No Manhattan Project, But Don’t Say No To Breakthrough Innovations

a polar bear and her baby
The polar bears say "keep the innovations coming - it's getting warm out here!" (image by Just Being Myself, CC 2.0 licensed)

While I agree with Joseph Romm on Climate Progress that we can’t count on a “Manhattan Project”-style endeavour to engineer our way out of the climate crisis in the short term, nonetheless, I think it’s reasonable to have a certain expectation that technology will improve over the right timescale, so we can be ready to take advantage of it.

A few weeks ago Martin Brown had a great post on his Fairsnape blog on Recession Thoughts and Tips. One of his many excellent suggestions was

Stand in the future and observe the industry in 2016/2019 – climate change will not be ‘put on hold’ during the recession – so do you have a route to zero mapped out?

His suggestions apply, of course, not only in a recession, but also if you want to help make big changes happen. In particular, “Standing in the future” is critical for those who are trying to make changes in response to climate change to visualize how things must be (for us to survive) in 2020 or 2030, because only then can we figure out how to get there.

The key challenge for that kind of thing is thinking big enough! Small example: If you’d asked me twenty years ago, or even ten, if it was every going to be possible to watch video on my phone, I’d have said “No, there’s just not going to be enough bandwidth for that to happen. I don’t ever expect that to be something we can do.” Was I ever wrong! And I consider myself open-minded and an outside the box thinker!

It’s very likely that the technologies and practices that get us out of a climate change disaster aren’t invented yet, or at best are in labs somewhere. Those of us – the rest of us – who need to take those inchoate and early ideas and turn them into market realities need a LOT of imagination to forcefully move the world out of its current ruts.

That’s why I often post news about discoveries coming out of labs, or going into the development process. Daniel Nocera’s [intlink id=”162″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]hydrogen reforming[/intlink], and [intlink id=”181″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]nanotechnology breakthroughs[/intlink], or technologies like or based on them, will be changing our lives in the next 10, 20, or fifty years – whether by mitigating carbon, or helping us store or generate renewable energy, or perhaps in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

If there are particular technologies you are watching, let me know in the comments – I’ve love to hear about them.

Disagreeing With The New Yorker On Stimulus Vs. Sustainability

Eustace Tilley Considers Electric Cars
Eustace Tilley Considers Electric Cars

I’m a big fan of the New Yorker, and read most issues cover to cover. Their politics usually align with mine, and I always enjoyed Hendrik Hertzberg sticking it to the Cheney administration. But I have to take issue with some of their economic opinions. In particular, David Owen’s Talk of Town, Economy Vs. Environment, in the March 20 issue got me hot and bothered.

Owen’s basic position seems to be that to be sustainable we can’t spend, and if we spend we’re not sustainable. Therefore, the stimulus package and a long term goal for sustainability are incompatible. (With the subtext, apparently, that stimulus is more important.)

I have several issues with Owen’s position. For example, Owens doesn’t say much about spending on sustainability – there $15 billion of that. Much of that, because it’s focused on energy efficiency, will result in improved productivity. It turns out you can get a lot of productivity from sustainability improvements. It’s one of the magic tricks – called the “triple bottom line” – you spend less or the same up front, you save more, and you’re healthier and more productive. In this case sustainability is actually directly improving the economy. Continue reading “Disagreeing With The New Yorker On Stimulus Vs. Sustainability”

Individual Action Is Not Enough

Someone entered this topic in an online forum to which I subscribe:

The main problem with lowering the carbon level is down to individuals, to behaviour, to good citizenship and that is the biggest challenge of all… how many times to you see careless behaviours? how do you change that?

I just had to respond. I think this attitude is the best way to make sure that end in the end, nothing good happens. I’m reprinting my comment on the topic below, unedited (even though you all know about passive houses already).

My response

Individual action will not solve the problem. For example, my hobby horse is highly energy efficient buildings such as the Passive House approach. They use 80-90% less energy than a conventional house, at typically 5-10% higher cost to build. Simply building only passive houses and remodeling to the passive house standard for the next ten years would reduce the U.S.’s carbon footprint by at least 20%. In fact, because the energy use is so low, there will be lots of excess solar electricity generated, so our carbon footprint might even go lower due to the compounding effects.

But people won’t build them without a) a large-scale education campaign for both builders and home buyers, b) incentives for builders and owners from cities, counties, and states, and c) a compelling business case for the suppliers of the highly efficient windows and mechanical systems required.

Passive Houses “tunnel through” the efficiency cost barrier to achieve their benefits at a relatively low additional cost. But even though they have a great cost/benefit ratio, they’re not going to take off without those structural changes. That’s why, instead of becoming a builder of passive houses, I’m becoming a lobbyist for passive houses. Builders can make a difference of 2-5 houses a year. As a lobbyist, I can make a difference of 100-1000 houses a year, or more.

Individuals weatherstripping their houses, and taking shorter showers, can slow down CO2 growth a bit, but turning it around takes large structural changes. Yes, those are driven by individuals, but they are not individual changes.

I use passive houses as an example, but there are lots more in other areas. Same is true for car use – it will take structural changes for people to be able to live nearer where they work. Or for food energy use – most people are not going to be able to garden enough to make a difference in the U.S.’s agricultural energy footprint – that’s going to take big changes in commercial ag. Some of those changes are happening, and that’s awesome, but it’s not going to happen by you putting in a garden, no matter how good and useful a step that is.

Biohaus: First Certified PassivHaus in the U.S.

Front View of the Waldsee BioHaus
Front View of the Waldsee BioHaus

The other day I posted about one of the [intlink id=”565″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]first passive houses built in the U.S.[/intlink] I just ran across another passive house example – this one is the first U.S.-built home to be certified to the German Passivhaus standard. The house was built at the Concordia  Language Villages in Minnesota in 2006, partially funded by the first-ever grant to a U.S. recipient by the German environmental foundation Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU).

Under the guidance of architect Stephan Tanner of INTEP, LLC, a Minneapolis- and Munich-based consulting company for high performance and sustainable construction, Waldsee BioHaus is modeled on Germany’s Passivhaus standard: a highly-efficient building design (beyond that of the U.S. LEED standard which improves quality of life inside the building while using 85% less energy than comparable U.S. structures.

The building materials and mechanicals were primarily sourced from local suppliers, although a few components were imported from Germany. These were items that either were not available (at that time) in the States, or which were provided by sponsored by the funders. Here’s another link to Waldsee Biohaus information.

It’s fascinating to me that only a handful of these houses have been built here in the States so far. Each of the houses I’ve posted about uses 80-90% less energy than a comparable conventional house. Their build out costs are comparable to conventional houses in their area, and lifecycle costs are definitely less, based on actual measurements. The approach has been proven extensively in Europe, and has been shown to be effective in every country in Europe, not to mention multiple climate zones in the U.S. It’s simple and has just three key components. The European Community is moving to make passive house the EU standard.

But despite this, here in the U.S., where buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy usage, where we have Architecture 2030, a Federal mandate for zero energy buildings, and efforts like the California Public Utilities Commission’s 2020 project, none of our codes – state building codes, LEED, Green Points, or local codes, call out the three key components of passive houses as desirable, much less required. I think this has to change.

Your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.

Green Building Salon – A Few Conclusions

|||| striaticon
Perception is reality when it comes to green energy (image by striatic, CC 2.0 license)

I was thinking about what we accomplished/learned at our initial green building/green energy salon a few days ago, and came up with a few top candidates:

  • Liability – this is one of the biggest issues at the front of mind for builders and architects – they have to guarantee their buildings, and that makes them very wary of new technologies. One big challenge for green building will be coming up with ways to break through that barrier (the other alternative, of course, is to wait long enough that the new technologies prove themselves – but even this needs to be optimized). For example, perhaps the government could help take on some of the liability to reduce the risk for architects and builders trying to do the right thing.
  • Perception – Silicon Valley, as one of the attendees pointed out, is way ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of our perception that “green is just an obvious thing to do.” The general idea that green is more expensive or that it requires privation is much more prevalent. So a big challenge for the green movement is to change that perception, which is a combination of both marketing (the next topic) as well as changes in the way green is delivered. Simple changes (see my CSA “box of veggies” post, for example) can make a huge difference in perceptions.
  • Marketing – half of us at the salon were high tech marketers. Green technology is a classic high-tech marketing problem. We’re facing a “chasm” that we need to get across. There’s a technology adoption lifecycle in green building just as there is in new IT technologies. Of course, that’s one of the things that we here in Silicon Valley are pretty good at (we wrote the book on it :-). So one good set of steps to move forward will be to articulate a “Crossing the Chasm” kind of analysis of green, and figure out where our “beackheads” are, and how to get a “tornado” going.

Most of the news about green energy and climate change focuses on the big multi-million dollar technical projects, scientific breakthroughs, and “parts per million.” But as we discovered at our salon, there is a lot of “ground-level” work that has to be done at the same time – whether it’s to remove obstacles for builders to build green, or to help consumers understand they can save money and get better services and, oh by the way, save a lot of energy at the same time.

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.

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.

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.

Trains? No, Planes and Automobiles (At Least In The U.S.)

Trains are not a solution to reducing the amount of driving Americans do. Saying “Europe has good trains, so we should too” is just a bad analogy. And we’re not even talking all the cultural, geographic, and infrastructural differences.

A Pretty Dutch Train
A pretty antique Dutch train (Photo by Gen Gibson)

Over on Will Blog for Food, John agitates for a much extended use of trains in the U.S. to partially address our current dependence on cars.

As an example, I spent three weeks in Holland a few years ago. I could get anywhere in the country by rail and back to Amsterdam the same day. But here’s the kicker: I never had to wait more than 5 minutes for a train to Amsterdam from any where in the country. Even in former communist countries like the Czech Republic you can get anywhere by rail and/or bus.

In the comments I took some issue with this idea, and thought I’d expand on those comments in a post.

Interestingly, Holland is about four times the size of… LOS ANGELES! It’s also one of the most densely populated countries in the world (LA is dense also).

So I’ll accept that you could build a kickass train system in the greater LA area, and it would be more or less the equivalent to the entire national train system in Holland. BTW, if you include Orange, San Bernadino, and Ventura Counties in with LA, you get a region larger than the entire Netherlands. And that doesn’t include five of the largest cities in California (San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, and San Jose), much less even the largest cities in the neighboring states.

My point is that saying “Europe has good trains, so we should too” is just a bad analogy. And we’re not even talking all the cultural, geographic, and infrastructural differences. For example, the fact that a huge proportion of the population lives in sprawling suburbs mitigates strongly against effective public transit. In places where the density is sufficient, public transit has worked in the U.S. – New York, Boston, San Francisco. It’s arguable that LA is sufficiently dense – but it might not be, with the sprawl down to Long Beach, Orange County, and San Bernadino County.

My feeling is that cars are here to stay in the U.S. (and obtw, in China and India too, at a very rapid growth rate). Instead of fantasizing about trains in the U.S., we need to figure out how to build cars that don’t pollute, use sustainable energy sources, and are recyclable. Interestingly, one reason our cars aren’t built from carbon fiber today? Not recyclable (yet). On the other hand, 90% of the materials in a regular Detroit car are recyclable and recycled today. In fact, I just read today that Subaru’s plant in Indiana is “zero landfill” – they actually don’t throw anything away!

What do you think about trains in the U.S.? Do you think they’d be a good replacement for cars? On what terms – how would you go about it? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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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