Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hemp Hemp Hooray

Darlene Naolhu

It’s interesting to say that one of the most controversial plants in society can help play a massive role in the agricultural and industrial world and possibly assist in preventing ecocide as we know it. Cannabis sativa L also known as hemp, is a world-wide common herb known for its array of varietal uses and its potential role in the ‘Green Future’. However, because of its ties to the abused illicit psychoactive drug and counterpart, marijuana, the United States government has made it almost impossible to obtain a license to grow hemp for industrial use.

For the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, student organization, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), is continuing its fight for awareness and change of the current federal laws placed on the notorious plant. As an organization that publicizes the war on drugs and general issues concerning incarceration and higher education of drugs, members of SSDP also find that informing the public of industrial hemp legalization is essential for the future.

“We have discussed and informed the advantages of legalizing hemp to our members and believe that Cannabis, both hemp and marijuana, are important for a more sustainable country,” said Ashley Barys, a former president of SSDP at Illinois State University and a present member at U of I.

SSDP is hoping to spread awareness by participating in this year’s 2009 Global Marijuana March in May to support Cannabis legalization and help inform the public of the benefits of industrial hemp and medical marijuana. As of now, many of the world’s natural resources are in decline as a result of human activities. Many fear that the world may face ecocide without intervention.

According to Barys, industrial hemp can be used to make a variety of different products such as paper, fiber, oil, and fuel and take the place of many natural resources that are rapidly being degraded.

“It’s would play a key role in saving our environment, but it can also save our economy and educational institutions. Legalizing hemp can allow new research, generate new revenues and create more jobs for agriculture majors. At the same time, we get the benefits of saving the ecosystem,” said Christopher Meyer, a member of SSDP and a huge supporter of industrial hemp legalization.

Because the United States is the only industrialized country that does not cultivate hemp, it has to rely on importing hemp products into the country while spending more money than necessary.

“It’s a shame that a plant that has been grown for hundreds of years and can effectively help our country’s resources, has been banned because the government and public are poorly informed,” said Barys. Both Meyers and Barys believe that informing the public about the advantages of Cannabis can help undo the misinterpretations that have been previously made.

Current laws in the U.S. only allow eight states –Kentucky, Maine, Hawaii, Maryland, Vermont, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana to grow hemp for industrial purposes and research. Obtaining a permit to be able to grow hemp is extremely hard and Federal Government control is strict. The controversy lies in allowing American farmers the freedom to grow hemp freely without particular government restrictions.

On April 2nd, Congressmen Ron Paul of Texas and Barney Frank of Massachusetts introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2009 bill also known as H.R. 1866 to the U.S. House in hopes of finding a way to reduce reliance on natural resources and push forward to pursuing a more sustainable country.

“We’re really hoping that this time it goes through. It would be one step closer to our goals and working towards a self-sustainable country,” said Barys.

For the Love of Environmentally Friendly Products

Kimberly Leifker

Consumers looking for environmentally friendly products are beginning to have an easier go at finding them these days. New products that are better for the environment and easy on the wallet are not far and few between any longer. Companies like ThinkGeek and EcoGeekLiving are marketing sun jars which have been referred to as the evironmentally friendly night light. The concept of sun jars is ultimately as follows: a solar powered garden light usually resides on the inside (the light source), the jar is frosted and the light sits on the inside. The solar panel charges the battery during the day and then during the night is uses that charged energy into light. Instead of using a night light, this jar could be used a soft-light alternative. Several reviewers were unhappy with the amount of time the jar would stay lit during the night. This could be a potential problem, but they are handy for at least a few hours of light during the evening. In addition, they would be great for mood lights or enhancers, especially if therer were more than one used to light up a room.

While this little jars of light are quite the innovation, they can be quite costly. The jars range anywhere from $25.00 to $45.00. In order to bypass the cost, there are numerous websites that offer helpful tips and step-by-step product assembly so you do not have to break your wallet to contribute a healthy environement. Do-It-Yourself activities have become a fun and creative activity, as well as a method for saving money. Websites like Instructables.com and NotMartha.org offer step by step instruction for creating your own little ray of sunshine.

