Moving Green Forward, One Step at a Time

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From (read an excerpt here) explained that great ideas, the ones that transform the marketplace, are based on the “adjacent possible:”

The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

Treehugger reports today that a cutting-edge green community, breaking ground both in its design and its site (it was gentrifying an historically lower income, African-American community) is facing foreclosure. The explanation, in part, is because the development skipped ahead of the adjacent possible:

This was a cutting edge design, by the greenest of cutting-edge architects. Most developers build the same thing over and over again so that they get to know their costs really accurately; when you are the first, you don't. You build in contingencies, and may even benefit from the fact that in a downturn, construction costs drop significantly, but green roofs, solar thermal hot water and other green features cost money. Purchasers are not often willing to pay their full value because they are thinking about investment and resale, and banks don't make it easy to get mortgages on the green goodies, so your margins on a green, innovative or different building are often smaller.

Move one square to the left, and you are a genius. Skip over a square, and you are a failure, ahead of your time. This seems to be one of the classic problems with the green movement. We try to skip over steps, assuming that the rest of society will make the leap with us. Not so. 

With respect to cap-and-trade, there has been significant argument that its advocacy skipped a vital step—linking cap-and-trade to where the American public is now. In the Daily Kos, Frank Luntz, the pollster and wordsmith, had this to say about bringing climate change into the adjacent possible:

Luntz's report, "The Language of a Clean Energy Economy," finds that the majority of the public across the political spectrum is convinced that global warming is happening and caused at least in part by humans. But, Luntz says, talking about the problem won't win support for the legislation that would solve it. Among both Democrats and Republicans polled by his firm, addressing climate change was the least important reason to support a cap-and-trade policy.

So what should environmentalists say instead? Luntz suggests less talk of dying polar bears and more emphasis on how legislation will create jobs, make the planet healthier and decrease US dependence on foreign oil.

In innovation, there are no skipped steps. Moving from the present to the adjacent possible is the only route to transformation, one step at a time. Many have argued that there is no time for incremental change, but moving along the continuum of the adjacent possible does not necessarily mean a lengthy timeframe. Rather, it means linking the next vision to the one we are already connected to. For example, the internet went from text based pages to picture to video to facebook in just over a decade.

Now let me bring this back to law. Laws, regulations and programs promoting green and energy efficient construction must build on the adjacent possible. When they do not, as in the IRS Bond Requirements for the Destiny USA Project (which mandated completely unattainable green features and job creation obligations), they are destined for failure. When they do, like the 1603 grant for solar power (great article on 1603 grant results here), they can spur a whole industry forward and radically reduce the price of solar panels. 

As of February 25, 2011, a total of 7,180 alternative energy projects were funded through the §1603 program, totally $6.4 Billion in Treasury funding...Whereas solar P.V. installations in 2010 grew by 114% over 2009, netting $757 Million in 1603 grants, industry analysts forecast that solar installation will grow by an even larger factor through 2011. Solar has been receiving more attention in recent months from consumers, industry analysts and property owners alike. This attention has raised awareness of the benefits to installing solar, resulting in a spike in ground mounted and rooftop P.V. installation. In 2011 and beyond, the authors are confident improved technology and increased economic incentives will meet with this awareness to result in a marked increase in the amount of cash grants dedicated to solar technology.

The most audacious ideas are those that build on what already works, and makes it better, faster and more impactful. The same is true for regulation. Move forward to the adjacent possible, one step at a time.

Good Intentions Gone Bad: The Cautionary Tale Of Destiny USA And Green Bonds

covered the messy breakdown of the Carousel/Destiny USA project in Syracuse on Monday.  In short, the Destiny USA project was selected as a green "demonstration" project under the 2004 Green Bonds program.  $255 million in tax exempt bonds were issued on behalf of the project, the revenue of which was supposed to be used to implement the green features of the project.  As of now, none of the green features have been implemented, and the developer has intimated that even if the project is fully built out, the green features will not be included.  The IRS will have to decide whether to rescind the tax exempt status of the bonds for failing to meet the green requirements.

I have written at length about creating effective green incentives and regulations (see my Regulating Green Series here).  For me, the most interesting part of this debacle is what it reveals about a major green incentive program.  The Green Bonds program was developed as a part of the America Jobs Creation Act of 2004.  In theory, the program was intended to: 

 finance environmentally friendly development. The objective is to reclaim contaminated industrial and commercial land (brown fields), and encourage energy conservation and the use of renewable energy sources.

Although the goals of the Green Bonds program were clearly noble, as I see it the program was doomed from the start. No market rate project in 2005 could have met all of these requirements.  Thus, the proponents of the projects had reason to overstate the green components of their projects to access $2 billion in tax free capital for the projects. 

According to the IRS Guidance (available here) $2 billion in AAA tax exempt bonds were authorized by the Federal government to be awarded to four demonstration projects.  To qualify for the bonds, the four projects in aggregate had to:

  1. Reduce energy consumption by more that 150 megawatts annually compared to conventional generation;
  2. Reduce daily sulfur dioxide emissions by at least 10 tons compared to coal generated power;
  3. Expand by 75% the domestic solar PV market in the United States as compared to the expansion of that market from 2001-2002, which was 14.424 megawatts (which means an aggregate increase of approximately 11 megawatts, or an average of almost 4 megawatts of PV power per projects);
  4. Use at least 25 megawatts of fuel cell energy generation.

In addition, each project had to be at least 1,000,000 square feet or 20 acres and: 

  1. At least 75% of the square footage had to be LEED certified;
  2. The wood had to be certified under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or the American Farm Tree System;
  3. Reclaim a brownfield site

Beyond the green features, the projects also had to create at least 1000 construction jobs and 1,500 full time equivalent jobs. 

In addition to the requirements of the Green Bonds, the Destiny USA project entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the EPA (available here and summary below from committing to: 

  1. Using green building design, construction and operation principles to obtain the highest levels of certification from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
  2. Retrofitting more than 100 construction vehicles with diesel particulate filters and using clean fuel, which will reduce emissions by nearly 85 percent;
  3. Implementing techniques to reduce idling of vehicles during construction
  4. Becoming partners in EPA's Energy Star and WaterSense programs,
    which require the use of energy- and water-efficient appliances;
  5. Using over 3,000 tons of coal ash in place of using newly-manufactured Portland Cement, which will reduce greenhouse gases by over 3,000 tons.

As a policy measure, the green bonds were destined to be ineffective.  For a green incentive to be truly beneficial, it needs to set out goals that stretch its recipients to higher levels of sustainability, but not so pie-in-the-sky that they create an incentive to greenwash their projects.  This is a tough balance to strike.  Doing so requires that the regulatory bodies have a good understanding of the state of the green market that they are looking to incentivize. It is not enough to throw public money at any project claiming to be green.  The result is projects like Destiny USA, which give a bad name to green building and public financing of green projects. 

By contrast, good investment in green projects can bring real benefits.  I analyzed the investment of ARRA funds in green projects.  Per public dollar, these investments were among the most efficient ways of creating jobs of all of the ARRA money spent. (See my analysis here).  As Congress debates the value of continuing public investment in green projects and renewable energy, the debate must not only be about whether, but how, the support will be crafted and implemented.  The road to green is paved with good intentions.