Navajo, SRP Take Steps To Make Solar A Priority

The Navajo Nation is taking steps to make solar energy a priority, with the help of Salt River Project.

Salt River Project seeks proposals for up to 200 megawatts of solar development on the Navajo Nation. That energy will be transmitted to SRP customers in the Valley.

Proposed projects must be in operation by December 2023, so they can take advantage of federal tax incentives.

The contract will help SRP reach its goal of 1,000 megawatts of new solar energy in the next five years. The utility has committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 90% by 2050.

“It’s the beginning of a new era for the Navajo Nation,” Navajo President Jonathan Nez said. “We recognize that coal-based energy provided many benefits for the workers and their families, but times are changing and energy development is changing.”

In November, SRP and other utilities shut down the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, in favor of natural gas and renewable energy.

“We are looking to become the leader in renewable energy throughout the Southwest and Indian Country,” Nez said.

While Colorado is Ready For More Renewable Energy, the Grid Isn’t — For Now

DENVER – By 2030, Colorado plans to cut the emission of climate-warming pollution by 50 percent. By 2050, it will be 90 percent.

That means more of the state’s energy will have to come from renewable energy, up to 100 percent by 2040, according to a vision laid out by Gov. Jared Polis.

One big hurdle stands in their way: The system of wires that stretches from power plants to energy users. The grid was never designed to handle the more fluctuating energy renewables provide and energy providers worry that all that new clean energy could test its limits.

“We’re going to need to have a lot of changes in the system to make a very high penetration renewable system work,” said Richard Sedano, president and CEO of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit focused on the clean energy transition.

That’s because much of the national grid is old, some of it by more than 100 years, and splintered into local and regional sections that don’t connect. Early morning solar energy generated in New York can’t efficiently move west to coffee machines and laptops in Colorado or California.

One National Renewable Energy Lab study imagines a possible fix: high voltage direct current transmission lines that quickly move renewable energy to parts of the country that need it. Right now, just a few such “express train” lines exist in the country. Permitting constraints and cost are two big limitations. The NREL study estimates it would take $70 billion to build such lines. Ambitious climate legislation like the Green New Deal could direct funding for that kind of project, but Congress has steered clear of that kind of investment.

“Generally we don’t get the kind of direction that will motivate these kinds of big picture developments,” Sedano said. With the energy market in flux, private investors aren’t paying for that kind of large-scale investment yet.

That has left any grid improvements to states, cities and local energy providers.

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In Colorado, about a dozen cities and counties have committed to 100 percent renewable energy and the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, plans to generate 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050. That’s forcing the utility to begin to improve its section of the grid.

Xcel is building a system it calls Advanced Grid, which will allow for more customers to attach solar panels onto their homes and provide power to the utility’s system. It will also allow for the two-way flow of information between customers and the company so that appliances could one day take signals from the grid about when to draw power — saving customers money.

Improving the grid may also open up new opportunities. Drake Bartlett, a senior trading analyst with the company, said Xcel will explore ways to share power with markets outside of Colorado. Right now the power it generates in Colorado remains in the state.

“As we move towards a carbon-free grid, we have ideas of where it’s going to come from, how we’re going to get there,” he said. “But there are other parts of it that we don’t know.”

That uncertainty extends to what grid infrastructure improvements will be needed. Inadequate updates to the country’s electric grid now could cost customers later. Worst case scenario, they could lead to brown or blackouts, according to Juan Torres associate lab director for the Energy Systems Integration Facility at the National Renewable Energy Lab.

Colorado Energy Production Estimates 2016 Chart

Without federal guidance, each state has to find its own way.

“You have to work within the constraints of the culture and what the people in the region, what their appetite is,” said Torres. California, which has a carbon-free goal for 2045, is importing some renewables from out of state. Overseeing future grid improvements will be the job of the California Independent System Operator.

The state has already invested billions in updating transmission lines to allow easier exchange of energy into Nevada and Arizona and facilitated quick regional sales of energy using a system called Western Energy Imbalance Market.

Neil Millar, executive director of infrastructure development at CAISO, said it will take a “broad suite” of solutions to update the grid and make a 100 percent carbon-free future a reality.

“Reinforcing those different corridors, and getting the appropriate market structure in place so that people can make the best use of the assets they do have is really playing an important role,” Millar said.

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For Hawaii, which declared a 100 percent renewable goal in 2015, trading wind and solar with other states is not possible due to its island status. Hawaiian Electric Company Senior Vice President of Planning & Technology Colton Ching said the utility is focused on large-scale solar and rooftop solar installations.

Hawaiian Electric estimates it needs to triple the amount of rooftop solar from where it currently stands now to meet its goal. That means getting the grid ready for energy to flow to and from homes, not just to homes as it has in the past.

“We need to get ahead of our own curve and make those circuits ready for two-way power flow in advance of those systems being added,” Ching said.

Boulder resident Jerry Palmer powers up his electric car. His utility, Xcel Energy, is making enhancements to the grid to allow for two way flow of information via the electric grid. (Photo by Grace Hood/CPR News)

Some parts of the system are already ready: On any given day half of Hawaiian Electric’s circuits already push power back onto the grid. But even there, the system will need to be beefed up.

