A Plastic Bag Law In Marbletown?

An op-ed I wrote for some local papers.

Marbletown will consider a  ban on plastic bags in June.  

The need is clear. When well-intentioned people recycle plastic bags along with other plastics, the bags snag on recycling equipment.  Then the system must stop periodically and bags are removed by hand.  Bags also clog storm drains and sewage systems, where they must be manually removed before they cause backups and flooding.

The environment suffers, too.  Thin plastic bags become airborne, entering the environment unintentionally. In trees and along roads, they are ugly, entangle animals, and are mistaken for food by fish and birds.

International Bag Reduction Movement:  

An international movement to ban single use plastic bags has been gathering momentum.  Bangladesh passed the first country-wide bag ban in 2002.  Laws are in place in China, Ireland, Wales, Italy, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali, Rwanda, South Africa, Pakistan, and the Philippines.  In the US, bag laws are widespread among cities, towns, and counties.  

In New York State, 12 municipalities have adopted bag bans, including the Village of New Paltz in 2014.  Four municipalities, including New York City, have introduced bag fees.  In February, NYC’s law was suspended by the New York State legislature in response to plastics industry lobbying.

New York State Task Force

Governor Cuomo announced a “statewide task force… addressing the plastic bag problem” when he signed the law reversing NYC’s fee.  One task force member is Michael Rosen, President & CEO of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State (FIA). In 2015, FIA sued the Village of Hastings-on-Hudson over its plastic bag ban.

With lobbyists like Rosen on the state task force, it’s easy to assume that the effort will lead nowhere. The FIA opposes plastic bag bans because retailers end up paying more, but it supports bag fees, which save retailers money.

Paper or Plastic–Or Bring Your Own?

Single use plastic carryout bags cost retailers between 1 and 2 cents each.  When they are banned, most shoppers opt for paper bags, which cost between 8 and 15 cents each.  Obviously, it costs much more for store owners to give away paper bags than plastic.  Double-bagging adds to these costs, and shoppers pay in higher grocery prices.

Some shoppers may be willing to pay more for paper bags in order to keep plastic bags out of the environment.  But banning plastic bags doesn’t have to result in higher costs due to increased paper bag use.  The only win-win is when shoppers bring their own bags.  Some will do it for the environment, but as long as checkout bags are given away, most people will take this easy option.

Bag Fees

Retailers in Chicago responded to that city’s 2016 bag ban by substituting slightly thicker plastic bags that aren’t covered by the bag ban.  These qualified as “reusable” under the law, and were given away for free–but they cost stores more than thin bags.  This led to both higher costs for stores and more plastic waste.  Thus the law didn’t accomplish its environmental goal, and it hurt businesses.  In response, Chicago instituted a 7 cent tax (5 cents kept by the retailer) which eliminated the problem by inspiring shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.

Fees are remarkably effective at encouraging the adoption of reusable bags.  A 5 cent fee reduces plastic and paper bag use by 60% to 90%. Reports show that giving cash back for bringing reusable bags is largely ineffective.  Fees work; cash back doesn’t.

New Paltz

Said Zadeh, the owner of My Market in the Village of New Paltz’s, supports Village’s plastic bag ban, but thinks it should have applied to the Town as well as the Village. Since the ban passed, he has seen a slight increase in the use of reusable bags, but a large increase in paper. He also sells (or gives away) 50 cent thick plastic bags and $2 cloth bags.  He has never seen people bring them back to reuse them.

If you want people to bring reusable bags, Said says, you have to teach them young, or “maybe charge a fee.”

Local Action

With little prospect of action by New York State, localities need to act first. Marbletown’s proposed ban is one more step in this direction. Local retailers are concerned that even a small fee might drive shoppers elsewhere.  That’s why Marbletown’s law has a built-in periodic review, which will make sure it accomplishes its intended environmental purpose while not harming businesses.

We hope this law will spur Ulster County, and eventually the state, to act. You can help by making sure your representatives understand the problem and what they can do to fix it.

