The Engine on the Electric Bus Goes (silence) …

By now you’ve probably heard of electric cars, but have you heard about electric buses? They have all of the advantages of good electric cars in a larger size. For example, they’re very quiet, don’t put out any exhaust, have a low carbon footprint, and require much less maintenance than an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle.

Drive Electric Vermont today shared a photo of an electric bus visiting the University of Vermont. Take a look:

Proterra electric bus

While electric buses currently cost more than ICE buses, they pay for their extra costs with fuel, maintenance, and repair savings, and once they’ve done that they start saving money for taxpayers. Proterra buses are one option; another is Nova Bus. With EV technology improving practically before our eyes and an ever-wider network of charging stations, maybe it’s time to start thinking about about bringing some of these amazing vehicles into our municipal and school bus fleets.

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.

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.

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

Why Do People Ignore a Catastrophe They Know Is Coming? This Book Explains and Provides Solutions

In his deeply researched and surprising book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, author George Marshall helps us understand the true nature of climate change and why it’s so hard for us to act on something that threatens to destroy us.

Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate ChangeHis points are surprising and force us to reframe our entire understanding of the issue. Here are a few examples, many of which don’t make sense until you get the benefit of Marshall’s full explanation:

  • Climate change is not a tame problem, but a “wicked” one.
  • Climate change is not an environmental problem.
  • Fossil fuel companies must be stopped, but they are not the enemy.
  • Polar bears and our grandchildren are not the ones who need to be saved.
  • Conservatives are not the enemies of climate change action, but essential allies.
  • Guilt over our personal contributions to climate change and fear of what will happen are our biggest opponents.
  • Climate change is not in any sense a religion, but evangelical churches may be our best models for learning how to communicate about it.

I had some anxiety as I read this book, not so much because it’s about climate change, but because for the first 40 chapters or so, Marshall tells us only how NOT to communicate about climate change: why politically loaded messages hurt the cause, how making the problem scarier encourages us to ignore it even more, and how the science isn’t going to convince much of anyone, for instance. I was afraid that I was going to get to the end of the book and find out that his conclusion was “So basically, we’re f***ed.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t. At the end of the book, Marshall revisits all his key points and turns them on their heads, showing how the things we’re doing wrong in communicating climate change can maybe be done differently and effectively. It’s not that those of us who are working to solve the climate change problem aren’t trying hard enough to communicate: it’s that there’s an entirely different and unexpected way for us to go about it that is likely, based on a great deal of research and investigation, to do a much, much better job.

We tend to understand climate change in limited ways, each of us confined to some extent by our peers and expectations. Marshall’s book helps us break out of those limited understandings to see the big picture, and in the process to find new resolve, new allies, and new hope for immediate change.

How to Talk With a Climate Dissenter

George Marshall has devoted his career to one perplexing question. As he puts it, “Why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?” What he has discovered over time is that we’re practically built to ignore problems like climate change. He also has developed an understanding of dialog with people who don’t believe climate change is happening, or don’t believe that it’s humans who are causing it, that uncovers a much, much more effective way for we who are fighting climate change to engage in discussion with people who aren’t. Below is the quick summary, but if you want to know more, go to the source, where many other resources are available: http://www.climateaccess.org/resource/tip-sheet-george-marshall-how-talk-climate-change-dissenter .

Click to view full size

Click to view full size

The Hidden Climate Benefits of eBooks

Paper books vs eBooks

I’m reading a book by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, and by and large I recommend it. They start with the biggest impacts and work their way down to less important ones, offering a lot of sound advice on the way.

However, there are some errors and oversights in the book, and one of these underscores how eBooks can be much more climate-friendly than paper books. It’s important to stop here and mention that book-buying accounts for only a tiny proportion of our individual carbon footprints, but enough people changing their book-buying habits can have a significant impact.

Here’s what UCS has to say about eReaders versus paper books:

When analysts crunch the numbers, they estimate that the emissions caused in manufacturing an electronic reader are about the same as those caused in manufacturing 20 to 40 books … What the debate obscures, however, is that a standard paperback book is responsible for around five and one-half pounds of carbon emissions in its manufacture and transport to your local bookstore. But we are each responsible for more carbon emissions than that when we drive six miles round-trip alone in a typical car to the bookstore [emphasis theirs]. The point is this: don’t waste time worrying about the carbon footprint of the way you read.

OK, raise your hand as soon as you see their mistake. Yes, you got it: buying an eBook doesn’t require any travel. Of course, you can also order your paper books to be delivered to your door, and in most cases that’s likely to save emissions compared to you driving a car to the bookstore, but there’s still a noticeable impact for the transportation of the book from the store to your door–not to mention from the pulp source to the paper mill, the paper mill to the printer, the printer to the publisher, the publisher to the distributor, the distributor to the retail hub, and the retail hub to the retail store. Additionally, any book that ends up in a landfill is all set to add yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as it decomposes, probably anaerobically (without access to air) and therefore producing methane, a greenhouse gas 20-25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

I may be objecting too much about too small a thing, but I’ve seen enough poorly-reasoned claims that eBooks are worse for the climate than paper books that it seemed worth taking up.

Of course, using an eReader or tablet requires electricity, but the amounts are quite small and aren’t likely to have nearly the impact of the manufacturing or transport. If I wanted to be snarky, I could also point that reading a paper book often requires electricity too, but since it’s possible to read by sunlight, and since people usually don’t read eBooks in dark rooms, I’m going to try to leave that one alone.

One more point that was missed about eBooks: often people read them on devices they purchased for other purposes. If you would have a smartphone or tablet regardless of whether you read eBooks on it, then it’s really inaccurate to count the emissions from manufacturing that device as being due to the eBooks that are incidentally being read on it. If you are buying a new tablet or eReader, though, please consider a used model rather than the latest, greatest thing. A tablet that’s saved from gathering dust or being dumped into the landfill and that thereby prevents a new one being manufactured reduces your carbon footprint by (depending on the tablet) around 130 k-coes, according to this article. Since a sustainable individual footprint is only about 2,000 k-coes per year (compared to the average American footprint of 28,000 k-coes!), that 130 really counts.

So it’s true that if you only read a few books a year and you purchase a brand new tablet or eReader primarily to replace paper books, you are probably pissing Mother Nature off. If you’re a heavy reader and/or already have a tablet or smartphone (or buy one used), however, the advantage is strongly on the side of eBooks.

To be responsible about this post, I need to bring it back in the end to the very solid point UCS brings up in their book (which I bought as an eBook and read on my 5-year-old Kindle Keyboard, by the way). The most important climate change choices and actions have to do with the biggest areas of emissions: travel, home heating and cooling, electricity, and food (in that order). In the grand scheme of things, books–e or otherwise–make only a small difference. Now that you know, though, why not make that difference in the right direction?

Measuring Carbon Footprint: Flawed, but Essential

footprints

I recently read Mike Berners-Lee’s excellent book How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everythingwhich uses detailed research and painstaking calculations to give realistic ideas of the carbon* footprint of many of the things we do in daily life. What’s the difference between buying asparagus and frozen peas? How does train travel compare to car travel? What’s the impact of a traffic jam? Berners-Lee answers these questions and many others.

One catch is that neither Berners-Lee nor anyone else can give exact numbers for any of these things. For example, the carbon footprint of eating a banana differs a whole lot depending on whether you’re buying it practically off the boat in Miami or from a grocery store in Topeka, Kansas because of the transportation element. The impact of driving a car depends not only on the kind of car, but also on its age, how long you plan to keep it, how well it’s maintained, how often you drive it, and many other factors.

Some of these complications are minor and can be ignored, but others are major. For example, you’d think that between clothing made from natural fibers and clothing made from polyester or other petroleum-based products, the natural fiber clothing would always be greener–but what about laundry? It turns out that washing and drying clothing can be a much bigger factor than the manufacture of the clothing in the first place, and a pair of jeans requires much more energy from a dryer (if you use one) than a pair of synthetic fabric pants.

An even worse complicating factor is that different sources disagree hugely on what the footprint of a particular item or activity really is, and most of these sources greatly underestimate the footprint. For instance, you may have heard statements about the carbon footprint of different vehicles, but in many cases those statements only cover the fuel consumption of the vehicle, and even then don’t take into account the infrastructure and supply chain necessary to deliver the fuel, but rather just what’s coming out of the tailpipe. Berners-Lee makes a special effort to be complete in this regard, but even he readily admits he is likely to be missing some factors in at least some cases.

This doesn’t mean that we have to nail down every last gram of impact and get some kind of complicated analysis of every little thing we do. It also doesn’t mean that because the answers can’t be exact most of the time, we should give up on counting carbon. It just suggests that the most useful approach is to understand carbon footprint numbers as guidelines and to make the best decisions we can based on those guidelines.

For example, it’s next to impossible to quantify exactly what the footprint of manufacturing and transporting a solar array is, or to know the potential footprint of the electricity the array replaces (though it’s often safe to assume it’s from coal, for reasons explained in the book). At the same time, it’s easy to see from even rough calculations that regardless of where these numbers land exactly, installing an effective solar array makes for a huge reduction in carbon footprint.

Annoyingly (to me, anyway), Berners-Lee is not much of a booster of solar power for reasons essentially unrelated to its carbon impact, and I think his analysis on that point is off-target. This is one of my many minor peeves about the book, yet on the whole it’s extremely useful. I hope to cover more of both its good and bad points in future posts. In the mean time, if you’re at all interested in understanding your personal impact on the climate–and everybody else’s, for that matter–may I suggest you buy the book?

*Like Berners-Lee and many other people who discuss the subject, I use the term “carbon footprint” as shorthand for “carbon dioxide equivalent,” which is to say the impact of all greenhouse gases, all of which can be calculated as being equivalent to a certain amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. While there are a variety of greenhouse gases, CO2 is the most abundant, though it’s not as damaging gram for gram as most of the others. Anyway, it’s unnecessarily complicated in most situations to talk about “carbon dioxide footprint, nitrous oxide footprint, methane footprint, and refrigerant footprint” and then to have to do a bunch of extra math from there when we can just use conversion factors and talk about “carbon dioxide equivalent.”

Photo by liknes

We’re Eating Oil–Literally

plastic_food

I came across a disturbing statistic today: ten to one. This was in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

It takes the equivalent of four hundred gallons of oil annually to feed an American, and that’s before packaging, refrigeration, and cooking. In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it consumed. Now, says Michael Pollan, “it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

I think I had actually read this once before and been disturbed by it then, but at the time I was still in blissful ignorance of how fast and how hard climate change would be coming down on us. Reading it this time was painful–but it also made clear an enormous opportunity. Look at this information from a 2009 sustainability report from NYU:

A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that, using our current system, three calories of energy were needed to create one calorie of edible food. And that was on average. Some foods take far more, for instance grain-fed beef, which requires thirty-five calories for every calorie of beef produced. What’s more, the John Hopkins study didn’t include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do estimate that it takes an average of 7 to 10 calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.

So that’s painfully depressing. It’s at least possible to imagine not driving a car everywhere and turning off extra lights, but how exactly do we survive without eating?

Fortunately, as I said, there’s a huge opportunity there–three, actually.

  1. Because most food production energy goes into transportation and packaging, eating local, minimally-packaged foods drastically reduces their negative environmental impact.
  2. The figures above are for mainly conventional farming methods. Sustainable methods have a much lower impact.
  3. Eating lower on the food chain (less red meat, more beans and veggies, etc.) also greatly reduces environmental impact.

I’m ridiculously relieved that there’s at least something I can do about this. We’re already following some of these practices, but it looks like this will be the first area of changes for our family, tentatively: going localvore, reducing packaging, and eating low on the food chain. We were going in the right direction, but we need to step our efforts way up. We can do that. Actually, practically everybody could do that. I wish everybody would–but I’d better start with myself.

Photo by C Jill Reed