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How Utilities Are Trying to Slow Down Rooftop Solar

By David Pomerantz

The New York Times reported earlier this month about how utilities around the country, and their trade group the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), have worked to weaken rooftop solar policies in an attempt to stave off the threat to their business model.

The article featured some of Energy and Policy Institute's reporting, including our expose of Brian McCormack, former EEI executive and current Chief of Staff to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, for his role in attacking rooftop solar while at EEI, as well as our uncovering of Florida utilities' deceptive anti-solar ballot initiative in that state last year.


Some important aspects of the story of utilities' efforts did not make it into the Times coverage though:

Upset About EEI? There's a Good Chance You're Funding Them

The Times exposed the central role played by the Edison Electric Institute in driving the utility industry's anti-rooftop solar strategy:

At a January 2016 board meeting of the Edison institute, attended by chief executives of the country's largest utilities, Thomas R. Kuhn, the group's president, counseled against complacency.

"Years, ago, I think a lot of people said, 'That's not going to come to our area,'" he said, according to a recording of his remarks made available by a participant. "And now we see it in each and every state," he said.

"EEI is happy to come to any state at any time," he added. "We have two dozen states we are working on."

If you're angry about EEI, here's some bad news for you: there's a high chance that you're paying the salaries of the trade association's executives.

Our report Paying for Politics detailed how the nation's investor-owned electric utility customers are subsidizing EEI via their bills every month. Investor-owned utilities embed their EEI membership dues into rates, forcing their customers to pay for a policy agenda constructed primarily for the benefit of utilities' shareholders, not their customers. Since most customers have no choice about their utility, there's not much they can do about it.

Despite Efforts, Utilities Cannot Stop Distributed Solar Energy

And here's some better news: The Times story focused on Indiana, where utilities scored a victory when they lobbied to pass a law that would unravel net metering, the policy that dictates how much a utility must pay solar owners for the excess electricity they sell back to the grid. But another state reveals how the utilities' strategy can, and often will, backfire.

In Nevada, utility NV Energy succeeded in 2015 at lobbying regulators to reduce net metering payments. The industry perceived it as a victory that other utilities could learn from—in January 2017, EEI and NV Energy announced that Tony Sanchez, an NV Energy senior vice-president who helped lead the utility's efforts in the net metering debates, was taking on a "key loaned executive" role with EEI.

But while the utility industry celebrated what they thought was a big win for NV Energy, Nevadans became furious at the lost solar jobs and the utility's influence at slowing down the growth of a technology that people from across the political spectrum love. The utility's victory was short-lived. In June 2017, the legislature unanimously passed, and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval signed, a bill to restore the old net metering rates.

Not only that, but last November, the state's voters passed by a large margin a ballot initiative to break up NV Energy's monopoly entirely—political observers in the state perceive the amendment's success in part as a referendum on NV Energy's unpopularity in the wake of the company's attacks on solar.

The Nevada story should serve as a warning for utilities: In places where they try to attack popular pro-solar policies, a popular backlash risks weakening their political capital with regulators and legislators.

In the long run, utilities have even bigger problems than their political fortunes. Even where they win short-term victories on policies like net metering, the combination of rooftop solar panels plus batteries, which are getting cheaper faster than anyone expected, will enable more and more customers to buy less and less electricity from their utilities. Dave Roberts of Vox recently authored a piece on the topic aptly headlined: Utilities fighting against rooftop solar are only hastening their own doom.

As Roberts writes, quoting a recent McKinsey study:

"In a low-cost storage environment," McKinsey writes, the rate structures utilities are monkeying around with "are unlikely to be effective at mitigating load losses." In other words, customers are still going to keep generating more of their own power.

The Times piece was important to expose how utilities are coming after solar. But it's worth remembering that in the long run, they won't stop distributed renewable energy, and will be better served learning to co-exist with it than to keep fighting it.

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Kevin Vallely

'Rowing the Northwest Passage' Chronicles An Expedition Through the Changing North

By Kevin Vallely

In 2013 four adventurers set out on an 80-day rowboat mission through the Arctic's rapidly melting Northwest Passage. Their journey brought them face to face with the changing seas in a world of climate change. In this excerpt from adventurer Kevin Vallely's new book about the expedition, Rowing the Northwest Passage (Greystone Books), we also see how climate change has affected some of the people the team met along their journey:

An elderly woman walks toward us from the road. Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories, is a sizable town by Arctic standards, with a full-time population of 954, but it's small enough that the bulk of the town likely knows we're here. The woman is smiling when she reaches us.

"I saw you coming in," she says. "Where you guys come from?" "We're from Vancouver," I say, my mouth still half full of food. "We started our trip in Inuvik nine days ago." Her name is Eileen Jacobsen and she's an Elder in town. She and her husband, Billy, run a sightseeing business. "You should come up to the house in the morning and have some coffee," she tells us.

Our night's sleep in the Arctic Joule is fitful; our overindulgence runs through all of us like a thunderstorm. By seven in the morning, even with both hatches open, lighting a match in the cabin would blow us out like dirt from that Siberian crater. The roar of the Jetboil pulls me out. Frank's already up, down jacket on, preparing coffee. "You like a cup?"

It's still too early to drop by Eileen Jacobsen's house, so we walk into town on the dusty main road, our ears assaulted by a cacophony of barking dogs. Dirt is the surface of choice for roads and runways in Arctic communities, as any inflexible surface like concrete would be shredded by the annual freeze–thaw cycle. Most of the town runs the length of a thin finger of land, with the ocean on one side and a protected bay on the other. About halfway down the peninsula, a cluster of wooden crosses rests in a high grass clearing, facing west. We heard about this graveyard in Inuvik. Because of melting permafrost and wave action, it's eroding into the sea, and community members have lined the shore with large rocks to forestall its demise. This entire peninsula will face this threat in the coming years. There's not much land here to hold back a hungry ocean.

We notice an elderly man in a blue winter jacket staring at us a short distance away. He's sitting outside a small wooden house and smiles as we approach. "You guys must be the rowers," he says. "Too windy to be out rowing." His jacket hood is pulled tight over his ball cap and he dons a pair of wraparound shades with yellow lenses that would better suit a racing cyclist than a village Elder. His name is Fred Wolki, and he's lived in Tuk for the last fifty years. "I grew up on my father's boat until they sent me to school in 1944, then I came here."

His father, Jim Wolki, is a well-known fox trapper who transported his pelts from Banks Island to Herschel Island aboard his ship the North Star of Herschel Island. Interestingly, we had the Arctic Joule moored right beside the North Star at the Vancouver Maritime Museum before we left. Built in San Francisco in 1935, the North Star plied the waters of the Beaufort Sea for over thirty years, her presence in Arctic waters playing an important role in bolstering Canadian Arctic sovereignty through the Cold War.

"We're curious if things have changed much here since you were a boy," Frank says.

"Well … it's getting warmer now," Fred says, shaking his head. He gestures out to the water speaking slowly and pausing for long moments between thoughts. "Right up to the 1960s … there was old ice along the coast … The ice barely moved … It was grounded along the coastline." He looks out over the shoreline, moving his arm back and forth. "They started to fade away slowly in the 1960s … icebergs … They were huge, like big islands … They were so high, like the land at the dew Line station … over there." He points to the radar dome of the long decommissioned Distant Early Warning Line station that sits on a rise of land just east of us. "It's been twenty years since we've seen one in Tuk." There's no sentimentality or anger in Fred's voice; he's just telling us his story. "It's getting warmer now … Global warming is starting to take its toll … All the permafrost is starting to melt … Water is starting to eat away our land."

I listen to his words, amazed. There's no agenda here, no vested interest, no job creation or moneymaking—just an elderly man bearing witness to his changing world.

Excerpted from Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea by Kevin Vallely, published September 2017 by Greystone Books. Condensed and reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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Hundreds Dead in Mexico After Earthquake Strikes on Anniversary of Devastating 1985 Quake

In Mexico, a massive 7.1-magnitude quake struck 100 miles southeast of Mexico City Tuesday, collapsing dozens of buildings around the capital city and trapping schoolchildren, workers and residents beneath the rubble.

At least 217 people are dead, and hundreds more are missing. Among the dead are least 21 students at a primary school in Mexico City and 15 worshipers who died during a Catholic mass when the earthquake triggered an eruption at a volcano southeast of the city.

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Fourth St. sign under water in San Francisco. Scott Schiller/Flickr

San Francisco Becomes First Major U.S. City to Sue Fossil Fuel Industry Over Costs of Climate Change

San Francisco and Oakland are suing Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell—the five biggest investor-owned fossil fuel producers in the world—over the costs of climate change.

The two Californian cities join the counties of Marin, San Mateo and San Diego and the city of Imperial Beach that have taken similar legal action in recent months, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

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Climate Alliance States Show Us What Real Leadership Looks Like

By Luis Martinez and Kit Kennedy

In a forceful show of climate leadership, Governors Andrew Cuomo (NY), Jerry Brown (CA), and Jay Inslee (WA) and former Secretary of State John Kerry came together in New York City Wednesday as part of Climate Week to celebrate the progress and growth of the U.S. Climate Alliance, the bipartisan coalition that has grown to 14 states dedicated to meeting the Paris agreement climate goal. The coalition was founded by Cuomo, Brown and Inslee after President Trump announced the U.S. intent to withdraw from Paris.

President Trump may prefer to pretend that climate change isn't real—Gov. Cuomo quipped that the Trump administration is in "the State of Denial"—but these leaders detailed the extraordinary strides they're making, in the absence of White House leadership, to slash greenhouse gas emissions and grow their economies at the same time. For New Yorkers, it's exciting to see Cuomo's leadership on clean energy and climate continue to accelerate, from setting strong renewable energy goals, to a successful push with other Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative states to further slash carbon emissions, to banning fracking.

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Hurricane Maria Devastates Puerto Rico

By Andy Rowell

As new Hurricane Maria brings devastation to Puerto Rico, the governor of the island, Ricardo Rossello, has asked Donald Trump to declare the U.S. territory a disaster zone.

He has said that Maria could be the most damaging hurricane to hit the country in more than 100 years.

With maximum recorded wind speeds of 140 mph and rainfall of up to 25 inches or even higher, Mike Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist from the U.S. National Hurricane Center has also warned locals of flash-flooding and "punishing" rainfall. He added that the storm would remain "very dangerous" for the next couple of days.

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Nicaragua to Sign Paris Agreement, Leaving Trump Alone With Syria

When President Donald Trump decided to pull out of the Paris climate agreement in June, the United States joined the only two countries of the 197 nations in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that declined to sign the 2015 accord: Syria, which has been embroiled in a full-scale civil war for six years; and Nicaragua, as its leaders felt the pact was not strong enough to fight climate change.

But now, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said his country will sign the agreement "soon," Managua-based TV station 100% Noticias reports.

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14 States On Track to Meet Paris Targets

Fourteen states and Puerto Rico are on track to meet and potentially exceed their portion of the U.S. commitment under the Paris agreement.

The report shows that the member states of the U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA), which has grown to represent 36 percent of the U.S. population and more than $7 trillion of America's GDP, are collectively on track to reach a 24 to 29 percent reduction below 2005 emissions levels by 2025.

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Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Awards $20M in Largest-Ever Portfolio of Environmental Grants

Environmental activist and Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio announced that his foundation has awarded $20 million to more than 100 organizations supporting environmental causes.

This is the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation's (LDF) largest-ever portfolio of environmental grants to date. The organization has now offered more than $80 million in total direct financial impact since its founding in 1998.

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