There’s a good chance if you’re reading this blog you either have hopes of someday owning an electric vehicle (EV) or you are one of the proud individuals already enjoying cruising silently by gas stations…such as Run on Sun’s Jim Jenal in our new Volt pictured on the right! In either case your ears likely perk up at any breaking news regarding EVs.
Over the last few days I’ve noticed alarming headlines coming from multiple sources. While the key word in headlines such as “Study Finds Electric Cars May Not Be Very Green at All” is “may“, many of the articles state definitively that electric cars are not as green as gasoline cars. I decided to investigate.
On December 15th a new study by the University of Minnesota was released to the press. The study calculated the air quality impacts of manufacturing and refueling vehicles with various forms of power. Below is the study’s abstract verbatim:
We evaluate the air quality-related human health impacts of 10…options, including the use of liquid biofuels, diesel, and compressed natural gas (CNG) in internal combustion engines; the use of electricity from a range of conventional and renewable sources to power electric vehicles (EVs); and the use of hybrid EV technology.
…We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or “grid average” electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline. Conversely, EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50% or more. Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles.
Did you catch that last part? Electric vehicles, charged by low-emitting electricity (anything but coal) are preferable environmentally alongside human health impacts…to gasoline vehicles. A far cry from the grossly misinterpreted ‘electric cars aren’t green’. Which is simply not what the study says.
The straightforward lessons from the study include three main points:
In summary, don’t get an electric vehicle if you’re planning on charging it off of a coal-powered grid. Do get an electric vehicle if your grid is sufficiently green… or better yet, use a solar power system designed specifically with charging your EV in mind – see Run on Sun’s website for info! And remember that facts are frequently misinterpreted by the press. When in doubt, read the actual study, not just the headlines.
The New York Times, Washington Post and other national media all weighed in on a historic, yet divisive, announcement from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just before the Thanksgiving holiday. As part of the Obama administrations’ enforcement of the Clean Air Act the EPA proposed a regulation that would lower the current limit for ground-level ozone pollution to 65-70 parts per billion (ppb) with a possibility for seeking a standard as low as 60 ppb. This in line with what independent scientific advisory panels have been recommending since 2008 when the current level was established at 75 ppb. The EPA had planned to release the rule in 2011 but the Obama Administration decided to delay due to election year jitters and the President preferred to wait until the economy was in a better condition to handle the economic blows that would result. Some may believe this is an issue being pushed by the Obama administration, but the 1970 Clean Air Act requires that these air regulations are revised based on the scientific evidence every five years.
The proposed standard is referring to ground-level ozone everyone in Southern California knows as smog or the infamous “haze”. As we are also painfully aware, smog is caused by emissions of pollutants which come from a range of sources including cars, power plants, air traffic, manufacturing plants, and oil and gas refineries. Ozone in the air we breathe is very harmful triggering a variety of effects such as asthma, chest pain, heart and lung disease, and premature death – particularly in children, the sick, and the elderly. For sunny Los Angeles this is no small matter since ozone causes the most damage during hot sunny days. As such, the updated standard is meant to be a public health measure and does not include direct regulation on businesses. The new rules will expand the ozone monitoring season and update the Air Quality Index to keep people informed when pollution levels are dangerous.
The fossil fuel industry, manufacturers, and their allys criticize the new standards stating they will wreak havoc on the economy. Some even calling it the “costliest regulation ever”. Indeed, power plants and factories will need to install expensive technology to clean up their pollution emissions. However, advocates argue that the economic benefits - measured in reduced health care needs and increased productivity due to improved health - significantly outweigh the costs to industry. States also have a very generous time, up to 23 years, to comply. Though some regions, including Southern California are not even complying with the 1997 standard of 84 ppb yet.
EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, stated “Bringing ozone pollution standards in line with the latest science will clean up our air,…protect those most at-risk”, and the American people “deserve to know the air we breathe is safe.”
This is what improving regulations on air quality is all about. Though smog levels have been declining steadily over the last 40 years, there are always costs and benefits to each incremental improvement. As populations in urban centers continue to grow, these reductions in allowable pollution levels are always going to be both more difficult to accomplish and more imperative to preserve human and environmental health. Most would agree that human and environmental health trump the economic health of industries, especially industries that now have many viable solutions to damaging practices. Getting regulations in line with scientific evidence is just one more way to remind industry of how their environmental impacts are affecting the rest of us.
“Cap and Trade” - a sensible approach to addressing climate change by reducing emissions of Greenhouse Gasses - was once considered so non-controversial that even prominent Republicans like John McCain and even Newt Gingrich endorsed it. Today the idea is routinely trashed in Washington as a “big government energy mandate“ that must be stopped at all costs. And yet, in California, Cap and Trade has been up and running for nearly two years despite legal challenges and dire predictions that it would ruin the economy. (Hint: it hasn’t!)
Now the program (known as AB32) is set to expand to cover vehicle fuels, which account for one-third of all GHG emissions in the state, and industry, particularly the fossil-fuel industry, is attacking the program again. Only this time they are playing a smarter, some would say more cynical, game - hiding behind “AstroTurf” groups to conceal their agenda.
Perhaps you’ve seen this ad:
Heavens, Californians are facing a “hidden” gas tax - oh no! - and who is giving you this news? An attractive model fronting for something called the “California Drivers Alliance” who wants you to sign their petition. In reality, what is hidden here is who is actually behind this ad - the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and its fossil-fuel producing members.
In a PowerPoint presentation highlighting WSPA’s “Priority Issues” under the banner, “Energy Proud”, WSPA lays out how the current boost in domestic crude oil production should be “The Best of Times” except for those pesky concerns over the environment from fracking, oil spills, and yes, GHG emissions which threatens WSPA’s members with “The Worst of Times.” Their response? A massive astroturfing campaign designed to mislead consumers over the impact of this next phase of California’s cap and trade program all the while keeping the role of Big Oil out of the picture.
Fortunately WSPA has not been as sly as they intended, with their game plan having been made public, and now facing a coalition of pro-environment groups helping to unmask the powers behind the astroturfing. That coalition, operating under the name, Stop Fooling CA, is putting out the facts behind WSPA’s campaign to deceive the public, including clever graphics like the cartoon on the right. On their website you can sign up for news alerts and add your name to the list of people who are pushing back against Big Oil’s covert attempt to derail the most successful cap and trade program anywhere in the world, and one that even the Wall Street Journal concedes, “may hold lessons for other states.”
Before I head into the kitchen to get started on preparing our Thanksgiving feast, I wanted to take this moment to say thanks. In no particular order, I have to give thanks to and for:
I hope you have a wonderful holiday, filled with family and friends, and sunny thoughts!
Solar module manufacturer BP Solar - the “green” branch of energy giant British Petroleum (the same folks who brought you the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) - exited the solar market in 2011. But now a class-action lawsuit is alleging that BP Solar knew as early as 2005 that some of its solar modules, including ones that were widely sold in California, pose a serious risk of failure and even fires. Will BP step up and do the right thing? (For the record, Run on Sun never used BP Solar modules.)
BP does not deny that they have a potential problem. In a carefully worded 2012 Product Advisory, BP acknowledged the following:
This product advisory is being issued to communicate a potential risk when using certain BP Solar modules in specific types of installations. Testing has shown there is a limited risk of cable to busbar disconnection in the junction box that, in rare cases, may lead to a thermal event in certain applications of the products referenced below. A thermal event, depending upon the severity, can cause secondary damage to surrounding materials that are not fire resistant.
While BP’s advisory uses the overly lawyered phrase, “thermal event” to describe what can happen, others use less measured language. A report on Bay Area television station KTVU/Fox 2 speaks of consumer complaints about solar modules with a bevy of problems including “burning up, shattering and putting homes in danger.”
BP is not the only entity to “lawyer-up." The two-person law firm of Birka-White is challenging BP in a class action lawsuit (see the complaint here) that harkens back to David taking on Goliath. Birka-White, which had previously sued Suntech over problems with solar roofing tiles, a problem we have documented in this blog, alleges in their suit that a defect in the junction box on the affected BP solar modules causes them to fail, “resulting in a loss of electric current and serious safety risks, including the risk of fire." Despite that risk, the complaint alleges that BP continued to sell the defective modules until 2010, even though BP knew of the defects “since at least 2005."
More specifically, the complaint alleges that:
17. The connection between Solar Panels is made at a junction box attached to each Solar Panel. A defect in the junction box and the solder joints between the connecting cables causes the solder joint to overheat.
18. When the solder joint overheats, the connection between the Solar Panels breaks. This break in the circuit results in an arc of an electrical current which generates heat between 2000-3000 degrees Fahrenheit.
19. The heat caused by this failure melts the junction box, burns the cables and the Solar Panel and shatters the glass cover of the Solar Panel. Attached hereto as Exhibit D are photographs of BP Solar Panel junction box failures. If there is flammable material near the heat source, such a [sic] dry leaves, the junction box failure creates a high risk of fire. Fires caused by junction box failures have already occurred and there is a substantial risk that they will occur in the future.
20. Because of the defect in the junction box, all Solar Panels relevant to this litigation have failed or will fail before the end of their expected useful life.
The photos above are taken from Exhibit D and show the sort of “thermal event” that the affected homeowners (the potential members of the class to be certified as part of the litigation) could experience.
Faced with such compelling evidence of product defects, what has BP’s response been? You guessed it - to hide behind their limited warranty and to offer consumers a financial remedy that falls far short of making them whole.
To be sure, any product can have a defect, and it is by no means uncommon for a corporation to seek shelter from liability for such defects by pointing to limiting language in its product warranties. Yet BP, which had a net profit in 2013 of $13.4 billion, would certainly seem to be in a position to compensate the innocent victims of its product defects more fully. Of course, having halted solar operations altogether, BP has no ongoing vested interest in avoiding the black eye that its stonewalling will inevitably create for the entire solar industry. Indeed, how will other solar module manufacturers respond to BP’s failure and the ensuing litigation? Strong statements from industry leaders affirming their commitment to address promptly, and beyond the fine print of their limited warranties, problems arising from product defects could go a long way to restoring consumer confidence damaged by these BP revelations.
We decided to take a look into the CSI data to get a sense of how big an issue this might be in California. BP’s product advisory asserts that only certain module models, and only those manufactured from March 1, 2005 to October 31, 2006 have the defect that can lead to “thermal events.” The complaint, however, disputes that limitation, alleging that, “the risk of junction box failure exists for all Solar Panels - not just the limited number listed in the Product Advisory - manufactured at any time - not just the limited time frame covered by the Product Advisory.”
Regardless of which position is determined to be accurate, the CSI data provides no visibility into installations prior to 2007. And while the problem may or may not affect module models beyond those listed in the Product Advisory, as far as the data is concerned, the vast number of residential installations made use of only two BP models: BP175B and BP4175B - both of which are listed on the Product Advisory. Both products appear in the data as of 2007 (which could easily include modules manufactured during the Product Advisory period) and continue into this year. The peak year for installations of the 175B module was 2010, whereas the 4175B peaked the year later, in 2011. Here is the distribution:
At a minimum, those 135 installation in 2007 would likely have used modules from the Product Advisory period, and if plaintiffs are correct, there could be as many as 1,300+ installations based on these two modules alone.
While there is no doubt that individual homeowners are at greatest risk, there are more than 100 companies that installed these BP modules, potentially exposing them to liability for failures. Affected companies include major players like SolarCity, Verengo, and Sungevity, as well as dozens of much smaller companies, many of which are no longer in business. Those companies relied upon BP’s representations and are also victims here.
While larger companies might have the resources (if not necessarily the inclination) to help out their customers in this situation, smaller companies with more limited resources are not in a position to foot the bill for replacement systems (the remedy being sought in the litigation). Never-the-less, they can and should offer free inspections to their affected customers. It will be far better for the solar industry if a customer learns of a potential problem from the company that installed their system than if they hear about it in the media, or worse, suffer a “thermal event” on their own roof.
As solar installers, we depend upon manufactures to produce products that are safe and reliable, and to stand behind those products when there is an issue. We cannot, sadly, control the outcome when a supposedly competent manufacturer introduces defective products and then refuses to act responsibly. We can, and must, however, take all reasonable steps available to us to mitigate the harm - to our clients and to the industry - when such unpleasant circumstances arise.