Solar Power Trends — depends on the State

Pshaw! California. It's just a state full of liberal treehuggers! - source: New York Times, 1/25/12

The graph is part of an article on solar trends in the U.S. talking mainly about California.  Pshaw! California. It’s just a state full of liberal treehuggers!

I recommend the entire web report.  On page 20, Appendix C, there is state by state data for ’09, ’10 and Cumulative Installed Capacity.  I want to do some comparison with political data — just for fun, of course, because I really loved my statistics class (fyi, that’s a joke).

Some questions for discussion:

  1. What state do you live in and what are your thoughts on your state and solar?
  2. What do you think I’ll find with my political comparison?  Shall we take bets (Do I hear $10,000 anyone?)? 

Obama’s Keystone XL Decision – A Triumph of Good Sense

Jennifer Rubin, on her “Right Turn” opinion page at the Washington Post says that “Keystone XL decision hands the GOP a gift.”  She must be in a lot of pain to be so detached from reality.

I won’t get into everything that she says, suffice it to say that I think she is wrong for SO many reasons.  First and foremost, job numbers, the primary focus of proponents of this monstrosity, would be minimal, (approximately 6,000) most of them short-term construction jobs, not the “hundreds of thousands” of jobs that John Boehner seems to dream of.

Laughable. Talking jobs benefits Obama, not Republicans (see graphs below). Solyndra, mentioned by both Rubin and Boehner, is also not an Obama problem as Solyndra was approved under Bush and was less than 2% of the energy loans from 2005 and the only one that has gone bad. Solyndra’s guaranteed loan was for ~$500 million, not the billions that went into later bailouts of both auto and finance. The stimulus was not a failure; without it the recession would have been a depression. The debt accumulation, well that will be argued until the end of time — when did it start, who increased it, etc. Needless to say, we went from a debt surplus at the beginning of Bush to a record deficit at the end of Bush, largely to his putting two wars on the country credit card, and it took a whole lot of congressional enabling from both sides of the aisle to make that happen.

Rubin also brings up entitlement reform but I assume she is referring to the favorite conservative buzzwords of social entitlements such as health care, food stamps, social security, unemployment, etc. If not, please forgive me for making such assumptions, I’ve been conditioned by the Republican debates. If you are talking inclusively about all entitlements, you include such things as corporate and individual tax loopholes (see today’s news about Mitt Romney’s offshore tax havens), corporate subsidies, forgiven FDIC loans in addition to social entitlement. I’m not so sure Romney is going to look like such a pretty boy when you examine him through that lens.

Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont, again leads the way in good sense. From Politicusa:

In December, Senator Sanders urged Obama to call the Republicans bluff on Keystone XL. President Obama did more than call their bluff. He let the Republicans kill Keystone XL for him.

Republicans set themselves up for this one when they demanded that the 60 day deadline be included in the payroll tax/unemployment benefits extension. Republicans are already trying to spin Obama’s decision as a refusal to create jobs, but the truth is that Keystone XL project would only create 6,000 or so jobs. Most of the full time jobs would not be filled by locals, and the other jobs would be temporary construction.

The Keystone XL project is not a job creator, or a path to energy independence. The oil that would come from the project was destined to be sold on the global market. If anything, Keystone would open up all US production to the international market. A point that Republicans never seem to understand is that oil drilled in the United States [belongs] to the oil company, not the country where it was extracted from.

Incidentally, the US would not have received any tax revenues for the Canadian oil.  We would be merely a conduit for their dirty oil and the revenues produced without keeping either.  The oil would go to the Houston refineries to be processed then shipped out to international markets.  All tax revenues would bypass the U.S. because we are in no way a partner in the sale of the oil.  Refineries would be paid for cleaning up and refining the extremely dirty oil but otherwise we just take the risk of a pipeline spill right in our heartland and get the refinery pollution.

Finally, if John Boehner, Mitt Romney and the Republicans want to talk about jobs,I bring you JOBS, JOBS, JOBS (“The Progress Report,” Jan. 6, 2012, Think Progress) with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

2…the number of years of consecutive employment growth in manufacturing, after not one single year of growth between 1997 and 2010.

8.5 percent…the unemployment rate, the lowest since February 2009 just after President Obama took office.

22…the number of consecutive months of private sector job growth.

12,000…the number of public sector jobs lost in December of 2011 alone.

212,000…the number of private sector jobs created in December of 2011 alone.

280,000…the number of public sector jobs lost in 2011.

315,000…the number of health care jobs created in 2011.

673,000…the number of private sector jobs lost during the entirety of the eight-year Bush presidency.

1,080,000…the number of net jobs created during the entirety of the eight-year Bush presidency.

1,600,000…the net number of jobs created during 2011, after accounting for job losses in the public sector.

1,900,000…the number of private sector jobs created during 2011.

IN TWO  SENTENCES: In either of the past two years alone, President Obama created more private sector jobs than President Bush did during the entirety of his eight-year presidency.  While today’s jobs numbers are a promising sign, it’s no time to get complacent when 14 MILLION Americans are still out of work.


Sunflowers and Solar Energy

The beauty and science of Nature. Photo by Louise Docker

Why haven’t sunflowers been the efficiency model for solar research all along?  If you have ever noticed — really noticed and watched  — sunflowers, you know that their name, “sunflower” is not because they look like our solar orb, but because their growth is  largely driven by what they can gather in from the received radiation.  Sunflowers require very little water, can grow almost anywhere, prolifically reseed themselves for the next sunshine season, but the flowers!  The flowers turn and follow the sun as they absorb energy from sun up to sun down!  Don’t miss an opportunity to watch a large field or mass of sunflowers if you haven’t done so already; see how they are gathered together, watch as they worshipfully bow, lift and bow again as the lightgiver travels across the sky.  How can one not smile?

The beauty and efficiency of nature is an amazing thing and I have only surprise at the length of time that it took for the MIT researchers and their German collaborators at  RWTH Aachen University to realize the significance of the design.  At this point in solar power plant design, they require large spaces  (footprint) for all the collection mirrors.  The mirrors all  face  and reflect the received solar radiation onto a tower which then converts that radiation into thermal energy.  These researchers, as detailed in this article in Science Daily, have reduced the footprint by 20 percent while increasing the potential energy generation.  The pattern inspired by the sunflower not only allows for a more compact layout of the mirrors (heliostats), but it minimizes the shading and blocking effect of neighboring mirrors.

Now, it seems to me, the challenge should be to perhaps use that same sunflower pattern in solar panels used for localized, home or other structures.  Converting solar energy to thermal energy to electricity could probably be much more efficient if it bypassed the thermal step.  Is there anyone out there doing this?

H/T Scinerds

Solar energy: New sunflower-inspired pattern increases concentrated solar efficiency.

Green Roofs

I am following an environmental blog on Tumblr and the article below was posted there today.  I haven’t figured out how to “share” anything from Tumblr yet (other than a T reblog).  Since I have become increasingly interested in “green roofs” lately, their insulation potential from both heat and cold which results in an amazing savings in energy usage, as well as the carbon offset of the vegetation and water recycling potential, I wanted to share this.  I did not write it, I copied it.  That, of course, is pretty close to plagiarism so please, the credit is due to Ecoevolution, that’s the name of the site, I don’t know the name of the person.

The Lowdown on the Green Roof

Given that you’re reading an environmental blog, you’ve probably heard the term “green roof” before. But just in case you haven’t, here’s a quick overview.

Green roofs are pretty much exactly what you might expect: roofs covered in vegetation. Usually, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Green roofs also involve some growing medium, waterproofing membrane, root barrier, insulation, structural support, etc. Here’s a structural diagram of a basic green roof.

Here is a rather wild-looking architectural example, which offers stark contrast to the stern lines of the building on which it sits:

Modern green roofs (and most green infrastructure in general) are flat for the most part, and mostly involve native plants that are unlikely to need any upkeep besides what their native environment can naturally give them. However, they can of course be meticulously landscaped as well, especially in commercial settings where the green roof is large and flat and can actually be almost park-like, like the green roof on City Hall in the city of Chicago:

Historically, the green roof originated in Scandinavia. In fact, most houses in Scandinavia during the middle ages were roofed in sod, as they provided good insulation and temperature regulation while the weight of the sod helped to stabilize the structure of the house.

Green roofs come with a veritable smorgasbord of benefits like increased roof life, reduced noise levels & sound reflection, as well as good thermal insulation in the winter and heat shield in the summer. Benefits of green roofs on public buildings even include storm water retention and reduction of dust and smog levels.

Green roofing manages to make usable space out of what might have otherwise been wasted and left empty, virtually useless in the scale of things. They can even be used in conjunction with solar paneling systems.
Look at all this potential! Maybe it’s time to put a little green into our infrastructure.

“All that we can be and not what we are”

Last year I became a great fan of John Denver.  While some people dismiss his music as simple or cheesy, I (and many other fans) find it straightforward, heartfelt, and beautiful.  His voice is gentle, the music itself lyrical, and his lyrics poignant.  While each song brings out the emotional beauty and even the sadness of human experience, I admire his lyrics for the optimism they evoke.  One of the best examples of this is the short but stirring, “The Eagle And The Hawk.”  Beginning quietly with the solo strumming of an acoustic guitar, John’s voice then fades in and both voice and music crescendo to soar just as the magnificent birds he describes:

I am the eagle, I live in high country

In rocky cathedrals I reach to the sky

I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers

But time is still turning, they soon will be dry.

And all those who see me and all who believe in me

Share in the freedom I feel when I fly.

This song brings to mind countless times I have been able to witness both eagles and hawks sailing above the landscape.  While there is much I could say about watching these great creatures of the sky, I wish to broaden my focus to the inspiring landscapes of eastern and southern Utah and why they need to be protected.  I specify Utah not because I don’t know or care about other areas, but for me, it is closest to home.  I do hope that what I say here will encourage you to take action in favor of the environment wherever you live.

I was born and raised in Utah and have spent a lot of time in the outdoors, much of it in southern Utah.  Though I grew up in the urban sprawl of Utah County, my family has a long history of living in the valleys below Bryce Canyon National Park.  After finishing my undergraduate degree, I decided to head back toward my family roots and I recently finished a nine month stint volunteering and working at Bryce Canyon.  Every day I met people not just from all over the U.S., but all over the world.  I can tell you that one of the most common reactions from people at seeing the Bryce Amphitheater for the first time is awed silence.  That says ten times more than what words could try to say because words become trivial in the face of such natural beauty.  Though Bryce is a rather small park, I never grew tired of hiking the same trails and visiting the same viewpoints.  Even many of my coworkers who have worked there for twenty years or more said the views never get old.  In my short time there, I noticed new things every day, whether it was how the sun lit a particular ridge at different times of day, the ravens cawing at one another perched on separate hoodoos, how the wind sighed in the pines and brought out the vanilla fragrance of the ponderosas.  In short, each day was a new experience.

Although I have temporarily returned to heavily populated northern Utah, my time working at Bryce Canyon deepened my love for the park and the area.  It also helped me better understand why people come from all over the world to see this park and other areas of Utah.  Having spent much time in the parks, monuments, and wilderness areas in this state, I know that these places are a source of joy and refuge to many, many people.  There are many places of awesome beauty and serenity all over the U.S. and it is good that they are under federal protection (that, however, brings its own set of challenges which I will not go into at this time).  But I also know that there are many people within this state, people with political power and authority, who only see dollar signs when they look on Utah’s wild lands.  There is no denying that southern and eastern Utah hold large amounts of coal, natural gas, and oil.  There is also no denying that these landscapes are desert landscapes.  The desert is powerful and can be unforgiving to both plants and animals seeking to live in it.  But it is also very delicate.  It does not have the moisture to consistently replenish itself unlike places such as the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.  Wilderness areas of Utah are natural treasures in a delicately balanced system.  When the land gets ravaged from mining or drilling, it will never recover because it is too dry.  Roads, even ones rarely used, become scars and it takes decades to erase them.  People all over the world visit Utah to see these stunning vistas, plateaus, red rocks, canyons, mountains, animal and plant life, as well as learn about the Native American history available here.  They come to see wilderness—not smoke plumes, dynamited hillsides, and piles of gravel and mine tailings, not to mention worry about contaminants in their drinking water and breathe the same polluted air available in cities from where many of these visitors are escaping.  Utah is a state of diverse landscapes.  Nonetheless, they are unique and fragile and fragility needs protection.

Needles District, Canyonlands National Park

Greater Canyonlands, comprised of  1.4 million acres in southern and eastern Utah, is one such area in great risk of being leased out to oil and gas companies and opening the way for oil shale and tar sands industries—two of the most environmentally destructive methods of resource extraction.  Oil shale and tar sands methods produce vast amounts of toxic sludge, two to four times the amount of greenhouse gases than that of conventional oil methods, and require huge amounts of water in the process.  Why is it a good idea to use the limited water sources within Greater Canyonlands for industries that will only contaminate them?  These water sources are vital to native wildlife, including seven species federally listed as endangered or threatened.  Equally reliant on these water sources are some 960 plant species that provide habitat for wildlife.

I sometimes see bumper stickers that read, “Drill here, drill now, pay less.”  That statement is false.  Why?  Because oil and gas companies know those resources are limited.  They’ll make sure they get the highest profits possible while the resources last.  They don’t care about helping the American people pay less for the fossil fuels of which we are so dependant; they prefer raising prices so they can continue their record profits.  If oil, gas, and coal companies did care, why do energy costs keep rising, why are they discouraging the development of sustainable energy, and why do those companies continue recording multi-billion dollar profits every fiscal year?

The days of cheap fuel are long gone.  Are we going to keep digging and drilling in a desperate search for a dwindling resource, much like ever hopeful old timers panning for gold, or are we going to move forward with the technology we are capable of and pursue unlimited, cleaner alternatives that will help remove us from our dependence on the foreign oil we so fear as well as stop spoiling beautiful lands for millions of people just so a few can make a buck?  If we continue using fossil fuels at the astonishing rate that we are now, they will be gone much too soon and it will be a hell of a long wait before we get any more.  Once those fossil fuels are gone, they’re gone.  Then what are we left with?  Scarred, torn up, contaminated lands and water sources that nobody wants to visit, let alone live in.  The more we develop the land for oil, gas, and coal, the less wilderness there will be for people to come visit year after year after year.  Tourism is dependent on outsiders and it can be shifty, but in the end it is more sustainable because it will be around much longer than any fossil fuels.

“People don’t protect what they don’t know, what they don’t come to love.” (Kai Hagan, “My Wilderness”, Wilderness Society)I’m touched by the truthfulness of this statement.  We can’t protect what we don’t know about, so the first steps to protection are to know and to love.  If you have not had a chance to visit the national parks and monuments of Utah, make some time.  Pick one and go experience it, even for just an overnight visit.  Get involved with environmental organizations such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Nature Conservancy, national park Natural History Associations, the Wilderness Society, and the Center For Biological Diversity, and learn about issues that will ultimately affect every one of us.  Discover and care for natural places wherever you live.  You don’t have to call yourself an environmentalist, you just have to see and care and know that the more we endanger the earth, the more we endanger ourselves.

People need nature.  Not just city-planned parks and botanical gardens, but wilderness areas where you can look for miles and not see a single bit of fiberglass, asphalt, and steel, where you can stand and feel as if you are the only person on earth, where you can observe animals in their natural environments, where you can gaze up at a night sky lit with thousands of stars.  Learn about the land and the plants and animals that need the land to survive.  There is more to life than looking forward to the next paycheck.

Come dance with the west wind and touch on the mountaintops

Sail o’er the canyons and up to the stars

And reach for the heavens and hope for the future

And all that we can be and not what we are.

“All that we can be and not what we are”—the final line of this song raises important questions: What are we?  What can we be?  What do we want now and what do we want for future generations?  Will we be greedy and apathetic?  Will we be generous and sympathetic?  We are capable of doing a lot of good—we are doing a lot of good.  We are capable of doing irreparable harm as well and we can do better to be responsible stewards of the earth.  Let us refuse to let our world be wasted.  Let us reach outside of ourselves and acknowledge that what we do now will impact the future.  Let us make sure that what we do now will ensure a positive future for generations to come.

Mountaintop Mining Revisited

Mountaintop removal

Mountaintop Removal

Featured front page in the New York Times today, April 12, 2011, is an article by Dan Barry on the effects of mountaintop removal mining of coal on communities.  I have expressed my opinion on this type of mining operation previously but focused on the environmental effects — removal of “overburden” as it is called by the industry, filling of valleys with unused (waste) material, disruption and pollution of ecosystems and water drainage (See Stealthy No More” and “Bush’s Stealth Attack: Mountaintop Removal Mining” below).  Mr. Barry focuses on one town, one family and what is left of the life they had.  It is death, not necessarily of the people themselves, but death nonetheless.  Life as they have known it has ended.  The others in the community, those who have already moved away, faced that death as well and chose to move on earlier.

Mountaintop Removal Site in Pickering Knob, West Virginia

You will recognize the corporation involved, Massey Energy, as the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 miners were killed on April 5, 2010.  Subsequent investigation of the accident that led to these deaths has shown that there were hundreds of safety violations filed in the months and years prior to the accident.  See the WVGazette for a good synopsis of “what we know and what we don’t know.”  The final investigation report will probably be out in June 2011.  You may remember comments at the time by Don Blankenship, CEO.  He said a lot.  He said a lot more prior to the accident, one of his memos telling employees,  “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e. – build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal,” the memo says. “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills (, 4/9/2011).”

Granted, Massey was not wholly to blame for the accident, nor is it wholly to blame for mountaintop mining in general.  We all share the blame.  Our glut for energy with little emphasis on conservation is selfish.  I realize that life as we know it has evolved to include a demand for energy.  I do not advocate going without what we now consider necessities (e.g. technology, a computer, for example, I love my computer).  What I do advocate is that each individual THINK about what we do and need, start with little things — we’ve all heard the “turn off the light when you leave the room” proposal — well, let’s DO IT.  What’s so hard about things like this?  Government shares blame:  the main government regulator (MSHA) had tools it could have used against Massey and didn’t. Politicians share the blame — Republicans in 2010 blocked a bill that would have improved safety in mines, and that is in addition to their continuing fight against environmental regulations that would protect ecosystems which include not just the air, water, plants and animals, but people.  Human beings. Us.

We are all at risk from mountaintop mining because it is the result of and continues from a mindset that minimizes life.  What good are our “rights” if we’re not alive to exercise them?  Why do we, those of us living right here, right now, have the right to live and future generations do not because of our actions?  We exist on an earth that was created with multiple natural systems for the sustaining of life.  Those systems can only be strained so far before they break and cannot be repaired.  We must repair the mindset and that requires each one of us to make some changes.

Mr. Barry’s article about the effects of mountaintop mining on Lindytown, West Virginia should be a wake up call for us all.  The town is gasping its last breath as the last two residents see the end.  I realize the earth will not die in the next 5, 10, 50 or perhaps 100 years, but the breaking point is closer than we think, I’m afraid unless we make changes.  We cannot wait for someone else to do it, we must do it on our own, one little thing at a time but mainly we must THINK.

That Nasty Habit….

This from Center for American Progress Action Fund’s Progress Report May 17th:

At this year’s State of the Union address, President Bush declared, “we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil.” What Bush didn’t mention is that his policies have made the situation worse. Last summer, he signed energy legislation that included billions of dollars in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry but provided meager support for alternative energy and efficiency. The plan was written, for the most part, by Vice President Cheney’s energy task force, which consulted extensively with “petroleum, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and electricity industry representatives and lobbyists,” but did not have “any substantive meeting with environmental or energy conservation advocates.” (Oil companies subsequently spent $367 million over two years lobbying Congress to pass the legislation.) President Bush claimed the Cheney plan (95 percent of Cheney’s recommendations are now law) would reduce energy prices and our reliance on foreign oil. Since that time, the price of a gallon of gas has doubled — from $1.46 to more than $2.90, the price of heating oil is up 162 percent, propane is up 105 percent and natural gas is up 46 percent. The average American family will spend about $1800 more on energy in 2006 than in 2001. Meanwhile, dependence on foreign oil has increased substantially. In 2000, the U.S. imported 58 percent of its oil. Now, we import 65.5 percent. Had enough? Today, American Progress is launching, a campaign to expose our dysfunctional energy policy and promote a new, progressive alternative. Visit, learn more, and take action.

See also

So, as a result of Dick Cheney’s secret energy task force and the resulting legislation we now have higher costs for oil products and increased dependence on oil. One of the few items on Cheney’s wishlist that has not been legislated is ANWR drilling. That always elicits a snarl and a sneer from Dick as he refers to the environmentalists who he considers responsible for locking up this national treasure.

“Q: A couple of policy questions here before you go: In his focus on energy independence last night, for the first time in a long time, the President did not refer to drilling at ANWR. Is that off the table for you all? THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, it’s not off the table by any means. We’ll keep pushing it because we think it makes eminent good sense. And we came very close in the last session to getting it, and we’ll keep working on it.” ( “Vice President Cheney Comments on ANWR”, )

Cheney has little respect for the ideal of conservation — but then, we already knew that, right? When he outlined the Bush Administration’s energy plan at a meeting in Toronto in 2001 (see “Cheney’s energy plan focuses on production”, USAToday) he said telling Americans to do more with less is not enough. “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” Of course not! Conservation doesn’t make money for oil stockholders! Between 2001 and 2006 nothing has changed except the price of gas and oil and the dependence on those same products and those changes have been increases!

The only thing they say that I agree with is that it is an addiction and we, The People, WON’T, not can’t,  even try doing without or with even a little less of it! We MUST change our attitudes!