All posts by Solarphile

In praise of eco-friendly hotels

While I was travelling through Spain this past week, I stayed in four different hotels. All of them had the usual linen and towel program, with cards that communicated the option to have your bed linens and towels replaced less frequently. All of the hotels had a slot by the entrance to each room which activates and deactivates the power to the room when you insert or withdraw your electronic room key each time you enter and leave the room.

One of them went a step further and had a card that suggested limiting heating temperatures in the winter to 20°C, cooling temperatures in the summer to 25°C, turning the lights off when not needed and relying more on the natural daylighting in the room and also practicing water efficiency. They had electronic shutters on the exterior of the windows that you could use to keep out the scorching midday sun more completely than the drapes. All of the toilets were dual-flush toilets. They stated that this was not all about saving money, but for all of us doing what we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are harming our planet.

Needless to say, I was impressed. The potential environmental and economic benefits and the increase in awareness should be quite significant. North American hotels should follow suit. North American consumers could use a good dose of awareness about the unsustainability of our culture of rampant consumerism and waste and small actions that can make a big difference.

Lightning electric cars available for pre-order

The Lightning GT is a new 100% electric car, now available for preorder in the UK for delivery in 2009. They’re working on bringing it to the US market.  It really is a sexy-looking car with all the usual bells and whistles and some special, noteworthy features:

  • Can be charged by simply plugging the car’s charging lead into your home’s electric power, as well as a mobile charging system. It can be charged in approximately 10 minutes for up to 200 miles of driving.
  • 0-60mph in 5 seconds for the standard version and less than 4 seconds for the sport version.
  • 10 x cheaper to run, using domestic electric power for charging as compared to the equivalent conventional gasoline engine.
  • Zero CO2 emissions, compared with 106 g/km of CO2 emissions for the Toyota Prius Hybrid.
  • State of the art NanoSafe™ battery system uses more thermally stable nano titanate materials instead of graphite and contain no toxic or heavy metals.  The battery lasts for 15 years.
  • The NanoSafe™ batteries are designed for temperatures between 75°C and minus 30°C, whereas standard Lithium-Ion batteries need to be kept cool when used or heated to perform in sub zero temperatures.
  • Enhanced occupant safety, with its composite monocoque structure, and aluminium honeycomb crushable impact cells in the bodywork; the same technology that’s used in Formula 1.
  • Advanced motor technology integrated right within the wheel assembly, eliminating the mechanical complexity and power losses of gearboxes, differential, axle and drive shafts.

The price? Apparently it’s £180,000 pounds, or $220,000 and counting (with the dollar continuing its downward slide). Talk about deflating your enthusiasm!! Picture a noisy, squeaky, stressed-out balloon… that was me when I found out.  Although exciting, the technology is still far from economically sustainable for the masses.  

Green living in the country

Many North Americans realized their dreams of moving to the country to escape the pollution, traffic and crime that goes along with city living.  An article in today’s New York Times proclaims:

“Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the distant edges of metropolitan areas.”

The article quotes Phil Doyle, a homeowner in the countryside of Denver, who says about his daily hour-long commute to the city, “Before it was ‘we spend too much time driving.’ Now, it’s ‘we spend too much time and money driving.’ ”

In less than five years, the average suburban household is paying more than double what they used to pay for their gasoline consumption, amounting to a yearly increase of over $1700.  This contributed to larger and earlier drops in the prices of these homes than those in the city. 

I’m all for city living, reducing urban sprawl and densification if you live AND work there.  However, a lot of infrastructure has already been built out to suburban areas, including multi-billion dollar investments in mass transportation systems to increase access to the city core.
Maybe it’s time to start investing in renewable energy technologies for lighting, heating and cooling in these faraway developments, to offset the higher costs of commuting.  It would be an interesting exercise to calculate the household payback of installing solar photovoltaic panels, solar hot water heating systems and geothermal systems for homes in these areas.  I’m sure it’s a lot more attractive than it was just a year ago.  If you also eliminated all the long-distance commuting, you would spend less time and money driving and be doing the planet a big favour too.  

So— my dream house is a net zero energy home in the boonies that’s totally self-sufficient in water use and onsite waste management.  I can grow much of my own food onsite.  And I don’t have to commute anywhere for a living.  :)

Making sustainable food choices

Granted, the global food supply is not one of the most significant contributors to climate change and emissions of greenhouse gases. However, in the spirit of maintaining awareness and doing what we can as individuals to mitigate the impacts of climate change, becoming aware of more sustainable food choices is a relatively easy action to take. I don’t believe in randomly curbing consumer choices (I love having access to the most exotic foods from around the world!), but just knowing about the factors that impact those choices can help to shift our mindset in meaningful ways.

