Windpower: what’s old is new again

A Working Paper from Harvard Business School provides a fascinating look at the history and development of wind energy worldwide.  The paper, entitled Historical Trajectories and Corporate Competences in Wind Energy, is still in draft form but is published for comment and discussion. The paper focuses on the the business history of the wind energy industry and finds a historical geographical skew in the adoption of windpower, so skewed that Canada does not even warrant a mention. The paper finds that in 2008, wind supplied one-fifth of Denmark’s electricity, 13% of Portugal’s, and 11% of Spain’s. But in neighboring European countries, including Britain, France and Italy, as well as the United States, wind supplied less than 2% of electricity. In Japan the percentage was a tiny 0.3%.

The reasons for this variation are postulated to be the availability of wind, public policy (“Energy is always political”, energy historian Richard Vietor has observed), and the corporate structure of the industry.

Of particular interest to the current situation in Ontario is one comment in response to the issue of local resident concerns: ” The willingness of governments to explain the benefits of wind energy to their citizens, or else pay them off, is crucial.”

The Working Paper is recommended reading and can be found at http://www.hbs.edu/research/pdf/11-112.pdf . A summary in a Harvard newsletter can be found at http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6561.html

Defective drywall is major issue in US south

The consumer advocacy group Americas Watchdog is making a major issue out of toxic drywall from China which it claims was installed in hundreds of thousands of homes in the US southeast. According to the group, the drywall  contributes to the following problems:

  • Continuous failure of air conditioning coils, or HVAC units beyond anything normal. Copper AC coils have turned black, or a grayish black.
  • Oven, or stove elements, or refrigerator coils may have failed a number of times.
  • Failure of electrical appliances, computer, TV sets, radios, DVD players, smoke detectors, microwave display panels may have failed.
  • Corroded, or black electrical wiring.
  • High end silver jewelry, or silver plated utensils turn black.
  • Light bulbs in homes with toxic Chinese drywall may burn out at a much faster rate than specified by the manufacturer.
  • The homeowners, or their families are sick.

Operation Helping Hands, a Catholic ministry that employed thousands of volunteers to rebuild nearly 200 homes after Hurricane Katrina, is reported to have announced that it will shut down sooner than expected, because of its encounter with toxic chinese drywall. It plans to spend its remaining funds on replacing drywall in those homes that have been affected by installation of the product.

The suspicion is that the drywall contains excessive levels of fly ash and that the fly ash breaks down to emit sulphurous gases in the high humidity of the US South. Time magazine has reported that more than 550 million pounds of drywall has been imported from China since 2006 and that at least 60,000 homes are affected.

The relevant Americas Watchdog web site is at http://chinesedrywallcomplaintcenter.com/

Sustainable Packaging Protocol

The Consumer Goods Forum, an industry group dominated by large corporations, has just launched the Global Protocol on Packaging Sustainability 2.0. The Protocol is designed to provide the consumer goods and packaging industries with a common language, consisting of a framework and a measurement system with which to discuss and assess the relative sustainability of various approaches to packaging. GallonDaily sees much merit in the Protocol but is also concerned that it fails to properly account for the fact that the sustainability of packaging depends not only on the package itself but also on the social systems, such as collection for reuse and recycling, as well as such issues as refrigeration and food production, transportation, and storage, that are highly dependent on regional, local, and cultural factors. The Protocol may work for the large corporations which developed it when operating in developed countries but it doesn’t look nearly so useful for SMEs anywhere or for companies manufacturing in, or selling products into, developing countries.

The Protocol makes good use of Life Cycle Analysis approaches to measurement of a wide range of packaging environmental aspects but it is rather weak on social aspects. It also includes a few metrics that GallonDaily considers rather strange. For example, it contains a metric for Toxicity, Cancer (which the report seems to think has something to do with aquatic eutrophication), then states that “Numerous pollutants released to the environment are known to cause cancer.” and “Most industrial processes will have some emissions to include in this category and therefore a complete accounting of the product life cycle is important”. Unlike the Protocol, GallonDaily is inclined to the view that any packaging that includes any significant quantity of carcinogens anywhere in its lifecycle is inherently unsustainable and should not be used.

