Energy News StoriesExcerpts of Key Energy News Stories in Major Media
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In the 1980s, leading consultants were skeptical about cellular phones. The handsets were heavy, batteries didn’t last long, coverage was patchy, and the cost per minute was exorbitant. The experts are saying the same about solar energy now. They say that solar is inefficient, too expensive to install, and unreliable, and will fail without government subsidies. They too are wrong. Solar will be as ubiquitous as cellular phones are. Futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that solar power has been doubling every two years for the past 30 years — as costs have been dropping. He says solar energy is only six doublings — or less than 14 years — away from meeting 100 percent of today’s energy needs. By Kurzweil’s estimates, inexpensive renewable sources will provide more energy than the world needs in less than 20 years. In places such as Germany, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and the Southwest United States, residential-scale solar production has already reached “grid parity” with average residential electricity prices. In other words, it costs no more in the long term to install solar panels than to buy electricity from utility companies. The prices of solar panels have fallen 75 percent in the past five years alone and will fall much further as the technologies to create them improve and scale of production increases. By 2020, solar energy will be price-competitive with energy generated from fossil fuels on an unsubsidized basis in most parts of the world. Within the next decade, it will cost a fraction of what fossil fuel-based alternatives do. Despite the skepticism of experts and criticism by naysayers, there is little doubt that we are heading into an era of unlimited and almost free clean energy.
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What’s good news for those concerned with climate change, and bad news for electric utilities? That’s grid parity. It exists when an alternative energy source generates electricity at a cost matching the price of power from the electric grid. As grid parity becomes increasingly common, renewable energy could transform our world and slow the effects of climate change. Advances in solar panels and battery storage will make it more realistic for consumers to dump their electric utility, and power their homes through solar energy. A 2013 Deutsche Bank report said that 10 states are currently at grid parity: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Vermont. Germany, Spain, Portugal and Australia have reached grid parity. This shift has benefited from a dramatic drop in the price of solar panels, which dropped 97.2 percent from 1975 to 2012. As solar energy gets cheaper, traditional electric utilities are doing the opposite. The cost of maintaining the electric grid has gotten more expensive, but reliability hasn’t improved. If customers leave electric utilities, it starts a downward spiral. Fewer customers will mean higher rates, which encourages remaining customers to jump ship for a solar-battery system. Energy upstarts are led by forward thinkers with disruptive track records and eyes on society’s big problems.
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John D. Rockefeller built a vast fortune on oil. Now his heirs are abandoning fossil fuels. The family whose legendary wealth flowed from Standard Oil is planning to announce on Monday that its $860 million philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is joining the divestment movement that began a couple years ago on college campuses. In recent years, 180 institutions — including philanthropies, religious organizations, pension funds and local governments ... have pledged to sell assets tied to fossil fuel companies from their portfolios and to invest in cleaner alternatives. In all, the groups have pledged to divest assets worth more than $50 billion from portfolios. Some say they are taking action to align their assets with their environmental principles. Others want to shame companies that they believe are recklessly contributing to a warming planet. Ultimately ... their actions, like those of the anti-apartheid divestment fights of the 1980s, could help spur international debate, while the shift of investment funds to energy alternatives could lead to solutions to the carbon puzzle. At the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, there is no equivocation. The fund has already eliminated investments involved in coal and tar sands entirely while increasing its investment in alternate energy sources. The family has also engaged in shareholder activism with Exxon Mobil, the largest successor to Standard Oil. Members have met privately with the company ... in efforts to get it to moderate its stance on issues pertaining to the environment and climate change. They acknowledged that they have not caused the company to greatly alter its course.
Of all the developed nations, few have pushed harder than Germany to find a solution to global warming. And towering symbols of that drive are appearing in the middle of the North Sea. They are wind turbines, standing as far as 60 miles from the mainland, stretching as high as 60-story buildings and costing up to $30 million apiece. On some of these giant machines, a single blade roughly equals the wingspan of the largest airliner in the sky, the Airbus A380. By year’s end, scores of new turbines will be sending low-emission electricity to German cities hundreds of miles to the south. It will be another milestone in Germany’s costly attempt to remake its electricity system, an ambitious project that has already produced striking results: Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Germany’s relentless push into renewable energy has implications far beyond its shores. By creating huge demand for wind turbines and especially for solar panels, it has helped lure big Chinese manufacturers into the market, and that combination is driving down costs faster than almost anyone thought possible just a few years ago. The changes have devastated its utility companies, whose profits from power generation have collapsed. The word the Germans use for their plan is starting to make its way into conversations elsewhere: energiewende, the energy transition. Worldwide, Germany is being held up as a model, cited by environmental activists as proof that a transformation of the global energy system is possible.”
