Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Oregon Prepares to Buoy Up Wave Energy

Credit: U.S. Department of Energy
By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow

Oregon legislators may soon provide financial support to a wave energy test center planned off the coast of Newport, Oregon, known as the Pacific Marine Energy Center South Energy Test Site (or PMEC-SETS). After the legislature convenes this Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources will begin discussing SB 285, a bill to appropriate $4.6 million for the facility. State funding will (hopefully) supplement a promised grant from the U.S. Department of Energy of up to $40 million. Optimistically assuming that the federal grant (which is “subject to appropriations”) makes it through the Trump administration gauntlet, here’s what Oregon can expect from PMEC-SETS.

PMEC-SETS will be a deepwater test facility for utility-scale wave energy converters. In other words, it will provide the offshore infrastructure necessary for developers to test huge devices that aim to capture energy from ocean waves and transform it into electricity. As shown in the image above, the facility will include anchors off the coast to which wave energy converters can attach for tests; these anchors will connect to the onshore grid network via undersea transmission cables. The plan is for the facility to be fully operational by 2020. According to the DOE, the facility will be a world-class testing facility with the ability to accommodate up to 20 converters at a time and supply up to 20 MW of electricity to the grid. PMEC’s director Belinda Batten describes the testing as “the last step before commercialization” since testing enables developers to prove the seaworthiness and cost-competitiveness of their technologies. By providing a place for developers to test new wave technologies, PMEC-SETS will facilitate the development and growth of the wave energy industry.

As I noted in a previous post, wave energy is a very new technology, but it has huge potential. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, wave energy could feasibly meet almost a third of the U.S.’s energy needs. Additionally, because over half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of a coastline, wave energy could be produced close to where it is consumed, reducing the need for additional transmission infrastructure. To obtain significant generation from wave power, however, more projects need to be deployed. Some projects and testing facilities exist, as shown in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Marine and Hydrokinetic Database's map, but not many: only three sites off the coast of Washington, Oregon, or California are currently testing wave electricity-generating projects, 2 of which are off Oregon’s coast.

Oregon is particularly well-suited to leading wave energy development. The Oregon Wave Energy Trust describes Oregon as “uniquely positioned to be North America’s leader in ocean energy” because of the potential energy of the state’s coast plus the state’s nearby transmission system, transportation infrastructure, ready manufacturing and supply chain, and support from legislators and research institutions. If the new industry takes off, it could provide numerous jobs to Oregon’s communities in addition to the many other benefits of local renewable energy generation. To become a leader in wave energy, Oregon needs to enact SB 285 and support projects like PMEC-SETS.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Putting the Pedal to the Metal for Electric Vehicles in 2017

By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow
Recharging a Toyota RAV4 electric vehicle
Credit: Warren Gretz / NREL

Vehicle electrification is vital to a clean energy future, and it is a process that may soon accelerate in Oregon. Improving Oregon’s transportation system broadly is one of Governor Kate Brown’s top four action items for this legislative session. Her legislative agenda notes that an improved transportation system is necessary as the “backbone of a thriving Oregon economy” and that it can help the state reach its greenhouse gas reduction goals (currently, to reduce emissions 10% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 75% below 1990 levels by 2050). Transportation is Oregon’s highest emitting sector, according to the Oregon Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and amounts for more than a third of all Oregon’s emissions. To combat climate change and meet Oregon’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, we need a cleaner transportation system; for that, we need vehicle electrification.

Some electric vehicles are present in Oregon, but the market has a lot of room for growth. According to a new online dashboard designed by the Center for Sustainable Energy for the Auto Alliance, Oregon ranks third in the nation for the state’s market share of light-duty electric vehicles, measured from 2013 to 2016. But this market share—the number of electric vehicles out of all vehicles in the state—is still only 1.5%. While the proportion of electric vehicles relative to all vehicles is higher only in Washington and California, the overwhelming majority of vehicles sold are not electric. Oregon has made more progress in deploying electric vehicles than most of the U.S.: for example, despite a relatively small population, Oregon ranks 10th in the nation for number of electric vehicles sold, with 10,825 electric vehicles sold in the state from 2011 to 2016. However, Oregon still needs to do more to electrify its transportation sector. 

One way to galvanize the market is through public investment. For example, the Mayor of Portland is one of four West Coast mayors working together to support the transition to electric vehicles. In a Request For Information (RFI) to auto manufacturers, the mayors announced their interest in obtaining or leasing up to 24,000 electric vehicles. The mayors propose to change city fleets to electric vehicles, hoping to lead by example by adopting electric vehicles. Additionally, they hope such high demand will help the young market transition to mass production, eventually resulting in lower prices for all consumers. The bid for the RFI is due March 1, so manufacturers still have time to submit proposals.

While we can hope for legislators to act this session to further support vehicle electrification, they have also taken action recently. Last session, Oregon legislators passed the Clean Electricity & Coal Transition Act. As my colleague, Andrea Lang Clifford, wrote last year, the new law requires the state’s utilities to propose EV charging infrastructure programs, which the PUC may approve if it finds the proposals to be prudent investments of ratepayers’ money. As Andrea noted, this is an incremental step, heavily dependent on the PUC’s views of prudency. While the utilities submitted their proposals in late December 2016, the PUC has yet to rule on them. Among the proposed actions are (1) pilot projects for new charging infrastructure (including charging stations five electric Tri-Met buses); (2) educational campaigns, including showcasing electric vehicles at car shows; (3) additional research into the technologies involved; and (4) a rate change for vehicle charging to incentivize the market switch. (You can read Pacific Power’s applications here and here; PGE’s here; and Idaho Power’s here). The PUC is set to have hearings on most of these applications in early February and decide whether the proposed actions are worth the cost to the ratepayers, so stay tuned to learn how the PUC rules on these proposals.

This year, Oregon legislators are ready to work on major transportation legislation. Hopefully, legislators will advance vehicle electrification and continue moving Oregon towards a clean energy future. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Trump-era Politics and the Audacity of Continuing to Hope

By Ed Jewell

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/whitehouse
Tomorrow, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. What his election means for society at large is hard to guess, but objective signifiers—such as his cabinet nominations, his First 100 Days Plan, his written request to the Department of Energy to identify employees who had worked on climate initiatives, and the tenor of his campaign—foretell trouble ahead for social and environmental progress. But the ending of this story has not yet been written, and we as citizens have a major part to play in how the drama unfolds.

What makes this moment so particularly harrowing—from a climate perspective—is the limited amount of time left to make the necessary and significant course correction in regards to how our economy is powered. The science is telling, the politics are bleak, and the window of opportunity to act is narrow.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has claimed that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to make American manufacturing less competitive. He has appointed a man to head the E.P.A. who has been a wildly effective advocate for the oil and gas industry and who has suedthe Obama administration over its promulgation of Clean Air Act regulations more than a dozen times in his role as the attorney general of Oklahoma. He has appointed a career-long oilman with ExxonMobil—a company under investigation for misleading investors for decades on the science of climate change—with no diplomatic or public service experience to be the Secretary of State. He has appointed Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, the same department that Rick Perry wanted to cut during his 2012 presidential campaign, but just couldn’t quite remember the name of. At the present point in time, the outlook for the natural systems that support our human civilization is a dreary outlook.

In addition to Donald Trump in the White House, the Republicans—a solid bloc of climate skeptics and deniers—will control the House and the Senate as well. And through obstinate refusal to carry out their constitutionally mandated duty to advise and consent on President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination, Republicans will have the ability to name at least one Supreme Court justice as well. Additionally, the map does not look particularly promising for Democrats to regain control of either the House or Senate in 2018. There don’t seem to be many checks and balances left for the Democrats, though the Senate filibuster and perhaps other parliamentarian maneuvers remain.

The last great check in our democratic system is the people. Donald Trump may have won the electoral college, but he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. The approval rating for his transition is at 40%. President Obama’s was more than double that at this point in 2008. Donald Trump and the Republicans do not have as strong of a mandate to enact their vision for America as they might portray, and the tension between President-elect Trump and establishment Republicans continues to simmer. There are fissures in the Republican edifice that can be seized upon by cognizant citizens to ensure that the integrity of our political and natural systems is maintained through the Trump presidency.

The urge to turn away from the American political system is strong right now. The long, contentious, devoid-of-fact election cycle we just went through was disillusioning. Our politics, and especially our elections, have become more spectacle than democracy. This “reality-tv-showification” of American politics offends basic sensibilities, and can be disheartening to those of us interested in the issues. But now is the time to lean in to the problem. To think more critically, write more persuasively, organize more effectively, and ask what we can each do to be a better citizen and ensure that we get a government that we deserve.

Through vigilance, persistence, and level headed yet vocal advocacy, it remains possible to avert the worst potential consequences of the 2016 election. It is possible that we will emerge from the coming years as a stronger society for the tribulations endured, a more compassionate society because of the lessons learned, and a society more thankful and cognizant of the opportunities in front of us to make a more perfect union. That is up to us.

President Obama has taken to quoting Justice Louis Brandeis recently in saying that “the most important political office is that of the private citizen.” At a time like this, when our ecological systems as well as our fundamental democratic institutions are threatened, the office of citizen takes on an even more exalted position. We the people got ourselves into this mess. We the people must get ourselves out of it.

We must ask ourselves, what are the redeeming qualities of our nation, and how do we accentuate those qualities? How do we each individually and collectively ensure that we take the actions necessary to maintain the functioning of our institutions and systems? How do we ensure that this episode in history does not define us, but instead that we are defined by our response to this episode?

This is a test of our society, of our political institutions, of our design of government, and of our people. We need to hold our representatives accountable and let them know that we are paying attention. We need to find common ground with those that disagree with us and ensure that reason and facts prevail.

Throughout the coming weeks and months, my blog posts will mostly focus on reasons to look on the bright side in regards to maintaining a stable climate and achieving a clean energy economy (because who needs more bad news, and additionally, there is a lot to be excited about) while not turning a blind eye to the challenges of Trump’s presidency.  But for now, it is important to simply take stock of what the election of Donald Trump means. It is a challenge, it is a test, and it is an opportunity. We the people must be ready to answer the bell.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Aim High, Aim Local, and Aim to Please: One Renewable Energy Advocate’s 2017 New Year’s Resolutions

By Andrea Lang Clifford, Policy Analyst
Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

As renewable energy advocates, we should be excited about 2017's potential for advancing the transition to green energy. It is easy to get bogged down in all the discussion of 2016 as “the worst year ever” and to lament the rollbacks of progressive climate policy likely to occur under President Trump and a Republican Congress in the coming years. However, 2016 was replete with good news for renewable energy that advocates can harness moving forward. As I was personally reflecting on 2016 over the holidays, I settled on three New Year’s resolutions that I hope other renewable energy advocates will find both helpful and encouraging.

1.     Aim High: 100% Renewable Energy is a Reasonable and Attainable Goal

The Green Energy Institute’s mission (and mine) is to support a transition to a 100% renewable energy system, a goal which is both reasonable and attainable. Indeed, several countries actually achieved 100% renewable energy in 2016 for periods of time, illustrating that the goal is within reach. Portugal, for example, ran on 100% renewable electricity for four straight days this past summer, and Germany came very close to doing the same for short periods of time. Costa Rica performed even better, as it ran its electric grid on 98% renewable energy for all of 2016 and reached 100% renewable energy for three-quarters of the year.

Of course, these countries have different needs and different resources than the U.S., but their achievements are milestones on the path to 100% renewable energy that illustrate its attainability. While many states in the U.S. have set mandates for renewable energy procurement, Hawaii is so far the only state to set its renewable energy mandate as high as 100%. If we as advocates fail to set our sights high, we will never have the impetus to overcome the remaining barriers to achieve a 100% renewable energy system.

2.     Aim Local: Advance Well-Designed State and Local Climate Policies 

There is tremendous opportunity to drive the energy transition at the local level. While the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan stalled in the courts, many state and local governments made efforts in 2016 to combat greenhouse gas emissions and increase renewable energy deployment. For example, many states passed new legislation to increase renewable portfolio standards, commit to a certain percentage of greenhouse gas emission reductions, or incentivize renewable energy deployment.

At the same time, cities also played an active role in combatting climate change last year. Action at the city level is particularly important because, despite occupying only 2% of the world’s land, cities contribute 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, San Diego committed in its climate action plan to run on 100% renewable energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2035. Likewise, in the heart of conservative Utah, Salt Lake City has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2032 and an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2040. While the incoming administration seems poised to stall federal efforts to address climate change, American cities are taking action into their own hands; following the election of Donald Trump, 51 American mayors signed an open letter asking for the federal government’s support in fighting climate change and committing to forge ahead even in the absence of such support.

In 2017, facing a federal government friendly to fossil fuels and skeptical of climate change, local action will be more important than ever. Recent state and local progress on climate policy illustrates the potential for renewable advocates to make real gains in spite of federal inaction. Renewable advocates should harness this energy moving forward and ensure that new state and local policies are well designed to achieve meaningful change. 

3.     Aim to Please: Focus on Economic Arguments for Renewable Energy

A number of reports issued in 2016 help bolster the argument that renewable energy investment is good for the economy. For example, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) issued a report showing that U.S. employment in the solar industry grew 12 times faster than overall job growth in the country, employing more than 200,000 people. For the first time, the solar industry employs more Americans than the coal mining or oil and gas extraction industries combined. Overall, IRENA reported that the renewable energy industry employed 769,000 Americans as of 2016. The potential for new employment in renewable energy is a powerful argument to make to politicians looking to create more jobs and bring down the country’s unemployment rate.

Besides creating jobs, 2016 was also a breakthrough year in terms of the cost of renewable energy. A 2016 report published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that installation costs for residential and commercial solar have decreased dramatically over the last 15 years, as shown below. In addition, utility-scale solar costs have fallen below $1.50 per watt, which is less than one-third the cost of utility-scale installations just seven years ago.  In fact, solar energy is now on track to be the cheapest form of energy within ten years.
Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Renewable energy advocates can use these economic arguments to persuade individuals unwilling to hear the moral and practical climate change-related reasons for advancing renewables. Many politicians have chosen to eschew science and cling to climate denial. Scientists and advocates should not stop trying to convince politicians of the importance of combatting climate change, but renewable energy advocates also have a responsibility to find common ground with climate change skeptics. We can all agree that job creation and cheap electricity are a good thing for the U.S. economy, and renewable energy fits that bill.

In sum, 2017 is a year to build on the terrific progress made in the past year, and harness that progress and energy to keep the ball moving. I for one intend to take 2016’s lessons and apply them to help advance renewable energy and combat climate change by aiming high, aiming local, and aiming to please.