Most researchers studying grizzly bears are from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or university ecology departments, not biotechnology companies.
Still, Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at the Southern California-based biotech firm Amgen, spends his days in a lab in Pullman, Wash., analyzing bear blood. He leaves the actual touching of the 700-pound predator to the capable handlers and their trusty anesthesia. Corbit chuckles as he reflects on his work: “I guess it’s not logical to study bears with a biotech job.”
Maybe it is logical, though, judging from a study he recently published, in collaboration with Washington State University’s Bear Center. With the goal of developing a better long-term treatment for human obesity, Corbit strayed from the status quo of testing mice and rats, which aren’t great predictors of human response. Instead of trying medications on rodents, he decided to examine the genetics of grizzlies and their metabolism. The bears were the perfect fit: Before hibernating each year, they become extraordinarily obese.
In the new study, Corbit and his colleagues discovered a natural state of diabetes in bears that not only serves a real biological purpose, but also is reversible. The bears’ bodies effectively turn up or down their responsiveness to the hormone insulin—much, Corbit says, “like a dimmer switch.” The bears are at their fattest in the late summer, sometimes consuming more than 50,000 calories and gaining up to 16 pounds in a day. But despite the weight gain, they’re at their least diabetic. Their insulin dial is turned up, which helps them store fat for seven months of hibernation.
When the bear hibernates and needs to live off its fat stores, it turns its insulin responsiveness way down. The animal becomes, in human terms, like a Type 2 diabetic, and insulin-resistant. Yet the bear is actually losing, rather than gaining, weight. Year in, year out, despite the extremes of fall gorging, then foodlessness for the entire winter, the bear’s blood sugar remains consistent. It stays healthy thanks to PTEN, a unique genetic mutation (that appears in only some humans) that allows for the insulin dimmer switch.
In addition to pointing out that diabetes is a natural and temporary condition for grizzlies, the research shows that the dominant theory that human obesity and diabetes go hand-in-hand may need rethinking.
Corbit is already thinking about what this could mean for how people are currently treated for the condition. “I worry that giving people insulin over the long-term may end up hurting them,” he says. While injecting insulin in the bloodstream can bring down high blood sugar, it also prevents the breakdown of fat, which leads to cardiovascular problems and other serious medical issues. An alternative treatment for obesity, Corbit thinks, could lie in discovering how exactly grizzlies use the PTEN gene to control their insulin levels.
Ultimately, Corbit wrote in a New York Times op-ed last winter, drug development could take a hint from “millions of years of evolutionary experimentation.” Through unique genetic mutations, animals have evolved in ways to overcome conditions that continue to afflict humans. The new grizzlies research is just one example of how we can learn from them.
“Nature has figured it out,” he says.
Now he just needs to find a way to translate thousands of years of evolution into a treatment for obesity. Slumbering grizzlies may have brought Corbit closer than ever.
This article originally appeared in High Country News.
The full moon occurs on Sunday, Aug. 10, at 11:09 a.m. The moon passes perigee—221,765 miles from Earth, the closest approach of the year—at the same hour.
But this “supermoon,” visible at dawn and dusk on that date, is not the brightest moon of 2014, because of the phase effect, which makes the moon’s brightness decrease sharply when it’s a few degrees away from being exactly 180 degrees from the sun. You can duplicate this effect one night by standing between a stationary bright-light source and a highly reflective road sign, so that the shadow of your head is cast upon the sign. Note how the sign really lights up around your head’s shadow, giving the shadow a brilliant “halo.” However, if you take a step or two to left or right, you’ll notice how quickly the road sign fades away.
August's full moon passes four to five degrees north of Earth’s shadow center, causing the moon to set after sunrise and rise before sunset on Aug. 10. Further, the timing of the full moon, during the daytime, places the moon widely northwest of the Earth’s shadow at sunrise, and northeast of it at sunset.
Even with the moon not as bright as could be, there are no truly dark skies between dawn’s first light on Aug. 8 and nightfall on Aug. 14. This fact will largely spoil this year’s Perseid meteor shower, which would otherwise be at its best in the predawn darkness hours of Wednesday, Aug. 13.
If you’re outdoors that morning as twilight brightens, watch for Jupiter rising in the east-northeast, 5 degrees to the lower left of Venus. Venus goes east against background stars by 1.2 degrees per day compared to Jupiter’s 0.2 degrees; watch their separation narrow by about 1 degree daily.
Don’t miss the spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on Monday, Aug. 18, within 0.4 degrees. Five days later, on Saturday, Aug. 23, the old crescent moon joins the brilliant planets in a beautiful scene.
Evening planets: Find the planets Mars and Saturn in the southwest at nightfall, and compare them in brightness and color to each other; to bluish Spica, to their lower right; and to reddish Antares, to Saturn’s left. The stars will twinkle noticeably.
Watch the Mars-Saturn gap shrink until they’re 3.4 degrees apart on Aug. 25, and then widen to 5.0 degrees apart by Aug. 31. The moon will appear near these planets on Aug. 31.
Robert C. Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.
From Thursday, Feb. 13, through Sunday, Feb. 23, Modernism Week will take over the Coachella Valley with an overwhelming number of events celebrating midcentury architecture and design.
We’ve scoured the calendars, and here are five happenings that caught our eye. For a complete list of events, visit www.modernismweek.com—and do so soon, as many of the events will sell out, if they have not already. (As of our press deadline, tickets were still available for these events.)
Modern Mambo! At Caliente Tropics
Caliente Tropics will celebrate the opening of Modernism Week with—what else?—a mambo party! From 8 to 11 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 13, enjoy a Havana-themed party featuring DJ Alf Alpha; cocktails by Ultimat Vodka; chocolate treats by Godiva; and great food from the fine folks Crave. Tickets are $150; visit www.modernismweek.com. Caliente Tropics is located at 411 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs; 760-327-1391.
Modernism Week After Dark at the Purple Room
Gary and Joan Gand—you probably know them as the Gand Band—have put together an impressive schedule of music at the Purple Room during Modernism Week. On Friday, Feb. 14, the Gand Band will perform a “Motown to Memphis” show featuring Tony Grandberry. The following night, they will be joined by special guests to re-live the music from the iconic 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. On Tuesday, Feb. 18, the Blue Hawaiians will perform on Surf Rock night. Costs vary. For a full itinerary, visit www.purpleroompalmsprings.com, or call 760-322-4422. The Purple Room is located at 1900 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs.
Never Built Palm Springs
From 1 to 3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 15, the Saguaro Palm Springs will host a panel discussion led by Erin Feher, editor of California Home+Design. Panelists include Sidney Williams of the Palm Springs Art Museum; Lance O’Donnell of o2 Architecture; Jennifer Siegal of the Office and Mobile Design firm; and others. The topic of the discussion: the Palm Springs that “could have been.” Panelists will address a series of proposed projects that were—as the title of the event says—never built. Tickets are $15—or for $30, enjoy the talk after brunch at Tinto. Head to www.modernismweek.com for tickets. The Saguaro Palm Springs is at 1800 E. Palm Canyon Drive; 760-323-1711.
Showing of ‘Mid Century Moderns: The Homes That Define Palm Springs’
At 1 p.m., Monday, Feb. 17, the Horizon Ballroom at the Hilton will host a screening of the film Mid Century Moderns: The Homes That Define Palm Springs. The movie examines the homes of the Alexander Construction Company, which designed homes in Twin Palms, Vista Las Palmas and the Racquet Club Estates. It also takes a look at the Alexander Homes, which have never been shown on public tours. Tickets are $12; get them at www.modernismweek.com. The Hilton is at 400 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, in Palm Springs; 760-320-6868.
Hugh M. Kaptur: Gentle Giant of Desert Design
The Palm Springs Public Library will feature a free lecture by Matt Burkholz on Hugh M. Kaptur, the architect who will be in the spotlight this year during Modernism Week. Kaptur was one of the youngest of the now-renowned midcentury modernist architects, and was a major force in the Coachella Valley’s architecture world, designing 200 residences, commercial and recreation centers, hotels and other structures. Seating is first-come, first served for the lecture, which begins at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 22; library doors open at 10 a.m. The Palm Springs Public Library is located at 300 S. Sunrise Way; 760-322-7323.
