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A Solar Microgrid Grows in Brooklyn

Office of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1916

Office of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1916. Source:

We have a kilowatt of solar electric on the roof of our 1743 colonial farmhouse. But a few years ago when the October Blizzard knocked out our power for three days, we couldn’t tap into that solar.

Officials in Brooklyn, New York recognized the problem. Brooklyn had a lot of power outages during Hurricane Sandy—and officials in the densely populated borough, home to more than 2.5 million people, have gotten state support to pilot a microgrid program that would allow Brooklyn’s solar systems to keep powering houses and workplaces if the grid goes down.

2000 Oil Production Accidents and Leaks Since 1995—Yikes!

A sobering—but not at all surprising—story on the Associated Press wire this morning: the more we drill for oil, the more accidents we have.

Consider these stats, all of them taken from that article:

  • More than 2000 “significant accidents” on pipelines since 1995, causing $3 billion in property damage
  • A single pipeline company, Plains All American Pipeline LP (operators of the line that spilled over Santa Barbara, California this week) has had 223 accidents $32 million in structural damage, 864,300 gallons spilled, and 25 federal enforcement actions just since 2006
  • A 60 percent increase in the number of accidents annually since 2009—and, not coincidentally, also a 60 percent increase in US oil production

Causes? Corroding pipes, failures in welds—aging infrastructure, in other words—with a generous helping of natural disasters and careless backhoe operators.

These accidents leak toxics, cause a  risk of severe fires, and of course, drive up the price of energy.

Isn’t it time we stopped relying on fossil and nuclear for our energy needs? We already have the technology to switch to save, reliable, renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, magnetic, tidal…and deep conservation, which just by itself could cut our energy use in half.

Environmental and Social Change Business Bill of Rights—Your Feedback, Please

I just took a first stab at writing an Environmental and Social Change Business Bill of Rights. Adopting these principles would level the playing field and enable green, socially conscious businesses to compete as equals—and in that competition, they will win almost all the time.

But this should not be just me spouting off. I got the discussion started, but I want to learn what others would be important in that kind of a campaign (and who has energy to work on it.

Also, I’ve got seven points here. If we continue to model it after the US Bill of Rights written by James Madison (who later became President of the United States), we need ten What did I leave out?

We, the people of Planet Earth, hereby declare that every nation and the planet as a whole have certain inalienable rights, including Life, Sufficiency, Peace, and Planetary Balance. To these ends, we call upon the governments of the world, at all levels, to establish these rights through mandating the following policies:
1. Manufacturers shall take full responsibility for their products at all stages in the product lifespan, including manufacturing, distribution, use, collection, reuse, disassembly, recycling, and disposal. Retail and wholesale channels shall accept used products and convey them back through the supply chain to the manufacturers.
2. Passing off costs to others, as externalities, is not acceptable. Pollution, waste, destruction of others’ property, etc. will be paid for by the entity that causes it.
3. All new construction or major renovation shall meet minimum standards of energy, water, and resource conservation, as well as fresh air circulation. Such standards shall be incorporated into local building codes, meeting or exceeding LEED silver or stretch codes.
4. All newly constructed or significantly renovated government buildings shall be Net Zero or Net Positive in energy and water use, producing at least as much energy and water as the building uses. Private developers shall receive incentives to meet this standard.
5. All subsidies for fossil (including but not limited to oil, diesel fuel, airplane fuel, natural gas, propane, and coal), nuclear, or other nonrenewable energy sources shall be phased out as soon as practical, to be completed within a maximum period of three years.
6. All subsidies that promote fossil-fuel-powered vehicles over cleaner alternatives, including subsidies to infrastructure exclusively or primarily for their use, shall be phased out as soon as practical, to be completed within a maximum period of ten years.
7. Average fleet vehicle mileage standards shall be increased to 70 MPH for passenger vehicles carrying up to six people, and to 40 MPH for trucks and buses within ten years. Non-fossil-fuel vehicles shall be designed to make a contribution to stationary power needs.

How to Get Off Fossil Fuels: Amory Lovins

I just rewatched this TED talk by Amory Lovins: it lays out a step-by-step plan to slash our energy use through deep conservation (what he calls “negawatts” and “negabarrels” and switch to renewables, with gas as a transitional fuel. It doesn’t happen overnight, and relies heavily on profit incentives to businesses.

Lovins, who I consider the foremost spokesperson for sensible energy, is not some sort of radical do-gooder. He’s a businessman who’s made quite a successful career out of changing the way we think about energy. Just as two examples of what’s possible:

1. He helped the Empire State Building save $4.4 million per year on a $13 million deep energy retrofit–that’s about a 30% annual ROI.

2. His own house, built in the Solar Stone Age (1983) just outside Aspen, Colorado (ski country-COLD) is close to net zero, producing nearly all of the energy it uses (in 2001, he mentioned that the residence portion had a $5 monthly electric bill–even if it’s tripled since then, that’s pretty good for a 4000-square-foot house in the snowbelt). Now here’s the really remarkable thing: In Aspen, Colorado, this house has neither a furnace nor an air conditioner, and it’s warm enough inside to grow bananas. The extra cost of the energy improvements was essentially paid for by the capital savings of not needing those big clunky systems. So in other words, we’ve known how to do this for 30 years.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s get this party STARTED.

Making Bikes as Useful as Cars

Watch this video about the Copenhagen Wheel, a device that captures and stores energy from cyclists pedaling and coasting, and supplements pedal power on the uphills or over long distances. And then read a few of the comments.

To me, this is brilliant technology! First, it makes biking—and particularly bicycle commuting over distances of 20 to 50 miles—an attractive option for tens of thousands of people who’ve felt unwilling to try it before. That, in turn, reduces the number of cars on the road, which has dozens of advantages to the planet and to our pocketbooks. Second, it makes it possible for the moderate cyclist (like me) to go much farther by bike.

A lot of the comments are angry that this will disrupt their exercise. I think they’re not thinking about it the right way. Instead of blaming a machine for interfering with their workout, think about the ability to bike instead of drive to good riding places some distance away, or to bike much farther distances to explore an area farther out.

I do ride for exercise. And I do face a BIG hill when I go out my door. I’ve learned to manage it, but when I first moved to that area, it was very tough. Something like this would have been a nice transition as I learned to conquer that tough hill.

And for the exercise-only bikers, I have one more suggestion: write to the company and tell them you want a manual override option: an off switch, in other words. Then you have the boost when you need it.

Let’s apply this kind of creativity to every aspect of our lives! We could not only solve climate change but war, poverty, and other global issues. I wish this company much success!

A Bicultural Look at “No Impact Man,” Part 2

With the personal history I described in Part 1, our viewing of “No Impact Man” reflects both our urban past and our rural present: two very different worlds. Although we were never hyperconsumerist like Michelle, we certainly absorbed the message of that mindset. Growing up, we lived in a culture that gave very little thought to where its food or clothing came from. Even though I was already environmentally conscious, I was not aware of a single farmers market in New York City until shortly before we moved away, when I learned about the market in Union Square. I bought my veggies at a minuscule, locally owned, independent produce store that paid attention to freshness and quality; I even had a job there for a while.

New York City Is More Open to No Impact Lifestyle Now

On the other hand, New York City is one place where it’s considered normal not to have a car. And since our day, the city has evolved not only much more of a consciousness around local and green, but an infrastructure. Colin Beavan and Michelle’s Manhattan residence is walkable from the massive 4-times-a-week farmers market in Union Square (up to 140 vendors). The market was their major food supplier for their year of localism.And they could  shop often enough that living without a refrigerator was not that big a problem (though there was at least one spoiled milk incident). When I lived in the city, the Union Square market actually did exist—it was founded in 1976)—but it was tiny, much less frequent, and not widely publicized. These days, there are at least 107 farmers markets in the city, 54 of them under the umbrella of GrowNYC.

Colin Beavan’s Choice

Colin Beavan, co-star with his wife, Michelle Conlin, of “No Impact Man,” decided to phase down most modern conveniences. No plastic packaging, no food from farther than 250 miles (goodbye, olive oil, coffee, chocolate, and black tea—and goodbye to nonlocal wheat, rice, and most other grains—though there is a small amount of wheat being grown here in Western Massachusetts, well within Colin’s 250-mile limit), no vehicles that had a carbon impact (so long, buses, cars, taxis, and even the subway), no elevator to their 9th-floor apartment, even no toilet paper (using washable cloth, instead). Eventually, no electricity in their apartment, except for a solar panel that charged Colin’s laptop. And somehow, he managed to convince Michelle, a self-described nature-loathing fast-food, designer fashion, and television addict, to go along.

What Happened

Colin and Michelle (and their toddler, Isabella), changed pretty abruptly from total immersion to near-total withdrawal from the conveniences associated with the yuppie New York City professional lifestyle. But they didn’t withdraw from society. They still had their old friends—and made new friends through the farmers market, a community garden, and Colin’s volunteer work. And they got tons of press, with major features and appearances from the New York Times to Good Morning America and the Colbert Report. More importantly, they both found a deeper connection with the world around them, and to their daughter. The lifestyle that at first felt like a hardship actually became liberating—even to skeptical Michelle. And both noticed a health improvement, moving from a sedentary lifestyle to one involving a lot of walking and bicycling, and changing from processed industrial foods to a locavore vegetarian diet. Michelle even reversed a prediabetic condition, while Colin joked that the New York Times article, with its headline about giving up toilet paper, should have been called “How I Lost 20 Pounds Without Going to the Gym.”

My Bi-Cultural Perspective on the Experiment

I promised you that I’d bring my mixed NYC and rural perspective to analyzing this movie. And I will do so in Part 3, tomorrow, and actually conclude this series.

GMO Backlash: Europe and Asia Refuse US Wheat

Many developed countries have embraced the Precautionary Principle, which states that new processes and products have to be proven safe, and if we don’t understand their effects, we wait.

The United States, on the other hand, passed the “Monsanto Protection Act,” which not only utterly violates the Precautionary Principle, but actually removes the court system’s power of oversight over GMO (genetically modified) food safety, even when the products (developed not only by Monsanto but by other agribusiness/chemiculture companies) and  have been found to cause health risks.

This horrible law was slipped into a much larger bill and has the potential to wreak havoc in all sorts of ways—not the least of which is the threat to organic agriculture if their fields become contaminated by windblown GMO seeds (and the further threat to farmers’ livelihoods when Monsanto actually sues the farmers whose fields it contaminates, for using their seeds without permission). Organic farmers have countersued Monsanto, but by logic I don’t understand, the courts have generally sided with Monsanto, ruling over and over again that the chemical giant’s pollution and ruination of organic crops allows Monsanto to collect damages for the illegal use of its products, while denying the organic farmers compensation for trashing their crops.

And now, there’s a threat to US exports: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the entire European Union are among the countries canceling contracts and testing shipments after a Monsanto-developed GMO “zombie wheat” contaminated a wheat farm in Oregon.

Oh, and let’s not forget that many genetic modifications are designed to allow plants to tolerate larger quantities of herbicides whose safety is widely questioned—including Monsanto’s own Roundup.  Yes, in a triple-whammy, Monsanto sells “Roundup-ready” GMO seeds, and then sells the Roundup to spray on those plants, which causes weeds to develop resistance, so farmers respond by spraying even more Roundup. Eeeeew!

A Commercial Hydroponic Farm—On a Bronx Rooftop!

Since about 1980, I’ve felt that we could solve a lot of our urban problems by seeing flat city roofs (and for that matter, roofs in suburban shopping centers, etc.) as resources: places where we can harvest energy with solar collectors—but also harvest food.

But when I started talking about my brainstorm, people told me that the roofs were not designed to bear the weight of a dense garden, and the amount of reinforcement they needed would make the whole idea unworkable. I never quite believed this. It seemed to me that if you were to put one or two 200 square-foot gardens onto a 2000 square foot roof, the weight load could be distributed across the entire rooftop without much difficulty. But I’m not an engineer.

Still, I wasn’t surprised to see the “green roof” movement emerge over the past ten years or so—but I was disappointed at how few green roofs seem to grow edible crops.

I do think community food self-sufficiency—particularly in urban areas–is a big part of the answer to “how do we reclaim our economy—and our bodies?” and a great antidote to the very dangerous practices of “chemiculture” [a word I personally coined, BTW], GMO seed strains, and the attempt by Monsanto and similar companies to exercise a terrifying degree of control over (and damage to) our food supply.  So I was delighted when I found these folks in the Bronx, using 6000 square feet of the 10,000-square-foot roof of a city-owned apartment building, to commercially grow hydroponic greens. With hydroponics, there is no soil, and therefore the issue of weight and roof support is moot. In this short video, Farm Manager Kate Ahearn gives us some background about the project. (I did make one error. I referred to a supermarket rooftop farm in Lynn, Mass. It’s actually in LynnFIELD.)

This model, with hydroponic gardens and protection from the elements, offers a 12-month growing season and numerous harvests. Yes, it’s more expensive to set up than a basic soil-based garden, but the payback is much greater. And as a green marketing guy, I see profitable, sustainable, earth-friendly businesses like this as a big step forward not only in economic development but in human rights and the rights of other living things.

Note: there will be more on this story. My old buddy Ted Cartselos did another shoot, with a better camera, on Friday. (Thanks, Ted, for working with me on this.)

Why a ‘Publicity Slut’ Turns Down Free Listings from Robocalls: Seven Reasons

Anybody else out there hate robocalls and refuse to do business with them?

I’m a self-described “publicity slut.” I average well over 100 media publicity placements per year. I spend a lot of time reading and responding to reporter queries, posting to discussion lists, commenting on blogs, participating in social media, etc., etc., and I recommend these tactics to my clients and to the readers of my books on marketing. And I actually get some very good clients from free listings.

So why do I hang up on all the robocalls that greet me with “press 1 to update your free listing” (and I seem to get several of these robocalls every week)?

For a whole bunch of reasons. Here are seven among many examples:

  1. I don’t know who the company is. There is no greeting on these robocalls, just the command. I have no idea who they are, whether they have a pre-existing relationship with me, what kind of reputation it has, and whether anyone uses this database.
  2. I don’t know if the company using the robocalls even has a public database, or if the robocalls are just a scammy way to gather information for nefarious purposes.
  3. There’s no clue about how easy or hard it will be to update this listing. Will it take me two minutes…or two hours? There’s no way to ask the robocall.
  4. Since the update is by phone, accuracy is a concern.
  5. I am sure there’s going to be an ask for money somewhere, and I don’t want to invest (potentially) a whole lot of time only to find out that I’m not eligible because, for instance, I don’t choose to buy a copy of the directory for several hundred dollars. I have learned from hard experience that free often comes with a catch, and free via robocalls will be pretty much guaranteed to have a catch.
  6. I also don’t want to proceed down this road without knowing the real price or any other terms and conditions.
  7. And the biggest reason of all: if you are trying to sell me something, I want contact with a human being who can answer my questions; robocalls don’t cut it in my world.

From one marketer to another, I have to ask: why are you running up your phone bill with this useless, wasted marketing?

Throw Away Your Assumptions!

I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. Especially when I see evidence all around me of brilliant minds hard at work solving “intractable” problems, I freely admit that I’m an optimist. The human capacity to destroy ourselves is eclipsed by the human capacity to creatively collaborate, and to dig ourselves out of the mess.

And since writing is what  do, I’ve wanted to do a big-picture book on this, for many years. Last month, I started writing an essay on this, and I think it will evolve into the proposal for my ninth book.

To give you a bit of inspiration on this snowy afternoon (here in Massachusetts, anyway), I want to share two sentences from a section of the essay entitled “Throw Away Assumptions”:

Assumption, 18th century: humans can travel no faster than the fastest horse. Reality: humans aboard the International Space Station have traveled at 17,247 miles per hour; future technologies such as warp-space drives and tesseracts, imagined by speculative fiction writers, could potentially take us orders of magnitude faster.

Shifting our attitudes from the impossibility of going more than 15 or 20 miles an hour to hurtling through space at more than 17,000 mph took a couple of centuries. With today’s future-think mindset, solving the problems of the world ought to be a whole lot quicker. Especially considering the consequences of failure.