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Notorious Northern Virginia coal plant officially retires

On a scorching hot day last July, I stood on the deck of a boat on the Potomac River and introduced Michael R. Bloomberg, philanthropist and mayor of New York City, who was there to announce a game-changing gift to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. Behind us was the notorious, polluting Potomac River coal plant in Alexandria, Virginia, which the community and elected officials had been trying to retire for years.

Yesterday was finally the last day of operations for the Potomac River coal plant.

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Fires, droughts put focus on climate — but will we seize the moment?

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Flying from Seattle to Boise, Idaho, on Sunday for the Pacific Northwest Climate Science Conference, the pilot pointed to a bit of climate change out the window.

“Over to your left you can see plumes from the fires,” he announced over the intercom. The sky was choked with smoke from Eastern Washington wildfires, as it has been for weeks.

In Boise it was clear and sunny. But the hotel shuttle driver noted this was the first time in days you could see the mountains above the town. Boise, too, has been gasping on the wildfires.

The smoke came up again in a Monday conference welcome by Boise Mayor David Bieter. It is heartening when the leader of the reddest state’s biggest city greets an auditorium full of climate scientists with an acknowledgement that “the work you do is of such importance to our community and policymakers in general ... your work will help us understand what we might face in decades to come.”

Bieter said the climate issue has faded in recent times, but smoky skies seem to be bringing it back. “If we didn’t have climate change on our minds, events have forced us to think about it again.”

Indeed, this summer's record heat waves, sweeping wildfires, and widespread drought have left visible imprints on the public mind. There is a sense that denialism is finally in retreat, and that this is a moment of climate opportunity.

But moments pass. Will we seize this one?

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United Airlines Screws Polar Bears While Flying Over Them

Photo by Martin Lopatka

You may not be able to tell from the sublime stillness of his hair, but United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek is foaming at his strong-jawed mouth. The European Union at long last has ended United and other airlines’ exemption from the continent’s climate law, including both domestic European flights as well as flights that take off and land in Europe.

That means that United and other U.S. airlines accustomed to polluting with impunity now will have to either improve their efficiency or purchase pollution permits.  All in all, that’s expected to add a whopping three dollars to the cost of a transatlantic flight, where coach tickets average $1000 round trip (US airlines are already imposing a surcharge to cover these additional expenses, before they’re even required to pay them!). Each way, the extra expense is equivalent to the price of the 2.6 ounce bag of potato chips that United charges its coach-class customers.

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New Wind Farm is Nation’s Largest; Means More Clean Energy, Jobs

This past weekend marked the opening of the largest wind farm in the U.S. -- a site that will power 235,000 homes. The Shepherds Flat Wind Farm near Arlington, Oregon, is a just the latest example of our nation's clean energy industry powering our homes, businesses, and economy. Work on the Shepherds Flat project began in 2009 and brought with it more than 400 construction jobs. The Shepherds Flat project will continue to provide 45 full-time jobs for Oregon's Gilliam and Morrow Counties, in addition to agricultural jobs which will continue on the farmland at the project site. The cherry …

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Republican Coal Bill: Just Another Attack on Public Health Protections

Not satisfied with already being known as the most anti-environmental House of Representatives in history, this week House Republicans are again attempting to gut fundamental health and environmental laws to please polluters -- specifically, the coal industry. In a new package of bills, House leadership is taking aim at a staggering array of basic laws that hold polluters accountable and ensure Americans have access to clean air and drinkable water; it fundamentally weakens the Clean Air Act and eviscerates the protections of the Clean Water Act. It will increase disease and deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, not to …

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Increasing Pollution, Dwindling Options

The Food and Environmental Reporting Network released a striking report this week (Sept. 18) describing how industrial agriculture and climate change are fueling massive blooms of toxic algae: Blooms have closed lake beaches or led to swimming advisories from Vermont’s Lake Champlain to Dorena Reservoir in Oregon and from Florida’s Caloosahatchee River to Wisconsin’s Lake Menomin. In addition to the health risks, the blooms take an economic toll. An estimate by Walter Dodds of Kansas State University conservatively puts the annual cost of freshwater algal blooms at more than $1 billion from lost recreation and depressed property values. A slide show of horrific images of water tainted by agriculture …

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Four Charts Provide Distributed Solar Lessons from California

A new study for the California Public Utilities Commission explores the “Technical Potential for Local Distributed Photovoltaics in California.”  Basically, it’s one of the more in-depth analyses of local solar power in the country, suggesting that California has the capacity to add 15 gigawatts (GW) of local solar (20 megawatts and smaller) to its grid by 2020.  The study pushes the boundaries of distributed generation by assuming that local solar can be installed sufficient to meet 100% of local demand, far beyond the conservative “15% rule” that utilities typically apply. There are the usual caveats about the technical limitations of …

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Heat and Drought Ravage U.S. Crop Prospects—Global Stocks Suffer

By Janet Larsen September estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show 2012 U.S. corn yields at 123 bushels per acre, down by a fourth from the 2009 high of 165 bushels per acre. Yields are the lowest since 1995 and well below the average of the last 30 years. The summer heat and drought also hit U.S. soybean yields, which are down 20 percent from their 2009 peak. High temperatures have combined with the worst drought in half a century to wreak havoc on American farms and ranches. Some 80 percent of U.S. farm and pasture land experienced …

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Larry Gibson

Fr. Dan Berrigan once wrote a poem, “Some,” that I thought of after hearing of Appalachian hero Larry Gibson’s death two days ago: Some stood up once and sat down. Some walked a mile and walked away. Some stood up twice then sat down. It’s too much, they cried. Some walked two miles then walked away. I’ve had it, they cried. Some stood and stood and stood. They were taken for fools, they were taken for being taken in. Some walked and walked and walked They walked the earth They walked the waters They walked the air. Why do you …

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Crowdfunding helps community power become reality

Photo by Shutterstock.

Back in April, President Obama signed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (the JOBS Act), and one of the most heralded elements was so-called crowdfunding. The law sought to solve a major problem: It’s hard to finance small-scale business ventures. Wall Street only cares about multi-million-dollar plays, and securities regulations make small-dollar projects rather difficult (and costly) to jointly fund.

The act could have big implications for community-based renewable energy projects.

Right now, there are two kinds of community-based renewable energy projects, the charitable or the persistent. Solar Mosaic, for example, was founded and funded on the concept that many environmentally motivated people would help finance local solar projects with zero-percent-interest loans. They succeeded in building several projects, but the model is constrained by the limited universe of people who have money at hand and are willing to let it be used for no reward.

The other kind of renewable energy project allows participants to get some kind of financial reward through sheer persistence, overcoming enormous regulatory and legal barriers to success (some of which I covered in this 2007 report). It means finding a complex legal structure to capture federal tax credits despite needing investors with “passive tax liability” or sacrificing federal incentives for simple ownership structures like cooperatives or municipal utilities. It means having “accredited” (rich) investors or only soliciting investors through personal relationships. This community wind project is an illustration, as are several solar projects in this report.

The JOBS Act may finally allow thousands of regular folks to make a modest return (5 to 10 percent) by investing in local renewable energy projects.

Read more: Climate & Energy