UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

Pruitt Puts Coal Before Children

Photo: Rushlan Dashinsky/iStockphoto

In announcing his abandonment of the Clean Power Plan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt boasted, “The war on coal is over.”

That means the war on children has begun.

The irony is particularly cruel because a draft copy of Pruitt’s repeal order says with a straight face that it complies with President Clinton’s 1994 environmental justice executive order protecting vulnerable populations.  The order says it is “unlikely to have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority populations, low-income populations and/or indigenous peoples.” For further insult, the home page of EPA’s website has a banner at the bottom declaring that October is Children’s Health Month. “Children are often more likely at risk from environmental hazards,’ the banner read. “Find ways you can protect children from environmental risks.”

Pruitt is increasing the risks and making a mockery of the agency’s name in throwing out the CPP proposed by former President Obama to curb carbon emissions that harm both climate and health. Using Voodoo Economics 2.0, Pruitt claims repeal will save Americans $33 billion in needless industrial compliance.

The reality is that even without the CPP, which Pruitt helped hold up in the courts when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, renewable energy is a powerhouse that already dwarfs the supposed savings of CPP repeal. Its growth is being felt in red states, blue states, and purple states alike. Nationwide, the trade association Advanced Energy Economy estimates that the sectors of energy efficiency, solar and wind power add up to a $108 billion industry.

The $33 billion in total industrial savings boasted by Pruitt are obliterated by the annual benefits of up to $34 billion a year in better health from the cleaner air delivered by the CPP. The EPA projected 3,600 less premature deaths a year, along with 1,700 less heart attacks, 90,000 less asthma attacks and 300,000 less missed workdays and school days. An independent analysis two years ago by eight researchers, including scientists from Harvard, Syracuse and Boston universities published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found there would be about 3,500 fewer premature deaths with the cleaner air proposed by Obama. Their study concluded:

“Carbon standards to curb global climate change can also provide immediate local and regional health co-benefits.” The researchers found that in the scenario closest to the Clean Power Plan, most of the states with the highest health benefits are also those that burn the most coal to generate electricity. Some of those same researchers last year published a study on the financial benefits in the online science journal PLOS One. They found that the CPP would result in $38 billion in annual net health and social benefits. The study said, “The health co-benefits gained from air quality improvements associated with climate mitigation policies can be large, widespread, and occur nearly immediately once emissions reductions are realized.”

The health implications are so widespread it indeed constitutes an environmental justice issue. The Department of Health and Human Services says Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma attacks than white children. And among all racial groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African American children have the highest rate of asthma, one in six, and had the highest rise in asthma from 2001 to 2009, 50 percent.

The benefits are also economic for the parents of these children. For instance, Latino workers are particularly vulnerable to the hotter temperatures of climate change as, according to the Department of Labor, they constitute 42 percent of construction laborers up to 75 percent of farm field workers.

But make no mistake, Pruitt’s repeal has the potential to hurt everyone. In response to Pruitt’s repeal of the CPP, an editorial Tuesday in the Portland Press Herald, a leading newspaper in the very white state of Maine, said, “Maine children have some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation, partly as a result of our position downwind from the power plants in the Midwest and Great Lakes states, putting young lungs at the end of the nation’s tailpipe.”

Unfortunately, this is hardly the first decision Pruitt has made in his first half year running the EPA that puts children in harm’s way. He has reversed the ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide known to be associated with reduced brain function in children. He is reviewing or pledging to reverse other Obama-era rules designed to curb water pollution and toxic chemical spills.

In his press release Tuesday, Pruitt claimed he was “reinstating transparency into how we protect our environment.” All he actually did was clarify his role as a puppet of fossil fuel, at the utter expense of the health of the nation’s children. When the Obama administration proposed the Clean Power Plan, the health benefits to children were at its center.

The word “children” is not uttered once in Pruitt’s official announcement of repeal.

What’s the Real Story on the Future of Coal?

With everything going on in the world, and our current political environment here in the United States, doesn’t it feel like we’re all talking past each other these days? It feels particularly poignant to me as the brother, son, and grandson of West Virginia coal miners—and as a scientist working on clean energy policy, and I’m not alone. If you’ve been following news around energy and climate change, or last year’s presidential election, you’ve probably heard a lot about coal and coal miners. Here I’ll try to cut through some of the rhetoric and offer some clear fact-based insights, drawing on a new analysis (and podcast) that the Union of Concerned Scientists just released called, A Dwindling Role for Coal: Tracking the Electricity Sector Transition and What It Means for the Nation. It’s a national analysis of the economic viability of coal-fired power plants in the United States, along with a series of four community snapshots to illustrate a few aspects of how that complex transition (which simultaneously benefits people through improved public health and potentially threatens people’s livelihoods) has played out or may play out on the ground.

It’s all about economics

The analysis tracks the changes in the nation’s fleet of 1,256 coal-fired electric generating units from 2008 to 2016, and, building on previous UCS work, identifies which of the 706 currently operating units are more expensive to run than cleaner alternatives. We conclude that 57 GW of coal capacity are uneconomic compared to existing natural gas, on top of another 51 GW of coal capacity that are already slated for retirement or conversion to another fuel (mostly natural gas). All told, that amount of capacity (108 GW) represents 38 percent of the nation’s coal generating capacity that was operating at the end of 2016.

Read that again: more than one-third of the nation’s coal-fired electricity is either already slated to go offline or is more expensive to operate than existing natural gas plants.

What’s driving this fundamental shift in the electricity sector since 2008? In a word: economics. Market forces are the main driver—in the form of low natural gas prices, flattening electricity demand, and rapidly declining costs of renewable energy. All those environmental regulations you hear politicians talk about? They’re playing a minor role compared to market trends in the power sector. In fact, our determination of uneconomic coal units didn’t even consider the cost of installing missing pollution control equipment.

Check out the interactive map below that shows the operating coal fleet in 2016 and what might happen to it in the future. The results are summarized in a short fact sheet, and our methodology and assumptions are detailed in a technical appendix.

Wait, how much?

More than a third of the coal fleet sounds like a lot, right? Looking at the slider map above, two things jump out at you: there are a lot of green dots (units that are uneconomic compared to existing natural gas) and many of those green dots are in the Southeast.

The first thing to know is that there’s no danger of the lights going out any time soon. The planned retirements will occur over a number of years, and the people whose job it is to think about this stuff don’t foresee any issues with reliable electricity at least through 2021, even in light of these planned retirements. And secondly, for those units that we find to be uneconomic, decisions about their ultimate fate will be made by states and utilities—hopefully in consultation with affected communities and workers—and any decisions to close down plants would occur over years and be done in such a way as to avoid blackouts. How do we know that? Because 452 coal generating units—totaling almost 60 GW—closed from 2008 to 2016 without any risk to reliability.

So, what are the cleaner, cheaper options to replace coal?

Coal is one of the most polluting ways to generate electricity, so a shift away from coal is a tremendous benefit to public health. What comes online to replace the lost coal generation really matters for our health and our climate.

Given the widespread availability of cheap natural gas, it’s no surprise that we found the highest number of coal units to be uneconomic compared to existing natural gas facilities. But even though it produces much less air pollution and somewhat lower global warming emissions than coal, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and a complete shift from coal to natural gas would make it nearly impossible to meet our long-term carbon emissions reduction goals to address the very real threat of climate change (to say nothing of the very real impacts happening today with very real implications for people). That’s why at UCS we have frequently raised concerns about a risk of an overreliance on natural gas for electricity.

Our analysis therefore also identifies which coal units are uneconomic compared to new wind and solar facilities (see Figure A3 from the technical appendix). As the cost of these renewable resources continues its dramatic decline, we can expect many more coal units to face increasing competition from renewables. Our colleagues at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy took a look at our numbers and found that there is a compelling case to be made for renewables to replace some uneconomic coal plants in the Southeast.

What about the impacts on people living near and downwind from these coal plants?

As part of our national analysis, we gathered information on the population and demographics of people living within a three-mile radius of each coal-fired generating unit that we identified as operating in 2008.  What we found was striking: this transition away from coal has led to a dramatic reduction in the total number of people living near an operating coal plant. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of people living within three miles of an operating coal plant fell from about 8.5 million to about 3.3 million. That number could fall further to around 1.5 million if all the uneconomic units we identified plus the units that are already slated for retirement or conversion also stop burning coal.

It’s important to emphasize that this transition away from coal dramatically improves public health and well-being. The people living closest to coal plants experience the most harmful effects from pollution—and they are often minority and low-income communities. Our snapshot from Chicago highlights how one community fought back and won—but continues to fight for environmental justice.

We have made available a downloadable spreadsheet containing plant-level data, the results of our economic stress test, and information on the number of low-income and minority residents living nearby each plant. This demographic screening can help guide community engagement and identify analysis needs that can help with transition planning.

The benefits of reducing pollution from coal extend well beyond that three-mile radius. We calculated that the reduction in air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon dioxide from the coal units studied here has already led to $250 billion (yes, with a “b”) in national public health benefits from reduced air pollution and global warming impacts from 2008 to 2016. As a result, millions of Americans are now breathing cleaner air and hundreds of thousands fewer are dying or becoming sick from coal-related ailments.

Finally, the negative impacts of coal often continue even after the plant shuts down—and this legacy must be considered in planning for a plant closure. Our snapshot from North Carolina illustrates one community’s struggle with coal ash—from a plant that’s still operating.

What about the people working at those coal plants?

This analysis did not look at the jobs implications of plant closures, for a simple reason—there’s no national database of the number of people working at individual coal plants. But if you’re one of those utility workers, you certainly don’t see this as good news. And these large facilities are also large sources of local tax revenue, meaning that while a community might be suffering from health impacts due to air pollution, it may simultaneously rely on that plant for jobs and money for schools and services.

My point is, the transition is complex—and collectively we must solve all aspects of it, not just reducing carbon emissions and air pollution, but also finding new jobs and opportunities for affected workers and investing in economic development in struggling communities.

The voices of local leaders from the communities highlighted in our community snapshots illustrate different aspects of what transition means—and offer insights into what can be done to help ensure that the shift away from coal is well-planned and more equitable, taking into account local needs and concerns. One positive story can be found in our snapshot from Lansing, which transformed a former coal plant into a LEED-certified office building.

Finally, although our analysis focuses on coal-fired power plants, the implication of the transition away from coal in the electricity sector is lower coal production, meaning that mining communities are also impacted by the transition. But alternative energy jobs have reached coal country, and our snapshot from West Virginia highlights an innovative solution to creating new jobs.

Where’s the political leadership?

Despite the economic writing on the wall, and the urgent need to limit global warming emissions and other harmful pollutants, the Trump administration continues to roll back as many environmental regulations as it can get its hands on. Its campaign promise to bring back coal jobs rings hollow and is ultimately a cynical strategy to protect the profits of coal companies rather than protect the interests of coal workers. But the economic reality is that, even without modern pollution controls, many coal units are simply more expensive to run than the alternatives, with market forces decidedly driving the electricity sector away from coal.

Yet the assault on those environmental protections continues. Today EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will announce a revised proposal for the Clean Power Plan—our nation’s first-ever limits on global warming emissions—in an effort to roll back progress despite widespread public support nationally.

Coming from a coal mining family, I fear that folks back home are buying into a false promise. If the administration were serious about helping coal mining communities, it would be championing federal programs that invest in those communities, instead of proposing to eliminate them altogether. It would be looking at innovative ways to spur economic development and diversify local economies that are dependent on coal.

Instead, in perhaps the administration’s most egregious idea yet, Energy Secretary Perry proposed new rules to bail out economically struggling coal and nuclear power plants that would leave electricity ratepayers on the hook to subsidize those costs, to the tune of billions dollars annually.

It starts with truth telling

We need to be honest about the complexity of transitioning away from coal and we must demand thoughtful solutions, not cheap political rhetoric. There are no easy answers. We must create policies to ensure a just transition away from coal, both to reduce the heavy toll on the health of those who live downwind from coal-fired power plants and to address the climate crisis. And we must build on the significant economic opportunities of renewable energy and work to ensure these lead to family-sustaining jobs, especially in the places where coal jobs are being lost.

For me, the biggest takeaway of this research is the need for policymakers and utility planners to engage early with affected stakeholders: coal-dependent communities, affected coal plant workers, coal miners, and low-income and minority residents living near coal plants who have long suffered a disproportionate burden of health impacts from pollution. With adequate time and resources, plans can be developed to remediate and redevelop former sites, to address lost tax revenues, and to help diversify local economies and create new well-paying jobs. It won’t be easy, but it’s what’s necessary.

