Evolution or revolution? Clean energy movement is expanding
The Great Recession left the economy in shambles and turned lives upside down, but it forced more people to cut spending and energy and, in some ways, was a good thing, according to a survey of more than 2,800 consumers and business people by Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions.
The 2012 survey revealed people and businesses are more aware of the cost-cutting potential of energy efficiency, that younger adults have strong appetites for clean technology and that businesses are setting more aggressive energy goals - in large part because their customers demand it.
“Customers care, so companies do too,” the report states.
Authors noted that near two-thirds of businesses surveyed said their customers want more environmentally considerate solutions, up from 49 percent only a year ago. Meanwhile, more than 75 percent of those businesses actively promote their green campaigns.
The surveys found that businesses continue to invest in energy efficiency even as finding capital becomes more challenging, and as a majority of them acknowledge it is hard to track available financial and tax incentives. The companies are motivated by the strong cost savings and competitive edge associated with energy efficiency, but public good - “it’s the right thing to do” - also is a catalyst.
Employers also are becoming more interested in carbon emissions. Almost eight in 10 surveyed said cost of carbon should be factored into use of traditional energy sources, and 72 percent say they plan to acknowledge it on their balance sheets - up from 58 percent a year ago. However, they also overwhelmingly said it is difficult to measure carbon with any confidence.
One of the most surprising findings was that 61 percent of the consumers surveyed said the recession taught people to become more efficient and responsible. “…It reminds us what is important,” the report quoted the respondents saying. Almost two-thirds said they would support a mandatory surcharge on their electric bills to support alternative energy intended to reduce pollution and to add American jobs.
Natural gas is gaining favor among consumers, although over half still want their utilities to invest in solar and wind power.
The findings reflect what our nonprofit has noticed: the green movement is accelerating. Business, real estate developers and landlords, the military and even professional sports realize that going green is good for multiple reasons.
This story notes the San Francisco 49ers are using low CO2 concrete in their new stadium because they want to reduce their carbon footprint. Meanwhile, the owners of the iconic Empire State Building say their energy retrofits will save them $4.4 million per year - a 3-year payback. Now, that’s a good investment! More here.
Photo of Empire State Building by Eggo
Clean energy’s boom and bust: What can be done?
New research concludes clean energy is at a “crossroad” in the United States with federal support set to plunge, and recommends a shift from traditional subsidies to stronger support of research and development.
The annual average of $4.7 billion spent on clean energy research since 2009 is roughly a half to a third the funding levels recommended by numerous business leaders, researchers, and national science advisers - and far lower than annual investments in space research and exploration ($19 billion), health research ($34 billion), and defense-related research ($81 billion).
So say authors of “Beyond Boom and Bust,” a study by The Breakthrough and World Resources institutes, and Brookings Institution. (Here’s a link to a Washington Post story)
This change from “policy-induced cycle of boom and bust” is essential to producing cost-competitive clean energy that is necessary for economic security, growth, technological exports and better health, the analysts state.
The report begs the question, Why doesn’t the United States apply a Space Race attitude toward clean energy. My colleague, Mike Nemeth, elaborates on that thought in this blog:
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 helped fuel growth of clean energy, but many of those programs and coinciding tax credits are expiring, and annual clean-tech spending, according to “Beyond Boom and Bust”, is set to decline some $11 billion, or 75 percent, by 2014.
About one third of all federal spending since 2009 has been one-time ARRA money, the analysts concluded. The expectant dip comes despite declining prices of solar, wind and other forms of clean energy - and the addition of more than 70,000 related jobs during the height of the recession.
Wind energy is competitive in many places, but the number of those places is sharply reduced when unsubsidized rates are calculated, “making wind energy competitive with gas fired generation only in the best of wind regimes with ready access to existing transmission capacity,” the report states.
Meanwhile, solar rates have dropped dramatically, and rooftop systems in Hawaii, California and other sun-kissed states with relatively high electricity rates are at or competitive with traditional forms of energy. Despite that, disappearing subsidies are hampering solar markets.
The end of this policy era provides an opportunity to overhaul or reform many of the 92 federal clean-tech programs, the authors contend, with “smart reforms that not only avoid a potential ‘clean tech crash’ but also accelerate technological progress and more effectively utilize taxpayer resources. Well-designed policies that successfully drive innovation and industry maturation could provide US clean energy sectors a more stable framework within which to advance towards both subsidy independence and long-term international competitiveness.”
Offering perpetual subsidies is not sustainable, and help cause the “boom and bust” cycle of clean energy. They also don’t address the key issues: the higher cost of emerging clean technology relative to fossil fuels.
Costs are coming down, but political uncertainty will continue to drag down clean energy until subsidies are no longer needed. To achieve that, the authors recommend:
1/ Use subsidies and incentives to reward technology advances and cost declines until they are no longer needed;
2/ Increase investment in R&D to match other innovation priorities; for example, creating a test bed program that uses federal land;
3/ Harness advanced manufacturing; regional industry clusters; and invest in energy science, math, technology and engineering education.
Absent legislative action to extend subsidies, America’s clean tech policy system will be largely dismantled by 2015, a victim of scheduled elimination of programs.
Those remaining would include the solar industry’s 30 percent investment tax credit, which falls to 10% in 2016, and the “nation’s underfunded and politically vulnerable energy RD&D programs and a handful of tax credits and grant programs for energy efficiency and conservation,” the authors state.
In conclusion, they say:
“The time has come then to craft a new energy policy framework specifically designed to accelerate technology improvements and cost reductions in clean tech sectors, ensure scarce public resources are used wisely to drive technologies towards subsidy independence as soon as possible, and continue the growth and maturation of America’s clean tech industries.”
Young people battle for a cleaner planet, their future
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 school bus charges up Fresno County district
“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
This middle school in Bakersfield is the latest entity to install solar energy in the San Joaquin Valley, which officials at UC Merced have unofficially dubbed “Solar Valley” due to the potential for renewable energy here. Farmers, schools, local governments and homeowners are turning to sun power in one of the sunniest regions of the state.
U.S. should apply space race mentality to clean energy
When the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gregarin into space on April 12, 1961, the U.S. government and the public felt sucker-punched.
President John F. Kennedy, however, punched back, sinking tremendous resources into the budding space program and taking the Soviets’ accomplishment as a challenge. Kennedy upped the ante, vowing to send a man to the moon.
While he didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong take that first giant step, Kennedy launched what is considered one of the most aggressive drives to overcome huge technological hurdles in the nation’s history. The United States sought to prove convincingly that American know-how can get the job done, whatever it is.
Give clean energy a shot
Give a similar push to clean energy, and the ramifications would prove spectacular. Imagine cheap solar five times more efficient than existing technology or algae fuel easily harvested and refined from simple CO2-fueled stagnant ponds. Perhaps tidal energy devices could harvest the 2,640 terawatts available on U.S. coasts.
Already the country’s national laboratories have come up with amazing results in energy efficiency, biofuels and other renewables. But far more could be done on a regulatory level to encourage research, development and implementation of domestic energy self-reliance. Incentives could be provided through state and local government to implement existing technology, making even the average residential home a net-zero energy user.
After all, energy has become a security issue, and cost on that regard can no longer simply be measured in price per gallon. Yet, fossil fuels and their corporate cheerleaders have powerful lobbies and strong ties to the existing ways of doing business and will likely fight to maintain their part of the status quo. So let them have it. Offer a work-around.
Give oil its due
Sustainability is a big word that can encompass diversified fuel sources. Give oil its due. Petroleum made this country a world leader and rich beyond measure. And coal fuels many regional economies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made history with its recent ruling to curb emissions of coal-fired electricity plants, making even the sub-bituminous variety vastly less irritating to the environment.
Surging renewables could decrease upward pressure on oil prices. The full effect on energy markets is something analysts would have to ponder. But they may stabilize gas prices, let’s say at $2.50 per gallon, giving old-world gearheads like me continued access to fuel for our internal combustion engines and leaving the electric hotrods to the younger set.
Another positive development could be declining importance of the Middle East. How about this headline? “Iran abandons nuclear program, cites cash crunch.” Healthy competition from alternative energy sources is unlikely to put many in the oil patch out of business, but it would certainly shift the balance of power.
