ClimateCast logo over owl in flight
Judges hear power plan, clean energy costs falling
October 3, 2016

‘Game-changing progress’ for clean energy

Prices of wind power, photovoltaics, LED lighting and electric-vehicle batteries keep dropping and installations keep increasing, according to an annual Department of Energy assessment released last week that documents what Joe Romm calls “game-changing progress.” For some technologies, it’s hard to discern last year’s cost declines, because prices had already fallen so far and the agency charted their trajectory on regular graph paper. A similar trend showed up in Mexico’s clean energy auction, where the state-owned utility contracted for nearly 9 billion annual kWh of wind and solar for an average price of just 3.3¢ per kwh.

Clean Power Plan gets another day in appeals court

The Clean Power Plan went before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals last week, where a 10-judge panel heard oral arguments over President Obama’s signature plan to reduce climate pollution from the electricity sector. Court observers predict a 6-4 or even 7-3 victory for the plan, based on the judges’ questions and prior decisions; their expected votes match the party affiliation of the president who appointed them. Although coal-dependent states and utilities lined up against the plan, another consortium of utilities (including Seattle City Light) intervened on its behalf. The plan’s opponents are attempting to hold back a powerful tide: the CEO of Duke Energy said it was unclear whether the utility would still be burning coal in 2040; across the Atlantic, coal comprised just 6 percent of the UK’s power generation this spring.

OPEC agrees to produce less, but deal still shaky

OPEC ministers reached a preliminary agreement last week to cut oil production from 33.2 million barrels a day to between 32.5 and 33 million, in the hopes of pushing up the world price of crude. But they postponed allocating the cuts in production until next month, and doubts remained about whether cartel members will abide by their quotas. Meanwhile, sales of electric vehicles and smaller cars were expected to accelerate if gas prices rise. In Europe, Renault released a new model of its electric Zoe which at $26,500 is the first lower-priced EV to claim a range of over 200 miles.

LEDs may be harmful, hydro might not be so clean

A not-yet-published paper in Bioscience kicked up a kerfuffle last week when its conclusions leaked to the press, proclaiming that reservoirs produce methane at a rate 25 percent greater than previously thought and contribute 1.3 percent to the world’s output of greenhouse gases. The study—a literature review—didn’t distinguish between municipal and irrigation reservoirs versus those managed for electricity production, but the man-bites-dog message trumpeted in the media was that hydropower isn’t climatically benign after all. In the energy efficiency department, blue-tinted LED streetlights took criticism for disrupting the human sleep cycle, and top-selling TV manufacturers Samsung and LG came under scrutiny for gaming the test cycle used to rate TV sets for their energy consumption.

Paris ratification heightens focus on US election

With the Paris climate deal getting India’s final approval last weekend, and the 28 EU nations agreeing to fast-track its ratification, the agreement will take effect this month, raising the stakes even further in the US presidential race. A close read of the accord suggests that the next US president could abrogate it in a year simply by withdrawing from the underlying 1992 UN treaty on which the Paris pact is based. Alternatively, a Trump presidency might simply not enforce the domestic regulations that would steer the US toward meeting its climate commitments. In either case, Trump’s campaign rhetoric relies on the outdated notion that solar employs fewer people than coal or oil, and judges one solar bankruptcy (Solyndra) by a different standard than the candidate’s own four bankruptcies.

Where does your solar grow?

If you weren’t already convinced that Hawaii and California are poised for rapid growth in solar power, “diffusion of innovation” theory suggests solar could start growing even faster. It takes a while for 15 percent of any population to adopt a new technology—but adoption rates zoom to 60 percent soon thereafter. In Hawaii, 17 percent of electric customers already have rooftop solar, but the utility has lobbied hard to make the terms for rooftop solar less attractive. In California, Republican-leaning Congressional districts tend to have a higher percentage of solar rooftops, but the explanation isn’t the politics: it’s the prevalence of owner-occupied single family homes in sunny areas. And even in the Big Apple, rooftop solar is taking off, despite fire codes that require large areas of a roof be left open. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

In brief: Perennial grains and windpower biomimicry

A Portland brewery is bringing a new beer to market, made in part from a grain uniquely qualified to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Long Root Ale is brewed with Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass developed at Kansas’s Land Institute, which develops long-lived roots underground that keep carbon from returning to the air after the growing season. In Germany, Siemens unveiled quieter wind turbine rotors inspired by owls: engineers added tiny serrations and combs to the blade, modeled on the fringes found on the trailing edge of owl feathers, which enable it to glide silently through the air.

Image: A spectacled owl in flight, fringed wing-feathers extended. Photo by David Evans, via Flickr

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Author Bio

Seth Zuckerman

former 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).

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