We call on Congress and the administration to grapple with these complex issues and put forth real solutions. Let’s get to work.

New Economic Opportunities in the Heart of Coal Country

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

America is awakening to the reality that our country’s energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables—while cutting pollution and creating new jobs in many places—is painful for Appalachian families.

For generations, our communities have depended on coal-mining jobs and the businesses supported by the coal industry. Nationally, coal-mining employment fell from just over 91,000 in 2011 to under 66,000 in 2015, with West Virginia and Kentucky among the largest declines. This transition won’t be a just and fair one until our communities are made whole.

But in this challenging time there is real opportunity, if we have the courage to seize it. This can be the moment when we finally start not just talking about our potential as a region, but actually realizing it.

Our story

I founded Coalfield with much love from West Virginians for West Virginians. I was born and raised in the state. While I was fortunate to have a solid, middle-class upbringing, I was always aware of the pain going on around me. In college, I became a committed member of a Presbyterian Church, which fostered in me a deep commitment to social justice. We learned from and were inspired by people making a way forward in tough places all over the world: migrant workers in apple orchards, communities of color, low-income communities, and native people on reservations. I even had the chance to travel to Botswana and Nepal on behalf of the church.

But everywhere I went, I had the nagging sense that these were amazing places and amazing people, but they weren’t my place. I felt I could have a big impact back home, where the need was great and growing greater. So in 2011, joined by my best friend from high school, I decided to try and do things differently for our state to show that we could be more than just one industry and just one trade.

Since then, I’ve had the honor of seeing a former mine-industry worker go from being homeless, to joining our construction work-crew, to becoming a homeowner. I’ve seen people walk across the stage and become the first in their family to earn a college degree. We’ve installed the first solar systems many of our small towns have seen. We employ former strip miners who now reclaim and rejuvenate the soil through our agriculture work on former mountaintop-removal sites.

At Coalfield Development, we support a family of social enterprises that work in community-based real-estate, green-collar construction, mine-land reclamation, artisan trades, sustainable agriculture, and solar installation. These are real business enterprises that have real economic potential in central Appalachia. These are enterprises that are beginning to diversify the local economy in a tangible way.

Each enterprise has sustainable revenue models, including earned revenue (contracts, sales, service fees, etc.) and, thus, long-term sustainability. They are unified by an innovative model for workforce development and training that we at Coalfield developed.

We recognized that job training programs are insufficient—people need jobs to support themselves and their families. Our model puts people to work while developing new skills.  Under the 33-6-3 model, each of the enterprises hires unemployed people to work the following weekly schedule: 33 hours a week are spent doing paid labor for these enterprises on projects which tangibly improve the community; 6 hours a week are devoted to core community college classes for an Applied Science degree; and 3 hours are committed to life skills coaching, such as parenting, financial management, time management, physical health, teamwork, communication, and goal setting. Some of the 33 hours of manual labor even count as on-the-job credits applied towards the academic degree (according to curriculum agreements in place with the community colleges).

So yes, we are feeling great pain in the face of the coal industry’s decline, but we’re not just dying towns. We are also hard at work ensuring that great things, very creative endeavors, are afoot. We’re persistent problem-solving communities, who love our home and are steadfastly committed to it.

National attention

An exciting policy development in 2015 was the creation of the POWER Initiative (Partnerships and Opportunities in Workforce and Economic Revitalization), a federal initiative to support community efforts to diversify our local economy. This provided the Appalachian Regional Commission with its largest budget since the 1970’s, which led to major support for innovative efforts like ours.

This is an appropriate role for the government to play: funding research and development for early stage, pre-market business concepts that lead to real economic growth in communities that need it.

As we work to adapt, to diversify our economy, and to shape a better future, we need the country to believe in and support us. The country should not blame us for climate change—miners only ever mined coal because there was demand for it. Anyone who has turned on a light switch is just as much to blame for climate change as a coal miner, if not more so.

What’s needed now is local solutions driven by local people. And then we need national and global investments to support our strategies. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing just that. Incredibly, he announced $3 million in grant funding to support coal communities in conjunction with the premiere of the National Geographic documentary From the Ashes, which tells our story along with the stories of many other coal-impacted communities. We’re honored to be a grantee, and we hope others around the world will follow suit by investing in our region. One way to do this is by checking out our Crowdrise campaign page to donate.

What you can do

We really do need the donations, and we’ll steward them well. But even better would be if folks from around the country will do business with us. Buy furniture from our Saw’s Edge Woodshop or produce from Refresh Appalachia. Contract with Rewire Appalachia and Solar Holler, LLC to install a solar system on your roof, or with Revitalize Appalachia to renovate your property.

Even better yet: move here, start a company, and put our smart, talented, loyal miners back to work.

Brandon Dennison is the founder and CEO of Coalfield Development Corporation, a family of social enterprises working throughout coal country to help build a new economy in the wake of the coal industry’s rapid decline.

Photo: Coalfield Development Corporation

This Is What It’s Like to Live Near a Coal Plant in North Carolina

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

As one of the community snapshots highlighted in A Dwindling Role for Coal, I’m handing over my blog to my colleague J.C. Kibbey, Midwest outreach and policy advocate, who interviewed Linda Jamison, a local community activist from North Carolina. Linda gives us her own perspective of living near a coal-fired power plant—Duke Energy’s Roxboro Power Plant—and she highlights some of the community’s concerns about the safety of their water supply.

Some quick background information: when coal is burned, it produces ash—just like burning wood for a campfire—except that coal ash contains highly toxic metals and other pollutants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed standards on the disposal of this industrial waste, known as Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR).

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

J.C. Kibbey: How long have you been in Semora?

Linda Jamison: I’ve been in Semora on and off since 1963.

JCK: The Roxboro Power Plant now has four coal-fired electricity generating units—all of which are identified in our analysis as uneconomic compared to natural gas. The total capacity of the plant is more than 2,400 MW. When did the first units begin operating?

LJ: 1966.

JCK: So you lived there before the coal plant? What changed in Semora after it was built?

LJ: First there was lots of heavy truck traffic and a lot of dust; we had a dirt road at first, and [when the plant was built] they paved it.

The plant let off steam with ash in it that would get all over your house, your garden, your farm. Before, we would eat right out of the garden – we would pick fruit right off the tree. After the plant, we had to start washing everything off.

When it let off steam, it made so much noise it would wake you up when you were asleep and you didn’t know when it was going to happen. It would happen during the day, happen at night, happen early in the morning.

Semora was a majority black community—we had one Caucasian family, before the plant. Everybody farmed, everybody knew each other, everybody gardened. My mom gardened and canned and froze food. All we bought from the store was sugar and salt and pepper and we grew everything else, but that all had to stop when the plant was built.

There was a picnic area near the plant they used to rent out for picnics and parties and family reunions, until suddenly they closed it and never told us why. Not long after that, they put a notice about fishing in the water near the plant and put a limit on how many fish you could eat.

Early on, we didn’t know everything was contaminated. My father used to cut grass at the plant. In 1984 at Thanksgiving, he got a cold and went to the doctor. The doctor told him he had cancer. Forty-five days later he was dead.

When my father got sick, I spoke up because I always felt that the plant had something to do with the people that were getting strange diseases and the kids getting cancer. I thought the plant was a contributing factor. But it was hard to get people interested. People were not educated about the effects these plants could have. Some people didn’t want to make waves. Some people had jobs there.

We were led to believe there wasn’t anything harmful being released from that plant. People would have stopped using the water then, if they had known.

I moved away in 1979 for a job and eventually moved back in 2012.

JCK: What were things like when you came back?

LJ: When I came back, I began noticing changes with the water in my parents’ home. It smelled bad, you couldn’t drink it or anything. I just installed a filtration system in our house because of the smell, but no one said anything about the well water being contaminated.

After the Dan River spill in early 2014, people started asking more questions about coal ash and there was concern about what was happening to drinking water wells.

JCK: You’re referring to the spill of more than 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of ash pond water from Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in February 2014. According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, within two weeks the plume of waste had reached 70 miles downstream. The spill led to increased awareness of unlined coal ash sites, particularly the 14 sites in North Carolina owned by Duke Energy, like the one at Roxboro.

LJ: But it wasn’t until more than a year later that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) made it to Roxboro and started testing a few of our wells and found that they were contaminated. They didn’t even test everyone’s wells. They said not to cook with the water or drink it. But I thought, the skin is the largest organ – what makes them think it won’t go through your skin?

JCK: What has it been like on a day-to-day basis in terms of living with contaminated water?

LJ: They started giving us bottled water to drink and cook with, but I’m so sick of bottled water I could scream. I’m disabled and I have to lift big cases of water just to cook a meal. I can’t even explain what you have to go through just to cook a meal. I’m by myself—I don’t know how families with kids do it. You have to deal with empty bottles—it’s just a mess.

The law [North Carolina House Bill 630, which became law on July 14, 2016] says that Duke Energy has to replace our wells with either public water systems or filtration systems. But I’m still paying for our last filtration system, and now they’re trying to offer me another one—but those systems don’t get rid of hexavalent chromium or some of the other metals they found in our wells. The standards they [NC DEQ] came up with this month for the filtration systems are basically nothing. They would allow a higher dose of hexavalent chromium in the water than what we have now.

JCK: How have you tried to address these problems? What has that process been like?

LJ: Our community, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center, Appalachian Voices, Clean Water for North Carolina, and the Sierra Club have all been working on this coal ash issue. Erin Brockovich has come to North Carolina and talked about this issue—it’s the same chemicals as in her famous case.

It’s not just our community that has been affected. Many communities in North Carolina where they have coal ash have had their wells and water contaminated. We are all fighting Duke Energy to give us public water and give us compensation for the lost value of our homes [because of the contaminated water].

We asked the County Commissioners to support hooking us up to the public water system, but one of the board members works for Duke Energy. The board has five members and voted 3-2 against it, with the Duke employee cast the deciding “no” vote. We have been struggling against Duke’s money and political power. The company also had ties to the previous governor, Pat McCrory. He worked for them for almost 30 years and he met frequently with representatives from Duke.

JCK: Yes, Governor McCrory’s ties to Duke Energy have certainly been a campaign issue.

LJ: Gov. McCrory’s administration pressured toxicologists and health officials to write misleading letters to the community about our water. Health officials sent a letter saying not to drink the water, and then the McCrory Administration tried to get them to send another letter saying that the water was OK to drink—but nothing had changed with the water.

At least one public health official ultimately left over this issue: Megan Davies, an epidemiologist and section chief in the state Division of Public Health resigned; and Kenneth Rudo, a toxicologist who had served nearly 30 years with the Department of Heath and Human Services, retired.

Duke has big money and we don’t, but we’re still fighting and we’re not going to give up. We’ve had press conferences, we’ve had news reports—I’ve personally done several news reports. I feel better about the fact that my whole community has come together and other organizations are fighting with us. I feel better knowing that we are not alone and that there are other communities with water contamination and we are all fighting for the same thing.

Duke is claiming that there were no medical problems [because of the coal ash], even though their own statistics and reports show there is a risk of health issues. They are asking people to sign paperwork saying that they will not sue for medical problems—that if you agree to accept their $5,000 payment for a new water filtration system, that the paperwork stipulates that you will never file a medical lawsuit and no one in your family will either.  No one is taking that deal. If Duke believes their ash hasn’t affected our health, then they shouldn’t need a release of medical claims.

JCK: The plant is still operating. Are there air issues in addition to the water issues from the coal ash?

LJ: You still see ash on your windowsill. They still release the steam, ash and dust—not as much as they used to. They mostly release it at night now. Most people in this community don’t plant gardens or farm anymore. People talk about what’s in the air.

JCK: Has there been any talk about the plant closing? It appears that the North Carolina Utilities Commission has directed Duke to study retrofitting the Roxboro power plant.

LJ: They’re not closing it. They’re trying to change it to burn natural gas.

JCK: What has fighting these battles  been like for you personally?

LJ: Sometimes it feels like we’re doing something and other times it feels like it’s not working. You get your hopes up thinking the state will listen or the courts will rule in favor of our community, but then it doesn’t happen.

It’s just been constant let-downs by people in our government who are supposed to be fighting for us, supposed to be looking out for our health and well-being. They go wherever the money is.

Even when Duke was fined for this, the McCrory Administration stepped in. They said that a fine that was supposed to be just for one coal ash site counted for all the coal ash sites in the state. The Southern Environmental Law Center is suing DEQ and Duke over some of these issues.

JCK: Some of the damage has already been done, but going forward, what do you want to see happen? How should we address the problem long-term?

LJ: First, we want to be on a public water system and for Duke to foot the bill for it. Second, we want to protect our right to file medical claims.

Finally, we want Duke to clean up its coal ash. Some plants with coal ash sites are being required to remove it, and at others Duke is trying to “cap in place” [which means placing a cover over an unlined pit]. But we’re seeing now that they are not always using the right materials for that, and that the pools where the coal ash is stored aren’t lined like they are supposed to be.

But even as we are dealing with this, the state is shipping in coal ash from China, India, and Poland to make concrete rather than finding ways to get rid of the coal ash that’s already here. They’ll end up poisoning all of North Carolina.

JCK: Linda, thanks for sharing your story with us.

Photo: Sanjay Suchak (used with permission)

How A Coal Plant in Michigan Became an Insurance HQ

The former Ottawa Street coal-fired power station now serves downtown Lansing, Michigan, as a LEED-certified office building. Photo: JC Kibbey/UCS

For one of the community snapshots highlighted in A Dwindling Role for Coal, I’m handing over my blog to my colleague J.C. Kibbey, Midwest outreach and policy advocate, who interviewed Karl Dorshimer, director of business development with the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), about his experience on the team leading the redevelopment of the of a decommissioned coal-fired power plant in downtown Lansing.

The Ottawa Street Power Station provided coal-fired electric power and steam to downtown Lansing from 1939 until it was decommissioned in 1992. Karl shares the challenges and successes of the subsequent redevelopment project, which led to a revitalization of downtown Lansing, and retained or created more than 1,000 jobs in the city. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

J.C. Kibbey: Tell me a little about yourself.

Karl Dorshimer: I studied resource and economic development at Michigan State University, and earned a master’s degree in resource economics at the University of Alaska. After graduate school, I moved back to Lansing and worked on economic development and planning for the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission before moving to the Lansing Economic Development Corporation. My career was taking off right around the time brownfield development was taking off, and for 20 years Lansing EDC has done over 50 of these projects, from big projects like the Ottawa Station and work with General Motors to those for small businesses. For the last several years, I have been working for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), which in turn contracts with the Lansing Economic Development Corporation—so I’m doing essentially the same job but under a different organizational umbrella.

JCK: The successful redevelopment of the old coal-fired Ottawa Power Station into the sustainably designed headquarters of the Accident Fund (now named the AF Group) created or preserved hundreds of jobs in Lansing and helped remake Lansing’s downtown. The refurbished building achieved the second highest certification by the US Green Building Council, “gold” status for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). You were an integral part of that redevelopment and it’s a success story today, but it was a rocky road to get there. I understand that the city had been working to find a buyer for the site for years and that there were a couple interested parties but the deals fell through. What were the obstacles there?

KD: During the years it was vacant, we occasionally were approached by people who wanted to develop the site, but they were never able to make the finances work. Prospective buyers couldn’t convince investors or lenders to get involved. The city of Lansing and the Board of Water did an analysis at one point to see what could be done with the site, but it never got past that stage.

There were a lot of challenges: liability issues, costs of remediation and infrastructure upgrades, tearing out the existing equipment on the site, and challenges locating public financial incentives.

The incentives that were available were based on job creation—not just any jobs but quality jobs, high-paying jobs with benefits. That’s the measuring stick for a lot of public investment in economic development. A lot of the uses people were proposing for the site just weren’t going to generate a lot of tax revenue or jobs.

For the redevelopment to make sense, you need a tenant who is either willing to pay a lot of money to renovate the property themselves, or pay a high lease rate to someone who renovates the site for them. Otherwise the numbers just don’t work out.

JCK: Given all that, how were you finally able to catalyze the redevelopment?

KD: Lansing Mayor Virg Benero saw the site as a huge, visible symbol of decay and blight, and when he came into office, he wanted to do something about it—either redevelop it or tear it down.

The reason it finally worked is we had an end user that was large enough and committed enough to take on the project. We were soliciting requests for proposals to redevelop the site, and near the end of that process we were approached by representatives of The Accident Fund—an insurance company owned by Blue Cross Blue Shield. We showed them the property and after a long due diligence process, they made a proposal for the site.

JCK: You said the Accident Fund was “committed” to the site—why, and was that important to making this work?

KD: They were. The building itself has some pizazz—it’s a really cool building for a power plant. The architect designed it to look like a flame, with darker colors representing coal on the bottom and lighter colors representing fire as it goes up.

The user wanted an urban location, it’s on the river, and it’s beautiful. It’s really a great symbol of urban renewal, which is good for the community, and for Accident Fund as a tenant.

JCK: But even with that commitment and Accident Fund coming on board, there were still financial challenges to work through. A project this size requires large investments, suggesting the need for a public-private partnership—a contract between a public agency and a private sector entity to deliver a public good. Can you tell me about the incentives that made it work here?

KD: This was a huge, seemingly impossible project and it required public-private partnerships to work.

Our team put together a package of several different incentives that was worth about $59 million in total. That included $12.6 million in property tax abatements, $11 million in historic tax credits, $10 million in Brownfield tax credits, $9 million in Michigan Economic Growth Authority tax credits (for job creation and retention), a $3.2 million investment in a public riverfront near the site, and a $600,000 grant for environmental assessment and clean-up from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

We were able to do all that in large part because the cost-benefit analysis made sense for the city. The total cost of the project was $182 million, and those incentives made it economical for the developer.

JCK: The cost-benefit issue is often problematic for municipalities looking to repurpose coal plants—some of them still running—especially in terms of maintaining the local tax base. Can you tell me about how this project impacted Lansing’s tax base and how the city viewed that?

KD: First, we retained about 600 employees, who pay city income tax, plus another 500 jobs that were to be added later. That’s a future increase in revenue. The site itself was not paying any property taxes before the redevelopment. It won’t generate taxes for a while because of the tax abatements, but a few more years down the road it will. There’s also a significant positive economic impact of having those 1,100 employees downtown.

There are a lot of benefits—from the city’s standpoint, we found these factors together to be a strong argument for investing in this project.

JCK: This building was a former coal plant and now it’s LEED Gold certified. That’s a great story, going from a coal plant to a building that’s recognized for its sustainability. Was that an intentional choice you made when you undertook the project?

KD: A lot of this was driven by sustainability being important to the Accident Fund, and there were challenges: the building was originally designed to dissipate heat. They’ve turned that around and by replacing the windows and some other things, got the building to be efficient for both heating and cooling..

But also, a coal-fired power plant is not conducive to a modern downtown. People are looking at environmental issues and looking to clean power. The Board of Water and Light, which used to operate the Ottawa coal plant, put up a solar array nearby the site—it wasn’t related to this project, just happened to be a good site for solar—which is helping them hit their goals for renewable energy.

JCK: You went through a lengthy process of redeveloping this old coal plant in an urban area and putting it to a productive and sustainable use. What advice would you have for other communities that are looking to do similar projects?

KD: Unless you’re blessed with a great location and a strong local economy where real estate values are high, it will be difficult to get the private sector to redevelop that site and take on all those challenges on their own. You need public participation. That can include incentives, tax breaks, tax refunds, Brownfield programs: somehow you have to reduce the cost for the developer while sharing in the benefits generated.

The user of the site also plays a part in this. They need to be able to create the revenue, the rents, or the sale price to make it work. We found that a lot of less intense uses—like a movie theater, which was one of the ideas someone had for the Ottawa site—just don’t generate enough revenue to make it work.

You will also run into barriers. Fortunately, we had a team that represents all the different stakeholders and found a way to work through the whole series of hurdles. It took years between the time we started the project and when construction started.

JCK: You mentioned that for a redevelopment like this to make financial sense, the site needs to be put to an economically “intense” use. What are other uses that have the necessary intensity?

KD: I think residential is one, apartments and condos. It depends somewhat on the building. I think they did a good job of leaving some of that industrial feel, those exposed beams and so on—that has character and provides value. You want to take advantage of the inherent assets that are already in the building.

Another city-owned facility, the Eckert Power Plant, is planned to be decommissioned in 2021, and we are looking at a renovation there as well. It has three large and tall smokestacks, and we were looking at those and thinking it will cost a ton of money to take them down. But the first developer to look at it seriously said—“leave them up, I like them, I can use them.”

JCK: Karl, thanks for taking the time to discuss your experience with us. Your story offers insights into the challenges of redeveloping coal plant sites and the importance of public-private partnerships in achieving successful outcomes. As the nation continues to move toward cleaner and cheaper sources of electricity, these insights can help inform other communities facing the closure of a coal-fired power plant.

Photo: JC Kibbey/UCS

The Struggle for a Just Transition of the Crawford Coal Plant in Little Village Continues

On August 12, 2017, our organization, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), held a gathering at La Villita Park in the Little Village neighborhood to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the closing of the Crawford and Fisk coal plants in Chicago. With community members and youth leaders in attendance, it was a special opportunity for LVEJO to remind everyone of the many years of community organizing and coalition building that took place, and to thank long-time friends and allies from neighboring Pilsen, who were pivotal to the campaign.

Little Village youth leader at 5 year Crawford anniversary. Photo: Antonio Lopez

To cumbia rhythms we ate cake, passed out environmental justice literature to park goers (learn about the principles of environmental justice here), and enjoyed watching our children break open a piñata and swiftly race for the goodies that crashed to the ground.

The commemoration was a sweet time, but it was also a reminder for us that five years later Little Village continues to face serious environmental justice challenges, including an uphill battle to redevelop the Crawford plant. Indeed, the community is vulnerable to increased diesel emissions and many are concerned about gentrification and displacement. Despite these threats, La Villita leaders continue to fight for a healthier community and to hold those with power to principles of equitable community development.

As we say at LVEJO, la lucha no se acaba—the struggle doesn’t end!

A just transition of the Crawford site

Five years later, the Crawford coal plant continues to be an unwelcoming site in Little Village. Unlike many other coal-dependent communities, however, Little Village was not devastated economically by the closure of the coal plant and the loss of jobs. In fact, Crawford hired few workers from Little Village. Still, knowing that Crawford harmed the community’s health for so long and excluded the local workforce from good paying jobs, LVEJO is committed to seeing through a just transition of the site.

A just transition of the former coal plant means for us that community members are deeply involved in the redevelopment process, and that the site eventually becomes a catalyst of improved health, job access, and other economic activities that benefit long-time residents. Sitting on 72 acres of land, we believe there is a significant opportunity to transform the site into a campus that meets multiple needs identified by the community, and is a source of pride.

We have heard loud and clear that our community wants more green space, workforce training opportunities, urban agriculture, and culturally relevant small businesses like Los Mangos. It may seem like an unattainable dream—and there are certainly many obstacles—but with deep community support we truly believe that the just transition of Crawford is possible.

LVEJO youth leaders continue to highlight the harms to community health caused by Crawford. Photo: LVEJO

Challenges to redevelopment

We understand that the redevelopment of an old coal plant takes many years and is not easy. Unfortunately, since the closure of Crawford, LVEJO has learned about newly proposed projects and land-use plans that threaten to undermine the gains in air quality that we fought so hard for.

As Little Village is centrally located in Chicago and is in close proximity to major transportation arteries, city planners have designated Little Village as an area for new transportation and logistics centers. Without considering the health impact of diesel emissions to the surrounding community, city planners and local alderman are re-zoning industrial spaces, approving redevelopment projects, and leading land-use plans that neglect to incorporate environmental justice.

Instead of building upon the strengths and strong track record of environmentalism in the community, decision makers are threatening to make Little Village a sacrifice zone once again. An important example is the Unilever Expansion Project.

Diesel threats/Unilever

The nearby Unilever plant has been in the neighborhood since 1918, a testament to the industrial legacy the neighborhood has inherited. In February 2015, the Unilever plant, which produces Hellman’s Mayonnaise, announced it will increase production and bring on an additional 50 local jobs in the factory.

But these jobs come at a cost. Today, current zoning laws allow a major industrial factory like Unilever to expand right next to an elementary school of over 1,000 children and countless families. Every day, over 100 diesel trucks flow in and out of this area. Based on Unilever’s own traffic study, there will be an increase of up to 500 diesel trucks per day flowing in and out of the neighborhood.

Diesel engine trucks produce a lot of fine-particle pollutants that have been linked to asthma, respiratory disease, and overall damage to lung tissues. The additional diesel fumes will create health hazards, and increase the incidence of asthma and airborne related illnesses. Children are especially vulnerable. Due to these health concerns, LVEJO has launched a campaign to educate community members on the risks diesel poses, and to hold companies and decision makers accountable (see this and this).

Future energy jobs act

The failure of city planners and local officials to leverage the closure of the Crawford plant to redevelop the community in line with our needs has not stopped our efforts to organize and advocate for a new economy free of fossil fuels. Undaunted, LVEJO continues to fight for energy democracy and vehemently opposes false solutions to climate change.

