California’s Solar Shift: Progress, and Some Challenges

This post was written by Ben Hastings ’18

Arguably, California is the country’s leader in climate action, with an ambitious goal of deriving 50 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2030. The state is on its way to achieving 33 percent by 2020 and just made a huge step toward making its goal a reality.

In 2 years, all new homes built in the state will be mandated to either have solar panels installed or be hooked up to shared solar panels that power a grouping of the new homes. New home buyers will have the option to purchase the panels outright where they are included in the price of the home or can be leased. The increasing amount of solar energy to be included in the energy mix is sure to help achieve the state’s aforementioned energy goals, but the requirement for new home owners to purchase rooftop solar has the potential to surface unintended consequences.

The requirement is expected to add $8,000 to $12,000 to the cost of a home. In a state where affordable housing is hard to come by, this mandate certainly would not help that issue. What about those who can’t afford solar?  It’s an interesting problem, as moving towards a renewable energy future is critical, but yet some will not be able to contribute to this shift. Companies like Tesla have acknowledged this issue and made it clear that they are working to make their products affordable for all but say that they must achieve adequate economies of scale before that dream can become a reality.

“…the requirement for new home owners to purchase rooftop solar has the potential to surface unintended consequences.”

Also, households that don’t have access to smart energy technology in the state could potentially be left in the dust once the new rate structure hits the state next year. Utilities will charge energy customers based on what time of day they use electricity, making it difficult for those without access to this information to know if they are using their electricity most efficiently. The energy supply does not equal demand at many points in the day, and those that have batteries, like the Tesla Powerwall, will be able to store energy until when it could be most effectively utilized. Until these technologies are affordable enough to become a part of more households, consumers may not be seeing the full savings possible from solar. Is now the time for a mandate such as this one, or should technologies that further enhance solar efficiently be developed further?

For further reading:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/business/energy-environment/california-solar-power.html

https://www.tesla.com/blog/master-plan-part-deux

Wishcycling: What Really Happens To The Stuff In The Blue Bin

This post was written by Sarah Healey ’18

What happened to that plastic bottle you threw in the recycling? Do you really have to rinse out that milk jug before putting it into the recycling? A little left-over yogurt doesn’t make a difference? Can you recycle plastic bags?

If you are like a lot of people you probably don’t, and you hope or wish that the items you put in the bin get recycled. But this “wishcycling” can actually do more harm than just throwing contaminated or non-recyclable items away. On a recent site visit to Casella Waste Systems‘ Charlestown recycling facility in Massachusetts, I learned a lot about what happens to products after they go into the blue bin.

At the recycling facility we visited, contamination was visible throughout our entire tour. Film plastic bags clogged the machines, small items fell through the cracks, and foreign metal objects damaged equipment. All of these items are not allowed in the zero sort recycling bins, but still manage to find their way in and wreak havoc.

During our tour of the recycling facility we learned more about the challenges that recycling facilities face. One of the major challenges is food contamination in the recycling stream. This can range from unwashed containers to cans still full of food. This has a massive impact on a recycling facility because items are sorted using all sorts of gadgets. To sort plastics the facility uses optic readers that read the type of plastic and send out puff of air to sort plastic. Other parts of the facility use things like magnets to sort material. Because so much of this system is automated and is carefully calibrated to deal with clean materials contaminated items don’t make it through the system.

When non-recyclable items don’t make it through the system they are sent to the landfill or to an incinerator. This includes all of those small plastics, random pieces of metal, plastic bags, and more. This is why it is really important to check with your local recycler to see what products they take in the blue bin and which have special instructions.

The trouble with recycling doesn’t stop at the facility though. The bundles produced by recycling facilities still have some level of contamination. The largest buyer of recycling was China, but they have closed their doors to recycling with contamination levels above 0.5%, which is beyond the technological capability of any recycling facility today.

Ecosystem Services: The Unsung Hero of the Natural World

This post was written by Robert Hacker ’18

Do you ever find yourself enjoying a glass of water, a meal, or maybe even breathing fresh air?

If you answered yes to any of the three activities above, then you may want to thank ecosystem services.

A service is the action of helping or doing work for someone.

An ecosystem is a community of interacting organisms and their environment.

Therefore, an ecosystem service can be described as a community of interacting organisms and their environment that helps to get work done. There are four categories of ecosystem services which are provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services.

I will begin by explaining provisioning services. These services provide a benefit that humans extract from nature such as water, timber, fossil fuels, food and medicine. All of the provisioning services are essential for the survival of human populations and will see negative impacts as a result of climate change.

Next, regulating services provide benefits as a result of an ecosystem process that moderates a natural phenomenon. Some examples are water filtration/purification, pollination, decomposition and carbon storage. Humans have been altering the rates at which these ecosystems are able to operate, therefore increasing the rate of climate change and natural resource depletion.

Third, cultural services are non-material benefits that contribute to the development of people. Some examples include nature-based art, tourism, and recreation. Many indigenous communities have lost these services due to environmental degradation, or development of their once sacred land. Also threatened are many of the outdoor activities all people enjoy such as hiking, swimming or even skiing!

The final type of ecosystem services is supporting services and are classified as a benefit from an ecosystem process that moderates a natural phenomenon. These are arguably the most important because all life could not survive with-out them. Supporting services include photosynthesis, nutrient cycling and soil formation. The second two along with many other services have been altered and degraded since the industrial revolution.

All of these types of services are essential to the survival of human life as we currently know it. Climate change poses a threat to these important services that humans and all other species depend on. We need to begin to take care of our home, Earth!

Lessons and Insights from the Climate Cap Summit

This post was written by Shari Siegel ’18

Four members of The Sustainable Innovation MBA Class of 2018 — Ian Dechow, Andria Denome, Kaitlin Sampson and Shari Siegel — recently headed south to attend the inaugural Climate Cap Summit at Duke University. The Summit was a chance for our travelers to listen to and exchange views with professional investors, bankers, scientists, financial strategists and advisors, corporate executives, academics and MBA students from other schools on a variety of business, finance, political, and social issues related to climate change and other sustainability challenges.

The program opened with a keynote presentation by Scott Jacobs, co-founder of Generate Capital, and a conversation between Jacobs and Greg Dalton from Climate One.  Jacobs posited that the challenge of “clean tech” is not so much about invention as it is about infrastructure: energy, land, water, food and clean air are critical and are made available through infrastructure, which requires substantial capital up-front. Thus, while there are hundreds of infrastructure projects that it might be in economic actors’ rational self-interest to pursue, it is often difficult to get these projects funded.

For the owners/developers of the technology, the “Silicon Valley” funding model (a small investment in a small, early stage company with the potential for rapid growth at exponential returns) does not fit: these companies have proven (potentially improved) technology that requires substantial investment that will yield long-term steady, but not exponential returns. For the potential clean tech customers, investing in a large capital project with substantial up-front costs that turn what was an operating expense into a capital expenditure is a difficult decision to make, especially in the current capital markets environment where there is so much focus on short-term results rather than long-term sustainability.

The solution proposed by Jacobs and his co-founder at Generate, Jigar Shah, is to provide “infrastructure as a service” using project finance structures under which independent developers build and operate infrastructure owned by a special purpose company financed by Generate. It is, in many ways, a macro version of successful strategies studied by students in The Sustainable Innovation MBA in connection with bringing solar power, mobile phone service, and other technology to the base of the pyramid.

The opening discussion was followed by a discussion between Truman Semans, founder and chief executive officer of Element Strategies and Matt Arnold, global head of Sustainable Finance at JPMorgan Chase regarding environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) investing, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) and risk management.

Attracting private investment in projects related to the SDGs requires reducing risk for the providers of capital. Among the strategies to further risk reduction is better (more transparent and standardized) disclosure relating to ESG matters.  The speakers noted the ESG disclosure scores promulgated by Bloomberg.  Another risk-reduction strategy is the one put forward in the Blended Finance, Better World discussion paper released for discussion by the World Economic Forum in 2017.[1]  It proposes using multilateral development banks to provide public money which can attract investment of private capital into major infrastructure projects in the developing world to meet the SDGs. Estimates are that investment of approximately US$6 trillion is needed annually to meet the SDGs.

Later panels returned to the subject of assessing ESG factors as part of fundamental long-term risk management.  While in the early days of ESG investing, such a strategy was thought to reflect a willingness to eschew higher returns in exchange for desired impacts, it is becoming increasingly clear that investors ignore environmental, social and governance aspects of a company’s operations at their peril and incorporating ESG factors into an investment strategy likely leads to better long-term performance.  As Ron Temple, head of US Equities and co-head of Multi-Asset Investing at Lazard Asset Management, said, it is “simply irresponsible” not to look at ESG factors in evaluating risk.

Elizabeth Lewis of Terra Alpha Investments, Mark McDivitt of State Street Corporation and Kate Gordon of the Paulson Institute agreed, particularly when talking about climate change. According to the 2017 Global Risks Report published by the World Economic Forum, extreme weather events and natural disasters are two of the top 5 global risks in terms of likelihood to occur and impact; water crises and failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation are also in the top 5 global risks in terms of impact.[2]  The key to talking about business and climate change is to understand the pricing of climate change risk.

Fundamental risk and opportunity presented by ESG factors, especially those relating to climate destabilization, was hammered home again in a later presentation by Tiiram Sunderland of Bain & Co, who noted that climate change represents the biggest issue affecting business today.  He also noted that unless sustainability is embedded in the core of a business school’s curriculum, the school is failing its students. 

This last point was, of course, happily endorsed by The Sustainable Innovation MBA students.

[1]           See https://www.weforum.org/reports/blended-finance-toolkit.

[2]           See http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2017/

Four Clever Ways Packaging Changes Can Help Companies Can Reduce Their Carbon Footprint

This post was written by Kathrin Kaiser ’18

Sixty-three pounds of plastic, per person, ends up in landfills in the United States. An increased consumer demand for sustainability and the amount of waste coming from disposing packaging makes companies re-think their packaging. They start to incorporate new, sustainable materials and construction methods into their packaging to reduce their impact on the planet. Here’s four clever ideas for companies to reduce their carbon footprint by changing their packaging:

  • Reducing the ink in company logos

Big brands like McDonald’s or Starbucks might be able to save millions of dollars every year and help preserve the planet just by slightly changing their logos. “Ecobranding” is a project by Sylvain Boyer, a French graphic designer, where he demonstrates the impact of this slight change. A simplified version of the logos could save companies 10-39% in ink and result in additional secondary benefits, such as reduced printing costs and a cut in energy consumption.

  • Arekapak

That certain uses of plastic are “evil” is no longer news, not only to environmentalists but also to large corporations. But just banning plastic bags at the register might not be good enough – vegetables and fruits are often shrink-wrapped in plastic, causing tons of landfill. Especially the food industry could benefit from the idea of two female innovators: Arekapak. It is a food packaging alternative, made out of palm leafs and produced with very few water and completely without chemicals. The product is also compostable, heat- and cold-resistant and has a water-resistant surface. And like that wasn’t enough good news, Arekapak packaging serves as a dinner plate, too.

  • Edible Packaging

What if you could eat the packaging off your food instead of sending it to a thousand years of landfill doom? An Indonesia-based start-up called Evoware has developed just that. Evoware is a biodegradable, dissolvable, edible packaging wrap made out of seaweed (which is also packed with vitamins!). The company plans to create several variations of the product for instant coffee, sugar and seasonings – the packaging can then just be dumped into the hot water and dissolves. Another upside is that this product could help seaweed farmers raising their revenue and do something good for the environment: seaweed absorbs a great deal of the carbon dioxide in the sea!

  • Just eliminate packaging completely

“Original Unverpackt” (“original unpacked”) is a Berlin-based supermarket that works without food packaging. Customers just bring their own containers and have those weighed – they only take what they need and the weight of the containers is being subtracted at the register. The entrepreneurial founder- duo wants to reply to the rising demand for more sustainable products and services and alternatives to the “lavish” handling of resources. Similar concepts exist in Austin, Texas (In.Gredients) and London (Unpackaged). Furthermore, Original Unverpackt hopes to make organic food more affordable for people with lower incomes because of the removal of packaging.

“The bloodless logic of the marketplace…”

This article from Politico Magazine highlights how the things we should be doing from an environmental and climate change point of view are becoming more economical (although unevenly), and that it’s the quiet power of economics and business that are driving change rather than politics and public policy alone.

This is a core belief behind The Sustainable Innovation MBA: capitalism, disrupted and reinvented, is a force — along with many others — to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. We must develop a new generation of business leaders who will build, innovate, disrupt, and reinvent climate change-focused enterprises in a world that demands it. In other words, UVM’s Sustainable Innovation MBA is part of the solution and is more important than ever and its graduates increasingly more vital to sustainable businesses.

As they say, read the whole thing:

My Life In The Elusive Green Economy

 

(illustration: Politico)

Yes, VECAN: Exploring Local Climate Solutions

This post was written by Henry Rabinowitz ’18

I had the chance to attend the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network (VECAN) conference December 2 along with fellow Sustainable Innovation MBA candidate Sam Carey. The event, which has been held annually for the last ten years at the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee, VT, offered a chance to meet and network with an eclectic group of activists, energy committee members, state employees, and business people, who are all working to solve the problem of climate change on a practical, local level here in Vermont.

A large portion of the conference’s attendees were people serving on local energy committees — people looking for ways to identify action plans for their towns and communities to implement specific environmentally minded policies and improvements.

In the first session, I attended a panel on engaging low income communities with climate solutions, where representatives of three organizations promoting building and home weatherization and efficiency improvements presented their activities. After lunch, I went to a workshop focused on bringing together green energy and agriculture. Three representatives of the Vermont Agency for Agriculture Food & Markets presented on a variety of techniques for farmers to improve their energy efficiency, from installation of mixed use solar (where animals can graze alongside or under solar panels) and pollinator friendly solar installations (where a variety of native grasses and plants are included in a solar project) to biomass energy projects like large scale methane digesters and high-efficiency wood pellet and chip burning furnaces to replace oil heat in structures of varying size.

In my opinion, the most transformational element of the day’s activities was the keynote by former EPA head Gina McCarthy, who was impassioned, extraordinarily knowledgeable and, frankly hilarious—if you haven’t had a chance to hear her speak, I highly recommend finding one of her speeches online.

The day was a reminder to me of just how engaged Vermonters are with climate change, and how excited people you encounter here every day are about the opportunities that come with the challenges it brings.

Photo credit: VECAN

Knowing Your Impact: Food Waste

This post was written by Sarah Healey ’18

The Net Impact Graduate Chapter at the University of Vermont is designed to supplement learning experiences for students in the Sustainable Innovation MBA program. For our first event of the year a number of chapter members took a field trip to the Green Mountain Compost Facility in Williston, Vt..

At the facility we got a lesson and a tour from Robin Orr, the Events and Hospitality Outreach Coordinator for the Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD).

How much are we throwing away?
Every year Vermonters send 4,000 truckloads of trash to the only landfill in the state. Approximately half of this trash is actually trash. The other half consists of items that could have been diverted either to a recycling facility or a compost facility.

Continue reading “Knowing Your Impact: Food Waste”

The Cape Wind Project: The Importance of Strategic Messaging

A student team in The Sustainable Innovation MBA Class of 2018 conducted this speculative case analysis in their “Sustainable Brand Marketing” course for the ill-fated Cape Wind offshore wind farm in Cape Cod, Mass. The team consisted of Julia Barnes, Taylor Mikell, Julia Lyon, and Randy Baron. This article was primarily written and adapted for the Review by Ms. Barnes.

The case study is a lesson in what can happen when one loses control of the narrative surrounding a controversial project and fails to invest strategically in stewarding innovation through the gauntlet of implementation. This is what can happen when strategic messaging is undervalued – the first offshore wind farm in America stalled in 2015 and is considered dead.

Jim Gordon, a Boston entrepreneur who made his fortune in energy, conceived of the Cape Wind offshore wind farm as the next step in his mission to provide efficient and environmentally sound energy. After all, wind power had already proved successful in Europe and the technology was becoming more sophisticated every year. The cost of successful wind power generation in countries like Denmark and Germany was even as low as $.04 per KW hour. Gordon had also identified an attractive location – Horseshoe Shoal, off the coast of Hyannis Port, Mass. where a 130-turbine farm could theoretically make an extremely significant dent in the use of fossil fuel for residents of Cape Cod. With depth and wave conditions that made construction of these huge turbines feasible, Gordon was looking at an investment of over a billion dollars to see his dream of offshore wind energy come to life.

However, he faced a number of issues in executing the Cape Wind vision. First, Gordon immediately ran into extreme and well-funded opposition from rich property owners along the coast who did not want to see their ocean view marred by wind turbines. People from the Koch Brothers to Bunny Mellon to Walter Cronkite joined forces behind the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound (APNS): a NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) group flush with cash and influence who set out to discredit Gordon and undercut the validity of the Cape Wind project. Second, Cape Wind faced prominent political opposition. The influence and connections of the APNS board members wreaked havoc for Cape Wind’s political standing and extensive lobbying efforts damaged the progress of what would have otherwise been a highly embraced endeavor. Finally, Cape Wind was an expensive undertaking – one whose fluctuations in cost had significant impact on its timeline.

Problem Analysis: Well-funded NIMBYism – The coast of Massachusetts along Nantucket Sound is home to many extremely wealthy and influential residents. Exhibit 8 shows the span of wealth that runs from Oyster Harbor to the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis. These multi million-dollar views would be impacted by the construction of Cape Wind. The obstruction was enough to have them form APNS and arm it with millions of dollars in funds, high-powered lobbying efforts, and a massive public relations campaign to discredit and destroy Cape Wind. As APNS alleged, Cape Wind would negatively impact commercial and recreational boating, impair fishing, harm tourism, kill bird populations and upset the Cape’s tax base with property value decline. While citing factually based evidence to the contrary, Gordon also answered these claims with impact studies and the support of Clean Power Now, a pro-wind, grassroots community group with pennies compared to APNS. APNS was skilled in enlisting Chambers of Commerce, town government, fishermen, lobstermen and boaters to their cause – a middle-class demographic that had little in common with the rich individuals behind the AstroTurf movement.

Continue reading “The Cape Wind Project: The Importance of Strategic Messaging”

Vermont Business Accelerator Launched for Climate Change-Focused Entrepreneurs

A new business accelerator program, aimed at supporting entrepreneurs and startups focused on technology, services, and products addressing climate change challenges — particularly in the area of energy — has been launched in Vermont following the recent national Catalysts of the Climate Economy Summit held here in early September.

Accel-VT is inviting startup or seed stage ventures from across North America interested in solving one of the most pressing electric grid issues facing the U.S.—integration of distributed renewable energy, efficiency, and storage technologies with the grid — to apply. Participants will be selected based on their ability to help solve the challenges related to the monitoring and control of distributed energy (e.g., storage, electric vehicles, solar, community scale wind, combined heat and power) to improve their value while providing safe, reliable, and affordable electric service to all customers.

“We’re building a cluster of climate innovation companies and we offer an entrepreneurial support system that includes access to business planning services, networks, and growth capital—in a state known for its high quality of life in an idyllic and recreational setting in the Green Mountains,” says Geoff Robertson of Accel-VT.

Read the full press release. Or, learn more about Accel-VT.