Archive for the ‘solar power’ Category

We’ve voiced our concern here before that solar power generating plants still have an environmental footprint.

But this nifty graphic, by David McCandless of Information is Beautiful, places that worry within an impressively positive context.

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After a long dry spell, we’re posting again.

Here’s something we meant to post earlier:  It seems that the US government shares our worries about the  environmental impact of solar power projects on desert environments.  Not that we’re against them completely — just that it’s good to know what costs you are imposing on the planet, even when you figure they’ll be outweighed by the project’s benefits.

And here’s something from Mark Morford’s wonderfully provocative Notes and Errata column in the SF Chronicle.

In the face of so many people, media outlets and corporations jumping on the Green bandwagon, Morford wonders if things aren’t just a little more complicated.  After all, he notes:

Truly, before you get too cozy with your low-VOC paint and organic grass-fed burger, it takes but a split second to shatter that green lens of hope and replace it with a crimson one full of blood and pollution and phthalates and cheap copper wiring in the form of e-waste in the slums of China and India, as the residual plastic floats out to the Pacific Garbage Patch and further chokes the collapsing fish and seafood stocks of the world.

“How bleak do you want it?” he asks, before suggesting the most likely environmental reality we face is “gray and murky and strange.”

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That’s what the Sierra Club is telling us.  You need sun, still, since the fuel is electricity, derived from a photovoltaic system.   And then there’s the regular maintenance on the car.  But given that plenty of people spend over $45,000 on their cars alone, and if you really do keep your new car for a few decades, that’s not a totally outrageous sum.

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If tree owners and solar power generators have already spawned the age the eco-feud, just wait until suburban homes start sprouting domestic wind turbines on top of 60-120 towers.

The New York Times today surveys the incentives available for home wind turbines around the USA.  While reporter John Casey says there are no reliable numbers to tell us how many of these there are, he states that:

Experts on renewable energy say a convergence of factors, political, technical and ecological, has caused a surge in the use of residential wind turbines, especially in the Northeast and California.

Casey notes the unreliability of wind power and then adds in something of an understatement, “Even if the wind is strong, zoning and aesthetics can pose problems.”

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That’s the New York Times’ novel editorial spin on the ‘war’ between owners of a domestic solar power system in Sunnyvale, California, and their immediate neighbors, who owned redwood trees that had grown to shade the solar panels.

The dispute, which we noted last week, is evidence of the Golden State’s leadership in all things environmental, says the Times. It goes on:

Obviously, there will be costs associated with all this virtue, and for some — like the Sunnyvale couples — there will be shoving and pushing. Given the alternative of a less hospitable globe, these seem to be small sacrifices.

That’s certainly preferable to seeing the dispute as evidence of a laughable green hypocrisy — which the Christian Science Monitor tells us, it isn’t!

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Two recent British news items are cause for, alternately, hope and despair.

For hope, we can look to the Daily Telegraph’s news that “Cheap solar power [is] poised to undercut oil and gas by half.”

The bad news comes from the Guardian, which warns that our “Climate target is not radical enough” — referring to the targets set by the EU for CO2 emissions.

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Actions that could help the environment don’t just regularly lose out to actions demanded by people with competing agendas. There’s plenty of potential for conflict within the environmental movement itself.

Take the case of the neighbors in Sunnyvale, California that pitted a family generating solar power in their backyard against the family living behind them, who wanted to grow redwood trees. Before long the trees, which were planted first, were shading the solar panels. The panel owners asked the tree owners to cut their trees, which they refused to do. The two sides went to court and only now, some seven years later, is there a resolution — which sees some of the trees being cut by court order.

Both families drive electric or hybrid cars. Both see themselves as environmentally-conscious. Yet, neither could agree on a compromise. That’s delighted pundits all over the country — seeing this as a classic case of green hypocrisy.

In the version of the story referenced above, the Christian Science Monitor takes a more insightful line.

“The truth lies more in shades of gray than chlorophyll green,” suggests writer Douglas Fox. Neither family are what detractors could describe as hardcore environmentalists. One family owns several SUVs along with their electric car.

That, he argues, reflects:

“a broader public appetite not for energy-saving habits, but for technical fixes: ethanol, solar, fuel cells, and hybrid autos that sometimes consume as much gas as many nonhybrids. You might call it the low-fat cheesecake approach to carbon dieting.”

While, as Fox says, it’s wrong to conclude from this story that “there is an inevitable conflict between trees and solar power” — mostly because most trees don’t grow as fast and tall as redwoods — we are likely to see more conflicts arising from competing environmental interests.

Bird lovers decry the impact of wind turbines, after all, (though not everyone believes it’s such a problem). Biofuels have many detractors. Nuclear power is a salvation to some environmentalists and an evil to many others.

The challenge for environmentalists, then, will be to help resolve these conflicts quickly, so that they don’t become an excuse to prevaricate on environmentally-beneficial action any longer.

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Solar thermal power plants are being built at an increasing rate across the dry American south and west.

As the New York Times reports today, in addition to two prototype plants that recently started operating, a further 10 are in the advanced planning stage in California, Arizona and Nevada.

“On sunny afternoons, those 10 plants would produce as much electricity as three nuclear reactors,” says the Times.

Accompanying the article is a photograph of a solar thermal plant stretching for what seems like miles into the Nevada desert. Up to its edge, plants adapted to desert conditions clearly thrive. Where the solar reflectors are installed, the soil has been scraped flat and clear of all apparent life.

While deserts may perhaps look dead, they are — of course — thriving ecosystems.

Solar thermal power may well be less globally harmful than power generated by coal, for example. But it’s good to be reminded that it also comes at its own environmental price.

Wikipedia currently has this to say about the impact of solar power on the Mojave Desert landscape:

Solar thermal power plants are large and seem to use a lot of land, but when looking at electricity output versus total size, they use less land than hydroelectric dams (including the size of the lake behind the dam) or coal plants (including the amount of land required for mining and excavation of the coal). While all power plants require land and have an environmental impact, the best locations for solar power plants are deserts or other land for which there might be few other human uses.

Sure, not many people live there. But let’s not forget the impact of our actions on the snakes, spiders, hawks, owls, jackrabbits, bighorn sheep, coyotes, etc. for whom the desert is home, not to mention the extraordinary plants that flourish in dry environments.

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