Tuesday, March 29th, 2011
Thursday, March 24th, 2011
Hello blog readers! I hope that any of you who made it to the Better Living Show this weekend had a great time. On behalf of all the ecoShuttle family that was there, I have to say we had a great time commiserating with everyone, and checking out new green products and innovations. I personally was excited to see the Nissan Leaf in person. Have I mentioned that ecoShuttle is getting one? I’m sure that I have, but just for good measure, we’re getting a leaf! I have to also say that next to the Leaf was an old 1960’s MGB that had been converted into an electric vehicle, and it was sharp looking! (more…)
Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011
Traveling responsibly is not only popular among Oregonians; it’s also the right thing to do. Now ecoShuttle is making it even easier for travelers coming into, and out of Portland. So now you’re wondering, “Mark, how can ecoShuttle make it any easier than they already have for us to get in, out, or around the Portland area without having to strangle Mother Earth?” Wait for it…. BAM! ecoShuttle has recently acquired a Green Path Transfers franchise for Portland! (more…)
Monday, March 21st, 2011
Teams from U.S. and Canadian professional sports leagues join with national environmental group in committing to promote greening initiatives in the sports industry; Commissioners from major professional sports leagues, EPA Administrator support Alliance – Alliance to Host Inaugural Green Sports Summit in Portland, Oregon in August 2011 –SEATTLE, WA (March 21, 2011) — An unprecedented coalition of professional sports teams and sporting venues gathered today at Seattle’s Safeco Field to launch the Green Sports Alliance (GSA), a non-profit organization that will help lead the effort for professional sports leagues, teams and facilities to reduce their impact on the environment. With endorsement from league commissioners and the support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is the first time that teams from Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and Major League Soccer (MLS) have collaborated on a common environmental agenda.Founding members of the GSA include MLB’s Seattle Mariners, NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, WNBA’s Seattle Storm and MLS’ Seattle Sounders FC. Members of the GSA representing sporting facilities include Safeco Field (Seattle), Qwest Field and Qwest Field Event Center (Seattle), KeyArena at Seattle Center (Seattle), the Rose Garden (Portland) and Rogers Arena (Vancouver). These organizations are working in close partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the U.S. EPA, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Portland State University to identify and adopt innovative environmental initiatives and share information about opportunities to measure and reduce their impact on the environment.The idea of forming an inter-league alliance focused on environmental stewardship was originally conceived and initiated by representatives of Paul G. Allen’s sports teams and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the fall of 2009. Mr. Allen owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers and is co-owner of the Seattle Sounders FC.The announcement of the organization has been enthusiastically received by sports’ league commissioners, including MLB’s Allan H. (Bud) Selig, NFL’s Roger Goodell, the NBA and WNBA’s David Stern, the NHL’s Gary Bettman and MLS’ Don Garber.The GSA offers an opportunity for leagues, teams and venues to build on individual greening initiatives by working together to implement effective, science-based and measurable environmental programs.”The commitment by these six professional teams, from six different leagues, to enhance their environmental profile in a meaningful and public way marks a watershed in the history of professional sports,” said Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist for NRDC and environmental advisor for professional sports. “This type of inter-league collaboration is unprecedented. The Green Sports Alliance is showing its commitment to making real environmental progress by systematically evaluating their members green impacts – just like sports stats. All professional leagues should follow their lead.”The GSA has been endorsed by the following professional sports commissioners and received a statement of support from the Administrator of the EPA:”Major League Baseball applauds the leadership shown by the Seattle Mariners’ environmental efforts. Their participation in the Green Sports Alliance demonstrates the commitment made by MLB and our Clubs to act in environmentally-sensitive ways. We support all the members of the professional sports community working to advance this important cause and wish the Green Sports Alliance the best of success.”- MLB Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig”The NFL is proud to support the greening efforts of the Seattle Seahawks. Environmental stewardship is important to the NFL and all our clubs, and the Seattle Seahawks are a leader in this area. Enhancing the sustainability of professional sports is a worthy goal, and we wish the Green Sports Alliance great success.”- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell”The Seattle Storm and the Portland Trail Blazers are helping to lead the way on the greening of professional sports and the NBA and WNBA are grateful for their leadership. Their participation in the Green Sports Alliance holds the potential to further the greening of professional sports nationally and we wish the GSA the best of success in this important endeavor.”- NBA Commissioner David Stern”The NHL strongly supports the greening efforts of the Vancouver Canucks. Their participation in the Green Sports Alliance brings teams together from all professional leagues in the Pacific Northwest and aligns with the NHL’s environmental initiatives. This effort holds the promise of even further greening of professional sports.”- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman”Major League Soccer and MLS W.O.R.K.S. are proud of the tremendous work Seattle Sounders FC are doing in conjunction with the Green Sports Alliance. Our league prides itself on giving back to the communities that support our clubs, and enhancing the environment is an initiative that all of us at MLS support.”- MLS Commissioner Don Garber”EPA commends the founding members of the Green Sports Alliance for recognizing the importance of protecting the environment and stepping up their green game. We thank them for their commitment to protecting our health and the environment. We hope that their efforts and the work toward environmental innovation will inspire their many fans and fellow teams to make choices that protect our people and our planet.”