November 16, 2009

The Economy as Trojan Horse

Justin Katz

It's Political Maneuvering 101 to encase your preferred issues within a popular Trojan Horse. So, if green is what you mean, declare its ability to end joblessness. However pretty a landscape that may paint, though, it's of questionable accuracy:

Green technology may help drive an economic recovery in New England but the fledgling industry will not be a major engine of growth for the region in the foreseeable future, economists said at a recent conference.

The sobering assessment came during the New England Economic Partnership's fall conference, which was held last week in Boston and focused on so-called "green-collar jobs" and whether their creation will help pull Rhode Island and its neighbors out of recession.

The real hope for "green jobs" is that a particular state will become the hub of the industry. The problem is that — as is typical of politicians — the opportunity is so obvious that multiple states are competing for the title. Government operatives are good at innovating by fad, but business people survive by innovating, period.

States — and I'm speaking mainly to Rhode Island, here — should ease regulations across the board and otherwise refurbish the track along which the economy runs and let investors and corporate types discern which has the environment most conducive to their industries.

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I think the first question must be "What particular advantage does New England have for green industries?".

I really don't see it. Prostitution seems to be Rhode Island's only renewable resource.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 16, 2009 5:35 PM

Most of the people pushing 'green' technology have no idea how to do a cost-benefit analysis. To them, anything with a 'green' label attached is good, regardless of the reality on the ground.

I'll give a few examples...

I spend about $2,000 per year on heating. I spend less than $20 on cooling. To qualify for federal tax credits, I need to install 'low-e' windows, which means windows that -reflect- heat. This makes sense for most of the country, but more than anything, I need windows that let in each and every watt of the sun's energy.

Or the insane things I hear about saving water here in Rhode Island... We're one of the few places blessed with abundant water, we don't need low-flow showers and toilets here, we have plenty of water, and plenty of excess capacity (at least in my community).

Rhode Island gets precious little sunlight. Solar photovoltaic are woefully inefficient here. Solar thermal collectors are worthwhile here, but not solar-to-electricity. If you see a neighbor installing solar cells, smack him over the head, he could be getting a lot more energy for his money.

One thing we could do that's 'green' and would boost the economy would be to better insulate homes, and have stricter requirements on the level of insulation in new construction. Since the vast majority of non-transit energy in Rhode Island seems to be spent on heating, and we don't produce any fossil fuels, it's macro-economically sound to waste less energy. I think policy-makers are on to this, since Rhode Island has collected upwards of $40 million for 'weatherization' efforts from the federal government recently.

Unfortunately, I'm entirely sure that there's no oversight of that 'weatherization' money, it was distributed to local non-profits, where the accounting seems to end. Theoretically, that kind of money should allow about 2,000 homes to be -completely- re-sided and insulated (assuming $20K per house). With those numbers, the 'weatherization' alone should have put over 100 contractors to work for a whole year. In reality, I think it just plugged red ink in neighborhood non-profits and maybe provided for Pink Panther insulation in a few dozen roofs. I'm putting another tickmark in the 'good idea, bad execution' column next to Obama's picture.

And Justin, I know that you probably disagree with the idea that we need to be -stricter- with regards to green construction methods, but I believe we can more than make up for it in streamlining the permitting process et al. If a house costs $20,000 more to put up, but it saves the owner $2,000 per year (like a house built with SIPs instead of traditional framing would), that house is freeing-up disposable cash for the owners for 4/5th of it's life, instead of siphoning energy money off to foreign lands. Obviously, a 'green house' designed by one of these bozo developers (the houses that cost twice as much as regular ones) might not ever pay for itself. There's a sweet-spot between the two extremes that yields the best value without inhibiting growth.

Also, we could be a hub of green jobs... Aspen Aerogels has a truly amazing product, and they have a plant in East Providence. Their product has tremendous applications for areas like ours where retrofits are more likely than rebuilds, and aesthetics are a big concern.

Posted by: mangeek at November 16, 2009 10:24 PM

mangeek, quite a few good points there.

I was particularly interested on your points about insulation. I am near the three-decker end of RI and have owned enough of those to know there is zero insulation. I also know they have modern dimension wall cavities. Perhaps some new thinking on insulation, it would probably have to be some form of foam. I have no idea what proportion of the state's heat energy they use.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 16, 2009 10:54 PM


You cite some interesting approaches to weatherization that would certainly go further than anything that has been accomplished to date. I would only counter that individuals are far better at determining their unique ROI, which includes some non-monetary and unique component of intrinsic value, than any group of planners might mandate.


Your trojan horse description is perfect. Not only is the NE Econ Partnership skeptical about the green economic engine, RI's own Department of Labor concurs. In fact, the State details some 2,895 new "green" occupations by 2016 from a 2006 baseline of 32,974. Compounded over ten years, that is annualized growth of less than 1%. Industry growth like that is a drag on an economy that needs to create jobs at a rate exceeding several percent per year to pull out of our current unemployment woes. If jobs and economy are the focus, then efforts should be diverted away from "green" industry. The "hub of green jobs" concept sounds great, but the RI General Assembly has proven that it has no interest in competing with other states when it comes to attracting business.

The above data is on page 41 of this report from RI DLT:

Also from the report: "...the majority of jobs in the 'green economy' will not necessarily be new occupations, but existing occupations that may require an additional layer of 'green' skills and knowledge."

Posted by: Roland at November 17, 2009 9:50 AM

Mangeek, Warrington Faust and Roland,

If you drive up and down I-295 you will see RIDOT solar photovoltaic (PV) installations. The states of New Jersey and Connecticut are heavy into residential PV installations New Jersey having the densest installations with state and cities initiative installing PV panels on every telephone pole.

Both of these states are considered New England states with about the same clear day sun as Rhode Island but maybe a little more air pollution creating hazy days. You do a disservice to yourself by ignoring PV because you don’t have clear bright sunny days.

I retrofitted my 2,500 sq ft house in Woonsocket long before “green” was fashionable with passive solar heat to reduce my heating and cooling bills 40%. When I sold my house in 2006 (lasted less than three weeks on market) my documented total yearly heating/cooling (keeping house temperature at 72 degrees) and hot water bill was $1,030 a year.

Blackstone Valley Gas Co. (before it was purchased by National Grid) inspected my house wanting to know what I had done to lower gas usage and RISE engineers did an energy audit indicating it was best design they had seen to date.

The main thing I did was insulation at 6 inches more than recommendations for heating/cooling New England area, caulked all cracks to outside, insulated basement, sill plate and floors and dry-walled, constructed old fashion door entryway air locks, moved garage out from under house accessed via new enclosed breezeway, replaced all windows with double pane insulated glass, and added a solar green house with double pane ¼ ‘ Plexiglas windows ¾ length across south facing side of house with a 8 ft diameter redwood wooden hot tub. When you looked at my house from the street all you saw was a ranch on a hillside with a breezeway to a set back garage.

Because the solar greenhouse kept the basement at 72 degrees during the winter I did not have to add a heating zone so finished basement was taxed at unfinished rate because of no visible supplemental heating system. During the summer I reversed and opened air flow vents causing the greenhouse to suck air out of house causing a north to south air flow through the house cooling it so 12.000 BTU supplemental A/C was only run maybe two weeks in Aug. at the most.

I was going to add PV and low visibility vertical wind turbine (new is a small 1 KW wind turbine that looks like a weather wind speed monitor) to the house for electrical savings but I retired and moved to Hawaii.

Today I live in a 27 acre gated/guarded condominium complex, no A/C, non-humid side of island with cool tropical trade winds, ceiling fans in each room which I only use once or twice a year, no winter heating bills and a under $50 per month electric bill.

In 2007 President George Bush declared Hawaii as a model state for creating a small carbon foot print that other US states could model after. The Department of Energy would explore alternate “green” systems in Hawaii because of the isolated electrical grids and abundance of natural alternated energy resources.

Hawaii’s goal is to reduce imported oil by 70% utilizing alternate energy by year 2030. Every imaginable alternate “green” system is in some stage of testing and integration to the electric grid here and at the National Energy Laboratories on the Big Island of Hawaii. The only place in USA the smart grid is being tested is in Hawaii. All systems for hot water, electric, air conditioning, power storage, insulation, electric cars and state laws, power company agreements, standards are being tested documented for modeling.

Hawaii is the only state in the nation that requires solar hot water heaters be included with all new residential construction.

Rhode Islands drive to become the first to build an off shore wind farm is a great disservice to the population of RI and only will drive the cost of electricity in the state of RI up. The amount to jobs created will depend on how many welders can be hired.

Deepwater Wind is using First Wind who has a number of wind turbine projects throughout the lower 48 and Hawaii but neither one has ever constructed an offshore wind farm. I will not get into all the things I feel Deepwater Wind is doing wrong.

Only European countries have offshore wind installations and one USA company has constructed a floating off shore wind turbine which has been under real-time environmental test for over a year. This company is starting construction of the world’s first offshore wind farm in Europe and has agreements to place one of their floating offshore wind turbine in Massachusetts near the RI/MA boarder and in Maine to gather information.

Lockheed Martin Co. and Ocean Power Technologies both have systems that work from ocean wave and thermal temperature difference with far lower visual profiles impacts (no higher than 20 ft out of water) and constant 24 hour electrical power output than 200 foot or more tall wind turbines sticking out of the water.

Ocean Power Technologies is in commercial production at about $0.15/KW and Lockheed Martin Co. has passed proof of concept and is constructing first commercial system in Hawaii.

National Grid RI purchases power at reported $0.09/KW.

RI needs to diversify its alternate “green” energy and not bank on one type of system. When the wind blows too hard or stops altogether what do you have left? Same old National Grid except you are paying more for someone experiments.

By the way, Hawaii holds the USA patent on a device for safely interfacing wind farms to power grids so the wind farm does not trip out the regular power plants.

Posted by: Ken at November 17, 2009 9:32 PM

Ken, the PV used by RIDOT is not really significant, it's just to power a few signs and such.

PV is really not at all feasible (yet) for climates like ours, it doesn't come close to paying for itself, even after 20 years (from what I've read). I'm not saying it's useless, it's fantastic for some things, but until they can squeeze enough wattage out of the area on my roof to power my home, it's a waste of money.

Solar thermal is great, I'm thinking about adding some myself. I've got a garage I could put an insulated storage tank in, so I could pump warm water into my house all night long.

I'm not anti-green, I'm saying that we should do the most cost-effective things first.

As far as I know, the wind resources off the coast here are amazing, we have 'beefier' wind off-shore than the vast majority of the country has access to. The reason to build offshore is precisely because the wind almost never stops out there and it goes all night and day. According to charts I've seen, Block Island Sound has the highest rating of wind quality given.

While using wind is more expensive than burning natural gas, it's clearly more cost effective than PV, and nobody knows what fossil fuels will cost tomorrow.

As for 'the view'... It's not like adding a few hundred turbines 'ruins' it at all. Fears about birds and noise are reduced by using more efficient massive turbines and placing offshore.

We should diversify, though. I think the Blackstone River could totally get tapped for more juice, as could parts of the bay.

Also, call me crazy, but it would really kick people's butts into gear if the energy company levied double customer fees to the 10% of people who consume the most per-square-foot every month, and waived the fees for the 10% who use least. If every month was a state-wide contest to turn the lights off and the heat down, we'd keep a big bundle of loot in our state.

Posted by: mangeek at November 18, 2009 1:16 AM
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