NIMBY as a Business Strategy

The June 9, 2015 blog focused on traditional NIMBY arguments in the context of attitudes toward wind farms. The main issue I raised was that if we are making the statement that we object to wind farms because they are an ugly view from our window, we need to clarify what we are comparing them to in terms of unsightliness. The acronym NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard and refers to placement – we recognize that the wind farms are needed – that the power they generate is essential – but we want it to be placed somewhere else that doesn’t inconvenience us personally. I want to discuss how we can try to expand this concept (and how to combat it) to a more general business strategy.

Why didn’t I raise this issue in a blog that immediately followed my June 9th post? As you probably noticed, the June 16th blog was a guest blog by the incredibly talented Sofia Ahsanuddin that provided a parallel insight to a previous guest blog by the similarly talented Denis Ladyzhensky. His looked at application of the Jewish tradition of blessing food to blessing the more general environment as we extract resources for human benefits. Guest bloggers operate with their own time constrains that we have to accommodate if we want to benefit from their input. Following Sofia’s blog came Pope Francis’ sweeping (and timely) encyclical. Now I am safely in China, happily removed for four weeks from pressing immediate events to focus on.

Back to NIMBY and business. The issue came up when I read a short article on Berkshire Hathaway:

In a strategy document written by SVP Brent Gale for a legal conference in July, Berkshire Hathaway Energy outlined its position on net metering, saying it should be scrapped in favor of a system that recognizes utility fixed-grid costs and utilizes distributed generation at times when it’s needed most.

So, Berkshire Hathaway Energy is in favor of scrapping net metering. The large picture behind this short paragraph quickly emerged.

First, though, what is net metering?

Net metering is a billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid. For example, if a residential customer has a PV system on the home’s rooftop, it may generate more electricity than the home uses during daylight hours.

I discussed some aspects of this issue in a previous blog (December 9, 2014), with regards to the energy transition in Germany. It is one of the most crucial tools that policy makers can implement to move energy sources from the present large dependence on fossil fuels to a more sustainable mix of wind and solar. The main difficulty here is that these sources are intermittent, so matching supply to demand through load leveling requires major effort. The required matching, as applied to photovoltaic cells, can be viewed in the figure below.

Diagram of Net MeteringFigure 1 – Typical photovoltaic daily power production and consumption

Significant power generation takes place in midday while significant use takes place during the morning or evening. This matching can be accomplished in one of two ways: either store the surplus energy from midday to be used when supply is not available by using batteries or use your utility company as your battery by transferring the excess power and be paid by the utility for this power usually requiring the utility to pay the same price as consumer pays for getting the power. This is net metering.

The map below shows that most states in the US now require the utilities to allow net-metering.EIA - Net Metering by StateFigure 2 – Net metering requirements across the US

Net metering is very convenient for customers because it doesn’t require them to buy and assemble storage facilities but it is just as inconvenient for electric utility companies.

Here is one good example of the ramifications :

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk introduced a new family of batteries designed to stretch the solar-power revolution into its next phase. There’s just one problem: Tesla’s new battery doesn’t work well with rooftop solar—at least not yet. Even Solar City, the supplier led by Musk, isn’t ready to offer Tesla’s battery for daily use.

The new Tesla Powerwall home batteries come in two sizes—seven and 10 kilowatt hours (kWh)—but the differences extend beyond capacity to the chemistry of the batteries. The 7kWh version is made for daily use, while its larger counterpart is only intended to be used as occasional backup when the electricity goes out. The bigger Tesla battery isn’t designed to go through more than about 50 charging cycles a year, according to SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass.

Here’s where things get interesting. SolarCity, with Musk as its chairman, has decided not to install the 7kWh Powerwall that’s optimized for daily use. Bass said that battery “doesn’t really make financial sense” because of regulations that allow most U.S. solar customers to sell extra electricity back to the grid.

German electric utility companies made the same kind of complaints when strategies for adaptation came up; arguments which subsequently became the source of Berkshire Hathaway Energy’s objections. A quick look at Berkshire Hathaway reveals broad ownership of utility companies, energy companies and insurance companies, so net metering strikes close to home. Warren Buffett, who runs Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the most open minded chief executive billionaires in terms of global thinking, and is known as the “Oracle from Omaha” for his investment skills:

The word “oracle” comes from the Latin verb ōrāre “to speak” and properly refers to the priest or priestess uttering the prediction. In extended use, oracle may also refer to the site of the oracle, and to the oracular utterances themselves, called khrēsmoi (χρησμοί) in Greek.

Oracles were thought to be portals through which the gods spoke directly to people. In this sense they were different from seers (manteis, μάντεις) who interpreted signs sent by the gods through bird signs, animal entrails, and other various methods.

The most important oracles of Greek antiquity were Pythia, priestess to Apollo at Delphi, and the oracle of Dione and Zeus at Dodona in Epirus.

The moniker implies an ability to clearly see the future which most of us lack. If he truly is the Oracle from Omaha, one might think that he can also clearly analyze the future impacts of climate change. But trying to pinpoint his positions regarding climate change through his various announcements calls to mind the notoriously blurred predictions of Greek oracles, and one starts to realize that his predictions are carefully tailored to serve his present business interests – with a classic NIMBY slant.

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For those of us who aren’t fluent in music or Italian, fortissimo meansvery loud —used especially as a direction in music.” My own kind of scientific fortissimo came unexpectedly, but quite pleasantly, in the last few weeks.

It started for me in April while at a survivors-liberators meeting in Nashville, Tennessee (described in the April 28 blog).  I was “assigned” to start the concluding meal with the Jewish blessing for the food. During the blessing, it occurred to me that if,  according to Jewish tradition, the blessing is a request for permission from God to use parts of the physical world to satisfy our nutritional needs, wouldn’t it logically follow that we should also ask permission to extract things such as coal, gas, oil and all other natural resources that we use constantly? And then I thought, what would happen if these blessings to use natural resources were required? Wouldn’t “God’s servants on Earth” have to not only grant the request, but also be required to familiarize themselves with – and think carefully about – the consequences to God’s creation once the resources were extracted?

I also fully realized that I am not really qualified to answer this question and on returning to my school, I asked Denis Ladyzhensky, a physics student in my class, with much more extensive education in the Jewish religion, to write a guest blog on the topic. He gladly agreed and the result was posted on April 28th. Then I thought, why limit the discussion to the Jewish religion? I asked Sofia Ahsanuddin to present a Muslim perspective on the issue. She thought that the best timing for such a blog would be just before the month of Ramadan, with the resulting fascinating piece posted in last week’s blog. Almost immediately, Denis posted a great comment citing additional Muslim sources.

So now, among the three large monotheistic religions, Christianity’s take was missing. Well, it is not missing anymore and it has nothing to do with me. It came in the grandest and most influential way possible; a grand fortissimo.

It came officially on June 18th, and, unofficially, a few days earlier through leaks to the press. It came in the form of a 184-page Encyclical Letter by Pope Francis. Here is how Wikipedia defines the word encyclical:

An encyclical was originally a circular letter sent to all the churches of a particular area in the ancient Roman Church. At that time, the word could be used for a letter sent out by any bishop. The word comes from Latin encyclicus (from the Greek ἐν κύκλῳ en kykloi) meaning “general” or “encircling”, which is also the origin of the word “encyclopedia”.

For the modern Catholic Church, a Papal encyclical is a kind of letter concerning Catholic doctrine sent by the Pope addressed to bishops, patriarchs, primates, and archbishops who are in communion with the Holy See. The form of the address can vary widely, and may concern bishops in a particular area, or designate a wider audience. Papal encyclicals usually take the form of a papal brief due to their more personal nature as opposed to the formal papal bull.

The unofficial release was leaked to an Italian newspaper in Italian. Newspapers in the US that caught the events went quickly to Google Translate to get some quick translations of “key” paragraphs. Those of us who waited for the official release got it in nine different languages; here it is in its entirety.

Below, I quote directly from the encyclical’s 1st two paragraphs, the heading of the chapters, and a prayer from the end:


  1. “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”.  In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces vari­ous fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”. 1
  1. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irre­sponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made upof her elements, we breathe her air and we re­ceive life and refreshment from her waters.

Nothing in this world is indifferent to us

1 Canticle of the Creatures, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, New York-London-Manila, 1999, 113-114















A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.


My book on the topic of climate change, Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now, (Momentum Press (2011)) starts with the following two quotations:

If thou does well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou does not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.  –   Genesis 4:7

Any system in chemical equilibrium, as a result in the variation in one of the factors determining the equilibrium, undergoes a change such that, if this change had occurred by itself, it would have introduced variation of the factor considered in the opposing variation.  –  Henry Le Chatelier

I was delighted to scan through the encyclical, although I have not yet been able to go through the document with the full attention that it deserves.

The Papal Encyclical fascinates me to such a degree that I am now inclined to use it as a “textbook” in my fall climate change course, supplemented, of course, by the science of climate change. Once it’s done, all of us will get involved in addressing the issues that the encyclical raises, but in a much more relaxed way. I am fully aware of the pitfalls of using a religious document as one of the main guiding texts in a science course. I have two months to ponder and reconsider. The prospect of a Jewish physicist teaching a course on climate change through the eyes of a Catholic Pope, while in the middle of an American election year, should serve the students well!

The political hoopla over the encyclical has already started. Many of the Republican Presidential candidates are Catholic. Two of the leading ones, Ex-Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio are from Florida. The New York Times documented some of these reactions, including one from Mr. Bush and another one from a Republican activist:

“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Mr. Bush said. “And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

But Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and political consultant who described himself as a conservative Catholic, pointed out that there was already a backlash by conservative Catholics against the pope’s efforts on climate change and other progressive policies. “For practicing conservative Catholics, the folks who sit in the pews on Sunday, this is not going to be an indictment of guys like Rubio and Jeb,” Mr. McKenna said. “Those guys have already made up their minds on climate change. For the real churchgoers, this is going to be an indictment of the pope. This pope is selling a line of Latin American-style socialism,” he continued. “This guy is not in sync with the American Catholic Church. Guys like Jeb and Rubio are more in line with the American Catholic Church than the pope.”

The New York Times article came before the official release of the Papal Encyclical. Aside from the name calling, special attention should be focused on Mr. Bush’s last sentence in the quoted paragraph: “But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” My interpretation is that Mr. Bush is claiming that the political realm is not functioning to make us better people.


Note:  This will be my last blog before taking a month-long vacation in China. Following my agreement with my editors, I am “allowed” to take a one week break from blogging, but must write blog posts in advance for the rest of the time that I’ll be gone. I am doing that, but my “vacation blogs” will be lowering the volume on the Papal Encyclical in order to deal with the other big event that is taking place: the large drop in the price of oil over the last year, and its consequences.

Stay tuned.

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Guest Blog by Sofia Ahsanuddin: Sacred Earth, Sacred Self

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

Cover of "The Animals' Lawsuit Against Humanity"

The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity is a 1,000-year-old Islamic tale that examines the conception of Promethean Man and his domination and destruction of the natural world. Embedded within the 22nd Rasa’il (Epistle) of the Ikhwan al-Safa’ (otherwise known to medieval Europeans as the “Brethren of Purity”), this 10th century Islamic fable chronicles a series of fictitious debates in a court of law between various animal species and representatives of the Bani Adam (Children of Adam), that had colonized and settled the island on which the animals lived. Animals such as the jackal and the nightingale bear testimony against the human settlers before the king of the jinn because of their mistreatment at the hands of Bani Adam. While the tale was later translated into Hebrew by a Jewish scholar at the request of Charles of Anjou (a medieval Christian king), the original Arabic version is strikingly beautiful. The language forges poignant connections between the animal welfare concerns of 10th-century Basra, Iraq and the crises of the modern world, namely those related to human-caused global climate change and its grave implications for endangered species and their threatened habitats.

Indeed, as Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr notes in his doctoral dissertation entitled, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, the timeliness and contemporary relevance of this didactic tale lies in its reflection on the universal “lower self” of man and his potential for ruthless destruction irrespective of time. Man, in his hubris and egocentrism, oppresses all that which exists in the natural world with the justification of fulfilling “human needs,” all the while making his “rights over other creatures absolute.”1 Dr. Nasr argues that this hubris has always existed but became particularly emphasized and popularized with the rise of Renaissance humanism and the “idealization of Promethean man” in the contemporary era. What is interesting about The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity is that the animals successfully counter each of the arguments the human settlers present to excuse their actions; however, the “possibility of a number among men to attain sanctity and therefore to be able to act as the channel of grace for the rest of God’s creation” serves as the ultimate reason for the jinn king’s refusal to punish all of Bani Adam for their transgressions against nature. But this divine pardon rests on one condition: man must strive to fulfill his God-given responsibility of being a viceregent on Earth (khilafat Allah fi’l-ard), a major mortal function described extensively in the Qur’an, by first overcoming the “self-aggrandizement” and hubris that compelled him to disregard the well-being of the animals in the first place.

Ramadan Greeting: Ramadan KareemAs observant Muslims worldwide prepare for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan 1436 AH, we are reminded of our collective responsibility to protect and cherish the amana, or trust, of the Earth given to us by God in addition to caring for our fellow human beings. During the “month of mercy,” all able-bodied adult Muslims abstain from food, drink, and marital relations from dawn to dusk in a sincere effort to increase piety and taqwa, or God-consciousness. Many nights are spent in deep meditation and prayer. It is tradition for observant Muslims to complete and reflect on at least one reading of the Qur’an (“The Recitation”), which Muslims believe is the final and unaltered revelation from God to the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace and blessings) in a long series of divinely-inspired books revealed to other honorable messengers like Moses, Jesus, and Abraham (peace be upon all of them) as divine guidance for their respective peoples. As God declares in Surat Al-Baqarah (Chapter Two) of the Qur’an:

O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous – [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.2

This Ramadan will be the longest and hottest in my lifetime – in New York City, Muslims will fast for approximately seventeen hours during some of the hottest days of the year. While there are some health benefits involved in the actual act of intermittent fasting (detoxification is just one), the self-discipline involved in going about one’s ordinary day without any food or water is also important. It relates to the idea of conquering one’s ego for the sake of improving one’s character and relationship with God and with others. The purpose of fasting is two-fold; we are taught to become “righteous” people by learning empathy for the less fortunate and we are also taught to subdue the self, which has tremendous implications not only for the way we treat other people but also for how we treat the Earth and other sentient beings like the animals discussed in the fable earlier.Eco Islam

We are reminded of the importance of being just and kind to all and that there is the potential for both great good and great evil in each of us. Moreover, we are taught to appreciate all that we do have – as the Qur’an relates the story of the Children of Israel, God states: “And [recall] when We took your covenant, [O Children of Israel, to abide by the Torah] and We raised over you the mount, [saying], “Take what We have given you with determination and remember what is in it that perhaps you may become righteous.”3 In the same Surah, God declares: “O you who have believed, eat from the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to God if it is [indeed] Him that you worship.”4 Essentially, fasting becomes an obligation for those who believe in the finality and authenticity of the message of Islam so that they may increase in their remembrance of God and appreciate the mercy He has bestowed upon the human race. Just as fasting allows one to cleanse one’s physical body of impurities it also allows one to reflect on the act of “cleansing” one’s spiritual state. One such avenue to spiritual purification is to refrain from actions that would potentially lead to corruption, such as the “pollution of the environment, depletion of natural resources, and wasteful consumption.”5 In Surat Al-‘A’rāf of the Qur’an, God instructs man to eat and drink in moderation but to not indulge in wastefulness – He states, “O children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer: eat and drink: but waste not by excess for God does not love those who waste.”6

In Shari’ah, or Islamic Law, the juristic principle, “there shall be no damage and no infliction of damage”7 is extensively applied to “almost every conduct in dealing with the environment (e.g. matters of land, water use, building construction, waste disposal, and so on)”8 so that the human being remains vigilant of his obligation to care for the Earth, its resources, and wildlife. In other words, this aversion to harm takes precedence over any “acquisition of benefits” and is considered better than the need for remediation after such corruption has occurred.7 This is because the Shari’ah is based on the principle that everything belongs to God and God alone. “People do not in fact own things, for the only real owner of things is their Creator, be He glorified and exalted. Indeed, people do not own anything but their usufruct in the manner permitted by the revealed Law.”9 As such, the right to use private property or environmental resources is a temporary trust given to man with the condition that he makes use of this trust in accordance with its “divinely ordained purposes.”7 And while the attitude of Islam to the “environment, the sources of life, and the resources of nature” is based partially on the prohibition of abuse and selfish exploitation, it is also based on “construction and sustainable development.” It is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace and blessings) said, “If any Muslim plants a tree or sows a field, and a human, bird or animal eats from it, it shall be reckoned as charity from him.”10 The fourth caliph of Islam, ‘Ali ibn Abi-Talib, once said to a man who had cultivated and reclaimed abandoned land, “Partake of it gladly, so long as you are a benefactor, not a despoiler; a cultivator, not a destroyer.”11 These statements all demonstrate that the aim of preservation and use of the natural environment in Islam is for the “universal good of all created beings,” not just the human being.7

As one of the most famous tales in the Islamic world, The Animals’ Lawsuit against Humanity brings up several issues of great contemporary relevance, especially concerning the current environmental crisis: What are our rights over other creatures and what are the limits to those rights? Do animals have any rights over us? What is the purpose of human life and how can we go about knowing that purpose without trampling on the rights of the rest of God’s creation? Within an Islamic framework, the preservation of the natural environment is known as hifz al-Ard and is considered a primary responsibility of the human being as a khalifa, or steward and caretaker placed upon the Earth by God. Surat Al-Baqarah in the Qur’an mentioned earlier relates the creation of man through a metaphorical conversation between God and the angels. God revealed:

And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, ‘Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.’ They said, ‘Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?’ God said, ‘Indeed, I know that which you do not know.’12

And just as the Qur’an is comprised of ayat, or verses, which literally translates into English as “signs, revelations, evidence, lessons, and proofs” of the existence of God and His divine attributes, the natural environment is also thought to contain a multitude of ayat, that point to the existence and the oneness of God.8

The Qur’an warns man against sowing corruption on the Earth and of transgressing against the Divine Law. If man does not observe this warning and deliberately enters a state of ghafla, or heedlessness, he essentially chooses to go against his aboriginal nature of submission to God and commits injustices against his own soul, sins that he will be held accountable for on the Day of Judgment. God’s wrath is incurred as a result of man’s deliberate transgression and concealment of truth. However, God’s mercy is always greater than his wrath. In Surat Al-‘An-‘am, God states,

“And it is He who has made you successors upon the Earth and has raised some of you above others in degrees [of rank] that He may try you through what He has given you. Indeed, your Lord is swift in penalty; but indeed, He is forgiving and merciful.”13

This particular verse is quite striking because it expounds on the transcendence and imminence of God.

While full conceptualization of God is beyond human intellectual capacity, the Islamic tradition holds that human beings can know of God’s existence and His divine attributes through the physical world around us, which is a rahma, or mercy, unto itself. All of creation was formed to “serve the Lord of all beings by performing their ordained roles so as to best benefit each other,” thus leading to a “cosmic symbiosis” (takaful) of sorts.7 Moreover, the Islamic worldview stipulates that God created all things in the universe in due proportion and measure; there is wisdom, value, and purpose in all of creation. As God explains in the Qur’an,

“Verily, all things have We created by measure”14 and “We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them carelessly. We have not created them but for truth.”15 “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what God has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason.”16

If man is to recognize his central purpose in life, then it becomes incumbent upon him to conserve and nurture that which allows him to reach the objective truth in the first place – the natural environment and the sentient beings with whom he interacts. These are all ayat, or signs, for “men endued with understanding.”17

For more information on environmental protection in Islam, I highly recommend reading the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) Environmental Policy and Law Paper No. 20 and Syed Iskandar Ariffin’s “Islamic Perspectives and Malay Notions of Heritage Conservation.” If you would like to read the adapted version of The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity, please click here. For a wonderful video lecture on this same topic, please consider watching Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson’s “Sacred Earth: Sacred Self” here.



  1. Nasr, xiii. “The Animals Lawsuit Against Humanity – A Modern Adaptation of an Ancient Animal Rights Tale Told Originally by a 10th Century Muslim Iraqi.” The Animals Lawsuit Against Humanity – A Modern Adaptation of an Ancient Animal Rights Tale Told Originally by a 10th Century Muslim Iraqi. Trans. Anson Laytner and Dan Bridge. Ed. Matthew Kaufmann. Fons Vitae, 2005. Web.
  2. Qur’an, Surat Al-Baqarah (2), ayah 183-184.
  3. Qur’an, Surat Al-Baqarah (2), ayah 63.
  4. Qur’an, Surat Al-Baqarah (2), ayah 172.
  5. Raouf, Mohammad A. “Of Ramadan, Our Bodies and the Environment.” Of Ramadan, Our Bodies and the Environment. Gulf News, 30 June 2014. Web. 8 June 2015.
  6. Qur’an, Surat Al-‘Ar’āf (7), ayah 31.
  7. Bagader, Abubakr Ahmed, Abdullatif Tawfik El-Chirazi El-Sabbagh, Mohamad As-Sayyid Al-Glayand, Mawil Yousuf Izzi-Deen Samarrai, and Othman Abd-ar-Rahman Llewellyn. Environmental Protection in Islam. 2nd ed. Vol. 20. Gland: IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, 1994. Web.
  8. Ariffin, Syed Iskandar. “Islamic Perspectives and Malay Notions of Heritage Conservation.” Asian Heritage Management: Contexts, Concerns, and Prospects. By Kapila D. Silva and Neel Kamal. Chapagain. London: Routledge, 2013. 65+. Print.
  9. Abu ‘l-Farak ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rajab, in al-Qawa ‘id.
  10. Hadith of sound authority, related by al-Bukhari and Muslim on the authority of Anas.
  11. Athar related by Yahya ibn Adam al-Qurashi in Kitab al-Kharaj, on the authority of Sa’id ab-Dabbi.
  12. Qur’an, Surat Al-Baqarah (2), ayah 30.
  13. Qur’an, Surat Al-‘An’am (6), ayah 165.
  14. Qur’an, Surat Al-Qamar (54), ayah 49.
  15. Qur’an, Surat Ad-Dukhan (44), ayahs 38-39.
  16. Qur’an, Surat Al-Baqarah (2), ayah 164.
  17. Qur’an, Surat Ta Ha (20), ayah 54.

Sofia Ahsanuddin is a rising senior at the Coordinated BA/MD Program and the Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College. A political science major and chemistry minor, Sofia intends to obtain an MD/MPH. Sofia is a Horace W. Goldsmith Scholar and a Rosen Fellow and is interested in learning more about the intersection between state surveillance, governance, health, and human rights. She hopes to specialize in global health and ophthalmology as a physician. In her spare time, Sofia enjoys reading about comparative religion, philosophy, and international affairs.

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NIMBY: Wind vs. Fossil Fuels

Last week I focused on Texas. In spite of its strong inclination toward state autonomy, reluctance to implement new taxes, and its heavy dependence on fossil fuels, it is playing a vital role in the energy transition:

The state is a leader in renewable energy commercialization; it produces the most wind power in the nation. The Roscoe Wind Farm in Roscoe, Texas, is one of the world’s largest wind farms with a 781.5 megawatt (MW) capacity. The Energy Information Administration states that the state’s large agriculture and forestry industries could give Texas an enormous amount biomass for use in biofuels. The state also has the highest solar power potential for development in the nation.

Unlike the rest of the nation, most of Texas is on its own alternating current power grid, the Texas Interconnection. Texas has a deregulated electric service.

I have paid special attention to Georgetown, a relatively small town in Texas, and its commitment to convert entirely to carbon-free energy sourcing by January 2017. That’s way ahead of almost everywhere else in the world. The town intends to make that transition by replacing all usages of fossil fuels with wind and solar sources.

While Georgetown is an example of incredible progress, there are still barriers to the changeover. One of these, a long-time nemesis of this evolution, is the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) phenomenon. Many people worldwide have expressed their dismay at having gigantic wind farms feature prominently in their immediate field of view.

Three of my students in the Physics & Society course did a project in which they compared NIMBY attitudes directed at wind energy in the US, Germany, and China. They found the following chart in an article by Eric R.A.N. Smith and Holy Klick which reflects the opinions of Americans polled:

Graph of The Importance of Advantages and Disadvantages of Wind PowerThe factors deemed most important in the survey were the positive aspects of wind power: the turbines emit no pollution or greenhouse gases, they symbolize renewable energy, and they reduce reliance on imported energy. But those questioned also emphasized the relative perceived importance of several obstacles: wind farms are more expensive, they lower property value, are ugly, noisy and they kill birds.

