Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wal Mart - The Green Giant?

For the better part of the last decade, Wal-Mart has been the favorite target for militant environmentalists and social-justice activists that portray them as the ultimate big-business bully.

However, lately, the retailing giant has made the headlines for its work in developing a sustainability index for its products. Now, the more cynical among us may simply dismiss this as corporate greenwashing, but by all indications, the company is serious about it, and plans to collect surveys from its suppliers by October 1, 2009. However, the company expects the process to take approximately 5 years until it culminates in consumer-visible sustainability index labels.
Surprisingly, this effort has largely been applauded be environmental activists. Perhaps because they understand the potential impact that the world's largest retailer could have on the retail supply chain. However, after watching a movie on Wal-Mart's corporate website, it became clear that the company's intentions aren't solely idealistic and touchy-feely. The implied undercurrent is that in the process of implementing the sustainability index, that both itself and suppliers could realize cost savings in the longer term.

Wal-Mart has long been known for seeking and implementing aggressive cost-cutting in its supplier relationships and supply-chain logistics. But if greater value for consumers can be accomplished hand-in-hand with a reduced environmental impact, all the better.

Wal-Mart Sustainability Blog

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A House Divided - Is Age-Segmented Ministry Failing?

It's so ubiquitous among churches in America, that it seems unusual when churches don't have them. What I'm talking about is the venerable youth group. Although the concept has probably been around in one form or another for centuries, the modern conception of age-segmented ministry formalized in the post-war boom of parachurch organizations such as Young Life, InterVarsity and Youth for Christ.

Probably through the 1990s, this was an accepted and largely successful model for outreach to teens and young adults. But the past decade has not been kind to the church in the developed world. Although the decline of institutionalized religion hasn't been as precipitous in the U.S. as it has been in Europe, the trend is clear, and not encouraging.
In a recent interview with Kara Powell for Christianity Today's Leadership Journal, the writer cites a Rainer Research study that shows that 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22, and the figure grows to 80 percent by age 30.

Certainly, the church did not have to compete with Facebook, instant messaging, text messaging, and the World Wide Web largely until the beginning of this decade. But technological distractions are far too easy a target and scapegoat for the disenfranchisement of youth in the church.

Powell, the executive director of Fuller Seminary's Youth Institute, says she believes the church can do a better job of involving youth in the substantive worship of the church, rather than just token "youth programs" that segregate them out from the main body of the church.

Another buzzword that's been popping up in church leadership conversations is "discipleship." Discipleship by its definition involves the spiritual mentoring of a more mature believer or group of believers with those that are new to the faith or still growing in their faith. The current age-segregated model of ministry being used by many churches on its face doesn't seem to be conducive to meaningful discipleship.

Powell believes teens are up for the challenge of taking on more responsibility, and yearning for more meaningful inter-generational relationships in the church.

Although I could see the transitional period between an age-segregated ministry model to more of a collaborative, inter-generational as being a little awkward at first, I also believe it could prove to be much more meaningful and enriching in the long-term for everyone. What are your thoughts?

Green Bricks - Brought to You by Coal

I would be charitable in describing coal as not the top fuel choice of environmentalists. It's often portrayed as dirty, archaic, grossly polluting, and a reviled icon of the early industrial era. Consumed in its raw form, all of those descriptions are fairly accurate. But the fact is, it's still widely used, and if approaching the energy equation from a national security standpoint, it's a resource we have a great quantity of.

As long as it's a significant part of the energy equation, it means we'll have a significant amount of by-product remaining after burning it. One of the most abundant by-products of burning coal is fly ash. Much like the powdery gray remains after burning wood or charcoal, fly ash is basically the un-burned solids remaining.
CalStar Products of Newark, California, is pioneering production of new "green" bricks which the company claims has 85 percent less "embedded energy" than conventional equivalents. Martin LaMonica at CNET's Green Tech Blog has an excellent post explaining the science and theory behind the product. The bricks are virtually indistinguishable from conventional equivalents, and can help builders raise their LEED rating for projects.

