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.

 

Obama and George Will — Cherry-picking the facts on climate change

Whenever I write a column on climate change, I am almost guaranteed to receive a few emails from the Coachella Valley’s climate skeptics, citing their evidence that any claims to a scientific basis for global warming are baseless and a hoax.

My quoting of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address in my Jan. 27 column quickly brought an email directing me to George Will’s column first published in the Washington Post and reprinted in The Desert Sun.

Will challenges the President’s reference to “raging fires” with figures suggesting that wild fires have decreased since 2006:

“Are fires raging now more than ever?” Will writes. ”(There were a third fewer U.S. wildfires in 2012 than in 2006.) Are the number and severity of fires determined by climate change rather than forestry and land use practices? Is today’s drought worse than that of the Dust Bowl, and was it caused by 1930s global warming?”

Joe Romm, writing on the Think Progress website, argues that Will is willfully (pun obviously intended) cherry-picking the facts.

“2006? Seriously, George Will . . .  If you wonder why in Hell (and High Water) Will just happens to pick the year 2006, you need look no further than the above graph of annual U.S. acreage burned from the National (Interagency) Fire Center.

“For Will . . . the ‘decline’ since the record-smashing 2006 disproves climate change. In Will’s logic, unless ever year is worse than the previous year in all respects, humans are not suffering the effects of global warming.”

Being a primary source kind of person, I went to the NIFC website and took a look at the chart tracking number of wildfires and total acreages burned. The numbers are revealing.

Yes, in 2006, there were 96,385 fires destroying 9,873,745 acres of land. That averages out to about 102 acres per fire.

In 2011, the comparable figures are  74,126 fires and 8,711,367 acres, averaging out at 117 acres per fire.

The 2012 figures continue the upward trend, with 67,315 wildland fires burning 9,211,281 acres for an average of 136 acres per fire. So while the number of fires varies wildly, the intensity and impact are on an upward trajectory — as the President said.

That speaks to another issue — Will’s editorial cherry-picking — which Romm takes on as well.  

“Will coyly asks, ‘Are the number and severity of fires determined by climate change rather than forestry and land-use practices?’ The key debater’s word there is ‘determined.’ It should be ‘increased.’

“The goal of disinformers and their media allies is to create a straw man whereby those who accept the overwhelming judgment of science are accused of saying global warming is the sole cause of a given extreme event, rather than an aggravating cause.”

Romm ends his article with a graphic from a 2010 presentation by John Holdren, the President’s science advisor, projecting the increase in acres lost to wildfires for each 1 degree Centigrade increase in the earth’s climate. The Southwest deserts, including the Coachella Valley, could be in for a 74 percent increase.

Climate change experts have long said that one cannot look at specific regional weather or extreme events; the bigger picture of climate change is much more complex and convincing.

 

 

The Sentinel funds wrap-up: Behind the back-patting, something extraordinary

The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Governing Board meeting Friday was some of a self-congratulatory show. The main attraction was the final vote that will provide about $50.9 million for 26 air quality improvement funds in the Coachella Valley.

The money represents emissions mitigation dollars that Competitive Power Ventures paid for its 800-megawatt Sentinel natural gas peaker plant, now nearing completion in North Palm Springs, as seen in the December aerial photo below.

Sentinel

A lot of the public hearing before the vote on the funds was taken up with potential grantees thanking the board for their awards, speaking quickly about the benefits their projects will provide and speaking about the AQMD’s staff’s extraordinary efforts to work with local groups on their applications.

Not everyone was happy. Bob Terry, an area resident who opposes the plant, brought up issues about Riverside County Supervisor John J. Benoit’s support for the Coachella Valley Association of Governments’ cross-valley parkway and whether that constituted a conflict of interest. 

The proposed 46-mile pedestrian, bicycle and electric vehicle parkway, stretching from Palm Springs to Coachella, snagged more than a third of the money, $17.4 million.

Parkway 1e11 Map

The fact that two projects submitted by African-American led organizations did not make the recommended list — and resulting objections from their leaders — also caused some discomfort. Jack Pryor, CEO of Access Solar, pushed his case particularly hard, noting that his company’s proposal for more than $40 million– including plans for a plant to produce hydrogen fuel and install solar on homes in the region — fell only 2 points short of the 70 points needed to get on the list of qualifying projects.

Benoit said there was no conflict of interest since–although he was an early and very public advocate of the parkway–he had not written letters of support for any project or read any of the proposals prior to the vote, even when friends pushed for their favorite projects. AQMD Executive Director Barry Wallerstein also noted the Access Solar proposal for solar installations had cost more than other projects submitted.

But under all the back-patting and last-minute pleas, something more genuine emerged — a sense that the whole process around the Sentinel funds has been extraordinary and something of a game changer for many involved.

Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, a board member, noted that the AQMD had never committed so large a chunk of money to a specific geographic region such as the Coachella Valley.

The outreach to the community, pushed by both Benoit and Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, and the level of community response was also outside the AQMD’s comfort zone.

The Administrative Committee’s five and a half hour public hearing in Palm Desert in October gave board members a chance to hear from local residents and see the communities that will be affected by the plant — also a rarity.

When community members from the east valley traveled to Diamond Bar in December to oppose a $920,000 grant to pave roads at the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians’ Resource Recovery Park in Mecca, the board pulled the money and reallocated it to home retrofit projects the residents favored.

“This raised the bar in terms of including the community,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice group. “We feel we were included in the process; we believe the Governing Board heard us.”

San Bernardino Supervisor Josie Gonzales, another board member, addressed east valley residents at Friday’s meeting in Spanish, congratulating them on their courage in coming to board meetings to speak out and encouraging ongoing participation.

Speaking before the unanimous vote to approve the Sentinel projects, Mayor Dennis Yates of Chino, vice chair of the board, said, ”In my 20-plus years, I have never seen the outreach conducted by this group (the AQMD) and the response by Coachella Valley residents. It was awe-inspring.”

The U.S. solar market: mixed views

GreenTech Media held its Solar Market Insight Conference Monday and Tuesday in San Francisco, bringing together major players in residential, commercial and utility-scale solar to track the trends in the U.S. solar market at present and going forward.

Many of the panels and presentations are still available online for techno-geeks like me who couldn’t make to SF.

The GreenTech outlook is decidedly mixed – the residential solar market will continue booming through the end of the year, but could slow in 2013 and beyond.

– U.S. solar installations are expected to hit 3.2 gigawatts this year, a 71 percent spike over the 1.9 gigawatts installed in 2011. Next year growth could slow, with installations projected to grow to 3.9 megawatts, or about 22 percent.

– Solar leasing companies continue to claim an increasing slice of the residential market.  In California, leased residential systems accounted for 10 percent of residential installation; as of the second quarter of the year, they now make up more than 70 percent. In Arizona, the figure is more than 80 percent.

– On the utility-scale side — projects 50 megawatts and up — the picture is more complicated. Shayle Kann, GreenTech’s vice president of research, reported that the U.S. has about 2.2 gigawatts of utility-scale projects in operation, with another 4 gigs in construction and close to 6 more gigawatts in the pipeline for 2016-17.

The question is how many of the projects not in construction or in earlier stages of development will make it.

“If you don’t have a PPA, it’s harder and harder to find one,” Kann said, referring to power purchase agreements developers negotiate to sell power to utilities, which are critical to getting a project financed.

The trend is toward smaller-scale projects and much lower prices being offered on PPAs, he said. 9.7 gigawatts in the pipeline. Only utilties in states with renewable energy portfolios, such as the 33 percent mandate in California, are showing any appetite for large projects, Kann said.

