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[1THING] Blog: Archive for February, 2013

[ Why We Walk … and Run … And Walk Again to Get Where We’re Going ]

People naturally fall into a walk-run-walk cadence that saves energy and delivers them to their destination on time.


[ In State of the Union Speech Obama Straddles the Climate-Energy Fence ]

Can we lower carbon emissions and also push more and more oil and gas production?

The environmental community got a shot in the arm following the 2012 election. After it had languished as a non-issue throughout the presidential campaign, Obama gave a shout-out to climate change in his victory speech on election night and two months later it was a focal point of his inaugural address.

The question on many minds following that speech was: would climate change rank high enough as an issue to appear in his State of the Union address? And if so, would its inclusion indicate a strong intent on the part of the president to act quickly? Or would it be a mere mention to placate those worried about the planet’s health, with no assurance that anything substantive would happen?

Last night we seemed to get our answer. Obama devoted almost a tenth of his speech to climate and energy.

Laying Down the Climate Gauntlet

About 18 minutes into the speech, following thunderous approval of the need to invest “in science and innovation” — and making the case specifically for our energy investments — Obama cogently laid out the reasons for acting on climate. (Or see here.)

“For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

He went on to cite the mounting evidence.

“But the fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods — all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it’s too late.”

He encouraged legislators to do their job.

“I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan market-based solution to climate change like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.”

Then he laid down the gauntlet.

“But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct–I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take now and in the future to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

But Then … a Backtrack?

On the heels of his climate proclamation, Obama pivoted from the need to pursue clean-energy solutions like wind and solar to his commitment to continuing the pursuit of natural gas, and clearing the hurdles and speeding the development of new sources of oil and gas.

“In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that. That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. That’s got to be part of an all-of-the-above plan.”

And here it was again, the energy theme Obama has come to embrace, his all-of-the-above policy. (See here and here.) In fact this policy was prominently featured earlier in his address too:

“Today no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy.”

And he pointed with pride that:  

“We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years.”

Now, I know that growing natural gas supplies can supplant coal in electricity generation and thereby slow greenhouse gas emissions (provided there is not significant leakage of natural gas — an unresolved question). But natural gas, like oil, is a hydrocarbon and so burning it leads to carbon dioxide emissions, the very emissions we must cut to “combat climate change.”

So the question arises: Does it make sense to work to reduce carbon emissions on the one hand and facilitate new oil and gas production on the other?

Oil and Gas Revenues to Fuel Renewable Energy Technologies

Obama seemed to answer that question in his address by proposing we use “some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” It’s an intriguing way to get to a carbon-free economy. Just like wasps who lay their eggs inside a host prey so the eggs can hatch and feed off their host before killing it, the Energy Security Trust would siphon dollars from the oil and gas industry until renewables were strong enough to make oil and gas irrelevant.

Can it work? When I tweeted that question last night, Surfrider’s Chad Nelsen responded yes, kind of, with a caveat: “only if the acceleration of renewables (& electricity-based transportation) out paces extraction.” Over at Grist David Roberts pointed out that Obama’s proposal to use oil and gas revenue to fund an Energy Security Trust is essentially a tax and thus unlikely to receive congressional approval.

The bottom line is Obama’s in charge and so we’ll have to see how this plays itself out. But I am a bit uncomfortable. It feels to me as if the president is trying to play good guy with the environmental community and the oil and gas industries at the same time. At the very least I would like to see him explain how he reconciles the objectives of lower emissions and more oil and gas production, and how his all-of-the-above energy strategy will allow us to meet our climate objectives.


[ In Tesla Motors-NYT Spat, Cold Realities About Electric Cars ]

A New York Times reporter’s white-knuckled 206-mile journey in a Tesla Model S ended with the high-end EV on the back of a flatbed truck, and his account of the drive is fueling debate this week over the potential and the pitfalls of electric cars. Tesla’s chief executive fired back at the Times, calling the story “fake,” but the flap raises issues that extend beyond the $101,000 electric sedan in question.

In the piece titled “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway,” reporter John Broder wrote of setting out to test a pair of 480-volt Tesla Supercharger stations spaced 200 miles apart on Interstate 95, each designed to deliver enough charge in 30 minutes to power 150 miles of travel in the Model S. California-based Tesla has partnered with solar installer SolarCity (where Musk is also chairman) to generate electricity at the stations, so charging up is free.

Tesla provided Broder with the top-end version of its Model S—a vehicle with an 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rated driving range of 265 miles. Under ideal conditions at 55 mph, Tesla says the car can go up to 300 miles on a single charge. (See related story: “Range Anxiety: Fact or Fiction?“)

But things quickly went awry for Broder. He described seeing the battery’s juice (and estimated range) drop faster than anticipated; calling Tesla officials for advice; and cutting both cabin heat and speed to conserve energy before the car finally shut down on an off ramp.

Elon Musk, the CEO, chairman, product architect, and largest shareholder of Tesla Motors, had harsh words for the piece, tweeting:

The Times (to which I sometimes contribute articles on a freelance basis) stands by the original article. In a follow-up blog post, Broder said Tesla’s black-box record of the drive may indeed show him exceeding the speed limit, but that would likely have been before he charged up at the first Supercharger. And as noted in his original piece, Broder said he did drive into Manhattan, adding two miles of stop-and-go city driving to his trip (according to Broder’s Google map) after a Tesla rep advised him to switch out of cruise control to utilize regenerative braking. (Tesla executives reportedly later informed him this was bad advice.)

(Editor’s note Feb. 14: Tesla has put up its own follow-up blog post.)

Despite all the heat of this interlude, however, it illustrates something we already know: batteries are finicky beasts, relatively speaking. That’s why so much research and development is focused on thermal management and more robust materials. It’s why automakers test electric cars in the heat of the Las Vegas desert and the frigid cold of Kapuskasing, Ontario. And it’s why Tesla’s own chief technology officer, JB Straubel, told Broder that cold weather deals a blow to range—reducing it by as much as 10 percent.

Ideally, the car’s software would accurately and precisely calculate how far you could drive before recharging, given all the variables. Indeed, Broder’s original article paraphrased Straubel saying that “some range-related software problems still needed to be sorted out.” But to set out in an all-electric car on a 30-degree (Fahrenheit) day with the heat on and experience less-than-perfect battery performance, to leave the car unplugged overnight and wake to find its charge has depleted in the freezing temperatures—this isn’t surprising, and it’s far from “fake.”

The Model S, like a growing number of electric vehicles, is a car capable of serving most, but not necessarily all of our driving needs. Is that such a bad thing? Does that make it an impractical vehicle? No. Although trips of 50 miles or more account for about a third of all the miles driven each year, fully 97 percent of daily vehicle trips in the United States are 49 miles or less, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration. Seven out of 10 trips cover less than 10 miles. (See related story: “Renault Zoe, a Low-Price Electric Car, Wins Britain’s Future Car Challenge“)

Expecting electric vehicles to perform like their gas counterparts misses the point. As Chelsea Sexton, a longtime EV advocate has written over at Wired, “Road trips are a dangerous myth for the EV industry to perpetuate at all.” It’s a “perverse double-standard,” she argues, to demand that, “unlike gas cars, EVs must be able to do it all in order to be useful at all.”

At the same time, Tesla Motors is not selling an everyman’s car. Not yet. Priced at more than $100,000, the version of the Model S that Broder drove (versions with smaller batteries start around $61,000) is a sleek, fun, high-tech luxury sedan that remains aspirational for many drivers. Even factoring in fuel and maintenance savings (over the life of a vehicle, a typical American motorist spends about as much on gasoline as on the car itself: more than $22,000), six figures is a steep price. Those who go for the cream of the EV crop can probably afford alternative transportation for the occasional long road trip—whether that’s a second vehicle, a rental car, a car sharing service, airfare, or some combination. (See related post: “How to Compare the Cost of Electric and Gas Cars“)

And charging is still a challenge, especially for people who don’t have access to the same parking spot each night, and whose employers haven’t started offering workplace charging. That’s where those Superchargers come in. They would be more valuable—and longer-distance trips in electric cars would be more practical—if there were more of them, closer together. And Tesla knows that: the company plans to set up 100 of them by 2015.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this post said that Tesla pays for the electricity at its new charging stations. The post has been updated with information about its partnership with SolarCity.


