A few weeks ago I was in New York City for the weekend and had an opportunity to meet up with an old friend at a place with real implications for how we think about economic development and community renewal.
The Brooklyn Flea Market has been around since 2008, and now serves large crowds every weekend in three rotating locations. In growing to its current size the market has come to feature a diverse set of artisans, craftspeople, and other small-scale entrepreneurs selling everything from vinyl records to furniture and vintage clothing. There are a fair amount of food purveyors, as well; the food portion of the market actually became so popular that Brooklyn Flea also operates a separate, food-only market that takes place at two locations along the Williamsburg waterfront.
The image above is taken from the inside of the historic Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, one of New York City’s few iconic skyscrapers outside of Manhattan. From November through March, the market moves indoors to inhabit the ground floor of the historic former banking center, the upper floors of which once housed dozens of area dental offices and were converted in 2006 into luxury condo space.
Now, in addition to the re-purposing of its upper floors, the lobby and basement levels of this landmark building have become a local attraction, providing space for entrepreneurs and small businesspeople to sell their wares, along with a cavernous environment for weekenders to explore. Former teller booths now house pop-up shops with trendy clothing, shoes, and handmade goods. The basement is a series of narrow hallways that feels more like a maze than a place where people are buying and selling food and assorted secondhand items. It probably wasn’t used for much other than storage during the building’s former life, but it’s now a lively hub of neighborhood commerce.
Turning a historic old space into a community attraction and a place where entrepreneurs can find willing customers? Better yet, a place where real people can interact and sell real things to each other? Places like the Brooklyn Flea Market are the highest ideal of free market capitalism; a place where the proverbial butcher and baker meet and succeed on their own merits. There’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s one that can be applied to communities with a fraction of New York City’s population or historic assets.
To that last point especially, it would be easy to write the Brooklyn Flea Market off as a big city story; a place that can only be sustained by large markets with wealthy residents and lots of purchasing power. But this is both dishonest and misleading. At the end of the day it’s really about scale – in New York City, it might be the bottom floors of an ornately decorated skyscraper, but in smaller communities it could be an underutilized civic center, side street, or vacant lot. There are certainly plenty of the latter scattered across America’s urban and rural landscape, and there’s no reason that the heyday for these places should be thought of as any time but now. Every community has its own unique assets, and if the existence and success of something like the Brooklyn Flea Market represents anything, it’s the fact that if people are willing think creatively and act boldly, there is always the chance to take something and make it better.
What this is really about is finding innovative ways to build community wealth and opportunity for those who are willing to seek it. Not everyone will be an artisan, nor should they be. But not everyone should have to work in an office park or retail outlet, either. It’s about creating a healthy mix of jobs, which comes from ensuring a healthy mix of opportunities. Whether attracting a large outside enterprise or thinking of new strategies to build up the local business landscape, economic developers and community leaders must be creative about how they facilitate opportunities for people in their communities to accumulate wealth. Humans have used trade and exchange to better themselves and their societies since the dawn of civilization. What can today’s communities do to help make sure more of this sort of activity takes place under their jurisdiction?
Money is often referred to as a necessary evil, but there is something beautiful about the process of buying and selling, particularly when it involves things that people genuinely enjoy making, and places where folks genuinely enjoy spending some time on a Saturday. Economic Development has historically been thought of in very narrow terms – how to create a lot of jobs, quickly, and sometimes to the exclusion of other important community priorities, or any real thought about whether those jobs are good jobs, rewarding and gratifying jobs, or just 40+ hours per week of numbers on somebody else’s balance sheet. Maybe it’s about something a bit more fundamental: buying and selling, human exchange, and how to build communities that provide the opportunity to buy, sell, and exchange nice things. Maybe it’s about promoting local interactions as a way for us all to live more sustainably. Emphasize these priorities and maybe the jobs will follow.
There’s no magic bullet, and in the end communities must employ many development strategies successfully in order to succeed. But maybe just maybe there’s something that can be gained from an emphasis on what makes a place like the Brooklyn Flea Market successful. At a time when many communities are crying out for new sources of prosperity and renewal, maybe this is one place to turn for guidance.
If nothing else, it’s a great place to spend a weekend afternoon.
It’s been awhile since we’ve posted but I’ve had a piece simmering in my head for a few weeks and finally am getting some time to sit down and write it. Have a look and give us your thoughts in the comments:
Like millions of my fellow Americans, I participated in the National Day of Service this year, which is held annually in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend and which President Obama has tried, through each of his inaugural celebrations, to establish as a quadrennial presidential tradition as well. Across the country on Saturday, January 19, groups of citizens large and small volunteered with a range of organizations, each different in its particular mission but contributing in its own way to the Greater Good.
After finding that a smaller event we had tried to sign up for was filled to capacity, my girlfriend and I ended up at the DC Armory, where thousands of volunteers helped to pack care kits for US military troops. It was a huge event, sponsored most prominently by Target, and it even included a visit from Vice President Biden and his family. There were DJs, musical acts by school bands and other groups who had traveled from locations across the country to be there, and a stage to accommodate all of this entertainment for the morning’s eager volunteers.
So many people showed up, in fact, that there was a 30 minute wait to even get inside the building, followed by some additional waiting indoors as all of the volunteers were funneled through metal detectors and given wristbands. Once inside, volunteers stood in rows organized by letters and numbers, waiting another 15-20 to be ushered to the front of the crowd, where each volunteer picked up a plastic pouch and held it open while event coordinators stationed behind a series of carefully marked boxes smiled and deposited various personal care items – soap, toothpaste, etc. – inside.
