Monthly Archives: March 2011

Start Me Up: The first Climate Corps fellow takes his knowledge to a startup

By: Jeff Crystal, COO of Voltaic Systems

In 2007, EDF Climate Corps helped launch me into my career at the intersection of business and the environment. When the opportunity came to work with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) on an innovative new program called Climate Corps, I jumped at the chance. The team at the time was small, and the program wasn’t yet clearly defined yet, just filled with unknowns. Having been at four startups prior, this felt just like home to me.

As the unofficial first Climate Corps fellow, I spent that summer working on a financial model, while running EDF’s own energy audit and implementing changes to reduce the NGO’s energy consumption.

The next summer, EDF brought 7 official Climate Corps fellows on board to search for energy efficiency opportunities at leading companies on the West coast. Now here we are, three years later, and the program has expanded seven-fold – with more than 80 total Climate Corps fellows working at Fortune 1000’s around the country to identify projects that could avoid more than 557,000 metric tons of GHG emissions. Though it’s seen its share of tweaks, the financial model I developed that first summer has been used to analyze all of these projects along the way.

Climate Corps confirmed my love for “hands dirty” operational work, and almost immediately after I completed my fellowship, I joined a startup that focuses on producing small scale energy systems, Voltaic Systems. Voltaic designssolar chargers and solar backpacks for powering electronics from cell phones to laptops and will soon introduce solar lighting.

Longer term, the Climate Corps experience has opened up a network of technical resources, a framework for thinking about sustainability and the knowledge to talk intelligently about this topic with a broad range of people in the industry. This fellowship has also given me a whole new vocabulary supported by a background of training and hands-on experience. I love being able to talk about the need for proper ballast settings on a T5 bulb or about the payback period of an HVAC tuning session.

The appreciation I maintain for sustainability is evident, not only in my company’s end-products but in all aspects of our business. Voltaic is constantly looking at ways to make our products more environmental friendly. We try to use fabrics and materials that use less energy to produce and require fewer (or no) toxic materials in their production process. I’ve kept in touch with former colleagues at EDF who have advised me on packaging providers that are doing interesting things with recycled PET, the limits of a Material Safety Data Sheet and emerging standards on phthalates.

When discussing my job opportunity with Voltaic, one question  that came up was whether that team could have a big enough environmental impact. EDF’s staff tends to think in terms of policies and programs that can remove millions of tons of carbon. Could a startup producing solar products make a dent? When we think about introducing new products that could have a negative carbon impact and potential ways to pressure our suppliers to use more recycled materials, EDF is in the back of my head, urging me to do more.

Posted in EDF Climate Corps / Comments are closed

Smart Meters. An Integral Piece To The Smart Grid Pie.

As you may have heard, the roll out of smart grid technology in California has raised some health concerns over the safety of smart meter use.  As a result, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) has ordered Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to develop an alternative to wireless meters.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is following this issue closely.  Our organization offers a unique perspective given our proven track record of enabling markets and innovation to gain environmental benefits.  Our national organization is working across the country to advance smart grid deployment in a way that ensures maximum consumer, economic, and environmental benefits.  To do so, we are working with public utilities and regulatory commissions on smart grid policy and advancing smart grid pilots such as Austin’s world-renowned Pecan Street Project.

Deploying an effective smart grid throughout the country is a national priority supported by multiple stakeholders: from companies like GE, Cisco and Google, who see it as key to the future of their businesses, America’s global competitiveness, and job growth, to Chambers of Commerce, who see the huge economic development and security benefits in making more energy at home and keeping energy dollars at home, to consumer groups like the Citizens Utility Board, our partner in Illinois, who see it as the only way to keep electric bills from climbing steeply in the years to come.  Right now, our outdated energy grid wastes approximately 10% of generated electricity just in transmission and distribution, costing the consumer roughly $25 billion a year.  We lose another estimated $100b in black-outs, which a smart grid will help us avoid.

