I am a big fan of Ask Umbra. I used to do a column like this for USA Today, and yours is much more interesting than mine was. (Of course, I was handicapped by being limited to one-syllable words.)
But Umbra goofed a couple times in her first answer in the most recent column. She wrote, “With a few exceptions, auto air conditioners use chlorofluorocarbons, which can be released into the atmosphere during maintenance.” This would be true (or at least legal) only for cars manufactured before the mid-1990s. CFCs are banned for this purpose in the industrial world. Most U.S. auto air conditioners now use HFC134a as the refrigerant. It contains no chlorine and does not damage the ozone layer.
Umbra also stated, “The physical weight of the air conditioner adds to the drag of the car.” But weight has nothing at all to do with drag. The weight adds to the mass being moved, and hence increases the energy needed to move it. Drag refers to air resistance — it is a measure of the slipperiness of the aerodynamics of the vehicle. (A smooth egg shape is best.) That’s why an open window (which weighs nothing) increases drag.
Finally, the column said, “Open windows will cut your fuel efficiency by about 2 to 3 percent; the air conditioner will cut it about 15 percent.” It would be interesting to know the source of these numbers. They had to be calculated using specific assumptions. The drag caused by open windows increases greatly with speed. Below 20 mph, it may be negligible. At 75 miles per hour, I would be shocked out of my socks if it lowered fuel efficiency only 2 to 3 percent.
In any case, (as Umbra points out) the drag from open windows will vary greatly from one vehicle to another with different aerodynamics, and (as she doesn’t point out) it will increase in a non-linear fashion with speed, whereas the energy needs of an air conditioner won’t. At some speed, the window drag will certainly be greater than the air conditioner draw (though I don’t know whether that speed is 50 mph, 75 mph, or 200 mph).
Similarly, with air conditioners, the percentage will vary (as Umbra notes) from one vehicle to another. Perversely, the percentage will be less for fuel guzzlers than for fuel sippers (everything else being equal). Fifteen percent implies more exactitude than may be justified. (Also, it would depend on whether you have the air conditioner on high, medium, or low.)
I suspect Umbra’s general conclusion — that windows beat air conditioners — is right for most situations, though at 75 mph, I bet it’s a close contest. In any event, the details are important.
President and CEO, The Bullitt Foundation
Editor’s note: Denis Hayes chairs the board of Earth Day Network. Grist Magazine is a project of Earth Day Network.
Re: Sin Diesel
Umbra left out one potential advantage for the green driver with a diesel passenger vehicle: converting to biodiesel.
Diesel vehicle owners can switch to biodiesel with little or no modifications to their cars or trucks, thereby reducing emissions of carcinogens, particulate matter, and greenhouse gases, as well as consumption of fossil fuels.
Biodiesel is available commercially in some areas. Some conversion kits are also available that allow diesel engines to run on pure vegetable oil. The kits are basically simple heating coils that heat the oil until it is fluid enough to move through the fuel line.
I’d also add that Europeans have a very different attitude toward diesel, and see it as a good way to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets. With particulate traps and other emissions devices, diesel can be just about as clean as natural gas with much lower greenhouse gas emissions.
I know most U.S. environmentalists hate it, but I’m torn about diesel.
In Umbra’s advice to the reluctant minivan mom from Colorado, she said, “The decision to purchase a car, and which car you purchase, is one of the most significant environmental choices you will ever make.” But by far the most significant decision minivan mom made was to have children, creating a need for a bigger car — and, as her children learn to drive, for many more cars. In the long run, this will far offset any small fuel savings from buying a hybrid van.
Now, I’m a proud father of two beautiful children, so this isn’t a tirade against breeders. I just think we need to be honest about the dramatic social and environmental implications of what we too often consider a purely personal decision.
Loved Umbra’s answer to the lime-in-a-beer-bottle question — humorous and informative! However, she missed something important: In my experience, most limes are shoved down into Corona bottles — not U.S. cheapies like Miller Lite or Bud, not European imports like Heineken or Becks, and not Yuppie microbrews like Anchor Steam or Pete’s Wicked Ale. Here’s the rub: Although the glass furnace can blast the lime wedge into oblivion, it cannot deal with the painted-on label on the Corona bottle, which contains cobalt compounds that cause streaks in the new glass bottles. Many recycling operations are currently rejecting Corona bottles, thus consigning them to the landfill — so the lime issue is moot. Anheuser-Busch has a 50 percent equity ownership in Grupo Modelo, the Mexican maker of Corona. According to my industry sources, the company’s been asked to switch to a paper label for Coronas sold in the U.S., but refuses to do so because of unique brand identification — environment be damned! Corona accounts for over 50 tons of wasted glass per day in the New York City metro area alone.
Now, a plug for a far worse problem: the annual dumping of 50 billion aluminum beverage cans, which leads to the wasting of 760,000 tons of aluminum, the emission of more than 3 million tons of greenhouse gases and tens of thousands of tons of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides, strip mining for bauxite and coal, and the squandering of the energy equivalent of 16 million barrels of crude oil (enough to electrify 2.7 million U.S. homes for a year) — all due to the production of replacement cans made from virgin materials.
Thank you and many happy returns.
Director of Research, Container Recycling Institute
Thanks to Jonna Higgins-Freese for making an important point about the audience for environmental literature. I respect Barbara Kingsolver as one of the most significant environmental authors of our time — and I am so thankful that she works in novels, short stories, and essays instead of more didactic genres.
If one of the characters on “Friends” became an environmentalist, our cause might be furthered even more than by Ralph Nader’s candidacy for president. I offer this suggestion as an opportunity for success for anyone with screen-writing skills and a verdant heart.
