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Archive for the ‘Natural Resources Defense Council’ Category

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

Talk about sporting greens: On Wednesday, all of the United States’ professional sports leagues said they would distribute a guide on how to switch to renewable energy and urge their teams to solarize their stadiums.

The guide was prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and marks a new alliance between environmentalists and the nation’s baseball, football, hockey, and soccer teams.

“It’s not a league mandate, it’s not a requirement for stadiums and arenas to install solar panels, but it indicates an important cultural shift recognized by professional sports that all arenas and stadiums in the country should at least consider and evaluate the opportunity that solar power might provide,” Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the NRDC, said during a conference call Wednesday.

“Frankly, sports matter. Sports matter a lot,” he added. “Sports is one of the most iconic and influential sectors of our society and frankly we need to have a cultural shift as well as a technical and economic shift if we’re going to advance and move to sustainability.”

In other words, if Jill Six-Pack sees that the Yankees have gone solar she might consider doing the same.

“We really have the ability to shift the dial,” said Darryl Benge, the assistant general manager of Qwest Field in Seattle, home to the Seahawks and Sounders. “We basically bring together small cities on game day.”

Representatives from the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and other stadiums said that economics as well as the environment were pushing them to go green.

Benge noted that Qwest Field’s electricity rates had jumped 18 percent this year, which played a part in the stadium’s decision to solicit bids to install a 600-kilowatt solar array.

In Los Angeles, the Staples Center flipped the switch on a 345.6-kilowatt photovoltaic system that has so far saved $100,000 in electricity costs, according to Lee Zeidman, executive vice president for operations for the facility.

The Staples Center has gone beyond solar to install waterless urinals that save seven million gallons of water annually, and switched to non-toxic cleaning products.

Other teams have tackled the waste issue. Scott Jenkins, the vice president of ballpark operations for the Seattle Mariners, said the team has saved $1 million over three years by recycling 80 percent of the waste generated at games.

Gary Betteman, commissioner of the National Hockey League, said 30,000 shopping bags were replaced with reusable totes during the Stanley Cup, and he noted that several NHL venues have installed solar panels.

Stadium managers acknowledged that sports’ biggest carbon footprint comes from fans driving to and from games. The challenge, they said, will be to get more fans to take public transportation as well as to build arenas in urban areas with accessible mass transit.

For his part, Hershkowitz said he was astounded that it has taken the environmental movement 40 years to forge a strong alliance with professional sports.

“If you want to change the world you don’t emphasize how different you are from everybody else,” he said. “You focus on your similarities.”

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photo: NRDC

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

The climate war has shifted to California.

Proposition 23, an initiative that would suspend Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32), the state’s landmark global warming law, provides the first ballot box test for climate change legislation — and for the prospects of reviving a national cap-and-trade bill.

So far, much of the media attention has focused on Prop 23’s funding. It’s being underwritten by the Texas oil companies Tesoro and Valero along with other mostly out-of-state petrochemical and fossil fuel interests. Prop 23 supporters have contributed more than $6.5 million to the campaign.

But a review of opposition fundraising — for the No on 23 campaign — offers a revealing look at what amounts to a fight for the future, a struggle between the industrial behemoths of the old fossil fuel economy and a startup coalition of environmental groups, Silicon Valley technology companies, financiers, and old-line corporations looking to profit from decarbonizing California.

“The choice that is before California is between the new clean economy versus the dirty old economy,” says Annie Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Silicon Valley folks who are willing to invest in the new clean energy economy with their dollars are tangible evidence that this is an economic issue as well as an environmental one.”

The NRDC has emerged as one of the key fundraisers, funneling more than a million dollars to the No on 23 campaign to date. Big green groups such as NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund took the lead on forging alliances with Fortune 500 companies in the unsuccessful effort to pass national climate change legislation. In contrast, the heavy hitters in California’s Prop 23 battle are green tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who have traditionally shied away from electoral politics.

The last stand for climate change has brought John Doerr, a leading green tech investor with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, to the table. Doerr has given $500,000 to defeat Prop 23. And he’s not alone.

Wendy Schmidt, founder the 11th Hour Project, a Silicon Valley environmental grant-making nonprofit (and wife of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt), donated $500,000 to NRDC’s No Prop 23 Committee. (Disclosure: The Schmidt Family Foundation is a financial supporter of Grist’s, and Wendy Schmidt is a member of the Grist Board.)

Google itself hasn’t contributed to the No campaign, but last week the search giant’s green energy chief, Bill Weihl, assured a gathering at the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters that, “We’re strongly behind the No on 23 campaign” and the global warming law, known as AB 32.

When asked about Google’s potential financial support for the No campaign, company spokesperson Parag Chokshi said, “Google has been a very strong supporter of AB 32 and wants it to be implemented. We’ll continue to monitor the situation as we move forward.”

To date, the heaviest hitter on Team No is Thomas Steyer, the press-shy founder of San Francisco hedge fund Farallon Capital Management. Steyer, a big donor to Democratic candidates, has pledged $5 million and stepped forward to co-chair the No on 23 Committee with George Schulz, the Republican former secretary of state.

“I personally come at this issue as a businessperson who cares about the economic future of California as well as the environmental and security issues here,” Steyer said on a conference call late last month. “The right way to frame this is that we have a fairly stark choice to either move forward or turn back the clock.”

“We have 12,000 companies in California working on clean energy already,” he added. “It’s going to be one of the dominant spaces in the world and for us to excel and lead in this area we need a consistent regulatory framework for investment.”

Yet another mainstream investor is Robert Fisher, former chair of The Gap, the San Francisco-based clothing empire. Like Schmidt, Fisher has put up a half million dollars for the NRDC fund. And Southern California investor Anne Getty Earhart, an heir to the Getty oil fortune, donated $250,000 directly to the No campaign.

“What makes this unusual is that this is not your classic tree-huggers-versus-big business battle,” says Steve Maviglio, a longtime California Democratic operative and the chief spokesperson for the No on Prop 23 campaign. “Environmentalists, dyed-in-the-wool businessmen, tech companies — they have all been very active in fundraising, active on the lecture circuit and before editorial boards.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In a followup to my story in Wednesday’s New York Times about recycling farmland and toxic waste sites for renewable energy projects, I take a deeper dive into why some farmers in the California’s San Joaquin Valley want to stop raising crops and start growing electrons:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about an ambitious plan to build one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes on 30,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Elsewhere, big renewable energy projects have encountered opposition from farmers, ranchers and environmentalists who worry about the impact of solar power plants on agriculture, wildlife and scarce water supplies.

But farmers in the San Joaquin Valley’s Westlands Water District are embracing solar power as a solution to their water woes. And environmental groups are backing the project as a way to avoid fights over building solar power plants in pristine desert areas.

In the 1960s, the west side of the San Joaquin Valley was transformed from a desert to one of the nation’s most productive agricultural centers thanks to a huge irrigation project that transports water from Northern California and distributes it to 600,000 acres of farmland through 1,034 miles of underground pipes.

Decades of irrigation and drainage problems led to a buildup of salt in the soil that forced the water district to spend $100 million to acquire and retire 100,000 acres of land from most agricultural production. Drought and environmental disputes over the impact of water diversions on endangered fish, meanwhile, slashed water deliveries to Westlands farmers.

The water district hopes to make money off salt-contaminated land by providing an initial 12,000 acres to Westside Holdings, a firm that has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt photovoltaic power complex called the Westlands Solar Park.

And farmers like Mark Shannon have agreed to lease their parched land to Westside, reluctantly concluding there’s more money to be made by growing electrons than crops.

“Last year, we received only 10 percent of our water supply and we idled 85 percent of this ranch,” said Mr. Shannon of the 5,300-acre property that his family has farmed for three generations. “My dad is 67 and I can’t believe how many times I’ve called him and he’s in tears — he just always figured he’d pass this land on to me.”

Mr. Shannon took me up in a small plane for a bird’s-eye view of the impact of the water crisis on his land, where brown fields surround green patches of almonds and pistachios. Beyond his farm are dry lands that stretch to the horizon, property owned by the Westlands Water District and taken out of irrigated production.

“Last year, we had over 250,000 acres in the district that didn’t get farmed,” said Sarah Woolf, a Westlands spokeswoman. “Then you have drainage issues coupled with the long-term reliability of the water supply.”

Desperate farmers have been spending millions of dollars drilling hundreds of deep groundwater wells, which in turn has caused subsidence problems.

In other parts of California, the prospect of covering square miles of farmland with solar panels has stirred outrage among some rural residents. But Mr. Shannon and Westlands officials don’t expect any significant opposition in the San Joaquin Valley.

The reason: if farmers such convert their land to solar farms, their water allocations will be redistributed to their neighbors.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Photo: Lori Eanes.

In a piece I wrote for Yale Environment 360, I interview the new executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, about what’s next for the green movement in the wake of the defeat of federal climate change legislation:

In March, Michael Brune took over as executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and largest environmental organization in the United States. The Sierra Club doesn’t change leaders often — he’s only the sixth executive director in its 118-year history — and in selecting Brune, the group’s board chose to go with a young outsider with a track record of campaigning in the streets and confronting corporations to effect environmental change.

Brune, 38, previously ran the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based group whose slogan is “Environmentalism with Teeth.” With a small staff and modest budget, Rainforest Action has extracted agreements from companies such as Home Depot and Citigroup to abandon environmentally destructive practices.

In moving four blocks from Rainforest Action’s offices to the Sierra Club’s national headquarters, Brune — who started his environmental career as a Greenpeace campaigner — is now leading an organization with 1.3 million members and 400 chapters.

His ascension to one of the top jobs in American environmentalism comes at a turning point for the green movement. The decade’s best shot at imposing a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions has failed in the U.S. Senate, despite years of effort by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council to forge a coalition with Fortune 500 companies to pass climate change legislation.

“I think we need to a do a very honest and candid reflection on why various iterations of cap and trade legislation have failed,” says Brune, whose soft-spoken manner belies a reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator. “Millions of people have written e-mails, called their senators, demonstrated in the streets, taken actions in a variety of different ways, and still we can’t even get 50 votes, much less 60” in the Senate.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Brune sat down in his office at Sierra Club headquarters with writer Todd Woody to talk about the future of the environmental movement, his plans for the Sierra Club, and the next front in what author author Eric Pooley calls the “climate war.”

Yale Environment 360: With the failure of climate legislation, where does the environmental movement go from here?

Michael Brune: The first thing we need to do is a good assessment of what went wrong. We should not try to do the same thing and expect a different result. We need to rethink what the best way is to build momentum to fight climate change. Just as it was clear that one single bill wasn’t going to stop climate change, it’s also clear that there are many different avenues that we can take.

e360: What would be some of those avenues?

Brune: I think clearly right now focusing on administrative actions, regulatory actions, and perhaps more narrow but stronger legislation that would focus on reducing oil consumption and increasing the inventory of clean energy that is available. There’s a lot that can happen through the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to protect the public health that Eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet replaced with clean energy.” will accelerate a transition away from dirty coal-fired power plants.

The Sierra Club over the past three or four years has been focused on stopping new coal-fired power plants from being built, arguably one of the most effective things we’ve ever done. Along with a broad coalition of grassroots groups, we’ve been able to stop about 131 new coal plants from being built.

That work is going to be evolving over the next several years to not only focus on stopping new plants but on retiring the biggest, oldest coal plants and replacing them with clean energy. So by supporting the EPA’s efforts to protect public health and tighten the controls on particulate matter and air toxins like mercury — there’s a whole series of regulations that are coming down the pike — we feel like we can achieve dramatic reductions and significantly decarbonize the power sector. We feel eight years from now we could have a third of the coal fleet be retired and replaced with clean energy.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

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

The Gulf oil spill disaster is usually tied to Americans’ insatiable appetite for gasoline to fuel an unsustainable lifestyle.

And while transportation accounts for most of the United States’ petroleum consumption, there are still more than 14 million homes that rely on some type of oil for heating. Retrofitting those houses to run on cleaner fuel and increase their energy efficiency could save as much oil as would be spilled in two Deepwater Horizon disasters a month, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, a non-profit focused on green building.

“Retrofitting our oil-heated homes and commercial buildings to 50 percent savings would save 2 billion barrels of oil by 2030, practically offsetting the amount of oil we could get by drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf,”  the report states. “In addition, home retrofits could save more than double the amount of natural gas that we could produce by drilling the Outer Continental Shelf.”

NRDC points out that the $20 billion BP has set aside for the Gulf cleanup could finance energy efficiency retrofits for every home in Louisiana and Mississippi, cutting homeowners utility bills by 25 percent. The nearly $4 billion BP has spent so far on the cleanup could pay for retrofitting 650,000 homes.

“That could have been spent on U.S.-made insulation, air conditioners, furnaces, water heaters, and other products, as well as the labor to install them,” the report states. “Of course, oil savings from building efficiency pale in comparison to the savings potential of more efficient vehicles, better urban planning, and increasing transportation options, but the magnitude of the savings potential of the building sector illustrates just how short-sighted our focus on drilling has become.”

And while building energy efficiency improvements aren’t cheap, those investments will continue to pay dividends for decades in the form of lower energy bills and reduced demand for fossil fuels.

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

As global warming accelerates, the world will become not only hotter, flatter, and more crowded but also thirsty, according to a new study that finds 70 percent of counties in the United States may face climate change-related risks to their water supplies by 2050.

One-third of U.S. counties may find themselves at “high or extreme risk,” according to the report prepared for the Natural Resources Defense Council by Tetra Tech, a California environmental consulting firm.

“It appears highly likely that climate change could have major impacts on the available precipitation and the sustainability of water withdrawals in future years under the business-as-usual scenario,” the study’s authors conclude. “This calculation indicates the increase in risk that affected counties face that water demand will outstrip supplies, if no other remedial actions are taken. To be clear, it is not intended as a prediction that water shortages will occur, but rather where they are more likely to occur.”

Those conclusions are based on climate modeling, predicted precipitation, historical drinking water consumption as well as water use by industry and for electrical generation.

It’s no surprise that states in the hot and dry West faces the highest risk of water shortages. Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas top the list, though the study also finds that part of Florida could find itself tapped out.

“As a result, the pressure on public officials and water users to creatively manage demand and supply — through greater efficiency and realignment among competing uses, and by water recycling and creation of new supplies through treatment — will be greatest in these regions,” the report states. “The majority of the Midwest and Southern regions are considered to be at moderate risk, whereas the Northeast and some regions in the Northwest are at low risk of impacts.”

The forecast relies on the continuation of business as usual — i.e. the nation does not change its water-wasting ways — and also on federal government data that predicts the U.S. will continue to use thirsty fossil-fuel power plants to generate electricity.

That should whet some appetites for renewable energy sources that use less water and for investment in new water technologies.

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photo: Todd Woody

Can a state that gets 95 percent of its electricity from coal-fired power plants go green? The Natural Resources Defense Council thinks so. In a report released this week, the environmental group lays out how Indiana can become the California of the Midwest when it comes to renewable energy. As I write in The New York Times on Friday:

Coal-dependent Indiana could become one of the nation’s greenest states by tapping rural resources to generate renewable energy, according to a new report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Hoosier State now obtains 95 percent of its electricity from plants running on coal — largely imported from Wyoming and elsewhere — but it could profit as an exporter of wind energy and machinery, the report said.

“Indiana has some of the best wind potential in the eastern U.S. and has a competitive advantage as a wind producer over most other states because of its location,” said the report’s author, Martin R. Cohen, said during a conference call on Wednesday.

Mr. Cohen noted that while the wind blows stronger in states like North Dakota and Nebraska, Indiana already has the transmission system in place to bring wind-generated electricity to eastern cities.

If Indiana increased wind energy production to 4,500 megawatts from its current 530 megawatts, it would create thousands of jobs and attract turbine manufacturers, according to the report. An owner of a 500-acre farm could earn $30,000 a year from leasing land for wind turbines, Mr. Cohen estimated.

Farmers also could profit, the report said, if Indiana starts harvesting corn stalks, wheat stalks and soybean residue and uses the biomass either for power production or to make ethanol.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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