Energy & Environment

Utilities Fight Back in a War on Solar

Inside Climate News: “As more Americans go solar—and save money on their monthly utility bills—electricity providers are doubling down on ways to protect their revenue.”

“One of the utilities’ most widespread strategies is to impose extra charges on customers who are generating their own energy, and they have had varying degrees of success. At least 11 utilities in nine states have attempted this tactic; five have succeeded.

Where Utilities Charge Solar Customers Extra

“Power providers say these new rates are needed to ensure their customers using solar and other forms of so-called ‘distributed generation’ continue to pay for the basic costs associated with maintaining the grid.”

“Clean energy advocates fiercely object, calling these efforts ‘attacks on solar.’ They argue that the utilities don’t adequately account for solar users’ benefits to the grid: less electricity is lost during transportation across power lines; less money spent by utilities on infrastructure for transmission and distribution; credits the utilities can potentially use to reach renewable energy goals or tax credits.”

“Besides rate changes, other hurdles have also been placed in the path of progress for solar … Some states have rolled back solar tax incentives while others forbid customers from leasing solar panels from third-party providers. This ‘kitchen-sink approach’ is occurring in places where there’s already high solar penetration such as Arizona, as well as in places with few solar users such as Iowa.”

Is Politics at Play in EPA Clean Power Plan?

Michael Grunwald in Politico: “Environmentalists, journalists, administration officials and industry flacks have all hyped the Clean Power Plan as the strongest climate action in history, but the 1560-page text provides plenty of evidence for my case that it’s merely the fourth-strongest climate action of the Obama era. I found a few nuggets that were even weaker than I expected, including a remarkable footnote suggesting that states can do nothing to reduce emissions for nine years and still comply with the rule.”

“Still, I have to admit the overall plan is actually stronger than I expected yesterday, and much stronger than the toothless draft plan I ridiculed in May.”

“What matters are the changes to binding state targets, and those changes are not modest. They also have serious political implications.”

“Check out this excellent chart compiled by my colleague Alex Guillen. North Dakota would have been required to cut emissions just 10.6 percent to comply with the draft rule, the least of any state; it will have to cut emissions 44.9 percent to comply with the final rule, the most of any state except for similarly fossil-fueled Montana and South Dakota. Coal-rich Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana were also among the biggest losers in the revised plan. Meanwhile, the states that are already greening their grid—led by Washington, Oregon and New York—were the biggest winners in the final rule.”

Bloomberg: Coal is Dying of Natural Causes, Not Because of Obama

Michael Bloomberg: “Critics of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan are describing it in apocalyptic terms. But much of what they believe about the plan — that it will destroy the coal industry, kill jobs and raise costs for consumers — is wrong. And it’s important to understand why.”

“The overblown political rhetoric about the plan tends to obscure the market reality that the coal industry has been in steady decline for a decade, partly as a result of the natural gas boom, but mostly because consumers are demanding cleaner air and action on climate change.”

“The primary reason for the public revolt against coal is simple: It causes death, disease and debilitating respiratory problems … At the same time, jobs in the energy industry have multiplied, led by natural gas and renewable sources such as solar and wind. Today, there are nearly two people working in the solar industry for each person employed by the coal industry.”

“What has this meant for consumers’ pocketbooks? Very little. The transition away from coal has been almost undetectable in electricity bills: Residential rates have been essentially flat since 2006.”

“In short, reducing our nation’s coal consumption has meant a healthier country with more jobs — at no extra cost to consumers. Is there anyone who thinks that’s a bad deal?”

Coal Has Already Been In Decline

Washington Post: Notice that coal’s drop doesn’t correlate to growth in wind power or solar. It’s natural gas that’s eating into coal’s market, a function of improvements in hydraulic fracturing (better known as “fracking”). Only a few weeks ago, natural gas passed coal as a source of electricity. When burned, coal produces far, far more carbon dioxide than natural gas. But natural gas itself, which is mostly methane, often leaks from drilling sites — and methane is a far more effective heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, meaning that it’s worse for global warming on a ton-per-ton basis.”

Clinton Refuses to Take a Position on Keystone XL

National Journal: “Hillary Clinton wants to wait until she wins the White House before taking a stand on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.”

“At a town hall in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Clinton responded to a question from the audience asking if she would sign a bill approving the pipeline by saying that she would not ‘second guess’ President Obama’s decision. Should the issue still be alive in January 2017, however, then Clinton will say what her position is.”

“That answer is sure to rile environmentalists, who have made opposition to the controversial pipeline that would ship oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast a political litmus test.”

Chris Cillizza: “Look. When you are running for president — whether or not you served in the current administration — you are going to be asked to take positions on issues that the current president is dealing with. As long as we hold elections that begin two years (or more) before the current president is set to leave office, that’s going to be a thing candidates need to contend with. If Clinton’s position is that she can’t take a public stance on any issue that has some sort of pending business before this White House, then she’s not going to be able to take a position on, well, anything.”

