Most people don’t think of Sierra Club as the place to go for information about new technology. After all, the 121-year-old organization, with the motto “Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet,” is best known for its efforts spent protecting the places where living things live.
But since, these days, we do a lot of our exploring and enjoying behind the wheel of a mobile steel and glass vehicular bubble, it makes sense that they should feature an article that advises us on vehicles that can explore while, if not protecting then, at least, minimizing their impact on the planet. Hence, this new online guide to Plug-in hybrids.
The idea behind plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), is to provide a best-of-both-worlds option, combining the kind of range that gas-powered vehicle drivers are accustomed to, with the carbon-free, inexpensive, peppy performance that has garnered all-electric cars so much attention. The six vehicles featured in this review (shown with retail price after federal tax credit): Chevrolet Volt ($32,495), Ford C-Max Energi ($30,389), Ford Fusion Energi ($35,744), Honda Accord Plug-in ($36,944), Fisker Karma ($95,000-108,500) and Toyota Prius Plug-In ($30,295-37,829) display several different approaches to the job-sharing that takes place under the hood between the electric drive train and its gas-powered counterpart. For example, in the Chevy Volt, the gasoline engine never directly powers the wheels, but instead, drives a generator that ensures that the battery stays charged so long as there is gas in the tank. All the others have the gas engine driving the wheels at certain times, whether it’s after the battery has depleted, or for an extra boost of power. Sometimes these options are selectable, in other cases they are programmed as defaults in the car’s operating software.
Last week, United signed an agreement with AltAir Fuels of Seattle to purchase 15 million gallons of biofuel. AltAir has been a participant in the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) initiative since 2010.
SAFN is the nation’s first regional stakeholder effort to explore the opportunities and challenges surrounding the production of sustainable aviation fuels. The group performed a study (video) that showed that the Pacific Northwest has both the feedstocks and the infrastructure to make it well-suited to the production of biofuels, with the potential to create 23,000 jobs. AltAir Fuels uses camelina, a distant relative of canola, as their feedstock to produce biofuel. Camelina is attractive in that it requires minimal water and less fertilizer than many other crops.
The 15 million gallon purchase will take place over a three-year period starting in 2014. The cash infusion will allow AltAir to convert a 30 million gallon annual capacity diesel refinery into an advanced biofuels plant.
According to United, the fuel will be a drop-in replacement for conventional fuel and is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent with no loss in performance and no engine modifications required.
“This agreement, said Jimmy Samartzis, United’s managing director for global environmental affairs and sustainability, “underscores United’s efforts to be a leader in alternative fuels as well as our efforts to lead commercial aviation as an environmentally responsible company.”
MIT Materials Scientist Angela Belcher has been doing amazing things for a while now. She was winner of a McArthur fellowship (2004), Time Magazine Climate Hero Award (2007), Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award (2006), Scientific American’s Research Leader of the Year (2006), Fortune Magazine’s Top 10 Innovators Under 40 (2002), and she was listed on Rolling Stones list of “100 People Who Are Changing America,” just to name a few. Today, she is the 2013 Winner of the $500,000 MIT Lemelson Prize.
The prize, which will celebrate its 20th year in 2014, honors an outstanding mid-career inventor who is dedicated to improving our world through technological invention.
Belcher’s work uniquely combines biotechnology and nanotechnology. She has produced solutions to numerous critical problems in the clean energy field including solar PV, battery technology and biofuels by developing viruses that will bind together and grow materials in ways that were previously not possible, or else highly energy-intensive, dirty, or wasteful.
Her original inspiration for this work comes from her PhD work on abalone, whose shell contains only 2 percent of a protein which makes the shell 3,000 times tougher than it would be without the protein. Once she saw this, she recognized that there were relatively few examples in nature that combined organic and inorganic materials, but that there was no reason not to apply this approach across a wider portion of the periodic table in order to produce various new and useful materials. She calls it, “using the biological toolkit to make new materials and devices.”
She differentiates herself from those practicing biomimicry in that unlike being biologically inspired, as biomimicry-based designers are, her materials are actually biologically produced.
You could say that the American Right is holding the world hostage to their need for greed, especially when it comes to climate change.
