By Jessica Corbett
Federal regulators on Thursday released a pair of decisions expected to impact the expansion of renewable power nationwide—one that was celebrated by environmentalists and clean energy advocates as a crucial win and another that critics warned "could lead to more pollution by propping up fossil fuel power plants."
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By Kimberly White
The City of Houston has committed to 100 percent renewable energy. Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that the city has teamed up with NRG Energy to power all municipal operations with renewable energy beginning in July.
<div id="aea44" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="45b3862780fc400f29290a319fcc2f63"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="902176734078017537" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Here are the #ClimateFacts about #HurricaneHarvey. https://t.co/lECmNlmbCh</div> — The YEARS Project (@The YEARS Project)<a href="https://twitter.com/YEARSofLIVING/statuses/902176734078017537">1503930669.0</a></blockquote></div>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Fino Menezes
April 2020 was the first month ever that renewables generated more electricity than thermal coal in the United States every single day, while across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom's rapid decarbonization of its electricity grid has achieved another significant milestone – completing a whole month (30 days) without coal power for the first time in 138 years.
Renewables Surpass Coal in U.S. Power Generation Every Day in April<p>April 2020 was the first month in U.S. history that renewables generated more electricity than coal on every day of the month. That's based on new data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and compiled by the nonprofit <a href="https://ieefa.org/ieefa-update-renewables-surpass-coal-in-u-s-power-generation-throughout-the-month-of-april-2020/" target="_blank">Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA)</a>.</p><p>The daily consecutive run of renewables over coal began on March 25 and continued for 40 straight days through May 3. That breaks the previous record of just nine continuous days.</p><p>The strong output from utility-scale solar, wind, and hydropower is based on several factors, including low gas prices, warmer weather, new renewable capacity connecting to the grid late last year, and lower power demand because of the coronavirus.</p><p>IEEFA <a href="https://ieefa.org/ieefa-update-renewables-surpass-coal-in-u-s-power-generation-throughout-the-month-of-april-2020/" target="_blank">reported</a>: "Coal's high cost has made it increasingly one of the last fuel choices for many utilities, a trend reflected by its declining market share for electric generation: just 15.3% in April, according to preliminary EIA figures.</p><p>"In January, coal's market share fell below 20% for the first time in many decades — and possibly for the first time in the entire history of the U.S. power industry — ending at 19.9%.</p><p>"EIA figures also show its share continued to erode, falling to 18.3% in February and 17.3% in March. As recently as 2008, coal's market share was above 50% in the months of January, February and March."</p><p>IEEFA had previously <a href="https://ieefa.org/ieefa-update-renewable-generation-is-set-to-surpass-coal-in-2021/" target="_blank"></a><a href="https://ieefa.org/ieefa-update-renewable-generation-is-set-to-surpass-coal-in-2021/" target="_blank">forecasted that power generation from renewables</a> would likely surpass coal-fired generation in 2021, an important milestone in the energy transition that is well underway. But in the first quarter of 2020, renewable generation unexpectedly exceeded coal, and with this strong performance continuing in the second quarter, there is an increasing chance that the milestone could occur this year.</p>
U.K. Goes a Month Without Coal Power for First Time for 138 Years<p>The United Kingdom's rapid decarbonization of its electricity grid has achieved another significant milestone – completing a whole month (30 days) without coal power for the first time in 138 years, <a href="https://ieefa.org/u-k-electricity-goes-coal-free-for-a-month-a-first-in-138-years/" target="_blank">reported</a> The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) this week.</p><p>The milestone was reached on Sunday 10 May (U.K.) time and celebrated by National Grid ESO, the organization that runs the grid and is responsible for keeping the lights on nationwide. It was the first time this occurred since coal power was first used on the U.K. power system in January, 1882, at Holborn Viaduct.<br></p><p>Within a few years, there will be no coal generation at all – with the remaining plants shuttered, and one or two converted to gas by 2025. National Grid aims to be able to operate a fully zero emission grid when weather conditions allow from 2025, and is accelerating its adoption of new technologies and management systems that will allow it to side line gas power plants when possible.<br></p><p>Just a few days before the new month-long coal-free milestone, National Grid released its latest end of year planning report outlining the main achievements it has made in the long path to a fully decarbonized grid before 2050.</p><p>"We're really proud of our zero carbon targets," National Grid wrote in a blog a few days earlier. "In May 2019 there was a 2-week period where there was coal free operation of Great Britain's electricity system. This has quickly been beaten after the record breaking sunlight in April."</p><p>It noted that the carbon intensity of the electricity system has halved over the last five years, and is down 60 per cent when compared to 2013. "The recent <a href="https://www.nationalgrideso.com/news/day-life-energy-forecasting-manager" target="_blank">low demand for energy</a> due to COVID-19 has dramatically reduced the use of fossil fuel based generation, and this has been supported by our optimized renewable generation," it says.</p><p>"And as supply changes, so to does demand, as renewables capacity and smart grid functionality increases further to enable the side-lining of gas power plants when possible."</p>
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A solar and battery storage project large enough to power the residential population of Las Vegas received final approval from the Department of the Interior on Monday, despite concerns from some conservationists about the project's impact on the threatened Mojave desert tortoise.
