Getting ready for the 2013 Earth Hour challenge

Our ever-multiplying array of appliances and digital devices — from microwaves and cell phones to DVR systems and HD television sets – is changing the way Americans use electricity.

If you think about it, this should not be overly surprising–as you read this, how many devices do you have plugged in or charging?–but it’s always nice to have figures, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration has done the necessary number crunching.

The big change is that our appliances, electronics and lighting have gone from about a quarter of our total home energy use 20 years ago, to over a third now — an increase of 10 percent. Meanwhile, space heating has dropped from more than half of our energy use to about 41 percent.

“Factors underpinning this trend,” write EIA analysts James Berry and William McNary, ”are increased adoption of more efficient equipment, better insulation, more efficient windows, and population shifts to warmer climates. The shift in how energy is consumed in homes has occurred even as per-household energy consumption has steadily declined.”

The catch here is that even as our homes are using less electricity, the amount of energy needed to support that use – what is called primary energy –has also changed, dramatically, the EIA reported in another set of graphs.

In terms of actual onsite consumption, American homes use about equal amounts of natural gas and electricity, but it takes three units of a primary source — whether fossil fuels or renewable energy — to produce one unit of electricity for home use and, again, due to the growing number of appliances and devices per house, we chew up a lot of primary energy.

Figures from the EIA show why. The number of American homes with three or more TVs rose from 22 percent in 1993 to almost 50 percent in 2009. Homes with two or more computers have jumped almost fivefold, from just under 6 percent in 1997 to 34.7 percent in 2009.

In other words having more energy-efficient TVs won’t have much of an impact on the amount of electricity you use — or the amount of primary power a utility needs to have on tap – if you have three or more sets running at the same time.

Which brings me to Earth Hour 2013 on March 23, when people around the world will turn out their lights and turn off their computers and other appliances for an hour, 8:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., in their respective time zones. The symbolic action is intended to spark awareness and action around reducing greenhouse gases and protecting the world’s diverse plants and animals.

Now in its seventh year, the event is having international impact. In Russian, for example, last year Earth Hour challenged 100,000 people to sign a petition calling for an end to oil dumping in the country’s seas; 122,000 signed and the Russian Parliament in December passed a law beefing up protection for the seas.

According to the nifty video on the Earth Hour home page, 152 countries on all seven continents and more than 7,000 cities and towns have been involved in the event.

People get very creative with their efforts for Earth Hour, which is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. In Canada, composer Andrew Huang has launched a crowd-sourcing effort to write an Earth Hour anthem.

Hotels around the world, from the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin to the New World chain of luxury hotels located in Pacific Rim cites, such as Beijing, Saigon and Manila, have said they will turn off all nonessential exterior lights and serving candle-light dinners in their cafes and restaurants, with special menus featuring locally sourced food.

And as last year, individuals are being asked to set challenges for friends and communities. Thai American actor Utt Panichkul is going to drop one item of clothing for every 1,000 people who pledge to turn up their air conditioning one degree.

In Bali, the eighth grade class at the Green School has pledged to go paperless for the rest of the year if 1,000 people commit to each planting a tree.

So, here we go again, Coachella Valley. Last year, I put out a challenge that if 50 businesses and 5,000 people would commit to turning off their lights, I would commit to a year of three-minute showers.

I think only St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert took me up on the challenge, by turning off its cross on the hill for the whole night, but I decided to tackle the shower issue anyway. I didn’t quite make three minutes, but I can say I have cut my average shower time from 10 minutes or more to four minutes or less. My shower Friday morning–timed on my handy-dandy iPhone–came in at three minutes 41 seconds.

So this year, I’m upping the ante. We’ve got piles of restaurants and hotels in this valley, high season or no, that could join with other fine establishments around the world in turning off their nonessential, exterior lighting for an hour and serving special candle-light dinners on March 23. It could even be a draw, rather than a turn-off for visitors (especially if, say, they donate any savings on their electric bills to local charities).

