UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

House of Representatives Boosts Massachusetts Clean Energy; What’s Next?

Photo: John Rogers

The Massachusetts House of Representatives is moving on clean energy, and that’s really important. Here’s what’s noteworthy about yesterday’s votes, and what should happen next.

The house speaks

Yesterday the house took up a pack of legislative bills that have the potential to move clean energy forward for Massachusetts and the region.

  1. Renewable energy – The house unanimously approved an increase to the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS), to boost it from its current requirement on utilities of 25% renewables by 2030 to 35% by 2030, and drive clean energy for Massachusetts households and businesses. An amendment from the one of the state’s most vocal offshore wind champions, Rep. Patricia Haddad, would have the state look at upping its offshore wind requirement, passed in 2016 and producing important results, from 1,600 megawatts by 2030 to 3,200 megawatts by 2035.
  2. Energy efficiency – The house also passed bills that would help the #1-in-the-nation Bay State up its energy efficiency game even further. One bill would deepen efficiency efforts in general, and another would update appliance efficiency standards to keep driving innovation and cutting pollution—and save Massachusetts consumers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
  3. Energy storage – Another bill passed by the house aims to “improve [electricity] grid resiliency through energy storage,” boosting the state’s investment in storage innovation, and requiring Massachusetts utilities to assess and improve their electricity transmission and distribution systems, including through consideration of “non wires alternatives” like energy storage.

These actions are important. In our bicameral system, nothing happens in the legislature unless both the house and senate agree on it, so the house boost is welcome.

This wouldn’t have happened without the house leadership, and we owe credit, too, to a sign-on letter led by long-time house climate champion Rep. Frank Smizik, which garnered support from more than half of the representatives.

And we’re not done.

More clean energy, closer now (Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS)

What’s next: Solar, senate, soon

In terms of next steps, the nearest term to-do on clean energy for the house is to pass something on solar, as called for in the Smizik letter. And not just anything, but a bill that removes the barriers that are standing in the way of solar development in various parts of the state, clarifies the legislative intent on fixed charges that the state’s utilities seem to have misunderstood, and boosts solar opportunities for low-income households.

Then we need the house and senate, which passed its own clean energy package last month, to hammer things out between the different bills.

The final package should include a strong RPS increase; removal of barriers to solar for low-income customers, customers as a whole, and our solar industry; energy efficiency’s next act; a push for energy storage; and, given carbon pollution, a boost for transportation electrification.

This all can happen before the legislative session ends on July 31, and it needs to. To get Massachusetts as quickly as possible to its clean energy future, for our clean energy economy and clean energy jobs, for cutting pollution and addressing climate change, we need leadership from our representatives and their counterparts in the senate. Yesterday was an important next step.

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

An Open Letter to the Massachusetts House Leadership: Time for Climate and Energy Action

Credit: Tony Hisgett

Honorable Robert DeLeo, Speaker of the House; Honorable Ronald Mariano, Majority Leader; Honorable Patricia Haddad, Speaker pro Tempore; Massachusetts State House, Boston, Massachusetts

Dear Speaker DeLeo, Leader Mariano, and Speaker pro Tempore Haddad,

I know this is a busy time for you, but I was hoping for a few minutes of your attention.

I’m directing this note to the three of you because you’re particularly well positioned, as the #1, #2, and #3 in the House of Representatives, to make a difference on some really big opportunities (and needs) having to do with climate and clean energy. I’m also reaching out because, as a new analysis on tidal flooding projections from my colleagues here at the Union of Concerned Scientists shows, your hometowns stand to lose more than most from a stay-the-course mentality on addressing carbon pollution. The connection between your leadership and limiting climate impacts should be plenty clear.

Seawalls do the trick against king tides, but only up to a point (Credit: MyCoast.org)

What floods may come

First, on the new analysis: The study, Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate, combines data on accelerating sea level rise (due mostly to climate change) with data on property values. It looks at high tide flooding, and specifically at properties at risk of “chronic inundation,” meaning having flooding high tides at least 26 times a year. And it figures out the overall financial value of our homes and businesses at risk in coastal communities.

The Underwater results for Massachusetts are “quite sobering.” As soon as 2045—just around the temporal corner—that chronic inundation from high tides threatens some 7,000 homes, worth a total of more than $4 billion today. For the Bay State communities themselves, that’s some $37 million today in annual property tax revenues from those homes at risk. Commercial properties add another $1 billion to the total at risk.

While you each have statewide responsibilities given your leadership positions, you don’t even have to look beyond your own towns to see some “sobering” numbers of your own:

  • In Winthrop, Mr. Speaker, just by 2045, at-risk houses have values currently totaling $160 million, with associated at-risk property tax revenues of more than $2.3 million per year. Add in Revere, and the totals are $535 million in value and $7.7 million in revenues, all at risk—higher, even, than Boston’s.
  • In Quincy alone, Leader Mariano, 2045 could see threats to homes valued at $327 million, and threats to tax revenues of $4.6 million annually.
  • For you, Madam Speaker pro Tempore, the value of Swansea, Dighton, Somerset, and Taunton homes at risk by 2045 adds up to $7.6 million.
  • Revere and Quincy have the dubious distinction of capturing two of the top three slots for number of homes at risk in Massachusetts, at 1,105 and 659, respectively (and Winthrop comes in at #6, with 440).

The longer-term picture, for coastal communities in the country as a whole and for Massachusetts specifically, are much more startling, particularly under scenarios with more climate change (based on higher emissions of heat-trapping gases like CO2).

Those regular floods are more than a nuisance, and homeowners, businesses, and communities will have to react. As my colleague Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a coauthor of the new UCS analysis, has said, different communities will be affected differently:

Some may see sharp adjustments to their housing market in the not-too-distant future; some could see a slow, steady decline in home values; and others could potentially invest in protective measures to keep impacts at bay for a few more decades.

All of those options hit the wallets of the homeowners and business people, hurt the finances of the affected communities, and affect people who depend on those areas for their livelihoods. Not reacting isn’t an option.

Keep Winthrop strong (credit: Flickr.com/acme401)

Leadership past and future

That, then, forces us to consider what we’re doing to change that longer-term picture. And that in turn brings us around to your positions as leaders of a key chamber of the legislature.

Last session, under your leadership, and with the senate, Massachusetts passed some pretty impressive stuff in the clean energy space. Your passion for offshore wind in particular, Rep. Haddad, gave us a nation-leading offshore wind target that the state is moving quickly to implement. And there was that strong requirement for long-term contracts for power from hydro or wind facilities, and more.

But you know that some stuff got left on the table, or in need of fixing. You set in motion a strong push for renewable energy, but the final version of the 2016 energy diversity bill failed to include the pull of the renewable portfolio standard that should have been paired with it. Rep. Haddad’s “Act to increase renewable energy” (H4575) looks to correct that.

Our state’s strong solar industry got a brief boost in 2016 legislation, but the thousands of hard-working Massachusetts solar workers and companies—and Massachusetts customers—quickly overran the new target that legislation had put in place. Plus the “fix” made it even harder for low-income households to get hold of solar’s direct benefits, by cutting the value of community solar. H4577 would help to address part of that, particularly if it includes amendments borrowed from other bills to fix access issues.

And other pieces make even more sense now, as technologies and markets have evolved (think energy storage and electric vehicles, for example).

That brings us to the present day. The Massachusetts climate/energy to-do list won’t be a surprise, since you and your colleagues have been hearing about it, including via thousands of messages from UCS supporters. It includes:

  • Strengthening the RPS, to levels that other states have figured out constitutes the necessary leadership (think 50% by 2030).
  • Getting solar growing again, with special attention to lower-income would-be customers.
  • Investing in energy storage, to strengthen our electricity grid and position us to deal with the peak demand times—and to keep the dirtiest power plants firmly in the OFF position.
  • Pushing energy efficiency to the next level, so that Massachusetts homes and businesses can do more with less.
  • Keeping electric vehicles moving and accelerating, so that we’re tackling transportation emissions—now our #1 source of carbon pollution—head on.

There’s more to it than that, but these are the pieces that are in front of you right now, or in front of the House Ways and Means Committee. And, as you well know, given the need to work things out with your counterparts in the senate, this is the week for action.

Connecting the dots

It’s not hard to connect the dots between the recent UCS analysis and your actions over the next few days. Indeed, it’s hard not to connect the dots.

Under your leadership, we can choose a path that ramps up Massachusetts’s contribution to addressing the climate change that is affecting your communities, your neighbors, your constituents; a path that drives job creation and innovation; a path that addresses the pollution that hits vulnerable communities the hardest.

Or we can opt instead to wait and see what we’ve got. Let Massachusetts’s solar industry limp along and hope that other jobs await those who lose theirs. Accept power plant pollution and its inequitable distribution because that’s the way it has always been. Roll with the tide—literally—when it hits again, and again.

But let’s face it: that second one really isn’t a credible option. The challenges—and opportunities—mean that these are times that call for innovation, equity, and ambition.

And you have the motivation, and the power, to make it happen. So that when high-tide flooding hits even on sunny days, or other impacts become more and more apparent, and your constituents are looking for answers, you’ll have those answers. Not just about adapting to those challenges, but about hitting them head on, putting all the pieces in place to make sure that we, right here in Massachusetts—and in Winthrop, Quincy, and Somerset—are doing our part, and then some, to contribute to global efforts to limit climate change.

The bills on clean energy, energy storage, and clean transportation before Ways and Means and before the full house need your support to get over the finish line, in the strongest forms possible.

So thank you for your leadership. We’re counting on it, including over the next few days.

Black Lung Resurgence: Without Action, Taxpayers Will Foot the Medical Bills

Photo: Peabody Energy/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written previously about my family’s experience with black lung and how the disease is making a frightening resurgence. A bit like a miner’s headlamp in the darkness, two recent federal reports and several federal scientific studies shine a light on the disease and its implications—and policymakers should take notice.

Critical benefits to miners and their families

Congress set up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund in 1978 to provide benefits to coal miners that have become permanently disabled or terminally ill due to coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung, as well as their surviving dependents. The Trust Fund still protects miners and their families when no liable company could be identified or held responsible. This might happen if a miner had multiple employers, or if the responsible company went out of business. The U.S. Department of Labor, which manages the Trust Fund, estimates that in FY 2017, 64 percent of beneficiaries were paid from the Trust Fund, totaling $184 million in benefits. The Trust Fund provides critical benefits to miners and their families in cases where mining companies can’t or won’t pay.

The Trust Fund is financed primarily through a per-ton excise tax on coal produced and sold domestically. The original legislation set the tax at 50 cents per ton of underground-mined coal, and 25 cents per ton of surface-mined coal (but limited to 2 percent of the sales price). Unfortunately, Trust Fund expenditures have consistently exceeded revenues, despite several actions by Congress to put the Trust Fund on solid financial footing. In other words, to meet obligations in any given year, administrators are forced to borrow from the U.S. Treasury. Moreover, in 2008 Congress set the levels of the excise tax at $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and $0.55 per ton of surface mined coal (up to a limit of 4.4 percent of the sales price)—but at the end of this year, the tax levels will revert to their original 1978 values. For these reasons, Congress requested a review of the Trust Fund’s finances and future solvency from the General Accounting Office (GAO), an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress to assess federal spending of taxpayer money.

GAO offers a wake-up call

The GAO concluded its report and released its findings last month—and the results should serve as a wake-up call to Congress. The chart below shows the impact on the Trust Fund of having to borrow year after year to make up for the shortfall in excise tax revenue relative to benefits payments, that is, the accumulation of outstanding debt.

This front-page chart of the GAO report shows that if the excise tax decreases to 1978 levels (according to current law) at the end of 2018, the Trust Fund’s debt will exceed $15 billion by mid-century.

GAO looked at the impact of a few different policy choices, including adjustments to the excise tax rate and debt forgiveness, both of which Congress has used in previous changes to the Trust Fund. In 2008, for example, about $6.5 billion in debt was forgiven (hence the large decrease in debt in the chart above). Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the Trust Fund’s solvency problem, because subsequent coal excise tax revenue was less than expected, thanks to the 2008 recession followed by declining coal production resulting primarily from increased competition with natural gas.

GAO calculated how much money would need to be appropriated by Congress to balance the Trust Fund by 2050 under various assumptions for the excise tax. The chart below summarizes the results succinctly: Increasing the current excise tax by 25 percent would require no debt forgiveness, but allowing the current tax to expire would require $7.8 billion of taxpayer money to balance the Trust Fund by 2050.