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The clean-power revolution is for real. Wind and solar have gotten much cheaper, less novel and more predictable. Green electricity is no longer avant-garde; it has produced more than half of new U.S. generating capacity this year. Wind has tripled since 2008, while solar is up 1,200%. This is terrific news–for homeowners who reduce their electric bills by going solar, ratepayers whose utilities save them money by buying wind power, and the planet. But there’s a deeper message. People assume the future of clean energy depends on gee-whiz technological innovations: better solar panels and wind turbines, cheaper batteries and biofuels. And we will need those advances in the long term to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050. But the biggest advances in the near term are likely to be boring financial innovations. The innovation that launched the sunshine revolution was the solar lease, which has helped homeowners and businesses install rooftop systems without having to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars up front. Now they can sign 20-year contracts with no money down to lease panels from installers like SolarCity or Sunrun, then make payments out of the savings on their electric bills. Now we’re moving into the next phase of the renewable revolution. Those 20-year leases look a lot like mortgages, auto loans or other financial instruments that Wall Street routinely packages into securities. And Wall Street has begun to package solar contracts into securities. The market for commercial solar securities has grown from less than $1 billion to $15 billion since 2008.
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Scientists at Michigan State University announced this week the creation of a “transparent luminescent solar concentrator” that could turn windows and even cellphone screens into solar-power generators. The material works by absorbing light in the invisible spectrum (ultraviolet and near infrared) and then re-emitting it in the infrared. The infrared light is then channeled to the edge of the clear surface, where thin strips of photovoltaic cells generate the power. Because we cannot see infrared or ultraviolet light, the material remains transparent even while concentrating sunlight. Previous luminescent solar concentrators have been developed, but they emitted light in the visible spectrum, creating a stained-glass effect. “No one wants to sit behind colored glass,” Richard Lunt, who leads the lab researching this new technology, said. The new technology is promising, but needs to be made more efficient. Researchers say that the solar conversion efficiency is around one percent. Ideally, this could be increased to more than five percent. Luminescent solar concentrators are less efficient than traditional photovoltaics, which absorb a larger range of wavelengths, but they could allow energy harvesting on surfaces that would otherwise never be used to generate power. The transparent technology could be used in a variety of applications, Lunt said, and its affordability means it has the potential for eventual commercial or industrial use. “Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there,” he said. The researchers' findings were published in the journal Advanced Optical Materials in July.
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For years, pundits have warned that the world's soaring population ... will usher in an age of scarcity. We already have a hard time supplying 7 billion people with food, with energy, with water. What happens when we hit 9 billion, the Earth's projected population in 2050? Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers say the resources are there - and the way we use them is about to undergo radical change. In their new book, Resource Revolution, they argue that information technology and advanced materials science, combined with new business models, will enable companies and societies to do far more with far less. It will be, they claim, a jump in productivity and efficiency greater than anything seen before. Heck, who teaches resource economics at Stanford University, and Rogers, a director of the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, spoke with The Chronicle. Q: So current forecasts call for the world to add 2 billion people by 2050. Do we have the resources to give them a decent standard of living? Rogers: Take an example California faces right now - water. If you look at the next 20 years, we need to double the economic output for every unit of water we use. The good news is, in agriculture, we have a set of technologies where we can get much higher yields with the water that's available. Q: How about energy? Rogers: This resource revolution affects both how we produce and consume energy. With the dramatic increases in fuel economy we're seeing, from electrification and hybrids but also improvements in the internal combustion energy, you see an ability to improve the use of energy.
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Your next commuter car could have two seats, three wheels and get 84 miles to the gallon. Elio Motors wants to revolutionize U.S. roads with its tiny car, which is the same length as a Honda Fit but half the weight. With a starting price of $6,800, it's also less than half the cost. Phoenix-based Elio plans to start making the cars next fall at a former General Motors plant in Shreveport, Louisiana. Already, more than 27,000 people have reserved one. Elio hopes to make 250,000 cars a year by 2016. Because it has three wheels — two in front and one in the rear — the Elio is actually classified as a motorcycle by the U.S. government. But Elio Motors founder Paul Elio says the vehicle has all the safety features of a car, like anti-lock brakes, front and side air bags and a steel cage that surrounds the occupants. Drivers won't be required to wear helmets or have motorcycle licenses. The Elio's two seats sit front and back instead of side by side, so the driver is positioned in the center with the passenger directly behind. The Elio has a three-cylinder, 0.9-liter engine and a top speed of more than 100 miles per hour. It gets an estimated 84 mpg on the highway and 49 mpg in city driving. Elio keeps the costs down in several ways. The car only has one door, on the left side, which shaves a few hundred dollars off the manufacturing costs. Having three wheels also makes it cheaper. It will be offered in just two configurations — with a manual or automatic transmission — and it has standard air conditioning, power windows and door locks and an AM/FM radio. More features, such as navigation or blind-spot detection, can be ordered.
