Book Review – The Story of Stuff

Many years ago on a high school field trip, we were taken to the local landfill. It was nearly full and the city needed to do something – find somewhere to take its trash. Out of this field trip came my first environmental inspiration. I researched recycling and determined that at that time, the only way to get people to participate would be to give them bins that would be picked up at the curb. I pitched it to my class, they joined in the effort…we went door to door …and the during the next election, the resolution passed.

I felt pretty good for years to come but that enthusiasm has waned as I’ve learned that recycling programs are barely effective and we still generate too much stuff. “The Story of Stuff” came of out the internet movie sensation by the same name. Author Annie Leonard has been traveling around the world for more than 20 years learning about the world’s obsession with “Stuff.”. Not only do we have too much, but its too toxic. According to Leonard, we’re also using our natural resources far faster than the Earth can replenish them.

Leonard explains that the expanding economic system is about to hit a wall. It is running up against the limits of our planet’s capacity to sustain life. Economists predict that with the rate of growing populations, especially those in countries like China and India, coupled with the amount of CO2 emissions created from the production and transportation of our Stuff, we’re in trouble.

“Put it simply, if we do not redirect our extraction and production systems and change the way we distribute, consume, and dispose of our Stuff – what I sometimes call the take-make-waste-mold-the economy as it is will kill the planet,” writes Leonard.

While I don’t agree with her wholeheartedly, I do agree that she is on to something. I can’t tell you how many times in the past few years I’ve purchased something I usually don’t even need and it has a crazy amount of wasteful packaging. I am now even more aware as Leonard takes you through the entire process of Stuff from extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Continue reading

E-100-4: The New Revolutionary Fuel

Calling all gear-heads. I’ve come across an “e-book” that is just up your alley. It’s called “E-100-4: The New Revolutionary Fuel,” and is a technical overview of how to capitalize on ethanol’s high performance properties in engines. Actually, this overview is good for anyone who understands that ethanol’s fuel loss at higher blends is an engine problem, not a fuel problem.

Most ethanol advocates understand that today’s engines are not manufactured to optimize ethanol; they are manufactured to optimize gasoline or diesel. Yet for nearly 100 years, there have been major technological breakthroughs using ethanol blends that have been “hidden” from consumers and never brought to market. In this technical overview, author Aureon Kwolek highlights all of these advancements, explains how they work and gives us the low-down on what companies are working on what technologies and their plans, if any to bring them to market.

But what may have been most interesting about the e-book, is that Kwolek presents a very compelling case on why E-100-4 should be the fuel of the future – not E85. The major difference between E-100-4 is that is contains water and is known as hydrous ethanol. In Brazil, all of their flex-fuel vehicles run on hydrous ethanol (which is less expensive to produce and offers better fuel efficiency that anhydrous ethanol according to Kwolek). In America, we remove all the water before it is sold and blended with gasoline adding an extra step and extra expense.

Kwolek writes, “ We can also optimize that engine for hydrous ethanol. Our next assignment is converting water vapor into steam, and then into hydrogen, inside the combustion chamber. Adding the water component adds a quantum leap to fuel efficiency.”

So if the technology is there to fuel vehicles with E-100-4 hydrous ethanol, and for them to get better gas mileage than all other fuels and fuel blends, why isn’t it coming to market? Kwolek surmises the problem lies with the relationship between the petroleum industry and the auto industry. He says it’s “Because automakers have a lucrative alliance with petroleum and a conflict of interest with fuel efficiency.”

This is a great overview of ethanol engine technology and one that I highly recommend. Kwolek cites all of his resources and gives links so that readers can get more information on all of the technologies that he features in the summary. You can purchase a copy of the e-book, E-100-4: The New Revolutionary Fuel,” here.

Book Review – Power Hungry

You may remember Robert Bryce from his book, “Gusher of Lies,” Bryce is back with his new book, “Power Hungry.” I shouldn’t have liked this book – his last one made me angry. I should have stopped reading after the introduction – he made his point of the book very clear. But I read the entire book and believe it or not, there are a few issues with which I actually agreed with him.

Bryce has four imperatives that he has created to measure the value of a particular form of energy. The four imperatives include power density, energy density, cost, and scale. Let me quickly tell you what forms of alternative energy don’t make the grade: biofuels, wind, solar or electric vehicles. What does make the grade? Natural gas to nuclear and Bryce lays out his N2N plan to support the growth of both of these forms of energy.

