US solar power is still growing fast — but it's about to hit a speed bump

Solar only accounts for a small 0.6% of U.S. electricity but since the mid-2000s, thanks mostly to Federal tax credits and cheaper (Chinese) panels, solar instillation radically increased (mostly in California). In 2017, the Federal tax credits expire and as Brad Plumer explains, U.S. solar photovoltaic growth might hit a serious speed bump, particularly for residential installation. 

 Image via vox.com

Image via vox.com

Will the solar boom be another false start–like the 1970s–or will the Federal government reinstate the subsidies before they expire in 2017? Will panels prices continue to fall, making unsubsidized or lower subsidies panels affordable? Will Obama's Clean Power Plan make the States pick up the slack? Question to be determined in the coming years.

Apple's Real Carbon Footprint Is In Manufacturing and It's Dirty

Apple Inc. released its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report this week. In the report, Apple proudly claims that their data centers are running on 100% renewable energy and that their new headquarters in Cupertino will run entirely on renewables (solar plant in nearby Monterey County). Apple is proud to claim that building operations in the USA are moving to 100% renewable. That's great. However, Apple's real carbon footprint is in the vast, vast amount of energy used and CO2 released in manufacturing all of its physical products, mostly in China. 

For example, of the 34 million metric tons of CO2 Apple claims responsibility for in fiscal year 2014, 24.8 million metric tons are in manufacturing and only 0.4 million tons are in facilities. Put another way, 73% of Apple's carbon footprint is in manufacturing, whereas only 1.1% is in facilities. Sorry Apple, switching facilities to renewables is great optics (and still worthwhile) but it is a drop in the bucket of their CO2 footprint. For Apple to meaningfully contribute to reducing global warming they will need to begin to transition their manufacturing partners to renewables. It seems they are now just taking small steps in that direction.

For now, Apple and other manufacturers, and consumers, are contributing both to the localized pollution crisis in China as well as global CO2 emissions. If Apple wants to be a leading corporate environmental steward, as statements by CEO Tim Cook and Lisa Jackson, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives indicate, then it needs to more fully and quickly address the source of their real carbon footprint: the manufacturing of physical products.

Portland Now Generating Hydro Power in Its Water Pipes

A cool new way to get hydro power right under our cities, and they don't require dams.

The Lucid system taps the power of gravity in the city’s water system. Water flowing through the Portland Water Bureau pipe at 147th and Powell will now flow through four small turbines as well, generating enough electricity to power 150 homes along the way. The turbines are 3.5 feet wide – just big enough to span the diameter of the city’s water pipe.

Booming Rooftop Solar Power Suffers Growing Pains

No doubt there will be pains (all energy  and economic transitions experience "pains") but this is poor reporting. Nearly the entire example rests on one case, one guy and his (minor) misfortune.

Middle-class Driving Solar Revolution in U.S.

Interesting article and accompanying data that indicates that the growth in solar panel installation is being driven by the middle-class, not the upper-class, in the US. 

Your first thought is probably that the wealthy are the only ones putting solar panels on their houses in large numbers, but according to a new report on residential solar in Arizona, California, and New Jersey, that's not the case.

The reason? Solar leasing.

Important question: how can folks work to bring working-class folks into the solar revolution and distributed power? This is an area that sorely needs to be addressed in research and action.  

De-extinction?

Should we bring animals back from extinction? The how to do it is within our grasp. Stewart Brand has a good rundown of the argument, science, and politics involved. I believe that in 100-years time it will seem funny that we even debated this. Still, intentional geo, bio, and eco-engineering frightens, and irks, some as hubris. 

Annihilation of Space by Time: High Speed Rail Edition

 
 Alfred Twu via grist.org

Alfred Twu via grist.org

We can dream. We can dream.

Update: Sarah Laskow on Grist gives us the depressing actual state of train travel in the US. It's not pretty.

Climate Change: End of Social Science?

A new article by Clive Hamilton argues that climate change reveals the long Western notion of the separation of humans from nature (nature/culture dualism) to be a sham. Climate change, he argues, lays bare that humans are and always have been embedded within natural systems, which at this point in time, we are so entangled we cannot epistemologically and ontologically separate the two. Hamilton writes, 

Climate science is now telling us that such a separation can no longer be sustained, that the natural and the human are mixed up, and their influences cannot be neatly distinguished.

This is an idea that has been circulating in environmental history (William Cronon) and political and urban political ecology (e.g. Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika, and Erik Swengedouw, among many others). Recently, the hybrid thesis is moving into mainstream writing with the help from writers like Emma Marris.

Hamilton declares the social sciences to be on the way out. Why? He argues that since nature and society are not separate categories there is no longer a need for a dedicated social science. He writes,

So the advent of the Anthropocene shatters the self-contained world of social analysis that is the terrain of modern social science, and explains why those intellectuals who remain within it find it impossible to “analyze” the politics, sociology or philosophy of climate change in a way that is true to the science. They end up floundering in the old categories, unable to see that something epochal has occurred, a rupture on the scale of the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of civilization itself.

It's a bold argument. But I think he's wrong.

Environmental sociologists and other environmental studies folks, far from fading into oblivion, have an unique position in these matters because of their understanding of cultural, political, and economic systems, which analyzed properly are not siloed away from nature, but rather the society-nature hybrid is integrated into an overall analysis. Multi-disiplinary and trans-disciplinary collaboration, such as the Sustainable Engineering and Ecological Design institute at my alma matter. 

Furthermore, Hamilton oddly enough makes an environmental determinist claim, which goes against his overall argument:

From hereon our history will increasingly be dominated by “natural processes”, influenced by us but largely beyond our control. Our future has become entangled with that of the Earth’s geological evolution...it can no longer be maintained that humans make their own history, for the stage on which we make it has now entered into the play as a dynamic and capricious force.

He wants to argue that social science is going away, that the Modernist human-nature duality is crumbling, but then makes a statement that subsumes society into the totality of nature and puts us at the complete whim of nature. This is not hybrid socio-nature thinking that I and others, and Hamilton, up until that point, make.

Environmental studies requires systems thinking rather than category thinking. We may be embedded within natural systems, but it is incorrect to argue that we are now at the whim of nature. It is not enough to just turn Modernity on its head, as Marx once turned Hegel on his head, replacing base with superstructure. We need to continue to push the boundaries and dissolve the categories towards new socio-ecological studies. Down with dualisms, old and new.

Wind Beat Natural Gas As America's Fastest-Growing Power Source in 2012

This, in addition to renewables being the fasted growing energy sector last year. And the IEA declaring that renewables will be the worlds second largest energy source by 2015. Encouraging signs; long road ahead.

2013 Motor Trend's Car of the Year...

is the Tesla Model S. It is the first time an internal combustion engine automobile has not won the award. To quell any squabbling that this is eco-hype, Motor Trend says, "At its core, the Tesla Model S is simply a damned good car you happen to plug in to refuel."

 image via motortrend.com

image via motortrend.com

 

Geoengineering, Let's Just Fiddle with the Earth

Businessman from the US conducts unregulated geoengineering experiment off the coast of Canada, dumping 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean. Native American communities were told it was a salmon enhancement project. It was not.

Businessman says of international regulations:

George told the Guardian that the two moratoria are a "mythology" and do not apply to his project.

We are going to see more of these kinds of geoengineering stories and the international governance institutions need to agree on rules, norms, and regulations for these kinds of activities.

Update: The Guardian now reports that members of the Canadian government knew about and was complicit in this experiment.

The chief executive of the company responsible for spawning the artificial 10,000 square kilometre plankton bloom in the Pacific Ocean has implicated several Canadian departments, but government officials are remaining silent about the nature of their involvement.

Community Solar Installation

A cool story from my town of residence, Chico, CA:

Seven homes on a north Chico cul-de-sac had solar arrays installed Saturday in a flurry of activity. Solarthon resembled the old-fashioned barn-raising its organizers likened it to, with a bit of block party thrown in, complete with a D.J. It was a fundraiser for GRID Alternatives, an Oakland-based nonprofit that opened its seventh office in Chico about a year ago.
 Image from Chicoer.com

Image from Chicoer.com

Nest Thermostat's True Value: Social

Nest Labs has released the Nest Learning Thermostat 2.0 nearly a year after 1.0 was released. As Nest continues to innovate in the smart, green thermostat space, marketing and perceived value has always tended towards: how much money does this save me? However, after one year of data collection by Nest, the deeper value in Nest is its social and aggregate value.

Nest is able to collect data on energy use and energy savings (read their stats here and download the whitepaper) Nest translates that into a monetary figure for average money saved. What is really exciting about Nest is its sociological implications for connected, networked based energy production, consumption, and data collection. As Nest Labs continues to collect user data we will begin to learn how people use energy and how we can improve energy efficiency and overall reduction. 

Nest Labs markets the Nest as, how we can save you money, but the larger, sociological implications of networked and data producing energy devices is Nest's real social value. And that is more exciting, and in the long run, more important than personal savings.

Organic: It's never been about nutrition

Organic agriculture is been about the elimination of pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, and monoculture.

There is a new meta-analysis (aggregate of other scientists' studies) out from scientists at Stanford that the New York Times and others are running, which states that there are no nutritional benefits of organic produce and meats. Problem with the headlines: no serious proponent of organic produce and meats, and organic farming in general, was saying that the products were more nutritious. This always bugged me when I saw people, proponents or opponents, making this claim.

Organic agriculture has always been about rejecting pesticides, hormones, and industrial farming techniques (large inputs and monoculture), not about how the produce was more nutritious. 

Honeywell Killed Off its Learning Thermostat 20 Years Ago

I missed this one:

Katie Fahrenbacher, writing for GigaOM back in February, reported that, according to Honeywell, the company "found that consumers prefer to control the thermostat, rather than being controlled by the thermostat” and decided to cease development. Twenty years later, however, Nest Labs entered the thermostat market with in 2011 with a learning thermostat, one that requires no programming or fiddling to save money and energy use.

This past year, the Nest has gotten huge press and great reviews. Subsequently, Honeywell has sued Nest over the Nest Learning Thermostat, claiming it violated a string of patents. Interestingly, technology writer and iOS developer, Marco Arment has dinged the Nest for having weak programming abilities, a downside according to Arment of a learning thermostat, though Arment generally likes the Nest in other areas.

For the past year Nest has been a great case to watch as it attempts to disrupt the thermostat industry and points to the potential to connect internet technology and energy use and reduction. 

A Choice

President Obama signed an Executive Order "Accelerating Investment in Industrial Energy Efficiency", which comes on the heals of new improved car fuel efficiency standars for 2025

Meanwhile, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney turned climate change into a punch line during his acceptance speech as the RNC:

Obama has been pretty good about promoting new energy sources, green tech, and efficiency, not so good on climate change however. Romney, on the other hand, represents old, dirty energy production. Gas, coal, oil. No eye for the future, whether new energy sources or climate change.