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2014 Was the Biggest Year For Solar Power Ever

| Tue Mar. 10, 2015 12:32 PM EDT

We've noted here before the many ways in which solar power is blowing up in the United States: Adding tons of jobs, driving progressive policies, and attracting millions of dollars in investment from major corporations. It's not slowing down anytime soon: New data from market analysis firm GTM Research finds that 2014 was solar's biggest year ever, with 30 percent more photovoltaic installations installed than in 2013. Check it out:

GTM

Those numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to other types of energy sources. Even though solar still accounts for a small share of US electricity generation (less than 1 percent), last year it added nearly as many new megawatts to the grid as natural gas, which is quickly catching up on coal as the country's primary energy source. (Coal, you can see, added almost nothing new in 2014.)

GTM

The report points to three chief reasons for the boom. First, costs are falling, not just for the panels themselves but for ancillary expenses like installation and financing, such that overall prices fell by 10 percent compared to 2013. Second, falling costs have allowed both large utility companies and small third-party solar installers to pursue new ways to bring solar to customers, including leasing panels and improved on-site energy storage. Third, federal incentives and regulations have been relatively stable in the last few years, while state incentives are generally improving, particularly in states like California and Nevada that have been leading the charge.

One more chart worth pointing out: Rooftop solar tends to get the most press because that's where homeowners and solar companies get into tussles with big incumbent power companies and the state regulators that often side with them. And it's true that a new home gets solar more often than a giant solar farm gets constructed. But on a sheer megawatt basis, utility-scale solar is still far and away the leading source, with a few notable projects coming online in 2014, like the Topaz Solar project in the California desert, the largest solar installation in the world.

GTM

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Iran's Foreign Minister Dismisses GOP Letter as "Propaganda Ploy"

| Tue Mar. 10, 2015 9:49 AM EDT

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to a controversial letter signed by 47 GOP senators urging Iran to reject a nuclear deal with the United States, dismissing the message as "mostly a propaganda ploy" that aimed to undermine President Barack Obama's diplomatic efforts. Zarif said in a statement:

It is very interesting that while negotiations are still in progress and while no agreement has been reached, some political pressure groups are so afraid even of the prospect of an agreement that they resort to unconventional methods, unprecedented in diplomatic history. This indicates that like Netanyahu, who considers peace as an existential threat, some are opposed to any agreement, regardless of its content.

The Republican letter, which was organized by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, warned Iran's leaders that a nuclear agreement with Obama could be scrapped by any president who succeeds him. The message was clear: if you accept this deal, you could end up screwed; so don't do it. It was a brazen attempt to sabotage Obama's attempt to curb Iran's nuclear program through a negotiated accord between Iran, the United States, and other nations.

In his response, Zarif challenged Cotton and his fellow Republicans on their reading of international law:

The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfill the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.

Change of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor in a possible agreement about Iran's peaceful nuclear program.

This latest attempt orchestrated by Republicans to undercut the president's negotiations with Iran angered the White House and sparked a furious response by Vice President Joe Biden, who slammed the GOP senators' letter as "beneath the dignity of the institution I revere." Several GOP senators also criticized the move, expressing concern that Cotton's letter could backfire and spur additional support for a nuclear deal.

"It’s more appropriate for members of the Senate to give advice to the president, to Secretary Kerry and to the negotiators," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said. "I don’t think that the ayatollah is going to be particularly convinced by a letter from members of the Senate, even one signed by a number of my distinguished and high ranking colleagues."

Town Overrun by 31-Acre Sinkhole Now Overrun by Homeless Kittens

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 6:45 PM EDT

In August of 2012, a salt cavern maintained by the mining company Texas Brine collapsed, creating a sinkhole outside the town of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, and prompting a mandatory evacuation order that has yet to be lifted. Two and a half years later, the sinkhole has grown to 31 acres, Texas Brine has reached a $48.6 million settlement with displaced homeowners, and the company is considering bulldozing much of the town and converting it into "green space."

But it's not just Bayou Corne evacuees who are looking for a new place to live—the neighborhood near the sinkhole is still home to 38 feral cats, who risk losing their suburban habitat if the properties return to nature because of the sinkhole.

The New Orleans Times Picayune has the full story on the kittens of Bayou Corne, and the efforts of one of the few remaining residents, Teleca Donachricha, to find them a home:

Some of the residents had been feeding different groups of them, but those residents are all gone now. One woman had been trying to drive the hour from Baton Rouge every other day to feed one group of the cats, but Donachricha knew that wasn't going to last long. She said if the woman could provide food, she would feed the cats for her, and she has.

...

Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said he couldn't say when demolition will occur. The company donated $1,000 to a nonprofit Donachricha was working with to get some of the cats spayed and neutered. All but three of the 38 cats are now spayed or neutered -- one of the remaining ones is a newer arrival that was recently dumped there, and the other two she hasn't been able to catch.

"We support her efforts," Cranch said. "Hopefully she'll be successful in finding homes for these animals."

Any takers?

