Why Americans need to ante up for water

Cynthia Barnett

This summer, a 90-year-old water pipe burst under Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, sending a geyser 30 feet into the air and a flood of troubles over the UCLA campus. Raging water and mud trapped five people, swamped 1,000 cars and flooded five university buildings — blasting the doors off elevators and ruining the new wooden floor atop the Bruins’ storied basketball court.

As the campus dried out, though, Angelenos seemed less upset about the replaceable floorboards at Pauley Pavilion than they were over another loss: 20 million gallons of freshwater wasted in the middle of the worst drought in California history. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti took heat for his earlier campaign promise not to raise water rates in a city with a long backlog of repairs for aging water pipes.

Five days after the L.A. pipeline rupture, officials in Toledo, Ohio, declared the tap water for half a million people unsafe to drink, tainted by toxic algae spreading in the warm waters of Lake Erie. As residents of one of the most water-blessed regions in the world waited in lines to buy bottled water, an issue that had held little political urgency rose near the top of Ohio’s gubernatorial and legislative races. Former Toledo mayor Mike Bell held back an “I told you so” for council veterans who’d resisted rate increases to pay for upgrades to the city’s 73-year-old water-treatment plant.

[Learn more about water at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

In Los Angeles and Toledo and across the U.S., historic drought, water-quality threats heightened by warming waters and poorly maintained infrastructure are converging to draw public attention to the value of fresh, clean water to a degree not seen since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The problems are also laying bare the flawed way we pay for water — one that practically guarantees pipes will burst, farmers will use as much as they can and automatic sprinklers will whir over desiccated aquifers.

Squeezed by drought, U.S. consumers and western farmers have begun to pay more for water. But the increases do not come close to addressing the fundamental price paradox in a nation that uses more water than any other in the world while generally paying less for it. And some of the largest water users in the East, including agricultural, energy and mining companies, often pay nothing for water at all.

As a result, we’re subsidizing our most wasteful water use — while neglecting essentials such as keeping our water plants and pipes in good repair. “You can get to sustainability,” said David Zetland, a water economist and author of the book "Living with Water Scarcity." “But you can’t get there without putting a price on water.”

Cheap, abundant illusion

Water is the most essential utility delivered to us each day, meeting our drinking and sanitation needs and many others, from fire protection to irrigation. Incongruously, it is also the resource we value least. This is true generally for both the way we use water and the price we put on it.

On the global scale, Americans pay considerably less for water than people in most other developed nations. In the U.S., we pay less for water than for all other utilities. That remains true in these times of increasing water stress, said Janice Beecher, director of the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University, whose data show the average four-person household spends about $50 a month for water, compared with closer to $150 for electricity and telephone services.

Water’s historically cheap price has turned the U.S. hydrologic cycle abjectly illogical. Pennies-per-gallon water makes it rational for homeowners to irrigate lawns to shades of Oz even during catastrophic droughts such as the one gripping California. On the industrial side, water laws that evolved to protect historic uses rather than the health of rivers and aquifers can give farmers financial incentive to use the most strained water sources for the least sustainable crops. In just one example, farmers near Yuma, Ariz. — the driest spot in the United States, with an average rainfall of 3 inches per year — use Colorado River water to grow thirsty alfalfa; under the law of the river, if they don’t use their allotment, they’ll lose their rights to it.

For both municipal waterworks and those that carry irrigation water to farms, the illusion of cheap, abundant water arose with the extensive federal subsidies of the mid-20th century. The Bureau of Reclamation built tens of billions of dollars worth of irrigation and supply projects that were supposed to have been reimbursed by beneficiaries; most were not repaid. After passage of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act in the 1970s, the feds doled out billions more dollars, this time to local communities to help upgrade water plants and pipes. Because ratepayers didn’t have to bear the costs, they didn’t balk at treating water destined for toilets and lawns to the highest drinking-water standards in the land.

Americans got used to paying little for a whole lot of pristine water. At the same time, many utilities delayed the long-term capital investments needed to maintain their pipes and plants. Water boards often are run by local elected officials, making decisions uneasily political. A board member with a three-year term might not vote for a water project that would pay off in year six. Officials who tried to raise rates risked being booted out of office. It was easier to hope federal subsidies would continue to flow. They did not. A Reagan Administration phase-out of water-infrastructure grants began 25 years ago. Over the past decade, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water infrastructure funding has declined (with the exception of 2009, the year of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and policy has shifted from grants to loans.

Unfortunately for water utilities, the timing coincided with the arrival of requirements to scrub dozens of newly regulated contaminants out of drinking water and record numbers of water mains and pipes bursting due to age and extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.

Playing catch-up

In recent years, municipalities have begun raising rates to play catch-up. Since 2007, city water prices have risen at rates faster than the overall cost of living. Even so, the water sector reports it is not enough to pay for an estimated $1 trillion in anticipated repair costs for buried water pipes and growth-related infrastructure costs over the next 25 years.

