Blue Marble

Solar Power Is Mostly for the Affluent. Here's Obama's Plan to Spread the Wealth Around.

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 1:33 PM EDT
President Barack Obama speaks after touring a solar facility in Nevada in 2012.

Rooftop solar power systems cost a lot less these days than they did five or 10 years ago, and with many solar companies now offering leases and loans, it's safe to say that going solar is more affordable than even before. That trend goes a long way to explaining why solar, while still making up less than 1 percent of the total US energy mix, is the fastest-growing power source in the country.

But access to solar power is still overwhelmingly skewed toward affluent households. Of the roughly 645,000 homes and business with rooftop solar panels in the US, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000, according to a report earlier this year from the George Washington University Solar Institute. The typical solar home is 34 percent larger than the typical non-solar home, according to energy software provider Opower.

President Barack Obama wants to change that. On Monday the White House announced a package of initiatives to make solar more accessible for low-income households. The plans include a new solar target for federally subsidized housing and an effort to increase the availability of federally insured loans for solar systems.

Of the country's 645,000 solar homes and businesses, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000.

Low-income households face a number of barriers to going solar. They're less likely to own their own roof, less able to access loans or other financing options for solar, and more likely to have subsidized utility bills that don't transfer the financial benefits of solar to the homeowner. And yet, in many ways low-income households stand to benefit the most from producing their own energy: The proportion of their income spent on energy is about four times greater than the national median, according to federal statistics. And because lower-income households tend to use less electricity overall than higher-income households, a typical solar setup covers more of their demand. The GW study found that a 4 kilowatt solar system, about the average size for a house, would cover more than half of a typical low-income household's energy needs and that if all low-income households went solar, they would collectively save up to $23.3 billion each year.

"[This is] aimed at taking directly on those challenges and making it easier and straightforward to deploy low-cost solar energy in every community in the country," senior White House climate advisor Brian Deese told reporters in a call yesterday.

The initiative starts by tripling the target for solar on federally subsidized housing to 300 megawatts by 2020, as well as directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide technical guidance for state and local housing authorities on how to go solar. The White House also announced more than $520 million in commitments from private companies, investors, NGOs, and state and local governments to pay for energy efficiency and solar projects for low-income households. The initiative places particular emphasis on so-called "community" solar, in which groups of households pool resources to build and maintain a shared solar system in their neighborhood.

Some states and power companies are already angling to support solar for low-income housing. Arizona Public Service, a Phoenix-area utility, recently launched a $28.5 million program to install its own solar panels on rooftops in its service area, specifically targeting low-income households. And New York's electricity regulators recently bolstered incentives for power companies that invest in energy efficiency and renewables. Con Ed, the power company serving most of New York City, plans to spend $250 million on such upgrades in Brooklyn and Queens, as an alternative to a $1 billion upgrade to the old natural gas-fired electric grid.

The president's plan builds on a commitment he announced earlier this year to train 75,000 workers for the solar industry (which is already adding jobs 10 times faster than the overall economy). It also dovetails neatly with Obama's larger climate objectives, especially his hotly-contested plan to reduce the nation's energy-related carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, as well as the economy-wide climate targets that form the US bargaining chip for this year's UN climate negotiations in Paris.

For all those promises to work, "the question is how states and utilities can reduce their emissions, and the buildings that they serve are a critical part of that system," said Natural Resources Defense Council financial policy analyst Philip Henderson. "Making those buildings more efficient and using less energy from dirty power plants is a direct and essential way to meet those goals."    

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America's BBQ Grills Create as Much Carbon as a Big Coal Plant

| Thu Jul. 2, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

As your neighbors fire up their barbecues this Independence Day, the most popular day in America to grill, they won't just send the scent of tri-tip or grilled corn over the fence in your direction—they'll also send smoke. As my colleague Kiera Butler wrote about here, even the "cleanest" gas grills emit pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every hour they're used. So how many emissions can we expect from dinner barbecues on the 4th?

Roughly eighty percent of American households own barbecues or smokers, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association. Let's say all 92.5 million of them decide to grill on Saturday. A 2013 study by HPBA found that 61 percent of users opted for gas grills, 42 percent for charcoal, and 10 percent for electric (some respondents had multiple grills). If that reflected all households across the United States, and each household used its grill for an hour on the 4th of July, then we'd get a calculation like this:

(56.425M gas grills*5.6 pounds of CO2) + (38.85M charcoal grills*11 pounds CO2) + (9.25M electric grills*15 pounds CO2 ) = 882 million pounds of CO2

That's roughly as many emissions as burning 2145 railcars of coal, or running one coal-fired power plant for a month.

