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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.

Should Stealing Electricity be Legal in Minnesota, @PatGarofalo?

Let’s say that you have solar panels on your house that produce electricity. At times, you may use more electricity than you produce, so you cut a check to your power company for the difference. At other times, you may produce more than you consume, so you’ll get a check back from the power company. Either way, you settle up. That’s fair.

Another way to do things would be to carry forward any net production you’ve created as credits on your bill. This is basically an interest-free loan to your utility company, so they’re cool with that. Pat Garofalo’s energy bill includes language that allows for interest free loans from rate payers to utility companies:

Screenshot 2015-04-06 23.35.23

But, it doesn’t stop there. Just look at this:

Screenshot 2015-04-06 23.35.23 copy

Legalized theft.

What’s also interesting is that the theft of rate payer’s energy generation credits isn’t unique to Minnesota. Similar language is popping up in bills around the country, including this one in Montana:

Screenshot 2015-04-07 08.55.56

If, at the end of the year, I told Xcel, “Looks like I owe you $20. I’m going to cancel that with no additional compensation.” they’d shut my power off. Legalizing the inverse of that is legalized theft of energy producers’ electricity.

I can understand why utility companies that fund and write example legislation for ALEC members would find this valuable. Free electricity is a great deal if you can convince state legislators to make stealing legal.

This is just one example of the language inserted into Pat Garofalo’s energy bill guts clean energy programs in Minnesota. If you legalize theft of energy production from residential solar producers, you reduce the incentive to install panels. That’s a good thing if you’re in the pollution business, but not good for asthmatics, environmentalists, and local small business owners who benefit from increasing our ratio of energy generated from clean sources.

@JoeSoucheray’s Cylinder Index is Twisted Logic

A friend of mine hadn’t heard of Joe Soucheray’s “cylinder index” concept before today. If you’re not familiar with it, people call into his radio show and run through how many internal combustion engine cylinders they store in their garage. The higher the number, by Soucheray’s definition and his audience’s understanding, the more manly you are.

Think about that. The more you rely upon carbon spewing engines to do manual labor, the more manly you are?

On the other hand, if I manage to commute, mow my lawn, and keep my walk clear with a cylinder index of 5, I’m less manly with those who need more (and larger) vehicles to commute and more (and larger) tools to do yard work.

If I hire a lawn service that uses gas leaf blowers that will also be used at 100+ other properties per year, can I take credit for 1/100th of a cylinder?

If I buy a friend some beer in exchange for using his 8-cylinder truck the one day per year when I could use one rather than own one myself and use for daily commutes, does that make me less manly? Can I get 0.02 cylinder index credits for that?

How many cylinder index offsets can am I due for not complaining about high gas prices while not stuck in long commutes with more than 4 idling cylinders?

What’s most strange about this to me is that some of the same people who take pride in wasteful spending and wasting finite energy resources claim to be fiscal conservatives.

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia’s description of Soucheray’s show:

Perhaps the main attraction of Garage Logic is the fact that anyone can become a citizen merely by declaring himself so—and that anything that defies logic (or is blindly followed by uncritical and emotional partisans) is open for pointed and unrelenting criticism.

Apparently, emotional, partisan behavior that leads to increased rates of asthma, exploding trains, and polluted water is acceptable in Gumption County. I suppose this comes from the same guy who sees waste in every government program that doesn’t involve subsidizing sports. Logically.

True Accountability for Mining Operations is Good Politics

Greg Seitz from Friends of the Boundary Water Wilderness wrote an excellent comment on the post I wrote about PolyMet’s mining proposal that I think it worth promoting to its own post status:

Erik – 81% of Minnesotans want our state agencies like the Pollution Control Agency and the DNR to do a better job of enforcing our environmental protection laws. ( That doesn’t seem like a “scant few” to me.

The problem is that if there’s a chance we could do this mining without polluting, it’s only going to happen because our government agencies work on behalf of the citizens and our clean water, and not just grease the skids and fast-track mining projects. Mining companies will operate to generate the highest profit possible, which is simply their nature, and we must hold them accountable to walk their talk about “environmental responsibility.”

But our agencies haven’t been doing their job. In October, the Friends of the Boundary Waters Released information, which was reported by every paper in the state, that a 36-year-old mining exploration site, less than 3 miles from the BWCAW, has been leaching toxic pollution for decades. ( The PCA has known about it, but won’t address the issue. The mining company that caused the pollution? Long gone. If we want to clean up the mess, it’ll be up to the taxpayers of Minnesota to pay for it.

A month later, we find a story in the paper about a new special unit recently set up in the MPCA that multiple sources inside the agency said is fast-tracking politically-favored projects, like these new sulfide mines which our state has absolutely no experience reviewing or permitting.

What’s the industry doing? They’re working furiously behind the scenes to weaken our environmental protections. So far, in the past couple months, we’ve seen attempts by the MPCA to relax water quality standards for manganese ( and sulfates (, two key pollutants that result from sulfide mining.

How does the industry get such favors from the MPCA? By hiring the former commissioner as a lobbyist!

Need I go on?

The point is that Minnesotans greatly value clean water. It’s our lakes that define us, and are a big part of our state’s identity. These new mines will be around for 20 or 30 years, they’ll employ half the number of people they’re promising, and when the mineral deposits are cleaned out, they’ll inevitably dissolve, file for bankruptcy, and leave taxpayers holding the bag.

It’s not just environmental radicals that are concerned about this prospect. Heck, more people in the 8th District, the big mining district, want strong “damage deposit” laws than in the 4th or 5th District. Why? Because people in the Eighth have dealt with mining companies before and know you better get the money up front. These companies don’t exist to create jobs. They exist to extract minerals as efficiently as possible. They’ll bring in skilled workers from elsewhere in the country for the most high-paying jobs. They’ll automate the mines as much as possible, and they’ll leave you and me to pay for it.

Thanks Greg.

Watch Precious Waters: A Movie on Sulfide Mining Near the Boundary Waters

Greg Seitz from Friends of the Boundary Waters mentioned in the comments of this post that I may find the movie produced by his organization worth watching. He was right.

Precious Waters is a 25 minute long overview of the threats proposed sulfide mining operations (that’s mines that use acid to extract minerals like copper, not mining for sulfide) near the Boundary Waters may have on water in and near the park, including the watershed running from the Iron Range into the St. Louis River and from there into the Lake Superior. Additionally, they point out that this sort of thing can be so loud that it could drive away tourists paying for a peaceful environment. Here is the movie.

Precious Waters: Minnesota’s Sulfide Mining Controversy from Precious Waters on Vimeo.

You can click to watch it full screen using the link to the left of the Vimeo logo on the lower right part of the window.

Schedule some time to watch this during a food coma or as a bowl game halftime show with the relatives.

PolyMet’s Plan for Copper and Nickel Mining Near the Boundary Waters

Green Ideas and Ham at Red Stag

I had a chance to attend the Green Ideas and Ham meeting hosted by Environment Minnesota at the Red Stag in November. It’s a monthly get togetherto discuss environmental issues in Minnesota, and the breakfast is really good. November’s topic was proposed mining operations near the Boundary Waters. Here is a previous write-up on the event by William Fietzer at

People who pay a lot closer attention to environmental issues in Minnesota, including issues that impact the Boundary Waters, had some great insights into the challenges faced by those who put clean water first.

Current Environmental Laws

The impression I got from presenters was that the laws on the books related to environmental regulations are generally well written. As you can probably imagine, the laws often end up on the books in reaction to earlier environmental disasters, and are designed to prevent the occurrence of future ones. At the time they were written, a serious environmental issue likely happened. People said, “something must be done”. Politicians proposed solutions with the help of environmental lobbyists. Mining companies threw a bunch of lobbyists and money at preventing the regulations. A compromised was reached. A bill became a law.

However, in practice, the laws on the books are not being enforced to the degree that they should be. Mining companies are darn good at getting around the laws. Additionally, laws are often loosened in order to accomodate new mining proposals in the name of jobs, showing that we’re not very good at learning from previous mistakes.

One thing that doesn’t seem to be well known about the proposed PolyMet mine near the Iron Range is that it’s not an iron mine. It’s mining sulfer and other more toxic elements from the earth, which then need to be leached from rocks using toxic chemicals, which is believed to lead to much more dangerous chemical run-offs than what iron mines generate. As I understand the process, ore is blasted from the earth, scooped up, crushed, then soaked in acid to separate the copper and nickel. The tailings, which are still acidic, are then disposed. Generally, the tailing piles eventually leak and damage ground water.

Try searching for “copper mine pollution” or nickel, to get a feel for the downside of mining these metals. If approved, this would be the first non-ferrous metal mine in the state.


As I understand it, PolyMet is a publicly traded Canadian company based in a skyscraper in downtown Vancouver with a CFO working a block or two from Wall Street in New York City and a Swiss based company investing $80 million in the project. Iron Range Resources chipped in $4 million as well. The people involved appear to have mining experience well beyond the people expected to regulate them. It makes me wonder if we really even know the questions we should be asking in order to make sure this goes well.

Additionally, this publicly traded Canadian company has one asset: This one mining project. A cynical person might ponder that this could be done in order to allow investors to suck the profits out of the project, claim poverty during labor negotiations, then declare bankruptcy once the mine is exhausted in order to offload the costs of reclaiming the land to MN and US taxpayers. Privatize the profits while socializing the risk.

A recent statement from PolyMet’s CEO, Joe Scipioni, regarding environmental regulations makes me wonder whether he understands the concerns of people questioning this project. To me, he sounds dismissive of legitimate concerns:

“Obviously there are people who don’t like mining; they are concerned with the environmental aspects and that’s the purpose of having an open meeting and to have that draft EIS come out so people can submit the comments, good or bad,” said Scipioni.

Having sat through presentations by people associated with organizations currently opposed to the PolyMet mine project, I didn’t get the impression that they are “people who don’t like mining”. These are people who enjoy modern conveniences that mining provides, such as cars, electricity, and cell phones. What I hear them saying is that mining’s health and environmental costs need to be understood and respected. I heard them saying that a mining project should not proceed until a mining operation such as Joe Scipioni’s PolyMet project can prove that it’s capable of mining without destroying the environment. The mine is responsible for proving that they can do this. Until they can, the shouldn’t be allowed to open the mine. Environmentalists opposed to the mine also seem to understand that the minerals in the ground are not perishable, so we could simply wait until mining technologies advance to the point where the minerals can be mined using cleaner processes. Life will go on without opening that mine at this time if the only way to open it now is to ignore the laws that are in place due to previous environmental disasters caused by mining.

The EPA also has questions that it wants answered. As the StarTribune reported back in June, only 3% of environmental reviews get marked unsatisfactory. PolyMet’s did.

Local Financial Benefits?

One attendee mentioned shared some thoughts on his experience on the range. He used to work in the iron mines, and mentioned that many people on the range are going to be sorely disappointed if they think this proposed mine will bring the Range back to the previous boom times. For one, technology has advanced to a degree that many fewer workers are needed to do the same volume of work. This happened in the iron mines as well: Technology advanced. More work was done with fewer workers. That trend is continuing, so a mine – even at full capacity – that may sound large if measured by volume, is not nearly as large if measured by economic benefit to the local community.

That being said, the mine would generate jobs in an area of the state that’s sorely in need of an economic boost. Heck the CEO (local) and CFO (not local) are paying themselves $400k/year without doing any mining, so at least two jobs have been created already.

Clean Jobs

The environmentalist crowd agreed that it’s tough to be in a position of simply saying “No” to projects that generate jobs for people who really need work. One thing they mentioned along this line is that they need to do a better job discussing the revenue potential of maintaining a clean environment, such as the very large eco-tourism market in the Arrowhead. People aren’t traveling from all over the world to Northern Minnesota to canoe on polluted lakes.


Here are a some questions I’d like to see answered:

1. Has there ever been a mine similar to this that hasn’t damaged local water and air? My assumption is that the answer to this is “NO!” since Wisconsin has a ban on sulfide mining (the acid leaching process used to extract the copper from 400 billion tons or rock) until it has been proven safe, somewhere else in the United States, for 10 years. That ban is still in place.

2. How are acid runoffs addressed in mine spills elsewhere?

3. Could it be cleaned up? For example, what if the acid used to leach minerals out of rocks reaches the water table?

4. How long will the damage last?

5. Is there any sort of escrow account that would guarantee funds would be available to clean up damage to the environment, were it to occur?

6. What are the environmental records of mines run by the corporations/people involved with PolyMet?

7. How long will it be until the acid-soaked mine tailings become inert?

8. PolyMet says that the mine will have “400 permanent jobs”. What is their definition of permanent? Are we talking about 2 decades worth of mining jobs for 400 people in exchange for hundreds of years of environmental damage? Help me weigh the accurately.

9. Why do mining companies change their names so often?

Based on what I’ve read so far, I think this comment from an Ely resident to the StarTribune’s June piece on PolyMet’s environmental challenges sums things up well:

Northern Minnesota desparately needs jobs. But neither our kids nor their friends at Ely Memorial High School are interested in spending their career underground. Ely hasn’t been a mining town in nearly 50 years. Our high school graduates go to college now. Even local proponents of the mine concede that the company may have to find itinerant workers for the underground jobs. Why risk Minnesota’s greatest treasure, our border lakes vacation land, for the benefit of a Canadian company and their Swiss investors?
posted by pschurke on Jun. 26, 10 at 12:18 PM

Do Minnesota’s benefits justify the costs?

The Ultimate Green Initiative for Target Stores: Condos

Target Corporation recently announced plans to become a greener company through a combination of supply chain efficiencies, store designs, and waste stream tactics. They’re great goals that should have a significant impact on the environment, considering Target’s size.

If Target manages to reduce their landfill waste by 15%, gas emissions by 10%, and water usage by 10% over the next 10 years, I’ll be impressed. However, I think Target should think bigger.

Target may be able to have an even bigger impact on the environment if they cut down the average transportation costs of visitors to their stores. Here is the issue: While it may be possible to stick 10% more on the trucks heading to Target stores, thus reducing trips and spewing less carbon to stock a store, transportation from the stores to homes remains a larger environmental cost.

Target is already fairly efficient at getting stuff from China to their stores. That’s because there is both an environmental AND financial benefit to doing this efficiently due to savings on fuel, trucks, and labor.

Target doesn’t pay for the fuel, cars, and labor involved in getting their products to your home, so the environmental cost of delivering products the last few miles from China goes unaccounted for at Target.

How could Target change this, and do so in a way that would help them both environmentally and financially? Build condos in their parking lots.

Take a look at the Target store on Lake Street at Hiawatha in Minneapolis for an example of how this could be done. Here is, approximately, how much land they have, between the store’s footprint, driveways for trucks, and parking for customers:

Target Store on East Lake Street

The southeast corner of their vast parking lot is, essentially, an asphalt wasteland in the middle of the city of Minneapolis.

Unused Parking Space at Target

Environmentally, that big piece of pavement isn’t helping anyone. However, what if a condo was sitting on that land? For example, I think the Cobalt Condominium building in NE would fit into that spot:

Cobalt Condominiums in NE Minneapolis

Cobalt is a 10 story building with 107 units ranging in size from 866 to 4,228 square feet. That would increase the number of Target shoppers within walking distance by 250 or more. And, they wouldn’t be just any Target shoppers. These would be people who would truly rely upon Target for daily trips for things like milk and eggs, pharmacy, etc.

That location would be a serious draw for people interested in walking to the ultimate in big box retail, a wide variety of excellent restaurants, and many transit options including the LRT.

Were Target to make this urban store less suburban, by bringing their customers to their doorstep, they could lower the carbon footprint of their average customer while simultaneously benefiting financially.

By the way, another place to look for inspiration is Edina. The Westin Galleria is a 446,000 sq ft building with 225 hotel rooms and 82 condos. They even built underground access to the Galleria shopping center next to Southdale, making it very easy for residents and guests to lighten their wallets without the need to drive. This happens to be across the street from a Target store, which surely profits from people walking to their store from the nearby condos and hotel rooms.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Target should build Target branded condos. I’d just like to see them make better use of their parking lots in a way that should benefit both Target and the environment by creating a living situation that’s appealing to many of their customers.

Thoughts on Municipal vs. Private Trash Collecting

Every once in a while, i get in a debate with someone regarding whether municipal or private trash hauling is a better option for a city’s residents. The video below breaks down my position on this never ending debate:

To be clear, the municipal proposal doesn’t necessarily mean that the trash collectors are city employees. More likely, they would be government contractors from one or more companies with non-overlapping route contracts.

PS: The goals checkboxes on the upper-left part of the white board are Carly’s. She just finished her 6-month goal of running a 20-miler a month for 6 months.

New Refrigerator’s Impact on Power Consumption

One thing the Google Powermeter taught me over time was that our biggest energy gain would come through upgrading our refrigerator to a more efficient model. Our old one worked fine, but used more energy than a 2010 model of the same size and specs does.

We got around to upgrading ours after Carly donated our previous one to the Boys & Girls Club based on a tweet they sent out on March 9ththat was retweeted by the Heavy Table on their Tweet Rodeo asking if anyone had one they’d be willing to donate.

So, did the new fridge make a noticeable difference in power consumption? Yes. You can see it here in the dark green bars near the bottom of this chart:

Impact of New Refrigerator

The dark green bars represent “always on power” so things like refrigerators, clocks, and vampire power being consumed by TVs and other appliances.

As far as I can tell, it looks like our monthly power bill will drop by around $7/month because of this change. At that rate, the fridge will pay for itself through energy savings in a bit over 8 years. Faster if electricity costs rise, although the EIA isn’t projecting much increase in the next decade.