When it comes to meeting needs associated with growth, many of the most promising solutions are found on the demand side. Americans still use more water per person than anywhere else in the world. But the U.S. today taps less water overall than it did 40 years ago despite population and economic growth, thanks to increased efficiency and awareness. From irrigation to manufacturing to toilet flushing, everything we do takes a lot less water than it used to.

Because utilities’ funding relies on revenue generated by water sales, efficiency has many utilities up a creek and churning blame. Earlier this fall, The Washington Post published a story, reprinted in newspapers around the nation, that blamed “federally mandated low-flow toilets, shower heads and faucets” for water utilities’ financial woes. Conservation, the story said, was the cause of higher water rates and new fees.

The reality is just the opposite, said Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to sustainable water use. Everyone is beginning to pay more for water — but communities that conserve have lower long-term costs than those that don’t. In many cases, simply saving water can eliminate the need for costly new sources, Dickinson said. Growing, water-stressed cities including San Antonio and Perth, Australia, have saved ratepayers more than $1 billion in long-term capital costs by helping them slash water use in half. An analysis by the city of Westminster, Colo., found that reduced water use by citizens since 1980 saved residents and businesses 80 percent in tap fees and 91 percent in water rates, compared to the costs of acquiring the new water — close to $220 million on Colorado’s Front Range.

Efficiency will be the answer in many communities, although it cannot save the day in financially strapped cities that are losing population. Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy depends in part on its ability to sell water, but it has lost a quarter of its population over the past decade. Under pressure to reduce more than $90 million in bad debt, the Water and Sewerage Department in the spring began ordering shutoffs for customers who had fallen behind on their bills, prompting a global outcry and a warning from the United Nations.

Pictures of American families bathing and brushing teeth from five-gallon buckets hold a mirror to the nation’s hydro-illogical cycle: We subsidize water for the largest users in the United States, including agriculture and energy plants, yet we do not ensure a basic amount of water for the poorest citizens.

Agriculture at the table

Likewise, efficiency doesn’t solve water-quality issues such as Toledo’s, where ratepayers could be looking at $1 billion for a new drinking-water plant advanced enough to filter out the pollutants brewing in Lake Erie, their water source. Donald Moline, commissioner of Toledo’s public utilities department, said the cost issues are opening up much-needed dialogue with the agricultural community on its contribution to nonpoint-source pollution in Lake Erie. Fueled by farming, septic systems, urban runoff and other causes, nonpoint-source pollution is the largest contributor to water-quality problems in the United States. “It used to be we just weren’t allowed to get into the agricultural causes, but given the science of this, we can’t ignore that piece,” Moline said.

Indeed, concerns over both quality and quantity make agriculture an increasingly important part of the conversation about how we value and price water, said University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon, author of the books "Water Follies" and "Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It."

Irrigation costs differ significantly for American farmers depending on whether they operate in the West or in the East. Reclamation Reform Acts in the 1980s and 90s began to shift the costs of major U.S. irrigation projects — which move river water around the West — from federal taxpayers to western farmers, whose bill depends on an arcane mix of water rights, allocations and contracts. But in the Colorado River basin, century-old water law can still create a tragedy of the commons in which farmers risk losing their allotment if they don’t use it. To solve this waste-encouraging dilemma, Glennon advocates a regulated system of markets and trading that would allow farmers to sell their water allotments to cities in times of drought or let a manufacturer pay to convert a large farm from flood to drip irrigation in exchange for the saved water.

Groundwater presents yet another paradox of price: Rising energy costs and declining water levels in troubled aquifers such as the Ogallala in the U.S. Great Plains have helped motivate many farmers to use less water. Agricultural and industrial water users pay for the wells, pumps and energy to draw water up from belowground, but in much of the country they still pay nothing for the water itself — which in some cases has provoked a race to the bottom that can dry up neighbors’ wells and even collapse the ground underfoot. In one hot spot in California’s San Joaquin Valley, U.S. Geological Survey scientists found that steady groundwater pumping in the nut-tree region south of Merced is sinking the ground nearly a foot a year, threatening infrastructure damage to local communities.

In August, the California legislature passed a package of laws to regulate groundwater pumping for the first time in state history. But the laws won’t slow damage to aquifers without meaningful limits on groundwater withdrawals or a charge for extraction, said Zetland, the water economist. Both are tough to pull off in politically regulated systems. Florida has required permits for large groundwater withdrawals since 1972. But governor-appointed water boards are reluctant to deny them, which has aggravated aquifer depletion, drying springs and coastal saltwater intrusion in some parts of the state. For decades, various Florida councils, committees and commissions have concluded that a small fee on groundwater withdrawals — between 1 and 20 cents for every 1,000 gallons — would reduce pumping and fund water-resource protection with “minimal adverse economic impacts” to industry and agriculture, according to one analysis by Chase Securities. But the agricultural lobby keeps the idea from getting very far in the state legislature.

New approaches

Going forward, water infrastructure, supply and quality challenges intensified by droughts, floods, temperature extremes and other influences of a changing climate will require new approaches not only to price, but also ethics: using less and polluting less, recycling more, and sharing costs among all users.

At the local utility level, higher prices and tiered price structures, in which households that use more pay more, are both working to encourage conservation. Utilities are also turning to new types of bonds to cover long-term projects, such as the 100-year “green bond” sold this summer by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority to finance environmentally friendly stormwater solutions.

Water-science and engineering groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers make the case that the U.S. infrastructure crisis is severe enough that local communities cannot solve it alone; they suggest that federal investment is crucial to forestall significant costs in emergency repair and business losses.

Market fixes and agricultural partnerships are also part of the answer — especially if water law can evolve to do a better job of protecting the environment and local communities. Over the past two decades, drought-addled Australia has built the world’s largest water market, trading $2.5 billion per year and allowing the government to buy back overallocated rights and return water to nature. Price trends are up — both utility customers and agricultural users are paying more for water — while overall consumption is down. However, feared adverse social impacts may be coming to pass; researchers from Griffith University in Queensland (PDF) found governments trading “with little regard or knowledge of Indigenous interests, and many Indigenous people believe that contemporary water resource management is amplifying inequities.”

Human rights advocates often oppose water markets on the grounds that we should not commodify an essential human need. But U.S. water use and price have been so skewed for so long that market solutions may be the only politically feasible way to right them. If we are to subsidize anyone, perhaps it should be the poor: A sustenance level of water for those who need it — free or dirt cheap — and higher prices for those who want more and choose to pay. “I argue for a human right to water,” said Glennon. “If we can’t guarantee that in the richest country in the world, we are a sorry lot.”

Key tenets as U.S. water law and policy evolves, Glennon said, are making sure the environment and communities where water originates are not harmed. “It’s glacial, but we are finally seeing people do things differently,” he said. “Across California, you see block rates and municipalities paying people to rip out lawns. Price is going to give us the opportunity to do some things before crisis becomes a catastrophe.”

This story first appeared at ENSIA. Top image by simonalvinge via Shutterstock.

How Ford aims to drive down its energy costs by $7 million a year

Stephen Kennett

Ford will invest more than $25 million in LED lighting at its global manufacturing facilities — cutting annual energy use equivalent to running over 6,000 average-sized homes a year.

The LED fittings will replace traditional high-intensity discharge and fluorescent lights, and are expected to reduce Ford’s energy use at manufacturing facilities by 56 million kilowatt-hours a year. This equates to 70 percent reduction in lighting energy consumption compared to traditional technologies and is expected to cut annual energy costs by around $7 million.

According to Ford the need for maintenance also will diminish, as LED lighting has a 15-year life expectancy and studies show LED light output remains steady at less than 1 percent degradation per year over the life of the equipment, while fluorescent and HID fixtures require re-lamping in as little as two years.

John Fleming, executive vice president, global manufacturing and labor affairs at Ford, said: “We are extremely pleased to install this leading-edge technology in our manufacturing facilities worldwide. This is a long term investment in our future that highlights our aggressive approach to lead in environmental improvements and achieve operating efficiencies.

"Ford worked closely with its scientists and suppliers to investigate and closely follow the rapid development of LED lighting."

In 2011, Ford embarked on a program to lower its energy use by 25 percent per vehicle produced at its facilities by 2016. The company is on its way toward meeting that goal, having achieved a 20 percent energy efficiency already, said George Andraos, director of energy and sustainability at Ford Land.

“Moving to LED gives us impressive efficiency improvement,” said Andraos. “Ford worked closely with its scientists and suppliers to investigate and closely follow the rapid development of LED lighting. In 2013, we selected Dialight, a leading LED industrial fixture manufacturer with a global footprint, to develop light fixtures that meet Ford’s global needs.”

The roll-out began at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant last month and will continue through the year at 17 other Ford manufacturing facilities across the globe, including Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, Ky.; Livonia Transmission Plant in Livonia, Mich.; Dearborn Stamping Plant; Essex Engine in Windsor, Ont.; Dagenham Engine Plant in Dagenham, England; and Oakville Assembly in Oakville, Ont.

Recently, Ford also announced that it will work with DTE Energy to install Michigan’s largest solar carport at its Dearborn world headquarters. When completed in early 2015, the project is expected to generate 1.3 million kilowatt-hours a year.

This story originally appeared on 2degrees and is reprinted with permission. Top image of Ford auto plant in Russia by vladimir salman via Shutterstock

3 steps to bring sustainability to your supply chain

Alan Amling

According to PwC's Global Supply Chain Survey 2013 (PDF), more than two-thirds of supply chain executives said sustainability will play an increasing role in the supply chains of the future. It's clear that growing consumer demand and increasing legislation have begun to shift the perception of sustainable supply chains from "nice to have" to "need to have."

There is little doubt that production, transportation and even warehousing of goods are major impacts on an organization's total carbon footprint. As a result, it is more important than ever for companies to evaluate their current supply chain practices, not only to identify ways to reduce environmental impact, but also to reduce costs through increased efficiencies.

