UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

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.

Illinois

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.

Michigan

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.

Minnesota

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.

Ohio

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

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.”

Ouch!

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.

Wrong.

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.

How?

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

New National Climate Assessment Shows Climate Change is a Threat to our Economy, Infrastructure and Health

U.S. Army Sgt. Brad Chambers of the California Army National Guard's 649th Engineer Company, 579th Engineer Battalion, 49th Military Police Brigade, from Chico, California, conducts search and debris clearing operations, Nov. 17, 2018, in Paradise, California. Photo: U.S. National Guard.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II, was released today. The much-anticipated report, prepared by a consortium of 13 US federal government agencies, makes clear that climate change is already here—as evident from the worsening flooding, wildfire seasons, droughts, and heatwaves the nation has been experiencing. What’s more, the report highlights that as climate change worsens, risks to our economy, infrastructure, health and well-being, and ecosystems will grow significantly. Urgent action is needed to lower heat-trapping emissions and invest in making our economy and our communities more prepared to withstand climate impacts.

Climate change is already imposing economic costs

The NCA reiterates that human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases are the dominant cause of observed global warming over the last century; there is no other credible explanation for it. Observations show that annual average temperatures across the contiguous US have risen by 1.8°F since the beginning of the 20th century.

The NCA explains that as temperatures rise, the latest science and data point to a range of worsening impacts. For example, as oceans have warmed and expanded and as land-based ice has shrunk due to warming temperatures, the annual medial sea level along US coasts (with land motion removed) has increased about 9 inches since the early 20th century. Warmer, drier conditions have contributed to an increase in wildfire activity in the western US and Alaska over the past several decades.

The new report also starkly highlights the billions of dollars of economic losses that are already occurring from climate-related events. Just a few startling examples:

  • Flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in 2011, triggered by heavy rainfall, caused an estimated $5.7 billion (in 2018 dollars) in damages.
  • Drought in 2012 caused widespread agricultural losses to crops and livestock, and low water levels along the Mississippi affected transportation of goods along the river, resulting in an estimated $33 billion (in 2018 dollars) in damages nationwide.
  • The costs of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure, which was badly damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria, have been estimated to be $17 billion (in 2017 dollars).
  • Annual federal fire fighting costs have ranged from $809 million to $2.1 billion per year between 2000 and 2016.
  • In 2012 and 2013, massive wildfires followed by floods in the Fort Collins, CO area washed out transportation infrastructure and caused $2 billion (in 2013 dollars) in total damages.
  • In 2012, sea surface temperatures in the Northeast continental shelf rose about 3.6F above the 1982-2011 average (an extreme manifestation of a warming trend observed in the area), triggering a glut of lobster and causing a severe price collapse.
  • The city of Charleston has estimated that each high-tide flooding event that affects the cross-town costs $12.4 million and over the past 50 years the resultants gross damages and lost wages have totaled over $1.53 billion.
  • Climate changes—including sea level rise, diminishing snowpack, wildfires and drought—are significantly affecting the traditional subsistence activities, livelihoods and sacred cultural resources of indigenous peoples. In some cases, they are even being forced to consider relocation.

There are also many examples of costs that are hard to quantify in just dollar terms but are surely significant, including harms to human health (both physical and mental), ecosystems and assets of cultural value.

Costs will mount with unchecked climate change

Across the nation, many economic sectors—including agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism—are at risk from a warming climate. Much of our nation’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, ports, airports, water and waste water systems, electricity infrastructure, dams—which underpins our economy and way of life is also greatly exposed. Even without climate change, aging infrastructure and decades of under-investment already pose significant challenges; climate change will magnify them.

As the report says, the assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid. We’ll need to prepare for a climate-altered future.

As climate change worsens, some major challenges to our society and economy will likely include:

  • Decreases and variability in water availability in some parts of the country, including the Southwest.
  • Increases in extreme precipitation in some parts of the country (such as the Midwest and Great Plains), causing flooding and infrastructure damage
  • Accelerating sea level rise, putting at risk homes, infrastructure and other valuable assets in the coastal floodplain.
  • By the middle of the century, the annual area burned in the US could increase 2-6 times from the present, depending on the geographic area, ecosystem and local climate, with the western US and Alaska at particular risk.
  • Coral reefs in the US Caribbean, Hawaii, Florida and the US Pacific islands are already affected by bleaching and disease. The loss of recreational benefits alone from coral reefs in the US could reach $140 billion by 2100.
  • According to one study, $1 trillion in national wealth held in coastal real estate is at risk of rising seas. (A recent UCS study also found that high-tide flooding could put over 300,000 coastal homes and commercial properties in the lower 48 states with a collective market value of about $136 billion in today’s dollars at risk within the next 30 years. By the end of the century, over 2.5 million homes and commercial properties currently worth more than $1 trillion altogether could be at risk).
  • Worsening health impacts including increased mortality and morbidity from worsening heatwaves and ozone pollution and pollution from wildfires. Risks of allergic illnesses and vector-borne diseases (i.e. borne by vectors like ticks and mosquitoes) such as Lyme disease could also worsen in some parts of the country.
  • Inland flooding is anticipated to result in average annual damages to bridges of $1.2 to $1.4 billion each year by 2050. Nationally, the total annual damages from temperature and precipitation to paved roads could be as high at $20 billion in 2090 under a high emissions scenario.
  • Growing risks of compound extreme events—where more than one hazard occurs at the same time in the same place— and cascading infrastructure failures which can multiply risks to people, the environment and the economy.
  • Pressures on the energy system, including increased demand for electricity as heatwaves worsen, power failures caused by storms and flooding, system failures and inefficiencies caused by extreme heat, and reduced availability of water for hydroelectric systems.
  • Disproportionate risks to low-income communities, tribal communities and communities of color who may be more exposed to climate impacts and may have fewer resources to cope with them.
Our Emissions Choices Matter (Greatly!)

The NCA also includes information about the costs of climate change under different emissions scenarios, making clear that limiting emissions can make a huge difference in climate-related damages and costs. Many of these estimates come from a ground-breaking underlying study by the EPA released last year.

For example, health-related impacts and costs could be 50 percent lower under a low emissions scenario (RCP4.5) v. a high-emissions scenario (RCP8.5). Damages to roads and electricity infrastructure can be reduced by about 60 percent. Under RCP8.5, almost 1.9 billion labor hours across the national workforce are projected to be lost annually by 2090 due to the effects of extreme temperature on suitable working conditions, totaling over $160 billion in lost wages per year; Under RCP4.5, about 50 percent of this could be avoided. (These estimates generally do not include assumptions about adaptation).

A clarion call for action

Following on the heels of the IPCC 1.5°C report, the NCA is yet another clarion call to action. Although the report itself is not policy-prescriptive, its findings are directly relevant to policymakers and planners from the local and state to the national level. Given the significant economic implications, the private sector also has a strong stake in addressing climate change and driving innovative solutions.

It’s pretty clear that we should do everything we can to limit climate change and avoid some of the more extreme impacts and costs.

That means limiting heat-trapping emissions across the economy. The energy sector must get more efficient and switch to low-carbon sources of energy wherever possible. We’ll need to electrify as many energy end-uses as possible, while switching to low-carbon electricity. We’ll need to invest in the infrastructure to make all this possible, including ramping up low-carbon power sources, transmission and energy storage. And we’ll need to invest in research, development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies and technologies to capture and permanently sequester carbon.

The good news, as the NCA points out, is that parts of the energy sector are already undergoing a low-carbon transition—we just need to accelerate and broaden it. For example, US power sector emissions have fallen 28 percent from 2005 levels, as the nation has transitioned away from coal to natural gas and renewable energy. The falling costs of renewable energy are already making wind, solar and other forms of low-carbon electricity an attractive choice in many states, including Texas, Iowa, Kansas and California. The Pueblo of Jemez has installed the first utility-scale solar facility on tribal grounds, and tribes and Alaska native communities around the country are pursuing energy efficiency and clean energy-related projects.

We’ll also have to invest in keeping our nations forests and lands healthy so that they can continue to draw carbon dioxide out of the air and store it. We will likely also need to invest in other so-called ‘negative emissions’ technologies.

And alongside these ambitious efforts to cut carbon emissions, we’ll have to invest in preparing for the climate impacts we have already locked in and that are likely to get worse. Incorporating the knowledge, insights and choices of frontline communities will be critical to the success of these efforts.

It’s time to put pressure on Congress and the administration

Releasing the NCA the day after Thanksgiving is a transparently underhanded and shameful ploy by the administration to try to bury the science. But there’s no way to ignore the damaging and costly climate impacts our nation is already experiencing. Even as the need for urgent action is evident, we have an administration that is trying at every turn to stop or reverse climate and clean energy policies, and sideline the science.

The NCA points out that our global emissions choices today can determine whether we can limit temperature increase to 3.6°F (2°C) or less in line with the Paris Agreement goals—or whether we end up with runaway temperature increases of 9°F (5°C) or more.

The biggest challenge to ambitious climate action remains political will. As a new Congress is convened in Washington, and new legislatures and governors take office around the country, we need to put pressure on our policymakers to act in our best interests in light of the latest science.

There’s no time to dither as climate impacts and costs mount around the nation. We can’t continue to wallow in ideological fights about whether or not people “believe” in climate change. Let’s implement commonsense, ambitious measures that deliver climate benefits, while protecting our economy and well-being.

A comprehensive infrastructure bill that delivers low-carbon energy, climate resilience, jobs and public health benefits would be a great start.

Seven Things People Got Wrong with UCS’ ‘Nuclear Power Dilemma’ Report

On November 8, UCS released The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions, which found that more than one-third of existing nuclear plants, representing 22 percent of total US nuclear capacity, is uneconomic or slated to close over the next decade. Without new policies, we found that if these and other marginally economic nuclear plants are closed before their operating licenses expire, the electricity would be replaced primarily with natural gas. If this occurs, cumulative carbon emissions from the US power sector could rise by as much as 6 percent at a time when we need to achieve deep cuts in emissions to limit the worst impacts of climate change.

Unfortunately, some of the media coverage and statements by the nuclear industry and other groups have mischaracterized our report and our past work. Here are seven points to correct the record:

1. The report does not promote new nuclear power plant construction.

Our analysis is focused on the economic viability of existing nuclear power plants in the United States through 2035. The cost of keeping existing plants operating is considerably less than building new ones. While new nuclear plants could be built under a national carbon price or low-carbon electricity standard, our modeling shows they are too expensive compared to new wind and solar projects, energy efficiency programs, and natural gas plants with carbon capture and storage.

The only new nuclear reactors included in our analysis are the two currently under construction at the Vogtle plant in Georgia. Their cost has ballooned to more than $27 billion, which is double the estimate approved by regulators in 2008, and the project is more than five years behind schedule. This 2012 UCS analysis shows that building the two new Vogtle reactors would be more expensive than other alternatives. And the Vogtle reactors’ cost has escalated significantly over the past six years, while the cost for wind and solar has fallen dramatically.

This isn’t the first time UCS has shined a spotlight on the high costs of building new nuclear reactors. This 2016 UCS power sector deep decarbonization study found that nearly all nuclear and coal plants in the United States would be replaced by low-carbon technologies by 2050 under every scenario, except our “optimistic nuclear case.”  A blog I wrote in 2013 explains why calls by some climate scientists to build new nuclear plants are misguided.

2. The report does not advocate for subsidies for any specific nuclear plants.

The report emphasizes that a price on carbon or a low-carbon electricity standard (LCES) would be the best options for internalizing the costs of climate change in the price of burning fossil fuels and providing a level playing field for all low-carbon technologies. As explained by UCS President Ken Kimmell in his recent blog, “the report does not argue for subsidies to any specific plants. That case will have to be made in state-specific forums. Should states decide to support nuclear power plant subsidies, our report calls for them to be temporary and subject to periodic reassessment. Companies seeking subsidies must open their books and allow the public and regulators to make sure that the subsidies are needed and cost-effective, and that the same level of carbon free power cannot be provided during the relevant time period with less costly options.” Any subsidies also must be part of a broader strategy to reduce carbon emissions that increases investments in renewables and efficiency.

Finally, our report makes clear that UCS would never support financial assistance that is also tied to subsidizing fossil-based energy sources, such as Trump administration proposals to bail out coal and nuclear plants based on spurious grid-reliability and national-security grounds.

3. Existing nuclear plants must also meet strong safety standards to be eligible for support.

Since the 1970s, UCS has been a leading nuclear safety watchdog. The new UCS report recommends that nuclear reactors must meet or exceed the highest safety standards under Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Reactor Oversight Process to be eligible for any policy or financial support. If the NRC weakens these standards, as proposed by the nuclear industry, UCS could no longer support this recommendation. At the same time, UCS will continue to push for better enforcement of existing regulations, the expedited transfer of nuclear waste from overcrowded cooling pools to safer dry cask storage, strengthened reactor security requirements, and higher safety standards for new plants. We also consider the NRC safety standards to be a floor, not a ceiling. States could encourage plant owners to make other safety improvements that go beyond current NRC standards.

4. Not every currently operating nuclear plant should stay open.

The report highlights examples where it might make sense to shut down existing nuclear plants that are saddled with major, reoccurring safety issues such as the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts that Entergy is closing next year and the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio that FirstEnergy is threatening to close in 2020 if it doesn’t receive subsidies. Other examples include Indian Point, due to its proximity to New York City, and Diablo Canyon, which is located near earthquake fault lines in California.

It also might make sense to shut down plants with high operating costs or ones that need to make major new capital investments to continue operating safely. Examples cited in the report include Crystal River in Florida and San Onofre in California, which were retired in 2013 following failed steam generator replacements. Fort Calhoun in Nebraska shut down in 2016 primarily for economic reasons following several years of extended outages and flood damage. Chris Crane, CEO of Exelon, agrees that some high-cost plants should probably close: I will be the first one to tell you that some of the nuclear plants are small, uneconomic and they won’t make it and they probably should not make it,” he said. “Let’s not save every one.”

5. Not every nuclear plant that retires early will be replaced with fossil fuels.

The report acknowledges that with sufficient planning and strong climate and clean energy policies, some existing nuclear plants can be replaced with renewables, energy efficiency, or other low- carbon technologies. For example, California passed legislation in September that commits the state to replace Diablo Canyon with zero-carbon energy sources by 2025. And states experiencing rapid wind and solar power deployment such as Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas could potentially replace their nuclear plants with low-carbon energy sources over a reasonable period of time. However, a significant portion of the electricity in most of those states is still generated by coal and natural gas. Replacing those fuels with renewables and efficiency would result in much greater emissions reductions than replacing nuclear plants, another low-carbon source of electricity.

6. UCS has long recognized the role of existing nuclear plants in reducing carbon

UCS has long supported keeping existing nuclear reactors that meet high safety standards operating to combat climate change. In 2004, the director of our energy program at the time, Alan Nogee, stated: “We cannot phase out current nuclear generation quickly, especially without [a] significant increase in carbon emissions.” Five years later, we released our “Climate 2030 Blueprint,” which assumed the fleet of more than 100 US reactors would continue to operate through 2030 and beyond. You will find in the report’s executive summary: “Hydropower and nuclear power continue to play important roles, generating slightly more carbon-free electricity in 2030 than they do today.”

US Electricity Generation under the UCS Climate 2030 Blueprint

Two years ago we posted a  “Nuclear Power and Global Warming” page on our website, highlighting the need for all low-carbon technologies, including nuclear power, to limit the worst consequences of climate change. The web page also warns that replacing existing nuclear power plants with natural gas plants would increase carbon emissions.

In 2016, UCS was involved in negotiations in Illinois to keep two uneconomic nuclear plants running, while strengthening the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. We posted the following blogs on the topic: “A Huge Success in Illinois: Future Energy Jobs Bill Signed Into Law,” “The Future Energy Jobs Bill: Promise, Pitfalls, and Opportunities for Clean Energy in Illinois,” and “New Analysis Shows Fixing Illinois Clean Energy Policies Is Essential to Any ‘Next Generation Energy Plan.’”

7. UCS has long supported a low carbon electricity standard (LCES), but not at the expense of renewable electricity standards (RES).

Since at least 2011, UCS has engaged in constructive dialogues and provided support for LCES proposals. See here, here, here, and here. More recently, UCS advocated for the 100 percent zero-carbon electricity standard in California that was signed into law in September.

While an LCES could be effective at preserving existing nuclear generation and increasing the deployment of renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies, our position has remained consistent (including in our new report) in that we do not recommend replacing state RESs with broader LCESs. Renewable standards have been effective at reducing emissions, driving down the cost of wind and solar, and creating jobs and other economic benefits for states and in rural communities. They have also been affordable for consumers. Including existing nuclear power plants in state renewable standards could significantly undermine the development of new renewables and all the benefits that go along with them.

We recommend including existing nuclear in a separate tier of an LCES, as New York state has done, to limit costs to ratepayers and avoid market-power issues due to limited competition among a small number of large plants and owners. New York also has combined an LCES with a zero-energy credit program to provide financial support only to existing nuclear plants that need it, adjusting support as market conditions change. New technologies would be eligible to compete in the existing tier to help ensure that the most cost-effective, low-carbon energy sources replace any retiring nuclear plants. Illinois and New Jersey also strengthened their renewable standards while providing separate financial support for distressed nuclear plants.

And finally, despite reporting to the contrary, UCS has not changed its position on nuclear power. Has UCS advocated vigorously for policies to increase the deployment of renewable energy to address climate change? Absolutely. Have we been a longstanding watchdog for nuclear power safety? You bet. Do we now believe the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an effective watchdog or that nuclear power safety concerns are overblown? Emphatically no.

But UCS has long recognized that the current nuclear fleet is a significant source of low-carbon power and that nuclear plants should not retire precipitously without carbon-free replacements. As cited above, my former colleague Alan Nogee tweeted a slide from 2004 showing that UCS grappled with just this point more than a decade ago:

Which Parks and Rec Character is FirstEnergy?

Source: Florian64190/Wikimedia Commons

FirstEnergy at it again, begging this administration for a handout.

FirstEnergy is a large, investor-owned, electric utility that operates in 13 different states. It operated a competitive generation subsidiary, First Energy Solutions (which is currently bankrupt). Recently it announced its intentions to retire two coal-fired power plants, observers believe this was just an attempt to garner support to get bailed out. The local grid operator (PJM) concluded the lights will stay on absent these two plants.

Despite being a billion-dollar corporation, FirstEnergy acts a lot like an entitled teenager. Not satisfied with its allowance, it moved out only to find out that the real world is tuff.

Now, after racking up huge amounts of debt, the spoiled brat wants to move back in and live rent-free.

And get its allowance back.

And wants all of us to pay off its debt.

And the debt of all its friends.

A problematic history

Other analysts and watchdog groups have chronicled the economic dire straights that FirstEnergy is facing and the dubious efforts they’ve engaged to try and get out the current predicament, which includes:

(this list may not be comprehensive) 

In part, a self-inflicted problem

I’ve conducted a comprehensive look at how coal-fired power plants operate in competitive energy markets including PJM, where FES does business. Two of FES’s coal-fired power plants (Kyger Creek and WH Sammis) operated for long periods of time when it would have been cheaper to just turn off.

Over the past three years, FES ran Kyger Creek and W.H. Sammis in such a way that likely imposed nearly $90 million in unnecessary costs onto FES’s financial ledger. $90 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars FES is seeking to be bailed out, but it goes to show you how poorly run the company is.

What does all this have to do with Parks and Rec?

In many ways, FirstEnergy reminds me of the Parks and Rec character Mona-Lisa Saperstein (portrayed by the brilliant and amazingly talented, Jenny Slate).

FirstEnergy demands to be bailed out.

Ohio says, “No.”

FirstEnergy tells everyone that without a bailout coal will retire, and it will impact reliability or even national security.

And then lobbies again for a bailout.

Meanwhile, Buckeyes, consumer advocates, environmental advocates, grid experts and plenty of other folks think that FirstEnergy is…

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parks_And_Recreation_Logo.png NBC NBC NBC NBC NBC

Senate Should Reject Trump’s Coal-Friendly Energy Commission Nominee

Photo courtesy of Sen. Martin Heinrich

 

The steady parade of unqualified, ideologically driven appointees for key Trump administration positions has resumed now that things in Washington have settled down after the mid-term elections. Last week, Trump tapped Matthew G. Whitaker to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This Thursday, the Senate will hold a hearing to confirm attorney Bernard McNamee to fill a vacancy at the five-member, presidentially appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a relatively obscure—but critically important—independent agency that oversees interstate power lines and pipelines.

Trump presumably picked McNamee to put the administration’s pro-fossil-fuel spin on a number of key decisions FERC will make in the coming months, especially one that would bail out uneconomic coal plants. If that happens, Americans will be saddled with higher electric bills, more toxic air pollution, and more heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change. The commission also will be considering rules that would encourage energy storage, rooftop solar installations, and remotely located renewable sources.

McNamee would replace Robert Powelson, a former utility executive and Pennsylvania utility regulator who left the commission in August after less than a year. One of the three Republicans on the commission, Powelson maintains that FERC should be insulated from political pressure. “I don’t make any decision based on the fact that I’m a lifelong Republican,” he told Energywire. “I have a mean independent streak in me.”

McNamee, who has no utility sector experience, is all about partisan politics. He worked for Republican attorneys general in Virginia and Texas and advised Republican Sens. George Allen and Ted Cruz before joining the Department of Energy (DOE) in May 2017 as deputy general counsel for energy policy.

Last February, he left DOE to work for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a libertarian think tank funded by a rogues gallery of polluters, including Chevron, Devon Energy, ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Luminant, the largest electric utility in Texas. It’s the same outfit that produced Trump’s unqualified—and rejected—nominee to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White.

While at TPPF, McNamee penned a paean to his favorite energy source for The Hill, a political trade publication, titled “This Earth Day, let’s accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs.” “We have been told that fossil fuels are wrecking the environment and our health,” his April 17 column read. “The facts are that life expectancy, population and economic growth all began to increase dramatically when fossil fuels were harnessed….” Renewable energy sources, he added, cannot replace fossil fuels, but not to worry, “America is blessed with an abundant supply of affordable natural gas, oil and coal.”

McNamee rejoined DOE in June as the executive director of the agency’s policy office. Before and after his brief stint at TPPF, he promoted Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal to require regional transmission operators to buy electricity from power plants that can store a 90-day fuel supply on site, ostensibly to strengthen electricity-grid resiliency. The plan, which would prop up coal and nuclear plants that have been struggling to compete on the open market with cheaper natural gas and renewables, would cost ratepayers an estimated $17 billion to $35 billion annually.

At Trump’s behest, Perry asked FERC in September 2017 to issue grid resiliency rules to protect failing coal and nuclear plants. FERC rejected the request, concluding that DOE did not provide any evidence that coal and nuclear plant retirements would undermine grid reliability. An analysis by Mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM of the impact of closing at-risk plants in its region also found no threat to the grid.

Besides trying to reverse FERC’s coal- and nuclear-power bailout decision, McNamee could do lasting damage in other ways. For example, the commission is currently not required to consider the impact of climate change when making electricity policy decisions, but the two Democratic commissioners think the “social cost of carbon”—the financial damage caused by carbon pollution—should be incorporated in environmental reviews for gas pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Likewise, the commission will be deliberating over whether it should eliminate barriers to electric energy storage, make it easier for solar panel owners to sell their excess power back to electric utilities, and recommend federal incentives for more transmission-line construction, which would enable remotely sited wind and solar projects to compete with natural gas. Given McNamee’s biases, it is unlikely he would support any of those initiatives.

This week’s confirmation hearing, hosted by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, will be chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is no stranger to the FERC confirmation drill and quite knowledgeable about the commission’s mandate. In her opening statement during a FERC commissioner confirmation hearing in 2013, Murkowski made a case for rejecting an Obama nominee that could be easily applied to McNamee.

“FERC is independent by law and by design. It is clearly distinct from executive agencies that carry out policy directives from the White House…,” she explained. “It is critically important for us to enable the agency—and its professional nonpartisan employees who report to the chairman as their CEO—to maintain its strong culture as an expert agency free of undue political influence.”

Murkowski should hew to that line on Thursday—and the Senate should reject the McNamee nomination.

Ørsted, Deepwater Wind: Are Offshore Wind Mergers Good for Us?

Kim Hansen/Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/slaunger/5483311060/)

Last week saw offshore wind giant Ørsted complete its acquisition of local star Deepwater Wind. Is that a good thing?

The players and the scorecard

The $510-million deal brings together two important players in the offshore wind space. Rhode Island-based Deepwater holds the distinction of being the developer of the first offshore wind project in the Americas, the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island waters. Since no successor projects have gotten that far, it also holds the distinction of being the owner of the only offshore wind project in the Americas.

Ørsted, formerly the Danish Oil and Natural Gas company, developed the very first offshore wind farm, in Denmark in 1991, and is the largest developer of offshore wind in the world, including the new world recordholder for largest offshore wind farm. In this country, it holds an offshore wind lease in federal waters off the Jersey coast, and a half share of another off Massachusetts. It’s also involved in a pilot project under development off Virginia.

For Deepwater’s investors, the acquisition by Ørsted, originally announced last month, likely represents a successful exit on the bet they took with the company, established in 2007.

For Ørsted, acquiring Deepwater gives it an even more solid footing in the US market. Along with the Block Island project, Deepwater holds two of the four federal offshore wind leases off Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and half of another off Maryland. It won bids early this year to supply Rhode Island with 400 MW of offshore wind and Connecticut with 200 MW. And its proposed 90 MW wind farm east of Long Island looks like a good bet to be one of the next places for steel in the water.

Credit: Derrick Z. Jackson

What about us?

The Ørsted press release announcing the Deepwater acquisition said that they expected it “to deliver a healthy value creation spread on top of our cost of capital, with additional significant strategic upside.” It’s not entirely obvious what that business-speak means, but it’s clear they think it’s a good idea for them.

But what does this merger mean for us—consumers, policy makers, or just interested observers?

On the one hand, competition is good, and a merger like this arguably reduces competition—in the case of bid opportunities like the ones from Rhode Island and Connecticut (and Massachusetts), for example. Some might also feel some regret having an American company get acquired from abroad.

On the other hand, it’s easy to view this as a strong vote of confidence by a company that knows more than a thing or two about the offshore wind space. If Ørsted is willing to put a half a billion dollars into increasing its presence in these parts—not to mention the investment that its new portfolio of projects will require—that’s a pretty strong sign that we (the public, the states, the federal government) must be doing something right in working to create an attractive climate for investment in offshore wind.

There’s also clearly a lot of value in achieving economies of scale in this industry. European offshore wind project keep getting larger and cheaper, and now we’ve seen dramatic drops in the price of power from offshore wind on this side of the Atlantic, in Massachusetts’s recent long-term contracting.

And, while Deepwater was no shrinking violet, financially (its owner was a hedge fund with tens of billions of dollars under management), Ørsted brings plenty of capital to bear plus its 27-year experience in the offshore wind space.

