Tuesday, April 29, 2008

When you have a hammer everything is a nail....

I'm right now listening to President Bush's press conference on a new energy policy and I feel like nothing has changed. The answer again remains ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) as it has been for the past 7 years. Have to give him credit, he is persistent. Throughout the press conference he spoke about the new technologies that will allow environmentally friendly drilling. So much emphasis on supporting technology when it comes to oil acquisition, but where is the policy leadership to support technologies that reduce oil consumption. Well, I won't go into what's motivating this focus.

Let me put it this way, ANWR drilling remains an exploration project. It's unclear how much oil is there and whether it will make a difference. This we do know, supporting energy consumption reduction technologies with hybrid technologies, public transit, human powered vehicles will definitely work. If we really care about energy independence in this country, then talking about both sides of the oil equation is mandatory. Instead it's almost always about production to meet our consumption.

President Bush had it right, the demand curve is outpacing the supply curve. Time to lower the demand curve too. When you are more efficient you are forever, when you drill for new oil you're only good for how much oil is in the ground. Which one is the real solution?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Our leaders leading...Or at least where they live.

The New York Times has coverage of a new high tech bike share system that is starting in Washington DC. Modeled after programs in Europe, the bicycles are distinctive and have a electronic swipe system to track usage and locations of the bikes. Human nature is something that technology had to solve, since early programs had bikes getting stolen or thrown away. My friend recounts in Geneva where they painted bikes ugly colors as a deterrent to being stolen, but they were often painted.

A novel twist to having such expensive bikes is that the bikes are indirectly advertising supported in exchange for the rights to bus stop advertising. The service in the U.S. will be run by Clear Channel's SmartBike. It'll be interesting to see how the experiment takes hold in our nation's Capitol given the weather challenges.

The goal of SmartBike is to address the challenges of intermodal transportation between main line public transit. It's a problem begging to be solved. The other day I was taking CalTrain back to my home in Silicon Valley from San Francisco and visited a bike shop with a large inventory of folding bikes from Bike Friday and Dahon. I also saw people using skateboards and scooters to get to the train station.

SmartBike is a nice addition to the mesh of transit alternatives and a bold experiment, I hope it pans out.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Recession Values, Green Values?

The New York Times is in recession overdrive, focusing on all the things we are doing to cut back on our spending, including this story that covers the resurgence of thrift stores for shoppers. Another article focuses on people downsizing and eating in more in an effort to save money. (Addendum) And the San Francisco Chronicle gets into the mix with an article on the impact of the falling dollar on U.S. consumers.

The articles focus on the sacrifices, and I'm not sure they are all valid from a green point of view. Nor am I sure they are sacrifices. For instance, one example was a man who was downgrading from the Hilton to the Hampton Inn. It may be cheaper, but is it more green. One of my favorite pens that I acquired a few years ago came from Paddington Hilton in London (yes, the Paddington of Paddington Bear fame and in a frivoulous purchase or which some part went to charity I did buy a Paddington Bear with the intent of gifting it, an event that never happened. But the bear does keep watch at home and remains in mint condition tag and all ready for a second life). That Hilton had dedicated tremendous energy to being green, including entry key lighting, the option to not receive new towels, and the pens they gave were made of recycled paper not plastics. I'm not sure cheaper places will take the same effort.

It still amazes me that almost uniformly around the world, the lights in hotel rooms are master switched by your room key. When you leave the room, you take the key card and your lights are turned off. They have other plugs that are constant for charging etc. I saw this in China in 1999, yet I rarely see rooms with this set up in the U.S.

The other thing that troubles me with sacrifice chic is that it assumes the secondary market is used. We've become so conditioned to sales that we often buy what we don't want or need, so that many goods remain unopened. Thrift store shopping can sometimes be smarter shopping from a green perspective and fiscal point of view too. It doesn't always happen. I bought my heart rate monitor from a garage sale for $4, when it was going for $50 on ebay. It was an older model, but it was brand new. Exercise equipment purchases often show more hope than usage.

