By David Pomerantz
Solar power is here, and it isn’t just environmentalists saying it anymore. A research division of Citigroup, the massive multinational bank that probably doesn’t share Greenpeace’s worldview on many issues, does agree with us on one point: solar energy is poised to explode in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Citi Research published the report,“Rising Sun: Implications for U.S. Utilities,” in August (hat tip to Marc Gunther, who referenced it in a great piece for Yale Environment 360.) It slipped under the media radar, which is unfortunate because the analysis is phenomenal and offers great hope for the clean energy revolution here in the U.S. The report isn’t available online, but here are a few of the key points it makes:
- Solar is growing extremely fast in the U.S.
- That growth is driven almost entirely by pure economics, not environmental concerns.
- The big utilities can’t seem to get either of the above two points through their skulls yet.
- Solar financing is the next political frontier to watch in the U.S.
Here’s each point in greater depth:
Solar is growing like gangbusters.
Citi’s analysts don’t mince words:
Our viewpoint is that Solar is here to stay and very early in the growth cycle in the U.S.
They note that solar panels costed an average of $75/watt in 1972. In 2012, that number was down to less than $1/watt (the number is even lower now, closer to $.65/watt in some places.)
The report compares that rapid decrease in cost to Moore’s Law, the famous theory which postulated in 1965 that computer chips could double in performance every two years. That prediction turned out to be uncannily accurate, which is the basic reason for why you’re reading this on a laptop, tablet or smartphone right now. A similar phenomenon is happening now with solar costs, which have shrunk reliably and quickly.
As a result, two thirds of all the solar power in the world has been installed since 2011, and that number will double again by 2015, Greentechmedia reported. Citi’s analysts noted that this solar growth has exceeded almost everyone’s expectation:
The biggest surprise in recent years has been the speed at which the cost of solar panels has reduced, resulting in cost parity being achieved in certain areas much more quickly than was ever expected.
The biggest driver of solar growth will be economics, not environmental concerns.
The most exciting thing about this solar boom is probably the hope that it provides for everyone who depends on a healthy planet (AKA, everyone.) Solar growth means less burning of coal, gas and eventually oil, the main causes of the climate change that is already causing extreme weather here in the U.S. and around the world, and portends much uglier effects like increased conflict, rising sea levels, ocean acidification and fresh water scarcity down the road.
However, the report notes that those environmental concerns aren’t driving solar growth–and that’s actually a good thing. For solar to go mainstream, it has to become a money saver for more people and businesses, which is exactly that’s happening.
What is clear to us is that the perception of solar as being inefficient and requiring material subsidies is no longer accurate–a concept that is not being fully appreciated by the utility sector, in our view. As we clearly display in the below sections, Solar is already cheaper than electricity at the plug in many countries, with others very close behind including the U.S. with several states already displaying “socket” or retail parity (i.e. Georgia, Arizona and New Mexico).
In other words, in many parts of the country, especially the Southeast and Southwest, it’s cheaper to install your own solar panels, and then generate most of your electricity for free, than it is to keep paying a utility for all of your power every month.
The report notes that the most promising trend for expanding the pool of people who could go solar is the growth of new ways to finance their solar installations. While the panels are getting cheaper every year, many people still don’t have the cash on hand to afford them upfront–even though it will be cheaper over time. But new financing models are making them more affordable. The analysts write:
Distributed (DG) or off grid generation at the residential and commercial scale level could be set to take on a greater piece of the solar generation pie. Much of this we attribute to the emergence and expansion of third party financing…
Meanwhile, solar is getting cheaper in all of those ways against a backdrop of rising fossil fuel prices that are destined to keep rising:
At the same time, the alternatives of conventional fossil fuels are likely to gradually become more expensive (assuming that the "lowest hanging fruit" in terms of reserves are exploited first).
Sunshine is free though, and the cost of the panels needed to harness it are getting cheaper every quarter.
Utilities still don’t get it.
The Citi analysts write:
While we expect the same trend in the U.S. [of declining solar costs and rapid growth], we find that many utilities have had issues trying to grapple with this concept.
Duke Energy, the country’s largest utility, provides a great example of a company that is at best grappling with how to respond to these changes, and at worst failing to appreciate them altogether. Greenpeace has been campaigning alongside Duke’s ratepayers to convince the company to switch from fossil fuels to solar energy. But Duke’s own plans in North Carolina show that it plans to keep its head firmly in the sand. The company predicts that by 2032, the share of the electricity it generates from wind and solar energy in the Carolinas will be… wait for it… 3 percent! That estimate seems almost laughable in the context of Citi’s estimates.
The next frontier to watch: third-party solar financing
Citi reports that the big factor that will determine where solar gets cheapest, fastest, in the U.S. is the maturity of third-party solar financing markets. Third-party financiers could be banks, solar leasing companies, or innovative new crowdsourcing efforts like the one at Mosaic–any business that can help people better spread out the investment in solar panels over the lifetime of the system.
