Environment Forum

from Route to Recovery:

Water rights make El Centro an oasis


If you head east to El Centro from San Diego, Interstate 8 takes you through arid scenery, climbing to 4,000 feet through barren mountains so fast that your ears pop. Then comes the oasis.

As you head down rapidly out of the mountains once more toward El Centro you hit a sign that tells you that you have reached sea level. Green fields and palm trees, stacks of hay drying in the fierce sun -- 90 degrees Fahrenheit even in November -- surrounded on all sides by rocky hills and the desert.

We knew before coming here that this was an agricultural region, but the lush greenery amid such a scorched landscape took us by surprise. This is where much of America's lettuce, spinach and other vegetables come from in the winter. There are also large cattle feed lots here too, which launch a frontal assault on your olfactory system long before you see them.


But you don't have to wander far from the fields to find the desert and its fine reddish, beige sand and realise just how incongruous the lush green fields are. Particularly when you feel the sun beating down on you when much of the northern hemisphere is already feeling the first cold of winter.

This is all made possible by water rights this area has from the Colorado River. As this part of the desert is below sea level in some parts, the water flows downhill and an irrigation system delivers it to 500,000 acres of farmland.

Solar heads to developing world

While solar power has investors on Wall Street seeing green, countries in the developing world also see a bright future in solar technology.

They believe solar power systems that convert sunlight into electricity can help power developing areas without going the route of dirty coal-fired power plants.

Solar companies like China’s solar panel maker Suntech and California-based eSolar, have recently announced forays into the developing world.

Could patents bring solar power companies more revenue?

The high tech industry regularly sees lawsuits fly over intellectual property rights.

Time will tell if clean technology will see a similar play, but a settlement this week between California-based solar power company SunPower Corp and SunLink Corp may shed light on things to come.

In February 2008, SunPower sued SunLink, saying SunLink had violated patents protecting several of SunPower’s rooftop systems. Under the settlement, SunPower licensed its patents to SunLink but did not disclose the financial details.

Schwarzenegger household green plan: short showers, hydrogen Hummers

Here’s some advice for Californians who think Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s climate change policy goes too far: just be happy you’re not his kid.

Before he became a body builder, before he was the Terminator, and before he turned into the Governator, it turns out that Arnold was the youngest in a family that had no running water and relied on an outhouse. That’s what he told fourth graders who innocently asked about how he spoke to his kids.

“I have major fights with my kids,” he responded, quickly segueing into the difference between post-World War European poverty and the Golden State.

SolarCity envisions California “solar corridor” for green drivers

Electric cars can be smooth, quiet and environmentally friendly. But they still need fuel.

Many have asked — and invested according to their answer — whether that fuel will come from batteries, utility grids, curb-side charging stations or some other technology.

Drivers in California have a new option, if they drive a Tesla electric vehicle. And it’s extra environmentally friendly.

The race for U.S. smart-grid cash

Utilities across the United States are rushing to a federal stimulus program that is doling out money to create a “smart grid” — systems that will upgrade the electricity grid.******In this story, Reuters correspondent Eileen O’Grady looks at the tough job facing the U.S. Department of Energy: They have to divvy up $4.5 billion in smart-grid money among some 565 applications.******Smart grid technology measures and modifies power usage in homes and businesses and improves grid reliability. Experts envision that it will open the door to a new era with “smart” appliances that turn themselves on and off, electric cars, more renewable energy and more efficiency on power lines.******San Diego Gas & Electric is one of the utilities hoping to launch a smart grid through the federal program and has applied for $100 million in stimulus funds.******Their plan would build micro smart grids at the University of California, San Diego and a residential community in San Diego County. They would work with companies like IBM, Cisco and Itron on the system technologies, software and hardware.******”They not only have to talk with each other but we have to make sure the entire network is secure. So from an intellectual security standpoint, we’ll ensure that we have that set-up, that we have the ability to communicate from one device and we make it seamless for the customer,” said Michael Niggli, chief operations officer at San Diego Gas & Electric.******Another major issue the utility hopes to solve is what happens when energy from renewable resources is intermittent, with its power generated fading or spiking.******”If the wind stops blowing or if the sun has clouds that intervene, so you can be in a situation where the power supply is affected,” Niggli said in a phone interview with Reuters.******”That’s a lot different than what we have today … where it’s like driving a car. If you want to go faster, you push the accelerator.”******Niggli envisions a system where customers can control their home energy use remotely, turning on the air-conditioning from a computer through the Internet or even on  their handset.******Some companies that are partnering with utilities are not putting all their eggs in one basket in the race for the smart-grid stimulus funds.******IBM is working as a vendor with a dozen utilities that have applied for money.******If the smart grid is done right, then customers won’t even notice a difference, said IBM’s Stephen Callahan, who leads the company’s Intelligent Utility Network unit for the Americas.******”Those customers shouldn’t see anything but improvement in cost, reliability, all those things,” Callahan said.******We wanted to know what readers think about the federal program to jump-start smart grid projects. What should the DOE prioritize? What kind of projects would you like to see?******(Photo: The sun is shown as it rises between power transmission lines in Burbank, California. Photo credit: Fred Prouser/Reuters)*********************

New Jersey has best payback on residential solar in U.S.

California may be the Golden State, but it’s New Jersey where U.S. residents get the best deal on their solar power systems, new research shows.

A survey by Global Solar Centertried to give an “apples to apples” comparison for the cost of solar power in all 50 states, the center’s chairman Jack Hidary told Reuters.

The common denominator turned out to be the cash payback, or how many years it would take a residential or commercial customer to recoup their investment and start seeing real savings, Hidary said.
“That takes into account the cost of the system, the sun at that spot, the incentives of that region, utility rates. It blends in everything all together,” Hidary said.

from Global Investing:

Turning to the sun

With oil prices more than doubling from Dec-Feb lows, those who are lucky enough to enjoy the sunshine are turning to the sun as alternative energy, but lingering effects of the credit crisis might be discouraging consumers from turning to this still-costly alternative energy.

Latest statistics suggest that solar applications are up 15% in megawatts compared with last year, according to Bank of America Securities-Merrill Lynch report. However, installations are down by 68 percent.

The bank's analyst Steven Milunovich makes the following observation:

Although these figures imply a soft (and softening) solar market in California, it is likely that customers are deferring installation, both voluntarily and involuntarily. Commercial customers are waiting for financing to improve and for grants to become available, which began in August. Installers tell us that the demand is there, but that financing is holding up installations. We expect some improvement in the second half.

Mickey Mouse meets Mr. Polar Bear at green theme park

Southern California — home to Disneyland, the mother of all amusement parks — welcomed a new attraction this month. But this theme park has no Mickey Mouse or roller coasters and is housed inside a mall instead of spread out over a swath of space.

Called Environmentaland, it is more of an interactive museum that has taken the environment as its theme.

The goal is to show there are “no free rides in life,” said Eric Ritz, executive director of Global Inheritance. The nonprofit opened the self-proclaimed first environmental theme park this month in Hollywood.

Timber! Big trees declining in Yosemite

Large diameter trees are not doing well in California’s Yosemite National Park — there were 24 percent fewer in a recent decade than the 1930s, the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Washington scientists said in a new report. Climate change is the likely culprit they say, cutting snow pack, which cuts available water, which cuts growth of big trees, which cuts production of seeds for new trees, which — you get the idea, but basically the whole ecosystem is strained.Meanwhile, fewer fires has led to growth in the type of trees that are not fire-resistant — so future fires may be particularly bad, especially with warmer, drier conditions.The comparison of trees in 1988-1999 versus 1932-1936 was published in Forest Ecology and Management.California’s Yosemite may not be alone — Polish woods also face an uncertain future due to climate change, according to a new Reuters story.Photo by ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS