Category Archives: Renewable Energy
The Solar+Storage Revolution Could Come To Hawaii First

The island of Molokai in Hawaii would be a good place to start a clean energy revolution, at least in the United States. The island imports oil to burn for electricity, leading to some of the highest electricity rates in the country, not to mention significant pollution. It also has abundant sunshine and a relatively small population.

So a solar array coupled with battery energy storage could potentially save the residents a huge amount of money on their electricity bills. It could also provide them with energy security and independence in the event of fuel shortages. And of course, it could reduce emissions per capita significantly, as the model scales eventually to meet 100% of the island’s electricity needs.

A mainland company called Half Moon Ventures produced a video with Molokai-based Quazifilms to feature their solar+storage proposal for Molokai. While the project will need community and utility buy-in to move forward, this video does a nice job explaining the issues and opportunities:

As the company spokesperson says in the video, if it can work on Molokai, it can work on the other islands. And eventually, as prices decrease, this basic model can benefit communities across the country and globe.

Rebuild Hurricane-Damaged Areas With Resilient, Clean Electricity

As most of Puerto Rico goes without power for the fifth day in a row following Hurricane Maria’s destruction, the event calls for a re-examination of how to rebuild the power infrastructure.

The old, fossil fuel-dependent grid clearly wasn’t resilient or in great shape to begin with. Instead of rushing to repair this old infrastructure, island leaders should consider a more distributed electricity system, with solar panels, batteries, and other clean sources of power. By spreading these resources out, the system is less vulnerable to extreme weather that can knock out one central power plant and cause whole areas to lose power, as happened there this time.

Richard Branson, a Caribbean neighbor, has the same idea, per Reuters:

British billionaire Richard Branson said on Tuesday he is in talks to set up a fund to help Caribbean nations recently ravaged by Hurricane Irma replace wrecked fossil fuel-dependent utilities with low-carbon renewable energy sources.

The British business magnate has approached governments and would rally support among financial institutions and fellow philanthropists on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“As part of that fund we want to make sure that the Caribbean moves from dirty energy to clean energy,” he said.

Branson, who has lived in the British Virgin Islands for the past 11 years, weathered Irma on Necker, his private island.

Given this worsening trend of extreme weather, we’re going to need both to reduce carbon emissions through clean technologies, but also become more resilient to the storms of today. Luckily, clean, distributed power infrastructure can solve both problems — and keep the lights on for an island that is suffering from the impacts of this storm.

End Of California’s Legislative Session Brings Victories On Housing But Setbacks On Renewables

The frenzy is over.  The California legislature finished its session last week and sent its approved bills onto the governor.  Casual observers note the big “victories” on housing:

  • A supermajority vote to raise fees on real estate documents to fund affordable housing;
  • Another supermajority vote to approve a bond measure to go before the voters to fund even more affordable housing;
  • A win for SB 35, to streamline local approvals for new housing in cities and counties that aren’t providing enough of it also passed; and
  • The “sleeper” AB 1568 (Bloom), which will improves infrastructure financing for infill projects under the acronym NIFTI (Neighborhood Infill Finance and Transit Improvements Act).

But as I wrote last week, SB 35 is the one that really gets to the heart of the problem of the housing shortage in California.  The new revenue measures are drops in a seemingly bottomless bucket, as local governments consistently prevent new housing from getting built, particularly in job-rich infill areas.  SB 35 instead starts to deregulate housing at the local level.  California will need much more of that approach to solve this crisis.

Finally, on renewable energy, the state suffered a setback.  SB 100, to increase the renewable mandate to 60% by 2030 and 100% by 2045, was kicked into next year, as was the plan to regionalize California’s grid to encourage more renewables across the west and lower electricity rates for all.  But the stalling of these bills gives the legislature and climate advocates a good place to start on next year’s priorities.

Next up: we’ll see what the governor signs in the coming weeks.

California Legislative Frenzy On Housing And Energy

California legislators are in the final week of the session, and there’s a scramble on bills related to housing and renewable energy.  Here’s a rundown:

Housing

What was supposed to be the “Year of Housing” to address the state’s severe, decades-long undersupply of homes, is turning out to be pretty weak.  There are basically three bills in play, out of the 150 or so to start the session:

  • SB 2 (Atkins) would impose a $75-225 fee on individual California real estate transactions (which requires two-thirds vote);
  • SB 3 (Beall) would authorize a $4 billion bond measure for California’s November 2018 general election ballot (which requires two-thirds vote and then approval by voters); and
  • SB 35 Wiener) to force recalcitrant cities and counties to approve new infill housing projects without discretionary review.

