Archive for the ‘alternative energy’ Category

San Joaquin Valley’s chemical pall not going anywhere, except inside peoples’ bodies

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Google at work on alternative energy

* Curious this issue doesn’t grab more mainstream media attention. It pits the demands of big Agriculture against the socioeconomics of migrant and poor workers subjected to a pretty ravaging environment – pesticides, old-fashioned smog, diesel particulates, infected water, etc. And we used to think Burbank, epicenter of water pollution, freeway fumebanks and toxic ground, was dispiriting. From California Watch:

If New Year’s resolutions could apply to places, perhaps no place is as worthy of concerted change as the San Joaquin Valley. Home to nearly 4 million people, the nation’s breadbasket is described as “a patchwork pattern of separate and unequal places” in a report by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. Titled “Land of Risk/Land of Opportunity,” the report confirms what community members and advocates have long suspected – that environmental hazards tend to be clustered around low-income populations with low levels of education and English literacy. These include urban neighborhoods like West Fresno, which has borne the brunt of slaughterhouses, waste dumps and other undesirable land uses, as well as unincorporated rural communities like Earlimart, where pesticide drift prompted years of citizen activism and ultimately new legislation. The report, linked here, is well worth reading. It’s chief finding may be that “one-third of the nearly 4 million people in the region face both high degrees of environmental risks and high degrees of social vulnerability.”

* Other news of note:

- The last word on the Solyndra controversy from the Washington Post.

- Wind-power as alternative energy is no longer just about tilting. It’s about practicality. Got a roof? Read about it here in Slate via MSNBC.

- Not everything that web juggernaut Google embarks on turns to gold … or even energy. Talking Points Memo nails it well with this piece.

- Finally, from the Department of We Already Knew That (Hereon referred to as the DWAKT) , this about America’s most gridlocked byways being in Los Angeles. Have you been on the Harbor Freeway lately, or noticed a hovering orange-brown film still clinging to the lower atmosphere? If you have, DWAKT is going to sound superfluous and gang-piling. Good old car culture. It begat smog, and smog begat environmentalism. If you doubt it, check out our acclaimed Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution of Los Angeles. We leave the obvious in the chemical dust to tell the full story.

Holiday Season first annual point – counterpoint babble

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

* POINT: The Ontario International Airport is worse than Los Angeles City Hall’s red-haired stepchild. It’s more akin to the deserted, forlorn cousin promised housing in a garden shed. Glad folks are just learning this.

- From the L.A. Times: “After three decades of steady growth and earning a Forbes magazine nod as one of the nation’s top “alternative airports,” Ontario International is now among the fastest-declining midsize airports in the country. A pillar of pride for the Inland Empire, which rode the housing boom to a colossal bust, the sprawling facility owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles lost a third of its 7.2 million annual passengers between 2007 and 2010. The airport is on track to lose an additional 200,000 this year — setting it back to 1987 levels, when Ronald Reagan was president and the Dow was below 3,000. Nationally, only Cincinnati is shedding travelers at a faster pace …”

* COUNTER-POINT: (A.K.A. first to the punch): my piece on this subject from way back when.

- “Thirty-six years ago, during the money-loathing Summer of Love, Los Angeles got control of the air at a bead-like price. For $1.2-million and future concessions, the city bought a postage-stamp airport in the dusty flatlands of the Inland Empire in the era before the subdivisions and chain-malls invaded. Though dry in detail, if not colonial in result, the 1967-transaction provided each side with something immediately useful. Los Angeles International Airport secured a backup landing strip for those nights coastal fog (or smog) socked in its runways. Ontario inherited a strapping big-city patriarch that could lure commercial jetliners to the scruffy, San Bernardino County outpost while chasing federal dollars to expand it. Ontario’s airfield was barely more than parched earth and booster dreams when L.A. came along. It had taken World War II training needs to convert the dirt runways there to concrete, and defense contractors after that to bulk up the facilities. The first passenger terminal, one converted from a hybrid chapel-theater-canteen, didn’t rise until the 1960s. It was bush league at best …”

* POINT: The cities of Glendale, Burbank and northwest Los Angeles have tried their level best to keep hexavalent chromium (chrome-six, “The Erin Brockovich chemical) under state standards by either diluting the tainted fluid with fresh suppies, shutting off compromised acquifers or just dumping the stuff into the Los Angeles River. Research in Glendale, meantime, is underway to figure out how to remove the industrial contaminant point blank. This is an enormous issue where the Cold War, environmental science, Superfund policies and municipal water management weave in and out of the water table pocked by decades of defense manufacturing (mainly Lockheed), chrome plating and other industrial work involving heavy metals. You just wouldn’t know it’s a crisis from the scant media coverage. Consider this short piece from the L.A. Times:

- “Although the City Council last week approved spending an additional $400,000 to continue research at two testing facilities — just two months after the council gave the green light to spend $550,000 in grant and state funding on more research — some city officials are getting antsy …”

* COUNTERPOINT: My article that launched a series and community hullaballoo about local chrome-six water contamination after I worked with the L.A. Times in the year-2000 exposing the problem. Sometimes, it seems like we all have dementia when it comes to remembering that there’s an unusually pernicious toxin infesting our water. Maybe it was the recession or terrorism that spurred us kick this can down the road? Or, environmental fatigue? Couldn’t be politics (insert laugh track) or the sheer magnitude of the issue.

(more…)

Hold that drum roll! More green than greenhouse progress here.

Monday, September 26th, 2011

California’s big deal, carbon cap-and-trade auction program—you know, the one that put Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on the front cover of Time in his elevator shoes—has boiled down to this: It’s going to be run by a consultant for the next two years for maximum compensation of $750,000. (See the California Air Resources Board’s recent presentation to interested consultants here.) CARB, which invented the program and has been rushing to finalize applicable rules, now even has to hire a consultant to train its own staff how to monitor and account for which companies hold which emissions rights allowing them to spew greenhouse gases into the air.

It all goes to show how Schwarzenegger’s big-muscle program has boiled down to little more than flab over the last five years.

It was 2006 when Arnie and former California Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Nunez swaggered onto a stage to announce that the golden state planned to lead the nation in tackling the global warming problem under AB 32, its climate protection law. The former muscle-man envisioned a gleaming carbon trading market that other states in the West and provinces in Canada would join. Soon, Schwarzenegger even raised the prospect that Northeast and Midwest state would join in.

But the more other states looked and watched, the less inclined they became to partner with California. Eventually, it became apparent that Schwarzenegger’s pumped up dream of California being the new financial headquarters for carbon trading had collapsed, leaving the state on its own today.

 Even in the America’s eco-bellwether state, a lawsuit by environmental justice activists and the deepening economic recession have whittled down the grand policy scheme to the point where it’s a relatively minor player in the state’s plan to cut greenhouse gases. It’s been overtaken by new approaches like a 33-percent renewable energy standard for electric utilities; cars that are lightweight, fuel efficient and employ hybrid vehicles to get almost 55-miles per gallon in another five years; and investments in insulation, shade trees, modern lighting, and tighter windows and doors to make buildings use less energy.

 Other states are following California in such measures, seeing them as better and surer ways to cut greenhouse gases. Yet, California regulators remain stubborn as a dog with a bone about plunging ahead with a California-only carbon market. So on October 20, CARB plans to adopt final amendments to its cap-and-trade rules and to quickly hire consultants to run the first carbon emissions rights auction in 2012.

 One glaring fact about the program is that companies will be able to meet some half their emissions reductions through offset projects—such as planting trees in Indonesia to take carbon dioxide out of the air, or capturing methane emissions from hog farms in Latin America. CARB plans to rely on privately-funded, third party entities to police these operations (no doubt, with a wink and a nod) to make sure the resulting emissions reductions are real and permanent.

 Meanwhile, CARB’s staff will be trained by private industry consultants on how to fully carry out the program they’ve invented. Let’s just hope the consultants doing the training can get to Sacramento since the governor won’t let state employees travel to get training, much less to inspect forestry projects or hog farms along the equator. He’s even taken away their cell phones due to the state’s budget mess.

 In the end, CARB, no doubt, is being realistic. Since it can’t carry out the carbon market program it’s unleashing by itself—starved nearly to death by legislators and company lobbyists that prevent any tax increases—it’s got little choice but to hand most of it over to the private sector, sort of like toll roads and charter schools. Cap-and-trade: another capitalist idea.

(Shameless sales pitch, since we’re on the money theme. Many of these controversies and issues are covering in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.)

April news-bite showers

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Unused Ferris wheel near the abandoned Chernboyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine

* It’s official! California must generate one third of its power from alternative sources by 2020. Notice, in this L.A. Times post, that our acceleration into green power may help California reclaim its lofty perch as environmental lodestar. Wait, there’s truth in them there words.

“… The new law, known as a renewable portfolio standard, is the most aggressive of any state. Several attempts to introduce a federal version have stalled in a divided and preoccupied Congress. California had previously required investor-owned utilities such as Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric to generate 20% of their electricity from clean sources by 2010, with a three-year grace period. The law signed Tuesday will also apply to municipal utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which manage about a quarter of the state’s electricity load. Energy activists hope the mandate will lead to even more ambitious requirements. “California can power itself entirely on clean energy resources,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean energy advocate with Environment California. “Mandating that the state generate a third of its electricity from renewable energy is a big down payment toward that ultimate goal …”

* And, yet, you want to qualify exuberance for wind energy retaking other alternatives before the Ice Cap re-freezes. Turbines are not having the best year, and you can wager whether it’s cost skepticism, declining subsidies or something to do with oil prices and/or NIMBYism.

Also from the L.A. Times:  “The 5,116 megawatts of wind power installed in the U.S. in 2010 was just half the amount put in during the record year before, but the industry still grew 15%, according to an annual report from the American Wind Energy Assn. To some, the trade group’s data illustrate a young industry’s resiliency amid hostile economics and inconsistent government regulations and incentives. But to others, it’s a worrisome harbinger that wind, which has boomed at an average of 35% each year for the last five, might be headed for a slowdown. The 35,600 wind turbines in the ground nationwide can now produce 40,181 megawatts – enough to supply electricity to 10 million homes, according to the report. That’s 2.3% of all the electricity generated around the country, compared to roughly 2% from solar, geothermal and biomass sources …”

* In what may be the most under-played local enviro news, California’s landmark greenhouse gas cap and trade is expanding into the Great North. Good grief, I say.

“California officials announced Tuesday that the state will expand its newly adopted carbon-trading program to three Canadian provinces, creating the largest regional cap-and-trade system in North America. California will be joined by British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario in a cap-and-trade program aimed at limiting planet-heating greenhouse gases from industrial plants and transportation fuel, and that allows companies to buy and sell emissions allowances among themselves to cut their costs. The Western Climate Initiative, launched by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was originally designed in 2008 to engage seven Western states and four Canadian provinces in a trading program. That program, it was hoped, would eventually fold into a broader federal cap-and-trade system to be enacted by Congress. But since then, support for curbing global-warming emissions has ebbed, and the economic downturn has cut into business profits. Federal cap-and-trade legislation was passed by the House in 2009 but stalled in the Senate. Arizona, New Mexico Washington, Oregon, Utah and Montana had signed on to join the initiative but have pulled out of the trading plan …”

Now, the things people do without considering their consequences.

* Does the word carcinogenic matter to energy engineers? It should, but it didn’t as much as it should. Link.

“Millions of gallons of potentially hazardous chemicals and known carcinogens were injected into wells by leading oil and gas service companies from 2005 to 2009, a report by three House Democrats said Saturday. The report said 29 of the chemicals injected were known or suspected human carcinogens. They either were regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act as risks to human health or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act … The chemicals are injected during hydraulic fracturing, a process used in combination with horizontal drilling to allow access to natural gas reserves previously considered uneconomical. The growing use of hydraulic fracturing has allowed natural gas production in the United States to reach levels not achieved since the early 1970s. However, the process requires large quantities of water and fluids, injected underground at high volumes and pressure. The composition of these fluids ranges from a simple mixture of water and sand to more complex mixtures with chemical additives … The report said that from 2005 to 2009, the following states had at least 100,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluids containing a carcinogen injected underground: Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico, Montana and Utah. States with 100,000 gallons or more of fluids containing a regulated chemical under the Safe Drinking Water Act were: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Mississippi and North Dakota …”

* Japanese nuclear situation got you down? Well, you can only sign up for a tour of Chernboyl if you’re headed toward the Ukraine and have an appetite for tragedy and history, and are confident about your health. Story.

“For the visitor, Chernobyl makes heavy demands on the imagination — much of what’s important can be seen only in the mind’s eye. From the outside, the building where a reactor blew up April 26, 1986, in the world’s worst nuclear disaster mostly looks like an ordinary, dull industrial building. Only an odd addition supported by buttresses — the sarcophagus covering the reactor — hints that anything unusual happened here. The imagination struggles, too, to repopulate nearby Pripyat with the 50,000 people who lived there. Once a busy town built especially for the plant’s workers, it’s now a silent husk of abandoned apartment towers and scrubby brush slowly overtaking the main square. And inevitably, the visitor tries to picture the radioactive contamination that’s everywhere in the 19-mile area around the plant. The dosimeter clipped to a visitor’s clothes and occasional meters around the site are the only visual clues, flashing numbers that are mostly meaningless to the layman …”

Now, this is a big deal – California cementing its commitment to green energy

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

 

– From the L.A. Times story: “A mandate that California utilities increase their use of renewable energy sailed through the state Assembly on Tuesday and is headed for the governor’s desk. Environmental groups say the legislation is the most ambitious of its kind in the country. It would require the state’s electricity companies to provide 33% of power from renewable resources by the year 2020. State law now sets a 20% goal. Supporters made their case by invoking the nuclear plant problems in Japan and conflict in the oil-rich Middle East, as well as the struggling California economy: Environmentalists have said the mandate could create 100,000 jobs. The bill aims to lessen dependence on coal and natural gas in favor of wind, solar and geothermal energy. It would also protect ratepayers from large new costs, and “provides flexibility to utilities,” argued Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata).”

Very heartening news. Too bad it didn’t come a generation earlier.

– More on California and energy.

* It looks like California’s under-reported and provocative bid to run a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade will go forward after all once officials conduct further studies about alternative plans. Color us skeptical about market-based approaches after covering the Anne Sholtz case involving the AQMD, EPA, DOJ, and, yes, even the CIA, and hearing about Europe’s rampant cap-and-trade scandals. We’ll see.

* From the L.A. Times: “California’s effort to curb global warming, which was put on hold by a court decision, will be able to proceed on schedule once officials conduct a new environmental review, according to attorneys analyzing the case. A San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled that the California Air Resources Board failed to properly evaluate alternatives to the so-called cap-and-trade program, which would allow industries to purchase pollution allowances rather than cut their own carbon emissions. The court said that measures such as a carbon tax or direct regulation of greenhouse gases were not given enough consideration. Air board officials said Tuesday that they would meet with environmentalists who filed the lawsuit in an effort to narrow the scope of the court injunction, which is expected to be issued in about a week …”

* Wave energy and the future: a truly untapped source to meet our insatiable needs or a quick path to disrupt the marine ecosystem we need to live? Read it here. :”The waves off San Onofre have for generations beckoned surfers and sport fishermen to a wild stretch of coastline in the shadow of domed nuclear reactors. Now, an Orange County entrepreneur wants to tap the power of that legendary surf in a novel but highly controversial plan to build one of the nation’s first hydrokinetic wave farms …”

– For those convinced it’s no big deal to shave provisions of the Clean Air Act to shore up the wobbly recovery, take a read through these EPA-generated public health statistics from the Environment News Service. “Last year, the reductions in fine particle and ozone pollution from the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments prevented more than 160,000 cases of premature death, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates released Tuesday … By 2020, the benefits of reducing fine particle and ground level ozone pollution under the amendments will reach approximately $2 trillion while saving 230,000 people from early death in that year alone, the report concludes.”

In the year 2010, the reductions in fine particle and ozone pollution from the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments prevented more than:

  • 160,000 cases of premature mortality
  • 130,000 heart attacks
  • 13 million lost work days
  • 1.7 million asthma attacks

For more about the landlmark Clean Air Act, click here.

– Will the prolonged and alarming Japanese nuclear-plant crisis mean fresh opportunities for more exotic alternative energy ideas? Geothermal: get ready for your close up. LA Times Greenspace Link. Here’s my L.A. Times’ story on this general subject. And here’s my New York Times online Op-Ed that underscores how few Californians in supposedly America’s greenest state have largely eschewed solar power and our governmental hypocrisy.

– More about those Robert F. Kennedy photographs that my older brother took not long before RFK was assassinated in the kitchen of the old Ambassador Hotel nearly 43 years ago. L.A. Times Daily Mirror blog (note to self: type slower when commenting) and L.A. Observed, which produced a hysterical headline.

* For the record, my brother a couple of years ago emailed me these photographs and told me I could do with them what I pleased, as long as nobody stole the images. They sat idly on my hard-drive until I did a little file organizing recently and decided to post them. Both of us had completely forgotten about them, and so the idea we were seeking our 15 minutes — or 15 seconds in the blogosphere — of fame out of such a gruesome tragedy makes me want to laugh for about 15 hours. These were just a couple of poignant and significant photos taken by a then-21-year-old USC undergrad who stumbled upon one of his heroes. In broken record cadence, I believe the timing of the images pales next to the fact that Paul could get so close to a presidential candidate whose brother was assassinated in Dallas less than five years earlier!

Happy 2011, greenies. Read ‘em and don’t weep. Learn

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

 

* You know the economy is bad when a Democratic president reigns in the EPA that had started showing its teeth.

- From the New York Times story

“The Obama administration is retreating on long-delayed environmental regulations — new rules governing smog and toxic emissions from industrial boilers — as it adjusts to a changed political dynamic in Washington with a more muscular Republican opposition.”

* Tehran not only has nuclear weapons to make evidently. It has a capital shrouded in Western-style air pollution made by cars and fossil fuel consumption. When a government considers air purifiers, it’s blithering and bumbling and nowhere close to a solution. I’m sure the people opposed to the current regime haven’t missed that one when they’re not coughing and reaching for their inhalers. Good luck, Iran. Glade won’t save you.

- From the Washington Post article

“The Iranian capital is experiencing what officials say is the worst pollution in its history, prompting the government to shutter offices and consider placing air purifiers across the city as it seeks to combat the brown blanket of smog. The weeks of heavy pollution are taking a serious toll on residents of Tehran. Hospitals are reporting a strong increase in patients with breathing problems. Government offices have been closed for three days over the past three weeks, and schools and universities have been shuttered for at least six days …”

* From green action-hero to has-been environmentalist – that’s the unflattering epigram hung around Arnold Schwarzenegger when his two years as California governor ended. Personally, I think that’s a gross overstatement. A leader can only achieve what the situation allows.

- Los Angeles Times story about his legacy.

Our mad green world – a mini tour behind the velvet ropes

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

* From the New York Times story: The U.S. armed forces beginning to weam themselves from good old petroleum.

“… Last week, a Marine company from California arrived in the rugged outback of Helmand Province bearing novel equipment: portable solar panels that fold up into boxes; energy-conserving lights; solar tent shields that provide shade and electricity; solar chargers for computers and communications equipment …”

* When green advertising becomes greenwashing. From an MSNBC piece,

” … Aiming to clear up confusion for consumers about what various terms mean, the Federal Trade Commission has revised its guidelines for making claims about so-called “eco-friendly” products. The proposed new version of the agency’s Green Guides was released Wednesday, with recommendations for when to use words like “degradable” and “carbon offset,” in advertisements and packaging, and warnings about using certifications and seals of approval that send misleading messages …”

* From the law of unintended consequences file, wind turbines may be sleek and nifty and economical if you live in a high-wind, high-energy-cost area, but they aren’t doing your neighbors’ or your own eardrums much good. New York Times piece:

“… Now, the Lindgrens, along with a dozen or so neighbors living less than a mile from the $15 million wind facility here, say the industrial whoosh-and-whoop of the 123-foot blades is making life in this otherwise tranquil corner of the island unbearable.

They are among a small but growing number of families and homeowners across the country who say they have learned the hard way that wind power — a clean alternative to electricity from fossil fuels — is not without emissions of its own.

Lawsuits and complaints about turbine noise, vibrations and subsequent lost property value have cropped up in Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, among other states. In one case in DeKalb County, Ill., at least 38 families have sued to have 100 turbines removed from a wind farm there. A judge rejected a motion to dismiss the case in June.

Like the Lindgrens, many of the people complaining the loudest are reluctant converts to the antiwind movement …”

Friday, September 10th, 2010

* California Watch story about how other states are planning to attack California’s landmark, anti-greenhouse gas law if Proposition 23 fails. We’ll skip the moralizing and let you decide the intent.

” … The attorneys general of Alabama, Nebraska, Texas and North Dakota have been devising a legal strategy to challenge the California act, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, on the grounds that it interferes with the right to freely conduct interstate commerce, according to Wayne Stenehjem, the attorney general of North Dakota …”

* Ever wonder how China leapfrogged the West to become the largest manufacturer of solar panels and other green-energy technologies? So did the New York Times. Must reading, if you ask us. As we move towards a new energy dynamic, shouldn’t the world’s economies be operating on a level playing field. Right now it’s listing toward Beijing and the subsidies and advanatages they hand out.

“CHANGSHA, China — Until very recently, Hunan Province was known mainly for lip-searing spicy food, smoggy cities and destitute pig farmers. Mao was born in a village on the outskirts of Changsha, the provincial capital here in south-central China.

Now, Changsha and two adjacent cities are emerging as a center of clean energy manufacturing. They are churning out solar panels for the American and European markets, developing new equipment to manufacture the panels and branching into turbines that generate electricity from wind. By contrast, clean energy companies in the United States and Europe are struggling. Some have started cutting jobs and moving operations to China in ventures with local partners …

But much of China’s clean energy success lies in aggressive government policies that help this crucial export industry in ways most other governments do not. These measures risk breaking international rules to which China and almost all other nations subscribe, according to some trade experts interviewed by The New York Times …”

* Miscellany: science and politics

- Under fire from industry, scientific panel is ‘gutted.’ (California Watch)

This story reverberates strongly here, because it echoes this intersection of toxicological science and industry influence from 2004.

Dropping Science: Chromium six is a known carcinogen, but the implosion of a blue-ribbon panel of scientists means we don’t know how much is safe in L.A.’s drinking water.

 Researcher files whisteblower retaliation complaint againt UCLA (California Watch)

A bubbling brew of catch up news, Smogtown-style. Busy time around these parts, working on a new book and reporting, and loving every bit of it.

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

* The law of unintended geology – how the Haitain quake will reverse ecological repair. From the Newsweek story

” … Since the earthquake decimated Haiti’s capital city, much has been said about the country’s dire poverty. But Haiti is not only the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; it’s also the most environmentally degraded. Less than 1 percent of its original forest cover remains, and 6 percent of the land has virtually no soil left. Both are due to a vicious cycle of overpopulation, poverty, and natural disasters. Each increases susceptibility to the other and as time wears on, it’s evident that to be effective, all problems must be attacked at once. For what some say was the first time, scientists were trying to do just that—Levy and Fischer’s work was among the first steps toward a more integrated development program addressing both economic and environmental concerns. Now that work has been put on hold …”

* Here come the fast-talking men from L.A. again – interesting piece on turning pillaged Owens Valley into a giant solar energy farm. From the L.A. Times story:

“First it was silver ore that streamed to Los Angeles from the rim of the Owens Valley, then the water from the valley floor.

Now, L.A. has come back for the sunshine.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the agency responsible for turning Owens Lake into a dusty salt flat and snatching up nearly every acre from Lone Pine to Bishop, has its sights on transforming the Owens Valley into one of largest sources of solar power in America …”

* Erin, where art thou? An update on the legal career of activist Erin Brockovich. Los Angeles Business Journal story

* Pretty good story from the L.A. Weekly about the health effects of living near freeways. Their toxic, as if we didn’t know that. Some relatively new studies here and a rambling search for City Hall accountability. Link

* Steak AND Smog: the cows of the Central Valley and the greenhouse- methane problem. L.A. Timesstory

* A potential game changing way to produce electricity at home with a fuel cell that combiones air and different fuels without combustion. Think of the countless benefits. L.A. Times link:

Earth, wind and wire: Going beyond solar panels

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Here’s a look at three technologies that California residents are using to cut their energy bills and turn their homes into clean, mini-power plants.

February 7, 2010

By CHIP JACOBS

Note to readers: the following story is a longer, slightly different version of the article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other outlets on February 5, 2010. To see that version, click here.

Not long ago, most Californians harvesting green energy at home had pretty much one way to turn: toward their eaves. Rooftop solar panels might’ve resembled giant aviator-sunglasses, with a typical setup costing as much as a luxury car, but they at least delivered power-bill savings without anxiety. Trying to capture rustling winds or subterranean heat or even streamside hydro-electricity sounded as farfetched as it did impractical, and never found consumer traction.

Well, chalk another one up for the green revolution.

Today, with more user-friendly technology on the market and meaty taxpayer-subsidies available to begin popularizing the concept, the era of limited choices is fading. Homeowners out to shrink their reliance on the local utility grid and live greener without opting for standard solar-cells can now do so, depending on where they reside and their tenacity to stick with it.

Experts believe converging trends makes it an idea worth bouncing around. As energy demands continue to tick upwards and governments crack down further on greenhouse gases, everyone – including consumers who previously shrugged off home-generation as a quixotic extravagance — will likely pay more for their electricity and natural gas.

New power plants are just prohibitively expensive to build. And no one knows when the next energy crisis will strike.

“Renewable energy produced at home shouldn’t just be for the granola-eating, Birkenstock-wearing people,” said Angelina Galiteva, chairwoman of the non-profit World Council for Renewable Energy. “It should be for everyone.”

But will more than a hardy band of believers really commit to churning out kilowatts in their own backyards and communal grounds, when just one of 154 California single-family homeowners right now even run solar cells? Will the temptation to lock down energy costs, or the desire for more self sufficiency, catch on in the forward-looking West Coast as it has throughout Europe?

Check back in 2030 for concrete answers. For now, take a look what at some are already doing.

SMALL WIND

People driving along gusty interstates near such places as Palm Springs are accustomed to seeing commercial wind farms, where turbines as high as buildings spin lazily against a blue sky. These days, a modest but growing number of individuals are trying that technology inside their own fence-lines.

Roughly 10,500 small turbines were sold to homes, farms and businesses nationwide in 2008, according to the American Wind Energy Assoc. While the numbers aren’t in yet for 2009, demand remained strong in spite of the Great Recession, said Elizabeth Salerno, the association’s director of data and analysis. A survey of small-turbine manufacturers has projected a 30-fold increase in the U.S. market by 2013.

Locally, some of the growth is emanating from companies eager to contain their electricity tabs. In Palmdale, for instance, city officials have cleared the way for businesses to install wind turbines up to 60-fee-high to crank out their own clean power. Among them is Wal-Mart, which has a 17-turbine project planned for its Sam’s Club outlet in Palmdale.

Potential wise, though, the largest new pool of converts may be individuals such as Ernest Ramirez. He and his wife live in Oak Hills, an unincorporated, blustery section of western San Bernardino County dotted with spacious homes on multi-acre lots. They inherited their wind turbine when they bought their 3,250-square-foot property equipped with a pool and hot tub in 2003.

Ernest Ramirez can’t imagine life without out it now.

Perched on a slender tower about 80-feet high, the turbine has three, 10-foot-long blades that whip often enough to keep his power bills from Southern California Edison at about $100 a month, or roughly a quarter of what he calculates he’d fork out otherwise.

Gusts are so fierce in this part of the Cajon Pass that they have been known to snap trees and jackknife semi-trucks. But Ramirez welcomes a bad hair day. His 10-kilowatt device, which initially struck him as a hovering insect, not only is a money saver. It salves his environmental conscience.

“When I get out of my car and it’s blowing 35-mph and I have to stay inside the house, at least I know I’m saving money,” said Ramirez, a 46-year-old grant writer. “Wind is such a precious resource.”

Ramirez said he can count seven neighbors with their own wind turbines. When the blades on his turn fiercely, they produce a droan that Ramirez compares to a helicopter takeoff. All things considered, it’s a racket he’s happy to have.

Still, what works in windblown San Bernardino County won’t necessarily fit everywhere.

To make economic sense, a homeowner considering a turbine should live in an area where 10-mph winds are frequent, and be paying at least 10-cents a kilowatt hour for electricity, according to the wind association. Permitting is also a challenge in many communities; some neighbors consider the spinning contraptions as noisy and eyesores and even a threat to birds.

The technology certainly isn’t cheap, running about $3,000 to $6,000 per kilowatt installed or roughly $30,000 for an average system, experts say.

Sweeteners are being dangled to cushion some of that sticker shock. Homeowners can get a hefty rebate from the state of California – as much as $12,500 for a typical 5-kilowatt setup. They’re also eligible for a 30-percent Investment Tax Credit from the federal government.

GEOTHERMAL

Everybody knows that solar panels and wind turbines are rock stars of today’s renewable energy world. Fewer might suspect that one of the more intriguing contenders to reduce high utility bills cooks right under our feet.

Geothermal heat pumps, which have been around since World War II, consume 25-perent to 50-percent less electricity than conventional systems, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Their magic comes from the physics of heat-exchange and vapor compression.

First, pipes are buried, sometimes hundreds of feet down, and formed into a loop. During winter, a refrigerant-type fluid circulating through the loop grabs the heat and transfers it into a structure’s air-handler. When air conditioning is needed in the summer, the process operates much like your refrigerator: the pump draws heat from the home’s interior and dumps it back into the Earth.

Geothermal heat pumps are cousins of regular heat pumps, which draw in hot air from outside. The difference is that geothermal is more efficient because soil temperatures, even just a few feet underground, remain fairly stable year round. Geothermal systems also have few moving parts, so they’re quiet and durable. They can be adapted to provide a home’s hot water.

Dennis Bushnell, a NASA scientist who studies renewable fuels, said that geothermal heat pumps are relied on by a fair number of homeowners and others from Virginia to the Northeastern states. People who reside in warmer Sunbelt states could especially benefit from them, he said, because the loop works best when the temperature stays above 30-degrees.

The equipment is “not exotic at all,” said Langley. “You can go on the web and buy one today.”

Now for the bad news: upfront costs are painful, sometimes twice as much as conventional heating and cooling units.

If your wallet can withstand that initial blast, one satisfied customer says the quick payback time and minimal maintenance expenses make it worthwhile.

California’s electricity crisis motivated John Sergneri to install a geothermal heat pump on his 1,280-foot tract-style home in Petaluma. It cost $40,000, approximately $15,000 more than a traditional grid-dependent system. Still, it has slashed his utility bills dramatically.

Sergneri, an information technologist, is currently renting the house while he works in Switzerland. When he returns stateside, he said he plans to install solar panels to further trim his power costs, because the ground pump and associated machinery, like many renewable systems, requires some electricity to operate.

It’s all part of what he terms a low-cost, eco-friendly “retirement plan.” Sergneri, 58, jokes it will yield a better return than his tattered 401-K.

“My goal is to be as independent as possible,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of getting as far from the grid as possible.”

Though California isn’t offering rebates for ground heat pumps, a 30-percent federal tax credit is available.

SOLAR HOT WATER

California leads the nation in rooftop solar panels despite the fact that only about 50,000 single-family homes out of an estimated 7.7-million statewide have deployed them. (In the city of Los Angeles, a measly 1,627 homes have solar hookups with the Department of Water and Power.)

A simpler, less expensive path to convert sunrays to electricity is just beginning to catch on with solar water heaters. Officials hope two sets of incentives will pluck them out of obscurity.

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a $350-million rebate program to coax homeowners to replace their old energy-sucking units with more efficient solar-fired systems. Residential utility customers can get as much as $1,875 for swapping out their natural gas systems and $1,250 for ditching their electrically-heated tanks. The rebates phase out at the end of 2017 — or when the ratepayer-subsidized funds dry up.

Buyers can also qualify for a 30-percent renewable energy tax credit for a new solar water heater from Uncle Sam.

All told, that could amount to as much as a 55-percent subsidy for equipment that normally costs between $6,000 and $8,000, contingent on a home’s size and energy usage.

Here’s the downside: to qualify for a state rebate, homeowners have to be customers of Southern California Edison, the Southern California Gas Co., Pacific Gas & Electric or San Diego Gas & Electric.

Heating water represents the third-largest energy expense for most households, according the Department of Energy. If California’s solar water heater initiative succeeds, 585-million therms of natural gas– the equivalent of 200,000 solar units – and 150-megawatts of electricity will have been replaced with clean power, the utilities commission says.

These systems are already popular in Israel, China, Spain and other countries. Beginning this year, Hawaii is mandating that all new homes be equipped with solar hot water heaters.

“Solar water heaters are the low hanging fruit,” said Katrina Phruksukarn, solar water heating program manager with the California Center for Sustainable Energy. “They may not be as cheap as putting in a high-efficiency light bulb, but they’re about as cost effective as you’re going to get.”

Technologies vary by manufacturer. One common arrangement involves linking a storage tank to a rooftop solar array. Heat collected by those panels is used to warm up copper tubes filled with water contained just beneath dark, heat absorbing collectors. Those collectors raise the temperature of the water, which from there is pumped down and stored in a well-insulated storage tank. Back-up gas or electrical heating kicks in if the temperature falls below a certain threshold.

Steve Glenn, whose company LivingHomes, designs eco-friendly modular dwellings, has a system in his home that employs solar tubes filled with special, low-boiling point oil. When sunrays strike the tubes, they produce steam that rises and transfers some of its heat to water, which is warmed and stored in an ordinary-looking 60-gallon tank. The water is then delivered to showers and sinks. Heat radiating from the system’s piping also keeps the floors toasty.

Glenn said the solar hot water heater, photovoltaic panels and other energy-miserly features in his Santa Montica home have reduced is electric bill to the cost of a nice lunch: about $15 to $20 a month.

“I don’t have to even think about it” Glenn, 45, said. “The hot water feels like hot water. I’m not aware its sun baked, and not natural gas baked.”

BIOMASS

Another home-based renewable is an update to 19th-century prairie life. Furnaces and stoves that burn wood pellets made from sawdust, bark and other industrial byproducts, as well as corn, dried cherry pits and other organic materials are now on the market. Unlike traditional cord wood, these fuels cough out relatively little ash, soot and other harmful emissions.

Depending on the house, the biomass burners can supplement or replace a structure’s conventional heating system.

Like many renewable energy concepts, though, they are not for fence sitters. A stove or furnace, which resembles a stand-alone, glass-enclosed fireplace, can run $5,000 or more with installation. The fuels themselves also aren’t necessarily cheaper than natural gas or oil heat. A typical system eats up to three tons of them yearly.

At Floyd S. Lee Fireplace & BBQ in Pasadena, they’re just starting to sell a small fireplace for $900 that burns a clear-liquid biofuel requiring no venting. Since the unit doesn’t generate bounds of heat, it’s mainly decorative, said salesman Tom Broderick. Actual pellet-burning fireplaces have promise, he added, once retail stores can more easily secure pellets from suppliers.

“But they’re trying new things all the time,” he said. “Nobody is sticking with the old.”

As with ground heat pumps, there is no state rebate available for biofuels burners. There is a $1,500 Energy Star rebate that expires Dec. 31.

Coming down the pike is a household “bio-reactor” just being introduced in England, said NASA scientist Bushnell. It converts kitchen scraps, yard waste and sewage into electrical juice.

“All these (ideas) were possible ten years ago and are now more possible because of the pace of technologies,” said Bushnell, who works out of NASA’s Langley, VA. research-center. “Once people learn about the realities of the energy-price situation, they’ll know they have to consider adjusting how they live, including considering renewables.”

SIDEBAR STORY AND LINKS

Three years ago, the state rolled out its Go Solar California! program to dramatically boost adoption of solar power and fortify an industry devoted to it. The $3.3-billion, ratepayer-financed effort has a goal of adding 3,000 megawatts of grid-connected solar by 2016.

If that objective is met, it could spare California from having to build six new gas-fired power plants, which generate about 500-megawatts per year. The average home consumes about 10,000-kilowatts annually.

The Public Utilities Commission as part of this effort has earmarked $2.2-billlion program in rebates to encourage homeowners, businesses and non-profit agencies to install solar-photovoltaic roof panels and solar water heaters. They’re only available for customers of Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric and San Diego Gas and Electric.

So far, about 257 megawatts of new solar have come on line, the bulk of that in industry. If that doesn’t sound impressive, especially compared to Europe, it represents more than three times what was installed in the 1980s and 1990s combined. And despite the low-consumer usage, California accounts for about two-thirds of the nation’s entire installed-solar.

Officials are hoping that by the time the incentives are exhausted, generating power at home will be considered a cost-savings staple, not an extravagance. Until then, consumers’ bitterness from the 2000-2001 electricity crises and more recent recession may help forge a spirit of productive independence.

“You saw faith being lost,” said Ben Airth, who works with the Center for Sustainable Energy, a non-profit involved in California’s solar campaign. “America has been brought up on the idea of plugging into the grid through a utility and now people are seeing for themselves what they can do about producing their own electricity.”

Links to explore:

* To see federal and state-by-state incentives and rebates for home-based renewable energy, start with this database.

* For more about solar water heaters, visit this site.

* To get a taste of different home-based energy systems, check out this publication online.

* Lastly, if you assumed Los Angeles, with its Prius-driving, recycle-everything culture, is gobbling up solar faster than other regions, think again. Homeowners in San Diego and Santa Clara counties have installed more photovoltaic cells and solar water heaters than denizens of much-larger Los Angeles County. Here’s the proof.