Holiday Gifts For The Green Movement

There’s no better time than the holiday season to reflect on the events of the past year – and there has been no shortage of environmental news stories that have both inspired us and made our blood boil. As Christmas approaches, let’s consider some appropriate gifts for those who have left their mark on green news in 2011:

President Obama: A microphone and some earplugs. Since the beginning of his term, the president has become notably less enthusiastic about clean energy and environmental issues, perhaps succumbing to Republican pressure and inevitably “compromising” with natural gas, as well as totally giving in by opening up areas off the U.S. to offshore oil drilling. In fact, the positive steps his administration has taken to support renewable energy and clean technology have flown somewhat beneath the radar, for fear of appearing “too partisan.” Advice to the president: Speak up about the benefits green technologies can bring the nation, and block out the noise from the Republicans in Congress and fossil-fuel lobbyists.

Newt Gingrich, and the other GOP candidates: A science textbook. Ten years ago, climate change was fact to everyone – not a partisan issue. It’s time for GOP leaders to stop denying science and accept that the planet’s future is resting on our action to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and combat climate change.

TransCanada executives: Some red tape. The best we can hope for, at the moment, is for the Keystone XL pipeline to face more regulatory delays and to ultimately fail in the face of a decision by the Department of State.

Former Solyndra employees: A new job in the growing solar sector. Solyndra grabbed all of the negative headlines with its failure, but that does not mean that the U.S.’ entire renewable energy future is doomed. The solar industry represents a flourishing employment sector that has the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next few years.

The mainstream media: Some White-Out. It would be nice if the mainstream media could undo the mistakes it made in chastising solar company Solyndra for its DOE loan-guarantee debacle. In reporting so excessively and sensationally on an exception, rather than a rule, mainstream media outlets – including The New York Times and The Washington Post – cast the entire renewable energy industry in a poor light and questioned the justification for government aid of a growing, environmentally responsible industry.

BP: Some oil-covered shrimp cocktail. This year, we did not forget BP’s massive negligence and sin against the environment, as the Gulf still struggles to emerge from the disaster’s aftermath. BP needs a taste of its own medicine – or, perhaps of some oily shrimp for a nice holiday hor d’oeuvre.

Monsanto: A gift card to Whole Foods. Maybe, if Big Ag saw how much better organic food really is, it would stop attempting to overhaul the world’s food supply with a Soylent Green approach to genetically engineering food. Unlikely, but it’s worth a shot.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity: A reality check and an inhaler. In addition to coal in its stocking (naturally), the ACCCE needs to admit that coal will never be “clean,” and the nation’s reliance on the filthy substance is endangering our children and grandchildren, not to mention future generations.

Alec Baldwin: A train ticket. Traveling by rail should help lower the outspoken actor’s carbon footprint, as well as allow him to avoid future airline conflicts. Besides, you can use your iPhone – and Words with Friends – on trains.

Sustainable nonprofit organizations: Your donations. There are plenty of responsible organizations doing their part to care for the planet and its future. This holiday season, replace a couple of peppermint-mocha lattes (or more) with a donation to your favorite conservation groups – they need your help.

Special thanks to my colleague, Phil Hall, for inspiring this post.


‘Clean Coal’ Industry Accidentally Admits It’s Not Clean

U.S. power plants will now be subject to stricter emissions standards, thanks to a new measure finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule imposes tougher regulations on power-plant emissions in 27 U.S. states – many of which are coal-dominated – and aims to reduce harmful emissions that travel across state lines. (Read more about the new regulations here.)

Evidently irate that the U.S. agency tasked with protecting the environment would issue a ruling to help reduce pollution, the coal industry fired back with such a ludicrous response that only a sector with a moniker as oxymoronic as “clean coal” could have invented.

In its statement, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) condemns the new emissions regulations, claiming they “will increase electricity prices and destroy U.S. jobs.” Here’s what Steve Miller, president and CEO of ACCCE, had to say:

“The EPA is ignoring the cumulative economic damage new regulations will cause. America’s coal-fueled electric industry has been doing its part for the environment and the economy, but our industry needs adequate time to install clean coal technologies to comply with new regulations.”

Sounds like cry of desperation to me. But that’s not the most absurd aspect of ACCCE’s response. As a “clean” energy group, ACCCE says it “advocates for the development and deployment of advanced clean coal technologies that will produce electricity with near-zero emissions.”

Near-zero emissions? So why the desperation? “Clean coal” could easily meet the EPA’s new standards… right?

We all know “clean coal” is the ultimate oxymoron. But this dirty industry is not only unethical in its environmental practices, but also its communication to the public, using blatant scare tactics clearly targeted toward Middle America. Miller continues:

“We urge EPA to take a realistic look at the enormous impact of all the regulations they are considering and how those regulations affect families and businesses. In a time of high unemployment, we should be pursuing sensible policies that create jobs, not eliminate jobs.”

Maybe he was forgetting that these “lost” jobs are being replaced with abundant employment opportunities in a newer, burgeoning sector called clean energy.

Positive Trend: Making Brownfields Green, Waste Clean

Companies in the renewable-energy and cleantech arena are pioneers in leading the world into a cleaner future. But they can’t do anything to change the dirty past. Right?

Wrong. Many of these green companies are not only setting the world on a lower-emissions course, but are actually cleaning the mess left by decades of ruthless contamination.

