Sunday, May 31, 2009

“I probably wouldn’t have gone organic if I knew it would end this way”

Can the green economy survive economic tough times? Organic dairy farmers from California to New England don't think so. At least not based on their personal (and painful) experiences. With the downturn in the economy their customers have abandoned them in droves. Consequently the distributors who purchase their milk to sell to processors are not renewing contracts. We've seen similar scenarios play themselves out with solar hot water heaters and fuel efficient automobiles over the years.

Clearly there is a great deal of public sentiment for environmental issues, but the current economic system (that allows companies to externalize their negative environmental impacts) makes it nearly impossible for some to continue to express that support in times like these.

Will consumers return to organics when the economy rebounds? Will the farmers?(GW)

Organic Dairies Watch the Good Times Turn Bad

By Katie Zezima
New York Times
May 29, 2009

RANDOLPH CENTER, Vt. — When Ken Preston went organic on his dairy farm here in 2005, he figured that doing so would guarantee him what had long been elusive: a stable, high price for the milk from his cows.

Sure enough, his income soared 20 percent, and he could finally afford a Chevy Silverado pickup to help out. The dairy conglomerate that distributed his milk wanted everything Mr. Preston could supply. Supermarket orders were skyrocketing.

But soon the price of organic feed shot up. Then the recession hit, and families looking to save on groceries found organic milk easy to do without. Ultimately the conglomerate, with a glut of product, said it would not renew his contract next month, leaving him with nowhere to sell his milk, a victim of trends that are crippling many organic dairy farmers from coast to coast.

For those farmers, the promises of going organic — a steady paycheck and salvation for small family farms — have collapsed in the last six months. As the trend toward organic food consumption slows after years of explosive growth, no sector is in direr shape than the $1.3 billion organic milk industry. Farmers nationwide have been told to cut milk production by as much as 20 percent, and many are talking of shutting down.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone organic if I knew it would end this way,” said Mr. Preston, 53.

Here in New England, where dairy farms are as much a part of the landscape as whitewashed churches and rocky beaches, organic dairy farmers are bearing the brunt of the nationwide slowdown, in part because of the cost of transporting feed from the Midwest. The contracts of 10 of Maine’s 65 organic dairies will not be renewed by HP Hood, one of the region’s three large processors. In Vermont, 32 dairy farms have closed since Dec. 1, significantly altering the face of New England’s dairy industry.

“We expect to lose a lot more farms this year,” said Roger Allbee, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture.

Hood and the two other big processors, Horizon Organic and Organic Valley, say cutting contracts, pay and production are necessary to absorb overproduction and offset softening demand. Organic Valley, a nationwide cooperative, told Maine organic dairy farmers last month that its sales growth had dropped to near zero from about 20 percent six months ago.

“Our inventory is overstocked,” said John B. Cleary, the cooperative’s New England regional pool coordinator.

For many farmers, the changes coincide with crushing debt resulting from the cost of turning organic, which can run hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, the price of organic feed has doubled in the last year. Credit has dried up for some, and others say it is nearly impossible to sell cows and so thin their herds.

And while processors project growth of about 6 percent in organic milk sales this year (a decline from the 12.7 percent reported for 2008 by the Organic Trade Association), some analysts say that forecast is far too optimistic. The United States Department of Agriculture says sales of organic whole milk in February were 2.5 percent lower than in February last year, with sales of organic reduced-fat milk 15 percent lower.

“We’re in big trouble,” said Craig Russell, an organic dairy farmer in Brookfield, Vt., who owes $500,000, mostly from converting his farm to organic in 2006.

Mr. Russell quit a day job as an accountant to farm full time last year. “I made more money in six months than in five years of conventional farming,” he said, but his farm is now barely hanging on. The price he receives from the distributor dropped another $1 per hundredweight on May 1, just when he most needed money to prepare for the summer grazing season.

“It’s going to cost me more to make milk than sell milk,” he said.

In an effort to provide a safety net, Vermont last month expanded a low-interest loan program for farmers.

While most conventional farmers are accustomed to withstanding price volatility, “organic hasn’t weathered this kind of storm,” said Mr. Allbee, the state’s agriculture secretary. Farmers are finding that organic food is not for every consumer, he said, “and doesn’t guarantee that you will have a market forever.”

Some farmers are considering selling their organic milk on the conventional market just to make some quick money. Others are looking to sell raw, or unpasteurized, milk directly to the public. The Vermont House of Representatives passed a bill this month to increase the amount of raw milk a farmer can sell that way.

At the annual meeting of the Maine Organic Milk Producers last month in Waterville, farmers debated whether they could tap into the locavore movement, marketing their milk as local food. Russell Libby, the organization’s executive director, wondered, “Is it possible to produce a product with a Maine label on it?”

Right now it is not, because some Maine milk is processed out of state. But farmers like Aaron Bell, whose contract with Hood will not be renewed when it expires, thinks the idea will save their farms.

“We’re so remote, we’re high and dry otherwise,” said Mr. Bell, whose farm is in Maine’s easternmost reaches. “Unless we find our own market.”

Back in 2006, Mr. Bell carried the banner for organic dairy farming, appearing with his wife on Martha Stewart’s show to promote small family farms. He still believes in organic food, but not so much in the business model.

“They say it’s heaven for the small farmer,” he said, “but the small farmer is the one screaming the loudest right now.”

Bruce Drinkman, who milks 60 cows on his organic farm in Glenwood City, Wis., has seen his income drop 40 percent since Jan. 1. To keep the farm going, he has dipped into his retirement savings and dropped his health insurance. But without a loan, his wife has had to draw money from her I.R.A. to help out.

“Our Plan B is if we don’t have a decent year, we’re done,” said Mr. Drinkman, who has farmed for 30 years.

“I’m 46,” he said. “I wonder what I will do if I can’t farm anymore.”

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Our "silent crisis"

Reporting on the climate change crisis is becoming a real challenge. On one hand it is critically important that policy makers and the general public know that this is no longer something that will happen in the future if we don't act now. The fact is, the impacts of humanity's carbon loading of the atmosphere are being felt right now. Once these facts are on the table, the challenge is not to be overwhelmed into paralysis. The need to act has never been more urgent as today's posts make crystal clear. (GW)

Report: Climate Change Crisis: 'Catastrophic'

By Hilary Whiteman


May 28, 2009

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The first comprehensive report into the human cost of climate change warns the world is in the throes of a "silent crisis" that is killing 300,000 people each year.

More than 300 million people are already seriously affected by the gradual warming of the earth and that number is set to double by 2030, the report from the Global Humanitarian Forum warns.

"Climate change is the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our time, causing suffering to hundreds of millions of people worldwide," said the forum's president, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In a statement accompanying the report's release in London Friday, Annan said that it gave the world a glimpse of a grim future if Member States fail to reach a "global, effective, fair and binding" outcome on climate change at the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen in December.

"I hope that all Member States will go to Copenhagen with the political will to sign up to an ambitious agreement to tackle climate change," he said. "As this report shows, the alternative is greater risk of starvation, migration and sickness on a massive scale."

The report's startling numbers are based on calculations that the earth's atmosphere is currently warming by 0.74 degrees celcius. The Global Humanitarium Forum says that temperatures will rise by almost two degrees celcius, regardless of what's agreed in Copenhagen.

"No matter what," the report concludes, "the suffering documented in this report is only the beginning." A rise of two degrees, it says, "would be catastrophic."

Of the 300,000 lives being lost each year due to climate change, the report finds nine out of 10 are related to "gradual environmental degradation," and that deaths caused by climate-related malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria outnumber direct fatalaties from weather-related disasters.

The vast majority of deaths -- 99 percent -- are in developing countries which are estimated to have contributed less than one percent of the world's total carbon emissions.

The report warns climate change threatens all eight of the Milliennium Development Goals, which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and reducing child mortality and the spread of diseases including HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Around 45 million of the 900 million people estimated to be chronically hungry are suffering due to climate change, the report says. Within 20 years that number is expected to double. At the same time food production is expected to fall, driving food prices up 20%.

The countries considered to be most vulnerable are those in the semi-arid dry land belt that runs from the Sahara/Sahel to the Middle East and Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Latin America and parts of the U.S., small island states and the Arctic region.

Australia is singled out as the developed country most vulnerable to the direct impacts of climate change, and to the indirect impact of climate stress in neighboring countries. Over the past 15 years, the combination of rising temperature and lower rainfall has produced the worst drought in the country's recorded history.

While developed countries -- including Australia -- have committed funds to counter the impact of climate change, the Global Humanitarian Forum says developing nations need a dramatic injection of funds -- up to 100 times more than is currently available to help them adapt to the changes.

The total economic cost of climate change each year is thought to be $125 billion, although the Forum warns that figure may be too conservative and doesn't take into account the impacts on "health, water supply and other shocks."

The Forum's report comes just six months before the meeting in Copenhagen which aims to forge a post-Kyoto climate agreement for 2012 and beyond. The group says the talks could "well be the last chance for avoiding global catastrophe."

A group of 20 Nobel-prize winning, scientists, economists and writers added their voice to the call for immediate global action after meeting in London this week.

In a statement titled "The St James's Palace Memorandum," the group said the temperature rise must be contained to two degrees celsius if the world is to avoid "unmanageable climate risks."

To do that, they said global carbon emissions must start falling by 2015. They set a benchmark of a 50 percent cut by 2050, which they said could only be achieved if developed nations slash their emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020.

They also called for an "unprecedented" partnership between government and business to create low carbon energy infrastructure including "smart grids" to distribute and store renewable energy. And, for a solution to rainforest protection, without which, they said, "there is no solution to tackling climate change."

“For the first time in history, you could actually lose countries off the face of the globe”

Refugees Join List of Climate-Change Issues

By Nil MacFarquhar

New York Times

May 29, 2009

UNITED NATIONS — With their boundless vistas of turquoise water framed by swaying coconut palms, the Carteret Islands northeast of the Papua New Guinea mainland might seem the idyllic spot to be a castaway.

But sea levels have risen so much that during the annual king tide season, November to March, the roiling ocean blocks the view from one island to the next, and residents stash their possessions in fishing nets strung between the palm trees.

“It gives you the scary feeling that you don’t know what is going to happen to you, that any minute you will be floating,” Ursula Rakova, the head of a program to relocate residents, said by telephone. The chain could well be uninhabitable by 2015, locals believe, but two previous attempts to abandon it ended badly, when residents were chased back after clashing with their new neighbors on larger islands.

This dark situation underlies the thorny debate over the world’s responsibilities to the millions of people likely to be displaced byclimate change.

There could be 200 million of these climate refugees by 2050, according to a new policy paper by the International Organization for Migration, depending on the degree of climate disturbances. Aside from the South Pacific, low-lying areas likely to be battered first include Bangladesh and nations in the Indian Ocean, where the leader of the Maldives has begun seeking a safe haven for his 300,000 people. Landlocked areas may also be affected; some experts call the Darfur region of Sudan, where nomads battle villagers in a war over shrinking natural resources, the first significant conflict linked to climate change.

In the coming days, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to adopt the first resolution linking climate change to international peace and security. The hard-fought resolution, brought by 12 Pacific island states, says that climate change warrants greater attention from the United Nations as a possible source of upheaval worldwide and calls for more intense efforts to combat it. While all Pacific island states are expected to lose land, some made up entirely of atolls, like Tuvalu and Kiribati, face possible extinction.

“For the first time in history, you could actually lose countries off the face of the globe,” said Stuart Beck, the permanent representative for Palau at the United Nations. “It is a security threat to them and their populations, which will have to be relocated, which is the security threat to the places where they go, among other consequences.”

The issue has inspired intense wrangling, with some nations accusing the islanders of both exaggerating the still murky consequences of climate change and trying to expand the mandate of the Security Council by asking it to take action.

“We don’t consider climate change is an issue of security that properly belongs in the Security Council; rather, it is a development issue that has some security aspects,” said Maged A. Abdelaziz, the Egyptian ambassador. “It is an issue of how to prevent certain lands, or certain countries, from being flooded.”

The island states are seeking a response akin to the effort against terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks. “The whole system bent itself to the task, and that is what we want,” Mr. Beck said, adding that the Council should even impose sanctions on countries that fail to act. “If you really buy into the notion that the Suburban you are driving is causing these islands to go under, there ought to be a cop.”

As it is, the compromise resolution does not mention such specific steps, one of the reasons it is expected to pass. Britain, which introduced climate change as a Security Council discussion topic two years ago, supports it along with most of Europe, while other permanent Council members — namely, the United States, China and Russia — generally backed the measure once it no longer explicitly demanded Council action.

Scientific studies distributed by the United Nations or affiliated agencies generally paint rising seas as a threat. A 2007 report by theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, detailing shifts expected in the South Pacific, said rising seas would worsen flooding and erosion and threaten towns as well as infrastructure. Some fresh water will turn salty, and fishing and agriculture will wither, it said.

The small island states are not alone in considering the looming threat already on the doorstep. A policy paper released this month by Australia’s Defense Ministry suggests possible violent outcomes in the Pacific. While Australia should try to mitigate the humanitarian suffering caused by global warming, if that failed and conflict erupted, the country should use its military “as an instrument to deal with any threats,” said the paper.

Australia’s previous prime minister, John Howard, was generally dismissive of the problem, saying his country was plagued with “doomsayers.” But a policy paper called “Our Drowning Neighbors,” by the now governing Labor Party, said Australia should help meld an international coalition to address it. Political debates have erupted there and in New Zealand over the idea of immigration quotas for climate refugees. New Zealand established a “Pacific Access Category” with guidelines that mirror the rules for any émigré, opening its borders to a limited annual quota of some 400 able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 45 who have no criminal records.

But its position has attracted criticism for leaving out the young and the old, who have the least ability to relocate. Australia’s policy, by contrast, is to try to mitigate the circumstances for the victims where they are, rather than serving as their lifeboat.

The sentiment among Pacific Islanders suggests that they do not want to abandon their homelands or be absorbed into cultures where indigenous people already struggle for acceptance.

“It is about much more than just finding food and shelter,” said Tarita Holm, an analyst with the Palauan Ministry of Resources and Development. “It is about your identity.”

Ms. Rakova, on the Carteret Islands, echoes that sentiment. A year ago, her proposed relocation effort attracted just three families out of a population of around 2,000 people. But after last season’s king tides — the highest of the year — she is scrounging for about $1.5 million to help some 750 people relocate before the tides come again.

Jennifer Redfearn, a documentary maker, has been filming the gradual disappearance of the Carterets for a work called “Sun Come Up.”One clan chief told her he would rather sink with the islands than leave. It now takes only about 15 minutes to walk the length of the largest island, with food and water supplies shrinking all the time.

“It destroys our food gardens, it uproots coconut trees, it even washes over the sea walls that we have built,” Ms. Rakova says on the film. “Most of our culture will have to live in memory.”

Friday, May 29, 2009

Locally grown -- and urban

Gardening was my introduction to community organizing back in the late '60's (I realize I'm dating myself here). I belonged to a group called BUG which stood for Boston Urban Gardeners. Our goal was to help urban residents locate and acquire the resources that would allow them to grow their own food -- not a trivial task for many poor urban communities.

The following excerpt is from "A Handbook for Community Gardening" written by the Boston Urban Gardners in 1982:
"In cities and suburbs across the United States, community gardens are cropping up between buildings, under highway overpasses, and in vacant lots. As food prices continue to rise and the quality of fresh produce in supermarkets to decline, more and more people are turning to community gardening as an effective, enjoyable way to cut food costs while they beautify their neighborhoods."
The more things change...(GW)

Back to the land

There are reasons aplenty for the sudden growth of new gardens

By Devra First
Boston Globe
May 27, 2009

Flavia Graf Reardon is growing things. Lots of things. In the garden she shares with her husband, Tim, there are onions, leeks, carrots, peas, rhubarb, kale, collards, spinach, broccoli rabe, salad greens, raspberries, two kinds of cherries, currants, gooseberries, and many varieties of herbs. Far from rural, this homestead is a few blocks from Egleston Square on the Jamaica Plain/Roxbury line, where you're as likely to hear bass thumping from the cars on nearby Washington Street as crickets.

"It is incredibly satisfying," she says. "There's the whole mystery and magic of planting the seed. Then there's the taste of things you've just picked and grown."

This year brings a set of circumstances - a recession, health scares stemming from the food supply, interest in eating locally, a garden on the White House lawn - that has an increasing number of people thinking about producing their own food. City dwellers are no exception. Reardon, a mother of two who teaches literacy at the Boston Renaissance charter school, has room to garden in her yard, and the family is in the process of purchasing the property next door. They have the soil tested for contamination before planting and raised beds are another way to ensure safety. Much urban production is catch-as-catch-can: on fire escapes and decks, in containers in tiny yards, wherever there's light to coax a seed to sprout. Community garden plots, too, offer a fertile patch in the midst of concrete.

"This year almost every garden has a waiting list," says Valerie Burns, president of Boston Natural Areas Network, which acts as a clearinghouse for the 3,000 community garden plots in the city. "People have the gardening craze, absolutely. We knew it when we started to get calls about plots in January. We usually start to hear in March."

Gardening is on the rise across the board. A National Gardening Association study (sponsored by the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.) found that 43 million US households plan to grow their own food this year, up 19 percent from 2008. At the seed company Burpee, says spokeswoman Kristin Grilli, "We are noticing a huge increase. We started noticing it last summer when food prices went up, but this year as of March, sales for vegetables are up 30 percent over last year's growth." The normal growth rate is 10 to 15 percent a year, she says.

People are also raising chickens for their eggs. At Ferestien Feed & Farm Supply in Foxborough, orders for baby chicks have increased from last year, says Robert Ferestien. This month Codman Community Farms in Lincoln offered classes on keeping laying hens in a backyard. Raising poultry is prohibited in Boston proper, as it is in many cities; efforts to change these laws are cropping up everywhere from Arlington to Philadelphia to Provo, Utah.

It should come as no surprise that interest stems in part from the economy: For mere chicken feed, one can have a steady supply of fresh eggs and vegetables. Indeed, the National Gardening Association survey found that 54 percent of people cite saving money on food bills as a reason for growing their own. Yet it isn't the main motivating factor. Survey respondents also said they were doing it to have better-tasting food (58 percent), better-quality food (51 percent), and food they know is safe (48 percent). Some wanted to get back to basics (25 percent) or live more locally (22 percent).

This is more than a trend, says Cornelia Hoskin, who helps run, an online community founded by Farm Aid. "I would absolutely call this a movement, a cultural shift, even. It's the desire to have a real, authentic connection to what is in your life, be it your food or your clothing or things you make a home with. The popularity of crafting and canning and all these things - we're going back to these rural arts. It's what your grandmother did, and we've lost that connection to slowing down and taking care in what we do in our lives."

There's historical precedent for this activity. Victory gardens were considered morale boosters as well as civic duties during World War I and II. In the '60s and '70s, people sought refuge in the back-to-the-land movement. Today, there's a new element in the mix: the Internet. People who want to learn how to keep bees or start composting only have to log on. They will find sites about raising chickens in the city, groups discussing heirloom seeds and home canning, and instructional videos such as those at, hosted by Patti Moreno, who has turned her Roxbury property into a mini-farm.

"Back in the '70s, when people went back to the land, they went off and built cabins and started gardens, and it was very isolating," says Carleen Madigan, editor of the new book "The Backyard Homestead." "I've been reading a lot of blogs that people keep, just telling about the kinds of experiments they're doing, what they're trying in their own little yards. It creates this virtual community."

Mark Cutler, a manager at Mahoney's Garden Center in Brighton, says he is seeing an uptick in questions from gardening novices. "More and more people are freely admitting they don't know anything about gardens and this is their first time trying," he says. "It's all linked into the organic movement and the green movement."

In some parts of the country, generally those with longer growing seasons, people are trying to produce the bulk of their own food, often chronicling their journeys online. In New England, our goals tend to be more modest.

"Homesteading is out of reach for most people," Hoskin says. "We'd love to have 50 acres in Vermont, but how are we going to make a living and when are we going to see our friends? So I can't build a stone wall, but I can make preserves from strawberries I get at the farmers' market. It's a piece of a lifestyle that connects back to the earth."

That can be reward enough. "There's a picture we have of Martina, who is 3 years old, holding a 3-quart bowl completely full of raspberries," Reardon says of her daughter. "You could never buy that many. It would cost like $100. It just gives you a feeling of real wealth having an excess of delicious things that take time and care to grow."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Living with water"

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, we kept wondering (out loud) why U.S. officials continued their clearly flawed approach to flood control. This was especially perplexing given that other more effective systems existed in other parts of the world.

So thank you Lisa Jackson (U.S. EPA Administrator) for traveling to the Netherlands to get a firsthand look at integrated comprehensive systems for "living with" rather than trying to control water. Hopefully we'll be able to bring these design approaches to Gulf coast communities here in the U.S.

Sooner rather than later. (GW)

US Environment Chief Praises Dutch Water Systems

By Toby Sterling
The Associated Press
May 26, 2009

Amsterdam - The U.S.' chief environmental official said Tuesday that America can learn much from the way the Dutch manage water - focusing more on living with it than on trying to control it at every turn.

"As climate changes and we start seeing more and more rain we have to stop fighting it," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson said. "There's not enough energy in the world to fight it."

Jackson is accompanied on the weeklong visit to the Netherlands by a delegation from Louisiana - a low-lying area, like the Netherlands. Louisiana officials turned to the Netherlands for inspiration in redesigning the state's water defenses after Hurricane Katrina caused levies to fail, flooding New Orleans.

The history of the Netherlands, where two-thirds of the 16 million population lives below sea level, has been shaped by its struggle to keep dry. The country is renowned for its hard-won expertise in water management and flood defenses.

Recently, policy makers here have adopted a philosophy they term "living with water" - which means working with nature whenever possible and accepting that simply building dikes higher and higher will lead to disaster.

New techniques include pumping sand into strategic offshore locations where currents in the North Sea sweep it into place, bulking up dunes; re-establishing minor waterways and removing pavement to allow the country to absorb sudden influxes of water; and designating zones for intentional flooding in an emergency.

Last year the Netherlands announced more than euro100 billion (US$140 billion) in new spending through the year 2100 to prepare for the effects of global warming.

Jackson said she was most impressed by "the idea that when it rains, the rush is not to pump out, but to be able to hold an amount of water."

"All over the country, especially in densely populated areas, we are fighting the fight of pavement," she said. Too much pavement, she said, increases the volume and speed of water runoff, and leads to increased pollution.

She said the U.S. Clean Water Act was "powerful legislation" that could be used to help shape future building projects along Dutch lines - with a greater ability to absorb sudden influxes of water rather than attempt to prevent them.

She said she planned to study Dutch methods of dealing with runoff pollution from the country's intensive agriculture sector - and from its cities, which are some of the most densely populated in the world.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, was visiting the Netherlands for the third time since Katrina struck.

She said her focus this time is on the organizational side, learning how Dutch water districts raise money and work with other governmental bodies and the citizenry to reach consensus on what should be done.

"The Dutch approach ... is a more integrated approach. Our approach is very stove-piped in a sense," she said.

Since Katrina, Louisiana has been guaranteed some funding for water defenses from the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico, but Landrieu said that wasn't enough.

She said Dutch water boards, which are elected and have the power to tax, were an important element in the country's policy mix.

"Although it's politically difficult you've got to have some cost or surcharge associated with property that each individual homeowner needs to contribute to the long-term support of being safe in their neighborhood."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Concentrating solar power on climate change

Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants could meet 7 percent of the world's power needs by 2030 and 25 percent by 2050, according to a new report by Greenpeace, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and the International Energy Agency.

Such systems currently make up just 430 megawatts of generation capacity, or less than one half of one percent of electricity needs worldwide.

CSP "is about to step out of the shadow of other renewable technologies and can establish itself as the third biggest player in the sustainable power generation industry," the report's authors write.

If that giant leap in capacity happens, they say, the sector would employ 2 million people in the next four decades and save 2.1 billion tons of global warming emissions in 2050.

Here's a glance at what it would take:

  • Long-term and stable feed-in tariffs that would help to overcome the solar cost disadvantage.
  • Renewable Portfolio Standards that would specifically apply to CSP.
  • Loan guarantees from banks and global environmental programs that would provide greater access to investment dollars.
  • Rapid increase of new grid capacity (especially via High Voltage Direct Current) to export solar power from CSP plants to industrial countries and emerging economies.
  • Investment of 21 billion euros a year by 2015 and 174 billion a year by 2050.

For Europe in particular, the report recommends engagement with North Africa, which has an "unlimited" solar resource that could power Europe by 2050 for a cost of $400 billion over 30 years. It's a promising project that is clearly not yet on the horizon.

Investment in the CSP sector passed the $1 billion mark in 2008, according to the analysis. In 2009, it is expected to exceed $2.8 billion. Most of the installations so far are in Spain and the United States.

CSP uses vast solar mirrors that concentrate the sun's rays to temperatures of between 750 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to drive steam turbines. The DESERTEC foundation claims that deploying a CSP supergrid on a stretch of desert 186 miles on each side could technically power the whole world.

The good news is the technology is proven. The first large-scale commercial CSP stations were built in California's Mojave Desert some 15 years ago. Even better is that utility-scale installations are "now economically viable," the report states.

High initial investment is required for new CSP plants. But, over the entire lifecycle of the plant, 80 percent of the cost is from construction and associated debt, and only 20 percent comes from operation. In fact, the report notes that the experiences with CSP plants constructed in California between 1984 and 1991 show that:

"Once the plant has been paid for, in 25 or 30 years, only operating costs, which are currently about 3 cents/kWh, remain and the electricity is cheaper than any competition; comparable only to long-written-off hydropower plants."

Bottom line, the report says:

"Only when funds are available without high-risk surcharges can solar thermal power plant technology become competitive with medium-load fossil-fuel power plants."

True, investment funds and market incentives are vital to make CSP as cheap as coal. But the chances of these happening are dependent on something else that's desperately needed and sorely lacking: the political will to carry out the CSP solar vision.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Africa's "resource curse"

I will continue use this blog primarily as a forum for posting positive examples of the many options that are available to those of us interested in helping to create a world that works for everyone. However, every once in a while it is important to remind ourselves that there are some very powerful and violent forces out there that consider such a world to be a threat to everything they believe in. It would be the grossest of understatements to say that these forces resist change.

They will resort to any means possible to maintain the status quo and thier position of power and privilege. (GW)

Shell on trial

The Independent

May 26, 2009

Oil giant in the dock over 1995 murder of activist who opposed environmental degradation of Niger Delta

Royal Dutch Shell will revisit one of the darkest periods of its history tomorrow as a potentially groundbreaking court case opens in New York.

The oil giant stands accused of complicity in the 1995 execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian environmental activist.

The world's boardrooms are watching the case, which is seen as a test of whether transnational companies owned or operating in the US can be held responsible for human rights abuses committed abroad.

A collection of cases brought by torture victims in the oil-rich Niger Delta and by relatives of those killed has been brought together under the umbrella of Wiwa v Shell.

The plaintiffs include Ken Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken Wiwa Jnr, and his brother, Owens Wiwa.

For Shell, which denies any involvement in the environmentalist's killing, ordered by the government of Sani Abacha, the case represents an unwelcome public hearing of grievances that the company has spent time and money trying to make people forget.

Mr Saro-Wiwa was hanged in November 1995 after being convicted by a military tribunal in which he was denied proper legal representation or appeal. Shell subsequently faced a storm of protest and Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth. The British prime minister John Major called the execution "judicial murder".

Tomorrow's proceedings will see the Dutch-based energy giant charged with collaborating with Nigerian authorities in the execution of Mr Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of his ethnic Ogoni group on "trumped-up charges". Shell has vigorously denied any involvement and says it appealed to the Abacha government for clemency on Mr Saro-Wiwa's part.

The suit also alleges that the company consistently conspired with military authorities to violently put down peaceful protests by the Ogoni people, hundreds of thousands of whom Mr Saro-Wiwa had helped to mobilise.

"I have always maintained that Shell was complicit in the conspiracy to silence my father along with thousands of other Ogonis," said his eldest son, Ken Wiwa Jnr.

Nigeria's oil industry has long been the most glaring example of what is called Africa's "resource curse".

While Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer, the peoples of the river delta where the crude is extracted have seen their homelands turned into a wasteland. The millions of dollars of oil revenue accrued every day have done nothing for the 70 per cent of Nigerians who live on less than $1 a day.

In the Niger Delta, farmlands and fish stocks have been destroyed amid environmental degradation brought on by oil spills, deforestation and the notorious practice of gas flaring, which continues despite being banned.

Ken Saro-Wiwa, an accomplished writer and businessman, had warned that Shell's actions in Nigeria would return to haunt them: "I and my colleagues are not the only ones on trial ... There is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the company has waged in the Delta will be called into question sooner than later and the crimes of that war duly punished."

The campaigner's death proved to be a turning point in the Delta and many of his darker predictions have since been borne out.

Oil production in Nigeria is running at half its capacity, the Petroleum Minister Odein Ajumogobia said last week. And the Niger Delta has been transformed into a war zone. The peaceful protests that peaked in 1993 with an estimated 300,000 Ogonis marching against Shell demanding compensation and an end to environmental destruction have been succeeded by armed militias in open revolt.

The demonstrations and sit-ins have given way to kidnappings, bombings, sabotage and armed assaults on oil rigs, pumping stations and multinational targets. The region is overrun with corrupt authorities orchestrating pirate gangs and wholesale oil theft.

As the preliminary hearings begin in New York tomorrow, hundreds of people in the Niger Delta are feared to have been killed in the crossfire during a counter-insurgency which the Nigerian government launched this month.

A joint task force carried out sea and air attacks against targets in the Delta and ground troops were sent in to flush out militants. Amnesty International condemned the operation.

The main militant group in the region is now the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta, and unlike Mr Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, its tactics are avowedly violent.

The violence has affected all oil companies but analysts say that Shell's onshore fields have been the worst affected. The oil industry was judged to have fed the violence in the Delta, according to a report that Shell commissioned five years ago.

Shell has been active since 1958 in the Delta, which contains most of Nigeria's energy reserves, estimated at 36 billion barrels of oil and 187 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The plaintiffs in the case allege that, although the Nigerian government tortured and executed the claimants and their relatives, "these abuses were instigated, orchestrated, planned, and facilitated by Shell Nigeria" and that the company "provided money, weapons, and logistical support to the Nigerian military, participated in the fabrication of murder charges, and bribed witnesses to give testimony."

In a statement, Shell said: "Shell in no way encouraged or advocated any act of violence against [the claimants] or their fellow Ogonis. We believe that the evidence will show clearly that Shell was not responsible for these tragic events."

Ethnic groups in the Delta have wanted greater autonomy since before independence from Britain in 1960. The Ogoni campaign was built on perceptions among ethnic minorities that they were being cheated out of oil revenue by a corrupt government dominated by Nigeria's larger ethnic groups.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's not easy being green - nor should it be

Renewable energy's new found popularity driven in large part by an expanding menu of state and federal incentive packages is creating problems similar to those experienced by the "Natural Foods" movement not too long ago. Originally confined to what cynics wrote off as "granola crunchers" the organic foods movement gained mainstream momentum over concerns for food safety. Suddenly it seemed as if everything from mayonnaise to processed cheeze foods was being touted as "all natural" -- to the point where the concept was in danger of becoming meaningless.

Lest we forget, the main thrust behind the incentives encouraging the expansion of renewable energy development is to help mitigate the potentially devastating impacts of global climate change -- not to make a bunch of opportunistic entrepreneurs wealthy. Economic growth and job creation are certainly part of the overall strategy but not by letting polluting technologies dressed in renewables clothing take unfair and irresponsible advantage of these scary times.

This post and the one following emphasize the importance of keeping our eyes on the prize. (GW)

With Billions at Stake, Trying to Expand the Meaning of ‘Renewable Energy’

The definition of renewable energy seems clear cut: The sun continues to shine, so solar energy is renewable. The wind continues to blow, so wind turbines churn out renewable power.

But industries are now pushing to have a growing number of other technologies categorized as renewable — or at least as environmentally advantageous. They include nuclear power plants and the burning of garbage and even the waste from coal mines.

The lure of the renewable label is understandable. Federal tax breaks for renewable energy have been reauthorized, and quotas for renewable energy production have been set in 28 states, accompanied by extensive new grants, loans and other economic advantages. And legislation is moving through both houses of Congress to establish national quotas for renewable energy sources, including the climate bill passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.

With billions of dollars at stake, legislators have been besieged by lobbyists eager to share in the wealth.

“They’ve been queuing up outside staff offices, everyone with all their ideas as to what should be included,” said Bill Wicker, the spokesman for the Democratic majority on the Senate energy committee, which is considering a national quota.

In some states, the definition of “renewable” or “alternative” has already expanded. In Pennsylvania, waste coal and methane from coal mines receive the same treatment as solar panels and wind turbines. In Nevada, old tires can count as a renewable fuel, provided microwaves are used to break down their chemical structure.

About half of the 28 states with renewable mandates include electricity generated by burning garbage (the District of Columbia also has a quota for renewable energy). In Florida, the nuclear power industry is lobbying to be included but has not yet succeeded.

Government incentives for renewable energy were intended to give an economic boost to technologies like wind and solar power that were not yet economically competitive with coal and natural gas, which together provide more than two-thirds of the country’s electricity.

The benefits that go with the designation include renewable energy credits, which promise to be a valuable commodity if a national renewable energy standard becomes law and utilities with high levels of renewable sources can sell credits to those with less.

If a source of electricity already widely used by some utilities — hydropower or nuclear power, for example — is deemed renewable, it allows utilities to meet the new renewable-energy requirements while doing little to add wind or solar power to the electrical grid. House Republicans tried unsuccessfully last week to have nuclear energy included under the climate bill passed by the House committee.

Environmental groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, Environment America and the Natural Resources Defense Council say they are frustrated by the increasing elasticity of the word “renewable” in legislators’ hands.

“Usually this is a very political process, and not driven in any way, shape or form by any strict scientific or ecological definition of renewables,” said Nathanael Greene of the N.R.D.C.

But some of the industries that have claimed the renewable mantle argue that they deserve it.

“A banana is renewable — you can grow them forever,” said Bob Eisenbud, a vice president for government affairs at Waste Management, which receives about 10 percent of its annual revenues of $13.3 billion from waste and landfill energy generation. “A banana that goes into garbage and gets burned,” he added, is “a renewable resource and producing renewable energy.”

But environmentalists argue that one of the goals of renewable energy is to cut back on the heat-trapping gases emitted from burning most things, whether fossil fuels or bananas. When there is no fire, there are no emissions. The waste-to-energy technology described by Mr. Eisenbud was not included in the original draft of the climate legislation that received House committee approval, but it was contained in the version that moved out of the committee, thanks to language inserted by Representative Baron P. Hill, Democrat of Indiana. A new $227 million waste-to-energy plant was already planned in northern Indiana, outside his district.

On the Senate side, an effort to get the benefits of the renewable designation for advanced coal-burning technologies failed, however.

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico and chairman of the Senate energy committee, said that if too many new technologies beyond core renewable sources like wind and solar were to be included, “the whole purpose of the renewable electricity standard is defeated.”

The goal, he said, is “to encourage the development of some of these newer technologies and bring the price down.”

He added, “If you throw in everything else” and call it renewable, “then your numbers get way out of whack.”

Leon Lowery, a Democratic staff member for the committee, said that both environmentalists and industry had tinkered with the common-sense understanding of renewable sources to make definitions fit policy goals.

“If you try to assign a sort of conceptual definition, you find yourself in strange places,” Mr. Lowery said. “Anyone would acknowledge that hydropower is renewable, but do we want to give credits to the Grand Coulee Dam?”

To do so, he added, would give hydropower — which already benefits from rich federal subsidies that make it some of the cheapest energy available — the same status as solar or wind technologies.

Among states that have already adopted quotas for renewable energy, the standards vary from Wisconsin’s, which requires that 10 percent of all power come from renewable sources by 2015, to those of Oregon and Minnesota, which call for 25 percent from renewable sources by 2025. California is raising its mandate to 33 percent by 2020, though its utilities have already indicated that the existing quota — 20 percent by 2010 — will be difficult to meet.

In some states, quotas for renewable energy are paired with mandates for advanced technologies that are not necessarily renewable. For example, Ohio, which currently receives nearly two-thirds of its electricity from burning coal, requires that 25 percent of the state’s electricity must come from renewable or advanced technologies by 2025, but of that, half must come from core renewable sources, and some of the remainder can come from burning chemically treated coal.

Graham Mathews, a lobbyist representing Covanta Energy, another waste-to-energy company, said the political horse-trading on renewable energy legislation was typical of all energy measures. “Energy policy is balkanized by region, and that dictates the debate. The politics become incredibly complicated,” he said.

“Stepping back and looking at it,” Mr. Mathews added, “it sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Different shades of green

It should be clear by now that there is no totally benign source of energy -- including renewables. The development and eventual deployment of every source of energy has impacts. Some are greater than others. Impacts may occur at different points in the value chain for different technologies. As plans for the widespread deployment of renewable energy sources gains traction, it is important that their potential cumulative impacts -- geographic and temporal -- be assessed as carefully and as thoroughly as possible. (GW)

A red flag on green energy plan

By Mary Stuart Booth
Boston Globe
May 25, 2009

SUPPOSE you learned that, in the name of green energy, Massachusetts was going to sanction cutting down trees - a lot more trees - and burning them. Crazy, you'd say? Right. But those are the facts.

It's widely acknowledged that forest burning in developing countries is a major source of greenhouse gases. Yet because of an accounting convention, the northeastern Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which seeks to cap carbon dioxide generated by the energy sector, treats carbon released into the atmosphere by burning wood as if it is immediately "resequestered" by new growth, and is thus "carbon neutral." Although it takes a minute to burn a tree and 70 years to grow it back, there is no acknowledgement that regrowth is not immediate. The climate bill before Congress buys into this notion, too.

To meet the 2018 cap set by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Massachusetts is increasing renewable energy generation, and treating wind, solar, and biomass as equally carbon-neutral approaches. Hence, the state is fast-tracking three large biomass plants to generate 135 megawatts of power in Western Massachusetts. In total, 165 to 200 megawatts of biomass generation are being planned.

Estimates of fuel for these plants rely on the state's "biomass availability study," but this report is misleadingly optimistic. The study assumes that biomass is available not only in Western Massachusetts but also in surrounding counties and other states. However, since other states are building their own biomass plants, it's likely this fuel won't be available. Estimates of available biomass include sawmill waste, which the report admits is mostly committed to existing markets. Most troubling, a full one-third is "urban forestry residues" and construction and demolition debris, which releases arsenic, mercury, and other contaminants when burned. Removing these fuels from the total, the resulting wood from Western Massachusetts is sufficient for one 17-megawatt plant; including the buffer counties, there would enough for two 55-megawatt plants, if other states didn't use that wood themselves.

Acknowledging the scarcity of biomass supplies, the state report describes how new forest cutting is needed to provide biomass fuel. The report calls for cutting 25 dry tons of wood an acre from forests, or about 45 "green" tons an acre. At this rate, 14,300 acres would have to be cut a year, or 39 acres a day, to supply 650,000 tons of fuel for a single 50-megawatt plant.

Where will that wood come from? The state's public lands are in the crosshairs. Removing conservation reserves and steep and wet areas from consideration, and recognizing that landowner attitudes about timber extraction limit use of private lands, the state report estimates that approximately 845,000 acres are available for biomass fuel, of which 465,000 are public. If these lands were required to supply fuel to the 165 to 200 megawatts of biomass generation now planned, the entire 845,000 acres would be logged in 15 to 18 years.

Besides the threat to state and private lands, harvesting trees for biomass will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Biomass energy is argued to be carbon neutral when it uses the tops and branches of trees that are otherwise not collected in forestry operations, since these forestry residues would eventually decompose, releasing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. However, decomposition occurs over decades; biomass burning releases a pulse of carbon dioxide instantaneously.

The carbon neutrality argument really stumbles when new trees with a future of carbon sequestration ahead of them are harvested. The trees left after thinning can't make up in growth for the biomass that's been lost; further, those trees are typically soon harvested for timber. It takes decades before a harvested forest sequesters the carbon that an undisturbed forest does. The 845,000 acres of medium-aged forests targeted for energy extraction by the state lock up almost 6 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to 23 percent of the state's 2006 carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation. In contrast, the trees burned to generate the proposed 165 to 200 megawatts of biomass power would increase energy-sector carbon dioxide emissions by 8 to 10 percent, while supplementing the state's power supply by about 1 percent.

Does this make any sense to you?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A renewable-energy-fueled industrial revolution

The United States Department of Energy's groundbreaking scenario "20% Wind by 2030" makes it clear that the U.S. could be receiving 20% of its electricity from wind energy by the year 2030. Achieving this goal would not require any major breakthroughs in technology. But it would necessitate a major mobilization of our manufacturing sector.

Utility-scale wind turbines with installed nameplate capacities ranging from 1.5 to over 5 megawatts are massive machines. The largest ones are composed of nearly 8,000 parts that not only must be manufactured, but also eventually shipped, assembled and deployed.

That's a lot of potential jobs -- and that's not even taking into account the opportunities for job creation resulting from the development of other renewables like solar, fuel cells and storage technologies. Fortunately, the nation's so-called rust belt (where products like automobiles and refrigerators used to be made) possesses the infrastructure and skilled labor force ideally suited to take on this challenge. (GW)

Renewables: America's next heavy industry

How three manufacturers in three Midwest states are picking up where the auto sector is laying off.

By Steve Hargreaves
May 23, 2009

MINSTER, OHIO ( -- About 200 miles south of Detroit, America's industrial heartland gives way to the Ohio countryside.

Here lies the tiny town of Minster, off I-75 past the Ford factory, the Mazda factory, the Jeep factory and the massive coal and nuclear plants that keep them all running.

Surrounded by farms, a family-run manufacturer is getting in on the business everyone from President Obama on down hopes will clear the air, wean the country off imported energy, and replace the fast-disappearing auto jobs: Making parts for the burgeoning renewable energy sector.

For the last two years, the Minster Machine Company has been forging the giant cast-iron hubs that keep the blades attached to the center of a wind turbine.

"The wind market for us was a diversification strategy," said John Winch, who followed his father, grandfather and great-grandfather in helming the 103-year old company. Minster Machine also makes the equiptment that make the parts for the auto, medical and food industries, among others.

But it's more than just a diversification strategy. It's a bet that the market for renewable energy products will take off.

Because Minster Machine has skilled metal workers, its own foundry and a huge factory floor, making the hubs for wind turbines and other large wind components is an ideal area for the company to get into.

Minster Machine hopes to use all this, and proximity to wind farms on the Great Plains to expand, and that could mean more jobs. Wages at the companystart at $17.50 an hour and go up from there.

"The renewable energy market could be akin to an industrial revolution-type event," said Winch. "We want to be in that space."

So do a lot of other firms.

Putting people to work

Scores of firms in the renewable energy business have recently opened in the Rust Belt states. They hope to take advantage of a population known for its industrial skills, engineering ability and work ethic.

It's hard to say how many people these firms currently employ. The government doesn't yet track green jobs and the distinction between what's "green" and what isn't often gets blurred.

One study by the University of California, Berkeley estimated that green energy companies employ at least half a million people. That number could climb to 2 to 4 million over the next 15 years if the nation got 15%-20% of its power from renewable sources.

If those job numbers materialize on the high end of estimates, the nation's total manufacturing workforce would get boosted by about 25%.

In the Midwest, it's clear that local officials have high hopes for the industry.

"We very optimistic and very confident that this is a whole new industry and can be a key part of our economic development strategy," said Ohio's Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher.

There's certainly a lot of room to grow.

Sizing up the industry

With fewer subsidies compared to Europe, the United States failed to attract many renewable energy manufacturers over the last few decades. Many experts say the country lags behind in this emerging space.

While the wide swath of land from Texas to North Dakota is one of the best places in the world to produce electricity from wind, more than 50% of the parts used in U.S. wind turbines are imported, according to Ed Weston, director of the Cleveland-based Great Lakes Wind Network.

With each turbine containing over 8,000 parts, that could represent a lot of jobs.

"This is craft work. These are the manufacturing trades coming back to life," said Weston. "This is not unskilled labor at all."

It may not be unskilled labor, but some studies suggest these new green jobs don't pay nearly as much as some of the jobs they are replacing, like union auto jobs.

Many green jobs pay only $11 or $12 an hour, according to Philip Mattera, research director at Good Jobs First, a labor-friendly research group. That compares to an average of about $19 an hour for production workers in heavy industries as a whole, he said. Meanwhile, an autoworker can make $30 an hour or more.

"Green jobs are not automatically good jobs," said Mattera.

One state government official said green manufacturers are reluctant to set up shop in union towns, fearing an inflexible workforce expecting higher wages.

Some are skeptical the new sector can take off as quickly as everyone seems to be hoping. "We haven't drank the Kool-Aid," said the official who did not want to be named.

Still, even the traditional manufacturing industry is welcoming the new business the green energy industry could bring.

"We are at the very beginning of this process," said Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, which represents smaller and mid-size manufacturers. "But this could spark the third or fourth global industrial revolution."

Just north of Indianapolis one company is trying to do just that.

Charging the next revolution

In an office park nestled among the software and biotech firms ringing this diverse manufacturing city that has largely escaped Rust Belt status, EnerDel is aiming to perfect the battery that will let electricity replace gasoline as the main fuel in cars.

EnerDel, a division of Ener1, is one of just a few American companies that has the technology to compete with the big Asian battery makers. Advances in this field happen quickly, and the company that comes up with a cost-effective design will likely reap huge profits.

The feeling of a company racing to compete is unmistakable here. Scientists feverishly work on the new technology and scurry to hide it from our camera as we toured their spotless facility.

"A trained engineer could tell what's in there just by seeing the size of it from the outside," said one worker, sliding what looked like, to this untrained eye, a box inside another box.

The company has applied for a $480 million loan with the government's advanced vehicle program. If the loan comes through, EnerDel plans a huge expansion, and would add some 2,800 employees to its current workforce of 150. A 3,000-person plant is about the size of a large auto factory.

"We're talking about a serious growth in people," said EnerDel Chief Executive Ulrik Grape.

Production jobs at the company start at $12 to $15 an hour. The pay for the many scientific jobs required in the battery field is far higher.

The mood around town

In Ohio and Indiana people love the idea of renewables. In a hip bar in downtown Indianapolis, a young woman and her mother couldn't agree on much: Whether the city has a good art and music scene, is a good place to raise a family, etc. But they did agree that people will embrace renewable energy companies both for the jobs and out of a desire to help the planet.

In Ohio the mood was similar, although people in both states stressed the situation for workers wasn't as dire as it is up north in Michigan.

"We've got a very strong manufacturing base," Jeff Buschor, a 48-year old mortgage broker, said over breakfast with other local businessmen at a diner near Minster. "Sure, the auto guys are down, but the others can keep the community up."

In Saginaw, Mich., the mood is quite different.

"This town has always had a multitude of supplier shops to the auto industry, and they're peeling off like onion rings," said Pat Johnson, a retired heating and air conditioning dealer. "It's kinda gloomy."

Fortunately for Saginaw, just a few miles west of town lies Hemlock Semiconductor, a sprawling silicon maker owned by Dow-Corning, a joint venture between industrial heavyweights Dow Chemical (DOW, Fortune 500) and glassmaker Corning (GLW, Fortune 500).

Hemlock makes the silicon wafers for electronic chips and, since 2001, solar panels. And they're expanding big time.

Polysilicon for solar panels now accounts for over 60% of the firm's sales, and Hemlock is the major supplier for seven of the world's top 11 solar panel makers.

The company recently announced a $1 billion expansion at its Michigan facility and plans for 300 to 400 new hires.

That's good news for people like David Denno, a former auto worker in Saginaw who's now looking for a job.

"That's one of the places I'm trying to get into," said Denno.

Firms like Hemlock may not pick up all the slack from auto sector layoffs, and they may not pay the higher union wages, but for Denno and others like him, they're hope that decent manufacturing jobs are still out there.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

New Suburbanism: From dead mall to sustainable community?

Shopping malls are tanking all across America. This poses a problem for many suburban communities: what to do with these vast parcels of abandoned developed parcels -- many of which cover hundreds of acres of land? It seemed almost inevitable that closed down or torn down malls -- concrete cemeteries if you will-- would become unwanted landmarks of America's suburban landscape.

There may, however, be other options. Can malls be "retrofitted" and integrated into visions of something akin to a "New Suburbanism"? (GW)

After the mall: retrofitting suburbia

As it once sucked the life out of Main Street, the suburban mall is being reconsidered – or torn down – as towns move back to the concept of a multiuse town center.

By Matthew Shaer

Christian Science Monitor

May 22, 2009

Lakewood, Colo.

Few here have forgotten the Villa Italia, the hulking, whitewashed mall that once spilled across the skyline of central Lakewood. Unveiled in 1966, the Villa was the largest indoor shopping center west of the Mississippi River and east of California. The gaudy main hall – ornamented to evoke the charms of old-world Europe – played host to hundreds of after-prom parties, first dates, and all-day festivals. In its heyday, in the 1970s and ’80s, the Villa anchored this large, affluent Denver suburb, which never had a Main Street to call its own.

Then in the ’90s, like hundreds of malls nationwide, the Villa began to lose its luster. First went the jewelry stores and the luxury-goods boutiques. By 2001, destination department stores such as Montgomery Ward and JCPenney had vanished, too, and with them, most of the foot traffic. The kids who hung out in the food court decamped for more vibrant locales; the corridors grew hushed. The once-great mall became a cemetery of dollar stores and a glorified walking track for senior citizens. In 2003, it was mercifully reduced to a pile of rubble.

For at least a decade, Americans have been regularly reminded that the indoor mall was hurtling toward obscurity. The causes were manifold: the rise of Internet shopping, the sharp spikes of an ailing economy, the success of Wal-Mart and its big-box kin, the fading relevance of mall culture.

Welcome to 2009, the year that the mall, the staple of so many childhood memories and a longstanding pillar of suburban commerce, could finally and truly go bust. From west to east, shopping centers stand darkened, the hulks of Circuit Citys boarded up, the parking lots of Linens ‘n Things deserted. Malls are posting the highest vacancy rates in a decade, and retail rental rates are plummeting, according to Reis, a New York firm that studies trends in commercial real estate. And the slope is precipitous: Last month, General Growth Properties, one of the biggest mall operators in the country, declared bankruptcy.

But here in Lakewood, a successful revitalization effort provides a modicum of hope for city planners nationwide. Beginning in 2002, Villa’s 103-acre plot was rezoned and restructured, setting the stage for Belmar, a vibrant new downtown area, part residential, part retail, and part office park.

In form, Belmar resembles a scaled-down city center, with a maze of sidewalks; a grid system of streets; and residential, retail, and office units stacked tightly atop one another. The multiuse district has attracted home buyers and renters, and generated millions of dollars for Lakewood.

Some experts are touting this transformation – from dead mall to sustainable community – as a solution to the so-called “ghost box” syndrome. And developers are paying attention. In Cathedral City, Calif., for instance, a decaying strip mall has been reborn as a tree-lined boulevard, with increased pedestrian access and improved public transportation. In Mashpee, Mass., planners have partially demolished a shopping center and are working to incorporate a “walkable village.” In Boca Raton, Fla., a mall was razed to make way for a multiuse area featuring both retail and housing.

“Retrofits,” as they’re called, take a variety of forms, from “raze it all and start anew” to creative adaptation of an existing space, such as the Food Lion supermarket in Denton, Texas, that became a public library. Each process shares common goals: reduce the blight, scale down sprawl, cut car traffic, amp up foot and bicycle access, and eliminate barriers between residential and retail space.

“Historically, there were two options for developers who wanted to revitalize a dying mall,” says June Williamson, an architect and coauthor of an influential new book, “Retrofitting Suburbia.” “The first was going downscale into a power center, with Wal-Marts or Kmarts. Alternatively, developers would go upmarket into a lifestyle center – take off the roof, add the high-end restaurants, spruce it up. But we’re seeing [planners] start to approach things from a very different angle – pulling in the retail, and then pulling in other uses as well. They’re really thinking about sustainability [and a] long-term strategy.”

Belmar is the “Cadillac” of retrofits, says Ms. Williamson. Although the district has been hit as hard as any community by the economic malaise, 85 percent of the retail space in Belmar has been leased. Residential leasing figures are even higher: Of 478 available rental units, 94 percent are occupied. Meanwhile, property values in Belmar are now the highest in Jefferson County.

Mayor Bob Murphy says Belmar has become the kind of Main Street that malls ran out of business; the kind of gathering spot that Lakewood never had. “That’s what we hoped it would be when we started out, and that’s what it has become,” he says.

Belmar is nearly complete, and, when finished in 2012, will have 1.2 million square feet of retail space and 1,300 residential units. It already incorporates many aspects of urban life – from a centrally located ice-skating rink to wide sidewalks – and has a host of “green amenities.” A 1.75-megawatt array of solar panels helps power Belmar, and 14 wind turbines generate electricity for parking lots.

Critically, retrofitting refers not just to sustainable architecture and the proliferation of mixed-used facilities. It’s also a matter of urbanization – of changing the social fabric of the suburb itself.

Bedroom communities created in the wake of World War II were low-density, high-sprawl, and decentralized or loosely connected by a small downtown. Developers worked from a car-first perspective, liberally sprinkling in dead ends and cul-de-sacs, and skimping on sidewalks, parks, and other shared space. The classic American suburb had a tangle of single-use buildings and a dearth of public transportation. But over the past decade, with baby boomers headed toward retirement, the suburbs have weathered a profound revolution.

“Our research indicates that there are more people looking for an urban-type environment,” Williamson says. “It’s a cultural shift, and it’s a demographic shift – there are a larger percentage of households without children, either empty nesters or young couples who don’t want kids. There used to be a split, where you’d live in the city until you had children and then move to the suburbs. That’s not being borne out by the middle class right now.”

Recent US Census data reveals a rise in childless families, and a soaring market for suburban, multiunit housing. Meanwhile, an April Brookings Institution report shows that between 1998 and 2006, jobs moved from city centers to first-ring suburbs, bringing younger, livelier residents.

“Suburbs have become a very specialized species,” says Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architect and Williamson’s coauthor. “They’re not very adaptable. The urban form, on the other hand, is remarkably adaptable. It can keep changing. Think about cities – that patina of culture accumulated by all the generations that came before.”

She and Williamson argue that a swift urbanization of the suburbs is important – for the environment, the economy, and American culture. Urban areas, for instance, compel people to drive less and encourage a sense of community and the all-important “interconnectivity.”

This “downtown feel” was vital, says Craig Vickers, a landscape architect with the Denver firm Civitas who worked extensively on Belmar. “Even people who haven’t been exposed to urban densities [are] seeking urbanism. For [city people], Belmar may not look like a gritty urban place. But this is a gritty urban place for people who grew up around here. And people really wanted it.”

Still, no matter how many residents clamor for revitalization, changing the face of a community can be slow and thorny. One major problem is the specter of density – the antithesis of the suburban ethic of the home as an island in a lawn.

Mike Rock, Lakewood’s city manager and an instrumental figure in the creation of Belmar, says that he “immediately found [himself] butting up against this idea that if you allow commercial and residential units to touch each other, you’re diminishing the value. People will say, ‘We’re not the city, but we aren’t the city on purpose.’ ”

In Colorado, where the libertarian instinct runs deep, there were also concerns about cost and governmental involvement.

“The Villa was built at a time when malls were still the shiny new thing,” remembers Mr. Rock. “You look at photographs from when it first opened, and it’s just a sea of all these cool, ’60s-era cars. It’s hard to overestimate just how strong peoples’ attachment was to the mall. They loved the place.”

More contentious still was Lakewood’s decision to finance Belmar through a public-private partnership with Continuum Partners, a development firm based in Denver. Continuum took on much of the cost, which is expected to reach $850 million when the project is finished. Lakewood then enacted a 2.5 percent “public improvement fee” for retail transactions in the Belmar area, to be remitted directly to Continuum. (City officials also waved a third of Lakewood’s 3 percent sales tax, partly to placate consumers.) Continuum also secured $200 million in federal funds through the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, which issued bonds to developers using eco-
friendly building techniques.

“We were clear the first time we came out to Lakewood,” says Thomas Gougeon, a principal at Continuum. “We said, ‘It’s broken, it’s dying, but it’s not dead enough. It’s going to be messy. And someone is going to try to stop you. Someone always does.’ ”

In 1999, Continuum acquired the land under the mall; a year later, it acquired the mall itself. But after reaching agreements with most of the tenants, Continuum was stymied by the former May Department Stores Company, which then owned a longtime Villa anchor called Foley’s.

“Shoppers coming into Foley’s were being told, ‘You are going to lose your store because the city of Lakewood is forcing us to leave, and if you don’t like that, then contact the city council,’” Rock remembers. “That’s a lot of pressure on us.”

Then in 2001, Continuum initiated eminent domain proceedings against the May Company, ratcheting up pressure on elected officials.

“Think about it: eminent domain is contentious. Urban renewal is contentious. And we had both,” Rock explains.

But after Foley’s was forced out, and the mall demolished, Rock says that the “majority of the public went from mourning, through a period of skepticism, to a serious sense of pride. A pride based on the idea that people actually want to live here, that they bring their friends here, that Lakewood finally has its own town center.”

On a cold day this spring, the streets of Belmar were mostly empty, with only a few passersby ambling along the sidewalks. Big metal lamps hung over the streets, a decorative touch designed to make Belmar feel a little cozier. Pop music swirled eerily from speakers into the air. Much of the activity seemed to be centered on “Block 7,” a strip of art galleries and storefronts subsidized by Continuum. Jeffrey Steffonich, a college student working at a studio, said, “There’s been a lot of interest [in Belmar] among young people … interest in the culture … the galleries. People see it as a cool place to live.”

Other vendors and residents expressed concerns about a nationwide drop in retail sales and the ability of the developers to complete the retrofit. “I think there’s a lot of potential here, and certainly more than there ever was at Villa Italia,” said Ann Rivera, the co-owner of a local PostNet franchise. She paused, and added, “There’s still a long way to go.”

The question now is whether Belmar will consistently draw residents and shoppers – and whether the model can be translated elsewhere. In “Retrofitting Suburbia,” Ms. Dunham-Jones and Williamson argued that similar revitalizations are necessary to accommodate the rapidly changing suburban culture.

Mr. Vickers agrees: “Right now it’s a balancing act. We need enough retail to bring people down here, and enough residential to make retail function. I don’t know if [Belmar] is the magic bullet, but it’s an important step in that direction.”

Richard Farley, a principle at Civitas, said that in the end, it “won’t matter if Belmar is panned or praised in the architectural journals. Real success will be if Lakewood really embraces Belmar…. Real success will be if the people really love it.”