Monday, November 26

Found a Peanut!

Most nights, I can get to the bathroom and take care of business without a light. I have good night vision, for one, and there's a street light outside my southern facing windows for two. But every now and again... say I go to brush my teeth after working at the computer for a-while, or I bump something off the sink and onto the floor... I need a light. The fixture in the bathroom has four bulbs and that's just overkill for most of these late-night trips. I also night-lights throw too much light for normal use.

So this weekend I was delighted to find a one-led push-button light that I could put in the bathroom. It's called a Peanut and it's made by Zelco, makers of all sorts of other nifty lamp items. I spent about $20 to get three lights, and one of them lights up my bathroom just fine. I brushed my teeth last night by the light of a Peanut!

Tuesday, November 20

Note: I meant to put this up yesterday, but had a keyboard short, a software malfunction, and an internet outage. Makes you appreciate the days when things just work. ;-)

I've started writing on along with my posts here. Gather is a social networking site started by American Public Media (distributors of such fine radio programs as Marketplace, The Splendid Table, and A Prairie Home companion). You join the site as an individual and then you can go to groups to watch or participate in discussions. By joining groups, you can post articles (and photos and video) to the general conversation.

I ended up on the Gather site because it's where the future discussion on the issues raised by Marketplace's "Consumed" series is taking place. I signed on because in addition to some really good sustainability information, there's a good community vibe. I feel like it's a more social blogging environment.

I'm also getting to post about some of my other interest.

If you want to know more, click on the orange Gather button on the right. I'm

Friday, November 16

Post-Carbon Jobs

I talked about some of the thoughts my unemployment is triggering here, more today. So much of our economy is about buying and selling stuff! We don't make as much of the stuff in the US today, instead moving those jobs to places where labor is cheaper. We know we're over-buying. How many of the decorating shows on cable really start with going through and making sure only the stuff you need is in your house?

Imagine then, it's some period in the future and for some set of reasons, peak oil, the US signing on to Kyoto or something even more aggressive, scads of people walk away from retail jobs and buying and instead engage in a new economy.

What might that economy be based on?

A short-term answer might be found in Al Gore's call in September for "...a global Marshall plan to make the creation of jobs around the reduction of carbon the central principle ..." ( 9/27/2007) So that's a whole bunch of people who are at work blowing insulation into walls, insulating basements, replacing windows, and installing tankless waterheaters. And maybe a whole bunch of people administering programs where the energy saving from those efforts goes to pay for them. Also people installing more solar, and perhaps building trades that make additions to buildings like shades and overhangs.

But let's accept that while many Americans would love to have stable blue-collar jobs that paid a living wage and they're willing to do physical labor for it, there's another set of folks who won't.

So a second group of folks is available to re-populate grocery stores. Having more hands might make it economical to have grocery store become a kind of farmer's market... where the bulk of items sold are locally produced and are shelved with a few staples that are mass-produced. We might still do our own checking out, but imagine buying bags of in-store ground wheat.

A third group of people might be enabled to make a living doing creative work like performing music live, innovations in theater, busking, small scale publishing and things like that.

Judging by Gore's accepting a position with the Venture Capital firm Kleiner Perkins, my thoughts are only scratching the surface. What do you think a post-carbon economy would look like?

Thursday, November 15


American Public Radio's "Marketplace" program has an ongoing series on Consumerism called "Consumed". The landing page for the series is here. When I first heard the promo spot for the series, I hoped they'd be looking more at what our world might look like if retail purchasing was not the engine for our economy, but they may get there yet.

As it is, the articles on trash, second-hand economies, the impacts of transport, and ways to recommend lifestyle changes are interesting and come from a variety of voices. Poke around if you've got some time to spare.

Wednesday, November 14

Taking the Ego out of Driving: Part 1

One of the great problems of the US trying to comply with Kyoto is that it would require getting Americans out of their cars. Apparently this is an even more deadly rail of US politics than messing with Medicare. Why? I've come to believe it's because our egos are tangled up with driving... what we drive, how we drive, what other people see when they see us in our cars, the whole shebang.

How does this ego-car fusion take place? I think part of it is that we have constructed the car so that the driver occupies the same place in the car that the eyes occupy in our skulls. We have created robots to command and control (insert evil laugh).

I think another part of it is the abundance of choice. In a marketplace that is saturated with options that satisfy our needs... cars that will carry two, four, six, or eight people; cars that will allow us to carry feed to farm animals and tools to our homes and workplaces; we have the option to make choices based on want. So we buy cars that reflect our self-image. Cars that are beefy. Cars that are refined. Cars that are beautiful. Cars that are zippy.

The challenge, then, is to encourage car change without directly threatening this egoic connection. The Prius and the Smart Car do this by appealing to self-images that say, "I am smart and efficient." "I am lean and agile." That's a start. My local transportation district runs adds suggesting that riding the bus means you can arrive at work relaxed. That's a start, but it doesn't address that for many of us, riding the bus means remembering times in our lives when we were broke. So it evokes a feeling of being out of control. Especially when contrasted to the high-control experience of driving your own car where you want.

There is, however, a public transportation experience that is nearly universersally enjoyed, even with the hassles of being on someone elses schedule and not getting to be in the brain box... it's flying. Sure, lots of people claim to hate flying, but most of us fundamentally do enjoy it or else we would avoid taking trips that meant we had to fly. And we don't.

So, what is it that sets flying apart from riding the bus? Comfortable secure seats. A cabin that's cleaned thoroughly once a day. Privacy. Getting to the destination faster instead of more slowly. Clean, sheltered, safe places to wait.

There's still some ego involved in flying. You can buy more privacy, more comfort, and better food to distinguish yourself from others. But all air flight involves having people poke through your stuff so you can let someone else fling you through the air at 500 miles an hour.

In terms of getting people out of their cars, air travel has been a remarkable success, and perhaps it offers some suggestions for other applications.

Tuesday, November 13

Doing a Carbon Footprint Analysis

Soon after I was laid-off, a friend of mine asked me to do a carbon footprint analysis on her company's product for the marketing department. It was an interesting project and one I jumped on.

Poking around the web for the current standards of what is and what is not included, I discovered their request showed up in my in-box days after the very first Carbon Footprint for Consumer Products Conference had taken place. (Info on the 2008 conference here.) If folks like Starbucks are meeting to define what the carbon footprint of a consumer product is defined as, what chance do I have? I have the chance to define my scope narrowly and find what I can find on it.

I started by doing a system analysis of the problem. A system analysis is a way of figuring out which intersection of threads you want to confine yourself to in a web. If I generated a figure that reported the amount of CO2 emitted in manufacturing the product and delivering it to the customer, that would be an interesting number, but ultimately pointless. This is a unique product that is bought because of what it delivers, not because it is the best of a set of similar products. (And because it is a unique product, I am going to try to avoid giving any specifically identifiable information about it.)

Additionally, it isn't much of a stretch to say that any product's carbon footprint is directly related to i's weight. We can see that in the formulas shipping companies use for products. If it weighs more, it uses more fuel to move, and therefore releases more carbon dioxide.

So I decided the best thing to look at was the carbon released to power the product over its lifetime and to compare that to the carbon released to replace the benefit of the product over its lifetime. Imagine a counter-top cappuccino machine. I decided that since the same amount of coffee is going to travel similar distances to get to your mouth, I should look at the energy consumed by the machines. So I compared the carbon in making the electricity to run our product to the carbon released by going to the store for a similar amount.

Another way of phrasing my results looks like this: Is it better to run a 60 watt light bulb for 18 hours every day or to go to the store twice a week to pick up an item shipped from 1500 miles away?

It turns out that shipping food is very efficient. But getting to the store is not. My estimates were based on finding out the fuel costs of running a refrigerated semi-truck and how many of these items would be shipped in a container, and then comparing that to the average fuel economy of a car sold in the US in 2006 (21: EPA 2006 Fuel Economy Trends Report), and figured a round-trip to the store as 3 miles. To convert a gallon of gas to lbs of CO2, I used the Department of Energy's conversion factor of 19.554 lbs of CO2 released in burning a gallon of gas.

For the home-based part of the equation, I took the watts consumed by the product and multiplied that into daily, monthly, and lifetime figures. I used the EPA's figure of 1.55 lbs of CO2 released per kilowatt hour to calculate the energy.

Let's use these numbers to analyze working at home under a halogen light verses driving to a coffee shop or office where the lights would be on either way.

If you drive a standard car 3 miles, that's 1/7th of a gallon of gas. 19.564/7 = 2.79 lbs of carbon. A halogen desk lamp uses 300 watts, so it takes 3.3 hours to use one kilowatt hour. One kilowatt hour off the US grid* results in 1.55 lbs of carbon. So driving your car a tiny three miles will use produce as much carbon dioxide as staying at home with your lamp for nearly 7 hours.

But if you were to walk or ride a bike that 1.5 miles out and back, you get a double savings. Nearly 3 lbs. of carbon dioxide you didn't consume which you might "normally" have.

What could you "buy" with that 3lbs? 142 hours of using a 14 watt florescent bulb. 2 hours of cooking food in a GE convenction microwave oven. 15 hours of watching a 32" HD LED television. Or since we don't have a way to sequester surplus CO2 yet, maybe the life of a migrating bird.

*Whether you buy wind power or not, the power you use comes out of a reservoir of electricity generated by a number of means. You contribute more wind power to the total than might otherwise exist, but any electricity you use comes from all the streams if it comes from the grid. If you're generating your own power, you already know better than to use the $12 halogen lamp from the big box store. ;-)

Monday, November 12

Why houses don't use the information we already have

I love fireplaces. I know people who hate them, but I love them. I have fond childhood memories of getting to build fires and light them any time I wanted to at a certain neighbor's house, so there's a sense of connectedness and competency that comes from seeing one. Another part is the coziness that the smell of pine smoke hanging in the winter air evokes. I've never had to depend on a fireplace for heat, so it's recreational. And I make fires so rarely that I just buy pre-chopped wood, so there isn't work associated with it.

My childhood home had a fireplace chimney on the roof, but the space the fireplace would have been in under it was a sun room. Someone long before my parents bought the house took out the fireplace. I always wondered about this, and vowed that I'd never do that.

Well, I have a fireplace now, and I'm seriously thinking about doing exactly that. It is the fireplace that makes my living room cold.

First, there there the masonry which conducts my heat outside. Second there is a pipe that allows air warmed through the glass doors to move upward toward the sky. Third, and most frustratingly, the fireplace is located in a bump-out in an external wall and the bumpout is capped above ground. So this conduit for the warm air in my house is exposed to the elements on 5 out of six sides. Finally, the cap on the bottom on my bumpout is rough plywood. And when I knock on it, I can hear the firebox echoing. So it is an uninsulated exposed masonry extension of my living room. I feel like my house is mooning the world.

When I was house shopping I found myself wondering over and over, "With 6,000 years of building experience, why do we still do things like this?" My house was the first I'd seen that I didn't have that reaction too... all the windows are double-paned, the roof space is insulated, I share a wall with neighbors for better use of heating resources, the roof lines and decks are positioned to provide shelter from the summer sun but access for the winter sun, and the floors are partitioned into modest-sized rooms that open onto shared areas.

Then there's this darn chimney. So why do we do things like this?

The simple answer is it's the market. I want the best house for the money I have to spend, and I'm more likely to respond to the visible things inside -- the fireplace -- than the care taken in construction. If I wanted to buy a house this size with a pre-insulated basement, insulation in the external walls, an efficient fireplace, great window placement, and energy star appliances, they're available just up the street... for a mere doubling of the cost. If I want all that, and my current house payment, I'd have a condo in a transitional urban neighborhood.

This, of course, is also the reason why there are so many more houses like mine than there are like the houses up the street.

Friday, November 9

What's "A Lot"?

My friend Monkey and I've been chatting in the comments section of my September Quote of the Day about what the "a lot" in the quote means. The quote comes from a forthcoming book Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, by David J.C. MacKay as noted in this post.

MacKay is a Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Physics Department at the University of Cambridge and the gist of his book is to take known sources of sustainable energy, estimate their production at full implementation, and to compare that to current energy use. The result is that for Britons there is some cutting back on electrical consumption to be done before they get under the sustainable threshold (no carbon-emitting sources of electricity). There's a much bigger change required if they are also to avoid nuclear sources.

The quote I lifted was MacKay's justification for setting a threshold of a 10% reduction in energy consumption for the efficiency measure to make his list of things Great Britain needs to focus their political will on. His contrasting point was that there's a massive marketing campaign focused on getting people to unplug wall chargers when they're not being used. Here he compares the power draw of all the chargers he could find in his house -- 0.5 Watts -- to the total average power consumption of the average Brit -- 5000 Watts. So the action of unplugging chargers is focused on 1/10000th of the average power consumption of a Briton. If the world cut it's total power consumption by 1/100000th, we'd hardly notice the difference.

So, if we're going to advertise, if the politicians and greens are going to bloviate, let's do it about things that cut at least 1/10th of our individual and national use.

In terms of looking at what changes I can make as a home-owner and what to focus my time and money on, this yard stick bumps certain projects to the top of the list and other projects lower down. Two things that make the above 10% list are replacing my current fridge with a smaller and efficient model, and replacing my water heater with a tankless water heater. Things that are much lower on the list are hanging a wash line and unplugging the microwave when I'm not using it. These are good things, but they have much less pay back.

Perhaps Monkey is looking for an action point. If you were to go through your life and make a list of all the ways you could save energy or gas or heating oil, and one of those items turned up a 10% savings, focus on getting that done. A list of things to consider:

  • Share a ride to work once a week.
  • Hibernate or shut off your computer rather than leaving it on.
  • If your fridge is nearly empty or contains only compost and condiments, consider unplugging it.
  • Change your bulbs to CFLs. Don't use halogen lamps unless they're also working as a space heater.

Thursday, November 8

The Green Job Search

Man! Just when I'm ready to start posting again, I have the freaky experience of being laid off, again, on Tuesday, September the 11th. I have a couple months of perspective on looking, and while I'm not employed yet, I think I have enough objectivity to start to talk about it.

I've been thinking a lot about my Grandfather. When he returned home from his time in WWII, he needed a job. He found one at the nursery around the corner. It wasn't the electronics job he had the skills for, but it was *a* job, and it helped pay the mortgage. I've gotten the impression that this wasn't cable-bill sized pay the mortgage, but that he was actually covering all or most of his mortgage by a job he could walk to.

If I took the rough average of home prices around me, let's say $160,000, and figured the mortgage as .8% of 80% of that home price ($128,000 with 20% down), that's $1024 per month. Now, that figure should be 28% of one person's salary. 1024/.28 = 3657.14 per month, or $44,000 per year.

So, what are the chances that most of the people I work around could find one job in walking distance that would pay that? Pretty slim. There's the Subway, the Burger King, and the Blockbuster. The grocery store might have paid that at one time, but wages paid at grocery stores have been dropping. If I want to ride the bus a couple of miles, there are two Wal-marts, but even if you can get a full-time job there (rare), you're looking at about $23,000.

So, where does the income to buy these houses come from? From people getting in cars and driving to clusters of offices.

Over the summer, I read Blue Sky Dream which is a child's view of the creation of the suburbs. His dad worked in the aeronautics industry and his family was transferred to "The Valley of Heart's Delight" in California just as the transformation from fruit-growing farms to suburban sprawl was starting. By the time he'd graduated from high school there were no longer any fruit farms in the San Fernando valley.

Now that I am looking for work as a professional in one of those office clusters, I see up close one of the elements he talks about. Corporations are indifferent to where their employees live. On the one hand, that's a positive privacy thing. But on the other hand, since every company hires the best qualified people who submit an application during the time a posting is open -- essentially randomizing the process -- qualified person X who lives 3 miles away ends up working for The Other Guy, 25 miles away, while equally qualified person Y commutes past The Other Guy to get to our company.

I feel foolish for trying to find work within a couple miles of home. It seems impractical and hopelessly naive. But I suspect that one major piece to getting to our post-carbon world is figuring out how to have most people do exactly that.

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NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.