Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Recent Years Mark Record-setting Bright Spots for the Renewable Energy Industry

By David Heberling, Policy Intern

2015 and the first part of 2016 have been record-setting in ways both good and bad for the environment. Already in 2016, the first three months have broken the record temperatures from the first quarter in 2015.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, temperatures continue to be unseasonably warm. In April, Seattle and Portland both experienced record-setting months that not only smashed the seasonal average, but topped any previous average April high for either city. While this has unfortunately become something of a normal part of the news cycle in the U.S., the implications abroad are dire. As the Pacific Northwest experienced a record-breaking Spring, climate change effects were also wreaking havoc for our neighbors across the Pacific. India now faces an unprecedented heatwave with the highest temperatures the country has ever recorded.

However, not all the news from start of the year has been negative. Some very positive records are being set right alongside some of the most alarming. Building on the progress from last year, the energy sector has seen unprecedented job gains in the advance towards a renewable future. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) Renewable Energy and Jobs – Annual Review 2016, renewable energy employment continues to top the numbers from previous years. As of 2015, over eight million individuals work in the renewable energy sector worldwide. This represents a 5% increase over the employment of 2014. This figure stands in stark contrast to the oil, gas, and coal industries, which saw a general decline in 2015. While the surge in renewable jobs is a multi-faceted movement, the Director-General of IRENA points towards a reduction in the price of tech and the adoption of pro-renewable tax credit policies by leading nations as important contributing factors. The two main sectors of growth within the renewable energy industry are the addition of new jobs and the increase in renewable energy generation. These two are closely related. As more jobs are added, more installations occur, and more energy is generated. Alternatively, as renewable development becomes lucrative and more projects are proposed, more jobs are generated to build the new projects. Thus, despite their clear relation, the growth in renewable jobs and new renewable generation are distinct and warrant separate examination

In the U.S., employment in renewables rose even faster than the global statistics. While the world overall saw a 5% increase in renewable employment, the U.S. increased by 6% over the previous year, bringing the total for U.S. renewable jobs to 769,000. Solar has continued to shine as the leader in domestic renewable employment, rising by 22% to a total of 209,000 jobs. The growth in solar industry employment outstrips overall U.S. employment growth by 12:1. Most incredibly, this means that employment in solar has surpassed oil or coal as the top energy employer for the first time (pictured above). Wind employment has also continued to grow at a rapid pace, increasing 21% over the previous year, for a total of 88,000 jobs.

Related to the boom in renewable employment, renewable generation has increased its share of total generation. Renewable generation in the first quarter of 2016 is up over 14% from the first quarter of 2015. This growth also represents a 3% increase in the portion of total U.S. energy generation made up by renewables.  Now, renewable energy accounts for 17% of the total energy produced in Q1 of 2016, versus 14% in Q1 of 2015.

In the face of such rapid economic growth and success, even big names in conventional fossil fuel generation have begun to read the writing on the wall. The United Arab Emirates, a major oil producing country, has set ambitious goals to employ 90,000 people in renewables by 2030. This growth will be driven by the two large solar photovoltaics manufacturing projects already in place, and the goal to have rooftop solar for every building in Dubai by 2030. Shell Oil has also apparently realized which way the winds are blowing, recently deciding to develop a renewable energy division to capitalize on the emerging markets.

A continued dedication to the growth of the renewable energy sector is needed if we expect the coming years to be as positive as 2015. The historic Paris Agreement helps to build investor confidence that the policies in place fostering the renewable energy boom are long-term commitments. The favorable tax policies and credits that renewable projects receive help insulate the industry from the tumultuous nature of conventional fuel source markets. Therefore, as a nation, we should look forward to the great green horizon and the shift of our energy sector towards a more sustainable future.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Tribes & Renewables Part II: Benefits of Renewable Development on Tribal Land

Nevada Senator Harry Reid and members of the Moapa Band
 of Paiute break ground on the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar project.
 Source: http://energy.gov/articles/sun-rises-tribal-energy-future-nevada

By Andrea Lang, Policy Analyst

In the United States, tribal land contains huge potential for developing renewable projects. According to the Department of Energy, American Indian land makes up 2% of all U.S. land, but contains a disproportional 5% of the nation’s renewable energy resources, including an estimated 14 billion megawatt-hours of solar resources and 1.1 billion megawatt-hours of wind resources. Part I of my blog series on tribes and renewable energy described the potentially devastating effects of climate change on tribes, and the high cost (financially and morally) of asking tribes to adapt to those effects. Developing renewable energy projects on tribal lands can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector and help increase tribal resilience to climate change. But renewable development can have other benefits for tribes, as well.  This week, Part II of the series explores the benefits of renewable development on tribal land. In particular, this post discusses how renewable projects on tribal land can provide (1) a source of revenue generation for tribes, (2) a relatively low-cost option for electrifying rural tribal communities, and (3) jobs and training to tribal community members.

Revenue Generation:

First, building renewable energy systems can provide tribes with a steady source of revenue to help tribal economies. Tribes can construct large utility-scale solar or wind projects and sell the power to utilities. For example, the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory point out that state Renewable Portfolio Standards–which require utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources–create a demand that tribes can take advantage of to enter into power purchase agreements with utilities that provide long-term, steady sources of revenue for the tribes.

Alternatively, tribes can use the renewable energy they generate to power their own reservation. Most tribes currently purchase electricity generated outside the borders of the reservation. By providing their communities with power generated within the reservation, tribes can keep the money otherwise spent on outside electricity purchases within their own communities in order to aid their economies. For example, the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians in California built a 1,900 megawatt solar project, allowing them to reduce reliance on the tribe’s outside utility by about 25%.

Electrification for Rural Tribal Members

Second, building renewable energy projects on tribal land can provide tribes with much-needed electricity infrastructure. According to the Energy Information Administration, 14% of tribal households lack access to the electric grid, compared to the 1.4% national average. Many tribes lack reliable electricity because they are located in sparsely populated rural areas that are not connected to the interstate grid. For these communities, distributed renewable power can be a common-sense and relatively low-cost way to provide reliable power to tribal members. For example, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has had a renewable energy program in place since 2000 that provides hybrid solar and wind energy systems to rural Navajo households. Compared to the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost to connect these communities to the grid, these distributed renewable generation options are a significant improvement over the unreliable and dirty diesel generators and kerosene lanterns these households had been using.

Jobs and Training

Finally, building new renewable projects on tribal land can create jobs for tribal communities. A National Wildlife Federation report on “The New Energy Future in Indian Country” details the jobs likely to be created by renewable development on tribal land, including construction, installation, operations, and maintenance of renewable energy systems. For example, the ongoing construction of the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project (pictured above) has created around 400 construction jobs and will provide seven ongoing operations jobs. Although many jobs will likely be temporary, lasting only until the project has been completely constructed, tribal members who received on-the-job training will be in a good position to obtain future green building jobs.

Next week’s post in this series will discuss some of the barriers to tribal development of renewable projects and explore some existing and suggested policy solutions to overcome these barriers.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Clean Power Plan: Rule’s Legal Challenge Dealt Yet Another Unexpected Judicial Curveball

By Amelia Schlusser, Staff Attorney

With oral arguments in the lawsuit challenging the federal Clean Power Plan scheduled to commence in a few weeks, the parties received surprising news from the court. On May 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit announced that it is rescheduling oral arguments in West Virginia v. EPA for September 27, 2016. Moreover, the case will now be argued in front of all participating judges on the D.C. Circuit (known as en banc review), rather than the three-judge panel that was originally slated to hear the case. The court’s decision to grant en banc review was made independently, rather than at the request of any of the parties, which is an almost unprecedented move by the D.C. Circuit.

So what does the court’s decision to grant en banc review mean for the Clean Power Plan? Only the court knows for certain, but there are a few possible rationales for the D.C. Circuit’s announcement.

First, the court’s decision to grant en banc review may represent an attempt to speed up the judicial review process. If the case were argued in front of a three-judge panel as initially scheduled, the losing parties would have an opportunity to petition the entire court to review the panel’s ruling. By granting en banc review at the outset, the court has eliminated a potentially time-consuming stage in the litigation. Now, if the losing parties seek to appeal the D.C. Circuit’s en banc ruling, they must petition the Supreme Court to review the lower court’s decision.  This means the case may now reach the Supreme Court in a shorter timeframe than it otherwise would have.

Second, the court’s decision to grant en banc review may well signify that some or all of the legal issues raised in the dispute are of such significance that they should be decided by the entire court. Under the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, en banc review will generally only be available if it “is necessary to secure or maintain uniformity of the court's decisions; or the proceeding involves a question of exceptional importance.”

