Structural Problems In The Economy, and How Britain Can Go Renewable

lasso
Roundup Time! (image by williac, CC 2.0 licensed)

Some more roundup links. These pages have been hanging around in my browser for weeks, waiting for me to blog about them. As with the links I posted earlier this week, I consider these “go to” articles and sites – continuously interesting and relevant.

Let me if you have a chance to read any of these pages or sites. I’d love to hear what you think.

Middle Class Task Force Meeting in Philly Focuses on Green Jobs

One of the Middle Class Task Force panels at the Philly meeting
One of the Middle Class Task Force panels at the Philly meeting

If you’re not reading the new whitehouse.gov blog, you’re missing out.

This liveblog about the “Middle Class Task Force” meeting in Philly last week from whitehouse.gov was great. Speakers included John Podesta, former Clinton staffer and now with the Center for American Progress; Van Jones from Green for All (based in the Bay Area), Fred Krupp from the Environmental Defense Fund, a bunch of cabinet and administration appointees, and representatives from labor like Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers of America.

Some highlights:

“when I see less carbon, I also see more jobs.” That’s from Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has invested a lot of time and energy into the details of how to make green jobs a reality.

Mark Edlen of Portland, OR-based architecture firm Gerding-Edlen — in a lot of ways created an industry and market for green city living. He believes they can go further — zero impact buildings. Gerding-Edlin just completed a 400-thousand square foot building that is off the sewer grid, and in fact puts water back into the system.

One of the key partners in making green jobs a reality has been Labor, in particular the United Steelworkers of America. USW President Leo Gerard has been a visionary on this issue, and has been building coalitions with enviro groups for years — he’s a founder of the Apollo Alliance and the Blue Green Alliance.

Who knew (not me, anyway) that the United Steelworkers has had such a green past. Check out the PowerPoint Gerard used at the meeting — it’s impressive!

There’s a lot more at http://www.whitehouse.gov/strongmiddleclass/, including their new whitepaper.

I’ve really been enjoying the openness of the White House blog – I hope it keeps up. And I hope this task force is a harbinger of a big change in how we build homes and businesses in the U.S. – better services at a much lower energy footprint!

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.

Want Obama To Take Action On Energy? Vote At Change.Org

Idea
Idea! (photo by brunkfordbraun, CC 2.0 license)

Keeping The Lights On (this blog) just endorsed, and I voted for, an “Idea For Change In America” at change.org, Obama’s community website. The idea is “Develop & Implement a National Strategy for Sustainability.”

Ideas for Change in America is a nationwide competition to identify the best ideas for change in America. The top 10 ideas will be presented to the Obama administration just before inauguration day and form the basis of a nationwide advocacy campaign to turn each idea into actual policy.

This idea is currently running 11th, but in any case I think, and hope, that this is a foregone conclusion – I believe Obama is going to go after sustainability and related goals in a big way, no matter how many votes it ends up getting. But additional votes can’t hurt. You can vote for up to ten of these “ideas for change” – it’s worth taking a look.

Ten Energy Predictions For The Next Decade

Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1)
Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1, CC 2.0 license)

On December 30 of last year (six days ago), my wife and I were in Pasadena, CA visiting the Greene and Greene exhibit at the Huntington Library. It was one of those glorious and rare smog-free days in the LA basin. The air sparkled, you could see for miles in every direction, and mountain range after mountain range was visible – all the way out to the snow-covered San Gabriels. Nowadays, the air is only ever this clear around the Christmas holiday, when the freeway traffic is substantially reduced and a lot of factories shut down for the week. It got me thinking about how the future – say ten to twenty years hence – may be unrecognizable in both dramatic and mundane ways. For example, smog-free days may no longer be rare in LA, once the economy has shifted off fossil fuels. (I suspect the traffic will remain, unfortunately!)

Like LA’s typical skies, the energy future is murky in the short term – this year and 2010 – and I’ll leave those predictions to others. But the big trends – sustainability, carbon fighting, and technological breakthroughs – enable us to make better sense of the mid- and long-term. Therefore, In the spirit of the New Year, the incoming administration, and the tipping point that the world has come to about climate change and sustainability, here are ten things I believe are very likely to happen in the next ten years.

  1. Residential solar PV will be cost effective in most U.S. locations (via a combination of price reduction, new design thinking, much more efficient homes, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels).
  2. Home energy storage – via batteries, hydrogen reforming, fuel cells, or other technology – will be available and installed in 10% of new homes in California, for when the sun don’t shine.
  3. More than 10% of new homes in California will be zero-net energy.
  4. 50% of new residential construction in California will be zero-net energy “ready.”
  5. The current LEED standards will be considered obsolete.
  6. More than 20% of peak grid electricity will come from excess capacity from residential solar PV.
  7. There will be general consensus that efficiency and frugality alone will not provide enough CO2 mitigation to prevent major climate change – we will need a technological solution to actually reducing atmospheric CO2 or artificially cooling the earth.
  8. There will be a mid-priced carbon fiber, plugin hybrid passenger car in production that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. The company making it will be the “next GM.”
  9. 10% of the cars on the road will be powered by 100% renewable energy and will be essentially non-polluting.
  10. New technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere will be available, powered by excess solar capacity.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, and predictions for 2018.

Zero-net Energy Series Coming Up

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series on “zero-net energy” residences (related to predictions 1-6 above). This area is about to explode. We already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively. And although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero, and probably it will be cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Talk about a world-changing situation – it really is possible to have energy too cheap to meter, but it’s going to come off our roofs, not from a nuclear plant or one of those imaginary fusion reactors.

Encourage Obama To Name a Secretary Of Food

Kale
Beatiful kale,not from a factory farm (photo by terren in Virginia, CC 2.0 licensed)

Nicholas Kristof in his NY Times op-ed today urges Obama to appoint a Secretary of Food:

A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.

The interests of big agriculture – the “factory farmers” – are really opposed to the interests of people. The “food” they raise wastes energy, causes huge environment damage, makes us unhealthy, and even leads to antibiotic resistant diseases.

On the other hand, real family farmers, who grow non-factory food on relatively small farms, are good for us, good for the environment, and good for our health.

If you feel this is a good cause, check out the online petition at www.fooddemocracynow.org, which calls for a reformist pick for agriculture secretary — and names six terrific candidates, including Chuck Hassebrook, a reformer in Nebraska and Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and researcher in Pocantico Hills, NY.

For more on food policy and its relation to health, environment, and policy, check out Michael Pollan’s “Open Letter To The Next Farmer In Chief” in the October 12 New York Times Magazine. Eye-opening and inspiring, like all of his work.

Friedman to Detroit: Batteries R U

Soyuz Boosters
Soyuz rocket (Photo by James Duncan, CC 2.0 license)

Following up on my post yesterday about the Detroit bailout, today I wanted to mention Tom Friedman’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times “The Real Generation X.” It is primarily about how Obama’s stimulus package should focus on preparing us, especially our young people, for the future, not saving old dinosaur industries like Detroit:

We not only need to bail out industries of the past but to build up industries of the future — to offer the kind of big thinking and risk-taking that transforms enormous challenges into world-changing opportunities.

But what I thought was both charming and an important call to action was specifically about the auto industry bailout – an audacious challenge to Obama and Detroit:

You want my tax dollars? Then I want to see the precise production plans and timetables for the hybridization of all your cars and trucks within 36 months. I want every bailed-out car company to move to hybrid electric drive trains, because nothing would both improve mileage and emissions more — and also stimulate a whole new 21st-century, job-creating industry: batteries.

I love the audacity of this idea. It’s a big idea, and breaks the commonly held “20 year” rule that says it takes 20 years for a laboratory discovery to make it into industrial production. But we’ve overcome that rule occasionally before, in moments of great crisis, haven’t we? The Manhattan Project and the conversion of U.S. industry to war production during World War II, and the Apollo program both accelerated the 20 year rule significantly.

Do you have other audacious suggestions for Obama, or examples of technologies that broke the 20-year rule? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

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.

A Bright Spot In The Housing Crisis – Solar Houses Still Selling

In an October article Will Demand for Solar Homes Pick Up? Business Week reporter Adam Aston discovers that houses with built in solar energy collectors are bucking the general downward trend in the market.

Consumers recognize that green homes “save money month in, month out,” says Rick Andreen, president of Shea Homes Active Lifestyles Communities in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The combination of the renewal of the investment tax credits for solar installations, the ascendance of “green” lifestyles, and to some degree the target demographic of these homes, the number of solar houses in the U.S. is set to spike from 40,000 units. Several of the big home builders in Arizona, California, and other states are ramping up their plans for solar houses. Especially after the experience of Standard Pacific Homes in their Whitney Ranch, a development south of Sacramento. Sales had been soft, but when Standard Pacific put solar systems on a group of new models in the development, they sold out. Now they’re putting solar panels on all 304 of the homes.

Michael Pollan Advises Obama on Food and Agriculture

Otis wasn't sure if it was really a crashed spaceship or not
Otis wasn't sure if it was really a crashed spaceship or not!

Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food) gave some advice to the next president (Obama, as it turns out) in the NY Times October 12 Sunday Magazine. If he didn’t know already, Pollan warned him that food policy is going to be a big issue, and provides some advice on what to do about it.

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food.

Modern U.S. agriculture (especially as embodied in “The Farm Bill”) is not only a giant user of fossil fuels, but also arguably the major contributor to health crises like obesity and diabetes.

Agriculture in the U.S. uses a surprisingly large amount of fossil fuels (about 14% of the total), and actually generates proportionally more potent greenhouse gases than other uses of the same feedstock. The green revolution was all about fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and monoculture. Furthermore, the incentives are perverse, especially in the U.S., anti-health and anti-family farm.

Summarizing Pollan’s article, the key recommendation is the “resolarization” of American agriculture:

Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops” — farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables. … Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops — including animals — as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.

Pollan was also on Fresh Air on October 20, a fantastic interview following up on this article, which you can hear at http://freshair.npr.org. I have the mp3 of the show if you want to listen to it on your pod-player (let me know – I’ll make it available for download).

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