How did solar energy get so cheap? UW prof probes history of technology

When Greg Nemet began studying solar energy in 2002, it was largely a novelty in the United States, popular with tree-huggers and niche markets, but not considered a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

Today, large-scale solar farms are more cost-efficient than virtually all other sources, even in places like Wisconsin, where regulators recently approved projects that will result in a five-fold expansion of solar capacity.

So what caused the prices to plummet?

Nemet, a professor with UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, decided to figure it out.

‘Money for nothing’: consumer groups, utilities at odds over who pays for closing plants

The first practical photovoltaic cell, which converts light into electrical current, was invented in 1954.

Nemet calculated it would have cost $300 (in 2017 currency) to produce 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity with those first commercial cells. Utility-scale solar farms today can generate that amount of energy for 3 to 4 cents.

How Solar Became Cheap book cover

“How Solar Energy Became Cheap” by Greg Nemet

The trajectory was anything but linear.

In the 1960s, the primary customer was the Department of Defense for use in its burgeoning space program; petroleum companies also embraced PV as a way to power offshore drilling rigs.

In the 1970s, U.S. energy policy led to fast advances and attracted experts from around the world. But when funding and interest dried up in the 1980s, those people went to places like Australia and Japan, where solar cells first were incorporated into electronics like calculators and watches and later on residential rooftops.

In 1998, the German Green Party came to power and helped pass renewable energy laws that fueled a surge in solar installations. This new demand provided a catalyst for PV suppliers to develop machines to automate the manufacturing process, which lowered prices.

China took notice and applied its organizational capacity, the ability to quickly ramp up large-scale production. The quality was a little lower, but the efficiency of scale cut the cost in half.

Nemet said Germany’s renewable energy law may have made the biggest difference, but he adds that alone wasn’t enough.

“There was no one big policy. There was no one country that did it,” Nemet said. “Each country kind of played a role and added something really distinct.”

As utilities embrace clean energy, some lobby for a more democratic solution

Stories behind the data

Nemet, 45, worked as a business consultant in the mid-1990s before moving on to a think tank where he studied innovation across health care, information technologies, consumer products and energy when he noticed something strange.

When comparing measures like employment, research and development funding and the number of patents, every other sector had 10 times the resources of energy.

“It was a huge difference,” he said. “It wasn’t quite the response it should be.”

That study led him to the University of California-Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in energy and resources.

Nemet has watched solar prices throughout his academic career, but said he always felt there were factors that couldn’t be seen in the statistics.

So in 2017, with the help of an Andrew Carnegie fellowship, he set out to find the story behind the data, interviewing more than 70 people — including academics, policy-makers and entrepreneurs — in 18 countries.

“I learned a lot,” he said. “A lot was how knowledge — or know-how — moved from one country to another.”

Lessons learned

While Nemet is not the first to study solar pricing, most of the academic and popular explanations deal with only one aspect, said Varun Sivaram, a solar energy scholar and chief technology officer for India’s largest renewable energy company.

“Nemet provides a holistic description of how solar became cheap, and man, is it complicated,” Sivaram said in an email. “Often, you will see market research firms trumpeting a simple relationship between the scale of deployment of solar and its cost. But that focus on ‘pull’ policies misses half the story and the nuances of the interplay between push and pull policies, the global nature of the solar innovation ecosystem, and the real lessons that should be learned for how to make other technologies that are badly needed for decarbonization cheap.”

Scientists say the world has about 10 years to cut carbon emissions in half and another 20 years to eliminate them completely in order to avoid the risk of catastrophic climate change by the end of this century.

That means we don’t have another 60 years for today’s emerging technologies — such as small-scale nuclear energy, batteries and carbon dioxide removal — to become cheap.

“We’re going to need to have more than just solar, electric vehicles and a lot of other things,” Nemet said. “So if we can learn what worked with solar and do it faster, that will help get it right the next time.”

The key lessons: start by investing in research and development for new technologies; build markets by exploiting niches and using public procurement; provide subsidies to help industry scale up to bring costs down.

Looking back, Nemet said, it’s possible solar prices could have bottomed out a decade or two sooner had the U.S. not slashed funding in the 1980s.

“Those (research and development) budgets got cut radically within a couple of years,” he said. “All that knowledge that was in people’s heads just got scattered to the wind.”

