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.

Climate Change and Sustainability Thoughts From Around The Web

Zeus
A mythical character (image by Eddi 07, CC 2.0 licensed)

A handful of good articles from the past few weeks, on climate change and sustainable building.

I hope you find these as interesting as I did – let me know in the comments.

What Is Sustainability? And What Is it Not?

nuages_n&bl_Lune
Clouds (original name: Nuages - image by luc.viatour, CC 2.0 licensed)

In their special issue on Earth 3.0, Scientific American explores the concept of “sustainability” and the myths surrounding it as we face an uncertain future. In Top 10 Myths about Sustainability, they observe:

When a word becomes so popular you begin hearing it everywhere … it means one of two things. Either the word has devolved into a meaningless cliché, or it has real conceptual heft. “Green” (or, even worse, “going green”) falls squarely into the first category. But “sustainable,” which at first conjures up a similarly vague sense of environmental virtue, actually belongs in the second.

The article then goes on to cover a number of myths – many related to disinformation-type campaigns about the environment, global warming, and fossil fuels – like:

  • Myth 2: Sustainability is all about the environment.
  • Myth 4: It’s all about recycling.
  • Myth 6: Sustainability means lowering our standard of living, and
  • Myth 9: Sustainability is ultimately a population problem.

Definitely worth reading, if just for the review (for my well-educated readers) and to get a good, relatively unbiased view of some of the issues and realities of sustainability.

H/T to Texas Sustainability for the link.

Sustainability and Energy Online Communities

Glass buildings
Glass Buildings In Helsinki (where I'm going this week, image by gadl, CC 2.0 licensed)

I have been discovering and joining a few interesting online communities focused on energy and sustainability issues. While it’s hard to keep up on everything that’s going on, they seem like a good source of like-minded folks with whom to discuss your ideas.

I’ll post about some other communities in the future.

BTW, I’m traveling to Finland for the week today. Posts might be coming a bit less frequently until next week, depending on my schedule of meetings when I get there.

Green Building Salon – A Few Conclusions

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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.

The Power Of Small Changes

Kale
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.

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.

Biofuels Are Sustainable and Economical, Say German Researchers

Ablaze
Blaze (image by Nicholas T, CC 2.0 license)

Oh Snap! Now some German scientists have (in effect) taken a swing at Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson, who concluded in a recent paper that biofuels are a bad policy direction (see summary post here).

In their paper Sustainable global energy supply based on lignocellulosic biomass from afforestation of degraded areas, Prof. Jürgen O. Metzger from Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany and Prof. Aloys Huettermann from the University of Goettingen in Germany say that growing and using biofuels for all the earth’s energy needs is not only possible without jeopardizing the global food supply, but also economically feasible.

Their key discovery is that by reforesting land that has been “degraded by human use in historical times”, they found:

… the global energy demand projected by the International Energy Agency in the Reference Scenario for the year 2030 could be provided sustainably and economically primarily from lignocellulosic biomass grown on areas which have been degraded by human activities in historical times.

(H/T to Science Daily for the link.)

Amory Lovins On Declining Gas Prices

There's a lot of energy to be saved in all sectors
There is lots of opportunity to reduce energy intensity throughout the U.S. economy

In “a few policies to hedge against crashing oil prices,” the latest post on the Rocky Mountain Institute‘s “Environmental Lovin’s” blog, Amory Lovins himself provides some suggestions on how to keep making progress on energy independence despite the recent dip in oil prices. Of course, efficiency is the star of the show:

We now have techniques to save half our oil and gas, and three-quarters of our electricity, at about an eighth of their price. Energy efficiency remains one of the highest-return and lowest-risk investments in the entire economy.

The basic argument is that no matter how low oil prices go, efficiency remains more cost effective than almost any other investment. His specific suggestions, such as “fee-bates” to encourage purchasing more efficient cars, rewarding utilities for cutting energy use (as we do in California), and implementing policies that get older less efficient cars off the road faster, are covered in much more detail in RMI’s two books Winning The Oil Endgame and Climate: Making Sense and Making Money (both free for download).

Efficiency investments pay for themselves twice over – saving money on energy usage, while reaping numerous benefits as side effects – improved productivity in businesses, faster learning in schools, better sales in shops. As Lovins concludes:

Conscientiously pursued, this … approach would solve the oil, climate, and proliferation problems at a profit, over a few decades, totaling trillions of dollars.

There have been calls already for President-elect Obama to bring Lovins into the cabinet to help drive us to energy independence. He won’t do it (he wants to remain independent), but hopefully Obama and his team will at least take the advice – it will definitely pay off for all of us – and help us out of the recession to boot.

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