Archive for November, 2008

My Letter to Obama about Energy and the Environment

Well, okay, it was to his energy and environment transition staff, but hey, you never know!  One of the things about this upcoming administration to which I’m most looking forward is their commitment to getting public feedback as a regular part of the legislative process.  So of course, when they asked for my (and your!) opinion on what we as a nation can do to invest in alternative energy and the environment, I had to do my part.  You can too by visiting http://change.gov/page/s/energyenviro and sending them a message of your own.  Below, in somewhat edited form, is the environmental and energy wish list I hope to see in this country in the upcoming years in hopes that it will foster debate here on the site and elsewhere about the most important conservation and resource generation issues we face and how they may be solved.  What do you want to see happen?  Comment below and then head over to Change.gov to participate today!

***** My Energy and Environment Wish List *****

I think the most important thing that people need to realize is how the current energy supply affects prices and the need for more infrastructure.  For example, the concept of peak load on power plants: though conservation initiatives often highlight using off-peak power, rarely is it explained that central utilities must offer enough wattage to supply the highest moment of demand in a year.  Therefore, redesign of total power loads is highly beneficial, such as the advantages offered by off-peak charging of electric/hybrid cars (and tractors/industrial vehicles?), use of alternative energy storage programs such as that by LADWP (which uses off-peak hours to pump water uphill so that peak hour demand can be offset using hydro power and the excess supply built into the system is not wasted), programs which reward consumers for reducing their PEAK POWER LOAD (and therefore also their total power bills!), and more localized power production which loses substantially less than the 50% average wattage which travels over wires and is better tuned to the needs of a particular location.  This form of savings would allow existing power plants to use their energy much more efficiently and reduce need for new utility construction all while increasing our national security from foreign attack.  (Oh yeah, and phase out incadescent lights and unnecessary “standby” mode appliances!)

Mandatory minimum Leed certification levels (or some similarly arranged standard) for new construction starts and promoting eco-remodeling over creating new buildings where possible (with corresponding tax incentives for each) will go a long way toward reducing environmental toxins and energy use loads while stimulating the building and sustainable material markets.  Of course, tax credits for passive solar design and thermal resources (geo and solar) should be in the mix to highlight these low-impact technologies, which have relatively fast break-even points.  Tax credits for using non-toxic building materials and for installing “greenswitches” (which allow you to deactivate wall outlets and lights from a single light switch by the door when you leave the house for the day or go to sleep at night) would be great too!  Also, promoting organic food and material production greatly reduces our overall need for petroleum supplies (for pesticides and herbicides), while helping to restore America’s soil health and ecosystems.  Community garden programs could also use a boost, maybe by offering a green roof gardening program on existing public roofs, producing food for community programs while reducing the buildings’ energy needs.  And incentives for greening cities (like the Million Trees LA program), with special emphasis on using plants which produce edible fruits, nuts, and other foodstuffs to increase urban agricultural density and further buouy city budgets (an interesting example of a group trying to promote this is fallenfruit.org).  Perhaps also offer incentives for people who spend locally and stimulate their towns’ and cities’ economies and efficiency?  (RecycleBank has an successful program along these lines)

More research should be done on using nature’s own arsenal of environmental restorers and protectors (for example, using mushrooms for reforestation and toxic chemical environmental remediation).  We can also use certain restorative biofuel feed crops to rebalance the natural soil cycle, preventing erosion and therefore water pollution.  Our water, in particular, is a resource we cannot continue to allow to be polluted by heavy metals and current waste streams.  Providing farms better incentives for (or harsher punishments for not) properly collecting animal wastes that end up in the water supply.  Also, active superfund sites, especially mining sites, need to be addressed as soon as possible to prevent further contamination downstream.

As for alternative energy sources, there are so many different exciting technologies out there in the prototype and early market stages, the next phase (besides, of course, funding more R&D and business development!) will be ensuring that we have qualified technicians who can utilize these developments and technologies within the current marketplace competitively.  Offering more GANN-style grants for alternative energy and resource management studies at both undergrad and grad levels and creating and/or expanding a GreenCorps (modeled after the PeaceCorps) program which could first be challenged to green all federal and governmental facilities are both interesting options.  They can also promote public awareness of the consequences of their waste disposal actions and maintain a national resource database, which would help to source materials from within the country and with minimal transport for manufacture and also further educate people about the natural resources of the areas in which they dwell.  America could easily create lease or loan programs modeled after Japan’s successful solar leasing program or the SELF (Solar Electric Light Fund) loan initiatives in developing nations.  Both have been extremely successful in increasing solar adoption in times of economic despair (Japan) and area with fewer monetary resources (SELF), and could easily be applied to other alternative technologies.  Cuba’s solar school mandate is another great application of initial investment leading to long-term savings.

Two side notes on R&D for alternative energy technologies.  First, we need further development of integrated technologies, such as solar roof shingles, which serve multiple purposes and fit within current design models.  Currently, most alt technologies are add-ons – you mount them onto something else that’s already there.  With integrated technologies, the need to do this would be reduced, such as cars that have wind driven motor rotation when traveling above certain speeds (when wind can be effectively funneled through existing structures).  The other side note is that the digital divide, while not expressly an environmental problem, is something that we and all other nations will have to address in the coming years.  If we could fund people seeking ways to power computers without grid power or create highly efficient digital components, this will obviously help reduce future energy burdens on the US and globally.

(well, it continues beyond here, but congratulations if you’re still reading, ’cause I know I can really get talking when it comes to saving the earth! ) What are your ideas? Do you have stories of people (other than the listed examples) already doing these things?

Leave a comment »

Eco-conscious Christmas

It can be hard, come holiday time, to stick to your eco-guns when purchasing gifts for others.  After all, even though you LOVE your NatureMill composter and would like to buy one for the world, to your auntie Mary, no matter how well you explain the concept, it’s just plug-in box full of trash.  So unless you want some serious regifting going on, you might want to find  some products that sneak your eco-conscious sensibility in the back door, while your none-the-wiser fam revels in their tasty and chic gifts.

For some eco-chic clothing that doesn’t slack on style, check out nau.com, a socially conscious outwear company that offers coats galore for the dark days of winter.  They offer all sorts of other great clothes too, but hey, it’s cold out there!  I especially like the Shroud of Purrin Hoodie (yes, they have a good sense of humor!), which takes the classic hoodie and adds some super soft lovin’ to the inside, while sporting class it up cut details that take it from the gym to your dinner date without a change of clothing.  For urbanites, they also offer the super soft coat in a trench version, shown below.  The best thing about nau.com is that for any purchases made, 2% of the sale price will be donated to your choice of five eco-conscious causes.

Of course some people are receptive to getting green gifts, and for them, please, promote away!  Perhaps you could send a sheep or cow (in their name, not to their doorstep, can you imagine the shipping?) via Heifer International, an organization that lets you adopt a livestock animal or flock of birds for a family in a developing country.  Or maybe buy a TerraPass with carbon offset points for someone you love, helping them to green their whole year.  It’s a little less cute than a smiling cow, but promotes alternative energy development and comes with a convenient calculator that will let you offset individual actions such as that holiday plane flight to visit Grandma. And if you’re stuck for green ideas, they also have a gift store on their site which makes it easy to pick up eco-gadgets for anyone in the family.

And finally, if you want to give a present to your whole town, visit RecycleBank.com and express your city’s interest in joining their recycling program, which actually PAYS YOU TO RECYCLE (which you do anyway, right?  So it’s free money!!!)  When a city signs up with RecycleBank, the company puts RFID tags on your curbside recycle bins and on the trucks that come and pick up their contents.  For every pound you recycle, the truck logs the weight of your bin, and you earn points and coupons which can be redeemed at local businesses for free or discounted stuff, thereby stimulating your local economy and encouraging recycling at the same time!  Some cities currently using the program have seen recycling rates go up from around 3% to almost 30%, and the cities themselves save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in reduced waste transport costs to the landfill, which they split with the company.  So next year, there will finally be enough money in the town budget to buy LED lights to power the annual light festival, or switch to CFLs in city buildings, saving money (and landfill space!) for generations to come.

Comments (1) »

Lessons from the Campaign Trail

Whew!  With the 2008 election season finally over, it almost feels anti-climactic not to be talking about “the issues” all the time with everyone I meet.  Over the last few weeks of the campaign, I volunteered some time for the Obama campaign, and was thrilled to see him win in such a landslide on election day.  But this is not a political blog, so here I offer some tips I learned along the way about how to effectively promote a social cause such a return to simpler living.

First, the Obama campaign succeeded largely because they were able to successfully brand themselves outside the traditional political system.  Rather than “Vote Democrat”, they emphasized “Vote for Change”, a tag line that excluded far fewer potential voters.  When framing a campaign to raise awareness, sticking to the issues and resisting the urge to paint yourself in one camp or another is a valuable tool for reaching across to people who might not share all of your views, but who are passionate about an issue that you are too.

Also, the campaign made excellent use of people’s strengths, asking them to donate whatever they could, and allowing them to contribute in the best way the knew.  This meant that rather than a shy computer genius signing up and getting told to go hit the streets and talk to people, they were encouraged to do what they knew best… design a computer interface that allowed for easier donations, in this example.  Campaign benefits, and the volunteers feels that their talents were put to good use toward a real contribution without trying to pound square pegs into round holes.  Being mindful of people’s preferences is very important, especially in a situation in which you depend on volunteerism to complete your goals. That being said, I was asked if I wanted to hit the streets on election day, and though it wasn’t something that would generally appeal to me, I found the experience so uplifting, I can’t wait to do it again.  But the fact that it wasn’t shoved down my throat had a lot to do with that.

On another level but related, the Obama campaign made use of people’s existing resources in a way that most previous presidential bids have not.  In the past, volunteers would show up at a call center with all the resources needed to promote the cause, assigned, and then controlled centrally from this point.  This year, people organized home calling parties, a la MoveOn.org’s movie watching parties, and left it to participants to bring laptops, cellphones, and other necessary equipment to make the calls.  This was accomplished through good use of an internet hub, the Obama website, which allowed volunteers to access necessary information in one spot from anywhere.  They also gave each volunteer a blog to share their experiences with one another.  So if you had a sudden urge to call people at 9am Saturday morning, you could log on, find a list of people in swing states who needed to be called, and do that from the comfort of your own home.  Brilliant.  Careful planning of the central hub allowed for a diverse and decentralized force of volunteers to stay organized.  And by using people’s inherent talents, Obama was able to recruit a young and diverse set of talents to his cause, ending up with an iconic poster by one of my favorite artists, Shepard Fairey, a 26 year old speech writer who had everyone crying on election night, a social media campaign designed by one of the top dogs at Facebook, and a legion of dedicated campaigners who’d never even considered getting involved before.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the campaign strongly emphasized a “no drama, vote for Obama” ethos that carried through to the volunteer level.  Volunteers and campaign workers were there for one thing only, to help Obama win, and they managed to avoid most of the infighting that is usually associated with political campaigns.  By running things like a business, keeping to set goals and the fulfillment thereof, personal differences became less and less important.  After all, if you and your buddy both care about composting but disagree strongly on, for example, the benefits vs. risks of offshore drilling, there’s no reason to hamper your home composting conference with discussion of drilling when you are trying to teach 100 people how to set up a worm compost bin.  Stay to the stated goals, accomplish them, then set new, loftier goals!

This was a historic campaign in every sense of the word, and I’m sure the coming weeks will see many more positive strategies identified as routes to Obama’s great success.  Me, I’ll be kicking back and letting my feet rest a little from all that walking, and thinking about ways that I can use those same lessons from above to make Solarious the best resource ever for people trying to escape the trappings of on-grid living. To everyone who voted last week for either candidate, I heartily salute you for taking an active part in shaping the future of American politics.  After all, changes don’t make themselves, and true democracy depends on its constituents to frame the dialogues that will guide its elected leaders.

Now that election season is over, I’ll have more time again to post here, so check back for upcoming profiles of some amazing companies who are taking green living to the next level.  Because in today’s marketplace, you vote just as strongly with your pocketbook as your ballot.  We can, we did!

Leave a comment »

Make History Today

I’ve pretty much kept out of the political fray here at Solarious, but on this historic election day at the end of the longest presidential campaign in American memory, one cannot help but realize the importance of participating by voting in this election.  So regardless of the yucky weather (can they plan that?), get out and vote today!  I’ve been so impressed to see people talking for weeks about having voted early to make sure their votes were counted.  Between the official polls and the unofficial internet popular polls, we’re in a unique position to make our voices heard today in a way no prior generation has.

No single act you do this year, perhaps even this decade, will so influence your future possibilities of an off-grid life as getting your vote counted, no matter on which side of the fence you stand.  After all, the next president will be in charge of steering the green market and renewable energy to their destinies.  Who do you want in charge?  See you at the polls!

(If you need a little help deciding, go to SmartVoter.com or VotefortheEnvironment.com and read up on the issues.)

Leave a comment »

%d bloggers like this: