Do you read this newsletter regularly? Consider becoming a paid member. You'll get an edition every week and help make The Planet You Save a reality.
I'm also planning a series of interviews with people taking climate action across the U.S, for both free and paid editions. Got a suggestion? Let me know by replying to this email.
(macro picture of microgreens by Tony Webster on Flickr)
Today I have new story out at Ambrook Research, about a smaller version of a recent trend in agriculture: the indoor vertical farm.
Most of the growth — and the investment — in vertical farming in the past few years has been in the latter: mass-production businesses growing hydroponically in football-field sized warehouses.
Instead of fighting my way into a tour of one of these warehouse farms, I turned to a few smaller outlets in my own backyard of Washington, DC, including Area 2 Farms (in Arlington) and Little Wild Things City Farm (in DC's Trinidad neighborhood).
These farms — and others like them across the U.S. — operate out of spaces very different from both conventional urban farms and large vertical agriculture operations. They’re neither scrappy, low-acreage outdoor lots run by schools and nonprofits, nor are they the slick enormous operations that have been the visible face of vertical farming
You can read the story — and learn about what these tiny indoor farms can and can't change about the way our food system works — here.
Detroit's city government is looking to combine concerns over blight with need for more renewable energy. They've decided to suggest putting solar fields on empty properties that are regularly dumped on, Planet Detroit reports:
“Could we build on stretches of blighted land in the city of Detroit? Is that something that neighborhoods here would like to consider?” Duggan said. “So you could have a neighborhood that’s been targeted for dumping. And if they chose, they could instead potentially have a fenced-in solar panel field.”
As I read this I thought a lot about an interview I did with a urban farm advocate who mentioned that Detroit was actually a place where urban outdoor agriculture was thriving -- in part because the city recognized the value of encouraging it on otherwise empty lots. But she was concerned that redevelopment in the city meant those farms were going to be displaced. In theory, solar could be an opportunity for Detroit, but it also seems odd to preclude other uses (buildings, agriculture) also sited with solar. Detroit officials at least appear to be stepping lightly for now — they've been accused of benefiting utility DTE more than the community on a previous project.
Last week I shared Sammy Roth's exploration of rooftop solar versus large utility scale solar installations: the numbers didn't add up without the larger installations. But in New England, rooftop solar is becoming very helpful in the winter — so helpful it surprised the grid operator.
Officials at ISO New England, which oversees the six-state power market, concluded after months of research that the region’s power grid has been strengthened by cold-weather sunlight, an unanticipated finding that adds fuel to a growing debate over the impact that renewable energy has on the nation’s labyrinth of power plants and transmission lines...
“I think that the solar finding was just monumental because it’s not something that anyone that I know of had ever considered or put forward as part of the solution,” Phillip Bartlett, chair of the Maine Public Utility Commission, said in an interview, adding that rooftop solar had previously been “kind of dismissed as not adding enough value.”
The influx of solar has paved the way for the retirement of one of New England’s dirtiest power plants. Mystic Generating Station, the third-largest power plant in the region, is slated to close next summer. New England electric customers have been paying a subsidy in recent years to keep the 1,413 megawatt gas plant from shutting down.
That doesn't mean all of New England's gas plants will be killed by solar: half of the region's power is still run on gas. But rooftop solar means the system isn't using as much oil as a backup source, and allowing gas plants to run less often.
There's a lot of ways you can slice and dice how much renewable energy is currently powering our lives, but you could do worse for really big picture than the Energy Information Administration's graphs about total energy consumption in the U.S. by source.
This is all energy, not just electric power: it's industrial processing, the gas you use to power a car, the fuels you use to heat homes, and much more. And last year 21% of that was "non-fossil" sources. A couple obvious things here: First: we're using a LOT more energy than we used to. Second: 1776??? Before 1949, the EIA uses two historical sources to estimate these numbers. But even if you started the graph in 1949, you'd see a huge impact.
The EIA published this graph with the headline that 21% of all energy use is "non-fossil," a record since the early 1900s — when it was primarily wood.
(I would not recommend going back to a majority-wood energy system)
Like I said, this is really big picture. If you replicated the above graphs for individual states they could look a lot different.