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Once finished, the 70-megawatt system will be the largest in the world by far; the current record-holder is the comparatively shrimpy 11.5-megawatt array in India that can power 8,000 homes.
Solar energy panels and wind turbines in Shanghai, China. Chinaface / Getty Images
Facebook announced Tuesday it will slash greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent and transition global operations to 100 percent renewable energy by the end of 2020 in efforts to "help fight climate change."
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The world's most iconic skylines are going green. Nineteen city leaders from the C40 coalition signed the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration on Thursday to ensure all new buildings operate with a neutral carbon footprint by 2030.
The mayors of Copenhagen, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York City, Newburyport, Paris, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica, Stockholm, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, Tshwane, Vancouver and Washington, DC also pledged to ensure all buildings in the cities—old or new—will meet net-zero carbon standards by 2050, according to a press release. The cities are home to 130 million people combined.
By Harvey Wasserman and Tim Judson
Elon Musk's SolarCity is completing the construction of its "Buffalo Billion" Gigafactory for photovoltaic (PV) cells near the Niagara River in Buffalo, New York. It will soon put 500 New Yorkers to work inside the 1.2 million-square-foot facility with another 700 nearby, ramping up to nearly 3,000 over the next few years.
At the grand opening of Tesla's enormous Gigafactory in July, CEO Elon Musk said he wants to build Gigafactories on several continents. He told BBC he wanted a factory "in Europe, in India, in China ... ultimately, wherever there is a huge amount of demand for the end product."
Well, it looks like Musk's factory-building plans are well underway.
The company said in its fourth-quarter investor letter on Wednesday that it is considering building up to five Gigafactories.
The letter states:
"Installation of Model 3 manufacturing equipment is underway in Fremont and at Gigafactory 1, where in January, we began production of battery cells for energy storage products, which have the same form-factor as the cells that will be used in Model 3. Later this year, we expect to finalize locations for Gigafactories 3, 4 and possibly 5 (Gigafactory 2 is the Tesla solar plant in New York)."
Tesla officially flicked on Gigafactory 1's switch in January. The factory produces lithium-ion battery cells for Tesla's suite of battery storage products, the Powerwall 2 and Powerpack 2, as well as the company's mass-market electric car, the Model 3.
Gigafactory 1 is currently being built in phases so that the company and its partners can manufacture products while the building continues to expand. Construction is expected for completion by 2018, at which point the plant could claim the title of world's largest building by footprint.
The company also plans for the building to achieve net zero energy. Tesla co-founder and chief technical officer JB Straubel once explained why Tesla wanted Gigafactory operations to be completely carbon neutral:
"The Gigafactory is maybe the best example we can talk about with this. You know, from the get-go, from the first concept of this factory, we wanted to make it a net-zero facility. So, you know, the most visible thing we are doing is covering the entire site with solar power. The whole roof of the Gigafactory was designed from the beginning with solar in mind. We kept all of the mechanical equipment off the roof. We didn't put extra, sorta, penetrations through the roof that we didn't need to and it's a very, very clean surface that we can completely cover in solar. But that's not enough solar, though. So we have also gone to the surrounding hillsides that we can't use for other functions and we're adding solar to those."
According to Straubel, the Gigafactory isn't even hooked up to any natural gas pipelines:
"The other interesting thing is we wanted to manage the emissions from the Gigafactory. Solar power can do some of that, but we took kind of a radical move in the beginning and said we are not going to burn any fossil fuels in the factory. You know, zero emissions. We are going to build a zero-emissions factory—just like the car. So, instead of kind of fighting this battle in hindsight, we just said we are not even going to have a natural gas pipeline coming to the factory, so we didn't even build it. And it kind of forced the issue. When you don't have natural gas, you know, none of the engineers can say, 'Oh, but it will be more efficient, let me use just a little bit.' Sorry, we don't even have it."
In December, Tesla and Panasonic launched operations at its Buffalo, New York plant, now dubbed Gigafactory 2. The factory manufactures high-efficiency photovoltaic cells and modules for solar panels and solar glass tiles for Tesla's highly anticipated solar roof.
Tesla's factories are all part of the company's mission to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.
In last year's climate change documentary Before The Flood, Musk takes Leonardo DiCaprio on a tour of Tesla's massive Gigafactory in Nevada. During their chat, the Tesla CEO tells the actor and famed environmentalist that it would only take 100 Gigafactories to transition "the whole world" to sustainable energy.
With at least five Gigafactories in the books, looks like Musk's plans are slowly becoming reality. For what it's worth, even DiCaprio said building one-hundred Gigafactories "sounds manageable."
By Rory Christian and Larissa Koehler
Electric vehicles (EVs) don't make much noise on the road, but they're generating a lot of buzz about the future of this technology and what it means for business and the environment.
Cars, buses and trucks are the second biggest source of pollution in the U.S. after electricity production. They are responsible for more than 26 percent of emissions that adversely affect the health and well-being of the population, and put communities located close to highways and other major thoroughfares at risk. These communities, typically low-income, are often plagued by elevated asthma rates and other pollution-induced health conditions.
That future is rising in Buffalo, and comes in the form of Tesla's massive job-producing solar shingle factory which will create hundreds of jobs and operate for decades to come.
A rendering of the completed Sparks, Nevada Tesla Gigafactory which will be topped by rooftop solar panels. The massive battery plant had its grand opening on July 29.Tesla Motors
Musk gave journalists a tour inside the company's massive Gigafactory Tuesday at it's grand opening celebration. The unflagging Tesla CEO told
BCC he wanted a factory "in Europe, in India, in China ... ultimately, wherever there is a huge amount of demand for the end product."
Indeed, demand is high for Tesla's products—the company received nearly 400,000 pre-orders for its highly anticipated $35,000 Model 3 sedan.
The Gigafactory will manufacture lithium-ion batteries for Tesla's electric cars and Powerwall products that store solar energy for homes and businesses.
To make its products, Tesla currently imports batteries from Japanese electronics company Panasonic. In order to meet Tesla's ambitious aim of producing 500,000 cars a year, it partnered with Panasonic to build the $5 billion Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada to make the batteries locally to speed up production and slash costs. By manufacturing the battery cells onsite, Musk said Tesla will be able to innovate faster and cut out about 30 percent of the cost, according to BBC.