But let's be honest—no one wants to give up summer grilling, and these emissions stats probably won't convince your neighbor to turn off the barbecue. You might instead offer up ideas on recipes with ingredients that are friendlier to the planet—like these 4 veggie burgers that don't suck.

Finally, a Little Good News on the California Drought Front

| Wed Jul. 1, 2015 3:47 PM EDT

Finally, some good news on the California drought beat: Californians reduced their residential water usage in May by a whopping 29 percent compared to the same month in 2013, according to a report released today by the State Water Resources Control Board. That's the steepest drop in more than a year.

Californians may have been inspired to reduce their water use by the mandatory, statewide municipal water cut of 25 percent that Gov. Jerry Brown announced in April, though those cuts didn't go into effect until June. (Those 25 percent reductions did not apply to agriculture, which uses an estimated 80 percent of the state's water, though some farmers have faced curtailments.)

"The numbers tell us that more Californians are stepping up to help make their communities more water secure, which is welcome news in the face of this dire drought," said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus in a press release. "That said, we need all Californians to step up—and keep it up—as if we don’t know when it will rain and snow again, because we don't."

In May, California residents used 87.5 gallons per capita per day—three gallons per day less than the previous month. Big cities that showed the most dramatic cuts include Folsom, Fresno, and San Jose. But water use by area varies drastically, with places known for green lawns and gardens, like Coachella and Malibu, using more than 200 gallons per person per day. Outdoor water usage is estimated to account for about half of overall residential use.

Officials are cautiously optimistic. Board spokesman George Kostyrko says Californians "did great in May and we are asking them to keep doing what they are doing and work even harder to conserve water during these critical summer months and beyond."

The Threatened Atlantic Puffins Are Nesting And It's Adorable

| Sat Jun. 27, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Atlantic puffins chilling on a cliff.

The Atlantic puffins are back...for now. After spending much of the year on the open sea, the photogenic birds have made their annual trip to the North Atlantic shores of Maine, Newfoundland, and the United Kingdom to breed.

But as Rowan Jacobsen reported in a Mother Jones feature last summer, rising ocean temperatures have taken a huge toll on these seabirds. Cold-water thriving zooplankton, critical to the Gulf of Maine's food web, have reached their lowest numbers ever, forcing the fish that puffins feed to their young to go elsewhere for food. Without a reliable source of food, in 2013, only 10 percent of puffin pairs in burrows tracked by researchers successfully fledged chicks (normally that rate is 77 percent).

This isn't the first time puffins in Maine have faced an existential threat. After 300 years of hunting and over harvesting eggs, Atlantic puffin colonies in Maine nearly disappeared. Fortunately, a successful Audubon Society initiative in the 1970s brought them back to nesting islands off the coast of Maine; by 2013, 1,000 pairs were laying eggs there.

During the past couple of years, cold water has returned to the gulf of Maine, which is great news for the puffins. In 2014, they saw a rebound: 75 percent of chicks survived. This year they are back again and as cute as ever. You can watch them below on the Audubon's puffin live cam until August when they leave again for the ocean:

If that's not enough, below are some more photos and video of Atlantic puffins:

Randy Rimland/Shutterstock

Helen Kattai/Shutterstock
Eric Isselee/Shutterstock

 

gabrisigno/Shutterstock

 

Congress Doesn't Think Agricultural Sustainability Has Anything to Do With Your Health

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 6:15 PM EDT

Every five years, the US government revisits its Dietary Guidelines—suggestions for how Americans should eat. The guidelines won't legally require you to, say, eat an apple a day, but they do affect things like agricultural subsidies and public school lunches, so they're fairly influential.

The National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the Advisory Committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise" to tackle issues of sustainability.

When the committee tasked with making scientific recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines released its report this year, it ruffled some feathers. For the first time it included concerns about the environmental issues linked to certain dietary patterns and agricultural practices—for example, how eating less meat and more plant-based foods is "more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact." Or that assuring food security might rely on creating agricultural practices that "reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources."

Some lobbyists and politicians, especially those who pad their pockets with cash from Big Food and Big Ag, weren't too happy about these suggestions. As I've written in the past, the suggestion that plant-based diets might be healthier for people and the planet messes with the meat industry's bottom line, so why would they back it? In letters sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack over the past few months, industry groups have tried to argue that sustainability issues do not fall within the scope of the Dietary Guidelines. One letter from the National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the advisory committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise to evaluate the complex relationship between food production and the dietary needs of a growing American and international population."

The House Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, which accepted at least $1.4 million from the food industry in 2013 and 2014, apparently caved to these complaints. It recently stuck a rider in its 2016 Agricultural Appropriations bill that would A) explicitly prohibit the upcoming Dietary Guidelines from mentioning anything other than diet and nutrient intake, and B) force the guidelines to only rely on scientific evidence that has been rated "Grade 1: Strong" by the Department of Agriculture. Politico reported on Thursday that a similar Senate agriculture appropriations rider would force any advice in the Dietary Guidelines to be "solely nutritional and dietary in nature."

In an unprecedented move, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has shot back with a letter of its own. Health and food systems should be more closely related in the government's eyes, the committee argued. "Future food insecurity is predictable without attention to the safety, quality, cost, and sustainability of the food supply," the letter stated, adding that "the US health and public health systems are burdened with preventable health problems." In other words, to narrow the reach of the Dietary Guidelines is to ignore the connection between things like exercise and obesity, for instance, or agricultural pesticide use and disease. To read more of the DGAC's arguments, see the full letter here.

Expect the finalized Dietary Guidelines late this year. In the meantime, it looks like the DGAC isn't giving up the battle for a more holistic national framework for how people eat. They certainly have Food Politics author Marion Nestle on their side; as she summarizes on her blog:

[Members of the DGAC] were asked to review and consider the science of diet and health and did so. They reported what they believe the science says. Some segments of the food industry didn't like the science so they are using the political system to fight back. That some members of Congress would go along with this is shameful.

Why Is a Whole Foods Exec Livestreaming His Empty Office?

| Thu Jun. 25, 2015 5:36 PM EDT

Whole Foods recently announced its plan to open a new line of smaller stores called "365," and along with the news they launched a very, well, strange promotional website. If you type in www.wholefoodsmarket.com/365 you will find a webpage streaming a live cam of 365 president Jeff Turnas's desk. As of the writing of this post, the live stream has been going for some 170 hours; that's more than seven days.

If this tactic is meant to show how hard Whole Foods is working on its new, more affordable venture (amid growing competition and accusations of overcharging customers), it's not really working. We scanned through the seven days of footage and not once was the office occupied.

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California Water Districts Just Sued the State Over Cuts to Farmers

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 8:39 PM EDT

Drama on the California drought front: On Friday, a group of water districts sued the State Water Resources Control Board in response to an order prohibiting some holders of senior water rights from pumping out of some lakes and rivers.

"This is our water," said Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District, to KQED's Lauren Sommer. "We believe firmly in that fact and we are very vested in protecting that right."

Water allotments in the Golden State are based on a byzantine system of water rights that prioritizes senior water rights holders, defined as individuals, companies, and water districts that laid claim to the water before 1914. Typically, those with the oldest permits are the first to get water and the last to see it curtailed.

But on June 12, the state ordered the 114 senior water rights holders with permits dating back to 1903 to stop pumping water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds, a normally fertile area encompassing most of northern California. "There are some that have no alternative supplies and will have to stop irrigating crops," admitted Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board. "There are others that have stored water or have wells that they can fall back on. It's going to be a different story for each one and a struggle for all of them." This is the first time since 1977 that the state has enacted curtailments on senior holders.

In response, an umbrella group called the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority (which includes the Oakdale Irrigation District) has sued the state. In addition, the Patterson and Banta Carbona irrigation districts filed two separate lawsuits. The lawsuits claim the state overstepped its authority by curtailing water to districts that claimed rights to the water before the state set up a control board in 1913 to oversee water rights.

"Water right holders were here before the state exerted any authority over water," said Knell. "Most of our water rights go back to the mid-1800s. So the state having authority over something that we developed long before the state got into this business is the legal question we will be asking a judge."

EPA Report Puts a Staggering Price Tag on Climate Inaction

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 6:59 PM EDT

According to a report released Monday by the Obama administration, doing nothing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions would cost the United States billions of dollars and thousands lives.

The findings come as part of an attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency to quantify the human and economic benefits of cutting emissions in an effort to reduce global warming. The report is the latest piece of President Obama's recent climate push and provides a tool that he hopes to use in negotiations at the UN climate talks in Paris later this year.

The report, which was peer reviewed, estimates that if nothing is done to curb global warming, by 2100, the United States will see an additional 12,000 annual deaths related to extreme temperatures in the 49 cities analyzed for the report. In addition, the report projects an increase of 57,000 premature deaths annually related to poor air quality. The economic costs would be enormous as well. By 2100, climate inaction will result in:

  • $4.2-$7.4 billion in additional road maintenance costs each year.
  • $3.1 billion annually in damages to coastal regions due to sea-level rise and storm surges.
  • $6.6-$11 billion annually in agricultural damages.
  • A loss of 230,000 to 360,000 acres of cold-water fish habitat.
  • A loss of 34 percent of the US oyster supply and 29 percent of the clam supply.
  • $110 billion annually in lost labor due to unsuitable working conditions.

The EPA also used a number of charts to illustrate the difference between taking action to stop (or "mitigate") climate change and continuing with business as usual (which the charts refer to as the "reference" case).

For example, if we don't mitigate climate change, temperatures will continue to skyrocket:


Precipitation levels will become extremely volatile:


Air pollution will become much worse:

And the risk of drought will rise for much of the country:

 

Study: Flu Viruses Travel on US Roads and Railways

| Sat Jun. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Viruses are hitching a ride with commuters on the nation's roads and railways, adding to the chaotic movement that makes seasonal outbreaks difficult to track and contain.

In a study published Thursday in PLOS Pathogens, researchers at Emory University tracked genetic variations in two strains of influenza between 2003 and 2013. They concluded that states highly connected by ground transit tended to have similar genetic variations of the flu, and they matched their findings with illness case data that showed closely timed epidemic peaks in those states. The researchers believe ground transit connectivity may be a better indicator of where a disease is likely to spread than air travel connections or even geographic proximity, though they say both remain important factors.

The US Interstate Commuter Network shows the number of people traveling daily between states for work. Courtesy of Bozick, CC-BY

Modern transport networks complicate the movement of viruses: In the past, contagion moved person to person and village to village, resulting in "wave-like patterns" of genetic variation that correspond to geographic distance, the report says. But with 3.8 million people in the United States taking ground transportation across state borders each day and 1.6 million doing so by air, the spread of illness has become far more chaotic: Transcontinental flights help foster bicoastal outbreaks, while well-traveled commuter corridors between Kansas and Missouri may mean those states share illnesses as neighboring areas go unscathed.

Researchers found that "commuting communities," divided into colored regions, tended to span state borders. Travelers carried influenza along with them. Courtesy of Bozick, CC-BY

The researchers hope their study, which they believe to be the first of its kind at the scale of the continental United States, will help epidemiologists better understand influenza's seemingly unpredictable spread.

This Map Shows Where the World's Water Is Drying Up

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Groundwater loss isn't just a California problem: According to a recent study by researchers at NASA and the University of California-Irvine, humans are depleting more than half of the world's 37 largest aquifers at unsustainable rates, and there is virtually no accurate data showing how much water is left.

The study, published this week in the journal Water Resources Research, used 11 years of satellite data to measure water depletion. Eight aquifers, primarily in Asia and Africa, were qualified as "overstressed," meaning they had nearly no natural replenishment. The most stressed basin was the Arabian Aquifer System, beneath Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Other quickly disappearing aquifers were the Indus Basin aquifer, between India and Pakistan, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin, in northern Africa.

Five other aquifers, including California's Central Valley Aquifer, were "extremely" or "highly" stressed, with some natural replenishment but not enough to make up for growing demand.

The growing demand on water, exacerbated by overpopulation and climate change, has led to a situation that is "quite critical," says Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA.

Aquifers house groundwater, which serves as a savings account of sorts: It's good to rely on in droughts but takes decades or centuries to replenish. Groundwater usually makes up about 40 percent of the California's freshwater supply, but now, as California endures its fourth year of drought and as farmers have resorted to drilling for water, that number has leapt to more than 60 percent. The state recently implemented regulations to measure groundwater supply that will gradually be implemented over several years.

NASA satellite images show groundwater loss in California. UC-Irvine/NASA

Measuring exactly how much groundwater remains around the world is both difficult and expensive, as it involves drilling, sometimes thousands of feet, into thick layers of bedrock. As a result, estimates of how much longer the existing groundwater will last often vary by orders of magnitude—from decades to millennia.

The researchers got around that problem by using data that shows subtle changes in the Earth's gravity, which is affected by the weight of the aquifers. They acknowledge that this is just a start, and call for more local, detailed data.

"We know we're taking more than we're putting back in—how much do we have before we can't do that anymore?" said lead author Alexandra Richey to the Los Angeles Times. "We don't know, but we keep pumping. Which to me is terrifying."