Plus, mission-driven enviros like myself benefit from a dose of pure artistry to counterbalance the barrage of insoluble problems we face. I am saving Small Wonder for a late-summer reading treat, right after I enjoy again my first-edition, dog-eared copy of Kingsolver’s voluptuous Prodigal Summer.
St. Louis, Mo.
Re: Bird Slaw
I have to say, I am surprised by your one-sided and inaccurate piece on wind power, as I generally find your articles very credible.
For the record, you should know that an average wind turbine takes up only one acre of space. Moreover, new technologies are increasingly able to generate a greater amount of power from that one acre.
But the biggest problem with your article is your 1980s thinking that wind turbines are harmful to birds. The reality is that only one wind site — a 1970s-era wind farm at Altamont Pass, Calif. — has ever been found to have a large incidence of avian mortality. And the avian mortalities there most likely occurred because the developers were never required to do a study on bird migration patterns in the area. Today, such a project would never be approved because of strict requirements for avian studies during the development process. Also, wind turbine manufacturers have since changed the designs of turbine blades to pose less of a threat to birds.
Those “environmentalists” that oppose wind power because of this tired old argument are either uneducated or are trying to manipulate a 20-year-old media frenzy to avoid looking like self-centered NIMBYs. Frankly, they give environmentalists a bad name.
Personally, I would be glad to have a wind turbine in my back yard. The new designs are very quiet and, I think, beautiful — much more so than the coal-fired smog that hovers over much of the West every day.
Econergy International Corporation
Re: Bird Slaw
I am the energy analyst for the Citizens Advisory Panel and program manager for the Sustainable Energy Alliance of Long Island. Our organization is currently working with the Long Island Power Authority, Natural Resources Defense Council, Pace University Law Project, and other prominent civic and environmental groups to help build a 100-megawatt offshore wind project along Long Island’s south shore. This would be the first-ever offshore wind project in America, and has the support of Gov. George Pataki (R), Sens. Hillary Clinton (D) and Charles Schumer (D), and Long Island stakeholders.
A Phase I study for our project revealed that a staggering 5,200 megawatts of power could be tapped into off Long Island’s shores — more than the current energy needs of this region. The initial project will consist of 33 turbines in a three-mile stretch approximately three to six miles offshore between Jones Beach and past Montauk Point.
You note in your article that Sierra Club opposes the Pennsylvania wind farm. However, both Sierra Club chapters here on Long Island support our offshore wind farm. It is also a myth that wind turbines are “cuisinarts” — in fact, more birds are killed yearly by vehicles, skyscrapers, jet engines, transmission lines, and (believe it or not) cats! The technology for these turbines has changed immensely over the years, and they now turn very slowly, as opposed to the old-style turbines in California’s Altamount Pass (which killed more wind projects than birds).
Kathleen A. Whitley
Sustainable Energy Alliance of Long Island
Re: Yeah, Baby
As the mother of an 18-month-old and as a conservation biologist in training, I had a huge guilt problem with diapers. I read bad things about both cloth (mostly if you use a diaper service) and disposables. Initially, I went with cloth, even though I had to use a service in order to save time. (As a mom and a student, I don’t have much to spare.)
Daycare was fine with the cloth for about eight months, then began to use their own “emergency stash” of disposables despite my wishes. Since most other daycare centers won’t use cloth at all, I could not just move my son to a different facility. I had no idea what to do — let daycare use their own plastic and gel time-capsule diapers? Have more arguments with the staff to whom I then had to entrust my son?
Then I discovered Nature Boy and Girl diapers. Admittedly not a perfect solution, they are at least a huge step in the right direction. And to you parents out there: They work really well! No leaks yet.
Re: Weed Creed
You ask why America thinks a perfect lawn is necessary. A more important question is: Why have our legislators not outlawed pesticide applications for purely ornamental purposes? I understand Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, has recently enacted this kind of legislation. As long as someone offers the service, vain consumers will buy it. The road to re-educating the taste of affluent America is a long one.
How can we support and encourage our lawmakers to take this necessary step?
Re: Weed Creed
I read your comment on weeds with interest and wanted to thank you for the links and suggestions. The dandelion issue in America is an enduring puzzle. This is actually an extremely beneficial plant. It is a cash crop in France, makes great salad, is very rich in nutrients and iron, and, most important, is a non-toxic, non-prickly, cheerful little flower that fixes nitrogen in the soil through bacteria in its root system. This is important unpaid work. Plants that fix nitrogen enrich the soil so that additional fertilizers are not needed.
As if this weren’t enough to make us grateful for dandelions, the extensive, deep root system stabilizes soil and helps prevent erosion, and the broad leaf base helps to decrease evaporation of water. How odd that we maintain a mindless vendetta against so helpful a plant.
Re: Clothes Call
I was very disappointed in your answer to the toxicity of commercially manufactured garments. I would have hoped you would have advised that people step up and support organic clothing. How can we do our part in keeping the environment healthier if we continue to purchase and support clothing manufactured in sweatshops?
Are you or your readers aware that it takes approximately one-third of a pound of agricultural chemicals to produce just one T-shirt? Are you aware that formaldehyde is used in all commercial fabric processing? And that it doesn’t wash out with just one washing? Why would you want to put that against your skin, the largest organ of the human body?
Check out the Organic Trade Association website for more information.
Owner, Organics for Massage
Re: Power Shift
I was very interested to read all the different views that were presented in Power Shift. I am not an extreme activist. A lot of this information is still new to me, and I am slowly trying to help our family shift toward living with the Earth. Our family is in the military, which is a double-edged sword; we tend to move often and it is very hard to build and work with communities when you are always the new guy, and still learning the history and ecology of the area. I try to fight in every way I feel I can; at times I know I can do more, and at other times I feel almost hopeless.
I want to thank all of the people who have committed their lives to this cause; you give the rest of us strength and hope.
Fort Rucker, Ala.