Supportive market-driven policy mechanisms and government R&D funding have been seminal in the creation of what’s turned into a booming U.S. solar energy sector. Whether it’s at the utility-, commercial- or residential-scale, using photovoltaics (PV) to produce renewable energy from sunlight is now financially viable wherever you live the U.S., according to a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Past and present performance is no guarantee of future success, however. The looming 2016 expiration of a key federal tax incentive – the solar investment tax credit – along with sharp cutbacks in leading European solar energy markets, international trade disputes and the imposition of punitive tariffs, have prompted U.S. solar industry participants to reassess their business plans. And while rapid growth and industry downsizing have brought PV cell and module supply and demand into balance – leading some PV manufacturers to even add capacity – profit margins, and the margin for error, are generally razor-thin.
In Solar Power on the Rise: The Technologies and Policies behind a Booming Energy Sector, UCS’ Climate and Energy Program senior analysts John Rogers and Laura Wisland highlight the social, environmental and economic benefits of solar power: “The major drivers of the rapid adoption of solar power,” whether it be solar PV or concentrating solar power (CSP) technology. They then move on on to summarize “key steps to sustain the strong growth of solar power in the United States and its contribution to a more resilient electricity system in the decades ahead.”
Intelligent energy storage is emerging as a commercially-viable alternative to adding electricity generation capacity or constructing new power plants.
Equipped with energy management software that’s responsive to electricity demand and supply conditions, smart energy storage systems are also cropping up among commercial and industrial companies, municipalities and college campuses, helping boost energy efficiency, renewable energy-grid interconnections and reduce utility bills, as well as strains on the power grid.
Heightened interest and investment in intelligent energy storage is prompting industry participants to band together in more organized fashion. Bringing together energy storage policy, technology and market leaders, Energy Storage North America (ESNA) on August 18 announced finalists for its annual 2014 Innovation Award.
“This year’s ESNA Award finalists represent a rich diversity of players and business models in rapidly developing energy storage ecosystems across the U.S. and Canada,” Janice Lin, managing partner of Strategen Consulting and co-founder of the California Energy Storage Alliance, was quoted in a news release. “Energy storage as an asset class is a welcome addition to electric system planning toolkits in California, Hawaii, New York, Ontario and other markets.
Wetland restoration is an excellent means of water resource management and stewardship, due to its cost-effectiveness and sustainability. An April report from the Center for American Progress and Oxfam America revealed the remarkable economic value and benefits resulting from coastal ecosystem restoration projects around the U.S.
“We learned in a nutshell that there’s a win-win, if not a win-win-win, opportunity that presents itself when you invest in conservation. The economic benefits are remarkable … There’s a direct connection between what we’re doing to enhance the environment and what we’re doing to enhance economic opportunity,” summarized Mark Schaefer, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration assistant secretary of commerce for conservation and management.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and partner organizations have been promoting use of “green infrastructure” for years “as part of a comprehensive approach to achieving healthier waters.” Recognizing excellence in such initiatives for the first time, EPA on August 19 awarded Volkswagen Group of America (VW) with the EPA Region 4 Rain-Catcher Award, Commercial Category during an awards ceremony at the EPA Region 4 International Erosion Control Association Municipal Wet Weather Stormwater Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For reasons economic, social and environmental, a drive to boost efficiency and drastically cut down on waste of all types – materials, water and energy – is afoot across the U.S. Accurate, comprehensive and timely measurement and assessment of waste streams are prerequisites in order for any such plans to be realized successfully. Organizations such as UL Environment are stepping into the breach, establishing the tools, methods and standards necessary to measure, assess and drastically reduce waste streams across an expanding range of products and processes, as well as throughout organizations.
When it comes to reducing and managing solid waste streams, the UL ECVP 2799 “Zero-Waste-to-Landfill” validation refines the somewhat nebulous and variously defined concept of “zero waste.” With UL 2799, UL Environment sets out a comprehensive, rigorously-defined and independently-verified set of metrics and processes that a variety of leading companies are using to dramatically cut down the volume of solid waste being sent to landfills. In some cases, landfill waste has effectively been reduced to zero.
Aiming to advance development of efficient-vehicle technologies, the U.S. Department of Energy last week announced it will provide $55 million in funding for 31 projects “to accelerate research and development (R&D) of critical vehicle technologies that will improve fuel efficiency and reduce costs.”
Much of the funding is being devoted to projects that, in one way or another, will help realize the goals set out in President Barack Obama’s EV Everywhere Grand Challenge. Announced in March 2012, the challenge aims to reduce the costs and improve the performance of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) to the point where they “are as affordable and convenient as today’s gasoline-powered vehicles by 2022.”
DOE has invested $225 million in EV Everywhere projects to date in order to lower PEV costs, increase range and develop a PEV charging infrastructure. Among other achievements, EV Everywhere R&D projects have cut the cost of PEV batteries nearly in half, to $325/kilowatt-hour (kWh), since 2010.
The U.S. continues to be a world leader when it comes to installed wind power capacity, ranking second worldwide, despite modest growth in 2013. U.S. installed wind power capacity met nearly 4.5 percent of total national electricity demand last year, and U.S. renewable energy electricity generation is poised to double again by 2020, according to two reports released August 18 by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Persistence of key policy incentives is pivotal to ongoing growth in wind and renewable energy capacity, however, the DOE noted. With lobbying from Koch Industries’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP), Republican Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas recently came out in favor of phasing out the federal wind energy production tax credit (PTC), which expired Dec. 31. Pushing for renewal of the wind energy PTC, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) recently ran TV and YouTube ads thanking members of Congress in Colorado and Iowa, for their strong, bi-partisan support of wind energy and the PTC renewal.
“As a readily expandable, domestic source of clean, renewable energy, wind power is paving the way to a low-carbon future that protects our air and water while providing affordable, renewable electricity to American families and businesses,” DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz was quoted in a news release. “However, the continued success of the U.S. wind industry highlights the importance of policies like the Production Tax Credit that provide a solid framework for America to lead the world in clean energy innovation while also keeping wind manufacturing and jobs in the U.S.”
Germany’s offshore wind investment received a big, much-needed boost on August 11 as Munich City Utilities and Sweden’s Vattenfall announced a huge wind-farm investment off the German North Sea coast.
Due to start construction in 2015 and come online in 2017, the $1.6 billion Sandbank offshore wind farm project entails Vattenfall installing 72 turbines off the German North Sea coast. That would add a massive 1.4 terawatt-hours (TWh) of clean, renewable electricity to the German grid, enough to supply some 400,000 homes, according to an AFP news report.
Nearly 39 gigawatts of new solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation capacity was installed worldwide in 2013, a 38 percent year-over-year increase. That brought the amount of solar power generation capacity installed worldwide as of end of last year to 140.6 GW, up from 101.9 GW in 2012, according to Hanergy Energy Holding Group and China New Energy Chamber of Commerce’s Global Renewable Energy Report 2014.
Hanergy and CNECC’s 2014 report shows a dramatic shift in the geography of solar power deployment last year, illustrating that installations in China, and the Asia-Pacific region more broadly, far outpaced those of Germany and Europe, as well as those for the U.S. and the Americas region.
While Germany and Europe have been scaling back government incentives to install solar and renewable energy systems, Japan instituted a generous solar energy feed-in tariff (FiT) in July 2012 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Japan’s renewable power generation capacity rose by 5.86 million kilowatts with solar power accounting for 90 percent of the total, according to a Japan Times news report. That’s equal to the cumulative total in Japan prior to the launch of the solar FiT.
For its part, China has upped national strategic targets for new solar power generation capacity and has been reinforcing that with market-based incentives, focusing particularly on trying to stimulate uptake in the residential sector. Responding to growing public discontent, as well as the rapidly rising social, environmental and economic costs of its dependence on fossil fuels, China’s government is experimenting with solar and renewable energy FiTs and cap-and-trade markets. It’s also providing consumers incentives to purchase plug-in electric and fuel-cell electric vehicles (PEVs and FCEVs).
The list of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Power Partnership (GPP) partners meeting 100 percent of their electricity needs from clean, renewable sources continues to rise. More than 650 U.S. organizations now rely wholly on “green” power resources – such as solar, wind and geothermal – to meet their electricity needs, according to the GPP program’s latest quarterly report, which was released July 28.
Collectively, green energy use among GPP’S “100 Percent Green Power Users” amounted to nearly 12 billion kilowatt-hours, which the EPA highlights “is equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the electricity use of more than 1.1 million average American households each year.”
The wide variety of U.S. organizations sourcing 100 percent of their electricity from renewable power generation reflects the increasing viability of relying on green power across the U.S. economy and society. They range from the largest public- and private-sector organizations – such as Intel, Kohl’s Department Stores, the World Bank Group and the EPA itself – through medium- and small-scale organizations, such as the National Hockey League (NHL), Santa Cruz Organic and around 100 U.S. schools, from high schools and colleges to the largest universities.
Akin to health care, U.S. tax policy is one of those perennial, politically divisive issues that everyone seems to agree needs reform, but change is never forthcoming. President Barack Obama’s efforts to get U.S. corporations to repatriate the huge sums of money they hold in offshore banks and tax havens by invoking economic patriotism has been met by the by-now traditional blowback from self-professed “free market” neoconservatives and “pro-business” interests.
Avoiding U.S. taxes, American multinationals have stashed some $1.95 trillion in offshore banks, a year-over-year increase of 11.8 percent from 2013, according to a Bloomberg News study. Despite claims to the contrary, data from the U.S. Federal Reserve show that the effective U.S. corporate tax rate has been declining almost continuously since the early 1950s. Furthermore, while the share of federal revenue paid in by individual U.S. citizens in taxes is now approaching 50 percent, that for U.S. corporations has dropped to around 12 percent.
U.S. corporate tax policy, moreover, is at odds with broadly beneficial goals being pursued by the Obama administration, state governments, businesses, communities and individuals across the U.S., such as the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and foster the transition to cleaner, sustainable energy resources. Besides continuing to be heavily subsidized, the U.S. oil and gas industry reaps huge gains from tax advantages unavailable to other types of businesses, according to a study from Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS).
The Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan gives states broad leeway in meeting a national target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from existing coal-fired power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. One pathway is to bring more renewable energy generation capacity online.
Businesses instinctively deride stricter environmental regulations, claiming that the additional costs of regulatory compliance will constrain economic growth, raise prices for consumers and reduce their competitiveness. As numerous studies have shown, that’s the case only if businesses limit the scope of the analysis by excluding the costs to human health and ecosystems as encapsulated in broader economic sustainability metrics such as natural capital accounting, as well as by ignoring economic and job growth in other sectors that can capitalize on the new regulations.
Moreover, as highlighted in a report from the Center for Resource Solutions (CRS) and the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), a tracking and reporting mechanism that’s already in wide use can provide a cost-effective means for U.S. states to help assure compliance with the Clean Power Plan: the information systems used to track and report on renewable and solar renewable energy certificates (RECs and SRECs).
The most complete elaboration yet of Volkswagen‘s (VW) vision of low-carbon e-mobility comes in the form of the new e-Golf, which is due to arrive at participating Volkswagen of America dealer showrooms in select U.S. states later this year.
In addition to the 2015 e-Golf’s zero tailpipe emissions, VW of America struck up a partnership with 3Degrees to purchase carbon offset credits in California and around the U.S. to offset greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with its production and distribution, as well as those from battery charging for up to 36,000 miles of driving.
VW also announced it is partnering with U.S. solar PV manufacturer SunPower to offer e-Golf owners “premier access” to SunPower’s upcoming home solar energy storage solution. Rounding out the e-mobility package, VW chose Bosch Automotive Service Solutions as its preferred home EV charging and installation services provider, while ChargePoint was chosen to provide EV charging stations to the VW U.S. dealer network and to provide e-Golf owners in the U.S. access to over 18,000 charging stations across the country.
Plastic waste is inundating urban, rural and wilderness landscapes and inland waterways, as well as our ocean waters. Besides the visual blight, plastic waste kills, seriously injures or damages wildlife and domesticated animals. The slow degradation of synthetic plastics, moreover, releases a mix of toxic chemicals into our atmosphere, land and waters, poisoning the natural ecosystems and resources that form the foundation of our economy and society.
The average American tosses away some 185 pounds of plastic per year, an estimated 50 percent of which is used only once before being discarded. Overall, the recycling rate for plastics in the U.S. is around 42 percent, a rate that public- and private-sector organizations are working to raise, both for self-serving, as well as more altruistic, motivations.
Late last week, PepsiCo and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) announced the launch of “Recycle for Nature,” a five-year partnership that will see the two organizations place recycling bins at gas stations and convenience stores across the U.S. In addition to reducing plastic waste by spurring more recycling, the initiative aims to save and restore 1 billion gallons per year of drinking water sourced from five of the most heavily populated and scenic U.S. waterways, PepsiCo and TNC explain in a press release.
Bigger fish are taking greater interest in the mid-tier energy storage market, looking to capitalize on technological advances and the introduction of energy storage mandates and development programs by governments in California, Hawaii, New York and Puerto Rico.
Following the path of entrepreneurial startups such as Santa Clara, California’s Green Charge Networks, Sharp Electronics on July 29 announced its SmartStorage solution is now available throughout the Golden State.
Akin to Green Charge’s GreenStation, Sharp’s SmartStorage system employs the latest in lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery storage technology and intelligent demand response (DR) software algorithms to enable commercial and industrial utility customers to better manage electricity consumption — specifically demand charges. In contrast to standard residential rates, which have been falling, utility demand charges have been rising at some 10 percent per year.
Making smart, efficient use of distributed clean energy resources is a key enabler in order for a more sustainable U.S. energy mix to fully mature.
Santa Clara, California’s Green Charge Networks (GCN) has been carving out a niche for itself in the nascent, growing U.S. smart grid-energy efficiency market space. It sets itself apart by leveraging the latest in battery storage technologies, its own proprietary energy management algorithms and software, and zero-down, results-based customer Power Efficiency Agreements (PEAs).
On July 29, GCN and new firm K Road DG announced the closing of $56 million in funding that will help the company take the next step. GCN will use the funds to spur uptake of its GreenStation energy management and storage solution (pictured above) and associated PEAs. Through PEA agreements, investment returns are linked to customers’ actual demand charge and utility bill savings.
To date, GCN has closed over 2 megawatts (MW) of these zero-down agreements with a variety of customers, including 7-Eleven, Walgreens and UPS, as well as school campuses and municipalities in California and New York.