- EPA Administrator Lisa P. JacksonHeadquartered in Portland, Oregon and led by Executive Director, Martin Tull, the GSA will host an annual conference, the Green Sports Summit, which will bring together facility managers, event producers and marketing directors with environmental leaders such as NRDC to share best practices and discuss opportunities and challenges the teams face in their respective cities. The inaugural Green Sports Summit is scheduled for August of 2011 in Portland.”The sports industry represents a vast opportunity to make meaningful strides towards environmental responsibility and sustainability,” said Tull. “The founding members of the Green Sports Alliance have already implemented programs and policies that have significantly reduced their environmental impact and enhanced the experience for fans. We look forward to expanding the Alliance to include teams and venues across North America so that we can help each other reduce our environmental footprint and create positive change in our communities.”The GSA encourages all teams and venues to measure their environmental impacts and seek ways to reduce them. Specifically, organizations are urged to initiate strategies that reduce energy and carbon emissions, conserve water, increase recycling, and promote renewable energy and alternative transportation policies. Teams and venues are also encouraged to promote their greening initiatives throughout their respective leagues and surrounding communities. Alliance members will submit quarterly reports sharing results on their greening initiatives. The GSA will aggregate results across teams and report annually on collective progress.About the Green Sports AllianceThe Green Sports Alliance is a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon with a mission to reduce the environmental impacts of professional sports and inspire others to do the same. The founding members of the Alliance are from six different professional sports leagues: Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and Major League Soccer (MLS). GSA supports professional sports leagues in further advancing and coordinating their work on behalf of environmental stewardship. For more information visit www.greensportsalliance.org.About the Natural Resources Defense CouncilThe Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Livingston, Montana, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org
Tuesday, March 15th, 2011
A large part of “greening” built cities has to do with creating more sustainable transportation by shifting current needs and habits away from single-passenger commuting. Modern cities, such as San Francisco, London, Stockholm, and Milan, are increasingly looking into congestion pricing to create market-based incentives for community members to shift their transportation habits.[i] Congestion pricing has been defined as “charging drivers a user fee to drive in specific, congested areas or corridors, and using the revenue generated to fund transportation improvements, such as better transit service, road improvements, and bicycle and pedestrian projects.”[ii] However, these programs do not come without resistance, and fears from the business community.[iii] As Portland and other major cities look for ways to reduce the carbon footprint from the transportation sector, congestion pricing could play a major role in the transportation transformation. This post will examine case studies of cities implementing congestion pricing and analyze Portland’s current action under the requirements of the Jobs and Transportation Act (JTA) which was passed by Oregon’s legislature in 2009.[iv] While Portland has taken positive steps towards congestion pricing, its planned implementation fails to take into account the lessons learned from other cities.
First, why is Portland looking into congestion pricing? Beyond the health and environmental reasons for such action, the JTA required the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to implement at least one congestion pricing pilot program by September 28, 2012.[v] To meet this end ODOT established the Congestion Pricing Advisory Committee (CPAC) in July 2009.[vi] CPAC has narrowed down the pilot projects to three proposals: Cornelius Pass Road, OR 217 onramp, and City of Portland parking management.[vii]None of these proposals will meet the goals of the law or the sustainability objectives that should be its focus.[viii] Instead, they aim to target areas of high congestion that do not have reliable public transportation options, which will only divert traffic rather than reduce the number of cars on the road.
Case Studies: Comparisons and Lessons
Overseas, other cities have successfully implemented congestion pricing and Portland should learn from their lessons to become a leader of this policy in the United States. The two most studied cities that have implemented congestion pricing are Stockholm and London. These programs differ slightly, but each has seen traffic reduction, local economic benefits, and increased public transit ridership.[ix]
In Stockholm, the pricing system works during the weekdays and has variable charges depending on the time of day. After initial public animosity, the pilot program was implemented and public support rose to two-thirds of the population.[x] The program was able to create 18 new bus lines and 2,800 new park-and-ride spaces. More importantly for long term success, the program was shown to have economic benefits for businesses inside the charge zone (this was a major concern before the program began[xi] and is an issue that needs to be addressed with local businesses if the program is to be successful in Portland). Sales for these businesses increased 5% as residents were encouraged to shop locally since the congestion charge was for both traffic entering and exiting the city center. Further, the local businesses were able to increase their deliveries by 25% due to the reduction in traffic.[xii]
London had similar success with a slightly different system. Travelers to central London were charged a flat fee during weekdays.[xiii] The revenues from the program have led to road improvements and 14,000 new bus seats. Businesses inside the charge zone are growing twice as fast as comparable businesses outside the zone and the health effects of the reduction in cars has been estimated to have saved 1,888 years of life of London residents so far.[xiv]
Both of these programs show the potential of congestion pricing models. Stockholm and London have reduced traffic by 22% and 30% respectively and gained net yearly revenues of $100 million and $216 million respectively. At the same time, local businesses have grown and greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 14% and 16% respectively.[xv] With a proper program, Portland has the chance to see similar results and continue to be a leader in US sustainability efforts. However, every city will have varying effects from congestion pricing and should tailor the system to the needs of the city. How the program is implemented can have a huge effect on the efficacy of system and the acceptance by users.
