Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fightin' Phils Win With Green Power

After 28 long years, it finally happened.

Fans spilled into the streets, traffic ground to a halt, fireworks exploded, grown men wept like babies.

What could have brought about this strange turn of events?

Why the fact that the Philadelphia Phillies were named Top National Green Energy Leaders of course!

As you can see from the photo, the team is really quite excited about the designation, made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

(Perfect closer Brad Lidge, pictured here, is a well-known for his love of electric cars.)


No really they are quite excited. Even popped a few champagne corks over it last night we're told.

Well, there may have been one or two other things that have them in a good mood these days. Something about a World Series title...

We're not sure. We here at the Thin Green Line keep a singular focus on all things environmental, often to the exclusion of everything else.

No really.


But ah anyway, whatever it is that has the boys in red so happy, we're sure the victory is made that much sweeter knowing that they go there doing the right thing, purchasing 100 percent of the power at Citizens Bank Park (where, apparently, some big event happened last night) from green sources.

"The Phillies' green power purchase of 20 million kWh is equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide emissions of nearly 3,000 passenger vehicles per year, or is the equivalent amount of electricity needed to power nearly 2,000 average American homes annually," according to this announcement from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Why 3,000 vehicles, that represents about 10 minutes worth of post-game traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, or at least it can seem that way.

Anyhoo, congratulations to the Phillies for being the greenest world champions in history. Keep up the good work!

No doubt next year, all their bats will be cut from sustainable forests...


Go Phils.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Attack of the killer faucets! Save the children!

Look out!


Lock your doors!

Take the children inside!

The hordes are at the gate of the Big Water fortress!
There's an assault on your freedom out there; your freedom to choose potentially polluted water in a polluting bottle over regulated, clean, cheap tap water.

Don't let them do it!

Such is the nature of advocacy.
And such was the tone of the press release the Thin Green Line's corporate mega-campus received recently from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
It was titled "Campaign Targets Unfair Political Assault on Bottled Water."
In it, we're told that: "The campaign comes in the wake of a politically-motivated attack against bottled water, a study by an environmental pressure group (I love that phrase. Nice touch) designed to undermine confidence in the safety of the product.
Actually, it was designed to inform those consumers the CEI says it represents about the contents of a product, contents Big Water refuses to list.
Ask yourself this question, what does this "pressure group" have to gain by releasing this information, versus what does the bottled water lobby have to lose? As we learned in "All the President's Men," always follow the money and you'll get your answer.
“Just last week, the Environmental Working Group issued a junk science ‘study’ (don't you love how to cast doubt on something, you just have to put it in quotation marks?) suggesting bottled water contains dangerous substances and is no better than tap,” said Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., Director of Risk and Environmental Policy at CEI.
She's right. Bottled water is worse.
What they're fulminating about is the study featured in the Thin Green Line's blog on Oct. 17 which we titled "Is the Tide Turning for Big Water?"
In it, we noted that tests of bottled water by the group, which by the way is independent and not paid by industry to reach industry-friendly conclusions, discovered an average of eight contaminants in several brands of bottled water. Four brands besides Wal-Mart's also were contaminated with bacteria.
"Our study was a snapshot of the marketplace. We found some brands that provided good quality and other brands that contained various chemical pollutants. What this shows is that consumers cannot have confidence. They don't know what they're getting," said a group spokeswoman. The group also singled out Giant Supermarket's Acadia brand for excessive levels of disinfection byproducts.

"Also present in bottled water were caffeine and the pharmaceutical Tylenol, as well as arsenic, radioactive isotopes, nitrates and ammonia from fertilizer residue. Industrial chemicals used as solvents, degreasing agents and propellants were also found in the tests," according to the newspaper we cited in the previous posting.
The study also found trace amounts of synthetic chemicals or degradation products from the manufacture of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, including acetaldehyde, isobutane and toluene.
Sounds delicious. We should be free to ignorantly ingest those goodies should we? Isn't that what America is all about?
Ticked off that anyone they're not paying would have the temerity to test their client's product, the Competitive Enterprise Institute ginned up a little fear, a little hysteria and insisted that their right to poison you without being regulated like public water systems was tantamount to taking away your freedom of choice as consumers. Informed choice, it seems, is not something consumers are supposed to want.
“An easily accessible, calorie-free option for hydration is critical for an on-the-go society, particularly for individuals with special needs, such as the elderly, individuals engaged in sports, individuals participating in outdoor events, and individuals on the road,” read the breathless release.
So let me get this right. We want to be sure the elderly, whose immune systems are more likely to be weakened, get as much contaminated water as possible?
Might it not also be critical for this on-the-go society to know if the "calorie-free option for hydration" also happens to be increasing its risk for cancer, which would definitely put a crimp in that peppy "on the go" lifestyle of ours?
"Chicago imposed a bottled water tax, and several cities have banned bottled water in government buildings," CEI said in its shocked release.
Might that be because its a waste of money to pay 16 times the cost of regulated, safe public water for something that comes in a product created from petroleum, can leach chemicals into the contents and that lasts for centuries in a landfill?
“This is just another example of government regulators eroding our freedom,” said the release. “If they succeed in banning and taxing water, what will they go after next?”
Who knows, those nut jobs might next try making our food safer, taking away our freedom to choose contaminated meat!
That's anti-American! Trying to protect citizens. What is this Russia?

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dark Green or the Dark Side?

Is there a Darth Greener in your life?
There's a new buzz word out there in the E-community: "Dark Green."

It is used to describe people who have taken the mantra of reduce, re-use, recycling re-think to whole new levels of, of, of I don't know what.

Here at The Thin Green Line, we like to think of ourselves as pretty environmentally aware.

We recycle all sorts of stuff.

We drive a hybrid vehicle.

We walk when we can and use re-usable bags at the Giant.

But it turns out, we are children compared to a few, rare Green (not so jolly) Giants bestriding the earth.

Consider the case of Sharon Astyk, who lives in a farmhouse in Knox, N.Y.

Here is a brief description from an Oct. 17 article in The New York Times of what she has been willing to do:

"She has unplugged the family refrigerator, using it as an icebox during warmer months by putting in frozen jugs of water as the coolant (in colder weather, she stores milk and butter outdoors). Her farmhouse in Knox, N.Y., has a homemade composting toilet and gets its heat from a wood stove; the average indoor winter temperature is 52 degrees.

"Ms. Astyk, 36, a writer and a farmer is trying, with the aid of a specially designed calculator, to whittle her family’s energy use to 10 percent of the national average. She and her husband, Eric Woods, a college professor, grow virtually all their own produce, raise chickens and turkeys, and spend only $1,000 a year in consumer goods, most of which they buy used. They air-dry their clothes, and their four sons often sleep huddled together to pool body heat"

When her 6-year old wanted to play baseball, she said no because there was no team close enough to not require a long drive.

We stand humbled at her dedication to the planet (although denying a 6-year-old the opportunity to play baseball doesn't sit quite right. I say this perhaps as a recent convert to fair-weather fandom of those fightin' Philadelphia Phillies. My son adds, "Go PHILS!")

Folks like Ms. Astyk, or "David Chameides, a cameraman in Los Angeles, who is collecting all the waste he generates in a year in his basement, and keeping a blog that describes his detritus. A sample entry (from Oct. 6, Day 279 out of 365) includes 1 bag of hair from haircut — put out on lawn for birds, 1 plastic wrapper from ice cream — garbage and 2 aluminum tuna cans — recycle,” are impressive certainly.

But I sometimes don't wonder if so much isn't too much.

I confess to a certain, subterranean resentment of these super-recyclers because of the ever-present eco-guilt and the self-knowledge that I am never going to have a self-composting toilet in my house.
While some folks might find these examples inspiring, others might find them daunting.
It would be a shame if people looked to examples like this when deciding whether to recycle, or insulate their house for winter or buy organic produce and said "well if you think I'm doing that, forget it. You can just skip the whole thing.
This could well be described as the "dark side of dark green."
You can make an equally good argument for the opposite, people who see such examples and decide to emulate them, but I suspect, being a cynic, that most of us will find pretty good rationalizations for keeping convenience.
After all, I was going to go to the gym this morning, but decided all nine of my regular readers needed a new blog entry more. (My cardiologist, if I had one, would disagree.)
The key of course, is to find a balance between making eco-friendly improvements to your routine and not trying to single-handedly save the world.
After all, you can't do it alone and it actually has a greater impact to have more people do a bunch of little things, than to have individuals do extreme things.
There was an interesting insight into this in a recent edition of the Charleston, S.C. City Paper, in which a handful of people tried to go two weeks without contributing a single item to the waste stream.
The result?
"Between the lawyer and the meteorologist, the outdoor ed teacher and the work-at-home mom, the college student and the City Paper reporter, none of the eight participants made it more than three days without contributing to the waste stream."
Which is not to say the experiment is not worthwhile if, for no other reason, it offered insight into how we live.
Jim Crater at Recycling Services Inc. in North Coventry is truly gifted at this.
He has the admirable ability to look at any given situation and ask, "do I really need to do this this way? Can't we find some use for that?"
Granted, as anyone who has even been the recycling center there knows, it can result in some interesting results.
But the point here is we need to constantly look at the way we do things and ask if we can't do it better. And that's what the dark greens can help us do.
May the Force be With You!

Monday, October 20, 2008

And the Children Shall Lead Them

Above, a New York Times photo of solar panels on the roof of Scarsdale, N.Y. High School.