All of these questions need references, though – what are these numbers in comparison to? Meanwhile, I’d like to focus on the complaint that wind power generators are ugly. This was a leading concern which caused significant delay in the construction of wind farms in a multitude of locations. Unsurprisingly, if you have an ocean view property and somebody proposes to put a wind farm in the ocean directly in front of your window, you might object.

But consider the two facilities below:

Wind Turbines and Donkeys

Coal Power Plant in ChinaThe first photograph is taken from the New York Times article, “Wind Power Is Poised to Spread to All States”:

All 50 states could become wind energy producers, according to an Energy Department report released Tuesday, once the next generation of larger, taller turbines in development hits the market.

The bigger machines — reaching as high as 460 feet — could eventually make faster winds at higher altitudes an economical source of electricity, an important part of reaching the nation’s goals in fighting global warming, said Ernest Moniz, the secretary of energy.

The second photograph is from a quick Google image search for a fossil fuel power plant.

Which view would you prefer? One of them has to provide you with the energy that you need.

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Carbon taxation in any form will probably never make it in Texas. It’s a red state that likes its independence, especially when a Democrat presides in Washington. Historically, its residents have shared an intense hatred of regulations and taxes. To add to that, its economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Wikipedia has a rather detailed summary of the state’s relationship with fossil fuels and emissions:

Texas is the second most populous (after California) and the second largest of the 50 U.S. states (after Alaska) in the United States of America.

Texas emits the most greenhouse gases in the U.S. The state emits nearly 1.5 trillion pounds (680 billion kg) of carbon dioxide annually. As an independent nation, Texas would rank as the world’s seventh-largest producer of greenhouse gases. Causes of the state’s vast greenhouse gas emissions include the state’s large number of coal power plants and the state’s refining and manufacturing industries. In 2010, there were 2,553 “emission events” which poured 44.6 million pounds of contaminants into the Texas sky.

According to the Energy Information Administration, Texans consume, on average, the fifth most energy in the nation per capita and as a whole, following behind Wyoming, Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Iowa.

Ever since the discovery of oil at Spindletop, energy has been a dominant force politically and economically within the state. If Texas were its own country it would be the sixth largest oil producer in the world.

Texas has known petroleum deposits of about 5 billion barrels (790,000,000 m3), which makes up about one-fourth of the known U.S. reserves. The state’s refineries can process 4.6 million barrels (730,000 m3) of oil a day. The Baytown Refinery in the Houston area is the largest refinery in America. Texas also leads in natural gas production, producing one-fourth of the nation’s supply. Several petroleum companies are based in Texas such as: Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Conoco-Phillips, Exxon-Mobil, Halliburton, Marathon Oil, Tesoro, and Valero, Western Refining.

At the same time, there is a growing market for renewables:

The state is a leader in renewable energy commercialization; it produces the most wind power in the nation. The Roscoe Wind Farm in Roscoe, Texas, is one of the world’s largest wind farms with a 781.5 megawatt (MW) capacity. The Energy Information Administration states that the state’s large agriculture and forestry industries could give Texas an enormous amount biomass for use in biofuels. The state also has the highest solar power potential for development in the nation.

Unlike the rest of the nation, most of Texas is on its own alternating current power grid, the Texas Interconnection. Texas has a deregulated electric service.

Georgetown, TX (see May 19, 2015 blog) stood out because it announced that “by January 2017, all electricity within the city’s service area will come from wind and solar power.” The decision was especially notable because it was based purely on economic considerations. The contractual agreements to implement the transition are now in full force, but the impact of the recent sharp drop on the price of fossil fuels on the transition has yet to be evaluated.

It turns out that the moves toward energy transition in Texas go way beyond small towns such as Georgetown. The New York Times reported recently about the recent proliferation of wind power in Texas:

But turning wind into electricity is one thing; moving the energy to a profitable market is another. For years, the wind industry has been hampered by such a severe lack of transmission lines that when the wind is strong, a local power surplus forces some machines to be shut down.

Now, Texas is out to change that by conducting a vast experiment that might hold lessons for the rest of the United States. This year, a sprawling network of new high-voltage power lines was completed, tying the panhandle area and West Texas to the millions of customers around Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and Houston.

By any standard, the scale is enormous. Anywhere else, a big transmission project is a few hundred miles long and costs a few hundred million dollars; this is a network of 3,600 miles built at a cost of $7 billion, which is more money than the whole country has spent on transmission in some recent years. It comes to about $300 per person served by the Texas grid.

Nationally, transmission infrastructure is built only when circumstances demand it; in Texas, however, lawmakers have ordered an “if-you-build-it, they-will-come” approach.

And it is working. “We’ve built it and they’re marching this way,” said Warren Lasher, the director of system planning at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator, citing plans for new wind farms.

Encouraged by the new power lines and by federal tax credits that were available only to projects that broke ground by the end of last year, developers had started work on 7,000 megawatts of capacity by the end of 2013.

Let’s look back at the Yale survey of public attitude to climate change (April 21, 2015 blog). On the issue of whether global warming is happening, 63% of adult Texans agree, exactly the same percentage as the national response. On the key question of whether it is mostly caused by human activity, 49% of Texans agree, 1% more than the national average.

Yale Project - Global Warming is Mostly Caused by Human Activity - Congressional Districts

Congressional district distribution of estimated % of adults who think global warming is mostly caused by humans

The map above shows the distribution of congressional districts’ answers to the latter question. Areas marked in blue indicate below 50% agreement while those in yellow indicate above 50%. Texas is more or less divided into two parts, with more than half of those in the north answering to the affirmative and a similar number in the south answering negatively, but both sections sort of hug the 50% divide – the yellow is around 55% and the blue is above 40%. I talked briefly about this in the April 21st blog; these distributions are not characteristics of a sharply polarized public. That means that if provided with good solutions that don’t include taxation or regulation (especially if they financially benefit the community), the voters could be convinced to take positive action.

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Guest Blog by Denis Ladyzhensky: My 4 Hours of the 4 Day Forum on Sustainable Energy 4 All

I got involved in the second annual SE4All (Sustainable Energy For All) forum through an email from Brooklyn College’s Magner Center. The United Nations staff needed interns for the event so they asked for volunteers. Of course I agreed because it would fit in perfectly with my Brooklyn College class this semester which emphasized climate change education and sustainability for our planet – both  today and in the future. Fortunately, I was selected to attend the last day of the forum on May 21, 2015 so I was able to spend four hours there as an observer. When I told Professor Micha Tomkiewicz about the experience, he suggested I write another guest blog.

The only way to describe the SE4All forum’s overall atmosphere is exhilarating. Within my four hours there I heard speeches from ministers representing over 30 nations from around the world. The excitement I felt at hearing one energy leader after another rise to the podium and describe his country’s efforts to improve sustainability is indescribable. It was basically seeing the start of tangible unity on a shared issue of global proportions. What I honestly expected was to see standing room only in the general assembly room of the UN. Unfortunately there were loads and loads of empty seats, but I’m sure that in the near future that particular problem will disappear.

I believe the idea of the forum was to bring together a tremendous diversity of world leaders representing every kind of nation on earth together under a shared roof. While there they would have an opportunity to share their views for what has to be done to secure sustainable energy for everyone. Sustainable energy for everyone means providing over one billion people with electricity that they don’t have today. It also means getting it to them in a way that doesn’t harm the environment. What the international community is thankfully very cognizant of is that poverty and access to energy go together. As the representative from Swaziland so cleverly put it, “poverty cannot be addressed without addressing energy poverty.” So to lift people out of poverty, there must be a way to bring people affordable and reliable energy. To do this sustainably, there must be a major consideration for environmental impact. Each representative brought to the podium a unique and interesting insight which affected their home countries but also had implications for the entire world.

