UCS Blog - Clean Energy (text only)

PREPA’s Agreement is Terrible for Puerto Rico

Jose Jimenez Tirado / Getty Images fileLea en español >

A new agreement on Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) debt represents a major setback for the future of the island.


It’s not new that PREPA is in bankruptcy and that the priority of Gov. Roselló is its privatization. It’s also not new that Puerto Ricans have been worried about the possible disastrous consequences that the privatization can generate. These include the excessive increase in electricity rates and the exacerbation of public health and environmental problems due to the improper handling of ashes, air pollution and emissions causing the climate crisis.

These concerns are being confirmed with the recent announcement of the agreement reached between the Fiscal Control Board, the majority of PREPA’s bondholders, a PREPA bond insurer and Rosselló’s government.

To explore the implications of this agreement I talked with Dr. Agustín Irizarry, a professor of Electric Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.

What is this agreement about?

Through this agreement, a “debt charge” will be required to cover the deficit inherited from PREPA. This charge must be paid by all PREPA users starting this summer until 2067.

Additionally, the debt charge will apply to those who currently have or will install their own generation system in the future.

Why is the PREPA agreement concerning?

For several reasons:

  • Puerto Ricans will pay more than double the value of PREPA’s debt. The agreement establishes that Puerto Ricans must pay the debt charge for 47 years to cover a deficit of close to $9,000 million. The current rate of 22 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) will rise 2.8 cents/kWh in 2020 (before the election); it will rise 4.55 cents/kWh starting on 2043 and it will remain that way for more than 20 years. This means that for a debt of about $9,000 million, Puerto Ricans will pay more than $23,000 million without including between $100 million and $200 million to cover administrative expenses.
  • Autonomous generation users will also have to pay the debt charge. This is a moment in which people are searching for alternatives to avoid going through what so many had to endure, living months and months without energy after Hurricane Maria. That’s why after Maria everybody wants a solar system on their roof with a battery to store the energy. Hurricane Maria demonstrated the tremendous vulnerability of our centralized electric system. Therefore, autonomous generation systems should be promoted. On the contrary, the agreement establishes that the debt charge will also apply to those who own or install their own generation systems. Those who start generating their own energy with solar panels beginning on September 30, 2020 should pay the charge immediately after installing the system. And those who have installed their own generation systems before this date and are connected to the network, should start paying the debt charge for the energy they produce as of 2040.
Imágenes satelitales de Puerto Rico por la noche antes y después del huracán María.

Puerto Rico a oscuras después de María.

What are the choices?

The agreement guarantees the payment of the debt but does not offer any alternative for:

  • increasing the reliability of the electrical network,
  • reducing air pollution by improving the health of Puerto Ricans, and
  • reducing the emissions that produce the climate crisis.

Since 1989, electricity rates have not risen, contributing in part to the lack of investment in the electricity infrastructure. This has had a negative impact in the quality of the service.

What must happen is that the agreement should not be signed because it only benefits bondholders. Instead, a planned rate increase should serve to settle the debt before 15 years, improve the reliability of the electric grid and help Puerto Ricans in their transition to a decentralized system. This decentralized system should provide an optimal service and respond to the challenges of our time. This will be a key step to increasing the resilience of the system in preparation for natural disasters such as María.

How to prevent PREPA’s agreement from moving forward?

The agreement must first pass through the legislature, the energy commission and the bankruptcy court before being approved. We must alert the public so that they know what is being proposed and act to prevent the approval of this agreement. Only by doing this will we be able to protect our energy future.








Jose Jimenez Tirado / Getty Images file

The Basics of Integrated Resource Planning in California

Photo: Elena Koycheva/Unsplash

Energy experts geek out over a process known as Integrated Resource Planning. It’s not widely followed by the general public, but Integrated Resource Plans (“IRPs”) determine where consumers’ electricity will come from, how clean that power will be, and whether states will meet their clean energy and climate goals. In California, IRPs are key to decarbonizing the electricity sector and turning the state’s climate goals into reality.

Why this process?

The purpose of IRPs is to develop a path forward that meets renewable energy goals and global warming emissions reduction targets. Current law requires 60% of California’s electricity to come from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2030. Current law also requires California to reduce global warming emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Electricity providers must spell out in their IRPs how they will meet these goals while simultaneously minimizing costs, ensuring grid reliability, and minimizing the impact of air pollution on California’s disadvantaged communities.

In California, integrated resource planning was mandated by a 2015 state law. The law requires investor owned utilities, community choice aggregators, and almost all electric service providers to develop an IRP every two years and submit those plans to the California Public Utilities Commission for approval. Publicly owned utilities are required to develop a plan every five years and submit them to the California Energy Commission.

How does it work?

To ensure that California achieves all its clean energy and climate goals, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has developed an integrated resource planning process that repeats every two years. (The California Energy Commission has a separate process for publicly owned utilities that is not discussed here.) The CPUC’s process goes like this:

  1. The CPUC sets a global warming emissions reduction target for California’s electricity sector. The “40% below 1990 levels by 2030” requirement applies to the entire state, and since it is easier to reduce emissions from the electricity sector than from other sectors of the economy (e.g. transportation, agriculture, and industry), the electricity sector contribution to the state-wide requirement must be frequently reevaluated to ensure that California’s emissions reductions remain on track.
  2. The CPUC performs electricity grid modeling of the entire state to determine the amounts and types of new resources (e.g. wind, solar, and batteries) that are necessary to achieve the global warming emissions reduction target while meeting future electricity needs. This modeling is used to develop an overall plan for the state’s electricity sector.
  3. Electricity providers create individual IRPs, illustrating how they will reduce their global warming emissions by providing customers with additional clean electricity while minimizing costs, ensuring grid reliability, and minimizing air pollution in California’s disadvantaged communities. Electricity providers must demonstrate that they are doing their part to reduce emissions as part of the statewide plan.
  4. The CPUC collects all the individual plans from electricity providers and puts all those plans together. The CPUC then compares their original plan (in Step 2) to this new plan to make sure that California will still meet its goals if the state’s electricity providers all follow their individual plans.
  5. Lastly, the CPUC brings all this planning to life by implementing new policies and authorizing electricity providers to develop clean energy projects.

At the end of the day, the last step is the most important part. No matter how much planning you do, planning by itself doesn’t reduce global warming emissions. California’s electricity providers must follow through with their plans and buy more clean energy in order to achieve all the goals of the integrated resource planning process.

The CPUC’s integrated resource planning process has five steps. The entire process repeats every two years.

What’s the latest?

The California Public Utilities Commission recently completed the first two-year cycle of its integrated resource planning process. Importantly, the approved plan does not call for any new natural gas power plants – instead, it paves the way for 12 gigawatts of new, clean resources to come online by 2030, including solar, wind, geothermal, and battery storage. (For reference, California already has roughly 30 gigawatts of renewable generation capacity, which generates approximately one-third of the state’s electricity.)

The CPUC has also set the stage for the next cycle of the integrated resource planning process with a couple new features:

  • Natural gas power plant study: The next cycle will focus more closely on existing natural gas power plants and the extent to which they are required for maintaining reliability over the coming decade. Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a study that indicated, out of all the gas plants in the California Independent System Operator territory (which covers 80% of California), roughly a quarter of those gas plants could be retired without negative consequences. This coming integrated resource planning cycle will include a similar study to better understand how many natural gas power plants really need to stay online through 2030.
  • Planning for 100% clean electricity: California passed a law last year that sets a goal for all electricity sold to customers to be 100% carbon-free by 2045. The next cycle of the integrated resource planning process will begin to study the investments necessary to achieve this bold goal.
  • Procurement track: The CPUC has stated their intention to begin a “procurement track” that will run parallel to the integrated resource planning process. The main motivation behind the procurement track is to make sure that California is developing the clean energy projects necessary to meet its renewable energy and decarbonization goals – if progress stagnates, the Commission would be able to mandate more clean energy projects through the procurement track. The procurement track will serve as a safety net that ensures sufficient clean energy progress even if an individual electricity provider fails to follow its IRP, or if, collectively, the IRPs of all the state’s electricity providers do not add up to meet the state’s renewable energy or decarbonization goals.

With the next cycle of the integrated resource planning process already underway, California is continuing to rapidly decarbonize its electricity sector with the integrated resource planning process helping to show the way.

Photo: Elena Koycheva/Unsplash

Acuerdo de Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica Es Pésimo Para Puerto Rico

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Un nuevo acuerdo sobre la deuda de la Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE) de Puerto Rico representa un gran retroceso para el futuro de la isla.


No es nueva la noticia que la Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica (AEE) se encuentra en bancarrota y que la prioridad para la administración del gobernador Roselló es su privatización. Tampoco es nueva la preocupación de los puertorriqueños sobre este proceso debido a las nefastas implicaciones que puede tener.

Estas incluyen el aumento desmedido en las tarifas de electricidad y la exacerbación de problemas para la salud pública y el medioambiente por el manejo indebido de cenizas, la contaminación del aire y las emisiones causantes de la crisis climática.

Estas preocupaciones están siendo confirmadas con el reciente anuncio del acuerdo entre la Junta de Control Fiscal (JCF), la mayoría de tenedores de bonos de la AEE, una aseguradora de bonos de la AEE y el gobierno de Rosselló sobre la reestructuración de la deuda de la AEE.

Para explorar las implicaciones de este acuerdo hablé con el Dr. Agustín Irizarry, catedrático del Departamento de Ingeniería Eléctrica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Mayagüez.


¿En qué consiste el acuerdo?

Por medio de este acuerdo se pondrá un cobro llamado “cargo de la deuda” para cubrir el déficit heredado de la AEE. Todos los usuarios de la AEE tendrán que pagar este cargo a partir de este verano y hasta el año 2067.

Adicionalmente, el cargo de la deuda aplicará a quienes actualmente cuenten con ó quienes instalen en el futuro sus propios sistemas de generación eléctrica.


¿Porqué es preocupante el acuerdo de la AEE?

Por múltiples causas:

  • Los puertorriqueños pagarán más del doble del valor de la deuda de la AEE. El acuerdo establece que por 47 años los puertorriqueños deberán pagar el cargo de la deuda para cubrir un déficit de cerca de $9.000 millones. La tarifa actual de 22 centavos por kilovatio hora (kWh) subirá 2,8 centavos/kWh en el año 2020 (antes de las elecciones); a partir del año 2043 subirá 4,55 centavos/kWh y permanecerá así por más de 20 años. Esto quiere decir que por una deuda de cerca de $9.000 millones, los puertorriqueños pagarán más de $23.000 millones sin incluir entre $100 millones y $200 millones para cubrir gastos administrativos.
  • Los usuarios de generación autónoma también deberán pagar el cargo de la deuda. Este es un momento en el que la gente está buscando alternativas para no volver a quedar meses y meses sin energía como les pasó a tantos luego del huracán María. Por eso es que después del huracán todo el mundo quiere en su casa un sistema solar con batería para almacenar la energía. El sistema eléctrico centralizado ha demostrado tener una enorme vulnerabilidad y por lo mismo se deberían promover sistemas de generación autónomas. Por el contrario, el acuerdo establece que el cargo de la deuda aplicará también a quienes cuenten con ó instalen sus propios sistemas de generación. Quienes generen su propia energía con paneles solares a partir del 30 de septiembre del 2020 deberán empezar a pagar el cargo de inmediato. Y quienes hayan instalado su propia generación antes de esta fecha y estén conectados a la red, deberán empezar a pagar el cargo de la deuda por la energía que produzcan a partir del año 2040.
Imágenes satelitales de Puerto Rico por la noche antes y después del huracán María.

Puerto Rico a oscuras después de María.

¿Qué alternativas hay?