It was, in many ways, assembly line volunteerism. As one of the country’s largest retailers introduced its factory-style efficiency to the community service experience, volunteers waited in line to do their part, and if they felt as if they had more time when they were finished, waited in line and did it again. When we left after about 2 1/2 hours, my girlfriend and I had been through the line twice and helped pack about 8 kits each. In total, 100,000 kits were packed on the day.
The following is not to diminish what was accomplished on that Saturday, but merely to ask some questions. Among them:
How many people does it honestly take to assemble 100,000 military kits? Was there something more useful that the thousands waiting in line at the Armory to hold a pouch open could have done instead to better their communities? Is waiting in line really volunteering? Am I just being curmudgeonly?
The answers to these questions will, of course, depend on who’s answering them, but here’s an honest reading of the situation that I think gives credit where it’s due: Target and other major sponsors put on an event that was intended to be big, it was successful in its mission, the event organizers did a great job running everything as smoothly as possible, and US troops got 100,000 care kits that they didn’t have previously. A-plus all around.
Still, this leads us to a more complicated and fundamental question – was such a large, industrial-scale event the best way to get people out and volunteering on a brisk Saturday? What else could all of those people packed into the DC Armory have done if they were dispersed instead of consolidated?
We live in a big country, and much of the national discourse revolves around our big institutions. Big business dominates the economy, big banks hold most of our assets, big government is seen as hero or villain depending on who you talk to, all while big foundations increasingly present themselves as the saviors of those who fall through the cracks. We live in big cities. Most of us shop at big stores. And when it comes to the political and economic decisions that affect the country and the communities within it, most subscribe to the logic of big. A big federal program here, a big business recruitment success there, big new generating capacity and transmission infrastructure to account for our future energy needs, big companies that can operate at large economies of scale and offer big savings to the consumer. A big service event on a cold day in January to help keep us all humble.
But what if this wasn’t the way forward? What if the blatant inefficiency of all those people spending 80 percent of their volunteer time waiting in line was actually the ugly truth lurking behind most of the big assumptions we passively accept? What if this was more or less a proxy for what we get when we trust that big, corporate-scale solutions are what’s needed to solve problems best dealt with in a smaller capacity? A job-starved community spends countless time and resources to recruit a big outside company that promises to create hundreds of new jobs, offering a lucrative package of tax incentives to help seal the deal, while vesting all of its economic hopes with one business in one industry that will reinvest its profits elsewhere. An environmental activist chooses to invest their time dreaming up big, utility scale energy projects in faraway parts of the country, seeking transformative solutions and seeing few alternatives. The average consumer takes their business to a big box retailer, convinced that no one else can offer the same level of convenience and savings. Are these the actions that will re-invigorate our communities and help us rebuild for the 21st century?
Big will always play an important role. Some big businesses will remain large employers. Some tasks are best done by large-scale entities. Regardless of whose politics win the day, the federal government will remain big, because in a country of over 300 million, there really are few other alternatives. And on Saturday, January 19, 2013, many of the thousands who showed up at the DC Armory needed somewhere to go if they wanted to help out; several of DC’s great service organizations had such a supply of volunteers that they simply had to say no to anyone else who asked.
But what if we could imagine the results of thinking smaller – and saw these not as feeble attempts to chip away at a problem that is beyond our solving, but as small pieces to a larger, more meaningful solution? Thousands of rooftop solar installments. Local support not for big businesses trying to locate but for small ones trying to compete locally – the source of a much larger economic multiplier when they are successful. Policies to help leverage the economic impact of home-based businesses and self-employed professionals. Education initiatives tailored to the needs of kids in specific schools rather than those determined by public bureaucrats and big private benefactors. What if millions of these actions, undertaken by communities across the country, could collectively have a greater impact on our country than waiting for our big institutions to act? What if acting locally were the only way to bring about positive change within many of the places most desperate for it?
As a country, we’ve been through the boom and bust cycle of big. It sounds like it was a great ride while it lasted. Either way, its aftermath has a name befitting of the scale at which our nation has chosen to operate: The Great Recession. And as our big companies downsized and our big government saw its tax receipts drop while its obligations and deficits rose, it may have become even harder, for a brief moment, to see a way out of this mess that wasn’t as big as the way in. But with big crises come new thinking, and with big longstanding challenges come the necessities of drawing up new solutions. Mix in the internet, the most decentralizing force the world has ever known, along with an emerging recognition that many local problems will never be solved without local solutions, and there is a recipe for an entirely new model of development and prosperity that puts our existing political and economic institutions to far better use.
What if on a chilly Saturday morning, I could spend 2.5 hours truly maximizing my impact, rather than just waiting around hearing thank-yous that I may or may not have earned? I contributed something on this year’s National Day of Service, but I think that everyone who was there in the Armory knows that we all could have done more. When it comes to the decisions we make about our communities, we should be just as discerning.
On a family vacation as a child, I once accompanied my parents on a tour of a house they were considering buying on a timeshare basis. I followed the adults around the entire time and didn’t say a word. Afterward, my father complimented me on my good behavior and gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me:
“Sometimes kids should be seen and not heard.”
Today I imagine all of the exhausted parents out there nodding their heads, one of them maybe mouthing a sarcastic “amen” if they could have heard my dad at that moment. I seemingly did my parents a lot of good that day by finding a way to calmly and quietly go about my kid business. Sometimes, the most important thing is what’s unsaid.
But what does kid business have to teach us about green business?
It’s a useful tale of green business married to social enterprise. For those who would take it a step further, it’s a fantastic example of the integrated bottom line (or triple bottom line) at work.
The problem: there are over 7 billion people around the world and counting, 1.3 billion of whom live without any electricity at all. Add that to the 1.4 billion who live without reliable electricity supplies and you’ve got a whopping 2.7 billion (that’s billion with a b) that can’t count on modern artificial lighting when it gets dark outside. That’s more than 1 in every 3 people worldwide, the vast majority living in developing countries.
Given the sheer magnitude of this challenge, most of the solutions currently available require a lot of money and a lot of conventional energy: by the World Bank’s estimate, it would cost anywhere between 30 and 40 billion each year between now and 2030 to bring reliable power to those currently lacking it. That figure doesn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission infrastructure needed, or the fact that grid electricity is still dominated by fossil fuels. On a more troubling level, it falsely characterizes the solution to the problem as one of charity, worthy though it may be, rather than one of opportunity.
Two Stanford business school students flipped the model on its head, creating a solar-powered lantern that undersells both coal and kerosene, the cheapest respective on and off-grid power alternatives. It’s a win-win-win situation: d.light, the company that the two students created, makes money selling its lanterns. Albeit a fraction of those still in the dark, as many as 10 million more people around the world now have access to reliable nighttime light. And since the lamps can recharge with the sun’s energy during the day, they’re durable, require no upkeep or extra supplies, and burn no fossil fuels.
But more important than the specific impact is the story there is to be told here. One of the many challenges of our time is how to help people around the world achieve a rising living standard without further overheating an already overheated planet. The 1 in 3 statistic about electricity only drives the point home: if a third of the world’s people lack something as basic to the developed world as reliable electric power, and the earth under a baseline scenario is already warming to a dangerous level (which it is), how can the world support the material needs of another nearly 3 billion people without putting our living environment under even greater stress?
The answer is that we can’t, unless we reinvent ourselves. Which is exactly what d.light is doing, albeit on a small scale, with its solar powered lamps. The promise of green business, then, is simple: how do we turn the world’s challenges into an opportunity to create and sustain new sources of livelihood? And how can we find new ways of providing for basic modern needs (like light) where conventional cornerstones (like the current global power grid) fail us?
One of the things I really like about d.light is how it shows solar’s “portability.” Unlike most sources of conventional energy, solar can be produced and consumed in the same place, which is what makes the company’s lanterns so practical. Last week C’cracy founder Libby Murphy and I were having a conversation about how this essential fact about solar power could make it advantageous to set up a more local power grid system, since theoretically any network of home-based solar installations can serve as its own “grid.” What d.light has done is take this down to an even more micro level, using the primary source of all life on earth to power lights that require no outside inputs at all.
What will be the next d.light, then? How will the company build on its solid start? And how can the most elemental process of business planning (problem, solution, way to make a profit) be applied to other challenges in the world?
If I had all the answers I’d be a much wealthier man. In this case, however, the questions may be just as important.
Reblogged from the Urban Times – link available here
Interested in what it looks and sounds like when people who care about the earth put their money where their mouth is? In 1996, British entrepreneur Dale Vince founded a company built to provide clean electricity to its customers. Still operating on a not-for-dividend model 16 years later, today Vince’s company, Ecotricity, invests its customers’ energy bills into the construction of additional sources of clean energy.
You can read all about Ecotricity and its business model on their company website: http://www.ecotricity.co.uk. What I thought was really great about the interview with Mr. Vince, though, was the way he described his work as a businessperson:
Essentially we are environmentalists doing business as opposed to business people doing the environment. Sustainability always comes first – it’s in our DNA. Ecotricity’s missions is to change the way energy is made and used in the UK to reduce the carbon emissions that cause climate change. Electricity from fossil fuels is responsible for 30% of Britain’s carbon emissions – it’s our biggest single source of emissions as a nation – and therefore the biggest single thing we can change.
In a world where, despite considerable progress, too many corporate “greening” initiatives rely more on style than substance, the idea of “environmentalists doing business” is refreshing. Putting aside the fact that environmentalism itself is doomed unless it puts forward a compelling vision of its own for how people can live and prosper in the modern world, lost in the justifiable outrage within the environmental movement toward large industrial polluters (think BP with the oil spill) is the fact that business doesn’t have to be about raping and pillaging. Business, at its most basic level, is about something very simple: providing a product or service that people will pay for. This is a noble calling, and reflects the most fundamental human undertaking in a capitalist society.
What’s really exciting, then, about the notion of environmentalists doing business is that if you want to get something done that’s good for the planet, all you have to do is provide something that people want, and figure out how to do it in an efficient manner. Easier said than done, sure, but each person who succeeds makes a small contribution toward turning the conventional paradigm on its head simply by showing that it is possible, and even advantageous, to turn a profit treating the planet’s health as an asset rather than a cost.
Legislation and politics are important, no doubt. But if you’re an American like myself, you also live in a country where one of our two major political parties simply thumbs its nose at basic scientific evidence. So with all due respect to those who work hard each day within various governments to make the world a better place, what seems like a more effective strategy? Dale Vince didn’t wait for the world to sign an international treaty cutting carbon. He started a company that would do it and help him earn a living in the process.
By all means, those of us who care about the environment should continue pushing for a climate bill, and anything else that may make a difference. But we may be waiting a long time before our governments can get together on their own to do the right thing. The planet, however, can’t wait, and neither can an economy crying out for the creative infusion of new companies and ideas. So in the current political and economic landscape, what can those of us who want to make a positive difference do immediately to create new sources of opportunity and prosperity, while charting a more sustainable way forward?
Go out and become entrepreneurs. Our country needs us.
Those of you who know C’cracy founder and editor-in-chief Libby Murphy likely know that in addition to being an all-around stud she is currently in the midst of pursuing a business degree through Bard College’s MBA in Sustainability program. Last Wednesday, Libby gave me a heads up that one of her professors happened to be in DC giving a talk. I later found out that this particular professor also happened to be the woman who co-wrote what is more or less the Bible of Green Business.
There are people on both sides of the philosophical lexicon who would view that very term as somewhat of an oxymoron. Let’s table that for now. Because as I sat and listened to Hunter Lovins rattle off example after example of how companies that embrace sustainability are becoming leaner, more efficient, and ultimately more profitable, a budding belief of mine that most of our country’s energy and environmental debates completely miss the point of what we really should be talking about turned into something resembling a total conviction.
Some people really, legitimately care about protecting the environment. I count myself as one of them. For people who are not so inclined, I think this sums it up nicely.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, however, what rings loudest when one listens to Ms. Lovins is the necessity of embracing an outlook that we’re all in this together. Business, government, environmentalists… it’s not about who’s at fault, and those of us who frame climate change as a matter of merely staving off environmental catastrophe miss the mark as well. Because it’s also not about what we can prevent, it’s about what we can create, and if that something is going to be anything good it’s going to take all of us working together to create it.
That’s why the more savvy among our country’s business leaders view doing right by the planet not as an inconvenience but as an opportunity. It’s no accident that when Goldman Sachs identified a series of corporate sustainability, social, and good governance indicators, companies meeting those criteria outperformed their baseline counterparts by 25 percent. To paraphrase Ms. Lovins, we can continue viewing our environmental challenges as a cost to be externalized… but we’re running out of places to externalize them.
Ultimately sustainability is about maximizing the efficiency of everything we use. Local resources, national resources, global resources. Everything. In a country famous for harnessing the power of free market capitalism, dependent as it is on celebrating economic efficiency, it’s really quite remarkable when you consider the hostility of some toward radically increasing the efficiency of our non-financial resources. But efficiency will always yield economic benefits to those savvy enough to embrace it. There was a time when the mechanizers of agriculture and the proponents of burning petroleum instead of whale oil where called crazy. Ask John D. Rockefeller how that turned out.
No one said that any of this is going to be easy, but when we think in terms of maximizing the efficiency of our resources, and institutionalize these sorts of mindsets, this is what leads to the sort of innovating that drives the whole process inexorably forward. The avalanche of evidence in favor of the for-profit entities that have already harnessed sustainability to their advantage should be reason enough to make even greater leaps.
For more facts on sustainability, check out this chat Libby posted this afternoon between Hunter and the folks representing GE’s ecomagination initiative: http://www.ecomagination.com/sustainability-is-the-touchstone-of-innovation-talking-with-l-hunter-lovins
It’s a useful primer on the sorts of changes upon which businesses are already beginning to capitalize, and elaborates a bit on what Ms. Lovins discussed at the event I attended.
I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did.
Those of us who grew up around or currently live in the Hudson River Valley know that it has a lot of wonderful things to offer, from beautiful natural scenery to engaging cultural activities and its close proximity to New York City. Did you know it also has a leading solar industry cluster?
It’s counterintuitive to think of anywhere in the warm again, cold again, sometimes gorgeous sometimes dreary Northeast as being a leader in solar power, something that by definition requires… well, the sun to shine. If anyone has ever seen upstate New York in November they know exactly what I’m talking about.
Yet beyond even fairly sizeable installations by local homeowners (7 MW of installed capacity in 2011), and strong utility support (Central Hudson Gas & Electric has been a leader in promoting solar in the region), the Hudson Valley-area solar industry benefits far more from more generic economic assets – strong infrastructure, a location more or less in the center of the huge Northeastern supply chain, a highly skilled workforce (the region that regrettably produced Jersey Shore’s Snooki still holds college degrees at a rate far above the national average) – than anything else. All of these factors allow businesses making a variety of parts, from photovoltaic (PV) power systems and inverters to thin-film and building-integrated PV (solar panels embedded in the roof or façade of a building), to flourish. In September, a Chinese solar company announced that it was establishing its global headquarters at a former IBM campus in East Fishkill, of all places.
Aside from giving supporters of clean energy from upstate New York an opportunity to beat our collective chests, the broader lesson here is that as renewable energy grows, it can provide an opportunity for regions all over the map to take advantage. Upstate New York may have nowhere near the sun or the space to build a massive utility-scale solar plant, as is now happening in parts of the Southwest. But we can use our built-in economic advantages to get our piece of the pie, which is really what succeeding in this or any economy is all about. The bigger solar and other clean technology sectors get, the more opportunities there will be for locations all over the country to share in the riches.
This isn’t just about global warming – in fact it doesn’t have to be at all. People who want to see a strong economic recovery should support the advancement of an industry with huge growth potential, and the promise of creating good jobs that can’t be outsourced in regions large and small. Renewable energy in America is in its infancy; with a true commitment to its future, it will only take off further.
A Bright Future in Solar/Photovoltaics (Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation)
–From GOOD Magazine–
“Tidal and wave power do carry some environmental concerns: Early projects are studying how turbines affect fish, for instance. But because these projects live under the water, they could avoid complaints like those that dogged the offshore Cape Wind project about ruining scenic vistas. The East River project has been running turbines on and off as part of a pilot project for years, and New Yorkers, a grumbly bunch, have yet to kick up a major fuss. Most people driving over the Queensboro bridge and gazing down at the river probably never guessed that a power station lies quietly beneath the water.”
It wouldn’t surprise me to see these “environmental concerns” surrounding tidal begin to disappear as people become more acquainted with it. Many who imagine getting power from the motion of the ocean imagine the infrastructure as being something akin to a wind turbine in the water – this isn’t true. While there are many different turbine models, most don’t pose a danger to fish because the turbine blades spin faster than the water surrounding them, which creates a force directing fish away from, not toward, the turbine.
Either way it’s great to see tidal power continuing to get its due – with people realizing that the lack of visibility is also a huge and understated benefit.
Either the United States Department of Energy likes Carbonocracy, or we’ve just got some good timing. Shortly before we linked to this story in Bloomberg on the approval of the first United States commercial tidal power permit, the DOE released two reports that paint an encouraging picture of the long-term viability of tidal energy and its ocean-going companion, wave power. The Energy Department press release announcing the reports boasts that they “represent the most rigorous analysis undertaken to date to accurately define the magnitude and location of America’s ocean energy resources,” and given the overall dearth of mainstream information out there on ocean energy sources, they’re probably right.
In total, the reports estimate that when combined with hydropower and other water-based resources, tidal and wave could help to account for up to 15 percent of the US electricity supply by 2030. As we’ve been saying all along, while that won’t necessarily keep the lights on all by itself, when combined with growing solar and wind sectors, tidal and wave have the potential to add to a strong and expanding renewable energy portfolio. Of course, much of this depends on the ability of these early-stage technologies to attract enough private capital to get off the ground, which largely depends (at least in the initial stages) on continued federal support, which is not necessarily a guarantee.
Still, the DOE report is another indication of the United States’ vast potential to develop clean, home-grown energy (and attract that jobs that would come along with that development). 15 percent by 2030 sounds a long way off, but the decisions we make today will have a big impact on whether those figures constitute pure fantasy or legitimate reality tomorrow.
Read the Energy Department press release and find PDF links to the wave and tidal reports here.
DOE Reports Major Potential for US Wave and Tidal Energy Production (US Department of Energy)
Forbes is out today with a report that is certainly relevant in light of what I posted here a day ago (see below). At issue is the scheduled expiration of the Production and Incentive Tax Credits, which help make solar and wind energy more profitable and which are set to run out at the end of the year. I wrote yesterday about policy uncertainty strangling the potential of renewable energy to continue its private sector ascent; now, although these two tax credits have been routinely extended in the past, there is a real possibility that an industry which has continued to create jobs during the economic slowdown will be hung out to dry in 2012.
The question remains, in a time of continued economic uncertainty: why are some people so desperate to see the death of a fast growing and diverse industry with tremendous room for future expansion?
2011 is shaping up to be the second-most lucrative year ever for investment in renewable energy technology, second only to 2008. It is well-documented that venture capital for clean technology fell off a cliff along with the rest of the economy in the recession; funding recovered slightly, however, in 2010 and is now expected to grow for a second consecutive year in 2011.
The bad news? While also predicting the 2011 year-end increase in venture funding, clean tech research and consulting firm Kachan and Co. also predicts that investments will drop in 2012, due to, among other things, policy uncertainty and the fallout from the recent collapse of solar panel maker Solyndra, LLC. Kachan Managing Partner Dallas Kachan writes:
There’s no mistaking that the (now expired) American national loan guarantee program helped loosen private cleantech capital in an immediately post-2008 shell-shocked economy. However, continued uncertainty over the future of the U.S. Treasury grants program and production tax credits is holding the U.S. back.
In other words, private investors don’t want to pump money into renewable energy because they’re not sure that existing policy benefits will still be there a year from now. Why? (more…)
We at CARBONOCRACY pride ourselves on providing news and analysis relating to the deployment of energy technologies of all types. It is in this spirit that we link today to a fascinating article in the Huffington Post about a crematorium in the UK that is seeking to save money by selling excess energy from its gas burners back to the national power grid.
Here’s how it works: before we start throwing around terms like “body power,” or “zombie energy,” or anything of the sort, it’s important to clarify that very little, if any, of the energy being spun back into the UK power grid will be coming from the patrons, for lack of a better word, of the crematorium. Instead, the facility plans to install turbines in two of the burners that perform its cremating. In total, the turbines will generate roughly 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity.
Although the power being generated here isn’t necessarily clean, it is an interesting example, should it go forward, of local self-reliance and energy efficiency. The crematorium knows it uses machines that generate a lot of heat, so why not find a way to maximize the output of those machines while turning an extra profit?
An uncertain energy future demands creative solutions, and while no one is suggesting that crematoriums begin accounting on their own for Britain’s power needs, this is an interesting spinoff on the local solar concept (putting up solar panels on your home or business and selling the excess power back to the grid). The bottom line is that in addition to their environmental merits, many alternative energy technologies can turn almost anyone into an energy producer, which is good for the economy and can provide enterprising people with another way to get ahead. Something tells me this crematorium is in it for the long haul.
If you have a clever pun to describe the energy-producing function of a facility that is, er, not generally used for this purpose, the comments section awaits.
The Buffalo News has some excellent local coverage on an intense debate currently unfolding in upstate New York over whether or not to allow for expanded natural gas drilling using the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking, which involves using large quantities of water laced with chemicals to blast cracks in underground bedrock and allow formerly trapped natural gas to escape, carries with it the promise to recover previously inaccessible gas resources, but also the inconvenient reality that it may contaminate groundwater.
A lot has been made of the abundance of natural gas resources in the United States, and the Marcellus Shale formation, which runs diagonally across the Northeast region and includes a large portion of New York State, is estimated to contain up to 168 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Although natural gas is generally touted as a cleaner burning alternative to conventional fossil fuels, the environmental risks associated with fracking have put a serious wrinkle in efforts to expand its extraction from hard to reach places like the Marcellus Shale.
The Buffalo News piece paints a great picture of the divide over fracking in rural parts of New York, laid bare in a town meeting Wednesday night where supporters and opponents filled a middle school auditorium for the first of eight public comment sessions on new drilling rules proposed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Notes from the meeting reflect the same eternal questions frequently pored over during environmental debates, as participants balanced threats to water supplies and natural scenery against the jobs and economic development promised by fracking proponents.
What the latter arguments fail to take into account, however, is that if natural gas companies had to pay the price of the external damages caused by fracking – the environmental costs, the potential hazards to public health from unsafe drinking water, the beating that local roads would take from an increased volume in heavy trucking – the perceived economic benefits may begin to look a bit more illusory, and energy companies might just find it more expedient to leave all that natural gas where its rested comfortably for millions of years. Who pays the price when all of the energy resources have been extracted from the Marcellus Shale, the gas companies leave, and upstate New York bears an irredeemable scar where its rural scenery used to be? Who pays the health care costs of someone who drinks water that is only found to be contaminated years later? Who pays for the roads that get torn up from a projected 1,000 percent increase in heavy truck traffic?
If these costs went into the economic calculus of fracking, or the larger-scale debate between fossil fuels versus clean energy, we might have a significantly different energy situation on our hands. Can’t we just find an energy source that doesn’t present us with a phony either-or decision between preserving nature and bringing economic opportunities to people that need them?
To ‘frack’ or not? Public responds (The Buffalo News)
Tidal power is a highly promising source of energy for several reasons. To begin with, water is 1,000 times as dense as air – which means there is 1,000 times more potential energy to be gathered from the movement of the ocean than there is from the wind. Tides are also highly predictable: while we can’t always determine when exactly the sun will shine or the wind will blow, we know that the moon’s gravity controls the tide and that it will always come in and out when we think it will.
Of course, there’s nearly always a gap between potential and reality, as my defunct athletic career can attest. In practice, its hard to build utility-scale tidal turbines that will produce a sufficient amount of energy to make the idea worthwhile AND then get that energy back to the onshore electric transmission grid. Doable, but hard. In order to make tidal power work, there will need to be a sufficient amount of financial and regulatory commitment to making it happen.
This commitment is beginning to emerge in the United States, where a handful of companies have attracted investors, developed their own technology, and are prepared to show just how viable an energy source the tides can be. Turns out they might want to look across the pond for inspiration, where German manufacturing company Siemens has gotten behind a UK company’s plan to place several 2 megawatt tidal installations in strategic locations along the British coast.
Nobody is going to pretend that tidal will overtake fossil fuels, or even solar and wind, any time soon. But if the US and world are going to make a serious commitment to renewable energy, it’s going to take a plethora of technologies that take advantage of local resources to the extent that they are available. Just as there are sunny places, and windy places, there are places all over our country where tides are unbelievably strong, like Maine’s Bay of Fundy, where water flows in and out every day with the force of 8 locomotives and a tidal range of up to 50 feet. There communities have a clean, powerful, and predictable source of energy sitting right off their coasts.
Tidal power may not have arrived yet, but the groundwork is being laid. With a proper investment of research and resources, tidal could be an extremely valuable addition to the renewable energy portfolio moving forward.
Did you hear the one about the marine colonel and the environmental studies professor?
That’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the basis for an unlikely alliance that has brought the United States Military together with a small liberal arts college in tiny Oberlin, Ohio.
The story begins with the Oberlin Project, an integrated approach toward transforming a town representing the Midwest’s industrial past into a laboratory and model for sustainable development in the future. The Oberlin Project is almost two years old and was originally conceived of by Oberlin College professor David Orr, who described its full range of objectives in his recent book:
Specifically the goals of the Oberlin Project are to (1) rebuild a 13- acre block in the downtown to U.S. Green Building Platinum Standards as a driver for economic revitalization; (2) transition to carbon neutrality by a combination of radically improved efficiency and deployment of renewable energy; (3) develop a 20,000 acre greenbelt for agriculture and forestry; and (4) do all of the above as a part of an educational venture that joins the public schools, the college, a community college, and a vocational educational school that equips young people for decent and creative lives in a post-cheap-fossil fuel economy.
Of course, there are those who would dismiss Orr’s work as a pathetic expression of “green ideology” by an out-of-touch, hippie dreamer. But their ranks may be dwindling. Enter Marine Col. Mark “Puck” Mykleby, with a military name out of central casting and a vision at least as forward-thinking as the one put forward by Orr. Mykleby, who serves as a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, co-authored a paper this spring with Capt. Wayne Porter, a like-minded Navy colleague, calling on the United States to build a secure future by renewing its investments in education, fair social policies, and sustainable energy and agricultural development.
Mykleby and Orr teamed up recently to complete a tour of the Washington think tank circuit, and with overwhelming majorities of Americans supporting meaningful investments in clean technology, there may be an opening to continue to make their case. There is a pervasive feeling in the United States, evidenced by grassroots movements on both sides of the political spectrum (Tea Party/Occupy), that America cannot continue on its present course if it is going to continue being a world leader in the 21st century. The support of two seasoned military men for a localized and sustainable approach to American renewal demonstrates that this isn’t a left-right issue; it’s a matter of practicality, and how we can rebuild our economy and society to live in a world with more people, fewer nonrenewable resources, and environmental challenges that aren’t likely to go away any time soon.
Part of meeting these challenges is a commitment to relying on localized sources of energy. One feature of renewable energy is that most technologies can be deployed anywhere. That means technologies like tidal power (seen here) and grass pelleting (seen here), which aren’t necessarily ready for utility-scale primetime, could still have an important role to play in the energy mix. It also means that while large energy-producing installations might still be essential, the future of energy will look a lot more like promotional poster seen below:
At the moment, the push for more communities in the United States to “go local” remains a faint whisper in the political echo chamber. With a yearlong election campaign about to get underway, don’t expect to see that change much on the national level between now and November 2012. In communities across the country, however, this whisper is growing louder. The Oberlin Project shows that the tangible hopes of everyday Americans – a good job, a decent education, clean air, safe communities – can nourish the movement toward environmental sustainability rather than conflicting with it. If these priorities can be harnessed, the future for new and renewable sources of energy will be bright.
If the title to this post sounds like a full-throated defense of big government, it’s not. It’s merely an acknowledgment of reality.
There was a really interesting piece in Forbes the other day on Steven Chu, President Obama’s Secretary of Energy. Chu, the article asserts, “is likely to have greater influence over the world’s future energy economy than any other single person alive today.” Why? Because the energy secretary is literally presiding over a time of unprecedented research and development within his department.
Here’s one cutting-edge example from the Forbes article:
Last year, the Department of Energy awarded a $130 million in federal grants to a team or researchers led by Pennsylvania State University and United Technologies to establish the Energy Efficient Building Systems Regional Innovation Cluster in a 30,000-square-foot building in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. The hub is piloting a portfolio of advanced energy-efficient building technologies and designs using sophisticated sensors and modeling equipment with the goal of creating technologies capable of reducing energy use in existing buildings by 50% by 2015.
R&D is different from the other ways that the federal government invests in energy technology. We mostly think about this support as coming in the form of tax credits, various subsidies, and loan guarantees, which of course have been in the news recently in connection with the Solyndra controversy. But while most tax and subsidy provisions and loan guarantees go to companies developing proven technology, research and development projects focus on technologies that are either in their infancy, or haven’t even been invented yet.
As can be seen in this telling graph, the energy sector in the United States spends a smaller share of its profits (just 0.3 percent) on research and development than any other major industry. Right now, the federal government is stepping in to fill some of that void, and it’s doing it through an innovative approach based on a research platform that Chu himself pioneered while at Stanford University. The centerpieces of the Department of Energy’s program are called “Energy Innovation Hubs,” which bring leading scientists and engineers together to collaborate on developing next-generation energy technologies, like the efficiency systems mentioned above. After an ongoing process of trial, error, and feedback, technologies are eventually ready to be used on a commercial scale.
It’s an interesting concept, which will be even more interesting to follow as it begins to bear fruit in the coming years. Lest anyone dismiss the potential for government research to deliver tangible results, perhaps it might be instructive to review the list of technologies developed by NASA that now play an important role in our lives. Some highlights: LED lighting, artificial limbs, aircraft anti-icing technology (keeps your plane from crashing), tempur-pedic mattresses, consumer water filters, dustbusters, firefighting equipment, and those grooves in the highway that keep you from running off the road.
How does this relate to energy? In a functioning economy, government and private industry depend on one another – just as support from the private sector is the only means for a technology or product to become mainstream, the government is often the only source of capital for promising technologies that have yet to become commercially viable (see Internet, the). Under the current presidential administration, the energy technologies of the future are being given an unprecedented level of support. It’s true that not every one of these technologies will work out. It’s also true that the Department of Energy, in total, receives about 1 percent of our federal budget every year, which means the country should be able to afford to invest in systems that could transform the way we create and use energy in the United States.
This is why bureaucracies matter. President Obama isn’t pulling the strings on the DoE’s innovation hubs, but he is responsible for putting people like Steven Chu in positions where they can make a difference. Given the hard-line rhetoric of each of the president’s potential opponents next year, it’s unlikely we would see anywhere near the kind of energy innovation we’re seeing now in a Romney, Gingrich, Perry, or Cain administration.
We may still live in a society that is fundamentally powered by carbon-based fuels, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.
Steven Chu’s Gamble on Green Energy (Forbes)
To hear opponents of clean energy tell it, the Solyndra controversy represents the death knell for government investments in renewable technologies. Never mind that solar energy remains the fastest growing industry in a slow economy. Or that wind is also growing exponentially. Or that real support for renewable energy could turn countless other technologies into viable alternatives to conventional fuels.
Clean tech critics, however – at least those who occupy positions of elected office – might want to take note of some recent poll findings that show a sizeable gap between the priorities of average Americans and the people sent to Washington to represent us.
In a poll conducted by the Civil Society Institute, a non-partisan think tank, a whopping 77 percent of Americans agree that “the United States needs to be a clean energy technology leader and it should invest in the research and domestic manufacturing of wind, solar, and energy efficiency technologies.” Further, voters favor subsidies to green energy over fossil fuels by a 3 to 1 margin.
We made a big deal on here when Steven Chu asserted last week that solar energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels within 10 years, if not sooner. We also know that carbon’s stranglehold on US economic production is beginning to weaken. But the fact that overwhelming majorities of Americans want clean energy to be the rule rather than the exception is particularly significant – especially with a congressional leadership that has been openly hostile to investments in renewable technology.
What does this mean for the future? First, that Americans clearly support a clean energy agenda at least as aggressive as the one that’s been adopted by President Obama – which also places every current Republican presidential candidate on the wrong side of this issue.
If our elected representatives heed the will of the people, we should expect to see a lot more government support for both proven and emerging renewable energy technologies. A real clean energy-based economy is within this country’s grasp, but only if the people in power listen to the people who put them there.
Congress, White House focus on Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power is out of touch with mainstream America (Civil Society Institute)
Could it be? Citing data from the federal Energy Information Administration, a report by the Earth Policy Institute (EPI) states that United States carbon emissions dropped by 7 percent between 2007 and 2011. The drop specifically relative to the coal and oil industries were even higher, at 10 and 11 percent, respectively. These cuts were offset by a 6 percent increase in emissions from natural gas, which, although it burns up to 80 percent cleaner than conventional fuels, still burns.
It is well-known that the economic crisis and its aftermath have been responsible for an expected dip in US carbon emissions; in a carbon-based economy, emissions are bound to be lower in a downturn. Still, with the economy growing again, albeit sluggishly, the continued dropoff is promising.
Significantly, the EPI report also shows wind and solar power steadily growing in their overall capacity. As we reported earlier today, the cost of solar energy may well drop below that of fossil fuels within ten years (need link); according to EPI, the US currently has 22,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar energy projects planned or underway. Yet even these numbers are nearly doubled by the amount of wind power that has already come online – as of October, according to data from both the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), wind turbines in the United States are producing nearly 45,000 MW of electricity, enough to power around 14 million homes. What’s even more impressive is the scale of the increase in wind energy production – the curve since 2000 is literally exponential.
We should definitely receive these figures with caution, particularly because global carbon emissions, driven by increases in the developing world, continue to rise at record levels. Additionally, much of the recent growth in the wind and solar industries has been aided by federal support that could meet its demise if one of the Republican presidential candidates beats President Obama next fall.
Still, the EPI report makes it clear that renewable energy, in addition to being a source for jobs, CAN present a viable, large-scale alternative to carbon-based fuels. Now imagine if we could match the expansion of wind and solar power with similar growth in other local and utility-scale technologies…
U.S. Carbon Emissions Down 7 Percent in Four Years: Even Bigger Drops Coming (Earth Policy Institute)
That’s what Energy Secretary Steven Chu claimed in a speech last week to the Washington Post’s Smart Energy conference. You can read all about it here.
The bigger question, however, is what this means for other nascent alternate energy industries. Solar has grown on a solid foundation of government subsidies, tax credits, and most importantly, growing private investment. How can we create a framework for an entire portfolio of renewable energy technologies to attract this same sort of investment and make it big?
More green goes to green projects (LA Times)
Ever since California-based solar cell maker Solyndra LLC went bankrupt on September 1 after receiving a $535 million federal loan guarantee, congressional Republicans and grassroots conservatives have rushed to paint its collapse as a prime example of why tax dollars should not be allocated to support clean energy technology. Many prominent political figures including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) have made the repeated charge that the government should not “pick winners and losers” through its investments in energy, or any other sector of the economy. The “winners and losers” line seems to be a favorite of Republicans, who claim to prefer that the free market determine which of our myriad sources of energy in the United States win out.
But it seems as though the winners and losers rhetoric stops as soon as many of these same politicians find an energy project or industry more in line with their priorities. In fact, multiple GOP members of Congress including Boehner himself petitioned the Energy Department in 2009 and 2010 for loan guarantees similar to the one given to Solyndra in order to fund nuclear and clean coal projects in their home states and districts. Although it’s not unusual for members of Congress to engage in such lobbying, it does cast a bit of doubt on the sincerity of claims that the government shouldn’t interfere with the market’s supposedly invisible hand.
The federal government has been picking a winner in energy for a long time, and it’s called the fossil fuel industry. With billions of dollars in federal subsidies and tax breaks, the oil and gas industry has been able to maintain its superiority, and take in record profits while doing so. Perhaps without those subsidies, the Big Five oil companies (Shell, Exxon, BP, Conoco Phillips, and Chevron) might spend less time trying to unlock new reserves in hard-to-reach places (the ocean floor, Arctic Circle, and Canadian tar sands come to mind) and more time beginning to legitimately support the new energy technologies in which Big Oil’s congressional backers currently deride the government for making piecemeal investments.
As for Solyndra, this is (was) a company that was initially touted for its innovation in producing silicon-free cells for solar panels; it was only after a global drop in silicon prices that Solyndra lost its ability to compete and had to shut its doors. There also seems to be some confusion over the government’s role in all of this. The Energy Department did not simply hand Solyndra $535 million; the money was part of a loan guarantee, which essentially means that the federal government agreed to underwrite any private loans that the company was given up to the $535 million amount. Imagine you’re taking out a loan on a car or a house, and you have your friend or parents cosign. That’s basically what the government did for Solyndra. In case anyone out there is wondering if this is a new thing, there’s another prominent energy industry that wouldn’t be here without federal loan guarantees – nuclear power, which met over 11 percent of US energy needs in 2009.
We’ll continue to talk in this space about Solyndra and energy subsidies in general. For the critics, however, who would use the Solyndra controversy as an argument against the federal government supporting any renewable energy at all, consider this: solar is currently America’s fastest growing industry. In a down economy, you’d hope this would be the sort of thing we’d find a way to make work.
For those of us who have toiled in marine energy startups, we know the challenges of converting the immense energy-producing potential of the oceans into a viable power resource. The ocean holds great promise – water is 1,000 times denser than air, and the technology already exists to harness this energy without harming fish or other marine species. The issue for ocean energy, absent a major financial or legislative push behind the industry, is a practical one: how to get all of that power from its source (the water) to the electric grid.
The potential payoff of a legitimate commitment to ocean energy, at least in the nation’s coastal areas where tides are strongest, should absolutely be considered as part of any truly comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century. In the meantime, however, and in a national legislative climate that is less-than-friendly to investments in the renewable energy sector (see Solyndra: stay tuned for more), it is up to creative individuals and organizations to make due with the resources that are currently available.
One of those such organizations is the United States Navy, which recently began using ocean waves to power vessel-detection buoys off the coast of New Jersey. The buoys, which are part of a more extensive maritime surveillance system that helps protect the country from terrorism, used to be powered by diesel generators. Now the Navy relies on the motion of the ocean to move hydraulic fluid inside the buoys, which spins the generators instead of diesel fuel. In total, one buoy can supply up to 50 kw of electricity, which is enough to power a dozen or more US homes. Instead of facing the logistical challenge of moving this energy to shore, however, it can be used where it is produced to benefit the Navy (no transport costs for diesel fuel to power the generators), the ocean (no leaked diesel fuel), and the air (no diesel fuel emissions).
One of the central questions for ocean-going energy systems – how they might fare in severe weather – appears to have been answered in August when several of the Navy’s New Jersey buoys survived a direct hit by Hurricane Irene and withstood the 50 foot swells that came with it.
Navy uses waves to power sensors (Scientific American)