Friday, September 30, 2011

Clean energy education site adds video archive

We've updated our site yet again -- this time adding a video archive.

The site involves the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization's effort to bring clean energy information to students, teachers and job seekers and help prepare the Valley for a potential green invasion. Green as in economic development, that is.

On the site, we've included links to wind, solar, energy efficiency and even a video by our former co-worker at the Fresno Bee, Tracy Correa. She now works for PG&E, and the video is all about the new solar systems recently unveiled near the teeming metropolis of Five Points in rural Fresno County.

So give it a look. Pass it along. The site has all sorts of information. We've downloaded and linked to white papers, studies and reports. Our document library is growing every day.

We've also got a list of clean energy companies that operate in the area and a huge number of job search links.

Energy innovation: Dinosaurs are not the future, clean energy is

When I bought my little rotting-into-the-earth beach house on Camano Island, Wash., I discovered not only did it not have any insulation other than some magazines nailed inside the walls but that it had dreaded and inefficient electric heat.

Two things about Washington: It used to have cheap electricity and when it got cold, those in timber country put another log on the fire. I rebuilt the circa 1903 728-square-foot house when I should have burned it down. But it did show me that that new technology in insulation, weatherizing and building can lower heating bills dramatically.

Actually, I still used wood heat. But it was far less, maybe just a cord and a half a year. In Fairbanks, we used a dozen or more for an 18-by-32-foot cabin.

The nation's builders are learning the same lesson, jumping on the innovative Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, ratings system promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council. Others also are catching on, embracing energy efficiency and learning that clean energy can be competitive and create jobs -- not to mention its ability to promote national security.

Super-insulated solutions 

As a reporter, I stumbled on a bunch of alternative builders who fabricated super-insulated houses that needed almost no heat or cooling. Yet, building officials thought these were so obscure that the home owners were put through multiple delays and reviews.

Something out of the ordinary even in the 1990s proved vexing for those in charge. If it didn't have 2-by-6 dimensional lumber in the walls and factory-made trusses, a house was suspect.

Now, that's changed in many regions as reflected by the advances being made in New York and other progressive cities. Even going off the grid isn't considered counter-culture anymore. It's being done by industrial parks, colleges and residences with solar and fuel cell systems.

Smarter and greener

One of my favorite bloggers, Brian Keane, president of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit SmartPower, wrote a piece inspired by a recent issue of Scientific American, which ran a story about "Better, greener, smarter cities." He praises the story and the anecdotes about various inner-city efficiencies while also underlining the difficulties of expanding those practices beyond high-density living areas.

"It will take some work, but if we are to fulfill the expectation of a better, greener, smarter city, we all need to get on board," Keane writes.

The nation has made progress, but the challenge is so steep as to boggle the mind. Humanity is pushing hard to fill earth's skies with the legacy of burned fossil fuels at a rate that alarms scientists.

Hothouse earth

"If we continue down this road, there really is no uncertainty. We're headed for the Eocene. And we know what that's like," says Matt Huber, a climate modeler at Purdue University who was interviewed by National Geographic for a piece by Robert Kunzig entitled "Hothouse Earth."

Kunzig's story chronicles what researchers know about the earth 56 million years ago when a massive spike in carbon dioxide pushed global temperatures higher, resulting in massive geologic change, extinction and adaption. Climate change then turned the Arctic and Antarctic into tropical jungles.

Kunzig reports that Huber uses a climate model, developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, "to forecast what might happen if humans choose to burn off all the fossil fuel deposits." Huber's results are inconclusive and "still infernal," but his "reasonable best guess at a bad scenario" doesn't sound pleasant. Much of China, India, southern Europe and the United States, would experience summer average temperatures "well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, night and day, year after year."

We remain far from the Eocene's level of atmospheric carbon, but we're pushing to free it with current energy trends.

Moving the planet

The folks at and one of its founders, author Bill McKibben, bring this subject up every chance they get. The gist of their argument is even if the world stopped polluting yesterday, the planet would still be burdened with way more climate-changing carbon dioxide that would take nature decades or more to scrub.

The organization's Moving Planet events the last week in September brought many thousands out in support for a reasonable future with a stable climate, clean air and clean energy. The activists pictured in videos and photos are relatively low profile. They're young and riding bikes and running around.

As they displace aging Baby Boomers, especially now that so many of us have been laid off from professions -- like newspapering -- that fell behind the technological curve, these young people will evolve into the decision makers, entrepreneurs and community-minded types who will shift society into a more forward-thinking mode.

At least I hope so. I can totally see the economic benefits to McKibben's No. 1 foe, a trans-Canada/Midwest U.S. pipeline from the oil/tar sands to port in the Gulf of Mexico. I was raised in Fairbanks during construction of the Pipeline. The amount of money and illegal drugs dumped into that state's previously frozen economy was amazing. I can also see the economic prospects of a gas line through Canada. Heck, ask anybody from my era in the state from Anchorage and the Interior and we'd say, "Hell yes."

I'd vote to build both pipelines, then render them immediately obsolete with cheap renewables. That could amount to a form of fraud, but it would be satisfying.

Pebble problems

And I see the sense, economically, in developing the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska. Gold, molybdenum and copper are a valuable commodity and it would put many of the region's residents to work. This proposal, however, makes me sick imagining the potential catastrophe to the Bristol Bay fishing industry and Bering Sea should the mine's tailings ponds burst and contaminate some of the world's richest waterways.

There's a limit to what we can do in the name of the economics. We've already stuck our nose into the Middle East, spending billions for the opportunity to access the region's crude oil.

At some point, the long view must be acknowledged. Our rate of deforestation and general ecological pillage in the name of progress has to be redirected. The consequences have become increasingly evident. Even island nations are starting to sweat their existence.

