Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Do you believe in global warming?

Invariably, when I talk about my book, people ask if I believe global warming is as serious as some make it out to be. Truth is, I don’t know; and even the experts don’t agree.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global warming is not only a serious problem, it is much more serious than scientists had previously thought. However, there are some scientists—many of them well-regarded in their respective fields—who contend that global warming is not a serious problem at all; it is just one of many theories.

Still, according to a recent Gallup poll, the majority of Americans believe that global warming is serious (though a growing number of people think the threat is exaggerated). And the EPA has reportedly sent the White House a proposed finding that greenhouse gases pose a danger to the public, a finding that could open the door for environmental regulations and/or cap-and-trade legislation to curb the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in this country.

Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to set standards for those air pollutants that are deemed harmful to public health or welfare. The six major air pollutants for which national ambient air quality standards have been set are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. However, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases—including carbon dioxide, which accounts for over 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—are also air pollutants and that the EPA has both the authority and the obligation to regulate those emissions should they endanger public health or welfare.

The Obama administration has made it clear that it believes climate change to be a serious problem. The Democratic majority in Congress has also made it clear that it is willing to enact legislation to cap or tax carbon dioxide emissions in order to reduce the anthropogenic (i.e. human caused) greenhouse gases that are responsible for trapping heat from the sun on the earth’s surface.

But for those who believe global warming to be an exaggeration at best and a hoax at worst, any kind of emissions regulation or legislation could have disastrous effects on our economy with no real benefit to the earth’s natural ecosystems. Earlier this month, at the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change, 80 experts presented arguments that demonstrated “the breadth and high quality of support that the skeptical perspective on climate change enjoys.”

It’s easy, when faced with dramatically opposing viewpoints, to adopt a wait-and-see attitude until all of the scientific experts finally agree; unfortunately, our political climate is such that we need to come up with our best guess answers now.

So, for lack of a better answer, the next time someone asks me, “Do you believe in global warming?” I will tell them that I believe it is in our best interest to live and work sustainably, to eliminate our dependence on foreign energy, to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, to reduce our waste (and increase profits), and to create “green” jobs. And if we can stop arguing long enough to really focus on accomplishing those things, then maybe there won't be an issue to discuss after all.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Water, water everywhere???

Ironically, it rained in Southern California yesterday, on World Water Awareness Day. But, even though this year seems to be wetter than usual in my area, I know we are currently experiencing a potentially devastating statewide drought. After all, we get much of our drinking water from Northern California, which has suffered from lower-than-average rainfall in the past few years.

It is easy to take water for granted. All we have to do is open up our tap and let it out. Water does not cost much in So Cal; our family’s base rate is $1.07 per ccf or $1.07 per 748 gallons. Considering that the average family of four uses about 400 gallons of water each day, that is only about fifty cents per day. Plus, we all know that we will never run out of water; we could let the tap run all day long, and it would still be running by nightfall (though we would most likely be charged a waste water rate for that kind of usage!).

Things are a bit different on the farm, though. Farms run on wells and cisterns. Wells are dug by farmers or by those they hire to do the digging for them, which takes time and money. And it is not out of the realm of possibility for them to have to dig more than one well before they finally hit water. A farm that does not have good drinking water is essentially uninhabitable; the cost of hauling water in from an outside source is too prohibitive. Most farms also have a cistern, which collects rainwater and stores it underground for use in washing clothes or taking baths. If water is wasted or if it is a dry year, then the cistern will run dry; and water will have to be transported in by truck from the nearest water tower, a process that takes time, energy, and money.

Every farmer I know has a rain gauge, and it is not at all unusual to go to the local tavern on a Friday night and hear the men earnestly comparing rainfall statistics with one another. No amount of rainfall is too small to notice; even a mere sixteenth of an inch—hardly a spit in the eye as one friend put it—is worthy of attention. After his ground, water is a farmer’s most precious resource. Wars have been fought over water in this country. And, according to the United Nations, wars may again be fought over water in drought-ravaged areas around the world.

With the earth’s population projected to grow from 6.3 billion to close to 10 billion by 2050, energy, water, and food have now become the top three of “humanity’s top ten problems for the next 50 years.” Which leads us all to try to think a bit differently about how we use one of our most precious resources. The simple fact of the matter is that the more we can conserve, the longer we will have water reserves available to us. Reserves which, according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, are becoming depleted to the point where they may no longer be adequate to sustain our population. So, then, what can we do?

The EPA has some interesting tips for reducing water usage, which includes buying WaterSense labeled products. WaterSense products are for water what EnergyStar products are for electricity, and they are available for businesses as well as end-consumers. They range from toilets/urinals, faucets and showerheads to landscape irrigation services and sensor-based irrigation control technologies, which can save up 24 billion gallons of water nationwide in a year.

The Metropolitan Water District’s BeWaterWise website also offers several water saving tips for residential and commercial consumers. The important thing is to first find out where the water is going.

For example, over 50% of water usage goes towards landscaping. Residents and businesses, alike, can make a big difference if they choose native plants, cover soil with water absorbing mulch and then follow local water utility guidelines for watering times (most of us water more than we need to).

In addition, watering plants before 8am reduces evaporation (saving as much as 25 gallons), and fixing leaks and replacing broken sprinkler heads can save up to 500 gallons per month. For those who are ready to upgrade their sprinkler systems, weather-based irrigation controllers can save up to 40 gallons per day.

Be Water Wise Tips for residents include:

-- Turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth – saves approximately 3 gallons

-- Fixing a leaking faucet – saves up to 20 gallons a day

-- Using a broom instead of a hose to clean off your driveway and sidewalk – saves about 150 gallons each time you clean

For businesses, the fundamentals still apply. First, they must assess where their water is going. Then, they must develop a plan for reduction.

Be Water Wise Tips for businesses include:

-- Installing high-efficiency, pre-rinse spray heads in restaurants – saves 3.4 gallons per minute

-- Installing a Bulk Steam Sterilizer tempering device on medical facility autoclaves - saves 50 gallons per unit per hour

-- Retrofitting an X-ray film processor with a re-circulation device - cuts water usage by 99%

-- Installing a new Cooling Tower Conductivity Controller – saves 800,000 gallons or $4,000 in water and sewage costs per tower per year.

In addition to the water and price savings, many water agencies offer rebates on newer more water-efficient systems. For example, pressurized waterbrooms for cleaning sidewalks use as little as 2.8 gallons of water per minute (versus 8 to 18 gallons for standard hose and nozzle). They are also eligible for rebates starting at $150. Zero water urinals may be eligible for $400 per fixture. And pH conductivity controllers may be eligible for $1,900 rebates or more per device.

Regardless of the savings or the rebates, it is important for all of us to start thinking like farmers when it comes to water because, at the end of the season, if we run out, there is no water tower in town that we can drive to for a refill…at any price.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Scent of a Book

My book came out this week; and, like an expectant parent, I held it in my hands for the first time with a mixture of elation and trepidation. Elation that all of my hard work and effort had finally come to fruition. Trepidation that I might not meet its needs and it might not meet my expectations.

I have often dreamed of what it must feel like to hold my own book in my hand, to run my fingers along a spine that has my name on it. In fact, the reality is somewhat anti-climactic. It is like the day after you bring your first child home from the hospital, when it begins dawns on you that you have got at least 18 years of dealing with this person and now what are you going to do?

And yet there is something about our babies and our dreams that keeps us going. Maybe it is the smell. Babies have their own unique smell—that rich, sweet, milky smell that somehow transports us to our own sense of wonder at seeing the world for the first time. Books, too, have their own clean, crisp smell of black ink poised on white pages, waiting to transport us to places we might never be able to visit otherwise.

My book reminded me of when I was a girl. I know I am dating myself here, but our quizzes used to be mimeographed onto paper and then passed out to the class. There is nothing quite like the smell of a mimeograph; “pleasingly antiseptic” are words that come to mind. Of course, the first thing all of us did was hold the paper to our noses and inhale that tangy (most likely toxic) aroma of purple ink on paper. And in that moment, no matter who we were, whether we were an “A” student or an “F” student, there was always the possibility of doing well and of making the grade. It was with that same sense of possibility that I fanned the pages of my book and inhaled the tart fragrance of fresh ink on paper.

One of the shocking things for most authors—and most parents, for that matter—is the amount of control we have over our little creations once they reach maturity. We conceive of them, labor over them, give birth to them...and then they take on a life of their own and become their own creations. From that point on, all we can do is watch and hope.

As the author of a “green” book, I had hoped that my publisher would print sustainably; but I had no say in whether or not he actually would. After all, the guy has got to make payroll; and it is not like the publishing industry is dealing with huge profit margins (although their margins are slightly better than most authors I know).

At any rate, my publisher apparently found it fiscally sound to print this book on FSC certified paper, which means that it comes “from well-managed forests, controlled sources and recycled wood or fiber.” Doesn’t sound very sexy, I know. But, if one can judge a book by its cover, then this book is very green indeed. And that’s a good thing.

The Forest Stewardship Council is a non-profit organization, formed in 1993 by a diverse group, consisting of loggers and foresters on the one hand and environmentalists and sociologists on the other, all of whom wanted to establish a worldwide standard for sustainable forestry. Today, the FSC has offices in more than 40 countries and offers independent, third-party accreditation services that allow consumers like you and me to make sure the products we are buying come from forests “that are managed to meet the social, economic and ecological needs of present and future generations.”

The fact that I have devoted so much time and energy to researching and then writing about businesses and organizations that have met their “triple bottom line” of profitability, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability does not lessen the thrill I get when I consider that my product could also meet those criteria. After all, it is one thing to know something in theory and another to put it into practice.

I suppose if I were truly green I would eschew paper altogether; and, given my own children’s propensity to read books (not!), I suppose that is where we are headed. Amazon’s Kindle may well be a precursor of things to come. And, if it is, I am sure there will be benefits to that change of venue; but I will still crave the scent of a book.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

30 Years of Nuclear Power

Thirty years ago this month an incident occurred near Middletown, Pennsylvania which has changed the landscape of energy production in America. At four o’clock in the morning, the main feedwater pumps at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant stopped running, causing a series of automatic systems shut-downs which ultimately led to a “loss of coolant accident.” No deaths or injuries occurred to any personnel or to residents of the surrounding area; but nuclear power production in the United States suffered a crippling blow. Not a single nuclear power plant has been licensed in the USA since that year.

Even before climate change became a concern, many experts warned that we needed to build nuclear power plants to meet the growing demand for electricity in the United States. Today, as concerns about carbon emissions increase, so too do the chances for nuclear power. Like it or not, nuclear power is one of the few technologies available for base load power generation. Base load power plants are designed to provide power 24/7. Most of us could care less about base load versus peak load power generation…until we experience an outage of some sort.

Compared to the greenhouse gases and other air pollutants emitted by coal power plants—another sources of base load power—nuclear power plants are one of the cleanest sources of energy. In fact, if it weren’t for the radiation—or, more to the point, the fear of radiation—nuclear power would be the ideal source of base load power in the United States today.

For the most part, we seem to have developed an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy towards those nuclear power stations currently in operation in this country. Most of my neighbors, for example, have no idea that we live within 20 miles of a nuclear power facility or that we get approximately 20 percent of our electricity from that facility.

Most Americans don’t know that current advances in technology could render the type of accident that happened at Three Mile Island virtually obsolete. Nor do they know that over 95 percent of spent fuel can be recycled (though not in the United States due to political concerns). They don’t know that spent fuel is currently being stored on-site at many nuclear facilities around the United States or that the debate over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which has spanned two decades and reportedly cost Americans $13.5 billion, is now officially over.

Polls show that the average American is not averse to nuclear energy, as long as we don’t have a nuclear power plant in our backyard. In other words, as long as we don’t see it, we can pretend it’s not really there and that the electricity we use in our homes and businesses just magically appears.

But those things are changing. Soon, we are going to have to get off the fence and take a stand on hard issues like how much we’re really willing to pay for the increase in our utilities if they are powered by “clean” coal and whether or not we are willing to recycle or store nuclear waste in order to continue to run our air conditioners.

As of 2006, one nuclear reactor is still in operation at Three Mile Island, though it only accounts for 9 percent of the state’s total nuclear generation. In the United States, Pennsylvania ranks 2nd in total nuclear capacity. The state is also one of the top coal producers in the country and ranks 4th highest in the United States for carbon dioxide emission—the most common greenhouse gas—2nd highest for sulfur dioxide emissions and 5th highest for nitrogen oxide, both major air pollutants emitted by coal power plants.

All of which leads me to wonder: If I had to choose between living next to a coal power plant or living next to a nuclear power facility, where would I rather be? At the end of the day, I guess I’m not that uncomfortable living where I do.

Note: Please feel free to contact me for a list of resources used in this article. Also, for more interesting facts about nuclear power, read Jessica A. Knoblauch’s commentary online at E/The Environmental Magazine.