Environment Forum

from Tales from the Trail:

White House commission wades into “Deep Water”

OILSPILL-BP/COMMISSIONThe great thing about presidential commissions is that they can soberly consider complicated matters and then offer unvarnished reports on what to do. The tough part is when that information rockets around Washington, as occurred after a White House commission issued its final report on the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The "Deep Water" report, apparently titled in reference to the doomed BP Deepwater Horizon rig, blames the deadly blowout and oil spill on government and industry complacency, and recommends more regulation of offshore drilling and a new independent safety agency. But as my colleague Ayesha Rascoe reports, the commission lacks the authority to establish drilling policies or punish companies.

Within minutes of the report's release, and even as commission co-chair William Reilly was bragging about bringing the report in on time and under budget, interest groups started the PR barrage, with industry critical and environmental outfits largely complimentary. Two Democratic members of Congress said they'd introduce legislation to implement the commission's recommendations.

Will that legislation go anywhere? Industry analysts are doubtful. To get an idea of how much action can be prompted by White House panels, it's useful to take a look at two previous ones.

OILSPILL-BP/COMMISSIONThe 911 Commission (formally called "The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States") was perhaps the ultimate in gracefully delivering its hard findings: "... on that September day we were unprepared.  We did not grasp the magnitude of a threat that had been gathering over time. As we detail in our report, this was a failure of policy, management, capability, and – above all – a failure of imagination."

from Reuters Investigates:

Solar energy vs wildlife

Sarah McBride reports on brewing battles between environmentalists in her special report: "With solar power, it's Green vs. Green."

It turns out the perfect place to build a big solar plant is often also the perfect place for a tortoise or a fox to live. This means developers of large-scale solar plants are running into legal challenges from people who one would expect to be natural allies of alternative energy providers.

Here's a map of some of the more contentious projects.

One local resident of the Panoche Valley, Sallie Calhoun, had this to say:

"I am passionate about preserving open space," she says, adding she believes the solar plant achieves that goal. "The idea that we're going to protect every lizard, every drainage, seems counterproductive."

Tessera sells Calico solar project to K Road Power

IMG_2575NTR’s Tessera Solar has sold its 663.5-megawatt Calico solar power project to K Road Power less than a week after utility Southern California Edison canceled a long-standing contract to buy electricity from the power plant that was to be built in the Mojave Desert.

Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

The deal is the latest twist for Calico, which nine weeks ago won approval from California and federal regulators after being put on a fast track so as to qualify for then-expiring tax incentives for renewable energy projects.

Tessera also received the green light for its 709-megawatt Imperial Valley solar power plant but had not secured the financing to build the $4.6 billion pair of projects.

Ford to install engine start-stop technology on gasoline-powered cars

USA/Traffic jams could start to get quieter in 2012 when Ford begins to install its Auto Start-Stop technology on gasoline-powered cars sold in North America.

The technology, currently used on hybrid Ford vehicles, cuts off the engine when a car is stopped at a traffic light and switches it back on when the driver’s foot leaves the brake pedal.

Ford says Auto Start-Stop will improve fuel economy of conventional cars between four and 10 percent. And engine shutoffs will result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (In car-congested metropolises like Los Angeles and Houston, one could also expect to see a reduction in air pollution if the technology was widely adopted.)

Electric truck maker Smith acquires U.K. parent company

smith electric.jpgIn a sign of the potential strength of the nascent electric truck market in the United States, the American division of the U.K.’s Smith Electric Vehicles has acquired its parent company.

Smith Electric Vehicles U.S. bought a majority ownership stake in its parent for $15 million from the Tanfield Group, a publicly traded company. Tanfield will retain a 49 percent ownership share of Smith.

“The board of Tanfield believes that a consolidation of the Smith Electric Vehicles U.K. entity into our associate company, SEVUS [Smith Electric Vehicles U.S.], creating a single, larger U.S. based business, would be in the best interests of shareholders, particularly in light of the plans that SEVUS management have for the combined business post this transaction,” Darren Kell, Tanfield’s chief executive, said in a statement.

DOE gives $17.1 million energy storage grant, batteries included


Energy storage isn’t as sexy as solar projects that offer opportunities to cut ribbons on shiny futuristic technology. Nor does it attract the billions in federal loan guarantees and incentives awarded to wind farms and photovoltaic power plants.

But utilities and the government are increasingly recognizing that energy storage systems  are crucial to integrating intermittent renewable energy projects into the smart grid.

Hence the United States Department of Energy’s finalization last week of a $17.1 million grant to utility AES to build a 20 megawatt lithium ion battery storage system using A123 Systems’ technology.

China’s Trina Solar launches $800 million expansion, as SpectraWatt sputters

IMG_1324Days after solar cell maker SpectraWatt notified New York authorities that it will shut down its seven-month-old factory and lay off 117 employees, China’s Trina Solar announced Monday that it will invest $800 million in new manufacturing plants over the next three years.

The move by Trina underscores just how difficult it has become for solar startups in the United States to compete against the massive investment being poured into Chinese photovoltaic module makers.

That’s particularly the case for startups making conventional silicon photovoltaic cells such as SpectraWatt, which was spun out of Intel in 2008 with an initial $50 million investment lead by the chip giant’s venture capital arm, Goldman Sachs and other investors.

Utility cancels contract for Tessera’s Calico solar project

IMG_2575NTR’s Tessera Solar has suffered a major setback with the loss of a 663.5-megawatt power purchase agreement with utility Southern California Edison for its Calico solar power plant project.

The abrupt cancellation of the five-year-old contract comes just eight weeks after California and federal officials approved Calico, which they put on a fast track so Tessera could qualify for lucrative government incentives for large-scale renewable energy projects.

Neither the utility nor Tessera would comment on the reasons for scrapping the 20-year power purchase agreement, citing confidentiality provisions. Signed in August 2005, it was one of the largest contracts for electricity to be generated by a single solar thermal power plant.

Intel-backed SpectraWatt to close New York solar factory

spectrawatt cellAs competition with low-cost Chinese photovoltaic module makers intensifies, SpectraWatt, a solar startup spun out of Intel, has notified New York officials that it will shut down its factory in March and lay off 117 workers, according to a filing with the state’s Department of Labor.

The closure of the East Fishkill, N.Y., plant comes seven months after it opened and less than three years after SpectraWatt launched with a $50 million investment lead by Intel Capital, the chip giant’s investing arm. Other investors included Goldman Sachs, PCG Clean Energy and Technology Fund and German solar company Solon. Most of those investors also backed a $41.4 million round of funding for SpectraWatt announced in March.

SpectraWatt did not respond to a request for comment about the company’s plans or the shuttering of the solar cell factory, which was first reported by the Times Herald Record of Middletown, N.Y.

DOE report: U.S. will remain coal-dependent in 2035, carbon emissions rise

USA-CARBON/COALThe United States Energy Information Agency has released its preliminary forecast for the nation’s energy market in 2035 and it paints a picture of rising greenhouse gas emissions and an economy locked into a dependence on fossil fuels.

In a scenario sure to give nightmares to those concerned about climate change, the agency predicts that coal will supply 43 percent of the U.S.’s electricity demand in 2035, down just two percent from 2009.  Natural gas’s share of the market rises slightly to 25 percent while nuclear provides 17 percent of the nation’s electricity in 2035, down from 20 percent today. Renewable energy production rises from 10 percent to 14 percent.

Greenhouse gas emissions will rise five percent, barring a legislative cap on carbon, by 2035. In other words, the future looks a lot like the present, which according to climate scientists means a potential economic disaster from rising sea levels and disruption of food production.