UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

Gutting the EPA Hurts Real People

News reports indicate that the Trump administration has big plans underway to undermine the work of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead agency working to protect our health and the environment from pollution. One troublesome development has already happened: last Friday the EPA was instructed to freeze all its grants and contracts, a move that could seriously impede the agency’s work the longer it is in place.

This is bad news for all Americans, especially our nation’s children.

Instead of blatantly attempting to put fossil fuel interests ahead of our clean air and clean water, the Trump administration must instead show us how it will protect our health and well-being.

Why we need the EPA

Clean air and clean water are not just “nice to have.”

Pollutants like smog, ozone, and mercury contribute to worsening asthma attacks (especially in young children), heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. What’s more, pollution imposes billions of dollars in costs to the economy in terms of hospital and other health costs, lost work days, lost school days, and other burdens, in addition to pain and suffering.

The EPA was established nearly 50 years ago, under President Nixon, with a mission to protect human health and the environment. Since then, across Republican and Democratic administrations, it has played an important role in responding to environmental disasters, from the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident to the catastrophic 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee.

Equally important, the EPA has worked to implement major environmental laws passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which have helped to significantly to drive down harmful pollution and improve the health of Americans.

We need only look to the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi to understand where our country would be without these fundamental protections. Americans need and depend on the EPA to be our watchdog and guardian.

Gutting the EPA hurts real people

Efforts to gut the EPA—via budget and staffing cuts, cuts in research grants and activities, or by stopping the implementation of key public health safeguards—will hurt real people. These actions would almost certainly mean more children getting sick and American taxpayers not getting the science-based protections and information we have invested in.

When big car companies like Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler evade our nation’s emissions laws, it is the EPA that takes the lead in bringing them into compliance (using science and methods that sometimes come from independent investigators such as the West Virginia University team that first discovered the so-called defeat device in VW vehicles).

The EPA works with Tribal communities to help with the cleanup of toxic waste sites, reduce pollution from fossil fuels, and expand access to information such as the toxic release inventory that helps all communities know their risks.

The EPA’s AirData website provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, a vital source of information for communities and researchers.

The EPA’s Brownfields grant programs helps communities around the country to safely clean up and reuse properties contaminated by pollutants and hazardous wastes. These type of actions have helped revitalize neighborhoods and foster thriving communities in places once considered “blighted.”

These are just a few examples of the valuable work the EPA does. ­­­­­­­­­­­­There’s a lot more work to do to continue our progress on cleaning up our air and water, particularly in low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal communities—which bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from fossil fuels and industrial sources. There’s always room for improvement, including in beefing up enforcement of existing laws.

But there is no good reason to undertake drastic measures to undermine the fundamental work of the agency, except to pander to the interests of polluting industries that care more about their bottom line than the costs they are imposing on society at large.

Health vs. economic growth is a false choice

We shouldn’t have to choose between our health and a thriving economy—and past experience shows we don’t need to. For example, the data show that over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.

In fact, if we act in a short-sighted way and reduce commonsense safeguards, we will undermine future economic growth and have to divert more and more resources to dealing with health problems and cleaning up environmental harms.

We can and should reduce pollution in a fair way that integrates economic prosperity and a cleaner, healthier environment. Americans deserve no less.

Using science and economics to tackle pollution

The EPA’s work is informed by robust science. For example, in setting pollution standards the EPA must take into account what the latest medical studies show about the impacts of pollutants like ozone or mercury on human health. Regulations are also informed by the latest science on cost-effective pollution control technologies and practices.

And for many pollutants the EPA must also do a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that the standards are being set in a way that takes into account the costs of pollution controls relative to the public health benefits. These types of cost-benefit analyses have been a mainstay of regulatory policy dating back to the Reagan Administration, and use very standard mainstream economic methods.

Of course, for toxic pollutants that pose an acute risk to human health, such as mercury, standards are set based on public health criteria as the law requires.

Additionally, the EPA administrator regularly solicits expert opinions from independent scientists and experts, including through the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB), both of which were created under direction from Congress in the late 1970s. The CASAC has weighed in on issues such as the appropriate setting of ozone standards and standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. The SAB has been tapped to provide input on several key issues including the economy-wide modeling of the benefits and costs of environmental regulation and a review of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water.

What’s your plan for clean air and water, President Trump?

Setting smart cost-effective public health standards has helped improve our air and water, drive innovation in clean technologies, and allowed robust economic growth to continue alongside. Let’s not turn back the clock on progress, putting our kids at risk of breathing dirtier air or drinking unsafe water.

President Trump, what’s your plan to protect our children from pollution?

California Dreamin’ of a Clean Electricity Grid

My daughter is almost a year old, so lately I’ve been reading a lot of books about farm animals. It’s been fun to practice animal noises, but it has also felt a little strange to teach my daughter about a lifestyle that fewer Americans experience. It’s gotten me thinking about what else in our daily lives might look different by the time my daughter is a teenager.  For instance, is everyone going to own their own car in the future? Or even drive their own car, for that matter?

I am an energy wonk, so inevitably my thoughts about the future turn to what the electricity grid will look like. The technologies that keep our lights on, heat and cool our homes, and run our appliances may look different in the next 15 to 20 years. Indeed, they will need to be different if California is going to do its part to rein in climate change and avert the catastrophic impacts of extreme heat, droughts, floods, fires, and sea level rise. Thankfully, our state passed a bill last year—Senate Bill (SB) 32—that established strong targets to dramatically cut carbon emissions: 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

 Sharon Danke

Source: Sharon Danke







In the next year, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will map out a plan for how the state will achieve these critical carbon reduction targets. That plan, called the 2030 Target Scoping Plan, will identify on how the different economic sectors in the state, including the electricity sector, will need to evolve by 2030. Together with my climate, water, and clean vehicles colleagues at the UCS, in December 2016 we submitted details of our vision for how California can succeed in achieving the ambitious climate targets. Here are elements of my vision for the modern, upgraded, and clean energy grid:

  • Much more of our electricity will come from clean, renewable energy generation. At the end of 2015, California was satisfying about 27% of its electricity needs with renewables. By 2030, this will grow to at least 50%, thanks to SB 350, a law that California passed in 2015. The cost of renewables, especially solar PV, continues to drop, so it’s feasible that by 2030 we could rely on renewables for an even higher percentage of our electricity needs.
  • Many more buildings will host rooftop solar. There are more than 625,000 small-scale solar PV projects installed in the state, representing nearly 5 GW of generation capacity. There is no end in sight to the state’s appetite for rooftop solar, and I think it’s safe to say that by 2030, it will be hard not to spot rooftop solar panels in any city.
  • We will heat and cool many of our homes with electricity, not natural gas. A key strategy for reducing carbon emissions is reducing our reliance on natural gas. In addition to replacing gas-fired electricity generators with renewables, we need to be swapping our gas furnaces and water heaters for electric heat pumps and electric water heaters.
  • Batteries and other energy storage technologies to make the most of wind and solar power. Energy storage will help us to rely on electricity from wind and solar resources, even when the sun is shining or the wind not blowing. Tesla’s Gigafactory has begun to churn out lithium-ion batteries and there is no question that production at this scale will help to bring down the cost of this technology.
  • Appliances will be smarter about when, and when not, to run. Companies like Stem and OhmConnect are already tapping into the vast potential benefits of reducing electricity demand when the cost to generate is high, when the generation sources are dirty, or when slight adjustments in electricity demand can mimic grid reliability services traditionally provided by fossil fuels. Consumer tools, e.g. time-varying rates and programmable appliances, can help shift electricity demand towards times of the day when renewables are most plentiful (like the afternoon when solar power is at its peak).
  • Electric vehicles will be a much larger part of the vehicle fleet. Moving away from gasoline powered cars and light-duty trucks and buses and towards ones powered by clean electricity will make a dramatic dent in the carbon and air pollution that these vehicles emit today. If done the right way, EVs can actually help to integrate larger quantities of renewables.

California already has policies in place to achieve many of the carbon reduction measures I’ve described. The state has established goals for energy efficiency and at least 50% renewables through 2030, and has made increased vehicle electrification a priority. But other objectives such as installing more energy storage may need additional policy support to gain momentum so UCS is urging the CARB to pay greater attention to areas where the state still has work to do.

[Note: My UCS colleagues Adrienne Alvord and Don Anair with expertise in specific sectors are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a deep decarbonization roadmap and better transportation choices.]

I’m grateful my daughter lives in a state that is leading the transition to an electricity system that provides clean, safe, and reliable power for all of its residents. I want her to be able to recognize a solar panel and electric car as quickly as she can spot a cow or a pig from her farm books today. Anyone know of a kid song about programmable smart thermostats?

A Climate Action Roadmap: California Steps Up in Uncertain Times:

The New Year ushers in a new U.S. presidential administration and a lot of uncertainty and angst for people who care about taking decisive action on climate change ( polls indicate that’s most of us.)  It’s not clear whether the incoming administration is willing to fulfill U.S. commitments for the Paris Climate Accord and since the nominee to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has sued to overturn the Clean Power Plan, which dovetails with Trump campaign promises to kill the plan, it appears the signature federal policy actions of the last decade to tackle climate change are in grave danger.

Of course, UCS will fight hard any actions to reverse progress on climate change and we will also continue to work for further progress. But unfortunately, it looks like we’re heading into an era when climate action at the federal level will be on the defensive. Does this mean the end of U.S. climate action for the foreseeable future?

No way, would be my answer.  There’s a great deal that can be and is being done by states, regions, and cities to aggressively decarbonize our economy, notably our energy and transportation systems that are the source of the majority of emissions, and these actions can be very far-reaching indeed.

As has been true for well over the last decade, some of the most comprehensive and aggressive climate action is being taken by California, currently the world’s sixth largest economy.  California is not alone, as Oregon and Washington made impressive progress to address climate change last year and are poised to do more, and the three west coast states together could well be on the verge of creating a strong, prosperous regional bulwark in the national struggle to address climate change. I will address the actions and opportunities in the Pacific Northwest in future blogs.

A New Roadmap for Deep Decarbonization Image result for sb 32 signing

Governor Jerry Brown signs SB 32 and AB 197 into law, adopting the nation’s strongest carbon emissions reductions in the country, surrounded by SB 32 bill author state Senator Fran Pavley and AB 197 author Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia and other legislators.

In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown created an executive order  to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and last year the State Legislature passed a pair of bills, SB 32 (Pavley) and AB 197 (E. Garcia) that Governor Brown signed in September 2016, giving those targets the force of law.  And now, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is about to publish the roadmap to guide California on how it will achieve and enforce those reductions.

This roadmap, called the 2030 Target Scoping Plan, covers the entire economy and includes specific sectors like energy, transportation, water, agriculture, and manufacturing.  The 2030 Target Scoping Plan is enormous in its range and ambition, building on the success of California’s previous law to reduce global warming pollution emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a goal that the state is currently on track to achieve.

The 2030 Scoping Plan lays out a future where the state is powered largely by clean renewable energy, transported by electric vehicles and fueled by low-carbon and non-fossil alternatives to oil-based fuels, and where energy efficiency and sustainable water management reduce greenhouse gas emissions while saving consumers money.  It ramps up requirements for the dirtiest emitters, and recommends a price on carbon (a continuation of the state’s cap-and-trade program) to help achieve some of the most difficult and expensive reductions at lower cost.  And it seeks to ensure that frontline communities that have already suffered a disproportionate burden from pollution get cleaner air and tools they need to meet the threats posed by climate change.

Reducing Emissions and Growing the Economy

These are the kinds of big-picture approaches the entire country and the world will need in order to tackle climate change. Having California – with a very large and complex economy and diverse population – demonstrate successful climate action is both timely and sorely needed.  Since passing its first economy-wide greenhouse gas reduction law in 2006, the state has already proven climate naysayers, who frequently oppose climate action with dire predictions of economic catastrophe, completely wrong by demonstrating that emissions can be reduced while growing the economy.

The last few years have seen disturbing signs of a dangerously changing climate, including record-breaking annual temperatures, wildfires destroying millions of acres of forests, extreme drought like the one in California, and increasingly rapid melting Arctic and Antarctic ice, which could trigger dangerous rates of sea level rise and other dire consequences for the planet.  Climate change is occurring faster than some had predicted, and it is already destroying lives and property, fueling wars and civil discord, and putting severe stress on local and national economies.  So the actions that California takes– bold, ambitious, and transformative– are necessary. The lessons we learn from paving the road to a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable, economy that lowers risk from climate change will have benefits far beyond the state’s borders.

Stay Tuned for Progress and Pushback

Of course, in such a large plan the devil is in the details, and with such a vast undertaking there are always improvements that can be made.  UCS has sent our comments on the 2030 Scoping Plan draft to the Air Resources Board in December describing ways the draft version of the plan could be strengthened to ensure California reduces emissions and builds resilience. My UCS colleagues Laura Wisland and Don Anair with expertise in specific sectors are also writing blogs describing our vision for achieving California’s climate goals by 2030 through a clean electricity grid and better transportation.

And, as usual, we will also need to work hard to thwart the inevitable pushback from opponents of climate action, especially those in the fossil fuel industry who are profiting from the status quo.  UCS will keep you apprised of when and where we need to stand up to those efforts.

We Must Seize the Moment to Achieve a Better Future

California’s climate goals present an opportunity to build a low-carbon economy that supports growth and innovation, enhances our health and quality of life, and lifts up disadvantaged communities that have suffered the most from the legacy of pollution. We now have a roadmap — it’s time to get moving. And we hope this roadmap can help inspire new journeys in other states, regions, and cities all over the nation for how we can make real and significant progress, regardless of what happens in Washington, DC.

3 Reasons Why Federal Energy R&D is a Wise Investment

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry will head into confirmation hearings in the next few days to become the next Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE). A colleague of mine penned a great piece about what we might expect from Perry as head of the DOE. One key thing to highlight is that the DOE is responsible for investments in research and development (R&D), particularly related to energy. In an era where Congress is looking to trim federal spending, they should keep in mind that investments in energy R&D are a wise and proper use of limited federal government resources. Here’s why.

What exactly is R&D, and how much does it cost?

First, what exactly do we mean by R&D? Research and development generally refers to basic and applied research that leads to the creation of new products or the improvement of existing products—companies, for example, typically invest in R&D to maintain their leadership and market share.

So why should the federal government care about R&D? In short, there are many examples of innovation and discoveries that are simply too big and too risky for any single private enterprise to undertake. In these cases, the federal government recognizes the importance to society of research and development and advances technologies to the point where businesses and entrepreneurs can take over.

The benefits to society are broad, ranging from medical technology to clean energy. Federal investments in R&D have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, and that should continue.

And, the investments are small, compared to the overall federal budget. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has been tracking federal investments in R&D for decades, the federal government spent about $64 billion on non-defense R&D in FY16, amounting to about 1.6 percent of the total federal budget. The DOE received about $14.4 billion in total R&D in FY16, a mere 0.36 percent of the total federal budget. And that includes a lot of important basic research that is not what we typically think of as “energy.”


Federal agency spending on R&D, including both defense and non-defense programs.

Federal agency spending on R&D, including both defense and non-defense programs.

H/T to AAAS and their cool interactive data page, where I pulled the chart above, and where you can geek out over different ways of looking at this information.

So, here are the top three reasons why Congress should maintain support for federal energy R&D programs, even as they consider tightening the federal purse strings.

1 – Federal investments in energy R&D strengthen the economy

Federal R&D stimulates the economy and creates jobs.

  • For starters, some 110,000 people are employed by our national labs, which are managed by the DOE;
  • Universities currently receive some 60 percent of their research funding from the federal government, helping to train the next generation of scientists and engineers in STEM education;
  • Research conducted at the DOE and the national labs leads to ideas and technology that entrepreneurs can pick up and run with. There is so much demand for new technologies that Oak Ridge National Laboratory last year opened an office in Chattanooga in order to “link local companies to the national laboratory’s resources and expertise.”
  • Signed into law by President Bush in 2007, the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has been successful in overcoming the long-term and high risk barriers to developing innovative energy technologies. Since 2009, ARPA-E has funded over 400 energy technology projects. As of October 2016, ARPA-E teams have formed 30 new companies and 45 projects teams have attracted more than $1.25 million in private-sector follow-on funding.
2 – Federal investments in energy R&D are critical to advancing new life-changing technologies

I can’t possibly list in one short blog post how much our collective lives have been improved and changed because of federal investments in energy R&D. Just to name a few:

  • At the DOE, decades of investments in R&D on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques have opened up unconventional oil and gas resources, leading to a dramatic decline in natural gas prices over the last ten years. One can argue about the positives and negatives of this technology (for example, we are very worried about an overreliance on natural gas), but there’s no question that these investments have fundamentally changed our electricity system.
  • R&D for carbon capture and sequestration is critical to making this technology cost effective, which is needed if coal and natural gas are to play a significant part in our energy system moving forward in a carbon-constrained world.
  • In the category of “things most of us never think about,” exhibit A is flipping on the lights. Here too, the DOE’s work modernizing the electricity grid is critical—and Rick Perry understands a thing or two about energy infrastructure.
3 – Federal investments in energy R&D demonstrate and maintain American leadership

Finally, federal investments in R&D ensure that America maintains a competitive advantage globally.

  • Back in 2015, the U.S. signed on to Mission Innovation, which is a global initiative to accelerate public and private clean energy innovation. Twenty countries signed onto the initiative seeking to double R&D investments in clean energy over five years. Even though this commitment was made during the Obama administration, it should receive bipartisan support because it will help maintain American leadership in the clean energy space.
  • Drastic reductions in the cost of wind energy are, in part, a result of the $2.4 billion dollars invested by the DOE in wind R&D between 1976 and 2014, which has enabled many key innovations such as the taller turbines, longer blades, and improved electronics.
  • The DOE estimates that the $4.1 billion investment in PV technology research and development (R&D) from 1975 through 2008 accelerated the cost reduction progress by an estimated 12 years, while providing a net economic benefit of $16.5 billion.
  • Public-private partnerships R&D investments have also been critical in bringing down costs for LED lighting by 90 percent since 2008

For those last three bullets, check out this DOE report from 2015.


Governor Perry should recognize the importance of federal R&D investments in energy; from his time in Texas, he certainly understands the value of these investments in terms of local economic development. I’ve highlighted only a small sample of ways that federal investments in energy R&D have benefited society—there are many, many more. And those benefits have come at a relatively small cost to taxpayers.

And the benefits of all federal R&D investments extend beyond the energy sector. America won the space race back in the 1960s because the federal government made it a priority, and ponied up the cash to make it happen. The benefits to society have been far-reaching, not the least of which was inspiring an entire generation of men and women to pursue careers in science and engineering. Congress should remember that federal investments in R&D represent some of the biggest bang-for-the-federal-buck of any use of taxpayer money.

Can Trump Revive the Coal Industry? Lessons from the Petra Nova and Kemper Projects

During the campaign, President-elect Trump promised to revive the coal industry.  As others have reported, gutting EPA regulations designed to protect public health and the climate will have little impact in reviving the industry since the recent decline in burning coal to generate electricity is primarily due to low natural gas prices and cost reductions for wind and solar power. Ironically, rolling back regulations on the oil and natural gas industry would likely make it even more difficult for coal to compete economically.

Trump has also supported the development of so-called “clean coal” as a way to revive the industry. A key component to making coal cleaner is the process of capturing the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning coal in power plants or industrial facilities, and transporting and storing the CO2 underground so that it cannot add the to atmospheric build-up of carbon emissions that is driving climate change (a process otherwise known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS). While UCS supports CCS as a potential climate solution, we believe the term “clean coal” is an oxymoron because of other environmental and public health impacts of using coal across its fuel cycle.

CCS is not a new idea.  The Obama Administration invested about $4.8 billion in CCS and the Bush Administration spent millions on R&D, tax credits and loan guarantees for CCS. Since the primary reason to do CCS is to reduce carbon emissions, one big question is will Trump support funding for CCS if he truly believes climate change is a hoax?

With the Petra Nova project in Texas beginning commercial operation on January 10, and the Kemper project in Mississippi currently scheduled to go online by January 31, coal with CCS technology has reached an important milestone.

Both projects received federal incentives from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that were vitally important to their development. Below I discuss some key lessons learned from these projects, the implications for future projects if Rick Perry becomes DOE Secretary, and the longer-term outlook for CCS as a potential climate solution.


Petra Nova post-combustion CO2 capture project at an existing pulverized coal plant near Houston, TX. Source: NRG.

The tale of two CCS projects

The Petra Nova and Kemper projects have a few similarities and several differences that offer valuable lessons and insights for future CCS projects. Both projects will inject CO2 into depleted oil fields for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), sequestering the CO2 while increasing pressure at the aging field to produce more oil and help offset costs. However, the projects use different generation and capture technologies, burn different types of coal, and have considerably different costs (see Table 1).

Petra Nova is a 240 Megawatt (MW) post-combustion capture facility installed at an existing pulverized coal plant near Houston that’s designed to capture 90 percent of the total CO2 emissions. A joint venture between NRG and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration, the plant uses low sulfur, sub-bituminous coal from the Power River Basin in Wyoming.

Petra Nova was completed on time and on-budget in 2 years for $1 billion. It will also receive up to $190 million in incentives from DOE’s Clean Coal Power Initiative. In addition, NRG and JX Nippon have equity stakes in the oil field where they will be doing EOR, allowing them to capture more value.

Kemper is a new 582 MW integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plant in Kemper County Mississippi that’s designed to capture 65 percent of the project’s CO2 emissions prior to combustion when it is still in a relatively concentrated and pressurized form. Owned by Mississippi Power (a subsidiary of Southern Company), the plant will use low-grade lignite coal from a mine next to the plant.

Kemper has been under construction for 6.5 years, is nearly 3 years behind schedule, and the capital cost has more than tripled from $2.2 billion to over $7 billion. It will receive up to $270 million from DOE’s Clean Coal Power Initiative.

One reason for Kemper’s high cost and delay is that they added CCS to a brand new coal IGCC power plant, whereas Petra Nova added CCS to an existing pulverized coal plant. Another reason cited by the New York Times is Southern Company’s mismanagement of Kemper, including allegations of drastically understating the project’s cost and timetable and intentionally hiding problems.

Southern Company’s December filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) shows cost increases of $25-35 million per month from Kemper’s most recent delays. They also lost at least $250 million in tax benefits by not placing the plant into service by December 31, 2016.  This is on top of $133 million in tax credits they had to repay the IRS for missing the original May 2014 in-service deadline. In November, they also increased the estimated first year non-fuel operations and maintenance expenses by $68 million.

Customers could pay up to $4.2 billion for Kemper under a cost cap set by the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Southern Company shareholders will absorb nearly $2.7 billion of the cost overruns.

Kemper is also having a negative impact on Fitch ratings for Southern Company. In contrast, Fitch ratings for Cooperative Energy (formerly the South Mississippi Electric Power Association) were recently upgraded from A- to A after bailing out of their 15 percent ownership stake in the project and moving from coal to natural gas and renewables.

Comparison of Kemper and Petra Nova Coal CCS Projects Kemper Petra Nova Type of power plant New integrated gasification combined cycle plant Existing pulverized coal plant retrofit Generation Capacity 582 MW 240 MW Ownership Mississippi Power and KBR NRG and JX Nippon Oil & Gas Exploration Power Plant Location Kemper County, Mississippi Near Houston, TX Type of coal Mississippi Lignite WY Powder River Basin sub-bituminous, low sulfur CO2 Capture Rate 65% 90% CO2 Capture Volume 3.5 million tons/yr 1.6 million tons/yr CO2 Capture Type Pre-combustion Post-combustion CO2 Capture Method Absorption physical solvent-based process (Selexol) Absorption chemical solvent-based process (Amine) CO2 Storage Enhanced Oil Recovery Enhanced Oil Recovery CO2 Transportation 61 mile pipeline to storage site 82 mile pipeline to storage site Construction Period 6.5 years 2 years Schedule Delay 3 years No delay Original Capital Cost $2.2 billion ($3,780/kW) $1 billion ($4,167/kW) Final Capital Cost $7 billion ($12,027/kW) $1 billion ($4,167/kW) DOE Incentives $270 million $190 million

Sources:  MIT, Global CCS Institute, NRG, Kemper project site.

How many CCS demonstration projects are needed?

In 2008, a UCS report titled Coal Power in a Warming World called for building 5-10 full-scale integrated CCS demonstrations projects at coal-fired plants in the U.S. to test different generation and capture technologies and storing CO2 in different sequestration sites. Our recommendations were consistent with recommendations from MIT’s 2007 Future of Coal report and a 2007 report by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. In 2009, former DOE Secretary Steven Chu set a goal for the U.S. to have 10 CCS demonstration projects in-service by 2016. In 2010, the White House Interagency Carbon Capture and Storage Task Force also recommended bringing 5 to 10 commercial demonstration projects online by 2016.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is lagging behind these targets.  While there are 8 large scale CCS projects currently operating in the U.S., Petra Nova is the only large scale CCS project operating at a power plant, according to the Global CCS Institute. Besides Kemper, the only other power plant project listed under development is the Texas Clean Energy Project, which recently lost its DOE funding because of escalating costs and missed deadlines (see more below). The high profile FutureGen project in Illinois was also cancelled after DOE discontinued funding in 2015 because of cost increases and construction delays.

