Posted tagged ‘conservation’

Because, Because…Soshalism, That’s Why!

June 26, 2011

Not much blogging to come (will anyone be able to tell the difference?–ed.) this week, as I’m writing this from Doha, Qatar, where the biennial World Conference of Science Journalists is about to begin.

But as my body adjusts to the eight hour time difference, I chanced across this piece in The New York Times, which captures in the story of one small household appliance why American Exceptionalism may kill us all yet:

One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found.

These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.

That set-up:  the HD box and recorder, can add ten bucks or more per month to a household electricity bill, but the drain isn’t obvious, because the damn things are always on.

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It was said of Pythagoras that he was the only man who could hear the music of the spheres; the rest of us were so accustomed to it, having been cradled in such harmony from womb to grave…and so it is with that 60 cycle hum, or its metaphoric equivalent.  We can’t monitor that whose absence we’ve never known.

What’s truly galling, though, is that there is no technical reason either to spend that money, or to burn the fuel — much of it coal — to make the power required:

The perpetually “powered on” state is largely a function of design and programming choices made by electronics companies and cable and Internet providers, which are related to the way cable networks function in the United States. Fixes exist, but they are not currently being mandated or deployed in the United States, critics say.

Not our fault, says Big Cable:

“The issue of having more efficient equipment is of interest to us,” said Justin Venech, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable. But, he added, “when we purchase the equipment, functionality and cost are the primary considerations.”

Which is to say the old brush off.  You know, “You’ve got a problem, which means I’ve got a problem. You.”*

Except, you know, reality:

But energy efficiency experts say that technical fixes could eliminate or minimize the waiting time and inconvenience, some at little expense. Low-energy European systems reboot from deep sleep in one to two minutes.

Alan Meier, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said of the industry in the United States, “I don’t want to use the word ‘lazy,’ but they have had different priorities, and saving energy is not one of them.”

It’s hard to deny that charge, given this:

But as of Sept. 1, typical electricity consumption of Energy Star qualified products would drop to 97 kilowatt hours a year from an average of 138; and then by the middle of 2013, they must drop again to 29 kilowatt hours a year. Companies have fought the placement of the “Energy Star” seal on products and the new ambitious requirements, which may still be modified before enacted.

Mr. Wilson recalled that when he was on the California Energy Commission, he asked box makers why the hard drives were on all the time, using so much power. The answer: “Nobody asked us to use less.”

But of course, it isn’t just bad software and slothful, oligolopolist greedoid big Cable that’s to blame.  There is a pattern of trading energy efficiency — conservation — for other pleasures.  The internal combustion engine of 2011 is a vastly more efficient machine that that of the 1973 oil crisis — but the power numbers for just about every car have shot up relative to comparable categories of automobile from thirty and forty years ago, wiping out much of the efficiency gain.

Here, we like having zero time-lag when we wish to couch-potato.   While we enjoy the latest episode of whatever, we are heading for real trouble with our energy sector.  Global climate change is some ways — well, not the least of it — but the effect that we’ll notice second or third, well after we’re wondering why it costs so much to live like an American.

There is a response, of course.  We could try real conservation — actually building energy efficient structures and tools and transportation systems, which, if implemented — with tech that exists right now — would represent a meaningful step towards an energy demand that an alternative energy mix (that would for decades + still include stuff we burn) could plausibly meet.  It would indeed mean changes in habits and cultural practices — and those are very hard to achieve, I know.  But consider the alternative.

If we don’t, then when the rest of the world — and our kids — ask us what the hell  happened, we’ll have to tell them we were too anxious to start watching Survivor to stop and think.

*H/t science writer Jon Cohen, for reminding me of that old gem.

Image:  Jan Breughel the Elder, Landscape with Windmills, 1607

Program Notes: New York Times, Langurs, MIT Science Writing Edition

September 23, 2008

Check out this delightful story in todays Times about a conservation success in China, preserving habitat and restoring a population of highly threatened langurs.

A couple of things are of note about the piece.  First, it offers an example of one of the most important modern conservation ideas:  a command approach to preservation is hard one to enforce; much more likely to succeed is one that creates the right combination of economic and moral incentives for those on the front lines — the people, often very poor within the neighborhood in which conservation is to take place.

Second, good work has a long tail.  The scientist-hero of this story was moved to study the social behavior of langurs after reading E. O. Wilson’s seminal Sociobiology, first published in 1975.  A third of a century later, five hundred langurs owe their own, their home’s, and potentially their species’  continued existence to the spark of the ideas in that book.

Third — a little shameless self-promotion, at least the institutional variety.  The author of the piece, Philiip McKenna graduated from the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — my home base — in 2006.  We can’t take credit for his incredible work ethic, sense of story and spirit of adventure…but it is always a pleasure to think, with cause, I believe, that what we did here helped him on his way.

Image:  Mori Sosen, “Monkeys in Plum Tree,” 19th century.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.  And yes, I know, this is a Japanese painting of a different species of monkey than the one discussed above.  I like the picture, OK?

News Flash — Dog Bites Man dept: John McCain does not care about global warming

June 18, 2008

This just in:  John McCain, who claims that “he has been a leader on the issue of global warming with the courage to call the nation to action on an issue we can no longer afford to ignore,” said on Monday that he believes “that lifting the moratoria from offshore drilling or oil and natural gas exploration is something that we place as a very high priority.”

This, on top of his recently renewed call for the twofer environmental and economic foolishness of a gas tax holiday, makes it clear, to me at least, where Senator McCain actually stands on the issue of global warming.

Not to beat a horse I long sinced blogged to near-death here, but if you are even remotely serious about the issue of global warming (not to mention, being a “leader”) you don’t look for ways to encourage people to burn more oil.  You can’t have it both ways (or rather, if you are anything but a straight talking, honest kind of guy, you can try, but annoying folks like me will point out the contradiction).

So — for anyone tempted to back McCain because of his environmental commitments — remember the last time we trusted a plausible sounding, straight shooting kind of fella on this issue, look at the other promises McCain is making, and think long and hard when you find yourself all alone in the voting booth.

Image:   Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky, “Moonlit Seascape with Shipwreck,” nineteenth century.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.