It’s that time of the year, when I'm tempted to set ridiculous goals that last, oh, a week before I slide back into habits set over a lifetime. This year it’s different. With the health of the planet in the balance, weather patterns increasingly random, and a political climate that may undo some of the environmental strides made over the past few years, I need to step up and do what I can to help the planet out.
Here are five resolutions I’m making that are as good for the planet as they are for those of us living here.
1. Watch what I eat. Our food system makes up a significant slice of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions that are damaging the planet. A few simple actions I am committing to:
Copyright, Deborah Knuckey, 2017
Or if climate change happens in a vacuum, does anybody care?
Climate data is a critical weapon in the fight for sensible carbon-reduction policies—and the clean energy industry is at risk of being de-weaponized under the new administration.
Think back to An Inconvenient Truth a decade ago: Al Gore’s wakeup call to the planet gained attention less because of his passion, and more because the hockey stick C02 chart shook many people out of their indifference. Data not only made it clear there was an issue, but also gave birth to groups such as 350.org, named for the parts per million of CO2 that we should keep below—a goal that has since been recast as the level we should aspire to return to.
The media and clean energy interests have already weighed in on the potential fate of the EPA under climate denier Myron Ebell or the wilderness under drill-baby-driller Sarah Palin. Now, we need to discuss the risk faced by climate data sources.
Fundamental climate data is at risk under the new administration. The fossil fuel-funded politicians have had the government agencies collecting the data in their sights for years, and the new leadership has essentially declared an open season on transparency. Data collected by NASA and NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) in particular make up the stethoscope through which we monitor the planet’s pulse. Without facts on greenhouse gases, temperature changes, sea level rise, and ocean acidification, it’s hard to make the case for urgent action. And in a period when many of those upward trends are turning exponential, silencing the truth-tellers is even more dangerous.
Without facts on greenhouse gases, temperature changes, sea level rise, and ocean acidification, it’s hard to make the case for urgent action.And it’s not only government organizations that are at risk. Non-profits such as Climate Central not only depend on streams of data from the various government agencies already discussed, but also are funded in part by grants from a wide range of government organizations ranging from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and NASA. Organizations such as Climate Central, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (formerly the Pew Center on Global Climate Change), and many others, play a vital role in aggregating the various data sources and analyzing them to draw out broader trends.
Climate data is a public good, an asset that we all benefit from as it gives the insights needed to make sensible carbon policy. We could argue it’s time for a private sector companies to take on climate’s big data challenge—if they don’t, will we be left fighting blind in the decades to come—and there are many companies that have a vested interest in doing so. But those same companies won’t have a vested interest in sharing that data. In the hands of insurance companies, it’s the key to pricing risk. In the hands of agriculture companies, it’s the key to food supply. In the hands of military contractors, it’s the key to regional stability. Unless a neutral, and deeply trusted, company exists, any data produced privately will be as suspect as the tobacco-funded cancer studies of the 1950s.
Last night, I attended a talk on innovation in our post-election world by Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California, a state that would be the world’s sixth largest economy were we a separate country. He spoke of the need for California to step in and step up in places where the next president is taking the nation in a different direction. California can be party to its own climate agreements with other nations even if Trump’s administration backs out of the Paris Accord.
I challenge Gavin Newsom, challenge California, and challenge the big data companies born in Silicon Valley to step in and step up. Rally together. Form an independent, data-driven, globally accessible information source that can’t be defunded at the whim of a politician on the Big Oil payroll. Lets protect climate data insights. Our future depends on it.
Copyright Deborah Knuckey, 2016
Or why climate change is not the only reason to support the new economy.
Here’s the thing about solar panels: robots and drones can’t put them on your roof. The industry is decades away from the sort of automation that has stripped jobs from steel mills and car factories.
There are many things that disturb me about the leadership this country is about to have, but as I go to sleep tonight, that’s a moot point. When we wake up tomorrow, we will begin a new era when we see the entire clean energy industry at risk, the whole health and future of the planet threatened. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
The vote was a primal scream from the center of a country that has lost industry, seen small towns ghosted, witnessed cities gutted. The middle of America has experienced the sort of economic decline that the inner cities saw decades ago. And while the expression of that anger may be different, the cause of it and potential cure for it are very similar.
America needs a flourishing economy, and that requires stable, well-paid jobs in growing industries. Americans want healthy families, and that requires clean air and water in a healthy environment. And we all want a safe and secure society, and that requires economic stability and positive prospects for all.
Clean energy jobs could be a sizable part of that solution.
Recently, a Finnish company opened a billion dollar steel mill in Pennsylvania. Great! Bring back the steel workers’ jobs! But the reality is that automation meant the behemoth created only 400 jobs. Oil, gas and coal conglomerates have worked out how to eke more fossil fuels out of the earth by focusing on offshore drilling, tar sand extraction, and mountaintop removal. Great! More energy! But the reality is that the industries don’t create many jobs, but do create increasingly large risks for the quality of life of Americans.
Polluted water flaming in rural kitchen sinks, oil spills clogging up beach communities, earthquakes shattering the fracked countryside… even if there was any doubt about climate change, there are many other reasons to look for new and easier sources of energy. Solar and wind create energy without the side effects. Sure, there are some: concentrated solar plants can harm birdlife, as can spinning wind turbines, and the storage that will be needed to take clean energy mainstream requires mining lithium, cobalt, and other rare earth metals. None of it is completely harmless, but the low hanging fruit of the clean energy industry is a better option that scraping the barrel for the last of the fossil fuels.
The clean energy industry offers the sort of jobs that can’t be outsourced to other countries or performed by robots. While a solar panel manufacturing plant is relatively automated, the installation of the panels is not. On the other hand, jobs in coal, for example, have declined as coal companies have transitioned from having people navigate a network of underground mines to having massive machines eat the top of mountains. Other fossil-fuel-based energy sources have similar stories.
As the old-energy jobs have declined at a small but consistent rate, well-paid green collar jobs have boomed. We are still at the earliest stage in the solar and wind revolutions, yet solar has shown consistent double-digit growth rates, eclipsing the coal industry in number of jobs.
We are living in a new economy, one that can’t look to old sources for well-paid, stable jobs in America. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good jobs that can bring income and opportunity back to the heartland. My wish for the new Administration is that it ignores those who have paid to have a seat at the table and looks to where the job growth will be greatest. If so, they can radically reform the energy industry, not because the planet needs it, but because the middle of America needs the jobs it will bring.
Copyright Deborah Knuckey, 2016.
Or why I hope the Tesla/SolarCity merger proves the bears wrong… and why I fear it won't.
Cleantech spectators are watching the Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA) and SolarCIty (NASDAQ: SCTY) merger vote on November 17 almost as closely as a certain other vote nine days earlier. And while the scale of the outcome is far from comparable, the impact on the renewable energy world could be significant. If the merger results in the failure of both companies, it will eclipse Solyndra as a stain on the industry.
There’s a slim chance that the merger won’t go through. The numbers not only don’t support it, but the SEC should have significant concerns about the corporate governance—or lack thereof—inherent in the overlapping interests of owners and board members. There are enough arguments against the merger from that angle alone to give pause to a purely rational investor. However, the companies have enough shares held by family, fanboy small investors, and institutional investors who have a stake in saving SolarCity’s skin that they may swing the numbers and see the merger go through. If that happens, it’s not good news for the renewables industry. Why not? Because the acquisition of SolarCity may just put the cash-strapped Tesla into a tailspin from which it can’t recover. The result: another large greentech failure that can be used as a poster child by Old Industry.
We all know about Solyndra—the oft-cited failed solar company that is the darling of anti-renewable talking heads and lobbyists funded by Big Oil. It’s a darling because they just love being able to take one big example and use it to extrapolate the potential failure of all things solar and wind. Solyndra is painted as a lesson in why there should be no support for or subsidies of renewables. The talking heads don’t counter the arguments with a list of all the oil and gas companies that have benefited from tax breaks, attractive policies, and subsidies and ended up bust… they’re not being paid to be fair and balanced, in the true sense of the poached phrase.
The concern with the merger is that SolarCity’s increasingly poor financials will pull Telsa down with it, especially if a lot of funds are diverted into R&D for a pretty but pretty-unlikely-to-succeed solar roofing product. Can the solar roof get pulled off? Perhaps, but unlikely in the timeframe touted or at the cost suggested, especially given the installation challenges. If it’s successful, it may increase penetration of solar, but it may also put solar sales on hold for years if aesthetically-oriented homeowners delay their solar purchase.
If the worst-case scenario happens—merger approved and combined company fails—then we see not only another major solar failure that the Right can point to, but also an electric vehicle and storage company thrown in. After all, the three business units have each benefitted substantially from government incentives, direct and otherwise. In fact, you could say that the thing that most ties SolarCity and Tesla together is not their focus on clean energy, but their large-scale leveraging of government subsidies and incentives.
Still, there’s a chance that the merger won’t be approved. While we’re damned if it does or damned if doesn’t, at least it will be only solar that gets tarnished if SolarCity goes under. I hope neither fails, but if there’s going to be a failure, lets make it surgical. There’s less collateral damage if the merger doesn’t go through and SolarCity alone goes under. There’s nothing stopping Tesla still developing its integrated solar + storage + EV vision, it can just do it as a hardware plus software play and leave the installation to the existing installer market.
Copyright Deborah Knuckey, 2016.
Modern modular is a green architectural meme with legs: Blu Homes, Living Homes, Project Frog, Simpatico Homes are just a few of the California-based firms exploring smart structures through better design and manufacturing. It's as if everyone looked at the crappy FEMA-supplied manufactured homes made famous post-Katrina, read Keiran Timberlake's "Refabricating Architecture," and got to work.
Another design meme that keeps, er, surfacing are floating homes. Perhaps because I keep driving through Sausalito and seeing those clunky but compelling boxes on water, perhaps because the best vacation I ever took was on a barge in France, or perhaps because I keep getting inspired by the challenges facing Bangladesh and New Orleans as the sea level rise scenarios keep getting adjusted upwards, but homes that float just make sense to me.
Put those two memes together, and you get Drift, a floating modular tiny home by IdeaBox, the Salem, Oregon-based modular modern company best known for conspiring with IKEA on the Activ. Larger ones are coming soon, but if you have water access and want a weekend get away, or somewhere to handle an overflow of guests, Drift is the perfect package.
When it comes to energy efficiency, there's often a gap between the system designed for a building and the actual performance of it. Reading an article on Facilities Net about HVAC performance today, I was reminded of a presentation that one of Seattle's leading green architecture firms gave where they analyzed the performance of a high rise office that they designed. The LEED Gold building's energy use was fairly much as expected when it came to lighting usage, and pretty close when it came to environmental usage (heating, cooling, ventilation), but plug loads.... they were way higher than modeled by the company--almost double.
Plug loads account for everything that is plugged into the wall, whether it is a server room fully of electronics or a laptop in a cubicle. LEED and other green building standards all look to ASHRAE for baseline assumptions about how much power is likely to be used in, for example, an open office space. The assumptions--in the case of the building the architects analyzed and, I imagine, most others--can be way off as plug loads are fickle things, influenced by employee behaviors, workplace norms, and proliferating electronics. Who among us hasn't plugged in their cellphone at work? And in every office I have seen, there's at least a couple of people with incredibly inefficient fan heaters by their feet and just as many with little cooling fans on their desks (I'm guilty of the latter).
Green building technology is an exciting industry at the moment, with smart control systems taking on the challenge where human judgement isn't always the best thing. Cutting edge companies that have caught my eye of late include startups Building IQ, which presented at the NREL Industry Growth Forum when we did, and Daintree Networks, as well as established players Siemens and Johnson Controls, just to name a few.
While giving occupants some control over the environment is important for workplace satisfaction, giving all employees insight into actual power usage is beneficial too, if your want them to make the right decisions and not override all of the smart control systems that exist to improve energy efficiency. Better still, giving employees insights by areas (e.g. floor-by-floor in a high rise office building) to generate some friendly competition on top of the awareness has been shown to be effective. The same has been found in dorms. While energy modeling will only ever approximate real energy use, smart controls combined with occupant empowerment seems to be the key to keeping green buildings performing as designed.
Image from TimberSIL
Sprawl took on a whole new meaning at GreenBuild 2012. The Expo areas spanned three buildings and acres of space, resulting in an overwhelming exhibition of green building products and technologies, And, after 15 booths about energy monitoring software, number 16 has a tough time making an impact. Among all the products though, a few managed to rise above the morass: partly because they were simple products with better ingredients, properties or both. An unscientific selection of products that caught my eye:
1. TimberSIL - It's wood! It's glass! It's both.... TimberSIL has brought together the best of two building products: fast growing pine is harvested and impregnated with liquid glass, creating a product that looks like wood, is cut, hammered and stained like wood, but is significantly stronger, flame resistant and unpalatable to wood-eating pests. For interior or exterior applications, it leaves regular wood in the dust. TimberSIL is based in Greenville, SC, and is distributed nationally. Their website won't wow you, but the product should.
2. Vermont Natural Coatings - Vermont is known for cheese, and Vermont Natural Coatings takes whey, the cheese by-product that Little Miss Muffet taught us about as kids, and turns it into wood finishes. Aside from allowing plenty of opportunities for puns ("A Better Whey"), whey proteins apparently make for strong, durable, low VOC stains, paints and coatings: twice the hardness of other waterborne wood finishes. A cabinet door they painted with two coats of C2 satin paint the day before GreenBuild had a finish more like you'd expect from a oil-based paint in terms of the smooth, leveled finish. The company's line meets the air quality standards for California schools, and is available in interior and exterior finishes, clear and tinted, and for industrial applications such as sports floors.
