should wear bad shoes, but rather, perhaps, that you should wear no shoes at all. Of course, that's problematic for a number of reasons, even in fair Hawai'i.

Scientists comparing running in shoes and running barefoot have found that while shoes protect the feet in some ways, standard running shoe designs also dramatically change stresses on the joints of the lower body.

The press release is here. and the actual report is here.

The findings suggest that standard running shoes, with raised heels to reduce impact on landing and wide heels to prevent pronation, create significant changes in torque on the ankles, knees and hips.

The study was published in the PM&R: The journal of injury, function and rehabilitation under the title, "The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques." Authors are D. Casey Kerrigan, MD, Jason R. Franz, MS, Geoffrey S. Keenan, MD, Jay Dicharry, MPT, Ugo Della Croce, PhD, and Robert P. Wilder, MD. (PM&R: The journal of injury, function and rehabilitation, Volume 1, Issue 12 (December 2009), published by Elsevier. )

The researchers ran subjects on a treadmill, with standard running shoes, and without. Subjects were 68 individuals who ran regularly at least 15 miles a week, about half of whom were men and half women.

Their findings indicated that the running shoes transferred significant amounts of rotational force on the leg joints above the foot, when compared to barefoot running.

One message from this work might be to run barefoot. But broken glass, nails, sharp rocks and the rest of the debris along roadside running routes could make that a hazardous adventure.

The authors suggest the work could inform the design of future running shoes, to reduce the joint torque issues: “It is unknown to what extent actual joint contact forces could be affected by compliance that a shoe might provide, a potentially valuable design characteristic that may offset the observed increases in joint torques.”

I confess that I was a longtime barefooter. Old-timers in Hawai'i and particularly on Kauai may remember the “barefoot reporter.” I started wearing running shoes when I started running marathons and later triathlons, primarily for protection from roadside debris. The running days are long over, due largely to foot, ankle and knee issues. And now, I wonder, “Was it the shoes?”

I hesitate to take that concern too far. We were designed to walk and run generally on forgiving natural surfaces, while much running today is on solid concrete and asphalt. You can feel the difference.

The authors of the shoe/foot suggest manufacturers consider changes in popular shoe design.

“The development of new footwear designs that encourage or mimic the natural compliance that normal foot function provides while minimizing knee and hip joint torques is warranted. Reducing joint torques with footwear completely to that of barefoot running, while providing meaningful footwear functions, especially compliance, should be the goal of new footwear designs.”

Does that mean new running shoes will look like the interesting, strange Vibram Five-Fingers?
Probably not, but it might be a step in the right direction. Here's one take on them.

On the other hand, don't give up on your natural feet. Here's the website for the sport/lifestyle of “barefooting.” It includes a number of reviews of shoes that provide protection from the road/path surface, without the “control.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2010