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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.

Life can be hard for clean tech start-up companies struggling to move from a good idea to a competitive business model able to survive in the marketplace. At the Clean Tech Open 2011 Global Forum in San Jose on November 15-16, one such company selected from a pool of finalists from around the country will be awarded the Clean Tech Open US National Grand Prize consisting of investment and services valued at up to $250,000. Since 2006, the Clean Tech Open has raised more than $280M in private capital and estimates that it has created over 2,000 green jobs in the US. In addition to the prize money awarded, the program provides extensive training and support to its participants, including developing a business plan and training in how to make a pitch to investors.

I had the opportunity to attend the 2011 Northeast Regional Finals Event on October 4 at the Microsoft NERD Center in Cambridge, where regional semifinalists made pitches to a panel of judges and three regional finalists were selected to attend the Global Forum in San Jose. Lesser prizes were awarded to various runners-up. While the prize money was obviously important to these companies, the event was also a networking event and an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to show off their carefully prepared sales pitches to any private investors who might be in attendance. From their questions to the presenters, the judges were clearly interested not just in good ideas but also in companies whose business models would allow them to be profitable in the short- to medium-term.

The three companies that were selected to represent the Northeast in San Jose were:

  • PK Clean, an MIT team that has developed a technology for turning waste plastic into oil that can be used as a fuel source. The company foresees two sources of revenue: one from being paid to dispose of the plastic and another from selling the oil that it produces. Even assuming that the disposal fee dries up and the price of oil falls well below the current level, CEO Priyanka Bakaya estimates that the company will still be profitable. PK Clean has a pilot plant in Pune, India and is currently seeking $4 million in investment to move into the U.S. market.
  • Arctic Sand, another team from MIT that has developed a way to drastically reduce losses due to power conversion in the electronics industry. The company would initially license its technology to manufacturers of servers for large corporate data centers, where it estimates that its technology will save companies millions of dollars per year in electricity costs. In the future, the company plans to expand into the telecom and mobile sectors, where its energy efficiency technology could enable smaller and more efficient mobile devices.
  • Qado Energy, a startup company that provides distribution grid analytic software to help with the completion of the interconnection studies that are necessary before new electricity suppliers can be connected to the grid. Especially for intermittent generators such as wind and solar, these interconnection studies are complex, expensive and time-consuming and can be a significant barrier to entry. The company sees a large market for its software platform as the smart grid takes shape and renewables begin to represent a greater proportion of the US energy mix.

I was impressed by the level of polish of the pitches I saw, and excited by the possibilities of some of these technologies. Despite recent concerns about competition from China in the renewable energy sector, the U.S. in general and the Boston area in particular are still very competitive when it comes to innovation. The Clean Tech Open encourages competition between entrants hoping to win the big prize, but it also provides support and publicity to help all participants bring their innovative ideas to market. The Northeast Regional finalists all have technologies and business models that promise to make significant environmental contributions while also being profitable, and the Clean Tech Open has helped them fine-tune their message to sell their ideas to investors. While we will be hoping for a win by one of our teams, it was clear to me that whoever wins the prize, all of the teams have benefited from their participation.

It is difficult to walk around the Boston area without seeing one of Boloco’s 18 restaurants serving up smoothies and the company’s signature “inspired burritos” to hungry passers-by. Boloco (“Boston Local Company”) was founded in Back Bay in 1996 and has since spread throughout the metro area and beyond, with locations including Northeastern University, Harvard Square, Tufts, Berklee,  and several stores downtown. While other fast food burrito chains stick more or less to tried and true Mexican-style ingredients, Boloco pushes the boundary with such unusual burrito offerings as the “Bangkok Thai” (meat, peanut sauce, “Asian slaw”, and cucumbers) and the “Memphis BBQ” (meat, barbecue sauce, beans and coleslaw). Every combination may not be a winner, but the ever-increasing number of Boloco restaurants is testament to the success of their business model.

Fortunately for those of us who enjoy their products, Boloco is also one of the greenest restaurant chains around. No visit to a Boloco would be complete without a head-scratching moment on the way out, trying to figure out which waste goes in the recycling bin and which is compostable. For example, the company recycles its aluminum foil wrapping, and its corn-based plastic cups and potato starch based silverware are fully compostable. Boloco’s compostable waste is collected by a private hauler called Save That Stuff, and the finished product is sold as a soil enhancement to landscapers. Composting company Harvest Power has an interesting blog post with more details about the implementation of Boloco’s composting program. Also interesting is that its tabletops and counters are made of recycled paper. Boloco became a Green Restaurant Association certified green restaurant in 2008, earned a 2-star Green Restaurant Certification in July, 2011, and was the first chain of restaurants to become certified across all of its locations. In 2010, Boloco was awarded the Mayor’s Green Business Award for “extraordinary performance related to sustainable environmental practices.”

The Green Restaurant Association is a national non-profit organization that runs a voluntary point-based certification program for restaurants. Restaurants are scored in seven categories: water efficiency, waste reduction, furnishings and building materials, sustainable food, energy, disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction (a PDF of the complete scoring standards is available here). Restaurants must meet certain minimums in each category as well as an overall minimum score in order to attain certification. The program also encourages continuing improvement: for every year that a restaurant participates in the program, the minimum number of points necessary to maintain certification increases.

Mayor Menino’s Green Awards are given out annually to “recognize achievements in the residential and business sectors” by exemplary individuals and businesses. Businesses such as Boloco are nominated for the Green Business Award in one of four categories: commercial, industrial, non-profit, and academic, cultural and healthcare institutions. Nominations are considered based on a business’s “sustainable and environmentally beneficial activities” and awards are announced each spring. (A quick shout-out: Congrats to Northeastern University on winning a 2011 Green Business Award!)

With “greenness” often seen as a value-add for high-end boutique businesses, it is refreshing to see companies like Boloco show that sustainable practices are not incompatible with a successful, mainstream business. Hopefully Boloco’s example will encourage its competitors in the fast food industry to adopt many of the same practices. While they do not replace more comprehensive national- or state-level policy solutions, voluntary certification programs such as the Green Restaurant Certification, LEED, and Rainforest Alliance do provide valuable information to consumers while helping to create frameworks for assessing sustainability that could be incorporated into policy at a later time. Similarly, while the Green Awards are commendable for giving recognition to those businesses and individuals that exceed expectations, they do not replace the need for enforceable sustainability standards that apply to all homes and businesses. These are, however, small but important steps in the direction of raising public consciousness of environmental issues. Companies like Boloco deserve credit for being ahead of the pack and setting visible examples of sustainable practices in action.

Interested in finding out how your neighborhood stacks up against other parts of the Boston metro area? A wealth of information related to sustainability (as well as many other topics) is available on the MetroBoston DataCommon website. This free resource, a collaboration between the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Boston Indicators Project, allows citizens to easily create and view maps showing data related to the economy, education, housing, public health and safety, transportation, the environment and many other topics for the Boston area.

For a quick look at what this site can do, there is a large gallery of pre-made sample maps available for viewing. Of particular note is a map of renewable energy projects in the metro area. Though the map is from 2008, it provides a useful at-a-glance snapshot of where various types of projects are located. A more recent map of solar photovoltaic installations registered with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is also available. Other sample maps that may be of interest to sustainability-minded readers include MBTA ridership, Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan, Massachusetts Smart Growth Zoning, and recycling and compost rates for towns in Massachusetts.

For those who wish to create their own maps, the site also offers a Geocortex-based mapping tool that allows you to create your own custom maps. You can add or subtract layers of data using the toolbar on the right-hand side of the map and zoom in or out using the tools at the top of the screen. When finished, there is an option to save your finished product as a PDF (make sure to cite the source of the information if you are using it in a report). For the uninitiated, there is a very handy tutorial available here, which provides a quick introduction to Geocortex and introduces some basic geographic information system terminology.

Sites like this show the potential of information technology and the Internet to help support an active and informed citizenry.  With their ability to display large sets of arcane data in an easily readable format, such sites allow concerned citizens to spot trends that would otherwise be difficult to notice. Keep in mind, though, that the data sets may be several years out of date. While this site is an extremely useful tool, it would be best used as a starting point to identify areas for further research and not as the last word on a topic.

Financial District, Aug 22, 2008

Image by John E. Lester via Flickr

By Dave Wedge | The Boston Herald
Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mayor Thomas M. Menino is expanding his brand, boldly emblazoning his name on 600 bicycles positioned around the city in his highly touted new Hubway bike sharing program.

The new bikes, paid for through partnerships with private companies, are plastered with the word “Hubway,” the city seal and “Thomas M. Menino, Mayor.” Each bike also bears logos for chief sponsor New Balance.

“Like with any of our public-private partnerships, the city is represented,” Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce said of the barely disguised mayoral ads.

In 2005, the mayor was slammed by rivals for slapping his name all over the city. Menino’s name is etched on everything from hospital and library wings to billboards at Logan International Airport to fancy signs welcoming people into city neighborhoods.

Jason Tait, spokesman for the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said, “Incumbents can place their names and seals of their office on property, and we generally don’t view those name placements as in-kind contributions.”

The mayor has touted the Hubway program as a way to boost healthy, environmentally friendly transportation. The program has already exceeded expectations as organizers claim the bikes were used 37,000 times in the first month.

Bikers were unfazed by the privately funded mayoral ads.

“I could care less. I think it’s a great program. I ride every day, even in the rain,” said Emily Mowbray, 46, of Natick, picking up a bike on Boylston Street. “It’s the same thing as when you come into Massachusetts and you see the sign that says ‘Welcome to Massachusetts’ and you see the governor’s name.”

Ira Kantor contributed to this report.

Article URL: http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view.bg?articleid=1363934