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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Cleantech investment fell off a cliff in 2012

dollar signs falling down a cliff

"You could call it the cleantech cliff," writes the San Jose Mercury News:

Global clean-technology venture investment plunged to $6.46 billion in 2012, down 33 percent from the $9.61 billion invested a year ago, according to San Francisco-based research and consulting firm Cleantech Group.

Why such a big drop-off?

The low price of natural gas has made it harder for renewable energy to compete on cost. Venture capitalists are shying away from capital-intensive deals after seeing companies like Santa Clara-based Misasolé sold at fire sale prices. And global economic uncertainty took a toll: Several privately backed cleantech companies, including Oakland's BrightSource Energy, were forced to shelve their IPO plans and raise additional funds from existing investors.


Green car sales were up in 2012, and should be even more up in 2013

Chevy Volt
The Chevy Volt had a pretty good year in 2012.

Green cars account for just a teeny, tiny fraction of U.S. auto sales -- 3.3 percent in 2012. But that teeny, tiny fraction is growing fast!

BusinessGreen reports:

Analyst firm Mintel estimated last month that sales of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars in the US will exceed 535,000 units in 2013, a sizable increase on the 440,000 sold last year. Sales of hybrids and electric cars rose 73 per cent in 2012, making it the fastest growing segment in the US auto market.

A separate market analysis by Pike Research "estimates annual global sales of 3.8 million electric or plug-in hybrid cars by 2020," the International Herald Tribune reports. It also "estimates that sales of plug-in cars will grow by 40 percent annually. During that same period, general car sales will grow by 2 percent."

The plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt gets some of the credit for those rising numbers. "General Motors sold three times as many Chevrolet Volts in 2012 as it did in 2011, which was the car's first full year on the market," reports CNN -- "23,461 Volts in 2012 compared with just 7,671 in 2011." That's still below GM's sales targets, but, as Climate Progress points out, it makes GM "the first American auto manufacturer to sell more than one million vehicles with a 30-mpg fuel rating." No thanks to all the Volt-hating right-wingers out there.


Sea-level rise could be way, way worse than we already thought

flooded city street
Petrov Stanislav
Could your city look like this in 2100 (assuming it hasn't looked like this already)?

It might be time to buy that dry suit you've had your eye on -- or start saving up for a submersible.

"Glaciologists fear they may have seriously underestimated the potential for melting ice sheets to contribute to catastrophic sea-level rises in coming decades," reports The Independent. Here's more from NBC News:

Melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland may push up global sea levels more than 3 feet by the end of this century, according to a scientific poll of experts that brings a degree of clarity to a murky and controversial slice of climate science.

Such a rise in the seas would displace millions of people from low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, swamp atolls in the Pacific Ocean, cause dikes in Holland to fail, and cost coastal mega-cities from New York to Tokyo billions of dollars for construction of sea walls and other infrastructure to combat the tides.

"The consequences are horrible," Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the study published Jan. 6 in the journal Nature Climate Change, told NBC News. ...

Read more: Climate & Energy


League of Women Voters ad asks Obama for climate action

The League of Women Voters hopes to politely intrude on President Obama's last weekend in Hawaii via this full-page ad in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

The ‘aina is part of our legacy, Mr. President, and yours. Climate change poses the greatest environmental challenge of our time. A recent report by the Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA) makes clear that the fish in our waters and the wildlife habitats in our highlands are threatened. Climate change endangers our very way of life. ...

Mr. President, your legacy is our future. As you return to Washington, please use the authority you have as president to set standards for new and existing power plants under the Clean Air Act and protect our world. Please do what is pono.

I don't know what some of those words mean.


GMO labeling initiative gets rolling in Washington state

Label It Yourself

A ballot measure that would have required labels on all genetically modified frankenfoods failed in California this past fall, but 2013 is a new year with new hope and a new roiling labeling movement, this time in Washington state.

Supporters of a GMO-labeling ballot measure have collected far more signatures than necessary, and if they're certified, the proposal will hit the state legislature in the upcoming session and then likely be on the ballot in November. The movement's colorful spokesperson is spreading the word, as The Seattle Times reports:

"Here we go, Round 2," said the Washington initiative's sponsor, Chris McManus, who owns a small advertising firm in Tacoma. "They got us the first time in Cali, but we're stitched up, greased up and ready to go."

McManus told the Spokane Spokesman-Review that the measure is not a scare tactic.

“A little bit more information never hurt anybody about the foods they eat.”

But opposition is beginning to coalesce. Farm industry representatives call the proposal an attempt to scare people away from food sources that have no known health risks. If the initiative wasn’t about scaring people, asked Heather Hansen of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, why did supporters deliver their petitions in an old ambulance?


A ‘fusion’ of good news: Solar stocks are ‘hot’ thanks to Warren Buffett’s ‘flare’

It's generally a good sign when Warren Buffett starts investing in your company/industry/country. Known as the "Wizard of Omaha" due to his ability to send little girls back to Kansas, Buffett is the second most famous representative of investment powerhouse Berkshire Hathaway. (His heavily taxed secretary is the most famous.) And when Berkshire Hathaway makes an investment, markets move.

The investment, via SmartPlanet:

[Berkshire Hathaway subisidary] MidAmerican Renewables kicked off 2013 with another major purchase. The company announced this week it has acquired SunPower’s Antelope Valley Solar Projects, two co-located projects in Kern and Los Angeles counties in California.

MidAmerican didn’t disclose the purchase price. However, analysts have pinned the purchase price somewhere between $2 billion and $2.5 billion.

Together, the combined projects will form the largest permitted solar photovoltaic power development in the world, according to SunPower and MidAmerican.

The market action, via the Los Angeles Times:

The SunPower deal, worth as much as $2.5 billion, sent solar stocks on a tear.

SunPower soared as much as 41% to $8.68 a share. Lazard Capital Markets upgraded the company to buy from neutral.

Suntech was up more than 18% to $1.90 a share, while First Solar gained as much as 11% to $35.60 a share.

Solar panel in shopping cart


Climate change may ruin Lake Tahoe’s beautiful blueness

Lake Tahoe
Aaron Hiler

Lake Tahoe is pretty. The water is clear; the mountains surrounding it are beautiful. For half a century, the environmental group Keep Tahoe Blue has fought to preserve the region's environmental sanctity, primarily by putting bumper stickers on Volvos, as far as I can tell.

Turns out that those Volvos are doing more harm than good. From the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

Climate change could profoundly affect the Tahoe area, scientists say, taking the snow out of the mountains and the blue out of the water. ...

New climate models show that in a worst-case scenario average temperatures in the Tahoe area could rise as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That's equivalent to moving Lake Tahoe from its current elevation of 6,200 feet above sea level to 3,700 feet, climate scientists report in a special January issue of the journal Climatic Change. That's as high as the peak of Contra Costa County's Mount Diablo, which gets only an inch of snow a year. …

It's not just the mountains that would look different in a warmer climate, according to Climatic Change. The worst-case scenarios also predict a devastating ecological collapse of the lake and loss of its signature clarity and blue color.

Many lakes undergo a process every year, or every few years, that keeps the lake water well-mixed. As water temperature changes through the seasons, it creates circulation in the lake. The warm water on top of the lake in summer cools off in the fall and sinks, mixing with cold deep water. In a warmer climate, the surface water won't cool off enough to mix with deeper water.

Without that mixture, oxygen doesn't penetrate the lake, changing its chemistry. So long clarity. So long blue.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Chevron’s own firefighters might have contributed to Richmond refinery fire

A small corroded pipe caused the initial blast at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., this past August, but the oil giant's own firefighters, in their haste, may well have been responsible for the fire's spread.


The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the ongoing investigation, which reveals that early efforts to put out the flames may have actually stoked them.

"One theory we are exploring is that emergency response activities inadvertently accelerated the rate of the leak," said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the Chemical Safety Board. "We are comparing possible tool marks on the pipe with tools recovered from the incident."

One tool that may have inflicted the apparent damage is a Halligan bar, which has a hook-like implement with a sharp end. Firefighters are commonly equipped with the device to help them gain entry into burning buildings.

Don Holmstrom, the Chemical Safety Board's lead investigator looking into the fire, said the blaze might well have happened even without the apparent puncture, but that the external damage could have been "an aggravating factor."

Investigators have not determined what sparked the blaze, but have raised questions about Chevron's decision to continue to run crude oil through the pipe even as workers responded to the initial, small leak.


W.Va. congressmember compares EPA head to Gadhafi

Here's some political rhetoric for you, via The Hill.

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) said the change of leadership at the EPA might not be for the better.

“I don't want a repeat of what happened in Libya when we helped topple [Moammar] Gadhafi and then we wound up having al-Qaeda," McKinley told Environment & Energy Daily. ...

McKinley, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is among the many Republicans who say President Obama’s EPA is harmful to the coal industry.

So let's analyze this. Let's break down this statement by the esteemed congressmember from the great state of West Virginia.


Surprise: Shell’s rig ran aground in Alaska because the company was trying to avoid taxes


On New Year's Eve, in the middle of a storm, Shell was trying to tow its Kulluk drilling rig from Alaska to Seattle. Why then? Why risk the bad weather, which, as it turned out, caused the rig to break free from its tugboats and run aground on Kodiak Island?

To avoid paying state taxes, of course. From Alaska Dispatch:

A Shell spokesman last week confirmed an Unalaska elected official’s claim that the Dec. 21 departure of the Kulluk from Unalaska/Dutch Harbor involved taxation.

City councilor David Gregory said Shell would pay between $6 million and $7 million in state taxes if the Kulluk was still in Alaska on Jan. 1.

Ah, but the weather had other plans, sorry to say. Shell will end up having to pay that money after all, and then some.