SB 35 is the most promising, although its prevailing wage requirement will make it essentially worthless in under-performing markets in the state.  All three bills are being bundled, and Democrats in the Assembly are skittish about voting for the SB 3 real estate fee in particular.  If SB 2 goes down, will legislative leaders peal off SB 3 and SB 35 for separate votes, which might be successful on their own?  And if they do strip SB 2 from the package, will the other two bills lose support?  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, a sleeper bill on housing is AB 1568 (Bloom), which improves infrastructure finance districts for infill projects.  Using the acronym NIFTI (Neighborhood Infill Finance and Transit Improvements Act), the bill would allow these districts to capture future increases in revenue from sources like sales and occupancy taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements up front. It’s up for a floor vote shortly.

But in the end, of the big housing bundle, only SB 35 shows real promise for lasting reform by removing authority from local governments on land use.  The affordable housing money is otherwise badly needed, but it’s ultimately not going to solve much of the problem.  And affordable housing suffers from increased costs due to the same local land use policies that thwart market-rate housing, such as high parking requirements and limits on density.  So much of these dollars will be wasted without broader land use reform.

Renewable Energy

The big bill is SB 100 (de Leon) to boost the renewable mandate in the state to 60% (from 50%) by 2030, plus a new 100% target by 2045.  The goals have broad support, but the details are now creating opposition from utilities. A defeat on this bill would be a big blow, as utilities (despite their opposition) need the stronger market signal and legal permission to procure more renewables now while the federal tax credit — set to sunset soon — is still in effect.

Meanwhile, AB 726 (Holden) to restart the process of integrating California’s grid with other western states is apparently stalling.  Some environmental groups and labor unions are concerned with how it would get implemented. It’s too bad, because a regional grid is going to be necessary to meet California’s long-term climate and energy goals in an affordable manner.  Plus, it could help solidify political support for renewables in the states that join us, by building up a domestic clean tech industry in each of those states.  If it fails this year, climate advocates should prioritize it for next year.

So on both housing and energy, there’s a lot to follow in the Golden State this week.  I’ll blog again on any successful bills once the dust settles.

Webinar: Net Economic Impacts Of California’s Major Climate Programs On The Inland Empire, Tuesday Sept. 12th At 10am

Following the state legislature’s landmark approval extending California’s cap-and-trade program through 2030 by a supermajority vote, Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & The Environment (CLEE) and our research partners have completed the first comprehensive, academic study of the economic effects of existing climate and clean energy policies in Southern California’s Inland Empire.

Together with UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, and working with the nonpartisan nonprofit Next 10, the study found that between 2010 to 2016 the Inland Empire received:

  • an estimated net benefit of $9.1 billion in direct economic activity and
  • 41,000 net direct jobs, some of which are permanent and ongoing and many of which resulted from one-time construction investments.

Join the report authors as we discuss our findings on a webinar next Tuesday.  We’ll cover the impact of cap and trade, the renewables portfolio standard, distributed solar policies and energy efficiency programs and their effects on the Inland Empire’s economy to date and going forward, as well as what these findings mean for other regions of the state and beyond.

In addition to yours truly, the webinar will feature:

  • Betony Jones, UC Berkeley Labor Center 
  • F. Noel Perry, Next 10

The webinar will run from 10 to 11am on Tuesday, September 12th.  Register now to join the discussion!

UPDATE: The webinar video recording is now available:

A Total Eclipse Of The Solar Farm

Eclipse watchers around the country are braving traffic and crowds today to venture into the path of totality.  But for grid operators in California, it presents a distinct challenge, as solar power represents about 8 percent of the state’s electricity mix.  The New York Times reports:

As the eclipse carves a long shadow over California on Monday morning, it is expected to knock offline more than 5,600 megawatts’ worth of solar panels at its peak — a big chunk of the 19,000 megawatts of solar power that currently provide one-tenth of the state’s electricity. The California I.S.O. plans to fill the void by ramping up natural gas and hydroelectric power plants.

Then, a few minutes later, when the eclipse passes, all those solar panels will come roaring back to life, and grid operators will have to quickly make room for the sharp rise in generation by scaling back gas and hydropower.

Fortunately, grid operators have been planning for this event for a year. Future eclipses may present more of a challenge as solar power proliferates, but for now, the state should be okay. Still, residents are encouraged to conserve electricity during peak eclipse hours.

Meanwhile, a flashback ABC news report from the last total eclipse in the continental United States in 1979:

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 Vox.com 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.

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