As low-lying areas (like New York City) watch helplessly while storm surges wash over areas that could be permanently submerged within decades, as polar ice caps melt at alarming rates far greater than predicted, and as new accelerating feedback loops continue to reveal themselves, other countries boldly take decisive action. Our American government remains not only paralyzed, but poised to take an enormous step backwards, all because of a degree of uncertainty, that has to stretch itself to its fullest height to be even marginally considered the merest shadow of a doubt.
A recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that 58 percent of Republicans polled still believe that global warming is a hoax. This, at the same time that international polls are finding that Americans are among the biggest doubters, a dubious honor shared with our friends in the UK. Only 47 percent of Americans believe that global warming is real and is mostly caused by emissions, compared with 58 percent of Canadians, for example.
In response to what The Guardian is calling “the moral crisis of our time,” House Republicans have not only not taken action, but in January 2011, they actually disbanded the House Committee on Global Warming in order to “eliminate waste in government.” Remember that?
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad appeared together recently defending the Renewable Fuel Standard from recent attacks from people like Robert Bradley Jr. who writes for Forbes. Bradley, an adjunct scholar of the fossil-fueled Cato and Competitive Enterprise Institutes, said that now is the time to roll back the renewable fuel standard (RFS) which sets targets for the amount of fuel that refiners must buy containing biofuel. He claims that, “if Washington were a business, counterproductive rules and regulations would be either reformed or revoked.”
That sounds like common sense, but perhaps it begs the question of, counterproductive for who, oil company stockholders or all of us?
The piece named three primary concerns with the new RFS2 mandate.
- Environmental impacts: smog due to the NO2 content of ethanol
- Price impacts of competition for corn
- Ability of older model cars to handle the higher 15% blend
Let’s take a look at these. There are two primary environmental criticisms that have been leveled at the biofuels industry. One of them is associated with the plants themselves, while the other deals with vehicular smog resulting from burning ethanol. It’s true that in 2010, the EPA found higher than expected levels of carbon monoxide and other pollutants emitted from several plants, but they have taken action. Regulations are in place. One plant in Minnesota received an $800,000 penalty last year for pollutions violations.
More serious are the smog allegations that claim that up to 200 people could die each year due to increased ozone levels starting in 2020. These claims were based on a 2007 report by Mark Jacobson of Stanford. However, that report, not only understated the uncertainty associated with his predictions, but also based them on the assumption that by 2020, the entire US vehicle fleet would be running on 85% ethanol, rather than the 15% that is being proposed by the RFS. That’s 567% higher.
The past few years have been amazing for solar in the U.S. New capacity added in 2012 grew by 76 percent over the previous year. NREL recently estimated that the US has the potential to meet 20 percent of its total electric demand with solar. This estimate is becoming prophecy as prices continue to drop, falling by 58 percent just since the beginning of 2011.
Yet, despite all of the great news, solar still only provides one percent of the total U.S. power demand.
So why, if the potential is 20 percent, are we only at one percent?
Cloudy Germany has achieved 22 percent solar penetration, with government assistance in the form of feed-in tariffs, a guaranteed rate that solar power can be sold back to the utilities for.
Here in the U.S., we don’t have the political will to take that approach. And with prices coming down so rapidly, it might not be necessary. Why, then, is it coming so slowly?
One big roadblock is the availability of financing. People are interested in going solar, but they don’t have a way to pay, especially post-meltdown, when banks are reluctant to lend.
Some utilities, in places like Hawaii, are beginning to offer on-bill financing, where the cost of installation is amortized by the utility and paid for by the energy savings realized. But not all utilities are willing to carry the risks of such a program. Funding for projects of this size, in many places, can be difficult to find.
Last year, Mosaic announced a funding opportunity that they estimated could be worth a potential $90 billion, if participation reached one percent of the retail investment market. They act as an intermediary, gathering capital from many micro-lenders who are willing to invest in their communities and their future.
Mosaic claims that they were inspired by crowdsourcing pioneer Kiva, who with their extensive lending community, 900,000 strong, accessible by anyone with Internet access with $25 or more to lend, can join. Kiva is currently distributing some $2.2 million in loans per week with a total of $420 million since they started in 2005. Kiva’s website matches up borrowers with lenders looking for a project to support. Kiva’s repayment rate of 98.9 percent compares favorably with the national average 96.5 percent bank card rate and edging out the national composite rate.
Now, Kiva is announcing a new crowdfunding program, specifically for renewable energy. How many times have you wished you could do more to help reduce the impact of climate change but didn’t feel you could afford to take a major step like putting solar panels on your house? Or perhaps you live in an apartment building but still want to do something?
One of the biggest problems plaguing our economy is the high price of health care. Not only do the costs directly affect consumers, but because of the cost to employers, it also makes the cost of everything else go up. It’s not this way everywhere. Americans pay far more than citizens in other countries. According to Ezra Klein’s post on the Washington Post’s wonkblog in 2010, health care accounted for 17.6 percent of the U.S. GDP compared to an average of 9.5 percent for the 34 OECD countries.
Why is this? Are Americans sicker? Do we go to the doctor more often? According to a 2003 study published in Health Affairs, it’s nothing as complicated at that. As the title of the study reveals, “It’s the Prices, Stupid.” Health care spending per capita in the U.S., at the time of the study, was 44 percent higher than the next-highest country, Switzerland.
Last month, the International Federation of Health Plans (IFHP) issued a new report that examined over 100 insurers in 25 countries, looking at prices paid for 23 different medical services ranging from a coronary bypass to a dose of Lipitor. In 22 of those, the U.S. showed the highest costs. The exception was cataract surgery, where U.S. was #2, just behind Switzerland.
The table below shows a few of the results, comparing the U.S. with other countries.
|Angiogram||$ 914||$ 209|
|Routine Office Visit||$ 95||$ 24|
|Bypass Surgery Hospital & Physician||$ 73,420||$ 21,418|
|Hip replacement||$ 40,364||$ 12,569|
|Normal Delivery||$ 9,775||$ 3,060|
|Hospital cost per day||$ 4,287||$ 821|
|Prescription drug: Lipitor||$ 100||$ 31|
|MRI||$ 1,121||$ 492|
Sadly, despite all this spending, we are not getting better quality care. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) in a study conducted in 2000 that looked at health, responsiveness and financial fairness, the U.S. ranked 38th overall. France and Italy were ranked number one and two. Another study performed by the Commonwealth Fund ranked seven countries based quality, efficiency, access, equity and healthy lives. Netherlands and the UK ranked first and second. The U.S. ranking was at the bottom in 7 out of 13 categories, and dead last overall. Our price per capita is 87 percent higher than the second highest, which was Canada.
Many of us, who are devoted to the idea of facilitating change in the world, find ourselves wondering whether this can be done most effectively from inside or outside of the system. Each has their own advantages. Being on the inside brings a certain type of credibility, more abundant information, the opportunity for direct contact with decision-makers, as well as certain vulnerabilities and constraints that result from the fact of your livelihood depends on maintaining amicable relations and, of course, toeing the company line.
Being on the outside, on the other hand, brings independence of perspective, more freedom to operate, license to criticize, but access is restricted by firewalls and impact is ultimately reduced to whatever influence and persuasion can achieve, when applied to those on the inside.
Perhaps no one has exemplified this dichotomy, or indeed lived it, more openly and clearly than Dr. James Hansen.
Hansen, as a government employee, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, to be precise, took the matter of public service to a higher level than he was asked to do. Not content to simply develop the information and then pass it along, he took the crucial steps of first, understanding the significance of the information, and second, making sure that the message was delivered, not just to the next person in the chain of command, but to everyone. I suppose you could say that put him somewhere along the continuum that runs between the employee who obediently keeps his mouth shut and Bradley Manning. The difference between Manning and Hansen was that Hansen’s information was not considered secret, though there were surely those, including the Bush White House, who, based on their subsequent actions, clearly would have liked it to be.
But, in fact, Hansen was merely following the first line of the NASA mission statement which says, “To understand and protect the home planet.” When he pointed out that this was his justification for going public with his information, the statement was then officially revised and that first line deleted. This change got little attention at the time, lost as it was among the other Orwellian horrors of George W. Bush’s presidency.
