[1THING] Blog

[ House Bill Could Block Creation of New Monuments, Parks ]

Michael Reinemer

The Wilderness Society strongly opposes H.R. 330, a bill introduced this week that would undermine the ability of presidents to use the Antiquities Act to protect public lands that have significant historic, cultural or conservation value.


[ Oil Prices Plunged—Why Haven’t Airfares and Some Home Energy Bills? ]

Low energy prices won’t necessarily drop prices for certain consumers.

[ Poll shows strong support for balancing energy needs with environmental values ]

A bipartisan poll recently conducted by Hart Research Associ


[ Winter Rations Prompt Coal Use in Hydropower-Rich Tajikistan ]

The photo shows an unofficial coal mine in Tajikistan's Fan Mountains. (Negar Behzadi)

Villagers in Tajikistan rely heavily on coal to heat their homes in winter. Shown here is a coal mine in the country’s Fan Mountains. (Negar Elodie Behzadi)

Dushanbe, Tajikistan—Aly-Jon, a taxi driver here in Dushanbe,  has three televisions in the house he shares with his family and parents. But to warm the house in winter, he estimates that his family burns more than 500 pounds of coal.

The reason stems from Tajikistan’s dependence on hydropower for electricity. In the summer, Tajikistan’s rivers produce excess power. In the winter, rivers slow and freeze, causing water levels at dams to plummet and hydropower generation to dwindle. At the same time, general demand for electricity – for heat – rises. To conserve energy, the state-owned utility company rations electricity. And Aly-Jon and his family resort to burning coal in their stove.

Tajikistan’s rivers could provide enough energy to meet more than three times the current energy demand of all of Central Asia, according to government statistics. Realizing that potential, though, is a matter of development and time. For now, there is not enough energy to power homes through the winter, and families must find alternative sources of heat.

Rationing usually begins in October and can last through May, depending on the severity of the winter. The more remote the village, the more severe the rationing. A village a few hours drive from Dushanbe might only have electricity for two or three hours in the morning and evening.

To keep warm, villagers turn to their stoves. Aly-Jon’s estimates of his family’s coal consumption are probably on the low-end for the country. On average, a household in a village in the Romit Valley, just north of Dushanbe, burned more than a metric ton (or 2,200 pounds) of coal and 19 cubic feet of wood over the course of a winter plus another 27 kilograms of liquid gas and 7,500 pieces of cow dung, says Jamshed Kodirkulov, a project manager for the United Nations Development Programme’s energy and environment work in Tajikistan. He cites data from a UNDP-funded study conducted by the Tajik Academy of Sciences.

Burning these fuels has hazards. In December, carbon monoxide from a stove killed five family members. Coal especially contributes to pollution, and cutting down trees for use as firewood drives erosion. Tajikistan’s bare, deforested mountainsides not only make for poor agricultural production but also are the cause of disruptive (and deadly) avalanches and landslides.

This photo shows a coal mine in Tajikistan's Fan Mountains. (Negar Behzadi)

A coal mine in Tajikistan’s Fan Mountains, shown here, contributes to production of an energy source used by many villagers to heat homes in winter. (Negar Elodie Behzadi)

To solve Tajikistan’s winter energy shortages, the government and private sector, as well as various international organizations, are trying to boost hydropower production. Plans for large-scale projects such as CASA-1000, which would allow Tajikistan to sell summer surplus energy to Pakistan, and the Rogun Dam, which has achieved mythical stature here for its potential and nearly endless delays, offer a glimpse of a future in which Tajikistan has enough energy to meet winter needs and increase energy exports.

But hydropower development involving new, large dams carries risks.

“Hydropower development has a troubled history,” Gulio Boccaletti, managing director of global water at The Nature Conservancy, noted in an opinion piece in the Guardian. “Relocation of people to make room for reservoirs, downstream environmental impacts from the fragmenting of rivers, and the profound modification of aquatic ecosystem – all drive legitimate concerns about the development of this type of infrastructure.” Boccaletti says NGOs must work with hydropower businesses. The Nature Conservancy and other members of the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Forum are developing proposals to help policy makers develop hydropower more responsibly.

Tajikistan has a vast network or lakes and rivers, such as the Haft Ku or Seven Lakes as shown here, that can be used to develop hydropower. (Joe Shottenfeld)

Tajikistan has a vast network or lakes and rivers, such as the Haft Ku or Seven Lakes as shown here, that can be used to develop hydropower. (Joe Schottenfeld)

Massive dams also take time. Initial construction on the Rogun Dam project began decades ago, well before the end of the Soviet Union. In the interim, UNDP’s Kodirkulov advocates for building small-scale hydropower plants. He and his team have worked with two Tajik manufacturers to make turbines currently capable of generating around 100 kilowatt hours.  While not cost effective enough to replace stoves for heating and cooking, the turbines could allow isolated communities to power a school or hospital and give homes consistent access to electricity for lights and appliances.

For at least the next few winters, however, Aly-Jon and others around the country will need to continue filling their stoves at night.

Because of energy rationing in winter, people in Tajikistan heat their homes by burning coal in a a pichka, the traditional cast iron stove. (Joe Shottenfeld)

Because of energy rationing in winter, people in Tajikistan heat their homes by burning coal in a a pichka, the traditional cast iron stove. (Joe Schottenfeld)


[ President Obama announces efforts to reduce methane emissions on public lands ]

The Obama administration confirmed that we will see new policies and practices from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the coming months as well as continuing efforts from the Department of Interior (DOI) aimed at reducing methane emissions from public lands.


[ Costa Rica Eyes National Parks’ Volcanoes for Energy ]

Rincon de la Vieja, one prospective location for new geothermal energy drilling. (Photograph courtesy Patrick Nouhailler, Flickr)

Rincon de la Vieja, one prospective location for new geothermal energy drilling. (Photograph courtesy Patrick Nouhailler, Flickr)

The volcanoes of Costa Rica’s lauded national park system have helped make it a tourism favorite for generations. But three bills before the national legislature offer a reminder that volcanoes also make the parks attractive for another use: drilling for geothermal power.

Demand for electricity has been rising in Costa Rica for decades, and proponents say geothermal—tapping the heat trapped underground and using it to drive turbines—is a carbon-free solution, for a country that has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2021. However, the volcanic areas with the highest geothermic activity have long been set aside as national parks, causing conflict between conservationists and the country’s state electrical company.

The new legislation would allow the exploitation of geothermal energy within protected areas: two by public or private enterprise, and one permitting only the state electricity company. The third is considered to have the most potential to pass, but it has high-profile opponents, including President Luis Guillermo Solis, who said in December he would not support the bill.

Alvaro Ugalde, a conservation leader who helped found the national park system in the 1970s, said the volcano’s iconic craters were cast as figureheads to spur protection for the tropical forests surrounding them. “We were going for the ecology, not the volcanoes,” he said.

Steam seeps up from volcanic formations in Rincon de la Vieja. (Photograph courtesy Mark Carter, Flickr)

Steam seeps up from volcanic formations in Rincon de la Vieja. (Photograph courtesy Mark Carter, Flickr)

Some of those protected ecosystems would be handed over to Instituto Costarricense de la Electricidad (ICE), the state electric company, under the proposed law. Geothermal development involves building roads and platforms, and drilling, first to test the geothermal potential and eventually exploit it, said Gerardo Soto, an independent geologist and volcanologist.

With growing demand from both commercial and residential sectors, Costa Rica’s electricity use grew in recent decades at a rate of 5.3 percent annually. In 2011 Costa Rica’s ministry of energy and environment predicted demand would double within 13 years.

Costa Rica is a leader in clean energy production, and hydroelectric dams currently generate 68 percent of the country’s electricity. The country was uniquely suited to exploit hydropower, with abundant and regular rainfall cascading down from the mountainous center towards both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

Current geothermal projects, located outside national parks, provide 15 percent of Costa Rica’s energy mix, according to ICE.

Continuing to increase hydroelectric capacity is difficult, making increased geothermal attractive. Soto, who does consulting for ICE and private utilities, said there are few sites for more large hydro-dams, and some are in politically sensitive areas. For example, Diquís, a project in Southern Costa Rica, is far behind schedule due to conflicts with indigenous groups.

Eddy Rivera Sanchez, director of geothermal resources for ICE, said geothermal could provide much more reliable power. It wouldn’t replace dams, he said, but has the potential to provide much more of the country’s energy mix at a time when hydroelectricity has becomes less certain. “Diversifying the electrical grid to sources that don’t depend on water is a way to protect it,” Sanchez said.

He agrees that the best geothermal sources are within national parks, as a natural result of preserving the unique environments surrounding Costa Rica’s volcanoes. “Unfortunately, it’s a coincidence of objectives.”

Sanchez said minimizing environmental damage and allowing recovery has been fundamental in current geothermal endeavors, and that projects within parks would change the habitats no more than natural destruction such as forest fires or landslides. “The effects would be of a level that wouldn’t cause irreversible damage,” he said.

But many conservationists say energy alternatives like wind have not been sufficiently explored to justify a commitment to geothermal energy within the parks.

Ugalde notes that the main problem with the laws being considered is that they attempt to remove the land needed from park status, instead of calling on ICE to work with the park service. Instead the energy company would be required to compensate for the land used, either monetarily or in the form of land purchased elsewhere and given to the park.

The idea that the land within the park could be replaced doesn’t sit well with conservationists. “There’s nothing like it,” Ugalde said of the ecosystems within National Park Rincón de La Vieja, one of the main targets for geothermal. “We created the park exactly in the only site where there was forest.” When Ugalde was beginning the park system, around 70 percent of Costa Rica had been deforested.

It’s not the first time legislators have proposed energy production in the country’s national parks. In 2000, a suite of laws to privatize energy production included permission for hydraulic and geothermal within parks. But both the move towards privatization and the environmental threats were met by sweeping protests, which crippled the country.

Ugalde believes the time for a compromise may eventually come. He can envision geothermal development within the park, but says it must be supervised by the park service. “If they’re gonna need geothermal energy from Rincón, they’re gonna be trying every four years to get it out,” he said, “so let’s work together.”


[ White House Takes Aim at Methane Emissions: Three Key Takeaways ]

World’s largest natural gas producer aims to cut emissions of potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas sites

[ 8 Gadgets That Might Make Your Home Smarter Than You ]

New smart-home products, as part of the Internet of Things movement, aim to connect phones with just about everything.

[ A Caribbean Island Says Goodbye Diesel and Hello 100% Renewable Electricity ]

Bonaire wind turbines (Photograph courtesy waywuwei/Flickr)

Bonaire wind turbines (Photograph courtesy waywuwei/Flickr)

Bonaire (pop. 14,500), a small island off the coast of Venezuela, is famous for its beautiful marine reefs, which are visited by 70,000 tourists every year. What many of the tourists don’t realize is that the majority of the electricity powering their needs comes from renewable energy. Yet for the residents of Bonaire, the switch from fossil-fueled to renewable energy systems has made a world of difference.

Like many Caribbean islands, Bonaire originally relied on diesel fuel to generate electricity for residents, with a peak demand of 11 MW. This fuel had to be shipped in from other nations, resulting in high electricity prices for Bonaire residents, along with uncertainty about when and how much prices might increase with changing fuel costs.

In 2004, everything changed when a fire destroyed the existing diesel power plant. Although tragic, the situation provided an opportunity for Bonaire to consider what kind of new electricity system to build. Temporary diesel generators were rented to provide power for the short term. Meanwhile, the government and local utility began working together to create a plan that would allow Bonaire to reach a goal of generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.


The result is a transformed electricity system on Bonaire. The island is now home to 12 wind turbines with a total of 11 MW of wind power capacity, which contribute up to 90 percent of the island’s electricity at times of peak wind, and 40–45 percent of its annual electricity on average. Battery storage (6 MWh) is included in order to take advantage of available power in times of excess wind, and provide that stored electricity in times of low wind. The battery also boosts the reliability of the overall system—it is capable of providing 3 MW for over two minutes, allowing time for additional generation to be started when there is a sudden drop in wind.

The Bonaire system also includes 14 MW of diesel generation, five total generators, which provide the necessary power to meet the load when there is not enough wind power available. The generators are equipped to run on both traditional diesel as well as biodiesel. The next steps in the island’s energy transformation involve using local algae resources, grown in the large salt flats on the island, to create biofuel, which can then be used in the existing generators. This will allow Bonaire to operate a 100 percent renewable electricity system—with on average 40–45 percent from wind and 55–60 percent from biodiesel.  (See a previous post about Bonaire’s energy-rich salt flats.)

The new electricity system led to more reliable electricity, more employment opportunities, reduced dependence on oil (and its fluctuating prices), and a reduction in electricity bills. Bonaire residents currently pay $0.22/kWh for electricity, much lower than prices on other nearby Caribbean islands, which are often $0.36/kWh or above. When oil prices spiked in 2008, while Bonaire was still using temporary diesel generators before making its transition to renewables, electricity prices on the island reached$0.50/kWh. The new electricity system also created jobs for the construction and ongoing operation of the wind farm, and for research and development of algae production capabilities and conversion to biofuel. Additional employment opportunities will be created for continuing algae production and operation of the biodiesel plant.

The success of the updated electricity system on Bonaire provides an important example to other nearby islands of the opportunity to achieve high levels of renewable energy penetration.


Two aspects unique to Bonaire’s situation may have contributed to the decision to switch to a 100 percent renewable electricity system. One driver may have been Bonaire’s status as a special municipality within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This provides a connection with the Netherlands and Europe in general, where many countries have incorporated large amounts of wind and other renewable sources of electricity. Nearby Aruba, also a Dutch Caribbean island, has a wind farm as well, which provides up to 20 percent of the island’s electricity. There may be a common theme of islands with ties to European countries moving to renewables more quickly than others. In the case of Bonaire, theconsortium that is developing the project, Ecopower Bonaire BV, is made up of Dutch and German companies.

Secondly, Bonaire’s government and local electricity provider were presented with an opportunity to build a new renewable electricity system since they needed to replace the plant that was damaged. Many other Caribbean islands still have existing diesel resources that are not at the end of their lifetime. These existing generators may remain a part of the electricity system, especially as renewables are incrementally added to the system, and may even remain as backup power for a transformed system that operates mostly with renewables. However, if some or all of the existing diesel resources on an island are completely shut down before the end of their available lifetime, that island will need to consider the sunk costs involved and incorporate that into their overall energy transformation plan.


RMI and Carbon War Room’s ongoing Ten Island Challenge works with Caribbean islands to utilize their local renewable resource potential to transform electricity systems and provide a renewable, reliable, secure, and affordable energy supply for their citizens. One of the participating islands is Aruba, which neighbors Bonaire and forms part of the ABC islands in the Netherlands Antilles, along with Curacao. Although the shift to renewables on Bonaire is not part of the Ten Island Challenge, RMI and CWR’s ongoing work in the area will strive to spread the success that Bonaire has achieved to the rest of the region, so that more Caribbean islands can take advantage of efficient and renewable electricity systems.

—Kaitlyn Bunker

[ Study: outdoor recreation generates billions in Washington ]

The study, compiled at the behest of the state legislature, confirms that Washington’s natural gems, from Mount Rainier National Park to San Juan Islands National Monument, yield a lot more than just recreation and relaxation: they are also a vital part of the economy.