Author Archives: Jackie Roberts

Clean Energy is Good Business for Iowa All Around

Jackie Roberts PhotoWhat do you do when a major new customer arrives in town asking for renewable energy?   You supply it.  Facebook’s decision to locate a new data center in Iowa and supply that data center with 100% wind energy is a great example of a company using its clout for good.  To show its seriousness of intent, Facebook simultaneously pursued development rights to two wind parcels, one in Iowa and Nebraska, alongside its traditional site evaluation for a new data center.  Iowa won the new data center, in no small part due to its leadership in the wind sector.

According to Vincent Van Son, Facebook’s Data Center Energy Manager, “When we settled on Altoona as the location for our fourth data center, one of the deciding factors was the opportunity to help develop a new wind project in the state. The project brings additional investment and jobs to the region, and in effect it makes it possible, on an annualized basis, for 100% of our energy needs to be met entirely with one of Iowa’s most abundant renewable resources.” Facebook worked with a local developer, RPM Access, and then at a key point, transferred ownership to a major utility, Mid-American.  This project enabled Facebook to announce last week that the new data center will be supplied by 100% renewable energy.

As we profiled last year with Collaborative Economics, Iowa views the wind sector as a powerful economic development driver.  As a result, it has emerged as an epicenter of wind in all facets – installations, innovation and manufacturing strength.  Iowa’s multi-pronged clean energy strategy continues to deliver economic wins in 2013.  Read More »

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Is The Glass Half Full Or Half Empty For Solar Power?

Jackie RobertsGE and First Solar announced earlier this week an important step towards consolidation of the solar industry that will result in the loss of a new solar manufacturing facility  in Colorado and, potentially 350 jobs.  Clearly the announcement is frustrating for Colorado, a state we featured in EDF’s Clean Energy Economic Development Series, which highlights key road maps for maximizing economic development from clean energy markets.

But, the announcement includes lots of good news – which is probably more significant for the U.S.’s long-term solar power play as well as overall economic opportunity and job creation.  In 2009, GE purchased PrimeStar Solar, a company first seeded at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL), located in Colorado.  PrimeStar Solar (renamed Arvada research center) made significant advances in the efficiency of cadmium-telluride (CdTe) thin film solar panels.  This lowered the cost of thin film solar panels overall and made them more competitive with traditional solar panels.

CdTe thin film solar panels require less material than alternative technologies – which lowers their cost – but their efficiency continues to lag behind traditional, silicon-based solar panels.  The deal gives GE a large stock position in First Solar in exchange for giving First Solar the new CdTe thin film solar technology – essentially creating a key strategic partnership between the two companies.

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Colorado: A Case Study In Clean Tech Planning And Execution

In a recent posts, we revisited the recent trio of reports of the clean energy clusters in Ohio, Iowa and Colorado and shared some insights on lessons learned from Iowa and Ohio.  In this post, we'll take a look at Colorado.

Colorado is the 12th windiest state in the U.S. and is currently 9th in installed wind capacity. It's one of only six states that have exceeded 10% of state generated electricity coming from wind.  For more than a decade, Colorado has been atop most lists for states vying for leadership in the clean energy economy.  It has research labs, a proactive state government, universities and active economic development efforts.  All of these have combined to help Colorado excel in the new energy landscape.

Consider that Golden, CO is home to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the only federal lab dedicated to research, development, commercialization and deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technology.  For more than 30 years, NREL has been working on advancements in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources.  NREL, Colorado universities and private companies have leveraged the hometown lab to establish specialized research centers in several of these areas and contribute more than $700 million in the economic activity of Colorado each year.

The Denver-metro area, where our report focuses, has become a particularly popular place for cleantech startups and more mature companies.  In 2011, the region had about 1,500 companies and 18,000 employees in the cleantech industry, a 35% increase in direct employment growth from 2006. In terms of the entire Colorado workforce, cleantech employees account for 1%.  But that's twice the national average and generates more than a billion dollars in annual wages. Read More »

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30 Years Of Forward-Thinking Leaders Has Spurred Iowa's Clean Tech Growth

People who haven’t been following the renewable energy industry will be forgiven for their reaction when they’re told that Iowa is among the most advanced, opportunistic state in the cleantech economy.  “Iowa?  Isn’t that corn country?”

Well, yes.  But it’s also wind country.  And like few other states, Iowans have turned their constant breeze into a powerful economic force.

This is the last in a trio of posts highlighting the findings from EDF’s reports on the cleantech economies of Ohio, Colorado and Iowa (here is my last post on Ohio).  Today, I’ll focus on Iowa.

Despite its size, Iowa produces the second most wind power in the U.S. (Texas is #1 and California is #3) and is one of only two states that receives over 20% of its electricity from wind power.  More impressive has been the state’s ability to capture the economic — not just the environmental — benefit of that ranking.  According to the American Wind Energy Association, Iowa has attracted more major wind industry manufacturers than any other state.  It’s a great example of supply meeting demand.

Politically, wind power has been supported by both parties for three decades.  It was the first state to pass a Renewable Portfolio Standard, under republican Governor Terry Branstad in 1983.  In 2005, democratic Governor Tom Vilsack signed a tax credit for renewable energy production.  And in 2007 democratic Governor Chet Culver created the Iowa Power Fund to invest in local renewable energy research and development projects.  This level of across-the-aisle cooperation is unique among states and has given Iowa a considerable advantage in competing against larger and richer states. Read More »

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We Cannot Afford To Undo Economic And Environmental Progress In Ohio

EDF is working with Ohio elected officials, the small business community and other stakeholders on adopting an on-bill repayment (OBR) program in Ohio.  As a private capital solution to financing energy efficiency (EE) and renewable energy (RE) projects, OBR enables building owners to access low-cost capital, with repayment on their utility bills.  Small businesses in particular have trouble accessing affordable financing for energy projects, as it is hard for lenders to assess small to medium-sized business (SMB) credit risk and SMB properties are likely rentals that experience high turnover rates.  OBR provides lenders with significant credit enhancement, since the repayment obligation is tied to the utility meter and survives changes in rental and ownership.  At the same time, utilities and customers can benefit from a well-designed OBR program – one that compensates utilities for their services and allows utilities to receive credit toward state mandates for the OBR-enabled EE and RE investments.

As we at EDF endeavor to increase demand for clean energy projects in Ohio, other parties, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have proposed rollbacks to Ohio’s energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards.  The standards were established by SB 221 in 2008, with bi-partisan support,– and there is a strong effort underway to defend them.  EDF is working with other Ohio clean energy stakeholders to keep the existing standards in place.  As we actively participate in this dialogue, EDF vigorously supports the State’s commitment to investing in clean energy – a commitment that has resulted in environmental and economic progress from which we cannot afford to undo.

EDF’s clean energy economic development series documented progress made in Ohio to date, which is extremely promising:

Stimulating Demand

The 1992 Energy Policy Act seeded demand for renewable energy and energy efficiency through tax credits and other programs.  In Ohio, two important state efforts in 1999 expanded on this federal support.

The Advanced Energy Fund, created by the Ohio Electric Restructuring Act, provided funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.  The same bill introduced net metering, which allows homes and businesses that install alternative energy technology — solar, wind, biomass, hydro, etc. — to receive credit for the excess energy their systems generate.  Combined, these two efforts provided ways for individuals to reduce the cost of deploying "clean tech" or even turn it into a revenue generator.   Read More »

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Do We Need Breakthroughs Or A Simple “Carbon Diet?”

Over the weekend, The New Republic published an interview with President Obama, where he noted the following: "On climate change, it's a daunting task. But we know what releases carbon into the atmosphere, and we have tools right now that would start scaling that back, although we'd still need some big technological breakthrough."  How accurate is the call for breakthroughs and what do we really need?

First, let’s look at where we don’t need breakthroughs, but instead more deployment – energy efficiency, of course, being Exhibit A.  Creative financing, such as on-bill repayment (OBR), at scale can speed up deployment here.  Similarly, unlocking clean energy to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector hinges on affordability.  Wind energy is already competitive with fossil fuels, in large part because the cost of wind energy has come down around 65 percent in the last 20 years, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (yes, declining natural gas prices provide new competition, but EIA projects that natural gas prices will begin to increase in 2018, and wind power purchase agreements are signed for around 20 years at a fixed price).  Residential solar is verging on the tipping point for “grid parity,” or the point at which a source of power becomes cost competitive with other sources.  Bell Labs first introduced solar cells in the 1950s.  Environment California’s Research & Policy Center recently reported that they expect solar to reach grid parity in mid-2014 to 2016 at the outset. 