The Protocol is available at http://globalpackaging.mycgforum.com
and its approach is apparently free for use by anyone.

Contaminants in groundwater

A new report from the United States Geological Survey raises concerns about levels of trace elements in water from wells tapping into groundwater. While similar national data do not exist for Canada, the USGS survey suggests that businesses that draw water, especially water for use in food products, from wells may be getting much more than they bargain for.

The USGS findings include:

  • About 20% of untreated water samples from public, private, and monitoring wells across the nation contain concentrations of at least one trace element, such as arsenic, manganese and uranium, at levels of potential health concern. Public water supplies are monitored and treated for these contaminants but private uses may not be similarly monitored.
  • Trace elements in groundwater exceed human health benchmarks at a rate that far outpaces most other groundwater contaminants, such as nitrate, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Most trace elements, including manganese and arsenic, get into the water through the natural process of rock weathering.
  • Arsenic, uranium, and manganese, were the trace elements in groundwater that most frequently exceeded USEPA human-health benchmarks.
  • Differences in the concentration of trace elements are related to the climatic conditions and land use of the area. Drier areas of the United States saw higher concentrations of trace elements in groundwater than humid regions. Meanwhile, wells in agricultural areas more often contained trace elements than those in urban areas. However, wells in urban areas contained concentrations of trace elements that more often exceeded human health benchmarks.
  • The effects of mixtures of trace elements are poorly understood and could cause further health concerns.

Both a summary and a link to the full report can be found at http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2914

Seminar on Adaptation to Climate Change

University of Waterloo Professor Dr. Blair Feltmate has been heading the Climate Change Adaptation Project (Canada), designed to identify priority actions for Canada to address adaptation to climate change. He will be giving a seminar on the outcomes of the project at 4.00pm on November 17th, 2011, at Hart House, University of Toronto. The seminar will include the Project’s findings relating to City Infrastructure, Biodiversity, First Nations, Agriculture, Freshwater Resources, and Property and Casualty Insurance.

In GallonDaily’s view, the federal government has frequently promised a focus on climate adaptation but has much less frequently provided details of proposed actions for public input. Dr. Feltmate’s presentation will therefore be a valuable opportunity to review and discuss initiatives that could be included in a climate adaptation program.

Details of the seminar and a link to registration are available through a link under Upcoming Events at http://www.environment.utoronto.ca/

Assessment of the Green Economy in the US

A recent report from the Brookings Institution provides a very interesting analysis of the size and rate of growth of the ‘green economy’. In partnership with Battelle’s Technology Partnership Practice, Brookings has sought to define, assemble, and analyze a state by state database of green jobs across the US.

Among the reports conclusions:

  • The clean economy, which employs some 2.7 million workers, encompasses a significant number of jobs in establishments spread across a diverse group of industries.
  • The clean economy grew more slowly in aggregate than the national economy between 2003 and 2010, but newer “cleantech” segments produced explosive job gains and the clean economy outperformed the nation during the recession.
  • The clean economy is manufacturing and export intensive.
  • The clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole.
  • Among regions, the South has the largest number of clean economy jobs though the West has the largest share relative to its population.
  • Strong industry clusters boost the growth performance of metropolitan areas in the clean economy.

Recommendations to governments include:

  • Scale up the market by taking steps to catalyze vibrant domestic demand for low-carbon and environmentally-oriented goods and services.
  • Ensure adequate finance by moving to address the serious shortage of affordable, risk-tolerant, and larger-scale capital that now impedes the scale-up of numerous clean economy industry segments.
  • Drive innovation by investing both more and differently in the clean economy innovation system.
  • Focus on regions, meaning that all parties need to place detailed knowledge of local industry dynamics and regional growth strategies near the center of efforts to advance the clean economy.

This very interesting analysis of the potential for green jobs, including the full report, an executive summary, video, and detailed data, can be found at http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2011/0713_clean_economy.aspx