In the midst of an international trade dispute over solar components and threats of Chinese tariffs, Michigan-based Hemlock Semiconductors permanently laid off 400 workers in Michigan and Tennessee last March. The company makes polysilicon, the main material for producing photovoltaic solar cells. Sure, a huge percentage of solar panels have been coming from China. But U.S. companies manufactured a significant portion of the polysilicon that went into those panels. The polysilicon was made here, sent to China, assembled into solar panels, and sent back here. The supply chain, being what it is, still benefited U.S. companies and workers, and Chinese companies and workers I might add, as solar use grew. Everybody wins. Economics at its best.
But on Monday, those tariffs became a reality. China, arguably the U.S. and Europe’s largest rival in renewable energy manufacturing, announced tariffs of up to 57 percent against polysilicon imports coming from the United States. Polysilicon imports from, for example, Hemlock Semiconductors in Hemlock, Michigan, produced by hundreds of men and women in Michigan and Tennessee.
These international trade disputes can seem somewhat academic until you can point to an actual family kicked to the curb because mom or dad lost a job. Or a whole community losing millions in economic activity. Then the cold, distant world of trade disputes hits way too close to home in a very real way.
We all knew it, didn’t we? That the world’s salvation might at least partially be found in that most ancient and beloved of humanity’s discoveries: beer and fermentation. Ever since President Carter deregulated the U.S. beer market in 1979, a great and largely unsung accomplishment in this writer’s opinion, the U.S. has burst into a beer renaissance. Those small breweries are helping to revitalize communities. They’re giving us new places to fraternize with friends and family, and a sense of town pride. And many craft breweries are becoming early adopters of cutting edge, clean technology, putting clean tech into real world use.
For example, Bear Republic Brewing Company in Cloverdale, California, population 8,618, has become the world’s first industrial scale adopter of a bioelectrtic wastewater treatment and reuse system created by Cambrian Innovation in Boston. The system, dubbed EcoVolt, is about the size of a cargo shipping container and is kept on the brewery’s premises. The containers are modular, so a company can add more units as its water treatment and electricity needs grow. The EcoVolt takes waste water in, processes it using bioelectric microbes (or what I like to call “critters”), and pumps clean water and methane out. I’m sure the good folks at the MIT spinoff company, Cambrian Innovation, have a more detailed explanation of the process. It’s only super-science at its best.
At least the U.S. doesn’t hold a monopoly on climate change denialists in public office.
The Australian government, under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, seems committed to exacerbating its nation’s climate woes. Even as his Environmental Minister approved a vast coal mine that will produce 40 million tons of CO2-emitting coal per year, Abbott is calling Australia’s strong renewable energy sector into question.
He’s cutting funding for renewables, threatening to remove the 20 percent renewable energy standard and even falling back on the old and largely debunked criticism that wind power has negative impacts on human health. Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council looked into the issue in 2010 and again in 2012. And now Abbott is calling for another review. Because, why not?
And just for good measure, he’s also dismantling Australia’s well-regarded plans for curbing carbon emissions and jettisoning the nation’s goals for carbon reductions.
Good news for those living at the intersection of manufacturing and environmentalism. Here in the U.S., sales of plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles almost doubled between 2012 and 2013 with an 84 percent jump to 96,600 of the vehicles sold. That’s 49,000 plug-in hybrids (like the Volt) and 47,600 pure battery powered plug-in vehicles sold.
As a resident of Michigan and a guy concerned with environmental and sustainability issues, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the auto industry. On one hand, auto emissions are a main source of greenhouse gasses and the international thirst for oil, as gasoline production accounts for almost half of our oil use. On the other hand, friends, family, neighbors and the community depend very notably on income from the auto manufacturing sector.
If it was anybody else I might take the objection more seriously, but when an oil lobbying group sues the EPA over the renewable fuel standard, it kind of takes the edge off. The American Petroleum Institute (API) is raising a legal stink over new rules requiring that biofuels be mixed with good old fashioned unleaded all American gasoline. Incidentally, the API is among many groups that funneled thousands of dollars to Koch backed conservative think tanks.
Dismantling renewable energy standards nationwide has been a high priority for the Koch Brother’s machine, lately. Specifically through the conservative group ALEC.
At least 77 (ALEC) bills to oppose renewable energy standards, support fracking, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and otherwise undermine environmental laws were introduced in 34 states in 2013
Viewed as a one-off dispute between the API and biofuels standards, the lawsuit against the EPA could seem unremarkable. Maybe even borne of legitimate concerns. But when viewed as just one more part of a larger nationwide effort of Koch friendly hyper-conseravtives to roll back all renewable energy progress in the U.S. in favor of a fossil fuel based agenda, one can be excused a certain amount of cynicism regarding the API’s lawsuit. Even if one isn’t entirely sold on biofuels.
Hold on, I need to look at my list here. I need to buy some Swedish meatballs, a couple chairs, some new food containers (I can never keep those lids around), and of course, solar panels. Can’t forget the solar panels.
