Author Archives: Climate Watch Correspondent

Parks May Not Offer Refuge from the Smog

It’s not just California cities with lousy air

This was posted originally by our content partners at California Watch, one day after a new report cited several Golden State cities as having with the nation’s worst air quality.

By Agustin Armendariz

Air pollution in national parks is at a three-year high, and two California parks have recorded the worst readings, according to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association.

A winter day offers a break from the bad air at Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, located next to each other, exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency standard for ozone pollution 68 days so far this year, the most of any of the national parks that monitor air quality. Joshua Tree National Park came in second, with 49 days above the EPA standard.

These readings are not only high among national parks, but also for the state as a whole. According to data maintained by the California Air Resources Board for 2010, the number of days exceeding the ozone standard at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks was equal to that of readings in Arvin, just outside of Bakersfield. Last year, both stations recorded 66 days above the ozone standard. Continue reading

How to Capture the Power of High-Altitude Winds

High altitude winds may have more than 100 times the energy needed to power civilization.  But as this video from KQED’s QUEST explains, capturing that power is going to take some very creative  solutions.

By Chris Bauer

A dreamer stares up into the sky, watches the clouds slowly pass by and ponders what could be. From da Vinci to Newton to the Wright brothers to the little kid down the street, sometimes there’s a fine line between the day-dreamer and the visionary. And now a group of innovative thinkers are looking at those same passing clouds in a whole new way.

Looking up at the jet stream, Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist from the Carnegie Institution of Global Ecology at Stanford University says, “We find that there’s more than 100 times the power necessary to power civilization in these high altitude winds.” 100 times the energy to power the world is going to get people’s attention.

The global need for clean energy is pushing scientists and engineers to search for new, untapped sources of energy. “To solve this problem we need a real revolution in our system of energy development,” continues Caldeira, “We need huge amounts of power, and the things that can provide huge amounts of power include fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas; nuclear power, solar power and wind.” The strongest and most consistent winds are found in the jet stream as high as 30,000 feet above the earth. But how do you harness the wind power from that high? Now the race is on to find the answer to that question. Continue reading

Central Valley Faces “Smart Growth” Conundrum

How “smart” is it if you can’t walk to the store…any store?

Reporter Sasha Khokha hits the road.

By Jefferson Beavers

When we decided to take a look at smart growth in the Central Valley, we wanted to see if the goal of compact, walkable living was a realistic option for the largely suburban, car-loving communities of central California.

So, Central Valley bureau chief Sasha Khokha decided to get out of her car, put on her walking shoes, and burn some shoe leather…almost literally.

As the story’s field producer, I first researched dozens of developments in Fresno and Madera counties. I looked for good examples of high-density housing and sustainable neighborhoods as defined by the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, the area’s land use and transportation planning process. Continue reading

Making Renewable Energy from Farm Waste

Cast off walnut shells await the "biogasifier." Lester has more than enough for an entire year stored in his warehouse.

By Katrina Schwartz

California is just a few votes away from changing the rules to allow farmers to connect machines that create bioenergy to the electrical grid, a privilege that has thus far been reserved for farm-generated wind and solar energy.

Passage of the bill — SB 489 — would mean they could use the byproduct of their crops as fuel to create electricity.

Russ Lester, the owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, has been leading the charge to get the rules changed. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to shrink the carbon footprint of his organic walnut farm and processing plant in Yolo County. Brian Jenkins of the California Biomass Collaborative at UC Davis calls Lester the “guinea pig” of bioenergy. Continue reading

Study: Climate Change Muscling in on Mussels

By Susanne Rust

Polar bears may have stolen the show when it comes to climate change, but it may be the lowly California mussel that we really should be watching.

(Photo: Kate McCarthy/Flickr)A new study by researchers at UC Davis shows that rising acid levels in the ocean thin and weaken the shells of this diminutive bivalve. And that could spell trouble for entire marine ecosystems.

“This is a very important species, a foundation species,” said Brian Gaylord, lead author of the paper and a researcher at UC Davis. “They provide habitat, food and refuge for literally hundreds of other animals.”

According to the study’s authors, weakened shells could make the mussels more vulnerable to predation and sickness. Continue reading

L.A.’s Holy Grail: Transit that Works for Most

When cities add light rail and cut bus service, are they “robbing Peter to pay Paul?”

By Alex Schmidt

It really is true that decent public transport to Angelenos is like the Holy Grail to Indiana Jones — especially on L.A.’s Westside. Looking a bit more deeply into transportation in L.A. makes you check certain assumptions that you may have grown up with. There are, after all, over one million people who ride public transport here every day, and most of that takes place on buses.

L.A. Metro bus stop headed downtown..for now. (Photo: Alex Schmidt)

Now, and when bus cuts were previously threatened L.A. (notably when the Red and Gold lines opened on the east side of town), Metro has been accused of racism. In fact, in 1996, the NAACP and Bus Rider’s Union sued the MTA in federal court and won a consent decree to expand the bus system every year for 10 years. Now that the consent decree has ended, bus lines have been cut regularly. And once again, the Bus Rider’s Union has filed a complaint with the FTA’s Office of Civil Rights. Such investigations take many months, and sometimes as long as a year, so it’s not likely that it will halt the cuts this time around. Continue reading

Boom Times for Field Biologists

Big wind and solar buildouts spur a “bio-boom” in the California desert

Field biologists like Mike Sally live a windblown, nomadic lifestyle, surveying sites for renewable energy projects. (Photo: Sarah McBride)

By Sarah McBride

I’ve reported on bubbles in plenty of stocks and commodities, but my springtime visit to the Ivanpah Valley was the first I’d heard anyone talk about a bubble in field biologists. The guy who used those words, Alex Mach, is a field biologist himself — and he was only half kidding.

Mach is one of dozens of field biologists who are out in the desert working to protect threatened animals and plants from solar and wind development projects. They’ve tapped into the rich vein of desert tortoises, whose habitats coincide with many of the areas scientists say are best positioned for solar plants — including Mach’s worksite at the time, BrightSource Energy’s solar plant in Ivanpah Valley, near the California-Nevada border. Continue reading

1.5 Degrees (Celsius) of Separation

Haven't I seen you somewhere before?

Haven't I seen you somewhere before?

A few last over-the-shoulder observations from Rob Schmitz, who has at last escaped Copenhagen, after two weeks of reporting for Climate Watch and The California Report.

There goes Nancy Pelosi in a blazing red dress. Over there? Hugo Chavez surrounded by bodyguards and tracked by television cameras. Watch out! Al Gore’s security detail is coming through!

It was getting toward the end of Week Two, and the Bella Center, all but closed now to those pesky, protesting NGOs, was overrun by more than 120 world leaders and heads of state, and you couldn’t get to the restroom without bumping into one of them (or the elbows of their security guards).

With all this power crammed into once place, the folks who seem like bigwigs at home suddenly found themselves standing in line for hours with the rest of us. CEOs, heads of big-name state agencies and the like had to walk more than a mile to the conference Wednesday after protests forced police to shut down the Bella Center metro stop and erect twenty-foot barriers around it. Then, the UN barred access to most accredited NGO participants, enraging many who dropped thousands of dollars to come here and now couldn’t attend the finale of these negotiations.

At one point, I was looking for a table where I might sit down and eat my lunch. This is one of the joys of covering a conference like this: it’s crowded and everyone’s eating at the same time, so the nations of the world share tables (at least they can cooperate at lunchtime). I plopped my tray down at a table of three people dressed in elaborate white, blue, and red costumes, adorned with silver jewelry. As it turned out, they were three presidents of the parliamentary system of the Sami people, the indigenous nomadic reindeer herders of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, an area known as Lapland. The three were there to support language in the draft resolution text that would include indigenous peoples when deciding where to build renewable energy projects. They’ve had problems in the past when wind farms and dams were built on their lands. “The reindeer don’t like that,” said one of the leaders, “they’ll avoid anything that’s new, and it disturbs our herding,” she told me. The conversation soon turned to their costumes. “We usually don’t wear these outfits,” said one leader at the table, “but we wear them here, because it helps raise awareness of our people. Television journalists are very interested in us.” But, he said, the costumes were a double-edged sword of sorts. When they wear them at official functions, they have a hard time being taken seriously by officials from other governments, one lamented.

I had a similar notable encounter the day before, when I was reporting a story on what California got out of the climate summit. After wrapping up my interviews, I sat down and had breakfast at the Scandic Webers Hotel. Sitting next to me was a man dressed in a red Wisconsin Badgers t-shirt and grubby Adidas sweatpants. Me being from Minnesota, it was my Midwestern duty to inform him of this.

Me: “Wisconsin, eh?

Him: “Yup.”

Me: “I’m from Minnesota.”

Him: “Oh yeah? Well I hope we see you in the playoffs.”

He was referring to the NFL and the arch-rivalry between the Green Bay Packers and my team, the Minnesota Vikings. We proceeded to rib each other about football and had a fun, trash-talking conversation about quarterback Brett Favre. At the end of the conversation, I asked him what he did for a living in Wisconsin.

“Oh, I’m the governor.”

It’s been that kind of week. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, dressed in sweatpants on this morning, was wearing suits when he was involved in meetings throughout the week, to urge the US to make a binding commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions and for congress to pass a cap-and-trade scheme. But he, of course, was playing second (or third) fiddle to the heaps of world leaders that piled into this conference.

Maybe he should have dressed like a reindeer herder.


What a little pond scum won't do

Wielding the power of pond scum. Photos: Rob Schmitz

Harrison Dillon’s had a heck of a year. His company, South San Francisco-based Solazyme, recently won two federal contracts from the Departments of Defense and Energy, and secured almost a million dollars’ worth of state money (while the rest of us were getting IOUs for our tax returns). And just this week, after spending a week in Copenhagen spreading the word about Solazyme, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger held up Dillon’s venture as an example of the California green dream. Not bad for a guy who, six years ago, started his company in his garage (yeah, that still happens).

Dillon works with algae. And not the type that forms on stagnant ponds. He grows it in a contained environment and has figured out how to use it to make crude oil. That oil is then used to make diesel fuel, which almost any automobile can run on. Since algae siphons carbon dioxide out of the air, there is virtually a net-zero greenhouse gas contribution to the environment. Dillon hopes to bring down the cost of fuel made from algae to less than $80 a barrel within the next two years.

This is just one of the innovative California companies that has attended the Copenhagen climate summit the past two weeks. There are many others. The Golden State leads the country in patents in green technology, and it’s likely it leads the country in the sheer number of  representatives at this conference. California emits about the same volume of greenhouse gases as France, and, as is often touted by state leaders, if we were a country, we’d have the seventh largest economy in the world (Schwarzenegger said this in his speech; I’ve heard others say eighth. Suffice it to say our economy’s pretty big).

This week, I spent a snowy morning camped out in the coffee-scented breakfast room of the Scandic Webers Hotel, down the street from Copenhagen’s beautiful central train station. The cozy little inn is decorated with “Danish modern” furniture throughout, upon which the state’s most prominent business and political leaders sat, eating overcooked bacon and watery eggs.

The entire hotel was taken over by the California delegation: John Fielding, President of Southern California Edison, was having breakfast with Nancy Ryan, Policy Director of the California Public Utilities Commission. State Senator Fran Pavley joined them, with State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner chiming in from another table. California EPA Secretary Linda Adams remained in her room, sick with the flu.

“This is my 12th COP (UN Conference of Parties),” Skinner told me. The Bay area assembly member had, in her “previous life,” been a national leader in the fight against global warming. She’d seen this process over and over but she’d never been to a COP that attracted this many people. This, she told me, was a perfect place for California to show the rest of the world what we’ve been up to: “We have to share. CA has an amazing story. Californians per capita pretty much have a flat level of electricity use since the 1970’s, whereas the rest of the US has grown by 50% per capita.” Skinner was on her way to an electric vehicle forum that day.

UCSB students learning outside the classroom

UCSB students learning outside the classroom

Other guests at “Hotel California” included a group of 24 students from UC Santa Barbara. They were led by Bob Wilkinson, a professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science. The students were thrilled to be a part of it all, and were talking about the sticking points in the negotiations as if they were the delegates, complete with UN lingo and acronyms. They also took a page from the playbook of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, the day before, offered to host a “subnational” conference in California. The students said they, too, were interested in hosting a local climate change conference on their campus, to share the expertise they garnered during their stay here. They’d already set a date for this April.

Nothing Ill About This Wind

Harnessing nordic winds -- The Middelgrunden offshore windfarm off the coast of Copenhagen

Harnessing Nordic winds: The Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, in the North Sea

Friday on The California Report, Rob Schmitz looks at what we can learn from the world leaders in leveraging wind power.

See the photo on the left? You’re looking at three percent of Denmark’s wind power generation. This is the Middelgrunden wind farm, located in the North Sea, not far from Copenhagen. There, twenty 120-foot wind turbines produce 40 megawatts of wind energy.

I visited Middelgrunden this week in a small boat. Luckily for me, the winds, normally furious at this time of year, were moderate. I went there for a story on how Denmark was able to develop a wind power infrastructure that now produces a fifth of the country’s electric power. This is a larger proportion than any other country on Earth. For the Danes, wind power is big business.

Up until thirty years ago, Denmark was largely an agricultural country. Now, wind power-related exports are on par with agricultural exports. They make up almost 10% of the country’s total exports.

How did Denmark get to this point? The same way Japan became the most energy-efficient country on Earth: the 1970s oil shocks. In the mid ’70s, Denmark relied on oil for more than 90% of its energy. Oil embargoes brought the country to its economic knees. The government quickly instituted “Car-free Sundays,” when Danes were forbidden from driving. Shop owners were asked to turn off their lights outside of business hours. In 1979, the Denmark created its first Ministry of Energy, and it got to work on harnessing what was then considered an alternative energy: wind.

Jutting out into the treacherous North Sea, Denmark has lots of it. By 2020, Denmark plans to rely on wind for half of its electrical supply. And by 2050, the Danish government wants renewables to supply all of the country’s electricity. These are ambitious goals, but Jakob Lau Holst, COO of Denmark’s Wind Industry Association, believes it can be done.

“If you just stick to long-term government investment, you can develop a market for this,”Lau Holst told me today. He told me that much of Denmark’s industry has a hard time doing business in the US because incentives for renewables like wind “are there one year and gone the next. It’s a mixed message to the industry.” It makes one wonder what could be accomplished with more long-term goals–like California’s commitment to 33% renewables by 2020.