From Alaska to New Mexico, Smart States Win Clean Energy Awards

alaska wind farmThe national nonprofit coalition of public agencies Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA) has been working for years to green American infrastructure. This year, CESA’s State Leadership in Clean Energy Awards (PDF) were handed out to some its members working on everything from replacing closed landfills with solar farms to creating resilient microgrids that can survive global warming superstorms.

The eight awardees include core CESA members Alaska Energy Authority, whose hydropower innovations helped Kodiak Island decrease its reliance upon diesel on the way to becoming a 99-percent renewable community, as well as the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, whose Clean Energy Internship Program has productively connected the Bay State’s higher education graduates with its renewable energy industry. Additional core members Energy Trust of Oregon and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority were also respectively awarded for the first wastewater recovery facility “in the Pacific Northwest to achieve net-zero energy consumption” and streamlining access to prepackaged, modular combined heat and power (CHP) systems that capture wasted energy to power community homes, businesses and facilities.

As mentioned above, core CESA member Sacramento Municipal Utility District reused desolate land for solar power. But SMUD was also awarded for creating a co-digestion facility that transforms oil, grease and food processing waste into renewable energy, as well as dairy manure anaerobic digestion systems that supply power to Sacramento’s expanding grid.

Meanwhile, affiliate CESA members New Mexico Energy Conservation and Management Division and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection were respectively awarded for their renewable energy production tax credits and aforementioned microgrid innovations. The Connecticut Green Bank was also awarded for its Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) program, which allows business and multifamily residence owners access to long-term financing for smart energy upgrades.

“These award winners illustrate the tremendous creativity and commitment being shown by state agencies across the country in implementing clean energy,” executive director Warren Leon explained in a statement. “With eight very different programs highlighting diverse technologies including solar PV, wind, energy storage, hydropower, anaerobic digesters, microgrids, and combined heat and power, the 2014 State Leadership in Clean Energy award winners demonstrate that clean energy can create jobs, clean up the environment, and benefit local economies. These are programs to emulate.”

Although CESA members and affiliates nominated themselves, entrants were independently judged by the Department of Energy’s Steve Lindenberg, Solar Foundation’s Andrea Luecke, National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Robert Thresher, ex-Colorado governor Bill Ritter and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s Larry Sherwood. Free webinars on the winners can be viewed beginning in December.

Alaska wind farm photo courtesy of CESA.

The Solar Homes of the Future Will Also Be Mini Power Plants

solar homeWith solar power, battery storage and electric vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, the home is poised to become a mini power plant. And with the ability to sell this energy to the grid, power generation is no longer a one-way street.

What kinds of emerging technology are allowing this dynamic to happen? Which market drivers are spurring adoption, and when will they hit their stride?

A recent webcast from Navigant Research, a firm that conducts market analyses of the cleantech industry worldwide addressed these questions.

“Customers are going to be entering this new role as both a generator of electricity while still a customer of a utility service,” said Navigant Research analyst Neil Strother during the webcast. “Such a move alters one’s relationship with the utility and it will be interesting to see how regulators and utility react to this growth.”

The push toward innovation in home energy power generation involves a number of market drivers, he added, including the retail price of electricity along with the decreasing cost of solar panels and solar system installations. Yet fracking is still keeping electricity prices down in North America, Strother said.

Still, new technology has been emerging such as grid-tied residential energy storage, electric vehicles that can be send their energy to the grid and online platforms that can manage these functions during demand response events.

The market for grid-tied residential energy storage, according to Strother, is expected to grow from 63.4 MW in 2013 to 1.5 GW in 2023, yet will be dependent on drivers such as high retail electricity rates, feed-in tariffs for solar PV and an adoption subsidy for energy storage — or a subsidy that combines energy storage with solar PV.

Jay Paidipati, a director at Navigant Research, recently finished a demonstration project with the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District showing how a utility can work with local communities to harness buckets of PV-generated energy stored in home battery systems.

Though SMUD controlled when the batteries were charged and discharged, participants benefited financially as the batteries were charged during off-peak times when time-of-use rates were lower, and discharged once rates were higher, Paidpati said.

