Posts

An Audit That One Can Actually Like

by Richard T. Stuebi

The concept of an “audit” is something that is inherently, well, unsettling. The word itself implies that you might have done something wrong, and someone is coming to catch you and punish you. For sure, no-one wants to face the prospect of an IRS audit.

Of course, that’s not the sole or even main reason that I’ve never undertaken an energy audit for my house. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation to say that I’ve simply been too preoccupied with other matters to go through the effort of finding a qualified firm to perform an energy audit. And, frankly, I had no idea whether an audit would cost $100 (easily acceptable) or $1000 (too much!).

So, it was with a bit of relief actually that a firm called GreenStreet Solutions sent me a mailer offering an energy audit for $199. No longer burdened with finding a firm to do the work, and knowing that the price was one I could afford, I gave them a call to schedule a visit.

I was very pleased. A two-man team from GreenStreet came to my 1978-era house for a 3-hour tour (sing along: “a 3-hour tour”), and found some pretty interesting results. I wasn’t surprised to discover that certain of the walls and ceilings were underinsulated. However, I was shocked to see that the biggest source of thermal leakage was out of my basement, through the front stoop.

Armed with a host of data collected from the building envelope, thermal images from scanning, and my prior year’s gas and electric bills, the GreenStreet team went off to prepare an assessment . A couple weeks later, the lead analyst returned for an evening debrief with me and my wife, handing us a bound report summarizing the findings and suggesting measures to implement.

The results: at 50 Pascals of pressure, 5135 cubic feet of air per minute were leaking through the building shell of my home, relative to a target of 2299 for a reference home of comparable size. To combat this, GreenStreet proposed three packages of solutions — Bronze, Silver and Gold — to reduce the leaks. To my wife and me, the Silver package looked the best — the most bang for the buck — entailing $9738 of outlays to save an estimated $2288 annual heating costs (surprisingly, savings on air conditioning expenses are not calculated), for a projected average payback of 4.3 years.

In addition, GreenStreet provided a bag full of goodies to further help reduce energy. For instance, we were given a Kill-A-Watt meter to measure appliance consumption rates and phantom loads. Though I haven’t yet gone around the house to develop a list, it sounds like a pretty fun project some rainy afternoon.

Also, GreenStreet gave us a bunch of thermal insulating gaskets for outlets and light switches. I installed these the other day, and in removing the covers, it’s really amazing to see how much thermal leakage is likely to occur through these huge uninsulated gaps. Parents: installing these gaskets would be an excellent project to give to your teenager to undertake.

As for implementing the audit results, we were prepared to authorize a go-ahead — until the GreenStreet salesperson noted that a bill was winding its way through Congress to reimburse up to $8000 (with no ceiling on income levels) for weatherization efforts, and since the bill wouldn’t be retroactive, we would be better off waiting for the bill to pass (expected this summer). We thanked him for his divulging this important opportunity, and asked him to have GreenStreet call us when the bill passed.

He further noted that a bill was moving through the Ohio legislature to reimburse the $199 we paid for the energy audit too, and informed us that we would be notified if this were to pass as well.

I was really impressed with the audit by GreenStreet — very professional, and not pushy. The GreenStreet agent noted that their parent company was Vectren (NYSE: VVC) — a gas and electric utility based in Southern Indiana — which leads me to wonder if all energy audits should be performed by companies that have a corporate parent that is a utility possessing sufficient financial wherewithal and expertise on energy-related issues.

However, unless the utility has revenue/profit decoupling mechanisms in place, it’s clear in my mind that an audit can’t effectively be done by the local utility, who may be subject to conflicts of interest by threatening to cannibalizing their core business from reducing energy consumption.

In all respects, my wife and I actually enjoyed this audit, and recommend a similar type of audit for anyone who wants to make their personal contribution to the cleantech challenge.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

Let’s Get Small

by Richard T. Stuebi

In a recent story, CNN profiled the new home of Bill and Sharon Kastrinos.

154 square feet. That’s right, 154 square feet. Actually, it’s 98 square feet downstairs, plus a 56 square foot loft upstairs. The closet — well, that’s inside the car.

Why would the Kastrinos live in such a miniscule dwelling? Apparently, it’s driven by economics. Mr. Kastrinos wants to live on $15,000 per year, but also wants to live in a nice place, California wine country (specifically, Calistoga), where real estate costs are astronomical. With this home, costing $15,000 and with a utility bill of $15 per month, he and his wife can make it work. And, when they get the urge to go elsewhere, they can tow their home, which has wheels and a chassis on the bottom, making it essentially an RV.

The small pre-fab home market has become a bit of a “cottage industry” (sorry, couldn’t resist). Mr. Kastrinos himself has made and sold 11 of them in the last half-year. In nearby Sebastopol, Jay Shafer’s Tumbleweed Tiny House Company offers a full range of home designs between 65 (!) and 774 square feet.

