Conservation International – A blog to make a difference

One of my colleagues showed me this site today and it looks really good.  This is a link to their blog page.  This group has some pretty high priced help on their roster.  From Harrison Ford to Hillary Clinton, they seem to have the bases covered.

One of the environmental movement needs more of is “good news stories” and this blog is replete with them.  One that immediately attracted my attention is on a new initiative to stop poaching of African elephants.  The article includes a video on the subject with the aforementioned celebrities.  Worth a read.  Don’t forget to bookmark the page.

Do Canadian companies represent you well abroad?

rabble.ca has published this very short, interesting article by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union president, Dave Coles.  In the article he tells of how Canadian companies extractive practices in Columbia trample on the rights of indigenous peoples and give Canada a bad name abroad.  It is entitled “Not in our name…A Canadian energy giant in Colombia” and it is definitely worth the read.

Read it here

 

Stuff

Sometimes environmentalism is just about knowing when you already have enough. This is an excellent, concise poem by Storm that captures the idea of needing “stuff” perfectly.

poem storm

we are living in a daze

caught in our own material haze,

 

we always want,

but do not need,

 

heart and soul,

filled with greed,

-Storm

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Being green can sometimes be as simple as following the frog

The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal
The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be an advertising pitch, but there is some truth to it.  The Rainforest Alliance has put together a cute pitch that TED.COM has nominated as one of the 10 best ads of the year.  The ad shows you what you don’t want to do to be green, and then goes on to show you one thing that you can do to make a difference.  The advertisement is to “Follow the frog” which refers to purchasing goods that bear the Rainforest Alliance’s frog logo which indicates that the product was made in a way that meets the certification standards set out by the group.

Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit with the mission to “… works to conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices and consumer behavior.”

Now, you may note that this approach runs counter to the approach promoted by the “Story of change” people but I think the green movement is probably large enough to embrace more than one strategy for saving this beautiful world.

Why not visit their site or just watch the ad here:

Aggressive Driving – Some observations from the peanut gallery

Close Call... Don't Drive Angry / Baynard County
Close Call… Don’t Drive Angry / Baynard County (Photo credit: Phil’s 1stPix)

I often hear pundits decrying the aggressiveness of drivers.  It is hard to disagree with the premise that aggressive driving is bad, but the picture isn’t as simple as the pundits would have you believe.

For one thing, not all aggressive driving is “actively aggressive”.  The pundits rarely discuss the passively aggressive drivers, like the folks that drive in passing lanes.  They also often fail to look for root causes for the driving aggression.

I have been thinking about this issue for a long time and think I have a few suggestions on how to reduce aggressive driving.  My suggestions are in the form of tips and I have organized these suggestions around four possibly overlapping groups of people … 1) the aggressive drivers themselves, 2) traffic planners, 3) other drivers and 4) law makers.  There probably isn’t much new here, and I hope it doesn’t appear to be condescending, but aggressive driving is an issue that has been bugging me for years so I wanted to add my two cents to the conversation. Continue reading Aggressive Driving – Some observations from the peanut gallery

A better way to recycle plastics? Mike Biddle replies to questions and comments about his 2011 TEDTalk

Plastic recycle logo Other
Plastic recycle logo Other (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a follow-on article to Mike Biddle’s excellent video on new ways of dealing with plastics recycling. In this article (originally published on the TED.COM website, Mike responds to a number of questions that arose from his original TED talk. He deals with the thorny issue of getting the waste to one of the “mining” facilities.

Here is my a link to my post on the original TED Video

TED Blog

Last October, we posted this TEDTalk given at TEDGlobal 2011 by plastic engineer Mike Biddle, Founder and President of MBA Polymers, which has developed an incredibly energy and economically efficient method to recycle plastics — by turning it into the raw material  again.

The TEDtalk elicited over 1000 comments and questions on TED.com, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, including direct emails to Biddle and to the TED staff. Faced with the impossibility to answer them individually, Mike has grouped them together and addressed them below.

And now over to Biddle…

 I want to thank the TED community for all of the heartfelt comments and great questions. Although many of the comments were directed to me as I am the one that gave the TEDtalk, I’m replying here on behalf of the whole MBA Polymers team.  Much like the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”, it…

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The Story of Change : a new video from the makers of the “Story of Stuff”

This video is all about empowerment. It is all about acting on our commitments…to the environment, to social justice, to each other. It is about supporting our government’s initiatives for becoming a “World Class Regulator“.

As with other “stuff” video, this one makes its point in the same clear logical fashion, taking us from being environmentally conscious but isolated islands to empowered actors in a movement to make a better world for us all. It does it using the same cheeky style, replete with stick figure art and snappy dialog.

This “Free Range Studios” production joins the rest of the Story of Stuff projects as another great teaching aid. It reminds us to get together, to get involved and to become activists in our own lives.

Reducing herbicide use – Amazon hires goats for Japanese office landscaping – Your Community

Local goat takes a bite out of weed control problem for Amazon

Here is an unusual article from CBC about how Amazon.com is making use of Japanese goats to get rid of problem weeds on the company’s Japanese office grounds.  Companies don’t always get it right, but when they do, they should get kudos from the rest of us.

Amazon hires goats for Japanese office landscaping – Your Community.

Good on you Amazon.

Oh, and by the way, goats and sheep aren’t allergic to poison ivy, so they are a great way to get rid of that particularly pesky weed.  See this interesting page describing how goats can be very eco-friendly.  I am not certain how eco-friendly goats are in times of drought though…I had heard that the very things that make goats eco-friendly from a herbicide perspective can make them less sustainable in times of drought because they tend to denude the landscape, even eating the roots of the plants.

The real price of market values: Michael Sandel at TEDGlobal 2013

My Comments:

This is another great TED talk about a subject of real importance…how market forces change our society and the cost of those changes. The comment about hollowing-out of discourse is most apt. Everything these days seems to be about the sound-bite, about quick fixes for complex social problems. We seem incapable of communicating a long-term vision. Great talk. Thanks TED!

 

TED Blog

Political philosopher Michael Sandel — the second “Michael from Harvard” this session — returns to TED in the last session of TEDGlobal, “All Together Now,” to address the marketization of our culture.

These days there’s very little money can’t buy. If you ever wind up in jail in San Diego, CA, and you find your cell uncomfortable, don’t fret; simply pay $82 and you’ll be upgraded. Or if you find yourself in Washington, DC, en route to a Congressional hearing, but you hear that the line is around the block, don’t give up; you can pay someone through a line-standing company to wait in line for you. You just have to show up at the last minute and take your seat.

[ted_talkteaser id=878]

In the past three decades, says Sandel, we’ve undergone a quiet revolution, drifting without realizing from a market economy to a market society, where almost everything is…

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Uncovering corruption: Charmian Gooch at TEDGlobal 2013

My Comments:

Once again, TED has published a very timely piece on an issue that is becoming huge in the west these days…corruption and its societal costs.  Corruption has always been around, but until recently in the west, it was associated with shame and scandal.  Now it seems to be so commonplace that we barely even acknowledge it.  But the costs of corruption to society are very important and this TEDGlobal talk puts the matter into perspective.  definitely worth a read.  Thanks TED.

 

TED Blog

When we talk about corruption, certain types of individuals come to mind, says Charmian Gooch, co-founder of watchdog NGO Global Witness. She gives some familiar examples of the type. There’s the (former) Soviet megalomaniac — such as Saparmurat Niyazov, the all-powerful leader of Turkmenistan, whose indulgences included erecting a 40-foot-high gold-plated statue of himself that rotated to follow the sun. There’s the African minister, dictator or official, such as Teodorin Obiang, son of the president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where many live in dire poverty despite per capita income comparable to Portugal. Obiang junior owns an 18 million Euro art collection, million-dollar sports cars, a Gulfstream jet, and a $30 million Malibu mansion. Until recently, he was officially earning less than $7,000 a month. Then there’s the former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete — a convicted money launderer.

It’s easy to think of corruption as something that happens “over there,”…

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Scientific American Article about the Dangers Associated With CF Light Bulbs

Scientific American Article about the Dangers Associated With CF Light Bulbs

As a follow-on to my earlier article about various technologies for lighting your home, I wanted to post this link.  As the date for conversion of all light bulbs from incandescent looms near there is a lot more is being said about the safety of CF bulbs.  Scientific American, known as a source of reliable information that is accessible to the common citizen, has written an article that describes the dangers associated with disposal of broken fluorescent bulbs. 

Pool leaks are an environmental disaster!

swimming pool
swimming pool (Photo credit: freefotouk)

Regardless of what anyone tells you, if you live in North America your pool should not be losing more than about an eighth of an inch of water (3 mm) each day in the summer.  If it is losing more that that…don’t ignore it and don’t let people tell you that the larger amount of water loss is to be expected.  An inch of pool water is a huge amount and the western world is just beginning to understand that water is our most precious resource.  Don’t waste it like I did!

My family has had an in-ground swimming pool since the kids were little. Generally, we have only had to fill up the pool in the early spring and we are more-or-less good for the rest of the season.  There is a bit of evaporation, but it is usually replaced by rainfall.  This year, unfortunately, was “off the charts” as far as water consumption goes and that is an environmental disaster. Continue reading Pool leaks are an environmental disaster!

Do you remember when Hudson Quebec changed the world of lawn care?

Supreme Court of Canada building, Ottawa, Onta...
Supreme Court of Canada building, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my colleagues passed me a link to the trailer for a really interesting movie entitled “A Chemical Reaction”. The documentary was produced by Paul Tukey, an award winning writer about lawn care. He is the founder of the safelawns.org, which is an organization that has as its mission to “To create a broad-based coalition of non- and for-profit organizations committed to educating society about the benefits of environmentally responsible lawn care and gardening, and effect a quantum change in consumer and industry behavior.”

The trailer is for a documentary that features our little neighbour, the town of Hudson Quebec (just East of Ottawa), and how a local doctor there, aided by the mayor and council changed the way that lawns are maintained in Canada and likely around the world.

I can remember when it all all went down, but it was a blast to see the folks that made it happen. I remember that there was concern in the medical community (especially in the holistic medical community) about the safety of lawn care products, and that concern was slowly spreading to the general community. You might remember that, back then, everyone (especially municipalities) dumped tons of chemicals on their lawns each year to make them green and “healthy”. Of course the fact that the resulting monoculture was anything but “healthy” and brought with it serious health effects for many creatures (including people) was only beginning to dawn on most of us. And then, in response to a conserted campaign by a local doctor, the Mayor and council of Hudson Quebec decided to take a stand for the health of people over the “health” of lawns. After 10 years of legal battles that ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada, brave little Hudson prevailed and the Court affirmed the right of municipalities to have by-laws that ban the use of chemicals for lawn care.

Anyway, I have only seen the trailer for this documentary, but I found it to be very engaging and compelling. The full film is available on DVD for private or public viewing. The full film is $19.95 to purchase for private viewing and is available for screening at a higher cost. I am considering buying a personal copy so that I can write a better review in the future, but at 3 minutes and 44 seconds, you will not be wasting your time if you decide to look at the trailer.

What’s with the wind every recycling day!

English: Blue household recycling bins/crates ...
Image via Wikipedia

Have you every noticed, that it is almost always windy on the nights when you have to put out your paper or your plastic for recycling?

My house is at the end of a long street that parallels the direction of the prevailing winds and you should see my front yard on recycling mornings. What a mess.  This week, for example, was a plastic recycling week, and after the recycling was picked up by the city I collected two full bins of plastics and cans.

Now, I hate to complain about people who are doing their civic duty by recycling, because I really believe in recycling programs, but seriously! can’t you secure your recycling a bit better than that? When you put your plastics out on a blustery day and the box is overflowing with lightweight plastics, do you really think that they will ever make it into the truck?

At my house, our plastics go into a large rolling blue box with an attached cover so they never blow anywhere. Now this works for plastics because they are so lightweight, but it won’t work for paper because the folks that pick it up would herniate themselves if you packed paper in a large bin. So what can you do about paper products. I suggest that you either pack one of the boxes you are throwing out with paper and put it on top of the filled black box. This way, the paper in the box is protected from the wind and the box itself weighs down the paper in the black box. Another alternative is to put a large rock or a piece of firewood on top of the paper in the black box. The garbage-men will dump these weights back onto your driveway before they dump the contents of the box into the truck, so you can use them over and over again. If you secure your recycling, more of it will actually get to the recycling depot and you will be maximizing your reduction in waste footprint.

But best of all, if you secure your lightweight recyclables, they won’t end up in my front yard. And as Martha Stewart would say, “that is a good thing”.

Exercise – not only does it save energy, but it saves you too!

You may think it a bit of a stretch to link exercise to the environment, but I think it is pretty appropriate.  What got me thinking about it was an article on CBC.ca that pointed to the following YouTube video.  I hope that after watching the video you agree with me.

The video is by Toronto’s Dr. Mike Evans and as CBC’s article pointed out, it has gone viral on YouTube (it has now had over 1.6M hits).  Both the video and the article about it on CBC.ca refer to the health benefits of exercise for all of what ails you (hence the name “magic pill”).  The video is reminiscent of the videos on the “Story of Stuff” channel on YouTube.  While doctor Evans makes his very compelling argument in favour of exercising at least 30 minutes a day (and he notes that more is better to a limit) he draws images on a whiteboard that capture your attention and make you want to listen to the message.  I am not certain if he is any way associated with the Story of Stuff people, but the style of drawing and the humourous and interesting facts he injects into the discussion sure remind me of their excellent environmental pieces.

What interested me most was the fact that even the most moderate exercise (only 11 minutes per day) provided a huge benefit to many of the body’s critical systems.  The first 30 minutes of exercise seems to get you the biggest bang for your sweat buck.  After 30 minutes the benefits accrue in decreasing amounts, but they still accrue. 

Want to find out what sorts of problems you can alleviate with the magic pill of exercise?  Take 6 minutes and watch the video.  You won’t regret the investment in time… I sure didn’t.  You will instantly see why it went viral.  Send a link to the video on to your loved ones. 

Oh, what was the tie in to the environment you ask?  Well, if you are walking, running or cycling everywhere, you aren’t burning fossil fuels, and I think we can all agree that lowering your carbon footprint benefits the environment.

As a final postscript, remember to keep checking back to the “Story of Stuff” channel to see if they have added anything new.  Their environmental stuff is fantastic and it is great for all ages.

And thanks again to CBC.ca for providing me with another excellent learning experience.

Metroland.com – Trash Troubles

Polski: Wysypisko odpadów w Łubnej
Image via Wikipedia

The other day at work, one of my colleagues passed a link on to me because she knew that I am interested in waste management.  I really have to thank her because the link she provided was to an excellent 3 part article entitled “Trash Troubles – grappling with our garbage” (Metroland.com – Trash Troubles) published in MetroLand.com and authored by Don Campbell and Thana Dharmarajah.  These two journalists have done a really good job describing the problems with our solid waste management in many communities in Southern and Eastern Ontario.  It is really worth a read.

In the article, they describe the escalating cost of landfill, the ridiculous practice of shipping our garbage out of our jurisdictions, the patchwork of recycling programs across the province and they provide a few ideas about what citizens can do to minimize their impact on the environment.  They discuss where the responsibility lies for cleaning up our act.

The most important thing that I took away from their article was a feeling that the province needs to step up to the plate and play a bigger role, establishing policies and standards for managing solid waste across all communities, identifying best practices, building markets for recycled materials, and helping to fund waste management programs in a way that provides the best bang for the buck.

Electronic waste accumulates at an alarming rate

Another thing that they bring up that I have been advocating for years is for extended producer responsibility for waste management.  I blogged about this earlier in my open letter to the plastics industry. It is high time that we start holding producers partly responsible for managing the waste that flows from our consumption of their products.  Yes, this will increase the costs of products, but we are paying anyway…this will only bring the payment front and centre and not hiding it in the line items of municipal taxes.  If you want to read more about plastic recycling read my blog entry at https://gourken.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/an-open-letter-to-the-plastics-industry/

Anyway, the article by Campbell and Dharmarajah is an excellent overview of the issues that we need to face if we are to manage our solid wastes responsibly.  While the picture they paint isn’t too hopeful, they do present a few things that will help us see that the future isn’t too bleak either. 

On a final note, I am still very intrigued with Mike Biddle’s idea of using of mining technologies to mine waste streams to allow the extraction and reuse of plastic polymers and metals.  If it works, this is a paradigm shift worthy of the word.  It seems to me that you could use this technology to go back into landfills and mine for valuable resources (like the plastic polymers and the metal ores buried there).  If you want to read more about this technology (and see a video of how it works), visit Mr. Biddle’s web site at http://www.mbapolymers.com/home/.

Solar Lights Recycling | Your Solar Link

I am constantly looking for good environmental blogs and have been following a really good one lately named “Environmental world for all”.  The site is authored by a university student in peace studies with minor in environmental studies. One of the author’s recent posts discusses the benefits of solar LEDs for use as Christmas lights.  It is a really well thougth out article and in it the author discusses the pros and cons around this issue. 

When I left a comment and asked him about the ability to recycle these devices he brought my attention to this site (Solar Lights Recycling | Your Solar Link)  in the US that is trying to set up a recycling program for these products. 

If you are interested in environmental issues I think a few minutes browsing these two sites would be time well spent.

 

Hybrid cars – one buyer’s thoughts

IMA-equipped Honda Civic Hybrid.
Image via Wikipedia

Back in 2009, my family bought a 2010 model year Honda Civic Hybrid. The chart in the dealership, which was produced by an independent tester, gave the Civic a rating of 60 miles per imperial gallon (mpg) in the city and 66 mpg on the highway. A review of the Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) website seems to confirm this rating.

NRCan’s site gives the “mileage” of every car sold in Canada by year. It is supposed to be based on testing that simulates a fuel economy for a car that is driven 20,000 km per year. Presumably the test would simulate real-life conditions including the number of occupants, and a variety of weather and geographical conditions, but it isn’t clear from their web site. The mileage for my car the 2010 Honda Civic Hybrid is given here: http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/transportation/tools/compare/compare-results.cfm and it confirms the 60/66 rating given at the dealer.

My question is, what drugs were the testers on when they came up with these figures? We have been using the Civic for almost two years now and we have never come close to those figures. I grant you, that the test figures are likely for the “average” driver, but even so, we have rarely got better than 6.1 l/100km. That works out to about 46.3 mpg. This is a far cry from the 63 mpg (combined city and highway) that we were supposed to get.

When I look at the United States government website I their numbers are closer to my results. they show 40 miles per US gallon (mpgUS) city and 45 mpgUS highway which is about 43mpgUS combined. That equates to about 51 miles per imperial gallon (or only 85% of the NRCan mileage estimates) which is getting better, but it still ends up being about 5 mpg high by my experience.

So what are these testers doing. I assume that they must have only a single driver, and that they must be always on a flat road, with no head-wind and they must be accelerating at a snail’s pace. If I want to approximate these ratings, I would need to get an 100 pound driver driving downhill with a tailwind and the car in neutral.

While I never really expected to get 60 mpg, I did expect better than the 43 mpg that we are getting. Am I expecting too much to ask for mileage approximating the promised rating? I don’t think so. I would likely have bought the car anyway, given that I am interested in the environment, but I don’t like being lied to. If the “independent” tests were to be even remotely useful they should be achievable by the majority of the drivers under normal conditions.

Now, I know I have ignored things like the benefits to the environment, but I have also ignored things like the total cost of ownership (maintenance of the batteries over time) and the cradle to grave costs of the car in terms of cost of building, cost of transportation, use by the consumer and cost of disposal.

But when it comes to strictly the way the cars are advertised, where is the truth of the situation? I sure don’t know? I do know that I feel ripped off! What about you?

Not everything environmental is about new technology…sometimes it is doing what we do in a smarter way.

Sometimes being environmentally friendly means using new technologies like solar and wind power, but sometimes it is simply about doing what we have always done, but doing it in a smarter way. 

