Three-Inch Sea Level Rise Since 1992, With More To Come

According to NASA satellite data:

The agency says that we’ve seen 3 inches of global sea level increase since the year 1992 — with large regional variation — and a further rise of three feet has likely been “locked in” by warming that has already occurred. Other scientists have recently suggested that we may be about to unleash considerably more than that.

“The data shows that sea level is rising faster than it was 50 years ago, and it’s very likely to get worse in the future,”  Steve Nerem, who leads NASA’s new Sea Level Change Team, said in a press call Wednesday.

The Greenland ice sheets alone could raise sea levels 20 feet, if they melt completely.

I’m sure climate deniers will try to attack the messengers here, arguing that the satellite data is untrustworthy or that NASA scientists wills somehow personally profit from skewing these results.

Instead, I’d rather they read a recent peer-reviewed study showing that the lone 3% of scientific reports casting doubt on climate science appear to have significant flaws, like cherry-picked data and conclusions that can’t be replicated.  Not that facts matter of course.

Here Come “Flexiwatts”

nest_thermostatPart of securing big social and economic changes is simply marketing.  And in the world of energy, we have a challenge with a confusing, jargon-filled economic and technological system.  So it’s hard to reach the public with some of the big changes needed to achieve a clean grid with new renewable-oriented technologies.

With that in mind, it’s somewhat encouraging to see a new term — “Flexiwatts” — to describe the otherwise clunky “demand response.”  While “demand response” may not make much sense on the surface, it refers to a critical concept: the idea that electricity users adjust their usage based on grid needs and price signals.  This simple-sounding idea can make a huge difference reducing the need for the dirtiest power on the hottest days and also to integrat intermittent solar and wind energy.

Here’s the concept: when solar production peaks mid-day, users are encouraged to run most of their appliances, ideally through automation.  Think of your networked dryer essentially being told to run by the grid at that time, when electricity prices hit bottom.  And then when solar production tails off later in the day, maybe your devices wait to charge or your refrigerator slightly delays a cycle.

The result?  The grid becomes cleaner and ratepayers save money by using the cheapest electricity the most and avoiding the expensive, dirty energy.

“Flexiwatts” can help communicate this idea to gain public support, as Chris Mooney at the Washington Post reports on a new Rocky Mountain Institute study:

“In the residential sector alone, widespread implementation of demand flexibility can save 10–15% of potential grid costs, and customers can cut their electric bills 10–40% with rates and technologies that exist today,” says the Rocky Mountain Institute report. “Roughly 65 million customers already have potentially appropriate opt-in rates available, so the aggregate market is large and will only grow with further rollout of granular retail pricing.”

Key to enabling demand flexibility are in-home “smart devices” — notably smart thermostats and programmable timers for dryers, hot water heaters, electric vehicle chargers, and other large consumers of energy. Some already exist, like Google’s Nest Thermostat.

Coupled with better ratemaking and these new networked appliances, hopefully we can soon see “flexiwatts” take hold in widespread fashion.

Then next up? “Negawatts” — or saved energy from efficiency measures. But that’s another story.

The Battle Over Rooftop Solar And California’s Electricity Rates

commercial-solar-panels1Over at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), regulators are having a tough time fending off utility efforts to severely curtail rooftop solar.  Legislation passed in 2013 requires the CPUC to engage in a new rate-making process, which has already resulted in rates that eliminate the expensive top tiers that encouraged high-consuming ratepayers to go solar.

But now, according to Greentech Media, new utility proposals promise to limit customer incentives to go solar even more:

PG&E and SCE…want to pay [solar] net-metered customers quite a bit less for the power they feed back to the grid, by paying a rate based on the cost of generating power. That’s similar to a proposal floated by Hawaiian Electric earlier this year.

But these reduced rates don’t take into account the value that net-metered solar provides, [Sunun's Robert] Harris said. That could come from reduced transmission and distribution grid costs, or replacing the power that would otherwise need to come from new natural-gas-fired power plants.

PG&E noted that a typical solar customer would see a relatively small reduction in monthly bill savings, from 60 percent under today’s rules to about 50 percent under its proposal. But for companies like SolarCity and Sunrun, small reductions multiplied across tens of thousands of customers can add up to big financial impacts.

Even more problematic are the new charges the utilities want to impose on net-metered customers, Harris said. Specifically, PG&E has proposed a $3 per kilowatt-per-month demand charge, based on the one moment during each month that a customer’s energy use reaches its highest peak, while SCE has proposed a $3 per kilowatt-per-month “grid access charge” based on the size of the solar system being connected to the grid.

Severin Borenstein at UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute puts in all into perspective:

Economists have for years argued that utility rate design should follow cost causation principles, because departures from cost will lead to inefficient customer response.  Regulators have often paid little heed largely because the inefficiency was small when customer ability to respond was limited.  That left regulators a free hand to harness rates for pursuit of other policy agendas.

Distributed generation, storage, electric vehicle charging, and smart customer-side usage technologies (think controllable communicating thermostats) mean that the inefficiencies from sloppy rate design – prices that depart substantially from cost – will be magnified.

But the flip side is that the opportunity to incent efficient customer-side participation in the market with smart rate design is greater than ever.  And that opportunity will grow exponentially in the next few years as we see continued improvement in generation technologies, batteries, and sensors that can control a panoply of household activities.  Accurate cost-based pricing can not only lower costs, but can also use customer-side participation to gain the flexibility that will be required to integrate more wind and solar power.

If we follow Borenstein’s logic, what the CPUC should really do is set flexible, dynamic rates that reflect that actual cost of providing electricity, and then communicate those price changes to ratepayers instantly, particularly via wired, networked appliances that can adjust demand based on price.

And if the cost figures take into account impacts like pollution from fossil fuel-based power, that could provide a big boost to clean technologies, while protecting ratepayers from inefficient rates.

Incredible Waste — And Opportunities For Renewables — In Saudi Arabia

Jeffrey Ball of the Atlantic profiles solar boosters in Saudi Arabia of all places, a country whose energy abundance has led to unparalleled waste:

Saudi Arabia produces much of its electricity by burning oil, a practice that most countries abandoned long ago, reasoning that they could use coal and natural gas instead and save oil for transportation, an application for which there is no mainstream alternative. Most of Saudi Arabia’s power plants are colossally inefficient, as are its air conditioners, which consumed 70 percent of the kingdom’s electricity in 2013. Although the kingdom has just 30 million people, it is the world’s sixth-largest consumer of oil.

Now, Saudi rulers say, things must change. Their motivation isn’t concern about global warming; the last thing they want is an end to the fossil-fuel era. Quite the contrary: they see investing in solar energy as a way to remain a global oil power.

The Saudis burn about a quarter of the oil they produce—and their domestic consumption has been rising at an alarming 7 percent a year, nearly three times the rate of population growth. According to a widely read December 2011 report by Chatham House, a British think tank, if this trend continues, domestic consumption could eat into Saudi oil exports by 2021 and render the kingdom a net oil importer by 2038.

Ball describes a country so awash in cheap energy that its buildings lack insulation, while air conditioners run 24/7, even when residents are on vacation.

640x392_45631_239860Obviously the motivation to go solar isn’t based on their concern for the climate. After all, Saudi Arabia has become rich selling and burning all the oil resources under their feet. But it does show that the Kingdom may be concerned about its domestic supply and the future of the international market for oil.

One day, I suspect, the future rulers of an impoverished Saudi Arabia will wonder why their forebears wasted the country’s treasure on air conditioning and SUVs, when they could have invested in world-class universities and infrastructure to become a sustainable global power.

But then again, maybe this push to renewables will usher in a new and better era for both the Saudis and the world that consumes their petroleum products.  We can only hope.

40-60% Price Plunge For Batteries By 2020?
Tesla's PowerWall will be leading the charge on cheap batteries.

Tesla’s PowerWall will be leading the charge on cheap batteries.

A report from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency this month indicates it’s likely:

The 130-page report prepared by AECOM predicts a “mega-shift” to energy storage adoption, driven by demand – from both the supply side, as networks work to adapt to increasing distributed and renewable energy capacity, and from consumers wishing to store their solar energy – and by the rapidly changing economic proposition; a proposition, the report says, that will see the costs of lithium-ion batteries fall by 60 per cent in less than five years, and by 40 per cent for flow batteries.

This projection is more bullish than most analyses I’ve seen, which suggest price declines of 8-10% a year. If true, the impact on both our energy and transportation system will be enormous. Cheap batteries paired with solar will lead to customer “grid defections” from utilities, plus a proliferation of microgrids that can run independent of the grid. And of course electric vehicles will become ubiquitous with the cheaper price and better range.

Another reminder that batteries are the most critical clean technology right now in the effort to decarbonize our economy.

A Love Letter To Electricity Co-Ops

Hawaii_solar_photovoltaic_panels_on_a_roof_Image_Hawaii_State_Separtment_of_EducationIf you’re not part of an electricity co-op, you should wish you were:

Only about one in eight American houses and businesses gets electricity from a cooperative — and on average, they pay about $500 less a year for the privilege.

Unregulated by public commissions and unfettered by shareholders, electricity co-ops answer to their customers, who elect the companies’ boards. This structure, and their smaller size, allows co-ops to be more flexible, coming up with new and innovative ways to embrace the future of energy, advocates say.

The upside, as the article describes, is that co-ops can be much more flexible when it comes to renewable power. My first professional experience with them was in Hawaii, where the island of Kauai has a co-op that is much cheaper, more innovative, and more renewable-powered than the investor-owned utility operations on other islands.

The deal is so good on Kauai that many people on other islands, particularly on Molokai, would like to follow suit. A co-op can better reflect community priorities than investor-owned utilities, and in the case of Molokai, that means more clean generation sources like pumped hydro, wind and solar that aren’t imported from off-island.

Overall, when you see the lower ratepayer costs with co-ops and municipal utilities, not to mention their often more aggressive policies on renewables and other clean technologies, it’s hard not to wonder why the public tolerates privately-owned electric utilities at all.

What Santa Monica NIMBYs Have Wrought

JpegThe sad saga of the doomed transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly complex at the former Papermate site, adjacent to the new Santa Monica Expo Line, just got sadder.

After wealthy no-growthers in Santa Monica torpedoed the badly needed housing and office proposal, the new site owners are building a bunch of office lameness:

The Bergamot Transit Village saga is likely to end this week with a whimper as plans to turn the seven-acre site, once slated to become a mixed-use neighborhood across from the Expo Line 26th Street station, into a suburban-style office park continue to move forward.

The new plans, which the Architectural Review Board (ARB) will consider today, call for simply reoccupying the abandoned Papermate factory as office space as well as adding an additional 7,400 square feet to the existing buildings, bringing the total amount of office space to 204,000 square feet.

The plans will also add a one-story subterranean parking structure to the site, according the city’s website. It is still unclear if Clarion will add a sidewalk on the south side — facing the Expo Metro Rail station — of the parcel where there currently isn’t one. It also looks as though the new plans won’t  be breaking up the superblock on which the former Papermate factory sits.

So no new housing, no pedestrian options, and no new neighborhood to take advantage of the multi-billion dollar transit line.

This outcome is a good example of how local politics is making California unaffordable and unlivable for future generations.

Google Lets You Calculate Your Rooftop Solar Potential

project-sunroof-580x358Google continues its experimentation with clean energy, launching a pilot project to let homeowners view their solar rooftop potential:

The service will calculate how much sunlight hits any given rooftop throughout the year, taking into account shade from trees, the angle of the building and other nearby properties that may create a shadow. It can also tell the user how much they could expect to save on their energy bills by installing solar PV and then point them to a nearby installer.

The idea was developed by Google employee Carl Elkin, who said he hoped the scheme would encourage more people to invest in solar PV.

Project Sunroof, as it’s called, could end up encouraging people to go solar who might have otherwise dismissed the potential on their rooftop.

For example, I had a friend from Portland, Oregon who was convinced solar wouldn’t work for his house, due to the cloudy weather there. I told him to get some solar bids just in case it could work.  But with this service he could do a much-simpler Google check. It will save him the hassle of calling solar installers, waiting for them to show up, and then sorting through bids and presentations.

This kind of low-lift site could lower customer acquisition costs for solar installers and encourage a whole lot more people to go solar.

Republican Plan To Combat Climate Change In California: Build More Dams

Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker finally weighed in on climate change last week in Nevada, and their big plan for California to cope with it? More dams:

Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co. who ran against U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010, said it “may well be true” that climate change has worsened effects of the drought. Like many Republicans, however, she blamed environmentalists and their Democratic allies for blocking the construction of dams in the state.

“California has had droughts for millennia,” Fiorina told The Bee. “And so knowing that, you would think that you would prepare for droughts by building reservoirs and water conveyance systems so that you could save the rainwater during years when there’s a lot of rain.”

I suppose it’s a typical Republican line of thought: we shouldn’t ask anyone to moderate their consumption at all — just boost supply. They take the same tack on energy — drive all you want, we’ll drill more!

But the problem is that a growing population, coupled with projections for more and severe droughts, makes expanding water storage unrealistic as a long-term solution.  Not to mention that building dams is extremely expensive, while the more fiscally conservative path would be to encourage cheap conservation measures.  And this doesn’t even account for the environmental destruction associated with building more dams.

Bottom line: not only do these candidates not take the science of climate change seriously, their proposed solutions are impractical, expensive, and destructive.

A Bright Future With LED Bulbs

4-Led-BulbThe simple fix of switching out old light bulbs to LEDs is making a major dent in demand on the nation’s power grid:

The nation’s largest grid, serving more than 61 million customers from Washington to Chicago, is revising its demand forecasts after recognizing that better lighting has undercut its projections. Swapping all of Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulbs with lamps containing light emitting diodes, or LEDs, would save enough electricity to power 20 million American homes, according to the Energy Department. …

Lighting accounts for about 5 percent of a home’s energy budget and switching to more efficient bulbs is one of the fastest ways to cut those costs, according to the Energy Department. LEDs use 75 to 80 percent less energy than incandescents and last 25 times longer.

LEDs will account for 83 percent of the lighting market share by 2020 and almost all of it 10 years later, the Energy Department says. The cost of the bulbs has fallen by more than 85 percent in six years, according to ACEEE, a Washington-based non-profit that promotes conservation. Bulbs are now available for less than $5.

This news comes on the heels of Ikea announcing its only stocking LEDs going forward in its stores.

While switching bulbs is a relatively simple, cost-saving upgrade, other retrofit methods, such as efficient appliances and better insulation will also help decrease demand. It’s certainly easy to focus on shiny new clean technologies, like solar and batteries, but ultimately we’ll need major improvements in efficiency to meet our long-term climate goals. The rapid uptake of these new bulbs makes for a great start.

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