Posts Tagged ‘renewables’

Snowden is missing.  The IRS scandal is ongoing. SCOTUS struck down DOMA and punted on affirmative action. A Texas filibuster over a proposed abortion bill was picked up by a historic crowd at the state capitol who effectively blocked the legislation through sheer willpower. A red panda went missing from the National Zoo. DC United won a game. It’s been a hell of a week, and it’s only Wednesday.


I feel ya, buddy.

In the middle of it all, President Obama delivered the policy speech that environmentalists have been waiting for since the day he took office: the one on climate change. The President’s agenda outlined broad goals for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, invest in renewable energy, respond to the ongoing impacts of climate change, and finally, lead the international community in all of those areas, too. The official White House fact sheet is available here. But what about the details?

Coal, more than any other industry, took it on the chin in this one – not surprising given just how much pollution is generated by coal-fired power plants.  The plan directs EPA to move forward with regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by June 2014.  The plan also included expanded effort to fund renewable energy and use public lands for renewable energy sources, efficiency initiatives, and reforestation measures.

The plan was met with mixed reactions.  Commentators were quick to judge the measures as a scaled-back version of the lofty goals that Obama set at the outset of his Presidency, and not surprisingly, many Republicans continued the drumbeat of erroneously pitting environmental initiatives against economic goals. (Side note: when will they give up, and realize the renewable energy can also create jobs? Sigh.)  Coal stocks responded by plummeting.  Many environmental groups, including Sierra Club and 350.org applauded the measures as the long-awaited concrete action to back up the President’s constant promises to tackle climate change.  Former Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore called the speech “terrific and historic,” responding optimistically to the steps proposed in the President’s plan as well as his willingness to finally move forward on a longstanding issue.  The mention of the infamous Keystone XL pipeline caught many by surprise, as did the President’s comments that the pipeline will not go forward if it is found to increase GHG emissions.  That of course, is a finding that in reality is stupid – of course expanded tar sands development, and continuing to enable fossil fuel exports, will increase emissions and accelerate climate change.  But, the “official” outcome could go either way depending on how groups calculate the emissions and how directly they tie the impacts to the pipeline itself.  You know the saying- lies, damned lies, and impact assessments.  Another surprising feature was the mention of fossil fuel subsidies, which was included in the President’s international goals, but not within his steps to curb emissions in the US.  (Honestly, I don’t know why nobody listens to me on this one.  Cut fossil fuel subsidies, cut federal spending, and cut emissions by forcing people to think about how much and how often they drive and make better choices. Oh well.)

Overall, while the actions were not as bold as some groups hoped, the result of the speech was a net positive – an acknowledgement that climate change is real, here, and happening, and a specific plan for moving forward.  Let’s hope that the follow-through is real.

A summary of the main points of the plan is available through Grist.org right here. A full transcript of the President’s speech is available here. As for Team Spinach, a detailed analysis of the plan by our resident climate expert, El Nino, will follow soon.

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Hi all!


I think everyone was busy last week worrying the NSA is judging them for not calling their grandmother more often.  I know I was.  Which is why it took me a bit to get this post up, and also why so many fascinating things happened in the energy and climate world that I had to talk about them all in one post.

First of all, our least favorite pipeline that doesn’t even exist yet is back in the news.  The Sierra Club has quietly taken the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline over to the judicial branch.  The litigious environmental nonprofit (for those of you who don’t know, Sierra Club has acted as plaintiff for some of the nation’s most pivotal and groundbreaking environmental lawsuits – it’s one of their specialties as an organization) filed suit against the State Department last week regarding the sketchy-as-all-hell (from what I’ve read) environmental impact statement that the agency issued about the pipeline.  The impact statement – which suggests the pipeline will have no negative impacts – was prepared by a third-party contractor that has an active membership in the American Petroleum Institute, which Sierra Club and other environmental groups widely regard as evidence of a conflict of interest.  Perhaps more critically, the State Department did not respond to requests to produce documentation proving that the department screened for such a conflict of interest.  The lawsuit is seeking access to those documents and extension of the public comment period for the agency to finalize the determination so that the documents can be considered.  In the continued debate, Al Gore weighted in on the pipeline in a recent interview, stating that the project was ‘an atrocity.’  

Meanwhile, climate change is happening, you guys.  A five year study by FEMA that was just released has predicted a 45% increase in flooding in the United States during the coming decades – as a result of climate change.  (Except in North Carolina, of course, where flooding and climate change is illegal.  I suppose all the hurricanes will have to stick to Florida and South Carolina this year?) FEMA, which manages disaster relief, is expecting to have to insure 80% more properties, with a 90% increase in the average cost of a claim when filed.  But, this is all totally worth it, because it was definitely too expensive for us to regulate carbon through a cap-and-trade or tax system, and it was also definitely too expensive to make some of those fossil fuel companies maybe pay a little instead of collecting government subsidies.  What? Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?

Fine. I’ll end on a good note.  Behold, Robert Redford for NRDC:


Still better looking than you.

Redford, an environmental activist and partner to National Resources Defense Council, has put together a series of short ads calling for action on climate change and clean energy initiatives.  You should watch them.  Because it’s Robert Redford.  And, he’s got something really important to say.  And then you should send them to everyone you know.

That’s all for now folks.  I’ll be back next week, and maybe I’ll be less cranky.

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We haven’t talked much about Keystone XL here at Spinach HQ for a while now, mostly becauase the news on that front continues to be more of the same – and more depressing.  Quite frankly, I’m not sure whether or not the general public (those of you outside the environmental field, that is) are sick of hearing about Keystone or not.  False claims and an incredibly convoluted regulatory and political process regarding approval of the environmental impact determination as well as the pipeline itself have slowly muddied the waters better than an oil spill.  I’ll be honest, even I’ve had a hard time keeping track of the timeline and the number of times the pipeline has been resurrected and then killed.

Which is why I was somewhat surprised (but excited!) to wander into the Foggy Bottom Metro stop in D.C. on Tuesday and be greeted by something that looked like this:


I couldn’t capture the whole ad in my camera phone (especially while trying not to look like some creeper taking a picture of the metro floor during rush hour….) but activist group SumOfUs.org is continuing to fight the good fight not just against Keystone XL, but against the expanded Tar Sands extraction that would come with it.

The ads direct you to the SumOfUs anti-tar-sands site, where they have already collected more than 17,000 of their goal level of 20,000 signatures for a petition to President Obama regarding the pipeline and expanded tar sands extraction.  Rather than solely attacking Keystone XL, the group is focusing on the impacts of the recent ExxonMobil tar sands oil spill in Arkansas.  Exxon’s response to the spill has been heavily criticized, with many community members voicing their doubts that the spill is contained or that Exxon is truly doing their part to take responsibility for the spill, contain it, and mitigate damages.

While the Keystone XL pipeline is likely to be decided by politics and not environmental impacts, the statement made by SumOfUs here is clear – and is taking the debate one step farther.  Instead of focusing on the impacts of the pipeline alone, the group is working to inform regarding some of the inherent risks (both environmental and economic) to expanded tar sands oil use as an energy source.  I’m happy to see these ads placed front and center in several key metro stations – maybe it’s a chance to finally have some dialogue about the real issue here, which is the overall direction of our energy future, and not one single pipeline.

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks for all of us at Team Spinach, so apologies for the long hiatus.  For my part, travel to some exotic locations (Costa Rica & Nicaragua – photos to come) and some very not exotic locations (Nebraska & Ohio) interrupted my posting schedule.  But, we always manage to resurface, and I thought I’d kick off with some good news rather than a rant.

As you guys know, I have a serious thing for the Tesla Model S.  I mean – just look at it.


This image is probably copyrighted, so I’ll just write here that clearly I didn’t take this picture. I also don’t own a Tesla, which is sad. SOMEDAY.

Well, chappies, it seems I am not the only one who has a thing for the Model S.  It’s been a banner week for the budding company, and despite some bad press from a highly shady NYTimes review (which the company rebutted), Tesla not only posted an unexpected profit in the first quarter of 2013 but has increased their estimated sales of the Model S from 20,000 to 21,000. Not only that, but Consumer Reports review of the car earned an astonishing score of 99 out of 100 in the latest review – the only point deducted for the fact that the car takes longer than 3 minutes to recharge on long drives.  In the first quarter of 2013, the Tesla Model S outsold similarly-priced gasoline guzzlers from German luxury car manufacturers Mercedes, Audi, and BMW.  

The success of Tesla is a huge PR boost for eco-friendly startups, which have been plagued in the press by highly-profiled failure stories of a few notable electric car manufacturers and alternative energy companies.  It’s been depressing to watch the faltering progress of a few companies be used by closed-minded individuals in the press and political forums to argue that environmentally innovative businesses don’t have a place in the mainstream or can’t compete with established companies (which is both false, and a logical fallacy.)  Tesla is bucking the naysayers and even exceeding the performance predicted by Wall Street.  What’s even better about Tesla is that they’re also changing the image of what an innovative, environmentally friendly product can look like.  It’s an American brand.  It’s a luxury car.  It’s a sweet ride that looks every bit as sexy as other high-end cars.  It doesn’t compromise on performance.

And that, my friends, is what environmental innovation should look like.  We can do it better, and it doesn’t mean giving up on the things we love.  It just means being more thoughtful about how we do them.

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Hi guys. It’s Friday, DC decided to be cold and raining, and my brain sort of hurts from reading too many articles on oil prices.

So, instead of words, I present you this magnificent link, which a friend shared with me today.  I’d love to credit whomever is responsible, but I don’t know who that person is.  All I can tell you is that this thing is pretty nifty, and kind of makes you think about the potential that exists for wind energy in this country.


Behold: the wind map!




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After a brief departure from our discussion of unconventional oil, welcome back.  It’s February 29th, it’s pouring rain here in D.C., and because I’m already grumpy, I’m going to talk about something which makes me even more grumpy, which is unconventional oil.  Today’s feature: oil shale.


Actually, I just wanted to talk about lighting things on fire.

What is oil shale?  Oil shale refers specifically to a fine-grained, sedimentary rock containing sufficient kerogen to produce burnable hydrocarbons.  What the heck is kerogen?  It’s just a fancy term for the carbon-based organic matter that makes up a portion of sedimentary rocks – something we only care about because, when heated to a high enough temperature, causes liquid oil to separate from a combustible gas.  Author’s note: oil shale is different from shale oil, and is also different from oil sands and tight oil.

Why is oil shale a big deal?  Every time gas prices go up, people start complaining, and Newt Gingrich starts making things up about how it’s Obama’s fault that gas costs a single penny over $2.50 per gallon.  When this happens, or when Iran starts making noises that we don’t like, politicians begin to talk about domestic energy.  Oil companies such as Exxon, Shell, and Chevron are all too eager at that moment to talk about how areas of the American west – Colorado, Utah and Wyoming in particular – have vast quantities of oil shale that could be exploited as a domestic source of energy.  Which they certainly could.

Why is this a bad idea? As with all unconventional forms of oil, extracting oil shale is an extremely intensive process.  Because the energy source is in a solid form, it must be either (1) mined, and then heated, or (2) large amounts of heat must be generated hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface for sufficient time to liquify fuel reserves so that they can then be pumped to the surface.  If option 1, mining, is taken, the shale is removed in open-pit or strip mining, which looks something like this:


Colorado is beautiful! Let's go hiking.

Of course, if you want to go with option 2, you’re going to have even bigger problems on your hands.  Take the debate about hydraulic fracturing (which is used as part of the oil shale extraction process) and multiply it by ten, and that’s about what you have.  Most of these in-situ extraction methods are still somewhat experimental, but they involve injecting large volumes of water as well as heat sources underground, and then drilling to pump the resulting oil to the surface.  It’s very involved.

What are the environmental risks? Oh, where to begin.  To enumerate a few: land use issues (from strip/surface or open pit mining), water quality issues (from mine tailing disposed of in rivers, lakes, streams, and critical headwaters), water use issues (it can take two to three million gallons of water per well to perform hydraulic fracturing), greenhouse gas emissions (both during extraction and during the use of this energy source, which when burned releases more greenhouse gasses than conventional petroleum), increased erosion and soil quality problems, air quality concerns resulting from the release of mercury, sulfur, and particulates, acid mine drainage….

I’ll stop there.

What does this have to do with gas prices?  I can’t resist hitting on this point, because it’s just too good to leave alone.  There is a perception in America that the price of gas at the pump – and the price of oil per barrel – is related directly to supply and demand.  If we produce more domestic oil of any sort, we think that the prices will go down.  We also like to think that Europeans pay more for gas because they don’t have any of their own.

Not so.  As CNNMoney (note that this is a mainstream news source, not EcoLooney Weekly) reports, in virtually every country – even OPEC nations – gas prices are determined by whether or not the government (1) taxes, or (2) subsidizes oil.  Energy subsidies mean that the government is floating part of the bill, keeping prices artificially low for consumers when compared to actual value of the commodity.  The U.S. government floats between $4 billion and $10 billion a year towards production of established fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas.

So, what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that right now, we’re looking at a technology that is still highly experimental (the methods of extracting oil shales are still in the experimental phase in nearly every major oil company.)  While they’ve got some big dollars behind them from the oil giants, they’ve also got some big hurdles to clear.  The areas of the arid west where oil shale is abundant already face ongoing issues with water scarcity in the face of growing population and growing demand.  In Estonia, which is the largest user of oil shale, 91% of the country’s water resources go to extraction of oil shales.  That’s a big yikes, and that’s not even looking at the impacts regarding climate change, air quality, and land use.  And no, it won’t make the price that you pay at the pump go down.

Oil shales are a tempting prospect because of their abundance, but one that is likely not worth the risk.  If we’re going to develop a new technology, let’s make it both clean and renewable.

Some resources for anyone who wants to read more about oil shale are here and here.

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So, first of all, I’d like to start off this post by congratulating each and every one of you reading this right now: you survived one of the most treacherous days of the year yesterday.  If you made it without ending up broke, in a diabetic coma, sobbing into a jack and coke while listening to Alanis Morisette on repeat, or staring blankly at a steak knife that was stabbed into your front door with a note from that girl or guy you never called back saying “SEE YOU IN HELL, SUCKER,” then you should give yourself a serious pat on the back.  It’s February 15th! Everyone breathe a sigh of relief.

Dan the Man posted an interesting story yesterday about one of the major sources of renewable energy out there – wind – and opened the conversation about one of the major downsides of wind energy, which is …noise pollution. But before we start picking the broccoli out of that salad, let’s talk a little bit about wind energy basics.

Wind turbines usually evoke an image that looks something like this:

See? Even Rainbow Brite loves wind energy. You can tell from this photo.

Wind is certainly an appealing option when comes to renewable energy.  But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the technology, I thought I’d give you something to crunch on.  Also, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Rainbow Brite, this is what she looks like:

Halloween Costumes for 2012, from left to right: Kara, Dan, Pam

Rainbow Brite  and her green and orange sprites are super curious how wind energy works.  So here goes:

How Does Wind Energy Work?  By simply converting energy from one form to another.  Wind, which we are all familiar with (I hope?) moves the blades on a wind turbine, knetic energy from the wind is converted into mechanical energy.  A windmill or a wind pump uses this mechanical energy to perform some task, such as rotating a wheel or the blade of a grinder.  If the mechanical energy from the rotating blades is used to produce electricity, then you have a wind generator.  That’s wind power.  Simple, easy, and delicious.

How Much Power Does a Wind Turbine Produce?  It depends on the size of the turbine and the amount of wind.  A wind generator (the kind of turbine we use for power) has a nameplate capacity, which the the amount of energy generated at peak capacity, but won’t be operating fully all the time (because wind changes).  But, the largest turbine currently in operation generates (nameplate capacity) of 7.58 MW.  Several (about a dozen) companies claim they are close to developing a wind generator that will produce up to 10 MW.

How Much Does It Cost?  Estimates for the price of new wind energy in terms of cost per Mwatt-hour (the unit of measure usually used to represent the cost of electricity – so, the amount of power generated per hour) is comparable to coal and natural gas.  Wind is clocking in at $55.80, coal at $53.10, and natural gas at $52.50.  No, I’m not kidding.  And that’s assuming you have to go out and build the turbine.  Once it’s put in place, the maintenance costs are minimal.  And the wind itself is free! So it gets cheaper from there.

What are the Other Advantages of wind energy?  Wind is free.  Like I just said, wind is free.  And there is plenty of it pretty much everywhere.  Nobody is going to buy it, sell it, or form OWEC (Organization of Wind Exporting Countries) just so they can sit back and control the price of wind per barrel.  Mostly because wind doesn’t come in barrels, at least, not yet (come to think of it, that could be pretty funny.)  For those of you who care about things like air quality (not me, at all) wind has no emissions.  For those of you who care about water quality, well, it’s pretty hard to spill your wind everywhere.  For those of you who care about global warming, climate change, coral reefs, nuclear waste, ocean pollution, industrial spills, or pharmaceuticals in your drinking water, wind doesn’t have negative impacts in any of those areas.  It’s zero emissions.  You can grow crops and graze animals within a few feet of the base of the turbine.  In fact, pretty much the worst that will happen is that some bird might fly right into the wind turbine, which is just a reminder to everyone that even though eagles may soar, weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines or wind turbines.

What’s the Main Challenge of Using Wind for Power? The fact that, when we depend on an energy source for our grid, we’re using to having it there twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.  Seriously.  Remember the last time that the power went out at your house during a snow storm or thunderstorm?  Think about all the things you couldn’t do.  That’s the problem right now with wind: storage.  When operating at peak, wind can generate as much – or more – energy and electricity than other sources. But when the wind dies down, so do the turbines.  C’est problem.  But once we create a grid that can handle wind, the only thing we’ll have to worry about is the noise.  That and the weasels getting sucked into the wind turbine.

So What About That Noise?  So a wind “farm” is a grouping of numerous turbines together, which are linked and work collectively to generate power.  You can group hundreds of these together, and it doesn’t even cause land use issues.  But it can be noisy.  Oddly enough, most towns and areas have noise ordinances, which apply to everything – factories, hydro power, drilling operations, construction operations, etc – limiting the amount of noise that can be generated, particularly at night.  However, some residents who are unhappy with wind farms installed near their homes or land are complaining that there are issues with the ways wind companies predict and measure the amount of noise generated at peak hours.

The problem has many aspects to it.  As Dan pointed out, everyone wants energy, but nobody really wants it generated near them – that’s the “not in my backyard” school of thinking.  The problem is, it has to be in somebody’s backyard. In case none of you have ever been aboard ship, or on an oil rig (I have been both places, wheee!) neither one of those is exactly quiet.  Noise complains regarding wind energy are likely exaggerated by the fact that many of these turbines are located in open, rural areas where there isn’t a whole lot of other ambient noise.  People who live near a factory, drilling operation, or even off a busy highway might not even notice the level of noise generated.  They’re also likely worse because, well, wind is new.  People tend to dislike change.

So, what should be done about it? Quieter technology? Develop better turbines? Tell people to suck it up and use less electricity if they want less noise?  Could wind farms be more carefully located?  What about moving them offshore? Would the folks who want to sail complain about their view being ruined?  Or is “noise pollution” really the least evil of all the evil byproducts of energy generation out there – including nuclear waste, oil spills, particulates and heavy metals in our air, batteries we don’t know how to dispose of, and a myriad of other byproducts of “dirty” energy sources such as coal, oil, and nuclear?

After all this thinking, I’m going to need another cup of coffee.  And then? Let the wild rumpus begin, by that I mean: it’s comment time, people.  Let’s get into this.

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