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.

 

A New Type of Solar Panel

One of the things that has always caused me problems with solar panels is that they’re a limited technology here in the Midwest, unless you want yet another surface to clear of snow in the winter. In addition, finding places to put the solar arrays is problematic. Once you do find a place to put them, the installation itself is normally an eyesore. So, even though you’re getting power from the sun, you’re paying a relatively high cost for it in more than just monetary ways. Which is why this new solar panel that doubles as windows for the house is intriguing. You can find a quick overview of the technology in the ComputerWorld article entitled, Transparent solar cells could turn windows into generators. The MIT Technology Review article, A New Solar Material Shows Its Potential, provides a little more depth.

The main material used in this new solar panel is perovskite. There aren’t any panel that you can buy today with this material, but it does have a lot of promise. Even if this particular material doesn’t work out because it’s too fragile, a composite with the material or a material with some of the same characteristics could produce solar panels that double as window panes. Because window panes are vertical, rather than at an angle, they won’t suffer from many of the environmental issues that current solar panels do. You won’t see them as something separate from the house and it’s less likely that they’ll be damaged because the house partially protects the windows. Because the windows won’t angle to precisely match the angle of the sun, these solar panels are unlikely to be as efficient as standard solar panels.

Perovskite is a kind of rare earth mineral. Actually, the term encompasses a number of rare earth minerals that exhibit a particular structure. These minerals are somewhat common in a number of locations worldwide. Of course, mining perovskite will still incur the environmental damage I discussed in my A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution and A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution (Part 2) posts. It’s important to realize that this technology reflects a small, but important, step forward.

Several of the articles that appear online indicate that this new technology should be a lot less expensive than current solar panel technology and more aesthetically appealing as well. These two factors bode well for this technology. People won’t use green technologies that cost more than current technologies to use and few people are willing to put up with unappealing yard ornaments. If the people working with this technology succeed, your next window upgrade could provide power to your house as well.

The one thing that concerned me about this technology is whether it would look like standard windows. From what I gathered in reading various articles, the panes can be tinted, just like standard panes. In addition, it’ll be possible to sandwich the panes with inert gasses, such as argon, to produce windows with high emissivity values, which means they should work great in colder climates.

Our green technologies still create way too much pollution, but it appears that we’re making progress. Let me know your thoughts about these new windows at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution (Part 2)

I like to report good news on a post whenever I can. Recently I wrote a post entitled, “A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution” that makes it clear that many supposedly green technologies aren’t very green at all. Sometimes you can find a partial solution to a problem, which is the topic of this post. No, the solution isn’t a complete answer to the question of green technology pollution, but it does help. In this case, it appears that a proper response could clean up old pollution, while making it possible to obtain rare earth elements quickly and easily.

During the gold rush (and while performing other mining), the miners threw away what has turned out to be valuable rocks. Yes, the tailings contain rare earth metals in at least some cases. If things work out well, mining companies could go to these old sites of pollution and clean up the mess, while making a profit. The rare earth metals needed for luxury items, such as cell phones, and alternative energy sources, such as solar panels, are available in plain sight. This is one of those stories where one person’s junk turns into another person’s treasure.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a lot of information about this particular story as of yet. It could be that the government and industry are still in talks about what can be done. In an ideal scenario, a company would come in and clean up both the pollution generated by the mine and those valuable tailings. Selling the rare earth metals contained in the tailings would generate income for the company and reduce our reliance on rare earth metals coming from China.

However, even if everything works absolutely perfectly, it still isn’t a complete solution. Processing the rare earth metals causes significant pollution. Cleaning up the tailings to obtain the rare earth metals they contain would solve one problem, but processing those tailings would create another, more substantial, pollution problem. The pollution will happen whether the source of the raw material is rock from a new mine or rock from tailings, so this scenario does reduce overall pollution.

The important thing to remember is that processing materials creates pollution. When you choose a supposedly green technology, you need to remember that it really isn’t all that green. The processing of materials for that green technology generates heaps of long-lasting pollution that fouls rivers and makes entire sections of land completely unusable for growing food. Any step we can take toward reducing the pollution these green technologies cause is a good thing and reusing these tailings seems (at least on the surface) like such a step.

I’d be interested in hearing about any additional information you have on the topic. Especially important would be knowing how the government and industry eventually decide to use these tailings and whether we end up with a perfect scenario that truly does clean up some of those old mining sites. Let know what you hear at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A Discussion About Green Technology Pollution

I’ve discussed various methods of saving money while consuming less electricity (thereby reducing the amount of pollution that a typical home generates locally) several times in the past. The two most popular posts on the issue are CFLs for Free and More on CFL Usage. It’s true, using Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) reduces local use of electricity, reducing local pollution and saving money. However, no one has proven they really are greener than using incandescent bulbs after examining all of the evidence. The problem is production. Producing a lightbulb of any sort also creates pollution.

Looking at a CFL, you have the glass, which possesses the same ability to pollute (and at about the same amount) as an incandescent bulb. There is also the mercury contained within a CFL, but burning an incandescent bulb actually outputs more mercury into the environment when you rely on coal fired electrical plants. On the other hand, if the electrical source is nuclear, wind, solar, or natural gas powered, then CFLs are a definite loser when it comes to mercury. You must also consider the wiring within the bulb and the base used to screw it into a light socket. Both of these items pollute, but generally at the same or a reduced amount as an incandescent bulb.

However, none of the articles I’ve ever read consider another important issue. CFLs contain electronics. Producing those electronics creates an enormous amount of pollution. Organizations such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) will tell you that electronics are hardly clean and they do produce some extremely toxic side effects. Plus, the devices continue to pollute after we’re done with them. Because of the strict environmental laws in the United States, much of the most toxic production is now performed in China or Mexico.

Unfortunately, the production pollution is just the tip of the iceberg. Many of these devices also require the use of rare earths, which produce pollution so toxic that all of the mines in America were shut down until it was discovered that we needed one for strategic purposes. (The last mine, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine, was closed in 2002 after a series of radioactive tailing spills.) So, we’re opening (actually, reopening) one of these pollution super sites in the making in order to keep China from having a monopoly.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that green technology isn’t very green. In fact, what we’re really doing in many cases is moving the pollution to someone else’s yard instead of our own. Even so, after reading about the topic intensely, it appears that CFLs are still a good idea and that they do, in fact, reduce the overall pollution of the planet. The lesson though is that it’s important to embrace green technologies with the idea that they aren’t really green and then discuss just where the pollution goes after you start using them. For example, ethanol production will remain a major pollution producer (not a pollution solution) in my book because it really does cause significant damage to the planet. What ethanol does is move the pollution to someone else’s doorstep—making it the worst sort of pollution.

There are also significant questions about both solar and wind power. In both cases, you have pollution created by electronics production and the use of rare earths. Additional pollution is caused when these two forms of power actually reduce the efficiency of power plants that are needed when solar or wind sources are unavailable.

This brings me to new technologies. Scientists are experimenting with all sorts of new ways to produce energy that is cleaner. Recently I read about an artificial leaf that produces power using photosynthesis—the same technique used by plants. However, like many other techniques for producing power, this one relies on electronics and will therefore contribute to pollution somewhere. The issue is whether the pollution is less than other techniques of producing power now. This technology has promise because it appears that it uses less silicon than solar panels. In addition, it’s less expensive than solar energy and there is the potential to reduce costs more. The part that intrigues me most about this particular new technology is that its output is easily stored in a form that doesn’t require constant replacement of batteries. The output is hydrogen and oxygen, both of which can be stored using tanks and then released as needed. The combination of lower cost and low-technology energy storage could make this new method a much better deal than wind or solar power.

People keep looking at the technologies we have now as an end point. Yes, they are an end point, but one that is at the beginning of the route needed to produce truly clean energy, not the end of the road. Many scientists suggest now that the existing clean energy sources actually produce more pollution than the fossil fuel sources they’re designed to replace—we need to do better. The artificial leaf is an example of the kind of technology we could see in the future. Yes, it still pollutes, but possibly at a much lower level than anything to date and it doesn’t require anything special to use it.

What is your take on green technology and pollution? Have you considered issues such as the pollution generated during production and post usage, and the overall effect of using a technology on the system as a whole? Let me know your thoughts on the matter at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Green Doesn’t Mean Pollution Free

There is a misconception about green technologies that I hear more and more often. The idea that a green technology is necessarily pollution free simply isn’t correct. I’ve been giving the notion a great deal of thought and haven’t been able to come up with a single green technology that is free of pollution of some sort. In fact, I have come to wonder whether some supposedly green technologies may actually produce more pollution than the technologies they’re supposed to replace. Yes, I realize that this is a radical position, but hear me out before you make a decision for yourself (and I would welcome discussion on this particular issue).

I’ll start with the simplest green technology that I could come up with. Years ago my wife gave up her drier for a clothesline. Not only do our clothes last longer and smell better, but she gained some important space in the laundry room, our costs for drying the clothes are smaller, and using a clothesline is definitely green. However, is a clothesline pollution free? It isn’t for several reasons.

 

  • The clothesline we use is plastic covered metal wire, which means that manufacturing it generated several kinds of industrial waste and hydrocarbons.
  • The hooks used to support the clothesline are made of metal, which means yet more industrial waste.
  • The posts used to support the hooks are made of treated lumber, so they contain toxic chemicals.
  • The posts are also painted, which means more toxic chemicals, along with industrial waste and potential hydrocarbons.


Using the sun to dry your clothing is a green technology. There are few continuing pollution sources when using this approach, yet, it can be easily argued that the clothesline will eventually require replacement, as will the posts and the hooks. The posts will last longer if I continue to paint them, but that means continued pollution in the form of toxic chemicals as well. So, this green approach to drying clothing does generate a small amount of pollution—it isn’t pollution free as advocates would have you believe. (However, it is demonstrably better than using a drier.)

After thinking this issue through for a while, I did come up with some ways to reduce the pollution generated by drying clothing outside, but never have created a solution that is completely pollution free and still provides the desired result. Here are some of the changes I considered:

 

  • Use black locust posts and cross beams that require no painting and are naturally resistant to decay.
  • Use natural fiber clotheslines that don’t generate as many pollutants during production.
  • Avoid the use of hooks by tying the clotheslines directly to the cross beams.


Even with these changes, however, the simple act of drying clothing generates pollution. For example, I have no source of natural fiber strong enough to support the clothes on my property and even if I did, I have no way of turning the fibers into clotheslines. In short, drying clothing generates some amount of pollution in the form of industrial waste even with the best planning. I’ve been able to use this same approach to consider the pollution generated by burning wood instead of propane to heat the house (despite my replacement of the trees I burn to maintain the size of the woods) and other ways we try to be green. Humans simply generate pollution for every given activity no matter how benign or well considered.

So, now you need to consider how this information translates into other green technologies. When you look carefully at my arguments against calling a green technology pollution free (as has been done in the hype generated in the news lately), you quickly see that many green technologies generate considerable pollution. Most of the articles I read on the topic are woefully inadequate and some are downright inaccurate. For example, I read an article from Scientific American that tries to paint solar cells as relatively pollution free. The article does consider the burden of fossil fuels used to construct the solar cells, but doesn’t consider the content of the cells themselves. For example, when you talk about the silicon used to create a solar cell, you must consider the heavy metals used to dope the silicon in order to make it into a semiconductor.

Unfortunately, while I do know that toxic industrial waste is produced when creating solar cells, there is a terrible lack of material on just how much. It’s a dark secret that you won’t read about anywhere. The article also doesn’t consider the emissions produced by the manufacture of plastic housings and metal castings used for solar panels. So, while using a solar panel does reduce locally produced pollution, I have to wonder whether the technology doesn’t simply move the pollution to another location—the place of manufacture. It makes me wonder whether our grandchildren might not consider solar technology as an ill conceived maneuver designed to make everyone feel better at the expense of toxic output that is even worse than the technology it replaced. In fact, I have read an article or two about this particular issue already—we may be making some places in China uninhabitable in order to clean up our own country.

Of course, these are simply musings of mine that I’m choosing the share with you. My point is that we need to consider the potential ramifications of theoretically green technologies that we embrace and consider the full cost of each. There are many technologies, such as the use of ethanol in gasoline, that many people have already questioned as being reckless. You can find a lot of articles questioning the use of ethanol in places such as the New York Times, Scientific American, and Environmental Working Group that say ethanol is a wash at best and potentially worse than simply using unadulterated gasoline from a health perspective. I have an open mind when it comes to green technologies, but I’m also cautious in saying that we’re making progress because so far, I’m not seeing much real progress. Let me know your thoughts on the green revolution at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.