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18 June 06. An open letter to GE PR

[PDF version]

Hi, GE.

I am your target audience. I wasn't on the distribution list for your GE ecomagination Resoure Manual, but some of my colleagues here at [name of think tank] were. Perhaps you didn't like my last post discussing your ecomagination initiative. But I'll overlook that little slight and send you a helpful little critique. The executive summary: efficiency and environmentalism are not identical.

First, when sending a thick, heavy binder about how you're saving the planet, use recycled paper. At the least, we econazis like to print things on both sides of the page; knowing that the whole thing could have been half as thick just sorta screams of waste. Shiny paper doesn't even hold ink very well, so I can't even use the back for scrap paper. And if you'd used plain binding instead of the three-ring binder, maybe you wouldn't have needed the heavy cardboard mailing box.

Better still would have been to just put the darn thing on a CD. Then I could share the text with readers, instead of just telling them about it like I'd just seen a movie and am acting out the good parts. Only the ones who are really interested in the rhetoric a corporation uses when attempting to influence policy will read on, whereas if I had a link you could have gotten your glossy message out to the hundreds of people who read this page and randomly click every link.

At least you provide a link for the PDF of your 2006 Citizenship report, whose eco-section provides pretty much the same info.

But enough about form. As for the content, you started out with a endorsement from Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute. The WRI is a think tank dedicated to helping the environment while still ensuring economic growth. That is, they're the sort of moderates that would get along perfectly with GE. Well done finding (and funding?) such people.

I know you have to sell yourself, but describing modern times as “what [GE] CEO Jeff Immelt calls `a carbon constrained world' ” is a bit pretentious. We, your intended audience, have known about this carbon-constraint thing for a few decades now. This is one step shy of President Bush pointing out that the USA is addicted to oil as if he was the first person to ever realize this. Really, the correct citation is Gaye (1971).

As Mr. Lash points out, setting measurable goals is a good thing, and you get a gold star for setting them. For our readers at home, the goals are: double investment in R&D; double revenue from green products; reduce internal greenhouse emissions; and publicly report progress. Your increased R&D is cool--presuming you mean R&D in green technologies--but there are many ways to achieve the other goals while still making the world a dirtier place. It'd be nice if some of your goals were about reducing your ground and water pollution or reducing carbon emissions from the products you sell.

A set of windmills. An
arrow points out that there is a turbine turned by the wind.
Figure One: The technical details regarding GE's eco-friendly technology.

The diagrams are all very nice as illustrations, but they're not very informative. The guy to whom you sent this document was a chemical engineer for a few years before digressing to computational methods for the social sciences--he knows how a turbine works. You could have scored some serious points by showing off your engineering and how you have green technologies that nobody else has. Show us your patents. Below, you'll use lots of numbers about the savings in kWh and kg CO2 mathend000# when switching from an unspecified baseline to specific GE product number, but that's just show if it's not followed by micro-level technical specs. As for the illustration, just leave the boxes out and let this be a graceful, bird-free illustration.

[Wind turbines are famous for killing birds by the bushel, including many endangered species. Most other diagrams in the book have a bird floating in the background somewhere.

I recently spoke to a lawyer doing the paperwork for a wind farm, and she told me that the stories about bird-killing are all told by wealthy neighbors who don't want the wind farm spoiling their view. Anybody better informed want to weigh in on the argument?]

You report that “if just 7 percent of the land area of Arizona were covered with GE's PV-165 photovoltaic modules, the amount of electricity that could be generated on a sunny day would equal the average daily electricity demand of the entire United States.” The report repeatedly makes statements of the form `If everybody using standard [type of product] switched to GE's version, then the energy equivalent of [a fleet of vehicles or a large number of homes] would be saved.' First, use of the passive voice is discouraged. You don't indicate who is switching and how you are creating incentives to get people to make that switch. Are you seriously proposing to cover seven percent of Arizona with solar cells? Second, if we replace `Arizona' in the sentence above with `your mom', you could put some much-needed humor in a rather dull manual.

Third, there's the point of comparison (from): the typical airplane, locomotive, washing machine, &c was built decades ago, and it would be sad indeed if no progress were made in reducing emissions and improving efficiency over that time. If everybody driving a 1970 Pinto bought a new SUV, emissions would be reduced.

And let me repeat, once more, that nobody is surprised that GE is working to create more efficient products. The real question is: when environmentalism differs from efficiency, which way does GE go? How does this campaign differ from an efficiencymagination campaign?

Fourth, there's the point of comparison (to): how are efficiency levels for your competitors? Upgrading from a Pinto to an SUV would reduce emissions, but aren't there ways to reduce emissions more? And forget the industry norm; is GE really on the forefront of any of this, or are there green companies that are doing better but don't have the resources to send glossy reports to think tanks? Are there other PV cell manufacturers who could power the U.S.A. by covering only five percent of Arizona? Maybe I missed it, but I couldn't find anything in your report that indicates that you are producing the most environmentally friendly anything.

I was interested to see your desalinization technology, not that the diagram helped me understand it. But it felt like a sleight-of-hand, because GE is known for its pollution of certain waterways, so I was expecting something in the water section about keeping waterways clear of high-tech plastics rather than desalinization. You even acknowledge this on the next-to-last page:

At times in the past--when much less was known about how to protect our environment--we have been at odds over how to address historical contamination of waterways and other issues. Some of those disagreements continue today. But we have always acted responsibly, within the guidelines of the law, and done what we believed was in the best interest of our shareowners, communities, and other stakeholders.

... Let's be clear about this: GE's obligation is, first and foremost, to our shareholders.
This is the sort of thing where ecomagination really matters: if you can produce efficient plastics, but their production is environmentally destructive, do you keep on producing, or find ways to mitigate environmental damage first? You report (on p 58 of citizenship report linked above) that you had 101 “wastewater exceedences” in 2005, but you don't tell us how you'll bring plants demonstrating excesses beyond environmental laws back into line.

In your citizensip report, you claim as one of your points of environmental progress in 2005 that you “Reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on dredging the PCB-containing sediments in the Upper Hudson River”. As the country song goes, you're trying to have your Kate and Edith too. You can either fight the EPA for years in the hopes that you'll get off without having to clean up your mess, or you can brag about how cooperative you are with environmental efforts, but doing both is plain old self-contradiction.

Your statement about government's role--

...We believe that the government can provide leadership by: clarifying policy, committing to “market mechanisms,” promoting diverse energy sources and encouraging an American energy gameplan.
--also indicates a difference between environmentalism and profit-oriented efficiency, because “market mechanisms” (why the scare-quotes? It's a common English term, no?) frequently favor efficiency over environmentalism. One real difference would be to call for bans on certain processes and chemicals that are harmful, the way that CFCs were banned in the 70s. You don't call for this, and the silence indicates to me a lack of imagination about eco-problems.

As a digression, I certainly agree about your statement about how government needs to clarify policy. We had a White House advisor over last week:

Me: Mr. Advisor, if I may speak broadly, scientists hate Bush. What is President Bush doing about this?

Advisor: I don't know why that's so, because he doubled funding in hydrogen cell research.

Me: But they still distrust him. And doesn't that seem like too little too late?

Advisor: He doubled it.

[Just to clarify, this actually happened, and most of the room was frustrated by the advisor's refusal to honestly discuss Dubya's alienation of the sciences, mostly preferring to defend the President's preference of the religious right over the fetus-killing scientists. But the dialogue above is a dramatization.]

We're all pretty tired of the lack of a serious energy policy from the US government, so amen to you, GE PR.

However, I would like to see more from you. Nobody anywhere really prefers inefficiently achieving goals over efficiently achieving them, but the question of what those goals should be remains, and is unanswered by your Resource Manual. Are there conditions where you would recommed steps that would reduce demand for your products? Power companies do this all day long: my electric bill always includes a little flyer reminding me to turn off lights and check my furnace filter. But it seems your goal of doubling profits from green products makes it impossible for you to advocate reduction of energy-using goods.

