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Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


Everyone who cares about the natural environment recycles, right? Paper, plastic, glass…but what about money? It can be almost just as easy to recycle energy investments to address the serious global issue of climate change if you set up a Green Revolving Fund (GRF).

What is a revolving loan fund?
A revolving loan fund is a dedicated funding mechanism used to support specific projects that payback project costs to such fund. Often using cost savings from funded projects, loans given are repaid into the revolving loan fund. Then the money repaid to the revolving fund is lent again to finance additional projects.

What is a green revolving fund?
A green revolving fund (GRF) is a revolving loan fund used to finance projects that have specific ties to energy conservation or efficiency, renewable energy, or other natural resource-saving projects. Specifically tracked savings from projects funded are returned to the green revolving fund to be used for future projects.

How do GRFs perform?
Colleges and universities with GRFs have reported a median return on investment of 28 percent over the life of a typical project (see Sustainable Endowments Institute’s (SEI) Greening the Bottom Line 2012). GRFs are often focused on projects with a payback window of no more than five or ten years. The investments make economic sense. Often the biggest hurdle is working out the mechanisms to allocate savings appropriately within the constructs of a university’s current budgeting and finance structures.

To start brainstorming for high payback projects, review McKinsey & Company’s Global GHG abatement cost curve beyond business-as-usual, in its report Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy. This chart and report provide insight into the investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the highest financial payback. Of course, most everyone knows that changing an incandescent light bulb to a LED often pays back its investment in less than a year, but this report will get you thinking beyond lighting. If the McKinsey & Company report is too academic for you, just start talking to your facilities and maintenance leaders. They know what needs to be replaced and upgraded. Starting from there, look at your options for more efficient technologies. More energy efficient options often cost more upfront, but that additional cost will often be more than recovered in energy savings over the life of the equipment, saving money and reducing emissions.

glf

Image included with permission from Sustainable Endowments Institute

 

Who is using GRFs?
The most common users of GRFs are colleges and universities. AASHE has a database of information about many of the institutions that have started GRFs. The Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) has coordinated The Billion Dollar Green Challenge to encourage colleges, universities and other nonprofits to investment a cumulative total of one billion dollars into green revolving funds. As of July 2016, SEI has $131 million committed from 62 participating institutions. See if your alma mater is on the list, or your child’s dream school. As of July 2016, the University of Vermont boasts the largest GRF, with a $13 million fund started in 2012. They look for projects that pay back within seven years and cost no more than $3 million per project. Harvard University’s well know $12 million fund, established in 2001, has supported nearly 200 projects which now cumulatively save the school over $4 million each year (yes, each year!) on energy bills.

Schools have found that a GRF is a reliable mechanism to support cost-saving capital improvements even in the midst of budget cuts and rising energy costs. GRFs regularly outperform the investment returns for schools’ endowments and thus some endowments have become involved with initial funding support to GRFs.

Are you at a small institution or one that doesn’t have access to millions of dollars? No problem. The range of sizes (both regarding enrolled students and school endowment size) among colleges and universities with successful GRFs suggests that any school could implement a GRF. SEI reported that initial capital investments in GRFs are evenly distributed in the ranges: below $100,000, between $100,000 and $1 million, and above $1 million. The fund I helped start began with only $50,000 and is added to annually from various sources. As a result of projects funded by this GRF and through a number of other small cost behavior-based changes on the campus, the energy bills are down, and the institution is saving more than $400,000 annually on energy costs compared to a business as usual scenario.

How is a GRF formed?
GRFs are formed in many ways. The most common sources of start-up funding are one-time administrative budget allocations, prior efficiency or utility savings, private donations or foundation grants, and endowment funds. Although administrative involvement and support for a GRF is key, students are frequently involved in creating the GRF at colleges and universities.

Verdis Group helped Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (“Omaha’s Zoo”) set up a GRF, starting with seed capital from a grant and growing through utility lighting rebates, recycling-focused grants, direct contributions, and of course energy savings. One of the hurdles the Zoo’s Green Team faced was having money to fund even small sustainability projects, and this fund has almost entirely resolved this issue. Each year projects are selected that are both high payback projects, such as lighting updates, and low or no payback projects, such as adding recycling infrastructure to make recycling easier, faster and more complete. These GRF bundles use the high payback projects to support the projects that don’t financially payback on their own, and everyone is happy—the accountants who are saving money on energy bills, the Green Team who now has funds to make the changes they view as most important, and the environment which benefits from resource conservation and reduced pollution.

How is a GRF administered?
It is important to get your administration and tracking set up before jumping into a GRF. There are many administrative models among GRFs. On college campuses, the governance of the fund often depends upon how it was formed. Typically, a small group oversees the finances of the fund, while a larger, more diverse group reviews project loan applications on an ongoing basis. Funds typically require projects to have a maximum payback period to ensure timely replenishment of principal to the fund. Some funds charge interest while others simply require repayment of the principal. Interest allows the fund to grow organically over time; however growth can also come from additional external contributions or allocations from operating funds. Other funds require a percentage of real energy savings to be paid to the fund even after the principal amount of the loan is returned, allowing the fund to grow from the additional savings.

At Omaha’s Zoo, Verdis Group currently administers the GRF in partnership with the Zoo’s accounting group. The Zoo wanted its GRF to financially benefit its general operating budget and serve as a continuing funding source for green projects. Thus, savings in the Zoo’s GRF projects are allocated with a percentage to the Omaha Zoo’s general operating budget and the remainder to replenish the GRF. Since the creation of the Zoo’s fund, SEI has developed a GRF tracking system (GRITS 1.5) that helps institutions manage and analyze project-level energy, financial and carbon data without developing a new process or tool just for the GRF tracking. SEI’s experience with GRFs is exceptional and the GRITS tracking tool has made setting up and tracking a GRF even simpler.

What are common GRF goals?
A GRF can focus on energy efficiency goals, such as reducing energy expenses and cost savings (a.k.a., fighting climate change with the bonus of saving money). In other cases, the GRF may support innovation and engagement projects that do not have direct significant financial payback. In the latter example, a GRF is replenished by grants or other funding, rather than repayment of project savings. GRFs are often operated as hybrid funds that fund both high payback projects along side engagement projects with low or hard-to-measure payback.

At Omaha’s Zoo, a hybrid fund was formed because engaging the staff and providing funds to implement staff-generated green projects was important. Yet, ensuring the revolving nature of the fund endured was critical because an ongoing source of contributions beyond savings was not guaranteed. Verdis Group works with the Omaha Zoo annually to analyze potential projects, determine project paybacks, and guide the Omaha Zoo’s GRF selection committee toward a group of annual projects that meet financial payback, employee engagement, and environmental goals.

So get out there and start recycling something even more interesting than those old aluminum cans – recycle your energy investments!

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OPPD is considering a rate restructuring, which the Board of Directors will discuss November 12th. The proposed change would increase the basic service charge for residential and small business customers from $123/year to $420/year in fixed charges while slightly decreasing consumption costs.

To give this ‘basic service charge’ some context, the Wall Street Journal reported a typical rate of “$5 or so” per month ($60/year), and the ACEEE reported fixed fees of $5-10 per month ($60 – $120/year) as of late 2014 for average residential customers.

The proposed rate structure is bad policy for the following reasons:

  • Low use customers will pay more ($60 – $180 annually) including many low-income residents and fixed income seniors, while high use customers (higher income) will pay less by roughly the same amount;
  • Apartment & small home dwellers who conserve will pay more for the same energy;
  • Reduced incentive to for all customers to be more energy efficient and conserve;
  • Increased wasteful use of energy, adding to air pollution and climate change;
  • Makes investing in renewable energy harder to justify economically.

I urge OPPD to strive to live their new slogan – “Leading the way, we power the future.” Lead our community in its battle against poverty and its goals to care for the natural environment. With the Pope’s recent encyclical in mind, OPPD’s rate restructuring is a real life decision where care for the poor and care for the environment go hand in hand.

The proposal to lower the cost of a kWh, the rate you pay for the electricity that you actually use, is counter to the future power-generation plan OPPD recently approved. Lowering the rate a customer pays for the electricity consumption reduces the incentive to conserve energy. Often, customers and small businesses look at how long a technology investment will take to recover its upfront cost in energy savings – financial payback. Lower rates result in poorer paybacks, which will slow investments in energy efficiency and renewable technologies that are important for our planet’s long-term health.

UNO’s report, “Nebraska Energy Burden Study: 2013 Update” provides the following statistics for Nebraskan’s energy expenses:

  • For households making less than $30,000, the average cost of energy was $1984 per year.
  • For households making more than $40,000, the average cost of energy was $2451 annually.
  • Households making more than $100,000 had an average cost of energy of $2738 per year, more than $750 above households making below $30,000.

This data demonstrates that low-income households pay less for energy than high- income households, as they should. They use less, they should pay less. The new rate structure begins to shift the current, rather equitable distribution of costs so that the poor, elderly, and environmentally conscience pay for large homes or other homes that consume larger portions of the energy load.

I’d like to see a map from OPPD that shows which customers’ bills are going down and which are going up. Real data, real addresses, mapped over the OPPD territory. Board members and OPPD leadership should be asking for this to ensure they fully understand the impacts of this change. Such an exercise will quickly tell who is paying for whom in the community under the new rate restructuring.  I can’t help but think that the map would look something like this one.

As an accountant who cares about both the poor and the environment, here are my thoughts:

  • It doesn’t matter whether a business has fixed costs or variable costs. The customers are not responsible for the costs. Customers pay for the products they purchase. A business’s executive leaders, accountants and finance folks are in charge of managing both fixed and variable costs, and that’s one of the many reasons accounting and finance is sometimes complex. It’s also why it’s great that Nebraska has public power, which shouldn’t feel the same pressures as shareholder-owned utility companies to meet quarterly earnings projections.
  • Customers are not buying a part of a power plant, part of a power line, nor are we asking to take on a week’s salary of an OPPD employee. Customers are buying electricity delivered into their homes. That’s it, nothing more, just kWh.
  • If OPPD has missed budget targets or future purchase forecasts have changed, they should adjust the price of the product being delivered, kWh. If I built a house that’s too big for my budget, I don’t go to my boss and say, well gosh, I’ve got a big fixed mortgage now, I need a raise.

The reality is that OPPD has a pretty significant budget shortfall. So rather than solely poking holes in their proposed plan, I’ll offer three ways for them to narrow that budget gap:

  • Increase kWh rates for all users, which lets everyone share the load equally.
  • Do what you do with your large business customers, charge a demand charge to residential customers and small business customers too. Demand charges continue to incentivize energy efficiency, because consumers can affect the amount charged by reducing consumption.
  • Move to a time-of-use pricing structure, where electricity costs more when it is most expensive to produce, usually during the late afternoon hours of the summer.

OPPD has made great progress in the past few years, with wind power purchases and decisions to retire three coal units in North Omaha. I am truly amazed that our power company will likely be 1/3 wind and 1/3 nuclear by 2018, both very low carbon and affordable power sources.

This is a public power state. We, the people, own our utilities, and we are represented by elected officials that are supposed to represent the consumers by definition.

The OPPD Board will hear from staff and the community at their November board meeting on Thursday, Nov 12th at 10:00 a.m. The public will have an opportunity to make 3 minute statements to the Board or you can email the Board at their website.

Speak up residents and small business customers – speak up and help OPPD lead us in the right direction!

 

For more information:

Meeting tonight with OPPD, Nov 9th

Rocky Mountain Institute – Fixed Charges don’t “Fix” the Problem

News on fixed charge changes – approved in Wisconsin, rejected in Minnesota

Similar rooftop solar fixed fee news

Featured Image courtesy of Watie White.

 

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Food waste is the loss of edible food that occurs in the food production process between post harvest and end use. The vast majority of this waste is currently sent to the landfill. Food waste is a social, environmental, and economic issue that negatively impacts producers, retailers, consumers, and communities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that food waste accounts for approximately 14 percent[1] of the total municipal waste sent to landfills. Not only is this disposal expensive, it is harmful to the environment. When food waste decomposes in the landfill it creates methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes significantly more to global warming than carbon dioxide.

Food waste is sent to the landfill for a variety of reasons, including: crop over production, damage due to transport, cosmetic imperfections, and excessive purchasing. Over 30 percent of the food available for consumption goes to the landfill.[2] There is a significant opportunity to reduce waste and when you consider that over 14 percent of households in the U.S. were food insecure (not knowing where the next meal was coming from) in 2013.[3]

FoodRpng_700pxw Two opportunities stand out when discussing food waste: diverting food that is not purchased to where it is needed and diverting the remainder out of the landfill. The food recovery hierarchy (to the right) illustrates the preferred methods reducing food waste from top (most preferred) to bottom (least preferred).

To reduce food waste going to the landfill, the most preferred method is source reduction. For residential and businesses, this means do not buy what you will not use, saving money and preventing waste. The methods that are the most preferred get the most value out of food before turning it into compost or sending it to landfills.

The movement to reduce food waste is growing on a local and national level. In 2013, the EPA started the Food Recovery Challenge, giving individuals and organizations resources to reduce food waste. A number of cities and states have instituted organic waste bans, including: New York City, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland. In Omaha, several organizations are working to reduce the amount of food waste sent to the landfill:

Recently, Douglas Country Environmental Services announced the idea of a pilot food waste composting operation food waste composting operation for local food waste. While the City of Omaha was not approved to use the landfill at 126th and State Street, the partnership is working to find another option.

 

What Can You Do?

There are several actions you can take to reduce food waste at home and at work:

  • Buy only what you will use. Be conscious of what you purchase and what you waste. Prepare for shopping by making a list of what you need. If possible, log your food waste and look for repeat offenders over time.
  • Be an advocate. Encourage your workplace to donate to local food banks if applicable. Food Bank for the Heartland picks up food weekly from retail locations and the Good Samaritan Act protects donating organizations by reducing liability.
  • Buy local. Long-distance bulk food transportation often creates food waste. Buying local reduces this waste (and reduces emissions associated with transportation).
  • After you have reduced or donated, divert. Once you have reduced most of your food waste or donated it to other uses, begin composting the food waste that still remains. If you have the space to do so at home, there is a variety of small scale composting options for your home. If you do not, WeCompost is currently the only company in Omaha picking up residential food waste.
  • Let Verdis Group help. If your business or organization is interested in taking a critical look at reducing their waste stream, we offer consulting services to analyze current practices and advise on opportunities for reduction.

Food waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste we send to landfills. By being conservative with purchasing, advocating for food waste reduction, and improving food waste management, we can divert a major portion of the municipal waste stream and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

 

[1] EPA Municipal Waste
[2] National Geographic food waste
[3] USDA Food Security

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Last week was Climate Week in New York City, and I wish I could have been there. Around 400,000 people marched by my old apartment, bringing the world a message: The public cares about the issue of climate change and wants action from our global leaders.

Nebraskans made some great strides moving the public’s understanding of climate change forward and addressing the issue as well.

Here’s what caught my eye this past week or so:

  • For the first time in five years (since Copenhagen 2009), world leaders came together to discuss climate change at the Climate Summit on September 23rd. One hundred twenty heads of state, hundreds of business leaders, activists, and celebrities were at the United Nations in New York City for the Summit. The U.N. Secretary-General started the meeting with a statement that included:

“… Science says they [emissions] must peak by 2020 and decline sharply thereafter. By the end of this century we must be carbon neutral. … I ask all governments to commit to a meaningful climate agreement in Paris in 2015. … We are not here to talk, we are here to make history.”

The poem Dear Matafele Peinem (linked below) set the stage for the meeting with a standing ovation, and France led the statements by countries by committing $1 billion to the global Green Climate Fund. The intent of the meeting was to move global leaders toward a legally binding global agreement to address climate change at the meeting in Paris in 2015.

 

  • The People’s Climate March in NYC drew three or four times the number of expected participants, a number nearly equivalent to the population of the City of Omaha! Imagine that. I was surprised and happy to see Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations join this march himself, marching with singer Sting, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, activist Bill McKibben (the environment’s rock star) and 400,000 others.
  • On Saturday, September 27, I attended the Harvest the Hope Concert in the middle of a northern Nebraska cornfield. It showed me that Nebraskans do care about their environment, and that our farmers, ranchers and Native Americans are willing to stand up for our land, clean water, and their property rights. The Willie Nelson & Neil Young concert was a fun afternoon for my family, and I was proud to have three generations there to support Bold Nebraska and the thousands of bold Americans working to stop the construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. These individuals appreciate how climate change will affect our children’s lives, and they are doing something about it.
  • Global average temperatures over land and ocean surfaces for August 2014 were the highest on record for the month of August, at 0.75 degrees Celsius (1.35 degrees F°) above the 20th century average.
  • A new report out by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate challenges the idea that addressing climate change will be costly, indicating that climate fixes will cost effectively the same as forecasted investments in needed infrastructure.
  • At a meeting just last week, I was reminded of the great work being done by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD). Leaping over many other U.S. utilities, OPPD plans to supply 33% of its retail load generation using renewable power (mainly wind power) by 2018.  OPPD is also positioning itself to stop burning coal in Omaha by retiring three units at the North Omaha coal plant in 2016, and retrofitting two other units to use natural gas (a cleaner fuel) by 2023. Way to go OPPD!

Even though all of these actions are wonderful news for our environment, they are not enough.

Without global participation in the effort to limit green house gas emissions, climate change will have dramatic effects on our planet within your children and grandchildren’s lifetime. In the United States, our greatest efforts should be around eliminating coal use, but if still developing countries like China and India are building more coal plants than we retire, progress on this truly global issue will not be possible.

The simplest, cheapest solution is clearly understood by economists: put a price on carbon (greenhouse gas emissions). NPR’s Marketplace did a good job explaining how and why this would work. Yale University professor William Nordhaus explains it in his book The Climate Casino. He says that putting a price on carbon for the top 100 countries by per capita income, plus India and China, would cover 90% of the globe’s emissions. This price could then be enforced through a country’s policy mechanism of choice. Prices drive choices made by corporations and individual consumers alike. More expensive carbon-intensive practices (due to the carbon price) would be replaced by the least expensive, cleaner solutions.

And voilà, climate change is no longer the greatest challenge of our century.

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Nebraska’s businesses and economy face a great risk due to climate change, according to a new risk management study that assesses the impacts of climate change on jobs, crop yields, infrastructure, and energy production.

A bi-partisan group including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Wall Street titan and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and other prominent businesspeople and public officials launched the Risky Business Project that developed this study called “Risky Business.”

Our current economy and society have been organized and built around normal weather patterns with some resilience to occasional extreme weather events. Due to climate change, weather events that are today considered “extreme” will soon be considered “normal.” This increase in extreme weather poses risks to our current economy and societal structures.

Through a risk assessment, the study looks at the likelihood of possible future scenarios and the risks associated with each. If we continue with carbon emissions associated with business-as-usual, the risks for Nebraska by 2050 include 2x-3x more days over 95°F each year than currently and average summer temperatures increasing by 1°-3°F.

Nebraska is likely to see anywhere between 22 and 46 days over 95°F each year and average summer temperatures between 75-78.6°F by mid-century.

Nebraska is likely to see anywhere between 22 and 46 days over 95°F each year and average summer temperatures between 75-78.6°F by mid-century.

This rise in temperature could increase the demand for electricity, primarily from air conditioning, by 2.2 – 6.7%. With increased electricity demand across the region, Nebraskans could see energy expenditures increase by 2.0 – 10.6%. The heat will also reduce labor productivity by as much as 1%, primarily for outdoor workers in such industries as construction, utility maintenance, landscaping, and agriculture.

By mid-century, Nebraska farmers could see crop yields either slightly increasing by 1.5% or dropping as much as 24%. By 2080-2099, crop yields look even worse with a decrease between 10-57%.

From the defense industry, to insurance companies, to healthcare, several of Omaha’s largest industries are studying the impacts of climate change on their organization in order to manage risk. The report indicates we must take action immediately:

“If we act today to move onto a different path, we can still avoid many of the worst impacts of climate change, particularly those related to extreme heat. We are fully capable of managing climate risk, just as we manage risk in many other areas of our economy and national security—but only if we start to change our business and public policy decisions today.” –Risky Business

So what can we do?
The value of a risk analysis is to help prevent or minimize negative surprises and unearth new opportunities. With climate change, there are two necessary approaches to minimizing risk: mitigation and adaptation.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. What we emit today will impact our climate for at least another 100 years. To mitigate risks associated with future climate change, we must reduce or eliminate emissions today.

Organizations in Omaha have begun to take steps to reduce emissions. OPPD has taken a bold step by outlining its plan to reduce electricity demand while simultaneously increasing renewable energy generation, both of which reduce greenhouse gases.

And we have clients that are taking major steps forward as well. The University of Nebraska at Omaha is working on a Sustainability Master Plan that will outline steps the university can take to reduce emissions and improve its bottom line. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium has already cut energy use per square foot by 7%, while saving over $100,000 each year, and the Omaha Public Schools have cut emissions over 42,000 metric tons and saved $2 million in the last four years. Just to name a few.

Adaptation is also necessary, because the impacts of climate change are already being felt from coast to coast.

Many businesses are developing adaptation plans that include both addressing new challenges as well as discovering opportunities they didn’t know existed. Farmers continue to shift to sustainable agricultural practices and use technology to adapt to changing weather. Irrigation research and technology continues to enable farmers to use less water while maintaining or improving yields, and the Land Institute cultivates perennial crops. Each of these practices saves farmers money while improving resilience to the risks of climate change.

For more systemic change, the report authors say “it is time for all American business leaders and investors to get in the game and rise to the challenge of addressing climate change.” This includes investors incorporating risk assessment into capital expenditures and balance sheets, and the public sector instituting policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Ultimately, this is a problem of today, not some far off generation. Every decision we make today will either increase the likelihood of negative climate impacts or will help us manage the risk so we can thrive in Nebraska.

How does your organization plan to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts?

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On Thursday, June 19, Omaha Public Power District’s Board of Directors approved their 20-year generation plan and took a serious and bold step forward with its energy generation portfolio.

There are three things that stick out as noteworthy:

  1. Three coal-fired units in North Omaha will retire by 2016, and the remaining two will transition to natural gas by 2023
  2. OPPD will maintain at least 33% of their portfolio in renewables once they hit that mark in 2018 (context: MidAmerican Energy is at 39%)
  3. OPPD plans to reduce demand of 300 MW through energy efficiency and demand-side management programs

The net result, according to figures from the Sierra Club:

  • 49% reduction in CO2 emissions
  • 85% reduction in mercury emissions
  • 74% reduction in NOx emissions
  • 68% reduction in SOx emissions

With such a bold, audacious, and dare I say pro-environment (gasp!) plan, one would expect that rate payers would have to pony up some cash to make it happen, right? Wrong! (said in Dana Carvey’s unbelievable John McGlaughlin impression.) Rate payers should expect an overall rate impact of 0–2%. Yup, you read that right; basically no net financial impact to rate payers.

So what does this mean for the average Joe? Less pollution, for starters. Levels of pollution, especially SOx, in and around North Omaha are above average. Cleaner air = healthier air = healthier people = happier people.

The reduction in CO2 is nothing to sneeze at either; by reducing these emissions so significantly, OPPD has really helped those organizations that set climate reduction goals.

Finally, the demand-side programs could reduce energy costs, especially for larger customers, if and only if they participate in them. I repeat, companies will need to take advantage of them. Lighting retrofit, anyone?

A round of applause is due to OPPD, its board of directors and management team. Their stakeholder engagement process resulted in a pretty exceptional outcome, which is not always the case with these types of efforts. And kudos to those individuals and organizations that advocated for clean and healthy energy policies; it’s a pretty exceptional feeling when all that hard work culminates in such a great outcome.

Now let’s get to work with implementation!

Onward and upward.

 

 

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It’s time for us to stop dancing around the issue of whether or not humans are causing climate change. The overwhelming evidence unequivocally shows that climate change is real and is primarily human-caused. This is no longer up for debate. It’s time to move on to solutions and, dare I say, adaptation.

Internally we’ve been talking about when and how we discuss climate change with our clients, partners and collaborators. We have always been very careful when bringing it up because we fear doing so will immediately alienate the “disbelievers.” I think it’s time we start talking about it. First, a little background on why I’m a little fired up about it. Over the weekend I watched a film and read several articles that put me in a bit of a tizzy.

Chasing Ice
First, on Friday night a few Verdisians and I took in the film Chasing Ice. It’s a documentary following photographer James Balog’s quest to document the rapid decline in glacial ice. As he put it in the film, glacial retreat is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. The film did a wonderful job of showing the eye-opening loss of glacial ice while being absolutely beautiful thanks to Balog’s stunning photography.

Chasing Ice really reached a crescendo for me when a few of Balog’s colleagues witnessed the largest calving event ever recorded on tape. Glacial ice roughly the size of Manhattan broke away from the main Ilulissat Glacier for 75 minutes, a portion of which was shown in the film and can be viewed in the clip above. It was absolutely jaw-dropping to see. If you haven’t seen the film yet, it’s worth seeing in the theatre (now playing at Film Streams!).

National Climate Assessment & More
When I awoke Saturday morning, there were three articles on the back page of the Omaha World Herald all covering climate change; two of which summarized findings from the National Climate Assessment (NCA) draft report. The first article focused on what’s been happening in the Great Plains and highlighted the crazy weather we experienced in 2011 as a perfect case-in-point for what we should expect going forward (of particular note: $12 billion in damages due to the extreme weather).

The second article summarized national trends and specifically mentioned the NCA’s finding that “warming of the planet is changing daily American life“. The report, which is a mere 1,100+ pages, cuts right to the chase and identifies the kinds of changes we should expect, region-by-region, and warns of the disruptions our society will likely experience as temperatures rise. While it’s not as epic as Waterworld predicts, the prognostications are a little scary.

The third article donning the back page of my Herald originally ran in the New York Times on January 10. Its focus was 2012’s worldwide weather and it noted that extreme weather is now the norm. Several extreme and highly abnormal weather events from all over the globe were cited. As was illuminated in the Times article, extreme weather is not uncommon, but the sheer number of extreme events that occurred in 2012 is what’s abnormal.

Where Do We Go From Here
Fortunately, many businesses are responding, which is becoming clearer every time a major consulting firm produces a sustainability-focused report. One indicator: more than 80% of the Global 500 responded to the Climate Disclosure Project’s 2011 request for carbon disclosure (PwC: Do Investors care about sustainability?). Additional good news is that those companies that are actually taking meaningful steps are often out-performing their competitors (MIT Sloan Management Review: Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage). 

Despite the clear evidence that 1) we are facing widespread institutional risk to all of our known systems due to climate change, and 2) implementing meaningful sustainable change is good for the bottom line, we still find that adoption of sustainable principles can still be a tough sell. Why? IBM’s recent report suggests that executive involvement and support is critical to success. We couldn’t agree more. Without the leader on board, it’s not worth doing, which is sad but true. Leaderless sustainability initiatives often struggle and face insurmountable challenges when attempting to make progress.

I think there’s more at play, though. The term climate change has become so politically polarized that some leaders will stop listening if it’s even mentioned, which means that when it comes time for them to understand the risks they face and the benefits they’re missing, they’ve already tuned out. It’s for this reason that we rarely talked about climate change in the past, choosing instead to focus on the more tangible benefits of sustainability initiatives: saving money, happier employees, healthier work environments, and more loyal customers.

It’s no longer enough. It’s time for us to start talking about the risks that organizations face as well. It’s not going to be easy, but if we’re going to do our job and do it well, they must be knowledgeable of and prepared to respond to the challenges that climate change is going to bring. These aren’t scare tactics; it’s reality. And if we aren’t prepared and helping our clients prepare, we aren’t doing our job.

Onward and upward.

 

 

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As an advocate for increasing the use of renewable energy as one action to slow climate change, I am disappointed by the news that the South Shore Heights Homeowners Association has forced one of the neighborhood residents to remove solar panels from the roof of his house.

Over the weekend the Omaha World Herald published a story summarizing the struggle and conclusion of one South Shore Heights (SSH) resident’s attempt to have solar panels on his home. Resident Tim Adams installed the panels on his roof in 2010 and has been battling the SSH Homeowners Association (HOA) ever since. The two sides recently settled a lawsuit (prompting the OWH story) and Adams agreed to remove the panels by July 1. I want to summarize the arguments on both sides and then add my own two cents.

Tim Adams’ Argument

Mr. Adams created a website to tell his side of the story and to “educate Omaha homeowners about solar power and the lawsuit” with SSH. His primary argument is that solar panels are not prohibited by any language in the SSH covenants. Moreover, Mr. Adams argues the HOA board has for years failed to follow protocols in the covenants for approval of external improvements and has been inconsistent in approving certain improvements.

A view of the rear of Mr. Adams house in South Shore Heights.

The HOA’s Argument

In challenging Mr. Adams’ solar panels, the HOA board relied upon covenant language requiring external improvements to conform to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood. The board argued that allowing solar panels on Mr. Adams’ house would reduce property values and make it more difficult to sell the home, in addition to being ugly.

My Perspective

Even though the HOA was on the winning side, I think the HOA was on the wrong side.  The evidence that global warming is already happening is growing, and even though Nebraska won’t disappear due to sea level rise—unlike many island nations—Nebraskans should start preparing for more frequent and severe drought, more wildfires, and changes to wildlife and insect inhabitants as climate change impacts the midwest. (What do you think these impacts will do to our agricultural economy?) Our past burning of fossil fuels and the associated emissions are starting to catch up with us. The future costs of the impact of climate change are going to make the supposed aesthetic concerns of the SSH HOA insignificant. The SSH HOA seems out of touch with the causes and effects of climate change.*

Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of drought in the midwest, meaning that reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky near South Shore Heights, will eventually disappear as water supplies decrease.

Although I do not know if the SSH HOA has challenged other exterior improvements in the neighborhood, other HOAs around the country have fought with homeowners over such frivolous items as holiday decorations, yard signs, types of pets, use of clotheslines for drying clothes, and allowable flora and fauna. There have also been other HOA challenges related to more significant items like the on-site use of renewable energy for a home. As a society we need to get past the point where aesthetics and short-term economic concerns prevent one individual from making a decision to reduce his family’s contribution to climate change by investing in solar energy.

I suspect that Mr. Adams thoroughly educated his neighbors on the financial case for on-site renewable energy and the environmental benefits of preventing climate change. However, I wonder if he mentioned the more immediate impacts of pollution from OPPD’s coal- and natural gas-based electricity generation, and the immediate health benefits to everyone in the Omaha region from reducing the emissions from nearby power plants. These emissions are directly tied to respiratory irritation across the population but especially in the very young and very old, linked to asthma and bronchitis, send mercury into the atmosphere and environment, and emit gases that lead to acid rain.

Selection Bias In Action

Regardless of the SSH HOA’s right to exercise its authority pertaining to the “look, feel and style” of the neighborhood, I think that Mr. Adams was right not to back down right away. The HOA may not have fully considered the practical value—as opposed to any aesthetic value—of the panels, because it appears the board members were likely making decisions using selective bias. Selective bias is a human tendency to perceive information that reinforces preexisting beliefs while ignoring information that challenges existing beliefs. In such cases, convincing others to act on information alone is quite difficult. Instead, those individuals need to come to the conclusion on their own either through their own experience or over time. It seems the SSH HOA already has a bias against renewable energy regardless of its practical value, and did not truly consider or weigh that value against any preexisting biases.

The settlement between the parties reinforces the apparent presence of selective bias. In addition to restricting Mr. Adams from taking future legal action or filing complaints against the HOA, the settlement does not allow him to make any future public comments about the case or the HOA and its members, whether on Facebook, his website, or other media. Although I don’t agree, I can understand the settlement requiring removal of the panels and preventing future legal action, but the restraint on Mr. Adams’ speech seems only to underscore the HOA’s bias in this situation. The HOA was able to block Mr. Adams from using renewable energy on his home, but why should he also be restricted from making future comments about the case? The answer is that it reinforces the HOA’s apparent bias against on-site renewables: The HOA had an opportunity to remove a voice from the table that it didn’t agree with by imposing this bias on Mr. Adams’ would-be audience. In other words, the HOA appears to have shifted from the internal bias of “I don’t care what you have to say and I’m not listening,” to the external “Because I don’t want to hear what you have to say, I won’t allow you to say it to anyone else either.”

Conclusion

By filing for a court injunction to force Mr. Adams to remove his panels, the SSH HOA could have set a very damaging precedent to the future use of private renewable energy generation in the Omaha area. Even though it is disappointing that the HOA ultimately achieved its objective to remove the panels, it is better that it occurred through a private settlement rather than a court decision. The next time an HOA threatens renewable energy on a private home in Omaha, I hope Omaha residents can galvanize support for city-wide changes that ensure any homeowner can take action to his or her carbon footprint by investing in private, on-site renewable energy generation. Nebraska’s net metering statutes presumes that residents have the ability take such action, and allowing distributed generation increases the security and reliability of our electricity grid by spreading out the generation and reducing the need for transmission, in addition to mitigating climate change.

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*The South Shore Heights website “about” page states that SSH is “situated within a quarter mile” of Lake Zorinsky, and features a panoramic image of the lake. The implication is that the neighborhood derives value from its proximity to a natural place, and I am sure that is true. However, there is a disconnect because Mr. Adams solar panels would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is an action that mitigates climate change, and thereby helps preserve natural places as we now know them. Without greater action to mitigate climate change, scientists predict more frequent and severe drought in the midwest, which has the potential to perpetually dry up reservoir lakes such as Lake Zorinsky as water resources become more scarce.

 

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