Kilowatt Ours

Filmmaker Jeff Barrie is trying to kick a habit. As part of this crusade, he recently attended a showing of his film, Kilowatt Ours at William & Mary. When the film ended, he stood up in the front of the theater, and introduced himself as an addict: “Hi, my name is Jeff, and I use electricity.” Barrie isn’t the only one with an addiction. Kilowatt Ours opens with footage of Vice President Cheney claiming that the United States will need 1,900 new power plants in the next 20 years to meet projected energy demands. Wow. How could anyone expect to even trip up the juggernaut of American energy usage, let alone slow it down enough to make a real difference? Barrie has an answer.

His film shifts the viewer’s focus from the seemingly unconquerable problems of global warming, rising oil prices, and ever increasing energy needs, to manageable personal issues. Barrie hones in on little ways we all tend to waste energy, and points out easy ways to stop that waste. He and his wife, his co-star in the film, replaced their light bulbs and appliances with more energy efficient products, and made sure they turned off or unplugged anything that wasn’t necessary. With little changes like these, they dramatically reduced their monthly energy bill, saving both money and resources. The Barries’ experiment with their own electricity addiction in the microcosm of their home has the potential to change the macrocosm of America’s electricity usage.

According to Barrie, a typical American home emits twice the annual global warming emissions of a typical car. If Americans decided to make just a few minor changes around their houses, the energy they could potentially save is enormous. Some ambitious college students in Maine are demonstrating this potential right now. Bowdoin College holds an energy conservation competition between dorms every October. Last year, the competition saved the college 52,228.5 kilowatt hours of energy, the equivalent of 104,000 pounds of CO2. Taking this much CO2 out of the air would require planting 155 trees. This year, some students are upping the ante and studying by headlamp rather than turn on their lights. Now that’s conservation.

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Published in: on October 21, 2007 at 5:41 pm Comments Off on Kilowatt Ours

“Green Collar” Jobs

I have to admit, I’m a big fan of Thomas L. Friedman. Yes, at times he can be a bit Biden-esque with his incredulity over the originality of his own ideas. And true, he has a penchant for trying to coin kitschy catch phrases. But Tom Friedman is a thinker, and more importantly, he’s a listener, and I like that. Now that N.Y. Times Select is free again, his editorials are available at no cost. I think he’s the best around.

Solar PanelsFriedman’s piece today was an anecdotal account of his encounter with Van Jones, a black social activist-environmentalist in Oakland, California. Friedman recounted Jones’s view that if you go door-to-door in neighborhoods troubled with violence, unemployment, and poverty, an environmental argument about “sav[ing] the polar bears!” and melting glaciers is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Jones’s passion, then, has been devising ways to fuse America’s pressing need for environmental and energy reform, with the problems facing disadvantaged communities. His nonprofit organization, Green for All, seeks to do precisely that in two ways.

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Published in: on October 17, 2007 at 10:54 pm Comments Off on “Green Collar” Jobs

Say Hi to Hydrogen

Hydrogen, long lauded as a potential alternative to fossil fuels, has had a slow start. But for those of you sick of filling up your gas tank with expensive and polluting fossil fuels take note; Honda has announced that they plan on selling a hydrogen fuel cell powered car in 2008. Granted, the current ticket price for the Honda FCX is around $3 million, but some companies that are already retro-fitting existing internal combustion engines to use hydrogen gas estimate that with mass-production the costs could go to a much more reasonable $20-25,000.

The hydrogen engine is similar to a gasoline engine, in that the hydrogen fuel is used in conjunction with a battery. However, the similarities end there. The “hydrogen fuel cell” is a misnomer; the hydrogen gas doesn’t actually act as a fuel. Instead, the hydrogen reacts with oxygen in a complicated way, resulting in a highly efficient transfer of energy into a battery for storage. Then the battery powers the moving parts of the car. If that doesn’t make sense to you, as it doesn’t really to me, just imagine the hydrogen fuel cell as a producer of energy, similar to the outlet on your wall. The only difference between the fully electric car and the hydrogen car is that hydrogen reaction creates the energy that powers the attached battery, whereas electricity from your wall (and previously coal, wind, or nuclear power plants) powers the electric car.

The benefits of hydrogen fuels have long been debated, but we now know that it is possible to run a car that lives up to current consumer requirements solely on hydrogen power. (more…)

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 7:11 pm Comments Off on Say Hi to Hydrogen

Ranking the Cleanest Cities

SustainLane Government an “open-source knowledge base” focusing on sustainable development at the state and local level, recently released their rankings for 2006’s top U.S. cities for clean technology incubation clusters. The group defines a Cleantech incubation cluster as a combination of “Cleantech investments, infrastructure and supportive policies [that form] a physical “cluster.” Ideally, these clusters arise out of combined efforts by venture capital groups, research labs, and active state/local encouragement via proactive programs and incentives. Not surprisingly, and further supporting the growing feeling in many of our guts that it is the coolest state ever, California has three cities in the top five: San Jose, Berkeley, and Pasadena.

San Jose is apparently leading the way nationwide in developing solar power
technologies (don’t ask me what the difference between proprietary thin-film
technology and semi-conductor wafer cells is, but apparently the valley’s
tech firms are mastering both).

Due in part to a $500 million investment (to be shared with the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana) by BP, Berkeley is looking to become “the center of the universe for biofuels.” Intriguingly, included in the scope of this project is the creation of synthetic biofuels, which apparently don’t require all the corn, soy bean or other agricultural matter that typically gets poured into the melange that is biofuel.

Finally, Pasadena was included in the list for its welcoming atmosphere, fostered by the abundance of willing angel investors and venture capitalists in combination with Caltech’s research programs. This environment has proven quite conducive to Cleantech firms, including those on the cutting edge of solar and methane power technologies.

So what is it about California?

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Published in: on March 8, 2007 at 12:59 am Comments Off on Ranking the Cleanest Cities

A Convenient Screening

Please join us tomorrow, Tues., Feb. 27 @ 5:15pm for a screening of the Academy Award winner for Best Documentary:

The film documents Mr. Gore’s travels around the world to present his slideshow describing the threat of global warming. A review on IMDB.com writes that, “A longtime advocate for the environment, Gore presents a wide array of facts and information in a thoughtful and compelling way. Al Gore strips his presentations of politics, laying out the facts for the audience to draw their own conclusions in a charming, funny and engaging style, and by the end has everyone on the edge of their seats, gripped by his haunting message.”

*Free pizza and soda* will be served graciously by the Environmental Law Society at 5:15pm, and the film will start at 5:30.  Following the film, Professor Erin Ryan of the Law School will lead a discussion.
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Published in: on February 26, 2007 at 8:09 pm Comments (3)

Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency

On November 29th, 2006, the Supreme Court heard Massachusetts v. EPA (Docket #05-1120), an important challenge to the Bush administration’s refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles. Petitioners included eleven states, three major American cities, including New York, and several major environmental groups including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. Spearheaded by Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly, the case is a direct challenge to two positions the EPA has held since 2003: that it lacks the authority to regulate carbon dioxide (PDF), and thus, that it lacks the authority to regulate greenhouse emissions from automobiles. If petitioners prevail, the result will be small but significant in consequence: The EPA will have to make a formal assessment of the potential danger to public health posed by greenhouse gas emissions. If agency scientists then determine that the gases are a threat, as much of the scientific community believes they are, regulations would then be crafted to address this serious problem.

The EPA contends that it lacks legal authority under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to regulate greenhouse emissions, including the four which this action sought to reduce: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydroflourocarbons. The Massachusetts complaint challenged the EPA’s assertion that it lacks this authority. Prior to June 2003, the EPA’s stance, as voiced by former General Counsel Jonathan Z. Cannon, was that carbon dioxide was subject to regulation under the CAA (PDF). The EPA’s drastic shift to their new position was spurred by another complaint filed by Massachusetts in 2003 alleging that the EPA had a duty to implement regulations on greenhouse gases, which, if successful, would have forced regulations to be placed on the automobile industry. Confronted by this possibility, the EPA suddenly shifted its official position on carbon dioxide and promptly ruled in the negative on a petition for rulemaking made by a collection of environmental groups in 1999, in which the groups demanded greenhouse regulation of automobiles. Thus, if the Supreme Court rules for petitioner, the EPA will be forced to take the position that it does have the authority to regulate greenhouse emissions, a sea change that could have significant and wide-ranging effects for this country, the most obvious of which would be something similar to a Kyoto Protocol-style greenhouse reduction strategy.

To be sure, the Bush administration does not want the petitioners to prevail in this case. President Bush rejected the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol in the United States during his first term, a plan which would have required reductions in greenhouse emissions, arguing that such reductions would place an economic burden on automobile manufacturers that would hurt the nation’s economy. The empirical evidence for this assertion is lacking, however, and is a bad-faith message to send to the other 169 signatories, including China, India, Russia, Brazil, and all of Western Europe. As echoed by two amicus briefs filed in support of petitioners by eighteen leading scientists, including James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Sherwood Rowland, a Nobel Prize-winning researcher at UC-Irvine, and four former EPA administrators, the point is not that our country should be doing more to combat the global warming phenomenon — it’s that we cannot afford NOT to be doing more. As Judge Tatel wrote in his dissent to the D.C. Circuit’s denial of rehearing on this case, “If global warming is not a matter of exceptional importance, then those words have no meaning.” (PDF)

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Published in: on February 21, 2007 at 10:20 pm Comments Off on Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency

A Windfall Profits Tax, Take Two?

A popular buzzword(s) these days is “alternative energy.” Conservatives, like President Bush and his band of merry White House environmentalists, give it a perfunctory mention every State of the Union Address, while progressives stress the importance of energy independence and “green” technology. The problem, of course, is that while most people agree that devising new methods to deal with carbon emissions, petro-politics, and energy shortages would be advantageous to America’s longterm interests, ideas and political leadership on these issues are typically as rare as an apology from V.P. Cheney.

So, what to do? What is needed? Are there any legislative options out there that are politically palatable and at the same time at least potentially effectual? Yes: One such measure is a windfall profits tax for the largest oil companies. But what would such a tax (ah, a scary word, I know…boo!) encompass?

A WPT is an excise tax on oil when its price exceeds some pre-set level. This is precisely what was imposed by President Carter in 1980, in response to the excessive profits realized by oil companies following a sharp increase in prices after the Arab oil embargo. The WPT was then repealed by President Reagan in 1988.
Much to my surprise, I learned in researching for this post that there is, in fact, currently a bill in Congress that would seek to re-impose a temporary windfall profit tax on some of the more rotund oil companies: Senate Bill 1631, which is currently in the Finance Committe.

This bill would impose a 50% excise tax on the windfall profits earned by U.S. oil companies for every barrel of crude oil sold over the price of $40 a barrel. The windfall profits would be exempted if they were used for investments in the production of renewable fuels, as well as increasing domestic refinery capacity. The annual revenues collected from this would be returned to American taxpayers in the form of a rebate check.

I’d go one step further…get rid of the rebate check. That is silly in practice, as we saw with President Bush’s 2001 tax rebate (as if moving from a surplus to a deficit was worth a $300 check). Instead, I would advocate placing the billions and billions in revenues earned from the WPT in special funds for alternative energy and green technology investment. There are deserving, eager laboratories and science foundations out there that are ready and willing to tackle this problem of our foreign oil dependency…let them loose, with public and private funding.

What is attractive about a WPT? For one, although it is semantically scary, in that it is a “tax,” conservatives would be hard-pressed to trot out the “tax and spend liberal” boogey man, because doing so would require defending people like Lee Raymond, the recently retired Exxon chairman who left with a nearly $400,000,000 retirement package after his company made a record $36,000,000,000 profit last year (I’m writing out the zeros for a reason). A tax on oil companies is a tax that people and politicians alike can support without fear of retribution.

What are arguments against a windfall profits tax? Some conservatives argue that an unintended effect of a WPT would be to “discourage domestic oil production,” in effect disadvantaging domestic oil producers and strengthening OPEC’s bargaining power.

I say “phooey” to this for two reasons: First, expanding “domestic oil production” is not necessarily something that is particularly appealing. More drilling off the coast of Florida, tapping into wildlife preserves in Alaska, trying to squirt out every last ounce of black gold out from under the sun-dried plains of Texas and Oklahoma? Unsafe, not sustainable in the long-run, and sooo 20th century. New thinking demands not simply doing what used to work, times two, but thinking of creative solutions to adapt to new times.

Second, I believe the conservative argument that taxing excessive oil company profits will embolden OPEC is wrong, and, in fact, would have the opposite effect. The best way–the ONLY way–that America will undermine the stronghold that the faceless “sheiks and mullahs” have over our nation’s energy policy is to no longer need their petroleum. Using money derived from excessive oil company profits to make advances in alternative energy is the first step.

If we invest in alternative fuels, new cars, and energy intake reduction, we will actually weaken foreign leaders who act more insolently and defiantly when oil prices are high (because our demand for it is high, and they can always decrease the supply). For a fantastic article on this phenomenon, check out Tom Friedman in Foreign Policy, here.
i

iIn 1961, President John F. Kennedy said:

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Published in: on February 15, 2007 at 5:09 pm Comments (10)

Green Belts Are Fashionable

This article from a Lansing, Michigan newspaper caught my attention a few weeks ago–I received it from Google’s neat alert service–and I wanted to post it for any who are interested in green land use and smart growth.

What struck me the most was how a group of grassroots conservationists decided to put their money where their collective mouth is to buy a swath of land on the outskirts of their city with the hope that other groups would follow suit and help create a commonly owned green belt. Although the article presents a number of perspectives that say such an initiative probably won’t work unless local governments meet them halfway, it sounds like some local governments are doing just that–not just in Michigan, but in Oregon, Colorado, Tennessee, and other states.

For local enthusiasts, apparently Virginia Beach has a green belt-like Urban Growth Barrier, and, although not a green belt–which aren’t really mixed use, but rather act as a buffer between urban and rural areas with strictly regulated building codes in place to prevent sprawl— Virginia has jumped on board the smart growth bandwagon in other ways, particularly with the intriguing Haymount project, a new community being developed based on New Urbanism principles of sustainable development and mixed use.

The intersection and commingling of grassroots action and progressive, top-down policy initiatives by local government, such as what’s happening in Michigan, presents more than a few intriguing possibilities for any community of like-minded folks. With this sort of cooperation, a variety of separate interests are met–the commercial developer’s, the conservationist’s, and more. It’s great to see government working hand in hand with the people, as that’s what it’s really all about, this thing called democracy. (more…)

Published in: on February 7, 2007 at 11:16 am Comments (1)

Kick That Filthy Habit

I wrote a little something for the Georgetown Public Policy Review’s new online publication and thought I’d share it here. I’ll cut and paste the first couple of paragraphs, but check out the whole piece over at their website if you’re interested in reading about an effort to increase America’s energy independence.

At the State of the Union address this year, President Bush diagnosed our country with chronic petroleum syndrome. “America is addicted to oil,” he said. The symptoms have been immortalized in Jack Kerouac’s words, Nat King Cole’s lyrics, and Tom Cochrane’s crooning “life is a highway, and I want to ride it all night long.”

I headed out on the highway this summer to take part in an American rite of passage – the cross-country road trip. Some buddies and I decided we wanted to see a few baseball games, pick up hitchhikers, lose money in Las Vegas and burn a whole bunch of oil.

But then we realized we’d have no money leftover for Vegas, as our budget would inevitably be destroyed by the rising cost of gasoline.With prices at the pump averaging over $3 this summer, there was no way we could afford the trip from sea to shining sea. And after a screening of “An Inconvenient Truth,” we knew we had to figure out some other way to cruise across the country that would be cleaner and more responsible.

“Is it possible to drive coast to coast on ethanol?”

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Published in: on October 25, 2006 at 12:58 am Comments Off on Kick That Filthy Habit