 

Millions of Americans Don't Have Full Voting Rights. John Oliver Explains Just How Insane That Is.

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 6:42 PM EDT

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday this weekend, an event that spurred the passage of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, John Oliver took a moment out during his show last night to remind everyone that nearly 4 million people living in the United States are still denied full voting rights. Why? Because they live in territories.

Coincidentally enough, 98 percent of these residents happen to be racial or ethnic minorities who were once categorized as government-acquired "alien races" and therefore not extended constitutional protections.

"Alien races can't understand Anglo-Saxon principles?" Oliver asked. "I find that condescending and I'm British. We basically invented patronizing bigotry!"

As Oliver goes onto further explain, it gets even worse for American Samoans, who are the only people born on U.S. soil but denied citizenship. Last month, Mother Jones published a report detailing the Obama administration's fight to continue denying citizenship to American Samoans using a century-old racist law to justify their case.

Oliver also summed up everything stupid about Daylight Saving Time in 3 minutes:

Yet Another Oil Train Disaster

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 4:17 PM EDT
Railroad oil tankers

Another day, another oil train derailment. Early Saturday morning, a Canadian National Railway train carrying Alberta crude derailed outside the tiny town of Gogama in northern Ontario. Thirty-eight cars came off the tracks, and five of them splashed into the Mattagami River system. The accident caused a massive fire and leaked oil into waterways used by locals—including a nearby indigenous community—for drinking and fishing. No one was injured, but according to CN Railway's Twitter feed, fire fighters were still suppressing fires earlier today. People in the area, including members of the Mattagami First Nation, have been complaining of respiratory issues from the smoke.

This oil train derailment was the second in three days in Canada and the fifth in three weeks in North America. An oil train derailed last week near Galena, Illinois. The oil boom in Canada and the United States has resulted in a dramatic increase in the use of these trains, and derailments now appear to be the new normal.

After the 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, many pointed to old, unsafe DOT-111 tanker models as a main reason for the disaster and others like it. But at least four of the five recent incidents have involved newer, and theoretically safer, CPC-1232 models.

Environmental and safety advocates say oil-by-rail needs even more stringent safety measures, but they have been slow coming. The US government reportedly balked at creating national standards to limit the amount of potentially explosive gas in tankers carrying oil from North Dakota. And the White House Office of Management and Budget has said it will need until May to finalize rules proposed by the Department of Transportation last summer that would slow down crude-by-rail deliveries and require tankers to have insulated steel shells. The CPC-1232 tankers that derailed in Galena did not have these shells. I asked the Canadian National Railway Company if the tankers involved in Saturday's derailment had these shells. The company didn't directly answer that question. In an email, it stated: "The tank cars involved were CPC 1232 tank cars. The exact specifications will be information gathered as part of the ongoing investigation."

Below are Twitter pictures of Saturday's derailment in northern Ontario.

Once Again, Obamacare Is Turning Out To Be Cheaper Than Expected

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 1:57 PM EDT

Here's some good news: the latest report from the CBO has reduced its estimate of the cost of Obamacare. This is due partly to a slight decrease in the number of people CBO expects to be covered, but mostly due a lower estimate of the cost of insurance premiums. Thanks to this, federal subsidies are estimated at $209 billion less over a ten-year period, and the cost of CHIP and Medicaid is estimated at $73 billion less. However, there are also reductions in expected revenues from Obamacare's excise tax, so the net reduction amounts to $142 billion over ten years. The table below tells the story.

Sarah Kliff has more details here. As she notes, this isn't the first time CBO has reduced its estimate of how much Obamacare will cost: "The CBO is projecting the federal government will spend $600 billion less on health care than the agency expected in 2010, when it wasn't counting even a dollar of the spending in Obamacare. That's simply an amazing fact." Yep.

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Report: Florida Banned State Workers From Saying "Climate Change"

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 11:17 AM EDT
The aftermath of Hurricane Wilma in 2005

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the agency in charge of setting conservation policy and enforcing environmental laws in the state, issued directives in 2011 barring thousands of employees from using the phrases "climate change" and "global warming," according to a bombshell report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR).

The report ties the alleged policy, which is described as "unwritten," to the election of Republican governor Rick Scott and his appointment of a new department director that year. Scott, who was re-elected last November, has declined to say whether he believes in climate change caused by human activity.

"I'm not a scientist," he said in one appearance last May.

Scott's office did not comment on Sunday, when contacted by the Guardian. A spokesperson for the governor told the FCIR team: "There's no policy on this."

The FCIR report was based on statements by multiple named former employees who worked in different DEP offices around Florida. The instruction not to refer to "climate change" came from agency supervisors as well as lawyers, according to the report.

"We were told not to use the terms 'climate change', 'global warming' or 'sustainability,'" the report quotes Christopher Byrd, who was an attorney with the DEP's Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013, as saying. "That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel."

"We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms 'global warming' or 'climate change' or even 'sea-level rise,'" said a second former DEP employee, Kristina Trotta. "Sea-level rise was to be referred to as 'nuisance flooding.'"

According to the employees' accounts, the ban left damaging holes in everything from educational material published by the agency to training programs to annual reports on the environment that could be used to set energy and business policy.

The 2014 national climate assessment for the US found an "imminent threat of increased inland flooding" in Florida due to climate change and called the state "uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise."

Yes, Education Matters. But It's Not the Answer to Growing Income Inequality.

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 10:55 AM EDT

David Brooks has a bit of an odd column today:

For many years, Democratic efforts to reduce inequality and lift middle-class wages were based on the theory that the key is to improve the skills of workers. Expand early education. Make college cheaper. Invest in worker training. Above all, increase the productivity of workers so they can compete.

But a growing number of populist progressives have been arguing that inequality is not mainly about education levels. They argue that trying to lift wages by improving skills is an “evasion.” It’s “whistling past the graveyard.”

....Focusing on human capital is not whistling past the graveyard. Worker productivity is the main arena. No redistributionist measure will have the same long-term effect as good early-childhood education and better community colleges, or increasing the share of men capable of joining the labor force.

I don't quite get who Brooks is arguing against here. Larry Summers is the obvious target, but Summers has been clear that he thinks education is important, both individually and for the economy as a whole. He just doesn't think that improved education is likely to have much impact on growing income inequality, which is driven by other factors.

But Brooks never even pretends to address this. I don't think there are any prominent Democrats arguing that education isn't important. Pretty much all of them are on board with good early-childhood education and better community colleges, among other things. That will help individuals and make the American economy stronger.

But will it rein in growing income inequality? As long as inequality is driven primarily by the gains of the top 1 percent—which it is—then it won't. To address that particular problem, we have to look elsewhere.

White Men Are Overdosing on Heroin at a Record Rate

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 6:20 AM EDT

A decades-long surge in heroin use has left behind a trail of overdose victims. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released this week found that the number of heroin overdoses quadrupled from 1,842 in 2000 to 8,257 in 2013—with a significant boost among people between the ages of 18 and 44, particularly white men.

Dr. Len Paulozzi, a medical epidemiologist who studies drug overdoses at the CDC's Injury Center, says that both the growing availability of heroin nationwide and the shift among prescription drug users to heroin use may have contributed to the dramatic rise in deaths. "Thirty years ago, people snorting heroin never used OxyContin or Vicodin before" using heroin, says Paulozzi, who did not contribute to the CDC report. But now the drug's abusers start with prescription drugs, he says, turning these meds into gateway drugs. A National Survey on Drug Use and Health study found that heroin abuse was 19 times higher among people who had previously abused pain relievers. 

The increase in overdoses follows a federal crackdown on prescription painkillers, beginning toward the end of the Clinton era and lasting through the Bush administration, that resulted in a rash of arrests for illegal use during the mid-2000s. While the rate of deaths involving prescription painkillers like OxyContin appears to have leveled off, heroin overdoses have risen 348 percent. Most of the deaths occurred after 2010. That year, a new tamper-resistant form of Oxy hit the market, making it less potent and harder to abuse. 

The rate of heroin deaths accelerated among people between the ages of 18 and 24, from 0.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 3.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. For people between 25 and 44 years old, the rate jumped from 1.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2013. Among young and middle-aged white people, that death rate reached 7.0 per 100,000 by 2013.

The CDC report also highlighted the stark gender and regional disparities among those who overdose. Deaths among men from heroin overdoses were four times higher than those among women between 2000 and 2013. While heroin overdoses increased throughout the country, the greatest number occurred in the Northeast and Midwest. In those regions, particularly near cities, the Justice Department observed the illicit drug as a rising threat—especially given the reported spike in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid some 30 times more potent than heroin.

According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department predicted the emerging trend in 2002: "As initiatives taken to curb the abuse of OxyContin are successfully implemented, abusers of OxyContin…also may begin to use heroin, especially if it is readily available, pure, and relatively inexpensive." A flood of heroin from Mexico, the world's third-largest opium producer, also factored into the drug's availability in the United States. In 2013, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 2,196 kilograms of powder and black tar at the US-Mexico border, a nearly 160 percent bump from 2009.

John Coltrane for Experts

| Mon Mar. 9, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The John Coltrane Quintet Featuring Eric Dolphy
So Many Things: The European Tour 1961
Acrobat

So many "things" indeed! This intriguing four-disc collection of concert performances from November 1961 features six different renditions of the standard "My Favorite Things, each running 20 to 29 minutes, along with more compact versions of "Blue Train," "I Want to Talk About You." and other Coltrane favorites. These previously bootlegged concerts were taken from radio broadcasts and suffer slightly from thin sound, but are more than listenable. If So Many Things isn't for beginners, it's great extra-credit listening: With multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy briefly in the lineup, Coltrane was pushing his tenor and soprano sax chops into new territory, leaving behind traditional melodies and song structures in a restless search for fresh ideas and approaches—a quest he would continue until his death in 1967. The harsher extremes of his final years are yet to be reached, and there's a mesmerizing, meditative quality to the music throughout that's dreamy, yet subtly urgent.