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The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) in Boston’s Back Bay is a national non-profit organization with a mission to change the way we pay for waste management and recycling in this country. The concept behind product stewardship is simple—people who benefit from the sale and use of a product should be responsible for the cost of managing that product when the consumer disposes of it. The most commonly discussed form of product stewardship is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which requires companies to pay some or all of the costs associated with safely managing their products at their end of life. Though many models exist, EPR programs typically involve the creation of an industry-funded stewardship organization that helps businesses recycle the products they produce. Seen by many as a fairer way to pay for recycling, EPR also gives companies an incentive to design and sell products that can easily and cheaply be recycled.

In the past few decades, the EPR approach has caught on all over the world. EPR programs in the United States are typically run at the state level and focus on items that are bulky, dangerous or toxic. Many states have EPR programs for electronic waste, products that contain mercury (e.g., thermostats, auto switches, and fluorescent lights), paint, and batteries. While PSI sees this as a starting point, these are by no means the only products that can benefit from EPR. Five Canadian provinces and the European Union apply EPR to commonplace items like packaging waste. PSI hopes to expand the number of US states that employ EPR and the number of product categories that are covered by EPR programs.

Having worked at PSI as an intern since September of 2012, I have had a chance to become familiar with the Institute’s work nationwide. For a small organization with just 8 full-time employees, the scope of PSI’s work is impressive. Its work includes legislative tracking, advocacy, policy research and evaluation, designing and running pilot projects, and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogs. PSI is involved with more than 15 product categories, including packaging, paint, electronics, pharmaceuticals, phonebooks, mattresses, and products containing mercury. To give a sense of the scope of PSI’s work, as an intern I am currently assisting in a research project on policy best practices for packaging EPR in Europe and Canada, as well as helping with the design and implementation of a program to increase the number of mercury switches that are recovered from automobiles in Illinois.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Scott Cassel, the founder and CEO of PSI to get a sense of how PSI got started and where the movement is headed. Below are the highlights of our conversation.

Where did the idea for PSI come from and how did PSI get started?

The idea came about in the 1990s when Scott was Director of Waste Policy and Planning at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and developed the first state plan for household hazardous waste. Because of a lack of funding at the state and municipal level only a small percentage of products were being collected. Scott realized that success at collecting household hazardous waste would break the banks of communities and that a new funding model was needed. At the same time, Scott was president of the North American Hazardous Materials Management Association and learned about successful EPR programs in British Columbia. Scott developed a business plan for an organization to promote EPR in the US and was given roughly three years of seed money by the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and space at UMass Lowell. PSI was founded in 2000 and was conceived as an organization that would be a voice for state and local governments on EPR. It has expanded into nearly 100 formal partnerships with companies, organizations (including environmental), universities, and non-US governments. After 4 years at UMass Lowell, PSI moved first to Newbury Street and then to its present location on Stanhope Street in Back Bay.

How has the product stewardship landscape changed since PSI was founded? Has PSI’s role changed since then?

There has been increasing recognition that EPR is not just for toxics and that we need to look at products from a lifecycle perspective. It is easy to see the value of EPR for toxic products and for products such as carpet and mattresses that have high disposal costs for municipalities, but there are actually very few products that cannot fit under the EPR umbrella if you view it from a lifecycle perspective. All products have an impact on the environment, and we need to look broadly at the mining, manufacture, use, transportation, and post-consumer management to really get the full understanding of which products should be viewed as priorities from an environmental impact perspective. With 67 EPR laws in 32 states, the EPR movement has momentum and companies are beginning to see the writing on the wall. Companies are also beginning to realize that regulation can level the playing field and eliminate free rider problems in a way that voluntary initiatives cannot.

One place where voluntary action has been successful has been with retailers, who are realizing that serving as collection points can draw in customers and increase brand loyalty. Staples developed its computer take back program after a successful 6-week pilot project with PSI. They initially charged a $10 fee, but were eventually able to collect and recycle computers for no charge due to an increased market for scrap electronics. This program has proved highly successful, and has been emulated by Best Buy, Office Depot and Office Max.

What do you consider to be PSI’s major accomplishments?

One is the Staples program, which was the first time a retailer became involved in computer take-back.  In 2004, retailers did not want to participate in the national electronics dialogue. Staples stepped forward and worked with PSI to develop the program, which became a well-known success and showed that retailers could take back computers at a low cost. Store employees loved it, and customers showed increased brand loyalty.

A second major accomplishment was a national agreement reached with the paint industry to fund the collection of leftover paint. Over 9 months of dialog, PSI reached an agreement with the industry. After conducting 8 projects over the next two years, the paint industry was convinced to take full responsibility. This showed that it was possible to work with, rather than against, industry on EPR.

EPR has grown tremendously over the past decade, with 67 EPR laws now in place across the country. PSI has thousands of members, including 47 state memberships at the secretary, commissioner or director level. PSI has built a broad-based coalition and it is clear that EPR is not going away. There is a need to take stock and evaluate programs to be sure that they are working to create jobs, save money for governments, increase recycling rates and allocate costs fairly.

How do you see the EPR/product stewardship landscape in America changing in the next few years? Do you anticipate any changes in PSI’s role?

We will see more laws, better laws, and greater justification for the laws. We will gain a better understanding of how EPR influences product design. We will come to better understand the lifecycle impacts of products, allowing us to better target products for EPR programs and necessary voluntary initiatives.  There will also be consolidation, both of collection systems and of stewardship organizations, as is happening in Canada and Europe already.

There is also a possibility of EPR legislation happening at the federal level. At the moment, EPR is still new in the US and is experiencing pushback from industry. This will change once industry comes to accept that EPR is here to stay. Once enough state laws are in place, we could see a tipping point where federal legislation is passed. On the other hand, many stewardship organizations are nervous about the operational challenges of rolling out an EPR program nationally and may resist federal legislation. In addition, a federal program would still need to be implemented at the state level.

We will also see movement toward harmonization of EPR programs at the national and international levels, though this will be a very difficult task. Even within a country or region there are many different models for how EPR programs can be set up and managed, but as we gain experience and understanding of best practices we should be able to begin to move toward more standard models.

By Luke Hill. Reposted from masscommons.wordpress.com.

Hubway bike station in downtown Boston
credit: John Tlumacki/Boston Globe

This past weekend marked the first anniversary of Boston’s “Hubwaybiking system.  Hubway has exceeded expectations with over 7,000 members who’ve taken over 350,000 trips.  Monthly usage has climbed every month this year (starting in March—New England winters, even mild ones, make for poor biking conditions) and now exceeds 2,000 trips per day.

Hubway is expanding to nearby Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville later this year.  It’s also expanding from downtown outward to more residential Boston neighborhoods like Allston, Charlestown, Dorchester and Roxbury.

Here’s how it works:

The bike rental system is built on separate municipal contracts and a regional agreement among the four communities and the operator, Alta Bicycle Share. Each has assembled its own start-up financing through grants, sponsorships, and tax dollars; a typical station with a full complement of bikes costs $50,000.

Membership fees ($85 for a year, $5 for a day), corporate and nonprofit sponsorship, and advertising offset operating costs, including maintenance and Hubway’s tending of stations to keep them from being too full or too empty for too long.

Members pick up a bike at one Hubway station and return it to another one near their destination.  There are financial incentives to keep the trips short (i.e., under 30 minutes).

The biggest political issue in any city is land because, almost by definition, cities are places where there are lots of people competing for control and use of a small piece of land.  In Boston, that’s meant carving out space to store the Hubway bicycles when they’re not in use (as in the picture above), and making room for them on the city’s streets—primarily by painting bike lane markers (below) on scores of the city’s busiest streets.  Support for bicycling has also been institutionalized for the past five years in the city’s Transportation Department through the “Boston Bikes” office.

credit: City of Boston

 

Hubway has had, so far at least, a minimal impact on automobile drivers.  The minor inconvenience of staying out of marked bike lanes is probably more than offset by the decrease in the number of cars on downtown streets.  What Hubway has done is to make bicycling a much easier and more attractive option:  no need to buy a bicycle, no need to park and store it, no need to worry about it being stolen.