You advertise how much more efficient your trains are than automobiles, but then you also brag about your plane engines, which are orders of magnitude less efficient; would you press governors for more spending on passenger rail? You mention the cleanliness of nuclear power, but why aren't you pressing for this in your PR (instead of burying it on the last few pages); are you lobbying government for this? If you're really interested in environmental efficiency of all types, and not just vending energy-efficient products, why is there any continuing disagreement over contamination of waterways at all?

So there you have it. Is GE more ecofriendly than its competitors? Is GE aiming to reduce energy use or just talking people into spending money replacing their old Pintos with new SUVs? Is GE willing to accept or recommend restrictions that would force its hand into not using certain toxins? I had these questions before reading your report, and I encourage both of my readers to ask these questions of any corporate eco-PR they should come upon. You've omitted answers in the information you sent to the think tank, and the fact that your reports are silent on issues of non-energy pollution, the potential for government imposition of CFC-like bans on especially onerous environmental problems, and how we will actually go about covering seven percent of Arizona with solar cells indicates that you have not yet jupmed the gap between efficiencymagination and ecomagination.

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on Monday, June 19th, Andy said

Oh please, don't be obtuse -- GE isn't actually going to advocate anything that will make it less money -- it's not turning into the Sierra Club, although its PR flacks might try to make it seem that way. Furthermore, you forget that the PR in PR stands for "press" and there are very few people in the press who understand what turbines are, especially the business-section reporters that this report is partially aimed at (the other primary target is DC , not the wonks like you but the staffers who also don't know what a turbine is). Save your energy for lambasting the American people for not demanding higher levels of accountability from their government and media, not for the corporations that just respond to incentives. Is GE more eco-friendly than its competitors? Probably, to the extend that they think it's a profitable strategy, but not out of the goodness of their hearts.

on Monday, June 19th, the author said

We need to defend the green brand. If anybody can come by and say `we're more efficient than a 1970 Pinto, so we're green!' then the concept will become diluted, and people will start to think that the lukewarm, pale avocado greenness that GE is offering here is the real thing. Thus, I feel it is important to call GE on its lack of effort.

Could GE make money via more restrictions and ecological laws? Sure, why not. At the least, they could take the Philip Morris approach to philanthropy: ``Cigarette maker Philip Morris recently spent $2 million on domestic violence programs nationally and $108 million on the advertising campaign to tell us about it.'' No, I'm not expecting GE to just haphazardly spend money on environmental issues---I mean, who ever heard of a corporation voluntarily engaging in philanthropy?---but there are many ways, some described above, that show how a corporation could turn short term environmental expenses into long-term gains. Just seeing the short-term costs would be a lack of ecomagination.

on Monday, June 19th, Miss ALS of San Diego said

Why is GE advertising their new eco-friendly train on tv? Are soccer moms looking to upgrade from their SUV's to something a bit roomier?

Good post, btw.

Your Mom.

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21 September 06. The refrigerator

[PDF version]

Your refrigerator works just like an air conditioner, except it is running all the time, year `round. So it's worth getting one that isn't too very consumptive. And you know what that means--math!

In October `04, when I first moved in but wasn't all here, my house was consuming 3.2 kWh per day. That gives me an upper limit on how much my fridge is consuming every day. If you don't have a refernce point like that, the EPA makes it e-z for you to measure the cost of your fridge by model number.

The usual shopping site lists a decent fridge (freezer in a sensible location, water dispenser to minimize extraneous door opening, stainless steel cover, which, as you will recall from a previous episode, adds $5,000 to the value of a house) at $1275 minimum. Down at the bottom of the page, the fridge self-reports that it consumes 494 kWh per year, which is 1.35 kWh per day. [A kWh is a kiloWatt hour. A Watt is a measure of how much power your appliance is consuming in an instant, and a kiloWatt is a thousand of those. If you let a 1kW appliance run for an hour, it has used 1kWh. For example, a 100 Watt bulb, run for ten hours, would use 1kWh.]

Through the magic of subtraction, that means that buying a new refrigerator will save me at most 3.2-1.35 = 1.85 kWh per day, or 675 kWh per year.

Adding up all the haphazard service fees, I'm paying 14.4 cents per kWh, which is up from 6.94 two months ago, due to the debacle that is Maryland's electricity supply.

Multiplying out, that's a savings of at most $97/year, which means that buying the new refrigerator doesn't make sense cash-wise.

But what about environment-wise? BGE's energy sourcing page tells me this about how much waste my usage spews into the world:

Emission Type Lbs. per MWh  
Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) 2.59 100.0 %  
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) 8.49 100.0 %  
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) 1292.03 100.0 %  

That max. savings of 675 kWh = 0.675MWh means that keeping an older fridge means 872 pounds (395kg) of extra CO2 in the world.

Now that I've calculated that number, I'm not sure what to make of it. Should my environmental conscience be shocked? Wikipedia, citing a now-defunct link to the USDA, tells me that the average person exhales 0.9kg of CO2 per day, or 328.5kg per year. Thus, my upper limit for the savings on a new fridge is that it would be equivalent to one fewer adult floating around, breathing. But, again, is this an actionable savings?

Bonus appliance
Thermodynamics is easy: energy in=heat spewed out. After all, when we talk about an appliance being inefficient, we say something like `all the energy is getting lost in heat,' so if the appliance's purpose is to heat up, it doesn't have many ways left to be inefficient. But if the intent of the appliance is to heat up your water, and the heat is drifting out into the room at large, it isn't quite doing its job. In the winter, you won't mind, but in the typical age-of-global-warming summer, the extra energy is more than a loss.

So I recently picked up this electric kettle (Amazon link) and have nothing but praise for it.

I suppose the USA just doesn't have the culture of tea that the rest of the world has. The typical convenience store in Taiwan (and I'm told the rest of Asia) includes a huge array of add-hot-water options, like tea, coffee, ramen, soup, et cetera, plus cups and a big hot water dispenser. There's iced tea in the refrigerated section if it's too warm for the hot stuff. 7-Eleven is getting there, with a decent ramen rack and coffee, but still has a ways to go in the sheer variety of things one can do with hot water. But there is just oh-so-much that hot water does for us.

To put it simply, the electric kettle brings me joy and efficient warmth. The kitchen doesn't warm up from lost heat in the least, the way it would if I were running the stove. It warms up faster as a result. There's a water gauge on the side, and I know my favorite mug takes two cups and pasta needs five, so I don't boil excess and then pour heat down the sink. Since it turns itself off when the water boils, there's no energy loss as it hits me that the water's boiling and I walk back from the other side of the house to the stove, and therefore my time spent at the other side of the house is not nearly as stressful. If I put on water for pasta, and then forget for half an hour, that's OK, since the insulation is decent and it all comes right back to boiling in about ten seconds. Of course, the seven minutes of pasta-boiling is as normal. Maybe I'll switch to capellini, which cooks in three.

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on Friday, September 22nd, Miss ALS of San Diego said

Did I read that date correctly? An odd-dated post? Maybe that's why it is so strange.

on Saturday, September 23rd, rd said

switchng pasta types for energy cost/environmental reasons - that's a good one

on Wednesday, October 4th, the author said

I thought it was the 20th the entire time I was writing the thing. I suppose I should stop writing these while trying to keep warm under a pile of blankets, lit by nothing but a rechargable-battery powered LED flashlight.

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06 December 06. The future of energy

[PDF version]

In all these columns of alleged pontification, I have given you almost no grandiose predictions about the future. There was the loom, the printing press, the internal combustion engine, electricity, the digital computer. What is next to completely revolutionize how human civilization looks?

Solar power.

Or, more specifically, the gathering of ambient energy into useful form. This is not a new idea. Millennia ago, people worked out that their bodies produce heat, so if they put on a blanket, then they can retain that heat and put it to useful purpose. The water wheel went along similar lines: hey, there's energy in that water flow, and it could be put to good use. A hundred years later, that water wheel turned into the Three Gorges D*m.

Or if you'd like to be a little more technical about it, there is the Seebeck effect: if there is a temperature differential between two sides of a system, then current can be produced from that differential.

So what's the revolution? Why am I talking about solar power instead of more water wheels or wind farms? Because light is everywhere power-sucking devices can be found. Your solar calculator from high school didn't need batteries, wires, or petroleum. It just sucked in energy from the world, and converted it into a useful form. You carried it around, and it ran itself. When all our appliances, houses, and transportation are capable of that self-powering trick, that will be a revolution.

Your laptop is not too far from that right now: you can already buy solar panels that will power your laptop that are about twice as big as your laptop. With a not-insane amount of work, we could get those solar panels down to the size of the back of your laptop screen. And forget laptops: the real victory will be when your car and house take in as much energy as they put out.

A square meter of solar panel could produce
about 150-250 watts of energy, depending on where it is.
Figure 1: A square meter of solar panel could produce about 150-250 watts of energy. Black dots indicate the surface area one would need to meet all expected energy needs in 2010. source

A square meter of the earth is beaten with about 1000-1500 watts of solar energy all day long--and thanks to greenhouse gasses, there's only more watts to be had. For comparison, my fridge is sucking down a maximum of 3 kWh per day = a constant rate of 125 watts. You can check your laptop's power supply, but I'm guessing it's somewhere around 50 watts--but it won't need to be plugged in anyway. A space heater runs at around 1500W. So you can see that the typical house's energy needs are likely smaller on average than the solar energy hitting the roof.

The Honda EV Plus (PDF) uses about 500 watt-hours per mile--and that's 1999 figures from the DoE's Idaho National Laboratories; we can only presume that they're doing even better now. So mean demand is about 500 watts, and the 2 m2 of car-top is warming up with 3000W of energy.

And hey, where is a great deal of the energy in driving the car's motor going? That's right: heat. Add some tricks to use the heat differential between the top of the hood and the bottom of the hood to reclaim electricity (that Seebeck effect again), and you've got an even more robust self-sufficient system.

There are two dovetailing problems keeping us from a wireless future.

The first is cost. Those nifty solar panels for the laptop will cost you $250, so they're not going to make sense to anybody but total hippies and those who are frequently off-grid. Putting a solar array on your house's roof will still be in the ballpark of $40,000, which will pay for itself in electricity saved and/or sold to the grid in, oh, a decade.

But burning dinosaurs is not going to work forever. As China and India start buying SUVs, oil in the USA and Europe is going to become more expensive, and that means people who were once on the fence will be buying more solar. Expect gradual reductions in prices as a result. The offset, though, is that silicon is getting expensive, due to increasing demand for electronic toys.

The other problem is in efficiency. The 3000 watts of power in the sunlight hitting the roof of your car still needs to be converted into useful electric power, and that conversion is still inefficient. One firm recently announced that it got its solar panels up to 22% efficiency. For solar panels, this is amazing, but to the rest of the energy world, this is ho-hum. Other forms of energy extraction typically get up to around 80% efficiency.

But I read that not to mean that solar power is hopeless, but that there's a lot of room for improvement. When a solar panel is twice as efficient and costs half as much per square whatever, then you're down to $50 for the solar collector on the back of your laptop screen--that's the price of a new battery.

8 December addendum: Silly me--the future arrived the day before I wrote this: the DoE announced on 5 December that one of its contractors had achieved 40.7% efficiency by stacking several types of photovoltaic cell on top of one another. It's still more than twice as expensive than the half-as-efficient versions, but we'll see where it goes.

So, back to pontification: what will the world look like in thirty years? It won't have wires, because we'll have moderately-sized electricity-generating gadgets to complement our ever-expanding array of electricity-consuming gadgets. The top of your car and house will have solar panels that just sit there and store up charge for your air conditioner. The whole greenhouse thing won't be an issue at all, except in terms of dealing with our predecessors. We won't be importing energy from remote locales, but just pulling it in from around us.

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on Thursday, December 7th, techne said

What a cheery post. What will the drawbacks be? Won't battery technology have to keep up and what will that do to the environment? How do solar panels get me flying cars? I want flying cars!

on Friday, January 26th, Mr A lbert Rogers said

Dear Sir,
I will like to purchased some items in your stores like.
1.Solar panels

Thank you...................

Mr Albert Rogers

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06 June 07. Here comes the ocean, and the global climate change

[PDF version]

Today's brief guest blog, in interview form, is with an oceanographer who works with a certain climate-tracking agency for a certain large government. In the spirit of not getting fired, she asked that I refer to her as missmeridian. This will make it hard for you to track down her credentials, so you'll have to take my word for it that when people say `we should only listen to scientists who study climate change regarding climate change issues,' they mean we need more people like missmeridian.

The context is in how we understand carbon exchange. For example, there are the carbon offset credits that hipsters are buying, and other situations where people characterize Global Warming as a simple stock and flow model: carbon comes out of our tailpipes, floats around in the air, and eventually dissipates or is eaten by trees. Temperature is just an increasing function of carbon stock.

This makes basic sense, is easy to comprehend, and is basically wrong. Missmeridian points out that the oceans are a major destination for our tailpipes' carbon, but even that isn't so simple.

MM: The rate at which oceans suck up carbon varies over time and space. The southern ocean is net suck in the summer, the equatorial Pacific is balanced unless under el niño, the north Atlantic is net suck in the spring. Search for “ocean carbon flux” for details.

B: Is it ever the case that oceans dump more carbon into the atmosphere than they absorb?

MM: Yes. Late fall is famous for that. Sunlight is decreasing at an increasing rate, and faster than temperature is cooling (due to magical properties of water). So you have heterotrophs (= not plants) eating a decreasing stock and exhaling lots of carbon. Also, several large portions of the ocean go hypoxic [oxygen deficient] in the subsurface at various times during the year (i.e. Arabian Sea during the monsoon)--this is very complicated, but basically you get a huge bloom that is eaten so fast it pulls all the oxygen out of the water column, and all that plant biomass is turned into carbon dioxide very quickly.

Also keep in mind that carbon sucked into the ocean isn't removed from play until it is exported to depth (ie under a layer that does not ventilate to the surface on the scale of centuries). Export in the dissolved phase is controversial. Particulate export is much better understood, and is pretty small: only, say, 1% of a surface bloom reaches the bottom intact in that season.

So 99% is converted to either dissolved organic carbon or gaseous carbon dioxide. The gas part may or may not enter the atmosphere depending on the temperature, solubility, partial pressure, etc.; and the dissolved part may eventually be turned into gas, or may just stick around as stale, inedible carbon for centuries.

B: So if we dump a megaton of carbon into the air, is is possible that next year that would turn into 1.2 megatons, or are we guaranteed that some percentage will get sucked into the oceans, leaving .8 megatons?

The carbon flux is ultimately controlled by the quantity and ratio of nitrogen and phosphorus in the deep ocean, which is constant over century scales (this is because biomass [sugars, proteins, DNA] grows in a mostly fixed ratio of C:N:P [carbon:nitrogen:phosphorous], which is usually 106:16:1 [the Redfield ratio]). Greater than millennial variation is possible, but not well understood. So, on a year to year basis, the ocean is in steady state with respect to C:N:P. The most likely candidate for throwing that out of whack is temperature, which controls the solubility of gases in water. See the “southern ocean iron experiment” (sofex), iron experiments 1 and 2 (ironexI, ironexII) and the “southern ocean iron enrichment experiment” (soiree) for studies that measurably altered the carbon flux. Note that these increased photosynthesis in the ocean--the atmosphere was not manipulated. I don't think anyone's done that, mostly because the ocean-atmosphere carbon flux is so delightfully governed by gas chemistry--it's difficult to squeeze a gas into a liquid.

B: You've mentioned (in prior correspondence) that the term Global Warming is misleading, because some parts of the world will get colder. Do you have any readings on why Europe would get colder with climate change?

Readings: look up “western antarctic ice sheet (wais)” and “global ocean conveyor belt” or “global ocean deep circulation.” Basically, warming (global or local) causes the ice sheet to fall into the ocean, turns off deep circulation, which is what drives the gulf stream, which is what transfers Caribbean heat to northern Eurasia. Europe freezes.

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