Colorado Communities Battle Energy Industry to Build Community Rights

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On the Wattenberg shale of Colorado, it was recently reported that the Larimer Energy Action Project, an extension of the Colorado oil and gas industry, contributed $20,000 to the Fort Collins City Council campaign of Ray Martinez. With this contribution and the electoral victory of Martinez, the industry successfully extended its influence over a community defending a democratically mandated five-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling.

The industry knows that its control of the state legislature, legal system and courts is not sufficient. Community members standing up to the inherently dangerous oil and gas industry aren’t entering the effort from high political office. The movement against fracking comes from below, from the real grassroots, making local councils the logical next battleground between corporate power and community and environmental rights.

It is natural that the city councils now become contested. Prior to the recent elections in Fort Collins, as recently as February 2015, the Windsor, Colorado, city clerk refused to allow local citizens a vote on a Windsor Community Bill of Rights that would ban oil and gas drilling. All during local campaigns against fracking in 2013, city councils weighed in to push community efforts into the more controllable arenas of lobbying and letter writing. The Lafayette City Council went so far as to endorse a resolution broadly condemning the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights to ban fracking. Two weeks later, the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights passed with more than 60 percent of the popular vote, and two local candidates who endorsed the resolution were elected to the City Council.

The oil and gas industry does not rest in its harassment of local governments. At the moment a community begins to approach drilling from even a cautionary position, town meetings find the seats packed with oil and gas employees, and community members are called in their homes by industry PR firms. Communications from law firms hired by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association are sent to city councils threatening expensive litigation and taking claims aimed squarely at the local treasuries.

Although the general trend of local councils has been to submit to state law that protects corporations – and request that their constituents do the same – two Colorado cities, Longmont and Fort Collins, did appeal lower court decisions. In the event the courts rule against the people of these municipalities, the offending laws will be considered unenforceable. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association will then have determined local law.

A New Type of Local Official

Some years ago many local people started to believe that political careers could be made and broken upon the dual issues of fracking and community rights. Where communities are not led by city councilors willing to do what is necessary to battle the inherently dangerous process of fracking and the legal system that forces it onto their constituents, local officials will be forced to choose which demands to suppress: those of the state and industry, or those of their own community members.

At this point, a new type of local official is beginning to emerge. Lafayette City Councilor Merrily Mazza, who ran as an independent candidate from the grassroots effort that banned fracking in the same election, built her campaign for office as a means to drive the debate around fracking and mobilize the community.

Now elected to office, she continues to build the local grassroots effort from the City Council. The difference between Mazza and conventional politicians is that she does not see resolution coming from one new official or another. She identifies the real vehicle of change as the community itself. When Boulder District Judge D.D. Mallard declared that Lafayette constituents could not write laws barring oil and gas activity from harming them, her answer was simple: “If the courts do not recognize our citizen’s authority to create laws to protect our fundamental rights, then the courts no longer are ruling from a position of democratic or moral authority. The Lafayette City Council should therefore resolve to reject the judge’s decision, and fully enforce the Lafayette Community Bill of Rights.” The Lafayette City Council has been less than welcoming to that idea.

No other Colorado politician has been willing to side with his or her citizens in this way. If the pattern plays out, Mazza will be the first of many such candidates unwilling to yield to the courts and industry at the cost of her community. And then standard campaigns and lobbying will transition into genuine historic movements.

We need more movement officials, and their qualifications are basic and important. They are pushed forward by the efforts of local community members; they see their campaigns and offices only as a means to build those local struggles; they are able to articulate the systemic nature of problems like fracking and they are willing to disobey any order that places the rights and health of their constituents below the demands of corporations and the politicians and judges that serve to advance those corporate interests.

After all, if we are not able to enact laws to protect our rights, and those laws that we do create to protect ourselves from the harms associated with projects like fracking are said to be unenforceable, by what authority are the courts and government ruling? Under what obligation are we to governmental authority that abuses the very people and communities it claims to represent?

Defying the Courts, Defending the Community

At this point, doors begin to open. For example, if a city council had a majority of members who campaigned and governed along these principles, could the local police department be ordered to enforce the laws of the community rather than the rulings of the courts and the corporations they are siding with? Could community members be empowered to enforce democratically mandated laws like the Lafayette Community Rights Amendment to Ban Fracking? Given that the officers of local communities are obligated to enforce the municipal law or charter, could the city council take a resolution that anyone acting to enforce laws designed to protect the fundamental rights of community members against industries attempting to violate the laws will not be interfered with by local law enforcement?

This is not only possible; it begins to act on the very democratic principles that we were taught from a very young age. The US Declaration of Independence itself asserts that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Colorado communities are apparently taking the document at its worth.

We have found ourselves in a time where the benefits of the law are conveyed to the few, at the cost of the many. Communities across Colorado have pushed forward to remedy this problem, and are not content to wait for the half measures and delays pouring out of our courts and government like oil from a wellhead explosion. The local officials we currently have will continue to be asked, “Which side are you on?” To the extent the answer is not “the people’s,” the movement for community rights and against fracking and corporate power will find individuals willing to build the movement to new heights.

The laws and politicians endangering our communities will change, and the ones replacing them will begin to establish the ground for a much broader struggle – one that no longer peers though the windows into the halls of power, but one that starts to take power of its own.

Solar power will soon be as cheap as coal

This post originally appeared at Ensia.

Inside a sprawling single-story office building in Bedford, Massachusetts, in a secret room known as the Growth Hall, the future of solar power is cooking at more than 2,500 °F. Behind closed doors and downturned blinds, custom-built ovens with ambitious names like “Fearless” and “Intrepid” are helping to perfect a new technique of making silicon wafers, the workhorse of today’s solar panels. If all goes well, the new method could cut the cost of solar power by more than 20% in the next few years.

“This humble wafer will allow solar to be as cheap as coal and will drastically change the way we consume energy,” says Frank van Mierlo, CEO of 1366 Technologies, the company behind the new method of wafer fabrication.

Secret rooms or not, these are exciting times in the world of renewable energy. Thanks to technological advances and a ramp-up in production over the decade, grid parity-the point at which sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind cost the same as electricity derived from burning fossil fuels-is quickly approaching. In some cases it has already been achieved, and additional innovations waiting in the wings hold huge promise for driving costs even lower, ushering in an entirely new era for renewables.

Solar surprise

In Jan. 2015, Saudi Arabian company ACWA Power surprised industry analysts when it won a bid to build a 200-megawatt solar power plant in Dubai that will be able to produce electricity for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. The price was less than the cost of electricity from natural gas or coal power plants, a first for a solar installation. Electricity from new natural gas and coal plants would cost an estimated 6.4 cents and 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, respectively, according to the US Energy Information Agency.

Technological advances, including photovoltaics that can convert higher percentages of sunlight into energy, have made solar panels more efficient. At the same time economies of scale have driven down their costs.

For much of the early 2000s, the price of a solar panel or module hovered around $4 per watt. At the time Martin Green, one of the world’s leading photovoltaic researchers, calculated the cost of every component, including the polycrystalline silicon ingots used in making silicon wafers, the protective glass on the outside of the module, and the silver used in the module’s wiring. Green famously declared that so long as we rely on crystalline silicon for solar power, the price would likely never drop below $1/watt.

The future, Green and nearly everyone else in the field believed, was with thin films, solar modules that relied on materials other than silicon that required a fraction of the raw materials.

Then, from 2007 to 2014, the price of crystalline silicon modules dropped from $4 per watt to $0.50 per watt, all but ending the development of thin films.

The dramatic reduction in cost came from a wide number of incremental gains, says Mark Barineau, a solar analyst with Lux Research. Factors include a new, low-cost process for making polycrystalline silicon; thinner silicon wafers; thinner wires on the front of the module that block less sunlight and use less silver; less-expensive plastics instead of glass; and greater automation in manufacturing.

“There is a tenth of a percent of an efficiency gain here and cost reductions there that have added up to make solar very competitive,” Barineau says.

25 cents per watt

“Getting below $1 [per watt] has exceeded my expectations,” Green says. “But now, I think it can get even lower.”

One likely candidate to get it there is 1366’s new method of wafer fabrication. The silicon wafers behind today’s solar panels are cut from large ingots of polycrystalline silicon. The process is extremely inefficient, turning as much as half of the initial ingot into sawdust. 1366 takes a different approach, melting the silicon in specially built ovens and recasting it into thin wafers for less than half the cost per wafer or a 20% drop in the overall cost of a crystalline silicon module. 1366 hopes to begin mass production in 2016, according to van Mierlo.

Meanwhile, thin films, once thought to be the future of solar power, then crushed by low-cost crystalline silicon, could experience a renaissance. The recent record-setting low-cost bid for solar power in Dubai harnesses thin-film cadmium telluride solar modules made by US manufacturer First Solar. The company not only hung on as the vast majority of thin film companies folded, but has consistently produced some of the least expensive modules by increasing the efficiency of their solar cells while scaling up production. The company now says it can manufacture solar modules for less than 40 cents per watt and anticipates further price reductions in coming years.

Ten years from now we could easily see the cost of solar modules dropping to 25 cents per watt, or roughly half their current cost, Green says. To reduce costs beyond that, the conversion efficiency of sunlight into electricity will have to increase substantially. To get there, other semiconducting materials will have to be stacked on top of existing solar cells to convert a wider spectrum of sunlight into electricity.

“If you can stack something on top of a silicon wafer it will be pretty much unbeatable,” Green says.

Green and colleagues set a record for crystalline silicon solar module efficiency at 22.9% in 1996 that still holds today. Green doubts the efficiency of crystalline silicon alone will ever get much higher. With cell stacking, however, he says “the sky is the limit.”

A matter of size

While solar power is just starting to reach grid parity, wind energy is already there. In 2014, the average worldwide price of onshore wind energy was the same as electricity from natural gas, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

As with solar, the credit goes to technological advances and volume increases. For wind, however, innovation has mainly been a matter of size. From 1981 to 2015 the average length of a wind turbine rotor blade has increased more than sixfold, from 9 meters to 60 meters, as the cost of wind energy has dropped by a factor of 10.

“Increasing the rotor size means you are capturing more energy, and that is the single most import driver in reducing the cost of wind energy,” says D. Todd Griffith of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Griffith recently oversaw the design and testing of several 100-meter-long blade models at Sandia. His group didn’t actually build the blades, but created detailed designs that they subsequently tested in computer models. When the project started in 2009, the biggest blades in commercial operation were 60 meters long. Griffith and his colleagues wanted to see how far they could push the trend of ever-increasing blades before they ran into material limitations.

Their first design was an all-fiberglass blade that used a similar shape and materials as those found in relatively smaller commercial blades at the time. The result was a prohibitively heavy 126-ton blade that was so thin and long it would be susceptible to vibration in strong winds and gravitational strain.

The group made two subsequent designs employing stronger, lighter carbon fiber and a blade shape that was flat-backed instead of sharp-edged. The resulting 100-meter blade design was 60% lighter than the initial model.

Since the project began in 2009 the largest blades used in commercial offshore wind turbines have grown from 60 meters to roughly 80 meters with larger commercial prototypes now under development. “I fully expect to see 100 meter blades and beyond,” Griffith says.

As blades grow longer, the towers that elevate them are getting taller to catch more consistent, higher speed wind. And as towers grow taller, transportation costs are growing increasingly expensive. To counter the increased costs GE recently debuted a “space frame” tower, a steel lattice tower wrapped in fabric. The new towers use roughly 30% less steel than conventional tube towers of the same height and can be delivered entirely in standard-size shipping containers for on-site assembly. The company recently received a $3.7 million grant from the US Department of Energy to develop similar space frame blades.

Offshore innovation

Like crystalline silicon solar panels, however, existing wind technology will eventually run up against material limits. Another innovation on the horizon for wind is related instead to location. Wind farms are moving offshore in pursuit of greater wind resources and less land use conflict. The farther offshore they go, the deeper the water, making the current method of fixing turbines to the seafloor prohibitively expensive. If the industry moves instead to floating support structures, today’s top-heavy wind turbine design will likely prove too unwieldy.

One potential solution is a vertical axis turbine, one where the main rotor shaft is set vertically, like a merry go round, rather than horizontally like a conventional wind turbine. The generator for such a turbine could be placed at sea level, giving the device a much lower center of gravity.

“There is a very good chance that some other type of turbine technology, very well vertical axis, will be the most cost effective in deep water,” Griffith says.

The past decade has yielded remarkable innovations in solar and wind technology, bringing improvements in efficiency and cost that in some cases have exceeded the most optimistic expectations. What the coming decade will bring remains unclear, but if history is any guide, the future of renewables looks extremely positive.

The Quest for Electromagnetic ‘Full Absorption’ and the End of Power Lines

​”Harvesting the energy of electromagnetic waves” sounds redundant. As energy is a thing at all in its most reduced, pristine senseit is just that: electromagnetic waves. These waves, which can be viewed as electric and magnetic waves traveling separately but joined together, are just charged particles accelerated, reflecting changes within electric and magnetic fields. This is how energy freed from mass gets from place to place at the speed of light.

Harvesting these waves is the subject of a​ paper out this week in the Applied Physics Letters boasting the possibility of “full absorption.” This means the conversion of electromagnetic waves within a given range of frequencies with almost 100 percent efficiency. Fully absorbent materials reflect nothing and waste nothing.

In the new paper, researchers at the University of Waterloo describe the use of metasurfaces etched with different patterns of shapes, with each variation acting as a resonator that can be tuned to target a particular frequency. This tunability allows the material to achieve “full unity” (or very close to it) in its absorption of electromagnetic waves. This absorbed energy is then shuttled away from the surface through a conducting path connected to a resistant load (sort of an electrical sponge).

Image: AIP/Waterloo

“In this work, we present the design of a metamaterial harvester slab operating in the microwave regime based on an array of electric-inductive-capacitive resonators,” the Waterloo researchers write. “The experimental results showed that 93 percent of the incident power was channeled to the load resistance.” Pretty close to perfect.

“Conventional antennas can channel electromagnetic energy to a load-but at much lower energy absorption efficiency levels,” said study co-author Omar M. Ramahi, an electrical engineering professor at Waterloo, in ​an American Institute of Physics statement. “We can also channel the absorbed energy into a load, rather than having the energy dissipate in the material as was done in previous works.”

The idea is that a material like this could employed in such a way to match the ambient electromagnetic radiation of a given environment, or free-space impedance.

One potential application is in space-based solar energy harvesting. Via conventional solar panels, some satellite power plant would capture energy, which would then be converted into microwaves. These microwaves could then be beamed down at surface microwave collector farms. This could be a lot more bang per solar buck.

Another related possibility, according to Ramahi, is “wireless power transfer-directly adaptable to power remote devices such as RFID devices and tags or even remote devices in general.” In other words: the end of wires.

Solar Power Battle Puts Hawaii at Forefront of Worldwide Changes

HONOLULU – Allan Akamine has looked all around the winding, palm tree-lined cul-de-sacs of his suburban neighborhood in Mililani here on Oahu and, with an equal mix of frustration and bemusement, seen roof after roof bearing solar panels.

