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Month: February 2013 (page 1 of 2)

Electric Cars – Third Time’s Not a Charm?

Written by:  Lee Ann Rush

One rather cool thing about writing a blog is that you really do learn something new every day.  In today's world of greenhouse gas-induced wacky weather patterns, where monthly "storms of the century" are predictably followed by huge spikes in the price of gasoline (draw your own conclusions on any cause-and-effect happening there), people from all walks of life are scrambling to save on fuel.  Often, the only sure way to accomplish that is to use less of it.  Whether motivated by a desire to preserve the environment, or just to preserve some semblance of their  lifestyles, folks are lowering their thermostats, cutting back on non-essential driving, and some are looking toward alternatives to gas-powered vehicles.

Consider this: electric cars outsold all other types of vehicles in the United States at the turn of the century.  No, I'm not dizzy from inhaling too many exhaust fumes, I'm referring to the turn of the twentieth century.   Back then, cars were available with gas, steam or electric power, and the years 1899-1900 saw the zenith of the electric vehicle (EV).  A gas/electric hybrid car was even introduced by the Woods Vehicle Company in 1916!  Of course, back then there were few paved roads, long-distance driving was unheard of, and average vehicle speeds were less than 20 mph.  Bare-bones electric cars could be had for about $1000, but by 1910, most cost around $3000.

As American roads improved, oil became readily and inexpensively available, and Henry Ford mass-produced the internal combustion engine, EVs began to decline in popularity.  By the mid-1930s, they had all but disappeared.  A brief attempt at a resurgence occurred during the 1960-70s when concerns about exhaust emissions and dependency on foreign oil began to surface.  Several thousand electric "CitiCars" and "Elcars" were produced by Sebring-Vanguard and Elcar Corporation, respectively, and the United States Post Office even bought 350 electric delivery jeeps from American Motors in 1975 for a test program.  Looks as though they failed the test; the fact is that none of these really caught on.  Had you ever heard of an Elcar before now?

Yes, times have indeed changed.  It's now 2013 and we've all heard of the Toyota Prius and the Ford Fusion and the Chevy Volt, right?  We probably know somebody who has one; you may even own one.  But the specter of $5.00/gallon gas and blizzards in Arizona may not be driving EVs out of the showrooms, even with the billions in federal aid the Obama administration has been throwing at companies like Tesla Motors.  According to, only 71,000 EVs (counting both plug-in hybrids and fully-electric cars) were sold in the United States during the past two years.  Why?  First, they're expensive; EVs are grouped into models "under $40,000" and "over $40,000" and those sticker prices are hefty by any measure.  Next, the performance of EVs doesn't match their high cost.  EVs have limited driving ranges and long charging times, and these impediments are not popular with many drivers.  Finally, think about where the electricity to power the EVs is coming from.   Ah yes, the dreaded fossil fuels.

The jury is certainly still out on the future of EVs; we'll revisit this topic at a later date.

Food Waste

I visited a local McDonald’s recently and had an incident which made me feel uneasy about restaurant policies regarding food waste. I ordered a sandwich that was brought to me not as I expected, so the lady behind the counter proceeded to dump the sandwich in the garbage in front of me as she went about ordering me another sandwich. I found it to be rude in some way, almost, insulting. Although I understand the sandwich cannot be sold again to another person, but she should have offered for me either to take it as well or at least taken it to the back discreetly to discard. So many starving people in the world seems a real shame.

The United States produces approximately 591 billion pounds of food each year, and up to half of it goes to waste. The cycle of food waste goes beyond the unsold hamburgers shoveled into restaurant trash bins. Food waste begins at farms, vegetables and fruits that don’t meet the standards are left in the fields to rot. Often it’s just because they don’t look good enough to be brought to the market. Farm losses are generally higher for hand-picked fruit and perishable vegetables than machine-harvested crops such as wheat and corn. Transportation is the next big loss of food. All that we buy in our supermarkets has to travel a distance to reach us, further depending on the area that we live. In transit losses can reach 10% to 15% for some crops, with the most fragile ones being more vulnerable, like tomatoes and grapes for example.

U.S. supermarkets are one the most to blame for wasted food. They throw away on average 30 million pounds of food per year. This includes expired products, damaged goods, dented boxes and the like. Some of the unwanted food gets composted or donated, but most of it ends up in landfills. Researchers also estimate that American households waste 15% to 25% of the food they purchase, but that figure could be even higher. Commercial kitchens (in schools, hospitals and restaurants) also discard unwanted food for many reasons. Leftovers are rarely taken home which is a large contribution to food waste in the restaurant industry. Food scraps are the second largest component of the national waste-stream. Food in landfills creates methane, a source of greenhouse gas. In addition, 2% of all U.S. Energy Consumption goes into food that is ultimately thrown out.

Needless to say getting unwanted foods to shelters and other resources is down and out. Perhaps we can organize more ways to make this a reality instead of a dream. As for our environment, composting should become mandatory in households. Seattle and San Francisco already made this mandatory in 2009, Norway has banned food and biodegradable waste from it landfills. Small steps are better than none at all.

Sustainability: Comparing Apples to Oranges?

By: Lee Ann Rush

I came across a clue referencing Ceres while doing a crossword puzzle the other day.  In Roman mythology, Ceres was the goddess of agriculture and fertility.  Her name is believed to derive from the Indo-European root ker, meaning "to grow," and the Latin "gerere," meaning "to bring forth or produce."   Today, there is another Ceres -- a not-for-profit organization formed shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Alaska with a mission to make corporations both cognizant of and responsible for the impact of their operations upon the environment and society as a whole.   More than 20 years later, Ceres has grown into a highly respected advocate for sustainability (defined as practices that meet current needs without compromising those of the future).  Its mission, "to mobilize investor and business leadership to build a thriving, sustainable global economy," has become increasingly important in a worldwide setting where it has become obvious that "business as usual" will certainly lead to our demise.

From the start of the Industrial Revolution until quite recently, businesses ranging from farms to factories to financial institutions and foundries operated on the premise that their costs of doing business involved little more that labor and capital.  The depletion of natural resources was an afterthought, at best, as the prevailing "wisdom" assumed limitless supplies and negligible consequences of any resulting environmental pollution.  Today, although it really should know better given  some of the obvious and tragic global after-effects of the greenhouse gas-emitting free-for-all of the last century, industry still worships profits over all else, and often must be "urged," whether by public opinion, legislation, or the all-too-rare "Eureka!" moment, to become a conservator, rather than waster, of natural resources.

There are more than 100 groups and organizations currently rating businesses in terms of their social and/or environmental friendliness, and some operate on a more solid methodological foundation than others.  Yes, companies do pay attention to these ratings because a well-publicized rating, whether good or bad, can affect their bottom line.   Enter the modern-day Ceres organization, which works with both investors and major businesses throughout the United States in an effort not only to convince them to reduce their destructive impact on the environment, but also to open their eyes to the environmental consequences of the business decisions they make and actually consider those consequences when calculating their business equations.  To this end, Ceres, along with a scientific nonprofit institute called Tellus, have launched the Global Initiative for Sustainability Rating (GISR) system.  The goal of GISR is to set standards for sustainability ratings and push for uniformity in the way standards are reported.  That way, ratings will compare apples to apples (preferably not the genetically-modified variety), and perhaps push business and industry toward following a clearer path toward environmental sustainability.

The Beauty of Windmills

Holland is most definitely the home for beautiful and functional windmills. I have visited there often and was always impressed with the windmills that are present there. Windmills use a renewable source of the earth’s natural resource, wind. Wind is a clean source of energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind energy produces no air or water pollution.

A windmill is a machine that coverts the energy of wind into rotational energy by means of vanes called sails. They take this energy of the wind and convert it into something useful or to complete a task. The stronger the wind the faster the blades will turn, thus being more productive. There are two main uses for a windmill. The first is pumping water and the second more used is generating electricity. A wind pump is a windmill that pumps water. This is used in many regions across the world to provide water for crops and livestock. The other use for windmills is to produce electricity.

A modern wind turbine is designed to convert the energy of the wind into electricity. The largest of these turbines can generate up to 6MW (mega watts) of power. In comparison to an energy plant whose generators run on fossil fuels, which can put out anywhere from 500 to 1000 MW of power, it’s not really a lot. Windmills due to their friendly environmental history can be used in small scale to bring electricity into homes or buildings. The larger the windmill, the larger scale it can cover. In parts of the world such as Spain and the America Midwest, there are entire fields of giant wind turbines that produce enough electricity to power an entire town. Windmills are very eco-friendly. They produce no harmful waste products. They do not endanger the environment via mining or drilling. The natural resource, wind, is already available and cannot be used up.

All the good things that windmills do provide are apparent, but there is still once catch, you have to have adequate wind supply in order for them to work efficiently. If you live in a region with plenty of wind, they can be a good source of energy, cheap and easy to use as well. This is also a project that not just engineers can harvest. Building your own windmill, if of course, you live in a so called windy region, is a lot easier these days. The most important rules are to first of all plan well. Check your power line compatibility and that the connections are safe and easily changed over from one system to the other. The online resources can provide assistance if this is a project you would like to pursue. Windmills are a pretty sight, and what they can produce for us in this over consumption of energy society can truly be beneficial if we learn more about them and how to utilize them for our own use.

Hydrogen Cars on the Horizon?

Surely you've noticed the spike in gasoline prices over the last couple of weeks.  Seems to be happening every winter after the holidays, and the reason (depending upon whom you choose to believe) could be anything from the oft-cited "trouble in the Middle East" or domestic supply shortages caused by temporary shutdowns at various refineries, to the outright manipulation of futures markets by commodities speculators who, it's often noted, make money on the way up same as on the way down.   Regardless of the actual cause, it's no secret that gasoline prices are too high, and that burning such enormous quantities of carbon-based fuels is destroying our environment.   Yes, we Americans love and depend on our cars, but we needn't fuel them with petroleum distillates.

Electric cars have been around for awhile, mainly in gas/electric hybrid form such as the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion.  There are also several completely electric cars, including the Ford Focus EV, Mitsubishi iMiEV, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S.  While these electric vehicles (EVs) offer a quiet ride with excellent acceleration while emitting virtually no global-warming- inducing greenhouse gases, their one huge drawback is the problem of storing electricity in the vehicle.  EVs have a limited driving range between charges; their batteries must be charged often and this process generally requires that the car be plugged in for about eight hours.  Battery packs are not only expensive, they can weigh up to 1000 pounds, reducing the vehicles' mileage.  They also required electricity for charging, which brings us right back to the environmentally-unfriendly results of burning fossil fuels.

Hydrogen cars, on the other hand, run on hydrogen fuel cells.  These cells can generate electricity via a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, emitting only heat and water vapor in the process.  Anyone who recalls the periodic table of elements from high school chemistry class knows that hydrogen, atomic number 1, is not only the simplest but the most abundant element in the universe.  In fact, it's been estimated that 90% of the universe is composed of hydrogen, whose name comes from the Greek words hydro and genes, or "water-forming."  Given the abundance of hydrogen and the fact that it produces zero emissions, doesn't it seem like a no-brainer to harness hydrogen-cell technology to run our cars?

According to the automotive industry, the prohibitively-high cost of hydrogen fuel cells is the reason that hydrogen vehicles are not widely available.  Toyota does plan to begin marketing a hydrogen car in 2015, and Ford has recently announced a partnership with Daimler and Renault-Nissan to pool resources and develop a common fuel-cell system, with the goal of selling hydrogen-powered cars to the public by 2017.   Why so long?  Pardon my skepticism, but they may just need time to plan their excuses; nobody will fall for it if they claim a hydrogen shortage!

Author of this informative blog is: Lee Ann Rush

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