Riverside County passes on $700,000 renewable energy development grant

It’s rare for any county in California to turn down the opportunity to score $700,000 in state grant money to help update its general plan or other renewable energy permitting regulations, but that appears to be what Riverside County has done.

A request for proposals issued March 11 announced up to $7 million in state money available to counties “to fund plans for the development or revisions of rules and policies that facilitate the development of eligible renewable energy resources, and their associated electric transmission facilities, and the processing of permits for eligible renewable energy resources.”

The deadline for applications was April 10, and five counties applied, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Inyo, Imperial and San Luis Obispo.  All have tentatively been awarded funds, ranging from $603,000 to $700,000 — the maximum amount available to anyone county – according to an announcement released April 25.

I checked in with Andrew Ferrin, the grants and loan officer at the Energy Commission, who confirmed that Riverside County did not submit an application for the money. I also asked if, given that less than half of the available $7 million had been awarded if there would be subsequent opportunities to apply for the money.

He was unsure. The law under which the money was offered was for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, he said.

I am waiting to hear from Riverside County officials on why they didn’t submit an application. As some of you may remember, the county has spent more than $869,293.15 on implementing its regulations on solar permitting — including its $450-er-acres solar fee passed in November of 2011.

All of the funds spent to date have come from a $600,000 per year solar franchise fee it is receiving from the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight project now under construction on public land in the eastern county.

First Solar employees work on putting up the steel posts and rails to support solar panels on Nov. 29, 2011 in Desert Center.At least some of that money was supposed to go to the tiny town of Desert Center, located a few miles from Desert Sunlight and very much feeling the impacts of solar development.

Instead, county officials have dedicated the Desert Sunlight money to implementing the solar fee policy and defending it against a law suit two solar industry groups filed against it in February 2012.

Given that, it may be the county just didn’t have any use for the money. Another county missing from the tentative awards list is Kern County, which developed its own solar policies without having to dip into any fees it has raised from solar developers, all of which are earmarked for specific uses in the county.

In the meantime, I will be heading out to the east county on Thursday for a media tour of both Desert Sunlight and the 250-megawatt Genesis solar project, both owned by NextEra Energy and both located on public land in the Riverside East solar zone between Joshua Tree National Park and the city of Blythe.


Inside Climate News wins Pulitzer for oil spill story: Dilbit disasters and the Monterey shale

The Pulitzers were announced Monday and Inside Climate News, a five-year-old, nonprofit website that covers the environment and climate issues, won the award for national reporting for its series, the Dilbit Disaster, on a 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and its environmental aftermath.

The spill was significant, and underreported, as ICN reporters Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song wrote, because it was the first major spill of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, oil from Canada — the same kind of oil that would be transported by the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Here is one of the maps that appeared with the story:

On Sunday, July 25, 2010, Enbridge Line 6B ruptured near Marshall, Mich. and rel

The spill occurred near Marshall, a small town southwestern Michigan, near Battle Creek July 26, 2010. Writing two years later, McGowan and Song wrote:

At least 1 million gallons of oil blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil is still showing up 23 months later, as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The whole series is still online at Inside Climate News or can be purchased as an e-book on Amazon.

And, as Inside Climate points out in a bit of well-deserved self-promotion, the story remains relevant in light of the recent Exxon oil spill in Mayflower, Ark., which Song is now covering.

This picture of one of neighborhoods affected by that spill comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Coachella Valley residents happily may not have to worry about oil spills in their back or front yards yet, but California may soon have to make major decisions about oil drilling and fracking on the Monterey shale, a major shale gas resource that stretches 1,752 square miles from central to southern California — and as can be seen below, is actually two separate shale oil deposits.

Read the small print, and you will see that federal estimates project oil resources of 15.4 billion barrels here, close to five times the 3.6 billion barrels at the Bakken Field in North Dakota, the second largest shale oil field in the U.S.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District earlier this month adopted new regulations for drillers to report on air quality impacts of their operations.

The new regulations –

– Require oil and gas well operators to notify SCAQMD no less than 24 hours before commencement of drilling, well completion, or any rework activities. The notification must also include information on the well location and activity to take place, as well as any nearby sensitive receptors such as schools or daycare centers up to 1,500 feet from the well location.
–  Require reporting to SCAQMD of the names and quantities of chemicals, non-trade and trade secret, and other process information within 60 after days after completion of well activities.
–  Require a report by SCAQMD staff to the Governing Board on notifications received, emissions reports and chemical use reporting.

