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Energy Efficiency

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California celebrities are wasting electricity moving water around

UPDATE: Sometimes, America, sometimes in the heat of our excitement about coming up with a lot of California jokes, we read things wrong. In this case: the diagram below. So, basically the whole post. I've corrected it below. Credit to commenter Maylward who was able to both read properly, unlike me, and graciously note my error.

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) runs the state's electrical grid. They're responsible for making sure the state has enough electricity to do the things it needs to do: making movies, fermenting wines, playing air hockey at Google, slouching around Golden Gate Park, etc.

But in what mix? How much of the electricity was going to ensure that Tom Cruise had the proper lighting and how much was going to display Albert Pujols' name on a scoreboard? They did the math to figure it out. And the answer was: not a whole lot went to either of those things probably still a decent amount! (Especially Cruise.)

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Austin dims its lights, everyone + science wins

This is a map of light pollution in the area around Austin, Texas.

Those purple markers (which are clickable at the map's website) indicate how much or how little night sky is visible. For the ones near the city core, the emphasis is on "little." In 2007, the city passed regulations aimed at reducing the amount of light that brightens the night sky, but old fixtures -- and the city's highways -- were grandfathered in until 2015.

Via rutloPhoto by rutlo on Flickr.

Yesterday, they took more direct action. The city council approved spending up to $15 million to replace or upgrade half of Austin's streetlights. The decision will result in the removal of existing plastic domes from under the lamps, which tend to diffuse the light broadly (and inefficiently). More importantly, it will also buy 35,000 LED lights, which use half the power of the existing bulbs and which last up to 15 years.

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U.S. military kicks more ass by using less fossil-fuel energy

soldier with solar panelGoing solar in Afghanistan. (Photo by U.S. Marine Corps)

This is my contribution to a dialogue on the military and clean energy being hosted by National Journal.

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To understand the promise of renewable energy for the U.S. military, it helps to start as far from Washington, D.C., as possible. (This is true for most forms of understanding.) Start far from the politicians, even from the military brass, far from the rooms where big-money decisions are made, far out on the leading edge of the conflict, with a small company of Marines in Afghanistan's Sangin River Valley.

Not long ago, for a three-day mission out of a forward operating base in Afghanistan, each Marine would have humped between 20 and 35 pounds of batteries. One of the reasons Marines are so lethal in such small numbers today is that they are constantly connected by radios and computers. But radios and computers require a constant supply of batteries, brought by convoy over some of the deadliest roads on earth and then piled on the backs of Marines in highly kinetic environments.

In late 2010, India Company, from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, tried something new. They packed Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy Systems, or SPACES -- flexible solar panels, 64 square inches, that weigh about 2.5 pounds each. One 1st Lieutenant from India 3/5 later boasted that his patrol shed 700 pounds.

"We stayed out for three weeks," he said, "and didn't need a battery resupply once."

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Wisconsin hospital is powered by beer and cheese

Gundersen Lutheran Hospital, in La Crosse, Wis., aims to be energy independent by 2014. Hospitals use a ton of energy, so that's a tough goal to meet. But Gundersen is getting there by piggybacking on Wisconsin’s best-known industries: beer and cheese.

Beer and cheese, while delicious, both slough off a lot of gas while they're being made. (Not to mention after they’re consumed.) The hospital system has been sourcing biogas from a local brewery and from a dairy farm that makes mascarpone and fresh mozzarella cheese. And recently the system started getting gas from a La Crosse landfill, as well.

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Power in numbers: Crowd purchasing brings clean energy within reach

When it comes to purchasing clean energy, the more the merrier. (Photo by Hepburn Wind.)

We join together with our fellow humans for the sake of saving a buck all the time. That’s why public transportation exists -- it’s cheaper for 20 people to get on one bus than it is for 20 people to drive their own cars. (Oh right, and buses are also super cool.) Or think of roommates -- sure, they never wash their dishes, but living with them saves us hundreds of dollars in rent.

