Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Don’t expect that hybrid minivan any time soon

Toyota Estimate Hybrid
The Toyota Estima Hybrid. The Japanese text translates to "Ha ha, you can't have one."

For years, Grist readers have yearned, ached, and virtually begged for a hybrid minivan. Sorry, folks. Keep dreaming.

Toyota has sold its Estima Hybrid minivan (44 mpg) in Japan since 2001, but it has no plans to sell a hybrid or plug-in minivan in the U.S., a spokesperson tells the Chicago Tribune.

Why not? Green-car expert Jim Motovalli explains:

I have brought up the concept of a plug-in hybrid minivan several times to automakers, and they always dismiss it. Their claim: Minivans are big and boxy, and the fuel economy wouldn’t improve that much with a hybrid drivetrain. Plus, they’d be expensive (the Estima is $50,000). Besides, that segment of the market is really not that big, they say.


Your iPhone uses more electricity than your fridge

So much power at the tips of our fingers.
So much power at our fingertips.

The global digital economy, also known as the ICT system (information-communications-technologies), sucks up as much electricity today as it took to illuminate the entire planet in 1985. The average iPhone requires more power per year than the average refrigerator. It’s like you’re walking around all day with a fridge’s worth of electricity in your pocket (but no hummus!).

This info comes from a report [PDF] by Mark Mills, CEO of the Digital Power Group, sponsored by the National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. So part of the report’s point is that coal keeps the iPhones on. But instead of inspiring gratitude for coal and all the blessings it bestows on us, knowing the source of all that juice just makes the digital economy’s ginormous energy footprint of even greater concern.

As Bryan Walsh points out in Time, the ICT system’s power hunger only stands to keep growing as our devices become ever more powerful and ubiquitous.


Why your hybrid doesn’t get that promised mileage

Ford C-Max
Ford Motor Company
The C-Max had a mileage fail.

Are you a hybrid owner who's never managed to get the high gas mileage advertised on the car window? You're not alone.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Bowing to criticism that its C-Max hybrid didn't get the fuel economy claimed on its window sticker, Ford Motor Co. has restated the compact car's mileage ratings and said it will ... make a "goodwill" payment of $550 to people who purchased the C-Max and $325 to those who leased the vehicle.

Ford had previously claimed the 2013 C-Max hybrid got 47 mpg for combined city and highway driving. Now it's saying 43 mpg. That's still higher than the 37 mpg that Consumer Reports got when it tested the model.

And it's not just Ford. More from the L.A. Times:


The White House goes solar — again makes the case for solar panels on the White House in 2010. makes the case for solar panels on the White House in 2010.

Nearly three years after the Obama administration promised to install solar panels on the White House roof, the plan is finally moving ahead. A White House official confirmed today that installment of American-made solar panels has begun. Bill McKibben, whose climate-action group led the original push to get the panels up, called the news “better late than never.”

In October 2010, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that by the end of spring 2011, “there will be solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity and a solar hot water heater on the roof of the White House.” The failure of those features to materialize provoked criticism from environmentalists, who saw it as symbolic of Obama’s larger lack of follow-through on sustainability goals.

Jimmy Carter with the original White House solar panels.
Jimmy Carter with the original White House solar panels.

The recent campaign for a solar-powered White House wasn’t an original idea. Way back in 1979 -- before global warming became a household phrase -- President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels that graced the White House roof until 1986, when President Ronald Reagan had them removed (ugh). The Washington Post reports:

In 1979, Carter had predicted the solar water heater and panels on the White House grounds will "either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

For awhile, it was the lack of those panels that symbolized the road not taken. Climate activists hoped their reappearance would point the way back.


Australian floods lowered worldwide sea levels

Flood-inducing rainfall in Australia in 2010 was so severe that it lowered worldwide sea levels.

Scientists have been puzzled by satellite data that shows sea levels fell in 2011. A paper published this month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters attributes a lot of the surprising sea-level decline to antipodean deluges -- record-breaking rainfall that was linked to climate change.

Seas have been rising by about 3 millimeters a year in recent decades. But from mid-2010 until 2011 sea levels dropped by 7 millimeters, as shown in this graph:

Click to embiggen.
CU Sea Level Research Group

Australia is home to geological formations similar to lakes -- scientists call them arheic and endorheic basins -- that do not flow to the ocean. Instead they empty by gradually evaporating. About 40 percent of precipitation in most continents flows into the ocean, but in dish-shaped Australia, that figure is just 6 percent.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Vermont can’t shut down nuke plant, court says

Vermont Yankee
The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, on the Connecticut River.

