Earth Day 2k12: 5 Things You Can Do To Decrease Your Impact

In honor of Earth Day this Sunday, I thought it would be good to give five simple suggestions on how to live a wee bit greener life. These suggestions really aren’t difficult, you’ve probably heard them a million times already, but humor me and hear them again. Decreasing your impact on the planet doesn’t necessarily require you to spend heaps of money or to put up a wind farm in your back yard; it’s about breaking old bad habits, and creating new ones that are a little easier on our wallets and less stressful on our planet.

#1. Unplug. If it doesn’t need to be plugged in, unplug it. Even if you shut down your menagerie of electronics, chances are they’re still drawing power just by being plugged in. Huffington Post provided an article in HowStuffWorks to explain that standby power consumption could account for 5-10% of your total electric consumption. Combined with everyone else’s standby power consumption, this equates to about 1% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.

Granted, it’s a little frustrating when you’re first getting started to realize your toast is not in fact toasting because the toaster’s been unplugged since last Tuesday, but after a few mishaps you’ll remember (hopefully) to check first, then unplug when you’re done.

If things do need to be plugged in, consider changing power saving settings or sleep settings, or go big and invest in a smart strip which shuts off power to electronics in standby mode.

#2. Turn Off. Growing up, I wasn’t a fan of the dark. If my parents left me home alone they would return to find every light on in the house. Now that I live on my own, I’ve become a bit neurotic about turning off lights–I find myself residing half the time in semi-darkness with only one CFL light bulb burning in the corner. As this probably isn’t most people’s style, just be conscious of the fact there isn’t a little elf that lives in your room that needs the light on after you walk out.

If you’re at work, school, what have you, make sure you’re heater or air conditioner isn’t running full speed ahead while no one is home.

#3. Reusables. I’ve used some form of a reusable bottle since high school. When I started working, I got in the habit of making my tea or coffee at home and bringing it in a mug. I do cheat on Fridays when I reward my hard work for the week with a triple soy latte from the coffee shop down the street, but now that I think of it, they probably wouldn’t be opposed to putting my caffeine addiction in my mug.

In an effort to save money, I bring lunch from home, but after a few months I was going through a foolish amount of plastic ziplock baggies! I decided to cut the baggies out of my lunch life and got an Eco Lunchbox. This little bento style box fits my sandwich, and a good couple of snacks for the day.

Reusable Trifecta

My Reusable Trifecta

Some cities in California have recently instituted plastic bag bans, but if yours hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon, invest all .99 cents most reusable bags cost and bring them when you go to the store. If you’re like me and realize halfway to the store you have no canvass bags, stash some in the trunk of your car.

Plastic is a huge source of waste in the U.S. It comprises of 12% of our waste, 27 million tons of which ended up in landfills in 2005, according to Time.

#4. Buy Local. Buy Organic. Food travels extraordinary distances to get to your table. Not only does this mean you’re probably not getting the highest quality or freshest produce, but it has serious implications for the climate in terms of energy consumption and emissions released.

According to a Health Facts article by the NRDC, imports of fruits, nuts, and vegetables in 2005 released more than 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide, that amount is equivalent to 12,000 cars on the road.

Buying local helps your local economy. Buying organic means no pesticides or fertilizers tainting your food, bringing better quality produce to your table. Bring your recently acquired reusable bag to your local farmers market this weekend!

#5. Turn Off the Tap. If you leave the water on when you’re brushing your teeth, and you brush your teeth twice a day, you’ve just wasted 24 gallons of water. Everyone likes a long, hot shower after a rough day (myself included). Most shower heads use 2.5 gallons of water per minute. If you usually shower for 20 minutes, you’ve lost 50 gallons of water, not to mention the energy it takes to heat that water. Try cutting your showers down by 5-10 minutes a day.

Personally, I know I waste the most water when I’m doing dishes–I’ve developed the bad habit of leaving the faucet running while I scrub my Eco lunchbox clean. I’m contemplating putting a post-it on the wall behind the sink reminding me to turn of the tap when I’m scrubbing. If you do your dishes in a dishwasher, make sure you’re running full loads.

These suggestions are kind of no-brainers. Like I said, it’s about breaking out of our wasteful mindsets and creating new, contentious habits that we practice in our daily lives to help lower our impact.

Happy Earth Day to all!

Through the Looking Glass: Our Renewable Energy Future

2011 was a boom year for renewable energy in the United States. According to the SEIA, the solar industry alone installed a record 1,855 megawatts of PV in 2011; double the previous year’s record of 887 megawatts. Wind’s success must also be noted growing 31% with 6.8 gigawatts connected to the grid from new turbines.

