Posts tagged legislation

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?

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Great News for Solar!

It looks like the tax credits for alternative energy are getting renewed after all!  The “Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008″ preserves the previously expired (at the end of 2007) tax credits for homeowners who install one of the following technologies: insulation, replacement windows, water heaters, and certain high efficiency heating and cooling equipment. Be sure to check EnergyStar.gov for rules and more details, as not all Energy Star rated improvements are eligible for the tax credit.  This includes solar water heating and several other technologies.

You will only be eligible for the credit for construction starting in 2009 or later, so consider holding off on the home handy work for a few months (like we need another excuse to procrastinate!).  Here is a partial list of the credits available, as taken from this site:

  • Windows: 10% of cost, up to $200, for qualified ENERGY STAR windows, skylights and storm windows
  • Doors (exterior): 10% of cost, up to $500, for qualifying doors (most ENERGY STAR doors will qualify)
  • Roofs (metal): 10% of cost, up to $500, for qualifying ENERGY STAR metal roofs
  • Insulation: 10% of cost, up to $500, for qualifying insulation (not vapor retarders or siding)
  • Air Conditioning (split or package systems): $300 for qualifying systems, not all ENERGY STAR systems qualify
  • Water Heaters (tankless only): $300 for qualifying systems
  • Cars: Credits are available for certain cars, and is limited by 60,000 per manufacturer before a phase-out period begins
  • Solar Water Heating: 30% of cost, not available for water heaters used for pools or spas
  • Solar Power (Photovoltaic): 30% of cost, must provide electricity for the home
  • Fuel Cells: 30% of cost, up to $1,000 per kW of power that can be produced

H.R. 1424 improves the federal solar tax credit from a flat $2000 to 30% of total system and installation costs (and anyone who has done an installation of this type knows how huge a news item this really is!), and also gives commercial solar companies and power utilities the opportunity to get in on the rebate action too, so now you may be able to talk to total price of a commercial install down into the realm of affordability.

Of course, let’s not forget that many states offer their own incentives for switching to solar or other forms of alternative energy in addition to this tax credit, so you may end up getting well near 50% off of your installation costs!  Now that’s something any shopper can appreciate!.  The credit is now extended (as part of the Wall Street Bailout) for the next eight years, so expect some great new solar innovations soon as companies rush to fill the market demand.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Who Killed the Electric Car?

Yesterday was a media-rich day for me. Besides reading Power by the People, I also got a chance to check out the 2006 film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, which outlines the rise and fall of the GM EV1. It’s filmed in traditional documentary format, with cameos by Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Mel Gibson, and other celebrity EV1 owners. It’s actually kind of amusing to see these people introduced as “blah blah, EV driver”, without the fanfare associated with their day jobs.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

The film starts out outlining the history of California’s Zero-Emissions Vehicle Mandate, enacted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1993. The mandate stated that in order to sell cars in California, car makers must create at least 10% of their vehicles to be zero-emissions. This led to the further development by GM of the prototype “Impact” car that had won the solar Grand Prix race in 1989. After developing a car that could be marketed, and introducing it at the L.A. Auto Show, GM released some cars for lease in California and Arizona, dubbing it the “EV1”. It was relatively inexpensive, quiet, and very fast. Soon, Ford, Honda, and other car companies were scrambling to make their own electric vehicles so they could compete in the California market. But they weren’t happy about having to devote R&D money to that quest.

The mandate stated that the only way car companies could get around having to produce zero-emissions cars was to prove that there existed no demand for them. So car companies set about doing just that. You’ll see some of the old commercials for electric vehicles, which come off looking more like public service announcements about some scary new disease than a car ad. GM claimed that while they had a waiting list of 4,000 people who wanted an EV1, that list only translated to about 50 car leases. Ask Chelsea Sexton, the EV1 sales representative who is interviewed throughout the film what she thinks of that, and you’ll meet a lot of skepticism. Many other arguments that the car companies used to “kill the electric car” are also presented, some actually funny in their logic.

Regardless of what the car companies thought about investing in electric vehicles, the death blow to the Zero-Emissions Vehicle Mandate came from within… when in 2003, CARB actually repealed the very Mandate it had drafted, due to pressure from the car companies and a powerful new lobby, backed by the Bush administration: Hydrogen Fuel Cells. Shortly after the mandate died its grizzly death (see the movie for details about the decline and the players behind it), GM bought the Hummer car line, and within a month, quietly closed its EV1 facility and laid off the staff there. Then something strange happened. GM began a systematic recall of its EV1 vehicles, threatening legal action against those who did not allow GM to personally come and pick up the cars. By 2004, there were no cars left in private hands.

If you’re still reading, this is a movie that you should see, so I won’t go into the details about the recall campaign and the protests that followed this unprecedented action. Suffice it to say that the car companies promised one thing and did entirely something else, stifling real technological advances in the process. And governmental regulators? Well, I’ve never loved ’em, but it’s very disheartening to see how the oil industry, the car companies, and legislators colluded to feed a gas-hungry economy more high-fuel toys. Like tax credits: $4,000 for an electric vehicle, or $100,000 for a vehicle over 6,000 pounds (ie. the Hummer). 100k for owning a Hummer? On what planet does that make sense? Certainly not this one.

So, yes, watch this movie. It’s as much about how the long fingers of corporations and the government have entwined our lives as it even is about the technology behind the EV1. But that is a valuable lesson to learn, especially if you’re someone planning to make a change in the world. Just watch what happens to the Oshanskys when they introduce a new battery technology to the car companies. It isn’t pretty. But in the end, the message is positive. Progress can be stifled, but it cannot be stopped. Good technologies WILL find their way the marketplace if there is a demand for them. It is up to us, the consumers, to demand products that embrace alternative energy technologies, rather than letting the powers-that-be spoon feed us their idea of the future.

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