Dec 17, 2017

Gas vs. Oil: Which Furnace Is Better? by Bob Vila

With temperatures dipping into the single digits here in the Northeast—and below 0° F in many other places—shivering homeowners are discussing the efficiency and cost of heating a home, with the debate inevitably centering around the question of which is better, gas or oil?
Some people swear by oil heat. Others are equally enthusiastic about natural gas. I have experience with both types of furnaces: Our home uses gas, while my in-laws have an oil furnace. For those who are considering a new furnace, here are some pros and cons about your options.
The first thing to look at when shopping for a furnace is the efficiency rating, commonly called Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE). The rating measures the efficiency of a machine’s combustion, where a higher rating signals a higher efficiency.
Most new oil furnaces have AFUE ratings between 80% and 90%, while their gas counterparts boast ratings between 89% and 98%. Although gas furnaces are more efficient than oil furnaces, that efficiency comes at a price—gas units are typically priced 10% to 25% higher than the same size oil furnace. All new furnaces are substantially more efficient than their counterparts of ten or more years ago, some by as much as 30%.
Gas or Oil Heat - AFUE
AFUE Rating Chart: The higher the rating the more energy savings.
When it comes to fuel costs, however, the advantage tilts in favor of gas. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts the average household will spend the following for heating this winter (October 2012 through March 2013):
• Natural gas — $690 per household, 13.3% increase over the previous winter
• Heating oil — $2,558 per household, 22.5% increase
• Propane (Midwest) — $1,448 per household, 5.9% decrease
• Electricity — $964 per household, 7.3% increase
While oil prices are more volatile and subject to the vagaries of global supply and demand, natural gas production is centered in the U.S. and Canada, securing a more stable supply. Perhaps because of this difference, about 50% of American homes are heated with gas today, versus about 8% of homes with oil heat.
Here is a look at some of the pros and cons of each type of furnace:
Oil or Gas Heat - Oil Furnace
Trane XV80 Oil Furnace
Oil Furnaces
– Oil equipment provides more heat per BTU than other heating sources, but an on-site storage tank is required and oil must be delivered.
– Oil furnaces are regularly and easily serviced by the delivery company (a service contract is required), but maintenance is more extensive due to dirt and soot buildup—chimneys must be cleaned and the oil filters changed frequently.
– Oil furnaces cost less than gas furnaces, but efficiency is lower and fuel prices are higher than with gas systems.
Oil or Gas Heat - Gas Furnace
Carrier Infinity Gas Furnace
Gas Furnaces
– Natural gas furnaces have higher heating efficiency and their fuel costs less, but your home must be in an area where a gas supply is available.
– Furnaces require very little maintenance (no service contract needed), but gas provides less heat per BTU than oil.
– Furnaces are quieter and cleaner, but they cost more than oil furnaces.
Regardless of which type of heat source you prefer, use a qualified and reputable HVAC contractor and get several estimates before you make any major investment in your home. There are often public and private rebates or financing incentives available to homeowners who upgrade their systems, so make sure to explore all of your options before you buy.

Feb 10, 2017

How New York City Gets Its Electricity

Emily S. Rueb

When you turn on a light or charge your phone, the electricity coming from the outlet may well have traveled hundreds of miles across the power grid that blankets most of North America — the world’s largest machine, and one of its most eccentric.

Your household power may have been generated by Niagara Falls, or by a natural-gas-fired plant on a barge floating off the Brooklyn shore. But the kilowatt-hour produced down the block probably costs more than the one produced at the Canadian border.

Moreover, a surprising portion of the system is idle except for the hottest days of the year, when already bottlenecked transmission lines into the New York City area reach their physical limit.

“We have a system which is energy-inefficient because it was never designed to be efficient,” said Richard L. Kauffman, the state’s so-called energy czar, who is leading its plans to reimagine the power grid.

It’s like a mainframe computer in the age of cloud computing, Mr. Kauffman added, and with climate change, the state has to “rethink that basic architecture.”

But how does it work now?

In 1882, heaps of black coal were hauled by horse-drawn wagons to the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York’s powerhouse on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, where “jumbo” steam-powered engines (named after P. T. Barnum’s elephant) spun generators. These created electricity, which traveled to homes and businesses within about one square mile, illuminating drawing rooms without the use of a match for the first time.

A few years later, a hydroelectric station on the Niagara River using Nikola Tesla’s designs and equipment supplied by George Westinghouse helped turn Buffalo into an industrial force.

Today hundreds of plants, mostly privately owned, pump out power. Each one varies in its cost to build and operate, how much power it can produce, how quickly and how efficiently. Unlike other states, which do not have access to such a diversity of resources, New York has a full menu of options.

Coal, the original fuel, is on the way out. The state has announced plans to close the remaining plants or convert them to natural gas, which is currently cheap and plentiful.

In 2015, 64 plants that use natural gas produced almost half the electricity in the state, said the New York Independent System Operator, a nonprofit that runs the state’s grid and power markets.

Four nuclear plants accounted for about a third of it. Though disposing of nuclear waste remains a concern, the state wants to subsidize nuclear plants upstate because of the steady, carbon-free power they provide. But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s recent decision to force the closing of the Indian Point power plant in suburban Westchester County has raised questions about the state’s ability to meet its clean energy goals and how it will make up for the energy the plant provides.

In New York there are 180 hydroelectric facilities, which produced 19 percent of the state’s electricity, and which remain crucial to clean power production.

    By 2030, Mr. Cuomo wants half of the electricity consumed in the state to come from renewable sources produced here or imported from places like Canada and New England.

According to the latest figures, less than a quarter of the electric energy produced in New York came from renewables.

While there are tens of thousands of residential and commercial solar energy systems, only one utility-scale solar photovoltaic power plant is included in the Nyiso’s estimates of solar production.

Large-scale wind has had more success, and the state is pushing for more; about 30 wind farms are planned upstate. And the state recently approved the nation’s largest offshore wind farm, which could power 50,000 homes on Long Island by the end of 2022. A second site near the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens is in the works but is years away.

The cost of building wind and solar plants has fallen, but these power sources are intermittent. Until more storage is plugged into the grid, like batteries or pumped hydro plants, which pump water into reservoirs to store power for later use, other generators must be available to supplement solar and wind power.

A standard part of the electric arsenal are generators called “peakers,” which are needed to keep the grid reliable but might run only a few days a year. New York City has about 16 such plants, mostly around the waterfront, which spring into action on the hottest days of the year or if transmission lines or power plants upstate malfunction. Some sit on barges, and all are designed to switch on quickly. The trade-off for the rapid response is usually higher costs and carbon emissions.

As a result, customers pay for plants and wires that “a lot of the time are hardly used,” said Mr. Kauffman, the energy czar.

The entire system was designed to meet demand extremes and handle the worst-case situation.

Inside a $38 million control room near Albany, a team of seven employees of the New York Independent System Operator is always on duty, monitoring electricity zooming through the state’s grid and coming in from and out to neighboring grids.

Nyiso (pronounced NIGH-so) is one of 36 entities responsible for the Eastern Interconnection, one of the country’s three main grids extending from the Rockies to the East Coast in the United States and Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia in Canada.

    Unlike water, electricity can’t be stored in a bucket. While batteries are improving, most electricity is used the instant it is created.

The team constantly calculates how much power is needed and which plants can produce it at the lowest cost. Every five minutes, a computer system directs plants to dial up or scale down production to ensure enough electricity is available to keep the lights on without overloading transmission wires. If the system is out of balance or the flow of electricity is destabilized, it can damage equipment or cause power failures.

Operators undergo psychological evaluations to ensure they can handle stress, and they spend weeks every year inside simulation labs preparing for a hurricane or cyberattack. Still, the No. 1 enemy is tree branches, as Gretchen Bakke pointed out in her book, “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future.”

In 2003, the country’s worst blackout started with a sagging power line in Ohio that shorted out after touching a tree branch. A series of human errors and a computer problem plunged about 50 million people into darkness from New York City to Toronto and cost the United States economy about $6 billion.

Jon Sawyer, the chief system operator for Nyiso, said that today, computer systems receive 50,000 data points about every six seconds, and operators monitor regional activity on a 2,300-square-foot video wall. Mandatory reliability standards have been put in place for the thousands of entities involved in the operation of the country’s electric systems.

The biggest daily variable is weather. Storms can flood equipment, and bright, hot days can cause transformers to overheat and customers to crank up air-conditioners.

Leaning on solar and wind means a greater dependence on weather, just as weather patterns have become less predictable. Nyiso has developed sophisticated tools using climate data to predict how much power each wind farm will generate and to find ways to balance the system if the wind suddenly dies down, Mr. Sawyer said. It is working on methods to track cloud cover and other conditions that affect the output of solar panels.

The system’s backbone is the 11,124 miles of high-voltage lines running overhead and underground that carry electricity to local utilities. Unlike water pipes, transmission lines are not hollow, and they can overheat or shut down if too much power flows through them.

Since most power is generated in less populated areas, certain lines that carry it downstate during times of peak demand can become gridlocked.

    Nearly 60 percent of the state’s electricity is consumed in the New York City area, where only 40 percent of it is made.

“New York is the poster child for congestion,” said Bill Booth, a senior adviser to the United States Energy Information Administration.

To get around bottlenecks, grid operators may turn on more expensive or less efficient generators closer to where the demand is. Think of it as paying more for a carton of milk at the bodega next door than at the supermarket 12 blocks away.

The state is prioritizing projects to bring more power downstate from wind farms and hydro plants. The need is even more urgent with plans to close Indian Point as soon as 2021, as it supplies about one-fourth of the power consumed in New York City and Westchester County.

But building new power lines is fiercely unpopular. Residents don’t want high-voltage lines in their backyards, and local power generators dislike competition from cheaper power brought in from farther away. Even if the lines are below ground, like the ones that bring power to Manhattan from New Jersey through the muck of the Hudson River, securing federal and state permits can take years.

One project to bring hydropower from Quebec to New York City under Lake Champlain and the Hudson has been in the works since 2008.

Despite enhancements, the transmission grid is aging. More than 80 percent of the lines went active before 1980, and Nyiso estimates that almost 5,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines will have to be replaced in the next 30 years at a cost of about $25 billion.

Consolidated Edison’s system, which originally covered about a square mile in Lower Manhattan, now stretches out over 660 square miles in the city and Westchester.

There are about 200 networks that operate independently to balance and regulate the flow of electricity in dense areas. Manhattan alone has 39 networks; Rockefeller Center, for example, has its own.

    In all, there are 129,935 miles of cables snaking underground and overhead, enough to reach more than halfway to the moon.

The largest of the state’s six electric utilities, Con Ed spends millions of dollars a year to open utility holes and dig into streets crowded with gas mains, fiber-optic cables, steam pipes and subway lines to make repairs and upgrades to its vast underground network. Partly as a result, its customers pay among the highest electricity rates in the country.

Operators in Con Ed’s energy control center, housed in a location the utility will not disclose, ensure that enough power flows through its network to serve more than nine million people, even during a heat wave.

Much of the year, peak demand is around 5 p.m., when evening rush subways and elevators take commuters home, children turn on video games and families open refrigerator doors to start dinner. In summer, it is around 3 p.m., when air-conditioners are blasting.

While Con Ed’s system is among the most reliable in the country, the company cannot prevent squirrels from chewing wires or transformers. But it is working to prepare for disastrous weather. Since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the utility has spent about $1 billion to raise, waterproof or build walls around equipment in lower elevations and to carve up distribution networks so that smaller sections can be shut off remotely when floodwaters rise.

With the proliferation of residential and commercial solar installations, customers are now feeding power back to the grid.

Robert Schimmenti, who leads Con Ed’s electric operations, said it was developing systems to integrate the increasing numbers of devices on the other side of the meter, like fuel cells and batteries, which are sometimes linked in a microgrid, that the utility does not control.

In May, Con Ed will begin installing “smart meters” in businesses across the city, and, in July, at homes on Staten Island, giving customers detailed summaries about consumption and helping operators diagnose problems without dispatching a truck.

