Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Better Targeting Energy Use Reduction Strategies

We're not very good at judging the impacts of our energy and energy saving choices, so says a recent study. Happily, aspects of that are pretty easy to fix.

Americans are likely to think that we can make a bigger difference in our energy usage by curtailing activities rather than doing them with more efficient approaches using currently existing technologies. That's wrong, at least for the typical American. The more numerate and more pro-environment the participant, the more accurate their perceptions tended to be, so this isn't universal.

What are the most powerful things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint? How does what you think compare to what experts think? "Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings," published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looks into these questions.

The study found that when asked about the most effective strategies for energy reduction, respondents were more likely to identify curtailment strategies than efficiency improvements. What does that mean? Well, people were more likely to talk about doing less of something (turning off the lights or driving less) than they were to talk about doing things with more efficiency (using Energy Star appliances or a car with better gas mileage).

We're not very good at identifying the impact of the changes we make or might make. The article draws from several others in ways that are helpful in making these estimates. Citing Gardner & Stern, they note:

that by changing the selection and use of household and motor vehicle technologies, households could reduce their energy consumption by nearly 30%without waiting for new technologies,making major economic sacrices, or losing a sense of well-being.

That made me want to take a look at the Gardner & Stern article. I suggest that article as well as the one that was actually the catalyst for this post. I especially like this point:
Curtailment actions must be repeated continuously over time to achieve their optimal effect, whereas efficiency-boosting actions, taken infrequently or only once, have lasting effects with little need for continuing attention and effort.
Identifying the energy suckers
So, identify your big energy suckers and figure out how to make them better in a long lasting way. What are the big suckers? Here's one of a number of helpful tables in Gardner & Stern:

And, here's another (really tiny but still) useful table (Click here to see it in a readable format):

How do you compare to the typical American?
Of course in thinking about these things you need to keep in mind how you compare to the typical American. You may already have a hybrid car. You may fly much more than the average American (~2 roundtrip flights/household/year). Most Americans don't fly at all in the typical year, so I used the word 'average' instead of 'typical'. Adding a lot of flight time to your life makes your carbon footprint, well, skyrocket.

If your habits, like mine, are different from the typical American, adjust your targets accordingly. I fly a lot more than the average American, but have already done many of the things identified in Table 3. Unfortunately, my flying habits brings my emissions up to too close to the national average. Sigh. Dealing with my flying addiction is a longer term goal.

Hopefully the above will help you identify your low hanging energy reduction fruit, and maybe let you know what only is making a small difference. Of course, small differences do add up (and leaving lights on in an empty room just drives me crazy).

Friday, August 20, 2010

Back To School Tip...

Ride your bike! I saw an article on The Huffington Post that said 30-years ago more than half of America's school children rode a bike to school. Now, it's only 13%. I used to love to ride my bike, and I can think of nothing greener! If you live in an area where you are able to let your child ride their bike or walk to school -- you should consider it! If you do, here's some tips from the article I mentioned above:

Bike To School

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How Long a Slog?

Gail Collins's August 13 column in the New York Times, My Favorite August is a good, brief read on the passage of women's suffrage. Here's how she opens the essay:
The story in American history I most like to tell is the one about how women got the right to vote 90 years ago this month. It has everything. Adventure! Suspense! Treachery! Drunken legislators!

But, first, there was a 70-year slog.

Which is really the important part. We always need to remember that behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.
Of course, she's right. The long slog is the most important part of the fight (but the climax of that slog does make for a good story, as you'll see if you read Collins's essay). The work done to reach the tipping point is far more difficult than that final nudge over the precipice.

So, how long has the slog for action on climate change been underway? I don't know if you can pinpoint the start of a slog, but this one has been going on for a long, long time. I suppose a slog might begin slowly, with the recognition that some standard practice isn't quite right with the world.

Keeling, of the Keeling Curve, identified the rise of CO2 levels in the late 1950s. Not too many years later (1965) Lyndon Johnson sent a Special Message to Congress that included the following:
This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through ...a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
That takes us back a few decades, but the idea that carbon dioxide is an important factor in the atmosphere's greenhouse effect has been known for well over a century -- at least since John Tyndall in the 1850s.

Here's a couple of important asides: That requires the important aside that the greenhouse effect isn't itself a bad thing -- without it Earth would be inhospitable to folks like you and me as it would be too cold. The problem is that we're turning up the effect. I also am inclined to add that the greenhouse as a metaphor really can be a bit confusing -- a key factor in heating a greenhouse is that the glass ceiling stops warm air from rising away. In the atmosphere, the troposphere -- the lowest layer of the atmosphere where we live -- heats up as it traps infrared radiation coming off the surface. That infrared radiation is a result of the solid Earth absorbing sunlight, warming up, and then rereleasing that energy. There's nothing quite like that glass ceiling involved.

Was Tyndall concerned about global warming? I'll let you dig back and find out how concern grew over the last century and a half. Here's a video that tells some of the story (and where I picked up that nice Johnson quote and some memory refreshers mentioned above):

Now, back to our slog.
I have to wonder: How long a slog can we afford?

Well, I think we might reasonably say that the costs of the slog for women's suffrage were too high -- though I don't know if we can measure its costs. It seems likely to me that the costs of the slog for reasonable policies on climate and energy will also be too high and also be very difficult to measure.

The upside is that we've been through slogs before and come out somehow with our wits about us (and with some portion of the population missing or damaged). We lost a lot working for the end to slavery, and for the beginning of women's suffrage and equal rights more broadly. Those old slogs still have remnants at work today (as well as opponents at work today).

The slogs discussed here did have clear tipping points: the Emancipation Proclamation and the Nineteenth Amendment. I don't know if this one will, but my guess is that it will. Hopefully that tipping point will come soon, but it's not on the horizon yet.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cleaning is Green...

Over the past couple months I've been trying to convert my household cleaning supplies from toxic chemicals to homemade and all natural ingredients. I have created this AMAZING sink/shower/tub cleaner. It's all natural and smells soooooo good!!!! My recipe will be below....Do any of you out there have any recipes for homemade green cleaning products? Share them in the comments section!

Shower/Sink/Tub Cleaner
1/2 cup of baking soda
1/4 cup of a "green" dish soap
1 tbls. fresh lemon juice
1 tbls. white wine vinegar

Mix into a consistency that's like honey and store in an old ketchup bottle (squeeze bottle works best!) Use some old fashion elbow grease and you're good to go!

Billy's Famous Glass Top Oven Cleaner

1/2 Cup Water
1/4 Cup White Wine Vinegar
Dash of lemon juice -- just a hint for scent.

Put mixture into a reusable spray bottle. You can usually find these in any store next to the trial size toothpastes, etc. for traveling. Sometimes you have to spray once more to get rid of any streaks, but it's pretty fool proof.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Conversing with the Choir

I'm currently attending the Earth System Science Education Alliance meeting that the Museum of the Earth is hosting. The idiom "preaching to the choir" has been bandied about considerably. It's gotten me thinking about that practice.

I know a few people who have regularly attended church for decades (in some cases lots and lots of decades) without believing in God. They like the fellowship, the tradition, and/or the music. I'm not talking about Unitarians, either. These are folks who regularly go to Christian churches (or Jewish synagogues) and don't believe in God.

While none of the ones I know personally are members of the choir as far as I know, I'm sure that such folks populate a lot of choirs across the country.

This will highlight for some that preaching to the choir is necessary as there are folks in choir who, you might say, don't get it. They are in church but not buying the central tenet of the institution's purpose. That's certainly one way to read the issue.

I think this highlights a need to listen to the choir -- not just what they're singing, but also to engage them in discussion of what they're thinking. For these folks, obviously those aren't the same thing.

This raises several questions:
  • Why do some folks sing along when they don't believe what they're singing?
  • What are the parallels in the environmental movement?
  • How often are we just singing along (or mouthing the words)?
  • How often is it the case for folks who believe differently from us (or espouse different views from our own)?
  • What are the costs and benefits of saying what we actually believe?
  • How can we engage in meaningful conversations with the choir?
And, finally, why are you in the choir? Or why aren't you?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Being Green at the Beach...

In July I spent 10 days at the beach...I wanted to escape everything - life, work, and just relax. I found that to be very hard. The reason why -- litter bugs! Golly, the amount of trash that people just leave on the beach. Yes, just leave. Can you believe it? People leave garbage on the beach! I was flabbergasted. Not only that, I was amazed by the number of folks that just saw people leave and A.) said nothing, and B.) didn't bother to pick up the stuff after the others had gone.

Which leads me to this...A.) Yes, I did remind some folks that they had garbage to pick up, and B.) I did pick up some trash that others had left behind. I realize that dealing with garbage is never fun -- candy wrappers, half eaten sandwiches, ciggarette butts and the like are gross, but we made it happen. It's our responsibility to pick it up!!!!!!! So, while I was lying on the beach I was thinking about what we can all do. If everyone just committed to taking out what we bring in -- No Problem! Here's some tips to make that easier.

We all have plastic bags from a variety of stores. As much as we try we still have them. Here's a great re-use for them. Bring three bags with handles to the beach, lake, or playground with you. One bag for cans/bottles, one bag for papers, magazines, and the like, and then another for real trash. Done! How simple is that? Seriously -- anyone can do it. Dump your garbage in the garbage can on site, take your recyclables home with you and your done! You just saved some sea bird from choking on a piece of trash. Don't you feel better?