The bright side of California’s drought: More solar power

520-drought-silver-lining-solarAs the four-year-long California drought goes from terrible to catastrophic, it’s hard to find any good news.

Love almonds? I’m so sorry for your loss. Water-hungry almond growers have begun to abandon hope, as evidenced by stacks of almond firewood on sale at Whole Foods. Farmers have started to sell water to cities rather than use it to grow crops. Many migrant laborers are out of work because there are fewer crops to plant or harvest. Fish are threatened by record-low runoff, possibly spelling the end of the Delta smelt. The all-important Sierra Nevada snowpack, which doles out water through the dry season as it melts, is at 6 percent of typical levels. Well diggers have become water miners, chasing an ever-declining water table in pursuit of water last seen in the Pleistocene.

The drought, either induced or exacerbated by climate change, is in turn making climate change worse. As California’s reservoirs dry up, hydroelectric power production is dropping. The Pacific Institute recently calculated that the loss of hydropower from 2012 to 2014 drove up power sector carbon emissions 8 percentand cost consumers $1.4 billion, as utilities replaced it with more expensive, and more polluting, natural gas.


climate denial divide

There’s an emerging right-wing divide on climate denial. Here’s what it means (and doesn’t)

climate denial divideFor as long as climate change has been a public agenda item — let’s date it back to 1988, when James Hansen testified to Congress — there has been a large faction within the public that refuses to accept it, composed primarily (not entirely, but primarily) of conservative white men.

It’s difficult to remember these days, but that faction did not always dominate the Republican Party. Establishment Republicans from George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush acknowledged that climate change is a real problem requiring a policy solution. John McCain put forward his own cap-and-trade plan when he ran against Obama in 2008.

But denial was always closer to the conservative heart than acceptance was. When the Tea Party swallowed the GOP in 2010, it eradicated the last shreds of accommodationism on climate. Since then, the party, at least the public face of the party, has been almost entirely dominated by old-school, unapologetic denial. The few remaining “moderates” in the party quickly fell in line and went silent (including courageous “maverick” John McCain).


climate change

Why FEMA Wants Your State to Stop Ignoring Climate Change

climate changeThe Federal Emergency Management Agency wants states to do a better job planning for the natural disasters they are likely to face in a warming world. Beginning next year, the agency will require states to evaluate the risks that climate change poses to their communities in order to gain access to millions of dollars of disaster preparedness funding.

Environmentalists are praising the plan. But some on the right are furious, claiming that the Obama administration is seeking to punish states whose governors dispute the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet. “FEMA toys with denying disaster funds for states that doubt global warming,” warned the Drudge Report.

The new requirement won’t affect the post-disaster relief that communities receive after being devastated by hurricanes or tornados. Rather, the change comes as part of FEMA’s revision to its State Hazard Mitigation Plan guidelines.


Trees vs Solar

The endless debate of trees vs. solar

Yesterday, a story ran in the Asbury Park Press about the solar project plans of Six Flags Great Adventure. To power their popular New Jersey amusement park, Six Flags plans to build the state’s largest solar farm. The cost? To begin with, 18,000 trees. This brings up a contentious debate among environmentalists and proponents of renewable energy: is cutting down trees actually good for the environment? Lots of work has been done on the subject, but SolarFeeds loves the following post from New England Clean Energy from 2012:

Trees vs SolarHere in New England, there is no shortage of trees. And, as you can imagine, trees can be an enemy of solar energy. On a regular basis, I recommend to our customers that they remove trees to improve solar production. Why do I care enough about one customer’s production to suggest cutting down valuable natural resources? Because the more solar energy your system can produce, the greater its financial benefits to you and its environmental benefits to the planet.

The more solar produced by your system, the lower your electric bill and the more income you can earn by selling the “solar value” of your electricity in the form of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs). In Massachusetts, your solar system has to operate at at least 80% of ideal system for you to qualify for the Commonwealth Solar Rebate. And to be that productive it needs minimal shade.

Trees or, more specifically, shade from those trees, reduces the productivity of your solar array. However, as you no doubt know, when you cut down trees, you eliminate a valuable carbon dioxide (CO2) capturing structure. Is putting up a solar array worth the tradeoff of destroying the carbon absorbing trees?

I wanted to know, before I recommended this sometimes drastic step to our customers. Here’s what I found with my “tree math”.

1.  How much carbon dioxide does a single mature tree absorb? Different sources offer different numbers – no surprise in the constantly evolving world of carbon sequestration analytics. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 18 pounds per year per tree to more than 50.

I ended up going with this source, which says a mature tree absorbs 271,580 pounds of CO2 per acre over its first 20 years. (Mature trees absorb more than younger trees. Makes sense.)


2.  How many trees are in an acre? I couldn’t narrow this down to Massachusetts so I went with a New England figure. According to a report from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Forest Service, New England has 4,816 trees per acre.

3.  So, trees in New England absorb around 50 pounds of CO2.

271,580 pounds of CO2 per acre / 4,816 trees per acre = 56 pounds

4.  How much CO2 does electricity production create?  According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the EPA, 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity produces 1.34 lbs of CO2. In the northeast, that number is probably closer to 1.2 because we don’t rely as heavily on coal to generate electricity as the rest of the nation does.

5.  How much CO2 does a typical solar electric array offset? A 5,000-watt solar electric array on a roof that is 80% of an ideal site in terms of output, will generate about 4,800 kWh per year. Therefore, this solar energy will prevent 5,760 pounds of CO2 pollution from going into the atmosphere, every year.

4,800 kWh generated per year x 1.2 lbs CO2 per kWh = 5,760 lbs of CO2 offset per year

6.  What’s the tradeoff between trees and solar? The 5,000-watt solar system eliminates 5,760 lbs of CO2 per year. That 5,760 pounds correlates to the carbon absorption capability of more than 100 trees:

5,760 pounds of CO2 / 56 lbs per tree = 102 trees per 5,000 watts

From a carbon offset standpoint, the solar array is a big win. If you are considering cutting down fewer than 100 trees to get the most out of a 5,000+ watt solar electric system, don’t feel guilty. On a net environmental basis, you are doing the right thing.

If you still worry about cutting down trees, you can always plant new ones elsewhere in your yard. And you can appreciate the other benefits of less shade, like New England Clean Energy customer Debby Andell of Acton, who took down 11 towering pine trees to make way for solar. As Debby points out, “we now have a more open back yard with renewed sun on our vegetable garden, and no more worries when wind storms are forecast!”

George Schultz

A Reagan approach to climate change – The Washington Post

George SchultzThe trend of disappearing summer sea ice in the Arctic is clear even though there is always some variability from year to year. Severe winter weather underscores the importance of keeping track of significant trends. Here are the numbers, according to Julienne Stroeve, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., as reported in the Economist in February:

“Between 1953 and 2014, the average area of the Arctic sea ice shrank by 48,000 square kilometers a year.”

“Between 1979 and 2014, it shrank by 87,000 square kilometers a year.”

“Between 1996 and 2014, the rate rose to 148,000 square kilometers.”

The accelerating rate is explained in part by the fact that ice reflects sunlight but water, which is darker, absorbs it. So as water replaces ice, more heat is retained. Heat transported from lower latitudes could also be part of the explanation.


Google’s plan to prioritize facts ticks off climate deniers

Google addresses climate deniersAs the internet becomes a greater part of our lives, and information travels more quickly, it’s become easier for people to stumble onto inaccurate info, and for that info to take hold and spread. Consider, for example, the anti-vaccinationmovement, or the “birthers.” And also, of course, climate denial.

Websites proffering misinformation and farfetched conspiracy theories on global warming are just as easy for the casual googler to pull up as, say, an article about the latest IPCC report. (Try googling “Is climate change real?” or something along those lines, then go ahead and cry.)

But that might change. Last month, Google scientists outlined new research on an algorithm to rank websites according to their trustworthiness. Lily Hay Newman explains the project in Slate:


inhofe snowball

Snowball’s Chance: James Inhofe, Meet The Press, And The Climate Debate

inhofe snowballSen. James Inhofe (R-OK) brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to disprove global warming last Thursday. In the climate world, this was the viral equivalent of the seemingly gold-and-white dress that was actually black and blue. Except instead of dividing the world into two camps, the snowball brought universal ridicule to the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. Cue Jon Stewart.

Even Republicans were horrified. “The weather is changing…. It’s terrible for the Republican Party to look like we can’t acknowledge reality,” said Nicolle Wallace, former George W. Bush communications chief and senior adviser for the McCain–Palin campaign. “But it is moronic to throw snow in the Capitol and say, I don’t know, I don’t think anything is changing.”

Actually, the ridicule of Inhofe was not universal on TV — and I’m not just referring to Fox News. Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet The Press thought it was a “fun moment.” He teased his audience at the start of the show with an Inhofe clip, commenting (transcript here), “Proof that global warming is a hoax? Or just another example of show-and-tell Capitol Hill style.” Yes, those are the only two choices.


inhofe snowball

Watch Inhofe Throw a Snowball on the Senate Floor to Disprove Global Warming

inhofe snowballDuring rambling remarks Thursday afternoon, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, used a snowball as a prop on the Senate floor. The apparent purpose of this stunt: to show the recent spate of cold weather in the Northeast is a sign that human activity isn’t causing climate change.

The snowball was brought to the Senate floor in a sealable plastic bag.

Inhofe began his speech with the snowball at his side on the speaker’s podium. After he was introduced, he removed it from the bag, held it in his hand, and said, “I ask the chair, you know what this is? It’s a snowball, just from outside here. So it’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonal. Mr. President, catch this.”

Inhofe then underhand tossed the snowball in the direction of Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who was presiding over the Senate at the time.

A 50th anniversary few remember: LBJ’s warning on carbon dioxide

LBJ climateIt is a key moment in climate change history that few remember: This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first presidential mention of the environmental risk of carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in a February 8, 1965 special message to Congress warned about build-up of the invisible air pollutant that scientists recognize today as the primary contributor to global warming.

“Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places,” said Johnson less than three weeks after his 1965 inauguration. “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

The speech mainly focused on all-too-visible pollution of land and waterways, including roadside auto graveyards, strip mine sites, and soot pollution that had marred even the White House.


fossil fuels

New study revisits old news: keep fossil fuels in the ground

fossil fuelsIf Nature publishes it, will people finally listen? That may be what researchers from the University of London are hoping, because the international science journal has published a new study telling us what we’re already supposed to know—that we need to leave most of our fossil fuels in the ground if we want to keep climate change under control. Bill McKibben’s told us as much, of course, but policy makers don’t appear to have gotten the message yet.

But the timing of the study is good. The House has voted in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline; the new Republican-majority Senate votes next, and is expected to pass the bill. But maybe, just maybe, this study will give them second thoughts. It’s the first study to identify exactly which fossil fuels should be left alone. The list includes most Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil, as well as 82% of the world’s stores of coal and half of its natural gas.


Sustainable Business

Big Year for Green Investors & Sustainable Business in 2015: Systems Thinking and the End of Oil

green-economy-2015The coming year may be the biggest year ever for green investors and sustainable business. For those with a little vision, market opportunities in 2015 are even bigger than those that emerged in 2014. After years of slow and steady growth corporate sustainability will see a significant increase in momentum this year ahead of the global climate deal scheduled to be signed in Paris at the end of the year.
While their are huge opportunities in the green economy, there are also some significant headwinds.  In the US sustainable business will face undeniable political headwinds from Republicans who are beholden to an outmoded economic model that is mired in fossil fuels. Nonetheless, savvy business leaders will see beyond the politics of the day and position their firms for the world of tomorrow.

Systems thinking may be one of the most transformative approaches to emerge out of the shadows in 2015. Systems thinking is all about the interrelationships between things and as businesses are increasingly discovering there is a powerful interrelationship between things like energy, water, efficiency, waste and recycling. The relationship between systems thinking and sustainability is about as organic as it gets and the coming together of these two forces is a natural marriage that may become a core part of mainstream thought this year.

Unless you are in the fossil fuel business, the logic of clean energy will be impossible to ignore in 2015. Those that choose to continue to ignore the clarion call in 2015, may miss the boat altogether. Once the world turns the corner, the lines will be drawn. A choice will have to be made between fossil fuels and clean energy. Being on the wrong side of this line could spell disaster.

Fossil fuels are known to cause climate change and as such they are a clear and present danger. Investors know that vast quantities of unburnable carbon are destined to stranded. They see the writing on the wall and the day is coming when divesting from fossil fuels will be a fiduciary duty.

Those who opt to align themselves with the old energy economy will share the fate of fossil fuels. Despite the manipulative doublespeak, the fossil fuel industry knows that its days are numbered. There is no future to fossil fuels and this will become painfully clear by the end of 2015.

Once dismissed as impossible, it is now becoming clear that clean energy can (and must) replace fossil fuels.

Very soon Big Oil will be greeted with the same mistrust as the finance firms that unloaded worthless collateral debt obligations (CDO’s) that led to the market collapse of 2007.


solar roof

Cutting oil use by 50 percent difficult but doable, experts say

solar roof
State-of-the-art solar panels pick up the afternoon sun on the rooftop of DPR Construction in San Francisco, which has moved into the first “zero net energy” office building in the city. The building was renovated to produce as much energy as it uses over the course of a year.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of cutting California’s oil use in half may sound like an impossible task in a state famous for freeways and sprawl.

But by one measure, we may be halfway there.

Similarly, Brown’s call for California to get half of its electricity from the sun, the wind and other renewable sources by the year 2030 seems daunting, except that we’re already at 25 percent. The state is widely expected to hit 33 percent by 2020, if not sooner.

Many experts consider the ambitious climate and energy goals spelled out by Brown in his inauguration speech Monday to be difficult but doable. Those goals would accelerate changes already under way in California’s economy, hastening the state’s move away from fossil fuels and toward lower-carbon sources of energy.

2014: hottest year ever

2014 was officially the hottest year ever

2014: hottest year everFor many Americans, 2014 will be remembered for its multiple blasts of Arctic air and bitter winters. And this week, another bout of freezing temperatures is marching east across the country, in the first major thermometer plunge of the season.

But as cold as you may have been last year, it’s now official that 2014 was actually the hottest year globally since record-keeping began. So confirmed the Japan Meteorological Agency in preliminary data released Monday.


Apple, Google among Green Power Leadership Award recipients

520-green-energyThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced the recipients of its annual Green Power Leadership Awards for achievements in advancing the nation’s renewable energy market and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The 19 Green Power Partners receiving the award were chosen from more than 1,300 partner organizations that comprise EPA’s Green Power Partnership, including utilities, renewable energy project developers, and other green power suppliers.

EPA, through the Green Power Partnership, works with partner organizations to use green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with conventional electricity use. The Partnership currently has more than 1,300 partner organizations voluntarily using billions of kilowatt-hours of green power annually. Partners include a wide variety of leading organizations such as Fortune 500 companies, small and medium sized businesses, local, state, and federal governments, and colleges and universities.