Sierra Report

On a semi-regular basis I share some of the information that comes in the monthly Sierra Magazine. They have a page they call “Up To Speed: Two Months, One Page.” I summarize some of the information on that page here:

The Bad News:

• March 2016 was the warmest month one record. It was the 11th straight month to set the record, which was also unprecedented.*

• Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rose by the greatest margin on record.*

• For the second year in a row the Arctic Sea ice has shrunk to a record low.*

• Mitsubishi admitted that it has been exaggerating the fuel economy of its cars sold in Japan for 25 years.

• The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that local governments, such as those in Longmont and Fort Colins, cannot ban fracking in their jurisdictions.

[*And yet we have a presidential candidate who insists that Global Warming is a hoax while, at the same time, he petitions the Scottish government for permission to build a sea wall to protect his golf course in Scotland from rising sea waters. (This would also come under the heading of “bad news,” except that it deserves its own category — perhaps: More Insanity?? )]

The Good News:

• Oregon announced that it will stop buying coal entirely by 2030.

• Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company declared bankruptcy.

• ConAgra Foods, General Mills, and Kellogg said they will voluntarily label foods containing GMOs.

• President Obama withdrew his earlier proposal to open the southeastern Atlantic seaboard to oil and gas drilling.

• Within a month of the Tesla Model 3’s unveiling, nearly 400,000 people had paid $1000 apiece to reserve the all-electric car.

* Seaworld announced that it will stop the captive breeding of orcas.





Alternative Energies

Germany is one of the countries leading the world in the switch to renewable energies. And like other countries that have seen large-scale switches to clean energy, the utilities are taking it in the shorts and crying “uncle.” This includes not only private homes but also the industries in Germany, 16% of which are now off the grid — double the percentage of the previous year. This is cutting into the profits of the utilities, Germany’s mega-utility company, RTE, claiming to have lost $3.8 billion lat year alone. The Swedish utility company Vattenfall, which has large investments in Germany, claims to have lost $2.3 billion last year.

Declining demand for electricity from the grid in Germany

Declining demand for electricity from the grid in Germany

Needless to say, this doesn’t disturb the clean-energy advocates one bit but, more to the point, it should have been seen coming by the energy companies. Germany has been shifting its energy priorities for some time now and it is inevitable that the utility companies would see their profits fall. As a recent story tells us:

When unveiling today’s dismal earnings, RWE’s Terium admitted the utility had invested too heavily in fossil fuel plants at a time when it should have been thinking about renewables: “I grant we have made mistakes. We were late entering into the renewables market — possibly too late.”

To which I simply add: Duhhhhh! One can only ask when Big Oil and Big Coal in this country will climb aboard the clean energy train. In its small way, alternative energies like wind and solar are already making inroads into the profits of the utility companies — in places like Hawaii, for example, as reported recently. And this despite the absence in this country of a clean energy policy and very little Federal support.  In fits and starts the switch to clean energy will continue to happen, despite the unwillingness of the Congress to get behind alternative energies and the necessity for private investors like T. Boone Pickens and Warren Buffet, and a few of the states, to lead the way. It will happen. This country will eventually follow Germany’s and China’s lead into the 21st century and if the corporations that blindly push for fossil fuels continue to ignore the handwriting on the wall, their overpaid CEOs will echo the cries of “foul” we now hear from Germany. It’s not rocket science, it’s just good business. One would think that American businessmen who are supposed to be among the best and brightest in the world would realize where their own long-term best interest lies. But, then, business doesn’t teach us much about the long term; it’s almost always about short-term profits. Brace yourself for the coming outcry! Relish it when it comes.

Bad News, Good News

As I have done in the previous blogs, I want to pass along several bits and pieces of environmental news culled from the pages of the monthly Sierra magazine. I will begin with the bad news first, because there is always some of that, and end with the news that provides a glimmer of hope for the planet.

Under the heading of “so what else is new” we find that 55 percent of the Republicans in Congress still deny climate change — and those people are all heavily supported by Big Oil. In the House, there are 128 climate deniers out of the 233 Republicans; in the Senate there are 30 climate deniers out of the 46 Republicans. Those deniers in the House collect $231,000 in contributions from Big Oil (as contrasted with $69,000 for the non-deniers). In the Senate, the deniers collect $699,000 whereas the non-deniers collect $171,000. I suppose we should be grateful that there are some who collect contributions from Big Oil who are willing to admit the truth that stares them in the face. But the correlation between the amount of money from Big Oil and the denial of the truth about our planet is stunning when seen in such detail.

To continue with the bad news for the moment, I shall simply list some of the items Sierra tells us will bring us “Up To Speed” about what’s going on in the world the past couple of months.

Ecuador has abandoned its pledge not to drill for oil in remote Yasuni National Park in the Amazon rain forest.

Fracking is now linked to an increase in U.S. earthquakes — as is geothermal power production.

High fertility rates in Africa have led demographers to revise their estimates of peak world population upwards. They now expect there to be 11 billion people by the end of the century — up from 7.1 billion. (I find this particularly unsettling since, as I have said in the past, I consider the population explosion the fundamental problem facing humankind, and the root of most of our other problems.)

Tons of radioactive water from Japan’s crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant have leaked into the Pacific Ocean.

And now for some Good News!

The United States has installed 10 gigawatts of solar capacity, though it still trails Germany, Italy, and China.

The White House has re-installed solar panels put in place by Jimmy Carter and removed by Ronald Reagan.

The World Bank has declared that it will sharply restrict funding for the new coal-fired power plants in developing countries.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank has declined to fund a huge new coal plant in Vietnam on environmental grounds.

The Bureau of Land Management lease sale for 149 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin failed to garner a single bid!

So, just when we are about to tear out what little hair we have left, we see faint signs that all humans have not lost their minds. Just remember what Red Green says: “we’re all in this together.” And “Keep your stick on the ice”!

Delicate Balance

In the struggle to make inroads against Big Oil and Coal the renewable energy industry on occasion meets with obstacles from the unlikeliest sources. For example, an attempt to build an off-shore wind farm in the North Atlantic has met with considerable opposition from a group of wealthy individuals who have formed the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The grounds of their opposition are, surprisingly enough, a presumed concern for the environment and the wildlife that will be impacted by the wind generators. Now, we can debate the question of whether this group is really concerned about the environment and/or the wildlife — the wealthy seldom seem to be. It’s quite possible that they simply don’t want to look out of their picture windows from their ocean-side estates and see a plethora of whirling propellers. But that point is moot.

The fact remains there are serious and sober concerns on the part of a great many people about the consequences of placing wind generators or solar collectors in certain parts of the world. A thoughtful article by Tom Zeller in “The Blog” published by HuffPost recently attempted to spell out the problems. In the midst of a very thorough and balanced analysis, Zeller made the following remarks that seem to present the strongest case for continuing to develop alternative energy at the risk of endangering wildlife and even the environment:

“Compared to the thousands of birds and fish and other critters that have been offered up as collateral damage in the nation’s thirst for oil, or the saturation of local wildlife and habitats with mercury and other poisons that arise from coal-fired power — not to mention the widely documented impacts of fossil fuels on human health and the global climate — some might argue that a fair bit more local fauna could be sacrificed before the tradeoffs of renewable energy proved worrisome.”

And that’s the issue: it is a question of trade-offs. The possible harm to the environment and to wildlife in the area of Nantucket must be balanced against the benefits, especially in light of the alternatives to renewable energy which have a terrible history of destruction to both wildlife and the environment, not to mention human health. It would appear to be the lesser of evils. But the issue will be settled in the courts and it will be most interesting to see how the judgment comes down, given the considerable weight the opponents to the wind farm in that region of the world can bring to bear.

Not so in the Mojave desert, however, where Bright Source has already begun to develop the country’s largest solar facility. The issue here is the danger to the desert tortoise and it has already cost Bright Source $56 million to try (not altogether successfully)  to protect the animal through relocation. This has not satisfied many critics who want clean energy but are unwilling to put any creature at risk in the process. Again, it is a delicate balance and one that humans have not shown themselves adept at managing in the past. As a species we seem to prefer intellectual extremes to the middle and would rather lean left or right rather than to balance upright.

But it is encouraging that steps to produce clean energy are being taken slowly and with every possible attempt to do as little damage as possible to the environment and to wildlife. Clearly, some damage is inevitable — though they seem to rotate at a snail’s speed, the tips of the giant wind generators, for example, travel at 100 MPH and there aren’t many birds that can avoid being clipped by one of those blades from time to time. But, given our increasing demand for energy, how much damage is acceptable — especially in light of the certainty of damage to both wildlife and the environment from such things as oil spills and the discharge from burning coal? That is the question.

Green Jobs

The current Sierra magazine has some interesting and encouraging information that should allow us to bury the myth about how pursuing clean energy will cost the country jobs and how we should continue to support dirty energy “where the jobs are.” Bollocks! Let me quote a part of the brief article directly. (If you want detailed information about the study referred to you can go to this link:

“For years the dirty energy industry has warned of massive job losses if the nation switches to clean energy. It’s dead wrong. Max Wei, Shana Patadia, and Daniel Kammen of the University of California at Berkley reviewed 15 recent studies of the job-creation potential of various energy sources and found that renewables generate more jobs per unit of energy delivered than do fossil fuels.”

The article then gives a chart showing the comparisons between the clean energy industries and the dirty energy industries that is quite striking. It reveals that the clean energy industries create 62.74 jobs per megawatt of energy produced as contrasted with the dirty energy industry that only produce 25.7 jobs per megawatt. The contrast is remarkable; clean energy is led by the solar photovoltaic industry which produces 32.71 jobs per megawatt — more than the dirty energy industry taken all together. The jobs in both categories are in construction, manufacturing, installation, and maintenance.

The “clean” energy industries include not only solar photovoltaic but “concentrating solar,” wind, and geothermal. The “dirty” energy industries studied include nuclear, coal, and natural gas. It should be noted that the latter three industries are currently being touted by politicians and the industry itself as “cleaner” than ever because coal has become “clean,” which is not strictly true; nuclear is touted as clean because it doesn’t produce heat — while it produces toxic waste that cannot be disposed of safely and always poses the threat of a meltdown; and natural gas is regarded as clean despite the fact that it is now obtained by “fracking,” a process that uses thousands of gallons of precious water which becomes contaminated and cannot be purified and reused afterwards. So, despite the attempts to pull the wool over out eyes, the word “dirty” is indeed appropriate when applied to these industries.

The fact that the Republicans are nearly united in their opposition to clean energy can only be accounted for by the fact that Big Oil makes such huge profits they can afford to dole out the big bucks to curry political favors, whereas the clean energy industry does not. But I do think that despite the likes of the Koch brothers and their friends clean energy will become the main source of energy in the future in this country and one must wonder when the oil and gas companies will climb aboard. Surely they see the handwriting on the wall?

In any event, let us have a moment of silence in memory of another dead myth. After that moment has passed we can spend another moment wishing like hell that the Congress will get its act together sooner rather than later and throw its support behind a collection of industries that have this sort of job potential. Talk about helping the economy — and the earth at the same time!