3. The Bulb Eater by AirCycle Corporation - OK, this only rates a mention because a) it was a cool machine and b) it solves a problem I didn't know existed because I have never managed a 150,000+ sqft facility and the space-consuming dead fluorescent bulbs it generates. Visitors to the booth didn't get to feed the machine with lightbulbs, but the video of the machine sucking in 4ft fluorescent tubes and pulverizing them in a second appealed to my inner-destroyer. Filters capture the mercury vapors and the waste is captured in a 55-gal drum that can be sent for further processing. Saves space, lessens the chance of toxic waste finding its way into the landfill, and provides a satisfying way to grind up those work-day blues.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. One of these three green approaches hogs much of the limelight. Recycled materials make their way into almost all structures these days, yet reducing (building smaller) or reusing (not building at all) are fundamentally greener approaches. Two Texas projects show that creative repurposing of space can result in buildings any company or community would be happy to call home.
Jennifer Whitney for The New York Times
New York Times' recent article on Rackspace's new home in a converted mall in San Antonio is a great example of reusing a redundant structure. Rackspace needed space... racks and racks of it. The founder looked to the ghost of a mall where, he told the NYT, he had rented his tux for prom many years earlier. The decision has not only revitalized the shuttered mall, but also renewed the whole city. Bringing high paid tech jobs into a cash-strapped suburb has a trickle-down effect, and the mall which couldn't keep tenants is now a corporate campus attracting restaurants and other service companies to its perimeter.
The second conversion which caught my eye wasn't a mall, but a Walmart. The Daily Mail's photographic journey through McAllen, Texas', 124,000+ sq ft library shows that even the blandest big box space can be sliced and diced and refitted until it is inspiring. A small and unremarkable town on the US-Mexico border seems an unlikely location for the largest single story library in the US, however by reusing an existing structure, the town was able to think big, turning the acres of consumerism into a temple of learning and community.
It's tempting to replace - scrape a site clean and builkspace needed space. And it can feel like the green thing to do: many a developer manages to recycle some building materials on site, such as broken concrete downcycled to aggregate. Other materials may be recycled offsite: Boulder, CO's approach to construction and demolition debris exemplifies integrated thinking about the waste generated by scraping a site and building anew. But reuse makes so much more sense where the bones of the existing building can be repurposed. It takes much more than moving desks into an unused mall or books into an empty big box. The design challenge of repurposing large consumer caverns and making human-scaled spaces is exciting, and when done well, like in these two instances, inspiring.
© 2011 Anice Hoachlander/ Hoachlander Davis Photography
The Crib, a simple modular home based on a pentagonal truss structure, caught my eye recently after it was featured in Inform, an architecture and design publication from the Mid Atlantic. Jeffery Broadhurst, AIA, came up with the predecessor to the corn-crib inspired micro-home when looking to have somewhere a few steps up from a tent to house visitors a West Virginia farm. The simple aesthetic and easy construction caught the design world's attention and it is been refined and developed into a kit of parts that has potential to fill a growing need: additional housing units small enough to fit in a typical backyard.
Emeryville, California, where I live, is bounded by Berkeley and Oakland, both areas where there's little empty land for infill housing. Aside from some industrial areas which are being snatched up and by developers in search of space for larger projects, there's not a lot of ways to increase density without looking to back yard dwellings. The Crib has not only a small literal and figurative footprint, but also the ability to be flat-packed in, a useful feature in locations where crane-ready modules are not easy to deploy.
I love seeing well-established architects who have grown their name and reputation doing high end custom homes stumble into the sort of fun, smart and small projects that were the stuff of their dreams when back in architecture school. I'm sure that this project, though smaller than many of the kitchens of the homes he typically works on, provides more joy per square foot than any of his other projects.
Fast Company's design blog features a new answer to an old query: how do cities create space without sprawl as they keep growing? The example they highlight is architecture firm in Situ Studio's petite modular housing concept for Raleigh, NC. What's different is where they are finding the space.
Infill housing is not new, however Raleigh's take on infill housing is about to be very renewed. Raleigh's older neighborhoods are blessed with a particularly interesting asset: alleyways between homes that have not been needed since the city sewer system eliminated the need to access outhouses via back alleys decades ago. Proposed zoning changes will enable turing those spaces into micro-lots. In Situ Studio's entry for Building Trust International's HOME competition is just one way that the market is responding to the potential for filling those new lots.
The call for small affordable housing to meet the needs of young, growing workforces was also in the news last month when San Francisco looked at changing zoning to allow for 220 sqft "micro-apartments," a significant cut on today's 290 sqft minimum.
The common thread in both stories is that when city zoning leads the way, creative and even beautiful designs will follow. And I have no doubt that the market will quickly consume these tapas-style homes. Living little is much more possible in this day of wafer-thing TVs, bookshelves compacted into Kindles, and music collections that live in the cloud. Add to that the new work-meets-home styles of offices that are de rigeur for high tech start ups: kitchens with communal tables, conference rooms with whiteboard walls that any kid with crayons would crave, and lounging areas where hard work meets soft surfaces. As the new work-life balance hits home, housing is being redefined by more than just zoning laws.
I'm passionate about sustainable architecture + energy + food and how advances in their technology can help save the planet.