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Archive for the ‘Play’ Category

A vampire lurks in your DVR! (and cable/satellite box too!)

Which appliance consumes the most power in your home? The refrigerator? The washer, dryer, or TV? The culprit may be a much less imposing energy beast, if you (like over 80% of Americans) have a DVR and set-top cable or satellite box. That’s right, those seemingly innocuous glowing little boxes can combine to suck more electricity than an Energy Star refrigerator, according to a study by NRDC.

The ~160 million DVRs and set-top boxes in the US now drain about $3 billion worth of electricity per year, the equivalent of nine 500 MW coal-fired power plants. That’s more power than used by the entire state of Maryland! And the real kicker is that 2/3 of that energy is consumed when these devices are supposedly “off.” Unfortunately, these little buggers never really die: the lights may go off, but they’re still sucking over 90% what they would while on. And that power drain happens 24/7, 365 days a year. Thus, an HD DVR typically consumes more power than the TV it’s connected to.


So the trick-or-treaters may be long gone from your doorstep, but you’ve still got some big energy vampires lurking in the darkness. The good news is that Buffy [the vampire slayer] is now on the way via a new EPA Energy Star 3.0 standard that mandates substantial improvements over the 2.0 version, and the cable industry (which owns most boxes) recently announced voluntary efficiency measures after all the bad press. But the only way to truly curb your boxy vampires’ appetite is to put them on a power strip that you switch off when you’re not watching TV or recording Buffy reruns. Or join the hipster kids and just stream it all online.

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Must every flight lead to a warmer world?

Ever wonder if it’s better to fly or drive to your destination? The plane certainly wins on speed, and often cost, but what about planetary impact? Turns out those wispy white contrails are looking increasingly dirty, bad news for lovers of in-flight movies and mile-high mischef. While planes, trains and automobiles all spew out carbon dioxide emissions (that contribute to climate change), planes tend to be the least efficient of the bunch (due to higher speeds and energy it takes to get to altitude). But recent research is showing that CO2 is only part of the story. Planes also emit high altitude NOx, water vapor, and particulate matter, all of which also contribute to global warming. So jet-setting to far off places may be anywhere from twice to more than quadruple the impact of driving the same distance, based on the latest science.

Depending on which numbers you believe, air transport makes up anywhere from 4% to 9% of current climate forcing. But these figures are likely to increase, as air traffic has been growing at over 5% per year for much of the past decade, with some projecting aviation’s impact to more than triple by 2050.  There are certainly some very cool electric-, solar-, and human-powered aircraft out there, as well as hypermiling conventional planes, but substantial efficiency improvements in commercial aviation aren’t likely anytime soon, due to limits in conventional technology.

So what’s a globe trotting adventurer to do? As we’ve blogged before, cutting back on air travel through telecommuting, teleconferencing and staycations can help. But it’s a wonderful world out there, and we know that the only efficient way to get to much of it starts on a runway! There are plenty of creative solutions out there that need not leave you entirely grounded. If you’re flying to an exotic locale for work, try to get in your annual vacation fix in the same trip. In general, take fewer trips that last longer (to compensate), and choose closer destinations when you can. If you’re in need of tropical paradise, Mexico or the Virgin Islands probably require a lot less carbon to get to than Bali. Flying coach also emits less than business or first class (because you’re taking up less space), so saving money also equates to saving carbon. Check out Careplane to see how your flight emissions options stack up on your travel site of choice (Kayak, Hipmunk, Orbitz and Bing are all supported).

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To e-book or not to e-book? It's an open question.

So with iPads and Kindles abounding, what’s the greenest way to read these days?

A (relatively) recent NY Times article by Daniel Goleman and life cycle assessment guru Gregory Norris dug into the question. Turns out it depends on what timeframe you use for your calculations. Any e-reader certainly takes a lot more energy and resources to produce than a book, but when you factor in the fact that a book is limited by the sum of its pages while reading on an e-reader is (almost) infinitely expandable, then an e-reader starts looking greener the more you read.

How much do you need to read to break even? Energy, water, and mineral consumption should balance out after reading 40 to 50 books. However, toxic emissions linked to cancer and other human health concerns don’t register a net improvement until you’ve read ~75 e-books (assuming you’re replacing new book purchases with e-book purchases), and greenhouse gas emissions don’t balance out until you’ve read over 100. Dealing with electronics waste is a particularly vexing problem, though companies like Apple are starting to offer rebates when you turn in your old gizmos for recycling.

So if you’re a voracious devourer of text then an e-reader may win the eco day, but the best pick is probably still a trip to the library, or bumming a good read off a friend. Last time we checked though, our well-worn Harry Potter collection didn’t offer Facebook and HD movies on a plane, so we’re not entirely convinced a spiffy new iPad isn’t still an utmost necessity.

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Example of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) steps for the clothing industry.

You’ll hear us refer to “life cycle assessment” a fair bit here at Oroeco (or LCA, for acronym aficionados). So what exactly is it? In its broadest sense, LCA is the detailed accounting of something you care about related to the existence of a selected product or service. Sometimes also called “life cycle analysis” or ecological “footprinting,” LCA is most frequently applied to environmental indicators, particularly embodied energy, toxic pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. But LCA can also be applied to indicators without direct environmental links, like labor hours or raw material inputs.

LCA is essentially just accounting, but where traditional accounting deals with relatively well-documented costs and revenues, LCA typically requires substantial additional data collection to convert process input-output data into the metric(s) you’ve selected. Methodology details matter, sometimes immensely.  Just as unaccounted costs and revenue can dramatically alter a corporate balance sheet, what goes into (and gets left out of) any LCA can have profound impacts on LCA results and presumed implications.

Why care about LCA? First off, it’s quite hard to improve what you can’t measure. LCA is a powerful tool to get you information about the true impacts from a pair of Levi’s jeans, a carton of Tropicana orange juice, and all sorts of other consumables, impacts that aren’t otherwise apparent. LCA can be great for producers too, because looking closely at a product’s life cycle highlights where energy, water, and other inputs can be saved at each stage of production, either by upgrading to more efficient techniques, or by switching to more sustainable suppliers. These resource savings often also translate to cost savings, which hopefully get passed on to you. These savings, combined with growing consumer scrutiny of the “green labeling” movement, have pushed retail giants like Tesco and Walmart to start requiring LCA data from their suppliers.

The pic above illustrates the life cycle of a clothing product. If you’re interested in the life cycle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions linked with owning a T-shirt, for example, you’d start by calculating all the material and energy inputs (and associated CO2) that go with production of raw materials (e.g. cotton, wool, or oil for synthetic fibers), and then include energy used in manufacturing of intermediate products (like yarn and cloth), clothing assembly, and retail sales. You’d also need to add on all the transportation and packaging energy needed to move stuff between each step. In some LCA calculations, known as “cradle-to-gate” LCA, accounting stops there at the checkout counter. But a complete LCA, known as “cradle-to-grave” or “cradle-to-cradle” LCA, will also include all the energy and material inputs linked to using your T-shirt, as well as what goes into disposal.

The results of LCA can be quite informative, and often surprising. For your T-shirt, chances are the use phase of the life cycle will have the largest climate impact, since you wash and dry your shirts many times before they find their way to the landfill (or Goodwill), with each load of laundry requiring a substantial amount of electricity and/or natural gas (as well as embodied energy in laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, etc.), though you can reduce your use phase impacts by washing with cold water and hanging your clothes to dry. If you care more about toxics than CO2, it’s the pesticide-laden production of cotton that looks particularly incriminating, though that can also be avoided by buying organic.

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Annual CO2 emissions for an average U.S. household (blue = direct; green = indirect). Reference: Jones & Kammen 2011.

For those of us concerned about climate change and other global issues, the challenges can feel overwhelming. Despite solid scientific consensus that our world is warming from fossil fuels and deforestation, there’s been a lot of talk but very little action to foster sustainable solutions and let cooler heads prevail. The sickly state of the global economy has led many to assume we can’t afford to do anything anyway.

But the good news is we don’t need to wait for politicians and corporations to clean up their acts. We can do it ourselves. The power plants, factory farms, timber mills, and industrial smokestacks are all ultimately producing things that we use. While the Oroeco crew aspires to live by the original Golden Rule, there’s also wisdom in its cynical parody: “(s)he who has the gold makes the rules.” It’s your gold that companies are trying to get, so we think you should also be the one making the rules. The power to change things is ultimately in your hands, and your wallet. It’s both a daunting and an empowering revelation.

Which decisions matter most? Well, the answer depends on where you live, what your lifestyle is like, and what you care about. A great place to start (at least as far as climate is concerned) is a study by Chris Jones and Dan Kammen from the CoolClimate Network (a research team based out of University of California, Berkeley). The graph above shows how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (measured in annual metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, mtCO2e) look for an average US household. While transportation and housing represent the largest categories of emissions, it may be surprising that food and other goods and services also have substantial GHG footprints.

What makes the CoolClimate study particularly appealing is that it not only shows where there’s room for improvement, it also illustrates (in the graph below) how saving carbon can end up saving you a lot of money. Some savings can come simply from buying less stuff. Additional savings comes from investing in more efficient products, like energy efficient appliances and a low-carbon diet (e.g. more veggies, less meat). Curious where the most carbon and cash can be saved in your life? Take the CoolClimate carbon calculator out for a spin to get a personalized ranking of the actions which maximize your savings based on your lifestyle.

Average $s saved from CO2 reducing actions (green = diet; yellow = transport; gray = home). Reference: Jones & Kammen 2011.

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