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Smart gridlock in the Green Mountain State

Mike McGrail · May 15th, 2012

Sustainable energy and personal rights are colliding over smart meters, those long-touted pillars of energy-saving smart grids, on the unlikely battleground of Vermont.

Utilities and policy makers favor smart metering for its cost-cutting and energy-saving potential, but their entreaties are falling on granite ears in many quarters of the Green Mountain State.

Bucking an energy conservation technology like smart grids doesn’t sync with Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s/Birkenstock/organic image. It does, however, sync with an even deeper stratum in Vermont’s social bedrock, where live-and-let-live and minding your own business have been around a lot longer than Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield. Where jokes like:

“Q. How are you this morning Mr. Smith?

A. None of your business, and I wouldn’t tell you that much if you hadn’t been my neighbor for 30 years.”

aren’t jokes, they’re guidelines.

The Vermont smart meter conflict highlights a seldom-explored dimension of environmental sustainability – privacy. Like the siting of wind turbines, it’s an issue that sustainability advocates have to address if our energy consumption habits are going to change for the better.

Smart meters and a smart grid are part of a future where technology helps us consume less energy. Energy efficiency advocates envision a future when sensors in energy-sucking appliances like water heaters can detect when they’re not used for long periods and automatically put themselves in a dormant mode. When refrigerators adjust their cooling levels according to how much food is on the shelves. When household energy management systems automatically reduce heating and cooling and turn off lights in rooms they sense are unoccupied.

Smart metering and smart grids don’t reach nearly that far into ratepayers’ homes. They provide broad consumption data to support energy-saving measures like large-scale load balancing and variable rates to encourage off-peak usage. Nevertheless, they have a lot of people creeped out.

Privacy advocates have pointed out that government and private companies could use data gathered by smart grids – to intrude on ratepayers’ lives. It’s not hard to intuit from energy use patterns when people are home and what they’re doing, even behind closed doors and drawn curtains, they say.

The Vermont ACLU has joined with individuals and other advocacy groups in calling for tight restrictions on meter data. They also want a free opt-out of smart metering programs, unlike the paid opt-out that states like California have implemented.

Smart-grid advocates in Vermont and California, where the same debate is raging, say the smart grid needs information to be smart, and if too many people opt out they won’t have enough.

This is a problem, but it’s not a problem with smart grid technology per se. There’s nothing more intrinsically intrusive about smart meters than there is about surfing the Web or giving a credit card number over the phone. The problem is that consumers have had their privacy pockets picked too many times to accept assurances from utilities that their information will only be used to save energy.

Vermont’s Green Mountain Power Company has devoted a section of its website to explaining consumer privacy protection around data collection. It points out where the company is constrained by existing utility laws and regulations, and that the meters can only measure a house’s overall electrical consumption, not individual appliances.

Even so, the company is shoveling against an avalanche. Spam-choked email inboxes and dinner-hour robocalls have made consumers wary about who collects their information and what they can use it for.

Like so many other pieces of the sustainability puzzle, this one needs government to put it in the proper place. Not all consumers will trust the government to protect their privacy any more than they trust private industry, but the weight of laws and regulations on their side is likely to win converts. Especially when they hear stories like Mike Butler’s and weigh the environmental upside.

Butler is a Houston homeowner who used a smart meter to cut his power consumption 36 percent during the summer of 2011, which was a scorcher even by Texas standards. “I found a few power hogs, such as leaving my laptop charging all the time,” Butler said. “I made some simple behavioral changes and checked my statistics weekly to verify the impact of my efforts.”

Privacy guarantees alone probably won’t carry the day for the smart grid. Privacy guarantees plus stories like Mike Butler’s just might.

 

The Earth Speaks…

Steve McGrath · April 22nd, 2012

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

Government picks winners, goes sailing

Ed Marshall · December 16th, 2011

The United States Navy has grand green ambitions. It aims to replace fossil fuels with renewable biofuels in 50 percent of its missions by 2020. In pursuit of that goal, the Navy is planning what is commonly called a demonstration exercise (some might call it a dry run, but the ocean is really wet, so that would probably sound odd) next summer off of Hawaii.

To create a 50-50 mix with fossil fuel for that mission’s planes and ships, the Navy recently placed an order for 450,000 gallons of biofuel with a company called Dynamic Fuels. That company is actually a joint venture between two publicly traded companies – the agribusiness behemoth Tyson Foods and a smaller outfit called Syntroleum Corporation that has specialized in gas to liquids and coal to liquids technologies.

The Dynamic Fuels site says they have a proprietary process in use at a plant, “near Baton Rouge, utilizing its technology to turn animal byproducts such as beef tallow and pork and chicken fat into renewable diesel.” That plant, the site says, may one day be capable of churning out some 75 million gallons of biofuel per year. (Fun fact, the United States uses somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year and about 60 billion gallon of diesel a year.)

So, chicken fat ahoy? No, the Navy order is too big for that. Dynamic Fuels will instead be processing algae-based oil supplied by another company, Solazyme, that the Navy has also bought from – in smaller quantities – in the recent past.

The Navy will pay Dynamic Fuels about $26.60 a gallon for the biodiesel; many times higher than the cost the Navy typically pays for traditional diesel. Some quick math tells us the final order will come to about $12 million. Seems kinda pricey, but according to this story, just last year the Navy paid $242 per gallon for a much smaller biofuel order. So, that’s progress, right?

Yes, yes it is. 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.

Rapid content response: can you do it?

Steve McGrath · November 1st, 2011

Communications organizations need to act fast these days – like the bicycle maker that recently pounced on a green gaffe by General Motors.

Here’s how it went down.

GM put out this ad, targeted at college kids…

GM 'stop pedaling' ad

…showing a poor sap on a bike in front of a cute co-ed who was riding in a … wow, car!

Embarrassed

…and then there was this part:

bad part

“Yep. Shameless,” wrote BikePortland.org publisher/editor Jonathan Maus. “But just more of the same from the auto industry.”

Cyclists went ballistic. The auto company – a recent beneficiary of American tax dollars, contributor to our national debt, and the front end of a pretty big greenhouse gas supply chain – actually had the gall to promote its cars as, well, an alternative mode of transportation.

Why pedal, indeed? Why drink tap water when you can get a plastic bottle from Fiji? Why compost your leaves when you can let the garbage man take them to the landfill? Heck, why regulate carbon emissions when it’s easier just to spew?

Cyclists occupied Twitter with complaints about GM. The company quickly apologized (smart) via Twitter, shifting the blame onto college kids (dumb, but no one called them on it):

We're listening

One company in the bicycle industry, Giant Bicycles, actually made some hay with the story. The bike manufacturer came up with this take-off on GM’s ad and, within about 24 hours of the twitstorm’s beginning, posted it on Facebook.

Giant Bicycles reply parody ad

That’s quick.

The Giant post gained more than 1,000 likes and 386 shares (a pretty big share ratio). That’s solid engagement and a boost for the brand. Although Giant is admired for Toyota-like value, it doesn’t have the cachet of the Pinarello, Orbea or maybe even Trek brand. So leading the charge against GM’s foul, if only for a minute, adds an emotional dimension to Giant.

Either way, Giant’s rapid content generation feat is rare. Sure, savvy communications organizations know how to join a Twitter conversation, but quickly developing solid content like the parody ad almost never happens. Many companies and agencies still use byzantine “public relations 1.0” workflows for social content creation, review and approval – assuming they can conceive of a clever response in the first place.

Too often, it still takes a month to put out a press release. Even if social content takes half the time, this pace simply won’t work. In the age of Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, an opportunity goes cold long before you’ve had a chance to run your proposed creative response up and down the chain of command, collecting edits, suggestions and feedback at every turn. By the time the content is blessed, if it ever is, it’s worthless.

To get results in 2011, be ready to act. Faster than you ever have. Like Giant, which is said to be the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer.

So … how does a giant company like Giant get so fast on its feet?

Well, we asked them*.

CleanSpeak: First, how did you come up with the idea for your parody ad?

An Le, Giant Global Marketing Director: GM’s ad was so off the mark that it made our idea quite easy. We simply illustrated the real “reality” of what college students (and many of us) are facing these days – rising cost of fuel, congestion, and an ever-expanding waistline.

CleanSpeak: How did you get the ad done so fast?

Giant: Instead of going through our agency or design house, we did this piece in-house. It took us about two hours from conception to going live on Facebook. With Facebook, we have a quick and casual way to get a message out to our core audience, and we would not have produced this parody ad if Facebook did not exist.

CleanSpeak: Do you pull off these quick content creation feats very often?

An Le on a charity ride. Photo by Jake Orness.Giant’s An Le in a charity ride. Photo by Jake Orness.

Giant: We create content daily – be it news, videos, photos, etc. – but this is our first parody ad.

CleanSpeak: What’s your process for approving the concept and, later, the final? How many approvals?

Giant: We don’t have too many layers of management at Giant. I have final say in creative, and in creating this particular ad, our in-house designer (Nate Riffle, who sits next to me) and I bounced ideas back and forth and had it done in a couple of hours. If we work with a design agency, the process is similar but does take a bit more back and forth.

CleanSpeak: What is your secret for fast content creation?

Giant: Be quick. Avoid committee approval. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Have some guts to take chances once in a while. And don’t be malicious – do it in a spirit of fun.

 …

* via email. They provided answers from their global marketing director in one hour and five minutes. Do your spokespeople move that fast? We got the right email address by pinging Giant’s Twitter address. That yielded another quick reply. Who’s monitoring your Twitter feed for media/blogger inquiries?

Best green TV ads of the past decade

Steve McGrath · September 23rd, 2011

Looking for a quick yet enriching lunch-hour diversion? Check out these riveting eco-themed commercials chosen as the past decade’s “12 most thought-provoking” by Mother Nature Network, the self-described “green CNN”).

A few observations after viewing the clean dozen:

  • Polar bears are the go-to animal for poignancy (my favorite of the bunch).
  • We used to be very earnest.
  • We lightened up.
  • We conflated consumerism and environmentalism (buy a Leaf, Prius or Audi, and you’re saving the world!)
  • Irony is okay, if you sprinkle it with touchy-feely moments.
  • Peeing in the shower is green. You don’t say.

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.

To be credible, make your green message concrete

Steve McGrath · June 7th, 2011

Americans want companies to be green, but they’re skeptical.

Most corporations talk a good game about environmental responsibility but don’t make significant changes, say nine in 10 Americans in a recent Gallup survey. Eight in 10 say they’re generally skeptical of corporations promoting themselves as environmentally responsible.

Deserved or not, these are failing grades. They raise the question: How could you make your company more credible on the environment?

Gallup gives us a hint. Of the following five environmental actions companies could take, respondents were asked to select the one or two most important actions:

  • conserve energy or use renewable energy sources in their manufacturing and day-to-day operations (74% said one of most important)
  • use minimal or environmentally friendly packaging (42% said one of most important)
  • reduce the carbon footprint of the product they manufacture (36% said one of most important)
  • educate consumers about environmentally friendly products and practices (25% said one of most important)
  • provide financial support for environmental causes (16% said one of most important)

There’s a pattern here. The more tangible and immediate the action, the higher its potential to convince. These findings affirm the idea that something you can touch, see and feel – e.g., wind turbines, solar panels, post-consumer cardboard evoked by renewables and green packaging – is more relevant than something that’s abstract – e.g., carbon calculations, education and funding.

Even so, abstractions can certainly be brought down to earth and warmed up.

Say your plant is reducing carbon emissions by a ton. What does that equal in something more tangible, say, car miles driven? Or something more emotional, say, respiratory disease cases averted?

If you send one percent of your revenue to an environmental organization, what is that accomplishing on the ground (e.g., how many trees are getting planted)?

If you’re educating consumers, prove they’re learning something. Why not post a video of a real person in her home happily doing the green thing because you showed her how?

If nothing else, the Gallup survey points up the fact that when it comes to greening your company, Americans are fully prepared for a whitewash. And in this case, actions don’t speak loud enough. You need the right words

Are green buildings killing birds?

Stephen Hodgdon · April 28th, 2011

How 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 quickly pointed 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

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}

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?