UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

How A Coal Plant in Michigan Became an Insurance HQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: JC Kibbey/UCS

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

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

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

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

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

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

A just transition of the Crawford site

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

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

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

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

Challenges to redevelopment

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

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

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

Diesel threats/Unilever

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

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

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

Future energy jobs act

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

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

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

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

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

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

No al Carbon! Queremos Justicia Ambiental!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cynical Ploy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: justice.gov

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

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

The solar tariff case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: National Solar Jobs Census 2016

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

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

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

And the list goes on.

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

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

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

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior

What’s next

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the president’s call

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

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

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

Let’s go with option B.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are real resiliency and reliability improvements.

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

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

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

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

Here’s how we’ll be evaluating it.

How we got here

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Metrics for Assessing the Revised Clean Power Plan Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Will it increase pollution?

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

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

Clean energy momentum will continue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We still need robust federal policies

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

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

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

Administrator Pruitt: Do your job

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

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

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

 

Photo: justice.gov

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

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

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

Illinois Solar for All

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

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

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

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

The path to solar

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

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

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

Solar growth benefits communities

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

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

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

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

Community partnerships

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

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

Public Source

Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s Devastated Electricity System

Photo: endi.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to help?

endi.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s momentum.

Climbers and crawlers

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Does the Cost of Offshore Wind Keep Dropping?

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

Records were meant to be broken

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

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

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

Bigger, stronger, faster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seventeen million people, at its peak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What caused these widespread outages?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where do we go from here?

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

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

Florida Power & Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why grid modernization?

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

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

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

The technologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smart charging as an example of grid modernization

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

So, what exactly is smart charging?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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