Dispatches from the clean energy revolution

March 16, 2014

The analogy between the energy revolution and the information revolution is far from perfect.  Energy technology transformation may well be slower, weighted down as it is by Titanics of sunk capital and powerful incumbents with strong incentives to forestall change.fast forward green

But the revolution is clearly underway.  4 recent items:

1)      The Minnesota Public Utility Commission issued a Value of Solar Tariff that includes, among other things, the federal government’s estimate of the “social cost of carbon.”  Solar’s worth more because it’s better… because you don’t have to pay for it with disaster relief and mass extinctions and stuff.

2)      Amory Lovins has a good rundown of how a growing number of states and countries are running their power systems on a high percentage of renewable power.  The idea that renewable energy penetration is inherently limited by intermittency is becoming obsolete.  (Energy demand is intermittent, but no one is suggesting we can’t deal with that.)  The need for “baseload” coal and nuclear is waning fast.   Resource diversity, better forecasting, distributed storage, dispatchable renewables, and demand response are all being used to integrate larger and larger percentages of renewable power — and that’s before you even get to the big storage solutions. Per the savant of Old Snowmass:

“After all, half the world’s new generating capacity added each year starting in 2008 has been renewable; solar cells are scaling faster than cellphones, probably surpassing windpower’s 2013 additions; and Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects solar power to compete with retail grid power in three-fourths of world markets in another year or two. The first part of the renewable power revolution—scaling production—is already well underway. Next comes the interesting part: ensuring that all the moving parts mesh properly.”

3)      Austin Energy signed a long-term deal for 150 MW of solar from a big PV station for $.05 per kilowatt-hour.  5 cents.  A nickel.  Seriously cheap.  Greentech Media reports:

Bret Kadison, COO of Austin-based Brazos Resources, an energy investment firm, said this was “a highly competitive solicitation….This is below the all-in cost of natural gas generation, even with low fuel prices and before factoring in commodity volatility and cost overruns.” He also points out that the original RFP was for 50 megawatts, but the utility ended up buying 150 megawatts “in a red state where hydrocarbons dominate the political landscape.” Kadison suggests that “one of the biggest cost reduction drivers that allowed solar to reach this parity came from the massive reduction in financing costs.”

4) It’s happening…. if we’ll just give it a chance, as a group of young American leaders including Oscar-winner Jared Leto urged Secretary of State John Kerry to do in a letter opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.  They called on Kerry to summon up the courage and moral clarity he used to help end the Vietnam War, when he asked Congress, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”   Say the whipper-snappers to the Secretary:kid fist

“As young American leaders, we are confident in our ability to engineer solutions over time, and we enthusiastically support the Obama Administration’s commitment to advancing these solutions. The urgent climate imperative now – what our generation asks and expects of yours – is to give those solutions time to grow. We must not squander our precious time and capital now on making the problem intractably worse, especially when we are so bullish on the opportunities to make it better!”

Read the letter here.


Here comes…: solar was second largest source of new electric capacity in 2013

March 5, 2014

It’s on.  The clean energy revolution, that is.

In a preview of a big report due out tomorrow, the Solar Energy Industries Association reports that solar electricity was the second largest source of new electric capacity in the U.S. in 2013.  In 6 states in DC, solar accounted for 100% of new capacity.

solar states SEIA

Check here for the big news tomorrow.


Renewables: 99% of new generating capacity in January

February 24, 2014

Here comes 6Kenneth Bossong at the SUN DAY campaign reports:

According to the latest “Energy Infrastructure Update” report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Office of Energy Projects, non-hydro renewable energy sources (i.e., biomass, geothermal, solar, wind) accounted for more than 99% of all new domestic electrical generating capacity installed during January 2014 for a total of 324 MW.

No, it’s not a huge number in absolute terms.  No, it won’t hold up in percentage terms.  But yes, it is a glimpse into the future if we’re going to leave a recognizable one.

Every day brings more reasons for confidence that we can make it better, more confirmation that continuing to make it worse is as unnecessary as it is wrong.

With due exception for some geothermal, the future is not, as Van Jones says, down those holes.  It’s up!

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Source:  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its most recent 4-page “Energy Infrastructure Update,” with data through January 31, 2014, on February 20, 2014. See the tables titled “New Generation In-Service (New Build and Expansion)” and “Total Installed Operating Generating Capacity” at http://www.ferc.gov/legal/staff-reports/2014/jan-infrastructure.pdf


Get old. Get free. Get over oil.

February 18, 2014

I’m going to burn my driver’s license when I turn 75.  Maybe sooner.  I’d like to do it at the offices of Koch Enterprises, if I can get a ride home.

You may think this is a choice to sacrifice some freedom.  But it’s the opposite:  a declaration of independence from the tyranny of oil.Old guy on a bike

So I have twenty years – plenty of time – to build the family and community ties and the physical infrastructure for a car-free life.  Having made this pledge, I’m much more committed to mixed-use development, transit investment, and babysitting my prospective grandkids so someone will feel obliged to give me rides when I need them.   I’ll be safer, and so will everyone else, when I’m not travelling a mile a minute in 2-ton projectile when I can barely see.   If there’s a minimum age for a driver’s license, why not a maximum?

Contrary to everything we fear about what happens when older folks give up driving, I’ll be freer.  I won’t be physically strapped to a small power plant in rapid motion among many.  I won’t have to pay an arm and a leg to buy, insure, and maintain the beast.  I won’t have to sit in traffic, spewing carbon and going nowhere, while the bikers whiz past me.  I won’t have to pay through the nose to park it… that’s right, just to temporarily get out of the damned thing.

And best of all, I will not have to pull up to the gas pump and open my wallet so the Koch Brothers and Rex Tillerson and the US Chamber of Commerce can vacuum it clean.  I won’t have to take my little share of my community’s wealth and shoot it to the tippy-top of the economic pyramid.  I won’t have my money used to pay for false science and political campaigns to elect climate deniers and marketing strategies that equate fossil fuel extraction with happiness and health.

I grew up in LA in the sixties and seventies.  Cars were freedom.  Cars were status.  Cars were sex.  So I get why we like (I need) cars:  Madison Ave. spent jillions cementing a linear relationship between our self-esteem and the horsepower under our hoods.  And the oilgarchs worked hard to make sure we radically underinvested in transit and built our communities around cars, so that even if we could shake our egos free, we couldn’t get anywhere without strengthening their hold on wealth and power.  Even now, cops are carpeting downtown LA with jaywalking tickets, lest the humans, who are resettling downtown Autotopia like an invasive species, impinge on car habitat.

But the gig’s up now, or it certainly will be by the time I’m 75.  Transit and ridesharing and bike infrastructure and healthy mixed-use local communities are delivering better mobility service at lower cost.  Alan Durning, who wrote “The Year of Living Carlessly” just seven years ago, told me recently “I couldn’t write that now.  People would say, ‘So what?’”

Even where cars are still necessary, they’re more and more a necessary evil, not a gift.  And if you need one after seventy-five, when your vision sucks and your reflexes are slow and you need a bathroom all the time, well, that just can’t be freedom.

Maybe one can only say this from a bubble like Seattle.   But I think this transition is gaining momentum almost everywhere.  We’ve seen enough glimpses of better ideas to confirm what should be obvious:  lashing ourselves to a big steel crate impelled by oil, the payments for which are used to trample democracy and brutalize our grandkids, can’t be the best – the smartest, the healthiest, the most elegant – way to get our decreasingly skinny asses from point A to point B.  And besides, point A would rock much harder if we got out of the damned car more.  As Amory Lovins once quipped, “Personal mobility is a symptom….of being in the wrong place.”

OK, it is possible that I’m trying to turn the tables on the relationship between cars and freedom because I’m so desperately afraid of what we’re doing to the climate.  It’s conceivable that I’m making this all up because I’d like my grandkids to, you know, survive.  I’m ok with that.

At least I’ve convinced myself.  When I have to get in a car in Seattle, I feel like a sucker.  It’s like I’m in a video game and I can hear this nasty honky-buzzy noise that means “You lost, loser!”  Whereas my bike ride to and from work is a consistently delightful part of my day.  “Ding, ding, ding!”

When I give up that driver’s license, I’ll just be burning a one-way ticket to Hell.  I only wish – given how much we keep throwing down a rathole to pave the road there – it were refundable.

Thanks to dear friend-of-all-good-things Martha Wycoff for the idea of a maximum age for a driver’s license.

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Confession:  I’m already hedging.  I just leased a Leaf!  I can’t wait to pull into a gas station, clean my windshield, inflate my tires, and leave.


Spark! Financing energy efficiency with blessed unrest

January 26, 2014

Spark — crowd-financing for community-based energy efficiency projects — is here!

The anti-bodies are kicking in!

When the coal industry desperately tries to stave off its demise by ramming a new supply line through the heart of Cascadia, communities steadfastly resist.

Though the oil/auto/asphalt cabal continues to dominate the politics of public investment in transportation, a better new alternative to driving alone (and paying for tyranny) seems to pop up every day.

And now, instead of playing roulette in the stock market or investing your retirement savings in CDs with returns equivalent to stashing it under the mattress, you can fund local energy efficiency projects.  You can earn decent, safe returns.  You can create jobs.  You can help local schools and businesses.  You can finance climate solutions.  A thousand Sparks of light?  Oh never mind, you get where I’m going.  Go Spark!

I’m not giving up on big transformation through public policy change because a) I don’t know how we get to solutions at scale without it and b) it feels like capitulating to the oilgarchs and c) it would render most of my professional skills obsolete.

But I have to ignore much of the available evidence and political wisdom in order to maintain this posture.  “Hope,” as Frances Moore Lappe said, “is a stance, not a calculation.”   I smoke what I gotta to keep plugging away for sweeping policy change, but in the meantime, it’s the Sparks that keep me standing up.

It’s a hard rain’s gonna fall…..but look what’s growing up in the moisture!


60 Minutes’ clean tech bash-fest: hardly a moment of journalism, not a second of climate reality

January 7, 2014

“I’m not afraid to fail because the consequences of avoiding failure are doing nothing” – Clean tech investor Vinod Khosla, on 60 Minutes

Most of the blowback to the 60 Minutes mugging of the clean tech industry this week focuses on the shockingly bad reporting.  The segment, “Clean Tech Crash,” makes no mention of the explosive growth in key clean energy technologies like solar, LED lights, and electric vehicles; the 97% success rate of the DOE clean energy loan program; or historic and continuing subsidies for fossil fuels.

Andy Rooney time for broadcast journalism?

Andy Rooney time for broadcast TV journalism?

“Clean tech is dead.  What killed it?”  That’s the first “question” correspondent Leslie Stahl reportedly asked Robert Rapier, chief technology officer at Merica International, in her interview.  So it’s not surprising that much of the buzz has been about how 60 minutes, the citadel of broadcast journalism for decades, managed to plunge further from its post-Benghazi low to this new nadir of hackery.

But the show was more than a case of sloppy journalism.

It was laced with anti-government rhetoric…

“The [LG Chem] plant was built with $151 million from the stimulus to make batteries for electric cars that people never bought.  So the plant went idle and workers were paid tax dollars to sit around and do nothing.”

…and spiced with mild (if incoherent) Sinophobia:

“And so the irony: that taxpayer money for Cleantech and jobs ended up with a Chinese company creating Cleantech and Jobs… in America.[sic]”

This drumbeat of government ineptitude and collective impotence is one of the most potent meta-barriers to climate action.  Surely a government that pays people to sit around doing nothing while throwing taxpayer money to rapacious Chinese can’t be trusted to do anything meaningful about a problem as formidable as climate disruption.

But futility in the face of the climate challenge was only an unspoken subtext of the story.  Because, most disturbing of all, the segment contained not a single reference to climate, carbon, emissions, fossil fuel dependence….you know, that whole existential crisis.

Doing a story about a “clean tech crash” without mentioning climate is symptomatic of a form of denial that may be more destructive than straight-over-tackle lying about climate science.  Denial is a remarkably resilient ecosystem, and this kind of silence is the essential host condition in which it continues to thrive.

Simply not talking about climate disruption in the context of a story about government-supported clean energy technology development is startling – almost aggressive – in its deliberate avoidance of the thing that matters most about the topic.

In the context of climate, the failures and successes of federal support for clean tech is a salient, relevant, vital subject.  But without that context, all we get is a snide, petty exercise in gotcha journalism, complete with radical distortion of the available evidence in order to achieve its pre-determined conclusion.

When Khosla says “the consequences of avoiding failure are doing nothing,” we are left to wonder:  What’s so bad about that?  Is there something we’re supposed to be doing?


Decarbonizing our future

December 16, 2013

Give me an “R” for Reason!

Sid Morrison is one of the most gifted and gracious leaders I have ever met, a Republican who puts a high value on science, collaboration, and solutions.  While I don’t share his enthusiasm for nuclear power, I admire and appreciate his relentless quest for the common ground where knowledge, compassion, and public policy meet.  He and I teamed up on the op-ed below, which ran in the Seattle Times today.

Decarbonizing our future

Sid Morrison and KC Golden

WE have met the enemy, and it is not us. It is not civilization. It is not energy production per se. It is carbon. It’s our excessive reliance on energy systems that dig ancient carbon — fossil fuels — out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.No C

The science is clear: carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere at levels that disrupt the climate. This is not a theory. It’s simple physics, and its impacts are happening now.

The snowpack that anchors our power and water supplies is dwindling over time. Forest health is declining and wildfires are becoming more frequent and dangerous. Ocean acidification is eating away at the marine food chain. Around the world, extreme weather events are taking a growing toll on life and property.

A primary driver of these changes is the carbon that’s released when we burn fossil fuels. For the last 150 years of human development, economic progress has been linked to increasing fossil fuel consumption. Now, we must break that link, both for our own long-term prosperity, and for the billions of people around the world who need a pathway out of energy poverty.

The authors differ in our perspectives on energy technology and policy. One of us chairs the executive board of Washington’s only commercial nuclear power plant. The other is a longtime advocate for energy efficiency and new renewable energy sources. But on this we agree: We can and must rise to the challenge of decarbonizing our energy system. And we believe that the Pacific Northwest is the place to prove it can be done.

If the Northwest were applying for the position of “pioneer for a carbon-free future,” we’d bring an impressive resume to the interview. We have a vast, public infrastructure for producing and delivering carbon-free energy, anchored by the Bonneville Power Administration and the region’s locally controlled public power systems. Our private utilities are among the nation’s most innovative, with deep experience in energy efficiency and with a growing portfolio of carbon-free energy assets. We’re blessed with extraordinary natural and human resources and a culture of innovation, having played leadership roles in the aviation, software and Internet revolutions.

Perhaps better than any region on Earth, we are qualified to blaze the trail to a carbon-free future. But we can’t do it by resting on our laurels. We need to think forward and big: How can we scrub the carbon out of our power supplies, replacing aging coal plants with carbon-free resources? How can we squeeze more work out of existing supplies, making every unit of energy go further and deliver more economic value? How can we leverage our low-cost, low-carbon electricity to replace the high-cost, high-carbon petroleum that dominates our transportation system and drains money out of our local economies?

Here again, the authors would emphasize different practical answers to these questions. But we enthusiastically align together on the need for new policies that focus clearly on the carbon challenge. We don’t have to agree on whether solar or nuclear technology is better in order to support a firm public policy commitment to systematically reduce carbon pollution from energy production.

Such a policy commitment would align the laws of the land with the laws of physics — limiting carbon pollution to safe levels and letting energy markets respond to the true cost of carbon. It would allow nuclear, solar, wind and other carbon-free technologies to compete fairly with fossil fuels, without having to swim against the unfair economic tide of free and unlimited carbon dumping.

It would let the authors go back to slugging it out for their preferred energy strategies, with greater confidence that the winners would be those that deliver on the decarbonization imperative in the most economically and environmentally sound way.

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Note:  Sid and I had planned to publish this earlier in the month.  Never one to pass up a rhetorical flourish, I suggested we add a World War II hook for Pearl Harbor Day, to convey the urgency of the climate threat.  Sid humored me, “….go ahead, even if you have throw in WWII.  We won that one!” 

Here’s the ending we would have used had it been published earlier in the month:

“This Pearl Harbor Day, we’d do well to remind ourselves:  the once-vague global threat of climate disruption is now on our shores.  And the first step toward winning this war for solutions is clearly identifying the enemy and committing ourselves to the cause:  decarbonizing our energy system.”


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