Good vibrations

If the Smart Grid is to be truly smart and deliver energy efficiency, it will have to rely on swarms of wireless sensors scattered across our work and living spaces, providing continuous feedback of our energy usage.

The problem is, even the tiny low-power sensors consume some power. And replacing a few hundred or even thousand batteries in our buildings every couple years is neither green nor realistic.

Enter energy-harvesting technology, which in theory will be able to capture slight vibrations, motion or other kinetic energy to keep the sensors humming. ZigBee, a low-power wireless sensor standard for home automation, will soon have its own energy-harvesting specification. And ZigBee is already factoring into the forthcoming Smart Grid standards big time, so problem solved, right?

The folks at the EnOcean Alliance say “not so fast,” claiming they’re way ahead of the energy-harvesting curve with their own technology. Looks like it’s shaping into a fun standards Donnybrooker. Amy Westervelt at the Earth2Tech blog has a great rundown of the energy harvesting smackdown.

Trees – hug them or burn them?

For a symbol of environmental mojo, you can’t do any better than trees. After all, have you ever heard an environmentalist called a seal hugger? A snail darter hugger? Nope, it’s tree hugger. Among environmental icons, bark and leaves trump fur and scales every time.

So to say that burning a tree equals the environmental benefits of hugging one strikes the average observer as fairly absurd. Until recently, you could have counted me among those average observers. When I started reading about wood biomass as a power and heating source, my first thoughts were that we’d strip the country of forest even faster than we are now, and that burning anything for energy is a bad idea. How one book can change your outlook …

In my case, the book is by New Hampshire writer, world-class skeptic and varsity wiseass Jack McEnany. To appreciate what I’m about to say, you have to know that McEnany is about as far from an apologist for American industry as you can get and still qualify as American. His cred as a contrarian includes writing for The Nation and founding the Web site to counterbalance the conservative Manchester newspaper and television station. So when Jack says burning a tree for energy does no net harm to the environment,I pay attention, and you might want to also.

To write his book Brush Cat,On Trees, The Wood Economy, And The Most Dangerous Job In America,  McEnany spent months traipsing around with the independent loggers who harvest timber lots in New Hampshire’s stretch of the Great Northern Forest. Along the way, he learned the environmental and economic wisdom in selectively harvesting trees, which often amounts to culling out trees that hinder the forest’s growth. That’s a radically different approach than mass clear-cutting, which takes all of the timber from an area no matter how low or high quality it is.

The most important point McEnany makes comes in a chapter titled “Climate Change and The Forest,” where he lays out the environmental math around wood as a biomass fuel. Basically, McEnany says, nature is self-regulating. When a tree burns, the environment re-absorbs the resulting carbon dioxide and turns it into plants, trees, and, eventually, us. There is no pollution other than wood ash, because at the end of the process, the burned tree creates no surplus carbon dioxide. Burning doesn’t turn into a problem until it adds extra carbon into the environment. Oil and coal, which provide most of our heat and electricity, are extra carbon.

Oil and coal are carbon plant matter that nature has retired by burying it under several million years worth of earth and rock. It’s out of circulation and, as long as it stays in the ground, no environmental threat. But when we bring it to the surface and burn it, we’re adding more carbon dioxide to the environment than it can recycle. So burning isn’t the problem per se. Nature burns every time a lightning bolt hits a dry forest. It’s that we’re burning carbon that has been out of circulation eons longer than even the street directory for Atlantis.

The other issue with using wood as a fuel source is the potential to depilate the landscape. McEnany makes a strong case that a well-managed forest as large as the Great Northern Forest can thrive as a fuel source without decimating the old-growth forest that environmentalists treasure. Forests need to be thinned out for their health. If brush cats don’t do it with chain saws, nature will do it with lightning bolts. The policy of “sequestering” specific tracts of forest promotes good management. Sequestering preserves forest lots from extensive cutting, which gives them time to sustain themselves over the long term.

At the same time that he makes a case for wood as a fuel source, however, McEnany offers this caution:

“How will we ensure that the growing demand for wood chips won’t result in unsustainable forestry practices? A truckload of chips is the same whether it comes from a wide swath of saplings (pecker poles) or a dense thicket of balsams ready to be harvested.

The forest needs a seat at the table when public policy decisions affecting climate change are made. With the right mix of official policies and personal choices, we can fix the environment and save the forest.”

Don’t do cash for clunkers

I’m keeping my clunker. And you should, too.

Mine’s a Honda Accord, so it doesn’t actually qualify as a clunker despite its 150,000 loyal miles, but on principle I would not do “cash for clunkers.” Let me tell you why.

Long before the word warming was ever married to global, we understood we were filling landfills too quickly. The concept of recycling emerged, and attentive citizens learned the mantra reduce, reuse and recycle. In that order.

Thus my first beef with cash for clunkers: It puts the recycle cart before the reduce and reuse horses, and in this case recycle is a euphemism. Although cash for clunkers sounds kind of green, it equates to destroy and produce.

You annihilate a working automobile by pouring sodium silicate (liquid glass) into the engine to ensure it never goes another mile, killing 30 percent of its resale value. A recycler removes some parts for resale, drains the haz-waste fluids, mashes it into a steel pancake, puts them on a barge to who knows where, or chops them into bits, producing carbon at every step.

Meanwhile, you produce a new car from materials mined from the good green earth, processed in a steel plant, shipped to an auto plant, manufactured with carbon-generating energy, shipped to dealerships and driven home by someone who just threw away the car that got him to the showroom. It takes somewhere between 3 and 12 tons of carbon dioxide to make a new car.

(Since this is a clean tech blog, I won’t go off on the confiscatory aspect of this – why should you as a taxpayer pay for my new car? And if that’s what it takes to stimulate the economy, maybe we should just ride out the recession. I won’t harp on the fact that this is ultimately another staggering gift from your grandkids to the auto industry. Or that it feeds into our worst consumerist compulsions. Or worse, how four of the top five new car models that clunkheads are buying are made by foreign automakers.)

I’ll stick to our focus and observe that cash for clunkers is about as green as bottled water. The policy goes out of its way to stimulate the unnecessary manufacture, distribution and consumption of objects that are ultimately superfluous. In the best case, you’re taking a pig off the road and replacing it with a hybrid, the net gas-mileage/pollution benefit offset by the impacts of manufacturing the hybrid and destroying the clunker. Oh, and not every beneficiary of the program is buying a Prius. Did you know that a new car that gets 22 mpg qualifies for a cash for clunkers subsidy? That’s a pretty low bar.

The crime in all this is that what Washington and we in the middle class call a clunker is quite often a perfectly serviceable means for a lower-income or unemployed person to get to work, see the doctor or take in a ballgame. A clunker can carry meals to seniors or homeless people to shelters. It can give the kids at the tech school some fodder for learning a valuable trade while transforming a clunker into a cream puff.

Cash for clunkers: It’s your cash. Clunkerhood is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not making us green, and it’s putting us in the red. Don’t do it.

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