In 2025, the World Will Be Solar-Powered

2025 predictionsThat headline is the major energy takeaway of Thomson Reuters’ free new report The World in 2025: Predictions in Innovation, which cribbed patent and analytic data from Thomson Innovation, Derwents, InCities and Web of Science to create a vision of the future far more benevolent than our globally warmed present. “Solar is the Largest Source of Energy on the Planet” trumpets its photovoltaic complement, one of 10, which promises that within barely over a decade “the use of the sun as the world’s primary source of energy is no longer for the environmentally-conscious select; it is for the masses.”

This will occur thanks to tremendous leaps in innovation, especially at the quantum scale, where “cobalt-oxide and titanium-oxide nanostructures, photocatalysts and 3D nanoscale heterojunctions” will dramatically increase efficiency in photosynthetic chemical bonding. Solar thermal and photovoltaic power will get thinner than ever, enabling creative placement on pretty much everything one can think of, thereby energizing the phones, homes, cars and lives of 2025′s ubiquitously internetworked populations. Support for this argument, according to Thomson Reuters, is indicated by the fact that Fabrication of novel heterostructure of CO304-Modified TIO2 nanorod arrays and enhanced photoelectrochemical property is the most highly cited paper of the last two years.

Of course, it doesn’t take a bucketload of jargon to sustain that point. Exciting solar power innovations are the flip side of dystopian global warming discoveries: Both are exponentially occurring at light-speed, with more data being accrued by the day.

Less than a decade ago, the solar industry worldwide installed a paltry 1.5 gigawatts of capacity; next year, it could install over 60. Barely five years ago, anyone who wanted to go solar had to shell out thousands of dollars. Today, SunPower, SolarCity and many more PV players will do it for zero-down. You can thank the utter bust of the fossil fuel industry for that, of course, but not really, because its century-long boom and “natural gas” hangover have led us all to an existential precipice below which lies a sixth mass extinction and perhaps “game over” for us and our comfy climate.

Thomson Reuters optimistic vision looks little like that, thanks to a reliance upon scientific innovation that hopefully comes true. By 2025, it explains, we will be routinely testing teleportation, mapping DNA, detoxifying cancer treatment, using cellulose packaging, electrifying our fleets, downsizing Type 1 diabetes, ending food shortages, declining dementia and digitally connecting everyone everywhere to everything.

Fingers crossed. Hard.

One Australian State is Trying to Kill Solar Energy with a $500 Fee

solar installationThe government of Queensland, Australia is just beginning to implement a new energy policy that changes the way businesses are charged for electricity, a policy that the solar industry says is designed to make sure businesses have no reason to install commercial-scale rooftop solar panels.

[Editor's note: This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission.]

According to a report in RenewEconomy, the policy reduces the price of actual energy consumption for businesses, but increases the price for energy service in general. That “service fee” has made it so businesses that were originally charged $42 dollars a day are now being charged $488 a day. With the area’s Goods and Services Tax, that amounts to a charge of $533 every day for electricity use. Prices on energy consumption have fallen to 10.4 cents per kilowatt hour from 11.6 center per kilowatt hour, the report said.

This fee is “horrifying” members of the solar industry, the report said, because now businesses have no monetary incentive to lower their electricity consumption by installing solar panels or investing in energy efficiency machinery and lighting.

“The changes are clever in their design,” Steve Madson, director of Country Solar, one of the country’s largest installers of commercial-scale solar, told RenewEconomy. “They do not actually result in an increase in total electricity costs, and in some cases they actually cause a fall. But they kill the possibility of reducing the bills by installing solar.”

What the fee really amounts to is a fixed-price system that makes it so even low-energy consumers now have to pay much more just for using electricity — the amount of electricity used is now less of a factor in the bill. The Queensland government has favored this approach, the report notes, because it protects grid operators by giving them a more stable income, and boosts the dividends paid to the government.

