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Friday, December 29, 2006

Fossil Fuel Watch: Meet My Solar Clothes Dryer

by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
Vol. 5, Number 9, December 28, 2006

A year ago my wife was firmly in charge the household laundry. Now, not only am I washing and drying all our clothes, including the sheets, towels, and pillow cases, I find myself looking forward to doing it. What is going on here?

A divorce? Wrong answer. Anyway, that would only explain the shift in personnel, not the attitudinal change. A personality transfer à la “Freaky Friday”? Incorrect. This is not a case of life imitating a Disney movie.

Place the blame instead on our rooftop solar water heating system, which was installed in January 2006. That purchase challenged me to think about integrating our solar ration"the daily allotment of sunlight that falls on our house and yard"more effectively into our regular routines. And few routines are as unavoidable as doing the laundry.

It so happens that we share a clothesline with two neighboring households. In years past, my wife would hang the clothes out to dry during the warm summer months, but in the colder months she would simply transfer the wet clothes to the gas-fired dryer stacked above the washing machine.

One may wonder: why deviate from that routine? Using the washing machine and dryer in our decidedly unfinished basement would allow her to go through a week’s worth of dirty laundry and finish the job in three hours.

But some time this spring, a question started plaguing me: if it’s a good thing to use sunlight instead of natural gas to wash clothes, why isn’t it equally true for drying them? And if my solar panel can preheat up my water tank on a sunny day in March, why not rely on the same energy source to dry the wet clothes after they’ve been washed?

With these questions tumbling round and round inside my brain, I decided to take action by commandeering the laundry and doing it myself. So what did I learn?

First and foremost, weather conditions should be the deciding factor in selecting when to do the wash. On cold days, clothes dry much faster in breezy, sunny days than in slack days under overcast skies. If you’re depending on the weather to deliver the energy it takes to dry your laundry, you’ll need scheduling flexibility and an opportunistic attitude. And I can’t emphasize enough the value of periodically checking the Internet weather sites, particularly the radar images, to avoid being unpleasantly surprised by sun showers or swiftly moving thunderstorms.

Everything you hang on the solar dryer, as I like to call it, will become dry over time. The same is true for garments hung inside your house or apartment. But there will be occasions, especially around the winter solstice, when there isn’t enough solar energy outside to finish the job by sundown. If your goal is to avoid using a fossil-fueled dryer, then you’ll need to deploy a drying rack or two to take advantage of the low-humidity warmth inside your dwelling. In the dead of winter, your furnace or wood stove can deliver whatever supplemental heat is needed to dry a full load of laundry in a 24-hour cycle.

Since I’ve taken over laundry duties, the combination of our solar ration and the available indoor heat handles about 80% of what the gas dryer used to do. The only action the gas dryer sees these days is towels and heavy garments.

And how is my obsession with the solar ration affecting our bottom line? While it’s too soon to estimate an annual savings, we did use about 20% less natural gas this November versus the year-earlier period, even though November 2005 was a much warmer month.

The rewards of a well-used solar dryer are by no means limited to the energy and dollar savings reported on the monthly utility bill. The best part of the package is the time spent outside. There you can take the pulse of the day from the sunlight, clouds, air temperature, wind and humidity that make up this continuous flux of energy that we call the weather. Relying on solar energy in this way makes a person more attuned to the ebb and flow of weather conditions. Yes, forsaking the fossil-fueled dryer for the great outdoors does take more time and effort, but it’s a small price to pay for eliminating the drudgery that comes with doing the laundry on autopilot.

Amazingly enough, community prohibition of clotheslines is not uncommon in the United States. Ironically, this inane belief that the sight of gym trunks and sweat socks hanging in a yard will drive property values lower is strongest in the Sun Belt, a region where solar drying"and water heating--should be the norm and not the exception. What can you say about a mindset that thinks nothing of wasting a precious fossil fuel on doing the laundry just to keep up appearances? Given how prevalent this silly and self-destructive behavior is in our land, is the imminent arrival of the oil peak and terminally declining natural gas stocks necessarily a bad thing?


Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch is a RENEW Wisconsin initiative tracking the supply demand equation for these fossil fuels, and analyzing its effects on prices,
consumption levels, and the development of energy conservation strategies and renewable energy alternatives. For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit "The End of Cheap Oil" section in RENEW Wisconsin's web site: These commentaries also posted on RENEW’s blog:
and Madison Peak Oil Group’s blog:

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mid-Term Elections: Renewable Energy Cleans Up

by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
November 16, 2006

The gale-force winds that reshaped the political landscape this November augur well for new initiatives to substitute fossil fuel use with renewable energy.

To a degree unmatched in previous elections, candidates articulated an energy agenda that emphasized greater reliance on bioenergy, wind, solar, and conservation—and won, often by convincing margins. The renewable energy tide swept through not only both chambers of Congress but also many statehouses across the country. Only the Southeastern states seemed to escape its impact.

For example, the incoming governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, distinguished himself by endorsing the controversial Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound. Patrick’s sensible support for what could be the nation’s first offshore windpower plant is a welcome departure from the unremitting hostility that his predecessor, Mitt Romney, directed toward it.

In Patrick’s eyes, Cape Wind is the only large-scale generating option that does not add to the load of greenhouse gases emanating from Massachusetts sources. Contrast that understanding with Romney’s decision to pull Massachusetts out of a New England-wide greenhouse gas reduction initiative and you’ll begin to appreciate just how much more friendly towards renewable energy the Bay State will be.

Here in Wisconsin, Governor Jim Doyle repeatedly pointed to his leadership on energy policy, highlighted by the recently adopted Efficiency and Renewables Law, as a compelling reason to return him to office.