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This week's U.S. air strikes in northern Iraq are being accompanied with an undertow of "it's all about oil" talk. Take for example, Columbia School of Journalism Dean Steve Coll's observation in The New Yorker, that "Obama's defense of Erbil (capital of the semiautonomous Kurdish region) is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state." It's no secret that Iraqi Kurdistan has an abundance of oil reserves, nor that U.S. oil companies, like [Chevron] are busy exploring there. Chevron has three "production sharing contracts" with the Kurdish government, covering a combined 444,000 acres, north of Irbil, where it's in the early testing and drilling stage. And it likes what it sees. Asked for an update, a Chevron spokesman said Monday, "We continue monitoring the situation. We remain in regular contact with the Kurdistan Regional Government and are dedicated to supporting the (Kurdistan Region of Iraq) in developing its natural resources." A potentially bigger worry for both Chevron and the Kurds .. could be if Iraq did stabilize and unite, with Kurdistan under its umbrella. For Chevron ... a new arrangement in Iraq could entail the renegotiation of contracts it has with the Kurds, which by the way, Baghdad refused to recognize. Kurdistan's oil pipeline via Turkey continues to pump out oil - 120,000 barrels per day.
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Energy companies are fracking for oil and gas at far shallower depths than widely believed, sometimes through underground sources of drinking water, according to research released [on August 12] by Stanford University scientists. Fracking involves high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to crack geological formations and tap previously unreachable oil and gas reserves. Fracking fluids contain a host of chemicals, including known carcinogens and neurotoxins. Fears about possible water contamination and air pollution have fed resistance in communities around the country. Fracking into underground drinking water sources is not prohibited by the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempted the practice from key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But the industry has long held that it does not hydraulically fracture into underground sources of drinking water because oil and gas deposits sit far deeper than aquifers. The study, however, found that energy companies used acid stimulation ... and hydraulic fracturing in the Wind River and Fort Union geological formations that make up the Pavillion gas field and that contain both natural gas and sources of drinking water. “Thousands of gallons of diesel fuel and millions of gallons of fluids containing numerous inorganic and organic additives were injected directly into these two formations during hundreds of stimulation events,” concluded Dominic DiGiulio and Robert Jackson of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences.
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In a quiet announcement that has sent shockwaves through the scientific world, NASA has cautiously given its seal of approval to a new type of “impossible” engine that could revolutionize space travel. In a paper published by the agency’s experimental Eagleworks Laboratories, NASA engineers confirmed that they had produced tiny amounts of thrust from an engine without propellant – an apparent violation of the conservation of momentum; the law of physics that states that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. NASA’s engineers have tested an engine known as a ‘Cannae Drive’, a machine [that] uses electricity to generate microwaves, bouncing them around inside a specially designed container that theoretically creates a difference in radiation pressure and so results in directional thrust. In an ordinary engine the rocket moves forward as fuel is flung backwards - the momentum of the rocket (a measure of both its mass and velocity combined) is 'conserved' because it is moved from the rocket to the fuel. However, with the Cannae Drive there is no fuel - the microwaves aren't expelled from the engine. NASA’s scientists tested a version of the drive designed by US scientist Guido Fetta and found that the propellantless engine was able to produce between 30 and 50 micronewtons of thrust – a tiny amount (0.00003 to 0.00005 per cent of the force of an iPhone pressing down when held in the hand) but still a great deal more than nothing.
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Last week ... the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day. For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar. “Negative pricing” moves, as they are known, are not uncommon. But they are only supposed to happen at night, when most of the population is mostly asleep, [and] demand is down That's not supposed to happen at lunchtime. Daytime prices are supposed to reflect higher demand, when people are awake, office buildings are in use, factories are in production. That's when fossil fuel generators would normally be making most of their money. The influx of rooftop solar has turned this model on its head. The impact has been so profound, and wholesale prices pushed down so low, that few coal generators in Australia made a profit last year. Hardly any are making a profit this year. State-owned generators like Stanwell are specifically blaming rooftop solar. The problem for Australian consumers [comes] in the cost of delivery of [electricity] through the transmission and distribution networks, and from retail costs and taxes. This is the cost which is driving households to take up rooftop solar, in such proportions that the level of rooftop solar is forecast ... to rise sixfold over the next decade. Households are tipped to spend up to $30bn on rooftop modules. It is not clear how centralised, fossil-fuel generation can adapt. In an energy democracy, even free coal has no value.
