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Amy Westervelt's articles

Shale Gas Booming Globally, Despite Chemical Dangers

Fracking debate and apparent new caution in the U.S., but the rest of the world is racing toward natural gas

By Amy Westervelt

Aug 9, 2010

Energy industry analysts are predicting a global shale gas boom that could turn the cleaner-burning fossil fuel into the oil supply of the coming century. They are watching the gas industry undergo a global transformation that is starting to reshape the geopolitics of energy supply all over the world.

A dozen major natural gas pipelines that are either under construction or in the planning phases will link suppliers and markets in Europe, Africa and Central Asia, in anticipation of large new supplies of shale gas in need of transport to energy markets.

Confirmation that these analysts are reading the tea leaves properly comes in part from the recent behavior of the big oil and gas companies and oil field suppliers — Exxon, Shell, Schlumberger — which were initially slow to recognize the potential of the shale gas business. Now they're paying top prices to take over bold, pioneering firms and staking claims throughout Europe and Asia.

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DOE Buildings to Get Cool Roofs that Reflect Heat Back into Space

Report Confirms Cool Roofs Can Offset Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Mitigate Global Warming

By Amy Westervelt

Jul 21, 2010

The idea that white roofs can both reduce the average temperature of cities and reduce the amount of energy required for cooling buildings received both scientific verification and practical application yesterday.

from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs said that if the world’s 100 largest and hottest cities converted to white roofs and lighter colored pavement, they would achieve a one-time offset of 57 gigatons of carbon emissions. That's equivalent to taking all the autos of the world off the road for 11 years, according to Energy Secretary Chu.

The report emerged from the national lab that Chu used to run, and simultaneous with its release, the Department of Energy announced a plan to install “cool roof” technologies on its facilities and buildings. As new buildings are built or as roofs need to be replaced on DOE buildings, cool roofs will be installed. Chu also issued a letter to the heads of other federal agencies encouraging them to follow suit.

“Cool roofs are one of the quickest and lowest cost ways we can reduce our global carbon emissions and begin the hard work of slowing climate change,” Chu said in a statement about the initiative. “By demonstrating the benefits of cool roofs on our facilities, the federal government can lead the nation toward more sustainable building practices, while reducing the federal carbon footprint and saving money for taxpayers.”

Previous studies had shown the method to be effective as well, but the model used in the most recent report is thought to be more accurate; it’s based on a general circulation model that includes measurements for cloud cover in the 100 global cities studied.

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Metalloproteins? Breakthrough Could Speed Algae-Based Fuel Research

Mimicry of newly discovered chemical processes in microbes opens new possibilities

By Amy Westervelt

Jul 20, 2010

Biomimicry is the big buzz word in cleantech these days, referring to the scientific effort to copy the systems and processes of nature to solve human problems. Now researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs have found a new treasure trove of metal-driven chemical processes in microbes that have the potential to speed the pace of clean energy breakthroughs.

According to , there are many more metal-containing proteins in microbes than previously recognized, which means that there is a broader and more diverse array of chemical processes that scientists can now consider mimicking.

“The implication is that evolution has produced many more ways to do chemistry than we previously thought, and that really opens doors,” Steve Yannone, a member of the research team from Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division, told SolveClimate.

It’s an important piece of basic science that points the way to a more complete understanding of the under-appreciated role of metals in microbiology as well as the Earth’s climate. The hope is that it could be instrumental in cracking the code for next-generation biofuels, and other innovations.

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Solar Thermal Gears Up for a Comeback

Low PV costs and a shaky economy have slowed the development of large-scale concentrating solar power plants, but CSP producers are fighting back.

By Amy Westervelt

Jul 15, 2010

A few years ago, when a polysilicon shortage suddenly drove up the price of photovoltaic panels, solar thermal was all the rage.

Start-ups were emerging every week, introducing new super-concentrating mirror technologies, special reflective films and other innovations.

Companies began announcing plans for utility-scale solar thermal plants anywhere there was sun in the United States. Solar thermal, also called concentrating solar power (CSP), not only had a cost advantage over photovoltaics, it offered one thing PV never could: storage, and thus stability.

So where did all the solar thermal go?

While there have been a few highly publicized bouts between large-scale solar thermal proponents and conservation groups concerned about the land required to build such plants, the real issue comes down to simple economics. Back when there was private capital available to fund projects like giant solar plants in the desert, the technology was still new and relatively untested. Now, just as the technology has matured, private capital has dried up with the recession.

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Cities Maintain Green Momentum, Despite Shrinking Budgets, Shifting Priorities

Recession prompts change in strategies, but not sustainable ideals

By Amy Westervelt

Jul 15, 2010

In 2005, mayors throughout the United States took a stand on climate change, signing on by the hundreds to the Kyoto Protocol, refusing to stand on the sidelines while world leaders wrangled over regulating greenhouse gases.

And they weren't just putting pen to paper.

Cities like Miami and Baltimore, new to the idea of “green” economic development, set about drafting sustainability plans. Others, like Portland and San Francisco, which already had been leading the country on such initiatives, publicized their efforts and provided a roadmap for those just getting started.

Then the recession hit and cities had to shift their thinking away from the more innovative programs, moving instead toward practical initiatives aimed more at adapting to climate change than mitigating it.

"There are almost no local governments that haven’t been impacted by the recession," said Marty Chavez, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based , an international association of local governments committed to sustainable development.

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Villains Again? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Nix Innovative Home Energy Programs

Accelerating clean energy program for homeowners comes to a sudden nationwide standstill

By Amy Westervelt

Jul 7, 2010

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are villains again. Holding about half the nation’s mortgages, they were deeply involved in the country’s financial meltdown and now, with the stroke of a pen, they have brought residential solar energy retrofits to a grinding halt all over the country. Energy savings, more green jobs and improved property values are suddenly out the window.

It started with a letter Fannie and Freddie sent in early May to mortgage lenders that pointed out that a new batch of innovative solar financing programs put lenders second in line to collect if a homeowner defaulted on a loan.

The programs, called Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), allowed cities and counties to create assessment districts that granted loans to homeowners for energy efficiency retrofits, which could be paid back over time via an additional property tax. The balance due for the loan was transferred with the property until it was paid off. It meant homeowners could opt for energy upgrades without bearing the full up-front cost.

After the Fannie and Freddie letter, however, mortgage lenders, worried that they’d be left holding the tab, began insisting that energy retrofits be paid off in full before a house was sold or refinanced. That is making the PACE program a lot less attractive to homeowners and slowing down business for companies and employees doing the retrofits.

The hold-up is also bad news for cities that received a recent round of Department of Energy funding aimed at energy efficiency retrofits. Over 20 cities and counties, which were awarded $150 million in grants funds between them to support PACE programs, are now being sent back to the drawing board.

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Key Tool in EU Clean Energy Boom Will Only Work in U.S. in Local Contexts

California’s push for solar feed-In tariffs illustrates hurdles and opportunities

By Amy Westervelt

Jul 1, 2010

Both Germany and Spain are global leaders in clean energy development, thanks to a financing mechanism called feed-in tariffs, applied at the national level.

Essentially the government guarantees solar and wind energy developers a premium price for the energy they produce, so that they can compete with cheaper, dirtier sources of power. The extra cost of the clean power shows up on every citizen's electric bill as a small increment. Everyone pays in common to support the transition to clean energy, a national priority enshrined in feed-in tariff law.

Thanks to feed-in tariffs, renewable energy use in Germany jumped at a blistering pace from 6.3 percent in 2000 to 16.1 in 2009. In Spain, renewable energy accounts for 12.5 percent of energy use. America lags far behind, with no jump start in sight.

Feed-in tariffs have only come to the US in isolated spots, and is working, but it is a mechanism that is not going to offer a national solution. It's something that can only be implemented locally, and even then there are hurdles, as the case of California illustrates.

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Are Electric Vehicles Leaving Mass Transit in the Shadows?

What the EV boom could mean for mass transit and sustainable cities in the U.S.

By Amy Westervelt

Jun 29, 2010

Electric vehicles or mass transit -- which option will lead to a more sustainable future? Follow the money in the U.S. and it looks like federal favoritism leans toward electric vehicles, even though improved mass transit would make the nation more competitive and cleaner. 

The allocation of federal spending in both the 2010 budget and the economic recovery act shows where the weight of current policy thinking is in the U.S. There's an allocation of $2.4 billion in stimulus funds for developing the plug-in infrastructure electric vehicles are going to need. There's also $8.3 billion available to electric vehicle manufacturers through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, and another  $30 billion for improving or building roads and bridges -- to keep them fit for automotive travel.

Mass transit, on the other hand, got a total of $13 billion. Which begs the question: Do the hype and money going into EVs equate to a commitment from the government to an automobile-dominated future?

Comparing where the recent emphasis has been on government spending in the US versus China is an eye-opening exercise. The long-term future starts to come into view. 

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Botched Smart Meter Roll Outs Provoking Consumer Backlash

Higher bills, security and health concerns, and questions about fairness cloud the promise of the smart grid

By Amy Westervelt

Jun 24, 2010

Over the past several months, as utilities have rolled out smart meters in homes throughout the country, they’ve been met unexpectedly with consumer backlash.

With the roll-out, consumers got a muddled message. Some heard that “smart meters will save you money;” others got no message at all; and many came home to find new meters in their homes without warning

Then reports starting surfacing that consumers were getting a noticeably higher bill the very next month.

That opened the floodgates of questioning so now, in addition to higher bills, consumers are voicing concerns over security and health issues. Will an IP-based smart grid leave personal information vulnerable to hackers? Are the wireless signals smart meters send and receive a long-term health hazard?

The unexpected result of this much ballyhooed home accessory of the clean energy economy is that consumers are now fighting for the right to opt out of having smart meter installed in their homes altogether.

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The Man Who Makes Greenhouse Gas Polluters Face Their Victims in Court

Attorney Matt Pawa has applied tort law to global warming and provoked groundbreaking rulings

By Amy Westervelt

Jun 22, 2010

The blame game is a well-known political and legal ploy for avoiding responsibility. When the US pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, the President's finger pointed at China. When the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, BP, Haliburton and Transocean executives each needed two hands to shift the blame at each other in front of a Senate hearing.

The thinking behind that line of defense is that it can't possibly be fair to hold one party responsible for a wrong, unless everybody else involved in the wrongdoing is held responsible, too.

Attorney Matt Pawa knows the law is a lot smarter than that childish logic -- thanks in particular to a branch of jurisprudence known as tort law -- and that's why he's ready to do battle against greenhouse gas polluters with an age-old solution: Sue the bastards.

“When I first read the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report in 1995, where the scientists notified the world of their conclusion that there was a causal connection between anthropogenic actions and the warming we’re experiencing today … the light went off in my tort lawyer’s head that we could prove a case,” Pawa told SolveClimate recently.

Ever since, Pawa has been working tirelessly to establish global warming as a "public nuisance" under tort law, holding corporations accountable for their greenhouse gas pollution and forcing them to face their victims in court.

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