Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Year in Solar: Sunny Side Up

My reporting on the solar industry continues with this ditty for the East Bay Express' Year in Review package. Unlike most of my other solar stories, this focuses on rooftop solar installation (as opposed to utility-scale solar in remote areas, and the environmental impacts thereof). It's relatively short (900 words), but you'll get a good idea what 2011 was like from the subhed: "Solyndra went under, but more East Bay homes went solar in 2011 than ever before." In other words, although it was the year that the US solar industry came under fire (and China asserted its dominance in manufacturing) like never before, it was also a year that other elements of the industry -- particularly solar leasing for rooftop residential installations -- truly caught fire. Read on ...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Save the Bay Turns 50, and What That Means

I like the headline the Examiner used for my feature on the 50th anniversary of Save the Bay, so I'll repeat it: "At 50, Save the Bay looks back at history, forward to Cargill project." The idea is that while the organization's accomplishments over the past five decades have been incredible, the work will never end. And one of its biggest battles lies on the horizon: a fight to keep Cargill from developing unused salt flats outside Redwood City rather than restoring them to wetlands. Multiple reports in the last month alone have pointed to the importance of wetlands in insulating the San Francisco Bay Area's people, plants, and animals from the effects of sea-level rise caused by global warming, and wetlands like the one Save the Bay wants to restore on Cargill's property will only become more critical.

Meeting Save the Bay founder Sylvia McLaughlin, now 95 and still living in the Berkeley hills, as well as learning more about the bay's ecology, were incredible benefits of this assignment. But the take-away message must be: As improved as it is in 2011 versus 1960, when it reeked of raw sewage and was being filled at the rate of two square miles per years, the San Francisco Bay is still threatened. Given the sheer number of people ringing its shore, that will always be the case. And everything from casual litter to state policy today impacts what it'll look like in another fifty years. By no accident will it continue to improve, or revert to its formerly spoiled state.

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner: http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/2011/12/50-save-bay-looks-back-history-forward-cargill-project#ixzz1fo1vBAcb.

A Front-Row Seat at Oakland's Middle Harbor

A wooden bench, not 20 feet from the water passing with the tides behind Jack London Square. My seat faces the narrow channel and, on the other side, warehouses on Alameda's industrial north end, the legacy of the Navy's 60-year presence. To my right, hulking container ships bound overseas are loaded and unloaded by a pair of Oakland's iconic cranes. They dwarf the passenger ferry that loads and unloads here, too, from a short pier a few hundred feet away.

They also block the view of San Francisco and Marin to the north, but no matter; what counts here is right in front of me: Calm, composed waters of the Middle Harbor, the corridor of water running south from Oakland's main port in that critical gap between Oakland and Alameda. From this vantage point, where I visit almost daily after a short walk from my office a half-mile away, it's but a sliver in time along the water's path. Sailboats move in toward the harbor a short way down or out toward the wide open bay, as do tugboats, flat-bed barges, small personal fishing boats, the occasional kayak. Watching them passes my time.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Exploring the East Bay Bike Party

Back in September I posted about attending that month's East Bay Bike Party ride and filing a story for Oakland magazine. As you can tell from the tone of both, I was charmed by the whole experience and have been pining for a sequel. My schedule hasn't allowed me to quite yet, but mark my words -- I'll be back. (As if you care -- just read the damn story.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Story Behind "The Plastic Problem"

"The Plastic Problem," out 11/9 in the East Bay Express, is perhaps the most complex cover story I've ever written, and therefore the most challenging sell. But it's also a very important one. The story behind the story is that it grew from a planned 1,000-word Eco Watch story on El Cerrito's new drop-off recycling center that could accept everything. My editor and I started wondering, Well, how can they accept everything when Berkeley still won't take most plastics? And where is it going?

That question led me down a long path toward my ultimate conclusion that Berkeley's anti-plastic stance is no longer useful, and that it has been surpassed as a responsible waste handler by its neighbors Oakland and El Cerrito. The reason for this is manifold: 1) Berkeley's message that we shouldn't buy plastics isn't getting through, as its residents trashed 30 percent more plastic in 2008 than they did in 2000; 2) The vast majority of the increasing numbers of plastic containers, packaging, tubs, and bags being generated in Berkeley is heading straight to local landfills; and 3) Berkeley's Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, where the sorting and processing of recyclables takes place, is unequipped to handle any more plastics than the limited number it currently does, and Berkeley lacks the money in its refuse fund to make the significant investments in its MRF that would be required to expand its plastic recycling capacity.

The bottom line is that the city that introduced curbside recycling to the US has in recent years fallen well behind the curve. Read the full story here.
"The Plastic Problem"
By Nate Seltenrich
The Berkeley Recycling Center, where city trucks unload curbside recycling, residents discard used batteries and fluorescent bulbs, and freelance recyclers redeem cans for cash, seems a microcosm of utopian Berkeley society. Seven days a week visitors come and go as they please, granted relative autonomy in doing the earth a good turn, never chaperoned or micromanaged by the powers that be, who are housed in a two-room portable office only a hundred feet away.

Collection trucks owned by the nonprofit Ecology Center rumble through the small lot, emptying their loads onto what's known as the tipping floor. Others move recyclables in and out of the adjacent materials recovery facility, an open-face structure operated by fellow nonprofit Community Conservation Centers. Here, in a transparent and low-tech process, the contents of the city's recycling bins travel along conveyor belts where they're picked off the line, largely by hand, and bundled for sale to commodities buyers.

But there's a sour note playing amidst this roaring ode to recycling: plastic. It's everywhere. A slumping pile ten feet tall of materials that came from Berkeley's curbside recycling bins is comprised primarily of plastic. Within the materials recovery facility, known in industry parlance as a MRF (pronounced "merf"), plastic crowds the conveyors: water bottles, milk jugs, yogurt cartons, packaging of myriad shapes, sizes, and colors.

[... continue reading at EastBayExpress.com]

Monday, November 21, 2011

Befuddlement Over Beach Closures

An oldie but a goody; and by that I mean I forgot to post this story for the Santa Cruz Weekly when it came out back in August. It addresses the issue of what it means, exactly, to close a state beach. The question is fraught with tension, not least of which being the fact that the California Coastal Commission is determined to keep beaches public -- and maybe prepared to slug it out in the courts.

If it makes you feel any better, the picture has hardly changed since summer: California's experiment in closing a whole lot of state parks (70 out of 278) in order to save not a whole lot of cash (less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the $26 billion budget deficit the state was grappling with earlier this year) remains just that: an experiment. The 70 parks are supposed to be closed by July 2012, and we're still not sure how it all works. (See this recent story in the Sac Bee for an example.)

Anyway, read this, then stay tuned for more. (Warning: The online story is missing line breaks for some reason, making it kind of impossible to read. But by golly, I wanted to post it.)

"Befuddlement Over Beach Closures"

By Nate Seltenrich

Closing a park is hard; closing a beach is even harder. But that’s just what Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed for four local state beaches. The beaches—Twin Lakes and Seabright in Santa Cruz County and Zmudowski and Moss Landing in Monterey County’s northern reaches—are among nine beaches up and down the state set for closure by next July. Due to the unique public access issues posed by beaches, the question of how exactly that will look—or if it will even work—remains entirely unanswered. [continue reading at SantaCruz.com]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More on the Solar Industry: The China Effect

Recent announcements by two giant US solar manufacturers raise more questions about whether American companies can compete with China.

Read it in the 11/9 issue of the East Bay Express.

For more on the US solar industry in the wake of Solyndra's downfall, see this post.

The Plastic Problem

My latest cover story for the Express addresses the ongoing challenge of handling the onslaught of plastics for cities both here in the East Bay and across the country. Berkeley pioneered curbside recycling forty years ago but is now buried in plastic after failing to convince residents to stop buying it. Do its neighbors have a solution?

***

The Berkeley Recycling Center, where city trucks unload curbside recycling, residents discard used batteries and fluorescent bulbs, and freelance recyclers redeem cans for cash, seems a microcosm of utopian Berkeley society. Seven days a week visitors come and go as they please, granted relative autonomy in doing the earth a good turn, never chaperoned or micromanaged by the powers that be, who are housed in a two-room portable office only a hundred feet away.

Collection trucks owned by the nonprofit Ecology Center rumble through the small lot, emptying their loads onto what's known as the tipping floor. Others move recyclables in and out of the adjacent materials recovery facility, an open-face structure operated by fellow nonprofit Community Conservation Centers. Here, in a transparent and low-tech process, the contents of the city's recycling bins travel along conveyor belts where they're picked off the line, largely by hand, and bundled for sale to commodities buyers.

But there's a sour note playing amidst this roaring ode to recycling: plastic. It's everywhere. A slumping pile ten feet tall of materials that came from Berkeley's curbside recycling bins is comprised primarily of plastic. Within the materials recovery facility, known in industry parlance as a MRF (pronounced "merf"), plastic crowds the conveyors: water bottles, milk jugs, yogurt cartons, packaging of myriad shapes, sizes, and colors.

Continue reading at EastBayExpress.com ...

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Nature vs. "Nature"

Reading Bill McKibben's The End of Nature 22 years after its release in 1989 is a revelatory experience. For one, it's downright depressing to realize that most of the popular and political debate over climate change hasn't progressed since then, and in some ways has regressed. This has profound implications for the public policies we need to address climate change -- no political support means no policies means no hope of a solution. While the science has only grown more firm, and more widely accepted within the scientific community (according to two recent studies, 97 percent of climate experts think humans are responsible for global warming), the debate, or at least the image of one, hasn't died.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Pair of Stories on the Collapse of Solyndra

Solyndra went caput, but other solar companies throughout the country -- and here in the East Bay -- are doing just fine. If anything, the collapse of Solyndra is a good sign for the solar industry: it means it's maturing, and the market is functioning (story 1: "Solar Is Still Humming," which the Treehugger blog picked up, or so I hear). Yet at the same time, the political fallout from the bankruptcy has been a bit more insidious (story 2: "Solar Takes a Hit"). If you read only two stories about the solar industry this month, they may as well be these. I mean, why not? Now if I could just get my wife to read them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

East Bay Bike Party: See You There

Now HERE'S some true Human-Powered Exploration. The East Bay Bike Party is truly amazing. I rode in September's event along with about 800 other bicyclists came away nothing short of inspired. If you live in the Bay Area and own or can borrow a bike, I highly recommend it. It takes place every second Friday at various locations throughout the East Bay ... and as for any further details, well, read my upcoming story in Alameda magazine (I'll post it here when it's up). In the meantime, check out their website or join me at the October ride on the 14th.

Large-Scale Solar Arrives in Alameda County

Perhaps it takes a broad interpretation of the concept of human-powered exploration to relate it to land use issues surrounding solar development in eastern Alameda County, but I'm okay with that. This story appeared on A-1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturday, September 10. It serves as a nice follow-up to my December 2010 cover story "Oakland Invades the Desert" for the East Bay Express, as it addresses many of the same debates: Where do we build solar plants, and what sort of ground are we going to cover up? There are always trade-offs. In this case, instead of desert tortoise habitat it's raptors and farmland. A story I wrote recently for Sierra magazine (coming in November) is third in line, addressing a sort of second phase of large-scale solar development where solar developers and environmental groups attempt to work together to avoid any such impacts by focusing on previously degraded lands. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Catching Up

It's been five months since I posted my last piece here, but that doesn't mean I haven't been writing. Here's a full list of my recent stories on parks, recycling, solar power, and more:

4/13: "The Cruel Irony of the Oakland Zoo Expansion" - East Bay Express
4/20: "The Recycling Guru" - East Bay Express
5/11: "Using Trees to Curb Pollution" - East Bay Express
5/31: "Santa Cruz County Wastes Not" - Santa Cruz Weekly
6/1: "Slashing the Solar Paperwork" - East Bay Express
6/8: "The Beautification of Albany Beach" - East Bay Express
6/12: "Winding through nature and city streets, the Bay Trail is an idea as much as a place" - San Francisco Examiner
6/15: "Garbage Dump Tapes Top Marks for Recycling" - Metro Silicon Valley
6/22: "The Blair Park Project" - East Bay Express
6/26: "SF parks advocates worried city's open spaces will become less public" - San Francisco Examiner
7/6: "A New Lake Merritt Dog Park?" - East Bay Express
8/2: "Befuddlement Over Beach Closures" - Santa Cruz Weekly
8/3: "How Safe Is Your Soil?" - East Bay Express
8/3: "Sound Walls Bound for Rockridge?" - East Bay Express

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cutting Roofttop Solar "Soft Costs"

The East Bay Green Corridor is attempting to remove a troublesome barrier to widespread solar adoption — bureaucratic red tape. ... Photovoltaic hardware costs and efficiencies have improved markedly in recent years, but one aspect of rooftop solar installation lags far behind: paperwork and permitting processes, which not only vary wildly from one city to the next, but have grown in complexity and cost. Read more at EastBayExpress.com.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

First Parks in Peril, Now Trees in Trouble

This piece is something of a follow-up to my January 2011 story "Parks in Peril," about the obliteration of Oakland's public works agency's park maintenance budget. In "Oakland Overgrown," which likewise appeared on the cover of the Express, I look at the effects of deep budget cuts on the city's Tree Services Division. The gist: No more preventive maintenance, and no more new trees. The result: Increasingly serious hazards and threats to public safety from trees, plus a reliance on volunteer organizations to keep greening Oakland, all in a city named for a native tree. How's that for irony?

A Serious Setback for Alameda Creek

Here's a story about Alameda Creek, fifteen years of efforts to restore its historical steelhead run, and a new CalTrans road-widening plan that may ruin the creek for fish. Give it a read.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dog Park Divides Lake Merritt

Hot topic? A total of 79 comments on the East Bay Express website seem to say so. Here's the deal: Some folks have been working to get a dog park in the Lake Merritt area since the late '90s. The park at the north end of the lake has only a few more hoops to jump through, but some nearby residents who recently learned of the plans are none too happy about the proposed location. There are good arguments on both sides. And I think that if you read other stories on the issue in the Trib and the Chron, you'll find that both give the opponents short shrift. I tried to represent a balanced view of the debate and not come down on one side or the other. The key is to increase awareness, which up til now has been sorely lacking, and let the city government make an informed decision. Whether the park is or isn't built, I hope that democracy, open government, and maybe even compromise -- rather than politics and back-room dealing -- prevail in this important decision regarding open space land-use at the heart of Oakland.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Suing a Powerplant to Save a Butterfly

Maybe you've never heard of the Lange's Metalmark butterfly. Maybe you never will. After all, there are only 150 or so in existence, and they all live on a narrow swath of coastal dunes in Antioch. Significant efforts to revive the butterfly have been mildly successful, but scientists have been unable to make much real headway - or to fully piece together all the factors in play. Maybe it's got something to do with the fact that the dunes are virtually surrounded by power plants. That's the conclusion pointed to by recent studies showing how nitrogen emissions fertilize the soil in the dunes, which encourages non-native plants to proliferate, which crowds out the native buckwheat, which is the only food for larval Lange's Metalmarks. A current lawsuit, to be decided tomorrow in San Francisco federal court -- with the Center for a Better Environment and the Wild Equity Institute on one side, and PG&E on the other -- will either help secure protection for the butterflies from the power plants' emissions or allow the newest plant, owned by the utility company, to continue to operate without any consideration of its effects on the endangered and federally list insect. Read the full story here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Human-Powered Explorer, Meet Post-Car Press

It was only natural that I'd be interested in covering a guidebook that tells you how to get around without using a car. My wife and I own a car, but I'm walking, skateboarding, or biking any time I can help it. Of couse, I'm always impressed by people who take it one step further. Not only do the two Oakland-based characters in this story eschew cars altogether, but they're extremely ambtitious in their car-free travel: Napa, Yosemite, Big Sur, no problem. They do it by linking bicycling with riding transit (trains, buses, ferries) and occasionally hiking or walking. Post-Car Press, as the publishing end of their enterprise is known, just released the second edition of Post-Car Adventuring the San Francisco Bay Area. So I took the opportunity to learn a bit more about what they do and why, as well as about all the other adventurous car-free ideas spinning in their heads like so many disembodied automobile wheels.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Oakland's Parks in Peril

This baby's been in the ol' hopper for a long time. In fact, years ago I debated launching a blog called the Oakland Parks Project that would focus on one park in every post, with the ultimate goal of visiting (and assessing) each and every one. Then I realized that would take a lot of damn time and I just wouldn't be able to do it on an unpaid blog if I wanted to also, you know, earn some money. So I scrapped the idea and created Human-Powered Explorer instead. But last month's East Bay Express cover story "Parks in Peril" pretty well encapsulated what I wanted to do, with the added bonus of addressing Oakland's budget woes and the funding mechanisms behind the (flagging) maintenance of Oakland's city parks. I'm happy with how it turned out. Maybe some day I will visit and document all of Oakland's approximately 100 parks -- but for now, this is my Oakland parks opus. Enjoy. (As a side note, my reporting drew some attention to immediate needs at two parks, Linden and Ira Jinkins, and resulted in Public Works jumping on them shortly after publication.)

Building a Better Breuner Marsh

As with many of my Eco Watch stories, this one began somewhere familiar and led somewhere I never expected. The somewhere familiar would the East Bay Regional Park District. I've written about it and its parks on many, many occasions, and enjoyed them as a runner and hiker on many more. By learning about the newest shoreline-park-to-be, Richmond's Breuner Marsh, I was introduced to not only a potential waterfront wonderland (once the cleanup is complete in five years and the shoreline permanently protected, that is), but also a new favorite East Bay destination. I've known about Point Pinole Regional Park for years but have never visited; it's one the of the EBRPD's larger holdings, and sits on a spit in northwest Richmond with a fascinating history involving gunpowder and trains. Today it's a peaceful, almost majestic place that doesn't see the crowds of the parks in the hills but offers at least as much to enjoy: an accessible beach, miles of trails, open fields, a eucalyptus forest, and a massive marshland housing federally protected native species. Abutting its southern border is the future Breuner Marsh park, and I think East Bay residents would do well to look forward to the day when the two parks are connected via the Bay Trail, establishing one of the largest, most remote, most ecologically rich sections of waterfront parkland in the Bay Area.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Cliff Bars Not as Organic as They Seem

If you eat Clif Bars or other energy bars; if you're a vegetarian or eat veggie burgers or other meat substitutes; or if you simply like to know what you're eating, you need to know about hexane. It's a neurotoxic chemical used to process a wide variety of foods. And while it's banned in organics, foods advertised only as containing organic ingredients -- such as Clif Bars -- are allowed to contane hexane-processed ingredients. Clif, based in the Emeryville, was the basis of this story about hexane-extracted soy protein for the East Bay Express.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Emeryville's Amyris Tackles Malaria, Then Petroleum

This story has a lot in common with my piece earlier this year on a summer-school program called ICLEM: Both Amyris and that program are housed in the same building; both are working toward biofuel solutions; both have roots at UC Berkeley; and both figure prominently around UC Berkeley scientist Jay Kiesling. The difference is that one's an educational enterprise for high-school students, and one's a private company with a huge budget, federal buy-in, international reach, and the potential to make serious impacts. Amyris, in fact, hopes to be the first US company to bring a patented renewable fuel to market. They're on my list of green companies to watch (not merely in the East Bay, but the entire country), and should be on yours.

The Electromagnetic Menace

Cell phones and towers and SmartMeters, oh my! They're the new envionmental health cause. Electro-smog is the new pollution. Here's another story on anti-EMF activism, this time centered on the East Bay for the Express.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

East Bay Solar Companies Lead the Nation

My first real foray into the world of solar power was enlightening (some pun intended) and challenging. This 5,000-word cover story focuses on the environmental impacts on desert lands of large-scale solar plants, but could've run to at least twice as long if I'd addressed some of the other components of a very complex topic: namely economics, carbon emissions and global warming, and rooftop solar. The impetus for covering the issue for the Express is the amazing fact that four of the nation's largest solar power companies are based in the East Bay: three in Oakland, one in Richmond. Learning about each of these businesses and their various projects was a challenge in and of itself: They're a bit tight-lipped, wary of sharing proprietary information, and afraid of ceding any competitive edge to the other three local companies. They also house well-oiled PR machines that are hesitant to invite further environmental scrutiny, naturally, which is exactly what I wanted to do. But ultimately it was fun to work with them, to learn about utility-scale solar power, and to tell the story of the desert (and the desert tortoise in particular) in the face of looming development threats from private companies abetted by federal and state governments.

Smart Meters, Bad Idea

If EMFs pose an environmental health risk, then here's an environmental story about Smart Meters. Read it to find why Marin activists believe our health is affected by Smart Meters, and how they're fighting back. It was published this month in a delightful spread in Marin Magazine -- the same month that one of my sources, Katharina Sandizell-Smith, was arrested for blocking a truck that was headed to install Smart Meters in a small West Marin town, after police had ordered protesters to disperse. Even when I spoke with her back in October, she promised "civil disobedience" if PG&E attempted to install Smart Meters in her town of Point Reyes Station. Looks like she kept her word.