Monday, February 29, 2016

Transportation Electrification: A Primer on One of the Less-Reported Provisions of Oregon’s Proposed Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Bill


By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow
The Oregon Legislature is likely to vote on the proposed Clean Electricity and Coal Transition bill in the next few days (either as HB 4036 or as SB 1547). Although the most controversial parts of the bill focus on transitioning Oregon off of coal and increasing the state’s renewable portfolio standard, the bill addresses a number of other energy-related issues. Among these is a provision that aims to accelerate transportation electrification. So what is transportation electrification, who wants it, and what would this bill do to advance it?

What is transportation electrification?

Transportation electrification refers to the gradual shift away from gasoline-fueled vehicles towards vehicles that are fueled instead by electricity. It’s worth noting at the outset that although this sounds like a shift from old technology to new technology, it is absolutely not. provides a great timeline of what has happened with electric cars, but here are some highlights: the first electric successful electric car appeared in the U.S. in 1890, and by 1900, one-third of cars on the road were electric. But the debut of the more affordably priced Ford Model-T in the early 1910s contributed to an explosion of sales and the corresponding infrastructure—gas stations—to support gas-fueled vehicles. One of the biggest barriers to more widespread deployment of electric vehicles today is that existing infrastructure favors gas-fueled cars because there are many more gas-stations than there are electric plug-in stations to charge electric vehicles; in short, owning a gas-fueled vehicle is simply more convenient. Thus, transportation electrification efforts are largely focused on developing that infrastructure.

Who wants transportation electrification?

Transportation electrification is a popular idea for both utilities and environmentalists, so it’s no surprise that a provision addressing it appears in a bill negotiated as a compromise between both sets of interests. On the utility side, Edison Electric Institute (an association representing investor-owned utilities across the country) published a report in 2014 explaining the benefits of transportation electrification for utilities and recommending ways that utilities can lead in developing that infrastructure. The report noted that energy efficiency efforts will continue to cut into utilities’ retail sales, but that transportation electrification could increase load (demand), ensuring sales long into the future. In addition, the report recognized that the government is likely to mandate increased electric vehicles in the future, and that utilities should therefore by at the forefront in shaping the market for transportation electrification.

For environmentalists, a move towards electric vehicles is vital for reducing transportation emissions. The transportation sector is Oregon’s largest-emitting sector, contributing 39% of the state’s total emissions. Although electric vehicles will not be carbon free until the electric grid is carbon free, electric vehicles in Oregon annually generate roughly 1,500 lbs. of CO2 equivalent (a number that will drop the greener our grid becomes), compared to the roughly 11,600 lbs. emitted by gasoline vehicles. Clearly, shifting to electric vehicles on Oregon’s relatively low-carbon electricity grid would be a huge step towards reducing emissions from the transportation sector.

What would this bill do to advance transportation electrification in Oregon?

The bill would require Oregon’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) to direct the state’s two large investor-owned utilities to submit applications for programs to accelerate transportation electrification. Essentially, the bill allows utilities to propose development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure projects that utilities could recover in their rate bases if the PUC determines that such proposals are prudent. A similar provision in California has resulted in that state’s PUC approving $67 million in utility spending on 5,000 electric vehicle charging stations. At the same time, the California PUC rejected a $654 million proposal to build another 25,000 stations. Clearly, the amount of charging infrastructure development that would occur in Oregon under the bill will depend on the PUC’s actions related to utility electrification proposals.

According to the parties that negotiated the proposed bill, the transportation electrification provision of the proposed bill would be an incremental step in helping Oregon develop electric vehicle charging infrastructure. I agree. Depending upon how the PUC would view the prudency of utility proposals, it may be a pretty small incremental step. To ensure a more robust transformation, Oregon should build on work already proposed in the state’s “Energizing Oregon” roadmap that includes a comprehensive and organized strategy to advance the electric vehicle market in Oregon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Future of Energy Storage Might Just Be a Bunch of Hot Air

By Ben Swerdlow, Policy Extern
            As renewables become more prevalent in our energy system, it is important to discuss how we plan to deal with the associated intermittency of variable renewables like wind and solar power. One option for addressing the intermittency challenge is through energy storage. Energy storage provides additional benefits beyond integrating variable renewables. For example, energy storage can provide stability for the grid and limit the need for peak production facilities. The significant factor that will spur installation of energy storage is cost, and storage costs are on par or cheaper than adding new generation we will see a change to how power is produced and transmitted in the United States.

            In order to understand where we are going it is important to discuss the current state of energy storage in the United States. For a long time the energy storage of choice was pumped hydro, which relies on creating an upper reservoir where water is pumped during times of low energy demand— with low energy prices— and then released down into a lower reservoir to spin turbines and generate electricity when demand is high. In the United States there are 36 pumped hydro facilities with a total storage potential of 20.36 GW. Although pumped hydro provides a significant portion of the energy storage in the United States, the upfront capital costs of $353 kW to $2,216 kW mean that this is not the technology that will pave the way toward more energy storage in the near-term.

            Many advocates argue that lithium-ion batteries are the future of energy storage, and in some ways they are right. However, there may be better options. Currently, these batteries are just too expense to be a viable option for grid-scale energy storage, with costs at around $400 per kW stored. This stands as one of the main reasons why energy storage has not become a more significant part of our grid.

            Fortunately, there are several energy storage technologies which promise to be much more affordable, less resource intensive and more readily expandable than pumped hydro or lithium ion batteries. One is known as the “flow battery,” which operates by storing charged liquids in containers. The benefit of this technology is that expansion is extremely easy, as the size of the container is the main limiting factor. Although there have been significant breakthroughs in this technology, flow batteries remain very expensive, but as the science improves it is possible that these batteries could one day be part of our electricity grid.

            Another significant technology that promises to be important to our energy future is compressed air storage, or as LightSail has dubbed it,regenerative air energy storage.” The goal of LightSail is produce a low-cost, scalable energy storage solution that focuses on the use of compressed air energy storage. While the technology of compressed air energy storage has been around for a while, LightSail believes they have improved upon the technology so as to make it the most viable energy storage option. During the course of compression, air becomes very hot, which has been one of the limiting factors to storage. However, this problem may be solved through the well-timed introduction of water droplets. By employing this concept, LightSail has achieved very high thermodynamic efficiencies which leads to higher revolution per minute (RPMs), and therefore a lower cost per kilowatt-hour. Just as with the flow battery, the size of the container is the main limitation in the amount of energy that can be stored through compressed air energy storage, which leads to the possibility of significant expansion potential. Additionally, as air is the “fuel,” there are limited costs associated with running a LightSail product.

            While the future remains uncertain for energy storage, significant investments have been made in these technologies to achieve additional storage capacity in the future, with every year resulting in more and more energy storage construction. This indicates that we are moving toward a future with less wasted energy, and as more companies experiment with these technologies we get closer to achieving the goal of a green energy grid.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Introducing Myself: What Brings Another New Extern to GEI?

By Tyler Johnson, GEI Policy Extern

My name is Tyler Johnson and I am a new Policy Extern at GEI. My goal is to introduce myself and talk about what I’ve done in law school so far.

My attention to environmental issues probably began approximately eight years ago when an economics professor of mine at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota recommended I read a book called The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth. Much to my surprise (I admittedly was quite ignorant as to the severity of the situation at the time), Tim Flannery, the scientist and author of the book, warned of a global climatic “tipping point,” reachable in the coming decades that will lead to a significant number of species going extinct. The book was alarming to say the least. For a more recent assessment, I encourage readers to check out The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

I finally graduated in 2008 with a degree in International Studies. Due to uncertainty amidst the global financial crisis and not quite having everything figured out, I decided to return to South Korea, where I had studied abroad two years prior, to teach English as a second language. My concern for human-impacted climate change surely increased as I lived there. Korea’s landscape is 70% mountainous and very densely populated in the valleys. Even though just a century ago Amur tigers (a national icon) and bears roamed the countryside, wildlife was noticeable absent (indeed mostly now extinct). While living in Korea, I started a blog to discuss environmental issues and minimalist living, but I still felt pretty worthless regarding the environmental problems I wanted addressed. I always knew I’d return to the States for higher education eventually, and finally settled on law as a practical way to get involved in the solution process.

I’ve been very happy with my decision to both study the law and come to Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. Last summer, I got to work globally again as an intern at the Enviro Legal Defense Firm in Delhi, India. My major task at the firm was analyzing an energy conservation statute. My enjoyment with that statute (among other energy related things) led me to register for an Energy Law class in the fall, which eventually led me to GEI. I believe in local-based advocacy and problem solving and GEI is involved in many Oregon-specific problems. Thus, I believe that GEI is part of the solution, and I’m happy to take part!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Solar Foundation Job Census Report Provides Strong Support for the Economic Benefits of Solar

By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow

Last week, the Solar Foundation released a report on trends in employment in the U.S. solar industry, concluding that solar industry jobs have grown 123% since 2010. According to the report, the solar industry “continues to outpace most other sectors of the economy, adding  workers at  a  rate  nearly 12 times  faster  than  the  overall economy  and  accounting  for 1.2%  of  all  jobs  created  in  the  U.S.  over the  past  year.” 

In conducting the census, the Solar Foundation sent and received surveys from thousands of businesses to determine which areas of the solar industry are growing, in which states, and which policies are responsible for encouraging that growth.
With respect to growth areas, the report noted that almost two-thirds of the new solar jobs last year were created in the installation sector, and that sector now represents 57% of total solar industry employment.  And given that this statistic does not even include utility-scale installers, the findings show the important role that distributed generation plays in the solar industry. In fact, the report also found that 78% of solar jobs are either in the residential or commercial market, compared to only 22% in the utility-scale market. These are the kind of statistics that all levels of government should keep in mind when considering whether to shrink or expand various tax credits, renewable portfolio standards, net metering, and other policies aimed at encouraging investment in renewables. 

In fact, the states that are experiencing the most solar growth seem to be ones that have strongly incentivized distributed generation at the state level. California (75,598 jobs), Massachusetts (15,095 jobs) and Nevada (8,764 jobs) lead the county in the number of solar jobs. At least in the past, these states had in common a commitment to policies that strongly encourage renewable development. California, for example, has host of policies in place to advance renewables, including rebates, grants, tax credits, and a net-metering policy that allows owners of offsite solar installations to benefit as well (via so-called “virtual” net metering). Massachusetts has similar incentives in place, and has also recently raised its cap on net metering.

Nevada, which also has lots of policies in place to encourage renewables, provides a great example of the effect state policies have on the renewable industry. When Nevada recently gutted the state’s net-metering policy, SolarCity (the state’s largest solar job provider) cut 550 jobs. The connection between job availability and policies encouraging solar investment seems fairly clear from the facts. 

According to the report, the solar industry acknowledges the importance of state and federal policies that advance renewables. When asked about the importance of various policies to business prospects, 78% of solar businesses responded that the federal investment tax credit, recently extended by Congress, was “considerably or somewhat important,” and 57% responded that state-level policies were as important. Again, these responses especially make sense with respect to small-scale distributed generation. Even with the falling cost of installing solar PV, it’s still a large up-front investment. By providing customers with incentives, the number of residential and commercial owners willing to invest in solar increases, adding to the demand for people to manufacture and install those panels. 

Overall, the report offers strong support for the economic argument that President Obama made in favor of advancing renewables in his last State of the Union address: a growing renewable industry is good for the economy. And in light the political difficulty of using climate change as an argument to advance renewables, perhaps advocates should be touting the economic benefits of a growing renewable industry more often.