Technology

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Of Birds, Bats and Blades

The wind energy industry faces multiple challenges in California.

Flocks of birds near wind turbines in Solano County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

It’s hard to find people who are just flat out against wind energy. As with real estate, attitudes seem to come down to location, location, location. That’s why three of the thorniest issues with wind are project siting, transmission (lines for the power produced), and the industry’s turbulent history with birds and bats. Some of those challenges are highlighted in this slide show, designed to accompany my two-part radio series. Continue reading

Wind Farm Forecast: More & Bigger

How much wind energy do we need to make California’s goal of 33% clean electricity by 2020? Whenever I put this question to one of the experts, the answer is always: “It depends.” But under almost any scenario, thousands more windmills will dot the California landscape in years to come.

Cattle and wind turbines dot the Solano County landscape. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Those who don’t see them on a daily basis might be surprised to learn that there is already something on the order of 13,000 commercial wind turbines operating in California. Ryan Wiser, who tracks wind energy trends at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, does a rough calculation that meeting that state-imposed threshold of 33% renewable energy could take 5,000 more, in order for wind to do its share. That’s based on an estimated 10,000 megawatts of new wind power, using the current standard two-megawatt turbine. While most of these will be concentrated in a few major “wind resource areas” (there are currently four big ones in the state), numbers like that almost ensure that wind turbines will become a more familiar feature of the California landscape. Continue reading

Greenpeace Urges Facebook to “Unfriend Coal”

Greenpeace gives Facebook a deadline to clean up its act…on Facebook.

Navajo Generating Station, a coal plant, located near Lake Powell in AZ (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

With its stepped-up “Facebook: Unfriend Coal” campaign, Greenpeace is calling on the Palo Alto-based company to become coal-free by 2021, to be transparent about its carbon footprint, and to advocate for clean energy sources at all levels of government. And it wants a public commitment by April, 22: Earth Day.

“We’re saying, ‘Look, you’re being looked at as a leader in the technology space, and the corporate space, and to be using 19th century technology to power your 21st century company doesn’t make sense,” said Casey Harrell of Greenpeace.

Facebook drew some criticism last January when it announced plans to construct a data center in Oregon.  Despite high efficiency standards and plans for facility-wide LEED Gold certification, environmental groups protested the data center’s energy source; a utility that is powered largely by burning coal. Continue reading

Citizen Science: The iPhone App

A new iPhone app aims to make recording and sharing observations of the natural world fast, easy, and could eventually help bring climate models into better focus.

Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie demonstrated the new iNaturalist iPhone app at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

At Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve and study area on the Stanford campus, a dozen of the preserve’s docents gathered this week to learn about a new iPhone application that could ultimately help scientists study how ecosystems are adapting to climate change.

The new app, called iNaturalist, is the mobile version of a citizen-science website by the same name.  The iPhone app is still in testing and not yet available, but the website, iNaturalist.org, is already an active online community of citizen-scientists around the world who use the site to record and share their sightings. Continue reading

Ask the Experts: 1 Million EVs by 2015?

The US already has more than a million hybrid-electric vehicles on the road. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Continuing an exercise I started in yesterday’s post, I’ve asked a few experts to weigh in on two national goals laid out by President Obama in this week’s State of the Union address. The experts seemed split on the viability of getting 80% of the nation’s electricity from “clean energy” by 2035. Today they address Obama’s call for one million electric vehicles “on the road” by 2015 (less than five years from now): Continue reading

Ask the Experts: Obama Energy Goals Realistic?

During his State of the Union speech last evening, President Obama articulated two national goals that jumped out at me: 80% of electricity from “clean” energy by 2035 and one million electric vehicles “on the road” by 2015 (just five years from now).

Keeping in mind that California’s goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020 is considered extremely ambitious, I put the question to a few experts in the renewable energy/alternative fuels field: Are these goals realistic? I’ll post their responses here as they come in. I’ve had to condense some of the replies for space considerations. Let’s take the 80% clean energy challenge first: Continue reading

Its First Renewables Goal Unmet, Can CA Meet The Next One?

California may not have met its goal of 20% renewable energy by 2010, but outgoing California Energy commissioner Jeffrey Byron says the state is close, and that California is on track to meet its its goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020.

“We didn’t get to the point where we’re generating 20% of our electricity by renewables, but I believe we do have, or we’re very close to having, all the contracts in place,” he said Thursday.

Byron was at Stanford University on Thursday, speaking at a workshop titled, “Grid Integration of Renewables.”
Continue reading

Scripps Launching Carbon-Tracking Net

Major partnership is said to be the most ambitious of its kind

Up to now, tracking greenhouse gas emissions around the world has been a patchwork affair for scientists. But if it lives up to its hype, a new partnership with roots in California will mean a much more accurate picture of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming.

Climate scientist Ralph Keeling tracking real-time carbon dioxide readings from his lab at UC San Diego. (Photo: Ed Joyce)

Currently, scientists rely on a few dozen sampling stations to continuously monitor greenhouse gases around the globe.
But now, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is teaming with a private-sector initiative to build the world’s most comprehensive network yet, for tracking carbon around the globe. Continue reading

Mapping California’s Worldbeating Cleantech Boom

The Golden State shines in a new global listing from the UK’s Guardian newspaper

Detail of an interactive map of the world's innovative "cleantech" companies (Image: Guardian UK)

Of all the companies around the world that the UK’s Guardian called out for its second annual Global Cleantech 100, roughly a third are based in California. The list spans technologies including energy generation, storage and efficiency; water and waste water; transportation and others.

The special report includes an interactive map of where the firms are located. It makes an interesting study by itself, showing a dense cluster of 31 firms over California, with a smattering of others around the US. About a dozen are concentrated in a few northeastern states. Four are located in China, two in India. Continue reading

EPA’s CO2 Rules Old-Hat for California

A much-hyped EPA ruling to regulate greenhouse gases in 2011 doesn’t really change much for California.

A lot’s being made of the move by the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s move to start regulating greenhouse gases in the new year, but policy analysts are greeting it as a relative non-event in states like California (and Massachusetts), which are already moving ahead with their own carbon regulation strategies.

“It’s really a complement to what we’re doing with AB 32,” said California Air Resources Board spokeswoman Gennet Paauwe.

The EPA is acting in response to a 2007 US Supreme Court finding that greenhouse gases fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act, and therefore are subject to regulation by the federal agency.

Critics of the EPA’s move, such as incoming House Energy Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich), say it’s a job-killer that will hurt domestic energy production. Other members of Congress, like California’s Barbara Boxer, support the EPA’s action.

The new regulations will affect power plants and refineries, which together produce about 40% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.  Starting January 2, industry will be required to consider new technologies and implement measures to mitigate greenhouse gas pollution for approval of new facilities and “major modifications” to existing ones.

“This is about taking a look at what technologies are available that can cost-effectively achieve reductions in greenhouse gases,” EPA assistant administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters in a recent conference call. “We set the standards, and the industry themselves figure out the most cost-effective ways to achieve those standards,” she said.

Vickie Patton, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund, says a similar process is already in place for monitoring many other pollutants, and the new ruling simply adds greenhouse gases to the list.

Existing power plants and refineries will have to address greenhouse gas emissions, too, but not for at least a year.  Draft standards (providing details of the new rules) aren’t expected for power plants until July 2011, and December for refineries.  The agency says those standards wont be finalized until mid-to-late 2012 after a long period of public comment. By that time California’s cap & trade plan under AB 32 will be up and running, barring any legal delays.

The EPA says it will be up to each state to devise it’s own plans for implementing the standards.  And that’s where much of the uncertainly lies.  Texas has already refused to cooperate and sued unsuccessfully to stay the EPA ruling, long before the draft standards have been released or any formal process has been established for implementation.

“We’re really early stage,” said McCarthy. “I can’t tell you what types of reductions we hope to achieve. That’s all going to be driven by the technologies that come to our attention through the public comment period.”

Patton says that despite that state’s high profile objections, most states are on board with the federal process.

“Virtually every state in our country has rolled up its sleeves, prepared for this transition, and is ready to begin carrying out these protections to address global warming pollution, except for Texas,” she said.

Patton said that states like California, which has been a pioneer in both new technologies and in emissions regulation, will have “an important voice” as the standards are being developed.

“In the absence of an effective price on carbon or other incentives for industrial plants to choose clean technology, this is very important and useful tool to help the transition to clean energy and industry in California,” said CARB’s Paauwe. But once the AB 32 program is in motion, she said, this regulation could be redundant, as CARB hopes that the state cap and trade program as well as other market incentives will motivate firms to install the cleanest technologies on their own.

At that time, she said, “We can look at whether a separate clean technology process is necessary.”