Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
A bit of good news for fans of renewable energy: Driven by a steady decline in the cost of manufacturing solar panels, the cost of going solar in your home or business is the lowest its ever been, according to a new analysis of project data by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Total installation prices fell 11-14 percent from 2010 to 2011, depending on size, continuing the downward trend of the last decade, which analysts predict will carry forward into 2012:
Courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
The study looked at some 150,000 systems installed since 1998 in search of concrete proof to bolster the "quite a bit of anecdotal evidence along the way that prices were falling," said author Galen Barbose. Tech advances and exploding demand have pushed down the cost of the solar modules themselves, the main factor in the overall drop. But Barbose cautioned that that drop could level out if prices for the ancillary aspects of installing solar stay high relative to the cost of the physical panels. That includes permit fees, installation labor, power inverters, and marketing and overhead costs for installation companies.
"There are limits to how much further module prices can drop," he said, and pointed to Germany as an example of a place where hardware costs are comparable to the US, but easier and cheaper permitting practices cut the overall cost for household installations nearly in half. "'Soft' costs could come down significantly in the US, but to really make an impact on a national scale there will need to be efforts on the federal level to spur changes that aren't happening locally."
In other words, solar is in the same boat as wind: Big-time growth will be a pipe dream until the feds can chart a detailed course for renewables.
This summer, James West and I hopped in our mud-caked rental sedan and followed the oil tankers out of Williston, ND. On my notepad was a scribbled address, a spot deep in the North Dakota prairie, just off the shores of serpentine Lake Sakakawea, twenty miles from the nearest town. As we drove oil rigs cropped up in every direction, each indistinguishable from the last. But somewhere out there was the one we were after: the one with my name on it.
In the most recent issue of Mother Jones, we reported on the explosive growth happening in North Dakota as a result of fracking. The drilling technique has unlocked massive deposits of oil from the Bakken Shale, which translate directly to massive deposits of cash for everyone from truck drivers to rig operators to local strippers to the Big Oil kingpins of Houston and Oklahoma City. And in the interest of full journalistic disclosure, I think it's about time I came clean: A few of those dirty fracked dollars are in my family's greasy little pocket.
A couple weeks ago, my grandma, a wise and exacting matriarch with a bone-dry wit, cashed in her latest fat paycheck from ConocoPhillips. She claims to have "already forgotten" how she spent the money, a cool $27.82.
"Your mother said, 'You're supposed to split it with us'," Cynthia Marty, "Nana" to my siblings and me, says with a wry chuckle. "She can go to hell."
That's right: In the last several years, as fracking has grown into one of the most divisive environmental issues of our time, my family has profited from it to the tune of nearly $200. It goes back to a fateful day in 2008, shortly after George, Nana's husband, "Papa" to me, passed away. Sorting through papers in his gargantuan old rolltop desk, Nana, 82, came across a yellowed, official-looking document with the imprimatur of the State of North Dakota. It dated from the early 1930s, and conferred mineral rights—that is, a claim on anything sucked up from under the ground, but not the surface itself—to a plot of land identified only by an obscure numbered code.
"I didn't know what to file it under," Nana says. "In fact, I was tempted to throw it away."
A few phone calls to distant relatives and estate lawyers later, Nana found that the rights were originally purchased by her uncle Stewart Kelley, who lived in Omaha at the time but had grown up in the early twentieth century in Lakota, North Dakota, across the state from the plot he eventually staked. A succession of deaths and wills led the document to Papa, and now it was in Nana's hands.
Since Hurricane Sandy, the historic Belle Harbor Yacht Club in the Rockaways—one of New York City's hardest-hit neighborhoods—has become an indispensable hub for supplies, volunteers, and a much-needed round of drinks. Three weeks after the storm, the oft-maligned Long Island Power Authority still hasn't re-connected this building, not to mention its neighbors, back to the grid, leaving locals to face the prospect of a cold, dark Thanksgiving.
But outside, the sun is shining, and a trio of local solar power companies have seen an opportunity to bridge the gap left open by the electric utility. The yacht club, among several area buildings, is now plugged into a portable solar power generator, which frees volunteers from the endless gas lines that plague those dependent on traditional generators and leaves them ready to dish out hot plates of turkey and stuffing to the beleaguered community.
ON A CLOUDY spring morning, Ethan Ritter sat behind the wheel of a dump truck, lost in the maze of oil rigs northeast of Williston, North Dakota. Ritter, then 21, was hauling a load of gravel for his brother, who was doing road construction. He made a full stop at the tracks; there were no boom gates, only a crossing sign. His CB radio was off and all was quiet. Ritter looked both ways, then eased on the gas and headed into the crossing.
Next thing he knew, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine was shoving his truck down the track sideways at more than 40 miles an hour. "It was crazier than any roller coaster you can find, I'll tell you that!" he recalls. "All I know is I got hit by the train. And that I was still kicking."
In the past four years the intersection—the only access point to a handful of oil wells—has seen four train-truck accidents, one of them fatal. Nationwide, collisions of trains and motor vehicles have dropped by 32 percent since 2006, but in North Dakota they're up 67 percent.
Fracking relies on trucks. In its lifetime, a single well requires some 1,500 trips by semis, tankers, and pickups—oil out; water, sand, and chemicals in. This is especially true in places like the Bakken Shale, where pipelines are scarce. On Williston's crumbling roads, mud-caked semis jostle for space like massive bumper cars. Rush-hour backups can stretch for miles.
Oil rigs like this one pepper the landscape outside Williston, North Dakota. James West/Climate Desk
Wind power developer Matt Riley says his industry's mood is, at best, "guarded optimism."
Good-news stories are an increasingly rare find in the wind power industry these days, but Matt Riley has one. His small, relatively young company, Infinity Wind Power in Santa Barbara, Calif., hasn't laid anyone off; it has added jobs. It hasn't called off orders for turbines; it wrapped up its first installation, a healthy-sized turbine farm in Kansas, earlier this year.
But like most everyone in the industry, Riley is anxious about the extension of a federal tax credit for wind that Mitt Romney had vowed to kill if elected president, and spent the weeks leading up to the election praying for Obama. Yet with the president's second term only weeks away, Riley says the light at the end of the tunnel isn't yet in sight.
"We were nervous of a Romney election," Riley says, so Obama's re-election "was a victory for us. But we still have a lot of work to do."
This week Riley and his wind industry peers, from turbine manufacturers to developers to electricians to siting consultants, gathered at a swanky resort in the desert outside Phoenix to regroup after the election and look ahead at the next four years. But although Riley's pre-election anticipation was widely shared by people here, the mood feels less like jubilance and more like the tepid relief of a bullet dodged.
"I'd be a lot more pessimistic if Romney was elected," said a wind expert for General Electric. "But sadly, not enough has changed."
"I'd be a lot more pessimistic if Romney was elected," Jeffrey Wiener, a wind expert for General Electric, tells me. "But sadly, not enough has changed."
Pat Bousliman, a former staffer for Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana) and one of a cadre of Washington insiders who addressed the assembly, agreed: "It could have been a whole lot worse for the wind industry, but [the election] didn't change much."
The focus of the tense, nervous conversation within these adobe walls is the same as it has been for a year or more: how the industry will survive if the Production Tax Credit (PTC), a $1 billion-a-year lifeline, gets axed by Congress after it expires at year's end.
The folks behind Big Wind's lobbying efforts in Washington remain upbeat: Denise Bode, head of the American Wind Energy Association, gleefully announced that of Congressional candidates backed by the trade group, 86 percent won in the Senate and 88 percent in the House, which she called a "very positive result for the wind industry."