Groundswell, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., wants to add clean electricity to the list of things that are better off shared.

Groundswell was founded by three guys who worked on President Obama’s campaign in 2008. “They had really seen the impact of community organizing in a political space,” says Elizabeth Lindsey, the group’s managing director. “And after the campaign, they were really interested in seeing how you could take that model and make a tangible difference outside the political sphere.”

To do this, Groundswell helps communities leverage their collective purchasing power to win the best possible deals on clean energy. They bring together nonprofits, community groups, churches, or individuals to make bulk purchases of wind-powered electricity, for example, or energy efficiency upgrades on homes and buildings. Buying as a group allows them to negotiate lower prices, and could potentially make this type of service available in areas where individuals and solitary community groups cannot afford it alone.

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Obscure-but-awesome energy law getting shivved by natural gas lobby

This house is extremely efficient.

Wouldn't it be cool if we passed a rule mandating that all new federal buildings had to be carbon-neutral by 2030? The feds buy and build a lot of real estate. An effort to wring fossil-fuel energy out of those buildings -- by increasing their efficiency and supplying them with renewables -- would seriously bolster domestic markets for efficiency and distributed energy. Beyond that, it would serve as a proving ground and an example for the communities where those buildings are located. It would be galvanizing.

"But," you're protesting, "we would never do something so radical. Germany might. Denmark, maybe. Not us."

Hark! I say to you. Hark to this sh*t: We do have such a rule!

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Meatpacking plant turns into net-zero-energy vertical farm

Photo by Plant Chicago.

Soon, a former meatpacking plant in Chicago will replace carcasses and rendering vats with bakers and brewers and fish farmers and mushroom growers. The Plant (ho ho, a double meaning!) is gathering together a bunch of food-makers to create a self-sustaining system in the 93,500-square-foot abandoned space. As Fast Company reports, a former meatpacking plant is the perfect place to start a food business of this kind: It already contains "food-grade materials" which are safe for food preparation.

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U.S. coal is on the decline, and utility execs know it

Every week brings a new story about coal's decline in America. Here are two from last week.

One is about American Electric Power, the nation's largest electric utility, based in Ohio but ranging over 11 states in the South and Midwest. AEP is the farthest thing from a good actor in the utility sector. Between 2008 and 2010, the company raised executive compensation by 30 percent, laid off 2,600 workers, spent almost $29 million lobbying the federal government, and paid a tax rate of -9 percent [PDF]. Yes, negative nine. It's that kind of company.

So it's significant that last week, AEP reaffirmed its intention to accelerate a shift away from coal. By 2020, according to CEO Nicholas Akins, coal will fall from 67 percent of AEP's assets to 50 percent.

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Budget-friendly hotel chains also have the smallest carbon footprints

When choosing an environmentally friendly hotel chain, the best indicator probably isn't whether the place asks you to hang up your towels if you don't want them replaced each day. According to a new analysis [PDF] by sustainability company Brighter Planet, budget and mid-range hotels tend to produce the least carbon per room.

Topping the list are Vagabond Inn, Red Lion Hotels, and Red Carpet Inns. Travelodge comes in fourth. It's not a hard and fast rule, but if you want to aim for carbon-friendliness, budget chains are likely the best option: The top performer in the high-end range, Four Points Hotels by Sheraton, came in 33rd overall. 

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Modern-day DeLorean? Airplane runs on trash

Photo by Paul O'Donnell.

One man's trash is another man's airplane fuel.

Adventure-seeker Andy Pag aims to obtain funding and become the first person to fly a trash-fueled plane from one end of the U.K. to the other. His aircraft, a microlight plane, will be powered by gasoline made from un-recyclable plastics like bags and packaging.

The fuel is made by a British company using Fischer–Tropsch synthesis--a process of making synthetic fuel that dates back to before WWII. Pag says the fuel is worth highlighting because it produces limited CO2, and reduces the volume of plastics that otherwise would go to landfills.