UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

Three Climate Priorities the New Congress Can Actually Deliver On

It’s a new Congress and that means new opportunities to make some progress on addressing the climate crisis and growing our clean energy economy. The political environment is complex and there are significant challenges to progress, but we can’t afford to wait for a more favorable congress. Here are three meaningful climate priorities that actually have a chance to make it to the finish line, even in this environment.

The challenges: It takes 60 votes to pass most legislation in the Senate (still controlled by Republicans; climate action is not a priority). We have a president who is openly hostile to clean energy and rejects mainstream climate science. And much of the new Democratic House majority was elected to put a check on the White House rather than reach compromises. The Speaker will also be looking to protect her many newly elected members in purple districts (the suburbs), which may lessen how ambitious the House will be on climate action.

The need: These dynamics certainly make it difficult to enact aggressive policy that will drive the deep cuts in emissions that we need, but one thing I hope all climate and clean energy advocates recognize is that we don’t have the luxury of getting nothing done over the next two years. Building for potential big opportunities in the future is important, but the science tells us that the climate clock is ticking. We can’t sit this one out hoping we get a pro-climate congress in 2021. We must keep reducing emissions; we have to get meaningful policy enacted this year. That will require hard work, strategic thinking and strong collaboration across all the diverse stakeholders who care about the climate crisis.

The opportunities: What can actually get done right now? What policies can run the gauntlet of Congress and still have a significant impact on reducing emissions?

Here are three ideas that will help significantly reduce emissions and can pass both chambers of congress this year.

1). Robust investments in clean energy research and development

Despite the administration’s shortsighted attempts to gut our nation’s clean energy research and development (R&D) capacity, clean energy innovation has broad public support (85% according to a Yale 2018 poll). It also has bipartisan support. Under the leadership of Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA), funding for low-carbon technology R&D has increased over the last two years. Funding for ARPA-E, our nation’s flagship innovative clean energy research and development program, has increased roughly 20% over that time. Republicans and Democrats both see investments in clean energy R&D as a pro-growth strategy that is good for the economy, their states and the country.

Source: Wikimedia

While the increases in funding are significant in a Republican congress, it’s still far short of what is required to develop and hone the tools we need to address the growing scale of the climate crisis. We need more options and we need to continue to increase the effectiveness of the options we currently have. A massive investment in low-carbon technology R&D can help make that happen. Federal R&D helped us split the atom and get to the moon; it can certainly help us innovate our way to more climate solutions and emissions reductions.

There are many important clean energy R&D programs spread across the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy that need increased funding:

  • the Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences (BES)
  • the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Grid Integration Initiative
  • the Office of Electricity, Energy Storage Program
  • the Operational Energy Management Capability Investment Fund (OECIF)
  • the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP).

But the Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Energy program (ARPA-E) is perhaps the best example of where a massive investment is needed. ARPA-E pioneers transformational energy projects that represent high-risk but potentially game-changing technologies. ARPA-E also provides technology-to-market advice to best performers.

The National Academy of Sciences’ report that recommended ARPA-E’s creation also recommended that its funding be stabilized at $1 billion per year within four years of its inception (that was back in 2007). ARPA-E is currently funded at $366 million, but a recent assessment by the National Academy of Sciences revealed that “ARPA-E is in many cases successfully enhancing the economic and energy security of the United States,” making it a wise federal investment.

It’s time to make a “space race”-scale or “Manhattan Project”-scale type investment in low carbon energy research and development. And with a Democratic House and strong Senate Republican leadership on Energy and Water Appropriations, there may be a good opportunity to make robust investments in clean energy R&D, finally resourcing our nation’s innovative capacity and unleashing the power of innovative technological growth.

2). Tax credits to stimulate more clean energy, energy efficiency and grid technologies

Most of the progress we’ve made reducing emissions and incentivizing the deployment of low carbon energy technologies at the federal level has come through the tax code. A 2016 UCS analysis showed that the 5-year extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar will reduce CO2 emissions by 31% cumulatively through 2030. That’s huge.

But these tax credits are starting to phase down and the PTC expires end of next year, jeopardizing the strong clean energy momentum we are seeing across the country. Continued strong growth of renewable energy in the near term will still necessitate federal tax support and other incentives—especially to rapidly build out and replace fossil generation at scale in a time-frame appropriate to what the climate science is telling us. It’s important for Congress to remember clean energy doesn’t currently compete on a level playing field with gas and coal, because the impacts of carbon emissions are not priced into most electricity markets.

Fortunately, as with appropriations, there is a pathway in the Senate for strengthening (and potentially broadening) tax credits for clean energy. In fact, about half of the Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee represent states with large renewable energy industries. That includes Chairman Grassley (R-IA), sometimes referred to as the “father” of the PTC, who represents a state that gets 37% of its electricity from wind power (supporting 9,000 jobs).

There’s also a history of bipartisan support for a low-carbon, technology-neutral approach to energy tax policy that provides greater long-term certainty and levels the playing field for all low-carbon energy technologies. Recent legislation introduced to expand the ITC to stand-alone energy storage projects has also received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

Energy storage is the key to making renewable energy ubiquitous. It also has important reliability and energy security benefits.  It’s a critical piece of the clean tech puzzle and this congress can has a real opportunity to incentivize more deployment of energy storage through the tax code.

3). Infrastructure that reduces our vulnerability to climate impacts and modernizes our electric grid

Democrats and Republicans both agree that we must upgrade our aging infrastructure, and the federal government should play a role.  They don’t agree on how much of a role and what the primary mechanisms should be (public-private partnerships, federal grants, states funds, federal loan guarantees, direct federal investment, etc.…). But as with many other policy issues, there’s plenty of room for common ground, and whether its sewage leaking into Penn Station or crumbling rural roads and bridges or antiquated and vulnerable electricity systems in island communities, Americans want and deserve reliable infrastructure.

A 2016 Gallup poll showed 75% of Americans support “spending more federal money to improve infrastructure.”  In 2017 infrastructure polled as the second most popular issue for President Trump, right behind family leave for parents of newborns.

But when the president finally unveiled his infrastructure proposal early last year, there was very little federal money in it. In fact, most of the spending under his plan would have come from already-strapped state budgets with some spending from private interests. There was very little direct federal investment and no focus on reducing vulnerability to extreme weather and climate change. The modernization of important sectors like the electricity sector and the transportation sector were ignored, important environmental protections were gutted, and it included regressive policies that discourage infrastructure development in economically vulnerable communities.

What’s the opportunity for climate progress in an infrastructure bill? How about getting to 100% clean energy? Getting anywhere near that is going to take modernizing our electric grid.  We need big increases in transmission, energy storage, distributed generation, and advanced grid technologies.

We can’t solve the climate crisis if we don’t quickly decarbonize our electricity sector, phasing out our use of fossil fuels, increasing energy efficiency, maintaining the low carbon generation we have, and building out a lot more renewables.

We likely won’t avoid the worst impacts of climate change without electrifying the transportation sector (now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US) and building out infrastructure for electric vehicles.

And we won’t protect communities and livelihoods from devastating climate impacts like wildfires, drought, hurricanes and floods if we don’t invest in preparedness—especially in economically vulnerable communities and communities of color.

We need an infrastructure bill that builds for the future, not the past.

Ultimately the president’s partisan (and unhelpful) infrastructure package went nowhere. But in a new congress where the House is poised to take up infrastructure, there’s a lot of Senate Republicans up in 2020, and the President badly needs a win heading into his re-election campaign, there may be a pathway for infrastructure this year.

Both the Senate Minority Leader and the Speaker of the House have signaled that addressing climate change must be a key part of any infrastructure package. And while Senate Republicans have expressed support for moving forward with infrastructure, ultimately it will be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the president to decide if there’s room to compromise to do what’s best for the country.

So while we must increase our vigilance advocating with Congress for an FDR-sized approach appropriate to the urgency and scope of the climate crisis, we must also make progress where opportunities exist. Even in this challenging political environment, there are opportunities to advance federal policy that significantly contributes to reducing emissions and protects communities and livelihoods from climate change. We cannot afford federal climate policy to be stagnated by partisan politics.

We need to create a durable bipartisan super-majority for action on climate. What better time to start than now?

New Mexico’s Clean Energy Opportunity Knocks

Bureau of Land Management (Flickr)

Look out, clean energy leaders, there’s a new governor in town—and this one campaigned atop a wind turbine.

Governor Lujan Grisham’s campaign included scaling a wind turbine and making strong clean energy commitments. Credit: Michelle for Governor (Oct. 2018), available here.

For New Mexico, a state laden with clean energy opportunity but hungry for clean energy vision, such tall heights yielded a long hoped-for sight: a leader reporting clean energy potential as far as the eye could see.

And though her feet are back on the ground, now-Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s eyes have stayed fixed to that horizon, using her inaugural address to double down on realizing the state’s clean energy potential by forcefully calling for policies that look up, look out, and establish a forward course.

Over the past eight years, clean energy progress—alongside so much else—has been spinning its wheels in the Roundhouse. But now, with gubernatorial leadership there to help give it a push, the time is ripe to act. And if the already-filed legislation is anything to go by, legislators are ready—renewables, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage, transmission planning, and more.

In her inaugural address, Governor Lujan Grisham staked out her clean energy vision and then declared: “We can achieve this, and I will not relent until it is done.”

Or in other words: to the 54th Legislature, game on.

Recognizing the clean energy opportunity

In New Mexico, renewable resource potential abounds—the state is overflowing with sunshine, awash with steady wind, host to ample geothermal. Its universities and national labs are at the forefront of clean energy research, and businesses looking to capitalize on the transition are emergent.

But policy vision and guidance from the state? It’s gone all but missing in action. As a result, though progress continues, it has slowed in the face of uncertainty.

This has been a disappointing turn for New Mexico, which was not so long ago positioned among clean energy leaders, implementing a series of policies that catapulted its clean energy sector forward. Foremost among these? The establishment of a strong renewable portfolio standard (RPS), guiding utilities to incorporate a modest yet steadily rising share of renewables in their electricity sales, ultimately reaching 20 percent renewables by 2020—among the top targets of its time.

But though formative in shaping a new and promising sector, the state’s RPS targets haven’t been strengthened since. Many of New Mexico’s one-time policy peers have recommitted themselves to the proven tool by lengthening and strengthening their own RPSs, but similar efforts in New Mexico have repeatedly stalled.

The resulting policy vacuum could not come at a worse time.

Because as is happening across the nation, New Mexico’s power sector is in the midst of unprecedented change as coal plants retire in the face of cleaner and cheaper renewables and natural gas. It is simply more expensive to operate old coal plants than it is to build these new resources, resulting in a wholesale shift away from coal.

But the question for New Mexico—the massive, course-determinative question—is what gets built to take coal’s place? Renewables, or a lot more natural gas?

Without a renewed RPS, the scale threatens to tip too far toward gas if the state’s largest power providers get their way.

Using an RPS as guide

As a reflection of the policy’s central importance to realizing the clean energy vision, Governor Lujan Grisham made strengthening the state’s RPS the centerpiece of her clean energy plan. Such a policy is now poised to advance through the legislature, and its passage could not be more urgent.

Because above all else, a long-viewed RPS sets a clear and definitive vision of where the state is heading, and establishes waypoints for staying the course. So as each decision arises regarding what replaces coal, an RPS ensures that eyes are to the horizon and investments are considered in context. What’s more, it signals to the nearly two-thirds of Fortune 100 and half of Fortune 500 companies with clean energy commitments of their own that New Mexico is the right place to invest.

Critically, the value of an RPS is predicated on the appropriateness of its targets and the details of its structure. The current proposed legislation makes important updates to the policy’s design and has waypoints of 50 percent renewables by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040 for investor-owned utilities, and similar shares but slower timelines for rural electric co-ops.

These targets are in line with recent technical and economic analyses by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which independently found that such targets are not only technically achievable, but economically preferable, too. Indeed, both analyses concluded that such a steadily escalating share of renewables produces the least-cost option for the state—not to mention good jobs, significant investment dollars, and improved outcomes for public health and the environment.

Unfortunately, the power sector is anything but a free market, and winning on the merits does not guarantee coming out on top. Utilities in the state are increasingly comfortable with higher levels of renewables thanks to the existing RPS: Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) has stated support of higher shares of renewables on the system, and Southwestern Public Service Company’s (SPS) parent corporation, Xcel, just declared its intentions of going 100-percent zero-carbon by 2050. However, major gas buildouts are still being discussed, meaning continued carbon and co-pollutant emissions as well as the threat of ratepayers facing another round of costly stranded assets not long down the line.

With a strengthened RPS, there would be guardrails in place to buffer against such risks.

Tracking the 54th legislature

The 2019 legislative session runs from January 15 through March 16. There is significant pent-up demand for progress on a wide array of issues, meaning legislators’ plates will be filled, and it’ll be a race to the finish to get things passed.

On the clean energy front alone, there are a series of policies in addition to the RPS that will meaningfully bolster the clean energy transition and work to ensure that all New Mexicans can benefit. We’ll be looking for a few key areas in particular, including:

  • Ensuring a just transition from coal: The shift away from coal is proceeding in New Mexico, bringing enormous benefits but also threatening to leave the workers and communities who have long been powering the state at a loss. With concerted effort, like supporting workforce transition, economic development, and targeted placement of renewables, the impacts of the transition can be dampened, and new opportunities can emerge. One potentially helpful tool is called “securitization,” which achieves lower-cost financing to facilitate the transition and consequently frees up funds that can be deployed to support development efforts.
  • Increasing renewables deployment: A number of policies will be looking to boost uptake of renewables from a range of angles, including state renewables procurement, tax credits, increased access through community solar, workforce development, energy storage, and transmission planning.
  • Changing energy use: Energy efficiency is the single most effective tool for reducing emissions and lowering costs. An update to the state’s energy efficiency standard will remove disincentives currently curtailing utility efforts; this change will lead to meaningfully reduced customer bills. So too will concerted efforts for energy conservation projects specifically supporting low-income customers, for whom energy costs represent a disproportionate share of income.
  • Electric vehicles: Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, and the electrification of the transportation sector supports significant emissions reductions—and enormous public health benefits, too. The first step in the process is increasing electric vehicle uptake, which includes lowering barriers for purchase, and lowering barriers for use.

In many ways, New Mexico is perfectly positioned for the moment at hand. The chance to be nimble in shaping what replaces coal persists. But this window of opportunity is closing, and fast. Major power project decisions are looming on the horizon, and the time is now to offer certainty on the path forward for investments and labor alike; to assure that the commitment to pushing the energy transition forward is here, and clear, and to the benefit of all.

Photo: BLM Credit: Michelle for Governor (Oct. 2018).

Wind vs. Gas: Winter Wind Beats New Pipelines

Photo: William Hope

With the cold weather upon us, and a lot of debate about how to supply our energy needs, we can take a look at the power of wind.  Wind is actually stronger in the wintertime when it gets colder. The advantages of using wind to reduce natural gas needs in cold weather are real, and especially relevant to the debate over whether or not it makes sense to invest more into gas pipelines.

Understanding the limits of fossil fuels and the role of renewable energy supply is central to debates about transitions to more renewable energy. The Union of Concerned Scientists has provided plenty of reasons to avoid an over-reliance on natural gas, so the questions about how to replace gas with renewable energy are very important.

Will building more windfarms mean less need for natural gas and natural gas pipelines? Yes. Wind in winter is a very good means to reduce the use of natural gas and the need for gas pipelines.

Some claim the existing gas pipeline system is inadequate for our wintertime energy needs because of the recent increased use of natural gas (methane) as fuel for power plants making electricity.  The crunch comes in winter, and shows as a gas pipeline shortfall in the Northeast because the majority of gas pipeline capacity is committed to home heating and other customers of the gas utilities.  Without the addition of renewable energy in winter, the gas power plants will compete with the demand from gas utilities’ residential and business customers.

Ready answers

Wind blowing offshore New England just gets stronger in winter.

Fortunately, we have a great new industry arriving in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to address this issue under development: offshore wind.

There’s strong policy support for well-financed offshore wind in the Northeast, and that turns out to be a great replacement for gas used by power plants in winter.

We know this with some very specific information from a serious authority. The independent grid operator in New England, ISO-NE, recently published an estimate of how New England states’ commitments to building wind offshore would have produced energy and replaced natural gas.

Excellent results

Specifically, ISO-NE look at wind data, electric demand and natural gas used in power plants for the cold weather period of December 24 2017 through January 8, 2018.

This provides some impressive results. If 800 MW of offshore wind (the amount currently in permitting for delivery to Massachusetts), were in place, the ISO-NE study found, that amount alone would have avoided 9% of the natural gas used for electricity generation in that period. The offshore windfarms’ production in that cold snap would have been 70% of their potential, dramatically higher than the ~18% value used in most ISO planning efforts.

While that 70% figure was impressive, the concept isn’t news to us at UCS. We’ve convinced grid operators and FERC that reliability estimates for winter underestimate the reliability benefits available from wind. UCS described in comments to FERC that physics dictates that power from wind turbines (and some other generators) is greater in colder weather because colder air is heavier. For the same windspeed, colder air will produce more power from the turbine and thus more energy.

Data for the tens of thousands of existing land-based US wind turbines bear this out. Wind assessments and windfarm production tend to show higher production in winter than in summer. Wherever windfarms are built in the U.S., the total need for natural gas goes down. The arrival of offshore wind in the more densely populated East Coast offers this region a lot of renewable energy, and skilled jobs in the construction and operations.

The implications

Debates over how to supplement the energy supply can not overlook wind. The details of gas vs. wind are much more critical. The gas industry has its own dynamics, and investments in gas can lock in decisions and climate impacts for decades.  States along the East Coast have made the choice for new supplies from offshore wind. Now we have an alternative to gas that is renewable and carbon-free. Let’s get this alternative up and running.

Photo: William Hope photo by Mike Jacobs

What is Resource Adequacy? Three Requirements that Keep the Lights on in California

Photo: Henning Witzel

In many parts of the United States, power plant owners can get paid for doing pretty much nothing. You might think that power plant owners make all their money selling the electricity they generate. However, many power plant owners also get paid for providing “capacity,” or the ability to generate electricity. These types of payments are playing an increasingly large role in keeping fossil-fueled power plants operational, and finding cleaner alternatives is going to be a big challenge.

The idea behind paying power plant owners for capacity is that grid operators want to make sure there is enough power to meet electricity demand if something unexpected happens (such as a grid emergency or higher-than-expected electricity demand from a heat wave). These capacity payments are a bit like paying for insurance – power plant owners get paid so that their plants are available to generate electricity just in case that electricity is needed.

Interestingly, there are only a few places in the country where power plant owners do not get paid for capacity. For instance, in most of Texas, power plant owners only get paid for the electricity they produce. As a result, electricity prices skyrocket when electricity demand is at its highest, and those brief moments of sky-high electricity prices are what incentivize Texas power plant owners to have power plant capacity available to generate electricity.

California’s Resource Adequacy Program

In California, the California Public Utilities Commission manages a resource adequacy program. This program obliges electricity providers (usually electric utilities) to pay power plant owners for electricity-generating capacity.

California’s program has three different types of resource adequacy requirements, each designed to keep the grid operating under different types of conditions:

  • System Capacity: These requirements help keep the lights on during the annual “peak load,” when California uses the most electricity. Peak load usually happens on a hot summer day when everyone turns on their air conditioning. The exact requirements are determined by forecasting the next year’s peak load and adding 15% just to be safe.
  • Local Capacity: These requirements help keep the lights on in certain local areas during grid emergencies. For example, a grid emergency might entail a combination of a transmission line to a local area going down and a power plant in the local area going out. Different requirements are determined for each local area by studying worst-case-scenario grid emergencies in each area.
  • Flexible Capacity: These requirements help keep the lights on in the evening when solar generation is winding down and people are starting to use more electricity after coming home from work. Because solar generation tapers off in the evenings when electricity demand is still high, these requirements ensure we have enough flexible resources that can start producing electricity quickly. These requirements are different for each month of the year, and they are based on the largest forecasted three-hour “ramp,” or increase in electricity demand.
Achieving reliability with clean alternatives

California’s resource adequacy requirements are important because they help ensure that the state has enough electricity-generating resources in the right places.

At the same time, California’s resource adequacy requirements present a sizable challenge in the transition to a cleaner electricity system. These requirements are one of the reasons why California is slow to retire more natural gas power plants. For example, a recent Union of Concerned Scientists analysis found that local resource adequacy requirements keep a substantial portion of California’s natural gas power plant fleet from being retired.

Thus, one of our biggest challenges in the state’s transition to 100% clean electricity is meeting these resource adequacy requirements with non-fossil fueled, electricity-generating resources.

Battery storage will likely play a significant role in meeting California’s resource adequacy requirements. The right kind of battery in the right place can count towards many of these requirements, and the recent Union of Concerned Scientists analysis found that strategically putting batteries in the right places on the California grid could allow many more natural gas power plants to be retired. But it would take a lot of batteries to keep the grid operating reliably without any natural gas power plants, so we will need other solutions too.

Another approach is to take actions that reduce the resource adequacy requirements altogether. For instance, California could incentivize strategies that reduce electricity use at certain times of day, which could then reduce system and flexible resource adequacy requirements. Or, California could build more transmission lines into local areas, which could reduce local resource adequacy requirements by expanding access to electricity generated elsewhere.

Meeting California’s resource adequacy requirements through a variety of cleaner approaches – such as battery deployments, reductions in electricity usage, and transmission line upgrades – can help reduce our reliance on natural gas power plants while reliably keeping the lights on.

There will be no single solution for this challenge, and we will likely need to take an all-of-the-above approach. But by reducing resource adequacy requirements and meeting those requirements with clean resources, California will be better able to achieve its ambitious clean energy goals.

Photo: Henning Witzel

What’s Hiding in Your Electric Bill? How Utility Customers Finance Risky Investments

The adage, “You have to spend money to make money,” wasn’t coined to describe the utility business model, but it sure does describe it well. If I may be allowed to oversimplify the regulated utility business model…

Utilities are expected to make investments that are prudent and in the public interest; in return, they get to recover those costs plus a profit. All the utility investments, operating costs, and profits get pooled together and are reflected in customer utility bills.

Expenditures that aren’t “prudent” and “in the public interest” (two key terms in the industry) don’t get to be recovered. But many utilities have found a way to get around guidelines and force customers to finance fossil fuel infrastructure, lobbying, and power plants that aren’t even built yet.

1.    Fossil fuel infrastructure

Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power and Light (FPL), managed to get approval to invest in oil and gas wells in Oklahoma and force customers to pay for the company’s transition to oil and gas speculation.

Other utilities have done this with coal, getting the costs to operate coal mines into the bills of customers.

The utilities were able to get these investments approved under the guise of such endeavors saving customers money, but what it ends up doing is locking utilities into relying–and over-relying–on that fuel source. Utilities that abstain from this practice can shop around and find better deals.

Sometimes they try to hide their fuel preferences through ‘affiliate transactions.’ This is when a utility enters into an agreement with another company even though both companies are owned by the same parent organization. Sound confusing? That’s by design.

Affiliate transactions become a particularly thorny issue when it comes to gas pipelines. Some utilities are buying pipeline companies and investing in major new infrastructure projects that are predicated on the need for new capacity. Thing is, the companies willing to sign contracts for new capacity are subsidiaries of the first company.

These affiliate transactions could end up forcing utility customers to pay for fossil fuel infrastructure for decades rather than allowing markets to help lower costs and shift risks away from customers and onto developers (which is the whole point of markets).

2.    Lobbying Photo via Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Electric utilities are increasingly asking customers like you to pay for infrastructure like this.

If you have a problem with Nike for hiring Colin Kaepernick you can go out and buy a pair of New Balance. Don’t approve of New Balances political contributions? Try Toms…

Thing is, for most Americans, it is a lot harder to switch your electric utility. This is why some regulators have made it illegal for utilities to recover the costs of political contributions or lobbying on legislation. But that hasn’t stopped utilities from spending money on lobbying.

Utility expenditures on lobbying peaked in 2010 with nearly $200 million. Things commonly lobbied against: policies that support rooftop solar and energy efficiency programs.

Presumably, that money shouldn’t be coming from customer’s pockets, but sometimes it does.

The best-documented way that utilities funnel customer dollars to lobby and political activities are through trade associations and memberships, like the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). Utility’s dues to EEI are typically able to be recovered from customers and, as the Energy and Policy Institute detailed in a report last year, that organization regularly fights against renewables. EEI’s troublesome and opaque practices are nothing new, it goes back at least three decades.

3.    Power plants that aren’t even built yet

Most utilities enter into power purchase agreements (PPA) in order to buy wind and solar power. In doing so, the utility–and by extension, the customer–only ends up paying for the energy that gets generated.

That isn’t always the case though.

Several utilities have been allowed to start charging customers for power plant projects while construction work is still in progress or “CWIP” (construction work in progress). The economic theory behind CWIP is that it helps reduce the financing costs of large construction progress. This SHOULD save customers money. In practice, it has resulted in huge overruns.

Photo by Nathan Waters

Would you start paying rent for an apartment that was still under construction?

Take for example Mississippi Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company. They wanted to build a coal-fired power plant that could capture carbon emissions. An ambitious project that was financed on the backs of captive customers. The result:

Billions of dollars in overruns and replacing the plans with a gas plant that still produces carbon emissions.

As noted by the NAACP, the money wasted by Mississippi Power would have been sufficient to put solar panels on the roofs of every single residential customer.

Experimental technology (like CCS) isn’t the only technology subject to billions of dollars of overruns. Nuclear power too has regularly cost more money than originally predicted.

The Georgia PSC approved  CWIP for the controversial Vogtle nuclear units, payments which were eventually canceled by the legislature after the local community cried foul.

Why we intervene

All the above examples and many that went unmentioned appeared before commissioners that are charged with approving or disapproving which costs utilities can recover from customers. Utility decisions are adjudicated in front of public commissions that are charged with weighing the facts presented to them. In these proceedings, the utilities present their plans to commissioners in hopes to get their business plans approved. If public citizens, or public interest groups, want to have their voice heard during these proceedings, they must intervene in the utility proceeding and provide technical comments. UCS has a staff of technical experts that are equipped to analyze and testify on utility plans. That is why you can expect to see UCS showing up at more and more of these utility proceedings, not just as advocates for science but as experts testifying in hearings about the importance of robust objective analysis.

cc0 US DOT Nathan Waters

The EPA, Mercury, and Air Toxics, Oh My!

Photo: John Westrock/CC BY-NC (Flickr)

The government may be in the midst of a nonsensical shutdown, but that didn’t stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week from proposing a new formula of calculating the human health benefits of reducing mercury emissions from power plants (or in their words proposing a “revised Supplemental Cost Finding”).

New and revised for sure, but definitely not in a good way.

In keeping with the Trump Administration’s assault on science and on environmental and public health safeguards (see here and here), the EPA has decided that its own rule adopted during the Obama administration is just too costly and can no longer be justified as “appropriate and necessary.” Too costly for whom, you might ask. Bet you know the answer to that question.

Whose math is funny?

In 2012, the EPA estimated that its Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule would prevent 11,000 premature deaths and over 100,000 asthma and heart attacks each year, as a result of the co-benefits of the reduction in particulate matter pollution that occurs when plants reduce their mercury emissions. The agency estimated the health benefits of reductions in all air pollutants associated with MATS would range from $37 billion to $90 billion, with compliance costs to industry estimated at $7.4 to $9.6 billion annually.

Bah, humbug says EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler. The health benefits of cutting mercury emissions are only $4 million to $6 million max; it’s just not right to count those other co-benefits. Apparently, even the benefits of protecting pregnant women and the brains of their developing fetuses and young children from mercury exposure (a toxin can lower IQ, cause motor function problems, and other nervous system impairments) are too small to worry about, as they are far outweighed by what it could cost power plants to install the required pollution controls.

Never mind that scientists have concluded that the EPA’s 2011 regulatory impact assessment greatly underestimated the monetized benefits of reducing mercury emissions from power plants. And never mind that most coal plants have already come into compliance with MATS by installing the necessary pollution control technology. Oh, and almost forgot to mention that electric companies have reduced mercury emissions by 90% since the MATS rule took effect in 2012 (see quote by Brian Reil, a spokesman for the utility trade group Edison Electric Institute in this article.)

So, what is an agency bent on rolling back regulations to do? Well, why not narrow the scope of what can count as benefits and do a new cost-benefit analysis. Done! And presto, the EPA now asserts it is no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollution emitted from power plants under the Clean Air Act. The EPA is also asserting that there are no new technologies or methods of operation for controlling any residual risks of mercury and other hazardous air toxics that would justify the costs of further reductions. [So much for the agency’s confidence in innovation.]

An end-of-year gift (to industry) that will keep on giving

I suppose one can give a nod to the EPA’s impeccable timing in announcing this roll-back—at the end of a week between the holidays and while the government was shut down. Or perhaps the agency thought the public wouldn’t grasp the seriousness of its crafty ploy that leaves the actual rule intact (for now) while sideswiping its analytical underpinning.

But we and the broader public health and environmental communities are not fooled (some early reflections here and here and a more detailed analysis here). This maneuver to change the calculus of benefits sets a dangerous and far-reaching precedent—one that will make it ever more challenging to set protective regulations in the future. And one that clearly sets the stage for rescinding MATS itself, which BTW was included in Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray’s wish list of environmental rollbacks submitted to the Trump administration in early 2017. [Murray was an important client of Acting Administrator Wheeler in his former life as a coal industry lobbyist. See here and here.]


We can expect to see a notice published in the Federal Register (FR) shortly, which will open a 60-day public comment period. [See the submitted notice here, which includes mention of at least one public hearing on the proposal—location, date, and time to be published in a second FR document.]

It’s critical that we let the EPA know what we think of its wonky little revision. It’s not little; it’s a crafty, nasty, and dangerous proposal that could rollback current safeguards and undermine future public health and environmental protections. Get ready to comment and alert your colleagues to do the same. We will watch for the FR notice and let you know when it appears.

Year in Review: 9 Clean Energy Transition Stories from 2018

Despite the Trump Administration’s ongoing attempts to prop up coal and undermine renewables—at FERC, EPA, and through tariffs and the budget process—2018 should instead be remembered for the surge in momentum toward a clean energy economy. Here are nine storylines that caught my attention this past year and help illustrate the unstoppable advancement of renewable energy and other modern grid technologies.

1. California goes all in for carbon-free electricity

In late August, California—the world’s 5th largest economy—committed to the target of fully decarbonizing its power sector by 2045. The landmark legislation also strengthens the state’s renewable portfolio standard (also known as a renewable energy standard, or RES) from 50 to 60 percent by 2030. What’s more, at the bill signing, Governor Jerry Brown, signed an executive order that establishes a goal of achieving carbon-neutrality across all sectors of California’s sprawling economy by 2045, cementing the state’s place as a global leader in climate action.

2. Several states strengthen their RES requirements

State-level renewable electricity standards continued to be a primary driver of new renewable energy development in 2018. In addition to California, legislatures in New Jersey (50% by 2030), Connecticut (40% by 2030), and Massachusetts (35% by 2030) all adopted stronger targets for renewable energy, accelerating their states’ transitions away from fossil fuels. In addition, voters in Nevada overwhelmingly approved a measure to increase their state’s RES to 50% by 2030 (the measure must be approved again in 2020 to officially become law).

3. Clean energy champions win gubernatorial races

One of the bright spots in November’s election results was the number newly elected governors who campaigned on aggressive clean energy and climate change agendas. Newly elected governors in at least 10 states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin, have pledged to accelerate clean energy and carbon reductions in their states by supporting US commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement, joining the US Climate Alliance, and/or calling for renewable energy targets of 80%-100%. These election results demonstrate the widespread support for greater investments in renewable energy and signal the push for even stronger clean energy policies in the coming year.

4. Record low prices for renewables

Innovation, growing economies of scale, and attractive financing continued to drive the costs down for renewables in 2018. Power purchase agreements for wind and solar projects in states like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas have reportedly ranged between $20-$30 per megawatt-hour, well below the cost of natural gas generation—and the technologies are positioned for further cost reductions to continue to be low-cost options even as federal tax incentives change. What’s even more exciting is that the many of these low-priced projects also include energy storage components, increasing their value to the grid.

Utility-Scale Solar Power Purchase Agreement Prices, by Project Size, 2008-2018.
Source: GTM Research.

5. Major utilities commit to low-carbon portfolios

Earlier this month, Xcel Energy became the first major utility to commit to a completely carbon-free electricity supply across the eight states it operates in. In doing so, it joins a growing number of utilities that are committing to phasing out their use of coal and transitioning to substantially lower carbon energy portfolios. Also this year, both Consumers Energy in Michigan and NIPSCO in northern Indiana announced plans to phase out coal generation and utility giant American Electric Power announced a goal of reducing its carbon emissions 80% by 2050. What’s especially exciting about these utility actions is that they are driven primarily by economics, clearly demonstrating the competitiveness of clean energy technologies.

6. Corporate renewable energy purchases keep growing

Low renewable energy prices continue to attract major corporations looking to save money and achieve ambitious sustainability goals. As a result, direct corporate purchases of renewable energy have become a major driver of renewable energy deployment. In 2018, the Rocky Mountain Institute reports, corporate renewable energy purchases—led by companies like Facebook, Walmart, ATT and Microsoft—reached more than 6.4 gigawatts (GW). The number of corporations investing in renewables expanded at a record pace this year as well, with nearly two-thirds of Fortune 100 and nearly half of Fortune 500 companies now having set ambitious renewable energy goals.

7. Offshore wind moves forward

While no new offshore wind projects came online in the US this year (the next project—off the Virginia coast—is scheduled for 2020), the industry did take some big leaps toward becoming a major player in the nation’s power supply. For example, the winning bid for Massachusetts’s first request for offshore wind proposals to help meet the state’s offshore wind requirements passed in 2016 went to an 800-megawatt project from Vineyard Wind at a shockingly low price of about 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. In addition, the latest US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management auction for leasing parcels of water for future projects resulted in 11 bidders and $405.1 million in winning bids, both smashing previous records. And strong state policies, including new offshore wind requirements in New Jersey and elsewhere, mean that there’s a lot more action to come.

8. Storage steps into the spotlight

Once a fringe player in the electric power sector, the energy storage industry is quickly emerging as a game changer in the transition to a clean energy economy as a tool for integrating much higher levels of renewable energy. In 2018, the pipeline for new storage projects doubled to nearly 33 GW as more utilities are investing in the technology thanks largely rapidly falling prices and growing support from state policies. While California has led the nation in storage deployment to date, New York recently established the strongest storage requirement in the country at 3,000 MW by 2030. Earlier this year, New Jersey set an ambitious storage target of 2,000 MW by 2030 and Massachusetts significantly increased its storage requirement to 1,000 megawatt-hours by 2025. At the federal level, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued Order 841, which directs regional grid operators to set market rules that allow energy storage to participate on a level playing field in the wholesale energy, capacity and ancillary services markets.

Lithium-ion batteries for advanced energy storage. Photo: Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

9. PG&E turns down the gas with storage and renewables

In one particular sign of what’s to come in 2019 and beyond in terms of how these technologies fit together to displace fossil fuels, one of the most exciting regulatory decisions I saw this year was the California Public Utility Commission’s approval of PG&E’s plan to use energy storage to replace retiring gas generators. One of the key barriers to fully transitioning to a carbon-free economy is replacing natural gas generation and the ancillary services they provide to the power grid. This decision, which marks the first time a utility will directly replace power plants with battery storage, should spur many more similar projects to move forward in California and across the country and open the door for integrating much higher levels of renewable energy onto the power grid.

These nine stories are just a sampling what occurred in 2018 to further the clean energy transition. As the year comes to a close, UCS will continue to work hard to keep up the clean energy momentum in 2019.

Photo: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

Dear New Midwest Governors: The Green New Deal and You

Getting traction on Green New Deal policies at the federal level won’t be easy—but new governors in the Midwest can make progress on climate and economic priorities right away. Here’s how.

What is this Green New Deal?

Chances are you have seen one of the numerous articles recently buzzing around about the concept of a Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal is not necessarily a new idea. Folks have been talking about it since at least 2007. And there are different formulations for what the suite of policies might include.

The youth-led Sunrise Movement says a Green New Deal “would transform our economy and society at the scale needed to stop the climate crisis.” Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York has proposed a select committee be formed in Congress on the topic. And politicians, pundits, and thought leaders have been weighing in across the spectrum.

The core idea of any Green New Deal proposal is to act on climate issues while addressing economic and social issues at the same time.

A Green New Deal is about reducing emissions while increasing jobs. It’s about getting more clean energy onto the system while increasing equity, fairness, and justice in economic opportunity and public health. A Green New Deal values the voices of youth and immigrants and of the under-employed.

While new research shows these themes are popular in principle, the current challenges to enacting any such policies at the federal level remain challenging.

What about state governments, can they do anything to advance the spirit of a Green New Deal? Should they?

[Spoiler Alert: they can, and they should!]

New leadership in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin

Last month several Great Lakes states elected new governors to take office in January 2019: J.B. Pritzker in Illinois; Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan; Tim Walz in Minnesota; Mike DeWine in Ohio; and Tony Evers in Wisconsin. DeWine is a Republican; the others are Democrats.

These new governors have a chance to lead their states on climate and equity issues from day one.

Below I highlight important clean energy developments in each state that are the building blocks for further progress—and how facets of the Green New Deal concept can be incorporated as these states move forward under new leadership.


In 2016, Illinois enacted the Future Energy Jobs Act with bipartisan support. In addition to driving new utility-scale wind and solar development, the legislation created the Illinois Solar For All program and clean energy job training to enable all communities to benefit from clean energy. In combination with programs from the City of Chicago, the state’s drive to solar inclusiveness is succeeding in places like the Altgeld Gardens neighborhood, where unemployment is five times the city average. Incoming Governor J.B. Pritzker can build on this momentum through partnering with the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition and other stakeholders on comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation in 2019.


This year, Michigan’s two major electric utilities both announced important carbon reduction and clean energy goals. Many of the state’s old and inefficient coal-fired power plants have been retired, and there are plans to close additional polluting facilities in the coming years.

Governor-elect Whitmer has proposed to create a state climate office and emphasized infrastructure improvement and clean drinking water issues in her campaign. Integrating these important issues with continued progress on clean energy will open more job opportunities for Michiganders in the solar and public infrastructure sectors—and help ensure that all communities have access to healthy air and water.


Last week Xcel Energy announced a goal of being carbon-free by 2050. Minnesota has also been a pioneer in renewable energy policies and is considering measures to increase energy storage in the state. Governor-elect Tim Walz can work with the Minnesota 100% Campaign on formulating additional policies for an equitable clean energy future for the state.


New Governor Mike DeWine should continue opposition to any proposals from FirstEnergy to bail out its coal-fired power plants. And he can lead the state forward by supporting efforts to defend and expand Ohio’s renewable and energy efficiency policies, especially by adding measures to ensure clean energy development benefits all communities through creating jobs and keeping energy bills affordable.


Wisconsin utilities are moving away from coal-fired power plants toward cleaner forms of energy, especially wind and solar. Incoming Governor Tony Evers can work with agencies and the public utility commission to re-focus the state on climate issues and environmental protection.

Moving forward in the Midwest in 2019

In addition to policies in their individual states, Midwest governors can also work together in a regional way to advance clean energy across several states; for example, by advocating for transmission grid operators to open up more access for wind and solar power.

The newly-elected Midwest governors have a chance to join leaders like Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, who last week announced an ambitious climate change agenda for his state. And this week Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced a goal of 100% carbon-free electricity for his state by 2040.

Let’s make sure our new Midwest Governors follow suit and look to the popularity of Green New Deal policies as central features of the climate and energy policies we need in 2019 and beyond.

Photo: Andreas Gücklhorn/unsplash

Birds, Bats, and Wind Power: An Interview with Abby Arnold of the American Wind Wildlife Institute

Photo: Iberdrola Renewables

When you think about wind power, what comes to mind? Electricity generated without fuel, water, air or water pollution, or planet-warming carbon dioxide? Or a threat to local wildlife? How do we address that second piece so we can focus on the first?

Abby Arnold, American Wind Wildlife Institute (Photo: AWWI)

It’s the carbon piece that keeps me most focused on this question, given the latest climate reports (both international and domestic) and wind energy’s powerful contribution to decarbonizing the US electricity sector. It seems clear that ramping up wind power makes a lot of sense, as part of a broader, multi-technology push toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels, with all the harm they bring. It also seems clear that ramping it up means doing wind power in ways that minimize downsides.

And the wind-wildlife question seems particularly appropriate now, given the 12th Wind Wildlife Research Meeting that I recently attended. The WWRM is the latest in an every-other-year series of conferences that bring together researchers, policy makers, and others to talk about the state of the science on wind turbine interactions with birds, bats, and habitats. And this WWRM included a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, an organization that the Union of Concerned Scientists has been involved in from the beginning, and to whose board I’ve just been elected.

I had a chance to talk about wind-wildlife history, players, issues, and solutions with AWWI’s executive director, Abby Arnold.

John Rogers (JR): Thanks for your time, Abby. Can we start with where you’ve come from, and where we’ve come from on wind-wildlife issues?

Abby Arnold (AA): Sure: As a mediator, I’ve been working with stakeholders in the wind industry and the conservation-science community for over 25 years. I got introduced to wind and wildlife in 1993, when I got contacted by the head of the American Wind Energy Association [AWEA] and electric private and public utility executives who were concerned about recent press about eagles at Altamont Pass [the nation’s first large-scale collection of wind farms, built in the 1980s, which has had bird issues but which are being addressed].

So we pulled together an initial meeting and then formed the National Wind Coordinating Committee (now Collaborative), or NWCC. UCS was a major player in the formation of NWCC, which also included representatives of public utility commissions, attorney general offices (representing consumers), the wind industry, utilities, and conservation groups. UCS was also a key part of the NWCC’s wind-wildlife working group.

It was under the NWCC that we addressed what are the right questions to ask, and how you measure the impacts.

Impacts, solutions,… science! Listening attentively at the 12th Wind Wildlife Research Meeting, St. Paul, MN (Photo: AWWI)

JR: So what are the issues, as you see them?

AA: Let’s talk first about what’s positive about wind. Wind doesn’t emit carbon, doesn’t use water. It’s an economically viable source of energy.

The challenge is that impacts are local. That it causes some harm to some bird and bat species. These impacts can be direct, causing fatalities, or may be indirect by displacing species from their habitat.

Any energy resource has impacts. The questions for wind power are what species are at risk, and what solutions there are to address that risk. We’ve been spending the last twenty years studying the impacts side of the equation, with recent focus using what we have learned to develop solutions, meaning innovative strategies and technologies that are coming out of a better understanding of the impacts.

Why wind-wildlife matters

JR: This’ll be obvious to many, but: Why should people care about wind-wildlife issues?

AA: Because we want wind. I think what’s really interesting about wind power is it’s a technology that went commercial only recently, relatively speaking. Other energy sources like oil and gas, or coal, didn’t have the benefit—or responsibility—of going commercial in the twenty-first century. We have an opportunity to apply everything we now know about reducing impacts to do it right; wind has both the benefit and the burden of that knowledge. We can build it and conserve wildlife.

The other reason these issues are important is that the industry has to comply with laws, and they don’t get financing if they don’t. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Endangered Species Act. Plus state laws, some of which are more restrictive and some of which are less. If you want to build a wind farm and not be at risk, you have to comply.

Photo: Matt Hamilton

JR: Enter AWWI?

AA: The American Wind Wildlife Institute is unique. I don’t know of another energy source that has invested as much as the wind industry has in working with the science and conservation community in understanding impacts and solutions.

Twelve to thirteen years ago, as the wind industry was growing commercially, they recognized that they needed to address these issues more quickly in order to build out their potential. Dr. James Walker, at the time the chair of the AWEA board and the CEO of enXco [a wind company, now EDF Renewables], worked with a number of other leaders to encourage the wind industry to create a new non-profit to work with the conservation-science community to understand the risks and develop solutions to address those risks. UCS was the first non-profit organization that agreed to sign on, followed by several others.

That led to the creation of AWWI, an independent nonprofit (unlike the NWCC, which is funded by the US Department of Energy [DOE])—so AWWI could do the independent science and deliver results.

Now, ten years later, we are reaping the benefits of all that leadership. This year we have [as members] twenty-seven companies, nine national conservation-science groups, and AFWA [the association of state fish and wildlife agencies]. And next year we’ll have even more.

Technology for wind and wildlife

JR: You’ve mentioned solutions…?

AA: If you think about what the state of the science was ten years ago, we were making all kinds of assumptions about why there were habitat impacts, or why they were occurring. The “solution” at the time was avoidance: Don’t build.

But we need clean electricity, and wind power has been one of the best options for supplying that. So not building wasn’t a viable option.

Now, we have over 90 gigawatts [90,000 megawatts] of wind power built in the US—and we have a much better understanding of why these “takes” [bird or bat deaths] are occurring. Environmental factors, habitat, time of day, activity in the area. We just have a much more refined understanding.

So now we’re developing machine-based technologies to detect and deter species [see also here for bats and here for eagles]; we’re in a whole new ballgame for understanding the science, the risks, and also the solutions to address. There are these camera- or radar-based ones that may be better than the human eye at seeing what’s flying around. And once a device figures out what it is, there are technologies in development that may deter the bird or bat from being near the turbine—with certain kinds of lights, for example, or sounds. Those are things that they’re developing. AWWI has a catalog of technologies available to AWWI Partners and Friends.

What we haven’t figured out is the economics. They’re new, they’re expensive. So at the same time as we’re having this exciting time to create/develop these solutions, the industry is faced with increasing pressure to reduce costs, to compete with natural gas. Wind companies have to be very strategic about what technologies to invest in, and integrating them into projects so they remain cost competitive.

What role can technology play in detection and deterrence? (Photo: IdentiFlight/Boulder Imaging)

JR: What’s AWWI’s role been in moving those technologies along?

AA: AWWI provided the catalyst for engineers, biologists, and operations experts to collaborate, creating a new field. AWWI’s technology innovation program, developed in the last five years, is tracking, developing, and providing independent peer-reviewed assessment of technologies. Evaluating commercial-ready technologies with independent results helps regulators and wind companies make informed decisions about what to invest in. DOE supports this development through funding and their labs, like NREL [the National Renewable Energy Laboratory], which supports early-stage development of these types of technologies. Through collaborative science we bring together all the different stakeholders that need to coordinate on actually integrating these technologies into wind farms.

Better wind-wildlife science through data

JR: How about the data side, in terms of understanding what we know about siting and building wind farms in ways that avoid and minimize impacts?

AA: That’s another really important piece of AWWI’s work: the American Wind Wildlife Information Center. The AWWIC is the most comprehensive database of post-construction fatality data [data on bird and bat fatalities after a wind farm has been built] for the United States. And the reason is that it includes both publicly available and confidential data. We have confidential data because companies have agreed to work with AWWI to provide data that has been anonymized so it can be included in analyses but remain confidential. The database currently includes data for a quarter of wind power capacity installed as of 2016.

JR: So that’s a bit about the issues, the technologies, the data. More generally, how do things look now from where you’re standing?

AA: In this anniversary year, we’re seeing a recommitment from the wind industry to develop these solutions. I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been that in six or so years we’ll look back and say that this was a pivotal year. The demand for clean electricity. The development of AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning. The sophistication of the industry in recognizing and wanting to deal with issues. The only thing holding us back is the uncertainty in the policy environment at the federal level. But we’ve got market purchasers buying wind—Google, Microsoft,… We’ve got utilities, like AEP. We’ve got states on board.

And, through AWWI, we’ve got the wind industry working hand-in-hand with conservation-science groups to make sure we reduce negative effects and enhance the positive ones as we work to get the wind power we need—both for people and for wildlife.

JR: And UCS is glad to be a part of it. Thanks, Abby, for your time, and for your leadership on all this.


More wind-wildlife materials from AWWI:

More about Abby:

Abby Arnold manages collaboratives that elevate the best available science into decision-making to achieve results. Along with being executive director for AWWI since 2010 and interim director during its founding, Abby serves as principal/senior mediator at Kearns & West, and has been lead facilitator and strategic advisor for the NWCC, the Department of the Interior’s Wind Turbine Guidelines Federal Advisory Committee, and many other regional and national collaborations. Abby holds a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a B.A. in Environmental Planning and Politics from UC Santa Cruz.

Photo: Iberdrola Renewables

Seasonal Shutdowns: How Coal Plants That Operate Less Can Save Customers Money

Photo: Tikilucas/Wikimedia Commons

There is a growing trend amongst coal plant operators: save customers money by switching to seasonal operation and operating less. Operators can secure those savings for customers because other resources (like wind, solar and other resources) are often available at lower cost. Reduced operations also translate to reduced emissions.

A growing trend

This was the strategy that owners of three coal plants in Texas took. The Martin Lake and Monticello coal plants, owned by Luminant went that route in 2015. The Gibbons Creek coal plant, owned by the Texas Municipal Power Agency and member utilities, followed suit in 2017.

Cleco and SWEPCO have joined in on the trend.

Cleco and AEP subsidiary SWEPCO are the primary owners of the Dolet Hills Power Plant in Louisiana.

The companies have announced that the Dolet Hills facility will switch to seasonal operation: it will only operate four months of the year between June and September when demand (and electricity prices) are highest primarily due to the need for air conditioning on hot summer afternoons.

The utilities’ own estimations indicate this will save customers $85 million by the end of 2020.

That opportunity to save money was the reason why several reports I authored in the past recommended that AEP and Cleco operate this coal plant less (if not shut it down altogether).

In October 2017, I wrote a report concluding that the owners of the Dolet Hills power plant in Louisiana (along with several other power plants throughout the region) were unnecessarily burdening customers. An AEP representative replied in the press that the company was “following market protocols” and that the conclusion was flawed, arguing that fuel costs were in fact fixed; that customers would not save money if the plant operated less.

A year later, I conducted another analysis that produced similar results and the same conclusion. You can read my previous blog post on that analysis here.

After the second report, AEP again insisted it was obeying market rules and asserted that reduced operations wouldn’t save customers money.

Now, months after denying it was possible, the company admits that turning off the plant 8 months of the year will save customers $85 million by the end of 2020.

How do seasonal shutdowns save customers money?

If it costs $25 to produce a unit of energy and the market price is $30 per unit then it makes sense to operate that power plant and take that $5 margin and use it to pay down debt or other fixed costs.

If market prices stay at $30 the power plant keeps operating as much as it can and begins to pay down the fixed costs and eventually the revenues go to building up a profit. If the market price drops down to $20 and the unit keeps operating, then the owner’s profits begin to erode. The longer the owner does this the more the profits erode. The money that they “save” by shutting down for part of the year can then be passed along to customers (or shareholders).

What’s next?

AEP owns several other coal plants that, if operated less, have the potential to save customers money. This includes Pirkey (also located in Louisiana) and John Amos (located in West Virginia). AEP has committed to investing in renewables and reducing carbon pollution. Shutting down a coal plant for eight months of the year could reduce that plant’s emissions by up to 60%. Reducing the output of those power plants represent an opportunity to reduce carbon pollution and reduce customer bills at the same time.

Photo: Tikilucas/Wikimedia Commons

Queremos Sol Puerto Rico: a 100% Local and Extraordinary Resource

Installing solar panels in PA

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At a time when news about climate change (such as the lack of political will at COP24 and reports from the IPCCNCA4, and UNEP) and its devastating impacts (including hurricane Maria and Florence, and the recent fires in California) is more frequent and frustrating, it’s inspiring to learn about initiatives in which visionary people are coming together to push for real actions that improve our quality of life, now and in the future, while reducing climate change emissions and preparing us for its impacts.

Agustín Irizarry next to the oldest solar clock in Puerto Rico, and also the second oldest in the hemisphere. 

This is the case with the Queremos Sol Puerto Rico (We Want Sun Puerto Rico) initiative, which aims to have the island produce at least 50% of its electricity from renewable energy resources like solar and wind by 2035, and 100% by 2050.

To learn more about this initiative I talked with Dr. Agustín Irizarry, one of its collaborators and a professor of Electric Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.

Paula Garcia: What motivated this initiative?

Augustín IrizarryQueremos Sol Puerto Rico is the result of people and organizations joining forces to promote development that is sustainable, local, and clean—starting right away.

For years we’ve heard the government promising an energy transition that is going to happen in the next 15 or 20 years. For decades we’ve been told that we’re going to reduce our dependence on imported oil. But then the proposed change is to buy coal or gas, and Puerto Rico doesn’t have any of these three resources.

But what we dohave is an extraordinary amount of sunlight that falls directly on the roofs of our homes. And if well installed, solar systems are extremely resilient to hurricanes and allow us to overcome the problems that we’re going to keep on facing due to climate change.

PG: Talking about climate change and Hurricane Maria…

AI: Hurricane Maria demonstrated the tremendous vulnerability of our electric system. It showed that even billions of dollars invested in centralized systems fueled by fossil fuels can’t guarantee that we won’t be in the dark again for months. This is a moment in which people are searching for alternatives to avoid going through what so many had to endure, living months and months without energy. That’s why after Maria everybody wants a solar system on their roof with a battery to store the energy.

PG: What is Queremos Sol Puerto Rico?

AI: Hurricane Maria accelerated our interest in and enthusiasm for deploying solar systems with energy storage throughout Puerto Rico.

So, the initiative includes these steps:

  • Starting with solar systems on the roofs of houses to make them more resilient.
  • Building “solar communities” where people go out to buy jointly solar systems to reduce costs.
  • Creating community microgrids.

In terms of solar energy, the idea is to install rooftop solar systems of 2 to 5 kilowatts (kW) and pair them with energy storage systems of 10 to 20 kilowatts-hour (KWh). When we evaluated the capacity of these systems in Puerto Rico, we found the small ones (2kW, 10 kWh) can cover the basic energy needs of a household: fridge, washer, lights, cellphone, laptop. Bigger systems (4 kW, 20 kWh) can provide other modern comforts such as powering fans, Wi-Fi, TVs. With good sun conditions, a 5 kW solar system can also power an air conditioner for several hours.

PG: Is the configuration of the roofs adequate and the solar resource enough for the systems to operate efficiently?

AI: The majority of roofs in Puerto Rico are flat, and this is convenient for solar systems because at our latitude the sun is very high in the sky year-round; there’s no need for a lot of tilt for the panels. A lot of books talk about solar resources, but most of them have been written in latitudes other than the tropics, by people who don’t live in the tropics. So, it’s important to understand that the behavior of the sun here is characteristic of this region—it’s not the behavior of the sun at 40 degrees north or 40 degrees south. We’ve learned a lot about this, and learned not to listen to those books because they present information that isn’t accurate for our latitude.

We have an extraordinary solar resource here, we’ve been measuring it, and our studies are solid. Common wisdom says that panels should be tilted at the same angle as the latitude, and that’s true for places other than the tropics. For us, given our latitude and how high the sun is in the sky, it makes sense to locate the panels with a very small tilt. That way we lose only a little energy while saving a lot of costs in mounting materials and reducing the area exposed to hurricane winds and other risks.

Our roofs are excellent to capture solar energy. A proof of this is the 101 days that I lived solely powered by solar energy after Hurricane Maria, and my fridge never stopped running even with the cloudy skies.

PG: And what do we need to keep in mind in this transition that we’re undergoing toward renewable energy?

AI: The fight now is against the implementation of a solar tax and against penalties for being off the grid.

Those that want to generate and sell energy using fossil-fueled power plants and inflexible systems should sell it at a price that is competitive with generating energy using solar roofs. We, as consumers, will decide if the price is competitive enough compared to installing solar roofs with storage. Consumers should have the option to decide what they prefer.

It’s vital not to penalize access to solar energy, not to apply a solar tax or forbid going off the grid. The sun that falls on our roofs is ours and no one should interfere on this. It’s like sticking your feet in the ocean—it should not be taxed.

It’s a philosophical concept about what belongs to us, where the government should not interfere. This philosophical concept, added to technological, cost, and environmental impact considerations, draws a clear path to follow.

Public Source Agustín Irizarry

Record-Smashing Auction Sets America on Course for Offshore Wind

Photo: Derrick Jackson

There can be no more doubt on the promise of American offshore wind energy after Friday’s record-smashing federal auction of 390,000 acres of water far south of Martha’s Vineyard. A forlorn area that attracted no bids in 2015 from investors frustrated over the collapse of Cape Wind is now the Cinderella of energy, going in three parcels for a combined $405.1 million.

The winning suitors in the auction held by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) were Equinor, Mayflower Wind and Vineyard Wind. The individual sales of $135.1 million for one parcel and $135 million each for other two more than tripled the previous individual record of $42 million paid last year by Equinor for 79,350 acres of ocean 13 miles south of Long Island, New York.

The auction that began Thursday morning and ended Friday morning after 32 rounds, also obliterated several other records. Eleven separate companies participated nearly double the number competing in the Long Island auction. All three parcels went for more than $1,000 an acre, virtually doubling the $535 per acre Equinor paid last year.

By mind-blowing contrast, two adjacent parcels that did sell in the ill-fated 2015 auction went for $1.50 an acre and 90 cents an acre.

Long-time, and often long-suffering, experts who have watched the United States fall 20 years behind Europe in the development of offshore wind were nothing less than shocked. “No way did I think that these parcels would go for these prices,” said Stephanie McClellan director of offshore wind initiatives at the University of Delaware. Even BOEM Acting Director Walter Cruickshank said in a press call he was “blown away.”

For them to be shocked speaks to the magnitude of the sale of an area that, if fully developed with the rapidly growing power of individual turbines, could generate close to 5,000 megawatts of power, providing electricity equivalent to the demands of more than 2.5 million New England households, according to Union of Concerned Scientists estimates.

A key reason, Cruickshank, said, was leadership in Massachusetts.  Even though Cape Wind, a 130-turbine, 400-megawatt project on the scale of European wind farms, was killed off by a decade of lawsuits and criticism over its cost, the groundwork the state laid now has New England standing at the clear epicenter of the first wave of US offshore wind farms.

A major part was the building of a $100 million marine port terminal capable of loading the massive components of skyscraper-high machines onto installment ships. The state also conducted extensive ocean surveys and stakeholder meetings to anticipate impacts on wildlife and fishing. The federal sites auctioned off since Cape Wind are much farther out to sea, defusing debates about wind farms ruining scenic views.

Even as Cape Wind faded, the price of offshore wind in Europe, combined with the need for renewable energy created by state mandates and targets to slash gases fueling climate change, kept alive hopes for the industry. In March 2016, in a study many observers felt rekindled investor confidence and political will in Massachusetts, McClellan and Willett Kempton, research director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-free Power Integration, determined that offshore wind farms could quickly get their energy price to compete with fossil fuels.

By summer, the state legislature came together on an energy bill signed by Governor Charlie Baker (who had opposed Cape Wind), mandating 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy. That mandate ignited an explosive competition. New York has pledged 2,400 megawatts, New Jersey has a target of 3,500 megawatts and Maryland, Rhode Island and Connecticut all have significant plans and commitments for offshore wind.

Despite the fact that the only current offshore wind farm consists of five turbines and 30 megawatts off Block Island, the East Coast now has about 10 gigawatts of state targets that have the potential of providing electricity equivalent to the demands of more than 5 million households. That also means thousands of jobs. A report by Northeast state clean energy agencies estimates that a pipeline of 8 gigawatts’ worth of projects could create 16,700 jobs for work that would almost certainly have to be done in the United States, such as building foundations, laying cable and assembly.

And the price of producing offshore wind energy has come down so much that the proposed 800 MW Vineyard Wind project from an earlier auction of Massachusetts waters is projected by the state to save rate payers $1.4 billion over its 20-year contract. The prospects are so bright, even the Trump administration has found a soft spot for offshore wind amid its otherwise ceaseless attacks on environmental protection and climate science. Ethics-plagued Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the face of the White House’s effort to open up federal lands for fossil fuel drilling and mineral mining before he announced his resignation Saturday, said of Friday’s auction, “With bold leadership, faster, streamlined environmental reviews, and a lot of hard work with our states and fishermen, we’ve given the wind industry the confidence to think and bid big.”

That is a rare statement from this administration on which green energy advocates can applaud. Saying that today’s auction shows that “developers with large balance sheets believe that this market is going to be huge, and will be profitable,” Kempton added, “If they can make money selling electricity at below market prices, with it being near-zero carbon emissions, everyone wins.”

One of the biggest winners behind the scenes was Bill White. He was the longtime director of offshore wind for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, established under Governor Deval Patrick. Recently, he left the agency to become North American offshore wind director for the German offshore wind developer EnBW. His firm was a top participant in the auction, being the last to drop out.

While melancholy about that, White was nothing short of ecstatic overall. Offshore wind is now so attractive that some of the world’s fossil fuel giants, which long have enraged environmentalists and local leaders with the pollution of their extractive operations, are muscling in to this renewable form of Mayflower Wind is a collaboration that includes Shell. Equinor is the former Statoil.

“I remember almost literally begging companies to bid a few years ago,” White said. “I don’t think anybody would have predicted that this many companies, including oil and gas companies and utilities would be bidding. And none too soon with climate change being far worse than ever.

“I was so excited about our chances in the auction after yesterday, I couldn’t sleep and went for a 5 AM run. I’m disappointed we didn’t win, but what a roller coaster. I’m so proud to see this market come of age.”

If a loser is this excited, then the nation truly stands to be a winner with the advent of offshore wind.

Photo: Derrick Jackson Photo: Derrick Jackson Photo: Derrick Jackson Photo: Derrick Jackson Photo: Derrick Jackson

Queremos Sol Puerto Rico: un recurso 100% local y extraordinario

Agustín Irizarry junto al reloj solar más antiguo de Puerto Rico, y también el segundo más antiguo del hemisferio

En una época en la que las noticias sobre el cambio climático (por ejemplo, falta de compromiso político en COP24 y reportes del IPCC, NCA4, y UNEP) y sus efectos devastadores (como los huracanes Maria y Florence, y los recientes incendios en California) se hacen cada vez más frecuentes y frustrantes, resulta inspirador aprender de iniciativas en las que la unión de personas visionarias se traduce en acciones concretas que mejoran nuestras condiciones de vida a presente y futuro, mientras reducen las emisiones de efecto climático y nos preparan para sus impactos.

Este es el caso de la iniciativa Queremos Sol Puerto Rico, la cual busca que al menos el 50% de la energía en Puerto Rico para el año 2035 sea producida por fuentes de energía renovable como el sol y el viento, y que estas fuentes generen la totalidad de la energía para el año 2050.

Para aprender más sobre esta propuesta hablé con el Dr. Agustín Irizarry, colaborador de la iniciativa y catedrático del Departamento de Ingeniería Eléctrica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Mayagüez.

Paula García: ¿Cómo surgió la iniciativa?

Agustín Irizarry: Queremos Sol Puerto Rico es la confluencia de personas y organizaciones que queremos un desarrollo sostenible, local y limpio ya.

Por años hemos escuchado promesas del gobierno hablando de una transición energética que va a pasar en los próximos 15 o 20 años; por décadas se nos ha dicho que vamos a reducir la dependencia del petróleo, pero entonces el cambio propuesto es comprar carbón o gas, y resulta que Puerto Rico no tiene ninguno de los tres. Pero lo que sí tenemos es un sol extraordinario que cae directamente en los techos de nuestras casas y que si las instalaciones se hacen adecuadamente, son extremadamente resilientes a los huracanes y nos permiten sobrellevar los problemas que vamos a seguir enfrentando con el cambio climático.

PG: Hablando del cambio climático y del huracán María…

AI: El huracán María demostró que hay una vulnerabilidad enorme por parte de la red eléctrica, que aún invirtiendo miles de millones de dólares en sistemas centralizados que funcionan a base de combustibles fósiles no hay garantías de que no volvamos a quedar a oscuras por meses. Este es un momento en el que la gente está buscando alternativas para que no le vuelva a pasar lo que le pasó a tantas personas que se quedaron meses y meses sin energía. Por eso es que después de María todo el mundo quiere en su casa un sistema solar con batería para almacenar la energía.

PG: ¿Y en qué consiste Queremos Sol Puerto Rico?

AI: El huracán María lo que ha hecho es acelerar nuestro interés y entusiasmo para hacer un despliegue importante en Puerto Rico de sistemas solares con almacenamiento energético.

Entonces, los pasos de la iniciativa son:

  • Comenzar con sistemas en los techos de las casas para que sean más resilientes.
  • Hacer comunidades solares, donde la gente sale a comprar juntos los equipos para reducir costos.
  • Crear microrredes comunitarias.

En términos de la energía solar, la idea es instalar en los techos sistemas solares de 2 a 5 kilovatios (kW) con sistemas de almacenamiento energéticos de 10 a 20 kilovatios-hora (kWh). Al evaluar la capacidad de estos sistemas en Puerto Rico, los pequeños (2kW, 10 kWh) pueden cubrir las necesidades energéticas básicas de una familia: nevera, lavadora, luces, electrónicos como teléfono móvil, laptop; mientras que los más grandes (4 kW, 20 kWh) pueden brindar otras comodidades de la vida moderna como abanicos, wifi, televisores. Y con 5kW y buen sol un acondicionador de aire tipo inverter puede funcionar varias horas.

PG: ¿Es la configuración de los techos adecuada y el recurso solar suficiente para que los sistemas sean eficientes?

AI: En Puerto Rico la mayoría de los techos son planos y eso es conveniente para la instalación pues en nuestra latitud el sol está muy alto en el cielo durante todo el año. No hace falta mucha inclinación en los paneles. Hay muchísimos libros del sol, pero la gran mayoría han sido escritos a latitudes diferentes a las del trópico, casi todos los libros que hablan del recurso solar los han escrito gente que no vive en el trópico. Entonces es importante entender que el comportamiento del sol en el trópico es propio de esta zona, no es el comportamiento del sol a 40 grados de latitud norte o 40 grados de latitud sur. Hemos aprendido mucho sobre eso, y a no hacerle caso a esos libros porque presentan cosas que no son ciertas para la latitud nuestra.

Acá hay un recurso solar extraordinario, lo hemos estamos midiendo y nuestros estudios están comprobados. La sabiduría convencional es que los páneles deben ubicarse al mismo ángulo de la latitud, y esto ayuda en la captación de energía solar fuera del trópico. En nuestra latitud con lo alto que está el sol en el cielo perdemos muy poca energía al inclinar los paneles poco y ganamos mucho en economía de materiales del armazón, en disminuir el área expuesta a viento huracanados y otros. Los techos nuestros son excelentes para capturar energía solar. Prueba de esto son los 101 días que viví a base de energía solar luego de María, mi nevera no se apagó ni una sola vez a pesar de haber nubes en el cielo.

PG: ¿Y qué debemos tener presente en esta transición que estamos viviendo hacia fuentes de energía limpia?

AI: La lucha ahora es para que no haya impuesto al sol, para que no haya penalización por salirse de la red eléctrica.

Aquellos que quieran generar y vender energía usando diferentes recursos como combustibles fósiles y sistemas poco flexibles deberán ofrecerla a un precio que compita con la generación fotovoltaica en mi techo. Los consumidores decidiremos si la queremos comprar o no. Si sus precios no son competitivos con los costos de instalar en los techos sistemas solares con almacenamiento energético, los consumidores son quienes deben decidir que opción prefieren.

Por tanto, es vital que no se penalice el acceso a la energía solar, que no se aplique un impuesto al uso del sol ni se prohíba el salirse de la red eléctrica. El sol que cae sobre nuestros techos es nuestro y nadie debe interferir con esto; es como mojarse los pies en la playa, no debe tener impuesto.

Es un concepto filosófico sobre lo que es nuestro donde el gobierno no debe intervenir. Este concepto filosófico, además de las consideraciones tecnológicas, de costos y de impacto ambiental dibujan claramente el camino a seguir.

Photo: PublicSource Agustín Irizarry

5 Tips for Working in the Trump Administration Like an Absolute Pro

Cartoon: Justin Bilicki

Are you a new political appointee looking to join your administration peers in governing by deregulatory splash? Does the idea of winning the title of Best Worst Rule-Maker of Them All make you want to jump to the front to assume the mantle of dismantle? Would you be interested in throwing logic, scholarship, and ethics out the window in favor of the unbridled thrill of flying by the seat of no pants?

If yes, then read on, because the below five tips have been systematically shown to plummet Trump appointees from hero to zero in under one rulemaking flat.

(And if not? Oh heavens, have we been waiting for you. Here, feast on a vast buffet of science-based, people-focused, socially beneficial guidance, and rejoin us in the pursuit of progress.)

1. Give yourself a (lucrative) challenge.

Find a cause that will benefit a vanishingly small number of people and unequivocally harm the rest. Like, say, something a top donor would request. No guiding by the compass of public benefit or net social good—please! Yuck! That’s practically cheating. Pro tip: You’ll know you’re really onto something when diction in the comment docket starts escalating from “flawed” to “egregious,” from “impractical” to “absurd,” from “misguided” to “STOP THE TRAIN I WANT TO GET OFF.” There should be no room for “meh” here—commit yourself to claims of “specious” or bust!

Bonus points awarded if your proposal: 1) requires upending economic markets, 2) runs counter to science, and/or 3) needs multiple parts of multiple sections of a statute changed or “reinterpreted” just to hang together.

2. Restrict the science that’s counter to your conclusions.

It’s true, you’ll still need something to back up your work. But don’t let that inconvenient “science” get you down—you can just rule out the data and analyses you don’t like. All you have to do is click your heels and repeat after me: There’s no place like industry-funded laboratories. There’s no place like industry-funded laboratories. There’s no place like industry-funded laboratories. And voila! Under the crystal-clear cover of transparency, you can blot out all the facts.

3. Exclude the benefits that are unhelpful to your cause.

Where you’re going, honest math won’t work quite right. The tallying of costs and benefits will definitely need to be tweaked. But we’re not talking about a classic smudging of the ledger here—we’re talking a flat-out erasure of the public good. It’s audacious, yes. But it’s also necessary if you’re going to hide the fact that your proposal is an appalling loser for all but your most favored few. So keep it focused, keep it tight, and whatever you do, do not, I repeat do not, let those public health benefits count—the value of saving people’s lives just adds up too fast. Forget ’em!

4. Ban the voices you don’t want to hear.

It turns out a lot of people don’t totally love it when you threaten the people and places they hold dear. And, at least for the time being, you’re required to let them object. But don’t lose hope! You still have a lot of levers left to pull here.

For example, cap public hearings at just one (all the better if in a random location); make comment periods aggressively, impossibly, no-way-you-could-ever-counter-analyze-it-in-this-window short; and purge those subject-matter experts from your advisory boards—their dogged little pursuit of truth will be nothing but trouble for your cause.

Crank industry talking points UP, science and health experts DOWN.

5. Drag those timelines out.

Now even fully committed to the task at hand—finding those challenges, nixing that science, excising those benefits, and muting that opposition—there remains the unavoidable fact that this administration keeps on losing in the courts. Like, badly:

An agency cannot simply disregard contrary or inconvenient factual determinations that it made in the past, any more than it can ignore inconvenient facts when it writes on a blank slate.”


So how to overcome?

Commit yourself to wasting that sweet, sweet, money-making time. Drag those timelines out! Because fine, sure, you’ll lose eventually, but eventually isn’t today, which means you’ve just granted your pals one more day to plunder. And in this administration? That is an unabashed win.

And that’s it! Just five simple tips on how to forget everything that was ever true and sow chaos and disrepair everywhere.

Follow these, and I promise, you’ll fit right in.

Justin Bilicki

Xcel Commits to 100% Carbon Free Energy. Why is this a big deal? How will they do it?

Photo: Xcel Energy Center

A 100-plus-year-old company became the first major US utility to target 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. The company, Xcel Energy, serves millions of customers across eight states. The company’s announcement builds on previous goals to reduce carbon emissions. But setting an ambitious goal is one thing; implementing it can be tricky.


Xcel Energy serves eight states, note the locations, they’ll play an important role later.

Xcel’s service territories are clustered in three Southwestern states (New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas) and in five Midwestern states (North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the upper peninsula of Michigan). In many of the states where Xcel operates, independent analysis has already shown that there are plenty of cost-effective carbon reductions available.

In New Mexico, UCS has concluded that renewable energy (not gas) can replace the state’s coal resources in a cost-effective way. (Note: The coal generation in New Mexico isn’t owned or operated by Xcel; the analysis illustrates that the state’s clean resources are more economical than fossil fuels).

In Minnesota, several independent assessments (including this one by Clean Power Research and this one by Vibrant Clean Energy) have concluded that the state can hit high carbon reduction targets.

In Colorado, analysis has shown much of Xcel’s coal fleet could be economically replaced with clean energy.

The company seems finally ready to commit to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050 building on an interim goal of 80% emissions reductions by 2030 (measured from a 2005 baseline).

Why is this a big deal?

More and more utilities are recognizing the deteriorating economics of coal plants. PacifiCorp, another large electric utility that operates in multiple western states, acknowledged that 60% of its coal plants are uneconomic. NIPSCO, a large utility in Indiana, released an analysis showing the lowest cost and lowest risk plan for its customers is to shut down all its coal-fired power as fast as possible. But in both examples, the utility balked at the idea of committing to a rapid transition to clean energy.

There have been great advances at the state level toward 100% clean energy. Hawaii, California, and DC have also passed or advanced legislation that would commit their utilities to 100% carbon-free energy. There has also been a slew of cities to do the same (over 100 as of December 2018).  However, local policymakers pushed for such goals, not the utilities.

For some time now, advocates have been pointing out that utilities can cut carbon emissions and reduce customer bills at the same time—doing what’s right while avoiding a laborious policy route. What set’s Xcel’s announcement apart is that it is the first major US utility to recognize that this transition is in their shareholder and customer interest.

How will they do it?

Xcel has broken out their plan into what I’m characterizing as two phases: 80% reductions by 2030 (let’s call that “near-term”) and carbon-free by 2050 (the “long-term”). The near-term goal of 80% reductions is based on a 2005 baseline. So, they can get 80% reductions over a 25-year period and the last 20% of reductions will take another 20 years.

Near-term goal: 80% by 2030

The company expects that existing technology will get them to 80% reductions by 2030. This is because affordable and reliable electricity, and integrating renewables is, to a degree, a solved problem.

Wind, solar, and energy efficiency are already the most cost-effective resources, with other technologies, like storage, being affordable in specific circumstances. And storage costs are expected to continue to decline, which will that resource more cost-effective.

To meet its near-term goal, Xcel will need to procure as much wind and solar as possible as fast as possible. This is where Xcel’s location will come into play.

Both of Xcel’s utility service clusters include parts of the US where some of the richest wind resources exist.

Xcel has a strategic advantage in its location, where there is plenty of wind potential. Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas have also seen some very low prices for solar and the various states in the Southwest are continually fighting for the title of lowest solar price in the country. Clean energy has been so affordable in the Southwest that utilities are receiving offers for long-term renewable contracts at prices below the cost of operating existing fossil fuel plants.

Solar’s economic competitiveness isn’t limited to the southwest. Even in states like Michigan, utilities have found solar is the best way to replace coal.

Pairing wind with solar will help deliver around-the-clock renewable energy. Adding storage capabilities will help make sure that renewable energy is best matched to when it is needed most, ensuring that Xcel will be able to maintain a safe and reliable grid.

Long-term goal: CO2 Free by 2050

Most experts agree that the last tranche of emissions reductions is difficult to get. So, it is not surprising to see Xcel note that they aren’t certain on how they will get the last 20% of emissions reductions. The last 20% of carbon emissions will, according to the company, require further technological or economical advancements.

What does that mean?

Xcel wants to find a pathway of no regrets as they strive to cut their carbon footprint. They aren’t willing to remove any option from the table just yet. After all, a lot can change over ten years.

Maybe they’ll be able to get all the way to zero by unlocking the full potential of dispatchable renewables, energy efficiency, flexible demand, storage, and other existing technologies. But maybe that won’t be enough. As a result, the company and stakeholders will need to take a long hard look at Xcel’s nuclear fleet.

Considering importing clean energy from neighbors or reconsidering joining competitive energy markets should also be part of the conversation.

But even after all those options are investigated, they might need to look at other options, including technologies that aren’t yet matured, like carbon capture and sequestration.

I am not asserting that any one of these options is the best way for Xcel to hit their long-term goal. The fact is that neither Xcel nor I really know. Just being honest.

Looking forward to helping Xcel Energy

The trick to eliminating Xcel’s carbon emissions will be wise and thoughtful planning along the way. For example, any plans to build new gas-fired power plants may be incongruent with carbon-free goals. Xcel must do robust and transparent modeling to see if coal can be economically replaced with a portfolio of clean energy options, as UCS found in Illinois.

UCS is engaged in many of the states where Xcel will be looking to achieve carbon emission reductions. Take Minnesota for example, where Xcel is undergoing a long-term planning process that will include looking at the broader Northern States footprint. The timeline for the long-term plan was extended and the utility plans to take the additional time to closely look at economic decarbonization. The last time Xcel went through this process, its plan included investing in gas-fired plants in 2025 and 2026. Those plants are likely to still be around, emitting carbon pollution, in 2050. This raises a lot of questions:

Will the carbon-free goal force Xcel to make a “retrofit or retire” type decision? Does this force Xcel to bank on carbon capture technology being ready? Will investors or consumers be on the hook for any un-depreciated plant balance if those plants have to shut down?

These questions are going to be hard to answer, and UCS looks forward to engaging and helping address these questions. The last thing we want is for the utility industry to repeat the same mistakes it made with coal.

UCS and our coalition partners will be pushing Xcel to look at all their options and make sure that cost-effective measures, like energy efficiency, don’t get shortchanged as they set on this tricky path.

Photo: Xcel Energy Center Xcel

Trump Digs Coal… Into an Ever-Deeper Hole

Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons

Coal, according to President Trump, is coming back.

Beautiful, clean coal.

Coming back.

Through the administration’s rolling back of power plant standards, weakening of coal ash requirements, discounting of mercury reduction benefits, intervening in power markets, opening of backdoors for polluters to emit more, and most recently green-lighting of new coal plants with nary a meaningful pollution reduction requirement to be found.

Indeed, at devastating health, environmental, and economic cost, the Trump administration has gone to bat to bring coal back.

And how has coal fared? Has President Trump traded away the health and welfare of millions for a major lengthening of the coal longevity lifeline?

In fact, he has not. Let’s review.

Coal generation is on the decline

After decades of resource primacy, representing approximately 50 percent of the electricity generation mix as recently as 2008, coal-fired generation has been suffering an unrelenting slide in the face of cleaner and cheaper renewables and natural gas.

Try as they might, the Trump administration has not reversed the fall:

Coal’s long-time dominance of the US electricity generation mix has recently fallen away. Credit: U.S. EIA.

Coal consumption is approaching a four-decade low

Relatedly, new data show that coal consumption is projected to weather its lowest level since 1979. Unfortunately for coal, it remains the case that you can dig it, and you can ship it, but if plants aren’t burning it? Then it’s only coal mine profits that are going up in smoke:

National consumption of coal has been on a sharp decline. Credit: US EIA.

Coal retirements are at an all-time high

According to the Trump administration, overzealous regulators are entirely responsible for the eroding fortunes of coal, motivating the push for all the wide-ranging regulatory rollbacks now underway.

Well, we’re two years in. The administration’s intent is abundantly clear. Handouts to the sector abound. And yet? Retirements have not stopped. In fact, the very opposite—this year marks the second-highest amount of coal-plant retirements ever, and could even end up the highest:

2018 has marked another sky-high year for coal plant retirements. Credit: US EIA.

No new coal plants are coming online

And what about now, as the sector basks anew in this hazy age of free-wheeling air quality pillage and plunder? Have we seen a change in fortune and utilities plotting to bring new coal plants online?

Truly, not even close.

Other than one miniscule unit that’s long been under pursuit in Alaska, there is not a single new coal plant on the horizon. It’s renewables on the rise, and natural gas pushing coal aside:

Additions to the power grid have been nearly exclusively limited to renewables and natural gas. Credit: US EIA.

Trump digs coal, six feet deep

The Trump administration has done everything it can think of to help out coal—up to and including appointing a former coal lobbyist as acting administrator of the EPA—except, of course, the two things that would actually bring coal workers and coal communities relief, as opposed to solely boosting the short-term profits for barons at the top.

So what would a true coal supporter do?

First, actually help the communities and workers who have powered the nation for so long, and who are now at risk of being left behind. Provide for job retraining and economic development and diversification—and do it before the plants and mines have closed. Do it when there’s still a chance to do it. Do it because coal closures are happening, and lying about it just kills precious time. States and localities all across the country are struggling to tackle this reality; a concerted effort from the top could be of immense help.

Second, attempt a bridge to the future as opposed to forcing the sector to careen headlong off a cliff. There is no world in which coal generation makes a major comeback, unless and until it’s coupled with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)—and even then, it’s a big-time stretch. The US has an opportunity to lead here; the sector could be advancing CCS technologies that would allow this heavily polluting resource to possibly keep on chugging along in a carbon-constrained world, at home and abroad.

But instead? Alongside a mortifying rejection of climate science on the global stage, the Trump administration has just proposed to undo a critical lever for pushing that technological development by excising CCS from its standards for new coal-fired power plants. Indeed, instead of helping coal, this action smothers hope.

So sure, yes, Trump digs coal! But coal’s not coming back. Because check the fine print—Trump only digs coal six feet deep.

Photo: Tammy Anthony Baker/Wikimedia Commons Credit: EIA U.S. EIA U.S. EIA U.S. EIA

McNamee on FERC Harmful to Kansas and Iowa Wind Industries and Rate-Payers

Photo: Hancock County Wind Center

There’s a little known independent federal agency whose decisions could have big impacts on states like Kansas and Iowa.  It’s called the Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission (FERC).  FERC makes decisions that affect electric power markets and approval (or rejection) of applications to build interstate electric transmission lines that are essential for the continued growth of the thriving wind industries in these states.  But the independence of this agency is being threatened by the Trump Administration with the potential confirmation of Bernard McNamee for FERC Commissioner; a Trump politico who has no regulatory experience or experience in the electric utility industry and is an avowed critic of wind power and renewables.

FERC’s decisions aim to ensure there are fair and competitive markets, protect consumers from exorbitant electricity prices and maintain electricity reliability -keeping the lights on.  Those decisions also affect how our electric grid develops and what type of energy resources we use to power our nation.  Whether we stick with old, expensive, polluting sources of the past (like coal) or whether we increase access and reliance on newer, cheaper, cleaner sources of the future (like wind power).  An anti-wind FERC commissioner would be an absolute disaster for Kansans and Iowans.  The wind industry in these states provides 36-37% of electricity generation and supports thousands of jobs (9,000 jobs in Iowa alone according to the Iowa Wind Energy Association). Wind energy also helps protect Kansans and Iowans from volatile gas prices and higher electric bills.

McNamee has publicly criticized wind and renewables, asserting that “it screws up the whole physics of the grid” and that fossil fuels and nuclear are preferable for “keeping the lights on”.  Such statements show one, that he would be unable to uphold FERC’s long history of fuel neutrality; and two, McNamee doesn’t know how the grid works. His statements run counter to what we know about the evolving benefits of distributed generation, renewable energy resources, transmission, and emerging grid technologies, like energy storage.  A FERC commissioner willing to put his thumb on the scale for fossil fuels would hurt Iowa and Kansas’ wind industries, preventing fair competition and access to lucrative markets.  But a look at McNamee’s previous job reveals why the Trump Administration wants him on the commission.

McNamee was one of the key architects of the Administration’s controversial DOE proposal to use executive authority to force consumers to buy electricity from struggling over-priced coal and nuclear plants; a proposal would cost $10 billion per year. FERC soundly rejected the proposal earlier this year, but it’s likely to be taken up by the commission again.  This is a huge conflict of interest.  What’s increasingly clear is that the Administration wants an “inside man” to subvert the growing wind and solar industries that are positioned to dominate our energy future.  Our transition to a clean energy economy will benefit states like Iowa and Kansas enormously, but a Trump-captured FERC could stall out that transition and hurt wind-state economies and electricity consumers around the country.

The Senate is expected to vote today to confirm Bernard McNamee to be one of five FERC commissioners with the power to make decisions that will significantly affect our nation’s electricity system and could uniquely affect states like Kansas and Iowa.  Beyond the adverse impact McNamee’s confirmation would have on these states, it would also be a blatant threat to good governance and an enormous conflict of interest.  The Senate delegations from Kansas and Iowa should be putting their state’s industries and economy over politics and fealty to President Trump, and vote NO on Bernard McNamee for FERC commissioner.  A vote for McNamee is a vote against wind -Kansans and Iowans simply have too much to lose.

Photo: Hancock County Wind Center Photo: Drenaline/Wikimedia Commons

Will Koch Pull the Plug on Electric Cars?

Photo courtesy of General Motors

When multibillionaire industrialist Charles Koch perceives a potential threat to his fossil fuel empire, he doesn’t mess around.

To undercut the burgeoning wind industry, Koch’s network of advocacy groups, think tanks and Capitol Hill friends fought to terminate the federal production tax credit, and Congress ultimately agreed in 2015 to phase it out over the following four years.

To slow the exponential growth of solar power, his network has been lobbying state legislatures to curtail the practice of net metering, which gives solar panel owners credit for the excess energy they generate and send back to the grid.

Now Koch wants to kill a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500 for electric vehicle (EV) buyers for the first 200,000 EVs each automaker sells. Although EVs make up less than 2 percent of total vehicle sales nationally, 123,000 of them were snapped up in the first six months of this year, more than twice the amount sold in all of 2015, and more carmakers are expected to introduce new EV models over the next few months. Alarm bells are going off at Koch Industries headquarters.

Last year, the initial draft of the House Republican tax reform bill included a provision ending the EV tax credit, but it survived in the final, end-of-the-year tax package President Trump signed in December. This year’s tax-break-extenders bill finds the Koch network back at work to block the EV tax credit, and it got a boost this week from White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who said the Trump administration wants to end EV subsidies.

A fight looms

The rationale behind the tax credit, which Congress passed in 2009, is to create a stable market for EVs much in the same way government policies helped the gasoline-hybrid market grow. Congress has a long history of providing tax breaks to help emerging and established industries alike, and EVs are a natural candidate because auto industry entry barriers are steep, and electrifying the US transportation sector is one of the most important steps the country can take to address global warming.

The battle over the EV tax credit’s future is expected to play out before Congress adjourns for the holidays. Leading the fight in favor of the tax credit is Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who introduced a bill in mid-September that would remove the 200,000-unit cap—which Tesla has already hit—and  extend the credit until 2028. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced the same bill in the House.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) introduced a pair of bills in mid-October that would eliminate the 200,000 sales cap but begin to phase out the credit in 2022. That would still help out Tesla, which built an electric car battery factory in Nevada, and Nissan, which manufactures its Leaf EV in Tennessee.

On the other side: Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas), other strategically placed Republicans, and at least 20 advocacy groups—all making the same specious arguments, and all beneficiaries of Koch largesse.

In early October, Barrasso introduced a bill in the Senate that would not only eliminate the EV tax credit, but also slap EV owners with a user fee that would go to the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by the federal gasoline tax. Koch Industries has been one of the senator’s top 10 supporters since 2013, donating $45,400 to his campaign and leadership political action committees.

Before the EV tax credit gets to a floor vote as a part of a tax-extender package, it has to go through the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee, and Charles Koch has cultivated a critical mass of friends on both. Since 2013, Koch Industries has given $253,600 to 11 of the 14 Republicans on the Senate committee and $374,000 to 21 of the 24 Republicans on the House committee, including Chairman Brady. (The company gave nothing to the 13 Democrats on the Senate committee and only $1,030 combined to two of the 16 Democrats on the House committee.)

Koch-funded groups—and Koch Industries—enter the fray

Three weeks before Barrasso introduced his bill, 30 seemingly independent, self-described free-market organizations signed a letter to Brady urging Congress to either retain the cap on the first 200,000 EVs sold—which would penalize US automakers Tesla and General Motors for selling more EVs than their Asian and European counterparts—or just “eliminate the tax credit entirely, as the House proposed in last year’s tax bill.”

But it turns out that they are not true free-market groups at all. Yes, they argue that the government shouldn’t subsidize any energy technologies, but they confine their objections to tax breaks for clean energy alternatives, claiming all the while that the oil and gas industry receives no subsidies. In fact, since 1918, permanent oil and gas tax breaks and other subsidies have averaged $4.86 billion per year in 2010 dollars, according to a 2011 study by investment firm DBL Partners. Taking inflation into account, that amounts to an average of $5.62 billion today.

Why would free-marketeers make such an exception?

Perhaps because they get significant funding from fossil fuel interests, most notably Charles Koch, whose privately held Koch industries owns three oil refineries, thousands of miles of oil and gas pipelines, and bulk coal delivery services. These think tanks and advocacy groups essentially function as public relations arms of their benefactors, representing their interests under the guise of being neutral, albeit conservative, policy shops.

Consider the group that organized the anti-EV tax credit letter: the American Energy Alliance. AEA is the political lobbying arm of the Institute for Energy Research, and the president of both groups is Thomas J. Pyle, a former lobbyist for Koch Industries and the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. Between 2012 and 2016, Koch foundations gave $8.9 million to the groups—which together employ only a dozen people—and in previous years, ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute were among their patrons.

Like AEA, 15 of the other 29 organizations that signed Pyle’s letter, including Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Heritage Action—the Heritage Foundation’s political lobbying arm—are Koch grantees, collectively receiving $142.6 million over the same five-year time period. And two other groups on the letter—the National Black Chamber of Commerce and Taxpayers Protection Alliance—got AEA grants in 2015. Including those two, at least 18 of the 30 signatories are known cogs in the Koch network.

Koch Industries itself weighed in on October 24, when company lobbyist Philip Ellender sent a letter to members of Congress opposing the Heller and Black bills that would extend EV tax credits for four more years and eliminate the 200,000-unit cap. “Congress should not be in the business of picking winners and losers by subsidizing one form of energy over others,” Ellender wrote, “regardless of its source.” Left unsaid, of course, is the bogus Koch World claim that oil and gas industry tax breaks are not subsidies.

Koch-funded think tanks provide deceptive arguments

If direct funding of politicians and advocacy groups weren’t enough, Koch foundations also underwrite the libertarian think tanks that produced the studies cited by Barrasso, Pyle and Ellender to make their case: the Pacific Research Institute, which received $200,000 from Koch funds between 2012 and 2016, and the Manhattan Institute, which received $954,500 in Koch grants and another $535,000 from ExxonMobil over that same five-year period. The two studies’ spurious arguments are that the EV tax credit largely benefits wealthier Americans and reduces US tax revenue, and that the internal combustion engine-powered cars are as clean as EVs.

The Pacific Research Institute study found that nearly 80 percent of EV tax credits in 2014 went to households with an adjusted gross income of at least $100,000 and more than half went to households with adjusted income levels of at least $200,000. What the study failed to mention, however, is the fact that upper-income Americans are generally the only ones who can afford to buy any kind of new vehicle, whether electric, hybrid or gasoline-powered. As a 2018 study by the National Center for Sustainable Transportation pointed out, the average income of households buying new cars in 2012 was $119,400; accounting for inflation, that would equal an average annual income of $131,000 today.

The Pacific Research Institute study also ignores the fact that some EVs are a relative bargain, and the federal tax credit makes them even more so. The average price of a new vehicle across the country in January of this year was $36,270. The tax credit reduces the cost of a 2018 Nissan Leaf to $22,490 and a 2018 Chevy Bolt to less than $30,000, making these two EVs more affordable options for middle-income households.

The Manhattan Institute study, meanwhile, argues that the EV tax credit is cheating the US Treasury out of tax revenue. Last year, the EV tax credit amounted to $670 million. Compare that to the cost in lost tax revenue of the oil and gas industry’s permanent tax breaks in 2014, which totaled $4.7 billion.

Unlike many of the other Koch-funded groups, the Manhattan Institute grudgingly concedes that the oil and gas industry indeed gets tax breaks, but insists that those subsidies provide consumers a “tangible benefit” by reducing the retail cost of oil and gas. In other words, it’s fine for the government to pick winners and losers as long as it picks your preferred subsidy recipient.

EVs significantly cleaner than gas engines

The Manhattan Institute study also makes the ludicrous claim that new internal combustion engines emit next to no pollutants while EVs, which are powered by the electricity grid, likely produce more pollution and will not significantly reduce carbon emissions.


Experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a truly independent energy think tank, posted a thorough take-down of the Manhattan Institute report last July. In a nutshell, they found that it used “flawed methodology and flawed assumptions” when comparing monetary damages  associated with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from EVs and internal combustion vehicles and completely ignored the damages associated with carbon dioxide emissions. “A methodology that accurately accounts for all emissions,” they concluded, “results in a dramatically different result.”

“Nonpartisan institutions, including the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Electric Power Research Institute, have published accurate and reliable studies of these questions that found the opposite of what [the Manhattan Institute report] concludes,” they added, “as have others cited by the Energy and Policy Institute.”

In fact, according to UCS Senior Engineer Dave Reichmuth, 75 percent of Americans live in areas where an EV is cleaner than a gasoline-powered car that gets 50 miles per gallon, and the carbon emissions from an average EV sold in the United States this year are equivalent to that of gas-powered car that gets 80 MPG. “And the good news,” he says, “is EVs will only get cleaner as the US electricity grid adds more renewable energy.”

Will the EV tax credit survive?

The Koch network is working overtime to pull the plug on the emerging electric car market, but the momentum is not in its favor.

Demand for EVs is growing. An AAA survey published this spring found that 50 million Americans will likely buy an EV for their next car, 5 percent more than in 2017.

The supply of EVs is growing as well. The number of available EV models jumped from only two in 2010 to more than 40 today.

Sticker price, as with any vehicle purchase, remains a sticking point. Falling manufacturing costs, aided by the EV tax credit, are already starting to help. The cost of an EV battery, for example, plummeted 80 percent between 2010 and 2017 and will become even cheaper as more automakers ramp up electric vehicle production. And EVs have built-in cost advantages over internal combustion cars: They are much cheaper to maintain—and they save owners a ton on gas. Keeping the EV tax credit in place for another decade and removing the 200,000-unit cap would certainly help ensure that EVs can become cost-competitive with gas vehicles.

Finally, Tesla, Nissan and General Motors—which manufacture EVs in California and Nevada, Tennessee, and Michigan, respectively—as well as Ford and Fiat-Chrysler will be pressed to compete with automakers in Asia and Europe that are getting significant support from their governments to go electric. Encouraging EV sales here at home may threaten Charles Koch’s fossil fuel empire, but retaining the EV tax credit will not only help combat climate change, it will fortify the US auto industry, which—even with the recent layoffs at General Motors—still employs more than 2 million people.

Want to stay up-to-date on EVs? Text “EV” to 662266 to receive special updates and opportunities to get involved on all things EV.

Danya AbdelHameid provided research assistance for this article. Koch grant data came from the following Koch-controlled foundations’ 990 tax forms (which can be found at ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer and the Foundation Center’s 990 Finder): American Encore, Charles Koch Foundation, Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, and Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Campaign contribution data came from the Center for Responsive Politics website, opensecrets.org.

Three Ways a Trump FERC Could Negatively Impact Us

Photo: Drenaline/Wikimedia Commons

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted Tuesday to approve the appointment of Bernard McNamee to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The final confirmation vote now moves to the full Senate. McNamee’s confirmation threatens to transform FERC – with a longstanding tradition of political independence – into another arm of the Trump Administration, paving the way for Trump’s pro-fossil fuel agenda, a move that could impact all of us.

If confirmed, Bernard McNamee’s pro-fossil fuel agenda threatens the independence of the agency and our clean energy momentum.

FERC is charged with ensuring that power markets are competitive, nondiscriminatory, and protect consumers. To carry out this mission, it is specifically designed to be politically independent. McNamee, in contrast, has a long history of advocating a pro-fossil fuel, anti-renewable energy agenda. He was a key player in the Trump Administration’s first (and failed) attempt to force FERC to bailout uneconomic coal and nuclear plants and has called for a unified campaign to support fossil fuels, claiming that renewables somehow “screw up the physics of the grid.” The Trump Administration’s second bailout proposal will almost certainly come before FERC in the near future, also creating an obvious conflict of interest.

Despite this, Senator Murkowski dutifully rushed his appointment through the committee, expressing no concern about McNamee’s political past. If the full Senate fails to reject McNamee and the Trump Administration’s blatant attempt to turn FERC into a rubber stamp for this Administration, it will affect all of us. Here’s three reasons we should all be concerned:

1.) Markets for renewable energy, particularly wind energy, will shrink. 

Kansas has attracted close to $10 billion in investments from the wind industry, supporting thousands of jobs. It and several other states stand to lose ground on this economic activity if McNamee is appointed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The benefits of wind energy are undeniable: rural investments, jobs, land and tax revenues, and low-cost clean energy. States like Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and others across the Midwest are taking advantage, attracting billions of dollars in investment, thousands of jobs, and million in state and local revenue. In Iowa and Kansas alone, the wind industry has invested more than $20 billion, supporting upwards of 12,000 jobs. The success of this wind industry depends on fair access to wholesale energy markets and an interstate transmission system to carry that electricity to the markets. FERC has a big hand in regulating both of those. If FERC tips the scales in favor of fossil fuels, those markets become less attractive and wind investment will slow. As solar becomes a more dominant resource across the U.S., it will face a similar disadvantage with a Trump-captured FERC.

2.) Those suffering the effects of burning coal will continue to suffer.

Make no mistake, McNamee’s appointment could provide a direct path through FERC for Trump’s attempt to bailout the nation’s uneconomic coal fleet. A lot of these plants are the same dirty polluters that are so old they were exempted from Clean Air Act compliance, meaning they lack modern pollution controls. This means coal plant communities and downwind states like Maine (also known as “the tailpipe of the nation”) will continue to suffer the effects of this pollution as these coal plants receive consumer-funded subsidies to keep operating.

3.) Our electricity costs will go up.

The simple economic truth is that coal and nuclear plants are struggling because they’re more expensive to operate than other resources – namely wind, solar, and natural gas. If FERC becomes a rubber stamp for the Trump Administration and its intent to provide out-of-market subsidies to coal and nuclear, this money will need to come from somewhere. Ultimately it will come from our wallets – most likely through rate increases but possibly through a special tax. Either way, we pay.

McNamee’s confirmation and the politicization of FERC represent a real threat to our transition to a truly clean, affordable, and sustainable electricity supply. And a Trump-captured FERC biased against modern renewable energy technologies would have very real impacts on people across the country. The Senate should reject McNamee’s nomination and stand up for free and fair electricity markets that benefit all of us.

Photo: Drenaline/Wikimedia Commons Photo: Photo Source: Native Energy, Inc.

Will Cutting Carbon Emissions Increase MY Energy Bill? It doesn’t have to.

I get this question a lot. With energy already being unaffordable for so many people, the concern is reasonable—but the answer to the question isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no.” It’s somewhere in between.

Having said that, assuming that reducing carbon pollution will only increase the costs of energy simply doesn’t hold true. There are plenty of examples that show how lowering carbon can translate into lower energy bills.

Controlling your own bill

Before we talk about carbon emission reductions and the impact on your electric bill, perhaps it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we do have some control over the matter. Taking control of your own energy consumption is the first step in making sure reducing carbon doesn’t increase your bills. Reducing how much energy you use will help reduce your energy bills AND your carbon footprint.

Energy efficiency and conservation are both about reducing your overall energy consumption.

Turning off your lights when you aren’t using them is a quintessential example of conservation. Energy efficiency is about switching to a more efficient light bulb so that you use less electricity while the lights are on. Both are effective ways to reduce your electric bill.

Walking and riding a bike (instead of driving a car) are also forms of conservation, whereas buying a more efficient car is the transportation equivalent of energy efficiency.

Speaking of transportation, it’s also possible to reduce your energy bills by increasing your electric bill.


Switch to an electric vehicle (EV)!

Making the EV switch will increase your monthly electric bill because charging a vehicle requires a lot of electricity, but it will decrease the amount you spend on gasoline. As a result, EVs can simultaneously reduce the total amount you spend on energy while reducing your carbon footprint. The UCS clean transportation team has done a lot of research into this; I recommend learning more about the emissions benefits here.

Installing rooftop solar or signing up for community solar would also help lower carbon emissions and can reduce energy costs over the long-term. But it takes smart policies to be sure that the economic benefits of solar are available to all customers, not just some.

Interested in more examples of ways to reduce your carbon footprint? I recommend Cooler Smarter, which was published by experts here at UCS and which outlines practical steps for low-carbon living.

Greening the grid

The power sector recently lost its place as the number one source of US carbon emissions. This was, in part, due to some utilities transitioning to zero-carbon resources.

So, when utilities make the switch to zero-carbon resources, will it cost customers or help save them money?

There is abundant evidence that suggests reducing carbon can translate into consumer savings. A slew of reports have come out with similar conclusions: utilities can save customers money by shutting off dirty old expensive coal plants and switching to cleaner forms of energy.

Here are three of my recent favorites:

Soot-to-Solar (UCS): The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted an analysis to gauge the public health, economic, and social equity gains that could result by replacing Illinois’ coal plants with clean energy. We found that the benefits far outweigh the costs—and that the sooner the replacement is done, the greater the rewards will be.

UCS analysis found that adopting solar could significantly reduce customer bills.

Tri-State Coal Analysis (RMI): Tri-State is a multistate, member-owned, cooperative utility. Members of the utility pool resources and work together to serve their own needs. Rocky Mountain Institute conducted a study that showed Tri-State’s 1 million customers could save $600 million through 2030 by proactively transitioning to much higher levels of renewables. The results of the study were contested by the company but at least two of the coop members have now left, parting ways so that they can pursue lower cost, cleaner energy.

Tri-State’s coal fleet costs are generally higher than regional renewable energy costs

The costs of Tri-state’s existing coal fleet are largely above the costs to purchase renewables. This creates an opportunity to transition away from coal towards renewables while also providing savings to customers.

NIPSCO Fleet Analysis (NIPSCO): Northern Indiana Public Service Company NIPSCO, is the second largest electric utility in Indiana. In that utility’s long-term planning process, NIPSCO found that it could save customers over $4 billion by transitioning off coal. The analysis found that the more coal the utility retired the greater the savings, finding that a coal-free resource mix was both the lowest cost and the lowest risk option. Now the utility plans on moving from 65% coal to 15% coal over the next 12 years.

The utility’s own analysis shows that retiring coal and replacing it with clean energy is the lowest cost AND lowest risk option.

The utilities’ own analysis shows that the company is able to lower costs and risks by retiring coal plants.

False start

A painful reminder of how embarrassing a false start can be.

The examples above represent a small sample of the dozens of studies that show there are cost savings to be found in cutting carbon emissions. While economic theorists often doubt this is possible due to “the free lunch theorem” this outcome is well documented by academic institutions like Standford; think tanks like the Bipartisan Policy Center and World Resources Institute; financial groups like Lazard; and consulting firms like the Analysis Group and Synapse Energy Economics.

One of the important things to remember when seeing an analysis that says reducing carbon will increase energy bills is they often start from the assumption that everything is working exactly how it is supposed to already. They assume that there is no way for anyone to reduce their own energy bill cost effectively because if that was possible it would already be done.

Such assumptions are rarely true.

To assume that the current system is optimized to be the lowest cost is patently wrong. My own analysis finds that irrational market behavior of some utilities costs customers over a billion dollars each year. This type of behavior is assumed to be impossible by many energy economists and the models they use.

But starting from the assumption that the current system is already perfectly efficient means that any modification will, by definition, deviate from the lowest cost pathway. Some of those same economists also assume that energy efficiency cannot be cost effective because if it was cost effective it would be done.

In reality, there are plenty of perverse incentives that prevent low-cost, low-carbon solutions from being deployed.

Cost of NOT reducing carbon

Most of the analyses above don’t include any monetary value for the social or health costs of increased carbon emissions. This year, William Nordhaus shared the Nobel Prize in economics for his work analyzing how the market was failing to incorporate these social and health costs (known as externalities). As it turns out, once you start accounting for those externalities, the benefits of reducing carbon far, far exceeds the costs.

The cost of not acting to abate climate change is in the trillions.

Just last week, on Black Friday no less, the US government released a report that shows that, if left unchecked, climate change will cost the American economy over a $100 billion a year.

Let’s not forget the scale and importance of what we’re talking about. There are huge consumer consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions, and these consequences will disproportionately impact low income and minority communities. It’s an urgent problem that requires us all to do all that we can.

Union of Concerned Scientists Rocky Mountain Institute NIPSCO