The Green Revolution
How to live Longer, Get Richer, Stay Healthier and Save the Planet
By Jeff Swenerton
Ever since Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize for a PowerPoint presentation, we’ve been buried under an avalanche of information about the environmental impact of our lives on the planet, from the products we buy to the way we get to point B. Buy a base layer at REI and because it’s made of fossil fuels, it’s responsible for the equivalent of a dozen Hummers pulling a thousand tons of coal up a mountainside made of fallen old-growth logs clear-cut from an Amazonian rainforest to make room for slash-and-burn subsistence farming by an indigenous population edged out of their native lands by unscrupulous oil companies drilling for heavy petroleum to process into your 50 percent nylon, moisture-wicking Dri-FIT shirt. Hope you’re comfortable, planet killer.
When did this happen? When did simply living become so fraught with unintended consequences? For most of the last few years, we’ve seen this new kind of fuzzy math translating the footprint of our lives into tons of heat-trapping gasses and particulate matter, making formerly benign activities suddenly lethal. The numbers are always big (an average family of two is responsible for emitting 41,500 pounds of carbon dioxide over the course of a year), and the scenarios always dire (seas rising, Arctic melting, millions of environmental refugees), but what are we supposed to do about it, besides slowly (and mostly unintentionally) tuning it out?
Environmental issues have been front-page news for long enough that we can assume everyone gets the point, but the actions we should take aren’t always clear. Are swapping out a light bulb and taking BART really all we’re on the hook for? The press deserves some blame for indulging in climate-change mania (The. Biggest. Story. Of. All. Time.) without putting the climate crisis in perspective. That is, how much pollution is too much? What is a ton of greenhouse gasses anyway? How much can we produce before Walnut Creek becomes the new Mavericks surf spot? And if global warming is imminent and we’re already over the brink, what’s the use of scaling back our activities now?
Since the industrial age began in the mid-1700s, the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is up more than 30 percent. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says this is definitely caused by human activity and definitely enough to cause climate change. “[T]his concentration has not been exceeded during the past 420,000 years, and likely not during the past 20 million years. The rate of increase over the past century is unprecedented,” the UNIPCC report says.
The dirty secret is that to avoid catastrophe, we need a massive investment in infrastructure and research and development in the sectors that are the most polluting—energy generation and transportation—and it will take all the political will and private sector support there is and more.
Here’s the size of the problem: According to the UNIPCC, we have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions nearly 85 percent by 2050 to avoid passing the point of no return. Eighty-five percent. That’s a massive number however you look at it, especially considering that our energy needs in this country are growing almost 1 percent a year.
This number can be achieved by eliminating all fossil-fuel use in the transportation and electricity-generation sectors. This means shutting down every coal and natural gas plant on the planet and keeping every car in the garage, train in the yard and plane on the ground. It means investing in renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal power on a massive scale and taking another look at nuclear energy—even if we haven’t solved the issue yet of what to do with the incredibly dangerous waste or how to supply reactors with enough water in states that are already running dry.
We need to wholly swap out our fossil fuel–dependent infrastructure with one powered from clean generation, like using renewable energy as a source of energy for next-generation batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. We must continue to research biofuels as alternative fuel sources (and quit considering corn-based ethanol, which requires putting in as much energy as we get out).
While this is being done at state and federal levels, we do need to do our part in reducing energy demand by investing as much as possible in energy efficiency. Yes, it sounds like fiddling at the margins, but if we can reduce our energy demand by 20 percent with a few light bulbs, spanking-new appliances and trips on BART, that’s ultimately less distance we have to travel.
Climate change is the biggest environmental problem, but it is by no means the only one. Whether the planet is heating up irrevocably or not, we still have serious issues with pollution, deforestation and over-fishing, among other predicaments. But as serious as these problems are, there are fixes, and often these fixes involve economic opportunities.
By raising a general awareness of environmental issues, we can build critical support against practices that affect the health of many communities, especially struggling ones near polluted areas, like power plants and shipping ports. By shifting away from coal-fired electricity plants, we can avoid the massive pollution and deforestation that results from coal mining in places like Kentucky, Montana and West Virginia. We can reduce the incidence of respiratory disease in residents who live close to the plants and eliminate the toxic lakes that collect in the basins of stadium-sized surface mines. By shifting our priorities to renewable energy, we can bring needed jobs to places like eastern Colorado, Montana and North and South Dakota, which have some of the strongest and steadiest sources of wind (not to mention, good environments to grow switchgrass, one of the most promising sources for cellulosic ethanol).
The economic opportunities in this new green revolution are astounding. Consider the $3.4 billion from venture capitalists invested in clean technology last year, funding research in next-generation renewable energy. New research and development in clean technologies will introduce an incredible number of environmentally friendly products to a market that is virtually endless, as people gradually swap out older products for newer, more efficient ones—and even begin generating power at home.
In Oakland Magazine’s April 2007 report on the environment, the focus was on what the city of Oakland was doing to lessen its footprint. This year, it’s your turn. We’re looking at the things you can do now that make the most difference. The advice of the experts: Go for the big targets. This means electricity use and transportation. Become as efficient as possible, both in the power you use and the fuel you burn. Then buy renewable energy and consider carbon offsets. Put yourself in the frame of mind that every shard in our over-manufactured lives has value once again, because we pay dearly to mine for it, manufacture it, transport it, package it and dispose of it. Everything—from a single piece of paper to a ziplock bag to an obsolete cell phone. Use less and recycle everything you can’t compost. We’ve lived our whole lives as unabashed consumers. It’s about time we started taking up a little less space.
Building and RemodelingYou know the best thing about living in California? No, not that. Or that. Or even that. The best thing about living in California is that we don’t get snowed on four months out of the year. Energy costs have skyrocketed over the past five years, with heating oil prices nearly doubling and propane jumping 75 percent. If you lived in one of the flyover states, your average heating bill for the year could be somewhere north of $1,700.
But just because we live in civilized climes, where we don’t need tanks of heating oil buried under the patio, doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from a household tune-up. Maintaining buildings in the United States costs nearly a third of our greenhouse gas contribution (as much as half when you factor in their construction), so you can get a lot of mileage out of some simple exercises in energy efficiency.
To start, look to the current benchmark for efficient homes, the German passivhaus standard, which has been around since the early 1990s. It sets guidelines to keep homes as close to airtight as possible, with superinsulation in the walls and attic (new insulation is much more efficient than the last-century batting you’re probably using) and special emphasis at the joints where the walls, floors and ceilings come together. Windows normally leak heat like crazy, but modern triple-glazed ones that are filled with argon or krypton gas and covered with special coatings can capture more heat from the sun than they leak out as waste heat. Special heat-recovery systems can capture heat before it gets vented and help circulate it throughout the house.
The amazing thing about some European homes in colder areas that follow passivhaus guidelines is that that they don’t even need central heating systems. Because the homes don’t leak, the structures can stay at a comfortable temperature just from the heat generated from lights, appliances and bodies.
So what does this mean for you? Start with the attic. Most homes are underinsulated, and attics are drafty. Get very thick roof insulation, building it up to an R-value (a measure of the insulating property of the material; different types of insulation have different values) of 50 to 60. Replace windows with more efficient “Low-E” (for emissivity), double-paned glass. And finally, because electricity is so polluting to produce, when it comes time to replace your appliances, get Energy Star–rated ones. You’ll get a rebate from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (www.pge.com/res/rebates), and the more energy-efficient appliances will make up the cost difference quickly.
Electricity and EnergyWind turbines are some of the most graceful machines you will ever see. Standing more than 300 feet high, their white blades reach across nearly the length of a football field. They’re so long that even in a stiff wind, they can take four seconds to make a complete revolution. They turn whenever the wind blows—no shoveling coal into a blast furnace or piping natural gas up from the ocean floor necessary. In this way, they seem a more civilized way to create power. Unlike almost every other form of generation we have, wind power doesn’t create heat to turn water to steam. And in just three hours, one turbine can provide enough electricity to power a home for a year.
The trouble is, wind generation in this country is practically a footnote. It provides slightly more than 1 percent of our electricity, far outweighed by coal (49 percent), natural gas (20 percent) and nuclear (19 percent). In fact, take all the renewables together—every wind turbine, solar panel, geothermal plant and small hydropower generator in the country, and they barely accounted for 2 percent of our electricity in 2007. It’s a dismal number considering the size of the problem: Electricity generation in this country is responsible for more than a third of our greenhouse gas emissions.
The main reason more renewables haven’t been installed is cost. Coal plants are much cheaper to build because the fuel is an extremely abundant resource whose development is heavily subsidized. Not to mention that the true costs of coal generation are borne by society—the dangerous mines, the strip-mined forests and toxic lakes that are left behind; the massive amounts of lead, mercury and sulfur dioxide released into the atmosphere when coal is burned; and the close to two billion tons of CO2 per year that contribute to climate change.
That’s why supporting renewable energy is more important than ever before. PG & E is one of the dwindling number of utilities not offering green power to its customers, but you can buy it yourself, thanks to renewable energy certificates, or RECs, and that’s exactly what you should do.
Here’s how they work: Because individual electrons on the grid can’t be routed to one house instead of another, it is impossible to differentiate power created from renewable sources. So in the late 1990s, electricity and the “environmental benefits” of renewable energy (namely the avoided emissions of, say, the natural gas plant that would have been there instead) began being sold separately. The electricity would be sold to one buyer (usually the local utility), and the environmental benefit, represented by the certificate, could be sold to anyone, in any state, through retailers.
It’s not as loosey-goosey as it sounds. RECs contain a unique number assigned by a sophisticated tracking system for each megawatt-hour of renewable electricity produced. The tracking number contains specific details, like the type of generation, date produced, and so on. So if you want to specifically buy wind RECs from California, or solar from New Jersey, you can. And when you buy that REC, the number gets permanently “retired” so no one else can claim it.
Prices are determined by many factors, including supply of a particular type of REC, which is largely influenced by how often the wind blows or the sun shines. Wind goes for about $2.50, unless it’s from California, where it fetches $10. Solar is about $6 nationwide.
If you buy an REC, you’re buying renewable energy, period. It’s not a donation program, and you’re not “supporting” a wind farm; you’re buying a real environmental commodity that was already produced and is available for sale, just like, say, an organic tomato. By buying that commodity, you’re increasing demand for renewables and doing your part to reduce the vast cost advantages fossil-fuel plants already enjoy.
FoodAh, food. There for me in good times and bad. The source of (and solution to) so many of life’s dilemmas. When did our relationship become so complicated?
The answer is, a long time ago. Since any food is available any time of the year, we don’t have to wait a season or two to indulge ourselves. With tomatoes available in the winter and squash in the summer, we long ago lost the connection between the food and the land. Some might argue that one great advantage of a complex civilization is that it allows most of us to engage in pursuits other than growing food, but there are two main side effects: First, we’re breaking the carbon cycle by not composting our organic waste (see Waste and Recycling, p. 21), and second, we’re hauling our food from far-flung locations by truck and plane, two of the most polluting ways to get your kale.
What to do? Check the dictionary. “Locavore” was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 Word of the Year. It describes someone who tries to eat food grown or produced within a (usually) 100-mile radius of home. If you want to become one yourself, there are three main ways to do this (a fourth, if you count growing at home). First, look for the label when you shop. Whole Foods labels its produce that has traveled less than a day by truck from the farm as “locally grown,” and the Berkeley Bowl always stocks an enormous selection of local produce. Second, hit up the farmers markets, and send your money right to the localish farmer (more money stays in the community than if you bought your foods at a chain). For Oakland markets, check out www.urbanvillageonline.com, and the awesome site guide.buylocalca.org, which tells you what stores are stocking locally grown goods. Don’t forget to buy local produce when it’s in season, and avoid out-of-season cherries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, tomatoes, bell peppers and asparagus (foods the Natural Resources Defense Council claims are the most often shipped by air). And lastly, get a share in a farm participating in community-supported agriculture. Check out the United States Department of Agriculture’s online guide at www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml.
Grocery Stores that Carry Locally Grown Foods in Alameda County
• Alameda Natural Grocery
• Berkeley Bowl
• Berkeley Natural Grocery
• Dan’s Fresh Produce
• Farmer Joe’s
• Giovanni’s Deli
• June Taylor–The Still-Room
• Market Hall Produce
• Monterey Market
• Piedmont Grocery
• Star Grocery
• The Cooperative Grocery
• Vital Vittles
• Whole Foods
WaterThe East Bay watershed, where 90 percent of our water originates, is a 577-square-mile expanse of oak trees and rolling hills in the Sierra foothills about 75 miles northwest of Yosemite National Park. Nearly two-dozen rivers and streams trickle down from the Sierra snowpack and into the Mokelumne, a deep, rugged river that flows into Pardee Reservoir in Calaveras County before being funneled into an aqueduct that runs 150 miles to Walnut Creek.
It seems incongruous to bring this up during a rainy season where the paint on our cars has been power-washed off by winter storms and reservoirs are overflowing, but California is one of those places that alternates between dusty dry and pouring wet, and one year of bounty doesn’t guarantee it will stay like this for long.
In wet years, our five main reservoirs almost never fall below their 20-foot low-water line. But 2006–2007 was the driest year on record in many California counties, with drought conditions across the state. 2006 was the hottest year on record in most of the country. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, which manages the water supply for Alameda County, declared a water shortage and asked customers to voluntarily conserve water, which they did, to the tune of 1,679 gallons per customer.
But there isn’t enough of a buffer in the event of a real water shortage. EBMUD can produce more than 500 million gallons of water a day, but demand is already more than 300 million. If we get a few dry years, the water agency might have to ration water by more than half. That’s why it’s important to put water-conservation measures in place now.
Start with the thirstiest member of your house. Your laundry is responsible for more than a quarter of your water use, so upgrade by getting a more water-efficient front-loading washer. You can even get as much as $200 back in rebates from EBMUD, which offers them for washers certified by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (this actually works; I’ve done it. See www.waterenergysavings.com).
The next biggest water hogs are your faucets, including garden irrigation. Water only at night or early morning, and get water-efficient showerheads. If you’re feeling fancy and happen to be upgrading your kitchen anyway, consider installing the latest in must-have appliances: a foot-pedal activated sink. If you need an excuse, just tell ’em it’s for the planet.
The Green EconomyIn early December 2007, the mayors of Berkeley, Emeryville, Richmond and Oakland met together for a press conference along with the chancellor of UC Berkeley and the director of the Berkeley National Laboratory to announce the formation of the East Bay Green Corridor Partnership, an agreement to promote green-sector jobs in the East Bay. Standing up one after the other on a temporary stage at the headquarters of SunPower, a solar manufacturer, in a former Ford manufacturing plant on the Richmond waterfront, the mayors and university administrators all spoke about the economic opportunities of the coming green revolution, and how the East Bay was, with its universities and ready labor force, ready to receive them.
This notion that the revolution will actually spur job creation and economic development doesn’t get a lot of play, but it makes sense—energy efficiency demands that we not only turn off the lights when we leave the room, but that we also buy brand-new light bulbs, washers, water heaters and, often, cars that have been re-engineered to be cleaner and more efficient.
New standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions—like California’s Assembly Bill 32, aimed at reducing the state’s greenhouse gas contribution by more than 80 percent by 2050—mean that we will need to promote cleaner ways of generating electricity. While some argue that AB 32 will result in job loss as energy prices increase and industries move out of California to avoid the emissions caps, the record shows that wind and solar companies are booming (SunPower’s stock went up 350 percent in 2007), and many of them are having a hard time finding enough skilled “green-collar” workers to keep up with demand for installers and technicians.
Nancy Floyd, the founder and managing director of Nth Power, a venture capital firm in San Francisco that invests in energy technology, says there has been a radical shift in funding over the last few years towards “clean-tech” industries like renewable energy, biofuels and energy storage. A recent study found U.S. venture capital investment in clean energy technologies quadrupled between 2000 and 2007, increasing from 6 percent of total investments to 9.1 percent, with a 70 percent increase between 2006 and 2007. That’s $2.7 billion spent on clean tech in 2007.
“It’s remarkable how much growth we’re seeing,” she says. “There’s the rising cost of energy; coal has been up the last five years; China and India are rising as global competitors; there is aging infrastructure; and energy security and resource-depletion issues. And they aren’t going away; they’re only getting stronger.”
