Author Archives: Christopher Penalosa

Climate Study Predicts Deadly Heat for Older Californians

California’s heat waves are going to be getting longer and hotter in the coming decades, according to a new climate modeling study commissioned by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the EPA. The authors predict that heat-related deaths among California’s 65-and-over population could spike more than nine-fold by 2090. According to the study, currently more than 500 elderly people die annually from heat-related causes.

Using IPCC climate projections, the study models how climate change will impact California up and down the coast, including coastal cities like San Francisco and inland cities such as Riverside and Fresno.

Lead author Scott Sheridan, a geographer at Kent State University, says that the projected increase in heat-related deaths among those 65 and over are due in part to physiological reasons, but also to growing population size of this age group. By the end of the century, he says, the state’s population of people in this age bracket will increase from 4 million to 15.7 million. Sheridan says California communities that are already used to dealing with hotter temperatures, like the inland city of Fresno, may be better prepared to deal with the heat than relatively cooler coastal cities. Continue reading

Texas Drought: Two Compelling Portraits

This summer, Texas is baking. The state is experiencing its worst drought in history, which is wreaking havoc on the cattle industry, and along with that, a way of life.  Rivers are drying up, and wildfires have burned through more than three million acres in the last five months, spelling disaster not just for ranchers, but also for the region’s natural ecosystems. Plants aren’t growing normally due to the lack of rain, and this is disrupting entire food chains.

Two new reports on NPR’s  Morning Edition paint vivid portraits of how Texas is weathering the severe effects of this historic drought.

Listen to Wade Goodwyn’s report “Drought Puts Texas Ranchers, and Cattle, At Risk” and John Burnett’s “Texas Drought Takes Toll on Wildlife” on

Analysts Cut Carbon Price Forecast for California

Carbon may come cheaper than first predicted when California’s cap-and-trade program finally gets rolling.

Analysts at Thomson Reuters have dropped their projections of what polluters would pay for emissions permits from $40 to $36 per metric ton of CO2-equivalent gases.

Emilie Mazzacurati, who heads the firm’s North America Carbon Team, says pushing back the compliance date to 2013 and fears of a double-dip recession are behind the 10% trimming from its prior forecast.

Analysts say they expect greenhouse gas emissions to decrease in a sluggish economy. In 2009 and 2010, California’s emissions from power plants dipped by 12% due to a combination of milder temperatures, leading to less air conditioning demand, and a lull in manufacturing.

The trading price assumes that California goes it alone in cap & trade, although two Canadian provinces are expected to join the market eventually. Rules for the State’s cap & trade program have to be finalized by the end of October.

Cheap Panels Changing the Game for Big Solar

Developers are moving toward photovoltaic panels for utility-scale solar plants

Photovoltaic Panels at a PG&E's Dixon-Vacaville array. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Photovoltaic solar panels are becoming the new black for large-scale solar projects in California.

Developers of what’s billed as the world’s largest solar project, spanning 7,000 acres in Blythe, California, say the plant will get half of its 1,000 megawatts from photovoltaic panels. This recent announcement makes Solar Trust of America the fourth large-scale solar developer in California to switch from solar thermal to photovoltaic panels, which Solar Trust CEO Uwe Schmidt calls “the right technology at the right time.”

Brett Prior, Senior Analyst at Greentech Media, says that large-scale solar developers have preferred solar thermal but the plummeting cost of photovoltaic panels is changing that.

“Over the last couple of years PV [photovoltaic] panels have dropped significantly in price,” says Prior.

How’s 70% over the last two years for “significant?” Prior says that’s because China is emerging as a major player in panel manufacturing. “Just in the last five years, China has gone from sort of a minimal role to over 50% of all worldwide manufacturing of PV panels.” says Prior.

However, cost of technology isn’t the only factor affecting large-scale solar projects.

“One area where [solar thermal] players are making a lot of progress is incorporating thermal storage,” says Prior.

For some solar developers, thermal storage is a viable feature for solar thermal power and worth the extra cost. Since solar photovoltaic panels only work when the sun is shining, some solar-thermal plants incorporate a feature that uses molten salts, which can store heat throughout the day and be released to generate steam for turbines.

Prior says solar-thermal plants using storage features allow more flexibility to grid demand, which is consistent after the sun sets.

“They can store energy during the morning when it’s not really needed by the grid, deliver 100% output at one p.m. when it’s most needed, and continue to deliver 100% output at eight p.m. when electricity demand drops off,” says Prior.

Despite the emerging energy storage technology, three other large-scale solar plants (links to interactive map, below) have made the transition from solar thermal to solar photovoltaic panels for at least part of the project. Other developers like NextERA’s Beacon Solar, builder of a large project in Kern County, have suggested similar plans.

View Making the Swtich in a larger map

Climate News Roundup: the Melting Arctic, Solar Power, and Peak Oil

Rooftop Solar Panels in Vacaville. Photo: Craig Miller

1. MIT study finds IPCC underestimated Arctic ice melt

A forthcoming study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicts that Arctic ice sheets are melting four times quicker than was forecast in the latest IPCC report. According to the study, the Arctic may be ice-free several decades sooner than 2100, which was predicted by the Fourth Assessment Report. Study authors say the IPCC data did not include forces such as wind and ocean currents that cause ice to break up.

The Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans will publish the study next month, but you can read the full news release at MIT’s website. Continue reading

California Truckers React to New Fuel Standards

The trade group for California’s truckers says it welcomes the new federal fuel standards for big rigs — for the most part, anyway.

Yesterday President Obama announced that all heavy duty vehicles must get up to 20 percent better mileage by 2014.  This marks the first ever federal fuel efficiency rules for heavy trucks and buses.

Michael Shaw of the California Trucking Association said he welcomes the standards but wants equal focus on improving vehicle reliability.

“We want reliability considered as important as fuel efficiency because, ultimately, if a vehicle is running more efficiently, but it’s spending more time in the shop… then you may have to purchase a new truck.” said Shaw. “So are we really getting the benefit we’re expected to get?”

Shaw says these rules may also increase costs for truckers. Continue reading

Climate Change’s Unusual Suspects

A rice field in the Sacramento Valley. According to NOAA, rice paddies are a source of methane emissions. Photo: Craig Miller

Despite all the focus on regulating CO2 as a way to combat global warming, a new NOAA study finds that to really put the brakes on climate change, the world can’t ignore the other greenhouse gases.

The study takes an inventory of non-carbon greenhouse gases including methane, which emits from landfills and farms, and nitrous oxide, which primarily comes from soil management and combustion. Per molecule, the study notes that these gases have a stronger muscle for trapping heat compared with carbon dioxide, but they don’t last as long in the atmosphere.

“This study looks at what would happen if society decided to go after the short-lived greenhouse gases, as well as CO2.” said Jim Butler, Director of Global Monitoring at NOAA and author of the study.

Short-lived is a relative term in atmospheric science. Butler said it takes decades for methane to fully run its course in the atmosphere, during which its potential to trap heat is much greater, even though its share in the atmosphere is pennies compared to that of CO2.

Carbon dioxide sticks around much longer, some of it for thousands of years, said Butler.

“CO2 is still the big dog in the fight,” he said. Continue reading

Where Will Climate Change Affect Health the Most?

A new online tool maps where Americans’ health may be most vulnerable to climate change

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released an interactive tool today that maps climate-related health risks across the country, including extreme heat, poor air quality, drought, flooding, and infectious diseases. The maps present a snapshot of current health vulnerabilities using recent data at the state and county levels.

“If we stay on our present course, we can expect these health vulnerabilities from climate change to accelerate” said NRDC Senior Scientist Kim Knowlton on a conference call with reporters. “We need to prepare for the worst in extreme events and the health vulnerabilities that will result.” Continue reading

Climate Change Chipping Away at the Coast

USGS: Warmer ocean temps portend more erosion along the West Coast

This week researchers at the US Geological Survey (USGS) issued a damage report that assesses how badly El Nino patterns tore up West Coast beaches during the winter of 2009-2010. Up and down the coast, the survey logged beach erosion 36% above average. The study’s authors point to the intensity of the El Nino conditions during that time, as well as a geological shift in the region of warmer water. They say high water, heavy storms and warmer waters were the culprits. And they warn that with the changing climate, these events may become more common.

“This little winter is a snapshot of what climate change may look like where we have baseline higher sea levels and more significant storms.” said Patrick Barnard, a coastal geologist with the USGS in Santa Cruz.

A sign warning of cliff erosion in Santa Cruz. (Photo: Craig Miller)

One Bay Area snapshot the authors highlighted was San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. The thin coast retreated more than 184 feet, dumping the southbound lane of the Great Highway onto the beach. It took nine months before the lane was reopened and the clean-up cost $5 million.

Continue reading

Protesters Shell Mojave Solar Plant

Oakland’s BrightSource Energy and Environmentalists throw down over a threatened tortoise

What some have billed as the world’s largest solar project in the Mojave came under fire again today. This time a baby desert tortoise led the charge with a cohort of environmentalists. While the tortoise provided a slow-motion picket around downtown Oakland, protestors lined up in front of BrightSource Energy’s corporate headquarters, determined to preserve the Mojave desert and keep solar projects local.

A baby desert tortoise stakes out a position outside BrightSource Energy headquarters in Oakland. (Photo: Chris Penalosa)

At risk of habitat loss from the project, the tortoise is becoming the iconic image for preservation of the Mojave. The Bureau of Land Management put the brakes on two-thirds of the Ivanpah solar farm when field biologists found more tortoises than initially expected. Tortoises found on site are being relocated and fenced off, preventing their gradual return. Continue reading