URISA, an association of GIS professionals, has an annual competition for students in the GIS field to produce papers and posters on using GIS to solve real world problems.  One group in Maine has used GIS technology to model how to reduce the cost of transportation of recyclables from collection locations to the processing plants.  They will still be using the same technology to collect the recyclables, but they will be reducing the distance that they are transported, resulting in an enormous savings in CO2 generation and a reasonable savings in cost.  This will be especially valuable if we ever move to a “mining” paradigm for dealing with recyclable waste.

To read more about how they propose to do this I recommend that you read Minimizing Transportation Costs with Location-Allocation Analysis: An Application to Recycling « GIS and Science

This is yet another example where students have come up with innovative solutions to problems that we have lived with for ages.  Maybe there is hope for us yet!

Who’s making money on bio-fuels and are they a good alternative to oil?

MIT c1901 LOC cph 3g09599
Image via Wikipedia

I just read an interesting paper from the MIT Centre for Energy and Environmental Policy Research and it had some interesting things to say about bio-fuels and politics.  The paper Some Inconvenient Truths About Climate Change Policy: The Distributional Impacts of Transportation Policies (August 2011), by Stephen P. Holland, Jonathan E. Hughes Christopher R. Knittel and Nathan C. Parker is a technical paper where they reflect on the relationship that exists between various forms of carbon emission reductions that rely on subsidised biofuels and voting patterns in the United States. 

The paper compares the costs to reduce greenhouse gasses of three different policy choices against the Cap and Trade (CAT) option, which does not subsidize the production of biofuels.  They show CAT as the lowest cost alternative in terms of dollars per unit of carbon reduction but find that the higher cost options are frequently adopted.  They go on to show that the subsidized options, though more expensive, produce the highest potential for private gain, while CAT produces the highest potential for carbon emission reduction per dollar spent. 

While the article does not answer the question posed in the title, it does seem to conclude that if private interests were taken out of the equation, we could get better carbon reduction bang for our bucks if we adopted a cap and trade system rather than any of the subsidized bio-fuel alternatives.

The article is a bit technical, but it is still written in such a way that most informed readers can take something away from it.  It is also nice to see that these issues are being discussed by institutions such as MIT.

An open letter to the plastics industry

Self made from PNG.
Image via Wikipedia

First, I am not rabidly anti-plastic. I think that plastic has made many parts of our life better, but I am against plastic waste (plastic for which there is no after market recycling program) and I am against over packaging, and your industry is implicated in both.

From an energy perspective, I am aware that lightweight plastic packaging is cheaper to transport than many other materials. From an energy perspective, the problem is that plastics consume oil products that could be used to heat homes, to fuel automobiles, etc. If you cannot reuse a plastic product that is recycled, it means that you will be consuming new oil for every product you produce.

From a waste perspective, you need look no further than the Eastern Pacific to see a Texas sized “island” of plastic waste that will last for tens of thousands of years. If your industry does not come to grips with this problem, we will be doing it for you by banning the use of plastic products. This is not in your best interests and it isn’t good for consumers either. Get your act together and:

1. Make certain that every type of plastic is well-marked for recycling and don’t allow unmarked plastics into the market place.

2. Help local governments fund plastic recycling programs

3. Help create markets for recycled plastic and ways to use them that is environmentally friendly and energy-efficient

4. Don’t produce anything that you cannot re-use in manufacturing and set targets and deadlines for recycling 80% of the product you produce.

5. Ensure that products that contain recycled plastic are marked, advertising that they have helped keep plastic out of landfills.

6. Talk to the packaging industry and retail stores to get them to reduce “over packaging” and to ensure that all packaging can be easily separated into non-plastic and plastic products and that the individual plastic components are all marked for recycling

7. Fund “bring it back collection sites” for large plastic components that it is not possible for the recycling programs to handle.

Many of the same recommendations should be addressed to municipal and provincial governments to ensure that if industry doesn’t step up to the plate that the regulators do, so if you don’t want to get regulated out of business, I suggest you consider cleaning up your act.

Gourken

 

Solar light bulbs for pennies (Isang Litrong Liwanag/a litre of light)

A litre of light

I just ran across a wonderful innovationthat seems to have been around for a few years but just now seems to be garnering widespread attention. The innovation seems to be the brainchild either the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or of Mr. Illac Diaz of the Philippines. It is as brilliant in its simplicity as it is as a light bulb. I am going to leave the description of the “bulbs” and how they are used to the foundation (and to two interesting YouTube videos (describing the why and how). One of the linked videos below describes this as an idea out of MIT and that makes sense because that institution seems to focus on a lot of simple projects to help the poor (see my earlier blog about solar powered water desalinators that were developed by MIT folks).

Continue reading Solar light bulbs for pennies (Isang Litrong Liwanag/a litre of light)

Solar Thermal – What to do when the power goes out!

I spent 6 months living in Kathmandu back in the 90s.  It was commonplace for the power to go off each evening for 2 or more hours and to cope with the outages everyone had battery backups and gas-powered generators. 