To help finance the $1.3 billion project and to modernize its distribution networks, Con Ed requested a rate increase, which the state approved in January. After a nearly five-year freeze, customers will see a raise of 2.3 percent to 2.4 percent in the next three years. A typical city resident who uses 300 kilowatt-hours per month would see an increase from $78.52 to $80.30.

Instead of moving power from large, central generating stations, where energy flows in only one direction and about 5 percent vanishes in transit (more during peak times), more power will be generated and distributed locally.

In the same way that cloud computing and smartphones have revolutionized how consumers get and store information, smaller-scale generation and storage devices throughout the grid will make the system more efficient and resilient, Mr. Kauffman said.

Although energy use is projected to flatten or decrease in the next decade, thanks in part to more efficient appliances and better insulated buildings, peak demand will continue to grow, according to Nyiso.

Mr. Kauffman said focusing on reducing demand on the system, especially at peak times, would be crucial to meeting New York’s clean energy goals. The state is using financing and competitions as incentives for the private sector to develop sensors and software to make transmission more efficient, batteries that will make better use of renewable energy, or “smart appliances,” like washing machines or dishwashers that will delay a cycle until demand is lower, like the middle of the night.

Central to this transformation is overhauling the rules governing utilities. Mr. Kauffman compared the utilities to the hotel industry, which has been disrupted by upstarts like Airbnb. Traditionally, utilities have been largely indifferent to how much power customers consume. They receive a fixed rate of return (9 percent in 2016) on the infrastructure they build and their cost to upgrade and maintain networks.

But the state is seeking to create ways for utilities to make money by teaming up with companies and customers to install software solutions to control electricity use or to add solar panels more affordably, instead of building billion-dollar substations.

    Ultimately, consumers will have more choices about where and how their power is made and how it’s consumed.

But as more people create their own power and use less from their utility, because of the way electricity rates are structured a smaller percentage of consumers could end up paying more to build and maintain transmission wires and equipment.

Audrey Zibelman, the departing chairwoman of the New York Public Service Commission, which sets consumer rates, said moving toward a system that reduced carbon emissions did not necessarily mean higher costs. “It actually means lower prices if we do it right,” Ms. Zibelman said.

The state has promised that the poorest New Yorkers will pay no more than 6 percent of their household income on energy costs, and it also plans to spend about $1 billion to make rooftop and community solar installations more accessible and affordable.

New York is taking lessons from California, Germany and other clean energy pioneers.

“Building a modern energy infrastructure that’s clean and resilient,” Governor Cuomo said, “is critical to attracting new investments and growing a green economy across New York, while helping us combat climate change, maintain our air quality and keep our communities healthy for generations to come.”

Despite President Trump’s skepticism of climate change and support of the coal industry, the state says it will forge ahead.

Mr. Kauffman said New York was enacting these policies “through its own authorities and is not reliant on the federal government to advance our clean energy agenda.”

Still, he said, reinventing a system that originated more than a century ago will take time.

“It is not flipping a switch,” he said.

How much do New Yorkers pay for power?

In October, New York State had the seventh-highest residential prices for electricity in the United States, at 18.28 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Con Ed’s rates for New York City were 24.736 cents per kilowatt-hour, just below Hawaii’s, the most expensive in the country (27.54 cents). On the cheaper end of the scale are Louisiana (9.33 cents), Georgia (11.07 cents) and California (13.94 cents).

What, exactly, am I paying for each month?

A complete understanding of your Con Ed bill practically requires a Ph.D., but there are three main parts:

Supply About a third to a half (depending on use) reflects how much your provider paid for the electricity on wholesale markets administered by Nyiso. Like all commodities, price fluctuates with demand. Electricity tends to be cheaper at night and more expensive in the summer. Other factors affect prices, such as weather conditions, fuel costs, the cost to operate a plant and where it is.

Transmission and Delivery You are also paying for maintenance and upgrades to the wires and substations.

Taxes and Fees About 30 percent of your bill is made up of taxes and fees, according to Con Ed, including property taxes, sales tax, a special tax for utilities and a fee that finances the state’s clean energy programs and innovations.

How much utilities can charge for supply and delivery is determined by the Public Service Commission, a board appointed by the governor to regulate utilities, which takes into account positions held by consumer, environmental and industry groups, government agencies and the utilities.

Who supplies my electricity?

You may have been approached at a farmers’ market or at your door by a company that wants to sell energy to you. There are about 200 energy service companies, or ESCOs, that buy electricity on wholesale markets and deliver it through a local utility.

While giving consumers choice could help drive down cost in theory, the state attorney general’s office said it had received a steady stream of complaints from customers who say they have been scammed by companies offering discounted rates up front only to later charge more than what the consumers would have paid through their utility company.

The Public Service Commission has barred several ESCOs from doing business in New York, including some that target lower-income and non-English-speaking people, and the agency said it was considering additional measures to regulate the market and protect consumers.

“We don’t want people to get victimized for the fact that we’re just beginning to develop consumer knowledge about this,” Ms. Zibelman said.


Dec 21, 2016

9 Sustainable Business Stories That Shaped 2016

In 2015, the world pivoted in a historic way toward sustainability. Debates about climate change melted away. Every country committed to action in the form of the Paris Agreement. Even the Pope spoke to the issue, reminding us that we’re all connected. It was a productive 12 months, to say the least.

Then came 2016. Every year, I find big themes or specific company stories that I feel are impressive, important, or indicative of where the world is going. In 2016, two dwarf the rest: the election of Donald Trump and significant action on climate change. The context for sustainable business in 2017 may center on the competition between these two stories; that is, how will Trump and his team impact or impede progress on climate and other sustainability issues? So let’s focus on these two first, and then run quickly through seven other interesting stories.

