Joanna Underwood speaks on ending oil addiction

Go to to see a photo of people boarding a bus in Oslo, Norway. Then read the caption – “Since September 2009…80 city buses powered by bio-methane made from sewage gas. Mobile gas tankers transport the fuel to local filling stations. The clean fuel is displacing 52,500 gallons of diesel a year.” – and you will get a sense of why Joanna Underwood is so excited. As president and founder of Energy Vision (EV), she is particularly eager to share such information with the younger generation of students whose world extends into the future. “I think this a very interesting moment in time. Despite the enormous difficulty of the whole political situation in this country, there is a groundswell of young people who are thinking hard about these things and want to do something.” And she considers it her job to uncover possibilities for their – for our – consideration.

The brief version of Energy Vision’s raison d’etre is to focus on ending this country’s addiction to oil. To that end, the national non-profit organization studies emerging solutions and opportunities. It also promotes the most viable strategies that can actually make the changes now that will lead us to a more sustainable future. “We support the use of technologies that move us towards sustainable fuel,” says Underwood. “We’re much less inclined to look at making a more efficient vehicle, though hybrid technology is important. Rather, our interest is in introducing a petroleum-free fuel.”

Since 2007, EV’s specific focus of study has been on communities converting their fleets of heavy diesel-burning vehicles, such as buses and waste-reclamation trucks, to cleaner fuels. With hydrogen potentially being the long-term goal, it was thought that natural gas would be the interim step in that direction, because of the compatibility of engines and refueling facilities required for either. “When I started Energy Vision, the goal was not only to continue to put out research on promising possibilities, but to work with business and government leaders in encouraging programs to get started. In the first couple of years, we convinced the first two communities on the East Coast to convert their vehicles from diesel to natural gas. That was before the whole debate over hydrofracking developed.”

Underwood explains how the organization was suddenly approached with pertinent questions on the hydrofracking issue. Knowing that 70 percent of natural gas is still removed by other means, EV continued to promote the conversion from diesel to natural gas, while also taking the stand that required the hydrofracking industry to be studied and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and to be thoroughly transparent with the communities about the chemicals used in the process as well. “Then we found the next step probably wasn’t hydrogen, but renewable natural gas made from waste. It closes the loop. We produce the garbage; we reuse the byproducts. So far, we don’t see a down side, and we keep looking. We might wish that no one created any waste. On the other hand, the waste that is organic is largely a result of food, farms, dairies and sewage.”

Another report on highlights the Canadian city of Surrey in British Columbia, where a groundbreaking waste-management and transportation plan is underway, including the construction of a new organics biofuel facility, due to begin operation in 2014, where the gases produced by collected organic wastes will be processed into fuel. Capturing greenhouse gases from organic waste products and using them as fuel that produces less greenhouse gas is an idea with tremendous opportunity. Now EV’s focus is on determining how much of this organic material we have in this country, and how much of the diesel that we use could it actually be displaced by it. With the US and Canada being among the top five generators of municipal solid waste per capita, as well as among the top ten generators of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the world, the transformation away from fossil fuels is locally imperative.

With over 30 years in service of environmental advances, Underwood is “one of the world’s 100 most influential voices in the global environment movement,” according to The Earth Times. The end of addiction to oil will be the topic of discussion when she appears at the Vassar Bookstore Author Series on Monday, February 20 at 5:30 p.m. She will also talk about waste-generation and solutions here in Ulster and Dutchess Counties. The Author Series is open to the public at no charge. Visit for further information about that organization.




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