Today is a pretty big day in the world of U.S. environmental policy. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral argument on state challenges to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan.” The Plan, promulgated under existing Clean Air Act authority, represents one of the centerpieces of the Obama Administration’s efforts to combat climate change. It also underlies the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate agreement signed in December.
So the stakes are high. Folks were lining up early to get a spot in the courtroom today, as Denise Grab of NYU Law’s Policy Institute tweeted at 5:30am:
— Denise Grab (@denisegrab) September 27, 2016
The court debate will hinge on whether or not the EPA is limited to only regulating sources like power plants “behind the fence line” — in other words, only requiring on-site emissions reductions technologies — or whether the EPA can require grid-wide emissions reduction policies, like cap-and-trade or energy efficiency programs.
My UCLA Law colleagues Ann Carlson and Cara Horowitz, along with William Boyd (University of Colorado Law), describe the basic argument here on Legal Planet:
The Clean Power Plan uses the grid’s interconnectedness to reduce power-sector emissions in an efficient, effective way. The Plan would cut carbon dioxide emissions significantly by 2030 – to about a third below 2005 levels. The rule justifies that level of reduction by calculating, among other things, the potential for shifting generation toward low- and zero-emitting sources and away from coal-fired power plants. Yet the coal industry and conservative attorneys general who are challenging the CPP claim that we should ignore the interconnected electricity machine and treat its component parts – power plants – separately.
The case magnifies the intensity of the coming presidential election. Regardless of the outcome today, the case will likely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Due to a Republican senate blockade on Merrick Garland, President Obama’s pick to fill the open seat from Antonin Scalia’s death last February, the court only has eight justices. A 4-4 tie on this appeal will let the circuit court opinion stand.
So whichever candidate is elected president and fills that seat (or causes Republicans to buckle and confirm Garland in the lame duck session) will have a major impact on the national and international climate fight.
And as last night’s presidential debate showed, the candidates diverge sharply on this issue. Hillary Clinton was the only candidate to mention clean energy jobs and attack Donald Trump for his past statements on climate change as a hoax by the Chinese to gain a competitive advantage. He denied making that claim, but his 2012 tweet says otherwise. Meanwhile, his campaign manager affirmed today that he doesn’t believe in the science that humans are causing climate change.
So the choice could not be clearer on this issue in November. And the court decision stemming from oral argument today will loom large, regardless of how much the media pays attention to climate change during this campaign.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers has been making noise in the past year about how local restrictions on housing across the country has created a national economic drag. But now the council has come out swinging pretty hard against these “not-in-my-backyard” local policies.
In a new “Housing Development Toolkit” [PDF], the White House summarizes how the rise in local land use restrictions has hurt housing affordability across the country by restricting supply. It cites studies showing “sharp increases in zoning and other land use restrictions” in cities as diverse as Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But special attention was placed on Los Angeles:
Though popular coverage of these challenges has been most focused on the Bay Area, Seattle, and major East Coast cities, Los Angeles provides a clear illustration of the impact of the primary barrier to development – restrictive zoning. In 1960, Los Angeles was zoned to accommodate 10 million people; after decades of population growth and increased demand, the city is today zoned for only 4.3 million people.
And what are the consequences of all these local restrictions? Well, it’s driven up rents and home prices in high-wage cities, which makes being poor in America even tougher:
In just the last 10 years, the number of very low-income renters paying more than half their income for rent has increased by almost 2.5 million households, to 7.7 million nationwide, in part because barriers to housing development are limiting housing supply.
And even for those who aren’t poor, the housing supply shortage appears to have significantly curtailed economic growth:
A recent study noted that in theoretical models of mobility, economic research suggests our Gross Domestic Product would have been more than 10 percent higher in 2009 if workers and capital had freely moved so that the relative wage distribution remained at its 1964 level. Most of this loss in wages and productivity is caused by increased constraints to housing supply in high-productivity regions, including zoning regulations and other local rules.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that those who are fortunate enough to own a home in high-wage metropolitan areas simply don’t want to let others have the same opportunity. As council chair Jason Furman pens in an accompanying op-ed in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:
But in other cases, barriers to housing development can allow a small number of individuals to enjoy the benefits of living in a community while excluding many others, limiting diversity and economic mobility.
