Posts tagged politics

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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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!

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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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HOW TO: Create a Seed Bank

As another hurricane bears down on the gulf coast, one has to wonder whether the glass half empty crowd which has been predicting increased damage in upcoming years due to natural disaster is correct. Nature does go in cycles, and we may end up laughing off current pessimism about the planet’s inability to regulate herself. But current data does suggest that we are facing at the least a massive migration of plants and animal species to inhabit new regions of the planet. Global environmental organizations are already seeing plant and animal species move to new elevations of previously frigid territory and dead zones showing up in previously fertile areas.

Perhaps the hardest adjustment we as humans will have to make, provided we don’t all take each other out first, is that of food supply.  When the local soils no longer support the crops to which we’re accustomed, we’ll be faced with two choices: move, or learn to cultivate something new.  This migratory period will be critical to the existence of all life on earth.  By creating and maintaining seed banks, we are helping to sustain the biological diversity of life on earth.  This is the aim of the latest biological depository established in Scandinavia, into which governments from around the world are locking seed samples in preservatory conditions in case of Doomsday.

But while the establishment of such seed banks are admirable, the greatest potential for preserving biological diversity lies with the individual.  After all, your grandmother’s mint patch that grows in your backyard probably isn’t on the seed registry’s radar, and neither are your neighbor’s prize heirloom sunflowers.  For any planet to sustain a wide diversity of genetic material, it is we, the people, who will have to stash away the genetic legacy of our lives thusfar as a gift to the future.  So why not get started now?

Making a seed bank is ridiculously easy.  You could well go from a single set of seeds to more than you could ever plant within the span of a single growing season.  Of course, seeds are most fertile when fresh, but stored under the right conditions, most seeds will last for years.  It is a good practice to plant from your seed bank each year, and replenish the stock with fresh seed over the growing season.  This way, most of your seed stays fresh at any time.

Now, how to get started?  First, buy an pack of little brown paper envelopes, or even just a package of writing envelopes.  Then stash a few in your pocketbook, briefcase, or car, and start hunting!  Every time you see a particularly beautiful tree in fruit, a really nice flower, or healthy looking seed grasses, take a handful of seeds, pat them dry if they are wet (say from being removed from their protective fruit coverings to prevent rot), and place them in the envelope.  Be sure to label the outside of the package with what type of plant (if you don’t know, just describe it as best possible), the date on which you collected it, and ideally, where you found it. Then transfer your sealed envelopes to a cool dry storage place next time you are home, to keep the seeds from germinating and then dying from lack of soil nutrition. Then you simply hit the road again and look for more!  Most people won’t mind you taking a handful of anything from their lawn, but certainly some tact and discretion are in order always.

The next step in a successful seed bank is to increase the diversity through exchange with others. In most towns there are groups of seed savers who get together periodically to have exchanges, in which you give a little to get a little of something else.  This is the true gem of seed collection. You are gaining access to the best of all local areas, all of which should be relatively well suited to cultivation in your area, simply for having an eagle eye in your own neighborhood.

As with all great ventures, the best time to get started is before everyone else catches on. That way, when seeds become more scarce, you’ll already be a practiced veteran of the seed trade.  This is truly a return to the simpler life our parents parents experienced, and is a selfless act of philanthropy you can complete without spending a dime.

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Looking Under the Surface of “Green”

Ever heard of the game Energyville?  It’s an online game where you name a town, and then, Sims’ style, decide how you’re going to power it using the available technologies.  Each has their own pros and cons, and costs different amounts of money, environmental damage and national security.  Then the game takes you through the years, showing you how the choices you make affect the city.  On the surface, it sounds like a good concept.  But play it once or twice, and you might start to wonder just why it is that biofuels always “get more expensive due to lack of corn supplies” in every scenario presented, though petroleum, natural gas, and shale oil seem to get better with age.  Or how even if you have your town fully powered with alternative energy, the game won’t let you advance to the next level without adding some petrol to the mix.  I played the game several times, and Beautopia never lived up to its name, no matter how valiantly I erected wind towers and solar panel racks.  Well, it did LOOK pretty, but my score couldn’t compete with the oil guzzlers and nuclear supporters out there.

Still, even with a marked slant evident in the policital events presented, the game is an interesting look at how we do need to think about the future when making energy choices of today.  If someone would come back with a more REAL version of this game, instead of Chevron, which is the presenter of Energyville, there could be a lot to learn from it.  If you want to check out the game, it’s at:

www.willyoujoinus.com/energyville

In a greater sense, this game underlines what seems true in most of life.  Most things seem okay on the surface, pretty kind and helpful even, but a little digging (not much in this case) reveals that “free” offers contain strings, “impartial” observers are paid for their opinions, and even organizations set up to help others usually have their own agendas that can affect their actual aid.  Green living is a noble goal, and of course I encourage you to follow the natural path.  Just be aware of the greenwash, as they call it, because for every understanding and caring soul who enters the green “industry”, there also enters a conglomerate like Safeway or KMart, hoping to make a buck.  Learning to take only what you need from these giants is a lifelong game in and of itself.

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Quickie – Food Politics

Here’s a link to a good article about what’s happening to our global food supplies, and why it’s translating to more at the register.

Read the full story here

The Presidential Candidates

As we deepen into our self-created oil and energy crisis, we can only expect more articles like this, and more future costs, not fewer. Consider planting a garden if you don’t have one already. It takes a bit of trial and error to discover how particular plants grow. If you have something you “can’t live without”, try growing it a few times. Soon, it may be the only way for you to get it!

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