Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Interview With David Orr


Eyeing the Difficult Path To a Sustainable Future

Environmentalist David Orr says the easy part of helping the United States live within its ecological limits may be passing laws, such as one that puts a price on carbon. The hard part, he maintains in an interview with Yale Environment 360, is changing a culture of consumption that causes extensive environmental damage — and unhappiness.

Long before buzzwords like “carbon footprint” entered the general lexicon, David W. Orr was working on ways to help humanity lighten its impact on the natural world. A professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College and the author of six books, including Ecological Literacy, Orr has focused on how to best educate students about using the Earth’s resources prudently. He also has been a leading proponent of sustainable design on the country’s college campuses, and was the driving force behind building Oberlin’s $7 million Environmental Studies Center, considered a model of green architecture in the U.S.

Most recently, in his book Down to the Wire, Orr tackled the problem of global warming, which he refers to as “planetary destabilization.” The solution, he writes, will require that as the developing world raises its standards of living, the industrialized world must curtail the runaway materialism that has exacted a heavy toll on the natural world.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 senior editor Fen Montaigne, Orr talked about the current battle over climate and energy legislation, President Obama’s missed opportunity to use his “bully pulpit” to educate the public about global warming, and what he calls the right wing’s “unconscionable misuse” of the airwaves to spread lies and misinformation about climate change.

Orr says that for America and the industrialized world to move onto a truly sustainable footing, society must awaken to what he calls the “profoundly
David W. Orr
disquieting” effects of the “frantic search for more money and more stuff.” He sees signs of this awakening in the local food movement, the new urbanism pulling people back to cities, and a growing environmental awareness among the younger generation. Much of the shift from “hyper individualism” and rampant consumerism to a greener, more community-oriented lifestyle, says Orr, “will not only be possible and not only be painless, but in fact will help us create higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.”

Yale Environment 360: This has been a very rough [few] months for people interested in the threat of global warming. There was the relative lack of action in Copenhagen, the controversy over the hacked e-mails, the stalled action on the climate bill in the U.S. Congress, and polls showing that Americans, at least, are in fact becoming more skeptical about climate change and perhaps weary of the subject.

David Orr: The good news is that climate science survived intact. The hacked emails didn’t show anything much more than professional chatter you get in the teacher’s lounge or the wash-up room outside a surgery theater in a hospital. There was nothing that impugned the science. And the one mistake that was apparently found in the IPCC Fourth Report didn’t amount to much — the Himalayan glaciers disappearing in 35 years, that was also corrected elsewhere in that report. On the public attitudes and opinions, the issues were compounded by recession on one side and people’s attention automatically sways over to economic and bread and butter issues when times are hard.

On the politics of climate, I’m actually fairly optimistic that there will be climate legislation passed. I think that there is, strangely enough, a kind of emerging consensus in some parts of the Republican Party that they can’t stonewall on this issue forever. I think the logic of the situation, the vast weight of the science, and the prospect of continually destabilizing weather patterns is kind of an inexorable force pushing us toward some kind of response to these issues... The political response so far at the national and international levels has been clearly inadequate. But I think the weight of all of this has got to change that at some point.

e360: You think some sort of legislation would be passed, in the form of cap-and-trade, or a carbon tax?

Orr: The difference is not necessarily in the mechanism, it’s the will to make the mechanism work. The best designed cap-and-trade system you can imagine, without the political will to actually execute, would be

If you get climate and energy right, you get a whole lot of other things right, as well.”

disastrous, and the same would be true of taxation... But I think either of those, or both of them in combination, would be a smart policy. The way the bill came out of the house, the Waxman-Markey bill, it was way too complicated. Way too many concessions to fossil fuel industries. I would prefer if you’ll have cap-and-trade, an auction system with the proceeds then sent back to the public, or put into public investment or some combination of the two.

e360: But the American public just doesn’t yet seem convinced of [global warming]. What’s it going to take?

Orr: Gallup polls show the American public is the least informed and most confused about the issue of any public in developed nations. It is part of the problem. Now why are they confused? There are several obvious components to an answer. One is that the educational system turns out people who really don’t understand science and how the Earth works as a physical system. And the other is, frankly, the continual flow of bad information, misinformation, outright lies, and distortion that come through the media system. So the fact that 91 percent of talk radio, according to Center for American Progress, is extreme right wing, where you’re not going to hear anything about climate change and what they do is going to be mostly wrong... This is an unconscionable misuse of the public commons to confuse the public about an issue on which there is virtually unanimity amongst scientists who study climate for a living. It doesn’t mean, however, that there are no unknowns on this issue. There are unknowns.

e360: If something is going to be done before it is too late, how do you leap that hurdle?

Orr: In the president’s Climate Action Project, which was aimed at the first 100 days of the Obama administration, we proposed the president go to the American public, right out of the starting box, and give the climate equivalent of the Day of Infamy speech. And walk the public through the science. Use what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit, as a chief educator of the public. And walk us through why this is a critical issue. So I think a good bit of what has to happen falls under the title of leadership.

e360: So clearly President Obama did not give that equivalent of the Day of Infamy speech. How disappointed are you that that didn’t happen?

Orr: Well, I think it was a mistake not to put that issue first. But that’s second guessing, and I’m just a professor in Ohio, and he’s president of the United States. But I think it should have been first for a couple of reasons. One is it is the most pressing issue. Let’s say we’ve gotten the perfect health care bill through, but the health of the planet is failing, that health bill doesn’t amount to much. Secondly, in terms of strategy, the climate and

Many people who live with a lot of consumption find life anything but sweet.”

energy issue is much more clearly, to most people, an economic issue. That is jobs and economic stimulation. Third reason is if you get climate and energy right, you get a lot of other things right as well. You lessen severe problems of security, balance of payments, pollution, unemployment, and you begin to take advantage of what Americans have typically done very well, and that’s technology. We’ve been historically very good at innovating and bringing in new kinds of technologies. That would have been in hindsight, from my perspective, a much smarter course than putting a health care bill first. But it also would have meant that the president needed to go to the public early and take an active role in driving climate legislation through Congress. I don’t think it was appropriate simply to sit back and let them hash it out.

e360: How would you judge the president’s overall performance on energy and the environment?

Orr: President Obama was given a very deep hole to climb out of. The economy was collapsing, we were fighting and losing two wars, the political environment of the country was just awful. And so he was given probably as tough a challenge as any president. On many things, the president has done I think extraordinarily well. Steven Chu, secretary of energy, is terrific. John Holdren, the [White House] science advisor, and Jane Lubchenco at NOAA — he’s appointed really good people. The stimulus package had a lot of money for wind power and development. What we don’t have is a framework for overall climate legislation. And I think that’s a huge problem. But he has done, to his credit, a great deal more than any other previous president to move us toward efficiency and renewable energy. But you always measure these things relative to the magnitude of the thing they’re trying to fix. And relative to climatic destabilization, that’s an interesting start, but it is not nearly enough at this point.

e360: You write that to really tackle this problem, countries like the U.S. have got to slash carbon emissions in the next 40 years about 90 percent, and that the average American’s production of carbon dioxide has got to go from about 22 tons a year to one or two tons. How do we get from here to there? How do you reduce the emissions of a public that’s living a pretty sweet life right now based on fossil fuels?

Orr: Well, a couple of comments. At the global level, this is being called, among other things, contraction and convergence. So developed economies

The frantic search for more stuff, and more money to buy more stuff, is profoundly disquieting.”

like the United States have got to begin to contract, and other economies will begin to converge on some number that allows us to stabilize climate. That’s the background of the picture. The foreground is, how do we actually get there? And I think there are a couple different answers to that. One is, we do need a price on carbon. And we do need clear signals to the public that when you buy a house, appliances, cars, anything that uses energy, you buy efficiency.

And secondly, we need public policies that make it easy to deploy renewable technologies. And so the Europeans have used feed-in tariffs, or in this country sometimes most states have now net-metering provisions, that you’re a small scale power producer you can net-meter, and the utility will buy back the power. Those things need to be streamlined. Public policy needs to be aligned with those long-term goals. And it is not now. You can look at any number of institutional, financial, and regulatory barriers that block any movement in that direction.

I think there’s another kind of answer, however, and that is that you say we live pretty sweet lives. But many of us don’t. And many people who live with a lot of consumption find life anything but sweet. But obviously GNP continued to rise so you’ve got to explain a gap between the amount of stuff that we make and we have and throw away, and the level of happiness or satisfaction that you’ve got. And that’s a big gap. And I think, in lots of ways, the growth economy created more junk than you needed, more expectations than it could meet, more waste than the environment could absorb, and more trouble generally than we needed to create. And the literature on happiness shows that, not surprisingly, happiness is a function of a much simpler calculation. Beyond some fairly minimal level of comfort, we find satisfaction in our friendships and social relationships. It’s what brings us together that makes us really happy and makes life satisfying. And to a great extent, the amount of stuff that we have, the frantic search for more stuff and more money to buy more stuff is profoundly disquieting... And I think the transition town movement, and the voluntary simplicity movement, and the slow food movement, and the slow money movement, are all driven by people who recognize we were defrauded. That system never worked as it was purported to work. And so I think there is a good bit of the quote “contraction” that will not only be possible and not only be painless, but in fact will help us create higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.

And I think the logic of higher fuel costs and climate change and terrorism — all these combined threats are the silver lining that there’s a better life for us that is a different way to think about society. It’s more self-contained towns. We found that when the real estate market collapsed, that the suburbs not only were lonely places fostering a lot of fossil fuel use, they were financially completely unsustainable. But they also weren’t that nice to

In making land use decisions, we need to escape from hyper individualism.”

live in sometimes. It was too much traffic. Too many hours spent in cars and freeways. The new urbanism, fairly tightly-contained places where you’ve got walking access or biking access to shops, stores, schools, employment, parks, recreation, nice downtowns — that’s now the pattern emerging in development. And it doesn’t surprise me a bit. It’s a convergence between human psychology and the need for sociability... And so we know that we can create that kind of development here. So could we make that transition? Yes. And I think that we’re moving in that direction. Fast enough? No. But there is movement in that direction.

And the logic of higher energy costs mean that the centrifugal pressures on urban development, which we call sprawl, will probably reverse and become much more centripetal, pulling people back into a coherent downtown area...

The changes are also going to have to be in public policy, the way what we tax, where we build infrastructure, if you build roads, wires, pipes — development tends to follow that. And what Portland, Oregon did years ago was to put a growth boundary around the city, which deflected investment into the city, and then secondly created a light rail system that made it very easy to move around in that system. So you go to Portland right now, it’s not Nirvana, but it’s a very nice city. There’s a recognizable downtown, it’s a 24/7 kind of place for the most part.

The larger issue to me is where politics and markets work together. Markets are where you and I say, “I.” And politics, where we conduct the public business, are where you and I say, “We.” Both within a generation, and then the “we” that also connects us to our grandchildren and the long-term future. And so I think there’s a larger political issue here that in making land use decisions and decisions about urban development, we need to escape from hyper individualism, that whatever I want, I can have, and into a very different view of the public good.

e360: You’re talking about what almost amounts to heresy in the United States, which is no more perpetual growth.

Orr: There’s a long literature on growth that shows unimpeachably that beyond some point, growth becomes ill wealth. It means you just compound your problems. The benefits begin to diminish relative to the problems it creates. And we all kind of know that. That’s no great revelation — that the idea that we can’t afford to build, let’s say, high-speed rail systems and light rail systems is nonsense. We subsidize cars. We do it indirectly. We subsidize road building, gasoline, all the military force we have to maintain to guarantee our access to cheap fuels. So we pay for

What appeared to be cheap energy wasn’t really cheap at all; you just didn’t account for it.”

these things whether we get them or not. And the assumption is we can’t afford environmental quality or sustainability, but in fact we’re paying for it. And you pay for a kilowatt-hour of electricity, and the reality is that it costs us a good bit more than that. And if you factor in costs of healthcare, asthma, lung disease, and the 20,000 to 50,000 people who die prematurely every year from breathing small particle pollution from coal-fired power plants that generate half of our electricity, all of a sudden the costs become prohibitively high. And so what appeared to be cheap energy wasn’t really cheap at all. It’s just that you didn’t account for it. You paid for it in health cost, and lost lives, and lost productivity, and land degradation, and water pollution, and so forth, but those were not tacked on to the electric bill that you got every month.

e360: On this issue of high-speed rail and light rail, do you think our sense of international competitiveness or national pride may work to the benefit of moving in the direction of more sustainable transportation, in that China is now building all these regional rail systems where they’re zipping around at 250, 300 miles an hour? Don’t you think that at some point Americans are going to go, “Hey, you know this whole green revolution, we’ve got to get on board here. We’re just lagging terribly behind Europe, behind China.”

Orr: The public [needs] to wake up and say, why doesn’t the Acela get 200 miles an hour? Why can’t we figure that out? The Chinese have done it. The Europeans have done it. Are we that dumb? And the answer is, until we decide not to be dumb, as Tom Friedman put it, “We can be as dumb as we want to be.” And we decided for the time being, that we’re going to be dumb. And it’s not an IQ problem, it’s frankly a political and communications problem.

And that’s our choice also. If the opposition party says, “We are going to throw sand in the gears and we’re not going to let us move on this.” You go back and you think, 1969, we created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Wilderness Act. We did all that, and I think there were only three or four negative votes against even the Endangered Species Act. It was Republicans and Democrats coming together.

We’ve done it in the past; there’s no reason why we couldn’t do it in the future. Except that the opposition party in this case now decides, “No, we’re not gonna play ball with you. Whatever it is, however good it is for the country, we’re not gonna play ball with you.” Now I don’t know what words you put that on. You can’t imagine — no terrorist has done that much damage to us. The Republican Party has decided, and I consider myself to be a somewhat conservative person, but this is no longer conservatism of the sort that Edmund Burke would have recognized. This is something else.

POSTED ON 25 MAY 2010 


 Yale Environment 360

Friday, May 21, 2010

Welcome to Plenitude

Welcome to Plenitude | Juliet Schor

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Welcome to Plenitude: the blog and my new website. I’m here to plant a stake in the heart of the Business-As-Usual economy and its bankrupt politics. As I write, oil is spewing out into the Gulf of Mexico, at the rate of perhaps 70,000 barrels a day, and a deadlocked Congress has produced an energy bill that calls for expanded offshore drilling. It’s true madness.

It’s one more example that the Business-as-Usual economy (to borrow a term from the climate discourse) has become profoundly dysfunctional. That conclusion is becoming widely accepted. But we’re having trouble moving beyond it. Plenitude is a vision for doing just that—getting us on a path that reverses the rampant destruction of the planet caused by BAU and restoring true well-being to people and communities. With the political system unable to reign in the corporations that drive emissions and economic activity, Plenitude starts in another place: with people. Its strategy is to say let’s get going on the path of reconstruction now. And it explains why it’s not only what we need to do for survival, but it embodies a savvy economic calculus.

It’s based on an idea that’s novel to the sustainability discourse, but is has been around in standard economics since the 1960s: when the returns from one activity fall, shift one’s energy and time into others. This is the theory of time allocation pioneered by Chicago economist Gary Becker. It’s also just plain common sense.

In the year 2010 this approach counsels shifting out of BAU jobs, to local, small-scale activity that helps reduce dependence on the market system and lowers ecological footprint. Why is this attractive? One reason is that the BAU market has less to offer. It is failing to provide adequate jobs on a staggering scale. An estimated 26 million Americans are either unemployed, under-employed or have gotten discouraged and stopped looking for work. That problem won’t go away even if the recovery continues. Incomes have fallen and government services are being cut. Wall Street and the wealthy have protected their outsized share of society’s production, but for the vast majority the prognosis is austerity.

Even if the recovery continues, wages and incomes are not likely to recover their pre-crash trajectory, in part because ecological constraints are closing in on us. As the global economy grows, rising prices for energy and food on the world market will erode the incomes offered by BAU. That’s what the standard discourse has to offer. You’ll be hearing more and more about belt-tightening, the need to sacrifice, and what we can’t afford. It’s a mantra that is coming from corporations to their employees, from government to their citizens, and from economists to anyone who will listen. It’ll dominate the debate about the deficit.

But trade-off economics is wrong. If we abandon BAU, we can transcend many of the no-win options currently on offer, discover new sources of wealth and re-invigorate old, but neglected ones. In future posts, I’ll get into detail on what these are.

Plenty of people have already started down this path. They’re growing vegetables, raising chickens and keeping bees. They’re going off the grid with solar and wind. They’re building their own homes, often with the help of friends and neighbors, using earth-friendly materials like straw, stone and compressed earth. They’re using open-source software to share newly acquired know-how about this alternative production paradigm. It’s a way of life that’s rich in creativity and autonomy. This movement is taking place in cities, small-towns and in rural areas. It’s not back-to-the land, it’s forward to a technologically advanced, knowledge-intensive way of life that is providing not only food, shelter and power, but also security, community and true well-being.

Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. Before joining Boston College, she taught at Harvard University for 17 years, in the Department of Economics and the Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Schor received her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Massachusetts.

Her most recent book is Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (The Penguin Press 2010). She is also author of the national best-seller, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (Basic Books, 1998). The Overworked American appeared on the best-seller lists of The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe as well as the annual best books list for The New York Times, Business Week and other publications. The book is widely credited for influencing the national debate on work and family. The Overspent American was also made into a video of the same name, by the Media Education Foundation (September 2003).

Schor also wrote Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner 2004). She is the author of Do Americans Shop Too Much? (Beacon Press 2000), co-editor of Consumer Society: A Reader (The New Press 2000) and co-editor of Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press 2002). An essay collection, Consumerism and Its Discontents is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2011. She has also co-edited a number of academic collections.

Schor is currently working on issues of environmental sustainability and their relation to Americans’ lifestyles and the economy and the emergence of a conscious consumption movement. She is a co-founder and co-chair of the Board of the Center for a New American Dream, a national sustainability organization.

She was a fellow at the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1995-1996 for a project entitled “New Analyses of Consumer Society.” In 2006 she received the Leontief Prize from the Global Development and Economics Institute at Tufts University for expanding the frontiers of economic thought. In 1998 Schor received the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contributions to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language from the National Council of Teachers of English. Schor’s scholarly articles have appeared in the Economic Journal, The Review of Economics and Statistics, World Development, Industrial Relations, The Journal of Economic Psychology, Ecological Economics, The Journal of Industrial Ecology, Social Problems and other journals. Schor has served as a consultant to the United Nations, at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, and to the United Nations Development Program.

In addition to the foregoing, Schor is a co-founder of the South End Press and the Center for Popular Economics. She is a former Trustee of Wesleyan University, an occasional faculty member at Schumacher College, and a former fellow of the Brookings Institution. Schor has lectured widely throughout the United States, Europe and Japan to a variety of civic, business, labor and academic groups. She appears frequently on national and international media, and profiles on her and her work have appeared in scores of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and People magazine. She has appeared on 60 Minutes, the Today Show, Good Morning America, The Early Show on CBS, numerous stories on network news, as well as many other national and local television news programs.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

'Grassroots Power' to Digital Data: Tech's Biogas 'Cow Connection'

May 18, 2010

One Moos and One Hums, but They Could Help Power Google

By ASHLEE VANCE, New York Times

Hey diddle diddle. Guess what the cow has done this time?

America’s dairy farmers could soon find themselves in the computer business, with the manure from their cows possibly powering the vast data centers of companies like Googleand Microsoft. While not immediately intuitive, the idea plays on two trends: the building of computing centers in more rural locales, and dairy farmers’ efforts to deal with cattle waste by turning it into fuel.

With the right skills, a dairy farmer could rent out land and power to technology companies and recoup an investment in the waste-to-fuel systems within two years, Hewlett-Packard engineers say in a research paper to be made public on Wednesday.

“Information technology and manure have a symbiotic relationship,” said Chandrakant D. Patel, the director of H.P.’s sustainable information technology laboratory, which wrote the report. “And having these data centers locally will give farmers a new opportunity.”

Companies have historically tended to build their large computing centers — often called server farms — in or near large cities and industries. As this practice has continued over the years, it has become difficult for companies building the largest data centers to find enough cheap electricity and real estate to meet their needs.

The rise of higher-speed data transfer networks, however, has given technology companies a chance to move farther from large populations and still be able to get information to them as quickly as they need it. So companies like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have been engaged in a mad dash to find spots in the United States that have plenty of electricity and land. As a result, more data centers have been built in states like Washington, Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma. If those locations are near dairy farms, so much the better.

Rather than being an alternative energy convenience, this approach could benefit companies operating in countries like China and India that need to find an economical way to power their computing centers.

Back on the farm, dairy producers have increasingly been looking to deal with their vast collections of smelly cow waste by turning it into something called biogas.

To make biogas, a farmer needs to buy specialized equipment that runs the manure through an anaerobic digestion process, which results in a large quantity of methane that can be used as a natural gas or diesel replacement.

“The average cow makes enough waste per day to power a 100-watt light bulb,” said Michael Kanellos, editor in chief at Greentech Media, a research and publishing firm.

According to H.P.’s calculations, 10,000 cows could fuel a one-megawatt data center, which would be the equivalent of a small computing center used by a bank. Mr. Kanellos has tracked both the data center and green technology industries and agreed that there was some convenient overlap. Computing equipment produces a lot of heat as a waste product, and the systems needed to create biogas require heat. So, there is a virtuous cycle of sorts possible.

“The cows will never replace the hydroelectric power used by a lot of these data centers,” Mr. Kanellos said. “But there is interest in biogas, and this presents another way to make manure pay.”

While many strapped farmers initially tried to create their own biogas plants, they have since found that it’s more economical to sell their manure to a shared biogas producer.

“It turned out that the small projects didn’t make sense,” said Rocky C. Costello, the president of R. C. Costello & Associates of Redondo Beach, Calif., which provides design services for people looking to create biogas plants.

California and Texas could benefit from the manure idea, Mr. Costello said, because they have large numbers of dairy cows, ties to the technology industry and centralized biogas centers. California, Wisconsin, New York, Idaho and Pennsylvania were the top dairy producers last year; according to the Agriculture Department.

Still, Mr. Costello cautioned that this form of alternative energy faced familiar practical challenges. “This just becomes less enticing as the price of natural gas gets lower,” Mr. Costello said. “Natural gas is so easy to get.”

H.P. has long experimented with different ways to operate data centers more efficiently, including having robots that travel around buildings keeping tabs on the temperatures of computers.

Mr. Patel said his grandfather in India burned cow manure for fuel in his village; the hope is that a more modern take on this practice could help support the build-out of India’s technology infrastructure.

It would cost a dairy farmer about $5 million to purchase the equipment needed for the biogas system and $30,000 to run it each year, Mr. Patel said.

H.P. has yet to construct its own manure-burning system, but may consider one for data centers in California or Texas, he said. “Stay tuned,” Mr. Patel said. “We are pushing ahead.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why The EIA’s Energy Outlook For 2010 Reveals Some Disturbing Figures

| May. 17, 2010, 2:10 PM |

By Robert Rapier from R Squared Energy Blog

The Energy Information Administration just released their Annual Energy Outlook for 2010: Annual Energy Outlook 2010

It is about 220 pages long, and therefore I haven’t had a chance to read it thoroughly. But in my skimming of it so far, there are a few interesting items to note. One of the things I was most curious about was whether they would show this scary graph that appeared in the 2009 Annual Energy Outlook:

Let that sink in for a just a minute. What that says is that global production in 2030 is forecast to be 43 million barrels, demand is forecast to be 105 million barrels, and we really don’t have any idea how we are going to cover 62 million barrels per day of demand by 2030. We are going to need a lot of oil to cover the depletion, so it is up to “unidentified projects” – or we will deal with huge shortages.

Certainly there will be plenty of projects that haven’t been identified that will contribute to supply. But the key question is “Will those be enough?” This is especially true in light of the current mess in the Gulf of Mexico, because a lot of that new oil was expected to come from offshore. But as I originally predicted, I think this blowout in the gulf really slows things down. A relevant news story on that theme from today:

A regulatory crackdown on offshore oil drilling after the fatal rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico will delay development of U.S. deposits with billions of barrels of crude and may spawn industry job cuts.BP Disaster Strands Billions of Barrels of Offshore U.S. Crude

“This oil spill was a disaster for the industry,” said Gianna Bern, president of Brookshire Advisory & Research in Flossmoor, Illinois, and a former BP crude trader. “It will ratchet up public debate on deep-water drilling by a couple of notches and put a lot of projects conceivably on the back burner.”

So this would seem to make last year’s graph even more ominous. But alas, so far I have not found that graph in this year’s report. In fact, for the most part this year’s report is pretty upbeat about future prospects. It suggests that CTL, GTL, and BTL will start to make significant contributions to global fuel supplies. It also suggests that in the U.S. high oil prices will finally make oil shale economical. This of course repeats the 100-year-old mantra about oil shale being just around the corner.

The report suggests that the 2022 cellulosic ethanol mandate will not be met “because economic and technological factors prevent cellulosic biofuel production from providing the credits that would be needed to meet the requirement.” They do forecast that by 2035 we will have figured it out and that “ultimately surpasses the RFS requirement as higher oil prices and lower production costs improve their competitiveness.”

Let me say that I have a lot of respect for the EIA, and use them extensively for data. I know they put a lot of hard work into this report. However, some of their predictions have become a running joke. If you want to have some fun reading, go back and look at some of their historical predictions from say, 2001. For instance, I always get a kick out of this graph, which makes an annual appearance:

It is always the same story. Sure, production has fallen in the U.S. for the past 35+ years, but starting next year things are going to turn around. You can see this same graph in every recent Energy Outlook. Then production falls for another year, and they move the line forward and forecast that the next year will be the turnaround year.

One other graph of note concerns their projections for growth of CTL, BTL, and oil shale:

I agree with them that there will be growth in CTL and BTL as conventional oil depletes, but I am still skeptical about whether oil can be produced from shale with a positive energy balance.

Anyway, lots of material to sort through, but I mainly wanted to call attention to the report so people can begin to digest it.

This is a guest post by Robert Rapier from R Squared Energy Blog.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

‘Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History

May 02, 2010|By Susan Salter Reynolds, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History

The Quest to Restore a Working Farm at Vita Sackville-West's Legendary Garden

By Adam Nicolson

Viking: 342 pp., $27.95

"It was a world that encouraged slowness, detail, attention," Adam Nicolson writes of his boyhood years at Sissinghurst, the 16th century castle where Vita Sackville-West had her famous garden, from 1930 until her death in 1962. Nicolson is the grandson of Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. His love for every square inch of the estate is contagious. Sissinghurst is in Kent, 50 miles south of London, in a part of England known as the Weald, which means forest. It covers hundreds of acres and attracts 115,000 visitors each year. It was opened to the public in 1938 and purchased by the National Trust in the 1960s, a long and difficult process of negotiation shepherded by Adam's father, Nigel.

Adam remembers the fields and forests, streams and crumbling towers. He writes about the hops garden, the orchards, the sound of nightingales and the mystery of ancient trees and mossy corners:

"Nowhere felt deeper or more like a vein under the skin than down in the bed of the Hammer Brook. It was an entrancing and different world, a green, wet womb, a place of privacy and escape. Along the banks, the alders and hazels were so thick that the wavering line of the stream was like a strip of wood run wild. Once beneath them, you were in a liquid tunnel, arched over with leaves, gloomy in its hollows, suddenly bright where the sun broke through, seductively cool when the day was burning on the fields outside. Where the shade was particularly thick, in the depth of the little wood, the sunlight still found its way between the alders and the maples, making spots of light no bigger than a hand or a face, dropped across the darkness as if by a brush, looking like the speckling on the skin of a trout, or those pools of light hair you find on the flanks of young deer."

This is vivid writing, made richer by the entirety with which Sissinghurst is woven into Nicolson's being. After his father died in 2004, Adam decided to revive Sissinghurst as a working, organic farm, which involved another set of negotiations with the National Trust. He and his family went to live there, and Nicolson spent a great deal of time researching farm records. Wheat, barley, hops, oats, rye, beans, potatoes, kale, sheep and other livestock — Nicolson steeped himself in the history of the land and the estate, which was visited in 1573 by Queen Elizabeth I and her retinue. He records his own efforts — successes and failures; the learning process. He quotes from Vita's diaries and from her poems, including this one, written in 1931, called "Sissinghurst": Buried in time and sleep,/So drowsy, overgrown,/That here the moss is green upon the stone,/and lichen stains the keep."

Monday, May 10, 2010

You’d Never Know He’s a Sun King

May 7, 2010

By TODD WOODY, New York Times


AMID the $6 million homes perched on a beachfront cliff in this conservative Southern California enclave, the seven-year-old Honda Civic hybrid with the Obama bumper sticker is the giveaway.

It’s not the usual drive of choice for wealthy former hedge fund managers like David Gelbaum. Then again, there’s not much that is business as usual about Mr. Gelbaum, an intensely private person who happens to be one of the nation’s largest — and largely unknown — green technology investors and environmental philanthropists.

Mr. Gelbaum has invested $500 million in clean-tech companies since 2002 through his Quercus Trust, amassing a portfolio of some 40 businesses involved in nearly every aspect of the emerging green economy, be it renewable energy, the smart electric grid, sustainable agriculture, electric cars or biological remediation of oil spills. He has poured almost as much into environmental causes.

“I think his impact on green technology is huge,” says Bill Gross, the serial technology entrepreneur and founder of eSolar, a solar power start-up in which Mr. Gelbaum has invested. “He is supporting bolder and riskier bets, and he’s doing it from a different filter than a traditional venture capitalist, and I think that makes a wider opportunity for success.”

In this economic downturn, many venture capitalists have grown cautious about putting money into what Vinod Khosla, the prominent Silicon Valley green tech investor, calls “science experiments.” But Quercus Trust is still taking chances on blue-sky start-ups pursuing technological breakthroughs.

Working outside the clubby venture capital network, Mr. Gelbaum has, until recently, maintained an obsessively low profile. In Silicon Valley, he remains something of an unknown. Associates say his near-invisibility is owed to a genuine modesty and concerns over the security of his family because of his wealth. Recipients of his philanthropy, for instance, signed confidentiality agreements that forbade mention of his name.

Mr. Gelbaum says he decided to break his long silence upon becoming chief executive in February of Entech Solar, one of his portfolio companies that is publicly traded. “This is what’s best for the company,” he says, pointing out that Entech benefits if he maintains a more public profile.

It is too early to predict whether Mr. Gelbaum’s big green bets will pay off. But he’s been capitalizing on two trends: the rapid decline in the price of photovoltaic power, and a focus on cutting capital costs as solar power competition with China intensifies.

His environmental philanthropy also gives him an influence beyond laboratories and boardrooms. He has given $200 million to the Sierra Club and $250 million to the Wildlands Conservancy, a land trust he co-founded that has acquired and preserved 1,200 square miles of land in California, including more than a half million acres of the Mojave Desert.

The desert land, which was donated to the federal government, has become the focus of a fight over environmental preservation and renewable energy development. At Wildlands’ urging, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced legislation in December to permanently protect the donated land. Though her opposition scuttled several multibillion-dollar solar power plants planned for the area, including some by eSolar’s rivals, even the competitors say that Mr. Gelbaum’s motivation was environmental, not economic.

The Wildlands Conservancy has emerged as a force promoting “distributed generation” — putting renewable energy installations on rooftops, near cities or on degraded farmland. Its efforts dovetail with Mr. Gelbaum’s belief that solar farms should not be built on pristine lands as well as his big bets on the emergence of a decentralized energy system tied together by smart grid software.

“I still don’t know which technology will end up winning, but I believe we’re on the cusp of a revolution in how energy is generated and distributed,” he says.

AT 61, Mr. Gelbaum has a receding hairline, a scruffy beard and glasses that frame curious eyes. Inside the circle of entrepreneurs who have received his financial backing, he has engendered a loyalty bordering on adoration.

“He’s got this big heart that’s coupled with such a keen intellect,” says Peter Corsell, the chief executive of GridPoint, a smart-grid software start-up backed by Mr. Gelbaum, Goldman Sachs and other investors. “He’s close to egoless, like a monk.”

Mr. Gelbaum grew up in Minnesota, moving to Orange County, Calif., in 1964 when his father, a mathematician, joined the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. He bounced around U.C. Berkeley and Humboldt State College in Northern California before returning to Irvine to receive his mathematics degree in 1972.

After graduating, he worked for a math professor, Edward O. Thorp, whose theories led to the establishment of what became Princeton/Newport Partners, one of the first investment firms to use mathematical formulas to price stocks and derivatives.

Princeton/Newport Partners collapsed in 1989, following the indictment of five executives in connection with a scheme to create illegal tax losses. Mr. Thorp and Mr. Gelbaum were not implicated, and an appellate court later overturned the other executives’ convictions.

Mr. Gelbaum was a co-founder of another hedge fund firm, the Sierra Enterprises Group, following the breakup of Princeton/Newport, and worked there until his retirement in 2002. Mr. Thorp says he lost contact with his onetime protégé during those years. “He was so low-key,” Mr. Thorp said by e-mail.

He began making contributions to the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in the late 1970s.

“I was interested in the environment because as a child my happiest memories were of camping and hiking,” says Mr. Gelbaum, speaking in a soft, raspy voice.

He says he has a longstanding admiration of the Sierra Club, dating back to a job he once had in sawmills that environmentalists were singling out in an effort to protect redwood forests.

Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, says he first met Mr. Gelbaum in 1992 when the financier called to talk about a state parks bond measure. That conversation led to others, and Mr. Gelbaum became the Sierra Club’s largest individual benefactor, financing programs to help the environmental organization reach out to hunters and veterans, as well as to African-Americans, Hispanics and other groups.

“Many of the environmental justice programs we carried out have been his idea,” says Mr. Pope.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Gelbaum also met David Myers, an ardent environmentalist. They founded the Wildlands Conservancy, which began to acquire vast swaths of the Mojave. They created nature preserves elsewhere in California that offered free outdoor programs for underprivileged children.

