Sierra Magazine: Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.
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LETTERS | What our readers have to say

Readers are encouraged to post comments online. You can also e-mail us at Please include your name, city, and e-mail address or phone number. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

Thank you for the brilliant essay by Ben Shook describing his experience of extreme skiing in Antarctica ("Heaven Is Made of Ice," January/February 2013). His range reflects his athletic capability, his empathy for others, his awareness of both the beauty and the dangers in the environment, his appreciation of the music of Bach and Beethoven, and his almost mystical insight into those who have gone before.
John Doty
Bisbee, Arizona

I have been a Life Member for more than 20 years. Please stop my subscription to Sierra immediately. Glorifying recreational travel to Antarctica has no place in the magazine of a so-called environmental organization. And that's just the tip of the iceberg: The magazine has become so full of fluff and poorly researched factoids that I don't bother reading much of it anymore. The buyer's guides of unnecessary toys and gadgets make me want to puke. If people think they need that crap to enjoy the outdoors, or to be "greener," they've missed the point.
Rick Aylsworth
Ely, Minnesota

I'm sure that I'm not the only member-reader outraged by Bob Sipchen's insensitive remarks ("Spout," January/February) about a very sensitive topic. Calling potential critics "a cross section of grumps [who] will grouse" about what he's about to say probably felt like a proactive way to decrease the grousing, but it's actually insulting.
Peggy Kocoras
Wheelwright, Massachusetts

I found it ironic that in the issue titled "The Cost of Coal: Dirty Energy's Human Toll" (November/December 2012), electric cars were given such great hype. The electricity that powers EVs often comes from the very coal-fired power plants that create such havoc and suffering. I look forward to the day when electric cars are charged by wind or solar power. Until then, we remain between a rock and a hard place.
Alison Pollack
West Hills, California

The only difference between electric cars and gasoline cars is that the traffic jams are quieter and the pollution is somewhere else. What we need is real mass transit. What we need is affordable housing so people don't need to commute an hour to work. What we need are things like telecommuting. What we need is an energy revolution. We can't get to where we need to be by doing the same things we've been doing.
Jack Sol-Church
Wilmington, Delaware



Awesome doesn't begin to describe this piece. But the glorification of drinking and drugging (some while driving) is deeply troubling. I thought Sierra Club was not about destructive behavior, but about natural highs.
Cory Harden
Hilo, Hawai'i

I generally enjoy the Sierra Club magazine, but the article on extreme skiing in Antarctica really rubbed me the wrong way. Why are you so enamored of this sport? The author spends a good part of the article detailing the deaths of two of his friends at a young age, one through drunken driving and the other through extreme skiing. The run he describes in Antarctica almost causes serious injury for one of his companions on the trip. We need to be emphasizing constructive ways to deal with climate change (such as your solar power article in the same issue) and habitat destruction, not publicizing self-destructive behavior. We need all of the pro-environment people we can find!
Marjorie Van Hoy
Colorado Springs, Colorado

This article is just plain stupid.

How can you be so idiotic as to prove the elitism of the Sierra Club by not only printing this article but throwing it in the face of everyone.

Joie de vivre? Get real.

I guess saving the environment is for the "little people".
Greg Bergner


I am as excited as anybody about the launch of Mosaic and community solar. But I am even more excited about another idea that was overlooked in "Solar for All." John Farrell and others have also written about the possible eligibility of clean energy installations for inclusion in real estate investment trusts (REITs). This is rumored to be slowly accruing bipartisan support in Congress.

This would open direct investment in clean energy installations to anybody with a discount brokerage account or IRA- a much broader class than can currently participate with either Mosaic or community solar.

I know the environmental movement is not exactly cozy with Wall Street.

Yes, these REITs would be market traded, and somebody on Wall Street might get awfully rich off of them, but would that really be such a terrible thing for our politics or our environment?
Dan Marcin
Ann Arbor, Michigan

The recurring articles published in the Sierra magazine on renewal energy are educational, but only to a point.

For example, in the January 2013 edition, missing from Paul Bauer's "Solar for All" is the absence of solar's practical merits. If I recall my science correctly, and excluding the ugly factor created by massive solar arrays, solar power has an inverse cost/benefit ratio.

The only reason solar power is available is not because it makes economic sense, but because of tax subsidies. Remove these subsidies, and the lure for energy from solar (and wind) will diminish smartly.

It's not a trivial concern. Given our massive federal deficit, subsidies for renewal energy could be drying up, maybe disappearing sooner than imagined.

The simplest solution is less people, which translates into less demand for energy from all sources. If it sounds like I believe there are too many people on this planet, then you're right.
Jim Roberts
Alexandria, Virginia

Very good discussion of the issues and ways to proceed on community, as well as personal, solar installations. I've supported both. However, as a long-time Sierra member, the Club continues to disappoint on the science and engineering needed to actually make good policy recommendations. The Beyond Coal campaign, which accepted gas-industry millions, is an example of poor Club management. Another poor decision, longer ago, was to stop supporting nuclear power, despite it being the safest form of mass generation ever deployed by mankind.* In contrast, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which I've also long supported, realizes the environmental value of nuclear and simply works hard to promote continued attention to safety (as do WANO, INPO, and IAEA).

Now, why do I bring up these topics of good science and nuclear power for this very useful article?

1) The Club's policies have actually assisted the combustion industry over the years, partly because of the naive nuclear policy, wrongly set in place after the Three Mile Island accident that hurt no one. The combustion industry has always feared nuclear power as the only clean source that can put it out of business. The Heating Oil Institute, in fact, supported protests against the Shoreham nuclear station in the '80s, thus adding to global emissions in the decades since, to the extent of at least 80GW years. I hope the Sierra Club wasn't also involved in that poor choice. A Japanese company is now planning to install gas-fired power in the Shoreham plant, adding more emissions in a region that's long received >30% of its power from clean nuclear. All the total related emissions for three decades fall on environmental groups who foolishly avoided facts and exploited citizen fears.

2) On page 1 of your piece you say that Calif. "utility-scale solar plants hit 1GW -- as much energy as...a nuclear-fired power plant" -- surely you realize Watts aren't "energy"? Surely you realize a nuclear plant isn't "fired" -- nothing combusts inside it? Surely you realize 1GW might be taken to mean "all day"? But you don't specify the fact that the large solar plants in our desert, like Ivanpah, only generate from the sun for several hours, whence they either cool to zero output or burn gas to keep going. So an honest statement that could inform policy makers would be to say how many watt-hours and emissions those plants produce on average. If 1GW, 24/7, then even that is half what a "nuclear power plant" produces, since most have two such reactors installed and operating at >90% uptime.

3) It's quite true that over 2% of Earth's surface is covered by human structure, and that more than enough insolation energy is thus available, at no land cost, to meet peak daytime needs, worldwide. This is why I fully support local solar (DG) and community solar, as long as no land is consumed and no trees are cut--a mature broadleaf tree is a 50kW cooling system in the sun, apart from its CO2 reduction. The effect of DG is to build a more robust grid and to reduce environmental and transmission costs, which are ~10% for wind/solar "farms" because of their necessary remoteness from loads.

4) If "net-metering" indeed limits credits to "average usage" per home, then the integration of DG with EVs is even more important and should be part of any home/community solar project. There are two reasons: a) EVs provide storage and load-leveling opportunities to utilities, and they provide inertial storage, when regenerative braking is in their designs—this means an EV charged overnight and brought back from typical commuting in the evening will need ~15% less energy upon recharge than will an EV lacking regenerative braking; and b) timing recharge, when an EV is parked at a site using net-metering, opens the possibility to avoid some loss due to discounting peak over average solar output.

5) The "centralized solar system" you mention in Colorado is an example of what should not be done, if unoccupied land is used instead of structural surfaces, parking lots, etc. Our Calif. projects at municipal buildings, colleges, parking lots, etc. are correct. Using raw land, as Germany has often done, and as "utility-scale" projects here have done, is environmentally unsustainable. The Club needs to study and understand this, if its policies are to make sense and be respected.

6) You mention Germany's "million solar systems" and say that on one day they generated 22GW—again, misleading because you fail to mention: a) the actual GW-hours, and b) the high cost of German power to all due to such high FIT values which now are being reduced by over 20%. For all the land and roofs dedicated to solar in Germany, under 4% of German power comes from it, despite German solar installs being as much as the rest of the world in total. It's time to be honest about what matters—average power, 24/7, for any sources. Germany still, despite naive politics, depends on clean, safe nuclear for a large fraction of their needs and should continue to do so. Solar has a place, but it is not peak ratings that count—you certainly know that and should convey that to our members who might be fooled by hype.

7) You briefly mention wind power as a choice. Despite the Club's policy, it isn't a reasonable choice. Why?

a) Reading data sheets for windmills reveals they demand about 700 tons of resources per MW peak (per <333kW average). Those materials must be processed via fossil fuels—each 1,000 cubic meter foundation for a 5MW Siemens windmill requires gas/oil fired kilning of limestone, mining and crushing and transporting of same; mining, crushing and transport of aggregate to make concrete, etc.;

b) Mining transporting iron ore and forging iron, plus coal to make steel at the rate of about 100 tons per 333kW—steel requires coal to make coke, etc., and at the rate of >4 tons of coal per ton of steel (a 5MW Siemens tower weighs 400 tons). Such a wind "farm" of total yearly output equal to a nuclear plant consumes >100 times as much land and releases about twice the CO2 in construction as does that nuclear plant—a plant that lasts for decades more than any windmill;

c) Then the generator, convertor, transmission lines and roads must be made and laid—all requiring fossil fuels and expensive materials, like rare earths, now sourced from overseas;

d) Each windmill operates only within a certain windspeed ranges, so not only do wind "farms" consume land and resources at great rates, they waste power and miss power opportunities when winds are too slow or too fast—this cost is usually ignored by wind promoters.

e) Reality costs: imagine Sandy's effect on the large offshore wind installs planned in the U.S. East. The Coast Guard estimates that just the Cape Wind "farm" off MA will experience 1.23 vessel collisions per year. Wind promoters follow subsidies, not environmental concerns.

8) On your last page, you mention the pressures for solar installs "sooner than later." This has an adverse effect on the ultimate system, its efficiency and its effects on global warming. The reason Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the CA Energy Comm. and the Heat Island Group have long explained why structural (and land/ice) reflectivity is almost as important as GHG emissions is that the ~86,000 Tera-Watts of insolation we receive all day long is indeed available for solar power, but must be managed carefully to avoid the simplest of global warming sources—insolation conversion to infrared that propagates upward and excites GHG molecules more than natural surfaces would. Thus, increasing a house roof's reflectivity by only ~40% is equivalent to eliminating the emissions of a car for a decade. A structural roof, a parking lot, a solar panel, all contribute to global warming via their respective conversion of sunlight to IR. A solar panel of present, 20% efficiency converts 80% of incident sunlight to IR—as bad as a dark roof or parking lot. Thus, solar-panel efficiency is improving and helping with this issue, but with at least 1 more doubling of efficiency in the technology means we do not want to install relatively inefficient panels quicker than necessary. This tradeoff appears not to be reflected in Club policy (excuse the pun). The policy should be to follow Steven Chu's advice and make roofs more reflective now, while installing solar DG at a good pace, but not so quickly that we end up with suboptimal efficiency that can only be corrected by retrofitting of entire systems of low efficiency. These are basic engineering optimization decisions that the Club appears unaware of, perhaps even disinterested in, despite efforts of our Cool Cities teams.

9) Finally, on your last page, you continue to quote installed wattages, which mean little until we know their consistent averages. You mention New Jersey—I'm from NJ and have property there. We get >30% of our power from non-emitting nuclear, 24/7, even after Sandy. You also mention hoped-for "grid parity" when solar power equals electricity cost from "fossil fuels." Given the subsidies for both solar and fossil (e.g., the fossil NORM Exemptions, depletion allowances . . .), the comparison you should be making is the cost of solar vs. nuclear—an honest comparison must account for the excess cost of storage/ transmission/control of solar, even of DG. We agree we need solar DG. We also need to be honest in plusses and minuses for all sources.

All the while windmills are becalmed or feathered, all the while solar farms are burning gas or clouded over, nukes just keep on delivering safely, 24/7, at >90% capacity.

I'll be happy to discuss any of these issues with you. Some of us have tried to engage Michael Brune in addressing the aspects of Club policy that need correction and better factual bases, but we've been ignored. We're now addressing the Board, because we care that Club policy not make the Club appear naive and uninformed, thus reducing public respect for, and influence by, the Club.
Dr. Alexander Cannara
Menlo Park, California


In the photograph [in the TOC], the penguins are small and hard to see clearly, but they sure look like gentoos and not chinstraps as labeled. Also, I'm not sure that five penguins constitute a "colony".

About the related story on Antarctic skiing, Bob Sipchen calls it a reckless adventure, but I think it went farther and the story does not belong in Sierra. Publication lends a form of validation to such foolhardy, testosterone-fueled stunts and could tempt other weak-minded individuals to attempt similar suicidal exercises. Consider the numerous occasions when such dangerous excursions have resulted in disaster and necessitated rescues that have placed the rescuers in serious peril and cost many thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money. Let's let these adrenalin junkies risk their lives anonymously and pay for their own rescues, or perish where they fall and thereby provide some nutrients to the local ecosystem as their bodies are recycled. In any case, I don't want to read about it inSierra. Stephen P. Berkowitz
Galivants Ferry, South Carolina

Your January/February cover story and your expectation that there may be a cross section of grumps responding, put me with the grumps. As one who has spent 30 years involved in Antarctic research with the U.S. Antarctic Program, I have far more respect for the place than to use it to demonstrate high testosterone levels and get adrenaline rushes. As a former Sierra peak climber, there are plenty of places close to home where one can get into potentially as much trouble as Mr. Schook and his friends did in the Antarctic.

Next, such exploits can have more far-reaching consequences these people realized. A major part of a scientific program I was involved in got postponed a year because committed aircraft resources were diverted to rescue and retrieve bodies from a poorly executed private boondoggle on the continent.

Mostly, your [TOC] photo and activities described in the text of the article, sitting in a penguin rookery, demonstrates inappropriate if not plain bad behavior on the part of this group. Essentially all tour operators sign on to, and scientific personnel must abide by, protocols in interacting with the native fauna (seals, penguins, etc.). I refer you to the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) web page and its "Visitor Guidelines." Basically, if the critters notice you, you've interfered with their activities, so you've gotten too close and need to leave. It is possible the One Oceans Expeditions guides neglected to mention this or perhaps Mr. Schook had again indulged in a bit too much beer and missed that session. For scientists to sit in a penguin rookery, they'd need a permit issued by SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research). The indigenous animals there have a pretty tough row to hoe, and global warming is making things quite a bit tougher for many of them. We don't need people out on a lark making their lives even more difficult.
Bill Trabucco
Nevada City, California

I'm betting that this never gets to Mr. Sipchen, but I thought I'd try anyway.

Regards your "North and South "chat: Where were you immediately before you typed that one? One person's "creative confrontations"; another describing "arctic blueberries a sunshine", etc. Was there also someone you heard of that was out in the arctic wilderness plucking daisies and repeating the age old manta.

If that's the best you can come up with for saving the planet, you might do better opening up a day care center and starting there.
Rodger Merriman


According to the USDA report referred to in the illustration, the survey was conducted for the entire United States. Obviously the wolf is not present over the entire U.S. In fairness to accurately portray the proper wolf depredation should not the percentage given reflect only the areas where wolves are actually present? I will be very interested as this figure would be substantially more indicative of the wolf impact on domestic livestock referred to in the article.

Thanks so much for encouraging feedback.
Donald West


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