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Biofuel Backgrounder

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Biofuels are touted as environmentally friendly substitutes for fossil fuels. Nick Slawicz drills into the details.

In the search for a replacement for petrol and diesel, biofuels once seemed the perfect solution: they can be grown naturally, actually absorb CO₂from the atmosphere as the plant material grows (releasing it upon combustion to be carbon neutral overall), and – thanks to the wide variety of crops and waste products that can be turned into biofuel – are suitable for implementation pretty much anywhere on the planet. Yet some argue that life isn’t that simple. Is it ever?

Biofuel production can generally be put into four distinct categories: first-generation, which refers to fuels made directly from sources such as starch, sugar, animal fats and vegetable oil; second-generation, which includes fuels made from waste products or non-food sources (including wheat stalks and specifically grown energy crops); third-generation, made from algae; and the catch-all fourth-generation, which is used to refer to all other means of biofuel production, including hypothetical new methods and those still in the experimental stage. In many ways, the four categories are massively different, each offering its own advantages and disadvantages with regards to environment cost.
All biofuel sources, it seems, are not created equal.

Three years ago, first-generation biofuels were voted bottom on a list of 18 technologies supposed to lower CO₂levels over the next 25 years. While 70 percent of respondents (governments, NGOs and private sector industry workers from over 100 countries) agreed that solar energy would help to lower overall carbon levels in the atmosphere without unacceptable side effects, and around 40 percent were willing to put their faith in nuclear and second-generation biofuels, only 21 percent believed that first-generation biofuels could compete (EurActiv, 2007).

Although efforts have been made to improve the foothold biofuels are making in the alternative energy industry, in recent years their effectiveness has been called into question owing to emissions of nitrogen compounds with a global warming potential (GWP) of approximately 300 times that of carbon dioxide, not to mention their effect on the ozone layer. Reports from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration note that nitrous oxide (N₂O) is currently “the most important ozone-depleting gas that is emitted” and is not yet regulated by the Montreal Protocol which phased out the use of CFCs in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s also going to be extremely difficult to control N₂O emissions, as they result from fertiliser use (and emerge in the production of most plant products, with the exceptions of legumes and a group of species known as actinorhizal plant that can capture and fix nitrogen from the air).

A recent report in the journal Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems found that “the contribution of N₂O emissions from fertilizer production and application make the greenhouse gas balance for certain biofuels small positive or even negative for some crops compared to fossil fuels”, because “N₂O is a 300 times more effective greenhouse gas than CO₂” and emissions of nitrogen compounds during the production of biofuel “might be a factor 2-3 higher than estimated up until now from many field trials”. A similar report in 2007 from Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen found similar reasons for concern, which were generally upheld by a third survey by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in 2008 It seems that the biofuel industry needs to convincingly address these issues before biofuel can be embraced as a viable energy source for the future.

That’s not to suggest that biofuels are a complete waste of time as the industry stands at the moment – they definitely are not. Certain plants (especially sugar cane and legumes such as soya) produce considerably fewer nitrogen compounds during the production process, making them valid options for future development – despite once again raising the “food versus fuel” debate. The potential for third- and fourth-generation biofuels is yet to be determined. Some of these crops can be grown on marginal land, as long as irrigation is possible and doesn’t deprive local populations. Experiments are currently taking place with salt-tolerant crops, in order that sea water may be used instead of fresh water.

So what can you do if you’re thinking about investing in a green company? The answer is simple: ask; probe; research. Insist on details. Look at reports from the companies themselves – and from independent scientists and journals. Run an internet search on the production method used. Enquire as to the total environmental impact of the plants being grown, specifically including their nitrogen compound emissions. Probably one of the most pragmatic people when it comes to biofuels is venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (www.khoslaventures.com). Keep an eye on his writings on the subject. As ever, don’t just rely on glossy brochures or websites before making investment decisions.

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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