There may be no better place on the planet to generate solar electricity than Arizona. The entire state shows up as a big red stain on those solar radiation maps, and there are plenty of places to put solar panels, from fallow alfalfa fields to parking lots and canals, where photovoltaic arrays can generate power and provide shade from the brutal sun. And then there are all those rooftops, nearly three million in the state, that are just begging to be adorned with miniature solar power plants.
It’s all added up to put Arizona in second place in the nation for installed solar capacity -- 1079 megawatts and growing, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Many of those megawatts are generated with small, rooftop systems. Arizona Public Service, the state’s biggest utility, says 24,000 of its customers have rooftop solar, thanks both to direct cash incentives for installing solar, and to the state’s net metering program, which requires APS to pay customers for power generated by residential renewable systems.
Now, perhaps emboldened by the recent Republican takeover of the Arizona Corporation Commission -- the body that regulates net metering and renewable portfolio standards -- APS has launched an effort to destroy or diminish net metering, saying it costs non-solar ratepayers too much. Predictably, the move has angered renewable energy advocates and Arizona’s burgeoning solar industry. But the utility may not have anticipated the strong backlash from prominent Republicans, which will put the ACC in a tight spot when it has to make a ruling on the proposal.
Net metering is when a utility charges the customer for the amount of electricity she uses, minus the amount of electricity generated by his rooftop or backyard solar panel, wind turbine or whatnot. On a sunny afternoon, when no one is home using power, the meter will actually run backwards, with that excess solar power going back into the big bucket of the grid. After the sun sets, and the customer cranks up the air-conditioner and the lights, her meter runs forward again. At the end of the month, if a customer has generated more than she used, the excess rolls over to the following month; a yearly surplus will net her a check. In other words, each rooftop panel is like a little power plant from which APS is buying power.
Except that it’s not. For APS the rub [pdf] lies in the fact that it pays the rooftop solar producer the same retail rate -- that includes charges for transmission and infrastructure -- that the customer pays APS, as opposed to the wholesale rate APS pays other power producers. The result is that the solar-generating customer ends up not paying her share of the infrastructure costs. Those costs, in turn, get passed on to other customers. That adds up, wrote APS CEO Don Brandt in an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, where he claimed that net metering ends up costing the average non-solar-generating APS customer some $20,000 over a lifetime.
APS is expected to make a formal proposal of some sort -- it will most likely ask that it pay something like wholesale rate to individual solar producers -- at the end of May. The Arizona Corporation Commission will make the final call. In November, voters elected an all-Republican commission, sending candidates who were thought to be sympathetic to renewables packing. In January, the commission reduced residential solar incentives and nixed commercial incentives for Tucson Electric Power’s service area. APS, it seems, will have an easy go of diminishing net metering.
Or maybe not. The solar industry -- including companies based in Arizona -- is rallying the troops, claiming that the death of net metering would deal a huge blow to business. Direct cash incentives for rooftop solar installations have dropped almost to zero, leaving net metering as the only real monetary incentive for an Arizona homeowner to pay for a solar system. Other grassroots groups have joined in the fight, as well, including an unexpected one: TUSK, or Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed, led by former Congressman and Republic icon Barry Goldwater, Jr. (not to be confused with the Goldwater Institute, founded by Goldwater’s uncle, which wants to get rid of all solar incentives and the renewable portfolio standard). Goldwater argues that by encouraging more rooftop solar, net metering promotes competition (essentially against the “utility monopolies”), which keeps prices down. He also sees developing solar as a means to achieving energy independence.
With Goldwater and friends in the ring, APS is likely to face a much tougher fight. It might want to reconsider. After all, each new rooftop solar panel takes a little nibble out of the need to build another utility-scale solar plant -- and the associated transmission -- to comply with Arizona's requirement that at least 15 percent of APS's electricity come from renewable sources. That potentially saves APS and its customers money (though it also takes away an opportunity to make more money, which may be the real rub here). Or perhaps APS could just forget about passing off those extra costs to their customers and just, well, eat them. It certainly can afford it: Last year’s operating income [pdf] was a mere $605 million.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.
Lead is banned in paint, gasoline, dishes, and children’s toys, and now California is looking at removing the largest unregulated source of the neurotoxin by also banning lead ammunition. One motivation is to generally protect wildlife and human health, but some see it as a way to improve the prospects of California condors; lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for the massive, inky-feathered carrion eaters.
Twenty-six endangered California condors have died from lead poisoning since 1996. One recently notable lead casualty was a 9-year old bird in Big Sur that died last November. Even though lead ammunition is already banned in the bird’s California range, the source of the lead was a .22-caliber bullet, and he likely swallowed it while chowing down on a shot-up carcass.
Condor #318 was one of the first captive bred condors released on the California coast around Big Sur. According to the Ventana Wildlife Society, which studies and manages the central California population, he was one of only a handful of breeding males in the region—and the first to breed in Pinnacles National Park in 100 years.
In 1987, there were only 26 California condors, all in captivity. Now there are about 150 of the intensively monitored scavengers flying free in central California, Utah, Arizona, and Mexico, and some are starting to breed on their own. But after years of extreme, hands-on efforts to rescue North America’s largest land bird, poisoning from lead ammunition in left-behind animal carcasses or in post-hunt gut piles is still one of the major things preventing a self-sustaining population of wild condors emerging from the priciest species rescue in American history.
There’s strong scientific evidence for the connection between lead ammo and condor deaths [pdf], even though some groups, like the National Shooting Sports Foundation try to discredit it. And unlike with some endangered species, it’s easy to point to individual human actions (like loading that lead .22 round) that have real consequences for single condors in the sparse population.
After so many years and dollars have been spent trying to bring the condor back to the landscape, the question is: What will it take for people to change their behavior, and stop using lead ammo in the bird’s range?
Imagine discovering that the clear, rushing water of the river in your remote neck-of-the-woods is contaminated with nitrates, sulfates, and selenium -- a toxic heavy metal that causes deformities in fish. Then, to complicate things, imagine that the source of the pollution is upstream in another, neighboring country with its own leaders and environmental laws. What would you do?
That's the situation on the Kootenai River (spelled Kootenay in Canada) in northwestern Montana. Five mines digging high-grade metallurgical coal along the Elk River, a tributary of the Kootenai in British Columbia, have been contaminating the Kootenai for years, according to a recent study conducted by University of Montana scientists. Now, four of those mines want to expand, one new coal mine is being proposed, and three new mine exploration projects are under way.
“This is an international problem that will require an international solution," Michael Jamison, Crown of the Continent program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association, recently told The Missoulian. The first step, he and others say, is to enlist the aid of the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada organization created over a century ago to handle these kinds of water disputes.
There was a time when environmentalists were all googly-eyed about natural gas, primarily because the cleaner-burning fossil fuel was far more climate-friendly than coal – or so it seemed. The Sierra Club and Chesapeake Energy even became allies in the fight to phase out coal. But as tales of tainted water and polluted air emerged from worried gas patch residents, big environmental groups grew more distant. Soon, natural gas seemed to entirely lose its luster. It’s true that natural gas is cleaner than coal when burned, but it’s mostly made of methane – a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2. And a series of recent studies all seemed to conclude that a lot of methane was leaking into the atmosphere throughout the the natural gas supply chain – too much, it seemed, for it to be crowned the cleanest of fossil fuels.
Then, this week, the Environmental Protection Agency further complicated the narrative. It lowered its estimate of how much methane leaked out along the supply chain by about 20 percent. The revision, according to the Associated Press has “major implications for a debate that has divided environmentalists: Does the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing help or hurt the fight against climate change?”
How much methane is actually leaking out as natural gas is produced and consumed does, indeed, have big implications for that debate. Troubling measurements taken in two Utah and Colorado gas fields last year show that nine and four percent of methane produced there, respectively, was escaping -- a lot more than expected and more than the 3.2 percent or less rate needed for gas to be better for the climate than coal. But despite this study, and the EPA's softer assessment of leakage, we still don’t have a firm grasp on how much of the gas is being lost to the atmosphere in all of our major gas fields, or from well-to-consumer.Read More ...
A new documentary on Everett Ruess is out, the latest manifestation of an ongoing cultural obsession with the young artist who vanished in the desert Southwest nearly 80 years ago.
Filmmaker Corey Robinson's "Nemo 1934: Searching for Everett Ruess" is a 38-minute documentary that "tells the story of the life and afterlife of everyone's favorite missing desert vagabond."
Robinson's documentary, created at Syracuse University, offers historic footage and photos, interviews with Ruess experts and desert rats, and perhaps most compellingly, features Ruess's own words, in the form of excerpts from his journal read aloud. There's nothing startling or new in Robinson's retelling of the story, but it's a nicely-done and engaging summary of a fascinating tale.
The bare bones of Ruess's story are familiar to many. The son of Christopher and Stella Ruess, Everett was born in L.A. in 1914 and began writing, sketching and sculpting at an early age. In and after high school, he began hitchhiking up the California coast and and met painter Maynard Dixon and photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Western and Dorothea Lange. Then he was drawn east to the redrock canyons of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, traveling mostly on foot with a burro. He traded his prints and paintings for food, and kept a journal full of lyrical (even angsty and romantic) observations about nature, art and his distaste for conventional society. In the fall of 1934, he vanished in the canyon country near Escalante, Utah; his burros were found later, but no other traces save for cryptic inscriptions reading "Nemo 1934" (he sometimes called himself "Nemo", Latin for "no man").
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Last June, poor runoff from an abysmal snowpack was turning Colorado’s Yampa River into a hot cesspool, pushing trout and mountain whitefish to the margins of survival. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the city of Steamboat asked anglers and flotillas of tubing tourists to stay away, to avoid stressing the Yampa’s overheating and oxygen-deprived fish.
For long-time recreation outfitter Peter Van de Carr, last summer was looking a lot like 2002, when the Yampa’s flow dropped so low that the river smelled like rotting seaweed, as he relayed to Sandra Postel at National Geographic’s water blog. In June, with no overheating visitors lazing down the river, the local paper ran a photo of a tanned Van de Carr sitting among coolers and boater accouterment as he strummed his guitar during a slow day at the shop. He told Steamboat Today that he was playing “the stinking river blues.”
Then, on June 29 the river began to rise, but it wasn’t from the rain everyone had been waiting for. The water was coming from Stagecoach Reservoir, and it was arriving through unusual means. With drought bearing down on the Yampa, the Colorado Water Trust, a non-profit that facilitates water rights transactions on behalf of rivers, scrambled to secure the lease of 4,000 acre feet of unused water from the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. The water came from a large lease that wasn’t renewed with the water district from the year before, and the Colorado Water Trust put up about $130,000 of private funding from the their partners, and $10,000 from the city of Steamboat to lease it.
There’s a new tool in California that can tell you how dirty your neighborhood is compared to the rest of the state. It’s called Cal EnviroScreen, and zip codes with the worst ozone, particulate matter, diesel exhaust and other contamination are shaded a deep indigo on a state map, where as the cleanest are white or light sea foam green. Many of California’s dirtiest zip codes are in the Central Valley, like West Fresno, where KQED reports that children play in a park built on top of a Superfund site, farmers spray pesticides on their fields, and semi trucks zoom up and down a highway.
Cal EnviroScreen, developed by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, isn’t designed to simply add insult to injury; many residents of polluted communities already know how bad it is. “This tool was to try and look at (a) community as a whole rather than a specific site or chemical,” says toxicologist George Alexeeff, the head of the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, who told KQED that regulators often miss the big picture. “What about those areas that seem to be suffering from multiple sources of pollution?”
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Until relatively recently, California didn’t often come up in discussions about booming oil and gas development. Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado have been much more at the forefront of the media fray, joined by New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Dakota in the last decade. But ever since a pair of unsuccessful gold prospectors first tapped one of California’s biggest oil fields via a 460-foot-deep well drilled with a sharpened eucalyptus tree in 1892, the state has played a major role in U.S. oil production. Today, it’s fourth in the nation, pumping out around 200 million barrels annually.
So it’s something of a surprise that California is only now emerging as a major battleground over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – a controversial technique wherein water, chemicals and sand are blasted at high pressure down a well bore to release oil and gas trapped inside of rock formations. Most modern oil and gas wells are fracked, including 90 percent of those drilled on federal land.
Last December, California floated a “discussion draft” of its first-ever rules specifically governing fracking. This spring, the Legislature is weighing 10 bills related to the practice, including three that would ban it outright, or just near aquifers, until its impacts on public health and the environment are better studied. Others would tighten wastewater disposal rules and require disclosure of fracking fluid chemicals, groundwater monitoring before and after drilling, and sooner notification of neighboring landowners.
"It shocks me that we pride ourselves on being a national leader on environmental protection, yet we have allowed this activity to occur largely unregulated," state Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), who’s sponsoring a moratorium bill, told Energywire (sub required). "California regulates massage therapists more than hydraulic fracturing."
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Early in the morning on April 16, someone fired shots at a Pacific Gas & Electric substation near San Jose, Calif. A transformer bank was the primary victim, and it ended up losing thousands of gallons of oil. The secondary victim was the electrical grid: The power company urged residents to cut back on their electricity usage while they fixed the problem.
Most of us in the West -- land of shot up signs, appliances and other inert objects -- barely noticed. I only stumbled across a short article about it because I’m researching the electrical grid for a story, and this popped up on my news alert. But then things got more interesting. Someone, perhaps the same saboteur, had also cut telecommunications lines near the substation. Random vandalism had been cranked up to targeted sabotage, just one step away from terrorism.
The Intertubes, particularly the ones devoted to conspiracy theories (Warning: links to white supremacist sicko site) and getting ready for the apocalypse, got all clogged up with the news, some going so far as linking it to the Boston Marathon bombing and the West, Tex., fertilizer plant explosion. Surely some of them were rushing for their bunkers as they typed.
As for me, I just added it to the growing list of purportedly potential threats to the Western electrical grid -- a massive, messy, tangled and surprisingly reliable “machine” that carries the lifeblood of our society from power plants to our gadgets. If you pay any attention to this sort of thing, you’d be excused for believing that the grid is on the verge of catastrophic collapse at any moment, thanks to:
• North Korea detonating a nuclear device above the U.S., which would create an electromagnetic pulse, which would leave us in the dark for an indefinite amount of time (there is an EMP caucus in Congress, led by Rep. Trent Flake, R-Ariz.; the alleged EMP threat was also a talking point in Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign);
• solar storms and space weather doing the same;
• too much intermittent renewable energy and too little steady and predictable coal power destabilizing the grid and causing its collapse;
• Iranian cyberterrorists hacking into the computers that run the grid and replacing critical software with pirated versions of Space Invaders; or
• folks knocking down transmission lines in the desert or terrorists shooting at transformers in San Jose.
Now, I don’t mean to belittle any of these concerns. The grid is vulnerable. And any of these things could mess it up. But the renewable energy concern is moot until we get our act together and get a lot more wind and solar into the system, and even then it can be dealt with. As for sabotage, the likelihood of anything beyond a shot up substation causing people to have to wait a day to do the laundry has proven to be slim. Power outages are more likely to be caused by a bird landing in the wrong place than by North Koreans.
In fact, if you really want to worry about something taking down the grid, forget the saboteurs and focus on climate change, which threatens the grid on a number of fronts. Let’s start with air conditioning, one of the major “loads” (electricity demand) on summer afternoons. The warmer it is, the higher people will crank their ACs, meaning a sharper spike in peak demand during the hottest time of the day. That puts more stress on power plants, grid operators and transmission lines, and increases the chances of catastrophic failure. Meanwhile, those same higher temperatures (along with the increased load running through them) cause high voltage transmission lines to sag, which can result in those same lines rubbing up against tree branches.
While sagging lines and caressing tree branches may not sound like much, it was just this phenomenon that caused a massive outage in the West back in 1996. Twice. In early July, a tree branch rubbed against wires in Wyoming, rippling through the grid and taking out power to 2 million. A month later, the same thing happened again. That time 7.5 million lost power.
And then there are those other forms of extreme weather that could result from climate change. Early season snow storms, when the white stuff is wet and heavy enough to take down still-leafy trees that, as they’re falling, rip down power lines, have been known to leave thousands without power. Or the bigger storms, like last autumn’s Sandy, which left some 6.5 million in the dark. Less direct, but just as threatening: Drought. As reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell continue to shrink, their capacity to generate critical and inexpensive power to the Southwest is diminished. (As you may have noted by now, if we're going to tackle climate change, the grid--and the mix of energy we put into it--will have to play a part. The grid saving the grid, if you will).
In other words, we should be running for our bunkers, but probably not because of terrorism or even random vandalism, which caused just .13 percent of outages in 2011 (as compared to the 15 percent caused directly by weather, excluding lightning, added to the outages that were indirectly exacerbated due to high temperatures). And hopefully they’ll catch the San Jose saboteurs and throw the book at them, for destruction of property. Meanwhile, stay tuned: Much more on the grid is on its way in a May edition of High Country News.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News who's been trying to get into the grid, Matrix-like. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.
Arizona’s San Pedro River has been called the most studied river in the world, attracting scientists, birders, and anyone wanting to observe the region’s healthiest desert river. But all that research doesn’t seem to have affected an April decision by the Arizona Department of Water Resources to approve groundwater pumping that could deplete the river’s water.
The saga started six years ago, when a California developer proposed Tribute, a huge development in Sierra Vista, a fast-growing desert city an hour south of Tucson. As Tony Davis reported in his February HCN story, “Standoff on the San Pedro,”
Plans call for nearly 7,000 homes and apartments, plus offices, shopping, parks and schools. The real estate bust has temporarily derailed it, but eventually up to 250 homes a year could be built.
State water law requires developers to prove they have a hundred-year supply of groundwater for new projects, and since the 1970s, the state water board has consistently found that developers meet that requirement. The Tribute project was no exception: last July, the Department of Water Resources determined there was indeed enough groundwater for the project to meet its annual 3,300 acre-foot appetite for the next century.