Solar power AND wilderness protection for San Diego

December 30, 2008

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a new power line through the desert – and I think it is a great decision. No, my brain hasn’t been eaten by development zombies…but allow me to transport you to those halcyon days of last July, when Eric wrote a Managed World entry on a tradeoff between generating solar power in the desert and running a power line through the relatively pristine Anza-Borrego State Park.

Besides damaging a gorgeous desert wilderness (with fantastic marine fossils! And most of the last population of Peninsular bighorn sheep! Can you tell I’ve got a crush on Anza-Borrego?), the power line through the undeveloped park would have seriously increased the risk of backcountry fires. Several of the October 2007 wildfires were started by power lines. Sure, the desert is fire-adapted, but it’s meant to burn every 20 years, not every 5, and that’s not even getting into the human and economic costs of GIANT FRIGGIN FIRES.

So why am I happy that the power line was approved? Because it won’t run through the park, but along an already-developed corridor – Interstate 8. The power line will not disrupt the wilderness, and since it’s along a busy freeway, hopefully any fires will be noticed and quickly controlled. And the dense population on the coast will have access to all that nice desert renewable energy.

There is a downside, of course. Since all of San Diego County’s electricity lines are alongside Route 8, a fire there could knock out electricity for the entire county. However, since we live in a mild climate – nobody’s going to freeze to death if the power goes out – it’s a risk that I am happy to take.

I think this is one Managed World tradeoff that we can celebrate. Yay solar power! Yay power-line-free wilderness!

Now where’s our cheap, subsidized residential solar panels?

Why nearshore oil drilling is bad: a handy guide

August 13, 2008

A long time ago, Frog sent me this poll showing that otherwise environmentally-conscious Americans favor nearshore drilling when gas prices are high. Her conclusions were “1. I hate MSNBC and numbers 2. I hate people and 3. I bet TOG might have something to say about this.”

And indeed we do, even 5 weeks after the poll came out. (Sorry, Frog.) Here’s a handy point-by-point completely non-comprehensive list for arguing with your right-wing uncle over the Labor Day barbecue.

Nearshore drilling will NOT lower gas prices.

McCain declared a couple weeks ago, “We need to drill more, drill now, and pay less at the pump.” Unfortunately, according to the Washington Post, the Energy Department itself estimates that production would not start until 2017 and would have no “significant” effect on prices or supplies until 2030.

And what does “significant effect on prices” mean anyway? Slate’s Green Lantern estimates that the most optimistic estimate (from an oil company) for American production would only increase global oil production by 1%. This would only lower prices at the pump by 3 percent. So if gas remains $4.30 per gallon, prices would be reduced by 12 cents, or to a less-than-stunning $4.18 per gallon.

Since I’m a graduate student and Eric is an alt-weekly reporter, we are pretty budget conscious. Still, saving $1.44 per tank or $5.76 per month does not make a huge difference in our lives, and I imagine that it wouldn’t significantly improve the lot of most Americans.

Nearshore drilling will NOT provide energy security.

CR McClain’s handy pie chart speaks for itself. Even with drilling everything in the country, the US will still be dependent on foreign oil.

Nearshore drilling WILL cause environmental damage, but not because of oil spills.

Everyone keeps talking about oil spills, which of course are very damaging when they happen. But oil platform don’t release much oil – most oil spills happen during transportation. And oil platforms do attract fish and grow all kinds of tasty bivalves. So why doesn’t this benthic ecologist stop worrying and learn to love the drilling platform?

Because oil platforms grow jellyfish, too. Most jellies need a hard surface in order to complete their life cycle. Jellies produce a planula larvae that settles on a hard surface and proceeds to asexually reproduce its tiny patooty off. (It’s called strobilation.) Each individual polyp can produce tens to hundreds of adult jellies.

Normally, hard surfaces are, well, hard to come by in the ocean. For example, in the Gulf of Mexico, pretty much everything is muddy or sandy except for the odd rock. The lack of rocks should naturally limit the jelly population.  But when you add in GIANT HUGE METAL TOWERS, people are basically giving jellies the run of the house and the keys to the liquor cabinet.

When artificial hard surfaces are combined with pollution and overfishing of the jellies’ predators, we get nasty situations like in this NY Times article from last week. (Thanks, Riana!) So never mind the logical and aesthetic arguments – if you don’t like getting stung by jellies at the beach, or if you like eating fish and not jelly burgers, you should be against nearshore oil drilling.

(Thanks for the articles, Frog and Riana! Also thanks to Alison for imparting her jelly polyp wisdom.)

Cow poop power!

July 25, 2008

Yes folks, the good people of Ontario have worked out a way to tap the energy in that terror of the global warming scene, the noble cow. The Stantons of Ontario are third generation farmers. In the past they’ve used the poop from their 750 cattle produce every year in the traditional fashion: They spread it on the land for fertilizer. But the neighbors complained about the stink, and everyone in town worried about ground water pollution. Then Laurie Stanton hatched a new plan: why not tap the methane cow poop emits and turn it into electricity? They implemented the system detailed in the illustration from the Globe and Mail (click on the image to make it bigger and legible) to move the poop from the barn to the power generation turbine. Each cow can keep three 50W bulb constantly illuminated. This year the farm will connect the system to the Ontario electric grid and power about 800 homes.

As any vegetarian will happily tell you, cows are really bad for the environment. Industrially produced beef is produced on giant cattle farms that get tons of corn shipped to them every day (with attendant emissions), and the finished beef gets trucked all over the place too. In between, the cows are producing ridiculous quantities of methane, an even worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One gram of methane is equivalent to 23 grams of carbon when it comes to global warming. Burning a methane molecule does produce one carbon dioxide molecule in the end, but you get the attendant energy, and it’s considered cleaner than burning coal or oil.

Lest you fear Americans are missing out on the poop-power phenomenon, a farm in Riverdale, California has set up a similar system, but instead of producing the power directly, they’re pumping the gas into a nearby Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas line.

One thing I think we can all agree on: It’s been far too long since Poop Day. Bring on your poo-related news!

[Via Treehugger]

The Managed World: Can you run a power line through a state park if it’s carrying clean electricity?

July 15, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Southern California would seem like the ideal place for solar and wind power. It’s sunny almost half the days of the year, and the deserts get their fair share of wind. In California, most of the people live densely packed along the coast, while the interior is either desert or farmland.  The price of solar on the residential scale (i.e. on the roofs of those densely built buildings and houses) is still too high to be economically feasible (though the price is dropping every day, it seems) but economics of scale make large solar plants feasible.

For SoCal, that means putting up big renewable energy farms out in places like Riverside and Imperial Counties – especially Imperial County, which has a tiny population and tons of empty land. Even though the the U.S.  Bureau of Land Management recently put a halt to all new solar projects, enough are already underway to substantially shift Southern California’s power generation to renewable sources (There’s a state mandate to get up to 20% by 2010). Unfortunately, there’s this pesky problem: Getting the electricity from hither to yon, known more specifically as Imperial County and San Diego County.

First, you’ve got these big ole mountains in the way. Well, not big so much as dramatic. The topography of the land east of San Diego made it impossible to build a railroad from San Diego eastward for a hundred years, and even now there’s no highway that runs straight east (locals might think of I-8, but in fact it bends far to the south, almost to the Mexican border). The same problems that made it hard to build a railroad or highway make it difficult to build a high voltage transmission line from the up-and-coming renewable plants (and the already existing Sempra-owned natural gas plants, in Arizona) to San Diego. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Bushes need the sun to grow? Why does Bush hate the sun?

June 27, 2008

Despite the enormous flow of money into new solar projects (the free market, trying to work), this has been a rotten 12 months for solar energy. Last year California Sen. Dianne Feinstein led the effort to increase fuel efficiency standards to 35 mpg by 2020, and in the process she dropped provisions that would have extended  tax breaks for solar and wind power development. Still, as the manager of millions of acres of desert land, companies flooded the BLM with applications to construct big solar power projects that could potentially provide enormous quantities of clean electricity for electricity-sucking SoCal, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and the rest of the region.

But today we learn that the Bush administration has placed a moratorium on all new large solar projects on Bureau of Land Management property, which, of course, means millions of acres of desert in the southwest which happen to, you know, get a lot of sunlight. They argue that they need to do an environmental assessment of the impact of large solar projects, which could take up to two years. I can’t be alone when I lean my head out the window and belt out a hearty, “AAARGH!”

Read the rest of this entry »

The Managed World: Tidal power in the UK

June 24, 2008

There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. “The Managed World” series in the Oyster’s Garter explores the hard choices that come from a human-dominated world.

Science Magazine reports that the UK is pondering the world’s biggest tidal power generator. The Severn estuary, which separates southwest England from south Wales, has the second-biggest tidal flux in the world – the water rises and falls 45 feet (15 meters) between high tide and low tide. That’s a huge amount of power, and Britain wants to builf a tidal dam, or “barrage”,  to capture it.

A barrage is a huge dam, similar to a hydroelectric dam, built across an estuary. The Severn barrage is designed to let water freely flow into the estuary through sluice gates, which would then close to impound water in the estuary. The water would then slowly be let out through turbines.  Locks can be built to let ships through, but there’s no channel for water critters except through the turbines.

The ecological impacts could be vast and devastating. Over 68,000 birds overwinter in the Severn estuary, feeding from mudflats at low tide and sheltering in marshes. The barrage would essentially eliminate low tide, flooding these habitats and making them unavailable to birds. Also, many species of fish and invertebrates migrate into estuaries to breed, and the barrage could either prevent adults from migrating in or trap the larvae inside. Because of these vast negative impacts, it’s not surprising that Britain’s largest environmental groups have rejected the Severn barrage plan.

However, there’s no way the UK will be able to meet the EU’s goal of 15% renewable energy by 2020 without some drastic changes. Currently, only 5% of the UK’s current power is renewable. The Severn barrage alone would provide another 5% of the UK’s total energy, in reliable, carbon-free, and low-maintenance form. The only comparable barrage, the La Rance Tidal Power Plant in France, has been in operation for 40 years without a breakdown. This type of cheap, reliable, carbon-free power is pretty tantalizing, even at a hefty construction cost of £15 billion and the abovementioned environmental costs.

So again, well-intentioned people have to choose – carbon-free energy, or giant critical habitat estuary? This is the that we must reduce emissions – we are already surpassing the IPCC worst case scenario. But estuaries are critical habitat for hundreds of thousands of species and provide important ecosystem services such as flood control and pollution filtration.

One potential angle that I did not see discussed in my uncomprehensive readup on the Severn barrage is the potential for estuaries to act as carbon sinks. Because estuaries (and mud flats) have little oxygen in their soil, plant matter gets buried and doesn’t decompose for a long, long time. How much carbon is buried in the Severn estuary, and would the barrage release it? This might be one way to decide whether the energy generated by the Severn barrage would be worth the ecological damage.

Democratic chorus sings “Here Comes the Sun”, but Republicans off-key

February 28, 2008

Yesterday, Congress decided that as long as the oil companies are making a gazillion dollars in profits these days, they don’t really need tax payer support. So, legislators said, let’s get rid of the oil subsidies, worth $1.8 billion over ten years, and re-fund tax breaks for solar and wind and other renewable technologies. The House passed the bill 236-182.

Unfortunately, the passage of this bill doesn’t exactly set my heart aflutter, since there’s almost no chance it will survive a filibuster in the Senate, and President Bush has already said he’d veto it. I do wish Democrats hadn’t given away the tax breaks when they negotiated the increase in mileage standards a while back. They should keep trying, though, because the current subsidies for renewables will die at the end of this year (which is a correction to my earlier post, when I thought they ended on 1/1/2008.), a month before a possibly Democratic president would be sworn in.  Republicans, of course, wax wroth on anything that burdens oil companies, but the Washington Post casually lets drop the fact that the money represents a 2% dent in oil company profits, or an extra penny a gallon for a consumers. Excuse me, but I believe I hear the sound of the world’s smallest violin playing Mozart’s renowned Oil Company Lament.

Well, I can’t close on that depressing note. In other news, the National Science Foundation gave $100,000 to the solar tech company Bloo Solar (which is a neat name) to develop its solar film. The product uses millions of tiny nano-bristles to massively increase the amount of solar energy the cell can convert to electricity. The company won’t release actual efficiency figures, but they claim to have broken the world record for light capture. They have records for that sort of thing? I must dig up my Guinness Book.


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