How data and technology will accelerate city sustainability

Reynard Loki

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

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

Peter Bronski

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.

 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.

 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.

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

Elisa Wood

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 Edward Fielding via Shutterstock

Matt Petersen: 'If we can do it in LA, we can do it anywhere'

Garrett Hering

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

BT, Carlsberg, Coca-Cola, Unilever launch Collectively site

Heather Clancy

A global group of companies led by BT Group, Carlsberg, Coca-Cola Co., Marks & Spencer and Unilever believes mainstream media coverage of sustainable consumer lifestyles is too subdued.

So they're teaming up with non-profit Forum for the Future to create their own dialogue in the form of a new site, called Collectively, targeted predominantly at millennials. Its mission: expose the most sustainable options and innovations from the worlds of fashion, food, design, architecture and technology, among other things.

"We're interested in talking to younger people, explicitly," said Collectively CEO Will Gardner. "We want to engage them in making sustainable living the new normal. They are showing signs of leading the way."

The plan for the site took shape at the World Economic Forum, when the five companies realized they shared a common goal: an interest in accelerating demand for green products and services.

Asked why this can't be accomplished through existing sites focused on green products or environmental coverage, Gardner and one of the site's sponsors pointed to the need to reach a broader audience that has yet to make up their minds but that could become a powerful voice.

"Our intent is not to reinvent the wheel," said Jeff Seabright, chief sustainability officer for Unilever (who held a similar position at Coca-Cola when the initiative got under way). "We just feel this is a real opportunity to create something where the sum is great than the parts."

The original sponsors were joined by 29 other companies prior to today's launch, including Audi, C&A Foundation, Diageo, Facebook, General Mills, Google, Havas, IPG, Johnson & Johnson, Kingfisher, Lenovo, McDonald's, Medialink, Microsoft, Nestle, Nike, OmniCom, PepsiCo, Philips, SABMiller, Salesforce, Dow Chemical, Twitter and WPP.

The site was designed by VICE Media's creative division, VIRTUE, along with Forum for the Future and Purpose, experienced in developing social campaigns.

Collectively will encourage readers to take action, whether that's by buying a sustainably designed and sourced product, investing in a company that has embedded triple bottom-line principles into its overall strategy, or campaigning via social media for causes they support.

Gardner said the content will be produced by an independent editorial team, although the sponsors will be able to pitch stories for consideration. Contributions will be judged on their ability to inspire positive change. "We hope to engage and ignite a whole level of excitement," Seabright said.

The move comes slightly less than two years after The New York Times abandoned its Green blog and disbanded its environmental reporting team. While the newspaper positioned the move as a way to mainstream this coverage, bringing it to a broader audience, coverage of key issues such as climate change dropped noticeably in the months following that decision.

Ericsson CEO touts role of business in climate fight

Heather Clancy

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.

Who cares if 97 percent of scientists agree on climate change?

Lee Ahern

Former BP scientist and DOE Undersecretary Steven Koonin landed an elbow to the ribs of the "97-percenters" in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Climate Science Is Not Settled."

Climate policy advocates called foul. The result is another sideline dust-up in the continuing climate science consensus debate. Not just the debate over whether there is for-all-intents-and-purposes scientific consensus on the big questions (there is), but also the debate over whether it's a good idea to make "97 percent of scientists agree" a standard pro-climate-policy talking point.

Spoiler alert: It's not.

Koonin brings strong credentials to the table, as well as some baggage. In addition to his stint as undersecretary in the Department of Energy for President Obama, he was a theoretical physicist at Caltech and is currently director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University. He also deposited some paychecks as chief scientist at BP.

In any case, Koonin is certainly the kind of person who stirs the pot when he says, "There isn't a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences" when it comes to climate change.

The thrust of the article was not really that controversial: scientists agree on the broad questions such as, "Are humans influencing the climate?" (Answer: Yes).

Things get much fuzzier, however, when you get down into the weeds with questions such as, "How, and how much, exactly, are humans influencing the climate?" (Answer: We don't exactly know.) But the suggestion that climate science is not settled, however subtle the distinction as to what that means, is hostile to a central narrative of pro-policy advocates, and therefore had to be countered.

The next day, Climate Science Watch put up a post that took on Koonin's arguments, saying: "[Koonin's article] doesn't hold up when confronted with all the evidence."

The view from the sideline

It is highly unlikely that this brief exchange changed the minds of anyone who took the time to read both articles. Deniers would applaud Koonin for pointing out what they have been saying all along. Climate policy activists would be outraged but not really surprised that the Journal would publish such blatant untruths, and take solace in the fact things were set straight by the real experts. So no one convinced anyone of anything. Return to your corners and we'll call that round a draw, right?

Not exactly.

Like a boxing match, this debate took place in the media, in the public sphere. The "expert" judges — the passionate advocates on both sides — may have marked their cards a draw, but the audience witnessed something. Even if people gave the bout scant attention, or if they didn't have the background to really understand what was going on, the exchange created meaning in their minds. We know from psychology and communication science that highly involved audience members already have a strong opinion one way or another.

 Elnur via Shutterstock

It is safe to say that none of these folks were "convinced" by the other side. If you're reading this, you're one of these. But what of everyone else?

This question takes us into the domain of public communication. When it comes to mass mediated messages, things such as semantics, arguments, evidence and facts are only part of the equation. Audiences take in information with varying degrees of attention and with diverse and dynamic sets of pre-existing worldviews related to the issue at hand.

This indirect, incomplete, second-hand knowledge that people gain about scientific issues through the news and other types of mass communication constitutes what Dietram A. Scheufele called "mediated realities" (PNAS, September 2014). Mediated realities, Scheufele argued, exert far more influence on people's understandings of scientific issues than scientific facts and figures.

People make quick judgments about new information based on the limited knowledge of their mediated realities so that the information environment can be reconciled with their existing models of how the world works. Those message elements that are most easily and quickly "fit" with existing schema are internalized; other information gets ignored or forgotten. This has interesting and important implications for those engaged in public debate about policy.

The ice cream argument

A scene from the movie "Thank You For Smoking" — based on Christopher Buckley's humorous and incisive novel about PR and big tobacco — brilliantly dramatizes one very important and relevant dynamic of public communication.

In the food court of a bustling amusement park on a summer night, Nick Naylor (the "Sultan of Spin") is explaining to his son Joey how if you argue correctly, "you're never wrong." Joey is skeptical, as he clings to the idea that there are objective truths that can't be avoided or argued away. Sound familiar? To prove his point, Nick proposes a hypothetical argument where he takes the side of vanilla ice cream and Joey takes the side of chocolate. Before long, Nick has Joey defending chocolate as the only flavor anyone needs, while he is promoting freedom of choice and liberty.

     "But that's not what we're talking about."

     "Ah," says Nick. "But that's what I'm talking about."

     "But you didn't prove that vanilla is the best."

     "I didn't have to. I proved that you're wrong, and if you're wrong, I'm right."

     "But you still didn't convince me."

     "But I'm not after you," Nick says, pointing around to the crowd. "I'm after them. "

The take-away

So what did "they" — the people in the crowd, on the sideline, in the audience — hear in the latest installment of the "settled science" debate? Exactly. Arguing about the facts = the science is not settled.

Expert public communicators understand this about message strategy: The objective is not necessarily to convince people you are right and they are wrong, it is to frame the debate in a way that indirectly conveys preferred assumptions about "reality" to the audience watching at home. To frame information in a way that favors certain mental models over others.

You don't want to do this directly because people quickly will recognize it as a persuasive attempt and discount its credibility. You do it by subordinating the point you want to make in the context of another discussion (thank you, Nick Naylor).

People who witness the conversation, and accept it as a true happening (not a staged stunt of some kind), also will accept and internalize the subordinated assumptions, usually subconsciously. In this case: If it is true that scientists are arguing over whether climate science facts are settled, then it must also be true that the science is not settled. This favors a mental model where climate science remains an area of uncertainty and disfavors a mental model where uncertainty has been reduced to the point where action is necessary.

"But they're wrong about the nature of the scientific consensus," many will say. "They did not convince me!" Well, Joey Naylor, that is not what they're talking about. The point is not to convince you, it is to create and support specific meanings — specific mediated realities — in the minds of "them."

Making near-consensus — 97 percent of scientists — a central element in the pro-policy debate opens up a rhetorical hole that policy opponents can drive a rhetorical truck through. A debate on the nature of consensus means the science is not settled, which means it's premature for costly public policies.

Pivoting the conversation

So what are climate-policy advocates to do? In the words of "Mad Men's" Don Draper, "If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation."

The first step in a pivot toward conversations that favor mental models supporting action is to reflect on what those conversations should be about. Ask this simple question: "Does this conversation or debate include the subordinate assumption that climate change is happening and the responsibility of the current generation of humans to respond to it?" Note that a conversation about whether climate change is happening and the responsibility of the current generation does not meet this standard. Even if you feel like you have all the facts and figures and the "truth" is on your side and you can't lose, it is a loser.

Just say to yourself, "That conversation is over and we didn't convince everyone but we don't have to and we're moving on." Then pivot to a conversation with a preferred set of subordinate assumptions. When it comes to climate consensus, for example, one could pivot with, "The history of science has shown that there is always some level of disagreement and uncertainty. But history has also shown us that pursuing policies supported by the majority scientific opinion and predominance of scientific evidence is the best way to go."

No doubt climate policy opponents will continue to want to change the conversation back and mire the public debate in the degree of scientific consensus, the degree of human causation, the relative impact of natural climate cycles, and so on. These rhetorical forays must be blunted and re-directed, not engaged, but also not ignored (Remember John Kerry and the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth.). Pivot.

It should also be noted that "changing the conversation" will not always be easy. This kind of message consistency takes discipline, which is extremely difficult in the context of a far-flung and diverse social movement. But it is possible, with the right leadership and focus, to achieve agreement and coherent action on what the conversation should be about, if not on all the policy solution details.

Top image by Marish via Shutterstock.

Urban imagination: The real promise of data in today’s cities

Emma Stewart

[Catch Emma Stewart in person at VERGE SF 2014, October 27-30.]

Today over half the global population lives in urban areas; by 2050, the UN projects that number to grow to 70 percent. The World Economic Forum forecasts we’ll need to develop the same amount of infrastructure that’s been built over the past 4,000 years to accommodate the coming wave of urbanites. This will only compound the fact that cities are already responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, sewage overflows and air pollution.

Many believe technology will solve the urbanite plight with mountains of collected data. Everything will have a wireless sensor and be connected to the cloud — from transit card swipes to smart energy meters to air quality monitors to taxi rides to 311 calls. New York City, which produces 1 terabyte of this type of data per day, has a dedicated analytics team to manage and parse through the deluge.

And yet, for most, today’s vision of a smart city remains an elusive luxury. Even if every city had a Chief Information, Data, or Technology Officer, it’s quite likely that in the breathless optimism of chasing a smart city, decision-makers would end up spending billions metering and sensoring every inch, only to discover that the results fall short.

They'll be obvious (“yep, crossing the 520 bridge in Seattle any time after 4 p.m. is a nightmare, though any local could tell you that”) or come too late (we spend all that time on data collection, and quietly passed the tipping point of dangerous climate change). They could turn cities into the equivalent of airport security checkpoints, where nothing is private and public distrust is at an all-time high. They may unintentionally create “automaton” cities where decision-making is so automated or restricted to a small group of data scientists that it becomes devoid of citizen input. They could become smart but unimaginative (reflecting what’s happening, but be incapable of simulating the complexities of what could be).

So how can we make more out of collected data while also simulating alternatives to today’s messy reality?

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex topic, we can boil it down to three fundamentals.

1. Create a master repository of data that acts as a “single source of truth” — as with national security intelligence failures in the past, data that lives in silos is the bane of true understanding and decision-making.

2. Use that data to imagine future scenarios and simulate possible outcomes — analyze projects from every angle in the virtual world before ever breaking ground in the real one.

3. Prove the economic, environmental and social benefits of projects in order to secure increasingly scarce financing.

Let’s not get too swept up in a technological future that is, at worst, a costly diversion — and at best, unevenly distributed. Let’s instead refocus our discourse on the real promise of data in today’s cities: simulating the thriving and sustainable city that could be, and securing the funds to get us there.

Top image of city by Dahabian via Shutterstock. This article originally appeared in Quartz in a longer form. 

How to make a better adhesive without the nasty chemicals

Tom McKeag

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

Green Seal at 25: Still looking to make its mark

Joel Makower

This week, at a gala dinner in Washington, D.C., the environmental standards and labeling organization Green Seal celebrates 25 years of trying to transform the marketplace. It’s been a long road with lots of twists and turns, and more than a few detours.

I attended Green Seal’s organizing meeting in D.C. in 1989. Great promise was in the air. Earth Day 1990 was months away and it promised a media and public extravaganza unlike anything the environmental movement had seen. A “green consumer” movement was taking shape in Europe, spurred in part by a bestselling paperback, "The Green Consumer Guide." I had been tapped to write the U.S. edition, to be published in early 1990, with the hopes for a similar outcome. “Every time you open your wallet, you cast a vote, for or against the environment,” I wrote back then. It seemed pretty straightforward and easy.

Like the green marketplace itself, Green Seal’s quarter-century journey since then has been anything but straightforward or easy. The organization shifted its sights from consumers to institutional buyers, where it was easier to drive demand for environmentally preferable products. It encountered a slew of competitors — from nonprofits, government agencies, entrepreneurs and large retailers — not to mention ups and downs in market interest in greener products and services. Five years ago, the venerable Good Housekeeping Institute launched its own green certification, although it never became much of a market force.

But Green Seal endured. Today, it is older, wiser — and as determined as ever. It has made great strides in raising the bar, environmentally speaking, in several markets, particularly institutional cleaning, where Green Seal standards have become the de facto national standard for green cleaning products and are even required by law in several states. Its other standards address everything from printing paper to motor oil.

On the occasion of its 25-year milestone, I recently spoke with Arthur B. Weissman, Green Seal’s president and CEO since 1996, about the organization’s journey. Weissman is also author of "In the Light of Human Nature," a semi-autobiographical book that weaves personal narrative and philosophy to tell the story of the green economy. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: First of all, congratulation on 25 years. Not a lot of environmental organizations get to say that. How are you celebrating?

Arthur Weissman: Thanks. It’s a chance to look at and improve what we’re doing. I know a lot of companies do that. Nonprofit organizations have to do the same thing.

We looked inside. We improved our efficiency, our effectiveness, and I think we've come out stronger. That's not to say that things are back to where they were before because everyone's more cautious now, including companies, in terms of their putting funding or marketing toward sustainability.

Makower: Let's back up a bit. When Green Seal was launched 25 years ago, the one-liner about it was that it would be “the Good Housekeeping Seal for the environment.” What's the one-liner you use now?

Weissman: What you're getting at is the fact that when Green Seal was launched 25 years ago, our founders saw this entirely as a consumer eco-label. They didn't have any knowledge that there was anything called an “institutional market” — business-to-business and business-to-government. They thought it made a lot of sense to have a seal to guide consumers in their purchasing. They didn't realize how adversarial the U.S. consumer market was — and is still — in terms of multinationals protecting their market share and their brand equity.

So, we had to shift about a half a dozen years after we were founded, in the mid-1990s, having hit our head against the wall so many times. It's hard to remember, but back then there wasn't social media or the Internet or much e-mail. In order to get to consumers you had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising. So, we shifted our focus more to the institutional market as we began to understand and appreciate that one-third of the economy was government purchasing primarily, but also other large institutions like universities, multilateral organizations, things like that.

And that's what we did. Starting in the mid-1990s, we had a program that we launched as an alternative to certification in order to stoke the demand of institutional purchasers. We called it the Environmental Partners Program and had a couple of hundred members at one time. We put out guidance on how to buy green products and services, even though we didn't have a lot certified, but what look for under as “categories.”

We have had a number of consumer-oriented product standards and a few service ones as well, right from the beginning, but they haven't had much impact on the market the way our institutional work has. At this point, 25 years later, consumer spending is what we see as the next big frontier, because that's two-thirds of the economy. So, if we're really trying to turn the economy around and make it more sustainable, it's kind of hard to do that with just one-third of it.

Makower: What have you learned about consumers along the way in terms of just their willingness to engage? Do you understand them better than you did 25 years ago?

Weissman: I think we do. As you know, it's hard to categorize them as one monolithic group, or that they have one particular characteristic. There are many things and they're all contradictory. They're apathetic. They're interested. They couldn't care less. They vitally care.

There are many different segments but overlooking at them as a whole, it’s clear that right now, still, even 25 years later, they're not the driving force that they could be and I think should be in order to really move the market.

There's just still this great lethargy in the consumer market on everyone's part — not just the consumer, but also the retailers. They're waiting for the manufacturer to come through with the greener products. And manufacturers are waiting for the consumer to rise up and say, “We demand this.”

I think we've been doing it the wrong way. We've been expecting consumers to make all the technical choices. That's absurd. What we know now, 25 years later, is how complicated it is to make a great product or service. It's not impossible, but it is complicated. And asking a consumer to do it in the 20 seconds that they have to make a choice in the aisle with the limited information they have — it's just totally absurd.

Makower: Do you hope that something will change that will lead to some tipping point where consumers start getting engaged?

Weissman: Absolutely.

Makower: So, what's that tipping point?

Weissman: I sure hope it isn't because of some horrible crisis, like another Katrina. I don't want that to happen. But I think something needs to galvanize people's attention, and not in a guilt kind of way but just to kind of wake people up that it's time to really turn this thing around.

And everyone could do it simply by asking, demanding, requesting — making it clear that this is something they care about because they see this as the future of their world and of their children's world. It's really that simple.

Makower: It doesn't strike me as being simple at all because, as you tease that out, then you have, “Well, what do we care about and how do I determine what's a good product or what's a good company?" And that's where Green Seal is supposed to come in.

Weissman: It's always been a chicken-and-egg thing for us in terms of manufacturers only caring about doing this if they see consumer demand, but not being able to get the consumer demand unless there are green products for them to actually buy.

When you take away the multinational kind of negativity or the trade groups’ negativity toward any leadership standard, you see a general consensus by the people who have the technical knowledge about what constitutes a more sustainable product or service. I don't think that is the fundamental issue. When that's brought up, I think it's largely a red herring.

And if you can get enough people in the consumer market to show that they're concerned, then the question is, “Okay, how do we ensure that what is promoted as green or more sustainable is truly more sustainable?” And yes, that's where Green Seal comes in.

I'm not saying the whole process is simple. What I'm saying is, from the consumer's point of view, what I would like them to do is relatively simple as opposed to what we've seen in recent years, so many people or so many efforts to get consumers to make very difficult, technical choices about products, which they're really not equipped to do. It's just like asking them to run a power plant or something. It gets to the point of absurdity.

Makower: Let's move over to the B to B side because in some ways, that — at least from my perspective — feels more hopeful. What have you learned about what it takes to transform the market for a given product or product category?

Weissman: The main thing that we've learned is that you have to be very careful about which market you get into. You have to get to know the players. And you have to get to know the technical and the market issues in that sector. You can't just blithely decide you're going to do a standard for any particular category and put it out there and expect it's going to be taken up.

That's something we just really didn't know much about in the early years. And we've learned more and more about it and we still learn about it. We realized that we have to do always more than we think we do to get into a particular market segment.

Makower: Where have you tried to change the market and struggled? And what did you learn from that?

Weissman: Green Seal has had a lot of uptake in the institutional building maintenance area, and particularly, the janitorial maintenance. We decided to complete the portfolio of our standards in that we would do a standard for laundry products. Well, it turned out, that's actually a whole different set of players than in cleaning products. And different trade associations, different conferences.

We got some of them involved when we developed our two standards there — GS-48 and GS-51 — but we didn't do enough. And we've had to do a lot of catch-up in the last year or so to try to learn and get involved with these people because if they're not really informed about Green Seal and what we're trying to do, they're going to see us as sort of outsiders who are coming in and imposing something that they don't really understand or appreciate. They just think that we're creating problems for them.

Makower: You’ve also had a decent reception in the hospitality sector.

Weissman: We do have some good programs going. We have one in Chicago with the city. We have one currently in Los Angeles with more and more properties certified. It's the Los Angeles Green Lodging Program. It has been a sort of beacon for hoteliers who really want to go to the highest leadership level.

Makower: So, looking forward, where do you see Green Seal going in the next few years?

Weissman: We've been thinking about that quite a lot. What we see is, first of all, continuing very strongly in the institutional market, where we have pretty good influence, though we want to strengthen that. And, as I alluded to earlier, we want very much to start making some headway in the consumer market.

Another thing we're doing is to try to be much more open to innovation. You've probably heard that canard that eco-labeling programs stifle innovation. We don't really believe that but we do believe that it's important to demonstrate and continually apply innovation in our programs. Last month we came out with a proposal for something called the Green Seal Standard for Environmental Innovation (PDF), which gets to one of the oldest problems eco-labeling programs have had: there are so many different categories of products and services out there, how do you develop standards for all of them? And this basically says, if we don't have a standard but it's an innovative kind of product — not just a greener one but an innovative one — we'll take a look at it and we'll use a life-cycle approach to determine whether it could be certified as such.

Makower: Sounds like there's a heck of a lot more to do. Are you still having fun?

Weissman: We're never bored here.

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