Third-party financing availability is a grab bag in the U.S. It’s legal in 22 states, illegal in six states where utilities have pushed state governments to ban it in order to protect their own monopolies, and on hazy legal grounds in the other 22 states. Here’s a map giving the lay of the land.
This is the next frontier to watch, and new battles are cropping up already in places like Iowa and Wisconsin. The electricity buying public is getting angrier, as evidenced by growing ratepayer protests in places like North Carolina against Duke. Utilities are taking more out of people’s pocket every day for electricity created by coal and gas plants that are making their kids sick and causing global warming. As more people see that they could have the option to stop giving all their money to a company like Duke, and start financing solar panels, the political pressure on states to open up their borders to solar financing companies could grow almost as quickly as solar installations have been.
When Citigroup, one of the largest banks in the world, is saying that the clean energy revolution is reaching full speed, it’s time the utilities start to listen. They can’t stop the solar growth, but they can choose whether they’ll try to slow it down or try to embrace it. It will be better for their customers, their businesses and certainly for the planet if they choose the latter.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
Unintended Consequences<p>Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products. </p>
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?<p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.</p><p>EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.</p>
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.<p>Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/potential-revisions-microbial-and-disinfection-byproducts-rules" target="_blank">two-day public meeting</a> in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.</p><p>When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.</p><p>For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."</p><p><a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15487777/" target="_blank">Emerging</a> <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05440" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">data</a> indicate that brominated and iodinated by-products are potentially more harmful than the regulated by-products.</p><p>Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.</p><p>Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As <a href="https://ensia.com/features/can-saltwater-quench-our-growing-thirst/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">desalination</a> practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.</p>
Other Hot Spots<p>Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on <a href="https://ensia.com/ensia-collections/troubled-waters/" target="_blank">this reporting project</a>).</p><p>The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."</p><p>Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.</p>
Toxic Treadmill<p>Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.</p><p>Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."</p>
Alternative Approaches<p>When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.</p><p>In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, <a href="https://dwes.copernicus.org/articles/2/1/2009/dwes-2-1-2009.pdf" target="_blank">chlorine isn't used at all</a> as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.</p><p>But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or <a href="https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/eco-friendly-way-disinfect-water-using-light/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ultraviolet light</a>. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.</p><p>Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own. </p><p>Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.</p><p>Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a <a href="https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/reviewed-disinfection-byproducts.php#:~:text=EWG%20recommends%20using%20a%20home,as%20trihalomethanes%20and%20haloacetic%20acids." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countertop carbon filter</a> to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b00023" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019 paper</a> that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.</p><br>
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.<p>Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."</p><p>Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.</p><p>While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including <a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-contamination-pfas-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PFAS</a> and disinfection by-product precursors.</p><p>"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."</p><p>Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://ensia.com/features/drinking-water-disinfection-byproducts-pathogens/" target="_blank">Ensia</a>. </em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649953730#/" target="_self"></a></p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Most Meat Will Be Plant-Based or Lab-Grown in 20 Years, Analysts ... ›
- Lab-Grown Meat Debate Overlooks Cows' Range of Use Worldwide ... ›
- Will Plant-Based Meat Become the New Fast Food? - EcoWatch ›
One city in New Zealand knows what its priorities are.
Dunedin, the second largest city on New Zealand's South Island, has closed a popular road to protect a mother sea lion and her pup, The Guardian reported.
piyaset / iStock / Getty Images Plus
- No Country Is Protecting Children's Health, Major Study Finds ... ›
- 'Every Child Born Today Will Be Profoundly Affected by Climate ... ›
By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
Earth had its second-warmest year on record in 2020, just 0.02 degrees Celsius (0.04°F) behind the record set in 2016, and 0.98 degrees Celsius (1.76°F) above the 20th-century average, NOAA reported January 14.
Figure 1. Departure of temperature from average for 2020, the second-warmest year the globe has seen since record-keeping began in 1880, according to NOAA. Record-high annual temperatures over land and ocean surfaces were measured across parts of Europe, Asia, southern North America, South America, and across parts of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. No land or ocean areas were record cold for the year. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information
Figure 2. Total ocean heat content (OHC) in the top 2000 meters from 1958-2020. Cheng et al., Upper Ocean Temperatures Hit Record High in 2020, Advances in Atmospheric Sciences
Figure 3. Departure of sea surface temperature from average in the benchmark Niño 3.4 region of the eastern tropical Pacific (5°N-5°S, 170°W-120°W). Sea surface temperature were approximately one degree Celsius below average over the past month, characteristic of moderate La Niña conditions. Tropical Tidbits
- NASA and NOAA: Last Decade Was the Hottest on Record - EcoWatch ›
- Earth Just Had Its Hottest September Ever Recorded, NOAA Says ... ›