In short, housing restrictions have become a key tool to maintain economic (and racial) segregation in our society.
Missing from this discussion, of course, is also the severe environmental impacts of this constrained growth. Because if growth isn’t happening in our low-emissions urban core, it’s going to be pushed out to sprawl areas, resulting in lost open space and more pollution from long driving commutes.
The White House report offers solutions, summarized in this bullet point list and expanded in the text of the report:
- Establishing by-right development
- Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
- Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
- Eliminate off-street parking requirements
- Allowing accessory dwelling units
- Establishing density bonuses
- Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
- Employing inclusionary zoning
- Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
- Using property tax abatements
All of these ideas are good ones and have been attempted and/or implemented to various degrees by cities and states around the country. But missing in the report is any discussion of a federal role to encourage adoption of these policies. Land use policies are inherently local, and locals won’t give up that sovereignty easily.
So what can the federal government do? Well, given the amount of infrastructure the federal government funds (albeit at a decreasing amount over the past few decades), it could use the power of the purse to motivate better state and local land use decisions. Basically, no more highway and transit dollars for communities that restrict housing growth. The federal government could also convert the federal gas tax to a “vehicle miles traveled” fee, in order to tackle the severe economic and environmental impacts of long commutes.
To be sure, this report is a great start and provides important political momentum to tackle a growing national crisis. Let’s hope the next step will involve actions to motivate better decision-making at the state — and especially local — levels. Because right now the constituencies against change are much more powerful and loud than those advocating for solutions.
I hear opponents of density sometimes argue that Americans don’t want to live in tiny, high-rise apartment “rabbit hutches” like we see in Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore. We want our space and a little “elbow room,” and we don’t want Soviet-style planners telling us where to live.
Yet the market seems to be telling a different story. In housing- and space-constrained cities like San Francisco, the “micro-housing” movement has begun to take hold. Berkeley infill developer Patrick Kennedy has pioneered the product and is now advocating for these units to be built as a solution to the homeless problem in San Francisco.
Now the movement is even spreading to Sacramento, a city without the quite-so-high rents as San Francisco but nonetheless an expensive place with a housing shortage. It’s a great example of how these units can be perfect for millennials and others who don’t need or want a giant space:
I spent 8 years after college living in an apartment that was less than 400 square feet, and I didn’t mind. It was easy to heat and cool, prevented me from buying stuff I didn’t need and couldn’t fit, and had a certain cozy charm. Perhaps more importantly, it allowed me to live in a great area (Santa Monica) without the high rent.
It’s good to see the market provide these opportunities. But it’s also worth noting that part of the reason the economics can work on these tiny places is that so many local governments prohibit more standard types of high-density housing from being built.
That supply shortage drives up home prices and rents and leaves the next generation out-of-luck when it comes to landing an affordable place near jobs and services.
One of the keys to passing SB 32 (Pavley), the landmark 2030 climate change legislation the legislature approved this year, is that the California economy has thrived since AB 32 (Nunez) passed in 2006. As many climate advocates have noted, despite lowering emissions on a per capita and aggregate level for over a decade, California’s economy is growing at one of the fastest clips in the nation.
All of this economic activity happened despite numerous regulatory and statutory programs to rein in carbon emissions, including cap-and-trade, renewable energy mandates, energy efficiency standards, and the low-carbon fuel standard. And the state is on pace to meet the AB 32 2020 goals, which requires a return to 1990 levels of emissions (about a 15% reduction from business as usual).
In short, this progress has deflated the typical conservative objections to environmental regulations, that they will be economy crushers and job killers. Here’s a summary of the good news, as Debra Kahn reports in ClimateWire (pay-walled):
Meanwhile, California’s economy since 2006 has jumped from the eighth- to the sixth-largest in the world. Yet the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it produces per person, as well as per dollar of gross domestic product, have fallen. Since 2001, state agencies have reported, its carbon emissions per unit of GDP have fallen 28 percent. Last year, the state was home to 68 percent of all clean technology investment nationwide and led in clean-tech patent registrations, as well, according to environmental advocacy group Next 10. And from 2007 to 2015, California outstripped the United States as a whole in job growth and personal income, according to an analysis released in June by Chapman University.
But the celebration shouldn’t get too loud, at least not yet. It’s clear that the state has benefited from some unusual trends that has made it both easier to meet the emissions goals and to grow the economy in a carbon-lite way. First, the economic recession in 2009 put a significant damper on emissions with a slower economy:
“California had a pretty soft economy for many years after its goal was set,” said Severin Borenstein, an economics professor at UC Berkeley and a member of a committee that the California Air Resources Board (ARB) set up in 2012-13 to advise it on the design of its cap-and-trade market. “Although it’s heating up now, we will easily make the 2020 goal, and that will in large part be due to the weak economy for many years.”
Second, the state’s economy has grown in emission-lite industries:
Since 2009, California has lost 1 percent of its manufacturing jobs, compared to 3.7 percent growth in the United States as a whole. During the same period, California’s information services sector grew 10.9 percent, compared to a 1.4 percent decline nationwide, according to Chapman’s June analysis.
We’ve essentially pushed many energy-intensive industries out of state, while benefiting from a boom in services industry like tech, which has made it much easier to meet these carbon-reduction goals.
To be sure, I would also credit the thoughtful, measured approach of many of California’s climate programs and regulations. And of course we have to credit the innovation in the private sector, bringing down the costs of solar PV and batteries and scaling up electric vehicles and low-carbon biofuels, among others.
But as we head into a post-SB 32 world of 40 percent reductions by 2030, the state may not be so lucky with these larger economic trends going forward. It doesn’t mean we should change the approach, but it means we should be honest about what it takes to decarbonize an entire economy and do everything we can to continue bringing down the costs of the technologies that will help us achieve those goals.
Part of the point of AB 32 was to begin the process of “bending the curve” on emissions and clean tech costs. We’re seeing that happen. But to continue on this path through 2030 without costing the economy significantly (and thereby undermining public support), we’ll need further price declines and massive gains in energy efficiency. It’s all doable, but it still remains an open question as to how much and how soon.
Until then, we may need to inject some notes of caution into an otherwise positive picture, so far.
It’s a question I’ve asked myself since Tesla made a splash with its “Powerwall” concept. It sounds super clean tech, after all: rooftop solar plus a battery feels like a 100% clean energy solution and a way to say goodbye to the utility.
But battery prices really aren’t low enough yet to be practical for this kind of use, and most solar PV arrays can’t generate enough power throughout the year to allow consumers to go completely off grid.
So we mostly hear about batteries as a backup option or for providing other grid services. Certainly batteries paired with solar (or standalone) can make a lot of sense for certain business customers, because they can get hit with incredibly high demand charges at certain times of the billing cycle. A battery that kicks in to supply power during those moments, rather than having the customer continue to draw power from the grid, can therefore save a lot of money.
But the same rates don’t apply to residential customers. Yes, homeowners typically face higher rates the more electricity they use in a billing cycle, but they don’t experience sudden huge charges, seemingly at random times. If they did, and they could program a battery to kick in during those moments, the cost of the battery would surely pencil over time.
Yet there are some exceptions. Residential customers with solar PV who live in states like Hawaii or Nevada with reduced rooftop solar incentives may need to get battery backups to enhance or rescue their solar PV investment. But even then, the economics probably don’t work so well.
And perhaps the biggest exception: those who want backup power in case of outages. If you live in an area prone to blackouts or in a remote area with fragile or even no access to the grid, or if even a single blackout would cause significant damage or disruption, backup power of some kind could make a lot of sense. Batteries could help meet that backup power need. But still: it’s so much cheaper and easier to simply get a diesel generator.
With this thought process in mind, I’ve largely dismissed the potential market for residential backup battery storage. So I was interested to read about a battery company representative who says his company makes most of its sales precisely on supplying backup power. Greentech Media reported on battery maker Sonnen, and a recent presentation from senior technical trainer Greg Smith:
This is an emotional sell, totally an emotional sell,” Smith said. “You get this system… [that's] keeping your refrigerator on, so you get cold beer, you’ve got your phones that are charging so you’re connected to the world, and you can have lights. It’s a comforting thought.”
Lithium-ion batteries are relatively new for the home-use market, and concepts like self-consumption and time-of-use electricity rates are still confusing to a lot of people. Everybody understands the concept of backup power, however, and that use case tends to resonate with residential customers.
Sonnen took that and ran with it. The company website prominently displays the pitch “Never worry about the lights going out” as a reason to buy. It has discovered evocative and emotionally resonant case studies, like that of an elderly woman whose Sonnen battery kept her house powered when the rest of her neighborhood had gone dark. She invited everyone over to charge their phones and drink lemonade. That sense of safety and security doesn’t fit neatly into the ledgers.
But what about diesel generators as a cheaper alternative?
Lithium-ion can also do certain things the incumbents can’t. It’s got a smaller footprint, cleaner chemistry and longer cycle life than lead-acid batteries. And, unlike diesel generators, it doesn’t belch pollutants into the air and subject its owners to a clamorous din while operating.
More crucially, though, diesel generators still rely on diesel, and the kind of situations that knock out power for days on end also tend to shut down gas stations. Case in point: the nuclear reactors in Fukushima melted down not because of earthquake damage, but due to loss of power that shut off the reactor cooling mechanisms. The plant’s diesel generators failed to save the day because they were flooded by the tsunami, which also washed their diesel fuel tank out to sea. A diesel generator alone does not guarantee resilience.
It also can’t keep solar panels running. Customers who have batteries paired with rooftop solar installation enjoy an entirely different outlook. Grid-tied rooftop solar shuts down when the grid cuts out, but Sonnen’s home energy system isolates itself in a temporary microgrid. That allows the solar modules to recharge the battery each day, and it keeps the home operating at a 21st-century standard of living until grid power is restored.
It’s an interesting counter example of success in backup power, but in some ways it proves my point. Batteries still have to be an “emotional sell,” and there will necessarily be limits to the size of that kind of market, if the numbers aren’t there. As Greentech Media noted just a few days after running this story, the market may be as small as just 2 percent of customers, based on a recent survey.
Still, an emotional appeal can matter. And more importantly, as states around the country scale back rooftop solar incentives and as battery prices continue to drop, my guess is we’ll see this market grow from tiny to potentially quite lucrative.
And in the end, more energy storage like batteries, sprinkled around the grid, will help us meet our goals for a low-carbon electricity system, while saving customers money at the same time. We’re just not quite there yet.
It’s looking pretty fair to expect some big things from the Chevy Bolt EV, the first mass-market electric vehicle due out later this year.
Road Show’s editor-in-chief drove a pre-production Bolt from Monterey to Santa Barbara and reviewed it by video along the way. For those keeping score, that’s 240 miles on a single charge. It’s worth watching the video in full:
It’s looking more and more like Tesla just got scooped big time by Chevy on the mass-market EV.
But it’s also worth noting that Chevy has some serious advantages over Tesla. In addition to the production scale that Chevy can achieve in-house, it has the ironic advantage of selling a lot of dirty cars. The New York Times has a fascinating account of how Chevy beat out Tesla, and they cite this advantage:
Finally, G.M. enjoys the regulatory advantage of producing a fleet. Because the high-mileage, zero-emission Bolt helps the company stay under the federal government’s fuel-economy standards, it perversely allows G.M. to keep selling more profitable, gas-guzzling cars, like the Tahoe S.U.V. As a result, G.M. could lose money on each Bolt and still find the overall project valuable to its bottom line.
Tesla may benefit from a lot of zero emission vehicle credits from other automakers, but this regulatory quirk of fleet average emissions certainly benefits big automakers like Chevy over cleaner companies like Tesla.
But in the end, the more mass-market EVs on the road, the better — for both the consumer and the environment.
