What’s Next for California Solar?

photo source:  www.energy.ca.gov/sitingcases/abengoa/index.html

No one seems to dispute that solar technology will play an increasingly important role in transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence. But what is less clear is how solar tech will be deployed, and how fast. Is the market for single-point residential solar really ready to take off, or will it be large-scale solar fields? What can we learn from other countries that have had a longer history of serious solar initiatives (and will the U.S. commit to catching up)?

And although California is leading the charge in residential solar with innovative funding mechanisms like PACE – the Property Assessed Clean Energy model developed in Berkeley and influential in the planning of similar clean energy and efficiency programs around the country- the regulatory landscape under which these programs would operate remains uncertain at best.

This week’s links unearth information on the issues affecting California’s solar future from around the web:

Start with the July 15 broadcast of Forum from KQED Radio. This broadcast is a “Solar Panel”  discussion featuring Danny Kennedy of  Berkeley-based residential solar installation company Sungevity, Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Germany, U.C. Berkeley Professor and co-director of The Energy Institute, Severin Borenstein, and news reporter Todd Woody.

Next up, visit the California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission’s “Go Solar California” website, urging CA residents to jump on the solar bandwagon.

Think the hot plains of the Mojave Desert are a great place for a giant solar farm? Many people do, but the “empty” desert is still home to ecosystems that need consideration- check out NPR’s coverage on how the plans are shaping up here.

Finally, we here at Zero Resource will be keeping up with the PACE debate, and you can too, by checking out the latest headlines- including the breaking news of Attorney General Jerry Brown’s lawsuit against Freddie Mac and Fannie May over delays to the program:

AG Brown sues feds over slowed solar PACE – San Jose Business Journal

California Sues Federal Mortgage Giants to Save Clean Energy Program – On Earth Magazine

California Sues Fannie, Freddie, Regulator over PACE program – NASDAQ

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San Jose Might Sell Its Water System


To close budget gaps (the current shortfall is $116.2 million for the fiscal year 2010-2011), San Jose is considering privatizing its municipal water system, which provides water to about 124,000 people (via Silicon Valley Mercury News). The sale could net the city $50 million.

The current potential buyer is reported to be San Jose Water Company, which provides water to about 1 million people in the Bay Area, including about 80 percent of San Jose residents. The potential sale would likely result in higher water rates for the formerly municipal customers. The company has also expressed interest in leasing and operating the water system.

While I think it is shortsighted to sell city assets to fix budget gaps (what will be sold next year?), San Jose Water Company boasts on its website that it delivered less water in 2007 than it did in 1987, despite serving an additional 80,000 people. And the company credits its water conservation programs (more info here).

Bioplastics, part two


This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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Part 1 of this post provides a definition for the term “bioplastic” and clarifies the distinctions between “degradable”, “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics.

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a compostable plastic cup from NatureWorks

While the idea of plant-based, biodegradable and compostable plastic made from renewable resources sounds like a potential panacea to the problem of plastic trash, the reality is -at this point- it is still too good to be true.

For starters, as I outlined in the first part of this post, not all bioplastics are created equal. To quickly re-cap, many are hybrids of conventional plastic polymers with added biomass; some are able to biodegrade and some are not; and the “compostable” type usually requires the high temperatures of a commercial composting facility in order to break down. What this means is that many new classes of plastics have been unleashed into the waste stream (with the catch-all rating of #7, or “other”) without the infrastructure in place to process them.  In large quantity, there is the real likelihood that they will complicate the recycling of traditional PET plastics.

Compostable plastics and serviceware such as coffee cups, to-go containers, etc., may be placed in municipal compost bins, but at this time no ‘bioplastics’ should  be placed in a regular mixed recycling bin (large scale efforts to recycle bioplastics in their own right could be termed “fledgling”, at best).

For example, the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability authored a fact-sheet for area businesses considering using bioplastics that not only warns that the local recycling facility is not equipped to process many of the new plastics, but also calls into question the long-term wisdom of replacing one set of disposable products with another. In short, even if all things were equal with the logistical aspects of recycling bioplastics vs. conventional plastics, there is still the reality that bioplastics use fossil fuels in their creation, create greenhouse gases in their decomposition, cannot be processed by consumers at home, and can continue to perpetrate the problem of plastic trash in the ocean.

With all of that said, there may still be a place and a potential for bioplastics. The technology is rapidly evolving, and if the industries can coordinate with infrastructure, then proper use of the materials will be the result.

For more information visit:

The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative;

Bioplastics Magazine (a trade publication);

and Sustainable Plastics? a website and project of the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

Finding Local Stimulus Projects


Recently while driving around Northern California, I’ve seen a number of signs saying “This project is supported by ARRA funds.” And I started wondering where all the local projects were. It turns out that if you go to Recovery.Gov, there is a map (here) where you can search by state or zip code to find nearby ARRA projects, as that information has been reported by the recipient of the funds.

photo credit: recovery.gov

You can click on each dot to get information about the organization and amount awarded.

You can see summaries by state (see California here) for different categories – by zip code, by top recipients, by top infrastructure projects, top congressional districts, by the funding federal agency, and by the jobs reported created.

PACE Programs Here, and Gone


This post is part of our ongoing focus on energy, water, waste and transportation issues relevant to California at large.

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photo credit: free foto.com

Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs are being quickly halted due to a recent announcement by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) that declared the investments potentially unsafe for lenders. The new and upcoming PACE programs being piloted and planned by cities and counties around the country would offer homeowners bond-backed loans for solar and other energy efficiency upgrades to homes.

Under most terms, the PACE loan (which is attached to the house itself, like an assessment) would have first priority for repayment ahead of the mortgage. This repayment structure provoked a warning pronouncement from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac last month. Now the FHFA has dealt another blow by also warning lenders that the programs could prove risky- effectively halting operations for the time being.

Read more coverage on the FHFA’s PACE announcement in:

The Bond Buyer, The Huffington Post, and Greentech Media.

Finding California Incentives and Rebates


There are hundreds of energy, water, and waste incentives, rebates, and services available for homes  in California, but it can be daunting to find them. Here are a few places to start:

Flex Your Power allows you to search for energy-related incentives and technical help available from utility companies, water agencies, and other organizations by entering your zip code.  A search in my zip code (in Berkeley) found 71 incentives and 18 services.

The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) lists state and local incentives by category and also lists related programs and initiatives. It can be much harder to figure out which specific programs are applicable, though. The database also lists federal incentives.

The California Urban Water Conservation Council lists programs participating in its Smart Rebates by water utility district.

For folks living in the East Bay:

East Bay Municipal Utility District lists its residential conservation rebates and services.

StopWaste.Org lists waste prevention and recycling services available to residents of Alameda County.

AC Transit Cuts, part three


This post is part of our coverage on water, waste, energy and transportation issues of interest to the local Bay Area community.

Here is a check-in on the ongoing budget crisis within AC Transit, the East Bay’s bus system:

Despite months of negotiations and meetings, AC Transit and the union representing most of its workers,  the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), Local 192 have so far been unable to reach a mutually acceptable strategy to close the $56 million deficit facing the agency by the close of 2011.

June 30th represented a milestone in the negotiations- that was the day that the ATU’s previous contract terms expired. The process has nonetheless stagnated. AC Transit Director Greg Harper is quoted in the AC Transit News as commenting, “I think we are definitely at an impasse because the union has so far offered less than 50 percent of what is needed to close the budget deficit.”

The Agency is looking to recoup 8 to 9 percent of employment costs in the new contract. The grim financial scenario has already resulted in fee hikes for riders, service cuts, layoffs, and 5% salary cuts for the board of directors. With a 75% share of the operating budget being allocated to employee costs, the Board of Directors is maintaining that shortfalls cannot be met without some concessions from the union.

The declared impasse and revised terms of employment, effective July 18, have been laid out by the Board of Directors. It remains uncertain if a strike will be avoided.

Advanced Framing


This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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Also called Optimum Value Engineering (OVE), advanced framing is a way of  framing a house to reduce the amount of wood used. Careful design can both reduce the lumber needed and the waste generated by using standard material dimensions, increasing the spacing of framing members to 24″, adjusting the location of windows and doors, and adjusting the way corners are framed.

Aside from the benefit of reducing wood use and waste, there is the additional benefit that removing wood from walls creates additional space for insulation, improving the thermal performance of the envelope, especially in the corners.

A few specific examples of the difference between standard and advanced framing techniques are here and here.

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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

Global Warming’s Six Americas


This post is part of an ongoing effort to discover, and provide a venue for, data collection , reports,  and metrics related to the topics of waste, water, energy and transportation.

A graph from the Global Warming’s Six Americas report

Global Warming’s Six Americas is a report released in May of 2009 by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, and Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication,  illuminating American attitudes towards global climate change and climate change policy. The report has the stated premise that “Climate change public communication and engagement efforts must start with the fundamental recognition that people are different and have different psychological, cultural, and political reasons for acting – or not acting– to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

The group used data gathered during 2008 from an in-depth questionnaire to assess attitudes, concerns, perceptions, risk values, policy preferences and other identified survey dimensions, ultimately enumerating 6 common response types among Americans at large regarding issues related to global climate change.

The six “types” identified by the report are the Alarmed (18%), the Concerned (33%), the Cautious (19%) , the Disengaged (12%), the Doubtful (11%), and the Dismissive (7%). Each group corresponds to a distinct station on the spectrum of attitudes and responses cataloged by the researchers.

It never hurts to hear it again: with only 5% of the world’s population, America is yet responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE)s. This, argues the report, is why understanding the diverse views of the American public on climate change is so crucial for and understanding our collective behaviors and for creating effective public education and policy messages.

Read the full “6 Americas” report here.

Stimulus Money for Energy Efficiency


The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) will receive $20 million from the federal stimulus funds designated for California. The money will launch a Home Performance Program, which will offer HERS audits and energy upgrades to about 15,000 homes in SMUD territory. Because the program is expected to increase demand for trained contractors and auditors, SMUD will be working with the Sacramento Employment and Training agency and Los Rios Community College to develop training programs – via SMUD.

The California Energy Commission also approved $8 million for the County of Los Angeles, $3 million for the County of San Diego, and $1.9 million for the City of Fresno from Recovery Act Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grants for residential energy retrofit programs – via Imperial Valley News.

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There’s a cool map of hotspots where water and energy are coming into conflict around the world –  IEEE Spectrum.

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There’s a new study from Arizona State University that analyzes the life cycle impact of swimming pools in nine cities in terms of their consumption of chemicals, water, and energy – via Environmental Science & Technology.