Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog

December 30, 2013

Nonprofits: a New Frontier for Solar

Filed under: ecology,environment,green,nonprofits,solar,solar power — dylanfreak @ 8:30 pm
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The nonprofit sector would seem to represent a natural fit for the solar revolution. Nonprofits exist primarily to do good. A community center, a food bank, a nationwide health-related charity: all these try to give a helping hand to needy people in a particular geographic area, or to a specific group, or to the sick in general. While they’re fulfilling their missions, why shouldn’t they help the environment, too, by going green – not to mention giving a boost, by cutting energy costs, to their own bottom lines?

But naturally, it’s not that simple. Perhaps the biggest drawback, ironically, is one of the most crucial stimulants to the rise of solar elsewhere in the economy: tax incentives. Because of the tax-exempt status of nonprofits in general, these simply do not apply to them. And because most of a nonprofits’ donors (and usually its board as well) are looking over management’s shoulder to see where every donated dollar is spent, the initially high investment to install a solar array can seem a prohibitive indulgence.

At least three means of getting around this problem have so far evolved: a) outright donations of funds by groups and/or organizations to purchase solar arrays for nonprofits; b) crowdfunding as a means of generating the money to finance the installation of arrays; and c) the use of PPA’s (Power Purchase Agreements) as solar investments.

Earlier in December, the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts in Texas went solar with a 16.5kW array over its carport. The money to create the array was donated by the Sun Club, an organization created by Green Mountain Energy, which calls itself “the nation’s longest serving renewable energy retailer.” Through the Sun Club, Green Mountain invites its customers and employees to contribute to a fund through which donations are made to worthy nonprofits to install solar arrays – over 600 kW of power to over 50 companies so far.

Crowdfunding has also become a popular way to help nonprofits go solar. San Francisco-based Everybody Solar, which is itself a nonprofit, is one organization using this method. Its mission is to help organizations go solar, “thereby benefiting not only the environment but also the nonprofit’s budget.” Although donations are solicited from the Internet, the organization’s crowdfunding model tends to focus on the communities that will most benefit from a nonprofit’s work. And because Everybody Solar partners with a nonprofit installer, SunWork, it can provide solar panels at a cost more economical than many commercial providers.

RE-volv, also based in San Francisco, has an even more ambitious crowdfunding plan. According to the organization’s YouTube video, it seeks to establish what it calls a “solar seed fund.” Intended to finance a few small scale projects at first, the fund would generate profits from these projects, which would then be continually reinvested in a greater and greater number of projects, creating a multiplier effect.

Finally, there is the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), a financial mechanism creating third-party owners that can claim tax benefits while providing solar power as a service to worthy nonprofits. Note that contributors under this method, often community members, are not donors to the nonprofit, but investors to the third-party owner that provides power to the nonprofit, with such investments, plus interest, eventually paid back over time. An important provider of PPAs is San Diego-based CollectiveSun, which helps nonprofits organize their communities to finance solar projects as investments.

Perhaps the biggest reason to be encouraged by these trends is that nonprofits are often considered leaders in their communities. When small businesses and homeowners see their local charities and civic organizations with panels on their roofs, it makes the idea of going solar seem that much more acceptable. The proliferation of solar arrays for nonprofit organizations may be one of many tipping points in the coming acceptance of solar as the dominant source of 21st Century power.

December 12, 2013

The Solar Right and the Arizona Test Case

Barry Goldwater, Jr., the son of the late conservative Republican Presidential candidate – and Arizona native – Barry Goldwater (who was defeated by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election), has always been very much a man after his father’s heart. A retired seven-term US Congressman, the younger Goldwater compiled a solidly conservative record in the House. Though retired from government since the 1980s, he remains a figure of some stature in Arizona’s Republican Party. In other words, he’s absolutely not the kind of person one would expect to champion a progressive environmental position.

I’ve provided a brief background on this man in order to give some context to what seems to me a surprising, and surprisingly heartening, development in American politics. For Goldwater represents one of the most interesting examples of an emerging trend that I call “The Solar Right.” If more conservatives begin to emulate his example, it will bode very well for the future of solar power in this country… and for the future of the planet.

Here’s the situation in a nutshell. Goldwater’s home state, Arizona, awhile ago approved net metering (NEM) for its citizens. Net metering allows homeowners who install a solar power system to receive credit from the utility for that part of the power their systems generate that they do not use themselves, but that is sent out into the electrical grid to be used by other consumers. This is commonly called “running the meter backwards.” For obvious reasons, net metering has been a major incentive for folks to go solar.

However, like absolutely any great thing that happens in this country, net metering has generated fierce opposition, and Arizona represents a classic case in point. The power utility Arizona Public Service (APS) claims that net metering was inherently unfair to those of its customers who haven’t chosen to go the solar power route, because solar customers are allegedly “shifting the cost” of maintaining the utility’s grid to non-solar households. The APS was so adamant on this issue that it spent a whopping $4.7 million on advertising to try to persuade the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) to set a very hefty fee on solar households, ranging from $50 to $100 per month, to punish those awful consumers for their wicked, green-and-budget-conscious ways. However, the public, according to a poll (presumably including many respondents from non-solar households), rejected the proposed fee by 81 percent.

This is, by the way, a classic case of a company looking out for its own interests under the pretext of defending the consumer. Even in situations in which part of the power that non-solar households use actually comes from the excess electricity from other households’ solar systems, they pay the entire cost to the utility, so the utility is getting compensated for energy it does not in fact produce. Therefore, it’s only right and proper for the utility to credit solar households for providing electricity to non-solar households. And for those periods during the billing cycle when solar households, due to insufficient sunlight, cannot power their homes through their solar systems alone, they take energy from the grid and pay for it, just like anybody else. As most people will readily understand, this situation doesn’t in any way represent a “state subsidy,” much less “corporate welfare,” as the Wall Street Journal and others claim.

But this arrangement, known as DG (for distributed generation), scares the pants off utilities, because it proves they no longer retain a monopoly over a given communities’ electric power. These fossil-fuel-driven power companies, with their expensive and aging infrastructures, dread being perceived as dinosaurs… which is exactly what they’re becoming. And the more households that go solar, the closer the utilities get to becoming completely obsolete. So it makes perfect sense for them to demand a large monthly fee from the solar consumer, in order to make choosing solar an unprofitable proposition. And a number of powerful right-wing organizations, like ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council), strongly back the utilities’ anti-solar stance.

Here is where Goldwater comes in. Mad as hell over the fee proposal, he decided to take action and co-founded an organization called TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed – no, the acronym doesn’t work, but the name does suggest the tusk of an elephant and is thus intended to evoke the GOP). This “ostensibly Conservative front group” as the Wall Street Journal sneeringly called it, lobbied hard and otherwise generated considerable conservative support in opposition to the fee. TUSK even produced this highly effective ad, in which Goldwater personally spoke out:

Conservatives want – no, they demand – freedom of choice, whether it’s health care, education or even energy. We can’t let solar energy be driven aside by monopolies who want to limit that freedom of choice: it’s not the American Way; it’s not the Conservative Way.

As five of the commissioners on the Arizona Corporation Commission are Republicans, these efforts surely did not go unnoticed. In the compromise the ACC came up with, the Commission dubiously decided that cost shifting to the non-solar consumer was indeed taking place in Arizona and ruled to impose a fee on new solar households only. However, this fee was a mere $.70 per kilowatt-hour per month, which, for a 10 KW system, would come to just $7.00 per month: much, much less than what the APS had asked for. For the solar industry, it was both a defeat and a victory – a defeat because the Commission’s ruling set a dangerous legal precedent for the establishment of such fees at all; a victory because the APS did not get the kind of cripplingly high fee that would have destroyed the solar industry in Arizona. After all, in many parts of the country (though probably not in Arizona), an average day’s lunch costs more than $7.00.

Many of Goldwater’s conservative colleagues must have been taken aback when he broke with his Party’s mainstream in the most emphatic way possible on this issue. But when you think about it, his position represents one powerful tradition among the many, sometimes conflicting, strands within the Republican camp. ALEC, in its solidly pro-corporate stance, represents the authoritarian strain within the GOP. Goldwater, in his emphasis on personal “freedom” and “choice,” represents his Party’s Libertarian tendency. Ironically, in boldly asserting the consumer’s freedom of energy choice, he condemned “monopolies” as vehemently as any left-winger. But I don’t believe he was being at all contrarian or dismissive of “conservative values” – on the contrary. And it’s quite possible that his message may have struck a chord with at least some influential conservatives, so ALEC’s campaign to kill solar may well be undone… by the Republican Party itself.

 

September 13, 2013

The Case for a Solar Race

Once upon a time, at the height of the so-called Cold War in the 1950s, the United States first became involved in something called the “Space Race” with its arch-rival, the now-defunct Soviet Union. Rocket technology had evolved dramatically during the recently-concluded World War, and in the decade afterward, both the US and the USSR had developed this to such an extent that for the first time flight beyond earth’s atmosphere became conceivable.

To the surprise of the US government – and of most Americans – it was the Soviets who got the jump on America by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in October, 1957. Although little Sputnik was probably smaller than WALL-E’s head, the success of this crude satellite sparked a crisis in the halls of power in Washington. America of course had already inaugurated its own rocket program – the singularly ill-named Project Vanguard – but this effort had failed to launch a satellite first. Those darn Russians beat us, angry politicians of both parties cried! Whereupon the US government promptly committed many billions of (pre-inflation) dollars not only to catch up to the Soviets, but to surpass them, with a manned moon landing as the ultimate goal – a milestone the US triumphantly reached with the Apollo 11 flight nearly twelve years later, in July 1969.

This very serious and expensive competition between the two superpowers resulted not only in bragging rights for the victor, but major technological breakthroughs, many of which (the Internet, cell phones, ATMs) have had what most people would regard as a positive effect on human life, in areas far removed from the narrow realm of space travel. It has even been claimed that the Space Race helped spark the modern environmental movement: pictures of earth taken from space evoked a worldwide consciousness of both the beauty and fragility of our planet.

Knowing well the above history, this writer is amazed by the behavior of the US government and public in its response – or rather, non-response – to the swift ascendancy of so many rival countries in the area of solar power, in comparison with America’s relatively lackluster progress. Given the life-and-death importance of energy resources in the coming decades, and the vastly greater imperative (compared to that of putting a man on the moon) to develop viable sustainable sources of energy, America ought to see itself in the midst of a “Solar Crisis” far surpassing the Space Crisis of the mid-1950s. Yet, when news comes out about, say, cloudy Germany leading the world in solar, or South Africa investing over 5 billion dollars in renewable energy (mostly solar) development to end its dependence on coal, the reaction, if any, in America’s capital as well as on Main Street, is a shrug of indifference.

Where is the old competitive spirit of the Cold War years? Competition in the context of militaristic political conflicts – particularly war – seems to me invariably regrettable. But competition between nations for a technological goal may ultimately yield a positive result, if the goal itself is good. Few environmentally-aware persons would argue that a permanent transition to renewables, particularly solar, would not be a good goal for America. That’s why I’d like to call for a new Solar Race for the US, analogous to the Space Race of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties.

What would such a race be like? Obviously, it would mean lots and lots of federal and state funds – equaling and hopefully surpassing the superfluous subsidies currently thrown at the fossil fuel industry – to be invested both in technological development and incentives to consumers to go solar. But it would involve much more than that. A public awareness campaign would be created that would portray solar power in a worldwide context, and our national honor as dependent upon our ability to compete successfully with other nations in this arena. Making solar hip, therefore, would become a major national priority. Celebrities would be recruited to extol its virtues. Some of the excitement of the new that characterized the birth of the motorcar and of aviation in the early 20th Century (see my post on the flight of the Solar Impulse) could be experienced again, but with the knowledge that this time the result would not be traffic jams or jet fuel-polluted skies, but a much more livable planet. And the old American pioneer spirit, last seen in this country with the rise of hero astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong in the 1960s, would be revived for this campaign, including perhaps in an area (which I have previously discussed in an early post in this very blog) whose ultimate possibilities are as yet unknown: space-based solar power.

So what would be the goal? Obviously, Americans love to trump other countries, so “beating Germany” could provide the same satisfaction as “beating the Soviets” did after Apollo 11. But the ultimate satisfaction would be the knowledge that the US will have made itself the pacesetter in a technology that not only clearly represents the future, but one that will help to ensure that mankind has a future. So the ultimate beneficiary for such a revival of American competitiveness might well be, paradoxically, the entire earth.

However, I’m not naïve enough to believe that the will to realize this dream is going to come from the current fossil-fuel-loving political or media establishment. Rather, it must come from the grassroots. Those who are already in the solar industry, as well as those who write or read blogs like this, must step up to the plate, and help to make the ideal of a solar-powered planet a reality.

 

July 14, 2013

The Solar Monarch

Filed under: aviation,ecology,green,science,solar,solar power,Switzerland,technology — dylanfreak @ 2:49 pm

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The historic, cross-country journey of the first plane to fly across the US without fuel, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA, ended safely at JFK airport on the night of Saturday, July 6. One would think that in a news cycle dominated by bad to disastrous news about violent, corrupt and ridiculous people, such an uplifting story would elicit near-universal acclaim, but some journalists wasted no time heaping ridicule upon the whole enterprise. The plane, they said, looked more like a toy than an aircraft — except that it seemed far less sturdy than the average toy. (Actually, they had a point there: some of the materials with which the plane is constructed are literally lighter than paper!) And how could anybody take seriously a plane whose cruising speed is 30 miles-per-hour and whose top speed is a mere 45 miles-per-hour? (The entire trip took almost 106 hours.) Yet the Swiss pilot of the craft — Andre Borschberg – even after a tear appeared in the fabric of the left wing, brought it down safely on the last leg of its continent-wide, two-month run. By fulfilling their goal of piloting across the U.S. the first solar-powered plane capable of flying by day and night, Borschberg and the co-founder of the Solar Impulse project, Bertrand Piccard, achieved a major technological triumph and, I would claim, a moral victory as well.

For me, the Solar Impulse is a thing of beauty. Its huge wingspan, as wide as a Boeing 747, makes it look like a majestic, prehistoric bird. Its batteries store all the energy its 12,000 solar cells have accumulated during the daylight hours to allow it to fly after sundown. So when it descends onto the runway of an airport at night, its lights glowing across its entire length (as in this YouTube video), it’s a sight to behold.

Piccard has claimed that solar powered planes could be commercially available “within five years,” while Borschberg emphasizes its non-aviation uses. (“All the partners who are involved with this project developed technologies not for the aviation world, but for their own customers,” Borschberg said.) I happen to side with M. Piccard on this, not M. Borschberg. Yes, this plane is much too slow and can carry too few people — exactly one — to be useful for the purposes of commercial aviation. (And HB-SIA is even now about to be retired in favor of a more ambitious prototype scheduled to make a round-the-world flight in 2015.) But the Wright Brothers’ rickety craft didn’t fly very fast or carry passengers, either. Yet it worked, and that unpromising beginning led to a planet entirely connected by air travel. Without a foundation there can be nothing to build on, and I want to believe that the Solar Impulse will one day be remembered as the foundation for all future solar-powered flights.

If that’s true, then this historic milestone hasn’t occurred a moment too soon. According to the EPA, 13 percent of all greenhouse gases come from transport-related sources: cars, trucks, etc. Jet fuel obviously represents a huge part of that 13 percent, so it’s clear that part of the challenge of saving the planet involves eliminating this source of pollution. It’s wildly unlikely, however, that people would be willing to forego flying and go back to international travel by boat. The Solar Impulse suggests the tantalizing possibility that pollution-free air travel may, in the not-too-distant future, become a reality.

