TIME Environment

California Imposes Unprecedented Water Conservation Rules

California Dought Water Fines
A sprinkler system sprays water onto a parked car along the curb in Glendale, Calif., Wednesday, July 9, 2014. Matt Hamilton—AP

New statewide rules target wasteful usage of water in urban settings

California authorities voted Tuesday to put unprecedented, across-the-board emergency regulations in place that will levy fines for wasteful behavior. Activities like using a hose to wash a car without a shut-off nozzle or using drinkable water in certain decorative water features will be banned, while infractions will carry fines of up to $500.

The State Water Resources Control Board also emphasized that reservoirs and rainfall levels remain “critically low,” and communities may risk running out of drinking water as nearly 80% of the state is now experiencing an extreme drought. The conditions have also led to more wildfires and damage to animals’ habitats.

“Outdoor water waste is unacceptable in a time of drought,” Board Chair Felicia Marcus tells TIME. “We don’t know when it’s going to rain again. … This is a dramatic action, but these are dramatic times.”

The vote comes just months after California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January, marking what may become the state’s worst drought in centuries. Despite Brown’s call for residents to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20%, the state’s water consumption has actually gone up compared to previous years.

What is now a three-year drought has taken a serious toll on Central Valley farmers, who have been forced to leave thousands of acres dormant and lay off thousands of employees. Such rural residents, Marcus says, have already been strictly rationing water, and now it’s time for those who live in cities to step up. “The prohibitions are on water waste. It’s not telling people they can’t have a lawn,” she says. Urban residents, she says, are “not seeing the fallowed fields. That shouldn’t help them sleep too much more easily at night.”

The temporary regulations, which go into place around Aug. 1, also prohibit watering outdoor landscapes generously enough to create runoff onto surfaces like sidewalks or roadways, as well as using water to clean residential driveways or walkways. They place restrictions on urban water suppliers, limiting outdoor irrigation and requiring progress reports. According to the Board, 50% or more of daily water use goes into lawns and landscapes in some areas of the state.

At a Tuesday hearing, individuals from around the state spoke before a Board meeting in Sacramento. A few called the regulations “heavy-handed” government overreach, while others arguing that the emergency measures don’t go far enough given the severity of the drought. After hours of testimony, most seeking clarity about how exceptions might work and how to enforce the regulations, the Board voted 4-0 to approve the measure.

Marcus says these regulations will help send a message about how serious the situation is. She also said they are a “modest” form of conservation that needs to go in place now in order to preserve water for the future. “We were hoping for more voluntary conservation, and that’s the bottom line,” she says. “We hope this will get people’s attention.”

And if the drought gets worse, more mandatory regulations are not out of the question. The state’s Office of Administrative Law still has to approve the package of rules, which is expected in the next two weeks.

TIME Iran

A Side Effect of Iranian Sanctions: Tehran’s Bad Air

An overview of Tehran, July 7.
An overview of Tehran on July 7, 2014 Kiana Hayeri for TIME

Air pollution has decreased significantly since sanctions were temporarily lifted in January. As Iran and the U.S. attempt to hammer out a comprehensive nuclear deal before the July 20 deadline, the capital city’s newly cleaner air hangs in the balance 

When the U.S., the U.N. and Europe implemented, in 2010, one of the harshest sanctions regimes ever seen globally to curb Iran’s suspected development of a nuclear-weapons program, it was widely expected that the country would soon fall to its knees. Instead, Iran absorbed the blow, and though weakened, has managed to keep its economy afloat.

The sanctions all but stopped international financial transactions, limited military purchases, reduced the import and export of petroleum products and significantly curtailed trade — but you wouldn’t know it by walking the bustling streets of Iran’s capital of Tehran. According to economist Saeed Laylaz, Iran imported $3 billion worth of European luxury cars last year, triple the number before sanctions. Grocery stores are packed with all kinds of American products: from Coca-Cola to Snickers candy bars to Duracell batteries, while electronics shops even in small towns proudly display the full range of Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Apple products — even the iPhone 5S. The sanctions didn’t hurt Iran, say Iranians; they merely amplified an economic crisis wrought by government mismanagement in the preceding years.