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While the nation struggles to find ways to put money in peoples' pockets and to ramp up the economy so people can get back to work, over $43 billion in low-interest loans earmarked for clean energy projects sits undistributed by the Trump administration, according to The New York Times.
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By Dana Nuccitelli
Environmentalists and renewable energy advocates have long been allies in the fight to keep unchecked industrial growth from irreversibly ruining Earth's climate and threatening the future of human civilization. In their new YouTube documentary "Planet of the Humans," director Jeff Gibbs and producer Michael Moore argue for splitting the two sides. Their misleading, outdated, and scientifically sophomoric dismissal of renewable energy is perhaps the most dangerous form of climate denial, eroding support for renewable energy as a critical climate solution.
A Badly Outdated Portrait of Solar and Wind<p>In an interview with Reuters, Michael Moore summarized the premise of the film: "I assumed solar panels would last forever. I didn't know what went into the making of them."</p><p>It's true. Solar panels and wind turbines don't last forever (though they do last several decades), and like every other industrial product, they require mining and manufacturing of raw materials. Sadly, that's about as deep as the film delves into quantifying the environmental impacts of renewable energy versus fossil fuels. In fact, the misinformation in the film is at times much worse than ignorance.</p><p>In one scene, author and film co-producer Ozzie Zehner falsely asserts, "You use more fossil fuels [manufacturing renewables infrastructure] than you're getting benefit from. You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place instead of playing pretend."</p><p><span></span>That's monumentally wrong. A <a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/solar-wind-nuclear-amazingly-low-carbon-footprints" target="_blank">2017 study in Nature Energy</a> found that when accounting for manufacturing and construction, the lifetime carbon footprints of solar, wind, and nuclear power are about 20 times smaller than those of coal and natural gas, even when the latter include expensive carbon capture and storage technology. The energy produced during the operation of a solar panel and wind turbine is 26 and 44 times greater than the energy needed to build and install them, respectively. There are many life-cycle assessment studies arriving at similar conclusions.</p>
A Shallow Dismissal of Electric Vehicles<p>In another science, Gibbs travels to a General Motors facility in Lansing, Michigan, circa 2010, as GM showcased its then-new Chevy Volt plug-in electric hybrid vehicle. Gibbs interviews a representative from the local municipal electric utility provider, who notes that they generate 95% of their supply by burning coal, and that the power to charge the GM facility's EVs will not come from renewables in the near future.</p><p>That is the full extent of the discussion of EVs in the film. Viewers are left to assume that because these cars are charged by burning coal, they're just <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing" target="_blank">greenwashing</a>. In reality, because of the high efficiency of electric motors, an electric car charged entirely by burning coal still produces less carbon pollution than an internal combustion engine car (though more than a hybrid). The U.S. Department of Energy has <a href="https://afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/electric_emissions.html" target="_blank">a useful tool</a> for comparing carbon emissions between EVs, plug-in hybrids, conventional hybrids, and gasoline-powered cars for each state. In Michigan, on average, EVs are the cleanest option of all, as is the case for the national average power grid. In West Virginia, with over 90% electricity generated from coal, hybrids are the cleanest option, but EVs are still cleaner than gasoline cars.</p><p>In short, EVs are an improvement over gasoline-powered cars everywhere, and their carbon footprints will continue to shrink as renewables expand to supply more of the power grid.</p>
A Valid Critique of Wood Biomass<p>The film devotes a half hour to the practice of burning trees for energy. That's one form of biomass, which also includes burning wood waste, garbage, and biofuels. Last year, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=427&t=3" target="_blank">1% of U.S. electricity</a> was generated by burning wood, but it accounted for 30% of the film run time.</p><p>In fairness, Europe is a different story, where wood biomass accounts for around 5% of electricity generation, and which imports a lot of wood chips from America. It's incentivized because the European Union considers burning wood to be carbon neutral, and it can thus be used to meet climate targets. That's because new trees can be planted to replace those removed, and the EU assumes the wood being burned would have decayed and released its stored carbon anyway.</p><p>There are <a href="https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/3/4/18216045/renewable-energy-wood-pellets-biomass" target="_blank">numerous problems</a> with those assumptions, one of which is unavoidable: time. Burning trees is close to carbon neutral once a replacement tree grows to sufficient maturity to recapture the lost carbon, but that takes many decades. In the meantime, the carbon released into the atmosphere accelerates the climate crisis at a time when slashing emissions is increasingly urgent. That's why <a href="https://www.dogwoodalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Scientist-Letter-to-Governor-Cooper_11-15_2017.pdf" target="_blank">climate scientists are increasingly calling on policymakers</a> to stop expanding this practice. So has 350.org founder Bill McKibben since 2016, <a href="https://350.org/response-planet-of-the-humans-documentary/" target="_blank">despite his depiction in the film</a> as a villainous proponent of clearcutting forests to burn for energy.</p><p>It's complicated, but the carbon footprint of biomass <a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/is-burning-wood-for-energy-worse-for-the-climate-than-coal" target="_blank">depends on where the wood comes from</a>. Burning waste (including waste wood) as biomass that would decay anyway is justifiable, but also generally only practical at a relatively small scale. A more detailed investigation of the wood biomass industry could make for a worthwhile documentary. It's still a small-time player, but it does need to stay that way.</p>
The Bottom Line<p>Gibbs asks, "Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?"</p><p>Why not? Industrial civilization has a non-zero climate and environmental footprint, but the impact of green technologies like EVs, wind turbines, and solar panels is much smaller than the alternatives. They represent humanity's best chance to avoid a climate catastrophe.</p><p>The filmmakers call for an end to limitless economic growth and consumption. It's difficult to envision that goal being achieved anytime soon, but even if it is, human civilization will continue to exist and require energy. To avert a climate crisis, that energy must be supplied by the clean renewable technologies pilloried in the film. To expand on the earlier analogy, the filmmakers seem to believe we should improve nutrition not by eating healthier foods like strawberries, but rather by eating a bit less cheesecake.</p><p>Like Fox News and other propaganda vehicles, the film presents one biased perspective via carefully chosen voices, virtually all of whom are comfortable white men. It applies an environmental purity test that can seem convincing for viewers lacking expertise in the topic. Any imperfect technology – which is every technology – is deemed bad. It's a clear example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. In reality, this movie is the enemy of humanity's last best chance to save itself and countless other species from unchecked climate change through a transition to cleaner technologies.</p>
By Lynn Freehill-Maye
When Jackie Augustine opens a chicken coop door one brisk spring morning in upstate New York, the hens bolt out like windup toys. Still, as their faint barnyard scent testifies, they aren't battery-powered but very much alive.
These are "solar chickens." At this local community egg cooperative, Geneva Peeps, the birds live with solar power all around them. Their hen house is built under photovoltaic panels, and even outside, they'll spend time underneath them, protected from sun, rain, and hawks.
Finding the Right Pairing<p>Agrivoltaics doesn't just include chickens. Other livestock also can roam around solar panels, and some researchers are experimenting with planting crops, too. </p><p>Animals that graze around solar fields offer several benefits, proponents of agrivoltaics say. Not only does their manure enrich the soil, their munching keeps plants from growing too tall and shading the panels. Another win: They lower vegetation maintenance costs, reducing the need for lawn mowers or landscapers.</p><p>Pilot agrivoltaic programs have tried many grazers – with varying success. The chickens at Geneva Peeps, for example, aren't grazing powerhouses. Founder Jeff Henderson admits that he still has to fire up the lawn mower sometimes.</p><p>When solar panels are elevated for them to roam beneath, cows do better, as shown in a <a href="https://ag.umass.edu/clean-energy/current-initiatives/solar-pv-agriculture" target="_blank">University of Massachusetts pilot</a>. But the higher materials cost of raising panels has kept "solar cattle" from taking hold yet. Goats have been tried, too, but they sometimes jump on panels and chew wires.</p><p>The winner among livestock so far has been calm, eat-anything-and-everything sheep. In fact, most of the members of the American Solar Grazing Association, founded in 2017, are shepherds. (Honeybees can be part of the mix with sheep, too.)</p>
Seeking Common Ground<p>Still, tensions remain between solar and agriculture. Farmers who lease the land they grow crops on often worry about their landlords renting it out to someone else, including solar farms. And rural residents may want to see their area hold onto its farming heritage. A California developer, Cypress Creek Renewables, riled up rural New York in 2016 when it mass-mailed farmers seeking leases on 20-plus acre fields.</p><p>Lewis Fox, co-founder of the American Solar Grazing Association, has found that involving animals helps solar skeptics lower their defenses. He'll bring lambs to a project open house and find locals open up a bit more. Often, he says, they find it reassuring that local land can stay in agriculture, even if solar is added.</p><p>"Solar in general is unfamiliar to people, and if you hear there's a large development coming to your town, people naturally get defensive, a little suspicious," Mr. Fox says. "There's support, but also a lot of concern. Once people come out to a site and see it being grazed, it kind of clicks. A well-managed grazing program on a site is very productive. It's not just throwing a few sheep out and letting them go wherever for a season. We can raise a lot of meat on an acre of raised panels. It's a serious form of agriculture."</p>
First Came the Chickens<p>Mr. Henderson didn't know about agrivoltaics when he founded Geneva Peeps in 2015. His goal was simply to help local families raise chickens. Backyard coops aren't allowed in the Finger Lakes town of Geneva, New York, but he found industrial-zoned land where they'd be permitted. </p><p>Forty families now share weekly chicken-care shifts of 10 to 15 minutes. Ms. Augustine pedals over for her shift, and with her bike helmet still on, checks the hens' food and water. In return, she and fellow members get a dozen or more eggs at a time. </p><p>The year after launching, Mr. Henderson installed 44 kilowatts' worth of solar panels, both powering the operation and producing excess for the grid through net metering. There wasn't enough room on the chicken coops to install rooftop panels, but he did have more than an acre of land – more than 180 egg-layers really needed. Mr. Henderson wasn't aware of any similar farms combining solar and chickens, but he figured the project could be a local sustainability model. </p><p>"We knew they could all coexist together because there's no reason you can't have solar panels and chickens," Mr. Henderson says. "One of the hopes is this will give people an idea of a way you could do it."</p>
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Cities and counties across the country are choosing to create community choice aggregation (CCA) programs, sometimes known as community choice energy or municipal aggregation.
How Does It Work<p>The first step to achieving a community choice aggregation program is ensuring that the proper legislation is in place at the state-level. Several U.S. states have passed legislation that allows local municipalities to enact CCA programs, including California, Illinois, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio and New Jersey.</p><p>This legislation removes the regulations around who controls the electric utilities in a certain region and allows for a local municipality to procure power independently. If a municipality chooses to enact a program under these laws, consumers within a CCAs control are given the option to participate, typically through an opt-out model, where the default is enrollment. While customers can choose to stick with the existing utility option, CCAs often provide an appealing competitive rate and more renewable options. </p>
Marin County, California<p><a href="https://www.mcecleanenergy.org/" target="_blank">Marin Clean Energy</a> (MCE) launched in 2010 as California's first CCA program, following the passage of Assembly Bill 117, which gave communities the ability to purchase power on behalf of residents and businesses.</p><p>Marin County joined with three neighboring counties, as well as several other unincorporated regions and cities in the greater Bay area, to create MCE. Through this program, customers can choose between 60 percent renewable, 100 percent California-based renewable, or 100 percent locally sourced solar electricity portfolios.</p><p>For MCE to provide more renewable energy, local development of renewable energy projects has increased — and with it so have the number of available green jobs.</p><p>MCE reports that from 2010 to 2018, they've eliminated over 340,000 metric tons of carbon emission while helping cities and counties achieve their greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. MCE serves more than 255,000 customers across 34 communities around the Bay Area.</p>
Albany, New York<p>In early March 2020, the City of Albany voted to create a CCA program to provide a competitive electricity rate with renewables to its residents.</p><p>By partnering with Municipal Electric and Gas Alliance (MEGA) and 13 other municipalities, Albany will offer an alternative utility provider to residents than the existing utility. Residents within the city's jurisdiction will automatically be enrolled in this program unless they choose to opt-out. Albany's CCA program features structure that allows residents to choose the percentage of renewables in their energy portfolio and will help facilitate Albany's transition to 100 percent renewable electricity.</p><p>Albany hopes this new program will help stabilize electricity costs by using its group purchasing power and competition, and ultimately reduce costs and deter predatory practices of energy telemarketers and door-to-door sales.</p>
Massachusetts<p>The towns of Melrose and Brookline have shown that CCA programs can also be successful in Massachusetts. The CCA program in Melrose has been providing the town with 5 percent renewable electricity since 2016. This program, one of the first for the state, relies primarily on wind projects in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to procure this electricity and provide it to customers though the CCA program.</p><p>The program has been widely supported due to its success stabilizing electricity rates, while providing a cleaner option. </p><p>Brookline Green Energy provides four choices for its customers with different amounts of additional renewable energy, ranging from zero percent to 100 percent. This is currently the largest amount of renewable energy provided by any utility in the state.</p><p>Additionally, Brookline Green Energy is committed to providing competitive prices by fixing its electricity costs through 2022, at which time they'll re-leverage their aggregate purchasing power to negotiate a new contract with electricity providers. This program is expected to reduce the town's overall carbon emissions by over 8 percent, a huge step toward reaching its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.</p>
What Can You Do?<p>Want your county to lead the way in fighting the climate crisis? Through asking your county to join the <a href="https://www.climaterealityproject.org/climatecoalition" target="_blank">County Climate Coalition campaign</a>, your county can join a growing coalition of counties across the nation dedicated to taking local climate action.</p><p>Join your local Climate Reality chapter to get involved in promoting innovative solutions to the climate crisis, including community choice aggregation, in your own community. You and your chapter can learn the best ways to urge your own county's elected officials to take regional action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. <a href="https://www.climaterealityproject.org/climatecoalition" target="_blank">Learn more now</a>.</p><p>Across the country, everyday Americans are joining <a href="https://www.climaterealityproject.org/chapters" target="_blank">Climate Reality chapters</a> and working together for practical climate solutions in communities from sea to shining sea.</p><p>These friends, neighbors, and colleagues are bringing clean energy to their towns, fighting fracking developments, and so much more. Most of all, they're making a real difference for our climate when it matters — and you can too.</p>
By Andrea Thompson
Solar panels perched on the roofs of houses and other buildings are an increasingly common sight in the U.S., but rooftop wind systems have never caught on. Past efforts to scale down the towering turbines that generate wind power to something that might sit on a home have been plagued by too many technical problems to make such devices practical. Now, however, a new design could circumvent those issues by harnessing the same principle that creates lift for airplane wings.
You may think it would be pricey to rent an apartment in a sleek new complex with rooftop solar and ultra-efficient appliances. But Silver Star Apartments in L.A. houses formerly homeless and disabled veterans.
It's one of a small but growing number of affordable housing developments built to meet stringent green building standards.
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