There were a number of representatives from the Pacific Island states like Kiribati, Nauru and the Marshall Islands. They share a number of similar problems; because they don’t have any native fossil fuels, they have to import enough to satisfy their domestic needs, meaning that they each spend about ¼ of their GDP on fossil fuels. This is a tremendous financial burden on all of them. What they desperately need is to figure out a renewable energy solution for their energy needs. Nauru is the smallest of these and the one most in need of major help. At a population of about 10,000 it considers itself to be nearly on the brink of disaster. The island doesn’t have a real port; the nation relies on importing expensive fossil fuels and has absolutely no alternative way to generate electricity. Kiribati, meanwhile, is about 10x larger population-wise and is comprised of low-lying islands, making them extremely sensitive to rising water levels. The Maldives, which are a group of islands in the Arabian Sea, also have to rely on importing fossil fuels at the expense of ¼ of their GDP. This for them is completely unsustainable and they are determined to take advantage of the vast potential for solar energy on their islands to help supply their demands for electricity.

Barbados and New Zealand proved to have a much brighter story to tell. Barbados is proud to have reduced CO2 emissions while raising its economic output. It also plans on getting 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Barbados, which is the wealthiest and most developed country in the eastern Caribbean, has called on all countries to reduce their respective carbon emissions for the sake of preserving our world. New Zealand is a group of Polynesian islands which produces 70% of its electricity from renewable sources. The country is growing at a dynamic rate, transforming itself into a competitive, industrialized global economy.

Asia as a whole had a number of attending nations who had impressive near-term goals for sustainable energy. Since there are 387 million people – more than the population of the U.S.A. – without electrical power in Asia Pacific, the issue is extremely pressing. Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, plans to provide electricity to 70% of households by 2025 using mostly hydropower. Indonesia, a country which is growing constantly, is planning on providing electricity for all of its inhabitants. It wants to establish a clear policy framework for energy production and is encouraging technological innovations in renewable energy.

Representing Africa was a large assortment of developing and emerging nations – Congo, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, Swaziland, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone. They span a wide spectrum of sustainable energy needs and wants. What they all seem to agree upon is the need to lower the cost of electricity and to provide access to energy for the hundreds of millions of people who don’t have electric power on the continent. A number of countries have completed or are completing renewable energy projects. Kenya has geothermal plants, hydropower and liquefied natural gas projects. The Congo, an emerging economy, will give electric power access to 42% of its citizens by 2025 at a personal cost of 2.5 billion dollars. Angola plans to be using hydropower by 2024 in order to protect its environment and provide renewable energy to its people. Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa, is working on reducing its people’s dependence on biomass for fuel – instead it wants to provide 50% of its energy needs with solar sources by 2030. Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Sudan are all in need of sustainable energy expertise and resources. Sudan, for example, is far behind in renewable energy, having spent many years without transfers of knowledge in its lands. To give an idea of the diverse energy needs on the continent, bear in mind that Rwanda believes that energy is important for economic growth and sees its rich sources of biomass for energy as a major asset. Ultimately the diversity of Africa is very great but perhaps the minister for Sierra Leone captured it best when he pointed out that, “electricity in Africa averages about $1/kWh; what we need to do is turn talk into kWh.” (In NYC we pay between $.06-.12/kWh).

Some of the most inspiring and fascinating delegations came out of the Middle East – Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Turkey all had fascinating things to say and plenty of suggestions. Bahrain and the UAE are both extremely rich in fossil fuels but they both had lots of good things to say about alternative energy. Bahrain wants to establish a sustainable energy initiative and to implement action plans to develop a “high-level road map.” As of now, the country has made great use of its wealth in solar energy, using rooftops and its own personal “solar-trees.” Bahrain also wants to discourage use of fossil fuels by doubling the price of natural gas by 2020. The UAE, which prior to discovery of oil 30 years ago was an impoverished nation, today has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Even so, it advocated for renewable energy, claiming that renewables offer cost savings and are seeing improvements in efficiency. The UAE has also banned incandescent light bulbs and built wind farms. Azerbaijan, a high economic growth country, is putting significant resources into renewable energy. It is working on a city that will only use renewable energy – primarily sun, water and wind to generate electricity. Kazakhstan, an extremely large emerging nation, is working to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and move to a greener economy. It wants to reduce CO2 emissions and improve energy efficiencies for all of its people. The country invited everyone to join it at the Astana Expo in 2017 to continue working on sustainable energy. Turkey, which is a G20 partner, wants to provide access to affordable, reliable energy for everyone. It is making progress in certain parts of Africa but is experiencing some problems in sub-Saharan Africa. Israel, which has a technologically advanced economy, is also working and willing to partner with anyone to come up with improvements on sustainable energy. It produced solar projects in the Negev which have cut hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 emissions – an amount equal to the effect of planting half a million trees.

From Europe and the Americas there were representatives from the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Romania, Brazil and Canada. All of the countries had projects they were actively pursuing. Romania was pursing nuclear energy as a renewable source and spoke about preserving the world for future generations. Brazil affirmed that now is the time for solar power. Italy proudly declared it is the first country of its size to source 11% of its energy from solar power. It is also investing in energy projects in Africa, South America, and Asia. Switzerland spoke about fossil fuel subsidies; according to the Swiss, those subsidies only benefit the rich and it’s time to get rid of them, especially now that oil prices are low. The United Kingdom wants access to clean energy to be mandatory by 2030. It passed the 2014 gender equality act and now wants to eliminate energy barriers for women. The UK has called this the “decade of sustainable energy for all” and is providing capital resources for 3 African countries. Canada said that it takes s of its energy from renewable sources. It’s adapting policy for climate change and is working on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

After the individual speeches finished there was a panel discussion on sustainable energy. The panel was comprised of representatives from the Philippines, Fiji and the World Bank. The representative from the Philippines said that renewable energy tends to be high risk and low return, and the energy policy in the Philippines is incoherent. One of the problems, she emphasized, was that there is a wider than necessary umbrella for what constitutes “green energy,” i.e. it includes nuclear energy, so policy regarding it is tough to pin down. She also stressed the importance of ownership and concluded that for this to work, the whole world must agree to take action. The representative from Fiji believed that money can fix the sustainable energy problem, but questioned how to attract such investments. He believed that financing emerging economies is a secure venture because they are determined to pay their debts. He also underscored that friends (and allies) should help each other and that risk is acceptable in these cases.

The representative of the World Bank looked into the questions of current trends and existing gaps in access. She also informed us that internationally, we are not meeting our sustainable energy and emissions goals. Cooking is the most worrisome activity, because too many people are cooking with biomass, so the biggest gains have come in electrifying villages, particularly in India. She told us that Africa is doing a good job, energy-wise of keeping up with population growth, its countries need to start expecting increased demand. In total, the energy saved in the world from 2012-today is equal to the amount of energy that Brazil uses per annum. She concluded that while we’ve done good work in upgrading our electricity generation systems, we have done almost nothing to improve our transportation and heating. An important note regarding the last point is that the shift to renewable energy is much smaller in transportation and heating, but there is not sufficient funding for the necessary projects, “to be successful we would need to triple our current funds.”

As incredible and impactful as this session of the UN SE4All was, it was only 4 hours out of a 4 day event. The event attracted speakers from almost every nation on earth and brought leaders together to unify them under the banner of climate change response and our planet’s shared welfare. It was unforgettable seeing so many countries committed to getting energy to their people, but it was also so inspiring to know that they only want to do it in a renewable, sustainable way. The acute awareness of climate change was expressed loudly and clearly as leaders and ministers stood up one after another pledging an interest in sustainable and renewable energy for their nation’s future. Within my lifetime billions of people are going to have electricity and electrical appliances that they have never had before. Many of them require tremendous amounts of energy to operate. Knowing that this energy has to be supplied without leaving a carbon footprint on the Earth is positive reassurance that we are advancing and modernizing in a responsible way for everyone. As so many of the speakers articulated so well, climate change is indisputable and renewable energy is the only energy for the future.

Denis Ladyzhensky is a Brooklyn College Undergraduate student graduating with a B.A. in Physics. He spent five years studying Talmudic law and the Hebrew Bible in Jerusalem. He hopes to get a professional degree in electrical engineering and to one day work on projects that improve life for everyone. 

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Back to the United States: Smaller Scope, Bigger Hope?

Lately I have been looking at Canada’s progress in the stuttering energy transition, however the United States might be a better focal point for assessing the impact that bottom-up policies (from smaller regions below the level of sovereign states) can have on the global energy transition to a more sustainable mix of sources. The IPAT identity might be a good place to start with such scenario building. Searching CCF for the term IPAT yields nearly a quarter of the blogs; clearly I think it is incredibly important. I discussed it in some detail in the November 26, 2012 post:

There is a useful identity that correlates the environmental impacts (greenhouse gases, in Governor’s Romney statement) with the other indicators. The equation is known as the IPAT equation (or I=PAT), which stands for Impact Population Affluence Technology. The equation was proposed independently by two research teams; one consists of Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren (now President Obama’s Science Adviser), while the other is led by Barry Commoner (P.R. Ehrlich and J.P. Holdren; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:16 (1972). B. Commoner; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:42 (1972).)

The identity takes the following form:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Almost all of the future scenarios for climate change make separate estimates of the indicators in this equation. The difference factor of 15 in GDP/Person (measure of affluence), between the average Chinese and average American makes it clear that the Chinese and the rest of the developing world will do everything they can to try to “even the score” with the developed world. The global challenge is how to do this while at the same time minimizing the environmental impact.

Up until now, I have mainly confined the discussion about IPAT and scenario building to the efforts and actions of sovereign states, but I’d like to extend that to sub-sovereign levels – applying it not only to individual US states, but even further down to major global cities. I did a similar exercise a few years ago with two of my students (See “Intensive and Extensive Parametrization of Energy Use and Income in US States and in Global Urban Environments” by Yevgeniy Ostrovskiy, Michael Cheng and Micha Tomkiewicz; The International Journal of Climate Change: Impacts and Responses, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp.97-109.)

There are important differences in the identity between sovereign states and sub-sovereign states. One can get an idea of some of these differences by reading the original publication. Generally, the identity holds true for both levels of governments. But does my analysis comparing British Columbia and Alberta following the former’s implementation of a carbon tax hold water when we move out of Canada?

In the last few blogs we saw one important sign that the carbon tax was effective in moving British Columbia away from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources: relative to the rest of Canada, BC reduced its use of fossil fuels in its energy mix. This is an important indicator, but is it the only one that is significant?

To explore that, we need to expand the Technology term in the IPAT identity:

Technology = (Energy/Affluence) x (Fossil/Energy) x (Carbon Dioxide/Fossil)

The first term (Energy/Affluence) is the energy intensity, or how much energy we need to produce a unit of affluence – as measured by GDP, national, or state income.

The second term (Fossil/Energy) measures the fraction of the energy needs that are met by fossil fuels.

The third term (Carbon Dioxide/Fossil) measures the type of fossil fuel being used. Coal emits more than twice the amount of carbon dioxide as natural gas does to produce the same amount of energy.

For British Columbia we saw that after the carbon tax, the fraction of energy sourced from fossil fuels was reduced, compared to the rest of Canada. However, we did not see direct impacts on either the amount of energy used to produce a given amount of affluence or the carbon emissions levels.

Using the same carbon pricing global map from previous blogs (May 5, 2015), let’s move our attention back to the United States. California and the RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative), which includes the East Coast states of Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, have been notably active in creating greenhouse gas regulations. Texas and Hawaii are not among this list, but the two states have also featured prominently in recent news about the issue.

Global Carbon Pricing Map

This brings me back to last year’s TV series “Years of Living Dangerously” (April 22, 2014 blog ). Don Cheadle, who narrated the first episode, showed the different local responses to the droughts in Texas and California. In California, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that climate change was an important contributing cause, while in Texas many believed that the droughts were an act of God. Cheadle went to Texas to interview Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and devout evangelist. She joined the evangelists in their prayers but also explained to them that there is no contradiction between believing in God and believing in science (The Pope is now strongly presenting the same view). Through her efforts, much of the audience started to believe that not only does anthropogenic climate change have something to do with the droughts, but there are steps we (and they) can take to mitigate it. That said, just as there is much more to Texas than religious beliefs, there is much more to climate change than being an important cause of regional droughts.

One anecdotal example from Texas reflects the complexity of the transition and some of the driving forces that are completely absent from the IPAT identity – the events taking place in Georgetown, a small town in Texas (50,000 people):

In many Texas cities the electricity market is deregulated, meaning that customers choose from a dizzying variety of providers and plans. In Houston, for example, there are more than 70 plans that offer energy from entirely renewable sources.

That makes it easy to switch, so in a dynamic marketplace, providers tend to focus on the immediate future. This discourages the creation of renewable energy facilities, which require long-term investment to be viable. But in Georgetown, the city utility company has a monopoly.

When its staff examined their options last year, they discovered something that seemed remarkable, especially in Texas: renewable energy was cheaper than non-renewable. And so last month city officials finalised a deal with SunEdison, a giant multinational solar energy company. It means that by January 2017, all electricity within the city’s service area will come from wind and solar power.

In 2014, the city signed a 20-year agreement with EDF for wind power from a forthcoming project near Amarillo. Taking the renewable elements up to 100%, SunEdison will build plants in west Texas that will provide Georgetown with 150 megawatts of solar power in a deal running from 2016 or 2017 to 2041. With consistent and reliable production the goal, the combination takes into account that wind farms generate most of their energy in the evenings, after the sun has set.

Even on a sub-sovereign level the world is far from being homogeneous and many localities are now experimenting with major changes. Interestingly, these experiments didn’t end in 2014 when the price of oil dropped globally by more than 50%. In fact, prices don’t seem to be the dominant driving force behind the transition; we will continue to explore some of other dominant forces as they take shape during this important period, but suffice it to say that some of these smaller trials could well become great models for the rest of the world.

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British Columbia and the Stuttering Transition

Last week I focused on various localities worldwide that are taking steps to limit the use of fossil fuels through carbon pricing – either in the form of Emission Trading Systems (ETS), also known as cap and trade, or by directly taxing carbon. Carbon pricing is often a leading indicator of governments’ commitments to transitioning toward the prominent use of sustainable energy sources. Such intentions were recently put to severe testing when the price of oil and other fossils dropped by more than 50% in a very short time (it is now in an increasing trend again), while the prices of alternative energy sources stayed largely unchanged.

As I mentioned, the University of British Columbia’s Prof. Kathryn Harrison, in detailing the reasons why Canada finds itself at the bottom of the performance among the 10 largest CO2 emitters, referred to Canada as the “Fossil of the Day.” Following Prof. Harrison’s speech, a slew of reports at the Vancouver conference described British Columbia’s efforts to change that. The essence of these reports was that in spite of the country’s lag, BC is actually doing rather well. In what seems to be a battle between British Columbia and Alberta, the latter appears to be winning. Looks can be deceiving, though.

(A note to the reader:  In case you’re wondering why I’m bringing Alberta into a post about British Columbia, it’s helpful to know that while the two provinces border each other, Alberta is Canada’s largest producer of oil and gas. As you can imagine, there has been a lot of back and forth about what to do with gas, oil, sustainability and the future, and it’s become quite a political issue. For instance, one large point in Alberta’s recent election was whether it was a priority to “stop Alberta’s heavy reliance on fluctuating oil prices for its revenue.”)

Map of Canada's ProvincesHere is how Wikipedia describes the “average” citizen of Alberta:

Alberta’s per capita GDP in 2007 was by far the highest of any province in Canada at C$74,825 (approx. US$75,000). In 2006 Alberta’s per capita GDP was higher than all US states, and one of the highest figures in the world. Alberta’s per capita GDP in 2007 was 61% higher than the Canadian average of C$46,441 and more than twice that of all the Maritime provinces. In 2006, the deviation from the national average was the largest for any province in Canadian history.

All of that wealth was oil driven. Not surprisingly, citizens of Alberta cited a sharp drop in revenue from fossil fuels for the realization that the economy had to diversify. We will continue to keep an eye on the developments in the new government’s anticipated policy changes in Alberta.

Here are the data that compare between the provinces:

Canada Provincial and Territorial GHG and per Capita Emissions 2005-2011As we can see in the table above, the difference between Alberta and British Columbia in per capita emissions is a factor of 5. This marks Alberta as the “fossil” in Canada – both in terms of its commitment to antiquated technology and its continued usage of said dirty fuels.

The main reason that British Columbia is ranked so high in its shift to sustainable energy sources is that it introduced a carbon tax in 2008. The tax started at a relatively low level of C$10/ton. This was intentional, as the first 5 years were intended to be a learning experience for the anticipated impacts. The plan was that the tax would gradually be raised to C$30/ton in 2012 and stay frozen at that price until 2018. The carbon tax continues to enjoy the support of the majority of the province’s citizens and the changes in the rate remain on schedule. Since the introduction of the tax, the BC economy has grown just as fast as that of the rest of Canada, while petroleum use per person is decreasing. The five years of gradual transition are already changing behavior.

Figure 1 shows petroleum sales in British Columbia as compared with the rest of Canada, before and after the introduction of the carbon tax.

Comparative sale of petroleum fuels after introduction of the carbon tax. Figure 1 – Comparative sale of petroleum fuels after introduction of the carbon tax.

Sustainable energy (“Cleantech”) is the fastest growing energy sector. The tax was designed to be revenue neutral, such that the revenue would contribute to expenses usually covered by other taxes, thereby lowering tax burdens in other areas. Many regard BC’s carbon tax structure as the best designed in the world. But officials and researchers at the conference admitted that the carbon tax’s effects on shifting the weight of other taxes are still poorly understood.

The province has stated its objective is greenhouse gas reduction (2010 reference) by 80% by 2050.

Figure 2 shows how British Columbia is actually doing.

Greenhouse gas emission and energy use, two extensive parameters that strongly depend on population and economic development, peaked around the beginning of the century and have been on a mild decreasing pattern since. Over the “learning” period of the carbon tax (2008 – 2012) they remained approximately constant. The greenhouse gas emission per unit of energy demand is an intensive parameter that depends primarily on the mixture of energy that is being used. This parameter remained approximately constant from 1990. There is no indication from this data that the energy mix that BC is using changed because of the implementation of the carbon tax. The two other intensive parameters, emission per capita and emission per unit of GDP show decrease in various rates from about 2000, well before the introduction of the carbon tax.

Figure 3 shows the trends in carbon emission per capita of some of the other major global emitters. The two global emitters that can be compared to Canada – the United States (which has no carbon pricing) and the European Union (whose carbon pricing is still a work in progress) – show similar trends to that of British Columbia.

As the data below show, the use of carbon pricing to help mitigate climate change by influencing our use of different sources of energy is still a work in progress.

GHG Emission Indicators 1990-2012 British ColumbiaFigure 2 – Greenhouse gas emission and energy use in British Columbia

 Figure 3 – Carbon dioxide emission per capita of major global emitters.


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Back to the Stuttering Transition – One Scale Down from Sovereign States: British Columbia

One of the lessons that I learned at the Vancouver conference was to start thinking a bit smaller when talking and writing about the global energy transition. From the beginning, I have referred to this as a stuttering energy transition because of all the obstacles that such a changeover encounters. The transition has to be global; the current trends of energy use affect us all, but the world doesn’t operate globally in a way that policy can be universally enforced. Even our global institutions such as the UN can only enforce behavior through its sovereign member states.

The energy transition, like all such evolutions, involves winners and losers. The clear winners (or so we hope) are future generations, but they don’t have a vote on how we conduct our business. The clear losers are individuals and corporations that have financial stakes in the present energy mix and are going to lose money in the process. In our current system of governance these individuals and corporations have a lot of power to influence governments in sovereign states. Developing countries, which often rely on abundant, low cost fossil fuels as they strive to close the gap between themselves and more developed nations seem similarly likely to lose out. One stumbling block has been that these developing countries which so desire – and deserve – accelerated progress have yet to find proof that alternative fuels can help them achieve that goal. So the global transition is bound to stumble. However, local governments under large sovereign states are starting to develop pressures that might serve as experimental field tests for the broader adaptation of the transition.

A good indicator of local governments’ mitigation efforts against anthropogenic climate change is their steps meant to limit the use of fossil fuels. The most visible part of such attempts is the practice of putting a price on carbon – one form of this is a carbon tax. A carbon tax aims to encourage users to use alternative energy sources by making fossil fuels more expensive. Ideally, these alternative sources emit less carbon, use energy more efficiently and/or are completely non carbon-based (e.g. solar, wind, hydroelectric and biofuel). This method of mitigation changes market conditions in favor of decrease in carbon emissions but it doesn’t put a ceiling on how much carbon can be emitted in total.

The second method is based on emissions trading (ETS – Emission Trading Systems) or as it is sometimes called, cap and trade. In this system, the authorities set a ceiling for emissions and distribute certificates to corporations and individuals that give them the right to emit certain levels of carbon. These certificates become tradable, so organizations that need to emit more buy certificates from those that plan to emit less. Again, the market determines the price of the certificates. Each method has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages, but implementation of either one indicates serious efforts to confront anthropogenic climate change through limits on carbon emissions. Figure 1 shows the distribution of the global efforts in carbon pricing. The progress of some big sovereign states is obvious, but smaller local governments are important players too. Among the active local governments are many states in federal systems, including most of the Canadian states, all of the states on North America’s West Coast, and the RGGI (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative) on the East Coast of the US, which includes the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

The Vancouver conference gave me an excellent view of British Columbia’s efforts. The map also shows some important megacities (cities with greater than 10 million inhabitants) such as Tokyo and many cities in China.

carbon-pricing-map-900x476-cFigure 1 – Carbon pricing around the world

In a previous blog (March 25, 2015) I focused on the 10 largest carbon emitting countries when I talked about 2014’s milestone of reaching a global flat carbon emission in spite of the 3% GDP increase. I am repasting the table, Figure 2, which summarizes the results. In this compilation Canada ranked at the bottom, while it scored 58th on the overall list. The United States is not doing much better, it is ranked 5th in this grouping and 43rd in the overall list.

Canada’s bad performance was not ignored at the Vancouver conference. The second plenary speaker was Kathryn Harrison, a professor of Political Science in the University of British Columbia. She referred to Canada’s performance as deserving of the “Fossil of the Day” award. She also mentioned that Canada was the only country to ratify the Kyoto protocol but then withdraw its involvement when the government changed to a new administration, even as its carbon emission continues to rise.

Key Data For the 10 Largest CO2 Emitters 2013-14Figure 2 – Key Data for the 10 largest CO2 emitters (see March 25, 2015 blog for details)

Following her talk came a slew of reports about the situation in British Columbia.

British Columbia is already experiencing two immense impacts, both of which have been largely attributed to climate change: major deglaciation and the continuous spread of the mountain pine bark beetle – an insect that destroys the beautiful forests that span the territory. With the loss of these forests comes the corresponding decline of the livelihood that is associated with the lumber industry and tourism.

The deglaciation is already visible. We saw it on top of Mount Grouse (April 14, 2015 blog) – usually in mid-April there is an expected 12ft of snow. As we could see in the photograph, this year it was almost free of snow at that time. Computer simulations predict that both the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast ranges will be equally snow free as we approach the end of the century, a result that seems almost independent of the emission scenario we follow. The damage is certainly not limited to aesthetics or even the economics tied to the destruction of recreational ski slopes; it is catastrophic in terms of the fresh water management of the province.

Meanwhile, with the temperature rising throughout the region, the beetle now finds the adjusted environment comfortable year-round. As they adapt to the climate change, the beetles feed on increasingly wide swaths of forest. Once those are destroyed, they simply move on to the next patch.

In western North America, the current outbreak of the mountain pine beetle and its microbial associates has destroyed wide areas of lodgepole pine forest, including more than 16 million of the 55 million hectares of forest in British Columbia. The current outbreak in the Rocky Mountain National Park began in 1996 and has caused the destruction of millions of acres of ponderosa and lodgepole pine trees. According to an annual assessment by the state’s forest service, 264,000 acres of trees in Colorado were infested by the mountain pine beetle at the beginning of 2013. This was much smaller than the 1.15 million acres that were affected in 2008 because the beetle has already killed off most of the vulnerable trees (Ward).

For western Canada, these are not computer simulations, these are imminent threats that must be fought now. Some of the steps that they are taking are innovative enough to be used as examples for the rest of the world. More on that next week.

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Guest Blog by Denis Ladyzhensky: Blessings and Climate Change

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, April has been a very busy month for me. One of the events I attended was a celebration of my liberation – and that of many others – from Bergen-Belsen and the nightmares of the Holocaust, by soldiers from the American Army’s 30th Division. The meeting was in Nashville, Tennessee. Thirteen of the liberating soldiers showed up (with an average age of 92), as did three thankful and considerably younger survivors. The addition of second and third generation relatives of liberators and survivors that were no longer with us brought the total to around 60. The survivors were all Jewish, but none of the liberators were. During the closing banquet, one of the veterans read a short Christian religious blessing; I was in charge of delivering the Jewish one. I decided to give two short blessings: one for the food and one commemorating the dead – both soldiers and victims. I am not a religious guy so I had to prepare. In my preparation I ran into some background of the Jewish food blessing, which essentially says that since all of the world’s resources belong to God, we must say a blessing and get God’s permission when we eat. My immediate thought was that if this is the case, every activity that we conduct using world’s resources merits the same treatment. More than that, the religious authorities that construct the prayer books need to learn the consequences of giving permission to use the physical environment. My second thought was that I am certainly not an expert on this issue, and should approach somebody a bit more qualified.

Fortunately, Denis Ladyzhensky is a student in our Physics Department and is taking my course on Physics and Society. He is also an orthodox Jew. I approached him with my thoughts and asked him to write a guest blog on the topic. Here is the result.

What are blessings in Judaism? What purpose do they serve? How can we apply their wisdom to extracting and using fossil fuels from the earth?

Blessings appear in biblical scripture Deuteronomy 8:10, where it states, “you will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless the Lord, your God for the land that is good that He gave to you.”

And scripture continues:

…be careful for yourself lest you forget the Lord, your God by not observing his commandments, his ordinances, and his decrees, which I command you today; lest you eat and you are satisfied, and houses that are good you build and you live and your cattle and your flocks increase, and silver and gold increase for you, and everything that is yours increase and haughty will your heart be and you will forget the Lord, your God who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery. Who leads you through the wilderness that is great and awesome and with snake, fiery serpent, and scorpion, and thirst where there was no water—who brings forth for you water from the rock of flint. Who feeds you manna in the wilderness, which not know did your forefathers in order to afflict you and in order to test you, to benefit you in your end. And you may say in your heart, my strength and the might of my hand made for me this wealth! Then you shall remember the Lord, your God for it is he who gives you strength to make wealth in order to establish his covenant that he swore to your forefathers as it is this day. It shall be that if you should in any way forget the Lord, your God and you should go after the gods of others, and you should worship them and you should bow to them – I testify against you today that you will certainly be destroyed, like the nations that the Lord destroys from before you, so will you be destroyed because you will not have listened to the voice of the Lord, your God. Deuteronomy 8:10-20

If we analyze this passage, we can begin to see what kind of commandments these are: God first commands that we are obligated to bless Him for feeling satisfied. Obviously God, who is infinite and omnipotent, does not require our blessings; indeed, one could ask what possible use is there in mere mortals blessing God? What follows is a warning against forgetting Him and becoming materialistic and arrogant. This is not merely good advice; rather, it is a deep psychological insight into humanity. Here we have a step by step breakdown from human being to an arrogant idol worshipper who is worthy of destruction: it begins by forgetting the commandments and forgetting God. Next comes forgetting all of the favors God did for the individual, like taking him out of slavery in Egypt, giving him water from a rock and feeding him food (manna) that appeared miraculously like dew on the ground every morning for forty years. After having fallen so low in gratitude a person will soon come to declare that in fact it is his own great strength that has given him his wealth, thereby excluding the Creator’s role in his success. Finally he will become an idol worshipper who is deserving of capital punishment.

Therefore we have been given the greatest guarantee possible – a divine promise that simply by blessing God, we are defeating a powerful and mysterious human tendency for arrogance and self-worship.

This alone would not necessarily help us in trying to apply this thinking to humility in the extraction of natural resources, especially since this section in particular only applies to blessings made after one eats to satiation. But where can we find a scriptural source for performing blessings before eating? The answer is that there is no known scriptural source for blessings before eating food. In fact, the way we know to say these special blessings is from a logical Talmudic argument found in the tractate Brachot known as “if this then [certainly] this.” This argument is used in the following way: if we have to make blessings [appreciate the source] when we are already full then isn’t it obvious that we need to make blessings [appreciate the source] when we are hungry? On the merit of this argument, which no holy Talmudic Rabbi could defeat, a variety of blessings were created to be said by all persons before partaking of any enjoyable matter in this world. These blessings apply to all foods and drinks as well as smells and they are required for special phenomena and events. Halalchipedia has a full list of different kinds of blessings one makes for different occasions.

ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם המוציא לחם מן הארץ

This Hebrew text is a blessing for bread, but what it says it actually quite surprising. Reading from right to left it says, “Blessed are you the Lord, our God, King of the world who took bread out from the Earth.” Maybe we can say that the first part is self-explanatory, acknowledging that God is the source of blessing and the master of the world. But the second part requires some more serious explanation: how did God take the bread out of the Earth? Making bread requires taking wheat, grinding it to flour, making dough, and baking it – only through numerous steps does it become bread. Whole loaves of bread do not grow directly from the ground on stems. What the authors of these blessings wanted to impart on us is that each of those intermediary steps was through God. Even when we were cutting the wheat, it was God helping us. When we were making the dough it was through God’s help, and when it was baked into the perfect final product it was all God’s will all the time.

What about something that a person simply does not make a blessing on, like extracting precious minerals and fuels from the Earth? In that case, he or she is making a valuable income, but since through that comes the danger of becoming very arrogant, shouldn’t they be warned? I would like to elaborate on this question in the following way. What if we incorporate the use of blessings and rely on rabbinical authority as arbitrator between the Earth’s resources and humans? In other words, before someone is allowed to extract the Earth’s goods, there must first be an ordained spiritual leader who advises on issues of gratitude and environmental responsibility. This seems like an idealistic solution which would perhaps only work in a utopian society where we could control all external influences from affecting the arbitrator. Consider that in a field where the needs of the many compete against the needs of the few and those in power are few in number, it is wise to empower the humblest and most prudent decision makers. Everybody would agree to that — except for those in the select group which already wields that power. Unfortunately it is often an individual’s cunning and extravagance which wins him favor from others. Power today is rarely given to someone based upon his spiritual status.

So we don’t have a blessing to say in our scenario. One possible solution that I would like to suggest is the following. The Torah (Hebrew Bible) does not delineate every possible phenomenon or event for which a person might need to say a blessing. Rather, it chooses those which are most common, the reason being that if a person is preoccupied with being thankful to God throughout the day, that mindset will extend into everything the individual does. That might be part of the reason why King David, who was king of Israel and the compiler of the Tehillim (Psalms) required the nation to recite 100 blessings a day. Click here and skip to Page 13 for a list of how to say 100 blessings a day. When contemplating the consequences of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change, saying blessings is only the beginning. We also require the ability to project the outcome of our actions into the future. When we eat something that we like, we make a blessing in the hopes that we will be able to eat it again in the future as well. No one wants their favorite fruit to disappear the next year. But if we don’t make a blessing, the Rabbis teach us that it is as if we stole from God. If we consume something without gratitude we are actually causing a shortage in that thing. I would argue that in our society today where corporations and sovereign nations ignore warning signs and expert advice on climate change, we are doing that same thing on a much larger scale: exemplifying a renegade disregard for the collaborative good; not making enough effort to frontline the planet’s wellbeing.

Perhaps here the natural law is resisting the haughty actions of the few, violating natural calm and increasing threats of extreme weather. So let us conclude that positive change does not elude us. Going carbon negative is a short-term goal and becoming carbon neutral is within our grasp if we want it to be. Being sufficiently grateful for what we have attained as a society, and appreciating what we have inherited from thousands of years of ancestral sweat, blood and tears is probably impossible. But the task of preserving it so that our grandchildren don’t inherit a self-imploding natural disaster is in our hands, dependent on our minds, and within our reach. Just like there are no implied limits to our gratitude, so there should be no limits to creating things that our children will be grateful for. Amongst those things which I think future generations will certainly appreciate are a clean and healthy ecosystem, a plethora of vibrant species with tremendous diversity and a human living condition which contributes to the good in the earth without depleting it. Do you think we will deplete the Earth and have to deal with an ever more combative and hostile environment, or do you think we can embrace humility and gratitude, thereby slowly reversing our course towards sustainability and mutual respect between human and Earth?

Denis Ladyzhensky is a Brooklyn College Undergraduate student graduating with a B.A. in Physics. He spent five years studying Talmudic law and the Hebrew Bible in Jerusalem. He hopes to get a professional degree in electrical engineering and to one day work on projects that improve life for everyone. 

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