Why they were wrong

Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. Check out his bio in our "About Authors" section.

Back in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, environmentalists warned of coming disaster. The air would soon become unbreathable, clean water would be as rare as unicorn dander. Didn’t happen. That these dire warnings failed to accurately predict our present-day circumstances is often cited as evidence that any similar such claims – about, say, climate change or peak oil – should be taken with more than a pinch of salt, if not outright ignored as the usual ravings of hyperventilating Cassandras.
 
So why were those earlier prognosticators of doom wrong? Because they were right. Environmental degradation was a growing problem. Rivers actually were catching fire in these United States. Air quality in major metropolitan areas truly was bordering on the Dickensian. Acid really was falling from the skies as rain and a hole was opening in the ozone layer. By raising the issues with urgency, passion and creativity, environmentalists of the day were able to engage the larger public in these problems and build support for solutions: the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, for instance.
 
That public engagement and support for solutions helped ensure passage of legislation at the state and federal level that would guarantee those dire warnings of environmental Armageddon would not come true.
 
So, here we are again. Credible science and analysis points to real and pressing problems with the climate and energy supply. Dire warnings are being penned by those doing and as well as those interested in the science. Will their dystopian futures also fail to materialize? That, unfortunately, is an open question.
 
Unlike the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, today’s Internet-driven communications environment makes confusion and apathy as easy to create as clarity and action. What will finally ensure that today’s doomsayers are as inaccurate as yesterday’s? Compelling stories.
 
Those seeking to compel the actions that will ultimately prove their prophecy wrong must recognize that, for humans, story trumps data. For scientists and engineers, good data tells a compelling story. But for most people, a metaphor works better.
 
With the science established and consequences beginning to play out, bridging that communication gap may well be the first and most important problem those seeking change will need to solve.

Great green fleet under fire

Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. Check out his bio in our "About Authors" section.

Staying on the military-meets-renewable-energy theme that my colleague Mike touched on, I felt compelled to offer a quick, if rather frustrating, update on a post I did at the end of last year. That post looked at the US Navy’s plans to deploy a “green fleet” in the Pacific this summer; green in the sense that it would be powered by a 50-50 blend of fossil and biofuel.

To fuel the green fleet’s cruise, the Navy contracted with a company out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and broke out the checkbook to pay a per-gallon biodiesel price substantially above the price for fossil-based diesel. At the time I wrote of this arrangement:

And progress often comes at a price above the going market rate. So thank goodness the Navy understands the threat that reliance on a finite vital resource represents to its way of life (and/or death) and is willing to pay those higher prices as an investment in companies that demonstrate they might have a promising solution.

So the Navy gets it. Congress? Sadly, no. According to recent reports, the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California), is leading the charge on legislation that would prohibit the Pentagon from purchasing alternative fuels or building their own facilities to create them “if the cost exceeds the cost of traditional fossil fuels used for the same purpose.” Meanwhile over in the Senate, a former Navy airman weighed in to support Buck’s stoppage:

“It’s a job for the Department of Energy, not the Department of Navy,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “You shouldn’t be paying $244 per gallon when we are having to retire ships early.”

Of course, efforts by the DOE to push renewables and alternatives haven’t met a warm pachyderm embrace. Fossil fuel is finite. Their cost curve, barring complete global economic meltdown, only points up. Alternatives will be needed.

The US military spends a lot of time war gaming future scenarios and positioning for those most likely to develop. The investment it’s been making in efficiency and alternative energies could rightly be read as a positioning exercise. The move by green opponents in Congress could be seen as a depositioning exercise – for the country.

Where's that confounded bridge?

Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. Check out his bio in our "About Authors" section.

Hey, want to buy a bridge? How about a bridge fuel? It burns cleaner than coal for generating electricity, can heat homes and power a truck or a car. Best of all, we’ve got an embarrassing surplus of the stuff priced so low it’s sinful. It’s natural gas from shale, and it’s the answer to our energy problem for the next 100 years while we figure out this alternative energy stuff.

Or not.

The rosy assessments above are based on current consumption levels and an overly optimistic estimate of what we can get out of the ground at anything resembling a reasonable cost. In addition, the dollars don’t add up. The fracking that produces shale gas is expensive and when successful yields a short gusher of gas followed by a steep drop off, requiring a re-frack and repeat. It’s “an unprofitable treadmill.” The sheer number of wells drilled in the fracking frenzy has created a gas glut on the domestic market and, in turn, low prices that cannot support the expensive production model. Most companies producing shale gas are relying on steady inflows of investment cash to support their profit-challenged efforts.

