Save the planet — procreate less!

Travis and Sadiye Rieder read a book with their 2-year-old daughter, Sinem, in their Maryland home

You can drive an electric vehicle powered by rooftop solar panels, replace your old appliances and light bulbs with energy-sipping versions, recycle compulsively, compost, give up meat, eschew air travel, buy used-everything, make your own sandals out of old tires. You can do these and all sorts of other things in your personal quest to lower your carbon footprint. Doing so will indeed mitigate to some tiny degree the climate change that, despite the best efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is hurtling us into a slew of potentially catastrophic unknowns as this century steams ahead.

But if you truly care about the climate and the future of a human civilization that developed in the current temperature regime, you could do something that has a much bigger impact: have one less kid. Or more precisely, says Johns Hopkins University philosopher and bioethicist Travis Rieder, one-half less kid. (Those who have reared children would recommend the top, rather than the bottom, half). [more]

March for Science Denver 2017

March for Science Denver 2017

It’s a bit embarrassing to say, but I attended my first political march just a couple of weeks back — March for Science Denver. Brought along the girls and their good pal Laine. They were surprised that someone as open/occasionally strident about politics hadn’t put feet to concrete for political purposes before. I said, no, you’ve got me by 35 years on this one.

Part of the reason I hadn’t attended a march is that I’d attended marches, but as a newspaper reporter covering them. As a reporter, your strident opinions/biases are kept quiet, generally by policy (political contributions were, for example, forbidden by Scripps’ scripture, the then-owner of the Daily Camera).

Anyway, we hand-made signs and last-minute Saran-wrapped them, not having interpreted the weather forecast as accurately as might have, for example, Mike Nelson, who gave a great kickoff speech.

I’ve not found crowed estimates, but I’d say 20,000, minimum. Many people. And many great signs. A good toe-dipping in fighting-the-good-fight grassroots protest. I took a lot of photos; a selection below.

Fear-Ignorance-Hate chemistry graphic

The signs at a march on science are bound to be good (and geeky). We weren’t disappointed.

 

March for Science Denver 2017

Folks gathered beforehand at the Civic Center Park amphitheater.

 

March for Science Denver 2017

Junior scientists were also represented.

 

March for Science Denver 2017

This was, obviously, as much protest against our administration’s anti-science bent as a celebration of empirical methods.

 

March for Science Denver 2017

This one I had to read twice.

 

March for Science Denver 2017

German was represented, even. (“Trump is dangerous to our planet”)

 

March for Science Denver 2017

This is far more constructive than, for example, “I’m with stupid.”

 

March for Science Denver 2017

Down 17th Street

 

The home team’s signs were constructed of cardboard with paper glued on, affixed to 1/2 inch PVC pipe that, before I’d sawed shorter, had served as misconceived structural elements of a hastily erected backyard sun shade some years back. I glue-gunned them to the cardboard with enough epoxy to hold together a Boeing 787. Nonrecyclable plastic wrap protected from nonexistent precip.

 

March for Science Denver 2017

Another good sign.

 

March for Science Denver 2017

My contribution to the visual clutter

 

March for Science Denver 2017

The Groundhog Day meme made an appearance. (“Only in America do we accept weather predictions from a rodent but deny climate change evidence from scientists.”)

 

March for Science Denver 2017

After a quick online search, it appears that this gentleman’s sign refers to the third derivative of the position function, which is “jerk.” 

 

March for Science Denver 2017

Beaker makes his beeping and meeping opinions known.

 

March for Science Denver 2017

More paid protesters (in Smashburgers, after the event) before the Colorado statehouse.

Regs not the problem for oil business

oil

The incoming Trump administration and the oil and gas industry like to talk about the burdens of environmental red tape. But in Deloitte’s “reality check” of the top six issues facing the oil and gas industry in 2015, regulatory burden is absent. These are mostly big companies for whom compliance is a part of doing business and a manageable cost of operations. The entrepreneurs running wildcat operations aren’t strangers to this side of the ledger, either. And keep in mind that these companies, averaged over time (it’s a cyclical business, the world’s largest industry) make money hand over fist and can afford to do their part in minimizing the environmental impacts. For every Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL, there are hundreds of projects that go forward unhindered.

Industry-bought statements by the likes of the American Petroleum Institute in the wake of the joint U.S.-Canadian protection of thousands of square miles of seas from offshore drilling that talk about the importance of these places for energy security – they’re a joke. Arctic offshore today accounts for about 0.025 percent of U.S. crude production. The Gulf of Mexico offshore produces 23 percent of all U.S. crude and basically all of the offshore production.

We won’t need it long-term, either. Electrification of the vehicle fleet will drive down domestic demand, meaning less oil will satisfy it over time, obviating the need to drill sensitive areas that threaten tourism and the environment (not even getting into global warming here).

Shell abandoned its drilling plans in the Arctic, where an oil spill would be catastrophic: imaging trying to clean up after a Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, but in 40 mph winds at minus-20, with no local fishing fleets or anyone else to help out (caribou being notoriously lazy). The industry would have to self-fund the entire cleanup infrastructure, even if they found a bonanza of oil, which Shell at least didn’t.

Exxon Mobil had a “rough” year in 2016, its net incoming falling by about half – still, it made $16 billion on $260 billion in sales. God knows what their regulatory costs were, showing up in various accounting buckets all over the world. But this company’s – and most oil companies’ – profits hinge not on the relatively minor costs of doing their part in keeping the planet more livable, but on the whims of global oil production and demand.

My solar panels save their volume in coal every year

Stack of solar panels in a garage

Solar panels tend to generate substantially less electricity when in garages.

Given the success of the global climate talks in Paris, it’s time to post a hyper-local piece on our household’s greatest carbon-mitigation endeavor: our solar panels.

Specifically, I got a wild hair to compare the volume occupied by the stack of solar panels to the volume of the coal that wasn’t incinerated thanks to their non-garage-based efforts over the past five-plus years.

I can do this because, thanks to a wicked hailstorm in June, we needed a new roof, which in turn meant our solar panels had to come off temporarily. They’ve been off since late October now, collecting very little sunlight where I’d typically park in our two-car garage (Denver’s roof inspectors face a crazy backlog, which today’s ten inches of snow is not helping). But this allowed me to actually measure this block of solar panels and, out of curiosity, figure out how much coal they’ve spared.

Solar panels in garage

A garage is not known as an appropriate natural habitat for solar panels.

Our east-southeast-facing, 2.86 kilowatt system (thirteen 220-watt REC Solar modules) generated 20,597 kilowatt hours of electricity from the time it went live on July 21, 2010 through their removal on Oct. 14, 2015.

Local utility Xcel Energy’s 2014 fuel mix in Colorado was as follows:

18.90% wind
1.20% solar
1.70% hydro
0.00% biomass
52.70% coal
25.30% natural gas

Note wind number — big. Solar is way up from just a few years ago, too, but still a rounding error.

Focusing on coal, multiplying the kilowatt hours the panels generated by the percentage of coal in Xcel’s Colorado energy mix, the panels displaced 10,855 kilowatt hours of coal-fired electricity. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that it takes about 1.05 pounds of coal to generate one kilowatt hour of electricity, so that’s 11,374 pounds/5,170 kilograms/2.58 metric tons. (Note that, assuming coal is almost all carbon, burning it would amount to about 3.6 times that weight in carbon dioxide, thanks to the two Os hooking up with each of those liberated Cs).

Five cubic yards, in dirt form

Five cubic yards, in dirt form (courtesy Guins Yard)

Assuming 337 cubic centimeters of bituminous coal per pound (trust me), we get 135.4 cubic feet, or, thankfully, almost precisely 5 cubic yards of coal that wasn’t burned.

The panels themselves, stacked and parked in the garage, consume 1.07 cubic yards.

So: the panels have saved four times their volume in coal over their lifetime. They will, assuming they don’t degrade too much over their 20-year lifespan and that Xcel doesn’t continue to cut back on coal (this assumption, I hope, proves false) obviate their volume in burned coal — a cubic yard — every year they silently produce. That does’t count the roughly 10,000 cubic feet of natural gas they aren’t burning every year.

So good on ya, solar panels. And get on back up to the roof so I don’t have to keep scraping snow and ice from the car in the morning.

A couple of final notes:

  • I’m not sure if the EIA’s coal-to-electricity calculations include transmission and distribution losses or not. Looks like it accounts for about 6 percent of actual power generation in the United States, according to the World Bank.
  • The solar panels are not actually ours: they belong to Sunrun, which we pay $39 a month. This doesn’t count the $2,800 that vanished pretty much immediately after Sunrun’s IPO cratered from the $14-a-share at which we pre-IPO customers were so kindly offered to invest to the $7 range after hitting the NASDAQ (it has since rebounded somewhat). I find this a curious approach to building customer satisfaction, but the service itself has been great, and I still very much recommend them as a solar provider (just maybe not as an investment vehicle, but who knows).
  • Because Sunrun took ownership of the RECs (renewable energy credits) up front and most surely sold them to a utility who most likely used them as an excuse not to install renewable-energy capacity equal to that of our panels’ generation, it’s not clear that we technically saved any coal at all. (Because, the argument goes, had the utility not bought the RECs, it would have had to install its own renewable energy. But that’s a glass-half-empty view, isn’t it?)

AVs Drive Themselves Straight into a Service Model

Google AV

Google’s driverless, autonomous vehicles portend a radical chance in how we get around. (courtesy Google)

AVs (not audiovisual, but rather autonomous vehicles) are poised to change the developed world. It seems that about everyone who looks at transportation comes to the same conclusion. It takes a bit of explaining as to why, and a recent piece I wrote for Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions Journal takes a shot at. RMI is launching an AV-focused research group, led by longtime GM research executive Jerry Weiland. Weiland and colleagues the first to admit they’re not the only ones thinking about the implications of self-driving cars. But RMI’s involvement brings heavyweight intellect and a long track record in working with government and business to the party.

It’s one of those stories that was rewritten pretty heavily but came out just as well (freelance writers learn not to take these things personally). I had originally led with:

Perhaps discussions of lightweighting, electrifying and autonomizing vehicles doesn’t quite get your blood pumping. Maybe, to you, the notion of a deeply networked, multimodal mobility infrastructure optimized to move people with great efficiency, striking economy and minimal environmental footprint smacks too much of transpo-geekery.

Fine. How about the idea of slashing your annual driving costs by about 75 percent sound, then? With combined U.S. savings of a trillion dollars a year?

That’s a serious number, and it’s the bottom line of RMI’s latest transportation initiative, one riding a wave of academic and commercial recognition that our century-old, car-and-truck centric mobility system is about to be disrupted in a big way.

Where do the trillion bucks come from? We in the United States spend $1.2 trillion a year – 20 percent of our incomes, on average – for the privilege of paying 56 cents a mile to drive our personally owned, isolated, gas-powered vehicles, which the RMI team calls PIGs. (That’s not even counting the $2 trillion or so annually that pollution, sitting in traffic, roads and parking lots, and traffic accidents cost us). The idea is to shift to fleets of shared, electrified, automated, lightweight vehicles (SEALs), which would, if deployed broadly over the next 20 to 30 years, provide the same or better mobility benefits as PIGS for just 15 cents a mile, or a total of about $200 billion, the RMI team calculates. It all depends on cars going from being personal property to being fleet-based elements of networked, shared, multimodal mobility services.

When I wrote it, I was pretty sure “transpo-geekery” wouldn’t survive an editorial gauntlet of transpo-geeks. But I figured you, intelligent laypeople, and not transpo-geeks, were the true audience. And why not have a little fun?

The only line I’d like them to have kept is this: AVs drive themselves straight into a service model. To understand what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the story.