From a legal standpoint, the challenge to the Clean Power Plan involves the reasonableness of EPA’s interpretation of section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act and the authority exercised by the Agency under that provision. On a more ideological level, however, the dispute extends far beyond matters of statutory interpretation. At its heart, the case revolves around the federal government’s authority to address climate change by regulating greenhouse gas emissions. And because climate change has become such a politicized issue, the lines have been drawn almost exclusively along party lines.

If the D.C. Circuit’s decision to grant en banc review was motivated at least in part by the court’s view that the “question of exceptional importance” at stake in this case involves the federal government’s authority to address climate change by regulating greenhouse gas emissions, it is possible, and perhaps probable, that the outcome will be decided along ideological lines. Under this scenario, the Clean Power Plan may have a strong chance of being upheld; Democratic presidents appointed seven of the eleven active judges currently sitting on the D.C. Circuit. Two of the court’s judges—Chief Judge Merrick Garland and Judge Nina Pillard—did not participate in the court’s decision to grant en banc review. If both of these judges recuse themselves (though it not certain that they will), West Virginia v. EPA will be decided by nine judges, five of which are Democratic appointees and four of which are Republican appointees.

If, however, the “question of exceptional importance” identified by the court involves the legitimacy of EPA’s interpretation and implementation of section 111(d) the Clean Air Act, the D.C. Circuit’s announcement may indicate that EPA has an uphill battle ahead of it.  

In either case, it is likely that the future of the Clean Power Plan will ultimately be determined by the Supreme Court. Considering the current uncertainty regarding the future composition of the Court, the rule’s fate is anyone’s guess.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Tribes and Renewables Part I: The Effects of Climate Change on Tribes

Credit: nca2014.globalchange.gov

By Andrea Lang, Policy Analyst

Despite contributing very little to the historical greenhouse gas emissions that have caused climate change, American Indian Tribes face disproportionate and unique problems as the Earth warms. Historic fishing grounds, which tribes rely on both for subsistence and as part of their rich cultures, may be jeopardized. The increasing number and intensity of wildfires caused by warmer temperatures, as well as prolonged periods of drought, may threaten tribal land, resources, and homes. And water, which is a necessary and sometimes sacred resource to many tribes, may become more and more scarce in some areas due to increased drought caused by climate change.

Credit: Swinomish-nsn.gov
In fact, individual tribes are starting to assess the effects of climate change on their communities and to explore adaptation strategies. For example, in Western Washington, the Swinomish Indian Senate issued a proclamation in 2007 acknowledging the reality of climate change and supporting an initiative to determine local effects and adaptation strategies for the tribe. The first assessment to come out of that initiative, a 2009 technical report examining local impacts from climate change, identified a number of devastating impacts to the tribe. First, it determined that sea level rise poses a risk to 15% of the Swinomish Reservation as a whole, including the entirety of the tribe’s agricultural land, 160 residential structures, and 18 commercial and industrial buildings. In addition, traditionally harvested seashell beds and fisheries are at high risk of permanent inundation. Finally, The threat of increased wildfires pose a high risk to another 1,500 properties on the Swinomish Reservation.

In 2010, the Tribe issued a follow-up report. This Adaptation Action Plan suggested strategies for the Swinomish to adapt to these climate impacts. Recommended strategies included constructing or extending existing dikes to prevent inundation and using fire buffer zones to control the effects of wildfires.

Of course, in looking at adaptation strategies for tribes, it’s important to recognize the history of how tribes have been treated in the United States. Throughout history, tribes have been repeatedly asked, and often forced, to either assimilate or relocate to suit the changing nature of the country. With most tribes’ minimal contribution to climate change, asking them to adapt by changing their way of life ­ yet again­ presents an environmental justice issue. And while the changes proposed by the Swinomish Tribe seem relatively benign, they are also expensive, and represent only one tribe’s adaptation strategy. As one prominent Indian Law scholar has pointed out, the international dialogue around tribal adaptation has revolved around relocation, which would disrupt tribal cultures that are often deeply tied to a senseof place.

Due to these looming climate impacts and the environmental justice concerns associated with adaptation efforts, conversations regarding tribes and climate change should focus on mitigation rather than adaptation. Advancing renewable energy development and shifting towards a 100% renewable power system is a key part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing these effects, which is why I plan to devote my next few blogs to exploring renewable energy development as it relate to tribes. Over the next few weeks, I will explore some of the issues that arise with respect to tribes and renewable energy projects on both federal and tribal land. Next week’s post will explore the potential for and benefits of developing renewable projects on tribal land. Future posts will investigate the obstacles to developing such renewable projects on tribal land, and the issues that come up for tribes with respect to renewable development on federal land.