Posts Tagged ‘alternative energy’

Vroom’s claim doesn’t get my green light

October 9, 2008
           I was momentarily excited when I saw the headline on a press release from PJ Inc. Public Relations in New York hawking an “eco-friendly car rental site.” Cool! I thought. This will be a great place to locate hybrids, and maybe even electric cars!
           Oh, I can be so naive… No, what the “green” refers to with Vroom Vroom Vroom, an Australian company making its US debut, is that it’s providing carbon offsets for customers (it also reportedly offsets its own operations).
             While I’m not complaining that Vroom is spending some money to *in part* mitigate the carbon dioxide it and its customers’ cars will be emitting, this smells more like a marketing effort than an honest attempt to “be green.”
             If you look at all the fleets of all the companies Vroom3 does business with (including Hertz, Alamo, Enterprise) you won’t find a hybrid among them, but you will find all types of SUVs and pickup trucks. Yes, I do know that some of these companies offer some hybrids, but if it were a standard option, it would be on their fleet lists. If Vroom3 really wants to *do* something instead of *pay* for something, it should be pushing for more hybrid rentals.
            When I asked one of the PR folks who wrote the release about all this, she said, ” People still need to get around and are facing a number of limitations, including budgetary constraints, that preclude them from buying or renting hybrids/alt-fuel vehicles (the good news is, if they are renting a car, it’s likely they’re not driving every day!). With the carbon offsetting program, Vroom Vroom Vroom can contribute to minimizing the damage, without putting the burden on the consumer.”
            OK, first of all, most people who rent cars have actually flown somewhere, which is a heck of a lot worse that driving. And to say Americans can’t afford alt-fuel vehicles when many cars on the road cost the same or more than a Prius is just ridiculous.
             Now, back to carbon offsets. They are NOT the answer. They help somewhat, just like it’s helpful to give money to a “Stop Littering” campaign. But if you are littering at the same time, that’s just counterproductive.  OK, not a perfect analogy, because we live in a car culture and not, thankfully, a littering one. But there are more and less “green” ways to drive. 
             As Washington Post writer David Fahrenthold said in his wonderful article this week titled “There’s a Gold Mine In Environmental Guilt,”  watchdog groups say offset vendors sometimes do not deliver what they promise. Some offset projects, such as mass tree plantings aimed at absorbing carbon dioxide, deliver climate benefits that are difficult to measure. In other cases, it is unclear whether offsets funnel money to existing projects or to projects that might have been done anyway.” David, of course, isn’t the first to say these things. I’ve read about problems with carbon offsets in many, many reliable publications.
             So, as I wrote to said PR person, while I think it’s laudable that the company is providing offsets, I don’t see it as a “green company” but one that mitigates some of its contribution to carbon emissions. But then, that doesn’t sound so exciting in a headline, does it?



Ever seen a wind-powered camper?

May 15, 2008

Below is my version of a short piece on wind-turbine maker Michael Powers that appears, with Wessel’s photo, in this month’s Ode Magazine. After it ran, someone from “Weekend America” on NPR contacted me for more information, as they might do something too. That felt validating because I’d tried to sell this story to Sierra and Audobon mags and got no reply from either. The story came to be because our group of cyclists touring in Delmarva happened to camp near Michael. Only when cycling out of the park after a two-day stay did I decide I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I did a quickie interview  and Wessel took photos.

Here’s the piece: 

Wind turbine on campsite of Assateague State ParkTravelers who visit Assateague State Park in Maryland are accustomed to unusual sights, what with more than 100 wild horses freely roaming the grounds. But last summer, something manmade captured the attention of parkgoers as well. At one of the 350 campsites along two miles of the Atlantic Ocean stood a 28-foot whirring wind turbine powering the batteries of a Coleman Camper travel trailer.

Michael Powers next to his self-built wind turbineIts creator was Michael Powers, who will return to the island park in late-July with an even more efficient version of his eye-grabbing contraption. Powers, who lives near Baltimore, got the idea last spring of providing power for the camper’s two 13.8-volt batteries. Having gone with his wife and three children to Assateague for many summers, he figured the island’s constant breeze would be a perfect spot for wind energy.

“As a child, my father and I built a solar water heater for our family pool. Since then, I’ve always been thinking of ways to make solar and wind power,” says Powers, who by day manages a computer engineering team. “For this project I had my own ideas but did a lot of research on the Internet.”

Wind turbine at campsite of Assateague State ParkHe first set up the turbine in his back yard, which, he notes, did not thrill his suburban neighbors. The whole thing cost about $80, which included a $34 permanent-magnet motor and a $25 rotor, both purchased on eBay. He used PVC piping for the mast instead of the usual metal so as not to attract lightening. The wind supplied enough energy to power the campers’ lights, refrigerator, oven fan, and water pump.

This year Powers plans to increase the turbine’s efficiency by using fiberglass for the blades and switching out the steel rotor for a lighter aluminum one. He’s even considering using the wind to power a fan that would blow air across an ammonia-based evaporator to provide air conditioning.

Once he sets up again at Assateague, Powers and his highly visible windmill are sure to draw another round of curious campers.

“Everyone stops to talk to me about it, including the rangers,” Powers says. “My family thought it was weird that I had this up, but they’re used to it.”