Driverless cars, or autonomous vehicles, have been making headlines recently, as companies as diverse as Google, Tesla, GM, Lyft, and Uber are making big bets. These companies foresee a future with vehicles that can drive themselves, leaving the driver to do anything but drive. The autonomous capability could also allow people to summon vehicles that they “rent” like a Netflix subscription, instead of owning and parking for most the of the day.
We already see the technology introduced in Teslas and other vehicles, starting with smaller features like self-parking and automatic braking.
But as we move to a world of full autonomy, the future could either be very bright or very dark. On the bright side, a reduction in car ownership could lead to freed space for more housing and pedestrian spacing. Car accidents could be a thing of the past, while vehicles could be “right-sized” for each trip and more efficient and lighter without the need for safety features.
On the dark side, autonomy could lead to a significant uptick in driving miles, as well as more sprawl and congestion. This could lead to more pollution and loss of open space.
- Dorothy Glancy, J.D., Professor of Law at Santa Clara University
- Gerry Tierney, Associate Principal at Perkins + Will
- Susan Shaheen, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center and Adjunct Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley
For those not in the Bay Area, you can tune in via live streaming. Hope you can join, and feel free to call in or email with your comments for us to address on the air.
UPDATE: audio is now posted here.
ARPA-E just might save the world. And you probably never heard of it. As I wrote back in January 2015 (okay, I’ll just quote myself here):
Why is ARPA-E so important? Because this Department of Energy group is searching out and funding those moonshot — or sunshot — technologies that will give us the energy breakthroughs we need to fight climate change. If we’re going to find the better battery to finally wean us off oil and into electric drives, or build the cheap energy storage device to capture surplus renewables and truly decarbonize the grid, or make our solar panels even more efficient and cheap, chances are ARPA-E will be involved in making that happen.
Now the agency, on the occasion of its seventh birthday, is releasing a report detailing some of its successes. Per Utility Dive:
Since 2009, ARPA-E has provided $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects. Of those, 45 have gone on to raise $1.25 billion in publicly-reported private sector funding.
“ARPA-E fills a critical gap in the innovation ecosystem, investing to de-risk and accelerate the development of high risk, high impact technologies that would otherwise find it difficult to secure investment,” said Jesse Jenkins, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“This is an essential role for government to step into, helping bridge the ‘technological valley of death,’ a consistent dearth of private sector funding that impedes the translation of promising research into commercial technologies,” he added.
The article describes a few examples, particularly with battery systems and other energy storage technologies. These funded projects include hybrid fuel cells, zinc-air batteries, as well as flywheels and a vegetable-based flow battery developed by Harvard researchers.
This is the kind of agency that the federal government should be funding to the brim, especially with this impressive track record on deployment. It’s also one of the critical issues at stake between a Trump or Clinton victory this fall. If we want to continue on this path and fund the breakthrough clean technologies of the future, the choice is clearly for Clinton.
And in the meantime, the success to date for ARPA-E is a big credit to President Obama and the agency staff. Let’s hope they continue the momentum, as the health of the planet depends on it.
Hawaii and Nevada represent two states pioneering a “post-net metering” world for rooftop solar. Collectively, they’re providing some interesting learning experiences for the rest of the country.
Many other states have traditional net metering, in which any surplus rooftop solar energy you produce for the grid is credited at a full retail rate on your bill. But Hawaii and Nevada utilities have successfully pushed back on that approach, convincing state regulators to diminish or even gut the incentives.
First, Hawaii: the state has significant rooftop solar uptake, with a nation-leading 17% of all customers in the main utility’s service territory. But the utility there has been trying to fight further proliferation with the usual arguments related to reliability and cost.
The state’s regulator has largely followed the utility line, ending net metering and replacing it with two options. The first is a fixed rate payment for surplus power that is less than the full retail credit, called a “grid supply” option. The second is a “self-supply” option that features a minimum bill and only some surplus power allowed back on the grid.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the fixed rate “grid supply” option has been the most popular. But regulators imposed a cap on that program, which the islands have already started to bump up against. As a result, solar companies are lobbying hard for regulators to raise the cap. But even if they raise the cap, the long-term problem isn’t going away.
