Daily Media Coverage Highlights Thursday, August 14, 2014

1. Regulate Canadian, Nit American Metals Mine, Murkowski Says”

August 14, 2014

By Alan Neuhauser

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has called for greater oversight of a Canadian metals mine – even as she lambastes federal regulation of a similar proposed mining project in Alaska.

“It’s an irony, because the risks associated with Pebble Mine are precisely those that we have seen unfolding before our eyes over the past week in British Columbia,” says Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That is to say, a major containment dam failure resulting in significant off-site contamination in salmon habitats.”

Last week, a dam containing the wastewater pond for Canada’s open-pit Mount Polley mine ruptured, sending millions of gallons of potentially contaminated water spilling into a river along the Alaska border (Canadian officials lifted a ban on drinking tap water Tuesday). Later that week, Murkowski dashed off a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to impress upon Canadian leaders “the potential impacts that large-scale mining in Canada could hold” for the state’s fishing and tourism industries, as well as its indigenous population.

“The tailings pond breach at Mount Polley on August 4 has renewed the specter of environmental impacts from large-scale hardrock mineral developments in Canada that are located near transboundary rivers,” Murkowski wrote. “I therefore urge you to accelerate your work with your Canadian counterparts to confirm that new mining activities are subject to proper review and continued oversight.”

Just three weeks earlier, however the senator was railing against federal environmental oversight of the controversial proposed Pebble Mine, a strikingly similar waterfront open-pit metals mining operation – but instead on the Alaskan side of the border.

“There’s a pretty obvious disconnect between her position as far as Canada goes, and her position as far as Alaska goes,” Reynolds says. “On the one hand, she is encouraging federal oversight of mining in Canada; on the other hand, she has been consistently opposing federal oversight of mining in Alaska.”

Murkowski was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Yet in a statement last month, the senator declared that “the EPA is setting a precedent that strips Alaska and all Alaskans of the ability to make decisions on how to develop a healthy economy on their lands. This is a blueprint that will be used across the country to stop economic development.”

Murkowski, like many of her Republican colleagues, has regularly opposed certain EPA environmental protections. In June, she asserted that the agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan – the first federal action to limit carbon emissions from existing power plants – would threaten the reliability of the energy grid. In fact, in 2010, she sought a rare Congressional “disapproval resolution” to oppose another EPA clean air action.

“If you got a political institution such as the EPA coming out with restrictions that inhibit the freedom of your mining industry, it’s difficult,” says Jerry McBeath, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alaska and, in the 1980s, a staffer for the senator's father, Sen. Frank Murkowski. “She will go and criticize the EPA for ‘imperial overreach.’”

However, he adds, there's also intense local opposition to the proposed mine, meaning the EPA's "intentions in this particular case happen to side with the interests of more of her constituents than otherwise would be the case.... There may be a fine line there that she’s trying to stay on."

Lindsey Bloom agrees. A commercial fisherman and fisheries consultant in Juneau, Bloom contends that the senator's positions on Pebble Mine and Mount Polley are not necessarily incompatible.

“It is important to distinguish that she has not come out in support of Pebble,” Bloom writes in an email to U.S. News. “Sen. Murkowski has family in the fishing industry and a real understanding of the importance of robust wild salmon fisheries and intact habitat to our fishing families, jobs and economy in Alaska.”

With the rupture at Mount Polley, Bloom adds, “you have a foreign country where there was just a huge dam breach and environmental disaster on Canada's largest salmon system. They don't have the same environmental safeguards that we do such as the Clean Water Act.”

Reynolds, however, is not convinced. The tailings pond dam that ruptured at Mount Polley, he points out, was designed by the very same consulting firm retained to draw-up a similar dam for Pebble Mine – an ominous omen for the proposed project, he says.

“The parallels with Pebble are pretty obvious here. And I think that magnifies the irony of Sen. Murkowski’s position,” Reynolds says. “I don’t take issue with her letter to Sec. Kerry, I take issue with the blind spot she seems to have with respect to the risks posed to Bristol Bay by the Pebble Mine.”

2. “A $Billion Bet on Clean Energy”

August 14, 2014

By Brian Dumaine

With its new “Green Bank”, New York aims to boost solar, wind, and smart-grid technology.

The solution to global warming is obvious—reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Accomplishing that goal, however, requires radical action. Few understand that better than Richard Kauffman, an ex–Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley banker whom New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed last year as the state’s first energy czar. Kauffman has visions of New York as a 21st-century clean-tech powerhouse. But for now, he admits, it remains more of a 20th-century energy dinosaur.

“We’re not on a sustainable path either environmentally or economically,” says Kauffman of his state. “We’re not installing enough renewables, and we’re not getting the economic-development boost that a transition to a new-energy economy can provide. We need to rethink what we do.”

To kick-start that process of reinvention, Kauffman has taken some radical actions of his own: Earlier this year he rolled out a state-owned financing startup with $1 billion in assets called N.Y. Green Bank. The hope is that, through strategic lending, the state can give the private sector the incentive to help transform New York State’s power system. If it works, the project could provide a template for other states to follow. According to the OECD, N.Y. Green Bank is only the second state-run institution of its kind in the U.S. Connecticut launched a green bank in 2011 but on a smaller scale, with $117 million in net assets.

New York’s list of energy challenges is long. It lags behind California and other big states in the adoption of renewables. Last year, for instance, the Golden State installed 2,621 megawatts of solar energy, compared with New York’s paltry 69 megawatts. New Yorkers pay some of the highest electrical rates in the nation. At the same time, the state’s utilities are struggling. Electricity demand is weak, and the cost to maintain an aging grid is rising. The price tag simply to keep New York’s antiquated grid running over the next decade is an estimated $30 billion.

Gov. Cuomo has given Kauffman the clout to make big changes. As New York’s chairman of energy and finance, he has the sway and the budget to push for change in almost every aspect of the state’s energy system. He has already launched a multi-front offensive. Kauffman is pushing for regulatory reform that would encourage the state’s utilities to run more energy-efficiency programs and make smart-grid investments to reduce load and the need to maintain expensive backup power plants. He’s also pushing for utilities to invest more in clean, distributed energy.

Other states have tried such measures with only moderate success. Although wind and solar power are growing quickly, their share of the nation’s total power generation is only about 4%. Kauffman is hoping the Green Bank can push New York way past that level in coming years. The bank, funded by a surcharge paid by utility customers, aims to help finance clean-energy projects throughout the state. The Green Bank plans to announce its first investments this fall.

When he took the energy czar job, Kauffman, 59, brought with him a strong belief that the government was lousy at picking winners and losers. (Consider the Energy Department’s disastrous $535 million investment in solar-panel maker Solyndra.) He began searching for private sector solutions to the state’s energy problems. “It’s going to be the markets that will give customers what they want,” says Kauffman. “I have no idea what new energy systems are best. Apple, for example, allows outside programmers to make apps for its products because that’s the way innovation happens—you open up competition.”

So the Green Bank will not dole out grants or fund risky clean-tech startups. Rather, it will offer “gap” financing. That means providing loans, debt guarantees, and other financial products to help private sector bankers fund more clean-tech deals—whether for solar, wind, smart-grid technology, battery storage, or energy-efficient buildings. Says Douglas Sims, the director of strategy and finance at the Natural Resources Defense Council and an adviser on the project: “They will provide comfort to private lenders who want to employ capital in this space. They’re enablers. To me, that’s the most radical thing about it.”

While large-scale wind and solar projects can typically get financing, Kauffman says that there are many smaller clean-tech projects that are viable but just can’t find the right debt structure. For example, universities, hospitals, and municipalities that want to install solar systems or energy-efficiency technology often have good credit ratings but don’t have the upfront capital. A bank might be willing to offer a 10-year loan, but the organizations might need a 15-year loan to make the debt service more affordable. So the Green Bank could step in and provide the financing for years 11 through 15. Another area where it could help is in solar installation. Companies such as SolarCity, Sunrun, and Sungevity have little trouble raising financing for residential customers who have top credit scores of around 700, but they find it much harder to raise money for leases or loans for those with scores of 650—even though these customers are considered creditworthy. The Green Bank could guarantee the financing on those deals.

Perhaps the biggest impact the Green Bank could make is in securitization. (Think mortgage-backed securities with better due diligence.) So far the bond market has been largely absent when it comes to financing renewables. Why? Big banks don’t like to dabble in small loans. The Green Bank plans to securitize clean-energy projects—bundling 40 or 50 solar loans, each worth about $1 million, into one security and then selling the $50 million bond to institutional investors. That would open an entirely new source of capital for the sector and spur growth, Kauffman believes.

As promising as the Green Bank sounds, some in the environmental community worry that even $1 billion in capitalization won’t be enough to turn New York green. After all, energy is an extremely capital-intensive industry.

But Kauffman believes that the first step is for the Green Bank to show that it can make money. If the bank is profitable, it will be self-sustaining, he argues. And it can leverage that $1 billion in a way that would have a significant, long-term impact on the clean-tech industry. “We want to get a market rate of return and then step out of the way,” says the energy czar. “We want to be on the frontier of new markets, providing the necessary support to get the private sector fully engaged.” And if that happens, Kauffman’s radical plan might make a real impact.

3. “California Lawmakers Negotiate Exempting Tesla Battery Plant from Environmental Review”

August 14, 2014

Two powerful Sacramento lawmakers are proposing that a battery plant for "green" auto manufacturer Tesla be partially exempted from California Environmental Quality Act regulations, as reported by the L.A. Times.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Senator Ted Gaines (R-Northern California) are working on a package of incentives to lure Tesla's plant along with its 6,500 new jobs and $5 billion in spending. Environmental advocates says CEQA does not apply differently to different companies.

What are the environmental risks associated with a battery plant? Are those risks balanced by the zero-emissions cars manufactured by Tesla? What about the pioneering research? Is this move really an attempt to reform CEQA by lawmakers who in the past have sought changes to the landmark law?

Guests:

Marc Lifsher, business reporter in Sacramento for the L.A. Times

Jennifer Hernandez, attorney with Holland & Knight law firm; Hernandez specializes in CEQA on behalf of developers; she co-chairs Holland & Knight’s National Environmental Team and leads the West Coast Land Use and Environment Practice Group for the San Francisco firm

David Pettit, senior attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council and director of NRDC's Southern California Air Program

Click here for AirTalk audio download

4. “Can Conan Convince Californian’s to Save Water?”

August 14, 2014

Alexis Petru

California’s historic drought is no laughing matter. But the state of California and the Natural Resources Defense Council are trying to inject some humor into their efforts to encourage Californians to conserve water, teaming up with Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter on a series of public service announcement (PSA) videos that feature water-saving tips.

Part of California’s “Save Our Water” drought awareness campaign, the new PSAs cover topics from car washing (you can save 60 gallons of water by taking your car to a carwash rather than washing it by hand – and you can bathe your kids there, too, Richter points out) to pool covers (swimming pools evaporate up to 40,000 gallons of water a year; even if you don’t have a pool, you can buy a pool cover to impress people and make them think you have one, the funnymen say).

The comedians even poke fun at the idea that saving water takes too much work; there are many “lazy” ways to conserve water, they say: running dishes through a dishwasher instead of washing them yourself, using a carwash rather than hand-washing your car and their more tongue-in-cheek suggestion of skipping showers.

2013 was the driest year on record in many parts of California, leading Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in January. In addition to directing state agencies to expedite farmers’ access to water, safeguard drinking water and prepare for an extreme fire season, Brown also called on his fellow Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. The “Save Our Water” campaign, a partnership between the Association of California Water Agencies and the California Department of Water Resources, aims to meet the governor’s target, promoting simple water-conserving tips through lawn signs, social media campaigns, billboards and radio ads.

The partnership with O’Brien and Richter isn’t the first time that the “Save Our Water” project has recruited celebrities or come up with creative marketing campaigns: It has already featured PSAs from Lady Gaga and Sammy Hagar and included the clever “Brown is the New Green” slogan to urge Californians to let their lawns go brown by watering only twice a month.

California’s education campaign may be light-hearted and silly, but the Golden State is starting to get serious about restricting water use. Most communities across the state have been relying on voluntary water restrictions to motivate residents to do their part during the record-breaking drought. But in mid-July, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted regulations that allow municipalities to impose fines of up to $500 a day for water-wasting activities such as runoff from outdoor sprinklers and hosing down driveways and sidewalks.

Will O’Brien and Richter’s comedic PSAs help the convince Californians to cut their water use by 20 percent? The results of celebrity social and environmental awareness campaigns have historically been mixed – from “We Are The World” and Farm Aid to the campaign to end genocide in Darfur. Whether or not “Team Coco” can lend its star power to the cause of water conservation, social marketing studies have shown that positive campaigns like this one, highlighting simple ways individuals can make a difference, are much more effective than negative ones that focus on doom and gloom. While the water-conservation jokes may not be as funny as O’Brien and Richter’s standard material, these PSAs are certainly more upbeat than Keep America Beautiful’s iconic “crying Indian” commercial from the ‘70s and don’t reprimand individuals for eco-unfriendly lifestyles, like the Californians publicly “drought shaming” their water-wasting neighbors on Twitter.

