Back to Basics (or Why I won’t be buying an electric car just yet)

ImageComposting, recycling, setting our thermostats conscientiously are all ways to participate in “green” technology.  Some people are looking to buy that next electric or hybrid car, asking about solar power for the home, or declaring the wonders of wind energy.  These may all be future solutions in the search for alternatives to pollution-causing sources of energy.  On the other hand, I invite people to dig a little more deeply and explore the WAYS some of these “clean” energy processes are brought into service.  Questions to consider include how are the alternatives manufactured, what infrastructure is required to use the power or product, how is it stored for future use (if an energy source) and what impacts do all of those components have that mitigate the advantages of energy or product?

Electricity – “Sandy”, the huge storm that hit the east coast end of October 2012, brought to light a major fundamental shortcoming in American infrastructure – contingencies for supply of electricity during crisis.  In 2011, the United States generated about 4,106 billion kilowatt hours of electricity.  About 68% of the electricity generated was from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), with 42% attributed from coal.[1]

Energy sources and percent share of total for electricity generation in 2011:

  • Coal 42%
  • Natural Gas 25%
  • Nuclear 19%
  • Hydropower 8%
  • Other Renewable 5%
    • Biomass 1.38%
    • Geothermal 0.41%
    • Solar 0.04%
    • Wind 2.92%
  • Petroleum 1%
  • Other Gases < 1%

A detailed evaluation of the hazards of electricity production is beyond the scope of this article.  Simply taking the top three sources of energy – coal, natural gas and nuclear – the reader can begin to research all the environmental impacts inherent to these three sources of energy.  The 2008 coal ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee provides a good example of negative environmental impact.  The current hot topic of fracturing (“fracking”) shale deposits to release natural gas for collection and use is an internet search at one’s fingertips.  Storage of excess electricity is most efficiently done by the pumped storage hydroelectricity method, which accounted for 99% of the worldwide storage as of march 2012.  This method releases stored water through turbines to generate electricity during periods of high demand.

Alternate “green” sources of fuel for electricity generation include solar and wind, which have long been viewed as possible “clean” sources of energy:

Wind power has been of interest to people for many years.  Remember the scene in Rainman in which the main character is driving across the California desert amidst all those huge windmills?  Those and other units in and out of California[2] have been in operation since the 1980’s, supplying as much as 5% of California’s electrical power by 2012.  Wind power is popular because it has very few intrinsic environmental impacts.  Looking beyond the benefits of wind itself, the questions again become, how are the turbines manufactured, what infrastructure is required to use the wind power, how is it stored for future use and what impacts do all of those components have that mitigate the advantages of wind energy?  Raw materials used in manufacture of wind turbines include fiberglass, steel and aluminum.  Infrastructure includes wiring from wind farms to electricity plants.  Storage mechanisms are also without environmental impacts.  Unfortunately, with the need for at least 15 mph steady wind supply to provide enough movement to turn the turbines and generate energy that can be captured as electricity, there are limited locations suitable for these wind farms.

Now let’s turn to solar power.  Setting aside the known fact that the cells themselves degrade over time, leaching their source chemicals down the roof and on to one’s property, eventually dying and having to be disposed in a landfill (preferably a toxic waste landfill), there is the problem of initial manufacture.  According to the January 4, 2009 edition of Clean Technica, “Solar panel production creates many of the same toxic byproducts as those found in semiconductor production, including silicon tetrachloride, dusts, and greenhouse gases like sulfur hexafluoride. These byproducts aren’t anything to scoff at— silicon tetrachloride, for example, makes land unsuitable for growing crops.”[3]  The freshest example of this waste is the raid conducted in the Solyndra Milpitas facility in February 2012[4] that included cadmium and machinery clean up.  Solar technology is not “new” – petrochemical companies have capitalized on solar power’s many uses since the first “oil crisis” of 1973, finding solar of particular benefit in powering navigation and other equipment on off-shore oil platforms[5].  So in 40 years, there have been no significant improvements to the manufacture of solar panels.  Add to that the entry into the market of China, notorious for lack of concern regarding human or ecological costs of manufacturing.  As usual, the Chinese have run price down as well, driving some German companies out of the solar market with loss of thousands of jobs[6].  Think twice before running out and jumping on the solar wagon.

Ethanol, the additive in gasoline was originally promoted as a means of decreasing dependence on “fossil fuels” in automobiles.  In 2006, the Smithsonian Magazine published a brilliant article about corn, the grain from which ethanol is made.  Bottom line – someone got sold a bill of goods.  It takes a lot of fertilizer to grow corn.  Most commercial fertilizer (the kind used by big business farmers) is made with synthetic nitrogen.  Synthetic nitrogen is manufactured through an intricate process using – PETROLEUM PRODUCTS!!  SO, it takes petroleum-based products (nitrogen fertilizer) to GROW corn in the first place.  As an aside, the chemical runoff from fertilizers is a growing problem for people, particularly when the metabolites percolate down into the water table and contaminate water sources.  But I digress…  Back to ethanol – It decreases miles per gallon (MPG) achieved, increases wear and tear to motors (it is a drying agent, due to its alcoholic nature), up until 2012 was heavily subsidized by the federal government (that’s us, the taxpayers), and as mentioned, costs more to manufacture than the original petroleum product (gasoline) would have cost the consumer.  Oh, and it increases the price of gasoline.

On to electric and hybrid cars, those little miracles meant to decrease our dependence on the demon dinosaur elixir guzzled greedily by those V-8’s of yore.  The central energy source of these wonders is a nickel-hydride (NiMH) battery designed to last for several years.  Newer models use lithium ion batteries.  The hybrid option increases the cost of a Toyota Highlander by $4000 or a Camry by $3000 (estimates, depending on add-ons).  One resource article from 2006 pointed out that replacement cost for these batteries is unnecessary and usually caused by a dealership more interested in selling a new car than fixing the source of the problem.[7]  In another article, Toyota provided information – “the engineers consider the NiMH batteries in Prius and other Toyota hybrids to be a life-of-the-car component. It could be several owners and hundreds of thousands of miles down the line before the pack requires replacement, at which point the car itself may well be past its prime.”  Environmental impact of manufacturing and disposal of NiMH batteries is of moderate concern, since mining and processing of the components that go into the batteries can cause toxic waste if done improperly.  Nickel is often reclaimed from spent batteries for its high salvage value.  The same article details several costs for different Toyota models and years in terms of replacement battery “core” credits and costs, should replacement be necessary.  It also stresses that replacement is almost never necessary.  IF a replacement battery is needed, the car owner is looking at an average cost of between $4000 – 6000, depending on the type of car.  Since most batteries last 7 to 10 years, considering blue book value of the car at that point, dealers are most likely to push folks to buy a new vehicle rather than replace the battery.  Somehow, it does not seem like these hybrid cars are “saving” enough money (with initial extra cost) OR cutting down enough on use of gasoline[8] to warrant purchase just yet.

Electric cars run on, what else, electricity, which charges their batteries.  The general concept is the same as hybrid cars, using lithium ion batteries instead of NiMH batteries.  A Toyota RAV-4 EV12 has a starting MSRP of $50,000 with a 103 mile driving range.  Once again, this is a significantly higher price than a gasoline-powered RAV-4, which starts at $22,000 MSRP.  The article cited outlines the many issues with cost, performance and safety of the lithium ion battery.  Life of the battery is one of the positive aspects.  Add to the initial cost of the vehicle the fact that it must be re-charged on average every 100 miles traveled and one concludes all-electric cars are not yet quite ready for the main stream.  The underlying issue of the source of electric charging itself must also be considered.  See first section on Electricity.

These are only a few issues to be considered before jumping on the “Green” wagon in the New Year – and this without addressing the even more basic subjects of metal mining, alloy production, and product manufacturing.  This is by no means an exhaustible list of resources, or a journalistic review.

While the ideas of contributing to renewable Mother Earth are all well-meaning and important, most of us have limited time and budgets.  The adage of separating our sphere of concern from our sphere of influence comes in to play.  So, until there is invented a battery that can be made without poisoning the rivers, a solar panel that does not run down the roof and kill the flower beds, and a fuel that takes less petroleum to be “grown” than just using gasoline in the first place, I’ll stick with an automobile that gets decent fuel mileage.  And I’ll keep recycling my glass, plastic, aluminum, tin, and paper.  Or, as my daughter suggested, use that plastic container for leftovers and wash it and use it again, instead of sticking stuff in plastic bags and throwing them away when they’re empty – THAT’S recycling, too.


[8] 2012 Toyota Camry gasoline mpg city/hwy – 25/35; Camry Hybrid 43/39.  With average of 75% highway driving, 12,000 mpy, a regular Camry would use 377 gallons of fuel, a hybrid would use 300.  At $5 per gallon of fuel, that is a savings of $385 per year.

The Wonderful World of Color (or 50 Shades of Grey)

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n the Saturday after America celebrated Thanksgiving, a day after Black Friday, “at least” 112 garment workers died in a fire that swept through a garment factory in Bangladesh.  Workers were unable to leave the factory because the doors were padlocked, blocking easy escape.  News reports solemnly intoned the link between the factory and “major” retailers.  Walmart and Disney rapidly geared up their PR machines to disassociate themselves from the factory, stating they had not had contracts with “that particular factory” for over a year.  The voice of Mission Impossible’s “Assignment Man” echoed in my mind – “…be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions”.  Very convenient.

“Bangladesh’s garment industry employs 4 million people, 3 million of them women, at some 4,500 factories, says Siddiqur Rahman, a vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).  And between 1990 and 2012, there have been at least 33 major fires in garment factories, claiming some 500 lives, according to BILS.”[1]  Less than a week later, there was a fire in another factory, without loss of life this time, thankfully.

At some point in all the reporting, it was noted the wages these people make are equivalent to about $.55 an hour (that’s 55 cents) in U.S. dollars.  When one considers the brand name “labels” involved on the retail end (Disney, IKEA, Walmart and Carrefour were four mentioned) it would be interesting to see a breakdown of other costs going in to say, a $32 long-sleeve tee-shirt for adults from Disneyworld.[2]  From my experience, it takes about 3 yards of fabric, a spool of thread and 8 hours to make a T-shirt, including “life” interruptions, when you are only one person.  Paying full-pop for the fabric, maybe $6 a yard, it winds up costing an individual upwards of $20 to sew a T-shirt “from scratch”.

A perusal of the popular wholesale site “Alibaba” online demonstrates the availability of Chinese made (sigh – no American made) 100% cotton jersey knit fabric in various weights offered anywhere from $.60 to $7.50 U.S. a “piece” or “kilogram”.  It is sold variously by weight, length, or type of fabric, so it is impossible to compare this to the retail fabric sold on the consumer market.  Thus ends the attempt to determine base cost of a “Mickey Mouse” (literally) long-sleeved tee-shirt from the Happiest Place on Earth.  Rats, foiled again.

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According to Wikipedia, “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of the city of New York.  The fire caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, who died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling or jumping to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women aged sixteen to twenty-three; of the victims whose ages are known, the oldest victim was Providenza Panno at 43, and the youngest were 14-year-olds Kate Leone, and “Sara” Rosaria Maltese.

Because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice at the time to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks – many of the workers who could not escape the burning building jumped from the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors to the streets below. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers.”

That was 101 years ago.  Labor unions were a good thing for many years and many reasons – better working conditions, wages, benefits and improved long-term life outlooks for workers in many different industries.  Unfortunately, the economic spiral turns continuously.  Profit margins and stock holders are ruthless and voracious.  For every increase in wages, there is an accompanying increase in retail prices.  Every attempt by the individual to “get ahead” is countered with inflation, increased interest rates or energy prices.  “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” has become a very real concern, as opposed to a sarcastic remark.  These days it seems union officials are more concerned with keeping their own jobs than they are with improving the conditions, wages, benefits and long-term outlook of union members.

Perhaps it is time for unions to migrate overseas to these underdeveloped nations, where there is a true and genuine need for labor reform.  If they kick up as much of a fuss globally as they did during the late 19th and early 20th centuries here in the U.S. of A., global wage equalization may accomplish what nothing else has to date – bringing jobs back to America as retail prices go even higher in response to a global equalization of markets.  Or, here’s a thought – maybe all those “uber-rich” (I really dislike that term) manufacturing moguls with their obscene profits can sharpen their pencils and keep a little less money for themselves.  On the bright side, they won’t have to pay so much in taxes that way.  Sure, like that will happen.  Just about as likely as the average American not shopping at Walmart or IKEA or looking for low, low prices…


[1] article in Christian Science Monitor, 26 November 2012

Half A Loaf Is Better Than None (or How The Cookie Crumbled)

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When we saw the movie Norma Rae, we could not help but believe in what she wanted – basic dignity, a decent wage, working conditions that would not kill her like they killed her father Vernon (portrayed by Pat Hingle).  We liked her, we REALLY liked her.

Unions had a place in this country for good reason.  As the U.S. became more industrialized, needing more workers to do more jobs, unscrupulous factory owners took advantage of people who would do anything to earn some money – I was going to say “earn a living”, but it wasn’t even a living – it was only a few coins, often only enough to get a person from one day to the next.  Children, women, and men in sweatshops, factories, slaughterhouses, even farm fields – the history of labor struggles are well chronicled in such novels as The Jungle (Upton Sinclair, 1909), Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men.

The only time I was a union member was when I worked for a grocery store chain.  They call them “clerk’s helpers” now.  When I was employed, we were simply called “baggers” or “box boys” (in my case, girl).  The union dues were reasonable for my job, which was paid at about twice the minimum hourly rate – $3.25 (minimum back then was $1.65).  It guaranteed me health insurance, which was extremely important to me.  We never went on strike, no one ever had a disagreement with management (other than the knucklehead who got fired for stealing; yah, that was bad).  Those were the good years for unions, I guess.

A while back, GM had, let’s call it, oh, I don’t know, “a bump in the road” – how about that phrase?  Bummer for them, right?  Bummer, also for who knows how many of their employees who participated in their retirement plan for who knows how many years.  Well, I know of at least one person who worked his way up through the ranks to mid-management (having STARTED in the union and of course graduated to NON-union since management is the ENEMY – at least, that is what the UNION wants the rank and file to believe).  When GM was “reorganized” (we don’t want to use the “B” word) and tax money was invested in GM, the “old” GM stock became worthless and “new” GM stock was issued (incidentally, the new stock is worth 30% less than on IPO – but I digress).  Guess what “pension plan” my friend at GM had?  You win a cookie – OLD GM stock – 23 years worth(less).  He still works there – at least he has a job.  That was another little gem – GM closed the plant near his home and said he could either “retire” or relocate to Michigan (800 miles away).  Not wanting to uproot his family, he drove to Michigan for the work week and stayed in an apartment for 2 years until GM recently re-opened the plant near his home and blessedly gave him back his local mid-management job.  So GM is limping along, the employees are happy, for the moment, and the stock is sinking like the Titanic.  Not.Good.

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Enter Hostess and the ever popular (dare I use the word iconic or has it been done to death?) Twinkie snack cake.  I once laughed myself nearly sick when I saw a store shelf stacked with “Twinkie Lite” cakes – I kid you not.  I mean really, WHAT would be the point?  But that is a whole ‘nother blog entry.

Listening to the striking employees – one woman had worked for the Seattle Hostess plant for 37 years, “Everything I have, I owe to this job” she said – it was clear they were sincere in their belief their demands were reasonable.  Their wages have already been cut and now will be cut again.  The company wants to take away their pension plan and alter their health plan so they will pay a higher share of cost.  “The company’s demands will leave us in a position of making barely more than minimum wage” one man stated.

So the CEO of Hostess, Greg Rayburn (who, curiously enough, received a 300% raise BEFORE the bankruptcy was announced), has decided to sell the company off piecemeal, blaming the decision on the Baker’s union (BCTGM).  According to the Sacramento Bee (13 November 2012), “BCTGM International Union President Frank Hurt stated, ‘The recent claim by Hostess CEO Greg Rayburn that our strike is the reason for the closure of the three bakeries is simply not true.  That statement is a continuation of a disturbing pattern by the company of issuing public statements that are erroneous at best and disingenuous at worst.’  Over the past eight years since the first Hostess bankruptcy, BCTGM members have watched as money from previous concessions that was supposed to go towards capital investment, product development, plant improvement and new equipment, was squandered in executive bonuses, payouts to Wall Street investors and payments to high-priced attorneys and consultants.”  The article elaborates on the concessions made by workers since 2004, including cuts to wages and benefits.

Still, as the title says, half a loaf is better than none. Get through the current situation then address the inequity of management compensation compared to that of the rank and file.  H-m-m-m.  Maybe we need SUV’s more than we need Twinkies.

 

Nuts!

Welcome (says WordPress) OK, Welcome, says I.

Why you started this blog – All I wanted to do was make a comment on my friend’s blog

What you plan to do with it – Probably move my sewing and knitting projects over here, since my other knitting friends are here.

Happy blogging! (says WordPress)  Yeah, right, says I.  If we’re blogging, how are we supposed to DO stuff?

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