So that’s why it’s interesting to see the market in Hawaii respond with technology packages to help spur demand for the self-supply option. As Utility Dive reports:
Other solar developers like Sunrun and SolarCity have rolled out offerings aimed at the CSS [self-supply] option. SolarCity’s product is a combination of storage, solar systems and a Nest thermostat, water heater and controller, allowing consumers to use more of their energy onsite.
The savings are significant, according to Mark Dyson from Rocky Mountain Institute. By using the product, customers could “save 33% on their electricity bill, “which amounts to “nearly 80% of the savings that the old NEM arrangement offered.”
Sunrun’s Brightbox is another option. The company teamed up with Tesla to offer solar-plus-storage system, a much simpler one than SolarCity. While the first Brightbox installation occurred earlier this year, the company plans to roll out this offering in full force before the end of the year.
Both offerings could receive a boost if a group of energy storage bills reappear in the next legislative session, bringing down the cost of storage installation through extending tax credits, offering rebates or both.
So in Hawaii, we may end up seeing a combination of smart new policies and technology and financing packages that can make a post net-metering world viable there for distributed clean technology.
Nevada, meanwhile, is pulling back from the brink a bit. The state’s electricity regulators had previously yanked all solar incentives — not just for new customers but for existing ones that already plopped down thousands of dollars (in some cases) for rooftop PV.
But now a deal seems to have been worked out to soften the harsh retrenchment. Per the Reno Gazette-Journal:
NV Energy reached an agreement with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada, Bureau of Consumer Protection and SolarCity to grandfather eligible customers under previous rates for residential rooftop solar that featured lower fees and higher reimbursement rates for the energy produced. The rates were hiked in December and also retroactively applied to existing customers.
“NV Energy’s intent with its grandfathering proposal was to offer a solution for customers who installed or had valid applications to install rooftop solar systems … in the most efficient and timely manner,” the company said in a statement. “We appreciate all parties coming together to expedite the process on behalf of our customers.”
The grandfathering agreement will apply to about 32,000 customers, including those who had a pending application on Dec. 31, 2015. Customers who withdrew a valid application or had their application for the RenewableGenerations expire between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 are eligible to be grandfathered as well. The agreement still must be approved by the PUC, which is expected to vote on it on this week.
It’s a welcome development for those existing customers, who were treated unfairly by the abrupt policy change. But more will be needed to rescue the state’s rooftop solar industry, which has been annihilated by the new policy. Perhaps Nevada may need to consider a policy more like Hawaii’s grid-supply option as a compromise. But in the meantime, a ballot measure backed by the solar industry could reinstate solar incentives, if voters approve.
All in all, both states provide glimpses of a possible future for state rooftop solar incentives. While some experimentation is happening there, at least in Hawaii, it’s clear that they both need to improve their policies to keep rooftop solar — and the environmental benefits that flow from it — alive and well.
Tesla has all the hype and fandom, but Chevy is on pace to actually get it done. The “it” in question is developing a 200-mile range electric vehicle for under $40,000. The higher-mile range at that price is an important threshold for convincing average drivers to go electric with their next purchase.
The Chevy Bolt will feature a 60 kwh battery, and most people assumed that meant a range close to 200 miles, like Tesla’s Model 3. But Chevy just announced the vehicle will in fact have a rated range of 238 miles, compared to the Model 3′s 215 mile rated range.
And even more importantly, the vehicle will be on sale at the end of this year, compared to next year for the Model 3 (if that — given past history of delays, I would expect Tesla to deliver the vehicles in 2018, more likely).
To be sure, the Bolt won’t have a lot of the pizzazz of the Model 3, but it looks to be a solid car that could finally meet most, if not all, of people’s driving needs. Particularly with fast-chargers being deployed at a more rapid clip for long-range trips.
More importantly, it will help solidify consumer demand and industry commitment to driving electric. The future for this technology is bright, and I look forward to a day where air pollution from petroleum-fueled vehicles is a thing of the past.