The energy world is not keeping up with Elon Musk, so he's trying to take matters into his own hands. Musk, chairman of the solar installer SolarCity, announced [on June 17] that the company would acquire a solar panel maker and build factories "an order of magnitude" bigger than the plants that currently churn out panels. Musk is also a founder and the CEO of the electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors, which is planning what it calls a "gigafactory" to supply batteries for its cars. In both cases, Musk's goal is to make sure that the components critical to his vision of the future — electric cars and solar energy — are available and cheap enough to beat fossil fuels. Musk's future customer could ignore traditional energy companies completely. They'd have SolarCity panels on their roof that would generate enough power [to] charge up a Tesla [car] in the garage. A Tesla battery could then power the home at night with stored solar power. Musk has made a career of thinking far into the future. He is also the CEO of SpaceX, the rocket company with an ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. SolarCity says it won't try to turn out more of the garden-variety panels now clogging the market. Instead, it wants to make panels that are more efficient, and make them at a low cost in huge factories in order to reduce the overall cost of solar electricity. Just as he drew customers to electric vehicles by making sleek, fast sports cars, Musk wants to attract homeowners to solar with pretty panels. "We want to have a cool-looking aesthetically pleasing solar system on your roof," he said.
Open source is going commercial. Once an esoteric philosophy that called for people around the world to collectively create and give away software, Silicon Valley is increasingly embracing the open source ethos as a way to make money. To expand the small market for electric cars, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk this week said he would share the company's technology with competitors. He follows industry leaders like Google, which has long allowed outside companies to customize its mobile operating system at no charge. Even Facebook is extolling the virtues of open source, which enables outside programmers to spot security flaws and helps preserve a spirit of innovation. As defined by the Open Source Initiative, the phrase ... means people not only can access and modify software code but redistribute it for free. The valley is starting to sense that enforcing patents doesn't always make sense. "Patents are so incompatible with the open source software philosophy," said Daniel Nazer, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That's Musk's mantra. The Tesla CEO didn't decide to give away his company's technology because he is a nice guy. Instead, Musk realized that electric cars won't gain mass acceptance if he is the only one making them. "Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport," Musk said this week. "If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property land mines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal."
Electric car manufacturer Tesla has confirmed that it will be opening up its patents to other manufacturers in order to boost the adoption and technological development of electric cars. Tesla’s billionaire founder Elon Musk said that the decision had been made “in the spirit of the open source movement” and “for the advancement of electric vehicle technology”. “If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal,” wrote Musk in a blog post announcing the move. Tesla's first electric car has been launched this month in the UK. The Tesla Model S, a luxury saloon car priced between Ł50,000 and Ł100,000, has a range of 300 miles and will be supported by a fledgling network of Tesla's 'supercharger' stations. Musk notes that there is a global fleet of some 2 billion cars with 100 million new vehicles added to this every year, and that if electric cars are to help address the carbon crisis they must be produced in far greater volumes than they are currently. In comparison Tesla only sold 22,500 Model S cars in 2013 and even the best-selling all-electric vehicle (the Nissan Leaf) has only sold 100,00 units. “Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day,” wrote Musk. “We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.”
Imagine making the 19-hour, 1,800-kilometre drive from Toronto to Halifax in an electric car without having to stop for a recharge. That's theoretically possible with a special kind of battery being demonstrated this week in Montreal. The battery ... consists of panels made mostly of aluminum. The battery can extend the range of an electric car by 1,600 kilometres when used in conjunction with the vehicle's regular lithium-ion battery. "We hope that this will increase the penetration of electric cars with zero emissions," said Aviv Tzidon, CEO of Phinergy, ... adding that it should put an end to "range anxiety." That kind of anxiety about how far an electric car can go before needing a recharge has often been cited as a reason the market for electric cars is still relatively small. The regular battery range of electric cars now on the market is a few hundred kilometres at most — 135 kilometres for the Nissan Leaf and 480 kilometres for the more expensive version of the Tesla Model S. That makes those cars unsuitable for extended road trips, unless high-voltage fast-charging stations, which are still relatively uncommon, are available along the way.
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In an almond orchard outside Turlock in the Central Valley, two large tanks hold water, minerals - and more importantly, energy. The tanks ... are part of a "flow battery" that stores energy from nearby solar panels. It's the largest battery of its kind in the world. And it could play a role in California's push to develop bigger and better ways to store large quantities of energy. This particular flow battery ... was built by EnerVault of Sunnyvale, part of the Bay Area's fast growing energy-storage industry. Like most of its competitors, EnerVault is young, founded in 2008, with about $30 million in venture funding to date. Some companies try to perfect the lithium-ion batteries found in laptops and electric cars. Others, including EnerVault and Primus Power of Hayward, specialize in flow batteries, which store energy in tanks of electrolytes. The fluid is then pumped through the battery's cells when power is needed. In contrast, the batteries found at a grocery store contain the electrolyte, cathode and anode all in one package. "Flow batteries are batteries turned inside out," said Jim Pape, EnerVault's chief executive officer. His company's flow batteries use iron and chromium, blended into the water inside its tanks. Both materials are safe to handle. Iron and chromium also have the benefit of being cheap. "That's our special sauce," Pape said. "Iron and chromium are very, very abundant, and abundance equals low cost."
America's oil and gas rush is depleting water supplies in the driest and most drought-prone areas of the country, from Texas to California, new research has found. Of the nearly 40,000 oil and gas wells drilled since 2011, three-quarters were located in areas where water is scarce, and 55% were in areas experiencing drought, the report by the Ceres investor network found. Fracking those wells used 97bn gallons of water, raising new concerns about unforeseen costs of America's energy rush. "Hydraulic fracturing is increasing competitive pressures for water in some of the country's most water-stressed and drought-ridden regions," said Mindy Lubber, president of the Ceres green investors' network. Without new tougher regulations on water use, she warned industry could be on a "collision course" with other water users. "It's a wake-up call," said Prof James Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine. "[I]t is time to have a conversation about what impacts there are, and do our best to try to minimise any damage." It can take millions of gallons of fresh water to frack a single well, and much of the drilling is tightly concentrated in areas where water is in chronically short supply, or where there have been multi-year droughts. Half of the 97bn gallons of water was used to frack wells in Texas, which has experienced severe drought for years. "Shale producers are having significant impacts at the county level, especially in smaller rural counties with limited water infrastructure capacity," the report said.
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Germany has set an ambitious goal: to run its economy almost entirely on renewable energy by 2050. The energy push, known as the Energiewende, or energy transformation, is often compared in scope to the country’s postwar reconstruction. It will require wide-ranging changes in German society — not just in energy supply but in architecture and agriculture, urban planning, and economic markets. Treading onto this unknown territory, Germany has called on its universities to help make the transformation work. While Germany is supporting university research into solar power and other clean energy, perhaps the biggest innovation in higher education is how the Energiewende has triggered the creation of new interdisciplinary approaches, pushing institutions to develop new courses, degrees and departments. Green technology is not necessarily where the breakthroughs need to happen, said Karl-Friedrich Ziegahn, head of the renewable energy department at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’s School of Energy. In terms of the transformation, Germany’s biggest challenges today, he said, “are socioeconomic in nature: public awareness, cost and community involvement.” Germany has already made enormous strides in clean energy generation. In roughly a decade, it has expanded its green power supply to account for a quarter of its electricity — which is twice the United States’ share of renewables. On especially sunny and windy days, when wind farms and solar parks churn out power at peak volume, more than two-thirds of the country’s electricity needs are covered by renewables.
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Of all our daily human activities, what we eat has perhaps the largest direct impact on the environment. Agriculture uses an estimated 70 percent of global freshwater to grow our food, and in the U.S., 22 percent of all our energy use is gobbled up by the food system. [In addition], the agriculture sector produces about a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases. A common myth is that the food system uses so much fossil fuel because we ship food around the globe. [But] our addiction to “convenience foods” uses far more. From the making of fertilizer [to] running your refrigerator, the food system uses an enormous amount of energy. Not only are most of those fast and packaged foods higher in sugar and lower on nutrients. They are also wasting valuable energy resources. ‘Conventional’ food uses far more energy than organic [food does]. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2007, U.S. agriculture used more than a billion pounds of pesticides. The USDA also reports farmers used 22 million tons of synthetic fertilizer in 2011. The amount of energy used to create synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (more than 13 million tons) could heat 5.5 million homes for a year. Junk food wastes money and precious resources. In 2013, Americans drank close to 39 gallons of soda per person (at a cost of about $150 per person), and in 2011, roughly 25 percent of the calories we consumed came from snack foods. And yet we willingly pay 1000 times more for that can of soda then what it actually costs. It turns out, it is not organic food that is the rip off.
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