“We’re going to need to enhance the ability of those circuits that already doing two-way power flow so they can do more reverse power flow,” he said.

Ultimately, customers will be the ones who pay for grid updates. That means utilities and states will have to take into account their preferences, attitudes and beliefs. The most challenging of this group will be people like Boulder resident Jerry Palmer, who hopes to one day cut electric company Xcel Energy completely out of the picture.

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Standing in front of solar panels as his electric car charges in his garage, Palmer discussed future plans to add a battery storage system from Tesla.

“I could actually go off the grid, and generate and store that energy right in my own garage,” Palmer said.

Right now that’s an aspirational goal. But if more customers prioritize independence that could create a bigger challenge for utilities in the future: Convincing customers not to leave the grid.

Red Zones & Green Jobs: Creating an Equitable Solar-Powered City

LONG BEACH, Calif. – They call it the classroom on the roof. On an early May morning in the Wrigley neighborhood of Long Beach, I’m harnessed to a group of volunteers and trainees for GRID Alternatives. The workers on today’s installation are retirees, veterans, formerly incarcerated people, at-risk youth, and others seeking to transition into green energy jobs. Under the supervision of solar installation specialist Natalie Andrade, I’m helping to build the attachment that will hold the forty-pound silicon modules in place.

Andrade came to GRID through the nonprofit’s partnership with Homeboy Industries’ Solar Power training program. Since 2010, Homeboy has offered education in solar technologies to formerly incarcerated, gang-affiliated, and other at-risk individuals by paying tuition for photovoltaic classes at the East Los Angeles Skills Center. GRID provides many graduates of the program free, hands-on training for careers in solar energy. Andrade, who has faced homelessness and addiction, now prepares trainees for green jobs, while also providing underserved communities with solar panels free of charge.


Learn more about the work of Grid Alternatives in this Earth Focus episode.

The rooftop classrooms where Andrade teaches, like the frontline neighborhoods where many GRID trainees grew up, are in the environmentally-disadvantaged zones of Los Angeles. By providing solar panels, GRID works to offset the energy burden of low-income households. Margaret Anne Apodaca, who has lived in her Long Beach home for more than 30 years, is now likely to save between 50 and 80 percent on her electric bill. Those on the roof with me are learning skills for success in the solar industry. In 2019, GRID will help its 500th trainee into a career, while providing more than five million dollars in lifetime savings for low-income families.

Mapping Environmental Disadvantage

Red zones delineated in this map mark areas of environmental disadvantage, as measured by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. (Map courtesy OEHHA)

An enormous urban and suburban area of freeways and refineries, greater Los Angeles holds many more environmentally-disadvantaged zones than any other county in the state. On behalf of the California EPA, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment measures environmental disadvantage by examining the exposure to contamination, environmental effects of toxic chemicals, sensitivity of the population, and socioeconomic conditions of state census tracts. By these indicators, more than 9.7 million county residents live within environmentally-disadvantaged red zones. These same census tracts correspond to the broader inequality of the county. Economic and environmental precarity are interlocking burdens in Los Angeles.

Beyond the challenges of low income and the health problems that correspond with poverty, residents of these red zones suffer greater exposure to pollutants and higher asthma rates. As part of the objective to address concerns of environmental justice as well as climate change, at least 35 percent of California Climate Investments through cap-and-trade programs are reinvested in these neighborhoods. GRID, whose triple-bottom-line is “People, Planet, Employment,” partners with the state to ensure that the same communities who have been most harmed by industry stand to benefit from new environmental technologies.

Green New Jobs

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LA Is Proposing Its Own Green New Deal — And It Involves A Lot Of Zeros

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Green New Deal for L.A. demonstrates a commitment to environmental justice as part of the larger effort to combat climate change in the city. Calling for 100% renewable energy by 2045, mostly through solar, hydro-electric, and wind, the plan also promises “to ensure that every Angeleno has the ability to join the green economy, creating pipelines to good paying, green jobs, and a just transition in a changing work environment.” If successful, the mayor’s initiative will create 400,000 jobs by the year 2050.

Already the number one solar city in the nation, L.A. has the chance to minimize the risk to environmentally-disadvantaged communities while providing workforce development to underserved populations. The majority of jobs in solar energy are in installation and project development, and entry level installers earn an average of $19-24 per hour. Because 67% of solar jobs do not require a bachelor’s degree, yet they pay high wages and offer opportunities for career advancement, solar could be a crucial industry in the broader citywide effort to pair environmental justice and green energy goals.

From Prison to Solar Panels

If Los Angeles is to become an equitable solar city, which invests in communities as well as technologies, people with a criminal record people could benefit. Though nonprofit organizations like Homeboy and GRID provide workforce training to the formerly incarcerated, California prisons fail to connect inmates to employment services, and few corporations are willing to hire individuals with a record. Though the state set new goals in 2012 to facilitate transitions for inmates, a 2017 report demonstrates that 62% of prisoners failed to receive services geared toward rehabilitation and employment. Recidivism in California remains around 50%, even as the overall population of the incarcerated is dropping in the state.

