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[1THING] Blog: Archive for December, 2012

[ Green Tips for the Winter… ]

It’s easy to think of ways to be green when the weather is nice…but what about in winter? Try this tips:

• Consider using non-toxic de-icing substances such as clean clay cat litter, sand, or fireplace/stove ash to prevent hazardous waste from chemicals. Chemical de-icers can be hazardous to your pets, your trees and shrubs, and the environment. Antifreeze that leak from car engines and chemical snow melters on driveways, roads, and runways can pollute surface waters and groundwater through the soil.
• Winterize your vehicle by checking your air filter and fluid levels, checking tires for tread wear and proper inflation, and checking the condition of your windshield wipers. Ensuring your vehicle is ready for weather changes will reduce damage, which prevents waste from broken parts, and will keep you safe on the road.
• If you have a wood-burning fireplace, save your ashes in a tin instead of throwing them away. Cold wood ashes can be mixed in your compost heap to create a valuable soil amendment that provides nutrients to your garden.
• Use electric snow removal products rather than gasoline-powered ones. While electric products consume energy, they do not emit greenhouse gases. As alternatives, use snow shovels, ice crackers, and brooms to clear snow from your sidewalk, porch, or driveway.
• If you have a manual thermostat or no thermostat at all, one way to save energy and money this winter is to install a programmable thermostat. When installed and used with the four pre-programmed temperature settings for weekend and weekdays, you can save about $100 each year while staying comfortable. Before leaving for vacation, turn down your thermostat (or use a programmable one) so that you don’t waste natural resources by generating unneeded heat. You can also buy outdoor and indoor lights with timers so that lights don’t stay on all night.
• Close the recycling loop. Many articles of clothing, such as jackets, scarves, gloves, and boots, are now made from recycled materials. Most fleece products are made from recycled plastic soda bottles, and certain clothing and shoe manufacturers use recycled cotton scraps and rubber tires to make their products.
• Winter storms often cause power outages. Prevent waste by keeping rechargeable batteries rather than disposable ones stored throughout your house with your flashlights. If you do use disposable batteries, prevent hazardous waste by buying batteries with low mercury content.
• Recycle old newspapers by making rolled paper logs for your fireplace. Roll newspaper sheets around a broom stick until your log is the desired size, then soak your log thoroughly in water. Dry the log overnight and use like ordinary wood. Always follow proper safety precautions when burning anything around your home.
• To make sure your heating system (boiler, furnace or heat pump) is operating at its most efficient, it is a good idea to have a contractor perform a routine check-up and any necessary maintenance on the equipment before freezing weather drives up your energy bill.
• If your heating equipment more than ten years old, it may be time for a replacement to a more energy-efficient unit. While initially an expensive investment, replacing old equipment with ENERGY STAR qualified equipment saves more energy and money in the long run.


[ It’s our 1Thing for January… ]

TerraCycle’s purpose is to eliminate the idea of waste. They do this by creating national recycling systems for previously non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle waste. Anyone can sign up for these programs, called the Brigades, and start sending them waste. TerraCycle then converts the collected waste into a wide variety of products and materials. It’s that simple. Click here to learn more…….



[ 2 New Community Solar Arrays Come Online in Colorado ]

2 new community solar arrays have come online in Colorado, both developed by Carbondale-based Clean Energy Collective. The 1st is Colorado Springs’s 3rd community solar installation and is capable of producing 500 kilowatts (kW). Customers of the community solar array are able to purchase panels for $565 each, with a minimum of 2 panels. The other 2 community solar sys…


[ Wireless Power May Cut the Cord for Plug-In Devices, Including Cars ]

WiTricity, a company based near Boston, envisions a future where everything from mobile phones to vehicles can be charged without wires.


[ U.S. Bids Farewell to the 75-Watt Incandescent Light Bulb ]

As of January 1, traditional 75-watt incandescent light bulbs can no longer be manufactured in the United States, continuing a national transition to more efficient lighting by 2014.

The first phase of the new federal light bulb standards, as set forth in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, went into effect last January with traditional 100-watt bulbs being phased out (though Congress de-funded the enforcement of those standards at the end of 2011). Under the regulations, all bulbs must be 27 percent more efficient. (See related post: “LED Holiday Lights Boost the Season’s Energy Efficiency.”) That means a bulb that used to use 75 watts must now use fewer than 53.

Conventional incandescent light bulbs tend to cost less up front, but waste more money and energy over the long haul. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that incandescent bulbs waste 90 percent of the electricity they use through emitted heat. On the cost front, Consumer Reports found, for example, that a $40 Philips AmbientLED bulb can save $160 in electricity and replacement bulbs when used in place of a 75-watt incandescent.

Shoppers in the U.S. are learning, via product labeling and public information efforts, to look for lumens (a measure of brightness) rather than watts (how much power the bulb uses) when buying light bulbs. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Energy-Efficient Lighting.“) The equivalent of an old 75-watt bulb produces a minimum of 1,100 lumens.

The EPA notes in a fact sheet that incandescents aren’t going away completely. Many halogen bulbs, which are incandescent, meet the new regulations (but they won’t last as long as LEDs and CFLs). To get a sense of the impact you can make by replacing traditional light bulbs with more efficient ones in your home, check out the Light Bulb Savings Calculator.


[ How Accurate Is the ‘Promised Land’ Portrayal of the Shale Gas Boom? ]

Fracking has now become so much a part of the fabric of American life that it has earned its first genuine Hollywood treatment. Promised Land, co-starring and co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, opens today in a limited number of theaters, with wider release next week.

While the energy industry has girded for battle against the film, fracking opponents are expressing disappointment that the movie will fail to turn hearts and minds against the drive for shale gas. If the film is short on details about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas—as its critics on both ends of the spectrum charge—that’s because it is not so much about an industry but about longing and community in post-industrial America.

Still, it’s fair to scrutinize the details the filmmakers use to illustrate their overarching themes. How accurate is the Promised Land’s portrayal of the shale gas business? The movie, in failing to please either the industry or its foes, actually captures some fundamental truths about the fracking boom—in particular, our collective ambivalence about this new energy bounty.

The Land Man Cometh.  The protagonist of this tale, appropriately enough, is that reviled and mysterious figure that heralds the shale gas industry’s arrival in any U.S. town: the land man. As in real life, this industry advance team, played by Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, has the job of visiting the private properties atop the shale to extract from the owners the most expansive drilling rights obtainable at the lowest possible price. Also true to life, this duo fool only some of the people some of the time.  When I visited southwestern Pennsylvania to write about the Great Shale Gas Rush, I heard many stories of the land men who came to town early to sign gas leases and were never heard from again. Just a few years later, though, many landowners are savvy about these dealmakers; a typical posting on the local pro-drilling activist site, GoMarcellusShale.com, said, “Leasing 101: The land man is not your friend.” Interestingly, the land man is a uniquely U.S. institution, as oil and gas mineral rights in other countries typically belong to the government, not to private property owners. We recently wrote about how this makes the public dialogue about fracking quite different in the United Kingdom.

“I’m not selling them natural gas. I’m selling the only way they have to get back.”  Damon’s character is working out his own resentment at the lost American dream; his hometown, like the ones he is visiting on his lease-selling journeys, is a place where opportunity for a decent blue-collar living has dried up. If anything, the movie sugarcoats the reality of the economic decline that has unfolded in the small towns of my home state of Pennsylvania small towns these past four decades, as the old coal, steel, and manufacturing industries have died. After all, there are actually people walking the streets to wave at the fictional farmer played by Hal Holbrook as he drives past in his pickup truck. In reality, those downtowns are mostly shuttered; indeed, to film on location in Avonmore, Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, the movie team had to build a mock bakery, hardware store, barbershop and VFW post in vacant storefronts and buildings to give it a feeling of a bustling vitality.

Guns, groceries, guitars, and gas. The movie does capture the entrepreneurial spirit that persists in these hard-hit communities, and that hopes to gain sustenance from the new shale gas business. The local businessman in the film, who has stayed afloat by cobbling together a disparate array of saleable wares, immediately brought to mind for me the story of Paul Battista, owner of Sunnyside Supply in Slovan, Pennsylvania. He was thriving when I spoke to him in 2010 because he had completely retooled a manufacturing-supply firm to cater to the new natural gas business. The towns of the shale boom are filled with stories of truck drivers, Iraq war veterans, and farmers who view the industry’s arrival hopefully.

