Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Water And Energy = Sustainability

Water has been a source of conflict, and likely will again. Like energy, so-called "blue gold" should be conserved and used efficiently.

This study by the Natural Resources Defense Council showcases 14 communities - some with a legacy of pollution - that use green roofs, permeable pavement, green space and other methods to preserve water supplies, while also cutting energy consumption, cleaning the air and reducing asthma.

Sadly, none is in California. Still, what the NRDC labels as "Emerald Cities" are doing some pretty innovative stuff, such as developing long-term plans to green the infrastructure.

Consider Portland: Its Grey to Green Initiative supports investment in green infrastructure, which the city complemented with $50 million in stormwater runoff fees to add ecoroofs, plant thousands of trees and to buy natural areas.

Local laws require green roofs on at least 70 percent of new or reroofed city-owned buildings, and Energy star -qualified material on the remainder. Meanwhile, some private developers, responding to incentives, have added 200,000 square feet of ecoroofs to the inventory. Read more here.

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee leaders implemented a plan to promote rain barrels, green roofs and rain gardens, while also creating a green corridor in the city's south side. The corridor features LED lights and solar-powered bus stops that slash energy consumption and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Here's more on Milwaukee's project.

At the other end of the country, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 started a sustainability plan known as “PlaNYC 2030,” which encompassed housing, open space, transportion, energy, climate change and water quality. Here's more.

Water and energy are closely aligned, and, as we see from these examples, they can share the same stage in a sustainability campaign.

Video of Milwaukee from Rooftops to Rivers

Good Resource: Database of University Sustainability Programs

I was poking around the Internet today and stumbled upon this database from the National Wildlife Federation of sustainability programs at universities throughout the nation.

It is fascinating, and potentially a good resource for instructors, students and administrators. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Teachers, students eligible for environmental awards

Two green friendly competitions -- one with a cash award -- have been announced.

Those interested will have to act quickly. The deadline to apply is Dec. 31.

One is available to teachers, the other to students. Here are the details:

Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators: The White House Council on Environmental Quality has partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for this award, which recognizes outstanding K-12 teachers who employ innovative approaches to environmental education and use the environment as a context for learning for their students.

Two teachers from each of the EPA's 10 regions will be selected to receive the $2,000 award. Find out how to apply at

President's Environmental Youth Award: Students are encouraged to enter projects that make a difference in their communities. There are few details on what officials are looking for, but past winners provide some clues.

The 2010 winners included Boston Latin School students, who founded their Youth Climate Action Network, or Youth CAN, in 2007 after watching the film "An Inconvenient Truth." Youth CAN established a network of after-school climate change clubs, launched a statewide education-for-sustainability campaign, staged annual climate change summits for teachers and students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and participated in a number of other activities.

Another 2010 winner was Delanco, N.J. student Miranda Pawline, who founded Delanco Recycles Our Plastic Bags, or DROP Bags, in 2008. She said she started the effort after seeing too many plastic bags in and alongside of the Delaware River near her home. She's since collected about 500,000 plastic bags using recycling buckets in schools, the library and municipal buildings.

A third 2010 winner was Kyle Kittelberger of Raleigh, N.C., who built an 80-foot wetland boardwalk at Falls Lake Recreation Area in 2008 to earn his Eagle Scout badge. Kittelberger continued his work by building new access points throughout the recreation center and improving the surrounding habitat. He also built an observation deck, new staircases to prevent erosion and eight recycling centers throughout the recreation center.

The youth awards don't offer any cash but they do come with special recognition and a presidential plaque. For more information, visit

Photo: EPA Deputy Regional Administrator Stan Meiburg and 2010 youth award recipient Kyle Kittelberger.

The Green Movement: Defying The Naysayers

Things sure get weird in a campaign year. Statements and misstatements. Lies and half-truths. I-said-this-but-really-meant-that. It's easy to get swept up in the negativity and for positive messages to get lost in all the noise.

But a funny thing is happening amidst the chatter: The green movement is gaining traction despite the naysayers. It's happening at the corporate level, where Ernst & Young is expanding its sustainability business and even devised "renewable energy attractive indices" (China, to no great surprise, is at the top) to track the world's appetite for clean energy.

And it's happening at the local level. My hometown newspaper, The Fresno Bee, today has this story about a proposal for a huge solar project. It's on land that cannot be farmed, and is indicative of what this region could become. Reporter Kurtis Alexander notes, "While the proposal joins nearly three dozen other solar plants pitched in Fresno County, the venture by Recurrent Energy is by far the biggest and underscores the county's standing as a hotbed for solar development."

The politicians may not acknowledge it, but the green movement is a bullet train on the fast track - despite an expected drop in stimulus funds. Ernst & Young puts it best: "A revolution is underway, and the renewable energy industry is adapting to a changed world. "

It's just not renewables. Energy efficiency and sustainability are helping power the train, and corporations are at the wheel. Pike Research projects spending on energy efficiency to increase 50 percent by 2017 as it becomes more important. has more, and makes particular note of Johnson Controls' clogged pipeline of work. Efficiency remains the biggest bang for the buck since buildings such as those in the photo above consume 40 percent of the world's energy. Often, minimum effort can yield maximum results.

Says Ernst & Young: "Global corporations across numerous industries are moving quickly to pursue cleantech revenue opportunities. The revenue opportunities are transformational because 1) they arise from a shift to a resource-efficient and low-carbon economy, and 2) they are changing corporate business strategies." There is more here and here.

The companies realize that efficiency cuts cost - AT&T slashed $44 million - and contributes to a stronger bottom line; that clean tech is a new revenue source; and that it helps corporations meet internal sustainability goals. Fifty-eight percent of the corporations that responded to an Ernst & Young survey said they plan to increase clean tech spending between 2012 and 2014, and 25 percent said their expenditures will remain the same.

As corporations go, so goes the military, which says the nation's dependence on foreign oil is a security risk. And the military isn't alone in that assessment. Check out this video from the Rocky Mountain Institute, which says threats - and not just those related to security - are leading to a national discussion on energy issues.

Of course, change won't happen overnight. Or will it? Technological advancements are coming at a dizzying rate. Costs are dropping rapidly and it won't be long until solar power, for one, achieves grid parity. I'll keep my beret handy, just in case this revolution is around the corner.

Photo of Seattle skyline by Lars Sundstrom

Monday, November 28, 2011

New energy: Reinventing Fire takes on the fossil fuel question

Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, discusses his latest project, dubbed "Reinventing Fire."

The concept is to divest the economy completely of fossil fuels by 2050 and using private enterprise to do it. The book of the same name was released this fall.

The Rocky Mountain Institute says "energy-related economic, security, and environmental threats are intensifying the national conversation about how to regain energy leadership and competitiveness, restore jobs and prosperity, and build a secure and climate-safe energy system."

Yet it says the country lacks a comprehensive vision of how a market economy can achieve such goals.

The institute says it has that vision and is now building a detailed road map, which it hopes will launch a movement.

