Make Like a Tree and…Emit Zero Emissions

I recently had the pleasure of test driving the soon-to-be-released Nissan LEAF™, a fully electric car. It has great pickup, and a super smooth ride. And it is surprisingly spacious inside. My husband, who is 6′ tall, had plenty of leg room in the back, which is rare for a compact car. In addition to the creature comforts, this car offers lots of other advantages. Besides the obviously huge cost savings in fuel, you will save money on car insurance because, unlike regular cars, you aren’t toting around flammable liquids, and the engine has no moving parts to break down. Plus the break pads don’t wear out because the car slows itself down.

It can travel up to 100 miles on a single charge, and can go up to 90 mph. Because its maximum speed is 90 mph, which is plenty for most roads, this also reduces your insurance costs.

My husband was very impressed with the fact that it has 100% torque available at 0 RPM. I liked the fact that if something goes wrong with the battery, you don’t have to replace the whole thing. It comes in components (I think there are about 100 battery units within the battery case), which can each be diagnosed and addressed individually.

The battery charging stations are compact and fit easily into any garage. You can also use the same type of outlet you would use to power a washer and dryer, it just takes longer to fully charge the car. Already, companies like Kaiser Permanent, Whole Foods, Walgreens, and Cracker Barrel have plans to install charging stations. The car comes equipped with sensors that tell you where the nearest available charging station is!

There is also an App, which you can download and play with to see how the features work, even if you aren’t yet an owner of a Nissan LEAF™ . You can use the App to: check the level of your battery charge, begin charging, see when the battery charge is complete, see your estimated driving range, and even turn the climate control system on or off – on cold days, you can warm up your car from inside the comfort of your home!

Originally scheduled to ship in September, production has been delayed due to the recent catastrophic events in Japan. However, they expect to ship the first cars in December. The waiting list has been closed, but you can sign up on the Nissan website to be notified to be on the next waiting list. In the meantime, to find out where you can take a test drive, check the Drive Nissan LEAF™ website.

The cost for the LEAF™ will range from $32,700 to $33,700. However, with rebates and tax incentives, the actually cost can range from about $23,000 to $25,000. Not bad, especially considering the fuel cost savings in just one year.

On April 1st, the White House announced the green fleet initiative, which ensures that by 2015, all new vehicles purchased for U.S. federal agencies will be electric, gas-electric hybrid, or alternatively fueled. Given the wild fluctuations and rising gas prices, it seems that the electric car is an idea whose time has finally come.

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Thoughts on Palm Oil

The following post is by Katie Peige, Herban Lifestyle’s Sustainability Associate.

I am enjoying the Florida sun, having flown away from the frigid winter weather of the Mid-Atlantic. Donning my sunglasses and sundress I sway in a hammock overlooking the ocean with a cool breeze on my face. Between myself and the aqua water are several palm trees of different heights and what seems to be different species. In the last few days, palm products have come to my attention: from a friend sending me an article on the “best” new sweetener palm sugar, to Ask Umbra’s column on sustainable candles, to the palm oil found in Herban Lifestyle’s products. As the Herban Lifestyle disclaimer points out, the palm oil used in HL products comes from organic and fair trade sources which “adhere to strict environmentally sustainability programs” Well the more I read about palm oil, the more I wanted to know what all this talk about unsustainable palm oil production was about.

Palm oil is found in food products, beauty products, detergents, and shampoos. Palm oil is a healthier alternative to other oils and due to the bans on trans fat, the demand for palm oil has been growing. In fact, palm oil is the number one source of vegetable oil and can be found in half of the world’s packaged goods. Then, of course, palm oil is used as biodiesel, which is how I originally heard of the deforestation problem.

Palm oil is created from squeezing the red fruit from the palm oil tree that primarily grows in Malaysia and Indonesia. Since I am surrounded by palms in Florida, I thought I could check out a palm oil plantation to see what’s going on. After doing some research, I found nothing to suggest that there are any palm oil plantations in Florida (bummer, I was really looking forward to the field trip). Anyway, in Asia palm oil plantations are planted on former rainforest land, which often times is the result of deforestation. In Indonesia, 30,000 square kilometers of former rainforest now serve as palm oil plantations, that’s 30,000 square kilometers that could be serving as natural habitat and as a carbon sink. Each palm oil plantation destroys and displaces thousands of plant and wildlife species including endangered rhinos, orangutans, elephants, tigers, and many others.

Deforestation is not the only ecological nightmare in this scenario because in Indonesia and more recently Malaysia, they drain and burn peatlands. Peatlands are mostly water (90%) and act like a sponge soaking up large amounts of carbon; however, when they are drained these gases escape right back into the atmosphere. It gets worse; after the peat is dried it is burned to clear the ground for the palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, the draining of peatlands contributes to 660 million tons of carbon released into the atmosphere annually with an additional 1.5 billion tons of carbon released from the fires, making Indonesia the third largest CO2 producer in the world. Wetlands International just released a report that digs deeper into the peat swamp forests’ destruction in Malaysia; you can read more about it here.

Is sustainability possible? Well on an optimistic note, Brazil has introduced a novel program that requires new palm plantations must be planted on land that has already been deforested and abandoned (typically used short term for lumber or sugarcane). Thankfully this program will not only lead to economic development and new jobs but also new trees as the palm oil plantations create reforestation thanks to not needing to cut the trees down to make palm oil. Another pioneer in the sustainable palm oil effort is the non-profit organization, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which as the name suggests, oversees sustainable palm oil production through their RSPO Certification process. You can learn more here about RSPO, sustainable palm practices, certification, and a bit more on the history of palm oil.

Be sure to keep yours eyes peeled for this relatively new certification. As for me, I’m going to get back to watching the palms sway in the ocean breeze.

Running on algae: an Energy Conversation

image copyright NASA

Every time I see an image of oil gushing out into the Atlantic Ocean, or hear a conversation about our need to find alternative fuel sources, I think of the promise of biofuels. Like any other technology, there are pluses and minuses, but when I hear someone dismissing biofuels as requiring more energy to create than they produce, I have a ready response.

Last November, I attended a seminar entitled “Can Algae Replace Petroleum as a Clean, Low Carbon, Homegrown Fuel for our Military and More?” And my takeaway from this highly informative seminar was that it is not only possible to produce biofuels in an energy-efficient manner, but it can also be done in a way that alleviates another huge problem — water pollution due to waste-water runoff.

The seminar speakers included Jonathan Trent, Ph.D. of NASA, Chris Tindal of the Navy, William Harrison of the Air Force, and Roy Minson of SAIC (a government contractor). All of these experts agreed that the US’s continuing dependence on the quickly dwindling supply of foreign oil is an issue of national security. In addition, petroleum is an extremely expensive and inefficient way to power the vehicles necessary for the military. In addition, the military leaders said that they find it very disturbing that they send men to battle to obtain oil, which has to be shipped (using oil) to the US to be refined (which uses oil), then shipped back to the Middle East to fuel the military vehicles.

In the seminar, there were discussions of the pros and cons of various biofuels, including soybeans, sunflowers, canola, jatropha, palm and microalgae. Most of these crops produce relatively small yields compared to the amount of water and electricity needed to produce them. The exception is microalgae, which requires much less water and power, and produces a much higher yield of usable fuel (per acre/per year, soy beans produce about 50 gallons of oil, canola produces about 160 gallons, palm produces about 600 gallons, and algae can produce at least 2,000 gallons). However, cultivating microalgae on land has several challenges. For example, they take up a lot of space, require large amounts of fresh water (for the open-air type) and can be expensive to build and maintain (closed type).

But Jonathan Trent and others have been working on method that overcomes all of these issues, plus has some added environmental benefits. The program, the Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA), entails growing biofuel in plastic bags (membranes) of sewage floating in the sea. These particular bags are based on technology used to recycle astronauts’ wastewater. They allow fresh water and oxygen to exit while keeping saltwater out, and the algae and sewage in.

Here’s how it works. The OMEGA bags are filled with sewage and algae (the sewage can be found in abundance where it is currently being dumped into the ocean off the shores of all our coastline cities), and are floated on the surface of the ocean (so no need to pump in water). The bags collect solar energy (thus, no need for electricity), which causes the algae to produce oxygen through photosynthesis. The algae feed off of the sewage, and in the process they produce oil.

NASA estimates that, using the OMEGA method, 10 acres of ocean could produce 21 billion gallons of biofuel each year!

If you are interested in learning more about OMEGA and other biofuel technology, you can access the transcript and PowerPoint slides from this conversation, which are available in the Energy Conversations archives along with all the other conversations from the past four years.

In 2006, the Department of Defense started sponsoring this monthly evening seminar series called: “Energy: A Conversation About Our National Addiction.” The first Conversation featured former Director of the C.I.A., Jim Woolsey. And the DoD continues to support this effort: “The Energy Conversation is more than information sharing among peers and energy industry leaders; it is a playing field in the energy-climate world struggle, ” says Brian J. Lally, P.E., Facility Energy Director, The Pentagon.

The Energy Conversation includes representatives from: Dept of State • Dept of Treasury • Dept of Defense • Dept of the Interior • Dept of Agriculture • Dept of Commerce • Dept of Health and Human Services • Dept of Transportation • Dept of Energy • Dept of Education • Dept of Veterans Affairs (VA) • Dept of Homeland Security • U.S. House of Representatives • U.S. Senate • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) • Office of Science and Technology Policy • Council on Environmental Quality • Office of the Secretary of Defense • Army • Navy • Marine Corps • Air Force • Coast Guard • Director of National Intelligence • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) • General Services Administration • National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) • National Science Foundation (NSF) • National Academy of Sciences • Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) • Energy Star • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

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More toxic, less effective!

image copyright Art by Pir8t

The curious case of BP’s choice of dispersants

I usually write about happy, herbal and crafty news. But I am also a researcher and consultant who focuses on wellness and cancer prevention, so I feel compelled to write about what I find to be a disturbing discovery that affects the wellbeing of our water, the marine life in it, and quite possibly myriad numbers of humans at some point.

I have been greatly disturbed by the images of gushing oil and dead sea life throughout the Gulf of Mexico. And, earlier this week, when an EPA employee told me that the dispersants being used on the spill are highly questionable (very toxic and containing many unknown “proprietary” ingredients), I became even more upset. According to the EPA, as of May 18, 2010, “approximately 600,000 gallons of dispersant has been used on the surface and approximately 55,000 gallons of dispersant has been used subsurface, at the source of the spill.” So this was a lot of poison with unknown consequences being dumped into (and underneath) the already hurting waters.

image copyright NASA

So I was very happy to hear on May 20, 2010, that the EPA had issued an order to BP to stop the use of the very toxic dispersant, Corexit, and replace it with a less toxic, more effective dispersant. Except I couldn’t help wondering why they had allowed the use of this more toxic, less effective chemical to begin with, and for as long as they had. Then I heard something that provided a possible clue.

Last night on Anderson Cooper’s 360, journalist Ed Lavendera reported that 100,000 galls of Sea Brat-4, a less toxic, more effective chemical is sitting unused. Here is an excerpt from the CNN transcript:

LAVANDERA: Hundreds of containers are just sitting here in the Houston sun. To some it’s another example of the mismanagement of the oil spill. The containers are full of a dispersant called Sea Brat-4. Why is it sitting here and not in the ocean instead. No one really knows, especially says BP is on record saying it would use the stuff.

DOUG SUTTLES, COO, BP: We also have a second product called Sea Brat-4 which we’ll introduce into the process as well.

LAVANDERA: That’s what BP said almost a week ago, but we found the Sea Brat-4 sitting here. You’re looking at it, almost 100,000 gallons of the less toxic dispersant. Guess who ordered it? BP did on May 4th, almost three weeks ago.

John Sheffield is president of the company that makes it.

JOHN SHEFFIELD, PRESIDENT, ALABASTER CORPORATION: It’s ridiculous. I think something is intentionally stopping us from getting our product to the water.

LAVANDERA: EPA and coast guard officials say there’s nothing stopping them from using Sea Brat 4. Sheffield says he could be making 50,000 to 100,000 gallons a day. But a BP spokesman will only say the company had to use what was readily available and stockpiled and it has been asked to find add alternatives to Corexit. And getting a direct answer is hard for Congress to get as they grilled BP executive Lamar McKay this week about the issue.

This made me wonder if there was some connection between BP and the company producing Corexit, so I did some research. This is what I found:

  • On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by BP sent oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • On April 30, 2010, BP released news that it had tested dispersants (tradename: Corexit) manufactured by Nalco Holding Co.
  • On May 1, 2010, Goldman Sachs recommended buying BP shares (source: MarketWatch)
  • Also on May 1, 2010, BP announced that it would use the Nalco dispersant on the oil spill.
  • Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, along with two other companies, owns Nalco (source: Nalco website).

So, piecing all this together, BP chose a less effective, more toxic dispersant, made by a company owned by Goldman Sachs. On the same day that BP announced they would be using this dispersant, Goldman Sachs recommended the purchase of BP stock. In other words, you wash my oily back, I’ll wash yours.

For updates on the EPA response to oil spill , you can visit their BP Spill website.

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The Make It Green! Initiative

photo copyright Arbor Day Foundation

Last week, I received an email from a German company, Kaufda, introducing an initiative they have created called “Make it green!” They said that if I write a short blog post about their program and include one of their “My blog is carbon neutral” buttons on my blog, they would plant a tree in my blog’s honor – for each participating blog, they will plant one tree. The trees will be planted through the Arbor Day Foundation in Plumas National Forest in Northern California. For more information about how and where the trees are planted, you can visit Kaufda’s website.

According to the email I received, Kaufda’s Make It Green initiative’s goal is “to contribute our part in reducing the carbon footprint by raising awareness of the severe environmental damage caused by carbon emissions. One of our activities is to raise awareness of the carbon emissions resulting from the use of the internet – specifically of blogs. A blog with 15,000 visits a month has a yearly carbon dioxide emissions of 8lb. To neutralise these emissions we have created “My blog is carbon neutral” buttons so bloggers can demonstrate that they care about the environment and the carbon footprint of their blogs. We present them a small but nontheless worthy solution to contribute to environmental issues. Our idea is to show possibilities to make a contribution to protect the environment.”

I had a few questions about this, since I have never heard of this company, nor this initiative — who are they, why are they doing this, and is it for real? As they explain on their website, they are “a German based company called kaufDA, which provides advertisement brochures of local stores online to help consumers search for specific products and find good deals in their neighborhood. This reduces the amount of brochures printed and so the project helps the environment by reducing unnecessary paper in mailboxes,” so if they can get the word out about their company through bloggers’ word-of-mouth, I expect that is worth the cost of each tree. Plus, the promotion appears to be a good tie-in with their paperless, online approach.

Then I did a search to see if I could find out if other bloggers were participating, and I came across a reassuring post on It appears that RecycleBills’ Mr. Jones did his homework and actually wrote to the Arbor Day Foundation to verify Kaufda’s claims. The Arbor Day Foundation’s response is posted on his website — it appears that Kaufda’s claims are true.

While I cannot verify that planting one tree will make my blog carbon neutral, I am happy to support an initiative that helps with reforestation. So, I have added my button, and am passing along the word about this interesting initiative. If you have a blog, and would like to participate, you can visit the Kaufda’s website.

Earth Hour 2010

Now in it’s third year, The World Wildlife Fund (WWF)’s Earth Hour is once again inspiring people all over the world to switch off their lights for one hour on March 27, at 8:30pm local time, as part of a global vote for the environment.

Last year, nearly one billion people  in 4100 cities in 87 countries turned off their lights. In the U.S. alone, 80 million people in 318 cities participated. Several cities, including Washington, DC, and landmarks from around the world also participated, including the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramids, Broadway Theatre Marquees and the Las Vegas Strip (imagine how much electricity was saved from these last two locations alone).

And Commonwealth Edison in norther Illinois reported that electrical usage dropped by 1 percent during Earth Hour 2009. This saved about 100 megawatt hours of electricity, which is equivalent to the removal of around 154,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

For specific actions you can take as an individual, organization or government, see the Earth Hour toolkit page. Today I signed the pledge to participate, and you can too by visiting the Earth Hour website.

If you are wondering what to do during that hour of darkness, here is a family-friendly list of ideas for activities from Mother Nature Network.

Lights off!

Environmental Film Festivals

Last September, I had the opportunity to view The Story of Stuff on a big screen as part of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival at Montana State University, Billings. The Story of Stuff, by Annie Leonard and Free Range Studios, is an entertaining and enlightening short film on the environmental and social impact of America’s addiction to abundant amounts of cheap stuff.

In addition to The Story of Stuff, there were several other captivating and eye-opening films included at The Wild and Scenic Film Festival, which I was happy to discover. Among these was Gimme Green, a very funny look at Americans’ obsession with the idea of the perfect lawn, and Coal Country, a heartbreaking portrait of the devastating impact of coal mining on communities in West Virginia.

If you are interested in learning more about environmental issues, and would like to be highly entertained while doing so, take a look at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival calendar. There are screenings scheduled all across the country for this year. You can also fan them on Facebook.

And if you live in the DC area, it’s your lucky week. The 18th annual Environmental Film Festival starts on the 16h and runs through the 28th. Films will be screened across a wide range of venues — “56 Venues, 155 Films.” In addition to Gimme Green and Coal Country, there are a couple of other films that I highly recommend: Division Street, a wonderfully directed depiction of the impact on highways on wildlife, which I had the good fortune of viewing; and Fresh, which I blogged about last November after screening it.

So, no matter where you live, chances are you will have an opportunity to experience some excellent eco-edutainment. If you do, I’d love to hear about your favorite films.