GRID Alternatives workers David and Natalie Andrade pose with Little David Andrade. (Photo by Robin Kello/KCET)

David Andrade, Volunteer Training Coordinator for GRID and Natalie’s husband, was determined to enter the workforce after serving nine years in prison. “As soon as I got released, my whole goal was to stay out, stay productive,” he tells me. Yet employers were reluctant to hire him.

“I did the interview, had a resume, never heard back from them,” he says. “I felt like, I might as well go back to robbing people and selling drugs again, if I couldn’t get a regular job.” Instead, he came to Homeboy, where he first trained as an installer but quickly found an aptitude for helping others with employment. “I was really good at getting trainees into solar careers,” he says. “I just had a talent, a knack for it. Honestly it was a blessing from God just to even move formerly incarcerated men and women into solar careers.”

David and Natalie met at Homeboy. Now, they both bring solar energy to the environmentally-disadvantaged zones of Los Angeles. “A lot of those low-income communities are communities like I grew up around, like my wife grew up around,” David says, adding that when they get a home of their own, it will be in a similar neighborhood.

“It’s a miracle every day that I’m here and just giving that second chance,” Natalie says about leading the classroom on the roof. “The reason that I love it is I’m teaching people who are coming from where I came from.”

Harvesting Solar Could Help Small-Scale Farmers Improve Sustainability

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. – A third generation farmer will soon attempt a new form of barn raising. Rather than just grow crops or raise livestock, Byron Kominek wants to harvest sunshine

A former U.S. diplomat in southern Africa with a master’s degree in environmental engineering, Kominek has since reinvented himself as a small-scale farmer and renewable energy advocate. At present, his goal is to install five acres of solar panels on 24 acres of farmland, which his grandfather Jack purchased in 1972.

An aerial view of the solar panels at Jack’s Solar Garden. (Artwork courtesy of Jack’s Solar Garden by artist Jeff Slemons)

Although the farm has had good years, the profit margin on crops like hay and alfalfa had declined. “Over the past few years we’ve lost money on the farm,” Kominek said. To compensate for the loss of revenue, he plans to co-locate solar panels with agricultural production.

Jack’s Solar Garden is among the first (perhaps the only farm) on the Front Range to do this and it could be the future of farming. The practice is known as agrivoltaics, a mashup of agriculture and photovoltaic, which are devices designed to generate power directly from the sun.

If agrivoltaics reduces the operating costs on farms and ranches of Colorado, farmers in California are bound to take notice. Agriculture consumes 8% of the energy used in the state, much of that is used for pumping groundwater and irrigation on 5 million acres of farmland in the Central and Imperial Valleys. Therefore, solutions aimed at reducing energy and water consumption can have a huge impact on a farmer’s bottom line.

For now, the technology has a Whole Earth Catalog tang to it, recalling an era of geodesic domes and off-the-grid pot farms. Although the hippies’ back-to-the-land movement waned during the 70s, their influence has endured. In rural towns across the U.S. organic farming and marijuana cultivation is an essential, if not, increasingly mainstream part of the rural economy. Meanwhile, interest in sustainable farming continues to increase, due to concern over the specter of climate shocks, such as drought and food security.

According to the U.N. solving food-energy-water nexus is central to sustainable development. The demand for all three is increasing due to the global rise in population, industrialization and the growth of the global economy. Agriculture consumes one-third of the world’s freshwater supply and accounts for 25% of the energy consumed.

The purpose of agrivoltaics is to untangle this resource conundrum. Enabling farmers to diversify their income by producing renewable energy, while preserving much of their land for crop production. Typically, it’s an array of solar panels perched high enough above the ground to grow shade-tolerant plants beneath them with enough clearance to allow people, livestock and farm equipment to pass.

Oregon vineyard in the Willamette Valley wine region utilizing solar power. (Photo courtesy Jason Lander/Creative Commons License)

After discussing the benefits of agrivoltaics with friends in Colorado and realizing the myriad of challenges that he faced, Komineck saw an opportunity. “I thought, ‘Why not try it on our farm?’” he said.

He worked with Boulder officials in updating land use code to allow community solar gardens on more farmland across the county. By year’s end, the farm could have 3,000 panels set in rows 17 feet apart. Each row will track the sun from east to west. Dubbed Jack’s Solar Garden after his grandfather, his website offers renderings of his vision for the what the project will look like upon completion.

In addition to growing crops beneath solar panels, Komineck has plans to generate 1.2 megawatts of electricity, enough power to supply up to 300 homes connected to the grid. Under this rubric, consumers will purchase energy from Jack’s Solar Garden in much the same way they can purchase produce directly from farmers. But instead of selling fruits and vegetables, this CSA will produce electricity. “We’ll be selling subscriptions to the community and to large institutions,” he said.

If that wasn’t ambitious enough, he also intends to plant an apple orchard and keep bees. To stay on track, Komineck has partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Lab (NREL), University of Arizona and Colorado State University.

NREL and other research institutions are testing the merits of agrivoltaics in about 20 locations across the country with projects in the planning stages or underway in Oregon, Arizona and California, among others. “What we try to do is design projects to meet local needs and adapt to local conditions,” said Jordan Macknick, lead energy water and analyst for NREL.



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At this juncture, NREL’s goal is to move agrivoltaics out of the lab and into farm settings. Traditionally, farming and solar panels were considered incompatible. When renewable energy companies leased or purchased land from farmers they removed the topsoil, taking the land out of agricultural production.

Agrivoltaics refrains from removing the topsoil. Instead of packed earth or gravel, a farmer has the option to grow native plants or to plant shade-tolerant crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.

One of the challenges of agrivoltaics is a matter of finding the sweet spot between shade and sun. Placement of the panels is critical, set far enough apart to allow plants to flourish without substantial cuts in energy production. Too much shade will impede photosynthesis. On the other hand, excess heat hampers the performance of solar panels, reducing their ability to produce power.

According to Macknick, the combination of the panels and vegetation can improve productivity because the shadows cast by solar panels and the groundcover work together to create a favorable microclimate. “Under the solar panels you have better moisture retention. What we’re finding is slightly cooler temperatures during the day and slightly warmer temperatures at night.”

Solar cell panels installed over paddy fields in Kamisu City, Ibaraki Pref., Japan. (Photo courtesy Σ64 / Creative Commons License)

A recent paper published in the journal PLOS One offered some tantalizing details. In May 2015, researchers at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, installed microclimate research stations beside solar panels with and without vegetation underneath. The instrumentation gathered data on the ambient temperature, humidity and soil moisture. Over the course of the summer, data revealed the soil under the solar panels with vegetation had higher moisture content. Moreover, the plant volume had doubled in size and yielded greater nutritional value in comparison to un-shaded plants in the surrounding area.

“Under this configuration if you can produce more crops with less water, who doesn’t want to see that,” said Macknick.

However not every farm is suitable for agrivoltaics. Installing solar panels may be cost prohibitive, for example, in remote areas with ample farmland and an abundant water supply.

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In California, exploring agrivoltaics will require striking a balance between the competing interests of farmland conservation and energy production. Legislation SB100, places California on the road to a 100 percent low-carbon, renewable energy future by 2045. How the state plans to meet this targeted goal remains an open question.

One potential roadblock for agrivoltaics is the Williamson Act of 1965, a statute designed to prevent the leapfrog development of farmland. The law enables local governments to enter into contracts with farmers to keep the land in agricultural production or open space.

Perhaps because of it, California’s farm counties ar slow to change. The Division of Land Resource reports 15,776 acres of farmland converted from agricultural production to solar power between 2014-2016. During that time frame the total number of acres in agricultural production dipped slightly from 31,386,872 to 31,351,190 acres.

Meanwhile, Komineck is blazing a path for his family farm with the help of solar technology.

Getting Pumped: How LA Uses Two Big Lakes to Store Energy like a Giant Battery

LOS ANGELES – If L.A. is going to stop burning fossil fuels by 2045 — a key goal of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed Green New Deal — it must store a lot more of the excess solar and wind energy it produces during the day so it doesn’t have to rely on gas and coal energy to power the city when the sun sets and the wind dies.

There’s a growing focus on building big batteries — for example, the kind that use lithium ions. But L.A. needs energy storage that is far bigger than any traditional battery.

And it’s found one.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has turned two big lakes into a monster battery capable of storing enough energy to power tens of thousands of homes.

It involves using the excess wind and solar power L.A.’s renewable energy sites produce during the day to pump water from Castaic Lake uphill 7.5 miles to Pyramid Lake. Then, late in the day, when the sun goes down and the city’s energy demand spikes, the water gets run downhill through hydroelectric generators at Castaic Lake.

The next day, the cycle starts over again. The same 10,000 acre-feet of water can recirculate over and over, getting pumped uphill during the day and coming downhill at night to power the city.

It’s called pumped storage, and the plant at Castaic is one of the largest such plants in the western United States, but maybe not for long.

LADWP is looking at building an even larger plant at Hoover Dam, so this form of energy storage, if replicated, could be a key to L.A. weaning itself off of fossil fuels.

So Let’s Tour the Castaic Pumped Storage Plant

It’s hidden away — kind of like a superhero’s secret lair — behind locked gates at the end of a winding mountain ridge road off I-5.

Castaic Pumped Storage Plant as seen from a mountain ridge near Ridge Route Road. (Photo by Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

Once you’re inside the gates, the first thing you notice are six gargantuan pipes that flow water from Pyramid Lake 7.5 miles down to Castaic Lake. Water is pumped back uphill in the same 30-foot-diameter pipes.

The pressure is 25 times the force of the water coming out of your home faucet.

Here’s another look at those massive pipes from a different perspective, way up on the mountain looking down at Castaic Lake.

These massive pipes, called penstocks, move water up and down between Castaic and Pyramid Lakes. This is a view looking downhill at Castaic Lake. The Elderberry Forebay at the base of the pipes is part of Castaic Lake. It holds up to 10,000 acre-feet of water that can be recirculated between the two lakes. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

Time to head down into the guts of the plant. We step off the elevator to a balcony overlooking a giant windowless chamber four stories tall.

