Though I had been living in Berkeley for two years prior working at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, when I enrolled in the ERG Master’s program in fall 2013, I looked for additional ways to get involved in the Berkeley community as a student, not as a scientist. Fossil Free Cal was one club that immediately caught my attention: a club rooted in climate change science but driven by student activists.
Sparked by Bill McKibben’s widely read expose on the fossil fuel industry “Global Warming’s Terrifying new Math” (which I had read a number of times), a campus-driven divestment campaign has taken root at over 300 colleges and universities across the country. These campuses are asking their institution’s endowment to divest from fossil fuels to show that our higher institutions of learning will not invest in the planet’s destruction. “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage,” McKibben said on his latest “Do the Math” tour.
It’s been an honor to be a part of the Fossil Free Cal campaign on and off over the past couple of semesters. I’ve rallied on Sproul alongside fellow campaign members (and eco-rapped, duh), I’ve written letters, attended UC Regents meetings, and been humbled by the efforts of a number of dedicated undergraduates in carrying the campaign (both campus and national) to new heights.
There have been a lot of victories for the campaign recently, most notably that the Rockefeller Fund divested from fossil fuels! There was also an awesome expose written in the East Bay Express about UC’s potential conflicts of interest with fossil fuel companies and the divestment issue. Severin Borenstein of Haas Business School remains obstinate that fossil fuel divestment will not have any effect.
Some hailed Stanford’s divestment from coal as a big deal, though I have to remain a cautious skeptic on this one for a number of reasons. First, coal is generally a bad investment now, and many top funds are pulling their funds out of coal. Second, Stanford may not have had a very large exposure to large coal companies in its investments anyway. Lastly, they divested their direct funds while only “recommending to its external fund managers” that they divest. Those external funds may actually control much more than Stanford itself. Stanford’s administration, of course, will pat itself on the back for being a “responsible global citizen” while being glad they can now get the Fossil Free campaign off their doorstep.
Overall, there has been great progress for the campaign though, and I believe the UC will eventually divest its endowment from fossil fuels if the campaign keeps up the pressure. I see there being three primary motives for divestment.
1. Align its investment strategy with its infrastructural climate goals: The UC system is not only host to world-renowned research in this field but also to aggressive climate goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (climate neutral by 2025). We cannot perform this research and divest our physical infrastructure from fossil fuels while turning a blind eye to the endowment that supports the UC campuses, which is in part supported by various investments in fossil fuel companies. Naysayers are saying if we divest, then we are hypocrites because we still use fossil fuels every day. Well, actually, since the UC system has a carbon neutrality target, then the UC system would not be a hypocrite!
2. Demonstrate full moral integrity on climate change: Some may argue that divestment from fossil fuels will — without a doubt — harm investment returns for the endowment. Others warn that continued investment in fossil fuel companies exposes the UC’s portfolios to carbon risk and that, in the long run, the investments will perform poorly. While it is hard to be 100% certain about who is right (though I believe the evidence will continue to stack up in favor of divestment), what we can be certain of is that continued investment in fossil fuels is ruining our planet, deteriorating public health, and causing climate change. Given this fundamental certainty, the UC system has a moral imperative to divest.
3. Capture new reinvestment opportunities: Finally, with divestment from fossil fuels comes an opportunity to reinvest those dollars in companies, funds, and projects that grow clean energy, energy efficiency, and other sectors moving us towards sustainable development. The fossil fuel industry has long benefitted from a cheap endless supply of capital. The rapidly growing clean energy industry is only beginning to reap such benefits. By supplying new capital sources and an array of financial products to these industries, UC Berkeley could help unleash new sustainable economic activity. They would no longer just be supporting research on climate change mitigation strategies in labs around the UC campuses but also the deployment of those strategies in California communities and beyond. One example of such a financial product are green bonds. Last year, the volume of green bonds nearly tripled from $14bn in 2013 to $38bn in 2014. Michael Liebreich of BNEF noted: “They are acquainting new types of institutions with low-carbon investments and providing a new focus on clean energy commitments by the likes of utilities and development banks.” Billy Parish of Mosaic also recently wrote about the merits of the reinvestment opportunity, and his company is one of many now offering stable financial products that help grow the clean energy industry.
I truly believe this last point on re-investment is the strongest argument for divestment. When universities divest from fossil fuels, they won’t stick the cash under a mattress; they can direct their fund managers to invest it in sustainable and socially responsible ways. Giving clean energy and other green industries this new source of capital will propel the industry forward and also be a great PR piece for the university. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
Ever read a headline that says “Germany/Spain got 60-70% of their power from renewable sources?” See an example here. You should be a little skeptical. The truth is that a number of countries and territories are beginning to get really significant levels of energy from wind and solar. There are certain days, when those areas may be able to get a very significant portion of their energy (>50%) from wind and solar. Often in the spring, the demand is low, but the sun may be strong, and this drives a high percentage, such as the one that Germany had on Sunday, May 11, 2014 at 1pm where real time power needs (of 55 GW) were being supplied with 39% wind and 28% solar, for a total of 67%. I’ve gone ahead and charted those record days for Germany, Spain, Ireland, and California, and then compared to them to an annual average for overall energy production (2013 data). So while, Germany can get 67% of its power from wind and solar on particular hours of particular days, it only gets 12% of its energy from wind and solar on an annual basis. This gives a healthy perspective on things. I’ve recorded the dates and times of those record events in this table below as well.
The Food Bikery seeks to prove that food bikes are a safe, legal, low-capital, and low-footprint alternative to food trucks. In transitioning mobile food off of trucks and onto bicycles, the Food Bikery will stimulate economic opportunities for low-income citizens of the East Bay who would like to start mobile food businesses. We envision that the cost of a food bike can be $5,000 or lower, which is an order of magnitude less capital investment than an average food truck ($50,000) and two orders of magnitude less capital investment than an average restaurant ($500,000). Given that a person can potentially run a food bike business as a sole entrepreneur, we estimate the profit would be enough to make an hourly wage in the range of $20-30.
In addition to the economic benefits, food bikes can offer these benefits to local communities:
- Decrease fossil fuel consumption and climate change emissions
- Improve use of community space
- Increase physical well-being and health and foster awareness about the power of bicycles
- Increase awareness about where food comes from and how it is prepared
The Food Bikery has been launched as an entrepreneurial idea by myself and Jason Trager (a soon to be minted UC Berkeley PhD mechanical engineer and bike enthusiast, to say the least). We have applied for a grant from the UC Berkeley Big Ideas competition, and we should be hearing about that soon. I put in a couple months of research and interviews into the grant application. In doing so, I met a handful of food bike enthusiasts who are featured in the short film above, including Curbside Creamery, El Taco Bike, and Apothocurious/Hot Bike, the last of which I’ve written about before. Additionally, I have done more in-depth research on the code for mobile food facilities. Essentially, if you’re cooking food on a bike trailer, you are subject to line item requirements of refrigeration, three sinks, and 20 gallons of water in order to meet code. That’s why you don’t see food bikes doing any cooking at public events and markets. The ones that exist serve hot or cold pre-packaged foods at public events or simply cater to private events. We want to see a food bike that can cook at public markets, while still being safe, legal, and healthy.
In order to move forward on this project, we are requesting a grant from the Big Ideas program to build a prototype food bike, engage in policy lobbying, and pursue permitting processes to ensure that food bikes can legally operate in the East Bay. If you stand with us, please vote for our project for the Big Ideas video contest, the winner of which will get an additional $2,500 cash prize to go towards their project. Click “love it” after you watch the video here: https://apps.facebook.com/contestsapps/showentry/Big-Ideas-Peoples-Choice-Video-Contest/121919
Building off the success of last year’s hackathon, BERC successfully threw its second annual “cleanweb” hackathon this past weekend. The result was four new apps to help analyze and reduce home water consumption, food-related water footprints, and commercial building energy consumption. You can find complete information on the contestants and winners here, including teammates, concepts, and screenshots. Photos of the hackathon can be found here.
The winner “Smarter Sprinkler” combined a compelling water conservation concept with some adept software and hardware hacking. The team, consisting of three LBNL scientists (Anna Liao, Daniel Olsen, Andrew Weber) and one local software developer (Robert Sadler), worked hard all weekend to build a combination of open source hardware and software to make intelligent home irrigation schedules based on current weather, drought, seasonal, and user-based information. Given that half of household water consumption happens outdoors, this new app will give homeowners the ability to take control of their water usage. They expect their solution to be compatible with at least 90% of existing sprinkler controllers, and the app interacted with a “simple measurement and actuation profile” (sMAP) driver and server, which is actually a type of protocol developed here at UC Berkeley.
Smarter Sprinkler’s software dashboard
Another innovative app to help conserve water was a tool to help people plan and optimize their dietary choices based on the water footprint of their data. Developed by two developers from QE-Design, they used some fun concepts from Captain Planet to lighten the mood at the hackathon, even though they did some serious data wrangling with USDA and Water Footprint Network datasets. Greenvite, the winner of the energy challenge, allowed users to save energy in conference rooms, by reducing heating/cooling consumption in unused conference rooms and by allowing building occupants to compare the energy use of a conference room at different times.
BERC would like to extend special thank yous to our sponsors for making this event possible includingGenability, IBM Smarter Planet, WaterSmart Software, and Imagine H2O, as well as our event volunteers and mentors including Andie Mercado, Yang Ruan, Peter Minor, Peter Alstone, Anna Schneider, Dav Clark, Michael Cohen, Justin Trobec, Jolie Chan, Sherry Wu, and Dan Sanchez, who helped plan, run, and enrich the event for all attendees.
People consume unhealthy food (think a McDonald’s Big Mac) because it is cheap and it tastes good. The founder of Hampton Creek Foods, Josh Tetrick, asks what the world would look like if healthier food was always the most affordable while still being delicious. He believes his company can make plant based proteins, with similar properties to animal-based products, at a lower cost. And he makes the meat industry out to be an easy target: wasteful, unsustainable, cruel, and riddled with increasing costs. And he has just been armed with an additional $23 million in investment from Li Ka Shing, whose name you might recognize from our campus’s Biomedical and Health Sciences building bearing his name.
Over 1.8 trillion eggs are consumed per year worldwide, and 99% of them come from caged chickens. Intensive meat production systems like caged chicken eggs are responsible for one third of the world’s energy use. The ratio of energy input to useful food energy (calorie) output is 39:1, Hampton Creek claims. Yet if try to make this process more sustainable by taking the chicken out of the cage, prices rise 30% and Hampton Creek is working off the assumption that the majority of people won’t pay higher prices for cruelty-free products. They think the best way to solve this problem is just to take the animal out of the picture. “It’s not a vegan thing. It’s not a vegetarian thing. It’s just a smart thing,” Tetrick says. He is convinced he has to make any egg substitute cheap and convenient. And he claims he can bring that energy input output ratio down to 2:1 with Hampton Creek’s plant based egg.
The egg has 32 different uses, from your ordinary scramble to cookies and cakes to creamy mayonnaise. Can it be replaced with a plant? Tetrick throws around verbs like bind, aerate, and emulsify to describe his desired attributes. They’ve looked at 3000 plants and chosen 11, he claims. A specific variety of the Canadian yellow pea seems to hold the secret for making a creamy mayonnaise, their first product which has already hit shelves in Whole Foods, Bi-Rite Market (a notable organic grocery in SF), and -soon- Safeway. They want to be in 25,000 stores by the end of 2014.
“The problem with the conventional egg is that it’s not getting any better.” There are five factors driving demand for Hampton Creek’s egg product: 1) rising and volatile egg ingredient costs, 2) sustainable eating driven by millennials, 3) cholesterol, 4) food safety, 5) and the fact that 34 million people in the US have egg allergies or sensitivities. Their product seems to satisfy all criterion and they claim to be 48% more cost effective than conventional eggs already, $0.39 vs. $0.76 for the equivalent of a dozen eggs. They will be launching cookie dough and scrambled egg products soon.
They are certified as non-GMO (otherwise they wouldn’t be on Bi-Rite shelves). They use only ingredients that are “GRAS”-certified, or generally regarded as safe. So what is the catch? Does all of this sound too perfect? Some of their ingredients are organic and some aren’t. They admit that if they used solely organic ingredients, then their egg product would be 30% more expensive than the conventional egg. Yet, while their might be some drawback with respect to this organic aspect, the product seems to win from energy, carbon, water, health, and cost metrics. Are their pitfalls to these “lab-based” foods that we aren’t seeing? Is it GMO 2.0? Is it still promoting homogenous food production that stifles biodiversity?
Arik Levinson of Georgetown University presented a controversial paper at last week’s POWER conference hosted by the Energy Institute at Haas, entitled “California Energy Efficiency: Lessons for the Rest of the World, or Not?”. The subject of his paper was a graph that has been well shown around the world of energy policy. The California Energy Commission, former Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the World Bank, New York Times, Natural Resources Defense Council, and others have all used this graph to help explain the importance of energy efficiency standards (for equipment, appliances, and lighting) in flattening California’s per capita electricity use.
Levinson contends that it actually does not have lessons regarding such energy efficiency standards and the divergence in the paths of California and other U.S. states is mostly due to other demographic patterns, including climate, income, population, and housing characteristics. However, many critics have attacked Levinson as being against efficiency regulations. He emphasizes that his paper is not a critique of such standards and regulations, but rather serves to shine light on the actual reasons for divergence in energy use patterns and expose the need for other evidence of the efficacy of efficiency standards.
There were four reasons for Levinson’s initial suspicion of this graph: 1) other states and the federal government followed with similar regulations soon after California, 2) appliance manufacturers generally followed the California standards nationwide, 3) the gap started before California’s standards were implemented, and 4) the five other states (NV, OR, WA, ID, HI) with the slowest growing per capita energy use after California are all neighbors of California.
His analysis showed that population migration accounted for 15% of the difference, climate and income accounted for 20% of the difference, and population and housing characteristics accounted for 61% of the difference. For migration, he pointed out that between 1960 and 2010, there were major shifts in U.S. population from the north and the midwest to the south and the west, and so he compared California to a control group that was weighted with the new population distribution. For climate and income, he showed that California’s mild climate means that there was less of an increase in heating and cooling needs than in other states. Finally, he noted that California household have grown relative to the rest of the U.S. (California’s household size decreased by only 0.16 members while the rest of the U.S.’s decreased by 0.76 members) and since energy use per capita declines with household size, this clearly played a big role in the flattening of California’s per capita energy use. In the end, these three trends accounted for 88% of the divergence, leaving only 12% remaining that may be due to regulations (or other reasons).
This paper is certainly throwing a lot of cold water on the long-claimed victory of California’s energy efficiency standards’ role in energy savings. But, it does not necessarily mean that standards do not make a difference. After all, it did seriously influence manufacturer behavior as well as other states and the federal government to implement their own efficiency standards. If it weren’t for all of these standards, per capita electricity use would most likely have been higher for both California and the rest of the U.S. Proving these counterfactuals (and how much higher electricity use would have been) is very difficult, and so Levinson’s call for such evidence may not be answered. For full text of his paper, click here.
Just a quick note, which I may expand on later… It is an encouraging sign that coal-fired power additions are finally slowing in China (though still growing in absolute numbers), with 2013 being the first year that there has been less than 50 gigawatts of coal capacity addition, and with China Electricity Council’s 2014 projection, it looks like it may stay that way moving forward. Certainly, the rainbow “fan” that is replacing these additions is also encouraging in some respects. Wind capacity additions should remain steady in the years ahead, while solar continues to have a couple of aggressive years ahead of it. Nuclear power should be picking up the pace in the lead up to 2020, while hydro will have a couple more years of >10GW additions before slowing down, as China reaches the technical hydropower potential of nearly all of its rivers. Whatever it can dam, it is damming, including the Nu River, which I made a short film on in 2008. My last point for now is that China has now had six consecutive years of ~90GW capacity additions, but since the growing majority of these additions (hydro, wind, solar) run at lower capacity factors than coal, the overall power generation (and consumption) is slowing too, due to slower economic growth, some energy efficiency efforts, and perhaps some structural change as well.
In January, I attended a “data science and sustainability” meetup held at OPower. The topic was “Driving Behavior Change with Energy Insights”. To make a long story short, one of OPower’s business models is to take over a given utility’s billing structure and provide customers with easy to understand information on how much energy you use compared to neighbors with similar homes. This method is based off of a study where statisticians hung signs on people’s doorknobs to save energy. One said, “Save energy, it saves you money.” Another said, “Save energy, be a good citizen.” And the last one said, “Save energy, it’s good for the environment.” Apparently, none of them worked in convincing people to use less energy. They tried one last doorknob hanger: “Your neighbor uses less energy than you.” And voila! Statistically significant energy savings were realized over time, simply because of this message. OPower has used this concept in their billing. If you access your PG&E bill online, you will see something like the graph above (note: this is only for electricity, and not for gas), comparing you to “all similar homes” (for me, it was single family homes of a similar size that use natural gas for heating and are within half a mile). The “efficient similar homes” are apparently the lowest quintile of energy consumption. It may well be that those homes have less people living in them. Or perhaps they are simply greener than Sustainable John.
But not for long! Let’s see if we can save some energy around the house. PG&E was actually one of the first utilities to take on the “Green Button” initiative, an effort to release basic household energy data to customers in usable formats. The initiative was supported by the Department of Energy and even the White House. Essentially, you can have data about how much power your house uses in 15 minute, hourly, daily, and monthly increments. However, the data is not in real-time, rather it’s a few days old (on a Tuesday night, I can have access to data through Sunday night). DOE supported a bunch of hackathons around this initiative, which launched dozens of app ideas and a couple companies along the way, one of which is Bidgely. Bidgely has a service where you can input your utility log-in information, and it will analyze your home energy usage in more ways than PG&E’s site can. It’s easy to pull up your monthly energy use, broken out by each day.
And then you can click on a particular day and see hourly interval data, with some helpful daily average consumptions. Now, you can begin to see the patterns of roommates bustling to get ready in the morning and coming home in the evening, which is when utilities commonly hit their peak loads.
In fact, the smart meters that PG&E has installed in nearly all of their service territory are collecting many more data points than this. And now, due to a device called a Home Area Network (HAN) device, customers can now get now get access to this data. I just installed my HAN device this past weekend, and now am collecting real-time energy use data in 5-minute intervals (seen below), which is a big improvement over the hourly interval above. I can now know how much energy the house is using at any given time. At 7:20AM, I was in the kitchen using the lights and the toaster. At 8PM, I was using the clothes washer and dryer. As this data is captured, Bidgely is analyzing it using different algorithms, to understand how much of my usage is due to the various appliances in our household: refrigeration vs. vampire loads vs. clothes dryers, for example. The granular data will eventually help me to sort out where I can focus my energy efficiency efforts, whether it’s in more efficient lighting, tackling vampire loads, or getting rid of that old, clunky fridge.
If you would like to track your energy usage, a good place to start would be to make sure you have your PG&E online profile set up. Then, you can sign up for a service like Bidgely. They even have a mobile app (iPhone and Android), so it’s easy to track your hourly interval data. If you want to buy a HAN device, you can find more information on PG&E’s recently launched HAN device portal. The one I bought was pretty steep, about $100 in cost. But, you could maybe convince Bidgely to send you one for free, and hopefully they’ll come down in cost over time. If you don’t live in PG&E territory, check to see if your utility is signed on to the Green Button initiative and whether or not they have deployed smart meters.
In OPower’s presentation, they revealed that their comparison methods had resulted in verified 2-3% energy savings on average per customer in the territories where they are working with utilities. While this number is certainly nothing to cough at, it does suggest that there is a still a huge potential for energy efficiency out there. And companies are piling in to the residential and small commercial energy efficiency space to capitalize on this influx of data and see if customers will act on it. Besides Bidgely, there’s Simple Energy, PlotWatt, Ohmconnect, and also WattTime (a winner in last year’s hackathon). BERC is also beginning to participate in this data revolution. Stay tuned for forthcoming information on two new BERC Communities, Cleanweb and InfoEnergy Nexus, as well as the second annual Berkeley Cleanweb hackathon to be held on April 18-20, 2014.
LBNL’s China Energy Group has released the 8th version of its China Energy Databook. I was the co-editor for this version, and learned a lot about how to hunt for different kinds of energy related data on China. We usually do an update only every couple of years, but hopefully we will be doing more regular updates as we streamline our processes. Certainly, this project has a legacy that we must continue. This is one of the spreadsheets from the databook, started 13 years ago by Yang Fuqiang, who at the time was a scientist at the lab but is now an adviser to NRDC’s China program.
Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions for the databook. I’m currently working on a Sankey diagram for China’s energy consumption and production (a la LLNL’s famous versions for the U.S.) and hope to show that off in the coming weeks.
In early June, I had the privilege to attend the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ECEEE) summer study in Hyeres, France (it’s every other year) and give a paper that I wrote with Chris Marnay and others on microgrid program development and policy. My mom came along with too. We had an outstanding time. A day in Paris on either end, and 5 days in the south of France. Literally, the weather every day was sunny and 70F. Two other awesome things happened on the trip. First, I got to take the high speed train. It only took 4 hours to travel the entire length of France and the scenery was so lovely, just gentle rolling hills until we eventually happened upon the azure ocean in Toulon. The marvels of efficient train travel! The second thing was that I ran into my professor Iain MacGill of UNSW, Australia where I took a summer course on renewable energy 9 years prior (the course still exists!). Here we are happily reunited.
The mornings were filled with great talks and academic exchange on energy efficiency. The afternoons were filled with sunshine, paddleboarding, kayaking, swimming, and bicycling. It really was a perfect experience.
Just a week before my Climate Ride, I put the finishing touches on my new music video, called “Bike Shop/Climate Awesome” featuring Ace (aka Akabar, my little brother with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program). Here it is:
After I posted the video, my fundraising basically doubled from around $3,300 to over $6,600. I believe I ended up in 8th place in fundraising out of over 150 riders. I got a special top ten Jersey as well as the award for the most number of individual donations, the official count was 129, but I think it was around 250 if you count every jian bing I sold to raise money. It was an incredible feeling to have so many people support my ride and this cause and I am incredibly grateful to them. Here are some charts on my fundraising efforts, the timing of my donations, and the size of donations I received. I believe these data can potentially be helpful to note for other climate riders. I should do a longer post about fundraising tactics. I had several.
The ride itself was incredible. We had 5 days of nearly perfect weather. I’d estimate about 4 hours of cloudiness. We had strong tail winds on day 3, which was the day we did 100 miles in one day. It felt incredible! Towards the end of that “century” day, we had the most incredible and beautiful climb in Mendocino county. It was so invigorating and empowering. Just check it out. And yes that is Harry Mud Mudd!
The people on Climate Ride and the organizers were all so amazing. It was a fully supported ride with food and everything. Each campsite we stayed in was a large campsite, so most of them had a general store out front, so when we rolled into camp we could also just grab a six-pack and start kicking back! Though I would ride periodically with people throughout each day, most of my actual riding was by myself. I could stop and take photos. I could just let my mind wander. I could just enjoy this wonderful scenery and experience. I had a great tentmate, my friend and former colleague Puneeth, and on the last day my good friend Nick made it out from Berkeley to meet us for the final leg. He took this great picture of me. I think it’s my favorite from the ride.
As we rolled into SF Civic Center, I got all of the Climate Riders to do a call and answer eco-rap with me. Enjoy!
The DOE Sunshot Initiative aims to get solar PV costs down to $1 per watt by 2020. Module prices have already fallen precipitously and continue to fall. However, an increasing number of companies are focusing on how to bring down the marketing, finance, and installation costs of solar PV systems, which remain stubbornly high. LBNL research has shown that customer acquisition is 10 times more costly in the U.S. than in Germany (see slide 29 in the linked presentation).
Two friends, my former colleagues at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, are pursuing an idea called SolarList, which aims to reduce those customer acquisition costs here in the U.S. One problem is that solar installation companies burn through a lot of sales time educating potential customers about how to go solar, but only a few of those leads end up working out. SolarList is building mobile software that allows students to offer free, third-party home solar assessments through targeted canvassing and their personal networks. For homeowners that are still interested once they have had some education and a free assessment, SolarList can connect them to installers.
A couple weekends ago, some friends and I decided to do some beta testing for SolarList’s mobile solar assessment software in the hills of Berkeley. We wanted to see just how homeowners would respond to some Berkeley students knocking on their doors offering free education on going solar. I was joined by Michael Conti (SolarList), Tim Cronin (BERC’s VP of Law), and Jenny Tang (editor of BERC’s China Focus).
Together, we knocked on a couple hundred doors that weekend and talked to dozens of homeowners. We found that if someone answered the door and had a few minutes to talk, the conversation went well at least 50% of the time. In general, people enjoyed receiving a free solar assessment, seeing how much they could save on their utility bill, and learning more about the different financing and installation options available. Some folks even offered to sit us down at the dining room table and have a longer chat.
At the end of the day, we had actionable leads that we could sell to solar installers. The homeowner receives free education and assessments, solar companies get qualified leads, and we get paid for pounding the pavement and preaching the solar gospel. (One homeowner remarked that she was only willing to talk to us because we didn’t look religious. She gets a lot of evangelists at her door, but I was apparently the first solar evangelist.)
So that’s how you can sell solar to your neighbors in Berkeley (or wherever you live). If you want to try it out, SolarList’s Ground Forces team is ramping up with summer jobs.
Last week, I attended the Berkeley Lab “Science at the Theater Earth Day Event,” entitled “How Hot Will It Get?” featuring five 15-minute talks by four LBNL scientists and one UC Berkeley economist. Overall, the event was a success, and the presentations were very informative, if not a bit frightening. The next “Science at the Theater” event is on May 13, so mark your calendars for “Eight Great Ideas”, where eight LBNL scientists will each have eight minutes to pitch their groundbreaking ideas. Here’s a summary of what was said the other night:
Bill Collins – What do computer models predict about the future of the Earth’s climate?
Since climate science started in the 1960’s, there has been nearly a billion-fold increase in computing power. This has enabled computers to become an increasingly powerful crystal ball for the Earth. Bill spoke about his visit to Australia for an IPCC meeting during the “angry summer”, where it was 120F in Sydney and 123 weather records were broken in 90 days. The 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC (AR5) will be released in 2014, and we can look forward to more well-informed (and more frightening) predictions of what is in store for our global climate. He noted that climate change through 2035 is largely already committed by the greenhouse gases we have emitted to date and the action we take now will dictate climate change in the latter half of the century. To date, this reality has been at odds with what has been politically possible on climate change. He ended with a quote from famous biologist E.O. Wilson: “A very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic.”
Margaret Torn – What happens to the Earth’s climate when the permafrost thaws?
The arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the Earth, and there is twice as much carbon in arctic soils as there is in the atmosphere. When the permafrost melts and the frozen organic matter beneath it thaws, the indigenous microbes will decompose that matter much faster, forming carbon dioxide and methane. As a biogeochemist, Margaret studies the dynamics of that decomposition in Alaska and how it will contribute to warming. She noted that the dynamics are complex and yet to be fully understood. Bill Collins’ most powerful climate models don’t yet incorporate potential feedback loops from permafrost melt. One scenario is that the melting permafrost sends loads of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but shrubs also expand to new areas and increase carbon uptake. The overall effect on the “albedo” is yet unknown.
Michael Wehner – What does high performance computing tell us about heat waves, floods, droughts, and hurricanes?
“Climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get,” Michael said as he began his talk, attributing the quote to Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory. Michael studies the weather and increased risk of extreme weather (heat waves, cold snaps, drought, floods, hurricanes, etc.) from climate change. He estimates that the 2003 European heat wave, which caused 70,000 excess deaths, will happen in 9 out of 10 summers by the year 2040. That is, the risk change (over a baseline level pre-industrial revolution) for the event in 2003 was 2X. In 2023, the risk change for a similar heat wave will be 35X. In 2040, the risk change will be a startling 154X. This will equate to a probability of 90%. Yikes.
Jeff Chambers – How much carbon do our forests absorb and what if this rate changes?
Only 50% of the carbon we emit into the atmosphere stays there. The other half goes into the oceans, tropical forest sinks, and regular terrestrial sinks (soil and trees). Jeff studies what will happen to the forest and terrestrial sinks over time. There will be the effects a warming world, and the effects of specific weather disasters. He estimated that 320 million trees were destroyed in hurricane Katrina, which normally absorb a carbon equivalent of 105 million tons of carbon dioxide. Other impacts to forests include increased risk of wildfires, droughts, and pest infestations.
Maximilian Auffhammer – What kind of carbon tax might actually work?
“You know you’re at a nerdy event, when they bring out a German economist to close the show,” Maximilian quipped to begin his talk. Maximilian focused on what we might do to slow down climate change and potentially avoid some of doomsday. As a German economist, he is concerned about the costs of three things: 1) direct impacts (think hurricanes and floods), 2) mitigation, such as how to use less energy and produce more clean energy, and 3) adaptation. We can internalize the costs of climate change in three ways 1) regulation and standards, 2) carbon tax, and 3) cap and trade. The problem: about 200 countries have tried to negotiate a global agreement, it has not worked, there is no significant progress on the horizon, and any one country can block action. He proposes that the G20 (which account for about 80% of carbon emissions) agree to charge a significant carbon tax to start, say $20/ton to begin with. It would be enforced to non-compliers at the border (thus creating an incentive for other countries to adopt carbon policy). He says it would be much easier to negotiate than a global agreement, but admits it would still be pretty difficult.
1. California’s AB-32 climate change law: The organizations I ride for are protecting, lobbying for, and implementing the strongest climate change mitigation legislation out there.
2. UC Berkeley: I’ll be a student in a dual master’s program in energy and public policy in the fall, and right now I work on energy efficiency and distributed generation policy at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. The organizations I ride for are fighting for the same outcomes that I am studying and working towards.
3. Bike economy: The organizations I ride for include bicycle coalitions which increase the number of bikes on the roads and decrease the number of cars. They lobby for bike lanes and make sure everyone feels safe on a bicycle. They inspire me to keep expanding my food bike operation!
Donate here, don’t be shy: http://bit.ly/SustyClimateRide
More on the beneficiaries of Climate Ride: http://www.climateride.
Have you seen “Thrift shop” (240 million views and counting)? Well, get ready for “Bike shop”! This new music video will debut on May 11 in support of my fundraising efforts for Climate Ride. If you haven’t donated yet, please do so now at this link! At the heart of Climate Ride are two groups that converge: 1) people that love biking, 2) people working to fight for a clean energy, low-carbon future. To that end, my new video will have one verse focused on how awesome and fun bikes are and one verse focused on how we, as citizens, need to lobby for that low-carbon future. I’m lucky I have such awesome friends to help out with my music video…the shot above gives a little taste of what is coming your way. This will mark my 6th official music video. The preceding five were: Copenhagen Rap (3-5-0), All We Need Is MPG’s, No Love (for the Upton Bill), Occupy Rooftops, and Low-Carbon (低碳) Style.
Tomorrow April 16, BERC, ERG, and CEGA will host a *free screening* of the documentary Chasing Ice in Sutardja Dai Hall auditorium (register here), and I highly recommend you go see it. This film inspires climate change action because of its use of visual evidence and a protagonist hero with whom you feel a personal connection.
The film follows photographer James Balog, who founded the Extreme Ice Survey, the most wide-ranging ground-based photographic study of glaciers ever conducted. National Geographic showcased this workin the June 2007 and June 2010 issues, and director Jeff Orlowski brought this story to the big screen. Beyond showing the startling footage of the disappearance of glaciers over just a couple of years, the movie explains the technical problems that Balog faced in setting up his cameras and the personal struggles he had climbing ice and snow even after multiple knee reconstruction surgeries. His perseverance is inspiring, however, and the visual evidence he presents is beautiful, haunting, and motivating.
At the most recent screening in Berkeley hosted by local company Mosaic, Mosaic’s co-founder Dan Rosen explained how he met director Orlowski at the Unreasonable Institute where they inspired each other to continue pursuing their dreams. Orlowski dreamed of bringing the story of the Extreme Ice Survey to the big screen, while Rosen dreamed of fighting climate change by creating a platform for any individual to invest in clean energy projects.
Chasing Ice’s use of visual evidence and a protagonist hero mimics another climate change movie I saw last year, The Island President. I reviewed that movie at length on my personal blog due to its deep impact on me and its amazing storytelling. That movie followed the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, leading his country’s fight against climate change. It showcased Nasheed’s personal struggles as a civil rights activist (being arrested, tortured, put in solitary confinement) and his true passion for saving his country from the threat of climate change and rising sea levels which will wipe out the country. It is summed up well in one of his quotes in the movie: “How can I promote democracy if there is no country to speak of?”
This level of personal storytelling is in great contrast to tactics used in An Inconvenient Truth, the most well-known climate change movie to date. That movie stumbled in its attempts to make Al Gore a personal hero (a cobbled attempt to make it personal by recounting his childhood on the farm and the tough loss of his mother to cigarettes and cancer), but instead focused on a comprehensive, yet accessible review of the data and science behind climate change. At the end of the movie, Gore called for action based on a moral crisis, but I simply wasn’t as inspired after I saw An Inconvenient Truth as when I saw Chasing Ice and The Island Presient. Gore understands what his previous slideshow lacked, and has recently altered its content to motivate audiences with both aspects of visual evidence and personal connections. It seems these tactics will become the gold standard for climate change movies, as the impacts of climate change begin to be seen and as filmmakers seek to more effectively motivate viewers to take action against climate change.
Representatives of two solar companies (SunRun and Clean Power Finance), two utilities (SDG&E and National Grid), and a smart grid research firm (Pecan Street) sat down for a civilized discussion yesterday at Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. The discussion on distributed solar, power storage, and the evolving role of the utility quickly became a heated debate, dominated by Brian Miller (VP of Public Policy and Power Markets at SunRun) and Lee Krevat (Director of Smart Grid at SDG&E) with ample contributions from Bert Haskell of Pecan Street.
Pecan Street has the most detailed residential energy database on residences in Austin, TX. Data includes what firms have fitted with the metering, rooftop solar, and electric vehicle charging stations. In one of their pilot studies, it was discovered that there are 200 homes with rooftop solar and 70 electric vehicle charging stations within one square mile, all connected to one transformer. This is likely higher penetration than seen anywhere else in the U.S. date.
