TIME energy

Obama Restarts Solyndra Program, But Solyndraphobia Could Ruin It

Barack Obama
US President Barack Obama pauses while speaking to people at 1776, a tech startup hub, on July 3, 2014 in Washington. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Fear of repeating the 2011 failure of the cutting-edge solar-panel manufacturer could drive the Energy Department toward overly safe projects, not environmental intervention

The Obama Administration announced Thursday that it plans to hand out $4 billion in new clean-energy loans, reviving the controversial program that went dark after the notorious failure of Solyndra in 2011. This time, though, the danger is not another Solyndra. The danger is excessive fear of another Solyndra.

Solyndraphobia is perfectly understandable, because the demise of Solyndra—a cutting-edge solar-panel manufacturer that defaulted on a $535 million federal loan—was a political debacle for President Obama. Republicans launched a slew of investigations of the loan, and even though they uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing, “Solyndra” became their one-word critique of the president’s efforts to promote renewable energy.

And even though President Bush signed the bill creating the Energy Department’s loan program in 2005—his administration actually selected Solyndra from among 143 applicants for the first loan—the program became a partisan target, Exhibit A for GOP complaints about Obama’s “crony capitalism.”

Overall, though, the loan program has been remarkably successful. It has poured $32.4 billion into dozens of projects that will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, including one of the world’s largest wind farms, a half dozen of the largest solar farms, the nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel refineries, the nation’s first new nuclear power plants in three decades, and a factory where Tesla Motors builds electric vehicles that are shaking up the auto industry. It has also financed a few clunkers, including Solyndra and its fellow manufacturer Abound Solar, both victims of an unexpected plunge in solar-panel prices, as well as Fisker Motors, which made beautiful electric vehicles that didn’t sell.

But all lenders make some bad loans. And not every clean-energy firm that receives federal support can succeed in the marketplace; the hope is that some of them will use their government jump-start to beat the odds and change the world. As a White House official once said to me, some Pell Grant recipients become drunks on the streets. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help low-income students attend college.

So far, the loan program has only burned through about $800 million of its $10 billion in reserves. Mitt Romney suggested during a debate with President Obama that half of its loans had failed; in fact, more than 95 percent are performing fine. That’s a record most private portfolio managers would envy, and it’s especially remarkable for a program that’s supposed to focus on innovative projects that private financiers won’t bankroll without government help. The goal was to help push promising green technologies across the so-called “Valley of Death,” and it seems to be working. Now that a bunch of huge solar projects have been built with government help, a bunch of copycat projects are under construction with purely private financing. They’ll benefit from the lessons learned in the initial round.

Peter Davidson, who runs the loan programs, says the Energy Department has learned some lessons, too. At the Renewable Energy Financing Forum in New York last week, he suggested that the department’s new round of loans will steer clear of manufacturers like Solyndra. It was an exciting company that had attracted a billion dollars in private financing, and it built its government-financed factory on budget and on time. But when silicon prices dropped and heavily subsidized Chinese manufacturers began selling panels at rock-bottom prices—a generally excellent trend that has sparked a spectacular solar boom in the United States—Solyndra’s business model collapsed and the department ended up looking ridiculous.

“We can deal with technical risk,” Davidson told me. “But when you’ve got manufacturing risk, you’re dealing with all kinds of stuff we can’t control.”

That makes sense. Manufacturing can be a crapshoot. But it would be a shame if Solyndraphobia drove the Energy Department towards overly safe projects that don’t need government help. We don’t need an energy version of the Export-Import Bank, offering slightly cheaper financing to borrowers with no plausible risk of default. The loan program’s main goal should be facilitating disruptive projects in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not avoiding failure in order to make sure taxpayers recoup every dollar. The Ex-Im Bank’s repayment rate is 99.7 percent; that means it’s very unlikely to have a Solyndra problem, and equally unlikely to accomplish anything useful.

Davidson noted that the most successful first-round clean-energy loans went to wind and solar plants that already had contracts in place to sell their electricity. For first-of-their-kind projects like Crescent Dunes, a Nevada solar thermal plant that will store the sun’s power to generate electricity at night, the government support was absolutely vital even with a contract in place, because private investors were wary of the technical risks. But private investors tend to be more willing to finance second-of-their-kind projects, and the next Crescent Dunes should be built without government loans.

The Energy Department’s new solicitation does suggest it’s looking for the next thing, not more of the old thing. It called for “catalytic” technologies in several areas where breakthroughs are desperately needed, like renewable energy storage, waste-to-energy projects, and “drop-in” biofuels that can substitute for fossil fuels without changes in engines or infrastructure. None of those technologies have been commercial successes yet, and Republicans will be on the lookout for another Solyndra that they can use to tarnish Obama’s legacy and kneecap green energy.

But Solyndraphobia can’t prevent the broiling of the planet. Obama won’t be able to finance more transformative successes like Tesla without financing more embarrassing flops like Fisker. Clean energy is a risky business, and any good program will make bad loans. If we’re not failing, we’re not really trying.

TIME China

African-Elephant Poaching Soars as Ivory Prices Triple in China

Officials and guests including Hong Kong's Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing are shown seized ivory displayed in Hong Kong
Officials and guests, including Hong Kong's Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing, are shown seized ivory in Hong Kong on May 15, 2014 Reuters

Nigeria and Angola sell the greatest amount of ivory products in Africa

The price African ivory fetches in China has tripled in the past four years, causing the dissident militias and organized-crime groups that monopolize the trade to ramp up illicit poaching, according to a report released on Thursday.

Increased demand spurred by Beijing’s lax ivory laws has seen ivory prices rocket from $750 in 2010 to $2,100 in 2014, meaning the widespread slaughter of African elephants “shows little sign of abating,” according to Save the Elephants. The campaign group estimates 33,000 elephants were slaughtered annually between 2010 and 2012.

China has long had a fascination with ivory that harks back hundreds of years to traditional ivory carvings. In modern times, wealthy Chinese value ivory as a status symbol or to use as gifts to sweeten potential business deals, reports the BBC.

Conservationists say communities in Nigeria and Angola sell the greatest amount of ivory products in Africa. “Without concerted international action to reduce the demand for ivory, measures to reduce the killing of elephants for ivory will fail,” Save the Elephants founder Iain Douglas-Hamilton tells AFP.

TIME energy

This Is How Americans Feel About Different Energy Sources

Solar power is the most popular form of energy both in the U.S. and abroad, but Americans are more favorable toward less sustainable energy sources like natural gas, coal and oil than people in other countries.

 

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Read Michael Grunwald’s analysis of the TIME energy poll here.

(MORE: New Energy Reality)

TIME Environment

Report Sees a Glimmer of Hope for Coral Reefs

School of smallmouth grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum) over the coral reef Curacao, Netherlands Antilles
School of smallmouth grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum) over the coral reef, Curacao, Netherlands Antilles. UIG /Getty Images

A staggering decline but also a way to reverse it

The rapid decline in Caribbean coral reefs is a result of fewer grazing species, but the right action can still reverse the decline, according to a new report.

The Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 report was conducted in a joint effort by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The rate of coral reef decline is staggering—almost 50% of reefs have disappeared since the 1970s, the report says. Researchers attribute the loss to the decline of reef grazers like the parrotfish and sea urchin.

“But this study brings some very encouraging news: the fate of Caribbean corals is not beyond our control and there are some very concrete steps that we can take to help them recover,” Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, said in a statement.

Countries with restricted fishing and hunting bans have the healthiest reefs, helping to encourage the rejuvenation of grazing populations. The report encourages others to follow their lead.

“This is the kind of aggressive management that needs to be replicated regionally if we are going to increase the resilience of Caribbean reefs,” said Ayana Johnson of the Waitt Institute’s Blue Halo Initiative.

TIME indonesia

Indonesia Now Has the Highest Rate of Deforestation in the World

Indonesia Forest Fires
Firemen spray water to extinguish wildfires in Dumai, Indonesia, on June 18, 2014 Rony Muharrman—AP

The Southeast Asian nation's forests are now being decimated quicker than those in Brazil

Indonesia now has the highest rate of deforestation in the world, releasing Brazil from its former title, according to a new report published in the Nature Climate Change journal.

Led by researchers at the University of Maryland, the study found that the Southeast Asian nation lost over 6 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2012. Despite government attempts to ban logging nationwide, the deforestation rate has increased in recent years. During the final year of the study, in 2012, Indonesia lost a whopping 840,000 hectares of forest while Brazil only lost 460,000 hectares.

Yuyun Indradi, forest campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said in a statement that the findings should serve as a “wake-up call” for greater government action to protect vulnerable wildlife and curtail greenhouse emissions. “While it was a welcome step, it’s clear that Indonesia’s forest moratorium has not worked,” he said. “Law enforcement is weak, and even the country’s national parks are being logged — but now is a critical time for action.”

The findings will likely be a recurring topic of conversation during this month’s presidential election. Rival candidates Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto will discuss the environment later this week during a televised debate, and Greenpeace urges both to propose viable solutions to deforestation and to encourage sustainable practices.