The six turbines are in a vast windowless chamber. The pressure of the water coming downhill in the giant pipes spins the hydroelectric turbines, generating power for Los Angeles. More than 50 LADWP employees keep the plant running.

Below you can see two of the six turbine units. Unit 3 on the left, is covered and is ready to produce electricity as water spins the turbines inside it. Unit 4, on the right, is open for maintenance.

Unit 3, left, produces electricity while Unit 4 sits open for maintenance at Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant in Castaic, Calif. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

The six turbine units look like giant spools sunk into the floor. They put out enough energy, when they are all spinning, to power 83,000 homes over the course of a day. Their output is huge in comparison to LADWP’s largest chemical battery, which is a 20 megawatt lithium ion battery, which can power about 600 homes over a day.

Here is a view of the turbine in Unit 5. It’s been lifted partially above the floor of the turbine room. Each turbine weighs 550 tons. To lift them up takes two cranes that move the length of the room.

Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant has six reversible 250,000 kilowatt turbines. The plant provides power for Los Angeles during peak use periods. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

It takes a lot of pipes and plumbing to control the flow of water in this pumped storage plant. We descend several flights of stairs to get to the bottom of the plant to see the pumps.

At the very bottom of the plant, we’re 90 feet under the water level of the lake.

Massive machinery controls the flow of water through the hydroeletric plant at Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant in Castaic, Calif. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

The pumps are what makes this plant different from an ordinary hydroelectric plant. There are six giant pumps — each with a shiny silver piston arm. They are pushing water back up the mountain to Pyramid Lake in the same 30-foot-diameter pipes that brought it down to Castaic Lake.

Recirculating the water like this takes a lot of energy — but that’s okay. DWP has more wind and solar energy during the day than it can use. So rather than disconnect the solar panels and windmills, or sell the energy cheaply to someone else, DWP uses the extra energy to move the water uphill to Pyramid Lake.

Once the water is waiting uphill at Pyramid Lake, it’s stored energy, ready to flow back downhill to generate energy when L.A. needs it, late in the day.

A pump pulls water from 90 feet under Lake Castaic into the Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant in Castaic, Calif., and sends it uphill to Pyramid Lake. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

This battery-like combination — pumps and turbines — can be built very big. And they use the most reliable force on Earth — gravity.

Elderberry Forebay is a section of Castaic Lake that holds the water that gets recirculated between Pyramid Lake and Castaic to produce electricity.

Runoff from Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant enters Elderberry Lake, which holds water that can be pumped back up to Pyramid Lake and reused to produce electricity. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

Assistant general manager Reiko Kerr says they could pump water from Lake Mohave 20-some miles upstream to Lake Mead to run through Hoover Dam’s giant hydroelectric turbines.

“You already have the dam, you have the generators, you have the transmission lines — you basically need a set of pumps and pipelines,” Kerr said.

The eventual size depends on the number of other agencies that might invest in the project.

“That upper reservoir is huge — Lake Mead — so you could store power in the form of water up there for potentially months, and seasonally,” she said.

The Hoover Dam pumped storage project could come online by 2030, adding to the energy storage L.A. needs to get to 100% renewable energy.

Thick & Viscous: California Oil Production Among Dirtiest in the Country

LOS ANGELES – One hundred and forty-three years after the first gusher spewed forth in California, it still comes as a surprise to people that the state produces as much oil as Alaska — and in some years even more. Oil production in California has been hidden on high school campuses, tucked in behind housing developments, surrounded by almond orchards. It pushes up against neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where heat, time and tectonic forces turned the remains of Miocene marine life into vast reserves of oil. It occupies the flatlands of the Central Valley, where in some places pumpjacks spread out for as far as the eye can see.

California oil has lifted people out of poverty and helped the nation win wars; it has built a $14 billion economy in the Central Valley that directly or indirectly provides more than 60,000 jobs. Though it accounts for only 3% of the state’s economy, it has defined California’s culture perhaps more than has any other industry. The Golden State’s true gold came not in the form of yellow rock, but from the pale-greenish shale and drab gray sandstone that oozed the liquid hydrocarbon we call petroleum.

People watch as an oil well gushes in Union Oil Company’s Long Beach oil field in Signal Hill. (Public Domain)

But now, in the spring of 2019, the future of California’s oil industry hangs in the balance — and not only because the public has become increasingly aware of petroleum’s role in altering the climate. The people who live in communities on the frontlines of oil production have also come to understand how the process of extracting fossil fuels from the ground endangers their health. Studies have linked living in close proximity to oil production to premature birth and low-birth weight babies, respiratory illness and even, in some cases, cancer.

A recent report from the California Water Quality Control Board found “multiple lines of geochemical evidence” indicating that “groundwater is mixing with oil field fluids.”

“The report is a stark reminder of the dangers of oil and gas,” says Hollin Kretzmann, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “It piles on top of existing studies that show oil and gas as the cause of pollution as a risk to human health.”

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And California oil production is uniquely treacherous. “People tend to think all oils are the same, but they’re not,” says Deborah Gordon, a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and a noted expert in the climate burden of global petroleum production. Oil in the San Joaquin Valley typically has a higher carbon-to-hydrogen ratio than does oil from, for instance, North Dakota’s Bakken Formation. It requires more energy to refine into gasoline, and emits more pollutants in the process. It also lies in deep folds and comes out thick and viscous, like peanut butter, Gordon says. “It needs what’s known as ‘enhanced recovery techniques,’ and it always has.”

Enhanced techniques can mean hydraulic fracturing — cracking apart source rock with a high-pressure slurry of sand and chemicals. It can also involve flooding stubborn wells with water or steam to liquify the oil and coax it to the surface. (Drillers use similar techniques to recover the last dregs of crude in aging fields, of which California has many.)

Children play at an elementary school located on the south east side of the Olinda Oil Field in Brea, Calif. (Photo courtesy Haymarketrebel/Creative Commons)

Enhanced recovery intensifies the climate impact of California’s oil. Steam, in particular, has to be heated, usually with natural gas. Often the amount of energy it takes to extract a barrel of oil exceeds the amount of energy contained in the oil. According to the Carnegie Endowment’s Oil-Climate Index, which Gordon helped develop, a barrel of oil from California’s Midway-Sunset field is second only to a barrel of dense bitumen from Canada’s Athabascan oil sands when it comes to its greenhouse-gas load. Enhanced techniques can also pollute local water supplies, as can conventional oil production, which yields briny wastewater, known as “produced water,” along with the oil. Produced water is sometimes disposed of in ponds, other times in injection wells designed for that purpose. Neither is completely failsafe.

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“Past civilizations have ended because they salted up their soil,” warns Tom Frantz, an almond farmer and environmental activist who lives in the Kern County city of Shafter. Polluting water used for drinking and irrigation “doesn’t seem logical if you’re thinking seven generations down the road.”

Like a lot of California climate activists, Frantz would like to see the oil industry shut down — not right away and all at once, but over time. He’d like to see drillers prove they won’t put more energy into extracting oil than the oil itself will yield, as is often the case with steam injection and hydraulic fracturing. State regulators could decide whether to grant new permits based on “energy computations,” he says. “If the ratio of energy in to energy out is too high, they’d say ‘no.’”

The California oil industry will not easily concede to such demands. The industry’s main lobbying group, the Western States Petroleum Association, spent nearly $16 million persuading legislators to vote their way in the 2017 to 2018 legislative session. Chevron invested another $14 million. No other industry’s lobbying expenditures even came close.

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Defenders of California’s oil industry are quick to point out that even if you closed down California production tomorrow, you’d make only a negligible dent in the global atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentration. “We shouldn’t penalize local producers for issues that might be well beyond our control,” says Mike Umbro, an oil producer in Kern County’s North Belridge field who also consults with other producers about environmental regulation. California only produces one-third of the oil it consumes, Umbro notes. And “the alternative to California crude is more oil from Saudi Arabia. “Those foreign producers have far less regulation to deal with and far fewer environmental safeguards.”

Even Gordon points out that, for all the miles Californians drive, oil doesn’t just get burned in gas tanks. “Your drugs, your chemicals, your plastic; every bit of goods that gets shipped to California from across the ocean” — all consume oil in multiple ways.

Kretzmann counters that California can reduce demand along with supply, for instance by encouraging more electric cars powered by an ever-cleaner grid. Nor is it accurate, he says, to address climate concern as apart from more acute and immediate local impacts. “You can care about the particulate matter that’s getting into to your kids’ lungs at the same time that you can care about the carbon dioxide that’s heating up our planet. It’s not an either-or.”

Gustavo Aguirre, Jr. of the Central California Environmental Justice Network stands with Arvin Mayor Jose Gurrola in a residential backyard. They look out at a pumpjack and tank that have been reported to release toxins into the air. (Photo via Earth Focus/KCET)

Arvin is downwind of nearly every source of pollution Kern County has to offer, including two freeways heavy with truck traffic, the dust industrial agriculture kicks up and the airborne contaminants that drift in from all phases of oil production — many of them, such as benzene and toluene, known carcinogens. A 300-foot setback may not make much difference to local air quality. But for a small farm town to go up against the well-funded oil lobby and win “is a remarkable achievement,” Kretzmann says, and bodes well for future legislation. Right now, a bill is pending in the California Senate would establish a 2,500-foot buffer zone for oil and gas facilities statewide, a number consistent with scientific recommendations for protecting public health.

Not everyone on the oil side is opposed. “People living in city environments have every right to push for the highest environmental standards,” including setbacks, Umbro says. But Aguirre, who serves on two state independent review panels monitoring industrial pollution, expects a tough fight.

“It’s going to be — not even David and Goliath. It’s going to be David against some intergalactic superpower.” But he has faith that public health will ultimately prevail. “We’re not fighting money with money,” he says. “We’re fighting money with logic and science.”

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Colorado’s Oil and Gas Regulators Must Now Consider Public Health and Safety

GREELEY, Colo. – After years of tension over expanded oil and gas drilling, including a deadly explosion that galvanized critics, Colorado is moving to tighten regulations on the booming industry. In a sweeping overhaul the governor signed into law in mid-April, regulators will now have to consider public health, safety and the environment in decisions about permitting and local land use.

The state must still hammer out the details of how to implement the new law over the next year. But the impending changes are already fueling hope for some, and fear for others.

“Oil and Gas Leaves, We’re Gone”

“We just had our largest order from an oil and gas worker,” says Matt Smith, owner of Daddy’s Goodness BBQ outside Greeley, as the lunch-hour rush crowded around the window of his bright red food truck.

Smith changed careers to start the business two years ago. “Oil and gas leaves, we’re gone,” he says.

Matt Smith started Daddy’s Goodness BBQ in Weld County two years ago. He worries new oil and gas regulations will slow down production and hurt his business. (Photo by Grace Hood/CPR News)

Greeley is the epicenter of Colorado’s oil and gas development. Weld County is where 90 percent of Colorado’s oil is pumped, and the region hosts oil companies, secondary companies that truck water and supplies to well pads, and companies like Smith’s that depend on business from the oil fields. Many who live in Greeley oppose the changes.

“There’s a lot of anger, but I think beneath that anger is a lot of fear,” says Barbara Kirkmeyer, Weld County commissioner. “A lot of people are scared of what can happen here.”

The new law would give cities and counties more control over where oil wells go. It would also shift the state’s mandate from fostering oil and gas development to regulating it, with a focus on the environment and people’s safety. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will get new members with environmental and public health expertise.

The legislation also launches rule-makings in a half dozen areas, including flowlines, and limiting potent methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.

Ninety percent of Colorado’s oil is produced in Weld County. This well near Greeley shows the area’s two powerful industries at work: agriculture and oil and gas. (Photo by Grace Hood/CPR News)

Weld County officials worry those new rules could slow the approval of new drilling permits and cut off the county’s cash flow. In 2018, oil and gas production contributed $490 million in tax revenue, about 60 percent of overall tax dollars for Weld.

“How long is it going to take to make sure that we can start approving permits again so we can get the revenue we’re expecting?” said Weld County Assessor Brenda Dones.

Dones is worried about the current — and growing — backlog of more than 6,000 drilling permits. Reforms at the state level could cause production, and resulting tax revenues, to slip.

In a recent interview with Colorado Matters, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Jeff Robbins said the agency is already aware of that issue and will continue to work on backlogged permits.

“We are taking some efforts immediately to address the concern of the backlog and how we can make the commission more productive,” he said. “We are continuing to process oil and gas locations [and] well sites at the commission at the same time we’re working hard to bring these new rules into being.”

Still, companies could see new hurdles, including rising costs for permit applications. But Robbins said any oil permit fee hikes won’t happen until the new rules are in place and that will take months.

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More Local Control Over Where Drilling Can Happen

Perhaps the biggest shift will be giving local communities more control in regulating oil and gas development. South of Greeley, residents of Erie have been pushing for that as they’ve watched multiple drilling projects come through their neighborhoods.

“The first time when they were close to us and drilling you could actually feel the vibration in our house,” says Robin Goldsmith, as she loads her aging terrier into her SUV.

That first well pad was about 1,000 feet away. That’s more than double the distance from homes that the state requires, so there wasn’t much she could do to stop it.

“Hopefully [the new law] will make a difference, because in this particular area — in Erie, in Broomfield — there is a ton of activity going on,” she says.

The push for more restrictions gained traction two years ago. That’s when two people died after a home explosion not far away from Erie, in Firestone. An underground line from a well had leaked gas.

Goldsmith does not share concerns that the new law will prompt an economic slowdown for the industry. “That’s the oil and gas companies making sure that their investments are protected, as opposed to the good of the people,” she says.

Erie town trustee Christiaan van Woudenberg ran against fracking. He hopes a sweeping regulatory overhaul will let him rewrite local laws to push oil wells farther from homes. (Photo by Grace Hood/CPR News)

Legal Pressures and What Comes Next

Ultimately it will be up to towns, cities and counties to decide if they want to tackle new rules on oil and gas development. In Erie, town trustee Christiaan van Woudenberg ran for office on an anti-fracking platform, and plans to start the process soon. But he says it will be tricky.

He worries about a last minute change to the legislation favored by industry. It restricts communities to doing only what’s “necessary and reasonable” to protect health and safety.

“So lawyers will decide what that means,” says van Woudenberg. “And the problem is that these oil and gas companies have access to resources magnitudes of orders beyond a town council like Erie.”

Some worry that imbalance could prevent communities from tackling rule-making altogether. Anne Lee Foster, of the environmental group Colorado Rising, says local officials may be deterred “for fear of being litigated and not having the resources to properly defend their communities.”

Last fall, Colorado Rising supported a ballot measure that would have imposed a 2,500-foot distance between oil wells and homes, but it failed to pass.

The group says it will watch closely to see how the new law plays out. If community controls are stymied by industry in the courts, Foster says, Colorado Rising will float a statewide ballot issue in 2020, trying yet again to get even more local control.

But first, opponents of the latest restrictions on oil and gas development may have their shot at a re-do. They’re already campaigning for a ballot measure to repeal the law.

This story was first published on NPR on April 16, 2019, as part of a special series from the Environment And Energy Collaborative. A subsequent version was also published on April 16, 2019, on Colorado Public Radio.

Tribes Break Away from Coal Tradition, Embrace the Future of Renewable Energy

FLAGSTAFF – The Navajo and Hopi tribes have fought hard to hold onto coal.

Three generations have worked for the West’s largest coal-fired power plant, and both tribes have relied heavily on its revenue. So when the Phoenix-based Salt River Project announced it was shutting down the Navajo Generating Station at the end of the year, the tribe scrambled to find a buyer or – as a last resort – purchase the plant themselves.

It finally came down to a vote late last month at a special meeting of the Navajo Nation Council. The lawmakers deliberated for eight hours.

“Are we ready?” delegate Nathaniel Brown asked the group. “Are we ready for the shutdown? I don’t think we are. We stand to lose a lot, our children, the future generation.”

Delegate Charlaine Tso said she’s done with coal and its impacts on the health of her people. The plant is one of the country’s biggest carbon emitters.

“Shame on you,” Tso said. “Money, money, money. It’s replaceable. Enough is enough. This is the time that we’re going to take a stand that we’re going to come together for our people. I am ready to take on that challenge.”

Other delegates see the energy companies moving away from coal in favor of cleaner and cheaper energy sources.

In the end, the council voted against the purchase, a decision that marks the end of an era.
Before coal, many tribal members worked with the federal government to blast uranium out of the Navajo Nation to make atomic weapons.

“The Navajo economy had been kind of built upon resource extraction,” said Brett Isaac, who grew up next to the Peabody Kayenta Coal Mine. “I still have an uncle that works for the Peabody Energy Company. I’ve had other uncles and cousins and friends and … you had a lot of people who that’s the only industry and job they ever knew.”

Dan Rosen (left) and Brett Isaac are the founders of Navajo Power, a renewable energy company that’s helping the tribe shift away from coal. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

So, a decade ago, when Isaac started installing off-grid solar panels in people’s homes, they looked at him funny.

“But my family have more recently gotten more supportive with the way the world and global economy is moving towards a more renewable focus,” Isaac said. “They’re motivated by the fact I got in so early into it before it was cool.”

Now Isaac and a group of entrepreneurs have formed Navajo Power, a renewable energy company that’s trying to help the tribe shift away from coal. The tribe has built two utility-size solar farms already and is working on a third.

“It takes the benefit of something that’s abundant and converts it into something useable,” Isaac said. “So that aligns a lot not only with Navajo philosophy, but a lot of indigenous communities about how you responsibly source things.”

There’s just one problem. The number of jobs at a solar farm can’t compare to those working in coal. The plant and mine supplied 800 of the best-paying jobs on the reservation, as well as many more support jobs.

Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has built two solar farms near Kayenta. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

Solar, on the other hand, requires hundreds of temporary employees to construct the farm, but after that the sun does most of the work. That’s a tough sell to a tribe where half of the population are unemployed.

But Isaac envisions solar farms sprouting up faster than corn on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, which covers parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. He also says the tribe could build a manufacturing facility to assemble the panels.

“It starts with embracing change,” said Navajo President Jonathan Nez, who’s on board with the idea.

He recently signed a proclamation to make renewable energy the tribe’s top priority.

Ultimately, Nez said, Navajos have to think about cleaner jobs and a cleaner environment for their children and their grandchildren.
But he’s also realistic. He knows the tribe has to invest in other economic engines, including tourism.

“People all over the world come to Navajo,” Nez said. “If we could keep some of our visitors here on the Navajo Nation a little longer, that’s going to bring dollars and jobs.”

This story was first published by the Fronteras Desk, a KJZZ project that covers a wide expanse of an under-covered news desert that stretches from northern Arizona deep into northwestern Mexico.

Navajo Nation President Proclaims Renewable Energy Its Top Priority

WINDOW ROCK – Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez signed a proclamation Tuesday that embraces a shift to clean energy development. This comes just days after the tribal council voted to drop its bid for the west’s largest coal-fired power plant.

The proclamation says the tribe will provide off-grid solar to the 15,000 or so Navajo households still without electricity. It will build more utility-scale solar energy projects. Its second solar farm goes online in two months. The tribe also plans to build a solar panel assembly plant to create more jobs.

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Nez said it’s time for our land to heal from coal.

“The opportunity is now,” Nez said. “The opportunity is here, ladies and gentlemen. Let us embrace it. Let the Navajo Nation continue to embrace change by being the leader in renewable energy projects in Indian Country.”

Nez said the tribe is positioning itself to continue to provide energy for the West, as states like New Mexico and California sign legislation to go carbon free by 2045.

This story was first published as a part of the Fronteras Desk, a unique KJZZ project that covers a wide expanse of an under-covered news desert that stretches from northern Arizona deep into northwestern Mexico.