Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Happy Earth Day! (Migrated to the Green Leap Forward)

Happy Earth Day everyone!

In addition to my solar blog, I have resumed my critical analysis of broader environmental and energy issues in the context of China, the world's fastest growing and most important economy. I am now located in Beijing where I am doing research on such issues as a Fulbright Scholar. You can my thoughts on

There's also a facebook page you can join for The Green Leap Forward.

Hope you enjoy its contents!

Friday, October 12, 2007


Greetings! Thanks for visiting my blog. This blog is temporarily inactive as I focus my efforts on a new blog dedicated to solar energy at

In some future reincarnation of this blog, I hope to start covering China-related green issues as I spend time on the ground next year. But in the mean time, I congratulate AL GORE and the INTERNATIONAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE for their historic Nobel Peace Prize win.

See you at the solar coaster, and stay tuned for future announcements on my China blog.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Live Earth Rocks the World!

7.7.07, some say, is the luckiest day of the century. Will this be the case for planet Earth?

Today, in cities across all 7 continents (yes, even Antarctica), music rock stars and fans come together for a 24 hour benefit drive to spread awareness of global climate change. The artists, ranging from Madonna, to the Dave Matthews Band, to the Police, are performing pro bono, with proceeds of the concerts going to Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, which is a member of Save Our Selves, the organizer of Live Earth (the logo of Live Earth, above, is "SOS" in Morse code).

Take the Plegde

During the concerts people will be asked to support the following 7-point pledge:
  1. To demand that my country join an international treaty within the next 2 years that cuts global warming pollution by 90% in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy earth;
  2. To take personal action to help solve the climate crisis by reducing my own CO2 pollution as much as I can and offsetting the rest to become 'carbon neutral;'
  3. To fight for a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store the CO2;
  4. To work for a dramatic increase in the energy efficiency of my home, workplace, school, place of worship, and means of transportation;
  5. To fight for laws and policies that expand the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on oil and coal;
  6. To plant new trees and to join with others in preserving and protecting forests; and,
  7. To buy from businesses and support leaders who share my commitment to solving the climate crisis and building a sustainable, just, and prosperous world for the 21st century.

The Start of a Global Movement
The reach of Live Earth extends far beyond the eight main concerts--
there are going to be more than 6,000 satellite Live Earth events have been spontaneously organized in 109 countries under the Friends of Live Earth event; Live Earth is being broadcast on television and radio in more than 100 countries; more than 10 million have accessed the concerts on; and a book (David de Rothschild's The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook: 77 Essential Skills To Stop Climate Change) on climate change has been released in conjunction with the event. The organizers have indicated that this will not be a one-off event, but rather, a three to five year campaign to create a sustained awareness.

Green Practices
The campaign, has not been without controversy (an execellent summary can be found in this Wikipedia entry), one of the most commonly heard among them being that the logistics and transportation involved in organizing the event has consumed a lot of energy and created a lot of carbon emissions.

“This is going to be the greenest event of its kind, ever,” Gore has countered.
The concerts will follow "Green Event Guidelines" developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, creators of the LEED Green Building Rating System. The following green measures will be implemented:
  • all electricity that powers the shows will be from renewable sources;
  • concessionaires will be encouraged to use suppliers of biodegradable plastics;
  • waste will be minimized through recycling and reuse;
  • venue offices will use as little energy as possible;
  • production lighting will include the use of LED light bulbs;
  • staff and artist air travel will be offset through carbon credits; and
  • ground travel will be by hybrid or high-efficiency vehicles where possible
Said Gore, “the carbon offsets and the innovative practices that are being used to make this a green event, I think will set the standard for years to come.”

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Unofficial Launch of The Solar Coaster!

Apologies for the lull in postings, but I've been busy getting a new solar energy-focused blog online, and after almost three weeks of testing, its now ready for an unofficial launch! So please visit The Solar Coaster for your daily dose of solar news.

The Solar Coaster will provide regular news updates on the latest developments in solar energy technology and other solar industry initiatives.

I will continue to post on a greener shade of gold more analytical pieces on a more intermittent basis, with the next post on energy efficiency in the not too distant future!

Thanks for your continued readership, and please send me any comments!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why I Didn't Become an Environmental Lawyer

I've been passionate about green issues since my early youth, majored in ecology and got a joint law and environmental policy masters degree, and was even co-chair of the Environmental Law Society in law school. Yet, the practice of environmental law (which in practice means environmental litigation or regulatory compliance) has never appealed to me (all I currently do is corporate transactional work).

In my initial assessment, the reason for shunning environmental law was that environmental litigation is tedious, expensive and usually imposes a disproportionate burden on resources to the potential benefits it brings, and such litigation deals with very particularized issues, the resolution of which has little meaningful impact to the greater ecology. As for providing counsel on regulatory compliance? Not unimportant work, but too boring and promotes finding loopholes or merely "doing the minimum" to not get in trouble. As for advocacy in an NGO context? Admirable work and certainly very crucial, but the realities of law school loans means that I would sooner be evicted from my apartment than be able to make any meaningful contributions to the cause.

