UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

How Quickly Have US Solar and Wind Grown?

Here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we spend a lot of time focusing on the future—where we need to get to (on climate change, for example), how we do that (clean energy, clean transportation, carbon pricing,…), what happens when we delay (sea-level rise, anyone?). For clean energy in particular, though, it’s great to remember how far we’ve come and how fast we’re moving. A look at how states’ use of wind and solar has grown does that pretty nicely.

My colleague Shannon Wojcik and I have been digging into some of the numbers from the US Energy Information Administration, a great resource for historical data on America’s energy evolution. Specifically, we’ve focused in on two renewable energy technologies that have made particularly impressive progress in recent years: wind turbines and solar panels.

And here’s what the data show: From tough-to-spot levels in 2001 to impossible-to-ignore ones in 2016, those two technologies alone have made quite a splash.

Here are a few notable tick marks on the wind+solar timeline of progress in the states:

2001 – Not a whole lot o’ color. Only 10 states even show up as having non-zero figures for generation from solar plus wind. And only three of those—California, Minnesota, and Iowa—register above 1%.

2008 – The first green shoots are visible. No state has passed the 10% mark, but four have hit at least 5%.

2009 – Here comes the wind boom. Minnesota is just shy of 10%; Iowa soars past that mark.

2012 – The wind+solar 10% Club is nine members strong, and Iowa and South Dakota have become founding members of the 20% Club. Large-scale solar starts making its presence known.

2014 – EIA figures out that small-scale solar, too, is too important a piece to ignore and starts including those data in its reporting.

2016 – The wind and solar numbers—nationally, at 5.5% for wind and 1.4% for solar—add up to some pretty impressive levels in leading states:

  • 16 states are at or above 10% of generation, 6 states are above 20%, and Iowa and South Dakota have passed 30% (with Kansas just inches from that goal line).
  • For Iowa, in fact, wind adds up to 37% of generation. To put that in plainer (maybe) language: More than one out of every three electrons generated in the Hawkeye State is (almost magically) conjured out of thin air (sort of).
  • For California and Hawaii, sunbeams do even more of the work than wind in 2016. The Aloha State gets 6% of its generation from wind and 8% from solar, while the Golden State’s generation is 7% wind- and 13% sun-fueled.
  • Of the 16 members of the 2016 10% Club, half have doubled their solar/wind percentage in just the previous five years.
2017 and beyond

This is the part where it gets even more exciting. Wind finished 2016 with its second strongest quarter ever for new installations, and solar had a big push throughout 2016. Those numbers will show up in the generation percentages for 2017 as a whole.

Installations during 2017 itself are unlikely to be record-setting overall, but they should add solid additional chunks of solar panels and wind turbines that’ll show up in the data next year.

And then? We keep going.

We push to make the dark states darker and to get the pale ones finally in the game. (I’m pretty sure the Sunshine State and its Southeastern brethren could be doing more with solar… or wind.) We make solar, wind, and other renewables count even more by shrinking the denominator with energy efficiency. We make sure we’ve got the right policies for removing barriers to clean energy, letting American businesses create 21st century jobs, and driving energy innovation that’ll take us through the coming decades.

If you need inspiration, just look at the GIF one more time. And imagine what it could look like in 2020 and beyond. Then join us in making your vision a reality.

Big thanks to Shannon Wojcik, a Steven Schneider Sustainable Energy Fellow from Stanford University, for her help in analyzing and presenting this neat data.

Three Myths About Solar Energy and the Eclipse

NASA's guide to where the shadow will be from the Aug. 21 eclipse. Source: NASA

Has anyone told you that the solar eclipse is a sign of trouble, or will cause the power to go out? Fear not. Despite what you might see with your own eyes, the experience is never as bad as the scary stories make it seem. This is as true today as it has been for thousands of years.

There is a long tradition of belief that solar eclipses are a disruption in the established order of things, even a theft. But advocates of renewable energy need not be afraid: a momentary break from the sun—and solar power generation—is not a sign that we need to rely on coal plants for a reliable energy supply. In fact, all people who prefer cleaner air and water should greet the solar eclipse without superstition or fear.

In the modern world, we have science to explain what is happening: our use of solar energy is not the downfall of civilization. Both the National Earth Science Teachers Association and the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC) provide calm and rational discussions of what will happen when the shadow of the moon passes across the United States.

While it is true that more of our electricity comes from solar energy now than in the past, NERC has thought this through and has found that there is no need to fear.

Here are three myth-busters to keep in mind.

Truth: Electricity supplies will not be disrupted by the eclipse

In April, the guardians of electric grid reliability, NERC, issued a report with the summary: A total solar eclipse is a predictable event that impacts solar generation over a short time period. The study showed no reliability impacts to bulk power system operations.

Actual disruptions of the electric power system are typically NOT those where the disturbance is predicted to the precise day and hour, and are most often caused by trouble with the wires, not one fraction of the generator supply.

Truth: We have experience with high levels of solar energy and an eclipse

In March 2015, a solar eclipse shadowed Germany and all of Europe, reducing sunlight 65-80%. (The eclipse was total in the North Sea.) With the advanced notice provided by astronomers, the changes needed in the electricity supply were planned and managed by the same grid operators that routinely make daily schedules and minute-by-minute adjustments for the power supply.

German operators took a detailed approach, using a range of flexible resources to respond to the expected fluctuation in sunshine and solar energy produced. Italian operators took a simpler approach, and directed 30% of solar producers to take an extended morning break from producing. In the UK, the weather was grey and cloudy, making for low levels of solar production in the hours around the eclipse.

Truth: Solar eclipses are not as rare as people think

Aztec calendar with sun god Tonatuih at center.
Credit: Anthony Stanley

It may seem this is a rare event when considering only one’s own point of view, or the history of a single place. That is, in my lifetime where I live, Boston, there has never been a total eclipse. (The last one seen in Boston was in 1959.)  The last total eclipse seen in Los Angeles was in 1724. But there is a total solar eclipse on earth roughly every 2 years. Check out this website for the 2015 and 2016 total eclipses you missed, as well as the next ones (July 2, 2019 and December 14, 2020), both of which will reach southern Argentina and Chile.

People pay attention to the sun for good reason. Among the natural systems that provide clean air, fresh water and a livable climate, the sun is critically important. It is no coincidence that religions describe over 100 gods connected with the sun, and that at the dawn of the modern era, astronomers describing the solar system were killed as heretics by defenders of church orthodoxy.

Today, we can resist the fear that “the sun won’t shine” used to attack renewable energy. When the old guard points to the sun overhead and tells you the eclipse means there will punishment for those who dare to think new thoughts, be confident. The comings and goings of the sun are now predictable. The power supply is always prepared for swings of more sudden losses than this—those that come from man-made, not natural, plant failures.


¿Listos para el eclipse solar? Nuestro sistema eléctrico sí lo está.

Crédito: NASA (https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/sun_earth_eclipse.jpg)

Este 21 de agosto cientos de millones de personas en el continente americano tendrán la oportunidad de ser testigos de un evento de gran escala: un eclipse solar, y un eclipse total para muchos. Es importante alistarnos para poder disfrutar bien del espectáculo. Y también es importante que nuestro sistema eléctrico esté listo para funcionar un tiempo sin sol. El sistema eléctrico, por lo menos, ya está listo para recibir este evento. (¡Y haré lo posible por alistarme con tiempo yo también!)

¿Por qué tanta emoción?

Un eclipse ocurre cuando la luna pasa entre la Tierra y el sol dejando parte de la Tierra en sombra. Un eclipse total quiere decir que, en ciertas partes, el sol desaparece por completo. La “Zona de Totalidad” es el área donde la sombra de la luna cubre todo el sol desde el punto donde se esté mirando.

Crédito: NASA

En el caso del eclipse que tendremos este mes de agosto, por primera vez en 99 años el eclipse será total en una línea de costa a costa en los Estados Unidos, desde Oregón hasta Carolina del Sur.  

Los que estén fuera de la Zona de Totalidad pero todavía en un rango de cercanía podrán ver un eclipse parcial, con el sol parcialmente cubierto por la luna. Para quienes estén en la Zona de Totalidad, el sol desaparecerá por completo por un par de minutos.

Crédito: NASA

La NASA dice que un eclipse solar es “uno de los espectáculos más grandiosos de la naturaleza”. Y este eclipse va a ser especialmente impresionante para el continente ya que será visible desde Brasil y Perú en el sur hasta casi el Polo Norte.

¿Cómo alistarse?

Prepararse para ver el eclipse sí requiere atención. Lo más importante, si uno quiere ver directamente al sobrepaso lunar, es conseguir gafas especiales certificadas. Es muy importante no mirar al sol directamente sin protección durante el eclipse.

La única excepción es para los que se encuentren en la Zona de Totalidad, y aún en ese caso solamente podrán mirarlo sin protección durante los dos minutos de cobertura completa. Aún con el 99 por ciento del sol cubierto por la luna, lo que resta basta para dañar los ojos con facilidad.

Afortunadamente, las gafas especiales se consiguen a bajo costo. No sirven gafas de sol tradicionales debido al brillo que tendrá el sol, pero unas gafas baratas de papel ($2) con filtros especiales para el eclipse sirven. Solo hay que asegurarse que cumplan con las especificaciones para protección adecuada. Según la NASA:

…La única forma segura de mirar al Sol directamente durante un eclipse parcial es usando filtros de propósito especial, como “lentes de eclipse”… o con un visor solar de mano.

Las cámaras sin filtros especiales tampoco deben usarse para ver el eclipse. Dice la NASA que no se debe mirar al sol “aunque esté parcialmente cubierto, a través de una cámara, telescopio, binoculares, u otro dispositivo óptico sin filtro.”

Y si uno realmente quiere gozar del eclipse sin ningún costo, por suerte existe la opción de usar una caja de zapatos.

¿Y cómo se mantendrán las luces prendidas?

Alistándonos… para cuando regrese el sol. (Crédito: John Rogers)

Con las anteriores indicaciones podemos alistarnos para ver el eclipse. Pero, ¿qué pasará con nuestro sistema eléctrico a nivel regional y nacional, es decir, con las redes que cruzan todo el país conectando fuentes de electricidad con nosotros los consumidores (nuestras casas, instituciones y empresas)? ¿Estaremos listos?