Figure 10 from the GAO report (p.30), showing the scale of the problem of outstanding debt in the Trust Fund. Analysts calculated the level of debt forgiveness needed to balance the Trust Fund by 2050, assuming that Congress makes a single lump sum payment in 2019 to pay down the debt. In other words, the bottom bar means that, if Congress allows the current tax rate to expire but also forgives $7.8 billion in existing debt in 2019, then by 2050 the Trust Fund would be balanced (meaning that the remaining debt would have been repaid and annual payments would equal annual revenues).

Assumptions matter

As with any projection of what might happen in the future, the results depend on the assumptions made by the analyst. GAO conducted a credible and sound analysis—based on reasonable, defensible, middle-of-the-road assumptions—to assess the solvency of the Trust Fund. Key drivers are projected revenues expected from future coal production and projected expenditures for future beneficiaries.

Of course, neither of these things is known with much certainty. Worse, there are compelling reasons to believe that the scale of the Trust Fund’s insolvency could be much worse:

  • For one thing, coal production could be lower than what GAO assumed, meaning less revenue from the excise tax. GAO used the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s reference case, which shows coal production essentially flat through 2050. But note that this is likely a conservative assumption: if natural gas prices remain low, or if more renewable sources of energy come online as expected thanks to continuing cost declines, coal production could continue its recent ten-year decline for the foreseeable future. And despite current federal politics, there is momentum for deep decarbonization to address the climate crisis.
  • Even more alarming, the emerging crisis of new black lung cases in Appalachia is not included in the analysis. GAO assumed that the growth rate in new black lung cases is -5.8 percent, based on historical data on the number new beneficiaries of the Trust Fund. That means that the number of beneficiaries will continue to grow, but at a slower pace than in the recent past. With the very recent surge in black lung cases combined with the fact that the disease can’t be detected in the lungs until after about a decade of exposure, this assumption is not likely to hold true.
NIOSH and NAS weigh in on science and solutions

Black lung is completely preventable, and as a result of federal standards limiting miners’ exposure to coal dust, by the late 1990s, the disease had become rare. However, as NPR has reported (here, here, here, here, and here), in just the last few years, Central Appalachia has seen a surge in new cases of complicated black lung, an advanced form of the disease. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigators found 60 new cases of the disease at a single radiology clinic in Kentucky in just 18 months alone. By comparison, NIOSH’s monitoring program detected only 31 cases nationally from 1990 to 1999. NIOSH researchers also identified 416 new cases in Central Appalachia from 2013 to 2017. NPR’s ongoing investigation puts the number of new cases in Appalachia since 2010 at around 2,000, roughly 20 times official government statistics.

What’s responsible for the spike in reported cases of black lung? For one thing, the national monitoring program historically has a low participation rate, and while the resurgence of the disease shows up in the national monitoring data, the cluster identified in Kentucky was discovered separately. And because it takes years for the disease to manifest in a miner’s lungs, it’s difficult to connect the disease to specific exposure or mining practices. NIOSH researchers suggest that changes in mining practices may be exposing miners to greater amounts of silica dust from cutting through rock formations to access thin or deep coal seams.

On the heels of the GAO report and the NIOSH investigations, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) released an independent report looking at coal industry approaches to monitoring and sampling the coal dust levels that miners are exposed to. The NAS report concludes that compliance with federal regulations limiting the exposure of miners to coal dust has reduced lung diseases over the last 30 years, but that compliance has failed to achieve “the ultimate goal of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969”—eradicating coal dust exposure diseases such as black lung. The NAS goes on to say, “To continue progress toward reaching this goal, a fundamental shift is needed in the way that coal mine operators approach [coal dust] control, and thus sampling and monitoring.” The report recommends a systematic investigation of how changes in mining operations may have increased exposure to silica dust, the development of better monitoring devices, especially for silica, and increasing participation rates in the NIOSH monitoring program.

Congress must act—and fast

The good news is that there is the start of a solution to the funding of black lung benefits already in sight: the RECLAIM Act. If enacted, RECLAIM would free up $1 billion in existing money from the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) fund to put people to work cleaning up degraded mine lands and spurring local economic development in communities that need it most. How is this separate fund and separate problem connected to black lung benefits?

In short, Congressional budgetary rules require that any time taxpayer money is spent, it must be offset by budget cuts or additional revenue elsewhere. RECLAIM’s champ, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), identified the extension of the coal excise tax at current levels for an additional ten years to “offset” the $1 billion in spending from the AML fund. It doesn’t matter that these two initiatives are—and will remain—separate programs with their own funding streams.

But the two issues are intertwined—the surge in new cases of black lung is happening in the same region where communities are struggling to deal with the legacy of past mining operations and simultaneously trying to chart a new economic future. Addressing all these issues simultaneously is the sort of win-win-win policy solution that doesn’t come around too often.

The astute reader will notice, however, that the extension of the coal excise tax for ten years is insufficient to address the Trust Fund’s long-term solvency problem, as the charts above demonstrate. Passing the RECLAIM Act, therefore, is merely the first step to addressing the problem; but legislators must consider actually increasing the coal excise tax. This would ensure that the responsible parties—that is, coal companies—are forced to pay for the damages inflicted on real people, real families—instead of leaving taxpayers holding the bag. And with black lung set to reach epidemic levels in the coming years, Congress must act now to strengthen the fiscal health of the Trust Fund—to protect the health and well-being of miners and their families in the face of an uncertain future.

 

Photo: Peabody Energy GAO GAO

Ever Heard of Microgrids? They’re Awesome—Here’s Why

For most of us, when the power fails, the lights stay out until the grid gets fixed. Regardless of personal cost, or degree of inconvenience, or magnitude of disaster looming close behind, only the utility can re-flip that switch.

Power out, and powerless.

That is astounding.

In so many areas of our lives, we trust systems, but also make backup plans. Banks plus sock drawers, grocery stores plus canned goods, water taps plus gallons in the back; we belt-and-suspender proudly, mitigating risks on the daily.

Yet not so for electricity. When it comes to the grid, the vast majority of us solely rely upon a massive centralized system, which means we benefit from economies of scale when it works, and stagger under catastrophes of fail when it doesn’t.

Shouldn’t there be a backup plan?

Well for a growing number of people, there is.

As my colleagues and I detail in a new interactive map, more and more communities are turning to microgrids to buttress their electricity needs, enabling them to keep the power on even if the grid shuts off.

Here, a pathway to resilience: power to the people, by the people, starting from the ground up.

Why microgrids?

The devastating consequences of severe power outages have been achingly front of mind as of late. An upright world, suddenly toppled over into upheaval everywhere.

Utilities are working on ways to help the grid better handle severe storms. Credit: dakine kane/Creative Commons (Flickr)

Given our increasingly electrified day-to-day, power outages are threatening to result in costs that we just can’t afford to pay.

As a result, there’s been heightened attention on how to do better—how to keep the power on, instead of shutting off.

But that discussion has been focused nearly exclusively on the grid. On the power plants feeding it, and the types of fuel that’s feeding them. On the wires strung high above, and the pipelines buried deep below. On the trees and wind and fires and flood that knock and knock and knock.

Which is all critically important work, and something we invest a lot of time in ourselves. But the truth is, no matter how good we make the grid, the power will still go out. Less frequently, and for far shorter amounts of time, but still it will blink off. Why? Because the world’s largest machine isn’t too big to fail—it’s simply too big not to.

Thus, a conundrum: We know we can’t afford to fail, and we know that still we will. Something’s got to give.

Enter microgrids.

Microgrids are…

A power system in miniature.

They can be teeny tiny micro small, held in the space of just one hand, or they can really stretch that micro moniker far, linking whole campuses and communities as one.

Microgrids come in two main forms:

  • Islanded microgrids are fully untethered from the grid. For these systems, every day is Microgrid Day, supporting everything from pumps in pastures to highway road signs, emergency response units to whole towns unto themselves.
  • Islandable microgrids, on the other hand, are systems connected to the broader grid that can also run alone. These microgrids hum along in harmony—until the lights go out. Then, a spot of light in a sea of dark as the system shuts the failure out and solely self-supplies.

And about that supply. Here’s where the real promise begins. Because although any type of resource works, the diesel generators many have long turned to leave a lot to be desired. In addition to spewing out health-harming pollutants, they also require reliable access to fuel in the midst of surrounding disaster. What’s more, because they’re so infrequently used, they’re often prone to failure in the exact moment they’re needed most.

Students check out solar panels as part of Florida’s SunSmart E-Shelter Program. Credit: Florida Solar Energy Center.

Solar-plus-storage, on the other hand, shines brilliantly bright as the face of many future systems, cleanly and reliably and affordably bringing power to the people. And, not just when the power goes out. Indeed, these systems can actually save communities money in the many, many hours when they’re not in island mode by generating electricity and lowering bills all throughout the year.

Sure do sound like some sharp-looking suspenders to me.

But jump to take a look, and be the judge yourself!

Micro grids, mammoth potential

We recently put together the map above, highlighting microgrid stories from all across the country. We want to illustrate just a few of the ways in which microgrids have—and increasingly will—serve to bring power back to the people.

You should zoom around and explore for yourself, but here, a few quick highlights from the route: a pioneering island in Alaska; a policy in Massachusetts that looks forward, not back; a grocery chain in Texas that elicits tears of joy; and a new form of disaster response that’s powered by the sun.

And our map just scratches the surface.

Microgrids are supporting military installations and first responders, schools and hospitals, emergency shelters and wastewater treatment plants.

They keep gasoline stations pumping along evacuation routes, and experiments running in labs.

They serve individuals, they serve critical facilities, they serve communities.

And, what’s more, they have the potential to be serving many, many more. As the costs of renewables and energy storage keep plummeting, the ever more accessible these benefits-generating, resilience-boosting, risk-mitigating win-win-win solutions will be.

Our nation’s electricity grid is an incredible resource, and one we all benefit from keeping in the very best of shape.

But we don’t have to put all our eggs in one basket. There are some services, some people, some needs that simply cannot allow for electricity access to be left to chance. Especially because we don’t have to.

Microgrids are here and ready to help. Let’s make sure that when the lights go out, every community has the chance to flip that switch themselves.

dakine kane/Creative Commons (Flickr) http://www.fsec.ucf.edu/en/education/sunsmart/index.html

Judge Should Not Have Deferred to Congress, Executive Branch in Fossil-Fuel Climate Case

U.S. Army photo by Michael J. Nevins

On Monday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by San Francisco and Oakland against the five biggest privately owned oil companies for climate change-related damages. Why? He believes the problem is too big to be decided by the federal courts and that Congress and the administration should take care of it.

Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, and the courts are at least partly to blame.

In his ruling, US District Judge William Alsup agreed with the plaintiffs that there is a “vast [scientific] consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has … materially increased carbon dioxide levels,” which has driven up average global temperatures and raised sea levels. Likewise, he noted that the oil companies “have allegedly long known the threat fossil fuels pose to the global climate,” but nonetheless funded public relations campaigns that “downplayed the risks” and disparaged climate scientists.

At the same time, however, Alsup insisted that environmental harms attributed to burning fossil fuels have to be balanced with the fact that “the industrial revolution and the development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal.”

“Having reaped the benefit of that historic progress,” he wrote, “would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?”

The answer to the second part of the question is emphatically yes (and it doesn’t require ignoring our own responsibility).

The oil companies knew

Alsup is of course correct that industrialization would not have happened without fossil fuels. But he neglects to take into account the pernicious role the defendants—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell—have played to block government action to curb carbon emissions over the last three decades. If the United States and other industrialized nations had begun the necessary transition to low- and no-carbon energy back then, the likely consequences of climate change would be significantly less dire.

Rising sea levels alone will wreak havoc along the California coast. San Francisco, Oakland and six other California jurisdictions that have filed similar climate lawsuits can expect accelerating sea level rise to threaten some 8,800 homes by 2045, representing $76 million annually in today’s local property taxes, according to a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. By the end of the century, some 52,000 homes that currently contribute $435 million in annual property taxes will be at risk.

As Alsup pointed out in his ruling, the alarm bells about climate change began ringing in the late 1980s. Thirty years ago—on June 23, 1988, to be precise—NASA scientist James Hansen generated front page news when he warned Congress about higher temperatures and rising seas. That same year, the United Nations convened the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

A year later, 50 US corporations and trade groups founded the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to discredit climate science. Its charter members included none other than British Petroleum (now BP), Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Shell.

Until it disbanded in 2002, the GCC conducted a multimillion-dollar lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine national and international efforts to address global warming. One of its fact sheets for legislators and journalists encapsulated its main talking points, disingenuously claiming that “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood” and that “scientists differ” on the issue.

Thanks to a leaked internal GCC memo from 1995, we now know that the coalition’s own scientific and technical experts were telling its members that greenhouse gases were indeed causing global warming. “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established,” the document stated, “and cannot be denied.”

Exxon scientists, meanwhile, were aware of the threat posed by fossil fuels as early as 1977, according to a 2015 investigation by InsideClimate News. Nevertheless, the company purposely chose to emphasize “uncertainty” and, since it merged with Mobil in 1999, it has spent tens of millions of dollars on a climate disinformation campaign that continues to this day.

Courts need to take responsibility

Alsup concluded that the courts are not the proper venue to address climate damages. Given the US Supreme Court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, Alsup contends the issue is best left to Congress and the administration to handle.

Alsup’s conclusion presents us with a Catch-22. Kicking any decision about curbing global warming emissions to the political branches of government ignores the fact that both Congress and the current administration are tightly tied to the coal, oil and gas industries. And that hand-in-glove relationship is largely due to questionable Supreme Court decisions.

The genesis of our predicament can be traced back to the early 1800s. Since then, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings that have granted corporations the same rights as people. More recently, in 1976, it ruled that limits on campaign contributions violate the First Amendment, essentially equating money with free speech. And in the 2010 Citizens United case, the court ruled that the government cannot limit a corporation’s independent political donations.

These decisions have enabled the fossil fuel industry to exert undue influence over federal energy policy. Not only have coal, oil and gas companies collectively spent tens—if not hundreds—of millions of dollars over the past few decades to manufacture doubt about the reality and seriousness of climate change, they have spent considerably more on campaign contributions and lobbying to stymie efforts on Capitol Hill to combat climate change.

In the 2015-16 election cycle alone, for example, the five defendants in the San Francisco-Oakland climate case together spent $9.8 million on federal candidates and another $58.3 million to lobby Congress and the administration, according to government data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Our three-branch system of government ostensibly rests on the concept of checks and balances. When Congress and the executive branch are hopelessly corrupted by petrodollars, it is incumbent upon the judiciary to compensate for this imbalance, which utterly fails to serve the public interest.

Fortunately, Judge Alsup’s ruling is not the last word. Similar climate-damage lawsuits have been filed by cities and counties in California, Colorado, New York and Washington state.

A recent press statement by Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmell puts these lawsuits into perspective.

“In almost all large-impact litigation, the courtroom doors are usually shut in the beginning, but if plaintiffs are persistent and keep knocking, the doors will open up,” said Kimmell, an attorney and former head of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “This was true in the fights against Jim Crow and Big Tobacco, and we expect that the same tenacity will be necessary to overcome the entrenched political and economic influence of this deep-pocketed industry.”

Midwest Transmission Operator Planning for a High-Renewables Future

Driven by clean energy policies, customer demand, and simple economics, renewable energy technologies are becoming the dominant part of our energy future. Studies consistently show that wind and solar technologies could produce far more electricity than we currently demand, but questions loom about the transmission system’s ability to enable this transition to clean energy and maximize its potential benefits.

A new study undertaken by the regional transmission operator serving much of the central United States is seeking answers to some of these questions. But navigating the complexity and uncertainty inherent in planning our electricity future is a daunting task.

The Mid-Continent Independent System Operator (MISO) is a federally authorized regional transmission organization charged with maintaining reliability and operating wholesale energy markets across much of central North America. MISO has initiated a study and stakeholder process—named the Renewables Integration Impact Assessment (RIIA)—to evaluate how the current transmission system responds to increasing levels of renewable energy. MISO’s approach searches for those “inflection points” at which operating the system reliably becomes significantly more complex. If these inflection points can be identified, they can help inform MISO of both when and what investments or operational changes may be necessary to maintain reliability while enabling increasing levels of renewable energy.

A unique approach to answering a common question

MISO’s RIIA study takes a different approach to exploring our clean energy future. It does not explore several issues we typically see from renewable energy studies, such as what the “optimal” mix of resources is, what the costs and benefits are of the clean energy transition, or what kind of new policies or regulations should be enacted to achieve high levels of renewable energy faster or more equitably. Many renewable energy studies also look 20 or more years into the future premised on assumptions about policies that may be enacted or how the cost and performance of various technologies may change over time. Given the uncertainty inherent in predicting the future, MISO’s study design excludes many of these typical approaches.

MISO’s RIIA study is specifically designed to minimize the uncertainty (and stakeholder disagreements) over what the future holds. The study makes no assumptions about future policy or regulatory changes. Nor will it evaluate the costs or benefits of this transition. MISO can’t eliminate all the uncertainty from this study (more on that below), but this approach helps maintain focus on identifying when investments in the transmission system (or changes to how we operate that system) may be necessary as renewable energy grows.

The figure below provides a synopsis of MISO’s proposed methodology.

MISO’s methodology layers increasing levels of renewable energy onto the current transmission system to find “inflection points” where maintaining reliability becomes increasingly complex. At those points, MISO will explore solutions that allow increasing levels of renewable energy. Source: MISO

As the figure above shows, MISO will be seeking out “inflection points” when the complexity of maintaining reliability across the system increases due to the level of renewable energy connected to the grid.

An example of an inflection point is when the system experiences significant congestion that makes it difficult to get energy from where it is sourced (for example, the wind-rich areas of Iowa or the solar-rich areas of Louisiana), to where it is needed. Another may be when there is enough solar on the system to require increased flexibility during evening hours as solar systems go offline and other resources need to ramp up. These are worthwhile questions to be asking (and seeking solutions to) now rather than waiting for issues to arise.

Seeking insight in a time of rapid change

MISO’s RIIA study responds to growing recognition that the current pace of renewable energy development will drive rapid and unprecedented change across the electric system. The figure below shows how wind and solar resources have come to dominate MISO’s interconnection queue—the backlog of electricity generation projects waiting to be approved to connect to the grid.

Across the MISO system more than 86 percent of new resources looking to connect – nearly 80,000 megawatts of new capacity (bottom right) – are wind and solar resources. Understanding how this will affect the flow of energy across the system and how to maintain reliability under these dynamics, are the central questions being explored in MISO’s Renewable Integration Impacts Assessment study. Source: MISO

Not all projects in MISO’s interconnection queue will get built, but it serves as a strong indicator of looming changes to the system that MISO must prepare for. The RIIA study will inform how MISO maintains reliability in the face of this rapidly changing portfolio of energy resources.

Can the RIIA study overcome uncertainty to be useful to near-term planning?

MISO has already made some decisions—such as not trying to project the future cost of resources or future policy and regulatory conditions—to help minimize the RIIA study’s uncertainty and focus on impacts to the current system. This will help clarify the results and identify near-term next steps. However, some critical educated guesswork about the future is still needed and MISO must be responsive to real-world changes that occur during the study process.

For example, when MISO began this process just over a year ago, the mix of wind and solar resources being developed was significantly different than where we are today, as solar continues to improve in both availability and cost-effectiveness across MISO’s system.

The mix of resources being developed across the MISO system is changing rapidly. Just four years ago, solar was relatively non-existent. Today it makes up more than half of all resources moving into the interconnection process. Being responsive to ongoing changes is critical to the RIIA study’s usefulness. Source: MISO

The figure above shows how the mix of resources being developed across the MISO system is changing, and highlights the need to be responsive to these changes. While more than half of all new resources entering the queue in 2018 are solar resources, MISO’s current assumption about the ratio of wind to solar in its RIIA study is 75 percent wind and 25 percent solar, based on data from just one year ago. This latest data raises the question of whether MISO should update its assumptions regarding the ratio of wind and solar in the renewable energy portfolios that its examining.

Another big uncertainty is where these renewable resources will ultimately be developed. While this can also be informed by the project in the queue, keeping an eye out for significant shifts in expectations—and adjusting the study process accordingly—will be important.

Departures between study assumptions and the reality we’re experiencing today threaten to undermine the relevance of the RIIA study. Conversely, continuously reacting to the myriad changes that can occur across the system threatens the ability to complete the study in a timely manner, if at all. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. Being diligent and collaborating closely with stakeholders (including renewable energy developers) is crucial for ensuring robust analytics and a clear understanding of what the results can tell us.

In all, MISO’s efforts to plan for expected system changes in collaboration with stakeholders is a good thing. Our clean energy future depends on the ability to accommodate increasing levels of renewable energy without threatening reliability or incurring excessive cost. The RIIA study is a step in that direction—one that will help all of us keep pace with the energy evolution going on around us.

Getting More Wind and Solar is 100% Possible, But Not 100% Straightforward. Here’s Why

With wind and solar prices beating the cost of fossil-fuel generation in many places, we have a great opportunity to replace and modernize our energy supply with more renewables—and we can do so reliably. The Union of Concerned Scientists congratulates grid operators who have demonstrated that replacing old generation with wind and solar does not cause reliability problems. In the United States and in Europe, grids have run without coal, and with wind at 60% of the total mix. The director of reliability assessment of the North American Electricity Reliability Corporation has stated that with planning, any level of renewables on the grid could work.

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

Renewables and storage substitute for conventional generation

To really nail the energy transition, and increase the buildout of wind and solar, renewables and storage will have to substitute for conventional generation in increasingly technical ways.

In fact, several grid practices are vitally important for growth of large-scale renewables. They include:

  • expanded transmission,
  • increased operational flexibility (for example: incorporating renewable forecasts with existing schedules), and
  • increased coordination with neighboring utility areas through centralized dispatch or consolidation.

Operators making steady progress with these practices have hit renewable energy production records.

Value beyond wind and solar contributions today

The number one product from wind and solar today is Energy. The wind blows, cheap energy flows. The sun shines, cheap energy results.

The grids that host lots of renewables demonstrate that variability is not a show stopper. The economics of power contracts, renewable energy credits, and production tax credits all reward maximized energy production.

The challenges can be seen when demand is not so high, and the renewables are more abundant. The grid still requires a physical balance of supply and demand. In those times grid prices are low or negative based on marginal cost of the next unit. Very low prices can signal curtailment risk and discourage buyers and sellers from adding more renewables.

UCS took up analysis of several scenarios with over 50% annual energy from renewables to find how to reduce predicted curtailment. Our examination identified practices that can lower the curtailment of wind and solar as renewable energy becomes a larger part of the energy mix.

Market prices for wind and solar beating fossil fuel prices demonstrates technology advances.

Adding more wind and solar, or adding more gas?

When studies and decisions consider new energy supplies, they start with the present power system. Discussing the value and impact of a new plant investment, assuming nothing else changes, is a necessary early step.

But what happens next is very important. Any new supply, (gas, wind, solar, coal, or nuclear), has integration and transmission needs which are managed with a range of strategies. Understanding when a new plant will operate, how much transmission is needed, whether there will be exports to neighboring utility areas—those are all are central considerations to finding the value of the new plant.

Some solutions, like building new transmission to deliver from supply-rich areas to population centers with demand, require time and money. Limiting over-supply by dispatch and turning down more expensive supplies is expected and normal but can reach the point where too much of a good thing becomes its own challenge. A lot of new wind in an area with plenty of hydro and existing wind, for example, needs transmission and export options if there aren’t any fossil-fuel units to turn down.

What is role of fossil fuel in oversupply and curtailments?

Whenever demand is not at its highest, some generation is idle. When grid operators believe that flexibility and ancillary services are available only from fossil units, they keep fossil generation running, even if that crowds out renewable generation.

To get this flexible reserve from a gas generator, the unit is turned on and run at least at its minimum level. For combustion turbines, that minimum production level is generally 35% of generator capability and 70% for a combined cycle plant. Because that flexibility is only available with the unit producing at or above those levels of energy, running combined cycle units at 70% will crowd out renewables, causing more curtailment. This has been verified in Hawaii and California, as well as replicated in studies.

How does this affect the future growth of wind and solar?

Expectations of curtailment will discourage both the buyers and seller of future renewable generation. When existing contract structures focus on maximum energy production, the value proposition is to sell more commodity into increasingly well-supplied situations. In these cases, both supply and demand interests are bypassing the opportunity to operate renewable resources for ancillary services and reserves.

Where a utility has more insight and ability to adapt reserves practices, more techniques can be developed to make greater use of the renewables.

As more wind and solar are built, we will see high penetrations of renewables with relatively lower demand and resulting lower prices during more hours.  These are the times when the ability to obtain ancillary or essential services from renewable generation is most important and most beneficial to pushing gas offline. This also coincides with when the risk of curtailment is greatest.

What’s holding back the solutions we can implement?

It’s not an issue of technology. Storage and renewable energy technologies can provide essential services, ancillary services, or reserves. These capabilities in wind and solar have been demonstrated by technology providers,  illustrated by industry experts, and even narrated by the California ISO to its Board. The trajectory of advanced storage on the grid, providing reserves and services around the world, is narrated in these slides.

Where do we go from here?

The contracts and revenue structures used today are the obstacle. Bilateral agreements between buyers and sellers to a different contract would make the difference.

Examples from the industry offer alternatives. Contracts for conventional generation function without assuming all revenue is based on production. Contracts for energy storage are emerging for capacity and performance, with revenues separated from total hours of utilization. When confronting the challenge of expanding the role of wind and solar in the energy supply, the revenue model used by other technologies that provide services other than commodity energy will be useful.

For folks that want to take this gradually, perhaps start with a contract that splits the payments during the year. In the months with curtailment risk, capacity payments make sense. The rest of the year, use energy payments to maximize production.

As the grid supply changes, and wind and solar are a larger fraction of the supply, the buyers and sellers of renewable energy will want to maintain the highest values for the renewables installations. A key strategy for pushing the fossil energy out of the dispatch is to make the fossil generators redundant and necessary. When the fossil units are being used for ancillary services, and wind or solar is curtailed, let’s make the problem become the solution. Cut the fossil generation, use the curtailment of the renewables, and thereby increase the demand for more wind and solar.

California Takes Another Run at 100 Percent Clean Electricity

On June 13th, the Union of Concerned Scientists worked with the California 100% Clean Energy Coalition to bring more than 100 Californians to Sacramento to lobby in support of Senate Bill 100 (De León) and California’s transition away from fossil fuels. SB 100 would accelerate the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) to 60% by 2030 and require that the remaining 40% of the electricity mix come from RPS-eligible resources or zero-carbon resources by 2045.

Last year, SB 100 passed the California State Senate, but stalled in the Assembly. A day after lobby day, the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy scheduled SB 100 for a hearing on July 3rd!

Meeting 100% of California’s electricity needs with zero-carbon resources is a bold goal, but achieving it is within reach. 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.

California has led the nation in the transition from coal to clean energy resources and demonstrated that a cleaner economy need not come at the price of a growing economy. We have the technology to run a flexible and efficient grid with even more renewables, and the cost of investment and energy storage are coming down. With the costs of wind and solar power falling dramatically and a historic shift away from fossil fuels, it is critical that we double down on this clean energy momentum.

Climate change is the biggest threat to the health and economic stability of Californians. With more extreme weather events threatening the livelihoods of frontline communities, it is time to pass legislation that will prevent further damage to these communities. Cleaning up our electricity grid will also provide a blueprint for significant cuts in global warming emissions.

Hey California, Let’s Spare the Air and Turn Down the Gas

The Glenarm natural gas plant in Pasadena, California. Source: Wikimedia

On March 4, California set a new record by supplying nearly half of the state’s electricity needs from renewables. That’s just the latest payoff of the state’s admirable clean energy investments, thanks to plentiful solar power and strong policies like the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS).

But California still relies on fossil fuels, via natural gas power plants, to provide nearly 40 percent of annual electricity needs. In fact, in-state natural gas generation comprises about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions statewide. Reaching our long-term energy and climate goals means ramping up renewables and at the same time turning down our gas.

In many cases, gas plants will be turned off during the day, when renewable generation is most abundant. However, as the sun sets, solar generation decreases and natural gas plants must be turned on—or, if they’re already operating, they must ramp up generation to meet the evening demand spike.

The solution to this evening ramp problem is to:

  • Build cleaner alternatives than gas that can produce power in the evening,
  • Build more energy storage,
  • Use load shifting and increased energy efficiency to reduce evening electricity demand.

Many of the state’s natural gas power plants were constructed to provide baseload power, meaning they were designed to stay on all day, nearly every day. Most of California’s natural gas plants were not designed to be turned on and off daily, nor was their frequent cycling anticipated in their original air quality permits. A natural gas plant starting up can produce as much as 30 times more nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions than it will after it has been running for few hours.

Nitrogen oxides are the particles visible in smog. They irritate lung tissue, exacerbate asthma, and make people more susceptible to chronic respiratory diseases like pneumonia and influenza. Starting up gas plants more often could increase air pollution concentrations and should be considered in their air permits.

To make sure California’s clean energy transition also reduces criteria air pollution from natural gas plants, UCS is proudly co-sponsoring legislation—Senate Bill 64 by Senator Bob Wieckowski—with the California Environmental Justice Alliance and the Clean Power Campaign. The legislation aims to do three things:

  • Require generators to provide data on the hourly change in emissions, startups, shutdowns, and cycling. Many plants are required to report hourly emissions data to the US EPA, but the data is not in a user-friendly format and it’s difficult to ascertain how power plant operations are changing over time without some complex analysis. More accessible information about how power plants are actually operating, as opposed to how they were predicted to operate when they were first permitted, is an essential first step to better decisions about how dispatch of natural gas power plants are impacting local air quality.
  • Require local air districts to analyze, using this data, how power plants are currently operating and likely to operate in the future, to ensure air quality protections are included in applicable permits. SB 64 would also require air districts to limit generation from the dirtiest power plants on days with poor air quality as long as the needs of the grid can be met with other resources. Since the worst air quality days are often the hottest days with the highest electricity need, limits on power plant dispatch must not jeopardize grid reliability.
  • Require the state to plan for how it will reduce natural gas generation and accelerate the eventual retirement of gas plants, placing a priority on reducing natural gas generation in communities most impacted by air pollution.

Because natural gas–fired power plants supply a substantial portion of California’s current electricity demand and support grid reliability, natural gas generation will continue to play a role on California’s electricity grid for some time.

California is charting new territory for other states and countries in terms of level of renewables on the grid, and making a dramatic shift away from natural gas generation will not happen overnight. But, Californians are already starting to feel the impacts of climate change, and communities in California breathe some of the unhealthiest air in the country.

For these reasons, it’s critical that the state shift to cleaner sources for all of its energy needs including electricity. The state needs better tools to understand how changing natural gas plant operations may impact air quality, and an explicit mechanism in law for air districts to coordinate with grid operators to reduce the dispatch of natural gas power plants on the worst air quality days. SB 64 would ensure that California’s ramp-up in clean generation does not lead to the unintended consequence of frequently cycling natural gas power plants in a way that leads to increased air pollution.

Acceso equitativo a la energía solar en Massachusetts, en manos del Senado

Las instalaciones solares compartidas se han convertido en una alternativa para brindar acceso a la energía solar para todos permitiendo sacar ventaja de las economías de gran escala. (Fuente: Wikimedia)

ACTUALIZACIÓN: El Senado está votando una Ley sobre energía limpia hoy. Si vive en Massachusetts contacte su Senador/a y haga oir su voz. Puede enviarle un email (en inglés acá) o aún mejor, llamarle (números telefónicos acá).

La energía solaren Massachusetts ha ayudado a que las familias que tienen acceso a ésta disminuyan sus facturas de electricidad, a que el aire que respiramos en el estado sea más saludable, a generar más de 11.000 empleos y a que quienes quieren contribuir con sus acciones en la lucha contra el cambio climático tengan un aliado en los páneles solares para generar electricidad.

Desafortunadamente, debido a que cerca del 40% de la población de Massachusetts vive en arriendo, esto hace que más de 2 millones de personas no puedan instalar páneles solares en los techos de sus viviendas al no ser propietarios del techo de las mismas. Este número es aún mayor si pensamos en quienes viven en edificios con múltiples propietarios o áreas con techos reducidos, con deficiente orientación o en condiciones no óptimas para la instalación de páneles solares.

Las instalaciones solares compartidas en Massachusetts

Una alternativa para que quienes no pueden instalar páneles solares en los techos de sus casas son las instalaciones solares compartidas (community shared solaren inglés). La instalación solar compartida consiste en un proyecto solar desarrollado por una organización o empresa que instala una mayor cantidad de páneles en un lugar apropiado. Los subscriptores invierten en el proyecto, compran su electricidad o reciben otros beneficios específicos como créditos para pagar menos en la factura eléctrica.

A pesar de la gran oportunidad de acceso que estas instalaciones representan, en el año 2016 la legislación solar de Massachusetts cambió impactando gravemente las instalaciones compartidas. En este momento, quienes tienen páneles solares instalados en los techos de sus casas pueden ser son compensados en totalidad por la electricidad que sus páneles producen y que no es usada en sus hogares. En cambio, a quienes cuentan con instalaciones solares compartidas se les reconoce tan solo el 60% del valor de la electricidad que los páneles producen.

Esto claramente impacta negativamente las finanzas de quienes quieren beneficiarse de la energía solar mas no cuentan con el techo apropiado para tener acceso a la misma. Es casi como si la legislación del 2016 penalizara el no ser propietario de un techo propio al cambiar las condiciones en que los residentes son compensados dependiendo del poder adquisitivo de los consumidores. Y por ende, este cambio impacta también desproporcionadamente a las personas de bajos recursos y pertenecientes a grupos minoritarios étnicos y raciales, quienes son los que usualmente viven en arriendo o en viviendas multifamiliares.

El brillo de la solar:en las manos del Senado

Las flores están brotando. Ahora es tiempo de que nuevas leyes también lo hagan. (Crédito: J. Rogers)

Afortunadamente, un número de propuestas lideradas por senadores como Sonia Chang-Diaz  y Jamie Eldridge, así como organizaciones como Boston Community Capital están siendo evaluadas para garantizar que el Senado ayude a corregir los problemas de equidad incluidos en la legislación del 2016. Por ejemplo, las propuestas incluyen que se requiera que al menos un porcentaje mínimo de los incentivos en materia solar sean destinados a hogares de bajos recursos y comunidades urbanas y de justicia ambiental. La idea es garantizar que los beneficios económicos y ambientales de estos incentivos se distribuyan de manera equitativa. También se propone que los sistemas solares compartidos sean compensados por el 100% de la electricidad que producen, y la creación de programas para proveer acceso a la energía solar a comunidades para quienes el inglés no es su lengua nativa.

El Senado de Massachusetts tiene entonces en sus manos la posibilidad de apoyar las propuestas de Ley necesarias para que quienes no poseen un techo (o cuentan con uno pero sin condiciones adecuadas) puedan acceder a los mismos beneficios de acceso a la energía solar de quienes si lo poseen. Ésta es una oportunidad de oro (por su valor para la sociedad, la economía y el medio ambiente) que esperamos no se escurra entre sus dedos.

Massachusetts’s Clean Energy Economy: What the Legislature Needs to Do Now

The Massachusetts legislature is in the final weeks of its two-year legislative session, and there’s finally some movement in both houses on our clean energy future. Here are four things that need to happen to get to the legislative finish line, and why.

But first: some context.

Where the state is coming from

Flowers are blooming on Beacon Hill. Now we need legislation to blossom. (Credit: J. Rogers)

Many of the issues we talked about on this platform a few months ago—what the key issues for next steps on clean energy in Massachusetts were—are still the issues of the day. What’s different now is that we’ve had a project selected by the state and our utilities for sizeable amounts of low-carbon power (Canadian hydro, in this case). And we’ve just selected the first tranche of Massachusetts offshore wind power.

Both of those advances were courtesy of the legislature’s strong action in 2016, when it passed the Energy Diversity Act. What we need now is to fill in the gaps left in that package.

What got left undone

In the lead-up to what became the 2016 law, UCS published an analysis about the risks of natural gas overreliance and the possibility of bringing new and stronger strategies to bear on the problem. That analysis focused on both natural gas risks and carbon pollution, and the prospects for cutting both.

The analysis showed that combining the large-scale renewables procurement, a hefty offshore wind commitment, and a strengthening of the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) could do the trick nicely, and at low cost.

The RPS has been a major driver of renewable energy in and for Massachusetts, and keeping it out ahead of the market—think of it as a carrot in front of the (non-partisan) donkey of energy progress—is what keeps things humming and growing.

Alas, strengthening the RPS was one big piece that wasn’t included in the final version of the Energy Diversity Act. But leaders in both the house and senate pledged to rectify that this session, given that the offshore wind coming will eat up basically all the demand that the growth in the RPS over the next dozen years would otherwise supply. And we need the RPS to drive more than that.

Also needed, but lacking, was a long-term solution to let solar—rooftop, large-scale, or other—keep doing what we need it to do: diversify our electricity mix, increase our energy resilience, and create jobs, jobs, and more jobs.

So, what needs to happen?

