3p Contributor: BC Upham

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

Recent Articles

“Mango Store” Brings Retail Banking to the Unbanked

| Friday July 30th, 2010 | 0 Comments


There are 30-40 million American households without a bank account, according to the Center for Financial Services Innovation, a fact that could either be seen as a sad statistic – or a tremendous business opportunity.

Mango Money sees it as essentially both.

The financial services company, launched in 2008, provides prepaid debit cards to customers through their website that can be used wherever regular debit cards are accepted. The cards are convenient for people who either do not qualify for a traditional bank account or chose not to use one. The company was started by brothers Roy and Bertrand Sosa, who pioneered the prepaid debit card business, and are backing Mango through their venture firm MPower.

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Volt Versus Leaf: Dueling Ads Reveal Different Marketing Approaches

| Friday July 16th, 2010 | 4 Comments

One has Lance Armstrong, the other has..silence.

Following on the heels of the Tour d’France commercial for the Nissan all-electric Leaf, Chevrolet has begun running advertisements for its forthcoming range-extended electric car, called the Volt, in select markets.

The Chevy Volt ad does not actually show the car, which may be to its advantage. The Volt, which goes on sale in November, is not the sexiest model in GM’s line-up (most hybrids are pretty ugly). Instead, all one sees is the onrushing open road — the future, one might say — and what one hears is, well, not much.

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US and Europe Added More Renewable Energy Than Conventional in 2009

| Friday July 16th, 2010 | 0 Comments

For the second year in a row the United States and Europe added more energy capacity from renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric, than from conventional sources, like coal and gas, according to twin reports out Thursday from the United Nations Environment Programme and the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.

In 2009 more than 50 percent of new power capacity in the US, and more than 60 percent in Europe, came from renewables.

The reports’ authors also predict that either this year or next growth in renewables will outstrip growth in conventional sources worldwide – a major milestone in the planet’s pivot away from fossil fuels.

Altogether nearly 80 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity was added worldwide in 2009, including 31 GW of hydro and 48 of non-hydro.

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Lloyd’s of London Warns About Peaking Oil, Energy Price Jump

| Monday July 12th, 2010 | 0 Comments

Venerable British insurer Lloyd’s, known for insuring Keith Richard’s fingers and America Ferrara’s smile, has released a white paper (PDF) warning of a looming energy crunch and the significant risks to companies unprepared for it.

Lead authors Antony Froggatt and Glada Lahn only touch on the controversial concept of “peak oil” in their report, which was written in partnership with think tank Chatham House. But they outline how soaring demand combined with environmental and technological constraints could bring the planet to peak oil-like circumstances long before the amount of recoverable oil actually peaks.

Specifically, the authors warn that a lack of investment in new oil wells exacerbated by environmental concerns raised by the Gulf oil spill, combined with accelerating demand from emerging economies China and India could shove the price of a barrel of oil over $200 by 2013. Prices on carbon emissions, if instituted world-wide, could also slow investment in oil exploration, leading to price increases.

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Massachusetts Moves to Tighten Biomass Rules Following Controversial Study

| Monday July 12th, 2010 | 2 Comments

If you ever wondered how, exactly, a burning a pile of wood, AKA biomass energy, could possibly be carbon neutral (as has been long assumed) you’re not the only one.

Last week, the state of Massachusetts moved to impose new rules on the state’s biomass industry following release of a controversial study of the carbon impact of bioenergy.

Until recently, it was a common assumption that energy derived from burning biomass — organic material like wood chips or corn stalks — was carbon neutral, because the material would rot and release its CO2 anyway. The theory is that whatever greenhouse gases that are released during burning will be reabsorbed by that organic fuel source when it regrows. Of course, this assumes that the organic material will regrow.

Last month a widely-reported study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER), upended that assumption, prompting headlines such as “electricity from wood worse than coal.”

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Obama Announces $2 Billion For Solar Energy Projects

| Wednesday July 7th, 2010 | 6 Comments

President Obama announced Saturday in his weekly radio address that the Department of Energy has agreed to back nearly $2 billion in loans to two solar power companies for projects in Arizona, Colorado and Indiana.

The loan guarantees will go to two firms: Spanish solar firm Abengoa Solar Inc. will receive a $1.45 billion loan guarantee to construct a 280 megawatt concentrating solar power facility in Solana, Arizona, while Colorado-based solar start-up Abound Solar will receive a $400 million guarantee to finance factory expansions in Colorado and Indiana.

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Telecommuting’s Win-Win-Win-Win..Etc.

| Wednesday July 7th, 2010 | 0 Comments

It’s a subject near and dear to my heart: as a freelance writer, the ability to set my own hours, work from home (or wherever I want) and drop everything to go for a walk or take a personal call. This is a level of freedom I am loathe to give up — even for a much higher paycheck.

As it turns out, telecommuting (aka telework, or the newly coined “workshifting”) is also a poster child for the Triple Bottom Line.

As a new white paper (PDF) from the Telework Research Network (TRN) reports, workshifting is good for People: 70 percent of workers would like to be able to work from home at least some of the time.

It’s good for the Planet, because those homeworkers are not driving to work or burning energy when they are there.

And finally, it’s good for Profits, because those liberated workers tend to be harder working and more productive (and you don’t have to pay for real estate to sit them at desks).

The TRN paper breaks down savings and cost-benefits of telecommuting based on their Telework Savings Calculator, which is derived from various studies of the benefits of telework, and uses data from public and private sources. It defines “workshifters” as employees who work half the time from home, which is “roughly the average for those who currently do,” according to the paper.

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Are Walmart’s Sustainability Efforts Heavy-Handed?

| Friday July 2nd, 2010 | 3 Comments

There’s a provocative blog post up on the Harvard Business Review’s website attacking Walmart’s sustainability plans. The post accuses the mega-retailer of “regulatory vigilantism” that shifts the cost of reducing Walmart’s carbon footprint onto its suppliers and customers who have not been allowed to weigh-in on the changes.

My guess is the post’s author, Bob Lurie, a sustainability consultant, is primarily playing the devil’s advocate. But some of his points echo concerns that were made earlier this year when Walmart announced it would “ask” its suppliers to reduce carbon emissions by 20 million metric tons by 2015.

Lurie outlines three criticisms of that move: one, that Walmart, by demanding that suppliers reduce emissions, is essentially enforcing environmental regulations that go beyond what our elected representatives have passed into law; two, that by “outsourcing” the work of reducing emissions to its suppliers, Walmart gets the win-win of reduced emissions (and energy costs, presumably) while not having to pay for them itself; and three, higher prices as a result of these actions may not be what consumers want from the cut-rate retailer.

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Ford Aims to Clear the Air, in Ways Big and Small

| Friday July 2nd, 2010 | 0 Comments

Ford Motor Company has been ramping up its sustainability footprint in the last couple years, making sure that we, the press/blogosphere, are aware of its efforts on a range of environmental initiatives (and no, not all car companies do that — I can’t remember the last time I saw an eco-friendly press release from Chrysler).

Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO since 2006, and his predecessor, William Clay Ford II, have both been outspoken about their commitment to environmental improvement, and that commitment is no doubt behind many of the changes taking place there.

The latest of which is the Dearborn MI-based company’s move into compostable and plant-based materials. Last week, Ford announced that the 2011 Ford Explorer, once the poster child for America’s obsession with gas-guzzling SUVs, will feature soy-based foam in its chairs (and get 25% better MPG).

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GE To Double Green R&D to $10 Billion by 2015

| Friday June 25th, 2010 | 1 Comment

General Electric has already invested $5 billion in research and development for its ecomagination line of energy efficient and environmentally friendly products and services, and plans to double that amount by 2015, the company announced Thursday.

GHG emissions from GE’s operations have been reduced 22 percent from a 2004 baseline, and energy intensity has increased 34 percent compared to 2004, according to the company’s ecomagination 2009 annual report (PDF).

Introduced in 2005, the ecomagination line generated over $18 billion in revenues for the company in 2009, a six percent increase over the previous year. It has grown from 17 products to over 90 – everything from compact florescent lightbulbs to fuel-efficient locomotives.

GE predicts that revenues from the ecomagination line will grow at twice the rate of the rest of the company over the next five years.

GE’s emissions reductions, like reductions economy-wide, are in part a result of the economic slowdown. GE aims to reduce emissions a further 3 percent by 2015, to 25 percent below the 2004 levels. The company also reported it had reduced water use by 30 percent from a 2006 baseline.

The company operates in more than 100 countries, and it showed in the ecomagination report, which documented environmentally friendly projects run by GE as disparate as a bio-gas generator at a poultry farm in China, a combined heat and power facility in Macedonia, and a 14 megawatt solar array at Nellis Air Force Base in California.

GE has also invested in several cleantech companies through its financial services arms, including battery maker A123 Systems.

GE was the world’s biggest company in 2009 (it is now #2 behind JPMorganChase), according to Forbes, with sales of $157 billion and profits of $11 billion.

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Cap and Trade Dying in the Senate; Utilities-Only Cap Possible

| Friday June 25th, 2010 | 1 Comment

A nationwide cap-and-trade policy is highly unlikely to gain the 60 votes necessary to break a Senate filibuster, recent developments show. But a utilities-only version may be possible.

Pundits and politicians agree that if cap and trade is going pass the recalcitrant Senate it will need the full weight of the presidency behind it. Yet in a major speech June 15, President Obama failed to express support for the controversial policy, and left the door open to alternatives.

According to the energy and environment news service Climatewire, Senate Democrats came out of a party caucus a couple days later with the sinking suspicion that “cap and trade doesn’t have the votes.”

Then, last week, the President abruptly postponed a crucial bipartisan meeting to discuss energy legislation to deal with the General McChrystal imbroglio (the meeting has been rescheduled for next week). All of this as the number of days left before the November elections continues to shrink.

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Feds Dangling Green Planning Assistance in Front of State Capitals

| Friday June 25th, 2010 | 0 Comments

Does Boise dream of a neighborhood bike path? Is Little Rock hankering to do something with an unsightly brownfield?

These state capitals, plus the other 48 (and the District of Columbia) can now apply for federal assistance in planning green and sustainable urban improvements, thanks to the Greening America’s Capitals program, a joint project of the EPA, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation.

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Tesla’s Planned IPO Rides the Anti-Oil Wave

| Thursday June 24th, 2010 | 0 Comments

Electric car maker Tesla Motors probably could not have picked a better time for their initial public offering as interest in alternatives to the internal combustion engine has been growing in tandem with the oil slick off Louisiana.

Even as Tesla CEO Elon Musk traveled around the country this week pitching the start-up’s $100 million IPO, expected June 28, in Washington Congress listened to a chorus of support for legislation that would subsidize the roll-out of EV infrastructure to the tune of $6 billion.

Both House and Senate versions of the pending bill would provide financial assistance for five to 15 communities around the country judged the most likely early adopters of electric vehicles. Those communities would receive federal funds to help finance public charging stations, and an increase in federal tax credits for EVs from $7,500 to $10,000.

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Brazil Hesitates on Deepwater Drilling

| Thursday June 24th, 2010 | 0 Comments

(courtesy Stratfor)

A planned stock offering to raise money for deepwater drilling by Brazilian state oil firm Petrobas has been delayed until September.

Petrobas said the delay was necessary to allow Brazil’s energy regulator, ANP, more time to assess the value of the oil deposits, according to the Guardian.

But the announcement comes as the BP deepwater spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to send shudders through the international oil industry – and specifically the deepwater drilling sector. Just last week the CEO of ExxonMobil testified before Congress that the industry is “not well equipped” to handle deepwater spills.

The Brazilian fields are also exactly the type of next-generation oil finds – exploitable only with advanced technologies – that led many in the industry to pooh-pooh concerns over “peak oil.” But if such fields prove either too risky or too expensive to exploit, it might bolster the arguments of those who see a looming oil shortage.

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Canadian Firms to Design World’s First Carbon Capture Standard

| Tuesday June 22nd, 2010 | 0 Comments

In an attempt to bring some order to a fractured – and controversial – industry, two Canadian organizations have announced a partnership to develop a set of standards for carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Standards organization CSA Standards and the International Performance Assessment Centre for Geologic Storage of Carbon Dioxide (IPAC-CO2) hope the best practices they develop for the Canadian CCS industry will eventually provide a model for CCS standards internationally.

CCS is the process of pulling CO2 out of emissions from industrial and energy sources and pumping it into geological formations underground, instead of allowing the CO2 into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.

“This is a growing industry, and like any industry, you have technology going ahead of the standards,” said Joe Ralko, Manager of Corporate Communications for IPAC-CO2. Ralko predicted the CCS industry will be larger than the natural gas industry within forty years – a trillion dollar industry.

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