Category Archives: Renewable Energy
The Promises And Perils Of Expanding California’s Grid Across The West

RowofWindTurbines2Sammy Roth at The Desert Sun penned an engaging deep dive on the issues confronting California and the west if the state expands its grids into traditionally coal- and Republican-dominated states like Idaho and Wyoming.

It’s an important issue, because as California produces more renewable energy than it can use locally, it will need markets to export that surplus.  Similarly, the state will need to import surplus renewables (like wind from Wyoming and morning sun from Utah) when our wind and solar output is weak.

The upside for ratepayers is potentially huge savings (as Greentech media also described last December), while the upside for environmentalists is more renewable energy capacity without needing backup fossil fuel plants.  And long term, more renewable development in these conservative states could change the politics there, as a domestic clean tech industry may lobby for more favorable policies.

But the expansion is held up by two factors: first, concern that grid expansion will throw a lifeline to out-of-state coal-fired plants that would otherwise get shuttered (environmentalists are split on whether that would happen, but California’s grid operator does anticipate a slight increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the plants in the short term, with significant long-term reductions); and second, disagreements over how grid governance would work across such diverse states:

“There’s not going to be any scenario where I would agree to a situation where the California Legislature is dictating policy to the state of Wyoming,” Matt Mead, Wyoming’s Republican governor, said in an interview. “Clearly, Wyoming is the No. 1 coal-producing state. It probably has a different perspective than California does.”

The mistrust cuts both ways. Officials in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming — deep-red states that rely on coal and other fossil fuels and don’t see climate action as a priority — don’t want to give coastal liberals too much power to decide which types of energy they use. Lawmakers in California, Oregon and Washington, but especially California, have the same concern about the red states.

If the governance issues cannot be solved, I wonder if a possible interim solution might be to focus on immediate grid expansion just to Oregon and Washington, given their similar politics and commitment to renewables. Then in future years it could expand to more fossil fuel-dependent states, once the market and governance kinks have been ironed out.

Meanwhile, the article is worth checking out just for the interactive map of every type of power plant in the entire U.S., including pumped storage facilities (I can’t reproduce it on my blog here but you can find it about 2/3 of the way down the article).

Supposedly the California legislature will debate grid expansion later this year, although I understand there’s a lot of skepticism from legislators, particularly about having California policies provide economic benefits out-of-state.  But in the long term, it’s hard to see how California can achieve deep decarbonization in the electricity sector without this kind of regional approach.

City Visions Conversation With Gov. Brown Senior Adviser Ken Alex, Tonight At 7pm

Pretty much everything boils down to land use, at one level or another. Certainly housing and office development is traditionally within that sphere, but so is energy development, when we think about siting new transmission lines or solar farms. Even electric vehicles involve permitting and siting public charging infrastructure.

Tonight on City Visions, KALW 91.7 FM, I’ll talk with Ken Alex, Governor Brown’s senior adviser and director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), which helps the state set land use policy. We’ll talk transportation, housing policies, water, and climate change. And beyond local government matters, Ken also helps the state with its international climate efforts like the Under 2 MOU.

Tune in or stream at 7pm tonight, and please send in your questions or comments for Ken to address on the air.

UPDATE: audio available here.

Solar + Batteries As A Lifeline For Indigenous Communities

We certainly need cheap renewables like solar, coupled with batteries, to clean our grid and mitigate climate change.  But these technologies also hold incredible promise as economic development lifelines for remote indigenous communities.

The Guardian recently profiled a growing indigenous renewable energy alliance in Australia:

Only a handful of Indigenous communities have embarked on renewable energy projects in Australia. The Indigenous-owned and -operated company AllGrid Energy, for instance, has installed solar panels and battery storage systems to replace diesel generators in the Aboriginal communities of Ngurrara and Kurnturlpara in the Northern Territory’s Barkly Tableland. Within two months of the system being installed in May 2016, people were moving back to their homelands from Tennant Creek, the communities growing from just two permanent residents to about 40.

As these technologies become cheaper, not only will the developed world benefit, but historically disadvantaged communities across the globe will have access to clean, cheap power for their hospitals, homes and businesses.

Webinar Video On The Economic Impacts Of Climate Programs On The San Joaquin Valley

For those who missed the webinar held by Berkeley Law on the new report Economic Impacts of California’s Major Climate Programs on the San Joaquin Valley, you can watch a recorded version here and below.

The report assessed the economic and employment impacts of California’s ambitious climate policies on the San Joaquin Valley, including cap and trade, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.  In addition to me and moderator Jordan Diamond, the webinar featured:

The video runs about an hour.  Happy viewing!

 

The Future Of Energy In 2030: California State Bar Conference On April 12th

How we generate, distribute and use electricity is key to meeting California’s environmental and greenhouse gas reduction goals.  We need to be much more efficient with the electricity we use, while ensuring that it comes from greenhouse gas-free sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal, coupled with energy storage technologies. We also need to electrify almost everything, from transportation to home heating.
commercial-solar-panels1
The state has ambitious goals in all these areas for 2030, including a 50% renewable energy mandate, a requirement that we double energy efficiency in existing buildings, a related energy storage target, and electric vehicle deployment goal, among others.

But with so many technology changes, uncertainty over federal energy policies, and challenges related to financing and cost, what will the grid of 2030 look like?

The State Bar’s environmental law section is hosting a conference to explore this question, on Wednesday, April 12th in downtown Los Angeles.  Co-sponsored by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, the conference will feature:

  • Keynote by new California Public Utilities Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen;
  • Panel on the impact of the Trump Administration on California’s energy policies;
  • Discussion of the rise of community choice aggregation as an alternative to the traditional utility model; and
  • Speakers from leading utilities, renewable energy companies, public agencies and nonprofit groups.

You can see the full agenda and register at the State Bar’s conference website.  Reduced rates are available for students and government/nonprofit employees.  Register now to secure your spot!

**UPDATE: California State Senate President pro Tem Kevin De Leon is now confirmed for the afternoon address.

Wednesday Webinar: Economic Impacts Of California’s Climate Programs On The San Joaquin Valley

SJV Impacts Cover_Page_01Back in January, Berkeley Law and labor market researchers released a report on the economic and employment impacts of California’s ambitious climate policies on the San Joaquin Valley.  The Economic Impacts of California’s Major Climate Programs on the San Joaquin Valley addressed compliance and investment costs as well as the benefits across the region.

Ultimately, our research team found that the economic benefits of California’s major climate programs exceed costs.  It was the first comprehensive, academic study of the costs and benefits of these policies on this economically and environmentally distressed region.

To discuss the findings, the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) at Berkeley Law will host a one-hour webinar with the report authors on Wednesday from 1 to 2pm.  In addition to yours truly, the webinar will feature:

You can register for this event here.  Hope you can tune in and ask your questions!

Trump’s Budget Assault On The Environment

If there’s one area where Trump is likely to have legislative success, it’s probably the budget and taxes.  A partisan majority of Republicans in Congress will go along with any tax and spending cuts, leaving Trump in a good position to get his way.  And his current budget proposal is nothing less than a full-scale assault on environmental protections and public health.

It’s a bad combination of Trump’s seemingly genuine antipathy to government regulations and his party being captured by big polluters in the oil and gas industry.

My UC Berkeley Law colleague Dan Farber runs through the numbers on Legal Planet, but they basically include massive cuts to environmental enforcement, restoration and monitoring, including on climate data, as well as eliminating research in clean energy.

The last part on clean energy cuts is particularly frustrating.  I’ve blogged before about the success of ARPA-E, the most important governmental agency you’ve never heard of.  It’s the “moonshot” agency that is funding breakthrough technologies in batteries, solar power and other vital technology.  Since 2009, it has provided $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects, of which 45 have then raised $1.25 billion in private sector funds.

So of course Trump and his allies want to eliminate the agency completely.

But all is not yet lost.  The budget will go through a lot of sausage-making in Congress, and even many Republicans are invested in some of these programs, given the benefits they provide their districts.

But environmental and public health advocates will be starting from a tough position, and this is one area where Trump is likely to get a lot of what he wants.

Leapfrogging Traditional Electricity Grids With Renewables: Tanzania’s Example
Elizabeth Mukwimba is a 62-year-old Tanzanian woman who now has solar lighting and electricity in her home at the flick of a switch, thanks to an off-grid project.  Photo from Off-Grid Electric.

Elizabeth Mukwimba is a 62-year-old Tanzanian woman who now has solar lighting and electricity in her home at the flick of a switch, thanks to an off-grid project. Photo from Off-Grid Electric.

Tanzania exemplifies so much of the future of energy infrastructure in developing world countries, as Greenbiz describes:

The East African country of Tanzania faces a serious electrification challenge. Only 2 percent (PDF) of rural households have access to electricity, and most of the rural population relies on expensive, hazardous and low-quality fuels such as kerosene for lighting and charcoal for cooking.

Access to electricity and other modern energy services is fundamental to human well-being and to a country’s social and economic development. In many countries, electrification through off-grid applications has become a cost-effective alternative to conventional grid expansion in remote areas — and this could become a model that propels Tanzania’s next phase of economic growth. Already in the country, energy systems based on wind, small hydropower, biomass and solar resources are being used successfully to meet energy demand in isolated villages. By integrating these renewable-powered off-grid systems, rural communities are increasing their access to affordable energy supplies while contributing meaningfully to climate change mitigation.

Much like the leap to cell phones over landlines, many countries like Tanzania are better served going directly to decentralized, renewable technologies rather than building expensive and dirty traditional power grids with central-station power plants and far-flung transmission lines.

The upside is a cleaner, more resilient energy system with potentially few impacts on the land.  It also means more immediate electrification for rural residents, rather than making them wait for government and utilities to build a centralized grid to reach them.

I note that in this article, batteries do not seem to be on the table for Tanzania’s rural areas, while biomass may make up a crucial portion of the electricity mix.  I have nothing against biomass in concept, but depending on the technologies and incentives involved, it can sometimes lead to increases in emissions.

These opportunities in many ways come from the developed world’s investment in renewable technologies, which has brought prices down to the point where they are now viable options for poorer countries like Tanzania.

The Bad Economics Of Coal — Arizona’s Coal Plant Story

053-navajo_generating_station_01-21175170cfbfb3c4c65f406804616392Donald Trump and his Republican backers have long railed against environmental laws and regulations that disfavor coal.  Trump won in part by promising to bring back coal mining jobs.

But like so many of his claims, the truth is more complicated.  Coal mines and plants are shutting down around the country mostly due to cheap competition from natural gas, not from environmental protections.

The big case in point, and coming at a bad time for Trump, is the announced closure of the Navajo Generating Station, one of the country’s largest coal-fired power plants.

The plant is located in Page, Arizona, near the Utah border, and is such a big polluter that it is responsible for much of the haze in the Grand Canyon, as well as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.  It provides 90 percent of the energy for the Central Arizona Project to pump water uphill from the Colorado River through a 336-mile canal to deliver water to Central Arizona farms, cities, and tribes.

For that reason, Central Arizona Project leaders were opposed to environmental regulations back in 2009 that would add costs to the station to make it run more cleanly.  But now those leaders are changing their tune.  In a blog post to his stakeholders, executive director Warren Tenney explained his change of heart about closing the plant:

Pure economics is driving the decision. The utilities that own [Navajo Generating Station] now are dealing with a power plant that is significantly more expensive than other energy options. Natural gas prices have dropped to record lows to become a viable long-term and economical alternative to coal power. This means pursuing the regulatory upgrades that were part of the compromise with EPA are even less cost-effective today. However, even if EPA loosened its coal regulations, the energy industry is headed towards having natural gas generation as the fuel of choice for many years to come.

In fact, the coal power is now so expensive compared to alternatives, Central Arizona Project leaders estimated they could have saved $38.5 million in 2016 had they bought power on the open market instead.

It’s a big test for the Trump Administration.  Do they intervene to prop up this economically inefficient plant in order to make good on campaign promises?  E&E [pay-walled] explored the options for them:

Washington is uniquely positioned to help. The government owns a 24.3 stake in NGS [the Navajo Generating Station] through the Bureau of Reclamation. When utilities announced the closure, Reclamation officials said the bureau would help identify options to keep it running.

But direct federal intervention to keep NGS running would amount to a stark reversal of previous policy, which largely focused on the idea of slowly transitioning the coal-reliant tribes toward renewables. Now, federal and tribal facilities face a ticking clock and an administration with a new set of priorities.

Complicating matters is that the plant is the economic lifeblood for the Navajo and Hopi Tribes, which receive significant income from the plant and coal mining operations on their lands.  The Arizona Republic ran an in-depth piece exploring the impact of the coal mine on these tribal nations:

Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie has worked for tribal government since 1977. He said tribal members are split nearly evenly between support for the mine and closing it because of environmental concerns.

Hopi Tribe Chairman Herman Honanie

He sides with keeping the mine open.“The practicality is we have a growing population and we have growing needs,” Honanie said. “We have one foot in our culture and the other foot on the other side of dominant society and we are trying to mesh that together.”

Approximately 350 people who work for the tribe rely on the royalties from the mine for a significant portion of their paychecks. Those workers provide services from tribal courts to hospice care for the elderly.

The tribe anticipates $18.4 million in revenue this year, and more than $12 million of that will come from mining activities and from SRP for payments based on how well the power plant performs. Less than $2 million trickles in from court fees, business taxes, and investments in the KoKopeli Inn in Sedona, Three Canyon Ranch near Winslow and Moenkopi Legacy Inn near Tuba City.

I’ve worked with members of the Hopi Tribe since 2005 and have seen first-hand the impact of the coal-mining operation on the tribe’s finances.  There are no easy answers once the operations cease, as renewables can only partially offset the employment and revenue losses.

But it will be incumbent on Arizona and tribal leaders, as well as the federal government, to blunt the impact of the closure on these communities.  Rather than intervening to save the plant at tremendous environmental and taxpayer cost, they should develop an honest employment strategy — not just for Arizona but for the whole country — about how to replace these imperiled coal jobs and incomes with something sustainable and competitive.

Microgrids On The Rise

As the price of solar panels and batteries decreases, our electricity system is starting to look a lot cleaner and more decentralized.  While some people think the rise of community-based electricity technologies will undermine utilities, utilities are in fact embracing one version of decentralized power: microgrids.

Utilities are finding microgrids to be a great resilience strategy for avoiding outages, particularly in rural areas or crucial population or job centers. Greentech Media reports on the trend:

San Diego Gas & Electric delivers power to the town of Borrego Springs via a single radial transmission line running through the desert. Lightning strikes and desert flash floods threaten that line, resulting in historically poor reliability, Chief Engineer Thomas Bialek explained at the DistribuTech panel.

The utility needed to maintain or improve reliability for the nearly 2,800 Borrego Springs customers, but the traditional fix — building out a parallel transmission line — was pricey. A microgrid would be three or four times cheaper, Bialek said. So that’s what they did.The system, paid for by SDG&E, the Department of Energy and other partners, combines diesel generators, large and small batteries, and rooftop solar PV.

The microgrid has already proven itself in the face of adversity. When a flash flood in September 2013 downed transmission poles and lines leading to the town, the microgrid fired up and restored power to 1,056 customers while the grid repairs unfolded. That covered the core city center, so that those residents who didn’t have power yet could move to central facilities for shelter from the heat.

The Microgrid that saved Borrego Springs

The Microgrid that saved Borrego Springs

The future portends even more investment in microgrids, as Utility Dive notes:

Last year, GTM Research estimated there were 156 operational microgrids in the country, making up 1.54 GW of capacity, and that number is expected to rise to 3.71 GW by 2020. Globally,  Transparency Market Research believes the microgrid market will be worth about $35 billion by 2020 — up from $10 billion in 2013.

But as microgrids — and the technologies that underpin them — become cheaper, utilities may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.  With a few additional breakthroughs, these technologies could eventually allow entire communities to defect from the grid, leaving utilities and their remaining ratepayers stuck with stranded assets.

But for now, these installations will provide an environmental and energy win, while furthering investment in the technologies needed to clean and decentralize the electricity sector.

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