Another big change, according to Jonathan Bass, a vice president at SolarCity, is that in the next five to eight years, every home solar system will be coupled with a residential storage system.

And the California Public Utilities Commission has jumpstarted a review of regulations for the demand side of the energy equation. The shape of any such regulations would influence those in other parts of the country, Strother said.

As far as vehicle-to-grid plug-in EV markets go, Navigant’s analysts believe that come 2016, they will be in swing. They predict that vehicles with such capabilities — allowing electric vehicles to feed energy into the electric grid during times of peak demand — will grow by over 20,000 by 2023, with the largest markets being in Japan and the Asia-Pacific region.

“The point is that once standards are established it will make it more likely for the vehicle-to-grid market to exist,” Strother said.

And the V2H – or vehicle-to-home infrastructure, which would enable an electric vehicle to provide backup power to someone’s home — is only a nascent market right now, due to a lack of significant numbers of those who have adopted the technology.

But consumers’ interest and adoption are dependent on users fulfilling their expectations that they can control their energy use and storage behavior from their mobile phones, according to Bass.

“If you can give customers an insight into how they’re using energy at home … once they understand those things they can change behavior, reduce consumption considerably and create more savings,” he said.

The key point, he added, is that these energy services have now grown up.

“Solar is really a managed service today,” Bass said, referring to the ability for users to pay for monthly services and control the system remotely — along with its incorporation in some utilities’ demand response management. “[It’s] another form of electricity delivery very similar to what the utilities have been doing for the past few decades, only cleaner and cheaper.”

Solar homes photo courtesy of RMI.

Looking for a Solar Job? Ecotech’s E-Book Surveys the Landscape

solar job e-bookDespite projections that solar will continue to grow, even the most inspired students don’t want to jump in the field without knowing more about what the industry has to offer — and what it takes to make a successful installer, field technician, power utility technician or engineer.

That information is the focus of a solar careers e-book recently released by Ecotech Institute, a four-year-old technical college in Aurora, Colo. specializing in renewable energy and sustainability. It offers programs — mainly two-year associate degrees — in a range of areas including solar, wind and power utility technology, as well as residential energy management and electrical engineering.

“There’s a lot of people out there who want an opportunity to do something that is more visceral than what you get in a typical classroom situation, and we’re definitely trying to cater to that crowd,” said Chris Gorrie, Ecotech’s president. “We really focus on the hands-on aspect of the trade, of being technicians.”

Gorrie says Ecotech strives to produce graduates who can meet the demands of industry. In a rapidly changing environment, that means keeping a close eye on the ground — as well as working with local advisory boards (set up for each program) and industry professionals so that Ecotech can adapt and respond its curriculum to those changes.

“They meet with us every year to talk about current trends in industry,” Gorrie said. “Their suggestions can range from which torque wrenches to use [on wind turbines] to the curriculum — for example, we dialed back on solar thermal and [went] to grid-tied PV because most of the industry was there.”

While the solar e-book — which has a sister publication focused on careers in the wind industry — is more of an introduction rather than an in-depth analysis of what to expect as a solar industry worker, the publication covers such topics as a “typical” day as an installer (spoiler alert: there is no such thing), salary projections for installers (which range from a low of $26,250 to a high of $57,980), and where the jobs are (hint: Go west).

And along with a directory of online resources, it lists the key technical skills needed to thrive in the arena, such as the ability to work with complex electrical and mechanical equipment, safety skills, basic math skills, and possession of physical strength and stamina. One also needs to be able to make critical decisions quickly, weigh the pros and cons of solutions, have good customer service skills and be able to delve into the details of complicated solar system installs.

Ecotech’s solar students get time in the real world to practice such skills by getting on the roof with Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that works to provide solar to communities that otherwise might not have had access to such technology.

“Students in their last term do a soup-to-nuts installation with Grid Alternatives,” Gorrie said. “Their time goes towards advanced NABCEP certification, the standardized accreditation for solar installers.”

With 400 students and over 30 faculty members, the school is small. Yet Gorrie says it’s growing — much like the opportunities in the renewable energy field.

One of these areas, he says, is in the power utility sector, an area where Ecotech is graduating its first class from its power utility technician program.