How much money is underneath this ground? One myth that the film might help to perpetuate, however, is that there’s a fixed value on the shale gas stores lying beneath these communities. Damon’s character throws out figures—low ball, of course—as he negotiates his gas company’s entry into the fictional town of McKinley. But in reality, the value of the natural gas—and the profit that producers can pull from the ground—is ever-varying. The gas companies have driven down the potential returns for themselves and their investors by producing so much fuel that the market is awash in supply. The reasons for this are varied; often, the deals sealed by the real-world land men required that drilling take place within five years, or lease rights are lost. But in a larger sense, it is the same boom-and-bust story that has played out repeatedly over the centuries in every form of energy resource extraction. One of the reasons that the U.S. natural gas industry is now seeking to export fuel is in order to secure new markets to bolster its potential revenues.

Dead cows and flames. There’s not much detail on the fracking process or its potential hazards in this film. The anti-fracking argument is conveyed visually mostly through one image of collapsed cows in a farmyard, hoisted onto signposts throughout the community by the film’s environmentalist, played by The Office’s  Krasinski. Krasinski, who developed the idea for the film drawing on his own father’s experience growing up in rural Pennsyvlania, gives the enviro a somewhat-eely feel. But the choice of dead cow as an avatar for the worst of fracking woes is grounded in reality. In Louisiana in 2009, 17 cows did die after exposure to fracking fluid. Although the cattle were not lying on the ground in Pennsylvania, a herd was quarantined in 2010 after coming in contact with hydraulic fracturing fluid that leaked from a holding pond. State officials were concerned about the public eating potentially contaminated beef from cattle that drank the salty contaminated water that flows out of shale gas wells. In the movie, Krasinski stages an over-the-top classroom demonstration of fracking setting a mock farm on fire. That doesn’t happen, but people have claimed that their well water is now flammable, contaminated by underground methane due to faulty well construction techniques.

Let’s have a vote. After I saw the screening of the film, I made a note that this was perhaps the most unrealistic element of the film—that a community actually could hold a vote to block natural gas development that was taking place on private land. But in fact, there’s been a flurry of efforts across the country to regulate shale gas activity at the town hall level of government. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has studied and promised to continue to study the water contamination issues, the Colorado city of Longmont voted in November to ban fracking, the New York towns of Middlefield and Dryden have declared themselves off-limits to shale gas development, and a battle is going on throughout Pennsylvania on the question of local gas industry regulation.  These “home rule” efforts already have drawn legal challenges that surely will be fought out vigorously in the U.S. courts over the coming months and years. As with the efforts to exploit the promise of the natural gas boom, it remains to be seen whether this drive to harness its perils will have a Hollywood ending.  (Related: “Natural Gas Stirs Hope and Fear in Pennsylvania“)


[ French Design Firm Gives House of Straw a Modernist Touch ]

Perhaps the first Little Pig was right all along. In a demonstration about how to build a simple structure made entirely of recyclable or reusable materials, a small Parisian architecture firm called Studio 1984 chose straw as the main building material, designing a cozy, 15-square-meter “nest” that even the Big Bad Wolf would have to admire.

The tiny structure, built earlier this fall for the Archi<20 Festival de L’Architecture in Alsace, France, used materials that are readily available at most farms, including compressed bales of straw, to form the walls and a wooden frame made of Douglas fir, larch and pine. The completed structure was then placed atop a foundation made of acacia wood, to allow for portability. The simple design echoes the architecture of traditional barns, connecting the structure more closely to the rolling countryside of eastern France.

The use of straw as a building medium is hardly new—the thermal insulation properties have been known and exploited for centuries in rural buildings around the world. The key, said cofounder Romain Gié on the Co.Design site, was to bind the individual bales as tightly as possible to eliminate gaps between the bales that would allow heat to escape and rodents to nibble their way in.

The corrugated, galvanized-metal roof also includes overhangs to provide protection from rain and shade in the summer. A second window in the side wall also provides cross ventilation to draw cool air in during warm days.

The group also gave the ancient concept a modern twist with a minimalist interior and a large glass window near the entrance to provide sweeping views of nature.

Gié and his team worked on the design for three months and built it in about three weeks. Currently, the building is owned by the House of Nature in Mutterscholtz, France, where there are plans to situate the little house on a river and convert it into a public facility for children to rent canoes and kayaks.

—Randy Woods

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and has been republished with permission.


[ Heat-Mapping Company Finds Thermal Gaps In Homes ]

It’s 10 p.m.—do you know where your insulation gaps are? As the winter months descend and much of the country braces for icy weather, a startup company in the Boston area called Sagewell is taking it to the streets to let homeowners know exactly where their heating dollars are escaping, and provides suggestions about how to make their homes more energy efficient.

Using special SUV-mounted infrared cameras, Sagewell crews have been cruising the streets of several northern cities at night to take pictures of people’s homes—up to 20,000 on a good night, the company says. The photos captured give a quick assessment of each structure’s thermal envelope and highlight areas where heat is escaping into the outside air. In blobs of color ranging from black (coldest) to purple, orange and yellow (hottest), the images can be used as a thermal map to prioritize areas that need extra insulation, usually around windows, eaves and crawl spaces between floors. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Home Heating“)

Sagewell, based in Woburn, Mass., takes a page from the Google StreetView playbook by driving around as many streets as possible in its camera-equipped hybrid SUV, heat-mapping whatever homes are visible on both sides of the street. The images are then processed on the company’s software and stored on a secure server. Homeowners can then type in their addresses to see if their homes have been covered and get a free assessment. Sagewell can then recommend local insulation companies, window installers and community organizations that can provide retrofits to  help plug the gaps.

This service brings up obvious and sensitive privacy concerns, but Sagewell insists that its cameras cannot see through walls, trees or even windows. According to Brad Harkavy, chief operating officer of Sagewell, the only wavelength the cameras see is infrared that is emitted directly from the surface of the structures, so it is impossible to see people or objects inside the buildings. Also, the images are stored on a secure server and can only be accessed by the homeowners, if they choose to do so. Homeowners can also opt out of the program and have the photos deleted at their request. (See related story: “Who’s Watching? Privacy Concerns Persist as Smart Meters Roll Out“)

Citing U.S. Department of Energy figures, Sagewell says that 36 to 51 percent of household energy waste results from breaches in a home’s heat envelope. The company estimates that 20 percent of residential buildings can save $750 to $1,500 per year and eliminate 14,000 to 28,000 pounds of CO2 annually with a simple building envelope retrofit.

The company also reminds customers that many states and utilities offer significant discounts and rebates for adding extra insulation and storm windows on homes. In Massachusetts, for example, utilities will pick up 75 percent of the cost of home insulation upgrades and retrofits.

So far, Sagewell has managed to cover nearly 500,000 homes in a 10-state swath from New England through parts of the Midwest. By the end of the winter, Harkavy told Co.Design, he hopes to double that figure, focusing mostly in the colder northern states and coastal cities that tend to have progressive homeowner incentives for beefing up home insulation.

—Randy Woods

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and has been republished with permission.


[ EPA Progress Report: No Conclusions on Fracking and Drinking Water, More Study Ahead ]

This map, released today by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, provides one of the best views yet of how hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil has spread across the United States. It is a snapshot in time, based on 24,879 wells that were “fracked,” or hydraulically fractured, between September 2009 and October 2010.

(Related Special Report: “The Great Shale Gas Rush“)

The locations were mapped based on information the EPA received from nine industry service companies, as part of the agency’s long-running study into the potential impact on drinking water from fracking operations.

The EPA today released a 278-page progress report (pdf) on that study, including the map above. But the agency did not yet draw any final conclusions on the drinking water risks in today’s report. The agency now says that process will take at least another year, with a draft report expected to be released in 2014 for public and peer review.

Instead, the agency detailed 18 different research projects it now has underway to look at water impacts in five separate stages of the fracking process: how the industry acquires the water, chemical mixing at the site of a well, the injection of fracking fluid into the well, the flowback of frack fluid after the well is drilled, and wastewater treatment and disposal. (See interactive: “Breaking Fuel From Rock“)

High-volume hydraulic fracturing has been combined with horizontal drilling over the past decade to force oil and natural gas out of shale and other tight geological formations by fracturing the rock with high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals. The EPA said estimates at the volume required ranges from 65,000 gallons for shallow coalbed methane production, up to 13 million gallons for deep shale gas production. The agency noted that 5 million gallons of water is  equivalent to the water used by approximately 50,000 people for one day.

Many of fracking’s opponents and proponents had hoped for more definitive conclusions by now from the EPA, which began the research last year after preliminary investigations in 2010. Glenn Paulson, the EPA’s science advisor, earlier this fall called the study of fracking and drinking water “one of the most aggressive public outreach programs in EPA history.” He said the progress report will show the “range and depth” of what EPA is looking at. Geographically, at least, that range can be seen in the map above, which shows that fracking has been underway in every region of the United States.

