Monthly Archives: January 2012

Drought Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Are we in one? Water officials say the answer is “Yes and No”

How do you define a "drought?"

As state surveyors trudge into the mountains this week for the season’s second official survey of the Sierra snowpack, the auspices aren’t good. Remote sensors currently show that statewide, water content is averaging just 38% of the average for this date, and less than a quarter of what water managers would hope to see on April first — just two months away.

Consequently, the “D-word” is being nervously bandied about. Are we in a drought?

The state’s newly revamped Current Water Conditions website takes on the question with a definitive “Yes and no.” Drought status, it says “can be very different depending on your location.” Continue reading

A Watered-down Bond for Water System Improvements?

CA Senate President Pro Tem tells water conference $11 billion is too much 

Is the 2012 water bond heading for the drain?

“There are two subjects water people least want to talk about: politics and money,” said the former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, David Nahai. He was speaking at the “Future of Water in Southern California” conference on a dry and windy Friday, here in the City of Angels. And those two were the uncomfortable topics State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) talked about in his lunch hour keynote.

“Everybody asks ‘what’s gonna happen with the bond?’ I don’t know,” Steinberg countered, to modest chuckles.

Sponsored by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, the conference was generously sprinkled with Southland water and sanitation district staff. They’d just spent the morning presenting new ideas for water “banking,” and new technologies for advanced recycling, and Steinberg knew the idea of less money would not wash down well with the noontime pasta salad and sandwiches. In fact, a proposal to cut 25% from each project in the water bond measure even failed an Assembly committee vote on Jan. 10th. Continue reading

War of Watts: Neighbors Compete for Lowest Energy Use

Pitting neighbors against one another isn’t always a bad it?

Hear the companion radio feature to this post on KQED’s The California Report.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses,” the 1920s-era comic strip that inspired the catch-phrase of the same name, is a classic reminder of the ridiculous lengths we sometimes go to just to impress our neighbors. The need to “keep up” has driven plenty of neighborhoods into frenzies of conspicuous consumption—fueling spending sprees on everything from pink socks and fur-lined miniskirts, to microwaves and McMansions.  But can that same impulse really inspire a trend in “non-consumption?”

According to a growing body of research [PDF download] by environmental economists and behavioral psychologists, the answer is a resounding: Yes! Here are some of interesting nuggets to come out of that research. Continue reading

California Holds Lead in Clean Car Derby

Air Board adopts landmark rules to curb emissions

The California Air Resources Board has unanimously approved sweeping new rules designed to facilitate the transition from gasoline-powered to electric and hydrogen-powered cars. By 2025, automakers are now required to produce 1.4 million “zero-emission” vehicles for the California market, a number that would make clean cars 15 percent of  all new car and truck sales.

A Nissan all-electric Leaf in San Francisco.

The rules also require automakers, by 2025, to halve greenhouse gas emissions emanating from vehicle tailpipes, compared to current levels. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering similar emissions rules, as well as a new fuel economy standard of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

State regulators hope the new rules will lead to the widespread adoption of zero-emission vehicles, which they say is critical for meeting California’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050. That goal was established by executive order by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger, and goes beyond the cuts mandated by California’s landmark  global warming law, AB 32. Continue reading

California’s “Clean Car” Rules: A Historical Perspective

A leading transportation expert weighs in on California’s tough new emissions standards

California's new emission standards would mandate a 15% increase in zero-emission-vehicles by 2025.

UPDATE: Today, California air regulators approved a package of “Clean Car” standards that many are calling historic. But there’s nothing new about that. California’s been out front in the clean car derby for decades.

In her recent story on QUEST, Lauren Sommer unpacks the proposed emissions standards. As part of her reporting she spoke with Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, and a member of California’s Air Resources Board. Sperling puts the state’s new emissions standards in historical perspective, arguing that since the 1960s virtually all innovation in automotive emissions controls can be traced back to California. Here’s a snippet of Sommer’s conversation with Sperling. Continue reading

Requiem for Yucca Mountain: Federal Commission Says to Move On

The problem of where to put nuclear waste goes back to the drawing board

Dead End? The giant boring machine pokes through a rock face at Yucca Mountain.

In its final report, a federal blue-ribbon commission suggests that it may be time to throw in the towel on Yucca Mountain, the embattled project to store high-level nuclear waste in Nevada. Billions have already been spent on the project, which appears to have reached a dead end.

But the urgency to find a safe, permanent home for nuclear waste in the U.S. was tragically underscored last March by the destruction of three Japanese reactors and their storage pools of spent fuel rods, after an ocean tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima plant’s coastal defenses. Continue reading

New Map for Gardeners Won’t Help California’s Green Thumbs

The USDA updates its plant hardiness map to 21st century standards

Gardeners in California may not learn much from the USDA's new Plant Hardiness Zone Map, but warmer winter averages elsewhere may allow for new additions to gardens across the country.

It’s been more than two decades since the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its Plant Hardiness Zones Map, used by gardeners across the country to determine what will grow in their yards. The new GIS-enabled map unveiled this week is a boost to people who live in places that get a lot of cold weather and may be seeing slightly warmer average winters now. But in California, Sunset’s western zones guide has always been the gardener’s bible.

Kim Kaplan, a spokesperson for the USDA’s in-house research service stopped short of conceding that the revamped map was a nod to climate change. “In some cases you do see a warmer or colder zone, but there’s no way to ascribe that change just to the [30] new years of weather data we’ve added,” she told me, adding that the changes were driven more by updated technology. “The sophisticated algorithm that was created for how to draw the zones between where we have actual data points is something that was never done before” she said. Point taken. The new map shouldn’t be compared to the old map.

Continue reading

SoCal Shines Brightest in Solar Rankings

The Bay Area likes to tout its clean, green reputation, but when it comes to installing solar, Southern California shines brightest. San Diego and Los Angeles lead the state in rooftop solar installations, according to a report released today by Environment California’s Research & Policy Center.

Rooftop solar panels on a home in Oakland.

San Jose comes in third with more than 2,700 rooftop installations, while San Francisco comes in fourth with more than 2,400 (though it’s fifth in terms of overall capacity). San Diego leads with 4,500-plus installations producing almost 37 megawatts of electricity.

“I think the story with San Diego is that the city was an early and very consistent adopter of solar power,” says Michelle Kinman, clean energy advocate with Environment California Research & Policy Center. “San Diego also has a really well coordinated working relationship between the local elected officials, the utility, the solar industry and the advocacy community.” Continue reading

Feds Likely to Catch Up to California on Fuel Economy Standards

The EPA is pushing new nationwide fuel economy standards that would bring the nation up to California’s strict standards.

Consumer groups say the EPA's proposed fuel economy standard will mean you'll pay less at the pump.

At a public hearing in San Francisco today a diverse group of stakeholders lined up to support the EPA’s proposal to increase the fuel efficiency standard for cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon. As we’ve reported here, the rule would affect models between 2017 and 2025 and will likely be adopted by the end of the summer.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) worked closely with the EPA to develop the standard and testified that if the rule can be finalized as proposed, California will be willing to accept the national standard. CARB has been taking heat for this collaboration from Orange County Congressional Representative Darrell Issa, who has accused the state of meddling in national regulatory affairs.

Continue reading

Coffee House Goes for “Zero” Carbon in Your Cup

An Oakland cafe designed to have a “zero” carbon footprint

Noble Cafe in Oakland serves coffee with a conscientious bent.

By Caitlin Esch

Dimitri Thompson says he’s calculated every kilowatt his Noble Cafe will use, from the motion-sensor-controlled, low-energy lighting system to his high-end Italian coffee machine. He’s pinned down the biggest electricity hogs in most cafes, “One: coffee machine, on all the time. Two: fridges, on all the time.”

Thompson has a couple of standard restaurant fridges, but he’ll use special cold packs for display goods that need to be kept cool. He plans to buy his electricity from a wind and solar company and has an on-site composting system.

Thompson doesn’t stop there. He includes other factors like how his employees get to work and where his products come from to estimate his total carbon footprint using a website designed to help businesses make that calculation. When all is said and done, Thompson says he will still need to make monthly payments to offset some of his carbon usage. He has chosen to funnel that cash into supporting Oakland’s parks.