“We’re at a point in time where our power grid is being upgraded to the next level — there’s a lot of talk about smart grid and a lot of folks in that industry are beginning to retire,” he said. “So the graduating students will have a lot of really great career opportunities.”

Elon Musk’s Wildly Successful Vision for a Clean Energy Future

Elon Musk’s future industries understand convergence as a first principle. Seven billion Earthlings simply can’t have Tesla’s electric cars and SpaceX’s reusable rockets without harnessing SolarCity’s sunshine. Especially if they’re trying to save themselves from global warming and Christopher Nolan blockbusters.

So futurists perk up when Tesla executives start showing up at energy conferences spreading news that SolarCity — the panel champ Musk co-founded with his cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive — is accelerating its plan with Tesla to build storage batteries for solar panels, EVs and even personal electronics. Years ahead of the hotly anticipated Gigafactory ‘s schedule, even.

These are further reminders that future industrialists like Musk are hopefully a step ahead of the apocalyptic present. Because they’ve also been reading news that, starting yesterday, humanity must quickly create new residential and transportation normals, cleanly powered by the sun while coughing up zero emissions.

Like perhaps most of us, as I have written before, Musk isn’t simply thinking about how to win this existential race against time, hopefully before global warming’s superstorms arrive. He’s the man with a greener plan, already in place.

tesla plus solar“Probably more than any other single person, Elon Musk is helping to change the way Americans think about energy and the environment,” Solar Energies Industries Association spokesperson Ken Johnson told me. “He is bold, committed and visionary –- all traits that are critically important when you are trying to blaze new trails. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t go down in the history books as one of the most influential figures of our time.”

The Future of Solar

Evolving plans to bundle Tesla’s EV batteries with SolarCity’s rooftop panels could happen before this year is up, director of powertrain bizdev Mateo Jaramillo recently explained at the Platts California Power and Gas conference in San Francisco. Jaramillo added that Tesla’s only manufacturing site — for now (see below) — could be pounding out 50 megawatt-hours of stationary lithium-ion storage batteries for power backup and more by the start of 2015. That cleantech synergy means consumers — who are looking to plug their electric cars into their solar homes and thereby cleanly empower most of their living — may already have a one-stop shop to take their orders, and money, before the next presidential election.

Speaking of elections and money, after U.S. Republicans, bankrolled by dirty fuel titans, staged a midterm electoral comeback earlier this month, the solar sector as a result tanked rather hard, likely factoring decreasing support for solar and wind investment tax credits into future earnings.

But not SolarCity or Tesla: They are stable in a renewables market that’s gone sideways, plagued with political, economic and environmental uncertainty — at least until the next presidential election provides more clarity. Musk’s future industries have balanced out those worrisome politics, as well as surprise triumphs like America’s warming climate with China, to continue their ascendancy on both Wall Street and Main Street.

By the time that America and China — two solar power titans who also happen to supply Earth with the majority of its choking pollution — arrive at the monumentally important 2015 United Nations global warming conference in Paris, Musk’s Tesla and SolarCity will be at the ready with an alternative energy infrastructure, one actually worth saving, just waiting in the wings.

When calculating the future of solar, these events prove quite instructive, because even present uncertainties cannot stop future industries from arriving. They may barely slow them, no matter which parties win which elections in whatever countries. Eventually, always sooner than later, Earth’s inhabitants will need solar power, electric transportation and energy storage simply to survive. And while there are no shortage of power players in both the solar and EV spaces — from SunPower to Yingli to Nissan and beyond– Elon Musk is currently the prime mover of the 21st century’s electrified infrastructure.

In turn, he will likely prove as prescient as mass mobilizers from apocalypses past.

“My impression is that a desire to help stop global warming is deep in Elon’s bones,” CleanTechnica director Zachary Shahan said. “I think that drives most of his work at Tesla and SolarCity, and I think that genuine desire to help the world is one important reason why so many people love him.”

Let the Sunshine Jobs In

The future of solar, according to Elon Musk and his compatriots, is accelerating on both American coasts.

Earlier this year, Musk and the Brothers Rive bought California-based solar panel manufacturer Silevo, and quickly set into motion plans to build the largest plant in the Western hemisphere, creating 12,000 jobs in the process. It will touch down, aptly, in snow-banked Buffalo, once a dominating Rust Belt powerhouse, on a site once owned by Republic Steel, and it will be fed by a steady diet of brainiacs from a nearby State University of New York campus.

solar installersConsider it a glorious rebirth, but for a greener age.

“Buffalo is a town that’s gone through economic ups and downs and clearly with the steel industry moving away, it’s been depressed for decades,” Silevo spokesperson Chris Beitel told Bloomberg. “But Buffalo has strong engineering talent and a renewable energy source from hydro power with electricity costs that are among the lowest in the nation.”

Meanwhile, Tesla has the West Coast covered with the Gigafactory (PDF), arriving soon near the California-Nevada border at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. Slated for operation in 2017, it is estimated to produce $100 billion in economic benefits, as well as north of 6,000 jobs (and counting), while manufacturing power cells for everything from Tesla’s electric cars and SolarCity’s storage batteries to drones, toys and grid backup. Production capacity, for both Tesla and SolarCity, is needed now more than ever, according to Musk.

“Essentially in the third quarter we sold every car, that was including cars from like showrooms and everything we basically had,” Musk explained on Tesla’s recent quarterly earnings conference call. “There was just nothing left to sell.”

“We don’t pay anyone to pretend that they like our product,” he added.

Harmonic Convergence

Of course, Musk and the Rive brothers — and anyone else working to build tomorrow’s future industries today — don’t have to pay for attention and attraction because we’re already, as a species in a race against time, far behind where we need to be. This is why Tesla’s electric cars don’t have to bother, or quantify, demand on their conference calls: The fact that states once known for their coal, oil and gas sectors are trying, and failing, to halt the expansion of Tesla stores onto their territory is a poker tell if there ever was one. The fact that SolarCity remains America’s top installer of solar panels — even though it hasn’t even made any yet, just made them affordable — is another tell. We the people want these cleantech convergences, and we want them now.

This is why Musk has fused his Tesla and SolarCity concerns on both American coasts, with the reusable rockets and orbital ambition of his SpaceX concern on standby. It is why Monsanto’s solar powerhouse SunEdison just bought wind behemoth First Wind, and it is why many more of these cleantech consolidations are on the way. Even fossil-fuel companies are wide awake to the sheer power of renewable energy: SunPower’s primary investor is French oil titan Total, while power plant producer NRG is moving quickly into the home solar market. [Disclosure: NRG recently acquired's parent company, PURE Energies. As always, we remain editorially independent.]

Everyone is racing to bridge the existential divide between the 20th-century fuels that could kill us all with the 21st-century cleantech that remains our primary hope for survival into the 22nd century. Some more slowly than others, but few, if no one, faster than Musk.

This is also why if those who believed in Musk’s future industries like Tesla and SolarCity would have seen a 1,421 percent gain in four years on their investments, if they decided to fund his convergent vision. That his products are necessary and inevitable could, in the end, say more about our currently intransigent, obsolete industries than it actually says about Musk. After all, who thought they were going to be driving Hummers and burning coal to keep the lights on for two more centuries? No one with a grasp of the future, that’s who.

And so Musk will continue to hammer out our renewable energy future, while also building advanced micro-satellites for ubiquitous internet, or pneumatic hyperloops for statewide commutes lasting a few scant hours in his spare time. These industrial convergences, empowered by solar and electrified by design, are indeed the future of us all, whether coal, oil and gas companies like it or not.

We better get on board now, before it’s too late.

Elon Musk photo CC-licensed by Brian Solis on Wikimedia; Roadster and solar array CC-licensed by Mbudzi on Wikimedia; solar installers courtesy of SolarCity.

Electric Vehicles and Home Solar Get a Boost from New Partnership

electric vehicles and home solarEnergy crises create intriguing friendships. This is probably the simplest way to process seeing Sierra Club, Ford and SunPower in the same headline.

The venerable automaker, once known for its extravagant gas guzzlers, had already partnered with solar panel efficiency leader SunPower in 2011 to launch the Drive Green For Life promotion. That gave Ford plug-in EV and hybrid drivers the opportunity to land a $750 rebate on the purchase or lease of a SunPower home solar system, once installed.

Now the two companies have sweetened the pot for Sierra Club, which receives a $500 donation for each installation. Everyone wins, including the planet.

“We are thrilled to be working with SunPower and the Sierra Club on this forward-thinking program,” Ford global director of electrification and infrastructure Mike Tinskey said in a press release “Our plug-in customers have taken a big step towards sustainability by driving on electricity and now we are offering them the ability to go further by powering their homes and vehicles with clean, renewable energy.”

Ford’s press release left it to a SunPower executive to explain the significance of Sierra Club’s addition to the green party, which makes sense given that the donation comes from the solar panel maker, not Ford. Sierra Club spent a bit more time, and less corporate jargon, explaining the political and economic significance of “powering cars with sunshine” than the automaker; while Ford has developed an electric vehicle, and connected that EV to home solar, the company’s most-anticipated vehicle for 2015 is likely an aluminum Ford-150 truck, which will be 700 pounds lighter and more fuel-efficient as a result.

“To be clear, this new Ford-SunPower-Sierra Club partnership does not mean that the Sierra Club is necessarily endorsing Ford or SunPower over other plug-in vehicle and solar companies,” Sierra Club reminded near the bottom of its own press release.

But despite Ford’s continuing reliance on gas guzzlers, and SunPower’s decision to take care of Sierra Club’s $500 donations, the Drive Green For Life program is at least a push in the right direction. The convergence between electric vehicles and home solar can’t come soon enough. Consumers shouldn’t even be thinking about buying one without the other these days. And while Ford gets to clean up its image with this association, Sierra Club might be seen as inching closer to the corporations its members might expect it to be fighting, especially given its recent controversial support then abandonment of so-called natural gas.

In the final analysis, the Drive Green For Life program is a great, green idea in a perfect world. But this is a quite-imperfect one, so fingers crossed everyone has their hearts and minds in the right place.

Conservatives Move into Colorado to Protect Home Solar Against Xcel

colorado solarAs the utility- and oil industry-led war on solar continues across the U.S., it’s encouraging to see that homeowners, utility customers, and solar advocates are stepping up and pushing back. For instance, Wisconsin is in the midst of a aggressive lobbying campaign to increase fixed rates on all customers to try to recoup the costs of more homeowners switching to solar as a way to save money and get independent of their utilities’ rising costs.

It’s also encouraging to see the fight against utilities come from all ends of the political spectrum. Just as home solar is not just for the wealthy, it’s also not just for left-wingers. Last year, we wrote about the launch of TUSK, a pro-solar advocacy group founded by Republican Barry Goldwater, Jr., to oppose utility efforts to kill home solar.

The latest development from TUSK comes with their move into Colorado, pushing back against Xcel Energy’s efforts to slash net metering benefits for residential customers. This is a battle that has been going on for more than a year, but they haven’t yet won — and they haven’t given up, so TUSK and others are stepping up the pressure.

“This war on energy choice has been moving state to state as utilities try – and fail – to drive solar competitors out of business,” TUSK chairman Goldwater said in a statement. “Utilities like Xcel are launching these attacks in red and purple states because they think Republicans are so backwards they can’t see the benefits of solar. They are wrong. Conservatives stand for competition, and it is high time these utility companies understand that.”

TUSK is working with The Alliance for Solar Choice — a solar-industry advocacy group — in Colorado and elsewhere; TASC recently commissioned a survey that found 76 percent of Coloradans support net metering, and 73 percent are opposed to Xcel’s move to reduce net metering rates.

Colorado marks the seventh state that TUSK has entered — the list now includes Arizona (where the group started), Utah, Oklahoma, Louisiana, North and South Carolina and Wisconsin — all pretty solidly red / conservative states (with the exception of the bluish-purple Wisconsin and Colorado). These are also all hot spots in the war to protect home solar, so it seems like every bit of added support is much-needed.

We’re working on arranging an interview with TUSK to find out more about their work in Colorado as well as their ongoing expansion into other battleground states. We’ll keep following developments in Colorado and other places where TUSK is getting involved.

Colorado solar home photo CC-licensed by Dave Dugdale on Flickr.

With Smart Solar Policy, US Could Grow Its Solar by 4300% by 2030

solar boomRight now, solar power only comprises 0.23 percent of America’s electricity generation. But that percentage has the potential to skyrocket to 10 percent in the next 30 years, according to a report released Thursday by Environment America Research & Policy Center.

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

Though the figure might sound impossible to some, the report’s authors say the goal can be met, so long as the United States implements ambitious policy goals for solar energy. Those include a number of federal policies, including extending tax credits for solar energy, funding research for new solar-related innovation, and factoring renewable energy goals into the White House’s plan to fight global warming.

The report also recommends state and local governments implement ambitious policies to boost solar energy adoption and implementation. Those include incentives like net metering, which allows solar-powered households to sell electricity they don’t use to the grid for others to use, and third-party sales of electricity — in other words, letting companies that sell solar panels also sell electricity to their customers, rather than requiring customers to go through public utilities.

“We can get to 10 percent solar by 2030 if we just keep our foot on the accelerator,” Rob Sargent, the report’s co-author, said in a statement. “That’s a small fraction of what’s possible, but it will make a big difference in the quality of our lives and our children’s future.”

Getting to 10 percent by 2030 requires a big boost in generation — specifically, a 22 percent growth rate every year for the next 15 years. But the report’s authors say that’s not too large a goal to be met, most notably because U.S. solar has grown by 77 percent in the last three years. All that’s needed is policies that keep the momentum going.

The problem with that goal is that, in states across the country, policies are being proposed and implemented that hinder solar power. As Brad Plumer points out in Vox, public utilities across the country are actively fighting against net metering laws and solar subsidies. And the free-market group American Legislative Exchange Council has been pushing forward with efforts to get states to repeal their Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which require states to have a certain percentage of their energy to come from renewable sources.

That’s a problem, because in order for solar to keep growing, states need to be part of the game. Florida, for example, ranks third in the nation for solar potential — but it only ranks 18th for total installed solar power capacity. And that’s largely because Republican Gov. Rick Scott Florida refuses to implement a renewable portfolio standard, or allow solar leasing and third party solar sales.

Still, Environment America is optimistic, noting that acceleration of solar power in America would have numerous benefits for the economy, public health, and the climate. The industry itself, the report noted, added 143,000 jobs nationwide in 2013. And climate-wise, meeting the 10 percent goal would remove 280 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere by 2030, the equivalent of taking 59 million cars off the road.

“When it comes to solar energy, the sky’s the limit,” Sargent said. “Getting to 10 percent solar is the just the first step to a future powered entirely by pollution-free energy.”

You can read Environment America’s full report here.

The Future of Electric Vehicles on Display at the LA Auto Show

BMW i8Every year, along with reporters and editors from Car & Driver, Motortrend and other specialty car geeks, I go to the Los Angeles Auto Show and ogle the future of cars.

It’s a beauty contest of machines with bright showroom lights bouncing off shiny bodies as they rotate before us on round platforms. Every single one has that intoxicating new car smell, plus this and that new feature for comfort and performance.

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

I love seeing them all, but I’m really there for the electric vehicles (EVs) since I devote a lot of my life to getting them on to the roads in greater numbers. We’re making solid progress, with over a quarter of a million driving on America’s roads today, but this is just the beginning.

To the extent an auto show can approach the futuristic vision on display at a World’s Fair, it’s largely due to the EVs, which represent the most important evolution in automotive technology since we ditched the steam engine.

The big news in the EVs we see this year, and one of the reasons for their growth in popularity, is they are the most efficient vehicles on the market and are only becoming more and more efficient.

Let’s take a look at the trends in EPA “Miles-per-gallon-equivalent (MPGe)” ratings for the eight best-selling plug-in vehicles (which comprise 90% of 2014 sales:

Both the LEAF and the Volt, the first and still best-selling modern EVs have made significant efficiency gains since their introduction in 2011. And the next generation Volt is expected to continue that promising trend. The orange dot in the upper right-hand corner, the 2014 BMW i3, is also worth calling out, as it represents the most efficient series production car ever, with an EPA-rated 127 MPGe.

