Thursday, September 29, 2011

NYC Climate Week: Market Makers: Developing and Deploying Energy Efficiency in NYC.

Last week was New York City Climate Week and I had the chance to attend a very interesting event dealing with energy and the way we use it. This blog post is a summary of what I learned in the event as well as a personal reflection on it.

The first event was titled Market Makers: Developing and Deploying Energy Efficiency in NYC. The panel included Colin Smart from Con Edison, Allen Freifeld from Viridity Energy and Mei Shibata from ThinkEco. The conversation covered the way to achieve energy efficiency, as well as reduce the peaks of energy needed in the summer. Mr. Smart from Con Edison said that one of their biggest challenges is air conditioning units. These are a challenge mainly because it is a coincidental demand that happens when the weather gets really warm. According to him, there are currently 6.1 millions of AC units in NYC and over a million more coming! There is a need and an opportunity for innovation in order to smooth out those “peaks” in demand. Some of the progress that has been done by some buildings is making ice when the demand for energy is low (i.e. at night) and cooling down the building during the day by blowing fans over the ice. This way the building is reducing its energy demands during peak hours.

The panel then welcomed Mei Shibata from ThinkEco a start-up business that is working on the Modlet, a plug-in device that can help you use your energy at home more efficiently. Basically, the Modlet allows you to turn off devices when they are not in use. A lot of energy is drawn by electronics if they are always plugged in without being used. You can also control the Modlet remotely from work if you forgot to turn off a device before leaving home. The main thing right now is to educate the society on the importance of using energy more efficiently, For example, turning off the air conditioning when you are not home is a good way to reduce your energy demand. Or turning off unnecessary lighting during the day is another way to contribute to a lower demand.

The last panelist was Allen Friefeld from Viridity Energy.  Viridity Energy is trying to change passive electricity consumer into active ones. You might wonder how one can do that, it I fairly simple. The price that we pay for energy is an average of the constantly changing price of electricity. Basically, when the demand for energy is higher, the price goes up and so on. Viridity let its costumers know when the price of energy gets higher so they can reduce their demand. They can increase their demand again when the price of electricity start going down again. The user can also get a payback for choosing not to consume at peak time. Viridity clients currently are large buildings. I thought the idea of monitoring the change in price and to help customers make a choice on when to consume energy was very fascinating. It once again relies on people being sensible to the cost and demand of energy.

I thought that this event was inspiring and encouraging. In different ways, those three companies are working really hard at reducing energy demand and making consumers more aware of their energy consumption and how to reduce and control it. Be making people more informed and giving them the tools we can achieve a better energy usage.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Fine Line Between Environmental Concerns and Economic Recovery

Blog Post Based on Battle Lines in US Test Case for CO2 Controls by Ed Crooks, published in the Financial Times on August 22nd, 2011 and on New Jersey Quits RGGI, Bans Coal Plants (

A recent article in the Financial Times brought back an interesting and important question: whether the fragile US economy can cope with tougher environmental regulation. This issue rose up because the only current working cap and trade scheme for carbon emission in the United States may set tighter limits on emissions in the next year.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Some of you might not know what is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The RGGI is the first market based carbon emission trading platform in the United States. It was formed in 2003 and includes ten Northeastern states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.  The objective of the RGGI is to reduce carbon emission from the power sector by 10% by 2018 ( The permits were emitted in the fall of 2008 and the first three years of compliance began in January 2009. Electricity generators can buy the permits at quarterly auctions and can be traded. The profits from the sale of the permits are used to promote renewable energy and energy conservation.  This means that electricity generators need to buy carbon emission permits in order to have the “right to pollute”. The cap limits the total amount of emissions that the power plants can produce in aggregate. By restraining the cap it is possible to cut down the total carbon emitted over the years.

Critics of the RGGI

Last May, the Governor of the State of New Jersey announced that his state would leave the RGGI at the end of the year. The main reason for New Jersey to leave the scheme was the inefficiency of the plan to reduce carbon emissions effectively. According to Governor Christie, the emissions aren’t currently expensive enough to change industry behavior.  This same conclusion is also highlighted in the article in the Financial Times. The recession led to a reduction in the price of natural gas, a cleaner energy source, which is now used as a substitute for coal and oil. The recession also caused a lower demand for energy. This resulted in a lower amount of carbon emitted which means that the demand for permits is really low, which leads to lower permit prices, resulting in making the scheme not as effective as it was planned. In order to gain efficiency, the cap would need to be reduced to be a bigger constraint, unfortunately, some people believe that this could hurt investment and employment in the states included in the RGGI by driving up energy cost.  Can the fragile economic recovery survive with harder environmental regulation? Chris Christie also fears that this could open the door to a certain competitive advantage for the states that are not included in the RGGI. According to Christie, plants in neighboring states could drive out of business cleaner plants from New Jersey. This could end up defeating the purpose of the RGGI if the first place.

It is hard to know what is the right thing to do in this situation. The RGGI wants to encourage cleaner energy production and a reduction of carbon emissions now rather than pay for depollution later on. But it could also hurt the fragile economy of the participating states and give an unfair advantage to bigger polluters in other states that can produce dirtier energy at a cheaper price. What are your thoughts on it? Do you think the RGGI would be more effective in a healthy economic environment?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Value of Nature Services

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times about putting a price on nature. In some of my classes during my graduate studies, we were studying different methods and theories that can help value natural resources such as the travel cost method and contingent valuation, so this subject was of particular interest to me. The article is about The Nature Capital Project that was created by Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and The Nature Conservancy. The idea behind this project is to put a value on the benefits we get from the different element of nature in order to take them into consideration when building projects that can alter or affect it.

You may wonder, what exactly is the capital of nature? The information on the project’s website gives some examples on the type of benefits or “services” we receive from nature:

• Plants counteract climate change by capturing carbon dioxide
• Wetlands purify water flowing into lakes and streams
• Forests soak up rain, reducing the risk of floods
• Worms turn waste into life supporting soil.

There is, of course many other examples of nature services that aren’t listed here. The tougher question is now: How do you value nature services? They do not come with a price tag, but the organization came up with InVEST, a tool that allows the decision-makers to quantify the importance of natural capital, to assess the tradeoffs associated with alternative choices, and to integrate conservation and human development ( A classic example of tradeoff when it comes to nature is cutting a forest in order to produce energy vs. keeping the forest in order to protect an area from flooding and erosion. Does the cost of finding an alternative way to produce energy outweigh the risk associated with not having the protection from the forest anymore? In this scenario, a lot more needs to be taken into consideration to evaluate the problem accurately, but it gives an idea of how complex tradeoffs can be.

The InVEST tool, from the Natural Capital project, helps evaluate the different alternatives for a project considering the biophysical and economical factors. This tool can be used by government, non-profits as well as private companies that are interested in doing their part in terms of protecting the fragile balance between nature and human needs.

For more information check out the website:

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sorting Out Bioplastics: Which Bin Should They Go In?

Blog post based on: Breaking Down Bioplastics: Is the Bioplastic Cup Half Full or Half Empty? by Mary Catherine O’Connor, published in the Earth Island Journal, Summer 2011.