However, the Queensland government has been roundly criticized for trying to protect the grid operators by actively preventing the solar industry from making a mark in the region. In 2013, RenewEconomy reported that the Queensland Competition Authority — the same agency that implemented the $500 fee rule — supported putting extra fees on residential solar customers. They did so “even though it admitted that they would be more costly, ineffective, unfair and possibly illegal,” the report said.

The fixed-price system the Queensland government has favored, however, could have unintended consequences. As financial services company Morgan Stanley has noted, these types of policies could frustrate low-energy users to the point where they may try to remove themselves from the grid altogether.

“There may be a ‘tipping point’ that causes customers to seek an off-grid approach — higher fixed charges to distributed generation customers are likely to drive more battery purchases and exits from the grid,” Morgan Stanley researchers wrote last week.

While Queensland is just one small part of Australia, the country’s government as a whole has a storied history of actively preventing any measure that might promote clean energy or policies that would help fight climate change. Prime minister Tony Abbott, who in 2009 said the science behind climate change was “crap,” has employed an anti-climate agenda in the country that’s included angering world leaders by downplaying the issue, axing Australia’s climate commission, and abandoning greenhouse gas emissions targets. Recently, Australia became the first country in the world to get rid of its carbon tax, despite the fact that it was working.

Meanwhile, the last two years in Australia have been the hottest ever recorded. Those above-average temperatures are expected to continue rising in the coming years.

Solar installation photo CC-licensed by Wayne National Forest on Flickr.

How Solar Power Adds an Extra Green Layer to a LEED Home

If you asked a passerby on the street what makes a home green, odds are you’d hear solar panels mentioned pretty often. Surprisingly, while green energy does play a role in a green home — particularly one that earns LEED certification — solar power shouldn’t be the first feature on the list when making a home greener.

The LEED program — which stands for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design — is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. LEED covers the entire built environment: From a 280-square-foot home in North Carolina to the LEED-Gold certified Empire State Building, as well as new homes, existing homes, businesses, schools, and more.

For a home to receive LEED certification, it must satisfy prerequisites and earn points to achieve different levels of certification, from Certified at the lower end of the scale up through Silver, Gold and Platinum at the top. Prerequisites and credits differ for each rating system, and teams choose the best fit for their project.

While green energy does help attain credits in the program, there are a number of other things that should go into the home before you look at green energy, including home solar.

Asa Foss, LEED residential technical development director at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), said LEED looks to address a number of issues including human health, water conservation and protecting the environment. Solar photovoltaics can definitely improve on all of those. “It takes a lot of water to produce energy in any of its forms,” he said. “Conversely, when you’re saving water you’re going to be saving energy.”

In terms of human health, solar power has a micro-level impact on people at the local community level while having a positive net effect on global warming, says Foss. Renewable energy and energy efficiency address all of these problems. “We see all of these things as being intermixed.”

Solar energy plays a role in LEED home certification in a number of specific ways, Foss said. Twenty-nine of the 100 available points are based on energy efficiency. “The more energy-efficient the home, the more points a project can get.”

But energy efficiency doesn’t start with the type of power generation that’s deployed – it begins with conservation of energy by addressing the efficiency of things such as windows, insulation and HVAC systems. “A kilowatt saved is a kilowatt saved,” said Foss; LEED rewards projects for energy savings.

But there is also a new credit that encourages creating a solar-ready design, he said. “It rewards a project for having a solar PV or solar hot water-ready house.” Foss said residential housing projects are incentivized to adopt solar photovoltaics because they have a set goal of achieving so many points and if they are few points short, adding solar power to the mix often raises them from Silver to Gold or Gold to Platinum – if they do a little bit more they can get a higher level of certification. “They’ll look at all of the available credits and figure out what the best bang for their buck is.”

leed home 2He added that the Environmental Protection Agency has specifications for a renewable energy-ready home, and new stricter building codes governing heating, cooling, insulation and lighting make adding solar even more cost-effective.

Foss said the USGBC doesn’t track the actual types of solar power being deployed, but generally photovoltaic panels still dominate over technologies like new solar shingles. Its focus is tracking energy savings, he said. “As codes become more stringent, projects are going to have to look more to renewable energy and photovoltaics specifically.”

Solar power, however, should not be the first thing to go into a LEED-certified home, or any green home for that matter, said Tyler Hemanson, director and lead designer of Calgary-based 4 Elements Integrated Design, a firm that focuses on design and certification. He estimates there are about 3,000 LEED-certified homes in Canada, with nearly 200 in Calgary after about five years.

Hermanson said high-performance projects such as LEED Platinum homes all have solar in them. “When you get to a certain level, it’s the next logical step in terms of performance, but there’s a lot basic good building practices that need to happen before that.” He said you would see a lot less solar on a LEED Silver home than a Gold or Platinum.

In fact, solar is not a prerequisite or even something every LEED home has to have, said Hermanson. There are lots of credits that are more important for the average homeowner before you start adding solar panels to the roof. “At most, solar is only worth about 10 credits out of your 100 credits for a Platinum house,” he said. “It certainly can’t be the only green thing you do.”

Hermanson said many homeowners get excited about solar after attending home shows because it’s a very visual part of any green home, certified or not. “Sometimes we have to talk people down a little bit,” he said. One approach would be to recommend more energy-efficient appliances first, so a photovoltaic system is even more beneficial.

Homeowners should prioritize making their home electrically efficient, said Hermanson. There are a lot of LEED credits for Energy Star appliances and lighting, for example. “Those pieces are certainly more cost-effective than solar panels,” he said. In the overall efficiency of the home as a whole, homeowners really need to pay attention to the details – the wall insulation, the windows, air tightness and ventilation. These all need to be under control before looking at a solar PV system, said Hermanson. “You really need a solid envelope for a high performance home.”

leed home 3Derek Satnik, managing director and chief innovation officer at Kitchener, Ontario-based Mindscape Innovations agreed that solar has traditionally been one of the last things to be adopted as part of LEED certification, and in general, solar power is having trouble selling itself. “There are a couple of competing interests,” he said. “First and foremost, homeowners always want everything and the moon for free and don’t want to pay premiums, so one of the challenges any builder has when trying to build a LEED home is that they are competing with the guy down the street who is throwing in free granite countertops.”

A builder can do something very progressive that saves a homeowner money, or in the case of solar, can make them money, said Satnik, and even with numbers to back those things up, it’s going to be compared with things that aren’t comparable; the homeowner is still going to choose the granite countertops, he said. “The solar market in particular has really struggled to sell itself.”

That solar power is not selling itself better is frustrating to Satnik. “In a large way, that factors into the discussions we have with builders,” he said. “The builders are very mindful that their homes are going to be on the street and compared with other people’s homes.”

Mindscape has spearheaded LEED adoption in Canada since its early days, starting with a license for the American program before there was a Canadian program. Satnik said the building industry is very much in its infancy in learning lessons from what has been accomplished with LEED thus far. “Canadian homebuilders are still becoming comfortable with programs like this.”

Hermanson said the builders he works with have been doing green homes for some time with less stringent certifications than LEED and found they were getting grouped together with low-end builders. “They needed a stronger, more stringent green building program to help them stand out.”

Photo credits:

Top photo: An efficient LEED Platinum certified house designed by architect Jeff Armstrong on Morris Island, Canada; photo courtesy of Mathiew Girard by way of Huffington Post.

Second photo: Midori Uchi residence in Vancouver; photographs by Ema Peter Photography.

Third photo: LEED Platinum certified Kerchum Residence in Vancouver by Frits de Vries Architect Ltd., photos courtesy of iDesignArch.

Shining Some Light on that Solar Panel ‘Shortage’ in the News

solar manufacturingFile this under good news masquerading as bad. According to Bloomberg, the solar industry is about to run out of panels for the first time since 2006.

But pay no attention to the alarmist headline. The good news is that the shortage has little in the way of legs.

For one, Bloomberg didn’t actually cite any study or research confirming its hypothesis, and even admitted that several companies have accelerated manufacturing on their minds. As I reported in June, U.S. installation leader SolarCity acquired manufacturer Silevo specifically to build “one of the single largest solar panel production plants in the world” in the United States. That’s far indeed from the Chinese manufacturers like Trina and Yingli that Bloomberg cites as winners in the coming artificial solar scarcity. (Rooftop solar advocates are the losers, it adds, because they don’t buy enough). [Disclosure: SolarCity is an installer-partner of SolarEnergy's parent company, PURE Energies.]

But of course, SolarCity isn’t alone: Its main competitor SunPower may be running its factories at full tilt now, but its new 350mw Fab4 factory goes online in the Philippines next year, while its 700mw Fab5 factory arrives in 2017. The domestic front is looking bright indeed.

Meanwhile, overseas production is ramping up as well. Ontario-based Canadian Solar, which deals primarily in Asia, began construction on a new 300mw Chinese factory in May. In fact, “new solar cell factories were expected to come online during the second half of 2014, especially in Taiwan,” explained NPD Solarbuzz vice president Finlay Colville. Except that “the threat of import duties on Chinese and Taiwanese manufactured components shipping to Europe or the United States, however, has caused additional delays and uncertainty.”

Which is, in the end, the unwritten argument in Bloomberg‘s analysis, which is stock-picking rather than getting to the bottom of the shortfall, which is where the solar war between America and China resides. Unnecessary political and economic uncertainty about who is going to pay what to solarize the world is what is truly engineering the so-called panel shortage that hasn’t yet occurred. Because of that childish tit-for-tat, production and manufacturing are going to stumble in the short term, until the nonsense is resolved and we all get back to the business at hand, which is putting a solar panel on top of everything, everywhere.

But even the tariff war isn’t going to stop solar’s runaway train, for one simple reason: It is humanity’s chief cleantech alternative, as coal, gas and methane booms come to bust. There is so much money to be made in the building and selling of solar panels that no business with any sense (or cents) is going to sit by and tolerate artificial scarcity games, when global warming is breathing down our necks. We may never see a solar glut again, but a shortage is just as improbable.

Solar manufacturing photo CC-licensed by gigasolar on Flickr.

A New Court Ruling Makes Connecting Renewables to the Grid Easier

electric gridBuilding wind farms and huge solar arrays means nothing if they cannot transmit that energy to homes and businesses, and a recent court ruling just made connecting to the grid a lot easier.

[Editor's note: This article originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission].

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, commonly known as FERC, doesn’t often draw headlines for fulfilling its duty of regulating electricity, gas, and oil transmission. However a Friday ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirming a 2011 FERC order is poised to usher in major changes in the way utilities and regulators consider transmission and to open pathways for more renewables to enter the grid.

FERC Order 1000, as the order is known, makes a number of changes to how electricity transmission will be considered in the future. It requires grid investments that affect multiple states and utility jurisdictions to be coordinated — rather than the former system which allowed individual state regulators and utilities to opt in or out of regional efforts. It provides guidance on how to pay for expensive transmission projects and makes the process more flexible to help facilitate growth, especially for renewable efforts. It also eliminates utilities’ first right of refusal, which allowed incumbent utilities to decide first it they wanted to build transmission projects. This will help level the playing field for independent transmission projects.

Perhaps most significantly, Order 1000 demands transmission plans account for state-level policies on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing renewable energy production. Currently around 20 states have Renewable Energy Portfolios operating to achieve these goals.

Overall the Order is ambitious and aims to accomplish two primary goals: facilitating the coordinated construction of the many new and updated electric transmission lines needed as fossil fuel and renewable energy projects come online in disparate parts of the country, and making it easier for large-scale renewable energy projects to connect to the grid.

The EPA’s recent announcement of proposed carbon dioxide regulations for existing power plants, which will be carried out by state-level directives, will likely dovetail well with these new transmission guidelines.

“This really is significant because now any time transmission is being considered it will have to take into account states that use renewable energy as a compliance tool to meet greenhouse gas emissions goals,” Gene Grace, senior council for the American Wind Energy Association, told ThinkProgress. “This means the grid will be built to meet renewable energy requirements.”

Grace said the real thing this order recognizes that hasn’t been addressed before is that “grid expansion brings benefits to everyone, including environmental benefits, and now these environmental benefits are required consideration.”

The U.S. electric grid is aging and messy. There’s a Western and an Eastern divide. Texas has its own grid (which has helped it build big, new wind- and solar-power transmission lines by state initiative). There are a number of regional transmission efforts splotching the map. The Southeast states pretty much do their own thing. This court ruling will ensure that going forward, FERC authorities undertake broad considerations that facilitate an integrated grid roll-out with all the infrastructure necessary to meet clean energy goals.

“We have an aging grid that needs billions of dollars worth of renovations and the question is how that money will be spent — on the smart gird technology that can hasten reliance on more clean energy or on string and chewing gum solutions that keep us wedded to fossil fuels,” Abigail Dillen, VP of Litigation, Climate and Energy for EarthJustice told ThinkProgress.

Dillen emphasized the importance of transparent regional and interregional transmission planning processes based on clear rules that will help the grid grow in a deliberate, rather than more haphazard, fashion. “We are thrilled and relieved that the D.C. Circuit has upheld FERC’s authority to make these needed reforms,” she said.

Both Grace and Dillen were part of a team that filed a brief in support of Order 1000.

The original order was challenged by 45 different petitioners made up of state regulatory agencies, utilities, and electric industry trade associations. They argued that FERC was overstepping its authority and that Order 1000 was “arbitrary and capricious and unsupported by substantial evidence.” However the seven-part ruling from the D.C. Circuit Court found that these “contentions are unpersuasive.”

John Finnigan, Senior Regulatory Attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund and also party to the brief in support of the Order, told ThinkProgress that while some of the petitioners may continue to pursue appeal others have started to form independent transmission companies to operate under the new rules. Companies like Trans-Elect Development Company, LLC. and The American Transmission Company own and operate independent transmission systems that build new lines connecting both fossil fuel and renewable energy projects. Natural gas, wind, and solar projects are often sited in remote areas where the resources are located. Creating a transmission infrastructure that makes the projects economical is a key element of bringing them online.

This shift to independent operators has already happened in the electricity generation business with power plants as states have deregulated retail electricity markets, but it is yet to happen on the transmission side. FERC has been pursuing this objective for a number of years.

“A few years ago FERC made it easier for companies to build independent transmission projects,” said Finnigan. “These new lines have mostly been for traditional energy projects because it hasn’t been easy to justify renewable projects until now.”

Transmission lines photo CC-licensed by Chris Hunkeler on Flickr.

How Utilities Can Spur Electric Vehicle Adoption

140819-utilities-evsWhile passenger plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) have left their hybrid counterparts in the dust by selling faster than ever, the market for larger-class PEV trucks has yet to even approach the freeway on ramp.

But that could change drastically if the electric power industry — the sector with the largest energy consumption footprint in the U.S. — committed to investing just 5 percent of its budget in PEV fleets.

“When you consider the buying power that our industry has as a whole, it definitely puts us in a unique and opportune position to grow the market,” said Becky Harsh Knox, the director of retail energy policy at the Edison Electric Institute, the trade association for U.S. utilities.

That’s the conclusion of a report [PDF] recently released by the Institute, which points out the benefits of electric vehicle adoption are more than just igniting the medium- to heavy-duty PEV market. In addition to cost savings and reduced greenhouse gases, it also offers opportunities for utilities to improve worker safety and increase non-emergency work hours for crews (due to reduced noise), and provide another point of entry for customers to be engaged with a utility’s sustainability efforts, the report says.

Currently, PEVs make up just 1.7 percent of utility fleets nationwide, according to fleet analysis platform Utilimarc.

“The PEV technologies and options for the types of vehicles — Class 1 pick-up trucks and larger Class 5 trucks — that make up the large majority of utility fleets hasn’t been there until recently,” Knox said. “What we are proposing in the [report] would help move those type of vehicles toward electrification.”

Knox said that the Institute recommends a 5 percent investment level as it’s an achievable number that can serve as a starting point for utilities of all sizes across the industry.

A key rallying point around the adoption of PEVs in utility fleets is cost effectiveness. Break-even points, fuel costs and maintenance are also favorable to conventional models, according to the report.

“[PEVs] have a longer useful life than the regular combustion engine vehicles, so that alone provides an economic advantage,” Knox added.

The return on investment should only increase with the volume of vehicles purchased, as the incremental cost of vehicles decrease with collective buying power, the report said — and could even go as far as reducing production costs for plug-in technology as a whole.

Yet utilities should be prepared to face challenges to widespread PEV adoption, the report added. These include resistance to change by fleet operators, reduced mechanic knowledge and reduced performance in extreme weather.

But Knox points out that the mass adoption of PEVs by the utility sector could have an even greater impact if it engaged its combined workforce of 500,000 by providing workplace charging stations and other perks.

“We can directly control what we purchase as an industry, but we can also provide incentives for employee adoption,” she said.

Electric vehicle photo CC-licensed by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

A New Solar Map for Minneapolis Shows Solar Potential for Every Roof

minneapolis solar mapLike many other American cities, Minneapolis hopes to continue cutting its greenhouse gas emissions over the next few years — and increasing solar PV capacity is a key part of reaching that goal.

But financial incentives aren’t always enough to get local residents moving. So the city decided to create a new online map detailing the solar potential of every rooftop in Minneapolis. Now, anyone can click on any home or building and instantly find out how many solar panels it can hold, how much energy would be produced per year and how much that energy is worth.

“I think it’s good for any city that is interested in promoting solar,” said Brendon Slotterback, the city’s sustainability program coordinator who took the lead on developing the map. “It can be a good communication tool to really show the potential that’s out there for any individual property as well as the entire city.”

The map was created using remote sensing data (using the LIDAR laser method) that captures the elevation of the Earth’s surface in 3D and solar insolation data showing just how much energy can be captured on PV panels. Incorporating GIS data gave information about the slope of each rooftop as well as objects around it, such as trees, that could interfere with sun exposure.

Roofs without enough space to support at least 1 kilowatt of solar panels were not included on the map, since the city considers this insufficient for solar.

Other interactive solar maps, such as the map of Cambridge, Mass., developed by MIT researchers, provided the inspiration for the Minneapolis map, Slotterback said, along with the knowledge that the remote sensing data was available from the state of Minnesota.

But the largest effort in the state was pioneered by the University of Minnesota’s U-Spatial program earlier this year, where GIS graduate students and a faculty sponsor developed the Solar Suitability app that enables anyone in the state to look up the solar potential for their property. In July, the students — or Solar Dream Team, as they dubbed themselves — won first place in GIS mapping company Esri’s first-ever contest that judged apps aimed at increasing climate change resiliency.

Though Slotterback said that the results of the Minneapolis mapping project did not surprise him, the finished map did indicate that the city had a little more solar potential than he previously thought.

And another valuable takeaway from the process was discovering that one of the greatest and most efficient opportunities to make big gains in the city’s solar capacity is through installation on flat-roofed commercial and industrial buildings.