5. “Proposed Law Aims to Restrict Antibiotic Use on Farms”

August 13, 2014

By Kerry Grens

California lawmakers this week (August 11) approved a bill restricting the use of antibiotics in farm animals to cases substantiated by prescriptions and requiring that drugmakers label antibiotics as prescription-only. Although federal guidelines request similar practices, if enacted, this would be the first instance of such restrictions becoming law.

The rule is intended to curb the practice of using antibiotics to beef up livestock, a tactic that has been fingered as augmenting antibiotic-resistance in humans. Yet, environmental advocates are disappointed.

The bill “would prohibit drug manufacturers from selling antibiotics for ‘growth promotion’ uses, but would allow the very same drugs to be used routinely to help animals survive unhealthy living conditions,” Jonathan Kaplan, the director of the National Resources Defense Council’s Food and Agriculture program, wrote on his staff’s blog. “It’s a gigantic loophole that we fear will do little to change actual drug use.”

The bill’s author, Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), responded to critics in July, writing in the Sacramento Bee that “preventative use can be judicious. . . Just as humans are given prophylactic antibiotics when a doctor deems it necessary, there are situations in which a veterinarian may determine that livestock need prophylactic antibiotics.”

In June, the US Food and Drug Administration reported that all 26 antibiotics producers have signed on to the voluntary guidelines for phasing out the use of their drugs for food production.

6. “Five Ways to tame 'Accidental' Data Centers”

August 14, 2014

The best-laid plans for green office buildings are meaningless if the occupants ignore them. Remember the flap last August over how much power the Platinum LEED Bank of America tower in New York was using? Suffice it to say, way more than anticipated.

Few things can skew energy usage more insidiously than the energy for running and cooling random computer servers, storage arrays and network gear shoved into closets or conference rooms originally intended for other purposes. Unfortunately, outside of big Fortune 500 companies that can for data center gurus, this practice is apparently pretty common: the Natural Resources Defense Council figures that at least half of U.S. servers are unmanaged, accounting for between 30 percent and 50 percent of all the electricity being used in small and midsize offices.

"Whether it's accidental or not, it starts with one or two servers, which isn't necessarily a big deal. But all of a sudden, you have a small server room that is far less efficient that what you might find in a big data center or colocation facility," said Pierre Delforge, director for high-tech sector energy efficiency for NRDC.

"For perspective, the amount of power we're talking about is equivalent to approximately 20 500-megawatt, coal-fired power plants."

The fact that this is a surprise to many facilities or office managers is one reason it keeps happening. "Every company is vulnerable to this. Large companies usually have the resources to address the problem, but smaller ones might not have the wherewithal or the motivation to do so," said Allison Bard, associate with sustainability business consulting firm Cadmus Group.

The reality is leases and space constraints might force small or midsize businesses to get creative about how they accommodate on-premises IT equipment. "Even a one-floor office can need a data center or computer room that requires support and cooling, backup power, the standard features you would expect in a big one," said John Weale, associate with Integral Group.

The good news is it doesn't take much effort to rectify the situation. Here are five best practices for businesses not quite big enough to have a dedicated data center, but growing fast enough to require sophisticated computing infrastructure.

1. Assess the magnitude of the issue

Cadmus classifies unplanned computing real estate in the following way: localized data centers with 1,000 square feet of "white space," server rooms smaller than 500 square feet and server closets less than 200 square feet. The tipping point seems to be when a business is running more than 10 servers, according to experts. "These small spaces are pretty ubiquitous," noted Robert Huang, senior associated with Cadmus.

Short of walking around to peek into all the nooks and crannies of an office space, analyzing submeter data can help your organization gauge if it has a problem. If the amount of electricity used outside business hours is almost the same as when employees are around, there's cause for concern.

"If the difference is relatively low, it means that something pretty large is running 24x7," Delforge said. That's simply because unmanaged or outdated IT equipment uses roughly the same amount of power when it's idle as when it's fully used.

2. Invest in outside expertise

Most U.S. utilities have a vested interest in helping businesses reduce power consumption, and some even offer incentives for moving on-premises equipment to off-site data centers optimized for energy efficiency. Increasingly, they are focusing attention on smaller spaces, Huang said.

The challenge is assigning someone to be accountable. "Quite often, the person paying the bill isn't accountable for this," Bard said. "So, maybe you should hire an outside expert to help you understand the potential impact of certain actions.

3. Consolidate the equipment

Instead of buying a new server every time your organization adopts a new application, use virtualization technologies to add them to existing equipment.

According to the figures you cite, anywhere from 8 percent to 10 percent of the servers in use today are running for no apparent reason and it would be relatively easy to decommission them, or shut them off. Others could serve as the foundation layer for consolidation projects. "You don't necessarily need to eliminate them, but you need to be aware of them," Weale said.

4. Organize the space thoughtfully, and don't fret so much about the heat

Instead of randomly sticking IT equipment based solely on where there's space available, smaller organizations can address this issue more strategically by putting the gear in space where the plug loads can be managed centrally and where there's already a concentration of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment that can help control humidity and cooling.

Finding a way to bring in outside air for cooling, and organizing the servers so heat is dispersed more efficiently can help, Huang said. Speaking of heat, the latest ASHRAE standards allow temperatures of up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, something many facilities managers don't realize.

"Actually design a room to support the equipment you're putting into it," Weale said. Figure out what you need, and then design to support that without erring on the side of overkill."

5. Consider the cloud instead

One option increasingly to smaller companies are cloud infrastructure-as-a-service or software-as-a-service offerings that allow them to adopt new applications or services without having to invest in on-site servers. Even though, however, this might mean supporting a deeper onsite investment in networking gear and switches to optimize connection speeds. "People are sometimes hesitant because of bandwidth, speed considerations or colocation costs, but it's something more organizations should take time to consider," Bard said.

7. “No Million by 2015, But Electric Vehicles are Surging”

August 14, 2014

By Pete Danko

Quiz time. Which of the following two statements is true:

Electric vehicle sales in the United States are growing at a remarkably fast rate.

Electric vehicle sales are a small fraction of what many advocates had been hoping for just a few short years ago.

OK, maybe you sniffed out the gambit – both are true.

The EV-promoting Electric Drive Transportation Association reported this week that the number of plug-in electric vehicles on U.S. roads nearly doubled in the past year – from 119,404 in July 2013 to 234,023 at last month.

And yet even with that 96 percent surge, plug-ins are on track to fall far short of the one million goal announced by President Obama in his State of the Union address in 2011 (a goal that, admittedly, the administration began backing away from in early 2013).

In a way, plug-in electrics are experiencing the fate of any paradigm-shifting, energy-related technology. Look at solar power. It’s growing at breakneck speed – in the 18 months up to April 1, cumulative PV capacity more than doubled in the United States, rising from 5,999 megawatts to 13,395 MW – yet solar remained a bit player in the electricity market, struggling to account for even 1 percent of total generation.

Plug-ins, even with their high rate of growth, account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the253 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads. But advocates for electric vehicles are hardly daunted.

“I come from a perspective that we’ve been doing things the same way for 100 years,” Luke Tonachel, senior analyst and director for vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview. “Against that reality, we’re on the right road.”

Tonachel said consumers are beginning to understand what electric vehicles have to offer – more virtuous driving, sure, but cheaper driving as well.

Congressional Budget Office analysts last year reported that “at current vehicle and energy prices, the lifetime costs to consumers of an electric vehicle are generally higher than those of a conventional vehicle of similar size and performance, even with the [federal] tax credits, which can be as much as $7,500 per vehicle.” But Tonachel said that with high gasoline prices and additional incentives from all but a couple of states, the picture is shifting.

Plus, manufacturers are offering their own incentives to make electrics more competitive than earlier analysis might suggest. Tesla got the ball rolling with its free, proprietary Supercharger network, up to 104 stations in the United States. And now Nissan is offering two years of free charging with new Leaf purchases or leases through its “No Charge to Charge” promotion.

“Consumers are beginning to see the benefits that electric vehicles can offer – they want to take advantage of the cost savings,” Tonachel said.

There is some evidence that EVs are performing better than might reasonably have been expected. A May 2014 report from IHS noted that electrics are doing better at a comparable stage of their development than hybrids were. The firm said the Toyota Prius had cumulative sales of 52,000 in its fourth year, while the all-electric Leaf – aided of course, by government incentives that the Prius didn’t enjoy – was near 100,000 last year, its fourth year since introduction.

“With EV adoption exceeding the historical precedent of hybrids, this means that the trend toward EVs is still progressing,” IHS analyst Ben Scott said when the report was released, “although at a slower rate than many had expected.”

Slower than President Obama expected – yet Tonachel said setting that lofty goal still served a purpose. He noted that when Obama began talking about getting 1 million EVs on the road by 2015, there were only two EVs for sale in the U.S. market. Now the field is nearing 20. “That shows how targets can help spark ingenuity and innovation,” Tonachel said.

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