Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Fest a Success!

On April 16, the Public Trust put on the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Fest at the Vineyard Church at the old Atlantic Theatres on Atlantic Blvd. The event was sponsored by Patagonia, Sierra Nevada, Folio Weekly, and many others. As a result of the film festival, the Public Trust now has over 60 members and is now in a better position to help educate the local community about environmental issues and problems we are facing.

One of the main goals of the festival was to inspire the community to act to protect our precious natural resources, and by that measure, it succeeded in spades. The short film “Change the World in Five Minutes” featured Australian school kids showing what they—and by extension we—could do in just five minutes per day to help make the world a better place, from turning off lights to growing food in local gardens. The film “Planting Hope” told the inspiring story of a woman in Africa who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her decades-long efforts to plant trees in seriously deforested areas. Not only were her efforts helping to restore the local environment, they were also empowering the local communities and revitalizing their economies and standard of living.

Perhaps the film with the most particular relevance to Florida’s long coastline was the film “Sheltered Sea,” which described the successful process by which California has established protected marine areas in order to protect that state’s ocean biodiversity—and by extension, its fisheries and the economic benefits they provide. What was interesting was that the organizers had made efforts to even get the fishermen on board with the program, when such interests are usually viewed as inapposite to environmental protection efforts.

The main event of the night, though was the movie “Fuel,” which gave an entertaining overview of the problems associated with our national addiction to fossil fuels, through the eyes of the personal experience of the filmmaker, an adamant supporter of biofuel solutions. While it was a lot to take in, on both an intellectual and emotional level, the film lived up to its independent film awards and accolades. The information was presented in an easily comprehensible way, and showed both the human and economic costs of our oil dependency, from the initial extraction process to end-consumption. While some parts of the film were depressing, and even infuriating, the emotional rollercoaster was worth sitting through to the very end, when the viewer was taken on the filmmaker’s inspiring vision of what the world could be, what the cities of the future could look like—if we take it upon ourselves to act to make it a reality.

Overall, those who missed this year’s film festival truly missed out—both in terms of the films shown and because of the many raffle items that the Public Trust was giving away as part of its fundraiser and membership drive. Certainly, those who missed the event may rent “Fuel” from your local movie store—and you certainly should, as it is one of those films that all Americans should see as a matter of their civic duty toward protecting their environment—but also consider penciling in time for Public Trust’s next film festival and fundraiser. You certainly won’t regret it.

By Jeremey Dobbins, Legal Intern

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Climate Science Gets a Boost...From Space!

Climate science is about to get a boost in efforts to measure global changes from space monitoring, both from NASA and the European Union’s space program. While thinking of NASA, one may usually think of going to the moon or the famed Hubble telescope looking across eons of time into our universe’s distant past. However, NASA and other space exploration efforts have a lot of potential to contribute to science—particularly climate science—by turning its attention back downward, toward Earth.

That is why the Obama administration has proposed a new NASA budget that includes a $2.4 billion increase over the next five years for NASA’s Earth Science Division. This represents a 60% increase and a major turnaround after the division was left to languish during the first part of this decade without enough resources to replace aging satellites that perform essential Earth-monitoring tasks, like polar ice, ocean temperatures, and atmospheric chemistry. Such measurements are extremely important in assessing the state and pace of climate change, and much of the new money will be focused on reinvigorating projects that determine just how quickly the Earth’s climate is changing.

One problem for climate scientists is that little is known about what happens to carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, once it gets into the atmosphere, and determining the carbon exchanges between the atmosphere and ocean and the atmosphere and land require a variety of precise measurements. So, a major chunk of the new funding will be to replace the Orbital Carbon Observatory that crashed into the ocean last year not long after being launched. As the name suggests, the new satellite would measure atmospheric carbon levels over time.

Additionally, NASA hopes to replace the GRACE satellites, a pair of twin satellites that have been making detailed measurements of Earth’s gravitational field since 2002. While gravitational fields are certainly important to physicists, the GRACE satellites have produced many more practical applications than anyone initially expected, such as using gravitational fields to measure the amount of and change in ground water over time. This is essential in predicting areas of potential water scarcity, as well as providing a more complete picture of Earth’s water cycle, beyond just what is observed as rainfall by weather satellites.

In addition to NASA, the EU is finally moving ahead with the long-awaited and long-delayed CryoSat 2 mission, which will launch a sophisticated satellite into orbit to precisely measure the thickness of global ice caps. The satellite will be able to measure the thickness of ice on land or floating in the sea to within one centimeter (or 0.39 inches). Thus, through repeated observations, scientists believe that this will allow them to monitor even small changes over brief periods of time. They also expect to be able to distinguish between ice melting due to warming and ice melts attributable to other reasons, such as shifting ocean currents. Thus, scientists hope that this will help them pin down the actual effects of global warming on the Earth’s ice more accurately.

Legal Intern, Jeremey Dobbins

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bejewled Cityscape Could Power the Urban Future

Probably the first thing that comes into an American’s mind these days when the image of a “city” is invoked is a skyline of buildings and skyscrapers, edifices of steel and glass stretching upwards. But when some environmentally minded Americans look at it, they see a lot of wasted energy. What if, instead, much of this glass exterior could be converted to solar cells? Suddenly, a skyscraper full of businesses and people going to and fro doubles as a self-contained power station, located in the middle of downtown.

Scientists at the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology have been working on a multi-faceted grid of clear pyramids that would replace office windows. Applied building-wide, the scientists say that buildings would begin to look like they had been draped in giant, jeweled curtains, due to the multifaceted lens on each panel that would be used to focus the suns light on a central solar cell.

The three biggest energy drains for today’s building are related to heating, cooling, and lighting. This new solar cell addresses all three issues. Unlike the regular flat-paneled solar cell, this type of solar cell using concentrated sunlight is more efficient at providing the power to light the building. And the water heated up in the process of cooling the system could then be used to provide heat and hot water to the workers and residents in building’s interior. Additionally, the pyramid-panels would rotate throughout the day to maximize the solar power generation.

What’s more, the cells adapt to the local climate conditions. The pyramid pattern both collects every scrap of sunlight to keep the residents in places like New York or Seattle warm and toasty inside, but at the same time the pyramid pattern also disperses and diffuses the sunlight that reaches the building’s interior. Thus, residents of hot, sunny places like Phoenix, Arizona, will find it easier to stay cool. What’s more, businesses who have an eastern or western window exposure will no longer have to worry about the fighting the sun’s glare coming through the blinds in the early morning or late afternoon, as the sunlight diffusion would leave offices in a more constant, natural light throughout the day. Workers in these buildings would still have a view, although it would be slightly obstructed where the pyramid patterns are placed. The one big downside of the system is that unlike regular solar cells, which require little to no maintenance, this more-complicated system would require more to operate and maintain.

The solar cell project has already completed the development stage, and a prototype of the new solar cell has been installed on the fa├žade of the Syracuse, New York, headquarters for the Center of Excellence for Environmental and Energy Systems. Syracuse, known for having long, snowy, and gray winters, may not seem the best place for testing a project that relies on sunlight to operate. However, project scientists intentionally chose the site because of its less-than-optimal climate conditions to show the wide applicability of the technology, even in places not known for an abundance of annual sunlight.

Pending the outcome of results at the prototype site, the solar panels are already described in documents for a future high-profile construction at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Project marketers also expect others to begin looking at integrating the solar cell system into their emerging architectural designs.

Jeremey Dobbins, Legal Intern

Energy Efficiency Incentives for Florida Businesses

Currently, the federal government offers several tax incentives for improving the energy efficiency of commercial offices. First, businesses can take advantage of a 30% investment tax credit (ITC) for the purchase price (not including installation costs) of solar panels, wind turbines, or fuel cells. However, the fuel cells credit is capped at $1,500 per half kilowatt of capacity. An additional 10% tax credit is available for the purchase of combined heating and power systems or geothermal heat pumps. An itemized invoice showing the purchases utilized for the tax credit is required in order to claim the tax benefit, along with the filing of IRS Form 3468 with the applicable tax return. Depending on their situations, businesses should also consider whether it is more advantageous to claim the 30% purchase tax credit or to write off the entire purchase as a business expense.

