Certainly the mood is glum. The news, when it isn't fixating on celebrity missteps or political scandal, highlights Greek default, an irritated 99 percent and prospects for job creation that appear as likely as J. Edgar Hoover returning to run the FBI.
Maybe I'm biased or I'm watching too many trailers for the new Clint Eastwood film. But I'm seeing things differently.
Perhaps it's just me, or my co-worker Sandy Nax. But we're seeing some pretty positive stuff coming from our perch in the green energy sector.
Reason No.1: Solar flare. Here's a landmark. A San Jose Mercury News post San Jose Mercury Newsmarks the achievement of California reaching 1 gigawatt of installed solar. As reporter Dana Hull says, it's 1,000 megawatts and "roughly the size of two coal-fired power plants."
Sun is good. Coal not so much, even though it's a domestic energy source. Regardless, the news is huge. And solar growth is expected to continue. The reason some solar manufacturers -- think failed Solyndra for a moment -- are having a tough time doesn't have much to do with popularity of the renewable energy.
There's nothing wrong with sales. It's price that's killing these companies. As predicted, the cost of solar and wind prices have dropped, nearing ever closer to energy produced by fossil fuels. Parity it's called.
And it can't come too soon.
Solar is dominating my interest lately partly because I've been swayed by an argument by Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. In a series of YouTube posts, he argues that enough energy from the sun could be easily captured to power the world's energy need of 15 terawatts.
Abbott believes solar thermal is the best option as it is the cleanest to produce. It requires no photovoltaic panels just mirrors and a system for superheating a substance to produce heat and subsequently energy.
Job rating: Excellent.
Reason No. 2: Concentrated or thermal solar. And that leads to this forecast from CleanTechies.com that concentrated solar is on the verge of becoming a serious contender in the clean energy spectrum. The piece says concentrated solar's simplicity will help sell it to consumers. "Solar thermal has been around for decades and is extremely reliable," CleanTechies says.
The positives are similar to those across the green energy spectrum: Costs are decreasing, state and local governments are getting interested in assisting projects, systems can be applied to commercial buildings, cooling is an option (although I'm still uncertain how that works), more people are getting into the business and innovation is making systems better.
Job rating: There's potential.
Reason No. 3: Solar mountain. Got a landfill? Who doesn't? They're not pretty. However, in Conley, Ga. Republic Services has transformed 9 million cubic yards of trash into a solar energy farm. The solid waste company covered the massive hill of garbage with a geomembrane on which it attached thin-film solar panels.
The panels produce 1 megawatt, but more could be added, according to Silvio Marcacci at cleantechnica.com. The site is one of just a few in the country. However, its success could drive more to adopt the concept.
"A lot of these landfills are built in urban settings, and they’re close to transmission lines," Tony Walker of Republic Services tells Marcacci. “We think this type of system can be built across the country."
Maybe so. There certainly is a lot of garbage.
Job rating: Fermenting.
Reason No. 4: Decentralized energy. I first read of this concept after stumbling across a report by sustainable energy advocate and writer Al Weinrub. He argues that decentralized energy, or putting renewable systems in as many places in a community as possible, generates wealth, spurs economic revitalization and helps adapt to climate change.
Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, says in a piece on Huffington Post that decentralized and renewable energy are the key to solving the looming crisis of sustainability. He says that a massive public-private partnership is needed to develop smart-grid, distributed generation technology via tax credit and other government and private sector driven incentives.
"Ultimately, each home and business should be capable of generating, storing and sharing energy," Cohen says. "Solar, wind, geothermal, and perhaps some other technology yet to be invented must be subsidized to make them cheaper than fossil fuels."
He says at some point, the subsidies will no longer be needed.
But change is coming or at least it should. The air just can't take what we're pumping into by way of coal fires, automobile exhaust and general toxic-laden combustion. And that brings me to my next point.
Job rating: Strong.
Reason No. 5: The real cost of fossil fuels. According to the most recent World Energy Outlook report by the International Energy Agency, investing in clean energy now is far more effective than attempting to clean up the mess later.
Eric Wesoff of greentechmedia.com pored over the report and came up with this quote from Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist: "As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the 'lock-in' of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals."
Wesoff writes: "For every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions."
Succinct point. It makes me wonder how politicians who say they would obliterate any regulations in favor of jobs will be viewed in 10 years. The regulation busters line up on one side of the aisle, but both parties are guilty of promoting ill-fated policies that add to the nation's graying skies.
The jobs that apparently need fewer regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or other agencies are noble but usually controversial. They include mining coal from mountaintops, drilling offshore for oil, tapping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, building a cross-country straw to suck out Canada's oil sand and allowing the hydraulic fracturing.
Job creation can be done other ways. I recall sitting on spit on Nantucket one summer with my brother-in-law. We were inspired by the long delayed Cape Wind offshore turbines. He speculated that President Bush would have produced a far longer lasting legacy had he established just a smidgen of support for alternative energies rather than invading Iraq or even if he did.
Bush had the right idea -- domestic energy security. Just a different way of getting there.
Job rating: Depends on political winds.
Reason No. 6: Energy and fuel efficiency. Energy author Daniel Yergin writes in a piece on Huffington Post about how Boeing's Dreamliner won the hearts of airline executives not with its speed but with its 20 percent better fuel efficiency. "The airlines were voting their pocketbooks," he says.
Nearly every week, another big publicly traded Wall Street powerhouse embraces the cost savings of installing energy efficient lighting and electrical upgrades. And many are taking the concept further, entering the tricky yet individually lucrative realm of sustainability. Big companies that see the light have discovered not only savings in multiple aspects of their operations but have learned to reap the value of the public goodwill that comes with it.
Home builders are another group that has found value in efficiencies. Commercial builders also have come aboard, slowly incorporating building information modeling into design to reduce energy and operations costs with a slew of new technologies and products.
The EPA reports that more than 400 home builders have "committed to meeting the updated and more rigorous requirements for new homes that earn the Energy Star label in 2012." Those builders discovered value by inching closer to homes that use less energy. Net-zero homes may not be far off.
The EPA says that since 1995, about 1.2 million new homes have earned its Energy Star rating, which translates to savings of about $350 million on utility bills. The list of builders includes six of the country’s largest: Ashton Woods Homes, Beazer Homes, KB Home, Meritage Homes, M/I Homes and NVR Inc.
Job rating: Good but depends on consumer acceptance.
Reason No. 7: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This particular topic is close to home for me. I am employed because of stimulus money. My mission these past two years has been to maximize kilowatt hour savings at 36 cities and three counties in California's San Joaquin Valley. On that front, I'm getting closer.
My team and I will get it done. We will help our jurisdictions save money and start them on a diet of energy efficiency and clean energy. My boss says it's pre-ordained.
Others have done it. The 112-page report, "Profiles of Local Clean Energy Leadership: How America's Cities and Counties are Using Federal Energy Block Grants to Create Jobs, Save Energy and Prevent Pollution," is full of stories about how other cities spent their American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant allocations.
To me, it made a lot of sense. I've been immersed in this world for many moons, speaking a language of kWh, T8s, VFDs, SEER, LEED and even less interesting terms.
What's great about the report is that it shows cities beaten roughly about the head and shoulders by the economy can navigate the many bureaucratic requirements and restrictions and actually implement money meant to do them good. I hope to pass these success stories onto my cities and counties.
Job rating: Steady.
Yep. We can save energy. We can figure out how to be better stewards of our communities and nation. Every one of the issues I listed translates to development and growth. Some could be really significant. Maybe we could clean that air a bit and get some jobs at the same time.