Posts Tagged ‘Karin Rives’

Wind power? Not in my backyard.

August 26, 2009


Turns out, Swedes may not be as green as I thought. Or perhaps they’re simply no different than the rest of us gasoline-guzzling, environmentally ignorant consumers who care more about our immediate comfort and convenience than the future of coming generations.

Overheard in the kitchen of immediate Swedish family members just the other day:

“I was so angry hearing this farmer on the island talk about the profits he was making from the wind power he was producing,” my mother bristled. “He had gotten together with some neighbors to construct and operate a wind mill in his back yard, and was making a small fortune. I told him, ‘Don’t you realize that you’re profiting from Swedish tax dollars? You’re making money off the backs of all the rest of us who must pay for this expensive wind power!’

“But he just looked at me and said, ‘But the money I make comes from the wind!'” she continued. “It made me so mad that people don’t understand who’s paying for all this construction of wind mills left and right. We are!”

According to the Swedish Energy Agency, wind power cooperatives such as the one formed by this ignorant Swedish farmer will add another 70 gigawatt-hours of electricity to the grid during fiscal year 2009-2010. In all, 24,000 people will be members in such cooperatives and boost their share of Swedish wind power production by 20 percent, the agency estimates

The Swedish government wants to grow total wind power production to 30 terrawatt hours annually – up from 2 tWh today. Wind currently accounts for just 1 percent of the nation’s electricity, compared with neighboring Denmark, which gets 20 percent of its power from wind power. (The U.S., the world’s leading wind power nation in terms of capacity, is at close to 2 percent.)

The Swedish government is using energy certificates subsidized by tax dollars to support the wind energy build-out, investments it says must be made to meet tough European Union carbon-dioxide reduction goals.

But some Swedes believe the cost of wind is just too high, especially when the machines pop up along pristine coast lines and in pastoral landscapes where Swedes want to enjoy their lengthy vacations away from the troubles of global warming and energy crises.

Indeed, in my family, the bad-mouthing of wind power stations began when news broke that the spinning turbine blades would soon obscure views from an island in the Baltic that, in my mom’s opinion, was too beautiful and unique for wind mills. (A section of it was, after all, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.)

A movement is afoot to stop the build-out of wind power in the country praised, over and and over again, for being one of the world’s greenest. Grassroots organizations with names such as “Fair Wind” and “Save the Coast” are sprouting up to protest plans by property owners to take advantage of government incentives and erect new wind turbines.

What does all this mean? That people are people, plain and simple. And that nobody is more green than the other when it comes to their own backyard.



It’s summer – bundle up!

June 30, 2009

It’s 90 degrees outside and we’re freezing.

coldhandsThere’s my co-worker J., shuffling past my office door draped in a heavy red wool blanket. Down the hallway sits B., wrapped in her blue poncho. Both brave the chilly office temperatures and wear summer dresses to work. (It’s June, after all.) But they also drink hot tea and coffee to warm their stiff fingers.

Even our tanned 20-something intern is cold. Every morning I watch her pull a cardigan from her bag before she even turns on her computer.

Air conditioning opened up the American South to northerners half a century ago and turned backward, sleepy cities such as Atlanta into metropolitan boom towns. 171-0609104401-phoenix_postcardIt transformed Singapore into an international business hub, made Phoenix livable, and millions of workers worldwide more productive.

Air conditioning also gobbles up 5 percent of all electricity produced in the United States, accounting for as much as 15 percent of energy consumption in homes and one-fifth or more of energy used in commercial buildings, depending on latitude. And here’s the sobering part: The commercial sector – schools, office buildings, malls, movie theaters and so on – are accountable for an ever-growing share of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions as their consumption of energy from dirty power plants continues to grow.

coal plant_0In the United States, 87 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions are related to our energy consumption, with the commercial sector’s emissions growing faster than any other sector’s. So you’d think that somebody would suggest that we cancel the warm sweaters and blankets and turn up the thermostat a few degrees.

It’s not only about saving the Earth, by the way. Raising the indoor temperature from 73 to 76 degrees can shave nearly one-third off your air-conditioning bill during the summer months, according to Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based energy giant.

But, oh, no. When our office air conditioning system malfunctioned a few weeks ago, some people – mostly men in suits – complained that it was “sooo hot.” The truth is, as a society, we’ve become addicted to cool spaces.

Today, more than half of all home owners in the United States run their air conditioner all summer long, up from one-third of homes in 1981.

Even in Minnesota, they’ve gone crazy with air conditioning. Twenty years ago, one-quarter of homes in this northern state had no AC. Today, fewer than 10 percent do and peak energy demand has shifted from winter to summer. Hear Minnesota Public Radio’s report from the North Star State!

Sounds to me like we need to look to China for some leadership. Fshanghaiaced with energy shortages a few years ago, the city of Shanghai ordered office buildings not to set their thermostat below 26 degrees Celcius, or 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, in a democracy like ours where everybody has a say and very little gets accomplished policy-wise, you can forget 79 degrees.

Recycle – what for?

January 31, 2009

Ouch. Another wine bottle tossed into the kitchen trash can. Another empty cracker box, plastic milk jug, soda can, margarine container, folded newspaper. It’s Christmas and the amount of trash we produce during one single family dinner is enormous. N932064_city_dumpothing gets recycled and nobody seems to care.

Then my mother-in-law makes a remarkable and unexpected statement: “One of my New Year’s resolutions is to start recycling,” she declares. She has barely finished her sentence before I get to work, digging wine bottles out of the trash. “We’ll keep them in the garage for now,” I tell my surprised in-laws.

This is what Sweden does to you. It turns you into a recycling zealot. Once a week, the garbage truck showed up in our Stockholm suburb to weigh our garbage. The more garbage we produced, the higher our monthly bill would be.

Those of us who separated our organic food waste and stuck it in biodegradable bags in a special trash can paid less than those who would throw everything in the main trash can. And those who produced less garbage by bringing paper, plastics, cans and glass to one of the many recycling stations in our county paid even less.

Recycling, to Swedes, is a lifestyle.

Every weekend, I would fill our Honda Combi with bags of 736426_recycle_2waste. Green glass was separated from clear glass, plastics from newspapers, soup cans from milk cartons, and thrown into large green containers. Plastic soda bottles and beer cans, however, would go in a special bag destined for the grocery store.

There, people lined up in front of large machines that swallowed the cans, crunched them up and spit out a receipt. We’d give the store cashier the receipt and the bottle redemption was deducted from our grocery bill.

A small incentive, but it worked – just like the threat of a larger garbage bill did. No wonder, only 4 percent of Swedish garbage ends up in the landfill.

Although the country of 9 million produces nearly 24 percent more waste today than a decade ago (4.7 million tons), nearly 50 percent of all Swedish trash is recycled. Another 46 percent is incinerated at high temperatures to produce heat for apartment buildings in metropolitan areas. By comparison, more than half of all municipal waste in the United States still still went to the landfill in 2007, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report.

This is not rocket science. Give people a financial incentive and efficient recycling programs and they do the right thing. So why don’t we?

Glimmer of hope

December 9, 2008

Gloom and doom is everywhere.

Huge corporations are going bankrupt. Half a million people were laid off in the United States alone last month. Homes are foreclosed on in record numbers and Christmas is shaping up to be a bust.

On top of it all, a cold front is gripping the American East Coast, making our noses red and fingers cold.

920015_commutersBuried in today’s morning paper, however, was an astonishing piece of uplifting news. Forced to park their cars at home as the price of gasoline rose above $4 a gallon over the summer, Americans may have – for the first time ever – gotten a taste for public transportation.

During the third quarter, Americans logged more than 2.8 billion trips by train or bus – an increase of 6.5 percent over the same period last year and the biggest quarterly jump in a quarter century, the American Public Transportation Association reported. The steady rise in ridership came despite the fact that gasoline prices dropped down to near-“normal” levels during the quarter.

At the same time, the number of miles traveled on public highways declined by 4.6 percent.

Could it be that Americans are finally discovering what Europeans and Asians have known for decades: that riding buses and trains helps us relax and focus – and perhaps even happier?

In the subway car in the morning, I’m surrounded by people who read novels. The car is very quiet. Unlike in Stockholm, where mobile phones jingle incessantly and private conversations invade your private sphere, the wireless signal dies the moment the D.C. Metro train goes underground. Some commuters take a short nap before starting their work day. Others just sink into their own thoughts, iPods in hand.

“At first I really didn’t like to move farther away from the city,” an executive and father of two young children told me. “But now, I relish those extra 20 minutes on the train because it’s my own time and the only time I have to myself all day. Nobody can interrupt what I’m doing.”

Could it be that those harried folks in Los Angeles think back at the eight-lane traffic gridlock that used to be their morning commute and decided they wanted no more? (L.A. train ridership rose 17 percent during the third quarter.)

Or that people in Atlanta finally got over their fear of black crime and discovered that not only do you survive the subway trip, you can also enjoy it? (Atlanta ridership rose 11.3 percent last quarter.)

Could the American love affair with the automobile, in fact, be fading – and for reasons that have nothing to do with oil prices? Stay tuned.

Where’s my cheap charter flight?

December 2, 2008

“You went to India?” Lisa asks surprised over lunch.
Yes, just like that. And to London, Amsterdam, Tallinn, Prague, Hong Kong and Italy (twice) – in the span of just two years.
How unconscionable of us, considering that air travel has become Europe’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases – and even though the region is in a desperate race to meet its Kyoto obligations. (Unlike the United States, which wouldn’t even sign the treaty to halt global warming.) 1055986_clouds_and_shadows4

Indeed, a nation as eco-minded and prominently green as Sweden is breaking all-time records for long-distance air travel thanks to a still-booming charter travel industry. I did my best fueling this trend while living there for two years, thanks to cheap flights and generous vacation benefits.

And here I am, picking on Americans who still drive around in their big SUVs when they just as easily could bike, walk or take public transportation. I can’t feel holier than thou, knowing that by taking one round-trip to Asia, I emitted as much carbon dioxide as I would have if I drove my car 9,000 miles for several years. Which, of course, I don’t. Where’s the logic here?

Well, for one, it sounds a lot more cosmopolitan and global to tell people, “We had to land in Azerbajan so the plane could refuel,” or “We spent two days in Palermo,” than to say “I sat in traffic for an hour on the Beltway trying to get to work,” or “We’ll drive up to New York for the holidays.” A well-traveled person is perceived to be educated, cosmopolitan, experienced, smart…


As for the Swedish charter tourists who flock to far-flung destinations such as Thailand, Brazil or India, traveling is neither about class nor world citizenry. They’re just after cheap beer and sun. Here’s the story I reported for The Christian Science Monitor earlier this year on the globetrotting Swedes.

Eco Shopping: A Matter of Class

November 29, 2008

Why do they put your groceries in ten flimsy plastic bags when they would fit in three? Annoyed, I watch the tired Safeway cashier stick a loaf of bread in one bag, a quart of milk in another, a couple of oranges and some bananas in a third. Doesn’t he care about all the plastic that goes to waste? It takes 1,000 years for a regular plastic bag to break down in a landfill.

wfm_organic_today_s_18671It’s a completely different story at Whole Foods, which famously banned plastic bags earlier this year. There, they sell chic designer grocery bags made from recycled plastic bottles that you can buy to prove that not only do you care for the environment – you can also afford to belong to the green club.

Besides selling reusable grocery bags, Whole Foods gives you 5 cents for each used paper bag that you bring back and fill with groceries. It feels so right, but our family is burning too much money at Whole Foods – at least $700 a month, in addition to the shopping we do at other grocery stores. Our monthly food bill easily exceeds $1,100 for a family of four. While surveys show that you actually pay less for organics at Whole Foods than you do at other chain stores, we could save money by picking up “conventional” lettuce, crackers, ground beef and bread at Safeway or Giant.

The class gap is evident when you travel a couple of blocks from Whole Foods to Safeway in downtown Silver Spring, Md. Gone are the tempting displays, the free food samples, the exotic fish counter, the self-assured professionals – and the recycled grocery bags. Tired moms with kids in tow hurry through the wide aisles with their endless rows of cereal boxes and chips bags. I leave Safeway disgusted, having acquired only half the items on my list. Of course, I tell myself, I should spend more at Whole Foods to get chemical-free snack bars and lunch meat for my kids! And certainly, it’s worth paying $4.50 for a loaf of bread when it’s both nutritious and fresh.

But many regular families on a tight budget may not have that choice. For if you’re poor in America, you tend to be relegated to disposable plastic bags, industrial spongy bread, sprayed fruit, and snacks laced with preservatives, artificial flavors and coloring. You’re no more likely to eat organic beef than you are putting solar panels on your roofs or driving a hybrid car.
The market for organic food has exploded in the past decade, with sales increasing by between 20 percent and 30 percent annually, according to the Nielsen Group, a market research firm. With the economy falling into the hole in recent months, consumers are becoming less likely to pay $3.50 for half a gallon of organic milk when conventional milk can be had for $2. U.S. sales of organic products for the four weeks ended Oct. 4 grew 11.2 percent, down from 27.1 percent a year earlier, Nielsen reported.

And even before the economy took a turn for the worse, research showed that people buy eco food when they can afford it. A study released last summer by an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rachael Dittman, confirmed that people with higher income (annual household income of at least $70,000) and higher education are more likely to spend more on organic food than poor Americans (annual household income below $30,000) or people of color.

Conclusion: Shopping green and eating healthy is still about education and cultural values, but even more about economic class. And me? I’m stretching my budget every month to stay in that coveted club.

Back in the U.S.A.

November 14, 2008

1075772_the_metro2In the two years that we’ve been overseas, green has – finally – become hip in America.

The subway car that whisks me to work in the morning is sporting ads from Chevron, the oil and gas giant, that urge us to conserve. Close-up portraits of sober citizens proclaim: “I will leave the car at home more” and “I will use less energy.” Wow!

Public transportation ridership has soared in tandem with rising gasoline prices. Americans took 140 million more trips by bus or train during the spring than they did a year earlier, the American Public Transport Association reports. And as investments plummeted in a weakening economy, venture capitalists managed to pour a record $1 billion into renewable energy projects during the third quarter alone.

Change is definitely in the air.

At my workplace, we have blue recycling bins in the office and the lights automatically turn on and off when we come and go. But progress is uneven – or, should I say – half-hearted?

In September, as outdoor temperatures in Washington, D.C., dropped to a comfortable 80 degrees, I piled on sweaters and cranked up the electric space heater next to my desk because the air conditioning was turning my windowless office into an ice box. There was no way to turn it off, our maintenance man explained. I drank hot coffee to keep my fingers from going stiff.

Our fancy coffee maker, however, is another environmental concern. To brew a cup, you stick a small, sealed plastic container with coffee grains in the machine. When your cup has been filled, the now-empty container automatically falls into a trash bin. How much plastic do I go through in one week?

“And why are there only plastic forks in the kitchen drawer and paper cups for coffee?” I ask a co-worker. “Can’t we buy some cheap mugs and silverware at IKEA and just wash them after lunch?” That would never work, he replies. “People would just leave their dishes in the sink and we’d have a mess.”

papermug11At the take-out restaurant downstairs I’ve made a point of telling the woman at the cash register that I don’t need my wrapped sandwich stuck in a plastic bag. “I’ll just grab it like that,” I say, sounding green and chipper. “It’ll save you some plastic!” I get a blank stare in return. She has no idea what I’m getting at and couldn’t care less.

The printer at the office spits out paper all day long. How many trees did we consume in the past month? I soon learn that some of my colleagues print out reports and documents to read and edit on the train home in the evening. The workload is such that tasks can never be completed even if you log eight or nine solid hours in the office and eat lunch at your desk. Best to print it all out and bring with you.

I rarely see people working on their laptops while in transit and I have yet to hear any discussion about deducting such telecommuting time from the regular workday, as many Europeans do. There’s also, still, no wireless access on the trains that run in and out of D.C. So people do it the old way: On paper.

But hey, we’re making efforts where we can. Metro officials are scrambling to put in more bike racks outside the subway stations, because so many more people are biking rather than driving and parking the car there. That’s progress!