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.


Will green mind share lead to green market share?

A couple interesting year-end articles popped up today that speak to the issue of Americans’ acceptance of renewable energy and its prospects for replacing fossil fuels going forward.

First, on, environmental and green tech writer Todd Woody writes on the findings of a Dow Jones-Factiva study of mentions of renewable energy and green technology in major media over the past 10 years. Exactly which major media we are talking about — U.S., global, print, broadcast, online — is not made clear.

Solar energy, for example, went from 3,984 mentions in 2002 to  41,651 mentions this past year, a 950 percent jump.

The rest of the list –

Biomass: 2002 mentions — 4,874; 2012 mentions –39,824, a 720 percent increase

Wind power: 2002 mentions — 8,568; 2012 mentions — 61,554, a 620 percent increase

Geothermal: 2002 mentions — 861; 2012 mentions –4,529, a 420 percent increase

The point, Woody said, is that while renewables may lag in market share, they are making progress in mind share.

At the bottom of the page, you will also find a terrific photo gallery of 30 energy trailblazers all under 30 years old — for example, 20-year-old Eden Full, who is developing a solar tracking and water filtration system for developing countries and is now testing it out in Uganda.

Eden Full, 20

Robert Conrad, 23, turned down Ph.D programs to work on a machine vision system that crunches data to help detect hawks, eagles and other birds near wind turbines.

Russell Conard, 23

Now that’s a young man we need at the Coachella Valley iHub!

 Meanwhile, on Greentech Media, Herman K. Trabish reports on a computer study from the University of Delaware showing that the U.S. could meet 99 percent of its power needs from renewable sources by 2030 at no increased costs.

With storage, according to report co-author Cory Budischak, ‘we can run an electric system that today would meet a need of 72 gigawatts 99.9 percent of the time, using 17 gigawatts of solar, 68 gigawatts of offshore wind, and 115 gigawatts of inland wind.’”

The issue of reliability — keeping the lights on — is covered by a combination of storage, geographic distribution and the sheer abundance of free sun and wind energy. Basically, if you’ve got enough wind and solar installations across the country, the wind will always be blowing and sun shining in enough places to produce the needed power, as Trabish writes:

“So much free fuel from renewables would be available across the geographically dispersed 72 gigawatt . . . grid region that it would not only almost eliminate the need for natural gas reserves, but would also keep the power price low and minimize the need for incurring the cost of battery storage.”

Which is all to say, as we go into the new year, if the mind share is there — including the creativity and passion of our best and brightest young innovators – the market share will follow.

Getting the renewable energy mix right

I was out at Desert Mirage High School in Thermal on Wednesday, talking with students in the school’s green tech career academy about what I do as an energy and green tech reporter — ask people a lot of questions about very technical things and try to turn it all into plain English.

Most of the students said they want to work in a green tech or engineering field, so I also spoke about the importance of good communication skills and the inestimable value of being able to write clear, grammatical sentences (old school, I know, but it’s something I’m actually rather passionate about).

One of the students asked me what I thought the best form of renewable energy is, and I stopped for a second. Being a reporter, one always stops when anyone asks you what you think the best of anything is, because one cannot appear to be biased or endorsing one thing over another.

Luckily in this case, it was not a problem. What I said, in essence, is that , with renewable energy it isn’t a matter of better or worse, but rather how the different forms fit together and complement each other.  We need them all.  The wind blows best at night — so we can have renewable energy on the grid ready to go in the wee hours and early morning.  Then photovoltaic, rooftop solar comes on in the morning and peaks in the afternoon for daytime use.

Geothermal can fill in the gaps, it is 24/7 baseline power. Solar thermal technology also has the potential to fill in the intermittent gaps created by wind and rooftop. While big solar thermal projects, such as BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah plant, have major environmental impacts and have been difficult to perimit, their technology — using solar energy to heat fluids and run a traditional generator — provides a more reliable power source than rooftop solar.

If you add storage to the picture — and it’s coming, in the foreseeable future — you have the possibility of a grid that can, at least in theory, run almost entirely on clean, renewable sources with the inevitable economies of scale and lower prices.

This is, at least in part, the argument that some advocates are now making as California develops a renewable energy portfolio that will provide 33 percent of the state’s power by 2020. The utilities have largely loaded up on cheaper photovoltaic projects that by their very nature mean we will need some kind of fossil fuel backup to balance the intermittency of solar.

More reliable forms of renewables, such as solar thermal, are more expensive, but cost alone should not be the only factor considered.

Which brings me to BrightSource. Even as the company’s Rio Mesa project looks shaky – possibly losing a power purchase agreement to sell half the power from the plant and facing millions in mitigation costs to offset environmental impacts — investors have given the company a vote of confidence in the form of $80 million in new equity funding.

In a press release issued today, company executives announced a list of new investors –

Alstom, a global leader in the world of power generation, and VantagePoint Capital Partners lead the round. Additional investors include DFJ, CalSTRS, DBL Investors, Goldman Sachs, Chevron Technology Ventures and BP Ventures among others.

The company now has $615 million in equity funding.

Alstom is a French energy multinational and VantagePoint is a major player in clean tech investments. That major fossil fuel companies such as Chevron and BP want in also speaks volumes.

The bottom line is, every form of energy, whether fossil fuel or renewable, has some kind of environmental impact; that is the unavoidable trade-off we make for the power.

Figuring out the best value and right balance of renewables going forward will be a complex process, involving careful thought and calibration of lots of competing and conflicting factors.  Hopefully, some of the students I spoke with today will help find the solutions.

And they’ll be able to write about it in clear, grammatical sentences.

The Arctic and the desert: Climate change lessons from Greenland

As we in the Southern California desert wait for the end of a summer with seemingly endless triple-digit days, the long hot summer of climate change has had more dramatic impacts in the northern reaches of Alaska and Greenland.

Warren Olney’s To the Point news program on KCRW Sept. 23 looked at the receding Arctic ice cap and the changes it is driving in Greenland, an autonomous state of Denmark, with a population of 57,000 and apparently huge resources in rare earth minerals — which, with the ice melting, are now possible to mine — as well as offshore oil.

The program includes interviews with Elizabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times, who has written an article on the current changes underway in Greenland; Jens B. Frederiksen, vice premier of Greenland;  Alice Rogoff, publisher of the Alaska Dispatch, an online news website, and Jon Hoekstra of the World Wildlife Fund.

It’s all worth a listen, and is still available online, because what’s happening in the Artic — in Greenland and Alaska — has parallels with our renewable energy development in the Southern California desert, where resources that were previously not economical to tap, whether solar, wind, or geothermal — are now being developed.

For example, Hoeskstra talks about the Arctic as the last frontier, presenting an opportunity to develop resources while also protecting the environment — it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation, he said.

“We have the scientific tools to quantify the risks and rewards; we have the opportunity to map those and consider the tradeoffs carefully; we don’t have to repeat the mistakes we have made when we’ve developed other frontiers.”

Frederiksen was extremely thoughtful on his country’s ability to control development of its resources and think about what its national priorities should be.

“What is it we want – is it only money, only the value of money we need. Do we need other things? Do we need political influence in the Arctic? Do we want to have influence on worldwide climate policy?”

In the desert, the process for balancing all the competing interests, through the federal Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and the state’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan,  has shown just how difficult this can be. The DRECP has most recently come under fire from its own panel of independent science advisors who released a report slamming the plan for its lack of good scientific research.

Another key point coming out of the KCRW program is the federal government’s predictable foot-dragging on climate change policy and its impact in the Arctic. Rogoff pointed out there is no deep water port on Alaska’s Arctic coastline, which is just as long as the eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida. There are huge economic and national security issues at stake, she said.

The melting of the Arctic ice could open up a northern shipping passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would be 45 percent cheaper than the Panama Canal, she said. Rosenthal noted that while scientists originally thought it would be decades before such a passage opened up, if melting continues at the current pace, it could happen by the end of the decade.

The Alaska Dispatch reported recently on the record summer ice melt this year:

“The (National Snow and Ice Data Center) reports that the melting season appears to have ended Sept. 16, and at that time, it covered about 1.32 million square miles. The record low came more than a quarter-million square miles before, when scientists measured the extent at 1.58 million square miles in late August. The previous low was recorded in September 2007 at 1.61 million square miles.”

Olney ended the discussion with a connection to the presidential election or rather why climate change and the opening of Arctic have not been major issues. The U.S. has not even ratified the U.N. convention on the law of the sea, which would ensure the country’s access to Arctic resources along the Alaskan border.

When Rosenthal called the State Department for her Greenland article to find out its position on these issues, the answer she got was that there is no position.

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess what it’s going to take to get the presidential candidates and the country in general to get serious about climate change and all the complex, critical issues its spawning.

Frederiksen had the last word:

“When the candidates are running for the presidency, it should be a very big issue, the climate change,” he said, speaking from a boat in a fjord, with ice bergs floating all around.

“That’s the only way you can focus worldwide attention on it, the only way the big countries can take it seriously and reduce the outlet of CO2. That’s the only way you can save the world.”


Perez energy tour coming to valley

Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez is bringing his Select Committee on the Renewable Energy Economy in Rural California to the Coachella and Imperial valleys this Thursday and Friday for meetings with area officials, a tour of renewable energy sites and a public hearing set to be held in El Centro.

Perez’s staff said the visit is more of a fact-finding tour to identify issues where the Legislature might be able to help promote clean energy development in the state’s rural areas. Along with Perez, State Assemblymembers Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), and Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) are slated to attend.

The group will get a welcome dinner Thursday evening from a group of valley business and civic leaders, including Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, RBF Consulting — an environmental-energy consulting firm – and Kaiser Restaurant.  Along with good food, the committee will also get a presentation of local renewable energy issues.

The next day is a marathon tour, starting with a morning visit to a North Palm Springs wind farm, and then a road trip to El Centro, with stops at a solar project in Niland and a geothermal plant in Calpatria. The day ends with a two-hour public hearing in El Centro with three panels of state, business and local officials talking about renewable energy development.

I am going along for the ride, and will be posting along the way. 


The green conference beat

If there is any sign of the feverish level of activity in the green business and renewable energy sectors in Southern California, it would have to be the endless stream of emails pouring into my mailbox announcing a never-ending schedule of conferences and meetings — all just tantalizingly out of reach for Coachella Valley residents.

But if you have the time and interest, you could spend the next week or so on the road attending a steady  stream of green events.

The Geothermal Energy Expo, a huge tradeshow of all things geothermal, started last night and runs through Wednesay in San Diego. Hundreds of vendors from across the country and around the world will be there — presumably along with some local folks working on geothermal projects around the Salton Sea.

Next up, starting on Tuesday and running through Friday, the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit focusing on sustainable development and redevelopment issues, will be hold its 75 anniversary conference at the Los Angeles Convention Center. 

A little bit closer to home, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Inland Empire Chapter will hold its 2nd annual Green Building & Business Expo 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Frontier Project in Rancho Cucamonga.

And then, back to San Diego, where the American Society of Landscape Architects will hold their annual meeting Oct. 30-Nov. 2 — next Sunday through Wednesday. The workshops and field trips alone sound absolutely incredible; for example, Sunday’s field trip to visit the sustainable urban agriculture program at San Diego City College.

Full disclosure — I am taking a few days off for the ULI conference in Los Angeles, so expect some updates when I get back next week. I will of course be tweeting from the conference, so you can follow me @kkaufmann.