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Gift Cards Go Green

The majority of gift cards go to waste, unused by consumers and left to rot in landfills. But there’s a green alternative—cards made of wood—that allow you to gift without the guilt.

For holiday shoppers, gift cards are the easy way out. They’re light. They’re quick, and bound to delight. They’re also problematic on a few levels, as I noted several years ago. When you buy gift cards, you’re lending money to retailers for free. And when gift cards go unused, the money spent purchasing them goes to waste.

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sustainablecards.com

Gift cards are also wasteful in another way. They’re made of environmentally unfriendly plastic and consume a lot of resources. And when they’re discarded, they often wind up in landfills.

This Smart Old House

How to Hack the Perfect Home

Apple alum Tony Fadell reinvented the boring market for home thermostats with his sleek and eco-savvy digital Nest. Coming next: a smoke detector that could be a real disruptor.

Silicon Valley’s latest hot new app doesn’t have a funny name or purport to be a new social medium. In fact, it’s a pretty pedestrian piece of hardware. The hipster former Apple guys who reinvented the thermostat have come up with the next big thing: a smoke alarm.

Thermostat10

The simply designed thermostat was created by the Palo Alto, California-based company, Nest. (Christian Science Monitor/Getty)

Nest Labs, founded a few years ago by Tony Fadell, who helped design the iPod, has a smash hit with the Nest thermostat—a digital, Apple-looking temperature regulator that is easily programmable, hooks up to the Internet, learns your family’s habits, and just might save the planet. I installed two in my home this summer, and, aside from being great conversation starters, they helped cut our air-conditioning costs. The company is privately held.

Phoenix

Tesla Survives a Fiery Crash

Weak earnings reports and a series of fire incidents finally brought down Tesla Motors’ stratospheric stock price, but somehow the company continues to defy the rules of the market.

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on Tesla, the electric-car manufacturer that inspires love-hate reactions among investors and the public. The brainchild of serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, Tesla sells an expensive electric sports car.

Tesla

A row of Tesla Model S electric sedans are displayed during a demonstration at Crissy Field in San Francisco, California on October 31, 2013. (Eric Risberg/AP)

The only thing as expensive as the Tesla Model S, which retails for about $60,000, is the company’s stock. Between October 2012 and October 2013, it rose from $31 to $190, up more than six-fold, giving the company a stock market valuation of $23 billion. That was about one-third the value of Ford and nearly one-half the value of General Motors, both of which sell about 100 times more cars than Tesla does.

Steam Heat

Solar Power on a Grand Scale

There’s a new type of solar plant coming online. It's huge, cool looking, and might be able to provide power at night. Does it have a future?

The massive solar plant nearing completion in the California’s Mojave desert doesn’t look like the solar plants you might be used to seeing. It has no solar panels, for one thing. Instead, it has mirrors—300,000 of them—all arrayed in rings around three giant towers. The mirrors reflect sunlight onto vats of water sitting on top of the towers, heating them to 500 degrees and powering a steam turbine, providing enough energy for 140,000 homes. When it goes online at the end of the year, it will be one of the biggest solar plants in the world. But the technology at its heart is relatively simple: mirrors, water boilers, and steam turbines.

Ivanpah Solar Power Facility

An aerial view of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility with Tower 1, 2 and 3, where heliostats installation is nearly completed in Ivanpah, California on April 5, 2013. (Gilles Mingasson/Getty for Bechtel)

The plant, called Ivanpah, is funded by Google, NRG, and BrightSource, a company that specializes in what’s called concentrated solar power, or CSP, a method of using focused sunlight to turn a steam generator. The technology isn’t new: a small test plant that uses mirrored troughs to heat oil-filled tubes has been running in California for 20 years. Going back further, you could point to the French inventor Agustin Mouchot, who experimented with solar powered steam engines in the 19th century, thinking we were about to run out of coal. The current batch of plants are huge—thousands of acres—and use computer-controlled mirrors to heat boilers that sit on top of towers. (You can take a virtual tour of Ivanpah's triple-tower array here.) Three giant CSP plants are scheduled to go online in the next few months, and the companies that have spent years and billions of dollars building them hope they’ll provide a valuable new source of renewable energy.

COAL’S LUMPS

EPA Caps Coal Emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency is putting forth tough new standards for newly built electricity plants. Is this the next battle in the war on coal?

Making good on President Obama’s promise this summer to tackle climate change, on Friday the Environmental Protection Agency announced strict new limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from newly constructed power plants. Speaking at the National Press Club, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said newly built coal-fired power plants will have to keep carbon emissions below 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour—a level that will force the industry to develop potentially expensive new methods of capturing and storing CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere.

Coal Burning Power Plant

The stacks of the Gavin coal-burning power plant by a nearby home on February 4, 2012, in Cheshire, Ohio. (Benjamin Lowy/Getty)

The EPA also issued new emissions standards for newly constructed natural-gas plants, which will be permitted to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of C02 per megawatt hour. That’s essentially the level that cleaner burning natural-gas plants perform at already. But if developers want to build new coal plants, which account for about a quarter of U.S. carbon emissions, they’ll have to develop new technology to pass the EPA’s muster.

‘The Bet’

Can Innovation Save Us?

Are we headed for a world of scarce resources and environmental catastrophe, or will market forces and technological innovation yield greater prosperity? Yale historian Paul Sabin, author of the new book ‘The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future,’ draws on an iconic story to examine the clash between environmentalists and their conservative critics.

What is your big idea?

Our current stalemate over climate policy has important roots in earlier battles over population growth and resource scarcity. Many dire predictions made a generation ago about disastrous food shortages and running out of oil have not come true, at least not yet. This poses a challenge for environmentalists, who are gravely concerned about global warming. Earlier failed prophecies help fuel conservative opposition to current concerns about climate change, even though the science is different and the threat is real.

I argue that we need to probe these earlier clashes between different legitimate viewpoints to better understand how to communicate with each other and to develop successful policy solutions.

SHINE ON

A Sunny Anti-Poverty Plan

Defraying the cost of expensive green-energy system can help families lower their operating costs.

There’s a conundrum in the green energy world. People at the lower end of the income scale would benefit most from energy- and cost-saving measures like installing solar panels or weatherizing homes. Reducing a family’s annual expenditures on energy by $1,000 has the same economic effect as boosting its annual income by $1,000. But they are also the last able to afford the upfront investments that can bring long-term savings.

Solar Panels

Securing solar panels for a photovoltaic solar array system on the roof of a house. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post, via Getty)

Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit based in California, is aiming to square this circle. Started in 2001, the nonprofit has created a business model that brings solar panels to low-income households—allowing them to lower their carbon footprint and reduce electricity bills. All while providing valuable training.

SWAP MEET

ATMs for Mobile Phones?

Can a consumer electronics technology help solve the environmental problems by the rampant obsolescence of consumer electronics?

The half-life of a piece of technology these days is very short. Every year, upgrades to computers, televisions, and mobile phones render last year’s version technologically obsolete. To a large degree, electronics are disposable.

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A technology representative demonstrates the ecoATM which purchases used cellphones from consumers during CES on the Hill on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 16, 2013. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty)

And yet, according to the Environmental Protection Administration, only 11 percent of the estimated 152 million discarded mobile devices are properly recycled. Bamboo Mobile estimates that 30 percent of people are unaware of the fact that their old cell phones can be recycled.

cnbc_article_header

A new study about the relationship between fracking and earthquakes has the hosts on CNBC buzzing.

After a newly published study found a potential link between natural gas fracking and earthquakes in Texas, the"Squawk on the Street" anchors discussed the costs and benefits of the controversial process.

"May I be so bold as to say that anytime you extract anything from the ground for energy, it's a problem," said Jim Cramer on Tuesday.

CHARGE!

Crowdsourcing Military Power

A new project allows individuals to participate in the financing of a big renewable energy project on a U.S. defense installation

It sounds like the ultimate in left meets right. Organization holds a crowdsourced funding program to put up solar panels – on a military base.

That’s the goal of one of the latest projects from Solar Mosaic, which is sort of a ‘Kickstarter for green energy.’ The California-based company comes up with projects to finance or build – an array atop an affordable housing development, or on top of a school –then allows individuals to invest in amounts as little as $25. The investments are structured like loans. As the projects generate electricity, and hence revenue, Solar Mosaic repays the investments—with interest.

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Feng Li/Getty

Shame on You, Walmart!

With an Ohio Walmart hosting a holiday food drive for its own workers, The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky criticizes the notoriously stingy company for not paying them more.

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Congress: Hail Our Media Overlords

Congress: Hail Our Media Overlords

Forget Comcast being on the ropes over its proposed multibillion-dollar merger with Time Warner Cable. It smoothly overrode concerns at a Senate hearing Wednesday.

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