El acuerdo como está concebido garantiza el pago de la deuda, pero no ofrece ninguna alternativa para:

  • incrementar la confiabilidad de la red eléctrica,
  • reducir la contaminación del aire mejorando la salud de los puertorriqueños y
  • reducir las emisiones que generan la crisis climática.

Desde el año 1989 las tarifas de electricidad no han subido y esto en parte ha contribuido a la falta de inversión en la infraestructura eléctrica, con su correspondiente impacto en la calidad del servicio.

Lo que debe suceder es que no se debe firmar un acuerdo que solo beneficia a los bonistas. En lugar de firmar este acuerdo, un aumento planificado de tarifas debe servir para saldar la deuda antes de 15 años, mejorar la confiabilidad de la red eléctrica y ayudar a los puertorriqueños en su transición a un sistema descentralizado que brinde un óptimo servicio y que responda a los retos de nuestro tiempo. Esto será un paso clave para aumentar la resiliencia del sistema en caso de desastres naturales como María.


¿Cómo evitar que el acuerdo de la AEE avance?

El acuerdo debe pasar primero por la legislatura, la comisión de energía y el tribunal de quiebra antes de ser aprobado. Debemos alertar a la ciudadanía para que sepa lo que se está proponiendo y actúe para prevenir la aprobación de este acuerdo. Solo así podremos proteger nuestro futuro energético.





Jose Jimenez Tirado / Getty Images file

Xcel Energy’s Plan to Eliminate Coal and Boost Solar in Minnesota

Photo: Zbynek Burival/Unsplash

Today, Xcel Energy released a preliminary plan to phase out its remaining coal-fired power plants in Minnesota and replace them primarily with wind, solar, and energy efficiency—moving the company forward toward its goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050.

Part of the plan involves a consensus proposal joined by the Union of Concerned Scientists, other clean energy organizations, and the Laborers International Union of North America.

Below are some of the noteworthy items included in the consensus proposal and Xcel’s plan—and how they relate to Minnesota’s clean energy future.

1. Coal plant retirements

Xcel Energy will propose a 2028 retirement date for the Allen S. King coal-fired power plant and a 2030 or earlier retirement date for the Sherco 3 coal unit. Significantly, these plants are the company’s last coal-burning power generators in Minnesota for which Xcel has not yet announced retirement dates.

In the meantime, Xcel will also reduce coal usage at the Sherco 2 unit through committing to seasonal operation of the plant, a concept that my colleague Joe Daniel has written about here. Seasonal operation of coal plants has helped other utility customers save money and promotes grid flexibility to enable Xcel to integrate more renewable energy in the future.

Reducing and phasing out coal burning produces major carbon pollution reduction benefits as well as reducing public health impacts through lower soot and smog emissions (see our Soot to Solar report from last fall on Illinois coal plants).

2. Massive growth in solar power

Minnesota currently has close to 1,100 megawatts of installed solar power statewide. As part of the agreement with clean energy organizations, Xcel will propose the acquisition of 3,000 megawatts of solar power to add to its system by 2030. This is enough to provide 20 percent of Xcel’s energy, powering the equivalent of more than 417,000 homes and furthering reduce carbon pollution from the electric sector. This would add to Xcel’s addition of 1,850 megawatts of wind power by 2022.

3. Big commitment to energy efficiency

According to the Center for Energy and Environment, in 2018 Xcel achieved a record amount of energy efficiency: more than 680 gigawatt-hours of electricity savings, or about 2.35% of sales (well exceeding the state’s 1.5% energy savings target). In the consensus proposal, Xcel commits to include achievement of electric savings above that 2018 amount for the entire decade (2020-2029) in its planning.

This ambitious goal is based on the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s statewide energy efficiency potential study and would allow Minnesota to potentially join other states that are achieving 2-3% per year in efficiency savings.

Investing in energy efficiency helps utilities avoid more expensive measures and helps reduce customers’ energy bills which promotes energy affordability and reduces the energy burden.

4. Support from labor

The Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota (“LIUNA Minnesota”) joined the consensus proposal alongside UCS and other clean energy organizations. As part of the agreement, Xcel will commit to a request-for-proposals process for solar projects that maximizes local job creation and participation in apprenticeship programs.

5. The role of gas and nuclear

Gas-fired power plants are not clean resources and investing in them is a risky proposition for electric utilities. The Union of Concerned Scientists is part of a group challenging approval of Minnesota Power’s plan to build a new gas plant in Superior, Wisconsin.

However, we and other signatories to the consensus proposal are supporting Xcel’s acquisition of the Mankato Energy Center, an existing gas plant currently owned by Southern Company. Why?

Xcel already buys power from the Mankato plant, and the acquisition is being pursued in combination with the above aspects of an overall plan to decarbonize the company’s generation portfolio. Our analysis is that acquisition of the Mankato plant will not have significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and will help Xcel phase out its Minnesota coal plants by:

  • Reducing system costs associated with early coal retirements and incentivizing the decarbonization of sectors outside the electricity sector;
  • Displacing the need for large additions of gas combustion turbine generation in the 2030s and 2040s; and
  • Putting a large carbon emitter (the Mankato plant) under the oversight of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, an important step in ensuring beneficial resource planning for a carbon-free future.

Utilities are unfortunately rushing to build new gas infrastructure despite there being enough gas capacity online to meet demand. Still, Xcel Energy is not backing off from its commitment to be net carbon-free by 2050 and emissions from the Mankato plant will fall under that cap if the acquisition is approved and Xcel owns the plant.

With respect to nuclear, while it is not part of our consensus proposal, Xcel’s preliminary plan also includes an expectation of relicensing its Monticello nuclear plant and operating it at least until 2040. (To date, no nuclear reactor in the United States has received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend its operating license beyond 60 years, but three applications are currently pending.) This concept will require close examination by stakeholders and regulators on whether it is the most cost-effective path toward a 100% carbon-free electricity future and whether the plant can continue to operate safely beyond 60 years.

What are the next steps?

The consensus proposal will be reviewed by the Minnesota Department of Commerce and other stakeholders in a proceeding currently pending before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Stakeholders also can weigh in Xcel’s preliminary plan prior to the company’s integrated resource plan filing slated for July 1, 2019.

Finally, the measures outlined by Xcel Energy show that a low-carbon electricity system is achievable in Minnesota and should further support the legislature’s consideration of clean energy measures that I blogged about earlier this month, including establishing a goal for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

5 Reason’s Why HB 6, Ohio’s Nuclear Plant Subsidy Proposal, Should Be Rejected

Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Last November, UCS released Nuclear Power Dilemma, which found that more than one-third of existing nuclear plants, representing 22 percent of total US nuclear capacity, are uneconomic or slated to close over the next decade. This included the Davis-Besse and Perry plants in Ohio that are owned by Akron-based FirstEnergy Solutions. Replacing these plants with natural gas would cause emissions to rise at a time when we need to achieve deep cuts in emissions to limit the worst impacts of climate change.

When we released our report, my colleague Jeff Deyette described how a proposal backed by FirstEnergy to subsidize its unprofitable nuclear plants in Ohio was deeply flawed and did not meet the conditions recommended in our report. By providing a blatant handout to the nuclear and fossil fuel industries at the expense of renewable energy and energy efficiency, ironically, the latest proposal to create a “Clean Air Program” in Ohio (House Bill 6) is bad for consumers, the economy and the environment.

Here are five reasons why this proposal is flawed and should be rejected:

1. HB 6 doesn’t protect consumers

HB 6 would provide incentives to maintain or build carbon-free or reduced emission resources that meet certain criteria. The state’s Legislative Budget office estimates the new program would cost $306 million per year, collected through a dedicated monthly charge on consumer electricity bills. Monthly costs range from $2.50 for a typical residential customer to $2,500 for large commercial and industrial customers.

HB 6 doesn’t require FirstEnergy Solutions to demonstrate need or limit the amount and duration of the subsidies to protect consumers and avoid windfall profits as recommended in our report. It simply sets the starting price at $9.25/MWh and increases that value annually for inflation.  In 2018, Davis-Besse and Perry generated 18.3 million megawatt-hours of electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This means that FirstEnergy Solutions nuclear plants would receive approximately $170 million per year in subsidies, or 55% of the total. As explained below, the rest of the money would likely go to upgrading Ohio’s existing coal and natural gas plants.

2. HB 6 is a bait and switch tactic to gut Ohio’s clean energy laws

But here’s the rub. HB 6 would effectively gut the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards to pay for the subsidies for Ohio’s existing nuclear, coal and natural gas plants. It would make the standards voluntary by exempting customers from the charges collected from these affordable and successful programs unless they chose to opt-in to the standards. This could result in a net increase in emissions and a net loss of jobs in Ohio over time.

This political hit job is outrageous, but not at all surprising. It is just another attempt in a long series of efforts by clean energy opponents to rollback Ohio’s renewable and efficiency standards over the past five years. When combined with stringent set-back requirements for wind projects that were adopted in 2014, these actions have a had a chilling effect on renewable energy development and explain why renewables only provided a paltry 2.7% of Ohio’s electricity generation in 2018 (see figure below). In contrast, renewables provided 18% of U.S. electricity generation in 2018, and wind power provided more than 15% of electricity generation in 11 states.

The sponsors of HB 6 go one step further and make the false claim that their proposal will save consumers money. While the charges appearing on consumer bills might be less, this ignores the much greater energy bill savings consumers have been realizing through investments in energy efficiency. In addition, the cost of wind and solar has fallen by more than 70 percent over the past decade, making them more affordable for consumers and competitive with natural gas power plants in many parts of the country. It also ignores the energy diversity benefits of renewables and efficiency in providing a hedge against natural gas price volatility. Many Ohio legislators continue to put their heads in the sand and refuse to embrace the new reality that renewables and efficiency are cost-effective for consumers.

Energy efficiency programs are especially important for low-income households. By lowering their energy bills, they have more money to spend on food, health care and other necessities. It also reduces the need for assistance in paying heating bills. Unfortunately, legislators like Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Nino Vitale are proposing to provide handouts to large corporations at the expense of easing the energy burden for low-income households, which are also disproportionately affected by harmful pollution from coal and natural gas power plants.

3. HB6 creates a false sense of competition

While renewable energy technologies are technically eligible to compete for funding under HB 6, several criteria would effectively exclude them:

  • It excludes any projects that have received tax incentives like the federal production tax credit or investment tax credit, which applies to nearly every renewable energy project.
  • Eligible facilities must be larger than 50 MW, which excludes most solar projects, and wind projects have to be between 5 MW and 50 MW, which is smaller than most existing utility scale wind projects in the state.
  • Eligible projects must receive compensation through organized wholesale energy markets, which excludes smaller customer-owned projects like rooftop solar photovoltaic systems.

When combined with the rollback to the renewable standard, this absurdly stringent criteria would create too much uncertainty for renewable developers to obtain financing to build new projects in Ohio.

4. HB 6 will increase Ohio’s reliance on natural gas

While HB 6 could temporarily prevent the replacement of Ohio’s nuclear plants with natural gas, gutting the renewables and efficiency standards would undermine the state’s pathway to achieving a truly low-carbon future by locking in more gas generation as coal plants retire.  Over the past decade, natural gas generation has grown from 1.6% of Ohio’s electricity generation to more than 34% in 2018 (see figure). A whopping 40,000 MW of new natural gas capacity was added during this time, mostly to replace retiring coal plants. In contrast, the share of nuclear and renewable generation has only slightly increased by 2-3% each.

Ohio’s Increasing Reliance on Natural Gas for Electricity


While natural gas has lower smokestack emissions than coal, the production and distribution of natural gas releases methane emissions—a much more potent greenhouse gas (GHG) than carbon dioxide. To achieve the deep cuts in emissions that will be needed to limit the worst impacts of climate change, Ohio will need to reduce its reliance on natural gas. Gutting the state’s renewables and efficiency standards would take away the most cost-effective solutions for achieving this outcome.

