Is Your Car Green, Really?

It seems like I receive yet another brochure about the huge advances various government entities, enterprises, vendors, or energy companies making in protecting the planet every month. Everyone seems to think that their technology is going to be the next green thing, when the facts simply don’t bear them out. The previous post I wrote on this topic, More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t, discussed the issue that some informed people are discovering that all that green technology out there is really just designed to sell more products—not help the earth in any significant way. The problem is one of complexity, which is the case with the green car.

Driving an electric car might seem like the right way to reduce emissions. However, recent studies show that your electric car might actually be worse for the environment. I say might here because it all depends on how the electricity is generated. In some cases, your electric car actually is better than gas at the first level. That is, the manner in which the electricity is generated produces fewer pollutants than driving a car with a gas engine would be. For example, sunlight and wind are both plentiful in Nevada, so driving an electric car could make sense there. However, as I’ve noted in previous posts, solar and wind power both rely heavily on special materials, the mining of which actually produces a serious amount of pollution. The studies available right now also assume that the manufacturing processes for the supposedly green cars are actually no worse than the older technology they replace. Consequently, even though it might appear that your electric car is a win, it may not be right now.

A problem with all the entities making the promises and telling you just how good they are at fulfilling them is that they lie. Sometimes they even get caught. For example, the EPA finally caught VW in the act of lying about its emission test results. The only problem is that those cars are still out there producing millions of tons of lung killing smog. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether any of those green technologies actually do anything at all, except make you pay a lot more when buying the vehicle, and to run and maintain it later. Add to this the fact that some people are now saying that the solar industry is dying (and would already be dead were it not for government subsidies) and you have to wonder just how long these green cars will even maintain the appearance of being green.

Some people are saying that we should simply get rid of cars, which is obviously not going to happen. If people really wanted to use mass transit, it would have happened already. In addition, there isn’t any evidence that mass transit actually reduces pollution either. The vehicles are often poorly maintained and spew a horrid amount of pollution out of their exhaust (as evidenced by the stench when you drive behind a bus). In addition, mass transit only works when you live in or around a major city, which won’t work for those of us who live in the country.

The best way to create a green car is not to drive it any more than necessary. I’ve taken to planning out my trips so that I drive the fewest possible miles. Because I’m self-employed, I don’t even start my car five days a week (getting everything done in just two days). Not only does my strategy save time, but I’ve reduced by gas bill by half in the last two years. Green often equates to not using a resource such as gas. Using the resource will inevitably produce some sort of pollution. Through careful planning, you can significantly reduce the number of miles you drive and you can drive more of them at once (a warm engine normally works more efficiently and produces fewer emissions). You also want to reduce gas waste by starting up slowly, stopping over a longer distance, and keeping your engine from idling. In fact, there are a wealth of tips you can find online for making your car more efficient (such as removing all that junk from the trunk).

You can make the world a cleaner place and still keep your car. All it really takes is planning and careful maintenance. Unfortunately, there is no magic that will just make the problems with pollution go away. Driving that electric car or paying more for a vehicle with dubious emissions extras isn’t going to do much. What it really takes is a bit of self control. Let me know your thoughts about green cars at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Chips from Wood, Really?

Sometimes I encounter an article that takes me completely by surprise. I’ve always had a strong interest in computer hardware articles because I started out as a hardware guy (many years ago). Of course, that interest has become stronger since writing Build Your Own PC on a Budget. However, even with the amount of reading I do, I didn’t expect the ComputerWorld article I read last week, Computer chips made of wood promise greener electronics.

Anyone who has read blog posts such as, More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t know that I have a real problem with technology that only makes you think it helps the environment when it actually creates more pollution. Unlike many green technology failures, making chips using a wood substrate could potentially fulfill it’s promise. No, it won’t eliminate pollution, but it will create less of it. The most important thing to understand about the ComputerWorld article is that chips made of this material will decompose over time and that they use 99.9 percent less semiconductor material. I find the whole idea really amazing.