“It’s a big chunk of the total potential that’s available in Minneapolis,” he said. Even though installing PV panels on flat roofs requires slightly more space per panel than on sloped roofs, the sheer size of the flat roofs outweighed any sort of space efficiency from sloped roofs, he said, because it’s easier to do an installation on one large flat roof versus a lot of smaller sloped roofs.

One piece of information Slotterback would like to add to the map is the age of each roof, since it’s not recommended to install solar on aging shingles.

“We can take a look and see when people last pulled a permit to reshingle their roof. That would be something that other cities can look at also — it gets rid of one last barrier to a solar installation,” he said.

Infographic: The Solar Revolution, in Three Acts

We spend our days digging into the many facets of the solar revolution here in the U.S., from the benefits of solar to the policies that drive the solar boom to the coming wave of electric vehicles that will further grow the solar market.

But sometimes it’s helpful to step back and look at the bigger picture, and get a reminder of just how far we’ve come, and how quickly we’ve progressed — not to mention how much more of a solar boom lies ahead of our.

The good people at the Union of Concerned Scientists have just published a terrific infographic on the rise of solar in the U.S., and it shows, in three brief panels, the solar revolution that we’re in the midst of. (Disclosure: I spent part of a year working for UCS on their sustainability team, helping them walk the talk. Which they do.)

First, look at how far and how quickly the cost of solar has dropped in the last decade:

solar infographic 1
Second, as a result of that price drop, as well as smart state-level policies, more than half of all U.S. states will have solar power that’s as cheap as grid electricity by 2017:

ucs solar infographic 2
Third, as solar power gets more affordable, even more homes will go solar:

ucs solar infographic 3
All of which will create a feedback loop, so if we do this chart in five years, you will see an even more precipitous drop in price, even more states with cheaper-than-grid solar electricity costs, and even more homes going solar.

Lather, rinse, repeat until we get to 100 percent renewable energy.

See the whole infographic at ucsusa.org/solarrevolution.

Los Angeles Gets Behind Energy Efficiency in a Big Way

los angeles city hallThe five-member Board of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has unanimously voted to approve 10-year energy efficiency targets that will vault America’s largest municipally-owned utility, which provides service to around 3.9 million people, to national leadership in energy efficiency.

[Editor's note: This article, by Dylan Sullivan, originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission.]

Prior to last Tuesdays vote, I spoke in support of the motion, along with dozens of representatives from community organizations, business groups, labor organizations, and other environmental advocates. NRDC also provided peer review of the research and analysis – an energy efficiency potential study conducted by Nexant, a consultancy – that undergirds the targets.

NRDC supports energy efficiency because:

  • Saving energy in LA’s homes and businesses is cheaper than the alternatives (LADWP can save energy at one-third to one-fourth of the cost of building a new power plant);
  • Saving energy means we don’t have burn as much natural gas in the LA basin or coal in the desert, reducing greenhouse emissions and improving air quality in our most disadvantaged communities; and
  • Saving energy creates jobs in LA; according to a recent UCLA study, LADWP’s current energy efficiency programs create around 16 jobs per-million dollars of investment, better than any other power system investment LADWP can make.

It wasn’t so long ago that having an NRDC advocate speak in support of a LADWP energy efficiency proposal would have been unexpected. NRDC has long urged LADWP to make energy efficiency a priority. For years our annual report that analyzes the energy efficiency efforts of California’s publicly owned utilities highlighted LADWP as a conspicuous laggard.

2014 8 11 _ NRDC _ ladwp potential study graphic.png

But LADWP changed in 2012. That year, the LADWP Board voted to double LADWP’s energy efficiency budget, adopt a “10% by 2020” savings goal, and, following a Statement of Principles, run energy efficiency programs in a manner that broadly distributes energy efficiency projects and opportunities across Los Angeles. Since then, under the leadership of David Jacot, LADWP’s Director of Energy Efficiency, energy savings have increased around 40 percent per-year.

The new targets approved last week will have LADWP reduce electricity use (compared to a 2010 baseline) by about 15 percent by 2020, fulfilling one of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s energy goals, as described in this year’s State of the City Address.

NRDC estimates that implementing energy efficiency programs to meet the goals will create 22,000 jobs in total, save enough energy to power more than 450,000 LA households, and reduce our citywide electricity bill by $775 million.

Ways to reach the goal

How will LADWP meet these new, ambitious targets? The energy efficiency potential study – that analysis we helped review – shows that there are ample cost-effective opportunities to save energy that, together, make reaching the target feasible. LADWP can, for example (see the above infographic for more possibilities):

  • Reduce the price and improve the marketing and store placement of LED light bulbs
  • Provide turn-key efficiency retrofits for small businesses
  • Help big industrial customers improve their manufacturing processes, and
  • Help the managers of big commercial buildings tune-up their HVAC systems.

At last week’s meeting, Board President Mel Levine said that he had never seen so many community members sign up to speak at a LADWP Board meeting, all of them in support of the energy efficiency motion. That support is a testament to the broad desire of LADWP customers for cleaner energy options, our confidence in LADWP’s energy efficiency team, and the critical role efficiency will play in LA’s energy future.

This kind of leadership is indicative of what we should expect from cities, regions, and states that are scaling-up energy efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, as called for in the Clean Power Plan.

Congratulations to LA’s policymakers and advocates for leading the way.

This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission. Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog

LA City Hall photo CC-licensed by Earth Hour Global on Flickr.

Why Home Solar and Net Metering Aren’t Causing Utilities’ Woes

electric gridThe solar war between entrenched utilities and net metering newcomers is heating up. But utilities need to chill, according to a new report out of the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative brain trust.

“Focusing exclusively on customer-sited solar PV and net energy metering (NEM) as the main driver of declining utility revenues fundamentally mischaracterizes the real, more important reasons why some utilities could be collecting insufficient revenue and consistently falling short of their authorized returns on investment,” argues North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center and Boston-based Meister Consultants Group in their study, Rethinking Standby and Fixed Cost Charges: Regulatory & Rate Design Pathways to Deeper Solar PV Cost Reductions (PDF). “Simply put, rate structures that target solar PV to the exclusion of the many other causes of utility revenue erosion and cost shifts from some customers to others constitute undue price discrimination against solar PV.”

There are plenty of other places for the utilities to assign blame, the report explains, including redundant infrastructure investment and the offshoring of manufacturing, which is becoming more of a money pit during an existential global warming crisis that demands we work more locally than ever.

Sure, “sluggish economic growth” is also a drain, the report adds, as well as greener customers who are using less juice. But if you think a business model staking its financial future on the increasing consumption of coal, oil and methane actually has a future, well then … I’ve got a Hummer to sell you.

NC State and MCG’s position paper, birthed out of Sunshot’s Solar Outreach Partnerships (SolarOPs), recommends a three-pronged “basic strategy” for utilities looking to wise up and claw back some grumpy money.

  1. Revenue decoupling would levy fixed or volumetric charges on all customers if the utility profits (shockingly) fail to meet costs, rather than singling out solar do-gooders whose excess energy can help grids shoulder their energy burdens.
  2. Bare minimum charges could be handed out to zero-net pioneers, who should find it a reasonable pay-to-play compromise.
  3. And time-differentiated rates could apportion charges more in accordance with real-time needs of all customers, including the increasing many who opt to go solar and then, say, decide to buy and recharge their electric cars in what the 20th-century once called “off-peak” hours.

It’s a new century, the report might as well have concluded, so the utilities might as well catch up. Because these evolutionary, revolutionary energy changes are coming, whether they want them to or not. The utilities should join the 21st-century while they still have the attention of a global population that’s seems plenty happy to shrug, unplug and determinedly build ways around them.

Electric grid photo CC-licensed by Tau Zero on Flickr.