[1THING] Blog

[ Magazine story: Aldo Leopold’s early home an example of his land ethic ]

That’s the take-away from the architectural magazine Ameri


[ Report Lays Out Five Ways the U.S. Can Cut Emissions While Boosting the Economy ]

Cutting the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that stoke climate change could save billions in energy costs and boost revenue for the natural gas industry, according to a new report from the World Resources Institute, a research organization that advocates for environmental sustainability.

The report, Seeing Is Believing, focuses on five areas that account for 55 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “In each case, we found that reducing emissions can yield significant economic benefits even before you factor in the advantages of avoiding drought, sea level rise, and other climate change impacts,” the report’s authors wrote in a blog post introducing the study.

The five actions WRI recommends are:

Lowering the carbon intensity of electric power. Cutting emissions from the nation’s power sector is the chief aim of proposed rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, announced in June. The EPA wants to reduce emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels in the next 15 years. Opponents of the rules claim they will raise electric bills and kill jobs. The WRI report points out that natural gas-fired generation is cheaper and cleaner than coal, and that costs for solar are dropping, making it possible to produce more clean energy for less. But it acknowledges via its recommendations that renewable energy still faces policy and grid hurdles. Aside from supporting the EPA rules, the report argues for more long-term utility contracts for clean energy and a more stable tax-credit system.

Saving more electricity. Energy efficiency would seem to be a no-brainer that has bipartisan support, but other energy battles in Congress have sidelined efforts to get a federal efficiency bill passed. Still, other measures are already paying off, says WRI, noting that from 2009 through 2030, federal standards for appliances such as air conditioners and heat pumps  will save consumers an estimated $450 billion on electric bills. The report argues for strengthening and expanding those standards, along with bolstering measures at the state level.

Boosting cleaner, more efficient vehicles. Just this week, the EPA touted all-time highs in fuel economy for American cars. Even as conventional cars get more miles for the gallon than ever before, adoption of hybrid and all-electric vehicles is growing too. And now automakers including Toyota and Hyundai are readying the rollout of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles. But electric and hybrid cars still make up less than 5 percent of all passenger vehicle sales in the U.S. The WRI report argues for an expansion of alternative fueling infrastructure and more federal and state incentives to promote sales.

Improving the natural gas industry. The fracking boom and ensuing abundance of natural gas has contributed to a move away from coal in the power sector, a trend likely to continue when the EPA’s power plant rules, which explicitly encourage the transition to natural gas, go into effect. While some researchers have questioned the long-term emissions benefit of increased natural gas use, it seems undeniable that it makes sense from an emissions standpoint to address methane leaks that are occurring at existing production and transmission facilities. We don’t know exactly how much methane is leaking: the EPA “estimates that the natural gas system’s methane leakage rate was about 1.2 percent in 2012,” the report says, “but many recent studies suggest that it may be much greater, perhaps in the range of 3 percent to as high as 10 percent.” Plugging those leaks could boost revenues for producers, WRI argues, and boost the emissions benefit that natural gas can offer over coal.

Cut down on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The gases used in air conditioning and refrigeration are a small but very potent component of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, capable of trapping thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide, according to WRI. Last month ahead of Climate Week in New York, the Obama administration announced that it had secured commitments from companies including Coca-Cola, Target, and Honeywell to reduce their use of HFCs, along with new executive actions aimed at promoting alternatives to HFCs and reducing their use in federal buildings. The WRI report says such efforts should continue, and that the U.S. can achieve a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 without raising costs.

The U.S. has already lowered its emissions by 10 percent between 2005 and 2013 while growing its gross domestic product by 11 percent, the WRI report said. But U.S. emissions actually went up slightly between 2012 and 2013, and there are now just about five years left for the United States to get the rest of the way toward its international commitment of a 17 percent reduction by 2020. What do you think: Will the U.S. hit the target? How important will these actions be in getting there?

[ Methane Hot Spot in U.S. Predates Fracking Boom, Study Says ]

An area in the U.S. Southwest that’s about half the size of Connecticut has emitted the country’s largest concentration of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, according to a new analysis of satellite data.

The study, which was released jointly by the American Geophysical Union and NASA, found that between 2003 and 2009, the area released .59 million metric tons of methane each year, which is more than triple the standard estimate for an area of that size. The 2,500-square-mile (6,500 square kilometers) spot lies near the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

The hot spot emerged before the rise of hydraulic fracturing, a practice that has spurred concerns about “fugitive” methane emissions—leaks that occur while fracking is under way. Instead, researchers say, the gas is likely coming from leaks during the production of natural gas from coal beds in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. Coalbed methane accounted for about 8 percent of U.S. natural gas production in 2012, according to the study release.