5. HB 6 includes no safety criteria or transition plans

HB 6 does not require FirstEnergy’s nuclear plants to meet strong safety standards as a condition for receiving subsidies, as recommended in our report. While Davis-Besse and Perry are currently meeting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) safety standards–as measured by their reactor oversight process (ROP) action matrix quarterly rating system–both plants have had problems with critical back-up systems during the past two years that put them out of compliance.

The nuclear industry has been trying to weaken the ROP for years. For example, the industry has been advocating for combining the first two columns of the action matrix, which would essentially put all nuclear reactors in the top safety category. My colleague Ed Lyman, acting director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project, is working to stop the NRC from changing the ROP to make it a less meaningful and transparent indicator of plant safety. Our report recommends that policymakers monitor the situation and adjust subsidy policies if the NRC weakens its standards.

HB 6 also does not include any transition plans for affected workers and communities to prepare for the eventual retirement of the nuclear plants. These plans are needed to attract new investment, replace lost jobs and rebuild the tax base.

A better approach

On May 2, House Democrats announced an alternative “Clean Energy Jobs Plan” that would address many of the problems with HB 6. The plan would modify the state’s Alternative Energy Standard (AES) by increasing the contribution from renewable energy from 12.5% by 2027 to 50% by 2050 and fix the onerous set-back requirements that have been a major impediment to large scale wind development. It would expand the AES to maintain a 15% baseline for nuclear power. In addition, it would improve the state’s energy efficiency standards, expand weatherization programs for low-income households, and create new clean energy job training programs.

This proposal is similar to the laws recently passed in Illinois, New York and New Jersey that provided financial support for distressed nuclear plants while simultaneously strengthening renewable energy and energy efficiency standards. While our report shows that the subsidies for some of these nuclear plants may have been too generous, these policies have prevented plants from closing and resulted in a wave of new investment in wind, solar, and efficiency projects.

With more than 112,000 clean energy jobs in 2018, Ohio ranks third in the Midwest and eighth in the country. Ohio added nearly 5,000 new clean energy jobs in 2018.  While most of the clean energy jobs are in the energy efficiency industry, Ohio is also a leading manufacturer of components for the wind and solar industries.

To capitalize on these rapidly growing global industries, lawmakers in Ohio should reject HB 6 and move forward with a real clean air program that ramps-up investments in renewables and efficiency and achieves the deep cuts in emissions that are needed to limit the worst impacts of climate change.

Three Ways Federal Infrastructure Policy Can Speed Up Our Clean Energy Transition

Photo: John Rogers

May thirteenth marked the beginning of Infrastructure Week and, as you might have heard, there might be at least one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on: the need to invest in our nation’s aging infrastructure to remain competitive and build a more resilient, equitable system. This includes the electricity sector, where we must decarbonize our electricity supply, address growing threats to system resilience from climate change, and invest in the research and development of technologies that will power our growing clean energy economy. Here’s three ways a federal infrastructure policy package could help make this happen.

Unlock investments in our electric transmission system

Transmission lines are the backbone of our electricity supply. As we transition to clean energy, we also need to invest in a more efficient and resilient transmission system.

Transmission lines are critical to delivering electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s consumed, and as the nation transitions from centralized fossil-fueled power to more dispersed renewable energy resources, we need to invest in our transmission system to efficiently carry renewable energy to our light switches and build resilience against challenges such as extreme weather events and cyberattacks.

Research shows that these investments provide benefits to consumers that outweigh the costs. But a number of hurdles remain, including complex and often dysfunctional planning and approval processes, and a failure of focused leadership at the top – namely Congress and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

To address these issues, Congress should declare it a national priority to upgrade our nation’s electricity transmission system and direct FERC, which oversees our bulk electric supply, to prioritize transmission planning in furtherance of a zero-carbon, more resilient electricity supply.

Congress should also authorize and fund the Department of Energy (DOE) to provide technical assistance to state and local authorities that evaluate and approve transmission projects and to develop a national transmission plan that includes recommendations on how to take advantage of existing rights of way like railroad corridors and interstate highways.

Accelerate battery storage deployment

Battery storage can make the electricity system more reliable, affordable, secure, and resilient to extreme events – all while smoothing the way for high levels of renewable energy. This is why experts agree that energy storage should be a top federal priority – both to speed up deployment of current technologies and develop the next generation of this resource.

Current storage technologies are ready for targeted cost-effective deployment to enable renewable energy integration, offset transmission system investments, and replace fossil-fuel-powered plants – particularly those located in urban environments and having significant public health impacts on surrounding communities. To achieve all that battery storage can offer for a clean, resilient electricity supply, Congress should fund tax incentives for battery storage investments to incentivize the private sector while also providing grant programs for deployment in underserved communities where battery storage can displace fossil fuels and reduce local pollution.

Congress also has a role in funding a diverse body of research on the next generation of storage technologies that would put the United States back in a global leadership position, attract private investments, create jobs, and provide significant value to the electricity sector.

Support the infrastructure build out that will fuel the offshore wind boom

The U.S. offshore wind industry about to take off, but federal investment in our infrastructure are necessary to make sure we’re ready.

The U.S. offshore wind industry is experiencing significant growth. Robust winds, relatively shallow waters, and lots of energy demand near the coast combine to make the Central and Northern Atlantic prime for offshore wind development. Several east-coast states – led by New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland – are moving to procure offshore wind, pushing U.S. demand to more than 17,000 megawatts (MW). Recent estimates put the value of the U.S. offshore wind supply chain at nearly $70 billion with the potential to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But building out the offshore wind industry requires coordination among federal, state, local, and tribal authorities, and a multitude of interests including commercial and recreational fishing, the Department of Defense, seagoing navigation, compliance with protections for migratory birds and marine mammals – just to name a few. At the same time, U.S. waters offer a new set of technical challenges compared to the European offshore wind industry that has matured over the past several year.s And at this early point in the U.S. offshore wind industry’s growth, we don’t have the ports, ships, and crews necessary to support the industry.

All of this calls for a proactive and robust federal role in the build out of our offshore wind industry. Ongoing coordination of stakeholders to identify prime offshore wind sites and open them for development while maintaining environmental safeguards is necessary. Research and development of the next generation of offshore wind turbines and the transmission grid to carry that clean energy to load centers must be funded. And federal funding to states and local communities is critical to not only build the ships, ports and other equipment necessary for offshore wind development, but to do it in a way that improves the efficiency and lowers the environmental impacts on local communities.

Infrastructure touches nearly every aspect of our lives – including our electricity supply and the potential to transition to a clean, equitable, and more reliable and resilient system. A federal infrastructure package presents an opportunity to pass ambitious climate solutions at the federal level. These should be national priorities, and any federal infrastructure package should reflect this urgent priority.

Photo: John Rogers Photo: James Ferguson/Wikimedia Commons Photo: Derrick Jackson

How Big is Gridlock in our Electric Grid?

Photo: AWEA

Progress in electric power, particularly the growth of renewable energy and consumer choice, is looking like gridlock.  Look closer and we can see three fundamental issues: state policy vs. federal policy; changing perspectives on reliability, and how electric grid planning should accommodate the ongoing transition to renewable energy. We even have gridlock in the appointment and continuity of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that oversees much of the decision making in these spaces.

Transitions need transmission

From the beginning of Nikolai Tesla’s rivalry with Thomas Edison, the choice of energy supplies has depended on the availability of transmission to flow electricity from one place to another. Any new energy supply needs some kind of conductor or transport from the supply to the demand. The larger the cumulative supply, the more pronounced this need. Adding a lot of offshore wind energy, for example, requires a commensurate plan for safely getting that energy into the existing grid. State policies in the Northeast have brought this innovation, (first studied at University of Massachusetts but first adopted commercially in Northern Europe), to the cusp of commercial-scale deployment off New England and Mid-Atlantic coast. So while we now have commitments for significant offshore wind development, the details of how we’ll effectively move that energy to the onshore grid and ultimately to customer demand remains unresolved.

Transmission lines are the infrastructure of renewable energy.  Planning ahead for these lines enables the addition of the clean energy.  We saw this in Texas, and we need to see it again for offshore wind.   Renewable energy is growing rapidly, replacing fossil fuels and reducing carbon and other air pollution every day.  An infrastructure strategy for carbon reduction and the transition to renewable energy should include electric transmission investment.

More about that gridlock: State policy vs. federally regulated markets

Sitting at FERC is a request by PJM on how federally supported markets will treat power plants that are supported by state policies, like the long tradition of state sanctioned monopoly utilities or the decisions of state legislators to promote innovation or continued operation of zero-carbon power plants.  These policies ultimately pave the way for power plants to receive revenues outside of the FERC-regulated markets – either through checks from captive ratepayers or through alternative revenue streams like renewable energy credits (RECs). This decision regarding how to align these policies with the wholesale markets in PJM has been stuck in a regulatory deadlock at FERC since mid-2018 when one of Trump-appointed Commissioners left, leaving a 2 – 2 split in opinions at FERC.

At stake in that decision are these three fundamental issues:

  1. State policy vs. federally supervised market platform: PJM asked FERC permission to discriminate between the old-style, ratepayer-subsidized plants (usually fossil-fueled) owned by state-regulated monopolies (which would be exempt from PJM’s proposed definition of “improperly subsidized”) when applying new financially impactful rules to renewable power plants that have revenues from state Renewable Portfolio Standards and the nuclear plants that have been given additional payments from legislative actions.  PJM seeks to raise the bids offered by renewables and nuclear plants to counter state supports but allow state-supported old fossil plants to bid low so as to keep them in business. While all of these plants are essentially subsidized by state policy, PJM is proposing to penalize one category of power plant while allowing another to operate in the market at artificially low costs that will ultimately be made up by utility customers.
  2. Reliability in a changing supply mix: The PJM management of the capacity market, which provides utilities with enough resources to meet the peak demand in summer is struggling through repeated and continuous reforms that limit or reduce new types of resources.  The capacity market was also changed to incentivize coal- and gas-burning power plants to be more reliable in cold weather. Demand response and renewable energy have been devalued in the various changes, and are targeted by the proposed reform awaiting FERC decision. These types of reform ultimately create gridlock as older, less efficient resources don’t exit the market because they’re being subsidized by ratepayers while new, more cost-effective resources can’t enter the market because they’re not being properly valued for the services they can provide.
  3. This decision affects the planning and growth of transmission, literally the resolution of physical gridlock limiting renewable energy growth. PJM’s rules for transmission planning use the capacity market results to determine where and how much transmission is built for generation. So if renewable energy resources can’t participate in the capacity market, PJM doesn’t build the transmission necessary to transmit renewable energy to customer demand.

The interaction of these issues can be seen in all the U.S. grids to some degree.  The assumptions based on fossil-fuel plants, and the owners of those plants, work against a transition to renewables, demand-response, or energy efficiency.  Differences among the grid operators NY Independent System Operator serving New York, ERCOT serving Texas, and the Midcontinent Independent System Operator serving 15 states plus Manitoba demonstrate some diversity in attitudes about these issues.

Planning for energy around the whole year, not just a peak demand period, is one positive change MISO is exploring.  NYISO approval of transmission that will “help unbottle clean energy” is a model for our policy goals and the role of infrastructure in achieving these goals. In short, the opportunity is at hand to use infrastructure investments – whether roads, bridges, or electric transmission – to unlock opportunities to achieve a cleaner, more resilient future.

Photo: AWEA

US Solar: 2 Million Systems Strong. And Definitely Growing

The latest good news from the forefront of clean energy makes me think of the old FlintstonesTM vitamins commercials about the number of kids they were reaching: “[X] million strong, and growing,” went the catchy jingle. This good news is about the count of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in the US, and should be just as catchy: We have just sped past the two-million mark. Two million PV systems, on homes and businesses, over parking lots, beside highways, and in fields and deserts across America.