Of course, progress in lowering costs and increasing efficiency comes on the heels of many smaller innovations.  For example, innovations in materials science underlie many of the most promising technology evolutions, such as the role of carbon fiber as a basic raw material for wind turbine blades or the use of Gallium Arsenide wafers to reduce manufacturing costs for solar cells.  But, nonetheless, given our country’s strength in materials science (think of our leadership with companies like Dow, Dupont and 3M), such innovations seem imminently feasible and in my mind don’t require a major “breakthrough.” 

We’ve also delivered numerous hardware and software innovations to transform our electric grid into a more resilient, smart, “green” grid.  Even carbon capture and storage, to some a high stakes technology bet, is actually just a new configuration or application of engineering equipment we have installed and used for decades, such as heat exchangers, chillers, absorbers, pumps and compressors.

Where would I wave a wand for a breakthrough?  A cheap, reliable and efficient energy storage system wouldn’t hurt, one that replaces the clunky compressed air systems or the size limitations of batteries.  But, overall, the declining cost curves for clean energy solutions, due to innovations large and small, tell us an important story:  solving the climate crises is not unaffordable or necessarily a drag on our recovering economy as many fear.  It is certainly not infeasible nor hinging on that one great technological breakthrough. 

We need non-technological breakthroughs.  Like the new head of the World Bank, Dr. Jim Kim, who in Davos described wanting to make “everything the Bank does aligned with the effort to slow down climate change.”  And it is certainly cheaper than repeating the $50 billion recovery price tags that we might face time and again as Superstorm Sandy becomes the new normal. 

Americans love the quick technical fix.  But, today we have affordable answers right in front of us, it’s the willpower we may be lacking.  So, just as most of us believe that rather than wait for a dieting breakthrough, the best answer to weight loss is reduced consumption and more exercise – we need to go on a carbon diet.  Our economic and environmental health depend on it.

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Clean Energy And Economic Development Are Birds Of A Feather

Our new Clean Energy Economic Development Series highlights the successful creation of clean energy clusters in Ohio, Iowa and Colorado.  Some report highlights: 

  • Ohio experienced record investment and merger and acquisition deals in clean energy in 2010 and 2011.  Ohio also significantly increased patents in batteries, fuel cells and wind technologies, moving up in national rankings in all three areas.
  • The Metro Denver region alone had about 1500 companies and 18,000 workers in the cleantech sector in 2011, and achieved a 35 percent increase in direct employment growth since 2006.
  • Iowa leads with the second-highest installed wind capacity in the nation, and is one of only two states that receive over 20 percent of electricity from wind power.  According to the American Wind Energy Association, Iowa has attracted more major wind industry manufacturers than any other state.

While the road map to economic growth differs somewhat for each region or state, these road maps share a formula for success where policy and economic development actions work together across three fronts: (1) stimulating demand for clean energy products and services, (2) seeding innovation in clean energy solutions and (3) recruiting and supporting new firms, jobs, and workforce skills in clean energy. 

But the work is just starting, not just for Ohio, Iowa and Colorado, but for all states.  Every state needs to look to expanding clean energy policy and actions, for example:

Stimulating Demand: The American Taxpayers Relief Act (ATRA) provides critical federal support for wind energy through a production tax credit (PTC), as well as extending energy efficiency tax credits for residences and businesses.  (Under current law, the solar investment tax credit remains in effect through December 31, 2016.)  The wind tax credit helps create customers for the nearly 500 wind manufacturing facilities across the country.  Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) should be strengthened (and certainly not weakened as in Michigan).  Utilities need incentives to invest in smart grid, energy efficiency and other demand-side management programs.   New policies, such as on-bill repayment (OBR), should be passed to create customers for energy efficiency while saving consumers and businesses money.

Innovation: As spending debates loom, we need to maintain investments of federal dollars in clean energy research and development (R&D).  States need to create local programs, such as Ohio’s Third Frontier which promotes technology commercialization.  Third Frontier has helped take the fuel cell industry in Ohio to a new level (measured by higher patent rankings in fuel cells and batteries). 

