Disparate Shades of Green

Sustainability is funny.

The idea of being “green” covers a vast spectrum of disparate ideas.

For the golf course developer, reusing waste water from their development to water their fairways makes them a “green builder.”

Golf courses are green. Golf course communities are not.

For the solar installer, a home that consumes more electricity than it produces is not yet “green.”

For the Chamber of Commerce in Carrboro, the member which abandons Styrofoam cups gets a sustainability award. For the Chamber of Commerce in Chatham, “green” is a bad word—used by treehugging hippies in Pittsboro to thwart business.

The idea is all over the map.

At Piedmont Biofuels we thought it was simple. We are in the energy business. We make fuel out of fats, so for us sustainability can be measured in BTUs. We take the energy density of a gallon of fat, add a bunch of energy to the equation, and come out with a measurable result.

When working in BTUs, sustainability is easy. Every transaction needs to be equal to or less than the energy required for its completion. If an activity requires more energy input than it nets, it’s simple: that transaction is unsustainable, or not “green.”

But not everyone is immersed in energy. At UNC, for instance, energy is placed in the purview of “policy.” As everyone knows, policy is a function of politics, and since politics is a separate field of study, it is possible to get a masters degree in sustainability from UNC without ever studying energy.

For some, being “green” is about eating fair trade chocolate.

For others it is about seeing a documentary on global warming.

Alligators are green. Crocodiles are not.

In the organic food crowd, being green is about chemical inputs. It’s OK to raise an organic cucumber in Washington state, pickle it, bottle it, and ship it to Pittsboro so that we can eat organic food. Never mind the fact that the BTUs that go into the bottling process exceed the equivalent calories that we get out of the equation.

Cucumbers are green. Organic pickles from Washington are not.

Walking and biking are green. Driving is not.

The problem with using an energetic definition for defining “green” activities is that it fails to account for the “steps” that can be taken along the way. Along the vast spectrum is a series of steps that could be valued on the journey toward sustainability.

When someone sees the folly of their gas guzzling SUV and moves to a compact car, they should get a sustainability point. When they shed their gas car for a hybrid, they should get another one. And when they reorganize their life to eliminate driving all together, they get much closer to becoming “green.”

And the problem with spectrums is that those on one side have a hard time acknowledging those on the other. One person’s start point is laughable to those who are further down the road.

Fortunately the discussion is clarified by the fact that U.S. banknotes tend to be green. Forget the peachbacks for a moment, and think of those bills in your pocket book that are green in color.

One arbiter of our greening abilities is found in our wallet. As long as renewable energy is more expensive than polluting fossil sources, we will be inclined to cling to the green in our bank accounts. As a society we have elected to protect the green in our personal accounts at the expense of the green of the planet.

We build new coal fired electrical generation for three dollars per kilowatt. Solar powered generation is hovering around ten.

Electricity from coal is not green. Electricity from solar is.

Green is funny. Some spend their money on being green. Others do not. One person’s SUV is another person’s hot tub. One company’s lobbyist is another group’s budget.

What is green to one is the color of blood to another.

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"At last! A biofuel book that is realistic about global supply potential while being hands-on useful to the backyard or garage enthusiast. Though some first generation biodiesel books were hampered by hype and misinformation, Estill and Armantrout get it right."
Richard Heinberg, author of Afterburn on Backyard Biodiesel(2015).