What environmental organization are you affiliated with? What does it do?
Greenstar. We invest in solar-powered community centers for small villages in the developing world — currently in the West Bank, Jamaica, India, Ghana, Brazil, and Tibet. The community center provides basic electricity and a connection to the world through the Internet, which enables the people to jump-start small businesses and improve education and health care. We call the program “Tools for Independence.”
Can you show us some of what Greenstar does?
Yes. A sampler of video, audio, and music is on the Greenstar website. Fire up your QuickTime and Real players and head on over. It’s the beginning of what we call “The Edge Network.” Or, click here to listen to samples of the music by itself, see the CD covers, and read details.
And to broaden the picture to include many of Greenstar’s partners and allies in microcredit, solar, wind, education, health, water pumping, and purification, agriculture, solar radio and beyond, visit this gallery, produced in co-operation with Oneworld TV.
What’s your job title?
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Make and take a lot of phone calls, read and answer a lot of emails, write proposals, edit images and video, go through websites. Coordinate material for several interconnected e-commerce websites; direct research and volunteer activities. Manage several contracts simultaneously in different parts of the world, finding the right people to install solar power and build community centers. Evaluate new opportunities.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Let’s see … 748 emails in the inbox, spread over the last 45 days, awaiting follow-up or interaction of some kind; 40 unread.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job? What types of people? What other organizations or government agencies?
I interact regularly with several Greenstar volunteers, staff, and project managers, representatives of the U.S. government (mainly from the State, Commerce, Interior, and Energy departments), fellow contractors like Sandia Labs in Albuquerque and the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. With allies like Sustainable Villages and Safe Water Systems. With health, energy, environment, and education ministries in the host countries where we work. Some are technical people, some are marketing people.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Problems (let’s call them “challenges”) are vendors who don’t deliver what they promise, when they promise. It’s also a challenge to comply with contracting regulations (some of our projects are in effect joint ventures with various aid groups) and raise seed money for new projects.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
One might expect government staff, both in the U.S. and overseas, to be a pain. But in fact, the closer you get to field people who do actual work with real projects and deal with real human needs, the more fun and interesting it gets, the more we learn wherever we go. There are a lot of dedicated, knowledgeable people out there, trying to turn the big wheel somehow. Just because they happen to work for a big bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily change that.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in western Ontario, Canada, grew up in Burlington, Ontario, came of age in Toronto. Now living on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?
Meeting Ralph Nader in 1978, watching him at work, spending time with him in developing some environmental position papers. Also, meeting Al Gore in 1989, and understanding what a real environmental renaissance man could achieve.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
A mortal conflict with key investors over the direction of a business I founded, realizing that in some cases, money trumps ideas and principle.
What’s on your desk right now?
Two CDs of photos just in from Maguari, Brazil; a digital camera that needs repair; a stack of financial records; several cassettes and mini-optical discs of audio, including some new stuff from Tibet; some orders for Greenstar CDs off the website from today.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
The state of denial of the Bush White House, in the face of international evidence and its own EPA, National Science Foundation, and Energy Department, of the imminent danger of rapid global climate change. Future generations will see these first years of the 21st century as the last, lost chance to avert disasters. We may have passed the tipping point already.
Who is your environmental hero?
Might seem strange, but … Mahatma Gandhi. He defined and exemplified in his life an activist passion based on profound nonviolence as a source of strength. This inner, moral power is the root of all truly effective environmental ideas.
Who is your No. 1 environmental villain/nemesis?
The current occupant of the White House. Not because he’s particularly bad himself … he’s incurious, ill-informed, passive, and willing to be led by others around him, to wield his incredible power and leadership in thoughtless ways. Not a villain, really.
What’s your environmental vice?
I drive a big, comfortable car.
How do you get around?
