Sunday, November 18, 2007

Options to Address Energy Issues

Where should we be spending our climate change dollars? Generally, the energy generation systems we use are woefully inefficient. A steam-based subcritical fossil fuel power plant can achieve 36–38% efficiency, with supercritical designs reaching efficiencies in the low to mid 40% range, and new "ultra critical" designs using pressures of 4,400 psia (30 MPa) and dual stage reheat reaching about 48% efficiency. Of course, most plants are in the lower ranges of efficiency, with minimal gains since the late 60s. So, most of the energy that goes into the plant in terms of coal, natural gas, biomass, etc. does not end up hitting the distribution network, it goes up the smokestack. That certainly smells like an opportunity to apply systems thinking to recover some of that energy.

The latest issue of Orion Magazine has a short piece by Bill McKibben on the potential for waste heat recovery to combat climate change in centralized power plants, The Unsung Solution.
Here's an excerpt from Bill's article in Orion that illustrates one of the challenges facing recovering waste heat as part of an energy efficiency effort nationally:
For instance, in almost every state it’s illegal for anyone but the utility to run wires across a public street. So if Casten’s company generates more electricity from the smokestack of the coffee roaster than the factory can use itself, his company can’t sell the surplus to the guy making coffee cans across the street. They have to sell it to the utility, which wants to pay the lowest price possible for it. The utility argues that it still bears the cost of maintaining the network of wires that constitute the grid, and if it’s not selling to the coffee-can plant, that cost will have to be passed on to, say, residential customers.
So, due to the existing regulations, there is little the energy recycler can do to engage in the sale of the power they're producing? Bill goes on to say that environmentalists will need to include technologies like this (un-sexy as they are) in their efforts, instead of completely focusing on windmills, solar panels, and biogas digesters exclusively.

It certainly makes sense to work on the efficiency elements of the equation instead of the creation of new energy sources. The folks at the Rocky Mountain Institute have been lobbying for efficiency improvements since the mid-70's, here's an excerpt from a report written in 1990, The Negawatt Revolution,
Energy efficiency ultimately represents a trillion-dollar-a-year global market. American companies have at their disposal the technical innovations to lead the way. Not only should they upgrade their plants and office buildings, but they should encourage the formation of negawatt markets. And they should let the United States Government know that the best energy policy for the nation, for business, and for the environment is one that focuses on using electricity efficiently–for it's the only policy that makes economic sense.
What we're getting at is looking at our existing systems and optimizing them. This just makes sense. The barriers are certainly large, especially since power producers are in the market of selling kW-hrs. They may have energy efficiency programs, encouraged by government regulations, but are they really interested in selling less power?

Another player in the effort to create a more efficient energy infrastructure is demand response. If energy use is driven by demand, why not reduce the demand? Turn off the lights when they're not needed, switch to more efficient motors, optimize use in real time. One company that has attacked this opening on the industrial side is EnerNOC. Based here in Boston, EnerNOC currently manages about 900 MW of "demand". In the event of a high demand event, say a very hot day or a very cold day, EnerNOC, through its network of customers managed with its technology, can reduce demand in as little as 30 minutes. Their clients agree to allow parts of their business (things that will not affect the operations of the company) to be turned off, throttled back, or even turned on (like back up generators) under EnerNOC's management to help the utility meet the region's demand. What does this mean? Less power is needed, and potentially, when tied into the smart grid of the future, the need for many thousands of megawatts in new generation facilities could be avoided. It works because the clients earn money by supplying power to the grid, EnerNOC makes money as the matchmaker, and the grid operator saves money (potentially lots of money) by avoiding the purchase of high priced peak power. Winning all around.

All of these tools contribute to the reduction of climate changing CO2 emissions, reduce costs associated with electricity generation, transmission, and use, and moves us ahead in our thinking of what our energy systems should be.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cradle to Cradle "Stuff"?


Well, it may not be perfect, but the BioMoGo shoe from Brooks Sports is pretty darn cool. It was interesting to note that the news made it around the web pretty quickly, with the post on CSRWire coming up first yesterday, but now not even on the same page with the premier listing from SocialFunds on the Google search. of course Social Funds is just passing along the CSRWire Content.

Toyota took a bit of a knock from the Economist this week, A wobble on the road to the top. The magazine did not appear enchanted with the publicity stunt at the Tokyo Auto Show last month. The interesting undertone of the article was Toyota's commitment to being socially responsible becoming a bit of a liability. Yes, the article called out the quality problems with the new Camry and the Tundra, but what struck me was the way the author called them on the carpet for not being as green as they could be. The main point being that some Prius owners joined demonstrations to protest Toyota's "betrayal" for aligning with the Big Three to resist the proposed raising of the CAFE mileage standards to a fleet average of 35 mpg. Guess what? They still want to sell their big trucks in the US, with GM and Ford are on the ropes (GM is showing glimmers of innovation with the Volt and is managing to fool some of us with their FlexFuel Ethanol ads). I suppose we still want to do the "A Ha! Got you!" to the Corporations...and why not?

Recycline has made another addition to their line of recycled plastic housewares, focusing on kicthen and bath. I had the opportunity to see these items as they were hitting the street at the local Boston Cleantech Netimpact dinner earlier this week. I'm not much of a cook, but I did note that the items "felt" good. They were not flimsy nor were they too heavy. The strainer appeared to be well designed to include handles as well as tapered sections for pouring out the contents. The Preserve line now includes cutting boards, strainers, and resealable bowls of recycled plastic and environment friendly resin-coated post consumer paper cutting boards. Visti Whole Foods Markets to check them out (sorry! No Pacific NW yet).

With a nod to last weekend's BGI internsive at which we discussed Tsinghua Unisplendour Taihetong Envirotech as our accounting case study, along with our online class discussion about social justice and base of the pyramid business models, I found this article, How to make the perfect compost lavatory, interesting. There is so much opportunity for local community growth in developing countries if we look at people differently, perhaps taking off the pity lens and using the encouragement and opportunity lens.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's a Big Problem, MIT Enterprise Forum


I am not really sure I have the time for this, nor am I sure what I was expecting as I attended the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge's event entitled, How Innovative Businesses are Combating Global Warming. I was hoping to gain some insight into what businesses are doing to measure and manage their CO2 footprints, perhaps helping me along with the project I am working on with my ALP team at BGI. That was an incorrect hope, and if I had bothered to read the bios of the speakers attending the event, I probably woulds have picked that up. Here's who was there;

Keynote address: Ian Bowles - Secretary, Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

Panelists:
So, first off, all the good policy news from the representative of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Massachusetts is back in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) I never knew we were out!
  • There are new (pending) regulations for GHG assessments on large (whatever that is) real estate developments
  • The state is promoting the development of cellulosic ethanol production. Mr. Bowles took a mild swipe at corn based ethanol for its pathetic energy equation. It's a way to send $$$ to the corn-belt states and big agribusiness. Of course in Iowa, they'll swipe at the coasts.
  • Evergreen Solar is building a new plant in Devens, MA.
  • Great Point Energy is building a clean energy demonstration center at Dominion's Brayton Point generation station in Somerset,MA.
  • There was something innocuous said about encouraging the installation of 250 MW of PV in 10 years (there is currently 4 MW)
Enough of the fluff. Professor Schrag got up and proceeded to blast us with a miniature version of The Inconvenient Truth. We watched a video clip of the Arctic Ice sheet in its spring time seasonal changes from January to September 2007. Guess what? 2007 was a new low point in the overall ice volume. What does that mean? If all the ice is gone from the Arctic Ocean, Greenland's ice is very vulnerable...could lead to a 5m rise in sea level...when? I don't know. Then, we were regaled with various CO2 concentration graphing scenarios, including the graph of the CO2 analysis from the Vostok ice core, covering 400,000 years of CO2 concentrations. We're headed WAY OFF the scale of what came before us.

The amazing part of this was the collective psychic sigh, a palpable rise in the anxiety of the room. It was as if someone had fitted each of us with a vacuum that sucked hope and optimism out of the room, yet, as quickly as it was gone, as the topic moved on, we recovered and listened intently to the people at the front of the room. It was an intense moment. The problem is massive, and we are not off to a good start making any sort of dent in the continued rise of atmospheric CO2.

There was one point when I nearly leaped from my seat to announce that I am hearing no new thinking here. I believe I am paraphrasing Einstein when I say that we are attempting to solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that got us here...that cannot work.

In an effort at levity, Monty Python may help out.
Random "green" news snippets from around the web:

Barney's Goes Green for the Holidays
Hollywood Goes Green
Ecozone TV
Distributed Energy Resources - The New Internet? In fact, would it be accurate to say the distributed generation is more democratic than centralized generation?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

BGI Intensive #2


The last weekend was spent with 100+ of my fellow BGI green MBA compatriots at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island; it was Intensive #2. It's all a bit of blur, a total of four days with a group of experienced and creative people, feeding off of the collective creativity and energy, and continually marveling at what people bring to the community. Flying to Seattle (carbon footprint?) Wednesday evening and then taking the red eye back Sunday night makes for a bit of a fatigue producing event, but I think I am surviving. Add to that a bit of carrying-on with the youngsters on Friday and Saturday night made for a nap-filled Sunday afternoon. I suppose I would prefer to stay there ad infinitum; coming home is like leaving a comfortable and protected place (photo courtesy of classmate Patrick Torres).

In any case, the weekend's main event was an assignment to make the business case for a sustainability to a company. It could be a completely fabricated company, or it could be one that one of the students worked for (or maybe wanted to work for). We broke up into small groups and had one faculty reviewer along with our classmates. I found myself incredibly anxious leading up to the event; one main reason, I did not prepare as well as I could. I regurgitated a presentation I created for a job interview in NYC with Interface more than two years ago. I did not get that job...perhaps that was an indicator of how "good" the material was. While I believe the main points I had identified for the discussion were good, my analysis of their impacts on the company as well as the financial bottom line benefits of attacking the issues was weak. The good news is that I recognize the short-comings, accepted the feedback constructively, and learned from the experience; use the graphics and the material to support the message, don't force the message into the format.

From my reading this week, Leading Teams;

Team Coaching:
  1. Motivation (at the start)
  2. Consultation (half time!)
  3. Education (after the close)
Focus on the team's ability to get tasks done, not on their interpersonal relationships.
Comments from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline Chapter 11; Dialogue v. Discussion.
In dialogue there is the free and creative exploration of complex and subtle issues, a deep "listening" to one another and suspending of one's own views. By contrast, in discussion different views are presented and defended and there is a search for the best view to support decisions that must be made at this time. Dialogue and discussion are potentially complementary, but most teams lack the ability to distinguish between the two and to move consciously between them.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Understanding the Audience "Green Week"


So, NBC and CNBC are in Green Week. This is way cool. Has it reached such a fever pitch that the networks are hanging their hats on being green? Joel Makower of GreenBiz is way ahead of me, and has a full blown interview, but he does this for a living, right?

Watching Jim Cramer's Mad Money on CNBC last night as I flew to Seattle for round two at BGI, I caught the tail end of his interview with David Crane (what appeared to be) a classmate of his from Harvard and CEO of NRG Energy. This is the same guy that just wrote the Washington Post Editorial on the need for a federal cap-and-trade system to help us reduce our carbaholism. Clearly, he is out on the PR path banging the drum for NRG's strategy, including the construction of two new nuclear power plants in Texas. He gave more of a nod to photovoltaics as an alternative (Jim mentioned First Solar, of which I actually own a few shares) but did not seem to high on wind because of it's intermittent nature and cost due to the weak dollar killing the imports of wind components shipped from Europe.

The good thing about the integration of green themes into the week of NBC programming is just that; integration. Interweaving sustainable thinking into our everyday actions is what we ought (that's a tough word) to be doing. Perhaps their efforts at integration will be absorbed by those glued to the television.

When the Street traders are getting excited about energy stocks, then green & clean energy must be gaining more momentum.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Our Perceptions Create Reality


The leaves no longer flitter in the trees, they crunch underfoot as a stroll in the early morning chill through Beaver Brook Reservation. I like the autumn, though once we get into mid-late November and the leaves are long gone and the cold rain starts, it is not so much fun. The loss of ground cover also serves to uncover more garbage that passers by have tossed aside for someone else to worry about. This depresses me, and all too easily rekindles the deeply held cynicism that has developed in me over the last 6 years regarding our relationship with the natural world. Talk about making a leap in assumption, a few people decide to throw cans and bottles in the woods and I am writing off the entire population!? That does not make much sense.
I have nearly completed listening to “True to Our Roots”, the story of Fetzer Vineyard’s journey into sustainability starting in the late 80’s early 90’s from Audible.com. There are many points that I can take from Paul Dolan's narrative about this journey, most of which involve my own attitude, perceptions, and mental models of the world I inhabit. Generally, I think people "don’t get it” about climate change, toxic substances in the environment, sustainable business, and social equity. I all too easily write people off as having no clue about our contribution to climate change, no awareness of what we are doing to the planet that our next generations will inherit. Mr. Dolan repeatedly notices his own preconceptions and judgments about the people he works with and interacts with; he is the one creating the negative space about a particular individual that may inhibit the person’s ability to fully contribute to the organization and to the mission. If I somehow feel that I "get it", am I not obligated to structure the message in a way that engages others? Am I not also obligated to offer my beliefs and assumptions to those around me to uncover blind spots? What if some of the things I "get", or I believe in are patently false? Shouldn't I know that?
In my life and my work, I do the same thing to myself; I label myself as my job function; my job is to search out revenue. In the past six years I have looked for sales & marketing jobs; that is what I am. I sometimes find that I think this way about the people i interface with, they're a purchasing agent or a manufacturing technician or a customer service representative. No, they're brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. Labels become so limiting and restricting.
I know that the products and services I have sold over the years will some day end up in a landfill and the CO2 emitted from my travels are greater than the average. I am more than likely making more of an impact than I profess to want to make. Certainly there is hypocrisy in this life, and it grates on me. Yet, even as my reality is not in alliance with the future I see for myself, I have the power to take action now, in small ways, and make the effort in other areas to move myself and people around me in a sustainable direction. I recognize the gap between reality and the desired state, and have only to manage the creative tension it creates to work to close the gap.
As Peter Senge says near the end of The Fifth Discipline, ”get started.”