Portland’s Current Efforts: The Best Intentions . . .
Congestion pricing in Portland is being worked on by the ODOT’s CPAC and is mentioned in the Portland Plan.[xvi] A policy assessment of the Portland Plan suggests further developing ideas for congestion pricing and including them in the overall plan, but lays out no specific recommendations as to where congestion pricing should be implemented.[xvii] As reductions in single-passenger automobile transportation will be key to meeting some of the sustainability goals of the city,[xviii] the hope would be that the committed groups working on the Portland Plan will push for a well-designed congestion pricing plan for Portland’s future.
Currently, the CPAC is the most active group working on implementing congestion pricing. However, there are a few issues with their current proposals that could hinder the acceptance of congestion pricing in the areas that need it most. As shown in the case studies mentioned above, the most successful congestion pricing models have been developed to encompass a city center. For Portland this would mean implementing pricing stations at the major entrances to the downtown metro area.
The currently proposed pilot sites, while aimed at areas of high congestion, are not in areas that have the holistic landscape to support the congestion pricing goals of lessening reliance on automobiles and increasing public transportation options. As the preliminary findings in the CPAC report suggest, due to the pilot’s location there will be the unintended consequence of higher traffic on other roads as drivers will adapt to find the least expensive route.[xix] This demeans the ultimate goal of reducing the amount of cars on the road by only reducing the amount of cars on a specific road. While this might raise revenues for the state and be more efficient for some drivers, it is not a model that can be supported by all stakeholders. Without having congestion pricing in areas that have reliable alternative transportation options (mass transit, biking, carpool, park and ride) car use will not be reduced, but rather an upset citizenry will be resourceful and use alternative routes or rebel against the fee added to their commute.
The language in the law could be one reason why this is the case. The law states that the pilot program is needed to study the effects of congestion pricing on “reducing traffic congestion.”[xx] This is a great starting point, but to meet the sustainability needs of the region the language needs to be much more specific.[xxi] Language that aims to reduce traffic congestion “by reducing the total number of cars on the road,” or “by increasing public transportation ridership,” or “by reducing the amount of miles travelled per day per capita,” would all be preferred. The current language does not allow lawmakers the overall perspective necessary to achieve the sustainability goals, shown by the pilot program choosing options in areas that will only cause traffic to be diverted, not reduced.
Further, the language of the law does not have a dedicated source where the funds generated from congestion pricing must be expended,[xxii] such as on mass transit infrastructure projects. This allows congestion pricing to be viewed as another revenue-generating option for the city instead of as a funding source for sustainable transportation options. As a revenue source alone, the incentives for lawmakers would be to place the toll centers in the areas where they can raise the most revenue, without factoring in whether the benefits to the users will ever be manifested. The predictable outcome will be public resentment toward such “taxes” on their driving because they will not be able to see the added benefits[xxiii] (such as those shown in the case studies mentioned above).
Whatever the outcome of the pilot program, Portland should seriously consider congestion pricing in the downtown area as one means of helping reduce congestion and creating a more sustainable transportation network. Local businesses and industries need to get on board and realize that congestion pricing can have positive economic effects on downtown commerce. There no longer needs to be a choice between business growth and sustainable transportation measures. As shown by the case studies above, and a study done by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority,[xxiv] the effects of congestion pricing can both benefit business interests and improve the health of residents and the environment.
[i] San Francisco is considering implementation by 2015. London, Stockholm, Santiago, Singapore and Milan already have successful programs. S.F. County Transp. Authority, Mobility Access, and Pricing Study, Fact Sheet: Case Studies: Stockholm and London 1–2 (Nov. 2010) [hereinafter Fact Sheet]. Singapore has had a successful program since 1975. Chin Kian Keong, Singapore Land Transportation Authority, Road Pricing Singapore’s Experience 2 (Oct. 2002). New York City is also considering resurrecting plans for congestion pricing. See http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2011/01/26/congestion-pricing-rises-from-the-dead/.
[ii] Fact Sheet, supra note 1, at 1.
[iii] See Glen Weisbrod & David Williams, Framework and Process for Economic Impact Assessment of Potential Highway Congestion Pricing and Tolling Schemes 4 (Nov. 15, 2010) (stating that the logical concern is that some people will shift their routes and thus shift where they spend money).
[iv] 2009 Or. Laws c. 865 (2009).
[v] Id. § 3,4 (also found as note to Or. Rev. Stat. § 184.866 (2009)).
[vi] Or. Dept. of Transp., Congestion Pricing Pilot Program Report 1 (Nov. 30, 2010) [hereinafter ODOT].
[vii] Id. at 2.
[viii] City of Portland, Bureau of Planning, Comprehensive Plan Goals and Policies 45, 68 (Nov. 2003) (stating the goal is to “lesson the reliance on the automobile” and that congestion pricing should be implemented “where high-quality transportation alternatives to driving exist”).
[ix] Fact Sheet, supra note 1, at 1.
[xi] Id. (stating that before implementation two-third of the public were against congestion pricing).
[xii] Fact Sheet, supra note 1, at 1.
[xiii] Id. at 2.
[xiv] Id. (the study also found that people taking public transportation or walking tended to spend more after the congestion charge was implemented then automobile drivers).
[xv] Id. at 1–2.
[xvi] The Portland Plan is aimed to analyze the problems the city faces now and in 25 years and come up with solutions. For more information go to http://www.portlandonline.com/portlandplan/.
[xvii] Sustainability Tech. Working Group, Portland Plan: Existing Policy Framework Assessment 1 (Jan. 9 2008).
[xviii] See supra note 6 and accompanying text.
[xix] ODOT, supra note 4, at 2–4.
[xx] 2009 Or. Law. c. 865 § 3(1).
[xxi] In fact, the bill was passed with the goal of transportation sustainability. Id. at pmbl. ¶ 5. Further other aspects of the bill call for reducing GHG emissions from light duty vehicles. Id. § 37 (2)(a).
[xxii] Id. at § 3(4)
[xxiii] As an example, see the comments following a news article about a congestion pricing expert’s presentation in Portland. Ari Phillips, What One Expert Thinks About Congestion Pricing in Portland, Willamette Week (Dec. 1, 2009) available at http://www.wweek.com/portland/blog-2867-what_one_expert_thinks_about_congestion_pricing_in.html.
[xxiv] In the study economic impacts of congestion pricing were said to be neutral to positive. S.F. County Transp. Authority, Fact Sheet: Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study 1–2 (Dec. 2010) (finding that in San Francisco congestion pricing would reduce the costs associated with time lost due to congestion for individuals and businesses by over $2 billion dollars. Further, stating that increased foot traffic would lead to more retail activity).
Tuesday, March 15th, 2011
Solar energy panels, such as this one at Gresham’s wastewater treatment plant, along with bus passes and efficient heating systems are among the projects that qualify for tax credits under Oregon green energy subsidies.
Published: Monday, March 14, 2011, 8:48 PM Updated: Tuesday, March 15, 2011, 2:26 PM
By Harry Esteve, The Oregonian SALEM — A free-for-all reputation shades Oregon’s green energy incentives, which offer hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for everything from experimental solar panels to employee perks at some of the state’s richest companies.
Yet lawmakers struggling to find money for schools and health care appear as reluctant as ever to jettison a program seen as one of the few that brings jobs to Oregon — even though firm job numbers have proven elusive.
“It can be and has been an important economic development tool,” says Rep. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, who serves on a committee studying all state tax breaks. “Part of it is the message we’re sending to rest of world, that we want Oregon to continue to be an attractive place” to develop renewable energy.
Tobias and other supporters say the Business Energy Tax Credit, sometimes known as the Betsy for its BETC initials, works as a lure for solar, wind, biofuel and other renewable power start-ups that otherwise would have passed Oregon by.
But records examined by The Oregonian show the program has been treated more like a state-sponsored ATM machine by hundreds of companies. Want to gamble on a solar megaplant? Get a tax credit that pays half the cost. Need a new heat pump? Cut your upfront costs by more than a third with a state credit.
State documents show it doesn’t matter whether a company needs the help. Nor does it matter how speculative its plans are, or how much energy it saves or produces — the tax breaks flow.
Here are some examples from Oregon Department of Energy records:
Oregon gave away $10 million in tax dollars to provide bus passes for dozens of businesses, including Intel, Nike and Stoel-Rives, the state’s largest law firms.
Of the 10 companies with the most employees in Oregon, eight have received energy tax subsidies totaling $16 million. Among them: Precision Cast Parts, Portland General Electric and Columbia Sportswear.
SolarWorld, which already received $22 million in tax credits, is in line to get $74 million more, making it the clear leader in nabbing multiple state energy subsidies.
Alfred Fairbanks, a dentist in Washington with no energy development experience, has been pre-certified for $10 million in tax credits for his plan to build a massive solar panel array in eastern Oregon.
“We’re not paying attention to what we are getting for the money we are spending,” says Jody Wiser, a frequent critic of the credits who runs a watchdog group called Tax Fairness Oregon. “You get in a situation where someone says, ‘I’m going to build this cool green energy thing’ and everybody throws money at it. Nobody is really there watching with great care.”
The net result has been an explosion in state spending on the tax credits. The latest estimates, contained in a recently released state report, show the subsidies will cost Oregon’s general fund nearly $300 million over the next two years. That’s a 60 percent increase over current spending and quadruple what the state shelled out just four years ago.
The Cost of Green
Green energy isn’t just a moral imperative, politicians say. It creates jobs. But how much do Oregon’s green energy subsidies really cost? And what do we get for our money?
Reporters Ted Sickinger and Harry Esteve have examined those questions over the last several months, plowing through records, interviewing experts in government and business, and analyzing what they found. This series builds on their earlier reporting the past two years.
Day 1: The world’s largest wind farm gets $1.2 billion in subsidies and will generate 35 jobs.
Day 2: No one can say how many jobs Oregon’s energy tax credits have created.
Today: Bipartisan support makes rollbacks of the subsidies unlikely.
Such growth dwarfs that of other state programs. The run-up in energy subsidies stands out starkly against a backdrop of Oregon’s deep recession and multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.
Efforts by lawmakers to rein in the program’s cost have slowed its exponential growth. Until last year, the credits were handed out like entitlements — if a company qualified, it got a credit. After stories in The Oregonian noted abuses of the program, such as credits going to out-of-state truckers and companies that saved little or no energy, lawmakers ordered tighter restrictions, cut subsidies for wind and placed a $500 million cap on the credits.
That hasn’t slowed the crush of applicants. And the Energy Department continues to approve hundreds of tax credit applications. From Jan. 1, 2010 to Jan. 1, 2011, the department gave final approval to $108 million in credits. (Oregonian Publishing Co. was pre-certified last year for a tax credit worth about $45,000 for energy efficient lights.)
If the subsidies were discontinued today, they would still cost the state more than $100 million a year at least until 2017, according to the Legislative Revenue Office. That’s because the projects that were promised tax credits will take time to complete and the credits are spread over five years after completion.
State revenue officials estimate that in the decade between 2007 and 2017, Oregon will have spent more than $1 billion in tax dollars on green energy incentives.
One reason the tax breaks have not just survived but multiplied is that the cost to taxpayers and the state general fund is partially hidden. There is no line item in the state budget to pay for the subsidies — the state simply goes without the money for the credits. Lawmakers don’t make a direct decision to spend $100 million on SolarWorld instead of on public schools as they must do with other state services.
The incentives appeal to both political parties. Democrats like them because they promote green energy. Republicans like to see taxes benefit private business.
“We’re not just giving money away,” says Rep. Vicki Berger, R-Salem, who serves as co-chair of the committee responsible for overseeing state tax credits. “We’re using tax policy to drive private sector investment.”
The tax credits cover three broad areas — conservation, renewable energy production and renewable energy manufacturing. Incentives for conservation and renewable energy production are scheduled to sunset next year, but could be extended by the Legislature. Incentives for manufacturing are supposed to sunset in 2014.
The Legislature has a history of extending tax credits and the current crop of lawmakers doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to see them disappear. Ditto for Gov. John Kitzhaber, who wants to extend the breaks as part of his effort to put people to work thinning forests and burning the debris to generate electricity.
Even Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, one of the most outspoken critics of the credits, isn’t ready to let them expire.
“You’re going to see changes and certainly a narrowing down would be my guess,” Burdick says. “But I would be surprised if we ended the program altogether.”
Incentives for green energy have become a national juggernaut. President Barack Obama has called for a huge increase in federal tax breaks and grants for conservation and renewable energy developers as part of his “win the future” effort. States, meanwhile, compete with each other for the prettiest package of subsidies for a new wave of solar panel manufacturers.
Oregon offers some of the nation’s most lucrative incentives and loosest requirements for getting them.
The Oregonian’s continuing coverage of the Business Energy Tax Credit.SolarWorld, a German company that makes solar energy components, was lured to Hillsboro with the promise of a $22 million tax credit, along with other federal and local tax breaks. Since setting up shop, however, it applied for — and is expected to receive — four more tax credits that will push its total state subsidy to $100 million.
The additional subsidies are being awarded to SolarWorld for adding equipment to the plant’s production line. It’s all within the rules the Oregon Department of Energy spells out, says Ben Santarris, U.S. spokesman for SolarWorld.
“You have to appreciate the competitive situation as well as the fundamental energy issues — for the economy, environment and security — that exist for solar manufacturing throughout the world,” Santarris says. “Oregon’s approach has allowed it to be strong.”
The tax incentives also allow unlikely entrepreneurs to take a chance on green energy projects because the credits — combined with federal subsidies and local property tax breaks — limit personal financial risk. Pullman, Wash., dentist Alfred Fairbanks said the subsidies are critical to the solar energy project he is trying to build in the Christmas Valley area of Lake County in eastern Oregon.
The remote region, with its vast, cheap acreage and wealth of sunny skies, has attracted other solar speculators as well, including Obsidian Finance Group, a Portland accounting firm, and Element Power, an international renewable energy company with a headquarters in Portland.
Fairbanks won’t get final approval for his $10 million Oregon tax credit until he completes the project. So far, he’s set up some of the poles that hold the solar panels. He attached some panels, but later took them down. He says he’s having trouble lining up agreements for shipping the power with the local utility and with the Bonneville Power Administration.
He acknowledges he’s never attempted such a thing before.
“It’s a family business,” Fairbanks says, noting he works with his sons. “It’s about being green and providing solar electricity, which we think is the wave of the future.”
He apologizes and cuts short the interview, explaining, “I’ve got patients waiting.”
— Harry Esteve
Friday, March 11th, 2011
Hello, ecoShuttle website viewers and blog patrons! This week’s blog is coming to you from the sunny, welcoming climate of southern California. California has been well known around the world for its green energy initiatives, so it isn’t much of a surprise that the very first thing I noticed when my plane was coming in was wind farms. The wind farms stretched for as far as I could see, and it gave me a feeling of optimism about green energy.
Wednesday, March 9th, 2011
MARCH 10, 2011
Original URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=182751
Farmers at the year-round market at Logan Square say they are feeling the effects of climate change on their produce.
Tyler Moss/MEDILL, information courtesy USDA
Illinois corn production in 2009, including locations of ethanol plants across the state.
Lindsey Valich/MEDILL. Information courtesy USDA
Climate change affects production of the top three crops in the U.S. — corn, soybeans and wheat.
“Food is power.”Michigan farmer and livestock producer Nate Robinson has known this for years.Rising food costs impact every person in every country across the globe, diminishing the ability of millions of families to meet other essential needs. Increasing floods and drought due to global warming is expected to push food prices higher yet—it’s happening already.Robinson is feeling these effects both at his farm in Cassopolis, Mich., and at the grocery store. He finds himself taking a lower margin, despite the fact that he is forced to raise prices as food production becomes more expensive.“Unfortunately, the consumer ultimately will pay for this rising cost. Everyone has to eat,” Robinson said. “We go to the grocery store as a family and when we do, we’re a little bit in sticker-shock.”
America is particularly vulnerable to the toll climate change can take on food.The U.S. is the largest producer of corn in the world, generating more than 10 million of the world’s nearly 23 million bushels of corn in 2000, the most recent statistic from the National Corn Growers Association. Experts say our country must be poised to take on a larger burden of worldwide food supply as crop yields of rice and corn in the tropics drop by an estimated 20 to 40 percent due to climate change.The issueAlthough the causes for rising food prices are numerous, “global climate destabilization” (as the experts prefer to call it) is playing a significant role.Many of the world’s agricultural hubs have been hit with massive flooding, in places as far flung as the Midwest and Bangladesh. While some skeptics are convinced this is just part of the Earth’s natural weather cycles, changes marked over time have convinced many that climate change is responsible for the erratic weather.If that is the case, it will only get worse over time as farmers face unpredictable growing seasons and unexpected weather patterns.The global ability to feed the growing population is a product of the Green Revolution, said Lewis Ziska, plant psychologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Md. The Green Revolution is a term used to describe the development of semi-dwarf cereal varieties in the 1950s and 1960s that could grow with less fertilizer and water.“The result was a doubling or tripling of cereal production,” Ziska said. “Cereals, particularly corn, wheat and rice, are the foods that feed the world.”There is no question that weather plays a significant role in food production, said Jeff Andresen, geologist and researcher of agricultural meteorology and applied climatology at Michigan State University in East Lansing.“Weather, and its longer term climate, are the most important, uncontrollable variables in food production,” said Andresen, who is also the state climatologist for Michigan.While climate change at present is often thought of in terms of rising global temperatures, it also encompasses erratic weather patterns.“There is some suggestion that the frequency and magnitude of extremes might increase,” Andresen said. “It is a major fear because these extremes have a disproportionately high impact on food production.”Iowa, for instance, has experienced two so-called 500-year floods in a period of 15 years—one in 1993 and one in 2008. A 500-year flood is one with a probability of occurring once every 500 years in any given year.Developed countries have farms thousands of acres large, typically of only one or two varieties of cereal, Ziska said.