Mr. Akamine, 61, a manager for a cable company, has wanted nothing more than to lower his $600 to $700 monthly electric bill with a solar system of his own. But for 18 months or so, the state’s biggest utility barred him and thousands of other customers from getting one, citing concerns that power generated by rooftop systems was overwhelming its ability to handle it.

Only under strict orders from state energy officials did the utility, the Hawaiian Electric Company, recently rush to approve the lengthy backlog of solar applications, including Mr. Akamine’s.

It is the latest chapter in a closely watched battle that has put this state at the forefront of a global upheaval in the power business. Rooftop systems now sit atop roughly 12 percent of Hawaii’s homes, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, by far the highest proportion in the nation.

“Hawaii is a postcard from the future,” said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, a policy and advocacy group based in California.

Other states and countries, including California, Arizona, Japan and Germany, are struggling to adapt to the growing popularity of making electricity at home, which puts new pressures on old infrastructure like circuits and power lines and cuts into electric company revenue.

As a result, many utilities are trying desperately to stem the rise of solar, either by reducing incentives, adding steep fees or effectively pushing home solar companies out of the market. In response, those solar companies are fighting back through regulators, lawmakers and the courts.

The shift in the electric business is no less profound than those that upended the telecommunications and cable industries in recent decades. It is already remaking the relationship between power companies and the public while raising questions about how to pay for maintaining and operating the nation’s grid.

The issue is not merely academic, electrical engineers say.

In solar-rich areas of California and Arizona, as well as in Hawaii, all that solar-generated electricity flowing out of houses and into a power grid designed to carry it in the other direction has caused unanticipated voltage fluctuations that can overload circuits, burn lines and lead to brownouts or blackouts.

“Hawaii’s case is not isolated,” said Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the smart grid program at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a technical association. “When we push year-on-year 30 to 40 percent growth in this market, with the number of installations doubling, quickly – every two years or so – there’s going to be problems.”

The economic threat also has electric companies on edge. Over all, demand for electricity is softening while home solar is rapidly spreading across the country. There are now about 600,000 installed systems, and the number is expected to reach 3.3 million by 2020, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Edison Electric Institute, the main utility trade group, has been warning its members of the economic perils of high levels of rooftop solar since at least 2012, and the companies are responding. In February, the Salt River Project, a large utility in Arizona, approved charges that could add about $50 to a typical monthly bill for new solar customers, while last year in Wisconsin, where rooftop solar is still relatively rare, regulators approved fees that would add $182 a year for the average solar customer.

In Hawaii, the current battle began in 2013, when Hawaiian Electric started barring installations of residential solar systems in certain areas. It was an abrupt move – a panicked one, critics say – made after the utility became alarmed by the technical and financial challenges of all those homes suddenly making their own electricity.

The utility wants to cut roughly in half the amount it pays customers for solar electricity they send back to the grid. But after a study showed that with some upgrades the system could handle much more solar than the company had assumed, the state’s public utilities commission ordered the utility to begin installations or prove why it could not.

It was but one sign of the agency’s growing impatience with what it considers the utility’s failure to adapt its business model to the changing market.

Hawaiian Electric is scrambling to accede to that demand, approving thousands of applications in recent weeks. But it is under pressure on other fronts as well. NextEra Energy, based in Florida, is awaiting approval to buy it, while other islands it serves are exploring defecting to form their own cooperative power companies.

It is also upgrading its circuits and meters to better regulate the flow of electricity. Rooftop solar makes far more power than any other single source, said Colton Ching, vice president for energy delivery at Hawaiian Electric, but the utility can neither control nor predict the output.

“At every different moment, we have to make sure that the amount of power we generate is equal to the amount of energy being used, and if we don’t keep that balance things go unstable,” he said, pointing to the illuminated graphs and diagrams tracking energy production from wind and solar farms, as well as coal-fueled generators in the utility’s main control room. But the rooftop systems are “essentially invisible to us,” he said, “because they sit behind a customer’s meter and we don’t have a means to directly measure them.”

For customers, such explanations offer little comfort as they continue to pay among the highest electric rates in the country and still face an uncertain solar future.

“I went through all this trouble to get my electric bill down, and I am still waiting,” said Joyce Villegas, 88, who signed her contract for a system in August 2013 but was only recently approved and is waiting for the installation to be completed.

Mr. Akamine expressed resignation over the roughly $12,000 he could have saved, but wondered about the delay. “Why did it take forceful urging from the local public utility commission to open up more permits?” he asked.

Installers – who saw their fast-growing businesses slow to a trickle – are also frustrated with the pace. For those who can afford it, said James Whitcomb, chief executive of Haleakala Solar, which he started in 1977, the answer may lie in a more radical solution: Avoid the utility and its grid altogether.

Customers are increasingly asking about the batteries that he often puts in along with the solar panels, allowing them to store the power they generate during the day for use at night. It is more expensive, but it breaks consumer reliance on the utility’s network of power lines.

“I’ve actually taken people right off the grid,” he said, including a couple who got tired of waiting for Hawaiian Electric to approve their solar system and expressed no interest in returning to utility service. “The lumbering big utilities that are so used to taking three months to study this and then six months to do that – what they don’t understand is that things are moving at the speed of business. Like with digital photography – this is inevitable.”

The Rich in Beverly Hills Seem Oblivious to California’s Water Shortage

With California facing one of its most severe droughts in memory, and the state gearing up for the first mandatory water restrictions in history, much attention is being paid to California’s farmers who aren’t being asked to cut back as much as the rest of the state’s citizens.

At the opposite end of the economic scale, however, little attention is being paid to the Golden State’s other water-guzzling citizens: the rich folks who live in wealthy enclaves like Beverly Hills, Malibu, and other desirable zip codes.

According to the LA Times, Beverly Hills and other affluent cities use far more water per capita than less-wealthy communities, prompting concerns that threats of fines for not observing mandatory restrictions may have little effect on those who can easily pay them without missing a beat.

In 2011, when lower income communities like Santa Ana in Orange County used approximately 38 gallons a day per capita, residents in wealthier areas like Palos Verdes Estates and Newport Beach were using more than 150 gallons, or almost four times the amount per day.

According to George Murdoch, general manager of utilities in Newport Beach, “Some people – believe it or not – don’t know we are in a drought. We have people that own a home here but aren’t around a lot, so they could miss a leak.”

Stephanie Pincetl, who worked on a UCLA water-use study, has another theory: wealthy Californians are “lacking a sense that we are all in this together.”

“The problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich,” Pincetl said.

Beverly Hills officials explain that they have focused on water saving education so far, instituting an emergency water conservation plan that calls for voluntary limits on use of fountains that don’t use recycled water, eliminating pavement washing, and cutting back on lawn watering by 10 percent.

But officials are concerned that the governor’s call to reduce water consumption by 25 percent may fall on the deaf ears of people unaccustomed to having to listen to things they don’t want to hear.

An entertainment industry worker who identified himself only as Eric said he has cut back on water usage, but admits he has a fountain, a jacuzzi, and lemon and orange trees to consider.

“This is America. You gotta live it up a little bit, right?” he said.

City officials in Newport Beach and Beverly Hills, have seen a steady drop in water use over the last few months, but remain concerned how much people in their upscale communities will cut back despite the threat of fines.

“In this part of town, everyone is just too important to see outside themselves,” explained Kay Dangaard, a longtime Beverly Hills resident. “Where are these people going to go with all their money when the water is gone?”

Protesters Try to Stop Nestle Water Bottling Plant in South Sacramento


In the darkness of the early morning hours protesters gathered at the driveway of the Nestlé water bottling plant.

Armed with signs and props like torches and pitch forks they made their position known.

Environmental and water rights activists blockaded all truck entrances to the plant.

This is a similar scene to a protest back in October of last year. The plan this morning was to shut down the company’s operations.

At issue: the amount of water the company uses to sell for profit, especially during a drought.

But Nestle says they are in compliance, and pay the same rate for water as any other metered business or manufacturer in the city of Sacramento.

Nestlé’s spokesperson went on to say the company believes in people’s right to protest and that like all businesses in California they are looking at ways to conserve.

In 2014 Nestlé says it used 50 million gallons from the Sacramento Municipal Water Supply, which they say is a fraction of one percent of total water demand within the city of Sacramento.

Adoption Of 100% Renewables Targets Could Deliver $500 Billion In Savings To Major Economies

The adoption of goals aiming for the achievement of 100% renewable energy (with regard to retail electricity) by the year 2050 could save the major economies of the world — the European Union, the United States, China — more than $500 billion a year (combined), according to a new study from the NewClimate Institute (commissioned by Climate Action Network).

As well as delivering huge savings in energy costs, the adoption of strong targets would result in the creation of millions of new jobs, according to the new work.

Also worth noting is that, according to the new work, if all countries adopted (and acted upon) such goals, then the anthropogenic temperature increase (global warming) could be limited to under the 2°C threshold that some researchers have marked as the point of no return as far as serious issues go.

(Author’s note: I’m not so convinced that the climate can be modelled to such a precise degree as to provide useful predictions in this regard. Yes, carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases, yes the planet is warming, and yes people are implicated in that, but…. The climate is a very complex system, one not easily modelled or predicted to any precise degree. While it would be prudent from a ‘rational’ perspective to curtail greenhouse gas emissions (on a global level), what’s going to happen exactly is something of an open question. We’ll find out soon enough though — I expect to see significant issues arising from anthropogenic climate change within my lifetime.)

The new report comes as many countries are beginning to create their climate offers for upcoming (in December) UN climate talks — where, presumably, a new international agreement will be signed.

According to the new report, if the steps outlined for the EU, the US, and China in the new report are followed to the T, then around 3 million new jobs will be created by 2030; the deaths of two million people by air pollution related diseases will be prevented; and huge savings (of around $520 billion a year) will be afforded, owing to reduced fossil fuel imports.

Affordable Electric Cars Are Coming Soon, Study Says

For many of us, purchasing an electric vehicle is still a pie in the sky dream. But that might be changing soon, if a new peer-reviewed study is correct that the cost of electric car batteries is falling much more quickly than we assumed.

Lithium ion batteries make up anywhere between a quarter and half the cost of electric cars today. By systematically reviewing over 80 cost estimates published between 2007 and 2014, researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute found that the cost of Li-battery packs used by leading manufacturers like Tesla and Nissan is falling by roughly 8 % per year. That’s similar to the rate that was seen with the nickel metal hydride battery technology used in hybrids like the Toyota Prius.

What’s more, it means that battery cost is rapidly approaching a threshold that could make the average Joe think seriously about trading in his gas guzzler. According to MIT Technology Review:

The authors of the new study concluded that the battery packs used by market-leading EV manufacturers cost as little as $300 per kilowatt-hour of energy in 2014. That’s lower than the most optimistic published projections for 2015, and even below the average published projection for 2020. The authors found that batteries appear on track to reach $230 per kilowatt-hour by 2018. Depending on the price of gas, the sticker price of an EV is expected to appeal to many more people if its battery costs between $125 and $300 per kilowatt-hour.

Of course, other factors matter when it comes to giving up gasoline, including EV ranges and the expected useful lifespan of the battery. Another recent study gives us hope on these fronts, as well: Analyzing power fade over time, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab found that even after batteries have lost 20 percent of their originally rated energy storage capacity, they could still meet the daily travel needs for more than 85% of US citizens.

We should take all of this with a healthy dose of skepticism-energy costs projections are often wrong-but still, electric vehicles do seem to be moving mainstream fast. If Elon Musk had it his way, we’d all be getting driven around by autonomous Teslas this summer, but more realistically, ten years out doesn’t sound like too much to hope for. [ MIT Technology Review]

Read the full study at Nature Climate Change.

Follow Maddie on Twitter or contact her at [email protected]

Study Shows That The Chemical Used To Clean Up BP Oil Spill Is Completely Toxic

Researchers at the University of Alabama recently published a study suggesting that Corexit EC9500A, the primary oil dispersant used in the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, is causing major harm to the local eco-system.

According to the study, Corexit damages epithelium cells in both humans and marine animals.

The study was published in PLOS ONE this week and studied the effect that the chemical had on the bodies of humans, zebrafish, and blue crabs.

“There were some 48,000 workers involved in the cleanup operations, and it is possible that workers were exposed to Corexit via inhalation. Cough, shortness of breath and sputum production were among symptoms expressed by workers, ” Veena Antony, one of the researchers said.

According to the study, “The evidence that Corexit causes structural and functional abnormalities in airway tissue includes dispersant-induced cell detachment, edema, contraction in cell diameter and increased permeability.”

Corexit exposure led to an increase in NOX4 activation, and there is evidence that the increase of NOX4 is tied to increased apoptosis. On the other hand, HO-1 was also activated following Corexit exposure. We also noted that the introduction of HO-1 following injury served to remediate the effects of that injury,” Antony added.

At the time of the spill, many activists had spoken out against the use of Corexit, but it was used indiscriminately anyway, as if it was the only option. It is possible that these new studies could help to prevent this toxic chemical from being used in the future.

In summary, our results indicate that respiratory epithelial surfaces across phylogenetic species are sensitive to injury by Corexit. However, the enzyme HO-1 protects against inflammation and cell death induced by Corexit. Unfortunately, the likelihood of another oil spill is high, and the need to use dispersal agents will remain. We propose that upregulating HO-1 may offer a novel therapeutic approach for treating dispersant-induced injury and apo’ptosis by enhancing the antioxidant and anti-apoptotic ability of the epitheliu m,” Antony said.

The video below is several years old, but it shows a prior independent study conducted by engineer Marco Kaltofen, which also shows the effects of Corexit.

John Vibes writes for True Activist and is an author, researcher and investigative journalist who takes a special interest in the counter culture and the drug war.


Zero Deforestation arrangement for Palm oil to be implemented by KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut

Yum! Brands, the organization that claims KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, on Thursday reported a zero deforestation arrangement for its palm oil sourcing. The move came after forceful battles by ecological gatherings that argued that the restaurants weren’t doing what’s needed to guarantee the palm oil they used to cook food wasn’t connected to human rights misuses, obliteration of peat lands, and logging of rainforests.

The strategy sets December 2017 as focus for creating shields for palm oil sourcing. Yum! says it will just come from suppliers who block farmstead advancement in high carbon stock and high preservation esteem ranges, in the same way as rainforests and peat lands; have debate determination forms set up; offer traceability to the plant level; and evade underage laborers and constrained work.

The benchmarks apply Yum’s! worldwide fast food business, the importance it applies to every last bit of its restaurants.

Yum! has a comparable arrangement of rules for its paper and fiber sourcing.

The declaration was immediately accepted by Greenpeace, which battled against the organization’s mash and paper sourcing practices in 2012.

Rolf Skar, Woods Crusade Executive at Greenpeace USA., said, “Yum! Brands’ new palm oil policy is a good sign it’s listening to customers around the world who want rainforest destruction taken off the menu.”

He added, “more clearly define terms like ‘high carbon stock forest’ and ‘best management practices’ for peat lands in order to make sure change really happens on the ground.”

Nonetheless, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a support assembly discharged on Wednesday, a scorecard giving Yum! a zero out of 100 rank on its palm oil approach, which needed more from the organization.

“Yum! Brands seem to have good intentions with this commitment, “said UCS’s Lael Goodman in an announcement. “The problem is that palm oil is also a common ingredient in some the company’s baked goods and sauces – products that are prepared by a third-party vendor – and are not covered under the commitment. This is where the commitment loses steam.”

However, Goodman said that the approach would increase Yum! on UCS’s scorecard, moving it out of the base position it imparted to Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr, Dairy Ruler, and Domino’s.

“The company scored a zero as of yesterday, but today’s announcement will surely raise their score somewhat,” she stated.

“However, if Yum! Brands wants to be an environmental leader amongst fast food giants, the company should to extend the commitment to all forms of palm oil and bulk up its transparency efforts. Such transparency efforts include reporting the quantities of palm oil used and on the commitment’s implementation.”

Yum’s! dedication has been made much simpler as of recent years with the reception of zero deforestation arrangements by a percentage of the world’s biggest palm oil makers and dealers, including Brilliant Agri Assets, Wilmar, Cargill, Musim Mas, IOI, and Bunge.

These approaches have developed as a direct after effect of weight from backing gatherings and shoppers concerned over palm oil’s part in driving change of peat lands and rainforests for farms.

The damage was found mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia; however the business has its sights on growing in West and Focal Africa, the Amazon, Focal America, and different parts of tropical Asia.

California Imposes First Mandatory Water Restrictions to Deal With Drought

PHILLIPS, Calif. – Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered mandatory water use reductions for the first time in California’s history, saying the state’s four-year drought had reached near-crisis proportions after a winter of record-low snowfalls.

Mr. Brown, in an executive order, directed the State Water Resources Control Board to impose a 25 percent reduction on the state’s 400 local water supply agencies, which serve 90 percent of California residents, over the coming year. The agencies will be responsible for coming up with restrictions to cut back on water use and for monitoring compliance. State officials said the order would impose varying degrees of cutbacks on water use across the board – affecting homeowners, farms and other businesses, as well as the maintenance of cemeteries and golf courses.

While the specifics of how this will be accomplished are being left to the water agencies, it is certain that Californians across the state will have to cut back on watering gardens and lawns – which soak up a vast amount of the water this state uses every day – as well as washing cars and even taking showers.

“People should realize we are in a new era,” Mr. Brown said at a news conference here on Wednesday, standing on a patch of brown and green grass that would normally be thick with snow at this time of year. “The idea of your nice little green lawn getting watered every day, those days are past.”

Owners of large farms, who obtain their water from sources outside the local water agencies, will not fall under the 25 percent guideline. State officials noted that many farms had already seen a cutback in their water allocations because of the drought. In addition, the owners of large farms will be required, under the governor’s executive order, to offer detailed reports to state regulators about water use, ideally as a way to highlight incidents of water diversion or waste.

Because of this system, state officials said, they did not expect the executive order to result – at least in the immediate future – in an increase in farm or food prices.

State officials said that they were prepared to enforce punitive measures, including fines, to ensure compliance, but that they were hopeful it would not be necessary to do so. That said, the state had trouble reaching the 20 percent reduction target that Mr. Brown set in January 2014 when he issued a voluntary reduction order as part of declaring a drought emergency. The state water board has the power to impose fines on local water suppliers that fail to meet the reduction targets set by the board over the coming weeks.

The governor announced what amounts to a dramatic new chapter in the state’s response to the drought while attending the annual April 1 measuring of the snowpack here in the Sierra Nevada. Snowpacks are critical to the state’s water system: They store water that falls during the wet season, and release it through the summer.

In a typical year, the measure in Phillips is around five or six feet, as Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Survey Program, indicated by displaying the measuring stick brought out annually. But on Wednesday, Mr. Brown was standing on an utterly dry field after he and Mr. Gehrke went through the motions of measuring a snowpack. State officials said they now expected the statewide snowpack measure to be about 6 percent of normal.

“We are standing on dry grass, and we should be standing on five feet of snow,” Mr. Brown said. “We are in an historic drought.”

Water has long been a precious resource in California, the subject of battles pitting farmer against city-dweller and northern communities against southern ones; books and movies have been made about its scarcity and plunder. Water is central to the state’s identity and economy, and a symbol of how wealth and ingenuity have tamed nature: There are golf courses in the deserts of Palm Springs, lush gardens and lawns in Los Angeles, and vast expanses of irrigated fields of farmland throughout the Central Valley.

Given that backdrop, any effort to force reductions in water use could be politically contentious, as Mr. Brown himself acknowledged. “This will be somewhat of a burden – it’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “People will say, ‘What about the farmers?’ Farmers will say, ‘What about the people who water their lawns?’ “

Within hours of Mr. Brown’s announcement, Representative Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who is the House majority leader, announced plans to renew efforts in Congress to pass legislation requiring the building of two huge water facilities in the state. The efforts had been blocked by Democrats concerned that the water projects would harm the environment and damage endangered species of fish.

“The current drought in California is devastating,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Today’s order from the governor should not only alarm Californians, but the entire nation should take notice that the most productive agriculture state in the country has entered uncharted territory.”

“I’m from the Central Valley, and we know that we cannot conserve or ration our way out of this drought,” he said.

The newly mandated 25 percent cut is in relation to total water use in the state in 2013. Cuts will vary from community to community, reflecting that per capita water use reduction has been better in some areas than others. In addition, the state and local governments will offer temporary rebate programs for homeowners who replace dishwashers and washing machines with water-efficient models.

Mr. Brown said the state would impose water-use restrictions on golf courses and cemeteries and require that nonpotable water be used on median dividers.

Lawns consume much of the water used every year in California, and the executive order calls for the state, working with local governments, to replace 50 million acres of ornamental turf with planting that consumes less water.

The order also instructs water authorities to raise rates on heavy water users. Those pricing systems, intended to reward conservers and punish wasters, are used in some parts of this state and have proved effective, state officials said.

Felicia Marcus, the chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said that California would leave it to local water providers to decide how to enforce the reductions on homeowners and businesses. She said she anticipated that most of the restrictions would be aimed at the outdoor use of water; many communities have already imposed water restrictions on lawns and gardens, but Ms. Marcus suggested they had not gone far enough.

“We are in a drought unlike one we’ve seen before, and we have to take actions that we haven’t taken before,” she said. “We are not getting the level of effort that the situation clearly warrants.”

Mark W. Cowin, the director of the California Department of Water Resources, said the state would tightly monitor compliance, in the hope that would be enough to accomplish the 25 percent reduction. If it is not, the order authorizes water suppliers to penalize offenders.

“We are looking for success, not to be punitive,” Mr. Cowin said. “In the end, if people and communities don’t comply, there will be repercussions, including fines.”

Obama Unveils Smart Plan To Combat Climate Change While Training 75,000 Vets For Jobs

while speaking in Utah, President Obama announced a new program that will combat climate change while training 75,000 veterans for jobs in the solar industry.

The President said:

I am announcing a new goal to train 75,000 workers to enter the solar industry by 2020. As part of this, we’re creating what we’re calling a solar ready vets program that’s modeled after some successful pilot initiatives that have already been established over the last several years.

It’s going to train transitioning military personnel for careers in this growing industry at ten bases including right here at Hill, and as part of this effort we’re also going to work with states to enable more veterans to use the post-9/11 GI Bill for solar job training.

It’s one of the many steps we’re taking to help nearly 700,000 military veterans and spouses get a job. In fact, about thirty percent of the federal workforce is now made up of veterans. I’ve said it before, and I think employers are starting to catch on if you really want to get the job done, hire a veteran.

The plan is smart because it trains tens of thousands of transitioning military personnel and spouses for a civilian job in an industry that is growing ten times faster than the national average. The president also pointed out the military bases that get a substantial percentage of their energy from the sun save money that can applied towards other goals and missions.

The nation has undergone a dramatic shift from a president who fought a foreign war for oil (Bush and Iraq) to a forward thinking president who is using growing clean energy industry industries to train veterans of the Bush wars for good paying jobs.

The plan that the President unveiled isn’t just good politics. It’s also common sense. No veteran should have to take a low-paying service industry job because they can’t find anything else. It is part of our national obligation to everything possible to help those who served succeed when they return home.

President Obama is creating opportunities for today’s veterans to acquire the jobs of tomorrow.

Chorus of Outrage as Obama Administration Approves Arctic Drilling for Shell Oil

Environmental activists expressed shock and outrage on Tuesday after the U.S. Department of the Interior upheld a 2008 lease sale on the Arctic’s Chuchki Sea, opening the door for continued oil exploration in a region long eyed for drilling by Shell Corporation and increasingly strained under the effects of climate change.

The decision opens up 30 million acres in the Chuchki Sea to fossil fuel exploration and drilling, a move which state and national green groups called “unconscionable.”

“Our Arctic ocean is flat out the worst place on Earth to drill for oil,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The world’s last pristine sea, it is both too fragile to survive a spill and too harsh and remote for effective cleanup.”

In January 2014, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Interior Department had violated the law when it sold those 2008 leases-a deal that came about during George W. Bush’s presidency, but was upheld two years later by the Obama administration.

The 2014 decision ordered the Interior Department to reconsider the leases. A month later, the department admitted that drilling in the Chucki Sea was likely to have devastating consequences, with a spill risk of 75 percent or more.

“It is unconscionable that the federal government is willing to risk the health and safety of the people and wildlife that live near and within the Chukchi Sea for Shell’s reckless pursuit of oil,” said Marissa Knodel, a climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth. “Shell’s dismal record of safety violations and accidents, coupled with the inability to clean up or contain an oil spill in the remote, dangerous Arctic waters, equals a disaster waiting to happen.”

“Ignoring its own environmental review, the U.S. Department of the Interior has opened the door for drilling in the remote and iconic Arctic Ocean,” said the Sierra Club on Tuesday.

“It’s shocking that the Department of the Interior would knowingly move forward with a plan that has a 75 percent chance of creating a major spill in the Chukchi Sea. We can’t trust Shell or any other oil company with America’s Arctic,” Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, added. “Shell has proposed an even dirtier and riskier Arctic drilling program for this summer. The Obama administration has seen the impacts of what a major oil spill looks like.”

The Bureau of Ocean Management will next conduct an environmental assessment on Shell’s exploration plan for the Chuchki Sea, which could take 30 days or more.

The Chuchki Sea is home to an estimated 2,000 polar bears and serves as the feeding grounds for migratory gray whales.

“The industrial oil development that Interior hopes will flow from its decision to approve the Chukchi lease sale gives us a 75 percent chance of a large oil spill and a 100 percent chance of worsening the climate crisis,” Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, added. “I don’t like those odds.”

Why Keystone XL Opponents Care About a Canadian Pipeline

TransCanada on Thursday announced a two-year delay to its plans to move the Canadian tar sands. The company is cancelling its plans to build a controversial export terminal in Quebec, citing environmental concern over the endangered beluga whale. This means a delay to plans for finishing the Energy East pipeline, now set for 2020. In the meantime, TransCanada will search for a new location for its port.

For once, then, Canadian oil news isn’t about the TransCanada-owned Keystone XL, which has faced a six-year delay as the Obama administration sits on a decision to issue a permit. At least not directly, anyway. Energy East, once completed, would be even bigger than Keystone XL, delivering 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day, compared to Keystone’s 800,000 barrels. As its name implies, the pipeline would run from the Alberta tar sands eastward to the shipping lanes of the Atlantic coast.

Not only are Keystone and Energy East similar battles, but proponents (and opponents) often tie the two pipelines’ fates together. Keystone opponents say building that pipeline would ensure tar sands extraction continues at a rapid pace, setting the world on track for severe climate change. Proponents argue that Keystone doesn’t matter either way, because other pipelines like Energy East make tar sands development inevitable. If the United States doesn’t build its pipeline, they say, Americans will miss out on the economic benefits. “We don’t think there’s any way that the oil will stay in the ground,” Matt Letourneau, a spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said last year. “Certainly the market will find a way.”

But so long as there are delays, tar sands development isn’t inevitable because Energy East’s future, like Keystone’s, is far from settled. Oil companies are still in the middle of working out how to get the landlocked tar sands to the coasts for refining and shipment, and during their delays on multiple fronts, Keystone isn’t a futile fight.

The delay could provide a boost to organizers trying to delay other tar sands projects. Each of these pipelines face a similar environmental playbook: Delay as long as possible in the hopes that it becomes unprofitable or impossible for companies to pursue their plans. Keystone has faced years of delay, and now Energy East faces its own uncertain future. Environmentalists weren’t the only reason for TransCanada’s change of plans. Because oil prices are low right now, companies have little incentive to pursue their plans to extract costly tar sands for little profit.

TransCanada still has a strong incentive to find a new port and finish construction. Oil prices surely will rebound eventually, making the tar sands profitable once again.

“I don’t think you can look at this as a major impediment to the future of oil sands development but it certainly speaks to the opposition to pipelines, the anxiety about shipments of oil and, of course, to the increasing importance of environmental protection to the public,” Andrew Leach, an economist with the University of Alberta, said. “The beluga is an iconic species, so I think the writing was on the wall for this once the risk to habitat was made clear, in particular in Quebec.”

In the short-term, however, this is a win for environmentalists. And it may even help them in their fight against Keystone.

Rebecca Leber is a staff writer for The New Republic.

SolarCity launches community microgrids with Tesla batteries

Mar 27, Technology/Energy & Green Tech

SolarCity, well-known for rooftop solar systems, is expanding to so-called microgrids, larger power systems that can be tapped by communities when the power grid goes down.

The systems, which add generators and software to manage the power to standard solar panels, will include Tesla Motors batteries to store the energy generated. While the owner can tap the solar power for daily use, the main purpose is to maintain electricity in the event of a natural disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane.

“There has been a dramatic increase in severe weather events the last few years – climate-related, almost certainly – and its led to more grid outages,” SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass noted, pointing to the storm known as Sandy that hit the Northeast last year as a prominent recent example.

The company is targeting cities that are in the line of fire for such catastrophic events for the new service.

“Traditionally, microgrids have been used in campuses, medical facilities and military bases, and we will pursue some of those opportunities if they become available,” said Daidipya Patwa, who is leading SolarCity’s microgrid efforts, “but our primary target is municipalities, communities and areas with a weak grid or no grid at all.”

That focus opens up a potentially large market, said GTM Research analyst Shayle Kann.

“Any municipality in a region that is prone to some kind of natural disaster … they have a few key locations that they need to keep running in the event of an outage or a natural disaster – a community center where they’re going to house people or police stations,” the analyst said.

This will also be the first major effort overseas for SolarCity, as the company shops its microgrids to island nations with poor power grids. While Bass said the bulk of its microgrid business will focus on the United States and North America, he noted that it will be the first international work for SolarCity aside from its charitable work to provide lights at schools in the developing world.

These types of systems have the potential to make a big difference in the developing world, Kann said.

“Ultimately, it seems like this solution could be used to electrify rural areas in the developing world or to provide better reliability in places where the grid goes down a lot,” the analyst explained.