Automobile, and an electric bike for local travel. There is limited public transit where I live, far off in the country on the north shore of Oahu.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
Home-cooked — baked salmon, roasted vegetables, local salad with organic tomatoes, papayas, and oranges from the yard.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Yes, I’m a junkie. I read The Wall Street Journal every day, the Sunday New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Weekly, The Nation, Utne, Salon every day, Fortune, Business Week, CNET news, the headlines on Yahoo and news.google.com; I watch all the Sunday news shows, The Daily Show every day. Lots of e-zines and newsletters online. Grist.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I am truly a tree hugger. Trees need love, too, and they hug back.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The ocean. I live in the middle of the Pacific, in the center of the largest, richest, most vibrant and diverse ecosystem we know. We talk every day around sunset.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
One fiat that everyone could follow, would cost nothing, but would have immediately measurable effects: Turn off the lights when you leave the room and turn everything off at night. Can I have another one? How about flush only when needed; feed the washer and dryer only when needed, with full loads; take shorter showers; drive only when you need to, at or below the speed limit; coast to a stop instead of braking; be more patient and stack up several errands into a group so you can drive around once or twice a week, instead of every day. Use conference calls and email instead of getting on an airplane when you need to take a meeting. Talk to flowers, and listen to what they have to say. OK, I think I topped off my quota of fiats for today.
When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?
Tie-dye — last in 1970, on the streets of the East Village. Fleece, in 1979. I have lived either in Southern California or Hawaii since then. We no fleece. (In Hawaii, we no shoes.)
Do you compost?
Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?
I initially backed Gen. Wesley Clark for president, and anticipate he will have a role in contributing to the campaign. Now I’m supporting Sen. John Kerry.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
No. Nothing wrong with the label, but for me it’s too confining; it’s only one color in a rainbow. Other colors include culture (I believe there’s an endangered “cultural ecology” that is at risk just as surely as the ozone layer and the jet stream), entrepreneurialism, literacy, political openness, tolerance of diversity, ethical science, responsible investment, compassion in daily life and work, respect for tradition and elders, protection of innocence in children, a spirit of playfulness and adventure. Some of these are social, some are personal, but they are all learned behaviors that we can acquire or lose.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
Communicating with the public in simple, dramatic, accessible ways. Too much politics of confrontation, not enough theater. Too much serious policy, not enough fun.
What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?
That protecting endangered species and ecosystems is more important than protecting people, communities, and culture. Implicitly, by their actions, environmentalists sometimes overlook the historic human element, the fact that people are part of the global ecosystem too. Environmentalists would never actually say this, of course, but sometimes their actions express it — and people in developing countries detect this quickly.
What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?
Have a more constructive attitude toward business, especially small businesses and entrepreneurs, who are creating all the jobs these days and employing more and more people. Environmentalists often treat businesspeople as exploiters and polluters, as the enemy. They try not to, but their instincts need a lot of retraining. Even very large global businesses (like Shell, BP, HP, Phillips, and many others) can see the moral and practical value of sound environmental practice and will do real, influential things if you communicate thoughtfully with them, learn to listen, and reward them when they do something positive. On the other end of the scale is the role that schools can play. “A” students are now being drawn to apply a combination of skills and talent to global issues. We’ve been fortunate to participate in one such pilot at Stanford. This innovative undergrad and graduate school of business program led to a new start-up operation and joint venture in India.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18 — The Doors. Now — let’s see. In my iTunes library, playing right now — Japanese shakuhachi flute, interpreted by Jean-Pierre Rampal. An ancient Howlin’ Wolf album. Outkast. Sheryl Crow. Kelly Willis. Makana (a young Hawaiian genius). Yo Yo Ma’s Appalachian Journey.
What’s your favorite TV show?
You mean of the current crop? The West Wing. No, wait … Alias … Cold Case. No, uh … CBS Sunday Morning.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Listen to a new type of music you haven’t heard before, from some far-off place. Try high-life music from Nigeria; throat-singing from Tuva (Siberia); Buddhist chant from Tibet; Sufi turning music from Turkey; classical Karnatak singing from south-central India. Find it live and go to a concert (check out the local university and community college theaters). Then buy a CD (Greenstar has several cool ones from our villages — and the income goes to support the growth of their solar-powered community center). Don’t listen to it for top-40 hooks; absorb it patiently, in several listenings over a few days; make it part of your rhythm. Hear the human hearts within the music, and marvel at the miracle that we humans are.
What is the most promising area for environmental entrepreneurship in the world today? — James Shaffer-Bauck, Eastsound, Wash.
The most promising area depends on your skill set, of course. But if you’re an engineer, I’d say find ways to work in developing countries installing, maintaining, and teaching people about green technologies. If you’re in business, I’d say get involved with micro-credit programs — at home and in the developing world — which make loans to families that want to start green businesses.
Why is it that the technologies such as solar power and, I presume, satellite Internet are considered first lines in a developing country when we in the U.S. are not taking advantage of them to the extent that Greenstar is? — Travis Robbins, Tampa, Fla.
You’ve put your finger on something critical here. In the developed world, we are so addicted to fossil fuels and the invisible, ubiquitous web of power and communications we live in that we don’t even notice it — until it’s suddenly gone through a blackout, or we travel far away. We’re junkies and don’t know it.
The mass economics of this have, until recently, made it impractical to commit to green. This is changing, though, as costs come down, understanding improves, and the end of the oil era looms. Young people especially sense it, since the planet will run out of oil that is cheap enough to burn by the middle of this century.
People in remote places in developing countries have the same keen senses — there is no alternative for them but green. The grid will never reach them; they understand that; they have to build their own autonomous power system.
So they have a lot to show us, and that’s what Greenstar is doing, through music, dance, artwork, and so on. It’s not a message that can be preached or forced down the throat; it needs to be willingly adopted. That’s the way junkies come off their addiction in the long term, and that’s how we’ll get off our oil addiction.
Does your organization have any plans for helping people in areas of the U.S. that are primarily composed of working poor or the less fortunate? — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.
Yes, we’ve started work on a project in New Mexico with the Navajo and are evaluating projects in Alaska, Montana, West Virginia, and Louisiana. From our perspective, the developing world is people with a set of needs and opportunities, not a specific geography or culture.
Have you thought much about bringing the benefits of your clean, renewable energy ideas to the states? I think it would benefit many communities in the U.S. to see that solar energy can be used in countries that have an electric infrastructure and lots of money but not enough care or education about it. Bringing these concepts to local communities might spark the interest and change people’s views. — Aaron Miller, Santa Fe, N.M.
Yes, in fact our first effort in the U.S. is in New Mexico, where you’re from, Aaron. It’s a small, growing one that we’re nurturing along with Sandia Labs in Albuquerque, with a Navajo village about 50 miles west-northwest of the city. Connecting this village through Greenstar’s network with similar traditional villages in the developing world can have a powerful educating and motivational effect, especially for schools in the U.S. Greenstar has an outreach to utilities with green power programs where people with shared interest in the global energy picture can learn from each other.
I’ve been dreaming of living off the grid when I grow up (I’m only 30), but I’m concerned about things I’m hearing about the manufacturing process for solar panels. Is it worth the initial outlays in energy and the pollution created by the production (including that coming from the stuff they use to make the panels)? Is there stuff in there, like there is in cell phones, that is horrible for the environment, either in the mining or manufacturing end? Are panels made of petroleum products, and what is the effect once you get rid of them? Just more waste, possibly even dangerous, in our landfills? Can they be recycled? — Chung Park, Lansing, Mich.
Your concern is legitimate, and very intelligent. There is no such thing as a free kilowatt of electric power, and the manufacturing of solar panels, batteries, inverters, and other paraphernalia for a solar power installation is highly energy-intensive, and involves the generation of waste products that, if not properly managed and disposed, could be very harmful to the environment. Just like any other technology — including wind, micro-hydro, geothermal. Including the computer, network, and server that allow you to read these words right now.
Where solar and other renewables become reasonable environmental investments is when you consider time scale: A solar power system will provide almost free energy (considering some minimal maintenance, and replacement of batteries every few years) for 25 years or more. So for an upfront energy-and-environment cost, you amortize 25 years of independent, distributed energy that gets exactly where it’s needed, when it’s needed — without losing the 25 to 35 percent that the commercial power grid loses in transmission. And the grid requires not only huge upfront costs, but large and growing ongoing costs.
The last good audit [PDF] on these tradeoffs, from the National Renewable Energy Lab, estimated in 1999 that the energy input/output equation would be balanced in less than 10 years for complete typical developing-world systems (and less than five years for the solar module alone) — in other words, we start going “into the black” in terms of energy in 10 years. The costs of solar keep coming down (another 25 percent in the past five years) so this equation is a moving target — moving in the direction of green.
You say you do solar powered community centers in small islands in developing countries, why not small islands in the U.S. — that would be inner cities that have lost people, jobs, hope, that would be racially segregated neighborhoods — they could all use that solar-powered connection to the internet to jump start small businesses. So why are you just offshore? — Lucy Tobias, Ocala, Fla.
We’re not just offshore, and we want to hear more about “edge” communities in the developed world, too. I like your metaphor of “small islands.”
We’ve looked at a Cajun town in north Louisiana; an Appalachian town in West Virginia; several Native American settlements in New Mexico, Utah, Montana, and upstate New York; an Inuit village in the Northwest Territories, and another in Alaska; a Laplander village in Finland; a Hawaiian settlement on Molokai; several Roma villages in Hungary and Romania; a rural survival community in Vermont. All these are nuggets of value within the “developed” world.
We can’t do everything; if we try, we’ll achieve nothing. But we do want to work with partners to extend the Greenstar network globally. The broader the participation in the network, the more valuable each node becomes.
One principle to which we adhere strongly is the idea of deep historic cultural originality, combined with the environmental, energy, social and communications needs of a community. This is what will reach out to the most people worldwide: a storytelling approach, spiced with music, art, dance, video, legends, and images. And it’s what will create a microbusiness in each community, providing income to sustain and expand the community center, long-term.
Why not rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan with sun or wind power? The remote areas could be brought into the modern world without using nuclear power. The townspeople could run it. The whole Middle East is a wonderful opportunity to do this. — Judy Stevens, Lake Zurich, Ill.
We have talked with Afghan reconstruction people about using solar in Afghan villages, and they agree that solar is a perfect match for these communities, both for electricity and for connection to the world. The first new Afghan ambassador to the U.S. was a long-time solar power businessman of some note, and he’s behind any such efforts. Solar is gradually trickling into Afghanistan.
We did cosponsor a solar oven program in Afghanistan, which has gotten an excellent response — see more about that here.
However, Greenstar has decided not to go directly into Afghanistan yet, because the security situation is still seriously deficient. The Taliban and its surrogates, which still control most of the country, have recently begun specifically targeting Western workers.
The same goes for Iraq, to the nth. The day the security situation stabilizes in these countries, we’ll be among the first to step in — because the type of program Greenstar runs is even more a peace-building exercise than it is an energy program.
I am an American living in Germany and would love to volunteer. What can I do from here, or do you transport volunteers to other areas where you need help? — Jean Milu Truesdale, Potsdam, Germany
We have a volunteer program that can get you involved in great projects as an organizer, from right where you are. If you have a computer and an Internet connection, we have volunteer work at Greenstar for you as an Explorer, which can lead to paying engagements in the future and could also lead to work opportunities in villages in the developing world.
I am 1/30 owner of a community lot on top of a ridge above a large lake in central Wisconsin, where the wind seems to blow reasonably well. I would like to have a wind generator sited there and I need information to bring to a meeting of all the owners. What kind of arrangements, and with whom, are possible in this arena? What financial and energy-supply benefits can I reasonably promote to the membership? What information exists on noise disturbance, as homes would be within about 50 to 75 yards of the site? — Jeff Schimpff, Madison, Wis.
Your best source for advice and information on this subject (including equipment, sizing, suppliers, installers, everything) is the Sustainable Village, a company run by a great friend of Greenstar, Steve Troy — and connect with him at email@example.com. You might want to start by reading this summary of information about clean energy for the state of Wisconsin, learning about on Wisconsin’s wind resources [PDF], and checking out some local opportunities [PDF].
Do you produce digital audio documents that could be aired via stream audio or another radio technology? My assessment is the people who care for the environment and clean energy almost totally ignore the possibilities offered by digital audio to communicate with the public. What do you think? — Philippe Boucher (working on a new local community radio station), Bainbridge Island, Wash.
Yes, we have masses of digital audio, and we do offer it as downloads and are soon going to be streaming it.
We agree — the environmental cost of making a CD (in a very power-intensive plant, involving a lot of corrosive chemicals), printing up the labels, making the plastic cases, shipping it around (usually through several warehouses before it gets to a consumer) is huge. The cost of running a computer on a network to do digital downloads is not zero either — there is no free lunch. But it is far lower, amortized over years and many applications, than physical manufacturing and shipping.
Digital manufacturing and distribution is one of the key green technologies for the future.
In a typical 2- to 4-kW photovoltaic home system (rooftop, grid-connected), what’s the breakdown in cost between the PV modules, the inverter, the balance-of-system costs, and the labor (installation, site prep, design, etc.)? — Steven Hegedus, Newark, Del.
First, I want to say hi, Steve. You’ve done some brilliant work in the development of high efficiency thin film solar cells at the University of Delaware’s Institute of Energy Conversion. As you know, PV prices are about $3.50 per watt right now, and you can get high-quality residential solar installed in the U.S. for about $7.50/watt if you’re smart and frugal and don’t mind doing some of the work yourself. For example, a number of Home Depot stores offer residential kits. The main areas of cost are installation labor, system design, power inverter, grid interconnect, and wiring.
The high-end costs at $12/watt that you mention might be reached if you engage an all-in contractor — “Hey, make me solar and don’t ask me questions, I don’t wanna know.” But where’s the fun in that? You can get to $7.50/watt or less if you’re willing to learn and to crawl around with a screwdriver a little. You do want to have a qualified electrician connect the solar power to the incoming grid so you don’t get electrocuted. There’s as much kick in a solar-produced electron as a nuclear produced electron.
I would like to know when Greenstar is going to address the faulty system in Patriensah, Ghana, and correct the problem. You should know that the system is not properly sized and the inverter needs to be replaced, as well as the batteries. I tried to connect with the installation team several times to no avail to address these problems. I have been installing solar systems for many years and I just want you to know the people of Patriensah deserve better. — Qadwi Bey, Cleveland, Ohio
The system in Patriensah, Ghana, itself is sized correctly for what it was originally intended to power. The challenge is, the Patriensah organizers now want to do much, much more than originally planned, because the potential has been revealed — more lighting, more computers, more classrooms, more connection. We’re trying to get more power to Patriensah through new microenterprise work there, but our funds are not unlimited. I agree, the people of Patriensah deserve better, and together we’re trying to make it so.
What suggestions or tips would you give to young entrepreneurs who are having a difficult time trying to start solar energy-related businesses? — Brett Berger, Marietta, Penn.
I bet you have people around your family table who will help you, Brett. If they know your passion and interest, and see that you’re being disciplined about achieving it as evidenced by a short written business plan, they will invest in your business, or lend you money, or sign bank guarantees, or give you introductions, ideas, and contacts. People love to help friends and relatives; it makes us feel more connected and solid. They will do it if you ask respectfully.
This is one of the things we learn in the developing world. People in a village would never think of doing something new without full family support, while we in America have cut ourselves off from our families in some ways. We lose a lot — and not just in business. A good way to get started in any business is to work for someone already in the business to learn more about the opportunities. Take a look at some places to start.
It seems you specialize in hotter climes for your projects. What about us folks in not-so-hot spots? — Rick Harp, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Right now, we’re going where the need is greatest and clearest. But we don’t have any strategy that would preclude us from working anywhere in the world, as long as a community meets a profile of needs and capabilities we’ve developed. You can see that profile online. If you have some ideas for projects in Manitoba, Rick, we’d love to hear from you.
