Energy Subsidies and the “Free Market”

Time and time again, I hear people say that renewables should be subject to the “free market” and should not receive government subsidies. After all, if renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal are viable, the consumer should decide, not the government. And while I understand (and even to a point agree) with those comments, the problem is we simply don’t have a level playing field. Nor do we have (or will we ever have) a truly free market economy. As Wikipedia says, “purely free markets… are theoretical constructs.” So after a recent spate of posts on a couple of threads on my Facebook page, I thought I would address some of the issues that came up.

I think the purpose of subsidies is to get fledgling industries off the ground so they can be viable. Call it investment capital, call it what you want, that’s how our culture works. Entrepreneurs have an idea and get investors and/or tax breaks for a period of time so they can build a good foundation and become productive. There is often a huge amount of research and development costs associated with a start-up company. And I’ll be the first to say I’m not an economist. But I will go on to say this isn’t rocket science, either.

The chart I’ve included with this post is based on a 2009 report by the Environmental Law Institute report titled “Estimating U. S. Government Subsidies to Energy Sources: 2002-2008.” The source of the information in the report comes from the Internal Revenue Service, the US Department of Energy, the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation and the US Department of Agriculture. The report covers the 6-year cumulative period of 2002-2008.

It’s a telling chart because it shows just how disproportionate the playing field really is. 72% of Federal subsidies for energy go to fossil fuels, not renewables. And if you group biofuel in with the fossil fuels (I do; biofuel is stupid), it’s more like 88%. The report goes into a great amount of detail regarding how the subsidies are parsed out.

Historically, a large amount of the subsidies for fossil fuel goes to coal. You know, the same people who brought you mountaintop removal. And black lung disease (and those suffering from it also are subsidized). Oil companies also receive a huge amount of subsidies for off-shore drilling costs, foreign exploration credits and the like.

But I guess my point here is that oil and coal have received subsidies for decades and at least the oil companies, who realistically hold a monopoly over us, are still seeing record profits. It seems subsidies should help companies get established, then phase out, not add on to profits. And the argument that we need to look at how much tax the oil companies pay would be valid if they weren’t paying tax on money we give them. Would you be willing to pay $300 tax on my gift of $1,000 to you? I sure would.

In the 1980s, there were some pretty substantial tax credits (yes, subsidies) for solar. During that time, my parents installed a solar hot water system on their house. It’s still plugging along, churning out hot water. Then the Federal credits expired in 2000, 2002, 2004 and almost in 2008. They’ve currently been renewed through 2016.

But in my home state of Oregon, with one of the most aggressive tax credit programs around, the Legislature may look at eliminating them.

It’s this on again/off again situation that never allows any renewable energy company to ever really get off the ground. Why can’t we commit to a consistent subsidy for renewables over 20 or 25 years? It’s that see-saw effect, much like Roland Martin said in his blog about gasoline prices posted here a while back. And it essentially is strangling any hope of renewable energy ever coming close to competing with Big Oil.

It’s the short-sighted view we have, where we don’t look past our nose to the future. We have these spurts of knee-jerk reactions when things get “bad” then fall into complacency when it evens out temporarily.

We can’t keep living like that. If we evened out the subsidies and shifted $30 billion of the oil subsidies to renewables, it would help. I believe even with fossil fuels’ head start, that shift alone, if continued consistently for 20 years, would make renewables viable and an integral part of our culture. And it would go a long way toward leveling that playing field.

Is anyone willing to give it a try?

NewWood – A Revolutionary Idea

As a stark contrast to the Numi toilet I recently panned, I’m totally excited about the concept behind NewWood. Starting with a nuclear power plant in Washington that was never completed or brought online, some very resourceful entrepreneurs have come up with what just could be one of the most revolutionary ideas to come along in a very long time.

Taking a mix of 50% recycled wood and 50% recycled plastic, they have started production (just within the last few days) on a 4×8 sheet that could replace much of the way we currently make plywood and sheet goods for underlayment, etc.

We spoke with Steve Pottle, from NewWood and are getting some samples. Our primary thought is to use them in our kit homes endeavor for developing countries, World3Homes. We had been looking for a sheet good that was durable, insect and moisture resistant, flexible for earthquake resistance, lightweight and economical. So far as we can tell, NewWood fits the bill on all counts.

What excites me about NewWood is the wood comes from wood waste that would have gone into the landfills, like some construction demolition waste, so it’s appropriate to be taking that material and reusing it in buildings. The plastic comes from plastic bottles and bags that may or may not get recycled (there seems to be plenty of it to go around). And the factory is recycled, too — a nuclear power plant never finished that was going to be a manufacturing facility that never started in an area of Washington with chronic unemployment.

The other thing about NewWood that I appreciate is NewWood itself is 100% recyclable. When it has served its useful life, or someone remodels, NewWood can be broken down and recycled again and again.

That’s truly forward-thinking. Once I get my sample and we have a chance to try it in our first World3Homes prototype, I’ll revisit this and let you know how it performs. Oh, and thanks to Preston Koerner from JetsonGreen; that’s where I first heard about NewWood.

Envision Eugene

I recently wrote an op-ed piece for our local newspaper, The Register-Guard. here it is in its entirety:

The Envision Eugene draft document, which is poised to create “A Legacy of Livability,” is open for public comment; a public hearing is scheduled for Monday before the City Council. I know some have expressed frustration that we aren’t jumping in and drawing lines and getting to the details faster. As one who has lived in Eugene almost all of my 54 years, I’ve observed our community’s ups and downs and would like to offer my perspective on this process.

While the original mandate from the state Legislature was for cities to identify and establish a 20-year supply of buildable residential land, our city’s officials decided this was an opportunity to carry the process further and with more depth and completeness than just meeting the legal minimums. We had not performed such a comprehensive analysis since the 1980s, and it was long overdue.

These two goals — accommodating the next 20 years of growth and creating a livable, sustainable future for our community — are outlined in the draft Envision Eugene document.

What this meant was taking a few steps back to see the big picture and establishing some goals that went beyond just the mandate. And it means taking a little longer for the process. We must come to grips with the concept that everything is connected. Land use, transportation corridors and many other elements are inextricably dependent on each other.

Past planning decisions have not always recognized this. Plus, we also have a community that is known for its very diverse views on how to approach solutions, sometimes leading to no decision.

A Community Resource Group was formed by John Ruiz, our city manager. This group represented people with a broad range of interests, backgrounds and opinions.

What I observed with the CRG and other listening sessions was a bringing together of diverse members of our community in a way that started with our common thread. Then, the sessions took the common threads our community agrees on and used those as the foundation to build our collective vision for what we’d like Eugene to look like over the next few decades.

And that intentionally must start with general concepts before we delve into the details; we have to decide and agree on our destination before we choose the method of how to get there. That is what the whole Envision Eugene process, the seven pillars and the strategies and tactics attempt to do: provide the framework for actually “drawing the lines.”

Those seven pillars are objectives set out to: 1) provide ample economic opportunities for all community members, 2) provide affordable housing for all income levels, 3) plan for climate change and energy uncertainty, 4) promote compact urban development and efficient transportation options, 5) protect, repair and enhance neighborhood livability, 6) protect, restore and enhance natural resources, and 7) provide for adaptable flexible and collaborative implementation.

In short, these pillars address at least one aspect of the “triple bottom line” regarding the economy, the environment and social equity within a framework that allows flexibility and adaptation in the coming years.

As an architect, whenever we design a project for a client, we first require them to go through what we call a programming phase. This is where they lay out and establish what their goals are with their project: what their needs are, what they want it to feel like, look like and cost. Until those things are established, we won’t start designing or drawing lines. And when our clients have done a good job of thinking through their needs, goals and resources, our design and the end result for them is always successful.

I believe it will be the same with Envision Eugene. If we are patient enough to really establish and articulate our goals as a community and resist the urge to prematurely dive into drawing lines, we will have a much better result, a much more livable Eugene and a framework we can use for decisions in the future that will achieve the goals of our community.

Kohler Numi Toilet

Unbelievable. Technology is going to save us once and for all. For a price.

As seen in USA Today, a new customizable “smart toilet” is being brought to the US market the end of this month. Called the “Numi”, Kohler’s new toilet is billed as “a perfect blend of technology, performance, and design.” It comes complete with “adjustable heated seat and foot warmer too, plus an integrated stainless steel, self-cleaning bidet wand with a dryer. A motion-controlled seat and lid can automatically open when you approach and close when you split. Tripping a bar of light on the floor to the side of the toilet automatically raises the seat, while the toilet automatically flushes when walking away.”

It comes in white or biscuit and has a remote control that can be programmed for up to six individual users. And it can be yours for only $6,300. So while it may be a perfect blend of technology, performance, and design, cost obviously isn’t part of the “blend.” It is dual flush with 0.6 or 1.28 gallons per flush, so there is one redeeming factor with this toilet.

But that’s the only one.

Roland S. Martin – CNN Guest Blog

I have never posted verbatim another blog post until today. With the recent events in Libya, gas prices soaring (again) and the nuclear meltdown in Japan, I was going to write something, because I just couldn’t keep quiet. Then, I came across Roland Martin’s post on CNN today (March 12, 2011) and decided he said it better than I ever could. So, I contacted him and obtained permission to repost it here. It’s well worth the read but it would be even important if we actually paid attention to what he says.

CNN Editor’s note: Roland Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House.” He is a commentator for TV One Cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, “Washington Watch with Roland Martin.”

(CNN) — Gas prices are skyrocketing nationwide and Americans are angry that they have to spend more of their hard earned money at the pump each week.

The crisis in northern Africa, specifically in Libya, has led the dramatic rise in the cost of oil, which now tops $101 a barrel, over the past month. And with summer approaching, Americans are fretting over whether to hit the highway for vacation because the price of gas, averaging $3.52 a gallon nationwide, is expected to go even higher.

Our political leaders? Some Democrats and Republicans are leaning on President Barack Obama to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and use some of the millions of barrels of oil we have on tap to provide some relief as a result of the price increase.

In a news conference Friday, President Obama said he’ll release the oil if needed.

“All options are on the table when it comes to any supply disruption,” he said.

Is this Groundhog Day or what?

Three years ago this nation went through convulsions when gas prices skyrocketed. Folks were sharing rides and pushing elected officials to broaden public transportation plans. Hybrids and electric cars started getting a second look from gas conscious drivers, and all the talk was about alternative energy and not being dependent on Arab leaders in the Middle East.

And when those gas prices went back down? We yelled, screamed and cheered, and then pulled the SUVs out of the garage, filled them up with gasoline and forgot all about the pain we endured.

This is the American story: Alleviate our pain so we can go back to business as usual. And when the crisis comes back, we’ll fret, scream and go bonkers.
Please, stop the madness!

When are we simply going to reach the conclusion that as long as this nation has a Charlie Sheen-like addiction to gas, our chains can be yanked at any time, which will send our economy into a tailspin?

The U.S. Energy Department predicts that with the dramatic rise in gas prices, the average American family will spend an additional $700 annually on gas. And with money already tight, that is a huge hit.

Unfortunately, our crack-like dependence on oil continues to lead us down the road of agony and despair, and our political leaders have no courage to own up to the special interests and gas lovin’ Americans and say, “Dammit, enough! We can’t move forward like this!”

Democrats and Republicans are now saying President Obama needs to allow for more drilling off the shores of the United States. Really? So that’s the only answer? Everyone knows there isn’t enough oil to satisfy America’s thirst. But oh no, we keep this charade up.

America will never be able to transition our system from an oil-dependent economy to an alternative plan unless we show the courage to make the tough choices today and get the payoff later.

I don’t care what Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann says about energy efficient lightbulbs; the old ones were cheaper, used more energy and we had to buy a lot more. The government’s move to force a new lightbulb standard caused some pain on the front end with my wallet, but over the long term, fewer bulbs are being bought and I’m seeing a decrease in my light bill.

Until the nation accepts this reality, we will continue to be at the mercy of oil-possessing countries.

Embracing non-oil energy alternatives — wind, natural gas, electric and solar — can absolutely create jobs in this country, and we should require Americans to make their homes more energy efficient with products built by Americans. What’s wrong with that? How can the United States create solar technology and then allow the Chinese to become the leading manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels?

No one alternative energy source can replace oil. It has to be a comprehensive plan that addresses our long-term needs. And it is going to mean we will have to spend money. Yes, we will be affected in the short-term, but if someone told me we could spend $500 billion today, and that would create millions of jobs over the next several years and lead to a transition to an alternative-energy economy, I would ask where I should sign up.

But if we have no courage, we will lose every time.

So, if the only thing you know is “drill, baby, drill,” and that gasoline is our only option, great. Have a wonderful time. And every time gas skyrockets, just smack yourself upside the head with that gas pump, because you’re the reason we remain stuck on stupid when it comes to energy in this country.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.

But we here at thesimpleHOUSE share these opinions, too.

Deep Green – Movie Review

“All I know is, I’m alive now and I can do something today, and I can’t in good conscience wait for somebody else to do it. I think the time is now; for me the time is absolutely now. It’s the only time anybody has”. Kathy Bash, Architect with DMS Architects in Portland, Oregon. Of all the people and quotes and sound bites from the film, this is the one that stuck with me the most.

Deep Green, a documentary from Matt Briggs, is not so much about the problem, but about solutions. In his description of his film, Briggs says: “Other films have done a great job of showing us the problem. We wanted ‘Deep Green’ to be about solutions.” And the film does just that. In an hour and 40 minutes (which, in my opinion could have been about 20 minutes shorter), Briggs focuses more on the ways people around the world are addressing ways to reduce their footprint and live a little lighter on the planet than on the problems with our lifestyles. Briggs himself has retrofitted his own home with numerous energy-saving, sustainable features. And he’s apparently still at it, adding some solar here, some composting there; yes, he’s living it.

The film starts out with some basic background data on global warming and climate change, but doesn’t stay there. It dives right in to what’s happening around the world in the areas of clean energy, high-speed rail, sustainable buildings, agriculture and out-of-the-box thinking. Briggs shows how everything is connected and “we all live downstream.”

What I appreciate about the film, enjoying its Eugene, Oregon debut (Briggs is a University of Oregon alum), is it does concentrate on what’s good out there, what we can do and how it makes environmental sense and economic sense. Too often, I think, filmmakers of this genre zero in on the gloom and doom aspects of climate change. We are so close to the tipping point, or have passed it, that the message gets lost in the futility. And that is what sets this film apart from the others. It was a bit long (I would have shown less detail on the clean coal segment and been a little less enamored with China), but still worth the watch. You won’t come away from this film discouraged, downcast or brow-beaten.

Which brings me back to Kathy Bash’s remarks. I know Kathy as a colleague and respect her as a fellow Architect. She has a passion, yet practicality in her view of sustainability. Which makes her opening quote so profound. I am responsible for what I can do. We must take responsibility for ourselves; if we all would do that, we would move forward at breakneck speed.

The Lawrence Street House – Bidding and LEED

I know it’s been a little while since I gave you all an update on the Lawrence House. With the holidays, I took a bit longer finishing the drawings and we really didn’t want to have to be doing open houses during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. Open Houses are actually kind of a pain. Clean the house, keep it spotless, etc. for a two to three hour window on a Sunday afternoon. So we rested that for a while.

I also got the drawings done and ready to go out to bid. Based on my original budget, we had our present house priced at where we needed to be for a little negotiation and be able to go straight across. Part of the triple bottom line (the three “E’s” of sustainability) is economy and we didn’t want to end up with a mortgage when it’s all said and done.

But I’ve been getting preliminary bids back and they are actually coming in under my original budget (which, frankly, was pretty generous). So now we’re starting to get pretty excited. This may actually happen! We’re also currently at 5kw for the solar and are considering 6kw. We have room on the roof and believe it’s the right thing to do.

We had our first official LEED preliminary rating meeting Friday. This is where we sat down with Eli, our LEED rater, our landscape architect and our mechanical contractor. We’ve already done the design charrette and this is to make sure the major players understand the ground rules for LEED and also what we expect. Third party verification requires some stringent guidelines and we want to do it right from from the beginning. We should easily make Platinum on each house.

We discussed the mechanical systems and how they needed to be designed and installed. The way we are insulating our house, we are foaming the tops of the roof rafters so the heat pump indoor units and the ductwork will be within the conditioned space. That way we don’t have to insulate the ducts and it also makes the system run much more efficiently. We’ll still seal the ducts (the major area of mechanical system inefficiencies) and everything will be ceiling-fed.

We’re thinking the cottage will use a mini-split unit, or ductless heat pump. This is much more efficient, especially in a 776 sq ft house. The main house will have a conventional heat pump, but just a very high efficiency one.

Our landscaping is all low irrigation demand. We discussed at length eco lawn versus regular turf versus synthetic turf. We have just about 3% lawn area, but LEED, to maximize the points, doesn’t allow irrigation or mowing, otherwise you lose those two points. I’ve said all along we won’t chase points, but this is an area we want to be sure we do it right and also have something we will enjoy. An eco lawn in the location we have this might not be what we want. Our landscape architect suggested a synthetic lawn (I know, my first thought is “Astro-Turf“). We are going to go look at one here in town, but I’m skeptical about it. The term “Fake Lawn” is what comes off my lips. I’ll keep you posted.

So that’s where we’re at. I’m hopeful we’ll have the bids come in well and we can get this house sold and start building. The prime building season in Eugene (March – September) is fast approaching.

Van Jones and Green Jobs

Van Jones was appointed by President Obama early in his presidency. After a short six months as Special Advisor for Green Jobs in the Obama Administration, amid controversy over several issues, Jones resigned. My wife and I had the privilege of hearing Jones speak Monday night at the University of Oregon in the EMU Ballroom.

Jones is an engaging speaker, expressive and animated. But beyond that, the guy is simply smart. Actually, he’s wise. I make a distinction between smart and wise. Smart is the head knowledge that fills up your brain; wise is applying that head knowledge in practical, useful, helpful ways. And when it comes to all aspects of the triple bottom line (environment, economy and equity), Jones is definitely wise.

His lecture was titled “Beyond Green Jobs: the Next American Economy” and was presented as part of the University’s Humanities Center Tzedek lectures. As I have reflected on his talk, I’ve been trying to think what tidbit of something he said should be the focus of this post. That’s difficult. He touched on many topics across the spectrum of politics, the environment, social justice and economics. And I think the challenge I’m having distilling his talk down to one (or a few) talking points is the same challenge I had with my seminar at the Good Earth Home Show titled “Lifestyle of the Simple and Sustainable.” And that is: everything is connected. And because everything is connected, a linear thought process simply falls short.

So Jones’ talk, while it touched on many topics (Hurricane Katrina, politics, social justice, economics, the BP oil spill and his dad putting himself and several relatives including Jones through college), it was all connected. Because life and culture are all connected.

But I guess if I had to single out just one thought from Jones’ talk, it would be the concept that we have built our energy economy on death. Oil is dead dinosaurs. Coal is dead plant material. So we drill and dig (or blow up mountaintops) dead stuff to burn it for fuel and create even more death through pollution, illnesses, greenhouse gases, etc. Instead, we should be looking to the sun and renewable energy sources and the life they give (plant life, animal life, human life) and capture that through solar energy and wind power for starters. And I suppose that is what was so profound to me from Jones’ talk Monday. It’s profound because it’s so simple. Life? Or death?

I wonder what would happen in our neighborhoods, our regions, our world if we looked at everything through the lens of life rather than the lens of death? If we looked at every action, every process, every political decision, every social decision, every environmental decision through that filter, as cliché as this might sound, the world would truly be a much better place. It would benefit our environment, it would benefit our social equity and it would benefit our economy. Let’s start.

Good Earth Home Show 2011

This was the second year, we were at the Good Earth Home Garden and Living Show. My architectural firm, Arbor South Architecture had a booth last year and we did it again this year.

This was also the second year we did a seminar. In 2010, we talked about our award-winning LEED Platinum home, theSAGE. This year, I was asked to speak again as part of an Architect focus. By the time I was asked, the topics of building a smaller house, energy efficiency (specifically via the Passivhaus concept) and why to hire an Architect were already taken. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts that I’ve been sharing with you all here on my blog.

So if you attended the seminar today and enjoyed it, thank you; I enjoyed presenting it. I know the topics were a bit circular and not linear, but as I mentioned, everything is connected. And when everything is connected, it’s very hard to go in a straight line. This affects that and so on. But it’s rewarding to realize how one thing we do can affect another, which in turn can affect yet another. It kind of makes the shift in our paradigm and lifestyle choices all worth it.

I appreciated your questions and comments today. I do welcome your comments on the seminar. What you liked and even what you didn’t like. I also encourage your suggestions on what I should talk about next. Topic ideas are always helpful. For those who are interested, Click Here for my Front Porch article.

Thank you for allowing me to present you with a “shameless plug” for this blog. And again, thanks again for attending!

The Carpet and The Dust Mite

For many years, the concept of wall-to-wall carpeting was marketed to us for our homes. The truly cool, hip homes had carpeting everywhere. Soft, warm and conducive to walking around barefoot, carpet was the status symbol of the 1970s and 1980s.

I remember the house I grew up in. It had linoleum in the bathrooms, kitchen and family room and wood flooring in the rest of the house. I guess in the early 1960s in Oregon, wood floors were cheap. Well, inexpensive at least. When I was in Junior High (Middle School for those of you younger than 45), my parents decided to join the “wave” and carpet the whole house. I resisted. I liked my wood floor. It was a beautiful, warm reddish-brown. And it was easy to keep clean. Not that cleaning my floor was anything I ever really did (I was 13, after all). So, after much prodding and stubbornness on my part, I convinced my parents that while they were going to carpet the rest of the house, they should leave my bedroom the wood floor. And I won.

So the entire time I lived at home (which was until I finished college and got married), my bedroom had a wood floor. I’d like to say I was smart and ahead of my time and all that, but really I just liked the wood floor.

Since then, I have learned that carpeting is probably one of the dirtiest, hazardous-to-your-health aspects of our homes. We spend almost 90% of our time indoors, so the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of our homes is very important. And in a study “Allergy-Resistant Housing – Principles and Practice”, common allergens in the home list dust mites, pollen, pet dander and fungi and molds high on the list of importance related to the effects these things have on our health. Dust mites feed on human skin flakes and live and breed predominately in our carpets. Pollens get tracked in on our shoes and clothes and can easily be transferred to our carpets.

Cleaning carpet is an interesting concept. Most vacuum cleaners just stir the dirt, dust and mites around. Have you ever seen a vacuum when you first turn it on have that “puff” of dust and dirt go flying around? Think about that for a minute then tell me if you think it’s really doing any good, serious cleaning. We have a central vacuum system in our current home so at least the dirt goes outside our home into a canister in the garage.

But the wake up call or realization or whatever you may want to call it came the first time we had the carpet professionally cleaned. The extractor water was black. And I’m thinking “I’m walking on this, laying on this to watch TV, breathing this.” And while we have some wood floors in our home, most is still carpet. The other thing we’ve noticed is when we dust mop or simply sweep the wood floors, there is an incredible amount of dust and dirt. And my wife and I think “this is also throughout our carpets…”

You may notice in my posts that we are designing a new, smaller home. We are also targeting a LEED Platinum rating. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a third-party rating system for sustainability and healthy buildings. One of the LEED emphases is hard-surface flooring. They, too, recognize the health benefits to not using carpet.

So as we are designing our new home (view the Lawrence Street House posts), we’ve committed to using all hardwood floors. Everywhere. We will have no carpet. If we have rugs, they will be throw rugs that can be removed and cleaned periodically. And we will have a healthier home.