The progress report indicates that the EPA’s drinking water study will focus only on potential avenues of contamination of drinking water from surface spills and underground injection. It will not look at several other issues that have raised concerns–for example, the risk of small earthquakes from underground injection disposal of wastewater. (Related: “Tracing Links Between Earthquakes and Fracking“) The agency said it also will not be studying how fracking fluid might cause geochemical reactions in the subsurface, changing the fate and transport of substances in the subsurface; EPA said that matter is already being studied by the U.S. Department of Energy and other academic institutions. But the agency will be looking at issues like elevated methane levels or other contamination of drinking water. (Related: “Good Gas, Bad Gas“)

As it has in the past, the EPA opened its report with an affirmation of the importance of the energy development: “Natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future,” it said.”…However, as the use of hydraulic fracturing has increased, so have concerns about its potential human health and environmental impacts, especially for drinking water.”







[ LED Holiday Lights Boost the Season’s Energy Efficiency ]

A tidbit to consider when you are stringing your tree and adorning your home with lights this year (or next): If all of the holiday bulbs sold this year were energy efficient, it would save 700 million kilowatt hours and the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from 100,000 cars. Those numbers come from the U.S. government’s ENERGY STAR program, which has certified a number of brands of light strings that it says can last up to 10 times longer and use 70 percent less energy than incandescent strands.

This efficiency can translate into significant savings on a utility bill. An incandescent holiday light typically needs 7 watts of power, versus .04 watts for an LED version.  If the average U.S. household uses a string of 300 lights for 225 hours this season, at a price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour, it would cost close to $57. The same usage for an LED string of lights would cost 32 cents. With prices starting around $25 for a set, energy-efficient lights could pay for themselves within a season.

Imagining those savings multiplied many times over for municipalities and other entities that put up large holiday light displays, it’s no surprise to see LEDs popping up around the country.

Miriam Berg of the Alliance to Save Energy has rounded up a look at energy-efficient holiday displays across the country, reposted here with permission.

Washington, D.C.: US National Tree

The 35-foot National Christmas Tree is designed with just under 50,000 sets of programmed, color-changing LED lights and starburst ornaments, yet only uses 2,000 watts. GE, which has been lighting the National tree for 50 years, started using energy-efficient LEDs in 2007. These LEDs – which are 80% more energy efficient than the old incandescent bulbs that used to drape the tree – save 100kWh per day and $340 in total across the holiday season.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama lit the National Christmas Tree on Dec. 6, and it will stay lit through Jan. 1. In addition to the National Christmas Tree, Washington displays another holiday tree covered in LEDs: The Capitol Christmas Tree sits in front of the Capitol building; it was lit on Dec. 4, and it will stay lit through Dec. 26.

New York City: Rockefeller Center

Since 2007, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree has been lit exclusively with LEDs. This year’s 80-foot Norway Spruce is decorated with more than 30,000 multi-colored LEDs and crowned by a 550-pound crystal Swarovski star, which sparkles with 700 of the tree’s LEDs.

By switching to eco-friendly lighting, Rockefeller Center decreased the tree’s daily energy consumption from a massive 3,510 kWh per day to 1,297 kWh per day. Solar panels on one of the Rockefeller buildings help power the LEDs.

The Rockefeller Christmas Tree was lit Nov. 28, 2012, and will stay lit through Jan. 7, 2013.

Los Angeles Christmas Tree: L.A. LIVE

This year, Los Angeles is home to a 66-foot-tall artificial tree that soars six stories above downtown L.A. The tree features over 120,000 warm-white LED mini lights that turn on at dusk. Gold and silver ornaments that range in size from baseballs to basketballs gild the 1,000 tree branches. These LED lights only use 12,000 watts, which is 80% less than the 60,000 watts that the tree’s previous incandescent lights used.

The L.A. LIVE Christmas tree was lit Nov. 28, and will stay lit through Jan. 2.

Houston Christmas Tree: City Hall

A 63-foot-tall white fir tree at Houston’s City Hall features LEDs by Reliant Energy (an NRG Company). Using LED lights exclusively for four years, this year’s tree is decked out in over 3,000 LEDs. These bulbs reduce energy use from 20kWh to less than 1 kW per hour, saving more than 19kW per hour. Because these LEDs last for about 10 years, the city is able to reuse the lights each year. After the tree is taken down, the city recycles the tree into mulch for public gardens and community spaces, and encourages its citizens to do the same with their trees.

The Houston Holiday Tree was lit on Nov. 30, along with a Motown concert. It will stay lit through Dec. 25.