How Val Is My Greenie?
sponsored by Coleman Farms
'Green' is currently at the forefront of fashion, 'the new black', you'll find it called (though I've no idea what the 'old black' was, myself). Suddenly we find 'green' business - focussed mostly on the so-called Greenhouse Effect - popping up all over, from photovoltaics at the ballpark to carbon credits, and on the road from one to the other. Great, you think, people are really concerned, good things are starting to happen. But the problem with fashion as a shaper of policy is that it's superficial and deceptive: the emperor's decision to order new clothes was based entirely on fashion.
Part of 'superficial' is hype. Let's take a look at the ballpark, for example. There's a huge multiplier effect in installing solar panels here, we're told, since the sports arena has replaced the town common as the locus of American polity, the place where ordinary people become a community: greening a ballpark will tint the whole nation. If drinking beer, eating hotdogs and getting a sunburn is really at the core of the Nation, that may explain something about the relation of fashion to politics, but it doesn't excuse the factual hyperbole of the article, where your man implies that putting up some photovoltaic panels at Baby Bell (currently 'ATT') Park will forestall 'another dirty powerplant'. Well, come on: they're talking about 123kW of photovoltaic generation, the output of the sort of emergency generator that would fit on a one ton truck.
PG&E is going to build a power plant that small?
And then there's the Toyota Prius. Whatever else it is, it seems to catalyze the extremes of Green and unGreen reactions. For the unGreen, have a look at the report claiming that 'the Hummer' does less environmental damage over it's lifespan than the Prius. The study itself is subject to any number of criticisms (for one - they claim to have assessed each vehicle on 4000 data points, and you wonder how they could reliably get values for that many points for each vehicle, and, having them, weight them objectively and meaningfully); but forget the study for the moment and consider the reaction. George Will got so worked up about the Prius that he confused zinc (used in dry cells) with nickel (used in Prius batteries) and Ontario with Wales.
And of the half dozen or so anti-Prius web pages I looked at, all supposed that by 'Hummer' the study meant 'the Hummer' - the Army-sized 'H1' - whereas the study clearly involves the 'H3', which is something like a Ford Explorer. Why, you wonder, didn't the study compare the Chevy equivalent and the Prius, and leave 'Hummer' out of it entirely?
There's pro-Prius hype, and it's been particularly effective. The Prius is so specially Green that for a while its California owners could get a sticker allowing them to use Car Pool lanes though carrying no passengers, the idea being that the car is so efficient that the car pooling goal of increasing fuel milage per passenger is achieved even when the Prius has only one abord. This is simply nonsense. If a car pool lane requires a minimum of two people in the car then a Ford Crown Victoria is at least as fuel efficient at highway speeds, per passenger, as a Prius carrying only the driver; if the car pool lane requires three, then a Ford Expedition is at least as efficient per passenger as the Prius with driver only. Furthermore, the Prius with one up does nothing towards the original goal of car pooling, reducing congestion. Indeed, by increasing congestion in car pool lanes, the sticker policy reduces the fuel efficiency of car poolers as a whole.
As it happens, the hybrid drive of the Prius makes it more efficient in slow traffic than it is at freeway speeds, so the way to really benefit from Prius technology is to ban the car from car pool lanes no matter how many people it's carrying. Somehow, I think the marketing forces which brought about the special sticker couldn't sell this one.
The Prius, and its 'hybrid technology' in general, are sort of the Kyoto protocol of the automotive world. Kyoto sounds really good - committments for large reductions in carbon emissions, firm targets, blah blah; only it doesn't cover the fifty plus percent of the world's population whose carbon emissions are likely to increase severalfold in the next decade or two. The Prius is like that. Hybrid technology makes a big difference in stop and go city driving, since there's no gasoline engine idling at stop lights or wastefully speeding up and slowing down, and some of the braking energy can be captured to charge the batteries; on the highway, though, it's just another gasoline powered vehicle, one that returns lower milage than a '75 Rabbit Diesel or an '80's Geo Metro. Prius technology is only a 'solution' for certain niche markets - taxicabs, busses and urban delivery vans come to mind.
All the Green remedies discussed here, like biofuel, discussed earlier, suffer from a problem common to wonder remedies: they don't scale well. We've suggested this above in discussing the Prius. Biofuel is a neat idea when a few people make it out of waste cooking oil or the surpluses of subsidized agriculture; but there's not much waste oil about, relative to the number of drivers, nor, it turns out, was there much surplus feedstock. Producing the paltry amount of ethanol added to U.S. gasoline - it's only a few percent of consumption - has already caused increases in the price of corn, so that automobiles are competing with their drivers for food. Significantly increasing production of sugar for ethanol or oils for diesel would require more intensive farming and more clearing of tropical forests, reducing the natural carbon 'sinks'. Similarly, carbon offsets look good to someone who wants to fly around the world and not worry about the carbon dioxide he leaves behind
- just plant enough trees to soak up that carbon in a reasonable time. It sounds good, and it works until more than a small minority of the world's population wants to do it; more than that, and there's nowhere left to plant the trees.
And finally, a bit of perspective from AT&T Park. The photoelectric panels there aren't intended to offset Park-related carbon emissions, but it's instructive to see how this works. Putting on a game involves a lot of carbon sources - for example, Park operations, not to mention broadcasting, require a lot of electricity; we'll only look at getting the fans to the stadium. 123kW, the amount of photoelectricity their panels produce, is something less than 200 horsepower. Suppose a capacity crowd, 40,000 people, comes to watch a day game, and suppose they travel four to a car and average a half an hour round trip. The car won't be running full throttle, so let's say each car uses on average twenty horsepower for the duration of the trip. The total energy consumed will be ten thousand cars times twenty horsepower times half an hour, or one hundred thousand horsepower hours. Divide by two hundred, and we find this is equivalent to the energy generated by the Park's solar array at full output for five hundred hours. If we're going to offset the carbon generated by transporting the fans by generating electricity with this array, and assuming ten hours' full output equivalent per day, then we could hold one daytime ball game every fifty days. Alternatively, attendance at daily games could be restricted to about 800 motorized fans.
Although the AT&T array wasn't designed to act as an offset in this way, treating it as one suggests that for this sort of activity to be carbon neutral, there has to be a lot of change. The Green approaches we've discussed can be very beguiling: what organizer wouldn't appreciate an intelligent young woman with a ready smile coming along and saying "let me do this, and it will make the planet better"? And the sort of things they recommend are fun, if you can afford them - partaking of wine and caviar served on paper, driving a trendy car, showing off a little mid-tech installation for your mid-tech corporation. But how much does this really accomplish? I think our analysis of getting the fans to the ball game gives a realistic idea of the magnitude of the changes necessary in lifestyle, infrastructure and human population pressure that will be required to achieve carbon neutrality. For now, at least, the best way to make something like a ball game really Green is not to hold it.
The organizations and events mentioned in this article were suggested to the author as a result of following up on a couple of random encounters in the newspaper, and are intended as representative of a general trend. We have no personal or professional views concerning them individually.