The silence is almost deafening. As the whole world watches and waits to see if President Obama is going to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, whether he will listen to the investors who insist that this will be totally safe, or the environmentalists who claim this could be “game over” for the climate, no one is saying anything about the huge spill that just occurred by Keystone’s predecessor last week, the 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline that runs through central Arkansas.
The 20-inch pipeline is owned by ExxonMobil. It runs from Illinois south to a refinery in Texas. It ruptured in a neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas, near Little Rock, flooding the streets and yards before emptying into storm drains and into Lake Conway, the largest manmade fish and game commission lake in the U.S. (despite ExxonMobil’s assurances to the contrary). The pipeline was expanded in 2009, raising its capacity from 60,000 to 90,000 barrels per day and repurposed to carry the heavy Canadian tar sands crude. The company is making concerted efforts to try and clean up the spill and has shutdown the pipeline for the time being. But, before shutting down, the pipeline pumped Wabasca heavy tar sands oil, a form of diluted bitumen into this neighborhood for close to an hour, putting an estimated 10,000 barrels onto the ground and into the water and air.
Because of a loophole inserted into law by a friend of oil in Congress, tar sands oil is technically not considered oil, which means that ExxonMobil will not have to pay a penny into the oil spill cleanup fund (though they will be paying for the cleanup).
Meanwhile, the FAA declared the area around the spill a no-fly zone. Speculation has it that this is to keep TV cameras from displaying the scope of the accident. This is supported by the fact that the no-fly zone restrictions were placed under the control of ExxonMobil.
Is it possible that this media silence has anything to do with Keystone?
Last week, Verizon issued their 2012 Annual Report. For the second year in a row, the company used an integrated reporting format which includes their CSR report alongside the traditional financials. Verizon saw revenues of $115.8 billion, up from $110.9 billion last year. Two-thirds of that came from their wireless business.
The CSR team held a press conference last Wednesday, courtesy of CSRwire. Kathy Brown, Global CSR Leader, and Jim Gowen, Chief Sustainability Officer, were on hand to describe the results and answer questions.
This year’s theme was “Shared Success,” which clearly derives from Michael Porter’s concept of shared value.
According to Brown, their strategy rests on the three pillars of Solutions, Service/Philanthropy, and Sustainability.
The alliteration is catchy, though unfortunately it creates the impression that sustainability is a separate, bolt-on topic, which I don’t think is the message they are trying to convey. The sustainability pillar they are talking about here specifically refers to the efficiency and impact of their internal operations, while their efforts to help their customers become more sustainable are described under the Solutions heading. The Service/Philanthropy actions they describe tend to fall more or less along traditional lines of community service and giving.
Last week, ThinkProgress posted a video about the price of carbon. The short film featured images of storms, wildfires, droughts, and “weather on steroids” that are being caused by carbon emissions, and it raised questions about their costs. The bills are adding up: $65 billion for victims of Sandy and another $35 billion for the Midwest plains drought. Pretty soon, as Everett Dirksen once supposedly said, “You’re talking about real money.”
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.
Clearly, the same reasoning applies here, as well. And in this case (as in the other), the financial burden, the health, safety and security impacts are being borne by the general public while the energy companies continue to amass stupendous profits.
The video argues for a price on carbon that would force energy companies to share some of the burden, while at the same time encouraging people to use less, or shift to other, cleaner energy sources. It could also help to address the financial problems that threaten our economy.
Dear Senator Mikulski (D-MD) and Other Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee,
This letter is in regard to your committee’s recent decision to insert a rider into Section 735 of the interim funding bill, which effectively places purveyors of biotech products such as genetically modified organisms beyond the reach of the courts.
Since I do not believe that you and your esteemed colleagues would intentionally put the citizens of your state and of the nation at large in harm’s way, I can only assume that you are uninformed as to the actual risks associated with these products. Their manufacturers, who, according to Maplight, generously provided $12,000 to your campaign, and a total of $372,000 to members of your committee, would prefer you not be bothered with these risks. Given that Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing combined only make up 0.2% of Maryland’s GDP (and one would have to assume, given your large coastline, that most of that is from fishing), it does make one wonder why these agricultural chemical corporations were so interested in supporting your campaign, considering how little farming is done in your state.
Be that as it may, that horse has fled the barn, for now. But it’s not too late for you to learn more about a subject that will continue to be controversial for some time to come, and to perhaps, take action to put it back in the barn where it belongs.
Imagine a train, traveling through time, where every year was another station. The sign on the front of the train read “Prosperity.” When it got to station 1966, the conductor announced that 90 percent of the people on the train had to get off. They would need to walk the rest of the way.
That train is called America. Those people who have been walking all this time, (in other words, our conterparts) haven’t gotten very far. In fact, according to Pulitzer Prize winning economic journalist, David Cay Johnston, our prosperity, in terms of annual income, grew by only $59 after adjusting for inflation.
What about the folks who stayed on the train? Over the same 45-year period, their income grew by $116,071, an increase of 84 percent. The train, it would seem, arrived at its destination with time to spare and with everyone left on-board quite comfortable. Meanwhile, those 90 percent who walked watched their share of the nation’s income drop from 67 percent to 52 percent.
How could this happen in America, the land of opportunity? How is it that since 1978, CEO pay grew 127 times faster than the pay of that of ordinary workers? Back in 1978, CEO’s made 26.5 times more than the average worker. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
It’s not so easy being a giant oil company these days. First, you have half the world angry at you for keeping us all hooked on petroleum products. Yes, it’s true that most people were all so high on the collective buzz that they hardly paid attention to those who warned that the hangover could last for a hundred years or more – and the oil companies didn’t help. It turns out the warning was right the hangover will be nasty.
Now, it seems that we’ve used so much of the stuff that it’s getting harder and harder to find. Tricky sources, that 30 years ago were deemed “unconventional” have now become the center of attention. These include deep-sea drilling, tar sands, methane hydrates, and of course, shale gas and oil. All of these are extremely difficult to access and involve enormous environmental risks.
But before we start feeling too sorry for them, let us recall that last quarter, Exxon-Mobil saw profits of close to ten billion dollars, while number two, Royal Dutch Shell, saw profits of little more than seven billion, for the quarter. Not unlike drug dealers, their business is very profitable.
We have run several stories about Shell lately. It seems they are not oblivious to what is going on, and may, unlike some of their counterparts, even be showing some traces of conscience. Their latest scenario planning exercise acknowledges many of the pressures being exerted on our eco-sphere by the use of fossil fuels. They depict two paths to a carbon-free future, though they both depend heavily on the use of fossil fuels mitigated by carbon sequestration. Neither is aggressive enough to reduce carbon to what most scientists agree would be a safe level, by mid-century, which is considered to be the critical juncture. Still, it does indicate a certain level of awareness and effort.
We also ran a story about Shell pulling out of the Arctic, at least for the time being. This was in response to the costly loss of two ships, but it least it shows that the company is not so hard-headed as to persist in the face of dangerous circumstances, as others have done.
The latest news also takes place in the far North. It involves a piece of land in British Columbia called the Sacred Headwaters.
When the U.S. government was first created, the founding fathers took great pains to distribute power across three branches of government to avoid the tyranny of concentrated power that most of them had crossed the ocean to get away from. The idea was to create a system of checks and balances, to keep certain human tendencies like greed, corruption, ideological extremism and abuse of power from getting out of hand. They also made sure to keep the church and state at a safe operating distance for more or less the same reasons.
Today, we may have drifted about as far away from those original intentions as we ever have in our history, though there may have been a couple of other times when we those stretched those principles nearly as far.
During such times, industry, in fact, became a fourth branch of government, and money become a new religion, one that was not at all separated from the state. This new fourth branch of government proceeded to throw its weight into tipping the balance, overcoming any attempt to check its influence, or to allow the rights or concerns of common working people to get in the way of the ambitions and aspiration of the privileged elite it represented.
Many corporations have shown that they will resist any attempts to limit their power by whatever means possible. It was Thomas Jefferson who famously said, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
This past week, we seem to have taken another major step in breaking with precedent and apparently doing away with the very principle of checks and balances, in what some might describe as another step in the takeover of our government by business.