Energy & Environment

Is the Solar Boom Real?

MIT Technology Review: “By all accounts, 2016 should be a great year for solar power providers.”

“But investors are not feeling the love. This week shares of U.S. solar leader SolarCity tumbled to a new low, while several other solar companies also took a pounding. Last month Nevada introduced sharp cutbacks in its program for net metering—the fees paid to homeowners with rooftop solar installations for excess power they send back to the grid …. Across the country, as many as 20 other states are considering such changes, which would dramatically alter the economics of rooftop solar.”

“The rosier projections for grid parity usually assume that both net metering fees from utilities and government subsidies will continue … Without subsidies, the picture looks a lot bleaker. If each state added a $50 per month fixed charge to solar owners’ bills—a change that many big utilities are fighting for—solar would be at grid parity in only two states.”

“All the recent turbulence aside, it’s likely that solar’s longer-term future in the U.S. remains bright. Renewable portfolio standards, the state-level mandates that establish minimum renewable-energy requirements, will drive the addition of 89 gigawatts of new solar capacity over the next 10 years … Solar prices will continue to fall; a study by Oxford University researchers, published last month in Research Policy, found that annual price declines of 10 percent will continue well into the next decade, enabling solar to supply 20 percent of global energy needs by 2027. And falling costs and wider availability of solar systems coupled with energy storage will enable solar households to store energy for later use, making rooftop solar more economical on its own—regardless of whether it ever reaches true grid parity.”

Despite SCOTUS Decision to Stay Climate Plan, Stakeholders Forge Ahead

Inside Climate News: “Not all states are suspending work on the Clean Power Plan despite the Supreme Court’s bombshell decision [last] Tuesday to put a temporary hold on the tight new rules that are at the heart of the Obama administration’s climate policies.”

“Officials from more than a dozen states said they will continue the work they had already begun to comply with the plan. That includes meeting with stakeholders, modeling energy and emissions scenarios and writing early drafts of implementation schemes that would fulfill the plan’s requirement for states to steeply cut carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants over the next several decades to combat global warming.”

“‘We haven’t taken our foot off the gas pedal,’ said John Quigley, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.”

“The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality will hold a previously scheduled stakeholder meeting on Friday, Mike Dowd, director of the agency’s air division, told InsideClimate News.”

Mary Anne Hitt in Eco Watch argues that the Supreme Court’s decision won’t stop “the steady progress of the Sierra Club and our allies to retire coal plants and replace them with clean energy. As we outlined in a report released late last year, our strategy gives us a pathway to meet our climate targets, even as the Clean Power Plan makes its way through the courts.”

“With grassroots power and market forces on our side, the U.S. will remain on track to meet our Paris commitments in the electric sector.”

Which Key Issue was Ignored at Last Night’s Democratic Debate?

Think Progress: “When it comes to climate change and energy issues, both Democratic and Republican primary debates ignore them, even now, as a matter of routine.”

“This was bizarrely true again Thursday night after the PBS/Facebook-sponsored debate in Madison, Wisconsin between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This week, the Supreme Court surprisingly dealt what could be a significant blow to a speedy national response to climate change when it held up the Obama administration’s centerpiece in its plan to cut carbon pollution and transition to a renewable energy, the Clean Power Plan.”

“The repercussions of the Supreme Court’s decision will likely stretch beyond Obama’s term and pose one of the first challenges for the new president. Yet neither Gwen Ifill nor Judy Woodruff, the night’s moderators, asked the candidates about the Clean Power Plan, nor anything broader about the energy or environment.”

“The broader trends affecting climate policy, such as the decline of the coal industry and the expansion of renewable energy as prices drop, make it feasible to think that the U.S. can continue to cut its carbon emissions even while the Clean Power Plan sorts out its legal hurdles.”

“The next president will have the ability to use the levers of executive power to either hasten these trends or stand in their way.”

Solar Energy is Ballooning Across the U.S.

Think Progress: “Solar energy is ballooning across the United States with California and Massachusetts leading the way, according to a Solar Foundation report unveiled Wednesday. The U.S. solar industry now employs slightly over 200,000 workers, representing a growth of 20 percent since November of 2014. What’s more, last year the industry added workers at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy.”

Total solar jobs by state.

Total solar jobs by state. Credit: The solar foundation

“’We are seeing solar in Arkansas, Virginia, Kentucky, all over the place. Arkansas in fact just broke ground on their first community solar project,’ said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of the Solar Foundation.”

“California has five times more solar jobs than Massachusetts, the second highest ranking state. That’s not surprising to Luecke, ‘but for the first time Massachusetts hit the 15,000 mark. Between the two of them they have 50 percent of all the solar jobs.’”

“Solar companies expect to expand nearly 15 percent this year, and hire about 240,000 new workers. According to the report, that job growth is 13 times faster than the U.S. workforce as a whole. The exponential growth of solar energy is happening as coal use declined 25 percent in the United States since 2005. Moreover, solar technology is becoming cheaper. Since 2010, U.S. average installation costs declined 35 percent for residential use, and 67 percent for utility-scale installation.”

Economic Growth Decouples From Energy Consumption

Think Progress: “In a stunning trend with broad implications, the U.S. economy has grown significantly since 2007, while electricity consumption has been flat, and total energy demand actually dropped.

“The U.S. economy has now grown by 10% since 2007, while primary energy consumption has fallen by 2.4%,” reports Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) in its newly-released 2016 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook.”

BNEFdecoupling1

“The decoupling of GDP growth from energy and electricity consumption has been a key reason the United States has been able to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions since 2005. In particular, flat electricity demand has meant that the explosive growth in renewables and natural gas power has come directly at the expense of dirty coal.”

“The key driver of the decoupling of electricity use and GDP growth is energy efficiency policy and investment. BNEF notes that in 2014 (the most recent year we have data for), ‘Natural gas and electric utility spending on efficiency reached $6.7bn, up 8.1% from the $6.2bn seen in 2013; Energy Savings Performance Contracting (ESPC) investment topped $6.4bn.’ The ESPC funding is generally distinct from the utility funding and ‘mainly focused on public buildings.’”

“Largely unheralded, ‘The key policy story of the past decade has been the uptake of EERS [Energy Efficiency Resource Standards] in US state targets and decoupling legislation among US states.'”

Does the Future of the Climate Depend on the Supreme Court?

Zoe Carpenter in The Nation: Here’s the bad news about the Supreme Court’s decision to issue a stay ruling on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan: “Although the justices did not explain their order, the 5-4 decision indicates that the majority think the challengers have a decent chance of winning their case.”

What’s remarkable about the stay is that the Supreme Court chose to step in even before lower courts had a chance to review the case … Just a few weeks ago a federal appeals court refused to block the plan, a move that was interpreted as a victory for the Obama administration. That court will hear oral arguments in early June, though it’s likely the Supreme Court will decide the fate of the plan. Until it does, states won’t be required to comply.”

Joe Romm in Think Progress: “If the Roberts court ultimately decides to kill the rule 5-4 then that decision will immediately become the leading contender for the worst Supreme Court decision in U.S. history. After all, if the nations of the world ultimately don’t avoid catastrophic warming and if the U.S. is seen as bearing a significant portion of the blame — two entirely plausible outcomes — then future generations and historians will be judging the Court’s decision while suffering in a world with a climate that has been irreversibly ruined for centuries.”

“That means the future of the climate will depend on the future shape of the Supreme Court and whoever wins the presidency this year. Yes, once again, this is the most important election ever for the climate.”

 

Oil Industry’s Trade Group Knew Early on About Global Warming

Inside Climate News: “A Columbia University report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute in 1982 cautioned that global warming ‘can have serious consequences for man’s comfort and survival.’ It is the latest indication that the oil industry learned of the possible threat it posed to the climate far earlier than previously known.”

“The report, ‘Climate Models and CO2 Warming, A Selective Review and Summary,’ was written by Alan Oppenheim and William L.  Donn of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory for API’s Climate and Energy task force, said James J. Nelson, the task force’s former director. From 1979 to 1983, API and the nation’s largest oil companies convened the task force to monitor and share climate research, including their in-house efforts. Exxon ran the most ambitious of the corporate programs, but other oil companies had their own projects, smaller than Exxon’s and focused largely on climate modeling.”

“The report did not focus on the forces behind the increase in CO2 concentrations, but it linked the phenomenon plainly to fossil fuel use. Atmospheric CO2, it said, ‘is expected to double some time in the next century. Just when depends on the particular estimate of the level of increasing energy use per year and the mix of carbon based fuels.'”

“A year after the task force circulated the report to API’s members, the organization disbanded the committee and shifted its work on climate change from the environment directorate to its lobbying arm.”

Arctic Sea Ice Levels Hit Record Low

EcoWatch: “January Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, attended by unusually high air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean and a strong negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) for the first three weeks of the month. Meanwhile in the Antarctic, this year’s extent was lower than average for January, in contrast to the record high extents in January 2015.”

Monthly January ice extent for 1979 to 2016 shows a decline of 3.2 percent per decade. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center

“The monthly average January 2016 sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, 110,000 square kilometers (42,500 square miles) less than the previous record low in 2011. The next lowest extent was in 2006. Interestingly, while 2006 and 2011 did not reach record summer lows, they both preceded years that did, though this may well be simply coincidence.”