TIME New Caledonia

Is a Vast Marine Sanctuary Any Use if You Can’t Police It?

New Caledonia, Atoll, Amédée Lighthouse
New Caledonia's Amédée Lighthouse marks the entrance to its coral reef. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY—De Agostini/Getty Images

Tiny New Caledonia relies on a handful of French ships to patrol a marine reserve twice the size of Texas

Correction appended, July 1, 2014

For the first half of June — until the U.S. declared an even bigger one — the tiny, French semiautonomous territory of New Caledonia boasted the largest nature reserve on earth.

Covering a vast 1.3 million-sq-km region of the South Pacific, the Natural Park of the Coral Sea was established on May 28 to protect the world’s second largest coral reef and its attendant lagoon. Already safeguarded in parts by a UNESCO World Heritage listing, this wonderland is a nursery for 25 kinds of marine mammals (including sea cows and humpback whales), 48 species of shark and five different marine turtles. It also spawns vast numbers of pelagic fish, 3,000 tons of which make it into the Pacific every year – an important food source for tens of millions, and a source of employment for thousands of people living in the region.

But before most people had even heard of the creation of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, U.S. President Barack Obama went one better by using his executive powers to create an even larger marine park in the south-central Pacific on June 17. Known as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, it protects 2 million sq km of ocean and a smattering of islands and atolls between Hawaii and American Samoa from commercial fishing.

Obama’s announcement made world news, while New Caledonia’s barely received a mention. Perhaps that’s because the U.S., while sketchy on the details, has the hardware and manpower to enforce the no-take rule at the core of any national park. New Caledonia, however, has no navy of its own and relies on a handful of French ships to patrol an area twice the size of Texas and three times the size of Germany. What, in the end, is the meaning of its marine sanctuary if it cannot police it?

“This is supposed to be a World Heritage area, but look around you. Where are the patrols?” asks Manu Hernu, an eco-tour operator in Bourail, a popular surf beach on the west coast of New Caledonia’s largest island, Grande Terre. “There is no one here to stop people from fishing but me. I have to be the sheriff because the government isn’t here.”

A similar picture emerges in the micro-state of Kiribati, the halfway point between Hawaii and Fiji. Two days before Obama’s announcement, Kiribati banned commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which, at 400,000 sq km, is nearly equal in size to California. But with only 100,000 people and no defense budget to speak of, Kiribati has no means of enforcing the decree. It wants other nations already doing the heavy lifting in the area — like Australia, France and the U.S. — to provide ships and new technology to protect its massive mid-ocean wilderness.

New Caledonia’s lofty ideals must also be measured against its unremarkable environmental record. Home to a quarter of the world’s known nickel reserves, the archipelago is said to be “made of nickel.” The foreign dollars earned from nickel mining and smelting account for more than 90% of all exports. It’s the reason New Caledonia is so much better off than the aid- and tourism-dependent nations it counts among its neighbors in the South Pacific.

But that wealth has come at a price. In the highlands of Grande Terre, strip mining has turned great valleys rust red in color and sliced off entire mountaintops. Most of the damage harks back to the start of the mining boom in the 1970s, when rehabilitation of the landscape — once nickel had been extracted — wasn’t mandatory. Environmental protection standards for mining are relatively high today but accidents continue to dog the sector. In May, a mine owned by Brazilian giant Value leaked 100,000 L of acid-tainted effluent into a river that flows into a World Heritage zone. It follows another accidental spill of 40,000 L of sulfuric acid in 2009 and another in 2008 that turned a river green.

“We must do better for our marine resources than we did for our terrestrial resources,” World Wildlife Fund’s New Caledonia bureau chief Hubert Géraux tells TIME. He commends the announcement of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea but says it’s just a framework and the real work is yet to be done. “The first stage has been realized, but now it is necessary to ensure the success of the next step and implement a management plan for the rezoning of the park,” Géraux says. “People are quite supportive, but it’s too early to tell.”

Professor Joshua Cinner of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University agrees that just calling something a national park does not equate to protection.

“But I would not be cynical enough to believe a government would do something like this as a public relations exercise,” he says. “It’s being done in the kind of top-down manner which I really don’t believe in. But it could be part of a longer strategy that puts a framework in place for protection of marine resources on an absolutely massive scale.

“Either way, it’s always good to see governments talking about conservation,” he adds. “It creates intrinsic value just by just telling people that it’s there.”

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the name of an eco-tour operator. He is Manu Hernu, not Manu Hemu.

TIME Environment

Watch: NASA Says U.S. Air Pollution Has Plummeted

The air we breathe is a bit better, new images show

Striking new images released by NASA this week show significant reductions in air pollution levels across the United States. In particular, at least one pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, has decreased substantially over the past decade.

After ten years in orbit, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite showed that the decrease is particularly prominent in the Northeast, the Ohio River Valley, and other major cities. For example, NASA reported a 32% decrease in New York City and a 42% decrease in Atlanta between the periods of 2005-2007 and 2009-2011.

Air pollution decreased even though population and the number of cars on the roads have increased, and the shift can be explained as a result of better regulations, technological improvements and economic shifts, scientists said.

“While our air quality has certainly improved over the last few decades, there is still work to do – ozone and particulate matter are still problems,” said Bryan Duncan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

 

 

TIME energy

U.S. Oil Could Rescue Iraq

A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18.
A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18. U.S. Geological Survey/Reuters

If civil war engulfs all of Iraq, oil prices are likely to skyrocket. But U.S. exports could change the game

Even though the conflict in Iraq still rages, with forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) just an hour outside of Baghdad while the Syrian military is reportedly bombing the insurgents, global oil markets have mostly calmed. Prices for Brent crude on June 26 had fallen below $114 a barrel, and have dropped more than 1% since hitting a nine-month high on June 19. The violence in Iraq’s north and west—including fighting around the country’s largest refinery in Baiji—hasn’t yet seriously affected oil production in the Shiite dominated south. Iraq’s Oil Minister Abdul Kareem al-Luaibi even promised in an interview with Bloomberg that the nation’s oil exports—which have averaged more than 2.5 million barrels a day—will actually accelerate next month. “Oil exports will witness a big increase, as recent events didn’t reflect negatively on Iraq’s crude output and exports,” al-Luaibi said. “International oil companies are working normally in Iraq.”

That doesn’t seem to be quite true, though—international oil majors like BP and ExxonMobil have already evacuated some of their foreign workers from Iraq. And if things do get worse, oil markets might not react so calmly. A recent report from the nonprofit Securing America’s Future Energy found that the loss of just a third of Iraq’s oil output could be enough to push global oil prices up as much as $40 per barrel. Even if production from Iraq stays steady, political turmoil in countries like Libya and Nigeria have helped remove some 3.5 million barrels a day of oil production capacity. That doesn’t leave much room for more trouble in Iraq, the world’s third-largest exporter of crude oil. And with Iraq projected to be the biggest single contributor to new oil production over the coming decades—at least before the ISIS insurgency revved up—what happens in the country will matter at the pumps for a very long time.

But it’s not so easy to predict the future of energy and oil. Case in point: the fracking revolution in the U.S., which has unlocked vast amounts of previously inaccessible crude, and which few experts saw coming. Between 2008 and 2013, U.S. oil production increased by 2.4 million barrels a day, to more than 7.4 million. And the growth hasn’t stopped—production hit 8.3 million barrels a day in April. Most of the new global oil production brought online over the past few years has come from the U.S. While the U.S. doesn’t export raw crude—aside from a few small exceptions, U.S. oil exports have been banned since 1975—more oil at home means fewer imports, which in turns leaves more oil on the global market for everyone else. Take away the fracking revolution, and global oil markets wouldn’t have been able to so easily shrug off the violence in Iraq.

In the years to come, the U.S. could play an even bigger role. As the Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported earlier this week, the Obama Administration has begun taking steps towards allowing U.S. crude exports. If that wording sounds confusing, well, it is. What seems to be happening is that the U.S. Commerce Department will allow a pair of oil companies to begin exporting what is known as ultra-light condensate to international markets, with only minimal refining. (The U.S. has long allowed exports of refined oil products.) That doesn’t mean U.S. oil companies can begin exporting all the crude they want; in fact, both Commerce and the White House, reflecting the political sensitivities around allowing domestic exports at a time when gasoline costs an average of $3.68 a gallon, have insisted that there has been “no change in policy on crude oil exports.”

But with domestic oil production approaching the capacity of U.S. refineries—and the oil industry putting all its considerable pressure on the government—it seems likely that U.S. oil will eventually be sold abroad. What effect that will have domestically is uncertain. A recent report by Goldman Sachs found that the ban on exports was a net economic positive for the U.S., at least until domestic refineries could no longer handle growing production of oil. But it seems clear that lifting or at least modifying the ban would likely lead to more production, as oil companies wouldn’t have to worry about their product being landlocked in the U.S. A report by the research firm IHS found that lifting the ban would lead to more than $700 billion in additional investment in oil extraction between 2016 and 2030, and would increase oil production by an average of 1.2 million barrels a day. And given that global crude demand is expected to rise by about that much over the next several years, that oil could be very useful indeed—especially if today’s fighting in Iraq is only the beginning.

TIME Environment

Water at 1 in 10 U.S. Beaches Fails to Make the Grade

People crowd the beach at Coney Island on Memorial Day May 26, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
People crowd the beach at Coney Island on Memorial Day May 26, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Eric Thayer—Getty Images

Things are particularly bad in New England, on the Gulf Coast and along the Great Lakes

If you swim at 10 different U.S. beaches, you could end up getting a stomach bug, conjunctivitis or even something more serious from one of them. New research from the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, has concluded that 10% of the country’s coastal and lakefront beaches fail to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s water-safety standards—in other words, they’re ripe with bacteria.

Things are particularly bad in New England, on the Gulf Coast and along the Great Lakes, according to the data.

The major culprit is stormwater runoff, which inevitably ends up in the ocean after picking up garbage, oil and waste products from both humans and animals along the way. Making matters worse are the hundreds of billions of gallons of sewage that go untreated annually, ending up in water and causing 3.5 million Americans to fall ill each year.

Federal law requires all states to test their beach water for bacteria, and respond accordingly when levels are too high. In 2012, nearly 2,000 beaches were closed in New York and New Jersey alone as a result of pollution.

TIME skin care

3 Ways to Exfoliate Without Using Microbeads

Honey dripping off Dripper
Getty Images

Illinois is banning microbeads in facewash. Here's what to use instead

News about Illinois’ ban on facewashes that contain microbeads raise serious environmental concerns that are being heeded by a number of states. But for the vain among us, it begs the question: What to use instead of microbeads if you want that squeaky-clean feeling?

First, it bears a reminder that aggressively scrubbing your face is not a good idea, both because it can cause tiny tears in the surface of your skin—making it prone to infection and inflammation—and also because you don’t want to disrupt the skin’s acid mantle, which is there to keep in moisture and keep out pathogens.

There are thousands of products that claim to safely remove dead skin cells, but sometimes, simple is best. Here are three easy ways to clean your face that won’t break the bank, expose you to harsh ingredients or ruin your face.

Make Your Own, With Honey

Honey has long been a mainstay in DIY natural beauty, and for good reason. Honey is naturally antimicrobial, which makes it an effective cleanser on its own. You can rub a tablespoon between your hands and will find it gets nice and slippery—the consistency of a fancy face wash. It’s also humectant, which means it attracts and retains moisture and can help keep your skin dewy—something a lot of harsh exfoliating scrubs cannot claim to do—and it contains gluconic acid, a mild acid that is considered benign by public health experts.

A recent review in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology concluded that: “Honey is particularly suitable as a dressing for wounds and burns … dandruff … In cosmetic formulations, it exerts emollient, humectant, soothing, and hair conditioning effects, regulates pH and prevents pathogen infections.”

Some natural beauty mavens like to mix their honey with baking soda—which is something you want to be careful with because it’s quite alkaline. Your skin’s pH is widely thought to be around 5.5 (though a 2006 study placed it closer to 5), and it has what’s called an acid mantle on it. That’s an important barrier to keep intact, both to protect against infections and to keep in moisture. Try honey on its own, and if you want that scrubby feeling, mix in just a pinch of baking soda.

Use a Konjac Sponge

You could spend upwards of $150 on an electronic face scrubber, or you could drop $11 and get yourself a reusable sponge made, as the name suggests, of fibers from the root of a konjac plant. It comes rock hard, but put it under warm water and it softens into a springy dome that you can use with or without a cleanser to slough off dead skin cells. It’s gentle enough that you can use it daily. Some brands make konjac sponges infused with things like charcoal, which is a natural detoxifier for the skin. You could go that route if you want to, but I prefer the basic one. One konjac sponge will last you six weeks of twice-daily use.

Use A Gentle Peel With Lactic Acid

There are two main ways to get rid of the dead skin cells that dull the look of the surface of your skin. There are manual exfoliants—like scrubs and konjac sponges and face cloths—and there are chemical ones. The latter use acids to dissolve the material that keeps skin cells bound together, making dead cells easier to remove. (There is some evidence that some acids also support cell turnover. Cell turnover slows as we age, which is why these acids are also touted as antiagers.)

These kinds of exfoliants can be natural or synthetic, and can cause irritation in some people. There are tons of different acids in products on the market—well known ones include alpha hydroxy acid, lactic acid and glycolic acid. Lactic acid appears to improve water barrier properties, which helps the skin retain moisture, while also being an exfoliant. You should not use products containing acids in the morning because they can increase sensitivity to the sun. And always wear SPF on your face, whether you’re using a scrub or not.

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