Removing Dams — Throwing Out The Baby With The Bathwater

As a New York Times editorial recently pointed out, in the past 10 years some 430 dams have been removed.  A good number of them were in states of disrepair, but many, (the majority?) were removed because dams create problems for spawning salmon and other fish. This may seem like a good thing for wildlife and the Environment, but it’s also a bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

There’s no doubt that dams, which are part of a traditional hydro-electric plant, are bad for the spawning fish.  They’re probably not the best idea for those humans living near them either.  But we don’t necessarily need to choose between closing off a river entirely and harnessing that flowing water’s power to generate electricity.  There are several designs and concepts, at least one of which has been featured here, which would act like the old fashion water-powered mills.  The flow of the water that pushes a mechanism with force enough to grind grain can certainly manage to generate some electricity — without stopping fish from pursuing their breeding cycle.

As we work towards environmentally friendly solutions to our energy wants and needs, let’s not go throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  There’s nothing wrong with harnessing energy which would otherwise go to waste, so long as we’re keeping the Bigger Picture in mind.  (No, that doesn’t mean a zillion studies and environmental impact opinions.  A bit of forethought, consideration, and good intention to make as little impact as possible, these will serve just fine.)  When these hydro-electric systems were taken down, did anyone consider harnessing energy along the river, instead of across it?

Dams are just one of the places where we may want to think and rethink how we’re solving the energy crisis and working towards indendence from fossil fuels.   We don’t want to trash the environment or be indifferent to other species in the process, but there are very few things in the world which are truly mutually exclusive.  Let’s just think things out a little better, look a bit further ahead, as we move into an era that allows us the energy we want and need without running roughshod over the planet in the process.

Wrong Tool, Dull Tool, or No Tool?

The Obama administration, which promised to be the most outspoken defender of wildlife and wild spaces since Teddy Roosevelt, seems to be falling far short of the mark at the hands of Secretary Salizar.  Though they started off strong by rescinding the last-minute oil leases the Bush administration had rubber-stamped, the track record since then hasn’t been terribly favorable.  In fact, it could be said to be unconcerned.

The latest in this trend is Salizar’s statement that the Endangered Species Act’s protections are the wrong tools to be using against global warming.  He said this in response to concerns about the polar bears.  The problem, Mr. Salizar, is that the bears themselves need something done NOW, not when you get around to curing global warming.    In fact, they’re one of the reasons we care about global warming.  So get a tool, any tool, and get at doing SOMEthing.  I’ll take the ESA as one. Or are you too dull a tool yourself?

If that seems overly harsh, realize that Mr. Salizar’s administration has also actively thwarted the efforts of several falconers to propagate species of eagles nad falcons.  These well-intended raptor enthusiasts want to spend their own money to import and breed the birds in captivity, ensuring their genetic survival.  But the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s CITES office prefers to respond by harassing them, burying them in paperwork for well  over 6 months, when that same CITES paperwork is routinely completed by other countries in a matter of minutes.   That’s just one of the many flaws and holes emerging in the Salizar story.

They say “The buck stops here.”  In Mr. Salizar’s case, we’re left to wonder if he knows what the buck is, or even where it starts… and this writer begins to worry that perhaps we didn’t get the change we voted for after all.

Going Green – Care For Your Car, Cash for Clunkers

The U.S.’ “Cash for Clunkers” program has ended, effectively paying people who had the most offensive vehicles somewhere between $3500-$4500 USD to buy a new vehicle.  (How nice for them, to have We The People buy so large a chunk of their car for them, while those of us who have been ecologically minded all along pay for our own…)  So that momentary boost to car sales has passed… but the polluting of the planet remains.

We came across this ad from a mechanic in Denver, Colorado, which sparked considerable thought:

Care for the planet? Care for your car.
Care for the Planet?  Care for your car.

A brief look at some of the ways that statement is true yields that a car which leaks oil is putting the nasty stuff on top of the earth, where it runs into waterways, seeps back into our water table, and poisons other living things.  A car that isn’t tuned properly or has mechanical problems is at LEAST using more fuel than it needs to, often spewing the unburned fuel out the tailpipe.   Cars that are out of adjustment put out a lot more pollution as well, adding to the global climate and pollution problem.    These are just a few of the more obvious aspects.

Until we have electric cars run off of wind, hydro, solar and tide energy sources, we owe it to ourselves and our planet to  keep them running as well as possible, as efficiently as possible.  This doesn’t even cost money.  In fact, it saves!  If you lose 3-4 mpg because the car isn’t running well, you’re polluting, but you’re also tossing a pretty good chunk of change out the tailpipe every time you drive!  So we join the mechanic in saying it:

Care for the planet?  Care for your car!

Desalinization Plants — Why not?

Apparently there’s quite a lot of hoopla going on over in Carlesbad, CA, about the idea of a desalinization plant.  Despite the fact that Southern California is on water rationing and imports a good deal of its water from other places, people are offended by the notion.  Some are honest and say they think it will be ugly and industrial, while others try to use the Environment as their defense.  This is to debunk the nonsense.

With global warming, ice masses are melting down into the ocean, diluting the salinity levels.  In the bigger picture, we don’t actually use up water anyway.  It serves as host to the vast majority of our chemical interactions, but the water comes right back on out of our bodies, evaporates from our swimming pools, goes into the water table from our lawns… By our hand, matter is neither created nor destroyed, it simply changes form and location.  So what’s the big deal?  Can it really be harming the environment?  No, not really.  The salt can be iodized and used… same as if it were being dredged up from an inland salt flat (which is Mother Nature’s own desalinization plant.)

The real issues are being ignored, while people worry their heads over a “not in my back yard” issue.  Desalinization plants are being made and used all over the planet, with or without the U.S.’ permission.  Instead of worrying about separating salt from water in oceans that are rising and becoming more dilute anyway, how about we look at why a  representative from Guam is chairman of environmental issues here in the United States, instigating laws that will affect the mainland while having no true bearing on a non-state on the other side of the world?  Since when do territories get a vote or say in what we do here in the 50 states anyway?

There’s no sound reason to object to properly operated desalinization plants.  As the saying goes, there are far bigger fish to fry anyway.

America Bringing Up the Rear — Alternative Energy Thoughts for the 4th of July

As the U.S. Congress hashes out Green Energy legislation at the prompting of the Obama administration, Americans may feel a certain sense of pride and accomplishment.  Don’t be too quick to pat yourselves on the back.  It happens that the U.S. is behind the curve on this one, has been for years.  The sort of legislation that might come out of this session of Congress might equal the sort of rules, incentives and investments that China has had in place for over two years now.  If we’re really lucky, it might even begin to look something like what smaller European countries have been doing for years, now.  There’s no question, though, that the U.S. is bringing up the rear when it comes to alternative energy.

You may balk at this notion, citing that China is just now becoming a larger buyer of wind turbines than the U.S.  But China has been doubling their wind power capacity each of the past four years, and is already heavily invested in solar farms and burning waste to generate electricity.   Moreover, they’ve got six huge projects under way in their deserts — each with a greater capacity than 16 coal-powered plants.  Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Energy is blocking the building of more coal-burning energy plants.  Coal may still be their primary fuel for electricity, but that still puts them heads and shoulders above us.

Perhaps more telling is this:  Across the U.S., the “not in my back yard” complaint arises any time a wind farm is suggested.  “It just won’t look the same,” life-long residents complain, if they hear of a wind farm being  proposed for a ridgeline.    We here in the States still haven’t quite figured out what the European Union (EU), which is also dependant upon other nations for their oil and gas, has long understood.  Last winter’s gas outage while Russia squabbled with the Ukraine was not the first time they have been without heating fuel during Europe’s harsh winters. This quote sums it up well:

“‘The Europeans see offshore wind turbines as sentinels,’ Mandelstam told me, ‘protecting them from energy domination by foreign powers. When you put that against a few winter days of seeing turbines on the beach as you walk your dog, I think that’s a very easy trade-off.’”

Another adage suggests that if we can’t change something then we should change the way we look at it.

Perhaps it’s time we got serious about alternative energy and started adopting that perspective, seeing wind turbines as sentinels guarding our independence, instead of seeking out more oil and gas so we won’t have to look at those “ugly” wind turbines.

Back To Basics — Low-Tech Energy Savings

As going Green becomes more and more popular, it seems that the media is desperate to continue to appear concerned and informative — so much so that the NY Times put up an article about white roofs saving energy?  First reaction?  ”Gee, ya THINK?”  But let’s not be too hasty.  There are a great many very simple uses of basic physics that we forget about all the time.   After all, it’s a no-brainer to turn off lights and other appliances when we’re not using them, too… and yet rooms and homes and TVs and printers sit idle, burning electricity for days at a time all around us… and in our own homes as well.

White reflects more heat.   That’s easy enough to figure out.  In warm climates, that’s a good thing.  Some may say “But what about the winter months in cold places?  Then a dark roof would absorb the heat, amounting to passive solar gain, right?”  I certainly hope not.  Why?  Because, quite simply put, if your household temperature is that affected by sun on the rooftop, your home is nowhere near well enough insulated.

Back to basics means:

  • Turning off lights when you’re not using them
  • Shutting down computers that you’re not going to use for more than half an hour
  • Turning off printers when they’re not likely to be used for more than half an hour
  • Setting your freezer so it freezes, but isn’t a deep-freeze
  • Insulative blankets on water heaters
  • Insulate garage freezers with a silver mylar/bubble-wrap cover
  • Use that same silver mylar/bubble-wrap on unused windows, to reflect the sun out and climatization in.
  • Plastic over windows in the winter
  • Insulating door jams and threshholds summer and winter
  • Upgrading roof insulation — a MAJOR saver
  • Insulate floors in crawl spaces.  Heat leaks out and cold gets in from there too.
  • Driving moderately; flooring the gas pedal uses exponentially more gas than a gradual acceleration.
  • Brake moderately as well.  Don’t ride up on people’s back ends.  Instead, let off the gas before you get to a stop or bumper.

If you take an objective look around you and think on it, you’re sure to find many more ways that you can save without spending money to do so.  Even the cost of insulation pays for itself VERY quickly, by lowering your heating bills.  Going Green doesn’t have to cost a fortune.  Just go back to basics.  These low-tech solutions add up to high-dollar energy savings!