Saturday, March 23, 2013

US State Department Report on Keystone XL Pipeline hid Conflicts of Interest

The US State Department needs to go back to the drawing board and start over with a clean slate:

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Autotrophic City

BU, IBM, and the City of Boston co-hosted an amazing workshop yesterday on "Smarter Cities".  Here's my take: The biggest Smarter City challenge of all is to transform our cities from fossil fueled heterotrophs to self-sustaining autotrophs. Climate scientists give us no more than a few decades to get this done, which means we need a Manhattan Project - sized effort with all hands on deck.

Key to this transition is a transformation of our infrastructure: from being delivery based systems supplying resources from far distant sources over vulnerable supply lines - to self-sustaining systems feeding on local and regional sun, wind, water, and waste. Homes and businesses must become sites of production and sharing, and more efficient sites of consumption. The good news is that we can morph our existing life support infrastructure systems rather than start over: renewable gas from our local waste streams can be fed directly into our local gas pipeline network or can generate electricity, allowing us to draw down the need for distant, dirty fossil gas and oil. Solar, tidal and wind power can supplement the existing electrical grid, and electric vehicles can buffer supply intermittency by diurnal peak shaving and valley filling. In Boston, enough rainwater falls on the city to potentially serve a third of its water needs, providing resilience against single pipeline failures (like happened in Boston on May 1, 2010; just google "aquapocalypse" for a lesson in irresilience). For food, we'll need to supplement rooftop and community gardens with big organic from farther away.  Efficiencies of scale in food production can mean low carbon costs, even from longer distance, and we should embrace them, while still valuing the resilience conferred by local redundancy in food production.

Dovetailing the autotrophic city is the efficient city.  LED light bulbs, for example, provide ample light for a fraction of previous power.  My IBM colleague David Bartlett, who shared a panel yesterday with me, has shared some stunning statistics on the opportunities for efficiency gains.

Think the autotrophic city - even an autotrophic planet - is crazy?  Some pretty bright people at Stanford don't think so.  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The inverted terminology of investment and divestment

Many university administrations argue that fossil fuel investment is needed to sustain society's energy needs. This misses the key function of investment, which is to PROMOTE, not merely sustain. Investment promotes the active GROWTH of enterprises, not just their maintenance. The enormous profits and tax breaks enjoyed by fossil fuel corporations are enough to keep them from collapsing overnight should we choose to divest. Divestment doesn't stop corporations from profiting from our addictions at the gas pump and supermarket, or from striking drilling deals with private landowners.

A related argument for investment is growth in energy demand, which supposedly requires supply to increase. But the United States experienced its lowest rate of population growth ever in the last decade. Our standard of life is comfortable and wasteful. Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy rather than new production can easily maintain and improve our quality of life.

Demand is not the reason for the Keystone XL pipeline, or for the new pipelines being laid out of the Marcellus Shale to serve us in Boston and the rest of the eastern seaboard; the economic reality is that there is a glut of gas and oil that corporations need to move to make profits. The gluts are so large that these pipelines head to our shores for export. The pipelines create and enable the markets; they don't serve  them.They also lock us domestically further and further into a fossil fuel infrastructure dependency, like a heroin user who has found a new vein.

The unstated fear is the symbolic statement made by university divestment; the fear that this idea is too powerful to stay within the walls of academia and will go viral. The tentacles of fossil fuels run broad and deep, systemically infecting every aspect of society, including our universities. Why else would there be so much resistance among university administrations, whose endowments average only about 2% in fossil fuel producing companies?

The choice for BU is: do we want to continue to invest in and actively promote the growth of a fossil fuel dependent society? Or, by divestment, do we wish to opt out from such active support?