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Jean-Michel Cousteau on Oceans, Energy, and Our Collective Fate

Explorer keeps his father’s legacy alive by shining a light on the world’s oceans

Craig Miller

The California coast near Pigeon Point.

When ocean explorer and documentary filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau brought his environmental message to Silicon Valley, I caught up with him to discuss climate change; President Obama’s energy policy efforts; and AB 32, California’s response to climate change.

Jean-Michel Cousteau is the son of legendary ocean explorer, Jacques Cousteau, and chairman of Ocean Futures Society, a non-profit dedicated to exploring, protecting and educating people about the world’s oceans. He was vocal in condemning BP for its Gulf oil spill and has frequently highlighted the link between climate change and the state of our oceans and coastline. 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

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

Creating Power from Both Light and Heat

A key component of new solar panel technology being tested at Stanford. (Photo: Nick Melosh)

In a kind of cruel paradox, heat has always been the enemy of solar panels.  At higher temperatures, photovoltaic cells become less efficient, which is problematic in an industry where efficiency is the name of the game. That heat also represents wasted energy.

Today, researchers at Stanford University announced that they may have helped solve that problem. Nick Melosh of Stanford’s Materials Science & Engineering department set out to make use of the wasted heat. He and his colleagues created a solar cell technology that uses both light and heat to generate electricity. It’s called “photon-enhanced thermionic emission” (or PETE for short). “This is the first time that a process has been reported that can use the heat and the photons together harmoniously,” says Melosh. Continue reading

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”

Seizing the Moment

All the hand-wringing about seized-up capital markets hasn’t stopped environmental visionaries from promoting their scenarios for a clean, green–and robust–economy. Indeed, many have seized  the moment to suggest that an all-out attack on climate change and pollution could be just what the doctor ordered.

They’re being egged on by the President-elect, who offered this nugget in a recent pre-election interview with Time magazine:

“…we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that’s going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming, obviously, that we have done enough to just stabilize the immediate economic situation.”

That’s a whopping assumption. Nevertheless the advocacy group Environment California has released its own vision, asserting that clean energy is “the foundation of America’s economic future.” The group’s Blueprint for Economic Recovery and Environmental Protection Through Clean Energy Solutions is not groundbreaking but rather an aggregation of ideas and studies that have been put forth already, leading to the same general conclusion.

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The report attempts to bundle the potential of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, coupled with aggressive conservation measures, which it says could alone cut the nation’s electric use by a quarter.

For example, Environment California suggests that we might set aside 9% of Nevada (that’s about 10,000 square miles–imagine Massachusetts covered border-to-border with solar panels) for solar-thermal installations or harness the wind potential of five interior states (the Dakotas, Kansas, Montana and Texas), either one could cover the nation’s entire electric bill. Of course, either of these approaches would require massive, intrusive distribution networks to get the power where it’s needed, so I these ideas may be intended as inspirational, not literal.

Another idea, which requires very little distribution infrastructure, is carpeting the nation’s rooftops with photovoltaic solar panels. The group says that would provide about 70% of our energy needs.

The report also advocates for cutting our oil consumption in half, though it does not specify by when.

How does all this translate to economic redemption? By creating “millions of jobs.” According to the report:

“…repowering America will plant the seeds of economic growth and revitalization across the country. And by creating the world’s largest market for renewable energy and energy efficient technology, we will give American companies a leg up in the most important economic competition of the 21st century – the race to supply environmentally sound technologies to the rest of the world.”

The report cites several studies to support this conclusion. Some were done several years ago and may contain assumptions that don’t quite hold up in today’s recessionary, capital-constrained environment. The more recent work includes a University of Tennessee study from 2006, which projected that converting a quarter of U.S. electric production and transportation fuels would, over about 20 years, yield more than five million jobs.

You are guaranteed to hear a great deal more on this theme, as a new administration takes charge with it’s “number one priority.” Still unanswered is who will provide the capital–and the incentives to steer capital–into the clean, green economy of our dreams.

Photo: Installing solar panels on the roof at KQED.

Solar Realities for the Rest of Us

These are Gold Rush days for solar advocates in the US.  Molly Sterkel, who supervises the California Solar Initiative for the Public Utilities Commission, jokes that she lives in fear that private industry is looking to poach her staff:

There’s a lot of people going to solar companies to work because it’s a really exciting industry. It’s growing so much in California, so it’s attracting some of the best and brightest. I’ve told all of my staff that they have to sign 10-year contracts to work for me but so far most of them have stayed because it’s a really exciting time to be in government, to be able to run the largest solar program in the country.

In 2002, California established its Renewable Portfolio Standard Program “…with the goal of increasing the percentage of renewable energy in the state’s electricity mix to 20 percent by 2017.” Then the Energy Commission bumped the deadline up to 2010, and the 2004 Energy Report Update further recommended increasing the target to 33 percent by 2020.

Whatever the deadline, numerous incentives and rebate programs funded by the state and utility ratepayers are fueling an explosion of solar.  Sterkel says it’s growing at a rate of 40-50% a year.

But installing solar is still not cheap. Even now, all the solar in California adds up to 350 MW (one big power plant generates about 500 MW).

In part, that’s because most of the people taking advantage of the subsidies are residential utility customers, and most of those are installing systems of 4 KWs. That’s not a bad thing, per se.  Any kilowatt that home doesn’t siphon off of the grid is a kilowatt that can be used elsewhere. But slow and steady is a little too slow and a little to steady for some. Never mind that California is way ahead of other US states.  That just makes it easier to compare us to other countries, like Germany and Spain, that have invested even more in solar.

There’s no argument it takes subsidies to make solar financial feasible.  The question for advocates and regulators alike is how much subsidy helps solar thrive without spurring a ratepayer revolt? And how long should those subsidies last?  A report from McKinsey & Co. concludes:

“…regulators must adjust incentive structures over time and phase them out when grid parity is reached.”

Grid parity is the point at which there’s no difference between the price of solar and the market price for (less environmentally preferable) “brown power.”
Sterkel says:

(That) is the point at which everybody gets solar. Just like there was a moment when everyone got a cell phone and everyone got a car. And this year, we’ve already installed more megawatts than we did in all of 2007, and we’re not even all the way through the year. The policies are all pushing towards solar. The businesses are growing. The venture capital is here. You know, all signs point to “yes” for solar here in California.

That’s even though incentive levels in California have been dropping.
Where’s it all going?  Some say we could see a repeat of the 1980s, when oil prices tanked after spiking and green energy projects went “poof.”  It took them well over a decade to begin the long, slow climb back to economic and political viability.  Oil prices appeared to be sliding after a long, hot summer in 2008–until yesterday, anyway.  But green advocates say they won’t be caught out in the cold this time around. That’s because renewable energy advocates can point public attention to something that goes well beyond consumer price protection: climate change.

Rachael Myrow hosts The California Report. She reported on rooftop solar installations for Climate Watch on September 23, 2008. Listen to her story here.

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.