Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Environment and eBook Readers

Responding to Greg Breining: Going green? Good luck .. in the Minneapolic Star-Tribune, which was cited by Doug Johnson in an article in Blue Skunk Blog.

Articles such of this one in the Star-Tribune should be widely discredited, not recycled as 'fact'.

The whole "use of water" statistic is misleading. Water that is "used" is not always destroyed; in fact, in usually isn't. Take coffee, for example. A good percentage of the water "used" is water that goes into washing the beans. The water may go down the drain and into the sea, but it isn't destroyed.

This is also the case with e-readers. The water "used" doesn't actually end up inside the e-reader. Otherwise, the reader would be mostly water. Rather, it is water that is used for cleaning, cooling, and other ancillary operations. Sometimes it just drains off; other times it is emitted as steam (whereupon it becomes rain again almost immediately). Or this example, also from the article: "The water used in making a single pair of leather shoes: 4,400 gallons, writes Kostigen." Obviously, shoes do not contain 4,400 gallons of water. Obviously the water is used in washing (and maybe feeding cows and leather plant workers?) and other non-consumptive processes.

Sometimes the advice is ridiculous. "Kostigen also suggested that we each have an obligation to save water because water shortages are common elsewhere." Think about that for a second. How would saving water in Minneapolis - or Ontario - help someone in the Sahara or Australia? It won't, not a whit. Water is so heavy it is almost never transported any great distance; that's why water shortages exist. Water shortages are local conditions, and can only be addressed by saving and production locally. Saving water if you live in a rainforest won't do a thing to help people living in a desert.

Of more concern are the materials used to create ebooks, and in particular, the minerals and the energy. Once again, the figures are misleading. Of the 33 pounds of materials, very few are actually used; the remainder is typically the rock based from which the mineral was extracted. Other materials are catalysts, and may be transformed, but don't cease to exist. Very little actual silicon, aluminum, copper or lithium actually goes into the devices.

(That said, we are almost at 'peak lithium' - but the greater culprit here will be, as usual, cars. As well, the plastics and synthetics used in the devices are often oil-based, but again, the consumption is a small fraction of that consumed in the manufacture and driving of cars).

And while some of these materials are "exotic metals from oppressed and war-torn countries" the problem here is not the ebook readers themselves but rather the conditions under which we extract the materials. Over time, the number of oppressed nations has decreased, which is good. And a great many of these materials are extracted from nations like Canada and Russia, hardly the definition of oppressed and war-torn.

The energy required is probably the most significant. And it's important to notice how the author evades stating the exact truth with phrasing like "an equivalent [of] 100 kilowatt hours of fossil fuel and produces 66 pounds of carbon dioxide."

In fact, very little of the electricity used to produce ebook readers comes from fossil fuel sources. It's too expensive! It costs twice as much for electricity produced using oil and coal plants as it does electricity produced using hydro plants. Hydro plants are clean and use a renewable fuel - the energy of water as it flows from mountains to the see (the water is not "used" - it is still perfectly good after powering the turbines).

To day, less and less electricity is produced using fossil fuels. Most nations are using a combination of hydro, wind and nuclear power. Operations that require a lot of power and water - the extraction of aluminum from bauxite, for example - are located near remote rivers and hydro dams - places like Shawinigan or Kitimat, for example - and don't use any fossil fuels at all and produce only a small fraction of the carbon dioxide suggested by the author.

Finally, let's consider the economics of ebook readers. "An e-reader, said the Times, doesn't break even until it has replaced the production of 40 to 100 books." It is interesting that this quote comes from a newspaper, which produces the equivalent of at least a book every day. If - generously - we equate one newspaper to one book, we reach the break even point in about four months of use. That's assuming the only use was to read one newspaper each day, and nothing else. If fact, with actual use, the break-even point is more like a couple of weeks.

A lot of work goes into minimizing or discrediting the efforts of environmentalists. Articles like this try to p;lay on their purported misconceptions. They are usually arguments created by and for energy end environment wasting industries like newspapers and newsprint. They are afraid of newsprint readers because they reduce demand for what is actually a very expensive product, and provide access to content that now can be distributed around the world almost for free. But what they are really trading on - and perpetuating - is their own readers' lack of knowledge.

Another example in the same article, for example, says: "Near Leamington, Ontario, 1,600 acres -- more than two square miles -- is under glass. Folks nearby can say goodbye to far-off, hard-as-rock California tomatoes in favor of plump local tomatoes all winter long. But the fuel saved in transportation doesn't compare with the energy consumed in lighting the greenhouses in the dark of winter and heating them with propane."

I've been to Leamington and can attest to the scale of the greenhouse operations. But the article misrepresents what is happening. You can't grow enough tomatos for 16 million people in two square kilometers (even though that's an awful lot of tomatos). And, fortunately, the "dark of winter" is very brief, very mild, and very light in southern Ontario (which is at the same latitude as northern California). The greenhouses are used only part of the time. Each greenhouse is surrounded by square kilometers of field. Drive through there in the summer or fall and you'll see field after field of tomato growing outdoors. They have been nurtured from seedlings indoors, but not grown indoors.

And, in fact, it's not clear that even running a local greenhouse full time is more expensive than trucking produce from California. Perhaps while gas and diesel are at their current, artificially low, pump prices, it appears more economical. But realizing, again, that most Ontario power is produced by hydro power (not a small bit is coming from the nearby Niagara Falls) the cost is actually a lot less than the writer might suspect.

It's disappointing and sometimes even dispiriting to see such rubbish printed in what should be a credible source. It's a reminder that we cannot depend on traditional media and traditional sources (such as Discover magazine) for our education. We are well and truly on our own, as most of our established media are now doing more harm than good through their ongoing and pernicious political activism.

6 comments:

  1. Remember the First Law of Thermodynamics? People give the human inhabitants more power that we have. We can't destroy or create anything. We can nurture and invent new uses and create demand--which we do with great flourish. But we need to reevaluate our input into the system that sustain us. My mother used to tell me to clean my plate because starving children in China would love to have what I was wasting. I wanted to send it to them. Same with the water. The only water we have ever lost was left on the moon. Maybe we shouldn't go into space anymore, but I don't hear anybody saying that.

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  2. You raise a lot of good points here, but your argument about water bothers me;
    "Water that is "used" is not always destroyed; in fact, in usually isn't." Even if water is not destroyed, shouldn't the use of large amounts of water be of concern? In most cases it takes energy and money to purify the water (unless you're talking just about irrigation water which may not be purified). Water being used in large amounts is drawing down water reservoirs, lake levels, and/or stream levels. This results in increased water temperatures and changes in stream flows which can negatively effect fish spawning and survival rates. The water that is returned to the system is usually not returned from whence it came, so though the overall system may be in balance, parts of it are suffering from excessive water use.

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  3. "In fact, very little of the electricity used to produce ebook readers comes from fossil fuel sources."

    Hi Stephen - I'd love to see some evidence of this?

    "To day, less and less electricity is produced using fossil fuels. Most nations are using a combination of hydro, wind and nuclear power. "

    I agree the percentage of renewables is increasing but I think in the US it is still less than ten percent renewables. US generate around 50% with coal, China probably more relevant for electronic devices closer to 75%.

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  4. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for the "op-ed" on this piece. I should have mentioned that the Breining article appeared in the editorial section of the paper, not the news section. Still, it should be factually accurate (though that seems to be less and less important as editorials go anymore.) I was actually hoping that the article would keep my wife from buying so damn many shoes if she saw the environment toll each pair took. You're messing up my plan there!

    I do have a few quibbles/questions about your comments:

    It is interesting that you don't dispute the "facts" of this argument - only the interpretation and importance of the facts.

    Water use does not mean that water is used up. It's a little disingenuous to say that just because an ebook doesn't contain water it doesn't "use" water in its manufacture. Water evaporates, water gets dirty and needs to be treated, and most water needs to be transported, pumped and stored. So, water use does have an environmental cost whether it is abundant or scarce, "used up" or not.

    The author of the article himself makes the same point about Kostigen's nonsensical view that water saved in one place helps another, dryer place.

    Just because cars use more rare materials doesn't mean electronics don't use any. I don't see how the more egregious use of materials diminishes Breining's argument. I also think the author could have added the on going environmental cost of electronics charging/recharging and recycling..

    I have always view Canada as more "repressed" than "oppressed." ;-)

    You said that "very little of the electricity used to produce ebook readers comes from fossil fuel sources." Hmmm, in China where my iPad was made, according to Wikipedia (sources documented), 2/3rds of of the electricity produced is from coal. Last I checked that was fossil fuel.

    Even your much vaunted hydro-power may be clean, but not particularity enviromentally friendly - if you ask a salmon, beaver or tree-hugger.

    I think you make a great point about newspapers needing to go digital. I still prefer my newsprint, but I am sure I would get over it. One thing about print resources, unlike electronic devices and resources, is that the physical objects can be shared. I expect a library book that is read by dozens of patrons is one of the most eco-friendly things around.

    I really don't think the author was writing as the puppet of any interest. My sense is that he was simply attempting raise the consciousness of readers that everything we do has some environmental costs. In the long run, I suspect that both you and he are working toward the same good goal.

    Thanks again for the great alternative POV.

    Doug

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  5. Stephen, you are too optimistic about 'clean electricity'. The world is using more and more fossil fuels to generate electricity, not less. See the graph half way down this page:

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/highlights.html

    The outlook for the next two decades at least (forecasts beyond that are useless), is an increased use of coal and gas over and above other sources. Most nations are not using a combination of nuclear, hydro and wind.

    As you say in your later comment, Canada does generate a lot of its electricity from hydro, although coal use is greater than other renewables and nuclear put together.

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/canada/Electricity.html

    Russian electricity isn't clean with 63% of its electricity generated from fossil fuels:

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/russia/Electricity.html

    Our use of energy is becoming 'more efficiently unsustainable'

    As you know, (and in case anyone else is interested) I blog about this stuff in the context of Higher Education, here: http://joss.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/tag/resilienteducation/

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  6. Even given all this, Joss, ebooks are still many times more efficient than using paper.

    As I said in the post...

    "An e-reader, said the Times, doesn't break even until it has replaced the production of 40 to 100 books." It is interesting that this quote comes from a newspaper, which produces the equivalent of at least a book every day. If - generously - we equate one newspaper to one book, we reach the break even point in about four months of use.

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