Clean Energy: States and Cities in the Lead

Wayne Forest Solar 2

Focusing on the big picture can be helpful for analyzing the impacts for clean energy, but just as important is the impact that renewables have on individual states and communities. Localized power sources and incentive programs have transformed areas across the country and turned them into thriving clean energy hotspots. The jobs and revenue from clean energy projects have helped small towns thrive.

One such example can be found in Warsaw, North Carolina. Strata Solar recently announced a deal to build a $250 million, 100 MW solar farm in this rural city after building 12 new plants in North Carolina last year (creating a total of 450 jobs).  They are planning to build 25 more solar farms which would triple their current staff and provide competitive job opportunities for thousands of North Carolina residents. The state’s largest current PV farm is only 15.5 MW, indicating that local companies like Strata Solar are aiming high to capitalize on clean energy.

Minneapolis, Minnesota is another town that wants to make a commitment to clean energy. One of the problems with getting more wind and solar power on the electric grid is the fact that private utility companies privilege fossil fuels over renewables for energy generation. But this year, the contract that Minneapolis has with its private utilities is expiring and city council members are pushing to include more clean energy mandates in the next contract. If that fails, Minneapolis will look at establishing its own municipal utility, following the lead of Boulder, CO in producing its own energy and ensuring that energy is increasingly generated by renewables.  The new municipal energy company will be put on the ballot for a citizen vote if the existing providers do not meet the levels of renewable energy integration sought by Minneapolis.

Finally, the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan recently announced the creation of a clean energy bond aimed to provide funding for energy saving equipment through Ann Arbor’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program.  Up to $1 million in bonds will be sold to help five local businesses upgrade their properties to become more energy efficient.  Bonds are an excellent way to help finance energy efficiency upgrades, since such upgrades provide a near-guaranteed return on investment.

Though very different in scope and structure, the idea of creating a “clean energy bond” is similar to the concept behind Green America’s proposed Clean Energy Victory Bonds (CEVBs), which could be issued nationally and locally to generate billions of dollars in financing for clean energy. Citizen investments in  CEVBs will be used to fund clean energy improvements that will lower energy costs, reduce electricity demand (through efficiency), and create jobs nationwide.

Obama’s Second Wind on Clean Energy

Wayne Forest Solar 1

                Last night, President Obama laid out an ambitious plan to fix the national economy and stop the ballooning national debt. One area he specifically detailed was the current US energy industry and its many shortcomings. While he touted the benefits of domestic oil and natural gas production, the president also mentioned the burgeoning impact that solar and wind power are having on the U.S. energy market. He stressed the importance of pursuing a market-based solution to climate change that would significantly reduce emissions and allow businesses to keep their productivity high. Jobs, lower energy bills and a cleaner environment were all mentioned as benefits to pursuing these climate-friendly solutions.

A comprehensive bipartisan effort to solve the climate change crisis has been stalled for years, but the president’s words last night were the strongest push he has made to make climate change and clean energy a priority. His administration’s actions on energy and fuel efficiency standards in his first term were a good first step, but President Obama needs to continue fighting for reforms to our current energy industry. He correctly noted that over the past four years, countries like China have invested heavily in clean energy and have seen rewards in the form of jobs and lower pollution costs. Supporting solar, wind, biomass and other forms of renewable energy in the United States would create a consistent source of manufacturing and installation jobs that would support the transition to a cleaner energy industry.

President Obama also stressed the important fact that billions of dollars’ worth of electricity is wasted every year simply because our energy efficiency standards are not up to date. Energy efficient buildings are few and far between despite the availability of cost saving technology. By proposing to invest more in research towards alternative fuel sources and efficiency measures, the president made it clear that he does not view oil or natural gas as anything more than a bridge to the renewable era. The faster his clean energy plans are implemented, the quicker we can focus on getting clean energy onto the grid and getting fossil fuel sources off the grid.

Put altogether, these varied initiatives may sound like too large a task to undertake in one presidential term. But there are options to help President Obama realize his vision and get the United States back atop the global clean energy market. At a time when productive and popular government tax credits (like the Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit) are under fire, we need creative financial solutions that both parties can agree on.

Green America’s Clean Energy Victory Bonds (CEVBs) proposal is one solution that has the potential to make an impact on both sides of the aisle. The bill would use investments from US citizens (in the form of treasury bonds) to fund the extension of these important tax credits and provide support for energy efficiency measures and electric vehicles. The key fact is that CEVBs will not use public taxpayer dollars to advance clean energy.  Instead, Americans will choose whether they want to invest in a clean energy future for the country.  Thousands of Americans have already made the pledge to buy millions of dollars worth of bonds once they becomes available and there will be plenty of money available for investment in our clean energy future. If President Obama is serious about making clean energy a priority, he should continue to look to initiatives like Clean Energy Victory Bonds to effectively and responsibly build the clean energy market, while creating over 1.7 million good paying jobs.

Green Banks and Clean Energy Victory Bonds

Green banks are not a new development but they may finally hit the mainstream thanks to a recent endorsement from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. His proposition would create a one billion dollar “NY Green Bank,” a semi-autonomous entity that would provide funding to clean energy projects that otherwise may struggle to secure startup money. The bank would use public and private funds to create credit enhancements and low-interest loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives. Cuomo has expressed his support for the idea in part because it wouldn’t cost New York much money; they would be able to get most of the capital from already existing government funding. He acknowledged that New York is not close to their goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2015 and stated that creating a green bank would be a good way to boost confidence in the clean energy sector. Wind and solar projects will likely see the biggest gains from the Green Bank initiative because of their relatively strong foothold in the market already.

The idea for green banks has already been tried on a smaller scale in the United States. The most recent example can be found in Connecticut, where the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA) was created in 2011. The goal of CEFIA is to help transition state clean energy programs away from grants, rebates and one time subsidies and towards low-cost financing. By partnering with Connecticut’s Department of Energy and other local energy companies, the state was able to repurpose $8.5 million in federal funding towards residential clean energy programs, including solar installations and energy efficiency measures.

The U.K. has also experimented with a green bank, creating the Green Investment Bank (GIB) in 2012. The GIB recently invested in a multitude of projects including offshore wind, waste energy, and landfill gas. Their current funding is up to 3 billion pounds (or about $4.8 billion), making it one of the largest clean energy investment campaigns ever created.

This trio of green investment projects shows that the economy is ready for Clean Energy Victory Bonds. CEVBs would serve essentially the same purpose; to develop the renewable energy market by facilitating strategic investments. But the added benefit of CEVBs is that it’s not just large companies that would see the benefits of a booming clean energy market. By selling clean energy bonds for smaller amounts, average citizens would be able to afford to invest in the same clean energy initiatives supported by the green banks. The global economy sorely needs investments in clean energy and green bank programs in Connecticut and the U.K. have shown that funding clean energy projects is a smart way to go.

Looking to a Brighter Clean Energy Future in 2013

2012 was a trying year for climate activists. Little progress on has been made on climate change mitigation domestically or internationally. President Obama passed regulation regarding fuel efficiency standards, but has otherwise failed to seriously address the problem of our warming planet.

All of this inaction comes on the heels of some of the most compelling evidence in support of climate change to date. November 2012 is the 333rd straight month of warmer than average global temperatures. Arctic sea ice reached its lowest recorded level, with an area the size of Texas subtracted from 2007’s previous low. The area destroyed by wildfires is expected to double by 2050. And 2012 is nearly assured to be the hottest year on record, according to NOAA. Climate change deniers are finding it harder to defend their stance, but there continues to be a lack of initiative from important governing bodies.

Congress is not advancing pollution regulation or clean energy initiatives that will help steer our economy away from dirty and costly fossil fuels. These companies receive generous government subsidies and subsequently produce incredible amounts of toxic and planet-warming byproducts that deteriorate the health and safety of our country. International climate negotiations have stalled too, as seen at the recent COP 18 event that produced few substantive results. President Obama has promised to make climate change a priority in his next four years, but given his previous record, it will be hard to take his word until he delivers on those promises.

There is no one solution we can employ in 2013 that will end the climate crisis as we know it. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is inching closer to 400 parts per million (ppm) and it will take decades for those concentrations to reach safe levels. But we have to start somewhere and clean energy would be an effective place to begin. We have proven technology that enables to harness energy from the sun, wind and geothermal heat. There are electric cars that are efficient, proven vehicles that are available at reasonable prices. Taking action on these two issues would be a huge step towards reducing our emissions, which is why we need to embrace proposals like Clean Energy Victory Bonds.

Clean Energy Victory Bonds are proposed US Treasury Bonds that citizens could buy to support clean energy initiatives across the country. It would extend programs like the PTC and help secure the long-term market for wind energy. It would provide incentives for solar, geothermal and second generation biomass companies to produce clean, affordable energy. It would also provide funding for electric vehicle charging stations and electric car vouchers. These progressive policies will help shape the renewable energy market in the United States by providing jobs, revenue and a cleaner environment for everyone to live in. Investing in Clean Energy Victory Bonds would be an important investment for our country; by creating cleaner electricity with less waste, we can provide jobs and income for middle class families that will help rejuvenate our economy and build a sustainable future.

Clean Energy Victory Bonds: The Path to an American Renewable Energy Revolution

Over the past decade, the United States has seen its advantage in the clean energy sector go from substantial to non-existent. Though America was one of the first nations to embrace the idea of solar power (think Jimmy Carter and his PV panels on the White House), political opposition kept renewable energy technologies from making a significant impact on our national energy portfolio. But while lawmakers here were debating the merits of renewable energy, countries across the globe, particularly in Europe, began to take notice and build their own clean energy industries.

Over the course of 2012, Germany, Spain and Italy have all been producing over 20 percent of their electricity from renewables, while the United States continues to hover around 6 percent. Germany in particular has dominated the renewable energy discussion, thanks in large part due to their Renewable Energies Act which went into effect in 2000. Since then, Germany has incrementally increased their solar, wind and biomass efforts that now compromise 25 percent of their total electricity use. They have their sights set on producing 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, indicating their willingness to pursue ambitious energy goals.

Progressive policies and firm leadership are spurring Germany’s clean energy growth. Feed-in tariffs ensure that all renewable energy transmitted to the grid gets used, ensuring that there is a fixed price for these energy sources in an otherwise volatile industry. This price security enables renewable companies to get a fair chance against bigger fossil fuel companies. This type of system has been successfully implemented in countries like China, Japan, Spain, Italy and the UK in recent years.

Despite this positive evidence, the United States has yet to make this kind of commitment to renewable energy. Even though Germany receives only half as much sunlight as the US, it produces 23 times more solar power per capita. States like Arizona have the natural resources to produce thousands of megawatts of power but the presence of residential swimming pools still outnumbers solar panels 1000 to 1.

Political disagreements have been partially responsible for the lack of renewable growth as inconsistent legislation is modified every few years. Companies are having a hard time securing funding when laws are subject to change or elimination at any moment. Currently, the battle over the Production Tax Credit has caused businesses (particularly in wind power) to start laying off workers in anticipation of its expiration. This uncertainty has already caused foreign investors to shift their green projects to Europe instead of the United States.

However, there are still a few indications that the clean energy revolution is beginning to take hold in the United States. The first three quarters of 2012 saw 4728 megawatts of wind power added to the grid, which was more than the total wind power capacity from just a decade ago. Solar has experienced a similar shift, with capacity having doubled since 2009. In total, renewable electricity generation (excluding hydropower) has increased two fold in the past four years.

In order to keep these modest momentum gains, the United States needs to create a viable environment for renewable energy companies. This means guaranteeing prices and credits for producers and incentivizing the production of clean electricity. The Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2012 includes provisions for all of these energy sources and more. European countries were able to make use of their relatively limited renewable energy resources by simply investing in the technologies and companies that were producing clean fuel. Clean Energy Victory Bonds would create a similar effect for the US clean energy industry by supporting clean energy and giving companies a competitive price on their pollution-free electricity.

The Key to Slowing Climate Change? Use Less Energy!

We have already covered the benefits of wind, solar, geothermal and electric cars in this blog space. But perhaps the most effective and inexpensive method to reducing our climate impacts is actually the simplest: improving energy efficiency standards. By making products and buildings that consume less energy, we can help reduce the amount of greenhouse gases needed to meet our energy needs. Energy efficiency improvements are particularly important because they have been proven to reduce energy demand while also saving the consumer money.

A recent analysis from Platts indicated that simply changing to more energy efficient air conditioners throughout the country could save $2.5 billion in energy costs annually and preclude the need for seven new mid-size power plants. The implementation of LEED certification for buildings has also saved billions in energy costs while also allowing property owners to charge more to rent space in these buildings. But almost all tenants end up spending less money renting these buildings because of decreased electric and water bills. Multiple studies have shown that these efficiency technologies end up paying for themselves rather quickly, and people are beginning to realize the benefits.

Even the Republican-controlled House recently passed legislation to improve standards for water heaters, refrigerators and air conditioners. The measure was sponsored by two Republicans and had backing from major industry institutions. Most of the support can be attributed to the demonstrated ability of energy efficiency measures to save money.

Energy Secretary Steve Chu has long been a proponent of energy efficiency measures and has helped bring the issue to the forefront of energy policy. Instituting these low cost changes can help save billions of dollars in the long-term budget picture.

Unsurprisingly, there is hope that a large-scale energy efficiency bill can be agreed upon during the next Congress. A prominent GOP House Energy and Commerce aide recently said that committee members are hoping to work with the Senate to pass “sweeping” new policies to help cut energy use and costs. Recent energy proposals from the House that involved rolling back air pollution rules are no longer being discussed and a more bipartisan effort should be expected in the new Congress. The agreement will likely be based on the Shaheen-Portman Bill, a measure co-sponsored by Rep. Jeanne Shaheen (D- New Hampshire) and Rep. Rob Portman (R- Ohio). Rep. Shaheen hopes that the key provisions of the bill, including reduced energy use at federal buildings and improved building code standards, will remain intact in the new legislation.

The Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2012 would be a perfect complement to new energy efficiency legislation. It would reinforce energy efficiency standards while also making sure that a greater portion of the energy that we do use comes from renewable sources. By tackling the climate problem from both the supply and demand sides, the United States can become a leader in renewable energy solutions, create jobs and cut energy costs from future budgets.

Geothermal: The clean energy powerhouse you’ve never heard of

Geothermal Plant

Everyone knows about renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines, but few know the details about one of the most abundant clean energy resources available: geothermal power. Geothermal electricity is generated by extracting heat from up to 2 miles below the surface and converting it into useable power. The United States produced 3,086 megawatts (MW) of geothermal electricity in 2010, trailing only hydropower, biomass and wind power in terms of renewable energy produced. But the more intriguing statistics are found in the potential long term benefits of investing in geothermal energy.

A recent MIT report indicates that the amount of heat that generated underground in the United States far exceeds the amount of energy used worldwide. It also states that by investing one billion dollars in geothermal research and development, the US could produce up to 100 gigawatts (GW) of geothermal electricity by 2050. That’s the same amount of energy as a train of coal extending from Buenos Ares to Brussels.   The worldwide potential of geothermal is even greater; we have enough energy stored in the US to power the entire globe for multiple millennia. Of course we can’t access all this energy given land use availability and technological restrictions, but even accessing a fraction of this energy would create a huge burst of clean energy development.

Geothermal plants also have the benefit of producing relatively few greenhouse gases. A report from KCET shows that geothermal plants produce more than 10 times fewer emissions per MW hour than coal, and about 6 times fewer emissions than natural gas. If the proposed 100 GW of geothermal power is installed, US carbon dioxide emissions would drop by 21 percent. This would be an important switch to a renewable energy source that is constantly being given off by the Earth.

But in contrast to other sources of renewable energy, geothermal power has a relatively high capacity factor (the amount of real time that a station is providing electricity to the grid). Sources like coal and nuclear are considered attractive because they are constantly producing even amounts of power, whereas wind and solar power typically are variable. Geothermal stations use the heat that is being emitted by the Earth throughout the day, every day, making it a more reliable source of power that can contribute to the baseload of the electrical grid, reducing are reliance on coal and nuclear.

The biggest obstacle facing geothermal is simply the cost of setting up a station. High upfront building costs make options like natural gas easier because they require a smaller initial investment.  However, natural gas runs the risk of price volatility in the future, produces climate emissions, and is implicated in water and air pollution nationwide through the practice of fracking.  Due to the high upfront costs, even with current incentives, investing in geothermal power can be a risky move financially. But new studies have shown that over time geothermal power actually has the lowest cost per KW hour (3.6 cents) of any fuel source currently available. If investors were guaranteed a stable rate of return on their initial investment, geothermal plants will be able to pay back investments by producing cheap electricity.

Clean Energy Victory Bonds legislation would be an important step towards securing a future for geothermal energy. By extending existing tax credits and providing support for important renewable technologies, we will be better equipped to make the transition to a more sustainable energy portfolio. Stable pricing will convince people to make the investment in clean energy that may otherwise be too volatile to pursue. These technologies have proven to produce energy effectively without significantly contributing to climate change. The potential for geothermal electricity is vast; an initiative like Clean Energy Victory Bonds will help us turn that potential into reality.