Chicago has a vision to turn abandoned industrial railways into trails, as shown in these images from The Trust for Public Land / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

With New Parks Project, Chicago’s on the Right Track

With green roofs, urban forestry and other developments, the City of Chicago is a leader in several aspects of big-city sustainability.  One of its latest initiatives is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to create 800 new parks, including a “sky park” to replace an abandoned industrial rail line. The figures above from The Trust for Public Land / Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. show the city’s vision for a $92 million, 2.7 mile sky trail known as the “Blooomingdale Trail”.  Read more about it on Grist in a report from Chicago-based journalist Lori Rotenberk.  If your city is interested in similar projects, the non-profit organization “Rails to Trails Conservancy” is an excellent resource.

The next big thing in energy: Decentralization

By David Roberts

The smart energy analysts over at Pike Research — which puts out weekly reports I’d love to see but can never afford — recently published an interesting brief, and for once it’s free! It’s a high-level overview of “Five Metatrends to Watch in 2013 and Beyond” in the energy sector. Metatrends! (I really wanted to call this post “Metatrends Vs. Crocosaurus.” Here they are:

  1. Energy is becoming increasingly democratized.
  2. The role of government innovation funds is changing.
  3. Technologies are converging.
  4. The Southern African Power Pool is becoming the new BRIC.
  5. The role of utilities is changing.

Let’s put aside Nos. 2 and 4, fascinating as they are.

Faithful readers know that I’m obsessed with No. 1, thedemocratization of energy, which refers to more and more consumers also being producers, more and more municipalities taking charge of their own energy, and thus power over power (as it were) devolving into local hands.

But what strikes me is that 1, 3, and 5 are all aspects of the same trend — a METAmetatrend. (Take that, Pike!)

The metametatrend in energy is, for lack of a better term,decentralization. Systems that were once composed of a few big technologies and a few big companies — along with thousands or millions of passive consumers — are beginning to be replaced by recombinant swarms of small producers and consumers engaging in millions of peer-to-peer transactions with a wild and woolly mix of small-scale technologies.

It’s going to be awesome! We have lived through a revolution like this before: the information revolution. I’m old enough to remember a time when it was vastly easier to consume information than to produce and distribute it. Even the internet started as what amounted to a large library, from which individuals downloaded info. But the spread of cheap processing power and bandwidth now means that anyone can produce information — a song, a video, an app, a funny cat picture — and get it in front of millions of people, instantly and virtually effortlessly, for dirt cheap.

The same kind of thing is just beginning to happen in energy. Pike is wise on this:

As [the decentralization of the internet] took over a decade and is ongoing, the process of energy democratization will also take a long time. We will not start to see large impacts on the energy market for some time yet. At present, the democratization of energy is in a phase that is the equivalent of [the internet in] 1996 … Yet, we are cognizant of the potential of this trend in a way that users and developers of the Internet in 2006 were simply not.

This is key: We are very, very early in the process. We’ve only seen hints of what’s to come. It is far too early to know how far it might go or what changes it might bring.

“Small is beautiful” types are somewhat out of fashion these days, as it remains unclear how today’s small-scale distributed technologies could fully cover the energy needs of millions of new developing-world consumers. I’m sure in the early days of cell phones and the internet it wasn’t clear how (or whether) they’d take over the world either. But we’re starting to see adoption curves trending steeply upward, and not just for intermittent sources like solar either. Take residential combined heat and power (resCHP), whereby homeowners or businesses harness the waste heat from their furnaces to generate small amounts of electricity.

Here’s what Pike projects based on current market conditions:




Pike Research: resCHP, 2010-2022
Pike Research




Imagine if the curve bends upward at the same rate for 10 years after that, and 10 years after that. Serious stuff. In a crucial caveat, however, Pike notes that if certain policies and complementary technologies are put in place, “this could be seen as a very pessimistic forecast.”

In other words, this piece of the new energy puzzle will develop faster than projected if other pieces develop along with it. That’s what makes this stuff so hard to predict: There are lots of small pieces, interacting in complicated and sometimes nonlinear ways.

Which brings us to metatrend No. 2, technologies converging. What Pike means by this is that energy technologies (and sources) have traditionally developed independently of each other, but they are starting to combine into “integrated solutions,” pulled along by market demand.

So, for instance, where once a building owner might have bought a furnace from one company, building upgrades from another, and a backup diesel generator from another, she might now be searching instead for a provider of power services. A service provider is not selling particular technologies, it is selling heating, cooling, and/or emergency backup, which it might provide through any of a number of combinations of renewable energy, energy storage, and efficiency upgrades. Service providers compete to provide the best energy services, not the best tech or the cheapest per-kWh energy.

This has always been the promise of small, modular energy technologies, that they would enable robust markets for energy services. It’s a welcome trend because it democratizes energy markets, weakening monopolies and opening up opportunities for clever entrepreneurs who can combine existing technologies and services in new ways. (It helps if policymakers do their part as well.) Whereas one kWh is as good as any other kWh, energy services can be specialized and custom-crafted for niche markets. Service providers have an increasingly diverse array of renewable energy generators, fuel cells, energy storage, and intelligent automization solutions to choose from. The toolbox is getting bigger.

The effects of this market convergence will also be difficult to forecast, for the same reason: It involves dozens of technology, regulatory, and business practices evolving in concert, with unpredictable, emergent network and system effects.

And so we come to metatrend No. 5, the changing role of power utilities:

Electric utilities tend to create natural monopolies because of economies of scale.

However, these monopolies are eroding, and new technologies and business models are poised to take advantage. When the emergence of independent power producers (IPPs), energy service companies (ESCOs), and cooperative energy companies is combined with the growth in feed-in-tariffs for individuals, utilities are (in some cases) transformed from being the central producer, distributor, and controller to being the purchaser and aggregator of power.

That got a little jargony, but the point is, utilities used to be in the business of generating power at big power plants and then sending it to consumers over one-way lines for a set price. That basic “hub and spoke” model is rapidly becoming obsolete. There are more and more small-scale power generators and power storage nodes on the network, sending power back and forth in massively parallel fashion. Utilities cannot hope to centrally manage all those transactions. They will be forced, whether they like it or not, to move to what’s known among nerds as a more “transactive” model, in which their main job is to manage power markets, to dynamically price (value) power so that the market can react accordingly. Smart-grid analyst Jesse Berst explains:

Transactive energy distributes decision-making throughout the system. Devices can be programmed with the “price” they will respond to at different times and conditions. Then they can respond on their own when they see a value signal that matches. When done properly, distributed values incorporate prices and constraints across the system to achieve reliable results. No need for centralized intervention.

Another way of looking at this is, utilities are going to have to get used to power markets behaving more like actual markets. Conservatives ought to love it.

One fascinating aspect of the utility picture is that experimentation and evolution are happening fastest in the developing world, where electric systems are often being built from the ground up.

It is likely that electric utilities in North America and Europe will have much to learn from the utilities that mature in the developing world. In regions currently lacking a central grid, utilities will come to represent flexible and robust machines, instead of the slow-moving giants of the developed world. Ultimately, the system that grants individuals and companies the most stable and least expensive source of electricity will lead the market. This model will likely come from a fresh perspective on how to generate and distribute the electricity that is currently evolving in the developing world.

This is kind of a fancy way of saying that behemoth utilities in the U.S. and Europe are likely to be impediments to change for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, add these three metatrends together — energy being democratized, small-scale technologies converging into new solutions, and utilities being dragged into the 21st century — and you get the metametatrend of decentralization. Energy, power, and control are leaking out of their centralized repositories and spreading out into more hands.

I expect this to have salutary effects on both the pace of innovation and the strength of democracy. It’s a real ray of hope in an energy world that can sometimes seem hidebound and dismal.


(Cross-Posted from Grist)

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Now You Can Be a Film-Maker

Would you like to become a film-maker? If so, check out Aggreg8, which calls itself a “totally new format for creating a community-based short film”. The project is inviting everyone to submit one-minute videos, the best of which will be used to make a film about the health of our oceans. The deadline for submissions is the end of March 2013.

Go to Aggreg8′s intro video for instructions.

Here is more complete information from sponsors:

Aggreg8 is a totally new format for creating a community based short film. Instead of one person making the movie, the whole community can add segments to the film, in this case, one minute of the movie will be added each week. The theme for Aggreg8′s global debut in Hong Kong is “My Ocean…….” So, one person will “start” the movie by creating the first minute, and each week, people will compete to make the next minute of the movie. The community will then vote to see which minute “joins the film.” By the end of 6 weeks, the community will have created a 6-minute film called “My Ocean…..” This will then be shown at the HK-SF Ocean Film Festival Prizes for the winner each week include a helicopter flight over Hong Kong from Helishots HK, and a free diving certification class from Splash, so you can see the ocean from below and above the water! 

An Inspiring Quote from Edward R Murrow

Edward R Murrow was a daring and progressive CBS reporter from the middle of the last century who recognized the power of television to present the truth about vital issues of our times. He gave a speech in 1958 where he encouraged those involved in media to not shy aware from tough issues. If we do, the television will be just “flickering wires in a box.”

The Future We Want shares Mr. Murrow’s views that visual media can and should be used to illuminate the most pressing issues of our times.

Below is an excerpt from the speech:

“I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.

We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small fraction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure–exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.

To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.”

― Edward R. Murrow

Read more…

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Stirring Change with Murals

The Atlantic is publishing fascinating series of articles on cities. One of the latest — written by Luke Barley — tells of a project in Philadelphia to help revitalize a stagnant neighborhood.

In the project, Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhass and Dre Urhahn are painting colorful murals on storefronts to trigger interest in bringing life back into the neighborhood. It’s an example of using visual arts to stimulate a conversation about the future.

The artists were commissioned by Philadelphia’s sometimes controversial Mural Arts Program. According to Barley, the two artists are hiring local residents to do the actual painting.

Check out Barley’s article and photos by K. Scott Kreider. While you’re at it, you might consider subscribing to the Atlantic’s daily emails on urban issues.

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New Tool Informs Global Urban Infrastructure Investments

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Brazilian Minister for the Environment issued this news release today at Rio+20:

WASHINGTON – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Brazilian Minister for the Environment Izabella Teixeira today announced a new online tool that highlights key links between policies, funding and on-the-ground projects that can help drive urban sustainability investment around the world. The benefits of sustainable urban infrastructure include healthier air and water, job creation and economic development. Jackson and Teixeira announced the web platform, which was developed under the US Brazil Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS), during the Rio+20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“This interactive web platform is designed to serve as an entry point for everyone from local officials to investors who are looking for the best strategies for investment in urban sustainability,” said Administrator Jackson. “Right now the platform represents an array of different approaches, not a comprehensive or one-size-fits-all plan. We believe that this collection of policy instruments, financial mechanisms, and project examples can serve as a model for sustainable development in cities around the world.”

Read more…

As part of a Barefoot Artists project, residents of Balata, the West Bank's largest refugee camp, paint the "Palestinian Tree of Life"

Using Art to Empower Poor Communities

In the summer of 2011, a group of artists, leaders of a local women’s center, students at a girl’s school, and other local residents gathered in Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank. Together with Barefoot Artists, a nonprofit arts organization founded by artist Lily Yeh, they created a brightly colored mural of a tree that they’ve named the “Palestinian Tree of Life.” It’s a bright spot in a maze of three-story concrete blocks—in the camp, 23,000 people occupy a space of less than one square mile.

Lily Yeh and Barefoot Artists travel the world, engaging impoverished communities in collaborative arts projects to beautify their neighborhoods. They’ve conducted painting and performance workshops with children in the Ivory Coast. In Dzegvi, Georgia, they encouraged children and adults to take hundreds of photos that they then presented to their village. And in the heavily polluted outskirts of Beijing, China, the group worked with students, teachers, and staff to renovate their school, which is housed in a former factory and serves 520 children, mostly from low-income migrant families. The group believes that these participatory arts projects not only improve the physical environment, but also build social trust.

Before she started Barefoot Artists, Yeh had worked for years in Philadelphia, where in 1986, she brought a group of North Philadelphia residents together to convert a vacant lot into an art park with mosaic sculptures and murals. Over the years, she was joined by other artists and educators and, together, they created the Village of the Arts and Humanities, which offers arts and educational programs and has transformed more than 150 parcels of vacant land in Philadelphia into parks and gardens. (Reprinted from the Solutions journal.)

WBCSD Roadmap screenshot

World Business Council’s Roadmap to Sustainability

How, exactly, can we reach a world in which 9 billion people are experiencing a decent quality of life? The World Business Council for Sustainable Development offers an answer: a detailed roadmap of what we need to do to achieve that goal by 2050.

The roadmap is the result of an 18-month consensus process that involved CEOs and experts from 29 global companies representing 14 industries. Another 200 companies and stakeholders were consulted. The results are illustrated in a large mural that shows 350 milestones, 10 tracks and 40 “must have” technologies and policies.

If we meet these milestones, the UBCSD says, we’ll have a decent chance of keeping atmospheric warming below 2 degrees Celsius — an ambitious goal because global emissions are still increasing.

Not everyone will agree with every recommendation illustrated on the WBCSD’s mural. But the WBCSD and the leader of this exercise, Bob Horn of Stanford University, deserve pats on the back for obtaining consensus among businesses around the world on so many milestones and goals. Tell us your reactions here. We’ve also posted the mural on the Solutions portion of our website and you can comment there.

Check out WBCSD’s Vision 2050 website for more details and for a version of the roadmap you can enlarge electronically for a better view of its many ideas.