The answer is not a dinosaur

The first episode of Fox's new series "Terra Nova" chronicles a family's desire to leave the toxic world of 2149 for one overrun with dinosaurs. Present-day life on the planet is dying. Most animals are extinct and the air is poison. The only hope is the past. (I lost interest in the show after the hero, Jim Shannon, played by Jason O'Mara actually gets to the new-old world.)

While that sounds a little like Barry Goldwater's philosophy, I'd prefer one in which oil is used simply to produce polymers and products that don't brown the skies or pollute groundwater. One where the sun is the primary driver of power and the only thing we burn is hydrogen.

I'd also like to see interstellar space travel, but, hey, I'm a dreamer.

Photo: Promotional look at the cast of Fox's "Terra Nova."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Solar's Emerging Power In Central California

Solar power continues to expand in the central San Joaquin Valley, where projects in Fresno and Tulare counties are coming online. Today, PG&E symbolically flips the switch on three power stations near Five Points that will deliver enough solar energy to run 15,000 houses. Here is more from The Fresno Bee.

And here is a report on an interesting project a county away, where Dinuba officials will affix more than 4,700 solar panels to a landfill, and then use the 1 megawatt of power to operate the city's wastewater treatment plant. Typically, those types of facilities are among a city's biggest energy hogs.

Dinuba isn't the first city to use solar energy to decrease power bills at its water treatment plant, and likely won't be the last, as we reported in this blog that outlined similar projects in the Valley - and other possible uses for solar.

Solar is making its way onto rooftops, into agriculture operations and even onto roads. How much it expands remains to be seen, but the potential is sunny, considering California's 33 percent renewables mandate, the falling cost of residential systems and improving technology.

Just yesterday, folks at at UC Merced (oh, how we love UC Merced and its top-notch research programs!) announced a new kind of solar system that doesn't have to track the sun. Read more here in the Merced Sun-Star.

Maybe, Gov. Jerry Brown was right when he predicted a solar revolution in California.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Webinar Planned To Help Cities Achieve Benchmarking Mandates

Benchmarking, which helps achieve substantial energy savings by establishing objective energy-performance measurements, is a way for state and local governments to slash their energy bills, which collectively can reach $10 billion per year.

The performance measurements help governments set goals, boost energy efficiency and monitor ongoing progress. Now, local governments can learn more about benchmarking by participating in an Oct. 27 webinar sponsored by the Local Government Commission through Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative. It is the 8th of 15 webinars focused on helping local jurisdictions increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases.

The webinar will feature a discussion of AB 1103, which requires energy-consumption benchmarking of all non-residential buildings in California beginning in 2012, and the disclosure of that information to prospective buyers. So, cities and local governments need to learn how to benchmark right away.

Local case studies of benchmarking in the San Francisco Bay area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California also will be highlighted. The webinar begins at 2 p.m and will adjourn at 3:30 p.m.

Participants can register or learn more here at the Local Government Commission web site.

The U.S. Military: The Big Green Machine Gets Even Greener

The military has a history of innovation that eventually goes mainstream. The most notable example, of course, is the Internet. Developed for the military, it revolutionized society. Department of Defense support also helped forge commercial development of global positioning systems and semiconductors.

Green energy and microgrids could be next on the list of advancements to expand beyond military bases and the battlefield. In a new report and a video, PEW Charitable Trusts says the emergence of clean energy and increasingly competitive alternative energy sources "presents DoD (Department of Defense) with opportunities for saving lives and money in the years ahead."

There are challenges, such as an austerity movement (although it could be argued that a strong clean-energy program actually saves money) and fallout from the Solyndra bankruptcy, which sidetracked an ambitious plan to attach solar to put solar panels on military housing. Whether the program survives remains to be seen.

Still, the military is moving ahead on other fronts. And it is not alone. Big Business, led by Walmart, Google and others, is pushing on. Walmart is particularly interesting; the world's largest retailer wouldn't be pursuing such an ambitious program if it wasn't profitable. If you want to know more about Walmart's efforts, read this new book.

In fact, there is so much going on that the phrase "industrial revolution" keeps coming up in regard to green energy. Economist Jeremy Rifkin is the latest, calling it "the third Industrial Revolution."

The military's efforts certainly are a catalyst. Using alternative fuel to power jets and other vehicles can sharply reduce dependence upon oil. The Department of Defense is the largest single consumer of energy in the United States, gobbling more than 375,000 barrels of oil per day in 2009 - more than all but 35 nations.

Liquid petroleum accounts for about 75 percent of the military's annual energy consumption, and more than $11 billion of its annual power bill. So, electric vehicles and biofuel such as algae and switchgrass can save millions of dollars. Did you know base leaders at Fort Bliss, Texas, drive tiny electric cars made of recycled plastic? Leave the Hummer home, baby!

Recently, a company of Marines operated their equipment solely on solar and battery power for 192 hours, saving eight gallons of fuel per day. And it is quieter, making it safer to operate on the battlefield.

From the report: "The Navy has also made progress on hybrid systems for ships. The USS Makin Island was commissioned in 2009 with a hybrid electric propulsion system that will save more than $250 million in fuel costs over the life of the ship. Looking forward, a hybrid electric drive system will be tested and installed as a proof of concept on the USS Truxtun. The Navy estimates successful testing will result in fuel savings of up to 8,500 barrels per year."

Just as alternative fuel enhances the security of energy supplies, self-contained microgrids and other smart-energy technology can protect the military's 500,000 buildings (totaling 2.2 billion square feet) at 500 major installations from commercial power outages.

Pew cites market analysts who project the military will account for almost 15 percent of the microgrid market in 2013, and that military implementation of microgrids will grow by 375 percent to $1.6 billion annually in 2020.

The Pew report is fascinating, and there is much more than recapped here. After reading it, I'm left with this thought: The influence of the military combined with growing interest in energy efficiency and sustainability by Big Business and others equals the start of a powerful movement that likely will pick up speed as awareness increases.

Photo of soldiers deploying a solar banket by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul D. Williams, US Navy)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Solarthon comes to Fresno on Oct. 8

The Central Valley Solarthon 2011 will be held from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Oct. 8 in Fresno, Calif.

Officials of the nonprofit invite the public to join "a huge solar block party and fundraiser where GRID Alternatives Central Valley will lead individual, team and corporate work crews to install solar energy systems for several low-income families in one neighborhood, all in one day."

GRID Alternatives says it's able to fulfill it's mission with the help of participants, sponsorships and donations.

The site is the Little Longcheng housing development at Jensen and Willow avenues in Southeast Fresno. The 41-unit development broke ground in 2005, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development working with Self Help Enterprises and the City of Fresno.

GRID Alternatives provides cheap energy to low-income residents. It's catch phrase is: "Together we'll re-energize communities one rooftop at a time."

GRID Alternatives will be installing 10 solar electric systems in one day on affordable homes in a single neighborhood in partnership with hundreds of community volunteers, Yingli Solar, PG&E, Wells Fargo, Schneider Electric, Walmart, Proteus Inc., Modesto Junior College, the Central Valley Business Incubator and local job trainees.

Each system will provide more than 75 percent of a family's electricity needs for the next 30 years, protecting them from rising energy prices while also preventing greenhouse gas emissions.

GRID did a similar event in San Diego on Sept. 24. It plans others in Templeton on the Central California Coast on Oct. 22 and in Lynwood in the Los Angeles area Nov. 5.

Click here for more information or contact Tom Esqueda at (559) 490-2395 or

Solar installer expands to San Joaquin Valley

An Orange, Calif.-based solar company has expanded its operations into Fresno, Tulare, Merced and Stanislaus counties, officials say.

The move means Verengo Solar Plus, which bills itself as the largest residential solar installation company in Southern California, will be hiring installers and sales people, officials say in a statement. It joins a couple dozen or so other solar installers operating in the region. For a listing of those companies, go to

The company says it plans to provide "tens of thousands of San Joaquin Valley residents with financing, design, and solar installation services for their homes."

Fresno-based sales manager Mike Terry puts it this way: "We don't have to tell Valley residents how high their energy bills are running."

Terry says sky-rocketing utility costs drive huge interest for solar. "We are looking forward to hiring quality employees as we build on our recent success in other areas of the state," he says.

With a national tax credit program, Verengo can offer consumers financial options, including zero-down leases, Terry says.

For more information, go to

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Air alert: Clean air, clean air is (not) everywhere

Environment California released a ranking of the nation's smoggiest cities, and Fresno made No. 5.

Not No. 1. And that's important because as they say in sports, "If you ain't No. 1 you ain't nothin'." Or something like that. So I can handle it. Then again, I'm not really into sports. I write this thinking about a song in "Hair," not that there's anything wrong with that.

This week Fresno received an official Air Alert warning from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The air? Unhealthy.

When I got off the plane from Seattle (by way of creepy Gate 44 at LAX, but that's a different story), the air tasted hot and a little like dirt. I felt vindicated when I read Fresno Bee reporter Mark Grossi's story soon after. I had helped drive my son to college at Seattle University on Capital Hill.

"Heat and dirty air Tuesday triggered the first violations of an expensive ozone standard this summer in the Valley – and the problems could continue," Grossi wrote.

Smog around here is as common as heat. We live with it. We revel in days when we can catch a clear glimpse of the magnificent Sierra. And we suffer health-related maladies because of it.

This particular rant is a result of my suffering a sore throat, constant sneezing and eyes that feel like sandpaper. And no, this is not the result of me trying to replicate the fun the guys had on the "Hangover II."

That would be easy to fix. Just stay away from Zach Galifianakis, wolf pack of one.

Solving this problem will take a heck of a lot more work. And I'm not going to say stop driving the car. That's hardly practical. I love driving my car. In fact, I was just listening to the song "Brand New Car" from the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge album and thinking how awesome it was.

But I digress. I just finished a post on all the amazing things happening in the clean energy realm. I even read through GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman's jobs plan to sleuth out his ideas on clean energy. I like the guy. He's into pegging energy to national security and not a big fan of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But that's OK. He says he wants federal taxes to be "flatter, fairer, simpler and more conducive to growth." Seriously, wouldn't that be nice?

Personally, I like the Clean Air Act. President Nixon was a visionary in that respect. I want clean air. I want a lot of things.

And we can have it all. At least that's what EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"In contrast to doomsday predictions, history has shown, again and again, that we can clean up pollution, create jobs, and grow our economy all at the same time," she says.

Sounds good to me. Now where's that inhaler?

Photo: Courtesy Sarah Leen, National Geographic

The Coming Solar Energy Revolution in California and the San Joaquin Valley

It's not often that tiny Fowler hosts the governor, but that's what happened today when Jerry Brown used the Fresno County community of 5,500 people and a high school jazz band as the backdrop for signing three renewable-energy bills into law.

The legislation allows Fowler Unified School District to save $14 million in energy costs over 25 years; authorizes the California Public Utilities Commission to collect funds for renewable-energy rebates (typically, about $83 million each year); and requires the state Department of Fish and Game to accelerate its permitting process for clean-energy projects.

The Fowler school district will affix solar panels on Marshall Elementary, which will enable the district to save almost $500,000 the first year. But it won't be the only school in the state to get solar energy. The bill, SB 585, authored by Sen. Christine Kehoe D-San Diego, authorizes $200 million for the statewide California Solar Initiative, according to Brown's office.

Brown's office noted the bills were signed on the same day the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued its third dirty air alert of the week.

"California’s children deserve clean air and a bright future,” said Brown. “They deserve good jobs and a strong economy. The bills I signed today are part of a solar-energy revolution that is sweeping our state. These bills will help create jobs, lower electric bills and clean up the air we breathe.” Learn more here and in this Fresno Bee story.

The projects will help meet the state's objective of 20,000 megawatts from renewable sources by 2020. The California Solar Initiative, funded through utility companies, gives rebates for solar installations on commercial, industrial, nonprofit and government and other non-residential buildings, including schools.

The Department of Fish and Game bill, introduced by Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, could help speed up applications in the Valley and high desert region of Kern County, where, according to Fish and Game officials, thousands of acres of proposed clean-energy projects are proposed.

The Valley, with high power bills, lots of land and sun, along with a midstate location and access to transmission lines and bright minds at UC Merced, Fresno State University and Cal Poly, could be a leader in solar and other types of clean energy.

Brown's choice of words, describing a solar-energy "revolution" in California, was notable. His highly public event was on the same day that President Obama announced the winners of a $37 million "jobs and innovation" challenge that include a proposed collaboration between high-tech capital and technology in San Diego with the natural resources of Imperial County to create a "mega-region" of renewable energy.

The opportunity in California is staggering.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Somewhat clandestine converts climb aboard clean energy bus

Bill Clinton's getting downright green.

And he's not the only one. A whole slew of corporate magnates, political leaders and members of the establishment are buying into the economic benefits of energy savings and renewables.

In an interview in which Clinton discussed clean energy, jobs and how the two could resurrect the stagnant economy, he suggests increasing energy efficiency retrofits of government buildings and universities and decentralize energy generation by adding renewable sources.

"Big centralized power stations would be used for things like manufacturing," he says.

Making it work

Clinton advises approaching clean energy from a capitalist perspective with the questions: "How can we make a dollar out of this?" and "How can we put people to work?" He spoke with Aaron Task on Yahoo's Daily Ticker.

But the former president appears to be pointing out the obvious. The green clean energy movement looks as if it will rocket ahead without any assistance from the White House or Congress. Not that a nod from a jobs package would hurt.

In an interview with Smart Grid News that appeared on, economists Ahmad Faruqui and Doug Mitarotonda of The Brattle Group predict U.S. electricity demand will decline between 5 percent and 15 percent over the next decade. This despite an increase in personal electronics use. The two economists cite a "new wave of energy efficiency" where building managers and electricity consumers monitor energy use and adjust accordingly via new technology.

Solar bounds past setbacks

And despite the setback of Solyndra's bankruptcy and federal investigation, solar doesn't look to be slowing down. According to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association's latest quarterly U.S. Solar Market Insight report, the domestic photovoltaics market grew 69 percent in second quarter 2011 from the same period a year earlier.

"The U.S. remains poised to install 1,750 megawatts of PV in 2011, double last year's total and enough to power 350,000 homes," writes

In a followup story,'s Eric Wesoff reports that the United States has surpassed the 1 gigawatt, or 1 billion watt, mark for installed solar and looks to pass the 2 gigawatt threshold next year.

Industry posts growth

Not too shabby. And prospects look good for that trend to continue. The Solar Foundation's latest study finds 100,237 jobs in the industry as of August 2011 and growth of 6.8 percent in August 2011 from the same period a year earlier.

Brian Keane, president of nonprofit SmartPower, says policymakers would be wise to study those numbers carefully. He says Solyndra's demise is outweighed by "countless industry success stories" and cites SolarCity's contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to install 160,000 rooftop solar installations on military housing complexes at 124 military bases across 34 states.

"The company hopes to fill many of those jobs with veterans and military family members," Keane says in a piece on Huffington Post.

Corporate buy-in

The corporate end is also making renewable waves. Behemoth Walmart, the No. 1 U.S. employer, has announced a plan to install solar panels on about 60 more stores in California, which means more than three quarters of its outlets in the state will be so equipped.

Kim Saylors-Laster, Walmart vice president of energy, says in a statement: "California presents a great opportunity for Walmart to make significant progress toward our sustainability goals."

Just can't beat that.

The Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps, a crew of 96 graduate students, worked this year with 78 companies, cities and universities to find energy efficiency measures. The corps found installed savings of 600 million kilowatt hours annually and total lifetime energy savings of $650 million.

And CalPERS and CalSTERS plan to invest about $1 billion in energy efficiency projects. "Kind of a big deal," says

Green crossing party lines

And on the political spectrum, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is shooting to the head of the green column with his policies and practices as he works to make one of the nation's most important cities relevant in an age of climate unrest. Shawn Lesser of the International Business Times says Bloomberg "has been instrumental in motivating a number of other large cities to make changes."

The New York mayor's top 10 list of clean energy initiatives has received a lot of press and likely will be scrutinized by other cities across the globe. Bloomberg severed his ties with the GOP in 2007 to become an independent.

And I'm not sure on this account, but I believe the wise investment in energy efficiency and energy management in buildings and manufacturing will attract other high-ranking members of the Republican Party into the ranks of green believers. And as solar and wind energy costs continue to fall, more likely will adopt a friendlier public posture to renewables.

Sean Patrick Hazlett of says other clean energy friendly folks in the GOP include presidential candidates Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and George Schultz at the Hoover Institution.

Lighting up the grid

Expect dramatic change in how electricity is produced, marketed and used in the next decade. Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says in a recent report that "the past decade has seen tremendous growth in competitive electricity procurement by commercial, industrial and institutional purchasers." It also says electricity is a $360 billion per year market in this country.

Everybody's looking for the best deal. Combine that with mandates like California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which calls for a third of energy generation to come renewable sources by 2020, and opportunities for purveyors of green energy will benefit. Investments made now could pay off in spades down the road.

They could tank too. Everything depends on the art of the deal, and that's why the entry of shrewd business people is a good thing for clean energy.

Clean energy worth billions

The evidence, however, mounts that this clean energy stuff may be worthwhile. Justin Gillis of the New York Times reports that a business consortium that includes Lockheed Martin and Barclays bank plans to invest about $650 million to install energy efficiency retrofits to buildings in Sacramento and Miami.

Gillis writes that many people believe the program could be worth billions. He says the consortium was formed by the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit environmental group set up by British corporate heavyweight Richard Branson of The Virgin Group "to tackle the world’s climate and energy problems in cost-saving ways."

I plan to monitor this industry closely and collect additional anecdotes that illustrate trends. I hope to see continued expansion, especially in employment. I tell colleagues to think positive thoughts.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Building A Future Home For Solar In The Valley

State figures show that Fresno-area homeowners are embracing solar energy. So, it shouldn't come as a great surprise to learn that one of the Valley's largest locally owned builders is making solar-energy systems a standard feature on all new houses.

McCaffrey Homes is adding the feature as part of a new whole-house green program called Earth Sense. A typical homeowner will shave 40 percent to 60 percent off energy bills with the 3 kilowatt system, said Dennis Cox, regional director of SolarCity, the installer that is teaming up with McCaffrey.

The system include a personalized Internet monitoring device that displays energy savings, production and environmental benefits, Cox said. McCaffrey principal Karen McCaffrey called the program "impactful today and long into the future" because it helps save homeowners money and protects the environment.

The program is another example of the expanding green movement in California - a movement that Gov. Jerry Brown said at a recent bill-signing event in Fowler is turning into a "revolution."

I don't know if I'll be breaking out my beret any time soon, but there is no denying a growing awareness in California, which set a landmark 33% renewable-energy mandate and where the $20 billion agriculture industry in the San Joaquin Valley is turning to solar to operate more dairy farms, packinghouses and other operations.

Homeowners in the the San Joaquin Valley, where triple-digit temperatures are common during the summer and power bills have been known to contain commas, are particularly interested in solar. Bakersfield, Fresno and Clovis are 4th, 5th and 7th respectively in the number of residential solar applications in California, just behind much larger cities of San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco, according to state statistics.

The solar-energy industry suffered a blow with the Solyandra bankruptcy, but it still appears to be moving forward in California. Walmart just announced that it will install solar on 60 more buildings- amounting to 75% of all company stores in the state. The world's largest retailer has slashed energy costs by more than $1 million through solar installations, and Google has announced it will offer financing for solar panels.

Dozens of solar projects are proposed for the San Joaquin Valley and desert regions of the state. There is even a proposal to make San Diego and Imperial counties a "mega region" for renewable energy.

Many home builders offer solar as an option, but McCaffrey is believed to be among the first in the Fresno area to make it standard. The first systems will go on houses in the Crownstone development at Barstow and DeWolf avenues in Clovis and Braden Court at Ashlan and Locan avenues, also in Clovis.

Rooftop solar and decentralized energy is considered by some to be among the most cost-effective and practical ways to boost renewable power, so any efforts in that way are good. Learn more in this report.

McCaffrey is essentially prepaying a solar lease, so the panels can be transferred to a new house if the property is sold, or the lease can be transferred to the new owner. The company also says the price of its new homes aren't increasing to accommodate the solar.

The homebuilding market is in the dumps, so builders are looking for ways to stand out. Offering solar as a standard feature without hiking the home price is a way to do that. It also is a small step in the solarization of the Valley.

College Students Getting Energized Over Green Campuses

We here at the nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization in California see an increasing awareness in all things green. The military, professional sports and Big Business are already on board, and schools - and by extension, their students - are right behind.

I spent much of last week in Eugene, OR, where my daughter is a sophomore environmental studies major at University of Oregon. I noticed this story about the campus committing to limiting energy consumption, and then got to wondering:

How important in a student's college selection process is the university's commitment to sustainability?

As it turns out, it is getting more important. Nearly 70 percent of college applicants this year said it would factor into their decision. That is up from 64 percent in 2008, according to USA Today.

Cost and academic reputation still top the list, but an environmental awareness is important, according to a Maine college student interviewed by USA Today. My own daughter echoed that sentiment, saying "if all other things were equal" the university with the strongest environmental commitment would win out.

The Princeton Review, which ranks universities, recognized the growing environmental awareness, and publishes a green guide. Here is a link to this year's list of 311 schools. (University of Oregon is on the list) and to an accompanying press release.

To us, going green also includes energy efficiency. And schools across the country (check out what is happening in California here) are taking steps similar to University of Oregon to reduce their carbon footprints, and to reduce their power bills. The federal government is strongly behind that effort, as evidenced by a $30 million commitment to 24 campuses, including San Francisco and San Diego state universities. The money will be used to train engineering students to slash energy consumption in manufacturing processes.

Young people helped end the war in Vietnam and are making a difference in the Middle East. Collectively, they are a force to be reckoned with. It remains to be seen how much noise they make about clean energy, but clearly it is becoming a higher priority.

Photo by

Forum To Discuss Climate Policy In Rural Communities

Representatives of local and state government interested in energy and climate policies in rural portions of California are encouraged to attend a forum being being held Sept. 28 in Sacramento.

The Rural Energy and Climate Policy Forum is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St. Click here for more information and registration.

The forum will provide local government officials and others an overview from top-level state staff on where state agencies and Gov. Jerry Brown's administration stand with regard to developing climate policy, programs, regulations and incentives.

The event will focus on AB 32 and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and feature representatives of Gov. Brown, the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission.

Among the topics: cap and trade, the role of sustainable communities in implementing AB 32, a scoping plan analysis for rural communities, the incorporation of CEQA into general plans and tips and tools for incorporating the Energy Aware Planning Guide.

The Sierra Nevada Energy Watch is hosting the event, and is encouraging representatives from the San Joaquin Valley to attend.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Something's wrong when smog is considered normal

On the Today Show this morning, the view from atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza showed a hazy Manhattan skyline that even obscured the new tower going up at Ground Zero.

Yet, the smog didn't get a comment from Matt Lauer, who was describing the broadcast scene. We're too used to it.

Grimy air is as common as two cars per household, as common as 15 HDPE bags per visit to the grocery store and as common as a reference to the river of garbage on a Cartoon Network show.

Something's wrong here.

Politics as usual

Complacency has become part of the American electorate. Decent jobs are disappearing faster than water from a bucket with a hole. President Obama's got a plan. Congress says it's open to compromise, but does anybody think anything will really be accomplished in the next two years?

Michele Bachmann does appear to have learned to phrase her responses to questions from "mainstream" media in a way that makes her sound like she's at least thinking about moving forward on the economy. And John Boehner and Rick Perry have issued statements, while not very specific, do at least sound good. (I love Perry's catch phrase "Together we can get America working again." Heck yes!)

Issuing the challenge

All in all, I prefer the statement by Craig Lewis, executive director of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Clean Coalition, who had this to say about clean energy in a recent email: "Our success will bring unparalleled economic, environmental, and security benefits that are achievable through a sustained and concerted effort to implement intelligent energy policies."

He's talking about simple stuff, really. But it's important, especially the jobs component, and transcends traditional political divides. I believe Lewis issued a simple challenge. Something like, "Come on people. Let's make it work."

I find it amazing anybody (seriously) would oppose such a concept. After all, we don't have any alternatives. That skyline is our skyline. Those who can afford a New York City penthouse apartment can see murky air better than most.

Some oppose green

Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, says we appear to be on cusp of making it work but he believes the green energy/clean energy movement is under assault.

"Our nation is poised to enter an era where we can take it for granted that protecting public health and providing stable and sustainable jobs are one and the same. The writing's on the wall," he writes on Huffington Post.

But Brune says that's exactly why Big Oil sees a threat to its economic domination and has turned attention and resources to trying to stymie the clean economy.

I don't doubt it. There are significant deposits of "alternative" fossil fuels made more economically viable by sustained high crude oil prices. And they're domestic, or at least on this continent. Unfortunately, these deposits are more difficult to extract and could make the planet look like detritus left by Galactus. (He devours worlds and is an arch foe of the Fantastic Four. This is one of those insider Marvel Comics references. I like him because he created the Silver Surfer.)

Room for everybody

Clean energy offers a big band wagon. Oil (aka energy) companies certainly could diversify. There is likely a significant percentage of investors who prefer not to foul their nests. Why else build wealth if not for those who inherit, right? And progeny need a place to live.

The Brookings Institution's recent report "Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment" says that the clean economy employs 2.7 million workers across a vast group of industries and that various cleantech sectors have shown explosive growth.

We need more such growth.

The question

It all comes down to this: Can clean energy compete? I believe the answer is yes, even without calculating in all the ruination of pollution and degradation to the environment.

However, our best and brightest must take on the challenge. And win.

We don't have much time.

Photo: Lower Manhattan skyline courtesy

Monday, September 12, 2011

FX's Wilfred may hold the key to clean energy challenge

Every episode of the half-hour emo-comedy "Wilfred" starts with a quote.

Theme music plays as a word is selected from the phrase illustrated on-screen in white-on-black lettering. All other words disappear, and veteran viewers know what follows. Series hero and pot-smoking former attorney Ryan (Elijah Wood from "The Lord of the Rings") will struggle with the subject for the next 23 minutes.

Episode 10 offers this: "Isolation is a self-defeating dream."

Key word: "Isolation."

Ryan and his neighbor's dog, the Australian accented Wilfred (Jason Gann in a dog suit), spend the show dealing with the fallout of our anti-hero ignoring Wilfred's advice and alienating the entire neighborhood.
Hardly the stuff dreams are made of, but I love this show, which airs on FX. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, my favorite reviewer, calls it the trippiest of summer comedies. He's right. Nobody sees Wilfred as a beer swilling, belching, couch potato human in a dog suit except Ryan (and another odd guy in a previous episode).

But what captured my interest in terms of this post has to do with the quotes in the intro. Simple white on black type, odd music box theme song. Kind of Fractured Fairy Tales for the 22nd century. (Except the Bullwinkle character is live action.)
I'd like to apply that same formula (as I start my own personal sit-com this week) to clean energy.

Cue music. Quote appears: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." From the always relevant "Princess Bride." The theme is "challenge." (I realize it doesn't meet "Wilfred" quote standards, but I like Inigo.)

In that vein, the unassuming hero (me) of this mundane, unfilmed reality show that is my life issues this challenge to the nation's renewable energy companies:

  • Reach parity with fossil fuels and win converts, clean air and another season on the same network. Maybe this one without commercial breaks.
My wish list would include the following:
  • Solar that pencils so perfectly that even Bank of America would lend a low-interest loan to defray installation expenses.
  • Cheap distributed solar installations producing excess energy that utilities clamor to purchase.
  • Simple methods for turning excess solar energy into hydrogen, using no fossil fuels.
  • Renewable energy that costs less than coal.
  • Algae fuel for $30 per barrel, produced in waste water treatment ponds across the country.
  • Wave energy that works.
  • Offshore wind power that can harness hurricane power.
  • Energy storage systems using a multitude of systems from water storage to batteries and whatever else is devised.
I'm sure others have better ideas. But that's my thought. For next week's imaginary episode I'll try to figure out a way to motivate myself to pull the 1600 dual port engine in my bug and string in a new wiring harness. All in 23 minutes. Ha! Prepare to die evil ancient wires!

Clean energy is serious, however. This is not optional challenge. Our air is nasty and it's not getting better no matter what any wishful thinker says. We only have this planet, and it's getting smaller. Air and water are limited resources. We can still find markets for all our fossil fuels, but let's stop wasting them for energy that appears cheap but in reality can cost far more.

Even Wilfred would agree. After he has another beer.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Love American Style: Clean energy could solve the jobs crisis

"Love, American Style" presented life in simple terms.

Boy meets girl, faces dilemma then figures out a resolution. All in 5 to 10 minutes, with laugh track and hip music.

Apply the philosophy to the U.S. economy and two of the most powerful people in the Republic, and it would go something like this:

Speaker of the House John Boehner: "These excessive regulations are killing us. Corporations can't compete, they're afraid to expand domestically and my mother in law is coming to town."

President Obama: "John ... May I call you John?"

Boehner: "Why not? I'll call you Barry."

Obama: "John, this jobs problem has got to be addressed. Both sides of the aisle are suffering. We can’t solve all our nation’s woes. But we can help."

Boehner: "Gotcha Barry. I'll let you in on a little secret."

The pair walk to background, music cues up. They return, smiling knowingly.

Obama: "You got it John. I'll get Michelle to take your mother in law on a tour of the Pentagon."

Boehner (grinning hugely and looking a little sentimental): "Let's put America to work. Barry, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

Reality is a lot more complex

Ah, if only it were so easy. But it's not. The real unemployment rate, including underemployed and those who have stopped looking, appears to be closer to 16 percent, according to John Cassidy of the New Yorker. And there's little hope on the horizon unless something as far-fetched as I have presented actually takes place between the two political factions that run our beautiful country.

Jobs are a big political hot potato right now. We need more. Government policy can help the process, but the private sector creates opportunity.

A straight-talking Chicagoan like Slats Grobnik might say something like, "Try clean energy. We can't keep polluting everything or our kids will suffer. Figure it out. Jobs will follow."

Always bet on green

Clean energy shows huge promise. Study after study has shown it has potential to put hundreds of thousands to work in a variety of tech, research, white collar and blue collar jobs.

Pollution and climate change will begin to assert tremendous pressure on industry, lawmakers and the everyday Joe Sixpack. Nobody wants to foul this great planet. Most -- excluding megalomaniacs and you know who you are -- just want a decent job for a decent rate of pay and a chance to raise healthy, happy families. (Again, I'm not talking about people who want to take over the world, like Pinky and the Brain.)

Give it a few years and I believe even fossil fuel "energy" companies will see the need to accelerate development of cost-competitive clean energy and establish market share. It's there.

My co-worker, veteran reporter Sandy Nax, offered this proposal in his post "Energy Efficiency Could Be the Next Big Thing."A large-scale campaign to cut energy costs would create jobs and save businesses and homeowners billions, or even trillions of dollars -- which could then be reinvested or otherwise directed into the economy," Nax writes.

Back in the Beltway

Obama's proposed American Jobs Act focuses heavily on launching massive infrastructure improvements, hiring teachers and giving tax credits to companies that hire the unemployed. The idea, Obama says, is "to put more people back to work and more money in the pockets of those who are working."

Boehner's response? Tepid.

But he does agree with Obama on one thing. Boehner says in response to Obama's address to a joint session of Congress, "American families and small businesses are hurting, and they are looking for the White House and Congress to seek common ground and work together to help get our economy back on track."

Obama says, "We can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy."

Plans, plans everywhere

Republicans have a blueprint for economic growth and job creation – Plan for America’s Job Creators. Its focus: removing government barriers to private-sector job growth.

Boehner says, "The proposals the president outlined ... merit consideration. We hope he gives serious consideration to our ideas as well."

Obama sounds conciliatory, although in his address he repeatedly called for Congress to pass his plan. He did say that every proposal laid out has been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past.


Maybe members of both parties ought to visit Sesame Street. A heart-to-heart with Big Bird on why pollution is bad might inspire a green jobs focus.

I'm not talking about big feed-in tariffs to make renewable energy competitive. Rather, my thought is that the government free up business to pursue the greatest efficiencies of all and superior energy production from solar, wind, hydro and the rest. Programs like those by the U.S. Department of Energy to provide grants for promising technology ought to be continued, perhaps expanded.

Katie Fehrenbacher of speculates if the meltdown of Solyndra, which received a government-backed loan of $527 million and is under FBI investigation, could sour the administration on pursuing a clean energy agenda.

"But such a high-profile black eye could make the administration shy away from touting the industry publicly, at least for a while," she writes.

Let's stay off 'The Road'

I hope not. Clean energy is worthy of attention. The alternative is something out of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," dark skies, no food and predatory humans.

I prefer this passage from Obama's address: "No single individual built America on their own. We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Apple pie, flannel and bald eagles all the way. Just don't call me Shirley.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Clean energy jobs: Could Slats Grobnik have figured it out?

When legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko wanted to dig deep into a meaty subject, he'd ask Slats Grobnik's opinion.

This usually took place over beers down at the bar.

Slats, fictitious but possibly based on a composite of Royko pals, would give an unvarnished everyman opinion. This week he'd likely say, "Congress? As if they've got a snowball's chance of fixing the economy.

Grobnik's take on the economy

"We need jobs. Mel's wife's car broke down. He's not getting enough business at the diner to pay the mechanic. The mechanic's not ordering parts from Irish Lou. Lou's thinking about closing shop.

"Look at me. I'm still on my first beer, and it's about time to go home. What kind of austerity plan is that?"

Grobnik didn't sugarcoat. He made it real. He gave Royko the essence of an issue.

Straight-up perspective

I don't have a Grobnik, but I do believe the economy could use his straight-up analysis. The economy is so complex these days that just a quick update of Wall Street daily turmoil requires international monetary background.

People like Grobnik care more about finding a way to keep their houses from foreclosure or families fed more than bank bailouts, tax breaks or other government manipulations.

They just want jobs, not daydreams.

The Great Depression had World War II to bail it out. The war was drastic and deadly but hugely effective in getting the American machine firing on all cylinders. Our more recent forays into the Middle East have proved more financially draining than effective.

Mitch Yossarian weighs in

My version of Grobnik is a friend at the health club. (Yep, health club. Royko would shake his head with disgust.) Mitch Yossarian, a fictional Fresno, Calif. developer, mentioned high-speed rail. He just returned from a trip to Europe crossing more than 200 miles of the continent from Brussels in less than an hour.

"In California, it won't pay off right away. But all sorts of things would grow around the stations," Mitch says. "Plus, it creates jobs."

I nod, then mention solar projects. "Certainly," Mitch says.

Give the sun a shot

Solar is about to catch fire, metaphorically, in the San Joaquin Valley. Developers have proposed thousands of acres of photovoltaic panels to capture the energy of the sun. Once started, these projects should spur spin-off activity with each solar dollar multiplying at least four-fold as it circulates.

Angel, the out of work farm hand, could get a job after completing the Proteus Inc. solar training program. He'll be able to keep the car. He'll go out to eat.

Solar, like anything in the renewable energy realm, remains controversial. I just spotted a political cartoon that showed officials ready to unplug a generator that symbolized tax dollars. That generator fueled workers putting up solar panels.

But solar is nearing parity with other forms of electricity. Soon it won't need any subsidy to compete. Nor will wind and a host of other forms of clean or cleaner energy.

Energy efficiency works too

Already the value of energy efficiency has stormed Wall Street, creating an entirely new sector of jobs under the sustainability banner. U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program for either new construction or retrofits of buildings is growing and shows no sign of wavering.

Energy efficient buildings just cost way less. The Empire State Building is a shining example. For about $13 million in "energy specific measures," owner Anthony Malkin told Christina Nunez of National Geographic he reaps $4.4 million in annual savings. The measures were part of a larger $550 million upgrade to the New York landmark. The building rates a LEED gold.

Stories like that inspire others.

Energy efficiency by itself won't pull the country out of recession or inspire Grobnik, or my friend Mitch, for that matter. It will put plumbers, electricians and construction types to work, however. And that's the important part.

Headed in the wrong direction

But the economy's going to need more. I came across a story on National Public Radio's All Things Considered during which New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is quoted as saying the United States lost its way the past decade.

"We misread our environment," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "We thought the Cold War was a victory and we could put our feet up."

However, lifting the Iron Curtain and normalizing relations with former foes tossed another 2 billion people into the world economy competing at every angle with U.S. ingenuity, says Friedman, pitching his new book, "That Used To Be Us."

Now those competitors are just running faster, he says.

Something from D.C.?

Solutions to the jobs crisis will be bandied about Washington, D.C. for many months. I don't hold out too much hope for government-generated help. Friedman says curbing political gridlock would do wonders. That feels like saying maybe pigs could fly.

President Obama is expected to propose a tax credit to create jobs, but it's likely to get nothing but scorn from across the aisle. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who says he spent more than 25 years in the private sector for street cred, unveils a 160-page jobs plan that even the Wall Street Journal says is "surprisingly timid."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a pitch that may resonate with voters but is sorely lacking in substance. In a recent conversation with Sean Hannity he says, "You free the entrepreneur, the small business man and woman, or for that matter the Wall Street investor, from the over-regulation and the over-taxation and Americans will go to work tomorrow."

Sounds good. But I recall what happened the last time we freed Wall Street and got toxic mortgage soup and a global financial meltdown. My house went from a $269,000 2005 sale price to a value of about $120,000 (maybe).

Keep it real & green

I'm putting my faith in green. We've got an army of entrepreneurs motivated not only by making money but making the world a better place. The spiraling costs of pollution will become frighteningly obvious very soon, making everything clean energy more valuable.

And that will create jobs. Sustainable jobs. Different jobs.

I just wonder what they will be. And whether there will be enough to go around.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Energy Efficiency Could Be The Next Big Thing

Maybe it's time to think big.

Gov. Jerry Brown said so in a speech in Las Vegas. Former Treasury secretary Robert Reich noted it in a column for Huffington Post. Maybe, after four years of economic malaise, it is time for a grand gesture.

Critics, of course, will holler, saying the nation is broke and should cut expenditures. But, there is a way to satisfy both camps. There is a way to make a big economic impact - how does a 30% boost in revenue sound? - in a way that leaves the nation healthier economically, while also creating jobs, eliminating waste and reducing the nation's carbon footprint.

It is as simple as reducing your energy bill. A large-scale campaign to cut energy costs would create jobs and save businesses and homeowners billions, or even trillions of dollars - which could then be reinvested or otherwise directed into the economy.

Consider what city officials in Fresno found when they and PG&E crunched newly released data: Businesses and residents could save an astounding $260 million by cutting energy use 30%. And it wouldn't be that hard. Other energy-saving campaigns in Fresno already show savings in the 28% range. Here's more.

Think of what that means. Cutting 30% from my July power bill would have saved me $168. That's substantial, and it would have gone straight into my wallet - and eventually into the local economy.

That's just one person. Imagine the economic boost if millions of my close friends joined in. By some estimates, energy costs could be cut $1.2 trillion nationwide through efficiency alone. Jobs would be created through the retrofits and by businesses with more money to invest in technology or personnel.

And this stimulus wouldn't be a one-time thing; It is all gravy after the initial outlay is recouped. The owner of the iconic Empire State Building spent $13 million on energy upgrades, and saved $4.5 million in energy costs per year.

He is recouping the initial outlay in only a few years. That's an extreme example of course, but is indicative of the power of energy efficiency. What a great investment!

Photo of Empire State Building by Mishahu