Since you are installing remote photovoltaic systems, you keep them off the grid, assuming you install some battery system for storage of the electricity. Much of the cost and complexity of PV systems comes from the inverter. The DC power generated has traditionally been converted to AC power, because that became the standard for households years ago. However, most electronic devices (including computers) run on DC power. This requires a conversion from AC to DC power, which is an added cost and waste of electricity. Would it be possible for you to set up a system that skips the back-and-forth, simply keeping everything on DC power for such remote areas? — Scot Shatwell, San Diego, Calif.
We do try to use DC appliances when possible. As you point out, this reduces the need for the expensive DC-AC inverter, but there’s another advantage as well — the conversion process can lose as much as 20 percent or more of the energy! A laptop is the best example of a green technology this way — low-power display, auto-off, reduce and suspend software to reduce power needs — can be made all-DC by charging the battery differently. There are DC versions of just about everything now, including refrigerators. Check out the Whole Earth Catalog and Gaiam.com, view some online examples, or look into the collection at a recreational vehicle supply house./.
Everywhere we’ve worked in the world, people want to have access to television. Television is a source of news, information, and entertainment. The TV is easily linked to many global broadcast eduction stations. This is one of the lead applications in our new program in the remote village of Pang Do, Tibet. People of all age groups gather together, bake bread, cheer for their soccer team, learn about health care and international events, and enjoy the time together. Greenstar doesn’t directly support MTV, ads for Viagra, Terminator, or replays of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
What we don’t do is prescribe, or “manage” what goes on in Greenstar villages. If people want to get a satellite TV dish to watch international programming, we would not for a second oppose that, nor could we, given the close equal partnership that we have with the villages. We’d also encourage them to use the link for better education, health care, environmental and social programming (which is widely available), and give them information on where to find it.
I appreciate the intent behind your question — quality control, and making sure that everyone in a community gets to use the tools for independence. We attend to much of these issues before we finalize the selection of a community by assuring that an open and transparent approach is followed for decision making. We’ve considered “advertising” opportunities but people who are not consumers aren’t of interest to advertisers.
Every summer I hear reports of injuries or deaths related to extreme summer heat. There are also power brownouts caused by the strain put on the electrical system by all the air conditioners. We have a lot of flat roofs here. Why can’t we put solar panels on these flat roofs and harvest the strong summer sun for the increased load caused by air conditioners? — Nate Butler, Baltimore, Md.
Your observation of the match between solar output and peak electricity demand is excellent. (See, for example, page 8 of this document.) Like so many insights to meeting our future energy needs, it’s good to understand the need. In areas that are hot and dry in the summer (like Denver), a simple “swamp” cooler is most efficient for cooling. In places like Baltimore that can be humid, solar absorption cooling might be optimal today. As photovoltaic costs decline, PV-powered coolers may see an increasing opportunity.
Hello from Hogtown. Do you want to do any PV in your hometown? I need costing info for new construction, 2,500 sq. ft. houses or 4,000 sq. ft. multi-residential, or really any other applications. Can you recommend anyone, any companies, any info websites, referrals, etc.? — Sean Cosgrove, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Ontario Hydro (now known as Ontario Power Generation) has an excellent and visionary program to help people in Ontario make smart decisions about green tech for their homes and businesses, and to help them find financial resources and tax incentives to make it possible. They are good friends of Greeenstar, and I recommend their website to you as a great starting place.
Other places that have great public programs include California, Thailand, Germany, and Japan. I’ll get in trouble for not mentioning someone, I’m sure. The point is, good green energy programs are available in lots of places, with your effort to connect to them. Many of the very best are locally organized around a municipal utility such as the recent activity in Austin, Texas.
One we particularly appreciate as a pioneer and good friend of Greenstar, a template for others, is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
I was wondering how you became someone who gets to work on helping the greater good? I want to do something like that too but don’t know where to start. — Rebecca Olcott, St. Louis, Mo.
Big question, Rebecca.
Many places to begin, but the one that strikes me right now is for you to connect with a business in your area that’s building a better, greener world. Go to SustainableBusiness.com and gather some information, ideas, and questions. When you have a good orientation, ask Rona Fried, the publisher, for her suggestions — she works with many great businesses across the U.S. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.