With improved technologies, and services such as Amazon's "Sell your feature" we can look forward to an efficient secondary market where thrift is looked on with positive connotations and the planet benefits. And economy is a flow of transactions, it's not about spending less, it's about spending within your means in a sustainable manner. It's about spending differently, it's about consuming smartly.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Greening your Commute....

One of my top tips about being more green and carfree is to telecommute. Glad to see that the American Electronics Association agrees. Obviously when one looks at the source, one has to wonder what the motivation is? Perhaps selling more electronics. Now putting my cynicism aside, telecommuting is an entirely viable option to displace miles driven and CO2 produced in the act of commuting. However, one must be careful not to discount "additionality" of producing more waste from additional electronics sales.

High tech has replaced the automobile industry as the stalwart's of "planned obsolescence " encouraging us to buy new gear all the time. Hey I'm guilty on my allowable shopping list right now is a new MacBook computer that I'm craving to replace my existing Powerbook G4 that is crawling when doing some of my graphics work. But it is replacement and additional hardware. So to be truly green in your telecommuting, don't use it as an excuse to succumb to the Diederot Effect.

But seriously, Greenwashing is big business even when the claims are legitimate, you have to make sure that you look at the larger picture when assessing your actions. If you make a mis-step that reveals itself with more knowledge, don't fret. As I recall, I only learned how to walk by learning how to fall.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Green Home Computing...

There are a lot of appliances and gadgets at home that suck a lot of energy even while we're not there. Some things are required like our refrigerator, burglar alarms, thermostat but others just stay on for convenience and time efficiency reasons. One of those items that we leave on that we never would have thought of 10 years ago is our computers, and most computers weren't made to be energy efficient (though the Energy Star program has been in effect for much longer.) Deal News has neat piece on making your computing more green. The article focuses more on making desktop computing more efficient, but another solution is to use a laptop which is more energy efficient. Other things are like I need to remember to turn off my printer when I'm not using it since I really do print so rarely.

As computers become more communications devices (a la skype, instant messaging, Phone over internet) and entertainment systems they stay on more often, and making them more efficient adds up. In a former apartment my housemate use to have 3 computers on all the time, he turned off one and was shocked by the energy savings.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day to You!

Today's Earth Day, though festivities started this past weekend in many municipalitie and places. In recognition of events a lot of places are holding seminars, awareness events or conducting special programs. I don't like to shill for companies, but if it seems like it'll add to the coversations I'll mention them. I received an email from TCP the manufacturer of the Globe brand of Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb manufacturer is holding a special program explaining the myths around CFLs. I briefly visited and thought the tone was a little confrontational for my taste, but the fears of improper disposal are overblown. Judge for yourself.

A little close to home is Yahoo's Free is Good Campaign. (In full disclosure, Yahoo is how I pay my bills) The "Free is Good" campaign is promoting the existence of "Reuse Networks" such as Freecycle(TM) that give a second life to goods that might be just sitting at home unused. A theme that I've touched upon in the past. As part of the awareness program, there are a bunch of cool prizes in different groups that as an Employee I'm not eligible for. One includes Sheryl Crow tickets (whom once signed one of my CDs a long time ago with a heart I kid you not) or a Smart Car. (if you win you don't have to Freecycle(TM) your existing car).

Here are some simple things you can do today to reduce your footprint.

1) Consider taking mass transit (sadly my errand schedule won't permit this) today.
2) Consider forgoing meat today
3) Replace your incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs
4) Bring a mug to your coffee place instead of using a paper cup.
5) Bring your own bag to the grocery store
6) If you are shopping for something, see if you can get it used
7) Remember that every day is earth day unless you are an astronaut.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

lots of reading, print to PDF and read at Convenience

The New York Times Sunday Magazine is dedicated to living more green. Nice stories, good reading, lots of reading. Too much reading. Let me simplify for this Earth Week.

1. Know truly what matters to you.
2. Focus your consumption on that.
3. Reduce all other consumption.
4. Eat less meat.
5. Drive less.
6. Repeat steps 1 - 5 as needed. We're in this for the long haul.

Oh yeah, there's good writing there. It's a bit navel gazing, but in summary Bill Nye's Interview is pleasantly efficient (like most things green!).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cool place to work....

Today's New York Times has an excerpt from an upcoming book The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker by Steven Greenhouse described as "(an examination of the) difficulties faced by workers at companies like Fed Ex and Wal-Mart, and points to Patagonia and Costco as models for corporate America." Look at the following description of Patagonia:

Patagonia is not like anywhere else. With 1,300 workers and $275 million a year in sales, it donates 1 percent of its annual sales to environmental groups. Four days a week at lunchtime, the company offers yoga and Pilates sessions; there are also occasional classes on fly fishing. Each year Patagonia lets 40 employees take paid two-month internships with an environmental group. The best spots in the parking lot are reserved for the most fuel-efficient cars, and above dozens of parking spots are solar panels that supply all the power for one of Patagonia’s administration buildings.

Patagonia has 900 applicants for every job opening at headquarters. It sponsors civil disobedience training for employees who want to participate in environmental protests. Its mission statement calls for making the best outdoor products while doing the least damage to the environment. Its Synchilla fleece vests are made from recycled plastic bottles.

While $275 million in sales seems impressive, when compared to the stalwarts of public companies it's revenue per employee pales to other companies (though I did not do a direct segment to segment comparison) at $210,000. For instance, GE regularly posts $500,000 revenue per employee, and Cisco delivers $625,000 per employee. These are the kind of results that public companies are pressured to deliver, and the kind of benefits that Patagonia offers works best in private companies. In fact, Yvon Chouinard directly addresses this point in an interview at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Chouinard says his resistance to the runaway growth that would ultimately land his company on the IPO track comes back to his environmental mission. There are limits to how much organic, recyclable clothing a company can make. He argues that going public would force expanding production to the point he would have to abandon his standards. "It would be committing suicide, going against almost everything I believe in."

One final counterintuitive practice of particular interest to Business School students: Chouinard rarely hires a business school graduate. Counting "less than a handful of MBAs" among his 1,200 employees, he reasons that sometimes the best business people are students of another discipline.

"None of us ever wanted to work in business; it just happened," he said. "For me, breaking the rules and making it work, that's the fun part of business."

For those struggling with a reason to go to work, Patagonia's mission seems to make it easier. Private is not always hampered either, there are exceptions. For instance, privately held Craigslist.org delivers an astonishing estimated $6.25 Million (yes that's an M) in revenue per employee.

Buyer Beware....

The San Francisco Chronicle has a resource of an article timed for Earth Day that goes behind the scenes behind the green seal certifications you see on many products today. I've chatted in the past about "greenwashing" a product and this article explains the limits of our current regulations. For instance the word natural is basically meaningless, meaning coming from natural ingredients. TerraCycle performed some analysis that revealed that only a minority of claims down and out lie, the vast majority play fast and loose.

Regulated standards are nice, but given enforcement is sketchy and haphazard even that won't fix the problem. The best solution is to ask what are the motives of the seller? Is it a public company, than your first response should be "uh oh". I don't mean to say that all public companies are bad or deceitful, but the forces at play make it very difficult since their stock and performance will be measured against their peers, and unless all pursue the same path, the pressure to relent is just too great.

Secondly, look at the composition of the product? Is it synthetic, can you recognize the materials in the product. That's the Michael Pollan solution. The other thing is look at what the company does, if they are pro-environment. They are probably pro-good causes with other aspects including hiring, compensation and health benefits.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Now that's what I call REUSE!

Pink Tentacle has a funny Asahi (Japanese) on a man from Japan's Fukashima prefecture who collected used disposable chopsticks to make a 4 meter canoe. Now that's an amazing story of reuse.

