We have seen the level of income and wealth disparity in this country reach unprecedented levels. The reasons for this are numerous. Many of them, as documented by Robert Reich’s book “Aftershock,” have occurred as the direct result of policy decisions that were made regarding tax codes and the deregulation of Wall Street.
Wall Street speculation has had a huge impact on the distribution of wealth. With a constant barrage of new, sophisticated derivatives, high-speed trading algorithms and don’t-try-this-at-home tricks that are only available to those with huge portfolios, they have turned investing into a spectator sport for the rest of us. All the big action and the big money goes to the big guys, while a few percentage points fall through the cracks for everyone else. This is what the players proudly call a free market.
It’s no longer just stocks and bonds. In order to feed this greedy machine’s enormous appetite, new opportunities must be found with ever-higher returns. Things like real estate, home mortgages and now “private equity assets,” which used to be within the reach of ordinary working-class people as a way to enhance their earning power, are being scooped up and dragged into the Wall Street coliseum. We can only sit and watch as these are devoured, their prices driven up beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Home mortgages are the most recent example. Everyone has seen how this game led to the complete collapse of the world economy, with millions feeling the brunt of it, many of them still recovering. The players, who made this all happen, got off with a slap on the wrist, much as football, baseball, and basketball players get away with their misdeeds.
Now their scouts have eyed another target: farmland. According to a study conducted by the independent policy think tank Oakland Institute entitled “Down on the Farm,” the first years of this century saw an enormous land grab in the developing world: 500 million acres, an area eight times the size of Britain, was bought or leased by speculators. This often occurred at the expense of food security and land rights. When the price of food spiked in 2008, this was a buy signal to investors, screaming out, “Farmland is valuable now and will be even more so in the future.” This, of course, is exactly what they are looking for–a big growth opportunity (no pun intended).
It’s an old management truism that says you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Certainly if companies hope to manage their impact on the planet, then they’d best start measuring it. Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical giant that was named the world’s most sustainable company in Davos 2012, just announced another step in that direction, by publishing their first Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L) account. This, for a company that has steadily been reducing their carbon footprint and water use, and who’s CEO pay is already tied to sustainability indicators, further integrates sustainability into its core business practice.
Novo Nordisk, best known as suppliers of insulin, is the first pharmaceutical company to do this, the second major corporation, after Puma to take the step. Both companies worked with natural capital analyst Trucost to develop their EP&L accounting process.
What this means, in a nutshell, is that environmental impact, as defined by the process, will have equal footing with other business concerns, as a criteria for driving business decisions. It will help each company to focus their efforts on the biggest supply chain and operational risks and opportunities associated with environmental issues.
Last month we wrote about former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s work with Henry Paulson under the Risky Business initiative to assess the amount of financial risk that climate change poses to the American economy. But the highly committed former mayor is clearly not waiting around to find out the answer.
He has just set out on a new venture, investing $53 million of his own money to try and do something about the sorry state of the world’s fisheries. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization‘s 2006 study published in Science predicted that many ocean fish stocks will be producing less than 10 percent of their peak catch levels by the end of this century.
Already, the U.N. reports that 32 percent of global fish stocks are overexploited or depleted and as much as 90 percent of large species like tuna and marlin have been fished out. The International Programme on the State of the Ocean found that the world’s marine species faced threats “unprecedented in human history”—and overfishing is part of the problem. Another part, of course, is climate change which has raised ocean temperatures and acidity levels, wreaking havoc with coral reefs and other sensitive breeding areas.
Meanwhile, global demand for seafood and fish products is expected to rise by 20 percent in the next six years.
In a move that some might find surprising, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) and The Coca-Cola Co. announced a major strategic partnership last week. According to the announcement, the “companies have signed a 10-year agreement to collaborate on the development and introduction of The Coca-Cola Co.’s global brand portfolio for use in GMCR’s forthcoming Keurig Cold at-home beverage system. Under the global strategic agreement, GMCR and The Coca-Cola Co. will cooperate to bring the Keurig Cold beverage system to consumers around the world.”
The two companies certainly come from opposite ends of the business spectrum: GMCR, with its humble Vermont origins and Ben & Jerry’s-like commitment to sustainable practices and Coke, being the oft-criticized old school corporate behemoth.
Yet, in some ways, you could say the two have been moving closer towards each other. Coke, under the leadership of Muhtar Kent, who, in 2010, won Corporate Responsibility (CR) Magazine’s “Responsible CEO of the Year” in the Large Market category, has begun taking seriously the criticisms the company has received and trying to address them. At the same time, GMCR has been getting a lot bigger, in the wake of the enormous success of the Keurig line of coffee makers. The fact that GMCR saw net sales of $4.36 billion last year, up 65 percent over the previous two years, underscores the point in its 2013 Annual Report, that, “Our values reflect our belief that a strong business is in fact, a pre-requisite for contributing to social good.”
Under the terms of the agreement, Coke will acquire approximately a 10 percent ownership in GMCR in exchange for $1.25 billion. This is clearly a big deal.
We’ve all heard the saying that oil and water don’t mix, but now it turns out that oil-free cars, namely EVs, and snow don’t mix that well either. There have been many reports over the years that hybrids, like the Prius, don’t do very well in the snow. The claims are hotly challenged by loyal Prius owners with the debate ranging from “this car is really junk in the snow,” to “I have no issues with it in the snow,” to “all Prius owners need in winter is a good set of winter tires.”
Green Car Reports describes the issue in terms of how the traction control system operates.
The traction control sometimes works against the owner in icy conditions. The purpose of the system is to prevent wheel slip and loss of traction, but because electric motors provide maximum torque from 0 rpm, on slippery roads the wheels spin easily–whereupon the traction control promptly brakes the spinning wheel. The result, is halting acceleration with beeping from the skid alert.
Refinements in more recent models have improved the situation.
But alongside the debate about handling is the added question of fuel economy. Hybrids don’t do as well in winter for reasons ranging from modified winter gasoline formulations, to increased stationary warm-up time, to increased heater usage, to reduced battery performance in cold weather.
A recent report in MIT Technology Review claims that the situation gets even worse when moving from hybrids to all-electrics.
When I spoke with Cisco Systems last week about their latest strategic partnership on smart cities, with AGT international, I asked them how they interface with the non-technical world and how they ensure that they don’t merely produce solutions that are looking for problems. As a former R&D worker in a technology company, I know firsthand how easy it is to look at some cool new technology and imagine how well it might work in an application that we only know a little bit about. You can read what Cisco said here.
But today, I want to talk about an example of where, in a critical, potentially life-saving application, inventors have, according to some, repeatedly failed to come up with an effective solution that can fully meet the wide-ranging demands found in the developing world.
We have written before about the challenges and opportunities surrounding the simple act of cooking in developing nations, where some 20 percent of total energy use comes from preparing daily meals. Most cooking in these areas is done using wood or charcoal, often burned in open fire pits. Millions of people are still using this highly polluting and dangerous method, some using simple cookstoves that are not properly vented. All totaled, cooking causes some 4 million deaths every year, for the lack of a better alternative.
According to a story in the Guardian, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), T. Alexander Aleinikoff, says that despite a steady stream of innovative new stoves being offered, he has yet to see one that fully meets the needs of the population.
“We’re in the situation,” says Aleinikoff, “where everybody and his brother has invented a cookstove and none of them have really worked well for us.”
Cisco Systems, makers of networking gear, software and solutions, has recognized, as a company, that it is in a great position to capitalize on the coming trend to connect everything, whether it’s people or processes or machines.
That trend is estimated to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 trillion over the next decade. Whether it’s the industrial Internet, big data or smart cities, the company is reinventing itself as the purveyor of the Internet of Everything (IoE), also known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Last year they acquired building efficiency solution provider Joulex, which offers enhanced opportunities to reduce IT-related energy consumption in buildings through their expanded EnergyWise suite.
Cisco has been working in the smart cities space for seven years now — providing services including traffic management, parking assistance, waste management, pollution reduction, virtualized learning, security and health care.
This week they took another major step, announcing a strategic partnership with AGT International – a solutions provider that works specifically in the smart cities space, where they have fielded an impressive array of solutions ranging from law enforcement, to environmental monitoring to citizen services.
I spoke with Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s executive vice president and chief globalization officer, and Geoff Baird, president of AGT’s Product & Technology Group, about the announcement.
Fossil fuels have long held an advantage over renewables in that they provide a combined energy source and storage medium in one substance, be it gasoline, coal, oil or natural gas. The fact that you can save it, store it, then use it continuously whenever you need it is a tremendous convenience.
That gap is now being closed with the advent of combined solar-storage systems. These new systems not only match the capability of fossil fuels, but can actually go them one better. How? By taking advantage of the separation between energy source and storage medium, a number of new suppliers are now inserting intelligence between the two, allowing users to effectively blend their renewable resources with conventional ones in ways that are most advantageous.
Take, for example, Green Charge Networks (GCN), who provides battery storage combined with solar panels in a system that employs predictive algorithms to anticipate a building’s demand for electricity on a moment-by-moment basis. This information is then used to smooth out demand, resulting in significant savings in demand charges. The company just reached a milestone this week of 1 MW of installed capacity.
So what are demand charges and what are they for?
The utilities explain it with a single word: capacity.
What do you get when you cross a fuel cell with a cell tower? Would that be a fuel tower? Or perhaps a fuel cell cell tower? Probably the best people to ask would be the folks at Sprint since they just received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to install hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) technology as backup power to a number of their network sites.
The technology, still in development, would actually provide innovative approaches for rooftop fuel cell deployments. One approach being explored is a modular and lightweight fuel cell solution that can be installed without cranes and can be refueled from the ground – eliminating the need to transport fuel to rooftops.
The company proposed the use of fuel cells as a cleaner alternative to the more common diesel-powered backup generators, citing them as a way to avoid greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), the risk of ground contaminants and higher maintenance costs. Unlike fossil fuel-based generators, HFCs generate electricity with no environmentally undesirable greenhouse gas emissions. As a company, Sprint strives to limit the deployment of new fossil fuel generators. Sprint is working to reduce its GHG emissions by an absolute 20 percent by 2017.
Itron Incorporated, a global company that provides metering equipment, software and solutions to the electric power, natural gas and water utility industries, just released the results of a customer survey in a report that they call The Resourceful Index.
Why resourcefulness? Sharelynn Moore, Itron’s vice president of corporate marketing and public affairs, speaks of resourcefulness in terms of “the ability to run more efficiently with solutions that empower both utilities and consumers.”
In other words, it’s about the utilization of technological resources in the pursuit of more efficient utilization of natural resources in the face of increasing demand. Why does this matter? According to Moore, “We believe that the way that the world manages energy and water is going to define the next century.”
That being said, they went out and surveyed some 600 utility executives around the world, along with 800 “knowledgeable customers.” According to Itron CEO Phillip Mezey, who I spoke with last week, “The survey was a chance for us to find out what our customers unmet needs and concerns are, as well as their priorities.”
It’s not unusual to hear people, usually change-resistant defenders of the status quo, putting down renewables as being not economically viable, because they would not be able to compete in the marketplace without the aid of government subsidies. How are these people misinformed? If I may borrow the famous phrase from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Let me count the ways.”
First of all, it is virtually impossible to break into today’s highly competitive global marketplace unassisted, unless one has developed an entirely new product or service for which there is little or no competition. Otherwise, the 900 pound gorillas (i.e. the existing rulers of that product niche) will simply trample you by virtue of the fact that they have had years to mature their products — reducing costs and improving reliability along the way. The U.S. government sees it as a critical part of its strategic mission to nurture innovation, which is, or at least was, a major impetus behind the U.S. patent system — long-hailed as the greatest in the world and one of the key drivers of American dominance in the business world. Producing energy can hardly be considered a totally new product or service, even if it is done in a new, clean, non-polluting manner that does not require any fuel.
This is another story about a group of business leaders who have gotten together to try to do something about climate change, since our government can’t move on the issue due to the numerous cash-filled fossil fuel industry hands stuffing their pockets that are holding them back.
Before you roll your eyes and click on, check out who is on the committee. The group, called the Risky Business initiative is co-chaired by its three founders: former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer.
Also on the Risk Committee are various former CEOs, senators, and cabinet secretaries, including Robert Rubin, Olympia Snowe, Henry Cisneros, and George Schultz. The group will provide and review assessments, deliver messaging and share the results with those regions industries and markets facing the greatest risk from the crisis.
Each of the three founders will bring along their respective foundations: Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Office of Hank Paulson, and Next Generation, as well as the Skoll Global Threats Fund, to provide staff and support for the project.
“How much economic risk does the United States face from the impacts of climate change?” asks the group’s website. “Risky Business will help us find out.”
Imagine if you were given one wish to do anything you could about climate change, what would you do? Resetting the atmospheric carbon concentration back to pre-industrial levels would certainly be a big help. But at the rate we are currently generating CO2, adding 2.1 ppm per year and rising, if we didn’t do something else to slow down our emissions, we would be right back where we are today in a surprisingly short amount of time.
What if we could pull CO2 out of the air and convert it into something useful, something that requires the generation of CO2 to produce today? Wouldn’t a reversal like that be helpful?
That is exactly what a company called Newlight Technologies is doing. Its patented technology extracts carbon from the air and converts it into long-chain polymers that can be used as substitutes for oil-based plastics.
Every pound of conventionally produced plastic generates 6 pounds of CO2. Using Newlight’s method not only avoids this carbon production, but it also removes an additional pound of CO2 from the atmosphere. Considering that worldwide production of plastic is currently 77 pounds for every person on the planet, and increasing by 3 percent every year, shifting to this method of production represents an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions by close to 2 billion tons annually. That’s about 4.7 percent of the current global emission level. Of course a much larger portion of emissions are generated from transportation, electricity generation and the heating of buildings and water, but this is still a significant amount.
There has been a longstanding urban legend about Wall Street being a good ole boys’ club, sexist and exclusive with a cornucopia of decadent rewards for those on the inside, rewards that a recent blockbuster film has done much to sensationalize. But we’ll get to that in a minute. A Bloomberg article last week revealed that much of this is indeed, factual, and is directly linked to college fraternity culture.
Based on some three dozen interviews, the article describes “a network whose Wall Street alumni guide resumes to the tops of stacks, reveal interview questions with recommended answers, offer applicants secret mottoes and support chapters facing crackdowns.”
According to authors Max Abelson and Zeke Faux, the line begins forming in college fraternities, which is where the young men are first exposed to the advantages of operating outside the realm of government regulation. Students vying for internships, in an industry where 22 year-olds can make $100,000 a year or more, find that their fraternity affiliations can, in many cases, hard-wire them into open jobs. Given how extremely competitive these internships can be, (about 2 percent of applicants are accepted at Goldman Sachs), this is a significant advantage.
Fraternity candidates at Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta received emails from Wells Fargo assuring them that their resumes would be placed at the top of the pile.
Once recruited, the story says, the new hires are sent back to campus to recruit more from the same fraternity. One recruiter from Barclays, made a comment at a recruiting reception at the University of Pennsylvania, that “we’re trying to create Sigma Chi on Wall Street, a little fraternity on Wall Street,” which more or less summarizes the attitude.
There may be nothing illegal about this, but that is not the same thing as there being nothing wrong with it. Not only is it patently unfair, but think about what kind of culture us being perpetuated, when candidates are being selected to help manage the world economy based on their demonstrated ability to be the best drinking buddies. We’ve already seen the damage that the party atmosphere on Wall Street can do, if anyone can still remember 2008. Certainly no one on Wall Street is thinking about that now, not as we draw the curtain on the best stock market year since 1997. However, I am sure that many of the 1.3 million Americans who just get kicked off unemployment are still thinking about it.
“How can cities contribute to the advancement of sustainable development and address issues including water, energy and waste?”
Not only is there much that cities can do to advance sustainable development, it is critical that they begin doing so. With 50 percent of humanity already living in cities and emitting 80 percent of all greenhouse gases, with far more arriving in coming years, as Schneider Electric‘s Mike Calise said, “the battle for our future is going to be won or lost in the cities.”
The good news is that cities are in a good position to win that battle. The concentrated population provides tremendous leverage. Retrofitting skyscrapers, for example, with systems to improve energy or water efficiency, can have the same impact as taking individual measures across entire neighborhoods or even small towns.
Look at New York City, where 82 percent of residents travel to work by public transport. That’s one reason why the Big Apple’s per capita energy consumption is lower than any of the 50 states.
The Smart Cities movement, spearheaded by companies like IBM, Cisco and Schneider Electric has injected advanced technology into the mix. Opportunities are plentiful in buildings, where, according to the IEA, 80 percent of the potential for energy savings remains untapped. Advanced building management systems integrate HVAC, lighting, security management and fire protection equipment, utilizing sensors to direct resources to where they are needed. All of this is enhanced by analytics that predict occupancy and weather conditions, taking proactive measures to prepare the building. Cisco now has the capability to discover, measure, and manage all devices connected to the internet, providing dramatic savings by turning off idle equipment. Smart meters help residents understand their energy usage details, allowing them to save energy and money.
Transportation options range from hybrid-electric buses, to car-sharing services, to smartphone apps that encourage people to walk, bike or use public transit. Schneider has smart charging systems for electric vehicles. Energy storage systems, either solar integrated, or vehicle-to-grid (V2G) will facilitate utilization of renewable resources. Smart parking systems can help drivers find parking spots quickly, reducing fuel consumption and time spent searching.