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.

Reduce Your Footprint, Increase Your Profits

A new car wash facility in my home town of Williston caught my eye recently. Look below: you can see why.

Eco Car Wash exterior

When I read up on the ecological details of the business, I was more deeply impressed. As you probably know, one of the dangers with a business like this is “greenwashing”–that is, adopting a couple of seemingly environmentally-friendly practices while running a deeply unsustainable business and calling it “green.” “Eco-friendly” products have proliferated in recent years that range from questionable to downright horrible in terms of environmental impact. In this case, however we appear to be looking at the real deal.

If the biggest environmental impacts of a car wash are water, energy, construction, and the gas people expend to drive there, Eco Car Wash seems to be a win on all four fronts. They gather rain and snow and process their water on site, relieving the municipal water system of a potentially large impact; their transparent design and high-efficiency equipment minimize electrical use; their building is constructed from recycled and reclaimed materials; and their location is on the commute and errand path of many local residents.

Eco Car Wash interior

Washing your car at an ecologically-minded commercial car wash can save large amounts of water compared to doing so at home. Unfortunately, the total calculation of impact has to take a lot more elements into account: in terms of carbon footprint, energy usage and production of equipment and buildings have a much greater footprint than cold water (though if you’re in an area with serious water problems, carbon footprint may not be your top ecological concern). A car wash facility certainly does involve a substantial amount of energy and materials, compared to a garden hose. Since a facility like Eco Car Wash washes on average 45,750 cars per year, however, managing energy well seems like the total environmental impact is well justified, especially taking into account the importance of preventing rust on cars in terms of preventing cars from having to be junked (adding to the waste stream and requiring huge resources to manufacture new units) unnecessarily.

Eco Car Wash charges $8-$21 for a wash, which makes its pricing about average for the industry (for in-tunnel washes) despite the ecological advantages, according to StatisticBrain.com.

It makes sense that their prices should be normal even though they have presumably spent much more than the usual amount on constructing the facility, because their energy and water management practices should save them a bundle over time. While a car wash is an unusually obvious example for this kind of practice, it’s an approach virtually any business can take to be more profitable, as demonstrated by the massive energy retrofit done at the Empire State Building a few years ago: see Empire State Building’s Energy Savings Beat Forecast.

If I sound like an advertisement for this business, you’ll have to pardon me: it’s rare that I see a strictly commercial operation that takes sustainability to these lengths.

What One Vermont Family Did to Massively Reduce Their Climate Change Impact

Jamison Ervin of Duxbury, Vermont put together a great presentation with photographs, sketches, and easy-to-understand financials (including return on investment) for how her family took advantage of a septic system problem to make radical changes in their impact on the environment through a family garden, solar electricity, and solar hot water. It’s fun, easy to follow, and very informative. Check it out here: http://www.vecan.net/index.php/one-vermonters-leap-to-energy-independence/

Ervin home

By the way, if you’re thinking “solar … in Vermont?”, I don’t blame you: after all, we’re ranked 47th among U.S. states in annual days of sunshine at 49% (compared to first-place Arizona, which gets nearly twice as much sunshine at 85%). Yet solar is becoming increasingly popular in Vermont, and as Ervin demonstrates, it’s quite cost-effective. Germany, possibly the most energy-progressive country in the world, already supplies more than a quarter of its energy needs through wind and solar, much of it in the form of small home solar installations–though these have been made more affordable by government policies on buying renewable energy from small producers. Vermont, with 23% renewables, doesn’t lag far behind.