The costs of solar power are decreasing so fast that grid parity - where the cost of solar energy without subsidies equals the residential retail electricity rate - could be only a few years away for several cities in California and the United States.
San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego are among 21 cities that could reach parity by 2018, according to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, which this month released a study entitled, “Rooftop Revolution: Changing Everything with Cost-Effective Local Solar.”
The study claims the nation is on the cusp of expanded decentralized electrical generation, but also asks rhetorically if we are prepared. “The nearness of solar grid parity brings urgency to the discussion of electricity policy, from incentives to grid design,” the authors state. “Well before any new fossil fuel power plants have passed their infancy, electricity from solar will be cheaper… It means that citizens and their elected leaders will have to carefully consider the policies that guide investment in the electricity system.”
The push for decentralized energy isn’t new. As noted in this blog from last year, decentralized energy means that rooftops of houses and other structures connected to the grid essentially become mini power producers. Localized power can come from other places too: such as the 90,000 square miles of right of way next to roads, the 600,000 acres of commercial parking lots or under the nation’s 155,000 miles of transmission lines.
Those doesn’t include solar projects that are placed near existing buildings or the solar land rushin California’s deserts and marginal or unproductive former farm land in the San Joaquin Valley, where our nonprofit is based. (In a related story, PG&E plans to power up the sun in the next several years.)
How much residential rooftop solar power is created remains to be seen. Even though solar still
generates less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the nation’s electricity, the prospect of cost-competitive and widespread solar energy offers an unprecedented opportunity.
The installed cost of solar has fallen 10% per year since 2006 and grid electricity price hikes have averaged 2% annually in the last decade. To capitalize, the authors recommend:
1/ phasing out rather than outright eliminating solar subsidies;
2/ easing permitting fees(which account for up to 20% of installed costs);
3/ creating feed-in tariffs (such as one just approved in Palo Alto);
4/ Revise upward the restriction that limit solar to 15% of the distribution grid to to 30%.
A friend, who like me is in her mid-50s, recently wondered aloud why solar and other sustainability programs didn’t take off in the 1970s, when we were in our teens. “We (understood) it,” she said. “But what happened?”
Maybe it was price. In 1974, solar electricity cost more than 100 times the residential retail electricity rate. Today, the differential in many communities is 2 times or less. “Grid connected solar is on the verge of becoming competitive – without incentives – with
conventional electricity,” the report proclaims.
An explosion of localized solar would generate jobs, stimulate the economy and add value to the properties and to the grid. Each megawatt of power generates eight jobs and $240,000 in economic activity, the study projects. With a potential of 30,000 megawatts of new residential solar over six years comes a projected 250,000 jobs and $18 billion in economic stimulus.
The study is not the first on this subject - the report has links to others - and likely won’t be the last. It claims to be conservative - basing its information on the assumption that solar panels last 25 years even though evidence shows they continue to produce power after that point.
Who knows what will happen, but solar power makes sense in California where the sun shines brightly for much of the year.
Keep your calendars free on Saturday, April 14, so you can attend the 2012 Fresno Earth Day festivities on the campus of Unitarian Universalist Church, 2672 E. Alluvial Ave., which is between Chestnut and Willow avenues.
Almost 1,000 people attended last year’s event, and members of the Fresno Earth Day Coalition hope for three times that number this year, said Pete Moe, who is heading up a display of clean vehicles. Visitors will be able to see the latest electric vehicles, along with hybrids and cars that run off biodiesel.
“I’m excited about the choices available in the all-electric world,” Moe said. “I started my alternative-transportation journey seven years ago when I decided I wanted to buy an electric car and there were none. Now, we have a selection, with American manufacturers finally attempting to field some all-electrics.”
The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, is credited with helping launch the modern environmental movement. Passage of the landmark Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and many other groundbreaking environmental laws soon followed. Here’s more on Earth Day.
Today, more than 1 billion people in 192 countries participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world. This year’s event in Fresno will feature exhibits, music and workshops on a variety of topics, including paper making, raw food, California high speed rail, biofuel, composting, organic gardening and Tai Chi, a form of exercise.
Sponsors, vendors and exhibitors are still being accepted. More information is available on the web site here.
Photo of Fresno Earth Day 2011 by Howard Watkins
My father was a government employee whose paycheck didn’t have much wiggle room. He saved money by cutting my hair himself - he wasn’t a very good barber - and by constantly reminding us to turn off lights.
He quit giving me bowl cuts when I became a preteen and my mother said it was embarrassing. But he never stopped harping about power consumption. “You’re wasting electricity,” he would say. “You think I’m made of money?”
I didn’t care. I never saw the power bills, and had no clue. I just rolled my eyes and switched off the lights.
Today, 45 years later, I totally understand. Dad was only interested in the power consumption of the house we rented on Indio Drive near Pismo Beach. It would be a different story today; People and businesses everywhere are finally realizing that wasting electricity is stupid and costly.
The Rockefeller Foundation and Deutsche Bank have found that replacing outdated power-sucking equipment in buildings nationwide could save more than $1 trillion over 10 years, which is equivalent to slashing the nation’s annual electricity bill by 30% .
After all, buildings consume 40% of all the power globally and are responsible for 40% of global carbon emissions. Simple changes such as replacing lights and heating and air conditioning equipment can yield significant savings. The joint study (click here) found that $279 billion in retrofit investments would save at least $1 trillion in the U.S. over just 10 years. That’s a return on investment of 36%. Not bad.
The report is the latest in a string that basically echo the same theme. This one from American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says an energy-efficiency campaign could save $16 trillion through 2050.
“Upgrading and replacing energy-consuming equipment in buildings offers an important capital investment opportunity, with the potential for significant economic, climate, and employment impacts,” the Rockefeller/Deutsche report says.
And that doesn’t include the jobs potential, which could total in the millions over that decade, or the estimated 10% reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions, the report contends.
Takes green to get green
Of course, retrofits cost money, and that is always the problem. Property owners have to spend money to save money, but the payback can be pretty swift for those who do it. Investments in lighting can be recouped in one to two years, while the purchase and installation of a fancy new boiler might take six years to recoup.
That’s where financing comes in, and where the study goes into great detail. Financing mechanisms - such as on-bill financing, property tax programs and energy service agreements - are at work in various places, and other options are being explored.
They are being explored, in part, because cities and states are imposing stricter policies. New disclosure and benchmarking laws, such as those in New York and California, could spark new programs.
Bullet train to efficiency
In fact, many companies, local governments and, as this video from Clemson University shows, students (campuses hold tremendous opportunities to save money) are moving energy efficiency to the fast track. In some cases, it is more like a bullet train. Our nonprofit is helping more than three dozen cities and counties in the San Joaquin Valley use stimulus money to replace lights, pump motors and other energy hogs. The estimated energy savings could total around 5.4 million kilowatt hours. Those cities and counties are saving energy and money - and even jobs.
Similar stories abound. There is this one out of Australia, while closer to home AT&T, IBM and the owner of the iconic Empire State building experienced significant savings through energy efficiency. Read more here.
Those businesses are finding that efficiency is only one part of an overall sustainability program that can save money. Walmart became a believer when it discovered that shrinking the package on a toy leads to more packages in a truck which, in turn, leads to fewer truck miles and, eventually, less consumption of fuel - and major cost savings.
Just yesterday, Kaiser said it wants to reduce its carbon footprint 30% by 2020. The health care giant linked greenhouse gas emissions to climate change and the rise of pollution and disease. “Kaiser Permanente is committed to creating healthy communities, and it’s critical we work to reduce the impact of our operations on the environment,” said Bernard Tyson, president and chief operating officer.
The federal government has recognized the sustainability movement by bestowing 20 Climate Leadership Awards on 20 organizations and individuals. They include IBM, Campbell Soup Company, Cummins Inc., UPS, Intel and others.
The awards recognize corporate, organizational, and individual leadership in addressing climate change and reducing carbon pollution. “From setting and exceeding aggressive emissions reduction goals to reducing the emissions associated with shipping goods, these organizations are improving efficiency, identifying energy and cost saving opportunities, and reducing pollution,” the EPA announced.
Saving money. Helping the environment. Creating jobs. Sustainability makes sense in so many ways.
Video: From Clemson University
Much depends on the younger generation.
Their habits, priorities and motivations largely will define the directions of development, technological advancement and political leanings. And while this always has been true to some degree, it may matter more now as society ponders the potential crushing cost of climate change, pollution and the cumulative effects of humankind’s unprecedented industrialized push forward these past 150 years.
Millennials, or Generation Y, and those born after them will have to seriously consider the environmental impact of everything they do. Mental Klaxons may as well sound a crisis alert every time they consider driving a car, purchasing a house or otherwise taking part in potential carbon-creation.
Passing the Boomers
Growing up, I didn’t have to do that. To me, pollution, contamination and too much garbage was the big scare. I remember walking above an abandoned missile site in the middle of nowhere Alaska and thinking about irradiated dirt in 1971. (I was 10, hitchhiking with mom.)
Nukes are bad, certainly. But their impact proves relatively minor as long as they remain in their silos.
Now the passive threat of rising sea level threatens thousands of island nations and low-lying real estate worldwide, and we’ve blown past the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists say is safe for humanity — 350 parts per million. Current level is 392 ppm. Yet, we keep pushing it. The stakes are off the charts.
“Danger, Will Robinson!” Or so says voice actor Dick Tufeld in his guise as the Robot in the the 1960s TV show “Lost in Space.” But that’s Boomer speak. (Another that comes to mind is Rita Moreno bellowing “Hey you guys!” on Electric Company.)
This generation has its own references, its own icons and its own messages and means of popular delivery. Who over 30 knows of Strong Bad? This phrase is apt: ”When all the land is in ruins; And burnination has forsaken the countryside. Only one guy will remain. My money’s on Trogdor!”
Many Millennials take their air and water quality seriously. They want to limit commuting, live close to work, walk to restaurants. Potentially, they’re creating an entirely different approach to community design, energy use and how resources should be exploited.
And they’re hardly shy about expressing their opinions. They’re tearing up the Internet via YouTube and social media pathways. But they aren’t stopping there.
Democracy & climate change
Take Zaheena Rasheed, a former 350.org intern and a resident of the Maldives, a scattered island nation with an average ground level about 4 feet above the sea about 250 miles southwest of India. In an email, she expresses thanks to 350.org, which seeks to build a global movement to solve the climate crisis.
“In under a week, an incredible 35,553 of you signed our petition to world leaders,” she says. Her words appear on the group’s website in a post by Kelly Blynn. The Maldives have reportedly scheduled democratic elections after President Mohamed Nasheed’s troubles that culminated with Canarygate, which involved allegations of corruption.
Rasheed continues. Her words ooze power and conviction: “There is much in common in the battle against climate change and for democracy — the right to a healthy and dignified life — and this can happen when people are free to speak their minds, make decisions over their own resources, and have the power to act against injustice.”
Eloquent, yet not too unapproachably activist.
So Fresh, So Green
Sarah Laskow of grist.org stumbled across a video created by a group of seniors from Atlanta’s Marist School. “So Fresh, So Green” was written and performed by Butta Biscuit, Mikey-B, Confucius Rodge and Clive Sensation with the filming and editing handled by Eric Eichelberger
Laskow says the motivation was Marist’s participation in the Green School Alliance’s Green Cup Challenge. She says schools that took part tried to reduce their energy use over four weeks, and some did so by more than 20 percent.
“This stuff isn’t rocket science: They just turned off more lights, readjusted the thermostats and, in some cases, replaced old equipment,” she writes.
The video is based on Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean.” The student rappers stick to the basics, encouraging people to recycle, save energy by turning off lights and not just “talk the talk, but walk the walk.”
Mr. Eco spreads the word
Another would-be Al Yankovic is Mr. Eco from Cal Poly (known offically as California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo), who has a number of videos devoted to the green cause. Mr. Eco calls himself an environmental rap superhero who incorporates sustainable living tips into parodies and represents the Alliance to Save Energy’s Cal Poly Green Campus Program.
In one of his videos, dubbed “Turn Em Out,” Mr. Eco parodies rapper T.I.’s “Bring Em Out.” That latter video has more than 4.5 million views, while our Mr. Eco at this writing had 3,127. But when we first wrote about him in early November 2011, he had yet to break 1,000.
And Mr. Eco, the outspoken superhero that he is, also has taken his schtick on the road, visiting Ahwahnee Middle School in the scenic confines of our own Fresno, Calif. Mr. Eco, also known as Brett Edwards, is from Fresno. So that helps.
He’s making an impact. Ahwahnee Principal Tim Liles even did a plug for Mr. Eco in the video.
One year, zero garbage
The crew at yert.com is tirelessly going from city to city to screen its powerful documentary. The next is March 2 in a Seattle church.
Dubbed “Your Environmental Road Trip” — thus the acronym YERT — the film covers all 50 states in a search “for innovators and citizens solving humanity’s greatest environmental crises.”
The trio of filmmakers says they were “called to action by a planet in peril.” Producer Mark Dixon tells me he’s up for more screenings. So if anybody’s interested …
Electric automobile sales have yet to disrupt the dominance of internal combustion.
Electrics at this point would appear bound for a niche market, hardly living up to President Obama’s pledge to encourage their proliferation to about 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015.
That prospect had gop.com’s research division saying: “Another day, another broken promise from President Obama.”
And Fisker, the manufacturer of the much-ballyhooed Karma and recipient of a half billion-dollar U.S. Department of Energy loan, has announced layoffs after issuing recalls in prior weeks of its more than 200 cars sold. John Voelcker of greencarreports.com says Fisker and fellow electric car builder Tesla are vulnerable to the same type of criticism surrounding failed photovoltaic panel manufacturer Solyndra, which also was on the DOE’s loan llist.
None of that taint appears to have landed on Tesla, which is coming off a raft of positive press with increased sales, a deal with Daimler for an electric Mercedes-Benz and the debut of its electric SUV, the “Falcon Wing” Model X. If this latest round of news is any indication, the appetite for electric cars may prove more robust as consumer options and infrastructure to keep the cars charged increase.
The sector remains unproved. Tesla, despite its evolution, continues to lose money. But revenue is increasing. Chairman Elon Musk says in the company’s 8K report to shareholders that “net losses will continue as planned until we reach volume sales of Model S in 2013.”
The Model S is a high-end family sedan built in Tesla’s Fremont, Calif. factory. The price is expected to be somewhere north of $60,000. Musk says about 8,000 orders for the car have been placed so far. It accelerates from 0-60 mph in about 4.5 seconds, which is faster than my friend Al’s built-up 1977 Trans Am.
The Model X is a media darling, getting coverage all over the Web and in the automotive press. Huffingtonpost.com’s Sharon Silke Carty says it “has struck a chord with wealthy, environmentally conscious customers” who snapped up about 500 reservations after its recent debut.
Production is expected to begin in late 2013 with customer deliveries starting in early 2014, Musk says. Volume is targeted at 10,000 to 15,000 units per year.
EV sales lackluster
EV sales currently are dominated by General Motors and Nissan. The Volt closed out 2011 with a minor sales flurry. It sold 7,671 units for the year, with more than 1,500 of those in December, according to figures compiled by Martin LaMonica of cnet.com.
Nissan sold 9,674 units of its all-electric Leaf, with 954 of those in the final month of 2011, according to goodcarbadcar.net.
Other nameplates sold fewer cars.
Electrics find a place
But battery power is making headway on the highway. At least in California, the cars have become more commonplace. The other morning as rain pelted me in the health club parking lot, a Leaf quietly rolled past. The thing moved like an oddly shaped ninja. And all lit up in the darkness, it even looked graceful.
Soundless electrics certainly would reduce road noise, until a Harley with straight pipes pulls up alongside.
Gas prices make a difference
Gas prices, which could push $5 per gallon this summer, may influence some buyers. Oil-price.net reports oil per barrel prices above $100 for West Texas Intermediate and its one-year forecast price climbing $20. That’s not a big deal. Crude prices have hovered around the centennial mark for a couple years now.
But it’s the rapid rise nationally in gas prices in the first months of the year that has some worried about what the summer holds. Summer is usually when more people are on the road and prices increase at the pump.
Ronald D. White of the LA Times quotes analyst Brian L. Milne as saying the early increase may point to higher prices later in the year. “There’s a chance that the U.S. average tops $4 a gallon by June, with some parts of the country approaching $5 a gallon,” Milne says.
Nothing inspires change like price increases. Of course, electric cars remain very expensive.
Hydro Gene makes a prediction
Automotive enthusiast and hydrogen energy activist Gene Johnson says as long as the price point for electric cars sits so far above the average consumer’s means, the segment will remain somewhat exclusive. Johnson, a big clean energy proponent in California’s San Joaquin Valley, offers a better method — retrofits.
He and some friends took a Toyota RAV4, removed its gas-burning stock engine and replaced it with an electric drive train. They sold it on eBay for more than $20,000, easily covering the retrofit cost with a tidy profit.
He says that’s the way to go. Johnson predicts more companies will enter the conversion business. He even goes so far as saying Fresno would be a great place to start.
Solar shoulders in
At some point, on-board solar may play a role in recharging electric cars.
The solar-powered SolarWorld GT started the U.S. leg of its round-the-world trek at the University of California, Santa Barbara and plans to drive across the country, according to gizmag.com. The car, a collaboration between solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld, and Bochum University of Applied Sciences in Germany, is hardly a production vehicle.
But its sojourn may be the start of something. The car and its team are to head to Florida, where the GT will be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to continue driving across Europe, Asia and Africa and back to Darwin, Australia. Assuming the car returns, “it will set the Guinness Record for the longest distance covered by a solar car — approximately 34,000 kilometers, or 21,080 miles,” Ben Coxworth writes.
Such accomplishments are but interesting footnotes. However, should solar panels some day be incorporated cheaply into a car’s surface and still be efficient enough to provide a continuous charge, there’s no stopping the electric car.
Rising gas prices are again in the news - as they usually are when summer approaches - but this time, according to this story, the increase does not stem from demand. Oil is a commodity, and this spike appears to be linked to speculators.
Oil is a huge cost of business, and an increasingly unpredictable one. And it’s only going to get worse, a new study suggests, so corporations better get wise and design sustainability into their business plans.
“Fossil fuel markets are set to become more volatile and unpredictable because of higher global energy demand; changes in where fossil fuels are consumed; supply and production uncertainties; and increasing regulatory interventions related to climate change. All companies – regardless of sector, size, or location – will find it difficult to plan for and manage energy costs, especially those related to fossil fuel,” consulting firm KPMG International says in this report.
Thus, businesses should become more energy efficient and strategic. KPMG recommends companies use more alternative or renewable fuel sources to reduce their exposure. In addition, airlines and shipping companies, plus plastic and chemical producers that use petroleum as an input, need strategies to address potential shortages and price volatility.
KPMG calls the report a “starting point” for discussion. The company also has a message for those who urge the end of oil consumption: It ain’t going to happen.
The energy mix might change, but use of fossil fuels will dominate for years and, in fact, could expand with an increasing world population - at a price. KPMG cites an International Energy Agency study that estimates crude oil prices in the United States will reach $120 per barrel (from $101.85 today) by 2035.
As it turns out, energy unpredictability is just part of the issue facing businesses. KPMG cites 10 “megaforces” that will shape businesses and their actions: climate change; shortage of materials; water scarcity; population growth; urbanization; increased world wealth; food supply and security; ecosystem decline; and deforestation.
Nimble corporations, however, will be able to use this tidal wave of change to their advantage. What creates problem one place often breeds opportunity elsewhere. Money can be made from sustainability. Innovative businesses could reap rewards for addressing needs of growing populations for agriculture, sanitation, education, technology, finance and health care, the report contends:
“Sustainability is increasingly being seen as a source of innovation and growth rather than simply cost reduction and risk management.” Here’s another report from KPMG on that topic.
As such, more businesses, landlords, schools and communities already are installing sustainable processes into their core operations. The Corporate Responsibility Newsletter has this story on NIKE and other corporate heavy hitters asking Congress to preserve a wind-power tax credit.
Here’s one on property owners discovering that going green pays, and another on Steamboat Springs’ desire to go waste free. And let’s not forget students, who are helping lead the charge to a sustainable tomorrow.
Sustainability: it’s here to stay
The nation’s first electric school bus has been delivered to a district in Reedley, but officials there are so busy displaying the green-tinged vehicle that it hasn’t hauled any kids.
“It just keeps buzzing around,” said John Clements, director of transportation for Kings Canyon Unified School District.
The “eTrans” bus visited the state Capitol, and will soon play a starring role at events in Kansas City and San Diego. Representatives of the California Energy Commission, California Air Resources Board and other organizations have climbed aboard for rides, but it hasn’t stopped moving long enough for the California Highway Patrol to certify it to haul students. Clements hopes the distinctive bus will carry its first students in March.
That first ride will culminate an effort that started two years ago, when Clements shared his vision with representatives of a school bus company who were vising the district. A design was prepared and the bus was built using five different funding sources. The district’s contribution was only $15,000.
For that, the district received a bus that accommodates 24 students and, at today’s oil prices, save $5,400 in fuel costs annually. It has zero emissions and will never need an oil change.
The bus can travel about 100 miles on each charge. The charging process takes six to eight hours.
Sixty-seven buses transport 4,400 students each day in the sprawling 600 square-mile district. This is the first electric bus, but it probably won’t be the only fuel-efficient one. Almost $500,000 from the AB 118 Advanced Technology Demonstration Project fund will fund hybrid models that, through a demonstration project, will be loaned to other districts, Clements said.
The distinction of having the first electric school bus is pretty exciting for Clements. He told a Reedley Exponent reporter that it “ranks up there with getting married, having babies and completing my master’s degree at age 53…” Read the Exponent story here.
Even more amazing, though, is the noise - or rather the lack of it. The rattling clap-clap of a standard diesel engine is history. “There is just a little hum to it,” Clements said.
And Clements is humming a lot more these days, knowing that he has the only electric school bus in the country - although he doubts that will last forever. He suspects they will become more common when the buses get a little larger and can travel further on a charge.
“I think this is just the start,” he said.
That could indeed be true. Electric vehicles are becoming more common as oil prices rise, government agencies encourage them and as auto dealers market them. Commercially, fleet managers are being drawn to their lower operating costs.
This MIT-Staples study found that electric-powered delivery trucks cost 9 percent to 12 percent less to operate, although they can cost three times more to buy. However, purchase prices are expected to drop as batteries fall in cost. Surprisingly, the study found that drivers preferred the electrical models.
And more businesses, such as IKEA in the Bay area, are installing chargers to accommodate the projected growth of electric vehicles.
Photo: John Clements with the electric school bus in front of California’s Capitol