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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is Good

When it comes to fresh organic food, the best place you can get it is from the person who grew it - the farmer. In the Pittsburgh, one of the best cities for farmers markets, we are lucky to have numerous options fresh produce or grass fed poultry / beef straight from the farm. The problem is that farmers markets are only one or two days a week and so we still did quite a bit of shopping at the grocery store, that is, until earlier this year when we became members of a local CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. What is CSA you ask?

From localharvest.org:

CSA is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm and a community of supporters which provides a direct link between the production and consumption of food. Supporters cover a farm's yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season's harvest. CSA members make a commitment to support the farm throughout the season, and assume the costs, risks and bounty of growing food along with the farmer or grower. Members help pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance, labor, etc. In return, the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season. Becoming a member creates a responsible relationship between people and the food they eat, the land on which it is grown and those who grow it.

Subscribing to a CSA is awesome. Here is how it works. Each Friday for the past several months we pick up a bag or box full of fresh organic greens, veggies, eggs, fruits, etc from a sponsor who volunteers to be the drop off point for the farmer in that neighborhood. We are fortunate enough to be within walking distance from the current sponsor. In most cases you should be able to find someone sponsoring a CSA within a reasonable distance from your home. Our current subscription, which runs for about six months, averages out to be about $20 a week, and in addition to the items mentioned above we have additional options, such as ordering cheeses, whole grass fed chickens, or even ground beef or steaks from grass fed cattle. The variety of the food you get each week depends on the time of the season and of course the part of the country you live in. Right now we're getting a lot of greens - romaine lettuce, kale, spinach, etc, but the contents will vary some between different growers. Pictured at the right is the latest batch of goodies we received from our CSA.

The change in our eating and shopping habits is dramatic to say the least. We no longer purchase meat or greens at the grocery store. In addition to saving us hundreds of dollars a month from our grocery bill, the CSA we belong to gives us REAL organic food - harmful chemicals are not used on its produce. Additionally, we're saving literally tons of carbon emissions since the food is grown right here in our own backyard instead of on the other side of the country.

I encourage everyone reading this, regardless of where you live in the US, to look into subscribing to a CSA. If you want to eat healthier food you can continue to spend your paycheck buying organic at Whole Foods, or you can get the same quality food for less money while having the piece of mind that you are supporting local farmers. What are you waiting for?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Pittsburgh Regional Integrated Transportation Plan

Join a number of policy wonks, bloggers, academics, and other citizens who are passionate about improving our region's transportation as they collaborate on a new regional transportation plan. This past Thursday CityLive speakers announced the a wiki based collaboration effort called the Pittsburgh Regional Integrated Transportation Plan. A number of us have already begun adding our thoughts to the wiki on the goals, strategies, and the plan itself.

If you want to see a stronger system of rails, bike paths, and rapid bus transit here in Pittsburgh make sure you register and start contributing! Register at www.pghwiki.org

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Omelets without Eggs / Fuel without Oil

Over at the Freakonomics blog, Steven Dubner hints that we could be in the process of witnessing what Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called "Creative Destruction."

From his post "Don't Throw out Capitalism just yet."

The turbulence of the U.S. economy has lots of people railing against capitalism itself, and with good reason: capitalism is inherently turbulent. That’s why the legendary economist Joseph Schumpeter called it “creative destruction.” Not only must eggs be broken to make an omelet, but sometimes people may decide they want their omelets made with no eggs at all.

In business school my strategy processor often referred to Schumpeter's theory of creative description throughout our course on renewable strategy. Creative destruction happens when an established process or technology is displaced by newer, more efficient technologies. Think of the iPod replacing the walkman, or DVDs displacing VHS. Schumpeter was one of the earlier figures to discuss business cycles, and his classic book Capitalism, Democracy, and Socialism served as a rebuttal to Karl Marx, who said that capitalism's natural turbulence would eventually lead to it's collapse and it's replacement communism. Schumpeter's response was that, while Marx had a point that periods of capitalism will experience crisis (like we are with energy prices today), but that instead of a collapse of the capitalist system the crisis would motivate capitalists (like a T. Boone Pickens) and entrepreneurs (the Tesla Motors guys) which would lead to the old way of doing things being destroyed and replaced by new ways (wind / solar energy replacing coal and dirty electricity in the case of Pickens, electric cars replacing gasoline powered cars in the case of Tesla).

Periods of creative destruction aren't always as pretty as the iPod example. When an entire industry goes under there can be a lot of pain during the shakeout and transition to new technologies. If this were to happen to the petroleum fuel industry here in the US be negative consequences - jobs would be lost and shareholders would lose money, but in the big picture we would be much better off compared to what typically happens after these massive "gales of destruction." For one, since we would still have a need for petroleum based products such made from plastics and rubber, most of those 150 refineries who would still be in business producing petroleum derivatives including plastics and rubber. Additionally, since our fuels would be grown here domestically, through renewable fuels such as biodiesel or electricity, we would probably end up with a net creation of jobs for our economy.

Furthermore, there would be tremendous benefits to our economy. Our dependence on petroleum means sending upwards of $700 billion a year in oil revenues to foreign oil producing states, and that figure will only get higher the longer we wait to take serious actions to reduce our oil consumption. Sending all of those dollars overseas creates a huge trade imbalance, leading to downward pressure on the value of the dollar. Eliminating or drastically reducing our imports of oil would make the US much more competitive with the nations who have used their flush bank accounts to gobble up foreign corporations and natural resources.

So how likely are we to see creative destruction within the petroleum fuels industry here in the US? The longer oil and gasoline prices stay at these current levels, the more likely that investment into alternatives would increase to the point where we are technologically capable of replacing all of our petroleum based fuels with non-hydrocarbon sources. Creative destruction is a reason why oil states like Saudi Arabia have an incentive to keep oil prices low, and it is the reason why in the past US officials could press the Saudi Royal family into increasing their supply of oil to the marketplace, and once the Saudi's turned on the spigots, the price of crude oil would drop upon a moment's notice. However, this strategy is no longer effective. The Saudis, the largest producers of oil in the world, are now worried that their supplies may be diminishing. It has been documented that some of the largest Saudi Arabian oil fields are approaching their peak production. The Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog had a post on the Saudi oil supply situation not too long ago and I encourage you to read it. Here is an excerpt from some of their interviews:

Even in Saudi Arabia, home to more than a quarter of the world’s known recoverable reserves, the age of cheap and easily pumped oil is over. To tap Khurais, Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Aramco, has embarked on the most complex earth- and water-moving project in its history. It is spending up to $15 billion on a vast network of pipes, oil-treatment facilities, deep horizontal wells and water-injection systems that it calls “one of the largest industrial projects being executed in the world today.”

Think Global Warming and the potential for catastrophic climate change is scary? What if top oilman from the largest producer of oil said that their oil was running out?

“Khurais and [offshore field] Manifa are the last two giants in Saudi Arabia,” says Sadad al-Husseini, a former Aramco vice president for oil exploration. “Sure, we will discover dozens of other smaller fields, but after these, we are chasing after smaller and smaller fish.”

After reading the books such as "Oil on the Brain" and following the great Oil Drum blog I'm more worried about us not quitting our dependence on oil before we reach the peak of global oil supply. The risk of a global economic collapse due to an insane increase in crude oil prices could easily result in the next world war if we're not ready to replace oil. This is more likely to happen during my lifetime or your lifetime any of the catastrophic event that are supposed to be a result of global climate change.

The looming crisis of global peak oil and the results of that crisis are why we need to embrace creative destruction by saying goodbye to gasoline powered vehicles and hello to the era of electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, and other sources of renewable fuels. We can actually create more jobs here in the US by depending on home grown fuel sources, such as cellulosic ethanol, and clean electricity from solar, wind, and geothermal plants. Trying to drill for more oil domestically, which most Republicans are calling for, and now some Democrats are calling for, would only delay the inevitable, which is the absolute necessity that our society stops using petroleum for fuel.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

CityLive Presents: Getting There... from Here: Transportation Solutions for Our Region

Pittsburgh Transit Event this Thursday, July 24th, at 6:30PM @ NEW HAZLETT THEATER


Is the auto the most convenient and efficient way to move people around our region? Can new technologies and policies help unite the region and contribute to our urban vitality? Can we use transportation to grow the city, and the region, in the right way?

The Pittsburgh region is ripe for innovation. New technologies present exciting opportunities to move people and goods around more efficiently than ever before. Light rail, extensive riverfront trails, an efficient bus system, car sharing are all heading in the right direction. But that’s just a start. Getting it “right” requires creative planning.

Join us for a charged discussion on how to get from here … to there.

And as a bonus, because we believe that everyone should have a hand in the planning process, we’ll unveil a project which will allow everyone in the region to have a voice in the role of land use and transportation planning, whether you are an urban planner, environmentalist, architect, policy maker, transportation expert, biker, boater or skater.

Get going …. get involved!

RSVP at the citylive website

Friday, July 18, 2008

Where the greenhouse gases come from

Below is very cool image that shows the breakdown of the activities that lead to global warming. The image comes from a report from the World Resources Institute

Pittsburgh region still baby stepping its way towards sustainability

Back in June Mayor Luke Ravenstahl received praise for creating a $100,000 Green Trust Fund that would be managed by the city's to-be-hired Sustainability coordinator. Question - why are we supposed to get excited over $100k for green initiatives? Is this a joke? First off, during the first mayoral debate in September of last year Mayor Luke stated that he was hiring a sustainability coordinator for the city. We are almost one year away from his statement and the city has yet to hire this individual. Like most of the green initiatives we have discussed here in Pittsburgh, such as converting the city's fleet of trucks to biodiesel, there is no sense of urgency to follow through, and this also goes for any legislative measures that would provide incentives for things like green building.

I am tired of the baby steps. If you look around to other cities that have done more than just talk about "going green", you will find some practical measures that have been taking to reduce energy consumption, congestion, and air pollution, things that increase the quality of life in a region. Some of these green initiatives, like green building, are happening here, although, to be fair we have slipped in the green building rankings to #5 due to the lack of support from our government. The problem is that we cannot walk around town and see with our own eyes that Pittsburgh is committed to being a green and sustainable city. The problem is that a Green Pittsburgh is not visible. The things we can see are lot of press releases, and speeches, and a mayor who is reluctant to give up bottled water in the city-county building, a building that happens to be one of the least energy efficient structures imaginable (they use the AC units during the middle of winter!).

The following is an example of what I'm talking about. When I travel to other cities I can usually tell if they really care about the environment, energy efficiency, going green, etc simply by noticing a few things in their region's airport. And let's face it, the airport is usually the first impression the city makes on someone visiting for the first time. Here is Pittsburgh, based on our airport I would give Pittsburgh an 'F' as a grade for showing the world our commitment to going green. The airport has two monitors over by the passenger trams that show a loop of a presentation that shows off all the great things Pittsburgh has to offer. At one point, the words "A green leader" flash across the scream. I let out a "ha!", and then proceed to the tram, which took me over to the baggage claim area. During several of my trips I have searched the airport for any clues of recycling or sustainability. One would figure that all the newspapers and plastic bottles travelers and employees go through on an annual basis could end up generating revenue for the county if recycled. Well, I finally found a recycling can in the Pittsburgh international airport, at one of the ends of hall in the baggage claim area. It is easy to miss. Here is the picture.

First thing I noticed is that, besides being the only recycling container in the entire airport, it was not right next to a trash can, which doesn't make sense because if you're going to throw something away it's nice to have the option to recycle right there by the trash can.

Now, the following week I flew to Kansas City for a few days. I'm not saying that Kansas City is a green leader or anything, but at least the officials there are conscious of recycling and it's benefits, as evidenced by the recycling bins throughout the airport that are shown below:

Is it too much to ask our county executive to spend a little itty bit of his drink tax revenues to fund a county wide recycling initiative? Think of all the waste that is thrown out in our airport, and our parks, and other areas where the county could easily collect and recycle plastic and glass bottles, and newspapers. The revenues the county could receive for the recycles would be more than enough to pay for this initiative. To the right is a photo I took at one of our county park's golf courses. On a hot summer Sunday afternoon - how many bottles of water/soda happen to get thrown into a garbage can out on the golf course?

Too bad it all ends up in a land fill!

Am I asking for too much? Heck no, but until our leaders are willing to put some public policy behind some of the great ideas from local thought leaders and organizations like the Pittsburgh Green Building Alliance, this region will continue to severely lag other regions who have made sustainability a strategic imperative.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

T. Boone Pickens got it half right

Billionaire Texas oilman and corporate takeover artist T. Boone Pickens has been all over the news these last few months about his plan to spend $10 billion on a massive 4,000 megawatt wind farm in Texas. Last month Fast Company magazine ran a piece on the Pickens plan, where the Texas tycoon candidly stated that he was doing it "for the money" and that environmentally benefits were only secondary objectives. Fair enough. Most recently, Pickens launched an internet marketing campaign of his efforts, which includes a website and youtube campaign that highlights his plan for energy independence.

Here is the video presentation from the website:

And the full presentation of his plan from youtube:

On one hand, I think it is a great thing when someone who has the wealth of Mr. Pickens invests in a clean energy endeavor of this magnitude, but I think Mr. Pickens's commitment to natural gas vehicles (NGV) as the solution to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil is a major folly. Why would we spend billions to swap dependence on one fossil fuel source for another?

Here are just a few of problems with Mr. Pickens's plan:

  • Under the Pickens plan for energy independence, the US would still be at the mercy of the supply of a fossil fuel since he wishes to switch our vehicles over to natural gas fuel. Peak production of natural gas is supposed to happen a decade or two after the global peak of oil, meaning we will end up scrambling once again to find an alternative to a fossil fuel.
  • Natural Gas vehicles reduce emissions 20% compared to standard gasoline powered vehicles. This is good but why not shoot for something like hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or electric cars that are fueled by clean energy sources like his wind farms?
  • The lack of infrastructure for natural gas vehicles is a huge hurdle. If we are to invest the billions we need in new refueling stations why not just spend that money on hydrogen fueling infrastructure??
Fellow green blogger and Energy Collective member Joseph Romm shares an interview he gave on the subject with a major cable network. Mr. Romm called the Pickens plan "Half brilliant, half dumb." I encourage you to check it out.

Katie Fehrenbacher posted a great primer on NGVs over at Earth2Tech titled The 10 Things you need to know about Natural Gas Vehicles.

As the title of this post says, I believe T. Boone Pickens is half right. On his website you will see his map showing the United States's capacity for wind energy - he is correct in asserting that we need major investments in wind energy before we even come close to our potential for wind energy production. One challenge that could hold up wind energy developments is the need to add new transmission lines to carry the new electricity generated by the wind turbines on an already aging and outdated power grid. I don't think that one is a showstopper, however, and I think that if the US were to invest billions into large scale wind projects in the central US, and large scale solar plants in the southwest, we will be able to generate 100% of our electricity needs through clean energy. (In case you were wondering, fuel cells can be used to generate electricity when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing).

Mr Pickens would have really been onto something if he instead insisted on powering electric vehicles with all of that new wind power. Electric vehicles are already here, and as Tesla has shown they are a legitimate replacement for gasoline powered vehicles. Something tells me, however, that T. Boones Pickens, a former wildcatter, has more to gain financially if we replaced our gasoline powered vehicles with NGV instead of electric vehicles. Just a hunch.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Tesla Motors supplying Mercedes Benz with electric battery - what does this mean for electric vehicles?

Update: As pointed out by Jason in the comments to my last post, it has been confirmed that none other than Tesla Motors will begin supplying Mercedes Benz with an electric battery to power Mercedes' new electric car, rumored to begin production in 2010. This is huge news to EV advocates and I think it shows how automakers are hesitant to invest too much into Hydrogen vehicles since it is taking the governments so long to provide the necessary refueling infrastructure. This news backs up my claim that electric vehicles are the fastest way to energy independence.

The biggest concern with EVs is that right now the majority of the electricity for charging the vehicles will have to come from dirty GHG emitting coal or natural gas poewr plants. If we want to replace our oil addiction with more electricity usage something has to give, and right now that means a decision between new coal plants or new nuclear plants.

Constantine "Costa" Samaras, a clean energy advocate and PHD candidate at Carnegie Mellon, wrote a report with one of his colleagues on how cleaner power sources are needed in order for plug in electric vehicles to have a positive impact on GHG reduction. Here are some quotes that summarize their report:

The potential for PHEVs to achieve large-scale GHG emission reductions is highly dependent on the energy sources of electricity production...If large life cycle GHG reductions are desired from PHEVs, a strategy to match charging with low-carbon electricity is necessary.

...For large GHG reductions with plug-in hybrids, public policies that complement PHEV adoption should focus on encouraging charging with low-carbon electricity.

Back in May Costa wrote this note to me explaining their study (my apologies for not posting sooner!):
We have a new paper out in Environmental Science and Technology looking at life cycle GHGs from plug-in hybrids, including battery production and use of cellulosic ethanol. It it titled "Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles: Implications for Policy". The policy headline is the types of power plants installed in the next two decades will not only affect how much we can reduce emissions from electricity, but also from vehicles if we plan on plug-in hybrids playing a substantial role. If you want to buy a PHEV two or three vehicle purchases in the future, the types of plants installed today will be in the mix that powers that vehicle. While maybe obvious, it is missing from the current discussion on PHEVs, which assumes decarbonizing the power sector as external to the PHEV discussions and policy, when in fact it is a critical system component. We also find that running on traditional coal, PHEVs have higher life cycle GHGs that ordinary hybrid vehicles.

Our press release is here:


and a post at Green Car Congress about our paper is here:



Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tesla Motors announces new $60k sedan

The Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced just yesterday that Tesla motors has agreed to locate the production of its new Model S sedan within the State of California. The new electric powered 5 passenger sedan will go for around $60k ($35k less than Tesla's two seat roadster) and will be able to travel roughly 230 miles per charge. Now this is what I am talking about. I've always thought that electric vehicles offered us the quickest path towards energy independence. I was happy to hear that GM was investing in the plug in technology with the Chevy Volt, but at 40 miles per charge that vehicle is a joke next to the Tesla models. Tesla plans to start production of the new model sometime in 2010. An even cheaper vehicle with a price tag of around $30k is expected to be announced in the near future.

Governor Rendell's Energy Independence Bill finally approved

Finally, after almost a year and a half of wrangling over a 40 cent a month tax, the majority of Governor Ed Rendell's legislation for Energy Independence was finally approved by the state Senate during the 2009 budget negotiations. The new legislation, , which originally was for $850 million, will consist of $650 million in spending on a number of clean energy and energy conservation initiatives with the biggest chunk - $180 million, going towards solar power programs for residences and businesses ($100m) and capital investment ($80m) to lure new solar power manufacturers to the commonwealth. This is great news for Pennsylvania and, despite not getting the full $850 miillion, it is a big win for Ed Rendell, who may have his eye on the Secretary of Energy position. It is also a big win for DEP Secretary Katy McGinty, whom I feel should make a run for Governor in 2010. Both the TRIB and PG have more on this great news.