The funny thing is that other counties appear to be seizing the green opportunity. Germany, for instance, has sidelined its nuclear program and embraced clean energy. No politician there says it’s easy, but the payoff could be amazing. Norway’s also making a push, and China’s not messing around either. Of course, the sleeping dragon of the East is going at every sector like it wants to dominate them all.
The key, at least in this country, is keeping government involvement to a minimum. Most in the clean energy sector would prefer to compete on their own terms, without subsidy. And that means innovation.
To a growing extent, that is already happening. In 2011, international spending in clean energy hit $260 billion, up 5 percent from the previous year and about five times what was spent in 2004, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Renewables already play a role
Solar has reached parity or near parity with fossil fuels, and wind is on the cusp. However, both are intermittent: wind dependent on the whims of Mother Nature and solar on the rotation of the Earth. Only geothermal could be argued a constant source, and its capacity to shoulder the energy burden is limited.
In all cases, and this includes biofuels, fuel cells and hydrogen, advances in production that simplify and reduce costs prove invaluable to the green energy movement. That’s why we need some of the best minds focused on solutions. The nation’s universities are primed for the challenge. Many already have taken up the charge. Their fledgling programs just need minimal funding to turn out the next big thing.
Bring on energy efficiency
This can’t be done without efficiency. As Trevor Winnie, senior research analyst for consultant Clean Edge, so succinctly points out “the U.S. could save $1.2 trillion through 2020 by investing $520 billion” in energy efficiency and cut national energy use by more than a fifth by 2020 or 60 percent by 2050. Winnie cites multiple studies.
“Energy efficiency continues to be the cheapest way to get electricity,” he says.
Pair the pursuit of energy efficiency with renewables and a smart grid attuned to a new generation of power sources, and not only would the nation have clean (and hopefully cheap) energy but it would have all the building blocks to fuel its rise to the top of the economic heap once again.
Falter and get dusted
We will have to get moving. In the initial space race, the Russians sent the first man into space, spurring American political leaders to respond. The USSR conquered a previously unimaginable frontier and winning the admiration and acclaim of the world community. Of course, the Nikita Khrushchev-led nation was an arch enemy and Cold War nemesis.
U.S. leaders then feared that control of space could lead to greater geopolitical control. But I tend to believe honor may have had more to do with the space race. The thought of the United States ceding something as monumental as manned flight beyond earth’s atmosphere inspired then Kennedy to funnel resources, manpower and the hopes and dreams of the American people behind the Apollo project and getting man to the moon.
Consensus is needed
Kennedy didn’t do it alone. His predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, lit the space-race fuse with the signing of the signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, and support came flooding in from both sides of the aisle.
“We choose to go to the moon … not because they are easy, but because they are hard … because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win,” Kennedy said in a speech to Rice University in Houston.
Kennedy said the United State was not built by those who rested and those who waited. He said the nation rode the first waves of industrial revolution and modern invention. “This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash,” he said in a speech that sounds as relevent today as it did June 10, 1963.
Clean energy should be given treatment similar to that received by the space race. The stakes are high, perhaps higher. The nation’s security is compromised by its dependence on foreign oil and national debt. Its skies are darkened by smog. Its children suffer from toxins in the air and environment. Our way of life is threatened.
No thanks Dr. Srangelove
Taking action is a heck of a lot better than the depressing scenario painted by TomDispatch blogger and author Michael T. Klare, who writes that pursuing no alternative course will result in potential serious conflict over the scant remaining resources. He identifies several hot spots “where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond.”
Klare warns to watch the Strait of Hormuz, the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin and the Arctic.
Wouldn’t it be better to look the enemy square in the eye and yell like Slim Pickens’ Major Kong?
Michigan State University is the latest example of universities helping to lead the green charge. Campus officials seek to be run entirely by renewable energy.
We developed this site as a resource for students and teachers. It is full of reports, white papers, studies, videos and lesson plans related to clean energy, climate change and sustainability. With school back in session, it could be useful. We appreciate any feedback