Monday, December 29, 2008

Passive Energy Design Attracts Interest


At the very top of the popularity list of e-mailed articles at the New York Times three days afters its initial posting, No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in 'Passive Houses' is an instructive lesson in solving energy problems in a non-traditional way. Journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal describes an innovative approach to building design, focusing on the "passive house" of a German family that maintains comfortable temperatures throughout the winter even though it has no furnace. The trick? Ultrathick insulation, a unique ventilation system, and similar design advances that essentially recycle heating.

It's a technique that has been tried, but was marked by failure in the past.

Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold. But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency.

“The myth before was that to be warm you had to have heating. Our goal is to create a warm house without energy demand,” said Wolfgang Hasper, an engineer at the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt. “This is not about wearing thick pullovers, turning the thermostat down and putting up with drafts. It’s about being comfortable with less energy input, and we do this by recycling heating.”

There are now an estimated 15,000 passive houses around the world, the vast majority built in the past few years in German-speaking countries or Scandinavia.

This isn't an approach that I hear discussed often in the U.S., which is perhaps why there was such a tremendous amount of interest in the article at the New York Times. Unlike other forms of alternative energy at the residential level, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars to deploy, passive houses in Germany cost approximately 5 to 7 percent more to build than a conventional home. This technique definitely bears more investigation. Sometimes the solutions to the most vexing energy problems are right before us, but overlooked in the rush toward flashier, higher technology solutions.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

John Holdren as Science Advisor

In an encouraging move that speaks to the need for aggressively confronting worldwide climate disruption, President-elect Barack Obama has chosen John P. Holdren as his science advisor. Holdren is a specialist in global climate change, energy policy, and nuclear arms control, and serves as professor of environmental policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. In the following video and accompanying McLatchy Newspaper article, Holdren talks about sensible climate policy, the problem with the term "global warming", and the need for firm emission-reduction guidelines.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Problem with Cows


In an American Prospect article, Are Cows Worse Than Cars?, Ben Adler asks whether our dining decisions are as important as our mode of transportation and our heating fuel when it comes to reversing climate change. Animal agriculture has profound consequences environmentally, but the defensiveness of meat eaters makes the issue almost impossible to discuss in a rational way.

Perhaps even more so than cars, meat is deeply embedded in American culture. Apple pie may be the quintessential American food, but McDonald's hamburgers aren't far behind. We carve turkey on Thanksgiving and host Fourth of July barbeques. Without meat, how do you know it's a meal? To most Americans, veggies and tofu are a laughable substitute. "It was a reaction to the '60s hippie cooking that gave this important idea of vegetarianism a bad name," says Alice Waters, the chef and author who is widely credited with creating the organic-food revolution. Environmentalists, who know they must change the stereotype that they are all either tree-hugging radicals or self-righteous scolds, may be reluctant to embrace vegetarianism because of those easily caricatured cultural connotations.

Choosing what to eat is among the most personal of decisions , but unfortunately it's a decision made by most with a complete disregard for the consequences of animal agriculture.

"I think it's amazing that even the greenest of green liberal environment activists, the vast majority of them tend to consume meat at the same rate as people who think global warming is a hoax," says Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "Meat consumption seems to be the last thing that progressive people address in their lifestyle. If I had a nickel for every global warming conference that had roast beef on the menu, I'd be rich."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dr. Chu Proposes Clean Energy Solutions

Dr. Steven Chu, under consideration as Energy Secretary in the Obama administration, offered his thoughts on clean energy paths during a speech at the National Energy Summit in early December. He places a premium on energy efficiency and cites "existence proofs" demonstrating ways we can reduce energy use without reducing our national wealth. His keen awareness of the dire threat posed by climate change and understanding of the breakthrough technologies that offer our best bet for handling future energy requirements may lead us in a more promising direction--if he is appointed...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Algae Power

Originally uploaded by lyle58

It grows almost anywhere, produces biofuel of high enough quality to power jet planes, and doesn't raise the cost of the food on anyone's dinner table. As reported in a story from McClatchy News, "Go green: Algae could be the next hot biofuel," many aerospace companies and airlines are betting on a future where flying machines can essentially be propelled by pond scum refined in a bioreactor.

Getting serious attention and support for algae as a biofuel, a role played by the Algal Biomass Organization, will be an uphill struggle. Their high-profile membership role includes Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic, and Boeing, but lobbyists for other forms of biofuel have a large head start in this realm.

"We are up against formidable opposition from competing interests," Jason Pyle, the chief executive of Sapphire Energy, said of resistance from ethanol and biodiesel groups during an algae industry meeting in Seattle earlier this fall.

Sapphire, a San Diego company, already has made a type of gasoline using algae that meets fuel quality standards, is compatible with current gasoline-manufacturing infrastructure and achieved a 91 octane rating.

Pyle said that current policy favored such alternative fuels as corn for ethanol or soybeans for biodiesel and provided only limited assistance to algae-related products. He said that one of the top priorities for the new Congress and the Obama administration in their first 100 days would be to write a comprehensive energy bill. Pyle said it was crucial that the algae industry make its presence known.

The article also notes that besides algae, jatropha (a bush well adapted to arid climates) shows much promise. Virgin Atlantic has already flown a 747 from London to Amsterdam on a fuel mixture made from jatropha.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Prospects for the Future of Electric Cars


As the Big Three automakers in the U.S. try to hash out a financial deal with Congress to stay afloat, the Electric Drive Transportaton Association held their annual conference. The question on the lips of many attendees was: "Could electric cars charge up struggling automakers?" McClatchy Newspapers talked with Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, who summarized the current prospects for an aggressive approach to electric car manufacturing.

"We've proven the concept. We've had a lot of product announcements. The question now is how do we get the volume up fast," Wynne said. "And the faster we can get to volume and start greening that fleet, the quicker we get to benefits that are captured — oil displacement, reduction of greenhouse gases and enhanced economic well-being — stop flowing money overseas, for example, and start investing in jobs here."

A number of the utility companies that are members of the association are exploring scenarios that could support the use of greater numbers of electric cars without requiring the building of additional powerplants, including PG&E of California.

PG&E in California also wants to see more electric vehicles run on wind power, said Jill Egbert, who manages its clean transportation section. With "smart charging," the utility could provide incentives to owners to charge their cars at off-peak times.

What's more, the utility could make arrangements with customers so that when there's a need for power, it could automatically stop their car battery recharging for a time — without harm to the battery — and resume it later so that the car would still be ready in the morning. That way, the utility could avoid building more power plants, Egbert said.

Consumers have demonstrated a strong desire for electric cars and many localities and setting up the infrastructure to support them. Now is the time for the government to help solve the most critical problem, the battery technology. The bailout terms should include strong incentives to kick start the promising transition toward oil-free transportation.