100% Clean Energy Economy Is Much Closer Than You Think
Imagine: Your workday is done and when you walk to the parking lot, the first thing you do is unplug your vehicle from the office building where it's been soaking up electricity from rooftop solar panels all day. You hit the road and, as usual, there are no delays. With all the cars networked together, traffic moves seamlessly, like a flock of birds, using as little energy as possible. On the ride home, you switch to autopilot so you can check your phone to see how your house has been performing.
The rooftop panels there have also been cranking all day, but a lot of their power has gone to the grid, so the home battery isn't fully charged. No worries—the vehicle battery can top it off later. You activate your home air-conditioning, which has been in sleep mode while you were out and, with a swipe of a screen, begin preheating the oven. You look up as you round the bend: There are windmills spinning on the ridgeline.
Is this scenario science fiction? Not as much as you might think. "The future has already arrived," the writer William Gibson once said. "It's just not evenly distributed yet." The same is true of America's impending low-carbon future.
Rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses. Batteries that can power smart, energy-efficient homes. Electric cars and self-driving vehicles. These emerging technologies are with us now. But they're scattered and not yet at scale and they remain pricey in some cases, all of which can make them difficult to see.
The clean energy economy is poorly distributed, in part, because of the political stalemate in Washington, DC, where climate change remains a highly polarized issue. But outside of DC, local leaders from across the political spectrum are preparing for a low-carbon future. Businesses are also joining the effort. Hyper-efficient, clean energy technologies are attracting major investment—at least $310 billion globally in investor capital in 2014, a fivefold increase from a decade earlier—evidence that you don't have to be an environmentalist to believe that the greening of the U.S. is a profitable business opportunity.
"Local solutions are where the real opportunity lies and where the innovation is happening," said Tyler Nickerson of the Solutions Project, a nonprofit cofounded by Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University scientist whose work has helped guide state and local climate plans. "States can do a great deal and cities can do a lot," Jacobson said.
Jacobson has developed a blueprint that shows how the U.S. and the rest of the world can eliminate fossil fuels and transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. His plan for the U.S. relies on solar, wind and water to generate all the electricity we need. Fully electrified systems for transportation, heating and cooling and industrial energy use will make other fuels obsolete.
Does that sound ambitious? It is. And—here's the beauty—it's also achievable. Already, a handful of small cities—Burlington, Vermont; Aspen, Colorado; and Greensburg, Kansas—get all their electricity from renewable energy. Another 12 communities—from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Georgetown, Texas—have pledged to do so. Earlier this year, the Sierra Club launched its Ready for 100 campaign, which aims to enlist more cities to make a 100 percent clean energy commitment.
So far, the biggest city to set a 100 percent clean energy goal is San Diego. The move by the country's eighth most populous city is precedent setting. For starters, its climate action plan is legally binding, not just a vaguely worded proclamation. Also, the effort was bipartisan and gained the support of the Republican mayor, Kevin Faulconer and the Democratic city council. Even San Diego Gas & Electric, the local utility company, agreed—albeit reluctantly and at the last minute—not to oppose the plan.
In his 2016 State of the City address, Mayor Faulconer cited the climate action plan as one of his proudest accomplishments: "Business groups. Environmentalists. Democrats. Republicans. SDG&E, an industry leader on renewable energy. We brought them all to the table and united around a common-sense plan for a greener and more prosperous future." Faulconer said the plan will create new jobs in the renewable energy industry, improve public health and air quality, conserve water and save the government money.
San Diego is a potent symbol of the energy transition because it is emblematic of our automobile-centric landscapes. Thanks to their higher population densities, older cities such as New York and Chicago are much greener than newer cities in the South and West, suburbs and rural areas. The average carbon footprint of households living in big, dense cities is about 50 percent below the U.S. average.
In comparison, San Diego's 1.4 million people sprawl across some 370 square miles from the Pacific coast to the inland deserts. The place represents the challenges and the opportunities, of making the suburbs sustainable—a crucial goal, given that half of all Americans say they live in suburbia. Suburbs—or suburb-like cities such as San Diego, Phoenix and San Antonio—pose a tough task. Huge single-family homes, gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles, long commutes, clogged thoroughfares, strip malls, parking lots and wide expanses of lawn that soak up water and fertilizer: The combination is awful for the planet. To reach the 100 percent clean energy goal, suburbs are going to have to change—and they already are.
