Posts Tagged ‘energy’

Catch the bug: rooftop solar is highly contagious!

We’ve been hearing about the rapid expansion of solar power, and most of us have probably noticed more rooftop panels and small community solar projects in fields.  But it turns out that solar’s spread is not simply due to climate concerns or enticing economics: there’s a strong “contagion” factor, as new solar owners encourage their friends and neighbors to get on board.  Check out this animation, from northern Colorado:

According to SolarCity, the largest solar installer and leasing outfit in the US:

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California blazes a trail to the future, once again

Once again, California is showing the way forward.  This time, it’s more consequential than Hollywood’s entertainment, Silicon Valley’s new tech, or the Sixties’ social evolutions.  California is road-testing large-scale public policies that face up to the profound threat of climate change, showing the rest of us that a shared social commitment IS possible.  As fleshed out The California Code, published in the new west-coast quarterly journal, Boom:

California’s response to the drought is … nationally and globally significant. What state and local leaders did to reduce the risks, and how state residents reacted, was a very public demonstration of government’s capacity to act with reason and intelligence to a short-term ecological emergency, with a long-term vision.

California sprang to action in its fourth year of deep drought because water management professionals and state leaders recognized that California’s water-scarce condition could be the new norm. They accepted the scientific consensus that it could get considerably worse. The way out of the trouble was to convince state residents of the need for collective action and to instill behavioral changes in homes and businesses that would diminish demand and provide a higher measure of safety.

Perhaps that should not be surprising given California’s historical ability to set the national and global agenda in culture, technology, environmental restoration, and the like. It’s arguable, though, that what California is up to now in responding to global ecological disarray may be the most important contribution to human well-being that it’s ever made.

A series of remarkably astute and aggressive measures approved by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Sacramento has systematically formed a model for dealing with Earth’s new conditions, and it is proving to be effective. Among the most significant measures:

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Al Gore’s climate optimism

Earlier this year, a new talk by Al Gore was posted on the TED site: The case for optimism on climate change.  The 20-minute talk and subsequent short interview with TED-meister Chris Anderson is well worth a look.  Much of his optimism centers on the rapid shift in electricity production:

The best projections 14 years ago were that we would install one gigawatt of solar per year by 2010. When 2010 came around, we beat that mark by 17 times over. Last year, we beat it by 58 times over. This year, we’re on track to beat it 68 times over. We’re going to win this. We are going to prevail. When I came to this stage 10 years ago, this is where (the growth curve for solar) was (see arrow on image at top of post). We have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in the emergence of these exponential curves.

Gore quotes economist Rudi Dornbusch, who said, “Things take longer to happen then you think they will, and then they happen much faster than you thought they could.”  Importantly, the business community has been quick to jump onto the bandwagon, and in fact has been crucial to the rate at which its been gathering steam.  “This is the biggest new business opportunity in the history of the world, and two-thirds of it is in the private sector,” notes Gore. “We are seeing an explosion of new investment. Starting in 2010, investments globally in renewable electricity generation surpassed fossils. The gap has been growing ever since.”

Beyond these trends, Gore stresses the underlying nature of humanity, and of fundamental social changes:

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Deep retrofits redux: crunching the numbers

Last quarter my article on “Deep Retrofits, Broad Paybacks” generated several questions about how these types of retrofit add value to a house over time. How does a deep energy retrofit compare to something like a kitchen remodel? Is it worth the cost of doing the retrofit? If I spend $50,000 on a deep retrofit will it add $50,000 to the value of my house? Probably not. Or, it depends. Maybe. Possibly. It’s a tricky question, with some complex answers.

Let’s start with whether you plan to sell your house soon or not. If you are planning to sell in the next few years, or are forced to sell, the ROI picture is probably pretty bleak. We can draw some clues from other big remodel projects. Looking at the numbers might scare you. At mid-range national averages for 2015, adding a steel door is the only remodel project that adds value. That is, you’ll recoup a little more than you spent to buy and install it. (Move quickly before a toddler dings up that new door!) All of the other remodel projects are a losing proposition. It’s even worse for upscale projects, where the best ROI is upgrading to fiber-cement siding, and it doesn’t recoup even 85% of the $15,000 average cost of the project.

But anyone spending $100,000 on a deluxe kitchen upgrade isn’t doing it to make money when they sell – they’re doing it to improve their quality of life while living in the house. A temporary reduction in full value because of a quick sale isn’t anyone’s best financial plan. I think this will be true for deep retrofits as well.

Some remodels do add value even when a house is sold soon after,

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Big business stepping up its climate game as the future beckons

With the world’s attention focused on the COP21 climate talks in Paris, there are encouraging signs that the business world is ready to get fully on board and become as much a part of the solution as the problem.  Conservation International’s CEO Peter Seligman is encouraged:

If we are going to meet the challenges of a changing climate, we must accelerate nature-based solutions with deep involvement by the business sector. I am optimistic, because I see many companies recognizing that climate change is an economic issue — it affects sourcing, logistics and global markets. Sustainability is no longer an afterthought. It is an integral part of corporate operations and supply chains.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Leggett at Winning the Carbon War reports from Paris that “fully a thousand mayors announced that their cities were pledging to 100% renewable power targets” and that institutional commitments to fossil fuel divestment jumped by over 25% in just the past ten weeks.  Even more encouraging is a move by the G20 countries to form a Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) charged helping financial markets get a better handle on rapidly increasing climate change risks.  It will be chaired by Michael Bloomberg, who laid down the gauntlet:

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Dropping fossil fuels INCREASES investment returns

The fossil fuel divestment movement has faced some fairly stiff headwinds from institutional money managers who insist that universities, foundations, or individual investors will suffer financially if they choose to forgo investment in energy companies that have, historically, been among the best-performing stocks to hold.  But a recent analysis by Fossil Free Indexes paints a very different picture: if you take the S&P 500, and remove companies that are among the Carbon Underground 200 (companies that have the largest as-yet-untapped reserves of coal, oil, and gas), replacing some of them to maintain a balanced portfolio, your investment returns can be higher than they’d have been if you stayed on the business-as-usual path.  Applying this criteria to the past ten years, you’d have earned about an extra 1% per year.  This includes several years early on when the fossil fuel free approach slightly underperformed; it appears that in recent years, you’d have done much better than that (e.g., more than 2% a year over the past 3 years):

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Deep retrofits offer wide-reaching returns

I have long advocated for deep energy retrofits; as we developed the resilient investing system, this became an obvious Zone 4 activity (tangible assets, close to home). “Remodel your house so that it uses dramatically less energy,” I’d proclaim, “It’ll be more comfortable, and you can save money and the planet at the same time!” Experts like McKinsey assured me that insulation and heating systems pay off very quickly. After two years of actually tackling it at our house, the practicalities are—surprise!—a bit more complicated.

When you take a closer look at an older house you don’t see just outdated insulation; you also see drafty windows (and possibly mold), and a

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Super-efficient “passive house” design scales up to apartment buildings

Highly efficient, tight homes that stay cool in summer and warm in winter with little or no outside energy have been a “thing” in recent years.  However, the relatively large up-front investment left this breakthrough as yet another green lifestyle option for the well-heeled.  That’s rapidly changing, though, with the opening of large apartment complexes utilizing the German passivhaus approach to design.  Portland, Oregon’s smattering of high-end private “passive houses” have now been joined by the The Orchards, an affordable housing complex of 57 apartments:

“Every day I find a new reason to love it,” gushes Georgye Hamlin, whose one-bedroom apartment is as noiseless as a recording studio. “It’s cool, it’s quiet, and I don’t even hear the train. During the heat wave, my girlfriend came over to sleep because it was so cool. Yay for German engineering!”

Cornell University has broken ground on the world’s biggest passive building, a 350-unit apartment house in New York City, where Mayor Bill DeBlasio is laying out an urban vision built around this kind of building:

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How to raise $500 billion in 5 years for clean energy

A spate of recent headlines touted President Obama’s announcement that a new federal program had secured $4 billion in commitments from private equity investors to finance new clean energy projects.  Four billion sounds great, but it’s a drop in the bucket of the International Energy Agency’s estimate of what’s needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees centigrade—the IEA says we’ll need $500 billion in the next five years and $1 trillion by 2030.  And that’s the real goal of the DOE’s new Clean Energy Investment Center.  Impact investors already have $46 billion in the bucket, and globally, we’re halfway to that near-term $500 billion target.  The new federal initiatives aim to provide the information that foundations and other large investors need in order to get comfortable joining the green energy rush.  The Guardian offered up a great overview of how this announcement is about way more than this initial $4 billion:

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IMF expands view of energy subsidies to include social, enviro costs

The International Monetary Fund has released a report that tallies energy subsidies at $5.3 trillion dollars, or over 6% of global GDP; this is more than double their 2011 estimate.  By this calculation, “classic” subsidies account for less than 10% of the total; over $3 trillion is in the form of local pollution, social, and health costs, and over a trillion is in the costs of global warming.

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