One of the easiest ways a company can do this is by partnering with a third-party logistics provider (usually abbreviated as 3PL, but sometimes as TPL) that can offer expertise on making the entire supply chain more sustainable. The following are three steps companies can take with a 3PL to reduce the environmental impact of their supply chain, ultimately saving them time and money.

1. Measure footprint

One of the main ways logistics partners can help companies to improve the environmental sustainability of their supply chains is by first measuring and assessing current operations. By gaining an understanding of the impact of the current supply chain through the use of tools, such as a carbon footprint analysis, companies will be in a better place to later manage a more efficient supply chain.

[Learn more about smarter supply chains at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

An experienced 3PL can work with customers to develop a credible carbon impact analysis, such as one that follows the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. The result of a decade-long partnership between the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the GHG Protocol is the most widely recognized international tool that helps to identify, measure and manage greenhouse gas emissions. The process sheds some light on a company's carbon impact, which can help companies to properly report and thus meet regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, verification and certification of the analysis by credible third parties provides confidence that numbers provided by carriers are credible.

A 3PL experienced with this tool can help companies through the process more easily and develop insightful recommendations on how to best redesign, reengineer and optimize current processes to create a more sustainable supply chain.

2. Manage operations

Another way 3PLs can help companies to create a more sustainable supply chain is by helping to manage their current supply chain through the implementation of optimization measures. From transportation design to organization and execution, a 3PL can help companies optimize their existing transportation and packaging operations.

Strategies for removing unnecessary legs of transportation could include shifting transportation modes, relocating inventory to optimal locations based on the customer's requirements or business needs, or co-locating value-adding logistics services (such as kitting and packaging or repair services) in a single location.

 Rob Igo via Flickr

When it comes to managing packaging operations, 3PLs can help customers to reduce wasteful shipping materials by providing guidance on package function and design. This can include identifying the most efficient packaging design and materials, or incorporating the use of packaging materials made from recyclable or sustainably sourced materials.

Managing efficiently also means managing warehouses and distribution centers in a more sustainable manner. Energy-efficient warehouse and office lighting, LED technology, warehouse and office occupancy sensors, recycling programs and green space are all elements of sustainable warehousing.

3. Mitigate impact

Finally, 3PLs can help their customers to mitigate their environmental impact in a number of ways beyond measurement and supply chain organization and management. With access to a broad range of technologies as well as transportation and warehousing solutions, some 3PLs can assist customers in implementing sustainable supply chain strategies. This includes access to transportation methods that are less carbon-intensive (such as rail or ocean modes) or partnering with transportation providers or carriers investing in hybrid or natural gas vehicles within their ground fleets.

From a technology standpoint, 3PLs can work with their customer to incorporate paperless solutions for commercial invoices and billing, as well as customs documents, to reduce overall paper consumption.

One area where a 3PL can make a particularly large impact on supply chain sustainability is by helping customers to set up efficient reverse logistics operations. By implementing processes for recycling, refurbishment or end-of-product life disposal, companies can make a significant reduction in their total carbon footprint. 3PLs that can offer these services at a centralized warehousing or distribution point can make an even bigger impact by reducing the miles traveled at the end of the product lifecycle.

After implementing these efficiencies, companies still will be responsible for some level of carbon impact. Organizations looking to reduce their impact further can work with carriers that offer customers the ability to offset the impact of their shipments by investing in environmental projects.

The value of the right partner

While the idea of creating a more sustainable supply chain may seem overwhelming for some companies, having a knowledgeable and experienced logistics partner to help with the process can make it manageable for nearly any company. To identify a 3PL best-positioned to assist in this area, companies should consider partners whose sustainability practices they look to emulate. They should ask the following questions:

Does the company value sustainability and in turn practice what it preaches? Does it issue an annual company sustainability report? Is it transparent in its sustainability efforts? Will its network and assets provide opportunities for my company to create a more efficient and sustainable supply chain? Does it have access to cutting-edge technologies and tools? Does it have a proven track record when it comes to assisting customers?

Asking these questions and taking the preceding steps with a logistics partner not only will help to ensure your supply chain is meeting the growing demand for increased environmental sustainability, but help to reduce costs and most important — reduce the impact of business on our planet, preserving it for future generations.

Top image of chain on cardboard by Christos Siatos via Shutterstock.

Dear Shannon: How can I interview for top sustainability talent?

Shannon Houde

If you have a question for Shannon, send it to shannon@walkoflifeconsulting.com.

Dear Shannon,

I'm a hiring manager at a small mission-based organization based in Portland, Oregon. Our company is committed to incorporating sustainability into our bottom line and long-term strategy. We are starting to look for new talent that can lead change in all of our new hires. That said, we are feeling a bit lost about how to assess sustainability skills during the interview process. Any ideas?

Pat in Portland

Dear Pat,

As a sustainability career coach and former HR exec, I hear about the challenges of hiring the right person for corporate responsibility or impact roles from both sides of the fence. Job seekers see mountains of competition and no defined career track for the roles they want, while hiring managers see vague personal profiles and CVs and a complex, heterogeneous, career changing talent pool.

According to leading CSR and sustainability recruitment agency, Acre, whichever phase of the sustainability journey an organization is in, the individuals leading the strategy need to understand that it's not a static function. Rather, sustainability is a continually evolving business strategy that underpins the organization. For hiring managers this means that they must respond in real time to ever-changing skillsets and competencies when recruiting new talent.

How to assess core sustainability competencies

In a recent article, I outlined my top five crucial skillsets or competencies that a CSR or sustainability practitioner will need in their arsenal. Now, I’m sharing the challenging questions that really get to the heart of these competencies in a job interview context to help hiring managers sift out the gems.

If you're looking for the best talent but finding it hard to spot, or if you are the talent but struggling to land your dream job, then  read through these 5 questions and consider how they could help you to find or be that chosen gem. If you’re a job seeker, take these questions one at a time and write out your answers. They will reveal a lot.

1. Bravery and resilience: This is all about your ability to lead change in an organization, and bounce back when times get tough.

· Tell me about a time when you were challenged to stay committed to a project.

· How did you overcome your fear to take it to fruition?

· When you feel uncomfortable in a situation what do you do? Give an example.

2. Ability to balance global and local perspectives: This relates to the need to view sustainability at different scales within the organization and its markets.

· How have you been able to deliver and measure tangible impact in a global or local context?

· What are the challenges you see in being able to balance global and local perspectives?

· How could we as an organization scale up to bring our local programs global?

3. Innovative and systems thinking: This is the big picture stuff, the fitting together of the jigsaw puzzle that brings individual sustainability initiatives together into a holistic vision for the organization, the sector and the world.

· How do you see the different elements of the sustainability agenda fitting together?

· How will innovation help to develop a more sustainable economy?

4. Influencing and negotiating: This is how you work with others to achieve your objectives, your interpersonal skills.

· Give me an example of a time you had to convince someone to do something they didn't want to do?

· What is your approach to negotiating with someone strong headed?

· How would you go about getting diverse stakeholders on board for a new idea?

5. Engaging others in the on the journey on their terms: This is all about empathy and understanding for other people’s positions, and of course communication.

· Tell me about a time you had to gain buy-in from senior management and how you did it?

· How would you go about getting other departments on board for an idea for sustainability?

· What are the three key steps you would take to get others to follow you on your journey?

A sustainability lens on standard interview questions

Of course, the more standard interview questions can also reveal much about how an applicant might perform in a sustainability role. One of my favorite sources of old school interview questions and answers is this 1984 book excerpt. Not much has changed in the intervening 30 years.

Questions such as "Tell me about yourself" and "Walk me through your resume," remain a set-up to see if the candidate has done their homework and can make their recent career experience relevant to the role, company culture and organizational needs. "What do you know about the company?" is another question that helps hiring managers see how well the candidate understands the organization and why they want to work there, and if their values are aligned.

Other questions, such as, "What is one question you wish I'd asked you?" can expose the scale of a job seeker’s ambitions and give insight into their blue-sky thinking. "What you do in the first 30, 60 and 90 days of this job?" can shed light onto a candidate’s strategic approach to delivering results with diplomacy. How they'll approach the role and the internal politics is an important indicator of how they’ll fit into the existing team and be able to make progress against key performance indicators.

Front-load the tough questions

Some techniques for finding top sustainability talentsuch as the one used by leading sustainability consultancy, BSRput the tough questions right at the beginning of the hiring process. For a senior role as director of the women’s empowerment organization HERProject, the online application required candidates to give written answers to more than 10 additional questions of up to 300 words each. 

Some of the questions ranged from working with a global workforce to project management to health interventions. Here are some examples:

1. “Please describe your philosophy on working with a global workforce. Please include, how would you provide support and mentor staff, as well as understand different cultural aspects to support success.”

2. “Please describe an example of a project that you have worked on and are proud of, including: the objective, outcomes, the relationships/partners which contributed to success, and the challenges, and how you overcame them.”

3. “Describe an intervention that you have seen implemented badly. Or which had poor or limited impact. What did you learn from that experience?”

This may seem more like a graduate school application than a standard job application, but it’s a great way to screen out the talent that is not willing to put the time into a considerate application. For those that do engage, their commitment and passion shine through. 

Preparation is the key to success. Let me know whether these questions helped you recruit the right people for your sustainability team, or if they helped you prepare for an interview for your dream sustainability job.

Top image of job interview candidates by baranq via Shutterstock

Will synthetic biology change the way we farm and eat?

Josie Garthwaite

Thousands of researchers will descend on Boston this fall for an event billed as the world's largest gathering of synthetic biologists. The field is evolving so rapidly that even scientists working in it don't agree on a definition, but at its core synthetic biology involves bringing engineering principles to biotechnology. It's an approach meant, ultimately, to make it easier for scientists to design, test and build living parts and systems — even entire genomes.