"Where the shipping costs start to become significant, the obvious way to combat that is to at least put a Gigafactory on the same continent," Musk said.
The Associated Press reported that the Gigafactory is only 14 percent built after two years of construction. The original projected completion date for the massive project was 2020 but Musk is ramping up construction. Around 1,000 people are working seven days a week on two shifts so the factory can start producing batteries before the end of the year, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada is only 14 percent built after two years of construction.Tesla Motors
Once construction is complete, the Gigafactory will be about
three-fourths a mile long at an enormous 10 million square feet—the size of 262 NFL football fields. Musk noted that the factory could eventually employ 10,000 people in the next three to four years.
Not only will the Gigafactory be the world's largest building by footprint when construction finishes, it will be powered 100 percent by renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal, and will feature energy-storage technology. The company also plans for the building to achieve net zero energy.
Musk tweeted that the building will recycle old batteries—which will be highly necessary as Tesla aims to nearly double the world's production of lithium-ion batteries.
Tesla wants the Gigafactory to be a global powerhouse. As the Associated Press described of the company's goals:
Tesla says the factory will be producing 35 gigawatt hours of batteries by 2018. That's the equivalent to the entire world's production in 2014. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said the factory has the capacity to produce 150 gigawatt hours if it needs to. To put that in context, New York City uses around 52 gigawatt hours of energy per year.
- Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
- Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
- Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
- Enable your car to make money for you when you aren't using it
"Given that we must get off fossil fuels anyway and that virtually all scientists agree that dramatically increasing atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels is insane, the faster we achieve sustainability, the better," Musk wrote.
The farm includes nearly 300 Tesla Powerpack batteries, which provide 52 MWh of capacity and will allow the farm to sell stored power during the evening. The company estimated that the farm will offset 1.6 million gallons of fossil fuel usage per year in the state, which relies heavily on oil-fired power plants and has some of the highest electric rates in the country.
According to The Verge:
It's the first major solar-plus-storage project for Tesla since its $2.6 billion acquisition of SolarCity last year, and Tesla said in a statement that it "will work with energy providers around the world seeking to overcome barriers in the way of building a sustainable, renewable energy grid of their own."
Stationary storage is "something I think will probably be as big as the car business long term," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during a tour of the Gigafactory last year. "And will actually have a growth rate probably several times that of what the car business is per year. The growth in stationary storage is really under appreciated. That's a super-exponential growth rate."
For a deeper dive:
Tesla boss and prolific tweeter Elon Musk has made an audacious bet to solve South Australia's energy woes by building a 100-megawatt battery storage farm. If the system is not operational in 100 days, the AUD$33 million (USD$25 million) technology will be provided for free.
It all started on Thursday when Atlassian CEO and Australian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes tweeted an article to Musk that cited a similar offer from Lyndon Rive, who heads Tesla's battery division.
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Tesla Motors announced it has bought solar panel installer SolarCity for $2.6 billion in shares to create a seamless clean energy company. Or as Reuters puts it, consumers will now be allowed to buy solar panels, home battery storage systems and electric cars under one roof.
Tesla and SolarCity have created the world's first and only vertically integrated sustainable energy company.
Bloomberg tweeted that announcement was the "solar industry's biggest deal to date."
Tesla touted the merger in a blog post:
Just over a month ago, Tesla made a proposal to purchase SolarCity and today we are announcing that the two companies have reached an agreement to combine, creating the world's only vertically integrated sustainable energy company.
Solar and storage are at their best when they're combined. As one company, Tesla (storage) and SolarCity (solar) can create fully integrated residential, commercial and grid-scale products that improve the way that energy is generated, stored and consumed.
The enigmatic businessman perhaps poked fun at the historic vertical integration of the two companies in a classic Musk tweet:
According to MarketWatch, "SolarCity stockholders will receive 0.11 shares of Tesla for each SolarCity share, valuing them at $25.83 apiece."
"No kidding," he added. "This has literally been on our website for 10 years."
"We can't do this well if Tesla and SolarCity are different companies, which is why we need to combine and break down the barriers inherent to being separate companies," Musk continued. "That they are separate at all, despite similar origins and pursuit of the same overarching goal of sustainable energy, is largely an accident of history. Now that Tesla is ready to scale Powerwall and SolarCity is ready to provide highly differentiated solar, the time has come to bring them together."
Tesla first announced the offer last month at a slightly higher price of $2.8 billion.
Musk stressed the importance of curbing use of dirty energy as quickly as possible. "Given that we must get off fossil fuels anyway and that virtually all scientists agree that dramatically increasing atmospheric and oceanic carbon levels is insane, the faster we achieve sustainability, the better," he wrote.
Tesla said it expects that the merger will save customers money by lowering hardware costs, reducing installation costs, improve manufacturing efficiency and reducing customer acquisition costs.
The deal will now go to Tesla and SolarCity shareholders for approval. Musk, who is chairman of SolarCity and the largest investor in both companies has recused himself from the vote.
Last week, Tesla held a grand opening celebration of its massive Gigafactory outside Reno, Nevada.
The Gigafactory, which will be the world's largest building by footprint once construction is complete, will manufacture lithium-ion batteries for Tesla's electric cars and Powerwall products that store solar energy for homes and businesses.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk isn't just building the biggest battery factory in the world. When construction of his $5 billion Tesla Gigafactory is complete, the facility will be astoundingly clean and energy efficient.
Tesla had already announced that Gigafactory operations will be powered by renewable energy sources, with the goal of achieving net zero energy, meaning it generates and stores as much renewable energy as it needs to run the facility. However, not much has been said about how exactly the company was going to meet this ambitious goal, until now.
As reported by CleanTechnica (thanks to tipster Renaud Janson), Tesla’s Co-founder and Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel elaborated last week on the Gigafactory's net zero plans during a talk at the University of Nevada, Reno:
The Gigafactory is maybe the best example we can talk about with this. You know, from the get-go, from the first concept of this factory, we wanted to make it a net-zero facility. So, you know, the most visible thing we are doing is covering the entire site with solar power. The whole roof of the Gigafactory was designed from the beginning with solar in mind. We kept all of the mechanical equipment off the roof. We didn’t put extra, sorta, penetrations through the roof that we didn’t need to and it’s a very, very clean surface that we can completely cover in solar. But that’s not enough solar, though. So we have also gone to the surrounding hillsides that we can’t use for other functions and we’re adding solar to those.
Tesla wants operations to be completely carbon neutral, or have zero emissions just like the company's namesake electric vehicle. According to Straubel, the Gigafactory isn't even hooked up to gas:
The other interesting thing is we wanted to manage the emissions from the Gigafactory. Solar power can do some of that, but we took kind of a radical move in the beginning and said we are not going to burn any fossil fuels in the factory. You know, zero emissions. We are going to build a zero-emissions factory—just like the car. So, instead of kind of fighting this battle in hindsight, we just said we are not even going to have a natural gas pipeline coming to the factory, so we didn’t even build it. And it kind of forced the issue. When you don’t have natural gas, you know, none of the engineers can say, “Oh, but it will be more efficient, let me use just a little bit.” Sorry, we don’t even have it.
So it’s kind of been a fun activity and just, a lot of challenges that come up. But in every single step of the process, we have been able to reinvent and come up with solutions. There’s a heat pump technology that actually ends up way more efficient than just burning natural gas for steam. And then, we have a facility that has basically no emissions. The only emissions are related to the vehicles that might go there that aren’t electric or things like that. But we’ll try to attack that one piece at a time.
The Gigafactory broke ground in June 2014 in Nevada and will be at full capacity by 2020. It will produce more lithium ion batteries annually than were produced worldwide in 2013, the company says.
Tesla's Gigafactory will produce batteries for both its high-end electric cars as well as for homes, businesses and utilities, with its Powerwall suite of batteries (which have already been sold out through 2016). Solar supplier and sister company SolarCity is also incorporating Tesla batteries for residential solar installations.
Musk isn’t shy about wanting to wean the world off of fossil fuels through renewable energy and energy storage.
“Our goal here is to fundamentally change the way the world uses energy,” Musk said. “We’re talking at the terawatt scale. The goal is complete transformation of the entire energy infrastructure of the world.”
Watch Straubel's speech (he comes in at 9:57 and explains the Gigafactory's energy plans around an hour in) in the video below:
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By Leo Hickman
The Oscar-winning actor and environmentalist has spent the past three years asking a wide variety of people around the world about climate change. His collection of interviews in the film—ranging from President Obama and the Pope through to Elon Musk and Piers Sellars—cover the science, impacts, vested interests, politics and possible solutions.
Leonardo DiCaprio visits the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Space Flight Center to discuss Earth science with Piers Sellers.NASA / Goddard/ Rebecca Roth
Carbon Brief was invited to the European premiere of Before the Flood last weekend. Before the screening in London began, DiCaprio took to the stage to introduce the film. He said:
"Before The Flood is the product of an incredible three-year journey that took place with my co-creator and director Fisher Stevens. We went to every corner of the globe to document the devastating impacts of climate change and questioned humanity's ability to reverse what maybe the most catastrophic problem mankind has ever faced. There was a lot to take on. All that we witnessed on this journey shows us that our world's climate is incredibly interconnected and that it is at urgent breaking point.
"I've been incredibly moved by so many climate change documentaries in the past, but I never felt that I saw one that articulated the science clearly to the public. I think people grasp it, but it seems something distant, far off, intangible and almost otherworldly. An individual doesn't feel like they can make an impact. The journey for me was to try and make a modern-day film about climate change. I've been studying this issue for the past 15 years, I've been watching it very closely. What's incredibly terrifying is that things are happening way ahead of the scientific projections, 15 or 20 years ago.
"We wanted to create a film that gave people a sense of urgency, that made them understand what particular things are going to solve this problem. We bring up the issue of a carbon tax, for example, which I haven't seen in a lot of documentaries. Basically, sway a capitalist economy to try to invest in renewables, to bring less money and subsidies out of oil companies. These are the things that are really going to make a massive difference. It's gone beyond, as we talk about in the film, simple, individual actions. We need to use our vote ... We cannot afford to have political leaders out there that do not believe in modern science or the scientific method or empirical truths … We cannot afford to waste time having people in power that choose to believe in the 2 percent of the scientific community that is basically bought off by lobbyists and oil companies. They are living in the stone ages. They are living in the dark ages. We need to live in the future."
Here, Leo Hickman, Carbon Brief's editor, identifies seven key scenes in Before the Flood…
5. Elon Musk
Setting the Scene
In terms of box-office draw alone, Before the Flood is the most significant film about climate change since Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was released a decade ago. DiCaprio has made maximum use of his global star power to bring together some of the world's leading voices and experts on climate change and package them up into 90-minute narrative which drips with urgency, insights and emotion.
It opens with a surprisingly personal monologue by DiCaprio in which he talks about the "nightmarish" painting which hung over his crib as a child.
"I would stare at it before I went to sleep," he explained, noting some of its themes—"over-population, debauchery, exodus."
Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights was painted more than 500 years ago, but it speaks to today, he said, with its "twisted, decayed, burnt landscape." DiCaprio said the triptych's final panel shows a "paradise that's been degraded and destroyed."
The film is named after the middle panel—Humankind before the Flood—which, he said, acts as an allegorical warning to the world of what could come next, if it fails to act on climate change.
DiCaprio then sets off around the world on his quest for answers: "I want to see exactly what is going on and how to solve it." But self-doubt looms large from the off, even after he is named by Ban Ki-moon as the UN messenger of peace on climate change.
"Try to talk to anyone about climate change and people just tune out. They might have picked the wrong guy." As DiCaprio said this, a montage plays of clips showing his media critics, such as Fox News' Sean Hannity, attacking him for his lack of scientific credentials and celebrity lifestyle.
However, DiCaprio is frank about how his fame has afforded him such a privileged perspective: "First time I heard of global warming was when I sat down one-to-one with Al Gore [in the early 2000s]. This is most important issue of our time, he said. I had no idea what he was talking about."
After viewing tar sands in Canada by helicopter—"kinda looks like Mordor"—and narwhal whales in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, DiCaprio explained what, in his view, has changed in the time since he received Gore's climate lesson.
"Everyone was focused on small individual actions [back then]. Boiled down to simple solutions such as changing a light bulb. It's pretty clear that we are way beyond that now. Things have taken a massive turn for the worse."
The Garden of Earthly Delights, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch from 1485.Damian Michaels / Flickr
1. Prof. Jason Box
DiCaprio is helicoptered onto the Greenland ice sheet, where he meets with Jason Box, a professor at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. Box has spent many Arctic summers monitoring the stability of the ice sheet, as well as, in more recent years, the way soot from forest fires and the burning of fossil fuels has darkened the snow and, hence, the ice's reflectivity or albedo. As they both stare at a torrent of water rushing down into a moulin, Box's concern about the long-term melting trend is palpable:
"We keep finding things that aren't in the climate models. That tells me that the projections for the future are really conservative. If the climate stays at the temperature that it's been in in the last decade, Greenland is going away."
DiCaprio gently mocked Box's equipment for measuring the ice.
"This is a climate station? I was imagining a massive igloo with all kinds of scientists and experiments. It really does look like broken down pool equipment."
Then he questioned why there is a long spiral of plastic hose laying on the ice. Box explained:
"The hose went down 30 feet, but [the ice] has now melted out. Five years of melt. Hundreds of cubic kilometres of ice stored on land that has now gone into the sea."
2. Prof. Michael E. Mann
No movie is complete without the bad guys. And DiCaprio is keen to stress the role that "corporate interests" have played in spreading "disinformation" about climate change.
A cast of villains is introduced ranging from right-wing newspapers and TV networks in the U.S. through to politicians and "front groups." All seek to cast doubt on the science and, in doing so, attack climate scientists.
No scientist has been more in the crosshairs than Michael E Mann, the director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center who is best known for his famous hockey stick graph showing a recent spike in global temperatures.
Publishing that graph proved to be a huge turning point, Mann told DiCaprio:
"I set myself up for a completely different life … I was vilified … I was called a fraud. I was being attacked by Congressmen. I had death threats, which were actionable enough that the FBI had to come to my office to look at an envelope that had white powder [in it]. I've had threats made against my family. These folks know they don't have to win a legitimate scientific debate. They just need to divide the public. All of that hatred and fear is organized and funded by just a few players. Fossil fuel interests … finance a very large echo chamber of climate change denialism. They find people with very impressive looking credentials who are willing to sell those credentials to fossil fuel interests. Front groups funded by corporate interests."
DiCaprio's frustration was clear: "If I were a scientist, I would be absolutely pissed every day of my life."
Footage from Frank Capra's 1958 short film for Bell Labs, The Unchained Goddess, which explains what impact burning fossil fuels will have on the climate, plays in the background.
"We've know about this problem for decades and decades," lamented DiCaprio. "Imagine the world right now if we'd taken the science of climate change seriously back then. Since then our population has grown by five billion people and counting. The problem has become more difficult to solve."
3. Dr. Sunita Narain
After a trip to Beijing to witness the smog and speak to experts about how releasing pollution data to citizens has helped to change public attitudes, DiCaprio arrives in India.
His meeting with Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, provides, arguably, the key scene of the whole film. They discuss the sweetspot of the climate conundrum: How do developing nations with fast-rising populations raise standards of living for all without emitting vast volumes of greenhouse gases?
"We are a country where energy access is as much a challenge as climate change," said Narain. "We need to make sure that every Indian has access to energy."
DiCaprio mulled on that: "From what I understand, there are 300 million people without power in India. That's equivalent to the entire population of the United States."
As footage shows women in the village of Kheladi in Haryana burning uplas (cowdung cakes), Narain passionately lays out India's predicament:
Sunita Narain: Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future. We have 700m household using biomass to cook. If those households move to coal, there'll be that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone tells you that the world's poor should move to solar and why do they have to make the mistakes we have made … I hear this from American NGOs all the time. I'm like, wow. I mean, if it was that easy, I would really have liked the U.S. to move to solar. But you haven't. Let's put our money where our mouth is.
Leonardo DiCaprio: We have to practice what we preach. Absolutely.
Sunita Narain: I'm sorry to say this and I know you're American, so please don't take this the wrong way, but your consumption is really going to put a hole in the planet. I think that's the conversation we need to have. I'll show you charts from this perspective. [Shows page from a book]. Electricity consumed by one American at home is equivalent to 1.5 citizens of France, 2.2 citizens of Japan and 10 citizens of China, 34 of India and 61 of Nigeria. Why? Because you're building bigger, you're building more and using much more than before. The fact is we need to put the issue of lifestyle and consumption at the centre of climate negotiations.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Look, there's no way I don't agree with you. Absolutely correct. Yes, it's a very difficult argument to present to Americans that we need to change our lifestyle and I would probably argue that it's not going to happen. If we want to solve the climate crisis on, hopefully, that renewables like solar and wind will become cheaper and cheaper as more money is funneled into them and we invest into them, and, ultimately, we will solve that problem. But I … [Narain shakes her head]. You are shaking your head, obviously…
Sunita Narain: I'm shaking my head Indian style, which means "no." Who will invest? Let's be real about this. Who will invest? And how will they invest? We are doing more investment into solar today. China is doing much more investment in solar today than the U.S. is. What is the U.S. doing which the rest of the world can learn from? You are a fossil-addicted country, but if you are seriously disengaging, that's something for us to learn from. And it's leadership that we can hold up to our government and say if the U.S. is doing—and the U.S. is doing it—then, despite all the pressures, then we can do it as well … But it's just not happening. People like us, we are rich enough to withstand the first hit of climate change. But it's the poor of India, it's the poor of Africa, the poor of Bangladesh, who are impacted today in what I believe are the first tides of climate change … We need countries to believe that climate change is real and it is urgent. It's not a figment of their imagination
The scene concludes with DiCaprio musing on his conversation with Narain:
"There's no doubt we have all benefitted from fossil fuels. I know I have. My footprint is probably a lot bigger than most people's. And there are times when I question what is the right thing to do. What actions should we be taking? There are over a billion people out there without electricity. They want lights. They want heat. They want the lifestyle that we've had in the United States for the last hundred years. If we are going to solve this problem, we all have a responsibility to set an example. And, more than that, help the developing world to transition before it's too late."
4. Prof. Gidon Eshel
It is well known that DiCaprio has donated a significant proportion of his wealth and time to various habitat conservation projects, notably focused on oceans and tropical forests. So it isn't a surprise that he visits such locations in Before the Flood.
He views dead coral with marine biologist Jeremy Jackson. ("We're pushing this system really hard"). He flies over Sumatran forests being cleared by palm oil plantations with HAkA's Farwiza Farhan. ("I've never seen anything like this"). He feeds baby orangutans at a rescue center in the Mount Leuser National Park with Dr. Ian Singleton. ("They are refugees from the burning forest").