Another product that has hit the market full force are reusable cloth sandwich bags. Websites like Reusablebags.com and Snacktaxi.com offer a wide variety of colors and patterns. This product is available in do-it-yourself forums as well. However, if one were to calculate the amount of money spent on plastic sandwich bags in a given year, the cost of a set of 3 sandwich bags is quite reasonable.

Picture one: ecochildsplay.com

Picture two: www.4myearth.com with sandwich

Picture three: www.naturallygreen.co.uk sun jars night/day
Picture four: www.thegreenhead.com sun jar plain

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Algae Biofuels

Kimberly Hawthorne

In his lab, Lance Schideman holds a small vial upside-down over a dish, waiting for the thick black substance to creep out. As soon as it does, the area immediately smells of crude oil. It’s hard to believe that this oil has not been drilled from the earth, but was actually produced from algae.

Algae biofuels not only provide a source of alternative fuel, but can also alleviate other environmental problems. Schideman, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Illinois, is currently involved in several research projects that incorporate algae biofuels with environmental issues.

“We are really trying to marry up environmental benefits with energy production,” Schideman said. “For too long these two things have competed.”

In one research project, Schideman and a team that includes engineering students are planning to use emissions from Abbott Power Plant, located on First Street in Champaign, to grow algae. “The idea is to show that we can sequester carbon dioxide into algae and subsequently convert algae into biofuels,” he said.

The project received funding in January from the Campus Sustainability Committee. Algae cultures are currently being grown in dozens of flasks in Schideman’s lab. In the next few weeks, reactors will be installed at the power plant and algae growth can begin.

Because it is a demonstration project, an “insignificant quantity” of carbon dioxide will be diverted from the power plant’s system to grow algae, Schideman said. After the project proves its viability, a larger scale project is possible, but would require a massive land area to consume all of the carbon dioxide emissions, he added.

While it is not the first of its kind, the algae sequestration project at Abbott Power Plant is unique in that the algae will be nourished by wastewater. According to Manfredo Seufferheld, assistant professor in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University, the necessary nutrients for algae growth are usually provided through fertilizers, which can add a significant cost to the process.

Seufferheld’s research focuses on growing algae under stress, which causes the cells to produce more oil but also stunts their growth. Despite a decreased growth rate, algae can grow in areas where other organisms cannot, such as salty groundwater and wastewater, he said.

Since last August, Schideman has been researching methods to grow algae on animal wastewaters. The project, funded by the Dudley Smith Initiative, treats wastewater by allowing algae to grow on it and remove its nutrients. The resulting algal biomass is then converted into fuel.

“We have an environmental benefit in that we eat up the nutrients from the animal waste and don’t discharge them into the environment and, at the same time, we have a fuel benefit,” Schideman said.

According to Seufferheld, untreated wastewaters are problematic when dumped into rivers and lakes, creating algae breeding grounds. Too much algae can degrade an ecosystem by disrupting its oxygen cycle, he said.

This is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is believed that algae are nourished by agricultural fertilizer run-off in the Mississippi River. When the algae blooms die, bacteria consume them and the ecosystem’s oxygen, Schideman said.

In another project funded by the Office of Research in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Schideman is investigating ways to harvest the Gulf’s algae for biofuel production. Harvesting it would cause more immediate effects on the aquatic ecosystem than other solutions to the fertilizer problem, which include wetland construction along the Mississippi River and a reduction in fertilizer use.

Algae’s ability to flourish in marginal environments presents a major advantage to its use as a biofuel source. According to Seufferheld, growing algae in otherwise useless areas rather than on farmland may relieve some of the controversies in the food versus fuel debate, which is a major concern with crop biofuels.

Compared with using crops for fuel, algae is much more efficient. “Algae will fall in the range of 1,000 to 10,000 gallons per acre, depending on which strain you use and how much you’re willing to project lab conditions into full-scale field conditions,” Schideman said. “Full-scale field trials right now are operating in the range of 2,000 to 2,500 gallons per acre.” Corn only produces 300 to 500 gallons of ethanol per acre, he added.

The idea of algal biofuels may seem outrageous, but is actually gaining popularity: according to both Seufferheld and Schideman, commercial airline jets have successfully been flown using algae biofuels. They are also compatible with today’s cars.

“It’s a promising area that we can use to solve this problem of marginal lands,” Seufferheld said, adding that although algae biofuels are not the “magic cure” to our petroleum issue, they may become a very important source of alternative fuel. However, they are still expensive to produce due to costs associated with harvesting and oil extraction, he said.

Schideman hopes to see cost-efficient technologies for algae biofuels in ten years, but predicts that it will take 30 to 50 years for infrastructure and regulations to catch up with science. In the meantime, he plans to offer tours of the sequestration project at Abbott Power Plant during the fall semester.

Here's an op-ed on Energy Billing from the YMCA's own Suhail Barot

Over the course of its existence, the University has planned, designed, built and operated its facilities with one very large assumption - that energy is free. In other words in the past there has been no incentive to control consumption. This, fortunately is quickly changing. As we approach the end of another academic year, the university is preparing to implement a program of individual billing for energy consumption at the college level. The change is scheduled to begin on 1st July. This has far reaching implications for our campus, from services, administration, and operations to residential and academic programs.

Historically, the University has paid the freight on our energy bills at the campus level from one administrative account. This has meant that no single entity had any incentive to conserve or even think about its energy consumption, excepting highly motivated individuals who acted out of the goodness of their hearts. But a dependency on altruism is precarious – i.e. it doesn’t work. From 2003 to 2008, our campus energy bills increased nearly 270%. This dramatic increase in our energy costs has burdened our campus with about $90 million dollars in debt. Because of recent concurrent increases in per unit energy costs it is somewhat problematic to pin the jump only on a lack of effort in conservation, but the facts remains – we have had no conservation program and per unit cost increases are modest compared to the 270% growth rate. Comparatively, our use of energy is third highest amongst all Big 10 campuses. Last year, we spent $70 million dollars on energy, releasing over half a million tons of CO2.

The current plan for encouraging conservation includes metering usage and ceding control of energy budgets to colleges (and eventually departments). Some may argue that colleges should not be in the business of managing their facilities, that their expertise lies elsewhere – i.e. educating the next crop of world leaders. In our opinion, we must get a handle on energy consumption by any means possible, and this is a step in the right direction. It distributes critical information on how and what is being used back to the users and if processed correctly, can create incentive for conservation by allowing the colleges to keep any monetary savings generated. But clearly, the success of such a program depends entirely on the incentive structure.

For example, during his visit last week Amory Lovins, Director of the Rocky Mountain Institute and a critical thinker on energy issues described a school district in New Orleans, where such a program was initiated. Within a year of starting the program, they had generated $50,000 in savings for one of their schools. A new superintendent however, questioned an incentive structure of that paid students for ‘something they should be doing anyways‘ and canceled the program. With the incentive removed the savings soon disappeared.

One excellent result of the billing program discussion has been that many campus units have been seeking out alternative ways to raise capital for energy conserving projects. This has lead to a discussion on the efficacy of utilizing student sustainability and energy fees to reduce energy consumption and costs through the establishment of a revolving loan program where student monies would fund projects but be ‘paid back’ with the energy savings the projects produce. The idea is modeled after Harvard’s Green Campus Loan Fund that has loaned out around $11.5 Million and generated over $4 Million in energy cost savings to date. The student Sustainability Committee – the organization that oversees the distribution of student energy and sustainability fees, is in the process of developing a pilot program involving three potential sites: Campus Rec, the College of LAS and the Department of Animal Sciences. Each project would receive an energy loan form the students with the promise to return the investment over time as savings in energy accrue. After the initial capital is returned the entity keeps all future savings. With many energy projects currently able to pay back in less than 2 years, this idea has generated much interest. In our opinion, the campus should consider a similar model using the energy component of the Deferred Maintenance funding pool, much of which is derived from the student paid AFMFA fee.

The campus, instead of building on student innovation and expanding such a much needed program, has repeatedly attempted to thwart it. From using artificially low utility rates (the campus uses 0.075 per kwh, while the cost of commercial power is closer to 0.100 per kwh) to increase payback times, to engaging proposals for the campus to keep ½ of any savings generated (thereby reducing probable activity by at least ½), to openly opposing student involvement, the campus seems bent on placing barriers to success.

These barriers reduce the incentive to act. It is well known that one of the only ways to get people to pay attention to energy conservation is to increase its costs. If for example, half the savings that units achieve is held back, it changes a three year payback project that’s a no-brainer into a 6 year payback project that is much more difficult to finance. Similarly when utilities rates are low, pay backs increase. In fact, the most effective way to obtain additional revenue would be to impose a surcharge on the utility rates, or charge units at market rates further increasing the motivation to reduce energy use.

As we noted, its all about incentives. We know that many budget priorities exist. But energy conservation represents one of the best investments available. Returns can exceed 25% on simple energy conservation investments (we challenge the UI Foundation to match its potential!). The campus needs money to pay down the utilities deficit. But this should not come at the expense of reducing conservation projects. The colleges and departments weren’t responsible for the current energy budget deficit and our collective message should be, “Hands off our Savings!.”

In the spirit of Earth Week, we ask all students and faculty to contact our college deans and Provost Katehi (katehi@illinois.edu) to implore them to guard our ability to act on these issues, by building on student programs, and retaining incentives to act on energy issues and to make sure that energy costs and savings are fairly distributed and returned.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Engineers Assist with Fuel Crisis

Beth Papanek

It’s not news to anyone that the fuel situation in this country as well as the world is a growing problem. It’s not even news that there are groups on campus and research facilities that are worried and attempting to do something about it; however, one group that is taking a particularly strong stand in the alternative energy aspect of life on campus is Engineering Without Borders (EWB). This organization is in charge of numerous projects around the globe that deal with reducing energy use and helping developing nations. They also have a domestic project.

The Biofuel Initiative is an attempt to reduce fuel needs on campus specifically. Hundreds of gallons of vegetable oil are used in campus dining halls on a daily basis. Whether it’s French fries, chicken tenders, or the corn dogs, a good portion of the foods served in the dorms is fried. All of that food is breaded and put in hot vegetable oil to cook. Normally, that vegetable oil is then thrown out with the rest of the waste from the dining halls. EWB is using the Biodiesel Initiative to find a more productive use for this vegetable oil. The oil is collected, mixed with Methanol and turned into a usable biofuel.

This biofuel, after the reaction is blended with normal petroleum based fuels in the same manner ethanol is blended. The blend is currently being used for the Facilities and Services vehicles on campus. This benefits both the environment and the University. The cost to the Facilities and Services department compared to normal fuel is approximately $1.75 less. The cost to EWB includes labor, raw materials, waste disposal, and transportation. This totals $2,500 per month. Even with these costs, the fuel is being sold at a price lower than normal petroleum.

The reason it is currently only being used for campus vehicles is that normal car warranties don’t cover high percentage blends of fuel. The campus vehicles are allowed to use it with ASTM approval, which the group has managed to acquire for relatively little money. Ideally, the group is producing 400 gallons of biofuel per week for the Facilities and Services department.

The Initiative has goals for expansion and continuing this project into the future. They currently have what they refer to as an “Appleseed Reactor.” This miniaturized reaction mechanism does the same mixing of ethanol and the vegetable oil as the machine that is used for the large-scale production, but the Appleseed Reactor is portable. This makes it possible for the group to do outreach and teach the community about their project in a very visual manner. The mini pump system also makes it possible for interested citizens to see how it would be possible to produce biodiesel at home.

They are hoping with increased awareness and communication, they will be able to expand their production. Right now only campus dining halls are allowing the collection of vegetable oil. EWB hopes that private housing facilities as well as local restaurants will soon see the benefits of biofuel and allow their vegetable oil to be reprocessed as well.

The garage on the Facilities and Services property where the biodiesel reactions take place

Tim Schultz, and JR Cmunt explain the biodiesel reaction at this year's Engineering Open House

Tom Warda and Will Kelleher, both members of the Biodiesel Initiative show off the Appleseed Reactor.

HOLD THE TRAY! U of I Dining Goes Green!

Brooke Shantz

The University Housing Dining Services, at the University of Illinois, has decided to make sustainability a priority! This department is currently making vast evolutionary changes towards their goal. Dr. Aubrey, Senior Assistant Director University Housing, stated that the overall goal of the “Sustainable Dining” project is, “to reduce the carbon footprint of dining services.”

Current and future efforts made by University Housing Dining Services include: local purchasing, campus farm program, campus composting, recycling and waste reduction initiatives. Local purchasing is being defined by any produced or processed items within a three hour radius of Champaign-Urbana. Meats, dairy products, coffee, tea, breads, fruits, vegetables, and other grocery items are being purchased locally and served in the dining halls.

The University Housing Dining Services is working together with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES), under the supervision of Dr. Bruce Branham, Department Head of NRES, to develop a student farm that will provide produce during the summer and into the fall. This two acre farm located at Lincoln and Windsor Roads will continue to grow into a ten acre farm by the Summer of 2011. Dr. Aubrey enthusiastically stated that, “the NRES student farm is thrilling, to have freshly picked, delectable produce that is served within hours of harvest that has a five mile carbon footprint.” This summer herbs, tomatoes, bell and other peppers, salad greens, cantaloupes, cucumbers, summer squash, and sweet corn are all being planted, along with apple, pear, and peach trees. A composting program supported by Dr. Wesley Jarrell, Professor in NRES, is also being started using biodegradable food waste gathered from residential dining halls. The composting program will help reduce waste and provide fertilizer for the student farm.

Trayless dining is another great feature of this project. Currently, Pennsylvania Avenue Residence (PAR) and Lincoln Avenue Residence (LAR) are trayless operations. Trayless dining conserves energy by reducing the amount of hot water consumption used to wash trays and the electricity needed to run the dishwashers. It also reduces food waste, which has been demonstrated at PAR, for this facility had a 40% reduction in food waste by switching to a trayless system. Not only does a trayless operation conserve energy and reduce waste, but it also promotes healthy eating and may help students eat smaller portions at mealtime. By August 2011, all dining facilities will be trayless operations.

Biodiesel projects are also being started at residential dining halls. Various dining facilities are having used fryer oil picked up, which will then be used for two separate projects on campus both of which are making alternative fuel sources. Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois is using their alternative fuel, to power vehicles on campus. The other biodiesel project is sponsored by the student group, “Engineers Without Borders” and the Facilities & Services Garage and Car Pool on campus is planning on using their biodiesel fuel. Currently, there are recycling bins in the residential halls and cardboard from all kitchens is being recycled. Ikenberry is the new dining facility currently being built on campus and by using new technology and advancements in building science it is being constructed in a way that promotes energy efficiency and reduces CO2 emissions. This building must follow The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. The U.S. Green Building Council states that LEED, “encourages and accelerates global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria.”

“Sustainable Dining” is an exciting project happening on the University of Illinois campus! As sustainability advances on the dining front, it is important that we do our part to promote a sustainable environment! Dr. Aubrey mentioned that students, faculty, staff, and the community should be excited about this project, because, “sustainable dining consists of responsible best practices that support our university and local community ultimately having a global impact.”

Will sustainable dining be the wave of the future with more and more school dining services jumping on the green-wagon? Projects like these speak volumes about the commitment that the University of Illinois has not only to their students, but also to the community. “We have an obligation to our campus and communities to be more sustainable, we are providing dining services for students who place sustainability as a high priority making sustainable choices when possible.” ~ Dr. Aubrey


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hey G!O Readers!

Sorry it has been so long since we've updated, but the Green Observer is kind of in a transition year. So we need your help. If you're interested in journalism and like what we do, you should come join. We have plenty of opportunities to get involved such as reporting, photography, editing, design, or just coming to the meetings and talking about environmental issues. We meet every Monday night at 7 pm in the Student Program Office of the YMCA. Also not to worry a new issue is coming out soon! If you can't make it to our meetings, but you have something to say or an issue you would like us to report on let me know by emailing me at gomagserver@gmail.com.

Okay enough of a plug it's time to move on. Earth Hour happened for the third time last Saturday night. This new tradition happens on the last Saturday night of every March. For one hour people around the world are encouraged to turn off their lights. Monuments around the world have participated, such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio De Janeiro.

This year's theme was Vote Earth. The idea was to show support for our earth by turning off the lights. The goal was 1 billion people.

I personally love the concept of Earth Hour. I think it is great that millions of people all over the world come together to shut off the lights for an hour to send a message to the rest of the world that the environment is important. And that the earth's problems should be taken seriously. I was more than happy to turn off my lights on Saturday night. It's really not hard at all. I hope that next year the University does too.

Happy Spring!

Sam Thoma

Here are some photos from Earth Hour around the world. Check them out!

Urbana Park District in need of Support By: Darlene Naolhu

Ancient trees, remnant forests, historical parks and nature facilities. There’s a lot more than what meets the eye in the community of Urbana, Illinois when it comes to the environment. The small city consists of numerous natural areas and parks open to the public at a wonderful price of zero. But with the economy in crisis and expenses increasing, the Urbana community will soon find it hard to maintain these areas as they once have been.

For the April 7th ballot this year, community members will be given the opportunity to resolve this issue. The Urbana Park district is proposing a property tax increase of 15 cents for every $100 dollar assessed valuation needed in order to obtain the funds required to help sustain the work and facilities that the Urbana Park District provides. With so much on the line, it’s important for Urbana residence to consider the options available to them.

The 15 cent proposal means that for a person with a home valued at $100,000, there will be a tax increase of $50. This would bring in an additional of $850,000 a year to the park district and will help them continue their services to the community.

According to the Urbana Park District, its mission is to improve the quality life of the citizens through a responsive, efficient, and recreation system. But with the shortage of funds, many of the programs offered through the Urbana Park District are in jeopardy.

“Our challenge is that with the amount of tax funds, the park district has not been able meet the costs needed. Without the tax increase, 12 percent will be cut from our funds,” said Vicki Mayes, the Executive Director of the Urbana Park District.

With the tax increase, the district will be able to continue contributing to the health and vitality of the community. The park district provides the Urbana community a range of recreational programs, aquatic centers and gymnasiums. In response to environmental issues, the park district also manages the gardens, parks, and natural areas in the Urbana area and provides an excellent environmental education center where over 35,000 people a year attend the programs offered.

“We want a healthy environment for the community. These programs are a way to help people understand what is going on with the environment and how it can be fixed. Without an increase in funds, we won’t be able to provide these kinds sources for the public,” said Mayes.

According to Mayes, the Urbana Park District currently operates at $4.9 million, but is only receiving $2.7 million in property taxes. Because of the Illinois tax cap, which limits the amount that a property owner pays, the park district’s property tax revenue has not been able to keep pace with the rising value of the community expenses. With over 300 employees and many services to provide, the Urbana Park District is in need of more funding.

“15 cents is the smallest rate increase that will allow the park district to maintain services,” said Mayes.

Already, the district has begun to witness the effects of the funding shortage. The Crystal Lake Pool, renovated in 1980, and located in the Crystal Lake Park, has been closed down for the year 2009 due to safety concerns. Currently, there is not enough funding to replace it with or without the 15 cent referendum. Instead, if the referendum does pass, the funds will be used to help plan for a new pool.

“It’s an extremely touchy situation. The public will have to choose between higher taxes or a less sufficient community,” said Hannah Grant, a sophomore at the University of Illinois. Grant has been involved in many environmental outreach organizations in the area and feels that an increase in funding is definitely in need. “There’s a lot more room for improvement. I think it’s something that the community should definitely consider.”

In Feb. 2008, a 25 cent tax increase proposal which included a new pool failed to pass by less than 62 votes. If the referendum should fail this time, there will be a large reduction and elimination of staff, programs, and services. Community events, landscaping, and maintenance in parks and facilities will all be affected.

“The Park District provides a lot to the public. With the economy in a chaos, now is the perfect time to take advantage of these services,” said Mayes. “These are all affordable, high quality activities, all very close to home.”

Voting will begin on April 7th, which will determine the fate of the Urbana Park District’s budget. Mayes is hopeful of the outcome. “We’ve let the public know what’s going on. Now it’s up to the people to make the rightful choice.”