Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are goblins green?

Today’s episode is in honor of Halloween and should be called orange machine rather than green machine. I was thinking how much energy goes into the production and distribution of bite size candy bars. If the candy is simply sugar based such as a life saver it actually has less energy per unit mass than a candy such as a Snickers or milk chocolate of equivalent mass. This is due to the fact that carbohydrates (sugar) have less energy content per unit mass than cocoa butter (lipid or fat). The chemical structure of a carbohydrate already is partially oxidized and hence it has less available chemical energy when it is digested. A lipid has no oxygen atoms in its chemical structure and therefore has more chemical energy available for digestion.

If one looks at the nutrition information on the package of foods one would see that fats yield 9 kilocalories per gram while sugar only yields 4 kilocalories per gram. Therefore we would be doing our kids a favor if we gave them individually wrapped Lifesaver Candies rather than individually wrapped Snickers Bars on Halloween night. There are approximately four thousand children on the Tiburon Peninsular that will be trick or treating on Halloween Night. If we assume each child is lucky enough to haul in half a pound of candy and that the candy is evenly split between sugar and chocolate one can perform the requisite math to calculate that the collective energy in all the treats given to the children here on the Peninsular on Halloween Night totals some 5,900,000 kilocalories. This amount of energy equals the fuel content of 203 gallons of gasoline.

If we assume that on Halloween Night each household on the Peninsular hands out a pound of candy, the 2,000 head of households also had the drive to the grocery store to purchase the candy. Assuming the trip to the grocery store required a quarter of a gallon of gasoline another 500 gallons of gasoline was expended to procure these treats. I am all for being green but believe that on a special night like Halloween one should not worry about carbon footprints but one should rather enjoy the festival. I do however have advice for the method of lighting the Jack-o’-lanterns and the kids’ flashlights. These should all be lit by light emitting diodes (LEDs) as LEDs require far less energy than older incandescent lights to emit the same amount of lumens.

There are some among us who believe handing out candy is not good for the children and prefer to give the kids stickers. I have a sweet tooth and feel that on this special night candy treats are in order. In some communities a large bonfire is lit for the celebration of Halloween. Of course lighting a large bonfire would significantly add to the carbon footprint of the event. Perhaps a wealthy community could buy carbon credits to offset the carbon emissions from the bonfire, but now we are really commercializing the celebration of Halloween even though old Alfalfa would recommend the purchase of such carbon credits. I always enjoy Halloween as it has many G words associated with the festival. These include ghosts, ghouls, gremlins, gourds, and of course goblins. Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Will vehicles get lighter?

What does one of the Marx Brothers have to do with green? Back in the 50s Groucho had the TV show called “You Bet Your Life”. These past weeks on Wall Street could also be called you bet your life. I have received several emails about the outcome of investing $1,000 in various shares or simply buying beer with the $1,000. The emails claim that had you bought $1,000 of beers and drank the beers you would still have $214 in left over aluminum in the empty cans. Had you bought Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers you would have boopkas.

I did a quick calculation of the mass of left over aluminum had you bought beers with your $1,000. Let’s assume one can buy the least expensive beer for $6 per case of 12 cans. The CRV per can is 5 cents hence the 12 cans would have a CRV of 60 cents or 10% of the cost of the beer. Excluding sales tax one can therefore expect to receive $100 for the recycling of $1,000 expended on beer. A minus 90% return these days is actually preferred to a minus 100% return.

Last week I bet my own life by having major surgery to remove my prostate. Thankfully the outcome was successful and the prognosis is excellent. I am reminded on Charles Dickens and his book “A Tale Of Two Cities” in which Dickens writes his famous lines that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. While recovering from the surgery and bearing the pain under medication I watched the TV in my hospital room and seeing how the financial world was falling apart, I was thinking about these words. For me the past week was the best of times, but for most it was the worst of times. But for all of us we still have the hope that there will be better times ahead. From a sustainability perspective the global economic slowdown will lower the rate of combustion of fossil fuels and hence will lessen the emissions of carbon dioxide. Conversely there may be much less capital available to retool the power generation sector and the vehicle fleet. I still believe we are on the path to using less fuel no matter what the level of the Dow Jones Index.

Remembering that mid grade gasoline prices peaked here at the 76 station on Tiburon Blvd. on June 19 at $4.79, I was pleased to see the price of the same gasoline was $3.63 yesterday. No doubt thanks to economic slowdown and us all being greener we will “enjoy” gasoline for less than $3 per gallon soon. I am an optimist and believe the future will be better than the present and the past. The US government will need to adopt energy efficiency policies. Both candidates in the final presidential debate agreed we will be weaned off oil imported from unfriendly countries within ten years. Hopefully we will not simply buy more oil from friendly countries. My prognostication is that we will be using 20% less oil in 2018 as by then many of the SUVs will have been recycled and the fleet of vehicles will be 1,000 pounds lighter on average. I guess one could use the beer investment analogy and calculate the residual value of the steel in a Hummer. Maybe the Governator will ask for legislation to set a CRV for his fleet of Hummers. In this case I would gladly support legislation to give SUV owners $1,000 to take their monsters to the junk yard. We could even have the duck come down with the $1,000 when the owner says the magic green word.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Should we be green or greedy?

Today’s episode is brought to you courtesy of one of the prime motivators of behavior. With all the news of the housing, banking, and economic crisis there has to be a connection between greed and green. The oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffet, has a saying “be fearful when all are greedy and be greedy when all are fearful”. Warren Hard-Thing Buffet has stepped in to buy a part of GE and also holds several other recent investments in hurting companies.

The connection between greed and green is just a substitution of one letter - the d for the n. Does it make sense to say “be fearful when all are green and be green when all are fearful”? Yes it does! When all the politicians claim to have alternative energy policies one should be fearful. We have the recent cases of hydrogen and ethanol to point to where there was this mass stampede by those who set policy to waste time, money, and precious food on thermodynamic dead ends. Should we be green when all are fearful? Yes there is a real opportunity to save ourselves and our planet by being green!

One silver lining from this economic mess is that Smart Cars are in and SUVs are out. The US consumed 4.4% less liquid hydrocarbons in the first eight months of this year versus last year. There is no doubt the trend will continue. We did however consume 3.5% more natural gas and 0.7% coal in the first eight months compared with last year. As liquid hydrocarbons account for about the same total energy use in our economy as natural gas and coal combined, we did manage to lower our total energy use so far this year. Also as natural gas is less carbon intensive than either liquid hydrocarbons and coal, our collective carbon footprint is also lower in 2008.

The real solution to our economic crisis lies in ending the decline in housing prices and putting people to work in new jobs. A good fraction of new jobs could well be in manufacturing more efficient vehicles, manufacturing and installing wind turbines or solar electric power generation systems. Several years back I gave a talk at a meeting in DC that pointed to the need in the USA for a new car company. My hypothesis was that we should “standardize” around an engine and drive train platform from a company like Toyota and mass customize the body, interior and paintjob of the car to suit motorist’s individual needs. VW bugs and Model T Fords were kind of like this business model but my idea is to go even further, where one engine/drivetrain company provides all the “inside” equipment for a vehicle and others assemble and customize vehicles for the consumers. This was the “Intel Inside” model for PCs when there was an opportunity to drive costs down and increase performance. If only I could get the ear of old Warren, I could then convince that I could produce the Berkshire Hat-Away roaster, a car that goes as fast as a Carrera yet costs as little as a Corolla. No doubt a few of us on the Tiburon Peninsular would don our British racing green driving caps, speed down the boulevard in the Berkshire with rag top down and salute the electromotive forces of fear and greed.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Should I BBQ with propane or charcoal?

As summer draws to an end I am using today's article to deal with the subject of BBQs and whether propane grills are greener than charcoal grills. Unfortunately there is no conclusive evidence that either method is greener than the other. Propane is a fossil fuel and adds to the concentration of greenhouse gases but burns without soot. Soot is a large contributor to global warming. The Sierra Club has voted at different times in favor of either method. They use the argument that charcoal from wood waste is carbon neutral however charcoal form living trees exacerbates global warming.

The Green Machine prefers propane for environmental, convenience, and food safety reasons. Even if the charcoal is made from waste wood that in turn came from trees that sequestered carbon, my point is it is better to leave the trees standing or rotting returning nutrients to the earth rather than convert them into charcoal In addition to soot there are dozens of chemicals in charcoal smoke that are carcinogenic. Propane is a simple hydrocarbon with the chemical formula C3H8. Combusting propane yields only carbon dioxide and water. Fat that drips onto the ceramic or steel burner plate in a propane fired BBQ also forms carcinogens. However if one uses burners that are aside of where the meat is cooking and indirect heat is used then the source of carcinogens is avoided. It is much more difficult to push the coals from side to side in the BBQ grill on avoid these carcinogens infiltrating your meal.

This discussion on charcoal has made me remember some research I did in 2003 for a book I published in Japanese on Sustainability. I discovered then that much of the forest in Somalia was being cut down to produce charcoal for export. I thought that these exports of charcoal would be to Europe or other neighboring African States. Sadly the export of the Somali charcoal was to Saudi Arabia where charcoal is called Black Gold and sells for more than $10 a bag. From a sustainability view point this is crazy. Saudi Arabia has more fossil fuel than anywhere else in the world and the Saudis should use their propane for BBQs and camp fires rather than charcoal.

Several US chemical companies plan to produce hydrogen, methanol, and ammonia by gasifying petroleum coke. I have the suggestion for these big chemical companies to package the coke in bags and sell this packaged coke to the Saudis. We could give the Somalis a portion of the revenues from the sale of the petroleum coke and save their acacia forests. This would be a win-win proposition for all and finally the US could export something back to the Saudis. I need to go back to the BBQ to tend to my meal because I know that independent of whether we BBQ with briquettes or with Propane the entire US population's total Carbon Dioxide emissions from our BBQs is less than 0.15 million tons a year or about 0.002% of our collective 6.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the USA last year. Remembering that chicken is greener than beef, I will put another chicken breast on the grill. If I was Australian I may put another shrimp on the BarB.