Solar companies, in particular, have been active in this space. For instance, many project developers are interested in siting their installations on former landfill sites. Although these locations are chosen for practical – rather than symbolic – reasons, solar adds a green hue to these once-filthy sites.

Solar developer PVNavigator, for instance, just signed an agreement to study the possibility of building a photovoltaic facility on a former landfill site in San Bernardino County, Calif.

Likewise, electric utility Western Massachusetts Electric Co. has already completed a large solar installation on a contaminated brownfield site in Pittsfield, Mass., that would otherwise be unsuitable for any other type of development, and the company is pursuing similar projects in the area. (For more details on the Silver Lake solar project, check out my article in the January 2011 issue of Solar Industry.)

Some of these companies are going as far as to decontaminate sites, with the help of federal and state governments.

groSolar also chose a landfill site for one of its solar projects, which will be used to power a pump and treat system to decontaminate groundwater in New Jersey. On the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doled out funds for an electrical resistance heating system to clean up pesticide-contaminated sites in California, and all of the power used in the decontamination system will be offset by a solar project located on the site itself.

No, we can’t erase the mistakes of our polluted past. But perhaps more of these double-duty projects can put us on a faster track to a cleaner future.


Solar Energy Powering Efforts To Decontaminate Pesticide-Ridden Sites

A site heavily contaminated by toxic chemicals is getting a major cleanup, thanks to a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Not only will an electrical resistance heating system decontaminate the Frontier Fertilizer site in Davis, Calif., but the energy used to power the system will be 100% offset by a solar energy project installed at the site. According to the EPA, these systems will reduce the timeline for cleaning up the site from 150 years to just 30, as well as slash CO2 emissions by more than 54 metric tons a year.

During the 1970s and 1980s, operations at the Frontier Fertilizer included storing, mixing and delivering pesticides and herbicides, and since then, these toxic chemicals have been contaminating soil and groundwater, which is the primary source of drinking water in the area, the EPA explains.

“This is the ‘Recovery’ Act, after all.”

Another solar company is also doing its part to double its green contributions: groSolar is working with Clean Harbors Environmental Services Inc. to power a pump and treat system to decontaminate groundwater in New Jersey. According to the companies, the new solar installation will be located on top of a capped landfill that was closed decades ago, and will also take advantage of tax credits provided by the federal government and the State of New Jersey.

In an era of ultra-partisanship and greedy politicians, most of us have become cynical about the use of our hard-earned tax dollars — and even tree-hugging left-wingers don’t want to see their money swindled or dwindled. But projects like these, amongst the countless others funded by the Recovery Act, are evidence that there are still people who care about this planet — even in the greedy, corporate world we call “business.”

We may not convince everyone of the dangers of climate change, and we certainly won’t get everyone to act on them. But this is the “Recovery” Act, after all — we might as well put it to good use.

(Photo credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

A Little Friendly Competition

I would be remiss if I neglected to acknowledge the climate negotiations that have taken place in Cancún over the past couple of weeks. I guess you could say I was a bit cynical — but how could you not be after the disappointment in Copenhagen last year?

In the conference’s 11th hour, participating nations reached an agreement to set up a new fund to help developing nations adapt to climate changes and for countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report from The New York Times. But what seems to be lacking from the final agreement is the actual numbers and a concrete goal.

For years, renewable energy advocates in the U.S. have been calling for a renewable electricity standard (RES), or a federal mandate to fulfill a specified percentage of the country’s total energy requirements with renewable energy by a certain year. RES legislation has yet to pass in the U.S. Congress, but these are the kinds of specific goals we need in order to make a significant dent in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and prevent further climate change.

The international Kyoto Protocol does contain specific goals and numbers — the 37 participating industrialized nations and the European community have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an annual average of 5% over the period from 2008-2012. The U.S., however, failed to ratify the protocol under the George W. Bush administration, rationalizing that if China — although still, technically, a developing nation, did not sign it, then it should not have to, either.

Yes, China is the biggest polluter on the planet. However, the U.S. is number two. But is this really how we want to play? The United States became a world superpower by leading by example. Why not use the same strategy in the 21st century? China is quickly establishing itself as a leader in renewable energy. The country is already home to solar energy giants such as Suntech and Yingli and, thanks to the government’s commitment to clean energy, is also set to increase its wind energy production five-fold over the next 10 years.

The United States is a capitalist country — we are motivated by competition. If we really want to establish ourselves in the world economy and maintain our position at — or at least near — the top in innovation and leadership, it’s time to step it up.

Partisanship has obviously been a major hindrance to accomplishing any kind of climate-change reform. But if we cannot agree on policy, can we at least agree on a little healthy competition? This is a country based on capitalism and free markets, right? I think even our stubborn and often-narrow-minded Congress would agree that we, as a country, should strive to be number one.

When it comes to climate change, is it possible that instead of failing to come to an agreement, that we actually encourage a little competition? Could it be a more productive strategy in the long run?

It sounds condescending to our leaders, and definitely overly simplistic, but I propose a plan: Let’s make it a competition: Can we beat China? What about the EU? Instead of playing the childish game of “He’s not; why do I have to?” let’s make it, “Oh yeah? Look what I can do!” I don’t know of any political representative — of any party — who can’t agree on that mantra.