UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

On the Business Case for Renewables (and Why It’s so Strong)

I’m not a CEO and you won’t find me hocking financial self-help books at the airport, but there are three core tenets of business success that I hope we can agree on: keep your product affordable, minimize your exposure to risk, and keep your customers happy.

If you’re an electric utility, sticking to these core tenets is particularly tricky. Fortunately, there’s one investment decision that can keep you on track: renewable energy.

Renewables are cheap today, tomorrow, and for the long haul

The cost of renewable energy resources has fallen dramatically in recent years, making them an attractive investment option for utilities.

The dramatic decline in costs for wind and solar resources is well documented and impossible to ignore. Costs for renewable resources have now fallen to the point that they’re the cheapest new-build generating resources out there, and utilities looking to maintain an affordable electricity supply are taking notice.

Take, for instance, the transition underway in two states here in the Midwest. In May, Michigan’s DTE Energy—the seventh largest utility in the US—announced a forward-looking plan that would eliminate its use of coal and move the utility to a mix of about 40 percent renewables, 40 percent natural gas, and 20 percent nuclear by 2050—cutting the utility’s carbon emissions by 80 percent. DTE CEO Gerry Anderson proclaimed “Not only is the 80 percent reduction goal achievable—it is achievable in a way that keeps Michigan’s power affordable and reliable.”

In Minnesota, Otter Tail Power’s latest plan for meeting energy demand also calls for a shift to renewable energy—more than 30 percent by 2030. And this on the heels of the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, receiving approval late last year for its least-cost plan that includes 40 percent renewable energy in the same timeframe.

Both of these plans would take the utility well beyond what’s required under Minnesota law as renewable energy investments are no longer about regulatory compliance, but about keeping electricity prices low in a rapidly changing electricity sector.

Renewables provide certainty in a world of uncertainty

Let’s put ourselves in the utility’s shoes for a moment. We’re trying to figure out how to keep the lights on, make smart investments for our shareholders and customers, and avoid a lot of political drama. And we’re trying to do that in a very uncertain world: how much will fuels cost five or ten years from now? What regulations will come and go? How much demand for electricity will there be?

Where can a utility invest to minimize the risks of an uncertain future?

Renewable energy.

Fossil fuel investments pose a number of risks for utilities because of uncertainty about future fuel costs, regulatory requirements, and energy demand. Renewable energy resources offer a low-risk option for investment, helping to protect investors and consumers.

Utilities are now realizing that renewable energy is a low-risk investment that can help maintain stable rates and avoid unexpected costs down the road. In fact, wind and solar resources are some of the lowest-risk options for meeting electricity demand. With renewable energy, there’s no risk of higher-than-expected fuel prices (because the wind and sun are free), little risk of costs to comply with unanticipated environmental regulations (because wind and solar power have relatively little environmental impact), and little risk of over-investing and being stuck with stranded assets (because wind and solar can be added in small increments and installed relatively quickly).

All of this makes renewable energy an attractive investment for utilities looking to minimize their exposure to risk.

The customers want renewables and the utilities want happy customers

Nearly half of Fortune 500 companies and the majority of Fortune 100 companies now have clean energy goals. In fact, corporate demand for renewable energy is growing rapidly not just to meet sustainability goals, but because companies are looking for the low, stable energy prices that renewable energy provides.

And if the utility can’t provide it, they go elsewhere—signing contracts directly with wind and solar power providers and cutting the utility out of the deal.

More and more large utility customers are seeking access to renewable energy, pushing utilities to ramp up investments in these resources.

Utilities are responding with new products to meet the growing corporate demand for renewable energy. In Michigan, the state’s largest utility, Consumers Energy, recently proposed a new large customer renewable energy pilot program that will allow corporate customers to power their companies with renewable energy.

The new program comes in direct response to a request from telecom company Switch, Ltd., whose new Michigan data center will be powered 100 percent from new wind projects. In its filing, Consumers Energy stated that in a survey of its large business customers, more than half expressed interest in greater access to renewable energy.

More than 15 states now have a way to facilitate corporate renewable energy purchases through their utilities. And it’s a smart move by utilities looking to retain customers and attract new business.

Overall, today’s renewable energy resources are an attractive investment option for utilities and renewable energy’s future in the US continues to be bright. Core business principles remain: provide affordable products, avoid unnecessary risk, and keep your customers happy.

Renewable energy does all that.

Department of Energy wikimedia commons Credit: J. Rogers

7 Things We Expect to See in Rick Perry’s Unnecessary and Biased Grid Study

On April 14, Energy Secretary Rick Perry requested a 60-day “Study examining electricity markets and reliability.” The study was scheduled to be released on June 26, but it now appears it will be delayed until JulyPerry’s letter calling for the study is riddled with flawed assumptions and predetermined conclusions about the value so-called “baseload” coal and nuclear power plants provide to the grid and the impacts renewable energy have on reliability that contradicts overwhelming evidence from dozens of studies by DOE’s own national labs, regional grid operators, and even Perry’s home state of Texas.

Do you think we’re going to learn anything new in 60 days that these experts and real-world experience haven’t already answered over the past decade?

Secretary Perry’s biased and unnecessary study is just yet another blatant attempt by the Trump Administration to prop up the ailing coal industry and undermine important renewable energy policies that are providing clean, reliable, and affordable power to consumers. Renewable energy business associations, Senate Democrats, and even prominent Senate Republican Chuck Grassley from Iowa have raised similar concerns about the study’s motivation and credibility.

What does a credible study look like?

Typically, important tax-payer funded government studies are done in an open and transparent manner over a period of several months or years, with input and review from outside experts, key stakeholders, and the public. This approach helps balance varying viewpoints, avoid political interference, and ensure objectivity.

Here are two examples of DOE studies on renewable energy and reliability that were done the right way:

  • NREL’s 2012 Renewable Electricity Futures Study, a massive 850-page study developed by more than 100 experts from 35 diverse organizations and peer-reviewed by more than 140 experts. The study found that with a more flexible electricity system, grid operators would be able to balance electricity supply and demand and maintain reliability in every hour of the year with renewable energy providing 80 percent of US electricity by 2050.
  • DOE’s 2015 Wind Vision Study, a comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of producing 20 percent of US electricity from wind power by 2030 and 35 percent by 2050. More than 250 experts and 50 organizations—representing the wind industry, utilities, grid operators, non-governmental organizations, and four DOE national labs—contributed to the report.
Perry’s study doesn’t meet these standards

In addition to the absurd 60-day deadline, the study is being conducted behind closed doors with no input or review from outside experts or the public. And the research questions (if you want to call them that) have either been answered already or are clearly biased against renewable energy.

To make matters worse, the study is being directed by individuals who have been openly hostile to renewable energy and supported by the fossil fuel industry. Travis Fisher and his boss Daniel Simmons, appointed by President Trump to oversee DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (which they once recommended eliminating), are former employees of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), and its advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliance (AEA), which actively supports rolling back state and federal climate and clean energy policies. (For more details, see these blogs by Elliott Negin and Dave Anderson.)

In 2015, Fisher wrote a report for IER calling clean energy policies a greater threat to reliability than extreme weather, cyber attacks, or terrorism. To address this so-called threat, Fisher recommended repealing federal renewable energy tax credits, state renewable energy standards, state net metering policies, and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

It’s no secret that the Trump Administration is targeting many of these policies. Perry also made a highly controversial comment at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance Conference in late April saying they were having “very classified” conversations about DOE potentially overturning state and local renewable policies in the name of national security.

What we would expect to see in a rigorous study

If Perry’s grid study is done right, here are 7 important things we would expect it to show based on current trends and recent credible studies:

  1. Renewables are diversifying the electricity mix (see pie charts), making the grid more reliable and resilient. Regional grid operators and utilities are already integrating high levels of wind and solar of 50 to 60 percent or more of total electricity demand in some parts of the country, including Texas, while maintaining and even improving reliability.
  2. The national labs, regional grid operators, utilities and others have completed dozens of studies showing that the US can achieve even higher levels of renewable energy in the future, while producing reliable, affordable, and cleaner electricity, as explained in this letter signed by UCS.
  3. Baseload power plants pose their own reliability challenges because of their large size, limited flexibility, and vulnerability to extreme weather events such as the Polar Vortex, extreme heat and drought impacts on cooling water, and storm surge from Hurricanes. This 2013 DOE report highlights numerous climate and extreme weather-related risks to our energy infrastructure.
  4. There is widespread agreement from energy experts that low natural gas prices and flat electricity demand are the main causes of recent coal and nuclear retirements, not renewable energy, as highlighted in new report by the Analysis Group.
  5. Fossil fuels and nuclear power have received far more subsidies than renewable energy historically, and are part of the permanent tax code while tax credits for renewables are set to phase out in a few years.
  6. The costs of utility scale wind and solar have fallen by more than two-thirds since 2009, which has made renewable energy more affordable to consumers.
  7. Federal tax credits and state renewable standards have been key drivers for the cost reductions and recent deployment of wind and solar that are creating new jobs and other economic benefits across America, particularly in states and rural areas that voted for President Trump.
Renewable energy and natural gas are diversifying the US electricity mix

Source: Energy Information Administration

The study, not renewables, is a waste of taxpayer money

If Perry’s study reaches different conclusions, or cherry picks information that supports the Trump Administration’s predetermined conclusions, it should raise a major red flag.  Perhaps Republican Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa (which gets 36 percent of its electricity from wind) said it best in his letter to Perry: “I’m concerned that a hastily developed study, which appears to pre-determine that variable, renewable resources such as wind have undermined grid reliability, will not be viewed as credible, relevant or worthy of valuable taxpayer resources.”

Wind Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Young by global standards, Boston is still one of the oldest cities in the United States. It has a fascinating and well-preserved history, with monuments, museums, and plaques everywhere you look. At the same time, it is a center of research and innovation, investigating the technologies that will shape our future. (Okay, I’m biased – I do love this city.) That dichotomy, respecting the past while looking towards the future, is also the story of wind power.

For Father’s Day, I went out to the Boston Harbor Islands with my family. We had a picnic on Spectacle Island, with a great view of Boston.  The weather was perfect.

As it happens, the Tall Ships were in town. While aboard the ferry, we could see a number of the sailing ships docked along the waterfront, and more of them going in and out of the harbor.

Tall Ships. Source: www.sailboston.com.

This brought to mind a paper I had written on energy transitions in the United States. One of my observations was that the United States in 2010 used six times as much wind power per capita than it did in the Golden Age of Sail. That was a few years ago, so the numbers have changed since then. Let’s take another look.

Wind in the Golden Age of Sail

Through the late 19th century, wind was a significant energy resource for the United States. Sailing ships conveyed goods and people up and down the coast and across the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing vessels took fishermen out to sea and back home again. Mechanical windmills pumped water and ground grain. Massachusetts was a hub of the shipbuilding industry, constructing naval vessels like the frigate U.S.S. Constitution and clipper ships from Donald McKay’s shipyards, as well as the fishing boats that set out from Gloucester, New Bedford, and Cape Cod.

The first US steamship appeared in 1807, and steam gradually took over a larger share of nautical propulsion. Steamships accomplished this technological transition through diffusion, starting in specific high-value niches (such as river ferries) where their advantages justified their higher cost, then spreading to more applications as their performance improved and cost declined. We see the same pattern for the spread of electric lighting, or of solar power. Elon Musk explicitly invoked this pattern of technological diffusion with Tesla’s original Master Plan, beginning in small but high-value niches and branching out.

However, sailing ships did not disappear overnight; they continued in use for decades. Some of the ships you might see at a Tall Ships event are either replicas of or inspired by “clipper ships,” designed in the 1850s to operate in one of sail’s remaining niches, fast long-distance transport of high-value cargoes such as tea or spices. Prior to the resurgence of wind power in the 1990s, wind power reached its greatest utilization in the US around 1860 (in absolute terms) or 1810 (in per capita terms).

In 1860, the U.S. population was about 31 million. The nation had about 100,000 windmills and a sailing fleet of 4.5 million tons. I calculated that the energy harnessed from wind was around 5.65 petajoules; in the units of the day they might have noted it as 2 billion horsepower-hours.

On a per capita basis, wind power contributed 67 horsepower-hours (equal to 50 kilowatt-hours, although at the time the only use of electricity was in telegraph batteries). Compared to other sources, in 1860, wind power in total was greater than power from watermills; less than that obtained from draft animals; and roughly equal to the power output from human labor or to that of coal-fueled engines (in locomotives, steamships, and factories).

Output of Mechanical Work (Motive Power) by Resource, 1780-1880. Source: O’Connor and Cleveland (2014).

Wind was not the largest source of motive power, but still a significant one that accomplished tasks other energy resources could not.

Wind today

Steam engines continued to move into more applications, until diesel engines came to dominate marine transport in the 20th century. Sailing vessels became limited to small recreational craft. Windmills for water pumping peaked around 1920 or 1930, and declined after that, although small wind turbines for electricity generation appeared in some rural areas.

Wind power, though, has made an astounding comeback in recent years. Increased deployment supported by state and federal policies led to rapidly declining costs and improved performance. Wind turbines and solar panels together provided 0.07% of US electricity in March 1997, nearly 1% in March 2007, and over 10% of US electricity in March 2017, most of that from wind.

Wind turbines on a farm. Source: www.awea.com.

In 2016, wind power generated 226,872 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. The Census Bureau estimates that the population of the US on July 4, 2016 was 323,148,587. Therefore, wind power in 2016 provided about 700 kilowatt-hours per capita. Some wind energy is still harnessed directly—like by the Tall Ships and water-pumping windmills—but most of the wind energy we use today comes from wind turbines. The per-capita wind power contribution is now about 14 times what it was in 1860.

Wind Energy Inputs to U.S. Economy, 1790-2016. Source: Author’s calculations.

I find that pretty remarkable.

Wind tomorrow

What does the future hold for wind power? Well, it won’t grow its share tenfold in the next ten years, but its continued expansion seems likely.

Many regions have successfully integrated wind power into their electricity systems at relatively low cost, utilizing a combination of forecasting, turbine controls, geographic distribution, and grid flexibility. What were once considered difficult levels of wind to incorporate are now seen as simple. Taller turbines may enable wind power to spread in the Southeast.

Offshore wind, widely used in Europe, is now (finally) on the move in this country, too.  Although some construction costs are higher, the environment allows for installation of much larger turbines that would be difficult to transport to sites on land. Larger turbines can access winds that are both stronger and more constant at higher altitude. New Bedford, a hub of the old wind industry of sailing ships, might become a hub of the new wind industry, with potential jobs in offshore wind turbine construction  (subscription required).

A strong base, smart policies, technological advances, and a skilled workforce: wind will continue to provide clean energy, jobs, rural economic development—and power for sailing. Even if some of the new sails don’t quite fit in a Tall Ships event.

The “Skysail” system can offer annual fuel savings of 10-15% for freighters. Source: www.skysails.info.


Note to the Department of Energy: The Grid Has Changed

The electric grid is steadily evolving to incorporate growing levels of renewable energy, and it’s saving consumers money and maintaining reliability. However, an April memo from US Energy Secretary Rick Perry is critical of this fact and seeks to protect old plants from closing due to competition.

Grid reliability depends on continued investment, innovation, and modernized practices. New, renewable solar and wind power plants and new practices that replace the old are meeting the public’s electricity needs. Delaying the retirement of old plants costs consumers money. With these changes to grid, there is no change to the vigilant attention to reliability.

When the DOE releases the study and policy recommendations requested by Secretary Perry, it should show that US electric system has not been diminished by change. The study should show that reliability is defined across many criteria and time windows, and that a growing diversity of resources are capable of providing reliability services. If done well, the report will reflect the industry practice of relying on the mix of generation, and that no single metric describes the reliability of the power supply.

Renewable energy from wind and solar has grown to supply as much as 50% or more of electricity on particular days over large areas of the United States.  Individual companies and cities have set and met goals of procuring 100% of electricity use from renewable energy. These early indications of the change in the electric grid demonstrate the robust ability of the technology, investment, and coordinated operations that provide a successful functioning of the grid on new terms.

The challenge for the Department of Energy is to keep up with the changes that make the grid more reliable, despite the decline in coal. Utility engineers have taken up the challenge to use existing tools, such as power system forecasting and coordinated economic scheduling of power plants, and modernize them.

In addition, rapid advances in renewable generators technology provide surprising capabilities. The recent report made by the California ISO staff to its board describing the accuracy and speed of solar farms to provide reliability services was filled with positive exclamations. This is just the latest technical assessment to demonstrate that making more use of the services available from renewable energy for reliability improves both the economics and the reliability of the grid.

How this happened and how the energy system stays reliable

Dynamic innovation and capital investments push the evolution of energy sources, especially in generating electricity. Competition between coal and hydropower factored in the famous rivalry between inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla at the start of the electricity era (circa 1890). Today, market competition from lower-priced gas, efficiency, wind and solar is driving the decline of coal in the US and corresponding increased use of these supplies. Texas leads the US in wind installations, through a combination of competition and cost-effective infrastructure investment.

Growth of wind & solar in the US in recent years is greater than other technologies or fuels.

Lower prices for these energy sources combined with technical innovations ensures the continued reliable operation of the electric system with this growth and change. As falling costs from new competing sources of energy attract investors, the construction of new power plants using new technology is dramatic. The majority of generating capacity added in the US in each year 2014, 2015 and 2016 used either wind or solar. See the chart to the right for the rise in renewable energy installations using wind and solar.

The organizations responsible for reliability are fully engaged in this evolution

Grid operators, also known as “power pools” are responsible for reliably managing this growth across multi-state regions, with some seeing these changes faster than others. Graphs below show the growth of wind in the major electricity markets from 2008 (when nation-wide windpower (or wind and solar) surpassed 20,000 MW) to 2016.

Independent system operators that operate these markets, as well as plan and operate the grid, are informed of these changes, and the retirements of old plants, through various study obligations that supplement fundamental reliability standards. The MidContinent Independent System Operator (MISO) estimates over $350 million annual savings comes from planning for wind.  The benefits from $3.4 billion in transmission construction in the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) from 2012 to 2014 are $240 million per year, expected to exceed $10 billion over 40 years.

Power pools serve two-thirds of US consumers as system operators independent of the local utilities, fostering reliability, innovation and competition. The agreement to form the PJM power pool to save money and increase reliability was front page news in 1927. Energy needs for wartime aluminum production drove the formation of SPP eight days after the United States entered World War II. Today MISO estimates annual savings of $1.8 billion from reducing needed reserves.

Reliability oversight and sharing of best practices comes from national and continental-scale organizations. US reliability and interconnection standards are developed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation (NERC). FERC first adopted a requirement for wind contributions to grid reliability in 2003, setting a standard for “riding through” (i.e. staying connected) disturbances that was more stringent than that applied to nuclear plants. From that time on, NERC has provided a series of reports and recommendations to guide the industry in safe and reliable integration of renewable energy. With this oversight on reliability, the growth of renewable energy has reached some impressive records.

Records for supply from renewable energy

Regional record for use of renewable energy in a single hour. Chart UCS.

Wind farms, and all renewable generation in California, are setting new records for serving regional electricity needs. Adaptations by grid operators over the years allow a steady increase in renewable energy on the grid. The numbers shown here illustrate how wind and solar technology, combined with the grid operators’ tools, are running the electric supply at times with 50% wind in the Great Plains and at 80% with the combination of renewable sources (including wind, solar, hydro, biopower and geothermal) in California.


These records are during hours when renewable production is high and demand is relatively low, but they provide experience for routine operations with ever-higher levels of renewables.

Grid practices keeping pace make these records possible

The industry continues to expand the innovations and tools for reliable operations with higher levels of renewable energy and lower levels of fossil fuel.

When wind farms and solar generation are distributed across large areas, the energy produced is both more predictable and steady. This geographic diversity allows regional power pools to integrate the supply of renewable energy into the larger supply mix, as weather patterns move across their region. The effect of this pooling wind across a large area was noted by ERCOT’s official market monitor, who observed wind production in June 2016 was at all times at least 3,500 MW.

Because they’re so large, power pools also create cost savings by reducing the need for generators held in reserve (used to balance supply and demand). Smoothing out these changes, adjusting for weather forecasts, and now incorporating centralized wind forecasts for the region are all best practices. The California ISO implemented wind forecasting in 2004. The regional grid operators of Texas, New York ISO (NYISO), and the Midcontinent ISO (MISO) implemented wind forecasting in 2008 and PJM did so in 2009.

State-of-the-art wind forecasting predicts the output of individual wind farms and allows grid operators to include wind farm operations in their day-ahead preparations and real-time generator dispatch systems. Grid operators continue to improve technical forecast tools, including visualization of wind conditions to improve system operators’ situational awareness, and increased forecasting electrical system needs and capabilities based on forecasted wind output.

Once forecasting demonstrated significant cost savings and reliability benefits, grid operators and the wind industry adopted the best practice of expanding market system control of dispatch, and implementation of wind dispatch (i.e., windfarms respond economically to instructions).  In 2009, NYISO was the first to include wind offer prices and dispatch in the market system. By 2011 the markets run by MISO and PJM included similar price-based wind integration. This innovation allows ISOs to determine the most cost effective way to address reliability issues, ensuring better utilization of wind plant output while maintaining a secure, reliable system.

In addition to new power plants and grid practices, other investment categories contribute to greater reliability and more use of renewable energy. Increased transmission allows greater sharing of energy resources within and among power pools. Utilities, independent developers, and wind farm companies continue the expansion of this most fundamental electricity infrastructure. Coordination of demand response, electric vehicle charging, and simple upgrades such as thermostats and efficient lighting reduce the stress on the grid, directly and immediately improving reliability.

The utility industry has great potential to improve this sort of interaction with consumers, as well as the game-changing possibilities of battery energy storage.

Methods need to continue to evolve and be adopted

The evolution of modern electric grids has reached the point where old coal plants are retiring and grid management proceeds without any coal generation. Both New England, and Britain (old England) have reached this point. Continued progress with new technologies requires support for research, demonstration, and deployment. New methods of understanding requirements and the solutions come from open and honest dialogue.

That competition for the future cannot be successful when the regulatory agencies champion a backward-looking approach. The recommendations anticipated shortly from the DOE should recognize the realities of changes already made in electric grid operations, as well as the capacity to make greater use of new technologies already demonstrated.

Some Tough Questions for Rick Perry at DOE Budget Hearing

Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry is set to appear before the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday to talk about the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget request.

Once the hearing begins, perhaps Chairman Simpson (R-ID) should start by asking the secretary, given the extremeness of the administration’s proposed cuts, does he in fact now feel that he has accomplished his mission of eliminating the DOE. While this event promises a few laughs, the secretary will also hear some harsh words from members of both parties for whom the administration’s DOE budget proposal is a non-starter.

A deeper look into the Trump DOE budget reveals a war on renewable energy, cuts to our national labs, and reduced capacity for federal R&D, science, and innovation.

Here’s what the appropriators should focus on…

The administration is going after clean energy

The administration is trying to gut our nation’s federal work on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable transportation, proposing almost a 70% cut to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). They also propose to cut between 64–80% of the clean energy infrastructure work at the Office of Electricity Delivery and Reliability (OE). They propose to eliminate ARPA-E, our nation’s early stage clean energy research and development program. They propose eliminating DOE’s clean energy loan guarantee program as well.

This DOE budget essentially pluses up National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), takes a scalpel to the Office of Science, and takes a machete to DOE energy programs, most specifically, clean energy programs.

The cuts to EERE in particular were so extreme, all seven former assistant secretaries of EERE (form 1989 – 2017) sent a letter to appropriators and Secretary Perry earlier this month, warning that the cuts would cripple the office’s work and undermine America’s competitive advantage in clean energy research and development.

Unlike his confirmation hearing back in January, where the Secretary touted his record of support for wind energy as Texas Governor, he can’t hide from these budget numbers:

Sources: https://rules.house.gov/bill/115/hr-244; https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/doe.pdf

On top of these numbers, some of the actions taken early into Secretary Perry’s leadership appear to undermine clean energy momentum; like the recently announced grid study that many people, including prominent Republicans, are saying is biased against renewables. Or the recent announcement that DOE is dismantling their Office of International Climate and Technology, which was doing important work on international clean energy technology exchange and policy.

So there’s clearly a troubling pattern on clean energy early in the administration, and the appropriators should drill down on that with the secretary.

Please don’t hurt our national labs

At his January senate confirmation hearing, Secretary Perry called our national labs “the repository of some of the extraordinary brilliance in the world,” and he pledged to defend and support our national labs and our capacity for science and technological innovation. But the administration’s budget reflects just the opposite.

Flow of US/SE Program Funding to National Laboratories (FY 2014 enacted). Source: DOE

One third of all EERE’s budget goes to the national labs, so a 70% cut not only hurts those folks in Golden, CO at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, it also hurts folks at other labs, like Oakridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which received $117 million from EERE in FY 2015 alone.

DOE’s Office of Science, the nation’s largest sponsor of the physical sciences (it manages 10 of the 17 national laboratories), would see its budget cut by 17% under the Trump proposal.

The administration’s proposed 31% cut to the Office of Nuclear Energy is really going to hurt folks at the Idaho National Laboratory, and people are already sounding alarm bells. And the proposed 58% cut to the Office of Fossil Energy would cripple West Virginia’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. Most of the national labs are involved in the important grid and infrastructure work being done at OE and the innovative clean energy R&D work at ARPA-E as well.

Appropriators know that no matter what DOE office or program you cut, critical work and thousands of jobs are on the line at the national labs.

Also on the line? Our nation’s scientific and technological priorities, and credibility.

Do you or don’t you …support an efficient, secure, reliable grid?

The Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (OE) works to strengthen, transform, and improve energy infrastructure. It works with industry, the national labs, and government partners to help modernize the electric grid and increase the resilience of electric infrastructure.

At his confirmation hearing in January, Ranking Member Cantwell (D-WA) asked Mr. Perry about the work of the Office of Electricity; if he understood “that office’s capabilities on storage, on cyber, on transforming the grid, on all of those things and are committed to that office.” To which Mr. Perry replied “most important aspects of the agency,” and said that “those functions that are under that agency, there is great support in general for that.”

And yet the administration’s FY18 budget request cuts the office by almost half, and more specifically, it seems to target transmission and reliability, smart grid R&D, and energy storage for the deepest cuts; from 64–80%, essentially decimating the office’s work.

The appropriators need to ask the secretary to explain the contradiction here. Why would we be cutting support for work that makes our grid more efficient, affordable, reliable, and less vulnerable at a time when cyber threats and threats from extreme weather are increasing?

As Washington Flounders, Midwest Businesses Forge Ahead on Clean Energy

If you’ve been watching the news lately, it can be depressing.  With President Trump announcing that the United States will back out of the Paris Climate Agreement, his executive order to dismantle many climate policies, and the proposed EPA budget cuts, things look bleak for US leadership on climate.

But there’s hope! Despite all the negative attacks on clean energy at the federal level, clean energy momentum is happening, including in the Midwest. Businesses are leading the charge through an effort known as RE100.

What is RE 100?

RE100 is a collaborative, global initiative of influential businesses committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy, and working to greatly increase demand for renewable energy. There are currently 96 RE100 companies that have made a commitment to power their businesses with 100% renewable energy.

This is important because the industrial sector uses more energy than any other end-use sector, approximately 54% of the world’s total delivered energy. Businesses from all over the world, and from an array of sectors, have joined this commitment to support the transition to a clean energy economy. While there are some businesses on the list that may not surprise you like Google, Apple, and IKEA, there are some businesses, particularly in the Midwest, that may.

Midwest businesses are on board

You may not expect to see Detroit-based car giant General Motors (GM) on the list, but they have committed to using 100% renewable electricity across their global operations by 2050. This commitment, combined with their pursuit of developing affordable electric vehicles positions GM to be a clean energy leader in their industry. With a global annual consumption of nine terawatt hours of electricity, equivalent to more than the total yearly energy consumption of Nicaragua, Senegal, and Uganda combined, moving forward with a 100 percent renewable energy goal is no small feat. Their roadmap to achieving this goal includes adding 30 megawatts of solar arrays at two facilities in China, completing an installation of 466 kilowatts of solar at an operations plant in upstate New York, and their largest ever renewable energy purchase in 2016 with a commitment to buy 50 megawatts of wind power.

Salesforce, the Chicago based CRM software solutions and cloud computing company, has committed to increasing the percentage of renewable energy powering its global operations and reaching its goal of 100% renewable electricity. To work towards this goal, Salesforce signed a 12-year wind energy agreement for 40 megawatts (MW) from a West Virginia wind farm through a virtual power purchase agreement. Last year they announced their second renewable energy agreement, a 12-year contract for 24 MW from a Texas wind farm.

Headquartered in Grand Rapids Michigan, Steelcase is an office furniture manufacturer. Their long-term commitment to 100% renewable energy reflects the company’s larger energy strategy which has resulted in a 60% reduction in energy use since 2001. Steelcase has chosen to meet its commitment through the purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs) from a portfolio that includes non-emitting sources like wind and hydroelectric energy. Steelcase has also created a program to encourage the company’s suppliers to purchase RECs from new wind energy facilities. Partners that choose to participate will get Steelcase’s volume discount pricing.

Procter & Gamble (P&G), headquartered in Cincinnati, has also joined RE100, instituting an intermediate goal of 30% renewable energy by 2020. This is in addition to adopting a goal to reduce absolute greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30% by 2020. Clean energy investments make economic sense: P&G’s energy efficiency improvements alone have resulted in a cost savings of more than $350 million since 2010.

We push forward

President Trump may have announced he is going to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, but hundreds of businesses and investors have vowed to continue to support climate action toward meeting the Paris climate targets. And more and more businesses continue to commit to 100 renewable energy.

Significant action on climate change is happening around the world, its gaining momentum, and it’s exceedingly driven by the private sector.

Renewable energy prices are falling, and investing in renewable energy just makes economic sense for many large businesses. Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) found that 71 of the Fortune 100 companies currently have renewable energy or sustainability targets.

What can you do?

As an individual, you can follow the business community’s lead and you can commit to support the Paris Agreement by reducing your own carbon emissions, support US states, cities, businesses, investors, universities, and other entities taking strong climate action, and urge President Trump to protect federal safeguards for our health and environment.

How Do We Get to 100% Renewable Energy? Could be Storage, Storage, Storage

As communities, companies, and even entire Midwestern utility companies move to supply 100% of electricity needs from renewable energy, the question presents itself: is this even possible? The answer, it turns out, is yes—and it’s made possible by the technical capabilities of advanced energy technologies (and especially storage).

This is UCS, so let’s talk about how to get the hard stuff done. To replace conventional generation with renewables, eventually all the services from fossil-fuel power plants have to be supplied by adding wind, solar, smart consumer appliances and electric vehicles, and storage.

As renewable energy is added by businesses and utilities, here are 5 great building blocks for a future that is 100% renewable energy.

Hot water heated with solar energy is energy storage. credit: DIY Home Sweet Home

1. Solar is capable of so much more than energy

The utility industry has begun to recognize that new technologies available can provide the reliability functions they need. The adoption of digital controls on solar and wind systems, particularly the inverters, make reliability functions available and useful already, without storage.

The fastest changing parts of the power grid and thus the tool box of solutions are coming from solar—which has present deployments averaging over 10,000 MW per year—and the sudden return of interest and capital to utility-scale energy storage.

The California grid operator has taken the challenge posed by UCS to demonstrate that the solar farms being built today are capable of providing a range of “essential services.” See this summary of a field test where a solar farm demonstrated faster and more accurate performance than other generator types. Wind turbines have also demonstrated these capabilities.

2. Storage is becoming part of the power plant

New energy storage deployments demonstrate just how quickly we can overcome the limit that the sunset creates for solar. The trajectory of energy storage substituting for conventional generation can be traced from actual practices. Beyond the early or largest examples of non-battery energy storage recently illustrated in the New York Times, going forward, there is widespread and dramatic potential for the use of battery storage by businesses and hybrid power plants.

Battery storage added at a power plant, both conventional and renewables, can take on duties that were met by old generators. First seen in remote locations, battery storage paired with generation began in isolated grids in places like Hawaii and Chile where ancillary services from very small generator fleets were unavailable or constraining the grid operations. This helped establish the technical and commercial foundation for expansion to larger grids in the United States.

Recent energy storage deployments now demonstrate a turning point. Present state-of-the-art technology adoption includes manufacturer General Electric (GE) adding energy storage to improve the performance of its line of peaking plants.

With short duration storage now understood as providing ancillary and essential services, GE is delivering hybrid plants with storage and a gas turbine integrated in a system with a single set of controls. The GE hybrid system uses the storage to provide the reliability capabilities of the gas generator with instantaneous response, regardless of whether the unit is started and burning fuel when response is needed.

Switching to electric can include energy storage. credit: NRECA

3. Solar plus storage is getting cheap

Well before planning for large-scale grids that run on 100% renewable energy, long-duration storage is already being paired with variable renewable generation (solar now, look soon for wind), making it able to satisfy market, reliability, and regulatory requirements.

Last month, Tucson Electric Power announced a contract with major power plant company NextEra that should extend production from a large solar array for 4 hours, and operate with the technical capabilities of a conventional plant. The amazing power purchase agreement price, under $0.045/kWh over 20 years, should put everyone on notice that solar plus storage is a very serious competitor based on innovations and cost-reductions.

4. Storage can pay for itself

Batteries used at the customer’s home or business to supplement the grid can lower the need for utility plants. For example, customers with a demand charge can use energy storage (combined with solar or not) to reduce that charge.

This business model addresses the utility premise that a consumer demand charge reflects the need for utility plants. The regulators should note this charge has not been aligned to the utility’s system peaks, and more accurate matching of demand charges and system peaks will create a better regulatory outcome (i.e. lower costs for the utility and consumers) than current practice. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company advises battery storage changes the industry, and in more than a few ways.

5. The future is now

With the introduction of inverters and better energy storage, decision-makers are, for the first time, facing the reality that renewables and storage may be able to replace what’s currently used.

At present, grid operators are showing they can maintain reliability when renewable energy has reached 40-60% of electricity demand in particular hours. Competitive prices are driving more wind and solar every day. An energy future of 100% renewables can be seen as coming soon. With multiple business models for storage replacing conventional utility plant, we can see where this is headed.

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

Wind Keeps Creating Jobs, Even as We Pull Out of Paris

President Trump announced last week that he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement because, he said, it would impose “draconian financial and economic burdens” on the US. This classic fossil fuel industry rhetoric of pitting the economy against the environment (in this case the climate and future of our planet) has been proven time and time again to be a false choice. The latest, impressive US wind industry results show that more clearly than ever.

Numerous cost-effective climate solutions are available that can create jobs and reduce emissions at the same time to help meet the Paris Agreement. In fact, solutions like improving the energy efficiency of our homes, offices, factories and cars, and investing in solar and wind power can take us most of the way there and actually save consumers money.

When you include the public health and environmental benefits of clean energy, the savings and economic benefits are even larger.

Wind power is working for America

For wind power in particular, recent data from the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) 2016 Annual Market Report show how wind is creating high quality jobs and important economic benefits to rural areas, while reducing emissions at the same time.

US wind capacity has more than doubled since 2010, accounting for nearly one-third of all new electric generating capacity since 2007. Wind power surpassed hydropower in 2016 to become the number one source of renewable electric generating capacity in the country. The wind industry installed more than 8,200 megawatts (MW) of new capacity in 2016, bringing the total US installed capacity to 82,000 MW. Wind power generated 5.5 percent of total US electricity generation in 2016, the equivalent of meeting the entire electricity needs of 24 million average American homes.

Wind industry jobs are growing fast. The US wind industry added nearly 15,000 new jobs in 2016, reaching a total of 102,500 full-time equivalent jobs in all 50 states, up from 50,500 jobs in 2013. Wind power technician is the fasting growing job in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Texas, the national leader in installed wind capacity, also has the most wind-related jobs with more than 22,000, followed by Iowa, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas, each having 5,000 to 9,000 wind jobs (see map).

Source: AWEA annual market report, year-ending 2016.

Domestic wind manufacturing is expanding. Wind power supports 25,000 US manufacturing jobs at more than 500 facilities located in 43 states. US wind manufacturing increased 17 percent in 2016, with 3 new factories opening and 5 existing factories expanding production. Ohio is the leading state for wind manufacturing with more than 60 facilities, followed by Texas (40), Illinois (35), North Carolina (27), Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (26 each).

While manufacturing jobs are concentrated in the Rust Belt, Colorado, Iowa, and California are also national leaders manufacturing major wind turbine components, and the Southeast is a major wind manufacturing hub with more than 100 factories. US facilities produced 50-85 percent of the major wind turbine components installed in the United States in 2015, up from 20 percent in 2007, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL).

Investing in rural communities. The wind industry invested $14.1 billion in the US economy in 2016, and $143 billion over the past decade, with most of this flowing to rural areas where the wind projects are located. Wind energy also provided an estimated $245 million annually in lease payments to farmers, ranchers and other landowners in 2016, with more than $175 million occurring in low-income counties. AWEA estimates that 71 percent of all wind projects installed through 2016 are located in low-income rural counties.

And now for the kicker…

Wind power is providing major economic benefits to President Trump’s base. AWEA estimates that 88 percent of the wind power added in 2016 was built in states that voted for President Trump. In addition, 86 percent of total installed wind capacity in the US and 60 percent of wind-related manufacturing facilities are located in Republican districts.

Source: AWEA annual market report, year-ending 2016.

Wind power is affordable for consumers. The cost of wind power has fallen 66 percent since 2009, making renewable energy more affordable to utilities and consumers. A 2016 NREL and LBNL analysis quantifying the benefits of increasing renewable energy use to meet existing state renewable standards found that the health and environmental benefits from reducing carbon emissions and other air pollutants were about three times higher than the cost of the production tax credit (PTC).

Wind power is reducing emissions: AWEA estimates that existing wind projects avoided nearly 159 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2016, equivalent to 9 percent of total power sector emissions, as well as 393 pounds of SO2 and 243 million pounds of NOx emissions.

More wind development, jobs, and emission reductions are on the way

And there’s lots more to come. Wind development will continue over the next few years due to the recent 5-year extension of the federal tax credits, state renewable electricity standards, and continued cost reductions. Studies by NREL, EIA, and UCS project that the tax credit extensions will drive 29,000 to 59,000 MW of additional wind capacity in the US by 2020.

Similarly, a study by Navigant Consulting projected 35,000 MW of new wind capacity will be installed in the US between 2017 and 2020, increasing total wind-related jobs to 248,000 by 2020 and injecting $85 billion into the US economy. They also found that each wind turbine creates 44 years of full-time employment over its lifetime.

When combined with additional deployment of solar, NREL found that the federal tax credit extension would result in a cumulative net reduction of 540 to 1,420 million metric tons (MMT) of CO2 emissions between 2016 and 2030, depending on projected natural gas prices.

Studies by EPA and UCS also show that the Clean Power Plan (CPP)—a key policy for achieving the US Paris commitments–would continue to drive wind and solar development and emission reductions through 2030, with the public health and environmental benefits greatly exceeding the costs.

Backing away from Paris and the CPP could actually hurt the US economy

All these amazing facts show that President Trump is wrong to ignore the economic benefits of wind and other clean energy options for the US, and that’s a real shame.

Market forces and continued cost reductions will drive more clean energy development in the US in the near-term. However, countries like China and India are also making significant investments in renewable energy as a key strategy for reducing emissions under the Paris Agreement.

For America to maintain its leadership position in the global clean energy race, we need strong long-term climate and clean energy policies like the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan. Our country will be stronger for it, not weaker.

There Are 68.4 Million Better Places for Solar Panels Than Mr. Trump’s Wall

Yesterday President Trump suggested putting solar panels on his infamous border wall to help pay for it (since Mexico certainly won’t). While there are more things wrong with that proposal than I can cover in this space, it’s great to see that President Trump has finally figured out solar panels are cost-effective energy investments, paying for themselves even if you ignore the many environmental benefits. But here are more than 68.4 million better places for President Trump to invest in solar to pay dividends for the American people.

Solar on the roof

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) last year published a fine study of the potential of America’s rooftops to host solar. The researchers analyzed how much solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity we could get overhead, from existing buildings (considering roof orientation, tilt, and shading), and calculated what it would add up to.

One conclusion of that analysis was that “83% of small buildings have a suitable PV installation location,” and that more than a quarter of the total roof area of those buildings could work. NREL is careful to say that that’s the technical potential, not necessarily what would make sense in other regards. But if we take that 83%, and consider the number of stand-alone, single-family houses, you end up with 68,380,764 million (give or take a few million) places to put solar.

As it happens, a lot of those sunny rooftops are near our beautiful southern border:  In most Texas zip codes, for example, more than 90% of the small buildings might work for solar.

Source: Gagnon et al. 2016

From a technical potential point of view, residential rooftops across the country could meet a big chunk of household electricity needs in a lot of states: More than 90% in a dozen states, and at least 70% in 27 states.

Source: Gagnon et al. 2016

Solar on more roofs

But wait, there’s still more: Note that NREL’s “small buildings” doesn’t just mean detached single-family homes. If we add in duplexes and small apartment buildings, that would mean millions more rooftops for solarizing.

And then there’s plenty of roof space beyond small buildings:commercial, industrial, and institutional roofs. NREL found that “more than 99% of large and medium buildings” have some place that would work for solar (“at least one qualifying roof plane”). And the total rooftop area that would work is much higher than for small buildings (very few trees shading the middle of a big-box store roof…). Their calculations suggest potential on around half of the total roof area of medium buildings, and two-thirds of large ones.

If you take the rooftop potential across the various size buildings (which, unlike walls in the middle of deserts, are already connected to the electricity grid), and compare it even to the total electricity needs in each state, you find that it really adds up (particularly in states and cities that are serious about energy efficiency).

Source: Gagnon et al. 2016

Solar on the ground

Plus, roofs are definitely not the only place suitable for solar. The latest solar stats show that the progress of large-scale solar, done by utilities and others, has been even more impressive than residential and commercial (“non-residential”).

Source: GTM-SEIA Solar Market Insight, 2016 Year in Review

And large, ground-mounted solar arrays don’t just make sense in fields, farmlands, and deserts. Old landfills or “brownfields”—lands that have been degraded by past industrial activity—can be a great fit for new solar capacity. (The same could be true for solar at old power plant sites, where the plants have shut down but the infrastructure and grid connection are still there.)

Larger arrays can also be the foundation of community solar systems, a way of making solar work for people who can’t or don’t want to do it on the roof.

Solar in reality

So enough of the frivolous flights of folly in trying to use solar’s overwhelming popularity to make a wildly unpopular project slightly less unpopular. A border wall might need solar, but solar certainly doesn’t need a border wall.

Solar is real, and it makes sense. And we already have plenty of places to put it, if Pres. Trump would just put his office and budget to good use for moving American energy forward.

Nevada Lawmakers Say Yes to More Clean Energy

Yesterday the Nevada Legislature did its part to ensure Silver State residents will breathe cleaner air and benefit from more clean energy jobs by passing a bill, AB 206, that would raise the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) to 40% by 2030.

Wind and solar electricity prices are at all-time lows, and in many parts of the country they are the cheapest sources of power. This makes a switch to renewables a good move for any state.

But for Nevada, a state extremely reliant on natural gas and therefore vulnerable to shortages and price spikes, diversifying its energy portfolio with more renewables is an even better idea.

A PV solar array in Nixon, Nevada. Source:BlackRockSolar

Raising the RPS in Nevada will bolster its growing clean energy economy and send an important message to Washington D.C. that states won’t sit idle while the Trump Administration tries to take the country backwards.

Kudos to Assemblyman Brooks for spearheading this bill and making sure that Nevada will not be left out of the clean energy transition. We now wait for Governor Sandoval to firmly establish Nevada as a clean energy leader and sign the bill into law.

While You Weren’t Looking, Energy Efficiency Became One of Our Nation’s Top Energy Resources

Here’s a fact I bet you didn’t know: in 2015, energy efficiency saved more electricity than was produced by every type of electricity resource in our country but for coal and natural gas. Hydro, renewables, even nuclear—energy efficiency saved more than each of them produced.

That is incredible. It also means that energy efficiency came through as the third-largest electricity resource in the United States that year.

When it comes to clean energy, we spend a lot of our time talking about the tremendous benefits and abilities of resources like wind and solar. But do you know the very cleanest energy resource we have? That would be the one that helps us never call upon an electron at all.

Over the past few decades, energy efficiency has slowly but steadily helped us make better use of the energy we consume for all types of activities, from heating and cooling to lighting and transportation. Everybody has benefited as a result, so it makes sense to keep pushing forward, right?

You’d think.

But at present, energy efficiency initiatives at the federal level are under fierce attack. That won’t stop our progress, though, because we are seeing states and cities all across the country working hard to keep driving the momentum and stacking up the savings in new and exciting ways. Here’s a look at some of the promising progress afoot.

The invisible resource that could

Energy efficiency efforts were developed in earnest following the price spikes of the 1973 oil crisis. Stakeholders throughout the residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors all looked for ways to use less energy while still achieving the same output. In the aftermath, research and policymaking persisted, and energy efficiency has been chipping away at our energy use ever since. And as our peers at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently calculated, these efforts have resulted in significant gains:

Between 1980 and 2014, ACEEE estimates that energy efficiency efforts (blue) have steadily increased the amount of energy we save, such that by 2014, energy efficiency savings totaled the equivalent of nearly half of our actual energy use.

As ACEEE points out, while the nation’s gross domestic product grew by 149 percent between 1980 and 2014, energy use increased by just 26 percent. The figure above illustrates why. The green wedge represents the reductions in energy use arising from structural changes in our economy (e.g., transitioning from manufacturing to service). The blue wedge, however, is strictly a result of gains from energy efficiency.

If you look carefully, you can see that by 2014, the blue wedge now totals more than half of our actual energy use. What an extraordinary achievement!

And here’s where the stat from the top of the article is derived: if you back out the savings we’ve made from energy efficiency programs implemented since 1990, the resource now ends up comprising the third-largest share of our electricity generation. Here’s ACEEE’s analysis for 2015:

When you compare energy efficiency savings against electricity generation by resource, the scale of energy efficiency savings jump out, both at an absolute level (left) and a relative level (right) of 2015 electricity generation.

Stacking the savings

So how did we achieve these remarkable gains? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we make sure we keep on achieving them? Here, so much of it comes down to fostering supportive policies—plus continuing to fund the research driving the technological innovation that gives us the ability to keep leaping ahead.

There’s no getting around the fact that policies at the federal level have resulted in major gains, and set the stage for so many of the advancements from which we’ve benefited. Indeed, it’s been estimated that for every $1 dollar invested in energy efficiency, stakeholders receive $2 to $4 in return. Further, time and again energy efficiency has been shown to be one of the most cost-effective resources when it comes to driving down emissions in the power sector.

Still, somehow, the present administration is proposing to slash budgets for energy efficiency research, pause some standards designed to save consumers and businesses money, and zero out EPA’s widely appreciated labeling program ENERGY STAR.

But here’s the thing: although federal initiatives are under fire, our states and municipalities are still charging ahead. And because of that, we can keep on looking forward to many gains to come. For that, we should celebrate. Further, this local progress can be held up as proof that regardless of rhetoric at the top, all citizens want to save money (and, in turn, clean our air). Energy efficiency just makes sense.

So let’s take a look at some actual leaders.

In a recently released report, my colleagues ranked states according to their clean energy momentum. Three of the metrics considered energy efficiency: 1) targets for electricity savings according to state energy efficiency resource standards, 2) jobs in energy efficiency per thousand people, and 3) energy savings as a portion of retail electricity sales. Here are the top 10 states for each:

Different states rise to the top when it comes to energy efficiency metrics, including through energy efficiency resource standards (left), energy efficiency jobs (center), and utility savings (right), .

But energy efficiency improvements can also take root at the local level, and in some very meaningful ways. ACEEE recently released a report that ranked cities across the United States with these opportunities in mind.

The report takes a deep dive into each of the metrics, offering a fascinating—and instructive—guide that is well worth a read. Here’s a top-line look at how the 51 ranked cities performed. Wave hello to Boston at the head of the class!

ACEEE ranked 51 cities around the country according to a variety of energy efficiency policies. Note the allocation of possible points across policy areas–it’s an instructive reflection of key opportunities at the local level.

When less is more, energy efficiency is best of all

Though we can’t always see energy efficiency at work, we can all recognize and value the resulting reductions in electricity bills, lowering of expenses, and more comfortable environments. So to keep pushing forward even if we’re stalled at the top, let’s take full advantage of the many opportunities that exist for driving gains in energy efficiency at the state and local levels. And along the way, let’s celebrate our state and local leaders out front on these issues, and continue to encourage those still finding their way.

ACEEE, October 2016 ACEEE, May 2017 Clean Energy Momentum, (UCS, April 2017) ACEEE, May 2017

Coal’s Days Are Numbered—So Where Will the Electrons Come From?

The last big coal plant in New England is gone, New Jersey’s biggest utility is done with coal generation, and Florida’s largest electric utility is retiring yet another coal plant. These are more solid signposts on the way to our clean energy future… if we get this right. But as coal exits, what’s taking its place?

Exit Big Coal

A spate of recent energy headlines make clear that, despite President Trump’s stunning abdication of climate and energy leadership, coal is on its way out. Take these, for example:

Clean energy has been a part of this energy transformation. The biggest factor in coal’s demise, though, say the utilities involved, has been the severely eroded economics of coal versus natural gas. “The way the market works, the economics don’t work [for coal],” says PSEG. In Florida, FP&L says that shutting the St. Johns plant is part of a plan to “save customers millions of dollars on fuel costs” while cutting air pollution.

That’s worth underscoring: By retiring coal, utilities aren’t just reducing public health risks; they’re also saving money. Not the story that coal-is-cheap boosters would have you believe.

Another splash of this new reality, actually, comes from the director of President Trump’s National Economic Council himself. “Coal doesn’t even make that much sense anymore,” says Gary Cohn, citing natural gas, wind, and solar as better options.

Enter… who?

With coal on its way out, though, what’s replacing it? That’s where a new graphic about the evolution of electricity mixes is really handy.

The graphic, from Pat Knight at Synapse Energy Economics, is an updating of one of his that I talked about a couple of years ago, and the latest version is just as mesmerizing (and, with a slower rate, even easier to follow). Here’s the GIF version, which covers 1990 to 2016:

And below are stills of two of the years, showing that even the transformation over just the last decade is a marvel to behold:

While the growth in natural gas (orange bars) is worthy of caution—maybe an elephant-sized amount of caution at that—lots of positive things jump out from the GIF and those juxtaposed years, stuff like:

  • The dark upper left corner (coal) is shrinking, consistent with the straight-from-the-headlines tidbits above. Look at Nevada, Delaware, and Oklahoma. Pennsylvania and Virginia. Alabama. Even Utah, Indiana, and New Mexico. And that progress may just be a down payment on going coal free.
  • Even at the low end of coal usage, Synapse’s Pat Knight notes that the number of states producing 10% or less of their electricity from coal has almost doubled in recent years, going from nine in 2007 to 17 in 2016.
  • As the GIF version shows, while it once played a big role in electricity generation, oil is basically gone from the power sector, with the exception of Hawaii and Alaska. (In Knight’s version, the “other” in those red bars includes biomass, which is why Maine and Vermont show up redder than they otherwise might.)
  • And then there are those yellow bars, the non-hydro renewables piece that barely existed in 2006, and are now forces to be reckoned with. Knight notes that the number of states producing 10% or more (much more, in some cases) of their electricity from renewables other than hydro grew from 0 in 2007 to 17 in 2016. We have wind power to thank for that in various states—Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota each generated at least 20% from wind last year—and solar is coming on strong.

Even if President Trump is unwilling or unable to move ahead on energy, plenty of others get it. Forward-thinking utilities are continuing to embrace evolution—even revolution—in the energy sector. So are states leading on clean energy momentum.

Our changing electricity mixes and the latest news make clear that coal is on its way out. Now we just need to be smart about what replaces it.

President Trump’s Epic Fail on Paris

When the Paris Agreement was adopted on December 12th, 2015, it was hailed as a triumph of multilateral diplomacy, offering real hope that the nations of the world could come to grips with the climate change crisis and leave our children and grandchildren with a habitable planet. While France’s superb team steered the Agreement through to completion, it was the ability of the United States and China to put aside their differences and the joint leadership of Presidents Obama and Xi at several key moments that was seen by many as the critical factor to the success of the negotiations.

Both of these presidents recognized that climate change poses a severe threat to the security and well-being of their citizens, and understood that effectively addressing this crisis is much less costly than coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.

In sharp contrast, President Trump’s announcement today that he intends to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement demonstrates that he comprehends exactly none of this. Ignoring the advice of other world leaders, the CEOs of hundreds of major corporations, Pope Francis, and many other important voices, President Trump took an action that jeopardizes the health and prosperity of every American as well as people all over the world.

Pulling out of Paris will diminish the standing of the United States in world affairs, and make it harder for other leaders to collaborate with President Trump on trade, terrorism, and other critical issues, as it reinforces the belief of an increasing number of their citizens that he cares not a whit for their interests and concerns.

And contrary to what President Trump says, his action today will do absolutely nothing to boost the economy or create jobs; instead, it will harm the ability of U.S. companies and workers to compete in the rapidly growing global market for climate-friendly technologies.

But the deed is done. Now attention turns to the impact of this irresponsible move on the future of the Paris Agreement and the overall drive to decarbonize the global economy as is needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

We’ll always have Paris—won’t we?

With his move today, President Trump puts the United States in elite company, joining Nicaragua and Syria as the only other nations of the world not supporting the Paris Agreement. There are no indications that any other country intends to follow President Trump out the door. In fact, just the opposite has occurred in recent weeks, as other countries have reacted firmly to President Trump’s rollbacks of domestic climate action and the prospect of US withdrawal from Paris.

Here are just some of the notable statements:

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Lu Kang: “No matter how other countries’ policies on climate change, as a responsible large developing country China’s resolve, aims and policy moves in dealing with climate change will not change.” And in a clear reference to President Trump’s infamous claim that climate change is a “hoax” made up by China, Premier Li Keqiang said this: “Fighting climate change is a global consensus, it’s not invented by China.”

European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete: “The continued leadership of the EU, China and many other major economies is now more important than ever. We see the Paris Agreement and the transition to a modern, more innovative economy as the growth engine of job creation, investment opportunities and economic prosperity.”

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks: “Whoever tries to change into reverse gear is only going to harm themselves when it comes to international competitiveness.”

Indian Minister for Power and Coal Piyush Goyal: India is “pursuing religiously” its goal of developing 225 gigawatts of clean energy by 2022, which is “not subject to some other country’s decision.”

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland: “We believe climate change is one of the greatest threats facing Canadians and the world and it is a threat which is a global threat and which needs global solutions.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov: “President Putin signed this convention in Paris. Russia attaches great significance to it.”

Perhaps most eloquent was Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, who said: “A President’s job is to protect their citizens, grow the economy and pave the way for future generations. Acting on climate change is the best way to do all of this. While we are extremely disappointed to see the United States seeking to roll back its efforts to reduce emissions, we are heartened to see the rest of the world remains firmly committed to the Paris Agreement and to reaping the enormous economic opportunities that come with it. My country’s survival depends on every country delivering on the promises they made in Paris—our own commitment to it will never waiver.”

As these comments make clear, other countries see fulfillment of the commitments they have made under the Paris Agreement as not just their responsibility to the global community, but as squarely in their own national interest. Developing country leaders understand that the mounting impacts of climate change endanger their ability to achieve their economic development objectives, and both developed and developing country leaders are eager to share in the massive economic and job creation opportunities created by the clean energy revolution.

Other countries did not sign up for the Paris Agreement to please the United States, and President Trump’s abdication of leadership will not cause them to leave it.

The geopolitical consequences of today’s action

When President George W. Bush announced in March, 2001 that the United States was abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, he and his foreign policy team didn’t anticipate how negatively the rest of the world would react. As his Secretary of State Colin Powell said two months later, “when the blowback came I think it was a sobering experience that everything the American president does has international repercussions.”

The blowback to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is likely to be even worse, given the much higher profile of the climate issue now compared to 2001, and the fact that some 120 world leaders participated in the opening high-level segment of the Paris climate conference in 2015.

As Nicholas Burns, deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, said earlier this year, “I think it would be a major mistake, even a historic mistake, to disavow the Paris deal… I can’t think of an issue, except perhaps NATO, where if the U.S. simply walks away, it would have such a major negative impact on how we are seen.”

In a letter to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt earlier this month, Germany’s Environment Mnister Barbara Hendricks was quite direct about the consequences of today’s decision: “I am very concerned that a US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would cause lasting damage to the long-standing mutual trust and close cooperation between our two countries and between the US and other countries in Europe and elsewhere,” she wrote.

As Todd Stern noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed, withdrawal from Paris should be seen as “an act of diplomatic malpractice. Countries large and small, rich and poor, are deeply invested in Paris because they understand the peril of climate change and know the Paris agreement cannot be truly effective without U.S. engagement.”

Stern predicted other countries “would see withdrawal as a slap in the face, disrespecting their fundamental interests and, in turn, eroding the United States’ diplomatic capital. This matters. In diplomacy, as in life, if you tell someone, ‘to hell with what you care about,’ don’t expect open arms when you come calling with your own needs.”

The repercussions of President Trump’s action today, which some are calling his “biggest middle finger to the world yet,” will only fully play out over the coming weeks and months. But it will clearly add to growing concerns about the ability of the United States to be a responsible actor on the international stage.

What comes next?

In Paris, countries set an aggressive temperature limitation goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels,” and acknowledged that to meet this goal, countries must aim “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”

They also explicitly acknowledged that the initial commitments put forward under the Paris Agreement fall well short of what’s needed to constrain temperature increases to below 2 degrees C, much less to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees C, and they included provisions in the agreement to ratchet up their individual and collective level of effort over time, as needed to close that “ambition gap.”

As a next step, countries agreed to hold a “facilitative dialogue” at the climate summit that will take place in Poland at the end of next year, in order to “take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal…and to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions.” They also requested the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to prepare a special report on these issues to inform the dialogue.

The expectation was that by the end of this decade, countries that had taken on 2025 emissions reduction commitments under Paris, such as the United States, would put more ambitious 2030 commitments on the table. At the same time, China, India, the European Union and other countries that had made 2030 commitments would be expected to review those commitments and as appropriate, revise them upwards. It’s already clear that many of these countries are on track to overachieve their initial commitments, partly as a result of continuing dramatic reductions in the cost of solar, wind, and other clean energy technologies.

So the feasibility of increasing ambition is not in question; it’s a matter of political will.

But it’s also clear that President Trump is not going to come to his senses, rejoin the world in the Paris Agreement, and put a more ambitious US commitment on the table for 2030. It will be up to others—starting with China and the European Union—to put their own stronger commitments on the table and challenge others to join them. It should be noted that the 48 countries making up the Climate Vulnerability Forum have already set a high standard here, by committing themselves to achieve net carbon neutrality and obtaining 100% of their energy from renewable resources—despite the fact they have a lower level of economic development than most of the world’s major emitting countries.

In that regard, the EU-China summit being held today and tomorrow in Brussels represents a significant milestone in the shift in global leadership on this issue away from the United States. Reports are that European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will issue a joint statement tomorrow saying that “The increasing impacts of climate change require a decisive response,” and that “the EU and China consider climate action and the clean energy transition an imperative more important than ever.”

Translating those strong words into collective action—not just by the EU and China, but others as well—is essential if the Paris Agreement is to not just survive, but thrive, in the wake of the at least temporary withdrawal of the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter.

Back here in the land of the free and the home of the brave

President Trump’s action today flies in the face of public opinion; fully seven in 10 Americans support US participation in the Paris Agreement. Gallup’s tracking poll shows that concern about the global warming threat have reached an 8-year high; a majority of Americans say they are worried it will pose a serious risk to their way of life. And a recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of people do not support President Trump’s policies to rollback action on climate change.

While there are partisan differences on these issues, polls show that 57% of Republican voters support US participation in the Paris Agreement and 55% of Trump voters support current policies on climate change. Another poll shows that Trump supporters overwhelmingly support renewable energy, with 84% supporting the further expansion of solar power in the US.

The business community also strongly supports climate action and the Paris Agreement. In the run-up to today’s announcement, more than 1000 American companies and investors with over $1.2 trillion in annual revenues signed a statement to President Trump urging him to stay in the Paris Agreement and to strengthen, not roll back, low-carbon policies at home to meet the US Paris commitment.

Major energy companies, including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell, Total and Statoil support the Paris Agreement; even Peabody Energy and Arch Coal told the White House they believe remaining in Paris serves US interests.

As former US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said in his recent Washington Post op-ed, “The reasons for this support are clear. Business leaders are fact-based. There is no room for ideological nonsense in the ‘C-suite.’ Whatever their political party, corporate executives get that climate change is real and most are actively planning business strategy to manage its consequences and limit their own emissions. They see Paris as a balanced agreement they can work with.”

He also notes that “corporate leaders understand that the transition to clean energy presents one of the biggest economic opportunities of this century, that climate change is a major driver of this transition and that the United States is perfectly positioned to lead it with our unmatched culture of innovation. They also know, conversely, that opting out on climate change will undermine this chance to create jobs and wealth.”

Just a few quick facts to reinforce his last point: Over three million people work in clean energy in America, far more than work in the motor vehicles, oil and gas extraction, and coal mining industries combined. The solar and wind industries are creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the US economy, with employment in the solar industry alone growing by 25% in 2016 to 260,000.

State and local leaders also support the Paris Agreement: Governors from twelve states accounting for one-third of the US population and nearly 40 percent of America’s GDP recently sent President Trump a letter urging him to stay in the Agreement, as did fourteen Attorneys General. Mayors from 75 cities representing over 41 million Americans wrote to the president, saying that “Climate change is both the greatest single threat we face, and our greatest economic opportunity for our nation. That is why we affirm our cities’ commitments to taking every action possible to achieve the principles and goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, and to engage states, businesses and other sectors to join us.”

These governors, mayors, and business leaders are doing much more than just sending letters to the president. They are making commitments to significantly cut or even eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, to get 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, to upgrade the resilience of their infrastructure and supply chains, and to take other actions to deal with the reality of climate change.

While it is deeply unfortunate that President Trump is trying to take the federal government in the opposite direction, his actions won’t cause these leaders to reverse course; if anything, his head-in-the-sand approach is leading many of them to step up even more forcefully on the issue. As my colleague Rachel Cleetus noted in her post earlier today, these actions, combined with the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy, mean that progress towards creating a US clean energy economy will continue, despite President Trump’s efforts to slow it down.

So there it is. While President Trump’s action today is misinformed, harmful to the real interests of Americans, and will do real damage to the standing of the US in the world, it will not derail the Paris Agreement, nor should it lessen the commitment of other countries, state and local leaders, companies, investors and others to take the actions needed to decarbonize the global economy and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Affordable Solar Power is Coming to Low-Income Minority Neighborhoods

In the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Broadway Heights in San Diego, nearly half of the 192 homes have rooftop solar panels. Neighbor after neighbor talks about what they could now afford. They were paying $200 and $300 a month in electric bills. Now they’re paying zero to $50.

“Now I can get my air conditioner!” said Thresia Route, 62, an information technology administrator.

In Southern Homes and Gardens, an affordable townhouse cooperative in predominantly African-American Southeast Washington, 55 of 90 residences have rooftop solar panels. On-site manager Telana Felder calls solar “my best friend” to escape her former monthly bills of $150 to $200.

“Last month the bill was $4, then this month it was $14,” Felder said. “It was so low I said something was wrong, so I called. They said it was because I had credits from the solar.”

These are among the thousands of moderate- to low-income families and fixed-income retired seniors who are the vanguard in communities of color that are now enjoying solar power. Under a wide variety of state and federal policies and funding mechanisms, and under both nonprofit and for-profit business models, such families are changing the face of renewable energy, broadening the diversity of solar customers with respect to race and income.

For most families I interviewed on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the original attraction was less about getting away from fossil fuels than getting away from the high-energy bills associated with those dirty fuels. According to a 2016 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All, households under $25,000 in median income have an “energy burden” more than triple that of households of at least $90,000 in median income. Energy burden is the percentage of income a family spends on energy.

The potential savings from solar are significant enough that improvements in quality of life are abundant and instantly come to mind in home after home, from funding college for children to creature comforts and consumer goods that wealthier families take for granted. In their own way, these residents appreciate solar with all the verve of eco-celebrities Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio.

In the affordable Latino and Hmong home-owner development of Little Long Cheng in Fresno, California, 35 of 42 homes have solar. Construction truck driver Jose Rodriguez, 52, and homemaker wife Arcelei, 50, said their $1,000 a year in savings from their 2009 rooftop system helped pay for a son’s education at Fresno State.

“I got my solar at a perfect time,” Jose Rodriguez said. “With the recession, my boss told me I could only work part time. I could keep putting my money toward education instead of the bills.”

In the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Eric Pritchard, 64, said he was in his third month of solar power atop his home in the historic Nehemiah Houses. About 155 homes have contracted for solar in the affordable development, which was built in the 1980s. A collaboration of churches, community groups and the city worked out an unprecedented plan to sell homes for $43,000 with donated city land, tax abatements and below-market-rate mortgages.

A former Wall Street back-office official who physically received and delivered millions of dollars of bonds to clients, Pritchard said, “I wanted to [go solar] 20, 30 years ago. I remember seeing the small panels on U.S. bases. I have a friend who is an engineer, and we’d talk about wind turbines out in the country. Solar you can have in your own backyard. It’s special that it’s in these homes. We’re actually pioneers for the second time in the same place.”

The likely current per capita champion of affordable solar is the New Orleans area, where post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction has it atop an estimated 7,500 to 8,000 homes. In St. Bernard Parish, auto mechanic Vien Tran, 35, and wife Quynh Le, 29, a server at the famous Café DuMonde beignet coffee shop, said solar power and weatherizing of his home have sliced old bills of up to $300 a month down to about $200. The $100 a month in savings is big money in a household with an annual dual income of about $30,000.

“It goes to toys for the kids,” Tran said, holding one of his small boys. “Each one has their own iPad. I’m pretty sure he can use an iPad better than you.”

In Jefferson Parish, Diane LePree-Williams, a 66-year-old retired passport agency manager, said last December, “I love my little power plant. It’s the first Christmas in a long time where I actually spend on gifts for relatives.”

She rattled off things such as a Crock-Pot, a bubble-bath beauty set and a virtual reality game. “I couldn’t afford any of these things before.”

There are yet no national figures for the number of solar homes owned by working-class and other moderate white-collar and low-income residents. But there is growing evidence of a major class shift in states that now target renewable energy policies toward less affluent families. In Fresno, in the premier solar state of California, 70 percent of installations were in ZIP codes where the average household income is below $55,000, according to a study by Kevala Analytics.

Kevala said the trends indicate that “the market for solar is strongest among people where a 10 to 20 percent savings in their electricity costs is meaningful enough to drive investment in alternative electricity supplies.”

The potential of serving this market is immense. According to a 2015 report by George Washington University’s Solar Institute, rooftop solar on all low-income households could save those families up to a collective $23 billion a year, and its installation could spark nearly $19 billion in local economic activity. The institute said such activity could create 138,000 jobs, most of which could easily employ residents. The solar industry hit a new record of 260,000 jobs last year, according to the Solar Foundation, surpassing the 187,000 jobs that the Department of Energy says are in the oil and gas industry.

Various models have emerged to get solar panels atop homes where owners can’t shell out $10,000 or more for a typical home solar array. In Broadway Heights, Fresno and many other neighborhoods in California, the nonprofit GRID Alternatives is the program manager for the state’s Single-family Affordable Solar Homes program (SASH). Beginning in 2009, with a commitment of $108 million set aside from utility ratepayer funds, philanthropic gifts and in-kind donations from the solar industry, GRID has been identifying homes in communities largely under 80 percent of area median income to install rooftop solar at little or no cost.

A major component of GRID’s program is job training and community volunteering. At one installation site in San Diego, five Latino high school students carried panels across a backyard to hoist up to the technicians. Student Jason Olvera said, “My first choice is to join the military, but I may do this. It’s fun, and you get to help people out.”

In New Orleans and Brownsville, for-profit models are generating power and satisfaction. Both PosiGen in New Orleans and Level Solar in Brownsville bank on private investment, bolstered by either favorable state incentives or state green banks funded by utility bill fees. That allows for mass-purchased solar equipment to be installed on homes regardless of income and without credit checks. The homeowner pays back the cost of the installation through monthly lease payments, with money from savings on the utility bill.

The Southern Homes and Gardens townhouse community benefits from city-driven policies and programs. Washington, D.C., has some of the most aggressive renewable electricity goals in the country and a sustainable energy department funded by a surcharge on energy bills. Some of that money has been used to contract for more than 500 no-cost solar installations in the city’s poorest wards over the past four years.

In the process, solar is changing lives well beyond the pocketbook. In D.C., 21-year-old solar technician Ramo Herbert never considered college because of its cost. He went to a city office looking for a summer job two years ago, and the two choices were a sandwich shop or WDC Solar, an installation firm owned by former professional basketball player Mark Davis.

WDC Solar’s office was just four blocks from Herbert’s house. It opened a world to him that he has come to love — despite summer days of standing on black rooftops in the humid Washington summers.

“As a kid, I didn’t get on too many roller coasters or look over bridges,” Herbert said. “But on the roof, I felt like I was on top of the world. When I tell people what I do, they say, ‘For real? You really do that, lifting all those panels?’

“I remember one day in training, Mr. Davis said, ‘For anyone who is serious, I have a job for you.’ Then one day he told me, ‘You toughed it out. I have a job for you.’ I feel proud of what I’ve done.”

And residents are proud of what they have, with the help of organizations and companies like GRID Alternatives, PosiGen, Level Solar and WDC Solar, as well as the widening array of city and state policies along with federal tax credits that Congress, in a rare bipartisan move, extended through 2022.

In San Diego’s Broadway Heights, Robert Robinson, 68, the community council president and longtime city activist who helped prisoners readjust to society and organized gun buy-backs, led the effort to urge neighbors to take advantage of GRID Alternatives’ program. With 26 panels atop his ranch-style house and many other homes visibly adorned, Robinson said he wants Broadway Heights to be a public face of the solar revolution.

San Diego is the largest city in the United States that has committed to all renewable energy by 2035, and it has begun to designate some neighborhoods as “eco-districts” for their sustainability efforts. Robinson said he wants Broadway Heights to earn such a designation.

But in neighborhoods like his, the real attraction of solar is the lowering of the energy burden. Asked the most important thing that solar has done for him, he exclaimed, “I feel like I gave myself a raise!”

This post originally appeared on ESPN’s The Undefeated

Renewable Energy Surges Globally with China and India in the Lead

If the Trump administration’s anti-climate shenanigans have you down, maybe it’s time to take a break for some good news: the incredible progress on renewable energy in the US and world-wide. Clean energy momentum in US states and cities, as well as businesses support, is building rapidly. This blogpost is about the latest global developments—focusing on China and India, two large and growing economies that many experts think will play a decisive role in the future of global carbon emissions.

The global big picture on renewable energy

There’s so much amazing news on renewable energy globally it’s hard to know where to start. Here are a few highlights from the 2016 data:

  • Steep cost declines in the cost of renewable energy continued, as documented by a UNEP-BNEF report. The average capital costs of new solar PV projects in 2016 were 13 percent lower than in 2015, onshore wind costs saw a drop of 11.5 percent and the drop for offshore wind was 10 percent.
  • Solar costs hit record lows, continuing a year-on-year downward trend. In August 2016, Chile set a record at 2.91 cents/kilowatt hour (kWh), which was quickly beaten by a 42 cents/kWh solar power tariff bid in the UAE. Morocco set an onshore wind record of 3 cents/kWh for bids for large scale wind projects.
  • For the second year in a row, a majority of the new electricity generation capacity installed globally was (non-hydro) renewable energy, according to the UNEP-BNEF report. At 138.5 gigawatts (GW), the total 2016 non-hydro RE capacity share amounted to just over 55 percent of all new installed capacity. Solar installations led, accounting for 75 GW. Renewable energy, excluding large hydro, provided 11.3 percent of the world’s electricity in 2016.
  • 9.8 million people were employed in renewable energy worldwide, according to IRENA’s 2017 report on Renewable Energy and Jobs, up 1.1% from 2015. Solar PV with 3.1 million jobs (up 12% from 2015) and wind with 1.2 million (up 7% from 2015) led the jobs numbers.

China and India are leading players in this global clean energy revolution—a fact that was underscored in a recent report that ranked them at the top of Ernst and Young’s renewable energy country attractiveness index, outperforming the US.

China leads the charge on renewable energy

While there are impressive gains happening everywhere in the world, China is a dominating force on the renewable energy front. Moreover, the country has made important strides in beginning a historic shift away from coal. There’s obviously a long way to go to make the deep cuts in CO2 emissions in line with the long term goals of the Paris Agreement but this is a promising start.

Here are some recent facts:

India’s RE ambitions matched by real action on the ground

Meanwhile, in India, a recent study points out that a historic transformation of the power sector is already underway. While coal still dominates India’s power supply and much more will be needed to drive down carbon emissions across the economy, here are some reasons for optimism:

  • India’s 2016 Draft Energy Plan includes a goal of 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2021-22, up from about 43 GW currently.
  • India’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission aims to install 100 GW of solar capacity by 2022. Equally important, through a combination of policies, this initiative’s goal is also to aggressively bring down the costs of solar power to achieve grid parity in that same timeframe. If that goal is met, it has huge implications for the affordability and ramp up rate of solar power not just in India but world-wide.
  • India’s solar market is heating up (some would even say over heating). Solar capacity installations are expected to reach nearly 10 GW this year. Solar power tariffs in India have reached record lows recently, dropping 25 percent in just three months to reach 1¢/kWh to 5.6¢/kWh in recent auctions. While these rock-bottom prices may not be sustainable in the near term (or desirable), they are a clear indication of which way the market is headed.
  • The Draft Energy Plan also concluded that no new coal-fired power plants would be needed through 2027, beyond the 50 GW currently under construction. In fact, just last month India cancelled nearly 14 GW of proposed coal-fired power plants, and found that 8.6 GW of existing coal-fired power plants may no longer be economically viable.
  • India is also keenly interested in electric vehicles, exploring options to fully electrify vehicles by 2032. It’s a radical idea, with a lot of challenges, and is not an official government goal (yet). But the excitement and interest in clean innovation is palpable.
  • Analysis from the Climate Action Tracker also shows that India is on track to exceed its current Paris Agreement commitments, with room to raise ambition if it chooses.
Showing leadership and defending the Paris Agreement

The amazing progress in China and India on renewable energy, combined with the steps they are taking to begin their shift away from coal, is very good news for the health of their citizens—and for the health of the planet. Additional policies to help accelerate their clean energy transition and drive down emissions are certainly needed but the trends are very encouraging. A big reason for optimism: Both countries have demonstrated strong political will to join global efforts to limit climate change.

At a recent gathering of the Vienna Energy Forum, India’s Energy Minister Piyush Goyal said:

“Everything changed in 2015 with the Paris climate agreement. We must decouple economic growth from environmental impacts and leave a better world.… Every moment counts.”

President Xi of China has repeatedly pledged to defend and uphold the Paris Agreement, most recently in a call with the incoming French President Macron. At the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year he said:

“We should honor promises and abide by rules. One should not select or bend rules as he sees fit. The Paris Agreement is a hard-won achievement which is in keeping with the underlying trend of global development. All signatories should stick to it instead of walking away from it as this is a responsibility we must assume for future generations.”

A clean energy future that the Trump administration cannot stop

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to waffle on its commitment to the Paris Agreement, and seems to be doing its utmost to hold back progress on clean energy domestically. This retrograde attitude is so at odds with the global zeitgeist—and indeed the strong support for clean energy amongst Americans of all political stripes.

The reality is market forces and public health considerations will continue to drive clean energy progress at home and abroad. Forward-looking policymakers and businesses know that it’s in our best interests to make the transition to clean energy economy as quickly as possible—both to take advantage of the tremendous economic opportunities and to limit the costly impacts of climate change. Everywhere, countries need to enact policies to accelerate this transition if the world is to live up to the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Yes, there are a lot of ways the Trump administration can try to slow progress especially at the federal level. But we at UCS, along with many others, will be fighting them every step of the way. Join us!

Here’s to the future: a clean energy future that small-minded short-term political considerations cannot hold back. The clean energy juggernaut cannot, must not, be stopped.

What Would JFK Have Said About Clean Energy?

Maybe it’s because I first started working on clean energy while serving in the Peace Corps he founded, or maybe it’s my years of working on these issues from his home state. But I can’t help thinking about the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth, and connecting his stirring rhetoric to the energy challenges of our times.

Here’s what our 35th president might have said about the challenges of energy transition and the opportunities in clean energy.

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

This tidbit of wisdom from the Sage of Hyannis needs no updating to make it applicable to clean energy. Our electricity sector has gone through a lot of changes since Thomas Edison set up the world’s first electrical grid on the Lower East Side in 1882. But we’re clearly in a time of unparalleled transformation.

Yeah, that means over time we have to figure out new business models to make it all hold together. But a clean energy future is one we want to make certain not to miss, so it’s worth figuring out.

JFK harnessing wind power (Source: JFK Library)

“We choose to [do clean energy]… not because [it is hard], but because [it is easy].”

This one required just a bit of tweaking. In his famous 1962 “moon” speech at Rice University, Pres. Kennedy suggested that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

In our case, though, in a lot of ways, clean energy is actually the easier route. Yes, there are (again) issues of financial engineering—who gets compensated, and how, when part of the power is coming from my own roof, for example. And there are some technical issues (though fewer than opponents would have you think) as more solar and wind power add variability to the electricity supply-demand picture, for example.

But think about power plants like solar and wind ones that require no fuel delivery. How about not having to worry about air or water pollution, or water use, or catastrophic failures? How about being able to spend more energy dollars on people, and less on million-year-old rock? How about meeting energy demand with less energy, not more, with efficient lighting, motors, and appliances?

Sure sounds simpler.

Inaugural Address of John F. Kennedy, 1961 (Credit: U. S. Army Signal Corps, JFK Library, Boston)

“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”

Here again, JFK was right on the first time around. People from across the political spectrum find plenty to love in clean energy.

Clean energy means jobs, in manufacturing, installation, servicing, and so much more. It can mean revenues for communities and landowners who host renewable energy. For farmers and ranchers, for example, as a dairy farmer in upstate New York put it to me recently, wind farms can be “a godsend”.

Similarly, on pollution: Whatever box they check on voter registration forms, people want healthy air and clean water for their communities and their kids.

Clean energy’s broad appeal means that we can find leadership and support in a range of places (and colors). In our recent analysis of state leadership on clean energy momentum, six of the top states overall are headed by Democrats, and four by Republicans. And a solid majority of Americans across the country support action on renewable energy, including funding research (more than four out of five) and even requiring utilities to get at least 20% of their electricity from renewables (two out of three).

Clean energy is so often the right answer, regardless of what politics are flavoring the question.

Estimated portion of adults who support requiring utilities to produce 20% electricity from renewable sources. Americans in every single congressional district (you listening, Washington?) want more renewables. (Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication)

“Ask not what your [grid] can do for you… ask what you can do for your [grid].”

What is arguably JFK’s most famous quote, from his inaugural address, invited us to rethink our relationship to our country, to reposition ourselves not just as recipients, but as contributors. In the energy world, distributed energy technologies have dramatically improved our chances of doing that in recent years.

What you can do for your grid. (Credit: John Rogers)

In our recent clean energy momentum state ranking, one of our metrics had to do with that changing relationship, via solar. “The arrival of affordable rooftop solar,” we suggested, “represents a major shift in the connections between households and their electricity supplies.”

Harnessing the power of sunbeams and silicon, we can turn our roofs into mini power plants, and generate electricity not just to meet our own needs but to help utilities and the local electricity grids meet peak power demands on hot, sunny days. Actually, a range of new technologies (energy storage, anyone?) and approaches are letting us be much more active participants in making the electricity grid work for all.

So go ahead, ask what you can do for your grid. The answer is plenty.

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

Right again. So we move to clean energy, with purpose and direction (we hope), because we can, and because we must. In his moon speech, after the part about “easy” and “hard”, JFK went on to say this about aiming high:

…because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

Unwilling to postpone, and intending to win. Words to live by.

Happy birthday, Mr. President. And thanks.

Trump’s Proposed Budget: A Wrecking Ball to Science

Joe Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

President Trump has just shown us his budget. Here is what he values: large tax cuts—mostly for the wealthy—and a buildup of the military and homeland security.

Here is what he does not value: the Medicaid program that allows our poorest citizens to get basic health care; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), a highly cost-effective program with a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike; and student loans and grants, that allow for some upward mobility.

He also does not value science. His budget not only eviscerates funding for basic research (e.g., an $86 billion cut to the National Institute of Health), but also funding for the science that government scientists conduct, or government agencies fund, to inform and improve public policy. Just look at this pattern:

Eviscerating Science at the EPA

The proposed budget cuts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by more than 30 percent overall, returning the agency to staffing levels not seen since the Ford administration. The budget takes particular aim at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), and its many national laboratories. ORD is the science research arm of the EPA, responsible for advising EPA policymakers on safe levels of air and water pollutants, the fate and transport of hazardous waste once it is released into the environment, safe disposal of chemicals, and many other critical matters.

This program also responds to emergencies. ORD was called in recently, for example, to help Toledo, Ohio cope with massive algae blooms in Lake Erie. Trump proposes to cut ORD by over 50 percent. This will simply eviscerate the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect public health and the environment.

Slashing renewable energy research at DOE

Some of the deepest cuts in Trump’s proposed budget at the Department of Energy (DOE) take aim at clean energy research and development. For example, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be slashed by 69 percent, including cutting more than half the budget of the renewable energy technology offices that have played a critical role in the precipitous drop in costs of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

The budget also eliminates one of DOE’s crown jewels: the ARPA-E program, which fills a crucial void by providing start-up funding for transformative,= but high-risk technologies. This is particularly important as private venture capital has “all but stopped funding ‘deep technology’ companies,” according to recent Brookings Institution study.

Not surprisingly, ARPA-E has bipartisan support, and corporate luminaries such as Bill Gates and Jeffrey Immelt have called for doubling its funding to $1 billion per year as a key way to develop low cost solutions for greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a clean energy economy.

Zeroing out ARPA-E and cutting other clean energy research and development programs will stall vital progress in developing new technologies to lower global warming emissions and will further erode our economic leadership in clean energy.

Weakening emergency preparedness at NOAA

The budget proposes to eliminate funding for several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant and education programs, including Sea Grant, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, Coastal Zone Management Grants, the Office of Education, and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. These programs are critical in helping us adapt to a changing environment.

Their elimination will cripple scientific research as well as emergency preparedness, disaster risk reduction, and national security. Programs like Sea Grant, for example, enable universities to conduct research that helps states prepare for coastal flooding.

Canceling vital earth monitoring at NASA

The budget proposes to terminate five Earth Science Mission programs that have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes: Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments, and CLARREO Pathfinder.

These five NASA Missions are vital tools for improving our ability to predict everything from agricultural commodity yields to water management and infrastructure management. They have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes. They have resulted in safeguards that protect our waters and prevent people from eating toxic shellfish, improved aviation safety, and provided essential information about unhealthy air quality.

They have also tested equipment essential for successful satellite launches and provided information about climate measures that inform decision-making with broad economic impacts, including vegetation changes and have provided precise measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Starving agricultural research and conservation at USDA

The US Department of Agriculture would take a 21 percent hit overall. With deep cuts to key research and conservation programs, the budget would undermine the ability of farmers to sustain their land and their livelihoods for the future. The budget slashes tens of millions of dollars from cutting-edge agricultural research programs, effectively denying farmers the science they need to be productive and profitable and to adapt to the harsh realities of a changing climate.

Significant changes to programs that encourage conservation on farmlands would similarly put farmers at a disadvantage and leave the nation’s waters and other critical natural resources more at risk from farm pollution.

Scientists must step up!

Fortunately, Congress, not the President, will ultimately decide what to fund and at what levels. If recent history is any guide, Congress will not attach much weight to President Trump’s misguided budget proposal.

But we must not take anything for granted. This summer, activists from all across the country will likely attend town hall meetings with their congressional representatives. I expect we will hear powerful, heart-rending testimony against the Trump budget’s cynical and vicious attempt to shred the social safety net. But the proposed cuts to science also demand a rallying cry in response, from scientists and from all who value our ability to make public decisions based on the best available evidence.

Now is the time to make our voices heard.

To learn more about how you can effectively stand up for science and influence congress on the budget, check out our recently posted toolkit.

As the White House Fixates on Coal, Renewable Energy Goes Local

The Trump Administration’s energy communications sound increasingly tone deaf these days.

The Department of Energy released a graphic last week that highlights six facts we may not know about coal, as if cheerleading the coal industry will minimize the fact that coal-fired electricity is the largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions and a significant contributor to air pollution that makes us sick.

Compared to where many states and cities across this country are headed, the focus on coal is at best nostalgic and misguided, and at worst desperate and dangerous. There is no question; coal is on the decline.

Contrast that silly graphic with a new report also released last week indicating that the transition to clean energy is picking up speed across the country. The 2017 Clean Tech Leadership Index report by Clean Edge ranks activities and investments in the clean-tech space (think electric vehicle adoption and investments in energy efficiency and renewables). For the second year in a row, wind and solar comprised almost 17 gigawatts of new power sources in 2016, representing more than half (61 percent to be exact) of all new electricity generation capacity installed in the US.

Three states, Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas, generate at least 30 percent of their electricity from renewables and another three states, Oklahoma, California, and South Dakota, get at least 20 percent.

Perhaps most surprising and exciting is the number of cities across the country that are investing in clean electricity and transportation, and benefiting from the jobs and capital that come with it. The California cities of San Francisco, San Jose San Diego, and Los Angeles were standouts in the reports’ top-ten metro rankings. Others making it into the overall top-ten were Washington D.C., Portland, Boston, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Austin.

But just looking at the map below shows that clean energy leadership is not confined to the coasts nor to blue states.

Source: Clean Edge, Inc.

Evidence of California’s clean energy leadership was on full display last week when it broke two new renewable energy generation records. On Tuesday, May 16, renewable energy supplied an all-time high of 41 percent of total electricity demand for the day, and on Saturday, May 13th, more than two-thirds of demand were satisfied by renewables during the 2pm hour.

The graph below from the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) shows how much of the state’s electricity came from renewables for each hour of the day on the 16th.

Hourly production in CAISO footprint for May 16, 2017. Source: CAISO Renewables Watch

The Clean Edge report is just the latest proof that cities and states around the country are setting their sights on clean energy, despite the Trump Administration’s misguided affection for coal. Our recent analysis Clean Energy Momentum: Ranking State Progress is further confirmation of that (encouraging) trend. California continues to blaze ahead and break new records, but many other areas in the country are picking up speed.

Photo: Black Rock Solar/CC BY 2.0, Flickr

Congress vs. Trump: Are the President’s Anti-Science Budget Priorities Headed for Another Defeat?

The president’s “America First” budget blueprint, a.k.a. the “skinny budget,” made a lot of noise when it was introduced two months ago and brought focus to the administration’s upcoming FY2018 budget priorities. The administration followed up shortly after by requesting reductions in the 2017 budget for the remaining five months of this fiscal year.

But then it came time for Congress to act, and they said, “Thank you for the very amusing budget Mr. President, but we are going to do our own thing …and incidentally, thank you for uniting Republicans and Democrats in opposition to your draconian cuts.”

After all, it’s members of Congress that have to figure out how to keep the federal government operating. So with a government shutdown looming, Congress effectively ignored the administration’s requests, and on May 4 passed a bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year through September 30, 2017. The bill was a repudiation of the president’s budget priorities, as it increased funding to many agencies, offices, and programs that the administration specifically targeted for cuts or elimination.

The president is expected to release his full fiscal year 2018 budget this week (fleshing out the details of his “skinny budget”), and there aren’t expected to be any surprises. It will likely track the skinny budget pretty closely, which means it’s going nowhere in Congress.

To get a clearer sense of the prospects for the president’s FY2018 budget, let’s look at some of the budget choices Congress made for the FY2017 Omnibus Spending Bill that are at odds with what President Trump proposed for 2018:

Department of Energy (DOE)

President Trump’s FY18 budget request proposes to eliminate ARPA-E, DOE’s innovative clean energy technology R&D program; and the Loan Programs Office, which provides credit support to help deploy innovative clean energy technologies. Additionally, it targeted critical programs in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), like the Weatherization Assistance Program (which funds energy efficiency improvements for low-income households) and the State Energy Program (which provides funding and technical assistance to states for increasing energy efficiency or renewable energy). The president’s FY17 request specifically targeted EERE for a 25% cut ($516 million).

Instead of eliminating ARPA-E, congress gave it a 5% increase in funding in FY17 (from $291 million to $306 million) and also provided an extension of current funding for the Loan Programs Office. The Weatherization Assistance Program was given a 6% increase while the State Energy Program received sustained funding at the 2016 level. EERE ultimately received a very slight increase instead of a devastating cut.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The president’s FY18 budget request proposed to cut over $250 million “in grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education,” which essentially constituted 23% of the combined budget for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) and the National Ocean Service (NOS).

The administration was more specific in their FY17 budget request, calling for cuts to coastal zone management grants, regional coastal resilience grants, and climate research grants. The administration also proposed reducing satellite capacity at the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), which provides the data needed to produce National Weather Service forecasts.

Instead of cuts, in the FY17 Omnibus bill that Congress provided a slight increase in funding for Coastal Science and Assessment, as well as for Ocean and Coastal Management Services, at NOS. OAR received a 6.6% increase in funding (from $482 million to $514.1 million), with the climate research budget untouched.  And Congress increased funding for Environmental Satellite Observing Systems at NESDIS by 25% (from $130.1 million to $163.4 million).

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The president’s FY18 budget request proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by 31% and eliminating 3,200 staff and over 50 programs, including those supporting international and domestic climate change research and partnership programs. His budget also reduces funds allocated to Superfund, Brownfields, compliance monitoring, and enforcement, which further endangers economically vulnerable communities and communities of color. While the administration would have the states take on more of the EPA’s responsibility, the president’s budget eliminates geographic programs and reduces funding for state categorical grants by a whopping 45 percent.

The EPA was spared any drastic cuts and staff layoffs in FY17. Its clean air and climate programs were funded at the previous year’s levels, as was the Compliance Monitoring Program (which helps ensure our environmental laws are followed), enforcement, and Superfund. State and Tribal Assistance Grants and Geographic Programs, which support Brownfields Projects, local air management, water protection, and lead and hazardous waste programs, actually received a slight increase in funding.

FEMA, NASA and more…

Congress rebuffed the president’s request to eliminate FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which helps bring down the cost of disasters and protects communities by supporting preparedness efforts. Also escaping cuts was NASA’s Earth Science Program, which develops, launches, and maintains a network of satellites that collect data on Earth’s surface and atmosphere—a critical tool for improving predictive capacity for everything from agricultural commodities and water management to infrastructure.

There are examples like these all throughout the FY17 Omnibus spending bill that Congress passed two weeks ago. Some say the president was rebuffed because congress was in no mood to shut down the government over spending, but it’s also true that there were many congressional Republicans who opposed large parts of the president’s budget.

Appropriators are not interested in gutting the institutions they fund, and House Speaker Ryan is not interested in shutting down the government, which would call into question his party’s ability to govern. You can bet many Republicans breathed a private sigh of relief when leadership reached a deal on what effectively was another “continuing resolution” (CR).

It wasn’t all good

One significant flaw in the budget deal is the insertion of an anti-science policy rider that instructs the Departments of Agriculture and Energy to work with the EPA to establish policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy.”

Unfortunately, burning forest biomass to make electricity is not inherently carbon-neutral because “removing the carbon dioxide released from burning wood through new tree growth requires many decades to a century. All the while the added carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere trapping heat.“

Congress should not be legislating science, and this is a cautionary tale for the FY18 budget fight. Special interest amendments, or “riders,”,have the ability to make a reasonable budget an unsavory bill. The biomass rider got in because it had bipartisan support, but going forward, both parties will need to reach a clear understanding on what constitutes a “clean budget” if they want to eventually reach an agreement. Constituents will also need to hold their members of congress accountable if they don’t want government funding bills to become delivery devices for bad, long-lived policy.

The 2018 budget fight: government shutdown, continuing resolution, or “the nuclear option”?

So what does this mean for the 2018 budget? Where are we headed?

If Congress can’t pass another bill to fund the government for the 2018 fiscal year before October 1, the government will effectively shut down (and we all know what that looks like).

While the president has said “our country needs a good shutdown,” most Americans would strongly disagree …as would most members of Congress. But the president is angling to give himself some breathing room because he knows it is impossible for his budget priorities to pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for a filibuster.

A bill that continues funding the government at last year’s spending levels is a loss for the president, and there aren’t enough Democrats that would support a budget deal with the kinds of cuts to discretionary spending that he is proposing.

But the president is negotiating, and this tactic is straight out of “The Art of the Deal.” He’s betting that if he proposes extremely deep cuts, Congress will move slightly more in his direction on spending levels …and that government shutdowns don’t last forever.

The most likely outcome is a continuing resolution or “CR,” which would keep the federal government functioning at current spending levels for a limited period of time. Some Republican appropriators have already given up on the prospect of moving their subcommittee’s spending bills through the chambers and are instructing their staff to start developing a list of add-ons to the current spending package.

It takes Democratic votes to pass a spending bill out of the Senate and they will not support budget cuts. Shutting down the government is bad for both the president and the majority party in congress so most Republicans don’t want to go in that direction. Continuing funding at existing spending levels would prevent the president from advancing his domestic agenda and would be a big loss, but it’s also the most likely outcome …that is, unless the Senate changes the rules.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could potentially employ “the nuclear option” and get rid of the 60-vote requirement (the Senate filibuster), taking away the need for Democratic votes to pass a budget. McConnell has already done this once this year to get the Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination through the Senate. It’s possible that when faced with a choice between a CR the president won’t sign, a bill the Democrats won’t pass, and a government shutdown, McConnell could set aside his institutionalist tendencies and do away with the filibuster on federal spending.

Going nuclear is an unlikely outcome, but it’s definitely a possibility. Do most Americans see the Senate as the greatest deliberative body in the world? Do they even know what the filibuster is? I suspect not, and that means that the only political downside to changing the rules for the budget would be reciprocity by the Democrats at a future time when they have control of Congress. Is that enough to keep Senator McConnell from doing it?

What you can do to protect critical programs and spending

Watchdog the appropriations process this year and weigh in throughout the summer with your members of Congress on the spending priorities you care about. Tell them not to vote for a budget that cuts those priorities, and if there are no appropriators in your congressional delegation, tell them to weigh in with the appropriations subcommittees and advocate for your priorities.

If we get a CR, that’s a good thing because federal spending would be set at current levels; no cuts. But CR’s don’t last forever; eventually Congress will pass another budget. Advocating with appropriators increases the likelihood of higher funding levels in those subcommittee appropriations bills for the things you care about. If you don’t work the appropriations process, if you don’t engage with your members of Congress, you get what you get (it may be cuts), and all you can do is pray for a never-ending CR.

We may be looking at a scenario where a federal budget is voted on by a simple majority, in which case the funding levels coming out of the appropriations subcommittees really matter. If you care about federal spending priorities, depending on the Senate filibuster as protection may not turn out to be a prudent strategy. Consider that there are also Republicans that care about some of these spending priorities, like research and innovation.

If constituents are actively engaged in communicating spending priorities with their members of Congress, even without the 60-vote hurdle, meaningful cuts to programs and agencies that support things like scientific research, clean energy innovation, public health, and community preparedness for climate change, won’t come to fruition.

So call your members of congress! Show up to those town halls! And drop by your local congressional office!

New Study on Smart Charging Connects EVs & The Grid

We know that electric vehicles (EVs) tend to be more environmentally friendly than gasoline cars. We also know that a future dominated by EVs poses a problem—what happens if everyone charges their cars at the same time (e.g., when they get home from work)?

Fortunately, there’s an answer: smart charging. That’s the topic of a report I co-authored, released today.

As a flexible load, EVs could help utilities balance supply and demand, enabling the grid to accommodate a larger fraction of variable renewable energy such as wind and solar. As well, the charging systems can help utilities and grid operators identify and fix a range of problems. The vehicles can be something new, not simply an electricity demand that “just happens,” but an integral component of grid modernization.

Where the timing and power of the EV charging automatically adjust to meet drivers’ needs and grid needs, adding EVs can reduce total energy system costs and pollution.

This idea has been around since the mid-1990s, with pilots going back at least to 2001. It has been the focus of many recent papers, including notable work from the Smart Electric Power Alliance, the Rocky Mountain Institute, the International Council on Clean Transportation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Synapse Energy Economics, and many more.

Over the past two years, I’ve read hundreds of papers, talked to dozens of experts, and convened a pair of conferences on electric vehicles and the grid. I am pleased to release a report of my findings at www.ucsusa.org/smartcharging.

Conclusions, but not the end

This is a wide-ranging and fast-moving field of research with new developments constantly. As well, many well-regarded experts have divergent views on certain topics. Still, a few common themes emerged.

  • Smart charging is viable today. However, not all of the use cases have high market value in all regions. Demand response, for example, is valuable in regions with rapid load growth, but is less valuable in regions where electricity demand has plateaued.
  • The needs of transportation users take priority. Automakers, utilities, charging providers, and regulators all stress the overriding importance of respecting the needs of transportation users. No stakeholder wants to inconvenience drivers by having their vehicles uncharged when needed.
  • Time-of-use pricing is a near-term option for integrating electric vehicles with the grid. Using price signals to align charging with grid needs on an hourly basis—a straightforward implementation of smart charging—can offer significant benefits to renewable energy utilization.
  • Utilities need a plan to use the data. The sophisticated electronics built into an EV or a charger can measure power quality and demand on the electric grid. But without the capabilities to gather and analyze this data, utilities cannot use it to improve their operations.

The report also outlines a number of near-term recommendations, such as encouraging workplace charging, rethinking demand charges, and asking the right questions in pilot projects.

Defining “smart”

One important recommendation is that “smart” charging algorithms should consider pollution impacts. This emerged from the analytical modeling that UCS conducted in this research.

Basic applications of “smart charging” lower electric system costs by reducing peak demand and shifting the charging to off-peak periods, reducing need for new power plants and reducing consumer costs.  But, in some regions that have lagged in the transition to cleaner electricity supplies, “baseload” power can be dirtier than peak power. Our model of managed charging shifted power demand by the hour, without regard to lowering emissions or the full range of services that smart charging performs today (like demand response or frequency regulation), let alone adding energy back with two-way vehicle-to-grid operation.

The model illustrated that encouraging off-peak charging without attention to emissions might, at a national scale, slightly increase pollution compared to unmanaged charging. Both charging strategies would reduce pollution compared to relying on internal-combustion vehicles, and the managed case would have lower system costs.

This is not a prediction, but one possible outcome under certain circumstances—a possibility also noted by NREL and by other research teams. It is a consequence of off-peak power that is cheap but dirty, and of a model that does not yet properly represent the full capabilities of smart charging. Charging when renewables are greatest, or employing policies that assign a cost to pollution, would change this outcome.

Fortunately, even before we have such policies, we have existing systems that can selectively charge when the greenest power is “on the margin.” This technology and other systems are discussed in the report.

The broader context

Smart charging of electric vehicles has a key role to play in the grid modernization initiatives happening around the country. EVs can be a flexible load that communicates with the grid, incorporates energy storage, benefits from time-varying rates, and participates in ancillary services markets, representing many of the innovations that can improve the economic and environmental performance of our electricity system.

Photo: Steve Fecht/General Motors