The common theme of the customers is a desire to downsize their lives and their consumption patterns, the equivalent of a colonic cleansing. It’s a bit extreme for me; I couldn’t imagine making such a big change in lifestyle in one fell swoop. But there’s little doubt in my mind: unAmerican as it may be, if we as a society are to achieve significant reductions in energy consumption and emissions output, some degree of downsizing will occur. The question is going to be: will it be by choice, or will it be forced?

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

Robert Metcalfe Is Wrong, Clean Technology Alone Will Not Work

by Marguerite Manteau-Rao

I got a sneak preview of Scientific American’s Earth 3.0 special issue on ‘Solutions for Sustainable Progress’. Mostly great stuff, with the exception of one article, that prompted me to write this rebuttal.

In ‘Learning from the Internet’, Robert M. Metcalfe, venture capitalist and Internet pioneer, expands on the dangerous idea that,

I don’t think for a moment that we’re going to conserve our way out of the energy crisis. Internet history shows that prosperity depends on abundant bandwidth. Prosperity (gross domestic product, per capita) is proportional to energy use. We are not going to lower per capita consumptionof energy in the U.S. We are going to enable the rest of the world to be as prosperous by using not less but more energy. We need to make energy cheap, clean and therefore abundant – really abundant, for a really long time.

Sounds familiar? This is the same kind of thinking endorsed in an earlier McKinsey study, and also to a lesser extent, by Al Gore in his Moon Shot Challenge speech.

Makes me mad. The average citizen is already confused enough. The last thing we need is more tenors in green tech and green biz to lull us into thinking that technology will get us out of our mess. Besides, I do not see what climate change has to do with the Internet.

We need to get out of this pervasive either-or thinking. Energy conservation and new energy technologies are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they are meant to work together. One without the other will not work. It’s a matter of simple maths, and of mitigating our risks, in the unlikely event that technology does not deliver on all its promises.


Marguerite Manteau-Rao is a green blogger and marketing consultant on sustainability and social media. Her green blog, La Marguerite, focuses on behavioral solutions to climate change and other global sustainability issues. Marguerite is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. You can follow her on Twitter.

ConocoPhillips’ CTO on the Future of Cleantech and Energy Technology

I had the opportunity recently to chat with Stephen Brand, the chief technology officer for ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP), one of the largest major oil companies in the world. I have a long personal history with the ConocoPhillips organization. One of the first IPOs I ever worked on was the Conoco, Inc. IPO when DuPont spun it out in the late 1990s. At the time (pre dotcom) it was the largest IPO on record. My uncle worked for Phillips Petroleum on the other side of the company for 30 years. And for the last several years I have advised parts of the ConocoPhillips company in its emerging technology and alternative energy groups.

ConocoPhillips has always been the quietest of the majors when it comes to the press, so I was delighted when Stephen agreed to speak on the record on energy technology, cleantech and alternative energy technology with Cleantech Blog. He recently also headlined the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship forum. Stephen himself came out of the Phillips organization from the exploration and production side of the business, originally starting as a geologist.

ConocoPhillips has always been a quiet leader, with technology budgets at levels swamping all but the largest venture capital organizations in cleantech, and was the first oil company to join US Climate Action Project and are part of the Carbon Disclosure Project. They are also quietly repositioning the company around a global energy strategy – not just oil.

This move tracks the history of the company. While one of the oldest oil companies in the world, 20 years ago Phillips was not generally considered a major player in the oil industry, and given the changes driven through M&A in the last 15 years, which Amoco, Mobil, Arco and numerous other massive organizations did not survive as independent, it certainly was not clear the Phillips would become one of the Tier 1 companies. But today, at $178 Bil in assets, it clearly is. The current CEO, Jim Mulva, took over as chief executive about 10 years ago, and the moves the company has made, including deals that brought Conoco, Inc. and Burlington into the fold, helped vault the company well above its historical presence. In some respects COP is positioned to do the same thing in energy and technology more broadly. Especially given that its annual capital expenditures of $15 Bil are on the same scale as the whole solar industry revenues or the global venture capital sector, and in one underreported move in the last couple of years they doubled annual technology spending to $500 mm.

I put a few questions to Stephen during our discussion to outline what all of this means.

Stephen, how important do you see technology to the future of the oil patch in general?

Neal, by 2030, global energy demand is forecast to be about 50 percent higher than it is today, even with improvements in energy efficiency. Emerging technologies will help us meet the world’s growing energy needs as we look for oil and natural gas in ever more challenging environments – for example the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and offshore Arctic – and in more challenging forms such as oil sands and gas hydrates. Innovation also will help us to minimize the impact on our environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In the 1980s/1990s oil companies under oil price pressure cut back on R&D drastically as WTI prices fell down to $10, was that a mistake in hindsight, even though it made financial sense at the time? Besides energy prices, what else has changed?

We take a long-term view of our business which enables us to stay focused on results. We apply a consistent, systematic business model with the flexibility to adapt to changing business conditions around the world, but we understand that we need to take a long-term perspective of for innovation that will develop future business opportunities. ConocoPhillips is committed to invest in people, technology and projects that allow us to safely, reliably produce oil, natural gas and to develop the next generation environmentally superior fuels to sustain our economy and way of life.

In which area is technology most important for the energy business?

Technology is important in every segment of our business. It is one of the most important tools we have for finding and producing new sources of oil and natural gas, but also for developing and delivering energy in new, more efficient ways. For example:

New exploration technology – 3-D seismic – allows us to detect undersea oil and gas deposits at great depths with minimum impact on the environment;
Breakthroughs in lithium-ion battery technology greatly improve the safety, power and reliability of batteries for hybrid vehicles, thereby improving fuel economy and reducing emissions;
A “coal-to-gas” technology that allows the use of this abundant resource in an environmentally superior manner;
Innovations in carbon capture and storage will allow us to address concerns regarding global climate change.

You have announced the long term transition of ConocoPhillips from an integrated oil company to a global energy company, what does this mean, and how does that apply to technology?

Yes, ConocoPhillips is not looking just at oil for the future of our company, but energy broadly. Technology is a key part of that transition. Any moves into new markets for any company requires access to innovation and technology. The ConocoPhillips Technology group has more than 350 scientists and engineers – 50 percent of them with Ph.D.s. These are the people driving our innovations and our transition as we become more technologically sophisticated. One of the most significant aspects of that transition, I believe, will be our ability to recruit and retain the kind of scientists and researchers who can develop the next generation of energy. That’s one reason why ConocoPhillips is creating a new 400 acre global technology center outside of Denver, Colorado and why budgets have gone up.

I’ve followed the Company for a while, but can you share some perspective on COP’s technology budgets are with our readers, and how and where they have been growing?

We have doubled our research and development spending. In 2008, we invested $500 million in technology – technologies that improve our existing assets, as well as those that create new emerging businesses. We expect that figure to grow in the future. As I mentioned, our global technology center, projected to open in 2012, is another indication of our emphasis emerging technologies and their role in the future.

In the last several years ConocoPhillips made a number of moves in technology, including a much reported biofuels effort, but also launched a groundbreaking lithium ion battery electrode business called CPreme. But more broadly what technology areas is COP interested, and how might you rank them?

Safety is always our top priority; and we believe safety is very much tied to operational reliability at all our facilities, which is large part a technology problem. But in addition to using technology to enhance operational reliability at our core upstream and downstream facilities, we’re focused on identifying breakthrough technologies that can deliver energy while lowering greenhouse gas emissions – next generation energy including alternatives like biofuels and renewables like solar and geothermal; and technologies to reduce industrial CO2 emissions.

Are you looking to do more in-house R&D or external partnerships?

Both. We are actively recruiting for our own efforts, and to foster technology innovation, we have several co-ventures with Iowa State University, the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. We also established the ConocoPhillips Energy Prize, in partnership with Penn State, to recognize new ideas and original, actionable solutions that can help improve the way our country develops and uses energy. The first awards will be announced in October.

Okay, so then do you see COP making technology acquisitions at any time in the future, or will it all be homegrown?

We are supporting innovation inside and outside the company. While we have not made any technology acquisitions, being open to new concepts and innovation means that we would not rule that out.

As far as the internally grown R&D efforts, you’ve had a major expansion in the works for some time but hasn’t gotten much press. Can you share a little about the upcoming Denver technology center?

Our Louisville, CO, technology and learning center outside of Denver, slated to open in 2012, will be a center of innovation for us. In Louisville we will have a purpose-built facility where we can work to explore new and expanded research and development opportunities in upstream, downstream, environmental, renewable and alternative technologies. This is also part of our push to recruit and retain top talent.

Oil and gas is not the only core technology area for the company. COP has had a long history in materials technologies, and most people don’t know has developed some of the most innovative lithium ion battery technology in the world. Can you talk some about Cpreme?

Our CPreme ® graphites are the highest-performing anode materials currently available for lithium-ion batteries. We are rapidly scaling up to meet growing transportation demand. We are also developing high performance cathode material to help reduce the cost of batteries, while meeting demanding automotive industry performance standards. This product will be available soon for testing by battery manufacturers, and we have begun commercializing the technology – not only can we develop new technologies but we can move from R&D to the commercial side.

And the COP biofuels program has gotten lots of press, what can you share about that?

