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The Chronicle (through May 4, 2015)



The biggest energy event in the past 30 days may have been Tesla’s announcement that a small, low-cost, high-storage-capacity solar battery is ready to go into production. The lithium-ion Powerwall, which can capture and store up to 10kWh of energy from a solar panel, is 68cm by 1.3m in size (only a little larger than 2 feet by 4 feet) and will retail in the United States at $3,500. When Tesla’s new Nevada facility is in operation in 2017, it will be the largest producer of lithium-ion batteries in the world, and its mass-production scale should help to make the batteries even more affordable. A larger “Powerpack,” with 100kWh capacity, will also be offered to help utilities smooth out their supply of wind and solar energy. Tesla is currently taking orders for the systems and expects to begin delivery later in 2015. theguardian.com

The adoption of Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) over the past decade has led to overwhelmingly positive growth in the renewable energy sector. These standards work by either requiring or recommending that a state meet a certain percentage of its energy needs through renewable energy generation technologies. Standards vary by both target year and target goal—with Maine setting the highest expectation (40 percent of its energy needs through renewable means by 2017), and South Carolina specifying the lowest target at two percent by 2021. Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee and Wyoming have taken no action regarding renewable energy standards. congress.org

In eighteen states with an RPS, a coalition of conservative action groups is attempting to revoke the mandate. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, among others, claim the RPS makes energy more costly. This argument has been hard to justify, however, and to date only West Virginia has actually repealed the renewable standards legislation. washingtonpost.com

A new report shows lower energy prices in states that generate the greatest share of electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar. Just in time to help refute the assertion that electric bills will go up due to an RPS, DBL Ventures, a venture capital firm that supports clean energy projects, has found evidence of the reverse. usnews.com

Renewable energy standards for individual states are not included in the 2030 Framework for Climate and Energy Policies of the European Union (EU), and The Guardian recently exposed the strong influence of the fossil fuel lobby in curtailing efforts to include them. While the EU did set an overall 40% reduction-from-1990-levels target that would have to be achieved “through domestic measures alone,” the absence of specified renewable goals favors natural gas as a more economical route to the reductions—exactly the strategy for which Shell Oil began lobbying in 2011. Shell argued that a market-led strategy of gas expansion would save Europe 500 billion in euros in its transition to a low carbon energy system compared to an approach centered on renewables. Renewable advocates say an opportunity was missed to make a big shift toward fossil-free energy generation. theguardian.com

Despite repeated calls for urgent action on climate change, the World Bank Group increased funding for fossil fuels in its last fiscal year. The World Bank’s increase in fossil fuel finance is especially disappointing, as 2014 was the first full year following the World Bank’s commitment to limit coal financing due to climate concerns. priceofoil.org

Here’s another way to save energy: turn out the lights. New York City officials are debating a bill to limit internal and external light use in many commercial buildings when empty at night, a change that could affect some 40,000 structures. The measure aims to reduce potentially wasteful energy use as part of the city’s effort to curb its greenhouse gas emissions. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed support for passing a version of the bill. nytimes.com

In Japan, Judge Hideaki Higuchi ruled against nuclear power plant owners in April when he challenged the adequacy of the new safety standards the industry proposed when requesting to restart two of the nuclear plants closed after the Fukushima disaster four years ago. “There is little rational basis for saying that an earthquake with a magnitude that exceeds the safety standard will not occur,” said Judge Higuchi. “It is an optimistic view.” None of the forty-eight usable reactors in Japan are back online. nytimes.com

Speaking of earthquakes, the number of earthquakes has increased dramatically over the past few years in the central and eastern United States. Nearly 450 earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and larger occurred in the four years from 2010-2013, over 100 per year on average, compared with an average rate of 20 earthquakes per year observed from 1970-2000. Scientists with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have found that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells during slick water hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking. The scientists said it is “very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes, particularly those in central and north-central Oklahoma are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells.”usgs.gov



Top Vatican officials held a summit meeting on April 28, 2015, to build momentum for the climate change crusade of Pope Francis. The pope will deliver the first major encyclical of his papacy this summer, urging world leaders to enact—and Catholics to support—an effective United Nations climate change accord in Paris in December. The subject of the encyclical will be climate change and the environment, and in the United States it will be accompanied by a 12-week campaign now being prepared with the participation of some Catholic bishops. Church leaders will be asked to raise the issue of climate change and environmental stewardship in sermons, homilies, news media interviews and letters to newspaper editors. The effort is already angering a number of American conservatives, among them members of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group partly funded by the Charles G. Koch Foundation, run by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, who oppose climate policy. nytimes.com

 There were contrasting views of the Vatican summit. At the April 15, 2015 Vatican summit, Cardinal Peter Turkson, the principal drafter of the expected Papal Encyclical expected to be released on June, stated fossil fuels were disrupting Earth on an “almost unfathomable scales” and “a ‘full conversion’ of hearts and minds is needed if global warming is to be conquered.”

Meanwhile, Mareen Mullarky wrote in Fist Things, a conservative journal, “Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologised propaganda.”

The Heartland Institute, a conservative group based in Chicago, held a parallel meeting in Rome at which, Lord Christopher Monckton, stated “You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance.” theguardian.com

Fossil fuel divestment is gaining in strength. The effort to make fossil fuels the new tobacco has led heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune, California’s Stanford University, the World Council of Churches and the Australian National University to announce plans, over the past 12 months, to cut or curb their holdings. In the UK, divestment plans have been announced by the University of Glasgow, the British Medical Association, SOAS, University of London, and the publishers of The Guardian newspaper, which has launched its own anti-fossil fuel campaign: “Keep it in the ground.” Sources at Buckingham Palace recently confirmed that the private investments of Prince Charles are clear of fossil fuel holdings. ft.com The website gofossilfree.org maintains a growing list of divesting organizations.

“Fossil fuel companies have not taken the opportunity to wind down or change their business models,” says a statement from the Mark Leonard Trust, the JJ Charitable Trust, the Ashden Trust, the Waterloo Foundation, the Tellus Mater Foundation, the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation and the Frederick Mulder Foundation. “They are now significantly overvalued. The half a trillion dollars spent annually seeking new reserves will be wasted. The smart investors have already divested from coal.” The World Bank and Bank of England have warned previously that action on climate change poses a serious risk to fossil fuel assets. theguardian.com

Investors who have sold off holdings in fossil fuel companies have outperformed those that remain invested in coal, oil and gas over the past five years, according to analysis by the world’s leading stock market index company. Investors who divested from fossil fuel companies would have earned an average return of 13% a year since 2010, compared to the 11.8%-a-year return earned by conventional investors. carbonbrief.org

The Board of Commissioners of Public Lands of the State of Wisconsin voted in April 2015 to prohibit staff from addressing climate change, even if it’s just responding to emails on the subject. State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk, pointing to climate change work done by Tia Nelson, the Board’s executive director, raised the issue. She served on a climate change task force in 2007 and 2008 at the request of former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Nelson is the daughter of Gaylord Nelson, the US senator who founded Earth Day in 1970. bloomberg.com



Formaldehyde, a common chemical used in many industrial and household products as an adhesive, bonding agent or preservative, is on a path to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Classified as a volatile organic compound because it will vaporize, or become a gas, at room temperature, it is a known carcinogen and can cause asthma if breathed in large enough quantities. Problems with the chemical became obvious after Hurricane Katrina, when displaced storm victims moving into government trailers began reporting respiratory problems, burning eyes and other issues. Tests then confirmed high levels of formaldehyde fumes, and public health officials petitioned the EPA to issue limits on its use in materials intended for homes. Limits already existed for exposure in workplaces.

California passed such regulation in 2007, and in 2010 the US Congress passed bipartisan legislation that ordered the EPA to issue similar federal rules. Opposition has been strong, though, from industry groups such as the American Home Furnishings Alliance and Ikea as well as the Chinese government and Republican lawmakers from states with a large base of furniture manufacturing. Even Democrats such as Senator Barbara Boxer of California have questioned the EPA’s proposed requirement that laminated floor products undergo extensive testing. The EPA estimated that the expanded requirements for laminated products would cost the furniture industry tens of millions of dollars annually, while the industry said that the proposed rule would cost its 7,000 American manufacturing facilities over $200 million each year. Despite the cost, people need to be protected from the dangers of formaldehyde fumes, and tighter standards will be set. The only question is how much tighter, and the agency is preparing to ease key testing requirements before it releases the landmark federal health standard. nytimes.com

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a carbon-based synthetic compound used in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Exposure to BPA is a concern primarily because of possible health effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children, but it is found in high levels in everyone—detectable levels of BPA were found in 93% of 2,517 urine samples from people six years and older). The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) advises reducing its use. The public encounters it in plastic bottles, food cans, bottle tops, water supply pipes—and in the receipts issued at the cash registers of retail stores. Now merchants with a health-minded customer base have begun to give paper receipts that use vitamin C in place of traditional phenol-based thermal developers like BPA, BPS, or controversial phenol substitutes. If your food store hands you a receipt with a natural, yellow-toned front, you can assume it’s safe to lick it. niehs.nih.gov and scrippsmedia.com

Every year, outdoor air pollution kills more people worldwide than malaria and HIV combined. People in China, particularly in cities such as Beijing, pictured below, (see pdf) are some of the most affected, since the country’s rapid economic growth has come at the cost of air quality. The issue gained attention when the US embassy in Beijing began to tweet out air quality data in 2008, sparking an energetic public response that forced the Chinese government to acknowledge the problem and begin to combat it. The most dangerous category being measured and publicized in daily reports is PM2.5, or particulate matter in the air small enough to lodge deep in the lungs. (2.5 micrometers is approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair, according to epa.gov.) That category has been recorded at an average of 100 micrograms per cubic meter since 2008, according to the data, about six times what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems safe. At one point in 2014, PM2.5 levels in Beijing reached over 800 micrograms per cubic meter. qz.com and qz.com

Children in particular are at risk in this atmosphere. In late February an online documentary about air pollution in China called “Under the Dome” drew more than 150 million viewers in the first days of the three weeks it was available before being censored by the government. The narrator Chai starts off talking about her new-born daughter, whom she keeps inside “like a prisoner” on extremely bad air days—nearly half of the days in 2014. Chai shows an interview she conducted in 2004 with a six-year old girl. “Have you ever seen a real star?” Chai asks. “No,” says the child. “What about blue sky?” Chai asks. “I’ve seen one that’s a little blue,” the child replies. “What about white clouds?” Chai asks. “No, I haven’t,” the child replies. washingtonpost.com. The documentary may be viewed with English subtitles on youtube.com.

Chinese parents were surreptitiously taking air-quality-index readings in classrooms before the US embassy and later the Chinese government began to issue measurements. Air-quality apps are staples on smartphones. Chinese microblogs and parenting forums are monopolized by discussions about the best air filter. Parents demand more air purifiers in the schools, and rich international schools are even building “anti-pollution domes”—huge sports bubbles with airlock entrances to ensure air purity. For ordinary people, high pollution levels simply mean no outdoor activities at all, or when children must go outside, they use heavy-duty air filtration masks emblazoned with pleasant designs such as teddy bears. nytimes.com and theguardian.com

A record amount of electrical and electronic waste was discarded in 2014. A report from United Nations University reveals that 41.8 million tonnes of old refrigerators, washing machines and other domestic appliances were dumped during that period, and only 6.5 million tonnes of the discards were taken in for recycling. “E-waste” is defined as any device with a battery or electric cord that the owner doesn’t intend to reuse. The report used the measure of 1.15 million 40-ton 18-wheel trucks in a line 14,300 miles (23,000 kilometers) long to describe the volume. Mobile phones, personal computers, and printers were included in the count, but, as they weigh less, they made up only seven percent of the total. A surprise was that the United States was not the biggest offender in the survey. Instead, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden, in that order, generated the most e-waste.

Some e-waste is shipped out to countries such as China, Ghana, and Guiyu, where substandard methods are used to extract materials and components. Rising sales and shorter lifespans for electronic goods are expected to increase global volumes, which are likely to rise by more than 20 percent to 50 million tonnes in 2018. motherboard.vice.com and theguardian.com