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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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." 


Mar 21, 2013

LED Lightbulbs Prices Drop

New Reasons to Change Light Bulbs

People sometimes have trouble making small sacrifices now that will reward them handsomely later. How often do we ignore the advice to make a few diet and exercise changes to live a longer, healthier life? Or to put some money aside to grow into a nest egg? Intellectually, we get it — but instant gratification is a powerful force. 

You don’t have to be one of those self-defeating rubes. Start buying LED light bulbs.
You’ve probably seen LED flashlights, the LED “flash” on phone cameras and LED indicator lights on electronics. But LED bulbs, for use in the lamps and light sockets of your home, have been slow to arrive, mainly because of their high price: their electronics and heat-management features have made them much, much more expensive than other kinds of bulbs.
That’s a pity, because LED bulbs are a gigantic improvement over incandescent bulbs and even the compact fluorescents, or CFLs, that the world spent several years telling us to buy.
LEDs last about 25 times as long as incandescents and three times as long as CFLs; we’re talking maybe 25,000 hours of light. Install one today, and you may not own your house, or even live, long enough to see it burn out. (Actually, LED bulbs generally don’t burn out at all; they just get dimmer.)
You know how hot incandescent bulbs become. That’s because they convert only 5 to 10 percent of your electricity into light; they waste the rest as heat. LED bulbs are far more efficient. They convert 60 percent of their electricity into light, so they consume far less electricity. You pay less, you pollute less.
But wait, there’s more: LED bulbs also turn on to full brightness instantly. They’re dimmable. The light color is wonderful; you can choose whiter or warmer bulbs. They’re rugged, too. It’s hard to break an LED bulb, but if the worst should come to pass, a special coating prevents flying shards.
Yet despite all of these advantages, few people install LED lights. They never get farther than: “$30 for a light bulb? That’s nuts!” Never mind that they will save about $200 in replacement bulbs and electricity over 25 years. (More, if your electric company offers LED-lighting rebates.)
Surely there’s some price, though, where that math isn’t so off-putting. What if each bulb were only $15? Or $10?
Well, guess what? We’re there. LED bulbs now cost less than $10.
Nor is that the only recent LED breakthrough. The light from an LED bulb doesn’t have to be white. Several companies make bulbs that can be any color you want.
I tried out a whole Times Square’s worth of LED bulbs and kits from six manufacturers. May these capsule reviews shed some light on the latest in home illumination. 

3M ADVANCED LED BULBS On most LED bulbs, heat-dissipating fins adorn the stem. (The glass of an LED bulb never gets hot, but the circuitry does. And the cooler the bulb, the better its efficiency.) As a result, light shines out only from the top of the bulb.
But the 3M bulbs’ fins are low enough that you get lovely, omnidirectional light.
These are weird-looking, though, with a strange reflective material in the glass and odd slots on top. You won’t care about aesthetics if the bulb is hidden in a lamp, but $25 each is unnecessarily expensive; read on. 

CREE LED BULBS Cree’s new home LED bulbs, available at Home Depot, start at $10 apiece, or $57 for a six-pack. That’s about as cheap as they come.
The $10 bulb provides light equivalent to that from a 40-watt incandescent. Cree’s 60-watt equivalent is $14 for “daylight” light, $13 for warmer light.
The great thing about these bulbs is that they look almost exactly like incandescent bulbs. Cree says that its bulbs are extraordinarily efficient; its “60-watt” daylight bulb consumes only nine watts of juice (compared with 13 watts on the 3M, for example). As a result, this bulb runs cooler, so its heat sink can be much smaller and nicer looking. 

TORCHSTAR These color-changeable light bulbs (available on Amazon) range from $10 for a tracklight-style spotlight to $23 for a more omnidirectional bulb. Each comes with a flat, plastic remote control that can be used to dim the lights, turn them on and off, or change their color (the remote has 15 color buttons). You can also make them pulse, flash or strobe, which is totally annoying.
The TorchStars never get totally white — only a feeble blue — and they’re not very bright. But you get the point: LED bulbs can do more than just turn on and be white. 

PHILIPS HUE For $200, you get a box with three flat-top bulbs and a round plastic transmitter, which plugs into your network router. At that point, you can control both the brightness and colors of these lights using an iPhone or Android phone app, either in your home or from across the Internet, manually or on a schedule.
It offers icons for predefined combinations like Sunset (all three bulbs are orange) and Deep Sea (each bulb is a different underwaterish color). You can also create your own color schemes — by choosing a photo whose tones you want reproduced. You can dim any bulb, or turn them all off at once from your phone. (Additional bulbs, up to 500, are $60 each.)
Philips gets credit for doing something fresh with LED technology; the white color is pure and bright; and it’s a blast to show them off for visitors. Still, alas, the novelty wears off fairly quickly. 

INSTEON This kit ($130 for the transmitter, $30 for each 60-watt-equivalent bulb) is a lot like Philips’s, except that there’s no color-changing; you just use the phone app to control the white lights, individually or en masse. Impressively, each bulb consumes only 8 watts. You can expand the system up to 1,000 bulbs, if you’re insane.
Unfortunately, the prerelease version I tested was a disaster. Setup was a headache. You had to sign up for an account. The instructions referred to buttons that didn’t exist. You had to “pair” each bulb with the transmitter individually. Once paired, the bulbs frequently fell off the network entirely. Bleah. 

GREENWAVE SOLUTION This control-your-LED-lights kit doesn’t change colors, but you get four bulbs, not three, in the $200 kit. You get both a network transmitter and a remote control that requires neither network nor smartphone. Up to 500 bulbs (a reasonable $20 each) can respond. Setting up remote control over the Internet is easy.
The app is elegant and powerful. It has presets like Home, Away and Night, which turns off all lights in the house with one tap. You can also program your own schedules, light-bulb groups and dimming levels. 

Unfortunately, these are only “40-watt” bulbs. Worse, each has a weird cap on its dome; in other words, light comes out only in a band around the equator of each bulb. They’re not omnidirectional.
The bottom line: Choose the Cree bulbs for their superior design and low price, Philips Hue to startle houseguests, or the GreenWave system for remote control of all the lights in your house.
By setting new brightness-per-watt standards that the 135-year-old incandescent technology can’t meet, the federal government has already effectively banned incandescent bulbs. And good riddance to CFL bulbs, with those ridiculous curlicue tubes and dangerous chemicals inside.
LED bulbs last decades, save electricity, don’t shatter, don’t burn you, save hundreds of dollars, and now offer plummeting prices and blossoming features. What’s not to like? You’d have to be a pretty dim bulb not to realize that LED light is the future.


Aug 28, 2012

NYT: Military Spending on Biofuels Draws Fire

Military Spending on Biofuels Draws Fire

When the Navy put a Pacific fleet through maneuvers on a $12 million cocktail of biofuels this summer, it proved that warships could actually operate on diesel from algae or chicken fat.
“It works in the engines that we have, it works in the aircraft that we have, it works in the ships that we have,” said Ray Mabus, secretary of the Navy. “It is seamless.”

The still-experimental fuels are also expensive — about $27 a gallon for the fuel used in the demonstration, compared with about $3.50 a gallon for conventional military fuels.
And that has made them a flash point in a larger political battle over government financing for new energy technologies.

“You’re not the secretary of energy,” Representative Randy Forbes, a Republican from Virginia, told Mr. Mabus as he criticized the biofuels program at a hearing in February. “You’re the secretary of the Navy.”

The House, controlled by Republicans, has already approved measures that would all but kill Pentagon spending on purchasing or investing in biofuels. A committee in the Senate, led by Democrats, has voted to save the program. The fight will heat up again when Congress takes up the Defense Department’s budget again in the fall.

The naval demonstration — known as the Great Green Fleet — was part of a $510 million three-year, multiagency program to help the military develop alternatives to conventional fuel. It is a drop in the ocean of the Pentagon’s nearly $650 billion annual budget.
But with the Defense Department facing $259 billion in budget cuts over the next five years, some lawmakers argue that the military should not be spending millions on developing new fuel markets when it is buying less equipment and considering cutting salaries.

This phase of the military’s exploration of alternative fuels began under President George W. Bush and grew out of a task force that Donald Rumsfeld, then the secretary of defense, convened in 2006 to explore ways to reduce dependence on petroleum. If the military had less need to transport and protect fuel coming from the Middle East, the thinking went, the fighting forces could become more flexible and efficient, with fewer lives put at risk.

In addition to biofuels, early efforts included developing liquid fuels from coal and natural gas for the Air Force, the largest energy user of the armed services. But the gas and coal fuels would not meet cost or environmental requirements, officials said. The Defense Department focused on advanced biofuels, which are generally made from plant and animal feedstocks that don’t compete with food uses, which is a concern with common renewable fuels like the corn-based ethanol used in cars.

The federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets targets for renewable fuel production and requires a certain amount to be blended into conventional gasoline and diesel, has been the main catalyst for the growth of several companies exploring new technologies.

Investors, however, have been leery of the enormous amounts of cash it can take to bring the fuels from the lab to the gas tank. Industry officials say that having a large, steady customer like the military could attract other investors to help finance large refineries that would bring costs down through economies of scale. Military officials say that their purchases of small amounts for testing has already helped reduce the cost. In 2009, the Pentagon spent roughly $424 a gallon on algae oil from Solazyme.

“Finding a user like the military can rapidly help to scale technologies that then are used in the civilian marketplace — it becomes a catalyst,” said Bob Johnsen, chief executive of Primus Green Energy, which is developing fuels from biomass and natural gas. “If the military becomes a buyer, that becomes a means by which the production facilities can be financed.”
The Defense Department is always vulnerable to charges of overspending — remember the $7,600 coffee maker? — but military leaders argue that what they are putting into biofuels is a blip given the potential benefits of reducing their need for Middle Eastern oil, with all its volatilities.

“Our primary rationale is not economic,” said Sharon E. Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs. “Our job is to defend the country.”

She said biofuel spending was just 4 percent of the $1.6 billion budget the military was requesting for efforts to improve energy usage in field operations in the next fiscal year. Most of the measures are aimed at reducing the need for fuel in the first place, including using diesel electricity generators more efficiently, putting greener engines into vehicles and aircraft, and using hybrid solar generators and batteries in the field.

The Defense Department is also running several demonstration projects on its bases, testing ways to produce and distribute electricity better. And the Army recently put out a request for proposals for $7 billion in renewable energy projects, part of reaching its goal of getting a gigawatt of its electricity — enough to power roughly 250,000 American homes — from renewable sources by 2025.

In Congress, there is little apparent opposition to the overall military push toward renewable power generation or energy efficiency.
But the biofuel program has struck a nerve among Republicans who, ever since the government’s failed investment in the solar panel maker Solyndra, have been wasting few opportunities to hammer their message that the government should not risk taxpayer money to bolster favored technologies.

Representative Mike Conaway, a Texas Republican who introduced House legislation that would limit biofuel purchasing and production and has been critical of the Great Green Fleet, said Democrats were using the military to pursue an environmental agenda. “We just want to require the Department of Defense to do exactly what every other American does when they buy fuel: they try to get the best price they can,” he said.

Many of the lawmakers objecting to the biofuels program — including some Democrats who crossed the aisle to support new limits — represent coal country or take money from those in the coal and natural gas industries. Mr. Conaway, who introduced a measure that would open the door for the military to pursue alternative fuels made from coal and natural gas, gets a large share of his campaign contributions from oil and gas interests, according to
For Senator James Inhofe, who led a similar charge in the Senate, three of his top five contributors, including Koch Industries, make their money from fossil fuels. Although Mr. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, has argued that the biofuels are too expensive, he has helped steer several military contracts to Syntroleum, based in Tulsa, Okla., to develop a liquid natural gas fuel for the Air Force, including one that paid the company roughly $22 a gallon. Syntroleum is still pursuing coal- and natural gas-based fuels, but is also in a partnership with Tyson Foods that supplied the Navy with biofuel made from waste animal fat for the Green Fleet demonstration.

What happens to the military biofuels program could hinge on the fall elections. The Obama administration has opened the government’s purse to provide the kinds of stable contracts and investments that companies say are necessary to raise financing to develop and build commercial biofuel production facilities.

While Mitt Romney’s position on the military biofuels program is unclear, he has signaled that the Pentagon’s emphasis on using more clean energy would not be a priority in his administration. “When the biggest announcement in his last State of the Union address on improving our military was that the Pentagon will start using more clean energy,” Mr. Romney said at the V.F.W. convention this summer, “then you know it’s time for a change.”
Should that view prevail, the industry’s already slow development could stagnate, with many of the smaller companies potentially going out of business.

“Our dream was to build a renewable fuels company,” said Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme’s chief executive. Without the military as a guaranteed customer, he said, it will be harder to get there. “Is it going to stop us?” he added. “No.”