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Solar costs falling, oil prices climbing, mercury soaring
June 20, 2016

Solar and wind headed for further price cuts

The cost of solar power could drop nearly 60 percent and wind prices about 30 percent by the middle of the next decade, as long as the right policies are applied, according to a new International Renewable Energy Agency report. These ongoing price cuts support the optimism of clean tech investor Andrew Beebe, who demolishes Bill Gates’ call for “energy miracles” by pointing to recent renewable successes, and bolster David Roberts’ argument that a switch to clean energy could take place much faster than past energy transitions. That transition can be seen in Wyoming, where coal towns shrivel as wind energy grows, and in North Dakota, where wind farms multiply even as the state’s oil industry falters. 

Shift toward EVs is brewing, but needs support

Volkswagen will introduce 30 new plug-in models and aim to sell 2 to 3 million EVs annually by 2025, it announced last week, dwarfing the 1.3 million EVs on the road worldwide last year. Such swift growth in EVs by VW and others offers great benefits to utilities, according to a new Rocky Mountain Institute report, and could cut US gasoline use 5 to 20 percent in the next two decades, but NRDC cautioned those gains can be realized only with policies that support the construction of charging infrastructure. In California, a new state budget eliminates incentives for cleaner cars, but higher gasoline prices, caused as tighter petroleum supplies have recently raised the price of crude to $50 per barrel, provide a renewed push toward EVs.

Southwest heat wave kills 4, worsens wildfires

At least four people died of the heat in the US Southwest, as temperatures soared to triple-digit highs that broke records for this point in the season and aggravated wildfires in New Mexico, Arizona, and California. In Greenland, 75˚F heat last week was equally extraordinary. The record-breaking heat underscored the difference between a world 2˚C warmer than pre-industrial levels, and a 1.5˚-warmer world, described here by European researchers. That knowledge came too late for the Bramble Cay melomys, an Australian rodent driven extinct by rising seas on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the first modern species to perish from a changing climate, though not the first linked to Homo sapiens: new research connects Patagonia’s Pleistocene extinctions to a combination of climate change and human hunting. Wild habitat corridors can help species survive a changing climate, while Florida homeowners and realtors are adapting to rising seas in their own way, by building taller seawalls and adding fill to raise ground levels. 

Opposition softens to existing nuclear plants

Already-built nuclear plants got a boost this month, when Sweden repealed a penny-per-kilowatt-hour tax on nuclear power that put a crimp on atomic economics and threatened to take carbon-free power offline. The Scandinavian nation also approved modifications to 1980s-era reactors that will keep them open until 2040. Similarly, some environmental groups have eased their campaign for early reactor shutdowns, so as not to require more natural-gas-fired electricity as a substitute, reports The Wall Street Journal, though their opposition to new reactors remains steadfast, and few utilities show interest in new plants like the one just fired up by the Tennessee Valley Authority even after a glitch in the start-up procedure shut it down earlier this month. A Nebraska utility voted to close its Fort Calhoun reactor this year, while Exelon’s planned early closure of two Illinois reactors will leave it short of funds to decommission the plants

Oregon mulls market-based climate action

Oregon regulators last week kicked off a study of market-based options to rein in climate pollution, funded by a $230,000 appropriation in last spring’s budget bill. On the Department of Environmental Quality’s radar are arrangements that would link Oregon’s carbon market to California and Quebec’s. California’s healthy carbon permits market became unsettled recently because the Golden State has yet to extend its cap past 2020, and an appeals court is weighing whether the cap constitutes a tax, which needs to pass by a supermajority. In British Columbia, climate progress has stalled, according to a Pembina Institute report, as the province’s carbon tax remains stuck at C$30 per ton since 2012. Canadian clean energy investment dropped 15 percent last year, led by a 52 percent decrease in BC.

Climate change becoming a factor for investors

A former Reagan SEC appointee has written a six-page legal essay arguing that institutional investors are negligent to bet against the Paris accord by continuing to hold assets in fossil fuel companies. Some of the world’s largest banks have not read the memo: their hundreds of billions of investments in coal mining, extreme oil extraction, and liquid natural gas would make it next to impossible to limit global warming to the Paris agreement’s less than 2˚C, according to a new report grading banks on fossil fuel investment. In contrast, small-scale solar, biogas, and other off-grid systems for the developing world, which could offer the best paths to get clean power to the world's poorest people by 2030, go begging for needed funds. Meanwhile, a financial writer concludes that markets are over-exposed to catastrophic climate change impacts and offers advice on how to insulate portfolios from climate change.

Energy markets in state of ferment

Montana last week suspended its standard wholesale offer of 6.6 cents per kilowatt-hour to solar farms, with one utility commissioner saying that developers were flocking to the state “to cut a really fat hog” by setting up arrays to sell power at that price. This rewrite of electric market rules is just one of many revisions proposed to electric markets. A new federal lab report explores three different strategies to deal with the growth in rooftop solar besides a limit to net metering, such as time-of-use incentives to return power to the grid when it is most needed. Meanwhile, major utilities argue that electricity markets don’t adequately value power plants that provide reliable capacity to the grid. Apple took a different approach, seeking approval to sell its excess renewable power in the wholesale market, so as to garner higher rates for its surpluses.  

 

Image: A wind farm near Canberra, Australia. Photo by Chris Murray, 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).