Totnes is a small medieval town, home to a little over eight thousand people, on the mouth of the Dart River in South West England. Walking down high street (main street in British lingo), one would not necessarily be aware of anything unusual. Perhaps a particularly discerning eye would notice the preponderance of small independent cafes, local grocery outlets or shops selling wool. Yet, since becoming the first “Transition Town,” Totnes has sparked the Transition Town movement, serving as an inspiration to towns and communities across the world hoping to regain control of their economic destiny.

The Transition Town Movement was founded in 2005 by Rob Hopkins, a young instructor in ecological design, in response to the threat of peak oil and climate change. It has since spread across the world and attracted the support of several high profile figures, such as former president of the IMF Horst Kohler. The Transition Town movement ambitiously aims to transcend the ideas of “sustainability” and the “green economy,” visions championed by the Paris Climate Conference and post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). The Transition Town Movement calls for profounder changes, questioning the viability of unbridled consumerism and the myth of limitless economic growth.

“Sustainability,” Rob Hopkins told Jon Mooallem of the New York Times in 2009, “is about reducing the impact of what comes out of the tailpipe of industrial society.” Meanwhile, the Transition Town movement, he argues, is seeking to “build resiliency” and create a new system that allows a community to be as self-sufficient as possible in order to withstand shocks as oil becomes astronomically expensive (something that seems far-fetched these days with a barrel of oil at only a little over $50). The movement champions the idea that communities themselves need to reimagine and rebuild a lifestyle that uses dramatically less fossil fuel. The key is to bring people together, create a culture of entrepreneurship, and instill a problem-solving mindset.

Today there are over 480 transition towns or neighborhoods in 35 different countries. While Hopkins issued an informal document that outlines steps, there is no formal blueprint to follow or central authority one is accountable to in order to become an official transition town.
The sole point of the movement, Hopkins told the New York Times, is simply to “unleash the collective genius of a community.” Under this helm, a wide range of new initiatives has cropped up in transition towns across the world.

In many places, new initiatives have tended to promote community membership, organizations and projects owned-and-run by local residents. This ranges from community-owned gardens, orchards and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms, to local renewable energy projects and even local newspapers that are owned by their readers. Transition towns harbor a large number of businesses that use a cooperative model, where workers own and run the enterprises that also serve as social hubs.

Another important aspect of transition towns is a “repair and share” vision which guides many initiatives. Transition towns across the UK now regularly hold events such as seed swap and give-and-take days in which people come together to share or swap clothes, furniture, tools and much more that they have no need for anymore. In Frome, Somerset, a “Share Shop” opened mid-2015 that allows residents to borrow household and leisure items donated by the public for a small fee. The founders, a team of eight 18-30 year olds, say the objective is to save people money and reduce waste. The average electric drill, they point out, is used for a mere 15 minutes in its lifetime. Transition Café in the town of Fishguard runs on a pay-as-you-feel model and offers delicious meals made from out-of-date products.

Simultaneously, there has been a concerted drive to radically transform waste management by minimizing and reusing waste. There has been a host of creative ventures, such as transforming waste wood into fuel or using coffee grounds to grow oyster mushrooms.

Susanna Heisse, appalled with the level of plastic waste around Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, invented the “Eco brick,” which is an insulating, robust and affordable building material made from plastic waste. Some 38 schools in Guatemala have now been built using Eco Bricks.

Greyton, South Africa’s first transition initiative, had been struggling with a non-existent waste management system. On the outskirt of the town, trash would simply be poured into open dumps. Joseph Stodegel, a U.S. artist and entrepreneur who came to Greyton in 2011 to help with the transition town initiative, spearheaded a Trash-to-Treasure Festival. Now held annually, the Trash to Treasure Festival takes place on an open field that was created by reclaiming a dump. Bands play on stages built from reclaimed tires and building are made out of Eco Bricks.

Finally, many transition towns have created their own local currency. The “Localization” movement had never been very good at talking about economics, Rob Hopkins told the Guardian. Therefore, in order to change this, Totnes decided to try and map the local economy and put a value on it. They found that, in Totnes for example, people spend 30 million British pounds on food every year, 73 percent of which goes to large corporate-owned supermarkets. They realized that even if the purchase of local foods increased by only 10 percent, the town would have 2.2 million more pounds staying in the local economy. Consequently, the first local currency, the Totnes pound, emerged. The basic premise is that a local currency would make people think more closely about their local economy, inquiring where money goes when purchases are made and finding ways to spend more money locally.

In a day and age when it is easy to be all gloom and doom, Rob Hopkins and the Transition movement offer a refreshingly upbeat message. Sweeping changes in history, he argues, are not made by “big people” doing big things but rather by ordinary people doing small things together.

“There is no cavalry coming to the rescue,” he told the Guardian, but rather it is about what people can create with each other in their streets, neighborhoods and towns. “If enough people do it, it can lead to real impact, to real jobs and real transformation of the places we live, and beyond.”

This article was featured on the DBJ Instablog on Seeking Alpha.

Congress recently passed a bill confirming, for the first time that “climate change is real and not a hoax”. With that out of the way, America can officially begin to view the future of energy in a new light.

According to recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, fossil fuels accounted for nearly 82% of America’s energy consumption, a number that has remained steady over the last few years. Recently the Keystone XL has become central to a heated debate over the environmental costs versus economic benefits of natural gas.

The price per barrel of crude oil has dropped to its lowest since 2008-2009. Fluctuating between 40 and 50 dollars, this figure is the result of oversupply by OPEC nations and the refusal of other producers to curtail production.

Graph courtesy of macrotrends.net
www.macrotrends.net

At the same time, the American government continues to wrestle with the contentious Keystone XL bill, a proposal that has environmentalists up in arms.

Keystone XL is an extension of North-American oil company TransCanada’s existing Keystone pipeline. The system covers nearly 3000 miles, delivering Canadian oil to refineries in the mid-west and southern United States.

The proposed extension is a shorter, wider, and more direct route from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska that passes through sensitive environmental areas, sparking controversy.

Environmental groups point to an array of concerns. The threat of oil spill and leakage raises alarms for the highly sensitive landscape that includes one of the largest reserves of fresh water in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer.

Source: National Atlas
Source: National Atlas

 

Another worry is the extraction of crude oil from Canada’s oil sands. These tar sand regions provide a majority of the product running through Keystone XL, and research has shown that removing this crude yields more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional methods do. According to the Pembina Institute, a think-tank on Canadian energy, “average greenhouse gas emissions for oil sand extraction and upgrading are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as for conventional crude oil produced in Canada or the United States.”

The project will reportedly transport 830,000 barrels of oil a day and create jobs for people in the area, although the exact number is under heavy dispute.

As of February 2015, both Congress and the Senate have passed different versions of the bill, but President Obama maintains his position against it, having vetoed the proposal once and publicly demonstrating willingness to do so again.

The debate on Keystone XL over the past few years added a new wrinkle with today’s plunging oil prices. While the fluctuations won’t stop the production from current tar sands, a prolonged slump may inhibit future production. According to Amy Harder of the Wall Street Journal, the most efficient existing oil sands have breakeven points below $40 per barrel, while new production areas may require up to $90 per barrel.

However, TransCanada’s CEO, Russ Girling, recently spoke out against these concerns, saying that “Keystone XL is a project that was needed when the price of a barrel of oil was less than $40 in 2008, when we first made our application, at more than $100 last year, and around $45 today.”

Experts agree that the project still makes economical sense, but it is no longer a pressing necessity. Recent data from the federal government shows that the US imported more than 3 million barrels of oil from Canada per day, and U.S. refiners still hope to see the infrastructure built.

Bill Day Valero, spokesperson for Energy Corp., the biggest oil refiner in the United States, recently stated that the “ample supply of inexpensive crude oil would offset declining supplies from fields in Mexico and South America. That’s the case no matter what the benchmark price of crude is today.”

The fall of oil prices isn’t over. Most analysts believe that the price per barrel has the potential to drop to $30, and experts from Citi predict that prices will tumble even further before producers begin to limit production. The passage of Keystone XL will only contribute to the supply.

For the foreseeable future, oil prices will continue to plunge and eventually bottom out. Reliance on fossil fuels will decrease only infinitesimally over the next few years, while demand will remain across the globe. Barring the rapid introduction and commercialization of a viable alternative energy source, the price per barrel will recover. The question is how much the recoup will be.

An Idaho-based company might just have the solution to the issues that currently exist for solar energy. Solar Roadways, founded in 2006, came up with the ingenious idea to replace all United States paved roadways with durable and versatile hexagonal solar panels. On May 18, 2014, a nonmember of the Solar Roadways Company released a video outlining the benefits from such a system, including easy maintenance, ability to be heated in cold climates, and versatility. “SOLAR FREAKIN’ ROADWAYS!” was heard all around the internet not even a week after the technology’s promotional video was released. That was just the beginning.

Right now, the United States is facing the issue of deciding between maintaining poor infrastructure and updating it. The government, on both national and state levels, has not been able to make a proper call yet. As a result of this indecision, highway associations, and departments of public works across the United States have been making slapdash repairs that don’t last nearly long enough and end up causing more issues in the long term. The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) released a quadrennial report in 2013 grading each sector of America’s infrastructure. Since solar roadways have the potential to affect electrical, bridge, and roadway infrastructure, the main focus in funding changes will be centered on those three aspects. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion must be spent annually through 2020 to significantly improve the conditions and performance of roadway infrastructure in the United States, representing an increase of $69 billion over current spending. Additionally, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $20.5 billion must be spent annually through 2028 to improve overall conditions, an $8 billion over current levels. The ASCE estimates that between distributing energy and transmitting it from generative sources to distribution chains, the United States will spend close to $94 billion annually through 2020, a substantial increase from the current $63 billion. All of these estimates will amount to a grand total of $108 billion in extra funding per year, and is simply estimated to be the amount necessary  for the United States to catch up to, not exceed, current infrastructure standards. Conversely, The Economist in June of 2014, reported that implementing a system to replace the entirety of America’s roadways would cost an estimated $1 trillion. Furthermore, this figure does not take into account the research and development that would be necessary in order to implement solar roadways. Put another way, it is without a doubt that, in terms of principal costs, it would be more convenient and cheaper to maintain the status quo for roads in the United States. If Solar Roadways was simply a paving material, it wouldn’t be the cheaper option to  cure the United States’ infrastructure crisis.

Luckily, Solar Roadways has possibilities that far exceed those of asphalt and concrete. First and foremost, solar roadways would provide a national path towards energy independence. According to 2013 figures from the Energy Information Administration, fossil fuels, the majority of which are imported, make up 67% of the electricity generated in the United States. Constantly functioning solar panels, covering 31,250 square miles of roads, parking lots, driveways, playgrounds, bike paths, and sidewalks in the United States could change those proportions. According to Solar Roadways’ own estimates, their technology spread across the country could produce over three times the electricity that we currently use in the United States every year. Solar roadways would thus not only allow for sustainable energy independence, but would also allow for enough of a cushion to maintain energy independence even in the most drastic of situations.

Secondly, Solar Roadways could help improve energy efficiency in the Unite States. One current large issue with energy production in the United States is that energy grids are removed from energy production, especially when it comes to nonrenewable sources. However, the way solar roadways are designed would allow for the grid to run concurrently with energy production in an efficient way and could help the United States  control overall costs of energy.

Beyond the primary issue of energy, Solar roadways could improve transportation infrastructure in several other ways. Solar roadways could significantly improve highway safety. Current levels of accidents per year on asphalt roadways hover around 6.5 million accidents. Through the use of heated and illuminated panels that are easily replaceable and have storm drains installed, roadways will have increased visibility. Giving drivers more control on roads during rough driving conditions should improve overall highway safety.

Finally, Solar Roadways would have the advantage of easy recyclability. The tiles created by Solar Roadways, from the glass surface to the inner components, are entirely recyclable. In contrast, concrete and asphalt recycling are labor and capital intensive processes that are not easily undertaken by any company or government institution that seeks to repave roads, sidewalks, or the like.

A report from the National Economic Council and the President’s Council of Economic Advisers from July of 2014 illustrates that “a high quality transportation network is vital to a top performing economy.” It has already been established that the United States’ transportation infrastructure is of poor quality and may in fact be a drag on economic growth and productivity. The process introducing solar panel laden roads may also prove to be a prime opportunity for the federal government to implement more stringent quality standards on infrastructure.

Of course there remain many large issues and question marks as to the feasibility of implementing a nationwide conversion to Solar Roadways. The largest issue that arises when switching a major amount of asphalt and concrete production to solar panel production is labor displacement. The asphalt production industry employs somewhere around 300,000 Americans, and the concrete production industry employs close to 170,000 Americans. Solar roadways thus needs to make up for close to 450,000 jobs in manufacturing, engineering, and maintenance if it can be a viable alternative for the United States to accept the technology and continue job growth. Unfortunately, projections on exactly how many manufacturing and engineering jobs Solar Roadways can produce  are unavailable due to a lack of empirical evidence.

Furthermore, solar roadways have only been produced and tested as successful prototypes in a small shop setting in Idaho. They have not been produced on a large scale. Solar Roadways has yet to analyze the impacts that different weather and geographic conditions can possibly have on their product. Making the move to mass production will also be a significant challenge. These specialized solar panels are meticulously crafted on a small scale that has not yet been translated into an industrial level operation. Before solar roadways can be implemented, the company needs to iron out all of the possible issues that can occur during mass production or implementation. While issues that can arise by the end of the prototype phase will be figured out, the fact remains that the technology is not viable in its current situation and cannot be adopted by the United States as is.

Finally, strong political interest groups may also prove to be a stumbling block for the energy infrastructure startup. Established industries such as asphalt and big oil have political clout and are certain to lobby against roadways. Oil is one of the largest industries in America and possessed deeply entrenched political power in Washington, rivaled only by the American Medical Association and the National Rifle Association. Solar Roadways, if it wants to find a solid place in America, will thus have to face and combat considerable political clout.

There is no doubt that Solar Roadways has great prospects as a technology. It will help the world reduce its carbon footprint and dependence on non-renewable sources of energy. Solar Roadways offers important improvements to the current system of highway infrastructure ranging from safety to energy efficiency. While nothing is yet concrete for solar roadways in terms of implementation, the potential for solar roadways, especially in a country with thousands of miles of roads like the United States, is limitless.

Forty years ago, long gas lines and sharply rising energy costs caused every president from Nixon to Obama to call for United States’s energy independence. Five years ago, Russia’s energy development made it the largest energy producer in the world. Today, political problems in Nigeria, Libya and Sudan, in addition to other Middle East strife have caused a substantial rise in energy prices.

Hydraulic fracking, horizontal drilling, and other advances allow rigs to tap oil and natural gas deposits locked in shale. Since 2009, the United States increased oil production 135.6%. Texas shows the strongest increase, by nearly 225%. For Texas, that means an extra 3.72 billion barrels yearly. North Dakota saw increases by 152.2% and states like Pennsylvania, previously producing nominal amounts of oil and natural gas, have become energy production giants. Unemployment in Texas and North Dakota dropped concurrently. Pennsylvania’s energy workers enjoy salaries $20,000 higher per year than the average Quaker state citizen.

John Kirby ’16 aspires to enter the energy industry, taking the last three terms off to find a job “rough-necking” or a related job. After a long search for work, Kirby settled in Odessa, Texas working for a parts manufacturer called Barnhart Bolt and Special Fasteners. He explains, “Getting a job on a rig is tough. It’s dangerous, employers do not want injuries, but the pay is exceptional.” For entry-level rough necks, compensation is about $18 an hour. During a typical seventy-two hour week, workers make about $1,600, with time and a half over 40 hours. People come from across the country to work in previously economically depressed areas of Texas and North Dakota.

The boom in oil dramatically affects local economies beyond the rigs. Kirby explains, “Halliburton, Schlumberger, Baker Hughes share the same interview question: do you have a commercial drivers license.” Truck drivers are compensated between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, depending on the hours they work. Like roughnecks, marginal salaries increase dramatically as the hours increase, and drivers also come from across the country. In places like North Dakota, “roughnecks and drivers sleep in their truck due to lack of infrastructure.” To boot, the overwhelming influence of oil trickled down to local businesses, and such businesses quickly become national.

John Kirby started working at Barnhart Bol in May. Over the next three months, Barnhart started sending parts and pipe all over Texas, expanding beyond its typical deals with Odessa. In more recent months, they shipped parts and pipe to Ohio. Many manufacturers grew dramatically due to the boom in oil. Collectively, fracking, drivers, and manufacturing companies trickle down to other local businesses.

Fast-food chains, grocery stores, and even bars all experience substantial increases in business. Construction companies in North Dakota near the Bakken Oil Field are constantly at work, building infrastructure to accommodate the influx of immigrants to North Dakota. Because of high wages associated with energy, local businesses must match high salaries. John Kirby describes, “Even McDonalds offers jobs paying $15 an hour.” He continues, “If you are unemployed in Odessa, you really just don’t want a job.”

The energy boom affecting local economies are feared to be short-lived; however, labor opportunities are sustained through other industries. Areas depleted of oil still have manufacturing plants that no longer just supply parts for local rigs, but rather, drilling sites nationwide. Moreover, roughnecks and truck drivers are adaptable, and they desire to work wherever there is opportunity.

The United States is scheduled to surpass Russia as the world’s largest energy producer within the next few years. In the race to dominate energy, the United States utilizes hydraulic fracking technology to increase production and create jobs. Much of the growth results from the private sector, independent of Republican or Democrat allegiances. Fossil fuels may not generate clean energy, but they are creating jobs faster than we can anticipate. Kirby concludes, “Fracking is happening. We (the United States) are the best at it, we have the best technology, and we know what to do with it.” The sweaty, oily, often four fingered hands of roughnecks are carrying the United States towards a dream of energy independence.

In Gasland (2010), a man lights his tap water on fire; his bitterness is mixed with images of desolate drill sites and weary faces. Though dramatic, is this scene a fair criticism of the practice? Opponents spit out the word– fracking, a word almost as ugly as the visions of uprooted landscapes and the plight of victims powerless against Big Energy yet again. For a few moments, set aside visceral reactions and quick emotion and gut-appeal. Take a glance at hydraulic fracturing, an industry slogging through the politics of energy and environmental protection.

Background

Hydraulic fracturing has been around for a long time. It was patented in 1949 and only recently has been combined with other technologies to tap previously inaccessible shale gas. The process involves the injection of a mixture of water, proppant such as sand, and chemicals into an oil or gas well.

The fluid is pumped into the horizontal bore several thousand feet under the ground and creates fractures in the surrounding shale rock. The proppant enters these cracks, “propping” them open after the water flows back out. The chemicals do many different things, such as gelling the water on its entry and reducing friction.

The shale clays under scrutiny for natural gas previously could not be used because although they held large reserves of natural gas (the Marcellus Formation in Appalachia alone holds 84 trillion cubic feet), shale is not naturally very permeable.

Now, there are a multitude of previously inaccessible natural gas sources that can be accessed, such as black shales, coal seams, tight sandstones, and deep brine aquifers. Proponents nod to these sources and note their relatively small extraction risk compared to offshore drilling, arctic drilling, or ultra deep drilling.

In 1990, the United States produced the energy equivalent of 70 quadrillion Btu (British thermal unit, equal to 1055 joules). That number remained steady through 2006, at 69.4 quadrillion Btu. That number increased as hydraulic fracturing — combined with horizontal drilling and other new technologies –became more widespread. In 2010, 74.712 quadrillion Btu were produced; in 2011, 78.091 Btu. A large part of this increase has stemmed from natural gas production; 19 quadrillion Btu from natural gas in 2006 increased to 23.6 quadrillion Btu in 2011.

The United States has become the second largest natural gas producer in the world, just behind Russia.

Benefits

In 2011, the U.S. produced 8.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from shale gas wells; at $4.24 per thousand cubic feet, which yielded a direct value of $36 billion. Citibank estimates that rising domestic shale oil and gas production, through reduction of oil imports and retention of “petro-dollars” in country, will reduce the current-account deficit by 1.2.-2.4% of GDP from the current value of 3%.

While other industries have spluttered in the wake of the 2008 recession, oil and gas have remained a powerhouse of employment, with the number of employees at the end of 2012 at its highest since 1987.

Through both direct (employment) and indirect (influx of people and money) economic impact, multiplier effects echo throughout local economies. Land prices surge in a state after fracking is legalized, and the high prices affect all landowners’ wealth and consumption.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in North Dakota—its per capita GDP rocketed from $34,000 to $55,000 after less than a decade of fracking, demonstrating the effect of the drilling in the Bakken formation. Apparently the North Dakotan luxury car dealers are doing a tidy business.

Gas is also the cleanest fossil fuel when burned. No sulfur, mercury, and ash are produced after combustion. No cracking or refining is required, lowering processing costs. It releases low quantities of nitrous oxides, ozones, and complex hydrocarbons, avoiding the creation of photochemical smog. Finally, it releases the lowest amounts of carbon dioxide per btu of any fossil fuel; it releases ½ of the carbon dioxide per Btu of coal and 2/3 of oil.

Finally, hydraulic fracturing has directly impacted the energy race balance between the U.S. and other countries. Between 2007 and 2011, natural gas imports in the U.S. decreased by 25%, while petroleum imports dropped 15.4% from 2005 to 2011. The Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2020, the U.S. will become a net exporter of natural gas. This, thankfully, will ease tension between the Americans and the Chinese for limited Middle Eastern natural gas resources. Countries such as Iran will also be limited in their ability to use energy diplomacy in negotiations.

Costs

Fracking does come with its cons—seismic activity, water resource risks, waste management, and extraction infrastructure, just to name a few. However, it is important to distinguish between definitive negative consequences and the assessment of risk.

Fracking’s consequences are well-defined. Each well requires 3-4 million gallons of water, 2/3 to ¾ of which is consumed and cannot be reused. Each well produces huge quantities of drill cuttings—hundreds and hundreds of tons of earth removed from thousands of feet underground to the surface.

However, many of the other environmental costs are measured in terms of risk. To be pedantic, one may define risk as the probability of the consequence multiplied with the severity of the consequence itself. Thus, though there exists risks of water quality degradation, toxic trace elements inside the earth making their way into water supplies, and even seismic activity, many of these risks only are realized through improper management of drill sites and lack of foresight regarding waste management. Like other risky fuel extraction processes such as deepwater drilling, appropriate safety processes simply have to be implemented.

Conclusion

Globally, we use roughly 113,900 terawatt hours of fossil energy per year, the equivalent of 6020 nuclear plants (14 times the number in operation today). As countries such as China and India raise their standards of living, their individual citizens have increasingly come to expect the amenities of the modern world.

In essence, all forms of energy production have environmental consequences. Waste-water disposal issues plague almost all energy production; for example, there exists a percentage of gasoline stations that routinely suffer leaks that leach benzene into the water supply.

Like it or not, the world needs energy. In light of this, hydraulic fracturing should be considered with a scientific, rational eye. Rather than demonizing fracking and instinctively rallying against a new technology, it should be considered a component of a complex solution to an enormous problem– the problem of supplying energy to a bright and tech-hungry world.

The author is deeply grateful for the guidance of Professors Devon Renock and Mukul Sharma of the Dartmouth Earth Sciences Department throughout his research project investigating the clay microstructures of Marcellus Shale.

 

Where can the U.S. and China collaborate in renewable energy? With the state of competition between the two countries both in the Olympics and in other arenas, areas for collaboration may seem dim, but actually there are possible areas for doing so.

Definitely there is a need for collaboration to make renewables reach grid parity, meaning that renewable sources become just as cheap as fossil fuel based sources. Feed-in-Tariffs, or fixed prices per kilowatt-hour that have been preset in order to attract investors in solar and wind have been under attack in many countries. This despite the fact that external impacts for coal and fossil fuel power plants (such as public health respiratory impacts ) have not been captured in their energy pricing, and their subsidies remain untouchable at the moment.  For example, ask coal plant investors about the health impact of emissions and the handling of byproducts such as coal ash, and many will say it is not their concern. A carbon tax should capture these fossil fuel external impacts, but as public opposition in Australia shows, implementing a carbon tax is not a cake walk.

Publicly funded government research institutes, such as the Department of Energy Sandia and Lawrence Livermore laboratories are probably not high on the list for collaboration venues. Unwarranted collaboration is one ticket for scientists to be charged with improper handling of classified information, such as what happened in the case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, who was eventually cleared by the courts. Anything is possible of course. Nixon did fly to China in the seventies for his pingpong diplomacy, but surprises like that are either fodder for films or novels. If it happens, it happens, but don’t count on secret American or Chinese government labs suddenly ushering in a new spirit of cooperation.

Nevertheless, research however in public and private universities like Tsinghua and Dartmouth should be strengthened. Jointly authored journal papers in technology areas like solar, wind, hydro, biomass, energy efficiency and other energy topics are probably the most basic way of encouraging some type of collaboration. The exchange of scientific ideas should be unfettered in order to march forward – a brilliant and breakthrough idea can now come from anywhere in the world. For example, the efficiency of polysilicon based solar photovoltaic panels are now hovering just above the 20% range. Breakthroughs in making solar photovoltaics more efficient, such as combining photovoltaic technology with the Seebeck effect on the same wafer, are possible areas that scientists can collaborate on.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ethankan/263721136/

Standards are another area of collaboration. In the semiconductor industry for example, many chip companies realized early in the ballgame that it does not make sense for wafer sizes to be different, as the resulting lack of standardized deposition tools will simply redound to unwarranted expense for all. So standards result in equipment and materials that can be marketed to different companies, resulting in cost savings across the entire sector. At the moment, the situation in the solar photovoltaic sector is that some companies still resort to custom built manufacturing equipment, which is basically what made the early days of the chip industry uncompetitive.

Then there is of course private company research, both in core technologies owned by the company and technologies that reside in its key suppliers. Microsoft, Intel and other Fortune 500 companies have their own R&D labs in China, employing Chinese scientists who work closely with their American counterparts. Collaborative research in this framework is determined to a large extent by corporate strategy, including access to markets. Collaboration within companies in the same sector, such as solar, will probably happen to a larger scale in the future in the same manner that American chip companies banded through the SEMATECH alliance to improve their competitiveness. However, there is a very low likelihood that this sort of cooperation will happen between the U.S. and China, except perhaps for a couple of non-core business and technology areas.

Related to this is the global supply chain for renewables. Some materials, like polysilicon, are important for the manufacture of solar panels. While the cost of this commodity item is driven by supply and demand, and made efficient by the many decades it has been there and by the number of companies who use it, nevertheless any opportunity to lessen its cost should be examined, if at all this is still a concern. Having reliable strategic suppliers to the wind and solar sector, or a framework for developing these suppliers, can be a good area for collaboration.

Manufacturing research, both in the U.S. and China, need to be coordinated – if not shared. While asking for sharing may be difficult as there are intellectual property issues to contend with, a certain framework that allows different creative minds to dance to the same tune will always be helpful. For example, manufacturing cost savings developed by Chinese manufacturers will not help if new American technologies will not be manufacturable using those new technologies. Again, having industry standards that companies actually comply with is key.

Access to markets, in order for renewable energy companies to grow, is important. No one will pay a corporate research scientist any money to do research if there is no business. Therefore, one area of collaboration for both China and the U.S. is unfettered access to markets. This is easier said than done of course – the new U.S. tariffs on Chinese wind turbines, and earlier on solar panels, undermines access to markets.

Finally, there should be common support for the Green Fund by both the U.S. and China. Most of this Fund will be used to pay for capital expenditures in renewable technologies like wind, solar and others. By having this money available, it can jumpstart a market that will signal to renewable energy companies, be it in China or the U.S., that the slack from the slowdown in Carbon Development Mechanism (CDM or “carbon credit”) funds will be taken over by the Green Fund. Once economies of scale have taken over – with demand for renewables coming from many parts of the globe, the current opposition to renewables determined mostly by its current cost should go away, and ensure healthy growth for all renewable energy sectors such as solar and wind in the years to come.

Dennis Posadas is an international fellow (based in the Philippines) of the Climate Institute Center for Environment Leadership Training (CELT) and a former engineer/analyst for a leading U.S. semiconductor firm. He is also the author of Jump Start: A Technopreneurship Fable (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009) and Rice & Chips: Technopreneurship and Innovation in Asia (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007)

Ever since the 2008 global food crisis put agriculture back in the spotlight, the international development community seems to have zeroed in on three key themes—smallholder farmers, higher investment in agriculture, and increasing productivity.

Hardly is this approach more evident than Pepsi Co.’s involvement in chickpea production in Ethiopia, a project focused on increasing chickpea yields and helping smallholders get access to markets.

“What’s exciting about this is that in order to manufacture the product, they will buy from smallholders,” said Ertharin Cousin, the U.S. ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture agencies in Rome.

“In those same places you have jobs being created that are off farm jobs that exist for unskilled labor that was previously unemployed. Those are the kinds of collective partnerships that smallholders benefit from and that the private sector helps drive.”

Yet if the Pepsi project is evidence of the increased attention to African agriculture, it also points to a fundamental problem: multinational corporations are able to legitimize their role in agricultural development by devoting their resources to boosting smallholders’ yields. But all this really does is perpetuate the myth that increasing yields will reduce hunger.

In fact, it is the large seed and agrochemical companies that benefit from the narrative that higher yields will solve world hunger—precisely because they can use that narrative to justify their highly technical approaches. These actors are able to gain acceptance by framing their initiatives as “development,” which inherently becomes associated with “goodwill” and “compassion.”

Yet despite the huge gains in productivity throughout the 20th century, there are nearly one billion hungry people in the world today—stark evidence that enhancing yields and ending hunger are not so closely correlated.

To me, this suggests the need for a fundamentally different vision for global agriculture. Most important, food systems must center on the multi-functionality of agriculture: nutrition objectives, rural livelihoods, climate change mitigation, and adaptation.

This vision was precisely emphasized by the International Assessment of Agriculture Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) — considered the most comprehensive review of the current global agriculture situation. Altogether, IAASTD represents a stark rebuttal to the highly reductionist approaches that assume yields to be the sole factor in improving food security.

However, the U.S. government refused to endorse IAASTD, largely, I suspect, on the basis that the strategies embraced by IAASTD may pose a threat to U.S. economic interests—namely the large seed and agrochemical companies that the U.S. government believes should be beneficiaries of U.S. international development policies.

Thus the U.S. government’s failure to endorse IAASTD essentially says something more broadly about agricultural development: corporations’ agricultural approaches are incompatible with the equitable model of agriculture espoused by IAASTD.

The agricultural transformation needed today should be anchored by “food sovereignty”—the idea that local communities have control over their markets, their farming practices, and their nutritional adequacy. Locally-led agricultural innovations—relying on agro-ecology—should be at the forefront, rather than the technical approaches often propagated by multinationa corporations and the U.S. government. Beyond their inherent environmental sustainability, these local knowledge-based practices are more socially inclusive and pro-poor, in the sense that farmers aren’t dependent on external inputs. One recent effort to spotlight such small farmer-centered food systems can be seen in the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet Project, focused on sun-Saharan Africa.

“Part of my job with Nourishing the Planet has been to highlight the things that funders and donors don’t know about—the innovations that farmer organizations without fancy websites are doing to prevent soil erosion in Mali, the work being done by Prolinnova in Ethiopia to make sure water gets to crops, the market garden projects in Niger that have helped women boost their incomes from $300 per year to more than $1,500,” Danielle Nierenberg, co-director of the project, told me. “These innovations are overlooked and they have a lot of potential to be replicated and scaled up all over Africa and beyond into Asia, Latin America, and even the United States.”

The challenge now is to redirect agricultural investment away from merely increasing yields and toward the IAASTD report’s idea that agriculture has a wide array of objectives.

“One of the biggest things I learned is that agriculture and farmers are often blamed for things [such as] deforestation and climate change,” Nierenberg said. “I think we’re seeing this shift that agriculture is emerging as a solution to the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges.”

The shift toward more pro-poor agriculture requires a fundamental rethinking of the neoliberal free market agenda that for decades has dominated the global food system. The result is that food systems are in some cases tailored more toward commodity production than toward guaranteeing food as a human right (this explains why some communities in Africa may export cocoa when they themselves are food insecure). Free market advocates assume that income generation will enable Africans to purchase food produced anywhere, and largely neglect the importance of food self-sufficiency. The fallacy inherent in this ideology came into sharp relief when the 2008 food price spike triggered riots in over 30 countries.

Indeed, the overemphasis on free market agriculture was embedded in European powers’ colonial structures in Africa, according to Macalester College geography professor Bill Moseley.

“The colonial powers in a sense changed local economies from ones largely based on subsistence or engaged in local regional trade, to ones that move away from subsistence production and start producing crops useful to the core powers,” Moseley said. “Related to this was the notion that colonies should be not a burden on imperial powers but be generating enough revenue to be self-sustaining. There was a big push for them to be more export-oriented.”

It appears that African countries’ subordination to Western powers, however, didn’t necessarily come to an end despite the dawn of independence. In response to the debt crisis plaguing many African countries in the 1980s, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund implemented structural adjustment programs, forcing African governments to slash their investments in the agriculture sector. “In theory governments had a choice, but if you wanted any access to international credit you had to adhere to this set of reforms—cutting back on government civil service, cuts to social services, and freer trade,” Moseley said.

The pitfalls of the structural adjustment programs have been acknowledged even by the World Bank itself. But at the same time, the ability for corporations such as Pepsi to legitimize their role in agricultural development suggests that the free market agenda underlying structural adjustment is still very much prevalent today.

That’s why we have to embrace a type of agriculture that suits the needs of the world’s poorest. This movement is going to have be bottom-up, led by African smallholder farmers who push their governments to make food a human right.

In August 2011 FarmPlate.com launched in Hanover, NH with the goal of creating an online sustainable foods community. Founder Kim Werner tells the Dartmouth Business Journal about the challenges and successes of starting a business to connect small town farmers, big city foodies, and everyone in between, across the US.  

Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): First, could you briefly explain what FarmPlate does?

Kim Werner (KW): FarmPlate.com is an online community and resource targeting consumers, businesses and organizations who want to find and support sustainable foods businesses. Our mission, ultimately, is to spur the growth of the sustainable foods marketplace by making it fun and easy for consumers to find and enjoy real foods. We launched on August 31, 2011, with the most comprehensive database of real food enterprises nationwide. We have more than 30,000 listings of farmers, fishermen, food artisans, restaurants, markets and organizations from Maine to Pennsylvania as well as California, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. There are two primary components of the first release of the website: 1) Find real food producers as well as restaurants and markets that source sustainably— for example local cheesemakers and breweries, a sustainable fisherman who can ship line-caught products to your door, a restaurant that is committed to serving only foods with traceable sources, CSA options near you, a market where you can buy your favorite baker’s bread, and much more. 2) Explore a business’s food web to see where to buy and eat a particular producer’s products, and to see where a restaurant or market sources from.

DBJ: Why did you decide to found FarmPlate?

KM: Food has been more than a necessity throughout my life. My family traveled extensively when I was young, and our trips inevitably were focused around the foods of the cultures we were immersed in. From this, I developed a lifelong love of cooking, and in my previous professional incarnation was a cookbook editor. (I “retired” on the Joy of Cooking in the late ’90s.) When our first daughter was born, I wanted more than ever to have easy access to wholesome food fresh from the source. I spent hours googling nearby farmers’ markets, farms where we could purchase a side of beef and winter CSAs. What I found were pieces of the larger puzzle I was trying to put together. From this I decided to find a way to bring together all of this information into a single source and use technology to build a powerful and efficient community platform for sustainable foods.

DBJ: What have the biggest obstacles been in starting a sustainable foods business?

KM: There are many obstacles to starting a business in general! And if I had to choose a “space” to be in, it would be the sustainable/green business sector because one of the end-goals is to have a positive impact on society. But I would say perhaps the biggest potential obstacle, and one that can halt a start-up in its tracks, is that there is an absolute requirement to be able to do more than anyone thinks is possible with fewer human capital and financial resources than imaginable. It also requires that you are 100% prepared to give up your life as you know it. I love challenges so I have been fueled by this over the years, but it is certainly just that, challenging!

DBJ: How do you think the environment for a green business, or a sustainable food business in particular, has changed since the idea for FarmPlate was first conceived?

KW: It has vastly improved. It is an underestimate to say green businesses are a trending topic, as this is a sector that is here for the long-run. Sustainable food businesses in particular are positioned to thrive, thanks in part to the press as well as the growing environmental movement, which is spurred by a real and immediate need to re-examine how we are co-existing within our world today.

DBJ: Why did you decide to base FarmPlate in Hanover?

KM: Purely a lifestyle decision. We have deep roots in Vermont, but selected Hanover as a great place to raise a family and be surrounded by great arts, great educational opportunities and the great outdoors!

DBJ: You mentioned that FarmPlate features over 30,000 businesses    – how have you found most of the businesses listed on your site? What kind of standards must businesses meet in order to be listed in FarmPlates’s database?

KW: We have a wonderful crew across the country that screens and loads businesses into the FarmPlate database. They find the businesses by researching both online and in the field, and we collect the information from original sources, whether it’s a business’s database, Facebook page or the result of an in-person visit. We have a handbook detailing suggested criteria a business should meet in order to be listed on FarmPlate. Criteria ranges from “sources locally” to “sells direct to the consumer” to “farms the land in a sustainable manner” and so on. We err on the side of inclusion, however, as we want to help businesses expand their commitment to sustainable products, and not screen them out because they are not doing enough along these lines to warrant a listing. We’re here to help!

DBJ: How popular has the profile upgrade option been? (In which business owners pay $195/year to manage their own FarmPlate profile.) How viable is the profile upgrade option for small businesses?

KW: We have had a tremendously positive response to the upgrade option. We are offering a cost-effective way for businesses to build a website if they do not currently have a web presence (less than $4/week), and for the many businesses that do, FarmPlate is an easy, effective way to reinforce their online presence and current marketing efforts, as well as to reach a highly targeted customer base.

DBJ: How have people responded so far to what FarmPlate is doing?

KW: Frankly, we have not actively promoted our launch yet. ,We are focusing now on the great feedback we are getting from our early adopters, but we are thrilled by the organic search traffic we have begun to generate. We also have been very excited about the number of listing suggestions submitted by both businesses and consumers who want to be sure their favorite businesses are listed on FarmPlate. We look forward to 2012 when we will be more actively promoting the website.

DBJ: How do you compete with other sites offering reviews for local restaurants or sustainable food sources?

KW: Our community is highly targeted, and we see it as a destination site for foodies and sustainable food businesses trying to connect with like-minded consumers and businesses.

DBJ: What do you see as the next steps for FarmPlate?

KW: We are going to continue to build our database aggressively to deliver on our promise of a comprehensive nationwide resource. We will also be integrating more communication and social tools to further develop the community features. And we are looking forward to learning more from our audience so we can continue to grow the website according to the needs and wants of the very community we are here to serve.

 

 

The economic crisis has caused many companies to reevaluate their business practices in order to cut unnecessary expenditures. Pursuing sustainability and green business practices in the workplace has become an important focus in the drive for increased efficiency. In order to understand the developing merge between the corporate sphere and the environmental sphere, the Dartmouth Business Journal interviewed four very diverse, yet equally insightful experts and asked them to share their opinions on corporate sustainability.

Steven Chu | Secretary of Energy, US Department of Energy 

Steven Chu, current US Secretary of Energy under President Obama, has been instrumental in directing the US government to invest in clean energy and address the global climate crisis. With a double major from the University of Rochester and a PhD from UC Berkeley, he went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. As Secretary of Energy, his current endeavors are focused on research and development of biofuels in order to reduce US carbon emissions.

Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): How can US business leaders implement sustainable practices in the corporate sector?

Steven Chu (SC): I think that green corporate behavior pays off in the long run. There are some companies that pursue sustainability genuinely, but there are many that only want to appear as though they do. Skilled and visionary leadership at the executive level is incredibly important in carving a successful approach to sustainability. Not only do shareholders prefer to invest in companies implementing green practices, these companies enjoy greater profits due to increased efficiency. If business leaders want to stay competitive in the rapidly evolving economy, they need to be ready to look forward and  face the challenge to run their companies sustainably head-on.

DBJ: Are companies that promote their sustainable practices at risk of intellectual property infringement by foreign competitors?

SC: This is a problem that we were very wary of; similar practices have been carried out by other nations regarding high-speed rail, coal, and now, nuclear energy, where they examine the systems that we have and think of how to improve. In terms of developments, a gap between China and the United States is quickly growing as it’s now become one of the top five patent producers in the world. However, it all comes down to the behavior of a country’s researchers. Some researchers prefer to remain secretive about their work, and others, who are excited and willing to share their work, collaborate to reach success more quickly. In my experience, the latter has been routinely more useful in creating change and progressing in this race for clean energy. Sure, there are chances that you will be ripped off and copied, but those are sometimes the risks you have to take to make a greater impact in the field.

Durwood Zaelke | President & Founder, Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development

In addition to his work at the Institute or Governance and Sustainable Development, Durwood Zaelke is the Director of the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement. In 2008, he was given the award of “Champion for Protection of Climate” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He currently teaches at American University Washington College of Law where he is the Director of International and Comparative Environmental Law. He has performed extensive research on fast action mitigation responses to climate change as well as on resolution for trade and environment conflicts.

DBJ: If efficient management and sustainability are connected, why do some profit-maximizing businesses degrade the environment?

Durwood Zaelke (DZ): Short term profit usually overwhelms sustainability, unless governments change the incentives, through regulatory mechanisms, best practices, capacity building, training, funding or other financial incentives.

DBJ: Does sustainability always make good business sense?

DZ: Some sustainability strategies provide high rates of return in the short term and are easier to convince managers to follow. However, even where you can make money with a sustainability strategy, you have to first get the attention of management, and then get the initial resources to get the strategy in place. Most managers are already busy and not looking for new work. The bottom line is that governance really matters. Some governance can be internal, but government-provided governance can truly change corporate culture.

DBJ: What steps can the future business leaders of America take to implement sustainable practices in corporate sector?

DZ: Future business leaders need to be futurists, who see the major forces affecting global business, including climate change, which will show its impacts in an increasingly powerful way in the coming years. It would be malpractice for a business leader not to educate him or herself about the impacts and risks of climate change, even if he or she doesn’t believe the science. Climate will affect water supplies, and food availability, Climate will affect the availability of other raw materials. A reasonable corporation should study, monitor, prepare, and progressively implement both a defensive plan to prepare for coming impacts, but also an offensive plan to start reducing the behavior that is causing climate change (whether in the form of emissions, sources, or sinks). There will be future liability for corporations that do not act in a reasonable way to mitigate and protect against climate change. This liability may be statutory, or it may be common law.

Todd Larsen | Corporate Responsibility Director, GreenAmerica

Todd Larsen oversees Green America’s efforts to encourage businesses to adopt greater social and environmental responsibility and to support socially and environmentally responsible public policies. Green America is the leading green economy organization in the US. Founded in 1982, this national membership organization works to harness economic power-the strength of consumers, investors, businesses, and the marketplace-to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society.

DBJ: Are sustainability and corporate social responsibility linked?

Todd Larsen (TL): At Green America, we consider sustainability to be core to a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR). We have a broad view of sustainability that encompasses both social justice and environmental responsibility, and we expect corporations to serve all of their stakeholders, including consumers and workers across their supply chain. Many corporations today focus on short-term profits at the expense of the environment, worker’s rights, and providing safe products and services. However, there is increasing evidence that sustainable companies that perform better on CSR measures have better long term financial performance. As a result, all stakeholders, including shareholders, would benefit from a company pursuing sustainability.

DBJ: Can a multinational company ever be fully sustainable?

TL: There really is no such thing as being fully sustainable. For all companies that want to pursue sustainability, it is a constant process of making improvements. There are no fixed goal posts for sustainability because as we learn more about environmental and social impacts, and how to reduce harmful practices and increase beneficial ones, the goals of sustainability keep advancing. That being said there are multinational companies whose very business models preclude sustainability, such as coal mining corporations. Other companies only somewhat pursue sustainability, such as WalMart, which improved its environmental standards but still relies on low-paid labor both in the US and abroad. In general, smaller companies have been more willing to pursue sustainability as a core component of their business model. Green America has strict social and environmental criteria for earning its Green Business Seal of Approval, and most of the companies that are able to earn our Seal are small. We do have some larger companies that have earned our Seal, including Clif Bar, Aveda, and Organic Valley, and these are companies that built sustainable practices into their business model from the start.

DBJ: How can business leaders implement sustainable practices?

TL: Most companies will only adopt sustainable practices if there are champions within the company that make the case for them. Even if a sustainable practice will save the company money over time and/or improve its brand image, a company may not adopt the sustainable practices due largely to inertia or fear of unintended consequences. Increasingly, younger business leaders are supporting sustainable practices, carefully demonstrating the benefits and addressing concerns of upper management, and, as a result, more and more companies are becoming more responsible. Also, many younger business people are starting their own business, making it sustainable from the ground up. At Green America, we have over 4,000 business members who consider sustainability a chief concern of their company. That number is only going to grow.

Joe Coleman ’11 | Public Relations Chair, Big Green Bus

Joe Coleman ’11 is pursuing a major in Environmental Studies with a concentration in chemistry and economics. He hails from Poway, California and has been a part of the Big Green Bus since Fall 2010. During his time at Dartmouth, he has volunteered at a clinic in Buenos Aires, Argentina and taught English and math to children in Yambiro, Ecuador. He is currently the President of the Class of 2011 and was a lab TA in chemistry and Presidential Scholar in organic chemistry in past years. This is his first summer with the Big Green Bus, and he is incredibly excited to spend his senior summer promoting environmental issues across the nation.

DBJ: Is this the first year that the BGB is planning to address corporate social responsibility specifically? How successful do you think your presentations will be?

Joe Coleman (JC): I’d say this is the first year that we have an emphasis on businesses. We are definitely planning on visiting some businesses. As of now, we are planning to visit Waste Management, Boloco, and LL Bean. I don’t anticipate that our presentations will directly influence these companies. I do, however, think that we will influence individuals. Through our presentations, website, and even the bus itself, I think we can raise general awareness and this will indirectly penetrate corporations in a grassroots manner. Overall, we plan to learn from our conversations with people along our trip, extend our knowledge, and spread the important messages. The bus will essentially serve as an educational classroom on wheels.

DBJ: What role do you think sustainability plays in corporate social responsibility?

JC: I think it is a critical element. Sustainabilityisasocialjusticeissue and I anticipate that the realm of corporate social responsibility will continue to grow in the future.

DBJ: Why should a company pursue CSR? What is the most important message the BGB wants to give businesses?

JC: I think it just makes practical business sense. A company can no longer focus on profit maximization in isolation. It’s not sustainable. Moreover, companies that are preemptively implementing sustainable initiatives can minimize their vulnerability to fluctuating energy prices, while also boosting their brand’s image.