Wildlife corridors: eyes wide shut

Doe jumping fenceA few years back I wrote about how ever-shrinking migration corridors across the American landscape threatened wildlife populations. Corridors are the natural avenues along which migratory wildlife travel, plants propagate, genes flow and species relocate in response to environmental changes. The Yellowstone-to-Yukon corridor spanning US and Canada is a good local example.
It’s one of the most underreported stories in the long parade of environmental causes. Possibly because it treads on so many sacrosanct issues like private land rights, housing and jobs.
So I was heartened when Treehugger brought the issue to light again this week in its 5 things you need to know about wildlife corridors post.
In a nutshell, the piece explains why current efforts by conservationists to establish protected habitats is folly if there’s no unencumbered connectivity between them. More importantly, the piece points out that it’s a political issue. Not so much for the environmentalist-vs-developer theatre, but rather for the cross-border cooperation needed between states and internationally in order to make it happen.
As my forementioned piece on computational ecology points out, we already have the data; we have the technology. If we can rally such inter-government cooperation to pull-off controversial commercial corridors for the Keystone pipeline spanning the Canadian oil sands to the Texas Gulf Coast (or, closer to home for me, the Quebec Hydro Northern Pass project), surely we can muster some cooperation and a few dollars to address this under-the-radar threat of wildlife extinction.

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.

'I've been working on the turbine, all the live-long day ...'

A study that came out of Germany this week theorized that investments in renewable energy could pump as much as 600 billion euros into the European Union’s economies. The study, by Germany’s Institute for Climate Impact Research, forecasts a construction boom as owners retrofit homes and businesses to cut their energy costs, and as electrical utilities upgrade their existing grids into efficient “smart” grids.
So naturally, that made me think of railroads. Let me explain how the playpen of free association in my mind arrived at that comparison.
The railroads were the first quantum leap from colonial to modern America. Pre-railroad, the U.S. population huddled around harbors and rivers and lakes because they were the best means of transporting goods over long distances. Most of the American interior might as well have been Venus for all the good it was doing us. The massive agricultural plains of the Midwest were so far from major markets that it didn’t make economic sense to cultivate them on a large scale. There was no way to get the product to market. Then along came the railroads, and all of a sudden those empty acres in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas et al were a treasure trove. The railroads sparked one of the greatest economic expansions in history. As historian Chris Butler puts it on his site “The Flow of History,” “By 1900, railroads had virtually revolutionized overland transportation and travel, pulling whole continents tightly together (both economically and politically), helping create a higher standard of living, the modern consumer society, and a proliferation of new technologies. Although airplanes and automobiles would continue this revolution, it was the railroad that paved the way.”
The U.S. government subsidized railroad growth with land grants and military protection. It could have the same role in developing the renewable energy economy. Today, Congress and the White House are debating how much to support renewable energy economy’s development. President Obama put $16.8 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development into the 2008 recovery act. Deficit-conscious legislators in the House of Representatives want to scale that back.
The question is whether federal renewable energy spending is a drag on the economy (through deficits) or a growth path, as the German study suggests. The study’s author, Carlo Jaeger, doesn’t mince words.
“What we are showing here is that by credibly engaging in the transition to a low-carbon economy through the adoption of an ambitious target and adequate policies, Europe will find itself in a win-win situation of increasing economic growth while reducing greenhouse gases,” he writes.
What do you think? Is clean energy investment the next railroad, or interstate highway system, or Internet? Or is it just another debt to be paid off by the next generation?

ARPA-E's fate foretells cleantech's future

House of representativesFolks across the entire political spectrum concur the new election may blow a chilling wind across the cleantech industry (if you omit nukes). Budget-cutting is job #1 for this upcoming Congress, and the change of guard within key budget appropriation committees does not bode well for future government cleantech investments.

While all eyes are on cap-and-trade legistlation and how the House will act to block EPA climate rules, perhaps the better barometer of cleantech’s future is the continuation of ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) funding.

ARPA-E was created in 2008 with strong bipartisan support to reverse the nation’s falling position in global clean technology markets. What DARPA did for national defense, ARPA-E was to do for energy technologies, bridging the “gap between basic energy research and development/industrial innovation.”