Just as importantly, the flight of the Solar Impulse is a lovely metaphor for the rise of solar power itself. For scientific innovations to be politically viable, they must come to represent the Idea of the Future to people. The solar panel is a purely functional object. It’s not unattractive, but not particularly inspiring, either. But the Solar Impulse, as the automobile once was, is today’s Idea of the Future, the embodiment of the concept that the world can rise above the dangerous, polluted present if only everyone would embrace renewables. The aircraft’s success provides some hope in a world that can sometimes seem nearly hopeless.

July 27, 2011

Tim DeChristopher: “I Do Not Want Mercy…”

Filed under: DeChristopher,ecology,environment,green,politics,solar,solar power — dylanfreak @ 9:09 pm

This is a statement by a far better man than I, Tim DeChristopher. This is the very long, but great, speech that he gave yesterday just before he was sentenced to two years in prison for having tried to derail an illegal auction. I think this is one of the most inspiring speeches I have ever read. (The phrase “I Do Not Want Mercy” does not actually appear in the speech and is, in fact, a paraphrase of what he actually said, but that is the title of the speech as it’s appearing all over the Internet.)

The “Mr. Huber” to whom DeChristopher alludes is Assistant U.S. Attorney (under Obama) John W. Huber. “Pat Shea” is presumably DeChristopher’s attorney. The “BLM” is the Bureau of Land Management, which held the illegal auction.

The link for the article can be found here:

Tim DeChristopher, who was sentenced Tuesday to two years in federal prison and a $10,000 fine for disrupting a Bureau of Land Management auction in 2008, had an opportunity to address the court and the judge immediately before his sentence was announced. This is his statement:

Thank you for the opportunity to speak before the court.  When I first met Mr. Manross, the sentencing officer who prepared the presentence report, he explained that it was essentially his job to “get to know me.”  He said he had to get to know who I really was and why I did what I did in order to decide what kind of sentence was appropriate.  I was struck by the fact that he was the first person in this courthouse to call me by my first name, or even really look me in the eye.  I appreciate this opportunity to speak openly to you for the first time.  I’m not here asking for your mercy, but I am here asking that you know me.

Mr. Huber has leveled a lot of character attacks at me, many of which are contrary to Mr.. Manross’s report.  While reading Mr. Huber’s critiques of my character and my integrity, as well as his assumptions about my motivations, I was reminded that Mr. Huber and I have never had a conversation.    Over the two and half years of this prosecution, he has never asked me any of the questions that he makes assumptions about in the government’s report.  Apparently, Mr.. Huber has never considered it his job to get to know me, and yet he is quite willing to disregard the opinions of the one person who does see that as his job.

There are alternating characterizations that Mr. Huber would like you to believe about me.  In one paragraph, the government claims I “played out the parts of accuser, jury, and judge as he determined the fate of the oil and gas lease auction and its intended participants that day.”   In the very next paragraph, they claim “It was not the defendant’s crimes that effected such a change.” Mr. Huber would lead you to believe that I’m either a dangerous criminal who holds the oil and gas industry in the palm of my hand, or I’m just an incompetent child who didn’t affect the outcome of anything.  As evidenced by the continued back and forth of contradictory arguments in the government’s memorandum, they’re not quite sure which of those extreme caricatures I am, but they are certain that I am nothing in between.  Rather than the job of getting to know me, it seems Mr. Huber prefers the job of fitting me into whatever extreme characterization is most politically expedient at the moment.

In nearly every paragraph, the government’s memorandum uses the words lie, lied, lying, liar.  It makes me want to thank whatever clerk edited out the words “pants on fire.”  Their report doesn’t mention the fact that at the auction in question, the first person who asked me what I was doing there was Agent Dan Love.  And I told him very clearly that I was there to stand in the way of an illegitimate auction that threatened my future.  I proceeded to answer all of his questions openly and honestly, and have done so to this day when speaking about that auction in any forum, including this courtroom.  The entire basis for the false statements charge that I was convicted of was the fact that I wrote my real name and address on a form that included the words “bona fide bidder.”  When I sat there on the witness stand, Mr. Romney asked me if I ever had any intention of being a bona fide bidder.  I responded by asking Mr. Romney to clarify what “bona fide bidder” meant in this context.  Mr. Romney then withdrew the question and moved on to the next subject.  On that right there is the entire basis for the government’s repeated attacks on my integrity.  Ambition should be made of sterner stuff, your honor.

Mr. Huber also makes grand assumptions about my level of respect for the rule of law.  The government claims a long prison sentence is necessary to counteract the political statements I’ve made and promote a respect for the law.  The only evidence provided for my lack of respect for the law is political statements that I’ve made in public forums.  Again, the government doesn’t mention my actions in regard to the drastic restrictions that were put upon my defense in this courtroom.  My political disagreements with the court about the proper role of a jury in the legal system are probably well known.  I’ve given several public speeches and interviews about how the jury system was established and how it has evolved to it’s current state.  Outside of this courtroom, I’ve made my views clear that I agree with the founding fathers that juries should be the conscience of the community and a defense against legislative tyranny.  I even went so far as to organize a book study group that read about the history of jury nullification.  Some of the participants in that book group later began passing out leaflets to the public about jury rights, as is their right.  Mr. Huber was apparently so outraged by this that he made the slanderous accusations that I tried to taint the jury.  He didn’t specify the extra number of months that I should spend in prison for the heinous activity of holding a book group at the Unitarian Church and quoting Thomas Jefferson in public, but he says you should have “little tolerance for this behavior.”

But here is the important point that Mr. Huber would rather ignore.  Despite my strong disagreements with the court about the Constitutional basis for the limits on my defense, while I was in this courtroom I respected the authority of the court.  Whether I agreed with them or not, I abided by the restrictions that you put on me and my legal team.  I never attempted to “taint” the jury, as Mr. Huber claimed, by sharing any of the relevant facts about the auction in question that the court had decided were off limits.  I didn’t burst out and tell the jury that I successfully raised the down payment and offered it to the BLM.  I didn’t let the jury know that the auction was later reversed because it was illegitimate in the first place.  To this day I still think I should have had the right to do so, but disagreement with the law should not be confused with disrespect for the law.

My public statements about jury nullification were not the only political statements that Mr. Huber thinks I should be punished for.  As the government’s memorandum points out, I have also made public statements about the value of civil disobedience in bringing the rule of law closer to our shared sense of justice.  In fact, I have openly and explicitly called for nonviolent civil disobedience against mountaintop removal coal mining in my home state of West Virginia.  Mountaintop removal is itself an illegal activity, which has always been in violation of the Clean Water Act, and it is an illegal activity that kills people.  A West Virginia state investigation found that Massey Energy had been cited with 62,923 violations of the law in the ten years preceding the disaster that killed 29 people last year.  The investigation also revealed that Massey paid for almost none of those violations because the company provided millions of dollars worth of campaign contributions that elected most of the appeals court judges in the state.  When I was growing up in West Virginia, my mother was one of many who pursued every legal avenue for making the coal industry follow the law.  She commented at hearings, wrote petitions and filed lawsuits, and many have continued to do ever since, to no avail.  I actually have great respect for the rule of law, because I see what happens when it doesn’t exist, as is the case with the fossil fuel industry.  Those crimes committed by Massey Energy led not only to the deaths of their own workers, but to the deaths of countless local residents, such as Joshua McCormick, who died of kidney cancer at age 22 because he was unlucky enough to live downstream from a coal mine.  When a corrupted government is no longer willing to uphold the rule of law, I advocate that citizens step up to that responsibility.

This is really the heart of what this case is about.  The rule of law is dependent upon a government that is willing to abide by the law.  Disrespect for the rule of law begins when the government believes itself and its corporate sponsors to be above the law.

Mr. Huber claims that the seriousness of my offense was that I “obstructed lawful government proceedings.”  But the auction in question was not a lawful proceeding.  I know you’ve heard another case about some of the irregularities for which the auction was overturned.  But that case did not involve the BLM’s blatant violation of Secretarial Order 3226, which was a law that went into effect in 2001 and required the BLM to weigh the impacts on climate change for all its major decisions, particularly resource development.  A federal judge in Montana ruled last year that the BLM was in constant violation of this law throughout the Bush administration.  In all the proceedings and debates about this auction, no apologist for the government or the BLM has ever even tried to claim that the BLM followed this law.  In both the December 2008 auction and the creation of the Resource Management Plan on which this auction was based, the BLM did not even attempt to follow this law.

And this law is not a trivial regulation about crossing t’s or dotting i’s to make some government accountant’s job easier.  This law was put into effect to mitigate the impacts of catastrophic climate change and defend a livable future on this planet.  This law was about protecting the survival of young generations.  That’s kind of a big deal.  It’s a very big deal to me.  If the government is going to refuse to step up to that responsibility to defend a livable future, I believe that creates a moral imperative for me and other citizens.  My future, and the future of everyone I care about, is being traded for short term profits.  I take that very personally.  Until our leaders take seriously their responsibility to pass on a healthy and just world to the next generation, I will continue this fight.

The government has made the claim that there were legal alternatives to standing in the way of this auction.  Particularly, I could have filed a written protest against certain parcels.  The government does not mention, however, that two months prior to this auction, in October 2008, a Congressional report was released that looked into those protests.  The report, by the House committee on public lands, stated that it had become common practice for the BLM to take volunteers from the oil and gas industry to process those permits.  The oil industry was paying people specifically to volunteer for the industry that was supposed to be regulating it, and it was to those industry staff that I would have been appealing.  Moreover, this auction was just three months after the New York Times reported on a major scandal involving Department of the Interior regulators who were taking bribes of sex and drugs from the oil companies that they were supposed to be regulating.  In 2008, this was the condition of the rule of law, for which Mr. Huber says I lacked respect.  Just as the legal avenues which people in West Virginia have been pursuing for 30 years, the legal avenues in this case were constructed precisely to protect the corporations who control the government.

The reality is not that I lack respect for the law; it’s that I have greater respect for justice.  Where there is a conflict between the law and the higher moral code that we all share, my loyalty is to that higher moral code.  I know Mr. Huber disagrees with me on this.  He wrote that “The rule of law is the bedrock of our civilized society, not acts of ‘civil disobedience’ committed in the name of the cause of the day.”  That’s an especially ironic statement when he is representing the United States of America, a place where the rule of law was created through acts of civil disobedience.  Since those bedrock acts of civil disobedience by our founding fathers, the rule of law in this country has continued to grow closer to our shared higher moral code through the civil disobedience that drew attention to legalized injustice.  The authority of the government exists to the degree that the rule of law reflects the higher moral code of the citizens, and throughout American history, it has been civil disobedience that has bound them together.

This philosophical difference is serious enough that Mr. Huber thinks I should be imprisoned to discourage the spread of this idea.  Much of the government’s memorandum focuses on the political statements that I’ve made in public.  But it hasn’t always been this way.  When Mr. Huber was arguing that my defense should be limited, he addressed my views this way: “The square is the proper stage for the defendant’s message, not criminal proceedings in federal court.”  But now that the jury is gone, Mr. Huber wants to take my message from the public square and make it a central part of these federal court proceedings.  I have no problem with that.  I’m just as willing to have those views on display as I’ve ever been.

The government’s memorandum states, “As opposed to preventing this particular defendant from committing further crimes, the sentence should be crafted ‘to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct’ by others.”  Their concern is not the danger that I present, but the danger presented by my ideas and words that might lead others to action.  Perhaps Mr. Huber is right to be concerned.  He represents the United States Government.  His job is to protect those currently in power, and by extension, their corporate sponsors.  After months of no action after the auction, the way I found out about my indictment was the day before it happened, Pat Shea got a call from an Associated Press reporter who said, “I just wanted to let you know that tomorrow Tim is going to be indicted, and this is what the charges are going to be.”  That reporter had gotten that information two weeks earlier from an oil industry lobbyist.  Our request for disclosure of what role that lobbyist played in the US Attorney’s office was denied, but we know that she apparently holds sway and that the government feels the need to protect the industry’s interests.

The things that I’ve been publicly saying may indeed be threatening to that power structure. There have been several references to the speech I gave after the conviction, but I’ve only ever seen half of one sentence of that speech quoted.  In the government’s report, they actually had to add their own words to that one sentence to make it sound more threatening.   But the speech was about empowerment.  It was about recognizing our interconnectedness rather than viewing ourselves as isolated individuals.  The message of the speech was that when people stand together, they no longer have to be exploited by powerful corporations.  Alienation is perhaps the most effective tool of control in America, and every reminder of our real connectedness weakens that tool.

But the sentencing guidelines don’t mention the need to protect corporations or politicians from ideas that threaten their control.  The guidelines say “protect the public.”  The question is whether the public is helped or harmed by my actions.  The easiest way to answer that question is with the direct impacts of my action.  As the oil executive stated in his testimony, the parcels I didn’t bid on averaged $12 per acre, but the ones I did bid on averaged $125.  Those are the prices paid for public property to the public trust.  The industry admits very openly that they were getting those parcels for an order of magnitude less than what they were worth.  Not only did those oil companies drive up the prices to $125 during the bidding, they were then given an opportunity to withdraw their bids once my actions were explained.  They kept the parcels, presumably because they knew they were still a good deal at $125.  The oil companies knew they were getting a steal from the American people, and now they’re crying because they had to pay a little closer to what those parcels were actually worth.  The government claims I should be held accountable for the steal the oil companies didn’t get.  The government’s report demands $600,000 worth of financial impacts for the amount which the oil industry wasn’t able to steal from the public.

That extra revenue for the public became almost irrelevant, though, once most of those parcels were revoked by Secretary Salazar.  Most of the parcels I won were later deemed inappropriate for drilling.  In other words, the highest and best value to the public for those particular lands was not for oil and gas drilling.  Had the auction gone off without a hitch, it would have been a loss for the public.  The fact that the auction was delayed, extra attention was brought to the process, and the parcels were ultimately revoked was a good thing for the public.

More generally, the question of whether civil disobedience is good for the public is a matter of perspective.  Civil disobedience is inherently an attempt at change.  Those in power, whom Mr. Huber represents, are those for whom the status quo is working, so they always see civil disobedience as a bad thing.  The decision you are making today, your honor, is what segment of the public you are meant to protect.  Mr. Huber clearly has cast his lot with that segment who wishes to preserve the status quo.  But the majority of the public is exploited by the status quo far more than they are benefited by it.  The young are the most obvious group who is exploited and condemned to an ugly future by letting the fossil fuel industry call the shots.  There is an overwhelming amount of scientific research, some of which you received as part of our proffer on the necessity defense, that reveals the catastrophic consequences which the young will have to deal with over the coming decades.

But just as real is the exploitation of the communities where fossil fuels are extracted.  As a native of West Virginia, I have seen from a young age that the exploitation of fossil fuels has always gone hand in hand with the exploitation of local people.  In West Virginia, we’ve been extracting coal longer than anyone else.  And after 150 years of making other people rich, West Virginia is almost dead last among the states in per capita income, education rates and life expectancy.  And it’s not an anomaly.  The areas with the richest fossil fuel resources, whether coal in West Virginia and Kentucky, or oil in Louisiana and Mississippi, are the areas with the lowest standards of living.  In part, this is a necessity of the industry.  The only way to convince someone to blow up their backyard or poison their water is to make sure they are so desperate that they have no other option.  But it is also the nature of the economic model.  Since fossil fuels are a limited resources, whoever controls access to that resource in the beginning gets to set all the terms.  They set the terms for their workers, for the local communities, and apparently even for the regulatory agencies.  A renewable energy economy is a threat to that model.  Since no one can control access to the sun or the wind, the wealth is more likely to flow to whoever does the work of harnessing that energy, and therefore to create a more distributed economic system, which leads to a more distributed political system.  It threatens the profits of the handful of corporations for whom the current system works, but our question is which segment of the public are you tasked with protecting.  I am here today because I have chosen to protect the people locked out of the system over the profits of the corporations running the system.  I say this not because I want your mercy, but because I want you to join me.

After this difference of political philosophies, the rest of the sentencing debate has been based on the financial loss from my actions.  The government has suggested a variety of numbers loosely associated with my actions, but as of yet has yet to establish any causality between my actions and any of those figures.  The most commonly discussed figure is perhaps the most easily debunked.  This is the figure of roughly $140,000, which is the amount the BLM originally spent to hold the December 2008 auction.  By definition, this number is the amount of money the BLM spent before I ever got involved.  The relevant question is what the BLM spent because of my actions, but apparently that question has yet to be asked.  The only logic that relates the $140,000 figure to my actions is if I caused the entire auction to be null and void and the BLM had to start from scratch to redo the entire auction.  But that of course is not the case.  First is the prosecution’s on-again-off-again argument that I didn’t have any impact on the auction being overturned.  More importantly, the BLM never did redo the auction because it was decided that many of those parcels should never have been auctioned in the first place.  Rather than this arbitrary figure of $140,000, it would have been easy to ask the BLM how much money they spent or will spend on redoing the auction.  But the government never asked this question, probably because they knew they wouldn’t like the answer.

The other number suggested in the government’s memorandum is the $166,000 that was the total price of the three parcels I won which were not invalidated.  Strangely, the government wants me to pay for these parcels, but has never offered to actually give them to me.  When I offered the BLM the money a couple weeks after the auction, they refused to take it.  Aside from that history, this figure is still not a valid financial loss from my actions.  When we wrote there was no loss from my actions, we actually meant that rather literally.  Those three parcels were not evaporated or blasted into space because of my actions, not was the oil underneath them sucked dry by my bid card.  They’re still there, and in fact the BLM has already issued public notice of their intent to re-auction those parcels in February of 2012.

The final figure suggested as a financial loss is the $600,000 that the oil company wasn’t able to steal from the public.  That completely unsubstantiated number is supposedly the extra amount the BLM received because of my actions.  This is when things get tricky.  The government’s report takes that $600,000 positive for the BLM and adds it to that roughly $300,000 negative for the BLM, and comes up with a $900,000 negative.  With math like that, it’s obvious that Mr. Huber works for the federal government.

After most of those figures were disputed in the presentence  report, the government claimed in their most recent objection that I should be punished according to the intended financial impact that I intended to cause.  The government tries to assume my intentions and then claims, “This is consistent with the testimony that Mr. DeChristopher provided at trial, admitting that his intention was to cause financial harm to others with whom he disagreed.”  Now I didn’t get to say a whole lot at the trial, so it was pretty easy to look back through the transcripts.  The statement claimed by the government never happened.  There was nothing even close enough to make their statement a paraphrase or artistic license.  This statement in the government’s objection is a complete fiction.  Mr. Huber’s inability to judge my intent is revealed in this case by the degree to which he underestimates my ambition.  The truth is that my intention, then as now, was to expose, embarrass and hold accountable the oil industry to the extent that it cuts into the $100 billion in annual profits that it makes through exploitation.  I actually intended for my actions to play a role in the wide variety of actions that steer the country toward a clean energy economy where those $100 billion in oil profits are completely eliminated.  When I read Mr. Huber’s new logic, I was terrified to consider that my slightly unrealistic intention to have a $100 billion impact will fetch me several consecutive life sentences.  Luckily this reasoning is as unrealistic as it is silly.

A more serious look at my intentions is found in Mr. Huber’s attempt to find contradictions in my statements.  Mr. Huber points out that in public I acted proud of my actions and treated it like a success, while in our sentencing memorandum we claimed that my actions led to “no loss.”  On the one hand I think it was a success, and yet I claim it there was no loss.  Success, but no loss.  Mr. Huber presents these ideas as mutually contradictory and obvious proof that I was either dishonest or backing down from my convictions.  But for success to be contradictory to no loss, there has to be another assumption.  One has to assume that my intent was to cause a loss.  But the only loss that I intended to cause was the loss of secrecy by which the government gave away public property for private profit.  As I actually stated in the trial, my intent was to shine a light on a corrupt process and get the government to take a second look at how this auction was conducted.  The success of that intent is not dependent on any loss.  I knew that if I was completely off base, and the government took that second look and decided that nothing was wrong with that auction, the cost of my action would be another day’s salary for the auctioneer and some minor costs of re-auctioning the parcels.  But if I was right about the irregularities of the auction, I knew that allowing the auction to proceed would mean the permanent loss of lands better suited for other purposes and the permanent loss of a safe climate.  The intent was to prevent loss, but again that is a matter of perspective.

Mr. Huber wants you to weigh the loss for the corporations that expected to get public property for pennies on the dollar, but I believe the important factor is the loss to the public which I helped prevent.  Again, we come back to this philosophical difference.  From any perspective, this is a case about the right of citizens to challenge the government.  The US Attorney’s office makes clear that their interest is not only to punish me for doing so, but to discourage others from challenging the government, even when the government is acting inappropriately.  Their memorandum states, “To be sure, a federal prison term here will deter others from entering a path of criminal behavior.”  The certainty of this statement not only ignores the history of political prisoners, it ignores the severity of the present situation.  Those who are inspired to follow my actions are those who understand that we are on a path toward catastrophic consequences of climate change.  They know their future, and the future of their loved ones, is on the line.  And they know were are running out of time to turn things around.  The closer we get to that point where it’s too late, the less people have to lose by fighting back.  The power of the Justice Department is based on its ability to take things away from people.  The more that people feel that they have nothing to lose, the more that power begins to shrivel.  The people who are committed to fighting for a livable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today.  And neither will I.  I will continue to confront the system that threatens our future.  Given the destruction of our democratic institutions that once gave citizens access to power, my future will likely involve civil disobedience.  Nothing that happens here today will change that.  I don’t mean that in any sort of disrespectful way at all, but you don’t have that authority.   You have authority over my life, but not my principles.  Those are mine alone.

I’m not saying any of this to ask you for mercy, but to ask you to join me.  If you side with Mr. Huber and believe that your role is to discourage citizens from holding their government accountable, then you should follow his recommendations and lock me away.  I certainly don’t want that.  I have no desire to go to prison, and any assertion that I want to be even a temporary martyr is false.  I want you to join me in standing up for the right and responsibility of citizens to challenge their government.  I want you to join me in valuing this country’s rich history of nonviolent civil disobedience.  If you share those values but think my tactics are mistaken, you have the power to redirect them.  You can sentence me to a wide range of community service efforts that would point my commitment to a healthy and just world down a different path.  You can have me work with troubled teens, as I spent most of my career doing.  You can have me help disadvantaged communities or even just pull weeds for the BLM.  You can steer that commitment if you agree with it, but you can’t kill it.  This is not going away.   At this point of unimaginable threats on the horizon, this is what hope looks like.  In these times of a morally bankrupt government that has sold out its principles, this is what patriotism looks like.  With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.  The choice you are making today is what side are you on.

Tim DeChristopher is a climate activist and board member for the climate justice organization Peaceful Uprising.

 

 

March 21, 2010

Go Green Expo, Part 2: Hanging out with Matthew (Modine) and Ed (Begley, Jr.)

Green Is King!

On the second day of New York’s Go Green Expo, the first day in which it was open to the general public, the place was packed! On an almost freakishly beautiful March Saturday, with the temperatures climbing at least twenty degrees above normal, hundreds of people chose to spend their day off right here, at Pier 92, to check out the cutting edge in sustainable living for every aspect of their lives.

However, I couldn’t allow myself to be distracted because I didn’t want to miss the “star” speakers today. Now, I should clarify my position here vis-a-vis the Celebrity Thing. Some years ago, I worked — and believe me, it was work — as an extra in movies, on TV and in commercials, so I was rubbing elbows with famous people on a daily basis. And the big names generally didn’t impress me very much. I mean, it’s really hard to have much reverence for a person, no matter how well-known, while observing him or her pouncing on the food from craft service with the same shameless gluttony as oneself. But activists do impress me, and I’m fascinated by the combination of show-biz success and sincere ideals. And today’s program offered not one but two such stars: Matthew Modine and Ed Begley, Jr. Indeed, the latter has become as famous for his environmentalism, if not more so, than his (non-reality show) film and TV credits.

Mr. Modine, who was sporting an impressive beard (he’s currently appearing in the Broadway production of The Miracle Worker), spoke to us about two topics: the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, with a current campaign to drive the movement forward called the “E Campaign,” and an organization he founded called “Bicycle for a Day” to encourage city dwellers to use bicycles rather than motor vehicles as their main source of transportation.

To that end, he showed a brief video of himself (sans beard) happily bike-riding around New York City — without a helmet. Afterwards, poor Matthew was taken to task by an audience member for his lack of headgear, and she refused to let the issue go, taking up Modine’s, and the audience’s, valuable time. Hey, lady, I wanted to say (but didn’t), you’re way off-topic: this is an environmental expo, not a personal safety expo!

When Modine was finally allowed to talk about what he came to discuss, he had interesting things to say. He observed that the 200-plus-year-long Industrial Revolution, which has been responsible for transforming the earth and which now threatens our very lives, is but a split-second in the geological history of the earth, which is itself but a moment in the history of the universe. He seemed to be saying that the things we think are so important are actually insignificant in the great scheme of things, and we can begin to turn things around when we realize that.

He gave an effective answer when someone asked him about Obama’s nuclear policy: “It’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem.” He pointed out that, even if the proposed plants actually get built, aside from the problems involved in the dangers of uranium mining and of nuclear waste, there exists only enough uranium to supply our energy needs for 20 years. “Should we spend billions of dollars for 20 years of energy?”

Modine also had another intriguing idea: instead of bailing out the auto industry, subsidize it to switch from the manufacture of autos and trucks to light-rail transport. In the 19th Century, not only America but relatively non-industrialized nations like Russia sacrificed to create viable rail networks in their countries. Those networks were themselves sacrificed to the almighty auto. It’s time for America, said Modine, to revive this cleaner mode of transport.

After his talk, when I asked him my standard question (“The future of solar is…?”), Modine answered, “The future of solar is almost eternal energy.” He clarified by pointing out that the sun, like all other heavenly bodies, must one day become extinct. Hey, I’m not like little Alvy Singer in Annie Hall: I’m more than happy to concentrate on life on earth in the next eon or two, and let what comes afterwards take care of itself!

I was expecting no less than an outstanding presentation from Ed Begley, Jr. — and he did not disappoint, in either the informational or comedy departments. He began by pointing out that his marriage to his beloved wife Rachelle boasted the only pre-nup agreement to include carbon credits. He also complained because his wife accused him of being insensitive to her needs, just because he bought her a hemp thong for her birthday. Talk about petty!

He soon turned serious, but not solemn. Surprisingly, he did not attempt to refute the climate change deniers (of which there were most probably precisely none in that audience). Instead, he focused on assertions that were totally non-controversial. He began with the adverse health effects of air pollution around the world, as well as the contamination of ground water with such substances as benzine, pesticides and herbicides. He reminded the audience of how the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire from pollution in 1969 and how fisherman on the Hudson came back from the Vietnam War only to find themselves unemployed because of river pollution.  

Yet, unlike most environmental prophets of doom, he took care to point out the good things that have already happened. Thanks to the Clean Air Act, the smog in L.A. has been cut in half. Due to the Clean Water Act, rivers no longer catch fire and the Hudson (though far from ideal) is much cleaner. Even the hole in the ozone layer has shrunk.

“If we do this [environmental reform] smart, we won’t go broke!” What is good for the ecology may also be good for the pocketbook, Begley insisted. He recalled the first Earth Day forty years ago, and said that part of the reason he chose to participate in that event was to honor his (Republican) father, the wonderful actor Ed Begley, Sr. , whose conservatism ironically taught his more liberal son how to conserve.

As a poor struggling actor in the 1970s, he entered the green lifestyle modestly. His electric car was more like a glorified golf cart. Yet it was cheaper to plug it in than to buy gas for a “real” car, and it required practically zero maintenance. He bought a solar oven, then bought solar-powered water heating in 1985 (when there were no subsidies). Finally, he went all the way and got solar electric in 1990. But his ultimate innovation was to build a fence for his house out of recycled (white) plastic water jugs. (Actually, I had seen this infamous fence in the charming film Pittsburgh with Begley and Jeff Goldblum, and wondered at the time if it was for real.)

Begley summed up his message as “don’t ever be discouraged.” He pointed out the two lies about the environment currently being promulgated in the culture and emphasized that both of them must be fought:

  1. There really is no environmental problem;
  2. There is an environmental problem, but it’s too late to solve it.

Alluding to the Climategate so-called scandal, he compared it to the O.J. Simpson trial, in which Mark Furman’s behavior was enough to get all his evidence against the former athlete thrown out. Thus, some “wacky emails from East Anglia” were enough for some people to conclude (falsely) that the whole climate change evidence was fraudulent.

Referring to the theory that the melting of the polar icecaps are due merely to natural causes, Begley pointed out that, even if one accepts that idea, everybody knows that human-made CO2 would make such “natural” warming even warmer. “Why put a feverish patient in a sauna?” he asked.

He strongly disagreed with Obama’s stance on nuclear power, because:

  • “I don’t want more fissile material for people to get their mitts on;”
  • Nobody wants either a reactor or nuclear waste near where they live; and
  • Both people and computers make mistakes.

Asked whether the cost will come down on solar panels, he said he thought the price would become much cheaper than before. But he said that this would probably happen with solar panels covered with amorphous coatings, which are indeed less expensive, but also less efficient.

Begley said several things with which I disagreed, such as his comments in favor of cap-and-trade, but at the end I gladly joined the audience in the enthusiastic applause. Yet when I headed for the booth where he was signing copies of his book, Living Like Ed, I felt some trepidation. Would he be annoyed that I did not buy a copy for him to sign, since I am, as they say, “in transition,” and thus could not really afford to purchase it?

I greeted him and he warmly shook my impoverished book-free hand. I asked him my standard question.

“The future of solar,” he said, “is government subsidies to move things along quickly.” Then I took his picture (twice) and moved on to make room for the next person in line.   

I should point out that because of a problem either with my camera itself or (more likely) the lab to which I brought the film for development, my pictures of Matthew and Ed unfortunately do not exist for me to grace this blog.  You have only my report of the event to go on. But I think I have conveyed how interesting and inspiring it was.

March 20, 2010

Go Green Expo, New York City, Part I

The first day of the New York edition of Go Green Expo took place yesterday (3/19) and at the very least it demonstrated for me the extent to which green consciousness has permeated our culture. (This day was dedicated solely to businesses and the press and was not open to the public; Saturday and Sunday, the expo is open to everybody.) “The nation’s leading eco-focused, interactive green-living showcase,” as the press material describes it, housed in a gigantic space at Pier 92 in the far west side of Manhattan, contained areas devoted to Energy & Conservation, Home & Building, Travel & Transportation (including some very nifty-looking cars), Business & Electronics, Health & Beauty, Foods & Beverages — even a Kids Zone. “Go Green Expo focuses on going green without sacrifice [emphasis mine].” (I am a bit skeptical about that last part: assuming such a thing is desirable, is sustainability without sacrifice even possible, at this late date?)

Solar power was not slighted at this event. Walking in from the registration area, I came upon the booth for Mercury Solar Systems, which is headquartered in Port Chester, New York, but also has offices in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. and describes itself as “one of the leading solar integrators on the East Coast.” The man behind the counter, David Weiss, was a most upbeat fellow, very enthusiastic about his product. Asked how he got into the business of solar, Weiss said, “I wanted to sell a big-ticket product that was good for the earth and also fun to talk about, though for a while, I wasn’t sure what that product would be.” To the question of how he overcomes customer resistance to solar power, he cited what he considered the three main customer misconceptions:

  1. The Northeast is lousy for solar;
  2. The technology is too expensive;
  3. It looks ugly.

Weiss was happy to refute all of these assumptions (he thinks the Northeast is actually better for solar than Florida). He also refuted another argument buyers use to postpone installing the technology: that some amazing breakthrough in solar tech is just around the corner that will make it much cheaper and/or more efficient and that therefore they should hold off on buying solar until after this great event occurs.

“It’s not going to happen,” said Weiss. According to him, “in the last 20 years, solar energy has only gotten one or two per cent more efficient.” He said that the important things for the salesman to accomplish are to explain the rebates that are available through state legislation, and make people understand that there is no point in waiting. Asked when solar sales will start skyrocketing, he answered, “They’re skyrocketing now.”

Bill Wang of American Renewable Energy (ARE) (“one of the leading solar integrators on the East Coast,” as its brochure states) also believes that the main problem is educating the buyer – as well as government officials. To that end, he has been in touch with the mayor of Philadelphia to try to increase awareness of how the city can adopt solar power. The company sees itself as “a bridge between traditional ways and a renewable energy future.” To that end, he is willing to partner even with the fossil fuel industries, oil and coal, to try to get them to “come on board” the solar revolution. He predicts that by 2013, 22%, over one-fifth, of homes will be powered by some form of renewable energy. Asked why they are doing this, Mr. Wang said, “to benefit our children and grandchildren.”

An outfit called Solarrific had a booth containing all kinds of imaginative solar-powered (and dynamo-powered) gadgets. These included a stick light that changes color and a tile light, both designed to illuminate outdoor areas (such as a garden). There was a solar-powered battery recharger that worked with AA, D and 12-volt batteries. Most interesting was a solar-powered bug zapper that works both indoors and outdoors. (This seemed to me a good alternative to those aromatic flying insect killers that can only be safely used outdoors.) Other things Solarrific marketed included a solar water fountain kit, a combination cell-phone-charger, light and solar panel, and a solar caddypack.

A pleasant French fellow by the name of Patrick of Solar LED Innovations sold very elegant-looking solar-powered flashlights and tube lights, which doubled as cell-phone chargers. They were manufactured by employees hired from Handi-Crafters, a service whose clients are developmentally disabled. When I asked Patrick about the future of solar, he said that solar was now the most dynamic form of renewable energy. He pointed out the often-cited statistic that solar power use has been rising 50% annually, in effect doubling every two years. He said that solar is becoming more affordable and that new creative uses are being found for solar power all the time.

The last word of this post belongs to Bradford Rand, the President and CEO of Go Green Expo. When I asked him his opinion of the future of solar, he answered as follows:

The future of solar is omnipresent: a clean, sustainable, renewable energy source that will continue to grow through the 21st Century. It is an area of knowledge that will generate tremendous economic growth and a clean environment and help rid us of the curse of dirty energy.

March 13, 2010

Of Tasty Cars and Tasteless Politicians: A Tale of Two Energy Conventions

According to all the reports I’ve read on the MIT Energy Conference, held last weekend in Boston, it was really two conferences. Conference One proved that, with the right funding and the right minds to take advantage of it, tremendous things are being done (and even more can be done) in the field of clean energy research. Conference Two proved that, outside the golden world of green tech science, the same old climate change denying and sheer incompetence still reign in the less-than-golden world of public policy.

First the good news: the breakthroughs, real and potential, by MIT researchers, whose work on clean energy tech was praised by Barack Obama last fall, are truly impressive. One team is exploring the potential of particles called excitons, the mechanism for light emission in semiconductors. The goal would be to create thin-film, non-tracking solar cells with power efficiencies greater than 30%. Another team is exploring ways to replace expensive copper parts in solar thermophotovoltaic (STPV) systems with cheap plastic parts. The principle is that, as long as there is some kind of heat source, the cell can generate light, which in turn can generate energy even when the sun isn’t shining.

A third team is dealing with a related problem: energy storage, a major difficulty with intermittent energy sources, like wind and solar. Compared to 15% in Japan, only 2.5% of the capacity of the U.S. energy grid can now be stored. The solution that one scientist has proposed are gigantic liquid metal batteries (to be kept at temperatures of around 700 degrees Celsius) to act as “frequency regulators” that would keep energy flowing to consumers if power from the energy source is suddenly cut off. A fourth team is working on a cobalt phosphate catalyst that would split water into hydrogen and oxygen cheaply. If research is successful, three liters of water could conceivably power a home. This technology would be particularly useful for the developing world, where there is often little or no existing electricity-generating infrastructure.

But the star of the conference was unquestionably… Lola! Lola is a Formula 3 racing car, created by the University of Warwick, constructed entirely of renewables, including carrots, potato starch and flax, and fueled by… chocolate. Developed over 9 months at a cost of $200,000, it has a top speed of 135 mph and can go from zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds. Its engine runs on diesel, not gasoline, and can even run on fuel derived from chocolate factory waste and other vegetable-based oils. Its radiator even converts ozone back into oxygen, literally cleaning up the atmosphere as it runs.

In dramatic contrast to these encouraging — even astonishing — innovations is the decidedly uninspiring, indeed downright depressing state of national energy policy. Of course, we already knew that the facts were grim. But Nobuo Tanaka, who spoke at the conference in behalf of the International Energy Agency (IEA), brought us down even further with his statistics on the state of climate change and what is really needed to combat it. The multi-trillion dollar investment that is needed to stabilize the climate would require, according to Tanaka, the construction and deployment of:

  • 18 nuclear power plants
  • 17,000 wind turbines
  • At least 2 huge hydroelectric plants
  • 94 (I have no idea where he gets that precise number) new solar power plants per year between now and 2030.

And all that is only to maintain the projected target of 450 parts of carbon emissions per million in the atmosphere, which would nonetheless still raise the earth’s temperature 2 degrees Celsius. As I disagree with the viability or safety of nuclear power plants (see previous post), a lot more wind and solar generators than Tanaka’s estimate would be required to compensate. And many activists and others think that 350 parts per million is the only safe target. Yet Tanaka insists that the target of 450 per million is “science fiction” if this massive investment does not take place.

One  of the chief conference speakers was John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, the nation’s largest electric utility company and the owner of the biggest fleet of nuclear power plants in the U.S. He stated that pro-climate government regulation was “in my economic self-interest.” (This statement apparently makes more sense now than it would have a short while ago, since President Obama mysteriously decided recently that nuclear power is renewable energy.) Rowe emphasized that the government should establish and maintain a steady, consistent policy, and the American consumer should understand that there’s no free lunch: combating climate change is going to involve some personal cost. However, he rejected government regulation as a solution. Bringing out a chart of what he called 27 potential EPA regulations, he referred to it as a “train wreck” that would cost utilities billions of dollars and provide jobs only for lawyers.

He asserted that carbon pricing — either a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade (preferably the latter) — was the only way to fulfill the four goals of a viable energy policy:

  • Cleaner energy
  • Greater energy security
  • Job creation
  • Lowest possible cost.

Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who gave the closing keynote speech, brought back the latest news from the Beltway… and it was not good. In contrast to Rowe, he affirmed that clean tech could not be realized without a major shift in government policy, including new regulations. The chances of that happening soon in partisan Washington, however, said Bingaman, are slim. He perceived a pattern whereby the U.S. creates an innovation (e.g., the lithium ion battery) that somebody else then manufactures and profits from. His four-point program for a viable energy policy would be:

  • Support clean tech R&D;
  • Aggressively increase manufacturing capacity of clean energy;
  • Create a more favorable domestic market for clean energy;
  • Increase tax credits to bring the above goals to fruition.

The consensus of many of the experts of the conference seemed to be that our underachieving government was hardly the whole answer to the problem… but it could be doing a whole lot more.

To me, all this suggests two burning questions:

- Will our civic leaders ever emulate the intelligence, much less the creativity, of our clean tech scientists?

- And will today’s songwriters follow the example of the car-loving musicians of yesteryear and create hit songs about the new edible car? (Note: The title “Lola” is already taken.)

February 18, 2010

Britannia Still Rules… in Solar

President Obama has lately been busy advocating the comeback (after over thirty-five years!) of nuclear power plant construction, a policy wrongheaded in every respect – for our ecology, for our economy, even for our safety and that of our children and grandchildren. Instead of claiming to meet the climate change challenge by employing discredited “solutions” from the past, our cousins across the pond have, much more wisely, been looking to the future. The British government is doing what some mainland European governments (particularly Germany) are already doing and what governments everywhere should be doing: motivating people to use energy in a more sustainable way.

Following up on a policy it first made public in July 2009, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) recently announced the amounts of a new tariff, effective April 1, to help persuade their citizens to change their source of electricity from fossil fuels to renewables. This plan, called the Clean Energy Cashback, or the Feed-In Tariff (FIT), will provide families who invest in renewable energy systems – solar, wind, hydro or biomass – with a deal unprecedented in the UK’s history.

Not only would UK consumers be paid for any excess energy their homes contribute to the local grid, they would receive cash from the government for energy they use themselves. Participating households would receive a credit of 41.3 pence per kilowatt-hour (equivalent to about $.65), about four times the market value of the electricity, and would get a bonus 3 pence ($.05) for every kilowatt-hour exported back into the grid. In other words, householders can earn money as well as save it. The annual benefit in electricity savings would be equivalent to about $220 and the reward itself would come to about $1400. The amount would be adjusted over time for inflation. And it’s all tax-free, too.

Ed Miliband, the secretary of DECC, was quoted as saying, “The guarantee of getting an income, on top of saving on energy bills, will be an incentive to householders and communities wanting to make the move to low-carbon living.” One British family, the Colquhouns, spent the equivalent of $19,200 on their solar panel system and under the new policy, at a return of more than 8%, can expect to break even in less than 12 years. (The rate and duration of the tariff depends on the type of energy used and other factors.)

The policy is in line with the UK’s target of generating 15% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The government predicts that, by 2020, 2% of all electricity demand will be met by such small-scale renewable installations. The UK currently generates 5.5% of all its electricity from renewable sources, as opposed to 2% in the U.S.

The British public seems to have embraced the idea. According to one survey, 71% of UK homeowners said that they would think about installing a low-carbon system if they were paid enough. One of the side benefits of the situation is that some households that install renewable energy systems like solar may see the value of their homes rise: the houses themselves would generate energy income. Small-scale energy generators would also provide protection against rising fossil fuel prices. The construction industry is positively ecstatic: it is predicting a $42 billion dollar windfall (and lots of jobs) from new and retrofitted solar systems.

However, the policy has also met with considerable criticism on both the Right and the Left. Environmental groups object to it on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough, because the tariff is too small. (The government claims that, since these incentives will be funded by a small annual extra charge to those who do not take part in the plan, it could not make the tariff higher because that would be unfair to non-participating households.) Dave Timms, of Friends of the Earth, was quoted as saying: “Ministers have been far too timid with a policy that could make a significant contribution to cutting emissions and boosting energy security.” Meanwhile, in a bizarre contrast to the situation in the United States, with its fanatical right-wing climate skeptics, UK Conservatives (“Tories”) have not only jumped on the FIT bandwagon, but have declared the policy “long overdue” and accused the current Labour government of “lacking ambition”!

January 11, 2010

Space Is the Place, Part I

In my youth, practically everything having to do with outer space conveyed a glamour that nothing else quite matched. Astronauts were to me near-mythic beings, more heroic than soldiers or cowboys. (John Wayne, after all, never had to cope with zero gravity.) Outer space was the place — more than any foreign country or remote area on earth — where nearly any possibility could be imagined. On TV and video, I devoured just about everything that had to do with space, from epic visions like 2001: A Space Odyssey to fables such as ET: The Extra-Terrestrial to the sleaziest sci-fi dreck… much as wholesome meals and sugary junk tasted much the same to my hungry and undiscriminating palate.

So there is a sense of satisfaction for me, after absorbing so much fantasy, in the idea that one of the greatest real-life wonders of space is its potential to help save humanity from our energy emergency through space-based solar power (SBSP). Something like the concept of SBSP has existed, at least in fiction, since 1941, when Isaac Asimov published the short story Reason, which is set on a spaceship from which energy is beamed by sentient (and highly temperamental) robots to distant planets. In 1968, the notion was promoted from science fiction speculation to science theory by Peter Glaser. Many people, including the Department of Defense, have recently been taking SBSP very seriously indeed. Everybody’s talking solar… but why is it so important?

SBSP, if and when it is successfully implemented, might well solve many of humanity’s energy problems. The sun is the most constant and dependable source of energy on earth. In what appears to be the “darkness” of space, there is, in fact, no night: solar panels could receive sunlight 24 hours a day, with no interference from the atmosphere nor any obstruction through bad weather. All this, of course, does not mean that space solar power will or should replace terrestrial solar power. But if and when it becomes viable, it might well become the main energy source for many on this planet.

Three basic elements are necessary for a viable SBSP system:

1. a way to transform, in space, the energy from the sun into electrical energy and collect that energy;

2. a way to transmit this collected energy from space to earth;

3. a way to receive on the earth’s surface the energy from space and distribute it to users.

The good news is that much of the technology necessary for making SBSP a reality not only exists, but is actually quite commonplace. Commercial space satellites — the machines necessary to carry out the first element above — have been in existence since Telstar, launched way back in 1962. Photovoltaic (PV) cells for harnessing solar energy are of course in increasingly common use. (Even the International Space Station employs solar arrays, though strictly for its own use.) As for the second element, both microwaves and lasers have been proposed as the means to convey solar energy from space to earth; both these technologies are well advanced. For the third element above, rectangular antennas (called “rectennas“) are the most commonly proposed method of catching the energy from space on earth.

So what’s holding us back?

The most significant problem seems to be one of scale… and here is revealed the “profitability paradox” at the heart of the SBSP project. Simply put, to produce the sheer quantity of electrical power necessary to make the program affordable would seem to require devices of colossal size and complexity, both in space and on the ground. But the fact that the devices need to be so large and complex makes creating and assembling them deeply problematical… and potentially unprofitable.

It has been estimated that an adequate receiving antenna in space (which would, of course, be only one part of the entire satellite) would need to be a kilometer (over six-tenths of a mile, or about 11 football fields long) in diameter — which is almost two miles in circumference and over three-tenths of a square mile in area. How to get such a Godzilla of a device into orbit — and keep it functioning once it’s there — may be the biggest single challenge of SBSP technology. And then there’s the rectenna, an enormous structure in its own right, estimated at perhaps 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) wide and 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) long… though at least no one has to lug the damn thing into space. (Note: the dimensions above represent one theoretical estimate; Solaren, the California-based corporation, envisions a satellite array several miles across, while the Japanese space agency, JAXA, proposes a receiving station on earth that would “only” be 1.8 miles wide.)

[Continued in Part II]

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