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Is "run-of-the-river" hydroelectric power greener than regular hydro?


Q. The green power program offered by my utility is 65 percent "run-of-the-river hydroelectric" power. What is this? Is it much greener than what the utilities regularly offer? Is it my greenest water-derived power option? –Audrey, White Plains, NY 

A. Imagine you’re a beaver, or a fish, or a tadpole, and you’ve made your cozy home in the same river ever since you were born. Now imagine a team of construction workers shows up and builds a huge concrete dam right in the middle of your home, leaving your once-fresh water stale and stagnant. Kind of a bummer, right? Large dams, while they do produce renewable energy, can interfere with water quality and fish migration, as well as degrade surrounding habitat.

That’s why run-of-the-river hydroelectric power, a technology that produces renewable energy without using dams to back water up, is in fact a better choice. The term “run-of-the-river” usually refers to power that’s generated from the force of water flowing from a high elevation to a lower one, using water’s natural flow. “Run-of-the-river is certainly considered better for aquatic wildlife and ecosystem management,” says Pierre Bull, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Two drawbacks worth noting: One, there aren’t that many suitable places to build run-of-the-river projects (you’re in luck though—the Northeast is where most of the good spots are concentrated). And two, “run-of-the-river” is not an industry-regulated term. According to Fred Ayer, executive director of the non-profit Low Impact Hydropower Institute (LIHI), it’s not unheard of for power companies to try to greenwash their projects and call less-than-ideal hydro sites “run-of-the-river.” The LIHI does have a certification program for hydroelectric power, though—in order to be Certified Low Impact, a project must meet specific environmental criteria stipulating requirements for water quality and wildlife protection. If the hydro available to you isn’t certified, it’s worth giving the power company a call to quiz them on their environmental standards. Not only will it help you make your choice, it will help put the pressure on to provide truly green options. 

-         Sarah Schmidt

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


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Can damp paper waste be recycled?




Q. I just read your response to "Can I recycle newspaper with art supply paint on it?" You said that once paper gets wet it is no good to the mills. Does that mean that all those bags/bundles of paper that people put out for recycling the night before pickup are no good for recycling if they got wet? Should we put out our recycling in plastic bags? – Susan Meles, NJ

A. Although we at Plenty are never, ever grouchy—not even when election day stress has all but put us over the edge and we’re about ready to take a sledgehammer to that car whose alarm has been blaring outside our NYC window for the past hour—we do have one thing in common with Oscar the Grouch. We love trash. We love treating it lovingly, and doing all sorts of loving and creative things with it—things like recycling, composting, and repurposing. And, yes, protecting it from the elements.  

It’s true that wet paper is tricky for recyclers, so do take a little care to make sure that what you send them is dry, says Trey Granger of Earth 911. The best thing to do is simply keep an eye on the weather forecast and hold off putting your bundled paper out too early if rain looks likely.

Don’t go overboard, though—you shouldn’t put your paper waste in a plastic bag unless your particular curbside program asks you to. Paper set out in plastic bags is likely to be confused with trash and sent to the landfill, which will totally negate all of your careful efforts to keep it dry. Anyway, a little morning dew won’t ruin the whole bundle. Your friendly recycler will probably just remove the wet outer layer in order to get to the remaining dry part.

- Sarah Schmidt

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


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How to find green jobs




Q. I’m recently out of college and on the job hunt, but the job market’s looking bleak. Do you have any tips for finding work in the green sector?  - Justin, CA

A. Job market’s got you cowering under your sheets, huh? You’re not alone. Last week, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan called the economic crisis a “once in a century credit tsunami.” Bold words for a typically “reserved” guy. 

Despite today’s current economic nosedive, greenies still have options when it comes to finding that save-the-planet job. If you’re looking to make money while healing mama earth, check out this recent Forbes article: “Six-Figure Green Jobs.” It lists a number of eco-jobs sure to put your green credentials (if you’ve already got some) to good use. Try these titles on for size: chief sustainability officer, environmental engineer, environmental lawyer, climatologist/environmental meteorologist, renewable energy manager, environmental scientist, senior urban planner, industrial designer, conservation scientist, and senior hydrologist.

Though many of these jobs can be found at environment-oriented organizations, don’t make the mistake of ignoring other companies in your job search. Nearly everybody is greening their image these days, so even companies that aren’t traditionally thought of as being eco-friendly are in the market for sustainability coordinators and environmental officers. If all of these jobs seem way out of your league right now, just try to think of them as an end goal to keep in mind while you climb your way up the leafy green ladder. 

In the meantime, there are plenty of environmental job listservs out there: ecojobs.com; environmentaljobs.com; environmentalcareer.com; ecoemploy.com….You get the idea. Big name environmental groups also tend to post jobs regularly on their Web sites, so be sure to add them to your “job search” to do list.

If you’re not having much luck, a great way to get some green work experience under your belt is to reach out to national organizations with local chapters. They, like small environmental organizations, are always looking for eco advocates and volunteers. So lend a hand—you’ll beef up your green resume and show future employers that you’re truly committed to the cause. After all, you wouldn’t be an environmental advocate if you were only in it for the glory and fame, now would you? 

-         Jessica A. Knoblauch

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


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Tax credits on winter storm windows




Q. I was planning to get storm windows this fall to make my house more energy-efficient, but then I heard that there’s a tax credit you can get, but only if you wait until 2009 to install them.  What’s up with that?  Why would IRS want me to wait until the middle of winter to winterize?  - Jason, New Jersey 

A. It’s not so much that the IRS wants you to wait, it’s just that Congress let its home energy efficiency tax credits expire at the end of 2007, and only just now got around to extending them—by tacking legislation onto the bailout package earlier this month. And when they did that, they made January 1, 2009 the effective date, leaving all of 2008 a no-man’s land. As Howard Samuels, a CPA in New York, NY, explains, “Welcome to our government.”

So if you want that tax credit for your storm window—which amounts to 10 percent of the cost, or up to $200—you’ll have to wait until the extension kicks in on January 1 (same deal for a whole raft of eligible home improvements, by the way). At that point, you may pass Go, and either install them yourself, or have a pro do it. Of course no one’s stopping you from purchasing your storm windows today, and just leaving them in your garage until New Year’s Day, but we can think of better ways to spend the morning after a champagne-soaked fete than carefully drilling holes into your window frames. And if the IRS did start sniffing around your tax return, and did take a gander at the date on your receipt, it might be hard to prove that you waited to put them up. Probably better just to wait until January to purchase your storm windows, or have them professionally installed (in which case, get a receipt).  

Is it worth it to wait? “For some people, yeah, two hundred bucks is a lot of money. Others may just say, forget it, it’s cold, I’m just going to install my freaking windows now,” Samuels admits. If you’re in the former camp, Samuels says, be sure you hang onto the manufacturer’s certification statement, as proof that your windows are eligible, in case you ever get audited. Most of the time, your certification will come in the box, but if it doesn’t, just ask for one.

-         Sarah Schmidt

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


Email your questions to Tobin at Ask Plenty

Why is the economic crisis making oil prices go down?




Q. Why exactly, in laymen’s terms, is the economic crisis causing oil prices to go down? – Sarah, NY 

A. Don’t you find that it helps to use baked goods to understand complicated concepts? I do. Let’s take cookies: Just the way demand for Girl Scout cookies would go down if the entire population became anorexic/manorexic overnight, demand for oil goes down when all the energy-hungry people and countries start tightening their figurative belts (and maybe literal belts, too). What with this little, um, ‘downturn’ in the markets, people are driving, flying, and going out to dinner less often. They’re buying fewer cars and iPods and sneakers, and they’re starting fewer businesses. The result is a general decrease in activity, and that means less demand for oil. Here’s how Marc Law, assistant professor of economics at the University of Vermont, put it succinctly in an email:

The financial crisis is causing a global economic slowdown. As a result, the demand for a lot of inputs (including oil) is falling, which has contributed to a decline in oil prices

But over here at Plenty, we’re worried that it’s not just major corporate players and OPEC that are going to take the blunt of the economic blow, but also smaller, greener, more vulnerable companies in every sector from clothing to cars. Oh, and cleantech—that booming little industry that’s been excitedly inventing plug-in cars, generation 2.0 solar panels, and improved wind turbines.

Roger Lowenstein, in a recent Times Magazine article, explored the drop in oil prices and it’s implications for green tech, oil dependence and foreign relations, the environment, and the economy. His suggestion? A gas tax that would kick in if prices fell back down to $70 a barrel. (For reference, prices closed at $64.15 on Friday, according to CNN.)  

The tax would merely serve as a floor — a new lower bound. Auto companies would never have to worry that cheap gas would tempt consumers away from efficient cars; investors could finance development of batteries and fuel cells, because cheap oil could never undercut them. Oil itself would be used more sparingly and last longer. The oil market did its part when it sent the price to almost $150. The government should make sure there is no going back.

Amen, Roger. 

-         Tobin Hack

Eco-inquiries, conundrums, snafus? Write to askplenty@plentymag.com.


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