It has been a little bit since my last blog post, as I have been busy with other projects. But today, I have a very interesting topic that I find really summer appropriate as the iced lattes and teas season has rolled over. Is you beverage of choice served in a bioplastic cup? And if so, which kind is it and which bin should it goes in? The article by Mary Catherine O’Connor explores the different types of bioplastics and what we should be doing with them. There are different types of bioplastic: polylactic acid (PLA) and bio-based PET or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) PlantBottle. Let’s take a look the different types of bioplastics:


PLA is a bioplastic made from corn by the company NatureWorks. Depending on the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used to grown the corn, it can affect its actual “Green Status”. Another issue with the corn-based PLA is one that comes up also in the ethanol talks: shouldn’t we be using corn to feed the planet rather than for packaging or fuel? To this, everyone can have his or her own opinion. So in which bin do you think you should put your PLA cup? Recycle or compost? PLA should be composted, unfortunately, it is often mistaken by people to be another kind of plastic and ends up in recycling facilities, where it will be discarded and put in a landfill. According to Teresa Clark from Enso Bottle, PLA requires an environment with oxygen, heat and moisture in order to begin breaking down and these conditions are not often found in landfills ( PLA can also be a problem for composters as it makes it harder to sort through the plastics wrongly put in compost bin and that will also redirect the PLA to the landfill. They are currently only two companies that recycle PLA in the world, one in Europe and another in Wisconsin. Recycling PLA allows the embedded energy inside each cup to be reused (O’Connor, 2011) rather than lost through the composting process.

Bio-based PET or HDPE PlantBottle

The PET or HDPE are made partially to completely from plants. These bottles have the exact same chemical structure than plastic bottles that are made from oil. Currently, Coca-Cola has a 30% plant-based PET bottle and PepsiCo developed a 100% plant-based PET bottle. Because they have the same chemical structure, bio-based PET and HDPE should be recycled and not composted even though the name of the PlantBottle is slightly misleading and would clue most of us to dispose of this bioplastic in the compost bin!

So whether or not you agree with the fact that plant-based products are a greener alternative to the regular plastic, disposing of them correctly will help them achieve what they were created for.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rethinking The Way We Use Water

Blog post based on the Webinar Cites and the Global Water Crisis: Managing a Vital Resource by Sustainable Cities Collective and also on the article Water Scarcity Spells Opportunity for Entrepreneurs by Erica Gies, published on March 21st, 2011.

March 22nd, 2011 was World Water Day, so I thought it would be appropriate to have a blog post on water. I took part in the Webinar titled Cities and the Global Water Crisis: Managing a Vital Resource that gave an opportunity to Larry Levine (NRDC) Scott Anderson (Verde Strategy) and Paul Bowen (Coca Cola) to discuss the issue of water.

According to the New York Times article “Water Scarcity Spells Opportunity for Entrepreneurs” the fact that water is now affected by energy supply as well as climate change can make it more attractive for people wanting to invest in the water industry, creating a blue tech economy. Water is losing some of its public good status as it becomes more and more linked to energy usage as well as becoming scarce. Pollution and increasing world population are putting pressure on our water resources. The changing dynamics of water use and availability creates a need to use water more efficiently.

My favorite part of the webinar was about how the gray infrastructures of water in the United States are getting old and the possibility of turning them into green infrastructure. Gray infrastructure are for example, buildings, roads, utilities and parking lots. Gray infrastructure is impervious, forcing water to run off, which must be managed and cleaned before entering rivers ( Mr. Levine brought up the idea that water could find its old cycle by adding vegetation that could help filtrate and diminish the overflow, treating the extra runoff as a resource instead of waste. This could lead to a positive externality for everyone living around this new system. He suggested green roofs, roadside plantings, rain gardens, and rainwater harvesting to keep pollution out of the waterways and thereby protect and enhance drinking water supplies.

The link between water and energy usage is important. Paul Bowen from Coca Cola explained the importance of the link between the two in his firm production process. Basically there are trade-offs between paying for more energy or using less water, making the carbon footprint of a process linked to its water footprint. Water footprint is defined as follows by the Water Footprint Network (

“The water footprint is an indicator of freshwater use that looks at both direct and indirect water use of a consumer or producer. The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business. Water use is measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated) and/or polluted per unit of time. A water footprint can be calculated for a particular product, for any well-defined group of consumers (e.g. an individual, family, village, city, province, state or nation) or producers (e.g. a public organization, private enterprise or economic sector). The water footprint is a geographically explicit indicator, not only showing volumes of water use and pollution, but also the locations.”

Both the webinar and the newspaper article are making the point that because of the state of water, more and more money will go into the resource in order to make better use of it. The crucial need of water for every part of our lives coupled with increasing scarcity will require us to be more efficient and conservation-oriented.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Back to Sustainable Agriculture

Based of the Lecture Series Good Food: Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth, Brooklyn Public Library, February 26th, 2011

Last Saturday, I attended the lecture series Good Food at the Brooklyn Public Library. The speaker was Eric Herm, a cotton farmer from Texas. He recently wrote a book: Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth. His vision of our current agricultural system is very interesting. He refers to farmers as the caretakers of the earth, that the soil, just like us, is capable of healing. He also mentioned that the real challenge of agriculture will be getting everyone together and defining how we go about change because what is happening to our food supply is also affecting our health. One particular idea that stayed with me is that it is time to put unity back in community.

He talked about how our life has gotten easier, and how we are used to picking all our food at the grocery store without the need to grow anything. We are also used to having access to a wide range of food any time of the year because it comes from all around the world. There is a cost to this diversity of choice; it takes a lot of energy to transport food from every corner of the globe

As farms get increasingly larger through consolidation, farmers are more inclined to use genetically modified organism (GMO) seed, mostly because it requires less labor by the farmer. This GMO seed has affected our soil system and made it weaker. Mr. Herm admitted to using GMOs in the past and explained to us how he is now farming with no GMO seed or pesticides and a limited amount of herbicides. His farm is also on the path to being certified organic.

While Eric Herm doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to fix our current food systems, he does have some ideas that could definitely get us on the path to a more sustainable food system. Eating locally and in season, growing a small garden, and growing perennial crops that don’t need to be replanted every year can save energy. In the end, people used to live closer to where their food is produced; it must be possible to go back to a more sustainable agriculture.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Not Just Carbon Emissions: Additional Ways to Reduce Climate Change

Blog post based on Piecemeal Possibilities publish in The Economist, February 19th, 2011.

This article was very interesting because it is a reminder that there is more to global warming than just carbon emissions. There is deforestation as well as greenhouse gases and other atmospheric pollutants.  According to the article, focusing on reducing these other causes could help lessen climate change. As of right now, reducing carbon emissions is an expensive and laborious project as carbon is the heart of our industrial life. The ability to control other pollutants might be easier and more cost-effective. These other causes may require less multinational oversight as well.
The article gives the example of how reducing black carbon that is obtained by inefficient combustion in cooking fires and by older diesel engines can give rapid and tangible results. The article mentions that this could be achieved by giving poor people cleaner ways to burn various fuels. This could not only help slow global warming but could also have huge health benefits.
Finally, the article mentioned that even if we take other actions to mitigate climate change, it is still very important to continue keeping in mind the importance of decarbonisation.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Regulation vs. Innovation: What is the answer to climate change?

Blog post based on Cap ad Trade is Dead. Now What? by Brian Walsh published in Good Magazine, Winter 2011.

Copenhagen was overall disappointing for the environmentalists and the people hoping to obtain a binding treaty that could help the world reduce carbon emissions. According to Brian Walsh, writer for Time's environment, it failed just like cap and trade failed this year in the US. The following quote explains it:

The idea that- in order to respond to our very real climate and energy challenges, we should set a pollution limit and then ratchet that limit down to a politically safe level- was always doomed.”

The author explains that the major problem with the cap and trade system is that it always sets an economic loser. We can make goods more expensive to pay for the cap and trade system but we will be at an economic disadvantage to others that do not participate in the system and can thereby sell the same goods cheaper.

The idea behind cap and trade is to create an incentive for alternative energy. While I don’t want to assume that it’s totally unworthy, I can see how it might never work in a worldwide model.  The article mentions how difficult it is for poorer countries to invest in a system that reduces carbon emissions when they are still developing and don’t always have access to reliable sources of energy.

The important point that the author makes in the article is that it’s not regulation and policy that can now “manage” carbon emissions but innovation. He argues that the money should be spent on research to find better and cheaper forms of green energy.  I particularly like the author’s idea to put a small tax on carbon in order to finance research into green energy. So is the answer innovation with a small dose of regulation?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Urban Ecological Design by Dr. Mitchell Joachim

Recently I attended a lecture series entitled Get Smart at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. The speaker was Dr. Mitchell Joachim the co-founder of Terreform ONE and Terrefuge. Dr. Joachim has a Phd from MIT and he specializes in ecological design and urbanism.

I thought the lecture was quite interesting and it was totally outside of anything I have heard on the subject. I am far from being a specialist in environmental design, but I could still appreciate the value of the ideas that were presented over the course of the evening.

Dr. Joachim started by talking about “end of the world talks” that we often hear from scientists in order to provoke a change in the way the human population acts on a day to day basis.  The speaker prefers a more positive approach ,one that is a mix of technofix (science will find the solutions) and ecotopic (returning to our early connection with nature).  Dr. Joachim believes we should work on changing the designs around us in order to adapt to our changing world.

Dr. Joachim presented some interesting car prototypes based on the idea that cars should be built around cities rather than cities being built around cars. One of them was a soft car that doesn’t go faster than 30mph and that is so soft that it would not hurt someone getting hit by it.  Then there are the cars that you can stack up.  They don’t take much space because they turn vertical when you get in and out. There were also some house prototypes such as a house made out of trees that are grown into specific shapes.  It would take 7 to 15 years to grow these houses depending on the climate.

Dr. Joachim also talked about the importance of reducing the amount of waste humans produce. According to the presentation, New York City currently produces enough waste in an hour to fill up the Statue of Liberty! An interesting diagram actually showed us the increase in the amount of waste we produce compared to just a few decades ago. It was quite impressive to see the difference between the two eras.

There was also the question of energy consumption.  I knew that New Yorkers had to use less energy than the rest of the United States but it was interesting to finally put a number on it. According to Dr. Joachim, the average American used around 63 MW per year and the average New Yorker only around 42 MW per year.   Mass transit and housing stacked on top of each other (apartments) were some reasons for the efficiency.

Overall, the message was hopeful: there is a way to adapt to our changing environment and there are possibilities for making the way we design our cities more ecological. I learned a lot from the presentation and I would suggest that you attend one of Dr. Joachim’s presentations if you ever get a chance.

His website is:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Blog post based on the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Recently, I decided to read the book Cradle to Cradle. I had encounter the subject before while doing an internship in New York City, but I had never read the entire book, I only looked at the process of obtaining the Cradle to Cradle Certification.

I found the book really interesting, as it challenged my views on sustainability, recycling and environment. First off, lets define Cradle to Cradle: It models nature's industry on nature's process in which materials are viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy safe metabolism. Basically, Cradle to Cradle is an economic, industrial and social framework that seeks to create systems that are not only efficient but essentially waste free.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the discussion about recycling:

Recycling as we know it might not be the best option to save the planet.  Most recycling is actually down-cycling, because it reduce the quality of the material over time. For example, when different types of plastic are recycled together, they are mixed and produce a hybrid of lower quality and the same thing is also true for metal. Also recycling (or down-cycling) can increase the contamination of the biosphere. For example, paint and plastic that are melted into recycled steel contain harmful chemicals. According to the book, paper requires extensive bleaching and other chemical processes to make it blank again for reuse. it also mentions that some people have developed allergies to newspapers, which are often made from recycled paper.

It made me wonder about the actual value of recycling and reconsidered its importance. The book stresses that being less bad is not the solution for our planet and suggests eco-effectiveness is a better approach.

Products can be certified Cradle to Cradle. The certification criteria can be found at: