Greenwashing has been a concern for quite some time. Determining the genuine “sustainable DNA” of a company or product is often complicated and confusing.
This can even happen when a business or product has the very best intentions, like Bamboo Sushi in Pot-land, OR, a spot spot with unparalleled commitment to sustainably provided seafood with amazing quality. (excepting, of course, my homies at Salty Girl!)
But here is the quandary: when a menu is riddled with the marks of “free-trade”, “organic”, “Monterrey Bay approved”, farm-raised (or not, depending) FISH, how do consumers decipher the actual impact of their purchases?
Moving Toward Contextualized Consumption:
We need to provide context for consumers and create consolidated, meaningful certifications. When there is a “sustainable label”, we need to clearly demonstrate what that means:
Indicators that demonstrate decoupled production from resource consumption;
Specific Metrics for enhanced social conditions;
Numbers for reduced cancer risks;
Consumers tend to trust companies over certifications, and so we will need those companies (Method, Patagonia, Apple..you know the ones…) to work across product, process and service to provide clarity around what a sustainable product means. Unless this happens, the universal, but impossibly convoluted GHG metric will continue to reign. But there is space for this cooperation to happen, as B Corporations are creating a dynamic consumer environment of the future.
In the meantime, it is promising that these companies are driving toward sustainable production internally. It is also a testament to the value of strong sustainability programs that these vanguards produce the best of the best. Don’t believe me? Head to Portland for a dinner out!
Full disclosure: I think renewable energy is..the best thing since IPA’s in a can, but I have been writing a few posts that explore the problems that large scale renewables create.
Another issue with utility scale renewable energy projects is that these often occur in areas far from high energy demand. For instance, much of California’s solar electricity is imported from projects in Nevada. As we build large renewable projects, we will also need to build capacity to deliver that electricity.
The map above shows how Locational Marginal Prices, the wholesale cost of electricity, fluctuate according to supply and demand. Each screen shot is a different hourly price of electricity across the midwest. These come from a site that tracks current wholesale electricity prices. These maps are a cool way to spend 5 minutes, and are pretty easy to read: Red= High Energy Costs, Blue/Purple=Cheap or Nearly Free energy.
Looking at the maps, you can see how the wholesale price of electricity changes throughout the day.That is, for most of the region. The cool blue spot in Indiana stays the same…no matter what happens around it.
The reason for persistent cheap energy in western Indiana is that three windfarms (Hoosier, Fowler Ridge, and Benton City) generate a great deal of electricity, but the transmission capacity hasn’t caught up to the generation quite yet. The electricity quite simply can’t be shipped to locations of demand. If they could offload that electricity to areas of higher demand, it would balance the costs throughout the region.
Credit where it is due: this insight came from Joel Cervelloni at Opower. Check out their really interesting work with energy reductions.
One serious issue of utility scale renewables is the vast amount of land required to build them. Not only are most of our renewable resources in remote locations that require new transmission lines, substations and telecommunications, but those locations are often undisturbed, fragile ecosystems.
For instance, the map above (go ahead and zoom in!) illustrates the tale of two generators. Both are in Blythe, California. Both are approximately 500 MW of electricity. However, the (proposed) solar field is about 3 miles long and 5,000 acres while the natural gas plant is about 50 total acres, 100xs smaller. The actual location of the natural gas plant is southeast of the solar field, but I have overlayed the footprint to illustrate the size difference. (If you are on a mobile device, or just want to play with the KMZ, you can download here.)
Climate change is the potentially the most serious environmental issue we face, and solar will be part of our solutions, but, think of the poor turtles that are homeless in Blythe.