For each one that does, I will volunteer an hour of my time at the FIND Food Bank.

Ditto, for any other business or organization in the valley that turns off their nonessential lights for Earth Hour. I will need documented proof — photos or videos.

If the Coachella Valley is serious about being a hub for green energy and technology, we need to walk the walk — and for just one hour, turn out our lights.










Pushing green energy ceilings — wind and solar hitting new highs

The sun is setting in the Coachella Valley as I type this, but somewhere on the other side of the world, I feel certain, it is shining and possibly there’s a solar panel there converting the sunlight to electricity and reducing the carbon emissions that fossil fuel power would have generated.

The spread of solar around the world is part of the story contained in figures from the European Photovoltaic Industry Association.  As of 2012, the world had a bit more than 101 gigawatts of PV running around, producing the same amount of power as 16 coal or nuclear plants of 1 gigawatt each, while reducing carbon emissions by 53 million tons.

Of those 101 GW, just shy of 30 GW were installed last year, about the same as 2011, the EPIA said. What’s more important, the geographic spread of PV installations is expanding.

Thirteen gigawatts of solar are now outside Europe, compared to 8 GW in 2011, the EPIA reported. Germany is still the world leader, with 7.6 GW, while China has 3-5-4.5 GW and the U.S. has 3.2 GW. Another report from Greentech Media projects growing solar markets, about 3 GW, in Africa and Middle East in the next two years.

Meanwhile, wind energy is also hitting new highs in terms of how much power it supplies in different states, according to Pete Danko writing on the Earth Techling website.

From midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday, three wind farms in eastern Washington pumped out 16,593 megawatt-hours of power, or about 23.5 percent of the power Puget Sound Energy needed for its 1.1 million customers. Danko writes:

While wind power rises and falls with the varying wind speed – obviously – Puget Sound said its three wind farms are providing at least some power two-thirds of the time and on average are supplying about 10 percent of the power its customers use.

Texas is also breaking records on wind production. The state leads the nation in wind installations over al,l and at 7:08 p.m. on Feb. 9, those turbines were spinning away, producing 9,481 megawatts of power, 10 percent over the previous record of 8,667 MW.

The Feb. 9 high mark represents 28 percent of the load on the state’s power system.

Meanwhile in Colorado, Xcel Energy reported that wind power accounted for 16 percent of the 35.9 million megawatt hours of electricity it sold in 2012.

The missing link to drive those numbers even higher is, of course, storage. California may be taking a step toward new green energy ceilings to break with a recent decision from the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordering Southern California Edison to add 50 MW of grid storage over the next eight years.

Writing about the order on Greentech Media, Jeff St. John notes it’s a relatively small amount of storage, but provides a signal that the state is serious about integrating wind and solar power onto the grid by the 2020 deadline for reaching the state’s renewable energy goal of 33 percent.

In the context of total energy production, in the U.S. or worldwide, all these new benchmarks may be relatively small, but they reflect a vision and momentum that will continue to push renewable energy ceilings higher and higher.


Obama and George Will — Cherry-picking the facts on climate change

Whenever I write a column on climate change, I am almost guaranteed to receive a few emails from the Coachella Valley’s climate skeptics, citing their evidence that any claims to a scientific basis for global warming are baseless and a hoax.

My quoting of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address in my Jan. 27 column quickly brought an email directing me to George Will’s column first published in the Washington Post and reprinted in The Desert Sun.

Will challenges the President’s reference to “raging fires” with figures suggesting that wild fires have decreased since 2006:

“Are fires raging now more than ever?” Will writes. ”(There were a third fewer U.S. wildfires in 2012 than in 2006.) Are the number and severity of fires determined by climate change rather than forestry and land use practices? Is today’s drought worse than that of the Dust Bowl, and was it caused by 1930s global warming?”

Joe Romm, writing on the Think Progress website, argues that Will is willfully (pun obviously intended) cherry-picking the facts.

