Sunday, January 31, 2010

January 31, 2010, birds of World Peace Wetland Prairie searching for bare ground and free seed

Please click on individual images to ENLARGE view of assorted birds. Many more species are around today, such as red-winged blackbirds, bluejays, cardinals and many others whose names and photos are more difficult to collect.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Homeowners now leasing equipment to exploit solar power at lower cost than buying it

Solar Power Is Now an Option for Even the Most Cash-Strapped Suburbanites
By Yasha Levine, AlterNet
Posted on January 16, 2010, Printed on January 17, 2010

Say hello to the thing that could save our sun-splashed suburban lifestyle: affordable residential solar power that puts roof-top solar panels within reach of the most cash-strapped America consumer. This breakthrough is not a result of technological innovation, but a new financing scheme cooked up on Wall Street called a "residential solar lease," a no-money-down, low-monthly plan that has made solar electricity cheaper than the stuff we get by wire. It's an old approach to a new source of energy, and it is taking California by storm.

"Go solar for $0 down. Now you can afford to go solar without the high initial cost of installing a system. Instead of buying the equipment, you simply lease it," boasts theWeb site of SolarCity, a well-financed Silicon Valley start-up that has been pioneering the residential solar lease.

A solar lease is a fairly simple arrangement that is not unlike a car lease. Instead of dishing out tens of thousands of dollars upfront to buy and install a rooftop solar array, homeowners simply borrow one for a low monthly fee. Like a car lease, customers sign a contract that locks them in for a specified period of time with the option of extending their lease or buying the panels at the end of the contract. It makes sense when you consider that a typical homeowner would have to cough up between $20,000 and $50,000 to buy and install a solar panel system. A solar lease, on the other hand, would only cost them somewhere around $100 a month.

California, the world's third-largest solar-power market, saw twice as many people file for solar power permits in 2009 than in 2008, with much of the surge in demand being driven by this newfangled solar product. (Demand is so high that a black market for stolen solar panels has sprung up in the Golden State.)

SolarCity, one of the first companies to aggressively market solar leases, signs people up for 15-year contracts that run an average of $110 a month (with a 3.5-percent increase every year). SolarCity says customers can typically expect to shave 15 percent off their electricity bill from day one, with savings potentially growing over time if energy costs continue to rise. Competing companies -- like SunRun out of San Francisco or American Solar Electric out of Scottsdale -- offer the same basic deals.

A $100 electricity bill is a steal for California, a state that takes fifth place for highest electricity rates in the country, especially for the millions of people who inhabit the southern, sun-baked reaches of the state.

“My bill goes over $200 during summer when we keep the central AC going twelve hours day,” explained Paul Bosacki, who sits on the city council of Hesperia, a rustic, sprawling exurb on the edge of the Mojave Desert 90 miles east of Los Angeles. Bosacki was the first -- and so far the only -- person to sign up for SolarCity’s lease program in his town, but he won’t be alone for long. Because now he pays $89 a month and gets all the juice his household needs, while saving $21 dollars off his average electricity bill.

We walk around to Bosacki's backyard, where a single Joshua tree keeps watch over a jacuzzi and a panoramic view of the Mojave Desert, and he gives me a tour of his solar system: a slim grid of black panels on the roof and a box that converts its electricity to proper voltage. Bosacki might have to spend a couple of bucks a month on additional electricity from his local utility in the summer, but in the few months he’s had the system, he’s been well in the clear. “I turned it on in September and haven’t gotten a bill since," he says, adding that he would never be able to afford the $40,000 his solar setup retails for without the solar lease.

Not only do homeowners like Bosacki save money with solar, but they stand to make some, too. The beautiful thing about the technology is that it allows you to feed all your surplus electricity -- like when you're on vacation, at work or taking a nap -- into the grid. The only downside is that, until 2010, local utilities in California paid customers in electricity credits rather than in real money. But a new law will now force them to pay in real money, as in cold hard checks they'll soon start getting in their mailboxes. Called Consumer Net Metering, this new regulation finally does an end-run around an insane California law that only allowed utility companies to sell electricity; a restriction that had been putting a serious damper on small and alternative solar projects. Now even the small-time homeowner could actually make an honest buck on the energy market. Welcome to the cheap new world of debt-financed green energy.

"We've been selling like crazy down here because of the lease program," a SolarCity rep told the Orange County Register, explaining that the company had not been able to meet demand in Southern California, which has been so high it outstripped SolarCity’s meager financing ability. In April 2009, 3,000 people signed up, biding their time until SolarCity lined up more investors to fund the installations -- a wait the company predicted could take a year to clear. Other solar lease companies are seeing similar growth.

"Falling prices, rising utility rates and new government incentives may finally be driving serious growth in the region's market for residential solar power," wrote theSacramento Bee in September 2009, when applications for solar panel installations suddenly quadrupled in the Sacramento region.

Even in this harsh credit freeze climate, investors seem to be rushing in to fill the need. While loans to American businesses have dropped by 17 percent compared with last year, solar leasing companies have taken in hundreds of million of dollars in new funding. SunRun received $105 million in financing from U.S. Bankcorp earlier last year and another $90 million in December. The bank also doubled SolarCity's funding to $100 million. National Bank of Arizona gave SolarCity $5 million for solar leases in Arizona. Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs all have been in the solar lease game from the beginning, in large part because they have been able to rig the financing and government subsidy structure in a way that guarantees profits, allowing them to easily recoup their investments through complicated tax credit and green energy derivatives schemes -- all of if risk free.

California goes the extra mile, providing the largest solar subsidies of any state ($2.2 billion has been made available through 2016). Investors can expect to be credited 80 percent of their products’ retail cost, meaning that financiers like Goldman Sachs are able to turn an instant profit for their investors on every solar panel array -- before customers even pay their first solar lease bill. The handouts have been so good, in fact, that investors are constantly demanding bigger profits.

"Investors historically expect seven percent to eight percent, which includes the tax benefits and a slice of profit during the life of the fund," wrote Green Tech Mediaabout the amazing profits being squeezed out of the residential solar market. "Now they want ten percent or more."

Solar start-ups are popping up to compete for customers and the billions of dollars of federal and state subsidies for solar and renewable energy. Some companies are pioneering do-it-yourself solar kits you'll be able to buy at Home Depot, while others are working to integrate solar panel technology into building materials like roof shingles and siding.

Looking through slick Web sites and optimistic sales pitches, yet with nothing real to sell, is reminiscent of the dot-com bubble. It seems like solar hype is about the only thing for sale, and a sign that America's solar energy market is probably entering the same dangerous bubble-burst territory Spain found itself in last year, when the government heated up the solar market with with $1 billion in subsidies and then crashed the party when it ran out of money and was forced to suddenly cut funding, causing a world-wide solar recession and a glut in solar panel parts that persists even today.

But bubble or not, there are huge ramifications from this full-on race to develop affordable, ubiquitous residential solar technology.

Peak oil theories have been gaining strength ever since the real estate market collapse turned vast stretches of sub-prime suburbs into vast stretches of ghost sprawl, giving us a scary glimpse into our post-oil future. Its preachers have been pounding the empty oil drum, warning the masses about our helpless dependence on cheap oil and how a shortage would reduce us to pathetic hunter gatherers -- all the while urging people to stock up on dry astronaut food and how-to farming guides for urbanites through their online stores.

"[T]he truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used French-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system -- or even a fraction of these things -- in the future," James Howard Kunstler, the populist apostle of peak oil for this generation and failed Y2K theorist, prophesied in a Washington Post op-ed titled "Wake Up, America. We're Driving Toward Disaster." Even the New York Times has joined the scare fest with stuff like this: "Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life, idealized around the world, are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the distant edges of metropolitan area."

Standing in Paul Bosacki’s backyard, on the edge of Southern California’s suburban sprawl, it is hard not to agree with the suburban doomsayers. With a panoramic view of the Mojave Desert, you can see the sub-prime suburbs creeping deeper into the open desert. This is one of the most arid, inhospitable places in America, yet it is also one of the fastest-growing, swelling to a population of almost 400,000 over the past few decades, then booming higher and crashing harder than most other regions in the country. Looking at this failed McTractHome paradise and left-behind carnage -- half-built master-planned communities and a sea of vacant homes with dead lawns dry and rotting in the heat -- it seems there is no way it can survive, not with its four-hour daily commute to Los Angeles and summer air-conditioning bills that can feel more like mortgage payments.

But affordable roof-top solar has the power to nip a suburban energy freakout in the bud. Not only can it power the most outlandish McMansion palaces out in the hottest reaches of the American West, but it can also power the cars that get people there and back.

“You’ll be able to plug in electric vehicles into these things to charge them off your own panels,” says Bosacki, intuitively picking up on the possibilities that residential solar power have opened up for suburbia. “One day, we’ll be probably be able to lower energy costs for cars to zero. That’s one of the unintended benefits of these things.”

That is exactly the future that SolarCity seems to be angling for. The company was created in part by Elon Musk, a Silicon Valley millionaire and the man behind Tesla Motors, the experimental electric car company that recently rolled out its first model: the souped-up, $100,000 base price sports car called the Tesla Roadster that does 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds. The San Francisco Business Times wrote about Musk:

At 37 years old -- and with a net worth estimated at more than $300 million from past endeavors like PayPal -- Musk is making contributions to clean energy that may become his legacy. Tesla was the first company to produce an electric car that gets more than 200 miles per charge, and SolarCity is one of the largest installers of solar panels in the country. SolarCity was also the first company to market solar-power systems with no down payments that could save customers money from day one.

Rumor has it Tesla is working to unveil a mass market all-electric sedan sometime after 2012, with SolarCity playing a part. SolarCity already offers charging stations as a deluxe option for its residential solar power systems; the company equipped over 2,500 electric vehicle charging stations so far and recently installed five experimental Tesla charging stations along Highway 101 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It’s all part of a bigger strategy to provide the foundation for cheap, readily accessible solar electricity, and a ray of hope as far as our suburban lifestyle is concerned.

The fact that the biggest suburban growth has been taking place in the sunniest spots in the United States -- California, Florida, Nevada, Arizona -- means that these sweltering locales will become even more popular with solar power. After all, who can say no to trading up to a larger home and reducing energy bills at the same time? And that just might make solar the thing that will sucker us into the next reckless speculative real estate boom. Amen to that.

Yasha Levine is an editor of

© 2010 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Biomass subsidy has unintended consequences

The unintended ripples from the biomass subsidy program

The Biomass Crop Assistance provision gives millions in federal dollars to mills and lumber wholesalers. (Scott Terrell/associated Press)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

It sounded like a good idea: Provide a little government money to convert wood shavings and plant waste into renewable energy.
But as laudable as that goal sounds, it could end up causing more economic damage than good -- driving up the price of raw timber, undermining an industry that has long used sawdust and wood shavings to make affordable cabinetry, and highlighting the many challenges involved in decreasing the nation's dependence on oil by using organic materials to create biofuels.
In a matter of months, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program -- a small provision tucked into the 2008 farm bill -- has mushroomed into a half-a-billion dollar subsidy that is funneling taxpayer dollars to sawmills and lumber wholesalers, encouraging them to sell their waste to be converted into high-tech biofuels. In doing so, it is shutting off the supply of cheap timber byproducts to the nation's composite wood manufacturers, who make panels for home entertainment centers and kitchen cabinets.
While it remains unclear whether Congress or the Obama administration will push to revamp the program, even some businesses that should benefit from the subsidy are beginning to question its value.
"It's not right. It's not serving any purpose," said Bob Jordan, president of Jordan Lumber & Supply in North Carolina, even while noting that he might be able to get twice as much money for his mill's sawdust and shavings under the program.
"The best thing they could do is forget about it. All it's doing is driving the price of wood up."
A range of renewable materials can be converted into energy sources: Wood pellets, rice hulls and fiber from sugar cane can produce electricity; algae and corn cobs can be converted into liquid fuel. The federal government is actively working to support the growth of as many of these biomass crops as possible, in part to meet requirements under the 2007 energy bill: The country must produce 5.5 billion gallons of advanced biofuels annually in five years, and 21 billion gallons by 2022. Right now, almost no U.S. land is devoted to raising biomass crops; according to congressional estimates, by 2022 the country will need between 22.2 and 55.5 million acres for this purpose.

A struggling industry
The new subsidy provided a critical boost to an industry that took off in the late 1970s after the federal government mandated that utilities obtain part of their supply from independent power producers. Many of these contracts have now expired, leaving the industry struggling to compete in light of low natural gas prices and higher wood costs.
The future of the biomass program -- which will eventually include a subsidy to get farmers to grow crops such as switchgrass and an array of trees and shrubs -- could be determined by the Office of Management and Budget, which has been reviewing the federal rule for the program since September. In the meantime, federal money has started to flow: The administration sent $23 million to the state offices of the Farm Service Agency in the fall, and is poised to distribute another $514 million.
Biomass energy representatives, such as the Biomass Power Association president, Bob Cleaves, said those subsidies are critical to support a sector that currently supplies half of the nation's renewable energy (the other half coming from wind, solar and other sources). Seven of Maine's 10 biomass energy plants would have shut down without the new influx of funds, he said.
"The industry needs help," Cleaves said. "Is the country not prepared to spend half a billion dollars on half the country's renewable energy resources?"
The Agriculture Department, for its part, says it has no choice but to implement the subsidy the way Congress envisioned it under the 2008 farm bill. That legislation made no distinction between a waste product with little market value, such as corn husks, and the sawdust that sells for roughly $45 a dry ton.
The Biomass Crop Assistance provision gives millions in federal dollars to mills and lumber wholesalers. (Scott Terrell/associated Press)  
Farm Service Agency Administrator Jonathan Coppess said his agency is strictly adhering to the statute's language and intentions. "We understand that policymaking, legislation and rule making are perfecting processes, not perfect processes, and we look forward to providing the best regulation possible to implement an important program with significant potential to benefit our national energy and agricultural economies," Coppess said in a statement.
But at least one key senator, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) -- who helped author the 2008 farm bill as Agriculture Committee chairman at the time-- now questions whether the program has gone awry.
"My bottom line is we have to examine those rules and make sure the payments incentivize the use of new, additional biomass for energy," Harkin said, "which is the objective Congress intends and wrote in the law."
'At what expense?'
In at least some cases, that's not happening. The federal government can provide up to $45 a ton in matching payments to businesses that collect, harvest, store and transport biomass waste to an authorized energy facility. That means sawdust or wood shavings may be twice as valuable if a lumber mill sells them to a biomass energy company instead of to a traditional buyer.
This is bad news for the composite panel industry, which turns these materials into particleboard and medium-density fiberboard, and outranks the U.S. biomass industry in terms of employees and economic impact, with 21,000 employees and annual sales of $7.9 billion, according to 2006 U.S. Census data.
The biomass subsidy program could "wipe us out," said T.J. Rosengarth, the vice president and chief operating officer of Flakeboard, the largest composite panel producer in North America. "You can say, 'I've made more alternative energy,' but at what expense?"
The much larger pulp, paper, packaging and wood products industry, which ranks among the top 10 manufacturing employers in 48 states, is just as worried. The American Forest and Paper Association sent a letter to OMB on Oct. 27 warning that the biomass program "could have the unintended consequence of jeopardizing the forest products industry and the many jobs it sustains, as well as the significant quantities of renewable energy it produces.
But pellet mill owners such as the Rolf Anderson, chief executive of Bear Mountain Forest Products, said the program will eventually create an incentive for people to bring small pieces of wood left by loggers out of the forest, which will give companies like his a cheap and steady stream of raw materials.
"It opens up economic opportunities. It opens up healthier forests, and it helps companies and individuals save on their energy costs," said Anderson, whose company is based in Oregon.