UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

The Energy Burden: How Bad is it and How to Make it Less Bad.

Everybody wants affordable energy. Energy consumers want to be able to pay their bills and energy providers also want customers to be able to pay their energy bills. What we can’t seem to agree on is how to best measure energy affordability.

Energy burden, the percent of a person’s income spent on energy (electricity, home heating, and transportation), is one of the better metrics we have to measure affordability.

In an earlier blog, I took a look at electricity affordability, looking only at electricity bills, leaving out other energy costs like those to heat a home with a gas or oil furnace. The data was also limited to looking at averages, which can obscure the burden energy costs place on low and moderate-income (LMI) folks. While those households tend to use less energy than the average household, LMI households also make less, so the energy burden for LMI folks tends to be above average.

In this blog, I’m able to expand the scope of my analysis thanks to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL.

Illuminating the national energy burden

My original post only looked only at electricity. Similarly, the map on the right is the estimated electricity bill of LMI households by county. On the left, is the estimated home heating fuel bill of LMI households by county. LMI is defined here as 0% to 80% of area median income.

Both maps show the average household expenditures ($/month) for LMI households, at the county level. On the right is only electricity expenditures and on the left is only home heating fuel expenditures. Both choropleth scales reflect $<80/month for the lightest color and >$160/month for the darkest shades.

Looking at these maps side by side, you might be tricked to thinking the energy burden is distributed evenly across the United States: with a higher electricity burden in the Southeast and a higher home heating burden in the rest of the US, it all balances out. Right?


 Energy burdens (at the county level) for LMI households. The lightest color in the choropleth scale is <6% of annual income spent on housing energy bills, and the darkest is >19%.

Energy burden isn’t distributed equally across the US, as the map below shows.

Appalachia lights up on the orange-colored map, with parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee all experiencing high energy burden. Why?

The energy burden issue is complicated.

The data shows significant energy burdens felt by communities in the Gulf Coast and Southeast, with clusters spanning Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and north Florida, up through the Carolinas. These areas experience high energy burden driven mostly by electric bills.

The Northeast area also sees hot spots of decreased energy affordability, which is mostly driven by home heating expenses.

Sometimes it is electric bills, sometimes it is home heating (gas and oil) bills, and sometimes it is both.

Bright ideas on what reduces bills

Okay, so energy burden is a problem; what’s a policymaker to do?

The good news is we have two resources that are well equipped to help reduce customers’ bills.

Both these solutions I noted in the original blog and just so happen to have been evaluated by NREL.

Energy efficiency potential

Energy efficiency can take many forms, from replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs to in installing home insulation. Efficiency reduces home energy consumption and, as a direct result, reduces monthly bills.

Average energy bill savings for the cost-effective package of efficiency upgrades, at the county level, for LMI households. Lightest color means <$100 in annual savings and darkest color indicates >$1,000 / year. Grey = data unavailable.

In this green-colored map, the darker the green represents greater potential savings for LMI households.

Note the tremendous amount of efficiency potential in states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and really… everywhere.

The potential for LMI households to save some green by investing in energy efficiency is widespread, with cost-effective savings in nearly every county where there is available data.

Solar potential

Solar panels can be installed on or near LMI households and with the right policies can be used to reduce the bills of LMI households. One great example of such a policy is DC’s Solar For All program, which helps improve LMI households’ access to solar.

The lightest color in the choropleth scale represents LMI household bill savings of less than $800 per year, and the darkest is >$1,600/year. 

Some of the areas with the greatest potential for bill reductions (darker teal) are in places you’d expect, like California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. These are all states where the sun is shining and where households often see higher electricity bills.

Kansas, a state I spent many formative years, lit up, much to my surprise. Also surprising: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The high potential for consumer savings isn’t just a function of the number of sunny days a state has, but also the building stock and energy consumption patterns.

Parts of Maryland, New Jersey, New York (notably Long Island), Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire also showed up as places where LMI households could reduce home energy bills by hundreds of dollars a month with judicious applications of solar.

Even the places that don’t show up on the map as the hottest of hot spots were still significant. Florida doesn’t look that great when compared to say, California, but, most of Florida’s LMI customers could see savings in the $800-$1,400 per year range. That’s a lot of money.

How will this change with climate change?

One more angle on this to consider is the impact of climate change. A recent analysis (and accompanying graphic) released by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and based on data from the Climate Impact Lab, showed how the US energy burden will worsen over time, in many states, if we don’t rapidly reduce carbon emissions. The southern parts of the United States, already burned by energy bills, will be hit very hard. Communities in these states will have higher energy costs. This analysis suggests that climate change will exacerbate the existing energy burden.

Interestingly, renewable energy and energy efficiency can play a role in staving off both climate change and the energy burden.

“Make things less bad.”

A policy professor of mine was fond of asserting that the objective of most public policy should be to “make things less bad.”

NREL’s latest data confirms what utility practitioners have known for a while: LMI households in most parts of the US are well positioned to reduce their energy bills with energy efficiency and solar. Energy efficiency and solar policy alone won’t solve the issue of energy burden for LMI households, but it will make their energy burden less bad.


Fresh Charts and lots of data

In this blog, I expanded the scope of my original analysis by digging in on some new (to me) data.

I want to thank the great staff of DOE’s office of renewable energy and energy efficiency for pointing me in the data’s direction. Maybe I’ll get my hand on some good transportation cost data, and if you know where I can find some, hit me up on twitter?

The latest data comes from one of the US Department of Energy’s fine national labs (the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL) and it is all assembled in a great interactive map. A big thanks to the find staff of NREL. NREL’s latest data is aggregated at the county level which made it difficult to turn into a table or provide clear data labels on the maps above. If you’d like to know more or zoom in on the data, you can find the map and the underlining data: here. Have fun digging in.

Natural Gas Power Plant Retirements in California

Photo: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

As the rest of the country rushes to build natural gas power plants, California continues to downsize its fleet. While the official numbers are not yet in, 2018 appears to have been a big year for natural gas power plant retirements in California.

California saw three big plant retirements last year: Encina (854 MW), Mandalay (560 MW), and Etiwanda (640 MW). The retirement of Encina and Mandalay was no surprise – those two plants used ocean water for cooling, and California has been phasing out plants that use that cooling technology because of its harmful effects on marine life. On the other hand, Etiwanda shut down simply because it was not making enough money. While California has figured out solutions to keep the electric grid operating reliably without the Mandalay and Etiwanda power plants, Encina is being replaced by the Carlsbad Energy Center, a new 500 MW natural gas power plant.

A dwindling fleet

These retirements in 2018 continue California’s downward trend in natural gas power plant capacity. California’s gas fleet peaked in 2013 with just over 47,000 MW of gas capacity, but California has shed roughly 5,000 MW of gas capacity since then.

Source: California Energy Commission

California’s gas fleet is shrinking because many natural gas power plants just cannot make enough money to stay open. Since 2012, California has added roughly 20,000 MW of wind and solar to the grid, and these renewables are generating electricity that otherwise would have been generated by natural gas power plants. Since there is less demand for electricity from gas plants, some plants are shutting down for good.

More retirements to come

Looking forward, California is expecting many more retirements in the years to come. Another 1,380 MW of natural gas power plant capacity is expected to be retired in 2019, and another 4,600 MW of gas capacity is expected to be retired in 2020.

Will these retired gas plants be replaced by brand new gas plants? It’s not looking likely. There are only a couple thousand megawatts of new natural gas power plants under construction in California. In addition, Los Angeles recently decided not to rebuild a couple of outdated natural gas power plants, opting to invest in renewables and storage instead. California’s gas fleet is poised to continue its decline over the next few years.

At the end of the day, these retirements are not unexpected. Recent analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists has shown that California can retire a significant amount of natural gas power plant capacity while continuing reliable operation of the electric grid. Nevertheless, this is good news as California adopts increasingly ambitious global warming emissions reduction goals. California is continuing to head in the right direction – as the state adds more and more wind and solar to the grid, California’s electricity sector is gradually weaning itself off fossil fuels, downsizing its gas fleet one plant at a time.

Photo: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

SB 489 is the Clean Energy Catalyst New Mexico Needs

BLM New Mexico/Flickr BLM New Mexico/Flickr

In New Mexico, out of the crucible of power-sector transformation, economic vision, and climate imperative comes SB 489, the Energy Transition Act, a bold proposal to set a predominantly coal-fired state down a clean energy path.

Critically, SB 489 balances the urgent hunger for what could be—clear skies, bright futures, good jobs that are built to last—with the inescapable reality of that which is—more than half a century of dependence on coal—by ambitiously committing the state to a forward course while simultaneously reckoning with its past.

With the arrival of a new governor, New Mexico’s clean energy potential has swiftly snapped into focus after long seeming just out of reach. But vision is one thing, reality is another, and it takes a plan to navigate the liminal space.

SB 489 offers that response.

It’s big and it’s bold, setting a power-sector target of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by midcentury, but it’s also careful and considered, looking out for the jobs and economies that were, and shaping for the better the jobs and economies that will be.

SB 489 is supported by environmental, community, labor, and conservation groups, and has the full backing of the governor. It is the right plan, at the right time, for a state on the precipice of change.


As recently as two years ago, PNM, the state’s largest utility, was fighting to keep coal-fired San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) running through 2053. Now PNM is planning to close SJGS by 2022, and leave coal entirely by 2031.

The fact is, SJGS costs more to keep running than building new resources to take its place. PNM estimates that were it to keep SJGS running for another 20 years, it could cost its customers tens to hundreds of millions of dollars more.

But an exit from coal is not as straightforward as simply snuffing out the stacks. The legacy of coal runs deep. Investments have been made, careers have been built, economies have been centered—and the transition at hand upends all of that.

The departure from coal demands real leadership; officials willing to wrestle with hard truths rather than ducking reality and pretending change won’t come. And that takes leadership now—before plants and mines have closed, before that opportunity has passed.

That takes supporting a proposal like SB 489.

SB 489 begins with the recognition that coal plants are closing and then determines how best to act. It does this by tackling two major fronts: first, how best to protect ratepayers while retiring coal, and second, how best to address the needs of workers and communities at risk of being left behind.

Moving Coal Off the Ledger

As it currently stands, PNM, a regulated utility, earns a profit of approximately $16 million a year on $320 million in outstanding investments at SJGS, paid by utility customers. When these investments were approved, the intention was that the plant would operate well into the future, and thus those costs could be recovered over a long period of time. Now, even abandoned, those debts must still be paid.

Traditionally, the utility would go to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) and seek cost recovery, which would allow them to continue to earn a return on investment for the amount approved. This would likely result in a lengthy legal battle over just how much should be borne by ratepayers, and just how much by shareholders.

SB 489 provides an alternative to that by adding a new tool to the PRC’s regulatory toolbox: securitization.

Securitization works like refinancing a loan; by gaining access to AAA-rated bonds, PNM would be able to secure much lower-cost financing to cover outstanding plant, worker, and facility debts. In the process, the utility avoids taking a write-off but also forgoes earning returns.

Customers could stand to save as much as 40 percent via this form of plant closure, which frees up capital to advance workforce transition and economic development efforts. Of course, that “could” is crucial: baked into SB 489 is a requirement that the PRC only approve such a proposal if it guarantees ratepayers a certain amount of savings—and the bill provides funding for them to hire an expert to ensure such savings are the case.

At the end of the day, this approach embraces compromise as a means of moving forward; it looks to unite state, customer, and utility interests under single cover, working to navigate a viable path out of the deep and tangled morass.

Supporting Coal Workers and Coal Communities

Concurrently, SB 489 works to support the transition ahead for those coal threatens to leave behind.

SB 489 dispenses with the myth that the only way to shift from coal is to forsake jobs and local economies. That false choice, which dishonestly perpetuates hope for a commodity teetering on the brink of collapse, has done nothing to ready those at risk. It has done nothing to tackle severance, retraining, reclamation, or economic development. It has done nothing to tackle reality.

SB 489 does.

First, the proposal would set aside $20 million for severance and job training for employees losing their jobs. Importantly, this covers not just plant workers, but mine workers, too; the mine serving SJGS only serves SJGS, and its owner is presently in bankruptcy—these workers need significant and dedicated support. SB 489 would put approximately $15 million more into an Energy Transition Displaced Worker Assistance Fund, to be administered by the state’s Workforce Solutions Department, to further assist in workforce training. In addition, SB 489 requires that starting in 2020, a growing share of electricity generation projects host apprenticeships, thereby driving the development of a skilled workforce trained for good jobs that are built to last.

Second, SB 489 would set aside $30 million for plant decommissioning and mine reclamation costs. This is not a limit; it simply secures the first $30 million via the securitization mechanism. Careful and thorough decommissioning and reclamation are essential for enabling the area to move beyond its coal-fired past. At the same time, these activities have the potential to create good jobs, with overlapping skillsets, for many years to come. Thoughtful planning for how to leverage this critical undertaking can further benefit the local economy.

Finally, SB 489 relieves the community of being backed into the untenable position of fighting for something they know won’t last simply because it’s the only option they’ve got.

SB 489 approaches this in two ways. First, it allocates over $5 million to an Energy Transition Economic Development Assistance Fund, to be administered by the state’s Economic Development Department in concert with community input, to foster economic development in the area. Second, by leveraging the area’s existing energy infrastructure, SB 489 directly addresses the expected erosion of the local tax base by directing replacement power to be located in the affected school district. This action could be significant; a recent analysis found that building a 450 MW solar plant in the area could replace all lost property tax revenue, as well as generate thousands of construction jobs and generate tens of millions more in additional state and local taxes.


Facilitating the transition away from coal is only part of the story; it does not address what comes in to take coal’s place. And that affects everything that comes next for the state, because as goes coal today, so goes natural gas tomorrow.

New Mexico cannot allow for its shift from coal to become a shift to gas. The risks of natural gas overreliance are significant, and largely borne on the backs of ratepayers. What’s more, a portfolio dominated by renewables has been repeatedly shown to be the most cost-effective option for the state.

And that makes SB 489’s concomitant strengthening of the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) so critically important. By building from existing policy, SB 489 steadily strengthens renewable resource requirements from 20 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2040 for large utilities, and 80 percent by 2050 for co-ops.

But SB 489 doesn’t stop there. It further commits to a power sector 100 percent carbon-free come 2045 for the utilities, and 2050 for the co-ops.

Which means that every investment decision that gets made from here on out will now be evaluated in the context of this carbon-free energy course. It makes clear where the state is headed, and requires utilities to fall in line.

This is a major achievement, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s supported by utilities and co-ops alike.

SB 489 as energy transition guide

SB 489 offers a clear and convincing roadmap to navigating the transition ahead.

Critically, essentially, it begins not by leaping to where the state is going, but instead by reckoning with where it’s been. It is considerate of those the transition away from coal risks leaving behind, and works to ensure that they’re readied to be a part of what’s to come.

And with SB 489, the state’s future looks bright.

SB 489 boldly commits New Mexico to a rapid power transition, positioning the state as a renewable energy leader and signaling to forward-looking companies that this is a place to invest.

SB 489 doesn’t solve it all. The transition to a clean energy economy will take efforts large and small, ground-up solutions alongside top-down guidance and everything in-between. But SB 489 is a powerful place to start, and with major long-lasting investment decisions looming on the horizon, now is the time to begin.

Energía renovable en Latinoamérica y el Caribe: una gran riqueza que brilla cada vez más

La ceremonia de los Grammys 2019 empezó con una energizante presentación de Camila Cabello (cubanoamericana), Ricky Martin (puertorriqueño) y J Balvin (colombiano). Fue muy emocionante ver a latinos abriendo por primera vez uno de los eventos más importante de la industria musical. Si bien la presentación me hizo recordar la increíble riqueza musical de los artistas de Latinoamérica y el Caribe (LAC), la región también cuenta con una impresionante riqueza en recursos naturales como el sol y el viento para generar energía.

Camila Cabello, Ricky Martin y J Balvin abriendo la ceremonia de los Grammys 2019

Mas, ¿qué metas están llevando a que esta riqueza sea aprovechada? Acá les cuento.

 Visión: metas claras que guían el rumbo de los países

Los precios de la energía solar y la energía eólica han bajado considerablemente y su adopción ha aumentado casi que exponencialmente en toda Latinoamérica y el Caribe.


Tendencia en Capacidad Instalada en Centro América y el Caribe


Tendencia en Capacidad Instalada en Sur América

Adicional a la reducción en costos, un componente vital en la transición de combustibles fósiles a fuentes de energía limpia es el liderazgo de los gobiernos. De aquí que las metas que estos establecen en cuanto a reducción de emisiones de cambio climático e integración de energías limpias son vitales para la definición de políticas públicas que apoyen el logro de dichas metas.

A lo largo y ancho de Latinoamérica y el Caribe, los gobiernos han establecido ambiciosas metas de adopción de energías renovables, de reducción de emisiones de cambio climático, e incluso de abolición del uso de combustibles fósiles. Por ejemplo:

  • Costa Rica anunció en mayo del 2018 que para el año 2021 abolirá el uso de combustibles fósiles. Adicionalmente, por cuatro años consecutivos el país ha superado el 98% de generación renovable en su sistema eléctrico.
  • México ya cubría en junio del 2018 el 24% de sus necesidad eléctricas a través de la generación con fuentes limpias y tiene por meta que el 50% de la electricidad deberá generarse con energía limpia para el año 2050.
  • Jamaica ya cubre más del 18% de sus necesidades energéticas con energía renovable y tiene por meta generar el 50% de su electricidad usando energía renovable para el año 2030.
  • Colombia busca tener al menos 500 megavatios (MW) de energía renovable no convencional para el 2022, o alrededor del 10% de la matriz energética. En la actualidad cuenta con 50 MW.
  • Chile cuenta con la radiación solar más alta del mundo y fue elegido como el país más atractivo para invertir en energía renovable por ClimateScope en el 2018. Al final del mismo ya producía cerca del 20% de su energía usando fuentes renovables no convencionales, logrando llegar a la meta propuesta para el año 2025 casi 7 años antes.
  • Uruguay, gracias a su proceso de reconversión energética, pasó de tener tan sólo un 1% de su energía generada por energía solar y eólica en el año 2013, a un 32% en el año 2017.

Adicionalmente, medidas que garanticen la seguridad, resiliencia e independencia energética están siendo estudiadas en diferentes países de la región. En el caso de Puerto Rico:

La energía renovable en Latinoamérica y el Caribe, un baile para todos

Latinoamérica y el Caribe se unen cada vez con más fuerza y entusiasmo al baile de la energía renovable, y esto es motivo de celebración. La transparencia, la transición justa y la participación comunitaria serán aspectos claves para hacer que este baile sea tan contagioso y energizante que todos podamos participar.






@Camila_Cabello IRENA IRENA

Chaco Canyon at Risk: Interior Nominee Bernhardt Wants to Drill on Lands Sacred to Tribes

Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon National Historical park, New Mexico. Photo: Adam Markham.

The push to open our fragile public lands to more drilling is well and truly on, and it’s clear that David Bernhardt, President Trump’s choice to become the new Secretary of the Interior, is pulling all the strings.

Throughout the government shutdown in January, former oil lobbyist Bernhardt stayed on the job as Acting Secretary, working hard to push forward plans for oil drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and ensuring that the administration’s goal of “energy dominance” through opening new areas to fossil fuel extraction remained on track.

During the shutdown, 800 employees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were authorized to stay at work to process oil and gas drilling leases. Meanwhile 85% of the rest of the staff at the Department of the Interior (DOI) were furloughed, cutting off Native American healthcare programs, shuttering vital climate science research, and leaving national parks like Joshua Tree and Virginia’s civil war battlefields unprotected against vandalism and looting.

Drilling threatens lands near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon UNESCO site

What’s happening under Bernhardt’s watch in the remote Greater Chaco Area of northwestern New Mexico illustrates in microcosm why he is perhaps the worst possible choice for the job as top steward of our public lands.

Chaco Canyon and thousands of Indigenous peoples’ sacred places and archaeological sites in the surrounding Greater Chaco Region are at risk from an unprecedented drive to frack and drill for oil and gas. The recent announcement (and then hurried withdrawal) of oil and gas lease sales within the 10-mile informal buffer zone for Chaco Culture National Historical Park shows Bernhardt’s intent, and that the land nearest to the park is not safe from oil and gas drilling.

Existing drilling wells close to Chaco Canyon, and the proposed 10 mile protection zone (in blue). Map courtesy of WildEarth Guardians.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is centered on Chaco Canyon, which from around 850 C.E. to 1250 C.E. was the center of one of the most remarkable pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas. Chaco Canyon was among the first national monuments created by Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act in 1907. And in 1987, together with Aztec Ruins National Monument and five smaller “outlier” archaeological sites in the region, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Chaco culture evolved and spread in the region and its people left thousands of pueblos, shrines, burial sites, cliff-stairs, track-ways, and ancient roads. Eventually there were more than 200 outlier communities, many connected to Chaco Canyon by roads. All modern pueblo peoples trace their ancestry to Chaco Canyon, and tribes including the Navajo and Hopi claim cultural affiliation with the ancient Puebloans and Chacoans. Most of the Chaco region today is traditionally Navajo land.

An extraordinary archaeological landscape at risk

It’s a rough drive into Chaco Canyon. On the northern access road, the last 13 miles are on a pot-holed and dusty washboard road that can become impassable when it rains. The first thing you see on your left as you turn off NM 550 towards the park is a big fracking well, but as you get closer to Chaco, the landscape is flat and expansive, the desert scrub vegetation is sparse, and grazing cattle and horses are few and far between. The nearest town to Chaco Canyon is 60 miles away and there is no visitor accommodation, merely a campground frequented by coyotes and rattlesnakes under a mesa. It’s an International Dark Sky Park and you’d be crazy not to stumble out of your tent at night into the cool, high-desert air and marvel at the jewel-box-bright stars of the Milky Way spilling though the black-velvet night sky.

Ancient Chacoans were closely connected to seasonal and astronomical cycles, and as you stand on mesa gazing at the night sky, you can’t help but be captivated by thoughts of how these ancient peoples connected with the same awesome spectacle. Today light pollution, associated with methane flaring from drilling sites that are creeping closer toward the park, is a real threat to the extraordinary dark sky views.

Chaco’s a harsh environment: Bone-chillingly cold in winter, dry and sometimes searingly hot in the summer, and with an average of not much more than 9 inches of precipitation annually. But in these forbidding surroundings a remarkable and enduring culture formed and grew. Before Chaco, ancient pueblo people created hunting camps or small villages that lasted a few years, or at most a decade or two. But in Chaco Canyon a culture developed that put down roots and created extraordinary architecture and a complex trade network.

Part of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo: Adam Markham.

There are a dozen monumental, multi-story sandstone “great houses” in Chaco Canyon, and the remains of some are in remarkably good condition. Great houses contained store-rooms, granaries, offices, accommodations, circular ceremonial rooms called Kivas, and some probably had military barracks and aviaries for keeping or breeding rare birds. The most famous is Pueblo Bonito, which probably had at least 650 rooms. The great houses seem to have been occupied by an elite class, while the vast majority of ancient Puebloans lived in much simpler buildings.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Chacoans participated in extensive trade networks involving copper, ceramics, turquoise, obsidian and chocolate throughout the Southwest and into Mesoamerica. From around 900AD, they were trading turquoise for scarlet macaws that originated in southern Mexico.

A cultural landscape under assault from oil and gas drilling

The Greater Chaco Region is now under unprecedented assault by the oil and gas industry, with the enthusiastic support of the Trump administration and Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt. According to WildEarth Guardians, there are already more than 20,000 oil and gas wells in the region, and the drilling is quickly encroaching closer and closer to Chaco Canyon. In early February 2019, BLM announced plans to sell more leases in late March (March 28) for oil and gas extraction, quite a number of which were within a 10-mile radius of the park. Then, a few days later, BLM announced that it was withdrawing the lease sales for sites within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon.

This is a welcome development, but it is unlikely to be the last time that BLM tries to push drilling closer to the park. Archaeologist Paul Reed of the non-profit cultural resources advocacy group Archaeology Southwest says,“I think this is probably a temporary victory, and the parcels will come up again in a future lease sale…I encourage folks to contact BLM to protest the March 28 lease sale, even with the near Chaco parcels removed.” And according to the Society for American Archaeology, land parcels that are still up for lease outside the informal 10-mile buffer zone, but are within the Greater Chaco cultural landscape, also contain important Chachoan remains. The US non-profit advisory body for World Heritage, US/ICOMOS (US Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites) has also protested the expansion of lease sales in the Chaco landscape.

Energy development on a Chaco Canyon access road. Photo: Adam Markham

Tribes and archaeologists want a drilling moratorium

Representatives of tribes, archaeologists, environmental advocates, and heritage experts are angry because planning for the new lease sales appears to have continued unimpeded during the recent government shutdown even though the Farmington Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) have not been completed.

Oil and gas leasing in the area continues despite calls by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the Navajo Nation, and the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG) for a moratorium on drilling in the whole Greater Chaco Region, pending initiation and completion by BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of an ethnographic study of cultural landscapes in the region. The study has not been initiated and new well openings continue apace. According to the NCAI, more than 400 new fracking wells have been approved in the region since 2013, and approximately 90% of federal lands in the oil- and gas-rich San Juan Basin, of which Chaco Canyon is the geographical center, have already been leased for drilling.

For the protected ruins inside the park and associated protected areas, the primary impact of the expanded oil-shale drilling is from air, noise, and light pollution. But outside the park boundaries, the concrete drilling pads, massive rigs, pump jacks, and dense network of oil industry roads are damaging a huge sacred and cultural landscape left by the Chacoans, and about which we know very little. The burden of increased water and air pollution falls largely on Navajo communities who have little say in the leasing or management of BLM lands.

Oil and gas land grab should disqualify Bernhardt

In May 2018, Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation to ban drilling and fracking on federal lands within 10 miles of the boundaries of the Chaco Culture park. The Chaco Cultural Area Protection Act is also supported by the APCG and the Navajo Nation. New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, the newly elected Chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests & Public Lands, and a tribal citizen of Laguna Pueblo, dubbed the latest drilling leases proposed (and then quickly withdrawn) by BLM a “land grab”, lamenting the lack of consultation with tribes.

David Bernhardt’s DOI is waving aside and ignoring the protests of tribes, Indigenous organizations, environmental groups, archaeologists, and New Mexico’s congressional representatives. Bernhardt, with his history of lobbying for drilling and mining interests, and his tangled thicket of conflicts of interest, seems not even slightly committed to the stewardship of public lands for the benefit of future generations, but only to the short-term benefits of the oil and gas industries. For this reason alone, he is not qualified to be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior.

Photo: Adam Markham

What to look for in Governor Pritzker’s Budget Address

Photo: Charles Edward Miller/Flickr

On Wednesday Governor J.B. Pritzker will give his first budget address as Illinois’s 43rd Governor. This is a key opportunity for him to address the financial benefits of renewable energy and a pathway for Illinois to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity.

Last month Pritzker joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

In his Budget Address Governor Pritzker should take the next step by laying out a plan to achieve his climate commitments. The governor would do well by referencing recent findings and recommendations from the Powering Illinois’ Future Committee and the Illinois Commerce Commission’s NextGrid study. It’s vital that his energy platform be an equitable path forward for the state. Here’s what we hope to see included.

Reference to powering Illinois’ future

Earlier this month Governor Pritzker released a report from the Powering Illinois’ Future Committee, a committee  co-chaired by Jen Walling, Executive Director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

The report outlines an equity focused framework that will build upon the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA).  The report recommends that the state commit to 100 percent renewable energy while ensuring a just transition for all communities. Illinois can utilize renewable energy and energy efficiency to advance economic development, improve public health, and create good-paying jobs. The Committee recommended improving the health and safety of the state through equitable and responsible capital investments as well as catalyzing carbon-free energy expansion. Some key recommendations from the Committee include:

  • Ensure housing stock in Illinois is ready for energy efficiency upgrades and to prioritize older housing stock in low-income communities.
  • Create clean energy empowerment zones in rural, transitioning, and communities of color to share in the economic and environmental benefits of Illinois’ shift to a clean energy economy. Through these zones, provide grants to facilitate locally-designed, community-directed clean energy initiatives.
  • Expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure, by providing incentives for conversion of public transit and school buses and offer special rates to school districts that adopt EV buses.
  • Integrate R&D efforts with business creation and compete for federal and private sector energy storage investments in Illinois. Incentivize projects at retired or soon-to-be retired coal plants to spur economic development in those transitioning communities.
  • Support shovel ready solar projects for schools and state-owned properties. Implement the Solar for All program by initiating an additional 100 projects at publicly-owned properties in low-income communities.

These recommendations should be the cornerstone of the Pritzker Administration’s policy platform and they should be included in his capital plan.

Findings from the NextGrid study

Last year the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) launched NextGrid, the Illinois Utility of the Future Study. The study was a collaboration between key stakeholders to create a shared base of information on electric utility industry issues and opportunities around grid modernization. It was managed by the University of Illinois and consisted of seven working groups. UCS participated in two of the working groups, Regulatory and Environmental Policy Issues and Ratemaking.

While still in draft form, the report does include three specific recommendations that the Pritzker Administration should use in the areas of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, deployment of energy storage resources to enable further integration of renewable energy, and proactiveness on protecting consumer data privacy.  It is a missed opportunity that the NextGrid process did not result in a roadmap or larger set of policy recommendations for Illinois, but the report does identify areas where Illinois can move forward on policy changes to further the goals of a reliable, affordable, and carbon-free energy grid.

The Draft Final Report does recognize that there is “very broad interest in active participation to mitigate climate change impacts in every possible way”. Participants shared the goal to make the grid greener through the continued integration of renewable energy resources to reduce emissions, and the desire to pursue sustainable ways to meet the state’s energy needs.

There is an urgent need to respond to climate change by decarbonizing the electric grid and the many environmental and economic opportunities offered by advancing clean energy. The consensus points discussed throughout the process and laid out in the final draft report should be utilized by the Pritzker Administration.

A bold agenda for Illinois is needed now

There is no time to waste.  According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment projected changes in precipitation, coupled with rising extreme temperatures before mid-century will reduce Midwest agricultural productivity to 1980s levels without major technological advances. At the same time, we must swiftly and sharply reduce our global warming emissions, so we can avoid even worse impacts. Illinois deserves a healthy economy and environment where all communities can thrive.

The Pritzker Administration has the capacity to innovate around carbon-free energy sources, while creating jobs and protecting the health of all Illinoisans. Governor Pritzker’s leadership on renewable energy and energy efficiency is crucial. During his campaign he stated that Illinois deserves clean air, clean water, and a safe environment where all communities can thrive.  He said he stands on the side of science and believes climate change is real.  Now is the time to put these campaign promises into action.