[ Earth Day Volunteer Challenge ]

2013 Earth Day Volunteer Challenge


If you live in the D.C. Metro area, join EarthShare and the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) as we celebrate the 19th Annual Earth Day River Cleanup on April 20th, 2013!

EarthShare is sponsoring the Kingman Island site in NE DC, but there are more than 25 sites throughout MD, DC & VA where you can get involved and make a difference! Cleanups will be from 9:00am – 12:00pm at all sites throughout the watershed.

Volunteers are also invited to the post-cleanup Earth Day Celebration at Bladensburg Waterfront Park for free food and entertainment! Come share the satisfaction that comes with taking care of our communities and natural resources!

To learn more please go to the Anacostia Earth Day webpage or download our flier.


Who: EarthShare, the Anacostia Watershed Society, and YOU!

What: The 19th Annual Anacostia River Cleanup and Earth Day Celebration

Where: Kingman IslandDirections to Kingman Island (Shuttle service will be provided from Stadium Armory Metro Station to Kingman Island starting at 8:30 a.m. to noon.)

When: April 20, 2013, 9:00am – 12:00pm // Celebration: 12:00pm – 2:00pm

RSVP: Send your name, email address, where you work and how you heard about the event to beth@earthshare.org / 240.333.0318.

What should I bring?

  • Long, sturdy pants (jeans or another thick fabric)
  • Shoes or boots that can get dirty and wet
  • Sunscreen and hat
  • Water bottle (with water in it of course!)
  • Work or gardening gloves

* We’ll provide bags and plastic gloves *

You’re also encouraged to bring canoes and kayaks along with the appropriate safety equipment (life preservers).


We proudly partner with the organizations below who share our commitment to supporting our community and creating a cleaner environment:











Please share!


[ How Bold a Path on Climate Change in Obama’s State of the Union? ]

President Obama is expected to outline more aggressive action on climate change in his big speech, but political and economic realities will shape his plan.


[ Super Bowl Blackout: Was It Caused by Relay Device, or Human Error? ]

New Orleans’ power company blames a faulty relay device for the Super Bowl power outage, but the equipment’s maker says incorrect settings triggered the failure.


[ Report: Energy Savings Could Pay Off America’s Credit Cards ]

American households could save more than $1,000 a year by boosting energy efficiency at home and on the road over the next two decades, according to a new analysis from the Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy.

The commission’s report, Energy 2030, outlines a broad plan to double U.S. energy productivity—that  is, to get twice the economic mileage for the same amount of energy use—by 2030. The commission, co-chaired by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and National Grid US executive’ Tom King, looked at not only households but also business and government, estimating that with an investment of $166 billion in more efficient buildings, vehicles and other sources of energy waste, the United States could add 1.3 million jobs and save $327 billion by 2030.

For households, the bill for efficiency improvements would be $97 billion, but the gains would be $241 billion, for a net annual savings of $145 billion, which breaks down to $1,039 per home, according to the report. That amount is nearly equivalent to what the average household spends on education, or on medicine and produce combined, as seen in this graph taken from the analysis:


“Over the life of the investment, net savings from a doubling of American energy productivity would allow American households to settle all outstanding credit card debt,” the commission’s report said.

According to the U.S. government’s ENERGY STAR program, the average annual energy bill for a single family home (not counting transportation) is $2,200, the bulk of which is taken up by heating and cooling costs. (See also: “A Model Net Zero Home by the Numbers.“) If households could achieve the savings predicted in the commission’s report, that would cut this average bill by nearly half.

Have you spent money to make your home more energy efficient? Have the savings been worth it?

(See related post: “U.S. Bids Farewell to the 75-Watt Incandescent Light Bulb.“)


[ Protecting Our Bodies from Pollution ]

Protecting Our Bodies from Pollution


FranUlloa / Flickr


There is perhaps no better illustration of the adage that
“what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves” than Environmental Working
Group’s “Body Burden” project. The project brought to light to the fact that every
person living on the planet bears the burden of industrial activities. Shockingly,
scientists have said each person alive carries at least 700 contaminants in their
, most of them unstudied.

Ivy Main, Virginia Sierra Club vice chair and a
self-professed “ordinary suburban mom”, was shocked to
unsafe levels of mercury in her blood when she had tests done 10
years ago. The likely culprit? Coal-fired power plants in her region. Mercury
can cause all kinds of brain development issues in unborn children.

In fact, Environmental Working Group found “an average of 200
industrial chemicals
and pollutants in umbilical cord blood from 10 babies
born in August and September of 2004 in U.S. hospitals.” Even before they are
born, babies are burdened with the pollution we put in our environment.

Sometimes the dangerous chemicals in our bodies get there
because we allow them into our home, often unknowingly. Over 400 lipsticks and
hair dyes contain
. There’s formaldehyde in many shampoos and soaps and
endocrine-disrupting phthalates in many plastics.

In 2012, Environmental Health Fund Board Member Carolyn Fine
Friedman “gave blood (and a few other bodily fluids)” to the Body Burden
project and was
disturbed to discover
that her body was riddled with “a toxic soup of
substances known to cause cancer, birth defects, thyroid problems and more —
low perchlorate and PFCs, high phthalates, moderate PBDEs, an immeasurable
amount of triclosan, and high levels of lead, mercury, and methyl mercury”.
It’s likely that your own body contains the very same substances.

Despite the prevalence of toxic chemical exposure, the
federal Toxic Substances Control Act hasn’t been updated since 1976. Many new chemicals
have entered the market and our lives in the past four decades, so this inaction
a serious problem. States are beginning to pick up the slack. In 2013, 26
states are considering legislation
to address various kinds of chemical
exposure from BPA in receipts to toxic cleaning products used in schools.

You can support these new
and also read our tips on avoiding
in the home. With vigilance we can make sure future generations
don’t bear the same chemical burden that we face today.


More information:

Won't Prevent Cancer Until We Prevent Exposure to Cancer-Causing Chemicals
Natural Resources Defense Council

Sweet Smell of … Cardiovascular Hazards?
, Environmental Defense Fund

Rules Would Give Teeth To TSCA Law
, Earthjustice

PVC: The Poison
, Center for Health, Environment, and Justice



[ The Limited Vision of the Pro-Nuclear Energy Argument ]

Are nukes a viable form of clean energy? Is the need for them inevitable? On Comedy Central’s Colbert Report last week, environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters, and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power, and we simply haven’t been good parents.

Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.

I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand, as much as I admire their wisdom generally, are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach at least 9 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in my review of the book Enough Is Enough, its authors have pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unintentional pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource, or Technological, intensity of those things we consume. (The formula is more often written I=PxAxT, where A stands for affluence, but I think consumption is a better and less judgmental gauge.) So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicted doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two, and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But there’s a growing realization that more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my sustainable design classes at Parsons and elsewhere shouts out, “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home in the northeastern U.S. recently. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable sources, won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 9 or 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

A version of this post originally appeared on David Bergman’s blog, EcoOptimism.


[ Charity of the month: The Sierra Club ]

Each month, the 1thing focuses on one of the many non-profit groups working to preserve our natural environment. This month, it’s the Sierra Club.

In 1892, John Muir and a number of his supporters founded the Sierra Club to, in Muir’s words, “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad.” Muir served as the Club’s president until his death in 1914. Read more about the history of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club currently has over 1.3 million members and supporters and is the oldest, largest, and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club promotes conservation by influencing public policy through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and litigation. They work to defend the environment at all levels of government including U.S. Congress, state legislatures, and state and federal courts.

In Wisconsin, the Sierra Club is keeping tabs on a lot of important issues. One hot issue would involve streamlining many current environmental laws to make it easier for a mining company to build the world’s largest open pit taconite mine.

Other priorities include protecting the Great Lakes and other water resources, moving beyond fossil fuels to clean energy, and protecting Wisconsin’s unique habitats. Plus, members can enjoy a wide variety of outings and other activities and other opportunities to get involved.

Find out more about the Wisconsin John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club here.