A Closer Examination of Clinton’s Climate Change Proposal

Think Progress: Hillary Clinton “released a fact sheet detailing her plan to fight climate change, and it focuses heavily on promoting clean energy generation across the country. Among other things, the plan includes a promise to install half a billion solar panels by 2021, or the end of Clinton’s first term. That would represent a 700 percent increase from current installations, she said. Clinton also promised that, if elected, enough renewable energy would be produced to power every home in the country within 10 years.”

“The aggressive transition to renewables proposed by Clinton would be achieved partially through extending and strengthening tax breaks those industries, Clinton said.”

A chart provided by the Clinton campaign shows how Clinton's renewable energy goals compare to renewable generation today, and what would be achieved under Obama's Clean Power Plan.

Brad Plumer asks: “Is that plausible? US solar capacity grew 418 percent between 2010 and 2014 (it was starting from a small base). So a 700 percent rise between 2014 and 2020 is at least within the realm of possibility. But it’s undeniably a difficult task. The United States installed about 6.2 gigawatts of solar in 2014. Clinton is essentially vowing to up that rate to around 30 gigawatts per year during her tenure in office.”

Philip Bump adds that “solar has the benefit of being scalable on an individual level, which means that some organizing can help. And studies have found that solar power adoption is contagious. But despite the recent growth … solar is still a tiny part of the overall energy mix. In recent years, far larger growth in renewable power generation has been in wind.”

Ben Feman and Clare Foran in the National Journal point out that “the announcement does not address a suite of controversial topics, including whether Clinton supports the Keystone XL pipeline and whether she would allow oil drilling in Arctic waters.”

While Congress Resists EPA Power Plan, States Find Solutions

Washington Post: As the EPA prepares to roll out the Clean Power Plan, “states will have to find ways to achieve dramatic cuts in carbon pollution over the next 15 years, with reduction quotas topping 50 percent over 2012 levels for some states. But despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.”

“Iowa is expected to meet half of its carbon-reduction goal by next year, just with the wind-power projects already planned or in construction. Nevada is on track to meet 100 percent of its goal without additional effort, thanks to several huge ­solar-energy farms the state’s electricity utilities were already planning to build. From the Great Lakes to the Southwest, electric utilities were projecting huge drops in greenhouse-gas emissions as they switch from burning coal to natural gas — not because of politics or climate change, but because gas is now cheaper.”

“States’ interest in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan has soared in recent weeks as the agency prepares to reveal the final contours of a proposal that was first announced more than a year ago. Administration officials have been meeting privately for weeks to craft a final version that will withstand legal and legislative challenges. One senior administration official said the revised plan will include provisions that will make it easier for most states to comply.”

Carbon Pollution is a Business Risk

Vox: “By next year, a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions will be priced in some way. Businesses that now emit carbon pollution for free (or cheap) will soon see their costs rise … In other words, carbon pollution is a business risk. It’s a bubble that’s going to pop, probably soon.”

A new study by Chris Hope of Cambridge University “attempts to put a number on the carbon risk facing the world’s top 20 fossil fuel companies, the ones most directly vulnerable to a price on carbon. The results suggest that those companies are in a perilous situation.”

Hope “multiplied the carbon emissions embedded in the companies’ products by the ‘social cost of carbon,’ i.e., the net economic, health, and environmental cost of a ton of carbon dioxide. He ran the calculation for data from 2008 to 2012 and took the results as a rough proxy for the level of carbon risk facing each company.”

“‘For all companies and all years, the economic cost to society of their CO2 emissions was greater than their after‐tax profit, with the single exception of Exxon Mobil in 2008.’ In other words, if these fossil fuel companies had to pay the full cost of the carbon emissions produced by their products, none of them would be profitable. It’s even worse for pure coal companies, for which ‘the economic cost to society exceeds total revenue in all years.'”

How to Cut Emissions and Boost the Economy? Look to the Northeast.

RTO Insider: “The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative provides substantial economic benefits and has not raised prices or impaired reliability,” according to a new report by economic consulting firm Analysis Group.

“RGGI added $1.3 billion in economic value, created more than 14,000 new jobs and saved consumers $460 million on electricity and heating bills from 2012 through 2014 … ‘Based on an analysis of years of hard data, RGGI shows that multi-state, market-based carbon control mechanisms work and can deliver positive economic benefits,’ Analysis Group Vice President Paul Hibbard said.”

Figure ES-4 shows the net economic value broken out by the macroeconomic effects of RGGI on consumers and pow er plant owners, as well as effects that flow  from direct spending of RGGI auction revenues.

Figure ES-4 shows the net economic value broken out by the macroeconomic effects of RGGI on consumers and power plant owners, as well as effects that flow from direct spending of RGGI auction revenues.

“The report’s authors said the findings ‘provide valuable lessons for states’ preparing for the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan.”

“RGGI regulates carbon emissions from power plants in the six New England states, New York, Maryland and Delaware. The states have received about $2 billion in auction proceeds over its existence, investing those funds in energy efficiency programs, low-income assistance and clean energy development.”

“The region also cut annual carbon emissions by about a third, from 140 million metric tons in 2008 to 90 million tons in 2014, according to the report. RGGI also reduced dollars used to pay for fossil fuels imported from outside the region by more than $1.27 billion in 2012-2014.”

U.S. Emissions Decline Attributed to Economy, Not Decrease in Coal

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis: “From 2007 to 2013, US carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels decreased by about 11%. This decline was widely attributed to a shift from coal to natural gas in US electricity production. However, a new analysis published in the journal Nature Communications shows that, in fact, the recent economic recession accounts for the majority of the decline.”

“In the United States, coal-powered electricity went from 50% to 37% of the generation mix between 2007 and 2012, with the bulk of it replaced by natural gas, in large part due to new hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and underground mapping technologies. Because this shift occurred at the same time as the reduction in emissions, many commentators linked the two.”

“From 2007 to 2009, when emissions declined the most, the study finds that 83% of the decrease was due to economic factors including consumption and production changes, and just 17% of the decline related to changes in the fuel mix. After 2009, emissions declined by only about 1%, and this was due to a mix of all three factors.”

“The study may indicate that further increase in use of natural gas may not have major benefits for the climate. While natural gas can substitute for coal, research also shows that cheap and abundant natural gas can limit the growth of carbon neutral energy sources including solar, wind, and nuclear.”

New Temperature Records Set For June

The Hill: “Last month was the hottest June on record globally, setting yet another in a string of temperature records, federal scientists said. A Monday report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also concluded that land and water surface temperatures each hit a new record in June, and the first half of 2015 was also the hottest on record.”

“The average temperature across all of the world’s land and ocean surfaces in June was 61.48 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest since federal records began in 1880.”

“June is the third month this year to break its monthly record, after March and May, NOAA said in its report.”

The Debate Over the Social Cost of Carbon

Cass Sunstein in Bloomberg addresses the debate over valuing the social cost of carbon.

“This month, the administration provided a big part of the answer with a new report from its Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon, which is intended to capture in dollar terms the damage from 1 ton of carbon emissions … The central value is $36.”

“The working group argued forcefully that if all countries set policies only on the basis of domestic effects, their emissions reductions would end up being ‘economically inefficient,’ because no country would take the slightest account of the harms that it imposed on others. If the U.S. adopts a global estimate, on the other hand, it ‘can signal its leadership’ in the effort to obtain international cooperation on emissions reductions.”

“Many environmentalists object that the discount rate [of 3%] is unfair to future generations and that a far lower rate is needed to hedge against the risk of ‘climate catastrophes.’ The working group responded that the 3 percent rate is itself pretty low and that the range, with $105 at the high end, reflects the risk of catastrophe.”

“To be sure, the uncertainties involved here are real, and reasonable people can disagree with the working group’s choices and arguments. But it’s also true … that the working group has engaged in a highly technical — rather than political — exercise, building on existing academic research and promoting transparency about its assumptions and limitations.”

Who Are the Nation’s Biggest Carbon Emitters?

Inside Climate News: “Although several of America’s biggest investor-owned utilities have seen a significant drop in their carbon footprints as they have shifted away from coal in recent years, just five––led by Duke Energy, American Electric Power and Southern––are still responsible for spewing out 25 percent of the nation’s power plant carbon emissions.”

“That’s a main takeaway of a comprehensive new report this week by Ceres, Natural Resources Defense Council, Bank of America and four utilities, and carried out by the Massachusetts consulting firm M. J. Bradley & Associates.”

“The report measures the carbon and other air pollution released by the country’s 100 largest power producers, accounting for more than a third of U.S. global warming emissions. It finds that while overall power sector emissions are declining … not all big utilities are rushing forward to go low-carbon.”

Solar Prices Continue to Plunge

Seeking Alpha: “Despite decades of stunningly rapid cost drops, solar PV prices are still falling at a precipitous pace. In a span of one month, solar PV broke its own record twice in terms of electricity prices. The latest record comes in at 3.87 cents/kWh for one of NV Energy’s utility-scale solar plants. This price is well below the average electricity prices generated from coal or natural gas plants, which currently dominate the electricity landscape.”

“The most amazing part about these recent precipitous cost reductions is that they are not at all abnormal in the context of solar PV’s entire history. In fact, solar PV has been reducing costs at this rate for over three decades … Fortunately for the solar industry, there is still no end in sight for these cost-reductions.”

“Cost reductions are actually happening at a pace in which government subsidies will only play a significant role in the near-term. Perhaps no other major energy source has experienced price drops as rapidly as solar PV. In fact, utility-scale solar is now becoming one of the cheaper energy sources on a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) basis even when it is completely unsubsidized.”

“At its core, solar PV is a semiconductor technology. In this way, solar PV cost reductions have much more in common with those found in the integrated-circuit industry than with those found in any other energy industry.”