You and I make 4.5 lbs. of trash a day on average, most of which grows hills at the landfill. But Europe turns trash into electricity to power homes or fuel the family Volvo.
Denmark, for one, considers residential and commercial trash to be a clean, alternative fuel rather than a waste removal headache. There is no one like a Dane to convert trash to power and reduce energy costs, cut reliance on imported oil and even to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
We Yanks are less refined. As of 2005, the US had 396 landfill-to-energy refineries, way fewer per capita than Europe. Currently, the EPA advises that there are no new waste-to-energy plants under construction even though Federal greenbacks await states that construct them. We have only 87 trash-burning power plants, and they’re at least fifteen year old. Rather than convert trash, a distant landfill is our end game. New York City ships 10,500 tons of waste out of state daily. An abundance of land has provided America with cheap landfills but we’re running out of space and the cost of dumping our trash on other countries is too costly. Did I mention it’s ethically questionable?
We can get energy by safely burning all kinds of trash. Or we can convert items like product packaging, furniture, grass clippings, newspapers appliances, paint, batteries, clothing, used tires, dried sewage sludge, animal waste, food scraps and bottles at one of the new bio-refineries. The later rely on distillation technology to convert in a three step process:
1) First trash is sorted to remove recyclables. What is left is ground up.
2) The ground up trash is then distilled and the byproduct, gas, is stored in tanks
3) The gas fuels a generator to produce electricity. Or, gas is converted into liquid fuel.
Bio-refineries are super-efficient and produce 90 percent more energy than they consume. The US Army is ordering mobile bio-refineries to covert trash at military bases.
In a land where 5% of the global population uses 30% of the world’s recourses, trash conversion suggests big time opportunity given the federal monies available for conversion plants. Why we could even relegate oil industry subsidies to the trash bin.
Congresses’ new zero based budget trend is healthy, though sacred cows limit the options. Military spending won’t be touched since the folks we put in congress are of the “it’s-always-been-done-that-way” mindset. Of course the biggest reason for budgetary untouchables is that lobbyists pay leaders to champion the status quo.
They pay them to obey, not to be visionaries and they get what they pay for. That will be even clearer when you watch the congressional horse trading that’s going on. You can’t miss the single biggest weakness in our democracy: our shortsightedness.
Three fast examples:
Even the flat-earthers who don’t believe in science have to notice that local weather patterns point to something meteorologically awry. The last decade, our warmest in recorded history, produced exaggerated weather patterns with more intense rains, drought, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The bad weather is hitting harder and lasting longer.
Ask North Carolinians about the more than 60 tornadoes that hit this week. (NC used to average 19 a year.) Globally, ask the Russians about their terrible drought or the Pakistanis about their floods.
The congressional response to this is to cut the EPA’s budget by a third, degrading our carbon emissions enforcement capability. Is anybody thinking how much it costs to rebuild those towns in North Carolina, or the St. Louis Airport or the city of New Orleans, and the list gets longer daily? Since we have to pay for weather damage, why not pay up front, cut carbon and do our part to reduce the weather chaos?
A second example of the fog on congressional eye-glasses relates to the BP disaster. Little of significance has changed by way of tighter rig safety standards since the spill. (Do you think there is any connection between legislative inaction and the fact that Exxon will announce 10 Billion dollar record profits this week, even as gas streaks past $4 a gallon?) Sure, we achieve modest enforcement savings by sitting on our thumbs, but we will pay a multiple of what we save when we have to clean up the next major coastal spill. And be sure that there will be one.
One more example of our myopia. The current budget negotiations will divert dollars from America’s investment in renewable energies, better rail transportation, a more efficient electric grid and the myriad of other options that cut carbon emissions or wean us off of foreign oil. Would a smart businessman really do this? Is it clever commerce to cede the renewables technology race to China, India, and Germany in the name of short term budget restraint?
The biggest problem isn’t the budget. It’s the people who to spend it. They are supposed to be visionaries, but they’re more like the god Apollo chose as his prophet. The Greek god Tiresias, it turns out, was blind.
If this were the Olympics, we wouldn’t even take home a bronze.
The long range implications of what’s happened are staggering. T Boon Pickens has pointed out the most obvious of them: that even as we try to slow the export of US wealth to the Middle East, we’re shifting our energy dollars to China, buying a renewable manufacturing capability from Asia. We want to go cold turkey on our oil dependency, only to become addicted to Chinese solar panels and wind turbines.
Think this is hyperbole? Consider what just happened to Massachusetts based Evergreen Solar, America’s third largest solar panel producer. Evergreen Solar announced it’s closing its big US factory, a plant built partly with $43 million in taxpayer dollars. Evergreen is laying off 800 workers though the company is not closing. It’s simply moving production to China in a joint venture fueled by high Chinese subsidies. The subsidies probably violate World Trade Organization rules, but the plant will be long gone before the WTO rules on it.
Recently Silicon Valley based Solyndra also announced it is closing one of two US plants for similar reasons. This happened at the same time that China just surpassed the US in wind turban production, sales and installations. Yet American wind turbines last longer and require less maintenance.
America’s loss to China in renewable energy equipment manufacturing adds a new twist to Sir Winston Churchill’s quip that a “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
It’s because China isn’t a democracy that its leaders can implement strategic plans, making decisions without fear of losing election support from disgruntled special interests. Big bucks from lobbyists haven’t sidetracked Chinese decision making. The Shanghai Stock Exchange doesn’t dominate long term corporate planning the way Wall Street pressures American management. Like it or not China is out maneuvering us in the commercial marketplace chiefly because they are not encumbered by democracy.
Please don’t wave the flag and get patriotic with me. It misses the point. The reality is that our experiment with democracy has come to a time in a globalized marketplace when our inefficiencies are showing. Either long range strategic planning happens unencumbered at the cabinet level and is permitted, even cheered by a polarized Congress, or we fall further behind. It’s that simple just as it is that difficult.
We can tremble at the boogieman of big government involvement; we can remain ideological purists and pay the consequences in the world market. But if we do not figure out to reinvent government, how to insulate green legislation from the forces of bickering, how to allow a federal energy initiative reminiscent of Kennedy and America’s space race, it will cost us dearly. We will remain second tier in the renewable energy marketplace and you’re feeling the consequences of that squarely in your bank account.
If as a kid you played with a battery-operated battleship, the U.S. Navy has upped the ante; with an electric battleship – actually a seaborne hybrid amphibious assault vessel christened the U.S.S. Makin Island.
The 847 foot, 41,335 ton (fully loaded) assault ship carries 2,891 persons, but it’s not her size that’s newsworthy. Rather it’s what drives her. She’s electric – and turbine – a hybrid vessel powered by a new gas turbine-electric engine that’s noteworthy as another sign that military technology is greening.
On her maiden voyage alone (Mississippi to San Diego), the Makin Islandsaved 900,000 gallons of fuel – sipping fuel as if through a needle-straw when compared to conventional boiler-fired ships.
The Navy’s hybrid assault ship achieves speeds of up to 10 knots running on electric motors without relying on her thirstier gas turbine engines. The latter kick in for higher speeds. Fuel efficiency comes from two induction-type auxiliary propulsion motors that power the shaft, driven directly from the ship’s electrical grid.
The Makin Island’s primary propulsion source is not in fact those less-efficient gas turbines. She actually runs on electrical auxiliary power system about 75% of the time. Electricity for the ship’s electric motors requires fossil fuel for the pair diesel generators, but they are far more fuel-efficient than the ship’s gas turbine engines.
According to the Navy, the ship’s hybrid power will achieve savings of an estimated $250 million over the vessel’s 40-year life span, and she’ll save even more should the cost of diesel fuel rise, which it surely will.
The Navy’s new hybrid technology is also quieter and requires fewer sailors to operate boilers, monitor gauges and survey computer screens in the ship’s cooler engine rooms.
Don’t count the Air Force out which already has jets testing a half bio-based fuel from algae. Ultimately, the military’s ability to produce fuel from plants means less dependence on fuel depots in volatile locales. The Pakistanis, protesting drone incursions, drove that point home recently when they closed vital fuel transport roads to the American military in Afghanistan. And at sea, the ability to cruise on biofuels means a military with the capability to route ships more flexibly.
What is a passive design home, the subject of this week’s My Green Mind Best of The Green News story? It’s a virtually air-tight, well-insulated home that’s heated primarily by passive solar (sun exposure) along with heat gains from body-heat, electrical equipment and even the tea kettle whistling on the stove. In a passive design home, any needed remaining heat is supplied by an extremely small source. A traditional furnace isn’t needed. (Learn more at the Passive Home Institute)
The popularity of passive design homes is established in Europe, but they are just gaining interest in the US. A combination of design advances create a comfortable home with the most minimal traditional heat requirements. That combination includes:
• super thick insulation that creates a virtually air tight envelope
• orientation of the home with window and facade exposure toward the southern sun
• architecture based on algorithmic calculations from software that insures an air-tight design
• a mechanical ventilation system that removes stale air and doubles as a heat transfer system to minimize heat loss.
