Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Untapped Potential: Geothermal Energy in Oregon

Credit: F. C. Whitmore (U.S. Geological Survey) and NREL
By Joni Sliger, Policy Extern

Oregon ranks third in the nation in geothermal energy potential. While the state ranks fourth in the nation on pursuing energy efficiency (which is delightful but surprising given Oregon had the eleventh lowest electricity rates in 2015), it has yet to develop its geothermal potential. Unfortunately, it’s not alone.

Geothermal power is chronically underdeveloped. Globally, installed capacity is only about 12.8 gigawatts (GW), or roughly a mere 6.5% of a potential 200 GW. Surprisingly, the United States leads the international market, boasting a grand total of 3.5 GW installed capacity, or roughly 21% of its 16.5 GW potential. (For perspective, the U.S. Geological Survey equates U.S. potential as “equivalent to 16 large nuclear power plants or dozens of coal fired power plants”). While Oregon has the potential to support around 2,200 MW of geothermal generating capacity, its installed capacity is a mere 35 MW. These numbers are all estimates, of course; determining the true potential requires site analyses and may vary with technology.

Geothermal has much to offer. Unlike variable renewable energy sources like wind or solar, geothermal is a reliable energy source. Geothermal plants can provide baseload and ancillary power, giving it the potential to replace baseload fossil-fuel-fired plants. The Geothermal Energy Association’s Executive Director recently pushed geothermal as “the glue that will help hold the clean power grid together.”

Geothermal energy is not without its problems. Like other renewable sources, it requires high upfront investments. A 2013 news report noted Oregon’s geothermal resources can be located far from transmission lines and can face environmental opposition. Geothermal energy is low in emissions, but it can present environmental risks. For example, the Renewable Northwest Project notes proper siting is critical to minimize the risk of groundwater contamination. (The Union of Concerned Scientists also discusses this concern and notes no geothermal plant has caused contamination in the U.S.)

However, geothermal offers a host of benefits worth considering, too. In addition to being naturally low in emissions, geothermal projects rely a renewable resource—heat from the earth’s core. Additionally, the Renewable Northwest Project reports that geothermal projects provide local jobs and support local economies and tax bases. The Geothermal Energy Association proclaims geothermal has benefits over other renewables, because it uses less land than wind or solar (404 square miles versus 1335 or 3237, respectively) and it emits fewer lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than solar (by a factor of four). (Lifecycle emissions include both direct and indirect emissions; solar power does not directly produce greenhouse gases, but constructing the photovoltaic panels creates indirect emissions).

Geothermal provides a renewable, local power for Oregon. It deserves more attention from utilities and investors. In the meantime, individuals can take matters into their own hands. The Energy Trust of Oregon can help private landowners take advantage of geothermal energy, by providing financial incentives for small geothermal projects (less than 20 MW nameplate capacity) that can connect to PGE or Pacific Power.

Monday, October 26, 2015

My Introduction to Negotiating Renewable Energy Policy

By Brandon Kline, Energy Law Fellow


Earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015 (SB 350) into law. SB 350 is landmark legislation that establishes world-leading energy efficiency and renewable energy goals for California. 


As an energy law fellow, I have watched California’s actions with great interest. I got my start as a California Executive Fellow, working under the legislative affairs secretary and deputy chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. This position followed my work at the California Energy Commission, where I cut my environmental teeth as an undergraduate research assistant. During my fellowship year, I was picked by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s deputy chief of staff to handle a wide range of projects in the Governor’s Office – from homelessness to the State Budget.


The most interesting part of my job was sitting in on meetings with legislators and others from the Administration. Indeed, it was in this setting that I received my introduction to high stakes negotiations in the context of renewable energy. I became interested in renewable energy after watching my mentor negotiate AB 32 (the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006). I left my fellowship year with a clear understanding of how negotiators achieve meaningful reforms.  


I also came to understand that climate change mitigation hinges on policymakers finding common ground on complex issues. California’s actions on climate change have increased importance as world leaders seek common ground on climate, even as the countdown to the U.N. Climate Change Conference continues to run.


The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. This requires negotiators to bridge the divide between rich and poor countries.


The new agreement will be adopted at the Paris climate conference in December and implemented from 2020. It will take the form of a protocol, another legal instrument or “an agreed outcome with legal force,” and will be applicable to all Parties. It is being negotiated through a process known as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP).


California has provided global leadership on environmental policies and energy regulation since AB 32 established a market for carbon allowances and offsets. SB 350 now sets new aggressive targets for the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards, and doubles the rate of energy efficiency savings in California buildings.


Balancing job growth and economic growth with environmental leadership requires a vision that understands that climate adaption measures are smart economic and ecological investments in our future. Because California’s legislative leaders found common ground with the private sector, an amended version of the bill emerged that builds on California’s environmental legacy.


No doubt similar dynamics animate global negotiations to achieve a legally binding international agreement on climate. With California’s actions on climate, there is cause for hope.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Can Any of the Democratic Presidential Candidates Lead Us “Back to the Future”?

By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow

At the end of the 1980s classic “Back to the Future,” Marty McFly jumps into a DeLorean fueled by some banana peels and the dregs of a beer can to travel to October 21, 2015. Yesterday marked the day of Marty McFly’s visit, and although we do have biofuel technology, we are far from divorcing ourselves entirely from fossil fuels. So how can we get “back to the future,” and who can get us there?

Back in May, GEI Staff Attorney Amelia Schlusser blogged about the positions of the Republican presidential candidates on climate change (they either deny its existence or think it doesn’t pose any real threats—clearly they won’t be leading the way back to the future). In light of the relatively prominent role climate change played in the first Democratic presidential primary debate, it seems like a good time to explore the positions and histories of the Democratic contenders on climate change and renewable energy. The field of Democratic candidates has narrowed in the last week, with Senator Jim Webb dropping out of the race and Vice President Joe Biden officially deciding not to run. This leaves Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee as the primary Democratic contenders.

Hillary Clinton:

The Democratic frontrunner states two main goals for her climate policy: (1) install a half billion solar panels by the end of her first term, and (2) “[g]enerate enough renewable energy to power every home in America within 10 years of…taking office.” She also proposes a target of producing 33% of U.S. electricity from renewables by 2027. While her position is an improvement over current policy, it doesn’t go far enough to transition to a fully renewable grid. Moreover, Clinton has a spotty history with respect to climate change and related issues. She had been reticent to state a position on the Keystone XL pipeline until recently, and twice voted to allow offshore drilling as a Senator. Additionally, the fact that Clinton resorted in the first debate to touting her role in the controversial and ineffectual Copenhagen Accord as a demonstration of her efficacy on climate issues speaks to her weak history regarding the subject. Thus, although her concrete plans to address climate change are admirable, Clinton lacks a bit of credibility in light of her inconsistency on the issue in the past. 

Bernie Sanders:

When asked “what is the biggest national security threat to the United States?,” Bernie Sanders answered that “the scientific community is telling us, if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we are gonna be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable." Despite the apparent urgency of the issue to the Vermont Senator, his website does not lay out a concrete plan to address climate change in the future, and mentions only what Sanders has done in the past to address the issue. Sanders did introduce a bill with California Senator Barbara Boxer to tax carbon and methane emissions, and he has consistently opposed the Keystone XL pipeline. In contrast to Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders has been consistently strong on the issue in the past but does not have a concrete plan for the future. 

Martin O’Malley:

I was pleasantly surprised when Governor O’Malley published an op-ed in USA Today calling for a move to a 100% clean energy grid by 2050, which he also repeatedly emphasized  in the first debate. O’Malley’s website also lays out specific actions he would take to achieve this goal. Among his promises: to end fossil fuel subsidies, extend the Production and Investment Tax Credits that encourage wind and solar development respectively, financially support rural clean energy development through new and existing programs, extend the Biodiesel Tax Credit, create a “Clean Energy Jobs Corps,” and  modernize the electric grid to support more renewable energy. And although O’Malley has a questionable record on other environmental issues (see the Chesapeake Bay cleanup), he does have a strong history on climate change. For example, in 2007, O’Malley created by executive order the Maryland Commission on Climate Change to develop a statewide “Plan of Action” including firm benchmarks and timetables. Thus, O’Malley seems to bring together both a history of action and a plan for the future with regard to climate change.

Lincoln Chafee:

Although the former Republican had a poor performance in last week’s debate, he did bring up climate change in his opening remarks as a “real threat to our planet.” This position is consistent with his website, which claims that he “will work tirelessly to significantly reduce greenhouse gasses [sic].” Chafee does have a long history of climate action, even while he was a Republican. Unfortunately, like Senator Sanders, Chafee does not appear to have any specific plans to address the issue. 

So Who Has the Strongest Climate Policy Proposal?

Martin O’Malley's climate policy sets by far the most ambitious goal of achieving a 100% clean energy grid by 2050, and lays out concrete strategies to get us there. While he may be an underdog candidate, I hope that he can push the other candidates towards a more aggressive position on climate change to bring us “Back to the Future” of fossil fuel independence.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Renewables Too Variable? Here’s One Solution

Credit: Pacific Northwest National Lab and NREL
 By Joni Sliger, Policy Extern

Energy and Environmental Economics (E3) just released a study on the benefits of integrating the grids of California Independent System Operator (CAISO) and PacifiCorp. Together, CAISO’s and PacifiCorp’s grids cover parts of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The study explores how connecting the grids could enable both entities to avoid inherent inefficiencies in our current energy system.

Many inefficiencies in our energy system arise from one critical flaw: a lack of energy storage. This lack necessitates generating power at the same time as power is consumed. Placing too much or too little on the grid can cause power outages. Unfortunately, renewable energy generation does not provide a consistent output like traditional fossil fuel sources do. A coal or natural gas plant can theoretically operate at a given capacity so long as there is fuel and demand. Wind or solar facilities vary based on the whims of nature, thus earning these sources the name “variable renewable energy.”

According to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, grid operators can respond to variable renewable energy by increasing flexibility elsewhere in the system. The report suggests operators find ways to reduce or increase supply from other generators as needed. According to the E3 report, some ways CAISO and PacifiCorp have managed variability thus far include building additional facilities to compensate for low renewable energy production and reducing production at other facilities to compensate for renewable energy overproduction. Both strategies translate into higher costs through increased construction and maintenance.

The E3 study reports that integrating the California and PacifiCorp grids could help avoid these sort of inefficiencies, to the tune of saving between $3.4 and $9.1 billion over the first 20 years. Instead of fighting variability by forcing flexibility, grid operators could embrace it. Accepting more variability and developing regional planning schemes seems to be the essence of CAISO’s and PacifiCorp’s proposed integration.

Intuitively, this proposal makes sense. With one wind farm, there is no guarantee of power production during a given period of time. But the wind is always blowing somewhere. With a few dozen dispersed wind farms, at least one is likely producing power. Managing variability in one state is far more problematic than managing variability across seven.

With an expanded “footprint” (the term for an area where the grid operators can reach), grid operators can reliably anticipate at least some minimal renewable energy production at any given time. Additionally, when renewable energy production is much higher than anticipated (“renewable overgeneration”), the expanded footprint enables operators to disperse (and sell and profit from) excess energy over the wider area with less risk of grid overload.

In addition to pure cost savings, integrating the two grids might even reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A brief explanation on the E3 study notes that doing so enables more renewable energy facilities to have access to a market and come online. Additionally, integrating would enable renewable energy to more easily displace even distant fossil fuel facilities. The E3 study did not investigate overall reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but the explanation notes one assessment predicts integration could help lower emissions by almost 2.6 million metric tons every year. It is unclear how much of that reduction is separate from the overall push for various state Renewable Portfolio Standards.

Overall, though, it is clear that integrating the grids could improve the overall energy system while saving consumers money at the same time.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Introducing Myself: Why I'm Excited to be Working as One of GEI's New Energy Fellows

By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow

Now that I've gotten into the swing of things at GEI, I wanted to use this week's blog post to introduce myself: I’m Andrea Lang, and I started as an Energy Fellow with Green Energy Institute in August. Since then, I’ve been working on an important project aimed at assessing Oregon’s current approach to climate policy, and recommending ways it can be improved. Through this project, I have learned that while the state has taken lots of individual and well-meaning actions to address the state’s emissions, it has yet to enact a comprehensive climate policy that ensures state agencies work together collaboratively and sets a legally enforceable emission reduction target. I am enjoying my role in identifying gaps in the existing policies, and helping to suggest what a comprehensive Oregon climate policy might look like.

After obtaining dual undergraduate degrees in Biology and Environmental Science, I applied to law school because of what I saw as a huge disconnect between what scientists say about the natural world and what the law does about it ­­­– for pollution, climate change, land management, conservation, and a multitude of other environmental topics. With this goal in mind, I tried to focus on the intersection between science, law, and policy as I completed my J.D.. In accordance with this objective, I co-authored an article with Professor Michael Blumm (Shared Sovereignty: the Role of Expert Agencies in Environmental Law, to be published by Ecology Law Quarterly in late 2015) about how federal agencies with scientific expertise help inform, and sometimes control, environmental decision making. I also worked with Columbia Riverkeeper in the summer of 2014 to analyze the extent to which science should inform the risks of oil traffic on and along the Columbia River.

Now that I am working as a Green Energy Institute Energy Fellow, I’m excited to help tackle the issue that I see as having the biggest disconnect between science and policy: climate change. I hope that in this capacity, I can continue to use my science background to bridge this gap. There is a lot of research to be done on how energy policies could be implemented at all levels of government to encourage renewable development and mitigate climate change. I look forward to learning more about these policies and advocating for effective solutions with GEI.  

When I’m not working, I can be found mushroom hunting, birdwatching, or beating everybody at nerdy European board games.