Report: Wind, solar energy now cheaper than most existing coal plants

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Renewable energy capacity in the US tips past coal for the first time

In April, the United States’ renewable energy capacity tipped past coal for the first time, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This is a milestone for the nation, representing the rapid growth of clean energy as a sustainable alternative to coal. Coal consumption in the US was at its peak in 2008; it now sits around its lowest point in four decades despite the current administration’s attempt to prop up the industry.

Details about the achievement arrived in a report published by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which states that US power plants produced more clean energy in April versus energy sourced from coal for the first time. This achievement follows the 2016 milestone when natural gas overtook coal in the nation.

The difference between clean energy and coal capacities were very minor, however, with renewable power sitting at 257.53 gigawatts of installed capacity in April compared to coal’s 257.48 gigawatts. Despite the slim margin, the milestone is viewed as a critical moment underscoring the inevitable demise of coal as a power source.

Renewable energy is the overall category for a variety of clean energy sources, including water, solar, geothermal, steam, and biomass. Solar and wind farms were the primary source of clean energy, however, a reality reflected elsewhere in the world. In addition to the new achievement, the report reveals that the US hasn’t added any new coal-fired power plants so far in 2019.

The April achievement is ultimately a glimpse of the future, but won’t be a persistent reality throughout the entire year. Experts say it will be multiple years before clean energy in the United States consistently surpasses coal, though all signs point toward it being an inevitability at this point.

Estimate the Energy of an Utterly Massive Wind Turbine

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It’s amazing that we can get electrical power just from the wind, but that’s exactly what happens with a wind farm. It’s a collection of wind turbines in a particular location with abundant wind. And as with many things, bigger is better. The Hornsea Wind Farm, for example, is being built 75 miles off the coast of Yorkshire, England, and upon completion it is expected to be the biggest offshore wind farm in the world. These are some big wind turbines: The video lists the turbine diameter as 154 meters (more than 500 feet).

But here’s the part I’m interested in. They claim that just one turn of these giant wind turbines can generate enough energy to power a house for a whole day. You know what comes next right? An estimation. Let’s see if the numbers add up for this claim.

I suppose we should start with the fundamental physics principles that make this wind turbine create electricity. Like most other methods of generating electricity, it involves turning a coil of wire in a magnetic field. When a changing magnetic field passes through a coil it produces an electric current. But then how do you get that coil to turn? For a wind turbine, the air moving into the large blades pushes them in a rotating motion.

Of course you don’t have to use wind to turn a turbine. You could use running water by placing some type of propeller-based blades in moving water like a stream or from a dam (hydroelectric power plants do this). Another popular option is to heat up water and let the steam turn a turbine. This is how coal and natural gas power plants work. It’s also how a nuclear power plant operates. The only difference between nuclear and coal power production is that one burns a fossil fuel to heat up water and the other uses a nuclear reaction. The turbine parts are essentially the same. It’s crazy if you think about it. Really, the only power generation method that’s different is a solar panel. That works with a different method.

That’s great and all, but how do you estimate the power (and then the energy) from a wind turbine? All of the energy comes from the kinetic energy of moving air. Kinetic energy can be calculated as:

Rhett Allain

In this expression, m is the mass of air and v is the air speed. Let’s assume that the air enters the turbine with a speed of v1 and then leaves at a slower speed of v2. This decrease in speed means a decrease in kinetic energy—and it is that energy that eventually turns into electricity. The speeds might be easy to estimate, but what about the mass of the air?

Suppose that we have a large cylinder of air that enters the turbine. The cross-sectional area of this cylinder is a circle the same size as the rotating props and the length of the cylinder is just a value—for now I will call it L. This diagram should help.

Rhett Allain

What is the mass of this giant cylinder of air? Well, if I know the density of air (I do) and the volume of a cylinder (yup), I can calculate the mass of air. Remember, a good estimate for the density of air (ρ) is around 1.2 kilograms per cubic meter.

Rhett Allain

There is still one thing missing—the length of this cylinder of air (L). If the air is moving with a speed of v1 for some interval of time (Δt), then the length of this cylinder would be:

Rhett Allain

This just comes from the definition of velocity in one dimension. Now instead of estimating the length, I can estimate the time interval. Remember we are trying to find the energy from one rotation of that wind turbine. I can just look at the video and see an actual rotating turbine. My estimate is that it takes about 4 seconds to make one rotation.

