Union of Concerned ScientistsEnergy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Mon, 16 Jul 2018 18:33:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Energy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 House of Representatives Boosts Massachusetts Clean Energy; What’s Next? https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/house-of-representatives-boosts-massachusetts-clean-energy-whats-next https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/house-of-representatives-boosts-massachusetts-clean-energy-whats-next#comments Fri, 13 Jul 2018 17:24:32 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59792
Photo: John Rogers

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

The house speaks

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

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

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

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

And we’re not done.

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

What’s next: Solar, senate, soon

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

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

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

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

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS
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An Open Letter to the Massachusetts House Leadership: Time for Climate and Energy Action https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/open-letter-massachusetts-house-leadership-climate-energy-action https://blog.ucsusa.org/john-rogers/open-letter-massachusetts-house-leadership-climate-energy-action#respond Tue, 10 Jul 2018 20:38:54 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59732

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

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

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

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

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

What floods may come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership past and future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting the dots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Black Lung Resurgence: Without Action, Taxpayers Will Foot the Medical Bills https://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-richardson/black-lung-resurgence-without-action-taxpayers-will-foot-the-medical-bills https://blog.ucsusa.org/jeremy-richardson/black-lung-resurgence-without-action-taxpayers-will-foot-the-medical-bills#respond Thu, 05 Jul 2018 14:23:07 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59605
Photo: Peabody Energy/Wikimedia Commons

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

Critical benefits to miners and their families

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

The Trust Fund is financed primarily through a per-ton excise tax on coal produced and sold domestically. The original legislation set the tax at 50 cents per ton of underground-mined coal, and 25 cents per ton of surface-mined coal (but limited to 2 percent of the sales price). Unfortunately, Trust Fund expenditures have consistently exceeded revenues, despite several actions by Congress to put the Trust Fund on solid financial footing. In other words, to meet obligations in any given year, administrators are forced to borrow from the U.S. Treasury. Moreover, in 1986 Congress set the levels of the excise tax at $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and $0.55 per ton of surface mined coal (up to a limit of 4.4 percent of the sales price)—but at the end of this year, the tax levels will revert to their original 1978 values. For these reasons, Congress requested a review of the Trust Fund’s finances and future solvency from the General Accounting Office (GAO), an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress to assess federal spending of taxpayer money.

GAO offers a wake-up call

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

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

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

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

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

Assumptions matter

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

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

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

NIOSH and NAS weigh in on science and solutions

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

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

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

Congress must act—and fast

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

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

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

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

UPDATE (5 July 2018): The original version of this post misstated the year when the current coal excise tax was established. The current coal excise tax of $1.10/$0.55 per ton was established in 1986 and extended at current levels in 2008.

Photo: Peabody Energy
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Ever Heard of Microgrids? They’re Awesome—Here’s Why https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/microgrid-examples https://blog.ucsusa.org/julie-mcnamara/microgrid-examples#respond Mon, 02 Jul 2018 14:45:32 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59370

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

Power out, and powerless.

That is astounding.

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

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

Shouldn’t there be a backup plan?

Well for a growing number of people, there is.

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

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

Why microgrids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter microgrids.

Microgrids are…

A power system in miniature.

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

Microgrids come in two main forms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Micro grids, mammoth potential

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

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

And our map just scratches the surface.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dakine kane/Creative Commons (Flickr)
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Judge Should Not Have Deferred to Congress, Executive Branch in Fossil-Fuel Climate Case https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/judge-should-not-have-deferred-to-congress-executive-branch-in-fossil-fuel-climate-case https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/judge-should-not-have-deferred-to-congress-executive-branch-in-fossil-fuel-climate-case#comments Wed, 27 Jun 2018 20:18:47 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59522
U.S. Army photo by Michael J. Nevins

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

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

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

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

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

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

The oil companies knew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courts need to take responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Midwest Transmission Operator Planning for a High-Renewables Future https://blog.ucsusa.org/sam-gomberg/midwest-transmission-operator-planning-for-a-high-renewables-future https://blog.ucsusa.org/sam-gomberg/midwest-transmission-operator-planning-for-a-high-renewables-future#respond Wed, 27 Jun 2018 13:56:24 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59454

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

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

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

A unique approach to answering a common question

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking insight in a time of rapid change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting More Wind and Solar is 100% Possible, But Not 100% Straightforward. Here’s Why https://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-jacobs/renewables-technical-requirements https://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-jacobs/renewables-technical-requirements#respond Mon, 25 Jun 2018 19:25:09 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59408

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

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

Renewables and storage substitute for conventional generation

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

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

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

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

Value beyond wind and solar contributions today

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

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

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

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

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

Adding more wind and solar, or adding more gas?

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

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

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

What is role of fossil fuel in oversupply and curtailments?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s holding back the solutions we can implement?

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

Where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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California Takes Another Run at 100 Percent Clean Electricity https://blog.ucsusa.org/laura-wisland/california-100-percent-clean-electricity https://blog.ucsusa.org/laura-wisland/california-100-percent-clean-electricity#comments Wed, 20 Jun 2018 14:29:46 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59238

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

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

Meeting 100% of California’s electricity needs with zero-carbon resources is a bold goal, but achieving it is within reach. In 2016 California received about 25% of its electricity from eligible renewables. Another 19% came from a combination of nuclear and large hydropower, which are zero-carbon resources that would be eligible under SB 100. Statewide we are already on track to exceed the current RPS requirement of 50% renewables by 2030.

California has led the nation in the transition from coal to clean energy resources and demonstrated that a cleaner electricity system need not come at the price of a growing economy. We have the technology to run a flexible and efficient grid with even more renewables, and the prices for energy storage are coming down. The time is right to double down on this clean energy momentum.

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

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Hey California, Let’s Spare the Air and Turn Down the Gas https://blog.ucsusa.org/laura-wisland/california-natural-gas-sb-64 https://blog.ucsusa.org/laura-wisland/california-natural-gas-sb-64#comments Thu, 14 Jun 2018 14:00:05 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59109
The Glenarm natural gas plant in Pasadena, California. Source: Wikimedia

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

But California still relies on fossil fuels, via natural gas power plants, to provide nearly 40 percent of annual electricity needs. In fact, in-state natural gas generation comprises about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions statewide. Natural gas–fired power plants supply a substantial portion of California’s current electricity demand and support grid reliability, natural gas generation will continue to play a role on California’s electricity grid for some time. But reaching our long-term energy and climate goals means ramping up renewables and at the same time turning down our gas.

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

The solution to this evening ramp problem is to:

  • Build cleaner alternatives to gas that can produce power in the evening
  • Build more energy storage
  • Use load shifting and increased energy efficiency to reduce evening electricity demand
  • Enhance coordination between grid operators to gain access to a larger pool of resources to provide evening electricity needs

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

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

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

  • Require generators to provide data on the hourly change in emissions, startups, shutdowns, and cycling. Many plants are required to report hourly emissions data to the US EPA, but the data is not in a user-friendly format and it’s difficult to ascertain how power plant operations are changing over time without some complex analysis. More accessible information about how power plants are actually operating, as opposed to how they were predicted to operate when they were first permitted, is an essential first step to better decisions about how dispatch of natural gas power plants are impacting local air quality.
  • Require local air districts to analyze, using this data, how power plants are currently operating and likely to operate in the future, to ensure changing operations are properly considered in applicable permits.
  • Require the state to plan for how it will reduce natural gas generation and accelerate the eventual retirement of gas plants, placing a priority on reducing natural gas generation in communities most impacted by air pollution.

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

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

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Acceso equitativo a la energía solar en Massachusetts, en manos del Senado https://blog.ucsusa.org/paula-garcia/acceso-equitativo-a-la-energia-solar-en-massachusetts-en-manos-del-senado https://blog.ucsusa.org/paula-garcia/acceso-equitativo-a-la-energia-solar-en-massachusetts-en-manos-del-senado#respond Wed, 13 Jun 2018 13:33:24 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59126
Las instalaciones solares compartidas se han convertido en una alternativa para brindar acceso a la energía solar para todos permitiendo sacar ventaja de las economías de gran escala. (Fuente: Wikimedia)

ACTUALIZACIÓN (6/15/18): Triunfo! Anoche el Senado de forma unánime aprobó un robusto y comprensivo Proyecto de Ley de energía y clima. El estado puede sentirse orgulloso este Proyecto de Ley. Ahora a triunfar en la Cámara de Representantes!

ACTUALIZACIÓN (6/13/18): El Senado está votando una Ley sobre energía limpia mañana. Si vive en Massachusetts contacte su Senador/a y haga oir su voz. Puede enviarle un email (en inglés acá) o aún mejor, llamarle (números telefónicos acá).

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

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

Las instalaciones solares compartidas en Massachusetts

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

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

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

El brillo de la solar:en las manos del Senado

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

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

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

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