2009: Looking back at the year in environmental issues

The scribes at here at CleanSpeak central have written about everything from wind, to solar, to endangered natural landscapes, to endangered McMansions, to Christmas trees, to hybrid vehicles this year. We decided to take a look back and nominate our own slate of candidates for the Top 5 Environmental Stories of 2009.

  1. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It included $80 billion for green/sustainable initiatives like a smart power grid, renewable energy technology, home heating efficiency and green job training programs. If the American economy is going to be more sustainable, it’s going to take this kind of government leadership.
  2. The Copenhagen Climate Conference. It didn’t accomplish much of substance, but all of the major players were in one place duking it out, which at least elevates the issue of climate change to a more prominent place in the public eye.
  3. Boeing gets the 787 jet liner off the ground. The 787 Dreamliner, with a composite rather than aluminum skin, represents a future of more environmentally friendly air travel. With its more efficient engines and lightweight construction, the Dreamliner can make long hauls on less fuel than any of its forerunners or its ostensible competitor, the oversized Airbus A380.
  4. More polar bears are going hungry. Polar bears might be to this generation what the canary in the coal mine was the previous generations. Scientists in 2009 announced that the number of under-nourished bears has tripled in the last 20 years. The culprit is warmer global temperatures that are shrinking the ice masses where the world’s largest land predator hunts for seals.
  5. Chevrolet officially unveils the Volt. General Motors is staking a lot of its future on the plug-in hybrid, which is its long-delayed answer to hybrids from Toyota, Honda, Ford, and now Mercedes. That’s quite a turnaround for the company known for environmental nightmares like the Humvee, which gets about nine yards per gallon if it has a good tail wind.

There were, of course, innumerable other environmentally tinged stories this year. Any thoughts on what should have made the list? Let us know!

Cuttyhunk says ‘YIMBY’ to wind power

Unlike the new NIMBYs, selectmen in the town encompassing Massachusetts’ Cuttyhunk Island say they will support a wind farm off their shores, a position directly at odds with many of their neighbors to the immediate east on Martha’s Vineyard.

Residents seem to back the decision:

“I don’t think you can just say, ‘Not in my backyard,’ and expect that will be OK,’’ said resident Nina Brodeur. “If I had my preference, I’d choose not to see them. But I understand the needs of the state, and if it’s not in my backyard, it would have to be in somebody else’s. We can’t close our eyes and think we’re more special than anyone else.’’

At issue is Cape Wind, the embattled wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound. Opponents say the landmark project will be a blight on the horizon and ruin a historic Native American site. The project also help Cuttyhunk residents, as part of Massachusetts’ poorest community, pay their utilities:

“I think the wind farm is a great idea,’’ said George Isabel, 59, who has lived on Cuttyhunk since 1968 and serves as police chief and harbor master. “People here can’t afford to turn on their air conditioners or electric heat. Something has to give, because it’s hard to survive. There could be big benefits for us.’’ (Source: Boston Globe)

Maine may be next for offshore wind. The state just announced three offshore wind test sites.

A couple other developments in the wind arena:

Endangered bat concerns stall another wind farm

A West Virginia judge just halted progress of an Appalachian ridgeline wind farm because the developer failed to account for endangered Indiana bats on the property. Developers don’t have to prove that no bats will die in the project, just that the damage – presumably from construction, displacement and/or turbine blades – is minimized. That means potentially years of surveying, planning and permits. Plaintiffs in the case said the project would kill 6,746 bats of all kinds annually. Source: New York Times.

Report: Turbines are annoying, perhaps, but not sickening

An expert panel issued a report this month questioning the validity of wind-turbine syndrome, the constellation of symptoms – including sleep problems, headaches, dizziness, anxiety, ringing in the ears – sometimes associated with turbine noise.

“There is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects,” says the report, prepared by a multidisciplinary panel of medical doctors, audiologists, and acoustical professionals for the American and Canadian wind energy industry associations. The 85-page document does admit that turbine noise can be annoying.

“An annoyance factor to wind turbine sounds undoubtedly exists, to which there is a great deal of individual variability. Stress has multiple causes and is additive. Associated stress from annoyance, exacerbated by the rhetoric, fears, and negative publicity generated by the wind turbine controversy, may contribute to the reported symptoms described by some people living near rural wind turbines.”

Source: Wind Energy

Government aims to crowdsource cleantech innovation

With solar, wind, PHEVs, geothermal, biofuels and most other green technologies still out of reach for most people, the U.S. Department of Energy wants to try crowdsourcing our way to affordable clean energy.

The DOE recently launched an open-source wiki called Open Energy Information (OpenIE.org) as a community platform for collectively solving our energy challenges. What Wikipedia did for socializing world knowledge, OpenIE.org can do for clean technology innovation, the thinking goes.
“The true potential of this tool will grow with the public’s participation — as they add new data and share their expertise — to ensure that all communities have access to the information they need to broadly deploy the clean energy resources of the future,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in the Agency’s press release.

OpenIE.org bills itself as a linked open data platform, trying to create synapses between all the world’s energy information “to provide improved analyses, unique visualizations, and real-time access to data.” Anyone can post and edit information, upload additional data to the site and download information in easy-to-use formats.

The site currently houses more than 60 clean energy resources and data sets, including maps of worldwide solar and wind potential, information on climate zones, and best practices. To give it even more social cred, OpenIE.org links to the DOE’s Virtual Information Bridge to Energy (VIBE), a browseable collection of widgets that provide up-to-date industry information and unique visualizations of clean energy data.

It’s a compelling idea. Most cleantech science is forged within silos, isolated in commercial and academic research labs. A global hive mind of expertise could bring a Red Bull jolt of collective creativity to unstick long-stuck science problems.
But will the labs be willing to play ball on an open source field if meant opening up their IP to competitors?

Real Christmas trees are okay

The verdict is in: It’s okay to have a real Christmas tree – yes, the kind you cut down.

That’s according to the National Christmas Tree Association and my informal Yammer, Facebook and Twitter poll on tree choice. The breakdown:

Real tree: 74 percent
Fake: 15 percent
No tree: 11 percent

Although the poll was about respondents’ outright choice, many commented on the sustainability considerations. Lest you think the survey too lightweight, know that some heavy hitters took part.

A prominent New England horticulturalist:

“Buying locally grown trees help keep farms/crops alive. I like to make ornaments that the birds can enjoy and put the tree outside my window after the holidays to extend its life.”

A forester for the U.S. government:

“If you buy from a local grower, you are helping to preserve open space – the loss of which is arguably one of our most pressing environmental concerns in the Northeast. The grower is making a modest profit (compared to growing condos).”

The NCTA asserts that artificial trees contain dangerous chemicals, are imported all the way from China, and consume natural resources of their own in their manufacture.

The joy of real

In addition to the green benefits, many poll respondents prize the tradition, the scent, and the sheer joy (especially for kids) of having a real Christmas tree. Several mentioned felling it themselves and recycling it afterwards. Approximately 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (more stats).

Four of the 27 respondents to my poll prefer manufactured trees, yet only one does it for environmental reasons.

“We don’t like cutting a fresh tree every year. We figure one batch of plastic re-used for 20 years beats 20 trees on the environmental scale.”

The American Christmas Tree Association, not to be confused with the aforementioned National Christmas Tree Association, agrees with this position, saying that over a 10-year span, the carbon footprint of one artificial tree is smaller than consuming 10 real ones. Moreover, it says, the PVC in artificial trees is safe enough for water pipes and plastic wrap.

For real-tree advocates, however, the Tannenbaum is the soul of Christmas, and it shouldn’t come from Wal-Mart. It’s one of the last vestiges of real in a holiday dominated by electronics, licensed characters, parking lot wars, Manheim Steamroller and pathological consumption. For them, a real tree promises a real Christmas. So it’s good to hear that real trees are at least green enough for people wanting to do right by the environment.

What kind of tree are you getting? Post a comment explaining why.

Solar in a bottle is the practical alternative for wind and sun poor states

Did you ever expect to find cutting-edge renewable energy technology in your grammar school lunch box? Right there, next to your PB&J and a slightly bruised apple most likely sat a thermos bottle of milk or soup. That bottle worked on the same basic principle as solar thermal technology, the most practical renewable energy source for regions without the right weather to support today’s marquee renewables – wind power and solar photovoltaic. Which would be much of the continental U.S.

Unlike photovoltaic and wind systems, solar thermal systems can store energy for use at night or on cloudy, windless days. Photo thermal systems are like huge thermos bottles that use sunlight to super-heat highly concentrated salt solutions. Insulated “bottles” trap the heat. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, the trapped heat can generate steam to produce electricity or heat water to warm homes and businesses. Spain is starting work on a large-scale solar thermal plant for its Seville province in 2010.

Regions like New England, the Mid Atlantic and the Pacific Northwest could go Spain one better by combining solar thermal, wind and photovoltaic in one super-renewable energy system. We here in New England get wind, but not the steady, predicable wind that makes the Great Plains states ideal for wind power. We get sun, but not enough for large-scale solar, like the Southwest. So here’s an idea for the renewable-poor states. Build wind turbine farms for when the wind blows. Build photovoltaic arrays for when the sun shines. But don’t hook them up directly to the grid, use them to generate and store heat in solar thermal systems to match energy production with energy demand. What do you think? Practical, or a crackpot idea?