There are only a few more things to estimate:

  • Initial air velocity = 5 meters per second (11.2 mph)
  • Final air velocity = 2.5 meters per second (5.6 mph)
  • Efficiency (fraction of kinetic energy that goes to electrical energy) = 0.25
  • Average power consumption for a house = 2,000 watts.

Now for the calculation. Here it is (you can change the values if you disagree with my estimates). If you want to see and change the code, click the pencil icon. Click the Play button to run it.

[embedded content]

So, that didn’t work. Using my values, the one turn of the wind turbine creates 291 watt-hours (a unit of energy), but a house uses about 48 thousand watt-hours. I’m off by a factor of 100 or so. That means you would need 100 turbines (or 100 rotations) to get enough energy to run a house for a day. OK, so what went wrong? There are a couple of options. Obviously, my estimations could be off. But why would they be off by a factor of 100? Even if I double the wind speed and put the final air speed at 0 m/s, it’s still not enough energy.

The other option is that there was some error in the video. Hey, it’s possible. We all make mistakes. Maybe they meant to say that one rotation was enough to run a house for 2 hours—or something like that. Who knows. What I do know is that even though my calculation doesn’t agree with the video, wind turbines can produce quite a bit of energy.

More Great WIRED Stories

How To Use Renewable Energy At Your Business



In my last piece here on Forbes, I discussed the impact tech companies have on the environment. While most of us aren’t catapulting heaps of plastic into the ocean or dumping motor oil in wildlife sanctuaries, we need to realize the energy we use must come from somewhere. That “somewhere” almost always results in ecological impact, usually in the form of carbon emissions.

Switching out your on-premise servers in favor of a cloud solution will, relatively speaking, reduce the emissions your business produces. So, by continuing to not flagrantly pollute delicate ecosystems and opting for a cloud provider, you’re doing the environment a solid.

The thing is, most of us didn’t (and likely won’t for those who are on the fence) make the switch to the cloud because of the well-being of coral reefs or rainforests. We did it because it’s practical and makes sense. It’s like if you visit a restaurant you frequent for lunch, then happen to learn the business just so happens to be donating its profits to a charity that day — your staple lunch entrée came with a free pat on the back for doing what you were going to do anyway. Moving to a cloud provider is a given for most companies (with the few exceptions for niche service providers) where the environmentally friendly byproduct of doing so is an afterthought, at best.

But what about those who are looking to expand substantially or are making a grand entrance to the market with a large operation? And what about businesses that demand onsite systems for any number of reasons? I feel this is where the Microsoft volume firming agreement (VFA) makes a great difference in reducing both your expenditures on energy and lowering emissions. (Full disclosure: SoHo Dragon is a Microsoft Partner.)

How To Go Green For Business

For most businesses that are looking to implement green power for their facilities, there are a couple of different approaches available.

The first is an onsite installation with equipment you buy or lease. Power is supplied from a renewable energy source that’s installed at your location, most commonly in the form of solar panels you purchase from a vendor or through the contractor that’s installing the units. This is ideal for a location you own (or that’s in the process of being purchased) that also has adequate room and exposure to sunlight. Also, if you’re in the U.S., you’ll be eligible for a tax credit, and if you’re in Europe, you may qualify for EU grants.

A second option is acquiring power from renewable energy sources via a PPA (power purchase agreement.) Many times, sites in urban locations simply don’t offer enough space for a dedicated system that can provide the required power, and in other cases, shared spaces are subject to red tape from other occupants or property owners. In the case of the latter, your only option is typically a “deal” through a PPA that aims to provide clean power at a good price over a long period.

In either scenario, there’s a small problem: The output for green energy systems can vary due to weather and other conditions, meaning there’s anywhere from occasional to frequent needs to purchase power from the grid, which means the prices can fluctuate.

If you’re starting a new business or perhaps expanding to a location where you’re planning on implementing solar power, remember that getting quality power at a good price is quite important.

The Microsoft VFA: What It Does And Why You Should Care

If you hire a contractor to outfit your location with, say, solar panels (or even if you did it yourself), times where extra power is required means you’ll likely just pay the utility company for supplemental power. However, when you’re not in a position to invest in your own equipment, things get more complex when renting green power supplies. This is why PPAs were developed in the first place. However, these contracts are still overly complex and leave too much wiggle room for energy prices.

Mainly, these agreements include clauses that leave a lot of risk for the buyer. Aside from changes in prices, these agreements often need to be transferred in the event of a real estate sale, which makes property sales tricky.

Fortunately, the joint venture between Microsoft, REsurety, Nephilia Climate and Allianz that produced the VFA addresses many of the shortcomings of the PPA, making the green energy substantially more accessible to everyone.

To be brief, the VFA reduces the risk that comes from times that green power supplies suffer due to weather-related conditions. The VFA increases the overall prices (compared to most PPAs), which helps offset the costs for a third-party insurer whose role is to keep pricing consistent. Despite the extra expenditure for insurance that’s built into a VFA, energy costs are still lower than most grid-supplied power and there’s a steady pricing model from power supplies that inherently produce a dynamic output. 

This means that big or small businesses in any industry can access a stable, green energy supply without the investment in your own renewable energy supplies or dealing with the uncertainties that come with a PPA. This is ideal for tech companies that insist on having on-premise servers — they’ll save money on energy and reduce their greenhouse gas output versus using power from the grid.

You Can Go Green And Save Money

My thoughts are that if you’re looking to start a new business, expand operations or you’re part of some “anti-public cloud” movement, you’ll going to need energy, regardless. As such, it makes sense to strongly consider green (e.g., solar) energy for your operation. It will save your business money in the long term, whether investing in your own equipment or utilizing a VFA. Plus, it’s an ecologically sound way to power your business. Wildlife everywhere will thank you for doing your part.

US renewable capacity surpasses coal for the first time despite Trump’s promises, gap due to widen

US electricity generation capacity from renewable energy sources surpassed coal for the first time this April, and that gap looks to grow substantially during the next three years.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its latest Energy Infrastructure Update, and the numbers reveal that the total installed capacity of renewables — including hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass — hit 257.53 GW in April 2019, grabbing a 21.56% share of installed generating capacity.

Coal checked in with 257.48 GW and a 21.55% share, respectively, just falling behind. Wind and solar added 178 MW in new installations to surpass the fossil fuel.

When it comes to installed capacity for renewables alone, hydropower is still the leader, but it won’t be for long — wind is now just 1.82 GW behind hydro, and should pass it in the near future.

FERC also shared the proposed additions and retirements in total installed capacity over the next three years, to May 2022, and by that time, the gap between renewables and coal will be vast.

In those three years, coal is expected to install just 867 new MW of capacity, while 13,276 MW of coal capacity will be retired.

Meanwhile, wind and solar alone should push renewables far, far ahead of coal. FERC expects there to be a “high probability” of 40,203 MW of new wind and solar installed by May 2022. If you include all proposed additions — beyond that of what the commission merely considers “high probability” — the US could see more than 186,000 MW of installed wind and solar capacity added in those next three years.

The updated capacity numbers fall in line with the expectations of electricity generation from renewables surpassing coal in the US. Another study recently noted that renewables are now the cheapest power option for most of the world, as costs continue to hit new lows.

Natural gas is still the leader in total installed capacity for electricity generation in the US, with a 44.44% share as of April.

Electrek’s Take

Capacity isn’t the same as electricity generation, where coal’s share should remain closer to renewables for a bit. But nevertheless, we’ve reached the part of the US energy transition where renewables are passing coal, and they won’t look back.

President Trump vowed to save coal, but despite those promises, it’s not really something he can control. It’s like fighting time. The president specifically tweeted about saving a Tennessee Valley Authority coal plant in February, but the board voted to close that plant and another, anyway. As TVA President and Chief Executive Bill Johnson said at the time, “It is not about coal. This decision is about economics.”

The next showdown for renewables is with natural gas, which has added more capacity than all renewables combined thus far this year.

Though FERC expects natural gas to continue to add capacity in the next three years, wind and solar combined are expected to add more capacity than gas during that time. And not to be overlooked in the matter is Michael Bloomberg’s new $500 million Beyond Carbon initiative, which aims to prevent the construction of new gas plants, as it has done and will continue to do for coal plants.

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Can Green Energy Put Your Company in the Black?

As many companies know, going green is good for a business’ reputation–but some are just figuring out that it’s a boon to bottom lines, too. According to a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund and Calvert Research and Management, nearly 80,000 emission reductions projects undertaken by 190 Fortune 500 companies have resulted in nearly $3.7 billion in savings in 2016.

With more research being done on the financial benefits of sustainability, an increasing number of companies are undergoing green transformations. “We’ve seen more companies committing to becoming more efficient, buying renewable energy, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions,” says David Gardiner, CEO of David Gardiner and Associates, a Washington D.C.-based advisory firm.

Bottom-line benefits 

There are several ways that companies can become more sustainable, from improving human resource practices in foreign countries to using more efficient LED lighting in their office spaces. One big way that businesses are reducing costs, though, is by using renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, to power their operations.

Over the last few years, solar and wind costs have declined dramatically, making it far more affordable to pay for different kinds of electricity, Gardiner says. Renewable energy is also cheaper than coal, with investment firm Lazard finding that the cost of wind on a megawatt per hour basis is $45, while solar is $49.50. Coal’s price is $101.50. “You’re saving money on the energy costs because once you have a windmill and solar panels, the wind and solar power come for free,” Gardiner says.

Putting renewables to work

There are several ways companies can take advantage of renewable energy. Companies can put solar panels on their roofs for starters, and with a recent Google report finding that nearly 80 percent of all rooftops in the U.S. get enough sun to generate power, that may be a viable option for many businesses, big and small. But numerous companies are partnering with third-party businesses, either utilities or solar and wind manufacturing operations, to either set up wind and solar farms or to buy renewable energy directly from the business.

This is an ideal scenario for companies worried about spending upfront dollars on paneling their roof or creating a wind farm on their own. Instead, they pay the company, which builds the infrastructure, a monthly cost–just like they would to use traditional energy sources–until the project is paid off. “Someone else pays the upfront cost, and the business negotiates a contract to pay them back over a period of time,” Gardiner says. “It’s like what’s being done now. Companies aren’t buying power plants–they leave that to the utilities.”

Gardiner says smaller businesses, which are behind bigger operations in renewable energy usage, might consider partnering with other smaller operations when doing a renewable energy deal. “There’s still an issue on figuring out how to make this easy for smaller companies to do,” he says. “But we have seen some businesses work on deals together.”

Once the investment is paid off, companies should start seeing overall margins improve–and other financial benefits–as energy costs decrease. “Numerous studies have proven that there is a positive, tangible, quantitative impact on businesses who approach being more environmentally friendly as a business goal,” says Kostya Polyakov, CPA, CA, and leader of KPMG’s technology, media and telecommunications practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Be it growing revenue, cutting costs, reducing waste, or improving overall operational efficiency, operating in a more environmentally friendly way is absolutely good for business.”                      

At this point, most companies that use renewable energy are generating power through rooftop panels or taking wind power from nearby farms, but others are harnessing energy in other ways. Leor Rotchild, executive director of Toronto’s Canadian Business for Social Responsibility, knows of agriculture companies that are using geothermal energy–heat that’s stored in the earth–to not only power operations, but to heat buildings and greenhouses, too.

In the future, green algae, which contains energy-rich oils, could be used to power buildings, while much smaller wind turbines could allow companies themselves to set up a small windfarm on a patch of land. “There are numerous ways in which companies can incorporate more green and renewable energy practices into their operations,” Polyakov says. “It always starts with creating a business objective, and then following it through all of the companies’ processes.”

Green is good–for business

Going green doesn’t just make sense from a cost savings point either. As many companies have learned, it’s also just good for business. More consumers want to buy goods from sustainable operations, while an increasing number of people want to invest in sustainable companies, as well. When Rotchild introduced green initiatives at a former oil company he worked for, and it ended up on a list of sustainable companies, investors gathered around. “An investment bank phoned and said they were getting calls from investors about the business,” he says.

While many executives and entrepreneurs have yet to introduce sustainable practices into their operations, it’s only a matter of time until the business case for going green becomes impossible to ignore. “Renewable energy has gone from nothing a decade ago to being a sizable portion of the energy market,” Gardiner says. “Soon this will become attractive to an even broader group of companies.”

Bloomberg pledges $500m to clean energy ‘fight of our time’

Michael Bloomberg was the centrist mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013 Michael Bloomberg was the centrist mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013

US billionaire Michael Bloomberg said Thursday he will spend half a billion dollars in the “fight of our time” to move the US away from carbon energy and combat climate change.

The former New York mayor and philanthropist said the $500 million investment will go toward launching the Beyond Carbon initiative, which aims to close nearly 250 throughout the country by 2030 and prevent new ones being built.

“We’re in a race against time with climate change, and yet there is virtually no hope of bold federal action on this issue for at least another two years,” Bloomberg said in a statement.

“Mother Nature is not waiting on our political calendar, and neither can we.”

Bloomberg added the new campaign means he has pledged a total $1 billion toward fighting climate change, including the 2011 Beyond Coal effort, which has so far closed 289 coal plants in the US.

On its website, Beyond Carbon said it plans to work toward a “100 percent clean energy economy” and will also campaign against the construction of new gas plants in the US.

The initiative will “turbo-charge work that is underway… empower elected officials and citizens who are leading it, mobilize citizens who support it,” and uphold US commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement, it added.

Bloomberg, who is the UN Secretary-General’s climate change envoy, tweeted it was the “the largest-ever coordinated campaign to tackle the crisis our country has ever seen. This is the fight of our time.”

He planned to publicly announce the program during a commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Friday.

Fifty coal-fired power plants have shut in the United States since President Donald Trump came to office two years ago Fifty coal-fired power plants have shut in the United States since President Donald Trump came to office two years ago

Vast fortune

Bloomberg, 77, was the centrist mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013. His vast fortune was estimated at some $55.5 billion last year, according to Forbes.

Political observers have long speculated over whether he would run for president, but in March he ruled himself out as a Democratic candidate, writing on his Bloomberg media platform he wanted to affect change outside of Washington.

Bloomberg vowed to devote his considerable financial muscle toward addressing some of the nation’s major challenges, including , gun violence, the opioid crisis, failing and college affordability.

“I love our country too much to sit back and hope for the best as national problems get worse,” he said.

“But I also recognize that until 2021, and possibly longer, our only real hope for progress lies outside of Washington.”

The 2015 Paris accord enjoins nations to work towards limiting global temperature rises to “well below” two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) and to a harder cap of 1.5C if possible.

To do so, governments must commit to curbing —the leading source of which is burning fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal for power.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change warned last October that warming is currently on track towards a catastrophic 3-4C rise.

Fifty coal-fired power plants have shut in the United States since President Donald Trump came to office two years ago, environmental organization The Sierra Club reported in May.

Explore further

Bloomberg donates $64 million to fight Trump’s coal agenda

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The Democrats’ climate-change plans, compared

A few weeks ago, Reuters reported that Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden’s camp was crafting a “middle ground” climate-change policy that more or less returned the US to the pre-Trump plan for rolling back emissions.

But the plan he unveiled on Tuesday would go well beyond the climate policies of the Obama-Biden era, striving to completely eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions in the next few decades.

The turnabout, which follows a public torching of Biden’s middle-ground trial balloon, is the latest sign of just how high the climate bar has been raised for anyone who hopes to clinch the Democratic nomination.

It’s a stark shift from the last presidential campaign, when climate change barely came up in the debates. Recent polls have found that climate has become a “very important” issue among Democratic-leaning voters, rising significantly from the 2016 election year.

Observers believe a number of factors could be driving the growing concerns, including reactions to the policies of the Trump administration, the success of youth-driven climate protests, the attention surrounding the Green New Deal proposal, the rising recognition of how climate change affected events like last year’s fires and heat waves, and the UN IPCC’s recent conclusions that the world could exceed 1.5 ˚C of warming by 2030.

Climate change increasingly seems like an imminent and direct threat rather than an abstract and distant one, says Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who focuses on environmental and energy politics.

“It’s not other people. It’s not in the future,” she says. “Climate change affects us in the here and now.”

The Biden plan

The five-point plan from the former vice president and current Democratic front-runner sets the ambitious goal of reaching a “100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050,” and embraces a wide portfolio of technologies to achieve it. That includes emerging and somewhat controversial tools like small modular nuclear reactors, systems for capturing carbon emissions from power plants and the air, and the use of hydrogen to store excess electricity from solar and wind power.

Biden’s plan would spend $1.7 trillion on clean energy, environmental justice, and infrastructure, including $400 billion for research and development. The funds would come from reversing the Trump administration’s tax cuts, ending fossil-fuel subsidies, and closing other tax loopholes, according to the campaign.

To Stokes and others, Biden’s suddenly strengthened plan seemed more like a reaction to the earlier criticism than any newfound heartfelt climate commitment, as it cobbled together (or worse) high points from the plans of other Democratic contenders and additional sources.

Warren’s “Green Manufacturing Plan”

Not to be outdone, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a distant fourth in recent polling, unveiled her own “Green Manufacturing Plan” on Tuesday. It would pour $2 trillion over the next decade into “green research, manufacturing, and exporting,” also earmarking $400 billion for clean-energy R&D, in what she describes as a “Green Apollo Program.”

The main priority of her plan is to make the US a major manufacturer and exporter of clean-energy technologies, to create jobs domestically and help push down emissions globally. That reads as an implicit effort to confront China’s rise as the global leader in manufacturing green technologies like solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and electric vehicles, says David Hart, director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at George Mason University.

Some were skeptical of how easy it would be to pull off such a global reordering of the energy landscape.

“The focus on American-made technologies strikes me as ambitious given the dismal US track record on clean tech manufacturing,” tweeted Jonas Nahm, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who focuses on the energy transition in China. “[It] also completely disregards the fact that these products are produced in truly global supply chains.”

Warren previously cosponsored the Green New Deal, which also sets a target of achieving “net-zero emissions” by 2050, and announced plans last month to cut US military emissions.

Tuesday’s announcement called for “widespread domestic and international adoption of clean, renewable, and emission-free energy technology.” Like the Green New Deal, this technology-agnostic language allows for nuclear power and carbon capture. But it doesn’t specifically advocate for them in as direct a way as the Biden plan does.

Loftier funding, faster timetables

A number of other Democratic candidates have either cosponsored the Green New Deal or announced their own sweeping climate policy packages. Among them:

  • Former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke’s climate plan calls for net-zero emissions by 2050, and $5 trillion in investments over the next decade, including $250 billion for R&D. In addition to the loftier federal funding, the proposal distinguishes itself in its emphasis on climate resiliency, focusing attention and funding on preparing communities for increasingly common or severe fires, floods, droughts, and hurricanes.
  • Washington governor Jay Inslee, a long-shot contender, delivered one of the most detailed plans with one of the most aggressive timetables. His proposal moves the net-zero carbon emissions goal up to 2045, while requiring all electricity, new cars, light-duty trucks and buses, and new commercial and residential buildings to be carbon neutral or emissions free by 2030. It calls for $3 trillion in federal investments in the next 10 years.
  • Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, running second to Biden, is calling for passage of the Green New Deal, as well as banning natural-gas fracking and any new fossil-fuel infrastructure, and ending exports of coal, natural gas, and crude oil. He has been one of the most outspoken candidates in rejecting nuclear power, calling for a moratorium on license renewals for existing nuclear plants.

The real test, of course, isn’t which candidate can outbid the others in calling for deeper investments or earlier deadlines. It’s whether these climate commitments persist into the general election, and can be turned into binding and effective laws under the next administration.

A huge energy storage deal raises major doubts

A Japanese manufacturer of gas turbines and a US owner of salt caverns have teamed up in an effort to develop what would be one of the world’s largest energy storage projects, relying on hydrogen and compressed air stored deep underground.

The doubts: Some energy observers raised questions about the project’s viability, given the current economics of these technologies, neither of which is in wide use as a grid storage option. It was also conspicuous that the announcement didn’t identify customers, or sources of public or private financing, stating only that “additional strategic and financial partners will be invited to participate” in the weeks and months to come.

The details: The one-gigawatt Advanced Clean Energy Storage project, slated to be built in Millard County, Utah, would rely on some combination of four different technologies: hydrogen, compressed air, flow batteries, and a certain type of fuel cell.

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems of Tokyo has developed a gas turbine technology that generates electricity from a mixture of natural gas and hydrogen, and is working on turbines that run completely on hydrogen, according to the announcement. Its partner on the project, Magnum Development, operates salt mines in the western US that store natural-gas liquids such as propane and butane. But it’s been exploring ways to use the caverns to store hydrogen, or energy in the form of compressed air.

The longer-term promise: Finding ways to add vast amounts of cheap energy storage to electricity grids is crucial if clean but erratic renewable sources like wind and solar are to produce a growing share of total generation. But storage is limited today by the high prices and limited duration of batteries, and by geological and environmental constraints on cheaper options like pumped hydroelectric.

A growing number of researchers do believe hydrogen could eventually play an important role in grid-scale energy storage. The hope is that cheap surplus renewable electricity can be used to drive an “electrolysis” process that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. But currently, electrolyzers are quite expensive and hydrogen can be difficult to transport, among other challenges.

