Category Archives: Green Building

Avoiding Societal, Economic, and Ecological Collapse

“A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” – The Collapse of Complex Societies – Joseph Tainter

“Any society that displays broad increases in most measures of capital production coupled with signs of serious depletion of key resources is a potential candidate for catabolic collapse.” – The Long Descent – John Michael Greer

“By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” – Collapse- How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Jared Diamond

“When irrupting populations surpass … available carrying capacity, the ensuing crash [collapse] may occur by different means among humans, animals, or plants …these differences do not affect the basic principle:  die-off is the sequel to overshoot [of carrying capacity].” – Overshoot – The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change – William Catton

“Collapse is not an attractive future.  The rapid decline of population and economy to levels that can be supported by the natural systems of the globe will no doubt be accompanied by failing health, conflict, ecological devastation, and gross inequalities.” – Limits to Growth – The 30 Year Update – Meadows, et al

Peak Oil, near economic meltdown, species loss, growing food insecurity, rising sea levels, jobless recoveries, decades long stagnant wages – is the United States and the industrialized world heading toward collapse? — has it already begun?  Can we avoid our own ecological suicide and and abandon the folly of infinite growth on a finite planet?  This post attempts to catalog different theories of collapse and various solutions proffered for it’s avoidance.

Theories of Collapse – Anthropological, Ecological, and Sociological

That civilizations rise and fall is historically (Rome, the Mayan, Easter Island, the Anasazi, etc.) evident.  The question for today’s global industrialized society is why.   Can we collectively see our own collapse on the horizon, and can it be avoided?

Joseph Tainter gives us a view of societal collapse based on a theory of diminishing marginal returns in complexity.  According to Tainter societies invest in complexity (agriculture, government bureaucracy, militarism, monetary and market systems, infrastructure, etc.) as a solution to problems.  Initially those investments have a high return and the society flourishes, but as that society grows and it and it’s problems (most of which are self induced) becomes more complex, the marginal returns on those investments fall and eventually turn negative.  As returns turn negative, and problems and stresses (resource limits, environmental degradation, competing societies, etc.) continue or emerge, the society is no longer able to cope and eventually succumbs to collapse.  The resulting collapse leads to a decline in complexity and after much turmoil and suffering, the eventual return of positive marginal returns.  In effect, Tainter’s theory of “peak complexity” leaves us in a kind of catch 22 in which we are hard wired to seek solutions which doom us to endless cycles of success and failure.

Tainter's Model of Complexity and the Law of Marginal Returns

In his book the The Long Descent, John Michael Greer builds on Tainter’s work with a model based on perspectives from human ecology. His theory of catabolic collapse is based on the interplay of the core elements of resources, capital, waste, and production.  In a human society where new capital derived from production C(p) is equal to or greater than the sum of the waste from production W(p) and the  waste from capital W(c) [called maintenance production M(p)] and the replenishment rate of resources r(R) is greater than the depletion rate of resources d(R) is sustainable.  However, a human society whose new capital from production is less than maintenance production [W(p) + W(c)] and whose depletion rate of resources d(R) is greater than it’s replenishment rate r(R) of resources, is subject to catabolic collapse.  According to Greer, catabolic collapse is a self-reinforcing process in which C(p) approaches zero and the lion’s share of a societies capital is converted to waste.

Jared Diamond (Collapse) sees societal collapse as the result of an unintentional ecological suicide (eco-cide) in which  growing consumption and population eventually push up against natural ecological limits.  As a society strains the limits of it’s natural resources, it either causes a decline (deforestation, top soil erosion, etc.) in the carrying capacity of the those resources, or by operating on the edge without any margin of safety succumbs to a drought or other stress the societies organic carrying capacity.

William Catton (Overshoot) takes a global, ecological and very contemporary view based on human carrying capacity.  Catton see’s humanity much like the yeast in a vat of crushed grapes, wildly consuming the sugar content of the mash until the sugar is depleted or the yeast succumbs to by-products of that consumption (alcohol).  In our case, the “sugar” is millions of years of solar energy converted by photosynthesis and geology into apparently vast stores of fossil fuel.  Catton asserts that fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) combined with technology, amounts to nothing more than a “phantom” carrying capacity, and when these nonrenewable and energy dense natural resources reach their peak extraction rates and begin to decline, today’s industrial and global society will suffer a catastrophic collapse.  The following chart overlays global population with my estimate of the Earth’s organic (relying only on renewable resources) carrying capacity. The difference between the global population and the organic carrying capacity is Catton’s Phantom Carrying Capacity (labeled as Trust Fund Carrying Capacity).  If Catton’s theory is correct, some 5-billion lives hang by the thread of these depleting fossil fuel resources.

Phantom (Trust Fund) Carrying Capacity

Avoiding Collapse – Possible Solutions

“A framing premise of this paper is that the sustainability dilemma is not merely an ecological or technical or economic crisis as is usually assumed, but rather it is a crisis rooted in fundamental human nature. More specifically, it is a crisis of human evolutionary success – indeed, we have reached the point where our success is killing us!” – Is Humanity Fatally Successful? – William Rees

Limits to Growth, The Thirty Year Update – A Systems Theory Approach

In The Limits to Growth – The 30-Year Update, the authors describe the results of a systems theory model [World3] that was used to generate “broad sweep” future scenarios using the following key global metrics:

  • natural resources
  • food
  • population
  • pollution
  • industrial output
  • life expectancy
  • consumer goods per person
  • food per person
  • services per person
  • human welfare index
  • human ecological footprint

Nearly every scenario modeled by the authors lead to an overshoot of the earth’s carrying capacity resulting in a collapse in population and human welfare.  Only one scenario’s underlying assumptions were successful in avoiding collapse and only if the assumptions used for the basis of the model were implemented in time.  The three critical assumptions in that scenario included:

  1. All couples limit their family size to 2 children and have access to effective birth control technologies
  2. A fixed goal of industrial output per capita (i.e. a steady-state economy)
  3. The development  and investment in powerful technologies for pollution abatement, land yield enhancement, land protection and nonrenewable resources (assuming 20 years for full implementation)

When this model was run with a start date of 2002:

“The population leveled off at less than 8 billion people, who remained at their desired standard of living throughout the century.  Their life expectancy is high…per capita services grow to 50% above year 2000 levels.  By the end of the century there is sufficient food for everyone.  Pollution peaks and falls before it causes irreversible damage.  Nonrenewable resources deplete so slowly that nearly 50% of the original endowment is still present in 2100.”

To see the effect of start date on the scenario the author’s ran the same model with start dates of 1982 and 2022.  As you would expect the 1982 model results in a lower ultimate population, improved life expectancy, and a higher standard of living.  However, if action is delayed until 2022, resource and pollution problems reach an unmanageable level and it is too late to avoid decline and collapse.

However grim the outlook, at it’s writing, the authors held out hope that collapse could be averted.  Factoring in a margin for error in the model and the passing of eight years, one might conclude that we now have anywhere from zero to less than two decades before we pass a point of no return.

Post Carbon Institute – The New Real Deal
In the New Real Deal, the Post Carbon Institute outlines a plan to transition the industrial world to a post fossil fuel economy.  To be fair this is not a prescription to avoid collapse but more of a plan to minimize the impact of the inevitable industrial decline due to the depletion of fossil fuels.  The key elements of the plan include:

  1. Make a massive and immediate shift to renewable energy
  2. Electrify the transportation system
  3. Rebuild the electricity grid
  4. De-carbonize and relocalize the food system
  5. Retrofit the building stock for energy efficiency and energy production

The focus of this comprehensive post carbon plan is consistent with the third assumption of The Limits to Growth scenario discussed above.

From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady-State Economy — Herman Daly – An Economic Policy Approach to Avoiding Collapse
At the bi-annual conference of The United States Society for Ecological Economics in June of 2009, Herman Daly was honored for his many contributions to the field of ecological economics.  During his acceptance speech, in which he vilified the religion of growth hardwired into mainstream economic thought, he offered ten policy proposals directed at transitioning us to a sustainable steady-state economy and by implication, saving us from our own “ecological suicide”.

  1. Use a Cap-Auction-Trade system for basic resources – Caps would limit biophysical scale by quotas on depletion or pollution, whichever is more limiting. Auctioning the quotas would capture scarcity rents for equitable redistribution. Trade would allow efficient allocation to highest uses. This policy has the advantage of transparency. It would limit  the amount and rate of depletion and pollution that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are quotas or limits to the throughput of basic resources, especially fossil fuels. The quota would typically be applied at the input end because depletion is more spatially concentrated than pollution and hence easier to monitor. The resulting higher price of basic resources would promote more economical use at each upstream stage of production.
  2. Institute Ecological Tax Reform (as an alternative or supplement to cap-auction-trade)
    Shift the tax base from a tax on value added (labor and capital)  to a tax on “that to which value is added”, namely the entropic throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion), and returned to nature (pollution). This internalizes external costs as well as raises revenue more equitably. It prices the scarce but previously un-priced contribution of nature. The value added by labor and capital is something we want to encourage, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution are things we want to discourage, so tax them.
  3. Limit the Range of Inequality in Income (establish a minimum income and a maximum income)
    Without aggregate growth poverty reduction requires redistribution. Complete equality is unfair; unlimited inequality is unfair. Seek fair limits to the range of inequality. The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality of a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works? People who have reached the limit could either work for nothing at the margin if they enjoy their work, or devote their extra time to hobbies or public service. The demand left unmet by those at the top will be filled by those who are below the maximum. A sense of community necessary for democracy is hard to maintain across the vast income differences current in the US. Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500 become almost different species. The main justification for such differences has been that they stimulate growth, which will one day make everyone rich. This may have had superficial plausibility in an empty (resource abundant) world, but in our full world (resource limited) it is a fairy tale.
  4. Free up the Length of the Working Day, Week, and Year
    Allow greater freedom for part-time or personal work. Full-time external employment for all is hard (impossible) to provide without growth. Other industrial countries have much longer vacations and maternity leaves than the US.  For the Classical Economists (versus today’s neo-classical economists) the length of the working day was a key variable by which the worker balanced the marginal disutility of labor with the marginal utility of income and of leisure so as to maximize enjoyment of life. Under industrialism the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable. We need to make it more of a variable subject to choice by the worker. And we should stop biasing the labor–leisure choice by advertising to stimulate more consumption and more labor to pay for it. Advertising should no longer be treated as a tax deductible ordinary expense of production.
  5. Re-regulate International Commerce
    Move away from free trade, free capital mobility and globalization, and adopt compensating tariffs not to protect inefficient firms, but to protect efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition. We cannot integrate with the global economy and at the same time have higher wages, environmental standards, and social safety nets greater than the rest of the world. Trade and capital mobility must be balanced and fair, not deregulated or “free”.
  6. Reduce and amend the authority of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization
    Transition to something like Keynes’ original plan for a multilateral payments clearing union, charging penalty rates on surplus as well as deficit balances. This arrangement would seek balance on current account, and avoid large foreign debts and capital account transfers. For example, under Keynes’ plan the US would pay a penalty charge to the clearing union for its large deficit with the rest of the world, and China would also pay a similar penalty for its surplus. Both sides of the imbalance would be pressured to balance their current accounts by financial penalties, and if need be by exchange rate adjustments relative to the clearing account unit, called the bancor by Keynes. The bancor would serve as world reserve currency, a privilege that should not be enjoyed by any national currency. The IMF preaches free trade based on comparative advantage, and has done so for a long time. More recently the IMF-WB-WTO have started preaching the gospel of globalization, which, in addition to free trade, means free capital mobility internationally. The classical comparative advantage argument, however, explicitly assumes international capital immobility! When confronted with this contradiction the IMF waves its hands, suggests that you might be a xenophobe, and changes the subject. The IMF-WB-WTO contradict themselves in service to the interests of transnational corporations. International capital mobility, coupled with free trade, allows corporations to escape from national regulation in the public interest, playing one nation off against another. Since there is no global government they are in effect uncontrolled. The nearest thing we have to a global government (IMF-WB-WTO) has shown no interest in regulating transnational capital for the common good.
  7. Move to 100% Reserve Requirements instead of Fractional Reserve Banking.
    This would put control of the money supply in hands of the government rather than private banks, which would no longer be able to create money out of nothing and lend it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements. Banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings account depositors) and providing checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned would be a dollar previously saved, re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. The government can pay its expenses by issuing more non interest-bearing fiat money to make up for the eliminated bank-created, interest-bearing money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less and/or tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar.
  8. Stop treating the Scarce as if it were Non-scarce, but also stop treating the Non-scarce as if it were Scarce.
    Enclose the remaining commons of rival natural capital (e.g. atmosphere, electromagnetic spectrum, public lands) in public trusts, and price it by a cap-auction–trade system, or by taxes, while freeing from private enclosure and prices the non-rival commonwealth of knowledge and information. Knowledge, unlike throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied. Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero and its allocative price should be zero. International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large interest-bearing loans. Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create un-repayable debts, and it increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Existing knowledge is the most important input to the production of new knowledge, and keeping it artificially scarce and expensive is perverse. Patent monopolies (aka “intellectual property rights”) should be given for fewer “inventions”, and for fewer years. Costs of production of new knowledge should, more and more, be publicly financed and then the knowledge freely shared.
  9. Stabilize Population
    Work toward a balance in which births plus in- migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but as a start contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere.  Support voluntary family planning, and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted in spite of the cheap labor lobby.
  10. Reform how we measure and manage national well-being
    Separate GDP into a cost account and a benefits account. Compare them at the margin, stop throughput growth when marginal costs equal or exceed marginal benefits. In addition to this objective approach, recognize the importance of the subjective studies that show that, beyond a threshold, further GDP growth does not increase self-evaluated happiness. Beyond a level already reached in many countries GDP growth delivers no more happiness, but continues to generate resource depletion and pollution. At a minimum we must not just assume that GDP growth is “economic growth”, but prove it. And start by trying to refute the mountain of contrary evidence.

Daly concedes that these policy prescriptions are radical, but also offers that they are amenable to gradual application.  The question is whether we have the luxury of time.  If the Limits to Growth model is anywhere near correct we have no more than about twenty years and that assumes that we start a coordinated and global effort immediately.  If we take climate change as a example of our ability to take action on a global scale, it has been more than 20 years since we first recognized the problem and we have yet to forge and began to implement an integrated global plan of action.

Given that the prescriptions to avoid or mitigate collapse offered by the authors of the Limits to Growth, the Post Carbon Institute’s New Real Deal, and Daly’s Steady State Economy are orders of magnitude more disruptive and contentious as those proposed to combat climate change, the prospects for any meaningful and timely action are near zero.

In all likelihood, change will only come in the face of crisis as we begin  to stair step down the uncertain and painful face of collapse.  By then we will have crossed the threshold from the possibility of averting collapse over to the unstable ground of mitigating the effects of the fall.  The signs that growth is no longer economic and that we have entered Tainter’s zone of negative marginal returns are all around us.  Couple that with resource depletion rates that exceed replenishment rates and we have met Greer’s criteria for Catabolic Collapse.  Add Peak Oil to the mix and we are in the early stages of the collapse of Catton’s “Phantom Carrying Capacity”.

Even in the context of crisis and decline, all the “solutions” discussed in this post are still  valid, however their value will diminish with the passing of time as resources and capital become increasing dear, our choices begin to narrow, and vested interests continue the fight to retain advantages that are destined to slip away.

Whether our future turns in the direction of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the more hopeful but still difficult direction of Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand, or a more sustainable future anchored in renewable energy, re-localized agriculture, with higher levels of satisfaction, and with much lower levels of consumption will depend on the choices that we make.

Three Letters to Obama

The Obama administration has recently received three letters or petitions regarding energy policy.  As with any policy position they are shaped by the world views of the men and women who authored them.

Dr. James Hansen is head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading global climate change researcher.  It is not surprising that his proposal revolves around a tax policy aimed at decarbonizing the American economy and reducing greenhouse gases.

Edward Mazria is an architect and creator of the 2030 Challenge, a voluntary pledge that all new buildings and major building renovation be constructed to a carbon-neutral (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate) standard by 2030. Mazria’s proposal is centered on achieving building energy efficiency goals rewarded with lower mortgage rates in the case of residential construction and by accelerated depreciation in the case of commercial construction.  If enacted, it claims to both create millions of jobs and reduce carbon emissions.

Richard Heinberg is senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies,  Powerdown – Options and Actions for a Post – Carbon World, and the Oil Depletion Protocol.   Heinberg and the other authors of Post Carbon Institute’s “Real New Deal” marry the imperatives of climate change and the peaking and ultimate depletion of our fossil fuel resources into a comprehensive plan to transition the U.S. to a new energy economy.

All three proposals are valid and merit serious review, but only the Post Carbon Institute’s proposal offers a comprehensive view of the challenges we must face.  As such, the Hansen and Mazria proposals are important subsets of what needs to be a much larger solution.

THE HANSEN PROPOSAL
Hansen sent an open letter to Barack and Michelle Obama.  Here are some relevant excerpts from the letter:

A rising carbon price is essential to “decarbonize” the economy, i.e., to move the nation toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most effective way to achieve this is a carbon tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry.  The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels.

The public will support the tax if it is returned to them, equal shares on a per capita basis (half shares for children up to a maximum of two child-shares per family), deposited monthly in bank accounts.  No large bureaucracy is needed.  A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average makes money.   A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend.  Not one cent goes to Washington.  No lobbyists will be supported.  Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public.

A carbon tax is honest, clear and effective.  It will increase energy prices, but low and middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead.  The rate of infrastructure replacement, thus economic activity, can be modulated by how fast the carbon tax rate increases.  Effects will permeate society.  Food requiring lots of carbon emissions to produce and transport will become more expensive and vice versa, encouraging support of nearby farms as opposed to imports from half way around the world.

THE 2030 CHALLENGE STIMULUS PLAN
A Two-Year, Nine-Million-Job Investment Proposal

The road to energy independence, economic recovery and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions runs through the Building Sector.” – Edward Mazria

The 2030 Challenge Stimulus plan is a two year investment commitment to create 9 million jobs overall and 4-million jobs in the construction sector.  It is a jobs growth and carbon reduction plan rolled into one.  In the residential sector it trades low interest rate loans off against investments to increase building energy efficiency.  For an existing home, the interest rate provided would be a function of renovating that home to some level below the existing energy code requirements in exchange for a lower mortgage rate.

Mortgage Interest Rate (subject to market conditions)  2030 Challenge Energy Reduction

4.0%    30% below code
3.5%    50% below code
2.5%    75% below code
2.0%    Carbon neutral

For example, a homeowner with a    current $272,300    mortgage with equity of $12,000, would have a mortgage balance of $260,300. At an interest rate of 6%, the current monthly mortgage payment would be $1633. If this homeowner wants to qualify for the 2.5% interest rate, they will need to renovate their home to use 75% less energy than that required by code, immediately creating jobs and putting construction teams back to work.

The cost of renovation would be approximately $51,250, which includes a solar system, which would qualify for a $7000 tax credit. The cost of the renovation, minus the tax credit, would be added to the mortgage balance, so that the new mortgage is now $304,550.    However, because of the significantly lower 2.5%    interest rate, the new mortgage payment is just $1203, a savings of $430 per month. With the additional monthly savings on energy bills of approximately $145, this homeowner would save a total of $575 per month.

Because building construction historically represents about 10% of GDP, Mazria thinks that the private building sector may be the key to reviving the U.S. economy.  He proposes that $96-billion be invested annually for the next two years in mortgage interest rate buy-downs and accelerated depreciation for commercial buildings.  As a result, Mazria claims that with a participation of only 5.8% of homes and 3.1% of commercial buildings the program would generate 9-million jobs and $1-trillion in private sector spending, and pay for itself in the form of increased tax revenue.

In addition to the economic claims, Mazria calculates that over the five year period, the proposal would reduce CO2 emissions by 504 million metric tons and energy consumption by 6.47 Quadrillion Btu.

Even at a participation of only 5.8% (over 4-million) of homes, Mazria’s proposal may have a scaling problem, as the country finds itself lacking the architectural, engineering, and code verification talent to transform that many homes in the proposed time-frame.  Conceptually however, this is a beautifully conceived plan and deserves serious attention.

POST CARBON INSTITUTE
The Real New Deal
Energy Scarcity and the Path to Energy, Economic, and  Environmental Recovery

The energy transition cannot be accomplished in four years or eight…  What can and must be accomplished in a single administration is the essential change of direction.

The Post Carbon Institute [PCI] argues that the current economic crisis provides the opportunity and potentially the political will to make a significant down payment on the transition to a renewable energy economy that would otherwise be inconceivable.  In fact if we don’t act now, the current crisis may just merge with “peak oil” and the effects of climate change to create a decades long global state of emergency.

PCI outlines a comprehensive program comprising five different solution sets.

  1. A massive and immediate shift to renewable energy (Hansen’s proposal fits here)
  2. The electrification of our transportation system
  3. The transformation to a “smart” electrical grid
  4. The de-carbonization and localization of our food production and delivery system
  5. The retrofit of our building stock for energy efficiency and distributed power generation. (Mazria’s proposal fits here)

Since the cost of such a transition spread over 20 years would be in the order of $4.5-trillion the authors admit that given the current financial meltdown, private capital will not be forthcoming and deficit spending by the government along with significant policy changes will be required to launch the transition.  To direct policy, the authors recommend creating “an Energy Transition Office, tied to no existing agency, specifically tasked with tracking and managing the transition and with helping existing agencies work together toward the common goal”.

The authors do not underestimate the enormous and unprecedented scope of their proposal.  Aside from avoiding or mitigating the devastating impacts of peak oil and climate change the potential  benefits are enormous and would include:

  • eliminating the need to police oil exporting areas of the world, saving billions of dollars a year in military expenditures
  • saving billions per year by creating a food system that substantially reduces obesity, cancer, and asthma
  • helping to create and foster skilled, self-reliant and resilient communities

Although the plan as presented merely serves to outline the possible solutions and the scope of the problems we face, what sets it apart is it all-embracing view of the resource depletion and environmental  perils we must resolve to survive.

Thoughts About a New Energy Economy
Calls for the transition to a new energy economy typically come from three main quarters.  All three are valid, but only one sees the forest for trees.

The national security quarter recognizes that we depend too much on imports from countries and regions that are either unstable and/or hostile to our national interests.  This argument for action plays well with the right, but does not recognize the environmental threat of global warming or greater economic peril of peak oil.  Although it forms the basis of an argument for an energy transition, it can equally be used to justify a more robust military policy.

The climate change quarter is currently dominant in the minds of the public and with policy makers.  It sees great peril and human suffering in the coming decades but doesn’t recognize that the peak oil is imminent and will soon take center stage.  The economic devastation of peak oil will likely be additive to the current debt crisis and put global warming on the back burner.  Ironically, the advent of peak oil will greatly reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of global warming but the decline in oil supply alone will not be sufficient to drive atmospheric CO2 levels back to 350 PPM.

Peak oil is lesser known.  There is a peak oil caucus in congress, but there is little political will to take action in a county where nearly half the population believes in the battle cry of “drill baby drill”.  Unlike the effects of global warming which will be slow and indirect in coming, the effects of peak oil will be as sudden as the collapse of the World Trade Center and Lehman Brothers.  More shock and awe than a slow rising of the tides.  It will touch every corner of our economy with a combination of price shocks and shortages.  It will leave us with one chance and one chance only to transform our energy infrastructure to solar, wind, and geothermal using what remains of our rapidly depleting fossil fuel resources.

As I look to the future, I see three possible courses of action:

Option one is that we recognize the problem of resource depletion and take action well in advance of  the anticipated world wide peak in oil production.  Since peaking is imminent and the transition will take approximately two decades, unfortunately the ship has already sailed on option one. Looking back we will someday wish we had paid much more attention to Jimmy Carter.

With the election of Obama, option two is already in play, and we have begin to take some action based on fears of climate change and for reasons of national security.  However, our current actions are no where near sufficient to avoid extreme hardship.  The ship of state is on a collision course with the iceberg and we have only just given the order to reduce speed.  Our collision with destiny is now unavoidable and the question now is whether there will be a sufficient number of life boats.  In addition, just as we need it the most, we lack sufficient capital to make the transition in the face of the global financial meltdown.  This is not just another severe business cycle, this is the beginning of the  realignment of the the post WWII global financial system and the end of American economic dominance.  It is likely that peak oil will become evident just as the dollar loses its status as the world’s reserve currency and as a nation we may then be unable to fund the energy transition with either public or private funds.  Essentially bankrupt and losing our grip on global influence and power the country may lurch to the right in a desperate attempt to reclaim global dominance.

Option three is to maintain a posture of “drill baby drill denial” in spite of reality.  At this point the country may resort to engaging in “resource wars” to claim the world’s remaining oil reserves and to protect the American “way of life”.   This would be a policy doomed to failure and assured of increasing human misery.  It would also be a policy that will put us at risk of missing our only window to transition away from fossil fuels.  Call this the Mad Max policy.

My hope is that we’ll stick with option two and muddle through to a new and sustainable energy economy.  It promises to be extremely painful and disruptive decade or two of transition, but in the end we will find ourselves in a much healthier relationship with our environment and possibly with each other.

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LEED Weighs in on Smart Growth, with a new Neighborhood Development Scorecard

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”— Dr. Albert Bartlett

Moving from “green building” to “green development”, LEED has weighed in on smart growth with its latest product “LEED for Neighborhood Development”.  Unlike previous products that made their environmental impact one building at a time, the Neighborhood Development product is greater in scope and is likely to have a much broader impact.

“LEED for Neighborhood Development places emphasis on the site selection, design, and construction elements that bring buildings together into a neighborhood, and relate the neighborhood to its landscape and larger regional context. The work of the committee is guided by sources such as the Smart Growth Network’s ten principles of smart growth, the charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and other LEED rating systems. LEED for Neighborhood Development creates a label, as well as guidelines for design and decision‐making, to serve as an incentive for better location, design, and construction of new residential, commercial, and mixed‐use developments.”

Although voluntary, LEED’s latest product will provide a model code for residential development that can be adopted by municipalities around the country and new developments that meets the LEED criteria will no doubt become the future neighborhood’s we will want to live in.  A LEED certified Neighborhood Development will not contribute to sprawl, it will reduce automobile dependence, provide for a walkable street-scape environment, have a smaller more compact overall footprint, honor diversity, and its buildings will be green.

In the introduction to its new product, LEED attempts to define smart growth relative to neighborhood development as follows:

“In simplistic terms, a neighborhood is an area of dwellings and/or work places and their immediate environment that residents and/or employees identify with in terms of social and economic attitudes, lifestyles, and institutions. The charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism defines a neighborhood as “compact, pedestrian‐friendly, and mixed‐use.”   Victor Dover and Jason King define a neighborhood in Doug Farr’s Sustainable Urbanism as “the basic increment of town planning” where a single neighborhood stands alone as a village and two or more neighborhoods “grouped together sharing a specialized hub or main street is a town.”  Dover and King continue to attribute the vitality of neighborhoods as the key providers of the “dynamism and diversity” in cities.  [They] do not include the “disconnected, single‐use developments that characterize sprawl, such as stand‐alone apartment complexes, subdivision tracts, office parks, or shopping centers” in their definition of a neighborhood. Instead they believe that traditional neighborhoods meet all those same needs—for housing, workplaces, shopping, civic functions, and more—but in formats that are compact, complete, and connected, and ultimately more sustainable and satisfying.”

As with most definitions of “smart growth” or “new urbanism” the theme is a higher quality of life, diversity, and a movement away from a fossil fuel dependent suburban sprawl.  However, smart growth is still growth. It may be orders of magnitude more sustainable than sprawl, but in a fundamental way, it is still business as usual.  Combining the medicine of smart with the sugar of growth may help to convince the developers and their political allies to accept the inevitable end of sprawl, but it does not solve Dr. Bartlett’s problem of exponential function.

The problem is that with even modest rates of growth, the trendline eventually becomes grotesquely exponential, rendering smart growth an oxymoron.  In effect, we would only be trading the malignant cancer of sprawl for the more benign cancer of smart growth.  Neither would be sustainable.

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The Obama Energy Plan and our Homes

How will Obama’s energy polices affect our homes?  We won’t really know until his proposals are debated and enacted by congress, but we can get a sense of what might happen from his campaign’s position statements.  From his campaign website’s fact sheet his stated position on building energy efficiency is as follows:

“Obama…will establish a goal of making all new buildings carbon neutral, or produce zero emissions, by 2030.  [He] will also establish a national goal of improving new building efficiency by 50 percent and existing building efficiency by 25 percent over the next decade to help us meet the 2030 goal.”

This is straight from the playbook of Ed Mazra’s Architecture 2030 Challenge.  As evidenced by the following quote from the 2030 website, the 2030 Challenge is predicated on climate change and the reduction of green house gas emissions associated with the Building Sector.

“Rapidly accelerating climate change (global warming), which is caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is now fueling dangerous regional and global environmental events. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration illustrates that buildings are responsible for almost half (48%) of all GHG emissions annually. Seventy-six percent of all electricity generated by US power plants goes to supply the Building Sector. Therefore, immediate action in the Building Sector is essential if we are to avoid hazardous climate change.”

I have two issues with the 2030 Challenge.

One is that the 48% responsibility for GHG emissions attributed to buildings is overstated.  The emissions assigned to the building sector are primarily the indirect result of drawing on electrical power generated from coal and natural gas fired power plants, so the question becomes whether to focus our resources on the building “demand” side, or the power plant “supply” side, or some combination of both.  In that broader context, we may find that it is much easier to deal with a few hundred power plants than to transform 150 million residential and commerical buildings.  From a public policy perspective, both the demand and supply side should be considered as a synergistic whole.

My second issue is more fundamental.  Architecture 2030 asks and answers the wrong question.  The question that Architecture 2030 asks is what actions should we take to mitigate the effect of the building sector on climate change.  However, the greater question is what actions should we take to render the building sector sustainable.  Once sustainability is on the table then we have to consider carrying capacity and carrying capacity overshoot at which point climate change is just another canary in the coal mine.

Carrying capacity is all about the ecological limits (capacity) of our planet’s resources and sinks.  By considering GHG emissions as the primary driver for building energy improvements, policy makers are overlooking the much more immediate and serious resource issues of peak oil and gas.  Since both of these peak events will be evident as early as 2010, all buildings should be built or retrofitted to a net zero energy and carbon standard NOW, not 22 years from now.

However, I digress.  Since it will take the actual emergency of these peaking events to mobilize the political will to enact a national zero energy standard, the question is what can we expect when Obama takes office next year.

The first likely step will be to start the process of improving building efficiency by 50% through our building codes.  A significant improvement is already in the works for the residential sector with the IECC 2009. However, at this time, the 30% improvement authored by the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, will only be a voluntary appendix to the next release of the code.  In addition, once the new code is released, it has to be reviewed and adopted by hundreds of city, county, and state authorities.  In the process, these authorities often dumb down new energy code provisions in response to local politics.  We can also expect a major push back from a decimated housing sector deeply concerned about adding any new code mandated building costs.

My best guess is that under Obama, the voluntary 30% improvement provision authored by Energy Efficient Codes Coalition will be supported by Obama’s Grant Program for Early Adopters policy proposal.  This proposal creates a competitive grant program for states and localities that “take the first steps in implementing new building codes that prioritize energy efficiency, and provides a federal match for those states with leading-edge public benefits funds that support energy efficiency retrofits of existing buildings.”

The grant proposal creates a policy that respects local politics and helps to support those areas of country that have the political will to move forward with improving building energy efficiency.

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The LEED Narrative – Going Beyond

I received an email this morning from Scot Horst , who chairs the LEED Steering Committee. He describes the behind the scenes narrative that has been going on since work began on LEED 2009.

Person A: “Global warming doesn’t give us much time.”
Person B: “But we can’t address much of anything, let alone global warming, if we’re only dealing with a small fraction of the entire built environment. We need to get everyone involved.”

Person A: “Yes, but why get them involved in a system that doesn’t take them far enough to save us from ourselves? We need our buildings to be restorative.”
Person B: “LEED can’t save us from ourselves. LEED, as a tool, can engage the market in transformation. That transformation is about people. It is not about LEED credits.”

Person A: “You’re missing the point. We have to be tougher. We have to go beyond.”
Person B: “No, you’re missing the point. We have to find ways to engage a market that has never thought about these issues before.”

Persons A and B: “Let’s find a way to do both.

”This is an engaging and very important narrative and perhaps the most important point for me is that LEED is a “tool” that helps to raise consciousness and “engage the market in transformation.” My personal view is that we must “go beyond” and that much of what we currently do in the green building movement, however well intentioned, is nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. The global warming mentioned in Horst’s narrative has provided the catalyst for both LEED and Architecture 2030, but focusing solely on warming misses the point. Warming is a symptom and not a cause. It has prompted us to take some action, but not to “go beyond”. As a premise for action it has been useful, but is easily attacked on it’s “scientific validity”. It is one of the canaries in the coal mine, but there has been is very little discussion of the coal mine. We need to expand the narrative and take a broader view.

Taking a page out of ecological economics, once you picture the built environment as a mere subset of our closed ecosystem, then your conceptual framework regarding sustainable building is forever changed. It means you have to accept that there are limits, and that we are not going to be able to grow forever. It implies the built environment must have some optimal size and level of consumption relative to the larger ecosystem. It means you cannot grow beyond that optimum without threatening man’s survival within that ecosystem. Out of this stream of thought flows a list of very troubling questions?

  • How do we stop growing?
  • What are the limits? What is optimal?
  • Does climate change tell us they have already been exceeded?
  • Do we face a kind of built environment armageddon when fossil fuel production peaks and begins to decline?
  • Is a zero energy standard imperative now?
  • What do we do? How do we do it?

Our very survival depends on how and when these questions are answered. LEED does not provide the answers, but it does help us to prepare.

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Phase Change Materials – The Future of Natural Indoor Climate Control

There are two ways to store heat and even out the diurnal or daily temperature swings in buildings. One is with massive material’s like stone, brick, and concrete the other is with phase change materials or PCM’s.

A material is said to “change phase” when energy is either added or removed to cause it to change from a liquid state to a solid state or from liquid state to a gaseous state. For example, it takes a considerable amount of energy to transform ice into water and in the process the temperature remains at 32° F. This energy storage capacity within the phase change is called “latent heat” and when harnessed allows for the storage of heat energy in a fraction of the volume required by materials like stone or concrete.

For building applications, you want this phase change to occur at or near the desired room temperature, so custom wax formulations are usually the material of chose. As the cost of energy has increased, interest in PCM technology has also increased.

In 2005, Oak Ridge National Laboratory teamed with Advanced Fiber Technology and BASF, demonstrated that a 2×6 wall insulated with cellulose insulation seeded with 22% PCM reduced the surface heat flow rate by 40%.

PCM seeded insulation is not yet commercially available, however BASF has developed a drywall product called SmartBoard™ that is available in the EU that incorporates microscopic polymer spheres filled with wax. Applying this 15-mm (0.59 inch) thick drywall product is the equivalent of adding a 9-cm (3.54 inches) thick layer of concrete. SmartBoard™ is supplied with a choice of two “switching” or PCM melt temperatures, 23°C(73.4°F) and 26°C(78.8°F) designed to accommodate both heating dominated and cooling dominated climates.

SmartBoard™ has been successfully tested in each major EU climate zone and was used by last year’s winner of the DOE’s Solar Decathlon.

2007 Solar Decathlon – 1st Place Entry by the University of Technology, Darmstad

In addition to SmartBoard, BASF PCM materials have been incorporated into several other building products in the EU:

  • Aerated Concrete by H+H Celcon, Germany
  • Gypsum Building Blocks by Saint Gobain Rigips, Switzerland
  • Gypsum Plaster by Saint Gobain Maxit, Germany
  • Radiant (active) Cooling Ceiling Tiles by MWH BARCOL Air, Switzerland and Ilkazel, Germany

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PPAs – Affordable PV Power for the Average Homeowner

With price tags ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 or more for residential PV [photovoltaic] systems, the residential market has been limited to homeowners with a strong green ethic that either had the cash or were willing to tap into their home equity to pay for the cost of a system. Given a 15 year plus payback and an average home ownership turnover of 5 years that represented a pretty small population of potential customers. As a result, it was only a matter of time before entrepreneur’s realized that the PV industry had reached a point where it needed more financial innovation than technical innovation.

Power Purchase Agreements [PPAs] are offered by companies that are basically independent, solar electric utilities. They use your south facing, roof-top real estate to install PV [photovoltaic] panels at their expense and then sell that energy back to you at a pre-determined rate under a long term PPA agreement. Solar PPA’s represent over 50% of large commercial and industrial PV installations, and if you’re a big box store like WalMart, the economics are such that you pay zero upfront cost, lock in favorable long term rates and never have to worry about how it works or the costs to maintain the system.

Until recently, the PPA business model has been non-existent for the residential market, however two California companies now offer forms of residential PPAs to qualified homeowners. Sun Run of San Francisco offers an 18 year residential PPA that requires an relatively modest (~30% of the system cost) upfront payment by the homeowner and Solar City Inc. of Foster City offers as low as a no money down 15 year lease to highly qualified (≥720 credit score) homeowners. Whether it’s called a lease or a PPA the end result is the same, the company owns, maintains, and profits from the system and the homeowner pays a monthly charge that is off-set by their savings in electrical costs. It’s a win-win-win situation for the company, the homeowner, and the environment.

To answer the “what happens if I move” question, both Sun Run and Solar City offer their customers the option of buying the system at any time, transferring the PPA/lease to a new owner, or renewing the PPA/lease agreement at the end of its term.

You’ve got to love the potential for the PPA business model to expand the residential PV market to millions of additional homeowners, but what are the factors that make it technically and financially viable for a companies like Sun Run and Solar City, and why are these programs currently limited to California? The answer lies in tax credits, rebates, and utility rates, and in the case of California all of these factors are aligned to make the numbers work.

Whether it’s a lease or a PPA, since the company owns the system they get the tax credits and any state or utility rebates. In the case of the Federal Investment Tax Credit [ITC], because they are a business, they get the full 30% credit and are not capped a $2,000 like us lowly homeowners. Because the Federal ITC is scheduled to expire at the end of 2008, the PPA/lease business model may fall apart if it is not renewed. If not renewed, the economics would probably dictate that the homeowner cover an additional 30% of the purchase cost upfront making the deal considerably less attractive.

Other factors that make the model work are the relatively high California utility rates and favorable net metering laws. Additional requirements include an unobstructed southern exposure for the panels, a roof surface that will last the lifetime of the PPA or lease, and a system that’s large enough to make economic sense for the company.

If the Federal ITC gets renewed for several more years, look for both of these companies to rapidly expand into states with relatively high utility rates and strong incentives for renewable energy. As utility rates inevitably increase and PV panel costs decline, this business model will only get stronger.

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