By the summer of 2014, British residential customers will be able to march right into one the country’s 17 Ikea locations and buy thin film solar panels at the same place they’d buy their reasonably priced, designer home furnishings. Ikea made the move based on a pilot program at one of its stores which sold one solar setup per day. With new national subsidies and a minimum cost of £5,700 ($9,212), a buyer’s solar setup is estimated to pay for itself in seven years.
Most can’t even say that about a car purchase. The cost of solar panels includes in-store consultation, installation and maintenance. So I’m going to assume that you won’t be getting the standard Ikea allan wrench for this purchase.
Internships are important. They’re a longstanding and respectable way for new workers to cut their teeth on a trade, gaining real world contacts and work experience. But lately there’s been an overindulgence in the internship economy with class action lawsuits flying around against companies that took undue advantage of cheap labor. Some responsible organizations like CBS and Viacom are trying to get out ahead of the controversy, signing on to an Intern Bill of Rights crafted by internmatch.com.
The bill of rights outlines a clear set of expectations for employers and the rights interns should expect, things like:
- “All interns should be provided an offer document, recognizing their role within a company.”
- “The word intern should only be applied to opportunities that involve substantial training, mentoring, and getting to know a line of work.”
Internmatch.com is a self-described “online ecosystem” focused on helping students find internships. They provide resources, intern matches, and help students find socially responsible positions. The organization crafted the Intern Bill of Rights to bring a bit more justice to the internship process.
“Greenwashing” is a threat to environmental responsibility. A new report titled How to Make Credible Green Marketing Claims: What Marketers Need to Know about the Updated FTC Green Guides gives marketers a thorough and illustrative overview of how to avoid the practice and preserve their company’s public image. The report is co-authored by Jacquelyn Ottman of J. Ottman Consulting and David Mallen of the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau.
“Greenwashing,” of course, refers to the intentional or accidental practice of claiming more environmental benefit from a product or service than is true. Not only does it open a company up to liability and class action lawsuits over false claims, it reduces company credibility. It poisons earnest attempts at creating environmentally responsible products, and sows doubt among the general public about legitimate claims and benefits.
As consumers increasingly seek healthier or environmentally friendly alternatives to products, companies work to communicate how their products suit those demands. Unfortunately, according to the 2013 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker poll fewer than half, only 46 percent, of Americans trust companies’ claims about environmental benefits.
My aunt Margie, at the age of 99, used to marvel at all the trees that had grown in Michigan over her lifetime. Today, Michigan from above seems like a mass of oaks, maples, beeches, hemlock, white pines, and such. Manistee National Forest near my home is about half a million acres, much to the delight of two-trackers and Jeep drivers, and it’s hard to know where it starts and ends – there are just so many trees. But during my aunt’s childhood in the early 20th century, as she told it, trees were few and far between. The whole state was open, rolling farmland with few scrubby hardwoods.
Here’s why. In the late 1800s, the whole of Michigan was clearcut by lumber barons in a frenzied, unregulated dash for wood over the course of a couple decades. Tens of millions of acres were wiped out and sent down the river for mill processing. Now, 120 years later, Michigan has recovered and is a seemingly endless forest again due to natural growth on land unsuited for farming and the expansion of protected state and national forest land.
I bring this up for two reasons – first, to underscore the need for public/private partnerships to work toward sustainable forestry. And second, when thinking about the state of international forests, it’s important for developed nations like the U.S. not to be too smug about our current successes. We’ve been through the trajectory from deforestation to recovery that many developing nations currently face.
With that in mind, how are our international forests doing?
Adrian Whiteman, Head of Economics and Statistics at the Food and Agriculture Organization Forestry Department says, “As an overly simple metric of total forests, we’re still seeing millions of square kilometers of deforestation each year. But that rate is slowing, and there are some very encouraging things going on…we’re headed in the right direction.” We are indeed still losing 13 million hectares of forest each year. Though that’s down from 16 million hectares of forest per year in the 1990s.
Just a few years ago we saw a dramatic example of privatized gain buoyed by socialized risk when taxpayers ponied up trillions of dollars to bail out big outfits like Goldman Sachs who made reckless investment choices. Remember that? Good times. Arguably it was among the worst examples of private/public interaction.
Today we’re seeing a model for financing social programs called Social Impact Bonds. This strategy tries to turn that around, privatizing risk and socializing gain. To their credit, Goldman Sachs is on board with this one, too. They’ve invested ten million bucks in a strategy to stop young New York inmates from becoming repeat offenders.
Social impact bonds, in theory, work like this: private investors work with a nonprofit group (or not) to finance a solution to a social problem. If the solution works, taxpayers then pay the investors back plus interest. If it doesn’t work, tough luck for the investors. It’s also called a “pay-for-success” program.
While some may cry “deja vu,” there’s another growing movement of Republicans urging cooperation on climate change action. And it makes complete sense.
“Conservative” and “Conservation” share the same root. Conserve: to preserve and manage responsibly. By all accounting, environmental conservation should be right up the Republican alley. Russell Kirk, author of American conservatism said,”conservatism is about preserving the Permanent Things. ” Heck, American environmental roots have their foundations in Republican president Teddy Roosevelt who carved out a hundred and fifty national forests, eighteen national monuments, and five national parks.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Rob Sisson, President of ConservAmerica, a conservative group calling for environmental protection. He brought up an interesting perspective which I’d never considered. What is pollution, he said, but a kind of trespassing on another’s property, or on another’s health? Climate change, then, is an ultimate global kind of trespassing. He also brings up the tragic point that 60,000 unborn children suffer methyl mercury poisoning in utero each year as a result of coal-burning power plants.
With that in mind, there seems to be little, ideologically, that would stand between Republicans, climate change action, and renewable energy. It’s part of the Republican history. It fits with the ideology.
I don’t get the Greek yogurt craze. Sure, I like Greek yogurt as much as the next guy. It’s pretty good. But it’s not “add another billion pounds of lightly regulated cow manure into our water supply” good. But the State of New York would disagree.
Hosting the first-ever statewide Yogurt Summit, Governor Cuomo of New York brought industry leaders, dairy farmers and “stakeholders” together to come up with ways to help New York’s yogurt biz grow to meet the surging demand for Greek yogurt. As it turns out, that delicious, creamy Greek yogurt takes three times as much milk to produce the same volume as good old classic yogurt. No wonder it’s so good, eh?
On one hand, it’s great that Cuomo is focused on growing diverse industries and jobs in his state. On the other hand, the solution the summit came to basically amounted to “let dairy farmers dump more cow manure into our water with fewer regulations.”
Based on the summit, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation rewrote the definition of a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)”, more commonly known as a “factory farm.” The change allowed farmers to have larger herds before they need to get special permits or follow tighter waste dumping regulations. The herd threshold went from a maximum of 200 cows to a maximum of 300 cows. A 50 percent increase in the number of cows before tighter regulations need to be followed.
Thirty percent of the small businesses crippled by Hurricane Sandy never opened their doors again. That accounts for about 20,000 to 30,000 companies gone in one disaster. Whack! One day the lights went out and they never went back on again. Severe storms like that take a serious toll on small businesses. On average, about 25 percent of them never open their doors again after a disruptive disaster. Even without the damage or loss to property, equipment and merchandise, the down-time alone is enough to do in a mom and pop shop with an average loss of $3000 every single day.
A recent report issued by the Small Business Majority and the American Sustainable Business Council entitled Climate Change Preparedness and the Small Business Sector highlights how small businesses are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Unlike larger businesses, small businesses tend to be dependent on a single region for their customer base, all their assets are usually in a single location, and they simply don’t have access to the supply chains or capital larger companies do to bounce back from a storm ravaged city.
We all hear it over and over again: small business is the backbone of the American economy, employing half of the American workforce. They are the drivers of innovation, opportunity, and community well-being. Small businesses are a part of our communities in a way no other company can be.
Add Chevron to the list of organizations groping through Americans’ personal email metadata. And the reason appears largely retaliatory for testifying against them or protesting some toxic business practices. Chevron, in turn, charges conspiracy and racketeering to justify getting access to the personal information.
The more I learn about public surveillance the more it seems recent news of NSA surveillance is a case of the Federal Government getting for free what other powerful folks have to pay for. In this case, Chevron. The bottom line is that our personal data is too easily had across the board. And organizations are all too willing to invade our first amendment rights to get whatever they want.
Last month a federal judge handed Chevron the rights to paw through nine years of email metadata from people who publicly criticized Chevron for their polluting practices in Ecuador. Lawyers, witnesses, environmental activists, and even journalists who helped lead to a $18 billion judgement against the oil company are now the subject of Chevron’s spying eyes.
If you were on the list of folks who criticized them, testified against them, or protested them on this matter, they would have nine years of your email metadata including names, email addresses of folks you’ve talked to, phone numbers, billing information, time stamps, computer use logs, and detailed location data, meaning they can find out the locations from which some emails were sent. Even if you’re an American. First amendment rights and all.
Last week, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station had to temporarily reduce power output by 15 percent in a summer heat wave when homes and businesses needed the electricity the most in order to keep cool. High temperatures were to blame for the reduction of output. Cooling water drawn from Cape Cod Bay got so warm the power plant couldn’t safely discharge it. On the bright side, the power reduction lasted only 90 minutes. Unfortunately, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station produces a huge percentage of the state’s energy needs and they still have to make it through July and August.
Meanwhile in Michigan, a hydropower plant run by the Cloverland Electric Cooperative experienced a 60-80 percent drop in output in 2012 due to falling Great Lakes water levels. Waters far below the long term average reduced the power plant’s water allocation and also let air into the draft tubes. The power plant has built a dam around the discharge area to raise the water levels to moderate the problem.
This is a growing trend around the U.S.: changing conditions from a warming planet are causing disruptions in our power supply. The U.S. Department of Energy this month released a report showing vulnerabilities to our energy sector from climate change. Here are the basics: