Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Energy Scarcity in the Green Heart of Africa

By Socrates Djemba

Socratesse Djemba, a student in Lewis & Clark Law School's LL.M program, interned with GEI this summer. Socratesse is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and his blogs reflect on energy insecurity and policy in the DRC.

 The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a central African country with incredible natural resources and more than 70 million inhabitants. Despite its potential to supply "green" electricity to the entire African continent, 91% of the DRC’s population lacks access to electricity. In other words, about 64 million inhabitants of 72 million live without electricity. The DRC struggles to meet the high demands of its population and the industry. Biomass and waste combustion produce about 95% of total energy in the DRC, and the electricity sector only supplies 3% of total energy to the entire population. Of this 3%, more than 93% comes from hydroelectric power source. In 2005, the Congolese government inventoried potential power plants around the country and listed 89 power plants, 44 of which are hydroelectric and 42 geothermal. While hydropower supplies about 2,409 MW, thermal power only has an installed capacity of 37 MW.

Moreover, the reliability of existing electricity access is debatable. Even in urban areas, electricity is intermittent. For multiple reasons, people expect power outages every week. The first reason is the obsolescence of equipment. Overloaded transmission and distribution networks due to high demand of electricity also cause outages. The most significant issue is the phenomenon of "load shedding.” In fact, electricity distribution authorities decide to supply electricity to some neighborhoods on odd days, and to some others on even days. As every battle has its victims, many neighborhoods in the Capital are totally forgotten for many months. Thus, they lack access to reliable electricity. The situation is worse in rural areas where the government struggles to construct transmission lines. As a matter of fact, the majority of indigenous populations live without any electricity at all.

To compensate for this deficit, people resort to burning wood and wastes as their primary energy supply for cooking and light. As the DRC covers over 60% of the Congo Basin rainforests-the world’s second largest forest-forest products constitute the main source of energy both in rural and urban areas. Sourced from Congolese forests, wood fuel comprises firewood and charcoal. Even in some urban areas, most people use charcoal and firewood as primary fuels for cooking. Those who have access to electricity use charcoal as an alternative fuel in case of a power outage or low availability of electricity. In industrial sector, lack of electricity encumbers mining activities, which contribute to the country's economy. Thus, many mining companies use diesel or gas for generators in case of load shedding. Furthermore, Congolese have a tradition of using charcoal and firewood as primary fuels for cooking at ceremonial events. As biomass and wastes generate 95% of energy in the country, we can imagine the disaster of overexploitation with a population of more than 70 million. Indeed, a large part of deforestation of the Congolese forests is attributable to logging for wood fuel. It would not be a surprise to know that environmentalists have listed the Congo Basin among the places where the 80% of the world's deforestation is about to occur in 15 next years.

The area of the DRC is approximately 2,345,000 km2, and could clearly support numerous renewable power facilities. To increase energy supply, the DRC’s government has focused on increasing oil extraction and developing large hydropower dams. Both of these approaches raise environmental concerns, although hydropower development—if done properly—could substantially increase electricity supply throughout the country.

First, the DRC is extremely rich in natural resources, including hydrocarbons. Oil is discovered almost anywhere, and oil extraction offers tremendous amounts of money to the national economy. Although we lack exact data for oil extraction, some sources show that the Congolese government envisions an increase in oil production from 25,000 to 225,000 barrels/day and an increase of refined oil volume to 100,000 barrels/day. Through this increase, the oil sector could double or even quadruple the national budget. However, this could damage natural resources, because many oil extraction activities occur within lakes and parks. Recently, for example, the Congolese government sought to modify the Virunga National Park boundaries, which is a World Heritage Site, in order to allow for oil extraction. Oil extraction there could disturb the ecosystems and the survival of the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world. The Congolese Prime Minister expressly gave primacy to oil exploration over tourism or conservation of ecosystems in terms of revenue. As another example, when environmentalists called for total ban of oil exploration in Lake Eduard, one of the world's best fishing lakes, the government adamantly refused because of the potential lucrative benefits of oil extraction.

Second, in addition to oil supplies, the DRC has massive hydropower production potential. The DRC is crossed by the Congo River, which is the second most powerful river in the world and the second longest river in Africa. This river has a great potential to generate electricity. Given high flow of this river and its tributaries, the Congo River could produce over 100,000 MW of hydropower each year. However, the existing total installed energy capacity only produces 2,442 MW. This means that only 2% of the DRC's potential hydropower is exploited. But hydropower development should proceed carefully, since dams often damage the quality and quantity of water supply, may lead to the extinction of species, and may interfere with fishing activities and navigation.

The Congolese government and its international partners are currently developing the Grand Inga Dam project, which would produce up to 40,000 MW. In addition to environmental costs of such elephantine power plant, the concern is whether local population would actually benefit from this project because it is mainly funded by countries that need electricity too (South Africa, for example). As this project develops, the Congolese will soon learn whether large project development can help mitigate the energy insecurity that plagues the DRC.

As this post suggests, energy insecurity is a major concern for the people of the DRC. My next blog post will discuss the state of energy policy in the DRC and offer some recommendations for reform.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Natural Gas: A “Bridge” to Long Term Reliance on Fossil Fuels

By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney
Once we construct new natural gas infrastructure, we will
continue to use it for decades. Credit: SASOL

Electricity generation from natural gas-fired power plants more than doubled between 2000 and 2012. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2015 projects that natural gas-fired generation will increase by 40% between 2013 and 2040. Because natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal, some commenters and analysts have asserted that the increased reliance on natural gas for electricity generation will help reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions while we transition to a renewable energy grid. Until recently, the data appeared to back up this assertion: between 2007 and 2013, U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions fell by approximately 11%. While a number of factors contributed to this decline, the shift from coal to natural gas was widely assumed to be the single biggest contributor. However, a new study in the journal Nature Communications found that these emissions reductions were primarily due to reduced energy consumption stemming from the 2008 economic downturn.

The study’s authors reviewed economic and emissions data from 1997 to 2013 and found that economic growth and recession were the primary factors influencing U.S. emissions during the 16-year period. ClimateWire reported that 83% of the emissions reductions occurring between 2007 and 2009 were caused by “[c]hanges in the type and amount of goods consumed and produced in the United States.” Outsourcing U.S. manufacturing to developing countries also contributed to decreases in emissions. Overall, the shift from coal to natural gas only caused emissions to decrease by 1.2%.

The Nature Communications study raises some serious questions regarding the actual climate benefits of switching from coal to natural gas, and casts further doubt on the potential for natural gas to provide a “bridge” to a renewably powered energy system. The general premise behind the theory of natural gas as a bridge fuel relies on the idea that natural gas emits less CO2 than coal. Therefore, bridge theory proponents contend, we should invest in natural gas resources in the short term while we wait for renewable energy costs to drop in the long term. If, however, shifting from coal to natural gas-fired electricity will not significantly reduce power sector carbon emissions, the bridge theory starts to crumble. This is because transitioning from coal to natural gas requires substantial investments in new generating facilities and related infrastructure, such as natural gas pipelines. Once these facilities are constructed, they will remain in operation for many years while investors gradually recover the resources’ capital costs from electricity users. Rather than carry us towards a renewably powered future, the so-called bridge would actually lock in carbon emissions for decades.

Rather than build a risky natural gas bridge that may lead us right back where we started, we should focus on building a resilient, sustainable energy system powered by renewables, energy storage, efficiency, and demand-side management. The transition to a sustainable, carbon-free energy grid will take time and effort, but each individual component will take us one step closer to where we want to go.  

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Pacific Northwest Should Promote Distributed Renewable Energy to Power Critical Infrastructure in the Event of a Natural Disaster

By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney
Credit: NREL/City of Portland (2009)

Natural disasters have been getting a lot of press in the Pacific Northwest lately. Wildfires are currently blazing across the region, and a recent New Yorker article titled “The Really Big One” outlined how the Cascadia subduction zone is overdue for a massive earthquake that could devastate the coastal Northwest from northern California to British Columbia. This media coverage has collectively alerted area residents to the vulnerability of the region’s infrastructure—in the face of a large-scale natural disaster, transportation, water, and electric infrastructure throughout the Northwest could be substantially compromised for extended periods of time.

Our aging electrical infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes.  Utilities in Washington and California are currently refining strategies to protect transmission infrastructure from wildfires. Fires can damage power lines, leading to potentially widespread outages. With wildfires growing in number and intensity throughout the west, utilities are partnering with local, state, and federal agencies to prevent, detect, and battle wildfires that threaten the grid.

A high-magnitude earthquake presents an even greater threat to the region’s electrical system. According to the New Yorker article, the Pacific Northwest is more than 70 years overdue for an earthquake that will take down the electrical grid everywhere west of the Cascade mountain range. This means that major population centers, including Seattle and Portland, will lose power. While power lines will fall throughout the region, the damage will not be confined to transmission infrastructure. The earthquake will likely also destroy dams and natural gas pipelines, effectively cutting off the region’s power supply for an extended period of time.

Natural disaster preparedness campaigns often emphasize the importance of maintaining emergency supplies of food and water. However, the absence of electricity could arguably have a more significant impact on survival and recovery rates. Hospitals, emergency response centers, and communication infrastructure will require power, and damage to roads and bridges may limit access to diesel fuels needed to run back-up generators.  The Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission estimates that it will take between one and three months to restore electricity following a high-magnitude earthquake.

Distributed renewable energy and energy storage systems offer potential safeguards against disaster-related power outages. When distributed solar PV systems are paired with rechargeable battery arrays and specialized inverters, these systems are capable of providing back-up power during grid failures. To protect power access for critical emergency response facilities, states within the Cascadia subduction zone should provide funding to enable facilities such as hospitals and fire stations to install distributed generation and storage systems.  The Clean Energy Group’s Resilient Power report outlines similar resiliency efforts in states throughout the country, including a $30 million micro-grid demonstration project in California.

Residential homeowners can also install these micro-grid systems to preserve personal power supplies, though the initial capital costs of residential battery banks can be prohibitively high. One alternative to an expensive storage system is to install a grid-tied inverter with an emergency power supply feature. While these inverters do not allow a homeowner to power his or her entire house with solar power, they do enable grid-tied solar PV owners to access a limited amount of electricity during daylight hours.

State policymakers in the Pacific Northwest have limited to no control over whether and when a natural disaster will strike in the region. However, lawmakers do have the capacity to plan for and mitigate some of the damage caused by such an unpredictable event. Policymakers should seriously consider offering financing or other economic incentives to enable critical facilities to install renewable micro-grid systems to provide back-up power during emergencies. If and when a disaster hits, these advance preparations will be well worth the investment.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

President Obama Announces Ambitious and Achievable Goal to Increase Renewable Energy Access for Affordable Housing Residents

By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney

This week, the Obama Administration set a goal of installing 300 megawatts of solar power and other renewable energy in federally subsidized affordable housing by 2020. This goal, which includes community and shared solar installations, would bring renewable energy to approximately 50,000 homes. The Administration announced that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will provide technical assistance to affordable housing groups that are working to install solar power. To help homeowners secure necessary capital to install solar, the Federal Housing Administration plans to update its second-mortgage program to make it easier for homeowners to borrow up to $25,000 for solar power and other energy efficiency improvements.

 According to the White House, in 2014, the U.S. brought as much solar power online every three weeks as it did in all of 2008. However, for many Americans, including renters and residents of multi-unit housing, solar power remains out of reach. The Obama Administration explained that its 300 MW goal and supporting programs aim to increase solar power access for all Americans, including renters and homeowners who lack the capital to invest in solar or efficiency upgrades.

A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that only 22% to 27% of residential rooftops are suitable for solar power, and according to the White House, nearly 50% of households and businesses are renters or lack sufficient roof space to install solar panels. To increase access to solar power for these homes and businesses, the Administration announced the launch of a National Community Solar Partnership. Through this partnership, the U.S. Department of Energy, HUD, Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency will collaborate with the solar industry, NGOs, and state and local leaders to increase access to community solar power. The White House also reported that RE-volv, an independent non-profit organization, announced a goal to finance 200 community solar projects over the next three years through crowdfunding efforts. And Clean Energy Collective announced that it has raised more than $400 million to finance community solar projects throughout the country.

The Obama Administration’s new 300 MW goal and supporting initiatives represent a welcome step forward in increasing access to solar and renewable energy for all Americans.  This goal may seem ambitious, but the White House has a proven track record of success in increasing renewable energy access in affordable housing. In 2013, President Obama set a goal of installing 100 MW of solar power in federally subsidized housing, and the Administration has already exceeded this goal by securing commitments to install more than 185 MW of renewable energy.

The President’s accomplishments are due in part to his efforts to build partnerships across the private and public sectors. In response to Obama’s 100 MW goal, affordable housing developers, public housing authorities, financial institutions, nonprofits, and solar developers worked together to increase solar deployment on affordable housing units. These installations benefit residents by offsetting electricity purchases and reducing energy bills. In addition, the installations provide benefits for the greater community by creating jobs and contributing to economic growth. By increasing access to solar power and other forms of renewable energy for all citizens, the United States can create jobs, reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants, and increase the sustainability of the electricity sector. State lawmakers should follow the President’s lead and adopt policies that will expand renewable energy access for all residents.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The South Begins to Pivot Toward Renewables

By Nick Lawton, Staff Attorney

Southern states are beginning to show significant investments in renewable energy, suggesting that the era of Southern resistance to renewables may be drawing to a close. Until recently, the Southeast has been one of the regions of the United States most reliant on coal and least eager to adopt policies that support renewable energy development. For example, while 37 states have adopted some form of Renewable Portfolio Standard, most southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Floirda, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee) have not. However, recent moves by large utilities in Georgia and North Carolina suggest that even in this reluctant region, renewable energy is starting to make significant inroads.

In North Carolina, Duke Energy is pursuing a two-pronged approach to renewable energy development. Both Duke Energy and its unregulated subsidiary, Duke Energy Renewables, are developing renewable energy projects. Duke Energy is focusing on development in its own service territory, while Duke Energy Renewables is focusing on development in other states. The utility’s investments seem to be driven by North Carolina’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires the utility to meet 12.5% of retail load with renewable energy by 2021. In contrast, the subsidiary seems driven more by economics. Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy Renewables, characterizes his company’s motivation as “a commercial decision combined with a little bit of sustainability goals,” rather than a compliance obligation.”According to Duke Energy’s Power Generation Portfolio, as of the end of March, the utility and its subsidiary owned nearly 1,500 MW of non-hydro renewable resources.

Meanwhile, Georgia Power is getting into the solar industry. Georgia recently enacted a new law allowing alternative financing models for [renewables/solar power], such as SolarCity’s leasing model, to operate in the state. Essentially, this new law will enable companies like SolarCity to compete with utilities by allowing solar installations on utility customers’ property. To hedge against this competition, Georgia Power is creating a subsidiary company that will sell and install solar panels to utility customers. Additionally, the utility is building or buying a large portfolio of solar facilities. Overall, the utility projects that it will have 1 gigawatt of solar power on its grid by the end of 2016.

These developments show that renewable energy is starting to make significant inroads in the South. Renewable energy will be a boon for the region, allowing states to reduce reliance on dirty coal-fired power plants, create new jobs, and preserve the environment in one of the nation’s most diverse and threatened regions. State governments throughout the South should take note of these developments and enact further policy support for renewable energy.