As anyone with children knows, few things are harder to oppose than the determined advocacy of a child.

Often enough, it is in service of a toy or snack purchase that they advocate, something toy manufacturers and their advertising firms have known and traded upon for years.

But sometimes, it is for a cause even us grown ups can support.

Consider these paragraphs from an Oct. 9 New York Times article about how children are shaping our habits at home and at school.

"Children are part of what experts say is a growing army of “eco-kids” — steeped in environmentalism at school, in houses of worship, through scouting and even via popular culture — who try to hold their parents accountable at home. Amid their pride in their children’s zeal for all things green, the grown-ups sometimes end up feeling like scofflaws under the watchful eye of the pint-size eco-police, whose demands grow ever greater, and more expensive.

"They pore over garbage bins in search of errant recyclables. They lobby for solar panels. And, in a generational about-face, they turn off the lights after their parents leave empty rooms.

"'Kids have really turned into the little conscience sitting in the back seat,' said Julia Bovey, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group that recently worked with Nickelodeon on a series of public service announcements and other programming called 'Big Green Help.'

“'One of the fascinating things about children is that they don’t separate what you are doing from what you should be doing,” Ms. Bovey said. “Here’s this information about how we can help the environment, and kids are not able to rationalize it away the way that adults do.'”

Locally, the line between learning what's right and doing what's right is being blurred at The Hill School, where a year-long sustainability initiative is taking root.

The elements include reduced waste and buying local organic food for the dining hall, increased recycling in the dorms and water conservation throughout the campus.

The school will compete in the 2009 Green Cup Challenge. The independent school that conserves the most electricity will take home the Green Cup Challenge Trophy. The competition will last four weeks and 32 schools will compete, according to the school's Web site.

Now, Pottstown's public schools have an opportunity to set an example as well.

Having decided on the renovation and expansion of four elementary schools, the Pottstown School Board now faces the daunting task of trying to figure out how to shave costs off a project that could cost as much as $50 million.

One way, which was raised last week by architect Hal Hart, is to go green.

More energy efficient windows, geo-thermal heating and cooling systems were just two of the things Hart mentioned as possibilities.

But "going green" is often an investment which does not see immediate financial returns and requires a little bit of faith. The traditional knock against going green is that its systems cost more up front and it takes years to make the up-front money back before you begin to realize the savings.

The knock has a hard basis in fact. As anyone with any familiarity with grants for eco-projects knows, most grants, particularly for those with an energy-savings component, pay the difference between traditional systems and the more-efficient but more-expensive green systems.

In a tax-base challenged borough like Pottstown, spending more money up-front for any reason is going to be a hard sell.

But Hart had an interesting observation and a suggestion about a new financing method that seems promising.

He said in some projects his Harrisburg-based firm has conducted, they have been able to finance green systems without any increase in price up front.

Although specifics were not offered (it was not the time as the board was still in the midst of deciding how many schools to keep) the idea seems to have merit.

What happens, Hart said, is that the difference between the more expensive green systems and the traditional ones is paid off over time with the savings on energy costs.

In other words, if the district saved $8,000 in fuel costs in 2010 as the result of having a geo-thermal system, that money would go toward paying the higher cost of the system, which was not paid up front, but financed until the additional cost was paid off. Once the difference is paid off, the savings accrue to the taxpayers.

This seems like a "win-win" solution (God I hate that phrase. Forgive me for using it). Let us hope the board pursues it.

If Pottstown schools do go green, as speaker Wendy Wilkinson suggested during one of many public hearings on the issue, they won't be alone.

Schools across the country are using solar panels, organic gardens to feed their students and using energy efficient fixtures.

According to this Oct. 10 story in The New York Times, "New Jersey and Connecticut are among 10 states in the nation requiring schools to use renewable energy sources for new school construction and major renovations."

Schools are in a unique position to serve as role models.

“You’ve got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk of what you are preaching,” Steven Frantz, a retired school principal who is coordinating Scarsdale’s efforts, said in the Times article.

The article also cites Rachel Gutter, senior manager of the education sector for the U.S. Green Building Council, who said 1,000 schools nationwide are registering for certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or LEED, a green standard. About 115 schools nationwide have already been certified as meeting the standard, she said, and the number of those interested is growing every year.

"A recent study by the American Federation of Teachers showed that the costs of renewable energy technology and energy efficiency programs are decreasing, coming in at $3 more per square foot, or 2 percent more over all, to build a green school. 'With new construction, the biggest challenge is not related to cost but the perception of cost,' Ms. Gutter said."

Certainly, Pottstown's school vote itself can be argued on an environmental standpoint.

Those who favored closing all the schools and building a single, consolidated campus, could correctly argue that economies of scale and the potential to build a fully green campus would have reduced the district's environmental burden significantly.