Krevat from SDG&E noted that there are now cases in their service territory where energy is flowing from the substation and back into to transmission lines in areas with high rooftop solar penetration on very sunny days. This is worrisome for SDG&E, as they will need to pay for transmission and distribution (T&D) upgrades if the grid is to provide functions beyond the original purpose of providing power in one direction. How will this affect customers? Krevat is worried that the customers with rooftop solar are saving on their energy bills, while the lower income customers without rooftop solar will see increased bills as regulated (and decoupled) utilities need to pass distribution upgrade costs onto their entire customer base.
Miller of SunRun came with talking points pre-prepared. He’s worked for the Department of Energy. He’s worked for big utilities, like Exelon and Constellation Energy. He called the utilities out for deliberately blocking solar’s progress with arguments like this:
Utilities are by far the biggest obstacle. Utility lobbyists out in the trenches against solar. It is against their business model. It’s written in legislative and regulatory proceedings… When distributed generation is high, they will sell less power on their wires, so their objective is to push rates as high as possible.
Krevat contended that indeed it was a ratemaking issue. They can’t put the growing cost of distribution upgrades on a diminishing number of lower income customer. A different rate model might be needed. Haskell of Pecan Street chimed in:
Our observation is that utilities need to move away from charging for kilowatt hours and towards charging for quality of service. Grid connection fees for distributed generation, the amount of reliability the customer desires (# of 9’s), and the cost of putting energy back on the grid.
Now this sounds like an environment for commercial-scale microgrids, but it would be interesting to see how such a model might work for residential customers. Miller continued to provide the talking points for a distributed solar future:
Things are working in California because there are good legislators and regulators who believe in a distributed generation vision. The governor has a 12 gigawatt DG goal. Hawaii is a sneak peek into the future. 5% of homes and 3% of power is now from solar. The transformers haven’t blown up and the lights haven’t gone out.
He backed up his points with a white paper produced by Vote Solar and Crossborder Energy that found that even lower income ratepayers will benefit from higher amounts of net metering. Yes, the utilities have to pay for some additional distribution infrastructure upgrades, but the benefits (power delivery savings, lower cost of meeting renewable targets, avoided transmission upgrades, reduced electricity losses, etc.) will outweigh those costs by $92 million in California.
Have a look and decide for yourself! Leave your comments below.
When the final decision is made on Keystone XL this summer, activists are hoping that President Obama will put it in the grave for good. After Obama’s soaring promises on climate change in his second inaugural and state of the union addresses, activists are expecting him to walk the talk and reject it. The latest rallies against the pipeline on February 17, which numbered over 50,000 in Washington, DC and over 5,000 in San Francisco, have continued to bring attention to the pipeline and put continued pressure on Obama. Meanwhile, policy wonks and editorial boards say that the anti-Keystone movement is wasting its energy on the wrong fights. They say the movement should focus on a carbon tax, and that the tar sands will be developed regardless of the decision on Keystone XL. Grist’s David Roberts nicely highlighted why the wonks are talking right past the activists: activism and policy are not the same thing.
About a year back, I heard Bill McKibben of 350.org speak in Berkeley and asked him: “What policy proposal does 350.org focus on in Washington?” McKibben politely answered what may have been a dumb question. He said, “350.org’s sole focus is to build a political movement that demands action on climate change now.” He mentioned his interest in good policy proposals, but it is just not his organization’s focus. For someone who has clearly spent too much time in DC (ahem, one year), this was somehow an a-ha moment for me. It’s not about policy A vs. policy B. It’s not about lobbying to pass one big climate policy. It’s about creating a movement that will continue to demand laws, actions, and leaders on climate change no matter what the prevailing political winds or policy proposals are. Even if we do pass a carbon tax or cap and trade bill, that will be just the first battle in a very long fight against climate change.
Right now, a Keystone rejection would symbolize a win for the movement and validate that Obama can be swayed into action by the powerful group of voices that have spoken. And to be fair, the pipeline has so little going for it. Fellow BERCie Reid Spolek asked my 140-character opinion on the project, and I replied on twitter: “With few jobs, no U.S. energy security benefit, & climate consequences, why would Obama pass it? To protect business interests.” At least that’s what Obama’s golf round with oil execs on the day of the latest rallies indicated.
Jobs: The pipeline would create a couple thousand temporary construction jobs, but reportedly only 35 permanent jobs. Energy security: The tar sands shipped to Louisiana for refining would be sold on global markets with no apparent direct benefit to U.S. energy security (so please don’t try any gas price arguments). Climate: Refining and burning tar sands causes 17% more emissions than regular crude, and building this pipeline locks in their development. If you read the thousands of pages of environmental assessment prepared to date by the State Department, you would probably be left scratching your head as to why anyone would approve this pipeline (State makes no firm recommendation for or against the pipeline). Let’s hope that this summer, Obama doesn’t leave us all scratching our heads.