About the only place where the impact of sanctions is visible is in the skies above Tehran. Iran may have the fourth largest proven petroleum reserve in the world, but it refines little of its own product, depending instead on imports of fuel from Europe. Sanctions cut those commodities off, sharply reducing supplies of gasoline. In order to keep Iran’s 26.3 million cars, trucks and motorcycles on the road, government officials were forced to convert petrochemical factories into ad hoc refineries, an expensive and inefficient process that produces a low-grade fuel choked with pollutants.

The results were devastating. Already home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, Iran saw a dramatic increase in the air pollution that contribute most directly to ill health, according to a worldwide World Health Organization assessment released in 2013. It is impossible to definitively link the impact of sanctions to the rising rates of childhood asthma cases and lung disease documented by Iran’s Health Ministry over the past four years — the concurrent increase in car ownership may also play a role. But when some sanctions, including those on the import of gasoline, were lifted in January under an interim agreement that proffered relief in exchange for substantial negotiations over the scope of Iran’s nuclear program, the impact was visible.

In June 2013, the pollution in Tehran was so bad that the mountains surrounding the capital could not even be made out from the 13th floor of a hotel popular with journalists in the city center. A year later, however, the last vestiges of winter snow could be spotted high on the mountains to the north of the city. “Sanctions significantly contributed to pollution, and particularly the kinds of pollution that are damaging to health,” says Rocky Ansari, an economist and sanctions expert at Cyrus Omron International, a firm that advises international companies on investing in Iran. Even before the sanctions were lifted, he says, the government was working on improving refining capacity in the country, but the international decision to clear the way for increased imports of refined fuel was a huge boost. “Now that hardly any petrol from petrochemical factories is being used, the pollution has reduced, and already people can breathe better air.”

That may be the case, but many Iranians are still holding their breath. The interim agreement ends on July 20, and a comprehensive deal that limits Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for a permanent lifting of sanctions is still in doubt. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, but a long history of subterfuge when it comes to international inspections has raised doubts about the country’s true intentions. The U.S. wants to see a sharp reduction in Iran’s ability to enrich nuclear fuel to weapons grade; Iran says it will not submit to overly onerous limits on its nuclear energy program.

The temporary agreement can be extended by up to six months, a point raised by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the sideline of talks in Vienna on July 13. “If we can reach a deal by July 20, bravo, if it’s serious,” he told reporters, according to Reuters. “If we can’t, there are two possibilities. One, we either extend … or we will have to say that unfortunately there is no prospect for a deal.” Should the talks fail, as with several previous attempts to strike a deal, the U.S. is likely to lead the call for even tougher sanctions, risking more conflict in a region already in turmoil — and further darkening the skies above Tehran.

— With reporting by Kay Armin Serjoie / Tehran

TIME energy

Electric Cars Will Change the Way You Power Your Home

An electric charging cable is seen connected to the updated Nissan Leaf vehicle during a news conference in Japan, Tokyo, on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012.
An electric charging cable is seen connected to the updated Nissan Leaf vehicle during a news conference in Japan, Tokyo, on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012. Kiyoshi Ota—Bloomberg/Getty Images

How the homes of the future will generate and store their own electricity, turning your house into a mini-power plant

Electric vehicles are our fastest-growing alternative to oil-derived gasoline. Solar panels are our fastest-growing alternative to coal-powered electricity. They’re both getting less expensive and more effective, driving our clean-energy revolution. And there’s new evidence that these two great tastes can taste particularly great together, transforming how we consume and produce power in ways that will accelerate that green revolution.

The evidence comes from Opower, a firm that uses software and behavioral science to help utilities promote energy conservation — and has amassed the world’s largest storehouse of household energy data along the way. Opower studied the power-consumption habits of about 2,000 plug-in electric-vehicle owners enrolled in “time-of-use” pricing programs. That means they got discounted electricity rates from midnight to 7 a.m., when demand is typically low, but paid a surcharge during peak daytime hours, when demand tends to spike.

Grid managers have to balance supply and demand every second, so big gaps between peak and off-peak demand can create big inefficiencies by forcing them to turn power plants on and off to adjust supply. In theory, the combination of electric vehicles (which can be charged anytime) and time-of-use pricing (which encourages charging after midnight) could help reduce those gaps. It could also help prevent electric vehicles (which alleviate the problem of carbon emissions) from exacerbating the problem of overloaded daytime grids. And that’s basically what the data showed — with a twist.

Opower found that EV owners did respond to the incentives to charge during off-peak hours, using three times as much power as the typical household between midnight and 7 a.m. It’s notoriously tough to get consumers to adjust their behavior, even when it’s in their financial interest, so that’s good news. At first glance, the data from the rest of the day looks like bad news: from 7 a.m. until midnight, EV owners still used 21% more power than the typical household. But this was mainly because they’re richer than the typical household; their houses were bigger and more likely to have a swimming pool. They clearly did the bulk of their vehicle charging after midnight when power was cheap.

The most striking data was from EV owners who also had solar panels. From 7 a.m. to midnight, they used about one-fourth as much power from the grid as the typical household, because they were getting power from their rooftops and often selling power back to the grid. In other words, they took very little from the grid when demand was high — at times even helping to increase supply — and took much more from the grid when demand was low. They helped smooth out demand.

That’s very good news, not only because smoothing out demand is a kind of holy grail for utilities, but because EV owners were 6.6 times more likely to have solar panels than the typical household. Nancy Pfund, a venture capitalist who invested early in Tesla Motors, the hottest EV firm, and Solar City, the leading solar installer, calls EVs “the gateway drug to solar.” Once you stop using hydrocarbons to fuel your car, she says, you want to stop using hydrocarbons, period. “Together, they can be a huge tool for managing our energy load,” Pfund says. “And they’re both taking off.”

Before 2009, when President Obama poured $90 billion into clean energy through his stimulus bill, the U.S. had no EV or solar industry to speak of. It now has nearly 250,000 EVs and nearly 500,000 solar rooftops, and both industries are still growing exponentially; Tesla and Solar City, both Elon Musk ventures, have both enjoyed soaring stock prices since going public. EV battery prices are not yet truly competitive with gasoline, although they’ve dropped 50% in five years, but retail solar prices, which have plunged 80%, are now competitive with fossil fuels in half the country. And the more they’re deployed, the cheaper they’ll get.

EVs are still less than 1% of the U.S. auto fleet, and solar still provides less than 1% of U.S. electricity. In terms of reducing emissions, they are still less significant than hybrid vehicles or wind power or energy-efficient appliances. But they are what the Silicon Valley types like to call “disruptive.” When you put a solar panel on your roof, your home becomes a mini-power plant. When you buy an electric vehicle, you suddenly control an automobile-shaped energy-storage device. It won’t be long before homeowners with both can be mini-utilities, buying power from the grid when it’s cheap and selling power to the grid when it’s expensive. Willett Kempton, a University of Delaware professor, has created electric vehicles that communicate and interact with the grid in real time; they earn about $150 per car per month by storing excess power when the grid gets temporarily overloaded.

That would make the economics of EVs more attractive, accelerating the route to mass adoption. “Net metering” will be similarly important for solar, allowing homeowners to sell power to the grid at attractive prices; as the Opower study demonstrated, time-of-use pricing can also help shape electricity demand. All of this will help create a more flexible, less centralized energy system, incorporating more renewable power without sacrificing reliability when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, adapting instantaneously to changes in demand and supply with the help of modern information technology and Opower-style Big Data. Our cars (as well as other smart appliances) will optimize their power needs with our utilities, and we can intervene at any time over our iPhones.

You could imagine a future where solar panels and EVs (perhaps with additional backup storage, like the wall-mounted batteries Solar City and Tesla recently launched) help Americans declare independence from the grid, the way mobile phones have set us free from landlines. More likely, though, the clean-energy revolution will just change our relationship to the grid. Our utilities will be as dependent on us as we are dependent on them. And we’ll have power over our power.

TIME Environment

Reality Bites: Why Sharks Aren’t Always to Blame for Attacks

Great White Shark
Getty Images

Scientists see it as good news that shark populations are growing in the Atlantic

Shark season has begun, thanks to real-life dramas like this month’s run-in with a great white shark off the California coast, the buildup to TV extravaganzas like “Sharknado 2″ and Shark Week, even the 40th anniversary of “Jaws.”

Reports show that shark populations are on the rise, so you can expect to hear a lot about big, bad sharks—but are they really all that bad?

“Having healthy shark populations is critical to having a healthy ocean,” Dean Grubbs, a shark researcher at Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, told NBC News. “We know they play important roles in the ecosystem…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Environment

Finland’s Capital Plans on Making Private-Car Ownership Obsolete in 10 Years

HKL company's trams from line 9, 10 and
HKL company's trams from line 9, 10 and 6 pass on the main street Mannerheimintie on Jan. 20, 2010, in Helsinki's city center. Olivier Morin—AFP/Getty Images

Are you paying attention, rest of world?

Finland’s capital, Helsinki, plans on revamping its entire transportation system by linking together several modes of shared transportation to potentially render private cars obsolete by 2025.

It might sound like a far-fetched project, but Sonja Heikkilä, a transportation engineer whose master thesis inspired the new model, says that young adults nowadays are more concerned about affordable and convenient commutes. “A car is no longer a status symbol for young people,” Heikkilä told the Helsinki Times.

Under the new system, city dwellers would be able to plan their journeys and pay fares ahead of time via their smartphones, which would aggregate several transportation options — like ferries, buses, trains, carpools, shared bikes and taxis — into one app, and come up with the most efficient route.

A report in the Guardian said the service would be like “popular transit planner Citymapper fused to a cycle hire service and a taxi app such as Hailo or Uber, with only one payment required.”

The new system will be piloted this year in Helsinki’s Vallila neighborhood.

This isn’t the first time that the Finns have taken steps to create environmentally conscious transportation. Last year, the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority rolled out Kutsuplus, an on-demand minibus system, which aggregates the destinations of everyone sharing the vehicle into the most efficient route, again using smartphones. The service works out to be more expensive than a regular bus but cheaper than a taxi.

The greatest challenge facing the new plan is making it accessible to all, given that it requires everyone to use a smartphone and be willing to pay higher prices than what they pay for current public transportation. Heikkilä also admits that it might be difficult for the older generation to give up their cars. “Change comes gradually,” she says.

TIME Environment

A Year After a Deadly Disaster, Fears Grow About the Danger of Crude Oil Shipped By Rail

The U.S. is producing more oil than it has in decades—and much of that oil is being transported by railroads that travel through crowded cities

When 21-year-old mother Kahdejah Johnson was told two years ago that she’d secured a spot at the Ezra Prentice Homes, a quiet housing project in Albany, she felt confident she’d found a stable home to raise her newborn son. With its manicured lawns and tidy beige row houses, the Ezra Prentice Homes are a far cry from the crumbling housing projects of large cities. “When people come into town they’re like ‘These are your projects? These are condos!'” says Johnson.

But today, Johnson is losing sleep over how close her house is to railroad tracks congested, day and night, with tanker cars carrying crude oil, visible just outside her bedroom window. The fear of an accident is so great that Johnson has taken to evacuating her apartment some nights, to spend the night at her mother’s home, further from the tracks. “Now I’m afraid to be in my own home,” she says. “Do you know how fast we could die here?”

Albany is one of a growing number of cities where residents like Johnson fear the devastating consequences of accidents involving railcars filled with crude oil. They have reason to fear—on July 6, 2013, a train carrying oil derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, causing an explosion that destroyed more than 30 buildings and killed more than 40 people. This past Sunday, Johnson and other Albany residents held a vigil to commemorate the Lac-Megantic derailment—and draw attention to the growing opposition to transporting crude oil by rail

“Jo-Annie Lapointe, Melissa Roy, Maxime Dubois, Joanie Turmel,” participants in the vigil intoned into a microphone, naming Lac-Megantic residents killed in the explosions. In a line, they held portraits of each of the deceased and read their names, pinning the pictures to a black metal fence. “You may not say that they lived right next door to you, but they were your neighbors,” said Pastor McKinley Johnson, who officiated part of the ceremony. “You may not say that you understand all the language, but they’re your sister and your brother.”

As in Lac-Megantic, oil tankers containing highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana roll right through their residential areas. Rows of train-cars filled with crude oil often stand idle for hours on the tracks that hug the curves of the housing project, so tightly only 15 feet at most separate the two in some areas. “Once I found out that these are the same tanks that were in Canada, I was like ‘Oh my God, someone pray for us, We’re in danger’,” Johnson said.

This fear is a consequence of the unconventional oil boom in states like North Dakota, where for the last several years producers have been using hydrofracking techniques to pump oil previously locked in underground shale rock. The new oil fields have helped America’s oil production rise to a 28-year high. But that crude oil has to get to refineries, most of which are located in coastal cities—and much of that oil is moving by rail. Nationally, transport of crude oil by train has jumped 45-fold between 2008 and 2013, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

While the U.S. has yet to experience a rail catastrophe on the scale of Lac-Megantic, the country has had its share of close calls. The National Transportation Safety Board counts five “significant accidents” of trains containing crude oil in the United States in the past year alone. The latest, in Lynchburg, Virginia, saw a train carrying crude Bakken oil derail and burst into flames in the town’s center this April, producing black plumes of smoke and billows of flames taller than buildings nearby. The crude oil also spilled into the James River, though one was injured.

The worrying trend has opened a new front to the national environmental debate. Some 40 cities and towns across the country scheduled similar events to mark Lac-Megantic’s one-year anniversary. Many of the rallies will take place in the usual hotbeds of environmental activism —in places like Seattle and Portland—but also in blue-collar tows like Philadelphia and Detroit, where activists will voice demands ranging from a moratorium on oil-trains traffic to increased safety controls.

But the problem has also presented environmentalists with a conundrum. One of the factors behind the rapid rise of railroad shipment of crude oil has been the shortage of oil pipelines, which could move greater quantities of oil from landlocked states to coastal refineries. Front and center to this debate is the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline project, which would connect the oil sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast, but which President Obama has yet to approve—in part because of objections raised by environmentalists, who fear the potential for a spill.

Fewer pipelines has meant more oil moved via rail. “If Keystone had been built we wouldn’t be moving nearly the volume of oil that we’re moving by rail,” said Charles Ebinger, the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

That has exposed the Keystone’s opponents to criticism that by standing in the way of pipeline projects, they are raising the risk of rail accidents. Though hazardous material like crude oil makes its way safely via rail 99.998 percent of the time, according to the Association of American Railroads, a plethora of research suggests that pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents, personal injuries and fatalities than rail. That includes an authoritative environmental review the State Department released last January, which concluded that “there is… a greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines.”

Still, environmentalists like Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics, the group coordinating the string of events to commemorate the Lac-Megantic tragedy, reject that dichotomy. “The industry is trying to present Americans with a false choice between pipelines and rails,” he says. “We want to choose clean energy.”

Back in Albany, the vigil was deemed a success, drawing a crowd of about a hundred. But Kahdejah Johnson wasn’t among them. Why not? Her fear, she said, got the best of her. “Honestly, I don’t really hang by my house,” she said. “I don’t like to be in that area if I don’t have to be there.” She is now on a waiting list to be transferred to another development—something she’s told could take up to four years. In the meantime, the trains will keep rolling.

TIME Dubai

Dubai to Build World’s First Temperature-Controlled Indoor ‘City’

In Dubai's latest attempt to cement its place as the economic hub of the Islamic world, Sheik Mohammed announces plans to build the world's first temperature-controlled "city," which will double as the world's largest mall

Dubai’s ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has unveiled plans for the Mall of the World — a 48 million-sq.-ft. (4.5 million sq m) shopping center, to be the world’s largest, which will also form the world’s first temperature-controlled “city.”

Designed by developers Dubai Holding, the complex will be modeled on the cultural district around New York’s Broadway and Oxford Street in London, and is expected to draw 180 million visitors to the city annually — even during the sweltering 104°F (40°C) summer. (The complex will be opened to the elements during tamer winter months to allow fresh air to circulate.)

“The growth in family and retail tourism underpins the need to enhance Dubai’s tourism infrastructure as soon as possible,” Sheik Mohammed said in a statement. “This project complements our plans to transform Dubai into a cultural, tourist and economic hub for the 2 billion people living in the region around us; and we are determined to achieve our vision.”

The ambitious project will include the world’s largest indoor amusement park and shopping mall, 100 hotels and serviced apartment complexes, an entertainment center to host 15,000 people, and a 3 million-sq.-ft. (300,000 sq m) “wellness district” for medical tourism. Buildings in the city will be connected by promenades stretching 4.5 miles (7 km). The plan is Dubai’s latest attempt to mark itself as the economic hub of the Islamic world; the UAE’s most populous city already boasts the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, which stands at 2,722 ft. (829.8 m).

In addition, as countries around the world struggle to reduce their greenhouse emissions, the project could lead the way for environmentally responsible urban planning. Ahmad bin Byat, chief executive officer of Dubai Holding, said in a statement that technology used will “reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint, ensuring high levels of environmental sustainability and operational efficiency.”

The cost and timeline of the project have yet to be released, but it is expected to be a highlight at the UAE World Expo trade fair in 2020.

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.

 

energy3

 

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

(MORE: New Energy Reality)

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