ClimateCast logo over girl brushing snow off PV panels
US solar jobs top 200,000; feds halt new coal leasing
January 19, 2016

Global clean energy investment rises, spreads

Global investment in clean energy hit a record $329 billion in 2015, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported last week, with emerging markets for the first time accounting for half of that amount. The sector brought online 121 GW of new solar and wind capacity, a 30 percent increase over 2014, despite sliding prices for oil, which is now primarily used for transportation. Continued commitment to clean energy stands to boost the global economy, said the International Renewable Energy Agency, which estimated that doubling renewables’ share of global energy demand to 36 percent by 2030 would create 24 million jobs and boost global economic output by 1.1 percent—incidentally putting the world on track to meet the Paris climate goals.

Coal and oil on the ropes

The Obama administration last week suspended leasing for new coal mines on public land, spurning bids from mining concerns to extract another 640 million tons from Wyoming. Obama also requested $1 billion over five years to reclaim and retire old mines. Even as global demand for coal cools and New York’s governor vowed to phase out coal use by 2020, the administration’s move provoked familiar calls to end the “war on coal” and raised the issue’s profile in the presidential race. Oil fared poorly last week, too, with benchmark grades of crude dropping below $30 a barrel, while Canadian oil sands bitumen fetched under $10 and North Dakota Sour just $1.50. Economist Paul Krugman explored the potentially recessionary impact of low oil prices, while banks braced for default on loans to oil producers and the United Arab Emirates stepped up planning for a post-oil economy.

Solar employs more than oil & gas extraction

The US solar work force grew by 20 percent last year to 209,000, the Solar Foundation said last week—more than are employed in oil and gas extraction and pipelines, though smaller than the entire petroleum sector, which includes refineries and other downstream operations. Utility-scale solar in Q3 2015 cost 17 percent less than a year before, reaching $1.38 per watt. Solar costs grew more homogeneous across the US, although some high-price pockets remained, such as Washington state, where residential solar cost 20 percent more per watt than the national average. The federal solar tax credit extension is predicted to shift upcoming battles to the state level, possibly becoming an issue in the presidential race.

Not quite as renewable as it seems

When does that solar panel on your roof not supply you with solar electricity? When the “solarosity” of that electricity has already been sold out from under you. It turns out that third-party solar-leasing firms such as SunCommon and SolarCity sell utilities the Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), representing the “renewability” of the electricity. With the RECs go the rights for a homeowner to make any claims about the cleanliness of the power produced on their roof. Those RECs, however, are helping utilities comply with state Renewable Portfolio Standards, which are returning billions of dollars annually in clean-air benefits according to a new study and driving much of US growth in renewable power.

Activists present defense of necessity in oil train case

Five climate activists accused of blocking an oil train in Everett, WA in 2014 presented a “defense of necessity” in a Washington court last week. Although the judge ultimately instructed the jury to disregard the defendants’ argument (video excerpts here), the jury acquitted the five of obstruction while convicting them only of the lesser charge of trespassing, thus sparing them from owing the railroad restitution. In other regional campaigns against fossil fuels, the Lummi Nation is fighting a coal terminal proposed for Cherry Point near Bellingham, while two activists boarded and shut down a drilling barge in Vancouver harbor that was conducting studies for the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline terminal.

Cheap gasoline hurts US new-car mpg, EV sales

US sales of plug-in vehicles fell 17 percent last year to 102,600, facing headwinds from cheap gas and the imminent release of improved models from Nissan and GM. By comparison, in the UK, where petrol still costs the equivalent of $5 per gallon, EV sales doubled last year. The glut of cheap gas in the US affected internal-combustion car sales, too, as US car-buyers opted for larger cars, stalling a seven-year streak of improvement in fuel economy. The federal government last week announced a $4 billion, 10-year plan to invest in driverless car technology. The bad news: autonomous vehicles will likely increase congestion, in part by making driving less of a hassle.


Image: A PV array installed by REPOWERBalcombe, in a British village that embraced solar power in the wake of anti-fracking protests in 2013. Photo by 1010UK.


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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).