In Georgia, a tiny consultancy aims to break the conventional mold of electricity generation and become the nation's first all-solar utility.
In Colorado, a young startup seeks to do something similar with geothermal. And in California, a small firm wants to stoke a boom in distributed solar rooftop arrays that would cut dependence on polluting, faraway power plants and lessen impacts when severe storms like Hurricane Sandy knock out critical infrastructure.
This trio of upstarts is part of a small band of renewable companies attempting a daunting task—innovating their way into a century-old energy market dominated by big utilities and fossil fuels.
It's the "very first pitch of the first inning," said Jason Brown, CEO of Gen110, the California firm seeking to make distributed solar generation more mainstream.
In Germany, the world's clean energy leader, it took a federal law passed in 2000 to pave the way for the transformation of its power sector. The law decentralized power production and gave small producers incentives to compete with utilities.
For climate skeptics, 2012 was a bad year at the polls. President Obama won re-election, and several critics of climate science lost their Congressional races.
But just weeks after Election Day, they're already mobilizing for another electoral battle.
Climate and energy issues will have a major profile in the race for governor of Virginia that will be decided in less than 11 months. Energy titans like the Koch brothers are beginning to pour money into the fight, and environmental groups are developing strategies to counter the big spending likely from fossil fuel interests.
The coming year is expected to see Virginia's Republican attorney general, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II—who is known for his crusade against the science of man-made global warming—try to win the governor's seat over Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and longtime friend of the Clintons, believes in climate change and policies to limit climate risks.
The battle in Virginia is a microcosm of the national debate over global warming. Home to more than 300 coal mines but also on the frontline of rising seas, Virginia is split along familiar lines—between those who are seeking to keep the coal industry alive and those seeking cleaner energy alternatives and climate change solutions. The once-reliably Republican state voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, due partly to a growing liberal population in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
A primary concern about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline is that a leak would contaminate the Ogallala aquifer, one of the nation's most important sources of drinking and irrigation water. InsideClimate News is republishing this investigative story from ProPublica because it highlights another risk to U.S. aquifers: The EPA is allowing some of them to be used as dumping grounds.
Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water.
In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has granted these so-called aquifer exemptions in Western states now stricken by drought and increasingly desperate for water.
EPA records show that portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds.
"You are sacrificing these aquifers," said Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado and a member of a National Science Foundation team studying the effects of energy development on the environment. "By definition, you are putting pollution into them. ... If you are looking 50 to 100 years down the road, this is not a good way to go."
As a stalemated Congress shies away from taking serious action on climate change, environmentalists are focusing on potential cabinet openings at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy that could further their efforts.
If the top jobs at the agencies open up as expected at the beginning of Obama's second term, the new leaders would step into the spotlight at a critical time. Recent scientific reports warn that polar ice sheets are melting at a rate three times faster than in the 1990s and methane emissions from melting permafrost could dramatically accelerate global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's next report, due in 2013, will likely add to evidence that carbon emissions are causing Earth's climate to warm.
The EPA docket is already crowded with key environmental issues. The agency is expected to consider new regulations for coal-fired plants, smog and the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing. It also could weigh in on the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Energy Department, meanwhile, is trying to decide how to foster the nascent clean energy industry amid the political minefield left by the scandal over Solyndra, a failed solar company that received federal funding. A new energy secretary would have to be adept at fielding political questions and making the most of a much smaller pool of loans for renewable energy.
A divestment campaign aimed at fossil fuel companies has swept college campuses across the country since it began just four weeks ago, catching university presidents by surprise.
The effort is the result of a student-led campaign coordinated by 350.org, a climate advocacy organization founded by author and activist Bill McKibben. The goal is to turn global warming action into the moral issue of this generation.
"Bottom line, for a college or university, you do not want your institution to be on the wrong side of this issue," said Stephen Mulkey, president of Unity College in Maine.
Unity became the first college to authorize divestment using 350.org's guidelines last month. "We realized that investing in fossil fuels was an unethical position, especially considering our focus on environmental issues," Mulkey said.
Since then, students at dozens of other universities have sat down with senior administrators and boards of trustees to lobby them to sell holdings in coal, oil and gas companies. Divestment campaigns are now underway at 153 colleges and universities, large and small from coast to coast. The organizers expect to reach 200 after the winter break.
"We've been totally blown away by how fast it's spread," said Jamie Henn, a spokesperson with 350.org.
A week after superstorm Sandy left a huge swath of the East coast without electricity, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unleashed a blistering critique of his state's utilities, calling their restoration efforts inadequate and deriding the electric system as "archaic and obsolete."
The vast and lengthy power outage isn't the first disaster to expose weaknesses in the nation's aging electric grid. But Sandy—and the prospect of climate change fueling more storms like her—has added a sense of urgency to fixing the power system and has drawn politicians and the public into the debate over how to do it.
"We need to seriously overhaul the energy regulatory and power distribution in this state," Gov. Cuomo said last month as he announced an investigation into utilities' storm preparations. "Let's make the changes we need to make, and let's do it while we are still in the moment."
Cuomo's post-Sandy wish list is sure to include transforming the state's antiquated power network to a smart grid that's capable of sensing, reporting and automatically adapting to problems anywhere in the electrical system. Such upgrades are a complex and costly undertaking. But the need for them—in New York and across the country—is becoming hard to ignore.
For years, the controversy over natural gas drilling has focused on the water and air quality problems linked to hydraulic fracturing, the process where chemicals are blasted deep underground to release tightly bound natural gas deposits.
But a new study reports that a set of chemicals called non-methane hydrocarbons, or NMHCs, is found in the air near drilling sites even when fracking isn't in progress.
According to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, more than 50 NMHCs were found near gas wells in rural Colorado, including 35 that affect the brain and nervous system. Some were detected at levels high enough to potentially harm children who are exposed to them before birth.
The authors say the source of the chemicals is likely a mix of the raw gas that is vented from the wells and emissions from industrial equipment used during the gas production process.
The paper cites two other recent studies on NMHCs near gas drilling sites in Colorado. But the new study was conducted over a longer period of time and tested for more chemicals than those studies did.
"To our knowledge, no study of this kind has been published to date," the authors wrote.
A lawsuit against pipeline company Enbridge Inc. was returned to Michigan state court on Tuesday, after a judge ruled that a group that is trying to stop work on the company's 210-mile pipeline replacement project could not pursue the case in federal court. The ruling didn't address the merits of the case.
POLAR (Protect Our Land And Rights), the nonprofit group that filed the suit, is seeking an injunction against Enbridge, claiming the Canadian company hasn't obtained all the necessary state and local permits.
"We want Enbridge to follow the existing laws," said POLAR founder Jeff Axt, who owns property along the route. "These aren't obstructions recently created to stop a pipeline. These are existing laws, regulations and ordinances that have been on township books for years, that need to be complied with before the project proceeds."
Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation: "Once we're back in state court...we'll be prepared to proceed there."
When climate scientists try to estimate how much the Earth will warm due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, a key consideration is the role of plants and soils. The more carbon they absorb, the more they reduce the global warming potential.
But recent studies indicate that assumptions about plants' and soils' capacity in the so-called "carbon cycle" may be overly optimistic. If these studies are correct, even bigger cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be needed to prevent drastic, irreparable climate shifts.
Not only is it possible that plants won't be able to absorb as much carbon as climate models currently project, but plants' response to the carbon cycle could actually amplify global warming, Paul Higgins and John Harte write in the November edition of the Journal of Climate.
The government of Canada's official position on climate change is that it's real and requires an "aggressive" response.
Despite that, Canada's ruling Conservative Party government has been leading a slow and systematic unraveling of environmental and climate research budgets, according to local scientists—including shuttering one of the world's top Arctic research stations for monitoring global warming. Hundreds of researchers have lost their jobs, and those that remain are forbidden from talking to media without a government minder.
"They publicly announce their commitment to dealing with climate change and acknowledge that it is a serious issue, but then they go ahead and do the exact opposite," said Andrew Weaver, a climate modeler at the University of Victoria and a lead author of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
"They've closed virtually every funding avenue for climate and atmospheric science. They are deceiving the Canadian public."