In Bay Area, Obama Announces New Solar, Conservation Programs

Obama schmoozes at Walmart after his speech | Screen capture: White House

In Mountain View today, President Barack Obama announced a set of new executive actions the White House will be taking to promote the domestic solar industry and energy conservation programs. The actions include spending an additional $2 billion to make federal buildings more energy-efficient, and providing funding for solar job training programs at community colleges across the country.

The initiatives come in the form of executive actions, said the President, due to Congressional intransigence on energy and climate matters. "Unfortunately Congress has not always been as visionary on these issues as we would like," said Obama. "In Washington, we still have a bunch of climate deniers who shout loud, but they're wasting everybody's time in a settled debate."

The announcement was made in a Walmart store in Mountain View. Walmart, which has installed more rooftop solar than any other big-box retailer, is pledging to double its solar installations, though that isn't sparing it from criticism from environmental groups.

Inyo County Backs Down on Big Solar

A gorgeous day in the Owens Valley | Photo: Elaine with grey cats/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Inyo County's Board of Supervisors has made a whole lot of people who love the Owens Valley very happy, as it's agreed to remove a large swath of the valley from designation as suitable for large-scale renewable energy development.

The move, made formal in a May 6 vote on an amendment to the County's General Plan that proposed large Renewable Energy Development Areas (REDA), was applauded by locals who've flooded the County with comments in recent months.

The Owens Valley REDA, which would have covered more than 90 square miles of the Valley floor from Independence to well south of Lone Pine, has been especially controversial in that it would have occupied the scenic core of the eastern Sierra Nevada near the foot of Mount Whitney.

2nd Tribal Solar Plant Approved On Nevada Reservation

Moapa Tribal Council member Vernon Lee, Tracey LeBeau (Director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Indian Energy), Moapa Chairwoman Aletha Tom and Kathy Weiss of First Solar at the first Moapa Solar project's groundbreaking | Photo: Jim Laurie, Department of Energy

With ground only newly broken on a 250 megawatt solar project that will cover about 2,000 acres of the Moapa Paiute Reservation north of Las Vegas, the Interior Department today announced its approval of a second solar project on the tribe's lands.

The Moapa Solar Energy Center Project will be built on about 850 acres of the reservation in the shadow of the soon-to-be-shuttered Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant, and will generate a maximum of 200 megawatts of power.

"Today's announcement reflects the Obama Administration's steadfast commitment to work with Indian Country leaders to promote strong, prosperous and resilient tribal economies and communities," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, in announcing Interior's decision approving the project. "This solar project and these grants also deliver on the President's Climate Action Plan goals to spur important investments and jobs in tribal communities."

Natural Gas May Be a Lot Worse for Climate Than Suspected

A drilling rig in northeastern Colorado | Photo: David Oonk, CIRES

Natural gas and oil fields may well be releasing far more climate-killing methane into the atmosphere than previously thought, undermining natural gas' usefulness as an alternative "bridge fuel" for society to use to wean itself off coal in fighting climate change.

That's according to a new federally funded study to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. In the study, conducted by researchers from NOAA's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder (CIRES), oil and gas fields in Weld County, Colorado were revealed to be leaking three times as much methane as expected into the atmosphere. Methane, a primary constituent of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent as carbon dioxide.

The researchers also found seven times as much atmospheric benzene coming off the wells as had been expected, and about twice the expected levels of a set of volatile organic compounds that contribute to ozone formation. Benzene is a known human carcinogen.

Fact Check: How Much Water Does Solar Power Really Use?

Probably a couple gallons per megawatt-hour here, at most | Photo: Brian Kusler/Flickr/Creative Commons License

There's an infographic going around lately that claims to show the relative amounts of water used by four different sources of electrical power: coal, nuclear, natural gas and solar. The graphic claims that solar comes out the clear winner in terms of water conservation, using no water at all to generate power. But is the claim correct? Not quite.

The graphic, produced by the "Climate Reality Project," is making the rounds of social media. It's pretty straightforward, at first glance. Coal-fired power plants use up 1,100 gallons of water for each megawatt-hour of power produced. (A megawatt-hour is about what a typical California household would consume in six or seven weeks.) Nuclear and natural-gas-fired power plants use water 800 and 300 gallons for the same amount of power, respectively. And solar, according to the Climate Reality Project, is the least water-wasteful of all four sources of energy, at zero gallons of water per megawatt-hour.

On Facebook, the graphic's creators share the news breathlessly, saying "Whoa - you probably know that solar power plants produce electricity without producing carbon pollution, but did you all realize they also save so much water? 'Share' to let your friends know, too!" But is the graphic accurate? That depends what you mean by "accurate."

Opposition Grows To Proposed Solar Tower Project

Near the Palen Solar site | Photo: Ron's Log/Flickr/Creative Commons License

When last ReWire checked in on the proposed Palen solar project, its builders were asking the California Energy Commission to restart hearings on the project that had been suspended in January. That was in March; now, it's becoming clear that there's significant opposition to putting the project back on the table -- including from the CEC's own staff.

The Palen Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS), to be built by BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar (doing business as Palen Solar Holdings, or PSH) on four square miles of desert just off Interstate 10 in Riverside County, would generate a maximum of 500 megawatts by using tens of thousands of mirrors to focus sunlight on boilers atop two 750-foot solar towers. That much concentrated "solar flux" is proving to have nasty effects on wildlife at BrightSource's significantly smaller Ivanpah project.

Solar flux damage to wildlife was the main reason that the CEC proposed to reject Palen SEGS' design, just before PSH asked the Commission to suspend hearings on the project in January. Now, the builders say they've collected data that says their design poses no more risk to birds than alternatives suggested by CEC. But opponents aren't convinced -- including Audubon California.