The i3 showcases the gains that can result from German engineers taking advantage of the simplicity of an electric drive platform. In the 1990s, Amory Lovins and the Hypercar team at Rocky Mountain Institute built a prototype electric vehicle from carbon fiber panels. They called this “lightweighting.” (According to Lovins, only 0.3 percent of a standard car’s fuel energy actually ends up moving the driver.) In many ways, the i3 is a real world hypercar.

BMW i3 carbon fiber “Life Module” in production
Its carbon fiber panels are stronger than steel, but weigh half as much. This not only makes the car weigh less, requiring less energy to move it, but also allows a smaller motor and battery and lighter suspension. BMW really took the fat out, using natural materials and re-processed scrap from the manufacturing process (pre-cycling?) where possible and eliminated other energy and water intensive manufacturing processes.

For example, it has no paint; the color pigment is in the body panels. True, paint may not weigh much, but eliminating paint eliminates the paint shop, reducing water and energy consumption by 70 percent. BMW is also powering its production facilities with carbon-free energy, further reducing life-cycle emissions.

The LA auto show is all about the future, and if this is the trend, the future is efficiency.  EVs are here to stay and are not just prototype hypercars, but mass produced and affordable cars.  As you can see as you walk the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center, the future is here and now.

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

BMW i8 photo courtesy of the L.A. Auto Show.

What Does SunEdison’s Purchase of First Wind Mean for Big Solar?

Solar and wind are clean energy’s indisputable go-to resources. So it was just a matter of time before one company decided to deal in both.

That company is solar (and now wind) provider SunEdison, which has, along with its renewable energy power plant operator TerraForm, announced the acquisition of U.S. standout First Wind for $2.4 billion. The benchmark acquisition reportedly makes SunEdison the “world’s largest renewable energy development company,” according to its press release, as well as an immediate player in a solar sector dominated by American champs like SunPower, SolarCity and First Solar.

Perhaps more importantly, at least for SunEdison, the acquisition significantly increases its asset balance sheet, providing even more incentive for institutional investors and renewables consumers to support to its yieldco. That will allow SunEdison, a subsidiary of the multinational Monsanto, to raise even more money on the backs of its quickly expanding assets, which will in turn lead to more acquisitions and consolidations in the cleantech market.

It doesn’t take more than a cursory look at the thick corporate jargon and financial figures disclosed in SunEdison’s press release to see that boardroom synergy is the prime directive of this nevertheless impressive buyout.

“The acquisition of First Wind transforms both SunEdison and TerraForm Power into diversified renewable energy companies and will make SunEdison the leading renewable power plant developer in the world,” explained SunEdison president and CEO Ahmad Chatila in the press release. “By bringing together First Wind’s proven development and operational capabilities and SunEdison’s global corporate infrastructure and renewable energy development and finance experience, we will be well-positioned to capitalize on the significant growth opportunities in the global wind power markets and drive returns to shareholders of both SunEdison and TerraForm Power.”

On the ground, things may move a bit slower. In the solar sector, SunEdison is still playing catch-up to the aforementioned market leaders, as well as their international counterparts like Yingli, Trina, Canadian Solar and others looking to solarize the world, posthaste, including Vivint, whose IPO arrived last month. As its press release stated, the First Wind purchase allows both SunEdison and TerraForm to raise their project installation guidance and unlevered cash. But it doesn’t really bring in any more material solar business.

But adding First Wind’s project pipeline and $1.9 billion in “upfront consideration” to SunEdison’s yieldco will attract investments from both citizens and banks — doubtlessly including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Citi and other capital gangs that helped seal SunEdison, TerraForm and First Wind’s deal, Meanwhile, solar heavyweights like SunPower can spend the next few quarters mulling whether they will form a yieldco, which is quickly becoming a Wall Street concern that can knock a stock price down or raise it up.

The wind, however, is where this deal truly changes things. Flooding the wind sector with Monsanto and SunEdison’s significant influence and power will only accelerate development of the renewable energy infrastructure the world desperately needs. And consolidating solar and wind, and hopefully tidal and geothermal, into one-stop renewable energy shops is an industry inevitability. This deal paves the way for a future where everyone from homeowners and small businesses to corporations and governments can hopefully establish a clean energy portfolio and infrastructure without hordes of middlemen gumming up the works. Hopefully.