“2006? Seriously, George Will . . .  If you wonder why in Hell (and High Water) Will just happens to pick the year 2006, you need look no further than the above graph of annual U.S. acreage burned from the National (Interagency) Fire Center.

“For Will . . . the ‘decline’ since the record-smashing 2006 disproves climate change. In Will’s logic, unless ever year is worse than the previous year in all respects, humans are not suffering the effects of global warming.”

Being a primary source kind of person, I went to the NIFC website and took a look at the chart tracking number of wildfires and total acreages burned. The numbers are revealing.

Yes, in 2006, there were 96,385 fires destroying 9,873,745 acres of land. That averages out to about 102 acres per fire.

In 2011, the comparable figures are  74,126 fires and 8,711,367 acres, averaging out at 117 acres per fire.

The 2012 figures continue the upward trend, with 67,315 wildland fires burning 9,211,281 acres for an average of 136 acres per fire. So while the number of fires varies wildly, the intensity and impact are on an upward trajectory — as the President said.

That speaks to another issue — Will’s editorial cherry-picking — which Romm takes on as well.  

“Will coyly asks, ‘Are the number and severity of fires determined by climate change rather than forestry and land-use practices?’ The key debater’s word there is ‘determined.’ It should be ‘increased.’

“The goal of disinformers and their media allies is to create a straw man whereby those who accept the overwhelming judgment of science are accused of saying global warming is the sole cause of a given extreme event, rather than an aggravating cause.”

Romm ends his article with a graphic from a 2010 presentation by John Holdren, the President’s science advisor, projecting the increase in acres lost to wildfires for each 1 degree Centigrade increase in the earth’s climate. The Southwest deserts, including the Coachella Valley, could be in for a 74 percent increase.

Climate change experts have long said that one cannot look at specific regional weather or extreme events; the bigger picture of climate change is much more complex and convincing.



‘A Day of Enrichment’ at the Mecca Boys and Girls Club

I walked in to the gymnasium of the Mecca Boys and Girls Club in the late afternoon on Saturday and was met by a scene that seemed like it came straight out of the TV reality show, “America’s Next Top Model.” Twenty teenage girls clustered around racks of new and crisp clothing, swooning over all the latest trends from Old Navy.

Flats in all the colors and prints you can imagine lined a wall of the gym. The girls weren’t shy about trying on their new clothes—they walked in and out of the changing rooms in coral button ups and royal blue skinny jeans, pin- striped dresses and leopard ballet flats.

“Oh my God, you look so cute!” they’d squeal when one of the girls walked out in a new outfit, a complete transformation from the jeans and sneakers they walked in with at the beginning of the day.

Their excitement was contagious—and endearing.

Though they were cute enough to walk down a runway, the event I walked in on (and participated in) included much more than just fashion tips.

With a $2,000 donation from Pacific Premier Bank, the Boys and Girls Club of the Coachella Valley hosted, “Day of Enrichment: Knowledge for Life,” a workshop for 20 Latinas in Mecca, all ages 13-18 with adverse backgrounds.

The event was the first held at the new clubhouse in Mecca and featured advisory sessions on personal finance, goals and visions, nutrition, skin care, proper interview attire and career choices. I joined Susan Hutchison of the Milan Institute, Elizabeth Toledo of Building Healthy Communities and Maria Machuca of the Mecca Community Council as a guest speaker.

Event co-chair Kimberley Yang said they wanted to provide the girls with skills they would use for a lifetime.

“We wanted to teach them things they could use in the real world,” Yang said.

Yang’s excitement and energy around the girls was hard to miss.

The girls at the workshop were chosen not only for their involvement with the clubhouse, but also because of their backgrounds, which are full of many social, educational and economic hardships.

“Many of these girls are living like adults,” said event co-chair Karina Medina. That often includes becoming sexually active at a young age, witnessing domestic abuse in their households and living in extreme poverty, according to Medina.

“They’re basically parents,” a teary-eyed Medina said. “After school they have to go home and cook and take care of their brothers and sisters. A lot of them leave with their (older) boyfriends for days at a time.”

I felt Medina’s words heavy on my conscious.

Yang, a former teacher and now psychotherapist, said many of the girls look for sexual relationships not only for monetary gain, but for affection.

“For a lot of these girls, it’s the first time they realize they’re important,” Yang said of the event.

When the workshop was winding down and it came time for me to talk to these girls about who I was, I knew that many of them would not remember me after leaving that clubhouse. But the experience was just as fulfilling for me as it was for them. I met a high school senior who I’ll call Veronica of Mecca, who goes to the clubhouse every day and would like to become a teacher for disabled children after graduating high school.

I could sense the curiosity in their faces when they asked me questions about my journalism career: about where I report, how often I write and—my favorite—if being a reporter is “fun” (for the record, I told them I loved it).

While I realize that many of the girls face obstacles that I could never even imagine, I hope that they took a small glimmer of hope with them and realize that, as Yang said, they are important.


Mary Bono Mack breaks her wrist snowboarding, plans to work on book

Mary Bono MackFormer Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack will be spending the first weeks of her new civilian life convalescing. Bono Mack broke her wrist over the weekend while trying her hand(s) at snowboarding at a Colorado ski resort. But the injury won’t stop her from working on a new project: a book.
Bono Mack was, according to her official Twitter account, vacationing at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort with husband Connie Mack when the incident happened.

First (above), Bono Mack tweeted about giving snowboarding a try on January 18. Then, on Sunday (Jan. 20), Bono Mack tweeted to share news of her injury with her 10,751 followers.

Her followers were quick to send their best wishes for a speedy recovery, with one even suggesting she seek medical attention from her Congressional successor, Dr. Raul Ruiz.

“Maybe Congressman Dr Ruiz can take a look at it ?! ;o),” tweeted DustDevil65.
Bono Mack recently told The Desert Sun’s Bruce Fessier she was working with a literary agent and was in talks with several cable news networks about a possible on-air gig with her husband.

Health Matters 2013: Coachella Valley as ‘ground zero’ for healthy changes


The Coachella Valley is “ground zero” for wellness — as proven by an unprecedented partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Desert Healthcare District Vice President Kay Hazen said Tuesday.

Hazen introduced a panel on “Healthy Communities” at the second-annual “Health Matters: Activating Wellness in Every Generation” conference.

President Bill Clinton is hosting the conference at the La Quinta Resort and Club.

Since the conference last year, the district has partnered with Clinton’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation to fund a full-time healthy schools relationship manager.

Every school in the valley has agreed to create a wellness council, too, and programming will expand to every school over the next four years, Hazen said.

“This is the first time that this opportunity for the Alliance — to reach every school within a confined geographical region — has been to put to the test,” Hazen said.

Hazen thanked the Clinton Foundation for the “inspiration and the support” to make behavioral, policy and systematic changes to fight obesity and related health problems.

“Together, we’ll move the needle in a positive and healthy direction toward wellness,” she said.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation aims to combat childhood obesity and is a partnership between the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.

Protect your plants from Jack Frost’s bite


Moorten Botanical Garden, Palm Springs

With near-freezing temperatures heading our way this evening, a local plant expert offers suggestions on how to protect your plants from frost damage.

A strong cold front from the Gulf of Alaska is expected to drop temperatures into the mid-30s – dipping into the low 30s by Friday evening.

“If it’s going to be in the 30s, I cover the plants with old bed sheets,” said Clark Moorten, owner of Moorten’s Botanical Garden in Palm Springs.

He was already hanging sheets and blankets on his greenery Thursday afternoon.

“It looks like my garden’s tucked in for the night,” he said, laughing.

He recommends using a cloth to cover plants – not plastic. Newspapers can also be used, he said.

Read Maureen Gilmer’s story: Chill may kill, but plants are resistant

Moorten said temperatures are taken about 5 feet above ground level, so, “If it’s 36 degrees, it might be 30 at the ground,” he said.

Bougainvilleas are one of the most frost-sensitive plants. Soft succulents, including Aloes, are also susceptible to damage from extreme cold.

“If they’re planted right up against the house, they’ll probably be OK because a house gives off heat.”

Plants that are under the cover of trees, or a canopy of shrubs or bushes should be fairly well protected, he said.

Potted plants can be moved under trees, or other areas in the yard that provides shelter.

But it doesn’t hurt to err on the side of caution, he added.

“Frost cuts like a knife,” he said. “If you’re worried, cover them up as a precaution.”

Palm Springs residents witness history as Raul Ruiz is sworn in as Congressman

Michael Benthall (left) and Joe Enos (right), both of Palm Springs, spend time with U.S. Congressman Raul Ruiz in Washington, D.C., where the freshman House respresentative was sworn in Jan. 3. Photo submitted by Joe Enos.

When Dr. Raul Ruiz was sworn in Jan. 3 as the new U.S. Congressman for California’s District 36, his family members, friends and a few of his strongest LGBT supporters from the Coachella Valley were there to witness the fulfillment of their collective dream.

Among the attendees in Washington, D.C., were Joe Enos and Michael Benthall of Palm Springs. Both recently told Desert Outlook about their experience and why it was important for them to be a part of the historic occasion.

What was the general atmosphere like for the swearing in?

Benthall:  It’s was pure excitement in the House as we arrived. People from all over the country were here to see their newly-elected congressperson.

Enos:  The atmosphere is celebratory. For all the dislike of Congress right now, people have come from all over the country to celebrate the election of new members and the re-election of their representatives.

What, if anything, about the occasion surprised you?

Benthall: It was great to see so many people from the district looking forward to representation for everybody.

Enos:  I was surprised by the number of people from the district who flew to Washington, and the number of lobbyists who were making office visits on this first day.

Why did you want to be there for the swearing in?

Benthall:  I wanted to be here to show support and to witness an historic occasion — this was a true American success story.

Enos:  I wanted to be here to see history made. I’ve believed Raul Ruiz’s story from the beginning- a real American success story – and I think he’ll be a rising star in the Democrat party. It was really thrilling to be here and have him named “most likely to succeed” in the freshman class of the 113th Congress by the political blog Politico (Jan. 3).

How does Congressman Ruiz seem to be adjusting to his very high-profile position?

Benthall:  He’s going to adjust just fine. After all, he’s been an emergency room doctor, dealing with all kinds of situations and people. A perfect match. There’s now a doctor in the House!

Enos: He’s the same Raul Ruiz we’ve known all along — hospitable, kind, caring. He welcomed everyone to his office with a handshake and a hug.

What’s been the highlight of your visit?

Benthall: For me it was speaking to the mayor of Coachella, who had come to Washington, D.C., to support his friend, Raul Ruiz, and what this means to young children from the east valley, and what he said about Raul Ruiz being a role model to them. Dreams are possible.

Enos: It was very exciting to be in Raul Ruiz’s office, when House Whip Steny Hoyer, came to get Congressman Ruiz to take him to the House floor for his first vote. It seemed so historic — so important that a senior leader came to get the freshman Congressman to show him to the floor.  Everyone was just stunned.

What does it mean to you to have Ruiz representing your community in Washington?

Benthall: It’s nice to have support in Washington. And it was stated to me several times by Raul Ruiz’s staff members that there’s an “open door” here for everyone.

Enos:  The election of Raul Ruiz for me means that everyone in our district will have a voice in Washington. That LGBT issues like equality will have a champion. For me, it is symbolic that Raul is opening a district office in Palm Springs and that his district director is Greg Rodriquez, a gay father who lives in Palm Springs.


The Sentinel funds wrap-up: Behind the back-patting, something extraordinary

The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Governing Board meeting Friday was some of a self-congratulatory show. The main attraction was the final vote that will provide about $50.9 million for 26 air quality improvement funds in the Coachella Valley.

The money represents emissions mitigation dollars that Competitive Power Ventures paid for its 800-megawatt Sentinel natural gas peaker plant, now nearing completion in North Palm Springs, as seen in the December aerial photo below.


A lot of the public hearing before the vote on the funds was taken up with potential grantees thanking the board for their awards, speaking quickly about the benefits their projects will provide and speaking about the AQMD’s staff’s extraordinary efforts to work with local groups on their applications.

Not everyone was happy. Bob Terry, an area resident who opposes the plant, brought up issues about Riverside County Supervisor John J. Benoit’s support for the Coachella Valley Association of Governments’ cross-valley parkway and whether that constituted a conflict of interest. 

The proposed 46-mile pedestrian, bicycle and electric vehicle parkway, stretching from Palm Springs to Coachella, snagged more than a third of the money, $17.4 million.

Parkway 1e11 Map

The fact that two projects submitted by African-American led organizations did not make the recommended list — and resulting objections from their leaders — also caused some discomfort. Jack Pryor, CEO of Access Solar, pushed his case particularly hard, noting that his company’s proposal for more than $40 million– including plans for a plant to produce hydrogen fuel and install solar on homes in the region — fell only 2 points short of the 70 points needed to get on the list of qualifying projects.

Benoit said there was no conflict of interest since–although he was an early and very public advocate of the parkway–he had not written letters of support for any project or read any of the proposals prior to the vote, even when friends pushed for their favorite projects. AQMD Executive Director Barry Wallerstein also noted the Access Solar proposal for solar installations had cost more than other projects submitted.

But under all the back-patting and last-minute pleas, something more genuine emerged — a sense that the whole process around the Sentinel funds has been extraordinary and something of a game changer for many involved.

Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, a board member, noted that the AQMD had never committed so large a chunk of money to a specific geographic region such as the Coachella Valley.

The outreach to the community, pushed by both Benoit and Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, and the level of community response was also outside the AQMD’s comfort zone.

The Administrative Committee’s five and a half hour public hearing in Palm Desert in October gave board members a chance to hear from local residents and see the communities that will be affected by the plant — also a rarity.

When community members from the east valley traveled to Diamond Bar in December to oppose a $920,000 grant to pave roads at the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians’ Resource Recovery Park in Mecca, the board pulled the money and reallocated it to home retrofit projects the residents favored.

“This raised the bar in terms of including the community,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice group. “We feel we were included in the process; we believe the Governing Board heard us.”

San Bernardino Supervisor Josie Gonzales, another board member, addressed east valley residents at Friday’s meeting in Spanish, congratulating them on their courage in coming to board meetings to speak out and encouraging ongoing participation.

Speaking before the unanimous vote to approve the Sentinel projects, Mayor Dennis Yates of Chino, vice chair of the board, said, ”In my 20-plus years, I have never seen the outreach conducted by this group (the AQMD) and the response by Coachella Valley residents. It was awe-inspring.”

2013 may be off to a frosty start for the Coachella Valley

Desert frostParty-goers flocking to Palm Springs for New Year’s Eve festivities may want to add a few layers. On Monday, the National Weather Service issued a frost advisory for the Coachella Valley from midnight through 9 a.m. January 1, 2013.

According to the advisory, temperatures could fall below freezing tonight across inland valleys and lower deserts with lows in the mid-20s possible.

While revelers can keep warm inside, homeowners may want to protect sensitive plants which could be damaged or killed if left uncovered.

Low-lying areas of gardens are at more risk than plants set atop berms. According to, newspapers, plastic tarbs, sheets, glass jars, milk jugs and upside-down paper cups can be used to protect sensitive plants. Just remember to remove them in the morning to avoid having them act as ovens once the sun is shining.