Saturday, March 24, 2007

Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) use much less energy than incandescent bulbs to make a similar amount of light. These bulbs are touted as an easy way to reduce energy consumption and quickly put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. They have some well known problems: they warm up slowly, give lower quality light, are more expensive, and contain mercury. None of these are show stoppers. The latest bulbs warm up in seconds and they are getting cheaper. They also last longer. Recycling bulbs properly (mostly) mitigates the dangers of the mercury. These are all reasonable sacrifices for saving the planet.

Many governments are considering laws to ban incandescent bulbs. This is just plain ridiculous. While well intentioned, this is not the way to go about solving our problems. Even if CFLs were the perfect replacement for incandescents, it would be a questionable move. However the issue is not that clear cut. When you look at it more closely.

First, the higher cost corresponds to the increased resources and energy required to make these bulbs. Second, people are not recycling these bulbs consistently. I just recently found out that I needed to. (Of course, none have burnt out since then). Third, these bulbs are more sensitive to conditions and are not well suited to some uses (outdoor, refrigerators, ...). Again, I'm not sure these reasons are show stoppers either, but they certainly suggest that an outright ban on incandescents might be unwise.

The argument is also made that CFL bulbs must be left on continuously to achieve the lifetimes touted by manufacturers. I'm not sure I buy this for two reasons. First, I have seen no data and the argument seems to only appear when people are making the case for keeping incandescents. Second, I'd bet incandescents have the same problem.

Don't get me wrong. I think incandescent bulbs should get phased out. However, I think in the long term, LEDs will provide the answer. Even more efficient and longer lasting than CFLs, they also give a better quality of light. I want to build one of these.

For now, though, I don't have an answer. I'll try to do some research on CFLs before we move into the new place. I don't want to go buy a house full of CFLs to find out I wasted my money, but I don't want to waste energy on incandescents because I bought into the establishment FUD. I'll look into it and post more later.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Alternative Engery is not Sutainability

Last month, the journal Science devoted an entire issue to "Sustainability and Energy." The issue's opening essay begins with:
Perhaps the greatest challenge in realizing a sustainable future is energy consumption.
The rest of the issue deals with alternative energy sources (mostly solar, bio-, and nuclear) and carbon sequestration. These are an important part of sustainability and climate change in particular, but these energy sources are all finite. Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy won't run out, but there is a maximum that can be collected, whether through photovoltaics or bio-fuels.

Energy consumption must be reduced. If not, then, when oil does run out, no amount of fancy engineering will be able to fill the gap with solar. Nuclear would then be necessary. The only true solution is to find lower energy ways to operate. This will and must take many different forms. From more efficient machines to better distribution of resources to fewer luxuries.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Factory Heating

A couple weeks ago, Living on Earth covered the ongoing restoration and reuse of an enormous old factory building in Lawrence, MA. Sounds like Lawrence faced, on a larger scale, a similar situation to the one Hopedale is in now. The old mill in Lawrence is being, re-used as office space. I worked in a restored red-brick mill in Cambridge a few years back. It was a really nice space to be in. These buildings generally have large windows and lots of red brick. In the hands of a good architect, it's hard to go wrong aesthetically.

What's important in restoring these buildings is to try to preserve the sense of community that still exists in these towns. Turning the Draper building into office space just moves Hopedale closer to being another suburb of Boston, albeit with nice architecture. To be fair, architecture can give life to an otherwise boring place, but the town has much more going for them in terms of history and local culture.

The Lawrence mill is having a huge geothermal heating and cooling system installed. This is an extremely efficient way to climate control a space and efficiency is critical for a gigantic old building. The LOE coverage does not draw a clear line between this kind of geothermal installation and one that would actually generate electricity. he one in Lawrence still requires an electric pump to transfer the heat. The distinction is the same as between solar water heaters and photovoltaic solar panels. in both cases the former reduces overall energy costs, but does not produce usable power. They are also generally cheaper. When I was growing up in Texas, the electric company was advertising heat pumps, which I gathered were just smaller versions of what's going in at the Lawrence mill. I'm a bit surprised that such a system is still newsworthy.

Energy use should be significant portion of any plan to restore the Draper Building. Poorly implemented, it could be a huge energy hog. It's a large, old building. Done well, it could be an example of good design. I would argue for some sort of green certification. Maybe a green roof could be used to reduce heating/cooling costs. The dam that creates the Hopedale Pond is on one wall of the factory (it's an old mill), and could be used to power the pumps in a geothermal heating/cooling system.

Ending Trash

WorldChanging pointed me to a Fortune Magazine article on trash. Garbage is a big problem when thinking about sustainability. If you create waste that is not recycled or reused, then your processes are not sustainable. It seems some cities and businesses are making great strides towards reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. There is apparently a company in Tennessee that turns plastic hangers from WalMart into resin pellets that get used by manufacturers to make molded plastics. Paper recycled in San Francisco becomes packaging for goods made in China.

This is something everyone should think about. Every community and business should figure out how to keep their waste and byproducts from ending up in landfills and other dumps. If your town doesn't have compost service, start your own and lobby your local leaders. Also important is that the infrastructure is built up so that using recycled materials is more economical than digging them out of the earth. It may make sense to throw some incentives in (although I am generally very wary of incentives). It's also important to consider your trash when buying things. Try to avoid styrofoam when possible. Look out for plastics that are difficult to recycle.

I've started watching what we throw away here. A huge part of our garbage is food scraps. Berkeley is finally starting a composting program next year. We'll be gone before then, but I plan to set my own bin up when we move into our new place. Plastics that Berkeley doesn't recycle are probably next. I try to be careful what we purchase, but it's hard to always be vigilant. If we were charged by weight or volume for our garbage, I'm sure I'd think more about it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Draper building

The Draper building is a large, decrepit factory in the middle of Hopedale. Closed since the 1980's, it's been partially demolished, but still physically dominates the town. It is currently owned by a more-or-less anonymous developer. The town has put together a committee to explore possibilities for re-using the site.

I think this is a really interesting project with amazing potential. It is getting underway just as sustainability and green construction are going mainstream. This Old House is building a green house in Austin. Corporations are installing green roofs on new buildings. Also, developers and planners are starting to come up with promising ideas for fostering healthier communities through design.

The town has a history of emphasizing education, community well-being, and the environment only slightly derailed by a century of factory life. The space is big enough to have residences, office space, community services, and anything else that might make sense. It's centrally located in the most densely populated area in town. The surviving structures are the red brick kind that look great when renovated.

The reuse of the Draper building will be a major theme of this site, but I won't pretend that I can come up with the best plan. I want to start by researching the history and the current stake holders. What were the ideals of the original utopian community? How did the Draper corporation behave as a corporate citizen? Who lives here now? Who owns the building now? What other developments have they been involved in? What has the reuse committee done so far?

I also hope to profile similar projects elsewhere and reflect on what Hopedale might learn from them. I don't think this situation is uncommon in New England.

The Earth Is Ajar

I (will) use "sustainable" and "green" frequently in this blog. Even though I am a bit wary of them because they seem to be buzzwords at this point and will no doubt be stale far too soon. However, they concisely convey the idea of intelligent, thoughtful use of resources, a practice that will always be important even if the language changes.

The Earth is a closed system. Nearly. It's an open system but mostly in some trivial or negligible ways. Energy comes in from the sun at a fixed rate and is radiated as thermal energy. And only the occasional small probe clears our gravitational well. All the physical resources we'll ever have are already on the planet and the sun won't get any brighter.

While we haven't run out of land yet and there is still oil in the ground, these resources will eventually run out. The population is growing. Quickly. Energy use is growing. Quickly. People need land to live on. People need food to eat. Farmers need land to grow food. Everyone needs energy. Alternative energy is great. Global warming is a big deal. But even if we somehow manage to cease all CO2 output and undo a century of damage without changing energy usage, we will still have serious problems in the future.

Technology is seen as a cure-all by many. It will, of course, be a huge help. But complex natural systems are not linear. When you push an ecosystem to the brink and it collapses, you can't just back up to the point of collapse and expect everything to go back to normal. In engineering terms, this is called hysteresis. It will be much more cost effective to solve these problems before they assert themselves.

Life on earth is a billion years old because systems evolved to recycle every last scrap of anything. We won't make it another hundred unless we follow suit. It is inevitable that solutions to these problems will be turn up eventually, humans are too resilient to be killed off entirely. We're like roaches in that regard. But unless we are proactive about finding the answers, billions of people will suffer or die before the answers find us.


The other day a friend of mine stopped by Whole Foods for something small. When she answered "Neither" to the standard "Paper or plastic?" query, the cashier stopped and said, enthusiastically, "Right answer!" They are a little over the top at the Berkeley Whole Foods.

We usually go with plastic. I need bags to pick up after the dog, anyway. So, I might as well use the shopping bags. Every once in a while I'll get paper so I have something to put the recycling in. Unfortunately, the little bits of plastic that pop out of the handle of those bags started turning up in the nursery, on the baby's toys, and on the baby. Not good. In fact, that's very, very bad. So, no more plastic. But there are not that many uses for paper bags, so it's time to go canvas. I always meant to, I just never bothered to take them with me.

It's funny what it takes to motivate change sometimes.

Not all that evil

It's getting harder and harder to hate WalMart. At least as an environmentalist. They've jumped on the organic foods bandwagon and in doing so helped put organics on the map. They've made a commitment to greening their operations. Most recently, they've announced a program to illuminate the environmental impact of consumer electronics. This is really promising, and I hope that something similar becomes standard. It would be great to see the electronics industry start to go green.

There are still some good reasons to hate WalMart (working conditions, suburban sprawl, homogenization of culture, and so forth), but they have the power to effect real change. We should expect the same of all the other major corporations. Not just their competitors, but other corporations, particularly those whose brand is their most valuable asset. At the moment, it seems like pressuring corporations to change is likely to be as effective as writing a letter to your representatives. So do both.


Unless something goes horribly wrong, I will own (jointly) my first house by the end of May. For a number of reasons, we have chosen to move to my wife's home town of Hopedale, MA. I'm excited about this move for a number of reasons. And not just that we're buying our own house.

Hopedale has an interesting history that still influences the town today. Founded as a utopian socialist commune in the 1840's, it eventually transitioned into a model factory town dominated by the Draper Corporation. Closed in the 1980's the Draper factory still lies vacant in the center of town. The town recently formed a committee to find a new use for the dormant building. It is an interesting time for the town as the reuse of the Draper property will redefine the identity of the town for at least the next few decades.

Meanwhile, I'm getting my hands on a one hundred plus year old house. It needs some cosmetic work, which I'm excited to get into; but I am more looking forward to the chance to apply sustainable thinking to my own house. I can't do anything drastic, but there are many mall ways to green a house that don't involve rebuilding from the ground up.

Here I will post ideas I have for both these projects and my thoughts about sustainability in general. I am not a planning expert or architect; I have very little experience building anything or working on a house; and I have no real experience with green design. However I have some theoretical training in ecology and complex systems that is crying out to be put to some practical use.