But over here in Canada we have never needed battery backups or generators to keep things running.  The electrical system is far more reliable here than it was in Nepal in the 90s.  That being said, we do still get the occasional power outages but for the most part they are little more than an inconvenience.  The same cannot be said for solar thermal systems when the power goes out.  Continue reading Solar Thermal – What to do when the power goes out!

City of Ottawa – Help for Folks Installing Solar Thermal

The City of Ottawa has a nice new web page that acknowledges the existence of solar energy, and in particular solar domestic hot water (SDHW).  The site, which can be found on ottawa.ca gives information about two different types of SDHW systems: a CSA approved factory packaged system and not factory packaged system.  Both types of installation need a building permit.

Both installation types must be installed by a qualified installer (CanSIA certified) but non-factory packaged installations must be certified compliant with CSA F379.1-09 (the reference standard for SDHW) and with the Ontario Building Code by a professional engineer licensed in the Province of Ontario.

This doesn’t sound like a lot of help, but when I had my solar system installed, there were no guidelines or standards available and we had to slog through a morass of bureaucracy to get our installation approved, so that guidance is very welcome.

This information should make the process of installing SDHW more transparent and it should really reduce some of the risks to the homeowners and installers.  Good job Ottawa!

Ottawa is back to recycling all hard plastics

The newspaper reports that the City of Ottawa is, once again, recycling all hard plastics. You may remember that some time in the Chiarelli administration Ottawa decided to save some money by taking a money losing, but successful, program of plastic recycling and scrap (literally) everything except recycling of number 1 and 2 plastics. There’s no telling how much the changes saved the city, but it is clear that we didn’t divert nearly as much waste from landfill than we would otherwise have. Now the real costs come home to roost with the Trail Road landfill facility fast filling up and Waste Management Inc. asking for permission to increase the size of their Carp Road facility. This is the real legacy of that tax savings…the need to take otherwise valuable land and re-purpose it as a landfill. Some savings!!!

When are we going to start taking a longer term view of our actions? When are we going to put as much emphasis on environmental, social and community debts as we put on economic debts?

Anyway, it seems like the current council has it’s head on a bit straighter than the past few. Let’s hope that they keep it up!

Failsafe systems for solar hot water

As I mentioned in earlier blog entries, my system has a number of failsafe features to maintain system heat and pressure within tolerable boundaries. In the summer, the system dumps excess heat into the swimming pool, and in the winter it dumps the excess heat into a radiant water heater in the basement.

This spring I got to see what would happen if I didn’t have these alternate heat sinks and I found out how robust the failsafe systems are in my installation.

Here’s what happened. To change my secondary (failsafe) heat sink from the basement radiant water heater to the swimming pool for the swimming season I need to open or close 3 manual valves. This spring, due to a brain malfunction, I only switched two of the three valves which meant that I had shut off the alternate heat sinks entirely. When I then manually switched the compter controlled valve (that determines whether to send water to the primary or the secondary heat sink) to use the “secondary” heat sink to dump heat, I had inadvertently gotten rid of all the system’s sinks. Effectively, I was just taking hot water from the solar collectors and circulating it back to the collectors without dumping any heat.

The first thing I noticed was that the pressure in the system built up (quickly) to 80 psi, from its normal 40 psi. This immediately got my attention and I looked at the collector temperature and found that it was 120 C – yes, that is degrees celsius, which means that the system was now boiling. I looked at the valve settings and realized my mistake and adjusted the valve settings appropriately, but by that time, it was too late … the failsafe features of the system had kicked in. My system had begun dumping antifreeze into a five gallon drum to reduce the pressure in the system. By the time I had realized this, the system was almost empty and the pressure had dropped to about 60 psi (by this time almost all vapour).

When I called my installer, he explained to me what had happened and suggested hooking the cold water from the city up to the antifreeze loop and filling the loop with fresh cold water. This had the effect of reducing the temperature and pressure immediately and everything and everyone calmed down immediately.

So what did I learn. Well…first and most important, even if you understand your solar system, you should not take it for granted. Keep checklists that help you with seasonal conversions and follow them. Second…the failsafe systems work. Even if I had not noticed the problem, the system would have emptied and the worst that would have happened is that my pump would have burned out. Finally, I learned how important it is to have your installer (or other expert’s) number close at hand…in my case the installer’s cell phone number was dymo-taped onto my controller and I was able to get hold of him – even though he was up at the cottage.

Does this make me less happy with my solar hot water system? On the contrary, I now know that even if I screw up, the family will still be safe, and I will be able to fix up the problems without spending a lot of money.

Power Surges and Drops – Causing Electrical Problems?

Electricity pylon - power outage
Image via Wikipedia

I don’t know if you have noticed it too, but there seems to be a lot more power outages and surges these days.  I’m not talking about the 20 day variety like the one that hit us during the ice storm, but rather the one and two second ones that seem to come in bunches every few months. 

Hydro has a fund to deal with hits to electronic equipment that is damaged due to surges like the one we had in Kanata when a 17 kV line dropped on a 10 kV line early in the last decade and fried a bunch of computers.  Fair enough as far as it goes, but what about the things that didn’t burn up?  What about the fridge that was supposed to last for 15 years, but ends up only lasting 10 years because it was hit by a large surge?  What about the dozens of light bulbs that were supposed to last for 10,000 hours and end up only lasting half that because they experienced a big surge?  Sure, they didn’t die when the surge hit, and there is no way to prove that their life span was decreased due to the surge, but doesn’t it make sence that it would be?  Where is the compensation for these items?

OK you say, but that is history…old news…almost 10 years old now!  What about today?  Well, of course, you’re right.  There aren’t a bunch of surges like the one I spoke of happening from day-to-day, but there are a whole bunch of little black-outs where the power drops for a few seconds and then surges back on.  Aside from the inconvenience of having to re-set every clock in the house, have you never noticed anything funny with your electrical devices after such an outage?  I have, and I am not speaking about problems with your computers because, like me, most of you will have shelled out hundreds of dollars to buy surge suppressing power bars or uninterruptible power sources (UPSs) for your high-end computer gear.  No, once again, I am speaking about your equally expensive fridges, stoves, and even furnaces, each of which is now controlled by computer. 

Every time there is a power outage in my house, the ice maker on my high-end fridge stops working.  I have to cycle off the power on the fridge at the circuit breaker, leaving it off for at least a minute (so that any capacitors in the system drain) and then cycle it back on.  Only then will the unit come back to life.

Or how about your heat recovery ventilator unit (HRV)?  An HRV is critical to the healthy functioning of an R2000 or an energy star home as it keeps the humidity level in the house within reasonable limits).  At my house, the same thing happens to my HRV when there is a power outage too.  Once again, I have to cycle off the unit, wait, and then cycle it back on again. 

To me, it is only reasonable to assume that these expensive devices “feel” these small power outages and surges.  Doesn’t it make sense to you too?  Well, if they “feel” the pain of the outage/surge combination, doesn’t it seem likely that they experience a shortening of their useful life when it happens?  Where is the compensation for this loss of useful life for these expensive products? 

The question in my mind is, if Hydro cannot provide more reliable power, shouldn’t they have to come up with some sort of mandatory standards for a new power distribution panel that includes surge suppression as well as some limited UPS (uninterruptible power source) capacity?  And shouldn’t they subsidize the purchase and installation of these devices until the volume of sales drives down the cost to a reasonable amount, or until their service provision becomes more reliable? 

I know that Hydro is bleeding red ink in a number of areas, like the need to replace dirty coal, the need to pay for expensive cogeneration, and the need to retire old debt, but in my opinion, these are symptoms of a poorly constructed business model.  What they need, is to engineer resilience into their business model.  I don’t want to have to replace everything in my home every time they fail to provide clean power to my home and I don’t want to have to pay through the nose to buy products to mitigate the risks associated with these instances. 

Law suits are not the way to go…they are too expensive and the only ones that profit from them are the lawyers on both sides.  Further, they are not the Canadian way.  Rather, Hydro needs to just step up to the plate and consider the needs of their clients and get together with the various standards councils and come up with a strategy for making homes more resilient to the surges and outages until they can fix up their network so that it becomes more resilient.  While they are at it, they might want to consider having each distribution panel set up for net metering (so that people can start feeding the grid using solar voltaic or wind energy generated around the home) and even consider having the panel set up to allow external generators to be plugged in (such as gas-powered generators that could be used during a long power interruption).  This would allow for better engineered homes that were resilient to power fluctuations, that allow for cogeneration projects and that do all this safely with consideration for folks that have to work on the lines when there is an electrical problem in the neighbourhood.

In short, we need Hydro to take back the playing field and start planning for the future.  A bright future if they play their cards right.

Forever Plastic: Basic Tip for Recycling Plastic – Doc Zone | CBC-TV

CBC Television
Image via Wikipedia

Given the interest in solid waste policy in the City of Ottawa at the moment, now might be a great time for you to brush up on some recycling facts.  CBC has a page and a video with some interesting information that might inform and entertain you.

Forever Plastic: Basic Tip for Recycling Plastic – Doc Zone | CBC-TV

City of Ottawa – Residential Solid Waste Service Level Review

image used in the co-processing wiki
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The City of Ottawa is currently conducting a review of residental solid waste service levels and this is your chance to have a say before the service levels change (or your tax bill does).  The solid waste review has its own web page on the city’s site. 

City of Ottawa – Residential Solid Waste Service Level Review.

The site includes an on-line survey which allows you to give the city your views directly … democracy in action and all that.  I took the survey and it took about 5 minutes to answer.  They also have a contact address if the survey doesn’t give you enough flexibility to present your views.

The Story of Stuff Project – or why did I need this do-dad again?

Logo of the International Bottled Water Associ...
Image via Wikipedia

Want an interesting way to explain to kids how consumer demand is created?  Want to get some interesting facts about bottled water? What to know what cap-and-trade really means and whether it is a good thing or not?  Want to know what all our electronic toys cost the planet? Why not mosey over to the “Story of Stuff Project” for some short, entertaining clips that are ideal for explaining difficult topics in simple English.  It’s suitable for kids and adults and, while it doesn’t always provide the answers to life’s woes, it helps you start asking the right questions.  Two thumbs up!