– One issue hanging over both residential and utility scale is the sunsetting of the 30 percent federal investment tax credit at the end of 2016. The credit has been key to the growth of solar leasing and utility-scale financing — it draws in investors that need a healthy income tax credit.

As it stands now, at the end of 2016, it will go down to 10 percent and especially for utility scale solar, that prospective drop is already having an impact as developers look at the timelines for big projects.

These trends could have significant effects for solar development in eastern Riverside County, for projects on public and private land.

Can NextEra Energy get the 1,000-megawatt Blythe project – which it bought from the bankrupt Solar Trust of America — repermitted, financed and in construction by the end of 2016? Ditto BrightSource Energy and the 500-megawatt Palen project it bought from Solar Trust, along with its Sonoran West project, one of the two contracts the California Public Utilities Commission approved last week.

BrightSource officials have said they don’t expect Sonoran to come online till 2017, and they have no definite timeline for Palen.

The Coachella Valley, and surrounding areas, have looked to large solar projects as a source of good jobs for the region’s still struggling construction workers. The federal guidelines for solar development in the 148,000-acre Riverside East solar zone, between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe, envisions 80 percent of the area covered with projects.

Whether any of that will pencil out now appears uncertain.

Environmental advocates have always argued that for solar, smaller rooftop and community projects are the better play, and the market may just prove them right.

 

What does air pollution sound like?

Pretty cool, actually, according to an article on the High Country News website.

Seems some researchers at UC Berkeley took data from different air quality tests and through a series of calculations, translated them into sounds. This is a gross oversimplification and the article includes an interview with one of the researchers who lays it all out in total techno-geek detail.

But the idea is to find new ways for people to conceptualize air pollution, apart from abstract numbers or visual haze.

Click here, for example, to hear the sound of air pollution in the Caldecott Tunnel which links Oakland with Contra Costa County. The way the bass drone builds and vibrates, you can practically feel the pollution clogging the air the deeper into the tunnel you go.

A clip from a forest in the Sierras, on the other hand, is all bubbly, tinkly stuff, save when some pollution from Sacramento blows in at the end.

If you like your air quality information color coded, you can go to the AIRNow website, a collaborative effort of federal and state agencies, where you can put in your zip code and get a rundown on key pollutants in your area. As I type, on Sept. 28, air quality in the Coachella Valley is pretty good, save for our ozone, which is in the yellow moderate zone, meaning it could pose some threat to people who are very sensitive to air pollution.

Our PM 2.5 — tiny particles that can cause respiratory disease — is in the green, good zone but only by a hair, with a 49 score. At 51, it goes to yellow.

You can also download AIRNow apps for iPhone and Android.

The valley’s ozone levels have always been a concern — and some recent research by EPA scientists underlines the risk.  In a test in which 23 young adults were exposed to slightly higher levels of ozone while exercising, the scientists found:

“Ozone exposure caused inflammation of the vascular system  and resulted in two risk factors that can lead to a heart attack: a change in  heart rate variability and a reduction in ability to dissolve blood clots.”

In related news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its report on California’s agricultural chemical use for fruit crops in 2011.

I can’t do a direct link to the report, but if you click here, you’ll get to a website where you can find a link in the second box on the right-hand side of the page.

Among the interesting factoids — 19 percent of the state’s date crop, which is almost all grown in the Coachella Valley, gets treated with herbicides, but no other chemicals.  Another big valley crop, table grapes, on the other hand, gets a quadruple whammy —  85 percent of all table grapes are treated with fungicides, 67 percent with insecticides, 54 percent with herbicides and 80 percent with other chemicals.

One doesn’t like ending a blog post on a down note, especially on a weekend.

So the good news, coming from the Los Angeles Times, is that California Gov. Jerry Brown this week signed 19 bills into law, all aimed at promoting renewable energy development and energy conservation.

Among the bills was SB 1222, authored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that would require cities and counties across the state to limit any perimitting fees for residential rooftop solar to the amount it costs them to provide the permits. Solar installers will be happy, as should consumers, since “soft costs” for permitting and other adminstrative work, have remained high, adding to the expense of solar installations, even as costs for solar panels have plummeted.

More renewables mean less need to burn fossil fuels and less air pollution.

Listen for the bubbly, tinkly clean air sounds — hopefully, more are on the way.

We got a gig! California solar takes the edge off peak energy demand

The impact of California’s utility-scale solar projects — 1 megawatt and up — helped the state get through its recent heat wave by pumping a full gigawatt of power into the grid.

The California Independent System Operator – which manages the grid — announced the high point today,  saying that three days in recent weeks, large-scale solar in the state reached the 1 gigawatt mark or higher.

One gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts, and 1 megawatt can power about 750 houses — so one gig is 750,000 houses.

The ISO is claiming that’s a new national record for solar production.

“The beauty of solar power is it comes when you need it the most,” said Stephanie McCorkle, the ISO’s director of communication. ”Right at that air-conditioning rush hour, typically we see the peak of solar.”

The Coachella Valley did its bit — with Solar Power Inc.’s 2.2 megawatt project in North Palm Springs pumping its electrons into the grid, according to Mike Anderson, a company spokesman.

What we don’t know is how much power smaller, roof-top solar installations have been generating on the local level — also taking strain off the grid because those houses are not needing extra power during peak hours. The ISO does’t track that, McCorkle said.

While 1 gigawatt is impressive, it’s still a relatively small percentage of total power demand. On Friday, solar power hit 1.076 gigawatts, but the peak demand was 40.5 gigawatts, McCorkle said, meaning solar made up 2.6 percent of power on the grid.

Think about how much power might be generated once projects such as the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight or 250-megawatt Genesis projects now under construction east of the Coachella Valley come on line.

We’ll be lighting up and cooling off the state — or at least a good chunk of it.

 

 

Get your alt fuels here!

Want to find out where to charge your electric hybrid or fill up on hydrogen or compressed natural gas in the Coachella Valley?

The Department of Energy has a map for you at its Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Looking at the Coachella Valley, you can quickly find out that there are electric vehicle charging stations at the Hilton Palm Springs, Palm Springs Nissan, J.W. Marriott Desert Springs, Renaissance Esmeralda and Torre Nissan.

If  CNG — compressed natural gas — is your fuel of choice, the ARCO on Date Palm in Cathedral City can fill your tank, along with Sunline Transit and the Mission Springs Water District.

The site also has a pile of interesting charts, so you can look at how prices for alt fuels are measuring up against traditional gasoline and diesel — not bad from the looks of it — or find out how hybrid vehicle sales are doing — down from a peak in 2007.

You can also find tips on more fuel-efficient driving.

The big drive, it seems, is to reduce idling by commercial fleets.

A few factoids for thought –

  • Medium-duty trucks use about 2.5 billion gallons of fuel to idle each year, or 6.7% of the total fuel they consume.
  • More than 650,000 long-haul heavy-duty trucks idle overnight for required rest stops at least some fraction of the time, using more than 685 million gallons of fuel per year.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that we emit 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of gasoline we burn and 22.34 pounds of CO2 for every gallon of diesel.

Gentlemen and ladies — please — turn off your engines.

The $64,000 question: Is climate change causing extreme weather?

With temperatures hitting triple digits across the country, backed up by unprecedented storms like the one that hit the East Coast last month — my 91-year-old father in Bethesda lost power and spent a few days in hotels, when he wasn’t volunteering for the Red Cross, helping to set up cooling centers — the question on many people’s minds is whether and to what extent our increasingly extreme weather can be linked to climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

And, in articles appearing on a range of websites, the answers range from cautious — we need more research — to unqualified.

In an article on the Environmental Protection website – not to be confused with the EPA — Steve Vavrus, a senior scientist at the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison acknowledges the extreme weather but says further study is needed to see if it’s really outside of normal variations.

But he says heat waves like the current one will become more common on a warmer planet as we continue to add greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels.
 
“I think it’s a harbinger of what’s to come under greenhouse warming,” says Vavrus. “Virtually all climate models simulate more intense and frequent heat waves as the climate warms, and most of the world has experienced increases in extreme heat during the past several decades.”

Just how unusual are the current heat spikes and other extreme weather events?

“For the last 40 years of global warming, there is nothing comparable in the instrumental record since about 1880,” said Jack Williams, director of the Nelson Institute Center. “To find comparable analogs for the amount of warming expected for this century under standard greenhouse gas emission scenarios, you have to go back to the climate changes accompanying the last deglaciation, about 20,000 years ago.”

Writing on The Washington Post website,  enviro-energy reporter Brad Plumer cites the the National Climatic Data Center’s “State of the Climate” report for June 2012.

The last 12 months in the mainland United States, it notes, were the warmest on record. What’s notable, however, is that every single one of the last 13 months were in the top third for their historical distribution (i.e., April 2012 was in the top third for warmest Aprils, etc).

“The odds of this occurring randomly,” notes NCDC, “is 1 in 1,594,323.”

The National Climatic Data Center says the past 12 months in the continental United States are the warmest on record.

 Plumer also cites a recent article by Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein, who talked with a dozen climate scientists on what’s going on. The verdict, as summarized in the article’s title, is ”This US summer is ‘what global warming looks like’”

“What we’re seeing really is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer. “It looks like heat. It looks like fires. It looks like this kind of environmental disasters.”

The summer heat wave in the Coachella Valley may not have broken any records yet, but it’s still worrisome given concerns about power supplies in the wake of the ongoing closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Clemente, which I wrote about last month.

So for those who want to monitor how the grid is doing, the California Independent System Operator, aka CAISO, has daily supply and demand figures on its website.

Right now we’re staying ahead of the curve, but usage is going up with the heat. Today’s forecast peak demand is 41,930 megawatts, while tomorrow’s is intended to shoot up to 43,797 megawatts.  Peak supplies, more than 50,000 megawatts, are still well ahead of demand.

Southern California Edison also has a Outage Center with an interactive map where you can see who’s lost power and the status of repairs. As I type, we have an isolated outage in Rancho Mirage, affecting one person.

But the really big, unanswered question behind all the articles and information, is how much longer are law-makers in Washington, D.C. going to sit around playing politics with a national plan for climate change, reducing greenhouse emissions and promoting renewable energy?

Extreme weather is a signal that the world is approaching a tipping point where even more radical and swift climate change could overtake us. The problem, of course, is that we probably won’t know if we’ve tipped until it’s too late. 

 

Following the electrons: The consumer-power disconnect

I was down with a cold last week, which while not particularly fun in and of itself, gave me the time and enforced bed rest to finish a book I’ve been reading in fits and starts for the past couple months – “Big Coal” by Jeff Goodell.

It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand energy in the United States– its history, present and potential future –  and the short- and long-term implications of our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Goodell provides a concise history of the development of electricity in the U.S., from Thomas Edison’s first power plant in New York to the creation of big power companies, which started in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, and the establishment of state and federal regulatory commissions. Samuel Insull, an English-born protégé of Edison, is the man who came up with the idea of getting U.S. consumers hooked on cheap, coal-fired power and all the electronic appliances that followed in its wake.

Insull understood, if you made power cheaper, consumers would use more of it.

“As early as 1914,” Goodell writes, “nearly every type of electric appliance known to us today could be obtained: not just electric stoves and heaters, but electric kettles, toasters, dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, mixers, potato peelers, knife grinders and vibrators (a very popular item, usually marketed as a way to relieve female ‘hysteria’).”

Underlying all this, Goodell says, is the connection between electricity and modernity and progress.

But, he continues, the problem is that Americans, and others in developed and developing countries, are disconnected from the sources of the electricity that we expect to be available on demand when we switch on a light or power up our laptops, like the one I’m typing on right now. We are, Goodell writes, clueless.

“But it is also the kind of cluelessness that power companies have spent years encouraging. If you doubt this, just try deciphering the spinning wheels on the electric meter outside your house. Power companies figured out long ago that the more they isolate consumers from the true costs and consequences of their kilowatts, the more successful the companies will be.”

Whether or not digital smart meters will reconnect us to our kilowatts remains to be seen.

“Big Coal,” which was published in 2006, focuses on tracing the electrons back to their sources in coal seams in the ground in West Virginia and other states – where mountain-top mining is destroying small communities. He looks at the public health impacts of coal-burning power plants and the political power of coal companies and the way they have shaped our country’s energy policies or lack thereof.

For Coachella Valley readers, one of the book’s most relevant and riveting sections is Goodell’s discussion of particulate matter pollution – what is called PM-10 and PM-2.5 around here. The microscopic particles that are one result of the burning of fossil fuels, PM-10 stands for particles that are 10 microns or less; PM-2.5 are 2.5 microns or less. A micron is one-millionth of a meter; 10 microns are about one-seventh the diameter of a human hair.

Beyond their small size, which makes them easy to breathe in and become lodged in a person’s lungs, what’s dangerous about particulates are the toxic substances they bind with – such as carbon, sulfur and metals.

The CoachellaValley’s PM-10 pollution, while on a downward slope, has for years exceeded state and federal safety levels.

In “Big Coal,” Goodell focuses on the work of Joel Schwartz, a former energy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency — now at Harvard — who in the 1980s and early ‘90s did ground-breaking studies on the connection between PM-10 and human illness and mortality.  In Steubenville, Ohio –- a city with high air pollution from steel mills and other industrial plants –- Schwartz documented that “deaths from pneumonia, lung disease, and heart attacks rose along with increases in particle pollution.”

More important, he found in study after study that there seems to be no safe threshold under which particle pollution stops causing illness and death.

While all this makes for engaging and occasionally enraging reading – it’s Goodell’s conclusions that really challenge the reader. While he does not doubt the reality of climate change, he also is very clear-sighted about how focusing on solving the problem doesn’t lead to constructive thought or action. He quotes at length from conversations he had in China with Dan Dudek of the Environmental Defense Fund, who is a leading expert on cap-and-trade systems:

“I’m for anything that helps us think differently about global warming,” Dudek says. “A lot of people are fixated on cutting carbon emissions, which is fine, but it also narrows the conversation. Ultimately, what matters is what happens in the atmosphere, not what happens at any particular power plant.”

And another Dudek quote:

“The point here is not to solve global warming. That’s dead-end thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to endless debate about what we should and shouldn’t do. I’ve been hearing it for twenty years. How much longer can we talk about this? I’ve been in enough rooms where people whine about the evils of the coal or oil industry, who want to sit around and debate who is worse, Big Coal or Big Oil. You know what? Who cares? It gets you nowhere. What’s important is to get people moving in the right direction. It’s about leveraging creativity and energy, about working from the bottom up. It’s about starting a revolution. We don’t need Einstein here. We need Steve Jobs.”

As gasoline climbs toward $5 a gallon, intense storms continue to ravage American towns and Republican presidential candidates escalate their assaults on renewable energy development –- the need to think about climate change differently has never been more critical and urgent.

Goodell argues that our continued dependence on fossil fuels holds back the creativity and innovation needed to grow a different, greener economy.

“It’s not that I have blind faith that technology will save us or that I think we can snap our fingers and replace all the coal plants in the world with wind turbines and solar panels,” he concludes. “I simply believe that it’s within our grasp to figure out less destructive ways to create and consume the energy we need. Ultimately, the most valuable fuel for the future is not coal or oil, but imagination and ingenuity. We have reinvented our world before. Why can’t we do it again?”