Powerful clean energy policy 'works out' in California

The California Energy Commission wants nothing less than a reduction in overall greenhouse gas in the state.

The agency's approach is multipronged but hinges on energy efficiency. The state seeks to reduce CO2 emissions about 20 percent to a target 426 million metric tons annually by 2020.

The question is: Can it be done? State leaders believe so and are encouraging local officials to join the effort. California's Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32, passed in 2006, also sets a goal of 33 percent renewable energy generation by 2020.

Benchmarking energy

A key part of this plan involves going city by city and charting energy use. It's believed that once cities and counties learn how much they're actually spending on electricity, their leaders will do something about it, putting big power users on a diet and drafting sustainability plans that actually work.

"Decisions about community planning and land use, as well as transportation infrastructure and electricity infrastructure, have a dramatic impact on our ability to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions," says the state's Energy Action Plan update report from 2008.

Each local government in the state will be producing its own community-wide energy action plan, spelling out exactly how it will pursue sustainability, reduce waste, foster alternative energy and save its residents money.

Energy Action Plans

I read through a number of these plans looking for ideas. My nonprofit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, has a grant to assist several small cities write plans and catalog, or "benchmark," their buildings according to utility meter to chart energy usage.

After perusing about seven of them, I started to see real strength in the phrasing -- as if these documents weren't just meant to collect dust on a shelf. Somebody plans to use them, and use them well.

The plan for one Los Angeles-area beach community pulled no punches. "Huntington Beach led the last energy revolution in Southern California with oil production over the last century and is poised to lead
the next clean energy revolution in Southern California as we prepare for the impacts from peak oil production and climate change."

My sister lives in nearby Hermosa Beach. The communities are known for being progressive.

The plan spelled out past successes and quantified savings. It also spelled out how to garner additional energy savings, citing the Rosenfeld Effect. Based on CEC commissioner Art Rosenfeld's groundbreaking policies now more than three decades old, the effect refers to how efficiency basically pays for future energy uses.

What's interesting is these plans actually have a very likely shot at getting accomplished what they were intended to do. Piedmont, Calif. Mayor Abe Friedman writes, "I am certain that with the guidance of this plan both the City government and Piedmont residents can together make meaningful changes in our everyday lives and operations to reduce our carbon footprint."

He sounds like he really believes it.

I'm starting to feel somewhat optimistic. After the trials and tribulations of two years trying to Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant money spent, I'm a little gun shy around energy efficiency projects.

Getting results

But this makes sense. Communities planning out their strategies.

Berkeley's plan also calls a spade a spade. Here it refers to the benchmarking practice: "The emissions inventory is useful for another important reason: it helps to remind us that we are both part of the global warming problem and part of the solution."

And not the Final Solution. I've been reading Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon Israeli spy novels again.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Black Friday could bring energy efficient gifts, or Zombies

The holiday is upon us, like it or not.

For me, that usually meant getting up at the crack of dawn. I didn't shop. Heck no. I worked either as a business reporter or business editor for more than two decades in Alaska, Washington and, finally, California.

In my business, Black Friday meant covering shoppers. My conversations with them -- imagine ice cold Anchorage -- usually started this way: "What in the heck are you doing out here?"

Their responses? Sickeningly gleeful. I never understood it. But I faithfully covered the practice year after year as it started earlier and earlier.

Now I no longer have to work it. But I'm still not going shopping on that day. However, I do have some tips. For those of you, unlike me, who don't like to give cash, I've got some help from our friends at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is all about Energy Star, its program that certifies products that use less energy. And less energy means less money spent and fewer greenhouse gas emissions created.

Home Entertainment: You can find the Energy Star label on nearly all entertainment products from TVs and Blu-ray disc players to home-theaters-in-a-box. If you are in the market for a digital picture frame, consider one that has earned the Energy Star. It uses 25 percent less energy than non-qualified models.

Office Products: Shoppers can also find the Energy Star label on office products such as computers, LCD monitors, notebooks, multifunction printers and more. A home office fully equipped with Energy Star qualified products can save up to $380 over the lifetime of the products.

Battery Chargers: Products that use Energy Star battery chargers, such as video game controls, digital cameras, shavers, hand vacuums, power tools, and cordless lawn mowers, use 35 percent less energy compared to conventional chargers.

Healthier Homes: From pet care products to dish soaps to supplies for a car, the Design for the Environment (DfE) label shows products that are safer for families and help protect the environment. In 2010, Americans using products with the DfE label cut the use of harmful chemicals by more than 600 million pounds.

The EPA also encourages consumers to purchase LED decorative light strings, which use about 70 percent less electricity than incandescent lights.

Other tips include reusing or recycling old electronics, buying reusable cloth bags when shopping, wrapping gifts in recycled paper bags or recycled wrapping paper and using less water when washing the holiday dishes. "If every American household reduced their water use by 10 gallons on just Thanksgiving Day, it would save more than 1 billion gallons of water," the EPA says.

My personal tip? Stay home. You never know when zombies will prove George Romero right.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Who Says Green Jobs Don't Exist? Not These Business Leaders

A group of business leaders, confused over the mismatch between what its members read and what they see on the street, is trying to set the record straight through a series of newsletters.

"All across America, we’re witnessing clean energy jobs being created almost every day—helping to rebuild our economy, address our energy problems, and improve our national security. (This is) in an attempt to provide some perspective from outside the Beltway, where one solar company’s failure isn’t indicative of the downfall of an entire industry," E2 Environmental Entrepreneurs says in its most recent report.

This is the sixth newsletter delivered to legislators since the first one debuted Oct. 3. The reports are presented weekly to each congressional office. The newest one suggests that recent announcements of up to 32,000 new green jobs in 40 states and 96 congressional districts are lost in the political chatter over the high-profile implosion of Solyndra, the solar company that received a government guarantee.

"In the past six weeks, E2 has identified 118 announcements by more than 100 companies, organizations, and projects in various stages of development and completion. They include manufacturing plants, power generation projects, energy-efficiency retrofits, and other announcements from the clean economy," the group notes.

California, where Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing a green agenda, has the greatest number of potential new jobs, 5,220. Florida, Michigan, New York and Arizona round out the top five.

Lots of industries represented

The prospective jobs announced over the last month and a half have been across the board in all types of clean energy. Solar power and energy efficiency lead the parade, but wind power, biomass and electric vehicles are well represented.

The authors suggest that Solyndra is receiving a disproportionate amount of publicity. "Recent solar-manufacturing announcements have received 1 percent of the media coverage given Solyndra," they say - and then they tick off a list of of new manufacturing plants.

Those include a General Electric thin film solar factory in Colorado, Dow Chemical's roof shingles project in Michigan, Stion's plant in Mississippi and others. A total of nine plant announcements over the last six weeks could produce 3,350 jobs in the United States over four years.

"And yet, you probably haven’t heard about these projects," the authors state. "That may be because more than 6,722 articles have been written in the last 90 days referencing Solyndra, compared with 79 articles about the nine new solar manufacturing facilities we identified."

Also announced were biofuel and battery manufacturing plants in Florida, and a wind-energy turbine gearbox manufacturing factory in Wisconsin, among others.

Fits and starts

The yin yang of clean energy doesn't surprise us. This is an emerging industry, and as such will stagger forward, sometimes stumbling. There is much consternation over what happens if subsidies are eliminated, but there is much in the pipeline. Corporations are stashing big bucks away for clean energy, and, closer to home, thousands of acres of solar projects are proposed where we live in California's farm-rich central San Joaquin Valley.

But the biggest green job gains, at least in the short term, will likely be through energy efficiency and sustainability. Energy efficiency has holding power as businesses, individuals and local governments discover that a little investment in lighting, power strips and other features leads to a whole lot of money saved.

Check out this link

Meanwhile, sustainability is grabbing a foothold, and is likely to, well, sustain. Some of the world's largest major corporations are taking a strong interest in cutting costs, reducing their carbon footprint and being more environmentally aware. And it pays well; check this out.

Big Business is putting action to words. Speaking of action, the world's ultimate action figures - the Marines (and other military branches)- are right up there with corporate America.

Big Business and the military. They are pretty influential. Add professional sports to that, and you set the stage for some serious change. Those are three powerful forces. Political paralysis may be in place now, but it is just a matter of time until the clean energy/sustainability movement grabs hold.

Photo: Troops deploying a solar blanket

Listen to Wimpy: America needs to lean up its crude oil diet

One of my favorite quotes is Wimpy's: "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

It's an insightful commentary by the writers of the Popeye cartoon that reminds me of today's rampant energy consumption. That hot greasy crude burger, sweet Saudi fixins, a side of bite-sized anthracite and bubbly fracked soda. Nothing better. Good solid American meal. Comfort food.

J. Wellington Wimpy, however, has had enough. The rather rotund, balding sidekick of this analogy needs to go on a diet.

Fat and happy public

Wimpy serves as a stand-in for the American public. For too long this nation has put off dealing with the inevitable. U.S. energy policy relies heavily on the fossil fuel spectrum that until recently made us all fat and happy.

However, the oil of the future is more expensive to recover physically and environmentally. And, we've put off paying the price on emissions. Those are coming due. We simply need to stop the influx of carbon, ozone and other noxious emissions from burned fuel.

Failing to adopt more sustainable energy sources means continuing to pass the bill down to our kids and grandkids. I'd rather give future generations something besides the massive economic burden of cleaning up our swirling cesspool of an atmosphere and costly options for energy.

Inaction could cost big

"If we do nothing, the hardworking American population is going to be paying more to turn on lights, air conditioning, and their cars -- potentially much more than if those clean energy projects are built," says Joshua Freed, vice president of the Clean Energy Initiative at Third Way, on Huffington Post.

Freed says China, India and other emerging powers want to secure all the oil, coal, and natural gas they can "because that's where the economic growth is."

Competition for limited resources means price increases. Big ones.

So sure, solar and wind are somewhat costly. But they're getting cheaper and they don't foul the nest. There's got to be huge future value in that.

No help from D.C.

Political solutions are not likely.

Brian Keane, president of nonprofit Smart Power, paints a bleak picture of the clean energy future from a policy standpoint. Republicans and Democrats can agree on little, especially anything identified by the word "green."

Keane says in a piece in Huffington Post that this divide is enhanced by Republicans' efforts to oppose anything related to solar, wind or hydrogen, especially in light of the Solyndra failiure.

Media coverage of that divide isn't helping, Keane contends. "The media's focus on the politicization of clean energy in America is cutting this growing industry off at the pass," he says.

Clean energy: hot investment

However, on a grassroots level, clean energy's stock couldn't be better. The Average Joe, regardless of political affiliation, appears interested in making the world a better place.

Sometimes these are bizarre. I stumbled across "Are We Doomed?" by It's a movie about a road trip in which three people try to find others intent on saving the planet.

Mark Dixon and Ben and Julie Evans dig into things like replicas of Native American mud huts in Nebraska. In doing so, they unfold a tale of many people on many levels fighting a pitched battle to bring back a little of what's been lost.

Spinach or hamburgers?

Doubtless Wimpy would be one of them. He's the creation of newspaper cartoonist E.C. Segar and began as a more three-dimensional character than the one I grew up with in the 1960s. Wikipedia defines him as "soft-spoken, very intelligent, and well educated, but also cowardly, very lazy, overly parsimonious and utterly gluttonous."

In some ways, he's just like the United States. We're a smart country that walks softly but, decidedly unlike Wimpy, carries a big stick. We have a huge appetite and we've gotten a bit lazy.

That could change. There are any number of viable concepts that taken separately or together could offer a world of options for an oil-dependent economy. We don't even need to completely lay off the burgers (oil), just pop a can of spinach.

Plan To Expand Broadband Access Gets Preliminary Approval

An ambitious proposal to expand broadband access to rural underserved regions of the San Joaquin Valley has received conditional funding approval from the California Public Utilities Commission, and could get the formal OK Dec. 1.

The grant proposal by The San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium (SJVRBC) requested $150,000 for the first year, with the possibility of renewal for a second and third year. The Valley proposal was one of seven that received the highest scores upon review. Fifteen regional groups filed applications for funding last August.

The Valley Regional Broadband Consortium is under the umbrella of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, and is administered by the Office of Community and Economic Development at California State University, Fresno, with assistance from the Great Valley Center.

The Valley's program's goals include: Expand broadband access from Kern to San Joaquin counties, bridging the so-called "digital divide" in areas with limited access; develop a program that ensures high school students graduate with basic computer literacy skills; design a telehealth plan that connects clinics with medical centers; and work with neighboring consortia to develop a cohesive infrastructure.

Increased broadband access also facilitates development of the SmartGrid, which enables homeowners to monitor energy usage in real time - and adjust usage patterns accordingly. That saves homeowners money and aids in conservation efforts.

The grant comes from SB 1040, which was signed last year and expands the California Advanced Services Fund. The fund, operated by the Public Utilities Commission, allocates $125 million for the broadband program, and for a capital infrastructure revolving loan fund.

Improved broadband access is a necessity for California's global competitiveness, and is considered an essential part of the 21st Century infrastructure. Individuals without broadband connections are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding jobs, gaining skills and getting health care. An estimated 16 percent of Californians, most of them in rural areas, don't use the Internet.

The other broadband applications to go before the commission next month include a Central Coast group in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties; an East Bay consortium in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties; a group in Los Angeles County; and three in far Northern California.

Road trip: Solar roads and 50 states of sustainable stuff

The Solar Roadways project is working to pave roads with solar panels that you can drive on.

Co-founder Scott Brusaw has made some major steps forward, according to the folks at Your Environmental Road Trip. This is the second video but the first ever recorded of the Solar Roadways prototype. It has received 1.06 million views on youtube since its June 2010 debut.

For more information, visit

The YERT guys also have a movie out that chronicles what three videographers discovered in the green energy-sustainable living spectrum found in a year-long road trip over 50 states.

The film includes some of the most interesting people and projects I've ever seen. There's a guy who lives in a cave. He is what he is. And there's a guy who draws hundreds of thousands to a museum that features repurposed materials by a "politely wacko" industrial artist. Another guy turned his yard into something out of Lord of the Rings.

The donate snow scenes are must-see. Really dopey.

Here's the synopsis of "Are We Doomed?":

"50 States. 1 Year. Zero Garbage? Called to action by a planet in peril, three friends hit the road -- packing hope, humor ... and all of their trash -- searching for innovators and citizens solving humanity's greatest environmental crises. Piling on personal challenges as they explore every state in a year (the good, the bad, and the weird), an unexpected turn of events pushes the team to the brink in this award-winning docu-comedy. Featuring Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, Will Allen, Janine Benyus, Joel Salatin, David Orr, and others."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Finding Ways To Finance Energy Innovation

Too many energy startups meet their demise in the Valley of Death - if they even make it that far - and that isn't good for innovation in this country, according to the Breakthrough Institute, which has some recommendations on how to change that.

The Oakland-based think tank identifies, in a new study entitled, "Bridging The Clean Energy Valleys of Death," two economic dry spots that hinder the ability to bring energy research out of the lab and into commercial operation. The financing gaps are commonly referred to as the early-stage “Technological Valley of Death” and the later-stage “Commercialization Valley of Death.”

From the report is this: "These valleys of death particularly plague capital-starved start-ups and entrepreneurial small and medium-sized firms, the very same innovators that are so often at the heart of American economic vitality. "

To fill the early-stage gap, the Institute recommends greater use of two policies: The federal Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency and a Regional Clean Energy Innovation Consortia.

The first program, funded by stimulus money and signed into law in 2009 by President George W. Bush, allocates relatively modest sums - generally $2 million to $10 million - to help entrepreneurs through that early-stage crisis point.

The latter policy would create public-private partnerships of universities, venture capitalists, manufacturers and others to hurdle the second part of the Technological Valley of Death.

Then comes the Commercialization Valley of Death - and the Institute has suggestions on how to fill that gap too: A Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA) and national clean-energy testbeds.

A CEDA is a bank seeded with government funds but operated as an independent organization that offers a variety of financing mechanisms. Those include investment funds, guarantee programs, insurance plans, bonds and debt financing. It would replace the Department of Energy's Loan Programs Office.

Meanwhile, the national clean-energy testbeds program would provide "pre-approved, monitored and grid-connected" public land as demonstration sites for new energy technology, according to the Institute's study.

The study acknowledges risks in all early technology projects, but suggests too many promising prospects fail to reach the launching pad: "To meet this challenge, the country must build an institutional system that fosters innovation, entrepreneurship, and competition, and avoids picking incumbent technologies over innovative, yet risky, technologies."

Innovation - or lack of it - is in the news a lot these days, and is the subject of a new book co-authored by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In this review, Fast Company quotes Friedman as saying that innovation, when it becomes a priority, can lift the nation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Stand Aside: The Rush To Solar Valley Is On!

My office sits in one of the most fertile agriculture regions in the world. I just have to venture a few miles to see crops in every direction. Farmers in Fresno County last year produced almost $6 billion worth of grapes, tomatoes, almonds and other commodities, and employed more than 59,000 people.

It's no wonder that Fresno County and the rest of the Valley is often called the nation's salad bowl.

The same resources - such as ample amounts of flat land and sun - that make the Valley so fertile also are prompting what Lois Henry, a former colleague of mine, described in The Bakersfield Californian as, "The great Central Valley solar rush."

Kern County is home to some 32 solar applications that would encompass 17,000 acres. Likewise, Fresno County is fielding about 30 applications on 10,000 acres that collectively could be worth $5 billion. Kings County also is a solar hot spot.

Everyone acknowledges the emerging potential of the solar industry on the Valley. Farmers in California lead the nation in the use of renewable power, especially solar. It could be another cash crop for growers, could slash their operational costs, bring new life to unproductive farm land, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (electricity contributes about 25 percent of the state's emissions) and help reduce a stubborn double-digit unemployment rate.

But at what price? The Fresno County Farm Bureau opposes solar projects on prime acreage, but solar developers need to be close to the power grid. In this story, Fresno Bee reporter Kurtis Alexander quoted Steve Geil, president of the Economic Development Corporation in Fresno County: "There's a window here of opportunity. The companies are saying, 'Are you going to welcome us or are we going to find obstacle after obstacle after obstacle?' "

Alexander has devoted many inches of copy to the subject lately, including this story where Fresno County supervisors approved the cancellation of a Williamson Act conservation contract to permit a 27-megawatt, 318-acre solar project near San Joaquin, a tiny community on the county's west side with a 35 percent jobless rate. The panel said the land lacked water and thus was suitable for solar development.

But local governments are proceeding cautiously while developing strategies. Fresno County formed a group to study how much and where land should be devoted to solar. Kern County, according to Henry, has approved 1,444 megawatts from five projects, but also is treading tenderly.

Even projects proposed for marginal land have met opposition at times. A proposed 400 megawatt, 5,000 acre solar photovoltaic facility on land with poor water access in the Panoche Valley in San Benito County drew strong opposition from local ranchers and farmers - even though the local farm bureau supported the use of solar, according to a new study by UCLA and UC, Berkeley.

The opponents expressed concern about the project’s potential impact on their
agricultural land. Environmentalists said it endangered the San Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo, and the Audubon Society said it could hurt one of the world's best birding sites.

The joint UCLA/UC Berkeley report could help reach that delicate balance between agriculture and solar interests. It's called "Harvesting Clean Energy: How California Can Deploy Large-Scale Renewable Energy Projects On Appropriate Farmland."

Here's a link.

Meeting California's 33 percent renewables goal will require a mixture of large-scale and centralized solar projects, such as those on rooftops and along roads. The study reveals that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has received requests to build approximately 34
large solar thermal power plants, totaling roughly 24,000 megawatts, on more than
300,000 acres.

By December 2010, the California Energy Commission approved
10 solar-thermal projects - seven of them on BLM land - totaling 4,192 megawatts of generating capacity. In addition, developers proposed 8,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects using wind and photovoltaic technologies.

In 2010, California local governments permitted 1,097 megawatts of non-thermal renewable energy capacity on private land. Kern and Los Angeles Counties approved an 800 megawatt wind project, a 230 megawatt photovoltaic project, and a 10 megawatt photovoltaic project.

Solano County permitted a 37-megawatt wind project, Kings County approved a 20 megawatt photovoltaic project and, in March, Kern County permitted a 6,047-acre Maricopa Sun solar project south of Bakersfield. The Maricopa installation alone will produce an estimated 700 megawatts of clean power.

However, the authors of the UCLA/UC Berkeley report noted that farmland is disappearing at the rate of one square mile every four days, and that potential for conflict arises even though the amount required for clean energy is relatively modest.

Only about 1.3 percent of the state's 30 million acres of farm and other suitable private and public land would be displaced. An additional 3.7 percent of the land would be required for less disruptive energy sources, such as wind turbines and dual-use of solar with farms and other types of localized generation.

However, energy transmission is a bug-a-boo; the report quoted the California Public Utility Commission's estimated requirement of seven new transmission lines needed to accommodate the 33 percent renewables mandate by 2020.

The report recommends upgrading the transmission infrastructure to meet the clean-energy power needs from remote and impaired agriculture sites. Other recommendations include developing energy policies for agriculture land and streamlining the permitting process for projects on impaired and unproductive farmland.

With a little effort and cooperation, the San Joaquin Valley and the rest of California could become a leader in clean energy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Civilized wasteland: Can clean energy save the planet from sci-fi cliche?

An old man skirts the wreckage of civilization avoiding packs of feral dogs and even more feral sub-humans as he hunts for a hint of salvation.

Most preserved food has long since been picked clean and anything overtly useful taken by those who came before. But something may be waiting over the next hill or valley. His life and the lives of his fellow villagers -- who were too afraid to join his quest -- depend on his success.

The narrative is basically the gist of a book I just plowed through. It's the latest in a series of end-of-world novels I've burned through in the past year and a half. Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," a haunting tale of pointless survival of a man and his son in a world without hope, got me started. I saw it on the "Read This" shelf at the Clovis, Calif. library and read it in six hours.

Blew me away.

End of the world

Since then I've read two series by S.M. Stirling that deconstruct the world in different ways. The first, "Island in the Sea of Time," transports the entire island of Nantucket thousands of years into the past. A follow-up, "The Change" series, unravels society by unceremoniously causing all electrical, combustion and modern mechanical devices to stop working. The result is death and massive destruction by mobs of hungry people.

Just to mix it up, I read Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island," which tosses five men from a balloon on a remote Pacific Island and serves as a sequel to "20,000 Leagues Under Sea." That enticed me to finally tackle "Robinson Crusoe." Both have world-ending elements but create characters who thrive on the challenge of recreating society.

The latest to absorb my full attention is Nick Cole's "Old Man and the Wasteland." Think of it as the follow to McCarthy's ode to destruction. Depressing definitely but Old Man has a spark of hope. It cost me 99 cents via my Kindle wireless, by the way.

Big gain in 'we're doomed' genre

I had forgotten the title of Old Man, so I searched for it on Amazon using the key words "end of the world." The search turned up way too many hits. Some I'd read long ago. One was a Phillip K. Dick novel (gotta read that one). But many were new.

It's that end-of-days trend that got me thinking. American society has been running at 60, 70, 80 mph for the past century. Faster and better, consume and discard. We're tearing it up. Live hard, die young.

Unfortunately, pollution, climate change, environmental destruction and dwindling sources of cheap burnable fuel have revealed all-too-real and scary limits. We don't need the nuclear winter concept to scare our children, just a couple more decades of rising tides, foul air and super nasty weather to drive home the message.

Now authors and screen writers have picked up the torch. Note the plethora of zombie movies.

Studies show danger ahead

The barrage of news that we could be doomed continues unabated. Providing further support are two studies: the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Annual Greenhouse Gas Index and the Civil Society Institute's energy economics report.

The data rich NOAA Index says the growth rate of carbon dioxide averaged about 1.68 parts per million per year from 1979 to 2010. It averaged about 1.43 ppm per year before 1995 and 1.94 ppm per year since. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 390 ppm.

Charts show steady increases in CO2, nitrious oxide and methane.

The unwritten message: If this continues, we're doomed.

We do have alternatives

The CSI report has a bit of an optimistic feel, saying that a transition to clean energy would save $83 billion over the next 40 years. The report, "Toward a Sustainable Future for the U.S. Power Sector: Beyond Business as Usual 2011," says the move would avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths due to pollution, would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, would force sharp cuts in carbon pollution and would curtail water consumption for power production.

Institute President Pam Solo says: "The truth is that America can and should embrace a workable and cost-effective future that is built on safe, renewable energy. Not only is it feasible and less expensive to do so, but we really have no other choice as a nation."

Would you prefer to envision your 20-year-old son as the old man wandering a desolate world in 40 years?

I prefer optimistic endings

Not what I want for my boy, especially after paying $32,000 a year to send him to Seattle University. I would hope the investment pays off.

I vote for the responsible option. The Institute says 65 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of Independents, 88 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Tea Party members (77 percent overall) agree with the following statement: "The U.S. needs to be a clean energy technology leader and it should invest in the research and domestic manufacturing of wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies."

Others are on board, but a switch won't be easy. And it won't be fast. I hope it's inevitable. And I'll just keep reading this stuff until I'm lured away by another genre.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Converting Useless Land To Productive Property

For more than a decade, the 160-acre Crazy Horse Sanitary Landfill was a repository of some pretty icky stuff. So much rubber, oil and solvents were dumped on the property five miles outside Salinas that it was declared a Superfund site and closed to the public in 2009.

More than 500 miles to the southeast is the infamous Stringfellow landfill in Riverside County, where 34 million gallons of acid, solvent, heavy metal and pesticide-manufacturing byproducts were dumped over 17 acres from 1956 to 1972. In 1983, it achieved the dubious distinction of California's most serious hazardous waste site, and today contains not one, not two but three groundwater extraction and treatment systems operated by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

It's too bad those properties are so polluted that they can't be put to good use. Or can they? In an intriguing study, the federal government is assessing the possibility of developing renewable-energy sources, including wind and solar power, on those sites and 24 others. A total of five contaminated or potentially contaminated sites totaling almost 29,000 acres in California are being reviewed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy are evaluating Superfund, brownfields, former landfill or mining sites and even former gas stations through the new "Re-Powering America's Land Initiative."

It is hoped that some of the blighted property could be used to generate solar, wind, biomass or geothermal power. "These studies are the first step to transforming these sites from eyesores today to community assets tomorrow," Mathy Stanislaus, an EPA assistant administrator said.

Here's a link to the original press release, and one to a list of sites being studied.

This isn't a new idea. Restoration of brownfields is a serious mission of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has restored sites to commercial use. But using them as power sources is not as common, although a six-megawatt solar array powers the restoration of an Aerojet General Corporation Superfund dump near Sacramento. And in Chicago, the Exelon City Solar facility - built on an abandoned commercial site called a "brownfield" - is the largest urban solar power plant in the United States.

The Superfund toxic landfills are pretty horrible. The environmental protection regulators call them "the most complex, uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites identified by the EPA for cleanup." Brownfields aren't much better: "They are properties at which expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence of contaminants."

Double Ick.

But toxic sites can be ideal for clean energy. "They often can leverage existing utility infrastructure, and this redevelopment may be allowed under existing zoning, " federal officials said in a news release.

The former Fort Ord military base in Marina is the largest side being assessed in California. The most remote is 253 acres in tiny Alpine County. The former open-pit sulfur mine is at 7,000 feet elevation on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.

This really is a great idea. California has one of the most ambitious renewable-power mandates in the nation, and targeting tainted soil that can't be used for anything else toward that effort makes sense.

Video by State Department of Toxic Substances Control

Partnership's Efforts Help Cut Energy Use In Valley

The San Joaquin Valley isn't the hottest place in California, but it's close. The I-think-I'm-going-to-spontaneously combust summer temperatures often reach triple digits. As a result, the region's power bills and energy consumption are often among the highest in the state.

But, an interesting thing has happened since the nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, which developed out of the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, was formed in 2007. Electricity use in the Valley dropped 11 percent between 2007 and 2009, which contrasted with a 4.5 percent dip statewide, according to the Partnership's 2010-11 report.

Energy efficiency is a big part of SJVCEO's mission. It partners with local governments and utilities to help implement programs designed to slash energy consumption, thus saving residents and local government money in this era of austerity and tight budgets. The programs also lead to smaller carbon footprints at a time when environmental issues are rising to the fore.

The SJVCEO's Valley Innovative Energy Watch (VIEW) partnership with Southern California Edison, Southern California Gas Company and eight local governments in the South Valley has led to substantial energy savings in those communities. The projected savings from this partnership is expected to exceed 4 million kWh.

The organization also is helping implement the Clean Energy Partnership, an ambitious program that also includes the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, two Investor Owned Utilities, and 36 local governments. The goal is to replace inefficient equipment in publicly-owned buildings from Stanislaus to Kern counties.

In addition, SJVCEO promotes and conducts outreach for the City of Fresno's Home Energy Tune-Up program, which is available to residents of Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. The initiative is funded by a federal grant in collaboration with the state's Energy Upgrade California Program, and enables property owners to replace lighting, increase insulation or make other improvements that will significantly lower their power bills.

The cost of the upgrades is usually recouped in a few years through energy savings. The great thing is that those savings continue, which gives those families more money to invest or use for other purposes. It also helps offset any utility rate increases.

The SJVCEO expects energy usage to continue to decline as the existing programs mature and as more initiatives come on line. The organization will soon begin a grant-funded effort to help cities "benchmark" energy consumption and prepare energy action plans.

Energy efficiency has been described as the "low-hanging fruit" of the clean-energy movement, so it makes sense for an organization based in one of the state's most energy-intensive areas to start picking it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Changing the world: The stars of the Energy Star video challenge

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compiled some of the winners of its nationwide video challenge, and I tossed in a couple more.

The agency encouraged people earlier in the year around Earth Day to take part in the “Be an Energy Star” video challenge. People were asked to pick up their home video cameras and document energy-efficient behavior they discovered or participated in at home, school, workplace and community.

The names of the videos are featured on the Energy Star facebook page, but the links are gone since it's been partially decommissioned. Members of the public viewed and voted for their favorite videos this fall and the winners were listed last month.

Of course, I just heard about it.

In addition to the video challenge, EPA encouraged those interested to take the “Change the World, Start with Energy Star” pledge. The pledge is hardly binding but encourages people to embrace energy efficiency in their homes and daily activities.

Apparently it's a big deal. The EPA says more than 2.7 million Americans have taken the pledge, "resulting in a reduction of more than 8 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to the emissions from using more than 400 million gallons of gasoline."

These include switching to more efficient lighting, choosing Energy Star products, sealing and insulating homes and using power management features -- like eco or power strips -- on home computers and monitors.

This one may be a little rough around the edges but gets the idea across.

Many of them appear to be kid-driven. This next one reflects the new economic reality facing parents and college students who move back home.

Want A Career With A Future? Try Sustainability

There has been lots of "he said she said" over green jobs, and whether they are truly benefiting the economy. Part of the controversy is related to semantics and differing interpretations of "green," but there is one segment that appears to be expanding.

Sustainability departments.

Big businesses are expanding their green teams as they become more aware of the environment and of carbon footprints. If this study by is correct, budgets and the number of employees devoted to sustainability at billion-dollar firms each expanded an average of 6 percent. also reported that, "Management takes sustainability more seriously: Fifty-six percent of respondents said that sustainability is "on the agenda permanently, but not core" to operations, while another 29 percent called it "a permanent fixture and core strategic consideration."

This may come as a surprise to those who listen only to what politicians in full election mode, but not to those of us who work in this business. Corporate America is developing a definite green hue, as this blog post notes. In this report, global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company notes that more executives say such programs increase value and reduce costs.

Here is a quote from the survey: "In just the past year, we’ve seen a shift in the results from our annual salary survey where the word sustainability is etched on a manager’s or senior manager’s business card more than twice as often as it was the previous year (56% of the time in 2011 and just 26% in 2010). Similarly, almost 50% more vice presidents and senior vice presidents have sustainability in their title compared to 2010."

Here from is a hint of specific sustainability jobs that could gain a higher profile in 2012.

We are also finding that younger people care about sustainability, and are making it part of their decision-making process. Studies show that students are attracted to colleges that practice sustainability, and that more campuses are adding related programs. UC Davis, for example, just announced a new major in sustainable agriculture. Community colleges also are getting into the act.

Sustainability not only is a growth industry, but it pays well too. says, "Vice President-level sustainability execs make an average of $218,409 annually; Director-level leaders earn $161,510; and Manager-level leaders make $105,345 annually."

That's a lot of green.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Make my day: 7 reasons to be encouraged about clean energy

The economy may look like it's been on the losing end of a street brawl, but optimism could be lurking in the shadows.

Certainly the mood is glum. The news, when it isn't fixating on celebrity missteps or political scandal, highlights Greek default, an irritated 99 percent and prospects for job creation that appear as likely as J. Edgar Hoover returning to run the FBI.

Maybe I'm biased or I'm watching too many trailers for the new Clint Eastwood film. But I'm seeing things differently.

Perhaps it's just me, or my co-worker Sandy Nax. But we're seeing some pretty positive stuff coming from our perch in the green energy sector.

Reason No.1: Solar flare. Here's a landmark. A San Jose Mercury News post San Jose Mercury Newsmarks the achievement of California reaching 1 gigawatt of installed solar. As reporter Dana Hull says, it's 1,000 megawatts and "roughly the size of two coal-fired power plants."

Sun is good. Coal not so much, even though it's a domestic energy source. Regardless, the news is huge. And solar growth is expected to continue. The reason some solar manufacturers -- think failed Solyndra for a moment -- are having a tough time doesn't have much to do with popularity of the renewable energy.

There's nothing wrong with sales. It's price that's killing these companies. As predicted, the cost of solar and wind prices have dropped, nearing ever closer to energy produced by fossil fuels. Parity it's called.

And it can't come too soon.

Solar is dominating my interest lately partly because I've been swayed by an argument by Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. In a series of YouTube posts, he argues that enough energy from the sun could be easily captured to power the world's energy need of 15 terawatts.

Abbott believes solar thermal is the best option as it is the cleanest to produce. It requires no photovoltaic panels just mirrors and a system for superheating a substance to produce heat and subsequently energy.

Job rating: Excellent.