Undergrads bring energy education to Ghana

In another piece from MIT press, here is a story about how some MIT undergrads brought alternate energy education to schools in Ghana.  Now if we could only get the education here in Canada…

Undergrads bring energy education to Ghana.

OpenEI Blog: Solar-powered desalinisation

I just ran across this interesting post about a small (1000 gallon per day) and smaller (80 gallon per day) solar-powered desalinization unit that could be deployed quickly and cheaply in disaster zones where potable water is hard to come by and electrical power even harder to come by.  You can read more about it here: OpenEI Blog: Solar-powered desalinisation.

How do you decide which green technology to use to light your home.

Image showing both a fluorescent and an incand...
Image via Wikipedia

One thing that has always bothered me about being an environmentalist is that there is never enough good information available to the consumer allowing them to make intelligent decisions.  Case in point … what kind of lightbulbs to use in the house to reduce the total carbon footprint and to be generally green.

For years now, we have been asked to consider moving to compact fluorescent lightbulbs because they last longer and they are far more efficient than the incandescent bulbs we have used for the last hundred years or so.  Continue reading How do you decide which green technology to use to light your home.

Public transportation woes in Ottawa

OC Transpo bus 4067
Image via Wikipedia

OC Transpo doesn’t have enough drivers or busses to make the public transit system work and the busses we do have aren’t large enough to meet demand. We need to address this issue in the short, medium and long terms. The municipal vision for a light rail system is a start because it gives us a glimpse of the long-term vision, but it leaves us with a broken system for the next 20 years. Further, even this long-term vision needs better documentation and communication. Continue reading Public transportation woes in Ottawa

300 Years of Fossil Fuels in (About) 300 Seconds « Fighting for Hope’s Blog

Got 5 minutes?  Spend it watching the worlds’s energy history at the “Fighting for Hope’s” blog.  Show it to your kids and to their teachers. 

300 Years of Fossil Fuels in (About) 300 Seconds « Fighting for Hope’s Blog.

So, what solar equipment do I need to buy (part 1)?

 Solar system components

 When you start to think about a solar system, you have to remember that the industry is relatively new in Canada.  It has been used in Europe for decades, but its penetration on this side of the Atlantic has been marginal until recently.  That means that you have to be conscious that some of the product on the market may not have been certified for use in Canada.  The components that were installed in our house and that I will be speaking about below were all CSA approved and the “non-packaged” installation proposal that prepared was certified as compliant with the Ontario Building Code by a professional engineer.

The solar collectors we use in our house are the CAREarth Vacuum Tube Solar Collector SJ Series Heat Pipe Technology.  Continue reading So, what solar equipment do I need to buy (part 1)?

But, it’s always cloudy and cold here! What good is solar heat here?

Solar Water Heating
Image by London Permaculture via Flickr

It is a sad fact, but if you don’t get any sun, you don’t get any solar heat.  But even the grayest areas of the country get a significant amount of sun.  Thermomax, a is a Canadian company that uses European technology to provide solar hot water products.  Its web site has done a great job of crunching the numbers to see how much water can be heated by a solar unit given the amount of sun available by region in Canada.  Its regional comparison page can be found here.  They also have a great set of interactive, audio enhanced graphics that explain how solar thermal energy systems work in various configurations.  They can be found here.

I will be using their charts to get a better handle on how much money I have saved in the 4 years since I installed my system and will report back to you in a future blog entry.

What are we doing to the planet? Watch the film “Home” to find out!

Director Yann Arthus-Bertrand (left) and Co-Pr...
Image from Wikipedia (fair use)

This is a bit of a departure from my past two posts, but I just saw this film and wanted to share the experience…

Ever wondered what makes the planet tick?  Ever wonder whether humanity is really having an effect on the planet and how it works?  Do you have children or grand children?  Want to see some amazing photography and hear some thoughtful commentary on these subjects?  Got a spare 90 minute? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, treat yourself to a breathtaking, if at times depressing experience and watch the film “Home (the movie)“.  Continue reading What are we doing to the planet? Watch the film “Home” to find out!

How does solar thermal work?

In my earlier post I discussed how we decided to select solar hot water in our new house, but before we made the decision we had to understand something about the technology so that we could evaluate the options available to us.  In this post, I will be describing the components involved in solar thermal systems in very general terms and I will wrap it up with a discussion of the “gotcha” points we ran into when implementing our solution.

 

Continue reading How does solar thermal work?

Solar Hot Water – Not easy, but worth it!

Traditional Roof Mount
Traditional Roof Mounted Solar Hot Water Array

When we bought our new house about 4 years ago, we wanted to be able to take some control over the utility costs so that when energy prices rise, we would have a bit of protection. There are lots of technologies out there that are environmentally friendly, but not all of them are suited to use in a sub-division and many have a low rate of return on investment. Further complicating matters is the fact that many of the municipal inspectors have no idea what they are looking at when presented with some of the new technologies. So which one to choose… Continue reading Solar Hot Water – Not easy, but worth it!

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