Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
In the ongoing wars over solar energy, one power company is consistently painted as the archetypal, mustache-twirling nemesis of clean electricity: Arizona Public Service. So you might be surprised to learn that this same company is about to become a big new producer of rooftop solar power.
APS is an unlikely solar patron: In the summer of 2013, the Phoenix-area utility launched a campaign to weaken Arizona's net metering rule, which requires utilities to buy the extra solar power their customers generate and provides a major incentive for homeowners to install rooftop panels. A few months later, APS admitted giving cash to two nonprofits that ran an anti-solar ad blitz in the state. Early this year, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that a letter criticizing the solar industry's business practices, sent by members of Congress to federal regulators, was originally authored by an employee of APS. And a couple weeks ago, APS asked state regulators to let the company quadruple the fees it tacks on to the monthly bills of solar-equipped homeowners.
It makes sense that the company would be worried about solar's epic takeoff. In many ways, the solar boom poses an unprecedented threat to big electric utilities, which have done business for a century with essentially zero competition. In the first quarter of this year, applications for solar permits in APS's service area were 112 percent higher than the same period last year, and every one of those is one less customer for APS's regular power supply, 40 percent of which comes from coal. Now the company thinks it has found a solution to the problem: It wants to start owning its own rooftop solar.
"It's all about control," Bloomberg analyst Nick Culver said.
In December, the Arizona Corporation Commission gave a green light to APS to plunk down $28.5 million on 10 megawatts of solar panels, enough to cover about 2,000 of its customers' roofs. (Tucson Electric Power, another utility in the state, was also approved for a smaller but similar plan.) The idea is that APS will target specific rooftops it wants to make use of—in areas where the grid needs more support, for example, or west-facing roofs, which produce the most power in the late afternoon, when demand is the highest. APS would offer homeowners a $30 credit on their monthly bill, according to Jeff Guldner, an APS vice president for public policy.
The credit essentially serves as rent for the roof, where an APS-contracted local installer will set up a solar array. APS owns the panels, can use the power however it wants, and gets to improve its clean energy portfolio without losing customers to third-party solar companies. Meanwhile, the homeowner gets a lower bill.
Obama speaking this afternoon at Everglades National Park
President Barack Obama just marked Earth Day with a speech on climate change, given from a podium in Florida's Everglades National Park. The choice of venue was appropriate from an environmental perspective—the Everglades is already acutely feeling the impacts of sea level rise—but it was also telling from a political standpoint. Although our swampiest national park has a long history of bipartisan support, it's located in a state that has recently produced some of the most absurdist climate denial in recent memory—and Obama didn't forget to mention it.
"Climate change can no longer be denied," Obama said today. "It can't be edited out. It can't be omitted from the conversation…Simply refusing to say the words 'climate change' doesn't mean climate change isn't happening."
Obama also took a jab at Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) for bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor. "If you have a coming storm, you don't stick your head in the sand," he said. "You prepare for the storm."
You can watch the full speech below (starts at 48:00):
Happy Earth Day! Today is a day we can all band together and share our love for this beautiful planet—or at least drown our sorrows about climate change with nerdy themed cocktails. Later today, President Barack Obama will mark the occasion with a climate-focused speech in the Florida Everglades. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, had a different idea: Fire a big chunk of the state's environmental staff.
Fifty-seven employees of the state Department of Natural Resources began receiving formal notices this week that they might face layoff as part of Gov. Scott Walker's budget for the next two fiscal years…
The DNR's scientific staff conducts research on matters ranging from estimating the size of the state's deer herd to to studying the effects of aquatic invasive species. Work is paid for with state and federal funds…
All told, Walker's budget would cut 66 positions from the DNR. Of this, more than 25% would come from the science group. Cosh said a smaller number of employees received notices than the 66 positions in the budget because some positions targeted for cuts are vacant.
It's no secret that a signature tactic in Walker's controversial environmental record has been to degrade the DNR, which in addition to carrying out research is tasked with regulating the state's mining industries. Still, the timing of this particular announcement is striking. I guess no one marked Earth Day on Walker's calendar.
Neither Walker's office nor DNR immediately returned requests for comment.
As consolation for this depressing news, here's is a webcam of pandas at the San Diego Zoo.
Oil stains a beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April 2010.
Today is the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that triggered the nation's worst-ever oil spill. The well leaked for three months and dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the sea. The explosion itself killed eleven men; the resulting pollution killed a stupefying amount of wildlife, including 800,000 some birds. And despite billions paid out by BP in fines and restoration costs, the economic impact of the disaster remains wide-reaching and ongoing.
But possibly even more outrageous than the spill itself is how little has been done by government to prevent a similar disaster. The oil and gas industry has stayed active in Washington, and managed to fend off serious efforts to curb drilling: Congress has passed zero new laws—not one—to restrict offshore drilling or force it to be safer. The Obama administration has approved over 1,500 offshore drilling permits since the spill. And back in January the administration announced a plan to open new areas in the Atlantic and Arctic for offshore drilling. As my colleague Tim Murphy noted today, Louisiana's oversight of the oil industry is rife with ludicrous conflicts of interest that raise serious doubts about the state's ability to make drilling safer.
In other words, the wounds from BP are scarcely healed, but we're pushing deeper and deeper into offshore drilling.
In fact, well construction in the Gulf is literally pushing into deeper water, where the risks of a spill are even greater. From an AP investigation pegged to the anniversary:
A review of offshore well data by the AP shows the average ocean depth of all wells started since 2010 has increased to 1,757 feet, 40 percent deeper than the average well drilled in the five years before that...
Drillers are exploring a "golden zone" of oil and natural gas that lies roughly 20,000 feet beneath the sea floor, through a 10,000-foot thick layer of prehistoric salt...
Technology now allows engineers to see the huge reservoirs beneath the previously opaque salt, but the layer is still harder to see through than rock. And it's prone to hiding pockets of oil and gas that raise the potential for a blowout.
Drilling in the Gulf makes up less than one-fifth of US crude oil production, and an even smaller share of total oil production if you count unconventional oil from fracking. So it wouldn't be a crippling blow to our energy supply to consider putting the brakes on offshore drilling—if not forever, at least until we feel secure that we've done enough to prevent another Deepwater Horizon.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago today, killing 11 men and sending nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the sea. After the well was finally plugged, the national media went home, but the story is still very much unfolding everywhere from federal courtrooms to Louisiana backyards.
Let's have a look back at the nation's worst-ever oil spill, by the numbers: