Posts Tagged ‘energy’

Find Your Inner Scientist

Originally published in ARCHITECT Magazine, January 2011 issue

By Veronique Greenwood / January 3, 2011

Dating from the era of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia’s Navy Yard was a bustling shipyard for more than two centuries. During its World War II heyday, it employed 44,000 people, and by 1995, when the U.S. Navy closed the site, there were over 200 buildings from a pastiche of eras on the 1,200-acre spread. The Navy Yard became a business park, providing office space for about 80 companies, including Tasty Baking Co., the Philadelphia-based maker of Tastykakes, and Urban Outfitters.

Now it has become a laboratory for the buildings of the future. Led by Pennsylvania State University, a consortium of 112 organizations from academia and industry has just received a federal grant of $129 million to study what it takes to build new structures that use minimal energy and to retrofit, for efficiency, everything from modern office buildings to drafty old gymnasiums.

In an interview with ARCHITECT, James Freihaut, the consortium’s director of operations and technology, who is a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State, describes how, in addition to revolutionary components and systems, we need a revolution in collaboration—and in policy.

The Navy Yard consortium is the nation’s third Energy Innovation Hub: the first two, at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and at CalTech, focus on nuclear energy and solar energy, respectively. Why is this hub focused on energy-efficient building?
We use 40 percent of all our primary energy in operating building systems. Yet unlike the automobile, aerospace, and manufacturing industries, which have seen dramatic decreases in their fuel consumption over the last 30 to 40 years, there has been no really appreciable change in buildings’ energy use. We really need to address this.

How does the project’s focus on retrofitting deal with that problem?
There are 5.2 million or so commercial buildings in the U.S. with lifetimes of 20 to 40 years or more. If you just concentrated on new construction, it would take 20 to 30 years to realize any significant energy improvements. We need to really concentrate on existing buildings and making them much more energy-efficient.

It’s also a much more difficult job to do, technically and economically. If we can tackle the retrofit market, then we will be able to deal with new construction fairly easily.

What does a full retrofit entail?
First, you characterize how much electricity, natural gas, or oil the building uses and break that down to the various subsystems, like lighting and HVAC, to see which aspects of the building are contributing most to that usage. Then you do a systematic “what if” redesign, coming up with technology for each of the components that would radically reduce the energy used.

What new technologies are Hub researchers developing for such retrofits?
One example is active façades, which respond dynamically to the building’s environment. These might have embedded phase-change materials, a wax or gel that can absorb heat as the façade gets hot from the sun. As the heat starts to transmit through the building’s façade into the interior, the phase-change material slows down the temperature increase inside, so that the air-conditioning system doesn’t have to use as much energy to keep up.

We’re also studying building coatings that respond to the intensity of sunlight and become more or less reflective or diffusive, so that the heat doesn’t get into the structure to begin with. People are looking at protective coatings that are also energy generating, as well as photovoltaic shingles and sidings that generate electricity. Crucially, we’re also looking at extensive use of sensors in buildings, to develop a control system that will distribute heating, cooling, and ventilation to where the people are, rather than the building as a whole.

Some of these materials already exist. Some of this technology already exists. But it’s not being used correctly.

One example is on-site power systems, which generate electricity using photovoltaics, wind turbines, gas turbines, or internal combustion engine–based systems, which have the added benefit that all the heat energy from the exhaust is recovered to provide hot water, heating, and even cooling. You can buy systems like these that generate power and store it for the building’s use, like a hybrid car, right now. The reason they’re not used more often is that buildings aren’t designed to use them efficiently, so the payback period may be five to 15 years.

As it stands, a lot of this technology isn’t economically feasible to use in a building.

How much would it cost, per square foot, to have all this technology?
Thousands of dollars. If you wanted a totally instrumented, dynamically responsive building with pseudoactive materials, it would be very expensive.

How can we deal with the cost barrier?
A major problem is that we don’t have good modeling tools that can simulate all the different systems in a building, which would let the design and construction team see the advantages and disadvantages of each of the proposed technologies. The whole package might be overkill for some buildings. Furthermore, many systems are most cost-effective when they are designed in concert with the rest of the building.

They do modeling like this all the time in the automobile and aerospace industries. The reason we don’t do it in the building industry is that the design process is really fragmented. A developer hires an architect. An architect suggests an architectural engineering firm. The architectural engineering firm suggests certain contractors, construction companies. You hire a commissioning agent downstream.

Everybody has their own little design tools and is trying to optimize their profitability from their part of the design. You don’t get a product that gets the best performance for the lowest cost and lowest energy use. We need all these people working together—a vertically integrated industry. For that, we need new design tools. The hub is working on that.

Complicating all this, however, are certain policies. If you are using public funding, you have to have fair competitive bidding on each aspect. If I want to do an integrated design with architectural engineers, contractors, construction, and commissioning agents all in the same room, how can I bid out different parts of the job?

How is the Hub dealing with that issue?
We’re trying to figure how this would work by doing some real projects. At the Navy Yard, we’re renovating a gymnasium that was built in 1942. It may have lead paint problems—a typical retrofit issue—and is historically significant, so it’s going to be a challenge. Furthermore, using state funds for it is going to make it very difficult to do an integrated retrofit.

But, obviously, we want to practice what we preach. We’ll have Penn State physical plant people, who deal all the time with state funds, in on this process, telling us good ideas and explaining the problems they have run into with specific state policies. Then we have to document that and find a way around it that the rest of the industry can follow.

We’re also doing a retrofit with private funds. Urban Outfitters, whose international headquarters is here, has asked us to help renovate a 70,000-square-foot older building.

There will be a different set of issues in each of these projects—and that’s good. We want to see the different issues that come up and figure out a way to either change those polices or to find a creative way to address them.

How much energy would a retrofitted office building save per year? And how soon would such a package be available?
Just by using integrated design and existing technology, we think we can get a 30 percent reduction. With a more intense design process and advances in dynamic controls, smart-grid technology, and materials, we can get to 50 percent. If we really put some long-term effort into new materials and smart-grid technology, we think we can get 80 percent. Though we are still grappling with the business model, the hub hopes to have a package of suggestions for the 30 percent reduction retrofit available to developers within one to 1.5 years.

You’ve received $22 million in federal funds this year and are expecting similar amounts over the next five. But that depends on congressional appropriations. If funding is canceled, how will you spin off what you’ve accomplished into something useful?
We’re not going to accomplish enough in one year, that’s for sure—maybe in three years. Certainly in five years, our plan is to be self-sufficient. It’s actually very complicated, as I think you can see now. It’s not just a technology issue, it’s a policy issue, it’s a business model issue, it’s a cultural issue.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development had an energy-efficient building task force for five years, and their conclusion was pretty much the same thing. If we don’t do integrated design and delivery of buildings, we’re not going to get anywhere in building energy efficiency. But it’s such a complicated problem that no one company, even United Technologies or IBM or GE, can take the financial risk to do what it’s going to take. We need the government to share the risk with us.

The Achilles’ heel of all this could be the policy issues that encourage the current form of behavior. I can guarantee you countries like China and India—who are growing exponentially and want to develop energy-efficient systems—have learned from our mistakes. They’re learning that they need to do integrated designs and building systems development, and I bet you that they do it.

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Q & A 10 Comments »

The Environmental Revival

Originally published in Seed Magazine at SeedMagazine.com. Link to original article post:<http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/the_environmental_revival/>

Catalyst / by Veronique Greenwood / October 27, 2009

What are the best of the environmental throwbacks?
Our Panel Responds:

  • Denis Hayes, environmental activist
  • Mary Nichols, environmental lawyer
  • Lester Brown, environmental activist
  • Henry Pollack, geophysicist

Imagine a city where the main boulevard has been converted to a greenway, replete with thousands of trees, birdsong, and even a creek. Battery-powered buses and free bicycles stationed at each corner replace cars, which are banned. For intercity travel, high-speed magnetic trains transport passengers as fast as a plane—in fact, the trains are made by Boeing, which abandoned the polluting business of air travel long ago. The city’s food waste, sewage, and garbage are composted for fertilizer. All the produce is organically grown. The livestock are free-range. Scientists provide third-party review of foods, keeping companies honest. And everything from clothes to containers is biodegradable in keeping with the overarching principle of sustainability. At night in the city, you can look up and see the stars for the first time in more than a century.

Sound like a modern green fantasy, designed by a team of hotshot urban planners and enviro activists? In fact, the city dates from 1975. It is a vision of San Francisco from the landmark novel Ecotopia, which embodied the ideas of the environmental movement at the time—ideas, of course, that are very similar to the up-and-coming designs of today.

With all the talk about a new green revolution, new energy paradigms, and climate change, it’s easy to overlook how many of the pillars of modern environmentalism are not, in fact, new. A whole host of these dynamic, forward-looking ideas were born in the 60s and 70s.

Biologists Howard and Eugene Odum developed the modern image of the Earth as an intricate tracery of biological systems in the 1960s. They were also the first to point out that crops are in some sense made of oil, in that it takes oil to fertilize them, harvest them, and transport them. In the 60s and early 70s, Robert MacArthur helped transform the natural history-based ecology of the past into the systemic, ahistorical science of today. In 1977, solar power made its first serious move towards the mainstream as President Jimmy Carter famously installed panels on the White House roof and provided the first solar incentives to individuals. And iconoclasts like Buckminster Fuller were designing for sustainability long before that.

What are the best ideas—be they technologies, concepts, legal policies, or states of mind—that have been revived from the first wave environmental movement? Which forgotten ideas should be revisited? And are there any ideas you’re glad have been left to the past?

What ideas in the interim have really changed the game?


Climate Change Was Not Even on the Radar

Denis Hayes was the founding head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory during the Carter administration and the national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1975. Having served on dozens of boards, he is now the president and CEO of The Bullitt Foundation.

This question seems best suited to a list!

