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

Electric Vehicle Performance Found to Slide in Winter

| Wednesday February 12th, 2014 | 0 Comments

nissan leaf 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.

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Clean Cookstove Opportunity Remains Unfulfilled

| Tuesday February 11th, 2014 | 0 Comments

cookstoveWhen 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.”

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Interview: Cisco and AGT Launch Strategic Partnership on Smart Cities

| Friday February 7th, 2014 | 0 Comments

Cisco AGT 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.

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Smart Energy Storage Becomes the New Power Source

| Thursday February 6th, 2014 | 2 Comments

GreenStation2_vertical_300dpiFossil 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.

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DOE Helps Sprint Put Fuel Cells on Cell Towers

| Wednesday January 29th, 2014 | 2 Comments

5060085608_ff0c67953dWhat 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.

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Resourcefulness Survey Shows Disconnect Between Utilities and Customers

| Tuesday January 28th, 2014 | 1 Comment

Itron LogoItron 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.”

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Some Basic Truths About Energy Subsidies

| Monday January 27th, 2014 | 2 Comments

Power plantIt’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.

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Bloomberg, Paulson Form Group to Assess Climate Risk to Economy

| Monday January 20th, 2014 | 1 Comment

OxfamThis 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.”

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Newlight Makes Plastic Out of Thin Air (Not Oil)

| Tuesday January 7th, 2014 | 4 Comments

PlasticImagine 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.

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What is Wall Street’s Frat Boy Culture Doing to Our Planet?

| Tuesday December 31st, 2013 | 2 Comments

Wall Stree bullThere 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.

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The Emerging Sustainable City Opportunity

| Tuesday December 24th, 2013 | 1 Comment

Ed Note: This post is RP Siegel’s entry into Masdar’s 2014 blogging contest for a shot at a trip to Abu Dhabi.  If you’d like to enter, there’s still time.  Just follow these instructions.

How can cities contribute to the advancement of sustainable development and address issues including water, energy and waste?”

City skylineNot 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.

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Can Plastic Houses Be Green?

| Thursday December 19th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Lego houseThis sustainability business can get really complicated sometimes. Although we always like to press for more than “less bad,” in the solutions being offered, with the understanding that less bad won’t be good enough in the long run unless it’s truly sustainable, there are times when we do have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

A good example of this is the recent practice of constructing houses in Kenya out of polystyrene,  otherwise known as Styrofoam, blocks. Proponents of this practice claim that this use of this material reduces the impact on local forests that would otherwise be stripped of wood to feed the building boom that has occurred there since independence. The boom has led to the disappearance of tree cover along with the appearance of numerous quarries. The impact on the ecosystem has been significant.

“There are a lot of mudslides and landslides due to destruction of the catchment areas,” said Eustace Kathuni, an elder in the Upper Eastern Kenyan village of Kiereni. “We had very unique monkeys but not anymore because the migratory corridor was destroyed. There are no fish in the rivers while the African love bird has disappeared.”

The expanded polystyrene (EPS) panels are more affordable than other materials, and they can be purchased a few at a time, which makes it easy for someone like schoolteacher Alfred Kinyua to save up for a new house by accumulating the panels.

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Tesla and SolarCity Partner to Provide Energy Storage for Commercial Buildings

| Monday December 16th, 2013 | 4 Comments

SolarCity TeslaIt looks like Elon Musk and his friends at Solar City are at it again. First, there was the Tesla electric car. Then came solar energy provider Solar City. Then came the financial innovation of bonds backed by solar power. Now they appear to be combining all of these, with Solar City offering commercial energy storage systems based on batteries produced by Tesla Motors.

The batteries, which are “about the size of a small refrigerator,” were originally developed to store solar energy during periods of cloud cover or darkness, which, of course, they certainly can do.

But the leaders at SolarCity saw another, perhaps larger opportunity—providing short term storage for buildings to reduce their peak power demands at the time of day when power is most expensive. People in the industry call this “load leveling,” and it not only benefits customers, but it benefits the utility and the environment as well by reducing the need for inefficient and dirty “peaker plants” that are often used to fill in supply gaps during the busiest times of the day.

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Indian Government Commits to CSR with Companies Act

| Monday December 16th, 2013 | 0 Comments

India trafficI just returned from India last week. Between the unbreathable air in Delhi, due to the multiplicity of smokestacks and tailpipes belching black smoke, and the mountains of trash littering the roadsides, it’s clear that this is a country with a long road ahead of it, when it comes to finding a way to exist sustainably on this planet. Yes, there are some signs of progress, albeit small ones. Solar hot water systems are prevalent. Some towns have outlawed the use of plastic shopping bags. Woven cloth bags are available as an alternative.

A larger step was taken by the Indian government this year, in the form of the Companies Act, 2013. This legislation requires companies to take action, make investments, and report against a number of metrics related to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Last week, PwC India released a Handbook on Corporate Social Responsibility in India, providing guidelines to help industry to comply with the regulation. The guide was developed for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). While CSR does not in itself address the environmental issues mentioned above, it does set the companies and the country on a path to eventually deal with them.

Clause 135 of the Companies Act, 2013, which was passed on 29 August 2013 is applicable to companies with an annual turnover of 1,000 crore INR  ($161 million) and more, or a net worth of 500 crore INR ($80 million) and more, or a net profit as low as five crore INR ($800,000) and more. This will, in some cases extend to small and medium sized enterprises (SME).

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Cisco CSR Report: Creating Global Value Through Connections

| Wednesday November 27th, 2013 | 0 Comments

800px-Cisco_logo.svgThis week, Cisco Systems released their 9th Annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report. The comprehensive 160-page report is divided into five major sections: Governance and Ethics, Supply Chain, People, Society, and Environment. This is a broad sweep, and as CEO John Chambers says in his opening remarks, “Our focus on creating value for society, the environment and our business is reflected in the breadth of our commitments: from investing in our employees to improving labor standards in our supply chain, and from improving healthcare to reducing our environmental footprint. These are all multi-year efforts that require a long-term view to achieve positive outcomes.”

In the governance and ethics section, the company conducted five stakeholder sessions around the world to get feedback on environmental, social and supply chain issues. The company reported that they have met all of their objectives in this section including: employee certifications for code of business conduct, human rights training, and deepening engagement with socially responsible investors.

They also were recognized by the Carbon Disclosure Project, Dow Jones Sustainability Index, and the Global 100 for their CSR achievements.

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