Blue Marble

Cheaper, More Reliable Solar?

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 8:34 PM PDT

feature_solar1.jpg It's appearing in the form of solar thermal. Instead of converting sunlight to electricity, solar thermal, also called concentrated solar power, harness the sun's energy by converting sunlight to heat with the help of mirrors. This according to a great piece in the current Geotimes, magazine of the American Geological Institute. Some plants use curved mirrors, known as parabolic troughs, to focus sunlight onto pipes filled with circulating oil that circulate and heat steam to power a standard generator. In another system, solar power towers use large fields of sun-tracking mirrors that focus solar energy onto a receiver on top of a central tower. The intense energy concentrated onto the tower produces temperatures up to 2,732 degrees Fahrenheit, which then heats water to produce steam and drive a turbine to generate electricity. Many newer plants use insulated tanks filled with molten salt for heat storage, which provide power on cloudy days and at night—addressing the ephemeral nature of solar power.

Seems the searing West just might be the place for a lot more solar thermal.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Ice Blocking Canada's Seal Hunt

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 5:56 PM PDT

HarpSeal.jpg Good news. Thick ice is slowing sealing boats from reaching the baby harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, reports Planet Ark. Consequently, only three pups out of a quota of 275,000 were killed the first day. This after last year's "hunt" was affected by a lack of ice. The Canadian government has promised the slaughter will be more humane this year. How? After a hunter shoots or clubs a seal, he now must check its eyes to ensure it is dead, and if not, the animal's main arteries must be cut.

Okay, let's get clear about this. That does not qualify as humane.

The Canadian seal hunt is the largest mass slaughter of marine mammals on Earth, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Just what are they doing with all those dead baby seals? The furs are made into coats and clothes. And there's a growing market for seal oil, high in omega-3 fatty acid… and PCBs:

American West Heating Twice as Fast

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 4:52 PM PDT

317488203_967e4514e6_m.jpg Don't think climate change is going to affect you? Well, if you live in the American West, it already is. In fact the west is heating up faster than the rest of the world, reports the National Resources Defense Council. The average temperature rise in the drought-struck Colorado River basin is more than double global average—especially bad news for the 30 million people living in Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego, among the nation's fastest growing American cities and all dependent on the Colorado for water.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization analyzed temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for 11 western states and found the average temp in the Colorado River Basin, from Wyoming to Mexico, was 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the historical average for the 20th Century, and more than twice the global rise of 1.0 degree. Throughout the West, the average temperature increased 1.7 degrees. "We are seeing signs of the economic impacts," says study author Stephen Saunders, including $2.7 billion in crop losses since 2000, commercial salmon losses, reduced hunting revenues, and shorter, less profitable ski seasons. The Colorado River Basin is in the throes of a record drought and climate scientists predict more and drier droughts in the future as hotter temperatures reduce the snowpack and increase evaporation. "We need strong leadership from western senators to pass America's Climate Security Act," said Spencer.

How about any leadership? You know, turning off the lights one hour a year ain't gonna work. In 2007 I was optimistic about Earth Hour. A year later, I'm like, is this all we're ever going to do?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Sierra Club Boots Florida Chapter Over Clorox Deal

| Fri Mar. 28, 2008 12:03 PM PDT

greenworks-dilutable.gifThe Sierra Club voted this week to suspend its entire 35,000-member Florida chapter for four years and removed the chapter's leadership. The reason? The chapter openly criticized the Club's decision to partner with Clorox for Clorox's new "Green Works" line of "natural" cleaning products.

The dispute between the Florida chapter and the national organization started in December, when Sierra Club's national board of directors overrode the Club's Corporate Relations Committee to approve the deal with Clorox. So far, details about the exact nature of the agreement have not been revealed, except for the fact that Clorox will pay the Sierra Club for its sponsorship and the use of its logo on Green Works products, with the exact amount depending on product sales.

Trees Cast Dark Shadow Over Solar Panels

| Thu Mar. 27, 2008 3:33 PM PDT

solar_energy_power_262070_l.jpgIn one of those "only in California" type lawsuits—a state that heavily promotes solar and renewable energy under the California Solar Initiative—homeowners Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett of Sunnyvale, California, have been forced to chop down two redwood trees in their backyard that were obstructing prime-time rays from their neighbor's solar array. Citing the Solar Shade Control Act, a remnant legislation from the energy crisis of the '70s, a Santa Clara County judge ruled in December in favor of solar array owner and Santa Clara resident Mark Vargas.

Vargas installed the 10-kilowatt solar array on his home in 2001. Treanor and Bissett's redwoods, which were planted in 1997, eventually grew tall enough to shade more than 10 percent of Vargas' solar panels, inciting a not-so-neighborly feud. Aside from the tricky issues regarding property rights, the case also pits the benefits of carbon-dioxide-absorbing resources against those associated with sources of renewable energy.

Is Your Collar Changing Colors?

| Wed Mar. 26, 2008 11:10 AM PDT

This campaign season, we've been endured the candidates espousing their support for "green collar jobs." But does anyone know what these jobs are exactly? As the New York Times puts it, green collar jobs are just updated versions of blue collar jobs. If a steel plant goes from producing steel to make cars to producing steel for wind turbines, its workers' collars go from blue to green. But this doesn't necessarily mean the steel plant is producing less pollution or is, in itself, better for the environment.

Definitions for what makes a green collar job vary depending on job duties and the industry they're in, but it'd be nice to know what defines these jobs that now number 8.5 million in the U.S.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Global Warming for Fun and Profit

| Mon Mar. 24, 2008 2:41 PM PDT

Sick of frittering away your hard-earned wages on March Madness? How about betting on melting ice instead?

An annual contest to guess the exact moment the ice breaks on the River Tanana, 300 miles north of Anchorage, is attracting global interest, both as a chance to win a $300,000 (£151,000) prize and as one of the world's most precise scientific indicators of the effects of global warming.

Betting closes at midnight on April 5, and tickets are sold throughout Alaska.

Drilling Making Alaskans Sick

| Mon Mar. 24, 2008 12:00 PM PDT

offshore200.jpgBy now, most of us have heard about how oil and gas drilling does a number on ecosystems. But it's no good for people, either. By way of the British Columbia online magazine the Tyee comes the story of Nuiqsut, a coastal community of 523 people in northern Alaska, about 100 miles west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Back in the late '90s, the oil and gas companies wooed the local Inupiat tribe with promises of jobs and minimal environmental impact—just 14 acres of tribal land would be affected by offshore and land drilling, they said. But now, 14 looks more like 500, and the community is a whole lot worse for the wear, says Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of Nuiqsut and also a health-care worker:

Bush & Company Choke on Clean Air

| Fri Mar. 21, 2008 4:37 PM PDT

ISS014-E-7738.jpg The EPA said last week it would improve air quality by cutting ground-level ozone limits from 80 parts per billion to 75 ppb. This should save thousands of lives a year. Sounds good? Well, according to New Scientist, the EPA's own scientific advisers told the agency last year of overwhelming evidence that an even tighter limit of 70 ppb would save thousands more lives. No go, said the EPA, apparently deciding those other thousands of lives are inconsequential.

Now the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says the Bush administration wants to overhaul the whole process of setting air-quality controls by allowing political appointees to help draft advisory reports, taking the job away, at least in part, from researchers. New Scientist reports the words of Tim Donaghy of the UCS: "The administration has changed the rules along the way so that when the next administration gets into office, the role science plays in setting regulations will be greatly diminished."

This, by the way, dovetails with a call last month by the UCS for the next president and Congress to end political interference in science and establish conditions allowing federal science to flourish. "Good federal policy depends upon reliable and robust scientific work," said Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at UCS. "When science is falsified, fabricated or censored, Americans' health and safety suffer."

Philip Morris Cleans Up Its Act - By Genetically Modifying Tobacco

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 6:36 PM PDT

cigarettes.jpg

From the cigarette company that wants you to stop smoking comes a new frontier in tobacco consumption: the health-friendly (kind of), genetically modified chew. Researchers at North Carolina State University, funded by tobacco giant Philip Morris, are trying to take the cancer out of cancer sticks by removing the gene that turns the plant toxic when cured. As tobacco plants age, the nicotine in the leaves changes into the compound nornicotine, which in turn becomes a carcinogen when the plant is cured. Knocking out the gene that causes this change, the researchers report, leads to a 50% decrease in tobacco's most harmful toxins. No word on whether the alterations make nicotine any less addictive, but you have to give them credit for trying. h/t Wired

—Casey Miner

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user zombophoto.