Tag Archives: earthjustice blog

What Bill Gates Should Know About Solar Energy

This post was originally published on the Earthjustice Blog in May of 2011.

Former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave a talk last month at TED on climate change. His overall point was dead on—we need big solutions for a big problem. And he’s a man who is willing to back what he speaks about financially. But, it was interesting to see him dismiss the small steps in a somewhat cynical fashion, characterizing home installations of solar panels as an ineffectual fad for the rich. Gates said:

The solutions that work in the rich world don’t even come close to solving the [energy] problem. If you’re interested in cuteness, the stuff in the home is the place to go. If you’re interested in solving the world’s energy problems, it’s things like big [solar projects] in the desert.

There are numerous problems with this characterization of home solar customers and the impact they have on the climate. First, solar panels have dropped in costdramatically, to the point where middle-class families can lease them and, under the right conditions (roof design and placement) pay less per month for the lease and tiny energy bill than they would for their former electricity costs alone. We’ve hit a point where the economics are compelling, even if you aren’t on board with the carbon reduction goal. And, hey, my solar lease even came with a free iPad 2. There are plenty of incentives.

Secondly, the “cuteness” dig is pretty ironic, as the former president of IBM was rumored to have said of early graphical operating systems:

“Executives don’t want to click a ‘mouse,’ they want to issue commands!”

PC’s won out over the mainframes the same way that solar might ultimately win out over coal and nuclear: they were trendy at home, and the home users brought them to their businesses. Why wouldn’t the Microsoft model work for solar?

Of course, the climate crisis won’t be solved by homeowners alone. Businesses need to be on board and the energy providers have to transition from the legacy power sources. But that doesn’t mean that individual actions are worthless—far from it.

It’s not just that every little bit counts. It’s that winning the battle to embrace alternate power sources, like every battle, is about winning the hearts and minds of the people. And nobody should know that better than the man that took down the mainframes with his personal computers one house at a time.

The Environmental Legacy of Woodstock

This post was originally published on the Earthjustice Blog in August of 2009.

Much is spoken about the legacy of Woodstock, the concert that defined a musical era, now celebrating a 40-year reunion. I came across this fascinating slideshow onTreehugger’s website, discussing the post-Woodstock environmental activities of some of the famous rock and folk musicians that performed there. While some might be skeptical as to how great a conference Woodstock was, discovering this 40-year history of environmental stewardship that followed speaks to the historic importance of the event.

The slideshow notes some fascinating environmental pursuits of classic 60’s artists. Here are some additional links and details on the musicians featured and their earth-friendly activities:

Joan Baez joined Julia Butterfly Hill in tree-sitting protests in support of community gardening.

Neil Young is a strong advocate for alternative fuels, who has not only re-invented his classic Lincoln Continental as an electric/biodiesel hybrid, but has also recorded a whole album about the subject.

The Grateful Dead joined Greenpeace in 1988 to save the rainforests. They were instrumental in founding the Slide Ranch, a teaching organic farm in Marin, County CA that introduces kids to the benefits of growing healthy foods.

Carlos Santana has incorporated solar panels into his business office and home. Like Young, he preaches what he practices, too.

Richie Havens has made teaching urban children about the environment a life’s cause, first with the Northwind Undersea Institute (now closed), a museum devoted to environmental information, and more recently with the Natural Guard.

Arlo Guthrie works with fellow folk legend Pete Seeger’s Hudson Sloop Clearwater, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Hudson River. Guthrie also has a foundation that protects indigenous cultures from threats related to globalization.

Celebrating good music in healthy, open spaces is a legacy that we should leave for future rock fans. It’s nice to see that many of our greatest rock legends get that.

How Technology Might Shape The Future Of Our Cities

This was originally posted on the Earthjustice Blog in May of 2009.

The future is now — at least, the future is now in theaters. And what the future looks like, particularly, our cities in the future, is highly disputed in the pop culture realm.

Take this article contrasting Star Trek‘s vision of San Francisco with Terminator: Salvation’s view of same. One movie envisions a future where the threat of global warming was either contained, or just not the threat that we know it is; the other a future where our technology stood up and ravaged the planet before climate change had a chance.

I’d say the chances that San Francisco will look as shiny and steely as Star Trek predicts are about as likely as the machines becoming sentient and taking over; we’re in for something different, and what our cities will look like depends heavily on how quickly and creatively we can harness technology to work with our planet, instead of against it.

Mitchell Joachim, one of the founders of Terrefuge, an Ecological Design Collaborative for Urban Infrastructure, Building, Planning, and Art, was on the Colbert Report recently, speaking about the radical work his group does in envisioning how an eco-friendly city might work.

It’s a vision that seems half scientific, half Dr. Seussian, but, given the impending dangers we face with climate change, seems particularly apt. We’re not going to solve these problems without a huge amount of creativity and a willingness to accept what would normally seem unacceptable. In that light, Joachim’s ideas are particularly refreshing. Consider these proposals:

The Fab Tree Hab is living, organic housing. Vegetation is prepped with technology that plots the growth; these homes are edible, producing food and shelter simultaneously. As Joachim explains it: “The Fab Tree Hab presents a sophisticated methodology to grow homes from living native trees. This 100% living habitat is prefabricated using Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) reusable scaffolding, manufactured off-site in advance. These scaffold sections can be readily shipped and assembled to fit local tree and woody plant species. Therefore, we enable dwellings to be a fully integrated part of an ecological community.”

Joachim re-envisions transportation as something soft, squishy, and self-powering, in the form of SOFT Cars and Blimp Bumper Buses. S.O.F.T. stands for Sustainable Omni Flow Transport. Cars would be safer and recyclable, with most of their electronics stored in the wheels, allowing for comfortable rides, milder collisions, and stackable recharging stations.

The Blimps would be made of organic materials and self-charging. Going at a rate of 15 miles an hour, commuters would just hop on and off of the seats dangling down from the vehicles. The world that Joachim is pitching is not only one that is ecologically sustainable; it’s also pretty pleasant! It’s not a vision of “back to nature” as much as it’s a vision of moving forward with nature.

Of course, Joachim isn’t the only one thinking about cities and greenhouse gases.Cisco’s Urban Green IT Initiative proposes municipal wireless projects, enhanced public transportation, and environmentally-focused building standards as immediate priorities. Per Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, one of the three cities kicking off the initiative:

Cities are responsible for 75 percent of the planet’s energy use. Sixty percent of the world will live in cities by 2030, and global electricity use will grow by more than 35 percent. We’ve got to get something started now to hold off detrimental effects to the environment that have already begun.

I’m as big a fan of the Hollywood sci-fi epics as anyone, but I hope we’re also paying attention to people like Mitchell Joachim and the others who are truly envisioning a future where the benefits of technology work in concert with the natural power and beauty of our planet to support a sustainable urban lifestyle.

As Earthjustice works to stem the damage being done to our planet, let’s concurrently focus on the improvements that we can make as we face the sometimes daunting challenge of climate change.

Flying in Place: Videoconferencing

This was originally posted on the Earthjustice Blog in May of 2009.

As an information technology director whose livelihood depends pretty heavily on the use of electricity, I’m constantly looking for meaningful ways that the technology I’m immersed in can contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases. The saying “If you aren’t part of the solution you’re part of the problem” doesn’t even suffice — technology is part of the problem, period, and it behooves people like me, who trade in it, to use it in ways that offset its debilitating effects on our environment.

This is why I’m very excited about an initiative that we have taken on to deploy videoconferencing systems in each of our nine locations.

Per a May, 2008 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute, aviation activities account for somewhere between 2% and 5% of the total anthropogenic Greenhouse Gas emissions. Our organization, with offices stretching from Honolulu to Anchorage to NYC and down to Tallahassee, has a great opportunity to eliminate much of our substantial air travel. If you’re in a similar circumstance, I thought it might be helpful to offer a rundown of the options ranging from free and easy to expensive but fantastic.

Cheap and easy means desktop video, which is far more suited for person-to-person chats at one’s desk than large meetings. While it’s certainly possible to hook up a PC to a projector and include someone in a conference room meeting this way, it’s a far cry from the experience you would have with actual videoconferencing equipment.

In general, the return on the investment will be in how successfully you can mimic being in the same room with your video attendees.

While only the richest of us can afford the systems that are installed as an actual wall in the conference room (commonly called “Telepresence”), connecting offices as if they were in the same place, a mid-range system with a large TV screen will, at least, make clear important things like body language and facial expressions, and be of a quality that syncs the voices to the images correctly. This makes a big difference in terms of the usefulness of the experience, and should be what justifies the expense over that of a simple conference phone.

Leader of the cheap and easy options is Skype. Once known as a way to do free phone calls over the Internet, Skype now does video as well. Of course, the quality of the call will vary greatly with the robustness of your internet connection, meaning it’s abysmal if a party is on dial-up and it’s great if all callers have very fast DSL/Cable connections or better.

Other free options might already be installed on your computer. the instant messaging applications like Windows Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and iChat are starting to incorporate video, as well.

There are two ways to do Conference Room Video, one of which requires some investment, at least in a large TV display. One option is to do the conference in someone else’s room. Fedex/Kinko’s is one of many businesses that rent space with video equipment and support (note: it’s not supported at all locations). If your needs are occasional, this might prove more affordable than flying.

For a more permanent arrangement in your own digs, then you want to look at purchasing your own video equipment. This is the route that Earthjustice is taking. Vendors in this space include (and aren’t limited to) Polycom, Cisco, Tandberg andLifeSize. Options range from a simple setup, with a basic system in each office, to a more dynamic one using a multi-point bridge (definition below!). The key questions you need to ask before deciding what to buy are:

  • How many locations do I want to have video in?
  • What are is the maximum number of locations (“points”) that I want to connect in one call?
  • Do I want to regularly include parties from outside of my organization?
  • Do I have sufficient bandwidth to support this?
  • Do I want to incorporate presentations and computer access with the face to face meetings?
  • Do I want to support desktop computer connections to my system?
  • Do I want to have the ability to record conferences and optionally broadcast them over the web?

Standard videoconferencing equipment includes:

  • A Codec, which, much like a computer’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the brains of the equipment
  • One or two Displays (generally a standard TV set; for HD video an HDTV)
  • A Conference Phone
  • One or more Microphones
  • A Remote Control to control the camera and inputs
  • Cables to connect the network and optional input devices, such as a laptop computer

The Codec might be single point or multi-point, multi-point meaning that it is capable of connecting in multiple parties to the conference. You might want an additional display if you regularly do computer presentations at your meetings, so you can dedicate one screen to the presentation and the other to the remote participants. Most modern systems have a remote control that can not only control your camera, but also the camera in the remote location(s), assuming all systems are made by the same vendor.

Another option is to purchase a Conference Bridge (aka MCU). A bridge is a piece of equipment that provides additional functionality to the Codecs on your network, such as multi-point conferencing, session recording, and, possibly, desktop video.

Key questions that we had when we evaluated systems were: “How many points do your codecs connect to before we need to add a bridge?” and, “If numerous parties are connected, how does your system handle the video quality?” Some systems brought all connections down to the poorest quality connected; others were able to maintain different quality connections in different windows.

We also looked hard at the ease of use, but determined that all of these systems were about as complex as, say, adding a VCR or DVR to a cable TV setup. Some staff training is required.

On the real geeky side, we required that the systems do these protocols: Session Initialization Protocol (SIP) and H.323. These are the most common ways that one video system will connect with another over the Internet. By complying with these standards, we’ve had great success interoperating with other manufacturer’s systems.

Finally, we were able to go with a High Definition system, with great quality. This was largely enabled by the robust network we have here, as no system will work very well for you if you don’t have sufficient internet bandwidth to support this demanding application.

Conclusion: This is a somewhat simple distillation of a fairly complex topic, and the proper solution and impact of using video will vary from organization to organization. In our case, this will pay for itself quickly, and be scored as an easy win in our goal to reduce our carbon footprint. Compelling technology that supports our planet. Who can’t appreciate that?

Greening Your Gadgets

This was originally published on the Earthjustice Blog in December of 2008.

It’s a conundrum: how can you reduce your carbon footprint without giving up all of your nifty electronic gadgets?  And, if this isn’t your conundrum, it’s surely your spouse’s, or your kid’s or your cousin’s, right? Cell phones, iPods,  PCs, laptops, TVs, DVDs, VCRs, DVRs, GPSs, radios, stereos, and home entertainment systems are just a fraction of the energy leaking devices we all have a mix of these days.  While selling them all on Ebay is an option, it might not be the preferred solution.  So here are some tips on how to reduce the energy output of those gadgets.

Shop Smart.  Look for energy-saving features supported by the product, some of which will be listed as such, some not.

1.    Energy Star compliance.  Dell and HP sell lots of systems, and some are designed to operate more efficiently.  The Energy Star program sets environmental standards for technology and certifies them for compliance.  You can browse Energy-Star compliant products at their web site.

2.    EPEAT. The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool is a website that, like Energy Star, rates products according to environmental standards.  Focused on computers, laptops and monitors, this is another great resource for identifying green products.

Use Only What you Have To.  Most electronics continue to draw power after you turn them off.  This “feature” is designed to allow them to boot up faster and be more responsive, but it’s been widely deployed with no sensitivity to environmental or even budgetary concerns about idle power use.

1.    Truly turn off devices. Newer electronics, such as DVD Players and stereos, offer options to truly turn off when the power isn’t on, with an accompanying warning that the product might take longer to start up.  It’s worth the wait.

2.    Convenient, green charging. Of course, when you charge your phone or iPod, you don’t leave the charger plugged in when you’re done. But this makes it dangerously easy to plug a cord into your phone without remembering to plug in the other end.  Look for devices that can charge via the USB ports on your computer, instead of a wall charger, not because that takes less energy to charge them, but because it eliminates the need to plug and unplug the wall charger.

Be Virtual.  If there’s a way to do what you want to do without buying another electrical device, go for it!

1.    Backup online. Instead of buying a backup machine or drive for your computer, use an online backup service like Mozy or Carbonite (There are many more online backup options, as well – these are two popular ones).

2.    Squeeze multiple computers into one.  Sound like magic?  It’s not.  If you use a Mac and a PC (say, because you love the Mac but need a Windows machine for work compatibility), pick up Parallels or VMWare Fusion, programs that allow you to run multiple computer operating systems on one computer, and retire the second machine.

Go Solar. Costco, Target and other retailers are starting to carry affordable solar chargers, $30 to $50 devices that can replace your wall sockets as the power sources to charge your phones and iPods.

Be Vigilant.  Turn things off when they’re not in use, aggressively tweak the power settings on your systems, and make green computing a habit, not a special project.

Take it from a techie like me: we don’t want to abandon the 21st century in order to insure that there’s a 22nd.  But we do want to curtail our energy use as much as possible.  These are relatively easy first steps in our personal efforts to stop global warming.