At the same time, renovating existing schools, which are generally built in a more robust way, takes advantage of preserving the "embedded energy" it took to construct the building in the first place, as well as offering an example for a town full of older buildings.

The nature of the split vote by the school board represents that this matter is by no means settled in people's minds. However, the two areas of disagreement have more to do with cost and educational issues than the environment, so The Thin Green will tactfully (and with full acknowlegement of its own cowardice) prudently avoid them there.

Instead, it seems prudent to merely observe that, as board member Judyth Zahora noted, whether you agree with it or not, the decision has been made. "Now we move on," she said Thursday.

Perhaps one area to build consensus and help pull the board and the community back together, is making the decision to make these buildings and extensions as green, energy efficient and as sustainable as possible.

It will have the triple advantage of actually doing what we tell our students every day they should be doing, as well as having the potential to save taxpayers money and might just help to save the world those students will inherit.

Wouldn't that be a great lesson for our town to teach?

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Is the Tide Turning for Big Water?

These are dark days for Big Water.

America is finally waking up to the observation comedian Dennis Miller made so many years ago: that only in America could a company make money selling something that falls for for free from the sky.

Leave it to an economic cataclysm to make us re-assess some of our assumptions.

With the perfect storm of a faltering economy, concern for the environment and consumers increasingly questioning the assumption of health that was the foundation of the bottled water business, Big Water is worried.

If you need proof (and why would you? Have I ever lied to you?) take a look at this article from The Miami Herald.

It seems that Miami-Dade had the gall to run a series of advertisements telling people how great the water coming out of their tap really is.

(Quality aside, South Florida is being developed in such an unsustainable way that eventually, it will not have enough of this water to supply its population. A recent notice from the South Florida Water Management District, announced plans for year-round conservation rules to be enacted in an effort to save water. But that's not what we're here to talk about today.)

And while everything the radios ads said is true, that public water is generally cheaper, safer and purer, the Nestle Waters North American company decided it was time for their lawyers to get involved.

In a legal action that they made sure to call The Miami Herald about, Nestle argued that promoting public water was "an attack on the integrity of the company."

Folks around here will remember Nestle as the company that raised a fuss with its plans to sink wells all over Chester County to re-sell in a bottle.

Pottstown residents may also remember them as the company that donated palette upon palette of bottled water to the borough when the boil water alert hit town three or four years ago.

But people in Miami may remember them as the company that threatened to sue them over false advertising claims.

If this seems a little desperate to you (and it does to me), that's because Big Water has reason to be desperate.

Just two days ago, The Mercury ran an Associated Press story in its business section about Pepsi-Cola cutting 3,300 jobs.

The story talked about how the economy was affecting the company and stock shares, but the crux was near the end. Buried at the bottom of the AP story was this sentence: "Bottled water sales volume slid by double-digits as consumers drank more tap water."

Given that this was the company's focus because of an earlier (and sustained) drop in the carbonated soda market and you can start to see why suing your way to profitability starts to look like a good strategy.

By contrast, The New York Times story on the same announcement put the drop in bottled water sales right on top, which is where (I think) it belongs.

An analyst the Times interviewed "found that 34 percent of consumers say they are reusing plastic bottles more often and 23 percent say they are cutting back on bottled beverages in favor of tap water or beverages in containers that create less waste."

Another firm found that water filter sales, the kind you attach to your tap, were up 16 percent in the first half of this year. Yikes!

"Volume for noncarbonated beverage sales dropped 5 percent in the quarter, led by double-digit declines in Aquafina and Propel, a flavored and vitamin-enhanced water drink," the Times reported.

The dirtly little secret of the bottled water industry is that much of the bottled water marketed with pictures of mountains, clear streams or wild animals, actually comes from the very taps people buy the product in the hopes of avoiding.

As we reported in my Mercury series on water issues, "Ebb & Flow" (kindly preserved on the Web by the Green Valleys Association, but regrettably not to be found on The Mercury's own Web site), as much as 40 percent of bottled water is actually bottled tap water, sometimes with added treatment, sometimes not.”

Aquafina, the number one bottled water brand, made by Pepsi-Cola, comes from municipal sources like Wichita, Kan., while Dasani comes from sources in Queens, N.Y. and Jacksonville, Fla.

In a 2001 blind taste test, the vast majority of people selected New York City tap water as tasting better than Evian and Poland Spring.

"Americans drank more than 9 billion gallons in 2007, and fewer than half of 228 brands of bottled water reveal their source. Typical cost is $3.79 per gallon, 1,900 times the cost of public tap water," the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

And then there's the final blow.

If not for taste, the one thing most consumers assume about their bottled water is that its purer or more safe than that nasty old tap water.

Not according to this Oct. 15 story in the Chronicle.

