Are green buildings killing birds?

Dead birdHow green can green buildings really be if they kill billions of birds per year? That’s the premise Chicago Tribune’s Sheryl DeVore floated in article last week, citing frightening Audubon Society bird death statistics and linking the avian genocide to more than 33,000 LEED certified buildings whose facades make heavy use of glass.  

But Treehugger quicklypointed out the flaw in DeVore’s logic, countering that the birth deaths aren’t a green building problem, but rather a universal building problem.

And, in fact, LEED-certified glass buildings tend to use advanced glass technologies such as fritted glass or tint-changing glass like Brodeur/Beaupre client SAGE Electrochromics that do a far better job at repelling bird collisions.

You can read and follow the debate here.

A green job jewel in the spending bill dust heap

Green painted menA little-known provision in the compromise spending bill signed into law this weekend will help some threatened Recovery Act-funded clean technology projects breathe a sigh of relief and move forward in bringing green jobs to their respective regions.

You’d think that cleantech projects that received loan guarantees, tax breaks and other funding from the DOE would be churning along nicely by now. But an arcane rule in the Energy Policy Act – and how narrowly the DOE interprets it – cast a cold chill on many DOE award recipients.

To put it simply, cleantech companies that receive DOE loan guarantees must first pay a risk-based credit subsidy fee, which can amount to a whopping 20% or more of the loan amount… unless their projects actively generate renewable energy or produce biofuels.

In other words, solar, wind and hydro energy companies get a free pass, while energy efficiency and waste heat recovery companies get stuck holding the bill. Section 1705 of the Energy Policy Act waives subsidy fees for companies that manufacture renewable energy products that generate electricity or thermal energy. The loosely defined criteria in the bill provided the DOE broad flexibility to extend fee relief to many more loan recipients. But they didn’t, and as a result some projects were suddenly in jeopardy.

At a time when the Obama administration is strongly promoting energy efficiency technologies as the fastest, most cost-effective path to U.S. energy independence, this rule is not only counterintuitive, it is economically stifling for many of our most promising new cleantech companies. You can’t float them a loan guarantee, charging them tens of millions in subsidy fees for the “honor,” and then expect them to become the new engines of our green economy. Some award recipients have already withdrawn from the loan program, and countless potential applicants have chosen not to apply for participation in the program.

The good news is that, despite all the cuts to energy efficiency programs in the compromise spending bill, the bad policy was upended.  Thanks to hard-fought negotiations by Minnesota’s legislative delegation in particular, the spending bill now includes terms that allow energy efficiency technology companies to avoid payment of those subsidy fees.

A smart policy rewards – not penalizes – our best entrepreneurial cleantech companies, which are those that will help us reduce reliance on fossil fuels, increase the use of renewable energy, cut carbon emissions and generate urgently needed jobs.

{DISCLOSURE: A Brodeur/Beaupre client benefited from the spending bill provision}

Carbon negative, cactus positive, and other hopes for a solar future

Carbon negative, cactus positive, and other hopes for a solar future - CleanSpeak Blog Mike McGrailI found myself sympathizing with former Gov. Schwarzenegger frustrations when I came across an article about the push to build solar energy facilities in the sun-drenched deserts of southwestern California.
 
The issue that got Schwarzenegger upset was a delay in permitting solar energy facilities in the Mohave desert region due to the presence of endangered species, the Mohave ground squirrel among them. Who would have guessed that solar power, the fair-haired child of the environmental movement, actually has an environmental price tag? Yes, those acres of sleek, shiny solar panels, which emit no carbon-laden smoke or radioactive steam as they diligently turn sunlight into wattage, can actually harm their host environments. The two poles of the California debate can be summarized thusly from press coverage:
 
Gov. Terminator: “I’m trying to clean up the environment and wean us off coal and imported oil, and you’re talking to me about freakin’ squirrels?”
 
Donna Charpied (Mohave desert resident and organic farmer): “Squirrels rock. You’re not screwing up my environment to clean up your mess.”
 
Caricaturing aside, it’s easy to see the legitimate points on both sides. Renewable energy is a huge part of our future – but not our whole future. Biodiversity and resource consumption have to weigh in the environmental equation as we seek alternatives to fossil fuels. For instance, conventional solar plants use tons of water per hour – between 500 and 1,100 gallons per megawatt hour – for cooling. Water is not a casual topic among people who live in deserts. Diverting huge amounts of it to solar plants can seriously stress local environments.
 
Part of the solution to disturbing vast tracts of desert landscape is mounting solar panels on already developed urban property. The roofs of warehouses and industrial facilities are the most frequently mentioned locations, and they doubtless have a role in closing the renewables versus carbon fuels gap. But think of it. How big is a coal-fired power plant? Really big, because it takes a lot of “big” to produce a lot of electricity. We aren’t going to replace that kind of output with solar panels on roofs alone. We need utility-scale solar facilities, and like it or not that means making environmental trade-offs to make long-term gains.
 
Wider use of solar technologies like concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) and dry cooling can shrink a solar facility’s physical footprint and eliminate its water consumption. Technology can’t however, shrink solar facilities down to nothing, or magically pop them onto a site without disrupting local species. Energy production, renewable or otherwise, has a price. It might cost money, or water, or land, or species displacement, but it’s going to cost. Wind, solar, biomass and biofuels are a better long-term energy solution than fossil fuels, but we have to get Zen about the fact that they’re going to consume resources. Differently from fossil fuels, and at a different cost to the environment, but they’re going to consume. Solar and wind farms take up a lot of land, as do the new power lines for carrying energy to market. Wind turbine blades will inevitably kill some birds and bats.
 
Complex problems seldom have simple solutions, and developing a new energy economy is about as complex as it gets. As a society, if we want the benefits that renewable energy sources offer then we have to expect to pay for them, if not in CO2 emissions then maybe in squirrels and desert vistas. The trick is using all the technology tricks we have in our bag to keep the price as low as possible.

Oh behave! Why environmental sustainability needs a new brand of communications

Act nowHybrid vehicles have gotten more press over the last year than almost anything other than Charlie Sheen’s public implosion. Google the term “hybrid vehicles” with any major media outlet name – The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. – and you will find anywhere from 250,000 to 1.2 million hits for 2010 alone. PR industry journal The Holmes Report says the Chevy Volt’s 2010 “Volt Unplugged” launch tour helped the General Motors plug-in hybrid generate more than 5 billion media impressions last year. New players like the Chinese government and a Russian investor marketing a Soviet-era technology jumped into the market in 2010, creating even more interest.
 
And what did all of this hype deliver? A ten percent drop in 2010 hybrid sales, according to hybridcars.com, attributed partly to the Toyota Prius’ woes, but still surprising considering the launch of new hybrids like the Volt and the Nissan Leaf hybrid.
 
In a similar vein, the death of the McMansion – oversized homes that waste space, energy and materials – was another media favorite last year; I chimed in myself on this very blog. The reality in the housing market? Not so hot for us small-is-beautiful types. Home buyers have become more environmentally conscious, according to a recent report on the public radio business show MarketPlace, but not at the expense of a three-bedroom house with two baths.
 
So are the lackluster sales of hybrids and construction of smaller homes a harbringer of long, bleak years for those industries? I’m going to say no, because there were sub-texts in both markets that point toward a promising future, albeit on the other side of a hard reality. The hard reality first: no one is going to get rich quick manufacturing hybrids or selling smaller homes. Shiny, happy press notwithstanding, electric cars and smaller homes strike at fundamental behaviors and habits that won’t change quickly. If the contrast between glowing media attention for hybrids and smaller houses and their mediocre sales is an indicator, then there are few fast bucks to be made in either industry. But there is profit out there for companies who identify their markets carefully and stay in it for the long haul.
 
Take General Motors. It isn’t booking too many Volt sales yet. However, on the “Unplugged” tour, the company laid the groundwork for success down the line. The tour emphasized Volt’s practicality as a family vehicle and let more than 6,000 potential customers test drive it. Family vehicle = daily routine = habit = something that fits into consumers’ lives without being forced in. Give it a few years, after the Volt graduates from the “science project” phase, and that marketing effort will pay off in higher sales among people who never thought they’d be plugging their car into their house to charge overnight.
 
In environmentally friendly housing, developers are tapping into a ready-made societal change – Baby Boomers downsizing their homes in retirement – to market cottage communities of small homes built around common areas and within walking distance of stores and other necessities. Just last week, USA Today recently reported that cities in Washington’s Puget Sound region have adopted ordinances to accommodate cottage housing. Washington architect Ross Chapin has already developed 40 “pocket neighborhoods” of homes under 1,300 square feet across the country.
 
For us in communications, the lesson in this contrast is that media coverage can sell a lot of non-essential products – computer games, electronic gadgets, Miley Cyrus concert tickets, etc. However, media coverage on its own does not move substantial goods like vehicles and housing. So as we try to help our sustainable technology clients succeed as businesses and not just as media creations, what should we do differently?
 
We need to practice a brand of communications whose end game is changing behavior, not just minds. An economy built on environmentally sustainable technologies starts with behavioral changes, like plugging cars into electrical sockets overnight. Successful communications campaigns in the coming years will be measured not by volume of media coverage, but by how visibly they helped shift behaviors toward a sustainable lifestyle.
 
Communications and public relations have traditionally been about changing peoples’ intellects – what they think and believe. Changing a person’s behavior means engaging their senses, their personal values and their community ties as well as what goes on in their minds. To promote renewable energy clients, maybe a smart phone app that tells the average consumer how many pollutants they save by walking a quarter mile to the store instead of driving is as good as the coveted Wall Street Journal hit in the long term. Maybe organizing environmental fairs with community groups and letting people see and touch sustainable products is more productive than spending a week sweet talking a CNN producer for a few minutes of air time. How many parents would get religion about scrubbers on coal-fired power plants if you showed them a transparent model of a child full of all the dioxin they’ll absorb by the age of 10?
 
Okay, maybe I don’t always know the difference between advocacy and scaring the hell out of people, but you see where I’m going with this. As an industry, are we up to providing our clients a new model of communications services? I say yes – and I have a feeling it’s going to be a ton of fun figuring it out.

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