3p Contributor: RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His publications include business and technical articles as well as three books. His third, co-authored with Roger Saillant, is Vapor Trails, an adventure novel about sustainability. Bob is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 49 patents and several commercial products . RP is also President of Rain Mountain LLC and the Founder and Executive Director of Cool Rochester, a non-profit agency devoted to reducing the carbon footprint of Rochester, NY. He also writes for Huffington Post and Energy Viewpoints. Follow @RPSiegel on Twitter. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

Recent Articles

How Steel Can Make Greener Cars

| Friday August 23rd, 2013 | 0 Comments

steel millLast year, when the Obama administration passed the new corporate fuel economy standards, requiring cars and light trucks to average 54.5 mpg, it was a moment of celebration for everyone concerned about the environment and the rate at which carbon emissions are damaging our climate system.

For carmakers, though, it was more likely a day to reach for the antacid rather than the champagne. All the testing, modeling and forecasting showed that even with all the dramatic improvement being made to powertrains, including electric cars, hybrids, plug-ins, diesels, etc. showed that given the rates of adoption and the distribution of vehicle sizes, there was no way that the companies could reach the average fleet economy goal based on powertrain modifications alone. To achieve these new levels of fuel economy would require making cars lighter. But reducing the weight enough to make a difference without compromising vehicle safety would likely require the use of exotic materials such as carbon fiber composites, which could add significantly to the cost of the vehicles.

Fortunately, advances in high strength steel, have led to substantially improved strength which can allow for thinner, lighter parts, without compromising safety – at a reasonable cost.

This was all explained to me by Blake Zuidema, Director of Global R&D, Automotive Product Applications for ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel and mining company, and leader in automotive sheet steel technology.

Triple Pundit: I’m surprised to hear this. After all, people have been making steel for a long time.

Blake Zuidema: Ten years ago structural steel had a yield strength of 270-350 MPA (mega-pascals). Today’s advanced high strength steels (AHSS) can go as high as 1500 MPa. These new steels have evolved using a combination of new formulations and alloys as well as different processing and treatment techniques. The newest steels are not only stronger, but they also tend to be more formable. This gives steel producers a rich and diverse portfolio of material options that can be custom tailored to meet the requirements of each application. It also represents a change in how steel companies like ArcelorMittal approach our business, transforming ourselves from providers of raw material, to providers of solutions.

3p: So how have you been able to achieve this kind of success with light-weighting?

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How Biking Improves Employee Productivity

| Tuesday August 20th, 2013 | 17 Comments

business-of-bikes-topper

Cycling to work

The business case for bicycling sounds obvious to sustainability enthusiasts. However, making it stick requires a generous leap of faith or two. We need to first make the case that an employer should have any opinion at all about how employees get to work. Then, we must also consider why it might be in employers’ best interests to invest in employee bicycling by providing bike racks, changing rooms and showers, or even offering financial incentives to employees who ride.

Why in the world would they do that? Why would an employer undertake an additional expense, with all the pressures already weighing on the bottom line, except perhaps to polish their image as a benign employer, one who provides a nice place work, to attract high caliber employees? One could always write it off as a recruiting expense.

Not so fast. Before we go there, we should consider the difference between an expense and an investment. An expense is money that is being spent in order to maintain the operation of a business. An investment is money spent with an expectation that it will somehow increase profitability.

Today, we’re going to ask you, Mr. Employer, to consider making an investment in your business by supporting bicycling among your employees.

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Lowering the Carbon Footprint of Air Conditioning

| Monday August 12th, 2013 | 1 Comment
Refrigerated Le_cargo_Teno_(7)

Refrigerated cargo takes quite a bit of energy to keep cool.

A year ago, I wrote a story about Stan Cox’s book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World. Cox is worried that as the planet continues to warm, more and more people will begin to use air conditioning and they will use it more often than ever. In a sense, this could become another positive feedback loop, not unlike the melting of the Arctic permafrost or the reduction in albedo due to melting sea ice. According to Cox, at the rate things are going, by 2050, we could end up using ten times as much energy for cooling as we use today.

In the year that has passed, some encouraging developments have occurred.

For one thing, there has been the advent of free cooling, as demonstrated by Schneider Electric at the Cogeco Managed Services data center in Barrie, Ontario. This novel approach takes advantage of natural cooling when it is available, combining fresh air heat exchangers in cooler weather, evaporative cooling in dry weather, and mechanical refrigeration the rest of the time.

According to Joe Capes, Cooling Business Development Director for Schneider Electric Americas, a system like this can reduce energy consumption by 36 percent when compared with traditional data centers.

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Shell and BP Halt Opposition to Renewable Fuel Standard

| Tuesday August 6th, 2013 | 9 Comments

PortraitOil companies don’t like biofuels very much. The reason why is pretty clear. Right now, 10 percent of what would have been gasoline sales is now being diverted to biofuels, primarily ethanol. Oilmen particularly don’t like the renewable fuel standard (RFS), which legally requires that gasoline producers include a minimum percentage of ethanol in every gallon sold, an amount that could grow to 15 percent in the near future, and eventually might go as high as 30 percent. By 2022, that means that 36 billion gallons will come from bio-based sources, though a maximum of 15 billion gallons can come from corn, a move intended to limit interference with the food supply.

That is why, both the American Petroleum Institute and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers group are pushing hard for a complete repeal of the RFS.

Two oil companies, BP & Shell, however, have broken ranks with these trade groups, saying that they, “generally support” the legislation. Those are the words of John Reese, Shell’s downstream policy and advocacy manager. He does feel that the mandate could use some revision. Likewise, according to spokesman Matt Hartwig, “BP supports the goals of the RFS program to stimulate the development and deployment of biofuels technologies. There are challenges with the standard that must be addressed, and we continue to work with regulatory authorities to address these issues.”

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World Bank Steers Clear of Coal

| Friday July 26th, 2013 | 0 Comments

World-Bank-logoIt looks like Big Coal is becoming the latest incarnation of Rodney Dangerfield, the man who famously said, “I don’t get no respect.” After being blamed for global warming, then having war declared upon it by the president, now the embattled industry has suffered the further insult of being shunned by the World Bank.

In a recent policy directive, entitled, “Toward a Sustainable Energy Future for All,” the mega-financial institution said that they would focus on the poor, offering financial solutions or guarantees, while helping “client countries realize affordable alternatives to coal power.”

Coal projects will only receive support in those “rare cases” where there is “no feasible alternative.”

One of those rare cases is apparently Kosovo, where the bank is considering a loan guarantee for a coal plant to help meet that country’s 600 MW shortfall.

Jigar Shah, founder of SunEdison disagrees. “European investors have already proposed over 200 megawatts of privately funded wind energy investments in Kosovo. This shows that industry is ready to move at the scale needed to put clean energy to work in Kosovo today.”

Progress on renewables has moved so quickly, with prices dropping fast, it’s easy for officials to underestimate the potential for renewables, even in very poor countries.

As an example, the World Bank’s estimated in 1996 that China would have 9 gigawatts of wind and 0.5 gigawatts of solar PV by 2020, when, in fact, by 2011 the country had already achieved 62 gigawatts of wind and 3 gigawatts of PV.

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Power Africa Aims to Light Up the Dark Continent

| Friday July 19th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Africa mapIn the early days of this country, the wild and undeveloped land to the West of the original thirteen colonies was a frontier filled with adventure, challenge and the promise of vast riches. That frontier has now been incorporated into the American economy.

In today’s world there is a new frontier for the global economy. Africa, is still largely undeveloped and filled with natural resources and a growing population that many companies are looking at as potential consumers of tomorrow, as well as suppliers of raw materials.

One of those “companies” is China Inc. China’s investment in Africa has grown by a factor of thirty since 2005, with over 2,000 firms being represented. But China’s 49 deals worth $20.8 billion pales next to Britain’s 437 deals totaling $30.5 billion, or France’s 141 deals worth the same amount.

It was against this backdrop that President Obama announced his pledge on his recent African visit, to develop 10 GW of electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. The move would bring power to 20 million households and businesses for the first time.

The development would be of the all-of-the-above variety including everything from oil and gas, to hydro, wind, geothermal and solar. Both on and off-grid would be included as well as transmission infrastructure. Initial investments will be in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania. Uganda and Mozambique will also receive assistance in developing their oil and gas reserves responsibly.

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Report: Keystone XL Pipeline Will Raise Gas Prices, Hurt Economy

| Tuesday July 16th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Keystone gameoverConsumer Watchdog released a groundbreaking report today that asks and answers the following question: What economic effect will the Keystone XL oil pipeline have on U.S. drivers and the U.S. economy as a whole?

The 19-page report compiles information from various sources including industry data, public records and company documents related to the issue. But the bottom line is this: the prime motivation behind the pipeline is to drive up the price of Canadian tar sands oil. The direct impact of this will be a significant increase in the pump price of gasoline for U.S. drivers, particularly those in the Midwest.

According to the report, prices could rise anywhere from 20 to 40 cents per gallon as a direct result of the fact that various overseas markets will gladly pay more than what Midwesterners are currently paying for that oil. The authors expect the price of the crude would rise anywhere from $20 to $30 for a 42-gallon barrel and that it would be up to refiners to decide how much of that increase to pass along to consumers.

Overall, the anticipated impact would be a $3 to 4 billion annual hit to the US economy.

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GM and Honda Join Forces on Fuel Cell Vehicles

| Wednesday July 10th, 2013 | 0 Comments

GM Fuel Cell carI did not anticipate this, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s true. Sustainability is changing the face of capitalism. Why do I say that? Because the increasing awareness of the value and necessity of the commons upon which all businesses depend has led to levels of cooperation among competitors rarely seen before.

Last week, I spoke with Jimmy Samartzis of United Airlines about the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Alliance and he told me that this was not a competitive effort within the industry, but rather, that this and other efforts like it are efforts that all industry players recognize as needed.

Today, I am here to tell you about a collaboration between well-known competitors: General Motors and Honda, who have decided to pool their considerable resources to bring a commercially viable fuel-cell vehicle to market by the end of this decade.

Both companies have put considerable effort into this technology, amassing a total of over 1200 patents that were originally intended to exclude competitors from utilizing the innovations they cover. Now they have signed a “definitive master agreement” to co-develop technology related to fuel cells and hydrogen storage systems.

GM CEO Dan Akerson said, “We are convinced this is the best way to develop this important technology, which has the potential to help reduce the dependence on petroleum and establish sustainable mobility.”

GM has already built and field tested a fleet of 119 fuel cell vehicles that have accumulated a total of over 3 million road miles going back to 2007. Honda, meanwhile, has built 85 fuel cell vehicles, the FCX, which was followed by the FCX Clarity which was named World Green Car in 2009.

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China Now Handing Down Death Penalty to Worst Polluters

| Wednesday July 3rd, 2013 | 7 Comments

China pollutionGiven our heavily business-friendly Congress, members of which believe that the best thing they can do for Americans is to cut taxes and reduce regulations; it should not be surprising to find a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward polluters. Occasionally, people go to jail for environmental crimes, but that is relatively rare. More commonly, civil penalties and fines are involved.

That is not always the case in other parts of the world. In the EU, for example, environmental regulation is one of the most important and far-reaching aspects of their legislation. Penalties vary by country, but jail terms and substantial fines are common and often more severe than in the US.

But, by far the most severe is China. In what appears to be a clear case of “desperate measures for desperate times,” Chinese authorities have recently given courts the authority to hand down the death penalty for serious cases of pollution. This is apparently in response to public outrage over the despoliation of the environment.

The new reading of the law would enact harsher punishment, tightening what that official Xinhua announcement called, “lax and superficial enforcement” of laws that were already on the books. In the case of the most serious crimes, the death penalty could be given.

Public anger over China’s growth-at-all-costs policies has been growing steadily in response to the increasingly polluted air and water. A new survey, carried out by the Public Opinion Research Centre in collaboration with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, measuring the public’s attitudes towards environmental protection found that up to 80 percent believe that environmental protection should be a higher priority than economic development.

There is good reason for this concern. A recent analysis by the Health Effects Institute in Boston found that over a million people die prematurely in China every year as the result of air pollution.

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Senators’ Positions on Climate Change Reflect Their Donors’ Wishes

| Friday June 28th, 2013 | 2 Comments

president_official_portrait_hiresEarlier this week, President Obama followed up on the promise he made in his State of the Union Address, to take action on climate change even if Congress wouldn’t. Specifically, he said, “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

Why would Congress be so recalcitrant on an issue of such vital importance as taking action to minimize (it’s too late to avoid) the impact of a crisis that could threaten the existence of civilization as we know it?

A recent analysis performed by MapLight suggests the root of much of the underlying motivation for our elected officials is money. While this isn’t terribly surprising, it is stunningly disappointing to see how lacking in character those men and women we have elected to lead us appear to be – trading the broad interests of future generations for their own very narrow, self-serving interest in raising money to enable them to remain in jobs that, it would appear, they are morally unqualified to serve in.

Looking specifically at campaign contributions given to senators, Maplight found the following campaign contribution levels from industries whose short-term financial interests would benefit from no action being taken on climate change during the period from January 1, 2009—December 31, 2012, as well as from those who would stand to benefit from action being taken. (Source: Open Secrets)

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Woody Harrelson’s New Wheat-based Paper Takes Trees Out of the Equation

| Wednesday June 19th, 2013 | 13 Comments

Woody HarrelsonWoody Harrelson is a well-known actor, seen in both TV and film in roles ranging from Woody the bartender in Cheers in the 80s, all the way to Haymitch Abernathy in last year’s Hunger Games, with many stops along the way, including two Academy Award nominations. He has also made a name for himself as a staunch defender of the environment, particularly when it comes to North American forests. Having confined his activities to political activism in the past, he has now taken a huge step beyond protest, toward redirecting our ravenous appetite for paper products away from the forests and onto a much less extractive source: agricultural waste.

How important is this? According to Canopy, an organization that promotes forest conservation, undisturbed forests absorb nearly one-fifth of the CO2 released by burning fuels. When we cut down trees, not only do we reduce the size of one of the world’s last remaining major carbon sinks, but we also trigger the rapid release of decades, if not centuries’, worth of stored carbon. Globally, 71 percent of the world’s paper supply comes from bio-diverse forests. A single issue of the NY Times Sunday edition is said to require 63,000 trees.

I spoke with Woody in advance of today’s announcement regarding the U.S. distribution of Step Forward paper, a product of Prairie Pulp and Paper, a company that Woody co-founded. This new paper is comprised of 80 percent wheat straw in place of wood pulp, making it the lowest environmental impact paper on the market. As of today, Step Forward paper will be available at Staples. Also joining the conversation was Jeff Golfman, President of Prairie Paper & Pulp.

TriplePundit: How did you get involved in this wheat straw paper initiative?

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Sierra Club Reviews Plug-in Hybrids

| Tuesday June 18th, 2013 | 1 Comment

Ford Plug-insMost people don’t think of Sierra Club as the place to go for information about new technology. After all, the 121-year-old organization, with the motto “Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet,” is best known for its efforts spent protecting the places where living things live.

But since, these days, we do a lot of our exploring and enjoying behind the wheel of a mobile steel and glass vehicular bubble, it makes sense that they should feature an article that advises us on vehicles that can explore while, if not protecting then, at least, minimizing their impact on the planet. Hence, this new online guide to Plug-in hybrids.

The idea behind plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), is to provide a best-of-both-worlds option, combining the kind of range that gas-powered vehicle drivers are accustomed to, with the carbon-free, inexpensive, peppy performance that has garnered all-electric cars so much attention. The six vehicles featured in this review (shown with retail price after federal tax credit): Chevrolet Volt ($32,495), Ford C-Max Energi ($30,389), Ford Fusion Energi ($35,744), Honda Accord Plug-in ($36,944), Fisker Karma ($95,000-108,500) and Toyota Prius Plug-In ($30,295-37,829) display several different approaches to the job-sharing that takes place under the hood between the electric drive train and its gas-powered counterpart. For example, in the Chevy Volt, the gasoline engine never directly powers the wheels, but instead, drives a generator that ensures that the battery stays charged so long as there is gas in the tank. All the others have the gas engine driving the wheels at certain times, whether it’s after the battery has depleted, or for an extra boost of power. Sometimes these options are selectable, in other cases they are programmed as defaults in the car’s operating software.

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Biofuels Taking Off With United Airlines

| Wednesday June 12th, 2013 | 2 Comments

United planeLast week, United signed an agreement with AltAir Fuels of Seattle to purchase 15 million gallons of biofuel. AltAir has been a participant in the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) initiative since 2010.

SAFN is the nation’s first regional stakeholder effort to explore the opportunities and challenges surrounding the production of sustainable aviation fuels. The group performed a study (video) that showed that the Pacific Northwest has both the feedstocks and the infrastructure to make it well-suited to the production of biofuels, with the potential to create 23,000 jobs. AltAir Fuels uses camelina, a distant relative of canola, as their feedstock to produce biofuel. Camelina is attractive in that it requires minimal water and less fertilizer than many other crops.

The 15 million gallon purchase will take place over a three-year period starting in 2014. The cash infusion will allow AltAir to convert a 30 million gallon annual capacity diesel refinery into an advanced biofuels plant.

According to United, the fuel will be a drop-in replacement for conventional fuel and is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent with no loss in performance and no engine modifications required.

“This agreement, said Jimmy Samartzis, United’s managing director for global environmental affairs and sustainability, “underscores United’s efforts to be a leader in alternative fuels as well as our efforts to lead commercial aviation as an environmentally responsible company.”

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Scientist Using Viruses to Improve Batteries, Solar Cells and Biofuels Wins Major Prize

| Tuesday June 4th, 2013 | 2 Comments

Angela Belcher_2013 LMP Winner- small

MIT Materials Scientist Angela Belcher has been doing amazing things for a while now. She was winner of a McArthur fellowship (2004), Time Magazine Climate Hero Award (2007), Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award (2006), Scientific American’s Research Leader of the Year (2006), Fortune Magazine’s Top 10 Innovators Under 40 (2002), and she was listed on Rolling Stones list of “100 People Who Are Changing America,” just to name a few. Today, she is the 2013 Winner of the $500,000 MIT Lemelson Prize.

The prize, which will celebrate its 20th year in 2014, honors an outstanding mid-career inventor who is dedicated to improving our world through technological invention.

Belcher’s work uniquely combines biotechnology and nanotechnology. She has produced solutions to numerous critical problems in the clean energy field including solar PV, battery technology and biofuels by developing viruses that will bind together and grow materials in ways that were previously not possible, or else highly energy-intensive, dirty, or wasteful.

Her original inspiration for this work comes from her PhD work on abalone, whose shell contains only 2 percent of a protein which makes the shell 3,000 times tougher than it would be without the protein. Once she saw this, she recognized that there were relatively few examples in nature that combined organic and inorganic materials, but that there was no reason not to apply this approach across a wider portion of the periodic table in order to produce various new and useful materials. She calls it, “using the biological toolkit to make new materials and devices.”

She differentiates herself from those practicing biomimicry in that unlike being biologically inspired, as biomimicry-based designers are, her materials are actually biologically produced.

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Poll: 58% of Republicans Still Believe Global Warming is a Hoax

| Thursday April 25th, 2013 | 15 Comments

IcebergYou could say that the American Right is holding the world hostage to their need for greed, especially when it comes to climate change.

As low-lying areas (like New York City) watch helplessly while storm surges wash over areas that could be permanently submerged within decades, as polar ice caps melt at alarming rates far greater than predicted, and as new accelerating feedback loops continue to reveal themselves, other countries boldly take decisive action. Our American government remains not only paralyzed, but poised to take an enormous step backwards, all because of a degree of uncertainty, that has to stretch itself to its fullest height to be even marginally considered the merest shadow of a doubt.

A recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey found that 58 percent of Republicans polled still believe that global warming is a hoax. This, at the same time that international polls are finding that Americans are among the biggest doubters, a dubious honor shared with our friends in the UK. Only 47 percent of Americans believe that global warming is real and is mostly caused by emissions, compared with 58 percent of Canadians, for example.

In response to what The Guardian is calling “the moral crisis of our time,” House Republicans have not only not taken action, but in January 2011, they actually disbanded the House Committee on Global Warming in order to “eliminate waste in government.” Remember that?

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