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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


California’s governor signs a slew of new renewable energy bills

California Gov. Jerry Brown (previously the mayor of Oakland and, before that, the governor of California) was presented yesterday with about two dozen bills from the state legislature advancing efforts to increase the state's use of renewable energy and to reduce consumption. Brown signed 19 into law.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The bills include a measure by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) that directs the state to coordinate implementation of policies advancing energy security with the Department of Defense.

“The health of the environment, job creation and indeed, the security of the nation, depend on how we end America’s dangerous addiction to foreign oil,” Brown said after signing SB 1409. “California and the U.S. military are working together to build a clean energy future and this bill helps make sure it happens.”

Brown also signed SB 1222 by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), which seeks to encourage the installation of rooftop solar energy systems on homes by limiting residential permit fees charged by cities and counties to the cost of providing the permits.

Another bill signed by Brown clarifies what counts as renewable energy under the state's renewable mandate.

Tim Pearce
California is basically renewable energy plus this.


America, this is how you’re using your energy

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy, is tasked with determining how much energy the United States uses and what it is used for. Wondering how much energy people use in their houses to stay warm? The EIA has that answer. Curious about fuel efficiency trends over time? Ask the EIA. Wondering how much oil America uses compared to how much it imports? Et cetera, et cetera.

Each year the agency puts together a massive report answering that question. Yesterday, it released the report for 2011. Here are some of the most interesting findings.

The big picture
Here's how U.S. energy consumption and production have compared over time. You'll notice that consumption has stayed flat recently, even declined slightly in the past five years -- while production is spiking and imports dropping.

Click to embiggen.
Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Chinese economic slowdown means less demand for American coal

Chinese flag against sun
Looking for a culprit in the coal industry's decline? Blame China.

Mitt Romney's new coal-pandering ad (see here) warned coal miners that Obama hated them and also jobs are going to China. Here's the ironic twist: A slowdown in the Chinese economy may be hurting coal mines.

From the Wall Street Journal:

[T]he Chinese economy is slowing and so is its steel industry. That has sent the price of coal used for steelmaking down nearly 50% to $170 a metric ton. Those coal producers who counted on Chinese sales are reeling. …

While many have blamed the downturn in the U.S. coal industry on cheap natural gas supplanting coal and tougher environmental regulations, the slide in metallurgical coal demand has been equally devastating. Coal companies were caught flat-footed after ramping up production last year with the expectation that steep prices would cover their rising costs, despite coal's past cyclicality. Instead, demand in China began to falter just as Australian metallurgical coal production -- interrupted by floods last year -- surged back into the market. …

China's metallurgical coal imports dropped to 2.6 million metric tons in August, from an average of 4.5 million metric tons per month through July. Now coal mines are closing throughout Appalachia.

The U.S. sends a lot of coal overseas -- meaning that fluctuations in international demand can really hit home. The Journal outlines some of the recent coal company bankruptcies or contractions: Patriot Coal, Alpha, Consol.


BP fined after it fails surprise spill-containment inspections

The Environmental Protection Agency, no slouches, occasionally performs surprise tests of oil companies' ability to contain spills. Twice the EPA visited such tests on BP. You can guess how BP fared.

BP Products North America will pay $210,000 and create enhanced oil spill response programs at all of its U.S. oil facilities under the terms of a consent agreement announced Thursday. …

The EPA said the company twice failed to pass unannounced oil-spill exercises administered by the EPA and U.S. Coast Guard at the Curtis Bay Terminal [in Maryland]. BP was unable to contain a small-scale discharge of fuel from the facility in the time allotted for the test.

The Department of Justice, which levied the punishment, also demanded that BP review its response plans.


Georgia Power makes a big bet on solar

Dudes holding a solar panel.

Georgia Power plans to invest heavily in new energy production. Specifically, up to 210 megawatts of solar by 2017.

From Bloomberg:

[The company], based in Atlanta, submitted plans to regulators to buy 70 megawatts of capacity a year starting in 2015, according to a statement yesterday.

If approved, the Advanced Solar Initiative would be the largest voluntary purchase of solar energy by an investor-owned utility in the U.S., Georgia Power said. Utilities in some other states are required to buy electricity generated from renewable sources. Georgia doesn’t have a state renewable portfolio standard, as such polices are known.

Why the investment? One incentive was provided this summer. The Union of Concerned Scientists (a union of concerned scientists) has long noted the link between warm weather and reduced electricity generation from fossil fuel plants. Data released today notes several instances of power plants operating at reduced output because the warm weather meant warmer water -- and less of it. Here's the UCS's map of where there have been "collisions" between the need for water and the effort to produce electricity.

Click to embiggen.

Only Illinois has seen more such conflicts than Georgia.


New York City sees spike in traffic deaths, harbor poop

Don't stand where those blurry lights are.

One of the cool things about a city the size of New York is that it generates a lot of data. A lot of people, a lot of interaction, a lot of events. At the end of every fiscal year, the city's deputy mayor for operations puts together a document outlining how New York is doing on various metrics.

This year, there was at least one big surprise: Traffic fatalities increased. From the New York Times:

Traffic fatalities from July 2011 through June 2012 were up 23 percent from the previous year -- to 291, from 236. It was the first increase since 2007, when there were 310 traffic fatalities.

Though overall crashes fell slightly for the second straight year, 176 cyclists or pedestrians were killed in crashes, up from 158 the previous year. The other 115 deaths were motorists or their passengers, a sharp rise from the 78 drivers and passengers killed the year before. …

According to the Mayor’s Management Report, speeding, driving while intoxicated, and running red lights or stop signs accounted for a combined 54 percent of motorist or passenger fatalities. The report said a preliminary analysis suggested that the crashes were concentrated on highways, far removed from many of the areas that have been the focus of the city’s initiatives.

Traffic deaths:

All graphs in this post are from the Mayor's Management Report.

The increase was a surprise to the city and advocates alike. The commissioner of transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, put blame on mobile devices.


The vanishing ice cap, in two images

NASA's Earth Observatory released some images earlier today that make a dramatic point.

Here was the ice cap on Sept. 14, 1984.

Here it was two weeks ago -- near (but not at) the all-time low.

If you're more of a tactile type, the Earth Observatory website has a cool tool that lets you slide between the two images. Easy come, easy go.

Read more: Climate & Energy


USDA OKs tofu as a meat substitute in school lunches

Mmm tofu. (Photo by flavorrelish.)

School lunches can now offer tofu as a "meat alternate," thanks to a little-noticed announcement from the Department of Agriculture in January. If you're looking for it in the government code, it's at "7 C.F.R. 210.10(c)(2)(i)(D) of the regulatory text for the NSLP," so just flip on over to that sub-sub-sub-sub-subsection.

Here's the USDA's announcement.

In short:

While tofu does not currently have a Federal standard of identity, the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) encourage plant-based sources of protein such as tofu. According to the DGA, consumption of a balanced variety of protein foods can contribute to improved nutrient intake and health benefits.

Not to get post-modern, but who among us does have a federal standard of identity? (You'll soon need one to vote in various Southern states.)

Read more: Food, Politics


The economy grows more slowly than expected, thanks to the drought

Your obligatory drought photo. (Photo by Jeff Reid.)

Earlier this year, the government projected that the nation's economy would expand at a rate of 1.7 percent during the second quarter. It didn't -- and you can blame the drought.

From the Washington Post:

The overall economy grew at a disappointing 1.3 percent annual pace in the April through June period, down from the government’s previous estimate of 1.7 percent growth. Roughly half of that decline came from a sharp fall in farm inventories. Crop production declined $12 billion over the quarter, data showed, “due to this summer’s severe heat and drought.” …

Some analysts saw this as good news, arguing that the drought-induced slowdown will only prove temporary. “Don’t panic,” cautioned a research note from Capital Economics. The weak patch, the firm argued, “will eventually be reversed when the drought abates.”

That 1.3 percent is slightly misleading; the growth was actually 1.25 percent.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Domestic oil production reaches a 15-year high

A metal insect from one of the Godzilla movies.

Why does Obama hate oil so much? All he wants to do is stop drilling oil and make everyone use cars that run on positive energy and replace all plastics with material made out of free-range bacteria or something. This guy is just the worst president ever for energy development! It's an outrage, I tell you, etc.!

U.S. oil production surged last week to the highest level since January 1997, reducing the country’s dependence on imported fuels as new technology unlocks crude trapped in shale formations.

Crude output rose by 3.7 percent to 6.509 million barrels a day in the week ended Sept. 21, the Energy Department reported today. America met 83 percent of its energy needs in the first six months of the year, department data show. If the trend continues through 2012, it will be the highest level of self- sufficiency since 1991. Imports have declined 3.2 percent from the same period a year earlier.

A combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has helped reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil. The same technology unleashed a boom in natural gas output from shale that pushed inventories to a record last year.

As John Adams said, facts are stubborn things. But, then, he was a Federalist, not a Republican.