Species Road to Recovery

Gunnison sage grouse (via Western State College of Colorado)

Thousands of birds, wildlife, fish and plant species — including the Gunnison sage grouse and dunes sagebrush lizard — will be considered for protection through the Endangered Species Act over the next few years, but energy companies, and developers are hoping to avoid federal restrictions through voluntary plans. I cover the efforts and battles over species recovery for High Country News in its May 28, 2012 issue.

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Mission: Climate Change

An Air Force sergeant refuels a transport plane (via Pew Environment Group)

Climate policy may be a minefield in U.S. politics, but the Pentagon sees liabilities of a different kind and is forging ahead with plans to reduce the military’s carbon footprint and prepare for climate impacts.

In my April feature for the Daily Climate, “Military sees threats, worry in climate change,” I cover how the Armed Forces are running on solar power and biofuels, aiming for net-zero energy use, and otherwise planning for energy security and climate change.

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Clean Energy and Dirty Laundry

An installation of Abound Solar's cadmium-telluride solar panels (via Abound Solar)

After solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra went bankrupt in 2011, critics were quick to point out the company’s fat government loan guarantee and question its political connections to the Obama administration. But just because a solar company, with a federal loan, makes cutbacks, does that mean the business is inept or corrupt?

My March 23, 2012 column for the Northern Colorado Business Report examines the recent case of Abound Solar, based in Loveland, which laid off hundreds of workers earlier this year in order to retool its production line. Also a recipient of a federal loan guarantee, Abound has faced allegations that it’s no different than Solyndra. I reported on how Abound’s setbacks may just be part of the shakeout in the emerging renewable technology industry, which still deserves some assistance to gain footing.

An excerpt from the column:

The company’s assertions that it needs to focus on developing new panels with higher efficiency certainly ring true. Industry observers project that technological advances may eventually enable cadmium-telluride panels to achieve between 16 and 20 percent efficiency (a measure of the energy that a solar panel converts into electricity). Arizona-based FirstSolar, the world’s second-largest photovoltaic manufacturer tested a cadmium-telluride module last summer that peaked at over 17 percent efficiency, though it averaged 11.7 percent over time. Abound officials have said their new “AB2” 85-watt module runs at 12.5 percent efficiency, a result verified at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

“Current market conditions are challenging for all U.S. solar manufacturers, but the long-term winners will be manufacturers of the lowest cost per watt, most reliable systems,” Abound CEO Craig Witsoe said in a press release.

Low costs are indeed helping to sort winners and losers in the solar manufacturing field.

With massive investment and subsidies for clean-energy technology in China, the prices of solar photovoltaic panels have dropped steeply in recent years. The market has tilted so sharply toward cheap Chinese solar modules that seven solar companies with U.S. offices filed a complaint last year with the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission. The case alleges that Chinese companies are unloading products below fair market value to beat down the American industry. Government trade officials are expected to issue a decision soon, which could result in 100-percent tariffs on the Chinese products and a leveled playing field for U.S. solar businesses.

Of course, low (and fair) prices are a good thing – especially as renewables help shift energy production away from fossil fuels that contribute to air and water pollution and climate change. That’s why the renewable industry has been booming, but that means there will be some busts, too.

Abound has said it plans to relaunch production by the end of the year, so its progress will serve as a major indicator of the company’s intentions. In the meantime, the government’s renewable-energy loans will likely be debated during the upcoming election season.

Of Cowboys and Indians

Malhotra speaking at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado (via iCAST)

Ravi Malhotra travels Colorado and the West helping rural businesses, bringing an internationally inspired approach to a conservatively local landscape.

I dropped in on Malhotra’s work several times over the past year, reporting for High Country News.

My story, “Of cowboys and Indians,” appears in the March 5, 2012 issue.

Here’s an excerpt:

But this is a typical day for Malhotra. He and his colleague Christopher Jedd are on a 72-hour journey around the state’s Western Slope on behalf of Malhotra’s Denver-based nonprofit iCAST — the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology. The group’s name and mission — “to provide economic, environmental, and social benefits to communities in a manner that builds local capacity” — make it sound like an aid group at work in the developing world.

And in a way, that’s what iCAST is. The economic hardships in small Western communities are a far cry from the persistent poverty in developing nations. But even so, unemployment in Delta County reached over 11 percent during the recession, surpassing the statewide average. And average per capita income ranks near the bottom for Colorado counties. As in many rural areas, families scramble to get by, shuttered storefronts punctuate the streets, and wireless Internet remains a novelty. It doesn’t help that educated young people tend to flee depressed rural areas for jobs in cities, leaving locals without much access to technical expertise. That makes it harder to tackle small engineering projects, develop ambitious business or marketing plans, or gain access to much-needed capital or credit. And many locals don’t want help directly from the government.

ICAST tries to bridge those gaps, helping rural residents learn how to maintain or expand their businesses in ways that also benefit the environment. Malhotra is quick to say that he and his staff are not experts on sanitation or forestry, ranching or horticulture, although iCAST projects have addressed all those fields.



Second Life

A new Colorado corrections program, launched in 2011,  is helping older inmates — including lifers and convicted murderers — who have done their time to get a chance on the outside.

My feature story, “Second Life,” from the March/April 2012 issue of Miller-McCune profiles the program and participants and those inmates who aren’t yet deemed worthy.

Picking Ranchers’ Brains

Fernandez-Gimenez, with sheep herd in Spanish Pyrenees, in 2011.

A Colorado cowboy, a Spanish sheepherder and a Mongolian nomad walk into a bar… what do they have to talk about?

Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, a professor at Colorado State University, studies the traditional ecological knowledge of ranchers around the world, and she spoke to me about her work and findings for High Country News in January 2012. Continue reading

Ski Runs and Reruns

The ski and snowsports industries are working to solve a “black diamond run” environmental problem: recycling 300 tons of old gear, including skis, bindings and boots. The mixed composition of winter sports equipment makes recycling a tricky proposition, but a new initiative from the industry is moving forward to break down and even repurpose the materials into new gear.

My December 30, 2011 story for the Northern Colorado Business Report looks at the progress of the initiative, and how a local recycling company is teaming up with the industry.

Here’s an excerpt:

Beginning in 2007, SIA, representing winter sports gear manufacturers and retailers, voluntarily launched a corporate-responsibility recycling program. The project was aimed at educating consumers to bring old equipment to retail stores, and its pilot phase focused on the Rocky Mountain region.

In three seasons working with just a handful of retail outlets, the SIA’s Greg Schneider said the program has compiled a whopping 300 tons of skis, boots and other gear. But the group had struggled to figure out how to actually process the trashed equipment, because winter sports products use composite plastics, wood fiber, aluminum and other metals that must be separated into usable materials. In the meantime, the backlog has sat in a Goodwill warehouse in Denver.

“We’re always looking for ways that we can repurpose the old equipment,” Schneider said. “It’s like the holy grail.”



Extreme Measures

Scary Halloween weather along the East Coast (NASA)

This year’s rash of severe weather has scientists scrambling to understand the connection between increasing emissions and natural disasters. While attending the World Climate Research Programme Open Science Conference in late October, I spoke with several prominent climate scientists about the various efforts devoted to detecting heatwaves, tornadoes, drought, and hurricanes and linking the extreme events to global warming.

My article for the Daily Climate, with the Seagal-inspired title, “Extreme Measures: The Push to Make Climate Science Relevant,” focuses on the push to attribute and predict extreme events, which should eventually provide better information for policymakers and disaster managers.

The story also ran online with Scientific American and Climate Central.

Power with Drunk?

Spent brewery grain (via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license)

In Fort Collins, a city that sometimes seems to be powered by beer, businesses are looking at an innovative power plant to run on spent brewery grains.

A Sept. 23 column in the Northern Colorado Business Report — “Beer-powered syngas plant slated to give FortZED a buzz” — explores the backers’ claims and potential interests.

Here’s a sip from the article:

If all goes well, the same partners hope to build a four-megawatt gasification power plant in Fort Collins, using local spent grains and other brewery waste. The beer-fueled electricity would be enough to offset the energy needs of several local microbreweries, and another two megawatts of waste heat would be recaptured and could be sent to a brewery or other business to replace the use of natural gas.

“It’s an extremely innovative project, and one that’s receiving international attention,” said Ryan Speir, acting CEO of the Rocky Mountain Innosphere.

A Discernible Human Influence

Stephen Schneider

When Stephen Schneider died in July 2010, the climate science community lost one of its leading and most articulate voices, but colleagues and a new generation of researchers are carrying forth his spirit and approach to understanding and explaining the impacts of climate change.

This August, hundreds of Schneider’s fellow scientists gathered in Boulder to remember him and also share their own research exploring the topics that he helped bring attention to with policymakers and the public. My September 2011 article for Miller-McCune, “A Discernible Human Influence: Schneider and Climate Change,” recounts the personal and intellectual impacts Schneider had on his colleagues and explores how scientists are tackling the latest and largest questions surrounding climate science and policy.