According to the article, the new chips are a win for vendors as well because they cost less to manufacture. So, not only do you get a greener chip, but one that costs less as well. This is the sort of winning scenario that I’d love to see happen more often. The last time I had such good news to report was with my CFLs for Free post. However, the problem now is to get enough people to actually use this material to create chips to make it worthwhile. If only a few vendors decide to make chips from wood, then the effort is lost—we won’t see an actual reduction in pollution as the result of this innovation.

All this leads me to wonder what sorts of other materials could eventually make an appearance as chip material. I’d love to eventually build a PC that uses all biodegradable components. You could throw it away and be sure that nature would eventually turn it back into source material for new items. What a concept! Let me know your thoughts about biodegradable chips at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Renewable Energy Inroads

I’m all for making the planet less dependent on fossil fuels, if for no other reason than they represent a finite resource. Renewable energy offers to replace the finite resources we use now with something we can harvest forever. The problem is that many renewable energy sources are really quite dirty. For example, the solar cell that adorns your roof may be killing people in China. In my opinion, we really don’t need to clean up our part of the planet by making China’s part of the planet even dirtier. In the long run, we won’t benefit by that strategy. Just think of all the really interesting poisoned toys China will send our way—toys poisoned by our own toxic waste. The toxins we generate in other countries tend to come back to haunt us.

It was with mixed feelings that I recently read that solar energy will become a major energy source within 15 years. The reasons for the increase in usage are many, but the basic reason is that solar is becoming less expensive to install and maintain. The costs of the solar panels and their installation has gone down considerably, so it’s possible that solar power might actually become less expensive than using fossil fuels at some point. Of course, the savings assume that you’re not storing excess power in batteries. Adding batteries to the picture greatly increases costs and makes solar quite expensive indeed.

There is one benefit to solar energy that many people don’t think about. If the solar panels appear on people’s rooftops in a decentralized configuration, the ability of terrorists to disrupt the electrical system is greatly diminished. A decentralized setup also reduces costs associated with power transmission and could actually do things like reduce cooling costs in summer. Of course, the utilities aren’t crazy about decentralized solar because it cuts into their profits, but the fact of the matter is that we need a better setup than the one we do now. Our system is so fragile right now that I’m often surprised a storm or other simply cause doesn’t knock out major sections of the country.

The bottom line for me is that we really do need to reduce our power usage and embrace renewable energy sources. However, we need non-polluting renewable energy sources or at least sources that pollute less than the ones we have now. I last tackled this topic in More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t. The fact is, nothing has changed in the technology, but the need to address the technology shortfalls has just become greater. Before a technology that pollutes our planet quite a lot becomes entrenched, we need to come up with answers to deal with the pollution—preferably a better technology.

What are your thoughts on renewable energy? What forms do you feel pollute the least and provide the greatest benefit to people as a whole? Do you see renewable energy becoming the only power source at some point? Let me know your thoughts on these and other energy concerns at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

More People Noticing that Green Technology Really Isn’t

A lot of people have sent me e-mail about my negative viewpoints on a lot of the supposedly green technology that we use today. The fact is that many of these green technologies simply move pollution to someone else’s backyard and may actually increase the amount of pollution created, rather than reducing it. My latest essays on the topic appear in A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution and A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution (Part 2). I’m most definitely not against technologies that really are green—I’m just against technologies that pose as green when they really aren’t. The consequences of pseudo-green technologies are real. We’ll eventually pay for the pollution we’re creating and spilling into the air, water, and land.

I’ve noticed that more people are starting to see the same things I do when it comes to pollution. The article I like best in this category is Study: Your all-electric car may not be so green from the Associated Press. Although the article doesn’t even begin to discuss the sources of pollution that electric cars generate (such as those rare earth mines in various parts of the world), it does point out that even the electricity is dirty. An electric car powered by electricity from a coal-fueled plant produces 3.6 times the amount of pollution as a gasoline car. If you absolutely must attack the problems created by gasoline fueled cars, use a hybrid instead. No, it doesn’t get rid of the pollution produced by materials used to build the car, but at least it actually does produce less pollution locally.

Some readers have pointed out that there is some speculation that the whole global warming debate is a fraud. There is even some discussion that governments are stepping in and simply telling anyone who works for the government not to tall about global warming at all. Yes, the debate has proven difficult and will remain difficult as some researchers begin to claim that we’re actually going to experience a cooling trend in the near future. The fact is that few people actually have the knowledge required to make a guess and my understanding is that no one has actually accumulated enough information to prove the issue one way or the other. What I do know is that it’s a bad idea to keep spewing contaminants into our environment. You can see the effects of pollution all around you.

This all leads me back to my basic premise about pollution. You need to make it personal. Deciding how pollution affects you personally can help direct your efforts in making our world a cleaner place to live. Doing things like turning off lights you don’t need, driving only when you actually need to, and lowering the thermostat a few degrees will all help. Your personal gain from such efforts is the money you’ll save and the health you’ll keep. Using fewer resources means having more money in your pocket for the things you’d like to have. Less pollution means that you’ll have a longer, healthier life.

What is your take on the claims to green technology that really isn’t? There currently aren’t any laws that specifically keep a manufacturer from claiming that a technology is green when it really isn’t. I’d like to see laws that place the burden of proof on the manufacturer. Before a product is sold as being green, the manufacturer should have to prove that it’s not only manufactured in ways that will produce less pollution (something that is nearly impossible right now), but that using the item will also produce less pollution and that the product’s eventual disposal will help keep pollution under control as well. Let me know your thoughts on the topic at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Winter Warmup

Winter weather in Wisconsin is anything but predictable. It’s not consistent either. In fact, the only true statement you can make is that the weather is interesting. Exciting might work as another term for it. So, I’m not at all surprised that November turned out quite cold with temperatures well below normal, and now December is turning out a bit warm. In fact, we’ve had a number of days that have been above freezing. From a personal perspective, I’m not complaining even a little. My wood pile continues to look nice too. In fact, the house got a bit too warm last night using the minimum amount of wood. I may not even start a fire this evening given that I used one this morning to dry my clothes (hey, driers cost money to operate—clothes racks are pretty much free except for the initial investment).

Just because I personally like the weather though, doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. When the weather is like this, the ground doesn’t freeze completely. Bugs that are overwintering in the ground and on plants aren’t killed off when the weather is too warm. In fact, I’m thinking if the weather doesn’t get colder soon, I may end up with a bumper crop of tent caterpillars this spring.

Even though people don’t like the cold winds of winter, the plants need it to remain viable. Nature has evolved to require the presence of extreme cold in order to keep insects under control. When the insects aren’t controlled, the plants have a hard time surviving (normally it’s the plants you want most that die the easiest). For example, tent caterpillars can easily strip my plum trees and because the trees don’t get a second set of leaves, the trees are bald for the entire summer (resulting in their death).

Unfortunately, the weather can also get too cold. Last winter we experienced day after day of colder than usual temperatures. The result was that about half of my grape vines died. Interestingly enough, the grape roots survived and new vines came up from the root. I’ll still have to wait for three or four years to get my first batch of grapes from the new vines, but it won’t be as long as if I had to replant them using new plants. The point is that there is a range of temperatures that plants expect during the winter months and when those temperatures aren’t met, the plants die or the insects overwhelm them.

A number of people have asked where global warming is given the temperatures we’ve been having for the most part. Global warming is a technically correct, but misleading term. The more I read, the more I come to understand that the overall warming of the earth’s temperature causes wider variations in climate, not necessarily overall warming. While we have experienced colder weather here in Wisconsin, overall, the earth has continued to warm. I was reading about the effects of the warming in other areas of the world just this morning.

I’ll eventually provide some additional input regarding global warming because there seems to be a great deal of confusion about things. I do believe there is some level of global warming based on the weather I’ve seen personally. Whether global warming is due to natural climatic variations or the result of mankind’s mistreatment of the planet remains to be seen (although, fouling the planet’s atmosphere, water, and soil is a bad idea no matter what the effect might be). No matter the cause, I look for the effects to become more prominent in the future. Let me know your thoughts about our interesting winter weather at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Bletchley Park Reborn and a Social Issue Revisited

You may not have ever heard about Bletchley Park. In fact, the place was one of the best kept secrets of World War II (WWII) until just recently. Of course, like many secret places, this one fell into disuse after the war and nearly ended up in the scrap heap, but a restoration effort has been under way for quite some time now. As a computer scientist, the entire Bletchley Park project interests me because it was the first time that many computer principles were put into play. The project relied on cutting edge technology to reduce the length of the war and saved thousands of lives. A lot of other people must feel as I do because the park recently had its 100,000 visitor.

This particular historical place is receiving a lot of notice as of late. For example, there is a PBS television show called The Bletchley Circle that talks about what happened to some of the ladies who worked there after the war. The show makes good viewing and the feelings and situations presented are realistic to a point. I doubt very much that any of the people who actually worked there ended up as amateur sleuths, but it’s fun to think about anyway. The show does have the full cooperation of the restoration group and is even filmed there.

The computer systems used at Bletchley Park were immense and even the lowliest smartphone today probably has more processing power. However, WWII was the first war where computer systems played a major role and reading about their history gives insight into the directions that the technology may take in the future. The most important factor for me has been that the group working at Bletchley Park was made up of the finest minds available, regardless of gender, sex orientation, religion, age, or any other factor you can imagine. The only thing that mattered was whether you had a good mind. It’s how things should be today, could be today, but aren’t. It’s not hard to imagine the impact on the problem of global warming if we had such a group now.

All good things must apparently come to an end. At the end of the war, the group that performed so many amazing tasks was broken up, rather than being retained to work on other problems, such as reconstruction. The sheer waste of not keeping these minds working together on other problems staggers me, but it has happened more than a few times throughout history, and all over the world. No country in the world is exempt from such terrible waste. The women in the group ended up going home to be housewives and pretend that nothing ever happened. It’s the reason that The Bletchley Circle strikes such a chord with me. The show presents a kind of “what if” scenario.

If the world is to survive, it’s important that we think about the incredible waste of not using all the resources at hand for solving problems (and there are more than a few problems to solve). If this group serves as nothing else, it’s a reminder of how a few extremely talented people were able to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem. They should serve as an example today for all those who think the world’s problems can’t be solved—they resonate as a beacon of hope. Let me know your thoughts about Bletchley Park and The Bletchley Circle at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Where is the Global Warming?

If you’ve read this blog long enough, you know that I take a moderate view of global warming. In fact, I’ve even written a post by that title, The Moderate View of Global Warming. It doesn’t surprise me that a number of readers have recently written to ask if I still believe in global warming given the recent cold wave that hit the United States. Yes, I do. Of course, a belief must be based on something, so I went looking for some statistics. My own blog provides some. For example, the harvest was earlier this year than any other year for which I’ve recorded statistics (17 of them). In fact, I’ve made quite a few observations about the effects of global warming on me personally because global warming seems like this really big issue that affects everyone else.

For most people, my personal observations are nice, but unless they happen to live in the same area of the world in which I live, the observations aren’t really relevant. At first I thought I was going to have to painstakingly research the statistics myself, but then I found an article entitled, Scientists: Americans are becoming weather wimps. It turns out that the US regularly experiences freezes of the sort that we’ve recently had, but that the interval has been 17 years this time. It turns out that in the past 115 years, there have been 27 distinct cold snaps where the average temperature across the country have dropped below 18 degrees. That’s an average of one cold snap every 4 years—so waiting 17 years is an unprecedented interval.

The recent cold snap isn’t even very high on the list of cold snaps—it ranks 55th in the list of cold snaps since 1900 when the statistics were first collected. So, the recent cold snap wasn’t only long overdue, it wasn’t particularly cold. Our predecessors faced much colder weather than we do today.

The statistics that made things clearest for me is that there have only been two days that rank in the list of the top 100 coldest days since 2000. However, there have been 13 days that rank in the list of the top 100 warmest days in the same time period. Although these statistics aren’t much comfort to anyone who has suffered broken pipes due to the cold, they all point to one thing—even though it has been cold, the earth is generally getting warmer.

Reducing pollution is an essential part of bringing global warming (defined as a general warming trend with more frequent extremes in weather conditions) under control. Personalizing global warming is an important part of understanding it. Create a list of changes that you’ve noted over the past ten or so years, such as the additional costs for cooling your home and the number of days you have to use the air conditioner each year. Once you start looking around and seeing how global warming is affecting both finances and health, you begin seeing why it’s personally important for you to control it. Let me know your thoughts about global warming and controlling pollution at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Early Fruit Harvest

I’m continually reminded by the weather that nothing is certain about gardening than uncertainty. Our pear trees served to illustrate the point on Saturday. I had checked them just a few days before and the fruit was still rock hard. Of course, that was before a heat wave hit (it has been in the upper 80s and low 90s here) after a relatively fall-like period. The change in weather caused the fruit to ripen incredibly fast. By yesterday (Sunday) we already had some fruit on the ground because it had fallen off, overripe.

The odd thing is that the weather has only affected four of our pear trees. Normally, the pears ripen pretty much at the same time, but that isn’t the case this year. We’ll have two distinct picking periods, which might actually be beneficial given the size of the harvest this year. You can be certain that I’ll be watching the other four pear trees quite closely.

Even with the drop off, the harvest this year is huge. We didn’t pick up any of the windfalls yesterday because they really were quite bad. The trees have yielded 200 pounds of fruit so far and there is more to pick. We stopped picking because we’ve run out of space to put the pears in the house. So, we’ll process this batch and pick some more.

Of course, I’m wondering what has caused the odd ripening and why it has affected only some of the trees. I think the weather is definitely the cause. The variance in temperatures can be attributed to global warming, but I think there must be something more to it than that. I do know now that I’ll need to check the trees every day during this time of the year from now on (normally I check every three or four days until the fruit starts to ripen, at which point, I start checking every day).

There are consequences to the early ripening. In checking the fruit yesterday, I did note that the pears are larger than normal, which is probably the result of those early spring rains. The water content is also considerably higher than normal, which means that we probably won’t be making much pear butter this year (it would take too long to boil the pears down). Even though the pears taste wonderful and are a bit more flavorful than normal, the sugar content is considerably less than normal. The main reason is that the pears ripened before the sugar content could rise. As a result, we might have a hard time making pear jam and using the pears for wine will be harder too. The pears will make amazingly good juice, chunks, and pear sauce. Rebecca also plans to make some more pear mincemeat. Our larder was starting to get a bit low and we had hoped the pears would be suitable this year (they are).

The lower sugar content has had one positive effect. Normally we have to battle hornets during this time of the year. They like to eat holes into the pear and sometimes a piece of fruit will contain a hornet when you go to pick it (making it necessary to look carefully at the fruit). The hornets are definitely fewer this year. On the other hand, we’ve noticed a few more earwigs than normal. Both hornets and earwigs are beneficial at other times of the year because they do keep other parasites in check. The key to avoiding an infestation is to ensure you pick the fruit just before the peak of ripeness (the fruit has a good taste and the sugar content is high, but it’s still a little hard). If you wait until the fruit is completely ripe, hornets and earwigs will almost certainly attack it.

We have been working with fruit for about 17 years now and no two years have been precisely the same. There are general trends in how our fruit will react in any given year, but nothing precise. Flexibility is key in making an orchard work. So, what are you seeing in your orchard this year? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Moderate View of Global Warming

A number of people have written to ask me lately about my perspective on global warming since I seem to take a middle view of things. That global warming exists is no longer the question. Some form of global warming is taking place. However, a moderate view of global warming also considers that the effects may not be as pronounced as some people state or from the specific sources that some scientists prefer to quote.

Global warming also doesn’t manifest itself as instant deserts where you stand. In fact, the temperatures during some points of the year may be quite a bit cooler than normal. For example, Wisconsin is having an amazingly cool summer this year—at least, it is in the area in which I live. We only had a few days so far this summer that have required us to use the air conditioning. What I do know is that the extremes in weather have become more pronounced and that we do see a larger number of warm days on average than we did in the past. I have related some of my observations about global warming in the past in such posts as Real World Global Warming and A Really Wet Spring. Putting the effects of global warming into terms you can understand personally is an important part of understanding the phenomena as a whole.

Admitting that there is a problem—one that affects you directly—is an essential first step toward resolving it. Until the issue becomes a personal problem that you have a stake in solving, it will remain a problem that some scientist somewhere is worried about. Of course, this is the very issue that most of the media seems to miss. I don’t imagine you’ve ever seen your local news do interviews of fellow citizens in your particular area on the personal effects of global warming. Perhaps if the media had done this, you would have more reasons to find a solution for the problem (as would I).

The source of the problem isn’t the concern. That there is a problem is the concern that makes finding all of the true sources of global warming essential. People do create pollution and I’d be the first one to recommend that you reduce the amount of pollution you create in order to stave off global warming. However, blaming emissions of one sort or another as the sole source of global warming is the easy way out and won’t solve anything. We really do need to know how much of the global warming that takes place today is as the result of the natural earth cycle, how much comes from natural sources, how much is directly attributable to human activity, and how much comes from other sources. Before that information becomes useful though, you need to know just how global warming is affecting you as a person.

I’d love to hear about how you think global warming is affecting you personally and what you plan to do to reduce global warming at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. I’m not looking for grand strategies here. What I really want to know is your personal solution—what you personally plan to do. Even small reductions in pollution from personal sources will make a huge difference when you multiply those reductions by the population of planet earth. Remember that an ocean begins with a single drop of water.

 

A Really Wet Spring

It doesn’t seem possible that I was complaining about drought last year, but I did (see Unexpected Drought Consequences for details). Our spring has been incredibly wet with rain coming every other day (or, more often, several days in a row). It has been so wet that even trying to cut the grass has been a chore. I finally resorted to using a hand mower and a weed whacker to do the job—the garden tractor was hopeless, it either lost traction and got stuck or the deck would become filled with grass and refuse to do anything more. At least we’re not flooding (yet).

Our main concern at the moment is that the garden still isn’t planted. Yes, it has gotten quite late and some items wouldn’t have a chance of producing anything at this point, but many other items will still produce something for us. The problem is trying to till the garden to loosen the soil. The other day I took out my spade to see how things were progressing. The soil in one part of the garden simply stuck together as a mud ball. Digging in another part showed water in the bottom of the hole. Obviously, any attempt to use the tiller will be futile until the garden dries out a little.

At least one reader has heard of our predicament (possibly being in the same state himself) and chided me about my comments regarding global warming. I stand by what I have said in the past—global warming is a reality. Global warming doesn’t necessarily mean things will be hot (although, the global average temperature is increasing a small amount each year). What it means is that we’ll see more extremes in weather, such as this year’s really cool and wet spring.

As with anything, I try to find the positives. I reported on one of those positives recently, our woods produced a bumper crop of mushrooms. Those mushrooms sell for $25.00 a pound if you can obtain them directly from someone who picks them. Morels are in high demand because they’re delicious. If you pick mushrooms to help augment your income, this is your year. We simply enjoyed them in some wonderful meat dishes, which is a treat considering we usually make do with the canned variety.

However, for us the biggest plus is that we’re going to be buried in fruit. The apples, cherries, plums, and pears have all produced bountifully this year. The trees are literally packed with fruit. I imagine that I’ll need to trim some of it off to keep the branches from breaking—an incredibly rare event. It has only happened once before in the 18 years we have lived here. So, for us, this year is the year we pack the larder with good fruit to eat, despite the fact that our garden will produce dismally.

Of course, we really do want a garden. At this point, my only option is to go out there and dig it up by hand and then smooth it over with a garden rake. I’ll this task right alongside of mowing the lawn using the weed whacker. We’re talking some heavy duty hours of some incredibly dirty work. Well, someone has to do it. At least I’m getting my exercise, which will help improve my health.

So how is your spring going and what do you expect from your garden this summer? Are your fruit trees literally bursting with fruit as mine are? Let me know what is happening with your orchard and garden at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.