Recruiting & Workforce Development:  Smart grid investments create modern infrastructure and resilience that is valuable to companies.   Other recruitment tools include easy siting — Iowa City created a Wind Energy Supply Chain Campus that is “shovel-ready” for wind-related companies – and the availability of skilled labor.  Iowa Lakes Community College trains 200 students a year in construction, operations and maintenance of wind turbines using five training labs at the college.   

Clean energy policy and economic development go hand-in-hand because America needs growth sectors to reduce unemployment.  A Brookings Study of clean economy jobs found that between 2003 and 2010, the newer, “cleantech” sub-sector related to energy efficiency and renewable energy grew at a “torrid pace” across the nation.  (Wind: 14.9%, Solar Thermal: 18.4%, Solar PV: 10.7%, Fuel Cells: 10.3%)  As Ohio, Iowa and Colorado have shown, clean energy can deliver economic growth.

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Don’t Walk Away From Clean Energy Research & Development

“The changing energy landscape and the resulting trade opportunities it affords will continue to provide consumers with more choices, more value, more wealth and more good jobs.” – ExxonMobil Energy Outlook, 12/12/12

I agree with Exxon.

We are moving closer to energy independence. But, even as the U.S. is facing a boom in natural gas, the only way we’ll reach our goal is if we don’t shortchange alternative energy research and development.  Changing the energy landscape must include rapid advances in zero carbon energy technologies, for very good reasons that are in danger of being overlooked in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

First, despite its great promise, we should remember that important questions remain about the health and environmental impacts of natural gas operations. The extraction and distribution of natural gas can result in the release of methane – the main ingredient in natural gas and a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.  Due to the many possible escape routes for methane into the atmosphere, the true carbon footprint of natural gas is uncertain right now, and we need to diversify our energy portfolio and avoid getting locked into an over-reliance on one energy source.

Second, micro-grids will be increasingly important in a world with more storms, flooding, and other “weird weather.” We must be prepared for that scenario. Alternative energy and smart grid solutions can be more resilient, if designed properly. The current model of a large, centralized energy plant is increasingly problematic.

Third, alternative energy offers enormous potential for economic development, exports, and even savings on energy bills. As just one example, look at the Department of Energy’s investments into fuel cells.  According to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, more clean energy patents are associated with fuel cell technologies than with any other clean energy technology, with over 950 fuel cell patents issued in 2011. Fuel cell durability has doubled, expensive platinum content has been reduced by a factor of five, and the cost of fuel cells has fallen 80% since 2002. With DOE support, 36 commercial technologies have entered the global market as of this past fall.

These advances can benefit communities across the country.  Tulare, California invested in molten carbonate fuel cells for its wastewater treatment plant; this plant now produces about 45% of the electricity needed to run the plant which translates into a savings of more than $1 million per year (not to mention 6,200 tons less CO2 per year).  With over 16,500 wastewater treatment plants in the U.S., communities could find enormous savings and build more resilience — if access to other fuel source is interrupted or electricity goes down, the plant can continue to partially operate and provide critical services to the community.

Talk about more choices and more value for communities, and more wealth and more good jobs for suppliers of fuel cells.

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Recycling That White Plume Of Smoke On I-95

Today, President Obama signed an Executive Order to facilitate investments in capturing waste heat and developing combined heat and power at many of our industrial facilities (“CHP” projects).  This energy efficiency strategy can save manufacturers as much as $100 billion in energy costs over the next decade, and offers a type of “renewable” energy as the heat is already available, but too often vented to the atmosphere.  According to Oak Ridge National Labs, many industrial operations have an efficiency of 45% or less; waste heat recycling can increase the efficiency of these systems to 80% by capturing waste heat and putting it back to work.

You may have never thought about waste heat, but you’ve probably seen it many times:  visualize driving through an industrial area and seeing white smoke coming out of smokestacks.  These plumes often comprise heat and steam, and thus represent a wasted resource that we should be capturing and converting to useable energy. 

The Executive Order should spur prompt actions by federal and state agencies to facilitate projects.  Examples of possible actions are streamlining state permitting, crediting projects toward state clean air requirements, sharing state best practices, and working to better engage utilities in partnering on projects. 

CHP projects will not only help our industrial facilities save money on energy costs, but investing in these projects create jobs across a wide variety of businesses engaged in making components, designing and constructing systems, and operating the new energy resources.  For example, a recent study by Duke University on recycling industrial waste energy highlighted the six main components needed in each project:  boiler/steam generators, steam turbines, generators, condenser/cooling tower, steel piping and electrical parts such as wires and switchgear. 

These components represent standard, high value components made by businesses across the U.S., particularly the Midwest and Texas, but also companies in Oklahoma, Georgia, Illinois, and Arizona.  All of these components use smaller parts such as basic bearings, valves, fans, rotors, and so on, not to mention the extensive steel piping used in each project.  One project in Port Arthur, Texas used 2.5 miles of steam pipeline – good news for the steelworkers. 

In addition to the job of manufacturing all these parts, CHP projects require workers to install the components on-site, such as welders, pipefitters, design engineers, and traditional construction workers.  On completion, often 15-20 new workers are hired to run the new steam plant/power facility.  The CHP project developer, Recycled Energy Development, notes that the cost savings and increased competitiveness at a project completed for West Virginia Alloys enabled the plant to retain its entire workforce, rather than face job cuts of 20%. 

So, every time you pass a white plume of smoke on the highway, be glad that today’s Executive Order moves us one step closer to eliminating this waste and helping America’s industries be more competitive.

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New EPA/DOT Vehicle Standards – The Reality Behind The ‘Job Killing’ Sound Bite

Last week, I wrote about energy efficiency’s role in greenhouse gas standards for power plants and the reality behind the “Job killing EPA regulations” sound-bite.  The recently announced new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for light vehicles provides further evidence that the reality of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations is job creation, not job destruction.

According to the government, the “proposed program for model year 2017-2025 passenger cars and trucks is expected catalyze demand for currently-available, innovative technologies including advanced gasoline engines and transmissions, vehicle weight reduction, lower tire rolling resistance, improvements in aerodynamics, diesel engines, more efficient accessories, and improvements in air conditioning systems. The standards should also spur manufacturers to increasingly explore electric technologies such as start/stop, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles [and] … includes a number of incentive programs to encourage early adoption and introduction of “game changing” advanced technologies, such as hybridization for pickup trucks.”

U.S. auto companies are already investing in these new technologies as the best bet to gain market share in the world economy.  The Energy Department’s battery program (an investment of $2.4 billion in 48 advanced battery and electric drive projects) is ensuring that the U.S. supply chain is ready so that we don’t just buy batteries from Japan and others.  According to the Department of Energy (DOE), the United States is on track to achieve a 40% share of global capacity to produce lithium-ion batteries for vehicles by 2015.  An assessment of the battery value chain by Duke University shows at least 50 U.S.-based firms are involved to date, with 119 locations in 27 states performing manufacturing and research and development (R&D). 

We have leading material science experts in Dow, Dupont and 3M that can help design new composite materials to help meet the need for less weight.  The 70,000 tire workers would love to have a chance to make the most efficient, low rolling resistant tires- and then sell those tires to the rest of the world.  A second value chain assessment of hybrid vehicle technology shows U.S. firms dominating the hybrid market for medium and heavy-duty trucks, putting the U.S. in a great position to develop hybrid light duty pick-up trucks. 

At every turn, there are job creation possibilities.  What the EPA and Department of Transportation (DOT) proposal does is ensure that the market for efficient vehicles is a strong and vibrant market, one that grows jobs at every turn.  Furthermore, ensuring that U.S. firms have enough customers today – the key ingredient to growing a healthy business – is the only way to compete in the global markets of tomorrow.   EPA regulations maintain auto jobs and create new jobs in sectors such as battery manufacturing.  Now, the new battery plant by A123 Systems lithium ion in Livonia, Michigan won’t have to fire the 300 new workers it just hired. 

For consumers, these improvements would save an average of up to $6,600 in fuel costs over the lifetime of a model year 2025 vehicle for a net lifetime savings of $4,400 after factoring in related increases in vehicle cost. Overall, the net benefit to society from this rule would total more than $420 billion over the lifetime of the vehicles sold in model year 2017-2025.  No lost jobs here.

In sum, this is what “job killing EPA regulations” look like in the real-world.

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