Author Archive

Pick your $14/month alternate future: green dreams or new nukes

Like many of our readers, I was very happy to hear of Jerry Brown’s continued commitment to a renewables-based future; he recently set new targets for 2030 that will get California halfway to its 2050 energy goal of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gasses from 1990 levels.  “It’s a real test,” Brown said. “Not just for California, not just for America, but for the world. Can we rise above the parochialisms, the ethnocentric perspectives, the immediacy of I-want-I-need, to a vision, a way of life, that is sustainable?”  To get there, the state would have to double the energy efficiency of buildings and industry, get 50-60 percent of electricity from renewal sources, and dramatically increase hybrid and zero-emission cars.  Sounds like a lot to invest in!  But here’s the surprise: the projected cost for all this is just $14/month for each California household.  Sounds like a bargain, compared to the price of finding our way in a radically over-heated world.

Not fifteen minutes after filing this away as another reminder that systemic change doesn’t carry insurmountable costs, I came across an article that mentioned two new nuclear reactors that are under construction at the existing Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia (pictured above); as usual, things are running behind and over cost, to the degree that the new nukes have already raised the bills of Georgia ratepayers by … take a wild guess … yup, you got it: $14/month!

Alright then.  For the price of a couple of monthly sandwiches, you can invest in a comprehensive statewide efficiency, renewables, and electric car initiative, or build a couple of new nuclear reactors.  It’s your choice!


Bigger isn’t better. Better is better.

Leslie Christian is one of the shining lights of humane finance, and in her most recent missive, she zeroes in on a subject near and dear to our permie hearts: the importance of putting our money to work in service of healthy soil and intact habitat.  She brings us into the room as she and a circle of collaborators find their way toward new models for owning and managing farmland (the image is from their property, Living Lands), and then takes us along to a meeting of NatureVest, a new Nature Conservancy initiative aimed at bringing private investment into some of their conservation efforts.

But then she steps back and challenges those who dismiss such efforts as “on-offs” that are not worth our time because they can’t scale; her title says it all: Getting Off the Scales. The rest of the piece is a clarion call for a new way of looking at growing good ideas—getting bigger is often counterproductive; instead, let’s replicate and localize the core impulse and benefits of such projects.  We’re totally behind her appreciation for the inherently local qualities that underlie what we call regenerative investing.

You should definitely go read the whole thing (it’s only a few powerful paragraphs); here’s a teaser:

We seem to think it’s appropriate to scale everything—farms, education, healthcare, and even relationships. Yet, people and places are so much more diverse, nuanced and interdependent than assembly-line products or software code. When we scale enterprises that directly serve people and places in all of their uniqueness and weirdness, we must inevitably standardize our understanding of those people and places. In the process, we surely fail to engage them and ourselves fully. We sacrifice quality for quantity.  My reaction to scale is visceral and intense. I find it dehumanizing, single-minded, and boring!

These are the kinds of investments that should take over the world—not by scaling so that VCs and Wall Street can swoop in and do their “magic”, but by inspiring the participants, engaging the public and working at an essential level—real dirt, real trees, real plants, real people, real understanding and real value.

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Cheap rooftop solar freaks out utilities: slowing the roll-out to avoid a “utility death spiral”

A recent article in the NYTimes looked at tensions in Hawaii’s utility market over the rapid expansion of residential rooftop solar.  Ratepayers are increasingly recognizing that the financial equation has shifted so that buying or leasing rooftop solar panels can be cheaper than their current electric bill.  For utilities, this leads to financial pressures of a different kind: they still need to maintain their distribution lines and assure they can deliver power at night when the panels are not generating energy.  This has led many utilities to resist solar expansion by slowing the grid-connection process and reducing the price they pay for excess customer-generated solar power, which has frustrated solar advocates and homeowners looking to add solar.

“Hawaii’s case is not isolated,” said Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the smart grid program at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a technical association. “When we push year-on-year 30 to 40 percent growth in this market, with the number of installations doubling, quickly — every two years or so — there’s going to be problems.”

This is a topic that has been on our radar for quite some time.  Last year, the Rocky Mountain Institute took a look at the longer-term pressures in this sector, and its report, The Economics of Grid Defection, predicted that Hawaii and California will be at the forefront of the next shift as well, when battery technology advances to the point where unplugging completely from the grid will become financially beneficial, leaving utilities even more adrift.  Click through to read “Utility death spirals and the future of energy,” our recent Natural Investments newsletter article on this creatively-disruptive possibility.

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Crowdcheck does due diligence on crowd-funded offerings

As crowdfunding continues to mature into a platform for raising investment capital, investors may feel that that they need more information to be sure they’re making prudent decisions.  Crowdcheck works with companies seeking funding to compile due diligence and disclosure reports that may put your mind at ease.  Their blog is a great place for entrepreneurs to stay current on the latest regulatory rulings and interpretations, and their list of crowdfunding platform partners is a valuable starting point for both investors and entrepreneurs.

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SEC loosens small-company investment rules; but still no crowd-funding

The SEC has just updated a long-standing investment regulation in ways that will make it somewhat easier for small companies to raise investment capital from all investors (i.e. not just “accredited” investors).  The Locavesting website offers a good overview of the changes; for more detail, see this overview from Crowdcheck, a company that offers disclosure and transparency tools for investors and entrepreneurs and tracks the emergence of investment-oriented crowdfunding.  While the changes will reduce some of the compliance burden for small companies and opens up the possibility of using social media to spread the word, it does involve some significant federal and state oversight.

This is not the long-awaited SEC Crowdfunding rule, which continues to languish somewhere deep inside the SEC’s rule-making labyrinth.

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Manual for Civilization gathers books for future ages

Perhaps the most practically valuable project of The Long Now Foundation—not to discount its 10,000-year clock or its fantastic lecture series—is the library they’re putting together, dubbed in classic Brand-ian grandeur the Manual for Civilization.  While they’re working to gather volumes onto the shelves at Long Now’s cafe-cum-community-space The Interval, we can all dig into the “key books” lists submitted by the organization’s global network of allies.  Take a peek:

Brian Eno – A list of books on long-term thinking
Stewart Brand – Books selected from his personal libraries
Neal Stephenson – A selection of useful history books
Violet Blue – Books on human sexuality
Kevin Kelly – A huge list of appropriate technology and other books from his library
Danny Hillis – Selections from his home and work libraries
Ami Burnham – A collection of the best books on reproduction and birth
Alex Steffen – Books on Futurism
Bruce Sterling – Science Fiction
David Brin – Science Fiction
Maria Popova – “33 Books on How to Live”
Mark Pauline – Fiction, History, Mechanics reference

See this link for the initial announcement of the project, including all the lists noted above; and this link for the archives of posts on the project since then, which features coverage of similar projects by others, including a new book called The Knowledge: Rebuilding Our World From Scratch and Future Library, a hundred-year art project that’s starting now by planting the trees on which a hundred books will be printed in 2114, the books being written one per year between now and then (the first is by Margaret Atwood).


Bringing solar savings to those who really need it

As the price of solar panels has fallen in recent years, many new financing models have emerged, each of which aims to lower the financial hurdles for homeowners to go solar.  Solar installation companies offer long-term financing at somewhat below your current monthly electric bill; community solar projects buy in bulk and spread the savings to homeowners; and leasing outfits own the solar they put on your roof.  But all of these avenues have tended to target those already primed to go renewable, and their financial benefits often take years to pay off.

That’s why this article in Slate caught my eye:

Take PosiGen, a 4-year-old company based in New Orleans that pairs energy-efficiency upgrades with solar-panel leases—all for no money down and monthly payments of $50 or $60. PosiGen doesn’t target yuppies in Boulder, Colorado. A survey covering one-third of its 6,000-odd customers found that “our average customer is a 56-65-year-old African-American female, who spends at least four hours a week at church,” said Aaron Dirks, the intense 40-year-old West Point grad who founded the company. Three-quarters of its installations have been in census tracts where the area median income is below 120 percent of the national median. Call it blue-collar green.

PosiGen’s goal is to reduce monthly energy bills by at least $50—and that’s not the familiar “save at least as much as you pay us” threshold, but saving $50 after paying them.  One customer’s electric bill had been $185-300 (varying with the seasons); after PosiGen’s efficiency and solar upgrades, it was $75-150, including her $60 monthly payment to PosiGen.  As is typical with lease arrangements, homeowners get to use all the solar electric generated during the day, and they buy additional energy from the grid as needed; PosiGen retains ownership of the panels and receives the revenue generated by any excess daytime solar energy that’s sold to the local electric utility.

I’m not sure how PosiGen is keeping the costs so low, but kudos to them for targeting populations that can really benefit from significantly reduced electric bills—they often even forego credit checks, having found that their customers value the savings enough to make their modest payments even when times are tough.  They’ve installed 5000 systems in Louisiana, and recently expanded to Albany, NY and Bridgeport, CT.

 


Paul Gilding: The Great Dualist Disruption

Paul Gilding is an Australian writer, corporate consultant, and long-time activist.  His book “The Great Disruption” lays out a classic Dualist vision: he sees that avoidance of the climate issue is likely to send our economy veering into the edge of the ditch, but he’s convinced that as push really comes to shove, economic and political forces will refocus and direct their efforts to avert disaster.

Paul Gilding website
Includes an ongoing series of articles tracking current events in the context of the Great Disruption.

Book: The Great Disruption

Video: The Great Disruption, How Humankind Can Thrive in the 21st Century
An 18-minute condensed version of his talk on the book’s themes

Video and Audio: Gilding’s picks of the best of his talks

 

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