These installation numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the future of renewable energy, however. In reality, there aren’t enough new renewable projects being contracted to keep pace with the installation progress we’re seeing now. In fact, the construction we’re seeing today is a result of power purchase agreements (PPAs) signed several years ago (as it takes between two and five years to complete them). Now the flow of new PPAs being signed has slowed dramatically, and new renewable projects will inevitably crawl to a halt in the next half of the decade.

There are a few reasons this is happening, one notable one being this is an election year and no one wants to appear too extreme (though the thought of Newt Gingrich getting extreme on renewable energy makes me laugh out loud). But the huge obstacle renewable energy is facing right now is natural gas and the unnaturally low prices fracking has been able to achieve. Even though the cost of solar and wind has dropped (and is the lowest it’s ever been), historically low natural gas prices make it appear as though the gap between fossil fuels and renewables is much larger than it actually is.

Policy makers don’t want to choose anything other than gas that could increase costs to rate payers, putting renewable energy advocates in a bit of a predicament–vehemently opposing natural gas in favor of renewables makes it seem like they support increased costs for the rate payers.

An article in Forbes suggests proponents for renewables should embrace natural gas because of its affordability and its clean(ish) nature (its less polluting than coal) instead of trying to argue against it. Though I think this is the route energy will ultimately take, I don’t think it’s the best course of action.

Natural gas costs aren’t sustainable, and they will inevitably rise. Relying on natural gas only perpetuates our society’s fossil fuel driven mind set and won’t help to drive down the costs of renewable energy to something rate payers across the board find attractive.

We need to achieve a clean source of energy that’s sustainable in terms of both supply and cost. Renewable energy contracts and power purchase agreements need to pick up speed lest our clean energy future gets muddled by natural gas.

“Yes” to Carbon

I went sailing once. Using the inordinate amount of tact I clearly possess, I mentioned to my partner–a girl who happened to have a dramatic lazy eye–that she would be an optimal sailing buddy as she could keep one eye on the tiller while simultaneously watching the ropes.

After reading an article in Inside Climate News on Obama’s “Yes” to tar sands and “No” to coal, I was reminded of my unfortunate comment to my sailing partner: Obama is trying to keep one eye on his election poles and one eye on his long term carbon and energy goals. Unlike my lazy-eyed friend however, his vision seems to be mostly focused on the poles.

People are a bit flabbergasted with Obama at present: he is endorsing the tar sand moving  Keystone XL pipeline and all the while is creating initiatives that will put more stringent regulations for future power planets. A portion of the new regulations would limit carbon emissions from those new plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour. Current coal fired power plants hover around 1,800 pounds.

Opponents of Keystone point out that any reductions seen in carbon emissions from the EPA’s new regulations may be moot if the entire 1,702 mile behemoth pipeline is erected. The predicted 900,000 barrels of tar sand extracted, transported, and refined per day will emit 27 million metric tones more carbon dioxide than emissions from conventional crude oil. The EPA estimates that’s equivalent to to the annual emissions from 7 coal-fired power plants.

As power plants remain in commission usually for 50 some odd years, the EPA’s rules for new plants are key in preparing for what we want future emissions to look like. It’s important to note, however; that the EPA’s rule’s impact will be meager until existing plants are retired as they aren’t required to adhere to the same standards. It’s also important to realize the rules don’t apply to the dozen or so power plants that have already obtained building permits and breaking ground in the next year. As plants breaking ground today will be around for the next 50 some odd years they will still be polluting the same amount into the next few decades.

As of now, there are no new proposals in the queue that would need to be held accountable to the EPA’s new standards.

As Robert Walther, an energy adviser with the think tank Third Way states, “Coal was already falling away as an option. It can’t compete in the marketplace.”  If the EPA is basically ensuring no new coal fired power plants will come online, what is the point of their new regulations that solely apply to future power plants? Walther says it will sow the seeds for new regulations for existing power plants, which would only happen post-November, if Obama is reelected. At this time, it just seems to be a way for the Obama administration to appear to be making headway as far as limiting the emissions from coal fired power plants.

Obama’s support of the Keystone pipeline may just be a symbolic gesture to ease the public’s gas pump woes, but that doesn’t discount the fact that at least half of the pipeline is being constructed and it will create a huge carbon bomb on the planet. Obama supporting the EPA’s new rules to regulate emissions from new power plants may be a way to cut carbon emissions, but it doesn’t discount the fact that no new power plants are being built and the rules don’t apply to the hundreds of carbon spewing electricity generators.

We can’t just switch from one dirty energy source to another and expect to accomplish much. It seems that Obama is just saying, “Yes” to carbon at this point.