Monthly Archives: February 2010

Trying to travel green

Bike on TRAX in SLC - photos by Gil Monreal

I’m in Salt Lake City on business, and I’ve drug my family along to play as well. First of all, I am way more impressed with SLC than I thought I would be – downtown and the U area at least, which is really all I’ve seen. The old brick buildings are beautiful. The downtown is nice and walkable, Cartesian addresses make navigating a breeze. Bike lanes and amenities are fairly ubiquitous.

hitching post


Buses and the light rail, TRAX seem pretty reasonable and handy.

sign in SLC


Placards in the hotel may be placed on the bed to keep the sheets from being unnecessarily washed, towels will only be changed if left on the floor. Recycling bins are around. Signs in the Smith’s parking lot ask if you have accidentally left your shopping bags in your car. I guess the Whole Foods across the street assumes you would do no such thing.

But keeping my normal routines while traveling is difficult. The free hotel breakfast is provided alongside styrofoam bowls and cups and plastic utensils. We bring our own bowls and utensils and cups up every morning. My coworker thinks we’re a bit weird. I can’t figure out where to recycle glass (other than the Squatters beer bottles, that we can take to the brewpub down the street), so we have been throwing that out. We drove by a community garden at some point, so I could probably find a place to accept my compost, but I have enough trouble getting it out to my own backyard pile anyway (I usually have about 3 old yogurt containers full before I get it out there). So I am throwing away peels and apple cores and it feels very bizarre. And then there is the Suburban we drive around for work, and the going out to eat.

My family and I are walking when we go out in the evenings. We took the TRAX light rail today up to the university to go to the Natural History Museum. We will take the bus to snowboard tomorrow. We have been shopping in the natural food sections, and eating in the hotel room as much as possible with just a microwave and a small fridge. I bought some local cheese and bread, but I don’t have the CSA hookup here, so I can’t vouch for how far most of the fruit and veggies traveled. We found a very, very tasty gelateria, but they served us in very silly plastic containers. We saved that first batch, they are fairly usefull as small durable bowls, but we noticed that the gelato was brought to the attached restaurant in glass dishes. So the next time we went we asked for the glass. At first we were told we couldn’t get it at that counter. Finally, after a lot of grumbling, they admitted that we could get the glass dishes, if we paid the restaurant price (about $0.20 more than the gelteria counter large price), a reasonable alternative for me…but those thick, jewel-colored plastic dishes couldn’t have been that much cheaper than the cost of dishwashing. Sad if they were.
I won’t even mention the large hotel hot-tub – outdoors, always hot, never covered. It sure feels good though… Well, and the jet fuel to get us here, etc, etc. Travel really is just not green, but because I am not comfortable chucking things in the trash and burning through a tank of gas I will continue to do my best.

Energy Saving Accomplishments

SO I’ve owned the eco-plex for a year and 4 months. I’ve spent $14,262 on things to, more or less, specifically save on gas usage (heat and hot water). These include: general caulking and weatherizing, programmable thermostats, fixing the heat/replacing zone valves, a new indirect hot water heater, and insulating the foundation. I should get a rebate of at least $4000 from the Alaska State Home Energy Rebate program for the foundation insulation.

Looking at various ways of comparing the 4-plex gas usage before and after my improvements, we’ve been using about 30% less gas.

Very roughly, this is a savings of about $1200/year. So my return on investment is about 8% before rebate, 12% after – for everything we’ve done, which probably also includes a bit of good behavior (setting the heat at 65F, taking shorter showers, etc – not that this is universal in the ‘plex or always followed by us).

As a crazy math exercise, I tried to figure what this would mean if we eschewed natural gas and heated just with wood. There is a lot of slop in efficiency of burning and such, but order of magnitude: A cord of birch (~90 CF) is equivalent to about 136 therms of NG. A birch tree up here reaches maturity in about 100 years, and is then maybe 60’ high by 12″ across. So each tree is roughly 47CF. So 2 trees to a cord. I would need the equivalent of about 1870 therms a year to have the same lifestyle we all have now = 27.5 trees per year, or 2750 trees in 100 years (to figure out a sustainable yield of a forest with maturity at 100 years). There are approximately 600 trees per acre in a typical southcentral Alaska, 70 year old birch forest, so 4.6 acres of forest land would be required to sustainable keep the ‘plex in heat and hot water. Now, if the house was kept at 50F in the winter (chilly, but not unbearable with sweaters and hats – livable in other words), and massive conservation was utilized in hot water (sponge bathing, etc), and once the rest of my insulating activities are done, I think it would be reasonable to get the use down to 400 therms, or 6 trees, requiring harvest from a single acre. If each of the 100,000 households in Anchorage also lived in well insulated, extremely conserving multiplexes with similar heating requirements, the entire city could heat with the sustainably harvested wood of 25,000 acres. There are 11,000 acres of parkland in the city, and an additional 490,000 acres in the Chugach (much of which is non-treed mountain, but not all), not to mention some big back yards. So, in some crazy post-apocalyptic world, Anchorage’s population could probably heat with wood and live not so uncomfortably. High efficiency stoves would be necessary to use the wood well and reduce air pollution. Rations on wood and protection against poaching might be necessary to ensure that the city didn’t become a barren wasteland as everyone tried to heat a very inefficient dwelling to 80F. A fun thought experiment anyway….

an added figure:

Local Food Diet

One of the side benefits of obsessively listing everything I eat in fitday is that I can take stock of how much of my diet is local. Generally, I’m very proud of how I’ve been eating lately, and I do owe it all to being obsessive about it. It was too easy to cave to the costco crap at work when I was trying to be all relaxed and middle-path with what went into my mouth. Almost everything I eat these days is unprocessed and often a single ingredient. I eat a lot of fruit and raw nuts and seeds in the morning – hunter gather style, except straight from the bulk bin or the produce aisle, not the tree. Lunch is leftovers from last dinner, and dinner is often beans with yogurt or roasted root veggies and salmon, or something similar. I’m trying to eat lots of potatoes (local) and not as much grain (non-local), but a fair amount of oatmeal seems to get mixed in there. I could grow oats, but not in quantity, and these came in a 50 lb sack from Oregon. Sometimes I manage to just eat fruit for dessert, but then lately I’ve been slowly finishing up the extra frosting I made for O’s b-day cake. Local fresh fruit in the winter is, so far, a pipe dream. My one storage apple tree is a little, moose-eaten sapling and I have no root cellar. It’d be nice to have a big stock of frozen local berries, but I don’t.

Seems like there is a special occasion about once a week though, that demands eating birthday cake or an icecream float, and pizza or mutter paneer or City Diner ribs. I’m certainly not counting the pitcher of locally brewed beer or the pizza I am going to eat tonight at the Bear Tooth during the movie as local. I checked back through the last week and only about 1/7 of my calories have been local, but on my best day it was 1/2. More than this could have been local – either by choosing different foods or local options – e.g. another family member bought the Organic Valley milk instead of the Matanuska Milk, and I bought the Nancy’s yogurt instead of making my own from the local milk. I hope my hazelnut trees do eventually give me hazelnuts, but I’ll have to bank on global warming to happen, so it’s a mixed thing. I’m going to try to grow seed pumpkins and a good number of beans – I don’t know how successful I’ll be.

But it’s a good start, considering the time of year. The local additions to my diet this last week have included store-bought local carrots, CSA bought local potatoes, cabbage, beets and onions (root cellared by the farmers), frozen Alaskan salmon, self-gathered rowan berries, and various leftovers from the summer (veggie soups and pies with broccoli and greens) from the freezer.

I have been especially enjoying the salmon, and my son is back to loving it too, after a brief stint as a non-salmon eater. We all take vitamin D drops because you just can’t get enough from the sun up here, but one 3-oz portion of salmon provides 100% of the USDRA, not to mention all the other good fats, protein, iron, etc. A serving a day would be approximately 7 fish per person for the whole 6-months of winter (give or…well, give a month). I only stocked away 5 in the freezer total this year, but I’ll work on getting 21 in there for the three of us for next winter!!