SolarCity will attempt to squeeze into a market segment with a product better than home tinkerers can build and less expensive than larger rivals.

“The approach to microgrids to date has largely been either piecing something together from some small equipment vendors or you go at the high end, to a GM or Siemens and pay upward of $10 million for a massive solution that may not be, from a budget standpoint realistic, especially for a rainy-day solution,” Bass noted.

SolarCity hopes to tap economies of scale to accomplish its goal: The San Mateo company acquired Fremont solar panel manufacturer Silevo last year and plans to build a large solar panel factory in New York, while Tesla Motors – run by SolarCity Chairman and investor Elon Musk – builds a massive “Gigafactory” for the lithium-ion batteries that the microgrid systems will use.

“(Tesla is) manufacturing advanced battery technology at a scale that’s just not seen anywhere else, and we absolutely expect that to drive the cost down over time,” Bass said.

While SolarCity seems to have a road map that will allow it to build microgrids for interested customers, the question will be whether there will be enough communities willing to take the plunge, Kann said.

“The operative question is how big this will be for SolarCity, and more broadly, how big the microgrid market will be in general,” he said.

©2015 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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China thinking about solar power plants in space – report – SeeNews Renewables

China thinking about solar power plants in space – report

Xi’an. Author: Muhammad Taslim Razin. License: Creative Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

March 30 (SeeNews) – A bunch of scientists from China are currently considering the pros and cons of building a solar power station some 36,000 kilometres (22,369 miles) above Earth, Xinhua News Agency said Monday.

The idea may become reality as the world’s number-one carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter is seeking to reduce its smog and greenhouse gas emissions. A space-based solar power station is expected to generate roughly ten times more electricity compared to photovoltaic (PV) panels on the ground, Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) member, Duan Baoyan, was cited as saying.

The concept involves launching a super spacecraft, equipped with bigger-than-usual solar modules, on a geosynchronous orbit. The output would be transmitted by way of microwaves or laser beams to reach the ground. This could become possible only when the efficiency of this wireless power transmission technology climbs to around 50%, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the International Academy of Astronautics member, Wang Xiji, has said.

According to Xinhua’s report today, another challenge to developing a commercially-viable space power station may be its weight, estimated at more than 10,000 tonnes. To solve the problem, China will have to come up with a cheap heavy-lift launch vehicle, as well as very thin and light solar panels.

Actually, China is not the only one to think about producing electricity in space. Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd (TYO:7011) earlier this month successfully performed a ground demonstration test of long-distance wireless transmission of 10 kW power. It wants to use that technology in its space solar power systems (SSPS). The US has also carried out studies in connection to space solar power technology over the past few years.

This Texas town will get all of its energy from solar and wind

This story was originally published by The Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

ews that a Texas city is to be powered by 100-percent renewable energy sparked surprise in an oil-obsessed, Republican-dominated state where fossil fuels are king and climate change activists were described as ” the equivalent of the flat-earthers ” by U.S. Senator and GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz.

“I was called an Al Gore clone, a tree hugger,” says Jim Briggs, interim city manager of Georgetown, a community of about 50,000 people some 25 miles north of Austin.

Briggs, who was a key player in Georgetown’s decision to become the first city in the Lone Star State to be powered by 100-percent renewable energy, has worked for the city for 30 years. He wears a belt with shiny, silver decorations and a gold ring with a lone star motif, and is keen to point out that he is not some kind of California-style eco-warrior with a liberal agenda. In fact, he is a staunchly Texan pragmatist.

“I’m probably the furthest thing from an Al Gore clone you could find,” he says. “We didn’t do this to save the world – we did this to get a competitive rate and reduce the risk for our consumers.”

In many Texas cities, the electricity market is deregulated, meaning that customers choose from a dizzying variety of providers and plans. In Houston, for example, there are more than 70 plans that offer energy from entirely renewable sources.

That makes it easy to switch, so in a dynamic marketplace, providers tend to focus on the immediate future. This discourages the creation of renewable energy facilities, which require long-term investment to be viable. But in Georgetown, the city utility company has a monopoly.

When its staff examined their options last year, they discovered something that seemed remarkable, especially in Texas: Renewable energy was cheaper than non-renewable. And so last month, city officials finalized a deal with SunEdison, a giant multinational solar energy company. It means that by January 2017, all electricity within the city’s service area will come from wind and solar power.

In 2014, the city signed a 20-year agreement with EDF for wind power from a forthcoming project near Amarillo. Taking the renewable elements up to 100 percent, SunEdison will build plants in West Texas that will provide Georgetown with 150 megawatts of solar power in a deal running from 2016 or 2017 to 2041. With consistent and reliable production the goal, the combination takes into account that wind farms generate most of their energy in the evenings, after the sun has set.

Despite its proximity to the left-leaning Austin, Georgetown is not instinctively progressive. Its main selling point is the old-school charm of its historic core, which credibly bills itself as the Most Beautiful Town Square In Texas. It is not a natural political companion to Burlington, a similar-sized city in liberal Vermont that last year reportedly became the first city in the U.S. to use 100-percent renewable energy.

Though Georgetown is home to Southwestern University, a liberal arts college, Briggs said that more than 40 percent of residents are over 50. The area is conservative and much of the positive reaction to the announcement has come less because the citizens are desperate to help the planet than because they are getting the security of a fixed rate plan that will be similar to the current cost of about 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour and will protect them against the impact of fluctuations in the price of fossil fuels.

Chris Foster, Georgetown’s manager of resource planning and integration, said that since the announcement he has “gotten calls from businesses as far away as California and Maryland wanting to know: What does it cost to move over here? [They say:] ‘We’re out here trying to be renewable; it’s cheaper over there to be renewable.'”

He said that for manufacturing companies conscious of their carbon footprint, basing themselves in a place that offers 100-percent wind and solar energy would be an easy way to boost their green credentials.

In a state that loves to bash Washington, what little criticism there has been, Briggs said, has stemmed from the federal tax breaks handed out to encourage renewable energy.

“Well then, we should never have mass transit and quit farming … that argument, while it’s there, is really pretty shallow,” he says.

Fearing an imminent end to the government’s generosity, private green energy companies have scrambled to build facilities. At the same time, in recent years a glut of Chinese-made panels has made solar power more cost-effective. And while West Texas is an oil driller’s paradise, it is also sunny and gusty, making it a perfect corridor for renewable energy.

The region bordering New Mexico is one of the prime solar resource sites and the wind whistles across the plains to such an extent that, as Scientific American pointed out last year, the state is America’s largest wind power producer – as well as leading the nation in the production of crude oil and the emission of greenhouse gases.

Renewable energy also uses much less water than traditional power generation – a bonus in a state where half the land and more than 9 million people are affected by drought conditions, though Briggs said that for Georgetown, water conservation was only a “side benefit.”

Greg Abbott, formerly Texas attorney general and now governor, repeatedly sued the federal government over its attempts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, the chair of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Bryan Shaw, said there is a “lack of links between greenhouse gases and the climate.” Shaw was appointed by former-Gov. Rick Perry, a notorious climate-change skeptic and a prospective Republican White House candidate for 2016.

Yet amid the rhetoric, denial and promotion of corporate interests and economic prosperity ahead of environmental concerns, over the past decade Texas lawmakers authorized the spending of $7 billion of taxpayers’ money on the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone, a vast infrastructure project to connect West Texas wind power to major urban areas.

So Texas has the weather, the infrastructure, and – certainly in small places such as Georgetown – the current market conditions to be greener. But a state report last September cast a cloud over the future of renewable energy in Texas, saying it was not reliable or extensive enough to meet peak demand. “Renewables need conventional power backup,” it said.

Fred Beach, assistant director for policy studies at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute, said that, “At the moment, unfortunately, the legislature is pretty clueless when it comes to renewables,” and is failing to get the most out of their investment.

Beach suspects that Big Oil will fret that Georgetown’s pioneering move is the start of a trend, and polluting, inefficient coal power plants will be pushed out of service by more deployment of wind and solar energy. But he believes that would likely prove good news for natural gas generators, who will be relied upon in the scorching summer months when demand is highest.

Ultimately, he said, in a practical-minded place like Texas, the best way to encourage the use of green energy is to appeal to heads rather than hearts and make a strong business case, as happened in Georgetown.

Russ Dickson, co-owner of an antiques shop on the main square, said he was delighted at the move.

“This is a pretty conservative community and to see a conservative community step up [and do this] makes me feel good about the future,” the 61-year-old said.

Outside, Jon Klopf, a barber, sat on a bench enjoying a splendidly sunny Thursday afternoon.

“They were just looking out for the cheapest deal. That’s just business,” the 50-year-old said. “I don’t really think we should be relying too much on oil, even though they have to right now. That don’t last forever.

“Sun will, though. Long as the sun comes up, the wind will blow.”

Why Low Oil Prices Won’t Stop The Growth Of Renewable Energy

by Posted on

Why Low Oil Prices Won’t Stop The Growth Of Renewable Energy


CREDIT: AP/Matt Young

Oil prices might be very low, but that’s not going to take away from investments in renewable energy.

That’s at least the consensus from Citigroup, the latest investment researcher to say clean energy won’t be slowed by cheap oil, Bloomberg reported Monday. Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs have also predicted that the oil price slump won’t affect renewable energy growth.

There’s a simple reason for this: Oil and renewables aren’t really in competition. Oil powers cars and heaters, and renewable energy – by and large – powers the electricity grid. (As we get more electric cars, transportation could increasingly rely on renewable energy, but we’re still pretty far from widespread electric car adoption.)

The United States generated merely one percent of its electricity with oil in 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration. Globally, only 11 countries get more than 20 percent of their electric power from oil, Bloomberg reported.

Natural gas, not oil, is in competition with renewable energy. The fastest-growing source of energy, natural gas-powered plants now provide more than a quarter of the U.S. electricity supply. However, if low oil prices cause suppliers to limit production, natural gas prices could actually go up, making renewable energy even more cost effective.

Renewable sources, including hydropower, contributed about 12 percent of the U.S. electricity supply last year.

Citigroup’s optimistic prediction about renewables comes at a time when clean energy investment is growing across the globe. Worldwide, investment in renewable energy went up 17 percent last year, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday.

“Once again in 2014, renewables made up nearly half of the net power capacity added worldwide,” Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNEP, said in a statement.

The cost-benefit analysis of renewable energy has been a huge debate in recent years. While conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity say we can’t afford to go renewable, others say we can’t afford not to. More than two-thirds of today’s proven fossil fuel reserves need to still be in the ground in 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change, according to the International Energy Agency.

Fortunately for clean energy proponents, prices for both wind and solar have fallen dramatically in recent years. The price of a residential solar system dropped by nearly half in the past five years, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Likewise, the cost of wind energy has dropped nearly 60 percent since 2009. Research shows during that same time period, jobs in the U.S. solar industry have grown by 85 percent.

In fact, the promise of job growth in the United States has been one of the strongest counterarguments to the perceived cost of renewable energy. As the United States and other countries announce carbon-cutting measures in advance of the U.N. climate talks in Paris later this year, it’s becoming clearer what clean energy job growth could look like on a global scale.

In “Assessing the Missed Benefits of Countries’ National Contributions,” also released Monday, scientists at the NewClimate Institute said that carbon-reduction commitments could create a million new “green jobs” in the United States, China, and the European Union by 2030.

“It is an economic incentive to act on climate for local benefits on fossil fuel imports, jobs and air pollution,” Niklas Höhne, one of the report’s authors, told ThinkProgress. “For many situations renewables are cost competitive with fossil fuel power plants. If then in addition the co-benefits are taken into account, they are often the preferred choice.”

One Step Closer to Artificial Leaves That Convert Water to Fuel

PASADENA, California, April 1, 2015 (ENS) – Inspired by a chemical process found in leaves, researchers at the California Institute of Technology have developed an electrically conductive film that could lead to devices that harness sunlight to split water (H2O), safely creating hydrogen fuel.

When applied to semiconducting materials such as silicon, the nickel oxide film facilitates an important chemical process in the solar-driven production of fuels such as methane or hydrogen.

“We have developed a new type of protective coating that enables a key process in the solar-driven production of fuels to be performed with record efficiency, stability, and effectiveness, and in a system that is intrinsically safe and does not produce explosive mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen,” says Nate Lewis, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Caltech and coauthor of a new study that describes the film.

The development could lead to safe, efficient artificial photosynthetic systems – also called solar-fuel generators or “artificial leaves.”

Such a system would replicate the natural process of photosynthesis that plants use to convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuel in the form of carbohydrates, or sugars.

The artificial leaf that Lewis’ team is developing in part at Caltech’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) consists of three main components: two electrodes – a photoanode and a photocathode – and a plastic membrane.

The photoanode uses sunlight to oxidize water molecules to generate oxygen gas, protons, and electrons, while the photocathode recombines the protons and electrons to form hydrogen gas.

The membrane keeps the two gases separate to eliminate any possibility of an explosion, and lets the gas be collected under pressure to safely push it into a pipeline.

All previous attempts have failed for various reasons.

“You want the coating to be many things: chemically compatible with the semiconductor it’s trying to protect, impermeable to water, electrically conductive, highly transparent to incoming light, and highly catalytic for the reaction to make oxygen and fuels,” says Lewis, who is also JCAP’s scientific director.

“Creating a protective layer that displayed any one of these attributes would be a significant leap forward, but what we’ve now discovered is a material that can do all of these things at once,” he said.

The team has shown that its nickel oxide film is compatible with many different kinds of semiconductor materials, including silicon, indium phosphide, and cadmium telluride.

When applied to photoanodes, the nickel oxide film exceeded the performance of other similar films – including one that Lewis’s group created just last year.

“After watching the photoanodes run at record performance without any noticeable degradation for 24 hours, and then 100 hours, and then 500 hours, I knew we had done what scientists had failed to do before,” said Ke Sun, a postdoctoral fellow in Lewis’s lab and the first author of the new study.

The team’s nickel oxide film works well with the membrane that separates the photoanode from the photocathode and staggers the production of hydrogen and oxygen gases from water (H2O), which consists of the two gases.

“Without a membrane, the photoanode and photocathode are close enough to each other to conduct electricity, and if you also have bubbles of highly reactive hydrogen and oxygen gases being produced in the same place at the same time, that is a recipe for disaster,” Lewis explains.

“With our film, you can build a safe device that will not explode, and that lasts and is efficient, all at once,” he said.

Lewis cautions that scientists are still far from developing a commercial product that can convert sunlight into fuel. Other components of the system, such as the photocathode, also need to be perfected.

“Our team is also working on a photocathode,” Lewis says. “What we have to do is combine both of these elements together and show that the entire system works. That will not be easy, but we now have one of the missing key pieces that has eluded the field for the past half-century.”

The study, “Stable solar-driven oxidation of water by semiconducting photoanodes protected by transparent catalytic nickel oxide films,” was published the week of March 9 in the online issue of the journal “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Additional authors on the paper include scientists from the University of Southampton and King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia, and Bruce Brunschwig, the director of the Molecular Materials Research Center at Caltech.

Funding for this research was provided by the Office of Science at the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Beckman Institute, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2015. All rights reserved.

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