Archive for October, 2010

The Biggest Loser

Posted on October 26, 2010. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , |

The EPA’s “National Building Competition” just wrapped up and its winners were announced.  Mirroring the popular television show “The Biggest Loser”, the EPA’s competition pitted commercial sized buildings situated across the country against each other, in a year-long effort to cut as much energy consumption as possible.

Through relatively simple (and inexpensive) approaches, all participating buildings were able to cut their energy usage drastically.  The winner of the competition was a UNC dormitory, which was able to reduce its energy use by 35.7 percent in just one year, saving more than $250,000 on their energy bills and reducing more than 730 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more HERE

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Test Your Eco-IQ!

Posted on October 25, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The Clean Currents booth was quite popular at Green Fest this past weekend! People were invited to take our Eco-IQ Challenge and those who scored high enough won a free “Get Plugged In” T-shirt. Try it for yourself right now!

What is Your ECO IQ?

1. What is the current value of the Federal Investment Tax Credit for a solar energy installation?

a)      20%                b) 30%                 c) 70%                   d) 10%

2. Besides Maryland and DC, how many states in the US have Renewable Portfolio Standards?

a)      10                   b) 40                      c) 30                       d) 1

3. About how much electricity can be saved by switching from an incandescent to a CFL ligthbulb?

a)      75%                b) 25%                  c) 90%                   d) 10%

4. With an average 4kW photovoltaic solar energy system what percent of the total cost gets paid for by government incentives?

a)      20%                b)  39%                 c) 13%                   d) 57%

5. In the lingo of renewable portfolio standards, what does the acronym “SREC” stand for?

a)      Solar Reusable Electricity Certificate b) Sun Ray Electric Connection c) Solar Renewable Energy Credit d) Solar Ready Environment Credit

6. True or False: On a sunny summer day, the state of Maryland receives more energy from the sun than is generated by all of the state’s power plants annually.

7. What is the significance of the number 350 in green circles (like 350.org)?

a.       Target PPM to avoid major climate change
b.      Number of times Ted Glick has been arrested protesting pollution
c.       Years it takes for plastic bottles to decompose.
d.       Millions of dollars Exxon-Mobil donates to climate skeptics.

8. Which country generated the most wind power in 2008?

a) US                   b) China               c) Denmark         d) Germany

9. True or False: If you install a grid-interconnected solar photovoltaic system at your home or office, you will receive a credit from your utility for the electricity your system generates?

10. What was the oil giant British Petroleum (BP) trying to rebrand itself as, in 2001?

a. Better Petrol     b. Beautiful People   c. Beyond Petroleum   d. Beatles Power

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Answers: 1 – B, 2 – C, 3 – A, 4 – D, 5 – C, 6 – True, 7- A, 8 – A, 9 – True, 10 – C

How did you do!?
Please share your questions and comments!

 

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Greenwashing (?) Strikes Again

Posted on October 21, 2010. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , |

The Clean Currents team is super pumped for this weekend’s DC Greenfest. We’ll giving away prizes for visitors to our booth who take the Eco IQ quiz. The grand prize is the Thames and Kosmos Power House kit that we got from our wind power customers at Toy Kingdom. We were really excited about this give away that comes with 10 green building projects including a solar array, greenhouse and wind power generator and guide for 30 alternative energy and sustainability focused experiments.

When we took the house out of the box to assemble it last week, we got an unpleasant surprise. The entire model was made out of styrofoam! The instructions and a representative at Thames and Kosmos justified this choice as a lightweight, low cost and durable material for the model. Though this is true, we feel that the company should really make it clear that the product they are selling to promote sustainable living is not at all sustainable. When asked about the company’s environmental policy, the customer service rep referred us to the president. Here is the email we sent:

Dear Ted,

My company just purchased a couple of the Thames and Kosmos Powerhouse models as giveaways at our booth at the DC Greenfest. We were really excited about this model, but were very disappointed to find that it is made out of Styrofoam, a petroleum based material that is rarely recycled, does not decompose well, and is produced in a co2 intensive process.

I spoke with Tim at Thames and Kosmos and he gave me the justification for why Styrofoam is the material of choice. While I see that Styrofoam is practical because it is low-cost, durable, and lightweight, I still think it is a problematic choice for a renewable energy toy that is marketed as “green”.

Does Thames and Kosmos have an environmental mission statement? I would hope that a company selling “experiments in sustainability” and “green essentials” would have some sort of interest in preserving the environment. If you do not have such a policy, I would hope that you would be willing to consider thinking about some steps you can take to make your operations more sustainable. If you would like, I can offer some suggestions on how you can get started with this!  

Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.

Tanya

Update: Here is the thoughtful response from Thames & Kosmos. We appreciate this further explanation.

Dear Tanya,

Thank you for purchasing two of our Power House kits, and for your dedication and passion to environmental issues, which is clear from your blog and concern about the materials in our kit.

 First of all, I feel it is necessary to explain the material choice in our Power House kit: There is no Styrofoam® in the kit. Styrofoam is a brand name for a material called extruded polystyrene foam trademarked by the Dow Chemical Company. The polystyrene foam in this kit is actually not Styrofoam, but rather a material called expanded polystyrene foam (EPS).

            A number of the experiments in this kit deal with energy efficiency and insulation. In order to make these experiments work, a good insulator is necessary. EPS is a very economical and efficient insulator, with a high R-value. It is 95 to 98 percent air, so it is very light and uses very little material relative to its volume. If we were to have used wood, cardboard, or paper for these experiments, we would have had to have used such a heavy quantity of those materials that the fossils fuels burned by shipping the products around the country would negate the savings obtained from not using EPS. Also, the house model is meant to be used again and again, so we chose a material that would endure through many experimental sessions.

            In addition, the EPS foam tray protects all of the other parts in this kit from damage during shipment and storage. This saves a lot of energy and material because fewer parts are damaged. The EPS parts are not intended to be discarded quickly, and because EPS is lightweight and low density, it is actually a very economical and environmentally favorable material choice.

            Interestingly, the kit was designed in Germany, where they are years ahead of the U.S. in terms of energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy usage. It is common practice in Germany to wrap homes in EPS to significantly increase the energy efficiency of the home. In the U.S., for whatever reason, there is a gut reaction to EPS that is, quite frankly, disproportionately negative compared to the reaction to other types of plastic. All petroleum based plastics are equally unsustainable: once plastic is made, it can never be unmade (not in the human time frame anyway).

            Polystyrene can be recycled like other plastics. It falls into recycling category 6. The curbside recycling programs in most cities in the United States do not yet accept this category of plastic. However, you can do a simple Internet or phone book search for recycling centers and drop-off sites in your area that will accept expanded polystyrene.

            So, you see, our choice is scientifically substantiated. We would not endorse the use of EPS for disposable food packaging, for example, or hot beverage cups, because there are perfectly good alternatives (for example, a reusable ceramic plate or a reusable metal bottle).

Second, I would like to address the assertion on your blog that Thames & Kosmos is “greenwashing.” 

We have never made any claim that the Power House kit is sustainable. The kit teaches users about sustainability issues, energy conservation, and other scientific topics, through hands-on activities. While we make smart and economic material choices, none of our kits are sustainable. The concept of declaring any consumer product “sustainable” is problematic in and of itself, because the practice of sustainability is inherently anti-consumption. 

            We have made the practical and ethical determination that teaching children today about environmental science, alternative energy, chemistry and physics, is utterly critical to the future inhabitability of this planet for humans. If children cannot come to trust the empirical wisdom of the scientific method, the country will continue to produce adults who are scared of science, mistrustful of scientists, and skeptical about climate change, and human life as we know it will be doomed. We already do not have enough time to entirely stop the climate change brought on by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and still some huge percetage of the country won’t believe it is happening and won’t even begin to change their behaviors. The impetus behind our mission is to change this.

            From your blog, it sounds like you understand that sometimes one has to make compromises in one’s approach in order to achieve a goal. You say yourself, “There’s nothing like sensible pragmatism to achieve grander goals.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is exactly the justification behind the choices made in bringing all of our kits to market. I could move to Maine and live in a passive house almost completely sustainably (actually it sounds quite nice), but we all couldn’t do that. Earth’s not big enough to support all of us this way. So we have to be smarter. We have to innovate. We have to use science and technology to help solve our environmental problems. But first, we have to have a general population that understands basic science in order to support this.

            We are both on the same side of the issues here. I do not call your blog “greenwashed” even though I can assume with almost complete certainty that it was not written on a sustainable computer that was delivered to you in sustainable packaging by a delivery truck powered by biodiesel. Wordpress’s server farms aren’t sustainable. No amount of carbon offsets you buy can change that. But, like our Power House kit, your blog is important enough to justify the use of those resources. We are educating people. We are working towards a better future.

 Lastly, I would like to answer your question as to whether or not Thames & Kosmos has an “environmental mission statement.” 

 Our mission concerns informal science education, not the environment. We are a small business and do not have a formal written environmental mission statement. I am more than open to hearing your suggestions for what should be included in one, and would be grateful if you were to send those to me, but I do not think having a written environmental mission statement by itself does anything to change a company’s behaviors. I can, however, tell you about all the “environmental” (for lack of a better word) activities we have been involved in over the past 10 years:

            1. Since 2007 I have volunteered countless hours on the board of a local non-profit called the Apeiron Institute for Sustainable Living, which has the lofty mission of making RI the first sustainable state in the nation. 

            2. One percent of the retail sales of our Renewable Energy Kit “Wind Power” has been donated to Apeiron, since 2008, and 1% of the retail sales of our Hydropower kit has been donated to the RI chapter of Clean Water Action since 2009.

            3. From the time Thames & Kosmos was founded and began selling the fuel cell car kit in 2001, we have been focused on teaching kids about alternative energy, conservation of natural resources, sustainable living, and environmental science. We have helped educate millions of children on the topics of fuel cells, hydropower, wind power, solar power, global warming, sustainable living, energy conservation, chemistry, biology, and physics. 

            4. We have moved our office to a more central urban location so more employees can take advantage of public transportation and shorter commutes. We would love to convert the building to alternative energy (solar/geothermal) over the next 10 years.

            5. I have invested $50,000 into environmental remediation at the new building site to bring it up to today’s DEM environmental standards.

            6. We reuse office paper and recycle paper, cardboard, plastic, metal and glass.

            7. We had our fluorescent lighting switched out with lower energy compact fluorescents, and in fact, the building has such great natural light that most of the day we do not have the overhead lights on at all.

            8. We are always evaluating the materials used in our products and whether there are more environmentally friendly alternatives.

I realize full well that this is just scratching the surface, and we are dedicated to doing more as we continue to grow.

I appreciate your feedback and will continue to take it into consideration.

 Sincerely,

Ted McGuire

President

There are lots of good points in Ted’s letter. It is certainly true that sometimes sacrifices are necessary to achieve progress towards a goal and of course we make sacrifices all the time (Clean Currents staffers do often feel guilty about driving around to various events, but we understand that by attending festivals and meeting all over the region, we are spreading the word about sustainability and green power to more people, which is hopefully worth the carbon emissions). And hopefully, since consumers of the Power House will only by buying one model, they will learn enough about sustainable living and renewable energy from the kit to make up for it.

However, although “EPS can be recycled like other plastics”, it is unfortunately not widely recycled. Montgomery County, MD, where our offices are headquarted, is a very progressive county in a pretty progressive state. However, according the county government, “We are not aware of any very local opportunities for recycling or reusing those blocks”

So yes, it seems like Thames and Kosmos is doing a good deal to benefit the environment, and we trust they dont drive around in Hummers drinking out of styrofoam cups all day, so maybe the greenwashing claim was a bit too strong. But EPS is still an unfortunate choice for a sustainability kit…

Readers, what do you think?

Speaking of sustainable Styrofoam…

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Reconciling Clean Energy and Climate Denialism

Posted on October 19, 2010. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , |

A story in yesterday’s New York Times reported on how a group of towns in central Kansas are embracing clean energy, despite the fact that its residents do not feel much affinity for the whole “campaign to fight global warming”.  I found the story fascinating, because it touched upon the very root of what is preventing the environmental lobby from achieving mass-success (in getting positive legislation passed, in garnering majority public support, and in swaying long-term private and policy planning).

The sobering reality is that in spite of hundreds of documented and substantiated scientific studies showing that human action (specifically the increase in carbon-trapping emissions) has had a measurable effect on global climate, there is a very large portion of the population that either does not believe or care to act.  But like all big-ticket issues, the real skill is in packaging and tailoring the topic to your specific audience.  For the already convinced, images of melting glaciers, vast droughts, and flash floods have done the trick.  But for swaths of America (as well as other places) where the war on climate change is not of preeminent concern, simply extricating energy issues from the charged arena of climate politics achieved the same effect.

By focusing on issues of thrift (ability to save money with renewable energy), patriotism (decrease reliance on imported energy), spiritual conviction (good stewards of the land) and economic prosperity (green jobs), Kansas based Climate and Energy Project found that it could rally residents of otherwise conservative Kansas to take meaningful steps to conserve energy and consider renewable fuels.

There’s nothing like sensible pragmatism to achieve grander goals.

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Photo Ops: Clean Currents 10-10-10 Events

Posted on October 12, 2010. Filed under: Events | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

This Sunday, the Clean Currents Team got to work around the area for multiple events to mark the International Day of Climate Action.

We:

Here are some pictures from the various events:



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CCAN’s Photos from 10-10-10

WAMU spot on Georgetown Solar Install

Pictures from Live Green’s Peace Potluck

Video from Silver Spring house:

Video from 350.0rg

We Got to Work.

Global Work Party

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Clean Currents Launches the 2nd Annual Green Neighborhood Challenge

Posted on October 12, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The Green Neighborhood Challenge (or GNEC) is a community challenge for neighborhoods, schools, faith-based institutions, and other organizations to earn benefits for working toward greening their communities.

Clean Currents provides wind power for homes, but also encourages and supports green neighborhood efforts that help build sustainable futures. Since Clean Currents aims to be the front-door to sustainability for area residents, this program serves as one way for us to give back to the community. We aim to engage, motivate and connect green leaders across the Mid-Atlantic to form a community of likeminded people and businesses.

Groups who sign up for this challenge and work to spread environmental conscientiousness in their communities will be rewarded for their efforts. Based on the level of activity of the GNEC groups, Clean Currents will give money back to the groups’ environmental project of choice.

Throughout the program, Clean Currents will offer free workshops on building community organizing skills, furthering one’s education on climate change, policy, energy efficiency, and more!

GNEC II just started on October 1st 2010 and runs through April 22nd (Earth Day!) 2011. If you or someone you know would like to get involved in this program, contact Kristin Schulz, the GNEC program coordinator: kschulz@cleancurrents.com or 301.754.0430 ext.716.

Empowering individuals, building strong communities, and making going green fun and exciting!

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Google’s Atlantic Wind Connection: A Game changer for the Mid-Atlantic?

Posted on October 12, 2010. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Google blogged yesterday about its plan to fund the construction of an offshore wind transmission “backbone” in the waters off the East coast of the US from Virginia to New Jersey. The proposed  Atlantic Wind Connection (AWC) cable would stretch 350 miles with a price tag of $5 billion dollars (That’s more than Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth!) According to the New York Times,

“The system’s backbone cable, with a capacity of 6,000 megawatts, equal to the output of five large nuclear reactors, would run in shallow trenches on the seabed in federal waters 15 to 20 miles offshore, from northern New Jersey to Norfolk, Va. The notion would be to harvest energy from turbines in an area where the wind is strong but the hulking towers would barely be visible.”

The AWC has the potential to harness offshore wind energy at a lower cost than individual offshore wind farms by providing a common connection numerous projects. It can also alleviate some concerns about the visibility of wind turbines that plague the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, as the AWC would allow turbines to be situated far enough offshore to minimize the visual impact.

The project is also commended for its simplicity, as only four points of interconnection along the coast would be necessary to bring the electricity to shore. This is much easier than dealing with onshore transmission lines, which require numerous permits and run into NIMBY obstacles.

At the official announcement of the project at a press conference this morning, representatives from all of the companies  participating (Google, Trans-elect, Good Energies, and Marubeni) in financing the project expressed their enthusiasm and confidence in the venture. Google’s Dan Reicher & Robert Needham along with Good Energies’ John Breckenridge emphasized that this project was  a systematic and scalable approach to integrating renewables into electricity planning. All of the participants reiterated that this was a smart investment for grid reliability, and would help relieve transmission congestion issues. Even before wind turbines are installed, the AWC can transport low cost electricity from Virgnia, North to more densely populated regions bringing down electricity costs there. At the same time, the AWC will help Mid-Atlantic states meet medium-term RPS goals.

Mr. Reicher also said that Google was willing to play a significant role in the early stages of this project to help it overcome the regulatory hurdles as well as win support from stakeholders. Since this is an unprecendented undertaking, it is likely that there will be unforseen obstacles on the regulatory front.

That leads to the big question: WHEN is this great idea going to become a reality? There is no shortage of optimism surrounding the announcment, but the AWC cannot materialize overnight. Gaining regulatory approvals from federal authorities and the regional grid operator (PJM) will take time. The goal is to start construction in 2013, with the first phase going into operation by early 2016.  There are a lot of factors that will determine whether these goals are realistic. The regulatory approvals are one, but also the speed at which this project is developed will likely depend on the price of fossil fuel resources like natural gas, national carbon policy (a carbon tax or cap and trade plan would make this investment even more attractive), and buy-in from environmental groups and other stakeholders.

So far, environmental groups have been supportive of the project, with the Sierra Club calling it an “audacious idea” that could help break through the “logjam”.

Another interesting part of the picture is that the AWC announcement came shortly after the news that the proposed 3rd reactor at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland would likely not be financed at least in part because of the absence of a firm national climate change strategy.
Maryland groups are buzzing about offshore wind. Read the Clean Currents white paper on offshore wind for Maryland to learn more.

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Congrats to the Green Neighborhood Challenge Winners!

Posted on October 5, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The results are in! The winners of Clean Currents Green Neighborhood Effect challenge:

Community: Greenbelt

Faith Group: All Souls Church

Affiliate: Chesapeake Climate Action Network

School: Wootton High School

Some of the leaders celebrated their accomplishments with us at Addie’s Restaurant on Sunday evening. The meal was delicious and we had great a time. Thanks to everyone for attending and to all GNEC participants for their hard work! Here are some pictures from the evening.

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See the press release (coming soon!) for the details about GNEC I as well as more details about the improved and expanded GNEC II!

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