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My current non-energy project…

 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                          May 31st, 2016

Marbletown Environmental Conservation Commission (ECC) Tackles the Problem of Plastic Checkout Bags With Film Screening and Workshop, Hopes To Catalyze County-wide Action

CONTACT:  

  • Tom Konrad, Ph.D., 845 687-7210, 
  • Tracey A. Bartels,  845 255-0804,
  • Jordan Christensen, 516 390-7150, 

The film Bag It: is your life too plastic? will answer the questions most people have about plastic bags and help bring the problem into focus.  The workshop will build on this foundation.  The events are part of TRASH FEST, a free arts-and-waste reduction festival in June in Marbletown.  See Trash Fest Ulster on Facebook for more details.

Where: Marbletown Community Center, 3564 Main St, Stone Ridge

When: Wednesday, June 15th and Wednesday June 22nd, 6:30-8:30pm.

Who Should Attend: Marbletown shoppers, retailers and residents

How to get tickets: The events are free and open to the public

The purpose of these events are to build consensus around the best way for Marbletown to tackle the problem of plastic bags.

Bag It follows “everyman” Jeb Berrier as he tries to make sense of our dependence on plastic bags.  Although his quest starts out small, Jeb soon learns that the problem extends past landfills to oceans, rivers and ultimately human health.  The average American uses about 500 plastic bags each year, for about twelve minutes each.

Free popcorn and filtered water will be served at the event.  Attendees are encouraged to bring their own bowls and drink holders to cut down on waste.

The Bag Legislation Workshop will bring together Marbletown retailers, shoppers and officials to build consensus on how to tackle the problem of plastic bag waste in Marbletown and beyond.  The event will begin with background information from plastic bag legislation expert Jordan Christiansen of Citizens Campaign for the Environment and Ulster County Legislator Tracey Bartels on checkout bag legislation.  

Participants will be asked about their goals and concerns about possible retail checkout bag legislation in Marbletown.  Legislative alternatives will be judged by how well they address these goals and concerns.

The Chair of Marbletown’s Environmental Conservation Commission, Tom Konrad, Ph.D., CFA said, “Passing effective checkout bag legislation in Marbletown will improve our Town’s scenery by reducing plastic bag litter, cut costs for retailers, the town’s transfer station and the highway department, as well as set an important example for Ulster County and New York legislators.”

More info: Bag It:  http://www.bagitmovie.com/press_kit.html

                 TRASH FEST: https://www.facebook.com/TRASH-FEST-Ulster-484856678376272/

The Marbletown Environmental Conservation Commission (ECC) is a commission to the Marbletown Town Board, advising the Board in the development, management and protection of the natural resources and environment of the Town of Marbletown, and promotes community awareness and raises the visibility of such issues and activities.   http://bit.ly/MarbletownECC

TRASH FEST is a series of art-made-of-trash exhibitions and public education events in Marbletown, Ulster County, NY in June 2016.  http://bit.ly/TRASHFEST

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Why The Whitehouse Diaper Plan Stinks

The Whitehouse launched a new initiative to tackle the “Diaper Divide” today.

The goal is commendable (making diapers affordable to all) but the approach runs contrary to Obama’s environmental goals.

Instead, the focus should be on affordable and accessible cleaning services for reusable diapers, as well as reusable diaper loan programs. Most sources agree that there are significant cost savings for reuasables, and these would be increased if the (cleaned and sterilized) diapers were passed on to younger babies as the older ones grow out of them.

While there is some debate about the climate impacts of reusable vs disposable diapers, this case for disposables hinges on the assumption that washing diapers is done in inefficient home washing machines. Centralized, commercial cleaning of reusable diapers could easily make it a win for reusables.

While there are likely to be many places without the baby density to make this sort of central reusable diaper ‘library’ practical, at least in dense cities, this approach should be preferentially pursued. Since large cities almost all have problems finding space for municipal waste disposal, this scheme would have the added benefit of helping to tackle the problem of municipal waste disposal.

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Beyond the Clothesline – Five more tips for efficient clothes drying.

It seems like “using a clothesline” makes every top-10 list of energy saving measures you can make at home.  But clotheslines are lousy at getting out wrinkles, and in humid climates often give clothes a chance to mildew.

If and when you use a dryer, there are a few things you can do to use as little energy as possible.  I found these in the study “Are We Missing Energy Savings in Clothes Dryers?” by Paul Bendt of Ecos, which was part of ACEEE’s 2010 Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings.

  1. A natural gas dryer is cheaper to operate and has lower environmental impacts than an electric dryer.   (Note: this assumes an average electricity mix – if most of your electricity is renewable, you’ll likely have lower impact with an electric dryer- but it still won’t be cheaper.)
  2. High washer spin speeds are more efficient than evaporating the water in the dryer.
  3. Drying full loads is more efficient than a larger number of partial loads.
  4. A “low heat” setting is more efficient than higher heat settings (I had a hunch that this was true, and found the study with a little Googling to find out if my hunch was correct.)
  5. A “less dry” setting is more efficient than “normal” or “more dry

One frequent tip that doesn’t work:

  • Cleaning the lint trap has little effect on energy use, although it does speed drying time.

Now you know what I’m doing with my Easter Sunday afternoon… maybe I’ll celebrate Earth Day by enjoying the just-arrived spring with a clothesline.

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Electric Trucks, Renewable MLPs, and Heat Pumps

A few more of my pieces have run on EarthWise, a 2 minute radio program on WAMC radio in the Northeast.  Here are links:

All are read by the Cary Institute’s Bill Schlesinger.

I got involved with this by volunteering with the Institute.  If you’re near Millbrook, NY, the Cary Institute has regular free lectures on the science of the environment that are well worth attending.  But make sure to get there early- not only for free cookies and coffee, but because they tend to fill up pretty quickly.

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Peak Oil on the Radio

peak_oil2[1]Another EarthWise piece I wrote aired on WAMC Wednesday.  This one was a very basic introduction to the concept of Peak Oil, which is pretty much what it had to be, since it was a 2-minute piece for a general radio audience which might not have even heard of peak oil.

You can listen to it or read the full text here:

What Do We Mean By Peak Oil?

If you’d like something with a bit more meat, check out my in-depth look at the economic implications of Peak Oil, The End Of Elastic Oil.

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The Elasticity of Electricity Demand

In an attempt to rebut economist Ed Dolan’s support of a carbon tax, I came across a RAND Study done for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which estimasted the short term elasticity of residential electricity demand at -0.2 and the long run elasticity of demand a -0.32.

This is a very inelastic market ( |elasticity| << 1 ), and so supports my argument that regulation is likely to be the most economically efficient approach to reducing residential electricity use.

Dolan compiled some numbers that put long run elasticity of gasoline demand at around 0.5, which also implies that regulation has a role to play in reducing gas usage, although it’s high enough that carbon taxes are also likely to be somewhat effective; a combination seems the best approach to me.

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Making Carbon Pricing Work Better

When it comes to the most economically efficient way to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions(GHG), the economic consensus is that a carbon tax, or, failing that, a carbon trading scheme is the best way to go. The idea is that a price for carbon will raise the cost of carbon-producing activities, nudging people and companies towards less harmful behavior.

I have a problem with this line of reasoning, since it rests on the false assumption that price signals are the most effective way to change behavior. That’s true is an economist’s ideal efficient market, but a moment’s reflection shows that the markets we want to affect are far from efficient.

Electric utilities are regulated entities, and hence insulated from market forces. Consumers don’t respond well to price signals either, because most don’t understand where they are wasting energy. If they did, there would be a run on caulk to air seal homes, since the payback from air-sealing can be a matter of weeks. If a 1000% annual return from air sealing is not enough to get people to spend a little time with a caulk gun, is increasing the return to 1200% with a carbon tax really going to make a difference?

Compact fluorescent bulbs are another excellent example of how the energy market often fails to be efficient. The payback on CFLs is usually on the order of months, but uptake was very slow until recently, now that higher wattage incandescent bulbs are being phased out. By regulation.

The adoption of CFLs is a concrete example where the most economically efficient outcome is being achieved by regulation, after years of failure by market forces.

I had just finished making the above case to an economist at a mixer at The Cary Institute in Millbrook, NY when I was asked to write for a public radio program sponsored by the Institute.  Earth Wise logo I had been talking to the Institute’s volunteer coordinator about opportunities that make use of my skills, and she hit on helping them write some segments for Earth Wise, a daily 2 minute radio program on WAMC.

So I went home and wrote up my ideas, outlined above, on carbon pricing.  The first draft did not work for them, since they had aired a program in favor of a carbon tax, so I re-wrote it with a focus on making carbon pricing more effective by making the energy market more efficient.   The result aired on July 3rd, and you can listen to it or read it here: http://wamcradio.org/EarthWise/?p=2668.

With only two minutes, it’s an interesting exercise of packing my ideas into just 280 words, especially considering that for me, 600 words is what I consider a short peice, and it’s not unusual for me to write several thousand.

For future episodes, I plan to tackle less complex subjects.

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Adding a Programmable Thermostat to Mitsubishi Mr. Slim Heat Pumps

As part of an ongoing energy upgrade of my 1930 home, I had four Mitsubishi Mr. Slim mini-split heat pumps installed (three MUZ/MSZFE09NA 9000 BTU units, and one MUZ/MSZ12NA 12,000 BTU unit.)

If price had been no object, I probably would have gone for Waterfurnace’s (TSX:WFI/OTC:WFIFF) Series 7 or Climatemaster’s Trilogy ground source heat pumps,  but my home’s existing heating is an oil boiler and radiators, and the Series 7 would require installing air ducts throughout the house.  The mini splits have the advantage that the refrigerant lines can run up the outside of the house, making them much easier to retrofit.

The geothermal systems I was quoted would have cost $50,000 to $60,000 (minus a $500 rebate from my utility), while the mini-splits cost $15,500 (minus a $2000 rebate.)

Because I’m also doing extensive insulation and air sealing, my heating bill is only about $2000 a year, even using oil at over $4 a gallon.  After using the air source heat pumps for two months, I expect these mini splits will approximately halve that.  The geothermal system would have done better, but even if it cut my heating bill by an impossible 100%, it would have taken 25 years to pay back my investment.  The mini-splits will have an estimated payback of about 13 years, which is not great, but both they and the geothermal system have the added advantage of giving me efficient air conditioning in a home that did not previously have it.  In New York’s Hudson Valley where I live, A/C is only useful for about 1 month a year, but it’s sure nice to have during that hot and sticky month!

In any case, I’m happy with the mini splits except for one thing: they have very limited programability, something I did not realize before I had them installed.  The best you can do with the included remote controller is set them to turn on and off once each during a given 24 hour period, and you have to manually set this up every day to use them that way.

There is an available programmable thermostat (Mitsubishi kit MHK1), but it is intended to be installed with the heat pumps, not after the fact.  My HVAC contractor offered to install them anyway, but he wanted $350 each, or a total of $1,400 for all four.  That’s not unreasonable, since the MHK1 retails for  $243, but it was more than I was ready to pay.

Since he told me he would have to figure out how to do the install from the documentation, and I had seen him struggling with the translated-from-Japanese when he was trying to figure out what was wrong with one of the units when it was first installed.  (It turns out two of the wires were reversed.)   I’m decent at that sort of thing, so I decided to give it a go myself.

There was one point where the documentation was completely unhelpful.  I figured it out eventually, but the rest of this post should save you a lot of trouble if you’re trying to do the same thing.

Installing Mitsubishi Programmable Thermostat Kit MHK1 on Mr. Slim Heat Pumps

  • Tools needed: Phillips screwdriver
  • Time required: 15 min (experienced) to 1 hour (first time).

Manual

Not only does the manual say to install the data cable before the heat pump is installed, there is no information about where the “CN105” connector on the control board is to be found, or even where the control board is.  None of the documentation I found online was any more helpful.  Eventually, I figured out where the control board and CN105 connector were, and how to get to them.  Here’s how:

Turn off the power to your heat pump at the circuit breaker.

