US installs more new solar than fossil gas in 2015
February 22, 2016

US solar posts record year; utility execs seek new models

The US grid gained a record 7.3 GW of solar generation last year, a total that exceeded new fossil gas capacity for the first time. Residential and commercial systems represented about 40 percent of that total, a trend that contributed to a recent survey finding that only 3 percent of electric-power executives think their business model can remain intact. Two-thirds believe that utilities should be able to own distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar arrays, and earn a return for shareholders. Some utilities such as Berkshire Hathaway’s power companies are fighting back against clean power providers by trying to shorten the contracts they award to independent power producers. Others responses are more constructive, such as linking solar and wind regions to load centers with high-voltage direct-current lines, enlarging the California power market to encompass the entire West, and making the grid more responsive to variable renewable energy.

‘Peak oil’ now refers to peak demand, not supply

Improvements in electric vehicles will likely lead global petroleum demand to peak by 2030, argues Joe Romm, pointing to explosive growth in Chinese EV sales and expected economies of scale. Already, weak demand has pushed prices downward, putting 175 publicly traded oil firms in danger of bankruptcy, and leading some oil partnerships to restructure their debt, causing nasty tax bills for investors. Exxon Mobil’s oil and gas reserves fell last year, as some were taken off the books because they are uneconomical to extract in the current market, causing the firm’s reserve-replacement ratio to fall for the first time in 22 years. Exxon Mobil’s future seemed so discouraging to one of John D. Rockefeller’s great-granddaughters that she donated her shares in the company to the Rockefeller Family Fund, which sold them for $400,000 to support its climate program. 

Koch brothers plan to do battle with EV industry

With the market for their product at stake, it’s no wonder petroleum moguls David and Charles Koch are raising $10 million to oppose EV incentives and alternative fuels—a prospect Tesla CEO Elon Musk greeted by noting that oil companies are themselves heavily subsidized. The threat to petroleum demand is real: Both Tesla and General Motors promise to release mid-priced, 200-mile-range EVs—the GM Bolt, scheduled for delivery at the end of this year, will cost $30,000 after the federal tax credit, placing it in the mid-range of US new car prices. For plug-in hybrids powered both by on-board engine and battery, new research shows they are most efficient if the battery isn’t exhausted before the engine kicks in.   

Mapping ecosystems’ sensitivity to climate shifts

Climate change disturbs some plants and ecosystems more easily than others, according to two papers published this month. In Nature, researchers predicted how sharply ecosystems would respond to climatic shifts, producing these amazing maps of which regions are most sensitive, and to which factors. Another paper showed that the range of some California plant species has shifted in the last century while others have stayed put, suggesting that plant communities could be torn asunder by global warming. The findings were released as climatologists announced that January broke global temperature records for the ninth month running, Arctic temperatures ran 4˚C above average, and Arctic sea ice actually declined in early February. On the bright side, California celebrated a normal mountain snowpack for the first time in five years.

Governors form bipartisan clean-energy coalition

Seventeen US governors—four of them Republicans—joined together last week in the Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future to promote clean energy and transportation. GOP participation in the alliance was part of a series of thoughtcrimes by Republicans, including a call by presidential candidate John Kasich to support renewable power and electricity storage, as well as his acknowledgment—captured here on video—that human activity is affecting the climate. On the Democratic side, Nevada’s recent anti-rooftop-solar measures showcased the candidates’ different approaches, with Sen. Bernie Sanders blaming a system that empowers wealthy corporations, and Sec. Hillary Clinton backing a relevant amendment to the Senate energy bill. 

Study shows higher methane leakage than reported

Observed US emissions of the potent climate pollutant methane rose 30 percent from 2002 to 2014, according to new research. These satellite-based figures far exceed the EPA’s flat estimates, which are derived from oil and gas industry reporting. The study—spanning the years when fracking skyrocketed—ended before the blow-out at the Aliso Canyon gas field, stanched last week after 111 days. Analysts questioned whether the federal government will impose adequate regulations to prevent a repeat offense, while neighbors doubted that it’s truly safe to return home. Unease with methane underlay some of the opposition to a Tacoma methane-to-methanol plant, whose permitting was postponed last week following public outcry.

In brief: Bhutan, a carbon-negative ‘city on a hill’

Consider Bhutan, perched high in the Himalayas, whose new hydropower plants are run-of-river facilities that don’t drown river valleys under reservoirs, and will export clean power to Bhutan’s neighbors during much of the year. Bhutan lays claim to being one of the few carbon-negative countries, thanks to conserved lands that cover more than half of the nation and absorb more than twice as much carbon annually as its fossil-fuel consumption emits. Now that’s progress.

Image: Measuring snow depth in the North Cascades. Photo by the Washington State Department of Transportation


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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).