But ARPA-E didn’t really get off the ground until the Obama administration, when Stimulus Bill funding filled its budget coffers. Since then, the agency has funded 37 cutting-edge projects from an initial pool of 3,600 applications. By most accounts, the program has been a strong success, as the New York Times points out:

Last week marked the anniversary of the first round of grants for the Department of Energy program, which is charged with finding game-changing energy research and awarding jolts of funding. Business leaders and other energy experts say ARPA-E not only has found such “breakthrough” projects, but has unleashed interest throughout the innovation chain – DOE, universities, corporations, startups and the financial world.

Beaupre client, SAGE Electrochromics, is one such example. In March it received $72 million in loan guarantees from the program to develop dynamic window glazing technologies that make buildings highly energy efficient.  It has since broken ground on a new 300,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Minnesota that is bringing 160 new green jobs and 200 construction jobs. 

But SAGE’s immediate impact is the exception within ARPA-E .  Most projects probably won’t start yielding big results for at least five years. As the mid-term election showed, Americans are impatient.  Congress already punted on funding ARPA-E for the current fiscal year, saying current Stimulus funds should be sufficient for now. Who knows what the lame duck Congress will do.
With a Teaparty-inflamed House itching to slash and burn budget expenditures anywhere they can find them, ARPA-E will be the bellwether by which America regains its advantage or falls farther behind the world in clean technology innovation,  along with all the good jobs and good karma that comes with it. DARPA gave us the Internet. A short-sighted vote to chloroform ARPA-E could be an equally monumental loss.

2009: Looking back at the year in environmental issues

The scribes at here at CleanSpeak central have written about everything from wind, to solar, to endangered natural landscapes, to endangered McMansions, to Christmas trees, to hybrid vehicles this year. We decided to take a look back and nominate our own slate of candidates for the Top 5 Environmental Stories of 2009.
  1. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It included $80 billion for green/sustainable initiatives like a smart power grid, renewable energy technology, home heating efficiency and green job training programs. If the American economy is going to be more sustainable, it’s going to take this kind of government leadership.
  2. The Copenhagen Climate Conference. It didn’t accomplish much of substance, but all of the major players were in one place duking it out, which at least elevates the issue of climate change to a more prominent place in the public eye.
  3. Boeing gets the 787 jet liner off the ground. The 787 Dreamliner, with a composite rather than aluminum skin, represents a future of more environmentally friendly air travel. With its more efficient engines and lightweight construction, the Dreamliner can make long hauls on less fuel than any of its forerunners or its ostensible competitor, the oversized Airbus A380.
  4. More polar bears are going hungry. Polar bears might be to this generation what the canary in the coal mine was the previous generations. Scientists in 2009 announced that the number of under-nourished bears has tripled in the last 20 years. The culprit is warmer global temperatures that are shrinking the ice masses where the world’s largest land predator hunts for seals.
  5. Chevrolet officially unveils the Volt. General Motors is staking a lot of its future on the plug-in hybrid, which is its long-delayed answer to hybrids from Toyota, Honda, Ford, and now Mercedes. That’s quite a turnaround for the company known for environmental nightmares like the Humvee, which gets about nine yards per gallon if it has a good tail wind.
There were, of course, innumerable other environmentally tinged stories this year. Any thoughts on what should have made the list? Let us know!

Don't do cash for clunkers

I’m keeping my clunker. And you should, too.
Mine’s a Honda Accord, so it doesn’t actually qualify as a clunker despite its 150,000 loyal miles, but on principle I would not do “cash for clunkers.” Let me tell you why.
Long before the word warming was ever married to global, we understood we were filling landfills too quickly. The concept of recycling emerged, and attentive citizens learned the mantra reduce, reuse and recycle. In that order.
Thus my first beef with cash for clunkers: It puts the recycle cart before the reduce and reuse horses, and in this case recycle is a euphemism. Although cash for clunkers sounds kind of green, it equates to destroy and produce.
You annihilate a working automobile by pouring sodium silicate (liquid glass) into the engine to ensure it never goes another mile, killing 30 percent of its resale value. A recycler removes some parts for resale, drains the haz-waste fluids, mashes it into a steel pancake, puts them on a barge to who knows where, or chops them into bits, producing carbon at every step.
Meanwhile, you produce a new car from materials mined from the good green earth, processed in a steel plant, shipped to an auto plant, manufactured with carbon-generating energy, shipped to dealerships and driven home by someone who just threw away the car that got him to the showroom. It takes somewhere between 3 and 12 tons of carbon dioxide to make a new car.
(Since this is a clean tech blog, I won’t go off on the confiscatory aspect of this – why should you as a taxpayer pay for my new car? And if that’s what it takes to stimulate the economy, maybe we should just ride out the recession. I won’t harp on the fact that this is ultimately another staggering gift from your grandkids to the auto industry. Or that it feeds into our worst consumerist compulsions. Or worse, how four of the top five new car models that clunkheads are buying are made by foreign automakers.)
I’ll stick to our focus and observe that cash for clunkers is about as green as bottled water. The policy goes out of its way to stimulate the unnecessary manufacture, distribution and consumption of objects that are ultimately superfluous. In the best case, you’re taking a pig off the road and replacing it with a hybrid, the net gas-mileage/pollution benefit offset by the impacts of manufacturing the hybrid and destroying the clunker. Oh, and not every beneficiary of the program is buying a Prius. Did you know that a new car that gets 22 mpg qualifies for a cash for clunkers subsidy? That’s a pretty low bar.
The crime in all this is that what Washington and we in the middle class call a clunker is quite often a perfectly serviceable means for a lower-income or unemployed person to get to work, see the doctor or take in a ballgame. A clunker can carry meals to seniors or homeless people to shelters. It can give the kids at the tech school some fodder for learning a valuable trade while transforming a clunker into a cream puff.
Cash for clunkers: It’s your cash. Clunkerhood is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not making us green, and it’s putting us in the red. Don’t do it.

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Got an opinion? Tell us what you think.

A wisp of hope for American renewable energy wafts in on the climate & energy bill as China emerges

Solar panels in ChinaCap-and-trade, clean energy standards, cash for clunkers and smart grids are the headline grabbers and fight-starters in the climate and energy bill. These stars of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 aren’t, however, going to save the U.S. from also-ran status in the renewable energy economy. Nothing in those provisions – or at least nothing obvious – confronts the very real possibility of China emerging as the superpower of renewable energy in the short term. Out of the limelight, in the bill’s back roads and side streets, lie the gems of hope for America’s future as a player in renewable energy, providing the U.S. can weather the Chinese onslaught. And it’s going to be a hummer of an onslaught.

The Chinese government is going after the top spot in renewable energy with a vengeance, and by employing their unique brew of free market talk and authoritarian action, they’re probably going to get it. If that makes you queasy, it should. The U.S., already a secondary player in renewable energy behind China and the European Union, is staring at yet another possibility of its energy future being tied to a foreign nation. Specifically, a foreign nation that’s also holding much of America’s debt.

There’s plenty afoot to bear out that pessimistic view. China has targeted wind and solar, the two most promising renewable technologies of the moment. The Chinese government has already created the world’s largest domestic wind power market, and they’re using it as a base to conquer the international export market for wind turbines. Using its success in textiles, food processing, electronics and consumer goods as a model, China has erected mazes of regulations specifically aimed at screwing foreign companies out of Chinese business. That gives Chinese companies a chance to flourish without competition on their home turf, subsidizing their push into export markets.

Having flashbacks to the Japan Inc. of the 1980s? The gradual demise of GM, Ford and Chrysler at the hands of Toyota and Honda? Well this is worse. Unlike democratic Japan, China doesn’t even pretend to play by free market rules. The New York Times reported last week that companies who built manufacturing plants inside China to satisfy domestic content requirements were aced out of the turbine market when the government outlawed turbines of less than 1,000 KW capacity. With tactics like that, it won’t be long before Chinese companies are the Honda and Toyota of the renewable energy industry. Next step, a wind farm near you. And solar is next on the agenda.

Even if China didn’t have a head start in renewable energy technology production, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to compete in volume manufacturing of renewable energy products any more than it could in apparel or consumer goods. China has a lower cost structure based on indentured servitude wages and light regulatory burdens. The U.S.’s winning game is not volume manufacturing of wind turbines or anything else. It’s innovation.

That brings us back to the climate and energy bill. There is $190 billion in the bill to fund renewable energy research. From the Apollo program to the Internet, the U.S. government has proven itself a great engine of new technology. That is the real secret weapon in the American renewable energy arsenal – a constant stream of new and better ideas.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); technology and sustainabilityThe U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of innovation. No country has a better record of new technology development than this one. American universities and research institutes still attract the world’s best minds. The bill calls for establishing national centers of excellence in renewable energy technology across the country. Massachusetts took a similar approach in the 1980s under Gov. Michael Dukakis, funding centers of excellence in biotechnology, photovoltaics, nanotechnology and micro processing. Supplementing its disproportionately large share of world-class universities, the centers of excellence helped keep Massachusetts a technology leader. North Carolina had similar success with Research Triangle Park, which isn’t a center of excellence per se, but shows how government can effectively prime the private research pump.

China is gearing up to produce today’s state-of-the-art wind and solar technology. Let them. There is plenty of profit in developing tomorrow’s state of the art. Today’s solar and wind technology, for example, isn’t all that efficient. Most solar cells convert only 30 percent of the light that hits them into electricity. Wind turbines can’t turn light breezes into energy. There are no technologies for large-scale energy storage to even out the production peaks and valleys that make wind and solar unreliable in much of the world. Here’s betting the answers to those conundrums are going to come out of American laboratories.
A post script: Lest there seem to be a smack of jingoism in this post, I’ll say for the record that I’m all for China turning into a renewable energy superpower. The country is industrializing at a breakneck pace, creating a gargantuan demand for energy. Burning coal and oil to satisfy the demands of 1.3 million consumers portends a dismal future for the environment. Every wind turbine in the Gobi Desert or the South China Sea is an investment in a better world for everyone. As an American and a believer in democratic principles, I’d still like to think that we have a better way of developing a renewable energy economy than China. But as a father and potential grandfather, here’s hoping that both countries get there one way or the other.

LEED gets real

USGBC LEED v3The LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard was a much needed imprimatur for unifying all the players in the green building industry. It has spawned more than 14,000 green building projects worldwide since its unveiling in 2000.
But critics have long argued that the LEED system is broken and doesn’t really live up to its eco-friendly mantle. They cite meager energy saving improvements and an easy-to-game point system that rewards individual features rather than a building’s total sustainability as just a few of its flaws. More significantly, LEED accreditation is awarded based on hypothetical estimates of energy modeling that was done at the design phase rather than the building’s actual energy performance when it’s in use.

Last week, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) took a step toward addressing its critics by injecting performance measurement and accountability into the latest version of the LEED standard. With LEED v3, building owners will have to regularly report on how much energy and water their buildings truly consume as a precondition to ongoing LEED certification. The new requirement aims to close the “performance gap” between imaginary and actual conservation.LEED v3 and green building

The USGBC says the new rules will deliver two key benefits. First, the insight gleaned from the building performance data will help improve future versions of the standard by identifying which LEED specs work and which don’t. Secondly, they theorize that forcing certified building owners to report energy use on an ongoing basis will cause them to knuckle down and reduce the amount they use.

Justin Moresco at GigaOM’s Earth2Tech blog added that the new rule could also boost demand for products from companies that develop energy-related technologies for buildings. And I see great potential for integrating Smart Grid capabilities into the LEED process. That’s because one way to meet the new requirement is to let the USGBC monitor a building’s performance directly using the local utility as its information gateway. Smart meters, sensors and Smart Energy management systems will be essential to making this happen.

While the new rules are a small step towards improving a flawed LEED system, establishing accountability is one of the proven ways to turn around an under-achiever.

eBay might be kinda sorta green

eBay Green Team eBay is going public about going green (surprise), announcing a Green Team “committed to doing even more to help the world buy, sell and think green every day.” But will the green tint stick?

Well, they’ve got a huge solar power installation. Their business happens to promote reuse, which is better than recycling. They pay for cradle-to-cradle packaging and carbon credits. And who’s to say their heart isn’t in the right place? But beyond that…?

Well, there are plenty of newly manufactured consumer items for sale on their site. A lot of small parcels zooming all around the world 24 x 7 (some $2,000 in goods per second, in fact) doesn’t do much in the way of reducing fossil fuel consumption. And, as the New York Times points out, the ad campaign will be on virgin paper. Ouch! The article proves yet again that even modest pretensions to green goodness are subject to scrutiny.

Credit eBay for doing some good work. But from a marketing perspective, it’s hard to own the green leadership mantle when, by all appearances, your carbon footprint is about the same as everyone else’s.

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