Renewables Meet NIMBY…Everywhere

Suddenly, everywhere you look nowadays, prospects for clean, green energy are being muddied by NIMBY* syndrome.

Windmills dwarf a dairy farm in upstate New York. Photo: Craig Miller

Wind farm: Windmills dwarf a dairy barn in upstate New York. Photo: Craig Miller

We saw it first-hand in Rob Schmitz’s series on “green gridlock” in California’s southeastern deserts. Trepidation there turns more on the transmission lines that would have to go up, to connect solar, wind and geothermal fields to population centers where the power is needed.

We’ve seen it at work in efforts to license wave power projects along the West Coast.

In Marin County, it took the McEvoy Ranch nine years from concept to completion, to get one 150-foot windmill up and running, to power the olive operation. Objections from the neighbors forced them to move the site more than a half-mile, and downsize the turbine to three quarters the proposed height and one third the power output (more about this in the next Quest/Climate Watch special, to premiere on August 25).

Now, as James Glanz reports in the New York Times, seismic fears are causing tremors in geothermal fields north of San Francisco.

Glanz writes that with venture funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Google, Sausalito-based AltaRock Energy is deploying “enhanced” geothermal technology to wrest more steam from the earth. But fears over the potential for unleashing earthquakes in the process are not enhancing their prospects.

*For the truly uninitiated: “Not in My Back Yard”

Decoding California’s Drought History

Abbie Tingstad is a paleoclimatologist at UCLA. She specializes in reconstructing drought records in the western United States, and takes us along on some of her field research in this guest post:

Part of a Piñon pine beam under the collapsed rock shelter. This beam was one of several sampled for tree ring analysis. Photo by Abbie Tingstad.

Part of a Piñon pine beam under a collapsed rock shelter. This beam was one of several sampled for tree ring analysis. Photo by Abbie Tingstad.

By Abbie Tingstad

The site was so remote we needed a team of archaeologists and a couple of heavy-duty 4x4s to get us there.

Deep within the rocky piñon-juniper cliffs of northwestern Colorado was a secret so well hidden I didn’t see it until I was physically inside, face-to-face with a series of hand prints made over a thousand years ago. This rock shelter was occupied during Medieval times by Fremont Indians, contemporaries of the Anasazi whose cultural center was further south in the Four Corners Region. The site had already been excavated, but our interest as dendroclimatologists was not in artifacts. We had come to take samples from the ancient piñon and juniper beams that once supported this structure for the valuable paleoclimate information contained within their annual growth rings.

Tingstad sampling a live Piñon pine tree in northeastern Utah. This tree is about 550 years old. Photo by Glen MacDonald.

Tingstad sampling a live Piñon pine tree in northeastern Utah. This tree is about 550 years old. Photo by Glen MacDonald.

Gathering Medieval climate information from tree rings, lake sediments, and other natural climate archives in the Western US is critically important for understanding the implications of increasing temperatures in this region, particularly when it comes to future water supply and demand.

Research has confirmed that temperatures rose in the Western U.S. from about A.D. 800-1300, which translated into a series of droughts. The most devastating of these occurred in the mid-11th and 12th Centuries, when dry conditions persisted for several decades and may have contributed to the collapse of the Anasazi and Fremont cultures.

Paleoclimate data from tree rings and other sources also suggest that the mechanism driving drought during the “Medieval Warm Period” was eastern Pacific Ocean cooling. Like a widespread, extended La Niña event, cool sea surface temperatures may have strengthened the persistent moisture-blocking system of high-pressure off the West coast, nudging storm tracks north.

While the Medieval period is an instructive analogue for the warming we are beginning to experience, it is an imperfect one. Two major factors separate the episode the Fremont and Anasazi experienced a thousand years ago from what we are just beginning to undergo today. First, Medieval warming appears to have been fostered by a combination of increased solar irradiance and decreased volcanic activity, rather than anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, Medieval times were characterized mainly by summer warming, while winter and spring temperatures are expected to increase most dramatically in the future. These differences manifest themselves in many ways, but notable for the water-starved West are the implications for decreased winter snowpack and earlier spring river discharge.

The Medieval Warm Period may not offer a precise preview of our future, but it serves as a valuable warning about the tenuous balance of water supply and demand in California and the Western US, something the occupants of the Fremont rock shelter we visited were likely aware of.

Since the turn of the new Millennium, drought has been the norm rather than the exception in this region and the end is not in sight: As of May 1, 2009 surveys suggest that the Sierra Nevada snowpack is two-thirds of normal. What we can learn from Medieval times is not to expect “normally” moist conditions to return any time soon, and to plan accordingly.

The Insidious Side of Climate Change

If you think climate change just means hotter summers in California, think again. The writer of this week’s guest post argues that we’ll all “feel the heat” in myriad ways, both obvious and subtle.

Climate and Nature
by Anthony Barnosky

Some impacts of climate change in California are pretty obvious, things like rising sea level submerging large parts of the San Francisco Bay region, or drought cutting into our water supplies.  Less obvious, but every bit as important, are impacts on something you probably don’t even know you have: your relationship with nature.

One part of that relationship is the concept of “ecosystem services;” the direct benefits you get from nature.  California’s Climate Action Team highlighted some of the state’s ecosystem services in their recent report.  Examples include the ski trip you may have taken this winter, the salmon fillet you may have bought at the grocery store, or surprisingly, even your hamburger.

barnosky_snowfunSnow will be less, soggier, at higher elevations, and on the ground for fewer days of the winter, melting some of the $500 million-per-year revenues of the ski industry–not to mention melting your favorite ski run.  Altered river dynamics and temperatures will almost certainly cut into the state’s $33-million-per-year salmon industry. Climate-caused loss of forage means that in 2070 California’s cattle ranchers will be losing up to $92 million in comparison to today’s markets, which means higher beef prices at the grocery store.  Combined, the losses in these ecosystem services likely will cost the state’s already suffering economy well over a hundred million dollars per year as we move into the next few decades. And those are just three of many ecosystem services that will be affected.

A second part of your relationship to nature is the species around you, that is to say, biodiversity. Simply put, biodiversity is which species live in a place, and the extent to which those species are rare or common.  In general, biodiversity means more productive and healthier ecosystems, which translates as more benefits to humans that inhabit those areas.  As it turns out, California is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot, unique in the world.  But biodiversity losses from global warming promise to be severe: one study predicts that two-thirds of the 2387 plant species found only in the state will lose 80% of their range within the century.

barnosky_icylakeThe third part of your relationship to nature is how it makes you feel.  There’s no question: you can’t get the same feeling you get looking at a giant redwood anywhere but in a redwood forest.   Among species that may have little or no suitable climate left in California, however, are its coastal redwoods and sequoias.

Such impacts of climate change on nature are not confined to California.   Many other reports indicate that global warming is redefining our relationship to nature worldwide.  As with other impacts, this one can be partially mitigated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately, but also will require some new management strategies for preserving nature in the age of global warming.  California, in particular, has a lot to lose.

Anthony D. Barnosky is a Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the recently published Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. You can read more on this topic in his blog. Photos by the author.

Barnosky is scheduled to appear Saturday as part of Berkeley’s “Cal Day” activities. His talk is scheduled for noon at the Valley Life Sciences Bldg, Room 2060, followed by a book-signing at the T-Rex (which is hard to miss).

Possible Detour on the “Electron Superhighway”


It appears that almost 200,000 acres of Mojave Desert will be under federal wilderness protection now that Congress passed the Omnibus Land Management Act of 2009.

Much more was set aside throughout California, as I report in my radio story for The California Report.

Now, Senator Dianne Feinstein is eyeing almost a million additional acres in the Mojave off of old Route 66 between Ludlow and Needles.

There are currently 163 proposed renewable energy projects for federal lands in the Mojave Desert region. Nineteen of them are slated for the land Senator Feinstein wants to set aside. If energy companies can’t build on that land, it follows that they’ll try to build it in the land that’s left.

And that’s got a lot of people who live in the unprotected areas of the Mojave worried. Not only are most of the state’s large-scale renewable energy projects planned for this region, but as I explored in a recent two-part series for Climate Watch, there’s also a transmission corridor in the works to carry that power to Los Angeles.

Use the player below to listen to my conversation with Jim Harvey, who heads the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy, about what all of this new land protection means for environmentalists like him.

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Oh, No–Another “Superhighway”

Just when we could exhale, assured that the term “Information Superhighway” had faded mercifully into the rear-view mirror–at the signpost up ahead: Your next stop: the “Electron Superhighway.”

That’s the term that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is using to describe the transmission web that will facilitate the nation’s transformation to clean energy. Some random notes from his (and others’) appearance today before the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee:


– 6,000 miles initially identified on BLM lands for new transmission lines on the “Electron Superhighway,” 1,000 on US Forest Service lands.

Access to land for transmission will be the “Achilles heel” of the plans for a new  clean-power grid.

– Oil & gas need to be part of a “comprehensive energy plan,” along with renewables. The US now imports 70% of its oil.

– Seven major onshore leases already approved, auctioning off another 34 million acres along the Gulf Coast this week.

Ron Wyden (D-OR):

– Let’s use the “backlog of deadly fuels” on the floor of federal forests to generate bio-fuels and reduce fire danger at the same time (Energy Act of 2000 apparently excluded forest slash from its definition of “biomass.”)

Hydrokinetic (wave & tidal) power should be higher on the priority list for energy development.

John McCain (R-AZ):

– The Obama administration “has effectively killed nuclear power in the foreseeable future, for this country” (by its actions regarding Yucca Mountain and reprocessing of fuel).

Phil Moeller, FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission):

– Wave & tidal power could potentially fill 10% of the nation’s energy portfolio.

Joanna Prukop, NM Secretary of Energy, Minerals & Natural Resources:

– Wind energy is now price-competitive with natural gas (about 5 cents/KW-Hour currently) and could thrive without federal subsidy. Solar, not so much.

Dan Arvizu, Director, Nat’l Renewable Energy Lab:

– Used the term “smart grid” one hour and 38 minutes into the hearing, the first and only time it was mentioned.

You can view the entire webcast at the DOI archive.

By the way,  Salazar will hold a public hearing on energy policy in San Francisco on April 16th. It’ll start at 9 a.m. at UCSF’s Mission Bay Conference Center.

A New Slogan for Reno

Reno, NV has long laid claim to being “The Biggest Little City in the World.” Now it could claim to be one of the fastest-warming towns in America.

Reno Arch

According to a survey of US cities from Environment America,  Reno averaged 4 degrees (Fahrenheit) above”normal” for the calendar year 2007. Citing data from the National Climatic Data Center, the report said that temperatures tended above normal for most of the nation (“normal” is defined as the 30-year average from 1971-2000), but few cities made the exclusive plus-four-degree club.

More telling, perhaps, is the average minimum temperature (overnight low), which clocked in at an eyebrow-raising 5.5 degrees above normal in Reno. Climatologists have noted that throughout the West, “T-minimums” (overnight lows) have been rising almost twice as fast as daytime highs, partially obscuring for many the sensation that things are warming up.

Environment America can be justifiably challenged for implying that one year’s worth of temperature records is any indication of generalized long-term warming. It isn’t. The group takes the position that the warm 2007 was part of a broader trend:

“Between 2000 and 2007, the average temperature was at least 0.5 degrees F above the 30-year average at 228 (89%) of the stations examined (nationwide).”

Reno also made the hot list for cities that showed the most deviation from normal (3.5 degrees F), during the eight-year period 2000-2007. Of all the data collected in the report, this is the most useful number to use in making a case for a persistent warming trend. Skeptics might argue that even eight years of data can be misleading and they’d be right–but other studies have been more than sufficient to confirm that the West is warming. The debate has largely shifted to what to do about it.

Photo courtesy of: RSCVA &

Supersizing Solar

Kramer JunctionMonday begins the radio component of Climate Watch, with the first of a two-part series on “solar realities.” (Click here for the second part of the series). Solar power is one of those renewable, low-carbon sources of energy that is enjoying a boom, as we scramble to reduce the state’s carbon footprint and, with any luck, slow down the climate change train.

But one of the thornier realities of utility-scale solar is that it has its own footprint. In fact, in terms of the sheer real estate that it gobbles up, you could say it’s the Sasquatch of renewables.

David Gorn begins our series on Monday morning’s edition of The California Report. Here’s a page from his reporter’s journal:

My girlfriend couldn’t believe it. “You’re going WHERE? The middle of the Mojave Desert? In August?”

And she looked up the temperature out there in Kramer Junction, California. She’s so helpful that way. The web page said it would be a high of 121 degrees Fahrenheit. But the reality was much better; the area was going through a “cold snap” the week I went, and it was only 106.

Still, that’s hot enough to fry eggs on the hood of your car, and it’s hot enough to power some of the largest solar reflectors in the world. In fact, because of the dearth of cloud cover, the searing heat and the higher elevation (~2,500 feet), the Mojave is one of the best places on Earth for solar power generation.

Out at Kramer Junction, the solar power-generating plant uses solar troughs to collect the heat. There are about 10,000 of these modules, 20 mirrors to a module, spread out over a million square meters.  That’s about 1,000 acres.

The new plant that’s proposed for the Mojave city of Ivanpah, near the Nevada border, will be about three times that size. The entire thing would cover about 5 square miles.  When it’s built, it may be the largest solar power generating site in the world, depending on the pace of some other planned projects.

There are actually three other proposals for even larger solar plants in California, but those are not yet under review by the Bureau of Land Management. And one of them is out in the Imperial Valley, where there are currently no transmission lines in place.

You can peruse the major Mojave sites on our interactive map. The California Energy Commission has the complete list of existing and proposed large solar arrays.

Listen to David’s story on super-sized solar sites here.