The 110 MW Boundary Dam project in Canada is the only other large-scale power plant coal with CCS project currently operating outside of the U.S.  After encountering several problems during its first year of operation that reduced the capture rate from 90 percent to 40 percent, the project performed much better in 2016.  Before declaring success at Petra Nova and Kemper, these projects will likely also have to go through a similar teething process to work out any bugs in the technology.

Eight more power plant CCS projects are in different stages of development in China, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

Rick Perry’s support for coal

Under the Obama Administration, the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and the National Technology Laboratory (NETL) have administered a robust Carbon Capture R&D program. The primary goal of this program is to lower the cost and energy penalty of second generation CCS technologies, resulting in a captured cost of CO2 less than $40/tonne in the 2020-2025 timeframe. Given Perry’s record of supporting coal as Governor of Texas, there’s a good chance he would support continued R&D funding for coal with CCS projects if he becomes DOE Secretary.  Here are a few examples:

  • In 2005, Perry issued a controversial executive order to fast-track the permitting process for 11 coal plants (without CCS) proposed by TXU, now called Energy Futures Holdings. UCS and other groups strongly opposed this coal build-out, which would have been disastrous for the climate. Only 3 of the plants were ultimately built.
  • In 2002, he supported setting-up a clean coal technology council in Texas.
  • In 2009, he signed a bill with tax incentives for clean coal to support projects like the Texas Clean Energy Project, a 400 MW coal gasification with CCS project in West Texas proposed by Summit Power Group. After missing several key deadlines and with the cost nearly doubling to $4 billion, the DOE discontinued funding in May 2016 (after spending $167 million) and asked Congress to reprogram $240 million of the incentives to other R&D efforts. Summit Power said this move would basically kill the project.
The high cost of coal with CCS

CCS advocates often dismiss the high costs of recent projects, arguing that this is expected for first-of-a-kind projects. They claim costs should come down over time through learning, pointing to other technologies like wind and solar as examples.

While it is reasonable to expect that CCS costs will come down, the question is how much and over what time period? Like nuclear power plants, CCS projects tend to be very large, long-lived construction projects that use a lot of concrete and steel, and equipment that is unlikely to be mass-produced in the way more modular technologies like wind turbines and solar panels are manufactured and installed over a much shorter period of time.

Several recent studies project the cost of coal with CCS to be much higher than many other low and zero carbon technologies. For example, the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) projections from Annual Energy Outlook 2016 show costs for coal with CCS plants in 2022 that are 2-3 times higher than the cost of new onshore wind, utility scale solar, geothermal, and hydropower projects, not including tax incentives (see Table 2 on p. 8). The costs for biopower, advanced nuclear plants, and natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants with CCS are also somewhat lower. While EIA projects the costs for coal with CCS plants to decline ~10 percent by 2040, they project the costs for other low carbon technologies to fall by similar or even greater amounts.


Source: EIA, AEO 2016.

EIA’s cost projections are consistent with other sources including NREL’s 2016 Annual Technology Baseline (ATB) report and Lazard’s most recent levelized cost of energy analysis.  They all show that adding CCS to natural gas power plants could be much more economic than coal.

Other studies show CCS applications at industrial facilities could also be less expensive. Industrial applications of CCS could also be more apt—for example in industries such as Iron and Steel and Cement production—where alternative low carbon, affordable technologies don’t exist. In contrast, the power sector has many technologies available today that can generate electricity without carbon emissions.

Role of CCS in addressing climate change

Many experts believe that reaching net zero carbon emissions by mid-century, in line with global climate goals, will likely require some form of CCS, along with nuclear power and a massive ramp-up of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Given the high cost of coal with CCS compared to other alternatives, it’s not surprising that recent studies show it playing a relatively modest role in addressing climate change. However, some studies analyzing the impacts of reducing power sector CO2 emissions 80-90 percent by 2050 show that natural gas or even biopower with CCS could make a more meaningful contribution after 2040.  For example:

  • A 2016 UCS study showed natural gas with CCS could provide 9-28 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050 under range of deep decarbonization scenarios for the power sector, but no coal with CCS (see Figure 5 below). Natural gas with CCS provided 16 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050 under a Mid-Cost Case and 28 percent under an Optimistic CCS Cost Case.
  • The November 2016 U.S. Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization study released by the Obama Administration at the international climate negotiations in Marrakech found that fossil fuels with CCS would provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2050 under their “Benchmark” scenario. While natural gas with CCS made the biggest contribution, both coal and bioenergy with CCS also played a role.
  • The 2014 Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States report found that gas with CCS would provide nearly 13 percent of U.S. electricity under their “Mixed” case. They also modeled a High CCS case that “seeks to preserve a status quo energy mix,” in which they assumed CCS would provide 55 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050, split between coal and gas. However, this case also had the highest electricity prices.
  • DOE’s 2017 Quadrennial Energy Review found that under a scenario combining tax incentives with successful federal R&D, coal and gas with CCS could provide 5-7 percent of total U.S. generation in 2040. The scenario assumed a refundable sequestration tax credit of $10/metric ton of CO2 for EOR storage, $50/metric ton of CO2 for saline storage, and a refundable 30 percent investment tax credit for CCS equipment and infrastructure.


Source:  UCS, The U.S. Power Sector in a Net Zero World, 2016.

Policy implications

Clearly, more DOE-funded R&D is needed to leverage additional private sector investment and demonstrate coal with CCS on a commercial scale using different technologies and at different sequestration sites, like deep saline aquifers. R&D efforts should also be expanded beyond coal to include natural gas and bioenergy power plants, as well as industrial facilities. We also need to develop a strong regulatory and oversight system to ensure that captured CO2 remains permanently sequestered.

Recent policy proposals to increase tax incentives for CCS could also help improve the economic viability of CCS. A price on carbon and higher oil prices for projects using EOR could also make a big difference, but the likelihood of either happening under the Trump Administration is slim. Given the high cost, long lead time, and limited near-term role of CCS as a climate solution, federal efforts should prioritize R&D and deployment incentives on more cost-effective low carbon alternatives like renewable energy and energy efficiency. While studies show coal with CCS could play a modest role in addressing climate change by 2050, it’s unlikely to be enough over the next four years to fulfill Trump’s promises to revive the coal industry.

Rick Perry and the “Texas Approach” to Renewable Energy and Infrastructure

Rick Perry—Trump’s pick for the Department of Energy—saw how infrastructure can impact energy development when he was governor of Texas.

Texas has a history of success producing energy. Two keys to this success have been infrastructure and markets, which served to make Texas the leading state for wind energy development.

Every energy supply needs infrastructure. Texas has always had a “pro-competition” approach to ensure adequate infrastructure so new electric energy supplies could compete in the market. The approach played out big for windpower, at the direction of the Texas legislature.  In 2005, the legislature set out a framework for “competitive renewable energy zones” designed to provide infrastructure for increased renewable energy expansion.

How does this work?

The process worked this way: First, estimates were made of energy production, costs and benefits. Then Texas required commitments of private development interest. At the time, renewable energy in Texas weighed in at 3,000 MW. (A single nuclear plant is about 1,000 MW.) Today, Texas has 18,000 MW of wind and 5,000 MW under construction. The infrastructure made all the difference.

How well does this work?

Texas has 3x more wind energy production than the next most successful state, Iowa. This is in large part thanks to transmission, which is as necessary for windfarms as a road to market is needed for any farm produce.

So, the “Texas approach” could be a great model for the United States more generally. In fact, a collaboration of utilities has described a transmission plan for the eastern United States.

And what about gas pipelines?

Gas fields don’t deliver gas to markets. Gas pipelines are needed for that, too. When the gas industry started to expand in the US with fractured shale developments, they put out a forecast of pipeline expenses that would be needed. The cost for the gas infrastructure in their plans was much more than what has been described as the transmission expansion cost needed for wind.

The numbers look like a 10-fold increase in renewable energy would require less money for transmission than the cost of pipelines for a doubling of natural gas use.

Energy development is something Texas understands. The electric companies are not required to keeping buying more windpower, but they do. The old power plants are not shielded from competition, so when the cost of electricity from wind can beat coal or natural gas, the electric companies buy what is less expensive. Now that solar panel prices have fallen so much, the grid operator in Texas is predicting that solar farms will be built much, much more quickly than new natural gas-burning power plants.

These are the lessons of Texas infrastructure during the Rick Perry years. Now, will Rick Perry bring this approach to the Department of Energy and make transmission a priority?

The Truth About Pruitt’s EPA Lawsuits is Even Worse Than You Might Think

One well-reported thing about Scott Pruitt, President-elect Trump’s nominee for EPA Administrator, is his penchant for filing lawsuits to block the EPA from enforcing clean air, clean water and climate regulations, rather than suing polluters in his own state of Oklahoma.

This alone ought to provide ample grounds for rejecting his nomination. But a closer look at these lawsuits and the legal arguments Pruitt has advanced (or signed onto) tells an even more disturbing story. The legal arguments are disingenuous, often unprincipled and extreme, and display an unfortunate strategy of saying just about anything to win a case.

Consider these three examples.

Pruitt takes on climate scientists: the 2010 lawsuit challenging the EPA’s “Endangerment” finding

global_surface_tempsIn 2009, the EPA made a long overdue, and wholly unremarkable finding that greenhouse gas emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels may endanger public health and welfare. In this finding, the EPA acknowledged the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community and the multiple lines of independent evidence supporting this conclusion.

While the finding broke no new ground scientifically, it was important legally: when the EPA finds that a pollutant endangers public health or welfare, the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to regulate sources of that pollutant. In this case, that meant power plants, cars, trucks, and other sources that combust coal, oil, and natural gas.

To stop such regulation in its tracks, Scott Pruitt filed a lawsuit to overturn the endangerment finding, which he and his fellow litigants characterized as “arbitrary and capricious.” Believe it or not, Pruitt’s primary argument was that the EPA should not have relied upon the multiple reports on climate change issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)(established by the United Nations which synthesizes the work of thousands of scientists), the US Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) (a Bush administration body of 13 federal agencies that issued 21 reports on climate change), and the National Research Council (NRC)(the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences).

Pruitt’s legal brief never quite explains what is wrong with relying upon the world’s most prominent experts, but it claimed that the EPA in effect wrongly delegated its decisionmaking to these bodies.

Here are the rather sharp words the court used when it unanimously dismissed this claim:

This argument is little more than a semantic trick. EPA simply did here what it and other decisionmakers often must do to make a science-based judgment: it sought out and reviewed existing scientific evidence to determine whether a particular finding was warranted. It makes no difference that much of the scientific evidence in large part consisted of “syntheses” of individual studies and research. Even individual studies and research papers often synthesize past work in an area and then build upon it. This is how science works. EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question [emphasis added][Page 27]

Take a moment to digest this: the person nominated to head the EPA sued that agency because it relied upon the work of the world’s most knowledgeable scientists when making a finding regarding the most important scientific question of our lifetime—whether humans are causing global warming.

Pruitt’s lawsuits to block mercury reductions using a rigged cost-benefit analysis  Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)

Photo: Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)

Mercury has long been known to be one of the most potent neurotoxins: ingestion of even very small amounts can have devastating effects, particularly on children. Coal and oil-fired power plants are responsible for more than 50 percent of the mercury emissions in the United States, which travel long distances and deposit in water bodies, leading to ingestion by fish and humans who consume fish. There is effective technology that many power plants use to control mercury and other toxic pollutants, but approximately forty percent of existing power plants do not use it.

In 1990 Congress amended the Clean Air Act to specifically authorize the EPA to address mercury emissions (and other air toxics), but no progress was made due to EPA delays and litigation. In 2011, the Obama Administration issued a rule to cut mercury emissions from power plants.

The rule required approximately 40 percent of existing power plants to install the same proven controls that the other 60 percent had already adopted.

The EPA estimated that it would avert up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year.

Scott Pruitt and others launched a lawsuit to prevent the EPA from cutting mercury and toxic air pollutants from power plants. He scored an initial victory on a technicality—the EPA had failed to consider cost of regulation at the preliminary stage when it was considering whether to regulate mercury. (I call this a technicality, because the EPA did perform a formal cost benefit analysis at the later stage when it issued the regulation).

The EPA subsequently complied with the court order and used an updated analysis to support the rule. The analysis showed “monetized” benefits of between $37-90 billion versus a cost of $9 billion.

Unsatisfied, Pruitt filed a second lawsuit, this time taking aim at the cost benefit analysis. As was the case with the endangerment finding, Pruitt’s attack led with an absurd argument – this time about cost benefit analysis.

When the EPA tallied up the costs of the regulation, it included direct costs, like the cost of installing the pollution control, and indirect costs, like higher electricity prices. Similarly, when the EPA calculated the benefits of the regulation, it considered direct benefits, like improved public health from mercury reduction, but also indirect benefits, like reductions in other pollutants such as smog and sulfur dioxide because the pollution control technology used for mercury also reduces these pollutants.

Pruitt’s new lawsuit claims that the EPA cannot consider these “co-benefits.” Instead, he contended that the EPA should only be allowed to count the benefits from mercury reduction. His argument makes no sense—the whole point of cost–benefit analysis is to determine whether an overall societal benefit of a regulation exceeds its overall cost. And nothing in the Clean Air Act or in past practice requires the EPA to use blinders when judging the benefit. In fact, for years, under both political parties, the EPA has factored in “co-benefits” and federal guidance on cost-benefit analysis calls for it to be included.

The court has not yet ruled on this specious claim, but it did reject a request to put the rule on hold while it sorted the question out, suggesting the court’s early skepticism of the argument’s merit. Regardless of the ultimate ruling, the bottom line in the case is this: Pruitt indefensibly favored economic analysis of regulations that considers all of their costs, but only some of their benefits.

Pruitt’s interstate pollution lawsuits reveal further hypocrisy  OK.gov

Photo: OK.gov

It is revealing to note that, at the same time as Pruitt was suing the EPA to count all the costs (but not all the benefits) of its mercury ruling, he also argued against factoring in costs in a separate lawsuit that sought to block an EPA rule that prevents upwind states from sending their pollutants to downwind states in such quantities as to cause the downwind states to exceed heath-based pollution concentration limits.

By way of background, the EPA has tried for years to address the problem of interstate air pollution, but it is fiendishly complex. Many upwind states emit pollutants to multiple downwind states, many downwind states receive pollutants from multiple upwind states, and some states are both upwind and downwind states. Thus, it is difficult to devise a formula to fairly and effectively apportion responsibility.

In 2011, the EPA crafted a “Transport Rule” to address the problem. They conducted extensive analysis of the costs involved to determine how expensive it would be, per ton of pollutant reduction, to ensure that upwind states do not cause downwind states’ air quality to exceed federal standards. They then gave each upwind state a pollution “budget” for the state to use to reduce the pollutants that were wafting beyond their borders, based on this “cost per ton” reduction benchmark.

Scott Pruitt and others challenged this rule, arguing—believe it or not—that costs of compliance should not be the yardstick, arguing instead for an approach that would have been nearly impossible to administer. Not surprisingly, in a 6-2 vote, the Supreme Court rejected his attack.

The bottom line in this case is this: the EPA focused on a problem that states can’t solve on their own (interstate air pollution). They solved the problem using a cost-effectiveness benchmark that is fair to all states, and that conservatives profess to favor. Pruitt’s attack on this approach demonstrates an abandonment of conservative principles in the service of what appears to be his ultimate objective—stopping regulation.

Opposing science to block regulation

Pruitt’s lawsuits clearly demonstrate that he is against regulation, particularly of the oil and gas industry. That much we already knew. But when one looks at the actual cases he has filed and the legal arguments he has advanced, one sees something even more disturbing—a disrespect for science, a penchant for a rigged method of performing cost-benefit analysis, and a lack of interest in helping to police the problem of interstate air pollution—which clearly must be done at the federal level.

This all adds up to someone who uses the law to block good science. This is not acceptable, particularly for the head of the EPA. And that is why I, and twelve other former state environmental protection agency heads, have signed a letter opposing this nomination. Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr) Photo: Peggy Davis/CC-BY SA (Flickr)

Nine Questions for Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s Pick to Lead the Interior Department

Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke will begin Senate confirmation hearings today for the post of Secretary of Interior in Donald Trump’s cabinet. As Secretary, he would oversee America’s 500 million acres of public lands, including the National Park System. Zinke would also have responsibility for timber extraction, livestock grazing, coal mining and oil and gas leases on public lands and 1.7 billion acres of seabed on the outer continental shelf. He has called himself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” but has voted against air and water protections and voted to weaken the Endangered Species Act and the Antiquities Act. He has questioned climate science, is a vocal supporter of the coal industry and has served on the board of an oil pipeline company. We have questions for Ryan Zinke.


Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park, near Whitefish, Montana where Ryan Zinke was raised. Photo: NPS

Do you accept that there is unequivocal scientific evidence for human caused climate change?

Congressman Zinke has said “The climate is changing, I don’t think you can deny that. But climate has always changed” continuing that “I don’t think there’s any question that man has had an influence” but that “what that influence is, exactly, is still under scrutiny.” And in October 2014, Zinke said “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either…”. In fact, there is overwhelming scientific consensus and unequivocal evidence that the global climate is warming, that since the 1950’s the dominant cause has been human influence. 

Will you support and effectively utilize nationally important climate science programs throughout DOI?

Increasing temperatures, coastal flooding and erosion, more extreme weather events, worsening wildfires and droughts, melting glaciers and thawing permafrost all represent massive risks for natural and cultural resources under the protection of the Department of the Interior (DOI) in the 500 million acres of public lands it manages. DOI’s strategic plan states that it “will bring the best science to bear to understand these consequences and will undertake mitigation, adaptation, and enhancements to support natural resilience…”

The department’s climate science stable is strong, with a formidable Climate Change Response Program in the National Park Service, and a network of eight regional Climate Science Centers (CSCs) managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that synthesize climate impacts data to make it usable and relevant for resource managers. DOI also runs a network of 22 Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) which bring federal and state agencies together with non-governmental organizations, tribal entities, and academic institutions to manage natural and cultural landscapes across jurisdictional boundaries, with a strong emphasis on integrating climate management.

Are you committed to do everything you can to protect our national parks in the face of climate change?

Climate change is the biggest threat to our national parks. Impacts can already be seen throughout the country, from colonial Jamestown Island to Glacier National Park, just a few miles from where Congressman Zinke was raised, in Whitefish, Montana. The National Park Service is at the cutting edge of international efforts to develop climate adaptation and resilience strategies for protected areas, but it desperately needs more resources to implement effective management strategies. The NPS has a system wide Climate Change Response Strategy and is implementing an ambitious Climate Change Action Plan. Most recently, in January 2017, the NPS published a groundbreaking Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy (CRCCS) which lays out key policies needed to protect America’s heritage in a rapidly warming world, including advocating the incorporation of climate science into all planning for cultural resources management.

Will you fight for the budget and resources our national parks need?

Americans love their national parks, and in 2016 a record 325 million people visited them. The national park system is the envy of the world, but it is being starved of resources – not just for climate response, but for all aspects of its operations. The latest report from the National Park Service detailed a backlog of nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance. The parks support $30 billion in economic activity and nearly 300,000 jobs. The budget for the NPS has been cut by 12% ($364 million in the last five years) 

Climate change is driving worsening wildfires in the West. Are you committed to helping to coordinate and implement an effective federal response?

Rising temperatures have created a longer wildfire season and drier conditions that together with forest management strategies, fire suppression policies and increased development at the wildland-urban Interface are causing bigger, more damaging and costly fires. The US Forest Service and DOI are together the coordinating federal agencies for wildfire response and management. UCS has noted the urgent need to update federal wildfire policies and budgeting in line with what we know about the growing influence of climate change. Legislation has been proposed to invest in hazardous fuels management, fire-fighting technology and improved fire-mapping. However, a budget fix is also needed. In a June 2016 U.S. Senate hearing, Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, USDA, testified that: “The single most important step Congress can take to advance forest health and resilience is to enact a comprehensive fire budget solution—one that addresses both the growth of fire programs as a percent of the agency’s budget and the compounding annual problem of transferring funds from non-fire programs to cover the cost of fire suppression.”. To date, Ryan Zinke’s record shows that his preferred response to the worsening wildfire situation is merely to increase logging and timber extraction, ostensibly to reduce fire risk.

Are you committed to keeping America’s public lands public for the benefit of all Americans?

Congressman Zinke has said giving away public lands is “a non-starter … in Montana, our public lands are part of our heritage.” He even resigned as a member of the Republican Party Platform committee last year in protest at moves to make public land transfers part of the platform. But in January 2016, after being nominated for the position of Interior Sectretary, Zinke voted for a House rules package that included a measure to make transfers of public land cost-free and budget neutral, considerably easing the path for future privatization which would no longer require costs of transfers to be offset with other spending or budget cuts. Zinke says he hasn’t changed his view on public lands transfers to state, local or private hands, but can he be trusted to hold the line?


Natural gas production pad at Padre Island National Seashore, Texas. Photo: NPS

Will you fully implement the DOI policy on scientific integrity?

DOI has one of the strongest scientific integrity policies of all government departments. It safeguards against political interference in department science and grants its scientists freedom to communicate their science. The policy aims to ensure that Interior Department decision-making can rely on robust and trustworthy science of the highest quality. It encourages “an environment of rigorous and honest investigation, open discussion, and constructive peer review, free of political influence that is needed for good science to thrive.” DOI scientists and scholars are also encouraged to participate in professional societies and scientific meetings, as well as talk to the media about their work. But the policy is only as good as its implementation. It is crucial that Representative Zinke prioritize scientific integrity at his agency.

Have you changed your mind about supporting air and water safeguards on mining, oil and gas operations?

In 2015 the League of Conservation Voters scored Ryan Zinke at a miserable 3% for his environmental record. He has voted to weaken the Clean Water Rule proposed by the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers and to remove safeguards on air and water protections, including from chemicals in fracking and stream pollution from mountain-top mining.

Can we trust you to limit fossil fuel infrastructure that will negatively impact our public lands, environment and cultural resources?  Tim Evanston/Creative Commons

A train taking Montana coal towards the West Coast. Photo: Tim Evanston/Creative Commons


“I always side with Montana Coal Country,” Congressman Zinke said in a campaign ad in 2016, and he has been a major champion of the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Washington which would be the transport hub for increased coal experts from the western states, to Pacific Rim countries. The terminal was denied a permit by the US Army Corps of Engineers on the basis that the Lummi tribe’s treat-protected fishing rights would be affected and has been opposed by communities through which coal trains would pass.

Zinke also served on the board of an oil pipeline technology company from 2012 to 2015 and has been an outspoken supporter of the Keystone pipeline since being elected to Congress. Zinke is likely to be at the center of any renewed fight to on routing the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). In December 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to grant an easement for DAPLK to pass through land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and vital for cultural important water resources. The Corps will now prepare an Environmental Impacts Statement for alternative routes, and Zinke as Interior Secretary will likely play a central role in the future of the pipeline.

Governor Kasich Restores Clean Energy Standards in Ohio

During the final hours of 2016, Ohio Governor John Kasich vetoed Substitute House Bill 554, legislation that would have made Ohio’s clean energy standards voluntary, effectively extending the two year freeze. By vetoing the bill, Kasich restored Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, which have been frozen since 2014.

In Governor Kasich’s veto statement he noted that HB 554 risked undermining the state’s job progress by taking away some of the energy generation options, and would deal a setback to efforts that are succeeding in helping businesses and homeowners reduce their energy costs through energy efficiency.

The Governor was applauded for vetoing the bill by a wide array of corporations and advocacy organizations. UCS also released a statement thanking Governor Kasich.

So what happened? Here’s the backstory.

History of the freeze

The clean energy standards in Ohio were created by a Republican-led General Assembly and signed by Governor Strickland in 2008, requiring Ohio utilities to procure energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Ohio legislature then enacted a 2-year freeze of the clean energy standards in 2014 despite them having a proven track-record of creating economic and environmental benefits for consumers.

In December 2016, the Ohio legislature passed HB 554 which would have delayed any enforcement of increased energy efficiency and renewable energy until 2019, therefore making the standards into voluntary goals for that period. This would have extended the clean energy standard freeze for two more years.

Because the Governor vetoed HB 554, the energy efficiency and renewable energy standards will be reinstated. The current clean energy standards (now restored) require utilities to secure 12.5 percent of their power from renewable sources, and achieve a 22 percent cumulative reduction in electricity use through energy efficiency.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has been working in coordination with local experts and activists to lift the clean energy standard freeze to create a win-win situation for the state’s economy and the environment.

Benefits of the clean energy standards in Ohio                                                                                                            

The clean energy standards have brought countless benefits to Ohio. The standards are what are driving a robust clean energy sector in Ohio, with more than 100,000 clean energy jobs in the state. These jobs include workers in renewable energy generation, clean transmission, energy efficiency, clean fuels, and advanced transportation.

Analysis conducted by Cadmus and the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance concluded that 2014 energy efficiency investments in Ohio have yielded, and will continue to generate, net benefits for the Ohio state economy. In 2014 alone, these benefits included thousands of new jobs, and more than $175 million in increased statewide income. And over the entire 25 year study period, the 2014 energy efficiency programs are estimated to increase net statewide income by more than $1.2 billion, and add almost $1.9 billion of total value to the state’s economy.

More opportunities for Ohio

It’s important for Ohio to take advantage of the 5 year extension of the federal production and investment tax credits (PTC and ITC) for wind and solar energy resources.  This provides a golden opportunity for Ohio to accelerate renewable energy and deployment even further. States and utilities must act quickly to take advantage of the credits, which begin to decline in value in 2017 (for wind) and 2020 (for solar), before phasing out by 2022.

There is a lot of wind potential in the state. According to the Wind Energy Foundation, Ohio has the opportunity to further lower electricity bills, create additional jobs, increase community investment, and reduce pollution by expanding the use of wind. Wind energy could provide 6.4% of Ohio’s electricity by 2020 and increase to 15.5% by 2030, and create cumulative electricity bill savings of $5.35 billion through 2050.

Our work is far from done  

We applaud Governor Kasich for his veto of House Bill 554. Because of his leadership, Ohio’s clean energy standards are now restored.  Governor Kasich has demonstrated that he has a vision for Ohio’s clean energy future. These clean energy standards are working to create jobs, grow the economy, and reduce harmful emissions.

But our work is not done. It’s predicted that energy will be on the Ohio General Assembly’s agenda again this session. Senate President Larry Obhof has stated that Ohio needs a long term energy plan. So we will celebrate the win, but we are prepared to continue defending clean energy in 2017! Photo: Howard Johnson/CC BY (Flickr)

Renewable Energy for Companies: Which States Make It Easiest (or Hardest)?

If you’re a company looking to get your hands on some renewable energy, to power your operations with sources like wind and solar, turns out some states make that a lot easier than others. Here’s what a new study says about different options for businesses interested in going clean, energy-wise.

The new study, Corporate clean energy procurement index: State leadership and rankings, offers an array of useful perspectives. It comes from the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), and Clean Edge, the research and advisory firm behind various useful rankings of clean energy progress.

The analysis is aimed at assessing states “based upon the ease with which companies can procure [renewable energy] for their operations located within each state.” The index has 15 metrics in three categories: purchasing from utilities, purchasing from third parties (someone other than your electric utility), and using “Onsite/Direct Deployment Options”—putting solar or wind right on your stores, factories, and warehouses.

And here’s what they found:

 RILA, ITI, Clean Edge 2017

Source: RILA, ITI, Clean Edge 2017

The top states are all over the map, literally—from #1 Iowa and #2 Illinois in the middle of the country, to New Jersey, California, and Texas.

As the top performers show, no one region has a lock on making corporate renewables purchases easy. But the authors note that some regions do better:

The Northeast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions are generally the most favorable regions in the U.S. for corporate customers seeking to power their operations with renewable energy…

Let businesses capture the economic development benefits of renewables… or not

The analysis assesses how much choice and competition for renewable energy purchases exist by state. One indicator of that is whether companies are allowed to enter into PPAs (power purchase agreements) with third parties, which let companies take advantage of the stable prices renewables are uniquely qualified to offer, to lock in electricity rates over the long term.

The answer is yes, no, or maybe:

 RILA, ITI, Clean Edge 2017

Source: RILA, ITI, Clean Edge 2017

As a taste of some of the corporate procurements, the report includes examples of large-scale purchases by some pretty big names:

 RILA, ITI, Clean Edge 2017

Source: RILA, ITI, Clean Edge 2017

Broadening the pie

The authors don’t stop at assessing where we are, but suggest opportunities for a cleaner future. In particular, to help businesses trying to get access to renewable energy, they say, here are a few ideas for what states can do:

  1. “Remove barriers to corporate deployment” of renewables, both onsite and elsewhere
  2. “Support the development of next-generation options” for helping corporate buyers use renewables to save money or hedge against swings in electricity costs
  3. “Expand energy choice options” for commercial and industrial customers in markets that haven’t “restructured”, ones in which electric utilities still own power plants, not just the electric distribution systems
  4. “Ensure that an adequate market exists for renewable purchasing” through utilities or others
  5. Ensure that, in any type of market, renewables “can scale up rapidly”

And, as the report says, while it’s focused on helping the businesses that are members of RILA and ITI in cleaning up their own acts, its findings are also “broadly applicable to many stakeholders, including other business sectors, the military, higher education, and state and local government.”

Businesses seeing the power and value of renewable energy have been important drivers for our transition to energy choices that cut air and water pollution, improve public health, strengthen energy security, and drive economic development.

States can make it easier for leading businesses to play that important role, or not. Clearly many states see the value in making it as easy as possible to get businesses of all stripes and sizes to help us move to clean energy. This new report gives us a chance to see which states those are, and to celebrate them.

Will a Rick Perry DOE Help Limit a Risky Overreliance on Natural Gas?

Within the next couple of weeks, former Texas Governor Rick Perry will appear before Congress for hearings on his nomination for Secretary of Energy under the Trump administration. Mr. Perry clearly subscribes to an “all of the above” strategy on energy—and that could leave us exposed to serious consumer and environmental risks from an over reliance on natural gas. There is another way: prioritize clean, cost-effective renewable energy.

Texas leadership on renewable energy

Mr. Perry’s track record shows that there is some room for optimism that he understands the economic opportunities that renewable energy can bring and the role that investments in a modernized electricity grid can play in providing clean, affordable energy.

Indeed, Texas leads the nation in the deployment of renewable energy, with wind energy from Texas making up about a quarter of the nation’s total wind generation. In 2016 Texas is estimated to have got nearly 15 percent of its electricity from wind generation. And all that wind that has helped provide low cost electricity, jobs and significant economic benefits for the state.


But Serious Concerns on Natural Gas

Texas also leads the nation in production of natural gas (and crude oil).

The good news is that cheap natural gas and low-cost renewables are helping drive out polluting coal-fired generation nationwide. (Despite comments from Mr. Trump, most industry experts do not see this trend being reversed.) In its 2016 long term assessment, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) projects significant coal retirements in the state by 2031 with low-cost solar replacing nearly all of the coal. The public health benefits of this transition away from coal will be tremendous.

But the rub is that low natural gas prices are quickly leading to a risky overreliance on natural gas for power generation, in Texas and elsewhere. Natural gas price spikes caused by weather or other factors can then put consumers at serious risk of increases in electricity prices and the cost of heating—which poses an especially significant hardship to low-income and fixed-income households.

If efforts to expand US LNG exports proceed, there could be further upward pressure on domestic natural gas prices.  (The DOE plays an important oversight role in granting authorizations for exports and imports.)

Furthermore, the “cheap” prices do not reflect environmental concerns related to fracking, including risks to drinking water.  And they do not account for climate concerns: using natural gas to generate electricity leads to carbon dioxide emissions, and methane is emitted during the production, storage and distribution of natural gas.

Methane leakage from oil and gas operations wastes gas, and there are solutions to help reduce it. In fact, the DOE is playing an important role in funding research on innovative solutions to find and fix methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure.

News stories indicate that Mr. Perry is taking credit for cuts in pollution in Texas related to a shift from coal to gas. There’s more progress that needs to be made in cleaning up the air in Texas. Also, importantly, a coal to gas transition it is simply not sufficient to cut carbon emissions in line with climate (and economic) goals. (Take a look at the new World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Risks Report which once again points to climate change as one of the leading risks to the global economy.)

Insights from the DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review

The DOE’s Quadrennial Energy Review lays out a vision for a modernized, more resilient energy system for America. Related to natural gas, the QER highlights the growing interdependence of the power and natural gas systems and the reliability and safety challenges posed by our increased reliance on gas. For example, the report says:

“…overall reliance on gas for electricity has gone up, creating a new interdependence and grid vulnerability.”


Aging, leak-prone natural gas distribution pipelines and associated infrastructures prompt safety and environmental concerns. Most safety incidents involving natural gas pipelines occur on natural gas distribution systems. These incidents tend to occur in densely populated areas.”

As head of the DOE, Mr. Perry will play an important role in helping to figure out how to address these types of challenges, in coordination with other stakeholders.

Wide Open for (Renewable Energy) Business

One clear way is diversifying our electricity mix by promoting clean energy sources like wind and solar.  Mr. Perry’s experience in Texas should make clear that leveling the playing field for renewable energy is a very good thing for consumers and for the economy. It means more affordable, clean power and a diversified electricity mix that limits the risk of price spikes. And it helps foster business opportunities and innovation that put the US in a strong position to be a global leader in clean energy.  With China, Germany, India and other nations making a big push on renewables, this is not the time to cede ground on clean energy progress.

However, a cozy relationship with oil and gas interests could jeopardize these opportunities and skew the playing field in favor of fossil fuels including natural gas, with long-term consequences for our economic, energy and climate goals.

A Clean Energy Future

Putting aside the irony of the fact that Mr. Perry once ran on a platform of eliminating the agency he is now in line to lead, if he is confirmed as the Energy Secretary, he must approach the job by putting the public interest ahead of that of fossil fuel companies.

Americans want clean, affordable energy from domestic sources. Surveys repeatedly show that there is strong bipartisan support for renewable energy, with solar energy a strong favorite.

Let’s hope Mr. Perry is listening and will use his new position to foster the clean energy future our country wants and needs, one that limits the risks of an over-reliance on natural gas and advances wind, solar and other forms of clean energy.


New Study Shows How Solar Can Enhance Grid Reliability

President Obama’s publication in Science is just the most recent reiteration of how far we have come with clean energy development in the last decade. The question now is not whether we should transition to cleaner sources of energy, but rather how do we do so in the most reliable and cost-effective way?

In California, where we are planning to satisfy at least 50% of our electricity needs with renewables by 2030, we are working on accelerating the solutions that will enable us to integrate large quantities of clean energy onto the grid. One of the most exciting strategies—using renewables to provide the grid reliability services traditionally provided by natural gas—just got a little closer to reality.

A new study released by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) (aka the grid operator for most of the state) finds that large-scale solar plants, with the right type of inverter technology, can provide many of the essential grid reliability services the grid needs. The study concludes that “It may in this way mitigate the impact of its variability on the grid, and contribute to important system requirements more like traditional generators.”

In a nutshell, the CAISO is saying it has found a strategy for operating renewables in a way that supports further integration of renewables onto the system. Renewables can now be part of the integration solution.

The test was conducted in August on one of First Solar’s 300 MW PV plants. According to the CAISO, the data demonstrates the capability of PV plants to provide various grid services. From the report: “This data showed how the development of advanced power controls can leverage PV’s value from being simply an intermittent energy resource to providing services that range from spinning reserves, load following, voltage support, ramping, frequency response, variability smoothing and frequency regulation to power quality.”

This finding is a real-world validation of research we completed last year which found that enabling renewables to provide grid reserves, especially in the downward direction, could be a particularly useful and cost-effective way to reduce grid management issues and greenhouse gas emissions. After all, gas plants have to be running to provide these services, which means they are emitting carbon, and potentially crowding out renewable generation.

At the time we published this report, the CAISO was skeptical. This pilot project has been very helpful to help them seriously consider renewables as part of the integration solution. I am beyond thrilled with the results and will be working with my clean energy colleagues to identify the economic and contractual incentives that will encourage large-scale solar plants to provide more of these grid services in the future. If we are serious about dramatically ramping up renewables and ramping down natural gas, we will need these grid services to come from carbon-free technologies, including large-scale solar plants.

Embracing new ways of thinking about the services that solar provides on the grid will improve the value of installations by easing integration challenges and reducing the risk of generation curtailment. Generators and grid operators have begun to explore ways in which this can be done, but new strategies are not yet widely accepted or adopted.

What Will US Energy Leadership Look Like at Rick Perry’s Department of Energy?

There’s a clear trend in the president-elect’s cabinet appointments—many of them are opposed to the agencies they would lead.

Some have demonstrated opposition to the particular agency and/or its mission in a professional capacity. Others have stated a desire to see the agency disappear altogether, suggesting the institution has no value.

Rick Perry’s appointment to head the Department of Energy (DOE) is certainly consistent with this trend; in a 2011 presidential debate he famously forgot the name of the agency he would abolish. And now he’s been nominated to lead it.

Why does it matter, and what should we expect?

One of DOE's most important responsibilities is making sure things like this (nuclear weapon handling) happen safely.

One of DOE’s most important responsibilities is making sure things like this (handling nuclear weapons) happen safely. Photo: Wikimedia

Is Governor Perry the right fit?

The DOE has important national security responsibilities. It’s primarily a weapons and environmental management agency, and the secretary position requires strong management skills.

The DOE is also a science agency. While it’s not essential that the secretary be a scientist, it’s important that the secretary understands and values science and the scientific process.

Governor Perry can certainly make a credible case that he’s a good manager, and he even has some experience with spent nuclear fuel policy in Texas. But he’s also made numerous inaccurate and misleading scientific statements, and rejects the scientific consensus on things like climate change. If Rick Perry is truly “very intent on doing a good job,” he’ll need to hit the reset button on his approach to science and science policy, start talking to the experts, and stop making irresponsible statements.

As governor, though, he was savvy enough to see the economic and jobs potential of renewable energy, garnering a reputation as a pragmatist. The Texas wind industry, much of it under Perry’s governorship, has provided $33 billion in capital investment to the state and supports over 24,000 jobs and 38 manufacturing facilities, all while generating an incredible 18,531 megawatts of clean, renewable electricity.

How much credit Governor Perry deserves is debatable, but his record should provide clean energy advocates some cautious optimism. One can work with a pragmatist; it’s the ideologues you have to watch out for.

What the Department of Energy Does

Most of DOE’s focus is nuclear weapons-related. The agency includes the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), with the vast majority of the agency’s budget allocated to maintaining our nuclear arsenal and managing the cleanup of radioactive waste, much of it from the legacy of the Cold War.

DOE also does a lot of basic science research. DOE manages our 17 national labs, which employ roughly 110,000 people, are supported by Republicans and Democrats, and have helped the US remain at the forefront of science and technology innovation since WWII.

 Sandia National Laboratories

DOE invests in basic scientific research. Photo: Sandia National Laboratories

The national labs continue to produce breakthroughs that aid our national security and economic competitiveness, as well as increasing our understanding of everything from automotive engineering, to environmental health, to computer science, to the origins of our universe.

Only about 15-20% of DOE’s budget is actually spent on what most people think of as “energy” initiatives, and within that small capacity DOE does some very important work:

Unless President-elect Trump dramatically reorganizes the agency, the vast majority of DOE’s day-to-day work will not change—but the agency’s budget probably will.

DOE will no doubt continue to be fully funded to carry out its national security responsibilities. But with the new congress focused on shrinking the size of government and reducing non-discretionary, non-defense spending, DOE’s “energy” work could be targeted for big cuts. That would be a big mistake.

DOE refused the Trump transition team’s request for employee names involved in climate-related work.

DOE refused the Trump transition team’s request for employee names involved in climate-related work. Photo: Wikimedia

Trump’s DOE, or Perry’s?

It remains to be seen how President-elect Trump will run the executive branch. Will he micromanage, or will he stand back and let his cabinet secretaries run their agencies? If Trump’s business history is any indication, there’s a good chance he’ll micromanage, and that’s bad news for DOE’s climate and clean energy initiatives.

We’ve already seen ominous communications from the transition team in an attempt to root out specific employees and climate-related work the agency is pursuing, with Trump later disavowing the communication.

The transition team has also signaled it believes that the EIA is lowballing oil and gas development in their projections, and underestimating the cost of renewable energy development (even though the problem has historically been data in the other direction, underestimating renewables’ potential and overestimating its costs).

These communications are certainly cause for concern as they indicate a potential interest in undermining scientific integrity, independent analysis, and intimidating government employees of the agency. Any good DOE secretary will want to protect good science and good people under his/her leadership.

Perry’s record a sign of what’s to come?

The majority of DOE’s activities likely won’t change much, given the agency’s primary focus on nuclear weapons and waste. But when it comes to energy activities, there’s reason to expect a pretty big change of direction, with more of a focus on fossil fuel development, and a lot less on clean air and climate change mitigation.

Rick Perry’s DOE is likely to be a big cheerleader for interim storage and spent nuclear fuel management as an economic opportunity for communities. The agency is also likely to delegate to the states more under his leadership, and be less prescriptive in pushing specific types of energy technologies.

Despite this, a Perry-run DOE shouldn’t be hostile towards clean energy. This is supposed to be a pro-business administration, and when Perry was governor of Texas, he saw that clean energy is good business. That’s why he backed the “Competitive Renewable Energy Zone” (CREZ) Initiative, which included large transmission to bring mostly rural wind energy to markets in other parts of the state. It’s also why he directed state funds to wind energy R&D, and signed into law an increase in Texas’ Renewable Portfolio Standard.

wind power, Texas, Gulf coast

Wind turbines on the Texas Gulf coast. Texas is the national leader in wind power.

But deservedly there is some skepticism about how much should be made of the governor’s record on clean energy. According to some, it’s more accurate to say that Governor Perry didn’t stand in the way of wind development, rather than crediting him as a champion for clean energy. On the fossil side Perry supported subsidies and exemptions for natural gas development, and fast-tracked the permitting of 11 conventional coal plants that would have been disastrous for the climate and to ratepayers.

When it comes to energy development Perry has generally shown very little concern for public health, safety, and the environment. That’s a red flag. But regardless of where you come down on what he’s done, Governor Perry’s energy legacy in Texas can most accurately be described as “all-of-the-above.” And if anything, he’s seen first-hand that clean energy can be profitable, create jobs, and increases energy security—something that so far seems to have escaped the President-elect.

The real question is will Perry have the liberty to run DOE on his terms? Will he pursue a balanced, pragmatic approach like he did as governor? And even if he’s so inclined, will the budget congress hands him allow him to continue the critical work currently underway at the agency on things like energy efficiency, grid modernization, and clean energy finance and innovation?

For the sake of American jobs, American energy security, American leadership, and the climate, the answers better be “yes.”


What Electric Vehicle Sales in 2016 Mean for the Future of Transportation

I’m a fan of electric vehicles. As I’ve noted, they can be a smart and flexible option to help the grid accommodate variable energy resources like wind and solar. And EVs are the option likely to have the most success at decarbonizing transportation.

I’ve noted that the claim “The only way to do X is Y” is probably incorrect. I expect EVs to become the best way to get transportation CO2 emissions to zero for most applications, but not the only way. Hydrogen fuel cells, cellulosic biofuels, and liquid fuels produced by renewable electricity also exist. Maybe we will use some of these technologies for specific applications. But it is my estimate that EVs will achieve the greatest reductions in transportation carbon emissions.

UCS has shown under the current electricity system, EVs reduce emissions compared to the average gasoline car in all parts of the country, even when considering manufacturing impacts. In most of the country they beat the best gasoline cars. That analysis uses the 2015 version of EPA’s eGRID database, which actually only includes data through 2012. The grid has gotten considerably cleaner even in the past few years.

The grid impact

So, theoretically, what would happen if all light-duty vehicles were EVs?

As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, that would be about a 25% increase in electricity demand. Light-duty vehicles account for about 3 trillion vehicle-miles per year in the United States. EVs get roughly 3 miles per kilowatt-hour. We would need an additional 1 trillion kWh of electricity. The U.S. currently uses about 4 trillion kilowatt-hours per year; an additional 1 trillion kWh represents a 25% increase.

US cars and light trucks produced just over one billion metric tons of CO2 in 2014, or about 20% of all U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions. In 2015, US power plants produced 1,925 million metric tons of CO2 while producing 3,931 billion kWh, for an emissions rate of about 0.5 tons per thousand kWh. The additional trillion kWh for the EVs would result in 500 million tons of emissions, or about half of what light-duty vehicles emit today, for a 10% reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions. That estimate applies if EVs are charged by the grid of today. It does not account for the fact that the grid is getting cleaner through existing market forces and policy actions, nor the ways that EVs can specifically help the grid accommodate greater use of variable renewables, nor actions such as buying green power or using a “green charging” algorithm.

Scenarios of EV market growth

It will be a while before EVs represent even 10% of vehicles, let alone 100%. EV sales were about 0.9% of new car sales in the US in 2016, up from about 0.7% in 2015. With somewhat over half a million sold during the period 2012-2016, EVs are currently about 0.3% of cars on the road.

Sounds small?  Well, compound growth is an amazing thing.  Continuing the 2012-2016 growth rate of 32% per year would put EVs at 10% of all new car sales by 2025, and about 40% by 2030.

Now, that might be a stretch.  It’s too short a time to extrapolate from, and technology diffusion tends to follow an S-shaped “logistic function” rather than a constant growth rate. Still, even with lower growth rates, existing targets are achievable.

The eight states that have signed the Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum have a combined goal of 3.3 million vehicles on the road by 2025 (and all new vehicles being zero-emission by 2050). I expect that most of these will be EVs, although some may be other technologies. These states represent about a quarter of the US population. If the ZEV states meet their goal, and the other states with three times as many people deploy only half as many EVs, that would be 5 million EVs by 2025.  This would represent roughly 2% of all vehicles on the road in the US, and possibly 5% of new car sales in that year.

US EV sales would need to grow at a rate of 25% per year over 2016-2025 to hit 5 million cumulative sales in 2025 (sales in that year would be 1 million). As shown below, 2016 represented a 37% increase in EV sales over 2015 (the 2012-2016 period saw 32% annual growth).


EV sales in 2016 were up 37% over 2015. Source: Inside EVs.

Two paths

Assuming we hit 2025’s targets, what would happen next? One of two things.

Maybe the market keeps growing. In UCS’s “Half the Oil” report, we present a scenario in which California meets its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) requirements, with 16% of new vehicles being ZEV by 2025. With further growth beyond that, ZEVs would reach 28-36% of light-duty vehicles in California in 2030. This Hawaii-specific study similarly forecasts a “high” case of about 33% of new car sales being EVs by 2030. Other studies feature even faster diffusion.

Or, vehicle sales might fall dramatically. If shared autonomous vehicles become the norm, far fewer vehicles would be needed. At any one time, no more than about 13% of cars are on the road. You might think you still need one car per person for rush hour, but 1) our number of commuters is less than half our number of vehicles; and, 2) these commutes are spread around a fairly broad time and are typically under half an hour. So one vehicle can support several commutes, even before you consider ridesharing. EVs could be grabbing a larger share of a shrinking market – at least in the countries that currently feature widespread car ownership.

Which way will the future take us? Photos from Mercedes-Benz and Wikimedia.

Which way will the future take us? Photos from Mercedes-Benz and Wikimedia.

Considering the progress from Google, Tesla, Apple, and others, full autonomy may be technologically possible by 2020. Regulations would take another few years to catch up. Granted, autonomous vehicles could be privately owned; the degree to which people choose to switch from owning vehicles to buying “transportation as a service” is uncertain. Still, the prospect of shared autonomous vehicles is why I think projections beyond 2030 are especially difficult.

Our transportation system might look much, much different.

New Year, New Clean Energy Analysis: New Study Finds Lots of Benefits, Few Costs

Last year was a tough one in some ways, though a great one for those of us tracking wind and solar progress. Now a new report from two of our nation’s premier national energy laboratories analyzes the power of a lot more strong growth in clean energy sources like those.

What they find is just about everything you could want in smart energy evolution: lots of likely upside, not much downside.

The report, from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, models a particular policy in place in a majority of US states, known as renewable electricity standards (or renewable portfolio standards). Their model assesses what different levels of renewable energy might mean for the future.

A prospective analysis of the costs, benefits, and impacts of U.S. renewable portfolio standards examines two renewables-centric scenarios. One, the “Existing RPS” scenario, assumes that state policies in place by mid-2016 stay on track. The other, a “High RE [Renewable Energy]” one, assumes that almost all states adopt RPSs with “relatively aggressive targets,” as some already have. It compares each of those scenarios to a “No RPS” one that assumes that those policies stopped driving renewables after 2015—not a likely scenario, given the clean energy sector’s incredible momentum, but a useful foil (since the incoming administration’s commitment to clean energy is still… uncertain).

The analysis uses those scenarios to look at a range of outputs, different metrics by which to judge whether we’re likely to be making progress, or not, on these paths.

The upshot is that the analysis shows a lot of up-arrows for things we’d want more of, and down-arrows for things we’d want to cut. Here are four important charts from the report, and what they mean:

1. More renewable energy means less air and water pollution, less water use.

The summary chart below shows what higher levels of renewables penetration under the two first scenarios could mean relative to the third.

 Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

The benefits stats in orange in the chart are notable, particularly under the “High RE” scenario:

  • Potential reductions of almost a third in emissions of SO2, NOx, and particulate matter, three important pollutants with regard to human health
  • Almost a quarter fewer CO2 emissions, with its strong implications for climate change and all the bad stuff that comes along with it
  • 18% less water use by power plants, through replacement of big water users like coal plants with water-free sources like solar panels and wind turbines

Those levels of reduction aren’t everything we need, and it’s also important to understand where those reductions are taking place, in the case of the ones with most direct impact on local health—in which parts of the country (maps in the report usefully show what regions the reductions might be in—think Midwest and Mid-Atlantic) but also in which areas, what types of communities.

But it’s also important to note that those drops are versus the “No RPS” scenario, meaning that the reductions from current levels would be considerably greater if viewed against a scenario with truly no growth in renewables. (For a taste of that, check out the considerable benefits from RPSs to date neatly covered in an earlier Department of Energy report; this write-up by Vox’s David Roberts is also useful.)

These stats also don’t take into account the broad range of other policies that could (and should) be brought to bear to deal with continuing health impacts from our nation’s power plants, particularly in lower-income communities and communities of color.

2. Renewable energy means jobs.

Job creation is a really strong point in renewables’ favor. And when you add up all the jobs created over all the years under these projections, you get some pretty-hard-to-ignore gains.

 Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

Here’s how the authors put it in the text:

In terms of total cumulative job-years over the entire 2015–2050 period, the Existing RPS scenario yields 4.7 million additional job-years compared to the No RPS scenario, a 19% increase in RE-related employment required. This is equivalent to the renewable energy sector needing approximately 134,000 more workers annually, on average, in comparison to the No RPS scenario. The High RE scenario, meanwhile, is estimated to require 11.5 million additional job-years, again relative to the No RPS baseline, a 47% boost.

Jobs. Lots of them.

The report is careful to point out that these are gross figures, not net. Some renewable energy jobs come at the expense of employment in the fossil fuel sector. But studies, including from UCS, have consistently shown that renewables produce far more jobs than fossils lose, meaning that the net figures are likely to be really impressive, too.

3. Renewable energy’s public health and climate benefits way exceed any costs.

The jobs figures alone should be enough for any administration in Washington, D.C., that professes to be focused on economic development. But the jobs numbers don’t have to make the case all by themselves.

 Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

As the graph above shows, the costs-vs.-benefits equations are likely to be quite favorable under renewables-heavier futures.

  • The direct financial costs or savings in terms of electricity rates under these projections are minimal, particularly under the “Existing RPS” scenario. As the authors put it, for that scenario, “…the net effect (whether positive or negative) is quite small as a share of overall system costs.”
  • The likely health and climate benefits are much larger, with savings potentially on the scale of the average electricity rate that American households currently face.
  • As to who pays the costs or gets the benefits: Any costs (or savings) would be felt by electricity ratepayers, but those overlap a lot with those who would benefit from the reduced air pollution—most of us pay electricity bills, and all of us breathe. The beneficiaries in terms of climate change mitigation (from “GHG”, or greenhouse gas, reduction) would be broader.

And all this, as the sub-note calls out, doesn’t consider some of the other effects studied, like the water savings and job benefits noted above.

The numbers above also don’t include the benefits of lower natural gas prices that can result when renewables displace gas generation and take pressure off natural gas supplies. That natural gas price suppression, as UCS has found in lots of its own studies, can be considerable across the economy—from people and businesses that heat their homes with gas, to industries that use it as a feedstock.

4. Even stronger policies could get a lot more renewable energy built quickly.

The graph below shows how quickly the modeling assumed renewable energy (wind, solar, and other, plus hydro) would grow, as a piece of the electricity pie. The green line is particularly noteworthy, showing how, under the High RE scenario, renewables could be a third of our generation by the middle of the next decade, and fully half of electricity supply by mid-century.

 Mai et al. 2016)

(Source: Mai et al. 2016)

The authors make a point of calling out the fact that, while RPSs can provide a floor for renewables development, they don’t provide a ceiling:

…important to note… that RE generation is allowed to exceed RPS requirements, thus some additional “economic RE” is generated.

That is, the model, in trying to optimize our electricity future based on cost, picks more renewable energy than policies ask for. That’s in part because of tax credits and other policies that improve the economics of renewables, but also because of the impressive progress in recent years on costs and performance. RPSs, the authors note, while important, aren’t the only things driving renewables.

It’s also important to note that we can do even better than this—considerably better. Many studies have looked at the potential to get to 80% renewables by 2050, or even 100%. So just as the modeled policies shouldn’t be a ceiling, neither should the modeled renewable energy growth projections.

Still, these are useful levels of growth to consider.

What it all adds up to

This handy new study shows the far-reaching, positive implications of stronger investment in renewables, of ramping up policies that have proven themselves over many year, with “…benefits exceed[ing] the costs, even when considering the highest cost and lowest benefit outcomes.” Along with plenty of other studies, both retrospective and forward-looking, the analysis shows clearly that more renewables means less air and water pollution, more water savings, potential economic savings across the economy, and lots of jobs.

All that makes renewable energy well worth paying attention to. Credit: J. Rogers

Year in Review: How 8 States Made 2016 a Huge Year for Clean Energy

With the Clean Power Plan’s future up in the air, and concerns about how science might fare given the recent election results, some may think 2016 wasn’t a great year for clean energy.  However, lots of great state level policies were passed — some with bipartisan support—and there’s even some good news on the national front. Looking back at the last year I see a lot of clear signs that the clean energy transition is moving forward in the US.  Here are eight states that really stepped up to become climate leaders:

1. California

In August, the California legislature passed remarkable climate change legislationSB 32 builds on Assembly Bill 32, the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 that required California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  SB 32 now sets the next target, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.  Another bill, AB 197 increases legislative oversight and transparency for the state’s climate change programs and emphasizes the state’s commitment to ensuring these policies help communities most impacted by climate change and air pollution.

California is on track to meet its emissions reductions goals, and its overall economy is growing.  UCS brought in our scientists, and passage of these two bills cemented the state’s commitment to leading the fight against climate change.

2. Illinois

On December 1, Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Bill (SB 2814).  The bill was passed with bipartisan support, and was signed into law by Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.  The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (which UCS is a member of) worked on the bill for nearly two years.  The bill includes several big wins for clean energy including a meaningful fix to the state’s existing Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law that corrects flaws in the policy, new in-state renewable build requirements for wind and solar, the state’s first community solar program, and a new Illinois Solar for All program which is a comprehensive low-income solar deployment and job training initiative. The bill also increased the state’s energy efficiency policies; ComEd will achieve a 21.5% reduction and Ameren will achieve a 16% reduction in energy use by 2030.

3. Maryland

The state passed landmark legislation, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act (SB 323), which was signed into law by Republican Governor Larry Hogan. The law requires Maryland to reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 2006 levels by 2030.  This target was unanimously recommended by the state’s bipartisan Climate Change Commission in fall 2015. The legislation was supported by a diverse group of stakeholders and is expected to create and maintain thousands of jobs.

4. Massachusetts

This summer Massachusetts legislators passed an omnibus energy bill that will once again make Massachusetts a clean energy leader.  The bill includes a large scale clean energy procurement requirement for hydro, wind, solar and other renewable sources and the necessary transmission to power the state. The legislation also calls for Massachusetts utilities to solicit contracts for 1600 megawatts of offshore wind development by 2030.  That’s enough to meet 15 percent of Massachusetts’s electricity needs. In all, up to 40 percent of the state’s electricity could come from clean energy sources by 2030.

 Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

Photo: Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

5. Michigan

This month the state passed Senate bills 437 and 438, that make progress on Michigan’s clean energy future.  The legislation strengthens the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 10 percent by 2015, to 15 percent by 2021, and requires renewable energy resources to be built within the service territories of utilities that serve Michigan.  The strengthened RPS ensures a baseline level of diversity in Michigan’s energy mix.
For energy efficiency, the legislation changes the state’s current standard to a regulatory-focused process in 2021, but it will preserve current levels of energy efficiency by requiring utilities to regularly submit efficiency plans that must maintain efficiency investments deemed reasonable and prudent. The legislation also removes the existing cap on energy efficiency program spending, and provides a new incentive structure that could drive utilities to achieve annual savings of 1.5 percent.

6. New York

 The New York Public Service Commission (PSC) gave approval to Governor Cuomo’s plan for New York to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, through the state’s Clean Energy Standard.  The PSC order established an overall legally binding renewables target for 2030, and requires New York state utilities to ramp up long-term purchases of renewable energy credits to meet those targets.  This builds on the state’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by signing the Under 2 MOU in 2015, which sets a laudable target to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

7. Oregon

In March, the Oregon Legislature passed the Clean Energy and Coal Transition Act (Senate Bill 1547) with bipartisan support.  The legislation doubles Oregon’s existing renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from 25 percent by 2025 to 50 percent by 2040, and requires the state’s two largest utilities (Portland General Electric and Pacific Power) to phase out coal generation imports by 2035. A huge advantage of Oregon’s coal phase out is that it creates room in the power supply for cleaner energy sources. The legislation had true consensus with support from environmental groups, the state’s consumer advocate, businesses, and the state’s two largest utilities.

8. Rhode Island

The state passed HB 7413 that will increase the state’s renewable energy standard by 1.5 percent each year, requiring 38.5 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewables by 2035.  Also, the state’s Block Island became the site of the first offshore wind project in the Western Hemisphere.  The project consists of five wind turbines adding up to 30 megawatts which became operational this year, and more offshore wind is coming!

Wait, there’s more!

Sometimes good news comes in the form of stuff that didn’t happen. Florida’s Solar Amendment 1, an anti-solar ballot initiative, didn’t pass.  The amendment was backed by utilities and fossil fuel interests, and was an attempt to deceive voters and limit solar development in the state.

 Peter Juvinall - NREL.

Source: Peter Juvinall – NREL.

National level

And on the national level, the five-year extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar signed into law late last year was a huge driver for clean energy development this year and in the coming years. One million solar installations are now turned on in the US.  Solar is being installed throughout the US  thanks to falling prices and a vast supply of sunshine.  And US wind generation set new records in 2016 as costs continue to fall.  More wind generation will be installed in 2017 due to the current administration approving the Plains & Eastern Clean Line transmission project.  The project is one of the biggest renewable energy projects in the country and will allow construction of approximately 4,000 megawatts of wind power. This project will expand the reach of large scale renewables from the Plains into the Southeast.

Job growth occurred in both the wind and solar sectors this year. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report, Year Ending 2015 American wind power supported 88,000 jobs at the start of 2016, which is a 20 percent increase from the previous year. And nearly 209,000 Americans work in solar, and that number is expected to rise to 420,000 workers by 2020 according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Next steps

These victories – many of them bipartisan – across the country give me hope for 2017. Our work isn’t done.  We must continue to fight for clean energy polices to create new jobs and curb the harmful effects of climate change.  And we must continue to fight anti-science rhetoric. But for now, let’s celebrate our 2016 victories! Photo: Mark Jurrens (Wikimedia)

Michigan Finally Moves Forward on Clean Energy, As the Final Bell Tolls on 2016 Session

As the last day of Michigan’s 2016 legislative session came to an end, legislators finally came to agreement on energy legislation (Senate bills 437 and 438) that settles some long-standing disputes, improves Michigan’s ability to plan for ongoing changes in its energy mix, and makes some (but not necessarily enough) progress toward Michigan’s clean energy future. As the legislation heads to Governor Snyder’s desk for signature, let’s take a quick look at some of the key clean energy provisions and how they will help shape a cleaner, more sustainable and affordable energy future for Michigan.

A strengthened RPS provides economic growth and an important floor for Michigan renewables Wind turbines at the Forward Wind Energy Center, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

Renewable energy will get a boost in Michigan from the newly-strengthened renewable portfolio standard, but Michigan could still do much more. Photo by Ruth Baranowski / NREL

Is 15 percent renewable energy the best Michigan can do? Not even close. As UCS and several other independent analyses have shown, Michigan can easily achieve 25 percent or more renewable energy over the next decade at little to no additional cost to consumers. But strengthening the states renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from its current 10 percent by 2015 to 15 percent by 2021 is important for two reasons:

First, the strengthened RPS requires renewable energy resources to be built within the service territories of utilities that serve Michigan. This mean jobs, economic development, and clean energy will all be made in Michigan, too.

Second, it ensures a baseline level of diversity in the Michigan energy mix that is at risk of shifting from an overreliance on coal to an overreliance on natural gas. Independent analysis shows that merely swapping Michigan’s dirty, outdated coal fleet with natural gas plants carries many economic, reliability and environmental risks. Ensuring a minimum level of renewable energy will help protect Michigan against these risks and demonstrate the cost-effectiveness and low risk nature of clean energy.

Common ground on energy efficiency means ratepayers and utilities will benefit

These bills also make important changes to how Michigan will use energy efficiency to meet its electricity demand. It is well-documented (and widely accepted) that efficiency is the cheapest, cleanest, and most readily available energy resource we have. This new legislation takes advantage of that by making efficiency investments an attractive, economical alternative for utilities that might otherwise look to build costly new power plants.

While the legislation switches from the state’s current (and wildly successful) energy efficiency standard to a regulatory-focused process in 2021, it will preserve current levels of energy efficiency investments by requiring utilities to regularly submit efficiency plans that must maintain energy efficiency investments as long as they are the “reasonable and prudent” for ratepayers.

The legislation also removes the arbitrary spending limits that have previously limited cost-effective efficiency investments, and adds incentives for utilities to go above and beyond the current 1 percent baseline. This is done through two different pathways: one, allowing utilities to recover lost revenue due to reduced electricity sales caused by efficiency programs, and another that allows the utility to share in the proven cost savings from energy efficiency programs. The combination of these two incentives could drive utilities to achieve annual savings of 1.5 percent or more through efficiency programs, and will make efficiency investments an attractive alternative to building costly new power plants with ratepayers’ money.

Punting the net metering/grid charge debate to the Michigan Public Service Commission (where it should be).

Under compromise language, the Michigan Public Service Commission will spend 2017 studying the costs and benefits of the growing rooftop solar industry.

Under compromise language, the Michigan Public Service Commission will spend 2017 studying the costs and benefits of the growing rooftop solar industry. Photo: NREL

One of the most contentious issues over the past year has been over fair compensation for customers that generate their own electricity (with solar panels, for example). The final bill includes compromise language that directs the Michigan Public Service Commission to explore these issues over the next year and determine what is fair for both self-generators and utilities. While maintaining current law would have guaranteed a robust market for rooftop solar in the coming years, the bill language was improved significantly during the legislative process; utilities’ original proposal would have effectively shut down the growing rooftop solar industry.

The process for determining a fair value for solar energy now goes to the Michigan Public Service Commission in 2017. The Union of Concerned Scientists and other supporters of the solar industry will be active participants to ensure rooftop solar customers are compensated fairly and the industry can continue to grow.

A few (mostly positive) loose ends

The legislation sent to Governor Snyder, along with the clean energy provisions above, contain a few other provisions that will further support Michigan’s transition to a cleaner, more sustainable and affordable electricity sector. The most significant of these is the creation of an integrated resource planning (IRP) process that will require utilities to submit plans to the Michigan Public Service Commission for approval every five years. Built into this process is a goal of achieving at least 35 percent of Michigan’s future energy demand with a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency. While this goal is not mandatory, it will provide an important consideration for the Commission in deciding whether to approve or reject utility plans.

In all, the legislation passed last week marks an important step forward for Michigan’s clean energy future. Michigan can go further, and if we’re going to truly address the growing threat of climate change, we must go further. But it’s an important step forward – one that we will continue to build on in the coming years.

Unleash the Ocean Winds: 3 Signs that Offshore Wind Energy Has Arrived in the US

It’s been quite a week for offshore wind in the US—new leases, new deals, and the first-ever offshore wind electrons in the Western Hemisphere.

The first-ever offshore wind project in the Americas officially turns on.

The week kicked off with the first-ever offshore wind project anywhere in the Americas getting the go-ahead to start delivering energy to Block Island (RI) and beyond, and officially turning on.

The Block Island Wind Project‘s five turbines are the vanguard of an amazing revolution in renewable energy in the Northeast and beyond—jobs, economic development, carbon-free energy, and a whole new way of getting the power we need to run the region’s homes and businesses. (Turn, baby, turn!)

There’s offshore wind action in Massachusetts.

The week’s offshore wind oomph continued with an announcement yesterday that Eversource, a local electricity and gas utility in several New England states, had signed on to get a piece of offshore wind action in the region.

Eversource has bought a 50-percent stake in a venture owned by the Danish company DONG. Bay State Wind, as it’s known, holds one of the offshore wind leases off Massachusetts’s south coast—enough area, they say, to power at least one million Massachusetts homes.

Thanks to the Massachusetts energy law from this past summer that will drive Massachusetts utilities to buy offshore wind, we’ll need all that, and much more.

One of the biggest prizes in offshore wind is up for auction. Right now.

And even as I write this, I keep hitting the refresh button to watch a host of offshore wind bidders competing for one of the biggest prizes to be had: New York. BOEM, the US government agency responsible for managing our coastal areas (the Outer Continental Shelf) that will host future offshore wind projects, is conducting an auction on several lease areas south of Long Island, and close to New York City. A new round of bidding is happening every 20 minutes, and so far no bidders have dropped out.

So stay tuned. I can’t guarantee that every week is going to be this exciting in the world of US offshore wind. But I can guarantee that the next few years of offshore wind activity are going to be well worth keeping an eye on.

For more of a taste of the excitement around the Block Island project, check out what the National Wildlife Federation, the Conservation Law Foundation, Environment America, and the Natural Resources Defense Council each had to say. People are pretty pumped.

Polar Vortex Returns. Will Wind Energy Be Left Out in the Cold?

The Polar Vortex in 2014 revealed issues with over-reliance on natural gas  and under-appreciation of wind and customer demand response. The Union of Concerned Scientists is pushing to correct mistakes when made when the low price of natural gas for most of the year fooled a lot of people who should know better. Assumptions that natural gas would be just as available in a cold snap as in mild weather created havoc with electric power plants that rely, perhaps over-rely, on natural gas when the cold snap came.

Will YOU bundle up when it’s cold?  pinterest./benitodream

Arctic family knows how to prepare for polar weather. Credit: pinterest./benitodream

One surprise in the January 2014 cold weather was how many fossil-fired power plants could not run because of frozen pipes and other failings due to lack of protection from the cold.  (data from PJM report)  Preventing this sort of failure to prepare for the cold is neither complicated nor expensive. Now, much like a kindly elder reminding the young ones to get on a hat and coat, the grid operators require a check-list of preparations for power plant owners as the cold weather approaches.

But what if I didn’t pay the fuel bill?!?

Yeah, the power plant owners need to buy fuel, and pay for deliveries. Gas pipeline space for fuels deliveries can be reserved ahead of time, or you can wait and see if there is some leftover available capacity when you, and every other gas-burner in the region, needs it. The big surprise in the mid-Atlantic region was that dozens of the gas-fired power plants that are counted for their reliability did not have gas delivery arrangements for January. These plants notified the grid operator, PJM, that they too were not able to run.  They had skimped on arrangements to obtain gas during  the same time demand from homes heated with gas was at its peak.

Mid-Atlantic electricity prices approached $1 per kWh on Jan. 20, 2014.

Mid-Atlantic electricity prices approached $1 per kWh on Jan. 20, 2014.

In this demonstration of over-reliance on gas, the operating assumption of power plant owners in January 2014 was that if they could buy gas last year, they would be able to buy gas again the next year, even though they were not making reservations and reserving gas pipeline capacity.  The electricity supply was made adequate by some unexpected over-performers.

Unexpected, and under-paid. Windfarms in the PJM system produced more than their reliability requirements. Demand response from commercial buildings and businesses, expected to respond only in the summer, also came through when PJM called for their help. As these resources don’t require fuel, they were not caught in the gas squeeze.

Did everyone get the message?

No, not really. The immediate effects are being addressed. Power plant owners now know the gas pipeline capacity they use in warm months will not be available for every power plant.  PJM has also corrected this assumption, but oddly only for the gas pipelines and not for the electricity transmission. Just as bad, PJM has turned its back on the demand response from customers and renewable energy that saved the day.

What’s missing and what’s being done

The focus is now on how well the electricity transmission system, the network of wires connecting the power plants to the consumers, is able to deliver in winter. The good news for wind energy is PJM is adopting our advice of testing the transmission to see if the higher levels of wind energy in winter can flow, and thus be eligible to be counted as a winter resource.

The assumption that all the power plants have adequate transmission in the winter is the weak link in this set of reliability assurances. The polar vortex weather revealed how the mix of power plants that PJM paid to be reliably perform was not the same as the mix of plants (and demand response) that actually did perform and kept the lights on. When PJM tests the capability of the system in winter peak conditions, many of the power plants are included at only a fraction of the capacity which they are obligated and expected to provide.

So, PJM is looking to avoid the mistakes made in the gas sector, but only proposing to go part way. The incremental seasonal capacity from wind is valuable, and testing if the actual winter deliverability is greater than currently assumed from the summer tests is a key first step. Additional steps to make this more permanent, and to test all generators’ transmission limits on their winter contribution to reliability are needed. Comments are coming in from around the stakeholder community in support of this. A full fix would be to make a complete assessment of how winter needs are different from summer needs, and make deliberate efforts to use that information when committing to resources, both in supply and demand.

Cold weather is no time to get caught with our plants down just because we used the assumed what works in summer will be fine in winter.

A Powerful Investment: Clean Energy Financing in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont

As the nation continues its transition to clean energy, innovative financing programs are one way states are attracting significant private investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy, while boosting their economies, saving consumers money, and reducing emissions.

New analyses from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shows how Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont  could use modest levels of public funds to greatly increase private-sector investment in clean energy, by offering a more comprehensive approach to financing local clean energy projects.

Together, these three states could leverage $35 million of public funds into a $748 million investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects over the next 15 years.

The analysis shows how these states could expand existing clean energy financing programs to make additional low-interest loans and other financial products available to homeowners, businesses, farmers, schools, and municipalities who want to make energy efficiency improvements, install solar panels and wind turbines, or invest in other types of clean energy projects.

A successful track record

The basic approach of clean energy financing programs is to leverage a pool of public-sector funds to garner a larger pool of private-sector investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. They do this by bringing together a suite of financial products that support the development of clean energy projects. Just as important, these programs raise awareness of clean energy technologies and their benefits and remove barriers to private investments in these resources.

Other Northeast states like Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island are demonstrating the success of these comprehensive clean energy financing programs. For example, Connecticut and New York have achieved an average leverage ratio across their programs of more than $5 of private funds to every $1 of public funds over recent years. Connecticut has generated nearly $1 billion in clean energy investments since 2012, with 90 percent of that coming from the private sector, while creating almost 8,300 jobs and reducing carbon emissions by 1.4 million tons.

The analysis builds on a series of UCS reports released last year in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia, as well as a report highlighting successful clean energy financing programs already operating in other states and Germany. According to the Coalition for Green Capital, 7 states and 6 countries are operating comprehensive clean energy financing initiatives (see map below).

Building on existing clean energy policies and programs

Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont already deploy a number of financing programs and incentives to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy. For example, Efficiency Maine, the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority (CDFA), and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) all offer a variety of financing and incentive programs to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy in homes, businesses, schools, farms, and municipalities. A more comprehensive approach to financing clean energy could expand, enhance, and supplement these laudable programs

clean-energy-financing-mapAll three states also have other proven policies to support clean energy investment including renewable electricity standards, energy efficiency resource standards, public benefits funds, net metering, building energy codes, utility rebates, and property-assessed clean energy financing (PACE).  They are also part of the 9-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a market based program established in 2009 to reduce power sector carbon dioxide emissions. Revenue collected from the sale of CO2 allowances under RGGI is also an important source of funding for clean energy programs in all three states.

In addition to complementing existing policies, financing programs have been effective at addressing key market barriers such as providing loans to cover high upfront costs, aggregating loans for smaller projects to make them more attractive to financial institutions, providing underwriting support to help traditional lenders improve their knowledge of new technologies and lower risks, and increasing customer access to low cost capital.

Driving clean energy investments and emission reductions

Based on the experiences of existing clean energy financing initiatives, UCS analyzed the potential impact of expanding clean energy financing in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  Using the initial $35 million in public funds to create revolving loan programs, with loan repayments regularly returned to the program to fund additional projects, the three states could leverage a $748 million investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects over the next 15 years.

By 2031, expanded clean energy investment across these three states could:

  • Support the deployment of 190 megawatts (MW) of new solar- and community wind-power projects, producing enough clean power to meet the annual electricity needs of more than 49,000 households
  • Save homes and businesses $89 million on their annual electricity bills by investing in efficiency
  • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 513,900 tons, equivalent to taking 97,500 cars off the road
Benefits of expanding clean energy financing in three New England states by 2031


A more coordinated and comprehensive approach is needed

A comprehensive clean energy financing strategy in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont could be an effective tool for expanding and enhancing existing programs and policies, while leveraging additional private-sector investment, increasing the sustainability of clean energy markets, and improving access to clean energy in low-income communities.

Adding a greater focus on financing—as well as better coordination of programs both within and across the states—could be a cost-effective strategy to help these states reach their long-term goals for clean energy, carbon reduction, and economic development.