Wednesday, April 20, 2011

When To Change

I just finished an interesting study concerning hydrogen fuel cells. A large client of ours was considering a switch to hydrogen fuel cells for their forklift fleet and asked us to make recommendations. It's not a large fleet and they don't use them 24/7 but thought it worth a study. Several nearby companies have made the switch and have found that they can reduce operating costs to a degree and reap some pretty big PR benefits as well. One, BMW, has even gone to using landfill gas to lessen the impact of hydrogen even further. They can take their momentum with their hydrogen cars and tout the strides they're making on other fronts as well.

But what do you do when it doesn't make economic sense and the environmental and social impacts are negligible? Do you go ahead with an expensive retrofit, add an expensive refueling station and scrap all your old lead acid batteries? Or do you sit tight, continue to operate as efficiently as you can and plan for a point in the future that a change makes financial and environmental sense?

We told them to sit tight and find less expensive ways to save money and lessen their impact because sometimes knowing when to hold them is the smartest thing to do.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Where To Start

It happens all the time. Someone sees or reads someting that gets them thinking about the environment or the rising cost of energy and they decide to make their next project a "green" one. What's the first thing they think about if it's a home improvement project? Something sexy like solar panels or wind turbines. Of new windows or air conditioner. That will really make a big change and start saving some real cash, no?

Well, a better way to begin is to look at some simple (and free) things that make just as much of an impact. The Rocky Mountain Institute has put together a great paper on saving energy around the home and it starts with these five simple steps.
1. Lower water heater temperature to 120°F
2. Increase AC thermostat by 3°F
3. Wash clothes in cold water
4. Air dry clothes during summer
5. Turn off unneeded lights

Another great tool is the Pyramid of Conservation from Minnesota Power. Like the familiar food pyramid, it shows which things give you the most bang for the buck. In the "Sustainability" world it's known as going after the low hanging fruit.

Before you spend thousands saving hundreds try starting at the bottom. It's fruit that you'll enjoy the most.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Buying Alternatives

Somethings come and go so quickly that I hate having to buy them. Two that come to mind are textbooks and paperbacks. I've had my fill of both over the years and have been trying my best to lighten up around the house. In fact we've gone from four full bookcases as well as numerous boxes in the garage and attic to just part of one bookcase shared with the Wii and other games and such.

To ease the burden of textbooks I've been using Chegg to rent them for the semester and then just send back when done. Unless you have books that you know are going to stay current and that you'll constantly need to reference in the future, renting is a great way to save on the budget and clutter. When I can't find the book I need on Chegg or another rental site, you can find good used copies on Amazon then re-list when you're done.

The other site I've been using a lot lately is for all my book and CD trades. What's nice is that you're in a network with thousands of others so you don't have to wait to trade directly with someone; it can be a three or more person trade to make the connection complete. Try it and see if you like it as much as me.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It Can't Be Done, Can It?

One of the biggest arguments you hear these days from people at least willing to agree that there are serious environmental and social problems is that that the issues are too big and there isn't enough time. And while it certainly seems from watching the news or listening to the radio that slowing the release of CO2 or eradicating poverty is just to difficult I'm reminded that we have faced other worldwide crises before.

The biggest hurdle in many peoples minds is that since these, and other issues, took decades to develop to this point it will take just as long or longer to solve. Or that we aren't strong enough to shoulder the burden. To put this into perspective let's look at the events surrounding our entry into World War II and how long it took us to respond. The first date is one that everyone knows: December 7, 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor. In response,one month later, President Roosevelt, in his State of the Union address on January 6, 1942, called for the production of equipment and material for the war effort. One month later all civilian automobile production ended and factories began making the necessary planes, tanks and munitions to fight a global war on two fronts against better prepared adversaries. Total time elapsed to meet the challenge: two months.

Now, when people say we don't have the time, money or political willpower to tackle many of today's issues, remind them that it only took us two months to mobilize the entire auto industry to face that challenge. Funny that while the government actually owned both General Motors and Chrysler recently we didn't ask them to do anything at all. I know that I would have had a few suggestions for them.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The 29th Day

Many of you have heard this story but it bears repeating. There is a pond that has one Lily pad growing. This Lily pad will split into two on the second day then split again into four on the third day and so on. This keeps happening until on the 30th day they have completely covered the pond and the oxygen is depleted, killing everything in the pond. Ok, here's the question: when was the pond only half covered? It seems logical to say the 15th day but actually it would be on the 29th day. One day the pond is only half covered and the next...death. Wouldn't give you much time to take action, would it?

We don't know how far along we are towards a tipping point where it will be very hard to reverse the effects of CO2 and other harmful gasses in the atmosphere. Or how much time we have to reverse the rapid melting of the polar ice packs or glaciers that feed fresh water to millions of people in China or India or Colorado Springs. Or when the population of the earth will be too great to adequately feed everyone. We might be getting close to the 29th day.

Lost amid all the arguments about global warming, oil shale deposits or middle east military intervention is the fact that we just don't know how close we are to becoming another civilization, like the Olmec or the Anasazi, who depleted their resources before they could adapt to changes in their environment. If we are wrong and have plenty of time why not start now and save our children and grandchildren the burden of dealing with these issues. If we are closer than we'd like to admit then we have to start now before it's too late. Either way starting now is the only sensible thing to do.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It's The Little Things

Sometimes we think that we have to make big changes in order to be more sustainable, like waiting for a move or major renovation before we start. Nope, all you have to do is look at the small things that go on around your house in order to make real changes. This might be a good time to review the three "R's" of sustainability. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Notice that the one that seems to get the most attention is actually mentioned last and for good reason. If we can reduce what we buy and bring in to the house and then reuse anything that still has value or purpose there will be much less to recycle or throw out.

I got to thinking of this earlier today as I opened a bag of chips and fumbled through the junk drawer for a chip clip to close the bag. You know, the big, ugly clips made from plastic that keep breaking. Why did I even buy them in the first place when I have perfectly good clothes pins in the house already? They never break, didn't come from oil and work much better. Look around the house next time you need something and see if you already have a good substitute just ready for double duty.

Okay, getting back to changes you can do right away. Like I mentioned above, start with what's coming in and try to make better decisions. Next, think about where things go and how their taken care of. Can you find things or is every drawer a "junk" drawer? Do you throw out a lot of food that's expired or toss unread magazines or newspapers because you're too busy or they ended up at the bottom of some pile? Did you buy something cheap or poorly made only to get rid of it long before its time? Things like that add up, not only in cost but also satisfaction. A few quality things bring so much more pleasure over time than just having lots of "things."

We're called to be good stewards of this planet and it should start in our homes and our personal lives. Setting  a good example for our children and our neighbors leaves a lasting legacy to be proud of. The one with the most stuff doesn't win when he dies, he just leaves a bigger mess for his kids to throw out after he's gone.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Earth Hour, Who Knew?

Boy, I completely missed it last Saturday. And so did a lot of others. No posts that I could find on Treehugger or Inhabitat, websites that normally give me a lot to think about. What was it? Earth Hour. Well, if you missed it too, the gist of it is that every year we are supposed to turn off all non-essential power for an hour. And while its been reported that many utilities do in fact register a small decrease in electricity usage during that period, many critics question something that is more or less a publicity stunt. Others point out that many people light up candles during that period and that's just as bad as any other source of light. Still others say that fluctuations in power delivery can also cause damage in its own right.

Regardless of the pros and cons it does bring to light (pun intended) that many things are within our control and that we do have an impact, whether for one hour or throughout our day. I don't know about you but I can get overwhelmed with all the things I see or read that tell me to make changes in my life, from losing weight, to better health through fiber, to buying organic. It can all become a blur and fade into the background as just some white noise.

So what do you do? How do you keep from being pulled into every little fad or feeling guilty for not doing enough? The easy answer is just to start something, doesn't have to be a big thing, just movement in the right direction. For me it was a simple as putting a couple bins in the garage for plastic bottles and paper. Do I compost? Not really, unless you count the banana peel I throw under the little Oak tree when I pull into the driveway every night. Do I wash out my Zip Lock bags and reuse them like my more dedicated friends? Not one bit. BUT... I do throw my plastic and paper in those bins everyday and take to the recycling center on my way to the grocery store and that's a start. Something. Anything to get you started, one step at a time. You'll see the difference and then maybe look around for something else you can do next. That's what sustainability is all about. Doing something, not doing everything.