Repowering America? How about Refueling America?

This post is tagged “blog news” because of the new tag being introduced. To make up for a paucity of posts recently, I’m going to try to get in another post later today, following up on this one.

I teased in my post on alternative sources of energy (which need to become primary sources of energy) that I would introduce a way of getting around that would use next to no resources, take advantage of our new green electric grid, put as little strain on that grid as possible, and save money. And I’ll get to that. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and people power is the most green form of energy there is. (There’s an old ESPN “This Is SportsCenter” commercial depicting the ESPN campus as powered by Lance Armstrong riding a treadmill; I wish that had even any potential basis whatsoever in reality!)

The greenest ways of getting around are also the oldest: walking, followed by bicycling. Walking gets the edge because it uses no resources other than what you’d consume anyway in the form of food. If you can walk to get to wherever you want to, you probably should, to save the energy of short car trips and get some excersize.

Some people are probably saying, “But Mr. Wick, if I could walk to get to wherever I wanted to, I would, wouldn’t I? Anyone who would drive to get just three blocks away would just be stupid, global warming or no global warming!”

And maybe you do walk to get to anyplace within walking distance (which probably means you live in the city), and maybe you do have to drive to get to anyplace you would want to go to (which probably means you live in the middle of nowhere). But a great many – maybe most – Americans live in a place known as suburbia, places that look like this, California’s Newbury Park community (image courtesy Google Maps):

Now, suppose you live somewhere in the area in the red circle. (Apologies if you can’t see it.) And suppose you want to go to the store. Well, based on plugging in “grocery stores” into a Google Maps search, the nearest grocery store is… about a mile away, as the crow flies. That’s to a place about due east of a point near the center of the circle; there’s another place a bit further away and to the southwest. (There’s a 7-Eleven significantly closer and to the south, but I doubt it would do for full-fledged grocery trips. I only mention it because it comes up on my search.) I could have picked a point to the northwest and gotten even longer distances. Imagine having to lug several bags of groceries, by hand, for over a mile. To put it in perspective, the average human walking speed is 2 to 3 miles per hour. Those bags are surely slowing you down, so you’re looking at nearly half an hour (at best) of a grueling return trip, and about two minutes by car. And remember, this is as the crow flies, so it’s probably significantly longer.

Okay, so maybe you get a bicycle – you’re looking at about 10-15 miles an hour, so as the crow flies, you’re looking at a trip of about four to six minutes. You can get a bike meant to handle a load like bags of groceries, so you’re covered there, but the load might slow you down, and even the added load of the “trunk” will slow you down a little. Still, let’s say you can go 8-12 miles an hour each way – arbitrarily chosen, but it does correspond to four-fifths speed on both numbers. You’re looking at five to seven minutes each way at this point, and carrying the bags is less grueling.

In fact, let’s make this easier by moving closer to one of the stores and bringing this closer to reality. One of my uncles actually lives in this area, and I’ve chosen a semi-random point near his house, represented by the green placemark. (Not exactly on his house. I’m not allowing a horde of people to descend on him. Of course, maybe that’s better than people descending on a complete stranger.) The red placemark is near a nearby Albertsons. As the crow flies, it’s about 3301 feet, or about 5/8ths of a mile.

Here’s the walking route Google Maps generates between the two points – about four-fifths of a mile by its calculations. It calculates the walking time as 16 minutes, and I imagine the bicycle time is about four to six minutes.

Looks decent, right? That is, until you get to the details. Take a look at the segment of a piece of the route shown below. The sidewalk is about three and a half feet wide, wide enough for maybe one person to walk on, and about four to seven feet from the curb – maybe a car’s width. Newbury Park may be lucky to have a sidewalk at all. The street is about five car widths wide with parking existing to some extent on both sides of the street, but not a lot of it. Note that the car in the picture is almost flush up against the curb. Now consider that you can’t just cram in cars like mad and you’re looking at two cars at most traveling on this street at a time. (A traffic lane is about ten-to-twelve feet wide.) If there’s even one car on the road, especially if it’s barreling down the center, there’s not much room for a bike to operate, either on the sidewalk or on the road. Did I mention it’s a decently hilly route, which is kind of a problem for a heavy bike?

Still, it’s doable… until you get to an intersection. Do you see something missing in the image below? Aside from an oddly colored strip of concrete, there isn’t really a crosswalk at this intersection. So what, you might say, people cross where there isn’t a crosswalk all the time. But consider that, if you’re walking, you have to step off a three-foot wide sidewalk to cross as much as 50 feet of roadway, given the curve in the curb that’s intended to allow cars to make higher-speed turns – 14-17 times the distance. You might feel like a lost soul adrift at sea. If you look closely on the left side, you see the sidewalk itself actually turns here – trying to dissuade you from making the crossing.