1. Trump Shocked the World

It’s not yet clear what Trump’s election means for issues that impact companies’ efforts to manage environmental and social issues. Climate change, building a clean economy, reducing inequality and raising wages, providing health care to support general wellbeing — all are big unknowns now. The early signs from the Trump team are not promising, in my view. He wants to appoint as head of the EPA a man who denies climate change and led legal battles against the EPA. His pick for Labor Secretary is staunchly opposed to covering overtime pay or increasing minimum wages (something many leading companies have been doing on their own since 2014. His choice for Secretary of State is the CEO of ExxonMobil, a company that has, for decades, attacked climate science when it knew better. A leaked memo from the Trump transition team shows an intention to move away from the Paris agreement and almost all climate and clean economy action.
In response to Trump’s election and his statements doubting climate change, many countries that signed the Paris climate accords in 2015 made it clear they would power on (China in particular — see story number three, below). Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy even proposed taxing U.S. goods if the country pulled out the Paris agreement. And throwing his weight in, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly declared that cities would fight on, with or without Trump. Finally, hundreds of companies signed the latest declaration from Ceres showing their support for Paris. This is all promising. For this and many other reasons, the sustainability journey in business will continue.
But given Trump’s likely stance, any global progress on climate will happen in spite of headwinds from the U.S. federal government. In the U.S., the action will have to move to states, cities, and the private sector. Businesses in particular will need to lead in a way they never have before — and they will.

2. Public and Private Sector Action on Climate Change Increased

For most of 2016, the world moved quickly on climate. I’ve already mentioned the historic Paris agreement, but there are more positive steps worth noting. With the support of chemical companies, more than 170 countries also agreed to phase out HFCs, the high global-warming-potential chemicals used in air-conditioners and refrigerators everywhere. The UN also agreed to slash emissions from the airline industry. Norway banned deforestation and both Norway and Germany moved toward banning fossil-fuel-powered cars. This week, Canada announced it would tax carbon nationally by 2018.
In the U.S., the Obama administration started to incorporate the “social cost of carbon” in decision-making and the Pentagon made climate change a military priority. President Obama, with his counterparts in Canada and Mexico, agreed to some aggressive regional targets on renewable energy and efficiency. At the state level, New Jersey passed a big new gas tax, and Oregon, Illinois, and California developed robust energy and climate policies. All of this will affect companies of all stripes.
Business itself wasn’t quiet on the climate front either. Many invested heavily in renewable energy (see number five on this list), and some big companies dove into policy debates this year. More than 100 companies called for action on the Clean Power Plan (Obama’s big move to reduce power sector emissions), with tech giants Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft even filing a legal brief in support of the policy. Nine big brands with operations in Ohio publicly pressed the state to reinstate energy efficiency and renewable energy portfolio standards. Many previously quiet companies, like food giant General Mills, spoke out about how important it was to their business to tackle climate change.
Why all this progress? First, evidence of a radically altered climate system has become crystal clear. After 2015 shattered climate records, 2016 got even hotter and more extreme, creating weather events that brought physical destruction, massive economic costs, and loss of life. Second, the financial world is getting better at evaluating what’s at stake. The World Bank estimates that $158 trillion worth of assets are at risk from increased natural disasters. The London School of Economics tells us trillions of financial assets are also vulnerable. And in the U.S. alone, floods in Louisiana and North Carolina caused $10 to $20 billion in damage. 

3. China Stepped Up

While many countries accelerated their climate and clean economy work this year, China is a special case. Early in the year, China said it would halt new coal mine approvals, close 1,000 mines, increase wind and solar by 21% in 2016, and even eat less meat to control carbon emissions. But last month the country also indicated coal use would rise until 2020 (albeit at a slower rate than the growth of renewables). So it’s not totally clear where China’s emissions will head. But the country clearly wants to lead the world in the clean economy transition. Speaking from this year’s UN global climate meeting – which happened to coincide with the U.S. election — Chinese ministers sent a message to Trump that climate change is no hoax. Then China’s President Xi said he’ll be attending the annual bigwig gathering in Davos for the first time, with reports of China’s interest in filling trade gaps left by Brexit and possible leadership gaps on climate left by Trump.

4. Renewables Kept Growing and Getting Cheaper

Renewables have been trouncing fossil fuels for a few years as the costs of the newer technologies have dropped remarkably fast. The world record for cheapest solar plant was set in Mexico… and then broken within weeks in Dubai with a bid of 2.99 cents per kilowatt-hour. Countries with big investments in renewables are reaping the rewards. For four days in May, Portugal was 100% powered by renewables, and on a single windy day Denmark’s windfarms gave the country 140% of what it needed. The U.S. finally got into offshore wind near Rhode Island. In a subtle tipping point, the total global generating capacity from renewables passed coal this year.
As prices dropped, companies noticed, and corporate purchases and commitments to clean energy grew. Walmart set a 50% renewable target for 2025. In the last few weeks, Microsoft and Avery Dennison announced big purchases of clean power, and GM and Google said they’d target 100% renewable energy within a year. A growing number of companies signed the RE100 commitment to go for 100%. And in Nevada, both MGM and Caesars filed papers to stop purchasing power from their utility, NV Energy, because it doesn’t support renewables. New capital is still flowing to the clean tech — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and some other business leaders just announced a $1 billion fund to invest in “next generation energy technologies.” All of this activity convinces me that Trump can’t stop the clean economy. 

5. Investors Focused on Climate, Sustainability, and Short-Termism

Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock — the world’s largest asset owner — followed up his 2015 letter to S&P 500 CEOs with another treatise against short-term focus. He disparaged the “quarterly earnings hysteria” and asked companies to submit long-term strategy plans and address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. BlackRock also issued a “climate change warning,” telling investors to adapt their portfolios to fight global warming. Many banks heeded the advice, pulling funding from coal. The London School of Economics also estimated that climate change could slash trillions from financial asset values. Because of this economic and systemic risk, a high-powered task force from the G20’s Financial Stability Board issued important guidelines for companies to make climate-related disclosures. To help investors evaluate their holdings, Morningstar launched sustainability ratings for 20,000 funds, and 21 stock exchanges introduced sustainability reporting standards. Finally, to educate the next generation of analysts, the CFA exam will now include a focus on ESG issues.

