I’ve been lucky enough to spend the better part of the last few weeks upstate, in the gorgeous Hudson River Valley. Up here the air smells like heaven, and most of my food comes from a garden right on the premises, or from neighbors just down the road. I spent a long time the other day talking to a woman who designs solar panel installations for houses in the area; she works with a group that promotes solar and wind energy. I told her about the corn-burning boiler in the place I’m staying, a system that will heat the entire house using fuel that was grown on a farm less than five miles away, which replaced a more conventional oil-fueled boiler.
My car broke down, and the man who came to tow it away started to talk about gathering firewood for the winter — he heats his house entirely with wood. Then he told me about the waste-oil burner he has running in his garage: it heats his business using the old stuff he drains from folks’ cars when he changes their oil. He’s also working with a mini fleet of Volkswagen diesel trucks, hoping to convert them to biodiesel. He was driving a massive diesel-powered tow truck, but his eyes lit up when he told me that the VWs get more than 50 miles per gallon on the road. I was able to tell him about the greasecar system I’m hoping to adopt, which allows a diesel-engined car to run on the waste oil from restaurant deep fryers.
And I started wondering why, in New York City, where our environment is so clearly compromised, where the air we’re breathing is so foul, and where we live in such close quarters that the impact of every person’s choices is immediately apparent to their neighbors, almost no one is talking about these alternatives. I know of only a handful of houses with solar panels, and I’ve never seen an alternative fuel heating system. We know, beyond global warming, what the consumption of oil does to our environment: in Brooklyn the residents of Greenpoint live with an underground oil spill that’s been there for years, which many believe contributes to the increased incidence of cancer in that neighborhood.
And all the developers and the city government can talk about is growth, expansion and a dramatic increase in population over the next 20 years. It’s great that the Mayor’s office is planning for that growth, but they seem to be falling short on the environmental side of things. Tax abatements are still being handed out to developers, and many more are in effect for years to come. Clearly, with “luxury” condos being built in every, and I do mean every, corner of the city, there’s no need to keep encouraging development at such a frenetic tilt. The city government could begin to collect some of those taxes, and put the money into the partial, or complete, subsidizing of alternative energy projects. Solar panels on public housing projects and public schools could save the city money upfront, on the electricity itself, and also on reduced public health costs down the road (childhood asthma, anyone?). It’s election time folks — go talk to your local politicians and make a few suggestions. Or just vote Green