We are engaged in development and production of new biofuels that have a better environmental footprint than existing sources. We currently produce renewable diesel fuel at our Whitegate refinery in Ireland using vegetable oils as a feedstock, and are testing the process at our Borger refinery in Texas as part of our arrangement with Tyson Foods to utilize by-product animal fat as a feedstock. We are also doing research – internally and outside the company – on new biomass fuels. We have a joint development agreement with Archer Daniels Midland to develop fuels from agricultural wastes and a relationship with Iowa State to research all phases of biofuels. We are also a founding member of the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels, a cooperative research and educational center devoted to the conversion of biomass to fuels and other products and where we will be studying the prospects for algae in biofuels development.

What else do you see COP looking at alternative energy? Solar? Wind?

We look at those innovative alternatives where there is potential for technology to make a significant breakthrough. With our emphasis on research and development, alternatives like solar, geothermal, clean coal and battery technology are where we put our efforts, in addition to moving forward on renewables like biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol.

And I should ask before I let you go, when exactly did COP decide to create the position of “CTO”? That’s not a typical oil company title.

Well Neal, officially I’m the senior vice president for Technology. ConocoPhillips created the position in 2007 to better centralize and coordinate research and development (R and D) efforts that had always gone on in different parts of the company. This focus on R and D allows us better pursue projects that help strengthen energy security and to better allocate financial resources to invest in new technologies that reduce the environmental impact of our operations.

Stephen, thanks for finally coming on the record with us. It is exciting to see what’s going on.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of Cleantech.org.

8 Lessons From Twitter Energy Monitoring

by Marguerite Manteau-Rao

Two weeks and 77 tweets later, the Twitter “green_watch” project has come to an end. Lots of insights, problems raised, and beginning of answers.

The goal was to use Twitter as a real time, online reporting tool for my personal energy consumption, round the clock.


Lessons learned from the project:

#1. The more engaged we are in flow-like activities, the less our propensity to consume energy and buy things that depend on energy for their production:

Adults and children should be encouraged to develop capacity to engage in activities that are deeply satisfying by themselves, eg, hobbies, work, physical activities. Early education could play an important role in that respect. Children’s creativity should be encouraged more, including the ability to do much with little.

#2. Energy vampires, although well known by now, continue to do their silent work of sucking up electricity unnecessarily, and with no added benefit for the end user.

Smart meters, power strips, are available. But how many people use them? How many know much they could save? The effort required is still too great for the mainstream.

#3. There are no readily available monitoring system to alert us when we are consuming energy, and how much, and in ways that talk to us.

I understand $, comparisons, savings, cute pictures, and sensorial signals such as bells and changing colors. Forget kWhs, tables, and graphs. Lots of work is currently being done in this field. But it still has a long way to go, and is still in pilot stage.

#4. The switch from car to alternative low energy mode of transportation requires that people experience first hand the superior benefits of those alternatives.

From riding my bike a few times, I realized that biking was better for my health, took no more time than driving, avoided traffic jam and parking problem, was a lot of fun, and cost me nothing. Same with taking the train, and realizing that I could use time riding productively, working on my laptop, or reading, plus I did not have to find parking. This shows the importance of jumpstarting the conversion process by eliminating barriers to trial of other mode of transportations.

#5. We are addicted to convenience, even more than to things. Rather than fighting that addiction, we should focus on sustainable alternatives that are as, if not more convenient that current solutions.

The bike example also applies here. If we can convince people that biking is as fast, and less hassle than driving, at least for short distances, then we will have an easier sell. Trying to go against that cultural reality of our Western world, is likely to be met with great resistance, and be counterproductive.

#6. There is a huge fuzzy area in collective energy consumption, and indirect energy use. How does one establish the share between individual and institutional responsibility?

At home, and in my car, I am in charge. What happens when I consume electricity from lighting on the freeways, or university campuses? Or when I buy processed food, without any knowledge of the energy that went into producing it? Information becomes critical, as in food carbon labeling, or public display of energy consumption, for let’s say a public pool. Although not a mainstream reality yet, such information would empower individuals to make informed decisions about their use of such collective services.

#7. Green-ness is a privilege of the rich. People with money to spend on home solar installations, hybrid cars, and carbon offsets for air traveling, can lower their carbon footprint, a lot more easily than their less well-off fellow citizens.

That is a fact. In the absence of significant government subsidies and investments, the average person needs to work a lot harder to decrease his or her carbon footprint

#8. Energy efficiency and conservation, the two low hanging fruits of climate change remediation, have not yet entered the public consciousness.

I am dreaming smart homes, smart transportation, smart consumption. No fancy new technologies required. Only a shift in mindsets, and the pulling together of existing technologies.

Any ideas how to make this happen? I am asking you . . .

Marguerite Manteau-Rao is a green blogger and marketing consultant on sustainability and social media. Her green blog, La Marguerite, focuses on behavioral solutions to climate change and other global sustainability issues. Marguerite is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. Since Sarah Palin’s VP nomination, she has also been impersonating Ms. Palin at What’s Sarah Thinking? blog