1. The house needs to pass strong energy bills

Last month the really important energy committee of the House of Representatives “reported out” a suite of bills that can serve as the basis for strong action by the whole chamber:

  • RPS – Increases our requirement for new renewable energy to 35% new renewable energy by 2030—a nice round(ish) number, though not as strong as what other states have done (50×30; see below), or even our neighbor Connecticut (40×30)
  • Solar – Raises the “net-metering” caps that keep many solar projects from connecting and keep disrupting the growth of our solar economy (though our strong solar economy and interest in investing in solar mean that we’ll hit even those new caps soon)
  • Energy storage – Aims to strengthen our power sector’s resilience with targeted deployments of batteries or other technologies
  • Electric vehicles – Drives EVs with rebates and other policies

There’s also an important bill to take our nation-leading energy efficiency efforts to the next level.

Several of the bills are now in front of the House Ways & Means Committee, so it’s up to that committee to strengthen them and get them to the full house, and quickly. And then it’s up to the full membership to strengthen and pass the lot of them.

2. The senate needs to pass its strong, multi-part bill.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the state house… The Massachusetts Senate Ways & Means Committee passed a solid bill last week. The “Act to Promote a Clean Energy Future” (Senate Bill 2545) includes a range of important provisions to drive progress in the electricity sector and more. A taste:

  • RPS – Increases our requirement for new renewable energy to 50% by 2030—on par with requirements in New York, New Jersey, California, and other states
  • Solar – Removes the net-metering caps, and addresses some other barriers that have been thrown up in utility proceedings
  • Climate progress – Lays out a process for setting targets for cutting our carbon pollution by 2030 and 2040, and makes sure the administration has the tools to address carbon emissions from our transportation sector, and in the commercial and industrial sectors
  • Energy storage – Has the state get a lot more serious about driving innovation in energy storage
  • Plus – More offshore wind, more clean energy procurements, more…

The bill deliberations will also present some opportunities for getting it even more right. On solar, for example, a key issue is making the technology more accessible to a broader swath of our society, in particular with programs aimed at low-income households.

All in all, and particularly with strengthening amendments, a solid foundation for clean energy progress. And the full senate will be taking up the bill any day now. (Watch this space for more info.)

3. The two chambers need to agree on a final version.

Unless one chamber passes verbatim the bill(s) that the other one has approved, whatever comes out of these processes will need to go to a conference committee—basically, a small group appointed by each chamber to hammer out something that will satisfy members of both bodies.

That means the house and senate need to get close enough so that they have something that qualifies for conference. What we can’t have happen is ending up with a suite of bills on one hand and a multi-part bill on the other, and no way to connect the two. That should be an important consideration for the leadership of each chamber.

Once the bills get into conference, and the conference committee does its thing, then the membership of each needs to say, “Aye.”

4. The governor needs to sign.

One last step: The governor. Gov. Charlie Baker has contributed a few pieces to the energy-future discussion, so whatever results from the legislative process is likely to reflect some of his priorities, and likely to earn his signature.

And then?

And then… we make it happen. There will be regulatory proceedings to go through—basically, the process of filling in the blanks, putting meat on the bones of the new statutes, so that people know the rules of the game for implementation.

None of this procedural stuff, on the legislative or regulatory fronts, is entirely easy. But it’s not particularly hard, either. And we know that the technologies are there and ready, and that so are the entrepreneurs, the businesses, and the customers.

So what we need from our legislature, and now, is the framework for progress. Not further reflection. Not studies. Action. That’s what leadership is about.

And that’s what we’re looking for over the next few weeks, as citizens and constituents, residents and ratepayers.

Who’s Interested in the Trump Coal Bailout?

Old coal plant Photo: San Juan Citizens Alliance/EcoFlight

Changing technology, from low cost wind and solar, to pollution control added to coal plants, to fracking for natural gas, has created a new debate about where we should get our electricity. The debate has reached new levels with an order today from the White House to protect coal and nuclear plants from competition, even where the plants voluntarily agreed to participate in competitive markets.

This isn’t the first time the debate over grid reliability has included the Department of Defense (DOD), and despite what the White House says, the regional grid operators are still maintaining reliability.

The DOD is the largest single buyer of energy on the planet. They know a bit about fuel security, and they spend a lot of money on day-to-day energy needs.  In the announcements and justifications today that the national defense depends on old coal and nuclear plants, there isn’t any recognition of what the DOD has been saying and doing.

Grid support from offshore wind is real in New England. Photo: M. Jacobs

James Mattis, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, is credited with the energy strategy for war fighters to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”  In this regard, there is an on-going effort to build renewable energy and energy-storage facilities on US military bases. Because almost every power outage in the US was caused by problems with the wires, the DOD is interested in power supplies located on base, and not dependent on fuel. Wind and solar have been welcomed by the DOD.

The DOD has also warned against “not appropriately valuing the continuing contribution of renewable resources in meeting requirements.”  This was in the context of a PJM (grid operator for 13 states in Mid-Atlantic and Ohio Valley) debate over need for more fuel assurance in winter weather.

Meanwhile, the operators of grids in the US are not interested in the Trump Administration’s interference with energy markets. Comments filed at FERC by the federally-regulate independent grid system operators were uniformly hostile when Secretary Perry ordered a rulemaking last year for plants with a 90-day fuel supply. This is true for grid operators that have little or no coal plants running on their system. It is also true of PJM, which put out a statement that it is uninterested in the today’s recycling of the Administration’s coal plant proposal.

Earlier today PJM, the grid operator with one of the least-supportive environments for wind and solar,  said that they are doing just fine without the current proposal:

Our analysis of the recently announced planned deactivations of certain nuclear plants has determined that there is no immediate threat to system reliability,” the operator stated. “Markets have helped to establish a reliable grid with historically low prices. Any federal intervention in the market to order customers to buy electricity from specific power plants would be damaging to the markets and therefore costly to consumers.

(Credit Julia Pyper, Jeff St. John at Greentech Media.)

 

Given that the organizations most relevant to this issue are not seeing this as helping, the question has to be, “Why are we going through this again?”  There isn’t a claim that there is some long-term benefit to raising costs for all consumers, trashing markets and the decisions made to invest in them, and polluting our air, land and water with the coal ash, waste heat and carbon emissions. This proposal does not make America safer, does not advance the technologies we need, and does not provide a path to cost-reductions, or cleaner environments, or even a better-supplied military.

Once we get the Adminstration’s ideas for implementation (yes, they’re not ready with that) we can compare to last year’s proposed rule, which would have had disastrous impacts on human health, cost consumers billions, hurt competitive energy markets, all while doing nothing to improve and possibly even impede, grid reliability and resiliency.

Stay tuned.

Now That Xcel Won’t Get Its Nuclear Bill, What’s Next?

Earlier this month the Xcel Nuclear Plant Costs Bill (SF3504/HF3708) passed the Senate but failed to pass through the Minnesota House. The bill created a system of approving nuclear plant repair costs for Xcel Energy that would have circumvented the normal process of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (MN PUC) and left ratepayers to shoulder potentially excessive costs of keeping Xcel’s nuclear plants running.

Xcel’s two nuclear power plants are a key component of its goal to reduce carbon emissions company-wide by 60 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2030. Just last week, Xcel announced it has already cut carbon emissions by 35 percent, and is on track to achieve its 2030 goal according to its newly released Corporate Responsibility Report.

Xcel is preparing to file their next resource plan with the MN PUC in 2019, they are currently talking to stakeholders about their vision to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 for the region. This vision is dependent on Xcel continuing to run their two nuclear power plants through their licensing periods in the early 2030s.

So now that the Xcel nuclear bill didn’t pass, what’s next, and what does this all mean for Minnesota’s clean energy future?

Trying to keep Xcel’s nuclear fleet in the black

Xcel’s nuclear fleet is struggling to stay profitable in the face of cheaper alternatives (like renewable energy and natural gas) and looming upkeep costs. Xcel estimates it will need at least $1.4 billion dollars in repairs over the next 17 years for its Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear plants. To provide certainty that Xcel would be able to recover those costs from ratepayers, they introduced legislation that would have allowed the company to get upfront approval from the PUC for its future nuclear expenses instead of approval after those investments have been made (how it works currently). The legislation would have provided certainty for Xcel that they would be able to recover these maintenance costs from ratepayers.

This is a bad deal for ratepayers because the legislation dilutes the PUC’s authority, and attempts to bypass the PUC’s current process for reviewing costs to determine if they’re prudent. That’s why UCS opposed the bill: it was an attempt to avoid the existing regulatory review process and shift financial risk from Xcel’s shareholders to ratepayers. This is not the first legislative attempt to dilute the power of the MN PUC.

Maintaining the current process for approving costs is important

Xcel is due to file their next Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), also known as their 15-year business plan, in February 2019. The IRP process allows for a comparison of electricity options to make sure consumers are getting the most bang for their ratepayer bucks. The IRP process is where Xcel will detail how they plan to generate and supply power to their customers over the next 15 years, including any expected expenses to keep its nuclear plants up and running.

A successful IRP includes evaluation of existing resources, a robust economic analysis of different supply-side and demand-side options under a range of scenarios and assumptions, including future environmental costs and fuel prices, opportunities for stakeholder engagement, adequate reporting requirements, and a robust set of criteria of which to base approval or denial of utility plans to spend ratepayer dollars.

It’s important to keep the current process because it protects ratepayers from excessive charges. By separating out the nuclear plant upkeep costs, we’re not comparing them to other options that would maintain a reliable and affordable energy supply for less cost to ratepayers. The legislation would have pre-approved these costs, meaning any cost overruns due to mismanagement by Xcel would have been automatically passed on to ratepayers. To protect Minnesota consumers, it’s important to keep the robust IRP process and maintain the PUC’s authority to scrutinize Xcel’s expenditures.

With Xcel’s nukes in jeopardy, what does this mean for its carbon reduction goals?

In 2016, the MN PUC approved Xcel Energy’s 15 year resource plan, which prioritized renewable development. Xcel Energy has led the charge in the powerful wave of utility announcements to cut carbon emissions and invest in clean energy. Xcel has stated that its nuclear plants play a critical role in achieving the company’s clean energy targets, and its commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

However, the fate of Xcel’s nuclear plants is unknown. Markets are constantly evolving and it’s Xcel’s job to adapt and remain profitable under changing circumstances. With adequate time to prepare, there are a variety of carbon-free resources that can step in (solar, wind, storage) if Xcel is committed to its carbon goals and undertakes thoughtful and robust planning to make sure its investments are smart ones.

Regardless of the near term, Xcel’s nuclear plants are currently scheduled to close in the early 2030s—and we need a plan for a reliable, affordable, and low-carbon energy future for Minnesota without these nuclear plants.

MN’s clean energy future

Minnesotans want clean, affordable energy, and the PUC is critical for ensuring their interests are reflected in Xcel’s future energy investments.

Xcel Energy attempted to gain security for its shareholders ahead of its 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). Minnesota ratepayers deserve the intensive planning of the IRP process, which ensures billions of dollars of repairs are made in the most prudent and efficient manner.

We expect public engagement around the IRP to occur in the summer and fall of 2019. We look forward to working with Xcel Energy and other stakeholders to develop a comprehensive IRP that puts Xcel’s clean energy goals front and center while protecting Minnesota Consumers.

Creative Commons/Mulad (Flickr)

The US Military, Resilient Energy, and the Zombie Apocalypse

Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class(SW) James Kimber, U.S. Navy

The US military and its supporters understand the importance of resilient energy. With or without zombies.

Just last month, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee encouraged the Department of Defense (DoD) to “prioritize funding for energy-related projects, including renewable energy projects, to mitigate risk to mission-critical assets and promote energy security and efficiency at military installations” in the report accompanying the 2019 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill. The committee highlighted how renewable energy and smart technology investments can “shield mission-critical operations from disruptions to the power grid.”

Because, as a recent analysis from my colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists showed, US military bases aren’t just on the front lines of homeland defense. They’re also, in a lot of cases, on the front lines of climate impacts. Rising seas and storm surges don’t stop for checkpoints and can threaten the energy supplies that military missions depend on.

And, though climate security is a significant concern to the DoD, it turns out that there are lots of reasons why the military is a big fan of “resilient energy” based on advanced and renewable energy options like solar, wind, microgrids, and energy storage.

Wilson Rickerson (left) and Michael Wu (right)

To understand how the pieces all fit together for our armed forces, I checked in with Wilson Rickerson and Michael Wu, cofounders of Converge Strategies, LLC, a resilience and advanced energy consulting company, about the intersection between the US military, clean energy, and resilience. And about how the Zombie Apocalypse comes into play.

John Rogers: So, Wilson, what’s the issue—why are we talking about clean/resilient energy in the context of defense and preparedness?

Wilson Rickerson: Energy is critical to every component of military operations and capability. It’s the fuel that powers our aircraft, vehicles, and ships. The natural gas that heats nearly 300,000 buildings. The electricity that keeps our forces globally networked.

In recent decades, we’ve developed numerous capabilities that rely on uninterrupted access to electricity, in particular. For example, the US Department of Defense (DoD) operates the Global Positioning System relied on by more than three billion users worldwide. A network of satellite ground stations and other controls facilities ensures that GPS is always available, and each of these has critical energy requirements.

DoD is almost completely reliant on the civilian electric grid to meet these requirements. That fact has driven investments in energy resilience projects and technologies on DoD bases.

JR: How big is the scope—the reach—of DoD energy activities, including the renewable energy pieces?

WR: The DoD is the largest institutional consumer of energy in the world. In 2016, the DoD’s energy bill was $12.4 billion, comprising 57% of the energy spending of the entire federal government.

As of 2016, the DoD has more than 1600 active renewable energy projects spread across more than 500 installations. Most of these are small-scale projects that don’t provide a resilience benefit, but DoD is increasingly focused on integrating clean energy and energy storage into resilient energy systems.

JR: Mike, how long are the gaps the military needs to prepare for?

Michael Wu: DoD can handle short term outages relatively well. There are proven systems and solutions in place that address the more common three- to five-day outages. But as the threats to infrastructure become larger—stronger storms and natural disasters, for example—it’s important to prepare for longer-term outages.

Current approaches to energy resilience rely heavily on diesel generators, which typically have limited fuel storage onsite. As we have seen in recent large storms, the diesel fuel supply chain can be severely disrupted during outages. So bases need to become more self-sufficient.

Experts on grid security believe that our electric grid faces unprecedented threats of long-term disruption. More extreme weather events, cyber and physical attacks, and other “black sky” threats imperil the critical infrastructure our military relies on to remain operationally capable, and that our society relies on to function.

DoD is investing in several efforts to strengthen its ability to maintain critical functions during disruptions. For example, the US Army issued a policy last year requiring all installations to keep adequate energy storage to maintain critical operations for 14 days. And the US Air Force has a goal that all mission-critical functions will have assured access to a reliable supply to energy at all times within the next 20 years.

JR: Can you give some examples of where renewables and microgrids have been brought into the picture?

MW: Sure. The Navy partnered with Georgia Power to build a 30 MW solar array at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, which became operational in 2016. Under the agreement, the Navy granted Georgia Power the land to construct the solar array and receives the legal and technical right to the power during a grid outage.

Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts is creating an advanced microgrid powered by renewable energy that will power critical military intelligence facilities. The project will integrate wind power, an advanced battery storage system, and microgrid controls, and is the result of a unique partnership between the DoD and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which provided substantial grant funding.

Kings Bay solar (Photo: NAVFAC/Flickr)

Marine Corps Air Station Miramar broke ground late last year on a new microgrid project that incorporates natural gas generated by a nearby landfill, and several solar photovoltaic projects. Through this project, MCAS Miramar can power its entire flight operations, even if the local grid is disrupted, and the project will lower the installation’s electricity bills and generate revenue by providing services to the civilian electric grid.

The Hawaiian Electric Company and the US Army are currently constructing a 50 MW power plant at Schofield Barracks on the Island of Oahu. The power plant will be capable of running on biofuels or conventional fuels, and will complement the increasing levels of solar and wind power on Oahu’s electric grid. The Schofield plant will power the civilian electric grid during normal operations, but will be capable consolidating to power only nearby Army “assets” during emergency events.

Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Scott Dehainaut

JR: That’s quite a mix of states. So people shouldn’t think of these resilient power efforts as a red state or blue state thing?

WR: Definitely not. DoD and the Military Services are investing in energy resilience because it is critical to military operations, not for political purposes. DoD’s mission is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country, and its investments and priorities should be viewed in that context.

The military also spends more than $400 billion in payroll and contracts across all 50 states, with military spending accounting for more than 5% of state GDP in some states (e.g., Alabama, Alaska, Virginia).

Red and blue states both have a strong economic interest in supporting the success of in-state military installations—and today a major focus for the military is advanced energy resilience.

JR: How do civilians benefit from the military work in this area?

MW: There’s a long heritage of military-civilian technology crossover. GPS, microwaves, and the internet are just a few examples of technologies developed for military use have changed our entire society.

Energy can be a similar success story. Everyone has critical energy requirements—hospitals, fire and police stations, schools, and businesses. The technologies, planning approaches, and business models that the military is investing in can also be applied to meet those critical requirements in the commercial and civilian sectors, and vice versa.

There are also significant opportunities for civilian governments to partner with military installations on joint and mutually reinforcing resilience planning. Military base resilience depends heavily on the resilience of surrounding communities and infrastructure but there isn’t yet a standard playbook on how to align military and civilian resilience efforts.

JR: How does climate change factor into the equation? Or: How does our military see it?

James Mattis (Source: DOD)

WR: DoD has recognized climate change is a national security threat multiplier and an accelerant of instability around the globe. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has called climate change a “challenge that requires a broader, whole-of-government response.” He joined a long list of defense, intelligence, and national security leaders that acknowledge the unprecedented international and homeland security risks of the changing climate.

DoD faces challenges to its infrastructure from more frequent and severe storms and sea level rise, while resource scarcity and humanitarian crises will destabilize the global security environment.

However, it’s important to note that DoD’s investments in clean energy are not primarily motivated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions—they are to strengthen military and operational capability.

Why zombies matter

JR: So, bring this home for our audience, and tackle the question on everybody’s mind: Are we ready for the Zombie Apocalypse?

WR: We spend a lot of time thinking about existential threats to the power system—things like cyberattack, electromagnetic pulse weapons, massive earthquakes… although they each pose different types of risks that require different types of hardening, there are some common sense and no-regrets things that we can be doing across the energy industry which are hazard neutral.

In order to provoke “hazard-neutral” thinking—thinking that seeks to identify “no regrets” strategies that address multiple hazards—we sometimes find ourselves posing the scenario of a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. This is actually something the Pentagon has done in the past as well.

There is an interesting ranking of states’ ability to survive a zombie apocalypse by Estately.com. It takes into consideration factors such as population density, percentage of gun ownership, etc. Arrestingly, some of the states with the large concentrations of critical military infrastructure (e.g., Virginia) are also some of the most vulnerable to zombie attack.

In a number of zombie movies, survivors attempt to run to the military for safety. In reality, many installations will not currently be up and running during a large-scale outage—whether triggered by zombies or otherwise.

Our goal is to make sure that our critical national security missions can still be completed even on really bad days.

JR: Got it. So with or without zombies, resilient power is something that our military is serious about. Thanks, Wilson and Mike.

WR: Happy to help.

Thanks to my colleague Paula Garcia for help with this interview.

A Great Day for Offshore Wind: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey All Go Big

Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson

Offshore wind power is a powerful, plentiful resource, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been a slam dunk in terms of getting it into the US electricity mix. Movement forward on offshore wind in three different states, though, made yesterday a day to celebrate.

1. Massachusetts says yes to 800 megawatts

The state we’d been watching this week was Massachusetts. Yesterday was to be the date for an announcement about which offshore wind project or projects had been selected for the first phase of a 1600 megawatt commitment from the state based on a 2016 energy law.

And the day didn’t disappoint. While the law required at least a 400 megawatt first tranche, the state announced that an 800 megawatt proposal from Vineyard Wind was the winner of this round. The larger project likely brought with it some nicely lower pricing, and was a pleasant surprise.

That amount of power (as our handy new offshore wind calculator shows) will generate electricity equal to the consumption of more than 400,000 typical Massachusetts households. It will also, given the electricity mix and what that offshore wind power might displace, reduce carbon emissions by the amount emitted by almost 200,000 cars.

All that requires actually getting the wind farm built and the turbines spinning. But yesterday’s step was an important one.

2. Rhode Island goes for 400 megawatts

Another pleasant surprise from yesterday was the announcement that Rhode Island had taken advantage of the same bid process and selected a 400 megawatt project of its own.

While the announcement was a surprise, Rhode Island’s commitment to offshore wind isn’t. The new project-to-be, from Rhode Island-based developer Deepwater Wind, will build on the state’s (and Deepwater’s) experience with the first-in-the-nation 30 megawatt Block Island Wind Project. And it fits within Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent call for 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy for the Ocean State by 2020.

Rhode Island has already shown it knows how to get offshore wind done. While the next project will be in federal, not state, waters, that experience is likely to count for something in the race to get the next steel in the water.

3. New Jersey grabs a piece of the limelight

Not to be outdone, New Jersey also used yesterday to move offshore wind forward. Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a 3,500 megawatt state goal that the legislature had recently passed. That’s the largest state commitment to date, and the latest in the crescendoing drumbeat of state action on offshore wind.

And the first tranche of Garden State action may be even larger than what Massachusetts and Rhode Island just moved forward on. Just after coming into office, Gov. Murphy ordered the state’s public utility commission to carry out a solicitation for 1,100 megawatts of offshore wind.

Offshore wind means jobs (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson).

While megawatts may be the stuff of headlines, each of those projects and commitments is about a lot more—jobs in the near term, and air quality improvements, carbon reductions, careers, and more once the projects are up and running.

What’s next?

All that is particularly true as even more states get into the act. So where should we look next for leadership on offshore wind?

Connecticut could be poised to join its neighbors as it makes decisions about proposals for meeting its own renewable energy needs. The bids included proposals from Vineyard Wind and Deepwater Wind, plus Bay State Wind, the other entity vying for the Massachusetts and Rhode Island attention.

It’s also unlikely that New York is going to stay quiet, given its new offshore wind master plan, a 96 megawatt project planned for off Long Island’s South Fork (also being developed by Deepwater), the record-breaking lease sale off New York City in late 2016, and federal moves to evaluate more potential sites in the New York Bight.

Or we could be hearing more from Maryland, with two projects making their way forward with state support. Or Virginia, with a pilot 12 megawatt project. Or Delaware, or North Carolina, or…

Lots of future to watch—and make happen—even as we celebrate the immediate past. Because, given our need for clean energy and good jobs, and given the incredible potential of offshore wind, we’ll be wanting a lot more days like yesterday.

 

Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

¿Ignora la PREPA sus compromisos y los beneficios de la energía renovable?

Imágenes satelitales de Puerto Rico por la noche antes y después del huracán María.Puerto Rico a oscuras después de María.

Resulta inverosímil que Walter Higgins, director ejecutivo de la Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica de Puerto Rico (PREPA, por sus siglas en inglés) afirmara la semana pasada ante el Senado que la energía renovable es un terreno “totalmente desconocido” para su entidad. ¿Quiere esto decir que la PREPA ha ignorado por completo el compromiso de energía verde que adquirió desde el año 2010?

Adicionalmente, ¿por qué Higgins promueve el uso del carbón en una época en la que la generación de electricidad con este combustible fósil es cada vez menos competitiva en comparación con el uso de energías renovables? Y luego de la tragedia del huracán María el año pasado, ¿cómo es posible que la PREPA desconozca el rol decisivo que ha jugado la energía solar y el almacenamiento energético en la recuperación de la isla y prefiera depender de la importación de carbón?

Desde el 2010 la isla se comprometió a generar al menos 20% de su electricidad con energía verde para el año 2035

Acorde a este requerimiento, (o Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, por sus siglas en inglés) a partir del año 2015 la PREPA debe cumplir con las diferentes metas interinas establecidas, incluyendo generar al menos el 12% de su electricidad a partir de energía verde entre el año 2015 y el año 2019. En la actualidad, tan solo 2% de la electricidad proviene de energía renovable, y más del 90% de la quema de combustibles fósiles como el petróleo, el gas natural y el carbón.

Dada la afirmación de Higgins ante el Senado, ¿estará acaso mal informado el director ejecutivo de la PREPA al ignorar el requerimiento con el que debe estar cumpliendo desde el 2015?

Los costos de la energía solar han bajado drásticamente en los últimos años

El costo de la energía solar ha caído drásticamente, más del 70% desde el 2010. Resulta desconcertante que Higgins y su asesora técnica de la División Ambiental, María Mercado, afirmen que es más rentable adherirse a modelos de producción eléctrica casi obsoletos como el uso centralizado de grandes termoeléctricas de carbón.

Actualmente, la generación eléctrica en Puerto Rico depende de la importación de combustibles fósiles como el petróleo, el gas natural y el carbón. Esta alta dependencia somete el sistema eléctrico al riesgo asociado a las marcadas fluctuaciones globales en el precio de los combustibles. La energía solar y la energía eólica en cambio no requieren de importar ni pagar por el uso del viento o el sol, estos recursos son locales y cortesía de la naturaleza.

La energía solar y el almacenamiento energético fueron un soporte para los puertorriqueños luego del huracán María

Adicional a la trágica pérdida de vidas y los innumerables daños materiales, la llegada del huracán María dejó a la mayoría de los 3.4 millones de habitantes de la isla totalmente a oscuras. Hospitales, refugios y otros lugares clasificados como infraestructura crítica padecieron la carencia de electricidad, con doctores teniendo que incluso realizar procedimientos en la oscuridad. Aún 6 meses luego de la tormenta, cerca de 200,000 familias y negocios permanecían sin electricidad.

Los páneles solares y los sistemas de almacenamiento energético se convirtieron en un soporte a través del cual los puertorriqueños pudieron realizar actividades como cargar sus celulares, recibir terapia respiratoria con equipos especializados y tener los medios para organizarse y ayudarse los unos a los otros.

Es casi inconcebible que Higgins y su asesora técnica de la División Ambiental, María Mercado, desconozcan ahora el papel fundamental que estas tecnologías han jugado en la recuperación de la isla, y que como si fuera poco promuevan la quema de carbón para la generación de electricidad. La energía solar y el almacenamiento energético son vitales como medidas de resiliencia energética. Así mismo, luego de los efectos devastadores de María y en un tiempo en donde las tormentas se hacen cada vez más frecuentes y fuertes debido al cambio climático, todos tenemos la responsabilidad de disminuir las emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero.

Estar bien informado, la clave en torno a la palabra “autoridad”

Para ser la autoridad en un tema específico se requiere tener conocimiento de este. La conviene entonces a la PREPA, o Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica de Puerto Rico, hacer un alto en el camino e informarse mejor sobre los compromisos que debe cumplir (como es el requisito de energía verde), realizar un análisis detallado de los beneficios y costos de seguir con modelos arcaicos como el uso de carbón y otros combustibles fósiles en lugar de integrar energías renovables (el INESI puede colaborar en este análisis), y de elegir el carbón, asumir y resarcir los costos a la salud, al medio ambiente y al bolsillo de los puertorriqueños que dicha elección significarán a todos. Con seguridad, los beneficios de la transición a energías renovables se mostrarán mucho más rentables desde esta perspectiva.

 

 

 

A New Tailwind for Clean Energy, 15 Miles Offshore

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

Massachusetts has a deep and bipartisan commitment to clean energy. State leaders and the public at large recognize that clean energy is not only an environmental imperative but a key economic strategy for a small state that relies mostly on brainpower and technology for prosperity. Republican and Democratic governors and the Massachusetts legislature have implemented a wide array of policies to make Massachusetts a national leader in this transition to clean energy.

But Massachusetts has had one disadvantage when compared to many other states—it does not have the wide open, windy land mass to build large wind farms, or available land for massive solar arrays, or the mountainous areas for large hydroelectric installations.

But just a few miles offshore is a resource that has been referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy”—the Atlantic Ocean. And after some false starts, Massachusetts and its neighbor Rhode Island have just taken a big step closer to taking advantage of plentiful and steady Atlantic ocean winds, jump-starting a whole new industry in the United States: offshore wind.

What Massachusetts and Rhode Island just did

Today, Massachusetts approved a bid by a company known as Vineyard Wind to build an 800 megawatt wind farm in a wide-open ocean tract more than 15 miles offshore. This wind farm is phase 1 of a larger plan to build a total of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind, enough to power about one-third of the homes in Massachusetts and meet about ten percent of MA energy demand, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. This bidding process was mandated by a law backed by UCS and signed by Governor Baker in 2016. The law requires Massachusetts utility companies to conduct a competitive bidding process and thereafter enter into long terms with offshore wind companies to purchase the power they generate. The long-term contracts provide a guaranteed revenue source for these projects, which makes it possible for them to obtain financing for the sizable upfront capital costs which could exceed $1 billion.

In addition to this, Rhode Island announced today its intent to enter into a long-term contract with another bidder, Deepwater Wind, for an additional 400 megawatts of wind energy to be built in an adjacent area.

The benefits of these projects are enormous. At full 1600 MW build out, offshore wind project will reduce Massachusetts greenhouse gas emissions by 2.4 million tons per year, about a fifteen percent reduction of emissions from electricity consumption, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. This large-scale generation will also help Massachusetts replace with clean renewable energy its aging power plants, such as the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, that is scheduled to close in 2019,. These projects will also help ensure that Massachusetts does not continue along its current path of over-relying on natural gas, which now accounts for about two-thirds of MA electricity consumption.

This offshore wind industry will also be a colossal job creator. The Clean Energy Center estimates that 1600 MW of offshore wind will generate approximately 7000-10,000 construction jobs over next 10 years, and once built, it will generate hundreds more thereafter in operations and maintenance. It is estimated that the “ripple effects” of this additional employment will add between 1.4-2.1 billion dollars to the economy as the workers employed by these projects spend money on other goods and services.

Note that these are direct jobs from construction and operation. These projections do not include the potential that turbine manufacturers will locate in Massachusetts or Rhode Island to manufacture components of the offshore wind arrays. Yet the cost of shipping giant wind turbines manufactured elsewhere is so high that it seems inevitable that some components will be manufactured close by. And there are attractive sites for this enterprise, such as the Brayton Point power plant site, which once housed a coal-burning plant but is now a vacant, industrially zoned property on Buzzard’s Bay with a direct water connection to the offshore wind areas. If just 25% of the components are manufactured locally, this could add thousands more good paying jobs.  

What about cost?

Massachusetts has not released the estimated cost of the accepted bid, so the price will not be known until a contract is negotiated and submitted to the Department of Public Utilities for approval. However, the contract price is likely to reflect the remarkable worldwide decline of offshore wind costs due to technology innovation and economies of scale.

To put costs in perspective, one of the first US offshore wind contracts was for the Cape Wind project in Nantucket sound (more on that below). The Cape Wind developer planned on using 3.6 megawatt turbines, and the price of the power would start at 17 cents per kilowatt hour and escalate by 3% every year for 15 years. This price was well above the market price for power generally, and well above the price for onshore wind.

But in recent years, offshore wind projects in Europe have utilized much bigger and more efficient turbines, as large as 8.8 MW, and companies such as General Electric are developing turbines as large as 12 MW. As a result, new projects in Europe are entering into contracts for as low as 7-8 cents per kilowatt hour.

While we are not likely to see prices that low, as we lack the supply chain and trained workforce that Europe has developed over the last twenty years, it is highly likely that this project will take advantage of these much larger turbines and achieve significant economies of scale and price reduction as a result.

What’s next?

The next step is for Vineyard Wind to negotiate long term power purchase contracts with Massachusetts utilities, and for Deepwater Wind to negotiate with Rhode Island, processes that will likely take a number of months. In Massachusetts, the contract will then be submitted to the Department of Public Utilities, which will hold a public process and ultimately determine whether the contract is cost-effective and meets other statutory criteria. While this is occurring, the project developers will need to secure the federal, state and local permits needed to construct the wind turbines, transmission lines, and other equipment. It is hoped that this process can go forward expeditiously, so that the projects can take the necessary steps to qualify for at least a portion of federal tax incentives that will phase out by 2020.

But here is the best part: on top of the 1,200 MW approved by Massachusetts and Rhode Island, other states in the region have similar plans. New York is planning on 800 MW of project solicitations over this year and next, and is aiming for 2400 megawatts in total, and New Jersey has just announced plans for 3500 MW.

As one writer has observed, “commitments from northeastern states total 7,500 MW at a minimum, with more expected to follow. That’s enough critical mass to attract numerous bidders and create the foundation for an industry here in the U.S.”

A personal note

While I am always excited when states advance clean energy, this step forward is particularly sweet for me personally. Before I took the helm at UCS, I worked in the administration of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and under his leadership we laid the groundwork for offshore wind by building a wind test blade center in Boston and a marine terminal in New Bedford, passing legislation to authorize long term contracts for offshore wind energy, and working with Rhode Island and the federal government to designate appropriate offshore sites.

But Massachusetts’ first project—the Cape Wind project in Nantucket sound—crashed and burned, primarily because of the unrelenting and well-financed litigation brought by well-to-do homeowners on Nantucket sound who did not want to see wind turbines five miles offshore. When the Cape Wind project died, I feared it might be a very long time before another viable project would come along.

So, I am particularly heartened that Massachusetts and Rhode Island have kept at, and that technology has improved to allow for much larger, more cost-effective projects to be built farther offshore. Massachusetts and Rhode Island, all of the Northeast, and the entire country will benefit in ways we can barely foresee from this big, bold, and exciting new clean energy industry.

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

Wait—Offshore Wind Offers HOW Much Power? Use This Calculator…

Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson

Almost every week is bringing news about another step forward somewhere in the country for America’s newest renewable energy, offshore wind. Increasingly, the news is about advances for specific projects off our shores.

But when we hear about an offshore wind project of a certain size—X hundred megawatts—what does that mean? What does it mean in terms of our electricity needs, for example, or our need to cut pollution, or our potential to do more?

A simple new calculator from the Union of Concerned Scientists can help you size up each offshore wind project.

What Would an Offshore Wind Project Mean?

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The inputs

Here’s the deal: When you hear about a proposed offshore wind farm, the project size is likely to be expressed in terms of megawatts—its nominal capacity/power output, based on the rating of each wind turbine at a given wind speed.

Credit: J. Rogers

How many turbines that proposed project will involve depends on the capacity of each individual turbine (also expressed in megawatts). That math isn’t complicated.

How much electricity an offshore wind project’ll generate is a little more complicated, depending mostly on where the turbines will be—what kind of wind resource the turbines will have access to. That’ll vary by state, and even within a given coastal area.

But with a few simplifying assumptions and estimates, you can get ballpark figures for what the project will mean in terms of the energy generation/production, the benefits it will provide such as avoided carbon emissions, and the area it will occupy.

The outputs

What the new tool offers when you put in those few inputs (state, project size, turbine size) can tell you something about what we’re likely to get out of the project you’re assessing.

Energy equivalent – The electricity expected from a project can be thought of in terms of the number of household equivalents it could power. Not actual households, since it takes a mix to make sure we’ve got power ‘round the clock, but how the energy produced matches up with the amount of electricity a typical household uses.

Average household electricity use varies by region and state, based on things like the climate and state energy efficiency efforts. So a given amount will go further in some places than in others.

Pollution reduction – And then there are the air quality benefits of projects. Megawatt-hours of offshore wind generation will displace megawatt-hours of generation from land-based power plants in the region. What an offshore wind electron displaces depends on what’s “on the margin” at a given moment—usually what next-cheapest power source doesn’t get turned on because offshore wind is doing its thing instead.

If those displaced sources are coal, oil, or natural gas power plants, which will often be the case, the offshore wind power will help us avoid the pollution that those plants would otherwise emit. Avoiding that pollution brings important health and environmental benefits.

This simple calculator focuses on carbon dioxide. And it puts the result in terms of number of car equivalents—what that CO2 pollution reduction would be like in terms of the carbon pollution that comes from a typical car in a typical year, given the US auto fleet and American driving habits.

Leases and lessees – some done, more to come (Source: BOEM 2018)

Lease area potential – In general, the areas most ready for offshore wind projects are in the existing federal leases on the US Outer Continental Shelf off our nation’s East Coast. The federal government, using robust public stakeholder processes (as in Massachusetts), identified various offshore wind lease areas. It auctioned off the leases, and a range of companies won the rights to put up turbines in those areas. There are more than a dozen such leases so far, from North Carolina up to Massachusetts. (And more are on the way.)

Given that, you can think about a project in terms of how much of that state’s existing lease area it’s likely to take up, and how much room it leaves for more offshore wind power.

Using the calculator

To ground all this in (projected) reality, here’s an example for you to try: Let’s imagine a 400 megawatt wind farm off Massachusetts (and at this point in the process that doesn’t require much imagination), and imagine 8-megawatt wind turbines. So:

  1. Click on Massachusetts on the calculator’s map.
  2. Use the sliders or right-left arrows to get to 400 megawatts for the project size.
  3. Pick 8 megawatts for the turbine size.
  4. Check out the results.
    • For number of turbines, you get 50.
    • For number of households whose total energy consumption would match what the project would produce, you’d get something like 230,000.
    • The avoided CO2 pollution would be equivalent to taking some 90,000 cars off the road.
  5. Check out how much—or how little—of the existing Massachusetts lease areas a project like that would use up: 6%.

At the bottom of this post are details about the calculator and calculations.

The scale of things to come: Offshore wind blades, and a sample of the people behind it all (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson).

More results

Other results from new offshore wind are equally important, but harder to quantify simply at this early stage in the technology’s history in this country. Those include employment and ecosystem effects.

Jobs – A big reason for offshore wind power’s popularity right now is its tremendous potential for job creation, in manufacturing, project development, installation, maintenance, finance. Think welders, pipefitters, electricians, boat crews, and a whole lot more.

And the vision is not just jobs, but careers, as single projects pave the way for multiple tranches that then lead to a whole US offshore wind industry, one big enough to sustain not just projects but all the soup-to-nuts pieces that go along with that when the scale is big enough.

In Europe, the offshore wind industry is 75,000 workers strong. Estimates for US jobs draw on assumptions about how big the American market will get, and how quickly, and what that means for how many of the jobs end up here, instead of overseas. A 2015 US Department of Energy study found that going to 22,000 megawatts by 2030 could mean 80,000 American jobs by that year. A study for various Northeastern states looked at 4,000 to 8,000 megawatts of offshore wind development in the region, and projected full-time equivalent jobs in a given year of up to 36,000.

Proceed, but with caution (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson).

Ecosystems – The results of an offshore wind farm in terms of our offshore ecosystems depend on the care taken in planning, siting, installing, operating—and, eventually, decommissioning—of the project. Offshore wind’s potential to cut carbon pollution can help reduce the impacts of climate change—including important ones for our oceans and marine ecosystems. But additional activity and infrastructure in the marine environment can have direct impacts that need careful consideration.

One concern is marine mammals, and particularly, on the Eastern seaboard, the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Project developers have to be careful to not add to the right whale’s troubles.

For fish, once a project is in place, the bases for the offshore wind towers can be problematic for some species, and a boon for others, as they can act as artificial reefs and change the environment.

Where jobs and fish come together is in the fishing fleet. Results, positive and negative, will depend on things like any limitations on boat travel in the project area during construction, and any boost to fish stocks from the project once it’s installed. While commercial fishers may view projects differently from how recreational ones do, at least some fishers are finding the US’s first offshore wind farm, off Rhode Island’s Block Island, to be a plus (and there’s this upbeat from the University of Delaware and the American Wind Energy Association).

Results in terms of jobs, careers, and our marine environment will be important to keep an eye on.

Technology and people (Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson)

Calculate on

In the meantime, there’s plenty we can know about with greater certainty. With the help of this simple calculator, the next time you hear of an X megawatt offshore wind project destined for a shore near you, you can let it be more than a single number. Look at what it means in terms of energy to be generated, pollution to be avoided, and lease area implicated.

To be clear: an offshore wind calculator is no substitute for the detailed wind monitoring, engineering calcs, environmental assessments, and much more that go into project proposals, investment decisions, and approval processes.

But this one just might help give some more depth for contemplating project announcements as the offshore wind industry takes off in the country. Because, beautiful as offshore wind farms seem to many of us, they’re a lot more than just a bunch of graceful kinetic sculptures.

The technical stuff

  • States – The calculator includes the eight (as of this writing) states for which the US government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has auctioned off leases. South Carolina is working toward joining that club. Projects can also happen in state waters, as with the Icebreaker project planned for Lake Erie waters off Cleveland. The West Coast also has terrific resources, and even the Gulf Coast may get into the act at some point.

    The power on the seas (Source: NREL/Musial et al. 2016)

  • Capacity factors – To calculate electricity production, the calculator uses midpoint capacity factors from the different zones in NREL’s latest offshore wind resource potential assessment (Musial et al. 2016): Delaware (42.5%), Maryland (42.5%), Massachusetts (47.5%), New Jersey (45%), New York (45%), North Carolina (42.5%), Rhode Island (47.5%), and Virginia (42.5%).
  • Household equivalents – The calculator uses the latest figures from the US Energy Information Administration on average monthly electricity use by residential customers in the chosen state. Figures are rounded to the nearest thousand.
  • Avoided CO2 emissions – The calculator uses the average CO2 emission rate for each region, as calculated by the US EPA, and the car pollution figure from EPA’s own equivalencies calculator. Figures are rounded to the nearest thousand.
  • Project areas – Project footprint calculations are based on NREL’s assumption of 3 megawatts per square kilometer (Musial et al. 2016).
  • Lease areas – The lease area calculations for each state are based on the figures from BOEM here. For the two leases in the shared Rhode Island/Massachusetts offshore wind area, the calculator credits those amounts fully to each state; that is, it considers them to be Rhode Island’s when considering a Rhode Island project, and Massachusetts’s when looking at Massachusetts.
Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

California Could Pass Innovative Legislation on Key Climate, Energy and Transportation Issues

California State Capitol

California has a well-earned reputation as a world leader in promoting clean energy and other solutions to climate change. However, as anyone paying attention to the climate crisis knows, we have far more work to do. Fortunately, the California Legislature is considering many bills in 2018 that would further address climate change. With three and half months until the Legislature adjourns for the year, UCS is working with lawmakers to make progress on a suite of policy prescriptions to promote renewable energy, clean transportation, and better preparedness for climate change impacts.

Create a clean electricity system

California has made great progress adding renewable energy to the grid. To meet our climate goals, we must continue our clean energy momentum and work to reduce reliance on natural gas power plants. This year UCS is working to:

  • Establish a goal of 100 percent clean energy. Achieving 100 percent clean energy is an ambitious goal we must reach for to create a cleaner and healthier future, and to continue California’s tremendous momentum advancing clean energy.
  • Establish standards for California electricity providers to join a western regional electricity grid. UCS is working to help pass AB 813 (Holden) to prepare the ground for a regional grid that would make it easier and more cost-effective to integrate renewable energy by sharing electricity generation across a larger area.
  • Reduce reliance on natural gas power plants. California needs to study the fleet of natural gas power plants to create a strategy to reduce the use of natural gas electricity generation in an orderly, cost-effective, and equitable manner. In addition, UCS is supporting work to limit the use of the dirtiest natural gas power plants at times and in locations with bad air quality.
Create a clean transportation system

For decades California has led the nation with policies to reduce pollution from vehicles and promote clean fuel and vehicle technologies. As our transportation system faces dramatic changes in coming years—electrification, car-sharing, automation—we must ensure these changes result in reduced emissions and other key objectives (such as safety and accessibility). In 2018, UCS is working to:

  • Pass a state budget that includes much-needed incentives for electric cars, trucks, and buses. Incentives for electric cars vehicles are critical to overcome higher upfront costs that still exist and to increase consumer interest in this new technology. Each year lawmakers must appropriate funding for important incentive programs for light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles and UCS is working to make sure adequate funding is appropriated for the year ahead.
  • Ensure autonomous vehicles (AVs) reduce pollution and congestion and enhance access to mobility. AVs may become the most significant innovation in transportation since the mass introduction of automobiles early last century. However, public policy needs to guide the safe introduction of this emerging technology for widespread adoption of AVs to result in positive outcomes in the years ahead. UCS supports SB 936 (Allen), which will create an expert task force to make recommendations to provide guidance for how we can shape this new transportation technology to achieve these public benefits.
  • Increase use of electric vehicles by ride-hailing services. Ride hailing services—like Uber and Lyft—are a rapidly growing part of our transportation system. As these services grow and carry more and more passengers, it will become increasingly important that they move toward vehicle electrification to reduce pollution—just as electrification is important for personal vehicle use and transit buses alike. SB 1014 (Skinner) looks to address this issue. While UCS supports the concept of this bill, there are numerous important details that remain to be resolved.
Better prepare California for a changing climate

California is facing a “new normal” of increasing variability and extremes in climate conditions with enormous impacts on people, communities, and the infrastructure on which our safety and economies depend. We must start to plan, design and build California’s infrastructure to be “climate-smart” and withstand the new reality of climate change. This year UCS is working to:

  • Create a state adaptation center to support decision-making on state infrastructure projects. The state should establish an office within the state government to provide various state agencies with actionable climate-related information and real-time guidance on specific analytical approaches and data choices as they grapple with decisions about planning and designing infrastructure projects.

I look forward to working on these and other issues on behalf of UCS and our supporters and Science Network members. Hopefully the Legislature will pass legislation advancing many of these priorities this year, keeping California on a path to a safe and sustainable future that utilizes science as a foundation for policy-making.

Industry Criticizing… Industry? This is What Effective Advocacy Looks Like

The only way to get what you want is to work for it. Nothing is easy. Hard work pays off if done well.

Old coal-burning power plants have the greatest emissions per energy delivered.

In UCS’s battles against the utility company PJM,  two “black swan events” provided reminders that can encourage activists everywhere. PJM is the regional grid operator, or “RTO,” for 13 states and the District of Columbia.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, aka FERC, is the main arena for this advocacy and the unexpected breakthroughs. The context is how the low prices of renewable energy and natural gas are driving coal and nuclear plants over 40 years old out of business.

These plants boil water and use the steam to spin a turbine, which is a less efficient and slower-responding design than modern power plants.

My goal on comments and presentations to FERC is to increase the recognition and reliability value of renewable energy. Ever since the very cold weather of the 2014 polar vortex, the utility industry has been debating how to deal with the behavior of gas-burning power plants that did not contract for gas deliveries for power production in the coldest weather, and the simultaneous failure of coal plants due to weather conditions. These two sets of outages at fossil plants were not anticipated, and defied the assumption that fossil plant outages would not be correlated.

While the fossil industry scrambled and imposed spectacular higher costs on consumers from their lack of preparedness, the grid was better off than it would have been otherwise because of an underestimation of the reliability of wind generation and demand response.

The first unexpected moment (in advocacy, not the unexpected black eye for coal and gas units) came in late April on a panel discussing the reliability contributions of electric generation. I described a blind spot in planning for winter reliability, something I had previously discussed with PJM experts and put into writing for FERC. I said out loud that there was no assurance that that every fossil generator can deliver its expected capability in winter.

PJM reported coal and gas plants shut down in cold weather far beyond expected outages.

The conversation in the room stopped, and the session moderator asked that I repeat what I said.

On one side of me was Joe Bowring, the Independent Market Monitor, an expert economist who can be a very influential pessimist. He said, “that was unexpected.” He had been speaking previously about black swan events. Joe even mentioned he saw his child bitten by a black swan, which explains a lot about his obsession with unexpected and lasting unintended consequences. On my right was a PJM representative, who conceded that my point was true, though there was no doubt that the system was studied to confirm that the system was reliable.

We were debating the seasonal risks behind the PJM policy that requires any generator to be able to provide its full output in any hour in order to be counted for reliability payments in the capacity market. Going back to 2014, the lesson was “don’t assume that each generator has adequate gas pipeline capacity.” I had been saying for some time we have not confirmed each generator has adequate electric transmission capacity.

This time, they heard it.

While this was going on, the debate that started with gas generators out-competing coal and nuclear plants took a national stage with the US DOE promoting the idea that coal plants offer “resilience” and should be paid all their costs and profits, forever. FERC did not adopt this rule, but did ask the grid operators how to define resilience, what is done to ensure resilience, and what else needs to be done.

In response to the grid operators’ answers, UCS emphasized what most of the grid operators said in their comments about transmission, renewables, and sophisticated forecasting. PJM used this opportunity to push its agenda on a variety of payments related to flexibility and hidden costs that it had previously presented to FERC for approval. PJM’s response about resilience included a call for FERC to take PJM’s list and make all the grid operators evaluate and create similar rule changes.

Here’s where the second black swan came in. Five independent system operators other than PJM, all in the US, filed a response saying to FERC that PJM had gone too far and should not be granted this request. These grid operators laid it, plain and simple: “The Commission Should Not Impose on Other RTOs/ISOs the Actions and Deadlines Specified in PJM’s Response.” They said “Although not all RTOs/ISOs identified immediate or imminent resilience concerns in their regions, each identified specific potential improvements intended to enhance resilience within their respective region.”

This is the first time people can recall when one of the grid operators was singled out by the others for making inappropriate demands on the industry. The consumer and environmental advocates have been saying for years that PJM has trampled on the policies enacted by states and used too-narrow definitions of the public interest and energy resources valued by society.

While PJM is holding its annual meeting this month, I’ll remind myself and allies the only way to get what you want is to work for it. Nothing is easy. Hard work pays off if done well.

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