The big question is whether it is feasible, even with fracking, to mine the oil in the Monterey-Santos shale. One article on the website of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists comes up with a resounding “Maybe.” The issue is that the Monterey shale formation is not one that can be easily mined, even with the latest fracking technology.

Another recent study from the USC Global Energy Network projected millions of jobs and hundreds of millions in tax revenue for the state from mining the Monterey-Santos.

Ken Silverstein, an energy writer at Forbes, notes in his look at the issues surrounding the Monterey-Santos shale, a fine balance may have to be struck between job creation and environmental protection.

Hopefully, with Inside Climate News as an inspiration, the state’s watch-dog journalists will also be following the story closely.




The Moniz confirmation hearing — what he said

Early online reports on Tuesday’s confirmation hearings on Secretary of Energy nominee Ernest Moniz focused on his well-known and long-stated support for natural gas development.

But from where I was sitting, the most important moment in the MIT professor’s relatively low-key questioning by members of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee came when Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado spoke about the impacts of climate change in his state and asked how a balanced energy portfolio could reduce carbon emissions.

As to climate change in general, Moniz said, “I certainly agree the scientific basis for warranting action is completely clear,” and the statement passed with no further comment by anyone on the committee, at least while I was listening to the hearing.

Does the lack of controversy raised by the remark signal that Republicans, at least on this committee, are not disputing the science of climate change and are open to discussing options for U.S. action on the issue?

Moniz then went on to talk about going to a low-carbon economy “that will include natural gas among traditional sources in this country being a bridge. But assuming we do go to a very low-carbon economy, even natural gas will require capping while we deploy renewable energy, nuclear and efficiency, plus hydro.”

I managed to listen in on the live stream for about an hour during which I focused mostly on what Moniz said on issues relevant to the Coachella Valley — renewable energy development, energy efficiency and innovation.

Overall, I’d say Moniz pretty much aced the hearing. It is clear President Obama nominated him because he does embody an all-of-the-above approach to energy and is equally comfortable talking about fossil fuels or renewables. When individual senators tried to push him on specific local or partisan issues, Moniz was not afraid to say he was not up on a specific issue, but would do his research and work with lawmakers on solutions. At the same time, he never backed down on his basic support for a strong role for renewables in the nation’s energy future and support for research and innovation.

One example – at one point, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah referred to a Government Accountability Office report finding significant overlap in wind energy incentive programs across different federal agencies — the Department of the Interior, Agriculture and Energy — and pointedly asked about whether it made sense to have multiple programs.

Moniz answered he was not aware of the report, but added, “I’m very supportive of providing the marketplace with low-carbon options.”

Several questions were asked about the DOE’s national research laboratories and their role in supporting innovation and technology transfer to the private sector — that is, getting federally developed technologies out to start-ups that work with green or tech incubators such as the Coachella Valley iHub.

Moniz said he wanted to involve lab directors in setting research priorities for the departments and also possibly develop regional or state-level initiatives to create a “better innovation eco-system.”

Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked about the low funding levels for clean energy research, about $5 billion, compared to other government funding, tens of billions, for defense and medical research and potential budget cuts in this area due to sequestration.

“This is a very serious issue,” Moniz said. “I would note if one does simple arithmetic as a guide . . . we are under investing by a factor of three.”

With sequestration, leveraging available funds will be needed, he said.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii asked for Moniz’s views on the role of energy efficiency in U.S. energy policy.

“Energy efficiency demand side is enormously important if you look at a low-carbon future. It’s hard to see how that can happen withour efficiency gains,” he said. “This low-hanging fruit is quite ripe.”

Moniz called for additional research and more federal-state cooperation, possibly drawing on the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” model — states being eligible for federal grants for some level of achievement in energy efficiency.

Udall also asked for Moniz’s views on public-private partnerships in developing new technologies in the energy sector.

“I’m an enormous fan of public-private partnerships,” he said (obviously, “enormous” is a frequently used adjective in the Moniz vocabulary). “I would be seeking all kinds of new ideas of moving that forward. We should think about regionally focused industry. The regional issues for solving energy problems are quite big.”

Barring some political bomb shell, Moniz’s confirmation by the full Senate seems likely.  Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has already announced his support.

More controversy can be expected on Thursday, when the Senate Committee on the Enviroment and Public Works takes up Obama’s nomination for the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy.

The hearing begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time, which means another early morning, 7:30 a.m. out here and will also be live-streamed from the committee’s website.

The archived stream of Moniz’s hearing is available on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee website.

Green you can live-stream — Moniz hearing, Global Food Forum, Protect Our Winters

Got nothing better to do on Tuesday — or even if you do — if you’ve got a computer, tablet or smart phone, you can hook into some very cool and interesting stuff.

For the early risers, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold its hearing on the nomination of MIT professor Ernest Moniz to be Secretary of Energy at 10 a.m. Eastern time, 7 a.m. West Coast time.

The event will be live-streamed and you can prepare by reading Moniz’s questionnaire submitted to the committee.

Next up, the University of California is holding a Global Food Systems Forum from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Ontario, and most of the event will be live-streamed. The forum is focused on a core, compelling question for Californians — how do we sustainably feed 8 billion people by 2025?

Keynote speakers include Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and now president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, which looks at the impact of climate change on poor, rural populations in developing countries, and Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Foundation, a midwestern nonprofit focused on sustainable agriculture.

Robinson, Mary

Here’s the link to the live webcast: http://food2025.ucanr.edu/Webcast/

At 10:30 a.m., Olympic athletes will hold a press conference, calling on President Obama to take action on climate change to protect the $12.2 billion U.S. winter sports industry which was hit hard by last year’s mild winter and is still suffering from a less-than-snowy winter this year.

Some of the speakers here are big names in winter extreme sports – Gretchen Bleiler, professional snowboarder, two-time Olympian, four-time X Games gold medalist; Jeremy Jones, professional snowboarder, 10-time Big Mountain Rider of the Year, and  founder of  Protect our Winters; Ingrid Backstrom, professional skier and  five-time winner as Best Female Performer, Powder Magazine; and Kit Deslauriers, two-time World Freeskiing Champion, and the first person to ski from the summit of the highest mountain on all seven continents.

The event will not be live-streamed, but an audio replay will be available online after 5 p.m. Eastern time, at www.protectourwinters.org. You can also read the group’s report on Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States.



Solar projects taking off in Imperial and Kern counties — the math of PPAs

Southern California Edison may have backed out of its agreement to put a 10-megawatt solar plant at College of the Desert’s West Valley campus in Palm Springs, but it’s still signing contracts with other solar developers to buy electricity from their projects.

8minuteenergy Renewables, a Folsom-based solar developer, announced Monday it has signed a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Edison for its 20-megawatt Redcrest solar project in Kern County. 8minute is partnering with saferay, a German solar developer with U.S. offices in Palo Alto, for the project. (Obviously, lower case names are in vogue among solar developers these days. Somewhere e.e. cummings is smiling.)

The contract was negotiated through Edison’s Renewable Auction Mechanism, the small-solar program the utility wants to use  instead of developing small community-based projects, such as the cancelled COD solar plant. The contract will have to get final approval from the California Public Utilities Commission.


According to the 8minute announcement:

The Redcrest Solar Farm project is a utility-scale solar generation facility sited on 160 acres of low-productivity farmland.  Construction is projected to begin in 2014, with the site expected to be operational and delivering renewable energy by mid-2015.  This clean solar generation plant will displace the equivalent of approximately 54,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, which is equal to the amount that roughly 2.2 million trees would displace annually.

 It will also generate 50 construction jobs.

Meanwhile, in Imperial County, First Solar of Tempe, the original developer of Desert Sunlight, has acquired the 150-megawatt Solar Gen 2 project. The project has a 25-year power purchase agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric.

The numbers on this one are, predictably, larger than Redcrest.

The photovoltaic (PV) solar plant will generate enough electricity to power more than 60,000 average California homes, displacing more than 115,000 metric tons of CO2 per year (the equivalent of taking 22,000 cars off the road) and saving 93,000 metric tons of water per year.

When the project begins construction, sometime this year, it will create 800 jobs, company officials said.

First Solar developed the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight project, located near Desert Center and now owned by NextEra Energy of Florida and GE. The only other project it has in development at present is the 300-megawatt Stateline plant in San Bernardino, which has a power purchase agreement with Edison.

Why does Edison seemingly have no problem with buying power from other developers but remain so reluctant to do even small projects of its own? The obvious answer is profits. Developing solar still carries high front-end costs.

But once completed, solar farms produce their energy at hours of the day that correlate with peak customer usage, when the utility can charge customers higher rates, even as the prices they are paying on PPAs continue to fall.



Translating renewables and energy efficiency into dollars and good sense

Left to my own devices, I could spend a good deal of time immersed in new studies of renewable power and energy efficiency, announcements for which land in my email box or turn up on my Twitter feed almost daily.

As Marilyn would undoubtedly have done were she still here.

But even without her, I received two this week that underline current efforts to quantify the value of green technology within our existing economy specifically in terms that will make sense to financial institutions, investors and policy makers.

The first, from Bloomberg New Energy Finance and funded by energy giant, BP, aims to set out a method for comparing coal, oil and gas reserves with renewable reserves, an effort emerging from an industry group called the Renewable Reserves Initiative. BP is apparently a leading member.

The study points out that renewables constitute an increasing amount of the world’s primary energy — that is the underlying energy sources needed to generate the electricity required to power the world’s economy. In 2010, renewables accounted for 13 percent of primary energy, a figure expected to rise to at least 20 percent by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency.

“In spite of this, the world still lacks a widely-agreed upon methodology for comparing renewable energy projects with each other, and with fossil fuels. The increasing popularity of renewable technologies presents a challenge to companies, governments and investors more used to thinking in terms of finite fuel reserves,” the Bloomberg report says.

What the powers that be need, the report says, is a method that will nail down the “total quantities of energy achievable” from renewables. While clearly stating that its results are intended only as an initial, hypothetical model, the report shows the challenges of comparing finite fossil fuel reserves to inexhaustible renewables.

For example, while daily output from an oil well tapers off over its productive lifetime, the output of a wind farm, an example used in the report, while intermittent, remains stable. Another point of inequal comparison is that fossil fuels, once out of the ground may not necessarily be used to produce directly usable power; renewables for the most part are.

The Bloomberg report proposes going at the problem by looking at the financial viability of projects, comparing proven fossil fuel reserves with wind and biomass projects either in operation or likely soon to be, and converting the total energy output of renewables into an equivalent measure of barrels of oil. Again, for hypothetical purposes, the report provides results from the U.S. and Brazil.

In the U.S., as might be expected, wind and biofuels are dwarfed by coal and natural gas reserves, but together exceed oil. Wind reserves are calculated at the equivalent of 23 billion barrels of oil, while biofuels come in for 26 billion barrels. Oil stands at 31 billion barrels.

While the numbers might seem to still favor fossil fuels, it is encouraging to remember that the renewable resources will continue to grow while fossil fuel reserves are finite, and the report doesn’t touch solar and geothermal potential or compare the social and environmental costs of  fossil fuels vs. renewables.

The U.S. is also a mature economy compared to an emerging economy such as Brazil where the report shows biofuel reserves at the equivalent of 28.6 billion barrels versus 22 billion barrels for coal and 15 billion barrels for oil.

Such numbers indicate the kind of global shift toward renewables that may be occuring — another report from China this week showed that new wind generation exceeded new coal-fired power in the country for the first time last year. The fact that fossil fuel companies such as BP are attempting to quantify the potential of renewables speaks volumes in and of itself.

The second study strikes a bit closer to home, literally, speaking to ongoing efforts to qualify the economic impacts of energy efficiency for homeowners and mortgage lenders.

Funded by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Market Transformation, a nonprofit promoting energy efficiency, researchers from the University of North Carolina found that energy efficient homes were 32 percent less likely to go into default than standard homes.

Using a national sample of 71,000 home loans drawn from CoreLogic, a leading source of information tracking for the lending industry, the study compares default risks for standard homes with homes that earned an Energy Star rating, meaning they were at least 15 percent more energy efficient than a standard home.

How to define standard versus Energy Star is based on something called a HERS rating, which stands for Home Energy Rating System. A standard home, presumably one meeting the building code for any specific state or jurisdiction, is rated at 100, with energy efficiency lowering the score. An Energy Star home typically earns at least an 85 HERS score.

The study was carefully designed to weigh and balance for a range of variables. The homes chosen for review covered 38 states and the District of Columbia and included both older and newer single-family homes with prices averaging about $220,000 and 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages originating between 2002 and 2012. That is, the standard homes were not all old and in ill repair and the Energy Star homes were not all new and upscale.

California was one of 12 states not included, apparently due to privacy regulations and address inconsistencies.

Not only were Energy Star homes 32 percent likely to default, but the researchers found that the more efficient the home, the less likely it was to default or prepay its mortgage, which banks don’t like as it cuts into their profit.

The default rate for Energy Star homes was about 8 percent, compared to 15 per for standard homes. About 23 percent of Energy Star homes prepaid their mortgages vs. 33 percent for standard homes.

Such results suggest that mortgage lenders should “require information about energy costs and encourage an energy audit or energy rating during the process of mortgage underwriting,” the report says.

It also recommends that financial institutions – specifically major home mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac –take into account the higher value of energy-efficient homes to provide “the underwriting flexibility needed to cover the modest additional cost of energy efficiency features.”

Translation: Provide better and more affordable financing for middle-income homeowners for home energy retrofits. Energy efficiency pays for itself and will prop up, not hurt, the housing market.


Climate change, coffee and chocolate

Last week I wrote about climate change and water, which are pretty basic issues, but this week, as noted above, it’s time to get our heads around the impacts of climate change that could really hit home with ordinary folks – the rising prices of chocolate and coffee.

Reese Halter, an Australian born environmentalist, has an article on The Huffington Post website that looks at yet more recent evidence of the accelerating speed of climate change and its impact on what have become for Americans commodities so integral to everyday life that few would want to even think about living without them.

Halter begins with a reference to an Associated Press story with yet more unsettling news about rising carbon emissions from the National Oceanic and Atmoshperic Administration. A carbon monitoring station near a volcano in Mauna Loa, Hawaii — far from any major greenhouse gas spewers — found carbon dioxide levels have jumped by 2.67 parts per million since 2011 to total just under 395 parts per million.

That’s the second highest rise in carbon emissions since 1959, which is when record keeping began, AP journalist Seth Borenstein reported. The culprits, he said, are coal-burning plants in the developing world.

Only 1998 had a bigger annual increase in carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas from human activity. That year, 2.93 parts per million of CO2 was added. From 2000 to 2010, the world averaged a yearly rise of just under 2 parts per million. Levels rose by less than 1 part per million in the 1960s.

I should also add here that many scientists have said that 350 parts per million is the upper limit for carbon dioxide the earth can tolerate without dramatic climate change.

The news gets worse. Not only are we pouring more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but plants and the world’s oceans, our natural carbon storage units, last year absorbed less CO2 than they normally would have, according to John Reilly, co-director of Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.   Plant and ocean absorption of carbon varies naturally year to year.

But, the AP article notes, carbon dioxide rates in the atmosphere are now rising faster than the worst-case scenarios climate scientists typically use for their simulations and reports.

So, what does this mean for our morning lattes and afternoon or evening chocolate fix?

“Coffee beans are the second most globally traded commodity next to oil,” Halter writes.

Higher temperatures, longer droughts and more intense rainfalls have brought coffee producers around the globe more resilient pests, i.e. coffee berry borer, and higher incidences of plant disease, i.e. coffee rust. Furthermore, intense water stress associated with vicious droughts in southern Sudan are driving wild coffee plants to extinction, now predicted to occur by 2020.

Maxwell House, Yuban and Folgers all increased their coffee prices by 25 percent between 2010 and 2011, while Starbucks upped its coffee prices by almost 20 percent in 2011.

The story is the same for chocolate, Halter said.

West Africa produces more than 40 percent of the world’s cocoa. In the past decade, droughts around the globe have caused the price of cocoa to double.

Rising carbon dioxide concentrations could mean ever-higher temperatures and ongoin drought across the cacao-producing regions of Africa, putting thousands of small-scale growers out of business and pushing chocolate prices to new, luxury-commodity highs.

How quickly can we cold-turkey off fossil fuels? Grand Rapids, Mich. has set itself the goal of getting 100 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020. In Germany, the deadline for 100 percent renewable power is 2050.

Iceland already gets all of its electricity from renewable sources, either hydropower or geothermal.

California will require new homes to be carbon neutral, or net zero, by 2020 and new commercial buildings by 2030.

It isn’t that we can’t. The evidence is stacking up that we are past the tipping point where climate change can be stopped or managed.

High gas prices haven’t worked; super storms and droughts aren’t making much of an impression.

Maybe if chocolate and coffee prices go off the charts, disgruntled and caffeine-tweaked American voters will demand their lawmakers find the political will to tackle climate change and set an aggressive national renewable energy agenda.


Colorado River update: How dry can we get?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is out with a new YouTube video today, providing a less than rosy update on drought conditions in the West, particularly related to the Colorado River.

As Deke Arndt, chief of the NOAA’s Climate Monitoring unit, lays it out, the upper Colorado River basin, a major source of water for the Coachella Valley, “has been water-stressed for over a year” due to last winter’s abnormally dry weather. The Colorado River basin was officially declared in drought last March, and the stress on the region was exacerbated by the record heat over the summer, he said.

Unfortunately, this winter, at least through February, has also been “lackluster,” Arndt said. While rainfall has been somewhat better, the amount of water stored in the snow pack is still running below normal, he said.

The Northern Sierras had their dryest winter on record, he said.

Water managers across the region will have to carefully monitor their reservoirs in the coming months, he said.

Along the same lines, a new study published last week in the journal Science documents the unprecedented speed with which our climate is currently changing.

As reported on National Public Radio, scientists at Oregon State University and Harvard University have been tracked regional and global temperature changes for the past 11,300 years.

Lead researcher Shaun Marcott, a geologist at Oregon State, said, “Global temperatures are warmer than about 75 percent of anything we’ve seen over the last 11,000 years or so.”

That means 25 percent of the time since the last ice age, it’s been warmer than now, but the issue, Marcott said, is the speed of the current increase — it’s warming up superfast.

From the end of the last ice age to the 20th century, about 5,000 years, the earth’s climate rose about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, it’s risen the same amount, 1.3 degrees, in about 100 years.

The outlook, as quoted in the NPR piece, is not good.

“The climate changes to come are going to be larger than anything that human civilization and agriculture has seen in its entire existence,” says Gavin Schmidt, a climate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “And that is quite a sobering thought.”


Getting ready for the 2013 Earth Hour challenge

Our ever-multiplying array of appliances and digital devices — from microwaves and cell phones to DVR systems and HD television sets – is changing the way Americans use electricity.

If you think about it, this should not be overly surprising–as you read this, how many devices do you have plugged in or charging?–but it’s always nice to have figures, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration has done the necessary number crunching.

The big change is that our appliances, electronics and lighting have gone from about a quarter of our total home energy use 20 years ago, to over a third now — an increase of 10 percent. Meanwhile, space heating has dropped from more than half of our energy use to about 41 percent.

“Factors underpinning this trend,” write EIA analysts James Berry and William McNary, ”are increased adoption of more efficient equipment, better insulation, more efficient windows, and population shifts to warmer climates. The shift in how energy is consumed in homes has occurred even as per-household energy consumption has steadily declined.”

The catch here is that even as our homes are using less electricity, the amount of energy needed to support that use – what is called primary energy –has also changed, dramatically, the EIA reported in another set of graphs.

In terms of actual onsite consumption, American homes use about equal amounts of natural gas and electricity, but it takes three units of a primary source — whether fossil fuels or renewable energy — to produce one unit of electricity for home use and, again, due to the growing number of appliances and devices per house, we chew up a lot of primary energy.

Figures from the EIA show why. The number of American homes with three or more TVs rose from 22 percent in 1993 to almost 50 percent in 2009. Homes with two or more computers have jumped almost fivefold, from just under 6 percent in 1997 to 34.7 percent in 2009.

In other words having more energy-efficient TVs won’t have much of an impact on the amount of electricity you use — or the amount of primary power a utility needs to have on tap – if you have three or more sets running at the same time.

Which brings me to Earth Hour 2013 on March 23, when people around the world will turn out their lights and turn off their computers and other appliances for an hour, 8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., in their respective time zones. The symbolic action is intended to spark awareness and action around reducing greenhouse gases and protecting the world’s diverse plants and animals.

Now in its seventh year, the event is having international impact. In Russian, for example, last year Earth Hour challenged 100,000 people to sign a petition calling for an end to oil dumping in the country’s seas; 122,000 signed and the Russian Parliament in December passed a law beefing up protection for the seas.

According to the nifty video on the Earth Hour home page, 152 countries on all seven continents and more than 7,000 cities and towns have been involved in the event.

People get very creative with their efforts for Earth Hour, which is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. In Canada, composer Andrew Huang has launched a crowd-sourcing effort to write an Earth Hour anthem.

Hotels around the world, from the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin to the New World chain of luxury hotels located in Pacific Rim cites, such as Beijing, Saigon and Manila, have said they will turn off all nonessential exterior lights and serving candle-light dinners in their cafes and restaurants, with special menus featuring locally sourced food.

And as last year, individuals are being asked to set challenges for friends and communities. Thai American actor Utt Panichkul is going to drop one item of clothing for every 1,000 people who pledge to turn up their air conditioning one degree.

In Bali, the eighth grade class at the Green School has pledged to go paperless for the rest of the year if 1,000 people commit to each planting a tree.

So, here we go again, Coachella Valley. Last year, I put out a challenge that if 50 businesses and 5,000 people would commit to turning off their lights, I would commit to a year of three-minute showers.

I think only St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert took me up on the challenge, by turning off its cross on the hill for the whole night, but I decided to tackle the shower issue anyway. I didn’t quite make three minutes, but I can say I have cut my average shower time from 10 minutes or more to four minutes or less. My shower Friday morning–timed on my handy-dandy iPhone–came in at three minutes 41 seconds.

So this year, I’m upping the ante. We’ve got piles of restaurants and hotels in this valley, high season or no, that could join with other fine establishments around the world in turning off their nonessential, exterior lighting for an hour and serving special candle-light dinners on March 23. It could even be a draw, rather than a turn-off for visitors (especially if, say, they donate any savings on their electric bills to local charities).

For each one that does, I will volunteer an hour of my time at the FIND Food Bank.

Ditto, for any other business or organization in the valley that turns off their nonessential lights for Earth Hour. I will need documented proof — photos or videos.

If the Coachella Valley is serious about being a hub for green energy and technology, we need to walk the walk — and for just one hour, turn out our lights.










Pushing green energy ceilings — wind and solar hitting new highs

The sun is setting in the Coachella Valley as I type this, but somewhere on the other side of the world, I feel certain, it is shining and possibly there’s a solar panel there converting the sunlight to electricity and reducing the carbon emissions that fossil fuel power would have generated.

The spread of solar around the world is part of the story contained in figures from the European Photovoltaic Industry Association.  As of 2012, the world had a bit more than 101 gigawatts of PV running around, producing the same amount of power as 16 coal or nuclear plants of 1 gigawatt each, while reducing carbon emissions by 53 million tons.

Of those 101 GW, just shy of 30 GW were installed last year, about the same as 2011, the EPIA said. What’s more important, the geographic spread of PV installations is expanding.

Thirteen gigawatts of solar are now outside Europe, compared to 8 GW in 2011, the EPIA reported. Germany is still the world leader, with 7.6 GW, while China has 3-5-4.5 GW and the U.S. has 3.2 GW. Another report from Greentech Media projects growing solar markets, about 3 GW, in Africa and Middle East in the next two years.

Meanwhile, wind energy is also hitting new highs in terms of how much power it supplies in different states, according to Pete Danko writing on the Earth Techling website.

From midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday, three wind farms in eastern Washington pumped out 16,593 megawatt-hours of power, or about 23.5 percent of the power Puget Sound Energy needed for its 1.1 million customers. Danko writes:

While wind power rises and falls with the varying wind speed – obviously – Puget Sound said its three wind farms are providing at least some power two-thirds of the time and on average are supplying about 10 percent of the power its customers use.

Texas is also breaking records on wind production. The state leads the nation in wind installations over al,l and at 7:08 p.m. on Feb. 9, those turbines were spinning away, producing 9,481 megawatts of power, 10 percent over the previous record of 8,667 MW.

The Feb. 9 high mark represents 28 percent of the load on the state’s power system.

Meanwhile in Colorado, Xcel Energy reported that wind power accounted for 16 percent of the 35.9 million megawatt hours of electricity it sold in 2012.

The missing link to drive those numbers even higher is, of course, storage. California may be taking a step toward new green energy ceilings to break with a recent decision from the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordering Southern California Edison to add 50 MW of grid storage over the next eight years.

Writing about the order on Greentech Media, Jeff St. John notes it’s a relatively small amount of storage, but provides a signal that the state is serious about integrating wind and solar power onto the grid by the 2020 deadline for reaching the state’s renewable energy goal of 33 percent.

In the context of total energy production, in the U.S. or worldwide, all these new benchmarks may be relatively small, but they reflect a vision and momentum that will continue to push renewable energy ceilings higher and higher.