By Chris Nelder
Posting in Cities
Energy columnist Chris Nelder outlines how local communities can move ahead on climate solutions and true energy independence now that global climate policy efforts have failed.
The climate movement isn't dead; it's just gone underground.
The United Nations climate summit in Rio de Janeiro ended with participants gnashing their teeth and issuing a long string of condemnations, calling the final report the "longest suicide note in history," "a failure of epic proportions," and "a colossal failure of leadership and vision from diplomats." The inability of world governments to come to any binding agreements after two decades of negotiations, wrote Mark McDonald for the New York Times, "shined the spotlight on global timidity."
Color me unsurprised.
I have long maintained that creating policy around emissions gets the problem backward, by focusing on what comes out of the tailpipe instead of what goes into the engine. We should be incentivizing solutions, not penalizing emissions, because carrots harness human desire and ingenuity, while sticks merely arouse resistance. Further, it makes no sense to simply clamp down on fossil-fuel emissions without replacing the displaced energy. This is why I have advocated a feed-in tariff as the best policy approach, over alternatives like cap-and-trade.
Now that some 50,000 people have flown home in disgust (generating an estimated 300 tons of CO2 in the process) after the Rio summit, perhaps we can put an end to this futile search to get a world of 6.8 billion people to agree on a single target. Perhaps we can finally start focusing our attentions on solutions that work, right now, at home.
The Lancaster example
One story that crossed my desk last week stood out as an excellent example of what we should be doing. Writing for The Fiscal Times, Adam Skolnick described how, under the leadership of mayor R. Rex Parris, the Mojave desert town of Lancaster, California—home of turkey farmers, Frank Zappa, Edwards Air Force Base, and about 157,000 red-blooded suburban middle-class right-wing Americans—is moving toward being the first city in the nation to produce zero net carbon emissions and to be 100 percent powered by renewables.
Their strategy is straightforward.
They started by hosting a few demonstration-scale solar farms, like a five megawatt project by eSolar. Then they contracted with third-party financier SolarCity to install solar systems on several large city buildings, including the city hall and a stadium, a move that will save the city $150,000 a year with no out-of-pocket expenses.
Then they went on to launch the Solar Lancaster program, to offer affordable financing and technical guidance. They also created a city utility so they could sell power directly, and floated a $27 million bond backed by the city sewer system and funded by private equity. Those funds were used to install solar on 26 schools, which now buy their power from the city at fixed rate about 35 percent lower what they used to pay to the regional utility, Southern California Edison.
With the first bond expected to yield $16.8 million over its life, Lancaster is now contemplating a second bond offering to fund a 50 megawatt solar farm on city property, and sell some of the energy to other local municipal utilities.
The solar projects are credited with helping to shave two percent off the city's 17 percent unemployment rate and pulling the city back from the brink of ruin in a punishing recession that has hit that part of California particularly hard.
To enable the explosion of solar and wind farms in the Mojave, another key piece of the infrastructure puzzle is being created through a public-private partnership between Kern County, the cities of Lancaster and Pittsburg, and Critical Path Transmission, a power line provider. The joint High Desert Power Authority intends to build a 40-mile, high voltage underground transmission cable across the Antelope Valley from Edwards AFB to a nearby transmission line. When commissioned in January 2017, the connector will be able to carry 2,000 megawatts of power to residents on the eastern fringe of the Los Angeles megalopolis and pave the way for more renewable power generation in the desert.
To be sure, these projects probably wouldn't be happening without the $0.15 per kWh PBI California state incentive for government projects, and the 30 percent federal investment tax credit for privately-owned projects. But they do show what communities can do, with their own resources, to transition to renewables. And the success of communities like Lancaster may make GOP representatives think twice about party-line opposition to federally subsidized renewable power.
Lancaster's approach is precisely the sort of bottom-up, community approach to transition that I have advocated previously (see "The revolution will be bottom-up" and "Crowdsourcing the energy revolution"). At some point, the city will be able to back new bond offerings with its installed solar capacity. In this way, solar capacity can become self-funding and self-building over time—something that will never be possible with fossil fuels.
Once a town installs a substantial base of renewable power generation, it would be straightforward to run its public transportation on that power. Electric buses, electric light rail, and electric taxis or Zipcars could eventually displace the majority of their liquid fuel consumption at a far lower cost per mile traveled. The vehicles themselves could be likewise funded by a municipal bond, which could be retired fairly quickly, or perhaps by a tax assessment on merchants, like the free Emery Go-Round shuttle service in Emeryville, CA.
In addition to building up local renewable generation capacity, there are many other significant steps that any city can take, with suitable incentives and the cooperation of local businesses, such as:
- Insulate buildings and replace leaky windows.
- Replace fans, pumps, A/C units, dryers, and other energy hogs used in commercial buildings with more efficient versions.
- Replace residential appliances such as refrigerators, washers, and dryers with more efficient ones.
- Replace (or augment) furnaces and A/C units with ground-loop heat pumps wherever practical.
- In the Northeast, replace furnaces that burn heating oil with ones that burn natural gas, and ban the installation of new heating oil furnaces.
- Replace incandescent lamps with LEDs or compact fluorescents.
- Support ridesharing and carsharing programs.
- Support local agriculture, small gardening plots on unused city property, and farmers markets.
- Switch city-owned fleet vehicles to electric or natural gas vehicles.
- Create municipal utility districts to drive the deployment of locally-generated energy.
- Develop local financing options for rooftop PV and residential efficiency upgrades through local banks and credit unions.
- Create biking- and walking-friendly live/work districts in core urban areas, with easy access to public transportation, while tamping down on suburban expansion on the periphery.
- Streamline building and planning permitting and approval processes for renewable projects and building retrofits, with rock-bottom application fees.
In this way, small American towns could make stepwise progress toward freeing themselves from the shackles of oil, simultaneously eliminating much of their carbon emissions and reaping significant savings—revenues that will remain within their communities, rather than disappearing into the pockets of oil companies or the public coffers of Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.
And most of it can be done without top-down leadership from Capitol Hill. Merely maintaining the existing federal incentives is sufficient, although again, a national feed-in tariff would be even better.
What true energy independence looks like
The photo at top, which I shot in the Mojave about 100 miles to the northeast of Lancaster, illustrates the energy transition that is already under way. In the foreground is the old Route 66, the legendary road that once carried millions of Americans from New York to Los Angeles in the freewheeling, cheap oil days of "Happy Motoring." Now it is mostly abandoned, with remnant bits running through nostalgic small towns and serving as occasional strips of frontage road along interstate highways. In the background are the blades of huge wind turbines being staged for deployment at a new wind farm in the Mojave, which is home to eight large-scale solar installations, with more under review. So there you have it, the past and the future in one tidy photo.
This is what true energy independence looks like: Not drilling another 25,000 to 30,000 tight oil wells and another 500,000 shale gas wells domestically to temporarily displace foreign imports, as the oil and gas industry is trying to persuade us to do, but building solar upon solar, wind upon wind, and eliminating our need for fossil fuels permanently, one town at a time, from the bottom up.
We can do this, partisan politics be damned. If all politics is local, as former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously said, then so are the solutions to our energy and climate challenges. We can kill the carbon monster and create real economic productivity at home using free fuel. And if a beleaguered town like Lancaster can aim to be net zero carbon and fully powered by renewables, any town can. We don't need no stinking timid D.C. politicos to get the job done. All it takes it a little vision and local leadership, and a willingness to let go of the crumbling remnants of the past. So if you're a community leader, get Rex Parris on the horn and find out how you too can git 'er done.
Photo by Chris Nelder
Jun 26, 2012
Rex Parris lives in a really, really sunny place. One of the sunniest in the country. If you live in a really sunny place, or a really windy place, than stuffing a good chunk of your fossil fuel consumption is possible. (Although it's not a coincidence that Rex Parris is a red-meat eating type - your local environmental movement can be counted on to oppose any large scale wind or solar project, so you sort of need Texan, get-ir-done types to actually make renewables happen). But most of the country is going to be running huge amounts of gas and oil for the next 20 years, minimum. In other words - if Rex Parris lived in PA or OH ... he'd be 100% behind fracking the shale. Don't let "Mis-direct-Chirs" misdirect you here. Local is good. Local solar in some places, local wind in others, local drilling in even more places. It's energy independence that the population wants, not fossil-fuel-freedom. All the players need to get on the stage to get to energy independence - wind, solar, coal, fracking, all of them. "Naysaying Nelder" thinks N. American energy indepedence is impossible. The hard working citizens of Canada, Mexico, and the USA will prove him wrong. Bank on it.
Here in the Pacific Northwest there's plenty of sun in the summer, but power is needed more for heating than air conditioning. In the winter, when more power is needed, days are short and often cloudy - but there's lots of wind. Wind power needs to be in the mix here.
INSTALL A SOLAR ENERGY SYSTEM YOU MIGHT BE THE ONLY ONE WITH LIGHTS ON. This nation???s electric power grid is something most all of us think will never fail. Larger storms are putting more people without power in the dark every year worldwide. One event not from a storm like the 2003 blackout on the northeast coast of the United States that took place. That event left over 50 million people in the United States and Canada and many from all other nations that were visitors to America in the dark for days. No TV or Radio for many. Many went without water to their second floor or beyond. Many had no running water at all. For the first time electronic banking stopped on the east coast of America. Many will never forget the telephones did not work. Most all transportation came to a halt no traffic lights, and gas stations no electric power to pump the gas pumps. The smell of sewage was everywhere in the inner cities. For the first time millions of Internet Users vanished off the internet till in January of 2011 in Egypt Government Censorship. Now except for a few smart ones that had a backup generator till there fuel ran out. Most of them only think the power would be out for a day or two 24 to 48 hours. A few had enough fuel for longer put not many. Hospitals and Shelters were the only lights on in all the cities up and down the east coast at night. They had Natural Gas Generators or Diesel with large storage tanks. Perhaps the only ones you can call really smart were the ones with a Solar Energy System their lights were a Lighthouse Beacon to all around. Their lights were on every night and the gate and garage door remotes still worked. Now being the director for safety many times in my life i would say the owners of the ones that had a Solar Energy System really did care for their family. There will be many more times the Power Grid will go down be safe not sorry. Renewable Energy is the way to go Wind, Hydro, Geothermal and others. Solar is clearly leading the way worldwide. All should look to install a Emergency Backup Power. GOD Bless The Lord's Little Helper Paul Felix Schott
Great post Chris. As I'm sure you are aware, most people who are interested in politics tend to debate what's going on at a National level, while very few people realise that local politics affects their day to day lives on a much greater scale. There needs to be a big push to get people involved in local politics rather than which particular shade of multi-millionaire they want to see as POTUS. On the education side of things there needs to be a concerted effort to equate renewables with energy independence. One of the biggest cultural myths in the United States is the almost inarguable notion that oil=freedom. If that thinking can be shifted towards renewables then the hard part is already done. A large part of this battle is cultural. I think by taking the promoters of the business as usual approach on directly and taking them to task on their poorly thought out and easily refuted assumptions is a key area where the battle can at the very least begin to be shifted. Thank you very much for your work in this area and your clear headed, pragmatic approach to these serious issues. Keep it up.
Zackers, your information is a bit out of date. Several of the large solar projects in the Mojave area are CSP projects, and BrightSource (among other developers) is planning to add storage capability to some of its CSP plants using molten salts. The storage technology isn't new but its deployment has been slow due to the structure of incentives and financial backers' unfamiliarity with it. That's changing now, and BrightSource is expecting to have three plants with storage operating by 2017. For more information on that, see http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-57333789-54/molten-salt-keeps-solar-power-flowing/ http://www.vpcp.com/sites/all/files/documents/BSE_SCE_PPA_Storage_112811_FINAL.pdf As for grid issues, I'll refer you back to my post on baseload power http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/why-baseload-power-is-doomed/445 and encourage you to read some of the source studies I linked in there. Some existing grids may have trouble accommodating more than 20% from wind right now (and that's a level that none of them have achieved as of yet in the U.S.), but that's a matter of grid management and planning, not a fundamental technology problem. CSP with storage can become a replacement for standby fossil fuelled generation capacity, as can geothermal. Efficiency gains can sharply cut the power provision problem down to a more manageable size. And I do think there will be significant innovations in the storage sector in the coming decade - it's really just getting started. So the problem isn't really technology. Cost is another issue, but all of our options going forward are expensive. Ultimately, technologies that use unlimited, free fuel will be cheaper than those that depend on finite and increasingly expensive fossil fuels. It's just a matter of time. The real challenge is creative financing and incentive structure, and with respect to clean energy and efficiency, it's a rapidly evolving field. You may not be happy with how Boulder went about it, but that doesn't mean there aren't other approaches. Seven years ago there weren't any major third-party solar financing companies, and now there are several of them installing incredible amounts of solar for no customer money out of pocket. SolarCity alone, founded in 2006, is now a $1.5 billion company. Give it time.
While solar is nice (especially when subsidized by the government) you do not address the issue of storage beyond mentioning electric vehicles which have batteries. The problem is that lurking in the background somewhere are conventional power plants burning fossil fuel which provide electricity at night or on cloudy days. The Lancaster area is quite sunny without a lot of cloudy days, but even though the city may be able to export electricity during the days and even become a net electric provider overall, it will still have to rely on conventional fossil fuels at night. At some point it becomes uneconomical to maintain fossil fuel plants which are idle much of the time. With wind (which is often erratic), this point comes when wind is about 20% of the mix. Solar might be able to do a bit better, but eventually will hit the same problem. So while Lancaster may be doing a lot locally, ultimately you have to look at it from a global perspective in order to see all the costs. As for your other points about making buildings more efficient, I live in Boulder, CO, another city which strives towards making itself the first zero carbon city. Over the past few years they have passed ordinances on landlords and businesses which require them to make the kind of upgrades you mentioned. For landlords, this can be as much as $8000 per unit, which gets passed on to renters and negates any saving they get on their electric bills. While *eventually* these upgrades may pay for themselves, financing them is not trivial even though the city, county, and state have programs to mitigate these costs. So far the city has declined to put the same requirement on home owners, since that's where most of the votes are. Even in liberal Boulder there are limits on what amounts to a one-time tax of several thousand dollars.
But local has always been where rhetoric meets reality. Great post. The efficient use of affordable, clean, distributed energy is the future. Anything that is not affordable to the masses, either to generate or save energy, will never gain wide acceptance. Forcing people to pay more is not the answer. Any power source that is not affordable, no matter how clean and beneficial to the world it is, will only expand the reach of poverty with its burdensome cost and create more problems than they can ever claim to solve. The efficient use of energy can be easily affordable. Cleaner power generation at any costs is dangerous with the poverty it will bring.
Regional climate is a huge driver of what technology works in a given area. Installing PV in Seattle might not be the smartest move because it is so cloudy, so often. But a few locations might be good for wind or tidal power. Solar PV is great fit for central Florida with its many sunny days, but the Florida pan handle that can get up to 100 inches of rain a year, much of it accompanied by large hail, making it a bad option. Even south Floridas 40+ inches of annual rain fall makes the numbers hard to work there.
Actually grid storage technology systems are probably further along than most of are aware. We seem to be beyond the basic R&D stage and more into a standardization stage of development. Fortunately, grid storage batteries become more efficient and more economical the bigger they are and don't face the weight and bulk problems that say automobile batteries have. I agree with Chris that the storage problem is coming - perhaps even here in a pilot demonstration sense. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_metal_battery).
...about being "green" or what their carbon footprint might be. It's only after people have moved far enough up the Maslow curve that they actively start to care about such things. Making people "poor" will never be a way to actually improve the environment.
That's precisely why a local approach is best. In the PacNW there is significant untapped potential for distributed micro-hydro (which usually pencils out to be a better investment than either wind or solar where you have a good year-round resource) as well as some wind, but in the longer term, when the technology matures, I would expect various marine energy applications to make a substantial contribution in the Puget Sound and elsewhere along the coast. The PacNW is also ripe for more usage of heat pumps and better insulation and windows.
If grid storage becomes a "solved" problem that would be a wonderful benefit to society. Just don't delude yourself into thinking it would benefit solar or wind exclusively. It is very likely such technology would make all energy sources more competitive with natural gas (which is already cheap). Coal and nuclear would likely benefit more than wind and solar, since these plants are already built, and are already laboring under the restrictions of limited dispatchability. So really, cheap and good grid storage would likely allow coal and nuclear to displace peaker gas plants. It would also pave the way for the greater adoption of wind and solar, but more immediately it would radically alter the way the established, large producers interact. So if grid storage goes mainstream you will likely see many more articles along the lines of "nuclear (or coal) + batteries idles underused peaker plant" than anything else, since that will be the real short-to-medium term impact, at least in terms of total megawatt hours of energy.
The eco warriors are already lined up to kill "marine energy" in the PacNW. Doesn't stand a prayer of making anything other than a token contribution. Heat pumps and better insulation, aye, that's a booming industry here. That and plain old pellet stoves, which is what I did for my tenant. Anything other than electric resistant heat, which is all over the place in these parts.