Gif of numbers

That tally is courtesy of energy market analysis firm Wood Mackenzie (Wood Mac) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). While large-scale solar accounts for more of the megawatts, rooftops account for the vast majority of the system count; residential systems alone are 96% of the total.

This momentous occasion is one of the clean energy milestones I’ve been watching for. And it’s just one more sign of a key technology that keeps hitting new heights.

Heights upon heights

That heights-hitting is on vivid display, for example, in the latest year-in-review report from the same team of Wood Mac and SEIA. While the 2018 data shows that annual solar installations were down, with US solar companies installing 2% less than they had in 2017, so many of the other data points are good news. Here’s a taste:

  • Solar megawatts are climbing. Even with the annual total down (a smidge), we still added 10,600 megawatts (MW) of PV to our national power mix. That put the total installed solar tally at more than 64,000 MW—enough to generate the equivalent of 12 million typical US households’ use.
  • Solar’s contributions are growing. Solar’s new heights are particularly visible in the technology’s increasing role in our electricity supply. While only 2.4% of US electricity in 2018, solar generation climbed 24% between 2017 and 2018. And its continued climb over the last decade combined with wind energy’s progress is a marvel to behold.
  • Residential solar is up. Installations of large-scale and “non-residential” (commercial) solar were both lower in 2018 than in the previous year, but gains in residential solar made up for almost all of those drops. Residential solar’s growth, says the report, “exceeded expectations for 2018,” with 7% more megawatts going in during the year than in 2017.
  • Solar isn’t just climbing; it’s spreading. The report authors emphasize how the results suggest major states “have moved past early adopters”: “[G]rowth in low-penetration emerging markets, such as Texas and Florida, continues to add to the geographic diversity of the residential market outside of California and the Northeast.” The Lone Star State, long the undisputed leader in wind power, is finally becoming a factor in solar too, capturing the #2 slot for solar megawatts installed in 2018. And the Sunshine State has finally started talking solar seriously, taking the #3 spot in 2017 and #4 in 2018.
  • Solar costs are dropping (even more). One area where less is more is in the continuation of the amazing downward trend for the cost of solar. Costs for the different market segments dropped another 4-15% in 2018. The report authors credit reductions in hardware costs, including the costs of PV modules—with the Trump solar taxes on imports being offset by Chinese policy changes that led to global oversupply.
And more heights

And the heights keep coming. Solar in California, for example, couldn’t even wait for spring to set a new record for instantaneous solar generation, and large-scale solar plus rooftop solar briefly supplied close to two-thirds of the state’s electricity demand. And California solar set another megawatt record last month.

The two million systems now in, given growth already in 2019, add up to a cool 70,000 MW. Wood Mac and SEIA are projecting that solar installations this year will be 14% higher than 2018, with the residential sector continuing to push forward and large-scale solar bouncing back. That progress looks likely to lead to another recordbreaker in annual installations by the year after next.

Meanwhile, the system count will continue to climb, along with the pace of installation. The news on this latest milestone quotes Michelle Davis, a Wood Mac senior solar analyst (and former colleague), as saying:

“According to our latest forecasts, by 2024, there will be on average, one solar installation per minute. That’s up from one installation every 10 minutes in 2010.”

This two-million mark comes just three years after we hit one million PV systems. And Wood Mac/SEIA project that we’ll hit three million in 2021 and four million by 2023.

Readers of the right vintage will recall that the FlintstonesTM vitamin commercials of yesteryear talked about “10 million strong”. Solar isn’t there yet, but at the rate it’s making progress, we’ll be there before we know it.

Photo: GRID Alternatives Wood Mackenzie and SEIA, US Solar Market Insight, 2018 Year in Review Wood Mackenzie and SEIA, US Solar Market Insight, 2018 Year in Review

Putting Communities First in Deploying Energy Storage

A wide range of stakeholders from across the country met in December 2018 to develop a set of principles to ensure equitable deployment of energy storage technologies. (Photo: Megan Rising/UCS)

UCS convened a select group of stakeholders in December 2018 to discuss policies to spur deployment of energy storage. But this meeting was not your typical policy development session—we focused on how to design policies that put communities first. UCS focused on not only deploying more energy storage, which is an important part of the clean energy transition, but also doing so in a way that involves community members and drives equitable outcomes. The stakeholders present at December’s convening developed a set of consensus principles based on the discussions there and conversations since.

Fully 26 participating organizations have endorsed the principles on equitable deployment of energy storage.

The opportunity

When combined with investments in clean energy, storage has the potential to hasten retirements of coal and even natural gas plants across the country. This is critical not only for our climate and decarbonization goals, but also to improve air quality in frontline communities. Utility-scale storage is already being procured to replace three natural gas plants in California. Experts predict energy storage will be a $3.8 billion industry by 2023.

Energy storage has a wide range of potential applications, and UCS recognizes and emphasizes the potential for storage to benefit disadvantaged communities. Because of the potential community benefits, UCS focused in on a couple of important use cases for storage: replacement of peaking power plants and fossil-fired plants; ability to keep the lights on and bounce back more quickly from  power outages; and accelerating the development and integration of renewable energy on the grid. Our focus on energy storage is not meant to preclude other carbon reduction policies or the need for renewable energy policies, but rather to lift up energy storage deployment policy as a key complementary policy. We also recognize that much work remains to be done to fully capture the value that storage can provide to the market and customers.

Involving stakeholders

UCS convened a group of diverse stakeholders, including environmental justice and grassroots organizations, policy experts, solar and storage industries, labor, consumer advocates, faith groups, and renewable energy advocates, in December 2018 in Chicago, Illinois, focused on the equitable deployment of energy storage. The participants developed a set of consensus principles for storage deployment that elevate the critical importance of community-led clean energy solutions. Together these principles can help state policymakers focus on solutions that ensure that the growth of energy storage improves all communities.

As far as we can tell, this event was the first of its kind. Typically, policy wonks gather in a room to think up ideas about how to drive the outcomes they think are important. And while those expert opinions are obviously important, we wanted to know what affected communities thought about the desired outcomes and how to get there. We see this process as an important contribution to our collective work to drive a transition to a clean energy economy.


The purpose of the convening was to develop policy recommendations, strategic relationships, and political momentum to accelerate the equitable, safe, and low-carbon deployment of energy storage in the US at the state level.

Our goals for the convening were to:

  • Create a core set of policy design elements on equitable, safe, and low-carbon energy storage policy deployment that can influence state legislation in 2019 and beyond.
  • Build momentum in a set of target states with a broader coalition for equitable, safe, and low-carbon storage deployment policies.
  • Produce both short-term and longer-term materials for broad distribution that advance these goals.

This convening on state-level deployment of energy storage built on an earlier convening that UCS held in March 2018 in Washington, DC. That earlier event brought together leading researchers to identify the most important breakthroughs needed to scale up electricity storage as well as ways the federal government can support innovation in this strategically important industry. It was sponsored by the bipartisan House Advanced Energy Storage Caucus and resulted in a policy brief which synthesizes the discussions, including recommendations for federal policy-makers on how to best support electricity storage RD&D that drives innovation, lowers electricity prices, and increases the reliability of the US electric grid.

The principles

Prior to December’s convening, UCS set the stage with some initial thoughts and ideas about what equity might looks like in the context of energy storage deployment. The stakeholders then expanded and shaped the concepts and ultimately outlined six principles of equitable policy design for energy storage. They grappled with the following questions:

  • How can storage be deployed to reduce emissions and improve air quality?
  • How can storage make communities and residents more resilient to disasters and power outages?
  • How can storage promote local economic development and job growth?
  • How can storage help accelerate greater levels of renewable energy on the grid?
  • How can storage help reduce electricity bills?
  • How can policymakers ensure that communities have a seat at the table?

Read the full text of the principles with the list of supporting organizations here.

Outcomes and Next Steps

For this discussion, we focused on three states—Minnesota, Illinois, and Maryland—where we saw opportunities for advancing storage legislation in the near term. Participants represented these three states, and other stakeholders attended who shared perspectives from leading states and nationally.

We know that our convening brought together people who would not otherwise have met, and we saw that dynamic play out in hallway conversations throughout our two-day event. We also know that some of those relationships have continued beyond the convening.

While UCS and many of the convening attendees are focused on advancing equitable energy storage policy in these three states, our hope is that these principles can be used more broadly to inform policy and to shape the way legislators and storage advocates are conceiving of the opportunities afforded by energy storage.

Moving Ahead on Minnesota Clean Energy Legislation

Minnesota State Capitol Building Photo: Minnesota Department of Administration

The Minnesota legislature is considering important new legislation to move forward on clean energy and build on the progress the state has already made to reduce emissions and modernize its electricity system.

Let’s dig into the status of the bills and some key highlights.

What’s the status of clean energy legislation in the Minnesota legislature?

Last week the Minnesota House of Representatives passed an omnibus jobs and energy bill (HF 2208), and Monday the Minnesota Senate passed its version of similar legislation (SF 2611).

Next, conference committees from the House and Senate will work on reconciling the two bills over a two-week period in the first part of May.

What’s important about the legislation?

Many Minnesotans—including Governor Tim Walz—are keen on setting a goal for 100 percent carbon-free electricity for the state by 2050. This is a target that Xcel Energy has also adopted for its own electricity system.

Unfortunately, the Senate didn’t include a 100 percent clean energy provisions in its version of the legislation.

While that is disappointing, there are many important aspects of the pending legislation to highlight. Below are five of the most significant.

Solar on schools

Championed by Rep. Jean Wagenius and other legislative leaders, the House legislation would create the Solar For Schools Program and appropriate $16 million from the state’s renewable development funds to install solar at schools (the Senate version includes funding for this program, although at a much lower level).

The program will reduce emissions and energy costs and provide learning opportunities to students about converting sunlight to electricity. It has been described as a win-win-win for schools, youth, and the environment, and the conference committees should work to fund this program at the higher level proposed by the House.

Beneficial electrification

The House version of the bill includes an important provision that sets a goal for the state to promote the use of electricity from clean energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and authorizes electric utilities to submit plans to promote electric energy uses in their service territories.

Switching parts of the economy from fossil fuels to electricity is considered beneficial if, according to the Regulatory Assistance Project, it saves consumers money over the long run, enables better grid management, and reduces negative environmental impacts.

Transmission enhancements and reliability planning

The House legislation will require utility companies to participate in a study to identify transmission network enhancements necessary for system reliability as the state’s coal-fired power plants are phased out.

Thinking ahead on how to replace coal plants with increased amounts of renewable energy will help Minnesota plan for the transmission network improvements needed to make this important transition happen more quickly and cost effectively.

Energy storage

While both versions of the legislation will authorize funds for an independent study into the benefits and costs of energy storage systems such as batteries, the higher levels of funding included in the Senate version are necessary to conduct an adequate study.

The bills would also authorize utilities to seek approval for implementing energy storage system pilot projects and require them to include an assessment of how energy storage systems contribute to generation and capacity needs in their long-term resource plans.

Highlighted in the legislation are the many benefits of energy storage, including controlling frequency and voltage, mitigating transmission congestion, providing emergency power supplies during outages, reducing curtailment of existing renewable energy generators, and reducing peak power costs.

Greenhouse gas emission reduction strategies and benchmarks

The House bill would require the Minnesota Department of Commerce to develop a set of strategies and benchmarks aimed at significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The strategies include building efficiencies, consumers tools and financial incentives, electrification from fossil fuels, energy storage, grid modernization, and more.

One key improvement for the legislation would be targeting the strategies toward also achieving 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050 in line with proposals by Governor Tim Walz and the Minnesota 100% Campaign. My colleague Steve Clemmer provided testimony to the legislature in support of a 100 percent goal, along with interim targets for renewable energy, to help maintain Minnesota’s national leadership on deployment of renewables and energy efficiency.

The path ahead

The clean energy provisions highlighted above are among many positive aspects of the pending legislation. Also included are transportation measures such as electric vehicle rebates, charging station improvements, and support for electric transit and school buses.

Nevertheless, opposition to progress remains. For instance, 50 Republicans in the House voted no on a straight-forward legislative finding “that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities are a key cause of climate change.”

But fortunately for Minnesota, the forward momentum on clean energy legislation is pointing the state toward a bright future. If the new law is enacted, rapid deployment of solar and wind power, as well as energy storage, will be pursued in a smart and cost-effective manner, supported by data and evidence.

And the studies, planning processes, and pilot programs included in the bills can ensure Minnesota continues its leading role among Midwest states on renewable energy and reducing dangerous climate change pollution.

Through merging bipartisan measures to ramp up progress and put the state on track for an equitable low-carbon energy future, the Minnesota House and Senate conference committees are poised to complete an important step forward for the state and region.

Self-Scheduling: How Inflexible Coal is Breaking Energy Markets

Over the past year, I have looked at the hourly operations of over one-third of the coal fleet in the US and have come to a startling conclusion: Each and every one of the coal units I have investigated have been uneconomic for at least one month. That is, the costs to operate them in a given month exceeded the revenues they earned in the energy market that same month.

Financially, most (if not all) of these coal plants would have been better off turning off.

By operating during periods of time when operating costs exceed revenues, coal-fired power plant owners are costing consumers a $1 billion a year in inflated utility bills.

Here is a simple way of looking at it: The fuel and variable costs associated with producing electricity (production costs) stay relatively flat over the course of a year. The market price, on the other hand, fluctuates. Most coal plants turn on and stay on for as long as they can. They might not run at full capacity all 8,760 hours of the year, but they will run at some minimum operating level, rather than incurring the expenses of turning off.  However, the losses incurred by staying on often far exceeds the expenses of turning off.

In this illustrative example, a power plant with $26/MWh productions costs that stays on all year it will lose money in the spring and fall. Maybe it can make up for those losses in the summer, but would it would be better off if its owners turned it off.

The competitive electricity markets in the United States weren’t designed to support this inefficient practice. However, in practice, utility companies have found a way to keep uneconomic coal plants operating by exploiting a market rule known as “self-scheduling.”

A better way

A coal plant might be able to recover its costs in the summertime but ends up taking a loss in the spring and fall. While the power plant might look solvent at the end of the year, power plant owners (and utility customers) would be better off financially if the power plant shut down seasonally.

Some utilities have chosen to shut down coal plants seasonally and only operate a few months of the year. SWEPCO and Cleco, two utilities that own and operate the Dolet Hill coal plant in Louisiana, found that they will save customers tens of millions of dollars by only operating the plant in the summer. They aren’t the only utility to figure this out. To read more about seasonal operations, feel free to read my blog on the subject, here.

Consumer impacts

This practice is costing consumers an estimated $1 billion dollars a year.

That research shows that not all owners of coal plants engage in this particular inefficient practice. Rather, it is disproportionately vertically integrated utilities, utilities that own generation and directly serve retail customers that have no choice or alternative suppliers. Those types of utilities can lose money in the competitive market and then recover those losses on the backs of captive retail customers, including those folks who are most economically vulnerable to higher energy costs.

Far-reaching implications

A billion-dollar-behind-the-scenes-bailout is bad enough. But, if you think about the far-reaching implications of this practice, it’s clear it undermines the underpinnings of competitive energy markets and results in wind, solar, and energy efficiency all being undervalued by utilities.

Wholesale market price

Where wholesale markets have been established, the market price for electricity is determined by a clearing price that all generators get paid (known as a locational marginal price, or LMP). The price is set by the most expensive unit that clears the energy auction at a given time. This has given rise to the general belief that the market price represents the most expensive unit on the system. However, it rarely works out so cleanly in real life.

Markets are supposed to make sure that power plants are operated in “merit-order” from lowest cost to operate, to most expensive to operate. Self-scheduling allows expensive coal plants to cut in line, pushing out less expensive power plants.

Properly functioning markets are predicated on properly functioning price signals. If the market prices are distorted, then what happens to the market?

Self-scheduling allows expensive coal plants to cut in line, pushing out less expensive power plants. High-cost coal plants (in yellow) push out lower-cost resources and deprive all resources that do operate out of some amount of revenue.

Deprives competitive generators of revenue

Self-scheduling artificially drives the market price down. This deprives competitive generators of revenue which reduces the incentive for more competition. Market prices have been low for several years now, putting a strain on competitive generators that operate coal, nuclear, and even gas. The economic woes of these generators could be linked in part to the self-serving practices of their monopoly brethren.

As consumers, we generally think of low wholesale prices as being good because those low prices should then flow to us. One reason why this practice is so nefarious is that the high costs of the coal plants are eventually passed along to consumers, depriving consumers of the benefits of low wholesale prices.

Stopping this practice might result in slightly higher wholesale prices of electricity in the short run but it would reduce the overall costs of running the system, and those overall savings should flow through to customers.

We also take a hit in the long run. The current costs to operate the system are supposed to be reflected in the wholesale prices, but they aren’t. Consequently, a distorted signal is being sent to developers that ought to build lower cost resources (including wind and solar) to enter the market.

Transmission planning

Artificially low market prices don’t just impact generation investment decisions; it also impacts transmission development. Planners and developers look at geographic price differentials to identify constraints that would make building a new transmission line economically rational.

A regional transmission operator like MISO has historically been restricted in the north/south direction with a notable constraint at the north/south divide. This is a physical constraint.

Some utilities that serve the southern states, most notably Entergy, have pointed to market prices as justification for not expanding north-south transmission. Many of the MISO south states have been flooded with self-scheduled coal, thereby pushing more affordable generators off the bid stack. Coal plants with productions costs of $30/MWh or even $40/MWh have been operating year-round, but the market-clearing price is rarely that high. The distorted market price has created a perception that there might not be a need for new transmission. In reality, new transmission would allow MISO south states to gain better access to the low-cost wind that is available in the rest of MISO.

Undermines how we value renewables

In many parts of the country, the calculation to value renewable energy and/or energy efficiency is through an esoteric process known as an “avoided cost study.” Avoided costs studies look at the costs avoided by investing in clean energy; these avoided costs are the benefits of clean energy. These benefits include avoided energy, avoided capacity, avoided emissions, and many more.

Avoided costs are used to calculate small scale renewables through a process set out in a law known as PURPA. You can read UCS’s primer on PURPA, here.

As noted by UCS, PURPA has been an incredibly effective measure in promoting renewable energy and one of the largest drivers for renewables in the US, along-side renewable portfolio standards, and renewable energy tax credits.

PURPA has done a lot to drive renewable energy.

In the case of PURPA, self-scheduling coal reduces market prices, which are often used to determine avoided energy costs. The avoided costs feed into a “PURPA rate”, the rate which small scale renewables are paid for producing electricity.

As a result of self-scheduling, many wind and solar facilities are being underpaid.

Similarly, energy efficiency and net metering are often evaluated using energy market prices as a proxy for the “value” those resources provide. When that happens, utilities can press pause on energy efficiency programs or even nix net metering.

Whether it is for PURPA, rooftop solar, or efficiency, many monopoly utilities ask regulators to approve avoided energy costs that are based on the market clearing prices and then turn around and run power plants whose costs are far above those market clearing prices.

How’s that for working the system in your favor?

Would eliminating self-scheduling fix the problem?

No. Self-scheduling is simply a loophole that many utilities are currently using to fleece customers. Close that one, they very well might find a new one. The trick to solving this problem is to address the problem directly and intentionally.

One of the most direct ways I can think of to address this problem is for state utility commissioners to disallow the costs associated with the above-market costs associated with running their fleet. But there are plenty of other ways.

A recent report that outlined ways to improve energy markets, that also noted the problems with self-scheduling. The report’s authors suggested that more transparent data and reporting on the practice might help serve as a disinfectant.

Maybe there are other good ideas out there. Maybe you have one? If so, share your thoughts with me on Twitter, where you can find me talking more about this and other esoteric energy issues.

Clean Energy’s Progress, in One Simple, Uplifting Graphic

Photo: AWEA

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News about global warming can be sobering stuff, and some visual presentations are particularly effective at conveying the bad news. As serious as climate change is, though, it’s important to remember that we have some serious responses. A new way of looking at US wind and solar progress helps make that eminently clear.

Sobering graphic

If you, like me, find yourself at times swinging between a sense of the challenge of climate change on the one hand, and the excitement of clean energy on the other, you might appreciate the need for balance and perspective.

The progression of our effects on the global climate are captured powerfully (and frighteningly) in a viral graphic from UK climate scientist Ed Hawkins that shows variations in global temperatures since 1850. While it varies by month and year, the trend shown in the GIF is really (really) clear: The passing years have brought higher and higher temperatures.

Serious, sobering stuff, given all that comes with that global warming.

So it seems like we need things to counterbalance graphics like that, at least in part—not to take the pressure off, but to remind ourselves of where we’re making important progress, and laying the groundwork for a whole lot more.

Graphical remedy

One option is to take a look at what’s going on with clean energy in the power sector—and wind and solar, in particular, which have been marvels to behold in recent years.

A new graphic does just that, looking at the shared contribution of wind and solar to our nation’s electricity generation, in much the same way as the Hawkins graphic does: month in and month out, as the years roll by. Here it is:

The graphic, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, draws on electric power sector data from the US Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), and includes wind power, large-scale solar, and (importantly, given that it too often gets ignored) the increasingly significant contribution from small-scale/rooftop solar.

And this little GIF has a lot to say. It begins with wind and solar’s humble status early last decade, when wind barely registered, and solar wasn’t a factor at all. From there the spiral sure picks up steam, as each year has brought online more wind turbines (now 58,000 and climbing) and more solar panels (on nearly 2 million American rooftops, and far beyond).

On a monthly basis, the contribution of wind and solar has shot past 3% (2010), past 6% (early 2013), past 12% (April 2018)—where every additional 1% is the equivalent of more than 4 million typical US households’ electricity consumption. And on an annual basis, that progress has translated into the electricity contribution from just those two technologies going from 1 in every 71 kilowatt-hours in 2008 to 1 in every 11 in 2018.

And the graphic clearly conveys the momentum poised to carry solar and wind far beyond. There’s a lot more progress coming, it declares—clean energy milestones to be watching out for (and making happen).

Credit: J. Rogers/UCS

Why it matters

To be clear, the new graphic and all that it represents shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of what really matters: from a climate perspective, what’s happening to overall carbon emissions, and the resulting temperature changes. It’ll take a lot more clean energy—a lot less fossil energy—in our electricity mix to help us deal with climate change.

But the progress on clean energy is really important because of the power sector’s still-substantial contributions to our carbon pollution, and the need for a lot more action. And that progress also matters because the power sector is crucial for cutting carbon pollution from other sectors, through electrification of stuff like transportation (think electric vehicles) and home heating (heat pumps!).

That’s why keeping our eyes on stats like these is key: We need to celebrate the progress we’re making, even as we push for so much more.

Sartorial solar splendor on its way?

Meanwhile, it turns out that the Hawkins graphic in stripe form has gone on to become the basis for a line of must-have clothing and more.

We can hope that the good news about the progress of US solar and wind becomes just as desirable a fashion accessory.

Photo: AWEA Photo: Dennis Schroeder / NREL

El progreso de la energía limpia, en un gráfico sencillo e inspirador

Photo: AWEA

Read in English

Las noticias sobre el calentamiento global pueden ser alarmantes, y algunas presentaciones visuales son particularmente efectivas para transmitir las malas noticias. A pesar de lo serio que es el cambio climático, sin embargo, es importante recordar que tenemos respuestas serias. Un nuevo gráfico sobre el progreso de la energía eólica y solar en los Estados Unidos ayuda a evidenciarlas claramente.

Un gráfico sombrío

Si tú, como yo, te encuentras a veces alternando entre un sentido realista del desafío que representa el cambio climático por un lado, y la emoción del progreso de la energía limpia por el otro, talvez puedes apreciar la necesidad de equilibrio y perspectiva.

La evolución de nuestro impacto en el clima global fue capturada poderosamente (y aterradoramente) en un gráfico viral del científico climático británico Ed Hawkins. El gráfico muestra las variaciones en las temperaturas a nivel global desde 1850. Mientras varía por mes y año, la tendencia mostrada en el GIF es sumamente clara: El paso de los años ha traído temperaturas más y más elevadas. Algo muy serio, dado todo lo que viene con ese calentamiento global.

Dado eso, parece que necesitamos herramientas para contrarrestar esta clase de gráficos, por lo menos en parte. No para eliminar la presión que sentimos de actuar, sino para acordarnos de las áreas en que estamos logrando un progreso importante, y creando una base sólida para mucho más.

Remedio gráfico

Una opción es observar lo que está pasando con la energía limpia, especialmente con las energías eólica (del viento) y solar, que han estado progresando de forma impresionante en los últimos años.

Un nuevo gráfico hace justamente eso, viendo la contribución que han hecho las turbinas eólicas y los paneles solares a la generación de electricidad en los EE. UU., de forma parecida al gráfico Hawkins: mes tras mes, con el paso de los años. Aquí está:

El gráfico, elaborado por la Union of Concerned Scientists, representa datos del Departamento de Energía de los EE. UU. e incluye la energía eólica, la energía solar a gran escala y también la energía solar a pequeña escala (lo cual es importante dado que muchas veces es ignorada).

Y ese pequeño GIF tiene mucho que decir. Empieza con el estado humilde en que se encontraban las energías eólica y solar al principio de la década pasada, cuando la energía eólica apenas si se podía reconocer en las cifras y el efecto de la energía solar no era distinguible. De allí la espiral se acelera, con la conexión cada año de más turbinas eólicas (ahora 58,000 y creciendo) y más paneles solares (en casi 2 millones de techos estadounidenses, y mucho más allá).

Desde el punto de vista de las cifras mensuales, la contribución de las dos tecnologías llegó al 3% en 2010, al 6% en la primavera del 2013 y al 12% en abril de 2018, con cada 1% adicional equivalente al consumo eléctrico de más de 4 millones de hogares típicos estadounidenses. Y desde el punto de vista anual, ese progreso se ha traducido en que su contribución a la matriz de generación eléctrica pase de 1 de cada 71 electrones en 2008 a 1 de cada 11 en 2018.

Y el gráfico transmite claramente el momento que está listo para llevar a la solar y la eólica mucho más allá. Hay mucho más progreso en ruta, declara, representado en hitos de energía limpia que esperamos (y que nos esperan a nosotros para llevarlos a cabo).

Credit: J. Rogers/UCS

¿Por qué es importante?

Este nuevo gráfico y todo lo que representa no debe hacernos perder de vista lo que realmente nos importa del punto de vista del clima: lo que está pasando con las emisiones de dióxido de carbono (CO2), y el calentamiento global. Vamos a necesitar mucha más energía limpia y mucha menos energía fósil en nuestra matriz eléctrica para ayudarnos a enfrentar el cambio climático.

Pero el progreso que estamos logrando con la energía limpia es muy importante dada la contaminación por CO2 por la cual el sector eléctrico sigue siendo responsable, y la necesidad que tenemos de mucha más acción. Y ese progreso es aún más importante porque el sector eléctrico es crucial para lograr reducir las emisiones de CO2 también en otros sectores a través de la electrificación del transporte (los vehículos eléctricos), por ejemplo, y la calefacción (las bombas de calor).

Es por eso que es clave seguir prestando atención a cifras como éstas: Tenemos que celebrar el progreso que estamos logrando, mientras empujamos a la vez para lograr mucho más.

La ropa que provoca

Mientras tanto, resulta que el gráfico Hawkins en forma de rayos se ha convertido también en la base de una variedad de ropa y otros accesorios “imprescindibles”.

Esperemos entonces que las noticias sobre el progreso de las energías eólica y solar se conviertan también en un deseado accesorio de moda.

Photo: AWEA Photo: Dennis Schroeder / NREL

California’s Wildfire Costs are Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Photo: NASA

As California’s electric utilities grapple with the aftermath of record-breaking wildfires, the potential impact on customer bills is starting to come into focus. While it is still unclear who will end up paying for wildfire damages, one thing is clear: extreme wildfires are here to stay, and they will likely keep getting worse. With climate change increasing not only the risk of wildfires, but also threatening many other economic and human health impacts, the costs of preventing extreme climate change pale in comparison to the costs of inaction.

Wildfires in California

To cover the costs of only the 2017-2018 wildfires, one estimate indicates that residential utility bills for customers of the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), would need to increase by $300 annually. However, another estimate indicates that, if wildfires in California continue to inflict as much damage as they have over the past two years, PG&E bills would need to double to cover the recurring costs, while bills for electricity customers across all of California would need to increase by 50%. Unfortunately, the last two years of wildfires have not just been an extraordinary fluke.

Over the past few decades in the Western US, the number of large wildfires has been rising and the fire season has been getting longer. While there are multiple factors driving these changes, climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires. As climate change drives up temperatures and changes precipitation patterns, California can expect more frequent wildfires and more acres burned in the future.

Costs of climate change inaction

But the costs of climate change will not just show up in higher electricity bills.

A recent report from scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency calculated the costs of climate change by the end of the century under different scenarios. While the report found that climate change will cost the US economy hundreds of billions of dollars annually, it also showed that a slow response to climate change, or worse, inaction, will cost us far more in dollars, property losses, public health and human lives.

If we limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, tens of billions of dollars in damages could be avoided every year by the end of the century – which works out to savings of $250 to $600 per person per year. This just goes to show how costly it will be not to address climate change.

The US economy can avoid billions of dollars in damages by reducing global warming emissions to stay on a lower-emissions trajectory. Figures are from the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

A vicious cycle

This brings us back to PG&E, which is grappling with massive wildfire costs. If these costs end up being passed on to electricity customers, it could ultimately hinder California’s ability to prevent further climate change. If electricity prices go up significantly, people who own electric vehicles or have all-electric homes will face much higher costs. Since vehicle and building electrification are key components of California’s strategy to reduce global warming emissions, substantially higher electricity costs would disincentivize electrification and make emissions reductions more difficult to achieve.

There is vicious cycle at play here:

  • Climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires.
  • Wildfire costs might increase the cost of electricity.
  • Higher electricity prices would disincentivize electrification, which is one of California’s main tools for preventing climate change.
  • Maintaining or, even worse, increasing, our global warming emissions trajectory will lead to more climate change impacts, such as extreme wildfires.

In short, climate change may make it more difficult for California to prevent climate change.

You have to spend money to save money

At the end of the day, this problem is not going to solve itself. We will need to make all sorts of investments to prevent further climate change and to adapt to the climate change we have already locked in.

Encouragingly, the governor of California is taking climate change prevention and adaptation very seriously. The governor’s office recently released a report that details a wide array of policy options meant to address the climate change and wildfire problems faced by California’s electric utilities.

While some of those policy changes will no doubt be necessary, California also needs to continue investing heavily in solutions that we know are necessary for the transition to a clean energy economy. Renewable energy, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and many more solutions are critical to the state’s emissions reduction goals, and California needs to continue making these investments even in the face of expensive disasters exacerbated by climate change.

These investments will not just be out of the goodness of our hearts. With hundreds of billions of dollars in climate-change-caused damages on the line, putting money into climate change prevention is a wise investment.

Photo: NASA

Prodded by Coal Industry, the EPA Decides Mercury Is Fine, Just Fine. Remind Them: It’s Not.

Lyntha Scott Eiler/Flickr Photo: Lyntha Scott Eiler/Flickr

From the gaping maw of coal baron greed slithers another brazen ploy.

This time: guiding our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to arrive at the stunning discovery that mercury spewed from coal plants is actually A-Okay.

That’s right. Under the direction of (former Murray Energy coal lobbyist) Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA is now proposing to find that mercury, a potent neurotoxin that can ruin a person’s fair shake at life before they’re ever born, is neither appropriate nor necessary to regulate from coal plants—by far mercury pollution’s largest source.

Which is awfully convenient news for the desperate heads of coal mining corporations that are existentially dependent on power plants consuming more coal. For them, this regulatory turn would usher in a new refrain: puff away, coal plants, puff away! And with it, too, the devastating confirmation that today’s EPA is officially Not Okay.

This brash attack on the health and welfare of untold millions in favor of the fortunes of a coal-laden few is underpinned by an analytical sleight of hand buried deep in the regulatory fine print. It’s obscure, it’s dull—and it’s incredibly effective. The pernicious combination has polluters hoping to slip a game-changing precedent through without garnering the level of attention warranted by the staggering ramifications therein.

And so we go, once more unto the breach.

Public comments on this proposed rule are incredibly important, to officially record objections to an outright decimation of the value of public health in favor of polluter preference.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has made it easy for you to submit your own comments. For all the details and background, we also wrote a technical guide to help inform discussion, introduced by my colleague Rachel here; below, I’ll offer context, and highlight four key points. The deadline for public comments is April 17

Mercury protections, and mercury attacks

At immediate issue is the “appropriate and necessary” finding underpinning the 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for coal- and oil-fired power plants.

In the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, Congress directed the EPA to regulate hazardous air pollutants—including mercury, as well as things like nickel, arsenic, and chromium—from coal-fired power plants, provided the agency first found such regulations to be “appropriate and necessary.”

Which the agency did. Repeatedly. And unsurprisingly, given the devastating health effects of mercury, the dominating contribution of coal plants to mercury pollution, and the fact that effective controls readily existed and were already installed on approximately 60 percent of the existing coal fleet when MATS was released.

And by 2016, in line with deadlines, virtually all covered coal plants were in compliance. Far under expected cost, with no negative effects on grid reliability, and achieving a 96 percent reduction in annual emissions of hazardous air pollutants—including an 86 percent, or 25-ton, drop in mercury—by 2017. Which means that a lot less mercury is now in the air, settling on the ground, entering the food chain, and accumulating in our bodies, not to mention the bodies of all those still to come.

So why, why, why this new proposed reversal by Wheeler’s EPA?

Because coal consumption has taken a hit, and Robert Murray—fervent supporter of President Trump and Founder, Chairman, President, and CEO of Murray Energy, a coal mining empire wholly dependent on domestic consumption of coal— is hitting back, leading the coal industry charge in an attempt to tear down every hurdle in sight.

And because some polluters have long complained about the costs of pollution standards (compared to previously polluting for free), and this rule provides a chance to permanently change the math.

Which brings us to this action, and a spectacular kowtowing to both: a bold hand-out to Robert Murray and his coal company cohorts, coupled with the establishment of precedent to permanently tip the regulatory scales in favor of polluter profits over public health.

How to make a good rule look bad

So how does Administrator Wheeler pull it off?

By assuming a dark and dismal view, where human health matters not and polluter preference matters lots. Here, the agency’s four-step approach to making all the compelling reasons for regulation go away:

First, refuse to consider co-benefits. Co-benefits are benefits that occur because of a rule but were not the principal target of the rule. Like when power plants burn coal, lots of pollutants are released, so attempts to limit any one pollutant often means a lot of other pollutants are reduced, too. This is a good thing! It means efficiency, and cost-effective health improvements. Long-standing regulatory guidance has been to ensure that these co-benefits count. But not according to the EPA’s refreshed perspective, which wipes these co-benefits right off the map, excluding an estimated annual reduction of 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, and 4,700 heart attacks, valued on the order of $37 billion to $90 billion each year.

Second, ignore benefits which are known to occur but can’t be easily monetized. Although mercury and hazardous air pollutants have been recorded as causing or contributing to a range of severe negative effects, including neurological damage in developing brains, chronic respiratory diseases, and various cancers, at the time of the EPA’s 2011 evaluation, the agency was only able to fully quantify a single effect, for a single exposure pathway, for a single pollutant. In the past, the EPA acknowledged this significant omission, but because these unquantifiable benefits further supported the agency’s conclusions that regulation was appropriate, the lack of quantification was not a problem. Now, because they’re counter to its tack, the EPA “acknowledges the importance of these benefits,” then dismissively waves them away.

Third, disregard new information. The EPA last performed a quantitative analysis in 2011. Lots of new research has been performed since that time, including to help quantify previously unquantifiable benefits, as well as to identify new benefits that were not previously known. What’s more, because MATS already went into effect, the actual—as opposed to industry-projected—costs of compliance are now known. And they are much, much lower than previously guessed. Which all suggests a major shift to the ledger: benefits orders of magnitude higher, costs orders of magnitude lower. Or at least, it should suggest. But the EPA? It now insists that the agency should only consider what it knew back in 2011, however wrong or incomplete that knowledge may well be.

Fourth, pretend it’s all a lark. Throughout the proposed rule, EPA insists that it does not intend to rescind MATS itself, just the entire regulatory framework upon which it stands. This, of course, is patently absurd. The EPA can’t have it both ways, and it knows it: by employing such an approach, the agency is positioning challengers to be able to knock the whole thing down, while attempting to avoid the firefight of undoing MATS outright.

And quod erat demonstrandum: the previously inconceivable. Where once, twice, three times the EPA found that the towering benefits of limiting toxic pollution from coal plants were well worth the costs, now, in the alpenglow of the deregulatory agenda, it appears that mercury pollution is fine, just fine.

Fight back!

Mercury is bad. Really bad. For human health, and for the environment.

Or at least it was, until this proposed rule “discovered” otherwise.

Don’t stand for it! Speak up, speak out, and make the many count more than the favored few—for this vital public health protection, and all the health protections still to come.

Submit your comment today!

Photo: Lyntha Scott Eiler/Flickr

Electric Utilities Can Accelerate Electric Truck and Bus Deployment

Photo: Greensboro Transit Authority

Today, in my inaugural blog post, I am excited to share a set of recommendations for electric utility investments in electric truck and bus charging programs.

Swapping diesel trucks and buses for electric models is a critical strategy for both reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change and reducing local air pollution to improve public health. The good news is that high-performance electric trucks and buses are becoming increasingly available for many vehicle uses, notably medium-duty delivery vehicles, cargo equipment, transit buses, and school buses. The challenge is that widespread deployment of those vehicles requires a large-scale, coordinated effort by policymakers, private investors, and—you guessed it—electric utilities.

For their part, electric utilities are an important early investor in charging programs for all EVs, including trucks and buses for several reasons. First, grid-related investments to support electricity demand from EVs are well within utilities’ wheelhouse. Second, utilities’ expertise in managing the grid make them an important partner in managing electric truck and bus loads to maximize potential benefits to the grid. For example, smart charging of EVs can make renewable energy easier to incorporate into the grid.  Finally, utilities have access to debt and capital to make investments that kick-start the comparative market for private investments.

Utilities across the country are starting to take a serious look at EV programs to support the growing demand for electric cars, trucks, and buses.  Many utilities are moving forward with vehicle electrification proposals to state utility regulators, some of which include consideration for heavy-duty vehicles. Proactive state regulators and electric utilities can take advantage of the growing availability of models to accelerate electric truck and bus deployment to help realize the health, climate, and grid benefits from medium and heavy-duty vehicles.

UCS has laid out the principles for how electric utilities should invest in EV charging. The recommendations we release today, Utility Investment in Truck and Bus Charging: A Guide for Utilities, build on those principles by providing high-level guidance on the design of utility programs for truck and bus charging.

How should utilities go about designing programs, and what should state regulators look for when evaluating programs?

Consider various strategies to address barriers to truck and bus charging. 

Different electric truck and bus uses may require different program strategies, depending on vehicle model availability and the business case for electrification in a specific service territory. For charging infrastructure, this means utilities may need to make use of a variety of ownership models in order to effectively accelerate EV deployment. These ownership models extend beyond “business as usual” up to “end-to-end” utility ownership from the customer meter to the charger (see figure).


Diagram showing models of utility investment in EV charging infrastructure

Models of Utility Investment in Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure

Set fair commercial rates that account for truck and bus charging and provide incentives for grid services.

Operating costs are one of the most important factors vehicle operators, particularly those who operate fleets, consider when deciding whether to switch to electric models.  Fair, sensible rates for commercial EV charging will ensure that vehicle operators have an opportunity to save on fuel costs and provide an incentive for charging at beneficial times for the electric grid.

Scale up programs based on their potential impact and the readiness of vehicles for electrification.

Vehicle applications such as transit buses, medium-duty delivery trucks, and cargo equipment have the potential to positively impact climate emissions and public health and are highly ready for electrification. As such, those vehicles are ready for large-scale utility programs. Utilities can also advance more nascent vehicle applications through pilot projects.

Prioritize serving communities overburdened by air pollution.

Diesel pollution and the consequential human health impacts are not distributed uniformly. Utility programs can have maximum impact for each charger deployed by focusing on areas that suffer disproportionately large amounts of diesel pollution. However, prioritizing overburdened communities is not just a best practice for cost-effectiveness. Because low-income communities and communities of color are overrepresented in overburdened areas, prioritizing charger and EV deployment in these areas is an important way to reduce public health inequities.

Coordinate and leverage multiple funding sources.

While utilities are well-suited to be an early investor in the EV charging space, other funds for EV charging are available. As UCS has previously discussed, the VW settlement and other funds fall short of providing the scale of investment needed for widespread electrification of truck and buses. Even so, those funds are an important resource for accelerating EV adoption. Utilities can maximize the reach of their own programs by coordinating with and leveraging other funding sources.

Consider fleet programs that accelerate electrification across vehicles classes.

Utilities can identify opportunities to include trucks and buses alongside passenger vehicles in fleet programs to make the most of synergies in information sharing between the utility and fleet customers.

Consult with truck and bus fleet managers when developing programs.

Utilities’ customer relationships with fleet managers can become strategic partnerships for the development of utility charging programs.  Utilities can collaborate with fleet operators to understand the use and charging needs of electric trucks and buses in order to inform infrastructure programs and rate designs.

Set minimum charging system capabilities to enable managed charging.

Managed charging of truck and bus loads is critical to realizing the greenhouse gas benefits and fuel cost savings those vehicles can offer. A “smart” system in which chargers can communicate with a network system is necessary to enable managed charging. Requiring such capabilities for chargers supported by utility programs will enable managed charging, while also making it easier to upgrade charger software over time.

Future-proof investments by preparing charger sites for additional deployments.

It is important to take a long-term view of electric truck and bus deployment when designing programs. Utilities can future-proof “make-ready” investments—the upgraded panels, new conduit and wires to make the site ready for chargers—by considering expected future charging demand when determining the capacity of the make-ready installation.

I am encouraged to see some utilities already step up to support truck and bus electrification. We need many more to follow suit with significant investments to make timely progress on climate and public health. These recommendations will help make utility investments more effective in meeting these urgent goals.

For a fuller discussion of each recommendation, including program examples, be sure to check out the full policy brief.

Photo: Greensboro Transit Authority

Yes, EPA: Regulating Mercury Pollution Is “Appropriate and Necessary”

Photo: Mrs. Gemstone/Flickr

It doesn’t take a health care professional, public health expert or environmental scientist to understand the value of clean air and the need for regulatory safeguards that protect our families and communities from toxic air pollution. While killer smog may seem like a historical artifact, air pollution exacts a significant toll globally and on our own nation’s health and economy.

The scientific evidence and health data are clear; exposure to toxic and hazardous air pollutants can result in premature death and cause a host of cancers, lung and heart diseases, adverse reproductive outcomes, birth defects, and neurological and cognitive impairments that can have lifetime impacts. In addition to pain, suffering and disability, these health impacts have significant economic, social and emotional costs for patients, their families and their caregivers—from doctors’ appointments, emergency department visits, and medications, to lost workdays, missed school days, and restrictions in daily living.

And it doesn’t take an advanced degree to know that mercury is an especially bad actor—a toxin particularly hazardous to pregnant women, to the neurological development of their fetuses and to young children—causing impairments that can last a lifetime.

None of this is really news. What may be news is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a change to its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) in the form of a new formula for calculating the human health benefits of reducing some of the most hazardous air pollutants from power plants: chemicals that in even relatively small quantities are potent carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens and neurotoxins. Congress specifically recognized these hazards when it enacted Section 112 of the Clean Air Act.

In a somewhat wonky sleight of hand and one that does not bode well for future clean air protections, the agency has proposed a revision to its own finding on MATS. Incredibly, the agency now asserts that it is no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and hazardous air pollution emitted from power plants under the Clean Air Act. In the U.S., power plants are the largest source of mercury, chromium, arsenic, nickel, selenium and the acid gases hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen chloride. These are highly hazardous pollutants that cause serious harm to humans, wildlife and the environment. And the human health damage is borne disproportionately by people of color and the poor.

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

But the EPA has now decided that the health benefits of controlling MATS emissions are only $4 million to $6 million max, if you don’t (and the agency opines that you shouldn’t) count the benefits of controlling the related emissions. This despite the fact that scientists have concluded that the EPA’s 2011 regulatory impact assessment greatly underestimated the monetized benefits of reducing mercury emissions from power plants. Also notable is the fact that most coal plants have already come into compliance with MATS by installing the necessary pollution control technology.

In suggesting that it is no longer “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and air toxics from power plants, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is basically saying that the health benefits are too paltry to justify the costs.

As public health professionals, we strenuously disagree. We suspect that most members of the public will, too.

So, what to do? The EPA proposal is open for public comment through April 17, 2019. It is critical that scientists, health professionals, economists, community advocates, public interest organizations and concerned members of the public express their strong opposition to this drastic narrowing in how the agency evaluates the costs and benefits of critical public health protections.

The American Public Health Association has joined professional medical societies and public health groups in taking legal action to protect limits on MATS pollution and has filed an amicus brief in a related court case. The Union of Concerned Scientists has produced a public comment guide to support and encourage submission of detailed and specific comments during this open comment period. Both organizations will be submitting comments as well.

Make no mistake. Though the current proposal focuses specifically on MATS, it directly challenges the very foundation of clean air regulations. That’s why we and our organizations are speaking out—for the health of our families and our communities today and into the future. Our individual and collective voices matter. We urge you to join us.


This post was co-authored with  Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, and originally appeared on Scientific American.

Photo: Mrs. Gemstone/Flickr

5 Wind Power Facts (From Better Sources Than President Trump)

Credit: J. Rogers/UCS

It may be hard to believe, but our president is getting even more outrageous in his claims about wind power—whether it’s ignoring the reality of how our electricity system actually works or fabricating lies about non-existent health risks. Turns out there are more credible resources than him for good information about wind.

Here are five things to know about wind power, and solid sources for deeper dives.

1. Wind power doesn’t hurt the reliability of our electricity system

While President Trump may be unaware of how our nation’s electricity grids work—and how wind power fits in—others aren’t. (This handy video is a good refresher for anyone, presidential or not.)

Studies have been showing for some time now what it would mean to have high levels of renewable energy meeting our electricity needs. A 2012 study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for example, looked at the possibility of getting 30 to 90 percent of our nation’s electricity from renewables by 2050—and found that, as my colleague Steve Clemmer put it, “grid operators can keep the lights on in every hour of the year in every region.” And technologies have only gotten better since then.

Another good resource for this issue is present-day reality—what’s actually going on around the US. The different regional grids have proven quite capable of integrating ever-higher levels of wind and solar, and keep setting new records for how much renewable energy they’re handling. There’s also the fact that more than a dozen states use wind to generate at least 10 percent of the electricity they produce, five states are at more than 25 percent wind, and Iowa and Kansas are each at close to 40 percent. And the lights stay on.

Despite what the president may claim, your TV will still operate even when the wind dies down—even if you live in an area blessed with a wind-rich power mix.

Credit: Lance Cheung/Flickr

2. The real threat to birds is climate change

Wind turbines, like all other energy sources, can have impacts on wildlife. But it’s important to look at those impacts in context—in terms of how wind power compares to other risks to birds, say.

The very government headed by President Trump turns out to have some good info on this. The US Department of Energy (DOE) talks about the issue this way:

All energy supply options can have adverse environmental impacts. Birds and bats are occasionally killed in collisions with wind turbines. However, bird kills are limited to less than 0.02% of the total populations of songbird species, and orders of magnitude less than other causes. (Estimated annual bird mortality rates for collisions with wind turbines are one order of magnitude less than from collisions with communications and other towers, three orders of magnitude less than from collisions with power lines, and three to four orders of magnitude less than from collisions with buildings.)

And those stats don’t even talk about the impacts to birds of fossil fuels—including from carbon pollution. That’s an important piece to add in. Because groups that know a lot about birds, like the National Audubon Society, say that the greatest threat to birds is climate change.

Wind power is a key piece of how we’re addressing carbon pollution from the power sector, so it’s easy to see why, to protect birds, we want more wind turbines, not fewer.

Fortunately, we’re also getting a lot smarter about wind farm design, siting, and operation, to make sure we can have more wind power with less impact. The best resource I’ve found on what we know about bird and bat issues—and what we’re still figuring out—is the review of “wind turbine interactions with wildlife and their habitats,” updated annually, from the American Wind Wildlife Institute (on whose board I sit).

Credit: E. Spanger-Siegfried

3. Wind power is good for your health

It’s not just about birds’ health: How we make and use energy has a big impact on our health, too, given air and water pollution, and, yes, climate change and all its associated health risks. Those costs often don’t show up in the financial math—how much money we pay for a load of coal or a fossil-fueled kilowatt-hour—so they’re important to explicitly consider.

One solid resource on this issue is a 2010 National Research Council report, Hidden costs of energy: Unpriced consequences of energy production and use, which is clear about where the health risks in the power sector come from (hint: not in wind power). Another is an oft-cited Harvard paper on the “full cost accounting” of coal. UCS’s own page on the hidden costs of fossil fuels also has a lot of useful resources. And this resource from the National Institutes of Health offers a contaminant-by-contaminant breakdown of various power plant types.

On wind turbines and sound impacts in particular: While “noise” is subjective—different people can hear and interpret a given sound differently—sound itself is something that can be measured, and its effects can be studied. And here, too, what the DOE says is instructive:

Although research to develop sound mitigation techniques is ongoing, as of 2013, global peer-reviewed scientific data and independent studies consistently concluded that sound from wind plants has no direct impact on physical human health. The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause hearing impairment or other direct adverse health effects. Low frequency sound and infrasound from upwind wind turbines are also well below the pressure sound levels and which known health effects occur.

As with impacts on wildlife, good siting of wind turbines is important here, too. But it’s clear that any reasonable treatment of the energy sector would come to the conclusion that, when it comes to human health, wind power is a positive.

Wind power in Michigan

Credit: RTD Photography/Flickr

4. Wind turbines don’t hurt property values

Data and facts are also useful for examining issues like impact on property values, and here too there are some fine resources. In particular, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have looked at this in a series of surveys of reports examining home sales near and far from turbines.

The latest, most comprehensive one covered more than 50,000 home sales and found “no statistical evidence” of impacts on sale prices of homes near wind turbines. Absence of proof isn’t proof of absence, and all that, but it’s a whole lot more solid ground to stand on than whatever President Trump believes he has.

Another great source on this question might be folks who live near turbines. A 2018 survey by researchers at LBNL found that “a large majority of wind power project neighbors have positive attitudes toward their local turbines.”

Credit: Duke Energy/Flickr

5. Wind power is serious energy

This is another key part of understanding wind power. Wind provided just shy of 7 percent of US electricity last year, making it our nation’s fourth largest source of electricity. Its megawatts can produce enough to meet the needs of 30 million American households. And it’s poised to grow a whole lot more.

President Trump would do well to get the facts about one of our most powerful clean energy tools, perhaps by spending less time at coal facilities and more time at wind ones. He could maybe even climb to the top of a wind turbine to gain a little more perspective.

Wind power is a boon, not a bane. Armed with good sources and solid facts, even our president might come to realize that.

The family and the future (Credit: J. Rogers/UCS)

How Securitization Can Help Achieve a Just Transition for Coal Communities

Photo: WildEarth Guardians/Flickr

Over the years, I’ve written and spoken extensively about the urgency of providing a fair and equitable transition for coal-impacted communities as we collectively move towards a clean energy economy. This includes not just the workers at the coal-fired power plants, but also the mine workers that feed those plants, as well as the communities surrounding those plants and mines that depend on the coal industry for their economic livelihoods. Given the scale of the climate crisis, it is imperative to drive down greenhouse gas emissions and transition to clean energy as quickly as possible. But the cost of this transition should not be borne solely by coal communities and workers, not does it have to be. By coupling clean energy commitments with the careful and targeted use of a powerful and somewhat lesser known financial tool called securitization, states can do both: accelerate the transition to clean energy and ensure that impacted coal workers and coal communities don’t get left behind.

The problem is multi-faceted and complex

For generating electricity, coal-fired power is becoming ever more uneconomic. If you’ve been following the transition to a clean energy economy, that’s not news—we wrote a report on that back in 2017 (and also in 2012 and 2013), and the economics have only gotten worse. A new report found that wind and solar could replace about 74 percent of coal plants with immediate savings to consumers.

But have you ever wondered what actually happens when a coal plant shuts down before the end of its “useful” life? It involves a lot of different stakeholders—utility owners and their investors, ratepayers, environmental advocates, surrounding communities, and plant workers, to name a few. And they often have different opinions about what should be done, to say the least. Another complication is whether the plant is in a rate-regulated or deregulated market. (For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll focus on the rate-regulated power plants—meaning that the electricity prices passed along to consumers are subject to oversight by the state public service commission.)

The Utility Owner: Even though the coal plant may be losing money compared to cheaper—and cleaner—alternatives in the market, the utility may not be financially motivated to close the plant early, because it still must pay off its debt on the investments it made, plus it continues to earn a return on those investments. This roadblock remains even if the utility is otherwise willing and eager to transition to clean energy.

The Ratepayer: By paying for electricity, customers pay back the debt on the utility’s investments, while guaranteeing that the utility can turn a profit (at a level approved by regulators). But the thing is, even if the plant closes early, the remaining debt must still be repaid. How the regulators respond to the utility’s request to close the plant has huge implications for consumers’ bills. (Case in point: after spending $425 million investing in Plant Gorgas since 2010, Alabama Power is now closing the plant, proposing to leave ratepayers in the state on the hook for about $60 million a year for the next 15-20 years.

The Regulators: The regulators must balance the needs of ratepayers with those of the utility. For example, regulators could disallow charges for a plant that is retired and no longer benefitting ratepayers, but this would leave the utility on the hook for the debt—with fewer resources to repay it, which could in turn affect the utility’s credit rating and make future projects more expensive. On the other hand, why should ratepayers face higher bills to pay for utility profits on uneconomic and no-longer-operating power plants?

Workers and Local Officials: Especially in rural communities, the coal plant may be the only major employer and account for a huge portion of the community’s or the county’s economic activity and tax base. What jobs will be available to workers after the plant’s closure? What resources will be available for retraining? How will the community make up for lost tax revenues that pay for schools, police, and social services? Local officials must grapple with real-world, almost existential questions like these in already-stretched-thin local budgets.

Community Environmental Advocates: Fenceline communities support the plant’s closure to reduce air pollution that harms public health. They also want to ensure cleanup of the mess left behind in the aftermath of the plant’s closure—including in the form of toxic coal ash ponds that have caused widespread contamination of nearby groundwater. And with foresight, plant workers facing an uncertain future can get to work on remediation of the site.

And then there’s the question of how to ensure that the plant is replaced by clean energy to reduce heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change, and to avoid a whole new round of stranded assets further down the line in the form of natural gas infrastructure. So, how to balance all these competing interests?

Multiple wins—if done right

What if there were a way to align these different perspectives and come up with a solution that works for most, if not all, stakeholders? In certain situations, a financial instrument called securitization can do just that. Securitization is akin to refinancing the mortgage on your home to a lower interest rate—which lowers your payments on the loan. To enable regulators to use securitization, authorizing legislation must be passed by the state.

So how does it work?

Securitization allows the utility, with proper oversight by the regulators, to refinance the remaining debt on the coal plant, and achieve a lower interest rate. The debt is repaid through ratepayer-backed bonds. The utility finances the bonds—which are used to repay the remaining debt—through irrevocable charges to ratepayers. Because this is considered a very safe investment, the interest rate on this type of bond is typically 3-4 percent (compared to 7-8 percent or higher for interest rate on the original debt).

This means that ratepayers save money—not just through the lower interest rate but also because customers are no longer paying for the utility to earn a profit on those (bad) investments.

And the beauty of this solution is that some of the savings can be shared with the workers and communities who will suffer the loss of jobs and tax base from the closure of the plant. This money can be used for worker retraining and community economic development, for example.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not an accounting gimmick—implemented with proper oversight and forethought, securitization can work to the advantage of all stakeholders. Want to read more details? Check out this series of reports on the subject.

Risks and best practices

Admittedly, it’s not as simple as I’ve made it sound (and it took me a lot of words to describe the “simple” explanation).

The main thing to keep in mind is that ratepayers are on the hook for the bill. So, implementing securitization requires thoughtful legislation and strong regulatory oversight. It is essential that an independent advisor is empowered to represent ratepayers in the case to ensure that they’re getting a good deal. The details of how the finances pencil out are critical to striking the right balance between the interests of shareholders, ratepayers, and the impacted workers and communities.

Securitization also can’t solve all problems brought by the transition away from coal. For example, there are limits to the amount of funds available, and challenges remain for mining communities when plants and mines are not directly linked.

And all of this is a cautionary tale, warning us collectively of the dangers of stranded assets—and to avoid the same mistake with natural gas in the future.

New Mexico emerges as clean energy leader

New Mexico just became the fourth jurisdiction in the United States, following California, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, to commit to 100 percent clean energy.

But state leaders did more than that—they just demonstrated how to use securitization as way to break the logjam—proactively working to ensure that closure of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station does not leave coal workers and coal communities behind, while at the same time setting clean energy targets as strong any other state. As part of the bill that the governor signed just last week, New Mexico jumps from 20 percent renewable electricity in 2020 to 50 percent renewables by 2030 and 80 percent renewables by 2040—with a commitment to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045.

These strong clean energy commitments have been coupled with securitization to facilitate the fair and cost-effective closure of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) in 2022. New Mexico’s law provides on the order of $40 million in transition assistance to workers and communities in the affected region. It will ensure that some of the replacement power will be built in the area to lessen the loss in taxes from the closure of the coal plant—critical to local institutions like the school district.

Other states including Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, and Montana are considering similar legislation. When the right confluence of factors comes together, and when policy makers are clear headed about balancing different and often competing priorities, smart policy can be developed.

Photo: WildEarth Guardians/Flickr