Friday, December 31, 2010

Green Resolutions for a Happy New Year

2010 was the best of times and the worst of times for green energy. Here are a few resolutions to help us make 2011 a Greener and Happier New Year.

Resolution #1: Keep The Faith

It is easy to get discouraged during a year when the media and Congress ignored an urgent warning from the National Academy of Sciences that Strong Evidence on Climate Change Underscores the Need for Actions to Reduce Emissions.

But do not despair. We did make progress this year. Walmart launched a Sustainability Index requiring 100,000 of its suppliers to disclose their energy and water consumption, carbon footprint, waste management practices, and what they are doing to become more green and sustainable. President Obama ordered federal agencies to reduce the federal government's carbon emissions by 28% by the year 2020. Both of these actions are having ripple effects as evidenced by Deloitte LLP acquiring three of the largest carbon consulting firms in the world. Deloitte, IBM, Accenture, McKinsey, and all the other consulting firms are building sustainability practices because their clients know that being profitable in the 21st century means finding ways to reduce waste and becoming more sustainable.

So resolve to keep the faith in 2011. We are making progress.

Resolution #2: Share the News

Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and other low-key, professional newscasters have been replaced with jesters and snake-oil salesmen. Traditional media are desperately trying to get our attention because we no longer rely exclusively on them for news. Most of us get our news from many different sources including, most importantly, our social networks. Think about how many times you have found a story or a video because a friend sent it to you via email or posted it on your favorite social networking site.

That, my friends, is how we will continue to build upon the growing consensus in support of green and sustainable energy. When you see an interesting article / video / podcast on green energy or climate change or sustainable business practices, post it and share it with your friends. Some of them will share it with their friends. Sometimes it will even go viral.

So resolve to share the news. We can change the world by sharing.

Resolution #3: Think and Choose Green

Many of us have made greener choices when buying cars based on their fuel efficiency rating or when buying appliances based on their EnergyStar rating. This makes sense because a single decision will save energy, save money, and reduce environmental impacts for many years. There is another choice that we should be making and that has only become available in the past 5 years or so. That is choosing where our electricity comes from.

In many states, you have the right to tell your utility to get your electricity from green and sustainable sources. It does not cost any more than you pay now, and it often costs less to choose greener energy. I've done this for my own home. We now get greener energy for 12.4% less than we were paying before. You can click here to find out how you can choose greener energy at an affordable price for your home or business. It's free, it's easy, it will help the environment, and it could save you money. And it will increase the demand for sustainable energy.

So resolve to think and choose green whenever you can. We can make a difference.

Happy New Year!

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Breakthrough in Genetically Modified Plants for Renewable Energy

Scientists at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma, have uncovered a gene that could revolutionize the biofuels industry in the United States. The gene is responsible for controlling the density of plant material. By removing the gene, farmers can grow denser plants that produce more biomass from the same acreage. In short, more energy from the same amount of land and less conflict with land needed to grow food.

Huanzhong Wang, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the foundation, found a gene that controls the production of lignin in the central portions of the stems of Arabidopsis and Medicago truncatula, species commonly used as models for the study of plant genetic processes. Lignin is a compound that helps provide strength to plant cell walls, basically giving the plant the ability to stand upright. When the newly discovered gene is removed, there is a dramatic increase in the production of biomass, including lignin, throughout the stem.

Increasing lignin in non-food crops, such as switchgrass, may increase the density of the biomass and produce more feedstock per plant. Compared to corn- or soybean-based biofuels, switchgrass and other low-input grassland perrenials can provide more usuable energy, greater greenhouse gas reductions, and less agricultural pollution per acre. In addition, many of the grass varieties can be grown on agriculturally degraded land, are drought and salt tolerant, and therefore can be grown on land that is not used for food production. Perrenial grasses also offer an excellent habitat for a wide variety of birds and small mammals.

"In switchgrass, as the plant matures, the stem becomes hollow like bamboo," said Dr. Richard Dixon, director of the Noble Foundation's Plant Biology Division. "Imagine if you use this discovery to fill that hollow portion with lignin. The potential increase in biomass in these new plants could be dramatic. This technology could make plants better suited to serve as renewable energy sources or as renewable feedstocks to produce advanced composite materials that consumers depend on every day."

Collaboration with scientists at the University of Georgia revealed that removing the gene also increases the production of carbohydrate-rich cellulose and hemicellulose material in portions of the plant stem. These are the components of a plant that are converted to sugars to create advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic-derived ethanol or butanol. More celluloses and hemicelluloses mean more sugars to use for carbohydrate-based energy production.

Biofuels have already shown that they can help even a large nation wean itself from foreign oil. Brazil has eliminated its dependence on foreign oil by using ethanol from sugar cane to meet most of its fuel needs. Increased lignin production in switchgrass and other perennial grasses could help the US reach energy independence as well.

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Kurdistan Attracts Billions for Oil Exploration

Investors are betting billions of dollars that oil will flow freely from wells being drilled in Kurdistan. The Financial Times reports that one small oil exploration company, Gulf Keystone Petroleum, already has a market capitalization of $1.9 billion, which would put it on the FTSE 250 index if it gets listed on the London Stock Exchange. Not bad for a company that has no proven reserves, has never earned any money for its investors, and has run operating losses every year of its existence.

Of course, Kurdistan is a pretty dangerous and unstable place. Just because you find oil today doesn't mean you will get to profit from it in the future.

So why does this company have a market capitalization of almost two billion dollars? Analysts say it is because investors are very confident that there are large oil reserves in the parts of Kurdistan where Gulf Keystone has been drilling. In fact, Gulf Keystone hit oil with its first well drilled in August 2009.

Ok. I can understand that line of thought. But this oil is in Kurdistan, a place that has been in almost continual violent conflict with Iraq since it was first recognized as an autonomous region in 1970. What about the very significant risks of violence, war, or even just political instability? How can a company afford all the security and insurance that must be necessary to cover those risks.

This is where we start to understand how the oil industry benefits from costs assumed by others. The ability to drill for oil in Kurdistan is a direct result of the hundreds of billions of dollars our governments have spent on the Iraq war and the ensuing seven years of efforts to stabilize that country. The door was opened, and it remains open, because of huge government investments and the personal sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of American, British, and other troops, including almost 5,000 Americans who lost their lives and more than 30,000 who were seriously wounded.

Next time we fill up our cars with relatively inexpensive gasoline, let's remember the hidden costs that are not reflected in the price. And let's also keep those costs in mind when we consider government investments in sustainable alternatives.

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey