Category Archives: Renewable Energy
Is It Productive To Scare People About Climate Change?

Climate change is one of the most difficult political — let alone natural — challenges we face.  It’s a relatively far-off calamity that requires action now among the entire developed and developing world, with uncertain costs associated.  So how do we motivate people to act?

One option is to scare them with the worst-case scenarios.  David Wallace-Wells tried this approach recently with a widely circulated New York Magazine cover story describing the absolute worst-case scenarios for climate change, starting with this intro:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Lots of climate advocates and scientists pushed back on this approach though, arguing essentially that “despair is never helpful.”

But David Roberts at celebrated this kind of journalism, pointing out that we need to hear more of this alarming, worst-case potential to motivate action:

It may be that there are social dynamics that require some fear and paralysis before a collective breakthrough. At the very least, it seems excessive to draw a pat “fear never works” conclusion from these sorts of data.

Second, even if it’s true that fear only “works” when it is joined with a sense of agency and efficacy, that doesn’t mean that every single instance of fear has to be accompanied by a serving of hope. Not every article has to be about everything. In fact, if you ask me, the “[two paragraphs of fear], BUT [12 paragraphs of happy news]” format has gotten to be a predictable snooze. Some pieces can just be about the terrible risks we face. That’s okay.

Finally, fear+hope requires fear.

Julie Beck at The Atlantic meanwhile reports on the counter-productive tactic of simply making people anxious, particularly via social media. While the thought may be that anxiety leads to action, it can often instead just immobilize and distract people:

Just as social media allowed fake news to spread untrammeled through ideological communities that already largely agreed with each other, it also creates containers for anxiety to swirl in on itself, like a whirlpool in a bottle.

“If you look at the right-hand side of the aisle, and the left, they’re each talking about the things they fear the most,” says Morrow Cater, the president of the bipartisan consulting firm Cater Communications. “The anxiety that you’re talking about—be vigilant!—it comes when you’re fearful.”

But the article also notes that fear-based messaging can work:

Though several people I spoke to said that fear-based appeals to action don’t work, and may even backfire, there’s actually evidence that they do work. Dolores Albarracin, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, did a meta-analysis in 2015 of all available research on fear-based appeals and found that overall, inducing fear does change people’s attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. She and her team did not find a backfire effect.

But the fear appeals that Albarracin studied came with recommended actions. “If the message is not actionable, then you’re not going to get effects overall,” she says.

For my part, I think the public should think about the absolute worst-case effects of climate change. While the worst-case scenario may not come to pass, we need to be prepared for the full range of impacts. Second, we’ve seen fear lead to some of the biggest mass mobilization efforts in history: namely, wars. And climate change will require a similar level of mobilization and urgency.

But I agree that fear-based messages should be paired with actions. Those steps should range from the individual (eat less red meat, install LED light bulbs, buy an electric vehicle if you need one, install solar panels, etc.) to the political (support candidates and policies that address the problem, such as carbon pricing, renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates, and transit-oriented housing).

Otherwise, anxiety without hope or a achievable remedy will be self-defeating.

What Is The Future For Coal Workers?

Yesterday we discussed the future of the coal industry on KPCC’s AirTalk, but what about the future for coal workers?  We agreed on the show yesterday that the future of coal in the U.S. is not bright, given cheap natural gas and environmental policies.  So how can we help transition these coal workers to more sustainable jobs?

Clean energy advocates typically argue for retraining them to work in renewable energy, like solar and wind.  But Gizmodo throws some cold water on how easy this would be, noting the geographic mismatch of coal states and renewable policies and prime locations:

Solar and wind jobs pop up in places where sunshine and wind are abundant. Sunny California leads the solar industry, with 40% of all solar jobs found in the state. Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota exemplify the potential for wind energy in the Midwest, with a quarter of each states’ total electricity production coming from wind. Even Texas, well known for its oil resources, produced 13% of its electricity from wind in 2016. But could solar or wind jobs pop up in major coal mining states, such as Wyoming, West Virginia or Kentucky?

Furthermore, these coal states have virtually no incentives for renewables.  So they would need to drastically revamp their domestic policies to create a market for renewable jobs.  Otherwise, coal workers would essentially have to abandon these states to find work in more prosperous regions — hardly a recipe for success for rural America, at least in the short term.

But if we could figure out the retraining process, the jobs in renewables can be very rewarding.  As my colleagues at the UC Berkeley Labor Center described in the “Link between Good Jobs and a Low Carbon Future,” renewable energy has provided good blue collar jobs throughout California, paying an average of $46/hour plus health, pension, and training benefits.

The key is to get sufficient funding for these worker retraining programs, which aren’t cheap.  Gizmodo reports:

The cost isn’t trivial. In 2016, Joshua Pearce, a Materials Science & Engineering professor at Michigan Technological University, estimated the cost of retraining coal workers for the solar industry. He found that it would cost the five most coal-dependent states between $120 million (“best case scenario”) and $1.1 billion (“worst case scenario”) to do so. An apprenticeship would cost around $18,000, while advanced degrees, enabling miners to become engineers or project managers, could cost over $136,000. The study assumes that lower-ranking miners would pursue apprenticeships, while seniors would go for degrees from top-tier schools.

Some California counties have successfully leveraged solar investment in their regions to pay for these job training programs.  So that could present a promising option for states to use any solar fee revenues to fund these programs.  And if the jobs are union, then the unions themselves can pay for these retraining programs, saving taxpayers and these companies from some of that burden.

But the bottom line is that American politicians and renewable advocates need to get serious about this issue and start taking our jobs success stories in places like California to a nationwide audience.  We also need to address the practical challenges to worker retraining.  It won’t happen with this current administration, but it shouldn’t stop individual states and local leaders from acting now.

How Would The Solar Industry Adapt To New U.S. Tariffs?

As I’ve blogged about before, two U.S. solar manufacturers are petitioning the Trump Administration to levy steep tariffs on foreign solar panels.  The solar industry is rightfully scared that the administration will approve them, given Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric and efforts to privilege coal over clean renewables.

The Solar Energy Industries Association recently estimated that the industry would lose 88,000 jobs, a third of the total, if the government approved the two U.S. manufacturers’ petition to levy a 78 cent floor on the price of solar modules and a 40 cent tariff on solar cells.

As E&E news reported [paywalled]:

The module price floor would slash solar demand by half over the next five years, from a cumulative 72 gigawatts to 36 GW. Add the tariff on cells, the report said, and demand would drop further, to 25 GW.

The biggest impact would be to utility-scale solar. Recently, and remarkably, big solar projects have been growing fastest in states that aren’t requiring their utilities to buy it through a policy known as the renewable energy portfolio.

Almost three-quarters of the project pipeline is in these states that are buying on economics alone, the report said. With tariffs, the report said, “most of that is at risk of cancellation unless PPA [power purchase agreement] prices are renegotiated.”

The impact on residential rooftop solar would be dramatic but less severe.

There’s no doubt that the tariffs would cause economic harm to the industry.  But could manufacturers adapt to avoid the most cataclysmic price impacts?

I’ve heard anecdotally that Chinese manufacturers would respond to the tariffs by locating their plants in the U.S. to avoid them.  While some U.S. protectionists might cheer this move for creating domestic jobs, the manufacturers claim that most of their plants are essentially fully automated anyway, so it would not result in any significant jobs benefits in the U.S.

And ultimately, there will be cost increases that will be passed onto consumers, which would not only depress the industry, it would hurt all the people employed in selling, installing and maintaining solar panels here.  And these individuals vastly outnumber coal miners.

So we should still hope that the tariff case is rejected.  But if the Trump administration goes the other way, we may have some hope that the industry can limit the damage.


Replacing Coal With Solar In Tribal Lands

As coal-fired power plants shut down, many Native American tribes are facing the brunt.  I wrote earlier this year about the challenges facing the Navajo and Hopi Tribes, in particular, with the closure of a nearby plant.

As in many areas around the country, environmental advocates tout the jobs and economic prospects of solar PV as a replacement for lost coal jobs.  To put that to the test, the Farmington Daily Times reported on the Navajo Nation’s first large-scale solar energy facility on the reservation. The 27.3-megawatt Kayenta Solar Project opened in June.  The electricity is sold to the Salt River Project for distribution, with revenues funding local tribal programs.

The project has had some immediate jobs and economic benefits:

[Navajo utility spokesperson Deenise] Becenti said at the height of construction, there were 250 personnel with 195 Navajo workers.

The $60 million facility was built using a construction loan from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation.

Revenue from the solar project will help NTUA extend electricity to several communities on the reservation, according to an October 2016 press release from the tribal enterprise.

Last year, NTUA [Navajo Tribal Utility Authority] finalized an agreement with the tribe’s Community Development Block Grant program to increase electrical services to 92 residences.

The tribal enterprise will use revenues from the solar project as matching funds for the grant, the release states.

[NTUA General Manager Walter] Haase said in an email this will be the first time most families will have electricity in their homes.

“Using revenue generated from the solar project gives us the ability to bring electric service to these communities and help dramatically raise the standard of living for our Navajo families,” he said.

Overall, it seems like a success story for a rural community transitioning from coal to renewables. And it’s only the start, as the article indicates there’s potential for expanding the solar farm.

While the bulk of the jobs here are probably temporary construction ones, further study could be useful to examine the full impact of the new facility. For example, the tribal programs funded by the solar revenue presumably create their own jobs and economic impacts, which could further offset the loss of coal jobs and revenue. Either way, this is a story worth keeping an eye on for advocates of transitioning to renewables in rural areas everywhere.

New Study: California Climate Policies Bringing Over $9 Billion And 41,000 Jobs To Southern California’s Inland Empire

With the legislature just passing a landmark extension of cap-and-trade through 2030 by a supermajority vote, attention now turns to implementing the state’s major climate programs to achieve the ambitious climate goals for that year and beyond.

Critics frequently argue that efforts to fight climate change hurt the economy and cost jobs.  Yet as I blogged about a few weeks ago, research on California’s San Joaquin Valley and then-forthcoming from the Inland Empire show net positive results.

The Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) at UC Berkeley Law and UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, working with the nonpartisan nonprofit Next 10, just released the first comprehensive cost/benefit study of climate policies in Southern California’s Inland Empire, one of California’s most environmentally vulnerable regions.

The Net Economic Impacts of California’s Major Climate Programs in the Inland Empire: Analysis of 2010-2016 and Beyond examines the impact of four climate programs in the region, defined here as San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.  We chose these counties as a follow-up to our San Joaquin Valley report due to the region’s environmental and economic challenges and because elected leaders from the area have asked questions about the impact of climate policies on their constituents.

The report analyzed not only the benefits of California’s climate and clean energy policies, but also compliance expenditures, investment expenses, and other costs.

After examining the data and using advanced modeling software, we found that the four key California climate and clean energy policies, including cap and trade, the renewables portfolio standard, distributed solar policies and energy efficiency programs (among the most important in California’s suite of climate policies) brought a net benefit of $9.1 billion in direct economic activity and 41,000 net direct jobs from 2010 to 2016 in the region, some of which are permanent and ongoing and many of which resulted from one-time construction investments.

We found that the overall benefits to the Inland Empire are likely to continue and grow through 2030, as the state strives to meet its newly legislated climate goals for that year, via SB 32 (Pavley, 2016), SB 350 (De Leon, 2015), and now AB 398 (Eduardo Garcia, 2017). Those efforts will require at least 50% renewables by 2030, a doubling of energy efficiency in existing buildings, and a robust cap-and-trade program through 2030.

Based on the findings in the Inland Empire, we suggest that policy makers wishing to continue these benefits focus on policies that reward cleaner transportation in this region, help disburse cap-and-trade auction proceeds in a timely and predictable manner, and create robust transition programs for workers and communities affected by the decline of the Inland Empire’s greenhouse gas-emitting industries, including re-training and job placement programs, bridges to retirement, and regional economic development initiatives.

You can access the full report via CLEE or Next 10’s websites and check out media coverage in Southern California’s Press-Enterprise and on KPCC, KFI, and KVCR radio.

The Trade Case That Could Kill U.S. Solar

Solar panel prices have plummeted as much as 80% over this past decade, leading to a huge boom for renewables and helping to dethrone coal in our power sector.  Much of that decrease has been the result of large-scale manufacturing advances and scale from solar panel manufacturing in China.

But a new trade dispute could upend the economics of the solar industry in the United States.  It starts with Suniva, one of the few domestic solar panel manufacturers that was left in the U.S., until it went bankrupt earlier this year.  Although Suniva assets were eventually bought by a Chinese company (ironically), its creditors now want the U.S. to invoke an obscure law to “level the playing field,” per Bloomberg:

Suniva is asking for import duties of 40¢ per watt for solar cells, which currently sell for 25¢ to 33¢ a watt. If the company prevails, the price of panels imported into the U.S. could double, potentially crippling demand for solar power. Suniva’s ­majority owner, Shunfeng, makes its own panels in China and opposes the trade case, but it lost its say once the bankruptcy began. Suniva’s biggest creditor, New York-based SQN Capital Management LLC, made filing the trade case a prerequisite for a $4 million loan Suniva is using to finance the Chapter 11 case.

The case goes to the U.S. International Trade Commission, which will rule by September 22nd and then send its recommendations to the president. But even if the commission finds against Suniva, trade experts apparently think the law gives the president broad authority to slap import duties on the panels.

The fear is that this case plays right into Trump’s political hands: he can kill the solar industry, which is a rival to his favored coal base, and he can then claim to put “America first.”

But given that solar PV jobs vastly outnumber coal jobs, and that solar panels provide Americans with choices to save money on utility bills and reduce local air pollution, it would be a backwards move, even by his logic.  As with so many issues and this new administration, we’ll have to wait and see on the outcome.

Pro-Coal Republicans’ Phony Attack On Renewables As Hurting “Grid Reliability”

Republican politicians and their allies in the Trump administration may seem to be motivated by climate science “skepticism,” but their actions seem more about protecting favored polluting industries at the expense of clean ones.

Take renewable energy: the costs have come down so dramatically that solar & wind, plus cheap natural gas, is out-competing coal, the favored Republican industry.

So how can Republicans try to privilege coal over renewables, in the face of market pressures?  It’s unlikely that Congress will cooperate by eliminating federal tax credits for renewables that have strong bipartisan support (although it’s still a possibility with tax reform discussions looming — plus reduced corporate tax rates can undermine the tax credit incentives for renewables).

So that means the action has to fall on the regulatory side, specifically at the U.S. Department of Energy.  We know that DOE appointees are trying to gut clean tech research and shut down all climate and clean energy programs.

But the new tack is to create a phony “study” of grid reliability and then use it to undermine solar and wind.  The argument is that solar and wind, given that it relies on intermittent sources (sunshine and wind), will lead to blackouts and grid instability and cause grid failure.  As E&E News reports on DOE secretary Rick Perry’s recent memo to this effect:

Boosted by “extremist political agendas,” according to Perry, renewable energy undermines baseload power that includes large coal and gas-fired generators, dams, and nuclear reactors. “Baseload power is necessary to a well-functioning electric grid,” Perry declared in the memo.

At least that’s the theory, and DOE appears set to write a study that proves that outcome.  They can then use the study to invoke an obscure law that gives them emergency authority to freeze in place coal production at 30 percent of our nation’s supply, all in the name of securing grid reliability.

But the problem, as with so much of this pro-“brown power” ideology, is that the facts don’t support it.  Here’s California Energy Commissioner David Hochschild and California Independent System Operator board of governor David Olsen in a pre-emptive strike in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle:

What happens when the wind doesn’t blow, or the sun doesn’t shine? To answer that question, one needs to examine the many countries that have more renewable energy than we do. Wind and solar contribute a share 2.5 times larger in Germany’s electricity mix (18.2 percent in 2016) than they do in the United States (6.9 percent). Germany produced 82 percent of its electricity from renewables for a period of several days in May. Denmark gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewables on many days of the year. Yet both nations have electric grids that are 10 times more reliable than America’s. Germany and Denmark average 23 and 24 minutes of customer outages per year respectively, while the United States averages 240 minutes per year.

The key to avoid reliability challenges is a diverse renewables mix, energy storage, and a regional grid, all features that many states in the U.S. already have or feasibly can have.  So Perry’s study is unlikely to bolster his pro-coal (and pro-nuclear) case, unless he and his appointees are willing to cook the books.

As the secretary might say: “oops.”

Nevada Becoming A Leading State For Renewables & Energy Storage

What a difference a year (or two) makes. Back in 2015, Nevada became the enemy of rooftop solar advocates when state regulators arbitrarily ended all rooftop solar incentives, including for customers who had already invested in them with an expectation of a 20-year return.

But Governor Sandoval just signed AB 405, which will officially restore those rooftop solar rates almost back to where they were, with a slow phase-out to encourage more energy storage options (see his Twitter post above).

But more legislation is on tap, as the  legislature has passed some ambitious clean energy bills.  Specifically, AB 206 will boost the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030 (by comparison, California has a 50% target for 2030).  And as Greentech Media reports, the innovative part of this bill is that energy storage can count for up to 10% of the portfolio, with special privileges for geothermal energy.  Let’s hope the governor signs this bill, too.

While the solar industry had a lot to do with this win, environmental groups may also have played a key electoral role.  Specifically, according to E&E News (pay-walled), the League of Conservation Voters spent more than a half-million dollars on state races in Nevada last year and helped flip the statehouse, paving the way for legislation like this.

It shows how effective political dollars can be at the state level, and how important state leadership is at a time of federal retrenchment on clean energy policies.

Are Tesla Solar Roofs Actually A Bargain?

Tesla solar roof tiles

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how Tesla solar roofs may have a rocky start due to the high costs and technological uncertainty.  But Understand Solar recently dug into some of the initial numbers and provides some reason for thinking these tiles may be a bargain, assuming your home needs a new roof and the tiles perform as advertised.

First, the site did the basic calculations on how much the solar roofs would cost:

  • 1,000 square foot home: $21,210 ($21.21 per square foot)
  • 2,000 square foot home: $40,250 ($20.12 per square foot)
  • 5,000 square foot home: $95,970 ($19.19 per square foot)

That ain’t cheap.  And traditional roofing materials are much cheaper, especially asphalt shingle:

  • Asphalt shingle: $3.40 per square foot (estimate from Homewyse)
  • Metal Tile: $10.26 per square foot (estimate)
  • Clay Tile: $14.85 per square foot (estimate)
  • Slate Tile: $15.06 per square foot (estimate)

Even the most expensive slate tile costs about 25% less than Tesla’s solar roof tiles. So that’s not great.

But here’s the rub: assuming a 30% federal tax credit and that the tiles can produce as advertised over 30 years, the total net savings for a house in Los Angeles is as follows:

Los Angeles, CA

  • 1,000 square foot home: produce $49,900 worth of electricity (net savings of $28,690)
  • 2,000 square foot home: produce $94,800 worth of electricity (net savings of $54,550)
  • 5,000 square foot home: produce $180,600 worth of electricity (net savings of $84,630)

So the savings (and eventual profit) are there in spades.

But how would this savings rate compare to simply adding traditional panels on top of an existing roof?  According to estimates, Tesla’s solar tiles have a payback of 11 years, while a traditional solar installation has a payback of just 6.5 years.  So you lose some payback, but you gain a whole new roof.

Overall, if you’re in the market for a new roof and are willing to gamble on new technology, plus you like the look of solar tiles as opposed to traditional panels, the Tesla product would be a good deal.

How Republicans Could Change Their Mind On Climate Change: The Case Of “Red State” Renewables

Republicans tend to be skeptical of climate science and actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions out of concern for the negative economic impacts and the potential for more government regulation.

But the reality is that fighting climate change represents a generational business opportunity for the United States.  As I wrote recently, the required action will necessitate huge investments in everything from the electricity grid to the automobile sector.

Renewable energy in particular may be the “gateway drug” to get Republicans to support these investments.  Take wind energy, as the New York Times reports:

The five states that get the largest percentage of their power from wind turbines — Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Oklahoma and North Dakota — all voted for Mr. Trump. So did Texas, which produces the most wind power in absolute terms. In fact, 69 percent of the wind power produced in the country comes from states that Mr. Trump carried in November.

So it’s not surprising that representatives and senators from these states have been some of the strongest supporters of federal tax credits for renewables in congress.

Overall, the electricity sector is one area where states have a lot of sovereignty to push for low-carbon technologies.  Blue states in turn can encourage red-state action, which will help change the politics on clean technology in these states, as the clean tech industries mobilize and lobby their representatives.

A good example is the effort to integrate California’s grid with western states, as the New York Times story describes:

California and other Western states are discussing linking their electricity markets more closely, which would allow more renewable energy generated in the red states to flow to California consumers — and move California money into the pockets of red-state landowners.

Republican-led Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal-producing state, could be a prime beneficiary, with a proposed wind farm that would be one of the biggest in the world. The governors of Wyoming and California are discussing a deal, though both are nervous about giving up some control of their electricity markets.

That plan is held up by politics in California and a fear among these other states of having their grids controlled by California interests.  But for climate advocates, it could be not only a long-term energy strategy, but a political one as well.

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