Dethroning the automobile isn’t always about big, dramatic changes.  It’s also about the steady accumulation of small changes that make alternative modes of transportation more attractive, one commuter/traveler at a time.

What will the solar landscape look like in the next 5 to 25 years? With growing demand for energy and the imperative of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions dramatically by mid-century, it is certain that solar power will have a major role to play. At the same time, a flood of inexpensive solar panels from China and political uncertainty surrounding tax incentives have led to significant instability in the domestic solar industry. I had a chance to attend two panel discussions held by MIT on March 16, 2012 as part of the 2012 MIT Energy Conference, in which experts from the MIT faculty, the federal government, the solar industry and venture capital attempted to shed some light on the direction that solar energy is heading.

The manufacturing cost of solar panels has been declining rapidly, from around $100 per watt in the 1970s to between $1 and $2 per watt at present. Minh Le from the US Department of Energy discussed the Obama Administration’s Sunshot Initiative, which aims to reduce the cost of solar energy by 2-3 times, making it cost-competitive with other energy generation technologies by the end of the decade. The current goal is $2 per watt for residential solar (including installation and other balance of systems costs). The panelists agreed that the costs of physical panels would continue to decrease over the next 5-10 years, thanks to new technologies and manufacturing techniques (for example, technology website Ars Technica recently reported on a new manufacturing technology that promises to reduce manufacturing costs on solar cells to $0.40 per watt, about half of the lowest-cost current panels). Adam Lorenz of 1366 Technologies stated that he expects crystalline silicon cells to be competitive with the wholesale rate for coal power within 5 to 8 years.

The Sunshot Initiative also aims to reduce overall costs by streamlining the rather Byzantine permitting process in the US, which currently involves dealing with over 18,000 permitting jurisdictions and over 5,000 utilities spread across 50 states. The US system was compared unfavorably to the systems in Germany and other countries, where permitting is much easier and government incentives such as the feed-in tariff exist. To ensure investment in solar generating capacity, the panelists emphasized the importance of policy stability. Because of the long return on investment on these projects, the fragmented US system of federal and state incentives tends to discourage investment.

MIT professor Dan Nocera pointed out that while most of the conversation was focused on the developed world, the real growth area for solar technologies is in the least developed areas where grid power does not exist. In these areas, a small, inexpensive photovoltaic unit that would allow people to charge cell phones and operate indoor lights so that children can study after sundown would have an enormous impact on quality of life. Dr. Nocera emphasized that while developed countries must work within their existing infrastructure, developing countries have the opportunity to leapfrog the developed world, in much the same way that many developing countries skipped landline telephones and moved directly to cell phones.

Panelists discussed several areas where government policy is needed to help create a market for solar. A price on carbon, whether a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, or a combination of the two, would help clean energy technologies compete with fossil fuels. Australia, which resembles the US in its heavy reliance on fossil fuels, recently enacted a comprehensive carbon pricing scheme. Policies that encourage the electrification of the vehicle fleet, whose batteries could serve as a form of distributed energy storage for the smart grid, would help to address the problem of intermittency. More resources devoted to public education about energy policy issues would help foster an informed public discussion and raise awareness of renewable energy. Dr. Nocera in particular stressed the importance of making the issues visible to the public, and stated that perhaps an oil war on US soil will be needed before the public starts paying attention.

Despite the challenges facing the solar market at the moment, I took away the message that solar power has a bright future (excuse the pun). The panelists agreed that solar photovoltaics will be increasingly competitive with conventional power generation over the next decade. In the longer term, exotic technologies such as transparent solar cells that can replace glass and “artificial leaves” that can generate hydrogen and oxygen to be used in fuel cells promise exciting new applications for solar. Small, inexpensive solar panels promise to dramatically improve the lives of people in developing countries by allowing them to light their houses and charge mobile devices without connecting to the electricity grid. The solar resource base represents thousands of times the amount of energy humans use each year. Converting this energy into a usable form on such a large scale presents significant challenges, but with technological advances steadily driving solar closer to parity with fossil fuels and a number of exciting new kinds of solar technology on the horizon, the task hardly seems impossible.

On February 16, 2012, technology news website Xconomy hosted a talk in Cambridge with renowned environmentalist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) “think-and-do tank” Amory Lovins about the Institute’s Reinventing Fire initiative. Reinventing Fire provides a roadmap for moving the U.S. economy entirely off of coal, oil and nuclear energy by 2050 while at the same time sustaining vigorous economic growth. Unlike other climate change blueprints such as the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate 2030 report, the Reinventing Fire initiative does not count on aggressive federal policy initiatives and assumes that the price of CO2 emission will remain zero. It also does not pin its hopes on a technological “silver bullet”. Rather, RMI envisions a series of self-reinforcing cycles of technological improvement in existing technologies across the automotive, building, industrial and electricity sectors that will allow efficient, green technologies to outcompete inefficient, fossil-fuel driven technologies in the market.

In his talk, Lovins focused mostly on the automotive sector. In this area, RMI identifies three self-reinforcing technological learning curves leading to the super light-weight “Revolutionary+ Auto”. The first is whole-system design, where engineers take a holistic approach to automobile design with a view to reducing weight as much as possible. Supporting this are advanced materials, such as the carbon-fiber composites currently used in the new Boeing 787, which could produce massive weight reductions by replacing steel in automobiles. As part of his talk, Lovins passed around a carbon-fiber composite “hat” that was as light as plastic and yet (according to Lovins) had withstood a full-on sledge hammer blow without a scratch. While currently quite expensive and difficult to mass-produce, Lovins sees huge potential for technological improvements in the carbon-fiber manufacturing process eventually making it competitive with other materials. Finally, once weight has been significantly reduced, all-electric powertrains will become more feasible. Current all-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf have a maximum range of about 100 miles on one charge. However, because most of a vehicle’s energy use comes from its weight, a significantly lighter vehicle would be able to go farther with fewer electric batteries and smaller motors (making the vehicle even lighter) than current models.

During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked about improvements in energy storage technology. Holding up his cell phone, Lovins remarked that he believed that portable electronics would drive innovation in this area, and that it would be better for the automotive industry to focus on reducing weight and drag than on developing new batteries. Lovins also downplayed the need for extensive grid storage to handle a higher mix of intermittent renewable energy sources in our electricity supply. Noting that variability in the energy supply from renewable sources is predictable, Lovins expressed confidence that with sufficient expertise a stable electricity grid could be run with a diverse mixture of 80-100% renewables even in the absence of large-scale storage.

The Reinventing Fire initiative presents a hopeful view of an economy almost completely free of fossil fuels by 2050 based on evolutionary improvements in currently existing technology. Much more information on the initiative is available in the book Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (available from Amazon). I am currently in the middle of reading it, and have found it to be well-written and insightful, with helpful color charts and illustrations and a writing style that is understandable for a non-engineer but not overly simplistic. The Reinventing Fire initiative grew out of the RMI’s 2004 book Winning the Oil Endgame, which is available for free in PDF form on the author’s website here. I encourage anyone with an interest in renewable energy and energy efficiency to take a look at these books, or check out Amory Lovins’ TED Talk on winning the oil endgame.

Brookline's LEED certified public health building

As part of the Brookline Climate Week, I attended an open house at the town’s LEED Gold certified public health building led by the town’s Health Director Dr. Alan Balsam. The building represents a significant commitment on the part of the Town of Brookline to address sustainability in its public buildings and provide an example of sustainable building practices for the community.

The Brookline Public Health Center was built in 1953. When the building came due for renovation in the early 2000s, Dr. Balsam decided to use the opportunity to make the building a showcase of green building practices by incorporating LEED certification into the retrofit. The town selectmen challenged Dr. Balsam to raise the extra money this would cost. As a result, much of the money was raised privately, including $125,000 from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (now part of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center) and $30,000 raised by community group Friends of Brookline.

The renovated building incorporates a number of sustainable building materials, including cork floors, bamboo paneling, low VOC paints, and shelving made of a cellulosic composite material made from leaves. Other important green features include double glazed windows that can be opened to cool the building, use of glass for interior walls to allow light to penetrate the interior of the building, low flow toilets and waterless urinals, and motion-activated low energy lighting. Old building materials such as wood, metal and toilet fixtures were recycled rather than sent to landfill.

The centerpiece of the renovation is the building’s 25 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, which Dr. Balsam estimates covers approximately 35% of the building’s electricity use and which saved the city $8000 in electricity costs last year. Visitors will soon be able to monitor the system’s energy generation in real time on a monitor in the lobby. The solar panels are raised so as to be very visible from the street, which Dr. Balsam hopes will serve as advertising for the project and encourage others in the community to consider solar energy. The economics of the solar system were more challenging. While the town estimated a 15 year payback for its contribution, Dr. Balsam estimates that the total payback (including external funding) will be on the order of 50 years. However, this system was purchased before the precipitous drop in solar panel prices of the past few years. A project today would likely see a much faster payback.

Dr.Balsam indicated that he sees the LEED project as a way to encourage sustainable behavior both within the municipal government and in the community through leading by example. He also hopes that the project will provide a way to begin talking to people in the community about the links between climate change and public health threats. The project has already created some converts: Dr. Balsam noted that several people in the town’s building department were initially skeptical but were won over to sustainable building practices by the renovation. As a result of this project, the town is now obliged to include sustainability in its feasibility studies for all future renovations of municipal buildings. Through high visibility projects like this, Brookline is clearly putting sustainability and the threat of climate change on the local political agenda. Hopefully this will lead to more such projects in the future, both within Brookline and in other municipalities in the state.

Have you ever wondered whether or not all this recycling is doing any good? We hear plenty of bad news—overflowing landfills, rising energy consumption, islands of garbage floating in the ocean—but until recently it has been hard to figure out just how much impact our own individual behavior was having.  Boston-area company Greenbean Recycle aims to change that by installing high-tech “reverse vending machines” at university campuses and eventually other public areas around the city. Aimed at the Facebook and Twitter crowd, these machines provide recyclers with instantaneous feedback on how much they are recycling and on how much energy they have saved in the process. Users simply sign in and deposit their bottles; their recycling totals are tracked online. According to the company’s website, the company’s machines at MIT and Tufts had recycled 30,058 containers and saved 5313 kilowatt hours of energy as of February 9, 2012. Bottle deposit money can be deposited to a Paypal account, added to a student spending card, or donated to a charity of the user’s choice.

The instant feedback provided by this system gives an incentive to keep recycling in much the same way that the desire to get a high score in Tetris keeps players coming back. This is an example of the phenomenon of gamification, or adding video game-like incentives to encourage people to participate in socially desirable activities. Greenbean offers recycling competitions (the America Recycles for Thanksgiving challenge took 2636 containers out of the waste stream), and CEO Shanker Sahai envisions eventually giving away prizes provided by sponsors, such as Red Sox tickets, to encourage even more recycling.

Anyone who has had (or known someone who has had) a video game obsession knows how easy it is to get hooked on simple, repetitive tasks for which rewards are given. Gamification provides a wealth of opportunities to encourage people to participate in beneficial activities by reframing them as competitive games rather than chores. In the future it would be interesting to see more experimentation in this area, such as testing whether or not intermittent rewards (e.g. a small chance to win a random prize each time a bottle is inserted into the machine), would increase use.

We applaud Greenbean for its innovative program, and hope to see more of its machines around the city in the near future.

From left: view of the cab; Erika “driving” the truck; view from the front. Photos courtesy of Isaac Griffith-Onen.

On December 15th Undersecretary of Energy Barbara Kates-Garnick cut the ribbon for 8 new vehicles in Frito Lay’s electric truck fleet at the distribution center in Braintree, MA.  This year, the company increased its electric truck fleet to 176 vehicles, making it the largest in the country.  The greenhouse gas emissions and fuel cost savings these trucks produce make them a sound advancement in environmentally friendly trucking.  Frito Lay drivers rave about the new green trucks; the vehicles are very quiet, almost in audible.  One employee, Ed St. Onge, told me that the trucks help with brand recognition and that people in cities approach the nearly silent running vehicles to ask questions.  The trucks also make more a more pleasant trucking experience because they do not use any gasoline, and therefore do not smell as pungent.

The trucks run entirely on electricity, cutting greenhouse gas emissions by about 75%, compared to a gasoline vehicle.  They are equipped with two large battery packs each containing 24 specially designed 12-volt batteries.  The batteries last 5-7 years, but the manufacturer can remotely detect if there is a problem with the battery before that.  If there is a problem, the company contacts Frito Lay with the exact truck information and details on the problem.  Braking regenerates the batteries, making the trucks ideal for stop-and-go traffic patterns.  The batteries last about 60 highway miles or 100 city miles and take about 5 hours to fully recharge.  Most trips Frito Lay makes are within 50 miles of the distribution center, making these vehicles ideal transporters.

At about $200,000 per vehicle, the trucks cost twice as much as a normal truck. However, Steve Hanson, Frito Lay Senior Sustainability Manager, says that the savings in fuel costs justifies the up-front difference within just 3-4 years.  While a diesel truck generates approximately $50-60 in daily maintenance costs, its electric counterpart only costs $6 per day.  Mr. Hanson said that part of Frito Lay’s motivation in kicking off this “green fleet” is in anticipation of future environmental standards becoming stricter.  Rather than new regulations forcing an abrupt change, Frito Lay has spent the past 7 years testing different green transportation technologies to determine which yielded the highest returns for the company.

From left: view of the dashboard; view of driver side battery pack; LED headlights. Photos courtesy of Isaac Griffith-Onen.

Dr. Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, gave a talk on November 30, 2011 at MIT on how the U.S. can lead in the clean energy race. In addition to discussing several new technologies in renewable energy and energy efficiency that will have great impacts in the coming decades, he challenged MIT students to come up with solutions to barriers to energy efficiency as part of President Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative.

First up, Secretary Chu discussed several technologies of the past century that have drastically changed the way we live. The development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in the early 20th century and crop improvements during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s have so far enabled global food production to keep pace with the expanding population and averted a Malthusian crisis. The evolution from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits (popular computer processors in 2011 boast in the range of a billion transistors each) has led to a spectacular explosion of consumer electronics that has revolutionized the way we communicate and consume information. Assembly line manufacturing and the relatively rapid adoption of the automobile in the early 20th century changed the face of our cities and solved one pollution problem (mountains of horse excrement) while introducing others (smog, lead, and greenhouse gas emissions).

Against this backdrop, Dr. Chu discussed a number of promising advances that could play major roles in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. He  focused on advances in materials science, such as the carbon fiber reinforced plastic used in the body of the Boeing 787, the introduction of high tensile strength steel in automobiles, substitutes being developed for rare earth metals used in electronics, more efficient and lower cost solar cells, and next-generation battery technology that shows promise of drastically reducing the cost of energy storage.

Dr. Chu also spoke about the DOE’s Sunshot Initiative, which aims to have cost-competitive solar power by 2020. Due mostly to large scale manufacturing in China, the price of solar photovoltaic panels has plummeted in recent years, outpacing even optimistic estimates. While this has been bad news for certain US companies trying to compete in the market, it has had the advantage of pushing solar ever closer to the magical break-even point where it becomes competitive with fossil fuels. To help people get past the up-front cost of solar installation, companies such as Simply Solar of Arizona offer programs that allow homeowners to lease solar cells for 20 years with a low initial down payment and fixed monthly payments thereafter. For those who are interested, Sun Run offers a similar program here in Massachusetts.

While I found Dr. Chu’s talk to be informative and enjoyable (if a bit technical in parts), I was hoping he would spend more time addressing the policy and business aspects of winning the clean energy race. As Dr. Chu himself noted, the mass production of solar panels in China has made the competitive environment difficult for US firms. Renewable energy policy in this country has largely been left to state and local governments with little leadership from the federal government. I had hoped that Dr. Chu would spend more time discussing the Obama Administration’s roadmap for clean energy over the next 20 to 30 years and the policy steps they are taking to make that happen. Nevertheless, Dr. Chu is an extremely engaging speaker, and the technologies he discussed were exciting.

A video of the talk is available here.

 

 

With the recent high-profile bankruptcies of Solyndra, Evergreen Solar and Beacon Power, many are wondering about the future of renewable energy in the United States. Dr. Steven Chu, current U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize winner in physics, will be giving a talk at 12:00pm on Wednesday, November 30 at the Kresge Auditorium at MIT on “Winning the Clean Energy Race.”  If you are interested in hearing Dr. Chu speak, you can sign up to attend the lecture here. It is expected to fill up, so those who are interested should sign up as soon as possible.

Dr. Chu’s family came to the U.S. from China in the 1940s, when his father and mother both studied at MIT. Dr. Chu received his B.S in Physics from the University of Rochester and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. He was the co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics “for development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.”  The former Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Dr. Chu was confirmed as Secretary of Energy in 2009 where he is currently responsible for helping to implement President Obama’s climate and energy agenda.

Among other professional organizations, Dr. Chu is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Given the recent concern about China’s dominance of the renewable energy sector and uncertainty about the ability of American firms to compete, I will be interested to hear Dr. Chu’s perspective on the situation.

Stay tuned for a follow up after the lecture where I will recap the main points of Dr. Chu’s speech and give my impressions.

I hope to see you there.

With 30 miles of district heating steam pipes, Boston has one of the most extensive systems in the country.  Veolia Energy, the largest district provider in the area, services 240 buildings—or 44 million square feet of space—in the Boston Metro area.  Recently the GenOn Kendall Station combined heat and power facility connected to the district heating system.  In 2008, the EPA issued a permit allowing the station to install a second pipeline across the Longfellow Bridge.  Once constructed, this pipeline will save an estimated 275,000 short tons of carbon—the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road—and will provide twice as much steam to Boston metro area customers.

We talked to Bill DiCroce, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Veolia Energy, and Jim Hunt, Chief of Environment and Energy for the City of Boston, to find out about district heating and its contribution to Boston’s climate change planning.

Bill DiCroce explains the efficiency created by district heating and cooling systems.  District systems connect multiple energy consumers to centralized energy sources.  Combined heat and power (CHP) facilities burn fuel to produce electricity and steam, which is transferred to consumers using underground pipes.  Waste heat from power production is recycled into usable thermal energy rather than being released back into the environment, increasing fuel efficiency and minimizing environmental impact.  According to the International District Energy Association (IDEA), combined heat and power facilities operate at about twice the fuel efficiency of traditional electric-only generating stations.

Jim Hunt comments that district energy systems are great for Boston, where 76% of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings.  Connecting buildings to a system that uses less fuel and produces less harmful emissions is a promising path to mitigating the impacts of climate change.  Using off-site resources also frees up valuable on-site space where boilers, chillers, or other energy systems would have been.  In addition, buildings earn alternative energy credits by using CHP sources under the Green Communities Act, which may make them eligible for government incentives.  Leading by example, Boston currently uses district heating to service its 250 municipal buildings, which uses 200 million KW of electricity annually.

We asked Mr. Hunt and Mr. DiCroce why Boston and other cities don’t use district heating and CHP systems more, given the energy savings they allow.  They explained that while district heating and cooling systems have lower ongoing operation and maintenance costs, building or expanding district heating systems is extremely capital intensive.  Putting piping in is very expensive, and extremely difficult to do underneath an established infrastructure.  If it was not included in the original construction, it makes the most sense to add district heating when developing new areas or doing a major rehabilitation of an old area.

There is a lot Boston needs to do before it can catch up to district heating giants like New York City, whose 100 mile system serves over 18,000 buildings.  Among his current strategies to augment the system in Boston, Mr. DiCroce knocks on developer’s doors when they are building new projects to suggest they connect to the district system.  With decreased environmental impacts and increased energy efficiency, district heating is a smart option for buildings because it delivers what he calls “the most bang for your buck” in heating, cooling, and electricity.