Friday, May 28, 2010

Burn barrels may go the way of blowing up perch with firecrackers

One of the first parent-sanctioned fun with fire I had was the traditional burning of household trash in the burn barrel at our family cottage Up North. Being allowed to light the trash barrel, unsupervised by an adult, was a rite of passage and a convenient way of getting rid of trash so that we didn’t have to stuff it into the family wagon for the trip downstate.

Alas, the tradition is probably coming to an end with a proposal to ban the practice statewide:

Truth be told, the more we learn the less comfortable we should be about sending streams of unfiltered dioxins, particulate matter and other hazards into Michigan’s air. It’s hard to oppose polluting coal plants on one hand, and feel comfortable running your unregulated, miniature incinerator with no environmental controls on the other.

We’ll just file this away with all the other childhood fun with combustibles that seemed so right at the time. Like blowing up perch with firecrackers. Or attaching frogs to bottle rockets. (Did I say that, or just think that?) Anyway, so long burn barrel!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Massive coal plant plan pulled off the table, and why it's not a win for those of us who opposed it

Consumers Energy Co. announced this morning an indefinite delay in pursuing its massive proposed coal power plant near Bay City: Consumers cited lack of electricity demand and the availability of cheap natural gas as reasons for the delay. They called it a “purely economic decision.”

The decision tracks with recent reports from the Michigan Public Service Commission (PSC). Last week, the PSC concluded that a proposed coal plant in Rogers City was not necessary to meet electricity needs, and would have cost customers an additional $77 each month. Last fall, a PSC staff analysis concluded there was no need for new electricity generating capacity until at least 2020.

The delay provides a golden opportunity for Michigan to meet its future energy needs with, primarily, energy efficiency programming that is cheaper and cleaner than building a new baseload plant that will saddle customers with debt and the cost of imported coal for decades to come.

Someone asked me if this wasn’t a huge “victory” for environmental groups that opposed the Bay City plant. The answer is no. The victory will come incrementally, when we establish functional, job-rich and reasonably priced alternatives to coal plants through efficiency and homegrown clean energy alternatives like wind and solar.

There will be predictable cries from the usual sources that this project was scuttled by job-hating environmental groups. That's bullshit. The state's environmental lobby, frankly, doesn't have the clout to pull off such a David/Goliath slaying. Consumers Energy, to its credit, did not scapegoat the enviros, but simply said the economy doesn't support their plant at this time. That's the simple truth. And one that Consumers' shareholders and customers can be thankful the company has acknowledged.



Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Environmental Scorecard: Essential homework on your elected officials before August's primary

Voting for public officials who support strong environmental policies is arguably the most important thing we do to protect our water, land, air and public health.

But when it comes to politicians, it’s not always easy to separate the show horses from the work horses unless you’re really paying close attention. Frankly most of us don’t have the time to invest in that sort of labor.

That’s where the Michigan League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard is helpful. The League released its scores yesterday. It easily allows you to find your state senator and state representative and see how they voted on key environmental issues:

My State Rep. Vicki Barnett (top pic) and my State Sen. Gilda Jacobs, each scored 100 percent on the League’s key votes which included bills limiting children’s mercury exposure, a ban on a toxic flame retardant, and bills helping create much needed non-tax revenue for our state parks among many others.

The 100 percent scores are a mixed blessing for me. As any self-respecting environmentalist I’m not happy unless I’m outraged about something. Vicki and Gilda are not getting that adrenaline going.

Nonetheless, I’ll be calling both their offices with a thank-you. I hope you’ll do the same, whether it’s a ‘thank you’, a ‘please do better’ or a ‘WTF are you thinking?’

The Conservation Voters have made it easy to understand how your public servants are voting. And their site includes numbers and e-mails to let them know what you think.

It should be required homework before our August primary election in Michigan.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Breaking News: Michigan DNRE denies Rogers City coal plant; spares customers $77/month increase. Does Pete Hoekstra really support such a rate hike?

The Michigan DNRE just announced denial of an air permit for the proposed 600 megawatt coal plant proposed by Wolverine Power Cooperative in Rogers City. The state Public Service Commission estimates the plant would have resulted in a rate increase of almost 60 percent for the average residential customer. More to come.


Here is the Michigan Environmental Council's take on the decision:

And the state's press release: 

And here's a PDF of the letter from the head of the Public Service Commission to the governor, explaining why the new coal plant would be a "big mistake," is not necessary to meet the region's energy needs, and would cost almost $77/year for the average homeowner:

And here's an astonishing statement from Congressman Pete Hoekstra (who also is running for governor) decrying the decision on the grounds it would have created jobs. Is Rep. Hoekstra seriously favoring a plan that would more than double the electricity rates for Michigan families? Or favoring building a coal plant to generate electricity that the PSC says we don't need?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

January through April: Warmest global temperatures on record

Temperature Anomalies April 2010.

I’ll let this report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration speak for itself: “The combined global land and ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for both April and for the period from January-April, according to NOAA. Additionally, last month’s average ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for any April, and the global land surface temperature was the third warmest on record.”

Again, this is a tiny data point in an expansive record of climactic temperatures worldwide, and by itself is of little significance. But it fits precisely with what scientists have been telling us about climate change for decades.

In the interest of fair and balanced news coverage, I expect that Fox News and its dittoheads will be airing this story prominently. Or, maybe, not so much.

Attacking a wind power plan that no one's proposed. Or, are you calling Google a liar?

He’s baaaaacckkk! Russ Harding of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has penned a new column attacking wind energy as too expensive for Michigan and….get this!....a blight on our scenic vistas!

There’s nothing wrong with the “blight on our scenic vistas” argument. Lots of people think wind turbines are ugly. And even those of us who don’t generally agree that there are spots where they don’t belong. On top of Sleeping Bear sand dunes, for example.

But it’s just a hoot that the Mackinac Center has suddenly found a soft spot for Pure Michigan. But only when it involves wind turbines. Apparently they don’t see the same aesthetic dilemma with coal plants. Or drilling rigs on the shores of the Great Lakes. Or piles of toxic mine tailings. Or paved over wetlands.

Anyway, Mr. Harding cites a study done for the right wing Heritage Foundation that “predicts that using on-shore wind to provide electricity for a family of four as opposed to coal would increase monthly bills from $188.66 to $339.58. For off-shore wind that climbs to $403.65.”

Good God. Surely this would make clean energy proponents rethink their plan to generate the entire nation’s electricity from wind power. Right?

Oh, wait….NO ONE IS PROPOSING OR HAS EVER PROPOSED GENERATING 100 PERCENT OF OUR ENERGY FROM WIND POWER! But that’s how the Heritage Foundation did the calculations cited by Russ.

No, Michigan’s just hoping to hit 10 percent renewable power by 2015, and only part of that is wind energy. Most plans to cut our dependence on dirty, polluting and expensive coal envision energy efficiency as the most important way to meet our electricity needs. That saves ratepayers money as they use less electricity. Efficiency is followed by a mix of numerous renewable energy generation sources: Wind, solar, biomass, natural gas, geothermal, hydroelectric, and, in some scenarios, nuclear.

I mean, for God’s sake, even Google has a plan to eliminate our reliance on coal by the year 2030: And everyone knows Google rules the universe. The chart shows Google’s plan. Wind is a modest part of the mix.

The cost of wind energy is coming down. The cost of coal is going up. Michiganders sent $1.36 billion to other states in 2008 to buy coal according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. That’s money that would stay in our economy if it were invested in homegrown clean technologies or energy efficiency products instead.

Plus, mining coal requires blowing the tops off beautiful Appalachian Mountains and bulldozing the rubble into the streams in the valleys below:

Now, there’s an aesthetic concern worthy of Russ Harding’s attention.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Here's where to hear a replay of the gubernatorial debate on the environment. To the no-shows: Click on the link and hear how candidates with courage sound!

Wednesday night’s environmental forum for gubernatorial candidates at Central Michigan University was a great dialogue, at least for the three candidates who cared enough about the Great Lakes and our other natural resources to show up: Virg Bernero, Tom George and Rick Snyder.
You can listen to it here:

To the four candidates afraid to take the microphone and defend their records and/or ideas on protecting our natural resources: Bad form guys. You should have strapped on a pair and got in the ring last night.

I have serious reservations about supporting candidates who are only willing to appear before adoring audiences. Voters should want a governor who shares their views, yes. But we should also demand a governor with the courage and self-confidence to engage with people whose ideas and world views differ from theirs. It’s a big, sprawling state with a diversity of people and opinions. Our next chief executive needs to represent all of us….including the 45 percent or so who will vote for someone else in November.

State Sen. Tom George, as an example, stood his ground on several issues that were at odds with the majority of the audience. He clearly understands the issues. Kudos to Tom.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and businessman Rick Snyder were sharp on the issues, especially Snyder whose answers plainly showed that he has invested time in understanding – in far more depth than talking points --  how Michigan’s natural resources are integrally linked to the economy and the health of Michiganders.

Mike Cox – whose views differ fairly dramatically from the environmental community on many issues – spoke with my colleagues at the Michigan Environmental Council early in his campaign. He gets credit for engaging. But where was he Wednesday?

Mike Bouchard, Pete Hoekstra and Andy Dillon? AWOL. Pathetic.

The forum was sponsored by Michigan Radio, the Detroit Free Press, and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters among others.

A shout out to for good coverage of the forum, even if one of their posters declared me a “jobs killer” MichLib’s counterpart, RightMichigan, carried no mention of the forum.
See you at the primary election in August.

Again, Mitten State’s views are my own, not those of my employer, the Michigan Environmental Council. As a 501c3 nonprofit, MEC does not endorse or promote individual candidates. MEC, as an aside, is willing and able to educate all candidates on issues affecting our natural resources. We will be doing so vigorously through November.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Michigan voters take note: Three candidates for governor step up to debate environmental issues; four others run for cover, or couldn't care less

Michigan's candidates for governor have one chance to debate environmental issues head-to-head, and that is at Wednesday night's forum at Central Michigan University, sponsored by the Detroit Free Press and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, among others:

Pathetically, four of the seven candidates said "no thanks, we've got better things to do than discuss how to protect the Great Lakes, reduce health-related heartache caused by toxic pollutants, or and preserve our state's majestic forests." Really. That's exactly what they said.

