Web-only Extras: More letters from our readers
Sierra magazine appears to be having an identity crisis. The past few issues are full of fun places to backpack, gear reviews, chatty diary pieces, backcountry safety tips (i.e., how to behave if you encounter a rattler), backpacking recipes and very short items on environmental issues (a scant half page on the Gulf oil disaster, really!). I already subscribe to Backpacker magazine and sure don't need the Sierra Club version of the same. One recent issue actually had me doing a cover check: I thought I must have picked up the wrong magazine. Please get back to what we've always expected and need from the Sierra Club, hard information and in-depth articles on critical environmental issues. Also, please note, some of us have an attention span longer than that of a flea. Don't condescend to your members by giving us the written version of sound bites.
Thank you for publishing an issue (September/October) that gets me excited about the future of our planet. Let's see more positive articles and less doom and gloom.
I'm writing as a life member, one for many years. I'm surprised and chagrined at the turn the magazine has taken. It seems like a cross between magazines like Backpacker and any travel magazine. I believe the emphasis ought to be on local travel and adventures. The number of air trips is getting shocking, especially if one includes the ads for commercial travel. How anyone can pretend this can fit in an environmental lifestyle is beyond me. SC's own carbon footprint for air travel alone must be huge.
Americans live probably the most affluent lifestyle the planet has ever seen. We seem to need to pretend that this idea of constant "fulfillment" is the norm and necessary. However, it's recent, can't be sustained, and is helping fry the planet. We should address our own issues and clean up our own acts while we're working on others. It's hard to imagine that anyone's life would be harmed by reading the sustainable idea that we should explore, enjoy, and protect our own local corners of the planet. When I attend the many environmental functions here in the metro Detroit area, the main topic of conversation is where everyone flew lately. Obviously, some kind of personal exemption is being written by we environmentalists, even as we talk about the problems of large SUVs or coal. We are not getting leadership on this topic; in fact, we're getting encouragement to pollute as long as we really like doing so, as if the atmosphere can tell the difference. We're lagging far behind England in this matter, by the way.
It's wrong, and hypocritical. We need to start with ourselves, and drop the idea that staying local will somehow cause problems and lack of fulfillment in our lives.
We were just looking at the Green Schools article, and were wondering if you have done something similar about "green" grade schools or K-12 green schools. My school, Hallinan Elementary School in Lake Oswego, OR, is officially a "green school" and we are working on doing even better next year. Our efforts include these things among others: recycling as much as we can; we can only throw away things in the school garbage that would make our lunchboxes rot (the rest we have to recycle or take home); we have a classroom program where students check during recesses that all lights and computers are off; we have green assemblies to learn about living green, and we got green kits to take home with things like low-flow showerheads and aerators.
I would be glad if I saw my school rate well on a list like the one in the article.
I graduated from UCSD, and I try to keep in touch with what's happening there. A friend runs a lab on campus and we agree that this is not an exemplary "green" campus. I have attended conferences there where many students are still sucking on PET bottles, unaware of the failure of recycling. Everything is plastic; the fast food industry and Coke and Pepsi have the place locked up big time! Oh well, that's where the funding comes from for research and scholarships.
San Diego, California
"The Latest From the Labs"
I'm disappointed to see the happy face put on using manure from cows as a fuel source. This encouragement of animal agriculture ignores the very negative aspects of this industry. The most recent U.N. report on this is June, 2010 and states: "Agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use and 19% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions."
The report further says: "Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products....A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products." (www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jun/02/un-report-meat-free-diet) Sierra Club should focus on human population reduction and on plant- based eating rather than praising a technological fix that encourages one of the most environmentally destructive industries.
Linda A. DeStefano
Syracuse, New York
Regarding your statement on page 45 that cold fusion does not work: That is incorrect. It works. And other methods of producing free energy or energy from the ether have been invented lately. There are many inventions that produce power in a non-polluting way. Don't you know that? These devices are being systematically and brutally suppressed by the US government and large corporations such as Big Oil.
Look up free energy, Brian O'Leary, Ralph Ring, Eugene Mallove, to name a few, on Google or YouTube. Production of energy that would eliminate the need for vast amounts of oil and gas started with the angelic genius N. Tesla. His inventions were suppressed by J. P. Morgan because they could not be metered to make huge profits for huge companies. So the powerful companies have threatened, murdered and bought off brilliant inventors. These buyer-off-ers are inventive too—with lies. Meanwhile our beloved planet and its life-forms suffer so that a few greedy, selfish people can keep their profits rolling in.
