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The Green Monster

Week of 4 Jun 2007

Hardly anything in recent times has taken off with such fervor as that we are now experiencing here in the United States as pertains to so-called “green” products and services. I say “so-called” for when an issue reaches the level of emotion this one has experienced in the last few months, it takes on a gold rush style mentality which often leads to good-intentioned people being taken advantage of by charlatans.
There are certainly many ways left for us to improve our impact on the planet as industrial businesses and as individuals. And this is irrespective of the debate as to whether the planet’s ecosystem needs saving by humans. It is just good stewardship and makes sense for us to walk lightly as pertains to the recently coined phrase “carbon footprint.” Equally important, however, is that our actions make good economic and scientific sense and, most importantly, when we procure from others, that they are truly auditable “green” purchases if that is what we want.
I’ll give you a real-life example on the retail level. Our local electric power company (and, by the way, I have many friends who work there and read this column—no offense meant to you personally, please) recently had a flyer in their monthly bill offering the consumer a way to be “green” in their electrical purchases. This flyer, with a liberal dose of accent and type in the requisite color of green, of course, starts out with the headline: “Want to help improve the environment? Sign up now for green energy.”
It goes on to define green energy as “…electricity produced from environmentally friendly sources like solar, wind, hydro, biomass and landfill gas-to-energy.” Ok, I was with them until the last one, landfill gas-to-energy. Isn’t this the same constituent component methane that the hapless cows and sheep are accused of emitting and thereby wreaking environmental destruction on us all? And if you burn methane, is one not emitting polluting exhaust? Landfill gas-to-energy is certainly a savings on depleting fossil fuels, but the tailpipe is nearly the same as burning some kinds of fossil fuels, isn’t it?
But perhaps I am getting a bit too scientific. Nearly the next statement in this flyer (white type on a bold green background) says “One person buying a block of green energy every month for a year is like planting more than 125 trees.” The calculations and justifications are not provided, but I assume they relate to not burning fossil fuels and the concomitant trees required to absorb the carbon dioxide products of combustion (oops, that may not apply to the landfill gas, perhaps?).
So, what is a “block of green energy” and what does it cost? The flyer provides the answers: 100 kWh and $4.50 per month, plus tax. And, when you sign up, you will be enrolled for 12 months with automatic renewals thereafter. 
Gosh, I feel good (I am going green and avoiding planting trees—room for more shops and parking lots or perhaps cow pastures). Let’s pull out last month’s bill (the one containing the “green” flyer) and see what happens to my costs if I “go green.” Last month, we used 634 kWh of electricity for a total cost of $62.18, or $.098 per kWh (the electric company does not provide a break-out of taxes, so we will ignore that). My “green energy” purchase, apparently available in only 100 kWh blocks will add 7 x $4.50 to my bill, or $31.50. Now I am buying 634 kWh for ($62.18 + $31.50) $93.68. That’s $.0148 per kWh or an increase of right at 50% (plus some indeterminate taxes). That’s quite and increase, but after all, if I am really going green, maybe it is worth it…
Oops, there is a little disclaimer in the next paragraph: “Your program participation doesn’t guarantee you’ll receive the actual kilowatts produced by green energy generation. However, the amount purchased will replace electricity generated from traditional sources—and encourage the growth of the green energy market.” I should hope that a 50% increase in my costs would encourage the growth of the green energy market! 
Is the program auditable? Of course not. It is a “take my word for it—trust me” kind of promise.
Now, you may say, as an engineer, manager or purchasing agent in a pulp and paper mill that the example above is a retail example and that you and your colleagues are far too sophisticated to fall for such a scheme in the strict economic and scientific environment of a mill. Don’t bet on it. The green ideas proposed to you are just more sophisticated and every one of them must be thoroughly investigated to assure their validity. You, too, can be bitten by the green monster.
For safety this week, consider that any new energy source or other new process introduced into your mill brings unfamiliar and new safety hazards. If you are in charge of installing or operating such processes, work closely with your safety department in providing proper training for their use and maintenance.
Be safe and we will talk next week.

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