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.
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 news report from RenewEconomy highlights the transition of Palo Alto, California to 100% renewable energy and it got us to wonder, so what about the rest of you munis?
To be sure, Palo Alto has a significant advantage over most utilities - IOU or municipal - in that it gets 50% of its electricity from hydro-electric sources. Still, this was a giant leap forward toward sustainability for the city which is home to Stanford University. Palo Alto intends to supplement its hydro sources with wind farms, solar arrays and renewable gas captured from landfills. If those aren’t sufficient to meet the city’s needs, they will buy non-renewable energy with renewable energy credits.
If you are expecting that much progress to come with a shocking price tag, you would be right. But the shock is how low - just $3 per customer per year!
From the article:
“Palo Alto has been a leader in reducing its carbon emissions,“ Mayor Greg Scharff said of the decision – the city first established its Climate Action Plan in 2007, setting goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sources.
“When we realized we could achieve a carbon neutral electric supply right now, we were compelled to take action,” Scharff added. “Climate change is one of the critical challenges of our generation and we hope our actions will inspire others to follow suit.”
But, as PaloAltoPatch notes, being the owner of all of its energy utilities has given the city an advantage in the low-carbon stakes – the autonomy to make decisions based strictly on the best interests of Palo Altans, without worrying about shareholders.
“As a City, we’ve had cheaper, greener power for our citizens for decades, and being able to make this recent move to 100% carbon-free electricity is just another example of how owning our own utilities pays off,” said City Manager James Keene.
Of course, every muni utility has that same advantage - they can do what is best for the local residents without having to answer to far-flung shareholders who may not care what happens within the city. So why are the policies of so many munis every bit as backward as their IOU cousins?
Could it be because in most cities the residents only pay attention to what their utility is doing when it dramatically raises rates? Surely that is the case in Glendale - when Glendale Water & Power rolled out their fatally-flawed Feed-in Tariff, not a single resident spoke on the subject. But now when GWP is trying to institute a 24% rate hike they are getting lots of public participation, that is - anger - in response.
Palo Alto may be in a particularly fortunate place to allow them to take this step, but every muni could be taking similar, if smaller, steps.
The public simply has to demand it.
This coming Tuesday, President Obama will layout his strategy for addressing climate change. As this is the most serious challenge the world faces in the 21st Century, we can only hope his Vision will be up to the Task.
Here’s his announcement of the upcoming speech:
We will be watching on Tuesday with great interest and will offer our thoughts then. Never has the scriptural imperative - “Without Vision the People Perish” - been more apt.
Let’s hope for something big!
ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson - whose name and position inevitably conjures images of dying dinosaurs - emceed the company’s annual shareholder meeting this past week and he had some blunt words for those who were advocating for a resolution on reducing greenhouse gas emissions - forget about it, we can’t get there.
Mr. Tillerson responded to questions from proponents of the resolution - which Management had recommended be voted down - during the open comment period before the vote. When asked about the problem of exceeding 350 parts per million CO2 - the limit widely acknowledged as the threshold for preventing significant climate change - he replied:
Well, I can not conclude there is something magical about 350 because that suggests these models are very competent and our examination of the models, are that they’re not that competent…
We do not see a viable pathway with any known technology today to achieve the 350 outcome that is not devastating to economies, societies, and people’s health and well being around the world. You cannot get there.
When he speaks of steps that might be “devastating to economies” he is deathly serious:
We do not have a readily available replacement for the energy that provides the means of living that the world has today, not our standard of living but equally, if not more importantly, a standard of living that more than 2 billion people on the planet are below anything any of us would find acceptable from a poverty, hunger, education standpoint.
How do you want to deal with that great social challenge? To what good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers in the process of those efforts when you don’t know exactly what your impacts are going to be?
The irony here is pretty intense - Mr. Tillerson is only focused on the risks associated with reducing the use of his company’s products - but he glosses over the impact that climate change is having now, and will have in the future. It is insulting to suggest that he, or ExxonMobil, is actually concerned with raising the standard of living of the billions to which he refers and yet they are exactly the people who will suffer the most from fossil fuel-ed climate change.
Instead, Mr. Tillerson expounds on his “faith” that technology will allow us - or at least the First-Worlder’s amongst us - to adopt a “mitigation and adaptation” approach to dealing with climate change. That might work in Dallas - where the meeting was held - but it is a death sentence for say, the Maldives.
Taking comfort in his words, the shareholders dutifully voted down the resolution 73 to 27%.