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North American grid to be 50% carbon-free by 2025
July 5, 2016

Moving toward climate action arm in arm

Multilateral climate action gathered steam last week, as the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the US pledged that 50 percent of their combined electricity generation will be carbon-free by 2025, up from 37 percent currently. Not to be confused with a Renewable Portfolio Standard, this figure includes large hydro, nuclear plants, and even fossil generation with carbon capture and storage. Separately, Saudi Arabia and Germany vowed to ratify the Paris climate accords this year, although the German pledge will not take effect until all EU members ratify, a process muddled by the UK’s vote to leave the union. New research confirms that the ban on chlorofluorocarbons has shrunk the ozone hole, buoying the case for global action, but fossil fuels pose a tougher nut—as demonstrated by the G-20 energy ministers’ inability last week to agree on a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies

Solar prices drop, clean energy more competitive

The installed price of solar power dropped by more than 8 percent in the first half of this year, with home systems falling to $3 per watt and non-residential systems costing just $1.88—a price so low that it’s competitive with wind and natural gas. Solar financiers worry that fierce bidding to win power contracts is driving profit margins down, a trend that curbs the return to solar investors but benefits clean energy. Solar’s increasing presence on the grid is also reshaping the deregulated power markets where two-thirds of US electricity is sold, reducing spot prices even as most renewable power contracts insulate wind and solar from those impacts. Industry employment has grown, too, with installers earning an average of $21 per hour and 30,000 new hires projected in the US this year. 

Further fossil follies and foibles

Plans to export Utah coal through the Port of Oakland collapsed last week when the city council voted unanimously to prohibit transportation and storage of the fuel within the city limits. In other bad news for coal, regulators raised the royalties that mining and drilling companies pay on federal land, basing the royalties on the fuel’s first arm’s length sale; if that rule had been in effect in 2011, extractors would have paid $40 million more in Wyoming and Montana alone. In Mississippi, a whistleblower revealed years of costly mismanagement at the $6.5 billion Kemper carbon capture and storage plant, which was to have been the flagship of clean coal. Oil production in the Lower 48 slid to 800,000 barrels a day below last year’s peak, helping to tighten world oil markets, which in turn spurred a $37 billion expansion to a Kazakhstani oil project.

Carbon pricing gains new ally, but pricing isn’t enough

Exxon Mobil has begun advocating actively for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, reports The Wall Street Journal. Although the oil giant’s motives are unclear, some observers suggest it wants to accelerate the shift from coal to natural gas for electricity production. Pricing carbon is only a partial climate policy, argues the Broadbent Institute, which described five reasons it’s important for Ontario to go farther in hastening the transition to clean energy. Indeed, the viability of carbon pricing depends on the political climate, which is one reason Hillary Clinton has left it out of her climate plan, and helps explain why a controversy is brewing over California fuel suppliers’ proposal to post the per-gallon cost of emission permits on gas pumps.

Climate changes bring wildfires, monsoon changes

The coming Amazonian wildfire season threatens to be one of the worst on record because of a drought triggered by El Niño, according to a NASA forecast released last week. Readers can track the number of fires and estimated emissions here. In India, changes in the “Indo-Pacific Warm Pool,” which drives the vital monsoon rains, were linked to anthropogenic climate change in a Science Advances article. And New Zealand just experienced its hottest first half of the year ever, with temperatures 2.5˚F above normal. With austral winter getting underway, commercial ski areas are finding themselves with little snow, much as the Pacific Northwest did two winters ago. 

As baseload fades away, new approaches needed

The closure of Diablo Canyon in 2025 will leave California without any “baseload generation”—power plants designed to run around the clock—marking a new era for the state’s grid. Its three large private utilities already sell a higher proportion of renewable power than any US counterparts, with 23 to 36 percent of their power generated renewably. Unfortunately, utility regulation tends to discourage some of the most cost-effective approaches to greening the grid, suggesting that it will take new rules to motivate a rapid transition to clean power. One barrier to renewables fell recently when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allowed public utilities to buy power from small generators without paying a penalty to their wholesale suppliers—a ruling as significant to co-ops as net metering is for homeowners.

Image:  Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories investigate the impact of cloud cover on the output of large-scale solar arrays. Photo by Randy Montoya, via Flickr

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Author Bio

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).