An unwanted nuclear power plant is going to be sticking around in Vermont like a drunk uncle after the party has ended.

State lawmakers have been trying to force the closure of the 41-year-old Vermont Yankee plant by denying it permits following radioactive leaks and other safety concerns. But a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that doing so was beyond the legislature's power, upholding a lower court's ruling that states are “pre-empted” by federal law from regulating nuclear safety.

“The nuclear power industry has just been delivered a tremendous victory against the attempt by any state to shut down federally regulated nuclear power plants,” Kathleen Sullivan, a lawyer for power plant owner Entergy, told The New York Times. From the Times article:


Fracking company wants to build new pipeline — for water

Ohio River
Rob Ireton
Should frackers be allowed to suck millions of gallons a day from the Ohio River?

Antero Resources, a major Marcellus Shale driller, needs so much water for its fracking operations that it hauls truckloads from the Ohio River to its wells in West Virginia and Ohio. To cut down on transportation costs, the company now wants to build an 80-mile water pipeline.

The Wall Street Journal describes the project as a "costly wager that the hydraulic-fracturing industry's thirst for reliable sources of water will grow" -- and reports that enviros are worried about the swelling stresses that the industry is placing on the Ohio River, which is the Mississippi River's largest tributary:

Tapping the Ohio would give the pipeline access to the region's most dependable source of water. Many of the rivers and streams that Antero now uses run low in the summer, prompting state officials to stop gas-industry withdrawals. A drought in Ohio last year curtailed water to fracking operations.

In a permit filed with the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates water withdrawals from the Ohio River, Antero said it plans to build an intake pipe capable of sucking up 3,360 gallons of river water a minute—or about 4.8 million gallons a day. ...


A win-Winco situation: Grocery chain treats employees well and has low prices

Alisha Vargas

There are eight WinCo grocery stores within 100 miles of where I live. So how had I not heard about the Boise, Idaho-based chain until now? Next time I find myself in need of groceries in Kent, Wash., I’ll be sure to swing by the chain that’s making headlines as “Walmart’s worst nightmare.”

Why should Walmart be wary of this company that’s virtually unknown to shoppers outside the seven states in which it operates (and apparently to some inside those states as well)? Because WinCo, employee-owned since 1985, has figured out how to keep prices low -- like lower-than-Walmart low -- while still managing to not screw over its employees. Anyone who works at least 24 hours a week gets full health benefits, and WinCo puts an amount equivalent to 20 percent of employees’ salaries into a pension plan. The store claims that more than 400 “front-line” workers -- cashiers, clerks, and others working on the floor instead of behind closed office doors -- have pensions worth at least $1 million. Maybe that’s why, according to the company, the average hourly worker stays for more than eight years.

How does WinCo do it? What is the magic formula that Walmart and McDonald’s can’t seem to grasp? Well, for one thing, WinCo is privately held, and thus free from the obligation to put shareholder profits before all else. “It keeps a low profile and rarely engages in self-promotion,” according to the Idaho Statesman. How quaint and modest!


Cutting soot and methane emissions would not help the climate as much as hoped

Tilemahos Efthimiadis
We need to keep cutting soot pollution from wood fires, but that's not nearly enough.

We're not making great progress cutting carbon dioxide emissions on a global scale, so the U.S. has been working with other nations on the less controversial strategy of reducing methane and soot. These pollutants have more severe immediate impacts on the climate than does CO2, and they break down much more quickly in the atmosphere.

But research published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that this strategy would be less effective than previously believed.

Scientists modeled the climatic effects of a dreamy scenario: Methane emissions are reduced to the greatest extent thought possible; the use of wood- and coal-burning stoves and heating systems is phased out worldwide by 2035; and strict controls are placed on vehicle exhaust. They found that this would reduce global average temperature just 0.04 to 0.35 degrees Celsius by the year 2050, much less than the 0.5-degree reduction suggested in previous research.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Kochs must move their massive piles of tar-sands waste, Detroit mayor says

What do you do when monstrous piles of dusty black carbon move into your city?

If you're Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, you issue an order demanding that they be removed. And after that's ignored, you issue another.

Detroit coke piles
Petroleum Coke Awareness Detroit
What could be lovelier than a sunset over petcoke piles?

The city's riverfront has been blighted by huge, uncovered piles of petroleum coke since a local refinery began processing Canadian tar-sands oil in November. Just take a look at this video of a black wall of dust being kicked up from the piles:

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy