Sunday, July 30, 2006

Opening the Window on Energy $avings

As energy costs continue to escalate, energy efficiency is becoming increasingly important. While we all want to spend less on home utilities, most of us don't know where to begin.

The answer is clear. In the average home, heating and cooling costs account for at least 60% of your energy bill. An estimated 25% of all heat loss literally flies out the window, thanks to old, builder's quality or ill-fitting windows.

From an energy saving perspective, standard thermal pane windows only provide an insulating R-value of between 1.6 and 2. The R-value of a window measures its resistance to heat flow. This can also be referred to as thermal resistance. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating power.

Another way to measure energy efficiency is by gauging the shading co-efficient of your windows. This measures a window-s ability to let light in while rejecting heat. With average summer temperatures increasing almost every year, peak energy demand - and cost - now occurs during the summer months. This not only impacts on your individual electricity bill, but also the ability of the grid to keep up with the total demand for power. Unless we can all find ways to reduce our electricity needs, we may soon face brownouts and blackouts during peak periods.

Depending on your budget, there are a number of ways that you can improve the efficiency of your windows. You can recoup about half the heat loss in older windows by sealing the cracks and crevices with caulking and weatherstripping.

If you already have blinds on your windows, use them on hot summer days. Drawing blinds in the morning, as soon as the sun begins to shine, can dramatically reduce your need for air conditioning.

While we usually try and keep the heat out in the summer, it's important not to overlook the benefit of passive cooling strategies. After the sun goes down and the temperature drops in the evening, an open window can provide a cooling breeze as well as fresh air, and the wonderful smell of summer flowers and fresh cut lawns.

Depending on what coverings you choose, upgrading your window treatments can triple the R-value of your windows while enhancing the beauty of your home. This can cut your heating costs in the winter, and substantially reduce your cooling costs in the summer.

Selecting the right window covering can also help protect you from the damaging effects of the sun. The newest generation of window coverings can cut ultra-violet (UV) radiation from 65 to 99%. This protects your furniture, hardwood flooring and carpets from sun damage and fading. Choosing the right window fashions can also provide you with privacy and sound absorption when you need it, and a window on the world when you want it.

To complete your window treatments, window tinting and security films, retractable and fixed or exterior awnings are all great ways to enhance the beauty of your home, reduce UV radiation and cut heating and cooling costs.

If you really want to get serious about reducing your energy bill, you may want to consider replacing your existing windows. Thanks to improvements in window design and construction, the newest generation of energy efficient windows offers R-values of 4.5 to nearly 12. While it may take several years to pay back the direct energy savings of replacing your windows, this will also reduce the strain on your air conditioner and furnace. This will translate into reduced maintenance costs and should also be taken into account.

If you're seriously considering this option, you should make sure that the company you've chosen displays the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) logo, and is a member of the Siding and Window Dealers Association of Canada (SAWDAC). Consumers should not take this accreditation lightly. Only window companies with five or more years in the business are invited to become members. This is important because most manufacturers offer extended warranties on their products. Obviously, these are only valid if the company is still around to support their work when you need it.


Whether you choose to install outdoor awnings, upgrade your interior blinds and draperies or completely replace your existing windows, it's important to do your homework. Check out the “Consumers Guide To Buying Energy-Efficient
 Windows and Doors” and other energy saving guides available at Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency.

For more great energy saving tips for the home, check out the Rocky Mountain Institute and We Conserve.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Frankenstein's Roadster

Ask a group of individuals what they consider to be mankind's single most influential invention and you'd likely get a variety of responses. The taming of electricity and the subsequent invention of the light bulb, the telephone, the advent of the computer and the development of the Internet would likely make the Top 10. While each of these scientific marvels has dramatically changed how we work, learn and communicate, their influence pales in comparison to one invention that has literally changed the face of the planet.

The internal, infernal, combustion engine, and the family car that it powers, has impacted our lives more than any other single invention. It's ubiquitous. Its availability pre-determines virtually every aspect of our lives: where we live and work and shop, how, when and where we play, even how we design our cities. We use the car to define our social status and depend upon it to protect our safety.

Paradoxically, the car can also be a murderous weapon, and is the leading cause of adolescent death. Young lives are also being lost every day in Iraq and Afghanistan to help protect Middle Eastern oil that fuels, among other things, our cars.

While we're on the subject of fuel, Canada's urban motorists consume over 40 percent of the transportation sector's petroleum, making the family car a substantial contributor to global warming, arguably the single greatest threat to life on the planet. And that's just the beginning of the automobile's environmental impact.

The car competes with agriculture for valuable land. Every car we add requires that an average of 0.07 hectares be paved for parking spaces and additional road capacity. Globally we add an additional 12 million cars to roads every year. That's a staggering 32,877 cars per day. Every kilometer of road that we build takes up 6.5 hectares of land, while a single highway interchange can easily gobble up 16 hectares or more. When you add this all up, we pave a whopping one million hectares, or enough land to feed 9 million people or more, every year.

According to Lester R. Brown, "More often than not, it is cropland that is paved simply because the flat, well-drained soils that are well suited for farming are also ideal for building roads."

On a positive note, the automotive sector is a major employer. Ontario's auto industry alone produced 2.7 million vehicles in 2004, providing high paying jobs to 135,000 skilled workers. An entire second tier of service and retail industries, everything from Canadian Tire and Mr. Lube to the corner gas station, owes its existence to the automotive industry. The car also made the drive-thru possible, and further fueled the exponential growth of the fast food industry. The downside is that we are the fattest, laziest, and most unhealthy generation in recent history.

The car isn't just about accommodating our lives, it's about creating lifestyles: status with an SUV, luxury with a Lexus, and cachet with a Cadillac. It's about rewarding ourselves. Watch any game show; check out any community raffle or lottery. Chances are the grand prize will be an automobile.

As E. C. McDonagh so brilliantly articulated, "The car has become a secular sanctuary for the individual, his shrine to the self, his mobile Walden Pond."

The car can represent success or failure, security or freedom. As Clint Eastwood once quipped, "You are what you drive."

I don't think so. If we buy into that mentality, then we've missed the point entirely. We create the cars. They don't create us. We have to demand better. But until we can say, "I won't drive a car that isn't as smart, or as environmentally aware, or as creative as I am," then we get what we deserve. Like Frankenstein's famous creation, what began as a bright idea has turned into an out-of-control monster that is threatening to destroy us, and our environment, at just about every turn.

But only if we let it. We are still a self-determining species. We have to reject the status quo. We have to revisit our greatest creation and determine that the price ~ with or without zero percent financing ~ is just too high.


Lester R. Brown's latest book, "Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble". (W.W. Norton & Co., NY: 2003) is available from The Earth Policy Institute.

For more on the history of the automobile, visit About Inventors and search "automobile".

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Smart Car: Intelligent Fun

There are some amazing things about the Mercedes-Benz Smart car. With a combined fuel rating of 4.2 litres/100 km (or 67 miles to the gallon), it's one of the most environmentally responsible cars currently available. Despite its tiny size, Mercedes' innovative tridon safely cell design and crash management system make it one of the safest small vehicles to drive.

But the most amazing thing about the Smart car is that it has the power to change the way we drive and how we interact with other cars on the road - and that's nothing short of miraculous!

On the downside, it is a Mercedes. The base sticker price of $ 16,700 doesn't include such fundamental options as air-conditioning or even a coffee holder. The fully-loaded, top-end cabriolet Pulse model (which includes a convertible roof and Brabus enhancements) comes in at a cool $ 27,300, before taxes, freight and PDI.

I recently had the opportunity to witness the magic of the Smart car first hand after test driving one for a couple of days. I picked the car up at Mercedes headquarters in Toronto, and after a brief driving lesson was on my way. Although I've driven most everything from VW bugs to mid-sized trucks, getting behind the wheel of the Smart car was a truly unique driving experience. Once I finally got a handle on the transmission, (an odd, rough hybrid that provides three, clutchless driving options) I spent a few hours driving around Toronto.

Summer means road construction in Canada's largest and most congested city. Being unfamiliar with which roads were currently being worked on meant that I spent a fair bit of time sitting in traffic. Rather than being a frustrating experience, this was where I first began to witness the Smart car's magic. Spaces miraculous opened up for me in long traffic lines, and people even stopped to let me in when they had the right of way.

My next experience with the Smart's magic was when I parked at a municipal parking lot to do a few errands. I didn't have change to feed the meter, and given that I was only counting on being a couple of minutes, I decided to take a chance. Like everything else in Toronto, it took longer than I had anticipated and by the time returned to the car, there was a ticket on the windshield. I was surprised to discover that I had been given something called a Courtesy Charge - a friendly warning that "repeated issue of courtesy charges ... could result in the issue of a parking infraction notice." Wow. The cute little car even earned the respect of the meter maids!

During my entire afternoon in Toronto, I only saw one other Smart car, which appeared in my rear view mirror during afternoon rush hour. I was busy waving to its driver when I noticed a large black shadow approaching on our right. A full sized black Hummer, complete with smoked-out windows, pulled alongside us, stretching more than twice the combined length of our vehicles. I gulped and looked over at the driver. A young man, almost as big and scary looking as his Hummer, leaned out his window, flashed a giant smile and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up as he sped off. Like I said, magic.

Highway driving was my next experience. The Smart car's tiny 3-cylinder, turbo diesel engine seemed surprisingly well suited for the task. The car accelerated easily to 130 km/hour (I was just testing) and handled beautifully in traffic. (The Smart engine is electronically limited to a top speed of 135 km/hr.) I couldn't help but notice that my Smart car was taking about one-third the space of just about every other vehicle on the road. I tried to imagine what would happen to rush hour congestion if everyone drove a Smart car.

Safely home, I spent the next two days taking just about everyone I know for a test drive. They loved it. And everywhere I drove other drivers waved, pedestrians pointed and smiled. The overwhelming consensus: the Smart car is intelligent fun.

I even managed to convince a friend who works for one of the major North American automakers to come for a drive. Initially he was rather reluctant, but after cruising around with the roof open for a few minutes, the Smart car started working its magic on him, too. At the end of our test drive, while he was still beaming, I asked him was why his company wasn't making a smart vehicle.

His thoughtful answer, "Yeah, why not?"

There's hope for us yet!


For more information, including crash test footage, visit The Smart Car

NEXT WEEK: The future of the car: Where do we go from here?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

"Who killed the electric car?"

Every now and then, if we're paying careful attention, we get a glimpse of how innovation can dramatically change the future. I'm not talking about how the newest generation of cell phone can improve our social life, but actually witnessing the possibility of a world that was previously unimaginable. For me, that moment came in the parking lot of Michigan State University in 1997 when I had the rare opportunity to drive General Motors delightful electric sports car, the EV1. That's me smiling behind the wheel in the above picture.

Fast, sleek and silent, driving the EV1 was like slipping out of a dream and into the future. From the minute I first slid into elegant leather seats and keyed in the five-digit run code, I knew that I was experiencing something unique. I waited for the sound of the car's engine revving to life, only to realize, rather sheepishly, that there was no engine noise. The only indicator that the car's fully electric engine was running was the single digital display monitor.

As I shifted into drive and headed out of the parking lot, a muted hum, akin to a very distant sewing machine, rose and fell with the speed of the car. The only other sound that the car made was a beeper alarm that was triggered by the turn signals. The car ran so quietly, the alarm had been installed as a warning to pedestrians.

Once on the main road, I hit the accelerator and the car surged effortless to 100 km/hour, a speed I could have maintained for an hour and a half before the car's battery pack would need recharging. The car performed beautifully on its self-sealing, puncture resistant tires, installed because there was no room to carry a spare tire in the tiny two-seater. I turned up the car's fine stereo system, sat back and enjoyed the ride.

I was ready to buy the car right on the spot, but unfortunately, I couldn't. Nor could anyone else. The EV1, General Motors' beautiful, functional and environmentally-sound sports car was never sold. Introduced in 1996 on a lease-only basis, the car was only ever available in California.

Sadly, I'm one of the very few people outside of California who actually had a chance to drive the EV1. When I test drove it in 1997, it was explained that the car's limited distribution was because the design engineers still had to work on how to improve the cars battery function in cold weather. I was assured that it was only a matter of time before the EV1 would be made available in more rugged climates.

It never happened. And yet despite the tiny market where it was available, the EV1 was a resounding success. Anyone lucky enough to lease one, loved it. While its two-seats and very limited cargo space disqualified it from being a family vehicle, there was a huge market for the EV1 as a commuter car. And yet in 2000, one year after the company purchased the Hummer name brand, GM Vice-president Harry Pearce announced that there was "no particular need" for the company to continue building electric cars. In 2003, the company started recalling all leased vehicles, claiming that it could longer provide parts for service. Those unwilling to relinquish their magical electric cars got home visits from tow trucks sent to impound the vehicles.

Activists who offered GM $ 1.9 million US to buy the cars outright were soon dismayed to discover that the entire fleet had been crushed, thus ending one very bright and shining moment in automotive history. Not surprisingly, the demise of the EV1 had nothing to do with the car's functionality, and everything to do with the oil industry that stood to lose billions of dollars if the idea of the electric vehicle really took off.

Ironically, the annihilation of the EV1 comes at a time when the price of gas and concern about the very real impact of climate change has even the most stalwart SUV owner starting to think about fuel efficiency and alternatives to the gas-guzzlers that currently clog our highways. Sadly, their concern is too little, and way too late, to save the magical EV1.


This week marks the release of the Sony Pictures Classics film, "Who killed the electric car?" While it's unlikely that the film will be coming to a theatre near you,

This week, to mark the launch of "Who killed the electric car?", Treehugger TV, an online environmentally responsible news source, is featuring a special segment on the movie. To view, go to

NEXT WEEK: Intelligent fun - the Mercedes-Benz Smart Car.