Monday, September 21, 2009

A Bit of History

Tonight I thought I'd write a bit on the history behind my interest and activity in carbon reduction.

The 70's was a good time to get reflective about energy. 1973 and 1979 saw the oil shocks during which energy became so expensive, even more expensive when taking inflation into account than 2008. I finished college in 1974. Nixon resigned, the stock market tanked so far that they considered closing the New York Stock Exchange because almost nobody wanted to buy stocks, and there were no jobs to be had*. My interest in renewable energy and ecology was high while in college, I took all the ecology courses I could get at my liberal arts university, though there were not many because the Biology Dept. was oriented towards pre-meds. When I finished college, I had a short period before I went in the Peace Corps when I was living at home. I did some primitive experiments with solar thermal collectors, which didn't amount to much, designed to see whether a collector incorporating ceramic elements could be used to store energy in addition to collecting it. While in the Peace Corps, I looked into Savonius rotor windmills for the project I was working on (building a fish pond) but I couldn't find much use or funding for them. I subscribed to the New Alchemy Institute newsletter and, of course, got all the updates for the Whole Earth Catalog.

After I returned from the Peace Corps, I decided to enroll in a graduate program offered by the University of Arizona for training people with non-engineering degrees to become engineers. It was love at first sight, and I've been doing engineering ever since. When I graduated in 1984, I wanted to go into renewable energy. I recall a job interview in 1983 I did with a company in Albuquerque where the on-campus interviewer told me they were working on solar energy. During the on-site interview, they briefly showed me their tiny solar lab, then took me out to the real thing: a huge wooden structure in a Faraday cage  on which they were simulating the impact of EMPs from nuclear weapons on B-52s. Reagen's military build-up of the 80's was underway, and the US solar energy research program was eliminated later that year.

Needless to say, I didn't take the job. Though IT was my second choice, it looked interesting enough and I figured I could earn a living at it so I took a job in Silicon Valley. From about 1984 until the mid-1990's, my primary contribution to energy conservation was that my wife and I only owned one car, and we mostly commuted to work and around town by bicycle or train (in graduate school and college, I had no car, I got my first car at 28). This lack of any action on energy conservation wasn't due to lack of interest, it was primarily due to lack of any real, visible options as to what I could do to make it happen.

In the mid-1990's, we bought a second car because our lives started becoming busier and, as we got older, it became increasingly more difficult to hop on the bike when the temperature was in the mid to low 40's in the winter. I still commuted to work mostly by train and shuttle bus, and though I liked the SUV form factor, I couldn't justify the gas mileage so we got a small compact. During the 1990's, we pursued some energy efficiency improvements around our townhouse (which will be the subject of a later post). We wanted to get solar panels but the homeowners' association put such restrictions on it that we decided against. In 2003, we bought a single family house, and I've been using that as a basis for my experiments in energy conservation and renewable energy, which will hopefully be reported in more detail here in the future.

*I'm always amazed when people claim that the last period of economic deprivation in the US prior to the "Great Recession" of the last 3 years was the Depression of the 1930's. The general poverty level during the 1930's was probably higher, but I believe the level of economic suffering was similar in the 1970's. The country went from a decade where the impossible was accomplished (the moon landing, civil rights) to a decade where even the most mundane accomplishments seemed impossible. In a certain sense, the political system seems to have been mired in that state ever since.

Monday, September 14, 2009


So looking around at blogs dealing with renewable energy, energy conservation, green building, alternative transportation and the like, I can't seem to find a blog that talks about the experience of people who are actually using these new technologies, changing their lifestyles, and getting carbon out of their lives. Most of the blogs seem to be either by architects (green building) or portals on policy/technology or, in the case of alternative transportation, by people who are building electric cars or something like that. The latter is closer to what I have in mind, but not as hands on. If there are any such blogs, I hope someone will point them out to me so I can check them out.

This blog is going to be about using these technologies and the accompanying lifestyle for reducing carbon. It's not going to be about what other people are doing, but what I and my wife are doing to move carbon pollution out of our lives. There will also occasionally be some observations on the general problem of global warming, environmental degradation, and carbon reduction, and also about other green technologies and initiatives we've taken (like, for example, low water gardening). I hope to include data (yes!), talk about explicit products with which I have experience, and talk a bit about financial issues, including going beyond the simplistic "payback time" drone that seems to dominate mainstream media discussions of green technologies. I've got a pent up list of posts that I intend to make about projects over the years, we'll see how long I keep blogging after those are complete. If I run out of stuff to write about what I've done, I may have to move back to talking about what other people are doing.

This is my second attempt at blogging. The first failed after 3 months, but it was something in which I had some intellectual interest but not something I cared passionately about (in the case of this blog, passionately enough to have spent 35 years off and on trying to do something, mostly off, but more recently very much on).

So here goes. We'll see whether I have any greater success this time than last.