“The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried,” said lead author Eric Kort, a scientist at the University of Michigan, in a statement. “There’s been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole.”

[ The “One-Two” Punch for Net-Zero in DC Home; Power and Carbon Neutral ]

What happens when a manager of Naval Facilities Energy Initiatives decides to go “net zero” on his home in Washington, D.C.? You get a true zero-energy home, done right on a budget.

Geothermal Fits In Small Yards

Geothermal loops are buried under the small backyard.

Andrew Knox wanted to “walk the walk” of energy efficiency, so he and his wife, Elizabeth, had some decisions to make.  To attain zero net annual energy consumption, the home would need solar panels. The lot is only 3,500 square feet, and the surface area of the roof was about 600 square feet plus another few hundred square feet on a detached garage/shed. With its inefficient HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems, the two-story structure with a basement was going to need more square footage of solar panels than the Knoxes had in roof area.

“HVAC contractors repeatedly recommended that I go with a high-efficiency natural gas-fired boiler, and domestic hot water tank, but that wouldn’t have fixed my summertime cooling load,” Knox told me. His existing air conditioner used more than 2,500 kilowatt hours in 2010, well over half of all the electricity consumed in the home.  Andrew needed to get his summertime usage down, and reduce CO2 emissions. Going with a high-efficiency air-source heat pump (heat pumps provide both heating and cooling, unlike the cooling-only air-conditioners) wasn’t going to be enough. In addition, Andrew notes that his boiler was responsible for half of his house’s 15,000 pounds of CO2 emissions, and simply had to be eliminated if they were going to attain true net-zero carbon and energy.

Looking into geothermal heat pumps, Andrew saw that he could go with all electric heating and cooling and achieve better than 30 EER (Energy Efficiency Rating). 30 EER compares favorably to high-efficiency air-source heat pumps, using about half the energy, or in other words, doubling the efficiency.  Under this regimen of all electric—including clothes dryer and cooking—Andrew calculated the loads and saw that he would get close to achieving net-zero energy use.  He selected competent geothermal and solar contractors, signed contracts, and by August 2012, he was making progress toward his geothermal/solar combination net zero home.

Geothermal Solar Combination for Net Zero Homes

Geothermal Heating and Solar Power Together

The big day came in October, 2013 when the home officially went net zero (DOE link to project).  What’s equally important in this process is that the home is also carbon neutral, producing no net CO2 emissions. Though many don’t necessarily understand the importance of CO2 emissions reduction, Andrew Knox eats, sleeps, and breathes this data in his position as manager of energy initiatives and integration with Naval Facilities Engineering Command.  “It’s critical we get CO2 emissions under control,” Andrew explained. “CO2 emissions have a three-tier scope for reduction: one, CO2 emissions from direct fossil fuel use (like combustion heating), two, CO2 emissions as a result of electrical power consumed (from electrical power plants providing electricity), and three, indirect CO2 for all other purchased items and services, including air travel and food.”  He explained this to me as he was driving to work in his diesel car run on B99 (an affordable blend of 99 percent high-quality, American-made biodiesel—no conversion is required to run B99 in many diesel vehicles).

Solar panels prior to installation with baby Everett Knox

Baby Everett Was Born Just Prior to Solar Install on top of the Garage

Since the time the Knoxes started this process, they also started a family, adding Everett (now 23-months old), and his baby brother John Karl (now 3 months). “I had no idea how much laundry was involved in raising children,” Andrew told me. “My energy consumption has gone up for things like laundry, cooking and other appliances. Putting up a clothes line has helped us cut dryer energy use way down until we can get a more efficient clothes dryer.”

Overall, though, house emissions have dropped 30 percent, from about 15,000 pounds a year to 10,000 pounds a year, with the CO2 emissions offset from PV generation at about 11,000 lbs /year.   (The Knox family currently has one electric and one diesel vehicle and is on target to reduce net vehicle greenhouse gas emissions to zero early next year).

Andrew has spent about $80,000 on this project; the remainder of the $110,000 project has come back to him through federal and local tax credits and incentives. There was a premium cost for changing to geothermal, but according to his electrical consumption monitoring equipment, he’s benefited by achieving a 60 to 70 percent reduction in cooling costs.

Geothermal HVAC reduces power consumed, solar area is smaller

Results of Knox Family Solar Geothermal Improvements

Andrew was perplexed that heating contractors advised against geothermal heating and cooling in favor of air-sourced air-conditioning and natural gas furnace. He was grateful to have found the folks at Harvey Hottel , a Maryland-based HVAC company specializing in geothermal installations. “It’s a tight property, and I was amazed how easily Allied Drilling installed the three vertical geothermal loops. Now they’re a permanent part of the infrastructure of the house, and we never have to worry about them again.”

Geothermal Loops may be installed in small areas

Geothermal Drilling Was Accomplished in the Small Knox Backyard

With geothermal heating and cooling, much of the premium cost is tied up in the ground coupling, or the underground portion of the system. Decades from now, when the time comes for an upgrade to the geothermal heat pump, the cost will be equitable to a standard heat pump.

Mark Hottel didn’t stop with just the geothermal heating and cooling system.  The importance of good insulation can’t be overstated, as Mark said: “We applied spray foam insulation to the underside of the roof and gable ends to bring the attic into conditioned space. There used to be an air handler up there, so we removed the air handler and ran ductwork from the basement to the attic. Now the ductwork will be in conditioned space. Attic temps won’t go over 78 to 82 degrees. We also air sealed the attic and second-floor cavity behind the bathtub.”

Andrew and Elizabeth miss their radiators (the new system is ducted), and prefer radiant heat to forced air heat.  Fortunately that’s an easy option for new construction geothermal owners since geothermal is a water-based technology. In-floor radiant heat is a common upgrade for new and some retrofit applications.  Though the family likes radiant a little better, the Knoxes feel the air is cleaner year-round due to forced-air filtration, a potential benefit to their growing family on a busy D.C. street. No more equipment outside in the weather and elimination of the associated noise factors are other benefits. GHP (Geothermal Heat Pump) owners can enjoy extraordinary longevity of equipment, primarily because it’s protected inside. Still, it’s ultimately up to the homeowner to do their homework and select quality appliances and PV panels.

What words of wisdom does Andrew Knox have for those of us still floundering with utility bills? He says, “Basically, get a good handle on your situation, set your goals, do the low-cost load reductions (energy efficiency) to save money, then do the higher cost efficiency projects—geothermal heat pumps, solar thermal hot water, and the electric car! After that, you can make a much more accurate reading of the required solar panel capacity.  In the meantime, you can sign up for the various local incentives. Then monitor everything (we bought the TED energy monitor) to see where there are places to improve!   In our case, we put in our photovoltaic incentive application before we had done any of the upgrades except the lighting, so we had to make a lot of assumptions, especially about the expected geothermal and EV usage.  We also didn’t figure how many more loads of laundry we would be doing once we had a baby!”

See more about the Knox Family’s effort on the US DOE site at: https://buildingdata.energy.gov/project/knox-residence-dc-net-zero

For geothermal heating and cooling professionals in your area, visit geothermal industry organization sites: http://www.igshpa.okstate.edu/directory/directory.asp and http://www.geoexchange.org/geoexchange-service-providers/ .

Jay Egg is a geothermal consultant, writer, and the owner of EggGeothermal. He has co-authored two textbooks on geothermal HVAC systems published by McGraw-Hill Professional. He can be reached at jayegg.geo@gmail.com



[ U.S. Fuel Economy Hit New Highs With 2013 Models ]

American cars are using less gas per mile and emitting less carbon dioxide than ever before, according to a government analysis released Wednesday. The average fuel economy of 2013 models is 27.6 miles per gallon for cars and 19.8 miles per gallon for trucks, “both of which are all-time highs,” said the report from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Fuel economy in the United States has improved in eight of the last nine years, the analysis said, reversing a negative trend between model years 1987 and 2004. Most of the savings are due to engine and transmission innovations such as variable transmissions and variable valve timing. Vehicle weight, which stayed relatively flat, and acceleration power (which continues to increase) also play a role in fuel economy. (Take the quiz: What You Don’t Know About Cars and Fuel)

Among 11 automakers, nine showed improvements in fuel economy and emissions from 2012 to 2013 models, the EPA said. Mazda ranked first for fuel economy, followed by Honda and Subaru. Nissan achieved the greatest efficiency bump (a 2.1 percent inprovement). Only Toyota and Ford showed declines in average fuel economy from 2012 because of increases in the share of truck production, according to the report.

“Consumers now have many more choices when shopping for vehicles with higher fuel economy and lower emissions compared to just five years ago,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement accompanying the report, saying that automakers were pushing new technologies even faster than anticipated.

Federal regulations, along with a relatively steady rise in gas prices, have pushed automakers to boost fuel efficiency in recent years. In 2012, the Obama administration set mileage standards that require automakers to boost the average efficiency of their fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon (23 kilometers per liter) by 2025. (See related pictures: “Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55 MPG“)

The news from EPA came as the Brookings Institution highlighted U.S. Census data showing that a vast swath of the U.S. public—working millennials and Gen X, spanning ages 16 through 54—have been driving less. The analysis cited use of public transit and working from home as factors, but denser cities and the rise of ride- and car-sharing services might also play a role in the coming decades.

Between fewer drivers and fewer gallons used per mile, the latest data lends support for the Energy Information Administration’s recent projection that gasoline consumption will continue to fall over the next two decades.

(See related news story: “U.S. Teenagers Are Driving Much Less: Four Theories About Why“)




[ Recipe for kids school success? Play outdoors! ]

A study published on Sept. 29 has demonstrated the importance of school recess – and not merely for health reasons.


[ The Wilderness Society Commends President Obama for Protecting San Gabriel Mountains as a National Monument ]

Michael Reinemer

President Obama will use his executive authority to create the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, an action that will improve outdoor recreation, safeguard vital water supplies and protect wildlife in the backyard of Los Angeles – the nation’s most populous county.

[ Youth celebrate Wilderness’ 50th with service at Bandelier ]

On Oct. 4th, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC) helped us celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by getting their hands dirty to give back to New Mexico’s wilderness.


[ U.S. Heating Bills Expected to Shrink with Milder 2014-15 Winter ]

A year after adding the term “polar vortex” to their vocabulary – and feeling its biting financial impact – Americans can look forward to spending less money to keep their homes warm this winter, whether they heat with natural gas, fuel oil, propane, or electricity, government energy-watchers said on Tuesday.

The key driver behind the sunny spending outlook is a relatively mild forecast for winter 2014-15, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. Combined with better-than-expected replenishment of fuel stocks in the past several months, that means households can expect to spend from 2 percent to 27 percent less during the “home heating season,” defined as running from October through March. (Take the quiz: What You Don’t Know About Home Heating)

About half of U.S. households rely on natural gas for space heating and more than a third use electricity, the primary heat source in the South. Natural gas prices are actually expected to be higher this winter compared to last year, but the EIA said record storage injections and increased production throughout winter will limit the price rise to just 6 percent, which should be more than offset by decreased demand. A similar story is expected to unfold with electricity.

The biggest winners this winter could be those who heat with propane—people who were particularly hard hit last winter, especially in the Midwest, home to more propane users than any other region in the country. A variety of factors contributed to propane shortages and high prices last season, from the cold weather to increased demand for the fuel by farmers who used it to dry corn after a late and wet harvest season. (See related, “Propane Shortages Leave Many U.S. Homeowners in the Cold.”)

This winter, it should be a different story: Temperatures in the Midwest are forecast to be 16 percent warmer than in 2013-14, and the EIA said that as of late September, propane stocks were 17 percent higher than at the same time last year “and are at the highest level for any week since at least 1993.” As a result, the average price of propane is expected to fall by 24 percent, with total heating expenditures down 34 percent.

Fuel oil isn’t nearly as common a heat source as it once was, but about a quarter of Northeast households still rely on it, and these folks too will get a price break this winter, with prices down 6 percent and total fuel bills for the season expected to fall 15 percent.

If there’s a cautionary note in the EIA outlook, it’s aimed at New England, where the winter of 2013-14 was especially rough.

Record cold spells this past winter drove up demand for natural gas in the region. The fuel is also used increasingly to generate electricity, but pipeline infrastructure has failed to keep up with the growth. That led to what the EIA called “extreme price spikes in spot natural gas and electricity prices in New England during January and February 2014.” The agency said constraints this winter could “produce periods of localized higher wholesale pricing.” (See related, “U.S. Electricity Rates Spike After Years of Slow Growth.”)

Of course, the biggest wild card in the outlook anywhere and everywhere is the weather forecast. For those who put stock in such things, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a colder-than-normal winter in the Midwest and East. The EIA said that if the weather does turn out to be 10 percent colder than government forecasters expect, households that use electricity and natural gas for heating will see their total bills rise, though in single digits, while heating oil and propane users will still end up paying less overall than they did last winter thanks to lower fuel costs.

[ Nobel Prize Goes to Inventors of Blue LED: Why It Was Revolutionary ]

The Nobel Prize in physics goes to three scientists who invented blue LED lights, which paved the way for tremendously greater lighting efficiency.