He writes, “It may be fashionable to promote wind, solar, and biofuels, but those sources fail when it comes to power density. We want energy sources that produce lots of power from small amounts of real estate. And that’s the key problem with wind, solar, and biofuels. They require huge amounts of land to generate meaningful amounts of power. And although the farm lobby loves biofuels such as corn ethanol, that fuel fails on two counts: power density and energy density. Corn ethanol production requires vast swathes of land, and the fuel that it produces is inferior to gasoline because it is corrosive, it is hydrophilic, and it contains just two-thirds of gasoline’s heat content.”

In an entire section of the book, Byrce lays out the reasons why renewable energy is not in America’s best interest. However, prior to that he does at least dismiss coal as an option for the future, and he does portray carbon sequestration as a farce.

At the end of the book, Byrce “rethinks green” and offers a few suggestions for the future. He also lays out the steps of his N2N Plan:

  1. 1) Promote natural gas and nuclear power through targeted use of tax incentives.
  2. 2) Encourage oil and gas production in the United States.
  3. 3) Continue Promoting energy efficiency.
  4. 4) Continue working on renewables and energy storage technologies such as batteries and compressed-air energy storage.

I’ll let Bryce’s N2N plan speak for itself and with that my friends, if you’ll learn one thing from this book, is that you’ll understand, in great detail, all the cards being played by the anti-renewable energy movement.

Book Review – In Deep Water

Five months after the Deep Horizon oil spill, the first book detailing the BP Oil Disaster has been released by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Executive Director, Peter Lehner.  “In Deep Water,” chronicles the events leading up to the disaster, the mistakes made during the catastrophe and offers solutions for moving forward in a manner that will limit future offshore oil spills.

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Macondo well blew in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 workers. By the time the well was capped, 87 days later, the well spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic oil into the Gulf making this the worst oil spill the globe has ever known. Lehner writes, “The Macondo blowout is another national wake-up call, a sobering plea for action on the greatest environmental challenge of our time: finding a way out of the economic and social model we’ve built around fossil fuels, and forging a future built instead around the clean energy technologies of tomorrow.”

The quest for oil has encouraged oil companies to drill deeper and deeper into the ocean. According to the latest government and industry estimates, nearly 40 billion barrels of oil lie in American waters in the Gulf, much of it buried miles and miles deep in the Earth.  At $75 a barrel, the oil is worth $3 trillion. Continue reading

Book Review – Off The Grid

“Where is the debate about the smart grid? Are we just going to believe what GE and EEI tell us? Who can actually prove that the smart grid is going to be all that smart, or that it is even going to work?”And who has thought through all the implications?” These are a few of the questions that author Nick Rosen asks in “Off The Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America.”

This is definitely a set of questions that aren’t often asked in context with the smart grid. More often, there is a disagreement of who is going to pay for the smart grid or whether the smart grid will save consumers money or cost consumers money. However, Rosen has a definite opinion of the smart grid. He writes that privacy will be at risk (utilities will literally be able to ‘see’ into your house with the new technologies) but he also writes that utilities will make billions more in profits with this move.

Rosen explains that based on the track record of utilities, “…the smart grid is not in the country’s best interest nor are they concerned with Secretary Chu’s carbon-reduction targest when they enthuse about rolling out the smart grid. They are concerned with market dominance and profits.”

He continues by anticipating that smart technologies will eliminate the need for meter readers and many call centers, thus reducing the number of jobs in the space while making even more profits (most people estimate that utilities will pass along the costs of developing the smart grid to consumers in the form of higher energy costs).

I must say that while I do not disagree with Rosen as a whole, he does fall into a growing number of Americans who want less government and more individual control. Many of these people who are “anti-government” already live off the grid; however, it is unfair to say that all people who live off the grid are those who are hiding for some reason or other. Many people are looking for ways to become “energy independent” to save money, to have a back-up in case of a major electricity shortage or outage, or to just get-away from technology in general for a while.

For those people who are curious about what living off the grid would be like, or learning how to go “Off The Grid,” this is a very interesting book to read. It is also educational for those who are not convinced that the smart grid is all that smart.

Book Review – Food Wars

This week I read a book about the ongoing discussions regarding the causes of the food crisis. It should come as no surprise that several of the main reasons the globe is in the midst of a food crisis, according to a The Food Wars author Walden Bello, are commodity speculation, biofuels,  increased demand for food in Asia brought on by prosperity, and most influential, the massive ag policy reorientation known as structural adjustment.

In this case, I’m going to focus on Bello’s explanation of how biofuels contributed to rising food costs. Bello states that biofuels have been blamed for the food price increases over the past few years, but continues by saying while they were a contributing factor, they were not the cause of the volatility of food prices.

He writes, “More central as root causes have been structural adjustment, free trade, and policies extracting surplus from agriculture for industrialization, all of which have destroyed or eroded the agricultural sector of many countries. No one factor can be pinpointed as the cause of the global food crisis. It is the confluence of these conditions that has made the contemporary food price crisis so threatening and difficult to solve.”

But despite this concession, he is still not a supporter of biofuels, at least in the context of environmental benefits, and he says, “Indeed agrofuels contribute to global warming and certainly do not provide a solution to climate change.” Continue reading

Book Review – The Great Global Warming Blunder

“I am under no illusion that this book will settle the scientific debate over the roles of mankind versus nature in global warming and climate change. Quite the opposite. I am hoping that the scientific debate will finally begin.” These are the final words of author and climatologist, Dr. Roy Spencer in his new book, The Great Global Blunder.

While the mainstream media continues to report that global climate change is real and caused by man, Spencer argues that it is in fact real, but not manmade. He says that global warming is just part of a natural cycle. In fact, he said that cloud cover is one of the “feedbacks” (i.e. causes) of warming and cooling trends.

Spencer is not the first scientist to speak out against the theory that global climate change is manmade. Climate physicist Henrik Svensmark and award winning science writer Nigel Calder also believe that clouds are a cause of global warming. They lay out their theory in “The Chilling Stars A New Theory of Climate Change.

Spencer argues that scientists who take a risk and offer other ideas for the cause of climate change, are not often published in scientific journals nor are their theories covered by the mainstream media who likes stories that bring the message of doom and gloom.

“Why am I willing to stick my neck out on an issue where there is so much momentum running in the opposite direction? Because the United States is making decisions on energy policy that will literally lead to death and suffering. The environmental lobby, activist news media, opportunistic politicians–and even a few Big Oil interests–have led the public to believe that we can “go green” in generating energy,” writes Spencer. Continue reading

Book Review – Power Grab

It’s been a year and a half since President Obama took office and there are definitely mixed emotions on how effective he has or hasn’t been. One area where many people have been critical is with regards to his green policies. One such critic is Christopher Horner, who has written a book with the central theme that Obama’s green polices are the worst thing that has happened to our country over the past two years. Power Grab, How Obama’s Green Policies Will Steal Your Freedom and Bankrupt America, has two major tenets: that climate change is a farce, and that the green policies and programs that are being developed to curb climate change will ruin our lives and our country.

The mood is set at the beginning of the book where Horner lays out what America will be like in 2015, when Obama’s policies begin to take affect. He lays out a country with energy shortages, food shortages and job shortages. He describes a world in which the rise of renewable energy and cap-and-trade sent our jobs oversees, and while America’s wealth is declining, the cost of living is rising.

Horner purports that any it would be one thing if the proposed green measures actually curbed global warming, but, he says, they don’t. He writes, “As I explained in Red, Hot, Lies, no proposal ever tabled would, according to anyone, detectably impact global temperature…” He goes on to say, “The real issue Americans should be concerned with is the outcome of these “green”schemes: the transfer of your liberties and wealth to the state, and the transfer of jobs to other countries.” Continue reading

Book Review – Green Gone Wrong

Everyone has an opinion about the veracity of global warming, except, maybe global governments who are pursing economic improvements on the back of climate change. The quest for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and predominately carbon dioxide (CO2) has led to a spurt of new research around the development of more sustainable practices and technologies. But at what cost to the environment? This question is asked and answered in the new book Green Gone Wrong, by Heather Rogers.

This question may on the surface sound like an oxymoron. How can you be developing technologies to reduce CO2, yet hurt the environment at the same time? According to Rogers, this is in fact happening every day, all over the world. Rogers breaks up the offenses into three categories: food, shelter and transportation.

The crux of the food section studies what organic farming really means (or doesn’t mean) and the movement to “beyond organic”. The next section discusses green building and the last section studies transportation, where I will focus. One element that is weaved throughout this section, is the discussions of the validity of carbon offset programs.

Many of the arguments she presents in the section are not new. She writes about biofuels, “As for ecological sustainability, biofuels have been widely discredited. The energy efficiency achieved with ethanol is dubious and a source of much debate. While some researchers say more energy goes into making ethanol than the alt-fuel can supply, others estimate a positive energy balance. A commonly cited figure is that for every gallon of fossil fuel used in production, only 1.3 gallons of corn-based ethanol can be refined. Either way, by now it’s apparent that biofuels pressure both ecosystems and the access to food.” Continue reading

Book Review – The Economics of Food

It wasn’t too long ago that the ethanol industry experienced the perfect storm…high energy prices, high corn prices and low ethanol prices. Also during this time food prices rose. Why? While the reality was that high energy prices were a major factor (oil was more than $15o per barrel at its peak), ethanol was blamed over and over again as the major culprit. Today, research papers are still being published saying that ethanol was not the main offender; yet the debate is still active. So this week, I read the book, “The Economics of Food,” by Patrick Westhoff. To disclose Westhoff’s background, he grew up on an Iowa farm, has a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Iowa State University and currently co-directs the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) at the University of Missouri.

Westhoff acknowledges very quickly that ethanol did have a role in rising food costs.”Biofuels played an important role in the rise and fall of food prices between 2005-2009, but other factors were also at play. Anything that affects the amount of food produced or consumed in the world will have some impact on food prices.” After explaining what some of those other factors are, he writes, “Thus, a first rule of thumb: Increasing biofuel production raises the price of food.” (Author’s italics.)

Westhoff presents both sides of the “food and fuel” debate in his book and says that in certain arguments, both sides are right (the proponents and opponents). He then stresses that biofuels did not play as large of a role in rising food prices as detractors claim, but he also said that biofuels played a larger role in food prices that biofuels supporters acknowledge. After he lays out the true impact of biofuels and food prices, he then lays out some possible scenarios for the future. Continue reading

Book Review – Powering The Future

This week I read “Powering The Future,” by Daniel B. Botkin. I was motoring along learning about our current energy mix (fossil fuels, fossil fuels, fossil fuels) and then moved on to the section about alternative energy and his evaluation of the viability of wind and solar. Then I got to the biofuels section and this is where in most books I feel authors are either uneducated or intentionally dismiss the data. Botkin was no different in his assessment of biofuels. He only supports biofuels from algae and soil bacteria and he backs up much of his biofuels with bad data from the likes of David Pimentel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The goal that Botkin set out in his book was to discuss each major source of energy including how much energy it provides today, how much it could provide in the future, how much it would cost, and its advantages and disadvantages. On this note, I do think that Botkin set out what he meant to do and offered analogies and numbers that most will understand.

Here are some interesting takeaways from his analysis. First, he is not a proponent of natural gas because his data shows that if it were used to fuel the 140 million+ cars on the road, we’d run out in less than 20 years. Second, he is not a proponent of nuclear because there is a limited amount of uranium and it costs more to decommission a nuclear plant than build one. While he has reservations about coal, he does anticipate that coal use will increase for electricity.

So what does he like? Continue reading

Book Review – No Impact Man

So you’re a bit frustrated with the state of the climate and pretty concerned with our fossil fuel use. So what do you do? You become the No Impact Man. Colin Beavan, a writer from New York who was struggling with how to deal with climate change, decided that he, along with his wife, two year old daughter and dog, would spend a year trying to have no negative impact on the climate. This experience, which he blogged about every day, led to the book, “No Impact Man The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet.”

Beavan was extreme. No “throw away” products made from trees, rarely any motorized transportation including elevators (did I mention he lives in NY?), all locally grown food within 250 miles and no meat, no buying of new things (but they could purchase used items), and if that weren’t enough, no electricity for three months! So what did he learn? We should be able to keep the things that improve our lives, yet not at the expense of the environment. And yes, he says, this can be done.

As an energy writer there was one chapter that I felt was extremely compelling and that was when he and his family turned out the electricity. Yep – no electricity for three months with the exception of a solar panel he used to power his laptop. In this chapter, Beavan talks about the true cost of fossil fuel use – something that many are trying to get consumers to understand, including me.

He writes, “The fact of the matter is that fossil fuels are not less costly than renewable energy. Fossil fuels cost us and our planet much more to use. The problem is that the true costs of the use of coal and oil are not immediately apparent in the price.” Continue reading

Book Review – The Surprising Solution

According to Bruce Piasecki in his book, “The Surprising Solution,” globalization has brought new social pressures to the world including climate change, global terrorism, oil wars and oil depletion, billions of poor people, and the need for food, air, water and wood. Yet according to Piasecki, these pressures do not automatically mean a world for the worse – actually the opposite. His goal in the book is to demonstrate that we have reached a tipping point that is actually leading us to a better world through social repsonse capitalism or the S Frontier.

So what exactly is the S Frontier? It is the movement of businesses changing their services and products in order to survive and prosper in a world that is facing the end of oil. Piasecki writes, “In order for them to survive and prosper further, they need to develop and continue to refine the business art of innovation for social needs–they need to find a new and socially responsible way to fill the hole our depleting oil supply is leaving. We call this elaborate social art in business the ‘S Frontier’.”

Piasecki writes that the S Frontier is already here and there are several companies leading the way including Toyota, GE and HP. These are companies that have changed the game of creating more socially responsible products that have had such an impact, others are forced to follow. For those companies who get left behind, they will fail paving the way for those companies that are able to refine and create products that change with the new global marketplace or actually cause the global marketplace to change. Continue reading

Book Review – Enough

As I write this review, I’m sitting on my deck looking out at dozens of acres of avocado, orange and lemon trees. Yesterday, I helped to plant a vegetable garden – the produce being grown for a local restaurant. The irony is that as I am surrounded by abundance here in America, I’m reading about those in other countries who have less than nothing. “Enough Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty,” written by journalists Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, details the struggle of countries, especially Africa, to feed their people.

Agriculture is the lifeblood of the world. As a matter of fact, is it the largest industry in the world. Yet many countries cannot compete with world prices in part due to subsidies in other countries such as America and the European Union as explained by the authors. These subsidies keep commodity prices artificially low, so low that most subsistence farmers in third world countries can’t compete. Traditionally, the answer to this problem has been food aid. Give the enormous surplus grown in places like America, to third world countries.

While food aid is a matter of life or death for millions of people each year, it does not lift the people out of poverty. It does not solve the problem of widespread starvation. The farmers of Africa must have a way to make a living – one that allows them to buy food. According to the authors, more “food” aid needs to be given in the form educating farmers on how to grow more crops with less. Helping them to build irrigation systems, giving them access to affordable hybrid seeds and fertilizers and allowing the commodity markets to work in a way that farmers from around the world can sell competitively sell their food.

The reason that more educational aid is not given, say the authors, is that food aid is a way for American or European farmers to sell their surplus crops. If other countries have enough food, and begin to compete in world markets, then farmers from first world countries will lose money. Continue reading

Book Review – Climate of Extremes

I have a question for you. Is the debate over global warming over? The next logical question is: Should it be over?

According to authors Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling Jr., human-induced climate change is indeed real, but this will not necessarily lead to an environmental apocalypse. This is the premise of their book, A Climate of Extremes. They write, “The data lead us to conclude that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is indeed real, but relatively modest. We’re not arguing against AGW, but rather against DAGW (dangerous anthropogenic global warming).”

A Climate of Extremes is about data – the data that proves (or disproves) the existence of global warming and the potential effects that it could have. The authors spend the majority of the book debunking the science that leads us to believe that the polar bears will go extinct, the icebergs are melting and those on the coasts will endure catastrophic damage, and that hurricanes, floods and fires are somehow tied to climate change. Well folks, there is no data to back up these far-fetched claims argue the authors.

The entire time I was reading the book, this famous quote kept running through my mind, lies, damned lies and statistics, a sentiment used to describe the power of numbers. The authors featured a lot of content that has been used by famous global warming advocates, such as Al Gore to prove the danger we face if we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions, is taken out of context. In other words, the data is fiddled and faddled with to meet a person’s particular needs.

We all know this happens and it is good that people continue to “out” the bad science. However, the biggest irony I found in the book was when they discussed the pervasive bias inherent in global warming research. Shortly thereafter, they offer up why corn-ethanol will cause, rather than curb global warming, and they point to Timothy Searchinger’s original paper  – a paper which has not only been criticized by the scientific community but also new research has been presented. My point: maybe the authors should take some of their own advice.

While I am a proponent of offering up various scientific viewpoints, it should never be taken at face value and neither should the data presented in A Climate of Extremes. It is in everyone’s best interest to delve into the issue, farther than what is presented in a few books.