Saturday, January 17, 2009

Tough lessons for Dell

In June of 2007, Dell Chairman and CEO Michael Dell set out to make his computer company the greenest technology company on the planet, through a variety of initiatives including tree planting, energy efficiency, recycling and offsetting.

By August of 2008, Dell declared itself to be carbon neutral. The Wall Street Journal decided to investigate this claim, and their damning criticism highlights the many challenges facing firms and individuals seeking a carbon neutral path.

In calculating their footprint, a lack of clarity and standards around what to include led the Journal to conclude that Dell was missing the boat. A great interactive graphic is available here , and a static graphic is shown below. First off, Dell should be applauded for their transparency in the process; it shows their commitment. But what should Dell include in their total carbon emissions? Our methodology would say that to be totally carbon neutral, Dell should force their suppliers to deliver carbon neutral (part of the a product input) , but that users should take responsibility of energy used to run their Dell products...not Dell. Whatever the answer, clearly explaining the methodology is important so that the rest of use can choose to agree or disagree with their claims.

In offsetting, Dell fell into some obvious traps in choosing how to offset. They ended up supporting projects without clear additionality, and failed to take a personal interest in where the money was going. The wind projects supported clearly did not result in any less GHG...their wind partners reported that they certainly would have built the wind farms regardless of whether they had been able to sell RECs. This means that Dell's money had no impact on the climate, it only enriched the Windmill operators. This is unfrotunate, since there are plenty of projects for which this is not the case. ClimatePath wants to create a more direct and transparent connection between projects and ofsetters, and the ClimatePath Ecologic Fund exists to make sure that credits and credit issuers deliver, and avoid this sort of commercial transaction with questionable benefit to the planet.

In this instance, Dell learned the hard way that carbon credits are no more of a commodity than are microprocessors: There is a difference.

Be green and save green

Note: This first appeared in Dave and Katy's December "Green and Greener" column .

Dave: Would you make few easy lifestyle changes in 2009 if we offered you $500? There's an old saying that "a New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other." So in lieu of resolutions, we're kicking off the new year and our new monthly feature with a more direct approach: Cash.

Okay, we aren't actually sending out checks. The money comes from savings off your 2009 gasoline and PG & E bills. But a dollar saved is a dollar earned, right? PG&E reports that a typical residential customer uses 540 kWh and 45 gas therms each month, which adds up to $1700/year. The average Lamorinda home is anything but typical, and most of us probably spend $3000 or more on gas and electric each year. Add to that the fifteen hundred gallons of gas most of us will buy next year, which will cost another $4,000. That's $7,000 we'll each spend on energy in 2009.

Katy: Hey! Speak for yourself. My bill is about a third of that. And, let me interject that aside from saving money, you're helping fight global warming. A $500 reduction in energy use eliminates roughly three tons of carbon (CO2) emissions. C02 contributes to climate change, and the average American produces close to twenty tons per year, so a three-ton personal reduction can make a big difference in helping the planet.

Dave: Exactly! So my personal favorite starts at the washing machine. Procter & Gamble, the folks who make Tide laundry detergent, reported that if they could get everybody in th e U.S. to wash clothes in full loads in cold water, it would reduce total U.S. energy consumption by over 3%. Your share would save you as much as $100 per year.

Katy: Hot water is typically at the top of the list in home energy consumption. Surprisingly, almost all of the energy used in washing clothes comes from heating the water. Of course, using a clothes line instead of the dryer can save you another $75/year...

Dave: Whoa, let's not go back to the 1930s! Plus my wife thinks I treat the entire house as a clothes line.

Katy: That's hardly the 1930s, drama king. I'm just saying; open a window now and then instead of using the AC. And when it's hot, hang some jeans or towels over the railing. Use the weather to your advantage. Plus, my jeans last like five times longer.

Dave: Fine, fine. What about compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs)?

Katy: Big savings there...but you have to invest a little to get it. Putting in a dozen CFLs can reduce your electricity consumption by 5%. That's good for another $100/year. If you replace all of your bulbs, you could save as much as $300. Get in the habit of turning them off when you leave a room, and you'll save even more!

Dave: Well even though it is costing me money, we've just been replacing with CFL's as the old ones burn out. I just can't bring myself to change a lightbulb that is still working....frankly, even the burnt out ones don't get changed right away.

Katy: At a minimum you should replace the ones that get the most use, like your porch light and anything in the kitchen. The energy savings are well worth it.

Dave: Now about gasoline. Even with lower gas prices, there is no joy paying at the pump. Keeping your tires inflated can save you 40 gallons a year. And weight matters as well. If you pull the sporting goods, snow chains, assorted beach chairs, and books out of your car, that could save another 25 gallons. So get that junk out of your trunk! The two together put another $200 in your pocket.

Katy: I might also point out that a lot of us are near Bart. But when you need to drive, the real cost savings comes from slowing down. Gas mileage decreases rapidly at speeds above 55 mph. If you do a lot of freeway driving, slowing from 75 to 65 will save at least 100 gallons a year, and an additional ton of CO2. A drive from here to Tahoe would take 20 minutes longer at most.

Dave: I'm pretty sure that the 55 MPH speed limit is why neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter got more than one term. How about just going smoother on starts and stops?

Katy: Your grasp of presidential politics is truly profound. Smoother starts and stops can definitely help. Estimates vary wildly, but you'll use at least 50 less gallons per year that way. That's another $150.

Dave: Or if you have a teenager in your house, it could be worth as much as $50,000.

Katy: I'll take your word for it on that one. Well, let's sum it up. How to save over $500 in 2009:

  • Use cold water for your laundry ($75)

  • Start replacing conventional lightbulbs with CFLS ($100)

  • Keep your tires inflated and your car free of junk ($200)

  • Stop and start smoothly when you drive ($150)
This is a good start. Next time we can talk about how to use part of that $500 savings to go from a smaller footprint to carbon neutral.

Dave: That will be my resolution!

Does the EPA have mad cow disease?

As the Wall Street Journal and others recently reported, the Environmental Protection Agency, using one of President Bush's midnight regulations, just exempted large scale factory farms (aka CAFOs) from reporting emissions of noxious gases caused by animal waste.

A GAO study said such farms can generate as much as 1.6 million tons of manure annually. That's not in total...that is each factory farm. This translates to almost 500,000 tons of CO2 per year, or the equivalent of the exhaust from 100,000 automobiles, for each CAFO. There are thousands of CAFOs, so this is like ignoring hundreds of million of automobiles. Of course this will remain an estimate, since the farms no longer have to report.

This move is part of the bizarre notion that the Clean Air Act does not require the agency to deal directly with greenhouse gasses, despite the agency' s stated mission of "protecting both environmental quality and human health through effective regulations and other policy implementation."

As we have stated several times, ClimatePath does not believe in livestock based credits, or other credits which subsidize industries that do not pick up after themselves. Ironically, the mere existence of cattle based carbon credits (methane credits, actually) validates the harm done by livestock waste. The industry has been fighting hard against environmental regulations, or any sort of carbon tax on cattle to clean up the mess that the industry makes. Estimates are that the tax would be $100/cow, which would translate to 6-8 cents per gallon of milk.

So many solutions are within our grasp, if we only take the problem seriously. So many special interests oppose change, when change is what we need.

- Dave

The future is now.

Can you picture a world still powered by fossil fuels, with 1 Billion automobiles and 8 Billion people all connected to the grid? What if I told you that this scenario is only 15 years away?

The economist projects that there will be over 1 Billion automobiles on the road by 2025, and 3 Billion by 2050. The chart displayed on the right is very very scary. If automobile technology remains as it is today, this trend alone would raise our planets temperature by 3c, which many scientists agree is a "game over" scenario. Thus far the sturdy internal combustion engine is still the dominant technology, and will continue to be so for at least the next decade. Even if half the cars sold between 2015 and 2025 are zero emissions , the impact will still be potentially devastating.

Meanwhile the US census bureau projects world population to grow to 8 Billion by 2025. More and more of this world lives "on the grid" as electricity becomes a basic right and necessity for all of our planet's citizens. In countries such as Bangladesh, where only 20% of the population has access to power today, the alternative is to cut forests and burn inefficient biomass material, so it not clear whether increased electricity access will make GHG emissions better or worse.

Unfortunately, what is clear is that the promise of green energy will not happen quick enough. A recent report by the National Intelligence Council stated that;

"...all current technologies are inadequate for replacing the traditional energy architecture on the scale needed, and new energy technologies probably will not be commercially viable and widespread by 2025. The pace of technological innovation will be key. Even with a favorable policy and funding environment for biofuels, clean coal, or hydrogen, the transition to new fuels will be slow. Major technologies historically have had an “adoption lag.” In the energy sector, a recent study found that it takes an average of 25 years for a new production technology to become widely adopted."

When I 'pitch' ClimatePath, I position our two solutions - conservation and carbon offsetting - as early wedges in the long term fight against climate change. Buying greener products just isn't enough. We need to start consuming less, and directly supporting near term project efforts to reduce emissions, whether it is a forest in Uganda or in our back yard, and whether it is financing CFL conversion in your house, New Orleans , or Soweto.

The time to act is now. Commit to doing your part . Your footprint counts.