Category Archives: Washington, DC

Should America Get Behind The Fuels Of The Future Or The Past?

One of Yogi Berra’s famed quotes is about to apply to America’s energy policy:  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

The truth is, America’s been staring at a fork in the road for a few decades.  Every president since Nixon has talked about freeing the country from its dependence on foreign oil.  And each recent administration has understood that our energy policy affects more than the price of a gallon of gas or a kilowatt of electricity.  It affects job growth, technological innovation and environmental progress (or decline).

The last few months of the budget and debt debate gives us a good picture of the paths America could take.

One path, embraced for years by both parties, entails government investments in new, clean, efficient and affordable energy.  It harnesses the creative talents of our top scientists, engineers, businesspeople and research centers.

The other, most recently articulated in Representative Paul Ryan’s budget, is driven only by a doctrinaire obsession with cutting government – no matter what we sacrifice in doing so.  According to that view,  the government need not invest, because the private sector has it all figured out.  That’s a stunning philosophy given that some of the most important breakthroughs – the Internet, our space program, wind and solar energy development – have happened because government and industry worked hand-in-hand.

The President recently called for a $2 billion Clean Energy Trust that would fund energy research and development.  That’s exactly the kind of thing we need in order to continue the clean energy technology revolution that will make it possible to reduce imports of foreign oil and weaken the threat of rising greenhouse gas emissions. The budget is tight, so how do we find the money for it?  By using money collected from oil companies when they drill for oil and gas on federal lands.  Put another way, we can use some of the proceeds from the fossil fuel industry to help accelerate the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy economy.  Read More »

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President’s Vision Encompasses A Next-Generation Energy System

Tuesday’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech included much that was music to environmentalists’ ears.  The headline, of course, is the commitment to take serious action to address the most significant challenge our generation faces – climate change.  And, with it, the extreme weather and public health burdens that are already making life harder for vulnerable regions and people nationwide, and that stand to become so much worse as the root cause remains unaddressed. 

But some of the most exciting aspects of the SOTU message are the nuts and bolts that underlie the top-line goal.  Specifically, the President’s speech recognizes that Americans have an opportunity to achieve many of the carbon reductions we need through actions that create new business opportunities, increase national security and drive economic growth.  In fact, we already are.  As the President noted, the past four years have seen the beginnings of a revolution in American energy production and use – technological innovations have put us on track to energy independence and renewable resources constitute a growing share of electric generation capacity. 

The President’s vision, as outlined in the SOTU, encompasses a next-generation energy system – one where the system that was revolutionary in Thomas Edison’s time is finally supplanted by a system that meets the needs of our time.  Technological change can bring full-scale transformation, and government can play a role by accelerating technological development.  A future where cars and trucks no longer depend on oil can finally be imagined – and government efforts can help bring that future into the present more quickly.

Carbon-free wind and solar energy represent a growing share of our resource mix, and  they can grow to serve a larger and larger share of load.   And energy waste in buildings can be cut substantially – but doing so requires innovations in energy retrofits, building operations and finance, which government can also help to foster.

Finally, President Obama referred to fostering a ‘self-healing power grid,’ which is extremely important. Modernizing our outdated, aging electric grid and how it is operated (as well as customer-side technology and practices) will help minimize problems that arise from extreme weather events and other disruptions, while also allowing for greater shares of electric demand to be served by resources whose output depends (literally) on something as fickle as the weather.

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Experts Unveil Plan To Double U.S. Energy Productivity By 2030

Achieving Goal Could Cut Carbon Pollution By One-Third And Save $327 Billion Annually

The Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy released a report today with recommendations that would put the U.S. on a path towards doubling its energy productivity by 2030. The Commission, which is chaired by U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) and National Grid U.S. President Tom King, is a diverse coalition of energy leaders that includes representatives from energy utilities, academia, industry and environmental groups.  Fred Krupp, President of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), serves on the Commission.

The Commission found that a doubling of energy productivity (or obtaining twice as much output from the energy we use) would reduce U.S. carbon dioxide pollution down to four billion tons per year by 2030, which is 33 percent below 2005 levels. The full report is available at energy2030.org.

“The Alliance Commission’s recommendations are an innovative approach to greatly increasing our nation’s use of energy efficiency, which represents a huge – and largely untapped – opportunity,” said Fred Krupp, President of EDF.  “Reducing wasted energy through efficiency is a true win-win solution that cuts harmful pollution and saves people money on their energy bills.”

The Commission’s recommendations are wide-ranging, covering multiple sectors of the economy.  The recommendations include: increased stringency of energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, creation of financing mechanisms that bring down the cost of energy efficiency projects, reform of utility regulatory policies to enable full use of cost-effective energy efficiency and greater support for research and development.

Achieving the Commission’s goal of doubling energy productivity by 2030 would:

  • Add 1.3 million jobs;
  • Cut average household energy costs by more than $1,000 a year;
  • Save American businesses $169 billion a year;
  • Increase gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 2 percent;
  • Decrease energy imports by more than $100 billion a year; and
  • Reduce CO2 emissions by one-third.

Source: www.energy2030.org

EDF is particularly encouraged by the Commission’s recommendations related to energy efficiency finance and smart grid policies, which are a high priority for EDF.  The Commission recommends that state and local governments work with utilities to create financing mechanisms, such as On-Bill Repayment (OBR) programs.  OBR provides a new route to funding clean energy investments at attractive terms, relying solely on private third-party financing.

OBR programs offer an opportunity for residential and commercial utility customers to finance energy efficiency projects with loans repaid through their utility bills and financed at no additional cost to ratepayers.  The Commission also recommends reforms to state utility regulatory policies that would break down barriers to utility investment in energy efficiency and enable greater use of advanced new technologies that create a smarter and cleaner electric power grid.

Though the U.S. currently lags behind other nations on energy productivity, the Commission believes there are more than $1 trillion in energy-saving opportunities with the right federal, state and local government support, and private-sector buy-in.

The Alliance Commission’s goal of doubling energy productivity by 2030 is ambitious, yet attainable, and it goes well beyond capturing the well-known, low-hanging fruit. I am confident that the solutions proposed by the Commission will drive innovation and technological advancements, which will modernize U.S. manufacturing and help us to compete globally.

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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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