Which means that SunEdison’s acquisition of First Wind is just the first of many to come. Let’s just hope that consumers, who need serious alternatives to coal, oil and gas, don’t get lost in the fine print.

Solar and wind photo CC-licensed by National Grid on Flickr.

Iowa Co-Op Utility Goes Solar with Its Rural (and Amish!) Customers

141118-iowa-solarFrom installing solar phone booths used by the Amish to taking on the largest community solar farm in Iowa, one electric utility is showing how it can put the sun to work in small rural areas.

Based in Frytown, Iowa, the Farmers Electric Co-op has converted a respectable chunk — 20 percent — of its 650-member utility to solar owners, thanks to a combination of incentives and options including feed-in tariffs, rebates and community solar farms.

With an average of 1,800 watts per customer, Farmer Electrics’ claims that it has one of the highest installed solar capacity per member in the U.S.

“The benefit is in the fact that the Co-op is buying its energy supply locally,” Farmers Electric general manager Warren McKenna told “It helps cut peak demand and improves load factors and reliability. The Co-op is also helping its members capture tax credits that as a non-profit Co-op it can’t capture on its own.”

Farmers Electric’s solar journey has been outlined in a new case study [PDF] released by Solar Electric Power Association, the trade group that recently named McKenna its CEO of the year.

Key to the utility’s success, according to the report, has been the variety of incentives and options that have enabled low upfront costs to adoption — as well as controlling costs through purchasing and installing equipment in-house whenever possible.

“The genius of it all is in the fact that there has been no up-front investment by the cooperative itself, so no debt incurred and no capital investment on our part,” McKenna told SEPA in the report.

By establishing one of the first feed-in tariffs in the U.S. in 2009, Farmers allowed residents to get 12.5 cents in credit per kilowatt-hour for any self-generated electricity, up to 100 percent of their own consumption. For any power produced beyond this threshold, the utility pays members a rate of 6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

After the tariff’s 10-year contract expires, members will be compensated between 8 and 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for any power up to 100 percent of their own consumption.

McKenna pointed out that feed-in tariffs can be successful without paying above-market rates to participants. “It’s designed to pay back the installation,” McKenna told SEPA in the report. “We want to pull in the tax credit for our members . . . and hopefully pay them back in five to seven years.”

Farmers also offered an up-front rebate to its members of 50 cents per watt (and capped at a $2,500 maximum), based on the size of the system to be installed.

McKenna was inspired to explore solar’s local potential in 2008. But instead of jumping the gun with major projects, he took small, gradual steps to introduce the technology to the community: He kickstarted the effort with two small installations (1.8 kW each) at an elementary school and at a Mennonite high school.

Those who won’t — or can’t — install solar can participate by buying panels at one of its two community solar gardens.

The first, built in 2012 at the co-op itself, has a current installed capacity of 40 kW. Farmers plans to add 10 kW each year until the half-acre plot is filled.

The second — which has 800 kW of capacity and is the largest in Iowa — was acquired on July 30 through a 10-year power purchasing agreement with developer Eagle Point Solar. Upon expiration, Farmers will be able to buy the solar farm.

But going solar hasn’t been all smooth sailing. There have been challenges along the way, McKenna explained, such as the two years it took to find land for the solar farm.

“Carving out several acres of valuable farm land in Iowa is difficult to do,” McKenna told

County planning, rezoning and permitting for the project also was tough, according to McKenna.

“It took longer to plat, rezone, and permit the property than it did to actually build the arrays,” he added.

It’s not just these big-ticket items that are making solar’s mark on the local landscape. There are now 25 solar-powered telephone booths in Farmers Electric’s service area — an ideal option for local Amish and Mennonite farmers who live off-grid at home based on their beliefs, but still need phones to conduct business.

And in today’s hyper-connected world, it’s not surprising that the phone booths have been expanded in function to serve more like mini-offices.

“We have had several requests by the Amish to expand the solar in the booth to power a fax machine and other office machines,” McKenna said. “A few of these are nice-sized Amish businesses with no electricity.”

Eagle Point Solar Farm photo courtesy of SEPA.