Excess solar or wind generation could also be used to compress air in underground caverns. It can, in turn, be released as needed to generate electricity. Only a handful of such operations have been developed, as they’re capital-intensive projects that can only be built where empty caverns with the right sort of geology exist.

The need for such tools is likely to become more pressing—and the economics more promising—as levels of renewables rise and clean-energy mandates become more stringent.

Track record: Magnum was also a partner on an $8 billion project proposed in 2014 to send Wyoming wind generation to California, relying on storage in Utah salt caverns along the way.  But that project is “on hold” because it hasn’t secured a customer, according to partner Duke American Transmission’s website.

Brewery launches push to put more clean energy into its beer | The Times Record

Maine Beer Company’s 194 solar panels offset 100% of its tasting room energy needs. By 2030 the company hopes to produce more clean energy than it uses. (Courtesy of Maine Beer Company)

FREEPORT — Beer is more than just a mixture of water, grain, hops and yeast.

Brewers know that each batch needs energy — the electricity to power the brewing system, to control the climate to heat the water, to bottle the beer, to refrigerate the finished product, to transport it where it needs to go. Behind every bottle of beer is a substantial carbon footprint — something that Maine Beer Company says it wants to reduce.

Maine Beer Company launched a new clean energy initiative on Thursday to help increase renewable energy in the community and across the state.

The company has 194 solar panels on site — a 50 kilowatt system — that according to Anne Marisic, marketing and events manager, powers its tasting room energy and a small percentage of production needs. By 2022 the company hopes to have more panels at the facility to meet 60-70% of its total energy needs. By 2030 they hope to generate more clean energy than they use.

“Spring,” an IPA that Maine Beer Company released in March.  (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

Until that time, Maine Beer Company is working with local nonprofits like Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, an organic farm and educational center in Freeport, to support clean energy installations offsite. In the coming years, Wolfe’s Neck hopes to go 100% solar, according to Dave Herring, executive director. With a $25,000 donation, Maine Beer Company supported one-sixth of the most recent solar array project at Wolfe’s Neck’s new organic dairy facility; a project with an estimated annual cost savings of $20,000 according to Marisic.

“For us, it doesn’t matter where the clean energy is generated. We want to support and encourage others to make clean energy a priority and a reality — however we can do that is a win,” said Steve Mills, CEO of Maine Beer Company. “Our hope is that the Clean Energy Initiative can do good while also inspiring other companies, and individuals, throughout Maine to consider more clean energy alternatives as a way of life.”

Maine Beer Company partnered with 1% for the Planet, a nonprofit organization that encourages companies to donate 1% of annual profits to environmental nonprofits. So far, the Maine Beer Company has given more that $500,000 and plans to donate another $150,000 in 2019.

“We’re living in a world where we need to be much more proactive,” Marisic said, adding that while the Wolfe’s Neck project does not have a direct financial benefit to the brewery, “wherever we’re creating clean energy, that’s a good thing.”

The brewery is looking into other green initiatives too, she said, like a system to recapture carbon dioxide produced during brewing that would allow them to clean it and reuse it to power draft lines.

In March, Maine Beer Company joined 11 other Maine breweries to form the Maine Brewshed Alliance, a coalition of brewers dedicated to protecting Maine’s waters.

Maine brewers understand “a healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand,” Kristin Jackson, a representative for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said at the time.

Sean Sullivan, executive director of Maine Brewers’ Guild, said in an email that there are 144 licensed breweries in Maine, appearing in each of the 16 counties. Between 2017 and 2018 alone, 19 new breweries sprouted in the state. The midcoast has Moderation Brewing, Flight Deck and Black Pug, as well as Bath Brewing Co., Maine Beer Co., Sea Dog and Gritty McDuff’s to name a few.

A recent study by the Beer Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers Association found that in 2018, the Maine beer industry had a $2 million economic output and directly and indirectly employed more than 15,000 Mainers.

Portland’s Allagash Brewing Company, also part of the Maine Brewshed Alliance, has its own solar array that has produced around 1,113 Megawatt hours of energy since 2016, which Allagash officials said is equivalent to planting 4,475 trees. As the industry continues to grow, more companies like Maine Beer Co. and Allagash, larger brands like New Belgium and even Coors are stepping up to try to offset their contribution to Carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is a constant conversation with brewers and people in our business,” Marisic said, “We’re hoping to be stewards of how you can do this.”

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