Signs of Life :: Winter 2011

Small stories about big change.








Hot Renewable: Wide Interest in Solar Power

The U.S. moves toward a tipping point for solar energy

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Shine In photo courtesy of

This summer, San Franciscans staged a "Shine In" to ask the president to put solar panels on the White House and to ask citizens to sign an electronic petition of support.

Photo courtesy of

The work of activists and researchers, along with shifts in the energy market, may be pushing solar energy toward a tipping point in the United States.

A series of mega-solar projects are being constructed in Arizona and California. The company Brightsource has already begun construction on the 370 MW Ivanpah project. In October, the U.S. Department of the Interior approved an application for construction of the Blythe Solar Power Project, consisting of four solar thermal arrays that will produce 250 MW each. Seven other projects are expected to break ground before the end of the year with a combined capacity of 4,000 MW when completed.

Activists are pressuring the Obama Administration to take leadership on solar policy, and recently scored a symbolic victory that they hope will bring solar more public attention and cachet and lead to policy change.

This fall, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate activist organization, and a group of students from Unity Signs of Life College traveled down the East Coast with one of the original
solar hot water panels that President Jimmy Carter installed on the White House in 1979. (Reagan removed them in 1986.) Along the way (and online), the group collected 40,000 signatures petitioning the White House to resurrect the panels. The White House initially rebuffed the request. But on October 5, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the White House plans to install photovoltaic panels and a solar hot water heater on its roof.

“The Obama announcement has sparked this campaign to rev up in a number of other places around the world,” says Jamie Henn, communications director with On October 10, the day of a Global Work Party coordinated by, President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives also installed a set of solar panels, by hand, on the presidential residence.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has committed to putting solar on the governor’s mansion, and Australians have launched a campaign to pressure Prime Minister Julia Gillard to put solar on the Lodge, her official residence.

Activists believe the White House gesture will also make solar seem more accessible to the average American homeowner. In his announcement, Chu said the White House panels “will show that American solar technology is available, reliable, and ready to install in homes throughout the country.”

Meanwhile, recent technological breakthroughs may make home solar power much more affordable. An interdisciplinary team at Western Washington University (WWU) announced in
September a $970,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for additional research on a new kind of solar collector. Traditional photovoltaic panels use only the red band of visible light. The WWU team’s collector uses colored polymers to gather light from the whole spectrum. The increased efficiency allows electrical generation on overcast days and will cut the cost of solar panels by as much as 90 percent, according to a WWU press release.

—Madeline Ostrander is senior editor at YES! Magazine, and Doug Pibel is managing editor.

Bill McKibben

"You don't need 60 votes to fix your roof."


-Bill McKibben to President Obama, in an email requesting that the White House put solar panels on its roof.  The Obama administration in October announced its plan to do just that.

Boat-to-Table Fish CSAs Catching On

Do you know who your fisherman is?

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Fishing photo by Andrew Wales

Photo by Andrew Wales

Fishing communities from Maine to California are working together to save their
way of life and restore marine resources by establishing direct markets between fishermen and the people who eat their catch.

Several years ago, concerns about dwindling worldwide fish stocks prompted federal regulators to limit how much fish can be caught in U.S. waters, but the measures don’t regulate who catches the fish. Small-scale fishermen in the North Atlantic region were hit particularly hard by regulations, because they were competing in the global market with domestic and international industrial-scale factory fleets and aquaculture companies.

Factory fleets can process and freeze large quantities of fish while still at sea, giving them a big advantage over smaller fishermen.

“All of a sudden everybody got out, and those of us who stayed didn’t have anywhere or anyone
to sell to,” says Gary Libby, a fisherman based in Port Clyde, Maine.

“The old model of catching as much as you could just wasn’t working any longer,” says Libby’s
wife, Kim. Inspired by fishermen in North Carolina, who sell directly to the public off their boats, she started the first CSF, or Community Supported Fishery, from their home in Port
Clyde in 2007.

CSF shareholders pay up front for a share of the catch. Most CSFs deliver whole fish in
season, so customers experience variety and seasonality. Fishermen are paid a flat rate
per season, rather than being paid only for the number of fish they catch. This encourages them to diversify their catch and fish according to the demands of the ecosystem, rather than to
maximize sales.

According to the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), which works on policy
to support small-scale fishing, nearly 20 other communities across North America have been
inspired by the Port Clyde experience to start their own CSFs.

“It makes people feel good to know their fisherman,” Libby remarks. He says no one left in
the small-boat community-based fishing business in New England is in it for the money. “Bringing a high-quality product to consumers they wouldn’t ordinarily have is the real reward.”

Interested? for a list of CSFs in the Northeast.

Ellen Tyler is a graduate student of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science & Policy at Tufts University. Daniel Fireside is the Capital Coordinator at Equal Exchange.

Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Hit the Road

How government and industry are getting behind a new breed of electric cars

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Electric Charging Station photo courtesy of

High-speed charging stations outside a BART train station in California.

Photo courtesy of

Electric cars are gaining ground. Car manufacturers are rolling out new models next year, such as the Nissan Leaf and new Ford Focus, that will go about 100 miles on one charge. Private, public, and non-profit organizations are supporting consumer purchase of electric cars by launching new projects to provide charging stations.

The Electric Vehicle Project will install 15,085 electric vehicle charging stations in six states (Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee) and Washington, D.C., by 2013. The project, managed by ECOtality, will install the charging stations in publicly accessible places in partnership with Arco, BP, Zipcar, Best Buy, and other companies. The $230 million cost is supported by $115 million from federal stimulus funds.

In addition, ECOtality will study 8,300 Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf drivers to learn how best to streamline electric vehicle adoption nationwide. BP plans to install over 1,000 charging stations along Interstate 5 in Oregon by next July. In support of the project, Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia have started the West Coast Green Highway initiative to “electrify” I-5. Washington is the first to start and is already installing several chargers along I-5 between Canada and Oregon.

Businesses that install a charging station can get a federal tax credit for 50 percent of the cost. Connecticut-based Green Garage Associates uses the credits to encourage sales of their “juice bar” chargers to parking lots.

Many states provide a rebate that, combined with the tax credit, covers the cost of chargers.
Massachusetts is using funding from a settlement over pollution violations to install 100 chargers, and the Beautiful Earth group built a solar-powered charging station next to its headquarters in New York. The Greenway Self-Park in Chicago and the Adobe headquarters in San Jose both have charging stations powered by wind. Even McDonald’s is installing a charging station at a location in Cary, North Carolina.

Greenwashing or not, the Baker Institute for Public Policy says electric vehicles are the most effective way for the U.S. to reduce oil consumption.

—Alyssa Johnson is an editorial intern at YES! Magazine

Pilsen protest photo by Sarah-Ji

Photo by Sarah-Ji

Thumb Up Icon A 37-day protest by parents in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood ended in victory. Whittier Elementary’s Field House (La Casita community center) had been scheduled to be demolished. But Whittier parents occupied the building and demanded that the $350,000 demolition money instead be used to convert the field house into a school library.

Restaurants, Counties, Colleges Promote Tap Water

Tap into the movement that is doing away with bottled water.

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Water drop photo by Ken Mau

Photo by Ken Mau

Actions to promote tap over bottled water are spreading across the globe.

Restaurants in California, Oregon, New York, Maine, and other states are serving only tap water. Students at Brown University were inspired to start Beyond the Bottle after Washington University in St. Louis ended sales of bottled water on its campus.

Seattle University and Gonzaga University in Washington state, and the University of Portland in Oregon, have also ended sales of bottled water. Multnomah County became the first county in Oregon to ban bottled water from county meetings and functions. Efforts to prevent a bottling company from extracting millions of liters of water from the local aquifer led the city of Bundanoon, Australia, to ban the sale and production of bottled water. Toronto, London, and other cities in Ontario, Canada as well as school boards in Ottawa and Waterloo have stopped the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities.

Bottled water is marketed as superior to tap, but public water supplies are actually cleaner, less expensive, and more environmentally responsible, according to organizations like Take Back the Tap, Food and Water Watch, and Stop Corporate Abuse. They are mounting campaigns to combat misconceptions caused by bottled-water marketing.

EPA tap water regulations are more rigorous and require more disclosure than FDA bottled water regulations, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. The cost of bottled water can run 10,000 times more than tap. An estimated 25 percent of bottled waters, often marketed as spring water or mineral water, comes from public tap water.

According to the Pacific Institute, the 38 billion plastic bottles sold in 2005 used 900,000 tons of plastic, which required more than 1.7 million barrels of oil for transport. More than 75 percent of discarded water bottles end up in landfills where they take up to 1,000 years to

–Tiffany Ran is an editorial intern at YES! Magazine.

Episcopal Church Works on Same-Sex Blessings

The birth of a new rite for gay and lesbian couples

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Gay marriage photo by Ashleigh Bennett

Photo by Ashleigh Bennett

The Episcopal Church is drafting an official same-sex marriage rite.

The church partnered with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, a seminary in Berkeley, Calif., to secure a $400,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to fund the project. They are working with priests across the country to create original prayers and essays on the spiritual meaning of same-sex blessings, and guidance for priests who will administer the new rite. Rev. Ruth Meyers, chair of the church’s standing commission on liturgy and music, says she believes the effort acknowledges fuller participation in the church by gays and

The new rite will likely take years to complete, but will formalize the unofficial practice of blessing same-sex unions that has become common in dioceses throughout the country. The Episcopal Church has also ordained openly gay bishops in the United States, despite opposition from some segments of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

—Tiffany Ran is an editorial intern at YES! Magazine.

It Gets Better photo by Rob Baird

Photo by Rob Baird

"I realized, sitting there, I can't talk to Billy Lucas, but I can talk to other isolated, miserable gay teenagers out there thinking of harming themselves."


-Dan Savage, Seattle activist and columnist on why he created the "It Gets Better" YouTube channel, after hearing of a gay teen who was driven to suicide.  Savage asked other gays and lesbians to upload personal stories about how it gets better: watch them here.

Sourcing "Rare Earth" Elements

A jumpstart for the fair and safe sourcing of some of our most precious materials.

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Rare Earth photo by Roo Reynolds

Photo by Roo Reynolds

This autumn, China imposed, and then lifted, restrictions on exports of “rare earths”—17 elements essential to the manufacture of high-tech and green energy products. The news galvanized efforts to increase recycling and develop alternative sourcing of these elements.

Rare earth elements are commonly found in wind and solar energy generators and in products ranging from iPhones and hard drives to automobile windows and permanent magnets. A Toyota Prius, for example, contains at least two pounds of rare earths; an advanced wind turbine, roughly 660 pounds of the rare earth element neodymium.

China now supplies more than 90 percent of rare earths to global manufacturers, in large
part because extraction of rare earths in China is cheaper than in countries with stricter environmental protection laws. Although rare earth minerals occur worldwide, extracting them involves the risk of environmental contamination from the radioactive metals that accompany most deposits and from chemicals used in processing. Going from discovery to production takes up to 15 years.

A shortage of rare earths could drive up prices and slow down the development and production of green technologies. Japan is moving forward with the recycling of rare earth elements from used electronics and exploring new manufacturing processes that do not require rare earths.

The U.N. Environmental Programme’s chief, Achim Steiner, told the AFP News Service that there is “a strategic as much as an environmental or an economic rationale” for developing a recycling economy of rare earth elements.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill authorizing research funding and broadening government-backed loans for rare earth development, saying the elements are critical to energy, military, and manufacturing technologies. The bill aims to make the United States self-sufficient in five years.

The Department of Energy is developing a strategy to increase U.S. production, find substitute materials, and use rare earths more efficiently. The Pentagon will also complete a study of the military’s reliance on the materials.

“We are certainly putting our country at risk in terms of our national security and our economic security if we don’t do something to ensure that we have an adequate supply,” Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.) told the Financial Times.
Rik Langendoen

Signs of Life :: Winter 2011 is part of , the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.
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