Live Like We Did in College

On vacation I got the chance to sit down for a few beers with an old friend from college.  While our children slept with dreams of Walt Disney World swirling through their heads and our beers dropped enormous rings of sweat from the thick central Florida air we came to pose a question to ourselves, “Why can’t we live like we did in college?”

Now, two mid-thirties fathers of two children apiece asking that question while sitting on the balcony of a hotel room at Walt Disney World may seem a little out of place but bear with me for a moment.  Granted, it all feels a little bit like the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime.”

I have always thought of my friend as someone who is relatively far down the road of “green” enlightenment.  He has never fallen for the trap of more expensive status cars as his income has grown, his house is definitely not in line with his peers at work, he commutes to work a few days per week by bicycle even in the dead of Minnesota’s winters, and he generally seems to live a life free of constant consumer drive to buy things to fill a deep pit within one’s soul.

As we pulled back the layers on his thought process it became apparent that he wondered if he had gone wrong somewhere along the way in a fundamental way.  His thesis was simple, “Why can’t we enjoy life like we did in college?  Why can’t we enjoy just getting to go out to eat once a week instead of being upset that we did not get to eat at the fancy, new place in town?  Why can’t we be happy spending a night with friends drinking some beers and not worrying about doing something?”

We spent some time thinking about this and remembering our college days.  Some of it good and some of it bad.  Trust me, neither of us was suggesting that we trade in our hoppy IPAs for quarter draws of Natural Light.  There is something to the idea, though, of looking back at a time when you did not have very much discretionary income and seeing what made you happy.

No one cared about cars or houses when we were in college.  Sure, we all knew people who drove new cars and lived in the nice apartments but those were seen as auspicious outliers.  Most of us drove cars that were running on borrowed time and living in houses that hopefully could pass an inspection if the city every decided to crack down on your landlord.

No one really cared where you went out to eat because getting to eat out anywhere was a welcome relief from pasta or ramen noodles.  There are few dinners more satisfying than being able to sit down to a plate of chile rellenos and happy hour margaritas on a Thursday night. You felt like a king for an hour.

Maybe our college experience at a mid-sized Midwestern state university was different from someone who went to a prestigious Ivy League school or a mega-sized football powerhouse.  Maybe the intervening years have fogged our memories and we remember things through the haze of nostalgia rather than through the lens of reality.

Regardless, there is something about trying to recapture some of that economic innocence at a time in our lives when we are supposed to be avid consumers of an upper middle class existence.  Wouldn’t we all be living a “greener” life if we worried less about buying a bigger house and filling it with more stuff or a new car to park in that oversized three car garage?  Wouldn’t we all be a little happier if we spent our Friday nights on the decks with a few friends enjoying a cool night over a few beers rather than chasing entertainment somewhere trendier?

I think the answer is that we would all be in a better place if we just tried to live a little simpler.  Now, I am not going to trade decent coffee for that gas station swill I used to drink in college.  There are some things that are just a bridge too far.

Friday Linkage 8/26/2016

Took a little more than a week off to rehabilitate a shoulder injury, which was apparently caused be spending too much time at a desk using a computer mouse with my right hand, and spent time with the family at a place known as Satan’s asshole or Orlando in August.  Hoping to put some posts up next week about some thoughts I had while on vacation.  Nothing gets the mental juices flowing like spending time away from the screens and distractions of our available all the time culture.

On to the links…

Renewable Energy Was 16.9 Percent of US Electric Generation in the First Half of 2016—Marinate on that number for a minute.  Almost 17% of the U.S. electrical generation was from renewable resources for six months.  Recovering hydroelectric in the west was a big part of this number, but renewables other than hydro are expected to soar over the next few years.

Bigger, Better, Cheaper: Wind Power is Flourishing in the US—Here is why renewable energy is kicking ass: wind is getting cheaper because it is getting bigger and better.

The First U.S. Offshore Wind Farm Is Complete—Offshore wind is an exciting development because it can put wind power within reach of the heavily populated eastern seashore instead of the sparsely populated middle section of the country.

US Army Reaches $1bn in Energy Savings—Efficiency is the forgotten child of the environmental movement, but there are big rewards to be reaped.  The U.S. Army has the benefit of being able to execute major changes with little interference and it looks like the efforts have made some major changes.

Listen Up: The Next Big Energy Appliance—If we could get to a point where a combination solar inverter, battery storage, EV charger was just an appliance that you bought like a refrigerator or freezer than the world would be a better place.

Why Democratized Rooftop & Community Solar Is So Important—Things are better for the average person when power is distributed.  It does not matter if that power is political or electrical.

A Tour of California’s Water Supply Lays Bare the Tension Between Farmers and Fish—California’s water woes are a big deal and will continue to be a big deal in a warmer world.

Charting A Path for Sustainable Jet Fuels—Air travel is a big problem with regards to climate change.  It uses a lot of fossil fuels and it is not easily electrified.  We could push for less air travel but that is likely to fail.  A greener jet fuel is the only solution.

The War Against Ethanol—There is probably no more controversial biofuel than ethanol.  Just saying the word in certain forums will invite the harshest of criticism and condemnation.

How America’s Dirtiest City in 1969 Became One of the Greenest—Apparently Chattanooga was a real shit hole in the 1960s.  You would not know it now.

Louisiana’s Sinking Coast a $100 Billion Nightmare for Big Oil—Big oil can suck it when it comes to what they have wrought in Louisiana.  For decades big oil has used Louisiana like a playground for its ambitions and the destruction of the marshes, bayous, and deltas is going to bite them in the ass.  These are only crocodile tears that I shed.

The Rise of the Neighborhood Brewery—Not every brewery wants to see its tap handles and six packs compete with the likes of the macro-brewers craft subsidiaries or the major regional breweries like New Belgium Brewery.  This is a very good thing for beer because it takes things back to a regional level where particular styles or derivatives can find loving audiences that preserve the character of craft.

Berkeley Put a Tiny Tax on Soda. Consumption Plummeted by 21 Percent.—If there was one thing that I could get rid of in the grocery store it would be soda.  The stuff might as well be the liquid cocaine fueling our descent into obesity and its related maladies.  We tax liquor and tobacco because of the health consequences, why not tax soda the same way?

The U.S. Government to Purchase 11 Million Pounds of Cheese—Instead of purchasing eleven million pounds of freaking cheese, maybe the federal government needs to examine the policies that drive a market to create such a surplus.

Friday Linkage 8/12/2016

I am going to be taking a break for a couple of weeks.  A combination vacation, digital detox, and a separation from work.  It is amazing how wrapped up you can become in work that you forget to take a moment and breathe.  I need to breathe.

On to the links…

Obama has Done More to Save Energy than any Other President—As we look forward to Obama’s replacement or, as the case may be, shudder in sheer terror at the prospect of President Donald J. Trump it is interesting to reflect back on some of the progress that we have made under the current administration.  Remember, any progress made to date could be undone by a short fingered vulgarian with a hair trigger temper and orange hair.

If the US Took its Climate Goals Seriously, Coal Beneath Federal Land would Stay There—There is no single issue that I believe the next president will have more power to impact than keeping fossil fuels like coal and natural gas in the ground when it comes to federal lands.

5 Trends That Will Shape the Global Solar Market for the Rest of the Year—Out of all of these trends I think China’s issues will define the market.  A major crash of solar projects and companies in China would reverberate across the globe.

China’s Solar Binge Is Turning Into a Hangover—If you’re not worried about China’s potential solar hangover then this article should wake you up.

China’s 5 Year Plan for Energy—Communists, even the ones who just pretend to be communist, love their five year plans.

United States Has 10 GW Of Utility-Scale Solar PV Under Construction—10 GW represents nearly two-thirds of what is operating today.  Furthermore, another 13 GW is under contract and almost 32 GW is in the planning stages.  Big numbers.  Yuge numbers.

Transportation is Now the Biggest Source of CO2 in the USA—This is why strict and aggressive CAFÉ rules matter.  It’s why a carbon tax matters.

The Economics of Electric Garbage Trucks are Awesome—Why the federal government has not come out with a plan to help subsidize and/or finance the replacement of municipal vehicles like garbage trucks and buses with electric variants boggles my mind.  A 50% reduction in fuel costs, a simpler maintenance regime, and a lack of black smoke billowing from exhaust pipes seems like a win, win, win to me.

Donald Trump has no real answer for the collapsing US coal industry—Donald Trump likes to pander to our most base desires and instincts.  Coal jobs have declined for the past twenty or so years, so it must be Obama’s fault?  All it takes is a take-no-prisoners guy like Trump to bring coal jobs back, right?  Nope.  Coal jobs are going away because the economy demands less coal, natural gas is cheap, and mechanization has made each individual coal worker exponentially more productive than the generations of coal miners before.

How Going Meatless For One Meal A Week Can Really Help The Planet-Sometimes we forget just how much impact seemingly small changes can make.  No one is asking you to skip a meal.  No one is asking you to save the whales.  It is a single meal a week made without meat.  Seems easy enough.

Meet the California Couple Who Uses More Water Than Every Home in Los Angeles Combined—The Resnick’s are lightning rods for a lot of reasons.  Growing nuts in the desert is just one of the reasons.

Big Oil’s Master Class in Rigging the System—If the influence of Big Oil, read Exxon Mobil, has ever been on display in a more naked way than the current fight over its knowing disregard of climate science I am waiting for the example.  It is amazing that the companies making billions of dollars would so publicly use their influence to have sitting members of Congress do their bidding against state attorney generals.  Wow.

Friday Linkage 8/5/2016

It is less than 100 days until some of the ski resorts in Summit County start turning lift lines.  That seems so close, yet so far away when the heat index is over 100 here in Iowa.

On to the links…

90-Year-Old RAGBRAI Rider Draws Lots of Attention—If I am lucky enough to get to ninety years old I am hopeful that I will still be turning the cranks.  Just not on RAGBRAI.

7 Charts that Make it Clear Climate Change is Already Here—It is real and it is changing our daily lives.  How bad it gets is up to us.  If you do not think elections matter, imagine a world in which Donald Trump is weighing in on climate change from the bully pulpit of the presidency.  Frightening.

UK’s Carbon Footprint Rises 3%–Damn.

The Northeast Is Considering A Major Extension To Its Emissions Program—There is little chance that national carbon pricing and regulation will emerge due to the logjam that is a Republican Congress, but states are making some progress.  Nine northeastern U.S. states have done an admirable job of reducing the carbon intensity of electricity generation.

Opening The Floodgates On Clean Energy Deployment In The U.S.—Tax policy is not something that usually gets mentioned in terms of the environment, but it is a central piece of the puzzle when it comes to financing and developing power projects.

6 Signs The Big Global Switch To Solar Has Already Begun—Each new announcement seems to be a record of some kind or a new opportunity.

First Half of 2016 Shows a Wind Boom Underway—The part of this article that really hits home for me is that wind power project costs have dropped 66% in the past 6 years.

Salt Lake City Commits to Renewable Energy—100% renewables by 2032 in a deep red state like Utah.  Yeah, times they are a changing for renewable energy.

Will Replacing Thirsty Lawns with Drought-Tolerant Plants make L.A. Hotter?—Not Paris Hilton hot, but hellish drought-scape hot.  The counterpoint to the argument that lawns cool Los Angeles is that lawns will all die without supplemental irrigation, so the built environment will be even hotter is the landscape is totally desiccated.

Here Is the Mysterious High Roller Donald Trump Wants to Put in Charge of Our Food—I think that everyone with half a brain and a mild concern for the future of the United States can agree that Donald Trump is unfit to be President of the United States.  If you needed another reason to believe that a Trump administration would be nothing more than an ATM for corrupt businessmen see Charles Herbster.

Globalization isn’t Killing Factory Jobs. Trade is Actually Why Manufacturing is up 40%.—What has changed is that low-skill level manufacturing jobs were replaced with automation and the remaining jobs are highly skilled.  Heck, in Cedar Rapids there are companies that will help pay for a two-year technical degree because they cannot find enough people to work in manufacturing.  Another thing that Trump gets wrong.

260,000 Hikers Scramble up Colorado’s 14ers Each Year, Spending Big in Nearby Towns—This is why we need to protect our natural spaces.  People love to be in nature and people are willing to spend some pretty serious money to do so.

What Bombs did to Rotterdam, Parking Lots did to Houston—The comparison boggles the mind for a moment because one is violent and the other is insidious, but the end result is eerily similar.

Turning Iowa Farmland into Butterfly, Bee Habitat—Farming practices for the past thirty or so years have devastated habitats for pollinators.  It looks like Iowa got the message and got to work.

5 Charts That Illustrate The Remarkable LED Lighting Revolution—Do you remember in 2008 and 2012 when Republicans tried to make an issue out of the conversion from incandescent lights to CFLs and LEDs?  Yeah, that one needs to stay in the dust bin of history along with Sarah Palin’s political ambitions, Mitt Romney’s tax returns, and Paul Ryan’s P90X routine.

Average American 15 Pounds Heavier Than 20 Years Ago—I do not know what to say.

Putting Policy Prescriptions on a Party Platform

The Democratic Party platform is an approximately 50 page document that purports to outline the agenda for the party to run on in the forthcoming election and the priorities for the elected officials once in office.  You can read the document in its entirety here.

On pages 27 through 30 the party platform deals with environmental issues.  There are some interesting inclusions like the reference to the proposed Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay in Alaska, which if it goes forward will likely devastate one of the most productive salmon fisheries in the world and be a boondoggle.  What extractive industry project has not turned into a boondoggle lately?

Spanning pages 29 and 30 is the following paragraph on fossil fuel extraction from public lands:

We oppose drilling  in  the  Arctic  and off  the  Atlantic  coast, and believe  we need to reform fossil fuel  leasing  on public  lands.  We will  phase  down extraction  of  fossil  fuels  from  our  public  lands, starting  with  the  most  polluting  sources,  while  making  our public  lands  and waters  engines  of the clean  energy  economy  and creating  jobs across the  country.  Democrats  will  work to expand  the amount  of renewable  energy  production  on federal  lands  and waters,  from  wind  in  Wyoming  to solar  in  Nevada.

Nothing in here is controversial for a left leaning environmentalist, but it really falls short of actually outlining any real policy prescriptions.  I would suggest that Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton, adopt a much more pointed set of policies regarding fossil fuel extraction on public lands.  It would look something like this:

  1. A moratorium, beginning immediately, on any new fossil fuel leasing on public lands. Existing leases can be executed per the legal terms and conditions.
  2. A ban on the expansion of oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, Atlantic coast, and further development in the Gulf of Mexico.
  3. A ban on fossil fuel companies being allowed to “self-bond.” Given the highly volatile nature of the business sector and the fluid nature of corporate responsibility the American people cannot be assured that a company will exist in the future to address environmental clean-up and restoration.
  4. A set of comprehensive rules and regulations to safeguard public health from the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracture drilling to ensure a basic level of protection nationwide.
  5. An extension of tax credits for wind and solar.

I realize that party platforms are essentially “motherhood and apple pie” kind of documents filled with boiler plate text that gets dyed in the wool party technocrats excited, but I feel there is a real opportunity to put meat on these bones.  Plus, I want to see Donald Trump get into a policy debate over self-bonding with Hillary Clinton.  His head might explode when it gets confusing.  It’s true.

The Weight of Our Stuff

This is not about the physical weight of our stuff, which has got to be a dramatic number if anyone ever took the time to calculate such a figure, but rather about the psychological weight of our possessions.

In the United States the average size of a household in 2015 was 2.54 people compared with 3.33 people in 1960. (1)  In the United States the average size of a single family home in 2013 was 2,598 square feet compared to 1,725 square feet in 1983.  (2)  Think about those diverging trend lines for a moment.  As our households have gotten smaller, our homes have gotten significantly larger.  Why?

Probably because we have so much stuff.  We have so much stuff that it does not seem like developers can build self-storage facilities fast enough.  Depending upon who you ask, self-storage or mini-storage will be an $30 billion dollar industry in the near future with the United States accounting for more than 90% of that market.  That is more than $27 billion dollars to store stuff that we cannot fit into houses that are a lot bigger with fewer people living in them.  Huh?

I wish that I had the ability to visualize development like Johnny over at Granola Shotgun.  It is a skill I really wish that I had as I watch multiple mini-storage facilities being put up on my short drive home from work.  At the moment I can count three large mini-storage complexes being built on development parcels that are within city limits, near major arterial roads, and near the region’s major employers.  Does it seem crazy that we would build storage for our stuff on these relatively high value parcels of land?

Remember, this is stuff that we do not need on a regular enough basis to actually store in our homes.  Even worse is that someone is going to pay money on a monthly basis to store this stuff that they do not need regularly enough.  Heck, there is an entire legal canon dedicated to determining when a mini-storage unit is considered “abandoned.”  Storage Wars this is not.

Seeing these mini-storage complexes being built near me and speed reading several blog posts about Marie Kondo—thank you Root Simple—got me to thinking about the stuff in my house.  My wife and I are by no means hoarders or even great collectors of stuff, but I think we have become inundated with stuff that does not add value or joy to our lives.

It is quite easy to end up with boxes of stuff you do not necessarily care about or know what to do with.  When parents age out of housing or pass away a large quantity of family “heirlooms” generally finds its way into the possession of the next generation.  The irony of this passing of stuff is that if there was a true “value” in the items no one would pass them on until they passed away.  Yet, you will find yourself with boxes full of baseball cards, depression glass, mismatched flatware from the old country, and binder after binder filled with old pictures.  Most of this stuff will sit in boxes in a storage room or, god forbid, a mini-storage unit you make monthly payments on until your own children are old enough to become the caretakers of this heritage.  And so the cycle goes.

Take for example a set of custom oak bookcases that I inherited from my father when he passed away several years ago.  I did not part with the bookcases when I sold my father’s home following his death because I felt that there was some connection in the item.  Both of my parents were professors and, for a time, I chased that goal but that was more than a decade ago and I no longer harbor any desire to be a member of academia.  The books lining the shelves represented a different life and most had not been touched in years.  Now, I am getting rid of both the books and bookcases.  It does not feel sad.  It feels good.

Piece by piece I intend on evaluating all of the stuff in my house so that I do not end up paying a monthly rental fee on a mini-storage unit.

Friday Linkage 7/29/2016

I think we have entered the Twilight Zone.  For real.  We now have a major party candidate running for president of the United States of America who is actively advocating for a foreign nation to hack into his opponent’s email server.  The same candidate, amazingly, can take multiple sides of the same issue in a single statement and not see a problem with the statement.  At what point do we wake up from this national nightmare and return to some semblance of reality?

On to the links…

Alliant Energy to Invest $1 Billion in Iowa Wind Energy—This announcement comes on the heels of the announcement by MidAmerican Energy to invest more than $2 billion in the near future.  Currently, Iowa is estimated to have 6,300 megawatts of wind power installed.  These two projects could account for an additional 2,500 megawatts of wind or ~39% more.

The Link Between Armed Conflict And Climate Change Just Got A Bit Stronger—As the climate warms and weather gets weird around the planet we must be prepared for a future where armed conflict is more common and driven by these changes in our planet.  It’s a scary future.  Almost scarier than President Donald J. Trump.

Carbon Pricing: A Practical Pro-Growth Solution to Climate Change—Here is the deal: a carbon price or carbon tax, simple in its execution, would spur the market to discover and implement that most cost effective climate solutions.  Too bad Republicans are blinded by Grover Norquist’s pledge.

India Sanctions Plans for 10 ‘Solar Zones’ of at Least 10,000 Hectares Each—India is going all in on solar.

Chernobyl’s Atomic Wasteland May Be Reborn With Solar Energy—Is the exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl the ultimate brown field development site for solar?

Record 46% of UK’s Electricity Generated by Clean Energy Sources in 2015-Granted, this includes nuclear, but almost one quarter of the UK’s electricity came from what we would call traditional renewables.

China’s Coal Peak Hailed as Turning Point in Climate Change Battle—If this holds true, fingers cross that China’s official statistics are not crap, then it is a very big deal.  China was seen as one of the drivers of global coal consumption, India being the other, but its potential peak in demand changes the equation dramatically.

The First Electric Big Rig Is A 26-Ton Hauler From Mercedes With Zero Emissions—Tesla may get all the publicity, but Mercedes Benz is an established player when it comes to large commercial trucks so its development of an EV big rig is a potential game changer.

Electric Vehicle Sales For All 50 US States Now Available—Zero emissions vehicles may be the future, but looking at these sales charts show that there is a long way to go.

In Phoenix, an Ambitious Plan Aims to Cover 25% of the Metropolis with Tree Shade—Phoenix is in many ways the worst.   A city in the desert should embrace the desert, but Phoenix has tried to emulate the eastern cities from where its residents originated with some minor modifications like palm trees.  Times they are a changing for the blob that ate central Arizona.

Scientists Capture Rare Images of Wolverine in Sierra Nevada—Wolverines are just an interesting animal.  Just as long as it is not these wolverines: