Author Archives: Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

Sea Level Rise Laps at Developers’ Feet

 


Google Maps image of the Bay Area from Cal-Adapt’s online interactive sea level rise tool.

Developers building on the shore of San Francisco Bay will now have to consider climate change in their plans.

Despite a unanimous vote on Thursday by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), it hasn’t been easy planning process for the state agency that regulates development along the San Francisco Bay shoreline. The state agency approved a first-of-its kind policy that makes sea level rise part of regional planning decisions.

“It’s kind of like childbirth,” said Will Travis, the Executive Director of the commission.

“It wasn’t an easy thing to get done,” he said. “Some didn’t even believe that climate change was happening, and some weren’t aware of the great impact that sea level rise will have the Bay Area.” Continue reading

Climate Change Offers Up a New Wine List

Climate change could dramatically affect the microclimates that have made California wine country so successful. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

You’ve probably heard of the wines that made Napa and Sonoma famous, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. But what about Negroamaro or Nero d’Avola?

They’re wine grapes that are well-adapted to hotter climates – the kind of conditions that California may be facing as the climate continues to warm. But for wineries that have staked their reputations on certain wines, adapting to climate change could be a tough sell.

Talk to any wine lover in California and they’ll tell you how lucky they are to live in such rich wine-producing region. Take the recent meeting of the San Francisco Wine Lovers Group at Toast wine bar in Oakland, where the favorites are California Pinot Noir, Russian River Zinfandel, and Napa Cabernet.

In fact, the type of grape – or varietal – is how most of us think about wine. Continue reading

Rough Waters for Sea Level Rise Planning

Salt ponds in Redwood City where the new Saltworks development is proposed. Photo: Lauren Sommer.

What do Bay Area airports and some big Silicon Valley companies have in common? They sit right on the edge of San Francisco Bay, where sea level rise is expected to have a big impact by the end of the century.

That may seem far in the future, but state agencies are preparing for climate change now by writing new rules for construction along the bay’s shoreline. As you can imagine, developers and environmentalists aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye.

That’s evident on a patch of land at the edge of the bay in Redwood City. For more than a century, it’s been home to one thing: salt. Continue reading

The Heat is On for Napa Valley Wines

Temperatures are rising for Napa Valley grapes. (Photo: KQED Quest.)

California’s prime wine producing areas could shrink dramatically over the next three decades of climate change. That’s according to a study released this week by scientists at Stanford University.

Author Noah Diffenbaugh and colleagues looked at how Napa and Santa Barbara counties could be affected by a one-degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in average global temperature. They found that the land suitable for growing premium wine grapes could be reduced 30-50% by 2040. Continue reading

A Water Meter Mandate for California Farms

Regulators seek better tracking of farm water use

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Most urban dwellers get a water bill each month that’s based on how much water they use. But on some California farms, that’s not the case.

“In many parts of the state, the amount of water farmers use is not measured,” says Susan Sims of the California Water Commission.

Instead, farmers are charged a flat rate for water in some districts. Sims says that makes it difficult for farmers to conserve water. “It’s very hard, even when you want to conserve. I think the first step in saving water is knowing what you’re using.”

Toward that end, the Water Commission votes today on rules that would require water districts to meter the volume of water farmers use — and to charge them accordingly. Sims says many water districts, including some in the San Joaquin Valley, already do this. Others in Northern California don’t. Continue reading

Google Invests Millions in Residential Solar

SolarCity infusion is Google’s largest yet

(Photo: Craig Miller)

Google is giving a boost to the solar industry today – but not to those large solar farms in the California desert. Nope, the company’s largest clean energy investment to date is going to home solar.

Five years ago, SolarCity was a small, Bay Area start-up. Today, it’s getting a $280 million-dollar investment from one of the most influential players in the game.

“We are very excited,” says Lyndon Rive,  CEO of SolarCity. “It’s a big vote of confidence in SolarCity as well as hopefully a big vote of confidence to the entire market.” Continue reading

What Shade of Green is Your Ride?

New Car Labels Emphasize Emissions and Savings

Coming to a showroom near you: a new fuel economy sticker for an electric vehicle. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

Buy a gas guzzler and you might discover a new form of “sticker shock.”

Cars and trucks sitting on dealership lots will soon have a new fuel economy sticker in the window. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency released newly-designed labels that emphasize environmental performance for conventional and electric cars.

The label might seem familiar to California drivers. In 2008, the state released its own environmental impact sticker for new cars. It rates a car’s smog and greenhouse gas emissions on a scale of one to ten.

The new national label follows California’s lead and incorporates the same rating system. But for the first time, it will also display the annual fuel cost for a vehicle, comparing it to an average vehicle over five years. Continue reading

Speed Bump for Big SoCal Solar Project

It had been a good month for BrightSource Energy, the Oakland-based company that’s building the massive Ivanpah solar farm in the Mojave Desert.

Google announced it would invest $168 million in the project. The Department of Energy announced $1.6 billion loan guarantee. And on Friday, the company announced it plans to go public with a $250 million initial public offering. But a recurring issue has popped up: the desert tortoise.

A Mojave desert tortoise. (Image: USGS)

“It’s an endangered species. No project that is sited out there in within their habitat can negatively impact the population,” says Erin Curtis, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management. As anyone following the battles over solar farms knows, prime desert tortoise habitat also happens to be prime solar territory and has been targeted by a number of proposed solar farms.

BrightSource Energy agreed to mitigate the impacts their solar farm would have on the tortoises by capturing and relocating them to new habitat. Fences are being constructed to prevent the tortoises from returning. Continue reading

CA Moves Forward with Renewable Goals

33% by 2020: It’s (almost) The Law

After two failed attempts, California is moving ahead with the most aggressive renewable energy goal in the country. Today the State Assembly passed SB 2x, a bill that requires utilities to get 33% of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind, by 2020.

By all accounts, utilities will need to add an unprecedented amount of renewable energy to meet the goal. Peter Miller of the Natural Resources Defense Council says that will spur new technology and green job opportunities. “There’s worldwide competition to lead this industry, which is the growth industry of the 21st century,” said Miller. “And this moves us, I believe, to the front of the pack.”

If the 33% renewable portfolio standard (RPS) doesn’t sound new, that’s because it isn’t. The goal was originally set by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 2008 executive order. Supporters knew that an executive order could be overturned by a future governor, but two previous bills aiming at cementing the goal failed to make it into law. Continue reading

Tahoe Forecast: Shrinking Snow, Longer Walk to the Water

Lake Tahoe's water level could drop within the century. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

The average snowpack in the Tahoe Basin could decline 40 to 60% by 2100 and some years could see all rain and no snow. That’s according to climate change forecasts released this week by the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

The decrease in snowpack would be driven by two processes, according to study author Geoffrey Schladow. With warmer temperatures, more precipitation will fall as rain during the winter, instead of snow. And as any skier knows, when rain falls on snow, it melts the snowpack in what scientists call “rain-on-snow” events.

These findings are a concern since the Sierra Nevada snowpack is often called California’s “frozen reservoir.”  That reservoir is critical to the state’s water supply — and it’s free. “What the snowpack affords us is a way to very economically store water,” said Schladow. “If the water is falling as rain, rather than snow, then we have to build more dams and reservoirs to catch it, which is expensive.” Continue reading