How Should Local Planning Commissions Reward Energy Efficiency?

SATOR Magic square
It's code for something! (Image by Marco Fedele, CC 2.0 licensed)

As I discussed in my earlier post, [intlink id=”602″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]Code changes and incentives are critical for energy independence[/intlink], it’s going to be tough to change the energy efficiency of our building stock until building and planning commissions provide incentives to owners and builders to take those extra steps, and spend that extra money.

So the question then arises, what should these building and planning commissions incentivize? “Energy efficiency” is not a sufficient answer, obviously. In particular because building codes are all now claiming to be energy efficient already. E.g., California’s new version of Title 24 is our “Building Energy Efficiency Standard.” Indeed, a house built to the new Title 24 standards will be 20-30% more efficient than a house built to the old Title 24. However, compared to a standard like the Passive House Specification, or the Architecture 2030 interim goals for 2010, it’s significantly missing the opportunity for energy savings of 80-90%.

OK, I’m preaching to the choir on this topic, I know. But the question then arises, what should the building and planning commissions incentivize? Here’s what I’m thinking, as a quick first cut:

  • Passive House Certification
  • 22 points or more on the LEED for Homes Energy and Atmosphere category
  • X points (I don’t know the value for X yet) on the Green Point Rating system

My goal is to come up with several roughly comparable measures of advanced energy efficiency, any of which could be used to achieve the incentives. (Whatever they might end up being – I listed some in the earlier post mentioned above.)

I’m very interested to hear your comments on this list, and your suggestions for other additions.

How Big Is The Project, Really?

Toledo tree (image by J. Lozano, CC 2.0 licensed)

According to John Lushetsky, program manager of the U.S., it’s a very big project:

To go from the 1 gigawatt of generation capacity that we have now [in the United States] to the 170 to 200 gigawatts called for by 2030 amounts to a 26 percent compounded annual growth rate over the next 20 years. That’s a higher sustained growth rate than any industry has ever been asked to do before

This was at a presentation Lushetsky gave in Toledo Ohio two weeks ago, as part of a day-long conference on “Empowering Solar Energy in Ohio.”

That 26% growth rate is very high, but there is hope. The semiconductor and IT industries had a similar growth rate over a similar period. In fact, measured using a different metric – price/performance – the semiconductor industry actually grew a lot faster. That’s one reason I like to focus on [intlink id=”189″ type=”post”]price/performance with solar energy[/intlink] – if that metric continually drops, then it’s feasible for alternative energy sources to replace conventional sources. Just as in the IT industry, [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]the driver for growth in solar is going to be cost parity[/intlink]. That’s why the Google Foundation’s program, for example, is RE < C (“renewable energy costs less than coal“) instead of something like “200 GW by 2030”.

Combining dropping solar power costs with increasing energy efficiency gets you to the goal fastest, of course. Getting efficient is already cheaper than buying energy in a lot of cases. (We need a whole other set of posts to discuss the barriers to getting efficient – it’s cheap, cost-effective, and profitable but still challenging.)

The Power Of Small Changes

We get a lot of kale in our CSA box of veggies (image by terren in Virginia, CC 2.0 license)

There’s a perception that green is more expensive and less convenient, and, truth to say, that’s sometimes true. It is more expensive to buy your groceries at Whole Foods. And putting solar panels on your roof doesn’t really save you money for many years, if at all, (although it’s still less than buying a new car).

But on the other hand, we know that there are lots of green things you can do that actually save money – replacing your incandescent lights with compact fluorescents is one familiar example. And if you’re building a house, putting in lots more insulation than is required by code can save a huge amount of both money and energy, while making your home more comfortable.

Sometimes it’s small changes that can flip this perception. I have a recent example from my own life that brought this home to me (so to speak):

Continue reading “The Power Of Small Changes”

Avoiding The Cliff Ahead

Uluwatu Temple, Bali (HDR)
A cliff in Bali (image by seanmcgrath, CC 2.0 licensed)

My green building and blogging colleague Barry Katz just had a post about James Howard Kunstler on his The Future Is Green Blog. Kunstler is one of the “dystopians” featured in a  New Yorker article last week. Kunstler is not sanguine about what the future is going to look like for us and our descendants. He thinks that not only is global warming likely to cause a disaster, but so is the current, or an upcoming, financial meltdown. Barry writes:

In his view, anything short of ending our dependence on cars for personal transportation is a doomed enterprise.

