Electric Cars vs Fuel Cell Cars: One Clear Loser

It may not seem like cars are going through their most radical change since Henry Ford’s assembly line, but they are. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a small but growing fraction of vehicle sales in the U.S., and this is with limited public knowledge, short range among affordable EVs, relatively few charging stations, and high price tags.

Early electric car

You may be amazed to learn, as I was, that electric cars were widely popular from the dawn of the automobile until the electric starter replaced the hand crank and made gas-powered cars less of a pain in the neck.

But the 2016 model year brings at least two strides forward: the Chevy Volt has improved gas mileage, lowered price, and increased electric range from 38 to 53 miles, while the 2016 Leaf’s range expands from 84 to 107 miles. With used EVs becoming available plus the likelihood of more battery innovations and dropping battery costs, EV’s are crossing the line to becoming a cheaper than gas cars, on top of their many other advantages, like powerful acceleration, quietness, and greatly reduced maintenance costs.

By the way, if you’re concerned that EVs might not be a good choice for the climate in some parts of the country, you’ve probably heard the comparison of oil to coal-generated electricity. There’s a fundamental error in this, because it’s comparing “tailpipe” emissions for the gas car to “lifecycle” emissions for the EV. Lifecycle emissions are the total climate impact of obtaining, processing, and using something. When we calculate lifecycle emissions for gas cars and compare apples to apples, gas cars are a clear and universal loser: see “Wait, Gas-Powered Cars Do WHAT?!?“.

But EVs aren’t the only climate-friendly car revolution in progress: fuel cell cars (FCVs), which run electric motors by producing electricity from combining hydrogen from the fuel tank with oxygen in the air to produce water, are also becoming progressively more efficient and less expensive. Having electric engines, they have most of the advantages of EVs, too, and while in recent years they’ve been widely written off as being impractical, their technology has advanced to the point where they’re now a reality, including Toyota’s Mirai, currently being sold in Japan, as well as a number of other models, some of which are affordable and being sold in the U.S..

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai – photo by Turbo-myu-z

“Affordable” is a relative term, of course. EVs and FCVs are mainly available new, and the only way they currently compete with ICE (internal combustion engine) cars in the U.S. is because of government subsidies.

However, unlike ICE cars, EVs and FCVs are experiencing an ongoing burst of innovation in batteries, fuel cells, and electric engines that shows no sign of slowing. With every improvement, these cars become a better value proposition compared to ICE cars, and when we calculate in the cost to the climate, they are arguably a much better value already.

All of this is without any increase of gas prices–and if there is one thing we know about gas prices, it’s that they never stay steady for long–and without a carbon tax. If carbon taxes become widespread, as for all our sakes I hope they will in the near future, suddenly EVs and FCVs will become much more economically attractive, which will fuel larger-scale manufacture and more innovation, which will make them cheaper in a virtuous cycle that could continue for many years.

So which will win, the EV or the FCV? To answer that question, we should start by realizing that these are just two varieties of the same thing: a car with an electric engine and a way to store electrical energy. EVs store that energy in batteries; fuel cells require electricity to generate hydrogen from water, and the hydrogen is then pumped into the car to return most of that electricity when it’s converted back.

Hydrogen filling station

Hydrogen filling station in Iceland – photo by Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

In the near term, it seems unlikely either will gain a decisive upper hand unless it experiences a sudden and outsize technological leap. Some car companies are putting their weight and huge amounts of funding behind EVs, while others are doing the same thing with fuel cells. Both technologies have widespread uses apart from automobiles, including local grid electricity storage, mass transit, and industry, and both are likely to benefit from outside advances.

In the long term, if one technology pulls well ahead of the other in terms of how well it stores energy compared to size, weight, and cost, that technology may eventually take over. If I had to bet on one, I’d bet on EVs, which have wider early adoption, are easier to understand, and can easily be charged at home. One of the great advantages of owning an EV is that you never have to go to a gas station, and even when you do fuel up away from home, the energy is often free, at least these days. That said, fuel cells take only minutes to refuel, compared to much longer battery charging times, and a big enough breakthrough in fuel cell efficiency could wipe EVs off the map.

Still, there is one clear loser in this game: ICE cars, our familiar gas guzzlers. The only real advantage of ICE cars is that they’re established. We’re familiar with them, there’s a huge supply and a wide variety of ICE cars, and gas stations are everywhere. True, they also fuel up faster than EVs, but they don’t have that advantage over FCVs, and EVs can be charged at home, overnight or during the work day. As electric ranges increase, the need to fuel up away from home will only apply for long trips, and when fast charging stations are more widely available, it won’t be difficult to charge your car while you stop for a break or meal every few hours.

So ICE cars are louder, perform less well, smell worse, are terrible for the environment, will become less convenient, and soon will be more expensive than both EVs and FCVs. Will the force of habit be enough to make us stick with them as this equation becomes more and more unbalanced? History suggests that it won’t: no matter how used to the horse and buggy we were, no matter how unusual microwaves seemed at first, or how much of a change it was to start streaming video rather than simply watching TV, we Americans–and most other people in the world–have proved we are always ready to change our habits if something strikingly better comes along. Now not one, but two things have.

Fluffy William and the Threat of Global Climate Change

Once there was an adorable little chipmunk named Fluffy William, who for whatever reason could understand English. It was just one of those things.


Fluffy William was so wee and cute that he charmed everyone he met, except for gardeners, from whose strawberry patches he had a habit of selecting a strawberry, eating just one bite, and then moving on–though in Fluffy William’s defense, his wee stomach was so small that one bite of strawberry filled him right up.

Fluffy William lived an unusually happy chimpmunk life, with cool leaves to rustle under in hot weather and a warm nest to bed down in when it turned cold, until he chanced to be sitting by an open window during a ninety-minute documentary on climate change. Climate change, it turned out, was weather and temperatures and reliable natural cycles all going haywire. Climate change was floods in the Spring and droughts in the Summer and hurricanes in the Fall and God only knows what kind of trouble in the winter. Climate change would make it harder for people to grow food, which would make for more desperate people, which would make for more disasters and refugees and wars. It rapidly became clear to Fluffy William, understanding English as he did, that somebody needed to do something about this climate change problem, and quick.

So Fluffy William ventured deep into the woods until he came to the burrow of Elder Stern Wanda, the wisest and most respected chipmunk anywhere thereabouts. There, breathlessly, he explained about climate change.

“We have to do something about this terrible problem, Elder Stern Wanda!” cried Fluffy William. “But what can I do? I’m just one little chipmunk.”

“You can’t do anything,” said Elder Stern Wanda. “Anything you might try to do would be totally useless. It’s the humans who have to do something about it, and everybody knows you can’t make a human do something they haven’t chosen to do on their own without a gun or a fistful of money.” Elder Stern Wanda picked up an old, chewed-up acorn and gnawed at it gingerly with her one remaining front tooth. The effort seemed to exhaust her after a few gnaws, and she put it back down. Age has its compensations, but it’s still a pain in the neck.

“So humans have to each decide to change their habits on their own?” said Fluffy William.

“Don’t hold your breath for it,” said Elder Stern Wanda. “Now scamper along home.”

So Fluffy William scampered along home and did nothing. That next spring there was a terrible flood, and in the summer there was a terrible drought. Regrettably, Fluffy William could not compete with the other chipmunks for the scarce food available, as he was so wee and cute, so he died of starvation.

He never did find out whether the humans did anything about climate change.

Photo by Gilles Gonthier

How Much Do You Know About Wind Power?

The U.S. Department of Energy has a new quiz out that will challenge your knowledge of wind power and bring you up to date on some new and unexpected information, like how next-generation wind turbines will make a lot more wind power available, even in places that currently wouldn’t be considered good possibilities for wind.

electricity-generating "wind engine" from 1887

electricity-generating “wind engine” from 1887

My favorite factoid, and a surprising one to me:

Wind energy is now the cheapest form of power, with new power purchase agreements in 2014 averaging a record-low 2.35 cents per kilowatt-hour.

I got a 7 out of 13, and I felt like I was doing pretty well, considering! Hopefully you can beat that score. Check out the quiz at http://energy.gov/articles/quiz-test-your-wind-energy-iq.

Wait, Gas-Powered Cars Do WHAT?!?

Gas-powered cars, it turns out, actually use more electricity than electric vehicles (EVs).

I’m not talking about the “equivalent” of electricity or the amount of energy, I’m talking about somebody-has-to-generate-it-and-send-it-through-the-power-lines electricity. Gas-powered cars. Use more than. Electric cars.

oil refinery

If that sounds ridiculous, well, it is–but it’s also true. Forget about the energy that comes from burning the gas: refining gasoline takes a huge amount of electricity. Ironic, isn’t it, that producing a fuel to supply energy to vehicles itself consumes so much energy?

But let’s get to the numbers. Let’s say you have an absolutely average gas-powered car that gets about 23 miles per gallon. To refine that gallon of gas, it takes the refinery about 6 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity to move around water, power equipment, etc.*

Let’s say, on the other hand, that you have an average electric car. How far would you be able to go on that 6 kWh of electricity if it didn’t go into making you a gallon of gas? About 23 miles.

Now consider that on top of refining the gasoline, you also have drilling, transportation, storage, pumping, etc., all of which takes even more electricity.

And none of this takes into account the much greater effects of all the fossil fuel energy in that gallon of gas, which includes not only the gallon of gas itself but all the pumping, transportation, and other effort required to get it from a pool deep under the ground or a field of tar sands into your gas tank.

You can still beat the electricity figures above by driving an extremely efficient vehicle, especially a good hybrid, but this would appear to hugely tilt the scales in the favor of EVs when we talk about greenhouse gas emissions from even those hybrids.

This was just one of those things that blew my mind a little, so I thought I’d share it with you. Now back to your regularly-scheduled day.

*That figure is from the US Dept. of Energy: see correspondence about it here.

Test-Driving a Car That Runs on Gas

So this is an interesting way to turn the tables: a Swedish Tesla owner wrote a pretend but entirely realistic description of what it’s like to drive a gas-powered car from the point of view of someone used to electric cars. It’s easy to find electric car test drives that compare them to gas-powered vehicles, but this reversal seems to clarify a lot of the reasons electric cars might be considered better for many purposes.

gas-driven engine

While reading this review, it occurred to me that gas-powered vehicles are literally powered by making poison explode (and then spewing the waste gases into the air). Fun! But perhaps imprudent.

Here’s the full article: Test drive of a petrol car. If you don’t have time to read it, below are a few of my favorite quotes:

The petrol engine then uses a tank full of gasoline, a fossil liquid, to propel the car by exploding small drops of it. It is apparently the small explosions that you hear and feel when the engine is running.

The petrol engine consists of literally hundreds of moving parts that must have tolerance of hundredths of a millimeter to function. We begun to understand why it is car repair shops that sell the cars – they might hope for something to break in the car that they can mend?

We asked if the constant sound of the engine -that frankly disturbed us from being able to listen to the radio- could be turned off. But it couldn’t. Very distracting.

The seller looked very puzzled at us and explained that it is not possible to refuel gasoline cars at home, and there are no free gas stations. We tried to explain our questions, in case he had misunderstood, but he insisted that you can not. Apparently youhave to several times a month drive to the gas station to recharge your petrol car at extortionate prices – there are no alternatives! We thought it was very strange that no gasoline car manufacturers have launched their own free gas stations?

The entire front portion of the car was completely cluttered with hoses, fittings, fluid reservoirs, and amid all a huge shaking cast iron block which apparently constituted the motor’s frame. There was no space for luggage in the front of the car! Despite its enormous size, high noise and vibration, the engine barely delivered one hundred horsepower.

115 Good Sources of Information on Climate Change and Carbon Footprint

I’ve been working on my current book project, the novel The Town at World’s End, since late 2012. The story follows climate change educator Jess Finch from tragedy in an unseasonable and outsize storm through trying to piece her life back together and make a real difference in climate change. On the way, it imparts a huge amount of specific, practical information on reducing carbon footprint–not just facts, but experiences, problems, contradictions, motivation, obstacles, side benefits … even how to make sure the wires don’t fall into the wall when you’re installing a programmable thermostat.

Anyway, it wasn’t until a good ways into the project that I realized I needed to be maintaining a bibliography. Even though this is a novel, it’s based on a massive body of research, writing, and other resources, many of which are well worth reading (or seeing, as the case may be).

How long ’til doomsday? Should I replace my windows? How do I grow my own food year round in a cold climate without wasting energy? What’s biochar? How do I talk with someone who doesn’t even believe climate change is a threat? It’s all in the below, plus a lot more. Actually, it’s enormously encouraging to me to realize how many smart, dedicated, hard-working, resourceful people are out there working on all of the facets of the climate change problem. If you’re one of them, I’d like to take this moment to express my deep gratitude and to cheer you on.

I still have a lot of work to do in pulling that bibliography together, adding other items, formatting it usefully, categorizing, and so forth, but as an initial step I thought I’d share the initial bibliography notes, in case it’s helpful to anyone in finding good sources of information on climate change and carbon footprint.

How Bad Are Bananas

How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything
Mike Berners-Lee
Greystone Books, April 1, 2011

“How to Start a Shuttle Business”
by Felicia Greene, Demand Media
Retrieved 6/24/14

“Interviews with flood victims in Oxford”
Climate Outreach & Information Network
Retrieved 7/7/14

“How much electricity does an American home use?”
US Energy Information Administration
Retrieved 7/8/14

“Average Household Electricty Use Around the World”
Retrieved 7/8/14

“George Marshall on How to Talk to a Climate Change Dissenter”
Climate Access
Retrieved 7/16/14

Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action?
British Library
Viewed 7/16/14

Don't Even Think About It

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
George Marshall
Bloomsbury USA (August 19, 2014)
(Portions of the book made available to Luc by the author prior to publication)

“Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States”
The Risky Business Project
June 2014

An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore
Viking Books, 4/10/07

“Global Food Waste in 8 Numbers”
Viewed 7/24/14

“Intermarché – ‘Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables'”
Viewed 7/20/14

“Deforestation and Its Extreme Effect on Global Warming”
Scientific American
Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss, Nov 13, 2012
Retrieved 7/24/14

“Health care accounts for eight percent of US carbon footprint, calculation finds”
ScienceDaily, 11/13/2009
University of Chicago Medical Center
Retrieved 7/29/14
based on
Jeanette W. Chung; David O. Meltzer. Estimate of the Carbon Footprint of the US Health Care Sector. JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2009; 302 (18): 1970 DOI: 10.1001/jama.2009.1610

“Savings Project: Insulate Hot Water Pipes for Energy Savings”
US Dept. of Energy
Retrieved 7/29/14

“Ask Pablo: Is It Really Worth It to Insulate My Pipes?”
Pablo Paster, January 16, 2012
Retrieved 7/29/14

“This or That: Curtains or Plastic for Insulating Windows?”
Emily Main, 11/9/2009
Rodale News
Retrieved 7/29/14

“Conserve Energy with Plastic Window Insulation”
Josh Peterson, Planet Green
Retrieved 7/29/14

“Ask Pablo: Is Replacing Windows a Good Investment?”
Pablo Paster
August 17, 2010
Retrieved 7/31/14

“Noooo Edinburgh, Don’t Lift Ban on Changing Windows in Historic Structures”
Lloyd Alter
Retrieved 7/31/14

“Are New Windows Really Worth It?”
Reliance Capital
Retrieved 7/31/14

“Obama Seeks to Boost Resilience to Climate-Driven Drought Fires”
Mark Drajem, Bloomberg News
Retrieved 7/31/14

“Supporting fire and rescue authorities to reduce the number and impact of fires”
UK Dept. for Communities and Local Government
Retrieved 7/31/14

“No Single Solution”
Energy Co-op of Vermont
Retrieved 7/31/14

“This Is Why It Makes Sense to Pair Solar With Electric Vehicles”
Tam Hunt, 7/14/14
Retrieved 8/1/14

“Why heat pumps are hot in Vermont this summer”
Julie Kelley, 8/6/14
Retrieved 8/8/14

Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, 3rd edition
by Doug McKenzie-Mohr (Mar 15, 2011)
New Society Publishers

The Aquaponics Cycle

Aquaponic Gardening: A Step-by-step guide to raising vegetables and fish together
by Sylvia Bernstein
New Society Publishers, 10/11/11

“Al Gore ‘profiting’ from climate change agenda”
The Telegraph
By Nick Allen in Los Angeles 7:13PM GMT 03 Nov 2009
Retrieved 8/12/14

“Al Gore to Donate His Half of Nobel Prize Money to Charity”
The Chronicle of Philanthropy”
Retrieved 8/12/14

Wikipedia: Aquaponics
Retrieved 8/12/14

“Does Aquaponics Really Work?
NOV 4, 2010
Retrieved 8/12/14

“How to build a heat sink for a self-heating greenhouse”
Greenhouse Gnome
Mark Finch, 7/28/13
Retrieved 8/13/14

“Build a $300 underground greenhouse for year-round gardening”
Kimberley Mok, 2/22/13
Retrieved 8/13/14

“Most stable year round greenhouse in 5b climate”
Permies.com (forum discussion)
Retrieved 8/13/14

“All About Valhalla’s Earthship Greenhouse, part 7”
Vahalla Movement, Quebec
Posted April 20, 2014
Viewed 8/13/14

“Solar Passive Greenhouse for 4-Season Harvest”
Retrieved 8/13/14

“Passive Solar Aquaponic Greenhouse Tour 2”
Viewed 8/13/14

“Greenhouse vent openers & supplies”
ACF Greenhouses
Retrieved 8/13/14

“How We Designed Our Solar Greenhouse”
The Permaculture Research Institute
by Rob Avis, 2/11/11
Retrieved 8/13/14

The Day After Tomorrow (movie)

Hollywood Global Warming Dramas Can Be Misleading”
Seán Ó Heigeartaigh
Nytimes.com, 8/4/14
Retrieved 8/17/14

“Climate Fiction Will Reinforce Existing Views”
George Marshall, 7/29/14
Retrieved 8/17/14

“Personal Stories About Global Warming Change Minds”
Heidi Cullen, 7/30/14
Retrieved 8/17/14

“George Marshall on communicating climate change following extreme weather events”
Rob Hopkins, 3/20/14
Retrieved 8/18/14

“Sleepwalking into Disaster: Are We in a State of Denial about Climate Change?”
George Marshall, 9/22/05
Retrieved 8/18/14

The Aquaponic Gardening Community (online forum)

Essex Farm: About Us
(this is the farm that offers its members a CSA that can provide all of their food)
Retrieved 8/24/14

“3-D Printing Will Be a Manufacturing Engine for the Economy”
Daniel S. Hamermesh, 8/12/14
NY Times
Retrieved 8/26/14

“3-D Printers Are No Rival for Mass Production”
Nick Allen, 8/12/14
NY Times
Retrieved 8/26/14

“With 3-D Printers Comes the Possibility of Medical Miracles”
Mick Ebeling, 8/11/14
NY Times
Retrieved 8/26/14

“3-D Printers Allow Designers to Go to a New Level”
Kacie Hultgren, 8/11/14
NY Times
Retrieved 8/26/14

“Space Travel Will Be Easier and Less Costly With 3-D Printers”
Alison Nordt, 8/11/14
NY Times
Retrieved 8/26/14

“3-D Printers Mean More Plastic in Landfills”
Luke Heemsbergen, 8/11/14
NY Times
Retrieved 8/26/14

“Community Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan”
City of Arcata, CA
August 2006

“Assessment of Arcata’s Community Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan”
Fall 2009
Hackett, John et al

Zero Energy Homes presentation

“Zero Energy Homes”
Presentation by Li Ling Young, Efficiency Vermont
for Net Zero Montpelier
Thu, Nov 13, 2014
Montpelier, Vermont
A similar presentation by Young at a different location can be viewed online at http://www.brattleborotv.org/efficiency-vermont/path-zero-energy-homes-li-ling-young-hd

“The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate”
Al Gore, 6/18/14
Rolling Stone
Retrieved 11/9/14

“Americans Still Favor Energy Conservation Over Production”
Retrieved 12/5/14

Americans Want More Emphasis on Solar, Wind, Natural Gas
Retrieved 12/5/14

Energy Star

Energy Star Program
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
Retrieved 12/21/14

Efficiency Vermont
Retrieved 12/21/14

“Do Space Heaters Save Money and Energy?”
Kiera Butler, 1/10/11
Mother Jones
Retrieved 12/30/14

Dauncey, Guy
The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming
New Society Publishers, 2009

Gore, Al
Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis
Rodale, Inc., 2009

“Study provides new metric for comparing the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide”
Apr 28, 2014 by David L. Chandler
retrieved 1/1/15

“Climate impacts of energy technologies depend on emissions timing”
Morgan R. Edwards & Jessika E. Trancik, 25 April 2014
Nature Climate Change
abstract at http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n5/full/nclimate2204.html
retrieved 1/1/15

“Evaluation of Net Metering in Vermont”
Vermont Public Service Dept.
10/1/14, revised 11/7/14
retrieved 1/4/15

U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
Retrieved 1/5/15

“Want to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint? Choose Mackerel Over Shrimp”
April Fulton, 7/29/14
Retrieved 1/8/15

“Going Green: Carbon footprints revisited”
SeaFood Business
Lisa Duchene, 5/1/09
Retrieved 1/8/15

“Fueling the Fleet, Navy Looks to the Seas”
(about synthesizing jet fuel from the carbon in seawater)
US Naval Research Laboratory
Daniel Perry, 9/24/12
Retrieved 1/17/15

“US navy synthesizes jet fuel solely out of seawater; costs $3-6 gallon”
ZME Science
by Tibi Puiu, 4/14/14
Retrieved 1/17/15

“Can ‘Green Cement’ Make Carbon Capture and Storage Obsolete?”
New York Times
John J Fialka, ClimateWire, 8/13/10
Retrieved 1/17/15

“Frequently Asked Questions About Biochar”
International Biochar Initiative
retrieved 2/1/15


“What Is Biochar?”
International Biochar Initiative
retrieved 2/1/15

“Heat & Cool Efficiently”
US Environmental Protection Agency
retrieved 2/3/15

“A Guide to Energy-Efficient Heating and Cooling”
US Environmental Protection Agency
August 2009

“Savings Project: Lower Water Heating Temperature”
US Environmental Protection Agency
Retrieved 2/3/15

“How to Clean a Clothes Dryer Vent”
Retrieved 2/3/15

“Energy Saver 101 Infographic: Home Heating”
US Dept of Energy
Retrieved 2/26/15

“#AskEnergySaver: Home Energy Audits”
US Dept of Energy
Retrieved 2/26/15

“Home Energy Audits”
US Dept of Energy
Retrieved 2/26/15

“Energy Audits”
Efficiency Vermont
Retrieved 2/26/15

Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds
David Gershon
Empowerment Institute, 2006

“Average Daily Media Use in the United States from 2010 to 2014”
Retrieved 3/12/15

“Do Energy-Efficient Appliances Add Up?”
by Craig Guillot
Retrieved 3/12/15

“Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator”
US Department of Energy
Utilized 3/12/15

“Adding Wall Insulation Has a Lengthy Payback Period”
Jeanne Huber, 12/14/2010
Retrieved 3/30/15

“The Potential of Biomass to Curb Global Warming”
May 2014
Alliance for Green Heat
Retrieved 3/30/15

“Bulletin #7217, Maine Home Energy: Options for Home Heating Fuels and Energy Systems — An Overview”
(includes chart rating each option on e.g., convenience, cost, efficiency)
The University of Maine Extension
Retrieved 3/31/15

“Home Energy Sources”
(list of emissions by fuel source, but not compared to each other with equivalent units)
Carbon Independent
Retrieved 3/31/15

“Carbon emissions of different fuels”
(deals with fuels for heat and transport, thus doesn’t include non-fuel renewables)
Biomass Energy Center
Retrieved 3/31/15

“How We Calculate”
Retrieved 3/31/15

“Implications of Shale Gas Development for Climate Change”
Richard G. Newell and Daniel Raimi
American Chemical Society
April 22, 2014
Published in Environmental Science Technology, August 5 2014

“Georgia Mt. Community Wind Open House draws over 750 local visitors”
originally published in Vermont Business Magazine, June 2013

“After the Flood: Vermont’s Rivers and the Legacy of Irene”
(YouTube playlist of program in 4 parts)
November 26, 2013

“Cheap, Abundant Shale Gas Won’t Significantly Cut U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions”
Janet Pelley, Chemical & Engineering News
May 2, 2014

“Climate Change: 10 Years to Cut Off Nuclear War, Plagues”
(no longer available online)
Fairfax Climate Watch
April 2013

“Carbon Cutoff Point ‘Is 27 Years Away'”
Alex Kirby
Climate News Network, 10/27/2013

“Global warming’s new frightening deadline”
Pete McMartin
Vancouver Sun, 3/9/13

“New global warming deadline: Reverse it in 8 years or it’ll be too late”
Doug Powers
MichelleMalkin.com, 3/28/12

“Climate change deadline 5 years – IEA”
News23.com, 11/10/11

“We already blew the deadline to avoid dangerous climate change”
Christopher Mims
Quartz, 12/6/12

“The Deadline for Global Warming: Reversing the Effects of Climate Change Before 2017”
Luisa Crisostomo
International Business Times, 11/16/11

“Carbon Footprint Of Best Conserving Americans Is Still Double Global Average”
ScienceDaily, 4/29/08

How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: The Individual’s Guide to Stopping Climate Change
Chris Goodall
Routledge, 3/30/07

Building Powerful Community Organizations

Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups that Can Solve Problems and Change the World
Michael Jacoby Brown
Long Haul Press (September 28, 2007)

Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living
The Union of Concerned Scientists, Seth Shulman, Jeff Deyette, Brenda Ekwurzel, David Friedman, Margaret Mellon, John Rogers, Suzanne Shaw
Island Press; 6th edition (April 3, 2013)

The Burning Question: We Can’t Burn Half the World’s Oil, Coal, and Gas. So How Do We Quit?
Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark
Greystone Books (September 21, 2013)

Flight Behavior: A Novel
Barbara Kingsolver
HarperCollins, 11/6/12

The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience
Rob Hopkins
UIT Cambridge Ltd. (April 1, 2014)

“Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn from It”
Osha Gray Davidson
InsideClimate News (November 8, 2012)

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
Bill McKibben
Times Books (April 7, 2010)

Actually, We CAN Put It Back in the Ground

One of the most demoralizing things about climate change is that it’s generally a one-way process: it’s easy for us to put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but not so much for us to take them back out–at least, that’s what I thought until recently.

True, there has been some research into carbon sequestration (putting carbon dioxide directly into underground spaces or at the bottom of the sea), but these processes aren’t very far advanced or very affordable, and some of the plan for them is just to capture CO2 being produced by fossil fuel plants and sequester that. The fossil fuel industry likes to hold this very theoretical idea out as though it’s an available technology, so as to get a free pass to burn more fossil fuels.

But I mentioned that there was some hope, and there is: biochar.

What is biochar? It’s basically charcoal, an extremely carbon-rich material made at high temperatures, from 200 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, which consumes pretty much everything in the fuel except the carbon. Biochar can be made from practically any burnable material–wood, seed pods, husks, brush, paper, manure, etc.–even trash.

biochar pellets

What’s so great about that? A few things, actually! First, using the right process to make it, biochar produces energy without producing much in the way of greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the process that makes biochar can alternatively make liquid fuels from renewable sources. Third, and most intriguingly, biochar is very stable: you can bury it in the ground, and the carbon won’t go anywhere for hundreds to thousands of years. Fourth, when you do bury it in the ground, it increases the fertility of the soil by making necessary chemicals more available to plants and by helping retain and regulate water in the soil. Fifth, the process is simple enough that it can be used for everything from massive plants to cookstoves.

So the cycle can go something like this: plants grow, absorbing and using carbon from the atmosphere. The plants are harvested, and some or all of the resulting plant matter is made into biochar, producing up to about six times as much energy as it consumes in the process. The biochar is then buried in the ground, accelerating plant growth. Even without this acceleration, the new plants that grow where the old ones were harvested absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, and the process continues.

If we’re willing to commission a lot of large biochar plants and to make biochar a standard part of preparing agricultural lands–including reclaiming currently unproductive lands, such as former farmland that is tapped out or turning to desert–then we can actually pull a huge amount of the carbon dioxide we’ve generated over the past couple of centuries back out of the atmosphere, and reverse the process we’ve been causing that is currently wrecking our climate with no relief in sight.

Photo by Lou Gold