“The trend for January is now -3.2% per decade. January 2016 continues a streak that began in 2005 where every January monthly extent has been less than 14.25 million square kilometers (5.50 million square miles). In contrast, before 2005 (1979 through 2004), every January extent was above 14.25 million square kilometers.”

Renewables’ 2016 Forecast: Further Growth

The US Energy Information Administration projects that electricity generated from utility-scale renewable plants is expected to grow by 9% in 2016.

“Much of the growth comes from new installations of wind and solar plants and increases in hydroelectric generation after a relatively dry 2015. In 2016, electricity from utility-scale renewable sources is expected to account for 14% of the total electricity generated in the United States, with wind and solar contributing 5.2% and 0.8%, respectively.”

graph of electricity generation from utility-scale plants, as explained in the article text

Fuel Fix: “The report follows a vote in Congress last year to extend federal tax credits for renewables, but the EIA said “most utility-scale plants” beginning operation this year were already under development.”

The Unstoppable Renewables Revolution

Joe Romm, writing in Think Progress, explains why “it is turning out to be less challenging than expected to incorporate more and more renewables into the electric grid — and to handle periods of time when demand is high but the wind isn’t blowing and/or the sun isn’t shining.”

“Researchers concluded that ‘with improvements in transmission infrastructure, weather-driven renewable resources could supply most of the nation’s electricity at costs similar to today’s’ … [and] a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years.”

“Half or more of the ‘intermittency problem’ is really a ‘predictability problem.’ If we could predict with high accuracy wind availability and solar availability 24 to 36 hours in advance at a regional level, then electricity operators have many strategies available to them … An even cheaper way to fill the gap from clouds or a lull in winds is to use ‘demand response.‘”

“A second way to deal with the variability of wind and solar photovoltaics is to integrate electricity storage into the grid … battery prices are coming down sharply, as huge investments are being made in various types of battery technologies by electric car companies and others, including utilities. That’s a key reason battery storage for the electric grid use has started to grow rapidly in this country and around the world.”

costs-of-batteries-evs-nykivst-and-nilsson

Output Hits New Low in Kentucky Coal Country

The Hill: “Kentucky coal mines produced their smallest amount of coal in 62 years last year, a figure that’s likely to keep falling.”

“A preliminary report Monday from Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet said the state put out 61.4 million tons of coal in 2015, down 20.7 percent from the prior year and the lowest volume since 1954.”

“The coal industry in Kentucky had 8,401 people employed at the end of the year, a 28 percent plunge from the end of 2014, and less than half of the 2008 employment figure.”

It’s Not Just Flint

Washington Post: “In a new paper just out in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters, sociologist Mary Collins of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and two colleagues from the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and the University of Maryland examined what they term “hyper-polluters”: Industrial facilities that, based on EPA data, generate disproportionately large amounts of air pollution. Then, they cross-referenced the location of these facilities with socio-demographic data from the 2000 census.”

The result: “We find striking evidence that extreme emitters are likely impacting EJ [environmental justice] communities even more significantly than typical EJ scholarship might predict.”

“The study adds to a body of evidence showing that the U.S. continues to struggle when it comes to ‘environmental justice,’ a concept advanced by advocates and researchers to describe the reality that poor and minority communities tend to have disproportionate exposures to environmental hazards.”

No Improvement in Doomsday Clock

Eco Watch: “With ‘utter dismay,’ the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Tuesday that the symbolic Doomsday Clock will hold at three minutes to midnight—at the ‘brink’ of man-made apocalypse—because world leaders have failed to take the necessary steps to protect citizens from the grave threats of nuclear war and runaway climate change.”

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“The decision not to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock ‘is not good news,’ it continues, ‘but an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world’s attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries.’”

“Since the clock was first introduced in 1947, the hands have moved 22 times. As Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin, explained, the clock represents a ‘summary view of leading experts deeply engaged in the existential issues of our time.’”

Massive Methane Leaks Could Happen Anywhere

Inside Climate News: “Earlier this week, the massive methane leak spewing from an underground natural gas storage facility in California’s Aliso Canyon passed a symbolic milestone: its duration exceeded BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Now, a growing number of environmentalists, engineers and industry watchdogs say the disaster on the outskirts of Los Angeles could happen elsewhere. There are  more than 400 underground natural gas storage sites spread across 31 states, and, like Aliso Canyon, decades-old equipment is deteriorating at many of them.”

“There is little federal oversight for the storage of trillions of cubic feet of potentially explosive fuel that is also a potent greenhouse gas. More than 100 facilities like Aliso Canyon that are owned and operated by local utility companies are subject to a patchwork of state regulations, which vary significantly from state to state.”

There are more than 400 natural gas storage sites like Aliso Canyon across the country