Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

That’s One Way to Clear the Air

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

I was perusing photography websites the other day and came across an article on DP Review describing Hong Kong’s latest efforts to give tourists a nice clean view of the city. Hong Kong has stunning vistas, but they are often obscured by smog. Hong Kong, being on the ocean, has somewhat less lethal air pollution than Beijing or Shanghai, but tourists’ dissatisfaction has prompted authorities in Hong Kong to make lemonade out of the lemons they’ve been handed. In a novel solution, the city has erected giant photo murals depicting the city as it might appear on its rare clear days. Instead of photographing your sweetheart in front of the Hong Kong skyline as it actually is, you can snap a picture in front of a billboard showing how it would look if the air wasn’t so filthy.

The word “smog” doesn’t really begin to describe the air pollution which has reached staggering levels in many cities in China. In Beijing, where the hazardous air is literally off the charts, they talk of an “airpocalypse“.

The Chinese government has come under tremendous pressure, especially from urban elites who have grown increasingly alarmed by what they are forced to suck into their lungs. In August, Chinese leaders went to the resort town of Beidaihe where they have traditionally gone to discuss national policy since the days of Chairman Mao. Der Spiegel reports that, with little fanfare, the national government has announced a dramatic shift in its development and environmental policies. The world’s second largest economy and biggest environmental polluter is poised to radically realign its economy to boost the environmental sector to the rank of a “key industry,” on par with steel production, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology.  According the government’s plans, the sector is expected to earn $728 billion dollars in just the next two years.  The plan is to use tax breaks, government subsidies, and investments (foreign investment is expressly encouraged) to boost the production of more efficient power plants, the use of liquefied natural gas, and dramatically boost renewable and nuclear energy. Above all, the plan relies on economic incentives. Says Zou Ji of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, “Environmental protection can make you rich!” The government is determined to shift from a reliance on manufacturing to a more environmentally sustainable urban service economy.

Der Spiegel, being a German publication, points out the enormous opportunities the new policy presents for German businesses which are flocking to China to take advantage of the country’s need for Germany’s advanced technology and manufacturing prowess. In fact, 80 percent of all the machinery used in China to manufacture solar panels comes from Germany.

China has shown that when it sets itself a national goal, it tends to pursue it relentlessly, for better or for worse. This new and fundamental shift in energy policy may not only present profit making opportunities for foreign business investors, but it promises to curb the ever growing emissions which are choking the life out of the Chinese people and their economy. It’s certainly a more sustainable and substantive solution than Hong Kong’s Potemkin billboards.

New England Fisheries to Reopen, and the Missing Identity of Most Seafood

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Jim Maragos, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

The New England Fishery Management Council opened 5,000 square miles of protected waters off the coast of New England Thursday to new applications from commercial fishermen. These areas were closed in the 1990s to preserve habitat on the seafloor and give cod, haddock, and other species a safe place to spawn.

Fishermen have cheered the move, saying the 2010 adoption of a quota-based protection system made the geographic conservation areas an unnecessary restriction. Worried that 2013 will bring drastic cuts to the quotas for cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder, industry groups will have to wait until January for the Council to review further fish stock data.

Environmentalists and scientists are concerned in particular because the protected areas provide a haven for older female fish that help increase stocks – but hope that the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which has to approve the vote and is expected to act by May, will be more cautious.

Fish are also noteworthy this week with the news – or reminder – that seafood fraud is widespread. That means seafood is often labeled as something it is not, usually a cheaper look-alike. A new report by Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, finds that 39% of seafood from 81 grocery stores in New York City was not what appeared on the label, and that 100% of the 16 sushi restaurants investigated sold mislabeled fish. Last year, a Boston Globe investigation found a problem of similar scope.

The problem goes beyond economic duping. Consumers and diners are buying fish whose incorrect labeling might mean it was caught illegally or contains unlisted and illegal chemical additives. Enforcement, however, has focused on health claims, and individual restaurants know that they are at little or no risk of being caught.

Personally, I was glad to read the tuna steak I bought last week had been injected with carbon monoxide to keep its bright red hue. Many of us in Seattle enjoy our inexpensive Japanese cuisine, but the New York wholesaler quoted in the Times is right: “People want cheap sushi, and this is what happens.”

Expiring Wind PTC: Who Stands Where?

Photo by Francesco Gola. Some rights reserved.

In the intensifying battle over the extension of the wind energy production tax credit, a new tactic has emerged. The main lobby for extension, the American Wind Energy Association, on Wednesday announced its support for a middle ground solution. AWEA recommends a one-year extension, followed by a five-year gradual decrease in the PTC until it goes away completely. If gradually reduced until 2019, according to industry analysis, the PTC could be eliminated and a minimally viable industry could exist and be able to continue achieving cost reductions.

Our friends at Grist worry that this tactic essentially admits that the PTC is not actually needed, and that other renewable energy sources whose production tax credits expire soon, like solar, are left in a weaker position.

The tax credit, originally passed in 1992, has been extended three times. But now 17 days remain until its expiration, and the stakes are high for both sides.

Conservative groups argued in a letter to lawmakers Wednesday that the credit “essentially transfers taxpayer dollars from your constituents and subsidizes the states with such mandates.” The states without renewable electricity standards, mostly in the Southeast, Appalachia, and the Gulf Coast, generally have less installed wind power.

In addition, Republicans have pointed to the credit as a way to help close the deficit, as it will cost $12.1 billion over ten years. Not all Republicans are convinced, though. Joining many Democrats in voicing support for the extension are Republicans whose districts house more than 80% of wind installations.

Separately, the Department of Energy has offered some good news to the wind industry. DOE announced that seven projects will receive up to $4 million in grants to complete engineering, design, and permitting processes, and three of these will be selected to receive up to $47 million over four years with a target opening of 2017.

For readers to whom the above means anything, it is probably needless to say that DOE is optimistic about the energy potential from offshore wind generation. Data suggest that 4,000 GW of energy could be tapped in state and federal waters, which is four times the capacity of all existing US electric power plants.

The 2050 City

In this TEDxYouth@MSC video, architect Gregory Kiss walks us through the next 38 years, in which the world’s urban population is expected to double. This shift, emphasizes Kiss, means that cities are where the “future environmental footprint of the world is going to be defined.”

After acknowledging the world’s most important renewable resource, The Youth (or, to his young audience, “you guys”), Kiss goes on to talk about all the other renewable resources we’re going to have to rely on in the year 2050.

Kiss has been working in “the art and technology of environmentally responsible architecture” for over 20 years, founding Kiss + Cathcart Architects in 1983. And he seems to have spent much of that time wondering – is it possible to build a truly sustainable city? One that generates its own energy renewably and provides its own food and water sustainably? During his TEDx talk, Kiss shows a slide with a picture of a city inside a dome: “Now we’re not suggesting that we want to build cities in domes,” he laughs, “but we’d like to see if it’s possible to have cities that perform that way.”

Kiss then walks us through modern day NYC’s use of the resources necessary to sustain such a city. The most striking set of slides first shows a pea sized spec on the map that represents the aggregated acreage of fields used to grow the vegetables eaten in NYC (data is for 2010). Kiss then jumps to a slide showing a basket-ball sized circle representing the amount of land is used to grow the vegetables that feed the animals that we eat.

But the slides are meant less as a scare tactic and more for baseline comparison. Kiss projects that by 2050 – through improvements in technology (solar panels, hydroponics) – we can shrink the geographic requirements for all these energy needs to an almost city-sized scale.

Kiss goes on to talk about some real-life projects he is working on in NYC that include adding features such as solar panels, rain gardens and green roofs to existing infrastructure, with varying results (one project generated about 25% of its own energy, while another was paying energy back into the system with 108% “energy independence”.)

His grand finale is a series of slides showing the design for a non-real project that he developed for a museum. It is an impressive, sustainable, and beautiful “mini-city” housed in a building that incorporates greenhouses, helicopter landing pads, movie theaters, wind turbines, and more.

The talk is worth a watch – it’s aimed towards kids, so don’t expect anything revolutionary, but seeing Kiss bristle with a restrained excitement and an optimism for our future is absolutely inspiring. It’s a great reminder that there are smart folks out there working on the kind of real-world problems that face us in the next few decades.

“Decentralized” Energy: The UK Leads the Way

Photo by CMG0220. Some rights reserved.

Often a development in the energy industry is chosen to be spotlighted in the Green Mien for the scope of its impact, but that is not always required. Some stories deserve to be told for their potential to describe one or two small threads that may prove to hold together a complex quilt – this is the case with today’s post. Environmental Finance has a piece about small energy projects in the UK installed at major energy-consuming locations like hospitals, manufacturers, and retailers, into which investment is pouring.

Sites like food retailer Waitrose’s store on the Isle of Wight host energy centers powered by available fuel (biomass from local timber at the Waitrose plant), which they call decentralized energy centers. Usually with thermal energy capacity between 1MW and 10MW, the centers generate power for their central energy need and sell surplus energy to nearby consumers. Hosts of these plants, the big hospitals and factories, see the benefits of mitigating against rising prices, securing energy supply, and potentially reducing environmental impact.

Because the projects in the UK are financed by multiple lenders before being converted to a long-term supply contract, the host energy-guzzlers are spared investing any capital. Investors in London are supposedly “queuing up” to finance these projects, whose feasibility has grown rapidly over the past few years. The security of the supply contracts attracts some investors, but the projects’ potential to address future energy costs and supply security are also encouraging businesses to consider an on-site energy facility.

Resources across the country are pouring into finding and developing new ways to power our lives, and the UK’s work in developing decentralized energy projects might just be blazing the path to the power plant of my dreams: just big enough to light a Walmart Supercenter.

Insurers Offer Coverage for Solar Developments

Photo by theregeneration. Some rights reserved.

Challenges to “green” energy developments abound. Compared to traditional companies even in the energy sector, means of financing projects are fast-changing, subsidies and tax credits are unpredictable, and data on projects’ returns are sparse. We wrote about trends in venture capital and IPOs for clean technology companies in February in a post recently linked to by The Atlantic, seeing energy storage and generation companies faring well in 2011. The wind industry is still waiting for Congress to vote on extending its production tax credit, and as we covered here, if it is not passed, the industry’s capacity might fall by three-quarters.

However, it is becoming easier for “green” developers to secure private financing in a functioning market. In January, we posted about a Deutsche Bank study aimed at providing data on the accuracy and reliability of energy audits associated with building retrofits, to encourage private investment in retrofits, the “low-hanging fruit” of carbon reduction. Now, insurers Assurant and GCube Insurance Services are offering an insurance product to help solar developers navigate the risks of mid-size projects, aiming to fill a gap in coverage that has often prevented developers from securing financing.

In particular, Assurant’s product uniquely bundles property and liability coverage with equipment warranty management, allowing developers to move beyond their skepticism and uncertainty toward warranty management frameworks. They offer $10 million of coverage per location – initially limited to photovoltaic projects in the US – ranging from 100kW to 3MW in capacity. Environmental Finance has a detailed description of the insurance product here.

As those behind the Deutsche Bank building-retrofit study did, we can hope Assurant’s product will lay the groundwork for further comprehensive coverage products in other clean technology sectors that might open the floodgates of private financing, maybe making debates like that over the wind PTC unnecessary.

The Economics of Hype: Rio+20

Photo by Ivan Herman. Some rights reserved.

In June, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Known as Rio+20 because it aims to address similar issues to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, its official discussions will focus on building a green economy to lift people out of poverty and improving international coordination for sustainable development.

Environmental Finance highlights the opportunities the conference will create for investors. Increased attention to Rio+20’s issues will focus public scrutiny on sustainability and countries’ policies, generating what Citigroup’s analysts call “green sentiment” in the markets. In addition to its effects on investment, media coverage might increase pressure on politicians to strengthen climate policies.

To illustrate this possibility, the analysts suggest that European politicians might leave the conference embarrassed about the low price of carbon dioxide permits in Europe and seek to raise prices through legislation back home. This would stimulate the carbon dioxide market and boost the low-carbon investments that depend on it, especially those made by alternative energy companies.

The U.S. wind industry, for example, depends heavily on government support, and is in the trenches of a campaign to pressure Congress to extend the production tax credit that expires at the end of this year (see our post on the topic here). Increased visibility of climate change on the global agenda could propel the issue, causing major uncertainty in the industry, to the top of legislators’ concerns.

Finally, Citigroup’s analysts say that sustainability reporting will boost engagement between companies, governments, and activists. At the very least, there will be a lot of journalists willing to go to Rio on business.

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