I always get satisfaction when I find entrepreneurs that find a use for heretofore unwanted waste products. I wish CalStar the best in building its business.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Solar Decathlon 2009 - Future Homes

If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you're aware of my fascination with solar power. Although my personal involvement with solar is currently limited to my Solio gadget charger, I always like to highlight and follow innovation taking place in this emerging field.

In this blog post, I'd like to highlight the 2009 Solar Decathlon competition to be held in October in Washington D.C. Universities from across the country and around the world compete in five subjective (architecture, market viability, engineering, lighting design, communications) and five objective (comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, net metering) categories.

The competition is organized by the U.S. Department of Energy, and this year's sustaining sponsors are Applied Materials, BP, Pepco, and Schneider Electric.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tax Amnesty? How About Tax Relief?

I read recently about a grace period being offered by the IRS for individuals with money in offshore accounts. If people come clean with the tax man by a certain date, they will avoid criminal prosecution. The original deadline was September 23. The deadline was extended to October 15, 2009. How generous!

A lot of the current witch-hunt after the ultra-wealthy was partially precipitated by the Bernie Madoff scandal, and a vengeful spirit of going after the "fat cats" in the scandal's aftermath.

I am in no way suggesting that Madoff should have evaded justice, or that there wasn't rampant corruption at many levels leading up to the financial system collapse that happened in Fall 2008.

Likewise, I don't necessarily have a great deal of sympathy for those that deliberately hid assets in offshore accounts specifically to evade tax penalties. But I think it's worth considering why these individuals chose to move their assets offshore in the first place. Could it be that the whole "tax the rich" drumbeat has gone a little too far? By most measures, 5 percent of the U.S. population is responsible for 54 percent of the tax revenue.

Can anyone really blame them for wanting to hide their assets from such a rapacious, ravenous government? Although this concept may seem illogical to our progressive friends, could it be possible that we might actually increase revenue if the burden on the top earners weren't so onerous?

There will always be some individuals that will find every trick in their CPA's books to whittle their tax burden down to as low as it can go. But perhaps if the burden was spread more equitably across the general population, the wealthy wouldn't be quite as inclined to skirt the rules. I'll admit that maybe I have it all wrong, and the capitalist pigs will do all they can to screw Uncle Sam at every turn and opportunity, regardless of how fair and equitable the rules are.

But what if our tax structure was re-thought to reward capital investment in businesses, incentivize hiring new employees, and invest in product research and development? Not as a one-time stimulus, but permanently?

I am not an economist, an accountant, or a financial analyst, so maybe my ideas are as wacky as the current, drastically inequitable tax structure. Anyone care to weigh in?

Health Care - Entitlement or Privilege?

It seems you can't go more than 5 minutes lately without hearing or reading something about the health care reform battle. Seemingly out-of-the-blue, Obama came out swinging and campaigning aggressively for "reform now."

The Clinton administration campaigned aggressively for health reform and failed in the 90s. George W. Bush, the instinctively reviled poster child for arrogant Republicans by those on the left, helped to pass Medicare Part D, which was successful in bringing down the percentage of seniors who lacked prescription drug coverage from more than 20 percent to around seven, according to a blog written by Peter J. Pitts, president of Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. I bring this point up not as an iron-clad endorsement of his methodology or agenda, but simply as an example of incremental reform steps coming from unexpected places and people.

So why does it seem there's been an immediate and vociferous outcry from many across the country expressing opposition to the reform advocated by the president and congressional Democrats? I believe the backlash was largely the result of the aggressive initial push to pass a bill before the August recess. I know I thought to myself, "What's the rush?" As I'm sure many other Americans did as well. Not that I don't think there should be healthcare reform. I certainly do. However, I think it should be done methodically, and a variety of proposals and approaches should be thoroughly reviewed. Ironically enough, that's where we stand now. Hindsight being 20/20, Obama and Congress probably wish they would have pursued the "national dialogue" approach now, rather than trying to ram-rod a hasty, draconian solution through the legislative process.

But for those who decry "Big Government" intrusion, the fact is, that foundation was laid long ago, largely starting with the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. We're way too far down that road to fully undo six decades of bureaucracy-building, but perhaps we should think twice before proliferating it even further.

Lastly, when did universal health insurance become a "right"? Progressives have long espoused this notion to the point where many consider it as fundamental as the Bill of Rights. But like many other social programs proposed by the left, any notion of personal responsibility is effectively lost in the debate. Many claim that universal coverage will cut down on the number of superfluous and trivial doctor visits. However, in my conversation with a friend who works as a physician's assistant, many of the visits to the free clinic in which she works are for relatively minor ailments. While I empathize with those with limited means that need health care, by and large, if you don't have some "skin in the game," what's the incentive not to take as much advantage of a free resource as possible?

Whichever way the debate turns in this issue, I sincerely hope that some element of personal responsibility, whether monetary or lifestyle management, will be required for the majority of the population. Otherwise, I fear the cost savings promised by the proponents of reform will never materialize.

I'd love to hear your experiences and opinions below.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Economic Independence - The Green Holy Grail?

As I alluded to in my introduction, I have an interest in emerging technologies that promise to lead the United States toward energy independence from imported oil. Many of these technologies are currently in their infancy, or if they've been around for a while in theory, but only recently began receiving funding and attention.

However, conservative critics of the environmental movement have brought up a legitimate criticism of many of these technologies, in that they're heavily dependent on government aid, in the form of tax rebates, loans or other assistance to make a viable business case.

Perhaps this is an inevitable step in the advancement of green technologies, in the sense that short-term assistance will be required to subsidize the purchase price of these new technologies to make them attractive to consumers as a viable alternative to conventional equivalents.

Although the compact fluorescent light bulb has become commoditized to the point where it's in rough price parity with its incandescent cousin, most other technologies still have a ways to go to be cost competitive on an up-front basis to their current peers.

The current example getting a great deal of attention in the automotive world is the Chevrolet Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle scheduled to go on sale in Fall 2010. The un-subsidized price is expected to be in the neighborhood of $40,000. With the expected federal tax credit of $7,500, it brings the net price down to approximately $33,000. Revolutionary powertrain aside, the Volt has been compared to the Civic, Corolla, and its conventional platform mate, the Chevy Cruze. All of which sell at prices starting at half the price or less. Even with substantial DOE loans, and the tax credit for consumers, it has been widely believed, and implicitly confirmed by General Motors, that the company will still lose money on the Volt in the first few years of production.

Even Tesla Motors, the golden child of the Silicon Valley venture capitalist set, has applied for and received government loans.

Personally, the libertarian side of me, and the environmentalist side of me feel conflicted on this issue. I believe businesses should be competitive in a market economy independent of government aid or assistance. Yet at the same time, short of subsidized assistance, neither the companies nor consumers have the incentive to invest in these new technologies, both from the standpoint of research & development, and ultimately, consumer purchase.

While I find the rapid and aggressive proliferation of government under the current administration alarming, I believe the consequences of inaction on developing energy-efficient technologies may have far more devastating consequences. I'm not necessarily talking about the melting of the polar ice caps, the de-forestation of the Amazon or the usual environmental alarmist buzz topics. I believe our adversaries around the world may use our dependence on foreign energy as a strategic weapon against us.

What do you think? Should the government continue to offer assistance to companies developing next-generation energy technologies, or should businesses learn to stand on their own in the marketplace?

My Little Green Gadget

While I'm nowhere near as gadget-obsessed as many hard-core geeks, I do have many. Yes, I have an iPod (a classic) a Wii, and an Apple iBook G4 (again, a "classic" in computer years) among others.

But my favorite is a gift I received from my friend. It's the Solio portable solar charger. Now, I've never done a comprehensive analysis of the actual energy savings I'm realizing by using it instead of my wall outlet to charge my cell phone. But I think it's pretty cool nonetheless.

It's probably intended more as a gizmo for hard-core outdoor enthusiasts that want to charge their gadgets in the middle of nowhere than a suburban novelty in a kitchen window. As such, the sun's intensity is muted somewhat by the window, which means a full charge is usually one full week of sitting in the window. But coincidentally, it's not hard to get a week's worth of use out of my cell phone on a Solio charge, so it works out.

Although I haven't figured out the financing and setup yet, this gadget has me sufficiently intrigued that I'm considering a full PV system for my home.

So here's a gadget that let's you go green without having to wait for a government tax credit. Solio offers models in the price range of $100-$150.