Monday, February 23, 2009

Diet and Carbon Footprints

Children gathering potatoes on a large farm, vicinity of Caribou, Aroostook County, Me. Schools do not open until the potatoes are harvested (LOC)
Originally uploaded by The Library of Congress

The agroindustrial machinery (as Julia Whitty calls it in her article, Diet for a Warm Planet) currently in place around the world is a major contributing factor to carbon emissions. Changing what we put on our plate and thinking more carefully about how we produce and distribute food could go a long way toward curbing global warming.

Simply eating less could have a positive impact on reducing carbon emissions, Julia noted.

Seriously. Body fat. My personal flab is not just a private matter between me and my coronary arteries. Nineteen percent of US energy usage—about as much as is used to fuel our cars—is spent growing and delivering food to the average American who consumes 2,200 pounds of food a year. That's a whopping 3,747 calories a day—or 1,200 to 1,700 more than needed for personal or planetary health. The skinny truth is that as much as 7.6 percent of total energy in the United States today is used to grow human fat, fat that translates to 3,300 pounds of carbon per person.

Sure, liposuction is an untapped fuel source—and New Zealander Pete Bethune extracted 3.38 ounces of his own fat to add to the biofuel powering his carbon-neutral boat, Earthrace. But a more sustainable strategy would be to avoid growing the fat in the first place. A comprehensive Cornell University study found that we could cut our food energy usage in half by simply eating less, cutting back on meat and junk food, and considering the source of our food.

For starters, half of our food energy use comes from producing and delivering meat and dairy. If we gave up just meat, we could maintain that hefty 3,747-calorie intake but consume 33 percent less in fossil fuels doing it. If Americans cut just one serving of meat a week, it would equal taking 5 million cars off the road.

One-third of those 3,747 daily calories comes from junk food—potato chips, soda, etc. We can save on fossil fuel costs in this area by installing more efficient lighting, heating, and cooling in the plants that make the stuff and by using less packaging materials. But we'd save a lot more if you and I simply bought less of it. A can of diet soda, for instance, delivers only 1 calorie of food energy at a cost of 2,100 calories to make the drink and the can. Transporting the components and the finished product costs even more, and shipping processed food and its packaging accounts for much of the problem of America's food averaging 1,500 travel miles before it's eaten.

Changing habits--especially habits as personal as dietary preferences--is never easy, but it's worth considering that what we put in our mouths may be pushing us a few steps closer to global warming disaster.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Grid? We don't need no stinkin' grid. . .

Power Plant at Sunset
Originally uploaded by lady_lbrty

A recent guest post in the New York Times by Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute speaks to a theme that is becoming increasingly prevalent in energy discussions: the advantages of distributed generation. Putting clean, small-scale power plants close to where the energy is needed makes more sense than building mammoth power plants, rebuilding the nationwide electrical grid, and then distributing electricity over hundreds of miles.

The core of the argument goes like this:

Bigger power plants’ hoped-for economies of scale were overwhelmed by diseconomies of scale. Central thermal power plants stopped getting more efficient in the 1960’s, bigger in the 1970’s, cheaper in the 1980’s, and bought in the 1990’s. Smaller units offered greater economies from mass production than big ones could gain through unit size. In the 1990’s, the cost differences between giant nuclear plants — gigantism’s last gasp — and railcar-deliverable, combined-cycle, gas-fired plants derived from mass-produced aircraft engines, created political stresses that drove the restructuring of the utility industry.

Meanwhile, generators thousands or tens of thousands of times smaller — microturbines, solar cells, fuel cells, wind turbines — started to become serious competitors, often enabled by IT and telecoms. The restructured industry exposed previously sheltered power-plant builders to brutal market discipline. Competition from a swarm of smaller electrical sources and savings created financial risks far beyond the capital markets’ appetite. Moreover, the 2008 Defense Science Board report “More Fight, Less Fuel” advised U.S. military bases to make their own power onsite, preferably from renewables, because the grid is vulnerable to long and vast disruptions.

Lower risk energy projects constructed on a human scale have a greater chance of success than past-generation mega power plants. The market is swiftly coming around to recognize this fact.

Monday, February 02, 2009

From a Fossil-Fuel to a Green Economy

From Nation videos, some thoughts on the benefits of moving from an economy based on fossil fuels to one that generates jobs though solar projects, wind energy, and energy efficiency.