LVEJO was vital to creating the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) in Illinois that passed in December 2016 and had broad coalition and community support. Critically, LVEJO’s leadership on FEJA prioritized health and economic justice opportunities, including access to job training and clean energy jobs in low-income communities—a high priority to all community leaders. FEJA includes $33.25 million in annual spending on low-income energy efficiency programs, triple current spending levels on such programs in the state of Illinois.

This, coupled with millions of dollars committed to increases in bill assistance, will save money for families struggling to pay their energy bills. LVEJO participated as a lead architect of critical policies in the legislation related to serving low-income communities, including the new Illinois Solar for All—a nation-leading, low-income solar program with targeted goals for solar access in environmental justice communities funded at over $400 million.

The program is paired with a job training pipeline that will target recruitment in these same communities, with additional incentives to hire 2,000 individuals with criminal records and alumni of the foster care system.

With the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act, low-income communities and communities of color, such as Little Village, will have significant opportunities to benefit from the resources committed to building a clean energy economy in the state.

Kim Wasserman of LVEJO and Jerry Lucero of Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) celebrate the 5 year anniversary of the closure of the Fisk and Crawford plants in Pilsen and Little Village. Crawford is in the background. Photo: Antonio Lopez

No al Carbon! Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

In addition to ensuring that FEJA programs reach low-income and frontline communities, the just transition of the Crawford coal plant is a major goal of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. We believe the equitable redevelopment of the Crawford site can stand out as a model for other environmental justice communities working on just transition initiatives.

Indeed, across the Midwest environmental justice communities are leading the fight to close coal plants, incinerators, and other polluting factories. Community-led redevelopment of the Crawford plant would not only profoundly benefit Little Village, but also stand as a powerful symbol of environmental justice.

Dr. Antonio Lopez holds a doctorate in Borderlands History from the University of Texas at El Paso and has written extensively on anti-poverty and anti-racist social movements in Chicago. He currently serves as a senior advisor to the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. This blog was coauthored with Executive Director Kim Wasserman and Policy Director Juiana Pino of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).

Scott Pruitt’s Cynical Move to Rescind the Clean Power Plan

Tomorrow, the EPA is expected to take a first formal step in repealing the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), a regulation designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by approximately 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This is a terribly irresponsible decision. Recent ferocious storms, intensified by warming oceans and air, remind us of the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is a sensible, flexible, cost-effective rule addressing one of one of the biggest sources of US carbon emissions, and one of the least expensive sources to control.

The action comes as no surprise: candidate Trump promised to do this during the campaign, and as President he signed an executive order reiterating that commitment earlier this year. But the manner in which the EPA is gutting CPP is astonishing, marking one of the most tainted and cynical moves to date by the Trump administration.

Notably, it appears from a leaked draft that the EPA does not base its proposed repeal on a change in policy goals, or on any of the usual considerations such as the rule’s costs, feasibility, or impacts.  Rather, the EPA hangs its repeal hat entirely on a legal hook—the EPA now claims that the Clean Power Plan violated the law because it regulates “beyond the fenceline” of individual power plants—a claim that is directly contrary to what the EPA and the Department of Justice argued in court just last fall. With this legal sleight of hand, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt once again forsakes the mission of the agency he heads—to safeguard human health and the environment—to pander to fossil fuel interests.

A Cynical Ploy

Let’s unpack the EPA’s argument a bit. Often, when the EPA limits pollution from a stationary source, it sets a limit based on technology that an individual source can deploy, such as a so-called “scrubber” to trap soot before it leaves the stack. The Obama administration didn’t use this approach when it issued the Clean Power Plan for this compelling reason: while it is possible to cut carbon dioxide emissions using “inside the fenceline” technology, it is far more expensive and technically risky than what the electric industry actually does now to cut carbon pollution—switching electric generation from coal to gas and to renewables, such as wind turbines and solar panels. In this case, EPA was required to base the pollution limit on the “best system of emission reduction;” EPA determined that the best system was switching from dirtier sources of generation (coal) to cleaner sources (gas and renewables), and making improvements in the efficiency of coal plants.

EPA’s interpretation of the phrase “best system of emission reduction” law was challenged in court by a number of states, coal companies and others. In the court case, EPA was represented by a team of elite attorneys in the United States Department of Justice, who specialize in litigating questions of this kind. This team wrote a 175 page legal brief explaining , convincingly, why EPA’s interpretation was lawful.

But now, EPA has scrapped the legal argument of its own lawyers, dismissing the expertise of the Justice Department just as it has dismissed the expertise of government scientists.  And it has substituted the Department of Justice’s legal analysis with—can you guess?—the legal analysis of none other than Scott Pruitt, back when he was the Oklahoma Attorney general actively suing the EPA over this very rule. As a litigant in the case, Scott Pruitt and other attorneys argued that EPA could not go beyond the fenceline.  The EPA decision today is lifted from the brief that Pruitt and his allies in the fossil fuel industry filed. So, in a span of a year and half, Scott Pruitt has participated in this important legal dispute over the Clean Power Plan first as a lawyer on one side, then as judge and jury at the EPA, and now as the plan’s executioner. Do the words “conflict of interest” mean nothing to this administration?

But the cynical nature of this gambit goes even further. As I noted, the issue of whether the EPA could use a “beyond the fenceline” approach is currently before the court of appeals for the District of Columbia. That court has reviewed thousands of pages of legal briefs on this issue, and spent an entire day hearing legal arguments about it. The court seemed poised to decide the case last fall, and then the Trump administration came in. Almost immediately, Scott Pruitt’s EPA implored the court to put the case on hold, claiming that EPA needed time to do its own evaluation of the rule. It is now clear that this ploy was simply a stalling tactic: the Pruitt EPA feared that the court would uphold the legality of the rule and make it harder for EPA to repeal it. So, the EPA bought time for itself, then jumped the gun to declare the rule illegal before the court could rule otherwise.

Why did the EPA go this route? It had no good alternatives. If the EPA were to repeal the Clean Power Plan on policy grounds, it would have a hard time defending a decision to do nothing on carbon pollution from power plants. If the EPA were to rescind only parts of the Clean Power Plan and leave other parts in place, or even propose an alternative regulation, it would disappoint its allies in the coal industry who want no federal regulation.

So, the EPA decided to use a legal argument to escape the dilemma–one intended to short-circuit the judicial process, and one that is irrevocably tainted by a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, coal and gas plants continue to enjoy the extraordinary right to emit unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, unregulated by any federal law.

Lest there be any doubt, the EPA’s right and obligation to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act—an act of Congress—stands on firm scientific and legal ground. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling, followed by EPA’s Endangerment finding and Cause or Contribute finding clearly establish that the agency must act to curtail carbon emissions from major sources. The obligation to curtail power plant carbon emissions was further reaffirmed in a 2011 Supreme Court ruling. Administrator Pruitt knows this. Yet, even as the latest climate science indicates increasing urgency to act to limit costly and harmful impacts of climate change, Mr. Pruitt, in a gross dereliction of duty, is using every possible machination to delay action.

What now? The EPA’s announcement is the start, not the end of the process.  We must continue to make the case for lowering carbon pollution from power plants and accelerating the transition to clean energy, and put Pruitt’s EPA through the wringer for abandoning this key tool.  At the same time, we must push for actions by states, cities, businesses, and others to accelerate the transition to clean energy, regardless of what EPA ultimately does. And finally, one hopes that the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which still has jurisdiction over this case, sees through this gambit and does its job—decide this legal dispute once and for all, the sooner, the better.

Photo: justice.gov

Who Would Lose with New Suniva/SolarWorld Solar Tariffs? Just About Everybody

A recent decision by the US International Trade Commission (USITC) in favor of two solar manufacturers means that new tariffs on solar cells and panels could be coming. As the reactions from companies and organizations across the economy—and across the political spectrum—make clear, that’s bad news for just about everyone, including you and me.

The solar tariff case

Solar means jobs. As long as we don’t mess things up. (Credit: John Rogers)

The case was brought by Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, two foreign-owned US manufacturing operations that had hit rocky patches in recent years. The companies applied to the USITC under Section 201 of the Trade Act of 1974, which basically says that “domestic industries seriously injured or threatened with serious injury by increased imports” can ask the USITC for “import relief.”

That might seem like a pretty low bar—competition is never easy, whether it’s domestic or foreign, and some of that competition could indeed be serious—but Section 201 has been used only once in the 21st century (in 2002, in a short-lived attempt to protect the steel industry, but one that would have harmed consumers and destroyed more jobs than it created because of the impact of the higher steel prices).

It’s not lost on anybody, though, that this latest petition comes at a time when we have a president who is no friend of trade, and is hungry for tariffs.

The relief that the two petitioners are asking for—sizeable new tariffs on both solar modules, and the cells that manufacturers (yes, US manufacturers) might assemble into modules—would put a definite dent in solar’s incredible momentum in recent years. More importantly, for a president who professes to be about jobs, it would be very likely, as with the 2002 case, kill more jobs than it saved or created.

Even so, on September 22, the bipartisan USITC voted 4-0 in favor of the petition, determining:

…that increased imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells (whether or not partially or fully assembled into other products) are being imported into the United States in such increased quantities as to be a substantial cause of serious injury to the domestic industry producing an article like or directly competitive with the imported article.

How do I love thee not? Let me count the ways…

The reaction to both the original petition and the recent USITC decision has been notable in the breadth of organizations and people reacting negatively, the near unanimity in condemning these moves. Here’s a sampling of reactors and reactions.

The solar industry – Those opposed to Suniva-SolarWorld include just about the whole rest of the US solar industry. Manufacturing jobs account for only 15% of the industry’s 260,000 jobs. For solar project developers, sales forces, installers, and even other manufacturers, new tariffs means increased costs and, likely, diminished prospects for success. As SEIA (the Solar Energy Industries Association) put it:

The ITC’s decision is disappointing for nearly 9,000 U.S. solar companies and the 260,000 Americans they employ… An improper remedy will devastate the burgeoning American solar economy and ultimately harm America’s manufacturers…

Indeed, SEIA has claimed that, if the petitioners are successful in their appeal to the USITC, “88,000 jobs will be lost nationwide, including 6,300 jobs in Texas, 4,700 in North Carolina and a whopping 7,000 jobs in South Carolina.”

The US solar industry is about manufacturing, and a whole lot more. (Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016)

Bipartisan voices — Before the recent vote, a bipartisan group of governors of leading solar states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, and North Carolina—sounded the alarm in a letter to the commission:

The requested tariff could inflict a devastating blow on our states’ solar industries and lead to unprecedented job loss, at steep cost to our states’ economies. According to a study conducted by GTM Research, if granted, the tariff and price floors would cause module prices to double, leading solar installations—both utility-scale and consumer-installed—to drop by more than 50 percent in 2019. At a time when our citizens are demanding more clean energy, the tariff could cause America to lose out on 47 gigawatts of solar installations, representing billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in our states.

Conservative groups – From the “strange bedfellows” department came the news that opponents also include conservative groups who don’t like the idea of mucking with trade, and particularly not in defense of two relatively minor companies. The Heritage Foundation, for example, spoke against what it said was “a case that could undermine the entire U.S. solar energy industry.”

Solar jobs; red dots indicate “manufacturer/supplier”. It’s about a lot more than modules. (Source: SEIA National Solar Database)

Likewise, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not usually on the same side of arguments as renewable energy companies or advocates, cited the broader solar industry’s impressive job tally and job progress in recent years, and the risks to even the manufacturing piece of that:

Many of those [260,000] workers are employed by other solar companies that have successfully figured out how to prosper in this growing industry. Over 38,000 solar workers are employed in manufacturing positions at firms domestically making solar components like inverters, racking systems and more…

Those 38,000 manufacturing jobs might disappear if artificially high input costs price the entire industry out of existence.

Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016

A broad coalition – The Energy Trade Action Coalition formed by SEIA, solar companies, ALEC, Heritage, plus utilities, retailers, and others in response to this Section 201 threat reacted to the recent decision by going after the petitioners themselves:

The ITC decision to find injury is disappointing because the facts presented made it clear that the two companies who brought this trade case were injured by their own history of poor business decisions rather than global competition, and that the petition is an attempt to recover lost funds for their own financial gain at the expense of the rest of the solar industry.

Security experts – For security types, the risks have to do with our military preparedness, resilience, and assurance; more than a dozen former members of the US military, including a lieutenant general and a rear admiral, weighed in with the USITC on the fact that “[t]his dramatic cost increase could potentially jeopardize the financial viability of planned and future solar investments on or near domestic military bases.” This could put at risk bases, missions, and critical services.

And the list goes on.

Not everyone is opposed, of course. Along with the petitioners themselves, a coalition of labor, manufacturing and agricultural interests, the Coalition for a Prosperous America, has spoken out in support of the Suniva-SolarWorld move, saying that the coalition “strongly believes that relief is needed in the face of an Asian import surge to prevent the complete collapse of a critical industry, the manufacture of solar panels”:

Thousands of workers have lost good paying U.S. jobs as a result [of overproduction by international module manufacturers]. That these severe effects occurred during a period of booming U.S. [solar] demand, and despite two successful solar trade cases, is all the more troubling.

But national opinion is overwhelmingly on the other side. Even Suniva’s majority owner, Hong Kong-based Shunfeng International Clean Energy, is purportedly against Suniva’s crusade.

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior

What’s next

With the September 22 commission decision that the petitioners were indeed seriously hurt by imports, the next step is the “remedy” phase, which starts with various parties weighing in to say what they think the fix should be.

Flush with (and surprised by?) the success of their ITC petitions, Suniva and SolarWorld have backed down a little in their demands… but only a little. Others are pushing for a “cure” much closer to a placebo, in the hopes of minimizing the damage to (other) US companies, US consumers, and American jobs.

The USITC then needs to make a recommendation to President Trump, by mid-November. And then the president needs to decide where this goes.

Meanwhile, SolarWorld has said it’s planning to ramp up production given the recent decision. The president of SolarWorld Americas is quoted as saying:

With relief from surging imports in sight, we believe we can rev up our manufacturing engine and increase our economic impact… [W]e at SolarWorld are prepared to scale up our world-class manufacturing operations to produce leading solar products made by more American workers.

That commitment to leaping right back in is a little hard to believe, given the uncertainties that remain while this plays out. The 2002 Section 201 case around steel tariffs ended in failure the following year, after a purported loss of 200,000 American jobs.

It’s the president’s call

What’s clear, though, is that this is potentially a pivotal moment in solar’s trajectory in this country. The US solar industry is about much more than manufacturing, and even the manufacturing sector is about more than cells and modules.

President Trump could take a tariff sledgehammer to the shining solar piece of our nation’s impressive clean energy momentum, favoring a small piece of the industry regardless of the damage to the rest. That would mean harming a sector that has been arguably the best story of job creation and economic growth over the last 10 years. Destroying US jobs while pretending he’s all about creating them.

Or our president could take minimal or no action, send out a victorious tweet or two, and let the US solar industry—in all its dimensions—continue to do its thing. Creating American jobs, not killing them. Strengthening our energy security, not weakening it. And benefiting millions of US customers with greater affordability and access to solar.

Let’s go with option B.

One Lesson For DOE From Harvey & Maria: Fossil Fuels Aren’t Always Reliable

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

The US Department of Energy has proposed that paying coal plants more will make the grid reliable. But last month, three feet of rain from Hurricane Harvey at a coal plant in Fort Bend, Texas complicated the messaging around the reliability of fossil fuels in extreme weather. The vulnerability of power grids to storm damage is also on horrible display in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Past studies by the Union of Concerned Scientists have highlighted risks from worsening storms and grid issues. The demonstrated risks are in the wires, not the types of power plants.

The damage and hardships in Puerto Rico are expected to exceed past US storm impacts when measured in number of people out of service and number of hours of the outage,. Those storms stirred efforts to make the power system more reliable and resilient to extreme weather.

Recently, new debates have arisen regarding the more contentious but less-relevant (and erroneous) argument that “base-load” plants are the single best provider of grid reliability. In a market where coal-burning plants are losing money and closing, coal’s champions argue that a long list of reliability features of coal are unique and valuable. Now that the owner of the W.A. Parish plant in south Texas reported it shifted 1,300 MW of capacity from coal to gas due to rainfall and flooding disrupting power plant operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, yet another of these claims about the unique advantages of coal for electricity has been muddied by facts.

Plant owner NRG reported to the Public Utility Commission of Texas that W.A. Parish units 5 and 6 were switched to burn natural gas due to water saturating the coal. The subbituminous coal stored on site is supposed to be a reliability advantage, according to those pushing coal. As that debate heats up (the DOE is seeking vague and unspecified changes to compensation in the electricity markets for plants that have a fuel supply on-site), the too-simple notion that reliability is created by power plants rather than grid operations that integrate all sources will be put to the test.

Some policymakers have asserted that solid fuel stored on-site is superior to natural gas, wind, and solar. Oil is a player too: although it’s a very small part of the electricity fuel supply in the mainland US, that’s not the case in places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or the interior of Alaska, where it’s the primary fuel.

People in Puerto Rico use oil to fuel private back-up generators. This too is not unique. Hospitals, police stations, and other pieces of critical infrastructure have historically relied on backup generators powered by fossil fuels for electricity supply during blackouts. However, this requires steady and reliable access to fuel. Puerto Rico is now experiencing a fuel supply crisis, as challenges throughout the supply chain have made it extraordinarily challenging to keep up with the demand around the island. After Sandy damaged the New Jersey – New York metropolitan area, many subsequent crises arose because so many back-up generators there failed, including due to inadequate fuel deliveries.

Fortunately, renewable energy and battery storage technology have advanced rapidly in the aftermath of Sandy, and the Japanese earthquake that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant. Solar panels combined with energy storage are now a viable alternative to back-up generators. This combination has the great advantage over back-up oil-burning of providing economic savings all year, as well as serving in an emergency. Even apartment buildings and low-income housing can gain the benefits of solar-plus-storage as a routine and emergency power supply.

Puerto Rico has a great solar resource, and the sun delivers on schedule without regard to the condition of the harbors or roads. Additional back-up power supplies there should be built from solar-plus-storage, so the people depending on electricity need not worry about fuel deliveries, gasoline theft, or dangers from fuel combustion. In Texas, the grid has already absorbed more wind power than any other US state. The next energy boom in Texas will be solar.

These are real resiliency and reliability improvements.

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

Pruitt Guts The Clean Power Plan: How Weak Will The New EPA Proposal Be?

News articles indicate that the EPA is soon going to release a “revised” Clean Power Plan. It is very likely to be significantly weaker than the original CPP, which offered one of the country’s best hopes for reducing carbon emissions that cause global warming.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and President Trump have made no secret about their intent to stop and reverse progress on addressing climate change, so there’s every reason to expect that the revised CPP will be fatally flawed and compromised.

Here’s how we’ll be evaluating it.

How we got here

In August 2015, the EPA issued final standards to limit carbon emissions from new and existing power plants, a historic first-ever step to limit these emissions. Those standards, developed under the Clean Air Act, came about as a result of a landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling and subsequent Endangerment finding from the EPA.

The final Clean Power Plan (CPP) for existing power plants was projected to drive emissions down 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, while providing an estimated $26 billion to $45 billion in net benefits in 2030.

In March 2017, President Trump issued an executive order blocking the Clean Power Plan. He claimed to do so to promote “energy independence and economic growth,” (despite the fact that the US transition to cleaner energy continues to bring significant health and economic benefits nationwide.) The EPA then embarked on a process of implementing the EO, including initiating a review of the CPP.

The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has granted two stays in court challenges related to the CPP, the most recent of which was issued on August 8 for a 60-day period.  These stays were specifically to give the EPA time to review the rule; this in no way changes the agency’s “affirmative statutory obligation to regulate greenhouse gases.”

The EPA is currently expected to issue a revised CPP by October 7, aiming to head off litigation on this issue. Of course, if the plan they issue is a weak one, as it is likely to be the case, there is no question that court challenges will continue.

EPA’s most recent status update filed with the DC Circuit confirms that the agency has sent a draft rule to the Office of Management and Budget, and Administrator Pruitt expects to sign the proposed rule in fall 2017. This will begin a comment period on the new draft rule before it can be finalized.

Five Metrics for Assessing the Revised Clean Power Plan Proposal

While we don’t yet know exactly how the proposed rule will look, there are some key things we’ll be watching for:

1. Will the revised plan cut power sector carbon emissions at least as much as the original CPP?

Not likely. Reports indicate that reductions might be limited to what can be achieved through measures at individual power plants, such as efficiency improvements. (Power plant efficiency improvements, known as ‘heat rate improvements,’ reduce the energy content of the fossil fuel consumed per unit of electricity generated at power plants.)

The associated carbon reductions are going to be relatively small compared to what could be achieved through a power sector-wide approach—including bringing on line cleaner generation resources, increasing demand-side energy efficiency and allowing market-based trading—as was adopted in the original Clean Power Plan. For the final CPP, the EPA estimated that on average nationally a fleet-wide heat rate improvement of approximately 4 percent was feasible, which would result in a fleet-wide CO2 reduction of about 62 million tons in a year. (For context, US power sector CO2 emissions in 2016 were 1,821 million metric tons)

2. Will it promote renewable energy while heading off an over reliance on natural gas?

An approach that’s limited to carbon reductions at current fossil-fired power plants will miss one of the biggest opportunities to lower power sector emissions: ramp up cheap renewable energy!

The original CPP explicitly called out a role for renewable energy in helping to cost-effectively bring down carbon emissions. UCS analysis shows how boosting renewable energy can help cut emissions affordably while bringing consumer and health benefits. Simply switching from coal to gas, while it does lower carbon emissions at the power plant, is just not going to be enough to achieve the deep cuts in power sector emissions we ultimately need from a climate perspective. Boosting the contribution from renewable energy can help limit the climate, economic and health risks of an overreliance on natural gas.

3. Will it lowball the harms posed by climate change?

Administrator Pruitt seems to understand that legally the EPA is required to regulate carbon emissions and he cannot simply do away with the CPP without replacing it. But will the new plan actually recognize the magnitude of the damages that climate change poses?

Earlier this year, President Trump also issued an executive order undercutting the use of the social cost of carbon (SCC),which measures the costs of climate change (and the benefits of cutting carbon emissions). The SCC served as a proxy for measuring the dollar benefits of carbon reductions from the original CPP. If the re-proposed CPP uses an artificially low SCC, that would fly in the face of the latest science and economics.

4. Will it actually help coal miners get their jobs back?

Not very likely, a fact that even coal company executive Robert Murray and Senator Mitch McConnell have admitted. Market trends are continuing to drive a historic transition away from coal-fired power that is unlikely to change just by getting rid of the CPP.

If the Trump administration and Congress are serious about helping coal miners and coal mining communities, they should invest in real solutions—worker training, economic diversification and other types of targeted resources—to help these communities thrive in a clean energy economy, as my colleague Jeremy Richardson writes.

5. Will it increase pollution?

If the revised proposal attempts to maintain or increase the amount of coal-fired power, that will lead to more air, water and toxic pollution.

In addition to being a major source of carbon emissions, coal-fired power plants are a leading source of emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury, among other types of harmful pollution. These pollutants cause or exacerbate heart and lung diseases and can even lead to death. Mercury can affect the neurological development of babies in utero and young children. The Clean Power Plan would have delivered significant health benefits through reductions in these co-pollutants.

Clean energy momentum will continue

Despite Administrator Pruitt’s attempts to undermine the CPP, clean energy momentum will continue nationwide. The facts on the ground are rapidly changing. Market trends continue to drive down coal-fired power because coal is an increasingly uncompetitive option compared to cleaner options like natural gas and renewable energy.

That’s why Xcel CEO Benjamin Fawke recently said “I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment.” And “We’re investing big in wind because of the tremendous economic value it brings to our customers.”

It’s why Appalachian Power’s Chris Beam also said,

At the end of the day, West Virginia may not require us to be clean, but our customers are (…) So if we want to bring in those jobs, and those are good jobs, those are good-paying jobs that support our universities because they hire our engineers, they have requirements now, and we have to be mindful of what our customers want. We’re not going to build any more coal plants. That’s not going to happen.

The pace of growth in renewable energy growth is particularly striking, with new wind and solar installations outstripping that of any other source of power including natural gas.

And as my colleague Julie McNamara recently pointed out, energy efficiency is one of the top electricity resources in the US, and in fact was the third-largest electricity resource in the United States in 2015.

That’s why more and more states, cities and businesses are doubling down on their commitment to renewable energy and the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, saying ‘We’re Still In!’

For all of you who care deeply about our nation’s transition to clean energy, please ask your state legislators to push for more renewable energy even as the Trump administration tries to turn back progress.

We still need robust federal policies

Despite the promising market trends, there’s no denying we need robust federal policies to accelerate the current clean energy momentum and cut US carbon emissions faster and deeper to meet climate goals.

The reality is that the original CPP itself was not strong enough, though it was a pivotal step in the right direction. The US will need to do more, both in the power sector and economy-wide to cut emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

A weakened CPP would be a sad step back in our efforts to address global warming. At a time when the risks of climate change are abundantly clear—just consider this years’ terrible hurricane and wildfire seasons—this is no time to delay action.

Administrator Pruitt: Do your job

Mr. Pruitt continues to show a blatant disregard for the mission of the agency he heads, while pandering to fossil fuel and other industry interests. Weakening the power plant carbon standards is just the latest in a long string of actions he has taken to undermine public health safeguards that were developed in accordance with laws Congress has passed.

Furthermore, he has repeatedly attacked the role of science in informing public policy. Perhaps most egregiously, he continues to deny the facts on climate change. (If he is genuinely interested in understanding the latest science, he need look no further than the US National Academy of Sciences.)

Administrator Pruitt, stop hurting our children’s health and future. Do your job—and start by setting strong carbon standards for power plants.

 

Photo: justice.gov

Illinois is Expanding Solar Access to Low-Income Communities—But It Didn’t Happen Without a Fight

Installing solar panels in PA Photo: used with permission from publicsource.org

When the Future Energy Jobs Bill (FEJA) passed the Illinois General Assembly and was later approved by Governor Rauner in early December last year, a key component of the legislation was to expand solar access for low-income communities. To get a feeling for how the legislation came about, I caught up with Naomi Davis, president and founder of the Chicago-based non-profit Blacks in Green (BIG). She has been on the front lines of developing this innovative program and is excited to finally see it coming together.

Illinois Solar for All

The Illinois Solar for All Program, a key piece of FEJA, provides funding to train and employ residents of low-income and economically disadvantaged communities, residents returning from the criminal justice system, and foster care graduates, in the solar installation industry. It’s a comprehensive solar deployment and job training program that will open access to the solar economy for thousands of Illinois residents.

For Naomi Davis, who has been advocating for renewable energy in a variety of platforms since BIG’s founding 10 years ago, Solar for All is a dream come true.

“[Solar For All] means the realization of a fundamental aim of BIG, which is to build an earned income business model for our non-profit,” Davis says. “We are launching BIG SOLAR in partnership with Millennium Solar and SunSwarm and creating a social enterprise for education and outreach, household subscriptions, workforce training and placement, design, installation, and maintenance of systems – residential, commercial, industrial, and are also exploring the development of a light solar pv assembly facility in West Woodlawn.”

The Solar for All program is a solar deployment and and job training initiative under FEJA.

The path to solar

The path to solar for all hasn’t been easy. “Not talked about is the sausage-making chaos of building a market almost from scratch, and the incredibly detailed and exhaustive examination of details and scenarios required,” admits Davis. She shares the camaraderie created when “folks who never talk to each other are huddled over time to understand the roles of the other and how to create economic harmony. That tiny organizations like BIG have to carry an incredible weight to stay at that table and ensure the interests of our constituents are represented.”

Although the legislation passed with many having a hand in its success, she highlights that communities of color are the unsung heroes of this legislation. Her organization’s affiliation and membership with the Chicago Environmental Justice Network was pivotal in having their needs considered. Among the organizations part of the network is the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO).

Juliana Pino, Policy Director for LVEJO, made sure the direction and content of the Future Energy Jobs Act took into consideration the needs of their community. It’s through their work, Davis says, that many of the benefits to communities of color now will be realized.

Solar growth benefits communities

According to the Low Income Solar Policy Guide, the growth of solar in the United States provides a significant opportunity to address some of the greatest challenges faced by lower-income communities: the high cost of housing, unemployment, and pollution. Solar can provide long-term financial relief to families struggling with high and unpredictable energy costs, living-wage employment opportunities in an industry adding jobs at a rate of 20 percent per year, and a source of clean, local energy sited in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel power generation.

According to Davis, Chris Williams, owner of Millennium Solar Electric, should be funded through this training. Davis says Williams is a third-generation African American IBEW electrician and founder of the now-reviving South Suburban Renewable Energy Association and go-to ComEd solar youth educator. Training and education are key.

Still, the work is hardly over. In fact, it’s just begun.

“As with any industry poised for enormous market share – in this case, energy – strategic tech training is essential,” says Davis. “Not just African Americans historically discriminated against, but also coal region towns desperately need the re-education this legislation can provide. Market forces are already finding cheaper sources than coal and without public dollars. Coal towns across Illinois and around the country all need what Solar for All provides – a better way forward.”

Community partnerships

Under the Illinois Solar for All Program, developers of community solar projects need to identify partnerships with community stakeholders to determine location, development, and participation in the projects. Communities will play a pivotal role in this program, and continuing to build partnerships is critical to its success.

Thanks to the Illinois Solar for All Program, Illinois is poised to bring more solar power to homes, communities, places of faith, and schools in every part of the state.

Public Source

Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Devastated Electricity System

Photo: endi.com

Over the last few days, I’ve been glued to social media, the phone, and ham radio-like apps trying to find out more about the fate of family members in the catastrophic situation in my native Puerto Rico following Hurricane María. (Fortunately, I was able to confirm on Friday that everyone in my immediate family is accounted for and safe).

My family is among the few lucky ones. My childhood home is a cement suburban dwelling built on well-drained hilly soils, some eight kilometers from the coast, and well outside flood zones. But many of my 3.4 million co-nationals in Puerto Rico have not been so lucky, and are experiencing, as I write this, catastrophic flooding. Further, tens of thousands have been without electricity since Hurricane Irma downed many of the distribution lines. In addition, there are more than 170,00 affected in the nearby US Virgin Islands and Dominica, Caribbean islands who have also experienced catastrophic damages.

Just in the largest suburban community in Puerto Rico—Levittown in the north—hundreds had to be evacuated on short notice during the early Thursday dawn as the gates of the Lago La Plata reservoir were opened and the alarm sirens failed to warn the population. The next day, a truly dramatic emergency evacuation operation followed as the Guajataca Dam in the northwest broke and 70,000 were urged to leave the area. At least ten have been confirmed dead so far.

The government of the Commonwealth has mounted a commendable response, but has been hampered in large part by the lack of power and communications facilities, which are inoperable at the moment except for those persons, agencies, and telephone companies that have power generators and the gas to keep them running. This has been one of the main impediments for Puerto Ricans abroad to communicate with loved ones and for the Rosselló administration’s efforts to establish communications and coordination with many towns that remain unaccounted for.

Chronic underinvestment and neglect of energy infrastructure increases human vulnerability to extreme weather

Why has Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure been rendered so vulnerable in the recent weeks? The ferocity of Irma and María could stretch the capacity of even well-funded and maintained energy production and distribution systems. In Florida—where the power grid had received billions in upgrades over the last decade—Irma left two-thirds of the population without power (but was also able to bounce back after a few weeks).

But years of severe infrastructure underinvestment by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has led to a fragile system that has completely collapsed after these two hurricanes. Irma’s indirect hit damaged distribution lines but not production; María’s eye made landfall on the southeast and exited through the central north, placing it right on the path of four of the high-capacity plants that burn heavy fuel and diesel oil. These plants are also located close to, or within, flood zones.

The reconstruction of the power infrastructure in Puerto Rico is a monumental task as it is critical to guarantee the well-being of Puerto Ricans. More than 3.4 million US citizens are now in a life-threatening situation and getting electricity up and running in the near term is critically important as it can support rescue and recovery efforts.

Wherever possible, these immediate efforts should aim to align with a broader rebuilding mission that points Puerto Rico toward a more economically robust and climate resilient future, not repairs that repeat the mistakes of the past. There is a need also to build resilience against the climate and extreme weather vulnerability Puerto Rico is so brutally facing right now.

There is a great need also for economic alleviation of the high cost of energy in Puerto Rico: electricity prices for all sectors (residential, commercial, and industrial) are much higher in Puerto Rico than in the United States. Reliance on imported fossil fuels for generation is one driver of the high cost: in 2016 nearly half of energy production came from petroleum, nearly one-third from natural gas, and 17 percent coal). Only 2 percent comes from renewables.

While there is quite a bit of clean energy momentum in the United States, that impetus is not being transferred to Puerto Rico. There are many reasons for that, including lack of support from PREPA. But Puerto Rico has strong solar and wind energy resource potential, and renewable energy has been proposed as a way to help PREPA pare down its $9 billion dollar debt, help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and fossil fuel price volatility, lower costs to consumers, and contribute to an economic recovery for the Commonwealth.

This unprecedented catastrophe affecting millions of US citizens requires the intervention of the federal government

To ensure a safe and just economic recovery for Puerto Rico, Congress and the administration need to commit resources to help the territory recover. President Trump has declared Puerto Rico a disaster zone, and FEMA director Brock Long will visit the island on Monday. The priority right now is to save lives and restore basic services. To aid these efforts, Congress and the Trump administration should:

  • Direct the Department of Defense to provide helicopters and other emergency and rescue resources to Puerto Rico.
  • Provide an emergency spending package to the US territory.
  • Increase the FEMA funding level for debris removal and emergency protective measures in Puerto Rico.
  • Temporarily suspend the Jones Act. The Jones Act, which mandates that all vessels carrying cargo into the US and its territories be US Merchant Marine vessels, significantly increases the cost of importing goods into the island.

Once the state of emergency ends, Governor Rosselló needs to be very vocal that Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure reconstruction should help put the Puerto Rican people and economy on a path to prosperity and resilience from climate impacts. The 2017 hurricane season is not over yet, and the situation in Puerto Rico right now is catastrophic. Decisions about energy infrastructure will be made in the coming days, weeks, and months. Those decisions need to take into account the short- as well as the long-term needs of the Puerto Rican population and help make Puerto Rico more resilient to the massive climate and weather extreme dislocations that we are facing.

Want to help?

endi.com

What’s My State Doing About Solar and Wind? New Rainbow Graphic Lets You Know

[With costs dropping and scale climbing, wind and solar have been going great guns in recent years. Shannon Wojcik, one of the Stanford University Schneider Sustainable Energy Fellows we’ve been lucky enough to have had with us this summer, worked to capture that movement for your state and its 49 partners. Here’s Shannon’s graphic, and her thoughts about it.]

Do you ever wonder how much energy those rooftop solar panels in your state are contributing to renewable energy in our country? How about the wind turbines you see off the highway?

Our new “rainbow mountain” graphic lets you see your state’s piece of solar and wind’s quickly growing contribution to the US electricity mix. It shows how much of our electricity has come from wind and solar each month for the last 16 years. Just click on your state in the graph’s legend or roll your mouse over the graphic to see what’s been happening where you live.

Dashboard 1

var divElement = document.getElementById('viz1506006933250'); var vizElement = divElement.getElementsByTagName('object')[0]; vizElement.style.width='870px';vizElement.style.height='619px'; var scriptElement = document.createElement('script'); scriptElement.src = 'https://public.tableau.com/javascripts/api/viz_v1.js'; vizElement.parentNode.insertBefore(scriptElement, vizElement);

At first glance, this graphic looks like a disorderly rainbow mountain range. Keep staring though (try not to be mesmerized by the colors) and you can start to see patterns.

The peaks in the mountain range seem to be methodical, as well as the dips. The peaks where the most electricity is supplied by wind and solar can be seen in spring, where demand (the denominator) is lower due to moderate temperatures, and generation (the numerator) is high due to windy and sunny days. The crevasses, in July and August, happen because demand for electricity is high at those times thanks to air conditioning, increasing the overall load on the US grid—and driving up our calculation’s denominator. If you were to look just at monthly generation of wind and solar, this variation would be smaller.

Another, much more obvious thing about the mountains is that they’re getting taller. In fact, we passed a notable milestone in March of 2017, when, for the first time, wind and solar supplied 10% of the entire US electricity demand over the month. In 2012, solar and wind had only reached 4.6% of total US generation, so the recent peak meant more than a doubling in just 5 years.

That’s momentum.

Climbers and crawlers

Being able to see the different states lets you see where the action is on wind and solar—which are the climbers and which are the crawlers.

You know the saying about how everything is bigger in Texas? Well, that certainly holds true here. Texas is the bedrock of this mountain range, never supplying less than 14% of the wind and solar for the entire US after 2001. Even supplying as much as 35% some months. Texas hosts the largest wind generation, and doesn’t seem to be in danger of losing that title anytime soon.

California is another crucial state in this mountain range, and has been from the beginning. California was building solar and wind farms years before the other states, a trendsetter; in 2001, it was supplying up to 75% of all the wind and solar electricity in the US. California is still the second largest supplier of wind and solar.

Other notable states that are building this solar and wind mountain are Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota, Arizona, and North Carolina. Most of these states are rising up due to wind, but Arizona and North Carolina, along with California, are leading with solar.

Not all states with strong solar and wind performances by some metrics show up here. South Dakota is #2 for wind as a fraction of their own generation, though on this graphic it’s barely visible.

What does this mean?

This graphic shows that the momentum of solar and wind growth in the United States is undeniable. It can be seen on rooftops, in windy valleys and on windy plains, and even in states where coal has been king. All 50 states are involved as well, as every state generates electricity with wind and solar.

There are many ways for your state to increase its overall percentage. It can either decrease its denominator with energy efficiency or increase its numerator with wind and solar installations.

Not satisfied with where your state shows up on this graph? Check out what more your state can do.

California’s 100% Clean Energy Bill Faces Setback—But Progress Continues

Image of California's Capitol Building Photo: Henri Sivonen/CC BY (Flickr)

The California Legislature failed to bring Senate Bill 100 (De León) for a full vote on Friday. Had the bill, SB 100 (De León), passed and been signed into law it would have accelerated the state’s primary renewable energy program, known as the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), by raising the current requirement from 50 to 60 percent by 2030. It also would have set an ambitious new policy for all electricity produced in the state to come from zero-carbon resources by 2045.

Since Friday was the deadline to move bills for the regular 2017 legislative session, the bill is stalled but not dead. In fact, Assembly member Chris Holden, the chair of the committee for which the bill failed to be brought for a vote, has said the issues will be revisited in 2018.

Let’s take stock of where we are today: in 2016 California received about 25% of its electricity from eligible renewables. Another 19% came from a combination of nuclear and large hydropower, which are zero-carbon resources that would be eligible under SB 100. Statewide we are already on track to exceed the current RPS requirement of 50% by 2030. In the past several years California has made great strides to continue its position as a worldwide clean energy leader, and current policies in place ensure that the momentum will continue.

I am disappointed, but not discouraged. I spent a good bit of time working on SB 100 this year, and to me the fact that we couldn’t pass it in one year is not cause for despair. As I’ve said before, setting a goal to completely decarbonize California’s electricity sector by 2045 is bold and aspirational, and it should not be a surprise that a big new energy policy will take multiple legislative sessions to hammer out some of the details.

I am also encouraged that conversations at the end of the year were not about whether a zero-carbon electricity grid is the right path for California’s future but rather what that path should look like. I look forward to continuing the discussion and negotiation in January when the legislature returns. Reducing carbon emissions and air pollution by transitioning away from fossil fuels is one of the most important actions our country and world must take to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. While California’s share of global emissions is relatively small, transitioning completely away from fossil fuel-based electricity for the world’s sixth-largest economy would break new, important ground for other states and countries to follow. 2018 should be an exciting year.

Why Does the Cost of Offshore Wind Keep Dropping?

The latest costs for new offshore wind farms are mighty impressive. How come offshore wind costs just keeps going down?

Records were meant to be broken

The UK just held its latest auction for power from future projects based on a range of low-carbon technologies beyond the usual suspects like solar and land-based wind.*

The UK auction results were quite something: The winning bids included not one but two offshore wind projects whose developers agreed to a contract price of ­­£57.50 per megawatt-hour (2012 prices)—around 7.7 US cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s half the cost for offshore wind projects in a round of bidding in the UK just two years ago, and within striking distance of—or lower than—the cost of almost any source of new “conventional” power.

So how does this happen? Why does the cost of offshore wind keep getting lower, and so quickly?

Bigger, stronger, faster

Those latest record breakers, the proposed Moray and Hornsea Two offshore wind projects, offer some strong clues about possible paths to lower costs:

  • Larger turbines. The two new projects might use 8-megawatt wind turbines, as did one project that just came online. That’s a big step up from the standard of just a few years ago. And larger turbines are likely on the way (and maybe even much larger ones). Larger turbines mean more power from each installation—each footing, each tower, each trip to install pieces of it, and then to maintain it.
  • Larger projects. Moray will be a really impressive 950 megawatts. Hornsea Two will be a stunning 1386 megawatts—likely the largest offshore wind project in the world when it goes online (and enough to power more than 1.4 million UK homes). Larger projects mean likely economies of scale on lots of pieces, making better use of the installation crews and equipment, covering more ground (or water) with given maintenance personnel, and spreading all the project/transaction costs over more megawatts.
  • Faster project timelines. Both of these new projects are supposed to come online by 2022/23, which is amazingly quick (and not just by US standards). Faster timelines mean less zero-revenue time before the blades start turning and the electrons start flowing (and the dollars/pounds start coming in).
  • Lots of offshore wind projects in place already. The latest projects will join a national mix that includes 5100 megawatts of offshore wind providing 5% of the UK’s electricity. Plenty of experience offshore means there’s a developed and growing industry in the UK and much of the necessary infrastructure for manufacturing components, moving them into place, and getting the electricity to shore.
  • Comfortable investors. With all the UK experience to date, investors know what they’re getting into. The UK government, offering these contracts, is about as solid a guarantor for the revenue stream as investors could ever hope to see. Comfortable investors = lower financing costs = lower prices for consumers.

Lots of tailwinds for offshore wind. So what might be pushing things in the other direction—counterbalancing (partly) all those cost gains?

Two have to do with project sites. As near-shore sites get taken, projects end up farther from land, meaning more shipping time to get personnel and materials to the project site, and longer power lines to get the electrons back to land, and higher associated costs. New sites might also be in deeper water, which means more tower costs (or even floating turbines!).

UK wind farms and instantaneous output (Source: The Crown Estate). Click to enlarge.

On the plus side, better wind speeds are also a factor in cutting offshore wind costs, and being further out can mean even better winds.

The UK doesn’t seem to be in danger of running out of suitable sites, in any case, and technologies seem to be evolving to keep up with changing site characteristics.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. of A.

What’s this latest offshore wind news mean for those of us on this side of the pond? The biggest takeaway, maybe, is that we can do more when we do more.

As UCS and plenty of others have argued, we really benefit by offering the US offshore wind industry a clear path not just to one or two projects, but to the robust levels of installation and clean energy that we know we need. That long-term outlook can allow them to make the kind of investments (and attract the investors) to build not just projects, but an industry.

And with each project, it becomes easier to envision the next one. Massachusetts has structured its 1600-megawatt offshore wind requirement with multiple tranches to take advantage of this effect. The first round, maybe 400 megawatts (for which bids are currently being prepared), is likely to pave the way for a cheaper second round, and a third round that’s cheaper still.

New York is offering a path to even larger scale, with its recent commitment to 2400 megawatts of offshore wind.

As the experience in the UK and elsewhere is showing, more and bigger projects, larger overall targets, and greater clarity for the industry can lead to economies of scale, more local manufacturing and stronger local infrastructure, and more comfortable investors for US markets.

And that can all add up to more cost-effective offshore wind for us all.

*Can I just say how great it is to be in a place where solar and wind are “usual suspects”? We are definitely making progress.

Why Did Hurricane Irma Leave so Many People in the Dark?

The National Hurricane Center issued its final advisory for Irma on Monday night, September 11, but for millions of people left in the storm’s wake, the disaster remains far from over. One stark reminder? Power outages. Everywhere.

Across the Caribbean, through the entirety of Florida, up into Georgia, and spreading into the Carolinas, Irma ripped power from the people.

Seventeen million people, at its peak.

Which means 17 million people without air conditioners in the sweltering heat and humidity, 17 million people without refrigerators keeping food and medicine safe, 17 million people without lights at home or along the roads, 17 million people without internet to stay informed, 17 million people suffering business interruptions and loss, and 17 million people without the assurance of critical infrastructure dependent on power—first responders, hospitals, drinking water, sewage—being able to keep their operations going. We’ve already seen the tragedy that can occur when these systems fail, with the loss of eight lives at a nursing home unable to cope, powerless in the oppressive Florida heat.

Following herculean round-the-clock efforts of the largest assembly of restoration workers in history, the lights are starting to flicker back on across the Southeast. But questions about these outages—how many, why, for how long, and critically, could it have gone better—abound. Here, a quick run-down of what we know, what we don’t, and what we’ll be looking to see in the days, weeks, and months to come.

How big was this power outage and how long will it last?

Current estimates place the number of people impacted by outages from Irma at more than 16 million across the southeastern US. When you add in outages across the Caribbean, where homes and infrastructure have seen even more severe damage, the count climbs higher to 17 million. It will take some time to get final official numbers, but the rough-cut already confirms a mind-bogglingly high number of people got left in the dark.

Just how high? When we compare customer outage counts (which is different from people; utilities tally each account as one “customer,” but accounts can represent multiple people living in the home or working in the business located behind the meter) from some major recent storms, Irma’s preliminary 8.956 million across five states, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands looks like it will probably top the list:

  • Sandy (2012): 8.66 million customers
  • Irene (2011): 6.69 million customers
  • Gustav (2008): 1.1 million customers
  • Ike (2008): 3.9 million customers
  • Katrina (2005): 2.7 million customers
  • Wilma (2005): 3.5 million customers
  • Rita (2005): 1.5 million customers

But here’s a critical point. In many ways, the duration of an outage determines the severity of its consequences. Lights out for a night? For most: an inconvenience. Lights out for several days, a week, or even longer? The triggering of a cascade of disastrous and potentially life-threatening consequences. And in a comparison of the 2005 and 2008 hurricane seasons below, we can see clearly that across storms, the initial magnitude of peak outages does not necessarily align with the subsequent duration borne by large numbers of people:

A comparison of peak outages, and outage durations, from a series of 2005 and 2008 hurricanes. Credit: DOE OE/ISER.

Right now, we know that the peak number of customers experiencing outages from Irma tops those tallied in the storms above, but we don’t yet know how long all of these outages will last. Already utilities have returned millions of people to power across the Southeast—Wednesday evening’s situation report had the total number without power at over 4.2 million; down steeply from its peak, yet still high—and are predicting that many more will be restored by the end of this weekend. Still, the utilities have flagged that they expect some segment of customers will remain without power for yet another week, or a full two weeks after the storm initially blew through.

One thing to watch? Who’s left in the dark the longest. The order in which customers get returned to power can have life-threatening consequences. Tragically, lives have already been lost from these outages. As coordination between utilities and local governments grow, in addition to prioritizing critical infrastructure, it is imperative to identify those populations most in need of attention—including the elderly, those with disabilities, and low-income populations—to help ensure prioritized and equitable attention for those who are least able to cope with the aftermath of severe weather events.

What caused these widespread outages?

Severe storms can present many and varied threats to the electricity system, from high winds, trees, and flying debris taking down power lines, to storm surge and inland flooding laying siege to substations, transformers, buried power lines, and even power plants. And in a centralized grid, where electricity from large power plants gets routed along transmission and distribution lines until it finally reaches a customer at the end of the wire, outages occurring along any part of the system can ripple down the line.

We know from a previous UCS analysis of the southeastern Florida and Charleston and South Carolina Lowcountry electricity grid that critical electrical infrastructure is located in areas highly susceptible to flooding from storm surge. However, in some places Irma ended up sparing significant storm surge, yet still the power went out. Why?

Wind, for one. Heavy winds can snap poles, send trees crashing onto wires, loft dangerous flying debris, and otherwise rip lines from homes and businesses. But flooding almost certainly contributed in places as well, especially in locations where storm surge and rainfall was worse. And finally in some places, utilities themselves may have caused the outages by pre-emptively cutting power to parts of the grid to better protect potentially inundated infrastructure.

Hurricane Irma restoration in Fort Lauderdale, FL, on Sept. 11, 2017. Credit: Florida Power and Light.

Depending on the causes of failure, and whether there existed many scattered problems versus several centralized disturbances, the length of repairs—and thus the time until restoration—can vary.

We will be waiting to review the utility’s system assessment following the restoration effort to see, in particular, where the major vulnerabilities in the system were concentrated, which can help us understand what went wrong, what went right, and where more attention must be focused in the future—so stay tuned for updates here.

Utilities in Florida  invested billions to storm-harden the grid. Do these outages mean it was a waste?

Following the catastrophic 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, Florida took steps to require its utilities to more closely consider storm preparedness. This resulted in several new requests from the state’s Public Service Commission, including a requirement for utilities to adhere to a vegetation management plan (i.e., requiring diligent, intentional tree-trimming schedules), and a requirement that utilities present an annual accounting of storm hardening efforts across their systems.

In response, Florida Power & Light (FPL), the largest utility in the state, has invested on the order of $3 billion since then, with other utilities in the state following suit. In FPL’s case, this has meant replacing thousands of wooden poles with concrete, burying dozens of main power lines, upgrading hundreds of substations with flood-monitoring equipment to pre-emptively shut off power (and thus avoid far worse outcomes than if such equipment were inundated while energized), and installing smart-grid devices throughout the system to help pull back the curtain on where outages are and how to work around them.

So how, then, do we square these $3 billion in investments with the fact that over the course of this storm, a staggering 4.45 million out of 4.9 million FPL customers were affected by outages? Were all the investments, borne on the backs of ratepayers, in vain?

Almost certainly not. For one, where FPL’s investments in grid hardening overlapped with increases in system resilience—or the development of a grid that is flexible, responds to challenges, and enables quick recoveries—these upgrades can help the utility restore power faster. That’s critical for lessening the impact of outages, especially for vulnerable populations, even if it doesn’t lessen the initial scope.

Still, there will be lots to consider after the restoration process is over, and once we have had a chance to see where outages persisted, and why. We will also then be able to study how this restoration evolved compared to previous efforts, and where attention should be focused in the future. At the same time, we already know that utilities have been insufficiently factoring climate change into their current infrastructure plans, leaving today’s investments vulnerable to tomorrow’s conditions. And that, we know, must change.

Is this the future we must accept, or are there things we know we can do better?

In addition to tragic loss of life and property, Hurricane Irma has also forced the reckoning of a new round of questions relating to storm preparedness in a warming world. On the one hand, it is impractical to perfectly protect our electricity infrastructure against all possible power outage threats, and though it’s too soon to tell the degree to which the widespread power outages following Irma could have been avoided, it is possible to accept that such a large storm would have at least resulted in some. (And it’s worth noting that Irma itself could have been far more devastating to parts of the coastal grid had the storm’s path not changed—the performance here should not be evidence of the worst that can happen, as we know a future storm could lay bare other paths of exposure.)

At the same time, we know that prolonged power outages can have catastrophic consequences. In particular, the critical infrastructure upon which we all depend, and the vulnerable populations for whom lasting outages can have the most severe affects, simply cannot be left to chance. We should not, cannot, accept that lives will be lost because the power stayed out.

So where do we go from here?

We put a focus on resilience. Now this is a big conversation, and one demanding attention on many fronts, not just the electricity sector. Because yes, it’s about improving the resilience of the power grid—about which we’ll be writing more in the time to come—but it’s also about advancing complementary measures that get people out of harm’s way to begin with. It’s about climate change, and equity, and infrastructure, and planning—it’s all about the future, and how we best position ourselves to face it.

And that means looking forward, not looking back. So in the time ahead, we’ll be looking to see how the federal government, states, and utilities move forward, and do our best to make sure that when tomorrow’s storm won’t look like today’s, all parties are preparing for the future, not the past.

Florida Power & Light

What Is Grid Modernization—and What’s the Role of Electric Vehicles?

Utilities around the country are creating “grid modernization” plans. What does this mean? Isn’t the grid “modern” already?

We get electricity reliably with the flip of a switch. It can power all manner of appliances and devices. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) regards electrification as the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. Even so, NAE observes that the system could be even more economical and reliable with the right kinds of improvements.

Maintaining the current level of reliability requires investments of billions of dollars each year by utilities and grid operators, and regular attention by trained line workers and electrical engineers. The grid is over a century old in much of the country, and has been built up in a patchwork fashion over this time.

As a result, most states are looking at ways to improve the system, as seen in Figure 1. “Grid modernization” can mean different things depending on local needs. A state in the Midwest might focus on upgrading transmission lines to connect more wind turbines and deliver the power to urban centers. California or Hawaii may focus on pricing structures to reflect the abundance of solar power at mid-day. New York is working to address growing electricity demand in the Brooklyn-Queens “load pocket,” where constructing a new substation would be expensive and disruptive.

Figure 1: Grid modernization activities took place in 37 states, either in their legislatures or regulatory agencies, in the first quarter of 2017. Source: NC Clean Energy Technology Center, “50 States of Grid Modernization.”

A common feature of most of these grid modernization plans is communication. By sending real-time information about conditions such as power flow or the supply of renewable energy, and designing systems to respond automatically, we can reduce grid costs and maximize the use of clean power.

Smart charging of electric vehicles is an illustrative application of grid modernization that brings together many of its key elements. By varying the rate at which the vehicles draw electricity from the grid, we can manage short-term changes in wind and solar power output, or even compensate for outages at other power plants. This can be done without inconveniencing drivers. It requires communication between the vehicle and the grid, but is possible with existing technology.

Why grid modernization?

Grid modernization can deliver greater quantities of zero-to low-carbon electricity reliably and securely, including handling variable renewables like wind and solar power. It can support the electric vehicle revolution and increase grid resilience to withstand climate impacts. It can spread economic opportunity in rural and urban communities through electricity and transportation infrastructure investment and upgrades. And, it can improve system efficiencies and reduce costs by reducing the need for expensive and dirty power plants that only run a few hours per year (these are called “peakers”).

The US obtained about 10% of its electricity generation from wind and solar in the spring of 2017 (counting distributed solar), with some regions much higher on individual days. A modern grid will allow higher levels of renewable energy by improving weather prediction, limiting the effects of local variations, and providing storage and load flexibility (electricity demand that has some leeway to adjust up or down) so that backup power plants won’t need to be kept running.

UCS modeling (in The US Power Sector in a Net Zero World) has shown that 55-60% of US electricity could be delivered from renewable energy by 2030, most of this from wind and solar. The US Department of Energy (DOE) explores a scenario of 20% wind power in 2030 in Wind Vision, and DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) illustrates a pathway to even higher levels of renewables in 2050 in the Renewable Electricity Futures Study. Modernizing our grid will help us best take advantage of those new wind and solar resources.

The technologies

Unlocking the promise of a low-carbon electricity system will require deploying new infrastructure and innovative technologies and changing the rules that govern our electricity system and markets.

Some established technologies have a valuable role to play in grid modernization. Transmission lines move power between different regions of the country. This can help manage large amounts of renewable energy. For example, wind power becomes more consistent when the wind farms are in many different places across a large area. Transmission lines also help regions cope with outages of other types of power plants, such as natural gas or nuclear.

Energy storage is finding new roles on the grid. Storage that uses hydropower has long helped match supply to daily changes in electricity demand, while recent years have seen tremendous advances in another technology: batteries. As costs come down and performance improves, batteries are increasingly viable for a broad range of electricity sector applications. They can store power produced during times of low electricity demand and discharge it to the grid when needed.

Batteries can also make renewable energy available on demand (such as solar power, as seen in Figure 2). In some cases, this is a lower-cost and cleaner solution than relying on other generators for power at night and on cloudy days.

Figure 2: Utility-scale solar array with batteries, Kaua’i, Hawaii. Source: Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative.

The real-time communication aspect of grid modernization comes into view with “smart” systems on homes and businesses. Smart inverters on solar panels adjust solar power supply to help the grid provide electricity at the correct voltage and frequency. Smart charging systems allow electric vehicles to selectively charge at times of low cost or low emissions. Smart electric meters measure electricity usage at short intervals, such as every hour rather than every month, empowering consumers to shift their electricity use to times when power is less expensive. Smart thermostats learn the patterns of household heating and cooling demand to reduce energy costs.

Together, these technologies enable a more efficient use of our electricity resources to help reduce consumer costs as well as reduce emissions.

Some of these smart systems feature controllable loads. Instead of shifting supply to times of peak demand, as storage does, they can shift demand to times of abundant supply. A commercial air conditioning system might make ice during a period of low electricity demand and then use the ice to cool a building during the late afternoon, typically a time of high electricity demand. An electric vehicle parked overnight could vary its rate of charging to match the output of nearby wind farms. Controllable loads can help the grid manage variable energy resources. If consumers can control the demand, everyone can accept some variability in the supply. Controllable loads also can provide short-term demand response, contracting with a utility to reduce electricity consumption during times of very high demand.

Smart meters allow controllable loads to better align electricity demand with supply. This depends on some sort of information from the utility. Time-varying rates provide that information in the form of a price signal—identifying the best times to use power. These rates can move higher or lower over the course of the day, week, and/or season in accordance with true system costs, can save money, and can better match consumer demand with our supply of clean energy resources. Controllable loads such as water heaters and electric vehicles can benefit from time-varying rates, since they can be flexible in when they draw power from the grid. This is discussed in more detail in the UCS Issue Brief, Flipping the Switch for a Cleaner Grid.

Smart charging as an example of grid modernization

Electric vehicles represent a growing source of electricity demand. A modern grid would both minimize the impact of EV charging on the  grid, while also enabling (and taking advantage of) “smart charging.” This in turn would improve grid reliability and support greater renewable electricity deployment.

So, what exactly is smart charging?

An EV has flexibility in when you charge it. With a home EV charger, you might get 20 miles of range per hour of charging. If you drove 60 miles that day, then you would require 3 hours of charging. Now suppose you get home at 7 pm and don’t need to go out again—the vehicle will be parked for the next 12 hours. You probably don’t need to start charging right away at 7 pm, at the same time as everybody else is using stoves, ovens, microwaves, televisions, or other electrical loads. In fact, it would be less expensive for the utility if you waited until any time after 10 pm.

How might the utility encourage you to do that? It could charge you less for electricity in “off-peak” times. This would require a “smart meter” that can measure when power is used, not just how much is used in a month. That could be a new utility meter in your house, or the utility could use the systems embedded in the vehicle or the charger. Alternatively, the utility might give you a rebate for a charger that they can control within certain limits, while still ensuring you have an override option.

The 2015 Kia Soul EV paired with a charger at the DC auto show.

Your local utility would like to know that you have an EV charger (since many high-powered chargers on the same neighborhood loop could cause impacts on the local transformer). But there is also the potential for you to use smart charging and benefit the utility, reducing system costs for everybody. It may become more practical to use the battery in a two-way “vehicle-to-grid” arrangement, where the battery is actually sending power to the utility. Although not widespread yet, V2G systems operate in several regions and offer a technically viable energy storage option.

Smart charging is not just an idea; such programs exist today. In BMW’s “ChargeForward” program, smart EV charging, combined with a bank of used batteries from older electric vehicles, provides demand response. When power is needed, BMW has its vehicles stop taking power from the grid, and has its battery bank start sending power to the grid. Vehicle owners are compensated for enrolling and participating in this program, and have the option to override and keep on charging during any demand response event.

Another smart charging program is EMotorWerks’ “JuiceNet Green” algorithm, which automatically aligns vehicle charging at residential or workplace charging stations with clean energy generation to minimize pollution. Other systems have been developed for public charging stations, such as those from ChargePoint or Greenlots. Utilities such as San Diego Gas & Electric, Consolidated Edison, Eversource, and others are investigating how smart charging can benefit their systems. Many such programs, and some “vehicle to grid” systems, are discussed in the UCS report Charging Smart.

EVs bring together many of the elements of grid modernization. Because the vehicles incorporate storage, they are a controllable load. They can provide services such as demand response and can benefit from time-varying rates. These rates require the use of smart meters. The meters also provide the utility with a large amount of data; with the right information systems, utilities can use this data to improve grid operations. Smart charging systems can communicate with the grid in real-time, including the local components, and make automatic adjustments. A charger might vary the power draw to improve the local “power quality,” or coordinate with other chargers to limit power spikes on a circuit, or increase power draw if a neighboring solar photovoltaic system is producing surplus power.

Finally, EV chargers in some cases incorporate additional energy storage in the form of stationary batteries; these can offer many benefits, such as allowing higher-powered charging where the local infrastructure could not otherwise accommodate it.

EVs aren’t the same thing as grid modernization. You could have one without the other (there have in fact been electric vehicles and large-scale energy storage on the grid for many decades). But considering the technologies and principles of grid modernization when making investments for electric vehicles can help ensure that the vehicles are an asset to the grid—allowing increased reliability, greater utilization of renewable energy, and limiting the grid infrastructure investments needed to accommodate EVs.

How Quickly Have US Solar and Wind Grown?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then? We keep going.

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

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

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

Three Myths About Solar Energy and the Eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

Here are three myth-busters to keep in mind.

Truth: Electricity supplies will not be disrupted by the eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

Truth: Solar eclipses are not as rare as people think

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

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

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

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

NASA.Gov

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

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

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

¿Por qué tanta emoción?

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

Crédito: NASA

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

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

Crédito: NASA

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

¿Cómo alistarse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

¿Y cómo se mantendrán las luces prendidas?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pero la realidad es mucho más… pues, luminosa.

El caso de California

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

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

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

¿Se preocupan, entonces? Nop!

Como explica Laura:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Próximos pasos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pages