Now, if you’re riding your bicycle on the street itself, you might not think it’s such a big deal, and even if you’re a pedestrian or intending to bike on the sidewalk, you might think it’s okay. But what happens when you get to the arterial? Two things about the below picture should stand out besides the sudden presence of crosswalks. First, when arterials are involved the curb has an even shallower curve. Secondly, if you’re riding your bike on the pavement, where does it go? Every lane is the same width; maybe the outside lane is about one or two feet wider. You probably have to get your bike to fit in with the normal flow of cars. The sidewalks can be as little as a foot wider, if that, than before, and they are dwarfed by the now-mammoth roadway, which could be about 60 feet wide (with only five lanes of traffic). Oh, and if in all of this, the sidewalk is any wider than four feet, it might be because it’s now completely flush up against the curb. On an arterial. Where the traffic lane is no wider than the others. Imagine walking down the street while cars whoosh past at 25-30 miles an hour just a few feet away – almost right next to you. I haven’t even shown what happens when a non-arterial meets a route that’s very arterial.

What happens when you finally get to the store? Theoretically, you should be in better shape because people are supposed to walk on and cross the parking lot anyway to get to the store. Did I mention the parking lot is as big as the store itself – admittedly this store is part of a larger strip mall? And if you’re biking, do you know for sure if there will be a good place to leave your bike? Especially one where you can lock it up and keep people from stealing it, like you lock your car?

Theoretically, it’s possible to walk or bike from my uncle’s house to the store… but you can see why most people would rather drive, especially with a mostly-arterial route that’s not much longer even by distance. But of course, the store isn’t the only place people go to. Suppose we stopped putting our kids on school buses to send them to school. Now imagine them having to traverse about a mile of this kind of route with all its dangers, real or perceived – and with kids the perception is probably magnified several times. You can see why kids are often put on diesel-belching school buses to take them to schools that could be within half a mile of their home. When they get older, it’s safer, but this is what Newbury Park High School looks like:

(UPDATE: Okay, I have been informed that the above picture was originally mis-labeled as Newbury Park High School, and its compact size should have tipped me off. Google results now suggest that it’s a pre-school, which if anything just proves my point, at least about the early levels, even more: when reading the below, keep in mind we’re talking about four-and-five year old kids here. And high schools are not off the hook even though they generally don’t have to deal with access roads as long as I originally intimated, as suburban high schools tend to be cavernous affairs with multiple sports fields and sealike parking lots. Compare Adolfo Camarillo High School in nearby Camarillo with the school I went to in Seattle.)

Yes, that’s a good 150 feet (or almost a full 3% of a mile) of 18-foot-wide access road just to get to the parking lot from the (arterial) main street, with NO separate pedestrian or bike path (that I can tell) whatsoever. It could take only eleven seconds of walking, if you’re fast, but it could also take as long as almost a minute. If you live really close by, like your house is already visible on the screen, maybe you could cut across the grass if there isn’t a fence, but otherwise you pretty much need a car to pass. (Oh, and the nearest other high school is more than two miles away, even with the correct location, so you could travel significantly more than a mile to get to the nearest high school. Not that I’m proposing densification.)

That is how many, many Americans live, positively needing a car to go distances for which walking should suffice, needing a car to do anything and everything. If you can’t drive – if you’re, say, a little kid, or an old man whose senses aren’t what they used to be – you’re SOL unless you can get someone to drive for you. So cutting down carbon emissions from transportation starts with rethinking how everything is organized and making sure we can walk or bike to as many destinations as possible. If we can walk to the store, walk to the pub, walk to the park, walk to school, walk to soccer practice, that’s a good chunk of driving – and thus, resource use – rendered irrelevant. Ideally, we could walk everywhere.

But when we get to the most fundamental aspect of our travel, we run into a problem. Stores, pubs, parks, even schools, are all fundamentally interchangeable. If we move far enough away from one that we become closer to another, we can just transfer to that other thing without any serious impact to our lives. It is not so with workplaces. If we move, we can’t easily change our place of work to correspond to that, and not everyone can live flush up next to downtown. “Office parks” have become popular near suburbs but in terms of getting their workers to live near them, the results have been mixed at best. The mobility of the automobile renders location mostly irrelevant, despite what real estate agents will tell you. Most people don’t think of the cost of driving more, at least until recently – but it means more resource use and more traffic on the main arterials. (This is especially the case in cities that have built “beltway” freeways that ease travel between suburbs.)

Is there a way to travel longer distances than even bikes allow if we need to, without contributing to global warming and indeed using as few resources as possible? Well, consider that a car engine has to carry both itself and the people in it, and all things considered, the people (and the cargo) will generally weigh less than the car. If you cram as many people as possible in the car, it will cause a negligible impact on the car’s resource use – but if all those people would have driven instead, each of those cars would need to carry themselves and used much more in the way of resources.

So perhaps even better than the electric car would be to move more of our people, and ideally as many as possible, using mass transit – buses, trains, and the like. And once we’ve taken that step, the benefits just rack up and rack up, extending so far beyond climate change it becomes worth investing in in its own right. Since buses and trains travel on fixed routes several times each day, we can connect them to electric wires and take full advantage of our green electric grid – without having to plug them in anywhere. People riding on public transit instead of driving cars take up less space in addition to less mass, and each person who takes transit gives up an entire car with next to no replacement on the roads, resulting in a true reduction in traffic congestion (even if you personally don’t use it – this is especially the case if they don’t use the roads at all, i.e., are trains). People aren’t driving so they don’t get road rage, so they can just enjoy the ride, and they can get something productive done instead of wasting time driving.

Perhaps most importantly, build it and they will come: across the nation transit projects have brought with them new development designed to take advantage of the transit and cater to transit users, building whole neighborhoods around transit stations – almost always very dense, tall buildings that work to curb sprawl (which also is tied to global warming through potential deforestation). We might even see many of America’s other seemingly unrelated problems – our continuing distrust of each other, the dissolution of the community – at least be eased by a transition back to neighborhoods instead of cars.

“What!” you claim. “Mass transit? Isn’t that welfare for the poor? That stinks! You’re trying to impose communism and lower our quality of life! You’re trying to limit our choice!” I’m sure you probably have an idea of mass transit as a bunch of grimy, noisy, diesel-spewing buses clogged in traffic with uncomfortable seats where crazy, scary black men lurk everywhere you turn. I’m sure there are some transit systems like that, but they’re probably little more than sops to the idea of having transit at all in communities that otherwise worship at the altar of the automobile. Many modern buses are clean, running on compressed natural gas, biofuels, or hybrid buses; pretty much all urban trains are electric, but it’s possible to run a bus on electric wires as well, if surprisingly underutilized outside here in Seattle. New York City should be our model, where there exists a rail system of the sort typical of just about all urban areas around the world of over about eight million population (except Los Angeles). There, the subway has become every bit a part of the identity of the city as the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building, and here’s an incredible stat: less than half the population of New York even owns a car, let alone drives one. Chicago, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Boston have superlative transit systems as well. The car doesn’t have to be America’s only transportation option.

What reason is there that that success can’t be repeated all over the country? Before the Great Depression, many of America’s cities had marvellous streetcar systems. During World War II, many of them were bought up and dismantled, replaced by the aforementioned terrible buses. Many transit advocates claim the oil and car companies conspired to destroy the streetcars to ensure the dominion of cars. Some experts have looked into the matter and decided the streetcars were unprofitable enough to be bought and dismantled. Robert Bruegmann, in his anti-anti-sprawl book Sprawl: A Compact History (which I will refer to again in later posts), suggests that it was as simple as buses providing flexibility to change routes with changing travel patterns that streetcars did not. But that very flexibility has since proven to be a curse: once a rail line is down, it’s difficult to change, but a bus line could change at any time like that, so buses are wholly ineffective at bringing the sort of transit-oriented development I mentioned earlier, no matter how good they are. Add that to buses’ tendency to get stuck in traffic I mentioned earlier, combined with trains’ ability to be run above or below ground in their own right of way, and you can see that preferably trains are in our green energy future.

(I know I haven’t covered every objection people may have to my mass transit strategy. I’ll get to others in later posts.)

That takes care of the transportation paradigm within cities, but what about beyond it, especially with regards to suburbia? Many areas are instituting commuter rail systems along the same lines as longer-distance freight and passenger rail, to serve the suburbs otherwise underserved by urban rail systems. Their main problem is that they tend to be structured around a park-and-ride model, which begs the question “I’m already in my car, I might as well keep driving.” Still, they’re important to connect the suburbs to the city and urban rail system, especially with bus connections on the suburban end.

As for longer distances, between cities? This, after all, is where one would most need the gas engine of a Volt, and some way to get around the limitations of electric cars in general. Most Americans take a plane to go any distance beyond 250 miles or so, but they by necessity guzzle a lot of gas and spew a lot of greenhouse gases. Airline companies are letting the public know that they are transitioning to biofuels and potentially hydrogen, but an electric plane is probably out of the question. Fortunately, we have America’s long-distance passenger rail system, and the Democratic-controlled Congress has repeatedly shown its loyalty to Amtrak in recent months. Several people have been pushing for development of a high speed rail system that could deliver people across the country at speeds comparable to air travel; these systems have been gaining popularity in Europe and Asia. For intercontinental travel, aircraft is probably still best, unless you want to spend a long time on a boat, and with biofuels and potentially hydrogen (and, dare I say, solar and wind?)-powered aircraft, even that can cut down on its global warming impact.

We can cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions, even as we get around. To work best, it’ll require us to rethink the way we live, but in most ways it’s probably for the best anyway.

Come on, you know this was what you were really looking for Friday.

An addendum to my original panicking-about-climate-change post: If we really are to reduce the presence of greenhouse gases in the way we may have to, it may take turning our cities into true concrete jungles. On to weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. I gave up on a couple of fronts Friday without making any real recommendations, but I’m doing no giving up today.

As in my last post, I begin with some notes from the EPA report cited in that post. First, some notes on fossil fuels in general. T. Boone Pickens is right about one thing: natural gas is less carbon-producing than oil. Natural gas has 45% less carbon than coal, compared to 25% for oil. Problem is, at every stage of natural gas’ journey from the ground to the pump it leaks methane, as mentioned above, a problem that also exists to a lesser extent with oil. As we’ll see, there’s a good reason Pickens wants to fuel our cars with gas while proposing powering America with wind. The vast majority of fossil-fuel-burning electricity plants are coal plants, although there are a number of natural gas plants as well.

In addition to using fossil fuels, this Wikipedia article lists the following methods of generating electricity: nuclear (fission and theoretical fusion), wind, solar, wave/tidal, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower. Any or all are feasible for generating electricity to some extent or another.

Nuclear power, proponents claim, doesn’t have any carbon emissions and isn’t going to tie us down to countries that don’t like us. Unfortunately, it is VERY controversial. The spectre of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island still hovers over many Americans, and even discounting the idea of a cataclysmic disaster, there is still the problem of waste disposal. Nuclear waste will likely remain deadly radioactive for thousands of years, and it’s damn near impossible to keep people from cracking it open in the meantime. Nuclear reprocessing is an iffy technology at best. And then you have to make sure the uranium doesn’t get into the wrong hands. And it’s not completely non-carbon-producing either. Oh, and the uranium will eventually run out. Basically, way way way too many concerns here. But if we can get fusion going, it should be accident-free, with very little risk of weapons proliferation, any radioactive products would be radioactive for far shorter spans of time, with no global warming risk, only a need to contain tritium byproducts.

Wind power is clean and safe, will go on as long as there’s wind, and the only real resources used are in construction of the turbine itself. It does need to be placed in windy environments, doesn’t look like the best thing in the world, and could pose a threat to birds, but at 2006 rates would cost only a teensy bit more than coal and gas (and nuclear a bit higher than that). The downside is that the capacity of an individual wind turbine is half a megawatt or less, but they’re typically combined over a wide area. You can see why T. Boone Pickens is high on wind power, and it could be a rather simple proposition.

Solar is similar to wind. There’s no emissions and the only resources used are in construction of the panels themselves, and if the sun ever stopped sending energy down to us, losing our source of electricity is the least of our problems. Again, it would work best in areas that get a lot of sun year-round and not a lot of clouds, which mostly means tropical areas. The main knock on solar is its expense (far more than for anything covered to this point), but the price keeps coming down. (To a lesser extent, proper power storage for nights is a bigger problem.) Often it’s possible to get solar panels for your house, which – especially if instituted in the building process – doesn’t have to look unsightly, and which has been known to pump electricity back into the power grid.

What would be cheaper than standard solar panels is using an ordinary (albeit gigantic) parabolic mirror to concentrate solar energy at a focal point (or a bunch of ordinary mirrors all focused on that point) where the pure heat generated can be harnessed somehow (possibly, indeed probably, in a way that also solves the storage problem – but could require continued resource use). There are people who think a few concentrated-solar fields in the middle of the desert could solve all the world’s energy needs at little cost or global warming contribution. We almost don’t need to move on to the other sources!

(Although it might cost a mite too much to build and maintain a transmission grid to bring that energy to every corner of the continent… and it might make the countries that house the solar plants disproportionately powerful, bringing us “OPEC rules the world” all over again. Fortunately, one of those could be the California desert, which is already a center for the technology. And it’s worth noting that standard solar panels can similarly benefit from being placed in the desert. Slap some solar panels on enough buildings in cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix and you could be powering much of the West Coast.)

Wave power is basically trying to harness the power of ocean waves, and obviously are limited in where they can be located, as they need to be placed out at sea, preferably in temperate zones. They’re also currently expensive and woefully inefficient, but the only resource use is in construction. As technology progresses, wave power might be a viable option, and should remain available as long as there’s wind. Tidal power is similar in many ways, and often resemble undersea wind operations. It’s a very new technology that’s still being worked on. (There is an older form but it’s become rather controversial. I don’t know, however, how the current technology might affect fish populations.)

Geothermal power looks to tap the earth’s internal heat to generate power, and is perhaps third only to solar and wind in enthusiasm among renewable-energy pushers. Unfortunately, it has a number of problems, foremost among them for our purposes being that it still emits greenhouse gases, albeit fewer than fossil fuels. They can be pumped back into the earth but it still results in more emissions than the “none” from wind, solar, wave, and tidal. Also, it’s by nature inefficient, it runs the risk of contaminating nearby water with dangerous substances, and it’s not truly renewable, as overworking the site may require it to scale down production eventually. So that’s not good enough.

Biofuels are not talked about much for electricity generation, but it’s worth talking about them anyway. Biofuels still emit carbon dioxide when used as fuel, but it’s carbon dioxide that would have gone into the atmosphere anyway (possibly with methane along for the ride). It’s also carbon that the plant attained throughout its life, helping offset its own later release. (However, there may be concerns regarding whether it really is a net wash or gain.) For most plants, there are concerns that food prices could go up (which may already be happening), especially with how high population levels are rising, and the famed Brazilian sugarcane-ethanol program has raised concerns that rain forests could be chopped down to make room for cane fields.

The ideal solution would be to engage in a form of biofuel that wouldn’t rob the food supply and possibly wouldn’t require any new production at all. (If we made biofuel from a plant that wasn’t fit for human consumption, do you plant the food crops or the fuel crops? This is a problem with the much-ballyhooed “cellulosic ethanol”.) There’s some interest in using biomass waste to produce energy (which would also stop the waste from being dumped into landfills), but is there enough of it to meet our energy needs? Harvesting algae for fuel also shouldn’t rob our food supply, at least too much. So that’s an idea with promise, although once again it’s a ways from reaching the market, and there is some significant strain involved as demand rises.

Finally, hydropower dams don’t use any resources but are location-dependent. More importantly, they can do a whole mess of harm to local ecosystems, and floods from reservoir creation can cause plants to give off methane and carbon dioxide, not to mention displace local populations. Also, dam failures can be catastrophic. If a wind or solar installation is the target of a terrorist attack, the only impact is the loss of power. If a dam is destroyed by terrorist attack, there’s a bit bigger problem to deal with.

What about “clean coal”? To hear most environmentalists speak of it, it’s little more than a con, woefully inefficient and vulnerable to the slightest failure.

So, solar energy alone can take care of most of our energy (here = electricity) needs with a clear conscience, with the rest to be taken care of by wave and tidal installations offshore (pending those technologies getting further developed) and wind farms in the heartland and in mountainous areas. We can get cracking on solar and wind installations right now, and we should. So we can meet our electricity needs without relying on fossil fuels or otherwise belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – there’s a tremendous chunk of global warming emissions right there. (And if there are any criticisms I missed I welcome any challenges to my assumptions and will freely change my opinions if there is any new information.)

Can these same sources reduce our use of fossil fuels in other areas?

According to the EPA report I linked to Friday the main use of direct fossil fuel combustion in industry is to produce steam or heat that can then be channeled to other purposes. Residential and commercial uses are primarily for heating and cooking. We also still have transportation to get to.

The easiest thing to take care of could be heating homes and businesses – in addition to store-bought insulation you’ve probably heard of, solar energy can be channeled to warm any home, and an “earth-sheltered home” can also help protect you from the elements. Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so living in naturally warm climates and designing houses to let in maximal sunlight are also desirable options. (Of course, living in places like LA, Phoenix and Las Vegas also means draining dwindling water supplies.) With our new green electricity future, it’s now okay to use an electric stove and/or oven to cook, which leaves gas/propane/charcoal grills (and, if you’re concerned enough about ecological impacts or the theoretically-offset carbon emissions, wood-fired stoves). Solar power can help us here as well, it turns out, at least if you’re outdoors. Industry could be one of the toughest challenges – beyond electricity, fossil fuels are used in all sorts of applications – but most uses of combustion not already coming from electricity could, I imagine, be replaced by electricity, old-fashioned wind or water mills, or solar power. Or biomass if you consider that to be okay.

But transportation… how to fuel our cars and trucks… that could be a problem. It’s possible to drive solar, but it’s unlikely you could use it to carry any sort of load, and I don’t know how possible it would be to drive at night. Basically, it’s probably infeasible and looks silly. Wind cars sound nice, but because wind power works best at certain locations it would be way too unreliable. Wave, tidal, and hydroelectric power are obviously out of the question. What about previously rejected approaches? I’m not allowing millions of miniature nuclear reactors without workers ready to prevent meltdown on the roads, geothermal is obviously too tied down to a specific point, and biofuel has been covered above, with the conclusion that the only biofuel I’m not skeptical about is algae-based fuel, and even then I have some misgivings about the amount of land required to grow algae.

Hydrogen, in my view, is overhyped. It may be the most abundant element in the universe but most of the hydrogen on Earth is already in water; extracting hydrogen from water in order to turn it back into water is inherently inefficient and results in a net loss of energy, it’s just simple thermodynamics. Its main competitor has long been to extract it from hydrocarbons, which requires more fossil fuel use and produces carbon monoxide, which then gets converted to carbon dioxide, which would then contribute to global warming. It may be possible to generate hydrogen from certain chemical reactions or from biological processes, though, but it may be way too far away from being market ready. After George W. Bush voiced his support for hydrogen at the 2003 State of the Union address, it’s basically fallen out of favor and off the radar. And even beyond the difficulty of setting up the hydrogen economy, there’s the much-ballyhooed “it only gives off water” argument that undercuts itself: It turns out that water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas that mostly isn’t counted in emissions totals because it has unique properties that make it hard to accurately measure its impact on global warming.

So we can’t use solar, wind, or water power, we might be able to use biofuel but only a specific kind that might be a ways away from being ready and even that’s iffy, and hydrogen is for next century if ever. I give General Motors credit for putting out its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, which will allow us to take full advantage of the “greening” of the electrical grid to power our cars, and which won’t need to use any oil within 40 miles. Only super-long commutes and long-distance trips would need to use an oil engine, and having electric-charging stations every 40 miles or so along major routes could solve that problem. But it looks to cost over $30,000 and possibly close to $40,000 (before government tax credits) – a fully-electric vehicle might be cheaper but might also substantially increase the load on our new green electric grid, requiring more solar power generators, more wind farms, more offshore wave/tidal facilities.

What if there was a form of transportation that would use almost zero resources on a per-person basis? One that would be clean for the environment and won’t tie us to hostile nations, while also saving us loads of money? Sound overly optimistic? It’s possible, and in some places it’s already here… but it might require a substantial rethinking of the way we live and the way we perceive American cities.

