Author Archives: Climate Watch Correspondent

Fast Lane for California Wind Energy — But for How Long?

Federal incentives can hasten development–or slow it down

By Nate Seltenrich

Craig Miller

Last year brought a fresh breeze for wind energy, and projections indicate that 2012 will be even better. But over the next two years, a variety of forces could conspire to hamper wind energy development across the United States, despite a significant decline in the cost. These are the main findings of a new report by the US Department of Energy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

It’s that classic good news-bad news scenario: should proponents focus on the fact that in 2011 wind energy became cheaper, more efficient, and more widely distributed than ever? Or should they dwell on the looming challenges, including steep competition from cheap natural gas, inadequate high-voltage transmission in many parts of the country, and the possible expiration of federal incentives at the end of the year? Continue reading

Rural Californians: Get Ready to Pay for Fire Protection

800,000 will be getting billed to help fight wildfires

By Alice Daniel

Tim Walton

Rural homes are at greatest risk of wildfires. The state will now charge those homeowners a fee to help pay for fire protection services.

It’s fire season in California. The blazes may not be big enough to draw national TV news crews, but pulling from the top of CAL FIRE’s news feed it’s easy to see the agency is busy.

There’s the Volcano Fire in Riverside County, the Salt Creek Fire in Shasta, the Graham Fire in Tuolumne. Demand for services is as big as it’s ever been, but CAL FIRE has not been spared from budget cuts, which explains a new bill that roughly 800,000 rural homeowners, those who live in the most fire-prone areas, will soon have to pay.

The legislature-approved fee is up to $150 per home and should generate $84 million per year, says CAL FIRE spokesperson Daniel Berlant.

“All that money will go towards fire prevention in the state responsibility area,” Berlant said. “The most notable activities include brush clearance, forest health, fuel reduction.”

A recent state report on climate change says hotter temperatures already are causing more and larger fires. Berlant says 11 of the top 20 largest fires recorded in California have occurred in the past decade. “Even this year, we’ve seen about twice as many fires as we did last year. And that does have us concerned and does have us very busy this year,” said Berlant. Continue reading

Can a Bullet Train Shrink California’s Carbon Footprint?

A Berkeley study says it just might — but not right away

By Roger Rudick

Near Antwerp, Belgium, there’s a two-mile section of high-speed rail (HSR) line with solar panels over the tracks to help power the system. That kind of technology is essential to maximizing environmental benefits from California’s proposed bullet train, according to a new study co-authored by Berkeley’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. California is poised to begin construction of an HSR line from San Francisco to Los Angeles early next year.

CA High Speed Rail Authority

How "green" California's bullet train is depends in part on how electricity for it is being produced.

But before the electrically powered trains start cleaning up California’s air, they have to make it dirtier. That’s because the construction generates pollution. “We calculated after ground breaking, so the net benefits come at best 10 years after the system starts running,” said Mikhail Chester, a professor at Arizona State and a study author.

And some of that depends on how quickly people switch from driving and flying to using the train, he added. According to the study, entitled “High-speed rail with emerging automobiles and aircraft can reduce environmental impacts in California’s future,” 67% of the construction pollution for HSR comes from making cement.  “But construction is a one-time cost…the benefits continue for the life of the system,” he said. Continue reading

Satellites Helping Save Water on California Farms

Researchers at CSU have teamed up with NASA to test water-saving technology on California crops

Craig Miller

Watering fields in the Sacramento Valley: traditional irrigation methods have required a lot of guess-work.

By Vinnee Tong

Near the Central Valley town of Los Banos, Anthony Pereira opens a tap to send water into the fields at his family’s farm. Pereira grows cotton, alfalfa and tomatoes. And he is constantly deciding how much water is the right amount to use.

“Water savings is always an issue,” he says. “That’s why we’re going drip here on this ranch. We gotta try to save what we can now for the years to come.”

Thanks to some new technology, that might get a little easier. To help farmers like Pereira, engineers at NASA and CSU Monterey Bay are developing an online tool that can estimate how much water a field might need. Here’s how it works: satellites orbiting the earth take high-resolution pictures — so detailed that you can zoom in to a quarter of an acre.

“The satellite data is allowing us to get a measurement of how the crop is developing,” says CSUMB scientist Forrest Melton, the lead researcher on the project. “We’re actually measuring the fraction of the field that’s covered by green, growing vegetation.” Continue reading

Amping Up Local Renewable Power

Think globally, amp locally?

Craig Miller

Most Californians rely on electricity from distant sources.

By Thibault Worth

California’s mandated goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020 may be bold and ambitious. But there’s room to raise the bar still higher, say proponents of local renewable power.

A report commissioned by Governor Jerry Brown last year — and released this week by Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) — lays out a plan for developing 12,000 Megawatts of renewable power generation close to homes and workplaces by 2020. Continue reading

Can Better Batteries Shrink California’s Carbon Footprint?

Jump-starting the Bay Area’s battery research could yield answers beyond 2020

By Thibault Worth

Lawrence Berkeley Nat'l Lab

Tommy Conry loading a lithium coin cell for testing at LBNL's battery lab.

We’ve reported extensively about AB 32, California’s 2006 greenhouse gas reductions law that calls for 1990-level carbon emissions by 2020.

But what happens to carbon reduction efforts beyond that date?

A less publicized, yet more aggressive 2050 target calls for slashing carbon emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by mid-century.  That goal was established by an Executive Order by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005. Achieving such an ambitious target will require a range of initiatives, including building better batteries.

AB 32 calls for 33% of California’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. But while solar and wind energy produce zero carbon, they also fluctuate. The current solution is to balance those fluctuations with fast-ramping natural gas-fired power plants. And they produce carbon aplenty. Continue reading

California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard Back on Track — For Now

But the courts aren’t finished with the next big piece of the state’s AB 32 climate strategy

By Thibault Worth

Craig Miller

California aims to cut the carbon content of fuels by 10%.

First it was go. Then it was stop. Now, it’s go again.

As of Monday, California’s groundbreaking Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) was back on track for implementation after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of an injunction against an earlier lower court ruling.

In a statement, the state’s Air Resources Board, which is responsible for the regulation, said the court’s decision would allow California to “continue implementation and resume enforcement of this important program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” [full statement PDF] Continue reading

Thinking Long-Term About Power Plants

A new report warns against the folly of over-investing in natural gas

By Thibault Worth

Craig Miller/KQED

As the nation's power plants age, a new report warns against relying too much on natural gas.

The nation’s power plants are aging. An increasing number require replacement parts; others can’t keep up with new environmental regulations.

A report released today [PDF] by the Boston-based think tank Ceres estimates that in the next two decades, up to $100 billion will be invested in the electric utility industry every year – twice the amount invested in recent years.

According to the report, that boom in investment will take place in a shifting regulatory environment. Air pollution and greenhouse gas restrictions will increase, and fossil fuel-burning power plants will have to keep up. Governments are setting requirements for energy from renewable sources. (California, for example, is targeting a 33% renewable energy ratio by 2020.) Smart grids and new consumer technologies are changing how people think about energy production and consumption.

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The Sorry State of the Salton Sea

As more water flows to the coast, California’s largest inland water body teeters on the brink

By Sam Harnett

Gundi Vigfusson

The Salton Sea, northeast of San Diego, is an important stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. Millions of birds stop there every year.

Last month the California Supreme Court upheld a water transfer deal that sends billions of gallons of water a year from Imperial County farms to cities in San Diego County. The 2003 deal is the largest agriculture-to-urban water transfer in the history of the United States, and it will have major environmental and economic impacts on the region. One of the areas most dramatically affected will be California’s largest — and in many ways its most notorious — inland body of water: the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea has a fraught history. It used to be part of the Colorado River Delta, but with the diversion of water the area has become desert. In 1905, a massive flood caused the formation of the current Sea, and during the following decades it became an iconic resort location, drawing fishermen and pleasure seekers from across the country. In the 1970s, the Sea fell from favor. Rising salinity killed all the sport fish, celebrities stopped coming, and the resort developments were abandoned. Today, the only water the Sea receives is agricultural run-off from nearby farms, and without that water, the Sea will disappear in a matter of years. Continue reading

Crazy Weather? You Might Be Able to Blame the Arctic

Arctic warming is altering weather patterns, study shows

By Andrew Freedman

weatherunderground

Path of the jet stream on March 21, 2012.

By showing that Arctic climate change is no longer just a problem for the polar bear, a new study may finally dispel the view that what happens in the Arctic, stays in the Arctic.

The study, by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ties rapid Arctic climate change to high-impact, extreme weather events in the U.S. and Europe.

The study shows that by changing the temperature balance between the Arctic and mid-latitudes, rapid Arctic warming is altering the course of the jet stream, which steers weather systems from west to east around the hemisphere. The Arctic has been warming about twice as fast as the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, due to a combination of human emissions of greenhouse gases and unique feedbacks built into the Arctic climate system.

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