Remove the horizontal vanes

Remove the horizontal vanes

remove screw covers

remove screw covers

Covers removed... screw locations circled

Covers removed… screw locations circled

After 2 screws holding the unit cover are in place, the cover can be removed by pressing in around the edges, and popping it off.

When the cover is removed, the bar containing the i-see and indicator lights may swing down.

When the cover is removed, the bar containing the i-See and indicator lights may swing down.

Don't panic, just hang it back on the two plastic hooks like the one shown here

Don’t panic, just hang it back on the two plastic hooks like the one shown here

Now remove the Emergency operation switch by pressing on the tab shown here

Now remove the Emergency Operation switch by pressing on the tab shown here

You can now remove the screw that holds the control board cover

You can now remove the screw that holds the control board cover and remove the cover to access the board.

These wires, too.

You’ll need to disconnect this wire to slide out the control board.

SONY DSC

This wire, too.

Now you can gently slide out the control board and connect to the CN105 port, shown here.

Now you can gently slide out the control board and connect the control wire to the CN105 port, shown here, circled.  It’s located in the bottom back corner of the control board.

You’ll want to snake the control wire through the unit so that it’s hidden when everything is installed.   Make sure you’ve left plenty of slack on the control wire, so it does not pull off when you put the control board back.

Now you can reverse the above process to put everything back where you found it.

You can now connect the wireless receiver, and proceed as described in the installation guide.

You can now connect the wireless receiver, and proceed as described in the installation guide.

The rest of the manual was no harder to follow than these things usually are.

It took me a few hours to figure this out… hope I can save a few readers the aggravation.

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How to Get a Free Energy Assessment on a Home Before You Move In

Image TK note: I get a lot of submissions for guest articles at AltenergyStocks.com, most of which are off-topic (like this one.)  But this one from Whitefence Savings was a subject I’m interested in- understanding the energy use of a home before you buy, so I thought I’d post it here.

I paid for an energy audit of my home before I moved in, but was not able to get a free one… my utility required having an established account, and the current home owners had moved out a year before and were in bankruptcy.  The audits are inexpensive anyway… the most useful part for me was the infrared audit, although you should note that such audits work best when the house is being heated in winter or air conditioned in summer.

Walking through a house a few times while you’re thinking about making an offer on it will give you an idea of how much you like the house, but not an accurate estimate regarding its energy usage. You might notice the occasional drafty door or a window that needs sealing, but there’s no way to tell just how well-insulated or efficient a home is during a walkthrough. Have no fear! There is a way to eliminate unpleasant surprises regarding efficiency before it’s too late: get a free energy assessment on the home before you take the plunge into buying it.

Contact the Local Utility Company

The local utility company probably gives free assessments to its customers, or at least an average usage for the last calendar year or so. Though you are not their customer yet, the people currently living in the house are and will have access to that information. You would need to set up a time with the current owners for the assessment anyway, so you may as well see if they would be willing to speak with the utility company to have a free assessment done. From there they can share the results or allow you to be part of the process.

Schedule an Assessment with Energy Service Corps

Energy Service Corps is a group that has an overall goal of saving energy, saving the environment and saving you money. This is a great free option because they not only come out and assess the energy efficiency of your home, but they’ll also seal cracks around windows and doors to block drafts, change out your older bulbs for energy-saving models and make other small adjustments that will lower the cost of your utilities right away. As part of the assessment, they will give suggestions on other changes you should make to see greater improvements in energy efficiency. However, you should be aware they are limited in where they can go to provide their services.

Do It Yourself

You can do some informal assessments yourself. Ask the current homeowner about their energy usage, or call their utility company for an average use from the previous year. Keep in mind, this method will not tell you what areas of the house need updating or changing in order to create a more energy-efficient environment. Some ways you can assess the energy levels yourself is to feel along the walls for cool patches to determine where more insulation is needed. Along those same lines, feel along the windows and door frames and note where leaks are. Another thing you can do is peek into the attic to see about the state of the insulation. If it’s on the skimpy side, put that on a list of things that would need updating. If the basement is unfinished, check to see if the ceiling has any insulation which will impede the coolness of the basement from seeping up through the floors of your main level rooms. After your self-assessment is finished, you can determine if you need to hire a professional to determine if there are larger issues or be satisfied with your findings.

[ED note: Also see my own checklist for a DIY Energy Audit]

Know Why an Energy Assessment is a Good Idea

Before you move into a home, you’ll want to get an energy assessment so you can either know what improvements you’d like the owners to make as part of your offer on the house, or so you know what changes you’ll want to make once you do move in. Some things that are more serious, such as needing to replace windows and siding, may be more convenient if they’re completed before you start moving. Other, less pressing items such as caulking your windows or adding insulation to your attic, can probably wait until after you’ve purchased the house and moved in. Updating your home in small ways can lower your electric bills year round and impact the environment by lowering it’s carbon footprint.

Learn What Assessors Will Look For

Some assessors do tests to see how air-tight your home is. They mark where air leaks through, and can tell you the best way to eliminate those leaks. Others may do what is called a thermographic inspection that will measure the temperature levels along the walls of your home. This can be done indoors or outdoors depending, depending upon the season.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that, in order to increase the efficiency of the home and lower your energy bills, you must make the changes suggested by the assessor. Most changes that can be made to lower bills are relatively affordable and easy to do on your own. Don’t consider a house to be a lost cause just because it is not currently living up to it’s full potential in terms of efficiency, as you may be able to make small adjustments that have a big impact overall.

Resources:
http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=home_improvement.hm_improvement_au…
http://environment.about.com/od/greenlivinginyourhome/a/energy_audit.htm

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How a Storm Can Help Your Home’s Energy Efficiency

I was fortunate last night here in New York’s Hudson River Valley, unlike many neighbors who lost power, and the people in NYC and New Jersey who had to deal with an unprecedented storm surge of 13.88 feet and winds (video) which NYC utility Con Edison says caused the largest power outage in the company’s history.

While the high winds around me last night were causing power outages and worse damage, I was going around with a screwdriver and outlet cover gaskets to stop the air leaks which I could easily feel with my bare hands.

It was also a good way to keep my mind off the storm.

Sealing electrical outlets and switchplates  is one of the cheapest and most effective measures you can take to improve your home’s energy efficiency, as cost-effective as CFLs, with the added bonus that it makes your house less drafty.

Sure, it’s better to simply have the whole house spray foamed, as I recently did in my basement (see pic) , but that is a big job, and usually requires existing insulation to be removed.

These walls have been foamed, and the workers are in the process of shaving off the excess that extends beyond the studs.

My house, which was built in 1930, has an old urea-formaldehyde based foam insulation in the walls which was probably installed in the 60s or 70s.  The product was banned in 1982.

Over time, that foam shrunk and now does little to prevent air movement in the walls, and I can only replace it by tearing the walls open.

Formaldehyde based foam revealed during bathroom renovation

Hence, I’m taking smaller steps with air sealing.

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How Not to Publicize Net Zero Homes

I received this photo as part of a press release from Nexus Energyhomes,  which builds net zero homes, and is doing a groundbreaking on a community near Charleston, NC which will combine solar and geothermal to produce zero energy homes.

All well and good, but did they really have to go with a rendering of a home where both the house and a tree will be shading the solar panels on the garage for several hours in the morning?

Perhaps the graphic designers should spend a little more time talking to the architects.

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New York’s Energy Highway: Public Comment until July 31

In his 2012 State of the State address, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo put forward an initiative to upgrade and modernize New York State’s electric power system.  The goal is to systematically plan new electricity generation and transmission in the state with all the relevant government agencies and private developers at the table.

The first stage of the proposal was a request for information about proposed generation and transmission from developers, utilities, and interest groups.  These responses are in, and are shown on these maps:

NY Energy Highway Transmission

Ny Energy Highway Generation Map

The Energy Highway taskforce will be taking comments from the public on these proposals until July 31, and issue an action plan based on all the information received sometime this fall.

More information is available at the NY Energy Highway website.

You can submit comments here.

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Pink Slime is Green

I’m getting tired of the knee-jerk reactions to all the pink slime controversy from the environmental establishment. Like this one, which spured this article.

I totally agree that pink slime is gross, but so is digging through your trash for recyclables, toilet-to-tap water recycling. But both are very green.

Likewise, industrial processes like CAFOs and pink slime are not all bad- the good and the bad have to be carefully weighed… we should not dismiss one side just because it is gross.

Grass-fed cows produce more methane per pound of beef than CAFO cattle (because the latter gain weight faster.)

And “pink slime” is a way to use parts of the cow which would otherwise be thrown away. If we use 15% pink slime as a filler in our hamburger, we reduce the environmental impact of that hamburger by approximately 15% (as something which would otherwise be waste, pink slime has no negative environmental impact, except for that caused by processing it, and has some positive impact because it’s not rotting and producing methane in a landfill somewhere.

Pink slime is an environmental innovation. It only started being gross when we started talking about it. So do the planet a favor, and stop worrying about what’s in your burger.

Unless you’re ready to give up the burger altogether.

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Seeking Alpha: How To Encourage Thinking Inside the Box

Seeking Alpha (SA) has long been a good website aggregating content about stocks from around the web, and they’ve come up with some useful innovations, such as paying authors for original content (1 cent per page view). The money isn’t great, but I know of at least one seasoned writer (Dana Blankenhorn) who is actually making a decent living on it… and I was the one who told him about the opportunity.

SA has been republishing about 2/3 of my content since 2007 – a little over 300 articles so far, although I have not participated in the exclusive content program, for two reasons. First, because my other blogs (AltEnergyStocks.com and Forbes.com) pay more (although still not much) and they don’t say that I can’t republish elsewhere afterwards.

Part of the reason they pay more is because Seeking Alpha is set up to favor conventional, easy-to-categorize content: About two years ago, they changed their categorization system to only include the traditional industry groups: Utilities, Consumer Goods, Etc. In the process, they eliminated the category Alternative Energy. Now, writers who focus on one traditional sector such as IT tend to be featured more prominently on the website.

My articles, on the other hand, are about green investing, a cross-cutting theme if there ever was one. Much of the time, they do not get categorized at all.

To be fair, I’ve talked to Eli Hoffman, who owns the site, and several other employees about this several times over the last few years. They are aware of the problem, and agree that it needs to be fixed, but they certainly have not made it a priority. Which is weird, since the claim that the main purpose of their site is to help people be better investors.

Since when did promoting conventional thinking make anyone a better investor?

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Bill Konrad 1930-2011

May father died on December 7th, and I just published his obituary on Forbes: http://onforb.es/BillKonrad. As a life-long investor and IT CEO, I think it would have pleased him to have it published there.

Interviewing his friends and family in the process of writing it was a great help in coming to terms with losing him, as was this shorter poem I read at his memorial ceremony:

Dad could be a little prickly and hard to know at times,
just like the cacti you see around you here,
at his favorite spot,
overlooking the Pacific ocean.

I believe he loved them because he saw a parallel between them and himself.
That parallel was not the unexpected beauty of their blooms,
a trait he never would have admitted to in himself…
But I think that was just his needles talking.

Instead, I think he valued their ability to thrive in adverse conditions.
Above all, he loved to watch them grow,
To see what unique forms they would take on.

Just recently he told me that, when he was young, he was somewhat sickly.
Against the odds, he did thrive.

Dad was a risk-taker, but not a gambler.
He did everything he could to stack the odds in his favor.
With his health, he exercised religiously, and kept careful track of everything he could,
from his pulse rate to the most recent medical research.

In the stock market, he would place big bets on individual companies,
but only when he knew everything he could about those companies.
He made his first million before he was thirty because he saw the emergence of of a new electronics industry long before most other investors.

His diligence continued to pay off even when he was 70,
When he won his age division in the Big Sur marathon.

Dad was a great role model.
He set goals for himself, and he succeeded at them.
One of his goals and successes was to be a great father.

I love you, Dad.

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Wood gas conversion of pickups

Biofuels Digest brings us the story of Wayne Keith and his wood-syngas conversion for pickups (I get the feeling he uses mostly pickups because you can use the truck bed as you “gas tank.”

I think this option has a lot going for it. The biggest barrier to cellulosic biofuels in my mind is the dispersed nature of the resource… it’s difficult to gather it op in one place to convert it efficiently into fuel. So if the conversion is done in the vehicle, the dispersed nature of (especially rural vehicles) is a much better match for the dispersed nature of the resource.

Gasification is not a good option for urban vehicles (since the resource is relatively scarce there, although much garbage works in these trucks), but it seems an elegant solution for utilizing the large volume of diverse biomass that would never be collected by commercial operations because it is both to dispersed and varied.

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Mathemagic

I just found out my college Probability and Statistics professor was on the Colbert Report last year. Apparently he’s the only mathematician to ever have been on the show.

Watch the video below for a sample Art Benjamin’s unique mathemagic (and Colbert’s four-standard-deviation humor)… and don’t worry, there won’t be a pop quiz after the episode.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Arthur Benjamin
www.colbertnation.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:262614
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

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The One Alternative Energy Sure Thing?

It looks like Tom Gardiner at Motley Fool is pushing one of my current favorite stocks, Ameresco (AMRC). The Stock Gumshoe deciphered the clues here, giving my Forbes blog about Ameresco a link.

A appreciate the Gumshoe for his dry sense of humor and ability to deflate the hype newsletter promoters are always trying to drum up. Not that I mind when those propmoters are pushing a stock I already own a substantial chunk of!

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Small is Beautiful

My recent Forbes article Cheap Photovoltaics Are Eating Solar Thermal’s Lunch about how the rapidly falling price for photvoltaic (PV) modules is undermining the case for concentrated Solar Thermal Power (CSP) is just one instance in a larger trend: In the modern energy economy, modular technologies advance more rapidly than large scale technologies because it is easier to get experience with them in the field at reasonable cost.

PV started with sub-watt sized cells in solar powered calculators. Solar calculators may not seem to have much to do with today’s multiple hundreds of megawatt (MW) sized plants which can be a billion times larger than a solar calculator, but the manufacturing experience with those tiny cells allowed manufacturers to bring costs down to the point where kilowatt sized systems started to be used on off-grid homes, which in turn brought down the price enough to allow subsidies to make solar affordable for most homeowners, and 1-2 MW commercial plants, and now we’re seeing announcements of solar farms approaching a gigawatt.

CSP, on the other hand, only starts to make sense at around 100 MW, so building each new plant represents a much bigger financial commitment than even a million calculators. Looked at this way, PV’s potential eclipse of CSP perhaps should have not been all that surprising. But hindsight is 20-20.

This also has implications for the advance of other energy technologies. Look for the modular technologies to gain ground at the expense of the industrial scale technologies.

Modular technologies

  • PV
  • Wind
  • Gas Turbines
  • Land Fill Gas
  • Grid based battery storage
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Smart Grid / Demand Response
  • Fuel Cells

Industrial Scale Technologies

  • CSP
  • Coal
  • Nuclear
  • Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC)
  • Geothermal Power (sometimes small scale, but limited places it can be built)
  • Compressed Air energy Storage
  • Pumped Hydro
  • Flow Batteries

That’s just a few energy technologies off the top of my head, and I’m not trying to say that modular technologies will always win out over industrial scale technologies. But I am saying that price per kWh is not everything… sometimes small scale leading high prices per unit of energy but low prices for individual systems can allow a rapid evolution to lower prices per kWh. We’ve certainly seen that in Solar.

What’s next? LEDs were also able to develop rapidly because they were useful in a large number of specialized niches, such as indicator lights on electronics) despite the high initial cost per lumen.

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