I’ll reveal what it is later in the week and possibly (probably?) as soon as tomorrow.

Al Gore, I’m waiting for my reward.

I have another Pascal’s Wager on the topic of global warming: Regardless of whether you think global warming is primarily man-made, the last thing we should be doing is contributing to it.
But if we’re going to correct global warming as fast as I think we need to, we sure as hell better make sure we do it right. So what is causing global warming, and what can be done to avert it?
Well, there are some handy charts and data in this report from the EPA – admittedly all the data is from 2002 and the US, but it does suggest that in that year, 83.4% of US greenhouse gas emissions were from carbon dioxide. Methane accounted for 8.6%, nitrous oxide 6.0%, and other stuff 2%. I’ll focus on the first three, in part since they affect the climate in different ways; the report claims that methane is more than 20 times as effective as carbon dioxide in trapping heat, and nitrous oxide is over 300 times as effective as CO2, but also measures everything in terms of CO2 equivalents. Just because methane is more effective at causing climate change than CO2 per mass doesn’t mean it actually outpaces CO2 and doesn’t mean we should all go vegetarian, wannabe hippies out there, and if you wanna debate that I’m happy to open a Truth Court case. Even if it was contributing more to global warming than CO2, meat production isn’t even the majority producer of methane and nitrous oxide – admittedly also produced in agriculture – would be an even worse problem. (Oh, and methane gets decayed after a few years anyway.)
I’m reducing CO2 to fossil fuel burning even though CO2 is emitted in other ways because fossil fuel burning made up 97% of gross CO2 emissions. (.9% came from iron and steel production, the closest competitor, and another .7% came from cement manufacture, totaling about 98.6%. Waste combustion, ammonia production, and lime manufacture were negligible parts of the emission of CO2 but I mention them because they nonetheless contrubuted more to global warming than other, non-CO2-producing factors I mention below. Gross emissions ignore carbon sinks.) Scroll down to Table ES-5; if I’m interpreting things right (let me know if I’m not, as I’m performing similar calculations throughout this post), about half of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, as of 2002, comes from generating electricity, with half of the rest coming from transportation, and 59% of the rest after that coming from industrial operations. (Later, the report says 31% of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning came from transportation, 17% from industry, and the rest from residential and commercial uses, including electricity in that count. 40% of CO2 from fossil fuel burning came from electricity.)
The leading causes of methane production were landfills (32.3%), natural gas systems (20.4%), “enteric fermentation” or animal digestion (19.1%), coal mining (8.7%), manure management (6.6%), wastewater treatment (4.8%), and petroleum systems (3.9%). (That totals 95.8%. “Stationary sources” – wood-burning stoves mainly – was the largest remaining source at 1.1% with rice cultivation not far behind.)
69.1% of nitrous oxide emissions came from “agricultural soil management”, with most of the rest (12.7%) coming from “mobile sources” (related to, say, motor vehicle internal combustion). Manure management (4.3%), nitric acid (4.0%), human sewage (3.8%), and “stationary sources” (3.4%) accounted for most of the remaining 18%. Other causes of climate change are primarily used as substitutes for chemicals that were eating away at the ozone layer, but we’re now finding the cure isn’t much better than the disease; the production of a byproduct of most air conditioning systems, and leaks from electrical transmission and distribution, also are problems.
So let’s see… throw them all together… fossil fuel consumption accounts for about 80.9% of the total… N2O from agricultural soil management accounts for 4.1% to bring us to an even 85%… let’s throw in the three leading methane producers, landfills (2.8%), natural gas (1.8%), and “enteric fermentation” (1.6%)… that brings us to 91.2%. Split up fossil fuel consumption into electricity, transportation, industrial fossil fuel burning, and residential/commercial fossil fuel burning (think natural gas or oil heating systems) and that’s eight things to take care of and if we’re lucky, we can make global warming something akin to a distant memory. We probably can’t reduce emissions from all those sources to zero, so let’s make it nine (which if I wanted to, I could split up into groups of three over the weekend) by throwing in “substitution of ozone-depleting substances” (1.3%). That makes up over 90 teragrams of CO2 equivalent, and nothing else accounts for more than 60 Tg CO2 equivalent, so it’s a good stopping place. We could get rid of up to 92.5% of current global warming contributions right here on Da Blog!
Fossil fuel consumption is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and we’ll get to that over the weekend, but for now, here are my thoughts on the others, for the sake of further reducing warming. Each section will start with some words on what the same EPA report has to say on the matter, followed by my own comments that boil down to whatever I could find out on Wikipedia and the report.
  • Soil management: Anytime nitrogen gets added to (or is even present in) soil, microbes convert at least some of it to N2O. So use of any fertilizer that contains nitrogen, “nitrogen-fixing crops and forages”, dumping “crop residues and[/or] sewage sludge” onto soil, “high-organic-content soils”, and yes, animal droppings could be contributing to global warming. I know this is one thing the vegetarians will seize on and claim the best way to be green is to go veggie, but honestly, given the importance of nitrogen in helping plants grow, I’m not sure there’s much that can be done here. I mean, to get the most headway, we’d not only have to reject meat, but beans, corn, and barley (although less beer might be a cause for celebration) as well, not to mention rejecting any nitrogen fertilizer when that contains the most potential for sustainability. But don’t worry, I’ll throw in a few more things we can look at to make up for it: iron/steel production, “mobile sources” of N2O, coal mining, cement manufacture, and methane from manure management.
  • Landfills: Specifically, organic wastes such as yard wastes and food, which the microbes get into again. Recycling seems to be pretty strong in the United States, but composting as an environmental policy is only starting to gain steam. Some places have separate services for the collection of yard wastes. Also, according to the EPA report, many landfills, including the largest ones, collect the gas emitted by their landfills and combust them – which produces carbon dioxide, but again, CO2 is, all else being equal, much less of a warmer than methane. Still, stopping more stuff from going into landfills is the best approach here.
  • Natural gas: …is mostly methane. Some methane is leaked from petroleum as well because oil and gas are often found near each other, but gas is the major source. I’m not quite sure how that changes the relationships between the fossil fuels in terms of what’s most polluting. Read on over the weekend to find out why this is just one beef I have with T. Boone Pickens.
  • “Enteric fermentation”: Mostly applies to ruminant animals, so when you’re eating pork or fowl, compared to eating beef you’re actually helping the environment! Dairy might be worth foregoing, but improvements in efficiency have allowed cattle populations to decline from 1995-at least 2002.
  • “Substitution of ozone-depleting substances”: This refers to chemicals called HFCs and PFCs, which are regulated by the Kyoto Protocol, being used as replacements for the last environmental panic, ozone-depleting CFCs, which were long used in refrigeration and firefighting. It’s important that as alternatives are developed that don’t harm the ozone layer or cause a greenhouse effect, they are spread to developing nations like China and India, and to the rest of the developing world, with all due speed.
  • Production of iron and steel: Here’s something I had to go to Google to learn more about. Here’s what I learned from here, from an International Energy Agency report: This is largely because a lot of coal tends to be used in the process, and improvements in efficiency can only continue to help. Some countries engage in “waste energy recovery” which can be used to generate power and help the overall fossil-fuel issue. This is another thing that will probably never significantly go away entirely.
  • “Mobile sources” of N2O: Fuel combustion can produce N2O in addition to CO2, which is one reason I don’t trust biofuels. This will be one of my criteria when I look at alternative fuels for our cars: low nitrogen content, not just low carbon content.
  • Coal mining: Methane was produced when coal was formed and has been trapped since, and coal mining releases it. A lot of it is required by law to be directed to the atmosphere or else it’ll blow up. Obviously this will become less of a problem as we reduce our use of coal, but methane recovery schemes are progressing in the meantime and surface mining has grown popular, if sometimes controversial.
  • Cement manufacture: CaCO3 (calcium carbonate) is heated and produces CaO and CO2, the former of which becomes part of the process of making cement. According to the IEA: China, which produces nearly half the world’s cement, has gotten better at preventing too much in the way of CO2 emissions. Use of substitutes for clinker (unground cement) could improve CO2 emissions.
  • Methane from manure management: Basically, this means don’t keep animal manure in an environment that doesn’t allow oxygen to reach it. “Solid waste management” and cooler, drier conditions are better for taking care of manure.