Given the incredible challenge of climate change, our need to do offshore wind power not just quickly but correctly, and the tremendous potential off our shores/near our cities, most anything that accelerates the ramp-up of offshore wind in this country is probably a good thing for us as consumers, and for us as citizens of a world in need of decarbonization.

Because ultimately, that’s where our focus needs to be: faster, cheaper, right-er. We’ll be watching the industry to make sure that’s where their focus stays too.

Photo: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

Forget the Trump Bailout—Here’s a Real Solution for Nuclear and the Climate

The Trump Administration’s proposal to bail out uneconomic coal and nuclear power plants is a bad idea predicated on a made-up problem. The real crisis we face is the climate crisis, as the recent IPCC report highlighted in stark terms last month. We must steeply reduce CO2 emissions over the next decade and beyond or we will lock in warming that will have disastrous consequences for people around the word.

We’ve dwindled away our most precious commodity in the climate fight… time. Now there are no easy options; no easy pathways. We are in a world of trade-offs. We must reconcile the science and the clock with the reality of where we are in our transition to a clean energy economy.

For the electricity sector, that means building a lot (a lot a lot) more renewables and increasing energy efficiency. It means modernizing our grid, ramping up energy storage, and phasing out coal and natural gas without carbon capture and storage (CCS). And it also means scratching and clawing for every metric ton of CO2 we can avoid, including guarding against the risk of existing nuclear power plants retiring abruptly and being replaced by natural gas.

UCS’ new report, “The Nuclear Power Dilemma: Declining Profits, Plant Closures, and the Threat of Rising Carbon Emissions” analyzes the economics of the existing nuclear fleet and concludes that a well-designed carbon price or a low-carbon electricity standard will help keep existing nuclear plants that meet high safety standards online.

The Trump coal and nuclear bailout is not a real solution

Earlier this year, the administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to the federal electricity regulatory commission (FERC), which would use executive authority to force consumers to buy more expensive electricity produced from coal and nuclear plants.

This is a bailout. Not only would it cost rate-payers (or taxpayers, depending on how the bailout is paid for), but the additional use of coal would hurt public health and increase the heat-trapping emissions that drive climate change.

The administration said they needed to take this unprecedented action because the prospect of coal and nuclear plant closures would jeopardize electricity reliability—keeping the lights on—and make the grid less resilient. This justification has been widely disproved by grid experts and was unanimously rejected by FERC. The administration’s actions appear to be based more on politics than on substance.

Even if this administration abandoned the current architecture of the proposal, jettisoning the coal bailouts and focusing only on nuclear, it would still be a poor approach. Dumping a bunch of rate-payer or taxpayer money into the coffers of private interests without big public benefits, transparency, and accountability is wrong.

Likewise, temporary bailouts for nuclear don’t address the systemic market failure which is a significant part of why nuclear plants are losing money in the first place: zero-carbon benefits are not rewarded in the marketplace in most states. Nuclear is competing with natural gas on an uneven playing field, and it’s losing. A temporary nuclear bailout would do nothing to address the underlying issue; applying a Band-Aid on a deep, gaping wound is not a real solution. Throwing good money after bad is not a responsible use of the public trust; these plants would be right back in the red the minute that money runs out.

What nuclear and other low-carbon technologies need is durable policy support that corrects this systemic market failure.

Real policy solutions that help existing nuclear and the climate

Our new report found that even a very modest carbon price ($25 per ton in 2020, increasing 5 percent per year) would solidify the economic position of the existing nuclear fleet, helping to avoid an over-reliance on natural gas and significant emissions increases. It would also incentivize the development and deployment of renewables, as well as other low- or zero-carbon energy technologies.

One policy option that hasn’t received as much attention and can also deliver similar benefits as a carbon price is a National Low-Carbon Electricity standard (LCES), or “Clean” Energy Standard.  UCS has supported this approach in the past, but as i will explore in a subsequent blog, the policy design matters.  For example, the last federal iteration of this policy was the Bingaman Clean Energy Standard Act of 2012, which gave partial credit to natural gas generation without CCS, which we would not support today, given the country’s growing over-reliance on natural gas, and the significant associated carbon emissions.

UCS modeled two policy scenarios: a modest carbon price case ($25 per ton) and a modest low-carbon electricity standard (60% by 2030/ 80% by 2050). The figure below compares the modeling results for our nation’s electricity generation mix under the policy scenarios to the 2017 generation mix, a reference case in 2035 (which includes the 5 nuclear plants slated to retire by 2025) and to three ‘early nuclear retirement scenarios’ that assume an additional 13-26 percent of the current nuclear fleet retires by 2026 because of economic reasons (before their current 60-year operating licenses expire). The early nuclear retirement scenarios are based on our analysis of the profitability of the existing fleet.

Both the carbon price and the LCES help maintain existing nuclear generation at reference case levels through 2035. In the case of the LCES, we see additional reductions in natural gas and additional development of wind and solar. How much the generation mix shifts to low-carbon resources is a function of the stringency of the policy; a higher carbon price or a more ambitious LCES target would show even more renewables.

The figure below shows the emissions trajectory of the different scenarios, including a carbon price and an LCES. Note that our early nuclear retirement scenarios show a 6 percent increase in emissions at a time when we need to be on track to achieve a 90 percent reduction by 2040 (shown here as the National Research Council Carbon Budget) to stay on track with our climate goals. The figure also shows that a 60 percent by 2030 LCES provides similar emissions reductions as the $25 per ton electricity sector carbon price, but note that those policies only get us a little more than half way to our emission reductions target by 2035. More stringent policies or additional complementary polices are required.

A national LCES is good for red states

UCS has been a leading advocate of renewable electricity standards (RES) around the country for many years, and supported the last federal iteration back in 2015, the Udall 30 by 2030 bill. We continue to believe that Congress should pass a strong national RES to help incentivize more renewables development, reduce our nation’s growing over-reliance on natural gas, and aggressively bring down carbon emissions. But, a properly designed national LCES can provide similar benefits, while also solidifying the economic position of existing nuclear plants that meet strict safety standards (preventing abrupt closures). And while we did not analyze this in our modeling, an LCES could also provide an incentive for developing new low and zero carbon energy technologies, including potentially new nuclear reactors and carbon capture and sequestration technologies (CCS), giving us more tools for the climate fight.

A national LCES can broaden the tent of support for low-carbon electricity in parts of the country that are not as far along in their transition to a clean energy economy. This policy helps mitigate some of the imbalances to states with less renewable development relative to a national RES. And it gives many red state congressional delegations a clean energy policy that may be a better fit for their state, freeing up badly needed support from conservatives.

For example, a strong national LCES would provide a lot of benefit to states like South Carolina and Tennessee, for which nuclear power makes the biggest contribution to their electricity mix, with very little coming from renewables. These states could be in position to benefit economically from this policy, while an LCES would also incentivize additional renewables and/or low-carbon development in those states as they prepare to eventually replace those nuclear plants when their useful life expires.

A strong national LCES would also benefit states like Iowa and Kansas, which have enormous wind power as well as nuclear, but also have a lot of coal in their electricity mix. A national LCES would help that existing nuclear stay online, as well as retire some of that expensive and harmful coal generation, while also building on the amazing 36-37% wind energy in their mix. Iowa and Kansas could also easily comply with an LCES and will benefit economically.  All of the states below would realize significant public health benefits that come with trading off coal for renewable energy development.

Electricity Generation Share by Sources, 2017 (source: The Nuclear Power Dilemma)

STATE Nuclear Coal Nat. Gas Hydro Wind Solar Biomass Other SC 58% 19% 17% 3% 0% 0% 3% 0% TN 40% 35% 13% 10% 0% 0% 1% 0% IA 9% 45% 6% 2% 37% 0% 0% 1% KS 21% 38% 5% 0% 36% 0% 0% 0%

We need to create incentives for states to reduce investments in coal and natural gas, maintain the low-carbon generation they already have, and substantially increase investments in new low or zero carbon technologies. Complementary policies to boost energy efficiency will also be needed. With a national LCES, several years from now the table above could show a significant reduction in generation from coal (and natural gas), while holding nuclear generation steady, and substantially increasing the contribution from renewables.

Absent a national LCES or some other policy that incentivizes and protects low carbon generation, the electricity mix in states like South Carolina and Tennessee is likely to go in the wrong direction for the climate.

We need real solutions, not bailouts

Our new analysis of the economics of the existing nuclear fleet clearly show there’s a risk of abrupt retirements, and that the generation would be replaced primarily by fossil fuels. That’s a climate problem, but it’s also a public health problem, it’s a jobs concern, there are tax revenue implications for communities, and much more. States like Illinois, New York and New Jersey avoided abrupt nuclear retirements by working with stakeholders to reach agreements that spawned real policy solutions. Pricing carbon and creating national standards for low emissions electricity are real policy solutions that would protect existing nuclear that can be implemented at the state or the federal level.

These policies don’t cost taxpayer money, and the modeling we’ve done on the electricity price impacts has shown no significant increases.

Juxtapose these real policy solutions with the coal and nuclear bailout proposed by the Trump administration that will cost substantial rate-payer or tax payer money, will NOT protect nuclear in the long-term, and will assuredly exacerbate the climate crisis while increasing threats to public health.

The choice is clear. We need real policy solutions, not bailouts for political supporters.

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