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How data and technology will accelerate city sustainability

Published October 08, 2014
How data and technology will accelerate city sustainability

How can technology transform buildings and cities into spaces that can adapt to societal, economic and climate shocks? How can data analytics accelerate urban sustainability and create value for buildings and cities? How can infrastructure innovation move cities beyond the basic greening of Main Street business?

These are some of the questions that were asked at the VERGE Salon, "Next-Gen Buildings and Cities," in September. Produced by GreenBiz, this one-day event in New York City gathered an international group of architects, entrepreneurs, urban planners, real estate developers, government officials and experts in sustainability, infrastructure, transportation, energy, urban development and public policy to discuss the sustainable future of cities.

Specifically, the event highlighted how urban sustainability can be accelerated across sectors through advancements in technology, data and systems, as well as the business opportunity all this economic activity presents.

Why cities?

Imagine the entire population of Maine—1.4 million people—moving into the world's cities every week. It sounds unbelievable, but that's exactly what will be happening over the next two decades, says a major new report released by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Chaired by former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, the commission is the project of seven countries—Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom—created to "analyze and communicate the economic benefits and costs of acting on climate change." By their estimates, nearly all of the world's net population growth over the next 20 years will happen in urban areas, with the global area of urbanized land tripling by 2030.

Considering the extraordinary pressure on the environment all that additional human activity will create, it's no surprise that the battle for sustainability will be won or lost in the world's cities. As a recent Scientific American headline put it: "Climate change will be solved in cities—or not at all."

But preparing for a sustainable urban future won't just help the global environment—from supporting biodiversity and public health to reducing carbon emissions and pollution—it also makes economic sense. By reducing sprawl and creating cities that are more connected, more compact and served by efficient and easily accessible mass public transport, an estimated U.S. $3.4 trillion can be saved worldwide over the next 15 years.

And of course, as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio recently asserted when he unveiled his overhaul of the city's energy-efficiency standards for public buildings, "There's a moral imperative to act."

In many ways, the global climate fight makes more sense on a city level than a national level. For one thing, so many cities are situated on a coastline and are susceptible to sea level rise, as New York found out—much to its surprise—during Hurricane Sandy. But it's not just urbanites who should be concerned about what happens within city limits: Cities account for around three-fourths of global energy use and global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, it may be easier to combat climate change on the city level, as mayors have a more direct policy control over such things as pollution reductions from cars, buildings and waste management.

According to research by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of the world’s megacities taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, existing city commitments could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 13 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide (C02e) by 2050, in addition to any national-level policies.

"C40 currently has membership of 69 cities, 15 of which have publicly committed to 70 percent emission reductions or more by 2050," said C40 research director Seth Schultz.

As U.N. Undersecretary-General Joan Clos asserted during his keynote speech in January at the United Nations Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, "The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities."

City archives: Looking at the future through the past

Jack Nyman, executive director of the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute at Baruch College, City University of New York, which co-hosted the event, sees this challenge to the world's cities as a defining moment. In his introductory remarks, he said that the "vision of urban crowding and strained resources gives us an opportunity to pause, rethink and redirect our effort." Later, as a keynote panel moderator, he noted architectural historian Vincent Scully's assertion that architecture is "a continuing dialogue between the generations." Indeed, for many of the event's presenters, part of rethinking the future of cities involves looking to the past.

Constantine Kontokosta, the deputy director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, sat on a panel about America's urban future. He recalled the late American-Canadian urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who, in her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote that "lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves." He also noted the "great opportunity…using these new tools of data and ways of collecting information that we can observe the city in ways that Holly Whyte could only dream of." Whyte, an American urbanist who died in 1999, was known for his pioneering Street Life Project, which studied pedestrian behavior and urban dynamics. (One wonders what Whyte—who saw the city street as "the river of life…the place where we come together, the pathway to the center"—would say if he saw today's urban pedestrians constantly engaged with their smartphones).

John Gilbert, COO and executive vice president of Rudin Management, one of the largest privately held property management companies in New York City, looked even further back in history. "You have to go back to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to really begin to envision what the modern city was going to become," he said. A symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, the fair played an important role not only in the development of modern art and architecture, but also modern sanitation, particularly through the Lawrence Experiment Station, the world's first trial station for sewage treatment and drinking water purification, presented by the Massachusetts State Board of Health.

But surely no one in the room (or on the livestream) was expecting any of the presenters to go as far back as did architect César Pelli. (Known for designing some of the tallest buildings in the world, such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Pelli made a rare appearance with architect Rafael Pelli, his son and fellow partner in the firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects).

When Nyman recalled Mies van der Rohe's assertion that "the origin of architecture is when two bricks are laid together well," the elder Pelli quiped, "I believe that architecture starts much earlier. When Adam walked out of a cave and it started raining, he picked up a large leaf and put it over his head. That was architecture."

System preferences

But while protection from rain may have been the mankind's first inspiration to design his environment, today's urban planner must solve a vast array of challenges: water, energy, waste, transit, housing, retail, office space, green space. The list goes on. Where to start? "It helps to see challenges for their systemic nature," said Elaine Hsieh, VERGE program director and senior analyst at the GreenBiz Group, in her introductory remarks. "When you see systemic challenges, you can come up with systemic solutions."

Several of the presenters zeroed in on this systems-based approach. Schultz—who sat on a panel about information, resiliency and the need for a new city executive the Chief Resilience Officer (CRO)—noted the City Protocol Society, a global nonprofit community of cities, corporations and academic institutions working to "harmonize information and data so that it can more easily flow between cities."

While some panelists discussed systems that connect cities, others underlined the growth of systems within buildings. Rafael Pelli noted the decentralization of power and waste systems from the city's infrastructure to the building. "In our own buildings we're putting in waste treatment plants to treat the water," said the younger Pelli, who was credited by his father for being the firm's early champion of sustainable architecture. "We find this now partially because you have outdated infrastructure or cities have outgrown their infrastructure; partially there's an efficiency to doing infrastructure at the scale of a building."

Gilbert pointed out the importance for next-gen buildings to have computer-based systems that can not only collect and analyze data, but offer prescriptions for reducing a building's operating costs and ecological footprint while keeping its occupants comfortable and safe.

"If your iPad or your iPhone has an iOS, then why doesn't a 2-million-square-foot building?" he asked, as he introduced Di-BOSS (Digital Building Operating System), a next-generation intelligent building software that give building engineers predictive and prescriptive information based on real-time data analysis, and which has already had a positive impact on Rudin properties. "The difference between a smart building and a dumb building is whether you learned from what happened the day before," Gilbert said.

A tree grows in Brooklyn

While a systemic analysis of sustainability must ultimately involve a computer-based approach, sustainable infrastructure expert Ed Clerico reminded attendees of the power and beauty of nature-based systems. "I like the image of a tree," said Clerico, who is the CEO of Natural Systems Utilities, a New Jersey-based distributed water infrastructure company. "Instead of building linear systems, we should build metabolic systems that behave like trees. They recycle, they recover, they grow, they adapt, they're resilient. Our infrastructure systems—I'm talking about water and energy together essentially—can be distributed like trees are and we can build a forest of trees that provides us with a much higher efficiency, much more able to innovate quickly."

In terms of next-gen architecture, Rafael Pelli also sees the value in thinking about the natural world. "There's sort of an analogy emerging about how we've evolved as biological organisms incredibly adapted to heat conditions, to light conditions," he said. "Our pores open or close, we sweat, our pupils expand and contract. There's an incredible amount of adaptability in biological organisms and the sensor technology is just starting to allow buildings to have a little bit of that feedback loop where there can be a real-time adaptability."

Others presented a more psychological, even poetic, perspective on buildings. "Great architecture is a reflection of the potential and the greatness of the human spirit," said Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED, who presented the LEED Dynamic Plaque, a building performance monitoring and scoring platform developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. "But great architecture isn't great if it's simply not reflecting what's happening inside the building or reflecting the humanness of the organism of the building, the organism that reflects who the people are." Nyman offered another, perhaps more aspirational, kind of feedback loop: "Buildings tell us who we are and what we want to be."

Accelerate the silver lining

While the climate crisis may have inspired a new kind of Armageddon movie (and even a genre: climate fiction, i.e. " cli-fi"), for innovators and entrepreneurs, the road to sustainability is lined with gold (hopefully of the responsible, conflict-free kind—if that even exists). The Global Commission report found that "over the next 15 years, about U.S. $90 trillion will be invested in infrastructure in the world’s cities, agriculture and energy systems. The world has an unprecedented opportunity to drive investment in low-carbon growth, bringing multiple benefits including jobs, health, business productivity and quality of life."

As Joel Makower, founder, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group, said during his introductory remarks, "Climate change is a huge business opportunity masquerading as an environmental problem." When Makower moderated the panel on resilience, he asked about the role of the private sector in harnessing the Big Data that impact a city's resiliency to natural shocks like earthquakes as well as daily stresses like traffic congestion. 

Schultz said that cities "need a lot more data scientists, business intelligence processes and private sector tools" to help make the right decisions. He added that cities are incredibly competitive, and "in an increasingly global marketplace, companies can do business almost anyplace they want. It really comes down to attracting the right location for the brand and the identity of that company as well as the talent and the people there. The talent is richer if they can get people to live in a city they want to live in…so there needs to be a very close working relationship between the long-term vision of a city as well as the corporate identity they want to have."

Cliff Majersik, the executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, who sat on a panel about the impact of data transparency in real estate, also saw the connection between data and the private sector. "Not so long ago, the market had no information about the energy efficiency of buildings," said Majersik, who helped craft Washington, D.C.’s Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 and its Green Building Act of 2006. "It's critically important that we have this information, that we have this transparency. Information is the lifeblood of markets. Information is oxygen for markets. If markets don't have it, they won't value it, you won't get the outcome you want."

Market value was a primary theme during VERGE Accelerate, the salon's fast-pitch competition for early-stage startups. Introduced by Emily Wheeler, the deputy director at New York City Accelerator for Clean and Resilient Economy (NYC ACRE) at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, which helps clean technology and renewable energy companies in New York City grow, VERGE Accelerate allowed each of six presenters just two minutes to make their company's elevator pitch.

The startups included: Ontodia, an open-data solutions firm that has developed the Pediacities, a "platform to curate, organize, and link data about cities;" Radiator Labs, which has developed a "smart, low-cost, drop-on retrofit that saves 30-40 in building heating costs;" Rentricity, which has developed a pump for "drinking water, industrial water, and wastewater operators to reduce energy costs, create resiliency and establish smart and sustainable water grid infrastructure;" Bloc Power, an online marketplace that "connects impact investors to institutional ntpetworks of energy efficiency projects in churches, synagogues, non-profits and small businesses in underserved communities;" Hevo, a wireless charging solution for electric vehicles; and Bandwagon, a taxi cab-sharing app.

Vive le sameness: Globalism's steady march

One of the more unexpected themes of the day was the issue of urban homogeneity. Cities, said Gilbert, "constantly have to  evolve. They have to morph. They have to ultimately remain relevant to what the forces are within that region." But American-led globalism has taken its toll, as can be attested by the spread of multinational brands like Starbucks, Coca-Cola and McDonald's across the world's cities.

It has also happened in architecture. The elder Pelli said that there is a lack of "any sense of character in a city...because architects all over the world look at the same magazines, read the same ideas, and the buildings that they design all over the world look the same...so that cities are rapidly losing character. I used to love going to a different country because the things you would find in the shops are totally different. Today, you find exactly the same things whether you are in New York, Paris, London, Rome. The same is happening with our buildings. We are starting to lose character. I think that's a huge loss for humanity at large."

"Jane Jacobs said one of the most interesting aspects of a city is the element of surprise," noted Vishaan Chakrabarti, the director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, who sat on the panel about America's urban future. "The problem with a lot of urban planning mechanisms she criticized that are still in place today is the idea that a city should be predictable...If you want to live in a city, you should welcome a certain level of unpredictability. And if you don't, there are lovely exurbs outside of Sacramento where every single house looks the same."

A tale of two dreams...and two cities

Nyman spoke of a "global paradigm shift that is changing how we view our environment and our relationship to our planet that...will lay out a plan for understanding how tomorrow's buildings and cities can be an important part of combating—and hopefully reversing—climate change." He framed this shift as a tale of two dreams. "The 20th century brought us the American dream of upward mobility, but it morphed into a wave of conspicuous consumption and consumerism that has led in great part to the crisis of climate change and income inequality," he said. "A new century demands a new dream. The time has come for a 21st-century American dream that will allow us to move from a mindset of hyper-individualism to one of shared social responsibility."

The shift can also be framed as a tale of two cities: the one that will thrive, and the one that will die. As the inaugural VERGE Salon made abundantly clear, there is hope. But achieving a sustainable future will likely require getting a bit uncomfortable in the process. At the start of the salon, Hsieh challenged the audience: "You guys are industry decision-makers and practitioners and entrepreneurs. We want you to fully engage in these solutions-driven discussions. We want it to be valuable for your work. Push yourselves to dive deeper into areas outside of your general comfort zone. Mingle with people who you wouldn't necessarily meet on a day-to-day basis. Explore topics that are new for you. That's going to help you grow and influence your thinking."

How can a sustainable American dream be developed and made a reality? "Fortunately, our millennial generation recognizes the evolving definition of the American dream," said Nyman. "They realize we must move from a focus on the individual to a focus on community."

Jane Jacobs would likely have agreed. "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody," she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

This article originally appeared at JustMeans and is reprinted with permission. Top image of the High Line aerial greenway, which crosses 20th Street in New York, via Beyond My Ken



Why you'll never retire: 7 sustainability veterans explain

Published October 08, 2014
Tags: Career Tools
Why you'll never retire: 7 sustainability veterans explain

As a recruiter, I am very interested in the arc of one’s career. The piece of this arc I find far too often neglected is what happens after people transition from their corporate roles to other phases of their lives. Are they contemplating a “retirement” in the classical sense of a formal separation, a chosen alternative career pathway or a combination of both? What can a sustainability professional do upon her departure from a corporation? 

Chuck Bennett and I share an interest in the professional development of the sustainability professional. Chuck formally retired from Aveda in 2013 as VP of Earth & Community Care, and currently is letting the next phase evolve.

In the interest of learning more, we decided to pull together six of Chuck’s friends for a conversation. They represent a continuum, from full professional engagement yet thinking about a future path to various stages of transition.

A lively discussion it was. So much so that this article is just the first in a two-part series. It introduces Chuck and his six friends, and shares a range of paths available to a sustainability professional that he and five others have pursued.

But first, a key theme of the conversation. Most of Chuck’s friends cringe at the word “retirement.” As participant Gene Kahn said, “It’s not surprising that the word ‘retirement’ gets such a strong negative response from so many ‘mature’ people today. The word ‘retire’ is derived from the French word ‘retirer,’ which literally means ‘to withdraw, to retreat, to go to bed, or to fall back.’ Certainly this would not be an attractive self-concept to hold, let alone to aspire toward.” Clearly, this is a topic fraught with a complex range of opinions and perceptions.

Meet the seven participants

Scott Nadler, ERM, was involved with politics, government, Conrail and the environment, and taught at Northwestern University. He is a partner at ERM, but is contemplating the next phase which increasingly focuses on other professional interests beyond ERM.

 

 

 

Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm, spent 22 years in corporate sustainability, in addition to agriculture, education and forestry. She transitioned from her full-time corporate role at Stonyfield Farm to consulting so as to focus on her core interest in climate change and to achieve a better work-life balance.

 

 

 

Gene Kahn, General Mills, worked in agriculture and branded foods, sold a company to General Mills and became its global sustainability officer. He initiated a program on hunger and poverty alleviation for the General Mills Foundation. He formally retired at age 65 as a result of General Mills policy, and joined the NGO HarvestPlus. On top of his role leading global market development, he also is helping HarvestPlus improve business practices.

 

 

Bill Blackburn, Baxter, “retired” as the result of a corporate reorganization. He is writing, consulting and developing a nature conservancy on an old family farm in southwest Iowa.

 

 

 

Lynnette McIntire, UPS, “retired” at age 55, the minimal retirement age at the company. She wanted to achieve a more balanced quality of life; she also was ready to try something else and share her experience, having been a change agent at UPS for many years. Currently she is teaching, consulting, and speech writing.

 

 

 

Chuck Bennett, Aveda, formally “retired” at age 70 after a career in several corporations and The Conference Board. Now he is sorting out what’s next with an emphasis on helping young people with their careers, including students and young professionals.

 

 

 

Paul Comey, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, seized the opportunity of a leadership change to formally retire when he found the job no longer was fun. He had started out in education before becoming general manager of manufacturing in cast iron materials. Then he worked for the CEO of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters as VP of facilities & engineering, before moving on to environmental affairs. He is now pursuing personal interests and consulting with green businesses in start-up stage.

 

 

The first lesson we learned is there is a continuum of departures. As with the variety of paths that sustainability professionals follow over their corporate careers, our participants revealed a range of options for post-retirement/transition life. These include working part-time for their prior employer, teaching, writing, consulting, working for an NGO, helping students and young professionals and working on sustainability-related personal interests.

People have transitioned at different stages of their careers for different reasons. Some did so simply because it was time, either by corporate decision or personal choice. For example, Gene’s retirement fully was expected and planned because General Mills requires officers to retire at age 65. Paul, on the other hand, made the decision on his own, having told himself, ”I’m going to retire when it stops being fun.”

Others made the change to improve their lifestyle or work-life balance. Lynnette had felt her life was “really out of balance.” And some left because they wanted to be able to focus their time and energy on the issues they felt were of greatest significance. Gene said, “I’m doing what I love and what I think is most important in my ability to contribute.”

All continue their interest in and commitment to sustainability, although with different degrees of intensity depending on where they are in their lives. Several continue to work full- or near-full time. Scott described his career as a “hybrid” which has had many phases already. He is a full-time ERM partner now, but may shift to part-time to free up time to transition to the next phase.

Others are mixing activities related to their professional interests with more traditional “retirement” activities such as increased personal travel or family time.

No one is entirely “retired” in the traditional sense of being completely disassociated from his career work. Although Bill received a retirement package that provides financial security, he felt he needed to challenge himself intellectually via writing and consulting. “My father-in-law used to say the quickest way to the grave is to stop working,” he emphasized.

Readers, what are your observations on the arc of a sustainability career? Have you considered continuing to stay involved in CSR even after retirement or transitioning from a corporate to a different role?

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Next: Advice for anyone contemplating a transition — including insights from one who is still very professionally active but thinking deeply about the next phase of his life and career. Top image by  via Shutterstock.

Also in The Talent Show Blog:


Why New Hampshire could be the next state to take on microgrids

Published October 08, 2014
Why New Hampshire could be the next state to take on microgrids

New Hampshire soon may be charting a course toward electric grid modernization — and microgrids — if it follows the advice in a 10-year energy strategy issued by the state Office of Energy & Planning.

The advisory agency recently recommended that the Public Utilities Commission investigate grid modernization, in keeping with similar action in Massachusetts and New York. The states are looking at how to make the grid more storm-resilient, economic and efficient with microgrids, distributed energy, smart meters and other approaches that foster local energy.

The report noted that in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, “microgrids have gained national prominence,” with Princeton University’s microgrid serving as a model.

“While these types of advances are exciting and can offer important benefits to critical facilities, the underlying grid system must be sufficiently modernized to enable them,” stated the New Hampshire 10-Year State Energy Strategy (PDF) document.

The plans calls for New Hampshire to begin with an informal information-gathering proceeding that will give stakeholders a chance to learn about grid modernization and help regulators hone a direction. Some aspects of grid modernization may work in the state; others not.

New Hampshire should build upon modernization efforts already underway not only in Massachusetts and New York, but also Connecticut and Maryland, and within the Department of Energy, the report said. (Vermont’s largest investor-owned utility also is pursuing a microgrid strategy.)

Any new model should incorporate innovative technologies as they come to market, the report stated: “In particular, electric storage technologies are an area that is expected to grow rapidly in the next decade, and they have the potential to provide substantial benefits to the system.”

As state regulators are investigating these next steps, utilities and the state should begin educating consumers about smart grid so that demand builds for the technologies in advance, the report said.

Required under state law, the plan is meant to guide state lawmakers, government agencies, businesses, non-profits and private citizens as they make future decisions about energy policy.

In addition to calling for grid modernization, the plan recommends steps that would increase energy efficiency, combined heat and power (CHP), solar and other forms of clean energy. They include:

  • Setting a statewide energy efficiency goal
  • Realigning utility incentives so that they pursue energy efficiency
  • Improving coordination and design of existing energy efficiency programs
  • Improving consumer financing for energy efficiency
  • Recommiting to the state’s renewable portfolio standard of 25 percent by 2025; forecasts show the state unlikely to meet the goal if it continues business as usual
  • Attracting more private financing for distributed generation
  • Readying the state for electric vehicles

Gov. Maggie Hassan described the 10-year strategy as “critically needed. ... It will take continued bipartisan cooperation to implement the recommendations set out in the strategy, so that we can reduce costs and build a brighter energy future for our families, businesses and economy.”

The full strategy is available here.

This story originally appeared in Microgrid Knowledge and is reprinted with permission. Top image of New England farm house by via Shutterstock



The dark side of solar: Why waste concerns abound

Published October 08, 2014
The dark side of solar: Why waste concerns abound

Clean technology investments in emerging markets in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and China are estimated to exceed $6 trillion over the next decade, according to a recent report (PDF) by infoDev/World Bank Group. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that, for the nearly 1.3 billion people around the world lacking access to an electricity grid, clean technologies such as off-grid solar devices quickly are becoming a popular alternative to more expensive and polluting fuels such as kerosene, wood and coal.

In Malawi, 80 percent of the population lives off the grid in rural areas and people must walk more than a mile from their villages to local townships to access electricity. Reliance on conventional fuels such as kerosene also contributes to health problems and poverty in developing regions. Typical households use 20 percent of their incomes burning kerosene for lighting, which also emits noxious black smoke, according to SolarAid.

Solar lights cost as little as $10, pay for themselves after 12 weeks and last for five years — while producing zero adverse health effects. Off-grid solar devices make it easier for people to do everything from cooking to charging their cell phones. Use of solar technology will become more common as it becomes cheaper and organizations such as the International Renewable Energy Agency work to develop the Africa Clean Energy Corridor to help the continent to rapidly adopt renewable energy.

But there is a catch. Because developing regions tend to lack solid waste disposal infrastructures, devices that no longer function typically are burned or discarded into the environment. With little political will or economic capacity to build conventional solid waste infrastructures in these areas, this conundrum will need to be solved at the “front end” through safer, more sustainable and more recyclable designs and materials, as well as by developing alternative waste management strategies.

San Francisco Bay Area-based non-profit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) is attempting to do just that, drawing on its experience in electronics and solar sustainability to promote the market expansion of off-grid solar products, while also developing practical solutions to the recycling and reuse of these devices. The Sustainable Off-Grid Solar Recycling Incubator will partner with African communities, university researchers and students, as well as off-grid solar lighting companies to promote product innovation and sustainability. This pilot project also will develop innovative waste management systems that attempt to leapfrog over the need to build expensive conventional waste collection infrastructure and can be replicated in communities around the world.

The Global North has much to learn from these efforts as it deals with its own solar waste problems. Spurred by government subsidies, the millions of solar panels created each year is resulting in millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water, according to a 2013 Associated Press investigation. Although larger, more established solar companies usually have the resources to invest in on-site waste treatment equipment that allows them to recycle some waste, newer companies often send hazardous waste hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles to be processed.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the solar fiefdom of California — from 2007 through the first part of 2011, some 17 companies with 44 manufacturing facilities in California produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water, the AP investigation found. Around 97 percent of the sludge was taken to hazardous waste facilities throughout the state, but more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to nine other states: Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

But the transport of waste is not being factored into solar companies’ carbon footprint scores, which can lead to inaccurate life cycle analyses of the global warming pollution that goes into solar production. According to a researcher AP interviewed, transporting 6.2 million pounds of waste by heavy-duty tractor-trailer from Fremont, Calif., in the Bay Area, to a site 1,800 miles away could add 5 percent to a particular product's carbon footprint. After installing a solar panel, it takes one to three months of generating electricity to pay off the energy invested in driving hazardous waste emissions out of state.

It’s important to note that although much of the waste produced is considered toxic (in the form of carcinogenic cadmium-contaminated water), there is no evidence it has harmed human health. Conversely, energy derived from natural gas and coal-fired power plants creates more than 10 times more hazardous waste than the same energy created by a solar panel. Although the U.S. solar industry has been dutiful about reporting its waste and sending it to approved storage facilities, coal-fired power plants send mercury, cadmium and other toxins directly into the air, which pollutes water and land around the facility.

All said, solar production is still significantly cleaner than burning fossil fuels. But this doesn’t mean we can overlook the negative environmental impacts. Waste is a complex conversation, but it is one we need to be having. Transparency is key — but this will get more complicated as solar panel manufacturing moves from the U.S. and Europe to less regulated places such as China and Malaysia. Just as we look to preempt the adverse environmental side effects of solar in the developing world by rethinking design and materials, so should we be doing this at home. We also would do well to look at the lessons of Silicon Valley’s environmental problems caused by the electronics industry in the early 1980s and put in place the processes that will make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Top image of solar panel in Africa by via Shutterstock



The U.S. electric grid has a Baby Boomer Social Security problem

By Peter Bronski
Published October 08, 2014
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Tags: Energy & Utilities, Policy & Regulations
The U.S. electric grid has a Baby Boomer Social Security problem

In the decades immediately following World War II, the United States saw two major waves of births: the Baby Boomer generation and a new fleet of largely coal-fired power plants (and the transmission and distribution infrastructure to deliver that electricity to America's homes, businesses and industry). Now, both populations are fast approaching the end of their working lives and entering retirement in droves, placing huge financial strain on the nation — one on our Social Security safety net, the other on our electric grid.

Retirement age approaching

As the Boomer generation migrates into retirement in the years just ahead, the number of Americans age 65 and over will reach 80 million, double the 40 million it was in 2010. That equates to a flood of financial burden on the Social Security system, which will start paying out more than it takes in starting in 2017, ushering in calls — some of them alarmist — for serious reform before the system bleeds dry.

The situation is much the same with the aging coal-fired generation that as of last year still made up approximately 40 percent of the nation's generation mix. Most of those U.S. coal plants are 30 to 60 or more years old, according to the U.S. EIA. The vast majority were built during a wave of new added generation during the 1950s through 1980s. Much like the first members of the Boomer generation now entering retirement, those coal plants are rapidly approaching the end of their own economic life.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (in a 2012 report [PDF]) and Rocky Mountain Institute (in 2011's "Reinventing Fire" [PDF]), among others, have sounded the alarm. These analyses of the U.S. electric grid's aging coal plants identify how many plants — and how many GW of capacity — it's time to close because they've reached their end of life and are simply uneconomic to continue operating. The UCS report, for example, noted that more than 41 GW of coal-fired generation already was announced for retirement. UCS identified up to an additional 59 GW-100 GW of coal-fired generation in total — that's similarly "ripe for retirement," uneconomic compared to newer, cleaner, cheaper sources of generation. According to RMI's analysis, and assuming normal operating lives, by 2050 95 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants in operation today (not to mention 99 percent of its gas-fired ones) will close.

[Learn more about distributed energy systems at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

Media coverage usually talks about this coal plant or that nuclear plant shutting down, but we need to be talking more and thinking harder about how we're to address replacing the capacity and output of an entire generation of the country's bulk power fleet. And the U.S. EPA's carbon pollution emissions regulations (the 111(d) rule) for stationary sources such as power plants earlier this year only makes that conversation more urgent. It effectively has made the date of closure sooner for coal plants already approaching their economic end of life, and brought marginally economic coal plants that might have continued operating into the sphere of plants that would qualify as ripe for retirement.

Credit: EpicStockMedia via ShutterstockReplacing the lost generation of our nation's retiring coal plants could require massive investments in a short period of time, and what we replace that coal-fired generation with will be a question of utmost importance. In other words, "this is a big deal," said RMI electricity principal Lena Hansen — and a big opportunity to "get it right" with the investment choices we make in the years just ahead.

The financial strain of under-investment

This impending retirement cliff for the U.S. electric grid comes at a decidedly inopportune time, given that America's utilities have underinvested in the grid for decades, exacerbating an already substantial financial hurdle.

For example, as middle market bank Harris Williams & Co. noted in a 2012 white paper on T&D infrastructure (PDF), "the power system is characterized by an aging infrastructure and largely reflects technology developed in the 1950s or earlier" and that grid suffers from "decades of under-investment in the transmission grid resulting in pent up demand for replacement of aging infrastructure." On the transmission side, during 1980-1999, transmission infrastructure investment fell 44 percent while electricity use increased 58 percent. Meanwhile on the distribution side, 50 percent of the country's 2.2 million miles of distribution lines are "near the end of their useful life," wrote Harris Williams. Most were built between 1945 and the late 1960s.

On the one hand, I can't blame utilities. If you own an old clunker of a car, you spend only as much as necessary to keep it running and legally on the road, because you know it's going to kick the bucket sooner or later and require replacement, so why dump money into it? We could look at the power grid the same way — utilities have invested only so much as necessary to keep the generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure up and running, but why spend more than that?

On the other hand, though, maintaining that course with blinders on and not preparing for the day when that clunker — a fleet of aging coal plants and T&D infrastructure — does in fact die is foolhardy. By allowing a large "chunk" of the grid to reach retirement age all at once, are we setting ourselves up for the bill of a lifetime?

Utilities lately have, in fact, been spending more on grid infrastructure — especially T&D. After decades of declining investment and under-investment in grid infrastructure, since the late 1990s utility investment in transmission infrastructure has been steadily climbing, and the 2012 vs. 2011 YOY investment increase was the largest in more than a decade, although much of that increased investment has been attributed to storm restoration and grid-hardening post-Sandy.

But is this recently increasing investment a case of too little, too late? As the Brattle Group noted in a 2013 presentation (PDF), recent T&D investment has been on the rise and is higher than during the last decades of the 20th century, but that investment is still below the wave of investment that accompanied the Boomer generation following WWII, with "significant replacement/upgrades needed over the next decade(s)."

Indeed, the American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2013 "Report Card for America's Infrastructure," gave the U.S. an embarrassing D+ for energy, in part noting a $94 billion investment gap for T&D infrastructure by 2020. All in all, an often-cited 2008 Brattle Group study, "Transforming America's Power Industry: The Investment Challenge 2010-2030" (PDF), notes up to $2 trillion in needed investment — just to maintain today's level of reliable electric service.

Credit: Pincasso via Shutterstock

Four options for the years ahead

Looking to the years ahead, Baby Boomers (and the rest of us) and the power grid have at least four major possible courses of action for addressing the looming financial strain of a huge wave of retirements.

1. Hold the course. One option is to hold the course, like the Titanic headed straight for the iceberg. We could let Social Security bleed dry without reform, and we could let our bulk power assets go dark without a way to replace their generating, transmission and distribution capacity under the time frames and investment patterns we'd need. This is clearly not a true option. We can't simply let portions of our grid assets go dark, nor would utilities allow that to actually happen. In fact, despite the nation's aging grid that ain't getting any younger, utilities have done a pretty good job of keeping the metaphorical and literal lights on.

Plus, letting the system simply fall apart encourages individual users to "defect" via personal solutions, whether a (prudent) personal retirement plan or off-grid solar-plus-battery systems that allow utility customers to cut the cord if they so choose, hardly an optimal solution for a slew of reasons.

2. Keep working into retirement. A second option is to try to extend our useful working life. According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, Americans are retiring five years later than they did in the early 1990s. So too are utilities working to extend the life of grid assets, despite the decades of under-investment. But this is a temporary fix that only forestalls the inevitable, and not for long. You can only relicense a power plant so many times before it ceases to become practical or economic to do so. At some point we will retire, and so will the grid's assets. "You can try to keep a power plant running for as long as possible," said Hansen. "But at some point that's no longer an option."

3. Reinvest in the same system. Social Security, which turns 80 next year, has been called the most successful social program in the history of the United States. So, as the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In other words, we could soldier on, continuing to reinvest in the same old system, leaving it largely unchanged. We could, for example, adjust the Social Security withholdings in our paychecks to keep the system solvent in the years ahead, or Generation Xers like me could start a new birth wave of children who'll reach working age in around 25 years, just in time to fund my own retirement (no, I'm not actually suggesting we do that). This simply would deeply embed the same challenges we've inherited and face today, pushing them another generation down the timeline for others to deal with later.

The same option is true, though, for the electric grid. The "obvious" choice for dealing with a closing power plant is to replace it with another one, even if we end up swapping coal-fired generation for a combined-cycle natural gas plant. But just because that's how we've always planned to meet electric load doesn't mean that's how we should do so going forward. Investment choices like that made today will stick with us for another generation or more, and we should be asking if there's possibly a better way, which leads me to …

4. Reform the system. Finally, a fourth option is to reform the system today, while we still have the time and flexibility to think about the coming day of reckoning and make important decisions about how future investment decisions should be made. Such reform has happened before for Social Security, and continues to be a topic of hot debate.

Grid investment, too, is a hot topic these days, especially when it comes to the importance of incorporating distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar. From new business models for utilities to reformed rate structures that better optimize investment in distributed energy resources to major state-level regulatory proceedings that will reshape the power grid's landscape and market structure to be more DER-friendly, it's more prudent to wisely plan for the future grid today before yesterday's grid goes dark. "It's critical we reinvest in the right stuff," concluded Hansen. "It's important to find improved planning processes that actually incorporate DERs into them, and new market structures that allow those DERs to actually contribute to the system."

Those DERs — if invested in and smartly deployed onto the grid — can help lower system costs, improve system reliability and resilience, and decrease the system's carbon intensity. Even if the thought of major reform seems overwhelming, it's worth navigating those difficult waters for the sake of the calmer, cleaner harbor on the other side. As a member of Generation X, I've inherited a Social Security system and a power grid defined by two major waves of births following WWII. Now, as both populations enter retirement in droves, it's time for my generation — and others — to think hard about how we'll navigate the financially troubled waters ahead. Concluded Hansen: "We need to do a much better job of integrated resource planning and be realistic about when these power plants are going to go away. We have an opportunity to do something transformative."

Top image by GreenBiz Group. This article first appeared at RMI Outlet.

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Why renewable methane fuel smells like a rose

By Joanna D. Underwood
Published October 08, 2014
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Tags: Alt-Fuel Vehicles, Bio-based Products, More... Alt-Fuel Vehicles, Bio-based Products, Energy, Waste, Waste Management
Why renewable methane fuel smells like a rose

From the People's Climate March to the U.N. Climate Summit to U.S. government initiatives, climate concern is surging. One of the most encouraging things about the trend is the intensifying focus on practical solutions, including drilling down on methane, the largest component of natural gas.

Most methane comes from drilling and refining natural gas, and from waste streams including landfills (of which organic wastes are the second biggest component), wastewater and agriculture (especially livestock). Methane now accounts for 9 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions — small compared to carbon dioxide, which is 80 percent — but up to 25 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas. As curbing methane emissions can have a vital, immediate impact on slowing climate change, it deserves high priority.

Action on methane

It's starting to get that priority bump. In March, the White House released its Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions through voluntary actions across the agriculture, waste, energy and transportation sectors. In August, it announced a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap to cut methane emissions by building an industry that could capture and use them productively. This summer the EPA proposed new rules on methane emissions from landfills, and in the run-up to the U.N. Climate Summit, environmental groups lobbied EPA to require natural gas drilling operations to cut methane leakage. Administrator Gina McCarthy has said EPA will release its methane plan this fall, although we don't know yet whether it will be voluntary or mandatory.

Methane was also a hot topic at the U.N. Climate Summit, which launched more voluntary initiatives, including the Oil & Gas Methane Partnership (PDF) to reduce methane and other so-called "short-lived" but powerful GHG emissions. (Methane breaks down in years or decades while other greenhouse gases can persist for tens of thousands of years.)

Twenty-six cities, ranging from San Francisco to Stockholm and from Rio de Janeiro to Pune, India, have signed on so far, with a goal of 150 cities by 2020. Signers are committed to develop and carry out quantifiable action plans to reduce methane and carbon air pollutants by 2020, focusing on the solid waste sector.

The potential to cut methane emissions, especially from landfills and other waste facilities, never has been greater. Many European cities and a dozen projects in the U.S. already are demonstrating just how huge the potential is.

The lowest-carbon fuel on the market

For example, Waste Management in California is producing enough renewable natural gas from the Altamont landfill to power 400 refuse trucks a day. According to the California Air Resources Board, RNG produced from landfills such as Altamont reduce overall greenhouse gases from production, transport and use of vehicle fuel by about 90 percent, or even more. That makes RNG the lowest-carbon fuel available today, and it could revolutionize heavy-duty transport. Ten million heavy-duty vehicles consume 23 percent of all U.S. road fuel (predominantly diesel) and emit a quarter of all transportation greenhouse gases.

Credit: EPAFossil-derived natural gas used as vehicle fuel is just 20 to 25 percent better on emissions than gasoline or diesel, so how is it possible that RNG could cut GHG emissions 90 percent? The feedstock from which RNG is made is the massive stream of organic waste from our yards, farms, landfills and wastewater. It involves no drilling or fracking, obviating the methane leakage associated with those operations, and capturing methane that otherwise would seep into the atmosphere.

Because RNG and fossil natural gas are so chemically similar, moving from one to the other is seamless. RNG can use existing tanks, pipelines and infrastructure, and can power the same engines that run on fossil natural gas. Burning it actually can prevent more GHGs from entering the atmosphere than it emits itself. That's because the organic wastes already decomposing in our yards, farms, landfills and sewage treatment plants release their hydrocarbons already. If we capture this methane and convert it to energy, in effect we get it for "free" — with no net increase in emissions. That energy offsets fossil fuel use and allows us to leave more fossil fuels in the ground, preventing their hydrocarbons from entering the atmosphere.

The City of Sacramento is demonstrating how to ride this strategy all the way to net negative GHG emissions by skipping the landfill part of the equation. Instead, a private waste hauler, Atlas Disposal, separately collects the city's food wastes and deposits them in special anaerobic digester tanks, where the company CleanWorld captures the biogases (primarily methane) and refines them into vehicle fuel. The bio-solids left in the tanks are a valuable soil amendment. The fuel goes back into the several dozen trucks hauling the waste, creating "a closed-loop system." CleanWorld soon will produce enough fuel to displace 700,000 gallons of petroleum-based diesel fuel on an annual basis -— enough to power dozens of refuse trucks, transit or school buses and to eliminate 18,250 tons of GHGs.

Compared to letting organic wastes rot in a landfill and emit fugitive methane, over its life cycle, including refining and burning the fuel, this system is net carbon-negative. It also creates unexportable jobs, reduces particulate pollution, uses local resources to produce reliable, secure energy and is eminently scalable.

The world now generates 1.3 billion tons of food waste a year, and the World Bank predicts landfills will double by 2025. It's vital to find ways to reduce food waste, especially as population and food demand increase. But between food processing plants, fats and greases, sewage treatment, agricultural waste and other sources, there's no doubt that the organic waste stream will continue to grow and furnish a vast resource for renewable energy and emissions reduction.

Policy required to kickstart RNG

Tapping it is a no-brainer, and a low- to negative-carbon imperative. The Oil & Gas Partnership ultimately aims for 1,000 cities to sign onto its commitment to reduce methane emissions from solid waste. Partner cities around the world could do what Sacramento and Altamont are doing now. Every new waste-to-RNG initiative they launch or inspire would exceed GHG emissions reduction goals set by the U.S. and Europe, as well as the long-term goals set by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.

RNG projects have proven attractive environmentally as well as economically, but require substantial up-front investment. If ever there was a good argument for using government incentives to help a viable industry evolve rapidly towards a desirable goal, this is it. The RNG sector will be rewarding for investors, but it will be a game-changer for cutting GHG emissions and reducing the environmental, economic and human costs of climate change.

Top image of cow in flowers by Eder via Shutterstock.

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Joanna Underwood

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Energy Vision
Joanna D. Underwood is president of Energy Vision, whose mission is to analyze and promote ways to make a swift transition to pollution-free renewable energy sources and to the clean, petroleum-free transportation fuels of the future. Joanna D. Underwood has founded and run two national nonprofit organizations and become one of the country's most respected environmental leaders. Ms.
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Matt Petersen: 'If we can do it in LA, we can do it anywhere'

By Garrett Hering
Published October 07, 2014
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Tags: Cities, Renewable Energy, More... Cities, Renewable Energy, Transportation, VERGE, Water
Matt Petersen: 'If we can do it in LA, we can do it anywhere'

Catch Matt Petersen in person at VERGE SF 2014, October 27-30

About 15 months ago Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Matt Petersen the city’s inaugural chief sustainability officer. Considering that Los Angeles consistently ranks among the most polluted, most sprawled-out and most traffic-congested metropolitan areas in the United States, the veteran environmentalist has not been lacking for things to do.

“It’s been intense, in the best sense of the word,” said Petersen, reflecting on his first year leading LA’s new Office of Sustainability, which has grown into a five-person team focused on developing environmental initiatives and creating healthier neighborhoods with cleaner air and water for Angelenos.

The former long-time chief executive of Santa Monica-headquartered environmental non-profit group Global Green USA took the reigns of LA’s sustainability efforts amid California’s historic drought and major push to conserve water and expand the city’s efforts on transit, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Many of the initiatives that Petersen found already in place when he became the city’s sustainability czar are programs he had advocated while head of Global Green USA. Those include the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s distributed solar feed-in tariff program, which the city is now preparing to expand.

Launching new sustainability plan

Growing distributed solar power in Los Angeles is just one facet of a comprehensive new sustainability plan that Petersen and his team are spearheading.

“Creating our first-ever comprehensive sustainability plan has been a real big undertaking. We are doing stakeholder outreach across the city, and our goal is to release the plan by year-end,” explained Petersen. The plan will build on existing initiatives in areas such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, housing, transportation and water. As part of the plan, the city will launch new sustainability programs and goals, he said.

While Petersen and his team still are “in the middle of a deep dive” into the details of the plan, the chief sustainability officer clearly is excited about its potential impact, even if several items may still require action by city council, he added.

“We really want to become the leader in electric vehicle infrastructure and water conservation. We want to continue to clean the air and increase energy efficiency in our building stock, and we want to continue to lead by example,” previewed Petersen.

Water will be a central element of the plan.

Los Angeles, which uses about the same amount of water today as it did in 1970 despite adding about a million more people, has been at the forefront of water conservation amid the state’s ongoing drought. The city’s current water restrictions date back to 2009. LADWP gives away free water-efficient household items, and offers rebates for measures such as installing storm-water capture systems and replacing water-intensive laws with more native landscape options like cactus and succulent gardens.

“The drought also underscores the vulnerability of water supply. How to increase the amount of water in the LA Basin?” said Petersen. The $7.5-billion water bond on the Nov. 4 ballot “is going to be key for more water supply for Los Angeles,” he added.

Safety first

Among the most important sustainability initiatives currently underway in Los Angeles, according to Petersen, is Mayor Garcetti’s Great Streets Initiative. Its long-term goal is to transform LA’s city streets, which make up approximately 13 percent of its land, into revitalized, thriving neighborhoods and communities. This summer, Mayor Garcetti announced the first 15 streets in the initiative, which is kicking off with the help of $800,000 in the city’s 2014-2015 budget.

Immediate, near-term actions include the creation of temporary “parklets” and plazas, as well as planning and outreach for each of the 15 corridors. These will be followed by long-term, permanent measures such as changes to sidewalks and curbs, street lamps, trees and public seating areas.

“Our streets are our largest public asset, forming and reflecting the character of our neighborhoods, our people and our city,” stated Mayor Garcetti when he made the announcement in June. “By reimagining our streetscape, we can create transformative gathering places for Angelenos to come together, whether they travel by foot, transit, bike, or car,” he added.

“Mayor Garcetti has been passionate about sustainability for a long time. It’s exciting to be involved,” said Petersen. “Whether it’s urban sprawl, a fossil-fuel dependent transportation system or a growing population in a region dependent on imported water, our climate challenges are the world’s climate challenges. We want to prove that if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”

Top image by Melissa Valladares

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Ericsson CEO touts role of business in climate fight

By Heather Clancy
Published October 07, 2014
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Tags: Commitments & Goals, Policy & Regulations, More... Commitments & Goals, Policy & Regulations, Reduce Emissions
Ericsson CEO touts role of business in climate fight

Amid the lead-up to last month's Climate Week NYC, Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg penned letters to hundreds of his Swedish telecommunications company's top customers. The mission of his missive: raise visibility for the increasingly critical role of businesses in combating climate change.

He wasn't alone. The action was one embraced by many members of the leadership council for the United Nations Sustainable Development Network, a group that includes the likes of media mogul Ted Turner, Unilever CEO Paul Polman, Google energy czar Arun Mamjumdar, senior Citibank executive Zubaid Ahmad and dozens of other high-profile experts from academia and the public and private sectors.

"The tone of the letter is that the science is increasingly clearer, business needs to act on issues around climate, and we think it's important," said Elaine Weidman-Grunewald, Ericsson's vice president of sustainability and corporate responsibility who traveled with Vestberg to New York in late September to meet with investors and other green business advocates. "It's important to Hans personally and within our sector. We have a lot to offer when it comes to solutions."

Why now?

"The proactive, solutions-oriented voice needs to be heard because otherwise we're going to be dominated by the heavy polluters who don't want to see progress and don't want to see change," Weidman-Grunewald said.

Since Ericsson has been concerned about these issues for at least two decades, sustainability is deeply embedded into its corporate strategy. In 2013, the company reached its five-year commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 40 percent more than a year earlier.

When I caught up with both Ericsson executives in late September, Vestberg said it was important for his company to get its own house in order before campaigning for other businesses and organizations to do the same.