“Essentially these farms are monoculture,” he said, “and do not have the biological diversity to adapt well to extreme events.”Farmers have the ability to adjust to increasing temperatures because it is something they can anticipate from year to year, Andresen said. Changes in extreme weather variability, such as flooding, are much more difficult to handle because major storms are unpredictable.Effects of climate change cover direct impacts and indirect impacts, he said.Direct impacts consist of mass flooding, droughts and other extreme weather events that are directly linked to the changing climate. Indirect impacts are associated changes that will cause problems further down the line, such as the prevalence of mold because of moist crop stocks, or insects living year round because of higher temperatures.Direct impactsCarbon dioxide is the thermostat for climate change. As levels rise in the atmosphere, so do temperatures, a phenomena documented in hundreds of thousands of years of data from ancient air pockets trapped in ice cores from places such as Antartica and Greenland. At 390 parts per million, carbon dioxide levels are higher now than they have been in more than 600,000 years.As carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to be pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere, erratic weather patterns that disrupt global agriculture are becoming more and more frequent, said Steve Kolmes, director of environmental studies at the University of Portland in Oregon. And as the atmosphere continues to warm, major storms will become even more forceful.In 2010, Russia banned all exports of grain after millions of acres of their wheat supply was destroyed in a severe drought. Floods in countries such as Bangladesh and Australia are current examples sever weather, Kolmes said.“In the last year, the Bangladeshi floods submerged something like a quarter of the country,” he said. “And the cyclone that just went through Australia took out much of the banana crop.”Kolmes prefers the term “global climactic destabilization” to global warming.That is because the term global warming can be misleading, as impacts will differ in different parts of the world. For instance, in some places sea level shifts are causing inundation, he said, and even temporary inundation can damage a crop. In other places, increased temperatures can destroy yields as soil loses moisture due to evaporation.“An example is rice,” Kolmes said. “The yields of rice plants drop badly when the nights stay warmer. The projections are that the tropical crops of rice and corn are going to drop in their yields maybe 20 to 40 percent.”The logical conclusion is that, as weather makes food production more difficult, prices will rise and global hunger will become an even more serious issue.“We developed an agriculture based on a very long, stable climate,” he said. “And it appears, at least for the foreseeable future, that we’ve disrupted that appreciably.”Indirect impactsOne example of an indirect impact of climate destabilization can be seen in Michigan’s fruit trees.“Public enemy number one for apple growers is the apple cobbler moth,” Andresen said. “It lays eggs on apples. When the egg hatches, the larvae eat through a wormhole in the apple and the apple becomes unsellable.”Apple cobbler moths are cold blooded, Andresen said, meaning their survival is dependent on temperature. Moths are already surviving through warmer winters. If temperatures warm as projected, there will be extra generations of the moths surviving through the growing season, making the insect much more difficult for farmers to control.The example illustrates how as the planet continues to heat up, insects will be able to live through the colder seasons, thus having the potential to damage agriculture.Another indirect impact of climate change is on food security, said Ewen Todd, a retailing expert and professor at Michigan State.A study by the European Environment Agency in Copenhagen in October 2008 found a link between increased global temperature and outbreaks of salmonella in Europe. As temperature went up, so did the number of cases. Although the specific reason for why this is occurring is currently unknown, Todd said, the correlation is clear.The issues pose danger here in the U.S. as well.One of the major food security concerns is the heating of oceans and other bodies of water, he said. Vibrio, a type of bacteria responsible for foodborne illness, grow in warm water.“Vibrio include cholera, but that’s not a major pathogen for North America,” Todd said. “There is another one called parahaemolyticus that is probably in the water all over the place, but needs high temperatures to grow into large numbers.”Another food security issue stemming from climate change is the increased prevalence of toxic fungi or mycotoxins as a result of mass flooding, he said. These molds can grow in crops like wheat, cotton and corn.“The big one is called asatoxin,” Todd said. “People can spray for this, but in some countries that’s not feasible.”Small amounts of asatoxin will only make people sick when consumed repeatedly over many years, he said. Yet countries such as the U.K. restrict crop imports with even small traces of the toxin from going into circulation. If flooding and droughts produce more mold in Africa’s poorer nations where farmers cannot afford to eradicate it, then those farmers will no longer be able to sell their crops.“It’s a trade issue,” Todd said. “It means that some of these African countries can’t export, so [the mold] is a barrier.”In some cases, crops in Africa have been stored under moist conditions ideal for the growth of mold, he said. People who eat these plants get acutely sick, resulting in future problems such as kidney damage.“You have this extreme situation where people don’t like to eat them,” Todd said. “But they’re under starvation conditions and they have to.”As the planet heats up and bodies of water continue to evaporate, more moisture hangs in the air, he said. With more moisture in the air, mold growth is more extensive. Erratic weather conditions will stress the plant, making it more susceptible to mold penetration. Mold spores could start to grow under these moist conditions, and during metabolism growing would produce the toxin.“We think mycotoxins are well established in global climate change,” Todd said. “We think they will be a major factor.”GMOsMaking agriculture more efficient and productive is one of the best ways to combat the food crisis resulting from climate change, Andresen said. Though they are highly controversial, one of the possible solutions is the continued proliferation of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.“Production efficiency and GMOs – those are two issues linked to one another,” he said. “A lot of the food that is produced never makes it to a table or plate. It gets lost because of substandard harvest practices or pests. That could be improved globally if we were able to prevent some of the losses that regularly occur.”The genes of crops such as corn and wheat could be modified to be less susceptible to environmental factors like insects, mold or harsh weather conditions. Robinson uses GM cold tolerant seed at his farm in Michigan to extend the growing season.“I’ve already asked for the cold tolerance seed to come in so I can plant it when it’s a little colder,” he said. “It’ll sit there and wait ’till the temperature gets right and not rot.”Despite the misgivings of those on the organic and all-natural bandwagon, many farmers do not see GMOs as any sort of mad science, Robinson said. To them, it is just a tool to combat changes in weather.BiofuelPerhaps one of the most controversial potential solutions to combate climate change is biofuel.While some praise it as the miracle cure to reduce petroleum use—one of the biggest contributors to global climactic destabilization—others argue that biofuels are responsible for just as much greenhouse gas, if not more.Research has shown that biofuels burn cleaner than petroleum. But experts worry about the carbon footprint of using agricultural land to produce crops for biofuels. Furthermore, increased production of biofuels means more corn is grown for ethanol instead of for food.“As countries are trying to do something about their carbon emissions, they’re going to biofuels a lot, and the biofuels are largely being diverted from food crops,” said Steve Kolmes, professor of biology and environmental studies at the University of Portland in Oregon.So while many farmers continue to grow corn, it just never enters the food chain, Kolmes said. As biofuel use continues and soybeans get turned in biodiesel, corn gets turned into ethanol, food prices will go up and food availability will go down.“One of the basic principals of economics is that when you increase the demand of something you increase the price,” said Tim Searchinger, research scholar at Princeton University. “It’s the growth in demand rather than a shortage in supply that is the key cause of the food crisis right now.”The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn, and 80 percent of corn produced in the U.S. is used to feed livestock, poultry, and for fish production all over the world, according to a 2009 report by the Environmental Protection Agency.The demand for corn and grain has roughly doubled since 2004, according to Searchinger, who said this is mostly because of an increased demand for biofuels.“The biofuels have not quite doubled the rate of growth and that’s the single biggest factor keeping things out of balance,” he said.Because biofuel, unlike weather, is something we can control, Searchinger said we must work to make biofuel production more efficient.“It’s not that we don’t have enough land to produce biofuels—we do,” said Bruce Dale, chemical engineer at Michigan State University. “It’s more a matter of choosing good systems and getting started on those so that over time those can be more dominant.”There are right ways and wrong ways to produce biofuels, according to Dale. Double cropping—growing a second crop on the same land after the first crop is harvested—is one option. This may include planting grasses or legumes in the winter following the summer harvest of corn and soybeans. These crops could be used solely for biofuels rather than human food consumption.“It’s more the efficiency with which we use land,” Dale said. “If we would just start growing double crops on our corn land we would impact the quality of soil, we would reduce green house gases and it would provide a lot of plant material for production in biofuels.”Another option Dale suggested is making biofuel out of the non-edible parts of the plant, such as the leaves or the cellulose in corn stalks.“If we can make biofuel by digesting the cellulose in corn stalks, we could have both the food and the fuel crop,” Kolmes said. “So there are technical fixes that might make biofuels have a much more neutral impact on the food supply.”The issue clearly requires more research – and soon.“We need to invest in agriculture research and infrastructure,” Ziska said. “And we needed to do it yesterday.”The futureProjections by climate modelers in the past generally showed that by 2100, things are going to be bad, Kolmes said.The problem is that everything is happening much faster than the models predicted. Even the most pessimistic of the climate models is being outstripped by the rate of change.“It’s really hard to get out your crystal ball on this one,” he said.While certain aspects of the issue might be foggy, the ultimate prescription is not: food shortages will result in higher food prices.If, in fact, climate change will interfere with global agriculture as predicted, then action needs to be taken quickly. Research and development must become a priority, Andresen said.Governments need to put aside their developmental differences and realize this is a global issue, Todd said. Climate change will affect people everywhere. Hunger and starvation are tangible concerns. An international strategy is imperative.When asked what the future holds for climactic destabilization and rising food prices, Kolmes laughed sadly.“I mean, it snowed in San Francisco,” Kolmes said, an unusual result of increasing evaporation of ocean water. “The rules of predictability were predicated on an atmosphere that we have changed. So instability, I’m afraid, is the new norm.”
Friday, March 4th, 2011
Any time I see a body of water, I have an interest in swimming in it. With summer around the corner, I get even more excited about splashing around somewhere. Since I’ve lived in Portland I have known one truth; it isn’t safe to swim in the Willamette River. Each day I cross the river and get angry that it looks disgusting, and that no one who is sane is able to swim in it (I’m not sure what those Red Bull Flugtag people are thinking when they go flying into that water). So for this week’s blog, I’m going to take a brief look at the Willamette and the effort to make it swimmable.
As I have noted in many previous blogs, ecoShuttle is tirelessly dedicated to being the greenest transportation company on the block, no make that city. No, make that country, baby! Now we have a rating system to back up our green bona fides. (more…)