When I came to the solar industry I had just completed my Master in Public Health. Some of you may be thinking, “Thats an odd career move! What does solar have to do with public health?” I still get this exact response when I tell people my background. But to me, solar power is one of the most exciting and valuable solutions to a myriad of public health challenges! Think about it. Traditional sources of energy like coal and fossil fuels are the primary causes of climate change. They emit more greenhouse gasses and use much more water than solar. The global public health impacts of climate change are enormous and well documented…extreme weather events, flooding, draught, and heat waves all take a toll on our ability to live full and healthy lives. On top of that, the more immediate and local impacts of air pollution from traditional energy plants include asthma, COPD, and other respiratory illnesses.
While this simple logic proves to me that solar power is a vast improvement over burning fossil fuels, quantifying the environmental and health impacts of solar energy is not a straightforward task. However, determining the value of these external benefits is imperative to understanding the true costs and benefits of solar compared to other sources of energy. Thankfully the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory (LBNL) recently published a technical report on this very topic! “The Environmental and Public Health Benefits of Achieving High Penetrations of Solar Energy in the United States.” was commissioned by the Department of Energy as part of the On the Path to Sunshot series of studies to assess the progress of the SunShot Initiative at its midway point.
The SunShot Initiative was launched in 2011 as a result of the Obama administration’s goal to make solar electricity cost-competitive with conventional sources of electricity by 2020. In the first five years, the initiative has invested in education, policy analysis, and research and development of solar technologies as well as programs fostering more highly skilled U.S. based jobs. Since SunShot’s launch, solar installations have grown more than tenfold with more than one million solar installations producing power across the U.S. and the cost of solar energy has dropped drastically. As a result, the industry is approximately 70% of the way toward meeting the SunShot 2020 goal to achieve $0.06 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) installed cost for solar energy systems.
The researchers sought to unveil the cumulative environmental and public health benefits of the solar power that has already been installed, and what future benefits would result if SunShot’s targets - 14% of US electricity by 2030 and 27% by 2050 - are met. They found that health and environmental benefits could add approximately 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour to the “true” value of solar energy! Lets break down that number…
Compared with fossil fuel generators, photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar produce far lower lifecycle levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other harmful pollutants including fine particulates (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
Department of Energy
Greenhouse Gases: Achieving the 14% by 2030 and 27% by 2050 targets could reduce our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the power sector by 10% between 2015 and 2050. This may not sound like a lot, but in dollars and cents this means 238-$252 billion in savings, or 2.0-2.2 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) of solar installed. These savings add to the 17 million metric tons of CO2, or $700 million, saved annually by solar already installed by 2014.
Other Air Pollutants: Meeting the same targets through solar expansion would also reduce other power sector cumulative emissions of PM2.5 by 8%, SO2 by 9%, and NOx by 11% between 2015 and 2050. The monetary value of which they estimated at $167 billion in savings from reducing health and environmental costs, or 1.4 cents per kilowatt hour of solar. Not to mention avoiding 25,000-59,000 entirely preventable premature deaths! This builds on 2014 solar installations providing annual reductions in air pollutants worth $890 million.
Water: Often we forget that traditional sources of electricity are also big water hogs. I even wrote a blog about the ways solar helps to conserve water. The researchers found reaching SunShot’s goals could result in cumulative water savings of 46 trillion gallons of avoided withdrawl (4% of total power-sector withdrawls) and 5 trillion gallons of avoided water consumption (9% of total power-sector consumption) between 2015-2050. This is definitely a non-trivial benefit given much of the big solar states are also arid states where water conservation is imperative.
Environmental and health benefits from achieving SunShot vision. - DOE image
Put it all together and you get to the estimated 3.5¢/kWh-solar, equivalent to more than $400 billion in benefits due to SunShot-level solar deployment! Existing solar in 2014 provided $1.5 billion in annual benefits due to health and environment effects. Given the cost of going solar for residential properties in our neck of the woods is currently between 8 and 11 ¢/kWh, adding 3.5 ¢/kWh of value is a pretty big deal. The LBNL researchers noted that this is approximately equal to the additional LCOE reduction needed to make unsubsidized utility-scale solar competitive with conventional power generation today.
Improving public health and the environment is a lofty goal near and dear to my heart and truly an important aspect of solar’s many benefits. Hopefully quantifying the magnitude of solar’s “external” impacts will help inform policy decisions by making the “true” costs and values of solar and its economic competitiveness with other energy options more explicit.
Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, ventured south of the border last week to visit the White House, marking the first official Canadian Prime Minister visit in 19 years! What are Trudeau and Obama palling around about? You guessed it… collaboration on a North American transition to renewable energy! The leaders announced a joint strategy to move coordinated climate action even beyond their respective commitments at COP21 in Paris last December.
Trudeau has been much more willing to implement climate change policies than his predecessor, Stephen Harper, who opposed cutting greenhouse gases to the point that he pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol. In the joint announcement they emphasized the special relationship between the two countries and the importance of collaboration on energy development, environmental protection, as well as Arctic leadership.
In the joint press conference they remarked that Paris was a turning point in the global effort to take action on climate and anchor economic growth in a clean energy transformation. One important outcome in Paris was the launch of Mission Innovation. Mission Innovation is a global initiative including 20 countries commiting to double their governments’ clean energy research and development investments over the next five years. Indeed Obama’s 2017 budget is seeking $7.7 billion in discretionary funding to boost clean energy research. (Hopefully those R&D dreams won’t be dashed by Congress.) Last month, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico also signed a memorandum of understanding seeking to expand our countries’ cooperation to include climate change and energy collaboration activities. Building on these and other multilateral agreements, last Thursday the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to working together to:
“strengthen North American energy security, phase out fossil fuel subsidies, accelerate clean energy development to address climate change and to foster sustainable energy development and economic growth.”
Specifics regarding the clean energy highlights of the joint pledge include:
Few further details were included but the leaders’ focus on the need to accelerate clean energy innovation and a transition to renewables is a giant step in the right direction!
Check out the full press conference here:
On August 3, 2015, President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the Clean Power Plan (CPP) – an exciting, historic and truly critical step in tackling climate change. Advocates say its policies will create jobs, make our grid more reliable, and our economies more resilient while helping protect all of us against climate change’s worst impacts. The CPP is the heart of Obama’s effort to uphold commitments agreed upon at the Paris COP21 climate conference last December.
Power plants are the largest polluters in the US. They account for one third of all greenhouse gas emissions! We wrote about the controversial carbon standards for NEW power plants put forth by the EPA in December 2014. Obama’s Clean Power Plan takes it a giant step further by forcing all EXISTING coal-fired power plants to cut carbon emissions by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030.
Despite the seemingly fair and flexible terms of the Clean Power Plan, vested interests (including coal and mining groups and a coalition of Republican states) fiercely opposed, stating the regulations are an overreach of the EPA’s power. On February 9th the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 to stay implementation of the CPP until the litigation challenging the Clean Power Plan is addressed. Justice Scalia’s passing doesn’t change anything since a 4-4 vote also stays the implementation until the Federal District Appeals Court makes a decision likely in late 2016.
Experts are confident that the CPP’s contents are on solid legal ground and courts will ultimately uphold it. However, a final decision is unlikely before June 2017 or even into 2018 (depending on when the Supreme Court makes their final ruling after going through the DC Court). These delays only make global progress more and more difficult as all eyes are on the US to set an example by honoring our Paris climate commitments.
While 27 states filed the petition to delay the CPP implementation, eighteen state governors - both Democratic and Republican - have announced an accord to move forward on clean energy solutions regardless. The governors declared that “we recognize that now is the time to embrace a bold vision of the nation’s energy future,” and that their states “are once again prepared to lead.”
“As the world gets hotter and closer to irreversible climate change, these justices appear tone-deaf as they fiddle with procedural niceties. This arbitrary roadblock does incalculable damage and undermines America’s climate leadership. But make no mistake, this won’t stop California continuing to do its part under the Clean Power Plan.” – California Gov. Jerry Brown
Its leaders like these governors, and many large private businesses who have come out in favor of upholding the Clean Power plan, who seem to understand the gravity of climate change and the many benefits that moving to a clean energy future brings. We hope the alliance of leaders in politics and the private sector continues to grow and soon will outnumber those that back the interests of dirty energy!
There can be no doubt, 2015 was an amazing year for solar. As we reach the end of the year, here’s our look back on the top five reasons solar soared in 2015!
While not the most important reason for solar overall, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that thanks to our wonderful clients, 2015 was our best year by far! From our largest project ever for our favorite water company, to adding another school to our portfolio, to the many residential projects that we built all across Southern California, 2015 was a great year.
We took great pride in being recognized, for the third year in a row, as being one of the top Solar Contractors in the country by the wonderful folks at Solar Power World, and even more pride in the scores of referrals that we received from our ecstatic clients.
We can’t wait to meet and exceed our success this past year in the New Year ahead!
Political leadership on dealing with Climate Change was finally in evidence this year, and the resultant policies are, inevitably, pro-solar. Exhibit A was California Governor Jerry Brown pledging to have the state generate 50% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, a mere fifteen years away! Said the Governor:
I envision a wide range of initiatives: more distributed power, expanded rooftop solar, micro-grids, an energy imbalance market, battery storage, the full integration of information technology and electrical distribution and millions of electric and low-carbon vehicles.
We are on board with that!
But political leadership extended far beyond the borders of our great state in 2015! More than 190 countries came together in Paris to agree to the most far-reaching accord ever to address Climate Change, and lots more solar was high on their list of ways to achieve a more sustainable planet.
To be sure, none of these actions were without their political opponents, but it is impossible to deny that 2015 marked a major turning point in the public’s perception of the need to act, and those views were increasingly adopted by the world’s politicians.
Ok, we have to give the man his due — Elon Musk’s outlandish PowerWall announcement changed the conversation around smart energy storage (and our blog post debunking his most outrageous claims became our most viewed post of the year!). Indeed, storage went from being a topic hardly ever mentioned by a potential client, to something that nearly everyone did after Elon did his thing.
Unfortunately, the hype still leads the market, and mature products are still not really available. But that is changing rapidly, and from our perspective that can’t happen soon enough.
There had been great angst in the solar community about the future of net metering — the means by which solar owners get compensated for excess energy that they put out onto the grid — in California (and elsewhere). Decisions about net metering in other states that bent over backwards to appease utility demands only ratcheted up the anxiety in California as the state’s Public Utilities Commission deliberated over competing proposals for Net Metering 2.0 - including utility schemes that could have gutted the market for solar.
Fortunately our fears were not realized and the preliminary decision — due to be made final in January — was quite solar friendly. Once we have a final decision we will report on it in depth, but for now this looks like one of the biggest pro-solar developments of 2015.
The number one, most amazing, and most amazingly unexpected development to boost solar in 2015 is unquestionably the major extension of the 30% federal solar investment tax credit (ITC).
Given that the ITC was previously scheduled to expire at the end of 2016, solar installers, potential clients, utilities, and building departments alike were all bracing for what could have been a hellish second half of next year as all involved scrambled to get systems commissioned before the deadline.
Instead, the full 30% will continue through 2019, 26% in 2020, 22% in 2021, and 10% thereafter. Moreover, the “placed in service” language — which required a project to be commissioned before the credit could be claimed, thereby leaving installers and clients at the not-so-tender mercies of the local utility — was replaced by the far more manageable, “commenced construction” requirement.
The net benefit of this will be a more orderly market, driven by rational purchasing decisions rather than a panicked stampede to meet an arbitrary deadline at the end of next year. And beyond that, keeping the ITC in place for many years to come will help to grow solar in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. The industry, the economy, and the environment were all winners here.
So that’s our wrap on 2015 — truly a great year for solar! But we are betting that 2016 — with your help, of course — will be even better! Watch this space!
Happy New Year!
Monday marked the onset of what may be the most important (and most exciting) gathering of world leaders in human history. From November 30 to December 11, representatives from more than 190 countries are coming together to reach agreement on global climate efforts at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris.
There is a great deal of optimism around the world as national heads come together with commitments in hand. This is a huge step forward compared to past climate conferences which have failed to reach any target that the world could agree upon. It remains to be seen if this positive momentum will result in an accord with the power to spur change on a global scale.
In preparation for the conference, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) evaluated the current research (over 30,000 papers) on the science of climate change. The key takeaway in their synthesis: Scientists are now more certain than ever that climate change is real; it’s caused by human activities – especially the burning of fossil fuels; and it’s already impacting people around the world, from rising sea levels to more extreme weather events. Hence the overarching goal in Paris this week is to frame a deal to prevent Earth from warming above the point of no return (more than 2°C).
In the months leading to the conference nearly every country on the planet submitted their commitments to reduce greenhouse gases based on the IPCC report, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). The United States’ INDC outlines a commitment to cut emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, mostly by reducing CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants.
All 156 INDCs, representing 97.8% of global emitters, will be plugged into a final document crafted through the high level negotiations. The COP21 final accord will actually be divided into a “core agreement,” laying out the broad objectives for emissions reduction and how to pay for poor nations’ efforts, and “decisions” describing how these objectives will be achieved.
One hot issue to be settled in Paris is over the legal status of this document. A formal treaty would need the impossible approval of the Republican-controlled US Senate. Instead, President Obama will likely sign off on the accord as an “executive agreement.” There seems to be an understanding that the “agreement” would have more binding legal status than the “decisions,” which would include the national pledges and be subject to revision. The US has held that they will not sign any legally binding emissions targets.
While the commitments to cut emissions by the world’s countries is a great start, without legally binding targets and accountability, these promises hold little weight. It will also be interesting to see if, and how, leaders will establish a path forward with plans to reconvene and re-affirm their targets regularly.
The unfortunate reality is that even if every country followed through with their commitments, scientists estimate that global warming will be about 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Given that a 2 degree increase is the limit necessary to avert the worst impacts, we will still need to focus on adaptation as well as mitigation to climate change. But on the bright side, it’s a lot less warming than would happen if we continue the status quo without curbing any emissions at all!
This summit isn’t the end of the fight to limit climate change. But considering there has never before been international agreement on climate efforts - the Kyoto Treaty never got off the ground, due in large part to the failure of the US to join - it is a huge step to come together in the battle. As technologies such as solar improve and countries become more confident in their ability to transition to cleaner energy, they can step up their action over time.
Renewable energy stands out as the most common strategy for meeting targets out of all of the INDCs! This is a great sign of growing prospects for the solar industry. According to research by the World Resources Institute, if Brazil, China, the EU, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, and the United States follow through on their commitments, the amount of clean energy installed will more than double by 2030!
The US targets were largely based on the projected outcome of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which limits greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants and aims to get 20% of electricity from renewables by 2030. The Clean Power Plan has yet to be approved by the Senate and has significant opposition. One can hope that the COP21 and international pressure to act will help on this front. But in a climate where federal tax credits are under threat and state-level clean energy incentives are rapidly drying up, the US commitments on an international stage could be an important backstop to helping the renewable energy sector grow.
Outside the negotiating rooms, thousands of business leaders, state officials, activists, scientists and others from the private sector are also holding events and meetings. The mere existence of the political agreements taking place will lead to increased investment in the renewable energy sector. While the value of political will to accomplish the enormous task of an energy transition shouldn’t be underestimated, the private sector is likely where the real growth will occur without the partisan challenges of the government.
On a final note, we at Run on Sun are thrilled about the events in Paris this week. As the international community finally comes together to tackle climate change our optimism about the world’s ability to act meaningfully is renewed! However, the work that must be done doesn’t end this week. Next week, next month, next year and on and on the fight will continue. Governments, the private sector, and even individuals must continue to act every day on behalf of the only planet we’ve got. Going solar is one of the best ways to reduce your emissions impact from your home or business. We look forward to doing our part!
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