UC Merced to teach solar energy skills...DOUG HOAGLAND, The Fresno Bee
Teaching college students how to tap the sun's energy is a hot national trend, and schools in the central San Joaquin Valley aren't being eclipsed.
The University of California campuses at Berkeley and Merced will offer a Fresno program in which students can earn a certificate of expertise in solar energy. Fresno City College could be training students how to install solar panels on roofs as early as next fall.
At California State University, Fresno, some graduate students this fall will start designing a solar project to partially power a hydrogen car, and two professors are developing a new course on renewable energy.
The field is a natural for the sunny Valley, and students could wind up with good-paying jobs.
Solar is part of the green economy of renewable energy and energy-efficient industries that now account for 9 million American jobs and could provide up to 37 million by 2030, officials say.
President Barack Obama is a big advocate, and Congress provided incentives for solar energy conversion in the just-passed stimulus package.
"There are many universities across the United States looking at how they can position themselves in the new energy economy," said Neal Lurie, spokesman for the nonprofit American Solar Energy Society.
Students are doing the same thing, looking to "industries of the future, not industries of the past," Lurie said.
City College student Jeff Dilldine, 21, of Clovis said he sees the future filled with photovoltaic panels on the roofs of homes and businesses trying to save buckets of money on utility bills. He wants to become an electrician and learn how to safely install the panels.
"Look at what solar energy does for us now," Dilldine said. "And we're not anywhere near the peak of what we can get from it. We have the sun a good part of the year. Why not take advantage of it?" Dilldine said he'll be excited to take the first photovoltaic course that City College plans to offer next school year.
Details about the course still are being formulated, but it will focus on the installation of photovoltaic panels, said electrical systems technology instructor Robert Martinez, who will teach the class.
"We're not about theory," Martinez said. "We're about reality. When a new job field opens up, we would be remiss if we didn't offer opportunities for our students."
Jobs that range from $15- to-$22-an-hour now are going unfilled in some solar energy companies, Martinez said.
However, getting a job isn't as easy since the recession began, an industry official said. Some solar workers are looking for jobs now in the Fresno area, said John Brown, president of Solahart, a Fresno company that specializes in using solar energy to heat hot water systems and swimming pools.
The solar panel industry hasn't collapsed, though, despite the economy, Brown said: "I guess green is the thing. I think it is going to be the thing of the future. It's just a question of when."
Students will take six to eight courses over 18 months to two years; some courses could meet five, seven or 10 times. Topics might include how to develop an investment-grade feasibility report for solar projects and how to evaluate solar markets.
Industry experts will be hired to teach in the program, which begins this summer with a one-day seminar on careers in solar energy at the UC Merced Center on Shaw Avenue across from Fashion Fair.
Courses are being planned for the fall and beyond.
"We believe there will be a new generation of green industry and technology here in the Valley and in the state, and solar will play a large role in the growth of that industry," Diana Wu, dean of UC Berkeley Extension said in a statement.
Fresno State in the past offered a course on energy conversion and utilization -- but it didn't include solar power. That course hasn't been taught recently because it was outdated, said Daming Zhang, associate professor of industrial technology.
However, Fresno State is seeking a grant from the federal government to develop a new course and buy equipment for the class, Zhang said. He is working with plant science associate professor Alex Alexandrou to develop the course.
Meanwhile, Zhang received a $25,000 start-up grant from Fresno State's College of Agriculture to begin work on the hydrogen car.
The university could play an important role in the solar energy field by focusing professors and students on developing more efficient photovoltaic panels, said Dick Smith, director of the department of utility management. For example, Smith said, the 3,900 or so panels atop the carport-style parking structures on campus produce less power as the panel temperatures rise.
Smith said he's not sure why power production decreases, but if someone could find a way to keep the panels cooler, it would be a significant step.
The university's annual power bill is about $5 million, and the panels will save $50,000 this year and an estimated $200,000 in 2018, Smith said. Over the life of the project, the estimated savings for the university will be $13 million to $16 million, he said.
With Fresno getting more than 300 days of sunshine a year, it's only natural that Fresno State play a role in harnessing the sun's power, Smith said: "We are in a darn good place to provide leadership in solar development."
To learn more
UC program: www.unex.berkeley.edu/merced
Green economy jobs: www.ases.org/greenjobs
Fresno City College photovoltaic course: call (559) 442-4600, extension 8777.
Merced restless for UC to pay off
Campus supposed to provide valley's path to prosperity...Dale Kasler, The Sacramento Bee
MERCED -- As home to the newest University of California campus, Merced hoped to leave behind the high unemployment, rural poverty and other miseries that have plagued the Central Valley for decades.
Instead, the recession has hit here as hard as anywhere. Unemployment is at 19.9 percent, the worst in 22 years.
Rather than insulate Merced from the downturn, the 3-year-old campus might have made things worse.
UC mania inflated the housing bubble here. Home builders rushed to fill the five-mile gap between central Merced and the campus northeast of town. Speculators poured in. Merced was the state's hottest market in 2005, and ninth-hottest in the nation, for price appreciation.
Median prices more than doubled in three years to a peak of $382,000 in late 2005, right after the first UC students arrived, according to market researcher MDA DataQuick.
The median now: $105,500.
"In 30 years, I'd never seen anything like it," said Mayor Ellie Wooten, a real estate agent. "Common sense tells you that if you have a little house and suddenly it's worth $350,000, something's fishy in Denmark."
The story is similar throughout the valley. The housing boom and the brief taste of prosperity it brought are history. Unemployment is in the teens. Even the valley's mainstay, agriculture, is struggling because of water shortages.
Valley retailing has been devastated by the demise of Circuit City, Linens 'n Things and scores of mom and pops. Merced's only indoor mall lost one of its anchors when Mervyn's folded, although Kohl's might take its place.
All tied to real estate
Out by the municipal airport, Merced's industrial belt has been hit, too. Stahl Metal Products, a maker of truck accessories, closed after 30 years in business. Malibu and Fineline, two boat manufacturers, imposed layoffs.
"It's all tied to the collapse of the real estate market," said Frank Quintero, city development manager. "People were taking out home equity loans, buying boats, buying things ... that's what was keeping some of our manufacturers (going strong)."
Quebecor, a Canadian-owned printing plant and one of Merced's largest employers, cut staff last year.
"A lot of people like myself are still pretty much in shock," said Oscar Guillen, 55, who lost his job at Quebecor in July. "Because of the university ... I thought things wouldn't be that bad."
As the recession deepened, 8.4 percent of Merced's homes went into foreclosure last year, the highest rate in California and triple the state average, DataQuick said.
"We're probably the foreclosure capital of the world," said Scott Galbraith, president of Merced County Economic Development Corp.
Many of the subdivisions built with UC in mind are dotted with "For Sale" and "For Rent" signs. Entire blocks lie empty, weeds sprouting instead of homes.
Merced's venerable County Bank might be the biggest casualty. The $1 billion valley institution failed Feb. 6 and was taken over by Westamerica Bancorp of San Rafael. Westamerica is closing eight branches and cutting staff in Merced.
Although it wasn't a subprime lender, County Bank lost a bundle in real estate, and its collapse left a wound.
"That was the hometown bank," Wooten said. "All the old original folks from town banked with County Bank."
Yet Wooten sees signs of life, too. The housing mar- ket is firming up. Wal-Mart is planning a 900-employee warehouse. A hospital is under way. Gov. Schwarzen- egger came to town to kick off a $46 million bridge project funded with federal stimulus money.
"I think we're on an upswing," Wooten said, then added, "It is not overnight."
Throughout the valley, recovery is a ways off. Unemployment is 14.7 percent in Bakersfield, 18.9 percent in Yuba City and 26.6 percent in Colusa County, the worst in the state. In Stanislaus County it's 16.9 percent.
Fresno just saw a $300 million downtown redevelopment plan die. But its beloved Gottschalks Inc. will be auctioned off in Bankruptcy Court today, with liquidation a real possibility. And unemployment is 16.4 percent.
Although the latest jobless numbers are inflated because this is farming's slow time, the rates are far higher than a year ago.
Gains, but the same problem
Adding to the valley's pain is the water shortage, especially on the West Side, which has crippled many farms. Those who left agriculture to build houses may not get their old jobs back.
"A lot are trying to re-enter agricultural work," said Mi- chael McCann of Proteus Inc., a nonprofit job placement service in Visalia. "It's getting a little crowded."
The boom changed the valley. The service sector -- doctors, lawyers, accountants -- grew. Some towns landed warehouses, factories, even some tech operations, said Ross DeVol, an economist at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica.
"The valley has made some gains," he said.
But it remains troubled by low educational attainment and other issues that scare off high-end employers.
"It is largely a work force quality issue," DeVol said.
Enter UC Merced.
Looming on the outskirts of town like a kind of Emerald City, the valley's first and only UC campus is being counted on to raise education levels in the region. It's supposed to be a countrified version of Stanford, a machine that will convert UC brainpower into high-paying valley jobs.
So far it hasn't happened. City officials identified one company, Certified Laboratories Inc., a food safety firm from New York, as drawn to Merced because of the university. It employs 17 people.
Breakthroughs by UC Mer- ced professors in solar energy and bioengineering have fueled two startup companies in Mountain View and Carlsbad.
Experts say Merced is too remote, too far removed from venture capital and other necessities, to launch its own high-tech economy.
But that could change over time.
"We're early in the game here," said Richard Miller, UC Merced's interim associate vice chancellor for research.
Some are disappointed
Campus and community leaders agree that UC Merced, still in the early stages of a 25-year building plan, will pay huge dividends eventually.
The student population of 2,700 will grow tenfold. Fa- culty and staff payroll, now $5.1 million a month, will mushroom, too.
But Michelle Allison, program manager at the county's Department of Workforce Investment, said she's disappointed the university hasn't hired more local people.
While the university is a huge asset, "the panacea ... hasn't happened yet," she said. "There was this false sense that when the university came, it was going to become this magical -- it was going to change everything.
UC officials counter that they've hired plenty of local people, but they acknowledge that the campus hasn't been an immediate economic cure-all.
"The expectation was that the impact was going to be faster," said Mary Miller, vice chancellor for administration.
"I don't think we were clear enough that this is a slow, evolving process."
First lady will brighten graduation day for UC Merced
Michelle Obama accepts invitation to speak...Editorial
The graduating class at the University of California at Merced hit the jackpot with its commencement speaker. First lady Michelle Obama will address the class at its graduation on May 16.
UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang, in making the announcement, said "I heartily congratulate our students who have actively spearheaded the initiative to secure Mrs. Obama's participation in the graduation ceremony of our first full senior class."
The Class of '09 began its matriculation in 2005, the year the campus first opened. Some 450 students are eligible to participate in the ceremony this year, 430 of them seniors and the balance students receiving graduate degrees.
It's an impressive honor for the graduates, and a splendid opportunity to draw attention to the campus in Merced, the 10th in the UC system and the first to open in the 21st century. In an era when higher education funding is under great pressure, the chance to shine a light on the enormous benefits of college training is very welcome.
UC Merced has already made an impact on the Valley. It has opened a path to some Valley students that wasn't always easy to traverse in the years when the Valley was overlooked by the UC system. And it took a tremendous effort to get the campus built, an uphill struggle against entrenched interests in UC and in other parts of the state, who were quite comfortable with the fact that the Valley and its students were being neglected.
Now UC Merced is sending its graduates -- many of them from the Valley -- out into the world, and making plans for further growth to its ultimate capacity of about 25,000 students.
One of the most exciting of those plans is the effort to build a medical school in the Valley as part of UC Merced. The impact such an institution will have in this region is almost immeasurable.
The graduation of the Class of '09 is a major milestone, and it's delightful to have Michelle Obama on hand to add luster to the event.
Nunes addresses water grievances
Congressman, others blast management of water resources at rally...LUIS HERNANDEZ...3-29-09
Water shortages hurting California aren't caused by drought alone, but also by environmentalist programs that cut supplies to farmers, Congressman Devin Nunes said during a water seminar Friday.
"There's plenty of water," he said. "The problem is taking it to where it needs to go."
Nunes made his comments Friday at a two-hour seminar called "Water Supply Reality Check" at the Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner's Office in Tulare.
And while saying he didn't want his message to appear politically charged, Nunes, R-Visalia, said Democrats are the ones to blame.
"The radical environmentalists control the Democrats," Nunes said, referring to wildlife-preservation programs, such as one involving salmon in the San Joaquin River.
Panelist Thomas Birmingham, Westlands Water District general manager, agreed with Nunes.
"We're not in a dry period, not a drought," he said. "The situation is a failure of political leadership."
Westlands Water District stretches from Firebaugh to Kettleman City but not into Tulare County.
Birmingham said he also feared farmers, sooner than they think, could be out of business because of a lack of water. Some farmers already are out, he said.
And that will translate to high unemployment rates in across the San Joaquin Valley.
"The real story is what is happening to people," Birmingham said, while showing newspaper photos of a recent food giveaway in Mendota. "They waited for hours only to learn food had run out."
During the two-hour seminar, those in attendance suggested putting together regional organizations to tackle water issues.
"That's what it'll take," said Tulare City Councilman Richard Ortega, one of those in attendance.There was mention of future rallies, demanding water for farmers and growers who will then employ farm workers.
Such demonstrations will tell elected officials people want change, Nunes said.
Nunes continues to boil over water issues. Earlier this week he blasted a bill that would allow water that now flows through the Friant-Kern canal through eastern Tulare County to be redirected down the San Joaquin River. Supporters, however, say the bill would provide millions of dollars for Valley water systems.
Mt. Diablo offers panoramic view of unfolding disaster...Dennis Wyatt
Mt. Diablo isn’t among Mother Nature’s highest peaks.
Even so, the summit that towers 3,849 feet provides one of the most awe-inspiring views you’ll ever see.
Sunday’s strong breezes cleared the skies to allow you to see one of California’s two volcanoes – Mt. Lassen – some 180 miles to the northeast. Between Mt. Diablo and Mt. Lassen lies the vastness of the Sacramento Valley. You can spy the Delta, much of the East Bay, and the Northern San Joaquin Valley as well. If aided by a telescope and skies are clear, you can catch a glimpse of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park some 125 miles to the east.
The view from the grand peak of the Diablo Range is among the most vast in the western Unified States. Mt. Diablo was used in the mid-19th century to establish the survey lines for most of Northern California.
Mt. Diablo offers more than just an awe-inspiring view. It gives one a reality check of what is unfolding beneath its summit to both the east and the west.
The first European to ascend the summit were those in the exploration party led by Juan Bautista de Anza and Father Pedro Font of Spain. They reached the top on July 4, 1776 and looked eastward where they saw a vast body of water. They came to the erroneous conclusion it was nothing more than an inland sea. The snow that winter had been exceptionally heavy in the Sierra and the spring weather mild. Those two combinations plus the complete absence of man’s handiwork to keep rivers within their banks created a massive run-off that has been estimated at 30 miles in width at various points.
Standing on the summit you can see exactly how man has molded what Mother Nature created. Many of the 1,000 plus miles of the levees in the Delta are visible. The California Aqueduct is seen snaking its way to Southern California. It’s an amazing feat of engineering to take run-off from the watershed as far north as Shasta Lake 200 miles away from where you stand and dump it into the California Aqueduct near Tracy. From there, 660 miles of canals deliver the water to 23 million of California’s 38 million residents plus 755,000 acres of farmland.
It should qualify as the 8th wonder of the world as what you see transformed California into the equivalent of the world’s seventh largest economy and made its Central Valley – the world’s largest ranging from 40 to 60 miles wide and more than 450 miles long stretching from Redding to the base of the Tehachapi Mountains – one of the richest agricultural regions on the planet.
As you stand looking out from the wind-swept summit of Mt. Diablo, it is hard not to contemplate the unique geography that formed the land we call California and the amazing foresight and resourcefulness of generations before us. You can’t help but wonder what they would think of what California is today in terms of its richness and its ignorance when it comes to how water is captured and redirected throughout the state.
Over a century ago, the Central Valley was locked in an endless cycle of flooding in the winter and then turning into a virtual desert during the waning days of summer and fall.
Water management changed all of that.
The Delta, where numerous fish spawn, often would retreat much farther than it is today as many rivers – including the San Joaquin River – were barely trickles as summer wore into fall.
We thrive and survive today because of California’s water system that is so vast that even on a summit like Mt., Diablo with panoramic views as much as 200 miles in some directions you can’t take in even half of the area transformed by redirecting water or even see the bulk of the enhanced natural conveyance system of rivers kept within their banks by levees or manmade canals.
Yet below there are countless people wasting that resource as we enter the third year of drought by hosing down concrete and letting water flood into gutters and down storm drains.
That wanton waste will cost Us dearly in the coming months perhaps even more so than the fallout from the foreclosure mess. It will mean tens of thousands of lost jobs for poor families in the Southern San Joaquin Valley where farms are now being allowed to go fallow. That, in turn, will mean higher food prices for all of us.
We are spoiled and we are the biggest threat when it comes to our future prosperity.
Ignorance of the value of water and how it gets to our spigots isn’t bliss. It can easily become catastrophic if we – as a collective state – don’t start treating water as the valuable resource that it is especially in a continuing drought.
San Francisco Chronicle
Voices of the West...High Country News
DEVELOPMENT: Deadline for salmon - and government...Paul VanDevelder/High Country News, hcn.org
WHAT IT MEANS: 2017 is the long-projected extinction date for salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The problem is clear: Four dams on Idaho's lower Snake River block fish migration. Biologists, some Indian tribes and conservationists want them removed. But aluminum smelters, irrigators and barge operators depend on the cheap hydropower, water and transportation the dams produce.
Amid the lawsuits, it's easy to forget that salmon, not humans, are the keystone species in the Northwest. More than 500 species depend on salmon. Remove the fish, and the ecosystem collapses.
Ever since the Clinton administration, the federal government has stalled on salmon recovery. Elected officials capitulated to political interests at the expense of science. The Bush administration claimed the dams were untouchable because they were permanent - like volcanoes. But U.S. District Judge James Redden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in Portland has had enough. In early March hearings, he told the feds to consider dam removal in their plans to save the fish. It's the last resort - but 2017 is just around the corner.
A shameful effort to limit class actions...Richard Holober. Richard Holober is the executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, based in San Mateo.
As government regulators and private consumer attorneys seek to hold AIG and its Wall Street friends to account for misconduct that has destroyed the jobs, homes and retirement savings of millions of Americans, these onetime financial titans are scurrying to slam shut the courthouse doors on their victims.
Assemblyman Van Tran, R-Costa Mesa (Orange County), is carrying legislation, AB298, which would sharply limit the right of consumers to join together to file class-action lawsuits on behalf of the public. The bill would give defendants the right to appeal a judge's decision to certify a class action - a change that would effectively kill class actions by halting them for a year or more. It is set for a hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The Civil Justice Association of California is the legislation's main backer. The Sacramento lobbying group is funded by big businesses. AIG, the insurance giant that received $180 billion in taxpayer bailout funds and paid its executives $165 million in bonuses, long has had a place on the Civil Justice Association of California's board.
Representatives of several large banks that have received billions more in taxpayer bailouts also sit on the board, as do executives from Big Oil, tobacco and drug manufacturers, all of which seek to evade justice by restricting consumers' right to band together to file class action lawsuits.
AIG's former chairman, Hank Greenberg, has been among the largest funders of the effort to restrict access to federal and state courts, giving nearly $25 million through his foundation in recent years to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to push for what it calls legal "reform" and to limit regulation.
Tran's legislation is the third time in as many years that California legislators have attempted to roll back the right to bring class-action suits in California courts.
Make no mistake: The measures are part of a nationwide effort to limit consumer access to the courts. President George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress in 2005 won approval of legislation that sharply limited the right to bring class-action claims in federal and state courts.
It's no wonder that big business has turned its attention to California's courts. Here are a few cases which might have faced additional hurdles and delays had the proposed legislation been law:
-- During the 2008 Christmas shopping season, Attorney General Jerry Brown brought a successful class action against major toymakers, persuading them to remove lead from commonly sold playthings. Consumer lawyers had brought a similar case the year before.
-- During the California energy crisis, government and consumer lawyers brought class actions on behalf of the University of California and state pension funds against Enron and other rogue energy traders that bilked Californians out of billions.
-- In the 1990s, state attorneys general and private attorneys sued the tobacco industry, forcing firms to pay out more than $200 billion to California and other states to cover medical costs of people sickened and killed by their products.
-- Activists seeking to end the use of sweatshops brought sweeping class actions in 1999 under California state law against high-end garment manufacturers who were evading U.S. labor law by operating in what they thought was the safe haven of the Mariana Islands.
Despite the steady drumbeat of rhetoric about "jackpot" lawsuits, class actions represent a tiny fraction of all civil filings in California state courts. This month, the Judicial Council of California issued a survey of cases filed between 2000 and 2006 that concluded "class action cases represent less than one-half of 1 percent of all unlimited civil filings in the study courts during the study period."
The extraordinary greed of AIG and the other financial giants that brought our economy to the brink underscore the necessity of protecting our rights as Americans to hold big business accountable. The last thing we should contemplate is erecting barriers that stop consumers from banding together in class-action suits against corporate fraud and abuse.
Foreclosures spike - so do mortgage-help plans
Lenders are fixing more loans, but the number needing assistance is soaring...Les Christie
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Lenders have helped an increasing number of mortgage borrowers to get current on payments and stay in their homes, but the tide of foreclosures is still rising.
In February, nearly 250,000 homeowners received either mortgage modifications or repayment plans from their lenders, according to Hope Now, the coalition of lenders, investors and community advocacy groups put together to combat the foreclosure plague.
About 134,000 of the workouts completed were mortgage modifications, which typically lower the interest rate on loans, lengthen mortgage terms or reduce principal owed to make loans more affordable. Modifications are considered more comprehensive and effective than repayment plans, which simply tack the late payments on to the end of the loan but don't reduce payments.
"The mortgage lending industry is responding to the needs of its customers and offering solutions that are appropriate to the current market and economic conditions," said Hope Now's director Faith Schwartz.
But in spite of these efforts, the number of foreclosures started in February rose to 243,000 from 217,000 in January. About 87,000 homes were repossessed by banks during February, a 28% jump from the 68,000 foreclosures completed in January. Since the mortgage meltdown hit in July 2007, 1,395,044 homes have been lost.
February was the second straight month of sharply higher foreclosures; prior to January, the problem appeared to be easing. Foreclosures declined to 69,000 in November from 77,000 in October and then dropped again to 56,000 in December.
But the report could have been much worse, considering the nation's deteriorating economic picture, Schwartz said. "We're shedding 650,000 jobs a week," she said. "But there's more flexibility [by the lenders]. They're offering more forbearance in response to job losses."
The Obama administration's foreclosure prevention initiative could send mortgage modification numbers higher in the coming months, but it will take time. "We won't see a spike right away," said Schwartz. "[Under the program] It takes 90 days to complete a modification. Over the next three months we'll start to see some pull-through."
April will be "the month to get all the implementation details done on the new plan so that everything is crystal clear when they start using it," she added.