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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Nuclear making a comeback

Nuclear power, an industry that has been dormant since about the time I was born, is on the verge of a renaissance. This month's Fortune Magazine has an excellent feature on nuclear's resurgence here in the US, and travels to Nuclear sites across the country to report on perspectives from both the pro and anti nuke crowd.

Most of the 2008 candidates, along green individuals like myself, agree with the experts that in order to halt CO2 emissions Nuclear power is a necessary evil, if you want to call it that. John Edwards is one of the few candidates who went public with against nuclear power when he declared that " atomic energy had no future in America." Of course, Mr. Edwards also said we should ban construction of coal plants, so not only did he potentially kill his chances in the coal state primary races, he is banking on unrealistic advances in the technology and costs of renewable energy that will be necessary to meet our nation's growing energy demands.

I am from the camp that says as long as Mike Brown and FEMA are not in charge of regulating the industry, we will be safe. In all seriousness, as long as safety and storage regulations are tight I do not think building more nuclear plants is a bad thing. They do not emit CO2 gasses, they create jobs, and the plants provide a lot more power than their fossil fuel counterparts.

Unless clean coal technology is legit and worth the cost (some are saying the marginal reduction in CO2 is not worth the cost), we would have to replace coal fired plants with nuclear plants if we truly want to drastically cut back on our CO2 emissions. This is clearly a new subject area for me as I believe it is my first post on nuclear, and while it is not a green energy source, it is something we are going to have to live with if we care about slowing down climate change. Please read the Fortune article for the bigger picture.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Book Review: The Clean Tech Revolution

The Clean Tech Revolution is a book that covers the most dramatic industrial shift in more than a century. This book is authored by members of the clean tech consultancy, Clean Edge, and I highly recommended it to anyone looking to learn about the past, present, and future of clean technology, as well as learning about the companies and cities that are the leaders of this emerging industry.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Audience - The book is great read for anyone who is a potential stakeholder - entrepreneurs, consumers, investors, government officials, and executives will all learn something new after reading this.
  • Organized for easy reference - The book was well organized - anyone looking to learn about one or two particular technologies can jump around to a chapter on the technology they are looking for as the book has individual chapters on wind, solar, biofuels, transportation, green building, the grid, and more.
  • "Ten to Watch" - Each chapter has a list of the company's that are leading that sector - the company names can be found at the Clean Tech Revolution blog.
  • Clean Tech Cities - There is an entire chapter dedicated to developing cities and regions to become clean tech hubs, and like the technology chapters there is a list of the leading clean tech cities. I am hoping we here in Pittsburgh can someday learn how to emulate some of the cities that made the list. Portland and Austin come to mind.
  • Marketing Clean Tech - The do's and don't's for marketing these technologies. There are decades worth of case studies of flawed marketing of solar and other environmental friendly technologies.
  • Verdict - Definitely a great book for you if you are reading this here blog. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting a broad sweeping overview or reference book of the industry. There are several good books available that are more focused on particular industries like oil, electricity, solar, and even green business. I will be reviewing a few of these in the upcoming months.
Some other things to note: It was nice to read that the authors of the book were in agreement with a lot of the things I have posted on here, particularly my position against corn based ethanol. I also agree with the authors that shifting subsidies from "entrenched" conventional energy companies to those producing renewable energies would be the easiest way to support further growth and adaptation of renewables, and I agree with them that sin taxes are another sensible way to fund these initiatives.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Funding for Governor Rendell's Energy Plan voted down

I was present when Governor Ed Rendell presented his ambitious energy independence plan to the Pittsburgh region this past February, a plan I thought had a lot potential to transform the commonwealth of Pennsylvania from one of the biggest polluters to one of the biggest proponents of clean tech. The plan would have made more venture funding available for PA based clean tech companies and firms investing in clean tech startups, in addition to incentives for residential and solar installations. In addition to the obvious economic gains, consumers would supposedly save up to $10 billion in energy costs over the next 10 years, all this, Rendell said, for the cost of "half a cup of coffee per month." Well, not a cup of joe at Starbucks, but you get his point.

Unfortunately, it seems that partisan politics and corporate interests, once again, stood in the way of a good plan being enacted. As part of this $850 million proposal the average residential customer would see a hike of 45 cents in their monthly electricity bill, or about $5.50 over a full year. I know tax is an evil word, especially among the Pubs, but this is one tax that makes sense, to me at least. If it is a tax that saves you many times that much over the long run, how can it be bad? This plan not only brings jobs to PA, but it will help reduce the dependence on oil and will help improve air quality while reducing the state of Pennsylvania's green house gas emissions, which currently stand at an astounding 1% of world wide total.

While this bill will be revisited this fall with a proposal that does not require a tax on consumers, it makes little sense to delay the passage of the energy plan over a 45 cents a month, especially when our state is in a race against other states to bring these companies and jobs here rather than California, Portland, Austin, and other regions much more greener than ours.

Here are some of the facts:

Questions, answers on energy plan

By Jeff Gelles
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
Gov. Rendell has been refusing to agree to a 2008 budget until the General Assembly passes his Energy Independence Strategy, which he says would save Pennsylvanians $1 billion a year in energy costs. Here are answers to some key questions:

Why the fight? Much of it centers on Rendell's proposal to surcharge electric bills by one-twentieth of a cent per kilowatt-hour to create an $850 million fund for investment in conservation and in renewable and alternative energy.

What would that cost me? Not much, the governor says. For an average residential customer, it would add about $5.40 to the annual electricity bill, or 45 cents per month - less than half of 1 percent of the average electric bill. The largest businesses would have their surcharge capped at $10,000 a year.

So some businesses would pay thousands of dollars more? Only businesses that already pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their power. The fee would add about three-quarters of 1 percent to the average industrial electric bills, and about six-tenths of 1 percent to commercial bills. A company that pays 9 cents per kilowatt-hour would pay an extra $1,000 if its annual power cost already topped $180,000 a year.

Who's fighting the plan? Power companies are particularly unhappy with provisions that would favor conservation over building new power plants and govern how utilities serve customers who do not shop for electricity after decade-old price caps expire. Some House and Senate Republicans are fighting the surcharge as a new tax, to which they say they are opposed on principle.

Why are power companies opposed? The industry says Rendell is trying to pick winners and losers in the energy market, especially by favoring renewable energy. "How do we know that we're not building in a preference for a less reliable, higher-priced power supply? The wind does not always blow," says Doug Biden of the Electric Power Generation Association.

How would Pennsylvanians save $1 billion a year? Some would be paid back directly. The plan earmarks $100 million for $100 rebates to consumers who replace older refrigerators and air conditioners with energy-efficient Energy Star models. Beyond the rebate, those appliances can save buyers hundreds of dollars in electricity costs over a five-year period - sometimes even in a single year. (For a calculator, go to www.energystar.gov.)

Where does conservation fit in? That's where three-quarters of the projected $1 billion a year in savings come from - in reduced expenses for electricity paid by businesses. State officials say that by reducing electricity use 5 percent, commercial and industrial customers would save $1.9 billion a year in electricity costs, in return for investing $400 million to $800 million in energy efficiencies, such as fluourescent lighting and window and roof coatings.

Could that $1 billion in savings be exaggerated? Possibly, because there is not a straight line from the fund's investments and individual company decisions. But Pennsylvanians spent about $12.6 billion last year for electricity, so cutting back just 8 percent would save $1 billion. Rendell calls $750 million a year in net savings for business a conservative estimate.

If investing $850 million can net $1 billion in savings, why aren't power companies doing it? Because much of that savings would come from money that Pennsylvania consumers, businesses and institutions would not pay to power companies.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Response from Dell

I just received a response to my post on Dell's plant a tree program from one of their environmental spokespersons. Kudos to Bryant from Dell for following up. Here is the text from the comments:

Hi -this is Bryant, I work on environment issues at Dell. Apologies first for the delayed response -I'm just back from vacation today and catching up.

Thanks for the note about Plant a Tree -- it's important to put this program in context-it's part of a very broad commitment to environmental responsiblity by
Dell. Plant a Tree specifically allows us to partner with customers who want to take action to protect the environment. the program allows customers to offset the carbon impact of the electricity their computer will use.

Meanwhile Dell is making strides to make our products the most energy efficient in the industry (a stated goal - our latest business desktop computers are about 70 percent more efficient than previous generations), offering free recycling for any Dell branded equipment and designing all of our products with the environment in mind.

We'll continue to build out Plant a Tree and continue to invest in the program as we expand it to other markets and try to encourage more customers to take part.

I hope that helps explain the thinking behind the customer donation - any questions please let me know - thanks, Bryant

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mark DeSantis: "The city needs to 'LEED' by example"

I sat down with Pittsburgh Republican mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis earlier today to further discuss his candidacy and some of his ideas for improving Pittsburgh. First and foremost, my agenda was to talk about Mark's ideas for making Pittsburgh a leading center and magnet for clean tech and renewable economic activity.

Mark has plenty of ideas, and also has some experience in this field as an advisory board member to Sustainable Pittsburgh, a non profit whose mission is to "affect decision-making in the Pittsburgh Region to integrate economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental quality bringing sustainable solutions to communities and businesses."

The first thing Mark said is that the city government must lead by example. What does that mean, I ask? "The city owns roughly 300 buildings around town. We must start to make those energy efficient. While our financial situation will limited our ability to make all of those green (LEED) certified, we need to start taking steps in that direction."

Great start, as the government leading the way would help increase awareness of climate change and energy efficiency among Pittsburghers.

We then started to discuss Austin Texas and the partnership there between Austin Energy, the city run utility, and the Clean Energy Incubator out of the University of Texas. Mark agreed that we must be creative in our attempt to lure clean tech businesses and startups to Pittsburgh as our financial constraint limit the cities ability to keep handing out tax subsidies. This includes forming partnerships with suppliers, universities, non profits, and councils and incubators like Pittsburgh Tech Council and Innovation Works. What we have here is "a lot of separate individuals and groups out there trying to do different things in this sector, and what we need is an overarching group that pulls together the entire vision for clean tech here in Pittsburgh.

Mark suggested a Clean Tech Advisory Council to oversee all of the individuals groups and consortiums such as the Green Building Alliance, companies looking to develop clean technologies in Renewable fuels and Solar, and the early stage start up companies that are already here in Pittsburgh, like a Plextronics.

One of the most important things he mentioned in regards to the cleantech sector here in Pittsburgh is the lack of collaboration between the city and our universities. Carnegie Mellon has the Green Design Institute, but why hasn't there been any major projects undertaken by the city with the guidance of CMU's GDI?

As you could probably guess, being a technology guy and green advocate Mark has a lot to say on this particular issue. I hope to work with Mark when it comes time to develop more concrete plans, but I like the direction he is going on this issue. See my Democrats for DeSantis blog for more on my talk with Mark.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Green Collar Jobs

The John Edwards Presidential campaign recently unveiled an ambitious plan for 1 million new jobs in the clean tech sector. The cleverly dubbed "Green Collar" jobs moniker is not only good marketing, it is a very promising initiative with a high probability of success - as long as the investments and subsidies for these new jobs go to the right sectors and the right people.

Here are a few of the things I like about the Green Collar jobs plan:

  • The plan will build a broader manufacturing base for clean tech in the US
  • The plan would create job certifications which means there will be an available pool of qualified installers for those wanting solar and even wind power on their properties. This is huge as the current demand for consultants and installers far outstrips the supply
  • The job training plan will involve high schools and community colleges - this is good because it builds awareness on clean tech and global warmer at an earlier stage. Most four year colleges and universities haven't even begun to scratch the surface on this issue!
  • National 25% renewable electricity - this is a good start
  • Funding of the plan comes from Edwards proposed $10 billion New Economy Energy Fund which is funded by the auctioning of greenhouse gas pollution permits and the repealing of oil subsidies. I like this because it is sort of like a sin tax - make the big polluters who refuse to change pay big time for their mess
As for what I don't like, it is still too early to tell. Although I don't agree with Edwards on certain issues, like his proposal to raise income taxes on the rich - those who make more than $200k per year, (people making $200k in NY are not rich!) I want to give him a chance on this because I agree with him that this is the first real proposal from a Presidential Candidate, and it is a very aggressive one that combines solving the climate change problem with creating 150,000 new jobs per year.

Here are some youtube clips of Edwards interviews on the Green Collar initiative.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ford CEO "Plug in Hybrids are 5 to 10 years away"

Ford's CEO Alan Mullay, formerly CEO of Boeing and the driving force behind Boeing's new fuel efficient Dreamliner aircraft, recently annoucned that plug in hybrid vehicles would be available on Ford's showroom floor within 5 to 10 years. That is not soon enough, in my opinion at least. Rumors are circulating that Toyota would be introducing its first production Prius Plug-In Hybrid for the 2010 model year. This would mean the plug-in Prius would be in show rooms around fall of 2009, a little more than two years from now.

For Ford to state that it won't even begin testing a plug-in Ford Escape model with a small number of consumers (20) until 2009 means they are still not making climate change and fuel efficiency the critical issue that their survival hinges upon. If Toyota is going to have a Prius on the showrooms in 2009 and Ford is 3 or more years behind them does that make you comfortable if you are a Ford shareholder or loyal Ford customer? Isn't it clear by now that the big three missing the boat on fuel efficiency and hybrids a few years back almost led to their demise? Shouldn't that have been their wake up call?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Dude! Buy a Dell, plant a tree!

Buy a Dell and you can have them plant a tree for an extra $6! Wouldn't it be nice, however, if instead of asking the consumer for the $6 Dell donated some of it's own money to plant the tree? Someone remind Dell's CFO that it is no longer just about the bottom line these days. What if Dell decided to sell Green PCs and then set aside a certain amount of each sale for environmental causes, like planting trees? Just a thought.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Madonna at Live Earth: "Start a Revolution!"

It is almost 11pm Saturday night and Live Earth is currently playing on three different stations on my TV, two of those three are in HD. A few years back I would have had to go pay-per-view for this event. Talk about progress. Madonna just completely rocked it, as did the Police who I just saw performing "Message in a Bottle" with Kanye West.

One thing that annoys me during these events is when the hardcore environmentalists focus on criticizing celebrities like Madonna or Al Gore for flying in private jets or driving SUVs. Yes, it sucks that they have to fly jets all over the place, but the positive impact a Madonna or Al Gore have had on raising the awareness of Global Warming is far greater than the negative impact or "carbon footprint" left behind by these individuals. How are these people supposed to travel around the world to spread their message? A Toyota Prius? I think the focus should be on improving the technology behind the methods they use to travel rather than the actual method itself. If more private jets use biofuels or something more efficient than current jet fuels then that is progress. We cannot expect everyone to start walking or taking the bus to work. That isn't going to happen. If we can get more individuals to use mass transit and car pool that would be great, but in the end not most individuals will not change their habits so we must focus on making our vehicles more fuel efficient and less polluting. Make sense?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Marketing green products? Forget the "times a million" math

I've been an avid follower and reader of Seth Godin for some time now yet this is one of the first posts he's had in while that is aligned with this blog.

Why aren't more people buying hybrids and other green products? Seth thinks it is the math that marketers use to tell the story. People aren't going to do the calculations when green marketers tell us that "if 1 million switch to (enter green product here), we will cut down on emitting 100 million pounds of CO2 emissions." They aren't going to do the math and they, they being your average American, do not care about being that .0001% solution to the big problem.

This marketing dilemma has been the biggest factor in solar power not being able to "cross the chasm", although a decline in prices and increases in subsidies continue to make solar more feasible for homeowners. It is also a big problem with marketing compact fluorescent light bulbs. Even though a CFL will typically save you about $40 a year per bulb it is tough to market that when the cost is ten or more times the standard.

The way to reach consumers and make more of them "go green" is to make the message hit home. "Buying a Prius saves the typical commuter $500 a year in fuel costs. The Prius also gets you a $2000 tax credit from Uncle Sam." That is more effective than the "times a million" math, don't you think?

Follow Zee Germans

Germany's environment minister (do we have one of those?) announced today that the country would aim for the ambitious goal of having 45% of its electricity supplied by renewable sources. Germany is well on its way of reaching that goal as well as the target for 2020 which is currently 20% of electricity from renewables such as wind and solar. The nation has already passed its 2010 target which was set at 12.5% back in 2000.

Wow. Talk about leading the way in the race for energy independence. This is one arms race I am all for. Let's hope our leaders - and their counterparts in China - view this decision by Germany as a challenge. We can barely raise fuel efficiency standards above 30 mpg by 2020 but a green president in the oval office is all it takes to change that. I am hoping that the green economic boom and resulting economies of scale result in cheaper clean electricity but it is also going to take leadership at the top to stifle the auto and oil industry lobbying machines to reach the challenge thrown down by Germany.

How NOT to market a high tech company

Earlier today I was doing some investigation into what had become of Ebara Solar, a solar cell manufactuer out of Belle Vernon, PA that was purchased by Japan's Ebara Corp from Westinghouse Electric back in the 90's. It turns out the artist formerly known as Ebara Solar was shutdown in late 2002 and then eventually saved by a Chinese company that goes by the name "King of Fans." The company is now known as Solar Power Industries. I believe they are still the only solar manufacturing company in the state of Pennsylvania and quite frankly, their website is hideous. It looks like something I put together 12 years ago when I was a teenager figuring out how to code HTML over a 9600 bps modem. Ahhh, those were the days.

According to their latest news headlines, (which were not listed on the website!) it seems like the company is doing well so someone, please, get them a new website! Here is their contact information from the website,, notice how the contact for the web site is asking you to contact him for problems or "site suggestions."

For inquiries on products contact:
Dick Rosey at rrosey@solarpowerindustries.com or 724-379-2001

For employment opportunities contact:
Robert Lazzari at rlazzari@solarpowerindustries.com or 724-379-2003

For problems or web site suggestions contact:
Barry Munshower at bmunshower@solarpowerindustries.com or 724-379-2022

Mayor learns about sustainable strategies at Los Angeles Mayoral conference

Rich Lord's article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asks if the Steel City will be known as a Solar City after the announcement two weeks back that the city of Pittsburgh will receive funding for solar projects from the DOE. Mayor Luke Ravensthal (aka #1 Tiger Woods fan), who had announced months ago that the city would begin using biofuels in its vehicle, also announced the the city council has finally approved state grants for the biofuel conversion kits for city trucks, meaning we should start seeing less of the black soot that the buses and garbage trucks have been belching into the atmosphere all over town. As the PG's chart shows, Pittsburgh is one of the least sunny cities, with less than half of the days of the year having enough for solar power. Other clean sources need to be explored by the city.

Next up on Pittsburgh's "clean" agenda: explore options for wind and kinetic hydro power. While I do not know the specifics about the requirements of wind power, I do know that the currents in parts of the 3 Rivers are fast enough (> 4 mph) to allow the installation of turbines on the riverbeds. How much power will they produce? That depends on the number of turbines that are placed but with miles and miles of rivers throughout the region there should be more than enough to power a significant number of homes. Verdant Power already has a working prototype of their technology in the Hudson River off the shores of Manhattan, and San Francisco recently announced exploring hydro turbines in the San Fran Bay.

If you really care about a clean energy in Pittsburgh, go to Verdant's site and email them and them to conduct a feasibility study here in the burgh.

Monday, July 2, 2007

How far behind is Pittsburgh?

I often wonder how long it will take to get people in this area to start coming around to the idea of "Going Green." The other day I met Rhette Rogozinski of the Pittsburgh Sierra Club at an event in Mt. Lebanon and talked with her about her involvement for a few minutes. Rhette said that a few other local chapter members from the area meet about once a month to discuss current issues which at the moment include getting the town commissioners on board with an effort to cut the town's GHG emissions. Rhette also mentioned that the senior high school will either be renovated and/or have new construction to expand the school within the next few years. There is some discussion around making the new high school LEED certified but I haven't found any confirmation on that.

Meeting someone like that gives me hope but I still think the average person in this region thinks those of us promoting green initiatives are a little "nuts." We still have work to do when it comes to changing the mindset of individuals. A few examples. People at my work discover I have a blog on alternative fuels and clean tech - they look at me like I am a nut case. People think it is weird that I carpool to work. My wife, among others, asks "Why would you put up with someone else driving to work everyday. Doesn't that get annoying?" Well, parking for $10 a day and $3+ a gallon of gas adds up. I also do not (yet) own a fuel efficient hybrid so for now me driving by myself into work each day makes me feel like a complete a-hole.

So how do we change the mindsets of these individuals who do not have the environment and energy efficiency on their radars? Education is the first place to start. With energy prices playing such a huge role in our economy we need more economic and public policy professors talking about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources. CMU's Tepper School of Business has a professor who is world reknown for his thought leadership in the area of energy policies. Check out these interview clips with Professor Lester Lave on gasoline prices.

How else do we inform the average Pittsburgher or other individuals in the US who do not have a clue on this issue? Incentives in the form of taxes and rebates are something everyone notices. I am against a tax increase at the pump it is a regressive tax that hurts the less fortunate while not making a dent in changing behaviors. What I am for is taxing new vehicle purchases based on their fuel efficiency. Let people buy their Hummers - I am all for free choice. But individuals should pay when their actions negatively affect society and so a tax for purchasing a Cadillac Escalade, in my eyes, is a good "sin tax." By the way - the tax rate for these new vehicles purchases should be on a sliding scale. Average fuel efficient vehicles should have a lower tax rate while those that are ultra fuel efficient should even get a tax credit.

What other methods do we have? It's all about the issue hitting home. For my wife, who is an animal lover, seeing the effects global warming has had on the icecaps and polar bears has led her to get on board the green train, although she is not as "coo-coo" on the issue as I am. Economic development is another way to get people's attention. Cleantech investments have proven to that they can provide growth economies almost over night in certain parts of the country and world.

So what is the tipping point? As Lester Lave points out in the interview posted above and in this editorial, $3 a gallon gasoline has not impacted the behavior of Americans. Unfortunately, higher gas prices and maybe even an oil crisis will have to happen for the majority of Americans to accept the fact that they must change their habits. I wish it didn't have to happen that way but I have to say our culture is pretty sad these days. We spend more time thinking about reality TV, video games, i-Phones, and fantasy football to really make an effort to do what is needed to save the planet.