This law, which will increase the renewable energy content of the state’s electricity to 10% by 2015, was the culmination of a bipartisan, deliberative, consensus-building process that took more than two years to complete.

By contrast, Doyle’s challenger, Congressman Mark Green, was unable to persuade voters that he, too, staunchly supports renewables. Moreover, voter perceptions of Green were colored by his long association with the “drill ‘em dry” camp in the House of Representatives, as exemplified by Tom DeLay and Richard Pombo. The disparity in their respective energy agendas contributed to Doyle’s surprisingly easy reelection.

There were a few Republicans, like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chose effective governance over the strident partisanship that characterized the 109th Congress. This summer, Schwarzenegger and the Democratic-controlled state legislature worked cooperatively to pass a landmark law that seeks to cut California's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent, dropping them to 1990 levels by 2020. This initiative will undoubtedly increase renewable energy’s market share in the Golden State.

For clean energy supporters, the sweetest moment came when voters in California’s 11th District handed the aforementioned Richard Pombo a stinging defeat. Pombo, who has never met an environmental law he didn’t try to repeal, is the architect of a House bill that would open up the entire Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas drilling. In a symbolic twist, Pombo lost to a challenger, Jerry McNerney, who has worked in the wind energy industry for over two decades.

The campaigns of Patrick, Doyle, Schwarzenegger and McNerney succeeded in framing renewable energy as an economic development strategy that also happens to prevent pollution and address national security. And, as happened during Doyle’s and Schwarzenegger’s first terms, it is possible to mobilize strong bipartisan backing for pro-renewable energy initiatives even in the teeth of an election year.

The election results are indicative of two positive developments: that Americans are taking energy issues more seriously, and that renewable energy’s appeal now transcends partisan affiliations. We now have, for the first time in many years, a window of opportunity to establish a responsible national energy policy instead of the smorgasbord of subsidies we now have.

Indeed, the message from the voters could not be clearer: let conservation and renewables lead the way to a cleaner, healthier, more secure energy future.

Vickerman is executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, an independent, nonprofit organization that acts as a catalyst to advance a sustainable energy future through public policy and private sector initiatives. For more information on RENEW’s work, visit our web site: These commentaries also posted on RENEW’s weblog.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Draining Canada First

Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch, Vol. 5, Number 8
by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
November 2, 2006

Sating America’s prodigious energy appetite depends on the continued availability of Canadian energy sources. About 25% of the crude oil and 80% of the natural gas imported into the United States come from our very accommodating neighbor to the north. More than half of the fuel pumped out of Canadian wells heads south to keep us Yankees warm and happily tooling about on our highways.

Even though the Canadian economy is no less dependent on hydrocarbon energy than ours, Canada has been drilling as many wells as necessary to keep the high-maintenance American economy humming. If this pedal-to-the-metal production policy were applied to a non-strategic product like, say, maple syrup, few people would care about the consequences. But there is nothing on the horizon to replace the nonrenewable high-density energy sources that Canada so generously sends our way.

This begs the question: how long can Canada go on behaving like America’s most compliant energy colony?

Not very long, according to David Hughes, a petroleum geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada. Speaking before the World Peak Oil Conference held in Boston last week, Hughes painted a remarkably pessimistic picture of Canada’s energy future, especially regarding natural gas.

Despite record drilling activity, natural gas extraction volumes have slipped from the peak set in 2002, and output per well is now declining at an annual rate of 28%. Put another way, just to keep the output from declining this decade, producers must complete nearly one-third more wells in 2007 than in this year, and then repeat that achievement in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

That would be a daunting challenge even if there were rigs and drilling crews standing by. As it now stands, there is no spare capacity of this sort anywhere in North America.

With only eight years of proven reserves left in Canada, Hughes suspects that natural gas output is about to fall off a cliff. Barring a miracle or two, Canada will soon experience challenges in providing for its own citizens, let alone producing surplus volumes bound for American furnaces.

A potentially wrenching resource conflict is now brewing on our continent, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), under which Canada effectively gave up sovereignty over its fossil energy inheritance. As a signatory, Canada is prohibited from cutting back energy exports, even in the event of a domestic supply crunch. But how long would Canada honor its obligations under NAFTA if doing so resulted in its citizens freezing to death? American policymakers would be wise to explore how that scenario might play out.

If that weren’t enough, natural gas is also the key to expanding the production of oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta, the only oil-producing region left in North America that can increase output. It is the only available fuel for producing the pressurized steam needed to separate bitumen, a low-grade oil, from sand. Shrinking natural gas supplies would quickly reduce the flow of bitumen into the U.S., further complicating Canada’s energy dilemma.

The irony of sacrificing a premium energy source to make more low-grade fuel for export was not lost on Hughes, who closed with a quote from a Canadian energy executive. “Using natural gas to produce oil from tar sands is akin to turning gold into lead.”

Vickerman is executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization promoting conservation and renewable energy sources.


Energy Information Agency, October 2006 Monthly Energy Review

Hughes, David: "North American Natural Gas Production Trend and Implications for Canadian Tar Sands Production,” 2006 Boston World Oil Conference, Boston University, October 2006.

Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch is a RENEW Wisconsin initiative tracking the
supply demand equation for these fossil fuels, and analyzing its effects on prices,
consumption levels, and the development of energy conservation strategies and renewable energy alternatives. For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit "The End of Cheap Oil" section in RENEW Wisconsin's web site:

Monday, January 2, 2006

Peak Oil: Are We Headed Over a Cliff?

A presentation prepared by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin's executive director, from two presentations at the first ever ASPO-USA conference held in Denver, November 2005, and slides that he's been using since 2002.

Complete presentation here.