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I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared on November 23, 2010.

A coalition of environmentalists, national security advocates and budget hawks on Tuesday called for an “oil security fee” and deployment of new transportation technology  to lessen dependence on imported oil and to promote “mobility choice.”

“Oil’s virtual monopoly over transportation fuel coupled with limited economical and convenient alternatives for moving people and goods have made oil a strategic commodity and the lifeblood of the domestic and global economies,” stated a report released by the coalition, called Mobility Choice. “Choice involves both having a range of fuels to power the passenger fleet and having alternative options to driving to accomplish our daily rounds.”

The group called for an “oil security fee” on gasoline and diesel to reflect the true cost of securing oil supplies as well as policies to promote more efficient mass transportation, telecommuting and mixed use residential development.

“We’re not paying the security price of oil at the pump,” Anne Korin, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington, D.C. non-profit, said during a press conference Tuesday.  “It’s important to internalize that cost with an oil security fee either at the pump or upstream.”

While the odds of Congress passing legislation to impose such a fee may be slim, the group’s advocacy of technological solutions to slash fuel use and promote mass transit may receive a more favorable hearing.

“Information technology has changed the worlds of commerce and leisure, allowing us to contact colleagues and loved ones around the globe nearly instantly,” the report stated. “Yet much of America’s transportation infrastructure is still basically stuck in the 1950s.”

The nation’s 300,000 traffic signals are a case in point.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I follow up my story on community solar power plants:

In an article in the special Energy section of The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about a developer who wants to sell “garden plots” in a 15-megawatt photovoltaic farm in Davis, Calif., so that residents can go solar without having to cut down trees in the city’s urban forest to install rooftop arrays.

While solar power plants seem like a 21st-century phenomenon, the Davis project dates from 1987, when the utility Pacific Gas and Electric built P.V.U.S.A. — Photovoltaics for Utility Scale Applications –- to test various nascent technologies.

Matt Cheney, a veteran renewable financier in San Francisco and founder of CleanPath Ventures, eventually acquired P.V.U.S.A. and received the city’s blessing to expand the power plant from around one megawatt to 15 megawatts.

Last week, I took a took a tour of the solar farm, a veritable outdoor Smithsonian of solar power displaying a dozen photovoltaic technologies. Some have become common sights on rooftops and at power plants while others barely left the laboratory before failing and bear the name of start-ups long gone.

Built on an abandoned wastewater treatment plant and surrounded by farmland on Davis’s outskirts, P.V.U.S.A. features two-story-high thin-film solar panel arrays that were on the technological cutting edge in their day but only became commercially viable in recent years.

Strips of early solar tiles designed to serve as power-generating roofing material are laid out on a wooden platform.

And behind rows of more conventional solar panels lies a field of what looks like photovoltaic sunflowers. Pods of 25 small mirrors designed to concentrate the sun on a high-efficiency photovoltaic cell suspended on a stamenlike strut.

“They installed them back in 2004 and 2005, and two months into the installation, it stopped working and the company didn’t want to deal with them anymore,” said Dang H. Dang, P.V.U.S.A.’s on-site manager, as jackrabbits darted among the arrays.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times special Energy report, I write about how community solar power plants offer residents a chance to own photovoltaic arrays without putting panels on their roofs — or cutting down trees:

DAVIS, Calif. — In this environmentally conscious college town, thousands of bicyclists commute each day through a carefully cultivated urban forest whose canopy shields riders and their homes from the harsh sun of this state’s Central Valley.

The intensity of that sunshine also makes Davis an attractive place to generate clean green energy from rooftop solar panels. And therein lies a conundrum. Tapping the power of the sun can also mean cutting down some of those trees.

“Davis has spent many, many decades getting trees planted and improving energy efficiency by virtue of shade trees that cool houses,” said Mitch Sears, the city’s sustainability program manager. “But if you want solar energy, it’s not rocket science that you need the sun.”

Now a San Francisco company, CleanPath Ventures, is promoting a solution to allow homeowners to keep their trees and go solar at the same time. CleanPath plans to expand its existing solar farm on the city’s outskirts and then sell “garden plots” to homeowners who would own the electricity generated by their patch of photovoltaic panels. Apartment dwellers and other residents whose homes are not suitable for rooftop solar arrays would also be able to own a piece of the power plant.

“If you moved down the block, you’d take the electricity production with you just like if you make an investment in a community garden, wherever you live you’ll benefit from what’s grown in the garden,” said Matt Cheney, a longtime financier of renewable energy and the founder of CleanPath Ventures.

Community solar power plants are seen as a way to expand the availability of renewable energy while taking advantage of the economies of scale that result from installing thousands of solar panels in a central location rather than scattered on thousands of individual homes.

“To get the energy benefits of solar there’s no reason to drill holes in a roof,” said Jim Burke, manager of the SolarShares program for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which serves the region surrounding the state capital.

The utility, known as SMUD, started SolarShares, one of the nation’s first community solar-power-plant programs, in July 2008 when it offered customers the opportunity to buy electricity from a 1.2-megawatt photovoltaic power plant built on a turkey farm southeast of Sacramento.

“People love solar, but we required you to own a roof” and that it face a certain way, said Mr. Burke. “Multifamily buildings were usually excluded and renters were excluded.”

Then there was the tree issue.

“SMUD has planted hundreds of thousands of trees to shade rooftops and then with solar we’re saying cut them down,” he noted.

The SolarShares program gives customers the option of buying power from a half-kilowatt or a one-kilowatt portion of the solar farm. For instance, for a household that uses 2,158 kilowatt-hours a year, a one-kilowatt solar system would cover about 81 percent of their electricity consumption and cost $21.50 a month. However, the household would receive a monthly credit for the solar electricity produced that would average $13.96.

The pilot SolarShares program sold out within six months and there’s now a waiting list, according to Mr. Burke.

He said SMUD was planning a one-megawatt community solar-power plant that would be built next year and was exploring the placement of up to four megawatts of solar farms on highway rights-of-way owned by the state transportation agency.

Like a community solar farm in St. George, Utah, and a proposed solar garden in Falmouth, Mass., the CleanPath project in Davis would offer residents the chance to buy a physical part of a solar farm.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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

Four months ago, General Electric fired up the imaginations of would-be entrepreneurs tooling away in garages everywhere when it offered up $200 million as part of an “Ecomagination Challenge” to crowdsource smart grid and renewable energy ideas.

On Tuesday, the global conglomerate announced the first set of winners, a dozen startups that collectively will secure $55 million in investment from GE and two venture firms collaborating with the company, Foundation Capital and RockPort Capital Partners.

The winners hail from everywhere from Silicon Valley to Sweden. Most are developing technology for the smart grid.

Others are focused on smart buildings. ClimateWell of Stockholm is making heating and cooling systems designed to operate not on electricity, but on solar-heated hot water. Soladigm of Milpitas, Calif., meanwhile, manufactures windows that incorporate electronics that allow them to darken — keeping buildings cool during sunny summer months. In winter, they lighten to trap the sun’s heat.

The payoff for these companies goes far beyond the cash. Given GE’s involvement in just about every aspect of the electricity distribution system as well as its smart home efforts, the global behemoth is a huge market for their services.

“We are working with these new partners to accelerate the development and deployment of these concepts on a scale that will help drive a cleaner, more efficient, and economically viable grid,” Jeff Immelt, GE’s chief executive, said in a statement. “The partnerships formed through this Challenge represent a new way of doing business at GE as we continue to expand our broad digital energy offering in the growing power grid market.”

GE also named five Innovation Challenge award winners that will each score $100,000. Among the most intriguing startups is Capstone Metering, a Texas company developing a smart water meter, and WinFlex of Israel, which is developing an inflatable wind turbine.

GE and its venture capital partners received nearly 4,000 entries in the contest.

“This is perhaps the largest participation in an open innovation challenge a company has ever generated,” GE executive Beth Comstock said on a conference call Tuesday.

Another executive noted that the company received many ideas from individuals, which will prove valuable to GE.

“It gives us insight into how consumers are thinking about energy and energy efficiency,” he noted.

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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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photos: americanprogressaction, jmtimages, and jurvetson

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

As a new poll showed that nearly half of likely California voters now oppose Proposition 23, the ballot measure that would suspend the state’s global warming law, heavy hitters from President Obama to Al Gore and Bill Gates came out against the initiative on Wednesday.

With the president on a West Coast campaign swing, a White House spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times that Obama “is opposed to Prop. 23,” calling the ballot measure backed by two Texas oil companies “a veiled attempt by corporate polluters to block progress towards a clean energy economy.”

“If passed, the initiative would stifle innovation, investment in R&D and cost jobs for the state of California,” the Obama spokesperson said.

Gore, meanwhile, issued a statement saying, “The fight for America’s clean energy future is taking place right now, and it’s come to California. This is a fight we simply cannot afford to lose.”

Gates, the Microsoft founder turned philanthropist, weighed in with a $700,000 contribution to the No on 23 campaign on Tuesday. The Nature Conservancy donated $500,000, bringing this week’s No on 23 fundraising total, so far, to more than $1.3 million. The Yes campaign, which is being underwritten by the petrochemical industry, has taken in $7,000.

As of Wednesday, the No forces had raised a total of more than $28 million, compared to the Yes campaign’s $9.1 million, according to California Secretary of State records.

Prop 23 would suspend California’s global warming law, known as AB 32, until the state unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters, which has happened only three times in the past four decades.

The No forces’ fundraising lead and statewide television commercials appear to be paying off in the polls. A September survey by the Public Policy of California found voters in the state evenly split over Prop 23. PPIC’s new survey finds that 48 percent of likely voters now oppose Prop 23, while 37 percent support the measure. Don’t pop that champagne yet, though. Fifteen percent of California voters are still undecided.

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

Have the Texas oil companies backing Proposition 23 surrendered in the fundraising battle over the ballot measure that would suspend California’s global warming law?

Since Thursday, the No on 23 forces have raised more than $7.3 million as the Silicon Valley-Hollywood-environmental-industrial complex revved up for the final push before Election Day on Nov. 2.

The Yes campaign’s take since Thursday? $10,000.

The No on 23 campaign now has raised $25.8 million to the Yes effort’s $9.1 million as money from the petrochemical industry backing Prop 23 has all but dried up in recent weeks, according to California Secretary of State records.

The tsunami of cash flooding into the No campaign indicates the breadth of support from California’s establishment for the state’s global warming law, known as AB 32, which requires greenhouse gas emissions be cut to 1990 levels by 2020.

Avatar director James Cameron attracted the most attention with his $1 million donation on Friday. But Gordon Moore, the legendary co-founder of chip giant Intel, also dropped $1 million into the No coffers that day, and so did Pacific Gas & Electric ($250,000), California’s largest utility and a leading proponent of climate change legislation. Google co-founder Sergey Brin also donated $200,000 on Thursday, and an organization of Silicon Valley tech companies contributed $125,000.

On Tuesday, a group of some 66 investors controlling more than $400 billion in assets are scheduled to hold a press conference to announce their opposition to Prop 23.

In the meantime, national environmental groups and non-profits continued to pour cash into the No campaign last week. The National Wildlife Federation contributed $3 million on Friday. ClimateWorks Foundation, a San Francisco non-profit, gave $900,000. New York’s Rockefeller Family Fund kicked in $300,000 on Thursday and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a top No on 23 donor, added $300,000 more Friday.

Environmentalists are also starting to focus on Proposition 26, a little-noticed California ballot measure that would reclassify environmental impact fees as taxes and require a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to impose them rather than a simple majority. Green groups and AB 32 supporters fear Prop 26 could cripple efforts to levy fees to implement the global warming law.

The oil, alcohol, and tobacco companies backing Prop 26 have so far raised $13.6 million while opponents have managed to collect only $2.8 million, according to state campaign records.

Still, a spokesman for the No on 23 told the Los Angeles Times that the No campaign would not redirect its cash to the Prop 26 fight, saying the battle over the global warming law has yet to be won.

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

The air war over California’s global warming law has begun.

Flush with cash, the campaign to defeat Proposition 23, the ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s landmark climate change law, broadcast its first two television commercials Tuesday. The ad blitz came as the No campaign collected new contributions Tuesday from old and new economy firms, including $25,000 from electric carmaker Tesla Motors, $50,000 from Florida-based energy giant NextEra Energy Resources, and $25,000 from health insurer Blue Shield of California. Also on Tuesday, the California Teachers Association contributed $200,000 to the No on 23 effort.

The Yes on 23 campaign also hit the airwaves Tuesday in what will probably be a protracted — and expensive — battle for the 21 percent of California voters who’ve told pollsters they’re undecided about the ballot measure. A Field poll released on Sunday found that voters surveyed oppose Prop 23 45 percent to 34 percent.

The ads broadcast Tuesday — hours before California gubernatorial candidates Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman were to face off in their first debate – highlight the different tacks the campaigns are taking.

The No forces’ 15-second spot is grainy and ominous:

“Prop 23 is one deceptive ballot measure from two Texas oil companies that would have three disastrous consequences,” intones the announcer over gray-tinged images of belching smokestacks, oil refineries, and jammed freeways. “Twenty-three would pollute our air, kill clean energy jobs, and keep us addicted to costly oil. Vote No on 23.”

The second ad from the alliance of environmentalist, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and green tech companies also aired statewide in California — and on YouTube, of course — takes a somewhat sunnier tone.

“California is outlining a clean energy future, a growing workforce of bright Californians who harness wind and solar power to move our state forward,” goes the 30-second script over scenes of wind farms and workers installing rooftop solar panels.

“But two Texas oil companies have a deceptive scheme to take us backwards. They are spending millions pushing Prop 23, which would kill clean energy standards, keep us addicted to costly polluting oil, and threaten hundreds of thousands of California jobs. Stop the job-killing dirty energy proposition. Vote No on 23.”

But the 30-second ad from the Yes on 23 campaign — largely backed by two Texas oil companies and the billionaire Koch brothers, owners of a petrochemical conglomerate who have bankrolled efforts to derail climate change legislation — shows what the environmentalists and their allies are up against.

“I have enough bills but now the politicians are putting a new energy tax on us to pay for California’s global warming plan,” says a youngish middle-aged woman dressed in a pink sweater and white slacks as she walks from her mailbox to her sunny suburban house on a tree-lined street. “Yes on 23 stops the energy tax, preventing a 60 percent increase in electricity rates, and higher gas prices. And saves more than a million jobs.”

“I want to do my part on global warming,” she adds, flipping through a ballot guide. “All Yes on 23 says is let’s wait until people are back to work and we can afford it. Yes on 23 – it’s common sense.”

The ads’ claims immediately triggered howls from the No campaign.

“The Yes on 23 campaign is up with a new television advertisement chock-full of the deceptive claims the oil companies behind the ballot measures have been making for months,” wrote No spokesman Steve Maviglio in an email blasted to reporters Tuesday and which cited various academic studies disputing the Yes claims.

Misleading, but potentially effective on voters who are not versed in the arcane economics of cap-and-trade.

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

In any emerging industry, there are turning points that bear watching. One of those occurred Tuesday when BrightSource Energy, a California developer of solar power plants, announced the appointment of John E. Bryson as its new chair.

Bryson is a key player in the energy-enviro-regulatory industrial complex, and a member in good standing of the Fortune 500 whose decision to join BrightSource is another signal that Big Solar will be a Big Thing.

A co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, Bryson went on to become chair and chief executive of Edison International, one of the United States’ largest utilities. He also serves on the boards of Boeing and Disney, as well as the Santa Monica electric car startup Coda Automotive. He is also an advisor to New York private equity and buyout giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

Before going corporate, Bryson was president of the California Public Utilities Commission and California State Water Resources Control Board.

In short, Bryson, 67, is someone who knows his way around the top echelons of the nation’s energy and financial power structure.

Such connections will be key for BrightSource. The company has so far signed contracts to supply more than 2,600 megawatts of electricity to California utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison. It will need to secure many billions of dollars in financing to build more than a dozen large-scale solar power plants to fulfill those deals.

The California Energy Commission on Wednesday is expected to license BrightSource’s first solar project, a 370-megawatt power plant to be built in Southern California’s Ivanpah Valley.

Bryson will serve as non-executive chair, meaning he will not have operational control over the company. A BrightSource spokesperson, though, told me Bryson “intends to be a very active board chair.”

BrightSource has shown itself adept at developing strategic relationships. It counts Google, Morgan Stanley, and Chevron as its investors and brought on engineering giant Bechtel as the chief contractor to build its first power plant as well as to take a stake in the project.

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

A company controlled by the billionaire Koch brothers, who have bankrolled numerous right-wing causes, has donated $1 million to the campaign to pass Proposition 23, the California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s global-warming law.

The contribution was made Thursday and came from Flint Hills Resources, a Kansas petrochemical company that is a subsidiary of Koch Industries. The Koch brothers were the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker.

The Koch donation came a day after Tesoro, a Texas oil company that has been bankrolling the pro-Prop 23 campaign, put $1 million into the campaign coffers.

According to the No campaign, 97 percent of the $8.2 million raised by the Yes forces has been given by oil-related interests and 89 percent of that money has come from out of state. Three companies, Koch Industries, Tesoro, and Valero — another Texas-based oil company — have provided 80 percent of those funds.

“There are three companies from out of state that have a very specific economic interest in rolling back our clean energy economy and jobs,” Thomas Steyer, a San Francisco hedge-fund manger who is co-chair of the No on 23 campaign, said during a conference call Friday.

“I am a businessman,” he added. “I believe in the free enterprise system. I believe in profit. But companies have to accept the rules that are placed on them.”

Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management, has pledged $5 million of his own money to the No campaign.

As the traditional Labor Day kickoff to the fall campaign season approaches, the No campaign has also been collecting some large donations, albeit from individuals rather than corporations.

A Southern California businesswoman, Claire Perry, contributed $250,000 on Monday. Last Friday, Julie Packard, a daughter of Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard, gave $101,895.

“If the Yes on 23 folks win, we’re going to change the framework for investment here,” said Steyer. “We’re going to change our ability to create new industries. Those industries are going to go elsewhere, probably not in the United States. Probably specifically our biggest competition in this is China.”

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