Bob Bechtold Talks About Saving Money and the Environment at Harbec Plastics

I headed out to hear Bob Bechtold of Harbec Plastics (369 State Route 104, Ontario) discuss their techniques to become Carbon Footprint Free by 2015 — this week's Tuesday Topics discussion in The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) When I was there, I ran into Rochester Turning blogging machine stlo7 and, to my surprise, I posted my summary first.

Anyway, since Bechtold is in business to make money, that's obviously one of his priorities, but it goes along the lines of "Eco-Economic Decision Making" — what's now called the "Triple Bottom Line": people, planet, and profits. He's a self-described former-hippie and tried to engage investors in his ecological interests. But none took hold until he started Harbec Plastics (369 State Route 104, Ontario) on an economic basis, then steered it toward ecological goals.

He started discussing Harbec's in-house electricity generation. They have 25 30-kilowatt microgenerators that provide for the company's maximum 500 kilowatt load with 5 generators literally to-spare. They run on natural gas provided by the utility, but Harbec gets the advantage of utilizing the excess heat which is otherwise a waste product. The distributed utility model is terribly inefficient on this front: generating electricity from a heat source throws away 60%-75% of the energy in the fuel as heat, while Harbec retains it for heating and even in an absorptive chiller for air-conditioning. He claims they have measured their BTU efficiency at 70% and calculated that their methods reduce carbon dioxide production by 90% over utility production.

As such, they just use the electrical grid as backup.

The well-known wind turbine has a 250 kilowatt capacity. Their location is a "class 3" wind site: about average overall and not as good as sites closer to the lake. They use the turbine to further offset their utility consumption by about 300,000 kilowatt-hours per year, netting a cost savings of $40,000 each year and a return-on-investment on the turbine itself in 8 to 10 years. Bechtold said that one of the biggest competitive advantages is that it freezes energy cost for the 25-30 year lifespan of the turbine, since the costs are no longer attached to fuel prices.

Regardless of all these improvements, their first steps were ones of reducing consumption. The site has in-floor radiant heating, large skylights for natural lighting, and double-insulated walls. Although they don't meet the requirements yet, they are following Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building standards. They have also switched their injection molding equipment from industry-standard hydraulic systems to better, more efficient electrical systems. In addition, they added insulation to the molding machines to reduce air conditioning load and to make the equipment run more efficiently. The motors have inverter drives or soft-start for efficiency and to make the equipment last longer. Even their air compressor system is an advanced variable-speed unit. With the help of a grant, the ROI for switching to the T-8 type fluorescent fixtures is only 1.5 years and saves $38,000 each year in electricity.

Bechtold also started Northern Development, LLC (369 State Route 104, Ontario) so he could work toward scaling these efficiencies to an industrial park. If you're really jonesing for more tech-talk, that's the place to go.

During the question-and-answer, it was clear that his message of gains in the "triple bottom line" was accepted. As such, people's questions focused on how to expand his efforts. In answering one question, he said there are anti-franchise laws that prevent people from sharing electricity across property lines, making it impossible to implement in neighborhoods (hint, hint, legislators). It was only through some unique loopholes in that law was it possible for him to run Harbec as he does. However, the individual has a choice: he noted that he's installing a Freewatt furnace/generator at his daughter's house which generates electricity when it heats the house, offsetting expensive electricity (sorry Fairport Electric).

Curiously, New York State isn't so bad for small-scale electricity generation. Not only is it geographically advantaged to be ranked 17th for wind power availability, the legislature finally allowed "net metering" up to 2 megawatts, so small farms can "sell back" generated electricity at utility costs rather than the 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour you'd get from direct sales. This also means that you can use the grid for your excess capacity as it's very difficult to store electricity.

Overall, there's quite a bit of promise in it all.


David Cay Johnston Cheerfully Explains the Credit Crisis

I happened to hit a good break point at work and had just enough time to get to the Tuesday Topics discussion in The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) David Cay Johnston was on hand to explain The Credit Crisis: Your Wallet and Wall Street in that cheerfully confident way that only David Cay Johnston can.

He started off talking about Reaganomics and where it is some 28 years after the start. The original plan had three goals: reduce taxes, balance the budget, and deregulate industry, so he outlined a measure of past performance. Taxes have dropped for the tiny sliver of extremely rich people but not for the rest of us. The budget is profoundly not balanced. But at the core of the overall failure is that the concept of deregulation is fundamentally a myth.

His analogy to the situation is that of driving: most people on the road are generally pretty good drivers. So, to aid them in driving better, we should eliminate those expensive road signs and traffic signals. After all, most drivers are responsible, so why should we impede their progress with unnecessary regulation? Clearly the exercise leads to worse conditions. But if you take a closer look, even the act of licensing drivers is an act of regulation.

In other words, the concept of deregulation was actually one of reducing regulation, and reducing the amount of regulation opened the door for conditions for which the regulations were designed to circumvent. By operating within the confines of a system of rules, responsible action was one of following those rules.

Johnston's point was that in "deregulating", we have separated risk from responsibility. And by allowing people to make irresponsible decisions, we ended up in the mess we're in now.

Anyway, in this bail-out, the estimated value of all the sub-prime mortgages were worth about US$500B and their actual value was more like US$300B if you consider the real value of the real estate, but the government is spending 8.5 trillion dollars on the bailout — nearly 30 times more than their value … in other words, a terribly bad investment. The excess money is being used to pay for companies who owe money to Goldman Sachs — curiously enough, one of the central figures of the entire bailout.

I suspect I'm doing a very poor job explaining it. The thing I noted was that he seemed rather calm about the whole thing, whether he was talking about the bailout amount being about the same as 8 years of every American's income tax collection, or the possibility of a decade of 10% inflation. It was that kind of deep understanding that makes you know that you really don't know, and no matter what happens, you get by.