El asunto es que ahora, como nunca antes, contamos con energía solar para generar electricidad. La electricidad generada con energía solar viene principalmente de paneles fotovoltaicos instalados en los techos de nuestros hogares y oficinas, o en campos y desiertos.

La última vez que ocurrió un eclipse total en partes del área continental de los EEUU, en 1979, la energía solar había escasamente penetrado. Desde entonces, esa fuente de electricidad ha llegado a ser un componente importante de la mezcla eléctrica en diferentes partes de nuestro país. Los últimos años han sido tremendos para el crecimiento de la energía solar, tanto en los Estados Unidos como en muchas otras partes del continente americano y globalmente.

Ese crecimiento, junto con los avances que hemos logrado en varias formas de energía limpia, ha ayudado a reducir la contaminación proveniente de plantas termoeléctricas a carbón y otros combustibles fósiles. También ha servido la energía limpia para crear empleos en muchas partes del país.

Sin embargo, el avance de la energía solar podría presentar un desafío para los encargados de mantener las luces prendidas a toda hora. Sin sol, no hay energía solar. Y ese hecho podría tener a algunos preocupados.

Pero la realidad es mucho más… pues, luminosa.

El caso de California

California es un buen ejemplo. Como explica mi compañera Laura Wisland, con sede en ese estado, California es líder en el uso de energía solar:

California actualmente recibe más de 8% de su electricidad de plantas fotovoltaicas a gran escala y de plantas térmicas solares. El estado también tiene más de 5 gigavatios en sistemas fotovoltaicos pequeños instalados en techos, suministrando aproximadamente 2% de la demanda eléctrica, y ese número está creciendo rápidamente.

Debido a esos niveles de uso de energía solar, los encargados de la red eléctrica de California, el CAISO, sí han estado prestando atención al eclipse.

¿Se preocupan, entonces? Nop!

Como explica Laura:

Los operadores de redes rutinariamente planifican para eventos en que las fuentes principales de energía o líneas de transmisión se pierden inesperadamente debido a una tormenta o un fallo del equipo. El eclipse es una reducción rara y significativa en la producción de energía solar, pero porque es predecible no es como un fallo o apagón inesperado.

Los operadores de la red tendrán un rango de opciones a la mano mientras que el sol toma unas vacaciones breves…

[Puede ver aquí para más información sobre cómo funciona la red eléctrica.]

En el caso de California, esas opciones incluyen energía hidroeléctrica, gracias a un invierno bastante lluvioso, y gas natural.

Mejor que tener que prender las plantas de gas, sin embargo, es reducir el uso de electricidad. El CAISO ha lanzado una campaña pidiendo que los californianos bajen su consumo de energía durante las pocas horas del eclipse:

Mientras nuestras compañías de luz y el operador de la red tienen todas las herramientas necesarias para matener la red funcionando durante el eclipse, ¿qué pasaría si millones de californianos se unieran para permitir que nuestro sol, que trabaja tan arduamente, tome un descanso, en lugar de tener que depender de caras e ineficientes plantas de gas natural de reserva …

La campaña “Aporta tu contribución por el sol” (Do your thing for the sun) es un esfuerzo para involucrar a los californianos y demostrar que cuando nos unimos para hacer algo pequeño para reducir el consumo de energía, podemos tener un gran impacto en nuestro medio ambiente.

Pues los operadores de la red de California están listos, así como operadores en otras regiones del país.

Próximos pasos

Si no se encuentra directamente en el camino de eclipse, en la Zona de Totalidad, o en un buen rango de cercanía a esta, al llegar la hora del eclipse el 21 de agosto, no se preocupe. La NASA estará transmitiendo en vivo los acontecimientos por internet.

Y si sí logra estar en un buen lugar a la hora indicada, tome las debidas precauciones y aproveche de este tremendo evento. Como dice la NASA:

Al seguir estas simples reglas, usted puede disfrutar con seguridad y ser recompensado con memorias que le durarán [toda la] vida.

Por mi parte, voy a ir a comprar las gafas para el eclipse para mí y para mi familia.

Y mientras tanto, no nos preocupemos por las luces: ¡Todo está bajo control!

¿Listos? https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/

Gracias a mi compañera Paula García, con quien compartimos un amor por la energía solar, por su ayuda con este post.


The Solar Eclipse and Our Electricity Supply: Why We’ve Got This Covered

Photo: Takeshi Kuboki/CC BY (Flickr)

The Great American Eclipse, as many are calling it, is a big deal for both committed and casual star watchers alike. On August 21, starting at approximately 10:15 a.m. Pacific time, the moon will move in front of the sun to completely block its rays, leaving a swath of people across the United States in eerie and fantastic darkness for about two minutes. Totality!

A total solar eclipse happens about every 18 months, but most of the time the moon’s shadow appears in remote places where very few are around to witness the spectacle. The coming August eclipse will be the first in the nation’s history to completely occur over the continental United States.

Source: LA Times

Given that the US, and especially states like California, are using more and more solar power to meet electricity needs, the prospect of a temporary moon shadow has caught the attention of electricity grid operators as well.

California currently receives more than 8% of its electricity from large-scale photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal plants. The state also has more than 5 GW of small-scale PV (rooftop solar) installed—meeting approximately 2% of electricity demand—and that number is growing rapidly. So, it’s not surprising that the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) is looking into the effects the eclipse will have on generation that day.

CAISO expects generation from large-scale solar plants to start dropping around 9 a.m. and be reduced by about 64% at the height of the eclipse (assuming it’s a clear morning and potential solar generation is not already reduced by cloud cover). Output from rooftop solar systems will also drop appreciably. Once the eclipse is over, it will take about 90 minutes for solar generation to return to its pre-eclipse level.

Source: CAISO

Why the eclipse is not a problem for the grid

So, is losing all that solar energy during the eclipse a big deal for the grid? Turns out, no. Grid operators routinely plan for events where major power sources or transmission lines are lost unexpectedly because of a storm or equipment failure. The eclipse is a rare, significant reduction in solar power, but because it is predictable it is not like an unexpected failure or shut down.

Grid operators will have a range of options at hand while the sun takes a brief vacation. Since California had a wet winter, we can ramp hydropower up and down as needed. CAISO can also use natural gas generation to provide additional grid flexibility, though that fossil power would emit greenhouse gas emissions.

However, many clean energy nerds, including me, are hoping that we can back-fill the lost solar power by harnessing the power of our own energy flexibility and using less power during the 2-hour eclipse window. The California Public Utilities Commission is asking all Californians to pledge to use slightly less electricity during the eclipse to reduce the need to rely more on fossil fuels like natural gas.

From the caleclipse.org website:

While our utilities and grid operator have all the tools necessary to manage the grid during the eclipse, what if millions of Californians stepped in to allow our hard working sun to take a break, rather than relying on expensive and inefficient natural gas peaking power plants.

The ‘Do Your Thing for the Sun’ campaign is an effort to engage Californians and demonstrate that when we come together to do one small thing to reduce energy usage, we can have a major impact on our environment.”

Take the pledge here.

CAISO and other grid operators around the country have been planning for the eclipse for months, so rest easy and enjoy the totality. (That is, of course, unless you happen to be on a solar-powered train with no brakes, in which case you should plan accordingly.)

Photo: Takeshi Kuboki/CC BY (Flickr) LA Times

Coal-Fired Power Producers Announce a New Game Plan: Wind, Wind, Wind

Photo: DOE

Quick quiz: What does the nation’s top emitter of power sector carbon dioxide have in common with the largest-ever wind project in the US?

More than just superlatives, if American Electric Power (AEP) gets its way.

Last week, AEP—one of the largest power producers in the US, serving 5.4 million customers across 11 states with a generation portfolio that has long been heavily reliant on coal—announced plans to purchase Wind Catcher, a 2,000 megawatt (MW) wind farm under construction in the Oklahoma panhandle.

But as incredible as the AEP news was—2,000 MW! 800 turbines! Enough electricity to power nearly a million homes each year!—it was also incredibly just one of several recent blockbuster announcements by major power producers.

This clean energy momentum thing? It’s happening.

Out with the coal, in with the new

For a company with a power portfolio still dominated by coal, AEP’s record-breaking wind announcement made for quite a splash. But the biggest headline of all in this $4.5 billion pivot to a cleaner energy profile? The project isn’t expected to raise customer rates at all. In fact, it’s projected to save customers $7 billion over the course of 25 years.

Hard to argue with that.

Nor did Wall Street try to argue: In the aftermath of the announcement, AEP’s shares went up, up, up.

And this isn’t the first sign of a shift in AEP-land. Just a few months earlier, Appalachian Power, an AEP subsidiary serving 1 million customers in Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, signaled similar future changes to its generation mix: hot on clean, cold on coal.

In an interview with the West Virginia Gazette, the company’s president, Chris Beam, reiterated his response to West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s desire to see the utility burn more coal: “We’re not going to build any more coal plants. That’s not going to happen.”

But clean energy? That’s where he sees Appalachian Power’s future. Beam explained that major potential electricity customers (like an Amazon or a Google sitinf a new data center) increasingly have requirements for being able to source clean energy to power their operations. Beam thus reasoned:

“At the end of the day, West Virginia may not require us to be clean, but our customers are. So if we want to bring in those jobs, […] they have requirements now, and we have to be mindful of what our customers want.”

This July, Appalachian Power followed through, announcing plans to acquire two new wind projects in Ohio and West Virginia.

The customer is always right, and corporate entities are increasingly interested in clean energy to power their business operations. Credit: Renewable Energy Choice.

And AEP is not alone.

Xcel Energy, another of the country’s largest coal-fired power producers, has also been making the leap from coal to wind. Even after the Trump administration’s handcuffing of the Clean Power Plan, Xcel CEO Benjamin Fowke declared, “I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment. And if I’m not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any.”

Xcel’s appetite for wind, on the other hand? It’s starting to seem insatiable.

Already sourcing nearly 20 percent of its power from wind, in March the company proposed a sprawling 7-state, 11-wind farm initiative to bring 3,380 MW of new generation onto its system by 2021—upping its share of wind to nearly 35 percent of its energy portfolio. Said Fowke:

“We’re investing big in wind because of the tremendous economic value it brings to our customers. With wind energy at historic low prices, we can secure savings that will benefit customers now and for decades to come.”

And indeed, savings is what they expect to see. For the 1,230 MW proposed in Texas and New Mexico, Xcel projects savings of $2.8 billion over 30 years; for the 1,550 MW in the Upper Midwest, savings of more than $4 billion; and for the 600 MW in Colorado, savings of $1.1 billion.

Across the board: real wind, real savings, real progress.

Wind for today, wind for the future

Here’s a critical point about the above efforts. For climate change, when we look to the future, to the near-term, to now, it’s painfully clear that utilities cannot simply supplement their portfolios with wind and other renewable resources—they need to be simultaneously dialing back their use of fossil fuels, and fast.

That’s why it is such a big deal to see moves like those by AEP and Xcel, which highlight that the calculus for utilities is changing; renewable energy is not an add-on, but an increasingly central, critical, and non-negotiable part of the story. And thus we expect that this is just the start of utilities standing up to make the leap from coal to a new goal: wind, wind, wind.

Department of Energy Credit: Renewable Choice Energy

Three Renewable Energy Numbers to Impress Your Friends With: 7, 43, 50

A whole new perspective. (Credit: UCS)

Next time you’re talking with a friend about the exciting things happening in our electricity sector (aren’t you always?), here are three easy numbers for remembering how we’re doing: 7, 43, and 50.  That’s: wind energy’s progress, solar energy’s growth, and the number of states making it happen.

Wind’s growth = 7

Renewables on the Rise, a new report from the Environment America Research & Policy Center and the Frontier Group, details some of the progress we’ve made in this country over the last decade, and includes handy accompanying graphics. Here’s a glimpse of what it all looks like.

Credit: Environment America/Frontier Group

Growth in renewable energy in recent years has meant we produced almost seven times as much wind-powered electricity in the US in 2016 as we did in 2007. And wind’s share of our national electricity generation increased from 0.8% to 5.5%.

All told, the tens of thousands of wind turbines dotting the landscape generate enough to cover the electricity needs of some 25 million typical American homes.

The wind action is taking place from coast to coast and particularly in plenty of places in between, from coal-has-been-king-but-here-comes-wind Wyoming to where cod rule (think offshore wind).

And, increasingly, wind is an energy option that decision makers ignore (or get wrong) at their peril.

Solar’s growth = 43

Credit: Environment America/Frontier Group

Recent gains have in some ways been even more impressive for solar. The baseline is maybe a little tough to pin down (and our own calculations suggest an even greater growth), but the new report says that we got 43 times as much electricity from solar in 2016 as in 2007.

That steep upward trajectory has taken solar from a minuscule 0.03% of US electricity generation to 1.4%. Still small, but definitely noticeable—and definitely worthy of notice, in terms of solar past and future. As my colleague Julie McNamara points out in that post, our 19.5 billion kilowatt-hours of solar generation in 2016 would have been enough to cover residential electricity needs in half the states.

And solar, like wind, isn’t resting on its laurels. Just last year, the US industry installed enough new solar capacity to provide 2 million homes’ worth of electricity.

States involved = 50

So where’s all this progress coming from? Though some are still finding their way, every state has some generation from solar and wind, and some have taken those technologies to pretty impressive heights.

For Texas, it (mostly wind) added up last year to 59 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—enough to keep 4 billion light bulbs burning every evening of the year. In North Dakota, wind generation added up to the equivalent of 45% of the state’s electricity consumption; in Iowa, 42%. For California and Hawaii, solar, with help from wind, produced enough to have accounted for one out of every six kilowatt-hour consumed.

Sure, some states really need to get in on the action in a much bigger way (the details in the back of the new report help highlight leaders and… others). And they’d benefit in doing that by reaping all that renewables have to offer.

But even states without much yet on the generation side are contributing—and benefiting—in other ways, through manufacturing, for example, of components for solar or wind installations (see map). And that progress has meant jobs—in most cases, more solar and wind jobs than coal has to offer.

Our 50 united states are far from done. Every one of them has a lot more potential in solar, wind, and other renewables. Taking it the next step, and beyond, will be crucial.

But for a moment, acknowledging and celebrating clean energy progress is really important. For that, for the near term, just remember 7, 43, and 50.

Credit: American Wind Energy Association


Energy Department Scientists Barred From Attending Nuclear Power Conference

Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was one of 30 U.S.-based scientists scheduled to speak at the quadrennial International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference on fast breeder nuclear reactors in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in late June. Lyman did not attend the previous two conferences, in Kyoto in 2009 and Paris in 2013, and was looking forward to rubbing shoulders with hundreds of scientists from around the world, including more than two dozen from U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratories.

Shortly after he arrived, however, Lyman learned that the 27 DOE lab scientists listed in the conference program were no-shows. One session featuring a panel of four DOE lab scientists talking about code development was cancelled outright, Lyman said, while a handful of other panel discussions, originally comprised of five to six speakers, soldiered on without U.S. participation. “On the first day, the DOE attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow gave a 20-minute talk about the U.S. fast reactor program and refused to take questions,” he said. “That was it for the Energy Department.” Three DOE scientists did attend the conference, according to the DOE, but none of them were part of the official program.

Sandra Bogetic, a University of California, Berkeley, doctoral student who presented a research poster at the conference, also couldn’t help but notice that the DOE scientists were missing. Bogetic’s poster session was slated to include presentations by 122 scientists from 17 countries, including a dozen scientists from DOE labs. The DOE scientists were nowhere to be found, and another five DOE scientists missed a second poster session the following day.

“Everyone was in shock that they didn’t show up,” Bogetic said. “It’s the most important conference for fast reactors, and it was a lost opportunity for U.S. scientists to share their work at a conference that takes place only every four years.”

Mum’s the word

Scientists planning to speak or present posters at the IAEA conference were asked to hand in their papers to conference organizers last December, five months before the event. The deadline was then extended into January, and at that point, the 27 DOE lab scientists were all on board to participate.

In early April, however, the DOE scientists received an email from Sal Golub, associate deputy assistant secretary for nuclear technology research and development at the DOE, indirectly telling them that the agency was not going to let them go.

“Yesterday,” Golub wrote, “we informally notified the IAEA conference organizers of the following: Representatives from the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy and DOE/NE contractors at the National Labs are currently unable to travel to Russia, which means they will not be able to attend the IAEA’s Fast Reactor conference in June.” He also assured the scientists that the DOE was “working with the organizers to adjust the program to reflect our absence,” which obviously didn’t happen.

Golub gave no reason why DOE scientists were “unable” to travel to Russia, and, when I asked him for an explanation, he referred me to the DOE public relations office. Spokespeople at department headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois — where 15 of the 27 missing DOE scientists are based — were equally unhelpful.

A DOE spokesperson in Washington, who declined to be identified, responded in an email: “We greatly value cooperation with the IAEA and plan to continue to do so whenever we can. The Department of Energy and the [U.S.] Embassy were represented at the event.”

Christopher Kramer, Argonne’s media relations manager, also avoided answering my question. “I can tell you that Argonne greatly values its relationship with the IAEA and plans to continue cooperation whenever we can,” he said in an email. “… From what I understand, Argonne did have two people in attendance at the conference in question.”

I emailed both PR officers back and again asked why the scientists weren’t at the conference. No response.

Finally, I called a random sample of the grounded scientists. It was another dead end.

“I wasn’t able to attend,” one said tersely. “I won’t talk about it.” Click. “We were told not to deal with outside media or organizations,” said another. Click. Two others were slightly more talkative, but neither could clear up the mystery. “I know very little about the decision” to cancel the trip, said one of the scheduled panelists. “It was above my pay grade. I basically followed orders from management.” The other scientist, a would-be poster session participant, was clearly perturbed. “The only reason I know is the [DOE] Office of Nuclear Energy wouldn’t let people go,” he said. “They didn’t give us a reason. I don’t know what their rationale is. Other U.S. government agencies are sending their people to Russia.”

Trump’s war on science or a new cold war?

So what’s the story behind the case of the missing DOE scientists?

It could come down to money. It’s certainly no secret that the Trump administration wants to slash DOE science spending. Just last month, for instance, the department closed its Office of International Climate and Technology, eliminating 11 staff positions. The office, which was established in 2010, provided technical advice to other countries on ways to reduce carbon emissions. The administration’s proposed federal budget, meanwhile, would cut the annual budget of the DOE Office of Science — the nation’s largest funder of the physical sciences — by 17 percent to $4.47 billion, its lowest level since 2008, not adjusting for inflation. Outlays for nuclear energy research would drop 28 percent. Even more drastic, the budget for the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would plunge nearly 70 percent.

DOE spokespeople, however, didn’t cite financial constraints as a reason, and the cost of sending the scientists to Russia was presumably built into the fiscal year 2017 budget, which predated the Trump administration. In any case, Bogetic, the Berkeley grad student, told me that one of the scientists who wasn’t allowed to attend the conference asked the DOE if he could pay his own way. The answer was no.

It’s also tempting to chalk it up to the Trump administration’s war on science. Besides barring federal scientists from attending conferences, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the administration also has been preventing scientists from speaking publicly, dismissing key scientific advisors, denying public access to taxpayer-funded information, and ignoring scientific evidence to justify rolling back public health, environmental and workplace safeguards. No doubt, the administration’s hostility toward federal scientists may have been a factor.

The most likely explanation, however, is where the conference took place — Russia — and what it was about — nuclear energy.

U.S.-Russian relations, notwithstanding President Trump’s bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have been deteriorating for quite some time. The White House is under investigation for possibly colluding with Moscow to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Congress just passed tougher sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, annexing Crimea, and supporting eastern Ukraine separatists.

Nuclear-related relations between the United States and Russia are also frayed. Last October, in response to U.S. sanctions, Putin suspended a U.S.-Russian agreement to dispose of excess weapons grade plutonium; an agreement to cooperate with the United States on nuclear energy-related research; and a pact between the DOE and Rosatom — the Russian state atomic energy corporation — to conduct feasibility studies on converting six Russian research reactors to safer, low-enriched uranium.

Putin’s actions didn’t get much media attention, but they should have. Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists last December, Siegfried Hecker, former director of the DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, warned that “the Kremlin’s systematic termination of nuclear cooperation with the United States … sets the clock back, putting both countries at enormous risk and endangering global stability.”

Rosatom was the co-host of the June IAEA conference, which was held in Yekaterinburg mainly because the world’s largest operating fast reactor is only 35 miles away, at the Beloyarsk nuclear power plant. Conference participants were treated to a tour of the 880-megawatt BN-800 reactor, which began generating power last year, as well as its smaller predecessor, the BN-600, which has been running since 1980. There are only four other fast reactors currently in operation worldwide: one in China, two in India, and another one in Russia.

The IAEA conference, however, was not Russo-centric. Scientists from more than two dozen countries, including China, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea and Sweden, participated. And despite Russia’s suspension of nuclear cooperation with the United States, U.S. scientists were welcome.

“Scientists shouldn’t be limited by political problems,” said Bogetic. “We are scientists. We need to communicate.”

Lyman, the UCS physicist who participated in a panel discussion at the conference, agrees. “With so many communication channels between the U.S. and Russia now cut off, it’s essential to preserve scientific cooperation in areas where there is common ground between the two countries,” he said. “Preventing DOE scientists from attending the IAEA conference — for whatever reason — was shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating.”

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.

Climate and Energy in the Health Care Sector: An Interview with Bill Ravanesi

Health care has been in the headlines a whole lot lately, and it’s never far from our minds or wallets. It’s never far from our lungs or hearts, either—or, it turns out, our energy choices. How we make electricity, and what happens to our climate, have big implications for human health.

Our health care sector isn’t taking those connections lightly. Here’s what one expert had to say about how Massachusetts institutions are leading the way on connecting the dots.

Health care, as you might agree, is a big deal. It’s a $3.2 trillion piece of our economy, 18% of GDP. Asthma affects some 25 million US residents. More than 100 million people live in US counties that earn an “F” on ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. Meanwhile, power generation is a major source of air pollution and heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, and climate change has serious health implications of its own.

All that means that the health care sector can be a powerful source of positive momentum when it focuses on climate and energy issues.

Bill Ravanesi is the senior director of the health care, green building, and energy program of Health Care Without Harm. HCWH is a Massachusetts-founded organization that campaigns for environmentally responsible health care globally, a coalition of 450 health-related organizations from around the world “working to transform the health care sector, without compromising patient safety or care, to be more ecologically sustainable.” (More on Bill and HCWH below.)

Energy, resilience, and health

Bill is passionate about his work and excited about the progress being made. I had a chance to talk with him recently about climate, energy, and health care institutions, and in particular what’s going on at the intersection of those subjects in Massachusetts, a state known for its leadership in all three.

I asked Bill for his take on why it made sense for health care organizations to be thinking about climate and energy, and investing in solutions.

Well, they want to be anchoring community health and resilience. They feel very strongly that they’re part of their community, their neighborhood, and that they have to be there under all circumstances—24/7. I can tell you, many of these engineers see the patients as their patients. I’m not talking about the doctors. The engineers see people in beds in hospitals as their patients and work from that model… And they certainly recognized what happened to patients in both [Hurricane] Katrina, and Superstorm Sandy!

Some health care institutions in Boston have already taken a leadership position on being resilient—for what we’re going to see with sea-level rise, extreme heat, and precipitation in this area from climate change.

So that supports the idea of making the facilities resilient, using clean and efficient energy options to make sure energy is there when its needed, in the face of climate impacts like sea-level rise, including places like Boston. What about deals for renewable energy, either on their own facilities, or elsewhere, sometimes from several states away?

It makes sense on two counts to them. It is saving them money… and that’s carved out for the next twenty years not to go up. So, it makes sense economically to be doing this… It’s a win-win financially for them.

And then of course, health is part of their mission, and they see climate and health as a unit. And with renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gases, you’re reducing the pollution, you’re reducing the number of asthma cases coming into the hospitals, you’re reducing all kinds of respiratory illnesses, etc. In fact, it crosses a large arc of what happens with adverse health effects, from the heart to the neurological, to you-name-it. It’s a whole series of things here, so they’re being protective of their community.

You can’t look at energy costs or energy investments without thinking about the implications for human health, says Bill, for the near or long term:

In the state of Massachusetts, households spend six times more per household on health care than they do on energy. So, if you see the [Massachusetts] Department of Public Utilities or utilities, or whomever else is controlling, moving pieces around, like bringing in a new natural gas pipeline… you’re going to be shifting costs from energy into health care because we have to take care of the individuals who are going to be breathing in the pollution, the adverse health effects from fossil fuel development.

A 1.25 megawatt solar array on Partners Healthcare’s office complex in Somerville, Massachusetts, part of Partners’s 9 megawatts of installed solar capacity. The system generates the equivalent of 15% of the complex’s electricity use (Credit: Partners Healthcare).

Making strides, building momentum

So what’s actually happening? Plenty, says Bill, as he easily rattles off information about recent moves by some of the Boston area’s top health care facilities to put energy efficiency, renewable energy development, and carbon emission reductions front and center:

The Boston Medical Center, this past December, closed a deal to buy a significant piece of the output from a 60 megawatt solar field in North Carolina… This purchase will neutralize 100% of [the carbon emissions from] electricity consumption for BMC, putting them on target to be carbon neutral by the end of 2018.

Partners Healthcare has just done another deal for output from a 29 megawatt wind farm just over the Massachusetts line in New Hampshire…

Partners is also putting PV [solar photovoltaics] on most of their facilities. They have 13 or 14 different facilities around the state, from Cape Cod all the way into Boston—Mass General, Brigham and Women’s, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospitals. Partners’s goal is to be 100% renewable energy-powered for their entire healthcare system by 2025.

And resilience, from flooding, for instance, is an important piece of the energy work. Bill uses Partners as an example:

They have moved all of their critical electrical facilities out of the basements, up to higher elevations (out of harm’s way for flooding). So, if you look at the Spaulding Rehab, that’s running on a cogen unit [combined-heat-and-power system], when the grid goes down, they can still be operating. They put the cogen unit on the eighth floor; it’s 110 feet above sea level. I don’t think we’ll ever see a surge that high… Spaulding is considered one of the most resilient hospital buildings in the United States.

Vision for the long haul

These health care institutions, Bill says, have the longer-term perspective that the challenge of climate change calls for, and that is in keeping with Massachusetts’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, which lays out 2020 and 2050 goals for cutting state carbon emissions:

So, some of the leading facilities in Boston have this kind of vision going forward that they’re not just looking at the year 2020, as to what they can do. They’re looking at the year 2050. They’ve charted this out—what they need to do and when they need to do it to meet the Global Warming Solutions Act’s mandated target. And of course they’re going to be way ahead on the 2020 goal of 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Where does this kind of leadership in health care/climate/energy go from here? The sky is the limit, says Bill—or the globe.

We see Boston as the incubator. We take whatever the initiatives are—we try to run them here. And if they’re successful here, we run them nationally. If they’re successful nationally, we run them globally. So, it’s a great paradigm.

Of course this work doesn’t happen in isolation; my HCWH colleague Paul Lipke is a partner in these accomplishments. And I want to acknowledge Mariella Puerto of the Barr foundation for her belief in and support for this work.

A recent analysis produced by HCWH for Boston’s Green Ribbon Commission documents a lot of successes already achieved in the local health care sector in terms of clean energy and resilience. The many institutions that Bill and his colleagues collaborate with, it suggests, are blazing a strong trail.

The health care industry has the power to appreciably move the needle on climate and energy progress. Leaders in the sector are harnessing that power, to the benefit of their communities and the world as a whole.

More on Bill Ravanesi: Bill has been with HCWH since 1997, and has received numerous awards, including the CleanMed Environmental Health Hero Award in recognition of his role in deepening our understanding of the critical links between health and the environment, and the USEPA’s Environmental Merit Award for outstanding efforts in preserving New England’s environment. Bill has a master’s degree in environmental health from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and produced the national traveling exhibition and monograph Breath Taken: The Landscape & Biography of Asbestos.

More on Health Care Without Harm: HCWH’s three main goals for the next five years, says Bill, are to protect public health from the effects of climate change by reducing health care’s carbon footprint and accelerating “climate resilient” health systems; to transform the supply chain by establishing a core set of procurement criteria for low-carbon, zero-waste, and toxic-free products; and to activate healthcare’s leadership in society as a messenger for environmental health and climate change.

Seize the Day: RGGI Leadership More Important Than Ever

A pioneering program to reduce power plant emissions in the Northeast is poised to enter a new phase. Here’s why the nine states of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative need to make as bold a step forward as possible—and how they can make it happen.

The RGGI states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont—were right to lead the nation in addressing carbon pollution from power plants when they launched the program in 2009. And they were right to strengthen RGGI when they conducted the first program review in 2012.

RGGI has yielded clear results, as shown in analyses by the program itself and outside analyses.

Now the states are nearing the finish line of the second RGGI program review. And the need for stronger action by this important collection of states is even clearer.

Why it’s important

This is a time of incredible momentum in clean energy, with cities, states, utilities, companies, individuals, and more embracing so much of what’s possible. Technologies, policies, and actions are leading us to new heights on energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean cars.

This is also a time of incredible need. With the Trump administration abdicating on climate leadership in pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, and working to kill the first-ever federal regulations on power plant pollution, the Clean Power Plan, regional leadership on climate and energy is more important than ever.

Technologies mean RGGI states can make much more progress, and quickly. (Credit: J. Rogers)

What RGGI state leaders must do

So this program review represents an incredible opportunity to strengthen RGGI. The Union of Concerned Scientists and its allies are calling for strengthening in several key areas:

A stronger target – RGGI’s defining characteristic is its declining regional cap on power plant carbon emissions. The region has a history of defining the cap much higher than circumstances—emissions and trajectories—warrant. And the emissions targets as currently set will not get the states the long-term emissions reductions that many have set via legislation, and that many of the region’s governors have committed to collectively.

In a recent letter to the RGGI governors, our coalition called on them to have the cap levels:

…reflect actual emissions levels and trends at its start, including emissions reductions that have outpaced earlier projections, and align with state and regional [greenhouse gas] targets in 2030.

What that means is something considerably stronger than the 2.5% annual tightening of the cap that has been in place since the program’s launch—at least 3.5% seems warranted—and an extension of the cap through at least 2030. The RGGI states, their utilities, innovators, and customers have proven their ability to cut emissions cost-effectively, and the program review is a chance to harness the power of that collective action.

Stronger complementary components – The program review is also an important chance for the RGGI states to strengthen other pieces of the program to help it live up to its true potential. That includes dealing with the surplus of emission allowances now in the hands of power plant owners; making sure that the protection against too-high prices is truly used for emergencies, not little price bumps; taking advantage of low allowance prices to move ahead more quickly; and making sure allowance prices don’t go too low. (See here for more details about each of these opportunities.)

Potential expansion – The successful RGGI framework could be expanded to other states (New Jersey, you’re welcome back anytime), or to other sectors such as transportation.

Stronger commitment to environmental justice – Last, but far from least, the program review offers an important opportunity not just to strengthen the program, but to ensure that RGGI’s benefits reach those who need them most—through consultation and through smart allocation of allowance revenues, for example. As our coalition letter says:

…the RGGI states must ensure that communities on the frontlines of the impacts of pollution and climate change have a say in how RGGI is implemented and how funds are distributed to ensure broad and equal opportunities to experience RGGI benefits. Strengthening the RGGI program in communities that bear the biggest burden of pollution is critical.

Bolder, stronger, further, fairer

The decision makers in the nine RGGI states have a golden opportunity to show real leadership on climate and energy, to put in place the stronger policies and targets that this time in history demands, and to seize all the rewards that come from boldness in climate action.

It’s up to you, RGGI leaders. Seize the day.

40% growth? The Latest Electric Vehicle Sales Numbers Look Good

US electric vehicle (EV) sales are up 45% for the twelve-month period from July 2016 through June 2017, compared to the prior twelve-month period. What does that mean for the future?

As I’ve noted previously, the US EV market saw 32% annual growth over 2012-2016. This rate would, if continued, result in EVs being 10% of all new car sales in 2025.

For perspective on this target: according to UCS analysis, California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program would result in about 8% of California’s vehicles being zero-emissions (mostly electric) by 2025. California leads the nation in EV market penetration by quite a bit. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, nearly 4% of California’s light-duty vehicle sales in 2016 were EVs, compared to less than 1% for the country as a whole. And this was without major automakers Honda and Toyota offering a plug-in vehicle in that year. Sixteen cities in the state already see EVs exceeding 10% of vehicle sales.

California has achieved this through a mixture of policy, infrastructure, consumer awareness and interest (although the Northeast is not far behind on that count), and automaker efforts. Seen in that light, the entire country reaching 10% EV sales in 2025 would be pretty good.

But what if the market were actually hitting a “tipping point” such that this recent growth could continue? If a 40% growth rate could be sustained for the next six years, then we would see EVs reach 10% of US vehicle sales in 2023, and possibly near 20% by 2025. Cost reductions from technology improvements and economies of scale would help sustain the growth rates, as well as expanded charging infrastructure.

What are people buying?

The Tesla Model S was the top seller both in June and year-to-date. This is an all-electric vehicle with a range of 249-335 miles, depending on the configuration (the 60 kWh versions, with ranges of 210-218 miles, were recently discontinued).

Figure 1: Tesla Model S. Source: tesla.com.

Plug-in hybrids are proving quite popular, as the #2 vehicle year-to-date is the Chevy Volt, and the #3 is the Prius Prime.

Figure 2: Chevy Volt. Source: chevrolet.com.

The Volt, with a 53-mile all-electric range in the 2017 model, is a well-established mainstay by the standards of this young market. It has been a consistent top seller since its introduction in December 2010.

Figure 3: Toyota Prius Prime. Source: toyota.com.

The Prius Prime is a new market entrant that was the May sales champion. It has a 25-mile electric-only range, so it could likely do most daily driving in all-electric mode if workplace charging were available (even a standard wall outlet would replenish the battery in 8 hours). Plug-in hybrids have a gasoline engine if needed for longer drives, but I’ve heard that drivers of these vehicles tend to keep their batteries topped off to do as much driving in electric mode as possible. If you don’t yet drive an EV, you might not realize the extent of the existing charging infrastructure, but it’s out there; Plugshare is a great resource.

Tesla’s Model X crossover SUV is the #4 vehicle year-to-date, while Chevy’s new all-electric Bolt, with its 238-mile range, rounds out the top 5 (the Nissan LEAF is just behind the Bolt). The top five models make up just over half the market, with a long list of other products also selling in the United States.

What’s missing?

Given the market strength of the newcomer Prius Prime, what other new vehicles might take a turn at the top of the sales charts in the months ahead?

Well, there are a number of other new models from Kia, Chrysler, Cadillac, Volkswagen, and others. Certainly, the Tesla Model 3, with its first vehicles shipped in July, looks to be a contender. There are over 400,000 reservations for the vehicles worldwide, so it could easily become the sales champion if Tesla can ramp up production quickly enough. But in years to come, we might see something very different.

There is one category notably lacking among US EVs sales: the pickup truck. The best-selling light-duty vehicle in the US has for 35 years been the Ford F-series, with 820,799 units sold in 2016 (this is more than double the sales of the top-selling car in 2016, the Toyota Camry).

Figure 4: Ford F-150. Source: ford.com.

Some companies perform aftermarket conversions to turn trucks into plug-in hybrids, and others have announced plans to build brand-new electric pickup trucks (such as Tesla, Via, Havelaar, and Workhorse). Trucks have a wide range of needs and duty cycles, and not all applications would be suited to electrification at present. There are definitely engineering challenges to resolve.

Still, a plug-in version of the F-150 could serve the needs of many owners, and could propel Ford to the top of the EV sales charts. This is not in Ford’s plans at the moment (although a basic hybrid F-150 is), but what if the company experiences positive results from its other electric and plug-in products? Might we see an electric F-150? Or would the Chevy Silverado or Dodge Ram (the #2 and #3 selling vehicles in 2016) have plug-in versions first?

The pickup truck market is too big to ignore. As battery technology continues to improve, it should become easier to make electrification work for at least part of this segment.

What’s next?

Typically, the second half of the year sees higher sales volume, with December being the biggest month. It should be particularly interesting to watch the growth of Tesla’s Model 3 production over the next six months. News items such as the new study from Bloomberg, Volkswagen’s investments in charging infrastructure, and other developments may heighten public interest in EVs generally.

The most effective means of raising consumer awareness of and interest in EVs are ride-and-drive events. If you haven’t tried one out yet, look for an event near you during Drive Electric Week!

Once Deemed Too Small to Be Counted, Rooftop Solar Is Now Racing Up the Charts

Sometimes, the littlest of things can point to the biggest of leaps.

In December 2015, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced a major milestone in the life and times of small-scale solar: the agency would start acknowledging the resource by state in its regular monthly generation and capacity report.

Just imagine that, though. Across the country, enough rooftops had started wearing enough solar hats as to potentially shift the profile of states’ electricity use and needs. A day for the clean energy technology scrapbooks, indeed.

And now, a year and a half later, let last week mark another: EIA stated that it will no longer simply be tallying the resource in its rear-view mirror—the agency will also begin looking out into the future and forecasting just how much small-scale solar it thinks will soon be added to the mix.

From ignored to counted to accounted for, all within a few quick spins around the Sun. They sure do grow up fast.

Getting a handle on small-scale solar

To get at why these milestones are so meaningful, we first need to be clear on what we’re talking about. Here, we’re looking at small-scale solar photovoltaics (PV), also known as rooftop, distributed, behind-the-meter, or customer-sited PV. These resources are typically located on the distribution system at or near a customer’s site of electricity consumption, and can be on rooftops, but aren’t always.

Small-scale solar is also, well, small (at least relative to large-scale solar). EIA uses a ceiling of 1 megawatt (MW) for its tracking, but these types of installations are often much smaller, including residential systems, which are commonly on the order of about 5 kilowatts (kW), or 0.005 MW.

And then there’s this: all that electricity being generated by behind-the-meter resources? It’s usually either partially or entirely “invisible” to the utility.

Enter the EIA.

When what happens behind the meter stays behind the meter

At the outset, the invisibility of these resources doesn’t matter much. By itself, one rooftop system isn’t going to generate all that much electricity, and one rooftop system isn’t going to change how much electricity the utility needs to provide. But as more and more of these small systems are installed, together they can actually start to make a real dent in major system loads.

The result? These little rooftop panels can start to move the planning dial.

EIA’s first action above—estimating the presence and contributions of small-scale solar—helps to shed light on just how much these resources are starting to contribute to the system. Now in a lot of places, it isn’t that much…yet. But thanks to EIA’s second action, there will also now be information to help ensure that policymakers and electricity providers sufficiently account for small-scale solar’s future contributions, too.

Let’s take a look:

Credit: EIA.

See the light yellow section? That’s small-scale solar. Sure, it might look a bit like a pat of butter compared to wind in the early years, but it is certainly growing, and it is certainly not negligible. Because that pat—well, EIA estimates that it totaled 19,467 gigawatthours (GWh) of generation in 2016.

To put that number in context, small-scale solar’s generation totaled more electricity than was consumed in 2015 by the residential sectors of half the states in this country. Well worth taking into account, indeed.

And when we look ahead? Well, the future looks bright and getting brighter for this young solar star. Opportunities for these installation abound, and in this week’s Short-Term Energy Outlook, EIA forecasts clear skies and solar on the rise:

Credit: EIA.

Celebrating the little things for the milestones that they are

So here: a few small announcements from EIA, signalling a few giant leaps for rooftop solar. This PV resource is an incredibly important driver of momentum in the clean energy space, but without information on just how much it’s growing, its benefits and contributions can be undervalued. By shining a light on the progress that has taken place to date—and the progress that is to come—EIA is able to provide vital insights on the significance of the transition underway.

Wayne National Forest/Creative Commons (Flickr)

A Quick Guide to the Energy Debates

There’s an energy transition happening with major implications for how we use and produce electricity. But not everyone agrees on which direction the transition should take us. The ensuing debate reveals deeply-held views about markets, the role of government, and the place for state policies in a federal system.

UCS has regularly profiled the transition to clean energy, which is led by state choices and rapid growth in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and vehicle electrification. Wind and solar innovations have made these sources very competitive; as coal plants have grown older and new cleaner plants continue to be built, the mix of energy has changed.

With gas now exceeding coal, and monthly renewable generation passing nuclear, the debate has heated up. Here’s a quick rundown on the views of the actors involved.

Consumer interested in clean energy. Photo: Toxics Action Center.

What the markets say

In the electricity markets run by PJM, NYISO and ISO-New England, (covering roughly the region from Chicago to Virginia, and up to Maine), there is wide understanding that “Cheap gas is coal’s fiercest enemy.” There, the debate is how to deal with state policies that contribute revenues to nuclear plants, foremost, as well as renewables.

These grid operators—and the stakeholders with billions of dollars of revenues from their markets—have long-running efforts to refine price signals and participation rules to ensure competition. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) supervises these markets, and has a similar long-term commitment to seeing these markets succeed.

When it comes to environmental policies, and the notion of environmental externalities (e.g. the costs of pollution), the economists speak for these grid organizations. These markets have accepted the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which adds a modest price on carbon allowances, and would be ready and able to include a more impactful carbon price. But the current circumstances, where states have selected various means to correct for externalities, make the market purists upset.

Some subsidies are more equal than others?

Renewable support is the law in more than 29 states—and fossil fuels receive $10s of billions of subsidies. UCS argued at FERC and in the PJM stakeholder process that market advocates lack any consistent justification for discriminating between subsidies. At best, they have said “we can live with some, but not too much, subsidy.” No comparison has been offered showing the impacts on market prices of one set of subsidies compared with another.

EIA charting energy mix changing for electricity production.

Others in the debate, from opposite ends of the commercial spectrum, warn that the grid operators should seek alignment with the environmental and diversity goals expressed by consumers and policy makers. Representing consumers and local government, American Municipal Power, based in Columbus, Ohio with members in 9 states from Delaware to Michigan, and electric co-operatives in NRECA, call for respect and recognition for decisions made outside the federally-supervised markets. At the same time, Exelon, owner of nuclear plants across the eastern US, aligns itself with the state support of renewable energy now that similar state policies have surfaced for existing nuclear plants.

FERC, the arbiter of this debate, expressed sincere hope that the parties will settle this themselves, so that the agency will not have to, as Exelon put it, “require states to forgo their sovereign power to make their own environmental policy as the price of admission to the federal wholesale markets.”

Review so far

Let’s try to summarize: the market folks see gas beating coal and nuclear on economics. The nuclear folks want state policies to support existing nuclear plants. States and consumer-owned utilities seek to keep federally-supervised markets from overriding democratically-decided choices.

Enter the DOE

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, who as governor of Texas oversaw the greatest expansion of wind energy in the US, seeks to support coal with a forthcoming Department of Energy “baseload” study. From all indications, this initiative is meant to:

1) defeat the market where gas has out-competed coal;
2) trample the consumer and voter choices for renewables; and
3) reverse the trend of lower energy costs from innovation by requiring more payments to the oldest and most expensive generators.

Unfortunately, the April 14 memo from Perry ordering this study mixes flawed assertions about reliability with assumptions about economics. Organizations across the political spectrum have labored to explain that maintaining coal plants, or even the label of baseload generation, are economic concepts from another time.

When the debate continues, keep these facts in mind:

  • Coal provides less than 1% of electricity in New York and the 6-state New England grid.
  • The same is true in Washington, Oregon, and California.
  • At times, wind and solar have generated 50 to 60 percent or more of total electricity demand in some parts of the country, including Texas, while maintaining and even improving reliability.
  • In May, wind, solar, geothermal and biopower supplied a record 67 percent of electricity needs in California’s power pool, and more than 80 percent when you include hydropower.
  • In 2016, wind power provided more than 30 percent of Iowa’s and South Dakota’s annual electricity generation, and more than 15 percent in nine states.

With an energy transition clearly underway, some strange debates are breaking out. Like in so many things, perhaps the only consistent way to sort out the positions and policies is to follow the money.

Photo: Chris Hunkeler/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

As Coal Stumbles, Wind Power Takes Off in Wyoming

After several years of mostly sitting on the sidelines, Wyoming is re-entering the wind power race in a big way. Rocky Mountain Power recently announced plans to invest $3.5 billion in new wind and transmission over the next three years. This development—combined with the long-awaited start of construction on what could be the nation’s largest wind project—will put Wyoming among the wind power leaders in the region. That’s welcome news for a state economy looking to rebound from the effects of the declining coal industry.

Capitalizing on untapped potential

Wyoming has some of the best wind resources in the country. The state ranks fifth nationally in total technical potential, but no other state has stronger Class 6 and 7 wind resources (considered the best of the best). And yet, wind development has remained largely stagnant in Wyoming since 2010.

In the last seven years, just one 80-megawatt wind project came online in Wyoming as the wind industry boomed elsewhere—more than doubling the installed US wind capacity to 84,000 megawatts.

Fortunately, it appears that Wyoming is ready to once again join the wind power bonanza, bringing a much-needed economic boost along with it. On June 29th, Rocky Mountain Power—Wyoming largest power provider—filed a request with regulators for approval to make major new investments in wind power and transmission. The plan includes upgrading the company’s existing wind turbines and adding up to 1,100 MWs of new wind projects by 2020, nearly doubling the state’s current wind capacity.

In addition to the $3.5 billion in new investments, Rocky Mountain Power estimates that the plan will support up to 1,600 construction jobs and generate as much as $15 million annually in wind and property tax revenues (on top of the $120 million in construction-related tax revenue) to help support vital public services. What’s more—thanks to the economic competitiveness of wind power—these investments will save consumers money, according to the utility.

Rocky Mountain Power isn’t the only company making a big investment in Wyoming’s rich wind resources. After more than a decade in development, the Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) has begun initial construction on the first of the two-phase Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project, which will ultimately add 3,000 MW of wind capacity in Carbon County. The $5 billion project expects to support 114 permanent jobs when completed, and hundreds more during the 3-year construction period. PCW also projects that over the first 20 years of operation, the massive project will spur about $780 million in total tax revenues for local and state coffers.

Diversifying Wyoming’s economy with wind

When completed, these two new wind investments will catapult Wyoming to the upper tier of leaders in wind development in the west and nationally. And combined with Wyoming’s existing wind capacity, the total annual output from all wind projects could supply nearly all of Wyoming’s electricity needs, if all the generation was consumed in state. That’s not likely to happen though, as much of the generation from the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project is expected to be exported to other western states with much greater energy demands.

Still, the wind industry is now riding a major new wave of clean energy momentum in a state better known for its coal production.

Coal mining is a major contributor to Wyoming’s economy, as more than 40 percent of all coal produced in the US comes from the state’s Powder River Basin. But coal production has fallen in recent years as more and more coal plants retire and the nation transitions to cleaner, more affordable sources of power. In 2016, Wyoming coal production dropped by 20 percent compared with the previous year, hitting a nearly 20-year low. That resulted in hundreds of layoffs and confounded the state’s efforts to climb out of a long-term economic slump.  And while production has rebounded some this year, many analysts project the slide to continue over the long-term.

Of course, Wyoming’s recent wind power investments and their substantial benefits alone can’t replace all its losses from the coal industry’s decline. But a growing wind industry can offset some of the damage and play an important role in diversifying Wyoming’s fossil-fuel dependent economy. In fact, Goldwind Americas, the US affiliate of a large Chinese wind turbine manufacturer, recently launched a free training program to unemployed coal miners in Wyoming who want to become wind turbine technicians.

A growing wind industry can also provide a whole new export market for the state as more and more utilities, corporations, institutions and individual consumers throughout the west want access to a clean, affordable, reliable and carbon-free power supply.

Sustaining the momentum

As the wind industry tries to build on its gains in Wyoming, what’s not clear today is whether the state legislature will help foster more growth or stand in the way. In the past year, clean energy opponents in the Wyoming legislature have made several attempts to stymie development, including by significantly increasing an existing modest tax on wind production (Wyoming is the only state in the country that taxes wind production) and penalizing utilities that supply wind and solar to Wyoming consumers. Ultimately, wiser minds prevailed and these efforts were soundly defeated.

That’s good news for all residents of Wyoming. Wind power has the potential to boost the economy and provide consumers with clean and affordable power. Now that the wind industry has returned to Wyoming, the state should do everything it can to keep it there.

Photo: Flickr, Wyoming_Jackrabbit

100% Clean Energy? In California, SB 100 May Make it Possible

For many, summertime means getting to wear shorts, eating more ice cream than usual, and if you’re lucky, sleeping in. But for me, summertime means putting on a suit and heading to Sacramento to talk about energy policy. While the Trump Administration tries unsucessfully to convince the country that coal is the answer, the California Legislature is moving ever forward to advance a cleaner and healthier energy future

Right now, much attention is focused on the California Clean Energy Act of 2017 (“SB 100” for short). SB 100 would accelerate the state’s primary renewable energy program—the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS)—which was created to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and improve air quality. The RPS currently requires every utility in the state to source 50% of its electricity sales from renewables by 2030.

The program has been a major driver of renewable energy development since its inception in 2002, and has helped us significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and criteria air pollution associated with electricity generation. In 2016, California was generating 27% of its electricity from RPS-eligible renewables like solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy, and small hydropower.

California renewable energy mix in 2016. Source: California Energy Commission

SB 100 would accelerate the 50% RPS requirement to 2025 and establish a new target of 60% by 2030. Getting to 60% renewables by 2030 is certainly achievable. Many of the major electricity providers in the state are already on track to meet or exceed the 50% RPS; raising it to 60% by 2030 will help take advantage of the renewable energy federal tax credits that are set to expire by the end of 2019.

SB 100 would also establish a path to decarbonize the remaining electricity used in California (aka the 40% not subject to the RPS).  It does this by directing the state’s energy agencies to study and plan for a electricity grid that utilizes 100% “zero-carbon” resources by 2045.

In other words, 60% of California’s electricity would be generated by RPS-eligible renewables while the remaining 40% would be generated by additional renewables or other types of electricity generation that don’t qualify under the RPS, but also don’t require the combustion of fossil fuels. For example, California’s existing fleet of large hydropower facilities is not RPS-eligible, but would count as “zero carbon.”

Powering the most populous and prosperous state in the country on 100% carbon-free electricity is bold and aspirational, but also achievable. Technology is already available to help the grid to run on very large quantities of renewables, and the cost of investments needed to make this happen are coming down.

One of the biggest challenges we must overcome to reach a zero-carbon electricity future is eliminating our dependence on natural gas to provide energy and grid reliability services. Natural gas-fired generation still makes up 36 percent of California’s electricity mix and emits greenhouse gases and air pollutants.

To jump-start the research effort to securely ease us off fossil fuels, our electricity providers and energy regulatory agencies need a signal from the legislature that Californians demand a carbon-free future.

We have a lot at stake. As climate change intensifies, peoples’ health and economic stability are being threatened by extreme heat, water shortages, forest fires, and sea level rise. Showing the world how to run a grid on 100% carbon-free generation  would provide a blueprint for significant cuts in global warming emissions. In addition, California continues to have the worst air quality of any state in the country; by electrifying the transportation sector with carbon-free electricity, we can cut the largest source of toxic air pollution in the state—cars and trucks.

California has firmly established itself as a clean energy leader by reaching for goals that at first seemed unattainable. At first glance, a 100% carbon-free electricity goal may seem like a moonshot. But I say let’s do it.  We won’t know how close the stars actually are unless we reach for them.

Minnesota’s Solar Boom and… Bob Dylan?

Those of us that track such things remember a time not long ago when the idea of a solar energy boom in Minnesota might have gotten you a funny look. But in a nod to Bob Dylan and his home state of Minnesota, I can only say: the times they are a-changin.

When Enel Green Power announced on June 27th that it had officially brought online a 150-megawatt (MW) solar project in Minnesota, it marked another big step forward in the state’s growth as a Midwest leader in the clean energy transition. The project is expected to generate enough electricity to power more than 17,000 homes and avoid more than 150,000 tons of carbon emissions annually. Minnesota has embraced solar’s potential, as both a driver of economic growth and a key part of the state’s strategy for addressing climate change.

But it also seemed to me a symbol of the relentless march of progress even as the Trump administration and fossil fuel special interests cling to the status quo and ignore the reality of climate change. And I couldn’t help contemplating Dylan’s ode to a changing world and warning to those that stand in the way:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.


Dylan’s song spoke for those fighting for equality in the 1960s, but maintains its relevance today as we continue to push forward for equal rights under the law and a just transition to a cleaner, safer, and more equitable energy future.

Solar PV is helping with this transition. In Minnesota, the rise of community solar is providing access to clean energy for low-income communities. And the increasing affordability of solar in the US and abroad means our transition away from fossil fuels can benefit everyone. “Solar for all” isn’t a catchphrase: it’s a future that we can create one step at a time in collaboration with our partners, and despite the naysayers that cling to the status quo.

And that list of naysayers continues to shrink. More than 30 studies have concluded that solar provides economic value to all consumers by improving reliability and reducing costs for ratepayers. Businesses are committing to solar as part of their efforts to stabilize and reduce energy costs while meeting sustainability goals. And utilities are increasingly recognizing the business case for investing in solar as an affordable and low risk option for meeting future electricity needs.

So yes, it’s clear to me that the times they are a-changin’ in ways that will benefits all of us. It’s clear in Bob Dylan’s home state of Minnesota and across the US.


Missing from the President’s Iowa Speech: Praise for Wind Energy

President Trump came to Cedar Rapids, Iowa last week for a rally and talked about putting solar panels on his border wall (even though there are 68.4 million better places for solar). Perhaps even more outrageous was how he bashed the wind industry that has invested nearly $14 billion in the state, and that employees thousands of workers in the operations, maintenance, construction, and manufacturing sectors. In 2016 alone, the industry supported over 8,000 direct and indirect jobs  in Iowa.

He also stated “we’re going to be strong for the future”. Well, Mr. President, we, and Iowans in particular, are going to be strong because of the growth of wind energy, not despite of it. Let’s look at all the ways Trump’s comments on wind are misinformed.

Wind is king in Iowa

According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Iowa is ranked second only to Texas for installed wind capacity in the United States. Wind makes up more than 36 percent of Iowa’s in-state energy production, with over 6,900 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity.

Politicians from both sides of the aisle in Iowa are supportive of wind energy. Wind is a reliable energy source, and it helps build a more reliable and balanced electricity portfolio. The electric industry knows this, as evidenced by MidAmerican Energy’s decision to invest $3.6 billion in developing wind energy, with the goal of eventually producing 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

The utility’s adoption of wind has helped make its rates among the lowest in the country. Because of low rates and clean energy sources, Iowa has also become an attractive state for tech companies such as Google and Microsoft. Businesses are committed to powering their companies with renewable energy, and working to greatly increase the demand for it.

The rise of wind

The truth is wind energy is on the rise, not just in Iowa but throughout the country, including heavy investment in the Midwest. Wind capacity has more than doubled in the United States since 2010, accounting for nearly one-third of all new generating capacity installed since 2007. And wind power now makes up 5.5 percent of the nation’s total electricity generation.

The rise of wind is also bringing economic development in areas that need it, with seventy percent of US turbines located in low-income rural areas.

Rural communities benefit

Wind projects provide extra income for farmers and ranchers in rural communities and have proven to be a boon to local school districts. Wind projects significantly increase local tax bases and may even increase property value.

Wind projects also produce lease payments, with an estimated $245 million a year in lease payments going to rural landowners a year. The steady income that comes with lease payments helps landowners and farmers when bad weather strikes or commodity prices fluctuate. Wind energy is the new cash crop in rural America.

Can’t stop won’t stop

Renewable energy prices are falling; investing in renewable energy just makes sense. And in the United States, wind industry jobs are on the rise, up 28 percent from 2015, with the industry producing approximately 102,500 jobs in 2016.

At the end of the day, despite all the negative attacks and rhetoric on clean energy in the recent months at the federal level, clean energy momentum is happening, especially in the Midwest—and it’s not going to stop.

Offshore Oil vs. Offshore Wind: Guess Where the Action Really Is

There’s plenty of energy off our coasts. Too bad the Trump Administration is looking the wrong way.

Yesterday was a momentous one for offshore energy, but maybe not in the way that some folks think. Sure, the administration opened up for public comment its plan to offer new offshore oil/gas leases (even if industry might say, “Meh”). But much more important for our future economy—and our planet—was what happened to move US offshore wind forward, the latest in a line of notable recent happenings at home and abroad.

Credit: phault

Massachusetts offshore wind happenings

Massachusetts took an important step forward in having the state’s utilities ask wind developers to bid to supply some 400 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, enough to power almost 200,000 Bay State homes. The move, required under the state’s 2016 energy diversity law, is aimed at bringing in the first tranche of what will eventually be at least 1600 megawatts of offshore wind for those utilities’ customers.

It’s easy to be excited about another step toward adding such a powerful technology to our nation’s clean energy toolbox. For Massachusetts, getting the state out there looking for solid offshore wind projects and prices in a competitive way is a vital next step.

Economic development means grabbing hold of good, new areas for business and jobs. We’re already seeing US industry step up to the plate—including by readying the type of specialized ships that we’ll need to get those wind turbines where they need to be.

Tackling climate change and protecting our environment means investing in expanding low-carbon energy options in responsible ways. It’s telling that yesterday’s move has garnered very positive reactions from environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation and the Conservation Law Foundation (who also produced this great infographic laying out the strong case for offshore wind in New England).

Leadership means not waiting for others to go first.

Yesterday’s step keeps Massachusetts firmly in contention when it comes to building a new industry on our shores, making a new carbon-free electricity source a reality, and leading on US offshore wind.

Offshore wind around the US, and globally

The Massachusetts move is just the latest in all kinds of noteworthy steps for this exciting technology. Here’s a sampling:

  • Maryland approves support for two projects: Last month two offshore wind projects earned approval from Maryland’s regulators. The projects total 368 megawatts, which’ll generate enough electricity for well over 100,000 homes. It could start to come online around 2020.
  • The first US offshore wind farm is making it real for our country: When the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island went online late last year, it made history as the first offshore wind farm anywhere in the Americas. It also proved that seeing is believing, as boat tours take people to see the turbines up close and personal. Those include the important tradespeople who we’re going to need to make the next offshore wind farms happen—steelworkers, pipefitters, electricians, and more—and the politicians who are helping to create a welcoming environment.
  • Two big projects go online off Germany: Just this week, DONG Energy—the largest owner of offshore wind in the world, and one of the companies vying to supply Massachusetts—brought two more projects online 30 miles off Germany’s shores. The two projects’ 97 turbines add 582 megawatts to the global total of more than 15,000. And they help add to the excitement fueled by recent record-low prices for future European offshore wind projects.
  • Bigger turbines are under development: While land-based wind turbines are typically 2-3 megawatts each, open water off our shores provides opportunities for using bigger, more powerful turbines to bring the costs down. Recent offshore projects, including Block Island and the new German projects, use turbines of around 6 megawatts. But the latest turbine, unveiled earlier this month, is more than 50% more powerful. Still larger ones are on the way.
Investing in the future, not the past

So, where’s our offshore energy scene headed? There’s a good bet that offshore wind is going to grow to be an important piece of our energy mix. Even the Trump Administration seems to recognize the importance of this powerful new (new to the US) technology.

If we’re smart, we’ll make sure that happens, and quickly. Our country’s energy future does include offshore. But it’s wind, not oil.

The President’s ‘Energy Week’ is an Ode to Fossil Fuel Addiction

Tomorrow, as part of the Trump Administration’s so-called ‘Energy Week’ events, President Trump is scheduled to give a speech at the Department of Energy trumpeting US ‘energy dominance’ via the export of coal, oil, and natural gas around the world. It’s clear that Mr. Trump has little regard for the health impacts of our fossil fuel addiction or the growing costs of climate change. What’s more, he fails to grasp the incredible business opportunities in clean energy leadership.

Projections of increased LNG exports

A major focus of President Trump’s speech is likely to be liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. According to the EIA, the US is set to become a net exporter of natural gas by 2018, having been a net importer as recently as 2016. This trend is projected to be driven primarily by growing LNG exports, rather than pipeline exports. (Note that these projections were released on January 5, 2017, before the Trump administration took office—just in case the President chooses to indulge in a bit of revisionist history and take credit for this).

For a number of years now, prompted by low shale gas prices in the US, there has been talk US exports of LNG taking off. A number of LNG export terminals have been proposed or built, as well as some LNG import terminals repurposed.

EIA, based on data from FERC as of March 2016

(As an aside: To take advantage of the proximity to existing oil and gas operations and pipelines, many of these terminals are located in the Gulf Coast of the US. The irony here is profound—these same low-lying areas are hot spots of sea level rise, vulnerable to flooding and worsening storm surge.)

The first US exports of LNG began last year from Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana. US LNG has started arriving in the Netherlands, Poland, and other European destinations. A contract has just been signed for exports to Korea. President Trump is also looking to expand exports to China, India, Japan and other parts of Asia.

Consequences of increasing US LNG exports

In a world hungry for energy, exporting LNG seems like an attractive proposition for US companies. It may not be a great deal for US consumers though. The growth of the export market could lead to rising domestic prices for natural gas, which could hurt the pocketbooks of those who depend on natural gas for electricity and heating. Price spikes during cold winter months could be particularly problematic.

A 2012 study from the EIA bears out these consumer price impacts, which will be greater the more quickly exports ramp up. Similarly a recent DOE study also found that “greater LNG exports raise domestic prices and lower prices internationally.”

EIA scenarios for LNG exports: Natural gas wellhead price difference from AEO2011 Reference case with different additional export levels and speed of expansion.

Rising natural gas prices in the US could raise the specter of reversing some of the ongoing market-driven shift away from coal to natural gas, which could cause carbon emissions to rise. On the plus side, it could also make lower carbon resources like nuclear power and renewable energy more competitive in some places. In countries that are ramping up natural gas imports, competition from cheap natural gas could harm the growth of renewable energy.

The US is growing increasingly over reliant on natural gas as it transitions away from coal-fired power. Exporting that overreliance to other countries would be a real problem from a climate perspective. Natural gas is a fossil fuel, albeit cleaner burning than coal. Leakage of methane (a potent heat-trapping gas) associated with the production, storage, and transport of natural gas also contributes to global warming.

(The “all of the above” energy strategy pursued by the Obama administration was also problematic on this count.)

A switch from coal to gas could bring significant near-term public health benefits, especially in China and India which are plagued by terrible air pollution challenges. A combination of natural gas and renewable energy could help drive out coal more quickly, but doing so in a way that limits the risks of overreliance on natural gas will be critical to long-term climate goals.

With low-cost renewable energy surging in those countries, a much more attractive option from an economic, health and climate perspective would be to skip the over-dependence on natural gas imports and focus primarily on ramping up renewable energy and other low-carbon energy options.

A fossil fuel industry strategy

Rolling back critical environmental and health safeguards—such as the Clean Power Plan and standards to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations—in order to promote fossil fuel extraction, as the Trump administration aims to do, is a bad deal for the American public. Lest there be any doubt, the Trump administration’s ‘Energy Week’ rhetoric is all about advancing fossil fuel interests.

On the international front, with coal on the decline in the US (primarily because of pressure from low natural gas prices), coal companies are looking to exports as a way to stave off bankruptcy. This is similar to a strategy employed by the US tobacco industry, which sought to expand to international markets when they saw the writing on the wall in the US (much to the detriment of public health in those countries).

If major fossil fuel companies are serious about committing to the Paris Agreement as a few have claimed (see here, here and here), then they should stop trying to undermine its goals by using their political influence to expand fossil fuel extraction and exports.

Missing the opportunity for clean energy dominance

Mr. Trump’s recent offhand remarks disparaging wind power in Iowa betray his lack of understanding of the economic opportunities clean energy can bring. (His comments were also singularly tone-deaf in a state that gets about 37 percent its power from wind, and generates significant numbers of jobs and economic benefits in the process.)

Instead of trying to export an addiction to fossil fuels, the Trump administration should look for ways to advance exports of US renewable energy technology, one of the fastest growing industries in the world today. In fact, when it comes to the US power sector, wind and solar power are bigger job creators than coal today—including in rural areas that supported his presidential bid.

Rather than the decidedly backward-looking rhetoric focused on the expansion of fossil fuel extraction, what we need is visionary leadership to take us into a clean, low-carbon, energy future, brimming with economic opportunities and consumer benefits.

Photo: Think Defence

Solar and Wind vs. Coal: Who’s the Biggest Job Creator in Your State?

When it comes to job creation in the power sector, our president keeps looking the wrong way. Nationally—and in almost every state—when coal and renewables face off, the bigger job creator in the power sector isn’t coal anymore; it’s solar and wind. The Trump administration has proclaimed this week Energy Week, but if renewables aren’t in a prominent position, the president and his associates are partying like it’s 1979 instead of 2017.

Coal mining jobs peaked in the late 1920s, enjoyed a brief partial rebound during the oil crises of the 1970s, and have dropped under every president but one since then. The downward trend has been clear for almost a century.

The good news is that some of the electricity sources that are out-competing coal create more jobs than coal does. (And just to be clear: solar and wind jobs are indeed a good thing, despite what some coal boosters might tell you.)

What do the jobs numbers say?

Workers readying a wind tower section in a Colorado steel facility

A new report from the US Department of Energy helps to put numbers on where we stand. The 2017 US Energy and Employment Report is loaded with information on all aspects of the country’s energy employment situation, from fuel extraction (mining or pumping) to manufacturing to electricity production.

So, how does coal stack up against the upstarts? Here are a couple of high-level findings from those numbers, about that relationship nationally:

  • Wind power is responsible for more jobs than coal mining. The wind industry accounted for 102,000 jobs in 2016. Coal mining meant 74,000 (and that number has dropped since then).
  • The solar industry employs more people than the whole of the coal industry. Even when you add in jobs associated with coal-fired power plants, coal gets handily beaten by solar all by itself. Coal overall accounted for some 160,000 jobs.* The solar power industry, meanwhile, helped create 374,000 jobs in the US, with most of those people—261,000—working on solar at least half time.

At the state level, the head-to-head gets even more interesting:

  • Solar jobs alone outnumber coal jobs in almost two-thirds of the states. The incredible growth in solar installations in recent years has been strongly felt on the labor side, too, with jobs on rooftops and in fields, in factories and in offices—good blue-collar jobs, and more.
  • Wind jobs outnumber coal jobs in more than 20 states. Like solar, wind means jobs in manufacturing, project development, installation, and a whole lot more. Wind added more than 15,000 jobs in 2016 alone, and the manufacturing side includes over 500 facilities in 43 states.
  • Solar and wind together beat coal in at least 40 states. Yup.

In fact, add in even a subset of hydroelectric power jobs,** and consider the “toss-up” states, where the job numbers are within about 20% of each other, and coal is the clear winner in only six states.

Solar jobs in action (Credit: J. Rogers)

Think about that: In almost every state in the union, from coast to coast and almost everywhere in between, solar panels and wind turbines and the power of water are bigger job creators than coal.

That’s very different from where we were a few years ago—and very different from what the outdated rhetoric from the White House and certain congressional leaders would lead you to believe.

We’re not done yet

And let’s be clear: That rhetoric is going to get more and more out of date. Some of those few remaining states in the Coal column are sure to switch to the Renewables column soon enough, as coal plants give way to other technologies (in Alabama, for example) and as the local Powers That Be finally acknowledge renewables’ jobs potential (think Ohio).

People are right to fight for Coal Country, but what they should be fighting for is economic diversification and good jobs in a true growth sector for those communities.

And if the Trump administration really wants to do Energy Week right, solar, wind, and other renewables need a prominent place in the spotlight. It’s high time President Trump realized that—increasingly, and across the U.S.—jobs in the power sector are about renewables, much more than coal.

*Counting all coal jobs as power sector-related, even though some coal goes elsewhere

**The DOE data include jobs figures only for “traditional” hydro, leaving out “low-impact” hydro, which means about one in seven hydro jobs isn’t showing up.

A Real Chance to Help Coal Communities—If We Fight for It

On Tuesday the House Natural Resources Committee plans to vote on the RECLAIM Act, H.R.1731. The bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY-5), would free up $1 billion in existing funding from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund and put people to work cleaning up abandoned coal mines. It’s common-sense legislation that uses existing money (did I mention this is NOT a new tax?!) to create thousands of jobs reclaiming degraded mine lands and putting those lands to use in ways that spur local economic development.

Unfortunately, corporate coal interests have launched a last-minute effort to kill the bill.

A key moment

Central Appalachian citizens’ groups have been working for more than two years to organize local support for the bill and find champions on the Hill. A national coalition of environmental groups and labor unions support the bill. Grassroots support has been the driving force behind the bill being introduced last session, and reintroduced at the start of this session—this time with a Senate companion bill sponsored by the Majority Leader. But the current version lacks the requirement that reclamation projects help diversify local economies, which is why supporters are hailing the amendment introduced by Don Beyer (D-VA-8) to reinstate this as a requirement for funding reclamation projects. Here’s a letter signed by more than 40 local and national organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Do these investments pay off? In a word, yes. The $90 million pilot project approved at the end of 2015 and again in 2016 funded projects in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. An agriculture project in West Virginia is a great example of how abandoned mine lands might be put to commercial use.

Given how much our president talks about coal miners, you’d think he’d be on the phone personally calling legislators to pass this bill. Instead, he submitted a budget to Congress that cuts coal communities off at the knees.

What can I do?

Call your member of Congress. Now. Especially if you are represented by one of the members of the House Natural Resources Committee. They need to hear from you, because they’re hearing a lot of negative things about this bill from coal executives.

If you’re not sure who to call, just dial this special line that was set up to help people call in to support the bill: 1-347-269-4100

And your message is simple:

“The RECLAIM Act would create thousands of jobs in struggling coal communities. Vote yes on the RECLAIM Act—and the Beyer amendment—tomorrow. If you don’t serve on the Natural Resources Committee, share your support with Chairman Bishop.”

It won’t take more than 60 seconds. And it could make all the difference.

And, hey, Mr. President, if you’re reading this, feel free to make a few calls yourself—or even just tweet about it. It sure would be a great way to get some of those coal miners “working their asses off” (as you so colorfully put it).

Photo: Wikimedia