The Least Glamorous Ways to Make a Big Impact on The Environment

There are things you can do to help the environment that won’t go unnoticed, and things that are under the radar and far from glamorous. And one end of the spectrum is, say, driving a Tesla. At the other end of the spectrum from that in the transportation category would be not owning a car. Both are steps in the right direction. Some may not be realistic for people who are car-dependent for work and other reasons, and some are unrealistic due to up-front costs.

Below is a list of things I think are worth considering that aren’t high on the glamour end of the spectrum but can make a big difference.

1. Make shopping lists. We all need to shop, but we can be far more efficient at shopping if we make lists. People with long commutes tend to be better at this since forgetting one item is painful if you have a long trip back to Target or the closest hardware store. But, think about how many miles you can avoid driving if you get everything you need the first time? And, combining multiple stops into a single trip. When buying stuff online from stores like Amazon or Target, if you don’t need something right away just add it to your cart and let your cart accumulate a few more items before pulling the trigger on your order.

2. Buy more efficient appliances. There are a few things to consider here. First, not all appliances use a lot of energy so this applies most to appliances that use the most energy. Refrigerators, water heaters, AC, and space heating are the top-4. Buying a more efficient dishwasher isn’t going to change the world but it doesn’t hurt. The previous four make a big difference.

A good way to make better buying decisions is to pre-shop each of these so you know what you want when the unit you currently have dies. You have the benefit of time to properly research appropriately sized units for the size of your household, size of space that needs to be heated or cooled, and a local company that stocks and can install what you’re looking for.

This can save you a lot of money (and environmental impact) over time since products like this use a lot of energy. For example, water heaters can vary tremendously in their efficiency. The difference adds up to thousands of driving miles per year of pollution that you can avoid by making better choices.

3. Insulation. So not sexy. So effective. Now that’s it’s colder outside you may start to notice some leaks in your home. Snag a heat gun for a reality check. This one is easy to use and makes it obvious where you’re spewing heat through walls, windows, and doors. Start by sealing obvious cracks. This costs hardly anything and makes a big difference. Things like wall insulation or getting new windows or doors can obviously get expensive so it’s worth talking to someone about how to best address those issues.

4. Buying cleaner electricity. Your options will vary based on where you live, but if you have an option to buy solar, wind, or another form of renewable electricity rather than continuing to buy coal and gas, do it. It’s not uncommon for a household to create as much pollution from their electricity use as they’d create by driving a car 10,000-15,000 miles per year. Pollution from electricity use is a sleeper issue since we don’t see the pollution in our own homes. In Minnesota, we have a Community Solar program and the WindSource program that provide two ways for people to buy cleaner energy without having to buy anything upfront or put anything on their property. Putting panels on your own property is also an excellent option for people who have a suitable space and the cash or credit to do so.

5. Buy a great commuter bike. Bikes can get expensive, but even expensive bikes aren’t expensive compared to cheap cars. You’ll save money, get into better shape, get to know your neighbors better, be less likely to accidentally kill one of your neighbors, and typically be able to park closer to work, for free. Have a commute that’s slightly uncomfortable due to distance or hills? Consider an ebike. Not cheap, but way cheaper than a car.

6. Get an electric car. Here’s the coolest thing about electric cars. They create far less pollution than burning gas AND they automatically become even cleaner to drive as our energy grid becomes cleaner. An electric car doesn’t care if the electricity is generated by coal, gas, hydro, wind, or solar.

7. Electrify everything. Small gas engines tend to be surprisingly large generators of pollution. I’m referring to things like lawnmowers, snowblowers, and leaf blowers. I’m particularly happy with my electric lawnmower. It’s so much nicer than walking back and forth through a cloud of pollution. It’s also quieter. And it’s not exactly difficult to recharge the batteries before I need to use it again. Perhaps you could put the charger on a timer so it charges at a time of day/week when your local energy generation is typically greenest?

Regarding snow blowing, an investment in a quiver of top of the line shovels is cheaper than a snow blower and comes bundled with free workouts.

How to Revise the Federal Solar Tax Credit

Electrek has a post up that ranks US cities by households with solar panels. Here’s the list:

The city that stuck out to me was Seattle. Seattle? The Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly known for its sun. And, they also have quite of bit of energy generated by hydro and nuclear, so are those panels displacing carbon-emitting energy sources?

The 2016 official fuel mix statistics by the state of Washington for Seattle City Light show approximately 88% hydroelectric, 5% nuclear, 4% wind, 1% coal, 1% natural gas, 1% biogas.

Seattle – like most cities on this list – is a wealthy town, so there are plenty of people who can afford to drop $10-$20k on panels. Especially when they can tap into a 30% federal tax credit.

But, what if we adjusted the federal tax credit by taking a couple factors into consideration? Here are two to consider:

1. How dirty is the current energy sourcing in a given state? Here’s a ranking of states by how much carbon is emitted by generating electricity:

2. How much sun hits each state? Obviously, this can vary tremendously throughout states, but if we just use a state-wide average of each state we can still improve upon a nationwide average. This chart ranks states by solar irradiance where California is the baseline each state’s number show’s their relative solar irradiance relative to California.

If we combine these values, we can prioritize solar incentives based where they’ll have the largest benefit: States with the dirtiest electricity and the most sun. Here’s what that looks like:

Under this formula, Upper Midwest states would see similar tax credits to what they see today. Minnesota and Wisconsin would drop from 30% to 29%. But, things get interesting at the extremes. Subsidies would be cut in half for states that have relatively clean energy sourcing today, like Pacific Northwest and some New England states. On the other extreme, states with relatively dirty electricity generation and lots of solar energy would receive far higher incentives. The most extreme being Wyoming, where solar incentives would increase 7X. Yes, that’s right. Instead of offering a 30% tax credit or solar in Wyoming, we should be offering a 216% credit.

Someone living in Wyoming that spends $20k on solar panels would have their entire project cost covered, plus a check for $23,200 from Uncle Sam. Now that’s an incentive. Wyoming and North Dakota are the two states where we should pay more than the cost of solar panels for every household. Both states have incredibly dirty electricity today.

The incentives should be revisited on a regular basis to take into account shifting electricity sourcing in each state. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if a significant number of people in Wyoming took action to claim such a lucrative tax credit, which would lead to lower tax credits for late adopters.

Land use of Ethanol vs Solar for Vehicle Fuel

I took a stab at trying to figure out how much land it takes to power an internal combustion engine vehicle with ethanol vs what it takes to power an electric vehicle with solar energy.

The links in the embedded spreadsheet show my data sources. If any of these are inaccurate (or my calculations are wrong) please let me know.

Based on what I’m seeing, it looks like it takes a bit more than an acre of farmland dedicated to growing corn to power a single vehicle. That’s based on the amount of E85 fuel it would take, so it would also take some non-ethanol fuel to make that work.

For the electric car numbers, I used a watts/mile figure found on some Tesla forums and a land use calculation based on typical production of panels in large ground-mount systems. This came to 0.015 acres or 652 sq ft.

It seems like it’s quite a bit more efficient to convert solar energy into electricity, transfer that into car batteries, then use that power to turn an electric engine than it is to convert solar energy into plants, harvest those plants, convert those plants into ethanol, transfer that energy into car tanks, and convert that energy into small explosions to turn an internal combustion engine. If my numbers are correct, it looks like it’s around 70X more efficient from a land needed per vehicle perspective.

While this could be looked at from a “what’s the best use of farmland?” perspective, it’s obviously worth noting that solar panels can be placed on a lot of surfaces other than farmland, including places that don’t consume any land, like rooftops.

Another thing to consider: The cost to power an electric car can be significantly cheaper than what’s shown in the spreadsheet if you take advantage of electric vehicle charging and/or time of day pricing plans. Off-peak electricity rates (when your car is likely sitting in your garage) are far cheaper than standard residential rates.

But, wouldn’t that mean that you wouldn’t be using solar to charge your car? Correct. It looks like the future – at least in Minnesota – will involve powering our homes with solar & wind during the day and charging our vehicles with wind power overnight.

How Many Boomers Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb?

One?

The Boomer goes to YouTube and searches for “how to change a lightbulb”:

They click on a result for a DIY video. While watching the video, they see this related video:

After watching a pre-roll ad, they learn this nugget 11 seconds into the video:

Having satisfied their curiosity about millennials and lightbulbs, they see a video from a young man offering more information about what’s wrong with millennials:

After consuming 4 minutes of content on what’s wrong with kids these days (explained by a kid these days), YouTube auto-plays a nearly 2-hour video called, “Ben Shapiro: Toughen Up Spoiled Children”.

At some point during those two hours, they notice a compelling video about illegal immigration:

After consuming some content from an ex-felon right-wing propagandist, it was time for something lighter, like a video with Jay Leno making people feel smart by cherry picking geographically challenged Americans.

After two-plus hours of consuming right-wing propaganda, they remain in the dark.

The majority of the right-wing propaganda videos that were suggested by YouTube and clicked on by the Boomer were paid for by a handful of conservative billionaires who benefit from intergenerational fights rather than watching Americans come together to realize that their common interest is to not be screwed over by billionaires who are trying to destroy our air, water, public education and healthcare systems.

The lesson: Keep your parents off YouTube.

How to Exploit Vulnerable Seniors with Twitter

There’s a special place in hell for robo-callers who exploit seniors. Bilking retirees out of their retirements through scams over the phone is downright evil.

But, at least the robo-callers have to go through the effort of finding exploitable seniors.

Social media companies make it fairly easy to identify vulnerable seniors so you can fast-track exploitations.

How? By allowing conspiracy theorists and fake news publishers to use their platforms.

Social media platforms allow garbage content to flourish on their platforms because they make money from it and/or they don’t want to be accused of censoring garbage content.

But, how does that lead to the exploitation of vulnerable seniors?

Social media platforms allow advertisers to reach very specific audiences, which can be a good thing but can also be used to cause harm. Say you want to reach everyone who lives in a specific state for political advertising, or people who follow a specific political candidate. No problem. Or, you want to advertise to people who like a certain sports team or brand of granola bars so you can attempt to sell products to that may interest people who have those interests. Great.

But, you can also run ads targeting people who follow conspiracy theorists. Why would you do that? Because you can sell anything to people who’ll believe anything. Social media platforms make that easy to do.

I’ve tried to find an example of a vulnerable senior without showcasing one in order to help explain this further. Here’s my attempt.

I searched for “contrails” to find some conspiracy theory believers and found a woman who posted a pic along with text that makes it clear that she’s a true believer that the government is spraying chemicals on Americans from planes during daylight hours. I clicked on her profile and found out that she’s a Catholic MAGA supporter. I then looked her up on Facebook to make sure that she’s a real person. She’s a grandmother living in Northern California.

She believes some crazy stuff, including this:

She’s not alone. Just look at how many people liked and retweeted that garbage.

Say you wanted to do something relatively harmless, like sell WiFi routers to conspiracy theorists by inferring that a certain WiFi router is safer than others:

I then targeted people over 50 who live in the United States who’re the kind of people who follow garbage conspiracy theory accounts on Twitter. I expanded the reach a bit by adding qanon76 as an additional Twitter conspiracy account to leverage to find dupable people.

To increase the reach of the ads further, Twitter’s brilliant programmers have figured out how to find larger lookalike audiences. Here’s who their algorithms suggest adding to my “accounts followed by people susceptible to right-wing conspiracy theories” portfolio:

Not surprisingly, it suggests including Seb Gorka, Jack Posobiec, and Dan Bogino, among others. (Imagine being a member of the House of Representatives and showing up on such a distilled list of garbage people. That would make you Rep. Jim Jordan or Rep. Devin Nunes.)

I added a few of those names to my portfolio and Twitter suggested even more garbage accounts to follow in order to increase my reach. These include one of the president’s sons, the official account of the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, and quite a few FOX News show hosts:

But, I don’t want to reach all of the followers of mainstream right-wing misinformation accounts. I just want to distill an audience of the truly dupable.

So, why can I do this? Because Twitter allows garbage to exist on their platform. Think about the advantages for social media companies compared to mainstream media sources. If you tried to put a show on the air or print content that appealed to fringe audiences like this in a mainstream media outlet you’d be laughed at, and face protests against advertisers. For example, Sleeping Giants has been quite successful at getting advertisers to stop advertising on Breitbart and many FOX News shows. But that’s largely a case of mainstream businesses running ads on relatively mainstream media platforms.

What social media advertising allows is for fringe advertisers to reach fringe groups who’ve demonstrated through their online behavior that they’ll believe anything. This is an audience that’s ripe for exploitation by nefarious businesses interested in tapping into the retirement savings of the elderly. It’s a self-service way to reach soft targets, and you don’t even need to pick up the phone.

Analyzing the anti-Minneapolis 2040 Crowd’s Petition Signatures

A group of Minneapolis residents have organized themselves in an effort to continue Minneapolis’ long history of exclusionary zoning. They, sadly, use the name Minneapolis For Everyone as their brand while lobbying to keep new multi-family developments out of their neighborhoods.

It’s a “Minneapolis is for everyone as long as they’re not too close to us” approach to welcoming new neighbors.

They have a petition. Their petition claims to have over 3,000 signatures from people in support of their preference for McMansions over multi-family housing.

I decided to take a look at their petition’s signatures. 

To do this, I copied their signatures into a Google spreadsheet.

I noticed that some people listed locations that were not only not in Minneapolis, but weren’t even in the United States of America. So I counted them.

I noticed that some of the people who signed the petition seemed to pop up more than once, so I counted how many unique signatures appear on the petition (note the lower-right corner): 

If there are fewer unique names on the petition than total signatures, there must be some duplicates, right? So I counted the duplicates and found quite a few ambitious signers:

A follower of the Minneapolis 2040 Plan debate might notice that elected official, Carol Becker, has signed the petition she’s using to influence politicians, twice.

I also noticed that a some of the redlining maintenance signers weren’t willing to attach their full name to their opinions. Here’s a list of people who’re opposed to having neighbors sharing a property enough to sign a petition but not enough to sign their full name:

  • Alfred
  • Anne
  • Anthony
  • Ashley
  • Brad
  • Brenda
  • Brianna
  • Carol
  • Cathy
  • Christina
  • cindi
  • Claire
  • ClareP
  • Craig
  • Derek
  • Diachina
  • Hallie
  • Jacob
  • Jennie
  • Jill
  • Joan
  • Joe
  • Joe
  • Joe
  • Joe
  • Joe
  • Joe
  • Jorge
  • Julie
  • kaitryne
  • Karina
  • Kathleen
  • Katy
  • Kent
  • Kerry
  • Kristin
  • laura
  • Lucy
  • Mann
  • Martin
  • Michaela
  • MRutt
  • MRutt
  • Paige
  • Ryan
  • Shea
  • Shelley
  • Tera
  • Tera
  • Tera
  • Tera
  • Tera
  • Tera
  • Terri
  • Valérie

What if we look at the most popular first names of signers? Here is a list of the most popular first names among the anti-Minneapolis 2040 crowd:

And last names:

When I think about what the future of Minneapolis looks like, I’m not sure that the Johnsons, Andersons, Larsons, Nelsons, Petersons, Hansons, Olsons, Wilsons, Masons, Bensons, Carlsons, and Christophersons fully represent our future.

Will the Marys, Johns, Susans, and Marks have a place to live? Of course. As John Edwards from Wedge Live (Wedge Live the blog, not the podcast focused on “wedge issues”) has put it, the examples above represent the spectrum of Minneapolis residents ranging from single-family homeowners with mortgages to those who’ve paid off their mortgages.

“Son of ” names are popular Mexican surnames too (ending in “-ez”). I decided to check a list of the top-10 Mexican surnames to see how often they popped up on the anti-Minneapolis 2040 petition. It turns out that they did. One of them. Once.

Last Name – Signatures

  • Hernandez – 0
  • Garcia – 0
  • Lopez – 0
  • Martìnez – 0
  • Rodrìguez – 0
  • Gonzalez – 0
  • Perez – 0
  • Sanchez – 1
  • Gomez – 0
  • Flores – 0

My hope is that our elected officials (other than Carol Becker) will find this helpful when considering the size of the anti-2040 audience along with their diversity and weigh that against what our city truly looks like today and what it will look like in the future. 

Some #mnleg 2017-2018 House Bill Stats

Here are some charts summarizing bill activity at the capital this past legislative session.

Median number of bills authored: 33
A summary of the bills that received no action such as committee hearings, committee reports, or even the addition of a co-author.
A summary of the bills that received at least one action such as committee hearings, committee reports, or even the addition of a co-author.
The percentage of each author’s bills that received at least one action such as committee hearings, committee reports, or even the addition of a co-author.
A count of the number of bills by author that became law.
A percentage of  the bills by author that became law.

My one takeaway: If you wanted to get something done in the MN House, having Jim Newberger take the lead would be a very poor choice. There was an 80% chance that the bill would go nowhere, and only a 2.8% chance of a bill authored by him becoming law. And that’s with his party in charge of the MN House and Senate. 

What bill did he manage to pass? A gift to Xcel Energy that says anyone can build a natural gas power plant: 

provided that the plant is located on property in Sherburne County, Minnesota, already owned by the public utility, and will be constructed after January 1, 2018.

Keep that in mind if you ever hear Jim Newberger saying anything about wanting a free market. 

Socially Acceptable Ways to Decrease Housing Affordability #mpls2040

One argument from anti-Minneapolis 2040 Plan that I find strange is the argument that multi-family housing doesn’t improve affordability.

As I see it, the choice we’re facing in neighborhoods where single-family home prices have appreciated significantly is a choice between watching smaller homes and homes in disrepair be torn down and replaced with large single-family homes or similarly sized multi-family properties. The affordability difference between those choices is the cost to live in a unit of a duplex, triplex, or fourplex, vs a 2000+ square foot single-family home.

If affordability was truly a concern for the anti-Minneapolis 2040 plan, there are other things they could do to help keep our existing housing stock somewhat affordable. Here’s a quick list:

1. Ban additions.
2. Ban adding new bathrooms.
3. Ban converting from 1-car to 2-car garages.
4. Ban new appliances.
5. Ban solar panels.
6. Ban upgrading landscaping.
7. Ban adding anything stainless steel.
8. Ban adding anything granite.
9. Ban adding decks.
10. Ban adding patios.
11. Ban adding planter boxes.
12. Ban converting large bedrooms to two bedrooms.
13. Ban finishing basements.
14. Ban finishing attics.
15. Ban upgrading old windows.
16. Ban upgrading leaky toilets.
17. Ban upgrading leaky doors.
18. Ban upgrading old garage doors.
19. Ban upgrading old siding.
20. Ban new kitchen cabinets.

This list probably seems pretty ridiculous. Who would oppose changes like that? The point is that single-family homeowners who’re opposed to the Minneapolis 2040 Plan have no problem with people maintaining and upgrading their homes in ways that will increase their home’s value and decrease the home’s affordability.

However, if a property owner increases their property’s value by converting or rebuilding it to accommodate more than one household (another way to increase a property’s value within the same square feet), there is a risk that their entire neighborhood may collapse into the nearest lake or river.

Solar Installations in the Longfellow Neighborhood by City Block

You know how once you buy a new car you start to see that same make and model of car wherever you go? Having solar panels is kind of like that. I now tend to notice every new solar installation going in around the neighborhood. And, a lot are going it. The pace is picking up.

But, how many are there? Why not count them? So I did. I started with Google satellite view. Panels are pretty easy to spot from satellite images. I started boxing out the blocks where I found at least one property with panels (electric or water). The satellite data appears to be pretty recent, but not recent enough to capture many of this summer’s installations so I also biked around the neighborhood to see if I could find any more, and I did.

Here’s what I found:

If you know of any blocks with at least one solar panel installation that’s not on the map let me know. Or, if I have any false-positives also let me know.

A few thoughts:

1. I wasn’t the first on my block. A neighbor beat me to it by a few years.

2. The distribution throughout the neighborhood is pretty good. The panels aren’t grouped just among areas with higher priced homes. I imagine this is because solar has become quite affordable, and some solar companies are offering financing plans with little to no money down.

3. There are no panels on any homes along Edmund (the residential street along the parkway). This appears to be due to a combination of things including trees, house alignment, roof alignment, and style of roofs. But, there certainly are some good candidates for solar there.

4. Most of the new single-family homes being built in the neighborhood (that’s the only type of home we legally allow these days) are large, tall, and built in an east-west alignment so are great candidates for solar. There tend to be no trees competing for light on their roof, and wouldn’t be for at least 30 years if one was planted today. And, due to height restrictions in place now and under the Minneapolis 2040 plan, they don’t have to be concerned about losing their roof light. Also, putting panels on a roof is best when a roof is new. It doesn’t have to be brand new, but you wouldn’t want to put panels on a roof that’s going to need to be replaced soon. So, get on that if you can.

5. There are a couple sleeper solar installations in the neighborhood. Nearly all solar installations can be seen while driving by but there is energy being made in Longfellow in places that can’t be seen from a street. These include on top of Ghandi Mahal restaurant and solar PV and water installation on the back of a house along 47th Ave.

6. Our public buildings are great candidates for solar. For example, Howe Elementary could likely support 15-20X more solar production on its roof than a typical residential installation in the neighborhood. It turns out that there are creative ways to get systems like this built in order to generate energy savings for the school with no upfront costs. If Farmington, MN schools can do it, we should be able to get it done.

7. Target has a ton of solar installations nationwide, but not on our Target. They may want to make that happen in order to stay ahead of WalMart for deployed solar.

8. This Longfellow resident has a creative solar installation that combines roof-mounted panels with panels used as awnings:

This increases their square footage for solar production while also providing passive solar benefits by reducing the amount of high summer sun heating up their home (while allowing in heat from the lower winter sun). Awnings are underrated from an energy savings perspective.

So, who will be first on your block so we can turn it green?

Here’s a screenshot of the map above from August 5, 2018. I’m sure we’ll see quite a bit more green over time.

How to Get Free Audiobooks and eBooks from the Hennepin County Library

If you’re into audiobooks (ex. Audible) or ebooks (ex. Kindle) you should check out Libby. It lets you download both formats of books from your library for free.

Hennepin County at St Paul public libraries both appear to use it (I’ve only tried it with Hennepin). I just plugged in my library card number and PIN to get started. There isn’t an unlimited number of copies of the downloads so you may need to put a hold on some titles. It also allows you to filter for books available for immediate download. And, like audiobooks and ebooks in general, not every book is available in every media format.

For ebooks, you can search Libby for an ebook, then have it download your Kindle or the free Kindle app (which you can download for free to your phone, tablet, computer, etc. from your app store).