In his blog ClusterF**k nation, Kunstler writes:

I’ve been skeptical of the “stimulus” as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable — since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote.

Could the terrible things he predicts happen? In the New Yorker interview he provides as an example and a warning the famous fall of the Roman Empire – the city of Rome itself went from a population of over one million in 100 AD to less than 50,000 in a little over 400 years. And there certainly have been many other similar collapses in history – even in pre-Columbian North America there were multiple population collapses due to resource overuse (and genocide, but that’s another topic).

The difference today – at least we hope – is that we have some Cassandras – Al Gore, Kunstler, the IPCC, me and Barry Katz, among many others – warning us, and we have the means and opportunity to take the warning. The question is, do we have the will to put the pedal to the metal to address the problems? For me, I see that as doing the following, and doing it much faster than anyone is actually predicting is possible today:

  • Immediately stop wasting energy – this means getting our houses and commercial buildings more efficient, both new and existing ones; getting more efficient cars on the road
  • Build out utility scale renewable energy as fast as humanly possible
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy generation (e.g., photovoltaic roof panels and paint, mini-wind turbines, ground source heat pumps) and get them cheap enough to deploy everywhere
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy storage – effective energy storage is one of the key sticking points for my vision of zero net energy homes and for accelerating the decline of traditional power plants
  • Figure out a way, or several ways, to get some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere – reforestation is a start (and can make a significant difference, according to this study)
  • Finally, make structural changes to the rules and incentives of life so people will work closer to where they live, will be able to take public transit in a reasonable way, choose to build highly efficient homes not because its the right thing to do, but because it’s the law, or there are other concrete benefits, and so that businesses will find it’s profitable to save the world – whether it’s through being more efficient themselves, or by helping the rest of us “do the right thing”

I call this blog “Keeping The Lights On” because I am optimistic that we’ll figure out how to have a decent life without CO2, that we’ll figure out how to keep the oceans from rising too much and losing too many species, and that civilization won’t collapse due to a financial crisis in the meantime. There are a lot of hurdles to be leapt to accomplish this, and many of them will be costly – but that means that someone’s going to make some money on them, so there will be incentives. And that’s the other half of the title – “Profitable Applications” – business can drive this transition, for profit. The big challenge is getting business ramped up fast enough to save our butts – I think it can happen, and even with the economy in its current sad state, we’re still seeing hopeful signs.

Well, that’s a couple of pages full of assertion and conjecture – I’d love to hear your thinking on this.

Green Building, Carbon Footprint, and Santa Explained

Santa and His Sleigh, Compressing Space and Time
Santa and His Sleigh, Compressing Space and Time

In the last week or two I came across a number of interesting energy-related resources, blogs, websites, and talks that I wanted to share.

  • I was happy to run across Barry Katz’s new blog, The Future Is Green, because Barry, a home builder, is where all home builders need to get in the next 5-10 years. He’s committed to building zero-net energy homes and remodels. His web site has examples of the some of the work he’s done so far.

    In fact, the homebuilding industry can do something that not even hybrid cars can do. It is entirely possible, using currently available technology and materials, to build homes that consume zero-net energy. And not only zero net energy, but energy positive enough to recharge our plug-in hybrids. Such houses exist already. If we can build one, we can build many. (From Barry’s post, What We Need Now.)

    Barry’s also writing a book on green remodels, which should be useful for people like me who live in a house that’s already been built.

  • Saul Griffith, of Makani Power, calculated his current carbon footprint, and then his “allocated” carbon footprint as a global citizen. In this talk at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference earlier this year, he walks through those numbers – which are both scary and heartening. His calculations suggest that we need to throttle our energy usage at about 15 terawatts (TW) for the entire earth. As he puts it:
  • My life today is 18 horsepower, my new life should be three horsepower

    I found the section on the energy available for us to use – the total solar flux, the tidal power of gravity, nuclear, and geothermal – extremely interesting (about 30:30 into the recording).

    There are only four sources of energy – sun (85,000 TW), gravity (tidal – 3.7 TW), geothermal (constant flux of 32 TW), nuclear. All photosynthesis is 90 TW, which is the major argument against biofuels.

  • Science Daily reports on some research by Larry Silverberg, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University, regarding Santa Claus’s ability to “travel around the world in just one night on his reindeer-pulled sleigh and deliver toys to all the children.”
  • “He understands that space stretches, he understands that you can stretch time, compress space and therefore he can, in a sense, actually have six Santa months to deliver the presents,” Silverberg told Reuters.

I hope you enjoy these links – let me know your thoughts, especially about the Griffiths talk if you have a chance to listen to it on your iPod – or on your computer at work.

The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind

Windmill and old houses in Schipluiden
Old Windmill (image by waterwin, CC 2.0 license)

The results of this study on solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security, by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson, are somewhat surprising, given the drumbeat from many areas on both nuclear and biofuels as necessary for the salvation of the world.

Jacobson analyzes 12 energy sources for their beneficial impact on global warming, air pollution, and energy security – the ten electricity sources are solar-photovoltaics (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP), wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, tidal, nuclear, and coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology; the two liquid fuel options are corn-ethanol (E85) and cellulosic-E85.

An article in Science Daily summarizes one of Jacobson’s conclusions:

Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.

As the bottom line in the study, Jacobson writes:

In summary, the use of wind, CSP, geothermal, tidal, solar, wave, and hydroelectric to provide electricity for BEVs [battery electric vehicles] and HFCVs [hydrogen fuel cell vehicles] result in the most benefit and least impact among the options considered. Coal-CCS and nuclear provide less benefit with greater negative impacts. The biofuel options provide no certain benefit and result in significant negative impacts. Because sufficient clean natural resources (e.g., wind, sunlight, hot water, ocean energy, gravitational energy) exists to power all energy for the world, the results here suggest that the diversion of attention to the less efficient or non-efficient options represents an opportunity cost that delays solutions to climate and air pollution health problems.

Note that the study ranks the various energy alternatives without regard to cost. That’s going to be controversial. Jacobson says:

Costs are not examined since policy decisions should be based on the ability of a technology to address a problem rather than costs (e.g., the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 prohibit the use of cost as a basis for determining regulations required to meet air pollution standards) and because costs of new technologies will change over time, particularly as they are used on a large scale.

In the real world, costs do have a major impact, especially given that we do not have a Clean Air Act regarding carbon today. This is why it’s so important that the price/kW of solar panels, for example, is dropping and will continue to drop.

In fact, when you leave cost out of the equation, is it surprising which energy sources came out on top? Let me know your thoughts.

Why Not Just Sell Them Here?

Some classic old GM cars - 1957 Cadillac tailfins
Some classic old GM cars (Image by thebi429, CC 2.0 license)

An article in today’s Seattle Times says that GM does know how to make good small cars, just not in the States:

Nearly three-fifths of General Motors’ employees make cars that are admired, popular and profitable. They just don’t work in the United States.

GM has a bigger presence and employs more people outside the United States than in it, and actually makes money selling cars around the globe. Its U.S. revenue has sunk 24 percent in the past three years, but in the rest of the world, GM can boast a 28 percent increase.

In Ford’s recent 2008 retrospective, they mention similar results – growth in Europe and Asia, production of lots of high mileage models outside the States, new fuel technologies, and so on:

  • “Ford of Europe is offering its customers ultra-low CO2 alternatives for selected car lines with the launch of a new range of Ford ECOnetic models at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show”
  • “Volume production of the new Ford Fiesta, the first of a generation of new global small Ford cars, started at the company’s Cologne plant in Germany”
  • “Ford ranks highest in overall new-vehicle sales satisfaction in Indonesia, according to the J.D. Power Asia Pacific 2008 Indonesia Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI) Study”

So, my simple question is – why don’t they just make those cars here? Or at least ship some of them here and sell them?

Old Failures And New Rules For The Auto Industry

The best pieces I’ve read on the auto industry bailout/failure/bankruptcy are Bob Sutton’s giant flame, “Thoughts About Why GM Executives Are Clueless And Their Destructive ‘No We Can’t’ Mindset” and Umair Haque’s “Detroit’s 6 Mistakes and How Not to Make Them.”

While neither of these articles are about green energy or hybrid cars or sustainability per se, they both get at some of the big issues that industry and finance worldwide have to overcome for the the world to change as it must.

Sutton is a measured and careful writer, whose primary beat as a teacher (at Stanford School of Engineering, B School, and D School), business consultant, and writer, is using effective techniques for creating innovation, and using evidence to understand whether the decisions you make are taking you in the right direction. His post, in a measured and careful way, excoriates GM for decades of practices that go against those precepts:

I could list hundreds of management, cultural, and operational reasons why I believe that GM is such a flawed organization, but to me, a pair of root causes standout: Most of the senior executives — and many of the managers — are (1) clueless about what matters most and (2) suffer from a “no we can’t” mindset.

Haque, on the other hand, looks to the good future of what he calls “the new rules of 21st century business,” using Detroit as the example of the old rules.

Old rule: Choose evil. Industrial era business is unrepentantly and almost sociopathically evil: shifting costs onto others, while striving to internalize benefits. Detroit chose lobbying, marketing wars, and low-cost hardball – to always and everywhere try to socialize costs and privatize benefits. Never was this truer than Detroit’s lobbying against public transport throughout the 20th century. Why does public transport in the States suck? Because Detroit’s lobbying machine doesn’t.

New rule? Choose good. In the 21st century, every moral imperative is also a strategic imperative: doing good – for customers, employees, suppliers, or society – is a radical strategic choice that unlocks new pathways to innovation and growth. The opportunity cost of defending evil for Detroit was never learning how to choose good – and that’s a crucial mistake other auto players didn’t make. Tata chose to make a car that was accessible to the world’s poor. Porsche and BMW chose to invest in talent, people, and imagination. Honda and Toyota chose to invest in renewables and partnerships with the public sector. All opened new avenues to growth for an industry at the brink of extinction.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting again about the auto industry, focusing on Obama’s pledge on Saturday for “public works on a massive scale” and Tom Friedman’s Sunday op-ed, in which he suggests we tie any bailout to a commitment by the car makers to having their entire fleets running on hybrid power plants in 36 months.

Deutsche Bank Confirms Green Energy Creates Jobs and Economic Growth

home with free electricity
Available: Home with free electric (photo by Kainet, CC 2.0 Sharealike license)

From MIT’s Technology Review comes this column from Kevin Bullis, about a recent report from Deutsche Bank on the economic benefits of investing in new energy projects:

It argues that it’s possible to address challenges related to climate change, energy security, and the financial crisis at the same time by investing in four specific areas: energy-efficient buildings, electric power grids, renewable power, and public transportation. The report cites figures that suggest investing in these areas creates more jobs than investing in conventional energy sources because much of the old energy infrastructure is already in place. It says that “a $100 billion investment in energy and efficiency would result in 2 million new jobs, whereas a similar investment in old energy [such as coal or natural gas] would only create around 540,000 jobs.”

Of course, Obama has already pledged to do something along these lines, and the blogosphere (including me, here) has chimed in as well. But the imprimatur of Deutsche Bank adds some gravitas to the proposal.

If you want to read the report yourself, it’s here.

Climate Change In Extremistan

The Black Swan (book)
Taleb's The Black Swan. Image via Wikipedia

In his Edge Magazine essay Life Is Not A Casino, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the trader and author (of The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness) discusses why he no longer thinks that using statistics and probability to make decisions is wise. The problem, he says, is that:

When it comes to low odds, decision making no longer depends on the probability alone. It is the pair, probability times payoff (or a series of payoffs), the expectation, that matters. On occasion, the potential payoff can be so vast that it dwarfs the probability—and these are usually real-world situations in which probability is not computable.

Taleb is a very interesting speaker. I highly recommend a couple of his talks which are available as podcasts. He spoke to the Long Now Foundation in February on “The Future Has Always Been Crazier Than We Thought” (mp3, summary), and at PopTech in 2007 (mp3, description).

Bringing us back to our usual topic of energy and climate change, he makes this observation at the end of the essay:

Correspondents keep asking me if the climate worriers are basing their claims on shoddy science and whether, owing to nonlinearities, their forecasts are marred with such a possible error that we should ignore them. Now, even if I agreed that it was shoddy science; even if I agreed with the statement that the climate folks were most probably wrong, I would still opt for the most ecologically conservative stance. Leave Planet Earth the way we found it. Consider the consequences of the very remote possibility that they may be right—or, worse, the even more remote possibility that they may be extremely right.

“Extremely right,” for Taleb, means that climate change will be much worse than we thought, or much faster, or have a much larger impact than expected. The danger of that, despite its low probability, making it a “black swan” in his parlance, means that investing to prevent it is worth it, even if costly. (Of course, I argue elsewhere that it could be profitable, not costly.)

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