Tag Archives: energy

Coal: A Personal History

It’s January, and much of the country is confronting freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.  I live in San Francisco now, but I vividly remember what life is like in cold-weather climates.

When I was growing up on the North Side of Chicago, my winter garb followed this pattern:

Skirt and blouse, socks (usually short enough to leave my legs largely bare), a woolen coat, and a silk scarf for my head.  Under my coat, I might have added a cardigan sweater.  But during the freezing cold days of winter (nearly every day during a normal Chicago winter), I was always COLD—when I was outside, that is.

My parents were caring and loving, but they followed the norms of most middle-class parents in Chicago during that era.  No one questioned this attire.  I recall shivering whenever our family ventured outside for a special event during the winter.  I especially remember the excitement of going downtown to see the first showing of Disney’s “Cinderella.”  Daddy parked our Chevy at an outdoor parking lot blocks from the theater on State Street, and we bravely faced the winter winds as we made our way there on foot.  I remember being COLD.

School days were somewhat different.  On bitter cold days, girls were allowed to cover our legs, but only if we hung our Levi’s in our lockers when we arrived at school.  We may have added mufflers around our heads and necks to create just a little more warmth as we walked blocks and blocks to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then returning to school for the afternoon.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering why it never occurred to our parents to clothe us more warmly.  Weren’t they aware of the warmer winter clothing worn elsewhere?  One reason that we didn’t adopt warmer winter garb–like thermal underwear, or down jackets, or ski parkas–may have been a lack of awareness that they existed.  Or the answer may have been even simplerthe abundance of coal.

Inside, we were never cold.  Why?  Because heating with coal was ubiquitous.  It heated our apartment buildings, our houses, our schools, our stores, our movie theaters, our libraries, our public buildings, and almost everywhere else.  Radiators heated by coal hissed all winter long.  The result?  Overheated air.

Despite the bleak winter outside, inside I was never cold.  On the contrary, I was probably much too warm in the overheated spaces we inhabited.

Until I was 12, we lived in an apartment with lots of windows.  In winter the radiators were always blazing hot, so hot that we never felt the cold air outside.  The window glass would be covered in condensed moisture, a product of the intensely heated air, and I remember drawing funny faces on the glass that annoyed my scrupulous-housekeeper mother.

Where did all that heat come from?  I never questioned its ultimate source.

I later learned that it was extracted from deep beneath the earth.  But what happened to it above ground was no secret.  More than once, I watched trucks pull up outside my apartment building to deliver large quantities of coal.  The driver would set up a chute that sent the coal directly into the basement, where all those lumps of coal must have been shoveled into a big furnace.

Coal was the primary source of heat back then, and the environment suffered as a result.  After the coal was burned in the furnace, its ashes would be shoveled into bags.  Many of the ashes found their way into the environment.  They were, for example, used on pavements and streets to cope with snow and ice.

The residue from burning coal also led to other harmful results.  Every chimney spewed thick sooty smoke all winter, sending into the air the toxic particles that we all inhaled.

Coal was plentiful, cheap, and reliable.  And few people were able to choose alternatives like fireplaces and wood-burning furnaces (which presented their own problems).

Eventually, cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel displaced coal.  Residential use dropped, and according to one source, today it amounts to less than one percent of heating fuel.

But coal still plays a big part in our lives.  As Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia (which is currently suffering the consequences of climate change), wrote earlier this month in TIME magazine, the issue of “climate action” has been “hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media…, as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.”  He added:  “Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

In her book Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg points out that we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal.  So “streaming your online video may be coal-powered.”  Using as her source a 2014 EPA publication, she notes that coal ash remains one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, largely under-regulated, ending up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.

“As crazy as this might sound,” Schlossberg writes, watching your favorite episode of “The Office” might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.  She’s concerned that even though we know we need electricity to power our computers, we don’t realize that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels.

Illinois is finally dealing with at least one result of its longtime dependence on coal.   Environmental groups like Earthjustice celebrated a big win in Illinois in 2019 when they helped win passage of milestone legislation strengthening rules for cleaning up the state’s coal-ash dumps.  In a special report, Earthjustice noted that coal ash, the toxic residue of burning coal, has been dumped nationwide into more than 1,000 unlined ponds and landfills, where it leaches into waterways and drinking water.

Illinois in particular has been severely impacted by coal ash.  It is belatedly overhauling its legacy of toxic coal waste and the resulting widespread pollution in groundwater near its 24 coal-ash dumpsites.  The new legislation funds coal-ash cleanup programs and requires polluters to set aside funds to ensure that they, not taxpayers, pay for closure and cleanup of coal-ash dumps.

Earthjustice rightfully trumpets its victory, which will now protect Illinois residents and its waters from future toxic pollution by coal ash.  But what about the legacy of the past, and what about the legacy of toxic coal particles that entered the air decades ago?

As an adult, I wonder about the huge quantities of coal dust I must have inhaled during every six-month-long Chicago winter that I lived through as a child.  I appear to have so far escaped adverse health consequences, but that could change at any time.

And I wonder about others in my generation.  How many of us have suffered or will suffer serious health problems as a result of drinking polluted water and inhaling toxic coal-dust particles?