Kudos to the three who apparently see our state's natural resources as worthy of an hour or two of their commitment: Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, State Sen. Tom George and businessman Rick Snyder.

The message from the no-shows is either that they do not consider Michigan's environment a priority; do not understand the monumental importance of natural resources to our economy; or they are unwilling to defend the decisions and votes they've made in the past on environmental issues.

The no-shows are Attorney General Mike Cox; Congressman Pete Hoekstra; House Speaker Andy Dillon and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard. Hoekstra has miserable record of environmental voting -- scoring less than 10 percent according to the League of Conservation Voters. Dillon has exhibited little interest in, or understanding of, the importance of strong policies to protect our state's natural resources in his legislative tenure. Bouchard? Not certain where he stands, but if he's been banging the drum for environmental issues so far I haven't heard it. Cox....well, Cox has successfully positioned himself as a leader of the state's fight to prevent Asian Carp from decimating the Great Lakes. And while he has been tone deaf to other environmental imperatives, I'm a bit surprised he isn't coming.

Anyway, again, the candidates who care enough to show up:

Rick Snyder:
Tom George:
Virg Bernero:

* My opinions do NOT REPRESENT those of my employer, the Michigan Environmental Council. As a 501c3 nonprofit, the Council is not permitted to campaign for or endorse candidates for office.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ditching the gas mower for a cleaner, better product (and don't complain that I'm not using my push mower, OK?)

So here’s my awesome new cordless battery-powered lawnmower. A Black and Decker model you can read more about here:

I bought it because Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity say environmentalists have to buy expensive “green” gadgets to try and cope with the crippling guilt they feel as weak kneed liberals. I can’t afford a Pruis. So this was my white trash alternative. Just under four bills, shipping included, from Amazon.

Black and Decker claims the mower is “emissions free” which isn’t true, and I’ll explain why. But it’s a damn site less polluting, perhaps by several orders of magnitude than my old Crafstsman gas mower.
Gas mowers are horrifyingly inefficient at burning gasoline…..sending something like one-third of the fuel into the atmosphere unburned. The result is carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and of course carbon dioxide escaping in copious quantities. One hour of mowing, say scientists, produces the emissions of a 100 mile car ride according to this peer reviewed study:

What’s more, the EPA estimates that the little gasoline slopovers and oil spills and leaks that accompany gas lawnmowers total 17 million gallons each year – more than the Exxon Valdez oil spill:

Now the machine surely isn’t emissions free. It simply gets its power from the coal-fired electricity plant than from the gas pump. But the coal plant burns its fuel way more efficiently than the gas mower. And it’s required to filter out a lot of the emissions it does create. The mower has nothing like that. It is – like almost all gas-fueled small machines – virtually unregulated and completely without filtration systems. That’s about to change:

Additionally, it takes shockingly little electricity to charge the battery. My Kil-o-Watt meter recorded 0.46 kilowatt hours of electricity to charge the battery fully. That’s 4 cents worth of juice to cut my entire lawn! Or about what it takes a coffeemaker to brew two pots of coffee.

The battery mower also requires no oil, no spark plug, no air filter, and you don’t have to pull a cord or fiddle with a primer bulb. And you don’t smell like gas afterward.

It is as quiet as an extraordinarily loud vacuum cleaner, and ran strong throughout my 40-minute job with plenty of juice leftover (I left it running after the first cut, and it took about 30 more minutes to drain the battery to zero)

Monday, May 3, 2010

If they want my clothesline, they'll have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers!

A judge ruled last week that a homeowners group in Canton could not prohibit a resident from installing solar panels: The association had declared the panels “aesthetically incompatible” with the rest of the neighborhood.

Some people think wind turbines wreck their view. Some bring that argument down to the residential scale, opposing energy conserving devices like solar panels and clotheslines.In fact, there’s a whole organization dedicated to passing laws protecting the “right to dry” on clotheslines!  (apparently Florida has the ‘gold standard’ Right to Dry law)

We’ll see lots more of these clashes in coming years as renewable energy and efficiency technology become more affordable for homeowners and small businesses. And as fossil fuel rates rise, drying clothes in the sun like your grandmommy did will seem less quaint and more necessary.

It’s important to make your voice heard at your association meetings, with your elected officials,and at the neighborhood coffee shop (smoke-free as of Saturday!). That is, of course, if you think that public health and energy independence are more important than cookie-cutter conformity.

Yes, if they want my clothesline, they’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

As an aside, the Canton homeowner installed solar panels to heat his hot water. The economic calculus for this – as opposed to using solar power to create electricity – is much different. This analysis Michigan energy expert John Richter explains how heating water with solar panels in Michigan can be very cost effective, especially if you are replacing a system that heats your water with propane or electricity