6. Business Defended Employees’ and Customers’ Human Rights

Companies are getting more vocal on human rights issues for many reasons. For some, it’s about the commercial opportunity to appeal to a new or growing market of rights-focused consumers. Others want to attract and retain diverse talent. But in general, society is expecting companies to broaden their mission. In one survey, 78% of Americans agreed that “companies should take action to address important issues facing society.” Millennials feel even stronger. A global survey this year showed that 87% of Millennials around the world believe that “the success of business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance.” This generation — which will be 50% of the workforce by 2020 — seeks employers that share their values.
And so, after a divisive U.S. election, many CEOs felt the need to email employees, restating their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Earlier in the year, when Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina passed a bizarre law to control which bathroom transgender people use, many companies spoke up. The CEOs of dozens of big brands — including Alcoa, Apple, Bank of America, Citibank, IBM, Kellogg, Marriott, PwC, and Starbucks — signed an open letter to defend “protections for LGBT people.” Paypal and Deutsche Bank canceled plans to expand and hire in the state, and the NCAA actually relocated some championship events. (In an important side note, after costing the state $600 million in business, the law is widely credited for losing McCrory his reelection bid.)

7. More Evidence Emerged That Economies Can Grow Without Increasing Carbon Emissions

So far this century, more than 20 large countries, as well as 33 U.S. states, have “decoupled” GDP growth from GHGs. One energy hog, the IT sector, has managed to level off energy use in data centers. There’s serious talk again about “peak oil” — not of supply, but of demand.
We’re seeing a fundamental shift in our relationship with energy for many reasons, including the improving economics of efficiency and clean tech (see #5). But companies are also getting more systematic, strategic, and fun — yes fun — in slashing energy. More organizations are using some old tools like “treasure hunts” and reimagining them as “energy marathons” (26.2 days of innovation). Others are competing to slash energy use — see Hilton and Whole Foods energy teams go head-to-head in a streaming reality show.

8. Levi’s Shared What It Knows about Water

Big themes are great, but periodically a specific example of leadership seems worthy of extra attention. In this case, Levi’s had spent a decade identifying great ways to cut water use in the apparel value chain. Realizing that water issues are too big to tackle alone, Levi’s celebrated World Water Day this year by open sourcing its best practices in water management. In essence, the company decided to promote system change and even invited competitors to its innovation lab for the first time in its history.

9. The Circular Economy Inched Closer

With a growing population and ever-rising demand for resources, it’s becoming necessary to find ways to eliminate waste and reuse valuable materials endlessly. We’re seeing some interesting innovation in policy and business practice. Sweden is planning to offer tax breaks for fixing things instead of throwing them away, and six EU countries started a four-year project to help small and medium-size enterprises move to circular models.
A number of companies also made moves into this space. A supermarket opened in the UK filled with only food that would’ve been thrown out. IKEA is expanding its circular offerings like reselling used furniture and creating new products from leftover textiles. More than 25 companies in Minnesota, including 3M, Aveda, and Target, launched a circular initiative to share expertise. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Kering both created curricula in circular thinking for fashion and design students. And finally, the Closed Loop Fund, which invests in recycling infrastructure (using funds from some large retail and CPG brands), reported on substantial progress, including launching single stream recycling across Memphis.

What’s in Store for 2017?

Given how far off pundits and prognosticators were this year, I have to proceed with caution. Who really knows what a Trump presidency will bring to the U.S. and the world, or what the corporate sustainability agenda will look like with so much uncertainty?
I do believe companies will expand their horizons, looking more at systems, not just their operations and value chains. They will increasingly partner to tackle big global targets like the UN’s Sustainable Development goals. Demands for more transparency about how everything is made — from consumers, employees, investors, and other stakeholders — are unlikely to slow down. The food and agriculture sectors in particular will feel even more pressure to cut carbon and food waste and simplify ingredients.
And no matter who’s in charge politically, macro trends are hard to stop — a changing climate; increasing challenges around water and other resources; higher expectations of companies; rising concern about inequality and wages; and technological disruption from AI, machine learning, and autonomous everything. These trends will continue and companies will need to adapt — fast.


Andrew Winston is the author, most recently, of The Big Pivot. He is also the co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold and the author of Green Recovery. He advises some of the world’s leading companies on how they can navigate and profit from environmental and social challenges. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewWinston.

Feb 1, 2016

G.E. to Phase Out CFL Bulbs

Just a few years ago, the compact fluorescent light was the go-to choice for customers seeking an inexpensive, energy-efficient replacement for the standard incandescent bulb. But, as the light quality of LEDs improved and their cost plummeted, manufacturers and retailers began shifting their efforts in that direction.
Now, the industrial giant General Electric is saying farewell to the compact fluorescent light, or CFL. The company said Monday that it would stop making and selling the bulbs in the United States by the end of the year.
“Now is the right time to transition from CFL to LED,” said John Strainic, chief operating officer of consumer and conventional lighting at GE Lighting. “There are so many choices that a consumer has for one socket in their home that it’s overwhelming. This will help simplify that.”
Compact fluorescents were the first big energy-saving alternative to standard incandescents, which no longer meet government standards for energy efficiency in the United States and many places abroad. But consumers complained about the harsh quality of light of the early models. They can also be slow to warm up and difficult to dim, and they contain trace amounts of mercury.
LEDs were more expensive, with bulbs often running $30, but the technology found fans who said they offered better light quality. Prices dropped steadily, falling well below $5 for a basic bulb last year, in part because of government regulations making it easier for them to qualify for generous discounts.
As a result, customers have been migrating toward LEDs. In 2014, LEDs made up about 5 percent of the American market, Mr. Strainic said. According to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, LEDs reached 15 percent of bulb shipments in the third quarter of last year, a jump of more than 237 percent over the same quarter in 2014. Halogen dominates standard bulb shipments, the association reported, representing almost half of the total, followed by CFLs at about 27 percent, a share that is on the decline.
Retailers have also been moving away from CFLs, which will have a harder time qualifying for the Energy Star rating under regulations proposed for next year, Mr. Strainic said. Those include giants like Sam’s Club and Walmart, which have fewer CFL options on shelves, he said. Ikea abandoned CFLs and started carrying only LEDs last year.
For now, the General Electric move applies only in the United States. There has been wider acceptance of CFLs elsewhere, especially in Europe, Mexico and other parts of Latin America.


Jan 3, 2016

Wind Power Spreads Through Turbines for Lease

TULLY, N.Y. — Three years ago, Ed Doody and his brothers, Kevin and Rich, installed a wind turbine at the dairy farm they operate here, looking to cut electric bills. They were so happy with the results that each got a turbine for his home, visible from the farm, which overlooks rolling hills and orchards.

“They are just the runningest little things you ever did see,” Kevin Doody said last month of the home turbines, standing near the red-and-white barns that house their 350 Holsteins. Since installing the turbine about a year ago, he said, his electric bill has essentially “gone to zero.”

The Doody brothers are but a few of the small-business owners and rural residents around the country who are beginning to turn to wind in their efforts to save money and embrace renewable energy. Although rooftop solar systems have spread rapidly throughout the country over the last eight years — spurred by providers offering home systems free — wind energy has generally remained the province of industrial-scale operations providing power to utilities and big businesses.
The Doody farm, with 350 Holsteins, is among the small businesses and rural residents turning to wind. Credit Shane Lavalette for The New York Times
But now, a start-up called United Wind is applying the rooftop solar model to wind, installing and maintaining systems at little to no upfront cost to the customer. As with the solar systems from companies like SolarCity and Sunrun, customers sign long-term agreements to buy the electricity the systems produce at prices set below those from their local utility. Most of the company’s customers, including the Doodys, are in rural areas like central and western New York, but the firm is rapidly expanding its reach.

The company, which was formed in 2013 in New York through the combination of a leading distributor of small turbines and a digital site-assessment business, has raised about $40 million in project financing — including $13.5 million announced in October from the NY Green Bank, a state-sponsored investment fund, and U.S. Bank — and signed about 125 leases. Executives said they were in talks for a significantly larger investment that would allow United Wind to develop about 1,000 more projects in the Midwest.

“The small-wind market was small — it hadn’t really taken off the way solar had,” said Russell Tencer, the chief executive, who founded the site-assessment company, Wind Analytics, in 2009. “What we realized was that with that intelligence and software we could offer that same type of one-stop-shop solution that solar has packaged to finance solar.”

Distributors have sold small and medium-size wind turbines for the last three decades. Their spread has been slow, although there are signs that may be changing. According to a report this year from Navigant Research, worldwide revenue from the turbines — defined as anything under 500 kilowatts — will grow to nearly $2.4 billion in 2023 from $1 billion in 2015, in part spurred by the development of the lease model. Still, the United States is expected to remain far behind leaders like Britain, China and Italy, with only $216 million in revenue by 2023.

Over the decades, the American market has waxed and waned, said Jennifer Jenkins, executive director of the Distributed Wind Energy Association, a trade group that focuses on wind energy that is generated and used on site. But the market has grown from something originally aimed at remote, off-grid and island communities to something that the group hopes can reach 30 gigawatts worth of installations by 2030, up from 906 megawatts, reflecting 74,000 turbines installed across the 50 states by the end of 2014, according to the Department of Energy.
Small-business owners and rural residents around the country are turning to wind in their efforts to save money and embrace renewable energy. Credit Shane Lavalette for The New York Times
Having recognizable companies like Honda, Walmart and Anheuser-Busch install wind turbines at highly visible facilities helps, making distributed wind a more mainstream symbol of green energy, Ms. Jenkins said. Turbines are also sprouting up on office buildings and at locations as diverse as Logan Airport in Boston, Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and even at the Eiffel Tower, where two turbines are nestled.
But United Wind’s leasing approach is also a big part of reaching that goal. “I think they’re going to transform the market, and we’re going to be able to get to these potential numbers that we’ve been forecasting for a long time,” she said.
The finance community is beginning to see it the same way. New York’s Green Bank is supporting the company’s efforts with a $4 million loan to help finance construction because the business model seems viable.
“We only want to support those transaction types where we think there is a bridge to somewhere rather than a bridge to nowhere,” said Alfred Griffin, the bank’s president.
Toward that end, United Wind is going after a specific band of the market. The company has installed 10- to 100-kilowatt machines and focuses on rural farms, homes and small businesses with enough wind, space and demand for electricity to make the economics make sense, but where the likelihood of community opposition is low.
A wind turbine has cut the cost to run Ed Doody’s swimming pool and almost made a wood-burning boiler system unnecessary. Credit Shane Lavalette for The New York Times
The turbines are much smaller and, often mounted on open-lattice towers, can appear lighter than the behemoths typically used on large wind farms. Still, they can be noisy and create a visual intrusion on a landscape. The Doody brothers said they had heard little objection.
“We want to focus on these rural areas where it fits perfectly into the setting, and it’s not going to be like this suburban housing development where people can complain,” Mr. Tencer said.
Customers typically see savings of at least 10 percent over power provided by a public utility and, as with solar leases, can save even more if they prepay all or part of their contract to avoid the annual rate increases, 1.9 percent in United Wind’s contracts. In all, a typical homeowner will save $20,000 and a typical farm $200,000 over the life of the lease, generally 20 years.
The Doodys, who did not want to offer specifics on their savings, said the installations had proved successful, covering two-thirds of the power needed to run their twice-daily milking operation and producing even more electricity than anticipated for the farm and their homes. Rather than send the excess back to the utility for a small fee — the Doodys say they earn about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour but pay 14 cents to buy power — Kevin Doody recently installed on-demand hot water to use it up. “I just didn’t like the thought of giving it back to them,” he said.
And the home turbine has cut the cost of running Ed Doody’s swimming pool and practically eliminated the need for his wood-burning boiler system.
“I’m getting older every year, and it just gets tougher” to cut wood and feed the machine, he said. “It’s dirty and messy, and you have to maintain it — every six or eight hours you have to go throw more wood in the thing. So that’s been an unseen advantage.”


May 27, 2014

After decades, dirty power plant to get clean

May 27, 3:42 PM (ET)


(AP) This photo taken May 5, 2014 shows the stacks of the Homer City Generating Station...
Full Image

HOMER CITY, Pa. (AP) — Three years ago, the operators of one of the nation's dirtiest coal-fired power plants warned of "immediate and devastating" consequences from the Obama administration's push to clean up pollution from coal.
Faced with cutting sulfur dioxide pollution blowing into downwind states by 80 percent in less than a year, lawyers for EME Homer City Generation L.P. sued the Environmental Protection Agency to block the rule, saying it would cause it grave harm and bring a painful spike in electricity bills.

None of those dire predictions came to pass.
Instead, the massive western Pennsylvania power plant is expected in a few years to turn from one of the worst polluters in the country to a model for how coal-fired power plants can slash pollution.

The story of the Homer City plant reflects the precarious position of older coal-fired plants these days, squeezed between cheap and plentiful natural gas and a string of environmental rules the Obama administration has targeted at coal, which supplies about 40 percent of the nation's electricity. The latest regulation, the first proposal to curb earth-warming carbon dioxide from power plants, is due next week. It will pose yet another challenge to coal-fired power plants. Dozens of coal-fueled units have already announced they would close in the face of new rules.
But Homer City also shows how political and economic rhetoric sometimes doesn't match reality. Despite claims by Republicans and industry critics that the Obama administration's regulations will shut down coal-fired power plants, Homer City survived — partly because it bought itself time by tying up the regulation in courts. Even environmental groups that applaud each coal plant closing and protested Homer City's pollution, now say the facility is setting a benchmark for air pollution control that other coal plants should follow, even if it took decades.
"If there is a war on coal, that plant won," said Eric Schaeffer, the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former enforcement official at EPA.

The owners of the massive western Pennsylvania power plant — which releases more sulfur dioxide than any other power plant in the U.S. — have committed to install $750 million worth of pollution control equipment by 2016 that will make deeper cuts in sulfur than the rule it once opposed.

Last month, the Supreme Court upheld the EPA's rule in the case initiated by Homer City Generating Station.

GE Energy Financial Services, the plant's majority owner, now says it can do it — and without electricity bills increasing for the two million households it provides with power.
"We believe in the plant's long-term value, and that installing equipment will enable it to comply with environmental regulations," said Andy Katell, a spokesman for GE, which has been the plant's primary owner since 2001 and did not participate in the litigation. The operator of the facility, Edison Mission Energy, couldn't raise the money to pay for the pollution controls and filed for bankruptcy before the case made it to the Supreme Court. Numerous states, environmental groups and other companies operating power plant joined the litigation keeping it alive.

Not all have fared so well. The parent company of Luminant, another challenger to the EPA rule and Texas' largest power generator, filed for bankruptcy in April after it was faced with more stringent environmental regulations and cheap natural gas prices that made it difficult to pay down its debt.

For more than 40 years, Homer City has spewed sulfur dioxide from two of its three units completely unchecked, and still does because it is largely exempt from federal air pollution laws passed years after it was built in 1969. Last year, the facility, released 114,245 tons of sulfur dioxide, more than all of the power plants in neighboring New York combined.
"It is an emblem, a poster child of the challenge of interstate air pollution," said Lem Srolovic, the head of the environmental protection bureau for the New York Attorney General's office, in an interview with The Associated Press.

New York, along with the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania and the EPA sued Homer City in 2011 arguing that it was operating in violation of the Clean Air Act because it failed to install pollution control technology in the 1990s when it made upgrades that increased emissions. A federal judge dismissed the case arguing that it fell outside the statute of limitations.
But U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry in his opinion said that he appreciated the frustration "that society at large continues to bear the brunt of significant sulfur dioxide emissions from that grandfathered facility."

A class-action lawsuit filed by local citizens to get the plant to clean up its pollution also failed. And the Sierra Club appealed the plant's plans to control sulfur dioxide, securing a settlement in 2012 that requires it to show that it will not exceed sulfur dioxide limits.
"It should be the new standard for coal plant permits in the country," said Tom Schuster, who heads the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in Pennsylvania. "When coal-fired power plants are held responsible, the health and quality of life benefits far outweigh any cost."
The EPA estimates that about 30 percent of the coal-fired units in the U.S. are operating without scrubbers, pollution control equipment to control not only for sulfur dioxide, but also mercury, a toxic metal that will be controlled for the first time from power plants next year. The scrubbers are called that because they "scrub" the sulfur out of the smoke released by coal-burning boilers.

All must install them soon, or be retired, to meet new EPA rules. Homer City received a year-long extension on the deadline from Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.
"They will be the last of the existing power plants installing scrubbers," said Vince Brisini, a deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania DEP, of Homer City. "Those that don't have scrubbers will not survive."

For the 1,687 people who live in Homer City, where the power plant's towering smokestacks have long served as a local landmark, many are relieved that the plant's 255 jobs are staying put, for now. The plant in the future will likely have to reduce smog-forming nitrogen oxides further to comply with the rule the Supreme Court revived last month. And it will also have to comply with upcoming rules to reduce the gases blamed for global warming.
"I'm all in favor of saving the environment," said Rob Nymick, the borough manager. "But it's also important to have jobs in this area. We lose the power plant, we're in trouble."
Locals are also glad they are no longer in the crosshairs of a national debate over the future of coal-fired power.

"This should have happened years ago, but let's move forward," state Sen. Don White said at a public hearing in 2012, "and the Sierra Club can go back to California, join arms around a redwood tree and quit messing with our lives."
Associated Press writer Kevin Begos contributed reporting from Homer City. Cappiello reported from Washington, D.C.
Follow Dina Cappiello's environment coverage on Twitter at


Oct 25, 2013

NYC to switch all 250,000 streetlights to LEDs by 2017

LED lamp posts illuminate the sidewalk along Eastern
Photo credit: Anthony Lanzilote | LED lamp posts illuminate the sidewalk along Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. (Oct. 24, 2013)

Soon, New Yorkers will see the Big Apple in a new light.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced Thursday that work began to replace all of the city's 250,000 streetlights with energy-efficient LED bulbs by 2017.

The upgrade is the largest LED retrofit project in the nation and will save the city $14 million a year and reduce New York's carbon footprint by 30 percent in the next four years, Bloomberg said in a statement.

"With roughly a quarter-million streetlights in our city, upgrading to more energy-efficient lights is a large and necessary feat," Bloomberg said.
The city has already installed light-emitting diode bulbs on Manhattan's FDR Drive, along Central Park's pedestrian paths, on the lights that adorn the cables of the East River bridges and on Eastern Parkway's pedestrian lights between Grand Army Plaza and Ralph Avenue in

David J. Burney, commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction, said the Brooklyn location was the perfect place to roll out the LED lights.
"This project brought new median plazas, bike and pedestrian paths, water and sewer mains, and landscaping to one of Brooklyn's most well-traveled roadways," he said in a statement.
The remaining lights will be installed in three phases, eventually replacing 80,000 lights at a time throughout the five boroughs.

The $100 million project will be paid through the city's Accelerated Conservation and Efficiency initiative, which aims to fast-track green infrastructure programs.


Sep 12, 2013

Hydroelectric power makes big comeback at US dams


(AP) Joshua Conrad, Assistant Operations Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Red Rock Project,...
Full Image

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - On a typical summer weekend, hundreds of boats glide across the shimmering surface of Iowa's Lake Red Rock, the state's largest body of water.

The placid 15,000-acre lake was created in the 1960s after the government built a dam to prevent frequent flooding on the Des Moines River. Now the cool waters behind the dam are attracting interest beyond warm-weather recreation. A power company wants to build a hydroelectric plant here - a project that reflects renewed interest in hydropower nationwide, which could bring changes to scores of American dams.

Hydroelectric development stagnated in the 1980s and 1990s as environmental groups lobbied against it and a long regulatory process required years of environmental study. But for the first time in decades, power companies are proposing new projects to take advantage of government financial incentives, policies that promote renewable energy over fossil fuels and efforts to streamline the permit process.
"We're seeing a significant change in attitude," said Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association, a trade group.

(AP) The sun rises over the dam at Lake Red Rock, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, near Pella, Iowa. A power...
Full Image
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees hydroelectric projects in the U.S., issued 125 preliminary hydropower permits last year, up from 95 in 2011. Preliminary permits allow a company to explore a project for up to three years. The agency issued 25 licenses for hydropower projects last year, the most since 2005. In all, more than 60,000 megawatts of preliminary permits and projects awaiting final approval are pending before the commission in 45 states.
"I've never seen those kinds of numbers before," Church Ciocci said.
The interest in hydropower is so intense that some utilities are competing to build plants at the same dams, leaving the government to determine which ones get to proceed.

Hydroelectricity provides about 7 percent of the nation's power using about 2,500 dams. But those dams are just a fraction of the 80,000 in the United States. Most were built for flood control, to aid in river navigation or to create recreational areas. So they do not have power plants.

(AP) Perry Thostenson, Assistant Operations Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Red Rock...
Full Image
The Department of Energy concluded last year that the U.S. could boost its hydropower capability by 15 percent by fitting nearly 600 existing dams with generators. Most of the potential is concentrated in 100 dams largely owned by the federal government and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Many are navigation locks on the Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas rivers or their major tributaries.

The state with the most hydropower potential is Illinois, followed by Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. Rounding out the top 10 are Texas, Missouri, Indiana, and Iowa, the study concluded.
Workers could begin construction on the Red Rock Dam as early as the spring. The project involves drilling two holes in the 110-foot high, mile-long dam and running water through two turbines.
Missouri River Energy Services, a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based not-for-profit utility that provides power to 61 cities, has the license to build the power plant at an estimated cost of $260 million.
(AP) James Johnson, of Marshalltown, Iowa, fishes below the dam at Lake Red Rock, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013,...
Full Image

When complete, the 34-megawatt facility will be able to support as many as 18,000 homes for a year, said company spokesman Bill Radio. It could crank out up to 55 megawatts at times when the river is running full.
Missouri River Energy is considering three other hydroelectric projects at existing dams - one on the Des Moines River north of Des Moines and two others on the Mississippi River at Dubuque and Davenport.
Electricity suppliers prefer hydropower because it is much easier to ramp up or down based on customer demand than natural gas-powered plants, and it is much more reliable on a daily basis than wind or solar power.

The proposed developments also benefit from worries about the environmental risks of coal power and safety fears surrounding nuclear energy.
"I do think we're going to see more of this," Radio said, citing the difficulty of building coal or nuclear facilities. "You take two really big pieces of future generation out of the mix right now, and what that leaves is natural gas, hydro and other renewables."
(AP) Maintenance crews work on the dam at Lake Red Rock, Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, near Pella, Iowa. A...
Full Image

While hydroelectric plants cost more to build than those that run on natural gas or wind power, they require little maintenance for decades and the fuel is free.
Hydroelectricity got a boost in 2005, when Congress approved a tax credit for hydropower that was already in place for other sources of renewable energy, including wind and solar.

President Barack Obama signed two bills last month designed to spark more interest in hydropower. One directs the FERC to consider adopting a two-year licensing process at existing non-powered dams. The second authorizes quicker action on proposals for small hydro projects at dams owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Interest in hydropower had been low because of the high cost of construction and a protracted government permit process requiring extensive environmental studies and mounds of paperwork. That left projects mired in bureaucracy for as much as eight years before construction could begin.

"If you keep putting money into something over eight years, pretty soon the cost of that capital just eats you up," said Kristina Johnson, the former undersecretary in the Department of Energy and CEO of Enduring Hydro, a company that develops hydropower projects. "Given that, it's not surprising decades go by and things don't get built."

Her company is building a 6-megawatt plant at a dam on Mahoning Creek in western Pennsylvania after buying the permit from another company in August. It will supply enough power for 1,800 homes.
An environmental group that has sought since 1973 to minimize harm from hydropower dams largely supports the idea of adding generators to existing dams.
"Some dams need to be removed, but there are also many working dams out there that are still serving a useful purpose for society," said John Seebach, who leads the effort for Washington-based American Rivers.
In general, he said, rivers would be better off without dams. But since they aren't going away, "powering those existing dams is in our view the best way to get new hydropower capacity. It's cheaper than building new dams, and it's much less likely to cause additional harm to a river."