Photo: Charles Edward Miller/Flickr

Trump’s Tariffs May Have Cost the Solar Industry Thousands of Jobs Last Year

Source: The Solar Foundation

The latest solar jobs census has just come out, and the news is… mixed. Here’s what the survey found, why the numbers are that way, and how we get the whole country on track.

Solar job numbers fall

The National Solar Jobs Census from The Solar Foundation is the non-profit’s annual review of “the size and scope of employment in the US solar energy industry… [and] the most comprehensive and rigorous analysis of solar labor market trends in the United States.” As such, it’s a really important tool for assessing our job-creation progress in what had been, until the last two years, a key growth area within our energy sector.

For 2018, the numbers are a mixed bag. Overall numbers for people employed in solar in 2018 stood at around 242,000—down 8,000, or more than 3%, from the year before.

At the level of individual states, there have been winners and losers. California’s drop in solar employment alone (down 9,600) could account for the whole overall drop, though with 77,000 solar workers it’s still by far the biggest state for solar jobs (and #3 in solar jobs per capita). Massachusetts, which had been #2 in overall solar jobs, also lost—with 1,300 fewer people employed in solar—and dropped to #3 by that overall-solar-jobs metric.

In all, 21 states lost ground, including 4 of the top 5 solar states by installed solar capacity (California, plus North Carolina, Arizona, and New Jersey).

On the plus side, that still leaves 29 states gaining solar jobs. Those include Florida (up 1,800, to take the #2 spot for total jobs), Illinois (up 1,300), and Texas and New York (each up 700+). And the 2018 total solar jobs figure is still 16% higher than the 2015 number.

But the annual drop—the second in a row—is concerning. So the next logical question is: Why are we losing solar jobs at all?

Why solar jobs have fallen

Many of the reasons for the recent drop in solar workers are pretty clear, actually, and start at the top:

  • Trump solar taxes – “Much of the decline,” says the new report, “is attributable to uncertainty over the outcome of the Section 201 trade case on solar modules and cells.” This is that solar tariff issue that was brewing for much of 2017 and finally settled in 2018, with substantial taxes on virtually all imported solar goods. Those tariffs, and particularly that uncertainty surrounding how high those taxes would be, and when they’d hit, were pretty disruptive. And, by slowing down progress with a key technology (and proven job creator), were a blow to any notions about US “energy dominance.”
  • State policies – At a more local level, states were certainly another piece of the pain, with uncertainty being the enemy of investment. California was figuring out what new high bars to set for itself in the climate and energy spaces. Massachusetts continued to wrestle with coming up with a worthy successor to its solar policies that had been so successful at building the local industry over the previous decade.
  • 2016 – Another noteworthy factor is the industry’s own big push in 2016, when it looked like the sizeable federal investment tax credit (ITC) was set to expire; that led to a full court press by industry and customers, and a banner year. That helps to explain 2017 (as the market recalibrated a bit), though, and not necessarily 2018; with a supportive policy environment from the top on down, this past year could have been much stronger.

One thing that doesn’t seem to be a reason for a drop in solar jobs is competition from coal. Given our president’s purported focus on jobs, and his (unhealthy) obsession with fossil fuels, you might well imagine that the job losses in solar have been made up in coal mining. The facts, though, say otherwise: The 1,800 new coal mining jobs from January 2018 to last month stacked up to less than a quarter of the 8,000 jobs lost in solar.

(Those increases also brought coal mining up to an estimated 52,700 jobs, which, astute readers will notice, even if Pres. Trump doesn’t, means that there are still 4.6 people employed in solar for every 1 in coal mining.)

Credit: Dennis Schroeder/US Department of Energy, via Flickr

The way forward

So, how about 2019 and beyond? There are reasons to think some of the job numbers might right themselves. The strong performers in 2018 look set to continue to perform well:

  • Florida (the Sunshine State) has finally discovered solar power, as regulators finally began to let homeowners take advantage of solar leases, a financial tool which has been a powerful driver elsewhere.
  • Illinois has been buoyed by the solar provisions in its important 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act.
  • Texas is finding that large-scale solar’s really low prices are a good complement to its nation-leading wind fleet.
  • Nevada is looking good after fixing a bad decision about net-metering a couple of years ago.

Meanwhile, erstwhile leaders look to be getting back on track. California has a new requirement to put solar on virtually every new home, and a goal to get 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources. Massachusetts finally has its new SMART solar incentive in place, removing the policy uncertainty for at least a little while.

But this is also time for national leadership on clean energy policy. If the White House doesn’t feel compelled to provide it, at least many in Congress do—with Exhibit A being the Green New Deal. UCS was “excited and heartened” to see the GND resolution introduced last week, with its “bold, ambitious vision for how to address climate change in a principled, equitable and science-based manner.”

From where I sit, it seems pretty clear that any bold vision for our climate future has got to include a large role for solar power, with all its potential for cutting carbon, improving public health, enhancing resilience, empowering communities, and, yes, creating jobs.

Getting us squarely on the path toward climate sanity will involve some tough choices. Solar isn’t one of them.

Meanwhile, solar panel installer positions represent the fastest source of job growth in 8 states, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers examined by Yahoo Finance. There are a lot of reasons to think that number of states should be a whole lot higher.

Check out The Solar Foundation’s infographic for more facts and fun.

Minnesota Bill HF700 Considers Bold Carbon-Free Energy Target

Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr

Last week Minnesota Representative Jamie Long (DFL – Minneapolis) introduced HF700, a bill laying out a bold plan to achieve 100 percent carbon-free energy for the state.  Last Tuesday an informational hearing was held in the House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division, where dozens of Minnesotans testified in support of the bill. They stressed the need for Minnesota to be a national leader on clean energy, and the dire consequences of waiting to act on climate change.

In 2007, Minnesota passed the Next Generation Energy Act which set a 25 percent Renewable Energy Standard (RES) by 2025 (30% for Xcel Energy), and set a carbon reduction goal of 80 percent by 2050. Minnesota has met its RES goal 7 years ahead of schedule, but the state is not on track to meet its carbon reduction goal.

So, what’s in HF700, and what would its passage mean for Minnesota?

What’s in the bill

HF700 calls for electric utilities in that state to get 55 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030, 80 percent by 2035, and to go 100 percent carbon-free by 2050.  The state’s largest investor owned utility, Xcel Energy, has a higher standard to meet of 55 percent renewable energy by 2026, 60 percent by 2030, 85 percent by 2035, and 100 percent carbon-free by 2045.

The bill adds a definition of carbon-free to the RES, defined as a technology that generates electricity without emitting carbon. However, it doesn’t state which specific technologies would qualify as carbon free, such as nuclear energy or Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This is relevant because two of Minnesota’s nuclear plants, owned by Xcel Energy, have operating licenses set to expire in the 2030s.

The bill removes trash incineration from the definition of renewable energy sources and incorporates environmental costs as a factor that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) must consider if a delay in meeting these benchmarks is requested by a utility. The bill also directs the PUC that in evaluating a utility’s claims of transmission capacity constraints, it must consider whether the utility has taken all reasonable measures to meet the requirements with renewables.

The legislation also includes an expanded section on local benefits, including important equity considerations like directing the PUC to ensure equitable implementation in the following areas:

  • The creation of high-quality jobs in Minnesota paying wages that support families;
  • Recognition of the rights of workers to organize and unionize;
  • Ensuring that workers have the necessary tools, opportunities and economic assistance to adapt successfully during the energy transition, particularly in communities that host retiring power plants and contain historically marginalized and underrepresented populations;
  • Ensuring that all share the benefits of clean and renewable energy and the opportunity to participate fully in the clean energy economy;
  • Ensuring that air emissions are reduced in communities historically burdened by pollution and the impacts of climate change; and
  • The provision of affordable electric service to Minnesotans, particularly to low-income consumers.
 Alignment with Xcel’s recent commitments

This bill fits nicely with what Xcel has already committed to and allows the company a lot of flexibility in achieving their long-term goals.

In December Minnesota’s largest investor owned utility Xcel Energy announced their commitment to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. Within their plan Xcel has also set the near-term goal of 80% reductions by 2030.

With existing technologies such as wind, solar and energy efficiency, Xcel will be able to achieve their near-term goal.  Additionally, energy storage costs are expected to continue to decrease, which will allow for even more renewable energy penetration. Their long-term goal will be harder to achieve and, in their words, will require technologies that are not currently cost effective and commercially available today.  However, they are committed to ongoing work to develop advanced technologies while putting the necessary policies in place to achieve this transition.

My colleague gives a variety of potential pathways for how they’ll be able to get all the way to zero, including unlocking the full potential of dispatchable renewables, energy efficiency, flexible demand, energy storage, and other technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration.

Learning from our friends to the west

California passed a similar bill in 2018, setting a bold goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045 and increased the renewable energy standard from 50 to 60 percent by 2030. UCS developed 10 key strategies that state policymakers and stakeholders could follow to achieve these goals and make the electricity grid more flexible while reducing fossil fuels.

Minnesota could benefit from implementing similar strategies. The  key strategies to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity include:

  • Using electricity as efficiently as possible to reduce peak demand;
  • Generate renewable energy from a diverse mix of resources;
  • Plan for an equitable transition away from fossil fuels, including natural gas;
  • Use renewables to provide grid reliability services;
  • Invest in energy storage;
  • Unlock the value of distributed energy resources;
  • Electrify cars, trucks, and buildings;
  • Shift electricity demand to better coincide with renewable energy production; and
  • Promote high-quality jobs and workforce development.
What’s Next?

HF700, and the Senate companion bill SF850, are a powerful move in the right direction for Minnesota. UCS will be working with our coalition partners to push the state’s utilities to look at all their options and make sure that cost-effective measures, like energy efficiency, are used in the path to 100 percent.

The Senate version awaits action by the Senate Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy Committee.  The bill may face an uphill fight in the Senate, but a hearing would be a great first step. Now is the time for us to move toward with 100% carbon-free and equitable energy that benefits all Minnesotans.

Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr

What to Watch for in Michigan’s State of the State Speech

Photo: Terry Johnston/Wikimedia Commons

Next Tuesday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer will give her first State of the State address as Michigan’s chief executive officer. It is a key opportunity for her to address climate change, infrastructure needs, and clean energy and water—all priorities Governor Whitmer emphasized during last year’s campaign.

Here’s what to look for.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer

Joining the U.S. Climate Alliance

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a group of states committed to upholding the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Look for Governor Whitmer to highlight this week’s executive directive adding Michigan to the Alliance and the growing number of states in this coalition, which includes Minnesota and now Illinois whose new Governor J.B. Pritzker announced would also join.

Creating a state office of climate change

Governor Whitmer is also likely to highlight another executive directive from this week creating a Michigan Office of Climate and Energy. This new office will work with the governor to mitigate the impacts of climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and embrace more sustainable energy solutions.

The sooner this new office can be up and running, the better, especially in light of the urgent and compelling need to act on climate change outlined in two key scientific reports released last year.

Infrastructure investments, clean water, and electric vehicles

Governor Whitmer’s campaign focused in on the need to improve Michigan’s infrastructure, including electric and heating systems in addition to roads, bridges, and clean drinking water. She also promised to “mak[e] sure Michigan has the edge in electric vehicles [that] will not only reduce carbon emissions, but create and protect jobs here in our state.” Ideally Governor Whitmer will outline specific goals and a policy agenda to further these critical needs and opportunities during her State of the State address.

Michigan is primed for further clean energy growth

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council recently named Michigan to its 2019 Clean Energy States Honor Roll as its “Emerging Clean Energy Leader.” This is well-deserved as the Michigan Public Service Commission has launched several stakeholder processes to address regulatory policies facilitating integration of solar power in the state, including community solar and rooftop solar.

In addition, last 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. Both Consumers Energy and DTE Energy have integrated resource plan dockets filed or to be filed in 2019 that, as I wrote about in my blog post last month, will be key items to watch on how the utilities plan to follow through on their goals.

As a candidate, Governor Whitmer signed on to the Clean Energy for All Campaign, which asks candidates to commit to a vision where the United States runs on 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

Governor Whitmer’s leadership on renewable energy and energy efficiency can help build on the state’s clean energy momentum and ensure Michiganders are benefiting from cleaner air and water, more affordable energy bills, and expanded economic development. I look forward to hearing how her remarks on Tuesday night will further the clean energy transition.

Photo: Terry Johnston/Wikimedia Commons

Two Years in, and the State of Our Union Is Weakened—but It’ll Be Strong Again

We are now midway through the Trump administration, and the state of our union—while far too fractured and polarized to be judged strong—has, at least, proven resilient. The key institutions we count on—a free media, an independent judiciary, vigorous NGOs, strong governors and state attorneys general, and opposition representatives in Congress—have, for the most part, held the line and stemmed the damage that might have been inflicted by the wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency.

At the same time as our “old guard” institutions have held the line, a “new guard” is moving the line and changing the terms of the debate. People-powered activism is surging nationwide, and groups such as Indivisible, the Parkland students, and the Sunrise Movement captivate our imagination and demand attention with stirring ideas such as the “Green New Deal.”

Even the recent shutdown over the border wall, while a stunning example of government dysfunction that caused needless suffering, may have set a helpful precedent. How so? The border wall started out as a mnemonic device for a fledgling presidential candidate and became a symbol of toughness on immigration to Mr. Trump’s base. What it never was shown to be was an effective solution for border security. And when a policy, particularly one that involves billions of taxpayer dollars, cannot be supported by the evidence, and when there is an opposition party that will not suspend its disbelief out of blind loyalty to the president, such a policy will usually fail. That is the primary lesson of the shutdown, and one that President Trump’s administration would do well to learn if he wishes to salvage a failing presidency.

So, the question for UCS is this: How do we intend to operate in this landscape for the next two years?

Remain vigilant, but focus less on legislative defense

Two years ago, many of us reasonably feared that the president and his allies in Congress would enact what I have often referred to as “scorched earth” laws that would weaken key environmental safeguards, and restrict the ability of government scientists to do their vital work. Many of these bills had been passed by Congress but vetoed by President Obama, and we reasonably feared that they would be passed again by Congress and signed into law by President Trump.

Fortunately, for the most part this did not happen due to Senate Democrats working together to block noxious legislation. This was an all-hands-on-deck effort, supported by the work of many, including UCS, and it produced good results. Now, with a new majority in the House of Representatives that seems guided by science and motivated by constituencies who value clean air and water, it seems highly unlikely that such legislation will pass. For UCS, this means that some of the resources devoted to legislative defense can be deployed for other purposes.

Counter executive action

However, because Mr. Trump’s agenda will be stymied in Congress, it is also likely that he will double down on executive action.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these gambits lie in foreign policy, an area presidents often turn to when their domestic agendas are blocked. President Trump has already inflicted damage on our standing in the world and relationships with allies by seeking to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Now he has announced the U.S. will begin withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, with the potential risk of unraveling other arms accords, such as the New Start Treaty which expires in 2021 unless extended. There is no obvious way to counter these actions, at least in the short term, but we and others can and will challenge these actions.

On the domestic front, we will continue to see the president attempt to impose his will even when he cannot get Congress behind it. An example is the recently-announced effort to impose punitive work requirements on recipients of the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) after Congress chose not to include these requirements when it passed the farm bill in late 2018. As UCS experts have noted, the Department of Agriculture is now charging forward with a proposal that makes it harder for states (that have high unemployment rates and other barriers) to waive work requirements, thereby disqualifying many hungry Americans from accessing food through the program.

On top of new efforts such as cutting SNAP eligibility, the Trump administration will scurry to complete final rules eviscerating climate change policies. His administration will keep forcing rollbacks of proactive climate policies such as fuel economy standards and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, threatening public health by changing the formula for conducting cost-benefit analyses, stacking federal advisory boards with industry representatives, and limiting how scientific evidence can be used by federal agencies. These may be the only remaining “wins” Mr. Trump will be able to secure, and they are highlighted well in this recent UCS report.

UCS, and others, have fought hard against these rollbacks, soliciting thousands of comments of concern on these regulations before they’re finalized. What will most effectively derail the deregulation train? The nation’s courts. Courts are fact-based forums: when an administration makes spurious claims, they can expect skepticism from federal courts, particularly because the administrative record, as added to by UCS and others, contains the grounds to tear such arguments apart.

Take advantage of new oversight opportunities

In addition to litigation, we now have a new tool in countering excesses—Congressional oversight. Our elected officials can—and should—expose malfeasance and cronyism, rouse public opinion, and block misguided executive branch initiatives.

The challenge is that there is much material to work with—the US House committees that conduct any review of the Trump administration’s actions since taking office will need to be judicious. While there will be many competing demands, part of the new Congress’s agenda must be devoted to investigating regulatory rollbacks. We will be prepared to assist Congress in the legwork that goes into making oversight effective.

Examples of Congressional oversight that could be particularly illuminating include investigating:

  • The nefarious role that oil companies may have played in convincing the Trump administration to weaken fuel economy standards further than even the car companies wished;
  • The EPA’s decision to jerry-rig its cost-benefit analysis to minimize the benefits of regulations that Trump campaign contributors such as Murray Energy oppose;
  • The true facts about whether proposed missile defense systems actually work in real-world testing.
Perfect our science-based policies and build a coalition to support them

The next two years also give us time to lay the groundwork for 2020 and beyond. In part, we can start this by pushing for relatively modest measures that have bipartisan support now. Examples include funding increases for clean energy R&D, extensions of popular tax incentives for wind and solar energy, and broadening current incentives for deploying more energy storage and electric vehicles. And, if there’s a national infrastructure bill, UCS will push for “green” components, such as transmission lines that connect renewable energy to population centers and building EV charging stations.

But more importantly, we can use these next two years to draw up “rough drafts” of more ambitious legislation to solve our greatest challenges. Lawmakers can get feedback from stakeholders, for example, and continue to build public support for science-based policies so that when change happens again in Washington, we as a nation are ready to act decisively on climate change.

In addition to climate legislation, we should also lay the groundwork for ambitious action on nuclear weapons, including a bill to prohibit the US from launching a first use of nuclear weapons and/or restrict the president’s sole authority to launch a nuclear strike. We’ll be ready to inject these ideas into the next presidential debates, and educate a new cadre of legislators, as well as mobilize the public around them. We should also anticipate opportunities around—and lay the groundwork for—bills to protect scientific integrity and restore hollowed-out federal agencies.

Drive change at the state level

The polarized and dysfunctional state of the federal government likely won’t get better without a new election. But at the state level, there are abundant opportunities to make progress now. On the West Coast, all three governors and their legislatures can continue to show leadership on climate change—and California must begin the hard work of implementing the goals it set under Governor Brown. States like New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have new governors who recognized the value of clean energy in their campaigns, and these states are poised to adopt ambitious climate goals, aided by ample and inexpensive supplies of renewable energy. And on the East Coast, nine states and Washington, DC, just pledged to create a “cap and invest” program to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector—the largest source of emissions. These local governments can make good on their pledge in 2019 and transition their states to clean transportation.

So, at this two-year mark, we have a weakened president, a resurgent House of Representatives, new governors committed to state-level progress, and an engaged and mobilized public. So, while I cannot call our state of the union strong at this moment, I see clear signs that in less time than I might have anticipated two years ago, our state of the union will be strong again.

Photo: Wikimedia

Will the Real State of the Union Please Stand Up? 7 Things President Trump Won’t Say

A great public servant and one of my mentors, William Ruckelshaus, always emphasized to me that the State of the Union was a time to put big ideas on the table, to talk about the truly great challenges facing the country, and to provide leadership for what we as a nation needed to do to live up to the ideals of our democracy. New education initiatives, cleaning up pollution, providing health care—these are some of the big ideas that previous presidents have talked about on this national stage.

Call me crazy but I don’t think that is what we will hear from President Trump.

Instead we’re likely to hear misdirection and falsehoods. According to the Washington Post, President Trump has made 8,158 false or misleading claims during his first two years in office. Even if by some miracle he sticks to actual facts during his State of the Union address, it’s a safe bet that he won’t address many of the most crucial challenges facing America. Instead he’s likely to tout the strong economy, while ignoring rising inequality and continuing losses for everyone but the wealthy. He’ll rail about border security, while dismissing the real security threats highlighted by his intelligence agencies. And he will talk about jobs, while ignoring worker safety and threats to public health.

What should be in the speech are some of the truly great challenges we need to tackle as a nation. We need a real change in direction and focus from this administration, and so I will be watching the speech live, tweeting the #RealSOTU, and calling for this nation to face up to the truth.

