Solar got a shout-out by President Obama in last night’s State of the Union speech and a well deserved one at that. Here’s what the President had to say:
…we’re becoming a global leader in solar too. Every four minutes another American home or business goes solar, every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced. Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do. (Cheers, applause.)
We were applauding, too, as we listened to the President’s speech. Of course, we are a long way removed from legislation that would actually redirect those subsidies from dirty fossil fuels to the clean energy we need for the future. And the President also touted his “all of the above” energy policy in noting that we have greatly expanded oil and natural gas production under his watch—a fact that prompted one wag to remark that he was fine with an all of the above policy, it was the stuff underground that causes all of the problems.
And let’s be clear, we are facing a major problem in climate change. Nearly two-thirds of California has been downgraded to extreme drought status and our snow pack today is 20% of what it should be at this time of year. While deniers point to freakishly cold temperatures in the nation’s heartland, they ignore the temperatures in Alaska where it rained in January for the first time in recorded history.
Check out this great summary video from our friends over at Climate Denial Crock of the Week:
So the President was right to give a shout-out to solar, as it is an important part of the solution. But a lot more needs to be done and we need a greater sense of urgency about the task ahead.
Recently the once venerable news show 60 Minutes aired a controversial piece allegedly describing the “The Cleantech Crash.” That generated buzz, but the response from one of the leading sources to the story, along with another major piece of news this past week begs the question: which sector is really crashing, cleantech or dirty energy?
Famed venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, was interviewed at length for the 60 Minutes piece and he wasn’t happy at all with how the story went down. Instead, he has published a lengthy rebuttal/open letter to 60 Minutes. While 60 Minutes made the argument that clean technology companies are heavily subsidized by the taxpayers and generally fail, Khosla pointed out that in fact, most of the companies in this space have done quite well and that the subsidies are not nearly as great as 60 Minutes sought to portray.
To quote from just a couple of the facts he cited in rebuttal:
It is on that last point that another story from the past week came to mind - the contamination of the water supply for 300,000 residents of West Virginia due to a chemical spill.
Apparently this storage facility - owned by a company called… wait for it… Freedom Industries - which leaked a chemical used in the coal industry, had not been inspected since the early 1990’s. Now there’s a perverse subsidy for you: if you don’t get inspected regularly, you don’t have to spend as much money keeping your facility up-to-date and safe, so that money can go to your profit line. Until, that is, the chemicals come gushing out of the bottom of your storage tank, overflow whatever containment measures you had in place, and flow into the adjacent river that just happens to immediately supply the drinking water of 300,000 of your closest neighbors - to say nothing of the millions more farther downstream (hello, Cincinnati!).
Imagine the Fox News coverage if a major solar facility had a spill of its own… oh wait, we just call those “nice days".
No one can dispute that federal subsidy dollars should be spent wisely, and that certainly includes how money goes to the solar Investment Tax Credit, as we have written in the past. But distorted reporting does not change the facts that the cleantech industry represents the future; indeed, our only future if we are to have a sustainable world, and the technologies and practices of entities like Freedom Industries are what are crashing. Literally.
In a curious bit of timing, two reports of great significance are being released today. The one that will get all of the headlines is the latest assessment on climate change coming from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The second report will see far less attention, but is inevitably linked - the report for the California Public Utilities Commission on the costs and benefits of Net Metering. We will have more to say about both in the coming days, but here is our first take.
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has kept a “Doomsday Clock” showing how close to midnight - and thus, human-induced annihilation - the world was. At the depths of the Cold War the clock was as close as 2 minutes away, but by 2007 the clock was wound back to twelve minutes to midnight - the “safest” the world had been since the dawn of the Atomic Age.
But for Rajendra Pachauri, the lead scientist on the IPCC report, climate change has replaced nuclear destruction as mankind’s greatest threat. According to him, “we have five minutes before midnight." The report’s Summary for Policymakers, which can be downloaded now from the IPCC website, includes numerous graphs and illustrations to buttress Pachauri’s conclusion, here are two:
That map makes it pretty clear that the globe is heating up and in some parts of the world, heating very significantly.
But what about the “Global Temperature Standstill” that deniers like to tout? Isn’t it true that for the past decade, surface temperature rise has leveled off and thus, Climate Change is nothing to worry about?
The short answer to that is, not so much - take a look:
That last bar is for the past decade and it clearly shows yet another decadal increase - and that is based on observed temperatures, not computer models. And keep in mind that these are surface measurements - yet many climate scientists believe that the majority of the warming effects are occurring in the deep ocean.
So no, warming hasn’t halted, and we need to do all that we can to reduce emissions of Greenhouse Gases if we are to avoid making the clock strike twelve.
Which brings us, sadly, to the other report just released on the Costs and Benefits of Net Metering in California. Currently, the overwhelming number of residential and commercial solar installations in the state benefit from Net Metering which provides a one-for-one credit for energy produced and exported to the grid against energy consumed at a later time. In a sense, the grid acts as a storage device for solar clients, allowing them to bank credits during the day and then drawing on those credits in the evening, at night, or on cloudy days when the solar system cannot meet current needs.
The take-away from the 319-page draft report is summarized in this chart:
According to this analysis, the net cost of Net Metering by 2020 when the caps on how many net metering customers the IOUs must allow is reached, will be over $1.1 billion, or slightly more than 3% of the “revenue requirement” of the three utilities studied.
That sounds like a significant imbalance—until your realize that the report contains this incredibly important caveat which renders the entire analysis suspect:
Lastly, it is important to note that the attached NEM [i.e., Net Metering] Cost-Effectiveness Evaluation is focused exclusively on the utility ratepayer impacts of NEM, and does not include the overall societal benefits from the deployment of clean energy resources, although significant environmental, public health and other non-energy benefits occur.
We are supposed to suspend consideration of environmental, public health and other non-energy benefits, even though we know that they are significant? How can that make any sense? Worse still, we are supposed to suspend those very considerations at the same time that we are being told that it is “five minutes to midnight” for the world if we do not reduce our GHG emissions. Talk about a disconnect.
It is patently absurd to ignore the societal benefits provided by solar installations, particularly in light of the existential threat posed by climate change brought about by burning fossil fuels. The entire analysis views the world from the perspective of the status quo in which fossil-fueled utilities have a “revenue requirement” that the rest of us are expected to provide. Such a world view - and such a business model - leads to skewed results like these and if followed, would push us all closer to Midnight.
A tale of two visions today - one from Capital Hill where a congressional committee is about to hold a hearing on climate change, and the other via the Wall Street Journal noting that more and more companies are installing their own energy generation - particularly solar.
As the graphic shows, they are finally holding a hearing in the House on Climate Change but the committee is stacked with climate change deniers - you know, the same folks who believe in Unicorns. So while there will certainly be some entertaining sound bites, it is unlikely in the extreme that any meaningful policy will come from this committee. Instead we will be advised that climate change is a hoax, that humans are too puny to harm the Earth, and that in any event, doing anything about it is too expensive and a “job killer.”
Which brings us to the other story (h/t ClimateCrocks.com) about companies installing their own energy generation. Whether it is biomass from their own waste or solar modules on their roofs, more and more companies are installing energy generation as a hedge against increasingly expensive energy from the conventional utilities.
Now no one would accuse Walmart of being some enviro-hugging feel good corporation - so why are they leading this parade? It is simple, they know that these measures are saving them lots and lots of money - and that is the type of green they value the most.
So while their allies on the Hill insist that measures to address climate change are ruining the economy, companies like Walmart are boosting their economic fortunes by adopting the very measures that, coincidentally, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. And that’s no hoax.
We came across this image of recent precipitation patterns in the United States over the past thirty days (H/T ClimateCrocks.com) and it is pretty startling - check it out:
What this map reveals is the Western half of the continental United States consisting of two broad swaths of record drought bracketing an area of record rainfall - none of which is anything like “normal.”
The red in California has contributed to the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park that burned to an area greater than the size of New York City.
Dead center in that sea of purple lies the flooded cities and towns of Colorado.
This sort of “extreme” weather is becoming less extreme in the sense that it is far less rare and approaching the new normal.
For the full story, click on the map.