Reason No. 2: Concentrated or thermal solar. And that leads to this forecast from that concentrated solar is on the verge of becoming a serious contender in the clean energy spectrum. The piece says concentrated solar's simplicity will help sell it to consumers. "Solar thermal has been around for decades and is extremely reliable," CleanTechies says.

The positives are similar to those across the green energy spectrum: Costs are decreasing, state and local governments are getting interested in assisting projects, systems can be applied to commercial buildings, cooling is an option (although I'm still uncertain how that works), more people are getting into the business and innovation is making systems better.

Job rating: There's potential.

Reason No. 3: Solar mountain. Got a landfill? Who doesn't? They're not pretty. However, in Conley, Ga. Republic Services has transformed 9 million cubic yards of trash into a solar energy farm. The solid waste company covered the massive hill of garbage with a geomembrane on which it attached thin-film solar panels.

The panels produce 1 megawatt, but more could be added, according to Silvio Marcacci at The site is one of just a few in the country. However, its success could drive more to adopt the concept.

"A lot of these landfills are built in urban settings, and they’re close to transmission lines," Tony Walker of Republic Services tells Marcacci. “We think this type of system can be built across the country."

Maybe so. There certainly is a lot of garbage.

Job rating: Fermenting.

Reason No. 4: Decentralized energy. I first read of this concept after stumbling across a report by sustainable energy advocate and writer Al Weinrub. He argues that decentralized energy, or putting renewable systems in as many places in a community as possible, generates wealth, spurs economic revitalization and helps adapt to climate change.

Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, says in a piece on Huffington Post that decentralized and renewable energy are the key to solving the looming crisis of sustainability. He says that a massive public-private partnership is needed to develop smart-grid, distributed generation technology via tax credit and other government and private sector driven incentives.

"Ultimately, each home and business should be capable of generating, storing and sharing energy," Cohen says. "Solar, wind, geothermal, and perhaps some other technology yet to be invented must be subsidized to make them cheaper than fossil fuels."

He says at some point, the subsidies will no longer be needed.

But change is coming or at least it should. The air just can't take what we're pumping into by way of coal fires, automobile exhaust and general toxic-laden combustion. And that brings me to my next point.

Job rating: Strong.

Reason No. 5: The real cost of fossil fuels. According to the most recent World Energy Outlook report by the International Energy Agency, investing in clean energy now is far more effective than attempting to clean up the mess later.

Eric Wesoff of pored over the report and came up with this quote from Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist: "As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the 'lock-in' of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals."

Wesoff writes: "For every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions."

Succinct point. It makes me wonder how politicians who say they would obliterate any regulations in favor of jobs will be viewed in 10 years. The regulation busters line up on one side of the aisle, but both parties are guilty of promoting ill-fated policies that add to the nation's graying skies.

The jobs that apparently need fewer regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or other agencies are noble but usually controversial. They include mining coal from mountaintops, drilling offshore for oil, tapping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, building a cross-country straw to suck out Canada's oil sand and allowing the hydraulic fracturing.

Job creation can be done other ways. I recall sitting on spit on Nantucket one summer with my brother-in-law. We were inspired by the long delayed Cape Wind offshore turbines. He speculated that President Bush would have produced a far longer lasting legacy had he established just a smidgen of support for alternative energies rather than invading Iraq or even if he did.

Bush had the right idea -- domestic energy security. Just a different way of getting there.

Job rating: Depends on political winds.
Reason No. 6: Energy and fuel efficiency. Energy author Daniel Yergin writes in a piece on Huffington Post about how Boeing's Dreamliner won the hearts of airline executives not with its speed but with its 20 percent better fuel efficiency. "The airlines were voting their pocketbooks," he says.

Nearly every week, another big publicly traded Wall Street powerhouse embraces the cost savings of installing energy efficient lighting and electrical upgrades. And many are taking the concept further, entering the tricky yet individually lucrative realm of sustainability. Big companies that see the light have discovered not only savings in multiple aspects of their operations but have learned to reap the value of the public goodwill that comes with it.

Home builders are another group that has found value in efficiencies. Commercial builders also have come aboard, slowly incorporating building information modeling into design to reduce energy and operations costs with a slew of new technologies and products.

The EPA reports that more than 400 home builders have "committed to meeting the updated and more rigorous requirements for new homes that earn the Energy Star label in 2012." Those builders discovered value by inching closer to homes that use less energy. Net-zero homes may not be far off.

The EPA says that since 1995, about 1.2 million new homes have earned its Energy Star rating, which translates to savings of about $350 million on utility bills. The list of builders includes six of the country’s largest: Ashton Woods Homes, Beazer Homes, KB Home, Meritage Homes, M/I Homes and NVR Inc.

Job rating: Good but depends on consumer acceptance.

Reason No. 7: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This particular topic is close to home for me. I am employed because of stimulus money. My mission these past two years has been to maximize kilowatt hour savings at 36 cities and three counties in California's San Joaquin Valley. On that front, I'm getting closer.

My team and I will get it done. We will help our jurisdictions save money and start them on a diet of energy efficiency and clean energy. My boss says it's pre-ordained.

Others have done it. The 112-page report, "Profiles of Local Clean Energy Leadership: How America's Cities and Counties are Using Federal Energy Block Grants to Create Jobs, Save Energy and Prevent Pollution," is full of stories about how other cities spent their American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant allocations.

To me, it made a lot of sense. I've been immersed in this world for many moons, speaking a language of kWh, T8s, VFDs, SEER, LEED and even less interesting terms.

What's great about the report is that it shows cities beaten roughly about the head and shoulders by the economy can navigate the many bureaucratic requirements and restrictions and actually implement money meant to do them good. I hope to pass these success stories onto my cities and counties.

Job rating: Steady.

Yep. We can save energy. We can figure out how to be better stewards of our communities and nation. Every one of the issues I listed translates to development and growth. Some could be really significant. Maybe we could clean that air a bit and get some jobs at the same time.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sometimes The Right Solution Is A Green One

Replacing lights, beefing up insulation, weatherizing and other energy-efficiency measures can cut power consumption and costs. In fact, the nation's energy chief, Steven Chu, calls efficiency the "low-hanging fruit" of the clean-energy movement.

Commercial and residential buildings are responsible for 40 percent of the nation's energy consumption, according to this study. Even a Math-challenged Journalism grad like myself can see the potential for significant savings. How significant? Up to $33 billion per year by 2030.

Closer to home, officials in the city of Fresno crunched utility data and determined that a citywide reduction in energy use of 30 percent would save property owners a whopping $260 million. That windfall would then be spent in the community to help stimulate the economy. Here's more on the Fresno analysis.

What's in it for you? A free energy audit of my 1,400-square-foot, 18-year-old house in Clovis determined that $1,700 worth of upgrades (after rebates) would shave $50 per month off my electricity bill - which equates to a three-year payback. It's free money after that point. That's not a bad investment.

My audit was through the Home Energy Tune-Up offered by the city of Fresno in cooperation with Energy Upgrade California - and available in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. A list of recommended contractors who can do the work is provided.

A similar Energy Upgrade California program is available in the service areas of Pacific Gas & Electric and Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) through GreenerSolutions of Stockton.

Sometimes it costs money to make money. Energy efficiency is that way, but Hayden Logan, owner of GreenerSolutions, says the investment is well worth it. "You can see how much energy you can save by spending only a little money," he said.

Many property owners have to finance the energy improvements, but there are ways to do that. One of the most common is the CHF Residential Energy Retrofit Program, for which GreenerSolutions is an approved contractor. The program provides no-and low-interest loans (up to 3%) without requiring a home appraisal or a minimum credit score.

However, there are income requirements, which can be found here (some examples: $32,820-$87,500 in Fresno County; $39,240-$104,640 in San Joaquin County; and $45,060-$120,160 in Sacramento County.)

GreenerSolutions also offers financing through its own in-house program, or through energy-efficient mortgages (which are used in conjunction with purchases or refinancing).

Energy Upgrade California and similar programs offer an opportunity for property owners to get more green in their pocketbooks while living a greener lifestyle.

Photo of Fresno City Hall

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On The Road To Solar Valley

Officials at UC Merced sometimes refer to the San Joaquin Valley as "Solar Valley" to distinguish the emerging clean- energy potential of the 250-mile region from Stockton to the base of the Grapevine.

We are closer to achieving that designation after five solar applications were approved or recommended for approval this week. They include four proposals in Kings County and one just south of Fresno in Fresno County. Together, they total 663 acres.

The proposal south of Fresno is one of about 30 solar plants pitched for various places in Fresno County. However, the emergence of a solar industry in one of the largest agricultural regions in the United States - the San Joaquin Valley is often referred to as the nation's salad bowl - is not without controversy. Applications are carefully scrutinized because farmers worry about solar displacing prime agriculture land.

A lawsuit has been filed, and guidelines are being prepared. The above-referenced Hanford Sentinel story by Seth Nidever notes that solar developers on prime farm land in Kings County must set aside other property for agriculture. In one creative approach, a solar developer is allowing farming between rows of solar panels.

The Fresno Bee, in this editorial, suggests that a balance be struck: "There is much room for compromise on this issue and the board, the solar industry and farming interests must be willing to find it. Solar and other renewable energy technologies are in their infancy. Fresno County cannot ignore their potential," the editorial states.

It remains to be seen how large the solar industry becomes in the Valley, but Gov. Jerry Brown is a big supporter of solar generally. One milestone has already been reached; Rooftop solar power in California has reached 1 gigawatt, or 1,000 megawatts, That's enough to power 750,000 houses, according to this San Jose Mercury News article. In an interesting side note, Facebook is installing a rooftop solar system that provides hot water as well. Here's more on that.

The San Joaquin Valley, which its ample sun resources and midstate location, could be a major player in the solar industry.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Energy Efficiency: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Energy efficiency is something our nonprofit knows well. A relatively modest investment can net impressive yields. Local governments and businesses can reap big rewards, but many homeowners see good returns too.

But energy efficiency outreach can be a tough sell. My wife says it is because efficiency comes with a price tag. The initial expenditure (insulation, new lights and air conditioners and the like) turns people off. "People want it for free," Mary Lou says, even though there can be an associated tax deduction.

I think of energy efficiency as an investment. I could pay a relatively modest amount to reap greater returns in the future. But, the whole efficiency thing is difficult for some to grasp. People ask, "How can changing lights and similar measures possibly make a significant difference in my future?"

By reducing your power bill. That means you are spending less, which means you have more money in your pocket. Money you can sock away for college or retirement, or spend on something else - thus stimulating our moribund economy. By some estimates, a nationwide cut of 30% would save $40 billion ANNUALLY by 2030, and could be a bright spot in the jobs market. Home builders are adopting guidelines and buying into the idea, as are schools and others.

Consider University of California at Santa Cruz. Officials there are spending, after rebates, $104,000 to change out lights in the library. The project will pay off in three years.

Still, more than one person has called energy efficiency "intangible," although it is anything but. In this post, Sara Hayes of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), explores that myth, and others.

The end of the year is approaching, and people are starting to make plans for 2012. When you make that resolution or get that tax return, take a few moments to consider making your home or office more energy efficient. It really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Photo of an air conditioner

Monday, November 7, 2011

Clean Energy Is Down In The Dumps

Keeping current on all the advancements in clean energy could be a full time gig. Technology is changing fast and furious, which is helping to lower prices and boost the industry.

Today's gee whiz moment is brought to you by the Spectral Power Cap, a thin membrane integrated with solar panels that is covering a landfill in Georgia. It provides enough energy for 224 houses. Learn more here. A representative of the landfill operator notes that many of the nation's dumps are in urban areas close to the power grid and provide similar opportunities.

Of course, the greatest potential for fast energy savings is through efficiency (something our nonprofit is heavily involved with), and an upstart company born from University of California, Berkeley, is drawing raves in the lighting industry.

Lighting doesn't have the "wow" appeal of solar, but is important when one considers that buildings gobble up two-thirds of the electricity in this country. Read this UC story for more information.

Solar-Powered Landfills from Energy NOW on Vimeo.

Add in advancements in energy storage and other new technology (including this from NASA), and, well, you get the picture. The arrows being shot at Solyndra and other fallen solar stars are propelled mostly by politics, and the magnitude of the fallout remains to be seen. However, as New Times columnist Paul Krugman notes, Solyndra's demise was linked not to government waste but to its own inability to stay competitive in a fast-moving industry.

Momentum for a clean-energy policy is accelerating. Big Business and the military are already on board. Now, surveys show the public's overwhelming support for clean energy, especially among young people. (Grist has more here.)

There will be some stumbles, but the green movement is under way.

Photo is of a landfill

Video is of the Spectral Power Cap project

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mr. Eco takes on energy efficiency at Cal Poly

We're always looking for new ways to present energy efficiency to the masses.

In this video, dubbed "Turn Em Out," Mr. Eco parodies rapper T.I.'s "Bring Em Out." That latter video has more than 4.1 million views, while our Mr. Eco at this writing had yet to break 1,000.

But energy efficiency is tough to get the crowd yellin(g). According to details on YouTube, it was filmed all over the campus of Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "with Mr. Eco cruising through campus in an electric car reminding everyone to 'Turn Em Out.'"

Mr. Eco included a very Cal Poly cast of cameos that included President Jeffrey D. Armstrong, ASI President Kiyana Tabrizi, Sustainability Coordinator Dennis Elliot, Soccer Coach Paul Holocher, Officer Chad Reiley and Musty The Mustang. Wikipedia says in T.I.'s version, Jay-Z offers a vocal sample, while DJ Drama, Jazze Pha and Swizz Beatz made cameo appearances.

Mr. Eco calls himself an environmental rap superhero who incorporates sustainable living tips into parodies and represents the Alliance to Save Energy's Cal Poly Green Campus Program.

There's more at or his YouTube channel.