Already used for cooking, heating homes and hot water as well as generate electricity and to provide feedstock for industry, expanding these uses of natural gas and creating new ones – such as in fleet trucking and even personal vehicles – is usually cited as a key way to put the shale gas glut to good use; lowering our national carbon footprint and increasing our energy independence. The big hope for producers, however, is in export. Clearing a few political and regulatory hurdles and building new facilities would allow for natural gas export in liquid form to foreign markets like Great Britain, Northern Europe and even Asia.

All of which would raise consumption levels well above current levels, reducing, in turn, the projected years of supply. Some estimates suggest shale may provide fewer than 30 years of additional natural gas supply when all is said and done. And as the glut diminishes, users will begin to be exposed to the true dollar costs of fracking extraction.

As this process plays out, a major concern is the effect on alternative energy. Another three decades of embracing the fossilized status quo aren’t going to help us achieve energy sustainability. People are fundamentally change-averse. Tales of “100 years of cheap energy under our feet” will resonate. And if the hype lures investment capital to shale companies, what does that do to the attractiveness of investment in green tech companies? Will cheaper natural-gas-fired electricity generation put further funding pressure on large-scale solar and wind projects?

If markets pick winners, then it’s hard to understand how an embrace of shale gas creates a bridge to a new energy regime, rather than to a familiar dead end. It’s time to stop digging for scraps in the past and find a new way forward.

The Earth speaks...

You're honoring the Earth today. This just in: her reply:

 

Sheathing your debit card is the best way to celebrate Earth Day 2012

My maternal grandfather was an old-line doctor who said the same thing every time a patient asked him about diets: they’re all gimmicks. The only way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.

Earth Day 2012I’m adapting my grandfather’s diet advice to Earth Day. Want to make your morbidly obese environmental footprint into an Earth-friendly hardbody? Then screw planting trees and cleaning beaches on April 22 and do something really hard, especially for an American.

Consume less.

All the conservation areas we build and the light bulbs we replace on Earth Day are spitting in the ocean compared to the good we can do for the planet by buying, using and discarding less. In my grandfather’s parlance, it’s the gimmick of a diet versus the reality of shoving less into your pie hole at the dinner table, tearing yourself away from the flat screen and getting on the bike.

Consider what environmental journalist Marc Gunther discovered by analyzing the most recent sustainability report from Walmart.

Gunther recognized Walmart’s accomplishments in waste reduction, energy conservation, and creating markets for locally grown produce as the substantial progress that they are. Yet in spite of its sustainability accomplishments, Walmart’s CO2 emissions are growing. That’s because of the brand of consumption that Walmart promotes, according to Gunther.

“(Walmart) sells lots of efficient light bulbs and compact laundry detergent,” he writes. “What if it tried to sell more durable clothes and shoes? Or less meat? Or fewer crappy toys?”

Gunther isn’t picking on Walmart and neither am I. Walmart does more in sustainability than most companies. The point is that Walmart is us and we’re Walmart, and we both need to change.

If Walmart (and Target and JC Penney and Sears and Kmart et al) have the market clout to make manufacturers reduce wasteful packaging, then they can also get them to produce more durable products. When they do, it falls to retailers to sell those products at accessible prices instead of charging a premium for clothes that won’t go out of style in one year or appliances that won’t break in five and can’t be fixed. At that point, it’s all of our responsibility to ask ourselves that dreaded question before buying: “do I really need this?”

Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day in 1970 to focus public attention on his era’s most important pollution threats, which were industrial facilities, wastewater systems and internal combustion engines. The environmental legislation of the ‘70s helped turn the tide on those polluters. Now it’s time for us to tackle this generation’s environmental culprits: you, me, Walmart, and our debit cards. Legislation isn’t going to do it this time. It’s up to us.

If you need more convincing about why we need to curb our hyperactive consumption, and you haven’t done it already, go to the post above this one and listen to a birthday message from the Earth Mother herself. The old girl makes a good case for keeping that debit card at parade rest as often as possible. Happy Earth Day 2012!

Clean coal? Waiting to exhale - and inhale, and exhale, and inhale...

Take a celebratory breath if you don’t live in the Iranian city of Ahwaz or the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. According to the World Health Organization’s survey of world air pollution, the air in Ahwaz and Ulan Bator has so many particles in it that you could collect them in a salt shaker. If you plan to travel to either place, you might want to brown-bag plenty of Visine and surgical masks.

The easiest headline out of that WHO survey was to name the cities with the dirtiest air, the way I just did in the previous paragraph. But the media missed the bigger story in the survey: coal burning in India and China, why it’s going to get worse, and where technology might succeed and fail in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The world’s two largest countries and largest emerging economies account for 43 of the top 100 most polluted cities in the WHO survey – 24 for India and 19 for China. The survey ranked cities on the amount of particulates in their air. The biggest single source of airborne particulates is coal-fired power plants, the top source of greenhouse gases. Ahwaz and Ulan Bator may be the most obvious goats on the list, but India’s and China’s growth potential make them the much more serious pollution concern. India approved 173 new coal-fired power plants last year alone, even as complaints about air quality and health problems near coal facilities turn into open protests. As early as 2006, environmental advocates were documenting the damage that emissions from China’s coal-burning power plants were doing to environments thousands of miles away.

A common response is to blame loose environmental regulations and obsolete technology for the high pollutant levels coming from Chinese and Indian coal plants. If they’d adopt higher standards, they wouldn’t be dumping as much carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the air. But at least in China’s case, that isn’t true. A research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology documented in 2008 that China’s new coal-fired plants were built to Western standards and employ the latest scrubber technology for removing pollutants. The problem is that scrubbers aren’t enough when a country is burning low-quality coal, as China does. In a surprisingly frank assessment from a quasi-state-controlled newspaper, China Daily reported that more than 71 percent of Chinese coal-fired power plants have scrubbers, yet the country isn’t making much progress toward cleaner air. The Economist magazine was even blunter this past January: “The power stations frantically being built in China to feed the country’s new electricity grid will be relatively efficient and thus less polluting than older coal plants around the world. But that is a rather low bar. Coal is the filthiest fossil fuel and is cheap only because its dirtiness isn’t included in the bill.”

What’s happening in China and India underscores the fact that neither scrubbers nor any other currently available technology can make coal a wholly clean energy source. The smart money in curbing coal plant emissions shouldn’t be chasing better coal-burning technology. It should be focused on lowering the demand for electricity so we don’t have to burn as much coal. Compact fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances are an acceptable start, but they’re a bare fraction of what needs to happen to curb the demand for coal-fired electricity. Until the full weight of the industrial and scientific communities gets behind energy efficiency in everything that uses an electric current, the dirty air in Ahwaz and Ulan Bator will be symbols of a problem that extends far beyond the city lines.

 

There's a great green business in bottled water

The cure for the runaway use of plastic water bottles has been right in front of my face every Tuesday night. It’s the beer tap in my local bar. With a few tweaks and some creative marketing, the tap could be the end of the perpetual stream of plastic bottles clogging landfills and waterways. (Which, in the interest of full disclosure, I squawked about back in 2009.)

Bottled water sales were supposed to have peaked – or “tapped out” in the words of the Washington Post – in 2009. That was good news for us crunchoid types who think bottled water is an over-used indulgence that consumes too much plastic and landfill space. The good times lasted a year. Despite public awareness campaigns by groups like banthebottle.com, bottled water sales rebounded in 2010. The spring (no pun intended) 2011 edition of the bottled water industry’s trade magazine, the Bottled Water Reporter, announced that the industry was on the rebound and poised for growth in the U.S. and worldwide. And remember, the backdrop to this resurgence is that we didn’t make much of a dent in our 167-bottle-per-person-per-year habit when sales slowed in 2009, we just temporarily curbed its growth.

I’m on record in this space a few years back as having no particular quarrel with plastic. I just think we use too much plastic in the U.S., where clean tap water is the rule rather than the exception. Why burn energy to pump crude out of the ground, burn more to refine it into petrochemicals, then more to turn it into single-serve plastic water bottles? There are better ways, and I’m offering one to the bottled water and convenience store industries royalty-free:

Step One – Convenience stores, remove the cooler space currently devoted to bottled water.
Step Two – In its place, install a cold tap system with at least three or four spigots. One of them should always be local tap water.
Step Three – Invite water companies to rent a tap, install a branded handle, and hook it up to their own brand of water.
Step Four – Sell refills of branded water for a quarter a whack and give the local tap water away for free. Customers have to fill reusable water bottles. If they don’t bring them in, they can get one for a deposit – a hefty enough sum to encourage them to hold onto the bottle or bring it back, but not enough to scare them away.

There’s something in this for the stores and the water companies. The stores can devote less space to water sales and don’t have to re-stock single-serve bottles. They can brand their water bottles with their own logos and colors as promotional items. The water companies can bulk-package their product, which is cheaper and more environmentally sound. That should reduce the amount of static they get from the anti-bottle lobby.

I will admit there are a few holes in the plan that I haven’t yet figured out. How much does it cost to maintain a steady supply of clean water bottles, for example? Truth be told, I’d rather we all just drank local tap water and forgot about water that has to be pumped out of the ground (with electricity) packaged (in plastic) and transported (burning diesel fuel). But designer water has caught on, so why not use free market economic principles to accomplish something for the environment?

Global investors pour money into green energy

Global investors pour money into green energy; CleanSpeak Beaupre Clean Technology PracticeNothing like cool, refreshing facts to support the desperate hope for a renewable energy revolution.

New investment in green energy was up nearly one-third globally in 2010 to a record US$211 billion. That’s 32 percent above the 2009 level and more than five times that of 2004, says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Other facts from UNEP’s new report:

  • Wind farms in China and rooftop solar panels in Europe were key drivers in the investment increase.
  • China was the world leader in “financial new investment” – i.e., investment in utility-scale renewable projects and equity capital for renewable energy companies. The nation's tally was US$48.9 billion, up 28 percent this year.
  • Developing economies (which invested US$72 billion this year) overtook developed ones (US$70 billion) in financial new investment. 
  • Investments in small distributed capacity, e.g., rooftop solar, rose 132 percent in Germany to US$34 billion.
  • Costs for renewable technologies are falling.
  • Wind dominated financial new investment in large-scale renewable energy. 
  • Biggest percentage jumps in overall investment were in small-scale projects, up 91 percent to US$60 billion, and in government funded R&D, up 121 percent to US$5.3 billion.

"The finance industry is still recovering from the recent financial crisis," Udo Steffens, president of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, said in a UNEP news release. "The fact that the industry remains heavily committed to renewables demonstrates its strong belief in the prospects of sustainable energy investments."

So there’s hope. And now facts.

More here

Blame it on Hollywood?

Today's blog is posted by guest blogger, Ed Marshall, a senior account manager at Beaupre. 

“So the world ends Wednesday?”
 
That was a colleague’s snarky rejoinder to my explanation of the oil export crisis and the implications for our energy future. Perhaps my explanation was off. Or perhaps we're all suffering from a Hollywood-induced relevance deficit. Human response systems are really good at spotting and dealing with near-term problems. If it's not a clear and present danger, it's not relevant and therefore not motivating. Hollywood understands this and formulates its films to capitalize on it – particularly the action and disaster ones.
 
In a typical Hollywood disaster flick, the world crisis is glaringly apparent – and personally relevant - to viewers within the first 10-15 minutes of the opening credits and will be resolved within about 120 minutes. The real world doesn’t work that way, of course. However, our media-mediated lives often create a bleed-over of Hollywood-style expectations. No category five hurricanes raking the East Coast flat on a weekly basis? Well then, no climate change, obviously. Plants and animals shifting their ranges in response to climate changes is a subtle thing, ill-suited for hardy action heroes like Bruce Willis and Vin Diesel.

This lack of near-term urgency makes it tough to change behavior on important issues like climate change and carbon-intensive lifestyles. People tune out long-term problems. Clearly your warning to them has no relevance to their particular life.

That is the challenge for those in green tech seeking to motivate people. Rather than reflexively grabbing for a “Save the Planet” positioning, stop and look closer for angles that make what you're offering relevant to issues your target audience is grappling with.

Have an all electric car that makes polar bears want to hug people who own one? Great, but I'm pretty sure that's not relevant to anyone concerned about rising gas prices and the fact that increasingly complex internal combustion engines and their drive trains are making regular maintenance an expensive proposition. Electric cars are also kinda cool and hip. People like to be cool and hip, even if it costs more. Just ask Steve Jobs.

Find what's relevant, match it with what you have on tap and then sell. Maybe even get Vin Diesel to star in the commercial.

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}

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