The message is clear. Lifestyle choices are damaging these carbon-absorbing habitats. Boycott companies which use palm oil to make their products, urges DiCaprio. Switch from eating beef to chicken.
This particular suggestion is put forward by the next person DiCaprio visits. Gidon Eshel, a professor of environmental science and physics at Bard College in New York, was the lead author of a study published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It made headlines around the world and found that beef is about 10 times more damaging to the environment than any other form of livestock. Eshel said:
"Of all the reasons for tropical deforestation, the foremost is beef. Beef is one of the most inefficient use of resources on the planet. In the U.S., 47 percent of land is used for food production and, of that, the lion's share is just to grow feed for cattle. The things that we actually eat—fruit, vegetables, nuts—it's a percent. Most importantly, cows produce methane. And methane is a powerful greenhouse gas … About 10-12 percent of total U.S. emissions is due to beef. It's staggering … Maybe not everyone is ready to eat tofu 24/7. I get that. But even if you just have to have some flesh between your teeth, if you switch to chicken, you will have eliminated 80 percent of what you emit, depending on where you are coming from."
5. Elon Musk
DiCaprio in now looking out across Los Angeles from a vantage point up in the Hollywood hills.
"Every single light that you see has to be completely different—has to come from a new power source. We need to build all those things differently. All the cars that are on the road need to be different. This is one city. If you zoom out to a map of the world at night, you see electrification all over the world. And we're fighting powerful fossil fuel interests who basically want to keep doing business as usual. How are we possibly going to turn all this around?"
Next he is in the Nevadan desert visiting the "gigafactory," the latest project of Tesla founder Elon Musk. Once at full operation by 2020, the vast factory aims to be producing annually 500,000 electric vehicles and batteries/cells equal to 85 GWh/yr. Musk explains why this could be a game-changer:
Elon Musk: What would it take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy? What kind of throughput would you actually need? You need a hundred gigafactories.
Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?
Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.
Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…
Elon Musk: No, the whole world.
Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!
Elon Musk: The whole world.
Leonardo DiCaprio: That's it?! That sounds manageable.
Elon Musk: If all the big companies do this then we can accelerate the transition and if governments can set the rules in favour of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly. But it's really fundamental: unless they put a price on carbon…
Leonardo DiCaprio: … Then we are never going to be able to make the transition in time, right?
Elon Musk: Only way to do that is through a carbon tax.
[Carbon Brief has asked Tesla to explain how Musk arrived at this "100 gigafactory" claim. This article will be updated, if a reply is received].
To drive this point home, DiCaprio then speaks to Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economics professor, who has long argued for a carbon tax. ("Let me get this straight, you're a Republican who wants more taxes?") During a "call to action" segment at the end of the film before the credits roll, a link to Carbotax.org is shown.
6. Barack Obama
When you're Leonardo DiCaprio you can request a meeting with anyone on the planet. Which other filmmaker could include personal conversations with the U.S. president, the Pope and the UN secretary general in one film?
Barack Obama: [Paris] creates the architecture. I was happy with that. The targets set in Paris are nowhere near enough, compared to what the scientists tell us we need to solve this problem. But if we can use the next 20 years to apply existing technologies to reduce carbon emissions and then start slowly turning up the dials as new technologies come online and we have more and more ambitious targets each year, then we're not going to completely reverse the warming that now is inevitable, but we could stop it before it becomes catastrophic … Even if someone came in [to the White House] denying climate science, reality has a way of hitting you on the nose if you're not paying attention and I think the public is starting to realize the science, in part because it is indisputable.
Leonardo DiCaprio: You have access to information. What makes you terrified?
Barack Obama: A huge proportion of the world's population lives near oceans. If they start moving, then you start seeing scarce resources are subject to competition between populations. This is the reason the Pentagon has said this is a national security issue. And this is in addition to the sadness I would feel if my kids could never see a glacier the way that I did when I went up to Alaska. I want them to see the same things that I saw when I was growing up.
7. Dr. Piers Sellers
There are very few people who can say they've had the privilege of being able to look down at the Earth from space. Piers Sellers, the British-born astronaut, spent a total of 35 days in orbit in the 1990s on three separate flights aboard the space shuttle. But back on Earth, he has spent much of his professional life modeling the climate system at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Earlier this year, he wrote in theNew York Times about how being diagnosed with terminal cancer has sharpened his thinking on climate change.
Dr. Piers Sellers: I realized that, as the science community, we have not done the best job, frankly, of communicating this threat to the public. When you go up there and see it with your own eye, you see how thin the world's atmosphere is. Tiny little onion skin around the Earth … [Sellers shows a visualization]. Here's an example of one thing we can see—ocean surface temperature, as measured from space. You can see the poles melting.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Wow.
Dr. Piers Sellers: This is the way to do it, man. This is the way to really see what's going on. This is the Gulf Stream. Look at this. This is the motion of the ocean.
Leonardo DiCaprio: This is like a great piece of art.
Dr. Piers Sellers: It is, isn't it? The biggest impact will be here. [Sellers points].
Leonardo DiCaprio: In the Gulf Stream.
Dr. Piers Sellers: This current … the dumping of ice off Greenland could stop this conveyor belt and the Gulf Stream would slow down and stop its transport of heat from here to there and then Europe would get cold toes because there is a lot of heat transport from across the tropics, across the north Atlantic that keeps Europe warm.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Europe would get colder? A big misconception with climate change is that everything gets warmer.
Dr. Piers Sellers: And here's the most advanced precipitation satellite in the world. It's very important, because we think the biggest impact from climate change is the moving of the precipitation belts from the equator to further out. We're already seeing more persistent drought…
Leonardo DiCaprio: …more drought in places that are already too hot?
Dr. Piers Sellers: Yes. And there are a lot of papers written in the States and elsewhere about how that same drought has help to fuel conflict in the Syrian civil war, Darfur, Sudan, all these places that are short of water and short of food.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Is just here or across the whole planet?
Dr. Piers Sellers: We are expecting elsewhere. Bits of India. In the U.S., in Oklahoma, the Dust Bowl region, we expect that to be much, much drier over the next few decades.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Oh my god. And what about my home state of California?
Dr. Piers Sellers: Not looking great, I'm afraid. Our models predicted persistent drought in the Dust Bowl and here 50 years from now. But we're just seeing the worst drought in 900 years here right now, so it's coming a bit earlier than we thought. We're talking about this happening over the period of a few decades…
Leonardo DiCaprio: This is not great news.
Dr. Piers Sellers: People get confused about the issue, but the facts are crystal clear—the ice is melting, the Earth is warming, the sea level is rising—those are facts. Rather than being, "Oh my god, this is helpless", say, "Ok, this is the problem, let's be realistic and let's find a way out of it". And there are ways out of it. If we stopped burning fossil fuels right now, the planet would still keep warming for a little while before cooling off again.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Would that Arctic ice start to then increase again?
Dr. Piers Sellers: Once the cooling started, yeah.
Leonardo DiCaprio: So there really is a possibility to repair this trajectory that we're on? Interesting.
Dr. Piers Sellers: Yeah. There's hope … I'm basically an optimistic person. I really do have faith in people. And I think once people come out of the fog of confusion on this issue and the uncertainty on this issue and realistically appreciate it on some level as a threat, and are informed on some level on what the best action is to do to deal with it, they'll get on and do it and what seemed almost impossible to deal with becomes possible.
Before the Flood opens in cinemas on Oct. 21 and will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel on Oct. 30.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.
Few product launches in recent memory have captured as much attention as last week’s unveiling of the Tesla Model 3 electric vehicle (EV), Tesla’s first vehicle pitched at the mass market.
Orders were flooding in even before Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed the car to a giddy audience last Thursday evening, with prospective buyers queuing at Tesla stores throughout the day to place a deposit on a vehicle they might not even receive for two years or more.
The Model 3 is really important for the future of Tesla and the future of EVs. It promises the sales growth that automotive wunderkind Tesla needs to survive and renews interest in a technology that is yet to have significant real-world impact. Yet even with the introduction of Tesla’s flashy new sedan, more pieces need to be in place before the EV market goes truly mainstream.
Battery Prices Dropping
When the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle hit U.S. showrooms in December 2010, the price of gasoline was rising and so were expectations for the future of EVs.
Shortly after, President Obama articulated the goal of having one million EVs on U.S. roads by 2015 and committed billions of investment in EV manufacturing capacity, recharging infrastructure deployment and vehicle purchase incentives.
Five years later, the reality is somewhat different, with the market for hybrid and electric vehicles stagnating (see figure below). Only 415,000 plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles have been sold to date, achieving no more than one percent of new vehicle sales and conventional hybrid vehicles have fared little better, following the price of gasoline down over the past two years.
With gas cheap, sales of SUVs and pickups are booming and all evidence suggests that mainstream car buyers simply do not want the green vehicles that are available currently.
Why then might prospects for EVs be different looking forward? The answer lies in the rapid reductions in lithium-ion battery prices that are being achieved, falling 70 percent since 2007 to US$300 per kWh.
These battery improvements have the potential to significantly affect EV performance compared to gasoline-powered cars. The next wave of electric vehicles, led by the Tesla Model 3 and Chevrolet Bolt, promise more than 200 miles of electric range for $35,000, which advocates hope will be a sweet spot for consumers.
To say that $35,000 for a midsize car is affordable for mass-market consumers, as some have suggested, is optimistic to say the least. However, continued development of these second-generation EVs could soon challenge (again) the gasoline/internal-combustion regime that has dominated global automotive markets for the past 100 years.
Not Just for Techies and Treehuggers
But when a mass-market transition to EVs may occur remains uncertain even with falling battery prices.
A recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance received widespread attention for suggesting that EVs would be cost-competitive with gasoline vehicles by 2025. Significant further advances with batteries would be needed for that to occur.
Even so, building a market for EVs that is ecologically and economically sustainable requires more than just cheap batteries. EVs will go mainstream only when everyday car buyers understand the technology, have a wide range of EV makes, models and body styles to choose from and have access to a ubiquitous network of fast charging stations for long trips.
Only Tesla can claim to offer significant charging infrastructure coverage today with their growing network of proprietary Supercharger stations and Tesla faces other challenges internally as they learn to manufacture vehicles at scale with high quality.
The greatest impact of the Model 3, then, to the benefit of the entire EV industry, may be in convincing consumers that EVs are no longer just for treehuggers and techies.
In launching presales far in advance of production, Tesla has empowered 275,000 people (and counting) to tell everyone they know that their next car will be electric, long before the first Model 3 hits the road. For the struggling field of electric cars, that’s a real vote of confidence.
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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.
Many people ask when the cost of producing power from solar photovoltaic (PV) panels will be equal to or less than buying from the grid—a point called “grid parity” that could accelerate solar adoption.
But in asking the question, they often compare apples to oranges and forget that the answer varies from place to place and from one type of installation to another.
For example, electricity from utility-scale solar systems (typically large arrays where panels slowly change tilt and orientation to face the sun all day) usually costs less than electricity produced from solar panels fixed on someone’s home. Also, residential electric rates, on average about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in in the U.S., are much higher than wholesale electric rates—the price utilities pay to power generators—which are usually less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.
At the same time, different states have more or less sun—solar power in Florida is typically more economic than in Alaska, for instance. All of these factors make the question more complicated than people might anticipate.
How, then, can we compare the cost of rooftop solar to the cost of buying power from the local electricity grid and thereby find when which states will hit the point of grid parity?
Putting a Number on Solar Cost
The levelized or average, cost of electricity from a solar PV array is derived from all the money spent to buy, install, finance and maintain the system divided by the total amount of electricity that system is expected to produce over its lifetime. We call this value the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) and it’s expressed in terms of dollars per kilowatt-hour ($/kWh). The same metric can be used to determine the cost for a coal or natural gas plant. Planners like it because it reduces the cost of a power plant over a span of many decades into a single number.
Despite the strengths of LCOE as a metric—it is easy to understand and widely used—it has some shortcomings, too. Namely, it leaves out geographic variability, changes with seasons and usually ignores the cost of environmental impacts such as the cost of carbon emissions. This metric is a bit too simple when comparing variable wind and solar generators to power plants that you can turn on and off at will, such as those fueled by uranium, coal and natural gas.
Today the average cost of energy from solar PV in U.S. is reported to be 12.2 cents per kWh, which is about the same as the average retail rate.
Those who keep close tabs on electricity prices might think that it is about on par with what they are paying for their own electricity at home. This number can be misleading, however, because it represents the average price of utility-scale solar across the U.S., not necessarily the cost borne to produce electricity from solar panels on our homes.
So how do we know how close residential solar is to grid parity where you live? Ultimately, that depends on two things: how much you pay for the electricity you buy from the local grid and how much can you get paid for the electricity you can produce from PV. Let’s take a look at both of them.
How Much Sun Do You Get?
The Energy Information Agency (EIA) has created a map of average electricity rates by zip code, averaged to the county level and remade by the author in the map below. The deep red (or darker) colors indicate higher average residential electricity rates.
Electric rates vary a great deal across the country and these differences could be caused by a number of economic, historical or regulatory reasons. Likewise, the costs of solar and the availability of the solar resource (i.e., how often and how strong the sun shines) also are not homogeneous throughout the U.S. The figure below shows the LCOE of residential solar across all counties nationwide.
The data on the residential solar costs were pulled together from an ongoing large-scale campus-wide research project at the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin. The main assumptions behind the data are a total cost of US$3.50/Watt for the solar PV installation for a fixed array pointing south with a tilt of 25 degrees. Solar production data are based on a 2013 National Renewable Energy Laboratory study.
That southern orientation and tilt represent a rule of thumb and might not be the optimal solar placement in every locale.
The U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative has a stated goal of lowering residential solar PV system installations to $1.50/Watt. Cheap PV panels from China have driven down the hardware costs to the point where the price of a total PV system is now dominated by “soft costs”—namely, customer acquisition, installation, supply chain, permit, etc. Still, total installed system costs continue to fall.
While those cost cuts are impressive, the major driver in the cost of energy produced is the amount of solar radiation that strikes the solar panels. Obviously, some locations are sunnier than others so a solar array in Arizona will produce more energy than one in Washington state, making the system more economic for the homeowner.
And, the prevailing cost of electricity varies nationwide. Some of the areas with the lowest cost of grid power (e.g., Washington) have some of the highest solar costs because of low levels of sunshine. It will be difficult to make solar reach parity in those locations.
On the other hand, there are other locations where the price of grid electricity is high and the solar LCOE is relatively low, including New Mexico, California and Hawaii; these places are prime locations for solar to be at parity sooner.
To illustrate this point, we take the same information that underlies the solar cost map and reduce the total installed cost of installed solar in $0.50/Watt increments—from $3.50/Watt to $1.50/Watt (the SunShot goal). We can then subtract the electricity rate from the solar LCOE in every county. Where this difference is zero or negative (electricity rates > LCOE), we can estimate when that county will be at grid parity for residential solar PV.
Below is a GIF that shows the estimate of the point of parity as the price of installed solar falls. Note that the total installed costs include the federal investment tax credit and any local rebates and tax incentives.
These calculations and estimates come with several caveats. First, the above calculation assumes that PV owners are paid for their generation at standard electric rates in their area. This arrangement is typically known as net metering.
But there is a wide range of ways that utilities interact with customers who have installed solar PV. Some utilities may pay homeowners wholesale market rates for the excess electricity they feed into the grid from their panels, which tend to be considerably lower than retail rates. If utilities pay homeowners based on the wholesale rate, rather than the retail rate, solar is less economic.
But that’s not all. One could add in the cost benefits of reducing CO2 emissions and other pollutants. On the other hand, there are costs associated with “firming up” the solar power when it’s nighttime or cloudy.
Keeping these factors in mind, the answer to the question, “Does it make economic sense for me to install solar?” is: it depends. As the map demonstrates, the crucial thing to watch, apart from any changes in electricity costs, is how quickly the overall costs of solar go down.
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The fierce counterattack by utilities against the disruptive surge of rooftop solar peaked this month on the West Coast. California's big utilities successfully petitioned for increased "exit fees" for cities or counties leaving the utility to purchase electricity for their residents on the open market—typically obtaining greener power with equal or lower rates. (Marin County is offering its residents a renewables mix ranging from 50-100 percent, at an average rate $3/month lower than what PG&E, the previous monopoly, would charge).
The utilities argued that the increase—in Marin's case a doubling—was warranted by an established formula, because PG&E had long term power contracts entered into to meet the needs of its former customers. But the Public Utility Commission (PUC) denied California's private utilities dramatic increases they sought in fees charged utility customers using rooftop solar.
But next door, in Nevada, with the highest percentage of solar energy of any state in the union, state regulators were more generous to the state's utilities. First they levied $126 million in exit fees on three casinos seeking to negotiate their own direct power purchases. Then gave Nevada Energy (owned by Warren Buffett) an enormous increase in residential rooftop solar fees, while drastically cutting what the utility pays those customers when they feed electrons back into the grid. More shockingly, these changes were initially retroactive to some 10,000+ Nevada households who had already leased solar and were stuck with the costs.
Effectively the new rules make rooftop solar no longer competitive in Nevada, where companies like SolarCity had located both training facilities and major investments. (Which the company announced it would have to shut down along with laying off much of its workforce.)
Since SolarCity board member and investor Elon Musk chose to build his battery Gigafactory in Nevada, making him the state's biggest new job creator and since both Republican Gov. Mike Sandoval and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid have made Nevada's renewable energy success a center-piece of their politics, the stunning slap the Nevada PUC took at rooftop solar came out of the blue.
The response was rapid. As more companies announced lay-offs and scale backs, a coalition led by former Republican Gov. Mike List launched a ballot measure campaign to reverse the PUC attack on rooftop solar. The Nevada PUC announced it would consider reversing the portion of its fee hike retroactive to existing solar customers. And Nevada Power itself said that it favored grandfathering in existing customers.
The battle heated up. Wynn casinos sued the PUC over the exit fee. Perhaps heartened by the welcome that Nevada Energy found at the Nevada PUC, California's three investor owned utilities turned up the heat on the rooftop threat, asking the California PUC to reject its own staff recommendations for modest additional fees on rooftop users and instead kill rooftop solar by adopting fees akin to those in Nevada. The commission, Thursday, by a narrow 3-2 vote rebuffed the utilities, and followed its staff recommendation.
So what's going on? California's utilities long ago embraced renewables. Nevada Energy boasts some of the cheapest solar energy contracts in the nation. Why is this the latest focus for a utility vs. solar struggle that has previously burst out in much more conservative territory like Arizona and Florida?
Utilities don't mind that solar is renewable, zero carbon and enjoys free fuel—as long as they own it. But solar is also modular and decentralized, which they hate. They don't want to compete with their own customers. Rooftop threatens both sunk utility investments in centralized fossil power plants (natural gas on the West Coast, coal elsewhere) and their rigid, “big to small—guaranteed return on capital" business model.
Above a certain scale, rooftop solar will force utilities both to retire expensive central station power plants they want in their rate base and to transform their business model to accommodate the small generator to large grid electron flow which rooftop solar enables (and requires).
Examine the utility passion to hold on to old power plants. U.S. electrical demand is flat, not growing. Until electric vehicles usage explodes, it's not likely ever to grow. There is a fundamental national consensus that we need to reduce the amount of fossil fuel burned by the electrical sector. A lot of coal plants are going to be shut down, displaced by renewables. But utilities had become very deft over the years at keeping such plants open not just for their intended 40 year life span, but virtually forever. (More than half of the U.S. coal fired units are more than 50 years old and 30 were built before the Second World War). So they fight back. And with sufficiently rapid growth of efficiency, demand management, solar and wind, the need for even recently built natural gas plants is going to dwindle.
The stand-off between the utilities and climate advocates is quite simple; the arithmetic of global warming (and the commitments the U.S. made in Paris) means that power plants the utilities want to profit from of must shut down instead. Rooftop solar accelerates the need for those retirements. This means lower profits.
For society as a whole, this is merely one example of a core climate challenge: cutting emissions requires accelerating the rate at which old, carbon intensive technologies are replaced by new, cleaner ones—“stranding" not just the coal and oil reserves, but also the power plants, factories, airplane fleets and refineries they powered. The owners of those facilities don't want them stranded and fight to keep them operating.
But stranding is not just a problem for fossil fuels. Going forward, clean, renewable energy, even if it is cheaper, is more capital intensive than the coal and oil it displaces. Investors, whether Southern California Edison or a rooftop solar customer, want a guarantee that the productive lifetime of these assets will be long enough to recover the investment. So the tension between the need to provide reasonable certainty to investors in energy facilities and the simultaneous need to retire and replace them with cleaner technologies faster and faster is real. (Yet another reason for making sure that all new energy infrastructure is zero carbon—we won't be pressured to strand it prematurely).
For utilities this transition to new, low carbon electrons can only be managed if they choose to compete in the new marketplace for distributed solar. So far they have mostly refused, bitterly clinging to their old centralized model. But the capo del capi of the private utility world, the Southern Company, has taken a different track. When Georgia opened up its rooftop solar market, Southern launched its own branded rooftop solar platform laying the ground work for the existing utility, taking advantage of their low cost of capital and trusted customer brand, to dominate the rooftop space, rather than ceding it to newcomers like Sunrun or Sungevity. Southern CEO Tom Fanning made it clear in announcing this new venture that Southern had no intention of letting outsiders come into its historic service territory and poach the rooftop business unchallenged.
How do the independent rooftop solar companies fight back against attacks like those in California and Nevada? Their biggest point of vulnerability is the (most often bogus) argument that current net metering rates force poor customers without solar to subsidize richer customers who install it. Even when, as in California and Nevada, such cross subsidies are insignificant even at current rates, the economic tilt of the rooftop solar market towards the wealthy gives the utilities a powerful edge before regulators. The argument just sounds good that the rich should pay their fair share of the grid.
Rooftop solar, of course, does not have to tilt towards the rich—since it lowers utility bills. What the poor need to access it is business models for financing low-income homeowners and renters—and the solar installers need to prioritize putting such business models in place just as badly as the utilities need business models that accommodate distributed renewable generation.
Finally, utility regulators should be midwifing the rooftop revolution, not trying to abort it. Utilities need new rate structures and business models to compete in the rooftop space and independent solar developers need the right kinds of regulatory support to be able to serve low income as well as upper-middle income communities.
For all sides of this conflict then, it is business innovation, as much as technological progress, that will shape the pace at which rooftop solar realizes its promise.
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Located outside the city of Ourrzazate, the plant will take up the same amount of space as Morocco’s capital, Rabat, and will generate 580 megawatts of electricity.
The plant employs a large number of movable mirrors that can follow the sun's path and harness sunlight to melt salt. The molten salt stores energy and can be used to power a steam turbine, allowing for energy production even at night.
"You have 35 soccer fields of huge parabolic mirrors pointed to the sky which are moveable so they will track the Sun throughout the day," Paddy Padmanathan of Saudi-owned ACWA Power, which is running the project, told BBC.
The plant's first phase, or Noor 1, can store solar energy in the form of heated molten salt for three hours after the sun sets. The Noor 2 and 3 plants, planned to go live in 2017, will store energy for up to 8 hours, according to the Guardian.
As EcoWatch noted previously, Morocco has been dependent on fossil fuels and imports for nearly 97 percent of its energy, making the $9 billion solar thermal project all the more promising for the North African country.
According to The World Bank, which produced the video below, the Ourrzazate plant will reduce Morroco's energy dependence by about 2 and a half million tons of oil, and is expected to reduce the country's carbon emissions by 760,000 tons per year, translating to a reduction of 17.5 million tons of carbon emissions over 25 years.
BBC News says that the complex is all part of Morocco's King Mohammed VI's plans to turn his country into a renewable energy powerhouse.
"We are convinced that climate change is an opportunity for our country," environment minister Hakima el Haite told BBC.
Morocco has an ambitious renewable energy generation target of 42 percent by 2020 that outshines richer and more developed countries. For comparison, President Obama has set a 20 percent target by 2020 for the U.S. In the U.K., it's 30 percent by the same date.
Padmanabhan explained to BBC that if all goes to plan with the solar plant, Morocco might even be able to export surplus green energy to neighboring countries.
"If Morocco is able to generate electricity at seven, eight cents per kilowatt—very possible—it will have thousands of megawatts excess," he said.
"It's obvious this country should be able to export into Europe and it will," Padmanabhan said. "And it will not need to do anything at all ... it needs to do is just sit there because Europe will start to need it."
Morocco, with its endless expanse of sunny deserts, is poised to become a solar super power. The country has one of the highest rates of solar insolation of any country—receiving about 3,000 hours of sunshine annually.
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