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By Liz Bloomhardt
Published September 29, 2011

Google added Duke. Duke is in the Google circle.

Since Duke is a socially connected campus, that may not have surprised you, but would you have guessed the connection was made over hog waste?

In early September, Google announced it had partnered with the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative (DCOI) to invest in and purchase offsets from the recently operational Loyd Ray Farms Swine Waste-to-Energy Project developed in partnership between DCOI and Duke Energy.

Before I go any further, let me remind you that an offset is a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Under proposed cap and trade programs, for example, offsets would come from reductions that take place in a sector of the economy that is not regulated under the cap. In the currently unregulated market, offsets are essentially one person saying to another “I will pay you to reduce your emissions because I can’t reduce mine, but I’m going to take the credit for that reduction.”

This is exactly the case for Google. In 2007, Google decided that it would become carbon neutral. According to the Google Green Blog, it has pursued neutrality on three fronts: increasing its energy efficiency, purchasing and driving the market for renewable energy sources and purchasing offsets for the remainder of their emissions. According to company literature Google has been carbon neutral since 2007.

Duke is not a mint like Google with its ad revenue. Google’s role in the offsets market is primarily to drive demand for high quality offsets; the mission of the University and the DCOI is slightly different. Instead of simply purchasing existing offsets in an underdeveloped market, DCOI was established in June 2009 with a dual objective. The first objective is to develop a portfolio of offsets for Duke to purchase in 2024, the target date for carbon neutrality. The second objective of the DCOI is to act as a catalyst for innovation and standards development within the burgeoning North Carolina offsets market in particular, and in so doing, share that learning with the broader community.

To fulfill this mission, DCOI is developing projects, banking offsets and brokering offsets to develop more offsets. DCOI is engaging the University research community, students, funding agencies and Duke Energy to develop the knowledge base for future offsets models in an open and transparent way.

In the brief history of the DCOI, the Loyd Ray Farms Swine Waste-to-Energy Project is an excellent first.

It took about three years to develop and construct the open source system from off the shelf technology. In addition to destroying the methane produced by the hogs, the system powers a 65-kW microturbine that feeds electricity back onto the farm and also powers the waste water treatment process which treats odors, ammonia emissions, nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals. The system, which came online in May, 2011, also controls releases to surface and groundwater.

Before full success can be declared, reliability of the system must be confirmed, other co-benefits must be measured and verified and the cost of the system needs to come down so the benefits are a net positive for the farmers.

Google, it turns out, has high standards for its offsets. Their involvement on the project not only lends a high level of production value, it is also an endorsement of the DCOI and Duke Energy project in particular.

So is all of this a green-washing hogwash?

As Google’s Green Team will tell you, capturing and converting methane into carbon dioxide may seem counter-intuitive. But, methane, the target pollutant of agricultural and landfill gas collection systems is a potent greenhouse gas, 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. So the conversion works out to a significant reduction.

On the other hand, the offsets generated by this project and enabled through a cap and trade scheme are an end-of-pipe solution. They achieve a marginal improvement. Plus, both of these sources of methane, agriculture and landfills, don’t just exist naturally, society creates them through supply and demand for meat and a disposable lifestyle.

So DCOI, now with the support of Google, is doing more than just putting lipstick on a pig. But we need to remember that the DCOI is just one initiative under the Climate Action Plan and Duke’s journey toward being carbon neutral.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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By Liz Bloomhardt
Published September 1, 2011

I started the day out in Page Auditorium, surrounded by first-years who were eagerly introducing themselves and comparing the size and location of their dorm rooms. Many of them had a green book with white writing splashed across the cover: their summer reading assignment.

In an attempt to follow-up on my column last Spring about the book, “Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer, I attended both sessions of the author’s speech to the first-year students, then sat with a FAC-led discussion group after each lecture.

The unprompted discussions surrounding the book may have reached deeper and more complex places than those I observed. Yet, the gist of this book’s impact was clearly evident and it ran the spectrum.

Some members of the Class of 2015 were uncomfortable, bored or otherwise turned off by the book. Some didn’t finish it, or claimed to have been unmoved. On the other hand, approximately 60 to 70 percent of the freshmen I spoke with said they had altered their eating habits significantly, had tried for at least some time to be vegetarians or had become full-fledged vegetarians.

It would therefore seem that Foer was extremely successful in his argument. I agree with him from an environmental perspective, Foer has the facts in his corner. Factory farming is bad, and that’s not even getting into the health or animal welfare issues associated with consuming meat.

But what bothered me most all day were the things Foer did not talk about. Foer’s seems to assert that the best way to address the problem of factory farming is to become a vegetarian. Though I understand space in the book was limited, this is simplistic. In a sense, it is the opt-out method. The book not only does nothing to address the factory farming issue culturally (a word Foer never uses), it also under informs.

One student in each question and answer session asked Foer why he stopped shy of veganism, that is, before fully personally confronting the factory farming of all animal products. Time, and that he’s not perfect, was the general gist of the response. The answer hardly seemed satisfying, although certainly, as he also pointed out, it was more approachable than an academic or logical explanation.

He also did not talk about the sourcing of the alternative option he presents, namely vegetables and the attendant issues related to their industrialized production. While arguably less impactful than animal product production, industrialized vegetable agriculture should be no less of a concern to the truly engaged and thoughtful eater.

Those who entered Foer’s discussion were presented with a local way to get further involved: a bookmark with the website: http://sites.duke.edu/food/

As the sun was nearing the treetops, I was headed toward one such center for engagement (also described on the website), the Duke Campus Farm, a sustainable, organic, demonstration farm with the motto: farm to fork, student to student. Foer’s choice to remain silent about vegetables wasn’t going to stop me from learning about them.

In the space of a three hour “workday,” I learned a lot—like how to prune basil, pick corn and what was making the tomato plants look dead but still productive (blight). I also learned about corn smut, a fungus that attacks the corn kernels making them appear engorged.

While I was harvesting your Marketplace meal of last Friday (no smut included), I also bonded with my fellow farm workers, who were a bit more practiced and knowledgeable. I eventually found my cherry tomato picking rhythm, but I would probably not cut it in a competitive work environment.

And then there was a rustling under the leaves of the sweet potato patch. A bunny. It was impossible to see unless it moved. The others came with sticks and a strong conviction that the bunny must go, but whether to relocate it or kill it was an open question. For several minutes we puzzled through the ridiculous notions that the bunny would go lightly into the proffered bucket for relocation, or when prompted, opt for a ride in the snare tarp instead of escaping under it. Meanwhile the bunny had other plans entirely, and it elusively outmaneuvered the big sticks, buckets and tarps making a clean getaway back the way it came.

So it was that the day’s literal and philosophical puzzle boiled down to that age old question: To kill or not to kill the bunny? And, how?

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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By Liz Bloomhardt
Published March 25, 2011

The Duke community is having a food awakening, and next year’s incoming class of freshmen are getting a front row seat at the table.

The latest in a long line of food-related events, debates and campaigns on campus was the selection in February of Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, as the summer reading assignment for the incoming Class of 2015 at both UNC and Duke.

Having snuck a copy of Foer’s book into my own stocking at Christmas (next to a copy of Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara) I took the opportunity over Spring break to do a little reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel like any lunch after reading Foer’s book. It may be an easy read, but Eating Animals is an emotional sucker punch.


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