Saturday, August 27, 2011

350 Parts Per Million

  • 350 parts per million is what many scientists, climate experts, and progressive national governments established as the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere.
  • By now the planet has about 392 parts per million CO2 and this number is rising by about 2 parts per million every year.
As hurricane Irene roars up the eastern coast toward New York City with ferocious intensity, I wonder how much of that storm is due to our CO2 saturated atmosphere.

In light of the damning information above, I feel compelled to help in whatever ways possible to raise awareness around the contamination of the very air that sustains life on our planet. I have found a niche writing for the MN350 website under the 'Our Stories and Individual Stories' tabs. I invite you to read the stories and see what others are thinking and doing about climate change.

Recently, I interviewed Dustin Dennison, one of the owners of Applied Energy Innovations, and I have just posted his story, entitled THE BACK OF THE CAR IS ON FIRE! on this blog. Please take a moment to read it. He is an inspriation.

Be sure to show up on September 24th at the State Capitol. We don't have much time. We need laws to curb CO2 emissions now. We need to stop the building of the pipeline to ship oil from the tar sands. We need to protect rainforests and oceans and our dwindling water supply. We need to preserve the natural habitats of thousands of species that are going extinct every single day. Get involved with something that matters. You truly can make a difference.

The Back of the Car is on Fire!

My Interview with Dustin Dennison
Applied Energy Innovations

As I walk into the buzzing offices of Applied Energy Innovations it’s clear that if there is an economic slump, the folks at this company don’t know it, at least not now. It was a different story February of last year. “We were five industrial commercial tradesmen who had been hit hard. We had lost our jobs and were unemployed,” says Dustin, shaking his head. “All of us loved our work and had a passion for renewable resources and energy efficiency. We decided to form a company that would provide green jobs and services for the community.”

Now, seven months later, the whiteboard showing the projects in progress is littered with addresses all over the city. Dustin explained that the company covers three areas:
1) Electrical: solar installations, wind turbines, and lighting retrofits
2) Mechanical: energy efficient heating systems, rooftop HVAC units, air to air exchangers, heat pumps, geothermal, gas and plumbing services, and
3) Exterior General Construction: roofing, siding, and windows.

Since opening in February the company has hired 14 new employees working closely with the adult re-training programs through the Department of Labor, St. Paul College and Century College.

Thinking back to when he first realized there was a climate issue, Dustin recalls hearing conversations about air quality while he and his family lived in Denver. “It was 1994 to 2000 and there was a brown cloud over Denver. There were blue days and red days depending upon the levels of pollution.” That peaked Dustin’s awareness and when they moved to Minnesota he commuted in and out of downtown Minneapolis for work. Noticing the brown cloud hanging over the skyline he said to himself, “This is my hometown, the city where I choose to live and work and raise a family. What are we leaving the next generation?”  

To that end Dustin believes that we are a “forgetful society,” and that we need to “keep things on the radar.” For instance, he tells me “In Minnesota we import all of our raw materials to create energy. We are a state spending billions per year to bring energy to us. For that amount of dollars we should be producing and exporting our own energy and creating renewable jobs. There are thousands of miles of open rooftops,” says Dustin. “There could be solar installations everywhere and we could generate an additional 58 megawatts of electricity per year.” Right now there are so many wind turbines that the utility companies are moving quickly toward reaching their mandated standard of 25% renewable energy by 2025. “With rooftop solar installations,” visions Dustin, “we could carve out a niche another 10% above and beyond the mandate.”

In Dustin’s eyes, “Each solar install is a microcosm of events. People who install solar panels are leaders in their communities, in their neighborhoods, on their blocks. They are part of positive change,” he smiles. When asked about the cost to install solar for an average home in Minneapolis it appears that there are multiple incentives that can bring the cost from close to $20,000 down to approximately $5000 per home.  Part of that is a 30% credit on income taxes that can be exercised over 5 years. Xcel Energy has Solar Rewards that are funded every year but they tend to disappear very quickly. “We make all the applications for the available funds for each client,” says Dustin. “The toughest part for most people is the up front financing.”

Another issue that Dustin encounters as he talks to people concerns government subsidies for renewable energy. “People don’t want to have their tax dollars paying for their neighbor’s solar panel,” he comments as he leans back in his chair. “What they don’t realize is that big oil, with profits of hundreds of billions of dollars each quarter, is subsidizes by our government to the tune of $70 billion per year. That money goes to capping old oil wells, looking for new oil, and cleaning up messes. Renewable energy, on the other hand, is subsidized at about 12 billion per year.” With intensity he finishes, “Our role…our responsibility, is to have these conversations.”

Dustin and the staff at Applied Energy Incentives believe in the work of MN350. He says, “MN350 is the theory, and Applied Energy Incentives is implementing the theory. “When we take a 60% inefficient boiler and put in a 90% efficient one we are making a substantial reduction in carbon emissions over time. But,” he continues, “We have to continue to build political will and public awareness. The more oil spills in the oceans and rivers, the more nuclear plant disasters, the more we build these liabilities, the more we have the potential for catastrophic events. What happens globally affects all of us.” He pauses for a moment then says, “Think of it this way. If we take a road trip in a station wagon and the back of the car is on fire, are we going to worry about that? At what point do we pull over and address the problem?”


The MN350 rally at the State Capitol on September 24th will be entirely run on solar energy thanks to Applied Energy Innovations. This company is providing the equipment that will be powering 6 speakers, a sound system, a public address board, literally the entire audio system. Basically anything that requires electricity that day will be powered by the sun. What if the sun doesn’t shine? “No problem,” smiles Dustin, “there are batteries in our trailer that store the sun’s energy. We will pull it right from there.” 

Monday, July 25, 2011

New York Times Article: The Y Narrative

Captain Wayne Porter, US Navy, and Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby, US Marine Corps, both Special Assistants to the Chairman for Strategy to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen are weighing in on the environment.Writing under the shared pseudonym “Mr. Y.” they have published a paper called “A National Strategic Narrative”. Read the opening paragraphs below.
By Mr. Y
This Strategic Narrative is intended to frame our National policy decisions regarding investment, security, economic development, the environment, and engagement well into this century. It is built upon the premise that we must sustain our enduring national interests – prosperity and security – within a “strategic ecosystem,” at home and abroad; that in complexity and uncertainty, there are opportunities and hope, as well as challenges, risk, and threat. The primary approach this Strategic Narrative advocates to achieve sustainable prosperity and security, is through the application of credible influence and strength, the pursuit of fair competition, acknowledgement of interdependencies and converging interests, and adaptation to complex, dynamic systems – all bounded by our national values.

From Containment to Sustainment: Control to Credible Influence
For those who believe that hope is not a strategy, America must seem a strange contradiction of anachronistic values and enduring interests amidst a constantly changing global environment. America is a country conceived in liberty, founded on hope, and built upon the notion that anything is possible with enough hard work and imagination. Over time we have continued to learn and mature even as we strive to remain true to those values our founding fathers set forth in the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.
America’s national strategy in the second half of the last century was anchored in the belief that our global environment is a closed system to be controlled by mankind – through technology, power, and determination – to achieve security and prosperity. From that perspective, anything that challenged our national interests was perceived as a threat or a risk to be managed. For forty years our nation prospered and was kept secure through a strategy of relied on control, deterrence, and the conviction that given the choice, people the world over share our vision for a better tomorrow. America emerged from the Twentieth Century as the most powerful nation on earth. But we failed to recognize that dominance, like fossil fuel, is not a sustainable source of energy. The new century brought with it a reminder that the world, in fact, is a complex, open system – constantly changing. And change brings with it uncertainty. What we really failed to recognize, is that in uncertainty and change, there is opportunity and hope.

It is time for America to re-focus our national interests and principles through a long lens on the global environment of tomorrow. It is time to move beyond a strategy of containment to a strategy of sustainment (sustainability); from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement. We must recognize that security means more than defense, and sustaining security requires adaptation and evolution, the leverage of converging interests and interdependencies. To grow we must accept that competitors are not necessarily adversaries, and that a winner does not demand a loser. We must regain our credibility as a leader among peers, a beacon of hope, rather than an island fortress. It is only by balancing our interests with our principles that we can truly hope to sustain our growth as a nation and to restore our credibility as a world leader.
As we focus on the opportunities within our strategic environment, however, we must also address risk and threat. It is important to recognize that developing credible influence to pursue our enduring national interests in a sustainable manner requires strength with restraint, power with patience, deterrence with detente. The economic, diplomatic, educational, military, and commercial tools through which we foster that credibility must always be tempered and hardened by the values that define us as a people.

Our Values and Enduring National Interests
America was founded on the core values and principles enshrined in our Constitution and proven through war and peace. These values have served as both our anchor and our compass, at home and abroad, for more than two centuries. Our values define our national character, and they are our source of credibility and legitimacy in everything we do. Our values provide the bounds within which we pursue our enduring national interests. When these values are no longer sustainable, we have failed as a nation, because without our values, America has no credibility. As we continue to evolve, these values are reflected in a wider global application: tolerance for all cultures, races, and religions; global opportunity for self-fulfillment; human dignity and freedom from exploitation; justice with compassion and equality under internationally recognized rule of law; sovereignty without tyranny, with assured freedom of expression; and an environment for entrepreneurial freedom and global prosperity, with access to markets, plentiful water and arable soil, clean and abundant energy, and adequate health services.

From the earliest days of the Republic, America has depended on a vibrant free market and an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit to be the engines of our prosperity. Our strength as a world leader is largely derived from the central role we play in the global economy. Since the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944, the United States has been viewed as an anchor of global economic security and the U.S. dollar has served as an internationally recognized medium of exchange, the monetary standard. The American economy is the strongest in the world and likely to remain so well into the foreseeable future. Yet, while the dramatic acceleration of globalization over the last fifteen years has provided for the cultural, intellectual and social comingling among people on every continent, of every race, and of every ideology, it has also increased international economic interdependence and has made a narrowly domestic economic perspective an unattractive impossibility. Without growth and competition economies stagnate and wither, so sustaining America’s prosperity requires a healthy global economy. Prosperity at home and through global economic competition and development is then, one of America’s enduring national interests.

It follows logically that prosperity without security is unsustainable. Security is a state of mind, as much as it is a physical aspect of our environment. For Americans, security is very closely related to freedom, because security represents freedom from anxiety and external threat, freedom from disease and poverty, freedom from tyranny and oppression, freedom of expression but also freedom from hurtful ideologies, prejudice and violations of human rights. Security cannot be safeguarded by borders or natural barriers; freedom cannot be secured with locks or by force alone. In our complex, interdependent, and constantly changing global environment, security is not achievable for one nation or by one people alone; rather it must be recognized as a common interest among all peoples. Otherwise, security is not sustainable, and without it there can be no peace of mind.

Back to the Land Thirty Years Later...

When you think you have reached the wilderness, go 30 miles beyond. On the banks of Lake Imagination (a mowed hay field bordered by northern deciduous woodlands) Gwen and W Hall care for their 60 acres of paradise.

In 1981, concerned with the impending water shortage in the southwest, they quit their jobs with the Southern Pacific Railroad, sold their home and headed north. They were going “back to the land,” fully intending to purchase Gwen’s family farm in the middle of, yes, nowhere, and earn their living by growing and selling food. Now, 30 years later, they are still there but for different reasons.

“We love it here!” Gwen’s face glows with health and happiness. W, born and raised in Tucson, echoes her sentiments. With the exception of a few luxuries, like coffee and bananas, they grow and preserve their own food. Meat and eggs come from cousin Jane’s farm about 4 miles down the road. Wheat is purchased from the Farm Service Coop. They grind their own flour for whole wheat bread. Their home is a peaceful oasis in the midst of hundreds of acres of woods and prairie.
Rain barrels collect water from roof runoff to keep the gardens hydrated. A greenhouse extends the growing season by months. The tomato bushes look like small trees.

Mystified by the sheer numbers I asked, “W, why do you need so many tomatoes?” He looked at me with raised eyebrows, “Salsa!” He may live in Minnesota, but W’s salsa is wicked hot and most of the local Scandinavians simply wave a chip over the fumes and swear it still burns the tongue!

The Hall’s are part of a loose-knit community of neighbors who tend to stop by unannounced for coffee and are always ready to help if something breaks. And speaking of neighbors, they are not what you may expect. Among them is a psychiatric nurse, a pipefitter, an aeronautical engineer, a research scientist with her PhD, "and the families of farmers and loggers who have managed their land for generations," injects Gwen.

Perhaps this is a blueprint for our future. We don’t have to go to the wilderness, however. We can create community in our own neighborhoods. Gwen emphasized the importance of community. “You have to get to know your neighbors. People working as a group can accomplish so much more that one person who tries to do it all alone.”

That’s why MN350 is organizing Sept. 24th as a day when we come together as a group on the State Capitol grounds to let our lawmakers know that we mean business. We need to move beyond fossil fuels. We need to energize the planet with renewable resources and stop drawing on a dwindling supply of oil. We need to show them that we aren’t just one person…that we are many and we want change.

The southern exposure is a wall of glass for passive solar gain.

A screened breezeway is cool even on the steamiest days.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Your Planet Needs YOU!

             I remember a poster from a long time ago: Your Country Needs YOU! It was a picture of Uncle Sam with a long index finger pointing at...who, ME? Personally, I am not enticed by that image! We need something current, compelling, more indicative of the times, something that reflects the call to action that I experienced last night.
            Securing our bikes, my daughter and I entered a room buzzing with energy. Paul spotted us immediately and rushed over with generous welcoming hugs. (Paul Thompson is a climate change activist and the friendliest soul imaginable. We met him two nights ago at yoga and he already feels like family!) This was our introduction to Moving Planet and the people who are organizing the September 24th global event in Minnesota. In keeping with Minnesota tradition, it included a potluck dinner. But this potluck bore little resemblance to the traditional tuna casserole and jell-o variety!
            The program began and the well thought out approach to a huge undertaking was unveiled. Moving Planet (great name!) is a global day of action to get moving beyond fossil fuels and toward clean, green solutions for stabilizing our climate. The event will gather thousands of people at the state capitol on Sept. 24, and all are invited to join! The conversations moved back and forth discussing our dreams for the world and intersections with other issues. I was put in mind of the linked issues of our climate and our fuel use. As I listened to these men and women speak with passion and purpose about ways to get the attention of the decision-makers in this country, my heart filled with a joyful gratitude.
It was only a few months ago that I happened to read an article about peak oil in a magazine. Okay, it was a fashion magazine! I don’t usually read fashion magazines, but the article caught my attention and it was the only reading material available to me at that moment. Appalled at how little I knew about the subject, I began searching online for more information. I was unprepared for the dire severity of the facts I uncovered. Fueled by a little knowledge and starved for more, I began reading books, many books, to educate myself as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The more information I consumed the more incredulous I became. Why, I wondered, isn’t this THE topic of all conversations all of the time? So I began blogging about what I was reading and searching for connections with others who share my concerns.
That is why I was deeply moved tonight to be in that room of 50 or so people. The message was clear: all of us are needed to accomplish the task at hand on September 24. But our individual gifts and skills are even more essential to sustain the movement going forward. We can be a part of something that matters. Our planet needs us. We CAN get involved, all of us, and really make a difference!               

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Eating French double cream brie on my cracker followed by parmesan cheese imported from Italy sprinkled on my pasta, I am suddenly aware of the cost of the indulgent luxuries of my dinner. Not the cost to my wallet. These items are affordable, thanks to cheap fossil fuels that power the vehicles that bring them to me. It's the cost of being unconscious. Until recently I never paused a moment to think about where my food came from. Now I am slowly waking up. The impact of realization, when it strikes, often overwhelms me with guilt. I have become accustomed to luxury because it is available. My life has been privileged by virtue of living in the United States in the golden age of oil. I have been taught to consume, to use, to waste, to expect that there will always be plenty of everything.

Change is hard. Big change is very hard. What has to happen is big change. For me it happens one revelation at a time. Tonight the ah-ha was cheese. I was hungry for pasta, and I love parmesan on pasta. As I passed the brie I realized I was hungry for that, too. Yum. So I tossed them both in the cart and proceeded home to fix dinner. It wasn't until I had the two cheeses in front of me in the kitchen that I noticed...Italy...France. I envisioned the truck that picked up the cheese from the manufacturer and drove it to the airport, and the plane that flew it across the ocean to some central receiving location, and the truck that took it from there to the grocery store where it found its way into my cart. How much fuel did it require to satisfy my craving?

The good news is, I noticed. Now I can make a choice. Do I eat brie from France or do I seek local alternatives? Do I drive or do I bike. Do I send it down the disposal or do I compost? Do I grow food or simply consume it? The trick is to make the tough choices, the big changes, while they can still make a difference. There may not be a lot of time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy

Europe is way ahead of us. I like the way they think!
The following article appeared in the New York Times on June 26, 2011...

Christoph Bangert for The New York Times
Pedestrians and trams are given priority treatment in Zurich. Tram operators can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.

Christoph Bangert for The New York Times
A view of Zurich's Limmatquai, a riverside pedestrian zone that used to be two lanes of gridlock.
Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of "environmental zones" where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.
Likeminded cities welcome new shopping malls and apartment buildings but severely restrict the allowable number of parking spaces. On-street parking is vanishing. In recent years, even former car capitals like Munich have evolved into “walkers’ paradises,” said Lee Schipper, a senior research engineer at Stanford University who specializes in sustainable transportation.
“In the United States, there has been much more of a tendency to adapt cities to accommodate driving,” said Peder Jensen, head of the Energy and Transport Group at the European Environment Agency. “Here there has been more movement to make cities more livable for people, to get cities relatively free of cars.”
To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city’s ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.
Around L√∂wenplatz, one of Zurich’s busiest squares, cars are now banned on many blocks. Where permitted, their speed is limited to a snail’s pace so that crosswalks and crossing signs can be removed entirely, giving people on foot the right to cross anywhere they like at any time.
As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, the city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”
While some American cities — notably San Francisco, which has “pedestrianized” parts of Market Street — have made similar efforts, they are still the exception in the United States, where it has been difficult to get people to imagine a life where cars are not entrenched, Dr. Schipper said.
Europe’s cities generally have stronger incentives to act. Built for the most part before the advent of cars, their narrow roads are poor at handling heavy traffic. Public transportation is generally better in Europe than in the United States, and gas often costs over $8 a gallon, contributing to driving costs that are two to three times greater per mile than in the United States, Dr. Schipper said.
What is more, European Union countries probably cannot meet a commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions unless they curb driving. The United States never ratified that pact.
Globally, emissions from transportation continue a relentless rise, with half of them coming from personal cars. Yet an important impulse behind Europe’s traffic reforms will be familiar to mayors in Los Angeles and Vienna alike: to make cities more inviting, with cleaner air and less traffic.
Michael Kodransky, global research manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York, which works with cities to reduce transport emissions, said that Europe was previously “on the same trajectory as the United States, with more people wanting to own more cars.” But in the past decade, there had been “a conscious shift in thinking, and firm policy,” he said. And it is having an effect.
After two decades of car ownership, Hans Von Matt, 52, who works in the insurance industry, sold his vehicle and now gets around Zurich by tram or bicycle, using a car-sharing service for trips out of the city. Carless households have increased from 40 to 45 percent in the last decade, and car owners use their vehicles less, city statistics show.
“There were big fights over whether to close this road or not — but now it is closed, and people got used to it,” he said, alighting from his bicycle on Limmatquai, a riverside pedestrian zone lined with cafes that used to be two lanes of gridlock. Each major road closing has to be approved in a referendum.

Today 91 percent of the delegates to the Swiss Parliament take the tram to work.
Still, there is grumbling. “There are all these zones where you can only drive 20 or 30 kilometers per hour [about 12 to 18 miles an hour], which is rather stressful,” Thomas Rickli, a consultant, said as he parked his Jaguar in a lot at the edge of town. “It’s useless.”
Urban planners generally agree that a rise in car commuting is not desirable for cities anywhere.
Mr. Fellmann calculated that a person using a car took up 115 cubic meters (roughly 4,000 cubic feet) of urban space in Zurich while a pedestrian took three. “So it’s not really fair to everyone else if you take the car,” he said.
European cities also realized they could not meet increasingly strict World Health Organization guidelines for fine-particulate air pollution if cars continued to reign. Many American cities are likewise in “nonattainment” of their Clean Air Act requirements, but that fact “is just accepted here,” said Mr. Kodransky of the New York-based transportation institute.
It often takes extreme measures to get people out of their cars, and providing good public transportation is a crucial first step. One novel strategy in Europe is intentionally making it harder and more costly to park. “Parking is everywhere in the United States, but it’s disappearing from the urban space in Europe,” said Mr. Kodransky, whose recent report “Europe’s Parking U-Turn” surveys the shift.
Sihl City, a new Zurich mall, is three times the size of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Mall but has only half the number of parking spaces, and as a result, 70 percent of visitors get there by public transport, Mr. Kodransky said.
In Copenhagen, Mr. Jensen, at the European Environment Agency, said that his office building had more than 150 spaces for bicycles and only one for a car, to accommodate a disabled person.
While many building codes in Europe cap the number of parking spaces in new buildings to discourage car ownership, American codes conversely tend to stipulate a minimum number. New apartment complexes built along the light rail line in Denver devote their bottom eight floors to parking, making it “too easy” to get in the car rather than take advantage of rail transit, Mr. Kodransky said.
While Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has generated controversy in New York by “pedestrianizing” a few areas like Times Square, many European cities have already closed vast areas to car traffic. Store owners in Zurich had worried that the closings would mean a drop in business, but that fear has proved unfounded, Mr. Fellmann said, because pedestrian traffic increased 30 to 40 percent where cars were banned.
With politicians and most citizens still largely behind them, Zurich’s planners continue their traffic-taming quest, shortening the green-light periods and lengthening the red with the goal that pedestrians wait no more than 20 seconds to cross.
“We would never synchronize green lights for cars with our philosophy,” said Pio Marzolini, a city official. “When I’m in other cities, I feel like I’m always waiting to cross a street. I can’t get used to the idea that I am worth less than a car.”