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Archive for the ‘climate change’ Category

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

By the third day of any conference, one’s eyes begin to glaze over. But Lisa Gansky provided an intellectual jolt on the final morning of the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco this week when she appeared on stage to talk about “the Mesh.”

That’s what Gansky, a veteran Internet entrepreneur, calls the confluence of social networks, GPS-enabled mobile technology (smartphones, iPads, and the like) and the tagging of physical objects with chips that pinpoint their location.

“The Mesh is a fundamental shift in our relationship to the things in our lives,” said Gansky, who has written a book by the same name. “We’re moving to an economy where access to goods and services trumps ownership of them.  The opportunity of the Mesh is to really design and support better things easily shared.”

“The recession has caused us to ask what the real value of things versus the cost,” she added. “This is a time where we’re more connected to more people than ever before.”

And so in recent years, we’ve seen the rise of a panoply of peer-to-peer services, beginning with music sharing in the Napster era to peer-to-peer money lending to car sharing.

The advent of smartphones and social networks like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and Yelp has accelerated the trend. But whether the Mesh is a plaything of the urban techno-hipsters or represents the advent of new economic model, as Gansky posits, remains to be seen.

But what struck me is the truly radical economic notion enmeshed in the Mesh: The more we share our stuff, the less we need to buy all that new stuff that inevitably leads to ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation, and the pursuit of unsustainable consumption.

“If we look at ourselves as a global community, we have a lot of stuff,” Gansky said. “What we actually use of the stuff we have is a really small percentage.”

Gansky noted that people in the United States and Europe typically use their cars only 8 percent of the day. “For most people, the second most expensive thing we own is just sitting for most of the time,” she said.

So why not make cars share-ready when they roll off the assembly line?

“Not only in terms of their ability of to tap into a network but so when I buy a car and I automatically and easily have the option to make it available to somebody else to use and pay me or not,” Gansky said.

She noted that it took six years for Zipcar, which lets people rent vehicles by the hour in urban areas, to build a fleet of 1,000 cars. But it only took six months for WhipCar, a peer-to-peer car sharing service, to put 1,000 cars in service after its launch last year in the U.K. That’s because WhipCar lets people share their personal cars, much like the U.S. services Getaround, RelayRide and Spride Share.

Now think about embedding that ability to share in all sorts of objects.

Gansky acknowledged that getting people to change long-entrenched habits and cultural attitudes about ownership won’t be easy.

“We have experiences in our lives where sharing was irresistible but how do we do that on a regular basis and in a scalable way,” she said. “Generally, people change their habits when one thing happens — their pants are on fire.”

But you only have to turn on the news to know its getting hot in here.

 

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In The New York Times on Tuesday, I wrote about the strategy of San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, the leader of the campaign against Proposition 23 last year, to fight efforts to restrict the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions:

Is Thomas F. Steyer the anti-Koch?

For years, Mr. Steyer, a billionaire San Francisco hedge fund manager, assiduously maintained a low profile while becoming a major donor to Democratic candidates. That changed in 2010 when he led the successful fight to defeat Proposition 23, a California ballot measure backed by two Texas oil companies and a company controlled by Charles G. and David H. Koch, the secretive billionaire brothers and bankrollers of conservative causes.

Proposition 23 would have effectively derailed the state’s landmark global warming law, which would have been a big setback for California’s blooming green technology industry. Mr. Steyer, the founder of Farallon Capital Management, is the main financial backer of Greener Capital, a venture firm that invests in renewable energy start-ups.

Now Mr. Steyer appears to be itching to take on the Koch brothers and their supporters as Republican lawmakers seek to limit the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. “As an investor who one might say is insanely obsessed with energy and its generation and use around the world, it seems crazy to me we would roll back science-based clean air standards because there are skillful political operatives and wealthy political donors who really want to get rid of E.P.A. regulations,” he said in a speech Monday evening at the Cleantech Forum conference in San Francisco. “That seems nuts to me.”

While Mr. Steyer did not mention the Koch brothers directly in his speech, he assailed their support for Proposition 23 during the campaign.

Mr. Steyer, who said he had spent time consulting with the Obama administration after last November’s election, laid out a political strategy to focus on swing states and promote environmental regulation as a boon for job creation, drawing on lessons from the battle over Proposition 23.