But he insisted that his generosity be kept anonymous. “I didn’t want to create problems for my family, and I also prefer not to take credit for these things,” says Mr. Gelbaum.

The mysterious millions attracted attention, however, and in 2004 The Los Angeles Times identified Mr. Gelbaum as the donor in the first profile of the philanthropist to be published. (He later confirmed that he had also given at least $93.5 million to the American Civil Liberties Union and $246.6 million to aid veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.)

Despite his wealth, Mr. Gelbaum remains unpretentious. He holds business meetings in a relatively modest mid-century Modernist home — albeit with a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean for a backdrop. He doesn’t surround himself with a large staff, fancy cars or private jets. After lunch, he even does his own dishes.

Mr. Gelbaum says he has given away or paid taxes on three-quarters of what he's had. "Philanthropy is a job and I was just doing my job," he says.

AS scores of green tech entrepreneurs have discovered, Mr. Gelbaum is not an absentee investor.

“He took an interest that’s much deeper than other investors, right down to the type of algorithms we’re writing,” says Mr. Corsell.

Rob Lamkin, chief executive of Cool Earth Solar of Livermore, Calif., was in the office at 7 one morning when the phone rang.

“There was a gentleman on the other end saying, ‘Good morning, my name’s David and I’m interested in solar,’ ” says Mr. Lamkin, whose start-up is developing power plants that generate electricity from inflatable solar receivers that resemble giant balloons.

Three months of phone conversations followed before Mr. Gelbaum revealed he was an investor. Around the same time in 2007, Bill Gross of eSolar received an e-mail message from a person who identified himself only as “David.”

“I didn’t know who he was,” Mr. Gross says, “but he really asked such thoughtful questions about the solar energy space, and that led me to reach out to him.”

Mr. Gelbaum showed up for a meeting at eSolar’s headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., wearing jeans and carrying a backpack. “He was so well versed in math and science, it was like we were talking to one of our engineers,” says Mr. Gross.

Mr. Gelbaum says he made what he considers his first green investment in 2002 when, impressed by the Prius, he bought stock in Toyota. He subsequently took large positions in a host of public renewable energy companies, including First Solar and SunPower.

In 2007, David Anthony, a venture capitalist in New York, noticed that Quercus Trust had taken a large stake in an Australian solar company he was interested in.

“There was no way to find him on the Internet, so I just wrote him a letter,” says Mr. Anthony.

A one-hour meeting turned into a five-hour discussion and eventually an agreement by which Mr. Anthony’s 21 Ventures co-invests with Quercus Trust and helps manage Mr. Gelbaum’s portfolio.

Essential to Mr. Gelbaum’s approach, not surprisingly, is that he is hedging his investments — backing, for instance, distributed energy start-ups but also companies developing energy storage for centralized solar farms.

Mr. Gelbaum is making one of his bigger bets on Entech Solar, a Fort Worth company that once built solar systems for NASA spacecraft and is developing a low-cost photovoltaic technology. As a hedge against rising solar cell prices, Mr. Gelbaum has also invested in a Chinese solar module maker, Solar Enertech.

Mark O’Neill, Entech Solar’s co-founder, says Mr. Gelbaum has pushed relentlessly to cut costs.

“He’s doing calculus about how to save cents per watt so quickly in his head that I have a hard time keeping up with him without a spreadsheet,” Mr. O’Neill says.

IF there’s a place where Mr. Gelbaum’s entrepreneurial and environmental impulses converge, it is in the Mojave Desert.

He has arranged for a car — a Prius, naturally — to take us to Whitewater Canyon, a 2,851-acre preserve near Palm Springs acquired by the Wildlands Conservancy.

Under the legislation proposed by Senator Feinstein, Whitewater Canyon would serve as a wildlife corridor to a new national monument. That bill would also protect hundreds of thousands of other acres that Mr. Gelbaum helped acquire, some of which the government had planned to lease for huge solar thermal power plants.

“There are other areas appropriate for solar plants,” says Mr. Gelbaum, kicking off his shoes and walking barefoot along a riverbank. “As distributed solar becomes lower-priced, there are plenty of roofs to put solar on.”

With some other large solar projects bogged down in disputes over their environmental impact, Mr. Gelbaum’s bets could pay off as utilities sign contracts for huge photovoltaic projects and as China’s appetite for solar energy grows — evidenced by a 2,000-megawatt deal that a Chinese company signed with eSolar this year.

And after years of operating in the shadows, Mr. Gelbaum seems comfortable finally stepping into the sunlight and even letting a little ego shine through.

“I’ve gone long on solar as I’m expecting that’s where my big win will be,” he says.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Banking on Fuel-Sweating Flora

MAY 4, 2010, 3:40 PM

By MATTHEW L. WALD, New York Times

A start-up company has broken ground on a Texas pilot plant that is supposed to produce ethanol and diesel in a radical new way: with an organism that sweats fuel.

The company, Joule Unlimited of Cambridge, Mass., has developed several patented gene-altered organisms that absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide and combine these into hydrocarbons.

The organisms – basically single-celled plants – live in a panel that vaguely resembles a solar photovoltaic one. They lie under a glass sheet that is mounted on a frame to face the sun.

They live in brackish water and need small amounts of chemical nutrients, said William J. Sims, president and chief executive of Joule.

A move from the lab to the field will test their tolerance for temperature variations and other natural challenges, he said. They can survive cold, but the site, in Leander, about 30 miles north of Austin, was chosen because ice was unlikely, he said.

Many companies are pursuing the development of fuel from algae that are immersed in water enriched with carbon dioxide and then soak up sunlight. The algae produce fats and lipids internally; the trick is then to crush them and harvest the oil in a way that does not use much energy. That step has not been widely commercialized.

But Joule says its organisms release their oil and survive to make more. And the diesel fuel is easy to gather because, like most hydrocarbon oils, it is lighter than water and tends to separate. Ethanol mixes with water and must be distilled, but the technology for this is widely available.

Although the technology is still at the laboratory stage, Joule’s system was recently identified by Technology Review, the M.I.T. magazine, as one of the 10 most important emerging technologies.

The Leander pilot is supposed to begin in operation in June.

Mr. Sims was guarded in addressing details about the organisms. He said that they were based on what occurred in nature that and each type would secrete a different chemical.

The cells will eat, reproduce and then sweat; water flowing through the system will carry off the hydrocarbon fuel for separation, he said.

After about eight weeks, workers will flush the system clean and start over with a new batch, he said.

Carbon dioxide is trucked in for now, but the longer-term strategy is to locate the operation near a power plant that runs on coal or natural gas and captures its carbon dioxide. If a national cap on emissions is enacted, a power plant might be willing to pay a fuel plant to take its carbon dioxide gas.

Another potential source is a conventional corn ethanol plant, which produces a pure stream of carbon dioxide.

Last week Joule said it had raised $30 million in a second round of financing. The scale-up from the demonstration plant is simple, Mr. Sims said: just reproduce the cluster of panels, the piping that connects them and the separation plant.

The company projects production of 25,000 gallons of ethanol a year from each acre, which would be many times higher than production from wood waste or other biomass source.

Of course all of this remains to be demonstrated, but Joule hopes to be in commercial production in 2012.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Promise of Decentralization, Localization, and Scale-Free Self-Sufficiency

Posted by jeffvail on May 2, 2010 - 10:53am in The Oil Drum: Campfire

Topic: Policy/Politics

Many, if not most of our current economic and political structures developed in an environment of expanding, readily available, comparatively inexpensive, and high-quality energy supplies. While there is certainly debate on this point, it seems likely that these same economic and political structures will fare poorly in an environment of continually contracting, more expensive, and lower-quality energy supplies. How can our political and social structures change to continue to meet the needs of humanity (and the limits of our planet)? Are there any alternative structures that could allow us to maintain, even dramatically improve our collective quality of life despite an ongoing decline in the quality and availability of energy? Specifically, what role will decentralized and localized production play in our future political system and economy (and what role are they already playing, especially in less developed countries)? Are decentralization and localization realistically implementable solutions? That’s the general topic for tonight’s Campfire discussion—below the fold, I will outline some possibilities and provide additional questions for discussion.

Below, I outline a number of topics for discussion. All of them relate to the potential to change our social, economic, and political structures in ways that may allow humanity to maintain and improve quality of life despite continually declining availability, affordability, and quality of global energy supplies. In short, they are all premised around the a core vision: that we can re-tool our civilization to eliminate the structural requirement for growth and to focus on providing true quality of life with far less energy use by building scale-free self-sufficiency and resiliency. Many people will label this as pie-in-the-sky fantasy—my hope is that this brief list of discussion questions will spur a discussion on both the potential and pitfalls of such a structural approach to our civilization’s energy crisis. In other words, rather than try to find a way to reverse energy descent, can we and should we instead find a way to improve our lives despite energy descent?

1. Scale-Free Self-Sufficiency. If we don’t move toward true self-sufficiency, our civilization will continue to demand unsustainable levels of growth (see my essay on The Problem of Growth for a discussion of how peer-polity competition demands growth in the absence of self-sufficiency). If we hope to prosper during energy descent, we need first to control growth, and second to develop resilient access to food, water, community, and information. It may be possible for us all to live in totally isolated and self-sufficient compounds, but who would want to? I think the solution to this dilemma is “scale-free self-sufficiency,” or sourcing our needs in as localized a manner as possible. For example, grow some food, get as much of the rest as possible from as local as possible. Can this really serve as the basis for prospering during energy descent? If not, how should we structure our economy so as to allow us to do so?

2. 100,000 garages. It’s tempting to think that the massively complex and complicated production of our industrial economy cannot be replicated on the hamlet scale, and at a minimum keeps us dependent on at least some centralized and distant manufacturing and resource supply chains. But what could we produce with a highly networked economy of small, localized manufacturers? What can’t be made in our collective garages with proper planning and information sharing?

3. Open-source IT and “franchise handbooks” for a sustainable civilization. Almost all research, case studies, and information developed by our civilization’s considerable scientific and information processing capabilities goes to developing larger, more “efficient,” more centralized solutions. What is the potential to develop sustainable communities by instead focusing our collective information processing capabilities on establishing, improving, and building locally-suitable variations on best practices for small, local self-sufficiency. If we put the kind of effort into developing sustainable, resilient, low-input, and highly sustainable garden systems that we currently put into defense R&D, what kind of results are possible? Can such an effort be organized from the ground-up (like open-source software often is)?

4. Designing for quality of life defined by experiential and social wealth, not material wealth. We often define “quality of life” in terms of material consumption—something that it seems fairly clear will decline due to energy descent. But is material consumption really what gives our lives quality? Our current system is geared toward maximizing production and consumption—how can it be redesigned to instead maximize our health, our happiness, the vibrancy of our communities, and other sources of true “quality” of life?

5. State backlash and the “Diagonal” economy. Is any attempt to decentralize and localize our civilization doomed to fall victim to either a state backlash (if there is enough energy surplus for a powerful, centralized state), or to turn into a dystopia of local strong-men controlling the peasantry? What if the fabric of the localized economy does not try to supplant or directly confront the current structure, but rather produces a “diagonal,” an alternative and coexisting structure that gradually grows to replace the decaying system?

6. On a more direct note, what successes or failures have YOU experienced with decentralization, localization, and scale-free self-sufficiency as a means to weather energy descent? What examples would you point other to (either as success story or cautionary failure)? What is your opinion on whether we should attempt a “structural” solution to energy descent—and if not, what do you propose?