I suspect that many in my generation have been unwilling victims of our decades-long dependence on coal.

 

 

Let’s keep going as long as we can

One thing everyone can agree on:  Every single day, we’re all getting older.

But we don’t have to let that indisputable fact stop us from doing what we want to do.

I just came across a spectacular example of a 96-year-old scientist who keeps on going and going and going….

By sheer coincidence, he’s a man who’s worked for decades in the field of battery speed and capacity.  And he’s very much more than good enough to serve as an astounding example of enduring optimism and hard work.

A Wall Street Journal story in August profiled John Goodenough, who helped invent the lithium-ion battery that’s used to recharge cell phones and a host of other electronic products.  By introducing lithium cobalt oxide to the inner workings of batteries in 1980, he made batteries not only more powerful but also more portable.

At age 96, he now wants to kill off his own creation by removing the cobalt that allowed his battery to charge faster and last longer.  In April 2018, he and three co-authors published research that may lead to a new battery that’s liquid-free and cobalt-free.

Initial research shows that the new battery could potentially double the energy density of the lithium-ion battery.  That would mean that an electric car, for example, could drive twice as far on one charge.

“My mission is to try to see if I can transform the battery world before I die,” Dr. Goodenough says.  He added that he has no plans to retire.  “When I’m no longer able to drive and I’m forced to go into a nursing home, then I suppose I will be retiring.”

Goodenough works in an untidy office at the University of Texas in Austin, where he’s a professor of engineering.  He begins work between 8 and 8:30 a.m., leaves around 6 p.m., and works from home throughout the weekend.

He hand-writes his research and doesn’t own a cell phone, rejecting the mobile technology that his batteries made possible.  His car is a 10-year-old Honda that he hopes will last as long as he does.

His motivation is to help electric cars wean society off its dependence on the combustion engine, like the one in his Honda.

“He is driven by scientific curiosity, and he really wants to do something for society with the science he does,” says one of his colleagues, another engineering professor at UT, Arumugam Manthiram.

Isn’t it heartening to come across someone like John Goodenough, a remarkable human being who refuses to quit?

His story energizes me.  Although I’m considerably younger than Goodenough, it encourages me to pursue my passions no matter how old I get.

Does his story energize you, too?

 

[This blog post is somewhat shorter than usual because I’m currently in the midst of publishing my third novel, RED DIANA.  I’m hoping it will be available soon at bookstores everywhere and on Amazon.com.]

 

The Last Straw(s)

A crusade against plastic drinking straws?  Huh?

At first glance, it may strike you as frivolous.  But it’s not.  In fact, it’s pretty darned serious.

In California, the city of Berkeley may kick off such a crusade.   In June, the city council directed its staff to research what would be California’s first city ordinance prohibiting the use of plastic drinking straws in bars, restaurants, and coffee shops.

Berkeley is responding to efforts by nonprofit groups like the Surfrider Foundation that want to eliminate a significant source of pollution in our oceans, lakes, and other bodies of water. According to the conservation group Save the Bay, the annual cleanup days held on California beaches have found that plastic straws and stirrers are the sixth most common kind of litter.  If they’re on our beaches, they’re flowing into the San Francisco Bay, into the Pacific Ocean, and ultimately into oceans all over the world.

As City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, a co-author of the proposal to study the ban, has noted, “They are not biodegradable, and there are alternatives.”

I’ve been told that plastic straws aren’t recyclable, either.  So whenever I find myself using a plastic straw to slurp my drink, I conscientiously separate my waste:  my can of Coke Zero goes into the recycling bin; my plastic straw goes into the landfill bin.  This is nuts.  Banning plastic straws in favor of paper ones is the answer.

Realistically, it may be a tough fight to ban plastic straws because business interests (like the Monster Straw Co. in Laguna Beach) want to keep making and selling them.  And business owners claim that they’re more cost-effective, leading customers to prefer them.  As Monster’s founder and owner, Natalie Buketov, told the SF Chronicle, “right now the public wants cheap plastic straws.”

Berkeley could vote on a ban by early 2018.

On the restaurant front, some chefs would like to see the end of plastic straws.  Spearheading a growing movement to steer eateries away from serving straws is Marcel Vigneron, owner-chef of Wolf Restaurant on Melrose Avenue in L.A.  Vigneron, who’s appeared on TV’s “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef,” is also an enthusiastic surfer, and he’s seen the impact of straw-pollution on the beaches and marine wildlife.  He likes the moniker “Straws Suck” to promote his effort to move away from straws, especially the play on words:  “You actually use straws to suck, and they suck because they pollute the oceans,” he told CBS in July.

Vigneron added that if a customer wants a straw, his restaurant has them.  But servers ask customers whether they want a straw instead of automatically putting them into customers’ drinks.  He notes that every day, 500 million straws are used in the U.S., and they could “fill up 127 school buses.”  He wants to change all that.

Drinking straws have a long history.  Their origins were apparently actual straw, or other straw-like grasses and plants.  The first paper straw, made from paper coated with paraffin wax, was patented in 1888 by Marvin Stone, who didn’t like the flavor of a rye grass straw added to his mint julep.  The “bendy” paper straw was patented in 1937.  But the plastic straw took off, along with many other plastic innovations, in the 1960s, and nowadays they’re difficult to avoid.

Campaigns like Surfrider’s have taken off because of mounting concern with plastic pollution.  Surfrider, which has also campaigned against other threats to our oceans, like plastic bags and cigarette butts, supports the “Straws Suck” effort, and according to author David Suzuki, Bacardi has joined with Surfrider in the movement to ban plastic straws.

Our neighbors to the north have already leaped ahead of California.  The town of Tofino in British Columbia claims that it mounted the very first “Straws Suck” campaign in 2016.  By Earth Day in April that year, almost every local business had banned plastic straws.  A fascinating story describing this effort appeared in the Vancouver Sun on April 22, 2016.

All of us in the U.S., indeed the world, need to pay attention to what plastic is doing to our environment.  “At the current rate, we are really headed toward a plastic planet,” according to the author of a study reported in the journal Science Advances, reported by AP in July.  Roland Geyer, an industrial ecologist at UC Santa Barbara, noted that there’s enough discarded plastic to bury Manhattan under more than 2 miles of trash.

Geyer used the plastics industry’s own data to find that the amount of plastics made and thrown out is accelerating.  In 2015, the world created more than twice as much as it made in 1998.

The plastics industry has fought back, relying on the standard of cost-effectiveness.  It claims that alternatives to plastic, like glass, paper, or aluminum, would require more energy to produce.  But even if that’s true, the energy difference in the case of items like drinking straws would probably be minimal.  If we substitute paper straws for plastic ones, the cost difference would likely be negligible, while the difference for our environment—eliminating all those plastic straws floating around in our waterways–could be significant.

Aside from city bans and eco-conscious restaurateurs, we need to challenge entities like Starbucks.  The mega-coffee-company and coffeehouse-chain prominently offers, even flaunts, brightly-colored plastic straws for customers sipping its cold drinks.  What’s worse:  they happily sell them to others!  Just check out the Starbucks straws for sale on Amazon.com.  Knowing what we know about plastic pollution, I think Starbucks’s choice to further pollute our environment by selling its plastic straws on the Internet is unforgivable.

At the end of the day, isn’t this really the last straw?

 

Be(a)ware of Vampires!

Vampires are roaming our landscape. Movies, TV, books, the Internet…it’s been hard to avoid the sight of those pasty-faced creatures baring their hideous fangs. But oh, how I’ve tried. The national obsession with vampires has simply never sunk its teeth into me.

I’ve always lumped vampires in with other imaginary creatures, like zombies, angels, and fairies. They don’t really exist, so why waste my time thinking about them?

I’m not opposed to the idea of magic. There genuinely seem to be times in our lives when magic, or–more accurately–good luck, rains down on us, and our lives are happier as a result.

But vampires? Forget it.

Now comes word of another kind of vampire. And this kind really demands our attention, even mine. The term “vampire” is now applied to what the Environmental Defense Fund calls “energy suckers” (as opposed to bloodsuckers). New devices like cable boxes and game consoles are so power-thirsty that, whether or not you’re using them, they consume enormous amounts of energy. One estimate is that each year they consume as much energy nationally as the entire state of Maryland.

Are you surprised to learn that we’re also sucking up power when we keep our chargers, DVRs, laptops, and microwaves on standby? EDF notes a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of suburban homes in California. The study found that these devices account for as much as 10 percent of a home’s energy consumption.

Shall we plunge a stake into the hearts of these vampires? We can do it by adopting a bunch of new approaches to our electronic devices. Some may sound inconvenient at first, but so did brushing my teeth with my (battery-powered) electric toothbrush till I got used to it. So let’s try at least a few of these.

First, we can do something as simple as unplugging our smartphone chargers. Unbeknownst to many of us, leaving those chargers plugged in uses energy. A more significant step? Turn off the power strips that supply energy to powerful devices we’re not using every minute. You can start by flipping the switch on the power strip behind your TV.

Even less inconvenient: Simply look for the Energy Star logo when you buy new appliances. The products that receive this stamp of approval can cut standby use by 30 percent.

But wait, there’s more. You can return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and use old-school methods that conserve energy. Dry your clothes on a clothesline instead of a dryer. And when you do use your dryer or dishwasher, make sure you’ve put in a full load. Try opening curtains, shades, and blinds during the day so natural light can brighten your home.

Two more things to consider: investing in a programmable thermostat like Google’s Nest, which won’t waste energy when you’re not home, and switching to an on-demand water heater (or insulating your old one).

Finally, look into apps that can reduce your energy bill. New smartphone apps allow you to turn on or off any device that’s plugged into an outlet, even when you’re away from home.

The ultimate goal, of course, is renewable energy. We’re moving slowly but inevitably toward the adoption of more and more ways to switch to renewable energy. In the meantime, you needn’t be a disciple of Al Gore to acknowledge this inconvenient truth: We don’t have to let modern-day vampires suck energy the way Dracula sucked the blood of his victims. Be(a)ware of these vampires, and save energy when you can.