TRACKING OUR CARBON FOOTPRINT

The piece below was written for and posted on the Green Building Advisor.  I thought I’d share it here too.

We like to measure how we’re doing in as many ways as possible.  Like other businesses, we have a collection of metrics for financial tracking: profit and loss, budget projections and actuals, job costing of each project, value of our several funds (pension, equity, and reserves) and more.

We also measure social factors:  employee education costs, compensation ratio top to bottom, length of employee tenure, average employee age, charitable contributions, and community service.

We consistently track (measure) our work backlog to help us plan for our immediate future.

We try to predict our longer-term future, too – through strategic planning, creating five year plans, projecting organizational charts, and making succession plans.

In design and project planning, we do extensive measuring (space planning, engineering) to ensure good building performance, structure, and utility.  On our completed projects, we monitor energy use and other factors (like relative humidity) to help us learn what works and what doesn’t.

And, of course, building itself is a process of constant measurement.

This desire – to measure whatever we can as a means of understanding who we are and what we do – inspired us, recently, to attempt to measure our company carbon footprint.  Despite our efforts to build durable, high performance buildings with low environmental impacts, we recognize that all of our buildings have significant impacts, as do our operations as a company.

We asked ourselves this question, “While we are working so hard to make zero energy buildings, how are we doing with energy and waste in our company operations?”  The answer, despite our consistent anecdotal efforts, is that we had no real idea, so we set out to find out – to learn where our impacts are greatest, and where the opportunities exist to reduce those impacts.  By gathering baseline data and measuring impacts, we would create a means to track our progress.

When we first imagined this project, we assumed we would find models and templates.  Surprisingly, we were unable to find small companies that are currently measuring their company carbon footprint (we still think they must be out there; we just haven’t found them yet).   So we developed a methodology, gathered the data, and produced the first phase of our carbon footprint assessment.  Our director of engineering, Marc Rosenbaum, was largely responsible for the methodology.  My daughter Sophie, who works with us part time while she is working on an MBA in Managing for Sustainability, collected the data from various places and was the primary author of the report.

We have now completed the first phase.   Here’s a snapshot that shows that by far the largest source of energy use in our company at present is employees getting to and from work and driving around (hopefully not aimlessly) doing errands during the day!

We recently completed a project to make our offices, shop, and storage facilities net energy producers.  We added a large solar array and replaced our oil heating with air source heat pumps.

 (But since we enrolled in the MA Solar Renewable Energy Certificate program, which enables us to sell the renewable attribute of the solar-generated electricity, we can’t count it against the electricity we use – that would be counting it twice in carbon footprint terms).

Now we will prioritize the reduction of transportation energy.  We are considering a number of measures which, if implemented, may help with that:

• Operational changes that save trips in the field;

• Increasing our employee transportation incentive to encourage greater use of public transportation and bicycle use;

• Carefully evaluating the benefits/costs, for off-island travel, of driving, flying, taking the bus or skipping the trip altogether;

• Ensuring that PV systems are installed and operational as early as possible on projects to maximize offsets of jobsite energy use;

• Examining the possibility of portable jobsite heat pumps for construction heat;

• Lowering our corporate fleet footprint by incentivizing more fuel efficient vehicles throughout the company;

• Acquiring an SMC company electric vehicle for office errands and short trips during the workday.

We’re particularly jazzed about the electric vehicle, as we have been working to make our facility more resilient in case of an event that leaves us without power for an extended time. The battery pack in an electric vehicle represents energy storage that can supply our facility with power during an outage. It’s likely that we’ll need more storage than one vehicle battery pack provides, so we can use our PV array for back-up power.

We are also ready to begin the second phase of our assessment, which is the complicated part.  The materials that we use in our projects are a big part of our impact.  In the first phase we only measured their transportation from Woods Hole (the other side of the water from the Vineyard, our home territory) to their destination, and the waste they generated.  But that leaves out, of course, a big part – the materials impact from origin to Woods Hole.  For simplicity’s sake, we decided, for phase one, that this is part of our clients’ carbon footprint, not ours – a convenient deflection.  A procrastination, in fact (like washing all the dishes and leaving the baking pans and skillets in the sink to soak) but one that was necessary to allow the analysis to be phased.

Ultimately, however, we understand that these materials are, indeed, a part of our impact.  More important than who is assigned the impact is the fact that we are the ones that can assess and change practices, so the ball’s in our court.  The second phase, which we are beginning now, is to dig deeply into Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of the materials we purchase for our projects – from the extraction phase through processing, manufacturing, and distribution (along with the current local transportation and waste disposal that we are already tracking).  This new part of the endeavor requires extensive research and new learning.

It also means we must consider and interact with our supply chain in new ways – to try to create alignments, in both values and practices – with our suppliers.  This is bound to be a long haul.

In summary, for 20 years or more we have had the goal of reducing carbon emissions, but it has been an abstract goal to which we have only given episodic attention.  It may take another 20 years to reach our zero energy and zero waste goals, and we are only beginning to learn how to do that.  But this first phase of our Carbon Footprint Project has served its intended purposes. We identified the areas in which we are already doing well, found the areas that are most ripe for improvement, and specified the aspects which need further inquiry.

There’s always something new that needs to be measured.  Numbers tell stories.  Stories teach.  This metric feels like one that will be teaching us a lot -  for a very long time.  While there will be no end to this project, we are no longer at the beginning.  It’s part of a path to a restorative future.

The full first phase report is available on the SMC website at http://www.southmountain.com/documents.  We are interested in feedback about ways to improve it.  We are also interested in knowing about other companies doing this work.   

I’ll keep you posted as we change our practices to reduce our footprint and make progress on Phase Two.  Don’t hold your breath!

 

 

A BRIGHT INVESTMENT (& Stop ‘n Shop Update)

The last post of this blog entry was mis-formatted, so I am re-sending.  If you got it and it actually looked right, sorry to bother you again.

 

The postscript to my last blog entry about Stop and Shop is that they withdrew their application!  They heard the concerns, saw the writing on the wall, and pulled back.  Our hope is that they will come back with a new plan that more addresses the wishes of Vineyarders and works for them too.

*                                   *                                   *                                    *

The following is a re-print of a piece Nis Kildegaard wrote for his Sounding column after a long chat with Rob Meyers, our Energy Services Manager.  It appeared in the Martha’s Vineyard Times on June 5th.  I thought he did a fine job with it.

 

A BRIGHT INVESTMENT

Maybe you never heard the news about solar power, or it was drowned out by the noise of the 13-year controversy over the Cape Wind project on Horseshoe Shoal.

But if you still think that putting solar electric panels on your roof is a prohibitively costly way to declare your environmentalist bona fides, it’s time to think again.

I sat down for an eye-opening tutorial last week with Rob Meyers at South Mountain Company (SMC) in West Tisbury. Meyers is manager of the company’s fastest-growing department, energy services. Here’s some of what I learned.

The high cost of electricity on Martha’s Vineyard can be a burden or an opportunity, depending on how you look at it. Rates now stand at about 21 cents per kilowatt-hour, and they fluctuate over the short term, but over the past two decades they’ve increased by an average of 6 percent, per year.

Paying some of the highest rates in the nation, NSTAR customers on Martha’s Vineyard see big bites taken out of their pocketbooks for electricity every month. But if you look at that money as capital, here’s the opportunity: You can shift that capital, so that rather than paying NSTAR, you’re paying for the solar photovoltaic (PV) system on your own roof.

The Cape Wind project has been in front of permitting agencies for so long that its core technology has changed: Each turbine in the wind farm will generate three times more electricity than the models Cape Wind originally proposed to use in 2001. Meanwhile, over the same span of years, the changes in the solar power equation — both in the hardware and on the regulatory front — have been even more dramatic.

The Green Communities Act, enacted by Massachusetts in 2008, was a game-changer. It required that utilities and power plants in the commonwealth make renewable energy a part of their mix, and it set up a market system called the Solar Credit Clearing House Auction so power companies can bid for the right to count the electricity generated by home solar systems toward their mandated goal. When the utilities buy your solar energy credits, you get a payment every year.

The Green Communities Act also provides for net metering — allowing homeowners to hook their solar systems to the power grid and actually run the meter backward when the sun is shining. If you own a solar PV system in Massachusetts, your utility company becomes a sort of giant battery: The meter runs in reverse whenever your system is making more power than your home needs, and you collect credits that are worth within a penny or two of your retail electricity rate. At night, when your home has no solar power, the meter draws down the credits your system accumulated during the day.

Then there’s the matter of government rebates and tax credits: Massachusetts and the feds are both generous with incentives for solar home systems, currently covering about a third of a typical installation’s cost.

That covers the regulatory good news. There has also been great progress on the technological front. Expressed in terms of dollars per kilowatt, the cost of solar PV panels has fallen by two thirds in the past five years.

Just in the two years between 2008, when SMC put photovoltaics on roofs at the Jenney Way affordable housing project in Edgartown, and 2010, when the company installed a larger system at the Eliakim’s Way housing in West Tisbury, the installation cost per kilowatt fell by about 40 percent.

What this means for an Island homeowner with a suitable site is that the investment in solar no longer takes 10 years or 20 to pay for itself. Many solar systems can be cash-positive in the very first year.

Given the chance to sit down with a homeowner and talk through the workings and finances of a solar PV system, Rob Meyers said he can usually make that homeowner a customer. South Mountain put just three solar systems on Island roofs back in 2005, the first year it offered this service; now Meyers’s department is by far the Island’s largest provider of home solar systems, installing them at the rate of about one per week.

“Our two biggest competitors,” Meyers said, “are the utility company, and misinformation.”

The take-away here is that you don’t need to be an early adopter or a passionate friend of the environment to consider solar power for your Island home. This is mature technology, and the costs have plummeted. The same SunPower panels being installed across the Island right now are also making electricity for such bastions of industry as Hewlett-Packard, PG&E, FedEx, Del Monte, and Microsoft.

“When the guys in navy blue suits and red ties are saying this is a good idea,” Meyers said to me, “you know the picture has shifted from environmentalism to economics. The environmental benefits at this point — they’re the bonus.”

To state the case even more succinctly: If you own a home and pay an electric bill, you could probably profit from solar power right now.

 

 

 

 

A BRIGHT INVESTMENT (& Stop ‘n Shop Update)

The postscript to my last blog entry about Stop and Shop is that they withdrew their application!  They heard the concerns, saw the writing on the wall, and pulled back.  Our hope is that they will come back with a new plan that more addresses the wishes of Vineyarders and works for them too.

*                                   *                                   *                                    *

The following is a re-print of a piece Nis Kildegaard wrote for his Sounding column after a long chat with Rob Meyers, our Energy Services Manager.  It appeared in the Martha’s Vineyard Times on June 5th.  I thought he did a fine job with it.

 

A BRIGHT INVESTMENT

Maybe you never heard the news about solar power, or it was drowned out by the noise of the 13-year controversy over the Cape Wind project on Horseshoe Shoal.

But if you still think that putting solar electric panels on your roof is a prohibitively costly way to declare your environmentalist bona fides, it’s time to think again.

I sat down for an eye-opening tutorial last week with Rob Meyers at South Mountain Company (SMC) in West Tisbury. Meyers is manager of the company’s fastest-growing department, energy services. Here’s some of what I learned.

The high cost of electricity on Martha’s Vineyard can be a burden or an opportunity, depending on how you look at it. Rates now stand at about 21 cents per kilowatt-hour, and they fluctuate over the short term, but over the past two decades they’ve increased by an average of 6 percent, per year.

Paying some of the highest rates in the nation, NSTAR customers on Martha’s Vineyard see big bites taken out of their pocketbooks for electricity every month. But if you look at that money as capital, here’s the opportunity: You can shift that capital, so that rather than paying NSTAR, you’re paying for the solar photovoltaic (PV) system on your own roof.

The Cape Wind project has been in front of permitting agencies for so long that its core technology has changed: Each turbine in the wind farm will generate three times more electricity than the models Cape Wind originally proposed to use in 2001. Meanwhile, over the same span of years, the changes in the solar power equation — both in the hardware and on the regulatory front — have been even more dramatic.

The Green Communities Act, enacted by Massachusetts in 2008, was a game-changer. It required that utilities and power plants in the commonwealth make renewable energy a part of their mix, and it set up a market system called the Solar Credit Clearing House Auction so power companies can bid for the right to count the electricity generated by home solar systems toward their mandated goal. When the utilities buy your solar energy credits, you get a payment every year.

The Green Communities Act also provides for net metering — allowing homeowners to hook their solar systems to the power grid and actually run the meter backward when the sun is shining. If you own a solar PV system in Massachusetts, your utility company becomes a sort of giant battery: The meter runs in reverse whenever your system is making more power than your home needs, and you collect credits that are worth within a penny or two of your retail electricity rate. At night, when your home has no solar power, the meter draws down the credits your system accumulated during the day.

Then there’s the matter of government rebates and tax credits: Massachusetts and the feds are both generous with incentives for solar home systems, currently covering about a third of a typical installation’s cost.

That covers the regulatory good news. There has also been great progress on the technological front. Expressed in terms of dollars per kilowatt, the cost of solar PV panels has fallen by two thirds in the past five years.

Just in the two years between 2008, when SMC put photovoltaics on roofs at the Jenney Way affordable housing project in Edgartown, and 2010, when the company installed a larger system at the Eliakim’s Way housing in West Tisbury, the installation cost per kilowatt fell by about 40 percent.

What this means for an Island homeowner with a suitable site is that the investment in solar no longer takes 10 years or 20 to pay for itself. Many solar systems can be cash-positive in the very first year.

Given the chance to sit down with a homeowner and talk through the workings and finances of a solar PV system, Rob Meyers said he can usually make that homeowner a customer. South Mountain put just three solar systems on Island roofs back in 2005, the first year it offered this service; now Meyers’s department is by far the Island’s largest provider of home solar systems, installing them at the rate of about one per week.

“Our two biggest competitors,” Meyers said, “are the utility company, and misinformation.”

The take-away here is that you don’t need to be an early adopter or a passionate friend of the environment to consider solar power for your Island home. This is mature technology, and the costs have plummeted. The same SunPower panels being installed across the Island right now are also making electricity for such bastions of industry as Hewlett-Packard, PG&E, FedEx, Del Monte, and Microsoft.

“When the guys in navy blue suits and red ties are saying this is a good idea,” Meyers said to me, “you know the picture has shifted from environmentalism to economics. The environmental benefits at this point — they’re the bonus.”

To state the case even more succinctly: If you own a home and pay an electric bill, you could probably profit from solar power right now.

 

VINEYARD CONTROVERSIES

Most of the time, there are one or two raging controversies on the Vineyard.   The last few years, however, have been quiet.  The only polarizing conflict was a roundabout in the center of the island.  I never understood that one; it really didn’t matter much either way.  I thought it would be fine to have a roundabout, but I thought it would be fine not to, as well.  What’s the big difference?

Now it’s built.  It’s fine.  I like it.  Nobody really cares that much, as far as I can tell.  So be it.

But now there are two big controversies, and both seem important to me.  One is the Squibnocket Beach parking and access re-design in Chilmark.  The beach and its parking lot, and an adjacent roadway that is the only access to a number of valuable properties, are threatened by coastal erosion.

The town selectmen, together with the property owners, a land conservation non-profit, and coastal biology and geology experts, have fashioned a unique partnership and plan.  The plan has generated intense controversy.  I don’t know if it’s a good plan, or the best plan, but it makes sense to me.

Nobody knows what the precise outcome will be, but something is going to happen, because it must – it’s in everybody’s interest to solve this problem.  I’m particularly interested in the outcome because it foreshadows many such efforts to come.  This is about climate change adaptation and mitigation.  It is the future, right now.

The other big controversy is the efforts of Stop and Shop and its parent company, Ahold, to significantly expand their shabby downtown supermarket in Tisbury.  There are many issues – scale, congestion, community character, the need to raise the building to stay above the flood zone now and in the future  – and the debate has become highly emotional.  My knowledge about this plan is limited too, and I haven’t been inclined to wade into the  sea of accusations, wild inaccuracies, and finger pointing.

But then I read a letter in the paper from Henry Stephenson, the co-chair of the Tisbury planning board, a good thinker with a broad design background.  He quietly suggested important ways to make it a much better project.  His solutions rang true, and I had also been noticing something missing from the debate, so I wrote the following to our regional planning agency, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which is the primary regulatory decision-maker for the project,  and to the local papers:

It’s hard to imagine anyone who cares more about Tisbury than planning board co-chairman Henry Stephenson.  He thinks deeply about the town and he has a nuanced and practical sense of design.  His Stop and Shop letter several weeks ago was right on the mark, in my view.  

No hyperbole, no careless inaccuracies – just the most cogent and thoughtful alternative plan to date.

I hope the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will heed his specific suggestions about decreasing building size, increasing setbacks, re-designing the municipal parking lot, Water Street congestion, Union Street traffic flow, and added transportation services.  I hope the MVC will condition the project in the realistic ways he suggests.

I also want to call attention to something that has been sadly absent from the Stop and Shop discussion.  The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has a responsibility to promote appropriate economic development.  I hope the MVC will add to its conditions – if and when it approves a better, scaled down version of the plan that is before it - that Stop and Shop will be required to provide full time jobs with full benefits at Living Wages.  

We need good jobs.  Part-time jobs at low wages are harmful and unprincipled.  Stop and Shop and its parent, Ahold, can afford decency.  It is within the powers of the MVC to require such decency.  And we cannot afford to accept less.  Thank you.

I hope this letter brings support to Henry’s excellent suggestions and, at the same time, opens up a new – and very important – topic of discussion.

But aside from the particulars of these controversies, there are two things I particularly like about both of them.

First, it’s the passion.

The downside of passion is that it can bring out hostility – people attack, personalize, demonize, distort, and falsify.  But that’s part of the deal, part of the inherent messiness of democracy.

The upside of passion is that it brings people out.  People put themselves on the line.  I recently watched a good talk called Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count, by Brene Brown, a researcher and author who studies vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection (2010) and Daring Greatly (2012).

In it she says, in part, “Show up.  Be seen.  Be brave.  If you do show up, in the arena, there’s one guarantee:  You will get your ass kicked.  That’s the only certainty. “  My experience over decades bears that out.  Brown goes on to say that “if you’re not in the arena, getting your ass kicked like I am, then I’m really not interested in your feedback.”

Along with “showing up”, she honors the importance of vulnerability.  She points out that vulnerability is the gateway to love, belonging, joy, trust, empathy, innovation, and creativity.  Without vulnerability, she says,  you can’t create.  We need to enter the arena, and we need not hide our vulnerability.

I like seeing so many entering the arena, warts and all.

The other thing that interests me is the essential importance of the issues at stake.  In the scheme of things, these are minor controversies in small towns.  But they both have elements of two of the great issues of our time – climate change and income inequality.

Climate change is certain to test our democracy in ways we can’t foresee.  Nobody will be un-affected, nobody will be able to stand on the sidelines.  That much is clear, and here are two examples of the issues, in a nutshell, in our small outpost.  Such examples, close to home, may promote greater engagement in the larger arena of public policy that our future depends on.

And two sides of the income inequality issue are visible in these controversies.  At Squibnocket, land owners are showing what’s possible when it serves all interests for the wealthy to enter into public-private partnerships.  At Stop and Shop, we see a major multi-national affecting a small community in ways that corporations do, and the community exercising its will to make sure that local benefits come first.

In her book The Sixth Extinction, author Elizabeth Kolbert says,  “Chimps are smart, and can do all kinds of clever things, but they don’t have collective problem solving ability.  You’ll never see two chimps carrying something together.  Only humans do that stuff.”

Whatever the outcomes, Squibnocket and Stop and Shop are vibrant examples of humans fully engaged in collective problem solving.  Doing that stuff.  Good stuff.