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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Federal solar auction flops in Colorado

San Luis Valley
Tee Poole
No one bid to build solar projects in the San Luis Valley this week.

Oh come on, solar industry. You know you want a piece of Colorado.

The rights to build solar projects on 3,705 acres of high-altitude, federally owned desert in Colorado were put up for bid on Thursday. But not a single bidder showed up.

The outcome was a disappointment for U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials. They were conducting the first of many planned solar auctions on public lands in the West.

The officials are describing the auction as a learning experience and say they will try again. The Denver Post reports:

Five companies had filed preliminary applications for the three San Luis Valley parcels, and there were another 27 inquires about the sites, according to Bureau of Land Management officials.

Based on that interest, officials scheduled an auction at the BLM Colorado office in Lakewood for the 3,700 acres of valley land.


Barnacles are accidentally eating our plastic trash

Barnacles on a boot.
Gooseneck barnacles attached to a washed-up boot.

Barnacles in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are attaching themselves to trash and eating little plastic particles. Researchers don't yet know the implications of these findings, but it's a safe bet that they're not good.

American scientists inspected the gastrointestinal tracts of 385 gooseneck barnacles collected from the garbage patch, aka the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, and found microplastic in a third of them. Some specimens had a single piece of plastic in their stomach, while others had gobbled down as many as 30. Results of this research were published Tuesday in the journal PeerJ.

Miriam Goldstein of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography described her research in the blog Deep Sea News:

Gooseneck barnacles look kind of freaky. Like acorn barnacles (the ones that more commonly grow on docks), they’re essentially a little shrimp living upside down in a shell and eating with their feet. Unlike acorn barnacles, gooseneck barnacles have a long, muscular stalk. ...

Read more: Living


India blocking efforts to save planet from climate-killing air conditioners

India flag

Has India tossed out the Kama Sutra and come up with another way of screwing the world?

The country is getting in the way of international efforts to protect the climate by phasing out HFCs.

HFCs have become popular coolants since CFCs were phased out under the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 treaty to protect the ozone layer. Today, more than 100 million air conditioners use HFCs in the U.S. alone, and lots of fridges too. The switch from CFCs to HFCs helped save the ozone layer, but it turns out that HFCs are terrible for the climate. And as the ozone heals but the weather goes bonkers, world leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to Chinese President Xi Jinping have been pledging to work together to stamp out the use of HFCs.

India's leaders have publicly voiced support for efforts to ban the use of HFCs by amending the Montreal Protocol. But when it came to crunch time during meetings in Bangkok this week, the nation's negotiators prevented formal discussion of making any such changes. From Bloomberg:

India is blocking an international plan to reduce the polluting gases used in air conditioners and refrigerators, saying negotiators are trying to use the wrong treaty to bring about changes.


Russia drops Greenpeace piracy charges, alleges activists are hooligans

Soccer hooligans.
Shutterstock / katatonia82
Hooligans are known for lighting flares and brawling at soccer games. Protesting offshore drilling? Not so much.

A hooligan is a violent young troublemaker. That's what Russian prosecutors are now calling the Greenpeace activists and the journalists who approached and in some cases scaled Russia's first offshore Arctic oil platform last month, bringing worldwide attention to the country's drilling plans.

The good news is that the prosecutors have finally dropped piracy charges against the activists. Those piracy allegations could have landed them in jail for up to 15 years.

The bad news: Now they're all being charged with hooliganism, which could result in a maximum sentence of seven years.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Chicago makes it easier to put solar panels on roofs

More solar is on its way.

The Windy City is blowing red tape and roadblocks out of the way for new solar-panel owners.

It used to take a month to receive a city permit needed to install a small solar array. That's being reduced to one day. Meanwhile, the price of the permit is falling 25 percent to $275. These improvements are thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.


We could detect wildfires faster by using satellites

Lou Angeli Digital

The Rim Fire, one of the biggest blazes in California's history, came to officials' attention only after somebody noticed a column of smoke.

At a time when satellite technology is so powerful and pervasive that you can check your gutters for leaf litter using Google Earth, why are we still relying on human eyes to detect wildfires?

That's what a team of researchers from California and Wisconsin would like to know. Writing in the journal Remote Sensing, they describe a satellite-based system they say could detect budding wildfires.

"The most serious conditions for California are the autumnal Santa Ana winds, which are persistent, clear, and very dry," the researchers write in their paper. "Under these conditions our proposed satellite detection and warning system might soon pay for itself in savings of lives, property, and fire-fighting costs."


Nitrogen pollution from farming lingers for decades

Spraying fertilizer.
There goes the groundwater.

When a farmworker sprays fertilizer over a field, there's a good chance he or she will be outlived by nitrogen pollution from that fertilizer.

A 30-year study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that nitrogen could linger in soil for nearly a century after fertilizer is applied.

Nitrogen from fertilizer helps crops grow, but it can be poisonous for humans and animals. When nitrates leach from farmed soil into groundwater, they can make it undrinkable.


The Northeast is producing more natural gas than Saudi Arabia

More natural gas is being fracked out of the Marcellus Shale formation in the Northeastern U.S. than is being produced by most foreign countries.

A report published Tuesday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration revealed that Marcellus gas production is growing much faster than had been predicted. (So, too, are the damages that fracking is inflicting on the region's environment -- and the world's climate.)

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.


Clock is ticking for Cape Wind project

Offshore wind power

The Cape Wind project, which would install 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts, is in a race against time.

It's intended to be the first offshore wind farm in U.S. waters, and once it's up and running, it could provide three-quarters of the electricity used at Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket. But if construction doesn't start by the end of this year, its backers stand to miss out on a federal tax credit and $200 million worth of investment promised by PensionDanmark, throwing its future into doubt.

What's the holdup? The project has been besieged by lawsuits, most of them filed by folks who worry that the turbines would interfere with their views and boat outings.

But now Cape Wind executives say they expect to resolve the remaining suits shortly, potentially clearing the way for the project to beat the Dec. 31 deadline. From Bloomberg:

Two legal appeals remain after the company won 13 previous challenges, Vice President Dennis Duffy said [Tuesday] at the American Wind Energy Association’s Offshore Windpower 2013 conference in Providence, Rhode Island.


Utility trying to bury solar in Arizona

Rooftop solar panels

A battle between the solar-panel industry and a major utility in Arizona is heating up.

The fight is over net-metering rules, which require utilities to purchase excess electricity produced by solar panel–owning customers. Hearings to consider proposed rule changes are scheduled for next month.

A lot of money is at stake -- for Arizona Public Service Co., the utility pushing the proposed rule changes, and also for solar installers and solar-panel owners.

APS wants to slash its payments to each solar-panel owner by between $50 and $100 a month. It says the payments are a burden on customers who don’t own solar panels. The solar industry, meanwhile, is saying the proposed changes would cripple its growth.

The Arizona Republic paints a picture of a utility desperate to sully solar's reputation as it seeks to build support for its proposal: