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.
Normally we avoid the blatant sales pitch in this blog, but September
marks Run on Sun’s Fifth Anniversary - no mean feat in this economy, thank you very much! - and we are celebrating with our best sale ever!
When you combine our Special Anniversary Discount with the lowest equipment prices of all time and add in the recently lowered sales tax rate throughout L.A. County - you are looking at some serious savings!
Here’s all there is to it: for every contract that we sign during the month of September, we will take a full 5% off our already affordable prices. This offer is good throughout the Run on Sun service area and applies to all systems 5 kW or larger. All you have to do is mention that you saw this blog post and the savings are yours!
So what are you waiting for - September won’t last forever! Pick up the phone and give us a call (626-793-6025) or better yet, click on the Sun over there on the right and fill out our easy online form to get the process started.
Happy Anniversary from all of us at Run on Sun!
Every now and then you come across a news item that leaves you scratching your head - “What were they thinking?” you wonder. That was our reaction to a NY Times article reporting that giant retailer Costco is removing its already installed charging stations for Electric Vehicles (EVs). Really? Now they are doing this? Just as modern, capable EVs (and plug-in hybrids or PHEVs) become widely available, they are removing their charging stations? How does that make any sense?
Costco had originally installed its chargers back during the original EV boom that was documented in Who Killed the Electric Car. That boom ended when the California Air Resources Board caved on their EV mandate and GM - which had only leased, not sold its EV-1 vehicles - recalled them from their drivers and sent them to the scrap pile (despite howls of protest). But all of that took place years ago. So why remove the chargers now?
According to Costco management, the chargers were not being used enough to justify keeping them. Now part of that might be due to the age of the chargers which makes them a poor match for today’s EVs. Yet, the California Energy Commission has a program in place to help pay for upgrading old chargers - like the ones at Costco - with state-of-the-art models that are perfectly matched to the new round of EVs. “Not interested,” said Costco. According to the article:
Mr. Hoover [the general manager for Costco in northern California] said that E.V. charging was “very inefficient and not productive” for the retailer. “The bottom line is that there are a lot of other ways to be green,” he said. “We have five million members in the region, and just a handful of people are using these devices.”
Mr. Hoover said the company was aware of the state-funded upgrade program, but did not see a compelling reason to take advantage of it.
“Why should we have anybody spend money on a program that nobody’s thought through?” he said.
Hoover’s dismissive attitude was reflected in the comments - particularly the comments “highlighted” by NY Times editorial staff - that were shockingly ill-informed. Here’s one example:
Isn’t it enough the public has to subsidize the purchase of these slow-moving boondoggles, must we continue to coddle them throughout their entire (mercifully, short) lifespans? Calling them “green", btw, is laughable, as if the electricity coming through these chargers was generated by pixies using fairy dust. In the unlikely event these fadcars ever became popular, they’d add to the stress on our already over-burdened electric grid.
As we have noted before, we don’t believe in electricity produced by “fairy dust” - but we do believe that EVs, when combined with solar power systems - provide a way to have an incredibly cleaner driving system than what most of us are using today. And numerous studies have demonstrated that for EVs charging at night, they will impose no burden at all on the grid. Indeed, as the grid gets “smarter” EVs have the potential to help even out demand by providing power back to the grid.
The good folks over at Plug In America have launched a letter writing campaign to try and reverse Costco’s curious decision. We encourage you to check it out.
We noticed before that furniture giant IKEA was installing solar at six stores in the U.S., but we had no idea that their ambition was so grand. “The direction of travel for us is 100 percent renewable,” said chief sustainability officer, Steve Howard. “We’re likely to hit 70 to 80 percent by 2015." Wow!
As a starting point - well beyond those six U.S. stores - IKEA is installing 39,000 solar panels on its stores in the UK as well as purchasing a 12.3 MW wind farm in the Scottish countryside. Those two steps alone will cover 30% of IKEA’s UK electricity consumption. Altogether, IKEA owns 67 wind turbines (in the UK, Denmark, Germany & France) with a combined generation capacity of 127 MW.
So why is IKEA making this investment in renewable energy sources? That’s easy - to save money, just like any other company. According to Howard, in the past, IKEA has been subjected to electricity price spikes that cost the company $1.7 billion (USD) per year. By purchasing renewable energy sources, IKEA is able to avoid those spikes and lock-in its energy costs for the next two decades.
The lesson for U. S. companies (and particularly those in sunny SoCal) should be clear - solar is an investment that will pay handsomely to the bottom line while making the world a cleaner, healthier place. Independence, after all, is such an American value!
We have written before about the PR problems haunting solar power and we received yet another reminder of that ongoing issue in the form of a troubling Los Angeles Times article by Tiffany Hsu titled, “The dark side of solar and wind power projects." We won’t address the specifics about wind power projects since that is outside of our expertise, but the overall tone of the piece and some specific comments about solar demand a response.
One problem we have are the recurring quotations from industry opponents, such as the quote “One of these days, a turbine’s going to fall on someone,” attributed to the executive director of an industry “watchdog” organization called the Industrial Wind Action Group. Yet according to the Group’s website:
Industrial Wind Action was formed to counteract the misleading information promulgated by the wind energy industry and various environmental groups. Support for this effort comes from a large and diversified group of environmentalists, energy experts, and ordinary citizens.
None of that “large and diversified group” is identified on the website.
Much of what is mentioned in the article is provided with no citations at all. Here’s one particularly egregious example: “The complicated wiring under solar panels has left some firefighters so bewildered that they have allowed residential rooftops to burn." Really? Where and when did that happen? Hard to refute scary stories that appear without citation. Not great journalism, either.
The article continues:
Panel parts can also be flammable or prone to melting, or torn off in storms or cracked by hail, testing experts said.
Prone to melting? We decommissioned a solar power system that had been in use in Furnace Creek - you know, Death Valley, just the hottest place in the United States - and while their performance had degraded over time, none of them had demonstrated melting. (The online version of the article includes a video taken at a UL lab where solar panels are put through extremes that would never be seen on a residential roof. Yet no such qualification is included in the article itself.)
Solar panels are not generally flammable (that is why they are given a Class-C fire rating) and when installed by a competent installer (think NABCEP certified) will not be torn off your roof in a storm. (Tornadoes excluded!) And as for being cracked by hail, well the Solar Kid “exploded” that myth months ago:
Then, finally, there is the tragic issue of injuries. Energy generation is a complicated enterprise and there exists a significant element of danger when you concentrate lots of power in a relatively small space. Toss in the need to be working at heights - often a component of residential solar installations - and the possibility of injury or even death is always present. Solar installers who are NABCEP certified have demonstrated their knowledge of the safety rules and best practices that accompany working in this area. As consumers become better informed about how to differentiate one solar installer from another, the emphasis on such certification will certainly grow, and that will be good for consumers and workers alike.
But sadly missing from this article is any attempt at balance about the safety issues surrounding other energy generation systems. After all:
Every industry - including the renewable energy industry - needs to be self critical, to learn from its mistakes and constantly strive to improve its safety performance. But “dark” stories masquerading as journalism don’t help that process, and readers of the L.A. Times deserve better.
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