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Peak Solar

Rockstar climber Alex Honnold scales up solar in Navajo Territory

Update: Honnold and Wright completed their trip in April. Here's a video about it. Sunny, high 50s, and just a light breeze: It's a perfect California December morning for rock climbing at the Owens River Gorge and Alex Honnold has just offered to give me a belay -- meaning, he’s offered to attend to the safety rope for me on a climb. The official reason I'm here is to get the scoop on Honnold’s environmental foundation. But, for a climber, getting belayed by Honnold is probably the closest thing we have to getting thrown a ball by Peyton Manning or LeBron James. Jimmy …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Renewables dominate new U.S. electrical capacity

solar farm in front of trees
Oregon Department of Transportation

First, the good news -- break out the champagne! The overwhelming majority of new U.S. electrical capacity is coming from wind and solar, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC just released its monthly analysis for February, and the Sun Day campaign, a research and advocacy organization promoting sustainable energy, summarizes the findings:

Wind and solar provided 80.9% of new installed U.S. electrical generating capacity for the month of February. ...


Good news for Seattle: These solar panels work best in overcast weather


Next time someone snarks, “Too bad solar panels don’t work in when it's overcast,” spike this fact-volleyball into their thoughtmaker: SOME solar panels actually work BETTER when it’s cloudy out. Bam!

British scientists at the National Physical Laboratory this week created organic photovoltaics, which not only sound delicious but perform better in diffuse light. According to PSFK, they’re 13 percent efficient when it’s overcast, compared to 10 percent when it’s sunny. As principal researcher Fernando Castro explained:

It’s not that they are going to produce more power, but they are more efficient at generating power from the light that is available. So they would work better than normal solar cells do in cloud.

Plus, organic solar cells can be 3D printed into various shapes and even dissolved into water. estimates organic PV will be widely available by 2019, noting that it’s super-quick to install:


Now you can get solar panels at Best Buy

Best Buy
Mike Mozart

There was an era when putting solar panels on your roof was a time- and money-sucking hassle on par with remodeling your kitchen. But the cost of going solar has been dropping fast. The latest signal of the industry's move into the mainstream came last week, when San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity* announced it would begin to sell solar systems out of Best Buy, alongside big-screen TVs and digital cameras.

"There are a lot of people out there with unshaded roofs, paying high electricity bills, who just don't know this is an option for them," said Jonathan Bass, SolarCity's vice president of communications. The move into Best Buy "gives us a chance to have that conversation with more people."

The company is the biggest installer in the country's biggest solar market, California, a state that earlier this month broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days, churning out enough electricity from solar panels to power roughly 3 million homes. Just since last summer, California's solar production has doubled, according to the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state's electric grid. There's a lot more growth where that came from, Bass said.


Watch this dry riverbed fill up in seconds

Nature’s been watching Michael Bay movies again! A crowd near Israel’s dry, dusty Zin River recently got caught off guard by a flash flood and had to hightail it to avoid getting swept away:

The Negev desert is better known for its arid sun -- and plans to build a giant solar power station -- than abundant rainfall. The Zin River had been dried up for years, so you can’t really blame the onlookers (and eager dog). Heavy rain in nearby mountains was SUPPOSEDLY the culprit, although the Plain of Sodom is nearby, so God might’ve been trying to scare all those teens using the back door.

Read more: Living


Billions of pounds of sea life die every year to feed our seafood appetite

Entangled ring seal.
A ring seal entangled in fishing equipment -- aka bycatch.

For every pound of sashimi, barbecued shrimp, or grilled sea bass that you stuff into your mouth, you're basically spitting four ounces of marine life onto the floor.

The nonprofit Oceana published a detailed report on Thursday cataloguing the egregious problem of bycatch in U.S. fisheries. Bycatch is a word that refers to the sharks, turtles, whales, non-edible fish, and other critters that are inadvertently hauled into fishing boats or caught up in the gear of fishing fleets that are pursuing more palatable and lucrative species.

Read more: Food


This smart air conditioner could make summer less expensive

Despite 30 Rock’s jokes about GE, the appliance company isn’t completely ass-backwards. Case in point: GE just created an air conditioner that’s pretty, almost affordable ($300), and not a huge energy hog. Oh yeah, and you can control it with your smartphone!


The smart A/C unit, Aros, is a partnership with Quirky, the site that helps make your harebrained invention ideas come to life. (In this case, former DOE employee Garthen Leslie suggested it.) A quick six months later, Aros is practically ready (it starts shipping in May). Gizmodo has some tech specs:

GE and Quirky have built a conventional in-window a/c that can cool up to 350 square feet with 8,000 BTU. They've added some nice detailing, too, like upward airflow, three cooling and fan modes, insulating fabric panels, and a sleek front-facing paneling.


This island nation just banned all commercial fishing


The Micronesian country of Palau, which encompasses 250 islands in an area the size of France, just became a marine sanctuary.

At a recent U.N. oceans conference, President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. declared commercial fishing illegal in an attempt to protect the vibrant sea life that makes Palau a magnet for Asian vacationers. “I always say the economy is our environment and the environment is our economy,” he said. (Wise dude.)

To make up for the lost revenue, Palau will tout its appeal for ecotourism, snorkelers, and scuba divers.

Read more: Living


Trash from the K-Cups sold last year would circle the Earth almost 11 times

Patrick Gensel

K-Cups seem like the complicated Starbucks order of today: an expensive, caffeinated way to express your oh-so-unique taste and personality. Who needs to run out for a tall caramel macchiato when you can make a single serving of Wolfgang Puck’s Jamaica Me Crazy medium roast in the comfort of your kitchen?

Except all those little plastic cups add up to some massive trash. Ten and a half loops around the equator, in fact, according to Mother Jones. Kind of ridic for a company owned by a fair-trade, organic coffee brand, no?

Plus, the #7 plastic blend is BPA-free, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Even if all that plastic magically disappeared into the ether on disposal, its manufacture could still be making workers sick, writes MoJo:


Ask Umbra: What’s the greenest way to re-side my house?

Bob Jagendorf

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Do you know anything about polypropylene house siding? We have to get our whole house re-sided and (obviously) wanted to avoid using vinyl, but it's so much cheaper than all the other options. And then I saw that Consumer Reports seems to differentiate between vinyl siding and "other plastic/polymer siding" in their rankings and I did some research. It looks like PP siding is an entirely different product.

Jeff K.
Brighton, Mass.

A. Dearest Jeff,

The greenest house is probably one we build ourselves from natural materials gathered from the forest floor. Somehow this sort of back-to-nature carpentry is a nonstarter for most people, however, so we’re stuck with actual houses that need some type of protective siding. I’ve spent the better part of a day immersing myself in polypropylene, and I’d be tickled to share what I've learned.