Category Archives: renewable energy

Triggering a Climate Movement?

Anti-pipeline protesters Nov. 6. Photo by C MacDonald

Last week, while reporting about environmentalism inside the Occupy Wall Street movement, I had an interesting conversation with Indiana University professor Fabio Rojas about the “trigger” effect. It’s a theory about the momentum that tends to build once protests reach a critical mass of supporters. The movement’s own success sets up a sort of positive feedback loop that “triggers” or “signals to” other – perhaps more cautious or moderate – people that it’s O.K. to express their own frustrations and even take to the streets.

I wonder if that’s not at least part of what helped bring out so many people to yesterday’s protest against the proposed Keystone pipeline. Busloads of folks from around the country turned up to encircle the White House. There were more than enough to make it around the presidential compound. Chief organizer Bill McKibben sent out an email to supporters last night saying 12,000 people participated in what organizers sometimes jokingly referred to as a big “hug” meant give President Obama the support he needs to scuttle the deal. Of course, White House “headlock,”also seemed an apt metaphor given the number of people waving signs expressing their disappointment with the president.

The pipeline would cut southward across the country transporting tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. Supporters have essentially cast the battle as another jobs v. environment fight, though the Washington Post had a story Saturday exposing some pretty fuzzy math in Keystone’s assertions that 20,000 jobs would result. Critics oppose the pipeline for a number of local and global reasons. They say building it would lock the country into decades of continued fossil fuel dominance and destroy any chance at reigning in global warming before its too late, while oil spills from the pipeline could contaminate ecologically sensitive areas, chiefly the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking and crop irrigation across several Midwestern states.

Obama under pressure on pipeline. Photo by C. MacDonald

Riding around on my bike amid the smiling, chanting, occasionally singing and dancing crowd, the collective mood was joyous. This is what momentum-building apparently looks like compared to the general feeling emanating from the precursor: Last summer’s two weeks of civil disobedience at the same spot. Those rolling protests raised the profile of the pipeline fight and upped the pressure on the Obama Administration, but turnout was a disappointment. After initially trumpetting the news that more than 2,000 people had pledged to come to Washington and get arrested in front of the White House, organizers were left backtracking. In the end, more than 1,200 people were arrested.

About two weeks after the last tar sands protester made bail in Washington, however, Occupy Wall Street began. It’s conceivable that the tar sands protests acted as a “trigger” for the Occupy movement, though the anti-Wall Street activists have said their main inspirations are the Arab Spring and protests in Madrid.

Now, with thousands of people hunkered down in public squares and plazas around the globe, perhaps it seemed more reasonable than radical to take to the streets to defeat the pipeline that McKibben has referred to as “game over” for the environment. The trigger effect as more of a boomerang?

We may soon find out what it means for the pipeline decision but what about the prospects of triggering a wider climate justice movement? On that question, one thing bodes well for the protesters: Most in yesterday’s crowd are environmentalists from the get-go. True, some, particularly the contingent from Nebraska, may be acting primarily to protect their drinking water. And, there was definitely crossover from Occupy DC and other encampments around the country that are more concerned with the state of the economy, corporate greed and growing income inequality. Still, the vast majority of people, like the organizers themselves, were demanding action on climate change as much as protesting an oil pipeline. Shaping them into a formidable climate movement seems more doable than trying to redirect the anti-corporate sentiments of the Occupy movement into the related but less immediate issue of climate justice.

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Affordablity theme big in this year’s Solar Decathlon

Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Creative Commons license

In this year’s Solar Decathlon  wrapped up earlier this month with 19 homes – more than half of which cost less than $300,000 to build. Affordability was one of the 10 categories on which the homes are judged this year in the biannual competition pitting universities from around the United States and a few foreign countries. The new cost/affordability bar, which replaced the lighting contest, inspired the student designers to drive down the cost considerably. According to the event’s sponsor, U.S. Department of Energy, this year’s houses were about 33 percent cheaper this year than those that competed two years ago.  “Solar for less” was just one of the industry trends reflected in this year’s entries.

Read my story in Architecture Week.

The End of Gas?

creative commons license

When gas prices soar, I guess it’s only a matter of time before complaints and government investigations ensue. But what’s interesting about the current spate is how it reflects the transformation underway across he country as ExxonMobil, BP and Shell sell off their gas stations to regional middlemen, known as “jobbers.” This time around, it’s not Big Oil or the little station operators who are taking the heat for price gouging; it’s the jobbers.

While the price spikes have drawn lots of attention, perhaps more interesting in the long-term is what the (until now) relatively unnoticed round of selloffs may lead to: the eventual disappearance of local fueling depots altogether.

What with predictions of peak oil, the rise of alternative fuels and electric cars, Joe Mamo, D.C.’s biggest jobber, told me his company, Capitol Petroleum Group, is really a real estate business. As his properties in Washington and New York City become more valuable for the “dirt” beneath them than the gas or junk food they can sell, he says they will become condos.

Whether this trend could contribute to the high cost of gas in D.C. and other urban areas is a question I don’t think anyone has seriously examined. It’s not an industry that gets much sustained scrutiny (beyond the occasional price gouging uproars). My profile of Mamo, which ran in the Washington City Paper in February, is one of the few (perhaps the only) in-depth look at Big Oil’s pullout from a major metropolitan marketplace. The Washington Business Journal  suggested it helped prompt the District’s anti-trust investigation of Mamo’s company.

For more information on the D.C. investigation, links to the Washington Post coverage are hereCNN Money has a national round-up of gouging allegations, and here’s a link to my profile on Joe Mamo.

Can “Mad Scientists” Fix Global Warming?

J.J. "Mad Scientist". common.wikimedia.org

The Washington Post has a story about how “geoengineering” — let’s just call it the mad scientist approach to stopping global warming — is gaining ground in the absence of political will in Washington to deal with the problem through more conventional means such as capping and/or taxing carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency, and phasing fossil fuels out of the economy.

What is geoengineering? As the story points out, the ideas gaining the most traction generally aim at reflecting the suns rays away from Earth and hoovering up the excess greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. Sound like science fiction? Well, these ideas are still more sci-fi than sci-fact though we may be seeing some of them deployed as global warming becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. But nobody really knows what kind of reactions such evasive measures will take. Reporter Juliet Eilperin quotes House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.):

“The more you know about it, the more you’re concerned about if we can ever implement it,” Gordon said in an interview. “However, there may be a point where we’re up against the tipping point, and the consequences of climate change are even worse.”

Brings to mind a dieter who doesn’t really want to stop eating Twinkies or go for a jog, instead turns to untested diet pills, and ends up with irreparable heart damage.

We’re No. 3! — In Renewable Energy Usage

Photos via Washington Gas Energy Services

The D.C. government has zoomed to the number 3 spot in the U.S. EPA‘s Top 20 Local Government list of “green” power purchases.

The city’s government gets half of its total energy consumption, or about 244. 3 million kWh a year, in the form of wind power, according to the federal agency. Only Houston and Dallas beat D.C.’s overall kilowatt-hours, coming in one and two, respectively, in the ranking. But D.C. gets a higher percentage of its energy from renewables than either of those larger cities. So, how big is the impact? Here’s what the EPA has to say:

“The District’s green power purchase of more than 244 million kWh is equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of nearly 34,000 passenger vehicles per year or the CO2 emissions from the electricity use of more than 21,000 average American homes annually, according to the EPA press release. You can read more here.

While lawmakers on The Hill have failed to pass legislation to rein in greenhouse gases that cause global warming, municipal and state governments, businesses and universities have moved on their own to switch to wind and other renewable power sources in the last few years. And more and more city residents are going solar too.

City programs to reward energy efficiency measures and renewable energy usage can be found here.