Monday, September 20, 2010

California to be Solar Powered and the Wake of the Oil Spill

We all knew that the BP Gulf disaster would have far reaching ramifications not just in loss of jobs or environmental (of which scientists are still trying to pinpoint the actual effects). Approximately 186 million to 227 million gallons of crude oil came spilling out into the gulf and is now lost and unusable. Mix that with the fact that this was an accident that has other fiscal impacts and it leads to the conclusion that one of the longer term effects of this disaster is going to be increased gas prices.

According to the Guardian, the BP oil disaster has driven up insurance premiums for Oil companies participating in “deep water operations by 25-30% and deepwater drilling by 100% or more.” The Gaurdian explains;
However, the full impact will not be felt until 1 January onwards when the bulk of reinsurance is bought, insurers warn. The disaster has also fuelled demand for insurance, as regulators are moving to a tougher stance on how much cover is needed by oil and gas companies.
The costs from both the decreased supply and these increased premiums are going to be passed onto the consumers meaning higher gas prices and I, for one, am excited about this.

Before anyone starts to speak to me about the negative effects on the lower income earners that rely on their cars I will say that yes, it will be tough for them but hopefully this will continue to spur on the green transportation movement. This includes the highspeed rail project in California (which is hurting for funding a bit) and the Vactrain efforts.
If you are unfamiliar with Vactrains they are basically a system of highspeed vacuum sealed rail lines with magnetically levitated that could literally get passengers from Los Angeles, California to New York City in less than an hour.

Sound like science fiction? Apparently China, Switzerland and, yes, the United States are working on developing these technologies. It appears that these are either never actually going to be produced because of expense, or will be around long after I can enjoy them. China is hoping to pump theirs out in the 2020 to 2030 range.

For more local solutions, electric vehicles are constantly being improved as is solar solutions. When I first heard about slim solar panels and how they were not only more efficient to produce but more “aesthetically pleasing” I was sure that this was just the first step in solving domestic demand issues. It appears that Walmart is starting a new solar project of installing thin solar panels to 30 of its locations in California and Arizona. This on top of the 31 existing installations Walmart has in Hawaii and California.

Even if other companies and organizations fail to capitalize on the momentum it looks like America’s solar industry is in for a boost. Not only is a Renewable Electricity Standard still hypothetically viable but it looks like the there is significant interest in the industry to bring big bucks into the market.

A broad view of parabolic trough solar collectors at Kramer Junction in the Mojave desert in California. Image source.

From the NY Times Green Blog;

California regulators have licensed what is for the moment the world’s largest solar thermal power plant, a 1,000-megawatt complex called the Blythe Solar Power Project to be built in the Mojave Desert.

This is big news. It has taken about 3 years of environmental reviews by the California Energy Commission but in the past 3 weeks it has the potential of generating 1,500 of Sun Powered energy and have additional solar projects on the dockets to be passed by the end of 2010 that will generate an additional 2,900 megawatts.

This is compounded by the fact that First Solar, the world’s largest photovoltaic company (by market value) and a company that produces the thin film PV cells, is currently working on building 3 large Solar Plants in North America and is planning on working on its biggest project ever next year in California (the 290 MW Agua Caliente plant). According to the Reuters article describing this amazing news, the investment in North America is as a result of declining demand in Germany (a frontrunner for “Greenest Country in the World”) and a burgeoning market in the USA.

So bring on the higher gas prices, bring on another oil crisis. We had a road beginning to be paved during the oil crisis under Carter, but as a result of Regan, all of that headway was turned back on its own head. As I have said before, hopefully the sticker shock will get people to realize that gas is a stop-gap and a more long term solution needs to be established.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Non-Profit Fundraising and Social Media.

The economy is still in a poor state, and while it is a time to try and remain hopeful and hard working on the road to recovery, those that appear to be the worst hit are the nonprofits. When the economy suffers, there is understandably less money to go around, especially to organizations that depend on donations to stay afloat. These funds go toward a wide array of issues including medical, environmental, and homeless and in a situation where funding is stagnant, the people who receive assistance in these areas are the hardest hit. There are fears that things will only grow worse in this changing and shifting economy.

Back in March, an article in the San Francisco Chronicle referred to the economic woes faced by local nonprofits as the 2010 nonprofit “Armageddon.”

Hardest hit will be the Bay Area, home to one of the highest concentrations of nonprofits in the nation. There are 25,000 nonprofits in the region; 7,000 in San Francisco alone. Among them are 10,000 charitable nonprofits with budgets above $25,000. Their combined budgets account for 14 percent of the Bay Area’s gross national product – twice the national average.

Many are teetering.

California is by far not the only region whose nonprofits are affected by this current climate. Across the nation groups are struggling to find ways to stay afloat. In Washington, D.C., organizations have been turning to new methods of attracting donors and raising funds. According to an article in the Washington Post in August, GuideStar USA, an organization that tracks finances of nonprofit groups, suggests nonprofits are doing all they can to weather the storm.

“The bottom line is that individual giving drives philanthropy,” said Chuck McLean, GuideStar’s vice president of research. McLean said that about 10 percent of giving typically comes from foundations and 90 percent from individuals.

McLean said there were two strategies successful nonprofit executives have been employing to hold things together during the extended economic downturn. First, he said, they are raising money with new ideas. “A lot of the organizations that are doing pretty well said that maybe they are doing a silent auction or something they’ve never done before … They’re trying new and different things,” he said. And when they do receive donations, he said, they treat donors like a good business treats its customers.

Time and time again it comes down to the fact that in hard economic times, nonprofits need to reevaluate their strategies and methods for outreach and fund raising. These days, when methods for communications are changing on a daily basis, it makes sense to leverage these new tools for those aspects. According to the most recent studies, this is not necessarily the case.

In a recent article from PR Newswire titled, “Who Gives, Why Do They Give, How Do They Give to Nonprofits?” the author discusses the results of a “new research study that was released Tuesday that may change the way many nonprofits approach their fundraising budgets.” The report seemed to indicate that while social media is useful and new in reaching a portion of their target demographic—younger donors—it is currently not the most efficient means to garner funds based on their polling and analysis. The article puts forth the following analysis:

As many would expect, the study finds that today’s most valuable donors – boomers and older donors – primarily give through the mail. But those in the 25-54 age range tended to give both online and through the mail. “One thing we find interesting is this nexus in the 25-54 year old group,” said Lisa McIntyre, Russ Reid Senior Vice President, Strategy Development. ”The donors who will be most important to us in the coming decade seem equally facile with both mail and online.”

This touches upon an aspect of social media that many in the industry seem to forget. Social media is not the “end all, be all” of outreach. Its primary use is as a way to facilitate communication and support your key efforts. A man cannot survive on bread alone, and an outreach campaign cannot survive on social media alone; it must work in tandem with other efforts. That being said, it is still a useful tool that is growing in necessity. This is increasingly true as the technology and techniques become more sophisticated and refined.

According to a recent press release, companies Ventureneer and Caliber have partnered to perform an audit by way of a survey of what the majority of nonprofits are doing in the realm of social media with the intent of sharing which social media activities are most effective by nonprofit sector, size of organization, and purpose.

The results of this survey will be used to discern and develop the best practices that can be shared and passed from nonprofit to nonprofit. This same type of project, polling to pull the best practices regarding new outreach methods, seem to have already been utilized or in the works as part of various efforts including nonprofit outreach and “government 2.0” efforts. As the technology and integration develops these best practices will be more like a living ideal that will change with the times.

New technologies and methods are springing up every day. According to a recent press release from Blackbaud, Inc., a provider of software and services designed specifically for nonprofit organizations, the company has announced the launch of Blackbaud SocialTM, to provide social media solutions for nonprofits to create both private-label and public socially-enabled communities. According to the press release, “it is the only integrated social platform that offers organizations an easy way to extend their mission, access user data, and leverage it for meaningful constituent engagement.”

This is one of many new developments I suspect will enable nonprofits to leverage social media to target those audiences they have been missing. New sites, aggregators, organizers, and applications are being developed daily. To write off social media for reasons of fear or false return on investment (ROI) results is premature. Last month, my colleague Tiffany Refuerzo wrote a great interview piece with “The Generation Project” who developed an entirely web-based philanthropic model which has been shown to be more efficient and effective at connecting donors with their impact. Earlier in that same month I posted an entry regarding government agencies and social media. In that entry I mention that the United States government, which looked at in a certain way can be seen as a giant “non-profit,” has already established a policy surrounding the use of social media and discussing how important it is in keeping connected with the community. Both of these entries touch on one of the most important aspects of social media; connectivity. With its ability to quickly and efficiently connect donors with their causes and the impact of those donations, social media is an investment in the long term. This connection that is established creates a closer relationship between all involved in the philanthropic process, increasing the likelihood of returning donors. The lesson to learn here is not that social media is the one thing that will save nonprofits and bring them their own personal bankroll. But it will help with efforts in the long run and should be a necessary part of any outreach strategy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

AB 1998 - Why the California Plastic Ban Failed

Today the Senate of the State of California killed AB 1998, a bill that would have set a ban on plastic bags in the state. If the bill had passed the Governor had already stated that he would welcome and sign the measure making California the first state in the union to pass an all out ban. Instead of making California a leader in environmental efforts, the bill died in the Senate with a vote of 14-21. In a time where municipalities across the nation are passing bans on plastic bags, the question of “why did this not pass?” rears its ugly head.

The short answer is intensive lobbying. From and article entitled, “California plan to ban plastic bags defeated” by Susan Ferriss of the Sacramento Bee

Lawmakers debated the bill as they worked toward a midnight deadline. The measure received just 14 votes, with 20 opposed.... Chemical-company interests lobbied members intensively to block the bill, doling out donations last month to politicians and mounting a TV, radio and newspaper ad campaign. Grocery store lobbyists, meanwhile, argued strongly for the measure.
You can actually see the scare tactics and big budget production from the Chemistry council, rather mind blowing.

The long answer comes from the argument that the industry was pushing.

The main argument I have been hearing is that with the downturn in the economy and the fact that this will negatively impact workers in the plastics industry especially in California. According to the American Chemistry Council, the main opponents and lobbyists against AB 1998 attests; “There are about 1,000 workers out there right now who stand to lose stable, well-paying jobs.” Another source describing the industry's efforts, “...enter stage right the plastic bag manufacturers lobby that cried it would be a biodegradable victim itself costing the state with an unemployment rate of 13% more jobs.

The American Chemistry Council in an editorial in the L.A. Times complains about the issue of “choice” and the issue of a “free bag.”
...the real blitz has come from those who would stifle choice and presume to tell shoppers how to take their groceries home from the store. It's come from special-interest California grocers who, incentivized by the prospect of no longer having to provide free bags to customers, are seeking cover behind what amounts to state-sanctioned price fixing. And it's come from a few opportunistic reusable bag companies, many of whom import their products, who without an environmental impact study promise to ramp up U.S. production and make reusable bags to replace the plastic ones the state wants to ban.
During my time working on the Plastic Bag ban in San Jose, I had the interesting pleasure to discuss with the American Chemistry Council the producer responsibility for the waste-stream life of their products. The concept of producer responsibility is a rather simple one. If you make a product, you are also responsible for making sure that there are reasonable ways of dealing with those same products at the end of their lifecycle. This does not mean “throw them away” and, as I shall discuss shortly, this does not even include recycling. They didn't seem to understand the issue then and they miss the issue now. They forget that these bags only appear free and the fact that they cause such determent to our environment will cause a horrible increase in our costs in the future to clean up the products they produced and had no viable answer for.

We have to also remember that not only are the recycling rates for plastic bags approximately 1-3% but also that the process for recycling them is expensive. While still with the San Jose City Council's office I participated in many talks with industry leaders including those in who represented recycling and land fill centers. During these talks the managers of recycling facilities informed me of two things.

1. The Plastic Bags cost far too much to recycle for it to be worth it for them, so they increase their rates so that the difference is footed by the tax payer since it is mandatory that they accept them.

2. Plastic bags will constantly “gum up” the recycling machinery taking approximately half an hour of man hours, and an approximate total cost of cleaning plastic bags out of the machine to $60,000 a month a cost that gets passed onto tax payers.

According to San Francisco City officials in 2004, plastic bags counted for 2% of the city's total “waste stream” but the actually costs are astronomical, including $7.4 million annually for picking up and disposing of littered bags.

More figures from the California Progress Report - Californians spend $25 million a year to collect and dispose of many of the 19 billion single-use plastic bags used by residents of the state every year. Local governments also spend money cleaning up the bags. For example, in 1994, the annual cost to clean 31 miles of beaches along Los Angeles County was over $4 million.

To me it is a huge shame that this did not get passed and that the arguments against its passing are so flimsy. Hopefully there will be a gut-and-amend effort this round and we can make a stronger push for it. Till then, if you want to make a positive impact for a more sane world, call your California elected officials and let them know you want an end to plastic bags and you are not satisfied with the vote. Be sure to call your State Senator and let them know what you think of they way the voted on the bill, the vote report is here.