Archives For politics

climate change president talkLeading up to last week I was excited about the prospect of getting excited about the President’s new climate change plan. Given the level of secrecy and surprise that created all of the build-up to the plan that would map out the environmental goals of the administration’s second term, I was waiting eagerly for a chance to help spread the seeds of environmental progress around the digital ecosystem.

And then it came and went. Continue Reading…

As the campaign season for the 2012 elections nears its final hour, a look backward shows that the environment did not make its way onto the list of important topics of debate. Actually, environmental issues hardly came up at all as both candidates focused more on economic plans for the country. In discerning why sustainability got the short end of the stick this time around, there is a tendency to draw the conclusion that Americans don’t think about the environment or even that Americans simply don’t care. A look at the dynamic of this election cycle and the current economic backdrop points to the low profile of environmental issues as an intentional, and perhaps unsurprising move by both presidential hopefuls. Continue Reading…

Bill Clinton InitiativeRegardless of your opinions of former President Bill Clinton, the guest list of the Clinton Global Initiative is nothing to sneer at. Those in attendance comprise a who’s-who at the international level from foreign dignitaries to business bellwethers. Yet despite being surrounded by some of the greatest minds in economics and political governance, President Clinton kicked off this year’s CGI gathering of his by tapping the design population for finding solutions to world problems. Continue Reading…

drilling for petroleumDespite history of bountiful production, we are no longer a country know for making very many things. One thing that we do have a talent for producing, perhaps better than anyone else, is “hype”. With its contagious force, 100% pure American-made hype can surge from coast to coast and beyond. Hype allows for a select few topics to rise above the countless other bits of information that are all struggling to reach us via a thirty-second sound byte. A key goal of successful hype is eliciting the strongest response from the greatest number of recipients. Historically, one of the topics that has been consistently successful in the world of hype is oil, particularly its relationship with gasoline prices. Amidst the rising tide of the upcoming presidential elections (a prime breeding ground for hype), gas prices have re-emerged to claim valuable reporting time as the average price for regular gasoline approaches $4 a gallon even before the surge of summer driving. Continue Reading…

As one of the nation’s largest producers of pollution and carbon emissions, the vastness of coal’s contribution to the nation’s power supply has left them a champion of the economic and political realm with a lot of weight to throw around. Not long ago the EPA stopped dancing around the ring and decided to throw some weight behind an overdue advance on the coal industry. It is easy to forget that the EPA’s prime function is neither research nor public awareness (though both are important). It provides “protection” as an agency of enforcement. Continue Reading…

politiciansAs Republican presidential candidates have amassed to begin the gauntlet of debate leading up to the bid for the next conservative challenger to the White House, the environment, or specifically global warming, has gotten its fair share of frontage. Almost unanimously, the GOP candidates’ attacks at the authenticity of climate change have been as adamant as they are consistent. However, new polling suggests that the air time they have afforded environmental topics could be working against them, actually increasing the percentage of Americans that believe the earth is warming. How carefully do the candidates have to tread in order to navigate through a populace that feels more comfortable supporting the idea of climate change? Continue Reading…

government sustainabilityThe government has the opportunity to serve as the testing ground for innovative policy changes in order to gather data and provide a working example that can be used as leverage to convince an undecided public. Apparently, most executives in federal agencies support sustainable initiatives but also say that the agencies themselves have found little success in implementing them.

Continue Reading…

water dropsUsing over 1,300 gallons per day per capita, many Americans have been lulled into the misconception that we do not have to worry about our water supply. We are paying a great deal of attention to our resources for energy: coal, oil, natural gas. Debates in the Climate Bill and the upcoming Environmental Summit in Copenhagen have sharpened our focus on the sun and wind as natural resources. Of all of the resources that America focuses on, water is near the bottom and as a result we are unsurprisingly the least careful with its use and upkeep. The truth is known in other parts of the world much more poignantly than here: a clean supply of fresh water is essential and serves as the lynch pin for the interaction and function of countless other systems in the country.

America uses an average of 410 billion gallons of water everyday. I have not done the study, but I doubt many other nations (if any) can make such a boast. Whether we realize it or not, the water bill at the end of the month is only a fraction of how much we really spend on our water infrastructure. On average, U.S. cities spend $70 billion annually on water and wastewater needs according to the U.S. Census—second only to dollars allocated towards education. Part of the reason is due to our water system being a very energy-intensive process both conveying and distributing fresh water as well as removing and filtering wastewater. Together it takes our country 8 quadrillion BTUs of energy every year.