Here are seven BIG things that President Trump won’t say in his 2019 State of the Union speech.

Rolling back regulations hurts people

President Trump and his appointed agency heads have cut down landmark public protections that we all depend on for our health and safety, and sidelining science has consistently been one of their go-to strategies to accomplish it.

Rolling back regulations that reduce air pollution, water pollution, toxic contamination, worker protections, and more might give windfall profits to some companies. But those profits come at public expense. And who’s bearing the brunt of those impacts and costs? Poorer communities and communities of color.

That all needs to stop, right now.

And right now, with a new Congress in place there is a renewed opportunity to call on our elected officials to represent their constituents and to hold the Trump administration accountable. The administration should be doing its job of serving the public, not special interests.

We need policies that treat our people equitably, that require those who pollute to clean up their mess regardless of what neighborhood they are located in. And we need our government to hold polluters to account. Mr. President, do you want to make real change?  Then work for the people who need the government’s help. That isn’t the oil and gas or chemical industry.

We have one decade left to avoid catastrophic climate change

We have about a decade left to dramatically reduce carbon pollution and avoid truly catastrophic climate change impacts, including unprecedented and life-threatening heat waves, the loss of millions of coastal homes to rising seas, and a growing number of extreme and damaging weather events.

The IPCC’s recent special report and the Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment (NCA4) both tell us that climate change is already affecting all of us, and that right now we are speeding down one of the most costly and damaging paths possible.

Whether it’s national security, natural disasters, the military, the economy, immigration, or any other number of issues, there’s one thing Trump will surely fail to recognize in his speech: Climate change affects all of them.

Consider, for example, the 2018 report on the vulnerability of military installations to climate-related impacts, which showed that about 10 percent of sites are being affected by extreme temperatures, and some six percent are affected by flooding due to storm surge and by wildfire. Or the 2019 worldwide threat assessment of the US intelligence community, which identifies climate change as a national security risk.  Or how the NCA4 finds that existing water, transportation, and energy infrastructure are already being impacted by heavy rainfall, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, drought, wildfire, heat waves, and other weather and climate events.

The last two years of natural disasters and extreme weather brought huge costs to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also part and parcel of a warming climate, and our economy—indeed our very future—depends on the country getting deadly serious about the climate crisis right now.

Coal is dying and renewables are booming. Not fast enough.

Our electricity system is moving away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Today coal produces only a quarter of our nation’s electricity, down from 50 percent a short dozen years ago. That’s an encouraging trend, but we still need faster progress and more ambitious policies to achieve the emissions cuts needed to meet the climate crisis head on.

The Trump administration is instead doing everything it can think of to try and prop up the failing coal industry. It’s not working, and coal is still on it way out, but President Trump is still wasting precious time that would be much better spent on ramping up clean energy across the country.

In his speech, Trump will also likely ignore the remarkable economic benefits of renewable energy, especially that the US clean energy industry means jobs, with already more than 100,000 working in the wind sector, 250,000 working in solar, and more than 2 million making our homes and businesses more energy efficient. And the nascent US offshore wind sector offers the potential for tens of thousands of new jobs up and down our coasts.

The administration is moving full speed backwards on transportation emissions

Transportation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the US, making it more important than ever to increase the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks and reduce the amount of planet-warming emissions we’re putting into the atmosphere. (Plus I like saving money—and driving a cleaner, more fuel-efficient car helps consumers do that as well.)

The president and his administration, however, are still moving ahead with their plans to roll back fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and trucks and halt progress on reducing emissions from the transportation sector.

My colleagues cranked the numbers on what this rollback would mean and it is truly staggering, especially when it’s taken together with the administration’s threat to void state regulations on vehicle emissions. As senior UCS vehicles analyst Dave Cooke points out, rolling back these standards will result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040—that’s 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone, equivalent to keeping 43 coal-fired power plants online. These inefficient cars and trucks will use an additional 200 billion gallons of gasoline by 2040—that’s as much oil as we’ve imported from the Persian Gulf since the standards were first finalized in 2010. And it will cost consumers hundreds of billions of dollars—in 2040 alone, consumers will spend an additional $55 billion at the pump if these standards are rolled back.

It’s a safe bet that the president won’t mention any of this. And, for good measure, he will also likely fail to mention his desire to get rid of the electric vehicle tax credit, which makes it easier and more affordable to buy a cleaner car.

Fossil fuel companies are responsible, but still getting special treatment

Trump definitely won’t bring up the fact that fossil fuel companies have known for at least 50 years that their products—oil, gas, and coal—cause global warming. Or that companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have spent decades and millions of dollars intentionally manufacturing doubt about climate science and lobbying to block sensible climate policy—and are still playing dirty even today as the costs of climate change grow.

Just this past fall, BP poured $13 million into a campaign opposing a carbon pricing measure in Washington state—while simultaneously publicly claiming to support a carbon tax. Other major fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, still fund industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute to do their dirty work lobbying for anti-climate policies.

Meanwhile regular people living through the disruptive impacts of climate change are currently paying for it with their tax dollars. All while fossil fuel companies continue to cash in, plan for and envision minimal disruption to their business models, and avoid paying their fair share of the costs of climate change.

The administration is betraying farmers, workers, and children

Regulatory rollbacks and putting profits over the interests of the public don’t just affect pollution and the environment. They also impact the food we eat and the people who bring it to us, from farm to fork.

In his speech, Trump won’t mention that he and his Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have repeatedly favored ideology and the agribusiness industry while disregarding science—but that’s exactly what UCS has found. This not only restricts the products and practices that would make us healthier but also ignores the very people who feed us. Small farmers, workers, and children all lose when the administration betrays their interests for the profits of big agribusiness companies, from chemical giant Dow to multinational poultry and pork conglomerates.

Rolling back school lunch rules for the nation’s children or threatening to deny food assistance to immigrant families and low-wage workers is not worthy of this nation. Undermining the USDA’s research agencies, catering to the chemical industry, and waging a disastrous trade war threatens the future for farmers, consumers, and communities.

What the country needs is a food policy that supports public health, ensures that everyone gets the nutrition they need, and reduces the impact of agriculture on the environment and the planet.

Investing massive amounts of money in nuclear weapons is just wrong

Spending over a trillion dollars to re-build the entire nuclear arsenal while walking away from highly successful nuclear arms agreements with Russia is, well, a really bad idea. So is saying that one’s nuclear button is bigger. But the president probably won’t admit that, or indicate that doing so would take the country backwards and greatly increase the chance of nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons still pose an existential threat to our nation and the world. We should be doing all we can to reduce that threat, not just “win” another arms race. Instead the administration just announced that it plans to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty—an agreement negotiated by President Ronald Reagan which eliminated a whole class of lethal weaponry and made the world a much safer place.

Bellicose rhetoric and building newer, more enhanced nuclear weapons won’t lessen the danger either. We need to be leading the world to reduce the nuclear arsenals, not increasing the odds of nuclear war.

Share the #RealSOTU

It can be hard to listen to the president when we’ve learned to expect an avoidance of essential truths like these.

But I’ll be watching his speech nonetheless, live-tweeting using the #RealSOTU hashtag, and highlighting some of the crucial facts that the president will not.

I hope you can join me.

The Rush to Overbuild Gas-Fired Power

Carbon dioxide emissions rose in 2018, breaking a 3-year streak of year-on-year CO2 emission reductions. While many factors played a role in the emission increase, it was the country’s overreliance on natural gas-fired power plants that was the ultimate culprit for the uptick in 2018 electric sector emissions.

Looking forward, the latest data from a federal agency suggests that the electricity industry’s troubling trend to overbuild gas-fired power plants is only getting worse.

Annual energy outlook

The Energy Information Agency (EIA) is an independent government agency that’s nested within the US Department of Energy. The EIA makes projections of the electric sector based on various assumptions. Just last week, it released the Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) which projects (among other things) how much gas-fired capacity would be installed under a range of possible scenarios. There is a notable difference from last year’s results, can you spot it?

 The net installed capacity of gas-fired combined cycle power (NGCC) under the range of sensitivities EIA models. The 2018 projection had the amount of gas capacity staying relatively flat; this year, the projection indicates gas capacity potentially doubling over 2017 levels.

Now, the good folks on #energytwitter would want me to point out that these projections are not “predictions.” And that’s true. What the AEO is showing us is what may happen, assuming no changes in policy. What that means is that AEO is showing us the dire consequences of inaction. Without additional actions and policies at the local and federal level, the US will not be able to decarbonize the economy.

In order to prevent the destruction of over 99% of coral reefs, the US needs to rapidly decarbonize the economy. Investing in carbon-emitting resources, like gas-fired power plants, diverts funds from cleaner sources of energy like efficiency, wind, and solar.

What this means for your utility bills

In 2015, UCS rang the alarm about how the US power sector was making a risky bet on natural gas. UCS found that utility overreliance on gas-fired power can expose customers to price spikes and could force some customers to pay for underused, idled, or even abandoned plants and pipelines.

The AEO shows that, some four years later, this problem is not improving.

Other studies have found that the overbuild in gas plants and infrastructure could lead to over $100 billion in abandoned, or “stranded,” assets. These stranded assets will either be recovered through mercurial investors or on the backs of captive customers forced to pay a utility’s increased rates.

How could you be forced to pay?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of companies investing in natural gas-fired power plants: merchant utilities and monopoly utilities. When merchant utility investments aren’t profitable, it’s the corporate stockholders, not customers, who must suffer the consequences for the failed investment. That’s how it is supposed to be.

Utility captive customers should not be on the hook for risky investments.

Unfortunately, monopoly utilities want to spend billions of dollars on gas-fired power plants in the next few years; and when monopoly utilities make risky investments, its consumers pay the price.

It isn’t just the utility consumer that suffers: When utility leadership chooses to overbuild gas, the climate suffers, too. Rhodium Group’s analysis of the preliminary 2018 US emissions data found gas-fired generation “three times the decline in coal generation and four times the combined growth of wind and solar.”

Based on the AEO, that trend is going to continue:

Graphic from “AEO 2019 Cliff Notes.” by Pat Knight of Synapse Energy Economics. One of the biggest differences between AEO 2018 and 2019 reference cases is coal generation is lower and gas generation is higher. Series from AEO 2018 are shown as dotted lines. Note from original author: “Renewables” includes all generation from wind and solar. Generation from hydro, geothermal, and biomass is excluded from this graphic.

In short, if the industry builds out gas infrastructure in a way that at all follows the trajectory EIA has projected, it will be virtually impossible to decarbonize the power sector and achieve a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

When it comes to gas, the utility industry is repeating the same mistakes it made with coal: ignoring environmental costs, market trends, and lack of public support. Public support for gas-fired power plants is remarkably low – so low that Entergy recently had to pay actors to gain support for a gas plant in New Orleans. Mounting public opposition led Denton County in Texas, yes Texas, to ban fracking. State-wide fracking bans have been implemented in New York, Vermont, and Maryland, and Arizona has instituted a moratorium on building new gas plants specifically due to concerns of stranded assets.

How to fix the problem

The reason why utilities are becoming over-reliant on gas-fired power is that they aren’t properly evaluating the alternatives like energy efficiency, solar, wind, storage, and flexible demand. Utility leadership needs to fully consider alternative electricity generation sources. For example, a UCS analysis shows customers in Michigan would save $340 million if their utility invested in renewables and efficiency, rather than a gas plant.

The habitual undervaluing of energy efficiency by most utilities is why the Union of Concerned Scientists is partnering with local advocates in Minnesota like the Center for Energy and Environment to help improve Xcel Energy’s methods of evaluating energy efficiency. Xcel, as you may remember, committed to 100% clean energy by 2050. So properly valuing energy measures like efficiency and storage will be important to meet the company’s goals. UCS is also intervening in other utility long term plans, like DTE’s in Michigan, to raise awareness of the benefits of efficiency, renewables, and storage.

There’s good news. Almost every day I read a headline about how batteries will make gas-fired “peakers” obsolete. UCS recently concluded that 28 gas peakers in California could easily be replaced with storage. Independent analysis from consulting firms confirms that resources like storage can provide utilities with a litany of benefits.

The industry has been driving towards a cliff’s edge for some time now. Rather than drive off it, we must find a way to divert the billions of dollars currently slated for gas infrastructure and direct them to renewable energy, storage, and efficiency.

UCS Synapse Energy Economics

Electric Utility Resource Plans Are Critical to the Midwest’s Energy Future

Earlier this month, my colleague Joe Daniel authored a viewpoint in Utility Dive identifying electric utility resource plans as one of the six key trends to watch in 2019.

Lay of the (resource planning) land: Dark blue states are confirmed to have at least one utility with a resource plan to be filed or ruled on in 2019. Lighter blue states are expected to see at least one utility file a resource plan (including states that are part of a multi-state plan). State filing plans are subject to change. Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

At least 30 states will see at least one electric utility with a resource plan in 2019, including states with an expected ruling on an already-filed plan.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is a participating stakeholder in resource planning dockets in both Michigan and Minnesota and is applying our technical expertise in partnership with local coalition advocates working with affected communities.

Let’s dig into what exactly resource plans are, why they matter, and what to look for in these Midwest states as electric utilities develop and seek approval for their resource plans.

What are Integrated Resource Plans or “IRPs”?

Industry experts have described IRPs as “utility plan[s] for meeting forecasted annual peak and energy demand, plus some established reserve margin, through a combination of supply-side and demand-side resources over a specified future period.” They also provide utilities with an opportunity to evaluate existing resources and find ways to optimize the operation of those resources.

Wonky, right? Yes!

To break it down, in the resource planning process a utility first tries to determine what amount of electricity consumers in its service territory will require in the future (usually over the next 20 years).

Next, the utility looks at how much each of the different options may cost to fulfill that demand.

A chunk of it could come from investing in energy efficiency and demand response programs to reduce overall electricity usage, and especially demand at peak times such as hot summer afternoons.

The rest comes from power generating resources, such as the utility’s existing resources, building new ones, or from buying power on the grid generated by other electricity providers or customers.

Why are IRPs so important?

How utilities decide to supply energy can play a large role in determining how much customers pay on their electricity bills and no one likes paying more for something than they should.

For example, if regulators allow utilities to build or operate overly-expensive resources, customers could end up paying a lot more than they do in neighboring states. (See another great piece from my colleague Joe Daniel, The Coal Bailout Nobody is Talking About.)

On the flip side, if utilities properly value things like renewable power and energy efficiency, they may find ways to close inefficient fossil fuel resources like coal plants and invest in solar and energy storage instead of building risky new gas plants. This can save consumers money and also reduce carbon emissions from the power grid, something that science says is urgently needed to combat climate change.

For all these reasons, UCS and others are urging that utilities in their resource plans must properly account for future carbon regulation, the risk of gas price volatility, and the declining costs of wind, solar, and energy storage resources.

Appropriately analyzing these factors should lead to only modest investment decisions in new gas and instead larger selections of clean energy resources that are increasingly cheaper and less risky.

What’s happening in Michigan and Minnesota?

In Michigan, Consumers Energy, the state’s second largest power provider, filed its resource plan in June 2018 and the docket is pending. The utility has a plan to phase out its remaining coal-fired power plants and replace them with clean energy such as solar, efficiency, and demand response. UCS filed testimony in the docket in October 2018. Expect a decision from the Michigan Public Service Commission in March.

Michigan’s largest power provider, DTE Energy, is scheduled to file its resource plan by March 29, 2019. The company has already held technical workshops and public forums to inform the development of its plan; testimony and comments on the draft IRP will follow the filing. An executive for DTE recently spoke at length on the company’s consideration of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and demand response to replace existing coal plants.

As for Minnesota, Xcel Energy has held numerous stakeholder workshops in late 2018 and continuing into 2019 as part of developing its resource plan. In December the utility made a big announcement establishing a goal of 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050. Xcel’s plan will be filed with Minnesota regulators in July 2019.

I will be posting regular blog updates on these IRPs so continue to follow this blog for more information on this important 2019 utility trend.

Will Washington Step Up on Climate in 2019?

Photos left to right: Washington Department of Commerce, iStockphoto/m-imagephotography

While the majority of Washingtonians are worried about climate change and support taking steps to reduce heat-trapping emissions,  it’s no secret that the state has struggled to adopt many big-ticket policies on this issue. (Voters rejected initiatives in 2016 and 2018 to place fees on the state’s biggest emitters of global warming emissions; the Legislature has failed to pass previous proposals from Gov. Inslee to put a price on emissions, and a court also struck down an Inslee administration regulation tackling emissions.) However, I’m not one to linger on past failure, and fortunately this year has brought new opportunities that give me hope Washington lawmakers will seize the moment and take much-needed steps to curtail the state’s global warming emissions.

Washington needs to move quicker on climate

Two recent reports paint a clear picture of why Washington so urgently needs to change course on climate change. In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the UN body responsible for assessing science related to climate change—released a special report outlining the impacts of a global average temperature increase of 1.5°C versus 2°C (above pre-industrial levels), and pathways to limit temperature increases to that level. The report’s findings highlight that the next decade is critical for making dramatic cuts in heat-trapping emissions and that emissions around the world will need to reach net-zero by mid-century to keep global average temperatures from crossing dangerous thresholds.

More recently, Washington’s Department of Ecology released the latest inventory of climate change emissions in the state through 2015. The report shows that emissions climbed more than 6% between 2012 and 2015, with increases from transportation and electricity generation. While some factors are outside of policymakers’ control (e.g., 2015 was a drought year with lower than typical electrical generation from hydroelectric dams), the numbers do not paint a picture of a state heading quickly in the right direction. Hopefully the juxtaposition of these findings further motivates lawmakers to take serious action in 2019.

Creating a market for cleaner transportation fuels

Emissions from transportation represent the largest portion of global warming emissions in Washington (42.5%). There are many strategies needed to significantly cut these emissions and one of the biggest is cleaning up Washington’s fuel supply. UCS is strongly supporting House Bill 1110, which would create a clean fuel standard. The standard would require petroleum refineries and fuel importers to reduce the average carbon intensity of the fuels they sell in Washington by 10 percent by 2028 (compared to 2017).

Refineries and fuel importers could meet the standard by blending low-carbon biofuels into the gasoline or diesel they sell and by purchasing credits generated by providers of lower-carbon fuels, including electricity, renewable diesel, and renewable natural gas.

The standard would create a dependable market for cleaner fuels, facilitating steady investment into research, development, and deployment of low-carbon fuels that are necessary to fully decarbonize the transportation sector in coming decades. Similar programs exist in California and Oregon and a recent expert analysis showed enough clean fuels would be available by 2028 to meet the proposal in House Bill 1110. I am personally excited that a clean fuels program would support investments to speed the transition to electric vehicles, which is playing a growing role in cleaning up our transportation fuel system.

Phasing out fossil fuels from electricity generation

While Washington produces a lot of electricity cleanly from hydropower, the state also uses electricity from coal and natural gas. In 2015 these fossil fuels supplied about 30% of Washington’s electricity, representing about a fifth of the state’s total global warming emissions. Senate Bill 5116 and House Bill 1211 would ban electricity produced from coal by 2025 and require that all electricity sold in the state be generated from renewable and carbon-free sources by 2045. Fortunately, the cost of renewable energy has dramatically declined in the past decade. In fact, clean energy like solar and wind power is now cheaper than natural gas, coal, or nuclear power.

Supplying all of Washington’s electricity from renewable and zero-carbon sources is a bold goal, but achieving it is within reach. Key strategies for eliminating fossil fuels include more efficient use of electricity, greater use of energy storage technologies, access to a wider and more diverse supply of renewable technologies, increased flexibility of electricity users to shift demand, and better coordination of renewable resources among Western states.

Momentum is building among states, cities, and utilities to commit to 100% clean electricity. In September, California adopted a law committing to 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045. Then, in December, Xcel Energy, one of the country’s largest electric utilities, announced it would supply all of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050. Washington already has a leg-up toward reaching this goal thanks to its abundant supply of carbon-free hydropower. Now is the time for the state to stake its future to an electricity supply free of fossil fuels.

More opportunities on electric vehicles, efficient buildings, and “super” pollutants

Washington legislators have introduced many additional bills that would address different pieces of the state’s climate change puzzle. A few that I am most closely following relate to:

  • Electric vehicles: SB 5336 would further promote electric vehicles (EVs) by requiring automakers to offer an increasing share of EVs for sale, authorizing electric utilities to build EV charging infrastructure, and renewing an expired EV sales tax credit.
  • Energy efficiency of buildings: SB 5293 and HB 1257 would help create more energy efficient buildings by setting new standards for large, commercial buildings and allowing local governments to adopt better codes for new residential construction, among other provisions.
  • “Super” pollutants: HB 1112 would cut emissions of a highly-potent category of heat-trapping gases used in refrigeration, known as hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs.

There is no shortage of opportunities for Washington to act on climate change in 2019. Lawmakers have stepped up to the plate by offering many important proposals. The question is whether they succeed in passing these bills to notch some important victories for our climate—Washington, I’m rooting for you!

Photos left to right: Washington Department of Commerce, iStockphoto/m-imagephotography

6 Utility Trends to Look Out For in 2019

Photo: Tonyglen14/Flickr

A version of this post was first published on January 4, 2019, in the Opinion section of Utility Dive. 

The electric utility industry is abuzz with terms like blockchain and hosting capacity analysis. While the industry is certainly likely to hear more about these topics in the coming year, applications will likely be isolated to a few states in 2019.

The sector is undergoing change and we can expect a few larger, national trends to manifest. From changes in the resource mix to federal shakeups, here are six electricity trends to keep an eye on in 2019:

1. Coal continues to decline:

Coal’s decade long decline will continue in 2019. Four gigawatts (GW)are already committed to retirement and industry analysts project more than that will come to fruition by the end of 2019.

But coal retirements will only account for a portion of year-on-year coal consumption reductions.

Reduced generation from operating plants will be the main driver for reduced consumption. More coal plants will follow the recent trend to switch to seasonal operations because it isn’t economic to operate them year-round. Those that do operate year-round will do so at lower levels, barring a polar-vortex like event.

2. Renewables keep up the momentum:

There are more than 15 GW of utility-scale wind and solar trying to become operational in 2019. If federal tax credits become permanent, it would alleviate some of the pressure to get built in 2019. But regardless, renewables should be able to regain the title as the number one source of new capacity additions.

The industry should also expect some projects to come in at record low prices, despite tariffs. 2019 will also see the installation of the 100th GW of wind in the US and the 4th consecutive year where developers hit 10 GW of solar installations (including residential, commercial and utility scales).

Graph based on data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2008-2017 is historical data, 2018 and 2019 are projections from EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO). Utility-scale generation only. Graph does not show geothermal, other gases or pumped storage. Note: EIA’s STEO includes gas prices that are higher than other analysts’ projections, which may be skewing STEO’s gas generation projection.  3. The rush to overbuild build gas:

When it comes to gas, the utility industry is repeating past mistakes, ignoring both the environmental costs and lack of public support for natural gas generation (unless you count paying for a supporting cast).

2019 will see a continuation of the trend to overbuild and over-rely on gas.

EIA tracks developer plans to build new natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) projects; separately, it projects how much is needed based on economic modeling. Comparing those two data sets reveals that the utility industry is poised to build three-times more NGCC capacity than is necessary. The overbuild in gas plants and infrastructure could lead to over $100 billion in stranded assets, which will either be recovered on the backs of ratepayers or investors.

EIA data on planned additions net of planned retirements (in light purple) far exceeds what EIA’s economic modeling suggests is optimal (the dark purple wedge). The range of gas additions represents buildout in EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) assuming either a low gas price (AEO – High oil and gas resource and technology) or a high gas price (AEO reference case). All values incremental to 2018. 4. Storage in the spotlight:

2018 was the year of storage headlines, particularly when it came to the record low prices of storage. Swaths of analyses have shown that utility-scale storage could replace gas peakers.

Whether on its own or paired with other resources, storage has piqued the interest of regulators and resource planners alike. Expect more announcements by savvy utilities committing to new storage projects.

However, if utilities don’t begin to recognize the full value stack of storage, then storage will struggle to reach its potential. Luckily, storage has bipartisan support, keeping the door open for state and/or federal legislation in this area.

5. Resource plans all around:

At least 30 states will see at least one electric utility with a resource plan in 2019 (including states with an expected ruling on an already filed plan).

Notable states to watch include Minnesota (where Xcel just committed to 100% carbon-free energy by 2050), Virginia (where the commission rejected the 2018 IRP and ordered the utility to file a better plan) and Mississippi (where the commission is in the process of finalizing new rules that could precipitate a new round of utility resource plans this year).

Expect these analyses to show that many coal plants aren’t economic and to focus on how utilities should replace coal.

Lay of the (resource planning) land: Dark blue states are confirmed to have at least one utility with a resource plan to be filed or ruled on in 2019. Lighter blue states are expected to see at least one utility file a resource plan (including states that are part of a multi-state plan). State filing plans are subject to change. 6. New FERC faces, same hot topics:

A lot of the most contentious topics discussed at FERC in 2018 aren’t resolved, and we can expect those issues to spill over into 2019.

Fuel securityresiliencystorage, pipelines, PURPAcapacity market reforms, energy market reforms, and federal bailouts, are likely to show up before the agency in 2019.

It is worth noting there could be a new face (or two) at FERC: Commissioner LaFleur’s term is up in 2019 and with the recent passing of Commissioner McIntyre, changes to the agency’s makeup are inevitable. With Commissioner McNamee’s recent confirmation, the industry is watching to see how a changing commission handles the industry’s hottest topics.

Photo: Tonyglen14/Flickr

Offshore Wind: Four Ways You Can Help

Photo: J. Rogers

I know what you’re thinking: “It’s great to see all the progress being made in offshore wind—technology, cost, policy. But, John, how can I be a part of the action?” Fortunately, there are lots of opportunities. Here are four.

I totally get your attraction to offshore wind. It’s a powerful technology for generating pollution-free (and carbon-free) electricity. It offers energy near where a lot of people live (the coasts), at times when they need it most. And it’s a whole new industry in this part of the world, offering the prospect of lots of new careers in manufacturing, assembling, installing, financing, transporting and maintaining wind farms, components, or crews.

But how, you ask, can we supportive members of the general public help? Help make more of this happen, more quickly, more cheaply, with bigger economic gains, and in ways that fit our community’s needs?

Here are the four ideas:

  1. Help make your state an attractive market for offshore wind growth
  2. Help your community add its weight to the pull for offshore wind
  3. Help your friends and neighbors understand what it’s all about
  4. Get involved directly in particular projects

Careers on the move (Photo: Derrick Z. Jackson)

1. State pull

Energy technologies don’t exist in a vacuum, and energy markets have all kinds of federal, state, and other inputs that influence how our mix of generation technologies evolves over time. The policy pulls from particular states—actual megawatt targets (like this one or this one) or bids targeting/including offshore wind (here, for example, or here, or here)—have been key to getting offshore wind into the discussion, and to helping attract the industry and push us toward scale.

Your role: Push for more pull. Talk to your state legislators and governor about establishing or boosting state requirements, and take advantage of public comment opportunities on relevant bills or proposals. Just-introduced bills in Massachusetts would add thousands of megawatts to existing offshore wind targets. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just proposed almost quadrupling NY’s offshore wind target, to 9,000 megawatts by 2035—enough to generate close to 5 million homes’ worth of electricity. Other would-be leaders may need more of a push.

2. Community pull

While state policies are important, there are also ways to help get your city or town more directly involved in driving offshore wind’s growth. One approach being advocated in Massachusetts is called Community Empowerment. The idea is to allow communities to use their buying power to make more renewables—including offshore wind—happen.

Your role: Make Community Empowerment a possibility. At least in Massachusetts, letting communities choose to do this will require the legislature giving its okay to the concept. Since it’s about community rights and local decision making, it shouldn’t be a tough sell. But inertia is a funny thing. Support legislation to help Community Empowerment and similar efforts over the hump.

Photo: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons


3. Public understanding

This one is both big and easy. Offshore wind has been on a tear lately, with important offshore wind advances in leading states, laudable progress in making offshore wind cheaper through technological advances and economies of scale, and amazing demonstrations of confidence from industry that this country is serious about offshore wind. People need to hear about all that.

Your role: Talk it up! Your family, friends, and neighbors (not to mention your elected representatives) might need your help understanding where offshore wind stands in 2019, and what role it can be playing in our energy mix if we get it right. Letters to the editor of your local paper can also be really important. Lay out costs and benefits, risks and opportunities. Tie it to your personal experiences, and theirs. Dazzle ‘em with loads of stunning facts about the power, the potential, and the costs. (To make it easy, watch this space for the latest on offshore wind.)

4. Showing up

The policy progress, technological innovation, and cost drops are really important, but won’t by themselves clean up our power system: We need turbines in the water—well-designed projects, responsibly sited. And projects need permits to get there.

Your role: Getting involved during public comment periods is probably the most direct way for you to help move offshore wind along. As it should, a project’s environmental profile gets heavy public scrutiny, for example, at both the federal and state levels (government shutdowns notwithstanding).

If you have particular expertise (on marine ecosystems, say, or climate impacts), bring that to the microphone. If you have a passion rooted in the realities of your experiences, your community, and our climate and energy needs, weigh in, in person or online. Say what you like and what you don’t, how the project could be better or why it’s perfect the way it is. Let them know why you care about making sure projects get done, and done right.

Turbines looking for company (Photo: J. Rogers)


So, thanks for asking how you can be part of the solution. Lots of options, and multiple levels.

And power, in people like you and me. In the town where I live, just this past week, a controversy over a new housing development generated a sign-on letter from one resident that got signatures from another 643 residents. You’ve got to imagine that that kind of people power (it’s a small town) has an impact on decision makers at all levels.

When it comes to offshore wind, the stage of action may be larger. But so are the numbers of allies, and the possibilities for making good things happen.

You’re a vital piece of our energy future puzzle. Wield that power.

Photo: John Rogers Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson Photo: Kim Hansen/Wikimedia Commons

Three Climate Priorities the New Congress Can Actually Deliver On

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

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

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

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

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

1). Robust investments in clean energy research and development

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

Source: Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Mexico’s Clean Energy Opportunity Knocks

Bureau of Land Management (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recognizing the clean energy opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using an RPS as guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking the 54th legislature

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

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

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

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

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

Wind vs. Gas: Winter Wind Beats New Pipelines

Photo: William Hope

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

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

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

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

Ready answers

Wind blowing offshore New England just gets stronger in winter.

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

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

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

Excellent results

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

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

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

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

The implications

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

Photo: William Hope photo by Mike Jacobs

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

Photo: Henning Witzel

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

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

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

California’s Resource Adequacy Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Henning Witzel