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The Movement toward Crowd-funded Renewable Energy

June 11, 2012

The explosion of crowd-funding in various areas (largely artistic projects and technology startups, see: kickstarter.com) has contributed a valuable path to increasing participation in and expanding access to capital deals. Unfortunately, this trend has been slow to work into environmental progress. Recognizing this delay, I posted the following tweet:

The article to which I link explores possibilities for strategies to expand access to energy in the developing world, a key, though, persistently unaddressed topic in energy politics.

There is a segment of the unserved market that poses particular challenges to business as they do not exert effective demand for products and services. However, opportunities do exist for business models to reach this group and there are instances, solar lighting being one, where payment for a device can be reimbursed through kerosene savings in just a few months. Small energy companies cannot get the loans to start-up, meaning that there is a lack of energy SMEs for investors to put money behind. There are only a few finance organisations, such as E+Co, that are helping and investing in start-ups. There is the need to educate local banks and other finance institutions and encourage them to invest in sustainable energy start-ups.

Within a couple of weeks of making the above post on Twitter, I was surprised to hear about Solar Mosaic, an Oakland-based solar micro-financing initiative that leverages community financing to expand access to solar energy. The following video introduces their concept.

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A friend, Sustainable John, Senior research associate at Berkeley National Laboratory and world-renowned eco-rap star, had sketched out some rhymes upon the completion of a Solar Mosaic project at the Oakland St. Vincent de Paul. I lent a hand in the filming of the “Occupy Rooftops” video, which John recently debuted with this all star tweet which links to the following video:

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There are several reasons that Solar Mosaic, specifically, and crowd-funded renewable energy, generally is a great step toward the future of energy.

Vacant ‘Tops, Sitting Pretty

photo courtesy of Bright Farms

Population density has encouraged the inventive use of rooftops in metropolitan areas. Rooftop farms, for example, are increasingly common. A deal was recently made to develop what at 100,000 square feet may be the largest rooftop garden in the world at a former Navy warehouse in Brooklyn. Rooftop solar only presents another creative, efficient use of space in an increasingly resource-crunched world.

Two Birds, One Stone: Expanding Accessibility to Financial Tools and Clean Energy

Contributing to the process of “greening” the grid is inaccessible to much of the population. As permanent installations, often costing above $10,000, how do renters and low-income residents support solar power?

Solar leasing provides clean electricity at rates usually than the household’s previous conventional electricity costs with no initial payments by leasing solar photovoltaic panels to consumers.  Traditionally, consumers were required to privately fund their panels and the installation, which requires the consumers to bear significant upfront costs. The development of this market has expanded access to solar energy, as detailed in a recent piece by Bill Scanlon at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The new business model lets homeowners save money the very first month, rather than breaking even a decade after an initial investment of $5,000 to $10,000. Analysts with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that the solar lease business is surging in southern California. And the model is being adopted in less affluent neighborhoods that had avoided customer-owned systems. The NREL study found a positive correlation between customers outright buying solar energy systems and customers living in neighborhoods where the average household income was $150,000 or more. But for third-party-leased solar panels, that positive correlation appeared in neighborhoods where the average household income was just $100,000 or more.

Sungevity and SolarCity are two leading companies in this space.

Crowd-funding these projects further expands the accessibility of clean energy by allowing for renters to contribute to the installation of solar projects on the roofs of others.

The US is going Solar, but Big Solar Projects are not Ideal

EIA Maps States with Renewable Portfolio Standards, or laws requiring a certain of electricity generation to be procured from renewable resources (Green). States in yellow have goals, which are not bound as inflexibly by law.

A Renewable Portfolio Standard is a law that requires a state to procure a proportion of electricity from renewable sources by a certain date. California, for example, mandated 20% of its electricity from renewable resources in 2010 and 33% in 2020. The map above delineates which states have signed an RPS into law, and which have passed optional RPS-like goals. These measures among others have pushed recent growth in renewable energy generation in certain regions of the US.

Desert Tortoise III

The endangered desert tortoise habitat coincides with some of the most productive areas of the country for solar power (Sandy Redding)

Many states, such as my home state of California, have, as a result, turned to big (>50MW) solar projects in the desert. These projects, though, as industrial intrusions into otherwise undisturbed settings, present various environmental impacts, not least of which is their impact on desert-dwelling endangered species.

Moreover, large desert solar projects cause grid-integration complications. Transmission requirements for large desert solar projects–that is, the need for an infrastructure to transport power to urban consumption hubs–increase the economic and environmental costs of solar integration, reduce the amount of power available (due to conversion processes), and put additional strain on an already distressed American grid.

Rooftop solar, conversely, places power generation immediately above consumers, simultaneously obviating the need to develop more land and minimizing transmission requirements.

Moving Forward

Solar Mosaic is thus, appealing on many levels, attracting those interested in: improving air local quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing energy costs for local businesses, among other goals. Furthermore, beginning this summer investors will be able to earn returns interest on their investments in projects. The company, however, is currently in quiet period, with the header of their website presenting the following prompt:

On April 24th we filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission and several states to offer Solar Power Notes to the public, with proceeds going to fund solar power projects. While we work with regulatory authorities on the details of our offering we are very limited in what we can say about the offering.

Nonetheless, Solar Mosaic is expected to make a positive announcement this week. With Solar Mosaic’s regulatory challenge soon to be in the past, where do we go from here? How do we continue to make clean sources of energy more accessible?

Further Reading:


Peter Voser, CEO of Shell: energy prices need to go up

April 3, 2012

Peter Voser (right), CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, speaking with Richard Karlgaard, Publisher of Forbes (Shell)

Peter Voser, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, spoke about the future of energy (video feed) at an industry event organized by the non-profit Churchill Club on March 21, 2012 at the Burlingame Hyatt. [Disclosure: Both Shell and Churchill Club are clients of Daniel J. Edelman Inc., where I work.]

Having just returned from China, where he had signed an agreement on the behalf of Shell to begin producing shale gas in southwestern China, he began with the traditional Western introduction to the scale of China–the numbers game. Among other statistics, he stated that the global energy demand will rise to double or even triple of its current level, largely due to the growing appetites of emerging economies reaching an extremely energy-intensive stage of their development–early industrialization.

While at least once admitting that he “had to be careful as there [were] investors [there],” Voser was frank and helpful in his responses to questions. And he repeatedly tailored his message to the tech-focused Silicon Valley audience, urging them to assist in the transition to the future of energy by “cutting innovation times” and developing technology on the demand-side.

He also pointed out key spaces “close to [his] heart” that will require more innovation in an increasingly resource-constrained future: water and food. “There are countries in the Middle East” Voser stated, “where two-thirds of their energy consumption is for desalination.” Again, prodding his tech-focused audience, “we need a new technology” for water harvesting.

He did not hesitate to criticize the oil industry for the frequency of its devastating accidents. In reference to a question about the Exxon Valdez spill, he stated, “it’s about prevention.”

In response to a question asked by Felicity Carus of AOL Energy about the high greenhouse gas emissions of Shell refineries, he said that Shell supports a global cap and trade system, and will not wait for the institution of this system to establish its own company-wide system.

Later, Voser began to speak on the of lack of transparency about water pollution resulting from the growth of shale natural gas in the US. Suggesting that this obfuscation hurt the industry, he stated that “we need to be better at being transparent about water seismic issues and present them to the public early in the game.”

To summarize Peter Voser encouraged Silicon Valley technologists to develop solutions in these spaces:

  • improve scalability time (from the current 30 years)
  • find a tool for energy storage
  • improve upon desalination to deliver water to water-scarce places

I was impressed when he voiced something many are unwilling to say. “Energy prices need to go up,” he assured the crowd, there will be “no change without political will.”

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer or clients.

The Jianbing: A Chinese Galette

March 18, 2012

The Jianbing: A Chinese Galette from tim quijano on Vimeo.

When I was in high school, I was lucky to be able visit my sister while she was teaching English in Poitiers, France. Since this vist, the crêpes and galettes we had on that trip have lived in my dreams as some of the most delicious of simple snacks. The simplicity of the ingredients belies the art of crêpe-making; on top of a perfect batter, they require an excellent understanding of temperature and time. Needless to say, my attempts at home were never quite up to snuff.

Living in a terribly insulated Beijing hutong apartment, warm breakfast snacks are a wonderful thing to wake up to. I rediscovered my love for crêpes in Beijing–the jianbing (煎饼). The most exquisite incarnation of this Northern Chinese snack was made every morning in the bed of a tricycle from just after sunrise to about 10:30am, just a few minutes walk out my apartment door on Fangzhuanchang Hutong (方砖厂). Beijing residents: GO! I made the following video in honor of my favorite jianbing-maker.

Bong Hits for Water Treatment

December 19, 2011

Yiliang (谊良) county, in the pink, lies within Kunming prefecture (yellow), in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, in light grey (Wikipedia)

In addition to teaching me the basics of water quality monitoring and treatment, my short stint at the Western Water Group water treatment plant in Yiliang, Yunnan introduced me to the lifestyle of rural Chinese officials and businessmen. I reflected on the experience recently.

“Did you make that bong yourself?” I joked to the vice-secretary of Shizong, Yunnan, pointing at the 3 feet tall bamboo water pipe resting on the floor between his legs, an exhausted cigarette limply sticking out at a curious angle toward the bottom.

“This?!” he said, a jovial smile creeping across his face. “No, it was a gift,” he said in the rough Yunnan dialect while exhaling a plume of smoke, which merged with the clouds trapped at the ceiling and stung our eyes red, adding to the brown stains that ran the width of the walls.

wwg

The Yiliang plant's two tanks that use bacteria to adjust the chemical makeup of the water (WWG)

I was seated at the chair closest to the door, the position of lowest hierarchy, in a room of Shizong officials and my various superiors at the water treatment plant at which I was working. The CEO of the water treatment company was visiting to discuss with the local officials in an attempt to urge the officials to adhere to the contract–to pay their overdue bills sooner than later, so as to avoid the late fees from the plant. Nevertheless, after discussing the “payment topic,” as my superiors would phrase it in order to minimize perceived discord, the vice-secretary of Shizong took us to a lavish meal outside of the city and toasted every one of us several times, drinking more baijiu, or sorghum alcohol, than the rest of the table combined. After he was done eating and drinking, he convivially and succinctly stated that we were all friends and that he would look into the problem. This experience, masquerading with local officials and how it contrasted with my understanding of stuffy governmental and business meetings in the United States, impressed upon me how business and governmental affairs are conducted in rural China, and perhaps in many other rural areas of the world.

Another Winter Sweeps Through the Hutong

December 10, 2011

These photos, from the Beijing EPA, of air quality in an urban area of the Chaoyang district of Beijing demonstrate that while infrequent precipitation may temporarily wash away air pollution, the rate of emission is so high, that after a few days, visibility is again reduced to nil, and harmful particulate matter is back up rapidly. 

A Beijing road sign warns drivers about the "thick fog," the official way of referring to air pollution (CCTV)

December has arrived in Beijing, bringing with it the harsh Northern Chinese winter weather and the seasonal increase in particulate matter that results from coal combustion for higher heating needs. Users of Weibo, the Chinese twitter, have complained the presumable dishonesty in the Chinese government’s air pollution monitoring body, which has repeatedly reported acceptable/moderate air quality when eye-witnesses accounts disagree. Moreover, official agencies continue to refer to the pollution as fog or haze (雾). Anecdotally, I have seen many more locals wearing pollution masks, suggesting that awareness of the resulting respiratory problems has risen.

The Beijing air quality situation has long been complicated by the US Embassy’s monitoring of Beijing air quality and subsequent posting of the results on the twitter account, @beijingair. The chart below demonstrates the discrepancy between the US Embassy and the Beijing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Notice a pattern?

A Beijinger checks the air quality on her phone. While the official Beijing station reports "slight" air pollution, the US Embassy reports "toxic" air pollution (Global Times)

Though blocked in China, many Chinese have means of accessing this data. In response, the Beijing EPA has lashed out at the US, requesting the Embassy refrain from publicly releasing this data, and suggesting to compare monitoring instrumentation (Chinese). The US Embassy measures particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers (1 μm=.000000 m) in size, PM2.5, and only from one point in the city. Assumably as a result of political concerns, the Beijing EPA does not currently release measurements of PM2.5, only the larger PM10, but Beijing EPA records measurements around the city (sometime very far from the polluted center of the city). Though recent announcements have committed to realeasing measurements of PM2.5, as well as other new environmental standards (most prominently, ozone), nationally by 2016, and earlier in key regions, the government has been unclear on the specifics. Both Beijing and Shanghai EPA have full capacity to measure and release this data, they only lack official permission.

The smaller particulate matter is more capable of penetrating through the lungs and damaging other internal organs such as the heart. While the Chinese government didn’t experience much difficulty reducing the larger PM10 by prohibiting primitive coal stoves in urban Beijing. PM2.5, on the other hand, arises from automobile emissions and other more advanced industrial practices, and has thus, proven to be more of a pickle.

I won’t comment further on the story as it has, admittedly, been over-reported in the foreign press, but I refer interested readers to Steven Andrews’s comprehensive report at China Dialogue, which gives a realistic appraisal of how Chinese air quality evaluation compares internationally.

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Drying Persimmons into disks (柿饼)

Drying persimmons into disks (柿饼)

As a result of the reality of living with constant environmental harm, references to the current environmental situation weave through conversations in Beijing unlike elsewhere. “It’s snowing” I said to my neighbor as I ran out for a bite of breakfast on the first day of snow, adopting the polite Chinese conversational technique of stating the remarkably obvious.

Jinghua kongqi” she replied, “it will purify the air.”

Later, as I returned with a breakfast snack, “so cold” I complained.

“You know, we have a phrase in Chinese,” she said, before laying down an old rhyming adage, similar to the English (American?) “apple a day.”

(Liu Jing for AFP)

多吃萝卜|[if you] eat more radish

多吃姜|eat more ginger

不用大夫|no need for the doctor

开处方|to fill out a prescription [for you]

Perhaps, that’s all we Beijing residents need to struggle through the winter, just a bit more radish and ginger, and just a bit more friendly neighbors.

UPDATE (8 Jan 2012): Beijing will release PM2.5 air quality evaluation by Spring Festival.

List of Environmental Organizations Working in China

November 28, 2011
Walking down the stairs with the glacier in the background
A few tourists walking down the path from the Mingyong Glacier (left). The path was funded by the Nature Conservancy (TNC).

A former professor recently contacted me to advise a current student of his on their interest in interning at an NGO in China, which lead me to relate some of the experience I’ve gleaned in the past year. This experience brought to mind the usefulness of a chart I created in my research of NGOs working here in China.

I have posted the list below. By no means do I consider it comprehensive; I invite additions and criticism. I have listed only those organizations with offices in China, which excludes several important organizations doing environmental projects in China such as China Green of the Asia Society, the Pacific Environment Institute in San Francisco, and the Washington D.C.-based China Environment Forum of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I have seen a couple of other lists elsewhere, but they seemed out of date.

If the name is only in Chinese, the organization has few, if any, English resources, and thus would not be helpful for someone without Chinese skills.

List of Organizations Doing Environmental Protection Work in China

  • International*
  1. The Mountain Institute, Beijing with field offices in Shangri-La and Chengdu
  2. World Resources Institute
  3. Natural Resources Defense Council
  4. Greenpeace
  5. World Wide Fund For Nature with ~10 field offices and Beijing
  6. The Nature Conservancy office in Lijiang and Kunming
  7. China Sustainable Energy Program (BJ, SF) under the Energy Foundation
  8. Clean Air Initiative (UN mandate)
  9. Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation (iCET)
  10. Environmental Defense Fund (office in Beijing)
  11. China Greentech Initiative (run primarily by foreigners, though based in China)
  12. International Fund for China’s Environment Based in DC, branch offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan as well as the Yunnan Natural and Cultural Heritage Conservation Council.
  13. Clean Air Initiative
  14. Institution for Transportation and Development Policy office in Guangzhou. GZ BRT project, projects in Harbin, Lanzhou, Wuhan. Several international offices.
  15. Conservation International
  16. Save China’s Tigers (Hong Kong)
  17. United Nations Environment Programme
  18. WildAid
  19. Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Shanghai; youth-based activism.
  20. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
  21. US-China Environmental Fund (Panda Mountain)
  22. Institute for Sustainable Communities China division based in SH, offices in BJ and GZ as well
  • Beijing
  1. 公众环境研究中心 (Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs IPE)
  2. 绿色之星环保人合作组织
  3. 自然景象环境保护协会 (CNature Conservation Association)
  4. 绿色北京
  5. 曾经草原
The Nature Consevancy Signs

Local folk-lore lines the trail to the Mingyong Glacier, signs from TNC

  1. 山水自然保护中心
  2. 北京国仁绿色联盟
  3. 长江黄河国际文化交流中心
  4. 北京地球环村境教育中心
  5. 自然之友
  6. 国际爱护动物基金会
  7. 大学生绿色营
  8. 北京天下溪教育咨询中心
  9. 新疆自然保育基金 (Xinjiang Conservation Fund)
  10. 北京富平学校 (Fuping Development Institute)
  11. 绿家园志愿者
  12. 道和环境与发展研究所 (Institute for Environment and Development)
  13. 福群环境研究院
  14. 全球环境研究所 (Global Environment Institute: GEI) Initial partnership with a US NGO, but US partner dissolved in 2011. Sustainable development, capacity-building.
  15. 中华环境保护基金会
  16. 北京人与动物环保科普中心 (BHAEEC)
  17. 绿色记者沙龙
  18. Wetlands International
  • Yunnan
  1. Yunnan EcoNetwork
  2. Yunnan Environmental Development Institute (YEDI) German affiliation
  3. Green Watershed
  4. Green Kunming Run by owners of Salvador’s-American affiliation. Focus on organic food.
  5. Center for Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (云南省生物多样性和传统知识研究会)
  6. Yunnan Health and Development Research Association (云南省健康与发展研究会) description of their work here (Eng).
  7. Initiative Development biodigester CDM, French-affiliation
  • Sichuan
A woman walking her herd of cows

Environmental organizations in China have made a powerful push for the formation of national parks such as the Tiger Leaping Gorge

  1. Chengdu Urban Rivers Association
  2. Sichuan Green Rivers (四川省绿色江河环境保护)
  3. 济溪环境交流网络
  4. 甘孜州生物多样性与生态文化协会
  • Gansu
  1. Green Camel Bell (绿驼铃) education, desertification, water
  • Anhui
  1. Green Anhui

*Main office in Beijing unless otherwise noted.


Movement in Work and Life

November 20, 2011

movement | life & work from tim quijano on Vimeo.

A man in clean maoist attire strolls by inquisitively. A middle-aged woman walks behind me, and looking at the camera screen displaying the video I am shooting says, keyi le, “that’ll work.” A man comes up to me and asks why foreigners like filming so much. Various people walk by bundled up with puffy eyes, clutching plastic bags of fried Muslim breakfast treats. A constant trickle of commuters on bikes and e-bikes move by.

A woman stumbles up to a fruit vendor, “what are you selling the pomellos for?”

“Three and a half kuai per jin.*” She stumbles away with a confused look on her face as he yells ok to her, “ok, three kuai! Fine!”

A tiny Pekingese obediently trots next to their owner, unconcerned with the organized chaos of the hutong in the morning.

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I was recently asked to create a short video about life in China. I chose to focus on the idea of movement, as this concept can capture so much of what is going on in China today. Please view it fullscreen. I will share the unedited version with the original audio if anyone is interested.  In case the embedded video above does not work, an alternate link is here.

I apologize for the incredibly sparse posting of recent, I have found myself caught up in the day-to-day.

*One kuai is equal to one Renminbi or Yuan. The word “kuai,” however, is more colloquial than the other words for money in China, similar to the word “buck” in American English, but more widespread in its use. One jin is equal to 500 grams. This word was taken from a traditional Chinese measurement that would not have corresponded with the metric system so smoothly.