The Independent (UK) has a story on the environmental impact of chopsticks in China. I'm looking forward to some new uses for Starbucks cups. It's amazing how much we have that is disposable. I recently went to pick up a temporary pass at a company, and they used plastic. I once collected used AOL CDs and was trying to create art work from the CDs but CDs are a hard medium to work with and I was to impatient to develop the technique. I though it would have been cool to create lamp shades similar to half a soccer ball using old AOL CDs as the medium. Easier said than done.

Art is an amazing thing, and actually good engineering or hacking is in the same way because it reconceptualizes the function of an item into another function. Make Magazine is a neat magazine with lots of do it yourself projects, it'd be neat to see if they created an issue using items that had been previously used.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Some helpful pointers...

A friend of mine has started a company Green Now USA that performs energy assessments on your home. It's great to see these services come into being and help homeowners understand the energy and resource flow of their homes. While looking around their web site I found a nice list of some resources for improving home efficiency. Right in time for Earth Day.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Open Source Goes Green!!!

This weekend I had a chance to attend the Green Transportation Exposition. It was a very small affair, something you could cruise through in 15 minutes if you didn't blink and 16 minutes if you did. There were the representatives from CalCars a citizens group that is creating prototypes for Plug in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) which combine charging your car through the grid as well as from the hybrid engine. They are really ahead of the game, demonstrating production kits for retrofitting your Prius to be a PHEV. I have to say it's quite impressive to see how far they have come. I remember meeting the founder of the organization when he was just starting at a holiday party in 2003. He had photocopied talking points, and I was thinking "who does this guy think he is?" Suspending skepticism is a great way to change the world. Now he's been written up in the New York Times and BusinessWeek.

That far out vision brings me to another and that is of the "Society for Sustainable Mobility" that is the home for the Open Source Green Vehicle (OSGV) which is an organization that is applying open source principles of allowing literally hundred of individuals work on designing a new green vehicle, the Kernel. (This is a play on the kernel of an operating system, which is the core of the Linux operating systems. You know if geeks weren't so geeky, they'd make great english majors, and conversely is english majors weren't so artsy they'd make great engineers) The crux of their design is a modular power source connected to an electrical drivetrain (similar to the Tesla electric roadster) which means you can plug in different types of energy sources depending on your needs and locale. They are hoping to get this car eventually built, by looking at alternatives to conventional auto manufacturing such as using plastic body parts (reminiscent of the old Fiero)

Now will the Kernel(tm) ever make it to production? Who knows? However, it does not matter since it's spawning new ideas about design and collaboration. I'm not a big fan of autos, thinking the infrastructure independent of the power used has changed the way we relate to each other, but I do know that the problem of global warming is going to be solved from many angles and these are two automotive alternatives.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Profiles in Courage....

Earlier this week I went to the kick off party for the California Clean Tech Open here in San Jose. The Clean Tech Open is a business competition where companies submit their sustainable business ideas for funding, and entrants are not only chosen but receive comments from the judging rounds. It's an amazing opportunity for those companies that compete. It was a really energizing event, with lots of new ideas. A company called Cool Earth was talking about it's early win in previous years competition about their idea of creating solar collectors out of mylar balloons that increases the energy efficiency of solar collectors. Their goal is to create generation plants using their technology and resell to the utilities. It's a way out idea that talks about the great power of technology.

As I went around the different tables, my first impulse was "yeah, but". Some of the ideas are pretty mundane, others are far fetched or very niche targeted. But as I suspended my disbelief and sat and listened to their explanations and to blunt, their pitches. What really impressed me was that these people had sincere ideas on changing the way we consume energy and resources. There was also a genuine desire to get rich. The two were not incompatible. The other thing that struck me was that these men (and they were predominantly men) and women were huge risk takers to go with their dreams and their ideas.

Contrasting that with myself, who has a job at a major internet company, where my entire job is about risk mitigation. Ideas rarely play into my work decisions. But it goes much beyond business risk, but to personal risk. Most of us think about local risk, to our jobs, to our families, to our reputations. I know that I right now am in that trap, this blog is a small effort to move beyond that trap of complaint and into action. But is sufficient to move change. I don't know, but I do know that I don't have an idea compelling enough to make the next big move. However, the people in the clean tech challenge have the courage, because they have the big idea, and they know that even greater than the risk of failing in business or our jobs, is the risk to this planet. And that they genuinely think they can address that risk and are doing so, truly is a profile in courage.

Meat is Methane or is it CO2

The Dot Earth blog over at the New York Times has a post about in vitro meat conference. Given the carbon footprint of raising meat, can the planet survive a world of McDonalds everywhere? Well probably not if we use animals, but how about it we manufactured it in test tubes. Hmmmm. It reminds me of a scene for cyberpunk prophet William Gibson who talked about vat grown meat in one scene.

I fluctuate between vegetarianism and regular meat consumption. Soy products have become very good, and it is possible to create healthy yummy cuisine sans animal protein. There is a veggie chinese place nearby that does a fantastic job simulating meat, though that's not the point.

I am at work on some pieces that reconceptualize status, meat is something that is aspired in many parts of the world, just as cars and TVs are as well. Can we think of other types of status that have smaller carbon footprints.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The future of transportation is now...

The Green Building Exchange in Redwood City, CA is hosting Green Transportation 2008 this Saturday April 12 in Redwood City, CA. (Or as we affectionately call it "the RWC") The event is going to highlight combustion alternative vehicles from Ford, Lexus, Honda, and Toyota. Other exhibitors include Good Earth Vehicles, Electro Ride, LC Biofuels, GreenE Motors, Electric Green Showroom, Silicon Valley Bike Coalition, Electric Motorsport, Sustainable Habitat, LiFeBatt, Solar City, Stanford, Berkeley, ZipCar, PG&E, CalCars.org, Electro Ride, Zip Car, Smart Car, Society for Sustainable Mobility. With free music and refreshments sounds like it'll be a lot of fun. The show is located at:

Green Building Exchange
305 Main Street
Redwood City, CA 94063

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Get Paid to Carpool! How Cool is that!

Super duper Cool! The Peninsula Traffic Congestion Relief Alliance has a fantastic incentive program to reward groups of people who carpool into or out of San Mateo county. Details include the type of award depending on the car you drive. Standard Combustion engine vehicles and Hybrid owners receive gas cards, while combustion free owners receive gift certificates.

Commute.org is a fantastic resource for individuals who live or work in San Mateo county for alternative commute options. These programs that consolidate efforts make each individual effort that much more powerful, I'm looking to check out if Santa Clara county has such a program. If your county has such a program, please put it in the comments section.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sound Sleep in a Castle.....

Sunday's New York Times had an outlandish story about 7000 square feet of green goodness for a LEEDs certified home. LEED is a certification given by the U.S. Green Building Council that gives points for different things in a home to make it more Green, and you can reach different levels. Sort of a good housekeeping seal of green approval. The article asks the question can such a monstrous house even meet the qualifications despite how many CFLs you have in the place. A simple way to get points for LEED certification is through inexpensive low-flow showerheads, but that would be too pedestrian:

The typical low-flow shower head, “a cheap credit” used by affordable-housing developers seeking certification, is not an appealing option to upper-end home builders, said Maureen Mahle, program manager for Steven Winter Associates Inc., a Norwalk, Conn., design firm that consults on residential and commercial LEED applications. They are more likely to install pricey high-tech devices that improve quality of life and enhance the project’s appeal.

People are not looking to save the environment but it really has transferred it to the realm of "I'm more green than you are." But don't make me suffer.

Aside from its price tag, this is painless conservationism, a point emphasized in the developer’s promotional materials: “Imagine having it all, while preserving the environment.”

What no one is focusing is the impact of building such a large home away from everything is. And it has to be away to get that much space, the infrastructure to connect to the grid, and the car necessary to function. Why is big considered necessary, when one thinks about it, people love cozy small places that have character. For instance, Sarah Susanka's The Not So Big House explains how to use space more effectively to greater life satisfaction. More is not always better, and less generally means less impact even with conventional materials.

LEED needs to take a stand and call bogus and standardize on some metric per intended resident of a home. If think your sleeping sound in a faux green castle, then you're deluding yourself.

Clean compromise....

The Wall Street Journal has an article about the compromises that are taking place in California to permit the creation of Plug-In Hybrids. There is a lot of alarm about the future out our planet, but unfortunately it's the human beings who need to change and we're notoriously good at dreaming of the ideal, but terrible about getting there. It's good to see that compromises are being made. It's the direction that's more important sometimes than the velocity. While we can't inch along, we can't expect huge jumps.

What's being missed in these conversations about transportation is real discussion about mass transit, new zoning laws, telecommuting models to alleviate automobiles as the standard for mobility. There I go again, slipped into the ideal. But it's a step toward the deeper questions.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Carpool Karma....

I have to say this was a nice weekend here in the Bay Area, weather was fantastic and I was able to enjoy some of the sights, sounds and smells of springtime. A highlight of the weekend was a trek up the coast to Pt. Reyes where I was able to attend a picnic by one of oyster farms in the area. There is something truly amazing about super-fresh seafood. Now Pt. Reyes is not exactly close to San Francisco and it's not close at all to Silicon Valley (my stomping -- or working grounds) and it made sense to carpool. The gracious organizer was able to get geographically meaningful carpools and I jumped at the occasion. Even taking the train up in the morning to meet up at the carpool location. One person walked to the carpool location and away we went.

What was even better was when I got there, no one showed up alone. Everyone carpooled in some manner or another. There seems to be some magical distance or amount of time that encourages people to share the ride. Maybe people just want company for the drive. I wonder if this carpool window is changing as a function of gas prices. I wonder if it being the weekend had an impact?

Whatever, there was some good carpool karma going on.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Less Stuff, More Freedom?

Today I had an interesting talk with one of my coworkers, it was one of those post working hour, almost dorm room like conversations of yesteryear and it related to vision and freedom. The ability to do anything you want was the net net, the elusive early retirement. His number was 45, where I feel woefully behind. But he's a young turk. There are two ways of looking at this, one is to make more money which means being lucky or working your ass off and being lucky. Luck is underappreciated part of life, both good and bad but this isn't a karmic discussion.

The other way to early retirement, is to save and live on less. At first glance that seems onerous and a life full of sacrifice. But is it? A lot of why people want to make money is to buy more stuff, larger homes, and we equate that with power. But what if that stuff has power over us? This is the case with the larger homes we bought, as this New York Times article on how some people lose their mobility because they can't sell their homes. In this case, they've been trapped by the moats of their castles. This thought brings back to memory another co-worker of mine who related a camping trip he was on where the slowest backpacker in the group was not while he was on the trail but when he was packing up camp. He had to pack all his gear, and was always worried if had left something behind. The lesson was that sometimes our stuff owns us.

So why do we have all this stuff? Too much to go into this post. But like losing weight, your freedom comes from living below your means. In our current circumstance is less stuff more freedom?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A home full of green goodness....

The LA Times has a great series of articles going room by room with ways to cut your carbon footprint. Given that everything in our consumer age has a carbon footprint by virtue of the transportation costs and the materials most items are made of, such an inventory can be at turns depressing. However, the approach of looking at the areas of improvement in each room gives home, simple things like dealing with those terrible plastic bags. The showcase includes a list of resources and an interview with Actor Ed Begley Jr. with this great piece of advice:

What do you tell people when they ask you how to get started?

I always start with the simplest stuff first, so they see some results. If you can get people to look at their energy bill, then pick some of the low-hanging fruit: compact fluorescent bulbs, energy-saving thermostat, Energy Star appliances. Do some of that stuff that's cheap and easy. And then look again. They will see a difference. I've never had anybody come back and say, "I did all that stuff and it didn't make any difference." I haven't heard that once. You do those things that you can afford, the things that you can do, and then you build from there.