You can help promote green industries in several ways. First, buy renewable energy (See Electricity and Energy, p. 11). Then look for the logo: Companies that choose to use recycled materials, buy renewable energy, become more efficient and reduce waste can qualify for programs like the Bay Area Green Business Program, Green Seal and Green-e Marketplace that let them use a logo to tout their green credentials. And finally, support organizations training workers in green-collar jobs, like the Ella Baker Center’s partner program Green For All (www.greenforall.org), the Apollo Alliance (www.apolloalliance.org), GRID Alternatives (www.gridalternatives.org) and Solar Richmond (www.solarrichmond.org).
TransportationAside from the power plants we use to generate our electricity, transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The impact from our ever-increasing daily commutes and from trucking and flying goods all over the world is enormous, and as long as we continue to buy our blueberries and Blu-Ray DVD players from overseas, this source of pollution isn’t likely to go away soon.
But if we’re going to trim the biggest source of fat, it’s by far the miles we spend in the car on the road. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, passenger cars are the biggest offenders by far in the transportation sector, accounting for more than a third of emissions. This being America, trucks come in a close second. All the rest of our transportation burden, from trucking and shipping over the ocean, to trains and planes, comes in with less impact than dragging our butts to the Aeron chair every day. But what can the average day-jobber do?
A report by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which studied ways to mitigate the effects of driving, conceded that efforts to get Americans to drive less have largely failed because we’ve spread out our suburbs and cities so thinly that we don’t have any real alternatives to driving long distances—transit only works when there are concentrations of jobs and residences, a clear point A to point B. Most of us simply don’t have any other alternative than to drive to work.
So the solutions are severalfold: First, make more efficient cars. And raise the fuel-economy standards in cars and light trucks—they’ve been stuck at the same pitiful level since Gandhi won best picture (and perhaps much earlier, considering the Model-T Ford got 25 mpg). We also need to invest in alternative fuels from sources other than corn, which requires as much energy to grow and process as we get back from ethanol. Your part of the solution is buying more fuel-efficient cars, driving slower and keeping tires pumped up. And drive less, whether that means working from home a couple days a week, moving closer to your job or rediscovering the joys of public transit. If you can, haul your bike out of the garage and take it a couple days a week to BART or your job—it’ll give you your freedom back, drop a few pounds from your midsection and take a load off your wallet.
Waste and RecyclingOur farmland is worn out. For nearly a century, farmers have needed to amend their soils with increasing amounts of petroleum-based fertilizer in order to grow our corn, wheat and soybeans. Where did all the soil’s nutrients go? Look up into the sky.
When your organic waste, such as food scraps and yard clippings, is thrown out, it gets compacted under a heavy layer of trash in the landfill and covered up with soil to form heavy, dense strata. In this oxygen-free environment, it breaks down much more slowly than it would if it were being composted on the surface. It also generates huge amounts of methane, a nasty greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming potential.
Many landfill operators have begun flaring the methane, or even using it in electricity generation (which is considered renewable energy). But the goal for waste-management officials these days is to get the organic matter out of the landfills by encouraging people to use their green composting bins. The plant and food matter the city collects is taken to industrial composting facilities in the central valley and Gilroy, where it’s turned into rich, loamy soil for farmers and wineries.
But that isn’t the way it works the vast majority of the time; composting rates in Alameda County are hovering just above 50 percent. Nature’s plan is for plants to die and break down back into the soil for another lap through the system. These days, because yard and food waste is thrown into landfills instead of being sent back to farms as compost, we have to amend farmland with fertilizer. This uses petroleum, a diminishing resource, and the nitrogen-rich fertilizer also destroys marine ecosystems in the rivers, lakes and deltas it washes into. On top of that, the process is a step backward in trying to wean ourselves off oil.
“Organics are the last big piece of the pie,” says Peter Slote, a waste and recycling specialist for Oakland. “We need to get that stuff out of the landfill. There is a methane increase in landfills and a nutrient loss in farms. Why would we design a system where we take the nutrients out of the land and put them into the sky as greenhouse gas, only to get amendments from petroleum?”
So make sure to use your green compost bin for all your yard waste and food scraps. A list of what can and can’t go in is available at www.oaklandpw.com/Page298.aspx. It’s good for the ground, and it’ll help clear the air.
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