Smart gridlock in the Green Mountain State

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.


When clean isn’t green

Doing your best to tread lightly on the planet? Well, if you’re still laundering your clothes, you have room for improvement.

Turns out a single garment can release 1,900 microplastic fibers in a single wash, and fibers like these can end up in the food chain, says a study reported by the BBC. After being eaten, the plastics appear to get into animals’ cells.

“As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase,” says the study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. “Already, microplastic contaminates the shorelines at 18 sites worldwide representing six continents from the poles to the equator, with more material in densely populated areas.”

And you don’t get a pass for wearing natural fibers. As TreeHugger observes, “cotton causes other problems because of how much water and pesticides is used to make it grow.”

Information like this makes you wonder how much damage humans are doing beyond CO2 and the obvious chemical pollutants, and exactly how we collectively determine which damaging actions we most need to discourage.

However insidious, microplastic is defined as being less than 1 mm in size, so we’re dealing with a bit of an abstraction. For a more tangible experience of plastic in the ecosystem, see TreeHugger’s Great Pacific Garbage Patch slideshow. Or these photos, which find beauty in the blight.

Unforgettable rides

These gorgeous bikes are made of discarded trees – maybe even one you climbed as a kid.

“With urban wood, we know where it came from,” says Bill Holloway, proprietor of Masterworks Wood and Design in San Jose, Calif., in the slick video below. “We know a little history of the tree, so you get a story with it. [Customers] remember playing in that tree in their yard as a kid and their parents have passed, and they now own the house, and the tree is dying or is unsafe for some reason and needs to be removed. They think it’s really cool that we can salvage that tree, give it a second life and give it back to them as something they can ride.”

This is a great example of relevance – an experience that transcends mere logic and involves emotions, senses and community impulses.

From a logical perspective, these bikes are efficient, stylish transportation. What makes them wonderful, however, is, well, the other stuff: the exhilaration of riding, the liberation from oil, the tribute to carbon-eating trees, the reuse of valuable resources, the preservation of craftsmanship, the tactile sense of “having a piece of art under you,” and the emotional experience of sustaining a priceless family memory.

Pedal on.

(Via Urban Velo)

2012: The Year of the Tree

Year of the Tree? Well, that’s my vote as I see these carbon dioxide-eating, oxygen-producing engines of our planet endangered all around.

To the south, for example, Texas just lost as many as 500 million. “In 2011, Texas experienced an exceptional drought, prolonged high winds and record-setting temperatures. Together, those conditions took a severe toll on trees across the state,” said Burl Carraway, head of the Texas Forest Service’s sustainable forestry department. “Large numbers of trees in both urban communities and rural forests have died or are struggling to survive. The impacts are numerous and widespread.” A half billion trees would be equivalent to 10 percent of the state’s 4.9 billion tree population.

A case of global weirding? Who can say.

And to the north, environmentalists say Maine’s governor is jeopardizing the state’s forests, as well as the green building movement, by effectively banning the use of LEED in construction in state-owned buildings. At issue is an ongoing battle over standards over standards for sustainable timber harvest.

“The Governor’s action constitutes government-sponsored greenwashing,” said the Natural Resources Defense Councils forestry specialist Sami Yassa, Senior Scientist and Director of NRDC’s Markets Initiative. “Eliminating LEED effectively turns Maine’s once-great green building program into business as usual. The Governor has chosen to benefit a small segment of the state’s logging industry, often financed by out-of-state interests, who refuse to improve their practices.” The administration says it’s simply creating “an even playing field among the diverse forest certification groups.”

Joining us in mourning the passing of trees is Oxford University, which is hosting a traveling exhibition of strangely beautiful tangled tree stumps. It’s called the Ghost Project. Here’s one of the specimens:

We humans love trees, don’t we?

Yes, we do, but our love has its limits. In 2009, Americans started prioritizing economic growth over the environment, according to Gallup.  Last spring, by a 53-38 margin, Americans agreed that “economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.”

Practical perhaps, but also scary.  The planet has been losing 10 hectares of forest per minute, according to UN numbers.

This is why, for me, 2012 is The Year of the Tree.

What about you?

Move over Earth Day, Thanksgiving is the real green holiday

If you believe in environmental preservation, Thanksgiving has to be your favorite holiday. No offense to Earth Day, but Thanksgiving is the only day of the year with major holiday cachet that hasn’t been conquered by the profit motive and reduced to a fertility dance of selling, buying and throwing away.

We don’t wake up to Thanksgiving trees harboring Thanksgiving gifts swathed in Thanksgiving ribbons and wrapping paper on the last Thursday of November. There are no Thanksgiving baskets stuffed with Thanksgiving eggs, jelly beans and marshmallow turkeys all nestled in neon-colored plastic “grass” made from enough petroleum to power a Humvee. There are no Thanksgiving costumes, no Thanksgiving-themed candy bars to be hustled door-to-door. DeBeers diamonds and Hallmark don’t bull-rush the airwaves every November to cajole you into buying a tennis bracelet and a greeting card for your Thanksgiving sweetheart.

No, Thanksgiving is built around the primal pleasures of a good meal, good company, and gratitude for good fortune. Since there’s only so much money to be made in selling turkeys and cranberry sauce, the chances are pretty good that Thanksgiving will soldier on in the shadow of Christmas and Halloween, less ballyhooed but safe from the ravages of marauding commercialism.

Even though Thanksgiving is pretty environmentally friendly on its own, it also harbors opportunities for the environmentally conscious to help biodiversity by “voting with their dollars,” in the words of John Forti, a nationally known garden historian, herbalist, and museum curator based in CleanSpeak’s home of Portsmouth, N.H. Forti is a mover in the Slow Foods movement, an international effort to re-build the lost bonds between eating and community. One of the fallouts of the modern food economy, he explains, is the loss of genetic diversity in agriculture. When huge populations depend on a narrow range of food sources – one or two breeds of cows for milk, for example – they are vulnerable to disasters like the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, when fungus wiped out the main variety of potato the country’s poor lived on. Over the last 100 years, 75 percent of the genetic diversity in agricultural crops has been lost, according to

“Buying products like heirloom produce and heritage-breed turkeys at Thanksgiving helps preserve the past, and if we don’t preserve the past we’re not equipped for a sustainable future,” Forti says. “If we narrow genetic diversity too much we’re going to end up with more disasters like the Irish Potato Famine. We lost regionalism to agribusiness – those varieties of crops that grew in our different geographical areas. In the post-peak oil economy, we’re not going to be shipping food thousands of miles the way we do now, so it’s important to preserve those regional varieties.”

In other words, paying extra for a pedigreed turkey or mashing up locally grown parsnips and potatoes this Thanksgiving isn’t just a status symbol, it’s a way to ensure that there are turkeys and parsnips and potatoes to put on tables 10, 20 and 30 years in the future. So belly up to the Thanksgiving table, raise a glass to the Great Environmental Holiday and stuff yourself comatose for the environment. The future is counting on you.

Rapid content response: can you do it?

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!


…and then there was this part:

bad part

“Yep. Shameless,” wrote 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?

‘Zero Waste,’ but plenty of gumption!

Karina Quintans tipped the trash can toward her and looked inside: paper coffee cups, tin foil, fast food sacks and, curiously, the pruned leaves of somebody’s indoor plant. At least 80 percent of the trash in this can – clearly labeled “landfill” – was suitable for a second can a few inches to its left, the one labeled “recycling.”

We may not get our waste in the right hole, but at least now, thanks to Quintans and her friends, if you stroll the downtown area of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you have a 50-50 chance. Until Sept. 27, you had only one option: landfill.

In a civic climate where most of us wait for the government to act, or deride it for failing to, Quintans and her grassroots group “Zero Waste Portsmouth” planned, financed, created and installed five sturdy recycling bins here in downtown Portsmouth, home of the CleanSpeak blog. Each bin has a recycling hole and a landfill hole, the latter label chosen because it describes the ugly reality of waste disposal.

Before the forklifts set those bins in place, when you visited the Port City you either stuffed your recyclables in your pockets until you got home, pirated one of the cafes’ recycling buckets, or most likely, dropped them in the trash can, sending them on a one-way trip to the landfill.

The remarkable thing is that Zero Waste Portsmouth didn’t wait for the city. Although we have curbside residential recycling, downtown street-level recycling wasn’t going into the municipal budget anytime soon. So ZWP drove the project themselves, rounding up volunteers, corporate patrons, some grant money, and some student artistic talent to make these bins a reality. The city will take over from here. Hopefully, collection costs will be offset by avoided landfill costs together with the hard-to-quantify environmental benefit.

Before the bins came, 44 percent of the city’s waste was still going to the landfill, according to Quintans, director of Zero Waste Portsmouth. Twenty-two percent was being recycled. (The rest was yard waste, concrete, bulky, etc.). The downtown area alone was sending 20 tons of trash to the landfill every year.

Zero Waste Portsmouth has an ambitious goal: living up to its name and making the landfill obsolete. As communications professionals, we love this name because what it lacks in immediate viability it makes up for in inspiration.

Admittedly, zero waste is ZWP’s long-term goal. Cutting the landfill-bound portion in half is a shorter-term one. A great first step? Just getting stuff in the right hole.

Meet Quintans and learn more about the project:


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.

Best green TV ads of the past decade

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.