As California anxiously awaits the rains that we hope will blunt the worst drought in the state's recorded history, people are again looking to a water source that's been discussed for decades: the Pacific Ocean. But turning seawater into something we can drink and irrigate crops with takes a lot of energy.
Unsurprisingly, some are suggesting that we turn to free energy from the sun to desalinate seawater. It makes sense on the face of it: all the naturally occurring freshwater on the planet has been desalinated by solar energy, as water vapor evaporates from the ocean and falls as salt-free rain.
With the drought declaration driving attention to California's water woes, people are asking whether we can use renewable energy to de-salt seawater on purpose. And we probably can, but there's a pesky problem that few seem to be discussing.
The pundit chatter over the next few days will likely center on other topics President Obama covered in his 2014 State of The Union Address. Raising the minimum wage, moving on from the controversy over the Affordable Care Act, and foreign policy issues like Iran and military strategy are already dominating the conversation.
But there were a couple of notable mentions of energy policy in the the President's speech that actually represent a departure of sorts from past policies, at least if you read between the lines.
And just as notable, in the energy realm, were the things that went unmentioned.
In another blow to so-called "range anxiety" keeping electric cars from entering the mainstream, a pair of Tesla drivers have made the first-ever transcontinental drive using only the luxury electric car's supercharger stations to "refuel."
The pair, John Glenney and his daughter Jill Glenney, left New York City in their Tesla Model S on January 20, arriving in Los Angeles on Sunday -- a six-day trip. The pair's route was a bit less direct than it could have been, as they had to follow the network of Tesla Supercharging stations now in operation -- which meant their NYC-L.A. trip took them through Rapid City, South Dakota and Gallup, New Mexico.
With about 40 minutes at each charging station to fill their batteries to 80 percent, which would give the Model S a bit more than 200 miles' worth of juice in ideal conditions, that's a rather leisurely trip, but that will change as Tesla adds more Supercharger stations. The company plans to expand coverage of the I-70 corridor this year, with nationwide coverage slated for 2015.
Imagine inheriting a huge chunk of money, spending it carelessly for a while, then suddenly realizing you need to change your ways and live off the interest alone. Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels is pretty much the same deal. Nature has stored away millions of years' worth of biomass in coal and oil deposits, and we've gotten used to consuming a lot more of that stored energy each year than the earth can replenish.
When we consider a shift to biofuels we run up against that basic problem pretty hard: we can only squeeze just so much energy for fuel out of our global ecosystem's annual productivity, and we've gotten used to using a lot more than that.
But a new study published this week suggests that a bit of genetic tinkering can help a microorganism boost its ability to turn organic matter into usable fuel, which might make it a bit easier to run our vehicles on fuel that doesn't spend down our fossil fuel inheritance.
Environmentally speaking, there wasn't much new in Governor Brown's State of The State message Wednesday morning. The Governor remains committed to building a high speed rail system. He said that the state's drought meant we needed to keep working on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, as well as restoring and protecting wetlands.
For the most part it was all pretty basic stuff, reaffirming prior policy declarations from the Governor's office. But one issue the governor mentioned has attracted some notice from environmental and clean-tech activists.
The issue? Our famously automobile-dependent state's annual gasoline habit, and the technology that offers to replace it.
Bird deaths continue at a large solar plant nearing completion in the Mojave Desert, and biologists are unable to account for the whereabouts of 23 of the federally Threatened desert tortoises displaced by the project. That's according to a monthly report filed by project owner BrightSource Energy with the California Energy Commission (CEC).
According to the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System's Monthly Compliance Report for December 2013, project biologists reported 13 dead birds found on a portion of the nearly 4,000-acre project in December. That figure is about the same as November's tally of 11, and down significantly from the site's October death toll of 52 birds and six bats, suggesting that bird deaths at the site may spike during seasonal bird migration. Causes of death included collisions with mirrors and burn injuries from solar flux.
Meanwhile, the compliance document also reports that the whereabouts are unknown of 23 of the Threatened desert tortoises project biologists have been monitoring, including five sub-adult tortoises that have been missing from the project's tortoise holding pens for 18 months or more.