"San Diego is a big, spread-out city with a lot of residential neighborhoods and low buildings," said Jodie Van Horn, who directs the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign. "It's got a lot of rooftops to fill. So the implementation of 100 percent clean energy with a big emphasis on solar has a lot of potential there and we hope San Diego will inspire other cities to follow suit."
If you look closely, you can glimpse the beginnings of tomorrow's low-carbon suburbs.
Nearly 40 years after President Jimmy Carter installed an array of bulky solar panels on the White House roof, solar technology is experiencing a breakthrough moment. Rooftop photovoltaic solar is booming and in the first three quarters of 2015, the solar industry represented about 30 percent of all new electricity-generating capacity in the U.S.
San Mateo, California-based SolarCity, the nation's leading rooftop installer, has operations in 27 states, employs more than 15,000 people and has 300,000 customers and it's just getting started, said Lyndon Rive, the CEO. "Homes are going to be providing energy to themselves and also to their neighbors and to their communities, perhaps even in the next zip code," Rive said.
As part of Jacobson's plan for a zero-carbon America, electricity will still be produced at big, centralized facilities—hydropower in the Pacific Northwest, concentrated solar in the Southwest and Florida, wind farms in Texas and the Great Plains, offshore wind in the Northeast. But a significant slice of energy generation (about 40 percent of the nation's needs) will shift to the rooftops of homes and businesses or to utility-scale photovoltaic solar installations.
This shift toward decentralization is already under way. Just as mainframe computers have given way to desktops and laptops and landlines are being replaced by mobile phones, distributed solar is poised to replace power plants that burn fossil fuels. Environmental advocates and some policy experts say that using existing buildings to generate electricity is more efficient and has fewer effects on open spaces (compared with utility-scale solar operations, some of which have proved controversial).
Lower prices are a significant factor driving the growth, along with the option to lease rather than buy panels, which eliminates up-front costs of $15,000 or more. A Deutsche Bank analysis of the solar industry predicted that rooftop solar will be the lowest-cost electricity option for most people in the U.S. by the end of 2016, particularly if utilities continue to raise electricity prices. Most homeowners say that saving money is a big reason why they go solar.
Shifts in public policy are helping to drive rooftop solar's success. For example, San Diego's 100 percent clean energy plan relies on a bold idea known as community choice aggregation or CCA. Under such a system, decision-making about electricity generation (which has always been left up to the utilities) is done by city officials, who set the electricity rates and decide where the power will come from, while the utility continues to operate the transmission lines and manage the electrical grid. The elected officials can be held accountable to voters—who, presumably, prefer clean energy to dirty fossil fuels.
CCAs already provide green power in Sonoma and Marin Counties in California as well as in Cleveland, Ohio and Lowell, Massachusetts. More than 2.4 million customers across the U.S. get their energy from CCAs. "We needed a mechanism to break away from the utility," said Nicole Capretz, an environmental advocate who helped write San Diego's plan and now leads the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign. Unlike an investor-owned utility, the CCA will be "mission driven and nonprofit," she said, meaning it will prioritize investments in renewable energy.
There is one obvious challenge to this bright future: A heavy reliance on solar power means that electricity has to be stored somewhere for cloudy days and for use at night. Building better batteries could transform how we produce energy. Cheaper and more powerful batteries will go a long way toward liberating homes from the need to use fossil fuel power from the grid. Homeowners will become energy producers and managers as well as consumers.
That, at least, is the vision of Enphase Energy, a California firm that has begun to sell what it calls a Home Energy Solution, which integrates solar panels, batteries, a smart thermostat and a software platform that enables homeowners to remotely monitor and manage their energy use. "In the long run, everything moves to a distributed architecture," said Raghu Belur, the company's cofounder and director of strategy. "More and more intelligence gets pushed to the periphery of the network."
Tesla, too, has entered the home energy storage market. The company says it will invest $2 billion by 2020 in what it calls a "Gigafactory" near Sparks, Nevada, to produce batteries for its electric cars and for homes. Last fall, the company began selling its seven-kilowatt-hour Powerwall home battery, a unit with enough capacity, the company says, to power homes during the night with energy collected by day. Some experts believe that suburban rooftops will eventually generate so much electricity that they will send the surplus to cities via the batteries of electric vehicles.
Putting solar panels on the roof of a home makes little sense if the electricity is wasted. Fortunately, American homes are becoming much more energy efficient. The average U.S. home today uses 31 percent less energy per square foot than it did in 1970. Unfortunately, homes have also grown 28 percent bigger since then, wiping out most of those gains. If we're going to reach the 100 percent goal, we'll have to break our appetite for super-size dwellings. Some home builders have already gotten the message. One example is Maple Lawn, a planned community midway between Washington, DC and Baltimore. In the last decade, developers have built about 900 homes in the community, which also includes offices, restaurants, retail stores and medical services. Big lawns are rare. Instead, people gather in shared playgrounds and pocket parks.
The newest homes in the development stand out for their efficiency. They rely on geothermal energy systems, which use steady underground temperatures to provide lower-cost heating and cooling and they are wired for solar. The homes score a rating of just 21 on the Home Energy Rating System index, a way of calculating energy performance. In comparison, a standard new home generally gets a rating of about 100, while older homes are rated as high as 150. The ultimate goal? Get homes to zero, which means the buildings produce as much energy as they use.
Ensuring that these pockets of innovation are evenly distributed among all communities won't be easy. For now, many clean energy technologies remain prohibitively expensive for too many U.S. residents. But on this front, too, there are signs of progress. One residential rooftop solar company that operates in the Northeast and Louisiana, PosiGen, has cracked the code on leasing panels to lower-income families while still turning a profit. In Minnesota, where many utilities are organized as local cooperatives, community solar gardens offer residents a chance to buy a green energy "subscription" and tap into clean energy produced by medium-scale plants located in their area. As these and similar companies grow in size, they will be generating local jobs along with clean energy.
Engineers and entrepreneurs can do their part to ensure that the clean energy economy benefits everyone. But ultimately, political organizing and policy reform will be needed to drive change. Near the top of the list is ensuring that polluters have to pay for dumping carbon into the atmosphere. The rooftop solar panels, the smart homes, the highly efficient batteries and the electric vehicles—all of them will spread more rapidly to the mainstream once there's a price to be paid for emitting greenhouse gases.
"The most important thing we need is a price on carbon," SolarCity's Rive said. "Right now, fossil fuels get to pollute for free." But the Republicans who control Congress are loath to tax or regulate greenhouse gases—which is exactly why the local leadership and homegrown solutions are so important. They are laying the foundation for a future that remains in the near distance, at least for now.
But history offers a consolation of sorts. More often than not, social change comes with unlikely speed and from unexpected directions. If people can be persuaded that a clean energy economy means more jobs, less pollution, better health and, ultimately, a more attractive way of life, the transition could happen more quickly than expected. And the unglamorous work of, say, reforming utility regulations will, in hindsight, look like a no-brainer.
"True leadership means setting an ambitious goal and then working toward it, even if you don't know today how exactly you're going to get there," Van Horn said. "The technology's here. The economics are here. The only thing missing is the political will."
This article was funded by the Ready for 100 campaign.
A pygmy rabbit rescued from a breeding site in Beezley Hills, Washington, eats owl clover in its new enclosure. Kourtney Stonehouse, WDFW
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
- Climate Activists Prepare for November Election - EcoWatch ›
- The Next Election Is About the Next 10,000 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›
- Climate Crisis Could Change Permafrost Soil Microbes, With ... ›
- Zombie Fires Could Be Awakening in the Arctic - EcoWatch ›
- The Arctic Is on Fire and Warming Twice as Fast as the Rest of the ... ›
By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
- Mutant Enzyme Recycles Plastic in Hours, Could Revolutionize ... ›
- Scientists Find Bacteria That Eats Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Plastics: The History of an Ecological Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Scientists Accidentally Develop 'Mutant' Enzyme That Eats Plastic ... ›