Blue Marble - November 2010

9 Things I Learned by Shadowing a Home-energy Inspector

| Wed Nov. 17, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Weatherizing homes to cut heat waste makes all kinds of good sense—it lowers utility bills, makes homes more comfortable, creates building-industry jobs, saves energy, is both a floor wax and a dessert topping, etc.

Grist has sung the praises of building efficiency so often we've taken to recycling our old jokes (and they're not even good ones). We're usually looking at the big-picture questions of climate, economy, and jobs. For example, there's nothing better Congress could do right now than pass a well-designed retrofit program like the Home Star bill, which would save 44 times the amount of energy that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico this summer.

An actual house using actual energy (Langdon Marsh's Seattle bungalow) All photos: Jonathan HiskesAn actual house using actual energy (Langdon Marsh's Seattle bungalow): All photos: Jonathan HiskesBlah, blah, green jobs, blah. Screw all that top-level policy for a moment. Let's take a look at how this stuff works on the ground.

I ventured out into the Real World (soon to be acquired by Google) last Friday to shadow Paul Holt, who runs home-energy inspections for the Seattle company EcoFab. Paul remodeled homes for much of his career, then moved into selling high-efficiency windows until he realized that "wasn't really the answer to energy efficiency." So he studied for the Building Performance Institute home performance certificate and passed the test two years ago. He's also a photo and printmaking artist.

We met on a leafy block in the city's economically and racially diverse Central District, where he was inspecting a Victorian bungalow built in 1909. Here's what I learned watching him.Kitchen-table economics: Paul (left) talks energy savings with Langdon.Kitchen-table economics: Paul (left) talks energy savings with Langdon.

It's a social job. Assessing the energy performance of someone's home is a surprisingly intimate process. Paul moved furniture (to check vents) and peered into the basement, attic, and closets (which are often poorly insulated). But first he spent nearly an hour at the customer's kitchen table explaining what he was going to do and what to expect. Social skills and confidence seem to be essential. It's also nice to take off your shoes inside.

I failed spectacularly in my goal to hear from an Ordinary Homeowner. I had hoped to see how a non-enviro-wonk experiences an energy review. By sheer coincidence, Paul's morning assignment sent him to the home of Langdon Marsh, former environmental commissioner for the states of New York and Oregon. Nice guy.

Comfort matters more than pocketbook savings—for some homeowners. Langdon prefers to keep his house cool (60 degrees) but wants a good way to heat up only the living room when he and his wife host guests. That was his main reason for the review. Research on homeowner motivations by the Community Energy Challenge in Bellingham, Wash., found the same thing—financial savings aren't the only selling point.

The blower makes small leaks perceptible.The blower makes small leaks perceptible.It helps to learn firsthand. The most interesting part of the four-hour visit was the blower-door test. Paul used a large fan with an airtight skirt to blow air out the front door, depressurizing the house and accelerating small air leaks so they're easier to find. Cold air coming up from the basement doorway felt like a minor squall. Even tiny leaks passing through light-switch plates were perceptible. Langdon followed Paul around and felt each leak for himself—which make it easier to understand the problem.

Thermal imaging cameras are nifty. They make it visual and perceptible where heat escapes—both through air leaks through solid surfaces. Langdon will get a series of photos that Paul shot.

Attics should get insulation first, then walls and basements. Because heat rises. Windows are so expensive they're rarely worth replacing for heating-bill savings alone.

Most progress depends on the homeowner. After four hours, Paul left with some tentative recommendations—seal the basement door; add insulation to the attic, the ground floor, and the walls (in that order); and consider replacing the oil furnace with a heat pump. At most houses he also installs CFL lightbulbs (Langdon already had them). Within a few days, EcoFab sends a more detailed energy score and list of recommendations. From there, it's up to the homeowner to decide whether to pay for any of the improvements and put them out to bid. (Langdon says he's inclined to follow up on at least some of the steps.)

Paul's thermal imaging camera detects heat leaks. And ghosts.Paul's thermal imaging camera detects heat leaks. And ghosts.Utilities are driving the retrofit industry right now. EcoFab offers energy reviews for $400. The local utility, Seattle City Light, provides a $305 rebate for Langdon's zip code, cutting the price by 76%. Few homeowners call up wanting to pay full price, Paul said. This seems to be the case in most places—incentives from utilities are the industry's foundation, given the absence of federal investment.

Utilities aren't paying for reviews and retrofits because they're tree huggers. They're doing it because cutting demand is cheaper than building new power plants. All together now: Efficiency is the cheapest form of energy.

Renters are in a fix. My wife and I live in a house nearly as old and just as leaky as Langdon's. But we're not gonna spring for insulation, or even an energy inspection, because we don't own the place. Our landlord isn't going to pay for much because he doesn't pay the utility bills; we do. It's a common dilemma. I need to look into ideas for cracking this nut. What are the best proposals out there?

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Podcast: In India, a Climate of Power

Wed Nov. 17, 2010 7:00 AM EST

India, one of the world's emerging powers, is also a country of endemic poverty. More people live in India without access to basic electricity than live in the entire United States. Thirty-five percent of the population lives on under a dollar a day; 80 percent lives on under two dollars a day.

And yet, when President Obama flew to India last week for the longest overseas stay of his administration so far, climate change was at the top of the agenda. Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the creation of a joint clean energy research project based in India, and Obama exhorted Indian leaders in an address to that country's parliament to work with the US on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

How, then, did a country with such basic energy needs become one of the most influential players in the global fight against climate change?

Greenland's $2 Billion Demand

| Tue Nov. 16, 2010 4:58 PM EST

Energy companies are lining up to start exploring in new areas opened up off Greenland's coast for oil. But in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf this year, Greenland decided to take a new approach: demanding that the companies fork over $2 billion first to ensure that there are adequate funds in place should one of those companies screw up.

Shell, Cairn Energy, Statoil, Dong and Maersk Oil are among the companies gunning to drill off the country's western coast in a previously untapped 50,000 square kilometer area. (BP pulled out of bidding there in late August, likely related to their Gulf problem.) The Guardian reports:

The government had planned to announce the winners in August, but arguments over the requirement to pay a bond has delayed the process. Intensive negotiations are under way and the winners could be announced as early as next week.
The payment – either in the form of a parent company guarantee for the larger companies or a straight advance – would have to be made once companies were awarded a license to explore a block. This is despite the fact that actual drilling would not take place for another three or four years because of the mapping and geological preparatory work that would have to be carried out.

As a recent report highlights, oil spill clean up in the Arctic would be more difficult than it is in the Gulf, due to the remote locations, icy conditions, and shorter days. This gives all the more reason to force companies to show that they have the money on hand to deal with a catastrophe. When it comes to a disaster like BP's this summer, $2 billion is pocket change really; the most recent estimate of the cost of the Gulf spill was up to $40 billion.

The successful, Greenland's bidders will win the right to explore on the plots for 10 years, and then the rights to produce there for 30 years should they find oil. The US Geological Survey has estimated that there are up to 18 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves in the region of the Arctic between Greenland and Canada, which the companies are all hoping to tap. (And because there's never enough irony in the world, global warming is actually making it easier to reach those reserves.)

The difference this highlights between Greenland and the US when it comes to drilling policies, though, couldn't be more stark. Here, Congress hasn't even yet managed to lift the cap on liability for oil companies from the measly $75 million it's set at right now. And we don't even seem to read oil companies' spill response plans, let alone ensure that they are prepared to carry them out.

So Long, Cap-and-Trade. So What's Next?

| Tue Nov. 16, 2010 11:00 AM EST

Ever since the slow and painful death of the climate bill in the Senate, it's been crystal clear that the climate movement desperately needs a breath of fresh air. With this in mind, the Climate Desk partners have convened a panel of experts who, over the next three days, will be brainstorming solutions to the climate crisis—with, of course, your help. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal is moderating. Here's his take on the project:

We're tapping half a dozen innovative thinkers to move the climate debate beyond global treaties and cap-and-trade bills and to the wide world of policy options that haven't yet gotten their due.

It's time to break new ground. In a series of essays published over the next three days, we'll try to build a set of solutions that I think will look less like a climate fix and more like a statement of what industrial policy should look like in America. Outside the magic of a price on carbon, there have to be strategies for meeting the climate challenge.

So taking into account the political realities of our time, what can be done—particularly by US policymakers—to start solving the dual problems of energy poverty in developing nations and global climate change?

Read the rest of Alexis' post here. To kick off the discussion, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute, explain why they believe the cap-and-trade was always doomed to fail—and offer some alternative solutions. Check back tomorrow to read experts' responses. 

Can You Get E.Coli From Reusable Grocery Bags?

| Tue Nov. 16, 2010 10:00 AM EST

From the department of no good deed going unpunished, The New York Times reported Sunday that some reusable shopping bags could be contaminating your food with lead. But MoJo reader Barb wrote in with a different health concern about the eco-bags:

"I just got accosted by a man in the grocery store who insisted that my reusable bags were 'spreading E. coli'...He seemed to think that I was bringing it into the store and putting people at risk by doing so."

This piqued my curiosity: Can bags breed bacteria? And if so, how likely is it that shoppers with tainted bags are spreading the bugs around their local markets?

I called Craig Hedberg, a professor in the University of Minnesota's Division of Environmental Health Sciences. Hedberg told me that the most likely bacteria scenario for reusable bags would likely involve juices leaking from meat, which could, in theory, breed Salmonella or Listeria, or less likely, E. coli or Campylobacter, which could contaminate your veggies on your next trip to the supermarket. "But you have to look at what the likelihood of that is," says Hedberg. "Probably your meat is going to be in a container, not leaking." The risk of bacteria that originates on fruits and veggies, he says, is "very low," as is the risk of a shopper unknowingly spreading bacteria by reaching into a contaminated bag and touching food. "Theoretically this could happen, but it's not likely."

That said, you can practically eliminate the risk of bag-borne bacteria by washing your bags after each use. Always wash your produce. Keeping separate bags for meat and produce (like cutting boards) is another good idea. Washing your hands after you go to the grocery store probably wouldn't hurt, either.

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What Should Climate Hawks Do Next? Fight for Free Birth Control

| Mon Nov. 15, 2010 4:59 PM EST

Climate hawks are floundering after this year's election. A climate bill couldn't get through Congress even when it was controlled by the Democrats, thanks to Senate dysfunction and general idiocy. Now, with the GOP and Tea Party ascendant, the chances of passing curbs on greenhouse gases anytime soon are zip to zilch.

So what now, the hawks are wondering?

For the moment, forget about carbon caps and start thinking about cervical caps—and the Pill, IUDs, and Depo-Provera.

Next week, a panel of experts will start meeting to determine whether health insurers should be required to cover the full cost of contraceptives. At issue is whether birth control is "preventive" medicine, which the new health-care law requires insurers to cover free of charge, without co-pays. The Department of Health and Human Services is supposed to make a final call on that question in August 2011.

Sounds like a no-brainer, but ultra-right-wing groups like the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council are rallying in opposition, and they may have more allies in the newly conservatized Congress.

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Labor-Enviro Coalition Calls for RES in Lame Duck

| Mon Nov. 15, 2010 3:50 PM EST

With the lame duck session of Congress starting Monday, a coalition of labor and environmental groups is renewing the call to pass a federal renewable electricity standard (RES). Advocates have been trying to keep hope alive that an RES, which would require states to draw a percentage of their power from renewable sources, could pass this year, and were boosted in late September when a bipartisan group of senators called for it to pass as a stand-alone measure. The RES they're calling would require utilities to draw 3 percent of electricity from renewable sources starting in 2012, ramping up to 15 percent in 2021.

In a busy but likely not very eventful lame duck session, passing an RES is probably a longshot. But four Republicans are backing the effort, along with 21 Democrats. The Blue Green Alliance, an enviro-labor coalition that includes the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers, and 11 other union and green partners is pushing to keep it on the RES on the agenda. 

"We can put people back to work with policies like an RES and investments in manufacturing," said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers. "We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines as China and Europe pull ahead in the race for clean energy. "

The alliance called for the RES as part of their "Seven Simple Steps" for moving the green jobs agenda forward in this session. That also includes passage of the Home Star and Building Star bills, two measures meant to encourage building efficiency improvements, and the extension of the advanced energy manufacturing tax credit. They are also calling for the passage of a bill to improve health and safety standards for miners.

What Happens to Your Phone When You Recycle It?

| Mon Nov. 15, 2010 6:30 AM EST

I'm thrilled that my phone contract is up in February. I've been coveting the iPhone, which will be a welcome change after two years of toting around a clunky, barely web-enabled dinosaur. But when I upgrade to a smart phone, what will become of my dopey old dumb phone?

This very question is the subject of the The Story of Electronics, the latest installment of sustainability expert Annie Leonard's engaging Story of Stuff Project. The eight-minute film explains that today's consumer electronics are "designed for the dump": After about two years, most gadgets are either obsolete or broken, and they're usually cheaper to replace than to repair. Technology is advancing at so fast a pace that every two years, the number of transistors placed on a circuitboard doubles, increasing computer memory and processing speed. (This continuing trend was first noticed in the late 1960s and is called Moore's Law.) Until that rate slows, or manufacturers begin to make cell phones with standardized replaceable parts, you'll still have to get a new phone every two years just to keep pace with technology.

More than 130 million cell phones in the US alone are retired every year, the USGS estimates. Not great news for the planet, considering phones contain substances harmful to humans and the environment, like cadmium, lead, and beryllium (all carcinogins), as well as arsenic. So what's the best way to make sure your old phone's not leaking chemicals into the ground? 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday November 12

| Fri Nov. 12, 2010 8:55 AM EST

Coal Forever: An article says coal's not on its way out, not here or in Asia.

The Truth is Out There: And yet politicians still deny global warming.

Drink Coke: Taste tests show it's the label that counts, not what's in it.

Cut 'Til it Hurts: Social Security and Medicare cuts are coming, but how deep?

Smackdown: With a GOP House majority, climate regulation faces a hard fight.

Come Hard or Go Home: Climate scientists need to play hardball with politicians.

Bear With Us: American Family Association exec declares war on bears. Rar!

 

 

Dispersants' Toxic Legacy

| Fri Nov. 12, 2010 7:00 AM EST

In the weeks after BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf, a number of environmental groups and scientists began raising concerns about the huge volume of chemical dispersants the company was spreading in the water. These chemicals are used to break the oil into smaller globs, which causes them to sink and supposedly biodegrade faster.

The BP disaster shed light on how little oversight there is of these chemicals, and how little is known about their long-term impacts. The Environmental Protection Agency pledged to investigate, and released its own studies in June and July that found that the dispersants were no more toxic than the oil. (By the time EPA weighed in, 1.84 million gallons of Corexit, BP's dispersant of choice, had already been dumped in the Gulf.)

Now Peter Hodson, an aquatic toxicologist from Queen's University in Ontario, says that the EPA's conclusions might not be exactly true; the dispersed oil does have a more toxic effect, since toxic components like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are spread around more widely in the water. Nature reports on his presentation at a Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Portland, Oregon earlier this week:

The problem, explains Hodson, is that the dispersed cloud of microscopic oil droplets allows the PAHs to contaminate a volume of water 100–1,000 times greater than if the oil were confined to a floating surface slick. This hugely increases the exposure of wildlife to the dispersed oil. "EPA was presenting only part of the risk equation," he told the meeting. "They're trying to sugar-coat the message. In trying to understand the risks of dispersed oil, we need to understand exposure."
Hodson's research suggests that fish embryos, still in their eggs, are extremely sensitive to dispersed oil. "Exposures as brief as an hour can have a negative effect on embryonic fish," he says. That, combined with the fact that for any some species, large numbers of fish can spawn at about the same time of year, means that an entire hatch could be decimated by a plume of contaminated water: "You could have a very large portion of the fish stock affected."

Hodson also noted that, even when dispersed, the oil takes weeks to break down. Another panelist remarked that the toxic components of the oil can also last longer than the non-toxic components, further complicating the impacts. I think it's safe to say that the full environmental impact of both the spill and the chemicals used to disperse it will take some time to fully understand.