Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Please don't...

Clinton and McCain both are supporting a temporary break from gasoline taxes.


How long has it been since congress was jumping down the throats of oil companies about their record profits? Now these clowns want to make it easier for people to buy their products? The economy is sagging, so lets help out those poor oil companies.

The idea, I gather, is to help out struggling families that can't afford gas. That's great, but everyone is suffering, and this "relief" will disproportionately help those who chose less efficient cars or decided at some point that a big commute was OK if it got them more land and a supposedly better school system. The only big winner from this are the oil companies.

What about all the struggling families who can't even afford a car? What about those who decided not to use a car? The government is just going to bail out all the poeple who like their SUVs and their suburbs?

The economic realities of our unsustainable energy usage rears it's ugly head and congress wants to hide it. Why not, give half of this money directly to those in need. It will help them more than the tax relief will. Use the other half help folks in "sleeper suburbs" find either new homes or new jobs to reduce their commute.

Or simply redirect all gas taxes to fund better public transit and make all major highways toll roads.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Biofuel Folly?

There has been a lot of hype around biofuels over the last year or two. Any sane person can see that corn based ethanol and soy or palm based biodiesel are just plain silly. Switchgrass based ethanol is definitely a step up from corn (if we can ever commercialize it). Crop based fuels have the additional problem that we have to use land that would otherwise produce food (or remain virgin forest in the case of sugar cane or palm) to get these meager energy increases. The land is more valueable in other uses.

So why are we still hearing about corn? Because it can be done today. Never mind that it's not much of an improvement over fossil fuels. There is a big lobby behind it and it gets results now, even if the results are not worth anything. Thankfully, we're starting to hear some vocal opposition to these fuels from some sensible folks.

Photovoltaics and concentrating solar arrays can produce 100 times the energy per acre of corn ethanol. The problem is energy storage. Fuels are just more effective than batteries at storing energy for long times.

It seems algal biodiesel is the clear winner for biofuels. The energy produced per acre is much higher than even cellulosic ethanol, it uses much less water, and can be produced in locations with little or no agricultural value.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Decentralized Density

Advocates of sustainability often sound like they are pushing for either of two extremes. You can get a plot of land way off in the hills and do everything yourself, or you can move into a dense urban center so you can walk to everything. Each has its own issues based primarily due to reality.

There's just not enough arable land on the planet for 7 billion people to carve out individual plots of land. Also, you're not going to get everyone in the developed world to give up modern life.

As for moving to the cities, there are many hurdles in getting people to move to dense centers, but I think most of these could be overcome. Many are afraid of higher crime. Many people (like me) who care about sustainability also care about the environment. It's hard for us to leave it all behind. This is the real issue with moving everyone to the city. How do you get subsequence generations, raised in the urban jungles, too care about these issues? Ironically, it doesn't seem sustainable socially.

My solution is to focus on many, small dense centers. Economics will continue to support the large urban hubs, but we need to shift satellite developments from sprawling subdivisions to dense, centralized communities surrounded by a combination of conservation and farm land. These centers could be linked by mass transit to the big hubs. They'd provide all the green benefits of living in a city while still allowing residents easy access to open areas.

I'm sure this is not an original idea, but it never occurred to me in California. Having been back in Massachusetts for a while, where the country side is dotted with town centers that developed before the automobile, it's clear to me now. I'm not sure how we get there, but I think it's possible. It should almost be easy in this area.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Am I part of the problem

As I mentioned in the commuting post, I've been questioning my current lifestyle. It's not horrible. I think we are doing a really good job with our food. Most of it is either organic or local or both and we only eat our occasionally. We are working on making the house more efficient. It's more than 100 years old and no one ever bothered to insulate the top or bottom, so we've a ways to go. We are making progress, though. Anyway, it'd be more wasteful to start from scratch with a new house.

What nags at me is that we live an hour outside the city and I commute in 2 to 3 days a week. It's not horrible, but the last two years we were in Berkeley, we drove 10 to 15 thousand miles each year. This year will probably be more like 20. We are going the wrong way. I might bike to the train in good weather, but I wouldn't seem my son at all on those days (and leaving his pregnant mom home with him for a full day isn't fair). In the future it may become a more common thing, but not right now.

But there was a reason we chose Hopedale. We're actually in a fairly densely settled area. I just chose to work in a different place. When we are home, we often walk downtown to breakfast. When the weather was nice, we walked across town to our friends' house every few days. We can walk to the drugstore and to Shaws, we just have to make the commitment to. In the nice weather, we often walked to DQ for soft serve.

So I take a hit on the commute, but this is not a bad place to go green. Maybe the train will bail me out and complete the deal. Or Ed can double my salary and we'll move into the city.

Upstaged by global warming

Al Gore and global warming have put the idea of sustainability on the map. Combine it with the instability of many of the world's oil producing regions and the idea of energy independence and we are on the verge of turning a corner to the tipping point (to steal and mangle a few phrases) on how we view energy usage.

However, sustainability goes beyond energy usage. Yes, the combined threats of global warming and rising oil prices make it the most important component at the moment, but there is more to sustainability than being carbon neutral.

For the last few decades, our society (meaning the US primarily, but also most of the westernized world) has become dominated by disposable things. It is cheaper to throw something away and replace it, than to get it fixed. This is WRONG. It does cost the consumer less and makes money for most everyone else involved (except for the folks who repair things), but in terms of real resources and energy expenditures, it should be the other way. Instead of a few hours of work, we're spending all the materials and work involved in a new product (plus distribution) as well as all the work and resources (land) devoted to disposal. So we are wasting energy, land, and physical resources because it's too easy to just throw something away. That was true twenty years ago when the current torrent of toxic electronic waste was just beginning.

An (amazingly) overlooked resource that doesn't affect global warming, but will affect billions of lives, is water. It's been called the oil of the next century.

Land is another good one. Why is suburban sprawl invading the flood plains of the Sacramento River? The land is among the most productive in the world and the homes will be washed away in the next 50 years without a question.

Sustainability is about more than just being carbon-neutral. (And don't get me started about paying to be carbon neutral...). Its about conservation of everything. It's a law of physics, people. You can't create matter and the earth is only so big.


I recently heard through the rumor mill that the owner of the old railroad right-of-way through Hopedale recently acquired the rest of the old Grafton line. Will there be a train from Milford to Worcester in the future? Will it connect to Franklin and Boston? That would be pretty cool.

I've been driving to work a lot lately. I'm not sure I've ridden the train in the last month. At the moment, there is not much chance of this trend reversing much. I initially felt pretty guilty when I realized this, but it occurred to me that a 2 hour commute on 2 trains with a 20 minute drive is only marginally better than a 1 hour drive. Neither is good. That's why I'm glad it's only twice a week.

When me made the move to Hopedale, I had in mind a job at EMC or one of the many small tech companies in the area. The job in Cambridge was too good to pass up, so I took it on the condition that I only had to come in half time.

I'm not sure if this makes sense for the long term though. The commute is fine. It's long, but 2 or 3 days a week is not that much and I get some good time to my own thoughts and my podcasts. (Mandy doesn't do talk radio). When I think about the energy used to get me that far, I wonder if it's the right choice. I'm probably doing better than a lot of people, but I'd rather be out front, not in the middle of the pack on this.