"You can't start by screaming about everybody else," he said. "You start with your own organization, and then how you can impact the industry, and then you look at others. We have been working with this for 10 to 15 years. More and more to be honest, we are working on the third leg, which is impacting the whole world, which is dealing with much bigger CO2 emissions than ever before."

Vestberg and other information and communications technologies executives believe that up to 20 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced via habits and services made possible by broadband networks. Ericsson's position is that mobile networks in underserved communities, especially in emerging economies, will connect an additional 1 billion people within five years.

"We're building networks in 180 countries in the most remote areas of the world," Vestberg said. "The more renewable energy we can use, meaning wind power, solar power and all of that, that means we can get connectivity in place much faster. We try to do all of that, but still we haven't seen that inflection point between renewable energies and diesel, etc."

Weidman-Grunewald offers that Ericsson collaborated on its first wind-powered network in the 1980s, and it now has thousands of base stations running on solar, wind and other hybrid options. The reality is diesel fuel is still the predominant way to power these sites in many rural locations, where it's transported by trucks, so it developed a technology called Psi that reduces power consumption for off-grid installations by up to 40 percent, she said.

In conjunction with the recent climate meetings, Ericsson helped publish two white papers advocating the role of information and communications technologies as a tool for sustainable development (PDF) and as part of the "new urban agenda" (PDF).

Its concern is ensuring that technology is considered more comprehensively within the context of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. It doesn't get as much attention as it should right now in the 17 goals proposed by the Open Working Group in July, according to Weidman-Grunewald, although it is explicitly mentioned in four related to equitable education, achieving gender equality and building resilient infrastructure.

"We feel that as a global society," she said, "we can't afford not to integrate this."

Hans Vestberg image by Ericsson.

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How to make a better adhesive without the nasty chemicals

By Tom McKeag
Published October 07, 2014
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Tags: Bio-based Products, Chemicals, More... Bio-based Products, Chemicals, Consumer Products, Green Chemistry & Toxics, Toxics Reduction
How to make a better adhesive without the nasty chemicals

We have been using adhesives for some 200,000 years now, by archeologists’ estimates. Our progress has been remarkable, particularly with the postwar explosion of discovery in synthetic adhesives. Epoxies, polyurethanes, cyanoacrylates and acrylic polymers have all made our lives richer by providing high performance and efficiency when we have wanted to stick two things together. Adhesives are everywhere in the built world, from packaging to products to buildings to infrastructure. These wonderful synthetic materials, however, have come at a cost: many are deadly toxins.

Most glues and adhesives contain some of our nastier recipes: solvents such as benzene, toluene, xylene, styrene, acetone, methanol, phenol, alkylphenol and dichloromethane. Benzene, for example, is an EPA Class A carcinogen. It can destroy red and white blood cells (aplastic anemia), and is a suspected immune system inhibitor.

It was not always so. In the past most of our glues came from nature: proteins from animal parts or products like milk and eggs, starches or natural resins from plants. Now researchers are looking to nature to provide new sources for glues that work better and are non-toxic. Their aim is to mimick the chemistry of nature rather than exploit natural sources.

An engineering team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed what they claim to be the world’s strongest bio-inspired, protein-based underwater adhesive. Funded by the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, their research was published in the September 21 issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The researchers had to copy both the proteins from the mussel and those from bacteria to make an engineered product that is stronger than what even the mollusk can make. Not that the mussel isn’t impressive. This marine bivalve is common in the temperate zones of the world in the low and mid intertidal zones. Continually pounded by surf, it has evolved an effective anchoring system. It lays down a radius of sticky proteins or byssal threads that can stick to most anything, including Teflon. This ability is due to the chemical composition of those proteins.

So, what makes the mussel byssus stick so well even underwater? It’s all about attraction — chemical, that is. Proteins are made up of amino acids, basic molecular building blocks. One of these, in the mussel protein, contains a functional arrangement called a catechol (two hydroxyls on a benzene ring.) These molecules form strong bonds with other catechols in other materials, such as the metals in rocks; so strong, in fact, that these molecules would rather bond with each other than that most promiscuous of molecules, water.

The team at MIT used E. coli bacteria as factories to produce two types of proteins typically made by the mussel. Then they enmeshed these proteins in a lattice of self-organizing bacteria proteins normally found in slimy biofilms called curli fibers. It was the combination of these designer proteins from two different organisms into a complex array that has made the adhesive so strong. This dense, fibrous mesh is regular but flexible and has a great ability to bind to both wet and dry surfaces.

“The ultimate goal for us is to set up a platform where we can start building materials that combine multiple different functional domains together and to see if that gives us better materials performance,” said Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and the senior author of the paper.

The researchers see advanced applications in the marine and biomedical fields. They are busy working on scaling up production of the proteins beyond small experimental batches, tinkering with the relative proportion of proteins in the formula. They're also musing about using biofilms as “living glues”, preventative coatings that can secrete adhesives when triggered by damage to a surface.

Columbia Forest Products pioneered the “mussel glue”

Mussel glues have been used before in manufacturing. Columbia Forest Products developed a mussel-mimicking glue for its Purebond line of hardwood plywood between 2003 and 2006. The company was the first to offer a formaldehyde-free plywood, laminated with a bio-based thermo-set glue.

Formaldehyde is a volatile organic compound (VOC), highly toxic to all animals and a carcinogen. In 2011 the US National Toxicology Program described formaldehyde as "known to be a human carcinogen". In the plywood industry formaldehyde is typically treated with urea to make urea formaldehyde resin, the glue to join all the thin layers of wood together into a thicker sheet.

Columbia's formula for the new bio-glue was soy-based, but the proteins had been altered to more closely resemble those of the mussel. The new technique was invented and patented by Dr. Kaichang Li, associate professor in the Department of Wood Science & Engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. He saw a need for a cheaper mass-produced bio-adhesive based on the readily available soybean, and figured out a way to block the expression of certain amino acids in the soy that were not present in the mussel protein.

Columbia, the largest manufacturer of hardwood plywood and veneers in the United States, was able to create a product that actually performed better in many ways than comparable UF-based alternates. Purebond tested as more heat and moisture resistant than its UF competitors while being competitively priced, and reducing VOCs by as much as 90 percent. It earned a LEED EQ Credit 4.4 accreditation in the Low-emitting Materials: Composite Wood category. By converting seven of its plants into Purebond production facilities early on, the company was able to catch the wave of consumer demand for less toxic interiors without the green markup of its later competitors.

The worldwide market for adhesives has been projected to be upwards of $50 billion within the next five years. Regrettably, many of those adhesives will be synthetic and toxic, but innovations by MIT and Columbia Forest Products give hope that we can find a safer way to build our world.

Top image of mussels by Sergey Yechikov via Shutterstock

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