Weekly Heroes: Free fuel edition

Earlier, I scoffed at the man doing public service by advocating for cheaper gas.  Today, I praise a similar program.

My town, Normal, IL, has positioned itself as an EVTown (Electronic Vehicle Town).  The city has purchased electric cars for its fleet and encouraged others to do so as well.  They have created incentives for citizens to by EVs, and even arranged for them to be able to get cars from Mitsubishi earlier than anyone else.

The best plan – free vehicle charging around town for the foreseeable future.  That means, if one charged entirely at these stations, “one could expect to save $5,400 over eight years driving a total of 64,000 miles.”  That is an incentive that could get people on board – add this to the $7,500 tax credit and the $29,125 becomes suddenly affordable to own and operate.  This is a perfect second car (in a country where every family owns two cars): one car to drive distances and the other to go to work and the grocery store.

My applause to Chris Koos and all the others at City Hall who have worked to create the possibility for real change.

You can find any EV charging stations near you using this Dept. of Energy Map.


What risk is enough?

Nulear power arises as a major example of the risk calculation.  Odds are that a nuclear power plant will work forever without any extreme or catastrophic incidents.  However, if something goes wrong, it goes very, very wrong as we have seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi.  Today, the plant is surrounded by The Zone, just like in the Russian movie “The Stalker“.

Image from the Stalker

What lesser risks are still acceptable from our power generation?  I’m ready to cede migratory bird puree as a necessary evil – are you?  (I say this largely because more birds have been killed by coal-fired power plants – and cats – than any wind turbines.)   The textbook I assigned my class has a large graphic that measures the environmental impact of various side effects of energy generation from various fuel sources against the severity and likelihood of problems happening (1).  For coal, global climate change impacts rise to the top of the pack as being both very severe and highly likely.  However, the effects of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other discharges are marked as having very marginal effects in neurological health, particularly among children.  However, these effects are highly likely, especially for fish-eaters, and we know how to fix them.

The chart above says don’t eat any caught fish other than mackerel.   Most bought fish look low in mercury, but you should limit your consumption to less than once per week for the first 6.  

We may have to balance these problems when we have limited money and time to fix the problems – but this balance makes me very uneasy.  For coal, I know the authors are trying to bring attention to impacts that are often ignored because of the very high costs for their remedy.  However, it minimizes very real effects that we can (and should) fix right now.  How do we create a fair, just, and reasonable list of priorities to tackle the work that lies before us?

What we do right now is place the burden on the individual.  I need to research and see how much of which kind of fish I’m comfortable eating.  If I own crop or forest land, I have to budget for productivity losses caused by ozone.  I plan my vacation to avoid polluted places like the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I hope I have enough money and power to avoid living near the power plant with its noise, ugliness, and damage to household items through particulates.

Somehow, this individual maximum-utility balancing doesn’t seem to make much sense – it misses the larger scale.  We rely too much on individual change when only societal change can make a difference.

(1) Lee, R. (2002) Environmental impacts of energy use, Chapter 3 in Energy: Science, Policy, andthe Pursuit of Sustainability, Robert Bent, Lloyd Orr and Randall Baker (eds.) Washington, DC: Island Press.

Thrift and / or green = good

In class, we talked about how many people don’t take environmental actions because they don’t think about it.  Often this is tied to not really knowing how things worked.  One student said his sister complained about the rising price of gas, but didn’t know that gas came from oil – and how she didn’t know electricity came from outside the house.  As an environmental educator, this makes me roll my eyes and groan, but, the rest of our discussion gave me hope.

People all over America are turning off lights when they leave the room.  Some do this for environmental reasons such as climate change 0r knowing that the electricity you use is tied to mountaintop removal mining.  Others do it from thriftiness, tied to parents actions or high electricity prices.  These turn-off-the-lights people may never agree on any political or economic topic – but they agree to turn off the lights, and that is a good thing.

Should you turn off the lights when you are not using them?  Yes!


While you are at it, here are a few other basic, every time items that people can agree on (thrift plus green equals good):

Image from Power Generation, Inc. 

Efficiency: The #2 Goal

We need to make an energy transition.  We are locked into using growing amounts of dirty fossil fuels in increasingly growing quantities.  The top solution for this is conservation (using less): unplug your electronic photo frame which costs $9/year to operate, don’t fly,turn down your thermostat.  That, however, is a hard sell – and most people don’t want to change their lifestyles.  So that leads us to #2 – efficient energy use.

An efficient system is one that gets more work out of the same (or lesser) amount of energy.  The perfect example of this is the compact fluorescent lightbulb.  Less electricity is used by the bulb, but more light comes out – because less is lost as heat.  (If you want to see energy lost as heat, just try to change an incandescent bulb with your bear hands – or play with an Easy Bake Oven, where the lightbulb makes the heat.)

Our world has been very inefficient about energy.  Oil and coal have been cheap, so no one has had any reason to spend a lot of money engineering new products.


We have a lot of room to gain efficiency with our cars.  The internal combustion is only about 10-25% efficient.  That means that out of every dollar you put into you are in gas, you only get out 25 cents worth of movement.  The rest is degraded into unusable forms of energy like heat, friction, and engine inefficiencies.

Image from Green Car Congress

Some of these problems are inexpensive to change – better tire design, lighter cars (of that 25%, most moves the car and less moves you). and aerodynamic designs.  American car and heavy equipment makers are working on advanced combustion and exhaust energy recovery.


Your home is an energy machine that is certainly running very inefficiently.  After you go through the house and figure out what you can unplug – the next step is to make it a more efficient machine.  (Best unplug – sorry – the beer fridge.)  Over half energy is used by heating and cooling (see below) and that is were most of the easiest fixes are.  You can do your own home energy audit, or pay someone else to do it.  Here are instructions.

Image from the US Dept. of Energy

Only after that should you look at the more expensive changes such as buying new equipment.  It’s not perfect, but the Energy Star labeling program is a good guide here.

The important thing to hold in mind here is that you are trying to get more work out of your existing systems for less money (or, if the system is really losing money, to replace it).  Often, people think that energy efficiency improvement always means buying expensive new items.  It doesn’t.  For the most part it means tinkering with what you already have.

An additional benefit of efficiency, is that since you use less energy for what you are already doing, you can continue existing energy use for high-value activities.  This lessens drastic changes that many foresee as part of our energy transition.  But only if we, as a society, create and enable these sustainability changes as soon as possible.

But remember: efficiency has to be #2.  Conservation – or reduction of use – has much better potential for all of us.

Image from Motifake

Then and now – the more things don’t change . . .

“In a 1977 speech on energy policy, I observed that, ‘Although many Americans refuse to believe it, there is a serious and continuing energy problem in this country.'” – Lee H. Hamilton

Twenty-five years later, my textbook was published with that quote.  Thirty-fiver years later I write this blog.  Nothing has changed, at least not in terms of creating a societal solution for our “serious and continuing energy problem.”

Why not? Cost certainly has to be a major reason – we Americans have always been reluctant to pay taxes.  Our inability to measure costs in the long term, instead of just next week, feeds into that.  We read an article by Derek Jensen, who accused us of sitting around and hoping that someone will show up with some magic solution.  Both of these are very true.

However –

I believe the major obstacle to solving our energy problem is that we view it primarily as a technical problem, when the solution lay in the realm of human systems.

We can build wind turbines that float in the middle of the North Sea.  We can design expensive new green houses (which buyers may not be able to afford, or where keeping old homes working may be preferable.)   We develop expensive niche technologies that everyday people may never experience.

No wonder going green costs to much!  This is how we measure the cost!

Certainly, reformulating our gasoline blend may save us money and  miles per gallon.  However, to create real change, we must change the way people think.  Here are some ideas:

1) In 1977, Carter put on a sweater and told the American public to tough it out.  In 2012, fashion designers could make sweaters so stylish we all want to wear them.

Sweater by Ullvana on Etsy.

2) In 1979, Carter put solar panels on the White House.  In 2012, towns and homeowner associations could approve installment of solar panels, so residents have the option of installing them.

Jimmy Carter, “The President’s Proposed Energy Policy.” 18 April 1977. Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XXXXIII, No. 14, May 1, 1977, pp. 418-420.

3) In 1973 and 1978, the Oil Crises caused Americans to flock to gas-sipping Japanese cars – and firmly set Toyota, Honda, and Nissan as major players in the American market.  Today, we could create compact car parking spaces – close and convenient – to reward people who do the right thing.

And that’s not quite what I meant. 

And those are just the small ones.  Here are some big ones – I’m not writing too much about them now, because these are a list of future topics.

4) We could learn to love to live in dense communities again, driven by the many personal benefits of vibrant communities.

5) Public transportation for the rest of us.  This includes Amtrak.

6) Grants, loans, and subsidies to make old homes energy efficient and add value.

7) Programs that show renters and landlords what they can do to save energy – and give the necessary materials for leak sealing, weatherizing windows, hot water heater wraps, and duct and pipe protection.

8) Full bike society includes not just bike lanes, but secure storage and shower rooms at work / school.

9) This includes bike classes for kids as soon as they no longer need training wheels.

10) Local food systems save trans-national and international shipping.

11) Government education that spreads information about the most cost-effective changes a household or neighborhood can make – e.g. solar water heating instead of solar electrical generation.

12) Making it easy to buy sustainable energy from your electric company.  (It took me three years to find BlueStar, my current provider.)

13) Walking school buses

14) Community gardens

15) Block parties (yes, I’m serious)

16) Individual subsidies for negawatts

17) Community-wide sustainable energy purchasing agreements (like businesses do)

18) I could go on, I will go on, in another post . . .

Things using less energy that are just plain better than the traditional alternative

Defining my terms:

Less energy – less conventional energy (electricity, fossil fuels) used at any part of the product life-cycle (embodied in production, transportation, use, disposal) – may use more human-energy

Just plain better – well – more efficient, more fulfilling, more enjoyable, happier, producing a greater quality of life, or less likely to annoy my cats

The list:

French press coffee plunger with organic fair-trade coffee

LLBean’s warranty – or any other company who will repair or replace without questions for the life of the product they sell you (I’ve used this one several times)

Other warranties – Hydro Flask, Droll Yankees bird feeders,  Jansport backpacks, and several other products from companies that take sustainability seriously

Home grown tomatoes

Blooming houseplants instead of cut flowers in winter: Christmas cactus, peace lily, kalanchoe,  African violets, orchids, and more

Mechanical (winding or self-winding) watches rather than those that use batteries

Small herb garden for basil, parsley, oregano, cilantro, catnip, and any other high-use herbs (much, much cheaper, too)

A growler of beer from your local brew-pub

Parks over large lawns, especially parks with swing sets and concrete animals

Deck of cards and a friend over computer solitaire

Hammocks – in general very low energy (and this link is a hint for my husband)

Dr. Bronner’s soaps (yes, it’s weird – but concentrated, high quality, and really can be used for the 18 uses listed on the package)

Windows and natural lighting

Home-made pizza

Buying small pieces by local artists

Denny’s doughnuts (of course)