“It’s all about public health and clean air,” he said. “It’s all about creating new jobs and really what we’re fighting is self-interested dirty energy companies.”

He noted that opponents of a Democrats’ failed efforts to pass climate change legislation last year had gone state by state to talk about potential job losses from capping greenhouse gas emissions.

“Our strategy going forward as a group is that we have to have answers on the state and local level,” Mr. Steyer said. “The idea that we would change the way energy is generated and used in the United States without engaging the American people locally in a real way seems to me to be wrong.”

Mr. Steyer said he had consulted with Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader and adviser to former President Bill Clinton, to gain a better understanding of how the civil rights movement organized its campaigns.

“I asked, ‘How did you guys do it? How did you change the way Americans think about civil rights, something that nobody was anxious to engage on as far as I can tell but where there was a gross need for change, just as there is here,’ ” Mr. Steyer said.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times on Monday, I write about WeatherBill, a San Francisco startup that announced a $42 million round of financing from Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures:

Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures have led a $42 million financing round in WeatherBill, a San Francisco start-up that insures farmers against extreme weather that can cripple crop production.

Founded by Google alumni, the four-year-old company runs computer simulations to predict the likelihood of extreme weather in any given location at any given time and charges farmers accordingly.

“We provide protection to farmers of unexpected weather primarily caused by extremes of rainfall or temperature, something we’re seeing more of because of climate change,” said David Friedberg, WeatherBill’s chief executive, citing the recent floods in Australia and drought in China.

“By getting a guarantee on what one might make on an acre of farming, farmers can feel more comfortable about making investments in their operations,” Mr. Friedberg, who was a founding member of Google’s corporate development team, said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.

He said WeatherBill has now raised just under $60 million from investors that also include NEA, Index Ventures, Allen & Company, First Round Capital, Atomico and Code Advisors.

The investment marks a growing interest by Silicon Valley venture capital firms in the nascent sustainable agricultural market, also called Ag 2.0, which is loosely defined as environmentally beneficial farming,

“Recently we’ve been very, very interested in the impact of technology on agriculture,” said Vinod Khosla, a leading green tech investor and founder of Khosla Ventures. “I realize that agriculture is an unusual area for venture capital but I would submit that agricultural technology has the same potential in agriculture as biotechnology had in pharmaceuticals or chip technology had in telecommunications.”

Bill Maris, managing director of Google’s investment arm, however, made clear that his firm was not about to trade in the company Prius for a pickup truck, taking pains to describe WeatherBill as a cloud computing startup not an agriculture or insurance play.

“This is a technology company working on something that is going to have a real-world impact on a foundational global industry, which is agriculture,” Mr. Maris said. “Helping famers protect their financial futures and protect the global food supply is something I think we all can be passionate about.”

Mr. Friedberg said WeatherBill’s computer scientists and climatologists crunch weather data and feed it into computer models run on hundreds of servers and are updated several times a day.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 29, 2010.

Environmentalists have long used Google Earth to keep tabs on mountaintop mining and to monitor deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Now with the release Monday of the latest version of Google’s virtual world maps, they’ll be able to literally see the trees in the forest  — in 3D.

Among other new features, Google Earth 6 has initially mapped more than 80 million trees in seven cities, from olive groves in Athens to the flowering dogwoods of Tokyo. Viewers can also fly through a section of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

“Google wants to create a more accurate and real model of the world and we want to make sure we’re adding in more information to make the planet more alive and more complete,” Peter Birch, product manager for Google Earth, said in an interview. “Trees provide context wherever you go and this allows you to tell the story of forestlands.”

Birch said Google is working with environmental groups, indigenous peoples and government in Africa, Mexico and South America to use the 3D Trees feature in reforestation and conservation projects.

“We’re modeling the saplings they’re planting as well as areas of mature trees, so people can fly around and get idea of what the forest looks like,” he said.

In Mexico, Google is collaborating with CONABIO, the country’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, to map coastal mangrove forests. Brazil’s Surui people are using Google Earth 6 to map trees significant to the tribe. And in Kenya, the Greenbelt Movement will model five forest restoration projects with the Google software.

Google Earth 6 will initially include 50 tree species and map parks and urban areas of Athens, Berlin, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo and the University of California campus in Davis, Calif.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo of desert tortoise tagged with a radio transmitter at the Ivanpah solar farm site: Todd Woody

In Yale Environment 360 on Wednesday, I interview John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, the California solar developer that has begun construction of the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in two decades:

Today, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and other dignitaries gathered in the Mojave Desert to officially break ground on BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in nearly two decades.

BrightSource is one of a half-dozen big solar farms, with a combined electricity-generating capacity of 2,829 megawatts, licensed by the California Energy Commission over the past two months. By year’s end, California and federal regulators expect to approve additional projects that will produce a total of 4,143 megawatts. At peak output, that’s the equivalent of several nuclear power plants and more than seven times the solar capacity installed in the United States last year.

The approval of the projects comes after years of environmental review and controversies over the installations’ impact on water, wildlife, and fragile desert landscapes. The power plants licensed so far will cover some 39 square miles of desert land with a variety of new and old solar thermal technologies. Unlike rooftop photovoltaic panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal uses the sun to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating industrial turbines.

BrightSource’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah project, located just over the California border, 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas, is the world’s largest solar-thermal power plant project currently under construction. The company, led by CEO John Woolard, received a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the United States Department of Energy to build the project, which will deploy 347,000 large mirrors that will surround three towers on 3,500 acres of federal land. The mirrors will focus the sun on a water-filled boiler that sits atop the tower to create high-temperature, high-pressure steam.

Woolard, 45, came to BrightSource as chief executive in 2004 after co-founding Silicon Energy, an energy efficiency software company, and stints at California utility PG&E, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and VantagePoint Venture Partners, a leading Silicon Valley green tech venture capital firm. He sat down with Yale Environment 360 contributor Todd Woody at BrightSource’s Oakland, Calif., headquarters to talk about the future of Big Solar and the challenges the industry faces — from a woefully inadequate electricity grid to the imperative of minimizing water use — as multibillion-dollar projects finally begin to become a reality.

Yale Environment 360: Are we witnessing the birth of a major new solar industry in the United States?

John Woolard: I hope. The number I always go back to is that we have done 74,000 permits for oil and gas in the last 20 years and we finally have five or six for solar. That’s a good step forward. The agencies are learning how to permit, they’re learning how to move forward. It’s great for the industry and we can finally get some size and consequence.

e360: As the photovoltaic industry increasingly becomes dominated by overseas companies in China and elsewhere, does the sheer scale of these solar thermal projects in the U.S. give the country the opportunity to become the technological and market leader?

Woolard: Oh, yeah. Solar thermal is very different from [photovoltaic technology]. The power has different characteristics and is more reliable. They’re almost apples and oranges. Solar thermal has got very interesting We don’t have a quantity and energy problem; It’s a collection and distribution problem.” attributes and characteristics that make it unique.

In the U.S. we’re lucky. The southwestern U.S. has high desert, which means it’s closer to the sun, less atmosphere to go through. It’s the best solar resource anywhere, outside the Anaconda Desert in Chile or a few places. Harnessing that resource effectively is the most important thing. So we don’t have a quantity and energy problem; it’s a collection and distribution problem.

e360: BrightSource’s Ivanpah project is not only the first large-scale solar thermal project to break ground, it is the first to deploy a new power tower technology. Why is that significant?

Woolard: Our team was part of building older trough plants and you learn a lot. If you take a power tower, you get higher temperatures and pressures. That gives you higher thermo-to-electrical conversion efficiency. Think of that as more efficiency, less waste, lower cost. Because of that, you need fewer mirrors, less solar field, and you have a more efficient design.

The other gets down to how you actually build on the land. If you take the older trough designs or anything with a lot of mirrors, [it] would degrade the land. It’s more damaging from a soil and runoff perspective.

The big [problem] is water. What is the world going to look like over the next 20, 30, 40 years? Water in the desert is going to become a much more challenging proposition. So we’ve gotten water usage down to a minimum — the lowest of anybody in the world, basically.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The United States is on the verge of a solar boom that could provide 4.3 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2020, according to a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

There’s just a 12-figure catch: Investors need to put $100 billion into the solar industry to keep the generation of solar electricity growing by 42 percent a year for the next decade to expand capacity from the current 1.4 gigawatts to 44 gigawatts.

“Policy measures such as tax credits, capital expenditure grants, generation incentives and renewable electricity credits will remain a key driver of solar uptake in the U.S. for at least the next three years,” according to the report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research and consulting firm. “The current drop in solar costs is taking place just as such policies are being implemented by the federal and various state governments, which is expected to lead to rapid growth in commercial, utility and residential solar power.”

Over the past two years, solar module prices have plunged by 50 percent as low-cost Chinese manufacturers expanded production and entered the U.S. market.

“Policy, rather than sunshine, will remain the U.S.’s greatest solar resource for the next few years,” Milo Sjardin, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s head of U.S. research, said in a statement. “By the middle of this decade, however, the U.S. retail solar market will be driven by fundamental, unsubsidized competition, which should transform the U.S. into one of the world’s most dynamic solar markets.”

Exhibit A for such a phenomenon is Germany. With about as much sunshine as Maine, the European nation became the world’s solar stronghold through policies that rewarded homeowners, businesses, and farmers for generating their own electricity.

Such policies are needed in the U.S., according to the report, given that solar electricity remains four times as expensive to generate than coal-fired power.

Of course, the failure of Congress to pass national climate change legislation and the current attempt to kill California’s global warming law shows that progress on green energy issues is not guaranteed in the U.S. And Congress’ habit of offering short-lived tax incentives for renewable energy and then dithering about extending them when they expire has played havoc with the industry and investors.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts photovoltaic panels will account for 30 gigawatts of the 44 gigawatts of solar electricity generation by 2020, with 14 gigawatts coming from solar thermal power plants. Solar thermal farms deploy huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

That might be a conservative estimate, if the California and federal officials’ rush to green light big solar projects in recent weeks is any indication. On Monday, for instance, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a 1,000-megawatt solar thermal power plant to be built in the Southern California desert.

By year’s end, nearly four gigawatts of solar thermal projects are expected to be licensed. Just 10 gigawatts to go until 2020.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about the continuing legal battle over placing the American pika, a small mountain-dwelling critter, on state and federal endangered species lists due to climate change threats to the animal’s survival:

In an article in Wednesday’s paper, I wrote about an environmental law firm that persuaded thousands of San Francisco commuters to use their smartphones’ Foursquare application to “check in” at its advertisements in subway stations and raise money to save the American pika, a critter that may be threatened by climate change.

The nonprofit law firm, Earthjustice, scored a victory this week when a San Francisco judge ordered the California Fish and Game Commission to reconsider a decision to deny state endangered species protection to the pika.

A relative of the rabbit, the pika lives on the rocky slopes of alpine ranges in California and throughout the West. Even small increases in temperature prove fatal to the pika, which does not hibernate and maintains a high body heat to survive frigid winters. As temperatures rise in mountainous regions, some scientists have found that pika populations either have vanished at lower elevations or moved to higher ground. The pint-sized mammal is also at risk from melting snow packs, which it relies on to insulate its burrows during long winters.

Earthjustice represents the Center for Biological Diversity in its efforts to have the pika listed as a protected species under state and federal law. After initially finding that a listing may be warranted for the pika, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in February concluded that the species could adapt to climate change.

In California, meanwhile, Earthjustice has been enmeshed in a three-year fight with the state Fish and Game Commission. The commission has twice rejected consideration of the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to list the pika as a threatened species.

“The record in this case unequivocally demonstrates that the petition failed to include sufficient, if any, scientific information about population trend, population abundance, range, distribution, and degree and immediacy of threat to the pika throughout all or a significant portion of its range in California,” Cecilia L. Dennis, a California deputy attorney general, wrote in a motion filed Sept. 1 that opposed the environmentalists’ effort to re-open the listing proceedings.

But Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is based in Oakland, Calif., argued that the Center for Biological Diversity offered more than ample evidence that a listing might be warranted for the pika, which would lead to a full investigation of the species’ status.

In court filings, Mr. Loarie said that the commission failed to properly consider new scientific evidence that his client presented in 2009 after Judge Peter Busch of the San Francisco Superior Court ordered the commission to reconsider the petition on the ground that it had used the wrong legal standard to reach its decision.

“As the expert agency charged with protecting California’s wildlife, the commission’s role is to evaluate the substance of the scientific evidence that it receives in support of and against a listing petition,” Mr. Loarie wrote in a brief.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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