The Problems

Like our energy grid, much of our water system has gone too long without upgrades and repairs. In many parts of the country water and sewer pipes are well beyond their rated lifespans, raising the likelihood of breakages and leaks that interrupt service, waste precious water and allow for the infiltration of disease. Midrange, post-industrial cities of the country are the most prone to budgets that cannot accommodate necessary changes to their infrastructure. According to the Baltimore City Paper, there are parts of town in the coastal city that have sewers over 100 years old. Similarly, my time in Syracuse, New York revealed that as of 2005 most of the city’s water pipes are 60 to 70 years old that leave the water with a lead content 33% over the EPA limit. Their sewers are no better, with only 14% of the pipes less than 50 years old—the rated lifespan of the system.

Despite the improvement in water quality that the Clean Water Act has brought, pollution still remains a harrowing issue for much of the country. The New York Times released a disturbing report claiming that the Clean Water Act has been violated over 506,000 times since 2004 by over 23,000 companies and facilities. According to the report everything from gas stations and dry cleaners to chemical plants and power stations have dumped hazardous waste into the ground or directly into bodies of water. The report claims that one in 10 Americans has drinking water with dangerous chemicals or does not meet federal health benchmarks. I encourage the reading of the entire article as well as their great interactive map. I found the figures to be staggering, but what made it worse was that “the Time research found that less than 3 percent of violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials.”

For years now, a lack of strong federal oversight has allowed these transgressions to become business as usual. Never known as the shining star of George W. Bush’s presidency (if it had one at all) his E.P.A. was notoriously lax in its oversight of its duties for the two terms of the administration. Without federal power to invoke consequences from the highest level, local regulators often fall prey to pressure from politicians or large corporations.

“The E.P.A. and our states of have completely dropped the ball. Without oversight and enforcement, companies will use our lakes and rivers as dumping grounds—and that’s exactly what is apparently going on.”  – Rep James L. Oberstar, D-Maryland

The Obama administration’s new E.P.A. head, Lisa Jackson, has noted that national drinking water quality is below acceptable levels and has vowed to renew the E.P.A.’s stance of enforcement.

Where Does the Water Go?

Finding a solution to some of our problems can likely begin with understanding how we use 410 billion gallons a day. A recent report released by the United States Geological Survey focuses on how Americans use their water. I found this publication equally as surprising. To begin, between 1980 and 2005, our water use has decreased by 5 percent! Upon reading this I was immediately skeptical and had to find out how it was possible, but before long the reason became clear.

As an architect I am often the champion of water efficiency in buildings. After all, nearly 40% of our nation’s energy is used by buildings so believing that they consume large quantities of water seemed to be intuitive. As it turns out, all domestic water use (residential applications in homes) accounts for only 1% of all of the water that we use. If you add all public water use and thereby include nearly all buildings in existence, you only get another 11%. Perhaps the culprits are all that heavy manufacturing or the mining we do across the country? Even with aquaculture, livestock, industrial and mining operations the cumulative total is only 20%. So where does the other 328 billion gal/day get used?

National Water Use Graph

The second highest source is irrigation which is mostly comprised of farming. 31% of our water is used to irrigate 61.1 million acres in 2005. The number one source of water use is cooling for thermoelectric power plants. 49% of our water goes to creating power from such sources as coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas. All of a sudden, the nature of where to target efficiency for meaningful change has a very different appearance and that is why our water usage has dropped over the past 25 years. Due to more sprinkler-system irrigation and more efficient cooling systems in power plants, water consumption has ebbed despite a rise in population.


Though a complicated problem, moreso than can be addressed in one article, the information does not leave us without places to go or reasons to get there.

  • Our infrastructure needs to be raised to acceptable levels that allow for efficient systems that can bring water safely to end users. This could include a more distributed system of supply along with onsite water collection and filtration of waste water.
  • Our governing bodies need to accept the responsibility of their offices to enforce laws that keep our water safe.
  • Efforts targeting efficiency should focus on our largest sources of water use: farming and power generation. This could lead to more research devoted to vertical farming and hydroponics. It also provides a seldom mentioned strength to renewable energy sources like wind and solar given that, once installed, their use of water is negligible.

Failure to progress on these initiatives could lead to an increase in national water-related sicknesses, more natural waterways polluted beyond safety for human use or ecological function and a further increase in drought and drinking water shortages for communities.

Photo Credit: Flickr Wester


Coal Power Plant The much debated climate bill is being heralded as legislation with the substance enough to begin to change our lives towards a new path of sustainability. One group that would arguably see the most change is the network of the country’s energy providers as carbon pricing leads to higher stakes for producing electricity from coal, oil and natural gas. Some have set up this confrontation as taking place between greenies and big power companies, but the power generation world is not as uniformly resistant as some might say. Is it possible that some of our biggest polluters could actually help lead our walk into the sustainable promised land?

A series of recent events points to the possibility of utility companies leaving behind the stance of defiance to play a more cohesive role in formulating new climate legislation. One of first steps is acknowledging the issue which, compared to where we have been, is a big step. A trio of large utility companies recently lead a withdrawal from the United States Chamber of Commerce citing disagreements over the Chamber’s stance on climate change. Exelon, Pacific Gas & Electric and PNM Resources all pulled their participation from the organization that claims to be “the voice of business.” Shortly afterwards, Nike resigned its position on the federation’s board. Tech bellwether Apple has been the most recent departure.

New York Times sentinel, Kate Galbraith, recently reported on two more utility companies steering their business away from coal-fired power. Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, released a new strategy outline for future production to meet an anticipated 50% rise demand with no new coal plants. Similarly, NV Energy, a utility servicing Nevada and California, decided to postpone production of a 1.5 gigawatt coal plant to change its potential opening from 2012 to 2020. As Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 often notes, the only true solution to make the difference that we need to, as fast as we need to, when it comes to carbon emissions is attacking coal for power production.

So why the change of heart? Could it be that the widespread chanting of environmental advocates are finally seeping in on the highest level, enough to make corporate executives question their means for making profits in our country? Before we start doling out halos and merit badges, there could be a number of reasons why this turn of events is not quite so surprising.

We are moving into a political state of mind where it is a question of when, not if, climate legislation is going to be passed. With the Copenhagen summit on climate change only months away, fewer want the U.S. to appear as the climate dunce of the developed world. Furthermore, Manik Roy, Vice President of  Federal Government Outreach for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, recently pointed out that 23 states and the EPA are all in the process of reforming their own means of combating emissions. “There is a misconception that no legislation means no regulation. This is just not the case.” Utilities could be facing new laws and regulation on local levels regardless of whether or not the Kerry-Boxer bill passes in the Senate. At this point it is simply smart business for companies with the largest stake in the outcome of climate regulation to play a more central and participatory role in how the laws get detailed.

Most of these mentioned utility players hail from the west coast where states already have healthy goals for requiring renewable power generation by 2020. California prides itself on being at the forefront of sustainability. Supporting a more broadly based action and downplaying coal production can create the appearance of being a green crusader while getting more mileage out of things that they may run into on the local level anyway (which does not make it wrong, I say take all the credit that they want.) It is unlikely coincidence that Exelon is the country’s largest producer of nuclear energy. As pointed out by Robert Peltier from energy blog Master Resource, nuclear energy stands to fair extremely well if climate legislation doles out carbon allowances by percentage of current generation—meaning that nuclear companies could get carbon permits for free that can be sold at market price (since they produce no carbon themselves.) With few people asking questions about what we will do with the country’s nuclear waste issue, it is increasingly easier for nuclear companies to claim green roots.

There may be more than a bunch of born again greenies to explain the growing support for change, but so what? For the challenges that we face now of reformatting a number of social norms, supporters do not have time to quibble over whether or not different people are doing the right thing for the right reasons. If the prospect of imminent climate legislation is causing utilities to re-evaluate beforehand, then process is working just as it should and its integration may be even easier. With goals that are even slightly closer to aligning, more progress can be made on getting initiatives to market and implementation. From consumer education, to smart grid test programs, to quicker resolution to NIMBY sentiments for siting new power generation and transmission; all could stand to benefit from having more utilities on board.

Photo Credit: Flickr davipt

Given the current economic landscape, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is likely getting a different reception than it would have three years ago. With unemployment still at a twenty-year high, preserving economic stability and preventing job losses is one of the more popular methods of targeting the bill for flaws. While opponents to the bill have claimed that the resulting rising costs of the legislation could add financial burden to families and sacrifice American jobs, the truth is that sustainability is the best source of economic rejuvenation that the country has and according to recent polling, the number of naysayers are dwindling.

Job Poll Graph

According to a  poll released by Zogby International, when likely voters were asked how climate efforts will affect American jobs, 51% believe that new job creation will result while an addition 17% believe it will have no positive or negative affect. More impressively, those who believe that American jobs would be sacrificed were in the minority in all age and income groups, speaking to a sentiment brewing uniformly throughout the population. Numbers like these make me wonder if the range of benefits that sustainability can bring is becoming clearer to more people in the U.S.. Wishful thinking perhaps, but it is a good place to start.

My own goals for helping to spread that kind of knowledge were bolstered in 2007, when I sat in a conference hall with 8,000 others listening to Bill Clinton give the keynote speech at the Greenbuild Expo in Chicago, hosted by the USGBC. The former President spoke at length about the progress made by the Clinton Climate Initiative and their future goals, but in speaking about sustainability’s affect on the economy, Mr. Clinton had a quote that has stayed with me:

“For all the skeptics, I think this is the greatest opportunity our country has had to generate broad-based prosperity since we mobilized for World War II.”

It struck me because it was the first time I had heard a politician asserting the latent job value in sustainability and what it could produce for our country. The result could be a reversal of the exodus of industrial jobs that has plagued America for decades and its opportunities for implementation are widespread leaving few pockets of the economy without a chance for benefit. New job prospects can emerge from three lines of national intervention: restoration, innovation and conversion—all equally necessary and co-supportive.

Restortation – As a society, we we have only recently begun to fully realize how interconnected the workings of the planet truly are, and as a result, the full effect that our actions impose on our surroundings. Naturally, such a realization brings some grim findings. 11 million people live within a mile of over 1,300 Superfund Sites in the U.S., catagorized by the Environmental Protection Agency as some of the worst toxic hazards sites in the country. A proactive, rather than cursory, approach to remedying our own mistakes could sprout a formative industry of trained, specialized workers. Everyday brings new environmental violations released by the EPA, so having supply problems for work in this arena is likely a ways off. The rewards for such efforts are far reaching. Beyond a more healthy natural landscape, the reduction in pollution-damaged land would parallel a reduction in health problems rising from contamination, especially our drinking water–effectively curbing our medical spending while increasingly our livelihood.

Innovation – Our country still operates as a world-renowned center for technological excellence, though perhaps not as uncontested as we once were. Meeting the future’s needs for renewable energy, water purification, recycling, building technology, waste treatment and transportation will take nothing less than technological excellence. In the end, it will get done—the only question is whether we will do it, or pay someone else to do it. Amidst its seemingly endless string of needless opposition, the Cape Wind Project and its resulting turbine factory was slated to create between 600 and 1000 pre-operational jobs and 150 permanent jobs during operation for 420 megawatts of wind energy. We need closer to 200 gigawatts and just as much solar. Creating a new source of American jobs while weening ourselves off of oil and coal offers fewer violated ecosystems, cleaner air, cleaner water and  increased national security.

Global Warming GraphConversion – Numerous parts of our infrastructure are reaching the crest of their lifecycle curve, marking the transition from an asset to a liability for the economy. Power generation, roads and railways, power conveyance and water systems all comprise lingering costs that will eventually become outmoded. Creating a new life for these pieces of infrastructure can allow us to draw out new kinds of latent value from systems that we have already paid for. This is perhaps one of the largest sources of environmental resistance. What are we going to do with all the oil and coal jobs in the country? We will turn them into something else that will evolve into a new staple of the American economy. One 54-year-old plant on the Ohio River is being converted to burn grass and wood cubes to produce 312 megawatts of power, leaving it as one of the largest biomass plants in the country. The retooling of the plant will purportedly turn 105 local (coal) jobs, into green jobs.

Serious Materials became the most recent epitome of scanning the landscape for conversion opportunities before wasting time, money and energy building new facilities. The California-based company produces high efficiency building products like high performance windows and doors as well as insulating drywall. They represent the transition into the next generation of the building industry which new standards will be crafted around. Their search found a recently closed window factories in Chicago, Illinois and Vandergrift, Pennsylvania and purchased their facilities, hiring back workers that would have otherwise remained laid off. Retooled and retrofitted, the plants continue to function producing better products and sustaining employment.

To date, the climate bill is the fastest way to begin the transition to an economy supported by an Environmental Industry base. Environmental commentator Joe Romm recently said that although he gives the bill a “B-“ as an emissions bill, he gives it an “solid A” as a renewable energy bill. The Zogby poll claimed that 71% supported ACES Act passed by the House of Representatives. 22% believed that Congress is doing an adequate amount to address climate change, with 45% saying they are doing too little. Less than a third of respondants (28%) believe that Congress is doing too much.  We will see if growing public sentiment seeps its way into the Senate.