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Jul. 26 2010 — 8:21 pm | 576 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

Solar power at the ‘tipping point’

GAINESVILLE, FL - APRIL 16:  Damon Corkern, wh...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

The Holy Grail of the solar industry — reaching grid parity — may no longer be a distant dream. Solar power may have already reached that point, at least when compared to nuclear power, according to a new study by two researchers at Duke University.

It’s no secret that the cost of producing photovoltaic cells (PV) has been dropping for years. A PV system today costs just 50 percent of what it did in 1998.

Breakthroughs in technology and manufacturing combined with an increase in demand and production have caused the price of solar power to decline steadily. At the same time, estimated costs for building new nuclear power plants have ballooned.

The result of these trends: “In the past year, the lines have crossed in North Carolina,” say study authors John Blackburn and Sam Cunningham. “Electricity from new solar installations is now cheaper than electricity from proposed new nuclear plants.”

If the data analysis is correct, the pricing would represent the “Historic Crossover” claimed in the study’s title (pdf).

Two factors not stressed in the study further bolster the case for solar.

1) North Carolina is not a “sun-rich” state (pdf). The savings found in North Carolina are likely to be even greater for states with more sunshine –Arizona, southern California, Colorado, New Mexico, west Texas, Nevada and Utah.

2) The data include only PV-generated electricity, without factoring in what is likely the most encouraging development in solar technology: concentrating solar power (CSP). CSP promises utility scale production and solar thermal storage, making electrical generation practical for at least six hours after sunset.

Power costs are generally measured in cents per kilowatt hour – the cost of the electricity needed to illuminate a 1,000 watt light bulb (for example) for one hour. When the cost of a kilowatt hour (kWh) of solar power fell to 16 cents earlier this year, it “crossed over” the trend-line associated with nuclear power. (see chart below)

Chart by Blackburn and Cunningham, 2010

The authors point out that some commercial scale solar developers are now offering electricity at 14 cents a kWh in North Carolina, a price which is expected to continue to drop.

While the study includes subsidies for both solar and nuclear power, it estimates that if subsidies were removed from solar power, the crossover point would be delayed by a maximum of nine years.

The report is significant not only because it shows solar to be a cheaper source of energy than nuclear. The results are also important because, despite the Senate’s failure to pass a climate and energy bill this year, taxpayers now bear the burden of putting carbon into the atmosphere through a variety of hidden charges – or externalities, as economists call them. Fossil fuels currently account for 70 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. annually. (Nuclear generates 20 percent.)

Having dropped below the cost of nuclear power, solar energy may now be one of the least expensive energy sources in America.

he authors point out that some commercial scale solar developers are now offering electricity at 14 cents a kWh in North Carolina, a price which is expected to continue to drop.While the study includes subsidies for both solar and nuclear power, it estimates that if subsidies were removed from solar power, the crossover point would be delayed by a maximum of nine years.

The report is significant not only because it shows solar to be a cheaper source of energy than nuclear. The results are also important because, despite the Senate’s failure to pass a climate and energy bill this year, taxpayers now bear the burden of putting carbon into the atmosphere through a variety of hidden charges – or externalities, as economists call them. Fossil fuels currently account for 70 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. annually. (Nuclear generates 20 percent.)

Having dropped below nuclear power, solar power is now one of the least expensive energy sources in America.

Jul. 26 2010 — 1:24 pm | 318 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

SB1070 Watch | Bust narco-traffickers, not maids

Alberto Gonzalez stands outside the Arizona St...

Image by AFP via @daylife

Arizona, where I live, has become ground zero in one of the most divisive issues of our day: immigration. There are two reasons for this unfortunate distinction.

On the surface, the element that gave the issue traction here was passage of SB1070. The new law, which is due to go into effect on Thursday, would compel law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of individuals who they “reasonably suspect” of being in the U.S. illegally.

The second, and deeper, reason for Arizona’s role is political. Support for SB1070 has become a litmus test for conservatives and particularly for the far-right. The law has galvanized the small but active white supremacist movements here, who have donated money to Governor Jan Brewer’s fund to fight legal challenges to the law, and begun armed patrols near the border with Mexico. The political pressure to embrace SB1070 has become so intense that Barry Wong, a Republican running for re-election to the state commission that regulates utilities, promises to go even further and prevent utilities from selling electricity to undocumented aliens.

With bizarre anti-immigrant proposals like Wong’s now part of mainstream discourse in Arizona, Francis Fukuyama’s thoughtful piece in today’s Wall Street Journal is a much-needed antidote to the toxic politics of the day.

Fukuyama’s argument is that we must have a more nuanced understanding of the issues if we want to solve the real problem of illegal immigration: crime.

Yes, people crossing the border into the U.S. are, by definition, committing a crime. That is vastly different, however, from the notion that once here, they live the lives of criminals. Most immigrants, documented and undocumented, come here to work and to give their children a chance at a better life.

“The gardeners and maids and busboys,” Fukuyama writes, “are indeed breaking the law. But they are in a very different category from the tattooed Salvatrucha gang member who lives by extortion and drug-dealing.”

The broad-brush approach demagogued by Brewer, Wong and Senator John McCain, has nothing to do with reducing crime and border violence and everything to do with stirring up fears to get votes. It is a sad fact that politics, not logic, funnels resources. The pro-SB1070 crowd will take money that could be used to fight narco-traffickers and direct it to identifying, incarcerating and deporting people who, at worst, are guilty of over-pruning, inadequate vacuuming and failure to clear a table with all deliberate speed.

The people of Arizona would be better served by politicians who actually want to fight violent crime, than by demagogues who will settle for the farce of hunting down “illegals” and declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

The problem of gangs and drug violence should not be confounded with the behavior of the vast majority of illegal immigrants to the U.S., who by and large are seeking the same thing that every immigrant to America has wanted since the time of the Mayflower: to better their condition and that of their families. They are not criminals in the sense of people who make a living by breaking the law. They would be happy to live legally, but they come from societies in which legal rules were never quite extended to them. They are therefore better described as “informal” rather than “illegal.”

via Immigrants and Crime: Time for a Sensible Debate – WSJ.com.

Jul. 22 2010 — 11:49 am | 273 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Why turning corn into fuel is a dumb idea

A driver for Swedish truck and bus manufacture...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via @daylife

If the announcement of a new government study doesn’t send your heart racing, Grist staff-writer Tom Philpott has an excellent overview of the ethanol energy analysis in today’s edition.

For my fellow ADHDers, here’s the take home message from a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study: Government funding of corn-based ethanol, bad.

Philpott translates the CBO’s data into simple English: “Subsidizing corn-based ethanol is a mind-numbingly expensive way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Another of Philpott’s bullet points: The modern agribusiness model for growing corn is so energy intensive that corn-based ethanol “is really just a clever way to convert natural gas and coal into car fuel.”

There’s another good reason for steering clear of ethanol, one not mentioned in the CBO study or in Philpott’s summary.

Ethanol kills.

In a 2009 study, Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, ranked alternative fuel sources for powering cars, based on environmental effects. Ethanol ranked at the bottom of the list, in part because the tailpipe emissions from burning bio-fuel cause as many premature deaths as gasoline — somewhere around 10,000 each year.

So let’s see: Crazy-expensive, causes deaths from air pollution. But, heh, ethanol is “Alternative Energy.” So, it’s all good, right?  Sure, and because smokers sometimes switch to chewing tobacco as an alternative to cigarettes, a wad of Skoal could be considered  health-food.

Using the friendliest assumptions possible (note that some prominent researchers argue that ethanol actually generates more GHG emissions than gasoline), CBO reckons that by supporting ethanol through the tax break, taxpayers are shelling out about $750 for every metric ton (2,205 pounds) of carbon kept out of the atmosphere by ethanol. To put that number in perspective, note that the carbon-offset company Terrapass values 1,000 pounds of emissions reductions at $5.95. Converting that to metric tons, Terrapass charges about $13 to do what the ethanol industry is charging us $750 for.

If greenhouse gas reductions are the goal, merely handing $5.16 billion to Terrapass to buy offsets would be about 57 times more effective than subsidizing ethanol production.

Of course, from my perspective, a far more effective use of that money would be to invest in technologies and infrastructure that reduce energy consumption altogether, like mass transit. But using it to encourage people to convert corn into car fuel is surely madness.

via Ethanol gets skewered by recent CBO assessment | Grist.

Jul. 21 2010 — 1:02 pm | 298 views | 1 recommendations | 2 comments

Arizona cop who called new state law ‘racist,’ may be fired

If you go to the Facebook video site for the group Cuéntame, you may be surprised by who you find there. Sure, there are the “usual suspects” (a cliche that fits perfectly in this case). Speaking against Arizona’s anti-immigrant state law SB1070 are several liberal Hispanic actors. Marin Sheen. Hector Elizondo. Tony Plana. Vanessa Williams.

And then there’s Paul Dobson.

Officer Paul Dobson is a 20-year veteran of the Phoenix police force, who happens to be assigned to the precinct where I live. (I don’t know him, personally.)

I don’t think Dobson is a liberal and I know he’s not Hispanic. He’s not an actor, either. He’s a cop, outraged by the law he will be required to enforce starting July 29.

Dobson also happens to be the only person from Arizona who answered the Cuéntame’s request for people who think they’ll be affected by the law to upload a video explaining the impact the law will have on them.

Phoenix Officer Paul Dobson (Photo by Cuentame)

SB1070 requires law officers to determine the immigration status of any individual when, during the course of investigating another legal infraction (traffic violations, a neighbor’s complaint about weeds in someone’s yard), there is a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the U.S. illegally. If so, the officer is required to arrest them. Failure to do so can result in a personal law law suit against the law officer.

In the emotional video, Dobson lays out the kind of scenario he’ll be facing after July 29.

He answers a domestic violence call. During the incident, he gets the sense that the couple are not in the U.S. legally. For example, their English isn’t so good. And there’s not much furniture in the house — possibly indicating that they haven’t lived there for very long. Maybe the radio is on and tuned to one of the many Spanish language stations in the Valley.

If he grows suspicious, Dobson explains on the video, “I’ll be required to ask the victim, Are you here legally? I will have to arrest both of them. I’ll be required to. And both would be deported.”

How many abused Latinas in Arizona without proper documents, although they may have lived here for 30 years and have children born in America, will think twice before calling the police at the first slap of what they know from experience will turn into a long night of pain? Better a black eye and a couple of cracked ribs — and pray that this isn’t the night he makes good on the death threats. Better that, than risk being deported and separated from the kids who are American citizens.

“It’s horrifying,” says Dobson. “I mean, it violates our calling to serve and protect.”

At one point, Dobson explains in raw terms how SB1070 will affect him: “This law will make me feel like a Nazi out there.”

Although the officer explains at the beginning that he is speaking only for himself and not for any other cops or for the department itself, Dobson is now under investigation for his comments. A police representative told a local reporter that Dobson could face a written reprimand for the video, but the possibility of his being fired, or intimidated into quitting, can’t be ruled out. Certainly not in the politically-charged climate created by the new law that has led out-of-state businesses to cancel conventions in Phoenix and cities including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Austin, Texas to boycott Arizona.

The Republican dominated legislature created and passed this bill as an issue to run-on in November. Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law for the same reprehensible reasons: good old fashion politicking. Even Barry Wong, a heretofore decent GOP incumbent on the Arizona Corporation Commission, has pathetically suggesting that Arizona utilities be banned from selling electricity to illegal aliens. If I weren’t so nauseous by his self-debasement, I’d ask about the details of how that would actually work.

Politics is all Brewer, et al., see. Dobson, who will have to do the dirty work, understands exactly how this will play out on the ground. The picture Officer Dobson paints isn’t pretty, which may be why so many in this state, and in others now contemplating similar legislation, avert their gaze.

Jul. 20 2010 — 7:58 pm | 193 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

After safety device failed, BP ignored warning and kept drilling, says worker

Courtney Kemp (L), widow of Roy Kemp who was a...

Image by AFP via @daylife

The more I learn about events leading-up to the explosion on the BP Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20th, the more I have to wonder: What would it have taken for BP to have stopped drilling and address the safety problems and corner-cutting that lead up to the disaster in the gulf that claimed 11 lives outright and began an environmental nightmare that still continues?

The oil giant was as singled-minded in its pursuit of oil as the Terminator was in its quest to annihilate John Connor. A better analogy might be to Don Blankenship, the coal baron, who, according to former employees, wouldn’t allow workers to take time away from mining coal to build safety features at the West Virgina mine.

The resulting explosion killed 29 men — just two weeks before the BP disaster.

The latest news comes from testimony by a BP site leader on the doomed rig.

“I assumed everything was O.K,” he told investigators at a hearing in a New Orleans suburb today. “I reported [the safety failure] to the team leader…”

But the drilling continued.

KENNER, La. — In the final days before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP continued drilling for oil despite internal reports of a leak on a critical safety device on the rig, a company official testified on Tuesday.

Ronald Sepulvado, a BP well site leader, said he reported the problem to senior company officials and assumed it would be relayed to the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling. The leak was on a control pod connected to the blowout preventer, an emergency mechanism that failed to activate after the April 20 disaster.

via BP Continued Drilling Despite Report of Leak, Official Says – NYTimes.com.

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    About Me

    I'm an investigative reporter and author living in the northern Sonoran Desert (Phoenix). I've been a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, New York Times, LA Times, Salon, The Nation, and many other national publications.

    In addition to my Solar Plexus, I'm a correspondent for OnEarth (the NRDC's magazine), contributor to several other online sites, and publisher and editor of El Phoenix Sun, a blog covering solar power and environmental news from the American Southwest.

    I'm addicted to #twitter. Please #help me #score by #following @thephoenixsun.

    I've written several screenplays. One of them actually made it to the screen; the IMAX documentary, "Coral Reef Adventure."

    My books reflect either my eclectic interests or a short attention span, depending on whether you believe me or my wife:

    Broken Heartland (Farm crisis and rural issues)

    Under Fire (The NRA and gun control)

    The Best of Enemies (Race, class and redemption in the New South)

    The Enchanted Braid (Coral reefs)

    Fire in the Turtle House (Sea turtles and ocean issues)

    Enchanted by Prairie (The original Midwest ecosystem)

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    www.oshadavidson.com, www.thephoenixsun.com, and (always) @thephoenixsun

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    Contributor Since: August 2009
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    What I'm Up To

    Editing my photographs of the Arizona Anti-Immigration Law rally. (Below: Srta. Libertad)