By Kim Smaczniak
Most Americans probably don't know that an independent—and up to now nonpartisan—government agency has played a key role in our nation's transition to cleaner energy technologies. Under the radar and hidden beneath a layer of technical jargon, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has shepherded changes to electricity market rules that have gradually allowed the superior economics of clean energy technologies to out-compete clunky, old fossil fueled power plants. And it has done this for decades, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
The commitment is part of the city's larger 80×50 Climate Action Plan unveiled by Hancock Tuesday, which seeks to reduce Denver's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by the year 2050.
With the 1.2-megawatt storage system known as "Batwind" in operation, it will be possible for the first time to store energy produced from an offshore wind farm, developers Masdar and Equinor touted in a press release Wednesday.
Renewable energy has reached an important milestone. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has determined that in many parts of the world, solar energy is now the same price or even cheaper than fossil fuels for the first time.
In a handbook released this month, the WEF observed how the price of renewable technologies, particularly solar, has declined to unprecedented lows.
While the average global LCOE [levelized cost of electricity] for coal and natural gas is around $100 per megawatt-hour, the price for solar has plummeted from $600 a decade ago to $300 only five years later, and now close to or below $100 for utility-scale photovoltaic. For wind, the LCOE is around $50.
According to the WEF, more than 30 countries have already reached grid parity—even without subsidies. ("Grid parity" is the point when an alternative energy source, say solar, can generate power at a LCOE that's equal or even less than the price of traditional grid power.)
"It is relevant to note that the mentioned evolution, market share gain and continued potential for renewable energy do not hinge on a subsidy advantage," the report added. "In fact, according to [International Energy Agency], fossil-fuel consumption has received $493 billion in subsidies in 2014, more than four times the value of subsidies to renewable energy."
The WEF highlighted how the unsubsidized LCOE for utility-scale solar photovoltaic—which was not competitive even five years ago—has declined at a 20 percent compounded annual rate, "making it not only viable but also more attractive than coal in a wide range of countries."
Countries that have already reached grid parity include Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Australia with many more countries also on the same track. The WEF projects that two thirds of the world will reach grid parity in the next couple of years, and by 2020, solar photovoltaic energy is projected to have a lower LCOE than coal or natural gas-fired generation throughout the world.
"Renewable energy has reached a tipping point," Michael Drexler, who leads infrastructure and development investing at the WEF, told Quartz. "It is not only a commercially viable option, but an outright compelling investment opportunity with long-term, stable, inflation-protected returns."
The report follows a recent analysis from the IEA which revealed that total clean power capacity increased by 153 gigawatts, overtaking coal for the first time. To illustrate, about 500,000 solar panels installed were installed around the world every day.
A small village in France is now home to the world's first solar road, aka Wattway. French Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal officially inaugurated the 1 kilometer-long road covered with 2,800-square-meters of resin-encased panels in Tourouvre-au-Perche in Normandy on Thursday.
The French Ministry of the Environment invested €5 million ($5.2 million) to build the project engineered by French road construction company Colas.
According to the Guardian, about 2,000 motorists will drive on the roadway during a test period of two years to see if the project can generate enough energy to power street lights for the 3,400-resident village. The panels consists of extremely thin yet durable panels of polycrystalline silicon that can transform solar energy into electricity.
The panels are designed to withstand all types of traffic, including heavy-duty vehicles and in terms of efficiency, Wattway claims its panels have a 15 percent yield, compared to 18-19 percent for conventional photovoltaic panels.
The French government plans to eventually pave 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of its roads with solar panels.
"The maximum effect of the program, if successful, could be to furnish 5 million people with electricity, or about 8 percent of the French population," Royal said earlier this year about the iniative.
Critics, however, have concerns over the high price of the project.
"It's without doubt a technical advance, but in order to develop renewables there are other priorities than a gadget of which we are more certain that it's very expensive than the fact it works," Marc Jedliczka, vice-president of Network for Energetic Transition (CLER), told Le Monde.
Jean-Louis Bal, president of renewable energy union SER, added, "We have to look at the cost, the production [of electricity] and its lifespan. For now I don't have the answers."
Colas, however, said that expenses will eventually lessen as the technology is adopted elsewhere in the world, including an experimental site that launched earlier this month in the U.S. The site consists of of 50 square meters of Wattway solar panels installed at the Georgia Visitor Information Center in West Point, Georgia.
Colas CEO Hervé Le Bouc also told Les Echoes last year that the installation of Wattway panels is relatively non-disruptive.
"There is no need to rebuild infrastructure," Le Bouc said. "At Chambéry and Grenoble, was tested successfully on Wattway a cycle of 1 million vehicles, or 20 years of normal traffic a road, and the surface does not move."
Royal added, "It takes advantage of large swathes of road infrastructure already in use ... to produce electricity without taking up new real estate."
The solar roads concept is not new. EcoWatch has previously featured a similar Idaho-based project, Solar Roadways, whose Indiegogo campaign became extremely successful when their video went viral in 2014. Also, a solar bike path in the Netherlands called SolaRoad has been in operation since November 2014.
While solar roads have its detractors, the technology has been touted as an efficient way to harness the sun's energy while taking advantage of the world's expansive roadway network.
"Roads spend 90 percent of their time just looking up into the sky. When the sun shines, they are of course exposed to its rays," Jean-Lic Gautier, manager of the Center for Expertise at the Colas Campus for Science and Techniques, said in a statement last year. "It's an ideal surface area for energy applications."
Even though Elon Musk once said that Donald Trump "doesn't seem to have the sort of character that reflects well on the United States," the Tesla/SpaceX CEO is joining the president-elect's Strategic and Policy Forum, an advisory board for the president on business issues.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi were also named as strategic advisors on Wednesday.
"My Administration is going to work together with the private sector to improve the business climate and make it attractive for firms to create new jobs across the United States from Silicon Valley to the heartland," Trump said in a statement announcing the latest appointees.
Other high-profile CEOs on the 19-member Strategic and Policy Forum include Mary Barra of General Motors, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co, Bob Iger of The Walt Disney Company, among others. The forum will be chaired by Stephen A. Schwarzman, who heads the investment firm Blackstone.
Members of the group will "be called upon to meet with the president frequently to share their specific experience and knowledge as the president implements his economic agenda," a media release explained.
Musk's willingness to take part in Trump's forthcoming administration—one that's filled with climate change deniers and fossil fuel barons, at that—is admittedly a head-scratcher. Similar questions were raised when Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore met with Trump and his daughter Ivanka. The Tesla boss is very outspoken on climate change issues and has built a renewable energy enterprise.
Musk is also a big proponent of a carbon tax to drive investments in clean tech. We have to "remove the effective subsidy of not pricing the damage done by carbon pollution," he said last year. Also, in an appearance in DiCaprio's climate change documentary Before The Flood, Musk said, "If governments can set the rules in favor of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly ... Only way to do that is through a carbon tax."
Trump, in contrast, famously believes that global warming is a hoax created by and for the Chinese. The hotelier has waged wars on windmills, calling them bird killers and a blight on the view of his luxury golf courses. As for solar, Trump said the booming sector is "so expensive" and "not working so good."
The president-elect also campaigned on slashing taxes across the board, axing President Obama's emissions regulations and exiting the historic 2015 Paris climate agreement.
However, a report from Recode suggests that Musk might use his clout to push for green initiatives. As Recode reporter April Glaser writes:
"Still, it's probably in Musk's favor to work with the incoming administration, especially as it starts to shape new policies that are dear to Musk's heart, like regulations to bring self-driving cars to U.S. roadways and whether to abide by the 2015 Paris climate agreement or pull out, a threat Trump made on the campaign trail.
"That doesn't sit well with Musk, who will likely urge the Trump administration to remain a signatory on the international climate accord. Reps for Musk did not immediately respond to request for comment."
Additionally, as Glaser notes, "Musk might be able to persuade the president-elect not to renege on the Paris agreement, which already lacks strong mechanisms for enforcement."
Glaser points out that secretary of state nominee/Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson—whose company announced its support of the Paris climate agreement and acknowledges the risks of climate change—also endorsed the idea of a national carbon tax.
But as the New York Times argues, Tillerson might only support the Paris agreement and a carbon tax if it does not harm his company's bottom line.
"Will Mr. Tillerson try to persuade Mr. Trump to support the international climate accord reached in Paris? He might, but he would probably stress the importance of natural gas and methods to bury carbon emissions—policies that would not hurt fossil fuel industries," the newspaper of record writes.
After all, Exxon sells a product that fuels climate change and the company has spent years and millions of dollars funding climate change denial.
Yesterday, a number of Silicon Valley executives gathered at Trump's "tech summit" at Trump Tower in New York. The group included Musk, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Timothy D. Cook of Apple, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Alphabet, Google's parent company, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and more.
"I'm here to help you folks do well, and you're doing well right now and I'm very honored by 'the bounce'—they're all talking about 'the bounce' and I know everybody in this room has to like me a little bit, but we're going to try and have that bounce continue," Trump said at the summit. "Perhaps even more importantly we want you to keep going with the incredible innovation. There's nobody like you in the world. There's nobody like the people in this room."