Sunday, March 29, 2009

Update on solar projects

The scuttlebutt is that Sierra Club is in talks with a certain large private landowner and major water user in the San Joaquin Valley regarding solar facilities instead of farming the arid, desert-like land with Delta water on the Western edge of the Valley. This is great news, a potential game changer if correctly worked. This is one of those very few places where I would even go so far as to suggest a win-win, with possible air quality improvements, more permanent Valley jobs, less water usage, etc., etc.

I will post more about this as I learn about it...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oh, Where Shall We Put It?

Take a deep breath, and calm down. Everybody loves this place, that's why they are all fighting about it... I'm talking to myself.

I just finished reading this New York Times piece on the emerging fight over solar panels in the California Desert. In my most recent job, one of my organization's responsibilities was in protecting California desert park lands. Now free to have a more public opinion on this topic, I must say that I still take that side.

The Times reports on the fight between environmental organizations over whether or not we should develop large-scale solar farms in the deserts in Southern California. Folks from NRDC and some from the Sierra Club have taken a position that we should be moving toward large-scale solar developments, and agree that the desert is a great place to put them. Others, like the Wildlands Conservancy, think that the desert is a horrible place to put them.

Unfortunately, this Times piece tells less than the full story. First, it seems to pit NIMBY folks against "ecowarriors" who have the good of the planet at heart. Let me say this: Everybody in this argument has the good of the planet at heart.

But, much more importantly, it only covers the emotive side of this important conversation, trying to focus on the personalities rather than the important stuff. It doesn't talk about the science, the actual ecological and economic trade-offs of solar placement in the California desert. So I will.

California's deserts are not dry expanses of nothingness. A desert is defined by its precipitation (less than 10 inches per year), and so soil and therefore habitat can vary widely, which is where we need to start the conversation. Some research has shown that some desert habitats, including the Mojave, may actually be huge carbon sinks, sequestering carbon at rates similar to woodlands. If this is the case, then tearing out hundreds of thousands of acres of desert may not be the highest and best use of this land.

Now, add in additional factors. First, water: Large-scale solar facilities operate by heating water, and the employees also need water to operate, so a large amount is going to be needed. Where will this come from? If we attempt to use water from the underground aquifers, the facilities won't expect a long life. Therefore, we will have to further engineer water transport tens or hundreds of miles to these facilities. Who will give up their water rights? How much will the transportation cost? How much energy will it use? Currently, about one fifth of California's entire energy consumption goes to water. Last, what is the carbon footprint for the water aspect of the proposal?

Next, energy production: The current electrical grid in the deserts can not support the proposed production, so additional energy transportation will have to be built. In habitat as sensitive as desert, the placement of transportation and energy "ribbons" is very important. Deserts have few corridors that allow animals to move from one water source to another. Currently, desert bighorn are killed on highways that were inappropriately placed before we understood the particular corridors throughout the desert ranges. To alleviate that problem, CalTrans built tunnels for them (asking a desert bighorn to walk into a tunnel is akin to asking an astronaut to step out of the space shuttle without his suit, just for a second). How will the grids affect the already-impacted desert corridors? And the new roadways built to maintain them?

So we are left without adequate research regarding the current relationship of wild desert lands to carbon sequestration, of the total carbon footprint of construction of the entirely new system, or of its effects on habitat. And yet, we are told that to save the world, we must first build as much as we can.

What could stop this fight? If only we could find a huge expanse of land that has already been heavily developed, gets tremendous amounts of sunshine but relatively little precipitation, has dedicated energy corridors and water resources, a huge workforce who need jobs, and whose current land use was already controversial and environmentally damaging, so its new use farming solar would actually improve conditions...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cap & Trade Front & Center

© 2009 Joshua Stark

A number of prominent folks have come out with positions on cap & trade, or carbon pricing ideas now being worked out by the federal government.

Right now, a lot of attention is being given to the allowances (ability for a company to emit carbon), & specifically whether or not they should be auctioned by the government, given away, or some combination of the two. Recently, the Pew Research Center gave testimony in favor of giving away some of the allowances, and phasing in an auctioning system. It must be noted here that the Pew folks are in the US-CAP, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and a number of major corporations, including the Big Three, Shell, BP, Conoco Philips, DuPont, and Rio Tinto. US-CAP's testimony, as given by the head of Pew, can be found here.

Last Monday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gave testimony that was much closer to the former Congressional Budget Office head Peter Orzsag's comments: A cap and trade system should start with a 100% auction, and it must include ways to alleviate the economic burden it will put on poor people. I mention Mr. Orzsag's comments here because he now head's the Obama Administration's Office of Management and Budget, and probably has some clout.

The questions for you all, then, are: Should a cap & trade system include a 100% auction, or should some of the allowances be given away at first? Or, should we just scrap a trading system, and institute a carbon tax, taxing every ton of CO2 regardless of its source, or an EPA-mandated cap?

Well, I have sat on the fence for too long. Here is my opinion (skip this and go to the comment section if you want to give me your opinion and don't want to be bothered by mine):

For two main reasons I have been more leery of a cap & trade system:
1), a contrived market is easier to game; and
2), companies that pollute more would, in general, continue to pollute, harming local communities.

However, a commenter with the moniker CG explained the comparative effectiveness of a cap & trade system very clearly at an Environmental Economics post. He basically said that we have a good idea of the amount to cap, and the problem with a tax is that we'd have to play around with the price until we got it to cap the right amount. So, although I'm still uncomfortable with a cap & trade mechanism, I am done with a carbon tax (having done a 2-second review of the history of politics and tax rates in my head). It'll have to be either a regulatory cap or cap & trade.

Any action curbing carbon emissions will lead to higher energy prices, and a disproportionate burden will be placed upon the poor. So, the focus of folks should be on how to mitigate the problems we know will occur under a carbon cap of some sort, and in this realm, I support some form of financial mitigation for the costs to poor people. Also, should a cap & trade system be created, all allowances need to be auctioned off by the government. Last, I would prefer no offsets be allowed, but if they are, they need to offset co-pollutants, as well as carbon (I'll cover this soon).

All allowances to emit carbon should be auctioned off by the government, who should use the revenues to offset the financial burdens of carbon emissions on poor folks & on the environment, and then to pay down government debt and pay for government services in general.

When carbon gets capped, the prices of goods and services using carbon-emitting energy sources will rise. In fact, the only really effective caps on carbon are more than likely going to result in uncomfortably high prices for a number of products and services (that, or the cap probably won't be sufficient to effectively cut carbon). Further, these price increases will occur whether or not the allowances to emit carbon are auctioned off or given away. That is because the nature of both forcing companies to emit less carbon and allowing carbon to be bought and sold in a market effectively adds the price of carbon to the cost of production.

Now, some folks in political circles are referring to a cap & trade market as an "energy tax", and although I understand that this is to heap scorn upon it, I really don't mind the analogy. The real question is this, though: Should this tax be collected by the government, through an auction system, or by major individual corporations, through the trading mechanism? I, for one, don't like to be taxed by anybody, nor do I like to pay for anything, but I'd prefer taxes be collected by our government, where I may have a say, and where some form of accountability can be maintained. What I would not understand is how we could allow a company to tax us for its pollution by giving away allowances.

Please, now, let me know how you feel about this vital and potentially expensive and game-changing idea.