If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting and pasting it, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA, with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works.

In Boston, scientists and students will showcase synbio projects developed over the summer, including systems ranging from new takes on natural wonders, such as the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a useful form (nitrogen fixation), to newly imagined functions, such as an odorless E. coli cell meant to crank out a lemony, edible "wonder protein" containing essential amino acids.

Now in its 11th year, the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition has grown up alongside synthetic biology itself. Organized by a nonprofit foundation spun out of MIT, the event has acquired a mix of public and private partners, including the FBI, the National Science Foundation, Monsanto and Autodesk. And no wonder. Synbio could produce both transformative science and big business. By some estimates, the global market for synthetic biology is projected to grow to $16 billion by 2018. Much of the anticipated activity centers on pharmaceuticals, diagnostic tools, chemicals and energy products such as biofuels. But in the face of energy and water constraints, a squeeze on cultivable land and an imperative to limit greenhouse gas emissions, synbio could also transform the way we farm and eat.

Whereas many genetically modified crops today contain a single engineered gene, synthetic biology makes it easier to generate larger clusters of genes and gene parts. These synthetic clusters can then be engineered by more conventional methods into plants or microbes. As a result, today's iGEM competitors may be tomorrow's developers of a new generation of genetically modified organisms. By assembling biological systems from genetic code catalogued in online databases and fine-tuned through computer modeling, they could deliver more nutritious crops that thrive with less water, land and energy and fewer chemical inputs, in more variable climates and on lands that otherwise would not support intensive farming.

Synthesized DNA can be harnessed for food production in a few ways. Foods and flavorings created through fermentation with engineered yeast are one option. A startup called Muufri, for example, is working on an animal-free milk product; a crowd-funded group of “biohackers” collaborating in community labs in the Bay Area aims to create a vegan cheese; and the Swiss company Evolva is using synthetic biology to develop saffron, vanillin and stevia. Other companies, such as Solazyme, are engineering microalgae to produce algal "butter," protein-rich flour and a vegan protein. And in academia, research is under way for clusters of synthesized genes to eventually be inserted directly into plants or into microbes in soil and roots that affect plant growth.

To some, it is a frightening future that has synthesized DNA coming to the farm, market and dinner table. Environmental news site Grist has called synthetic biology “the next front in the GMO war.” Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that views genetically modified crops as "a direct extension of chemical agriculture," calls synbio an "extreme form" of genetic engineering.

According to Dana Perls, food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, the group is not opposed to the technology, but rather for its responsible use. "We're at this crossroad," she says. "We have the opportunity to look back at history and learn from our mistakes." Transparency is key. "Before synthetic biology gets rubber-stamped as sustainable or natural or a technology which could help mitigate climate change, we need international and national regulations specific to these technologies," she says. "We need to make sure it's not going to do more harm than good."

Indeed, we're only beginning to unravel the ecological implications of the technology. Experts consulted for a recent report from the Woodrow Wilson Center's Synthetic Biology Project say potential risks demanding more research range from the creation of "new or more vigorous pests and pathogens" to "causing irreparable loss or changes in species diversity or genetic diversity within species."

Assessing these risks in the real world is complex. While some engineered traits "will clearly have great benefit to the environment with little risk," plant geneticist Pamela Ronald, who directs the Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation at the University of California, Davis, "each gene or trait must be assessed on a case-by-case basis." Experimental organisms would typically be tested in a lab or confined field trials, which may be inadequate to foretell the co-evolution and interplay of a full ecosystem. According to the Wilson Center report, some of the most advanced models in use today for eco-evolutionary dynamics falter beyond a 10-year time frame.

"We don't know how these organisms [developed through synthetic biology] will interact with pollinators, soil systems, other organisms," Perls says. And a self-replicating organism with synthetic DNA, released into an ecosystem, could swap genes with wild counterparts. "We need to expect escape; and when that happens, we need to be prepared to deal with it," she says.

While many people involved with synthetic biology say existing regulation of engineered plants — generally split in the United States among the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture — will extend adequately to synbio, others see a need to shore up oversight. Policy analysts with the J. Craig Venter Institute, the European Molecular Biology Organization, and the University of Virginia, for example, concluded earlier this year that the shift to synthetic biology could leave "many engineered plants without any premarket regulatory review" because the USDA's authority depends on a technique that's outdated for many applications. And the increasing number and diversity of microbes expected to be engineered for commercial use, the authors warned, will challenge the "EPA's resources, expertise and perhaps authority to regulate them."

That report came on the heels of a Kickstarter project called Glowing Plants aimed at producing "sustainable natural lighting" through synthetic biology, which exposed some possible loopholes. The company laid out a plan to derive DNA from fireflies, modify it to work in a flowering plant related to mustard, order the reprogrammed sequence from a company that laser-prints DNA, coat it onto metal particles, and inject it into seeds using a device called a gene gun. And they promised to distribute some 600,000 of these seeds to supporters.

"Is it legal? Yes it is!" the Glowing Plants team wrote. FDA regulation is out because the plant is not meant to be eaten, and EPA says the project would be a matter for the USDA. But because the genes are transferred via gene gun (a technique developed after guidelines were established in the late 1980s), the plant falls outside the USDA’s purview. As a spokesperson for the agency later told the journal Nature, "Regarding synthetic biologics, if they do not pose a plant risk, APHIS [the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] does not regulate it." The landscape is different overseas. "Regrettably," the Glowing Plants team wrote, "the European Union has tighter restrictions in place so we can't send seeds there as a reward."

Hungry, hungry planet

To be sure, the global food system is ripe for redesign. "Agriculture is the biggest driver of environmental impacts on the planet," says Paul West, co-director and lead scientist for the Global Landscapes Initiative at the University of Minnesota. Agriculture occupies about 40 percent of Earth's ice-free land and accounts for some 70 percent of water use. "And because of all the fertilizer that's used, it's the main source of water quality problems," West says. By 2050, we can expect at least 2 billion additional eaters, as well as heightened demand for feed crops to support growing appetites for meat and dairy.

At the same time, climate models point to a future of tightening constraints on food systems around the globe. Although warmer temperatures could increase yields in some regions, West says, temperature and rainfall changes alone could slash overall crop yields by an estimated 10 to 40 percent. Expected changes in the frequency of drought, flooding and extreme weather events could drive those losses even higher, he says.

A variety of reforms can help to address these challenges. Reducing waste, tweaking the location and timing of fertilizer applications, stopping irrigation leaks, and diversifying crop production would offer a good start. Synthetic biology could become part of a solution at some point, West says. But because "what we eat is so heavily influenced by culture, taste, preference and cost," he says, "even if something works really well on paper, it doesn't mean that it's accepted."

'A special lightning rod'

Genetically engineered foods, "ignite a special lightning rod," University of California, Berkeley, bioethicist David Winickoff observes. Unlike drugs produced through biotechnology, such as insulin, we "still have a substitute product that's quote, 'pure,'" when it comes to food, says Winickoff, who directs the Berkeley Science, Technology and Society Center.

Yet, with few exceptions, "almost everything we eat is produced on farms, which is an artificial environment," says Ronald. What's more, in an era of climate change and ecosystem-scale restoration, Winickoff says, "it's harder to maintain an idea of 'pure' nature." If our species has already shaped the state of our planet, might that compel further intervention, he asks, to right past wrongs — or at least adapt to their consequences?

"There have been all kinds of examples of technocratic interventions that have gone wrong, or at least have [had] large social consequences — some good and some bad," Winickoff says.

"With large interventions, there are winners and losers," he adds. "It doesn't just have to do with aggregate risk and benefit, but thinking about how risk and benefits are allocated."

The new 'natural'

"What synthetic biology should be able to do is improve the efficiency with which we're converting, ultimately, sunlight into proteins and carbohydrates," says Neil Goldsmith, CEO of Evolva. The company has generated and screened billions of variations on a genetic theme to arrive at the design for a system that runs on sugar, electricity, water (a reminder that even microbial factories require inputs) and yeast cells containing synthesized DNA. The yeast cells are removed during production, and at a molecular level, the result is identical to the chemical that gives vanilla orchid seeds their distinctive flavor.

According to Evolva, its living vanillin factory mirrors the fermentation process used to make beer. And compared to existing vanilla flavorings derived from petroleum, the company claims to offer “greater naturalness.” In Goldsmith's view, there's no such thing as an artificial gene. "DNA is DNA," he says. In terms of function, "what matters to a gene is sequence, not how you made it."

"Friends of the Earth has launched a campaign to stop "synbio vanilla" from making its way into ice cream, warning that the product "could set a dangerous precedent for synthetic genetically engineered ingredients to sneak into our food supply and be labeled as 'natural.'" In response, Häagen-Dazs and a handful of other ice cream makers that use vanilla extract from actual vanilla beans have said they will not use vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology.

For groups like Friends of the Earth, part of the concern is that synthesized DNA is developed "outside of nature, outside of the process of natural selection." It is a startlingly far cry, Perls says, from crossbreeding crops over decades and centuries, and "ultimately letting nature figure out how those crops are going to survive."

Out of the freezer, into the field

While synthesized DNA in food is running its first public-opinion gantlet en route to the frozen desserts aisle, synbio approaches in time could reprogram the most basic interactions between plants and their environment.

The ability to synthesize DNA has "completely transformed" much of the Ronald Lab's work at UC Davis because researchers no longer need to isolate a DNA sequence to study it. About 25 years ago, Ronald began searching for genes in rice that allow the plant to resist disease or tolerate stress. In 1995, her team isolated a gene that confers disease resistance. In 2006, the researchers were finally able to isolate a group of genes that could bestow flood tolerance on rice varieties that would otherwise die after a few days underwater. And by 2013, more than 4 million farmers in the Philippines, Bangladesh and India had planted rice engineered (through a process known as precision breeding) to have that genetic marker.

"Synthesis would not have sped things up much," Ronald says, because the slow-going work in this case had to do with identifying genes of interest and introducing them into plants. What has changed is that researchers can now scan for candidates among the growing number of DNA sequences documented in government databases, and once candidates are identified, it's easier to start studying and prioritizing them. "You can synthesize a lot of constructs and test them very rapidly," she says.

"We need to reduce carbon emissions and toxic inputs, use less land and water, combat pests, and increase soil fertility," Ronald says. While it's too early to predict which tool will be most efficient in achieving the goals of safety and sustainability over the long-term, she says, "for a farmer or a geneticist, we use whatever tool will work."

The accelerating pace of this work opens a door for new risks. According to Pamela Silver, professor of biochemistry and systems biology at Harvard Medical School, however, synthetic biology is like many other technologies in the realm of dual-use research. "There's the good side and the potential dark side."

Synthetic biology builds on decades of advances in molecular biology, systems biology and biotechnology. In the 1980s, polymerase chain reaction technology made it possible to zoom in on a segment of DNA and make billions of copies, Silver explains. In time, scientists could take genes and make specific mutations, but it was still nature's foundation. Today, "you are no longer stuck with what nature has on offer. You can start to create things," Silver says. "You could do it in the PCR days, but now, as the cost of making DNA gets ever cheaper, then it's really only your imagination that's the limit."

Automatic shutdown

Some synthetic biologists are imagining an "off" switch for engineered traits. Crops today that have been engineered to tolerate pests, herbicides, disease or drought express that tolerance all the time. With the tools of synbio, biophysicist and synthetic biologist Christopher Voigt explains, an organism could be programmed to have a genetic trait "deal with the problem and then go away."

As the tools to design entire genomes catch up to the ability to construct them, Voigt expects to see cereal crops programmed to sense and respond to environmental information, like dryness. In the coming years, Voigt says, "You'll think about the organism you want and then be systematic about building that organism up from scratch."

As a demonstration, Voigt’s team at MIT has inserted a cluster of 16 delicately tuned genes into a bacterium to give it nitrogen-fixing abilities. If successfully applied to plants, this approach could potentially reduce applications of nitrogen fertilizers, which contribute to emissions of nitrous oxide — a powerful greenhouse gas. There are implications for energy, too. According to a recent paper on emerging synbio policy issues from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the impact of creating self-fertilizing plants through synthetic biology "could revolutionize agriculture and would significantly decouple agriculture from the oil industry."

"Nitrogen fixation is very sensitive," Voigt says. "If you change any of the levels, it stops working altogether." Part of the challenge is that oxygen produced by plants during photosynthesis is "supertoxic" for a key enzyme called nitrogenase, explains Himadri Pakrasi, director of the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability at Washington University in St. Louis and leader of the school's iGEM team. "This is probably why most plants have not figured out how to fix nitrogen for themselves," he says.

A special class of cyanobacteria, however, manages to accomplish both photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation. The key is having a genetic switch to run photosynthesis during the day and nitrogen fixation at night. Pakrasi's team is working to "import" the switch and parts for nitrogen fixation — about three dozen genes — from this cyanobacterium into a different cyanobacterium that also performs photosynthesis but lacks the genetic parts to fix nitrogen.

In the original organism, the genes involved in nitrogen fixation are scattered "all over the genome," which is inconvenient for transplanting. Synthesizing these genes into a neat package, or plasmid, is now relatively simple, and it's getting cheaper, Pakrasi says. His lab can purchase a gene from one of a growing number of DNA makers for as little as $300, less than half of the price they paid for the same product even a few months ago.

"The next phase of the challenge is much bigger: how to connect the operation of this made-up plasmid to the genetic program that's existing in the cyanobacteria," he says. Synthetic biology approaches offer a way to tinker with those connections so the custom-built gene cluster can function in the new cell. "If we solve this, which we haven't yet, then the same principles can be applied to chloroplasts in crop plants," Pakrasi says. He envisions the scheme helping to boost yields of corn, rice, wheat and other crops in places where fertilizers today are expensive for many farmers. "And if that can be done, it can solve the world's food problem in a very big way."

Farming techniques have changed for 10,000 years, and they're on the cusp of major changes now. But it's still early days for synthetic biology. "Hopefully," Ronald says, "those changes will allow us to preserve our Earth in good shape for another 10,000 years."

This article was produced by Climate Confidential. Wheat field image by Igor Strukov via Shutterstock.

The dark side of solar: Why waste concerns abound

Mike Hower

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 Daleen Loest via Shutterstock

Why you'll never retire: 7 sustainability veterans explain

Ellen Weinreb

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 Robert Kneschke via Shutterstock.

Why renewable methane fuel smells like a rose

Joanna Underwood

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.

 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.

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.