Attacking the Wrong End of the Pipe
Recently, after reading Hermann Scheer's latest book, Energy Autonomy, I have reached a new understanding of the limits of environmental law. Without dwelling on too much background, the first thing to recognize is that creating a sustainable energy future requires a fundamental reorganization in the way we harvest, deploy and use energy. The centralized, dirty and resource limiting fossil fuel energy structure and mentality of today has to be deconstructed to make way for cleaner, decentralized renewable energy systems. But governments, through environmental laws, focus primarily on the consequences of resource consumption--e.g. how much pollution can a firm emit, and what are the punitive consequences for exceeding such limits. It attacks the problem at the end of the resource chain, instead of catalyzing change at the beginning, i.e. addressing the question of what types of resources we should be using in the first place, and how we ought to use them.

Environmental law is prescriptive rather than preventative. It is retroactive rather than prospective. It attempts to clean messes up, rather than avoid them in the first place. It accepts the current fallacy of a fossil-fuel based economy as legitimate, but attempts helplessly to mitigate its ecological footprint. The most encouraging result of effective environmental laws is eco-efficiency. But what good is efficiency in a growing economy where the aggregate number of emitters are increasing?

The Need for a Paradigm Shift
The assumptions of the fossil-fuel energy structures need to be challenged, and the compelling benefits of renewable energy need to be recognized, articulated and implemented. Environmental law, by design and definition, will not get us there. Eco-efficiency, while a seemingly laudable interim goal, is being manipulated by fossil energy companies as a tool of delay. What is needed are progressive energy laws that (a) strip the fossil fuel industry of its US$250 billion a year of annual subsidies so as to create a level playing field for renewable energy technologies to compete, and (b) renewable energy standards and other incentives to promote the deployment and proliferation of renewable energy on a mass scale with the goal of completely replacing fossil fuel architecture.

The Private Sector as the Drivers of the New Energy Economy
But policies alone are not going to be the primary innovators or commercializers of renewable energy. The government can only do as much as create a favorable economic and political environment for renewable energy deployment and proliferation. Ultimately, it will be renewable energy entrepreneurs, with the aid of far-sighted capital and other service professionals, who will bring renewable energy to the masses. And they will do so not because its the moral thing to do (which it is), but because it is the profitable thing to do.

The writing is on the wall--the greatest economic opportunity in the coming decades will be the clean energy sector (see article by Red Herring on where the best talents of the Silicon Valley are now focusing their energies to) and the champions of the next green wave will be the business sector. Just in the past 48 hours, we have read about the likes of Sharp and Sunpower stepping up their efforts to bring solar power to the masses. What makes the business case for renewable energy so compelling is worth a separate blog post, and post I will, so do stay tuned.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Roadblocks to the Ethanol Superhighway

Collateral Damage of Alternative Energy: Part One in a series of postings to consider carefully the potential downsides to various alternative energy strategies that have been touted as sustainable energy solutions.

The ethanol boom in the U.S. has been fuelled by a top down regulatory policy, in part to replace toxic methyl butyl tertiary ether (MBTE ) as an additive to vehicular gasoline, and also as an outright substitute to gasoline in order to wean the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil, which now account for two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption. President Bush's "20-in-10" policy (reducing gasoline use by 20% in the next 10 years) announced last week in his State of the Union address, under which a target was set to produce by the year 2017 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels (including biofuels like ethanol; but also ominously blatantly less sustainable fuels like gasified liquid coal), will ensure that ethanol will continue to attract investments. Derived primarily from corn, ethanol production in the U.S. is propped by a 51 cents a gallon subsidy to the agent who blends ethanol into gasoline. Furthermore, U.S. corn farmers are further protected by a a 54 cents per gallon of tariffs on imported ethanol (most likely from Brazil, where ethanol is made more cheaply with sugar).

There are big backers to ethanol. Vinod Khosla is the most prominent venture capitalist advocating the ethanol push, predicting that "39 billion gallons of biofuels production is possible in the United States at reasonable cost by 2017 on 19 million acres, and 139 billion gallons by 2030 on 49 million acres. Soon we will be replacing all 150 billion gallons of gasoline that we use on a very small fraction of our agricultural lands." Bill Gates has put some money behind Pacific Ethanol, and big corporations such as Archer-Daniels Midland have invested heavily in seven ethanol plants nationwide. But several stumbling blocks exist:

1. The net energy debate:

Critics of ethanol charge that ethanol production consumes more energy than the ethanol itself provides. Others contend there is a net energy gain of at least 34% (which even if true, doesn't sound like a heck of a net gain, especially considering the fact that crude oil produces 10 times more energy than it takes to extract it). I remain on the fence on this one; there have been reports on both sides of this debate, and I haven't done all the reading (For a good collection of articles on this issue, click here) Vinod Khosla contends in his whitepaper "Is Ethanol Controversial?" that the overwhelming number of studies come out positive, and that in any case technology advances will over time eventually make it net energy positive in a convincing way (think cellulosic ethanol, the Holy Grail of ethanol production from corn husks, wood chips and other agricultural waste, which requires a bit more time to make commercially viable).

2. The food versus fuel debate:

The ethanol boom has created a surge in demand for corn, doubling corn prices over the past year to now over $4 per bushel. Corn just so happens to be one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in North American diets, as Michael Pollan accounts in The Omnivore's Dilemma. The Washington Post, in its review of Pollan's book, notes:

American cattle fatten on corn. Corn also feeds poultry, pigs and sheep, even farmed fish. But that's just the beginning. In addition to dairy products from corn-fed cows and eggs from corn-fed chickens, corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup make up key ingredients in prepared foods. High-fructose corn syrup sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is corn-based. Corn is in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills. "Tell me what you eat," said the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, "and I will tell you what you are." We're corn.

To say nothing of the Mexican community, whose staples are corn-based. Tortilla prices surged 14% in 2006 in Mexico (where inflation was just 4%), affecting the poor disproportionately. Not just Mexico, but China, where a moratorium on new ethanol production has been enacted to stem the surge in corn prices. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute warns that the "unprecedented diversion of the world’s leading grain crop [corn] to the production of fuel will affect food prices everywhere. As the world corn price rises, so too do those of wheat and rice, both because of consumer substitution among grains and because the crops compete for land.”

3. The distribution problem:

The geographical situation of U.S. ethanol is that production is concentrated in the midwest, where the corn fields are, but consumed mostly in the coastal regions, where the urban centers are. Existing are not ideal for ethanol transport. First, ethanol is soluble in water, which is a natural occurrence along pipelines. Its mixing with ethanol renders the ethanol unusable in lower ethanol blends or as additives (but not an issue for higher ethanol blends such as E85). Second, gasoline blends that contain more than 10% of ethanol tend to be too corrosive for the pipes and gas pump infrastructure. Thus, ethanol producers have had to rely on rail and truck at a time where rail and truck rates have been increasing due to the tightening of transport capacity (the Wall Street Journal on Feb 1, p. B1, has an excellent article on ethanol's distribution woes). Barak Obama, leading Democratic presidential candidate and a sponsor of new biofuels legislation being introduced to the Senate, admits in a BusinessWeek article: "We've done a better job of focusing on production than we have on distribution."

4. Deforestation:

While it is unlikely that the U.S. government will lift ethanol subsidies and tariffs in the near future, the Bush administration has hinted recently that it would reconsider the tariffs, which would encourage more imports from Brazil. Indeed, because ethanol supplies cannot currently keep up with demand, some 11% of ethanol consumed was imported, two-thirds of it from Brazil. Ethanol in Brazil is derived from cane sugar, creating a shorter supply chain (if derived from corn, the corn has to be first broken down to simple sugars) and resulting in cheaper production. Indeed, the rising costs of corn feedstock and increased transportation costs in the U.S. has made even tariff-imposed Brazilian ethanol ($1.75 per gallon) cheaper that U.S. corn-based ethanol (about $2 ). Indications are that imports will continue to rise (see "Ethanol Imports are Rising" in the Wall Street Journal, Feb 1, p. B1), and this will increase pressure on Brazil ethanol production, spurring increased deforestation to make way for more agricultural land.

An analog in biodiesel with respect to clearcutting and forest fires in Indonesia (see earlier post, and also "Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May be an Eco-Nightmare" in the New York Times, Jan 31, ) is a stark warning of what could happen in Brazil with regards to if current rates of Amazon deforestation were not worrying enough.

The Bottom line: In evaluating the sustainably of ethanol (or any energy source), policy makers must examine its entire supply-chain and life-cycle as well as the risk-risk tradeoffs (in this case the food vs. fuel issue) it presents.

Friday, January 12, 2007

So you had had a big 2006 bonus...What to do with all that money?

A departure from my more anlytical postings to provide a piece of more useful/practical information for a change!

Sniffing out for clean tech investment ideas? Here's the most comprehensive listing of clean energy stocks in the market [List] that I have come across, courtesy of Categories include:
  • Alternative Energy Funds
  • Biogas & Ethanol Stocks
  • Biomass
  • Clean Power Plants & Utilities
  • Energy Efficiency Stocks
  • Flywheel Stocks
  • Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Stocks
  • Geothermal Stocks
  • Green Certificates - Carbon Credit Stocks
  • Micro Turbines Stocks
  • Photovoltaic & Solar Stocks
  • Recycling Technologies Stocks
  • Renewable Energy Investment - General
  • Sustainable & Electric Transportation
  • Wave & Tidal Power Stocks
  • Wind Power & Wind Energy Stocks

The list is daunting, and not every stock is "investment-grade," so do your research! More over, many are traded on "pink sheets" / OTC, and hence are thinly traded and do not provide as much liquidity to trade in and out, if you're that kind of investor.

That said, I think the solar sector is going to be a huge winner in 2007 because of state legislation across the U.S. Biofuels will be a hit as well, again for the same political reasons, but I personally question the sustainability of many biofuel technolgies...I will talk about this in a future post.

Another prediction is that Bush will be pushing nucelar and plug-in hybrid technologies in his State of the Union speech at the end of month, sending counters in these areas north.

However virtuous the reasons, I'm bracing for a historic year for the clean tech sector, and I know I'm not the only one.