Sierra Daily: October 2011
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23 posts from October 2011

Oct 14, 2011

Are Solar Panels Beautiful…Or What?

Enfinity 2 pixIn a Getty Images photo, France’s largest solar array rolls over undulating hills like fecund grape vines, with the Alps as a fittingly majestic backdrop. Our clean energy future is bright, shiny, and downright artful. Or is it? A more prosaic image from Belgian solar-power developer Enfinity (left) makes the facility look a little more like what it really is—an industrial site.

Why build at the base of the Alps? The location, on Puimichel plateau in the lovely-as-it-sounds Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region, is described by Enfinity as “one of the most favorable areas of France for solar exposure. In addition, the sites’ altitude of 800 meters [2624 feet] ensures ideal ventilation, which in turn guarantees an optimal output of 10 to 15 percent above average.” Not oblivious to its surroundings, “Enfinity took additional steps to integrate the PV arrays into the landscape with the novel idea of planting a variety of wild grasses at the sites to create a grazing area for sheep.”

You can probably expect to see more panels pushing up against pinnacles. New research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology suggests that “cold, high-altitude destinations like Mount Everest have immense potential for capturing solar energy.” According to MSNBC’s “Future of Technology” blog, two factors come into play: Thinner atmospheric conditions at high elevations can provide more direct exposure to the sun, and colder temperatures "increase the operational efficiency of certain photovoltaic solar cells."

That opens up a brave new solar world. As noted by UPI, the Japanese researchers found that “many cold regions at high elevations -- including the Himalaya Mountains, the Andes, and even Antarctica --receive so much sunlight their potential for producing power from the sun is higher than some desert areas.”

-- Reed McManus

Image: Enfinity

Two Missing Words: Climate Change

Peanut butter on toastYou may have heard that peanut butter is going to be in short supply, and that's it's going to be more expensive. USA Today blames "a Southern drought and competition from more profitable crops." MSNBC blames "the extreme heat and drought in the South." NPR cites "heat and drought in Texas and the Southeast." AP mentions "[a ]miserable drought and scorching temperatures. . .in key peanut-producing states like Georgia and Texas."

A farmer for three decades, [farmer David] Bishop said he had never seen a drought that arrived as early as this year's. It took about three weeks to get his plants out of the ground, three times as long as normal. "It was so dry you didn't have any moisture in the soil to make the seed even rot," he said. "It just laid there in the soil. I've never seen that before."

What's missing from all these reports? Two little words: Climate change. In the September/October issue of Sierra, we published a map showing (at left) the number of days in which temperatures exceeded 100 degrees from 1961 to 1979 and (at right) the number of such days we're on track to reach by 2100.

It would seem newsworthy to add to one's report about the rising price of Skippy that the drought that's causing it is part of a long term, human-caused trend. And yet--crickets! The only outlets I could find that mentioned it were Climate Progress and Huffington Post:

The peanut crop is not the only commodity to suffer from severe weather conditions. French wine and Italian pasta are some other endangered national exports impacted by climate change. Last week, a report claimed chocolate could become a luxury item if farmers in West Africa didn't adapt to the warming climate. [Take a bow, Tara Kelly!]

Farmers in West Africa aren't the only ones who need to adapt to a warming climate--the nation's news media need to do their part as well.

--Paul Rauber

Image by iStock; graph by Peter and Maria Hoey (Source: U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2009)

Reality Sucks--If You're GM's Ad Designer

As rapidly as General Motors tries to backpedal from its dumb anti-cycling ad in college newspapers, the viral genie is out of the bottle and all the PR minions in Detroit can't stuff it back in. Above is the clever response of bike maker Giant (h/t to Adventure Journal). For more on the comparative economic advantages of cycling versus driving, read "Biking Will Make You Rich."

--Paul Rauber 



Oct 13, 2011

Brussels Sprouts

On Wednesday the European Union proposed new rules that attempt to cut its $75 billion a year in subsidies to farmers. Too bad the proposal doesn’t appear to have many adherents. According to the conservative Wall Street Journal, the debate “pits environmentalists and wealthy Europeans willing to pay higher food prices in exchange for more green space against consumers and farmers who argue the changes will limit Europe's ability to grow enough food.” France and developing countries in the EU, such as Poland, want as much farm aid as possible; they say the cuts undercut impoverished farmers trying to make headway in global markets. Under the proposal, a third of direct payments to farmers will depend on them following new rules that protect the environment. If implemented, seven percent of arable land will be declared "ecological focus areas, " and farmers will be obliged to grow at least three different crops at any one time.

Criticism also comes from the liberal Guardian in the UK: “The move away from historical payments to a flat-rate payment scheme is welcome; capping payments to the biggest farmers is only fair; more help to young farmers would refresh an industry; help for organic farmers is long overdue, and a basic requirement to put a proportion of farmland into environmental management is admirable.” Still, the paper adds, “The overall cut in funding for agri-environment schemes spells disaster.”

-- Reed McManus


Biking Will Make You Rich

Biking-chicagoThose of us who are smart lucky enough to already commute by bike know how pleasant and invigorating it is--not to mention saving the planet and all that. But here comes Lifehacker's Mr. Money Mustache to lay out how it will also make us rich. His thesis in a nutshell:

It is ridiculous to commute by car to work if you realize how expensive it is to drive, and if you value your time at anything close to what you get paid.

If you want the full rundown read M3's post, but here's the short-attention-span version. First figure out how much it costs to drive. The IRS makes it $0.51/mile, a cheapskate could do it for 17 cents per, so split the difference and say $0.34. As for your time, the median wage for a suburban commuter is around $25/hour. Assuming 6 minutes per mile, M3 works that out to $795 in annual commuting costs: $170 for the mileage and $625 for your time. That's PER MILE.

$795 per year will pay the interest on $15,900 of house borrowed at a 5% interest rate. In other words, a logical person should be willing to pay about $15,900 more for a house that is one mile closer to work, and $477,000 more for a house that is 30 miles closer to work. For a double-commuting couple, these numbers are $31,800 and $954,000.

Choosing a job and a place to live so that you do not have to commute by car, M3 concludes, "is probably the biggest single boost that will get the average person from poverty to financial independence over a reasonable period of time." Of course, no one is going to hand you $795 for every mile you don't drive, cycling takes time too, jobs are scarce, and most car commuters pay the price in reduced quality of life. But just try some time convincing a bicycle commuter that she'd be better off driving--it just ain't going to happen.

Paul Rauber

Image by iStock

Oct 12, 2011

Old MacDonald's Carbon Footprint

Beef is the big bugaboo when it comes to climate-altering foodstuffs--but that's only because we eat so much of it. When the Environmental Working Group dug into the numbers (in its report Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health), it found that lamb was an even worse offender. It turns out that sheep produce less meat per pound of "live weight" than cattle, yet emit similar amounts of methane. An even bigger surprise is the number-three offender: cheese. Its production entails many of the same greenhouse sins as beef's (feed, fertilizer, manure, etc.) and isn't very efficient—it takes nearly 10 pounds of milk to produce a single pound of cheese. If everyone in the country abstained from meat and cheese one day a week, the report calculates, it would be the same as taking 7.6 million cars off the road. Figures are stated in kilograms of CO2-equivalent per kilo of food consumed. —Paul Rauber


Oct 11, 2011

Now You’ll Know Who Wendy Schmidt Is

Oil-spill-x-prize-2 elastec_41438_600x450Whaddaya mean you’ve never heard of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge? (Or Wendy Schmidt, for that matter?) Schmidt is the wife of Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of  Google – oh  yeah, that Google – and president of the Schmidt Family Foundation, which just happens to have a keen interest in clean energy and natural resource issues.

Prompted by the the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, earlier this year the foundation sponsored the Oil Cleanup X Challenge, an effort “to inspire a new generation of innovative solutions that will speed the pace of cleaning up seawater surface oil resulting from spillage from ocean platforms, tankers, and other sources.” Today, a $1 million first-prize winner was announced: Elastec/American Marine, a manufacturer of oil spill equipment based in the tiny (population: 5,240) southern Illinois town of Carmi. According to National Geographic News, Team Elastec “developed giant grooved discs that skimmed oil more than three times better than the industry standard.” A second prize of $300,000 went to a team from NOFI, a manufacturer of fisheries-related equipment based in Tromso, Norway. (With a population of just over 68,000, Tromso is apparently “the capital of Northern Norway.”) Team NOFI created a V-shaped flexible boom that captures 2,712 gallons of oil per minute and attained an efficiency of 83 percent. (A third-place prize was not awarded, because only the top two met the challenge’s standard of reaching an oil-recovery rate of at least 2,500 gallons per minute with an efficiency ratio of at least 70 percent oil-to-water.)

The ten finalists in the Oil Cleanup X Challenge duked it out at the very impressive National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility in Leonardo, New Jersey (population: 2,757).

-- Reed McManus

Image: X Prize Foundation. Team Elastec’s winning design.

"Reality Sucks"


So we bailed GM out of bankruptcy and we get this: a new ad campaign targeted at campus newspapers urging young people to "Stop pedaling...start driving." In the ad at right, a cyclist has to shield his face lest the cute woman in the passing automobile recognize him. The coda to GM's "Reality Sucks" campaign is "luckily the GM college discount doesn't," but it could just as well describe the ugly business of auto marketing. Another example: While GM is pushing its more fuel-efficient cars like the Malibu in this "mileage-sensitive market," a new generation of monster trucks is waiting in the wings for the next dip in gasoline prices.

--Paul Rauber 



Oct 10, 2011

Climate Cam

Piramide 2 esterna presentazione Up and running since September, the world’s highest webcam captures stunning images of Mount Everest—and data for climate researchers. The solar-powered camera, installed by German surveillance firm Mobotix for the multinational Ev-K2-CNR Pyramid Laboratory, is perched on the summit of Nepal’s Kala Patthar (18,618 feet) with an unobstructed view of the western side of Everest. Back at the lab, at a relatively sedate 16,570 feet, images taken at five-minute intervals will be studied in conjunction with meteorological data gathered from Everest. Check out the webcam images here.

Concern for a fast-changing Himalaya also prompted the Asia Society to sponsor a multimedia project called Coal + Ice, which “visually narrates the hidden chain of actions triggered by mankind’s use of coal.” Part of the exhibit, which includes 161 works by more than 30 photographers, focuses on images taken by mountaineer and photographer David Breashears showing how more than 330 vertical feet of Tibet's Rongbuk Glacier have melted since George Mallory documented it in 1921. The exhibit is being shown in Beijing, with plans in the works to bring it to Berlin, Brazil, and New York. More on Breashears' work with the Asia Society can be found here

-- Reed McManus

Image: The solar-powered Ev-K2-CNR Pyramid Laboratory in Nepal’s Sagarmatha National Park

Oct 06, 2011

Hooray for the Red, White, and Green


"We can't compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines."

-- Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, in response to the failure of solar manufacturer Solyndra and along with it, the loss of a half-billion dollars in federal loan guarantees.

“I don’t buy that. I’m not going to surrender to other countries the technological leads that can end up determining whether we’re building that in this country.”

-- President Obama's riposte to Stearns, after noting the wide support on Capitol Hill for the Department of Energy’s clean-energy loan-guarantee programs. ThinkProgress Green has compiled a very long list of Republican legislators who requested clean energy grants and subsidized loans from the feds.

-- Reed McManus

Image: U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory

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