The best technologies revived from the 1960s and 1970s:

  • Solar photovoltaic cells to produce safe, clean distributed power.
  • Integrated circuits allowing us to make everything “smart.”
  • Plug-in serial hybrid autos. (John Reuyl was hand-building them by 1978, but he had only lead-acid batteries to use. Porsche had actually tried them six decades earlier.)
  • Integrated pest management.
  • Super-efficient passive solar buildings.

The best concepts and laws:

  • The air, waters, and ground are not public dumps into which anyone can pour unlimited toxic materials.
  • Citizens have the right to enforce environmental laws when governments fail to act.
  • The Endangered Species Act (and the Marine Mammal Protection Act)—protecting life whether or not it directly serves a human purpose. Perhaps the most selfless laws ever passed.
  • The National Environmental Policy Act, requiring that we assess the environmental impacts of major projects before proceeding.

The best states of mind:

  • The Earth is finite. Nothing can grow forever on a globe.
  • In our democracy, an informed, aroused citizenry can still overcome huge odds to end a war, advance human rights, and protect the biosphere. “Who says you can’t save the world?”
  • Environmental values lead to sustainable jobs. This was understood early on—the largest source of financial support for the first Earth Day was organized labor, and I helped found a group called “Environmentalists for Full Employment” back in 1971. The natural alliance was forgotten in the heat of the “jobs versus owls” debate and with the collapse of Detroit. However, today, under the banner of “green jobs,” it is reemerging as an important idea.

The ideas that should be revisited:

  • The Earth has a finite long-term carrying capacity for Homo sapiens. That carrying capacity relates to affluence and technological choices. It could support 10 billion people for a long time if everyone lived like Chinese peasants, but not even Chinese peasants want to live that way. If humanity aspires to, say, a Swedish or Japanese standard of living, it already has at least twice as many humans as it can support. Zero population growth is inadequate; we need negative population growth to avoid calamity.
  • Recycling is serious business in a resource-limited world. We are lagging behind Europe, and even Europe is not having much success with electronics recycling.
  • Solar access laws that provide people who install solar collectors the right not to have their equipment shaded by later development.

The ideas best left to the past:

  • Some things we thought were true have been shown to be simply wrong. For example, we thought the greatest threat to the ozone layer came from oxides of nitrogen whereas it turned out to be from CFCs.
  • Some of the wilder greens had ideas that never proved very persuasive, e.g. carrying small cloths with you, and washing them daily, to use instead of toilet paper. I’m happy to leave that one in the past.
  • Recycling started with people carting their paper, glass, and cans to centralized recycling centers. By 1990, it was clear that this made no sense and we began pushing for curbside recycling.

The ideas since the first wave that have really changed the game:

  • Climate change was not an issue on anyone’s mind at the time of the first Earth Day. It wasn’t until 1979, when the National Academy of Sciences produced a report saying that that evidence warranted action, that it began filtering outside the atmospheric sciences community.
  • In 1970, CFCs would have been on a lot of lists as a true triumph of industrial chemistry—nontoxic, nonflammable, nonexplosive compounds with myriad valuable uses. A few years later, we discovered that they were a threat to life on Earth and must be banned.
  • With the success of Patagonia, Interface, Whole Foods, and many others, there is now a recognition that “environmentalists” don’t have to work for the Sierra Club. Environmentalism is a set of values, and environmentalists need to carry those values throughout industry and government if we are to succeed.

Revive Faith in Our Ingenuity

Mary Nichols brought the first litigation under the Clean Air Act of 1970. Among many other appointments, she has served as the California Secretary of Resources and as the Assistant Administrator of Air and Radiation for the EPA. She is currently the chairman of the California Air Resource Board.

I graduated from law school in 1971 and began my career as an environmentalist at the same time the basic US environmental protection statutes (NEPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act) were coming into force. I think of myself as an urban environmentalist, in contrast with many in the movement who are agrarians at heart. I believe that we humans can think and invent our way out of most of the problems we have created, but it becomes harder as the scale and complexity of pollution requires social and economic cooperation at a scale previously unknown.

What worked and deserves to come back: performance-based regulations that are crafted with knowledge of what technology can do if we demand it. What did not work and should be consigned to the dust heap of history: a belief that if you don’t build it they won’t come. Litigation and political pressure to limit or reduce density of housing, transportation, sewage treatment, and other infrastructure cannot reduce the environmental impact of cities.

The progressive engagement of chemistry, biology, the social sciences, urban planning, architecture, moral philosophy, and religion in solving our environmental dilemmas have each been game changers in their time, but I am still waiting for the insights that can only come from music and art.


Don’t Forget about Population

Described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” Lester Brown is the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, where he also serves as president. His most recent book is Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a forgotten idea, but it has slipped off the radar a bit: population. In the early days of the environmental movement, a number of us spoke about the dangers of unchecked population growth. The planet is now trying to support 6.7 billion people. Humanity’s collective demands surpassed the Earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. Today our demands on natural systems exceed their sustainable yield capacity by an estimated 25 percent. In addition, the world now has more than 1 billion
chronically hungry and malnourished people. We are setting ourselves up for
collapse unless we ratchet down our population.

A number of great ideas have changed the game since the environmental movement began. I’ll focus on renewable energy, which has gone through a huge revolution, especially in the last year. There isn’t enough space here to detail the number of huge projects currently underway for wind, solar, and geothermal power, but we are seeing a significant increase in renewable energy projects that will make it possible to considerably cut carbon emissions quickly. For instance, the enormous number of wind projects under development in Texas, on top of the 9,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity in operation and under construction, will bring Texas to more than 50,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (think 50 coal-fired power plants) when all these wind farms are completed. This will more than satisfy the needs of the state’s 24 million residents.

Nationwide, new wind-generating capacity in 2008 totaled 8,400 megawatts while new coal plants totaled only 1,400 megawatts. The annual growth in solar generating capacity will also soon overtake that of coal. The United States has led the world in each of the last four years in new wind-generating capacity, but China appears set to blow by the United States in 2009.

China, with its Wind Base program, is working on six wind farm mega-complexes with generating capacities that range from 10,000 to 30,000 megawatts, for a total of 105,000 megawatts. This is in addition to the hundreds of smaller wind farms built or planned. Wind is not the only option. In July 2009, a consortium of European corporations led by Munich Re, and including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and ABB, in addtion to an Algerian firm, announced a proposal to tap the massive solar thermal generating capacity in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Solar thermal power plants in North Africa could economically supply half of Europe’s electricity. The Algerians have enough harnessable solar energy in their desert to power the world economy. The soaring investment in wind, solar, and geothermal energy is being driven by the exciting realization that these renewables can last as long as the Earth itself.


Hard Times—Whenever They Are—Breed Environmental Responsibility

Henry Pollack has been a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan for more than 40 years, travels regularly to Antarctica, and has conducted scientific research on all seven continents. The author of the forthcoming A World Without Ice, he now serves as a science adviser to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

Some of the core concepts of the environmental first wave, in the 60s and 70s, were actually practiced by earlier generations in times of hardship, and it might take more hardship, rather than simply ideology, for them to truly be implemented.

A short time ago I came across a brief survey about attitudes toward recycling in different age groups. The question posed was something like this: Which age group shows the greatest willingness to recycle household paper, plastic, glass, and cans? There were only three choices: under 35, 35–70, and over 70. My first reaction was to choose the youngest group, feeling that they were the generation that grew up during the rise of the modern environmental movement. They were the generation that participated in Earth Days, that were urged to turn down the thermostat and turn off the lights, that heard the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Indeed, the survey results showed that this group displayed a high level of willingness, but to my surprise they did not lead the survey. The most willing age group was the over-70s.

In retrospect, it should not have been a surprise. These senior citizens were the folks that grew up during World War II and were asked to collect and recycle paper, tin and aluminum foil, rubber bands and scrap metal as part of the war effort. They felt good about contributing to conservation of materials that were necessary to supply our troops with the equipment they needed to defend the nation. In last place in this survey were the baby boomers, those in the gap between the old-timers and the young generation. The boomers grew up in a time of apparently unbounded affluence, a time when the landfill became the destination for unwanted household items, many used for only a short time. It was a time of “planned obsolescence.”

Recycling is an old idea, practiced by today’s seniors when they were young and by today’s youth and young adults. It was an idea temporarily forgotten in the boomer era. World War II also made today’s seniors early practitioners of what has become the “locavore” movement. With the planting of ‘victory gardens’ on residential land, many citizens and neighborhoods grew vegetables that augmented the national food supply with the most local food production possible.

The parallels between the conservation efforts during World War II and the conservation efforts of today are clear. During World War II the very existence of the nation was under military attack. Today the habitat of all of humanity is under environmental attack. Our senior citizens showed that when people are properly motivated to save something, they can rise to the occasion. Let us hope that today’s generation is motivated to respond with similar determination.

Tags: , ,
Posted in articles Comments Off

Here Comes the Sun (and Wind)

Originally published in Seed Magazine at SeedMagazine.com. Link to original article post:<http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/here_comes_the_sun_and_wind/>

Catalyst / by Veronique Greenwood / August 27, 2009

Is the current development paradigm misguided?
Our Panel Responds:

  • Amanda Little, journalist
  • Jessika Trancik, materials scientist
  • Linda Resseguie, environmental impact project manager
  • Nathan Lewis, professor of chemistry

Solar power in California has been heavily subsidized for the past decade. The state’s solar power capacity has grown by a third between 2007 and 2008 and now accounts for two-thirds of America’s solar energy capacity. But the amount of power generated by the Sun in California is still miniscule—less than .025 percent of the state’s needs. Even with time and money, solar leaves a lot to be desired in terms of capacity. It’s a similar story with wind.

Enthusiasm for renewables, despite their inefficiency, is gaining speed. Last June, the US Bureau of Land Management, inundated with proposals for solar energy projects on more than 1 million acres of desert, issued a moratorium on further submissions in order to consider the environmental damage. Though the hold was called off after only a month, the idea of 1 million patchwork acres of solar grids of various types, each with its own need for access roads, water pipes, and electric wiring, gives even the most dedicated renewables advocates pause.

At current levels of efficiency, even a million acres would provide only about 3 percent of what the US uses in a year. (See pdf)

In March, with 19 solar and wind projects eyeing half a million acres of California’s Mojave Desert, Senator Diane Feinstein announced she was proposing a bill to give the desert national monument status and protect it from renewable energy development. Elsewhere, though, the desert rush is unchecked: On July 13, German company Munich Re met with other companies to form a consortium whose goal is installing solar plants in the Sahara to provide power to Europe. In China, six gigantic wind farms, each with the capacity of more than 16 coal-fired plants, are under construction in the Gobi Desert.

So there appears to be serious conflict between renewables and biodiversity. Deserts may seem like the perfect place for wind and solar setups, but the environmental impacts of haphazard renewable development remain significant.

With technology that seems promising but manifestly inefficient, is the current development paradigm misguided? How should we deal with the ecological impact of solar and wind installations spread over millions of acres? Can we mine some other source of wind and solar power, such as city roofs? What could scientists, policymakers, and businesses do to encourage a more holistic systems approach?


“Ready, Aim, Aim Aim” Won’t Work—We Must Fire

Amanda Little is an award-winning environmental journalist whose work includes the long-running Muckraker column on Salon.com and Grist.org. She is the author of Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—A Ride to Our Renewable Future.

A key misconception about the clean-energy future is that there will be no tradeoffs. We are continually—and often glibly—promised that green innovations such as solar, wind, and electric cars are win-win-win-win technologies—a good for the economy, the environment, national security, and public health. To a certain extent, such claims are accurate, but like most products of industry, these innovations come with costs. We’ve seen battles play out over wind-turbine installations in areas such as the coast of Cape Cod, on the grounds that the gargantuan machinery will disturb pristine landscapes. We’ve seen politicians attempt to ban solar installations in national parks for fear that the panels and infrastructure needed to install them will disturb fragile ecosystems.

All are valid concerns, but going forward we will have to evaluate—and I believe come to accept—some of the tradeoffs. We must ask: What is a bigger cost—sullying a coastal view or blocking a clean-energy project that could remove millions of pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? Is it more problematic to disrupt a desert ecosystem or to stymie clean-energy production in areas with the most abundant and reliable solar resources? It will be crucial, no doubt, to keep certain fragile wildernesses pristine and machine-free.

But solving the global warming crisis will demand concessions. I am very optimistic that we will find ways to make wind and solar installations dramatically more efficient and less of an environmental burden. Consider, for instance, groundbreaking innovation underway in nanotechnology and solar-concentrating systems that promise to shrink the surface area we need to produce solar energy. But we can’t wait until those technological leaps occur to begin aggressively installing wind and solar wherever we can—on urban and suburban rooftops and in the costal, central, and southwestern areas that have the strongest solar and wind capacity.

As T. Boone Pickens has said, we can’t have a “Ready, aim, aim aim!” strategy. We’ve got to fire.


Finding the Best Tech Is Key

Jessika Trancik is an Omidyar Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, and will shortly be starting a faculty position in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT. Her research focuses on evaluating energy technologies to determine candidates for long-term climate change mitigation.

For me this debate highlights the importance of developing a rigorous framework – based on quantitative data – for comparing different energy technologies.

There are several dimensions of interest in evaluating energy technologies, including cost, carbon emissions, resource size, installation size, viability in different parts of the world, and land-use impacts, to name a few. A quantitative comparison allows us to better understand the trade-offs in moving from one technology to another.

It also forces us to use terminology carefully. For example, it becomes clear that the category of “solar” needs to be decomposed further to distinguish between photovoltaics and solar thermal electricity, which have different land-use requirements and cost-sensitivity to solar radiation. The terms are important because they are used to determine categories for policy support. (One painful example is the corn ethanol debacle, where a comparison of the carbon emissions data for corn-based and cellulosic ethanol would have made clear the need to distinguish between different feedstocks.)

Photovoltaic panels, which directly convert sunlight to electricity, can be installed in small and large system sizes, making them suitable for large open spaces or rooftops. Solar thermal electricity, which uses heat from the sun to drive a turbine, is more economical at large installation sizes and therefore requires large open plots of land.
Solar thermal is cheaper than photovoltaics in sunny areas, but its costs are more sensitive to solar radiation levels and therefore it doesn’t do well in cloudy climates. This limits its viability to sunny areas such as the deserts.

By examining the data, we see that by installing a combination of solar thermal electricity on previously developed, fallow land in locations with high solar radiation, and photovoltaics on rooftops and roadsides in sunny and cloudy locations, we can meet electricity needs and leave national park land untouched. (The area of suitable developed land, such as roadsides and rooftops, has been shown to be sufficient for photovoltaics alone to meet electricity needs, even given current efficiencies.)

In the case of solar – the most abundant clean energy source we have – the data tells us it is possible to generate all of the electricity we need on land that is already developed. With these technologies and others, however, only by carefully examining their performance characteristics will we raise the level of the debate and sensibly manage their deployment.


Rooftops Won’t Be Enough

Linda Resseguie is the project manager of the Bureau of Land Management’s Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.

As far as I have been able to discern, there is no electricity-generating technology in existence today or likely to be available over the next several years that is without undesirable environmental aspects. Each technology has its own distinct environmental challenges.

President Obama and Secretary Salazar believe that renewable energy resources located on BLM-administered public lands should be considered in the search for solutions to America’s dependence on foreign oil and in response to the problems presented by global climate change. “We have a choice to make,” President Obama said in March. “We can remain one of the world’s leading importers of foreign oil, or we can make the investments that would allow us to become the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy. We can let climate change continue to go unchecked, or we can help stop it.  We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for lasting prosperity.” And Secretary Salazar has made the production, development, and delivery of renewable energy top priorities for the Department of the Interior.

As far as relying on rooftops goes, these installations can contribute to the nation’s need for electricity, but rooftop solar is expensive, intermittent, and provides huge challenges for utility companies whose mission is to provide affordable, reliable electricity. (The public believes that rooftop is a viable alternative to utility-scale solar development, however, so this technology will be briefly discussed in our Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.)

For their part, utility-scale wind and solar facilities require large areas of land, have intermittent capacity (although some solar facilities will include thermal storage that will allow electricity to be produced over a longer period of the day), and may be harmful to wildlife. But, at the Bureau of Land Management, our obligation is to analyze the environmental effects of these technologies, as well as specific projects, and to find ways to avoid or mitigate any adverse impacts of the projects that are ultimately approved.


All Things Considered, We Can Make Solar Work

Nathan Lewis is the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, where he studies electrochemistry of metals and semiconductors. His plenary lecture at the Materials Science Society meeting of 2007, entitled “Powering the Planet,” can be accessed here.

All energy sources have positives and negatives. Coal is dirty. Nuclear power makes long-lived radioactive waste. Oil can create offshore spills that pollute our coastlines. Wind can interfere with migrating birds as well as aircraft radar systems. Hydroelectricity disrupts natural river basins.

Solar, while relatively benign, comes with siting issues such as prime areas with high amounts of sunlight being protected desert areas. We either have the lights go out or we find a way to site energy generation facilities of one type or another in a responsible way. The amount of area required at 10 percent efficient solar cells in order to power the United States would be comparable to the nations numbered highways, so this is not by that measure an extraordinary amount of land. We have covered more area already with parking lots and roads by far than we would need to cover with solar converters to power civilization for centuries. We of course need a way to massively deploy such solar systems both cost-effectively and in an environmentally responsible fashion; we also need to complete the energy system by finding a way to store the energy to account for nighttime and cloudy days. But, all things considered, the facts clearly show that solar energy can in principle be the responsible, sustainable, relatively benign, and preferred method of providing renewable energy to the mix.

Tags: , ,
Posted in articles Comments Off

Who Owns Green Tech?

Originally published in Seed Magazine at SeedMagazine.com. Link to original article post:<http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/intellectual_property_who_owns_green_tech/>

Catalyst by Veronique Greenwood / July 30, 2009

The Catalyst: Driving Reactions to Issues in the News

How can intellectual property be adapted to spread green tech?
Our Panel Responds:

  • Federico Caprotti, clean tech researcher
  • John Wilbanks, open source advocate
  • Michele Boldrin, economist
  • Carlos J. Serrano, economist
  • Dennis Pamlin, development policy advisor

By World Trade Organization law, if a patented drug can improve public health in a developing country, it’s available for compulsory licensing. That means that developing countries can make generics of the drug while paying a small royalty instead of the full fee to the patent-holder—a practice that makes patent-holding companies deeply uncomfortable. To date, the only drugs so licensed have been antiretrovirals to fight AIDS in Africa.

But as nations move toward global restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions for the good of us all, developing countries have begun to ponder whether other patented inventions could also be licensed. If China, for instance, decides it needs the plans for an electric car to meet a reduced emissions quota, can it get them licensed for generic production? Developing countries think the answer should be yes. Some companies, including Microsoft, Sunrise Solar, and General Electric, say no.

To combat such a revision of WTO law, these and other US companies have recently formed the Coalition for Innovation, Employment, and Development. Hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce, the coalition paints a picture of patents as crucial to turning ideas into industries. “Without the assurance that IP rights will be respected—and effort, creativity, and investments rewarded as a result—innovation will wither,” the coalition warns on its homepage.

While this seems a bit alarmist, strong patent laws have significant benefits. Should companies lose trust in patents—should they fear that their ideas will no longer be financially respected as theirs—they have an incentive to make the ideas corporate secrets instead of publicly available patents. The European Patent Office foresees the burgeoning of such legally protected secrets should patents be rendered less binding.

Making technology patentable and thus profitable has indeed been a good way to encourage companies to invest in ideas that serve the public good. However, when billions in the developing world who could benefit from these ideas cannot afford the current system, we need to consider how it can evolve.

How can we reconcile the useful qualities of the current patent system with the need for widespread use of green tech?


Why We Need “Green Licensing”

Federico Caprotti is an assistant professor in human geography at University College London who studies clean-tech investments in China and the United States.

The rationale behind patenting technology is clear: Patents and IP rights protect a corporation responsible for innovation, allowing it to invest in R&D without fearing that another company will steal its innovation and bring it to market without bearing any of the development costs. Proponents of “green and clean IP” rightly point to the fact that more than 70 percent of global R&D in green tech is spent by private companies that want to protect their investments. That is why, for example, Toyota has patented more than 1,000 systems and components on its third-generation Prius hybrid car.

The situation is clear when all we’re talking about is a car. Or a hybrid engine. Or the gearing components of a wind turbine. However, it is far less clear when the issue is about climate change and sustainability, not about specific components, technologies, and firms. The pressing issue of climate change forces us to start thinking past our own borders and past the narrow concerns of individual companies. In short, we have to start thinking past the private good in order to achieve the public good. It may be worthwhile to think of some of the greatest technological breakthroughs which have benefited humanity—and which happened without the benefits of patenting and IP. When Louis Pasteur developed the first vaccine against rabies—a disease which still kills upwards of 50,000 people a year—he did not patent his discovery, nor work for profit, but disseminated his knowledge for the public good. Indeed, in the case of the environment, rarely has the market unequivocally “worked” in eliminating the negative impacts—or “externalities”—of fossil fuel use, pollution, and environmental inequalities.

It would be naive to suggest that all green technologies should be free. However, a recent high-profile report by University College London suggests that climate change is the biggest threat to global health in the 21st century. Developing a broader green IP framework is therefore crucial to the success of international climate treaties and emissions reductions standards. It is also crucial for developing countries, which are set to bear the brunt of the projected increased incidence and spread of diseases, extreme weather events, and warming.

One promising avenue is the establishment of an international licensing mechanism focused on green tech and clean tech. This would enable companies and governments in the developing world to use established technologies for a fee, while protecting innovator firms. This already happens in the case of various technologies, from engine components to airliners. However, if the common good and the issue of climate change are to be kept in mind, the licensing of green tech needs to include a fee mechanism. This will enable economies at different stages of development—such as the US, China, and Bangladesh—to afford to use the same licensed technologies to promote sustainability and cleaner production. Ideally, this fee mechanism should account for the fact that several green technologies—from wind turbines to solar film—are manufactured in developing countries, taking advantage of low labor costs and incentives derived from those governments that the Green IP lobby is active in criticizing.

At the same time, the new “green licensing” scheme should focus on established, not cutting-edge or proof-of-concept technologies. This is because it is crucial for countries to start reducing emissions now—not in 20 years. Parallel to this, international agreements should increasingly encourage the joint development of green tech by firms from developed and developing economies. Examples of this already exist: Vestas, the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, sources 90 percent of the components for its new turbine from Chinese companies (see pdf). In turn, the turbine is manufactured in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region so that it can easily reach the Chinese market. A licensing mechanism which allows for the spread of established green tech today will help developing countries to act on national environmental strategies, while allowing for the protection of innovators and investors in advanced economies.


Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

John Wilbanks is the vice president of science at Creative Commons, where he heads the Science Commons project.

It’s somewhat sadly ironic that the conversation about innovation is almost always itself non-innovative. The issues are framed as binary, zero-sum choices—between a strong patent system and chaos, between a world where everything stays as it is and a world in which no innovation happens.

We live in a world where innovation now takes many forms, some of which are mediated by the network and depend fundamentally on access to information and freedom to operate. There are entirely novel forms of innovation, like the user-driven innovation studied by Eric Von Hippel at MIT or open innovation studied by Henry Chesbrough at the University of California–Berkeley. There has also been an enormous amount of innovation happening in intellectual property itself, where standards-based public licenses have created a vast common space of software, cultural works, and biological materials. We need to take these new forms and classes of innovation into account when we design policy and standardize transactions, or we risk strangling entire zones of innovative discovery in the crib, all in the service of somehow “protecting” traditional innovation.

Instead of engaging in debate about the patent system, we should be having a conversation about the way patents get licensed and used, and how we can use public, standards-based licenses to open up the innovation field worldwide. This can be done within existing law and using voluntary private licenses like those we’re developing at Creative Commons in cooperation with companies like Nike and Best Buy. These are companies who are innovating with their patents themselves, not just arguing for higher walls and more police. That’s a network way of thinking.

We can find a way to balance the incentives of corporate innovators while making sure the innovators in the developing world have the means to solve their own problems. We’ve seen similar solutions take root in cultural commerce with extraordinary results, from the existence of Wikipedia to Nine Inch Nails making millions of dollars on songs they also gave away on the internet for free. We can do this for patents, and we can do this for sustainability technology. But it can’t be done if the rhetoric around the conversation is consistently fueled by maximalism and confrontation.


For Green IP, Less is More

Michele Boldrin is a professor of economics at Washington University and, along with colleague David K. Levine, the author of Against Intellectual Monopoly.

The main argument advanced in our book, Against Intellectual Monopoly, is that patents and copyrights are damaging private monopolies. By means of historical example, as well as statistical and economic analyses, we show that intellectual monopoly is not necessary for innovation and is, in fact, damaging to economic growth and prosperity.

It is common to argue that, in principle, intellectual property in the form of patents is necessary for the creation of ideas and inventions such as machines, drugs, and computer software. But the fact is that this is not so in practice, as an increasing amount of evidence shows. Far from stimulating creation, intellectual property protection—due more to a mixture of legal acumen and abundant resources than anything else—is primarily used as a tool to prevent economic progress and hurt competitors.

That innovators deserve compensation for their efforts is not being debated here, but it is a long and dangerous jump from this to the conclusion that patents and copyrights—that is, monopoly—are the best or the only way of providing that reward. There are many other ways in which innovators can be rewarded, and most of them are better for society than the monopoly power patents and copyright currently bestow. Maintaining the current system, but reducing the term of a patent (or introducing renewals at various stages in the term of the patent) would be a short-term improvement; a medium-term improvement would be to replace the current system with privately contracted licenses, which would mean that violations of the terms of agreement would be treated as breach-of-contract. A long-term alternative that seems particularly appropriate for innovations in green production technologies would be the complete abolition of intellectual property protection.

Green production technology seeks to reduce manufacturing’s footprint on the environment. It acknowledges the externalities generated by almost all production processes and seeks to internalize their cost—a strategy that results in greater benefits to society since all costs of the process are considered when making production decisions. Thus, any invention leading to a greener technology will have its greatest social impact if it becomes possible for other manufacturers to also adopt and improve it, so as to maximize the global manufacturing footprint reduction. Barring some manufacturers from this technology—say, through patent—forces them to damage the environment more than necessary and runs counter to the overall goal.

New technologies, though, are expensive to produce and green ones are no exception. How would one reward the creator of a new green technology in the absence of patents? There are multiple venues. First and foremost, new technology offers advantages in complying with environmental standards: To the extent the latter carry penalties/fees, the profit is immediate. Second, there is the fact that preferences are shifting in favor of goods and services with low environmental impact, hence the classical “first mover advantage” providing innovators with large and sustained rents. Third, it is obvious that a substantial fraction of green innovation needs to be taught and explained to be useful, and this can be done for a fee. Fourth, the best use of public money to support the environment is to reward with monetary prizes those firms that discover and introduce green technologies, once the lower environmental impact of such technologies has been tested and proved.


Taking into Account the True Costs

Carlos J. Serrano is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Toronto, where he studies the economics of innovation and technological change.

In contrast to the diffusion of HIV-AIDS drugs, the diffusion of existing green technology to developing countries is not currently limited by the existence of patents; it is hampered because private firms do not internalize the social costs of polluting. That is, it is cheap to pollute, and existing green technologies are not productive enough.

To deal with the problem of climate change, governments have two options (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive). One option is to foster the development of green technology through subsidies. Subsidies will reduce research costs and will likely generate new and better green technologies. The second one is to align the private cost of polluting with its social cost through policies like cap-and-trade systems, eco taxes, etc. Both domestic and foreign firms will pollute excessively unless they face the true cost.

Furthermore, since climate change is a global issue, economic policies addressed at reducing it will likely require coordination among nations. The biggest challenge our policy makers will face is the design of economic policies so that developing countries like China and India will find it optimal to adopt green technologies.


It Is the IP Culture, Not the Law, That is the Problem

Dennis Pamlin is a senior associate at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and global policy adviser at WWF. The opinions in this text are those of the author, not the organizations for which he works.

The question of intellectual property has become key in discussions about climate change and new technologies. In the short term, the IP discussion is about existing solutions or solutions that could be implemented quickly. It’s evident that current IP protection could help companies invest in solutions for reducing emissions. And overall, it is reasonable to assume that continued IP protection would support investments that deliver incremental improvements.

The challenge, however, is that we need more than incremental improvements. Anyone attending a symposium/conference/workshop about innovation will see that very few of the ideas developed by entrepreneurs have anything to do with the challenges we face. This fact has very little to do directly with the IP system itself and more about the culture surrounding the system.

As we move ahead, three areas need to be included in the IP discussion:

First, how we can distinguish between sustainable solutions and unsustainable solutions? Today no such system exists, and there’s no way to know which solutions deserve our attention on the IP level. The system doesn’t need to be perfect—just being able to do a rough categorization would help us understand what kind of solutions are being developed. Then we could investigate a framework to disseminate those solutions.

Second, and perhaps most important, is to create a culture where individuals and companies are inspired to find solutions to the challenges. If innovators and investors could assess how many people are helped with different solutions, we wouldn’t have to rely on short-term economic gains and pure curiosity to guide technological development. Using increased connectivity to provide real-time information about the situation around the world could encourage people to spend more time trying to solve the food and climate crisis and less time developing iFart applications.

Third, we need to improve the transparency around the financial rewards for different kinds of innovations. It would become obvious that we are spending incredible amounts of money on things like incremental improvements in coal and fossil fuel cars when much better solutions exist. This in turn would expose the fact that many companies are encouraging innovation based on their current business model, rather than the best way to provide different services for people. Protecting IP rights for solutions that destroy the planet, when parts of these solutions could be used in another context to help the planet, does not make much sense at all.

Tags: , ,
Posted in Q & A, articles Comments Off