So that takes care of nearly 20% of global-warming-causing emissions. Over the weekend, we’ll look at the other 80%.

Many early voting registration deadlines are tomorrow, and trust me, it’s not really as hard as you think it is unless your state is actively trying to get you not to vote.

Debunking – or legitimizing? – climate change deniers

I’m trying to allow myself to build a bit of a buffer of posts so I can work in advance with little pressure, so I’m going to keep today’s post short and sweet. With luck, today’s Random Internet Discovery (look at the “internet adventures” tag in the sidebar) will be about politics so you’ll get some sort of political fix.

As I said yesterday, I feel strongly that, regardless of how you feel regarding its existence or cause, the consequences are too high (and are already starting to affect us now, in this generation) not for us to make an abrupt change in course. So I don’t want any sort of distraction from global warming naysayers, or for anything that looks like it contradicts the case for global warming to impede our progress towards saving our planet. So I want people to take a look at this, this, this, and specifically this and this, look at the actual evidence (which is to say, not just to cite some wild-eyed nut or person who obviously has an interest who thinks man’s not causing global warming just because) that’s presented (and in the case of the Wikipedia articles, not already answered), and tell me why it doesn’t matter, or why it’s suspect, or why it’s an outlier, or why it’s inaccurate, or some other reason why it might not be as damning as it seems, or hell, why it’s perfectly legitimate and valid. I may attempt to sort out everything in a post as soon as tomorrow, or I may never get to it as my schedule cramps up.

Nothing else matters. This is the ONE THING you should vote on.

What is the most important issue in this election?

Is it the war in Iraq? Health care for all? Illegal immigration? Surely it’s the economy, right?


The most important issue in this election, the one that cannot be ignored under any circumstances, is global warming and climate change.

I don’t care whether you believe in it or not, never mind that it’s been confirmed to hell and back and the real debate is whether man caused it. To me, it’s as simple as Pascal’s Wager. If you believe global warming exists, and it turns out it doesn’t, maybe you’ve spent some money on some things you didn’t strictly need. Not the first time humans have done that. Maybe you even benefit from making those preparations. You reduce our dependence on foreign oil and thus our dependence on countries that hate us. You could just plain improve the quality of life for the average American.

Particularly important in these times, you could stimulate the economy with the investment. I don’t want to hear Republicans whining to me about how we should “let the market decide” and “government interference is bad” and about how if we wanted solar and wind, the market would have made us all convert a long time ago. Horseshit. Coal and oil have been subsidized for years; a true “free-market” Republican would repeal those subsidies today, but of course, they won’t. Any economist will tell you that when the economy gets tough, the best way to bring it out of the doldrums is to spend government money on investment, not tax cuts, because government investments create jobs and the government not only spends money on the people, it also directly buys from American companies who pass on the money they make to their employees.

But if you decide global warming doesn’t exist and you don’t need to do anything? And it turns out it does? Then… then you’re screwed. Here‘s just a short summary of what could happen: more extreme weather conditions on both ends of the spectrum (don’t you dare get the snowstorm of the century and say “what global warming?”), tropical regions (which means mostly third world countries) becoming desert and formerly fridgid climates becoming the world’s new breadbasket, rising sea levels resulting in catastrophe for coastal cities and maybe even wiping out small, low-lying islands, declining oxygen in the world’s oceans causing a complete breakdown in the global ecosystem, droughts galore and increased salt penetration into groundwater, diseases, all leading to more conflicts around the globe like what’s going on in Darfur, maybe even the release of methane from the world’s oceans and from Siberia potentially contributing further to global warming until the whole planet essentially becomes Venus. Oh, and it could mean more illegal immigrants crossing our border, more Iraq conflicts, and universal healthcare suddenly seeming like a quaint utopian goal.

You invest in stopping global warming, you help bring the economy out of what now looks like inevitable if not in-progress recession – you don’t invest in stopping global warming, and the recession may never end. Some studies suggest we may pass a “tipping point” at which warming would become unstoppable within five to ten years – if we’re not threatening to pass it already!

Wake up, world! There is no such thing as too much climate impact mitigation too fast! Let’s quit bickering between parties and nations and get to work! Yes, let’s help China move off coal now, and let’s reduce our own impact on climate change, and let’s have Europe and all the other nations of the world reduce their own impacts on climate change as well! As a planet and as a species, we either drop everything right damn now and put every last one of our efforts towards moving to a clean energy future or we might as well commit global suicide – consequences be damned because no matter what the consequences may be, the impact of global warming could be and will be worse!

What we need is a president that will declare war on global warming, akin to the war on poverty, but with the same fervor and sense of national sacrifice that we brought to World War freakin’ Two! We need a president willing to drop everything and get to work, and we need to get it THIS election! Unfortunately, actually saying that while still a candidate is a good way to LOSE an election, but all I want to hear is a sort of intimation, through low-level channels, not even sufficient to leak out to the general public, but enough to let people like me know that a candidate knows the scope of the problem and that they are willing to declare all-out war on global warming, to an extent even Al Gore would be impressed by.

Now playing on C-SPAN 2:

“Senate Republicans are forcing the clerk to read the entire” much-ballyhooed climate change bill. The part in quotes is actually being displayed at the bottom of the screen.

Absolutely disgraceful. Not just because I’m morally opposed to the filibuster, but because there is no reason whatsoever not to save the planet. When the s*** hits the fan, it’s going to be in everyone’s interests, conflicts with anything else be damned. From what I’ve found out about it from watching C-SPAN 2, I don’t think it goes far enough.

Of course, if there’s one thing you’re not here for, it’s a political blog, but as I couldn’t find any mention of this anywhere else in my admittedly pathetically lame search…

UPDATE: “Republicans are protesting what they say is the slow pace of work on judicial nominations.” By slowing down the work of the Senate even further? By risking the future of the entire planet? Personally, I’m a bit disturbed at the fact the Supreme Court has essentially become filled with partisans from both parties. Shouldn’t the Supreme Court be impartial and objective, not bipartisan and only objective in its divided subjectivity? How can we make sure it’s the best judges, not the best partisans, who get selected to our federal courts?

UPDATE 2: Full AP story with quotes from legislators. The most distressing part: If a cloture motion fails we’ll have to wait another year for the American people to turn out the Republicans not swept up in the revolt of 2006… another year of more ravaging of the planet that’s already quite possibly ravaged beyond repair.

"Earth Hour" figures to be a complete fiasco

First, there’s the fact that I only just heard about it… and it’s tonight (link courtesy Awful Announcing). That’s especially bad when you consider this is the second year they’re doing this.

Then there’s the fact that it runs right up against the NCAAs in pretty much all the United States, prompting AA to ask, “could they…have picked a worse time of the year to decide to do this?” Um, no… I’m pretty sure Super Bowl Sunday would have been far worse. Still, does the WWF have anyone who lives in the United States? Who would have at least an idea of when the games are on?