• triple paned windows that let thermal energy from the sun in yet prevent it from radiating back out
Built to passive construction certification standards, the virtually air-tight passive home requires about 10% of the energy needed to heat and cool homes constructed to traditional code standards.
A New York Times video offers an example of passive design home construction, a 2000 square foot home in Vermont. The walls have about 18” of fiberglass batting compared to the average US home now with 6”. And the Times article notes that “America’s drafty building methods account for as much as 40 percent of its primary energy use, 70 percent of its electricity consumption and nearly 40 percent of its carbon-dioxide emissions.”
Owners of new passive homes built today in the US will pay a premium of an estimated 15 to 20% more for their homes, in part because needed materials are less available in the US. In Europe, where passive homes are more common, the premium for a passive design home shrinks to from 2 to 5%. Based on current costs in the US, owners of a certified passive design home can recapture their investment in ten years, varying by home size and location.
In the new Vermont home, electric radiant heating occasionally supplements the sun’s natural heating, for examples if the owners are away from the home for extended time periods. Solar roof panels provide the energy for hot water. With the addition of photovoltaic solar panels , wind turbines or other energy collectors, passive homes can become energy-neutral homes and even positive energy producers.
A temporary downside to passive home construction in the US is that the technology is so new that Congress has yet to offer special tax incentives for the new green design homes. That’s expected to change soon, because the issue is heating up…or maybe because it’s about not heating up.
This week’s news from My Green Mind is of a wall plug module from GE called Nucleus. It can cut your electric bill and it’s coming soon. The device is a real home-of-the-future advance.
For starters Nucleus monitors how much juice your home gulps in real-time for any moment or over time periods: days, months and for up to three years. Your internet connected computer or a smart
phone displays your overall home electricity use, but you also see which individual devices are the big drains.
It gets better. If your utility company offers variable pricing adjusted for peak and non-peak hours, Nucleus helps you buy electricity cheaper. WIth it, you can make informed choices about when to use power, for example when to run a loaded dishwasher. Nucleus information helps you save. You may adjust your home thermostat from the office, turn off unnecessary lights, and cut energy to vampire suckers like a home theater system that’s not in use while you’re at work.
It gets better still. Coming soon, new, smarter GE Energy Star appliances will feed information to your Nucleus module so that they can respond to signals from your utility company. Signals will delay electricity use in peak periods. Once peak periods have passed, the smart appliances will complete the
cycle they delayed.
You get to pay lower prices for electricity, by using it during late evening and early morning hours. “Peak” periods, those of highest demand, are typically between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
The hand-sized Nucleus module plugs into any standard wall outlet and connects via an Ethernet cable to your router or computer. The Nucleus comes with its own “dashboard” software pictured on the right. An internet connected computer or smart phone displays actual kilowatt use in the moment, with rates in corresponding colors to help you visually differentiate them. High-cost peak electricity use shows in red, with off peak use shown appropriately in green.
Long term, the Nucleus system will take advantage of the smart grid and of TOU (time of use) pricing. It will pave the way for you to use renewable energy resources such solar and wind, helping to curtail our dependence on foreign sources of oil for power while it reduces CO2 emissions.
The GE Nucleus works in conjunction with the new smart electric meters. If you don’t have one yet, note that by 2012 US electric companies will have installed more than 40 million smart meters.
Beyond 2012, GE hopes to provide the Nucleus with software upgrades that allow the system to monitor water use, natural gas and renewable energy use, and to follow the cost of plug-in electric vehicle charging.
The price of the Nucleus module and included software is expected to be between $149-$199. GE expects them on the market in 2011.
You may know what the Germans, the French, and the Northern Europeans have achieved in the way of increased renewable energy. Now have a look at the smaller EU nation of Portugal. America’s GNP makes Portugal’s look like chump change, yet Portugal not the U.S. is leaping ahead in renewable energy production.
According to the New York Times’ excellent article, Portugal Gives Itself a Clean-Energy Makeover, five years ago Portugal’s elected leaders did something unheard of in the US. Leaders decided to lead. They took the heat and charged ahead with a brilliant renewable energy plan.
When they began, 28% of Portugal’s grid electricity came from renewable sources – solar, wind and hydropower. The goal was to increase that. Today, five years since Portugal set their plan in motion, 45% of their electricity comes from renewable energy. The U.S. compares at 5%.
Of course there is no free lunch. At the start of the effort the average Portuguese family was already paying about double what we do for electricity, and the Portuguese have had to bear further cost increases of about 15% during the five year period of renewable energy expansion. But the investment has paid off in stabilized electricity costs even as the electricity rates in fossil fuel dependent nations keep rising. While in other nations dwindling petroleum supplies spike the cost of what citizens pay for electricity, the Portuguese continue to reap the benefit of their farsightedness.
Meanwhile we Americans ride the fuel price roller coaster and wonder if someday the family vehicle will again be a horse.
Portugal’s leadership illustrates what can be done. And the coastal nation is not alone in rapid renewable energy growth. Ireland, Denmark and Britain are projected to produce 40% of their electricity from renewable sources in fifteen years. Brazil and Canada aren’t far behind them. The US will be lucky to reach 15% by 2025, and that’s going to happen only if the deep political divisions in our Congress don’t scuttle progress.
I can hear the objections now. Surely, the oil lobby will cry, countries like Portugal had to increase their debt burden to invest in renewable energy?
But no. Portugal saves millions because electricity from renewable sources does not require the country to import oil, coal and gas to make it. The savings help pay for the project.
So what could pull us from our energy malaise? Tell your representatives to have some pluck and vote to:
• assert federal authority over the design of an efficient energy grid. Private companies own and operate grid sections, just as they do in Portugal. But the efficient integration of regional grids won’t happen if the feds don’t control it. (I hear the screams now, “But that’s socialism.” No, we’re not suggesting America federalize the grid. but without a government blueprint, how will fiercely competitive energy producers integrate their sections? The Portuguese understood that and so the government controlled grid design. Of course, we could go down in flames in the name of pristine pure capitalism. We’d get a mishmash of a grid. We could also revert to cooling ourselves with hand fans.)
• subsidize firms at the forefront of renewable energy technologies (Investing in green manufacturing grows the tax base.)
• reduce our reliance on coal and petroleum imports by investing in nuclear, solar, wind, hydro and other renewable energy production systems. That’s a no-brainer.
• pass legislation on federal and state levels to fence in the regressive Supreme Court ruling that permits unlimited corporate campaign spending. (It’ll be easier to go green if legislators can get reelected without coal and oil money.)
• pass carbon cap legislation
The New York Times lists the five year Portuguese investment at about $22 billion and notes that much of the cost is recovered. The completed renewable electrical system costs $2.3 billion a year to operate, lower than the previous running cost because Portugal’s renewable-based grid doesn’t require imported fuels. What is more, the coastal nation will make money selling carbon credits to other EU nations; and finally Portugal is already making money exporting wind generated electricity to Spain during periods when the new system has a capacity excess.
Meanwhile America’s energy future sinks in Congressional timidity. Unlike the Portuguese, our actions say we’d rather export cash and pile debt than pass an energy bill with vision. It’s less painful for Congressmen to let families pay higher electric bills than it is to risk offending a corporate constituency. With inactivity comes reelection. (Is there a Latin motto for that?)
Any urgency to take action is further mitigated on both sides of the isle by the assumption that our rich, natural fossil fuel resources, an accident of America’s geological good fortune, will save us. So let the next session of Congress deal with our energy crisis.
So what’s it going to be? We either follow Europe, China and India and invest a similar percent of our GNP in renewable energy, or we stock up on candles. At least they’ll be Yankee Candles.
Honestly some days I wake up and rub my eyes thinking, this has to be a dream. Why would Congress allocate stimulus dollars to China to make windmills for a West Texas wind farm that Americans could make?
U.S. Renewable Energy Group, Cielo Wind Power and A-Power Energy Generation Systems, the business consortium behind the Texas based wind farm, has asked congress for nearly a half billion dollars so the project’s 240 windmills can be built in a turbine factory in the city of Shenyang, China.
Despite congress’ undisputed expertise in windbaggery, the Chinese understand what the project means to their economy while we don’t. China, like India, labels renewable technology a top priority, calling it a “strategic industry”. Thus categorized, they give free land, low cost loans and they underwrite jobs for green collar workers employed by companies developing green technology.
We, despite having lost 40,000 manufacturing companies–that’s right companies–in a decade, turn to China to manufacture our windmill turbines. We’re sending US jobs to China along with nearly half a billion US stimulus dollars. With U.S. support, the consortium is contracting with Chinese firms, not American companies, to build Texas’ turbines.
2,330 jobs will come on line, created by the $1.5 billion dollar West Texas farm. That sounds good until you learn that 2,000 of those jobs are in China.
The consortium argues that the Chinese-built wind turbines, made with low cost labor and benefiting
from a subsidized currency, will cost less than American made turbines. But are they cheaper in the long run, given the generally acknowledged higher maintenance costs and poorer quality of the Chinese made turbines? The calculation further shifts to favor stateside production if you factor in the increased domestic tax revenue when Americans go to work, and reduced social costs when fewer collect unemployment.
And while we’re talking about China, are you familiar with my favorite Chinese proverb?
“IF WE DON’T CHANGE DIRECTION,
WE ARE LIBLE TO END UP WHERE WE ARE HEADED”
If U.S. tax dollars can’t be spent to stimulate domestic green jobs, then where indeed are we headed?
Are we heading for an economy based on easily replicated services? ‘Cause if that’s where we’re headed, then we will continue to see a descent into lower wages, decreased buying power, and a quietly dissolving middle class.
Which brings me to my admittedly lame takeoff on another old saying:
“PEOPlE WHO LIVE IN GREEN HOUSES
DON”T NOT NEED FOREIGN LOANS”
What kind of middle class are we betting on? One in which the workers manufacture breakthrough green technologies? Or one dependent on revenues from shopkeepers and clericals? And I am a shopkeeper!
Finally, what about the military implications of ceding yet another manufacturing sector to China? Should, God forbid, we have to confront the powerful Chinese militarily, would we ask them to please build our weapons before the war starts? Would we ask them to add the cost to our tab?
Take a hard look at the West Texas windmill project and the powerful consortium behind it. Perhaps federal dollars provided for the project should stipulate that turbines carry a “Made in America” stamp.
Credit to Leo W. Gerard for bringing this to our attention.
(Comment by My Green Mind’s I Michael Grossman. We welcome your comments as well.)
Fact : A new study by the U.S. Department of Energy says lighting consumes 22% of the electricity used in the United States.
The new study also points to what My Green Mind has been blogging about for months–that light-emitting diodes , LEDs, are the bulbs for the future.
Because LED bulbs, which incidentally contain no mercury, use dramatically less electricity than old-stye incandescent or the newer CLF bulbs.
If the Department of Energy has its wish and LED bulbs continue to gain in popularity, by 2030 we can reduce by one-third our lighting-related electrical use.
That means a savings equivalent of:
-the production from 40 large (1,000 megawatt) power plants .
-a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions equal to what 47 million cars put out.
So far, the biggest impediment to widespread use of LED bulbs is cost. But as home and business owners learn of the long-term savings from LED bulbs, LEDs are more widely used and costs are dropping.
What’s the answer?
Consider this 40 watt equivalent from My Green Mind as an example. It costs $10.95, (which by the way is the lowest price on the internet.)
Though it replaces a 40 watt bulb, it uses only 1.5 watts. It’s 90% more efficient compared to incandescent or halogen bulbs .
It’s rated for a 30,000 hour life.
Its annual average cost to operate is $0.16.
It saves the average user $112 in annual energy costs.
It’s heat-free compared to conventional bulbs.
It lights up faster than CLF bulbs.
It contains no mercury.
It may cause interference with radios, TVs or remote controllers, although My Green Mind has yet to hear of such an issue. And, as yet, LED bulbs do not work with dimmer switches. Bulbs that will are in the pipe line.
Give our LED’s a try. You will save on energy costs and, they are by far the greenest bulbs there are.
Some congressional representatives appear baffled by the new federal bailout bill, but you should know the bill offers some serious tax credits for consumers who go green.
You may qualify for home energy tax credits if you…install solar panels, buy a new bio-diesel, plug-in or hybrid car, of if you make several energy improvements to your home in 2009.
Here’s a quick summary of credits the bill offers:
Home Energy Efficiency : Get tax credits based on 10% of qualifying work done but note–these credits have caps:up to $500 in credits if you make energy efficiency improvements in 2009 such as: new insulation, energy-efficient windows, an new insulation, energy-efficient windows, an energy-efficient furnace or air conditioner. There are caps by category–but every penny helps.
Windows-up to $200;
Furnaces- up to $150;
Roofing, doors or insulation–up to $500;
Select other heating or air conditioning improvements–up to $300.
Get a tax credit of up to $2000 for geothermal improvements –like installing a qualifying heat pump system for heating and cooling.Get tax credits of up to 30% of the cost of photovoltaic solar power systems on homes: a $2000 cap.
Get a tax credit on the purchase of plug-in hybrid electric car of up to $7,500 (for first 250,000 buyers). Check at purchase time. Also check for tax credits if you buy a standard hybrid car.
Here’s another tip: The new bailout bill includes an 800 million dollar bond program to help states that create their own energy incentives . Check with your state capital’s tax office for local energy tax credits.
For specifics, ask your accountant of course, but My Green Mind further suggests that visiting the Department of Energy’s site to check on green tax breaks. Visit: Department of Energy(http://www.energy.gov/taxbreaks.htm