Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Solar Power for Sale

According to an article written by Erin Schneider, of E Magazine.com, it appears that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Steven Cohen (D-TN) are sponsoring a bill that will help place solar panels on 10 million houses over the next 10 years. The bill is properly named, “10 Million Solar Panels and 10 Million Gallons of Solar Hot Water Act of 2010.” The main question yet to be answered is, “Can this be done?”

Solar power is not a new concept. Commercial industries have been using solar power for years to help reduce the high cost of energy usage, keeping their electricity bills low. Solar power in the residential setting barely exists. There are a small number of homes sporting solar panels on their roofs and normally these homes are owned by individuals with more money to spend greener technology. Solar panels simply cost too much for the average middle class citizens. One kilowatt of energy, the average amount of energy a home uses in a day, is produced for every 100 sq/ft of “activated” solar panel. According to the Solar Power Authority, the average home could be sustained by a 100 sq/ft solar panel display if the sun was out 24 hours a day with perfect clear visibility. Of course the sun doesn’t stay out 24 hours a day, and even when the sun is out it is not perfectly clear every day. Rather, the Solar Power Authority predicts that on average, a typical solar panel display, in order to power an average home, would need to be between 500 and 800 sq/ft, depending on the area’s amount of annual sunshine. The current price for a complete installation of a solar power display/array runs about $7 to $9 per potential watt. So, at the lowest end, a 500 sq/ft array, which is the low average needed to power one house, and has the potential to produce 5 kWh of energy, would cost $35,000 dollars to install. $35,000 is considered by many to be just too much money to devote to help better his or her environment. This system does have the potential to reduce the user’s power bill to zero or below, but with the monthly power bill averaging $73 per month it would take a long time to cover the initial start up cost.

So why are members of congress pushing to pass a bill that will seemingly cost Americans between $35,000 and $56,000 dollars, whether it takes 500sq/ft of solar panels to power your home or 800sq/ft of solar panels to power your home? Right now the main reason prices are so high to install solar paneling on one’s home is simply due to the fact that there are too few producers of residential solar panels. When there are fewer companies the price stays high because of the lack of competition. The new bill will create a higher demand, the largest on Earth, in hopes of having the effect of drawing either more residential solar panel businesses or causing solar panel companies that produce mainly to commercial industries to gear their efforts toward residential buyers as well. Hopefully with an increased number of manufactures in the marketplace the price or purchasing and installing solar panels will decrease. The bill will also help offset the high costs of purchasing and installing solar panels by adding in rebates to users.

This would be a huge step toward a cleaner environment. If successful 10 million homes will be using clean solar power and not need dirtier forms of energy, such as coal, to power everyday necessities. Also, if successful, this bill could open a market for cheaper solar paneling causing more and more Americans, along with citizens around the world, to choose solar power over coal power.

Joshua S. Wyatt, Legal Intern

Pond Scum Could Soon Fuel Military

The Pentagon recently announced that their recent effort at developing an algae-based fuel is ahead of schedule and proceeding apace. Pentagon researchers estimate that they are mere months away from developing a fuel that would be cost competitive with fossil fuels currently in use.

This new program is in keeping with the Pentagon’s goal of achieving a zero carbon footprint within a decade. The Air Force, for example, already has plans to make its jet fleet alternative-fuel ready by 2011, aiming to have all aircraft capable of functioning on a 50/50 blend of synthetic and fossil fuels. When first announced, such a zero carbon footprint goal for the military sector, which relies heavily on hardware and the fuel required to run it, seemed decidedly optimistic. However, this new fuel source promises to make these supposedly pie-in-the-sky goals much more realistic to achieve.

Anyone else making claims about cost-competitive fuel made from algae would likely be taken lightly—if not dismissed out of hand as an environmentalist’s sci-fi fantasy. But when the claimant is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same research arm of the military that gave us satellite navigation and the internet, such “wild-eyed” claims suddenly start looking less like flights of eco-fantasy and more like credible and meaningful advances in green fuel technology.

The reported advance comes after DARPA invested nearly $25 million into the algae fuel research program last year, contracting with Science Applications International Corp to assist DARPA in developing algae-based fuel for use by the military. As a result of their efforts, researchers have already cracked how to extract oil from algal ponds for less than $2 per gallon, and the project is now on track to begin large-scale refining of this oil into jet fuel at a cost of less than $3 per gallon. For comparison, the current average price of regular motor gasoline nationwide currently hovers around $2.60 per gallon, and the price of consumer jet fuel at airports ranges between $4 and $5 per gallon, depending on the region. Thus, DARPA’s new jet fuel source holds the promise of ultimately being greener, cleaner and cheaper than existing fuels and fuel sources.

Just as satellites and the internet outstripped their military origins in application, so too is this advance likely to have a broad array of impacts outside the military. For example, one of the advantages of the algae-to-fuel process is that algal pools can be “fed” by waste water runoff or by soaking up CO2 emissions from existing power plants. And, one of the problems with electric vehicles is that they don’t generally have sufficient horsepower to displace gas-fueled 18-wheelers or other heavy machinery that perform jobs requiring serious horsepower to complete. So, algae-based fuel that can provide horsepower sufficient to keep military jets in the air is also likely to be able to help make other sectors of the economy greener and more eco-friendly over the long-term. Thus, DARPA’s latest efforts at finding a way to cost-effectively mass produce this fuel could prove to be something of a game changer, turning a promising technology into a market-ready one with a broad array of potential uses and applications across the economy.

Jeremey Dobbins, Legal Intern

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Frosty the Snowman Accused of Debunking Climate Change

This past week’s series of severe snowstorms, which dumped large and even record amounts of snow across the country, has prompted another unfortunate round of chuckling by deniers of climate change. In part, this is the result of framing the issue as one of “global warming,” which, while true, obscures some of the less “warm” aspects of the issue. And it provides an opening for political opponents of addressing the climate crisis to latch onto any cold weather of any significance and use it as “evidence” that the scientists and all their numbers, data, and conclusions regarding climate change are demonstrably and observably wrong. How could the world be warming, they ask, when huge blankets of snow are falling from the sky?

Thus, this month’s snow storms, according to climate change deniers, prove that there is no such beast as ‘global warming.’ The flaw in this argument, however, is easily recognized: While it may be snowing here in the USA, it is certainly quite hot right now in South America—or anywhere south of the equator this time of year—since they are currently experiencing summer (and likely a hotter one) for their hemisphere. Simply because it is cold and snowing here does not mean that the global climate as a whole has taken a similar turn. Just because it may occasionally rain in the desert doesn’t change the fact that the overall climate in a desert area is a dry one. The desert has not suddenly become an aquarian paradise after one good thunderstorm. Nor does one snowstorm change the fact that the overall global climate is warming or the fact that the past decade is the warmest on record.

Understood another way, climate change due to “global warming” at a very basic level means that the average temperature for the entire earth is increasingly warmer. In practice, what this means is that there is more heat energy in the global system that has to work itself out. Just as warmer water temperatures act as fuel that increases the strength of hurricanes, warmer water and air temperatures lead to increased water evaporation globally. All that water vapor, in turn, has to go somewhere, meaning that the resulting precipitation—rain or snow—will be more violent and come in greater amounts than before. Thus, as climate change advances, where there is rain, it will become rainier and wetter; where there is snow, it will become snowier; and where it is dry, it will become even dryer.

Thus, if any conclusion at all regarding climate change should have been drawn from watching these record setting weather events, it should have been the exact opposite one from that promoted by the climate change deniers: These extreme snow storms with record amounts of snow fit generally with the pattern expected by scientists as climate change proceeds. So, rather than be used as fodder by climate change deniers to prove that global warming is a hoax, serious observers and policymakers should have observed these isolated weather events and, if anything, become even more serious about addressing the climate crisis predicted by climate researchers. So, while these severe snowstorms do not in and of themselves alone prove climate change is happening, what these storms certainly do not show—by any stretch of the rational, non-politicized imagination—is that climate change is not occurring, as the evidence in this case points entirely in the opposite direction.

Jeremey Dobbins, Legal Intern

Thursday, February 11, 2010

USFWS Denies ESA Protection to Pika

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently posted on its website its decision denying listing the pika, a relative of rabbits that resembles a mouse, as protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Had it done so, the pika would have been the first species in the continental United States listed as a result of global warming.

The pika is an alpine species that lives on high, Rocky Mountain slopes in the western U.S.. Exposure to temperatures above 78 degrees can be lethal for the cold-natured species. So, as global warming increases, the lower mountain altitudes get warmer—and less habitable—for the pika, which must continue to move up-slope to survive. The pika’s situation is not unlike species trapped on an island with the water slowly rising to envelop it. This results in fragmented populations, since pika on one mountain or area may be cut off from other groups. This in turn results in less biodiversity within the pika population and increases the chances that the pika will go extinct when faced with future environmental stresses. The problems peculiar to this species prompted petitions to and increased pressure on the USFWS by environmental groups to list the pika under the ESA.

However, FWS rejected the proposed listing, determining that while some pika populations were declining others were not. FWS also noted that the pika population is widespread enough over a range of habitat that increased warming would not threaten the longterm survival of the species. FWS estimates that temperatures will increase by about 5.4 degrees over the next century, leading to increased declines in the foreseeable future for pika populations in lower altitudes while survival rates in populations in higher altitudes are expected to be somewhat better. Still, those higher-altitude populations are expected to survive under FWS’s analysis.

Environmental groups who petitioned the listing were naturally disappointed with the result and have called it a political decision that ignores the law and the dire circumstances facing the pika. However, others praise the decision for not using the ESA as a surrogate means for addressing the causes and effects of global warming.

To an extent, this fight over listing the pika echoes proposals to list the polar bear, whose habitat is similarly threatened by climate change and whose listing has been similarly fought on the basis that the ESA should not be used as a backdoor means of addressing global warming impacts. The polar bear, however, was ultimately deemed “threatened” and granted protected status in late 2008--along with new regulations that prevent the listing from blocking projects that contribute to global warming. The new Obama administration and his appointment, Ken Salazar, have so far refused to rescind the rule, which is now being challenged in court.

Jeremey Dobbins, Legal Intern

Refugees of Nature

Twelve out the last fourteen years the Earth’s temperature has hit record highs. There is a debate over the cause of the temperature increase. On one side, some scientists believe that humans are to blame for the increase in temperature. Some scientists on the other side simply believe the change deals with the Earth’s natural cycles, in which the Earth goes through periodic temperature increases and decreases. One side could be right, the other side could be wrong, or they both may be wrong; however, right now the Earth’s temperature is above normal, and massive effects are being felt all over the world. Over this time frame of increased temperatures, the Earth’s population has seen a rise in natural disasters. Hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, floods, and other natural disasters are wreaking havoc on the population. The problem only starts with the disaster itself; the aftermath poses many more potential problems.

After every major disaster, whether it is natural or manmade, there is a population displacement of that area’s citizens. According to an Environmental Justice Foundation study, 20 million people were displaced in 2008. The majority came from Asian nations, following cyclone Nargis, in which 800,000 people had to be evacuated and could not return home because the area was completely destroyed. A similar situation happened following hurricane Katrina; the city of New Orleans was devastated, and many residents were displaced and relocated to surrounding states. Natural disasters are a normal occurrence. They happen every year and affect millions of people. After any major natural disaster there will be a displaced population, but there is an additional problem in the frequency of the major natural disasters. With the increase of the Earth’s overall temperature, the sheer numbers of catastrophic hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, and floods have increased steadily every year, and they are getting worse.

Cyclones in the Pacific and hurricanes in the Atlantic are getting stronger, droughts are lasting longer, floods are affecting larger populations, and heat waves are killing everything from plants to people. The effects of global warming, weather cyclical or manmade, are being felt now. It is true that most predictions talk about the increased temperature’s effect on our children and their children, but they are already being felt by those living today. It is projected that between now and the year 2050, 150 million people will have lost their homes due to natural disasters, caused primarily from climate change.

Obviously climate change is an important topic in Washington, D.C.. Climate change is a great political tool to help sell your party’s beliefs and win votes. But, climate change should be on the minds of every person. 150 million displaced individuals have to re-establish themselves somewhere, the victims of Katrina settled all over the southeastern United States affecting every aspect of life from school and jobs, to food consumption and traffic congestion. With increased population sizes from the addition of the displaced mass a weaker or smaller job market for the established residents follows. Also, with a higher population comes more pollution, which in turn exacerbates climate change leading to more potential problems, whether health related or climate related. Global Warming is causing problems now, problems that may only get worse with time unless major changes occur.

Joshua Wyatt, Legal Intern

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Environmental Cost of the Recession

The United States economy, according to all the experts, is suffering from a horrible recession. The stock market is down, and many Americans are still out of work. Many people think that the recession is a blessing in disguise in regards to a cleaner environment. With gas prices continuing to fluctuate and bank accounts continuing to decline many more people are using public transportation or carpooling, leaving their cars in the garage helping decrease pollution. This is a true but there are also two major environmental problems resulting from the recession, cheaper food and deforestation.
With less money comes fewer opportunities to purchase higher priced foods. People think that eating at home more is a remedy to almost every problem. Lower pollution because they are not driving and fewer family problems because of shared meals; but, the major “benefit” can be found with the cheapness of store bought food in comparison with restaurant food. Americans are now buying cheaper foods in order to fit their budgets. But following an article from E Magazine.com, the cheaper the food the less shelf life the food has leading to more garbage a normal family deposits. Cheaper foods, on average, have a shorter shelf life. Families buy the cheaper food to save a little more money in this economically unstable time. Shorter shelf lives, however, lead to more garbage, because when the food goes bad families throw it away and buy more that eventually goes bad, a continuous cycle about which I am afraid nothing really can be done. With less money Americans need cheaper food in order to eat, plain and simple. The only real solution, though probably not practical, would be for individuals to demand better quality from their cheap food manufactures. But the other main environmental issue steaming from the recession can be fixed.
Along with cheap food, Americans are buying cheap furniture and cheap do-it-yourself building materials. With this increase in demand for these cheap materials comes an increase in the need for a supply of the materials, Economics 101. The major component in cheap furniture and do it yourself kits is wood. A need for more wood equals more wood that needs to be cut down. This is nothing new, Americans have needed wood for furniture, homes, and building materials since our founding, but today shops are building cheaper furniture with less durability than their more expensive competitors. Cheaper furniture then leads to an even higher increase in demand because the cheap furniture breaks easier and may not last as long. Thus, deforestation is the result from the high demand of wood. In Europe forests are being destroyed illegally in order to keep up with the high demand for wood. The world’s forests are like filters, taking in the bad air and pollution, and giving back clean, fresh air. There is a very easy solution, stop buying products using illegal wood supplies, and start buying products from wood suppliers that have renewable means for producing wood.
So, in a not so direct way, the recession is causing more environmental problems that no one really sees. Cheap, the word that many people love to hear now a days, is also a concept that is leading to more and more environmental problems, whether it is cheap food spoiled and filling up our landfills, or our need for cheap easily breakable furniture that needs replacing from month to month, containing wood from illegal manufactures. There is no real solution, only a need for a wakeup call. Cheaper food and furniture may seem like the best option in today’s economy, but it is leading to a poorer environment. Knowledge about the environmental side of the recession is necessary for change.

Josh Wyatt, Legal Intern