Clean energy overtaking fossil on cost, new capacity

Energy picture in U.S. turning greener

Clean energy continues getting cheaper, and coal has lost about 10 percent of the U.S. power market to renewables and natural gas since 2007, according to a report released last week by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Solar and wind accounted for more new generating capacity last year than gas, and their use on the California and Hawaii grids is so widespread that midday demand for fossil power is now lower than the evening load. But the cleanest BTU is the one you don’t use, and energy efficiency has decoupled economic growth from energy use for decades—a phenomenon that extends to the federal government, whose appetite for energy is down 40 percent since 1975.

Renewable prices dropping; nuke owners strike back

Favorable news for renewables came on the international front, in a report from the International Renewable Energy Agency that highlights the drop in prices for solar, wind, and other forms of clean energy. Although costs trends everywhere point downward, prices vary greatly between regions, suggesting that where renewables are more expensive, the greatest gains will come from closer attention to the operations, financing, and “balance-of-system” costs—everything besides the panels or turbines at the heart of the project. In the Midwestern U.S., the low price of wind energy has cut into the profit margins for nuclear power, leading nuke owners to fight standards that favor renewables

China’s carbon trading scheme set to go national next year

China will expand its regional pilot programs in carbon trading to a single national market next year, a senior Chinese official said last week. The market will cover carbon-intensive sectors of the economy—electric generation, metals, chemicals, aviation, and building materials—and will overtake the EU as the world’s largest. In California, where few ripples greeted last month’s growth of the carbon cap to include motor fuels, the state is scheduled to cut back free carbon allowances for factories starting in 2018. Some manufacturers are demanding to keep the free permits, while other sectors of the economy are thriving with the impetus to adopt clean technologies.

Business world awakening to risk of climate change

With Global Divestment Day just around the corner, awareness of climate change risk was in the news last week. Norway’s $850 billion Government Pension Fund Global removed 32 coal mining companies from its portfolio, citing risks to profits from regulatory action on climate change, while 14 well-known CEOs called on countries gathering in Paris in December to commit to reduce net emissions to zero by 2050 to avoid “catastrophic” climate change. Oil giants Shell and BP backed shareholder resolutions demanding they assess how their businesses will withstand global efforts to address climate change; reduce carbon emissions; invest in renewable energy; and share information about bonuses that reward “climate-harming activities.”

Oil price slide shakes up energy situation, opens doors of opportunity

Cheaper crude has made it politically palatable for developing countries to let fuel prices to float with the market. Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and Ghana have all cut petroleum subsidies. Cheaper oil also reduces the drive to drill on the energy frontier, says author Naomi Klein, and weakens oil companies’ power as it cuts into their profits. According to a recent analysis, Saudi Arabia’s refusal to restrain production may stem from a calculus that caps on carbon pollution may limit how much of the world’s petroleum can ultimately be sold—and the desert kingdom wants to get as large a share of that market as possible.

Cheap gas may slow EV adoption, but manufacturers power ahead

Electric vehicles made up half a percent of the new-car market in the U.S. and western Europe last year, but industry analysts believe sales may stall in the wake of cheap gasoline. Nevertheless, BYD Motors debuted the first 200-mile electric bus at a New Orleans trade show, and General Motors announced plans to launch its 200-mile compact EV, the Bolt, in late 2016. These figures for EV range turn out to vary depending on how fully charged the batteries are before testing; regardless, the EV advantage in torque is beyond dispute, and depicted in a video of the passenger experience in a Tesla set to “insane mode.”

Feds pull out of Illinois carbon capture project

The Department of Energy last week pulled the plug on a $1.7 billion Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) project in Illinois, which would have retrofitted an aging coal plant to store the carbon dioxide from its exhaust deep under ground. Obama’s stimulus bill committed $1.1 billion to the Illinois project, but it was beset by delays, and couldn’t have spent the remaining $900 million before federal funding expires this September. The decision brought cheers from the Sierra Club and disappointment from the coal industry and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). In Iceland, CCS researchers are piloting a different system, in which carbon dioxide reacts with subterranean rocks to form new minerals.

Vaccination controversy echoes climate rifts

The controversy over parents’ responsibility to vaccinate their children—rekindled by a recent U.S. measles outbreak—brought with it the temptation to compare immunization-averse parents to climate deniers. Although both contagion and climate change threaten children’s well-being, polling reveals that public opinion on vaccination aligns more closely with scientific research for citizens across the political spectrum. By contrast, views on climate have come to stand for group affiliation—a challenge that compounds with the overall challenges of transmitting scientific findings across the barriers between rationality and belief.

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On the Climate Solutions blog: Climate Solutions Board member and former Oregon State Director Lisa Adatto urges fellow Oregonians to reach out to their legislators to reauthorize the Clean Fuels Program; auto mechanic Jim Houser offers testimony in support of the program; and Carrie Hearne gives a round-up of last Wednesday's varied business leader testimony  before Oregon’s Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. The same day, the Washington State Department of Ecology issued a draft Clean Fuel Standard, and Ben Serrurier describes how it offers a triple win for climate, health, and economic prosperity. Finally, KC Golden writes that fossil fuel divestment bolsters the growing realization that the clean energy revolution can be waged and won.

Seth Zuckerman's picture

Editor, ClimateCast

, Climate Solutions

For over 20 years, Seth has covered issues of natural resources and the environment as a freelance journalist for numerous publications, including The Nation, Sierra, Orion, Newsweek, and the Christian Science Monitor.  He is the co-editor and co-author of Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home (Ecotrust, 1999) and author of Saving Our Ancient Forests (Living Planet Press, 1991). He taught environmental journalism for two semesters at Brown University and directed the forestry programs of northern California’s Mattole Restoration Council from 2006 to 2011. Seth’s work with Climate Solutions marks a return to his academic roots: he holds an A.B. from Stanford in Energy Studies (1983), and an M.S. from UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group (1990).