In addition to the tax benefit, the federal government also provides for accelerated depreciation, usually on a five-year schedule, for all of the technologies that qualify for the ITC, allowing for faster recovery of energy investments. IRS Form 4562 must be filed along with the applicable years’ tax returns in order to take advantage of the accelerated depreciation schedule. The IRS also provides a more general guide for taking advantage of property depreciation.

Beyond specific purchases, the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides a tax deduction for efforts to make commercial buildings more energy efficient. Businesses in qualifying buildings that are able to certify a 50% reduction in its heating/cooling energy usage may also qualify for an additional $1.80 per square foot tax deduction. Qualifying buildings are those within the scope of ASHRAE standard 90.1-2001, which basically requires that the building’s heating system have an output capacity of greater than or equal to 3.4 Btu/h-ft2 or has a cooling system output capacity of greater than or equal to 5 Btu/h-ft2. The building also must not be residential and must be connected to electric power. This $1.80 per square foot deduction can also be divided and broken down into three categories of partial tax deductions of $.60 per square foot, which is available for certified energy savings of 1) 10% in the building envelope, 2) 20% from lighting improvements, and 3) 20% from heating and cooling improvements. An additional credit of $.30 per square foot is available for “dual switch” lighting systems (which can switch off half the lights and still have uniform lighting) that reduce lighting power by at least 25% from values cited in ASHRAE standard 90.1-2001. This “lighting system” credit increases proportionally to $.60 per square foot as reductions exceed the 25% baseline and approach 40%.

Qualifying for the tax credit only requires certification by a qualified individual (usually licensed engineers or contractors who are unrelated (as defined by the IRS) to the person or organization receiving the tax benefit) that the various energy savings requirements have been met. Certification is completed using computer software, but does require an on-site field inspection of the building after it is placed into service following the upgrades in order to verify the efficiency savings. Although the certification does not have to be filed along with the tax return in which the deduction is claimed, the certification should be kept by the taxpayer as part of the supporting documents and records. No special form is required to claim the deduction after certification is obtained. Rather, the taxpayer should include the amount of the deduction in the “Other deductions” line of the applicable tax return, along with a statement listing the types and amounts of these deductions. For more information on the requirements for meeting this tax credit, see IRS Notice 2008-40.

The State of Florida has a standing exemption for sales and use taxes on all solar system purchases. The state has in the past also provided rebates for solar panel installation, but funding for the program is currently exhausted pending possible new appropriations for the program in 2011. When operative, the rebate program provided a $4 per watt rebate up to $20,000 for residences and $100,000 for businesses. To qualify, the system must be installed by a state-licensed contractor, comply with all building codes, and the application for the rebate must be made within 120 days of purchase. Rebate applications can be filled out and submitted online at the Florida Energy and Climate Commission’s website.

Unfortunately, Beach Power, the local utility, does not offer rebates to businesses or new residences. Rather, their rebate program is targeted entirely at existing residences, which can qualify for a small rebate for such things as HVAC upgrades, water heaters, and solar filming for windows. However, local area power customers, both residential and commercial, who fall under the jurisdiction of Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) may also qualify for a rebate on the costs of installing a solar water heating system in their homes or businesses. Commercial customers who make the installation could recoup 15% (non-local installers) to 30% (local installers) of their investment, up to a maximum of $5,000 per installation ($2,500 for non-local installers). More information about solar water heaters and JEA’s the rebate can be found on the JEA’s website.

For a listing of all various energy efficiency incentives that may be applicable in your area to your home or office, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency at http://www.dsireusa.org.

Jeremey Dobbins, Legal Intern