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Refuse the bottle on World Water Day

Steve McGrath · March 22nd, 2012

Pour some tap water into a plastic bottle, slap a label on it, and what do you have?

Snake oil.

Nonetheless, Americans buy around 9 billion gallons of bottled water every year, sold by a brand promise of purity, health, beauty and personal style.

Although critics haven’t put much of a dent in the demand, there are signs that’s about to change. More than 90 colleges and universities, including Brown and Harvard, have banned or are restricting the use of plastic water bottles, Bloomberg has reported.

“The product just doesn’t make common sense,” Sarah Alexander, 20, an environmental-studies major at Dartmouth, told Bloomberg. “Companies are taking something that is freely accessible to everyone on the Dartmouth campus, packaging it in a non-reusable container and then selling it under the pretense that it is somehow better than tap water.”

Unlike the tap water you pour into a glass, the water in bottles is trucked around the country, consuming energy, producing carbon and leaving an unwanted plastic container. After the consumer’s refreshing drink, the container is:

  • trucked around some more and buried;
  • recycled (more energy and carbon);
  • tossed in the water (maybe even becoming part of the world-famous Pacific garbage patch); or
  • buffeted about the side of the road.

To serve parched students, Harvard and Dartmouth will be installing hydration stations in new buildings. These will enable students to refill their own bottles with filtered water. They’ll also be saving money: according to Ban the Bottle, it costs 50 cents a year to drink tap water and $1,400 to buy that equivalent in bottles.

Let’s raise a glass of tap water to the money back in our pockets. And let’s celebrate World Water Day by being grateful for even having choices about drinking water while so many people go dry.

 

 

 

Clean coal? Waiting to exhale – and inhale, and exhale, and inhale…

Mike McGrail · September 29th, 2011

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

Mike McGrail · September 8th, 2011

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

Steve McGrath · July 8th, 2011

Nothing 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?

Ed Marshall · May 3rd, 2011

“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

Stephen Hodgdon · April 20th, 2011

A 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}

So, are we done with nuclear?

Steve McGrath · March 24th, 2011

As we pray for Japan – and their food and their water – nuclear power’s renaissance is halted in its tracks. Can the world continue to believe nuclear is cleaner than coal and more reliable than renewables?

Seven in 10 Americans have become more concerned since the earthquake about a nuclear disaster occurring in the United States, according to a Gallup poll taken four days after the catastrophe. Thirty-nine percent are now “a lot” more concerned.

It was just a year ago that support for nuclear power reached new high, with 62 percent of Americans surveyed favoring the use of nuclear energy for electricity. Last week, amid the specter of “meltdown” at Fukushima Daiichi, a mere 44 percent favored the construction of nuclear power plants in the US.

Quick caveat: this is a clean-tech communications blog, and for the purposes of this post, we’re going to remain neutral on whether nuclear is a clean technology or a blight on the planet. The label doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s both.

What is certain is that electricity demand is high. As you can see, per capita electricity use has tripled since 1960.

I don’t know anyone who loves nuclear power. Accidents are potentially cataclysmic, nuclear waste is a big issue, and now we’re hearing about tainted water in Tokyo. But I do know folks who are attached to their TVs, microwaves, stoves, refrigerators, battery chargers, toasters, and that creature comfort we call electric light. Mobile phones and computers are necessary evils, and the Internet, where we see some of the shrillest anti-nuke rants, generally works best when plugged in.

So let’s admit nuclear power is here for a reason that we consumers have created. Now let’s ask ourselves, do we really want to kill nuclear? And to what extent are we scapegoating nuclear out of sympathy for Japan’s suffering, in reaction to the wall-to-wall coverage, and in light of the potential for a nightmare?

More importantly, how many of us have the tools, time and analytical power to evaluate the risk objectively? What should be the yardstick?

Looking at the risk

The smartest comment I’ve heard on this subject comes from James Acton, a physicist with the Carnegie Endowment’s nuclear policy program: “[Y]ou’ve got to realize that all forms of energy generation carry risk,” he said on CNN last week. “Nuclear carries risk as we have dramatically seen in the last couple of days. But fossil fuels also carry risk: The risk of catastrophic climate change. Renewables, which I absolutely support a lot of research and development and funding for, right now carry the risk of not being able to produce enough energy.”

Acton expounds on his comments in this even-handed opinion piece on the Foreign Policy website. Despite increasingly robust plant designs, he says the nuclear industry needs to reassess to earn the public’s trust.

“Even after the ongoing disaster in Japan, the nuclear industry is unlikely to welcome such an exercise,” he writes. “It is almost certain to argue that a whole-scale reassessment is unnecessary because existing standards are adequate. But after two earthquakes in less than four years shook Japanese reactors beyond their design limits, this argument is simply not credible. It is also self-defeating.”

The unfolding story in Japan notwithstanding, nuclear is relatively safe if history and the Next Big Future website are to be believed. Nuclear power generation kills 0.004 persons per terawatt-hour (TWh) compared with 161 for coal, according to the site’s quasi-viral March 13 post. Citing a variety of sources, it goes on to say rooftop solar (!) is 11 times more dangerous than nuclear (again, measured by the death per TWh) because roofing is one of the top 10 most dangerous occupations. Here’s Seth Godin’s chart on the Next Big Future data.

The flyspeck on the far left is nuclear. Slate offers similarly lopsided figures, saying “you’d need 500 Chernobyls” to match a year’s worth of premature deaths caused by fossil fuel-related air pollution. (But visit Huffington Post and read that Chernobyl’s horror has been vastly underplayed.)

Could it be that nuclear power is being scapegoated because of the recency of Japan’s troubles but simultaneously embraced because, well, Chernobyl is so last century? Is there something about death by nuclear that’s more fearsome than slow death by coal-related air pollution?

I don’t know. I do know I don’t want to shill for the nuclear industry. I’d prefer not to have a plant down the road in Seabrook, N.H., looking for all the world like it’s floating in the estuary. I can certainly relate to James Carroll’s poignant observation in Monday’s Boston Globe: “More than 500 nuclear power plants are in operation or under construction around the world today, with every one of them being viewed with new skepticism,” he writes. “What have we done to ourselves?”

But what if the sheer complexity of nuclear ends up quashing a worthy component of our energy mix? I guess I come down on the side of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria: Don’t rush to judgment. At least not before we unplug.

Coal is cheap, except when it costs $500 billion

Steve McGrath · March 3rd, 2011

Coal is the cheapest fuel for electricity – if you spin it right and ignore the costs of coal-related waste, health problems and environmental damage.

That’s the gist of a new report saying coal really costs the U.S. public as much as half a trillion dollars annually. If true, that is equivalent to adding 27 cents per kWh to the market cost of coal-fired electricity (2008 dollars). This perspective strengthens the case for renewables.

“Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of non-fossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive,” says the report in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences titled “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal.”

Hidden costs of coal-fired electricity include mining deaths, climate damage, cleanup, health-care, rail fatalities, acid rain, harmful algal blooms, retardation, subsidies, abandoned lands and the “energy penalty” of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Coal is the predominant fuel for electricity generation worldwide, generating 40 percent of electricity (2005) and responsible for 30 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions.

Perhaps this information could somehow help the behavioral scientists, neuro-economists, environmental scientists and others at the Climate, Mind and Behavior SymposiumThey are trying to figure out how to take our intellectual understanding of the climate threat and get people to actually change their behaviors.

Part of the challenge “has been the assumption that science and logic will suffice in making the case for changes in human behavior,” blogs the New York Times. In the real world, gut instincts, friends and personal passions also play a role. (Treehugger.com has a nice overview of day one here.)

‘I’ve been working on the turbine, all the live-long day …’

Mike McGrail · February 25th, 2011

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?

Football, Fritos and the killer analogy

Steve McGrath · February 2nd, 2011

If you’ve got good stats to back up the value of your clean technology product, congratulations.

Quantifying the benefits your product delivers – e.g., pollution reduced, revenue generated, costs lowered, or time saved – can make a big difference to the communities you are trying to engage. Great stats, however, only work when the context is clear. How much is, say, 37 percent? 10 tons? A nanoliter? Compared to what?

To deliver that context and drive home the impact of your numbers, try drawing a simple, concrete analogy. That’s exactly what Reno Contracting of San Diego did a couple of weeks ago with a news release that began…

Reno Contracting has recycled more than 60,000 tons of waste from construction projects since the beginning of 2009, accounting for an average 72% of construction debris diverted from going to a landfill.

Great stats, but did they not get a lot better when the analogy kicked in?

This amount is the equivalent of three football fields, each 100 feet deep.

… and when the analogy was reinforced by this simple graphic?

While 60,000 tons of waste and 72 percent diversion are impressive, they operate on the cerebral level. Football field imagery, coming in the heat of playoffs for the country’s most popular sport, adds emotional impact.

So valuable is emotion that we’re in New England blogging about a West coast construction firm after seeing news that somehow caught the eye of Inhabitat, which gets 100,000 readers a day. Although I have no way of proving it, I think the football fields comparison made all the difference between obscurity and publication by one of the world’s premier green blogs. Okay, two, including us ;).

Ten days later, the Boston Globe rolled out three tangible comparisons in a front page story about coins that went missing in an armored car transfer. The coins weigh 4,317 pounds, equivalent to an average hippopotamus. Stacked, they’d be three times taller than the city’s iconic Hancock Tower. And, in case you hadn’t heard about the NFL championship tournament, the coins weigh more than the starting linemen of the two Super Bowl teams. There were graphics for all three of these analogies. Pounds are abstract. Analogies deliver emotional, or at least sensory, impact.

A client of ours offers up high-impact comparisons like these through their software. The product’s main function is performing forward-looking environmental impact assessments on manufactured goods while they’re still in the design stage. The software measures carbon, energy, air and water impacts of a design, not only in the straight-up metrics you’d expect, but also in their layman’s equivalents, such as:

Energy consumption – hours of TV watching, light bulb burning, laptop operation

Carbon production – miles driven (European car, American car, hybrid)

Air impact – liters of sulfuric acid created, Kg of corn grain produced in the USA, and (my favorite) bags of corn chips produced

Water impact – Deep ponds depleted, shallow ponds depleted, Kg of corn grain produced in the US.

Take your pick. If you can say your clean technology product can do the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road, unscrewing 30,000 light bulbs and preventing 50,000 ponds from drying up, people will listen.

What other effective comparisons have you seen?