- modernism week
- modern mambo
- dj alf alpha
- purple room
- gand band
- tony grandberry
- blue hawaiians
- never built palm springs
- erin feher
- california home+design
- sidney williams
- lance o'donnell
- jennifer siegal
- o2 architecture
- office and mobile design
- mid century moderns: the homes that define palm springs
- hugh m kaptur
As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?”
To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River.
Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that the Bureau of Reclamation would bankrupt the nation with senseless dams and irrigation projects, while holding future generations of Americans hostage to unpaid bills and unintended consequences.
At a time when Goldwater and the Bureau of Reclamation were enjoying a Golden Age of water projects, their chief nemesis was an environmental crusader named David Brower. Brower, president of the Sierra Club and founder of the Earth Island Institute, single-handedly led the fight against building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. And lost. He called that defeat “the darkest day of my life.”
Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. Toward the end of his life, Goldwater took political positions that left most of his libertarian allies scratching their heads in bewilderment. Is Barry going senile? Did somebody poison his soup?
No, Goldwater’s public epiphany came about when PBS aired Cadillac Desert, a series based on Marc Reisner’s eponymous book. In the third episode, when Goldwater and Reisner were discussing the adjudication of the Colorado River, the silver-haired Goldwater looked out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix and asked, “What have we done to this beautiful desert, our wild rivers? All that dam-building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”
That admission reverberated across the high mesas of the Southwest like summer thunder. A few months later, when Brower and I talked over lunch, I asked him, “What did you do when Goldwater said it was all a big mistake?”
He cackled and then let out an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called (Goldwater), and I said, Barry, let’s do the right thing: Help me take out Glen Canyon Dam. He said he would! Then he died a few months later.”
Brower died a few months after that.
Taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not have altered today’s water crisis in the Southwest, but it would have made a resounding statement. It would have said: “Wild rivers rock.” It would have said, “We should have left well enough alone.”
We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the days before the Civil War, or to the Indian Wars, and fix things. We’re stuck with the aftermath of those decisions, many of them poorly informed, unwise or downright bad. And, sadly, as the Hoover Commission warned 63 years ago, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.
The Colorado River, though, is a special case. It has always been a special case—now more than ever. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, say some experts, and it shows no sign of releasing its grip. No doubt, the region’s leaders despair over vanishing options. The Bureau of Reclamation has announced it may start rationing water to downstream states by 2015. And no climate model is predicting rain.
What in the world were we thinking?
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory.
The crowd on the Arnold Palmer Private course was pretty thin during the first two days of last weekend’s Humana Challenge Golf Tournament. In fact, during Thursday’s first round of play, only Canadian Mike Weir attracted a sizable fan following—composed mostly of his snowbird countrymen and women.
But during Saturday’s third round (Jan. 18), the crowd was noticeably larger. One of the largest galleries was following the U.S. pro pairing of Zach Johnson (arguably the hottest golfer on the tour) and Keegan Bradley (winner of the 2011 PGA Championship major title).
Along for the ride in the foursome: Coachella Valley amateur competitors Ralph Hemingway and Ed Michaels.
“I’ve played the last eight years with the (Bob) Hope Tournament and now the Humana,” Ralph Hemingway told me after his round. “And right now, I’d say the format of the Humana is the best of any of the pro-ams I’ve ever played at.”
The traditional pro-am format for decades had three amateurs playing with one PGA Tour pro in each foursome, and the tournament stretched over five days and 90 holes of competition.
“This is the second year that they’ve changed to a four-day, 1-on-1 (pros and amateurs) format. And being able to play with a different pro each day is just fantastic,” explained Hemingway. “You talk to the pros. … They felt like an oddball with a pro and three amateurs. Now they’ve got another pro to walk with, and somebody in the same tee box.” (Amateur competitors play from a tee box closer to the hole than the pros do.)
Back in the days of the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the tournament was known for the multitude of entertainers and celebrities who showed up to play as amateurs—attracting lots of star-gazers to the fairways.
“People would come to watch the celebrities … not the golf, just the celebrities,” Hemingway recalled. “People with the tournament ask me quite a bit if I miss the celebrities, and I said I really don’t. Celebrities are celebrities. I’m not really a celebrity nut anyway. They can play their game, and I’ll play mine.”
Does he plan on going back to play in the 2015 Humana Challenge?
“Oh sure, I’ll be there,” said Hemingway. “No doubt about it. I’ve played in the Dinah Shore and the Frank Sinatra, and I keep coming back to the Humana. They’ve done a lot of great charity work, and that’s a real factor.”
One last question for Hemingway: Is he related to Ernest?
“Yeah we’re fourth-cousins, and I have a collection of first-edition printings of all his books.”
Scroll down to see a few shots of Hemingway in action.
On Thursday, Jan. 16, President Bill Clinton took a break from a series of conferences and meetings held this week here in the Coachella Valley—dealing with health initiatives and economic development—to join legendary golfer Gary Player and PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem at the official opening ceremony of the 2014 Humana Challenge Golf Tournament.
Afterward, he spent a few hours at the Arnold Palmer Private Course in La Quinta talking with some of the professional golfers and fans in attendance.
"President Clinton and I have been friends for 30 years," said Marjorie Seawell, vacationing here from Denver, after she spoke with the former president at some length. "I got to know him first in the National Governors Association, and we became fast friends. Every time we find ourselves in the same place, we try to get together. He's a special friend."
The Clinton Foundation held its annual Health Matters conference in La Quinta earlier this week.
Regarding his involvement with the tournament, President Clinton said during a nationally televised interview with the Golf Channel, "When we started this, Commissioner Finchem asked me if I would work with him to try to help salvage what was the old Bob Hope golf tournament—both for Bob’s memory, who I knew for the last 20 or so years of his life, and for the community that has done so much work and has raised so much money for charity with the help of the PGA Tour and the players."
He recalled an anecdote that Bob Hope shared with him. "He told me, ‘The only thing I ever did, even after I gave up golf, was that I walked an hour a day. And sometimes because I worked at night, it was at midnight. And sometimes because I was in London and it was raining—I took rubber boots.’ You’ve got to have something to do come rain or shine.”
Regarding his ongoing commitment to the Humana Challenge Golf Tournament, President Clinton commented, "We really work hard here. So does our sponsor, Humana, and I give them a lot of credit. They participate in our conference, and this year, we got another $11 million committed, and we’ve got enough money committed in the United States to touch 50 million more people with after-school programs for kids who need help and support. We’re trying to build a culture of wellness in America and make it a part of what we do.”
They’re as common as U.S. House bills repealing Obamacare, but far more successful: Earthjustice v. BLM. WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA.
They’re lawsuits brought by conservation groups against federal agencies when, environmentalists say, the agencies fail to enforce the law. A polluted river falls through the cracks; a species in peril remains unprotected; a Clean Air Act deadline for air-quality standards passes without action.
Sometimes, federal lawyers fight back all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, as in Massachusetts v. EPA, the blockbuster 2007 case that forced the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Other times, they surrender and hammer out the details of a settlement.
Some of those agreements represent conservation milestones: In the 1990s, scores of environmental groups settled cases with EPA over water pollution from diffuse sources; the agreements hatched hundreds of plans to clean up polluted lakes, rivers and beaches. In 2011, WildEarth Guardians got the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to agree to a six-year plan for protecting imperiled plants and animals with Endangered Species Act listings, establishing a systematic process to address the decade-long backlog of petitions.
None of these settlements have rewritten any laws; only Congress can do that. Instead, they’ve refined and put teeth into existing legislation. Still, they rankle industry and its conservative allies. In recent years, House Republicans, aided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have likened “sue-and-settle” agreements to mob tactics. Former Arizona Rep. Ben Quayle, introducing a bill to address the issue, told Congress the settlements amount to “backroom regulation” that robs environmental policy of “transparency and fairness.”
Quayle lost his seat in the 2012 elections, but his Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act lives on: A new version was recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, legislators in 12 states, including Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, have filed two Freedom of Information Act requests, demanding all EPA documents pertaining to settled lawsuits between citizen groups and the agency. The EPA rejected the first request as too broad, so the states requested documents “that discuss or in any way relate to” communication anyone in the agency’s 16 offices had with any of 17 nonprofits concerning atmospheric haze. The EPA rejected the second request, too, citing legal precedent that says the law “was not intended to reduce government agencies to full-time investigators on behalf of requestors.” Rather than narrow the request, on July 16, the states, led by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, sued.
Eric Biber, a University of California at Berkeley environmental law professor, suspects federal regulators do sometimes welcome environmentalist pressure to enforce neglected laws. “Sometimes, an agency wants to do something but not take the political hit for it,” he says. If you have a settlement agreement in place, and Congress calls you into an oversight hearing, “You can say, ‘If you want a different outcome, change the law.’”
But the dynamic isn’t unique to environmental groups. “A lot of these lawsuits went in the other direction during the (industry-friendly) Bush administration,” Biber says. Earthjustice lawyers complained in 2003 of a “sue-and-settle pattern” when timber companies sued the government for access to northern spotted owl habitat. The settlement would have increased old-growth logging fourfold if environmental groups hadn’t fought it––and won.
“It’s increasingly used as a tool on both sides,” Biber says.
It should be noted that neither the Sunshine Bill in the House nor the document requests themselves allege collusion. Any such accusation would be fantastical, says John Walke, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has also litigated for both the EPA and industry. “Attorneys at the EPA uphold the interest of the United States government. They litigate vigorously, and that’s true whether they’re being sued by environmental groups, industry or states and cities.”
Only in public statements and press releases do lawmakers promote the notion of a secret environmentalist conspiracy within federal agencies. “If the EPA is making backdoor deals with environmental groups to push their agenda on the American people while bypassing the states and Congress,” Pruitt said in a press release, “we need to know.”
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s spokesman, Renny McKay, is more circumspect: “We’re concerned about the practice,” he says. “We’re trying to verify whether this concern is valid or not.”
Walke thinks that’s a little “like submitting a request to the IRS to reveal a campaign to torture puppies. The value of the lawsuit is the PR value of leveling charges for which there are no facts. When the lawsuit is quietly dismissed later, they won’t care.” The message is out.
A similar dynamic unfolded when solar technology startup Solyndra went bankrupt after receiving a $550 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department, launching a congressional investigation into possible conflicts of interest. The dustup yielded nothing and ultimately faded—but not before damaging Obama’s renewable energy campaign.
It’s still worth asking, though, whether taking federal agencies to court and forcing settlements is the best way to enforce—or roll back—environmental laws. In a better world, would another process accomplish the same goals? Biber doubts it: “Unless you pass a law saying people can’t sue to enforce the law, I don’t know if you can avoid having the problem.”
Says Walke: “The most obvious alternative would be for agencies to be funded adequately by Congress to carry out the law. In the meantime, we live under a system that’s governed by a rule of law. And that law that anoints citizens with the right to hold government accountable.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.
Amphibians are vanishing at an alarming rate—even from areas we think of as pristine and protected. California’s Sierra Nevada range is a prime example of this global problem: Five out of seven amphibian species there are threatened. Researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly why ponds that once held mountain yellow-legged frogs or California red-legged frogs are now devoid of amphibians.
In a new study, a U.S. Geological Survey group focusing on how pesticides affect amphibians tested common Pacific chorus frogs and their habitats, including Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoia National Monument, for around 100 agricultural chemicals. Even though researchers have looked at pesticides in Sierra Nevada amphibians for years, the new study’s most commonly detected chemicals—two fungicides and one herbicide—have never been found in amphibians until now.
“As pesticide use changes, our studies have to evolve as well,” says Kelly Smalling, a USGS hydrology and chemistry researcher, and the lead author on the study. As new pesticides are approved, it's difficult to keep pace with where they end up in the environment, so the USGS group tested for a large batch of them in seven remote locations. “That’s how we stumbled across the fungicides.”
In 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the two fungicides found in the new study, pyraclostrobin and tebuconazole, to combat a new soybean rust—the spores of which may have landed in the U.S. from South America during the 2004 hurricane season.
Pesticides, and diseases like the chytrid fungus, plus habitat loss and climate change, are among the possible reasons amphibians are blinking out in pristine areas. Earlier studies established that pesticides get into Sierra Nevada snow, water and sediments by wafting from the Central Valley, one of the nation’s most intensive agricultural regions. Frogs downwind of the valley are declining more rapidly than coastal or northern frogs.
Researchers also found in previous studies that pesticides commonly applied in the Central Valley—chlorpyrifos,and DDT-like endosulfan (which is being phased out)—showed upin declining populations of Sierra Nevada Pacific chorus frogs, and also in imperiled yellow-legged frogs. Smalling’s study only looked at Pacific chorus frogs, because they are not threatened, and so the population wouldn’t be harmed by a few sampling causalities. Yet the work still may point the way to research that could help narrow down what’s harming more rapidly declining species like yellow-legged frogs.
The next step, according to Smalling, is figuring out how the fungicides could affect, or kill, amphibians. That means a lot of difficult laboratory work, partly because every frog species may respond to pesticides differently.
As for how pathogens like the chytrid fungus might be interacting with pesticides to kill frogs, that remains a mystery.
“I think it’s quite likely that there is an interaction between pesticides and other stressors,” says Gary Fellers, a wildlife biologist on the study who has worked on amphibian declines since the ’90s.
Fellers, who recently retired from the USGS, grew up backpacking in Yosemite, where he still does field work. “I know of frog populations that are entirely gone now,” he says. “I’m incredibly anxious to find what’s causing these declines before we lose entire species.”
Sarah Jane Keller is the editorial fellow at High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.
Peter Stehr is an apple farmer. But when he had a heart attack in 2002, he decided he needed to diversify his income, so he and some associates got a loan and put up a few .6-megawatt wind turbines in his orchard.
Today, one of them still spins over a row of apple trees, kicking out some 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, which he sells to the grid for about $120,000.
Plenty of Western ranchers and farmers could use that sort of cash, especially in these days of extended drought, when the ditches run dry after the first cutting of hay. But Stehr lives in Germany, outside of Hamburg, and his wind-powered windfall is the offspring of that nation’s Energiewende—inadequately translated as "energy transition"—that encourages renewable energy and is phasing out nuclear power.
I joined 17 other European and American journalists to visit Stehr in June as part of a weeklong Energiewende immersion tour spearheaded by the Transatlantic Media Network. My mission was to try to answer the question: Can the West have its own Energiewende?
After delving into the details of Germany’s plan, and listening to all of the challenges, which are not unlike ours, I’ve got an answer: Yes.
From the many glowing reports on the Energiewende from journalists on this side of the Atlantic (including, I confess, my own), we might be led to believe that Germany’s progress on renewable energy is out of our reach: They’re simply greener than us, more inclined toward allowing government interference, with a political will to combat climate change that we lack. We drive Hummers; they prefer tiny Twingos. We love energy-gulping air conditioning; they don't even use fans. We have the Tea Party; they have the Green Party.
There’s some truth to this. But as one of our hosts emphasized, “Germany is not a renewables Disneyland.” What he meant was that as successful as their energy transition has been—on one day in June, solar and wind accounted for 60 percent of Germany’s power production—it hasn’t come without pain, conflict or, for that matter, a healthy dose of coal.
Germany’s Energiewende has two parts. One is the phase-out of nuclear power, which has been in the works for some time, but was accelerated in 2011. The second is the move toward renewables, driven primarily by the feed-in tariff (FIT), which guarantees renewable-power producers a premium price for their goods for 20 years, along with automatic access to and priority in the grid. The FIT turns everyone from the apple farmer with a turbine to the apartment-dweller with a solar panel into his own mini power company with a long-term, potentially lucrative contract with the utilities. To fund the tariff, a renewable surcharge is tacked onto power customers’ bills. Now, Germany has 30 gigawatts of installed solar—about five times the amount that the entire U.S. has—a good portion of which is individually owned. The FIT is almost wholly responsible for that.
Before you scoff at the potential for such a program in the U.S., consider this: Los Angeles recently implemented its own feed-in tariff (though limited in scope). And deep-red Arizona has long had a robust net-metering system in place, which is similar to a feed-in tariff. Meanwhile, the federal production tax credit has helped the U.S. install a whopping 60 gigawatts of wind capacity. Clearly, we in the West are open to such programs, as long as they don’t raise our electricity rates too much.
Well, guess what? Germans feel the same way. Individuals, cooperatives and companies receiving the FIT, like those on net metering in Arizona, don’t pay infrastructure fees for using the grid, transferring that cost—critics say unfairly—to the ratepayers. The debate sounds remarkably similar to the one going on in Arizona right now. So some German politicians are working to change the pricing structure on the tariffs or even eliminate them altogether. That’s despite the fact that the FIT is really not the main driver of energy prices. Corporate welfare is: In order to keep large industry—which is thriving in Germany—from fleeing, the biggest energy-users don’t have to pay the renewable surcharge, pushing that cost onto individual customers. The pricing scheme is such that when wholesale power prices drop due to so much renewable power going into the grid, the ratepayers actually pay higher retail prices (meaning the utilities reap higher and higher profits).
These are mistakes from which we in the West can learn.
Germany’s grid, too, faces many of the same problems as ours: It was built around a centralized fossil fuel and nuclear system, and needs more “flexibility” in order to efficiently back up all that wind and solar. Natural-gas plants that would provide that backup are being mothballed because they are economically unfeasible (since they only run a few hours each month). Transmission lines are needed to link offshore wind turbines in the north with industrial centers in the south and west, just as we need new transmission to get wind power from Wyoming to California. Yet just as is the case here, grid expansion in Germany—along with big wind farms—runs into local opposition over aesthetic and environmental concerns.
Perhaps most worrisome is that even as Germany beefs up its renewable portfolio, it burning more coal. Last year, 45 percent of its electricity was from coal, slightly higher than the amount here. This is not solely, as some believe, the result of shutting down nuclear plants. It’s because coal is dirt-cheap in Germany. Meanwhile, natural gas prices in Europe are rocketing upward. Naturally, utilities are turning to the cheaper fuel and away from natural gas.
All of which is to say that in the end, Germany’s path to a carbon-free future is filled with as many cultural, political and economical obstacles as ours. Yet they are overcoming many of those obstacles, thanks in part to what I think of as American traits: innovation, locally owned energy, and seizing opportunities to make money in areas like energy efficiency. That means that we should be able to accomplish all that they have and then some, thanks to our abundant resources.
The West has more potential for wind power than Germany, and far, far more solar resources. (Germany is basically on par with Alaska when it comes to generating power from the sun.) Just imagine how much electricity the Southwest could generate with 30 GW of solar capacity. We have more rooftops on which to put solar panels, along with plenty of vacant land. And we’re in the midst of a shale-gas boom, which allows us to discard all that coal for slightly cleaner-burning natural gas.
What we have in resources, though, we’re lacking in a coherent and focused energy policy, one that sets tangible goals and provides the tools to reach them. Just as I was heading over to Germany for the energy tour, the Western Governors’ Association released its 10 year “Energy Vision.” It’s yet another “all of the above” energy plan, encouraging renewables along with everything else, including oil, coal and especially natural gas. To its credit, it gives a passing nod to net metering as a useful tool along with the production tax credit, but misses out on one of the most important aspects of Germany’s incentives: long-term certainty and grid access. Even the most generous incentive is worthless if it will disappear next year, or if you can’t ship your power to market.
Just ask Peter Stehr, the fruit and wind farmer. As he filled us up with cider, he assured us that he’s no environmentalist—he built the wind turbines solely for the 20 years of assured income. Then he bid us aufwiedersehen, and we headed down the road, only to pass a giant coal-fired power plant so new it hasn’t even started operating yet.
It was a reminder of how tough it is to shift away from our carbon-intensive energy system, both at home and abroad.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News (the site from which this was cross-posted). The author is solely responsible for the content.
Si, buenas tardes?” Miriam Ceja chirped into the microphone at La Nueva Mix’s studio in Glenwood Springs, Colo. It was 5 p.m., “prime drive time,” on a Wednesday evening in late March.
La Nueva Mix is primarily a music station, playing Norteño ballads and other Latin-American tunes. But since its debut six years ago, program director Axel Contreras has also introduced talk shows on health, real estate and dealing with police encounters. By far the most popular, though, is Punto Legal, a weekly immigration-law call-in.
Ceja, an assistant at the law firm Hess and Schubert, is one of the show’s translators. Her boss, immigration attorney Ted Hess, who says he doesn’t speak “a lick of Spanish,” scribbled notes as she spoke.
“I’ve been working without a Social Security card,” said the anonymous caller, who sounded like a young man. “Will I still be able to take advantage of immigration reform?”
Hess replied: “As long as you haven’t committed a major felony, you should still be able to benefit from any reforms.” There was a pause.
“So, uh, can I go back to working with my fake documents?”
“I can’t legally advise you to do that,” said Hess, covering his microphone as he and Ceja stifled laughter.
The next 50 minutes were typical: For every call answered, two more blinking lights materialized on the switchboard. A woman whose sister was ripped off by someone she paid to “fix” her immigration papers wondered whether she could report the crime and qualify for a so-called “U Visa,” granting immunity from deportation. A man waiting on a green card learned about the federal government’s 20-year application backlog. Hess reassured a woman who’d been caught driving without a license and was afraid to show up for her court date, believing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would deport her.
The demand for free legal advice seemed endless.
Latino stations are nearly as old as radio itself. In the U.S., their success was initially built on immigrants’ nostalgia for the music of home, says Angie Balderas, vice president of sales for the Hispanic media company Adelante Media Group. Increasingly, though, Latino stations have come to resemble public-service organizations: Radio is cheap, accessible and omnipresent in the native countries of many immigrants.
“It’s the first line of information for many immigrants,” says Balderas.
Shows like Punto Legal abound and have real value for non-English speakers struggling to navigate the Byzantine complexity of the U.S. immigration system. Programs about health, finance and real estate are also popular, says Luis Manuel Botello at the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Journalists. “A lot of these immigrants don’t have health insurance, so the media becomes their source for information about health issues (instead of doctors). And personal finance is relatively new for many immigrants, because in their countries, the economies are not really based on credit.”
Contreras, a Guatemalan who came to the U.S. illegally 20 years ago and is now a legal resident, hopes that the news and information he airs help immigrants integrate into American society. “Our station is just a bridge for the Latino community,” he says.
Its approach has attracted a broad listenership: According to streaming data from La Nueva Mix’s parent company, the station routinely out-performs the company’s English-language holdings. In April, for instance, La Nueva Mix’s website had more than 28,000 hits, while KSPN, a popular local rock station, had just more than 3,000.
Frequently, there’s a political tone to Latino stations’ programming. Ramon Ramirez, a board member of western Oregon’s KPCN, is also the president of the Northwest Tree Planters and Farm Workers United labor union. KPCN serves the migrant farmworkers who harvest Oregon’s cherries, strawberries and blueberries, and Ramirez says the station is sometimes used to orchestrate protests and strikes.
“There was a grower here who banned their employees from listening to the station while they were working, because we used it as an organizing tool,” he says.
In times of crisis, Contreras converts La Nueva Mix into a sort of emergency warning system. In 2011, for instance, during the “Strawberry Days” carnival down the street from the station, federal immigration agents conducted a raid, disrupting the festivities and arresting several suspected undocumented immigrants. Immediately, Contreras took to the airwaves and urged people to avoid the carnival. “I’ve never seen it as empty as it was that day,” he recalls.
Officially, La Nueva Mix remains a commercial radio station. Advertisers include McDonalds, tax accountants, car dealers, fortune-tellers and money-transfer services. In practice, though, Contreras cultivates a community-radio sensibility, even when selling ads, often turning down offers from companies that might prey on vulnerable listeners—by claiming to fix immigration papers, for instance, or promising fake Caribbean vacations in exchange for “service fees” and personal information.
“A lot of people couldn’t afford to lose that money,” Contreras explains.
For advertisers he approves, access to the station’s audience can pay handsomely. Ted Hess says he gets the vast majority of his business through Punto Legal. In fact, the show is so successful that he recently replicated it on the Greeley, Colo.-based station Tigre FM. He also opened a new law office in Greeley, noting that many Latinos are moving to the area to work for northern Colorado’s ubiquitous gas companies, slaughterhouses and farms.
“You’ll see this trend in any emerging market,” says Balderas, of Adelante Media Group. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you soon saw part-time Spanish radio stations in North Dakota because of the oil boom there.”
Reached by phone at the new Greeley office in late April, Hess said he’d just closed his first show on Tigre FM with his signature tagline: “Don’t fight with your spouse; don’t let ICE into your house; and DON’T go back to Mexico.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.