Disappointed that Sierra would be so down on ethanol made from cornstarch. Argonne National Laboratories & many others have shown that corn-based ethanol (taking into account all energy inputs) has a positive net energy return of at least 1.7 units for every unit of energy input, with most ethanol plants now producing ethanol on the order of at least 2 energy units out for every energy unit input. Organic farming practices dramatically reduce fertilizer & pesticide inputs while installing or converting existing pipelines dramatically cuts down on transportation costs associated with fuel distribution. Arguing that other countries are cutting down rainforests to grow corn is just completely false and is an assertion that the Sierra Club should be embarrassed to make. With nearly 80% of the corn crop grown to feed livestock, it makes good sense to divert much of this to transform the cornstarch into alcohol because cattle don't have the enzymes to break down the starch in a kernel of corn. The mash (called distiller grain) left over after the alcohol (ethanol) has been distilled is a much better animal feed than the corn itself. It contains all the fat, protein & minerals of the corn and cattle gain weight much quicker than when on a corn diet. Cellulosic ethanol is starting to come to fruition slowly but surely because of the success of ethanol made from cornstarch. Ethanol made from corn, cellulose, sugar cane, sugar beets, hemp and many other biomass feedstocks is the best way to wean ourselves off of oil. True Freedom from Oil means having a vibrant and mostly domestically produced ethanol industry. Corn-based ethanol will play an important role in getting us off of petroleum while continuing to give valuable coproducts (such as superior animal feed, distiller grain products used as effective fertilizers & pest control, etc).
On page 42, in the article "Batteries That Pack a Punch," you have this statement: "So he and his colleagues came up with a battery that's just a bit bigger than a double-A alkaline but can pump out one full horsepower of energy, several orders of magnitude than the typical AA." Horsepower is, as the name implies, a unit of power not a unit of energy. It is interesting and impressive that the battery can supply that much power. But power is a measure of energy delivered per unit time. Your article implies that the battery can deliver one horsepower for 8 seconds. So the energy stored in the battery is 6000 joules. Of course the power is the impressive number not the energy stored.
No More Plastic—please!
Former Los Alamos geophysicist Klaus Lackner's so-called climate scrubbers are in reality plastic trees and represent mankind's latest movement towards eco-non-reality. Every one of our Earth's oceans is already critically contaminated by thousands of square miles of microbiologically active plastic waste in the gyres of the world. Our landfills, roadsides and other trash-heaps on Earth are also woefully overflowing with toxic plastic waste scheduled to be emitting methane gas, one of the worst greenhouse gases, for at least the next thousand or so years. Now it's proposed that we replace Mother Nature's green trees with nice manufactured plastic ones. This, at about the cost of one automobile each, then to wet them every day (source?), vacuum extract the carbon dioxide (energy source?), compress it (energy source?) and transport it to some far away place of sequestered storage or industrial use (energy source?). Maybe saddest of all is that the Sierra Club seems to be supportive of this scientifically preposterous notion.
Gerald B. Ansell, Ph.D.
Los Alamos, New Mexico
On p. 42 of the September/October issue, there is an error on the 2nd line of the 2nd paragraph: "pump out one full horsepower of energy." HorsePOWER is a unit of power (as the name implies). It is not a unit of energy. As your author should know, power is energy per time. Your confusion makes the meaning of the rest of the article somewhat unclear.
The article appears to be about discharge rate, i.e., power output for high acceleration. Useful for race cars perhaps, but not an issue for ordinary cars. The last paragraph of the left-hand column begins with a discussion about storage of energy and ends with a line about "packing more usable power." The discussion in the right-hand column about 120 mpg Prius seems completely wrong.
The Prius gets all its energy from a gasoline engine. Putting in a different battery will not change the efficiency of that engine (although there might be marginal gains in overall system performance from lower weight batteries).
I think using the term "as much as" 120 mpg is confusing. You have to compare with some standard: e.g., the EPA estimates. "As much as" could refer to performance going downhill with strong tail wind and would thus be misleading.
On p. 43, 2nd paragraph, 2nd line: "solar cells that generate electricity from sunshine." "Solar cells" are photovoltaic cells which generate energy from any light source, e.g., I have had one for years on a hand calculator, which works fine with incandescent or fluorescent light. "It would need no input of electricity to run." What bull. If the big deal is supposedly that it can "use light from any source, natural or artificial," where do you think the artificial light will come from? Do you plan on running it on candles?
Please think before you write. If you do not know the subject, please ask someone who does before publishing. It does the conservation movement harm when you publish things which do not make sense.
Palo Alto, California
The ridiculously negative attack on the internal combustion engine in your September/October issue had much erroneous information. However, I will focus on the last statement: "The average modern car uses only 15 percent of every gallon of gas put into it to actually move, compared with the 90% efficiency of electric motors." This is very misleading. Some facts will help truth emerge. Electricity generation in the USA at the power plant is about 33% efficient (not counting the mining, transportation of fuel, environmental damage, pollution, deaths, etc). Getting this electricity to your home reduces efficiency to about 31%. Transforming this electricity to insert it into a battery is another 5% loss (.31 x .95 = .295%). Charging a Li-ion battery is another 6% loss (.295 x .94 = .277%). Discharging the battery to drive the electric motor generates another 6+% loss (.277 x .94 = .26% efficiency). This DC power must be converted to efficient modulated AC power at another 5% loss (.26 x .95 = .247%). The electric motor is at about 94% efficiency (not 90% as stated in your article), which is a 6% loss (.247 x .94 = .232%). A gear transmission has another 3% loss (.232 x .97 = .225% efficiency). So the average electric car uses only 22.5% of every unit of fuel to actually move. As a reference, the current 2010 Toyota Prius (with a peak 38% efficient internal combustion engine) has an overall well to wheel efficiency of slightly above 30%.
This so called technical crap sounds a lot like the anti climate change groups crap, which just kills your credibility.
Principal Engineer and Owner
Kashmerick Engine Systems LLC
The article "On the Moove" in your "The Latest From the Labs" feature touted Western Washington University's Vehicle Research Institute program to make manure biogas from cow manure, a "plentiful resource" in their local area. The accompanying photo showed a cow in a pasture with Prof. Eric Leonhardt. Nice photo, but the truer part of the tale was in the far background of that picture: a long, low cow confinement building housing hundreds or thousands of cows that likely never see fresh pasture or even the light of day. That's the kind of operation that it takes to generate the volumes of manure needed to make a program like Prof. Leonhardt's work, and there a lot of hidden costs in such an approach.
Concentrated livestock operations threaten the environment and human health in ways that traditional farms do not. Traditional, smaller-scale farming is better than factory farms for people, animals and the environment. Manure as used on traditional farms greatly benefits soil fertility and tilth, increases water-holding capacity, reduces wind erosion, improves aeration and promotes beneficial organisms. But many of these benefits are lost in the industrial approaches required for extracting methane from manure.
"Green power from manure" gives industrialized, confinement livestock operations a subsidized way to deal with their waste manure problem—and even gives them an incentive to expand. An article about methane digesters in the Des Moines Register in 2006 quoted a farmer saying that doubling the size of his dairy herd allowed him to justify the expense of a digester. So, manure power projects will result in still larger herds and flocks. Wonderful. Just what Washington, Iowa and the rest of the U.S. needs.
Using manure as a power or vehicle fuel source sounds like a good idea at first glance, but a second look and a little research show that it's not. Energy generated from manure is not worth the expense. Subsidizing manure power to reduce industrial animal operations' cost of production pushes family farms further toward the brink of extinction. Our money would be better spent investing in truly sustainable, sensible ways of producing energy and food.
P.S. Please consider doing an article on Sierra Club member Dr. Francis Thicke, who is running as the Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. He's just published an excellent book. Learn more at http://www.thickeforagriculture.com. Patrick Bosold
Conservation Chair, Leopold Group, S.E. Iowa Chapter of Iowa Sierra Club
Although I agree with the great majority of points in the "Techno-Fails" article, your treatment of nuclear power is misleading at best. According to a January 12, 2010, report from the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2016 advanced nuclear power is estimated to cost $119/megawatt-hour. By comparison, wind is estimated at $149.3 ($191.1 for offshore) and hydroelectric at $119.9. Note that these figures do include the costs of building the generating plants and do not include any subsidies. Nuclear is hardly "so much more expensive than other energy options." Also don't forget about the much larger role that nuclear energy plays in many European nations, led by France where nuclear power accounts for a whopping 78% of their national electricity production. Considering that France is a net exporter of energy, the French have clearly found the economics of nuclear energy production to be favorable.
Nuclear energy is not without its risks and drawbacks, but to suggest that the cost of nuclear energy is so wildly out of line with other energy sources does not at all seem accurate.
Edward Humes gets off to a bad start in "The Latest From the Labs," describing the United States in 1900 as a place "where electricity, not oil, is king." Well, oil wasn't king because petroleum was new back then. But electricity wasn't king. First of all, virtually all of it came from coal. But coal was king not because it powered electric railways, rather because it powered all the other railroads (the big ones), too, not to mention most of the factories. At that time the big railroads were aptly called "steam railways," the steam being produced by burning coal, commonly the air-fouling bituminous kind.* Through the 1960s, the Lackawanna Railroad and its successors ran a train from Hoboken, N.J., to Buffalo called the Phoebe Snow, after a character in its ads who traveled the route in a white dress, which never got coal ash on it—because the Lackawanna used relatively clean-burning anthracite. But I digress.
Since electric railway statistics did not pop out at me today from Google, I will work with Humes's figure of 12 billion passenger trips on "electric trolleys and trains" in 1900. Hume should understand that virtually no routes traveled by what we call "trains" were electrified in 1900; thus by "trains" I take him to mean the super-trolleys known as "inter-urbans" that sped between towns, especially in the Midwest. Given an American population of 76 million in 1900 (World Almanac), that comes out to about 158 trips per person, or 79 round trips, or one round trip every 4 days or so. That could be right. Half the population lived in the cities (the other half on farms, the suburbs being rudimentary at the time), and half of those made six round trips per week to go to work, then add shopping trips by women, recreational trips on Sunday, and it's close enough.
But the number of trips doesn't tell us about energy use. For that, you need passenger-miles—the total number of miles traveled by passengers per year. While many trolley car trips were short, undoubtedly less than five miles, inter-urban trips would often be longer. So 5 miles per trip seems reasonable, giving us 60 billion passenger miles. That's four times the steam railroads' 14.5 billion passenger miles. But the steam railroads also carried 124 billion ton-miles of freight. Allowing 150 lbs. per person, each ton-mile would be equivalent to 13.3 passenger-miles; thus to 14.5 billion we add 124 x 13.3 = about 1650 billion, for a total of 1665 billion (or 1.67 trillion), passenger-miles conveyed by coal-fired stream—about 28 times what the electric railways carried. Coal wins hands down! (Numbers for steam railroads are from the 1900 Statistical Abstract of the United States.)
Moving on to Humes's main point, most of these technologies seem too good to be true. We're told that a cow can produce enough methane to produce the equivalent of 150 gallons of gasoline each year. Well, maybe, but I'd like to know how much methane that would be. I spent the day online downloading railroad statistics and a lot of tangential stuff that intrigued me, so now I'm not going to start looking up methane. And how much land does that take? I once calculated the amount of land needed to supply our energy needs with ethanol from corn, and there was none left in the world to supply us with food.
Hume needs different terminology for the magic bacteria's habits. Electricity being no more than the action of electrons, nothing can "eat" it.
The "climate scrubbers" also sound magical. Hume doesn't tell us what's involved in making the "resin," and what would be the environmental effects of making enough of it to power the world. One shouldn't make policy decisions in the dark. And carbon dioxide is not "acidic"—water with CO2 dissolved in it is acidic.
Magic batteries? Yeah, that'll be good, but ultimately, batteries don't provide renewable energy. They can store electricity from renewable sources (or any source), thus making some sources practical, which would not be otherwise.
The bottom line is, both consumption and the population have to go down!
Bloomfield, New Jersey
* The heavily used electrified lines of today, such as Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, and the various commuter lines, were not electrified in 1900.
I started to read the recent article "The Latest From the Labs" with some interest. But the interest quickly faded to skepticism, and then to sarcastic laughter. In the article "Climate Scrubbers" a seemingly clever invention that can absorb CO2 is described in a cursory fashion. There no description of exactly how much CO2 is generated in its manufacturer, nor how the absorbed CO2 is to be disposed of, even though these are two of the most obvious and important questions to be asked. Then I moved to the article "Batteries That Patch a Punch," where a battery that can "pump out one full horsepower of energy" is described. Horsepower is not a measure of energy, as I am sure any reasonably attentive high-school physics student could explain. If you choose to report on scientific matters in the future, please have someone qualified to evaluate the stories do the reporting.
I know you weren't talking about the working poor, but some people can't afford houses or rent, so they travel in RVs to jobs around the country, holing up somewhere, and then working for the six to eight month period that a job lasts. They are nurses and other health professionals, as well as migrant workers.
These are families who have made the choice to stay together and move where the work is, so if hatred starts up about RVs on the roads, they have a lot more to lose than most people. Just so you know that everyone in an RV is not enjoying 42-inch flat screens.
While explaining how people will think differently about the role of oil in their lives, you indicated that "the aroma of flame-charred burgers makes taste buds yearn." You failed to mention that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future. It's ironic that you would include that kind of environmental devastation in such a favorable way when proactively writing an article about other environmental problems of our planet.
In the September/October issue there is a great tide of optimism for the environment based on what is going on in some American colleges. Pardon me for being old, but I've heard this before. Are we turning a blind eye to poll after poll showing concern for environmental issues receding year after year. Who remembers a debate on environmental issues during the last presidential campaign?
I wonder of part of the reason Americans are tuning out concern for the environment might be found in Bob Sipchen's little essay in which he found it expedient to demean those who might go camping an a Winnebago. The more we judge people and display our arrogant elitism, the more ground we lose with the rest of America. The Sierra Club used to attempt to pull people together with a vision for the future. When did we find it necessary to set ourselves in a separate, elevated class? It seems to me to be a recipe for failure.
John R. Thompson
While reading the September/October issue, I came across the letter section and took note of "Ridiculous Act?" Being a member of several eco-organizations, I cannot understand the hypersensitivity of some Americans, that over something written they take such personal offense, even quitting an organization over it. The very nature of being someone who defends the planet or their beliefs is to be offended in some way. Americans need to spend less time getting offended and more time getting involved.
While understanding Sandra Hatfield's comments about Islam and the environment (Sept/Oct. 2010), I have a somewhat different reaction. All the major religions have been slow to come to an emphasis on those parts of their scriptures that encourage stewardship of our environment. Islam, the newest of the 3 major religions, has also been the slowest. Its adherents have a long way to go and much to amend in the interpretations of women's roles and family size with its impact on resources. That being said, every journey begins with those first steps.
Sierra is to be commended for encouraging those first steps by highlighting the D.C. Green Muslims.
Red Oak Iowa
I wanted to commend you on your July/August 2010 "Act" feature entitled "Islamic Environmentalism." As a practicing American Muslim, I do find respect for the environment as part of my religious and spiritual belief system, and many of us try to remind other Muslims to practice a "greener" lifestyle.
To be frank, while I always seek to get involved in environmental causes, it's discerning that environmentalism in America lacks a certain level of diversity. I have pondered the reasons behind this for some time, as I believe taking care of the earth can be a uniting factor. I found the "Islamic Environmentalism" feature a very positive step towards that inclusion.
Unfortunately, one of your readers did not share my views. In the Sept/Oct letters, they wrote a harsh critique. I was hurt by the words of your reader as they insisted on blaming the Koran and entire Muslim faith for mistreatment of women and inequality. I found this criticism unfair, as one can easily take specific verses from any religious script and "throw the baby out with the bathwater."
They may have threatened to cancel their subscription because of the feature, but I just decided to renew. As an American Muslim, I'm proud of my religion's progressive understanding and commitment towards the environment just as people in other faiths are inspired to do good for the earth. Just because some extremists exist out of 1.2 billion people will not let me lose sight and focus of my responsibilities as a believer, a patriot, and a human being. I look forward to similar stories of all faiths in future issues.
The Woodlands, Texas
Was just reading through the Sept/Oct issue of Sierra and frankly I was appalled to see such a letter like the one entitled "Ridiculous "Act." First off, I would like to say that I am proud of the Sierra Club for printing a story like "Islamic Environmentalism." It shows that you are not only dedicated to the environment but that you are open to everyone regardless of their religious background. I am also proud that you not only print the letters that praise the Sierra Club but you also include the letters that offer some really harsh criticism.
Secondly, I can not believe the insensitivity of the person who wrote that letter. Is there some sects of Islam who treat women in that way? Yes but we can not judge a whole entire group on just a few, that isn't fair to the majority of the good people of Islam. And what about the way America has treated its woman in the past? Shall we be addressed for a problem we had in the past and one that is not quite fixed yet?
Also, what does that have to do with Muslims supporting the environment in the first place? It has nothing to do with it except that person's views on Islam, which are quite negative and biased. Clearly that person has not known a Muslim and did not really read the article. It saddens me that the attempt to show how positive Islam can be and that American Muslims are just like the rest of us was lost on this person. I have been quite embarrassed by this anti-Islam sentiment within America these days and I am hoping that it will soon dissipate.
What I truly want to say is that I am even more proud to be a Sierra Club supporter after that article. I am glad that Sierra Club took a stand to help change the image this country has of Muslims. That vision was not lost on this avid supporter of John Muir. Keep up the good work guys, and I'll do my best to help support you as well.
In the September/October letters section Sandra Hatfield appears to be offended by the inclusion of Islam in an article on environmentalism. She seems to believe that the Quran spouts misogynistic views and that it doesn't have anything good to say about nature and the environment.
Well, as a Muslim, a feminist, and an avid lover of nature and the environment I have to say that Ms. Hatfield is completely wrong on both counts.
There are countless examples in the Quran of the beauty and wonder of nature. "Consider the sun and its radiant brightness, and the moon as it reflects the sun. Consider the day as it reveals the world, and the night as it veils it darkly. Consider the sky and its wondrous make, and the earth and all its expanse."
The Quran often draws parallels between what occurs in nature and what occurs in mankind. For example: "I call to witness the sunset's afterglow, and the night, and what it unfolds, and the moon, as it grows to its fullness. Even thus, O men, are you bound to move onward from stage to stage."
God repeatedly emphasizes in the Quran the wonder of nature and the many signs therein that should make us all take pause. For instance: "Have they never beheld the birds above them, spreading their wings and drawing them in? None but the most Gracious upholds them: for, verily, he keeps all things in his sight."
As far as women are concerned, certainly there is a minority in the Muslim world who ignore the Quran's teachings and deny women their rights but the Quran itself and the majority of Muslims who truly follow it uphold one crystal clear truth which is that men and women were created equal and that they are both loved and valued by God equally.
In the Quran God says, "As for anyone-be it man or woman-who does righteous deeds, and is a believer withal-him shall we most certainly cause to live a good life."
I've grown accustomed to the fact that there are many Americans who dislike Muslims out of fear and ignorance but I was greatly saddened to see such unjust discrimination from a fellow Sierra Club member. I pray for enlightenment.
In your "Beyond BP" editorial you were most on track regarding oil addiction and lessons of the BP Gulf disaster when you called for more walking and bicycling. This is because transportation's energy requirement in the U.S. is 93% from oil, and there are inconvenient truths regarding electrification.
Losing oil-dependent transportation (and petroleum-based agriculture) is a dilemma not amenable to energy substitution. This is because the alternatives are not at all ready on the scale needed for our huge population, and they cannot compare with oil's net-energy or versatility.
That's why we need to be aware of peak oil and its main consequence, petrocollapse. You're aware of the old peak-oil bell curve by M. K. Hubbert, but it cannot be applied globally as to its mild descent because reserves in the ground (in harder to get places) are not necessarily going to get to the refineries and into end-users' hands—as demand peaks and significant supply will be interrupted, say by a geopolitical event in the Middle East. This will mean a repeat of the 1970s oil shocks, this time with terminal effects on the corporate economy. Investment in a new energy infrastructure, or building the rail improvements that we'd like to have, to maintain a semblance of today's economy, is already unaffordable thanks to the waste extended mostly to wars and new highway construction.
The vision of a "clean" grid totally through renewable energy is not feasible on the scale that many hope for, given the investment environment today and most likely in future. Even if it were, who needs all the asphalt for 250 million "clean" electric vehicles expected to run around on—crushing animals to the tune of a million a day? The oil industry, that's who. But the roads we already have cannot even be maintained in this pre-collapse phase.
independent oil industry analyst
(formerly the Auto-Free Times and the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium)
Sail Transport Network
As a close follower of electrical grid planning and Sierra Club energy policy, I find Michael Brune's op-ed in the September/October issue troubling.
Sure, we need to get off oil, but we should not exchange one environmental disaster for another, which is what the current intentionally under-the-radar de facto policy of Sierra Club is doing. In fact, de facto policy on energy siting supported by top Sierra Club leaders contradicts written Sierra Club policy.
Without serious debate involving grassroots Sierrans, our leaders opted to back a policy that if implemented—and it certainly now looks as though it will be implemented—will impact thousands of square miles of open space on both public and private lands throughout the U.S. with huge wind and solar power arrays taking up many square miles each. One example is the proposed Ivanpah Solar Millennium project in San Bernardino County on the California-Nevada border, which will take up more than 6 square miles with solar-thermal arrays. The Blythe Solar Millennium project in Riverside County will take up 10-15 square miles. There are many more such projects in the pipeline.
Not only will these large remote energy arrays take up huge swaths of open space; they will also require thousands of miles of new high voltage transmission lines, which will impact thousands more square miles of open space. Ratepayers in California alone may be looking at $15-20 billion worth of new transmission lines. Moreover, each of these projects will impact hundreds of square miles of viewshed. The model represented by these examples deserves to be called nothing less than energy sprawl.
This deal makes the Clorox deal, in which Club leaders sold the Sierra Club brand to be used for corporate PR, smell like a rose.
In fact there is a better, more people-friendly, more environmentally responsible solution to supply clean electricity and fight climate change. Rather than supply our electricity with the energy sprawl top Sierra Club leaders and staffers now back, the Club should support distributed generation and distributed storage, which do not have the giant footprint of the centralized model.
In distributed generation, small solar and wind arrays of 20 megawatts down to a few kilowatts would be built on rooftops on industrial and residential buildings, on parking structures and on brown fields within city boundaries. The distributed model produces electricity where it is used, making expensive, long, and ugly transmission lines unnecessary. Distributed generation does a better job of fighting climate change and, at the same time, protects wild lands and open spaces from energy sprawl.
The distributed solution is not pie in the sky. It will work, and studies available at the California Energy Commission prove it will work and can supply most of our needs. It already works in Germany, so we don't need to reinvent the wheel. With a proper feed in tariff—based on the German model—to pay small businesses and homeowners for electricity they produce, distributed generation can create more jobs and be much more valuable to local economies than the centralized solution. The problem is, however, that corporate money is not behind distributed generation.
Wall Street money backs the centralized "solution." At this time, fifteen monster projects on BLM land in California have been put on the "fast track" by the federal and state agencies, which regulate energy development. Fast-tracking means that environmental review will be streamlined and that no new environmental studies will be required.
Many grassroots Sierrans are aware of this unfortunate Faustian bargain and are vehemently opposed. We have appealed to the leadership, including Michael Brune, but our appeals have fallen on ears muffled by thick bundles of corporate money. The green in these behemoth projects is mostly the green on large denomination bills—it is gangrene! Present club leaders are not properly filling John Muir's hiking shoes. We all know that the corporate cancer of Big Money has infected our government. Sadly it looks as if the same disease has infected the Sierra Club. Please write to our leaders and ask them to cure our Sierra Club of this disease.
In Michael Brune's article I found something glaringly missing. I understand that for the magazine there is a desire to come off as upbeat, but to start with the disaster in the Gulf, then to jump quickly to "here's the good news . . ." seems to me to be glossing over a lot and missing the point. There may be wonderful new technologies coming out of the labs, but if the planet has a chance at all it will come from using dramatically less energy starting yesterday. If we did not consume such phenomenal quantities of oil and energy there would not be the need to go to such depths and dangers to get it. After reading Michael Brune's piece and the "The Latest From the Labs" article, I could imagine another reader breathing a sigh of relief—"Whew, if we just wait for these new alternative energy sources to come on line everything will be OK". Continuing at our present rate of energy consumption isn't the message; we need to use less, like driving the car every other day less. Arguably the one way that this country would use lots less energy is to make it cost lots more (what happened to that energy bill anyway?). I think that articles like "The Latest From the Labs" are very interesting and encouraging, but I could wish for a more real view of a very big problem.
I just read your editorial in this month's Sierra magazine in support of electric transportation. I couldn't agree more. However, I think there is an often-overlooked category of transportation that could really use some of your publicity: electric bicycles. As a category, electric bikes are enormous in Europe and in China (though most of the 70MM bikes in china use lead acid batteries, which present another problem). Most US car trips are relatively short, and, in the city, we average only 12-13 mph. With Lithium Ion batteries, it is easy to get a 30-mile distance on a single charge with speeds of 20mph, and that's without pedaling. The technology is here, today, and compared to a car, cheap: $1-$3K for a good electric bike. These prices will fall as there is more adoption.
Think about it: for single rider trips, why haul around thousands of extra pounds of car chassis, even if the vehicle is electrically powered? Cycling is healthier, greener, and the addition of an electric motor eliminates many of the common barriers to getting on one's bike: "I don't want to get sweaty on commute," "I need to be quick," inertia, etc. With the recent development of electric cargo bikes (see www.onyacycles,.com ) you can even carry groceries and a couple of kids on hilly terrain.
I am always surprised when riding my electric how often people stop me to ask about it. I live in Berkeley, CA—a town where you'd think this kind of technology would be well known. Alas, electric bikes are still a very small niche in the US. I understand that there are other reasons that cycling has a hard time in the US: we are, unlike China and the Netherlands, a car culture. That said, it seems that part of the industry's problem is simply getting the word out. The technology (using Lithium Ion) is very new, the industry is fragmented, and, frankly, not very good at PR.
This is where Sierra can come in. Now would be a great time to prepare a story on electric bikes. Interbike, the biggest bike show in the US is in Los Vegas in late September. Many if not all of the significant players in the industry will be there. It's carbon friendly to speak to them in one place :) I'd be happy to write this article or help you get this done in any way I can. I am not professionally affiliated with the electric bike industry, though I have done some pro-bono work with Onya Cycles. I am, by day, a businessperson, but — as is probably clear — I'm an enthusiast and feel passionate about this issue.
Regarding the "Green Life" feature in the September/October issue of the magazine, I would like to add kudos for the activities of the Boulevard Brewing Company of Kansas City, which has almost single-handedly started up a bottle recycling program (Ripple Glass) that includes a local plant that converts the bottles into housing insulation. As a long-time member of Bridging the Gap, the local volunteer group that staffs the city's recycling centers, I am deeply appreciative of the service (we could barely break even on the costs of shipping glass to St. Louis or Oklahoma City (at a carbon deficit because of the diesel trucks used).
When the company started this up about a year ago, their CFO said, "Boulevard, after all, realized that its beer bottles were part of the problem—some 10 million were going into local dumps each year." What's more, the Boulevard program accepts all bottles, not just it's own, and doesn't require color sorting.
To read more about the program: http://www.kansascity.com/2010/07/25/2106196/ripples-reason-for-recent-success.html#ixzz0xH3CfHgi
Kansas City, Missouri
The Trendsetter piece on skateboarding star Bob Burnquist Sierra points out some good things Burnquist has done.
But it's very clear that he has done one largely irresponsible thing: having three children.
Replacement ethics would demand two, as Paul Erlich has pointed out. Here in the US, none or one is really being responsible.
This is not good stewardship or forward-looking for the planet, especially in a massively resource consumptive country like the US.
When will Sierra and its interviewers and editors make pointing out family size a part of such profiles?
San Pedro, California
I note in the most recent issue of your magazine a perplexing juxtaposition of ideas. On the one hand, you quote Reverend Billy (with approval) for struggling against consumerism—including the song "Back Away (From Wal-Mart)." On the other hand you note that Wal-Mart funds the Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. I might add that Wal-Mart has taken the lead among consumer giants in supporting the organic foods industry. Wal-Mart could not support any of these laudable projects without the profits they make when consumers spend money at their stores. Which is it to be? You can't have it both ways.
Hugh Mercer Curtler
Once again I feel the need to remind you that your articles on scientific matters will only carry weight if they are free from dumb errors. The Sept/Oct page 21 article on one kind of solar power, in paragraph 3 mentions "200 megawatts of electricity a year." There is no such thing. You mean either 200 megawatts of electricity (a rate of continuous energy flow, or power) or 200 megawatt hours a year (a total amount of energy collected over the period of one year). Please make our great Sierra Club more credible.
Thank you for your recent article on solar energy from space. This prospect has been long ignored and may well prove to be one of the cleanest energy sources. Many technical barriers remain however, and more funding and attention is warranted to see if they can be economically overcome.
I was thrilled to see the concept of space solar power discussed in your magazine; it's about time this source of energy is brought to the attention of a wider audience. I was, however, dismayed to read the last line comparing it to a James Bond movie. Is there really a need to make people fear this concept? Especially when such "death rays" are technically unfeasible. The orbiting collectors must be pointed directly at the ground-based collectors, which, in turn, must be so very large as to make them unmovable. What good is a weapon you can't move to your intended target? Not much.
Readers who are truly interested in the reality of space solar power should check out websites such as NSS.org (National Space Society).
Your September/October issue had several interesting articles on energy and climate change. The one regarding the harnessing of sunshine from outer space caught my eye. Climate change at its most basic case it really a case of the planet becoming overheated. CO2 is just a mediating gas in the atmosphere that establishes the equilibrium temperature of that atmosphere. Thus solutions that add an extra heat burden to that, which much be radiated to outer space, is counterproductive. A cursory view of the space satellite used to capture sunlight in outer space and beaming it to earth strongly indicates that it will add additional heat to the atmosphere. It does this because it is capturing an increment of sunlight above and beyond the normal flux. It can only result in more heat being dissipated within the near earth atmosphere. It's a misguided technologic pursuit. Also in the same issue reference is made in several articles about the purchasing "offsets" for carbon emissions. I think we should be very skeptical that these "offsets" really do reduce carbon emissions. After all it is just a sharp pencil exercise, not unlike the devices dreamed up by Wall Street that nearly brought our economy down. Please have someone with a jaundice eye take a careful look at these "offsets," especially the reckoning of prices.
Arve R. Sjovold
Santa Barbara, California
Harnessing solar energy from space sounds pie in the sky, but it has the potential to be the real thing, once the apparatus is built and operating.
However there is one big catch. Every bit of energy that we use ends up as heat (except for minuscule amounts that might be stored as potential energy). The only way that earth can dispose of that heat is to radiate it off into space. If the energy received exceeds the energy radiated, the mean temperature of the earth will rise until they are in balance again.
If a significant new primary source of energy (like hydrogen fusion or solar power from space) is developed and used in sufficient quantity to satisfy the exponential increase in human energy demand, the temperature of the earth is bound to rise—at such a rate that will make the current concern about global warming seem trivial.
This is not as far in the future as one might think.
The global increase in conventional energy demand for the years 1998 to 2008 was 27 percent. Note that this does not even include solar energy as used in the photosynthesis of food (for both humans and domestic animals), wood (for fuel, construction, and paper pulp), natural fibers, latex, and other chemicals, derived from plants.
If such an increase continues, it will mean a doubling every 30 years, or a factor of 10 every 100 years. The current use of conventional primary energy sources equals about .01 percent of the energy the earth receives from the sun. Thus, at this rate of increase in energy, it would take only 400 years to reach the point where we would require the entire solar influx to meet our demand.
The problem is not energy. It is the insane devotion to exponential growth.
Robert E. Spenger
Emeritus professor of chemistry
Big Pine, California
I was appalled to see a plug for the well-debunked orbiting solar power hoax. Launch and operation costs make such a system hundreds of times more expensive to build than solar systems on the ground per unit of energy, even taking into account full-time daylight. The pollution impact on the atmosphere of the huge amounts of rocket exhaust would be significant.
The microwave flux on the ground would be a grave environmental hazard even in desert areas, and a misdirected beam could have serious human consequences. Finally, having multi-megawatt transmitters in the sky all around the Earth would make it impossible to perform observations of the Universe at radio wavelengths—it would be like having hundreds of Suns in the sky all the time—bringing to an end radio astronomy.
John C. Webber
In "Up to Speed," you state that "for the first time ever, the EPA and the DOT undertake to set emission standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks." I used to work for a heavy-duty, over-the-highway, diesel engine manufacturer. In the early 1990s these engines were required to meet sulfur dioxide, nitrate oxide, and particular emission requirements which tightened every 3 years at least until I left in 2004. Please print a retraction and correct your statement. Perhaps you meant light-duty trucks and SUVs.
Derry, New Hampshire
Comfort Zone" (September/October)
Your story on a new passive energy house in Salt Lake City would have been interesting if it had mentioned how much energy the house actually uses, and how much it cost to build. As it stands, it's nothing more than a free ad for the architect.
What is the temperature in the house designed by architect Dave Brach? That is a major omission from the article, especially when a woman's idea of "cozy" can be 5-10 degrees different from a man's comfort level.
Toluca Lake, California
"Taking the Initiative" (September/October)
Recent election results seem to contradict Mr. Pope's assertion that Tea Party support is waning—much to his chagrin I'm sure. Let us also not forget that just weeks prior to the BP disaster, Mr. Obama was riding tall atop the offshore-drilling bandwagon. Is it any wonder, with the use of pejorative, low-brow phrases like "tricornered-hat crowd" that so many Montanans bristle with hostility at the mere mention of the Sierra Club? Or, as we have come to expect from the likes of Carl Pope, productive, civil discourse is not his intention.
In "The Party's Over" by Carl Pope, he complains about BP and the oil disaster which we are finding out now is not the disaster it was built up to be. I do believe drilling in mile-deep water is the fault of my Club. If it had been on shore or in shallow water the leak would have been fixed in days or maybe hours. As I look thru my Sierra issue I find nine pages covering 79 trips all over the world plus pages of ads for taking us anywhere from Alaska to Cuba to Antarctica. How are we to get to these places? Airplanes don't run on electricity.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write to us at 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105. Please include your name, city, and e-mail address or phone number. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.