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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Big-box stores go big on solar

There are two things you notice when you see a Google Maps view of a big-box store: a lot of parking lot and a lot of roof. That first thing is a problem: Big-box stores are a symptom and a facilitator of sprawl, encouraging people to drive in and consume. For most such stores, even someone living across the street would have to walk about five minutes across asphalt before they could make a purchase.

Panels on a Sam's Club in Puerto Rico. Walmart (parent company of Sam's) has a large gallery of images of its solar rooftops.

But those roofs? The roofs are an opportunity -- for the company and for the environment. As The New York Times reports:

Led by the likes of Walmart, Costco and Kohl’s, commercial installations of solar power have increased sharply in recent months. More than 3,600 nonresidential systems were activated in the first half of 2012, bringing the number of individual solar electric systems to 24,000, the report said.

Whether driven by brand identity or cost concerns, almost half of the top 20 commercial solar customers are major retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond and Staples.

Ikea, one of the chains in the top 20, plans to have solar arrays on almost all of its furniture stores and distribution centers by the end of the year, Joseph Roth, a spokesman, said.

This is obviously good news. Looking down on a big-box site and seeing a parking lot surrounding an array of solar panels isn't ideal, but it's better.


Sweden recycles so effectively that it has to import garbage to incinerate

Every country should be so lucky as to have Sweden's problem: It doesn't produce enough garbage.

As reported by Public Radio International, Sweden has a remarkably effective recycling program. Only 4 percent of the country's waste ends up in landfills, with the other 96 percent being reused in some way. There is one problem with that, however: The country has incinerators that burn waste to create heat (a must-have in the region) and electricity. And too little waste means not enough fuel for those fires.

Sweden's electricity production, in kilowatt-hours by population. Note that the country is increasingly using incinerated biofuels and waste (green line). (Data from Wikipedia.)

Catarina Ostlund, Senior Advisor for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, said the country is producing much less burnable waste than it needs. ...

However, they’ve recently found a solution.

Sweden has recently begun to import about eight hundred thousand tons of trash from the rest of Europe per year to use in its power plants. The majority of the imported waste comes from neighboring Norway because it’s more expensive to burn the trash there and cheaper for the Norwegians to simply export their waste to Sweden.


GOP pushes bill to quash EPA’s international climate efforts

Today in Washington, politics happened. From The Hill:

An Environmental Protection Agency official said during a Tuesday hearing that a House Republican-sponsored bill would “cripple” the agency’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This concern failed to change the Republicans' minds.


There’s methane trapped at the bottom of the ocean, so obviously we should get it and burn it

An international team of scientists had a warning last week: A massive amount of methane trapped in Antarctic ice could be released into the atmosphere.

Which probably prompted some energy companies to think: We gotta get our hands on that.

Gas hydrates are crystalline gas (often methane) molecules surrounded by a "cage" of water in a solid that resembles ice. As it melts, the gas is released. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, methane hydrates are stable compounds in water at a depth of greater than 300 feet.

Click to embiggen. (Image courtesy of USGS.)

At right is a map of methane hydrate deposits located off the coast of South Carolina. Right there, just off our coast, all that methane, ready to burn. But who is going to invest in figuring out how to tap into these reserves?

Your rich Uncle Sam, that's who. Late last month, the Department of Energy announced more than $5.5 million in investments granted primarily to universities for research into how the methane in these hydrates could be used.


Chevy isn’t losing $49,000 on every Volt it sells, for God’s sake

Let's say I give you a million dollars. Cool, you'd say. Probably also: Thanks.

And now I say: You need to use that money to make a product. Say, baskets. You're all, OK, cool, I can make baskets. Good.

So you set up a system to make baskets. You invest that million dollars in a factory and some workers and so on (I have literally no idea what goes into basket-making -- wicker? straw? whatever) and start cranking out baskets. You decide to sell them for $100 a piece. You make 100 to start, and sell all 100 of them. Boom. You've got $10,000 in hand. Not bad.

But if Reuters is doing the math, you're losing $9,900 on every basket you sell. After all, the Reuters reporter would suggest, mansplaining away: You made 100 baskets but it cost you $1 million to make them. That's $10,000 a piece, from which you only earned back $100.

To which you would say: What, Reuters? What? Do you need a calculator, Reuters? Reuters! Come on, man! And so on and so on, forgetting completely about your basket business, letting your clothes fall into disrepair as you gnash your teeth and wail at the unforgiving sky.

Chevy Volt, as it says on the tin.


On Sept. 11, 2012, the Times asks: Is New York ready for disaster?

Several weeks ago, we looked at what New York (and its lesser companion, Boston) is doing to prepare for higher tides, storm surges, and severe weather. But is it enough? Is New York City ready for climate change?

New York Harbor. Manhattan is at far right.

Critics, as they are wont to do, say no. From page A1 of today's New York Times:

Only a year ago, they point out, the city shut down the subway system and ordered the evacuation of 370,000 people as Hurricane Irene barreled up the Atlantic coast. Ultimately, the hurricane weakened to a tropical storm and spared the city, but it exposed how New York is years away from -- and billions of dollars short of -- armoring itself.

“They lack a sense of urgency about this,” said Douglas Hill, an engineer with the Storm Surge Research Group at Stony Brook University, on Long Island.

The primary threat is flooding.

Unlike New Orleans, New York City is above sea level. Yet the city is second only to New Orleans in the number of people living less than four feet above high tide — nearly 200,000 New Yorkers, according to the research group Climate Central.

The waters on the city’s doorstep have been rising roughly an inch a decade over the last century as oceans have warmed and expanded. But according to scientists advising the city, that rate is accelerating, because of environmental factors, and levels could rise two feet higher than today’s by midcentury. More frequent flooding is expected to become an uncomfortable reality.

With higher seas, a common storm could prove as damaging as the rare big storm or hurricane is today, scientists say. Were sea levels to rise four feet by the 2080s, for example, 34 percent of the city’s streets could lie in the flood-risk zone, compared with just 11 percent now, a 2011 study commissioned by the state said.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Paul Ryan pushed for greener cars, until he didn’t

At the 3:00 mark of the video above, Paul Ryan says this:

I would just say, if you take a look at the president’s policies, he calls them investments. It’s borrowing money and spending money through Washington, picking winners and losers, spending money on favorite people like Solyndra or Fisker ...

It's a common line from the vice presidential candidate and his party: The Obama administration has "picked winners and losers," granting government money to companies that the president politically favors. It's hypocritical, of course; elected officials of every stripe -- Ryan included -- advocate for funding for their constituents and for issues they support. Like Charles Koch's attack on cronyism, elected officials who argue that an opponent's policies are exclusionary and preferential are setting themselves up for an easy rebuttal.

And here's the rebuttal to Ryan, in case you didn't see where this was going.


How much ice has the Arctic lost? Enough to cover Canada

A bit of good news: The extent of Arctic sea-ice melt may have reached its maximum for 2012. The record-setting melt isn't good news itself, of course -- just that it is near its bottom.

In 2007, the previous record-low year, the lowest extent of 4.25 million square kilometers was reached on Sept. 24. The lowest point we've reached this year was last Friday, at 3.66 million sq. km. -- 13.8 percent less than the previous record. (All data here is from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.)

Ice extent, as of yesterday. (Image courtesy of the University of Colorado.)

A post at Climate Central raises an interesting question: What does this year's ice-coverage loss compare to in surface area?

The loss from the year's high point (which came on March 17) has been massive -- 10.77 million sq. km., a loss of 74.6 percent.

Read more: Climate & Energy


To pay fines from the Gulf spill, BP is selling oil fields in the Gulf

For sale: Gulf of Mexico oil fields.

Asking price: $5.6 billion.

Seller: British Petroleum.

Reason for selling: Need to raise money to pay huge fines levied after poking a hole in a Gulf of Mexico oil field and not closing it up for a few months.

Sorry, gang. This one is not for sale.


Only one-third of Americans think limiting climate change is a very important goal

The minority viewpoint.

Eleven years after 9/11 -- if you can believe it has been that long -- the Chicago Council on Global Affairs decided to gauge how Americans' views on global security have evolved.

First and foremost, concern over global terrorism has dropped precipitously, with more significant declines evident among younger populations. But we're here to talk about the changing climate. How do Americans feel climate change ranks as an important foreign policy goal?

They don't.

Click to embiggen.

Only one-third of respondents listed climate change as a "very important" goal, down two percentage points from 2010. Worse, climate change was third-to-last, after "strengthening the United Nations." A February poll suggested that 61 percent of Americans think the U.N. is doing a "poor job," if that gives you any indication of the esteem in which it is held.