Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BrightSource Energy Distorting Reality

BrightSource Energy recently submitted another petition to change conditions of certification set forth by the California Energy Commission (CEC)--which spell out what steps the company must take to  make up for ecological damage caused by the company's Ivanpah Solar project.  This time BrightSource is seeking to take advantage of a desert habitat conservation program administered by the California Department of Fish and Game, probably because the company is unable to secure quality desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley area.

In its petition to the CEC, BrightSource Energy argues that conserving habitat in the Ivanpah Valley is not worthwhile because human development has limited the value of the area to serve as desert tortoise connectivity.  BrightSource, however, has a record that disqualifies it from making authoritative statements on wildlife issues.
  • Firstly, the company ignored wildlife biologists and built a 5.6 square mile industrial facility on prime desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley, stumbling upon (read: killed or displaced) hundreds of desert tortoises.  
  • The company has tried to convince policymakers and the general public that its facilities are wildlife friendly because they let plants grow beneath the mirrors, but forget to tell people that mowed and crushed desert vegetation is unlikely to support wildlife, the mirrors will kill or burn birds, and the entire project is fenced off.  
  • BrightSource has also begun describing the project as located on "Ivanpah Dry Lake," perhaps to distract from the fact that the Ivanpah Solar project is actually being built west of the dry lake on what was once intact creosote bush and Mojave yucca scrub habitat. If it were built on the dry lake, they would have spent a lot less money on injured and displaced tortoises.
What counts as fragmented?
The petition correctly notes that the Ivanpah Valley is already home to Interstate 15, the Union Pacific Railroad line, a golf course, and the small gambling outpost of Primm, Nevada. But this development alone has not stopped the ecosystem from thriving, as BrightSource found out when it started stumbling on so many tortoises and rare plants.  In fact, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated in official comments to the Bureau of Land Management that the Ivanpah Valley serves as a critical linkage for the endangered desert tortoise, connecting different populations, hence the controvery over another proposed solar project by First Solar.

But let's take a close look at BrightSource's definition of fragmented.  A railroad, highway, small gambling outpost, and golf course. No doubt that these developments took their toll on the ecosystem, but in terms of the overall size of the Ivanpah Valley, they account for less habitat destruction than the Ivanpah Solar project itself.  The gambling outpost of Primm (hotels, parking lots, fast food restaurants and gas stations), is less than one-third the size of BrightSource's project.  The golf course could fit inside the first phase of the massive energy project.

(Click on image to expand) A Google Earth shot of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project (outlined in red).  To the right of the project you can see the relatively small Primm Golf Course, and further to the right, the actual Ivanpah Dry Lake bed. 

But let's think about other places with human development.  The Yosemite Valley, which is roughly 8 square miles in size, contains two hotels, parking lots, a general store, and restaurants.  Are we arguing that Yosemite Valley is no longer valuable to wildlife or worth protecting from further development?  The South Rim of the Grand Canyon also has roads, a heliport, gas station, hotels, and a railroad.  Should we just give up on that land?

(Click on image to expand) For comparison, the outline of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project is depicted as an overlay on the Yosemite Valley. BrightSource depends on vast swaths of wildlands to sustain its business model, unlike other solar companies that install solar panels on rooftops or on already-disturbed lands.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Prickly Poppy


A prickly poppy in bloom in the central Mojave Desert.  Plenty of spikes, but a beautiful sight, nonetheless.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Climate Hawk Misses the Mark


A fellow climate change activist -- who goes by "RLMiller" on the Twitter -- recently nominated a Los Angeles Times reporter as the "most anti-solar reporter in the mainstream media" in a blog post on the Daily Kos (RLMiller previously levied this criticism against a more deserving recipient -- Fox News).  The offending reporter, Julie Cart, published an article on how industrial-scale solar facilities built dozens of miles from the nearest county services, impose a financial burden on local governments.  Not only do the counties need to deploy new resources to emergencies (fire, police, medical) where they do not normally occur, they also have to accommodate heavy construction traffic on crumbling roads, increased water consumption where water is scarce, and then tell longtime taxpayers, voters, and residents that they have to put up with a giant, Wall Street-backed industrial behemoth next door that does not conform to the county's original zoning rules.
(Click on image to expand) BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar

The LA Times  has also written on the  ecological impacts of some of these solar facilities -- displacing or killing endangered species, destruction of several square miles of habitat for each solar facility, burning birds and their eyes (yeah, solar plants can do that), infecting kit foxes with distemper, and potentially upsetting the biodiversity of the desert ecosystem.  It is bad enough that our wildlands have to deal with human-induced climate change, but then our solution apparently requires the "sacrifice" of hundreds of square miles of the natural treasures we want to save.

Apparently RLMiller, a self-styled "climate hawk" who even includes a photo of a raptor as a Twitter profile picture, has had an unfortunate collision with a wind turbine, or a solar power tower, or a skyscraper (yeah, industrial-scale development does that to birds, too).  RLMiller is arguably frustrated by the reality that the corporation it exalted to savior status is actually a composite of the same greedy interests that got us into the climate mess in the first place -- Enbridge, Chevron, BP, and Goldman Sachs

One of the most destructive industrial-scale solar firms, BrightSource Energy, is aiding Chevron by supplying "green" solar power to support the oil giant's ingenious new way of extracting fossil fuels from the ground.  Oh yes, we're talking about what sounds suspiciously like fracking.  BrightSource is providing "green" energy to pump steam into the ground to extract oil in California.  Do they combine that steam with any toxic chemicals? I don't know because California's fracking laws are a bit lenient and don't require full disclosure. And what does it matter if BrightSource is aiding oil exploration with fracking or just sticking a shovel into the ground? Every ounce of oil that we extract from the ground from this day forward is digging a grave for our planet, according to  climate activist Bill McKibben.

What I recommend to RLMiller is that before we greenwash a company like BrightSource Energy (a company that gave RLMiller a nice pat on the back in its own corporate propaganda), let's take a close look at the company's math.  To generate approximately 390 megawatts of renewable energy, the company bulldozed, and mowed vegetation on about 5.6 square miles of desert habitat, and displaced or killed hundreds of endangered animals. These wildlands are necessary to support the ecological functions that are increasingly burdened by our fossil fuel consumption.  Chipping away at their integrity does not make them more resilient. If you ask me, BrightSource Energy is the most anti-solar, mainstream solution to climate change we could possible endorse.  A corporate behemoth that requires billionaire underwriters and political backers willing to turn a blind eye as our appetite for ecological destruction is satiated. What is so revolutionary about this approach?

Apparently RLMiller dismisses this sort of destruction as trivial.  In one sentence, RLMiller shrugs off six square miles of habitat destruction and ignores the fact that hundreds of square miles of wildlands are on the chopping block for industrial-scale wind and solar:
In "Sacrificing the desert to save the earth," she [Julie Cart] decides that a big plant taking up six square miles of California desert constitutes a sacrifice of the entire region, never mind the 50 million acres of public lands available to fossil fuel developers, never mind the relatively small footprints of all of the solar projects put together, and never mind the vast desert habitat being protected from solar development. -- RLMiller
RLMiller is correct. This one solar project will 'only' destroy 6 square miles of habitat (roughly the size of midtown and lower Manhattan combined).  It will also only generate less than 1% of California's peak energy needs.  We will have to repeat this destruction many times over to meet the State's renewable energy needs from large-scale solar and wind -- up to 410 square miles in Nevada, alone, according to Bureau of Land Management statistics, and even more in California.

Do we need to shift from fossil fuels rapidly? Absolutely.  Deserts are becoming more arid, oceans more acidic, the Arctic less icy, New York more flooded, food and water sources are jeopardized and all of this is adding to the burdens we already impose on our natural treasures.  But RLMiller dismisses most of the concerns laid out by Julie Cart's articles as if it is inherently wrong to question the costs of massive remote solar facilities.  Wouldn't it have been nice if  "mainstream" society stopped to listen to journalists writing about the ills oil exploration last century, or natural gas fracking in more recent history?

(Click on image to expand) Rooftop solar in Arizona.
I think it is better if we learn about the true costs of our energy choices instead of waiting for decades to wallow in regret and simultaneously lobby and hero-worship a government that is already bought out by corporate interests that could not care less about sustainability.  Instead of attempting to silence critics, let's listen to what they say and consider our alternatives.  Germany has installed thousands of megawatts of rooftop solar panels -- the equivalent of dozens of BrightSource Energy facilities.  A company called 8minuteenergy has started building a large solar facility on already-disturbed lands in California that will eventually reach 800 megawatts -- without incurring destruction on intact wildlands. Even with weak incentives, Californians have already installed over 1,300 megawatts of rooftop solar -- that's more energy than three BrightSource projects can generate.

We are deeply in trouble as a result of our past and current energy choices, and we need to fix the situation quickly.  But let's not commit to a foolish path that only gets us into another ecological disaster.  Renewable energy is a flexible and scalable technology, so we can adapt it to our current land uses without converting some of the most remote stretches of desert into an industrial landscape.  Before we criticize others as mainstream "anti-solar" heretics, let's stop and question whether we have some learning to do, as well.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Arizona and the Rooftop Revolution

The Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) -- the body responsible for rate adjustments for utility companies in Arizona -- was presented a report by its staff last month that recommended a paradigm shift in how it meets its renewable energy goal of 15% by 2025.  The ACC staff report recommends that Arizona meet its renewable energy needs with stepped-up investment in rooftop solar, which the ACC staff judges to be the lowest cost renewable energy option because distributed generation does not require expensive new transmission lines and centralized power plants.  The recognition of rooftop solar's value is a positive sign for our southwestern deserts, which are threatened by both climate change and industrial sprawl from large-scale solar and wind facilities.

Arizonans have an appetite for local clean energy, and the ACC staff recommendation would ensure that ratepayers' money goes back to the community in the form of incentives for customers to install solar panels.  Arizona has seen rooftop solar grow at a quick pace, in part because of its solar ambassador programs. The town of Buckeye, Arizona was one of several cities in the state to be named an "Arizona Solar Community" a status granted to a municipality when over 5% of owner occupied homes install solar panels.  Three years ahead of the 2015 deadline, nearly 8.9% of Buckeye homes have rooftop solar, not to mention businesses and schools.

(click on image to expand)  A Google Earth image shows a school in Buckeye, Arizona taking full advantage of the sun, in addition to over 1,150 rooftop solar installations on area homes, according to the Arizona Smart Power website.
The ACC commissioners still need to deliberate over the staff recommendations when it reviews its renewable energy implementation plans for 2013. Under the proposal, overall allocation of funds to residential photovoltaic solar installations would increase,  although the incentive rate would drop from $0.20 per kWh to $0.10 per kWh  As rooftop solar begins to equal or best the cost of grid energy in Arizona, the ACC anticipates that demand for rooftop solar will remain strong even as the overall incentive rate declines. Most rooftop solar installations are the result of third-party solar leasing companies, such as Sungevity.

Utilities vs. Rooftop Solar
The ACC recommendations are not without controversy, however, since the report also backs a utility company suggestion that would allow utilities to count rooftop solar generation toward renewable energy goals even as incentive rates drop to zero.  So the utility companies could meet the renewable energy goals without purchasing "renewable energy certificates" that are currently part of the Arizona renewable energy system.  A host of industry and conservation groups argue that this would essentially rob ratepayers with rooftop solar installations of the "inherent value" of the renewable energy certificate, which could be sold elsewhere by the ratepayer as incentive for the rooftop solar installation.

One Arizona utility company argues that rooftop solar customers already receive an incentive, insisting that the fixed costs of providing net metering cannot be recovered by the utility, setting up the same argument that San Diego Gas & Electric (unsuccessfully) brought forward in California.   But energy experts contend that the value of distributed generation to the utility company is already higher than the fixed costs, since rooftop solar means the utility company spends less money on big infrastructure.  

Despite this benefit, some utility companies seem intent on protecting their centralized business model from the threat of rooftop solar. One Arizona utility suggested prematurely relaxing efforts to bring rooftop solar online.  The ACC's renewable energy standard and tariff system requires that a minimum of 30% of the renewable energy supplied in Arizona originate from distributed generation (such as rooftop solar), and Arizona's largest utility company argues that it can reach 30% without additional incentives.  But the ACC staff report reminds the utilities that distributed generation in excess of the 30% minimum still counts toward Arizona's renewable energy goals, and since rooftop solar is the cheapest way to meet that goal, the incentives for rooftop solar should not be abandoned.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thankful for Wild Places

I'm thankful for clean air and water, and beautiful wildlands where the next greatest thing is not a new iPad or video game, but nature's gift -- a wildflower blooming after winter rains, shadows cast by the sun setting behind desert ridgelines, a coyote's howl, a night sky full of stars...


...Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Big Victory for Wildlands

Patriot coal announced this week that it was stepping away from mountaintop removal in Appalachia.  Although a far distance from America's southwestern deserts, industrial-scale energy development is a familiar threat to conservationists whether you live in West Virginia or California.
Mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Photo from Sierra Club announcement on Patriot Coal settlement.
The Patriot Coal announcement is the result of sustained pressure from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Sierra Club, and West Virgnia Highlands Conservancy. Patriot is one of the three largest mountaintop coal mining companies, so its announcement is a reason to celebrate, although there is more work to be done to save the wildlands of Appalachia from other coal companies and industrial-scale wind.  The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, one of the groups involved in pressuring Patriot Coal, is also fighting to save the region's ridgelines from industrial-scale wind, which has destroyed viewsheds, fragmented habitat, and has begun to take a severe toll on the area's bird and bat population. 

According to its website, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (WVHC) is demanding higher standards from the wind energy industry.  WVHC and a host of other environmental groups -- including  Save Western Maryland, American Bird Conservancy, Friends of Blackwater, Allegheny Highlands Alliance, Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County, Laurel Mountain Preservation Association, Allegheny Front Alliance -- are focusing efforts on the Criterion Wind energy project in  western Maryland.   The Criterion Wind project consists of 28 turbines -- much smaller than some of the desert-based wind energy projects under consideration or construction -- but which threatens the endangered Indiana bat.

According to WVHC's website:

In response to a lawsuit brought by Save Western Maryland and other interested parties, Criterion agreed to seek an Incidental Take Permit for Indiana bats to comply with the ESA. During its first full year of operation (2011), Criterion conducted daily monitoring for bat and bird mortality between April 5 and November 15. Although no Indiana bat deaths were confirmed, Criterion estimates that the project killed approximately 1,093 other bats (39.03 bats per turbine) and 448 birds (16.01 birds per turbine). This rate is described in the draft Environmental Assessment as the highest per-turbine bird mortality ever estimated at a studied wind project in the United States, and as the highest per-turbine bird mortality ever documented in North America.
Wind turbines.  Photo from joint WVHC and American Bird Conservancy announcement. Photo by Mike Parr.
Folks in Appalachia, much like desert conservationists, are dealing with a double threat -- fossil fuels and industrial-scale renewable energy taking a toll on the landscapes we are trying to protect. The urgency to protect our wildlands and communities from climate change should not translate into an urgency to destroy what we treasure.  It's time for Washington to stop subsidizing industrial destruction of our beleaguered landscapes, and implement a feed-in-tariff that favors distributed generation, and the freedom for communities, homeowners, and businesses to finance local clean energy and energy efficiency improvements.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Five Reasons to Let the Wind PTC Expire, And Reinvest in Solar and Efficiency

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) -- a 2.2 cent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) credit for wind energy corporations -- is set to expire at the end of 2012, and a bevy of corporations and environmental organizations are calling on Congress to renew it immediately.  The tax break costs $1 billion dollars a year, which is much smaller than the subsidies Congress is giving to the fossil fuel industry, but has still drawn opposition from Congress and, of course, the fossil fuel industry.

We should oppose the Wind PTC, but for much different reasons than those put forward by its traditional opponents.  The bottom line is that wind energy does not meet even a modest "green" standard, and we should be putting our money to much more sustainable energy generators.  Our energy choices (mistakes?) so far have ensured that we will feel the effects of climate change for hundreds of years -- rushing to deploy a destructive and subpar "bridge" technology will only cost us more in the long run and have only a marginal benefit for our climate compared to other technologies already available.  Here are the top five reasons I think we should let the PTC for wind energy expire, and double down on investments in greener alternatives, such as energy efficiency, and solar on rooftops and already-disturbed lands.

Photo courtesy Friends of Mojave
1.) Wind energy facilities industrialize vast amounts of land to generate as much energy as rooftop solar panels, or large solar projects on already-disturbed lands.  Take the Ocotillo Express Wind project for example.  The project is destroying and fragmenting nearly 16 square miles of once intact desert habitat near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California to produce 315 megawatts of renewable energy.  Now consider that California has already installed over 1,300 megawatts of solar panels on rooftops, leaving our wildlands to support the ecological functions already burdened by climate change.  Similarly, just a couple of solar projects proposed by the company 8minuteenergy for already-disturbed lands would generate more energy than the Ocotillo Express Wind project, but require far less land.  From a wildland conservation standpoint, wind energy is akin to the hydropower boom of the last century, requiring the devastation of hundreds of square miles of our treasured landscapes and ecosystems.

2.) The wind industry shows no respect for wildlife, and its business model is inherently opposed to our conservation ethic.  Rooftop solar installers and solar leasing companies, on the other hand, pose a significantly smaller burden on our wildlands and wildlife.  The wind industry actively lobbied the White House, Congress, and Department of Interior to weaken wildlife protections, and they have even co-opted some environmental groups to speak against wildlife protections.  The Chokecherry/ Sierra Madre wind energy project in Wyoming is an excellent example of the wind industry's disregard for wildlife.  The project is expected to be one of the most deadly to raptors and bats, but the wind industry refuses to find a better location.  Solar panels on homes and businesses, on the other hand, pose a collision threat to inner-city wildlife, but it is unlikely that rooftop solar panels will kill off a local population of golden eagles, or decimate a bat roost.

Cement foundation for wind turbine.
3.) Compared to rooftop solar or solar on already-disturbed lands, wind turbines require more carbon-intensive manufacturing and construction. A USGS study estimated that meeting 20% of our energy needs with wind energy would require 6.8 million tons of concrete, in addition to 1.8 million tons of steel, and 40,000 tons of copper. The EPA calculates that, on average, each ton of cement produces 0.97 tons of CO2 emissions, and every ton of steel produced can result in anywhere from 0.6 to 2.8 tons of CO2. Once the wind turbines are installed, their electricity is typically carried to customers hundreds of miles away on copper transmission lines. In a single year, one US-based copper mine reported 3.1 million tons of CO2 emissions.  The infrastructure required to build and install wind turbines, and then distribute the power is higher than solar panels installed on existing infrastructure, and in our cities.

Solar over a parking lot in California.
4.) Wind energy, probably more so than solar, requires fossil fuel peaker plants to offset intermittency.   With centralized solar and wind power plants, an abrupt change in the wind or sun can sharply reduce the available energy supply, so utility companies have to build dirty natural gas "peaker" plants as a back-up.  Distributed solar generation is the best clean energy defense against this intermittency -- when wind and shade affect output from a renewable energy generator.  If you have thousands of solar panels spread out all across a region, a cloud passing over a few houses with solar panels will not send the electricity grid into disarray. The utility companies and electricity customers have a more stable power supply without as much dependence on centralized natural gas plants.  Extracting and burning natural gas releases methane, potentially offsetting natural gas' "clean" edge among other fossil fuels, since methane is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2, according to the EPA.

Transmission lines in the Mojave.
5.) The energy infrastructure we invest in today will be the model we live with for decades, so it is better to build a strong and sustainable energy path based on distributed generation, and not less efficient renewable energy sources. Once we install thousands more wind turbines, requiring billions of dollars of investment, the companies that operate those turbines have an incentive to keep them running for at least 20 years, and then replace the turbines with another technology after that to keep control of the real estate on which they are built. This will only fortify an energy model that devalues land conservation and promotes a centralized grid system that is controlled by big corporations. 

Those that disagree will argue vehemently that wind energy is much cleaner than coal, and the wind industry is on pace to displace coal.  They are correct, and they probably argued the same for natural gas.  But they will also twist and gloss over facts to defend the wind industry's environmental impacts, adamant that we have to stand firm behind the wind industry because it is a fast bridge from fossil fuels.  Climate change is a serious and present threat to our wildlands and our communities, but the carbon emissions we have already generated have locked us into a spiral of impacts that will be felt for centuries, even if we miraculously cut all emissions today, according to climate expert Bill McKibben in his book Eaarth. It is imperative that we reverse our emissions quickly, but advocating for the destruction of thousands of square miles of wildlands and the potential extirpation of wildlife to cross the "bridge" is ludicrous when we have a more efficient and economically feasible alternative that can lay a much more sustainable energy foundation.

A promotional image for Danny Kennedy's Rooftop Revolution book that neatly summarizes the vast difference between our old energy paradigm, and the new path available to us. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Powerful Change in a Small Package

I wrote last week about Utah-based Goal Zero's efforts to bring solar power chargers to victims of Hurricane Sandy, giving folks the ability to run essential appliances and lights as they wait for utility companies to rebuild a vast and vulnerable electricity grid.  The company has a "one for one" relief effort.  For every solar device purchased through its online store or participating retailers (including Amazon), they will donate a kit to Sandy relief victims.  As of late last week, the company had already lined up about 2,500 donated kits for victims of Sandy.

The Goal Zero products range in size -- from units that can charge cell phones, to larger kits that can keep a refrigerator running -- but the impact is always powerful.  For people that are without electricity, being able to count on a sustainable light supply can make a world of difference. Obviously solar charging kits are not going to replace the grid, but I hope they turn out to be a gateway drug of sorts, demonstrating the alternative of distributed generation (e.g. roofotp solar) to a dirty and cumbersome centralized grid that maximizes profit for shareholders and executives, and leaves customers in the cold.

Photo from Goal Zero website.  One of their smaller portable solar charging kits.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Disentangling Urgency from Foolishness: Exposing the Climate-Terror Paradigm

After 11 September 2001 the country recognized an urgent threat to its security.  The debate prompted by this tragic event is still relevant even after three Presidential elections and eleven years -- how much of our civil liberty do we sacrifice to mitigate this threat?  Military tribunals, library records, torture, and transparency.  We are still questioning compromises of justice and privacy for the end state of security.  This debate will last for centuries, much like the threat.
"Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."  - Benjamin Franklin
Fire fighters at the World Trade Center in 2001.
Are we making a foolish sacrifice to mitigate the threat of climate change? Rising seas, extreme and destructive weather patterns, lives lost, property destroyed, and degraded ecosystems.  Climate change is an urgent threat. The toxic cocktail of carbon and other poisons that we have already spewed into the atmosphere has created a climate that will punish us for decades, according to climate expert Bill McKibben, even if we end our emissions today.

NYPD vehicles submerged by Hurricane Sandy.
Our solution to climate change should be pragmatic, bold, and true to our core conservation ethic. Sacrifice means we are discarding something precious. If "sacrifice" is in our climate change lexicon, it suggests we have already exhausted all other options. We have not exhausted other alternatives, and instead we are pandering to the lanes of the road marked by corporations and corrupt politics. A system in which we re-elect a President that earned the Sierra Club's endorsement after he pandered to oil and coal companies; after his party's convention was financed by one of the largest coal consumers in the United States.  He is indeed better than his opponent, but it is our responsibility to be the flag-bearer of conservation and sustainability, not the regretful and sorrowful aide-de-camp of someone who only marginally acknowledges our cause in our time of desperation.

We all lose sleep over the events that are most representative of climate change's destruction. Hurricane Sandy, the derecho storm that hit the East Coast, wildfires, drought, and disease outbreak. We beg for acknowledgement from the mainstream that climate change is a present and enduring threat. Climate change is a threat that demands immediate action.  A swift shift to renewable energy, and the preservation of ecological treasures.  

But many have proposed a solution without examining the costs. Industrial wind and solar facilities on wildlands may seem to offer the quickest solution to carbon emission reduction, but accepting this path sacrifices the very fabric of the system we seek to salvage from ourselves -- our soils, plant and animal life. The industrial solution to climate change is the recycling of the very same problem of human burden on the planet upon which we depend. The loss of biodiversity, pristine landscapes, water and food.  Take a portion of our country as an example. Generating enough electricity to meet California's power demand would require well over 2,500 square miles of wind and solar facilities, and still require natural gas "peaker" plants.  In California alone, we are talking about the extirpation of plant and animal species. The depletion of aquifers, and the loss of God's "cathedrals", as John Muir described the untouched landscapes that inspired his writings.

[click on image to expand] BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project under construction in the northeastern Mojave Desert. The project has already displaced or killed over 300 desert tortoises, and threatened the survival of rare desert plant speices.
We are not simply in a battle to prevent the water from cresting over Battery Park in Manhattan and flooding a city's subway system.  Climate change threatens inumerable ecological processes that sustain human survival, including our water and food supply.  Much of this rests on our planet's biodiversity -- a complex web of plant and animal species that have softened the blow of weather patterns.  Wetlands that absorb flooding,  insects that pollinate our crops, bats that consume disease-bearing insects, birds that keep rodent populations in check, pollen-bearing plants that feed insects that are consumed by reptiles create conditions beneficial to the growth of more plants.  You can never recreate the web of relationships that exist in our planet's ecosystems. Why are some climate hawks so quick to sacrifice our conservation ethic when more efficient energy alternatives exist?

[click on image to expand] A Google Earth image of the Las Vegas area provides a scale to understand how much public lands will be destroyed for renewable energy development in the southern Nevada area.  Each block represents the square mileage proposed or approved for public land destruction in the southern Nevada region, broken out by solar, wind, and transmission projects approved and proposed.  If built, all of these projects would only meet a small fraction of Nevada or California's energy demand.
Distributed solar generation -- e.g. solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots -- and energy efficiency improvements are not "too slow" to address climate change.  From a technological and ecological standpoint, they are the only solutions we have that cut our carbon emissions while preserving our wildlands.  If you find yourself advocating for the sacrifice of our wildlands to address climate change, it is because you do not value the beauty that has long sustained our existence on this planet, and you place more faith in our ability to engineer the planet's functions than Mother Nature's ability to prove you wrong.  You are foolish if you think you can replace one nature-destroying corporation with another. You are sitting back and watching another species go extinct from the fleeting comfort of a sinking ship. You're watching the torture of one of your fellow beings, and you're no safer than you were before you realized the threat of climate change ever existed.
A photo of the cave-dwelling evening primrose, a rare desert forb found near the BrightSource Energy Ivanpah Solar project, and threatened by industrial development on desert habitat. Photo by James M. Andre, copyright 2008.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Time for a Real Energy Policy

The election is over.  It's time for our country's leaders to implement a real energy policy that  generates clean power through rooftop solar, or other renewable energy facilities on already-disturbed lands.  The "all of the above" policy endorsed by the previous two Presidents has not been successful in combating climate change or protecting our wildlands, as we have seen with the landscape destruction wrought by fossil fuels and industrial-scale wind and solar.  We have a serious opportunity to revolutionize the way we use and generate energy -- we can make our homes and businesses more energy efficient, while using the untapped space in our cities for solar panels.

The policy tools are in place, or waiting for implementation.  EPA's RE-powering America's Land initiative that guides energy companies to build projects on already-disturbed lands (instead of pristine desert habitat), feed-in-tariffs that reimburse rooftop solar operators for excess energy they feed into the grid, and property assessed clean energy programs that help home and business owners finances energy efficiency improvements and solar panel installations.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Goal Zero and Hurricane Relief Efforts

Goal Zero, a company that sells portable solar chargers for household electronic devices, has jumped into the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, driving a Penske rental van full of their products to New Jersey and New York to provide solar power to relief centers and citizens in need.  While utility companies are struggling to untangle the mess of substations and downed transmission lines in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, thousands of people are left without the energy we have taken for granted to run everything from our cell phones to medical devices.  One thing is for sure, even without the more frequent weather extremes brought on by climate change (which Hurricane Sandy may, or may not be a result of...see Andy Revkin's post), we need to create a cleaner, and more resilient energy supply.

From Goal Zero's blog post:
"We first showed up to the FEMA location to meet up with Team Rubicon Division 3. We then proceeded to the community center across the street where they had a little bit of back up power and a lot of the locals were hanging out there for hot food and to charge their phones up. We opened the truck and gave one guy a Lighthouse and then he went inside and pretty much everyone came outside to see what was going on. These people have no power and the power company is saying it could be a week or weeks. The Lighthouse and Torch were a hit as well as the Escape 150 kits. There were a few elderly people that really were humble and didn’t want to take anything because they thought other people would need it more than them, but they were dying for some light and a little bit of power. One lady has sleep apnea and was really excited that the Escape 150 could run her CPAP so she could sleep a little a easier." - Goal Zero
I stumbled upon Goal Zero on the interweb earlier when doing some research on solar devices.  I have not purchased their products, but I like that they are bringing the miracle of solar to those in need.  Solar energy does not have a cheap reputation, but it is already a proven economic reality. Across the world, thousands of megawatts are flowing into electric grids from solar panels, most of them mounted on rooftops (not on pristine desert!).  If owning solar panels is not possible for you now, look into leasing options through Sungevity or Solar City, or add your voice to the choir asking policy makers to institute feed-in-tariffs and property assessed clean energy (PACE) -- policy tools that help average folks finance their own solar installations.

Solar panels in our cities could create a vast and flexible energy supply that disentangles us from a dependence on long power lines and central power stations that are so vulnerable to disruption.  Goal Zero's efforts epitomize the full potential of this technology -- solar power is an innovation that can bury the status quo currently delivered by the utility companies.  Clean and resilient. That's the power we need on a planet burdened by unsustainable human practices.

You can donate to Goal Zero's relief efforts through tifie.org, and through Nov 15 you any purchase you make on Goal Zero's website will trigger a donation to the relief efforts, as well.