BASED ON EARTH
For this second installment of our environmental news column, we’re looking at climate change from wildly different perspectives. We’ll explore whether local green-tech manufacturing firms can help wean California off fossil fuels, highlight some key data from the National Climate Assessment, and hear from an Amazonian shaman who’s fed up with white people making a mess of the planet and his home territory.
A new green technology sector in the Bay Area could help find the missing puzzle piece needed to establish a sustainable clean-energy mix for the state’s future.
Californians continue to rely on a majority of electricity sources that are environmentally unfriendly: natural gas, nuclear power, and even coal. Generating electricity by burning fossil fuels contributes to air pollution, consumes vast quantities of freshwater, and releases greenhouse-gas emissions, exacerbating global climate change.
But this is all starting to change. Since California requires utilities to convert one-third of their energy mix to renewable sources by 2020, there’s incentive for investment in carbon-free alternatives, such as wind and solar. Meanwhile, procurement decisions at the California Public Utilities Commission have pushed utilities to purchase more renewable power.
“Solar is succeeding beyond people’s expectations around the world,” because pricing has come down, said Julie Blunden, a consultant and energy-sector expert who formerly served as vice president at SunPower. “California set itself up to say, ‘we’re for changes to our power sector.'”
But renewables have an inherent problem — the power they produce can’t always be tapped just when it’s needed. Without some way to store the electricity generated by a wind or solar array, to be kept on hand for when demand hits a peak, wind and solar are unreliable for primary energy generation because they’re subject to fluctuations in wind and natural light. This is where energy storage comes in.
Throughout the Bay Area, companies specializing in battery manufacturing are starting to gain traction, with 11 regional battery manufacturers enrolling in CalCharge, an accelerator program for energy storage created with help from the U.S. Department of Energy and the California Clean Energy Fund.
CalCharge gives regional energy-storage companies access to national laboratories such as Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, facilities described by DOE renewables expert David Danielson as “science and engineering powerhouses at the forefront of clean energy innovation.”
One of the first grid-scale energy storage firms to join CalCharge is EnerVault, a flow battery manufacturer that’s working on a major installation in Turlock that will be co-located with a tracking solar system and an electric irrigation pump.
“The little dark secret about solar is that it’s intermittent,” explained Tom Steipen, CEO of Primus Power, a flow battery manufacturing firm based in Hayward that recently joined CalCharge.
On cloudy days, solar arrays won’t produce as much power. Wind presents similar challenges: “Wind in North America is stronger at night — but we don’t need it at night, we need it in the afternoon. So anything you can do to de-couple the instantaneous supply from demand is good for the environment, good for the economy, and that’s what energy storage does. … I like to describe it as a warehouse of electrons.”
Primus makes energy pods — an array of batteries that stand about six feet tall, placed in two rows within a shipping container — fed by renewable power arrays and tied in with the grid.
The pods can be stacked in Lego-like fashion, enabling more energy storage. They are then positioned beside a second shipping container, outfitted with equipment to convert stored DC power to AC power that can be sent over transmission lines.
Primus Power plans to make one of its first energy pod shipments to Miramar, the site of a marine base near San Diego where the movie Top Gun was filmed. The base is powered with its own contained micro-grid, but it was impacted by brownouts a couple years ago. With this project, Primus faces a test for its energy pods, which are estimated to last up to 20 years: Can the flow batteries, in combination with solar, produce reliable electricity for three full days?
If the pods can supply a smooth power supply, Primus wins — but more importantly, it will be a vote of confidence for carbon-free energy sources as significant sources of electricity generation.
“MONEY WON’T SAVE THE WORLD”
Davi Kopenawa is sometimes called the “Dalai Lama of the Rainforest.” He’s a shaman, activist, and spokesperson for his Yanomami tribe, the largest relatively isolated tribe in South America, which lives according to traditional indigenous ways in territory located within the Brazilian Amazon.
After years of battling the Brazilian government, Kopenawa and his people won a successful campaign for demarcation of the Yanomami territory in 1992. He co-wrote a book, The Falling Sky, with French anthropologist Bruce Albert, recently published by the Harvard University Press.
Today, the Yanomami are facing new pressures. Mining speculators are encroaching into their indigenous territory, causing fears of displacement, environmental destruction, and disease. In the past, exposure to disease brought dire consequences, resulting in widespread fatalities.
Kopenawa recently made a rare visit to San Francisco, giving talks at the Presidio Trust, UC Berkeley, and City Lights Books — and we got the chance to interview him while he was here.
Speaking via translation provided by Fiona Watson, research director of the human rights organization Survival International, Kopenawa talked about the Yanomami’s looming worries of environmental destruction and displacement that could be ushered in by mining companies.
“People are returning, invading it again, and repeating exactly what happened 20 years ago,” he told us. “These people are mainly gold miners who are looking for the riches of the Earth … They’re looking for oil, diamonds, and other precious materials, which is what white people want.”
He travels in part to seek support from the international community. “The majority of Yanomami have never left their land — they haven’t come out like I have,” he said. “So they don’t really see at close quarters how we are fighting against the politicians. However, the Yanomami and I, we continue to fight.”
Kopenawa had a lot to say about climate change and what has been done so far to address it: “All of you, the governments, the white people, need to listen to us, if you want to control the rich people who are always there … seeking raw materials from the earth, cutting down the forests, destroying the rivers.”
Indigenous leaders have spoken out internationally on the issue of climate change, he added, but the message has fallen on deaf ears. “They had the big UN climate meeting in Copenhagen,” he said. “But that didn’t result in anything. They only wasted money. They made us think that the city people would resolve things, but they couldn’t. The problem is the governments don’t listen. … The problem really is about capitalism, that’s at the root of the problem.”
Kopenawa’s perspective as a shaman in an indigenous culture is radically different from the world of government and politics, and he shakes his head at what he sees as utter complacency when it comes to implementing meaningful change.
“They’re only interested in the Internet, in paper, building more roads, stripping out the riches of the earth, destroying the trees,” he said. “We are different. We see the dangers, and we see that they are getting nearer. The cities are growing, the population is growing, and so the pollution is growing. There’s a lot of money in the world…But money won’t save the world.”
He advocates a new way of thinking about human progress.
“People have to stop thinking about ‘progress,’ which is pulling out the riches of the earth, and negotiating and doing business and having money all the time,” he said. “This is the error of the city people. I’ve tried to tell the city people, you need to minimize this problem of the climate, or else it will stop raining. And it will keep getting hotter.”
MORE WILDFIRES, LESS WATER
The Obama Administration unveiled the third National Climate Assessment on May 6, a hefty document detailing climate change impacts facing every region of the U.S.
Unsurprisingly, California’s own climate-related woes stem from water scarcity. Here are some details:
More money needed for drinking water. “Climate change will increase the cost of maintaining and improving drinking water infrastructure [estimated at $4.6 billion annually as things stand], because expanded wastewater treatment and desalinating water for drinking are among the key strategies for supplementing water supplies.”
Market impacts on delicious agricultural products. “California produces about 95 percent of U.S. apricots, almonds, artichokes, figs, kiwis, raisins, olives, cling peaches, dried plums, persimmons, pistachios, olives, and walnuts, in addition to other high-value crops. Drought and extreme weather affect the market value of fruits and vegetables more than other crops because they have high water content.”
More wildfires. “Numerous fire models project more wildfire as climate change continues. Models project … up to a 74 percent increase in burned area in California, with northern California potentially experiencing a doubling under a high emissions scenario toward the end of the century.”
Based on Earth is a monthly column by Guardian News Editor Rebecca Bowe.