It seems perfectly logical to start with organic, in-season, locally grown food. This addresses the importance of reducing the transportation distance from the farm to your supermarket and minimizing or eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, foods grown in climates and soils that are naturally most suited for their production can have a much lower environmental impact than local products grown under artificially enhanced conditions, even if they’re shipped across great distances. There are other factors to keep in mind to ensure that you’re reducing the carbon footprint of the food you consume:

  • irrigation requirements
  • methods of harvesting, processing, preservation and storage
  • minimal packaging, or at least reusable and recyclable packaging
  • climate and growing season
  • mode of transportation (air, water, rail, etc.)
  • fair trade and sustainable agriculture practices

Your method of cooking can negate all the effort you put into sourcing your food, if you’re not conscious of the energy and water consumed in its preparation.

Finally, coming soon to a supermarket near you— a carbon label for your food products.

Simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint

It’s hard to avoid the buzz all over the place these days about reducing your carbon footprint. Once you quantify your carbon footprint using one of the calculators available on the web, you can buy carbon offsets to “neutralize” your impact. The money gets invested in renewable energy technologies, planting trees or other initiatives designed to reduce the overall carbon emissions impact to the planet. There are good and bad (legit and questionable) ways to do this and still have a real impact. We won’t get into the challenges here.

You can have a more direct, real impact on reducing your carbon footprint by implementing simple changes to your daily life that can really add up. When we all start embracing these simple changes to our
lifestyles, the cumulative effect can be significant. Here are just a few (there are many more):

  • Use those reusable bags for your groceries (usually available in a variety of funky shades of green), instead of plastic grocery bags
  • Buy stuff with less packaging, and packaging that is reusable or recyclable
  • Buy in bulk if possible
  • Buy stuff produced locally or within short transportation distances whenever possible
  • Plant a garden, trees and grow some vegetables and herbs right in your own yard
  • Minimize watering and fertilizing by careful selection of plants and trees for your soil and climate type
  • Try replacing your lawn with a native groundcover
  • Plan your route to do your daily errands most efficiently if driving
  • Be conscious of how much time you spend in the shower
  • Don’t just leave the water running while you’re brushing your teeth
  • Reuse towels at home at least 2-3 times, not just in hotel rooms
  • Air dry your clothes outside on warm, sunny days
  • Replace some of your incandescent light bulbs with CFLs or LED lights
  • Think twice about how often you feel you need to replace your car, electronics and household items
  • And my favourite— work from home at least one day a week!

Do you unplug your HDTV?

According to Bob Elton of BC Hydro, newer TVs consume four times as much electricity as the older technology TVs.  Furthermore, if you have a digital box that’s plugged in all the time, 90% of the electricity consumed by your TV occurs when it’s not even in use.  Many of us have more than one TV in our homes.  Many of us are watching less TV and surfing the internet more.  With the release of ever-newer entertainment technologies, out plug loads are getting higher and higher.  Plug loads for consumer electronics have tripled over the last couple of decades and can make up almost 10-20% of our household energy consumption, after lighting, heating and cooling loads.

Knowing this and knowing that energy prices are set to continuing soaring in the foreseeable future, would you consider unplugging your TVs and computers and appliances when they’re not being used?

Environment not high on the list of concerns

According to a study conducted by the market research firm Yankelovich, only 13 percent of Americans are passionate about environmental issues and 29 percent have virtually no interest at all. Green products represent only a “niche” opportunity, according to the report. Gallup’s annual Environment poll found that only 28% of Americans report that they’ve made “major changes” in their lifestyles to protect the environment.

So, contrary to popular belief, concerns about the environment haven’t yet made it into the hearts and minds of the mainstream population.  Furthermore, environmental concern usually declines when the economy is struggling. The way to get people to buy green still seems to be to focus on saving money or improving health.  For example, most people buy Energy Star rated products, not because they’re greener, but because they save money by using less energy.

The lack of perceived objectivity and validity of environmental claims being made in the marketplace are an increasingly visible barrier to reaching the hearts and minds of the consumer.  We may already be fatigued by all the stories of greenwashing and we’re throwing our hands up in the air, not knowing where to turn to make better choices.  Maybe it’s time to blog about something else already.

Consumer attitudes won’t change overnight.  The opportunity is for marketers (who are brave enough) to generate greater awareness and implement the processes and systems essential to objectively demonstrate the benefits of making the right choices for environmental sustainability.

Exposing the hypocrites

I see a lot of chatter from so-called environmentalists complaining about the apparent hypocrisy of high-profile advocates (i.e., celebrities) and their hyper-consuming, carbon-spewing lifestyles. 

Just one of many examples:

Chris Martin (Coldplay):  He is vocally involved in the fair trade movement and, less vocally, on the environmental side.  It’s been pointed out that his band flies on a private jet between gigs and that he flies home between gigs to spend time with his family and sometimes he takes his kids with him to gigs.  So the tree-huggers are saying that this makes him part of the problem, definitely not part of the solution.  They say that they would never fly anywhere because of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with flying.  My intent here is not to debate whether he is or isn’t helping the cause. 

My response: 
Sustainability is not just about environmental sustainability. It’s about economic and social sustainability as well. If we all stop flying because of the associated GHGs, the world as we know it will cease to exist. Environmental choices that are not economically sustainable are not sustainable at all.  If parents are not making an effort to spend time with their kids, that’s not socially sustainable at all.

The idea is to educate ourselves to make increasingly more sustainable choices, wherever possible and do things that will reasonably offset the impacts of our choices wherever possible. It’s not about sitting in our caves in the dark and sending the quality of our lives back to the stone age.  It’s not about blindly restricting consumer choice.  It’s about making trade-offs between options that, taken collectively, minimize the negative impact or have a positive overall impact on the planet.  And it’s not always black-and-white and it’s not always easy.

My dream is to fly a lot, to help vulnerable communities around the world and help them implement simple and profound practices and technologies that can dramatically improve their quality of life, in a sustainable manner.  My hope is that the impact of my flights, etc. are more than offset by the positive outcomes.


The importance of life cycle thinking for sustainability

The main objectives of sustainable living choices are to minimize the depletion of resources (energy, water, raw materials) and prevent adverse impacts to human health and the environment, while maintaining and enhancing the quality of life for existing and future generations.

Typical approaches to promoting environmentally preferable products usually make a big deal of one or a few isolated attributes, or broad generalizations that don’t always lead to the best choice, despite the appealing but often misleading marketing hype and claims.

A focus on the life cycle of a product or service involves looking at the environmental, economic and social impacts of upstream processes such as extraction and transportation of raw materials, manufacturing, and so on, the end-use and the possible disposal or reuse options at the end of its useful life. The known and unintended consequences of short term actions as well as competing impacts over the full lifespan of the product or service need to be better understood. We need some assurance that addressing one environmental problem doesn’t just end up giving birth to another unexpected problem elsewhere, in some other form.

Some examples to think about:

  • bio-based, rapidly renewable materials (e.g., bamboo) are not necessarily more environmentally friendly; increased fertilizer and watering requirements, and transportation distances need to be considered
  • the US administration’s policy to promote biofuels, such as ethanol from corn has already led to widespread disastrous consequences, including using up prime agricultural land that has contributed to soaring food prices
  • recycling is not automatically a good choice, depending on the material, transportation distances to recycling facilities, and whether the process may actually be more intensive than using virgin materials (e.g. burning newsprint for its fuel value may be the better option)
  • plastic Christmas trees don’t look like such a green option when you consider the resources and emissions associated with their production and the fact that they stick around in our landfills for a very, very long time, and compare them with the environmental impacts of harvesting rapidly renewable “real” Christmas trees from a farm where they are being grown like corn for this specific purpose
  • so-called “clean” technologies may not be so clean (yet) when you look at the overall environmental impacts in terms of the resource consumption, high capital cost and infrastructure investments involved in making them available (e.g. hydrogen fuel cells)

A systematic analysis and understanding of life cycle trade-offs and benefits is usually a highly complex and data-intensive undertaking that’s beyond the capability of the lay person. There are very few “one size fits all” solutions.

At the end of the day, we should all strive to make more informed choices by increasing our general awareness and understanding of the trade-offs between alternatives so that we’re less likely to get fooled into thinking our choices are sustainable, while the reality may be exactly the opposite.

If you have some eye-opening examples of the trade-offs between product and technology choices, object violently to an idea presented here or just have some questions that you’d like to explore further— please join the conversation!

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