According to that paper, "the Environmental Working Group tested 10 brands of bottled water and found that Wal-Mart's Sam's Choice contained chemical levels that exceeded legal limits in California and the voluntary standards adopted by the industry.

"The tests discovered an average of eight contaminants in each brand. Four brands besides Wal-Mart's also were contaminated with bacteria.

"Our study was a snapshot of the marketplace. We found some brands that provided good quality and other brands that contained various chemical pollutants. What this shows is that consumers cannot have confidence. They don't know what they're getting," said a group spokeswoman.

The group also singled out Giant Supermarket's brand Acadia for excessive levels of disinfection byproducts, the newspaper reporter.

"Also present in bottled water were caffeine and the pharmaceutical Tylenol, as well as arsenic, radioactive isotopes, nitrates and ammonia from fertilizer residue. Industrial chemicals used as solvents, degreasing agents and propellants were also found in the tests," according to the newspapers.

The study also found trace amounts of synthetic chemicals or degradation products from the manufacture of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, plastic bottles were found, including acetaldehyde, isobutane and toluene.

"The environmental group filed a notice of intent to sue Wal-Mart Tuesday, alleging that the mega-chain failed to warn the public of illegal concentrations of trihalomethanes, which are cancer-causing chemicals. "

Hmm, wonder how long it will take the marketing department to divert us away from that that?
The cynic in me says that they will just discontinue the brand, then bottle the same water with the same procedures under a different name and wait for someone to catch them again.
(Why is it that no matter what happens, the lawyers always make money?)

But if the lawsuits keep coming, pretty soon, people start asking themselves the question Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola dread: "Why am I paying 1,000 times more for something that may be more dangerous and less frequently tested that the water that comes out of my own tap for just pennies?"

Why indeed.

And answer is marketing and what we've been trained think and assume.

Considering all this, it's no wonder the ad campaign in Florida had Nestle running to their lawyers.

Frankly, I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

As the Worm Turns

Sometimes the simplest things can take care of the most complex problems.

Take groundwater contamination, for instance.

Just ask anyone at the EPA or the DEP about groundwater contamination and they'll start talking about "air-strippers," the mechanical solution currently used to separate contamination from the groundwater it has polluted.

That's how, in most cases, water polluted with a solvent called trichloroethylene, more often known as TCE is treated. A solvent and de-greaser used heavily in industry for decades, it is fast turning into the nation's number one groundwater pollutant.

Around here, it is known to be polluting groundwater in the Collegeville area, near to narrow tube plants, and at the former Occidental Chemical site in Lower Pottsgrove.

Other pollutants commonly found in groundwater are heavy metals and, out west, uranium where Cold War mining and processing fostered a boom on atom bomb production (pun fully intended).

And while there's currently no easy fix for TCE, it's starting to look like, as is so often the case, nature may provide the answer for one or two of the other problems mentioned here.

This article in National Geographic illustrates a discovery by scientists that a certain microbe can be trained to render uranium inert, and make it "fall out" of groundwater where it can more easily be cleaned up.

According to the magazine article, published in 2004, "the microorganism, called Geobacter sulferreducens, has a unique metabolism — it passes electrons onto metals to get energy from its food in the same way that we humans breathe in oxygen to break down our food.

"In the electron transfer process, the microorganism changes the metals from their dissolved, or soluble, form to a solid, or insoluble, form. This causes the metal to fall out of the groundwater."

Now if you don't think that's cool, you're just watching too damn much "American Idol."

Slightly larger, but no less interesting, are the new "Super Worms."

Scientists in England have recently discovered that certain types of worms can help process all types of heavy metals contaminating soil, including lead, zinc, arsenic and copper.

Also highlighted in National Geographic here, this worm, so new it hasn't yet been named, has a real love for heavy metal, and no, we're not talking about Metallica here.

This species has an enzyme or protein that encases tiny grains of arsenic to make them inert and not harmful to the worm.

Another worm species, found in my ancestral homeland of Wales, does the same with lead.

The protein or enzyme wraps eventually degrade, but until they do, they make it much easier for the metal to be taken up by plants, thus bringing the contaminant to the surface where it can be more easily cleaned-up.

According to the article, the long-term aim is to breed and then release the worms at polluted sites to speed up the process of soil development and help kick-start the ecosystem's rehabilitation. Plants could be used to extract toxic metals once the superworms have got to work.

The downside, of course, is that worms are not fast workers. They cannot compete with the clean-up methods now used.

And given that it is expected to take decades to clean up the TCE contamination in this region using conventional methods, we shouldn't be looking to the worms for salvation any time soon.

They do have another, more immediate use, however.

According to the scientists doing the study, "basically you can see the earthworms as biological dipsticks of the soil toxicity and the metal levels."

But hey, we'll take anything that helps at this point.

As the world gears up for the next big natural resource shortage crisis -- fresh water -- we'll need every trick we have to clean up the water we've so carelessly polluted.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Is the Energy Cup Half Full, or Half Empty?

The financial crisis which has roiled markets across the world could doom efforts to convert to clean energy and prevent global warming -- or be resolved by it.

Apparently, it all depends on who you talk to.

Some, like Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations climate secretariat, seem to think the drying up of credit will prevent developed nations from making good on pledges to help developing countries convert to cleaner energy sources.
"You cann't pick an empty pocket," he told The Associated Press in this story, published in the Lexington, Ken. Herald Leader.

More cynically, London's The Guardian newspaper, reported that "Leaders of (European Union) countries plan to use the global financial crisis as an excuse to renege on climate change commitments, according to sources close to energy negotiations in Brussels."

"News of the European political leaders' moves comes as senior business figures and government advisers are urging politicians not to use the current financial crisis to abandon crucial investment in clean energy and efficiency to tackle climate change, cut costs and improve security.

"On Thursday, Lord Browne of Madingley, the former chief executive of BP, warned "none of what's happened — however dramatic or distressing — detracts from what remains our most pressing energy challenge: combating climate change.

"Browne, now president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, called for a big political investment in new energy technology to match the US New Deal that rebuilt economies after the second world war. "What is called for is nothing less than a new generation of political leadership — leadership that transcends the day-to-day tussle of electoral politics and short-term economic cycles," he said.

On the other side of the coin is Cathy Zoi, Chief Executive Officer of the Alliance for Climate Protection, chaired by Al Gore, who knows a thing or two about electrocal politics.
Zoi argues that the next president must make a big move and make it soon.

In this Reuters report, Zoi argued that a focus on clean energy and the new technology required to implement it could create a more solid foundation for the economy and offer a safer investment for capitalists spooked by the credit crunch.

"My very strong belief is that we need to reorient our investments toward this transition to a clean energy economy, and it will be the engine of growth for getting us out of the doldrums that we've gotten in right now," Zoi told the Reuters Global Environment Summit.

And other nations are looking in that direction as well -- specifically, the Sioux Nation, which is looking to convert the near constant winds that blow across the South Dakota plains into energy for sale.

As The New York Times reported in this article, "The idea of hitching tribal fortunes to the wind has gained momentum with the growth of the wind industry, which is expanding so fast that turbines are in short supply worldwide.

"Half the states now require utilities to add renewable energy to their portfolios. The oilman T. Boone Pickens is proselytizing about the value of wind, and thousands of turbines have sprouted on the Texas plains.

"If Native Americans can get into the business, some federal officials say, the hope is that wind, like casino gaming, could reshape their economies.

“It could be huge,” said Lizana Pierce, the project manager with the tribal energy program at the Department of Energy.

A nearby tribe, the Lower Brule Sioux, recently struck a deal with Iberdrola Renewables, a subsidiary of the Spanish utility Iberdrola S.A., to build a 225-megawatt wind farm.

So which is it?

Has the credit collapse doomed efforts to save the planet, or do those efforts provide perhaps the last best hope of re-constructing the economy?

Well, for the sake of the next generation, how about we all look on the bright side on this one.

If nothing else, it helps alleviate that feeling of helplessness, allows us to do something, and points us in the right direction.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Business as Usual (But in a Good Way)

Let us for a time turn our gaze from Washington, dear reader. It is a depressing view.

We at The Thin Green Line have written quite a lot about solar energy and other alternative forms of energy like geo-thermal and wind power.

What is encouraging to note is that as we scan the information landscape about these subjects, primarily in other newspapers around the country, we find increasingly that the subject is not dealt with in special "environmental" sections of the paper or Web sites, but rather in the "business" section.

We are becoming convinced that this is because green building practices and practices of sustainability are increasing in popularity not because of marketing, or because of some sense of moral obligation on people's part, but because it makes sense -- period.

Back in June, The New York Times ran a story about how high fuel prices were making the old suburban ideal of the big-house-with-the-cathedral-ceiling-in-the-big-subdivision-at-the-new-exit-off-the-big-highway harder to sustain.

Of course, since then the housing market has collapsed (or perhaps, in part, because of that) and there are all sorts of reasons why the building of such megaliths has stalled.

But the underlying conflict remains.

People like us who read planning journals call living an hour or two away from the city or town in which you work so you can live "in the country," living in an -exurb or "on the fringe." It's like a suburb on steroids. Twice the square footage, twice the lawn and six times the commute."

"Before it was ‘we spend too much time driving.’ Now, it’s ‘we spend too much time and money driving,’” was how one ex-urb resident described it in the story.

"In Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Minneapolis, homes beyond the urban core have been falling in value faster than those within, according to an analysis by Moody’s," the Times reported.

"More than three-fourths of prospective home buyers are now more inclined to live in an urban area because of fuel prices, according to a recent survey of 903 real estate agents with Coldwell Banker, the national brokerage firm."

Now please excuse me while we cut and paste even more shamelessly from the Times article, because it's relevant and, well they've already written it more clearly than we would.

-- “It’s like an ebbing of this suburban tide,” said Joe Cortright, an economist at the consulting group Impresa Inc. in Portland, Ore. “There’s going to be this kind of reversal of desirability. Typically, Americans have felt the periphery was most desirable, and now there’s going to be a reversion to the center.”

-- In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles on public roads than in the same month the previous year, a 4.3 percent decrease — the sharpest one-month drop since the Federal Highway Administration began keeping records in 1942.

-- Long before the recent spike in the price of energy, environmentalists decried suburban sprawl a waste of land, energy and tax dollars. Governments from Virginia to California have in recent decades lavished resources on building roads and schools for new subdivisions in the outer rings of development while skimping on maintaining facilities closer in. Many governments now focus on reviving their downtowns.

-- In Denver — a classic Western city, with snarling freeway traffic across a vast acreage of strip malls, ranch houses and office parks — the city has had an urban renaissance over the last decade.

-- A $6.1 billion commuter rail system has been in the works over the last four years, drawing people downtown without cars, while stimulating swift sales of densely clustered condos near stations.

Imagine, building a commuter rail system to take cars off the highway and revitalize downtowns along its route. Are you listening Pennsylvania?

Of course, if you have enough money to have a second home (and who doesn't? Umm, us?), you may also have enough money to operate that home "off the grid."

In this August article in "Great Homes/Great Destinations section of The New York Times, readers learn about a new trend in getaways epitomized by Lake Bill Chinook in Oregon where second homes have evolved from tents and trailers to giant homes. What makes them significant, is they are all, by necessity, "off the grid" and have to generate their own power, water and waste disposal.

Imagine if the rest of us had to do that. We would find out what we are capable of.

To help us learn, we now can turn to a growing number of consultants who specialize in teaching how to practice sustainability.

The trend was documented in this August article in The New York Times Business section.

"It reported that at the end of 2006, the Green Building Council’s membership included 679 consultants. By July 31 this year, there were 1,590."

"This mirrors the rapid increase in the number of buildings certified by the council: In 2005, there were 404 buildings that met LEED standards. Midway through 2008, 1,705 buildings have been certified," the article notes.

For the uninitiated, LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. And, because Americans love to quantify things, it of course has a rating scale that lets you brag to the neighbors about how much your greener your house is than theirs.

In fact that is undoubtedly part of the motivation for houses like this one, highlighted in another New York Times article about how LEED is "the new trophy home." This California home they used as an example is priced at $2.8 million.

For those without the time or the inclination to click on the link provided, allow me to provide you with a sampling of what it reveals:

"Its rating was built into that price. LEED — an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the hot designer label, and platinum is the badge of honor — the top classification given by the U.S. Green Building Council. “There’s kind of a green pride, like driving a Prius,” said Brenden McEneaney, a green building adviser to the city of Santa Monica, adding, “It’s spreading all over the place.”

"Devised eight years ago for the commercial arena, the ratings now cover many things, including schools and retail interiors. But homes are the new frontier.

"While other ratings are widely recognized, like the federal Energy Star for appliances, the LEED brand stands apart because of its four-level rankings — certified, silver, gold and platinum — and third-party verification. So far this year, 10,250 new home projects have registered for the council’s consideration, compared with 3,100 in 2006, the first year of the pilot home-rating system. Custom-built homes dominate the first batch of certified dwellings. Today, dinner-party bragging rights are likely to include: “Let me tell you about my tankless hot water heater.” Or “what’s the R value of your insulation?”

What can I say, "we've come a long way baby.

But we should probably make sure we don't go too far.

While all of the previous examples show the power of persuasion and peer pressure at work, there are other methods and this one being practiced in the city of Marbug, Germany, is probably a step too far for most Americans.

There, in a city in which is already a "model of enlightened energy production and consumption," the leaders took things one step further. Instead of encouraging the installation of solar panels on new construction and significant renovations, it is now requiring it, or pay a $1,500 fine.

The law is being challenged, as well it should be.

One opponent, who calls the law the beginning of a "green dictatorship," makes the very relevant observation that compelling people breeds opposition to green practices whereas encouraging them and helping them instead breeds support.

After all, we say, why compel when the trends, circumstances and market all seem to be pointing us in the right direction anyway?

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

So remember how just one short blog ago, I was writing about how great it was that both the House and the Senate had passed bills that extended tax breaks for alternative energy?

Scratch that.

Apparently, should I ever again write a sentence that includes the words "House," "Senate" and "great" together, I should be strapped to a solar reflector until my skin crisps off.

For while it is true that they both passed bills ostensibly aimed at accomplishing the same thing, those bills are incompatible with each other and are unlikely to be signed into law before our fearless leaders come home to ask for you to send them back to Washington to continue to provide this most excellent leadership on crucial issues facing the nation.
According to this blog posting from The Wall Street Journal, even The White House hates the House version of the bill.

Maybe that's because the House bill insists "on actually paying for the tax credits with tax hikes elsewhere" the Journal reported in the blog, appropriately headlined "From the Dept. of Futile Gestures."

Or maybe it's because, as Kate Shepherd reported here in Grist Magazine's Muckraker, "the House version strips out tax incentives for oil shale and tar sands development, as well as provisions to support coal-to-liquid fuels."

Regardless, the end results is the same. Politics as usual kills something this country desperately needs. Sound familiar?

Is there any common sense left in Washington? Or is "drill baby drill" the nearest we can come to reasoned discourse in Washington?

The House vote marked the sixth time the House has passed these extensions. "The bill stalled repeatedly in the Senate, until a compromised version of the package passed earlier this week," Grist reported.

"At the time of passage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) urged House members not to change the legislation, worrying that any changes to the package would bring about its demise. 'If the House doesn't pass this, the full responsibility of it not passing is theirs,' said Reid. 'It's not ours,.'" Grist reported.

Apparently, the Senate's previous five failures to pass a bill shouldn't count. Geez, how many strikes do they get?

Don't you just love a leadership more worried about blame then credit; political liability than energy sustainability?

"House Democrats are holding firm that theirs is the superior version," according to Grist. "'This legislation also holds true to our commitment to fiscal responsibility,' said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement today. 'By closing loopholes that allow corporations and executives to avoid U.S. taxes by shipping jobs and investment overseas and curtailing unnecessary tax subsidies for big, multinational oil and gas companies, we are ensuring that future generations don't foot the bill for the progress we can make today.'"
Sounds reasonable to me, but hey, what do I know? Maybe continuing tax breaks for fossil fuels is a good way to prevent global warming.
In a quick Thin Green Line update on that issue by the way, we bring you this report from The New York Times' most excellent environmental reporter Andrew Revkin.
In this brief, he writes: "Worldwide emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from fuel burning and cement production increased by 3.5 percent per year from 2000 to 2007, nearly four times the growth rate in the 1990s, according to a new report. The rapid rise is being driven primarily by economic growth in developing countries, which now produce more greenhouse gas than industrialized countries. The report was produced by the Global Carbon Project and is available online at"
On the positive side of this issue (who says we're all gloom and doom here at The Thin Green Line?), Reuters reported here last week that: "Rich nations' greenhouse gas emissions dipped for the first time in five years in 2006, easing 0.1 percent despite robust economic growth, a Reuters survey of the latest available information showed Friday.
For the record, we're one of those "rich nations."

The fact that we can lower emissions while increasing economic growth puts a stake in the heart of the old fossil axiom that reducing emissions will hurt the economy.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
According to this Reuters report, alternative energy has revived a moribund economy in, of all places, rural Texas.
A wind power boom there has generated millions of dollars in additional tax revenue which is being used to build schools and has fueled an economic revival there, Reuters reported.
Two years ago, the Blackwell School District there had a property tax roll totaled $324 million. "Now the total value has mushroomed to $1.2 billion due to the build-out of four nearby wind farms," according to the report.
Tell me Pottstown or Pottsgrove school districts wouldn't love to be able to take that much of a burden off local taxpayers here. But closed-minded, old-school (dare I say say "bitter") readers of The Mercury continue to call the paper's "Sound-Off" column poo-pooing the potential benefit of a solar park being championed for the former OxyChem site off Armand Hammer Boulevard.
"The hotels are full, the restaurants are full," said Karan Bergstrom of Sweetwater, ground-zero for the wind boom which now rivals the city's famous rattlesnake roundup. "There's not an empty house," Bergstrom said.
When is the last time we said that about Pottstown?
But the entrepreneurs who want to do similar things in other parts of the country (maybe even here?!) won't get any help from our representatives in Washington apparently.
"The legislative stalemate will just prolong the agony for America’s clean-energy sector," the Journal reports in its blog titled "Environmental Capital."

It seems even the Journal realizes that the economy of the next century will have to be based on something other than fossil fuels.

There was even some hope held out for the "little guy" in those bills with federal tax breaks upped from $2,000 to $12,000 for those installing solar arrays on their homes, an outlay that can reach $40,000, according to The Journal.

But now, the only hope for a bill this year seems to be a "lame-duck" session after the November elections.

As far as the country's energy policy is concerned, it doesn't seem we will have to wait until November to apply the word "lame."

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