Digital “smart” meters, capable of two-way communication between customers and electric utilities, are key to realizing the multiple benefits of a smart grid.

A properly designed smart grid will help households and businesses reap many economic and environmental benefits. It will allow us to greatly reduce our use of dirty energy, improving air quality and the health of millions of Americans now hurt by dangerous air pollution.  With easy-to-use tools, such as online updates on how much energy they’re using and what it’s costing, consumers will be able to make choices that lower their bills.  Businesses will be able to pinpoint the most valuable opportunities to make their buildings and operations more energy efficient, saving money. Utilities will be able to provide customers with more reliable service.

Smart meters allow information to flow between meters and utilities by utilizing radio frequencies (RF) such as those currently used by AM/FM radios, baby monitors and cell phones.  Studies (such as research by the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) and the Electric Power Research Institute) have found no evidence that these radio frequencies pose risks to human health.  In fact, the CCST report released earlier this year found that even if smart meters were on 100% of the time, an individual’s exposure would be a very low (4 uW/cm3).  To put this number into perspective, the average exposure to RFs from using a cell phone is between 1,000 and 5,000 uW/cm3 or 250 – 1, 250 times that from a smart meter.

A well-designed smart grid will be a boon to public health.  It will improve our quality of life, grow our economy, and drive the clean energy revolution we need.

For more information regarding the benefits of a smart grid, please view EDF’s fact sheet here.

Posted in California, Grid Modernization / Read 2 Responses

Energy Efficiency Standards Save Texas Schools Money

Alder Creek Middle School in Truckee California: A Demonstration project for Collaborative for High Performance Schools

On March 16 the Texas House Energy Resources Committee heard testimony on HB 775 from Rep. Rafael Anchia.  HB 775 would further enable school districts to reduce energy and water consumption, which saves money and improves the air quality of Texas schools.  As public schools are facing grim budget decisions saving money on energy means more teachers in classrooms and a better education for Texas children.

Investing in energy efficiency measures saves school districts and taxpayers money in the long run because energy efficiency lowers electricity bills.  Stated differently, failing to improve efficiency means school districts are wasting energy and needlessly straining tight budgets.  Also, energy efficiency is one of the few measures that will reduce air pollution at the same time that it saves money.  Many energy efficiency measures will require some upfront costs.  However, school districts have several options for offsetting or avoiding those costs all together, including Texas LoanSTAR, performance contracts, and utility incentive programs. (You can read further explanations of these options/programs in my full testimony to the committee)

Specific School District Examples

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an energy-efficient school district with 4,000 students could save as much as $160,000 a year in energy costs, with savings reaching $1.6 million over ten years.  Texas schools that have initiated energy conservation programs have already begun to realize savings with some relatively easy investments.  The table below shows Texas school districts that have received funds from the LoanSTAR program for energy efficient measures and the estimated costs and savings. 

School DistrictEnergy Conservation Measures (ECM) Total Estimated ECM costsAnnual Energy Cost SavingsPayback (years)
ArlingtonReplace lighting, correct power factor, upgrade mechanical system$4,655,086$649, 8807.2
HollidayReplace lighting and HVAC systems$188,169$20,1209.4
Red OakReplace lighting, install occupancy sensors and EMS, institute payment and performance bonds$2,214,305$311,8877.1

Read More »

Posted in Energy Efficiency, Texas / Read 1 Response

The Smart Grid 2025 Has Arrived. And It’s Addicting.

I spent my lunch break yesterday playing an online game.  No, not World of Warcraft; I played Smart Grid 2025, an innovative, multiplayer online game that lets players submit their original ideas on how to design the smart grid of the (not too distant) future.  Once you register, you can submit “Positive Imagination” ideas on what’s needed or “Dark Imagination” concerns about barriers and potential negative outcomes.  The game also allows you to respond – positively or negatively – to other players’ posts.  The more players that build on your ideas, the more points you earn.  And if the game administrators tag your idea as “Most Super Interesting,” you get a whopping 20 points.  I have only gained enough points for the “Inspired” level ranking, but I’m shooting for “Legend!”  If you have a great idea to share, give it a shot:

Posted in Grid Modernization / Comments are closed

Transparency Is Key To The Future Of Natural Gas

A bill was filed in the Texas House of Representatives today that will require natural gas service companies and operators to publicly disclose the chemical composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids used in Texas.   After the public beating the natural gas industry has been taking, we think participating in legislation to bring transparency to the industry would be a pretty good idea. 

Basic regulations, like disclosure, provide insulation for responsible companies from the actions of those who may not have best of interest of the broader industry or public in mind. 

From our Scott Anderson:

“Disclosure of the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing is key to gaining an understanding of the impact this process has on the environment and human health.”

Posted in Natural Gas, Texas / Tagged , | Comments are closed

Talking Smart Grid In The Land Of Lincoln

Earlier this week, I participated in a joint hearing of the Illinois Senate and House Public Utilities Committees.  It was a packed house, full of people like me who had made the 3-hour trek from Chicago to Springfield, past vast corn fields and — I was excited to see — a large wind farm. The topic: a bill that would authorize the state’s largest electric utility, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), to spend at least $1.5 billion over the next ten years on “smart grid electric system upgrades.”  Of course, as with most utility investments, it’s the utility’s customers who will ultimately foot the bill.  So the crucial question of the day was, “What will ComEd’s customers get for their money?”

Our friends at the Illinois Citizens Utility Board, or CUB, asked EDF to testify at the hearing on “smart grid done right.”  We’ve done a lot of thinking on the subject, with experience engaging in smart grid policy and projects in California, Texas, North Carolina, and elsewhere.  And we are working closely with CUB and other partners on a variety of smart grid-related projects in Illinois, including a look at the health and environmental impacts of ComEd’s smart meter pilot in the Chicago area.

The potential benefits of a smart grid are significant.  A smart grid will enable the use of a wealth of clean energy resources, including more energy efficiency, demand response, distributed generation, and renewable energy.  By doing so, a smart grid will reduce our need for dirty fossil fuel-powered plants, including the expensive peak power plants that run only a few hundred hours a year but are often close to urban centers.  A smart grid will also enable us to make the shift to electric vehicles, reducing our dependence on foreign oil imports and the damage to our economy when oil prices spike, as they have in recent days.  EDF believes that a well-designed smart grid can cut air pollution from the electric power sector by more than 30% and transportation by more than 25% by 2030.

Best of all, a well-designed smart grid will deliver all of these benefits while giving homeowners and businesses the power to manage their energy use and save money.  With easy-to-use tools—such as simple online displays of the information smart meters provide about use and prices, and set-and-forget home energy management tools—consumers will be able to make choices that lower bills and shrink their environmental footprint.

But a smart grid won’t deliver on that promise if the policy behind it doesn’t set the right goals from the get-go.  Smart grid policies must be designed with clear performance targets, metrics, and milestones – and utility compensation should be directly tied to their achievement.   Unfortunately, the draft bill now being debated by the Illinois General Assembly does none of this.  In fact, the only mention of energy efficiency I found in the language was a requirement that a new employee training facility be LEED certified!  ComEd’s President Anne Pramaggiore acknowledged as much in the hearing.  CUB, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, and others raised similar concerns.  EDF will continue working with CUB and other Illinois allies to ensure these critical targets for energy efficiency and other environmental goals are included.

A smart grid requires smart policy.  The deployment of smart grid technologies and infrastructure has met with controversy in places where the policies (or sometimes, the lack thereof) have failed to place utility customers first.  Customers need access to information to make good choices about their energy use; without it, a “smart grid” won’t be so smart.  As Lincoln said, “Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it so.”  This is why it is critical that Illinois get the policy right from the start.  EDF is joining forces with CUB and the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition to host a smart grid briefing in April for Illinois legislators and others, to help make the smart grid a reality here.

Posted in Grid Modernization / Comments are closed