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ACEEE: “United Kingdom Tops in Energy Efficiency, U.S. Lags in 9th Place” (Canada Lags Further in 11th)

July 21st, 2012

A recent report by the American Council for Energy Efficiency ranked twelve major economies on their energy efficiency.

  1. United Kingdom
  2. Germany
  3. Italy
  4. Japan
  5. France
  6. The European Union, Australia, China (tie)
  7. United States
  8. Brazil
  9. Canada
  10. Russia

The report rated each economy on four measures (I’ve put Canada’s ratings in brackets): national effort (8th), buildings (11th), industry (10th), and transportation (11th).  If you’re curious how the other economies were rated, the ACEE provided a useful visual map.

As a Canadian I find this embarrassing and a reflection of the lack of leadership in our country.  It’s easy to blame our politicians, too easy when it comes to the Harper government (but that’s another topic).  What it really shows is Canadians aren’t doing enough and don’t seem to care.  The optimistic side of me says this is an opportunity.  A big one.  How can we get people to care?

Oil, Sustainability, and Our Wilderness

September 12th, 2010

This past summer was a constant reminder to me that our use of oil is completely unsustainable.  It seems like most people go about their daily lives while not understanding or caring about the ramifications of the ongoing quest for oil. 

We forget that oil is a finite resource, yet our demand for oil continues to increase because we treat it like an infinite resource.  Our waste of oil is incredible: we drive cars that are too big, we make plastic bags and containers out of oil that we use once and then throw away, many of our products are shipped to market in the most inefficient manner possible, and there are many other examples.  And the political maneuverings of many countries, especially China and India, are increasingly oriented around acquiring more resources, especially oil and food supplies.  But what worries me the most is that as demand for oil has increased we are willing to go to increasing lengths while turning a blind eye to the damage being done to wilderness worldwide.  Here are a few examples that I’ve been paying attention to.

Alberta's tar sandsAlberta’s tar sands are a perfect example of how in our race for more oil we are being forced to extract oil from increasingly inefficient, and damaging, sources.  And it’s being done with the full support of the Canadian government.  The lack of environmental ethics behind these projects, and the careful screening and refutation of any argument against them, is disturbing to say the least.

gulf of mexico oil spillThe Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused widespread damage in the Gulf of Mexico, and was the biggest oil spill ever.  We should be asking ourselves why we have to drill 1.5km below the surface of the ocean to get oil.  The reason?  Because oil that is easy to extract is either already gone or under the control of questionable countries and regimes.  The lack of controls and standards demonstrated during this spill by the oil industry and the U.S. government is frankly inexcusable.  Standards have to be raised, because the Deepwater Horizon was only one of approximately 2000 rigs designed for deepwater drilling.  The pressure for deepwater drilling isn’t going to go away, especially with Brazil’s discovery of a huge oil reservoir off its coast.

parrots at clay lickWhat really shocked me this past summer however was learning first-hand about the threat to Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rainforest.  My family and I visited Ecuador in June; we stayed near this park and saw a huge flock of wild parrots feeding at a clay lick on the edge of the park.  Yasuni is the Amazon basin’s largest reserve and is considered the most biologically diverse area on the planet, yet there are already oil and mining operations within the park.  And Petrobas, the national oil of company of Brazil, recently discovered Ecuador’s largest deposit of oil in Yasuni.  The temptation to extract it is intense; Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, wants $350 million per year for the next ten years to leave the oil in Yasuni untouched.  But Yasuni is worth it.  See for more information.   This is yet another example of our demand for oil going too far and without ethics.

What can you do?

  • Start with what you can control: reduce your use of oil!
  • Don’t vote for governments with poor environmental ethics, and make sure politicians are aware why you aren’t voting for them.
  • Pressure businesses and governments to stop crazy projects and practices.  This includes everything from minor things like reducing packaging, eliminating oil-based plastic bags and containers, to being a voice against the tar sands, deepwater drilling, and drilling in Yasuni park.
  • Write a letter to your government and urge them to support Yasuni national park.  That is a place we need to save!
  • Make sure you pay attention: when someone claims there is no global warming, or that the tar sands, deepwater drilling, or drilling in the middle of a jungle are perfectly safe they’re probably paid big money to say that.  Get the facts yourself.
  • Support alternative forms of energy like solar and wind.  If we took half the money that is spent extracting oil from the tar sands, the ocean depths, and treasures like Yasuni national park we would make an incredible amount of progress on using sustainable forms of energy.
  • Support measures to increase the price of oil, like carbon taxes.  Yes, I know this means we will pay more for gas, but ultimately this is the only way we will reduce our dependence on oil.
  • Donate to causes and organizations that fight the most damaging projects.  There are lots of them.
  • And last of all, don’t give up!

Wasting Resources, and Effort

June 6th, 2010

How many times have you bought a pencil, only to find that the pencil’s eraser is incapable of actually erasing a pencil mark on a normal piece of paper – unless it does so by ripping a hole in the paper?

This is a small but perfect example of why sustainable development is important. There are too many products that only partially or fully work. Or they don’t work at all; my favorite example being a rubber duck bathtoy that couldn’t float right-side up that my kids received at a party.

Doesn’t anyone think to test these products?

But the real question is why do we even bother making them? It would be easy to blame China but really the blame lies with our whole society. The only reason to build something that doesn’t work is to make money, because at the right price (i.e. super cheap) we will buy a dozen pencils or rubber ducks and feel like we are getting a “great deal”.

But we aren’t getting a great deal. Think of the effort that went into manufacturing that cheap product, the resources required to get it to a store where we can buy it, and finally the resources required to take it to the garbage dump. I am sure that when you add up all the true costs of these cheap products there is a net loss to society. But we don’t notice because these products are picked up and distributed by wholesalers who ship large numbers of products at the same time, which means that what we pay for real goods covers the costs of bogus goods too.

My solution? I believe in paying enough for a pencil that if the eraser doesn’t work I take it back. Retailers need to know that the products they sell have to work. If enough people did the same, then retailers would get the message to the wholesalers, who would stop buying this junk in the first place, which would put the cheap manufacturer out of business or force them to raise their quality standards. From a sustainability standpoint we have to do this, since we should not be investing in goods that just wind up being thrown away!

The 10% Challenge

May 24th, 2010

I’m going to challenge my family that we reduce our energy usage by 10% every year. I think it’s easily achievable, and if every family in developed countries did the same we would be having some different conversations about energy usage and global warming.

As I’ve mentioned before, the assumption that bothers me the most is that our governments continue to think that we need to continue to increase our energy production. But in the developing world at least there is so much room to reduce energy usage it’s frankly insane. I haven’t seen any detailed calculations but it’s simple math that if we were all able to reduce usage by 10% we could at least hold usage constant, even with an increasing population.

I’ve been tracking our household electricity usage since we moved into our new house four years ago and we’ve actually managed to reduce consumption by 20% in the past year. All we’ve been doing is replacing 75W incandescent bulbs with 13W CFL equivalents as they burn out. Yes, the CFL’s take a few seconds to warm up but the savings add up quickly. And the way I see it we’ll start replacing CFL’s with LED as their price comes down. So from a lighting perspective 10% a year is easily achievable.

We also have appliances that are 10 years old or so and those will be replaced with more energy efficient versions over the next 10 years. If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend high efficiency front-loading washer and drier machines such as those produced by Miele. They not only use less energy, water, and detergent but they also get your clothes cleaner. A 10% reduction per year is easy here too.

And then there are miscellaneous appliances. We have our TV’s, DVD’s and computers on powerbars and we turn off the powerbars when they aren’t being used. And we put our computers in standby when we can. If we have to buy a new computer we’ll pay attention to energy usage, and eventually I’d like to replace our old monitor with a LCD display. So I’m confident we can reduce 10% per year here too.

As for vehicles, I ride my bike as much as I can and we own a Prius Hybrid. The more I drive the Prius the more I marvel at the insanity of the number of cars running while we’re sitting at lights or in slow traffic. Being an engineer I could easily see how a further 10% per year could be squeezed out of the current Prius design and with our governments finally getting serious about making cars more efficient the manufacturers finally have incentive.

All in all, I’m optimistic. A 10% reduction in energy is easily achievable through easy steps. We could do even more, perhaps 15% on average. Are you up to the challenge?

It’s Time for an Alternative to Plastic Bags and Containers

February 6th, 2010
Our Plastic Ocean

Our Plastic Ocean

There’s not enough awareness about the dangers of plastic bags and containers. Sure, most people know that animals often mistake them for food, and that plastic takes a long time to decompose in landfills.

But we’ve got a big problem that is out of sight and hence out of mind. There is a plastic soup of waste that covers an area twice the size of the continental United States circulating in the Pacific ocean. And it’s growing. Google “Algalita Marine Research Foundation” or “our oceans are turning into plastic” for details.

Plastic bags and containers are the least-publicized aspect of our dependence on oil. However, breaking our dependence on plastic bags and containers should be much easier than our dependence on oil and gas for transportation, heating, and energy because some inexpensive research can lead to alternatives that decompose naturally. Some alternatives are already available, and although they are marginally more expensive we should support their introduction.

In the meantime, reuse plastic bags as much as you can and even better use re-usable bags and say “no bag thanks” when making purchases. And lead or support efforts to get stores, especially grocery stores, to stop using plastic.

I’ve had people ask me what kind of a risk there is to bacteria growing in re-usable bags, but quite frankly that problem is dwarfed by the plastic soup in the Pacific Ocean. Wash your bags and let them sun-dry, and let’s focus our energy on not making the problem worse instead of worrying about easily solved problems!

Reducing Energy Waste

December 13th, 2009

Instead of waiting for politicians to take action on greenhouse gas emissions, it’s worth considering that any solution is going to involve reducing the amount of energy we use.  One of the things that bothers me in political debates around greenhouse gas emissions is the assumption that our energy use is going to continue to increase.  Why?  I think we need to focus on reducing waste, because we waste staggering amounts of energy.

Look around the typical house in the developed world.  As a starter, you’ll typically find a SUV, pick-up truck, or mini-van in the driveway and inefficient electrical appliances.  There are many other sources of waste (like lighting) but let’s start with those for now.

No matter how you look at it, a SUV, pick up truck, and mini-van is an un-necessary luxury.  Most people believe they need a larger vehicle to transport their kids, tools, or stuff.  But look around you the next time you’re on the street.  Guess what?  80-90% of those large vehicles on the road at any one time have one person in them and very little stuff.  Previous generations of vehicle owners used regular cars; this generation is not special.  In Canada, the tendency to buy large vehicles instead of cars is one of the largest reasons why greenhouse gas emissions per person has increased since 1990 (when the Kyoto protocol was signed).

Canadian greenhouse gas emissions per person, 1990-2004

Electrical appliances are another form of wasted energy.  Just about every DVD player, TV, computer, etc. in our house, even if it has the “Energy Star” certification, is designed to waste energy.  Televisions for example when powered off are still in a ready state so that they will power on faster.  Ditto DVD players.  And computers when left on by default stay in an active idle state so that we can sit down and start typing.  Yes, these devices were designed because we’re (presumably) impatient and expect instant response.  But are we?  Try plugging all your devices into powerbars and turn the powerbar off when you’re done.  Yes, the clock will reset but I guarantee you’ll save a noticeable amount of energy.  Of course, it’s also a good idea to write a letter to a politician to get them to introduce legislation for more efficient appliances.  But that will take time!