Rooftop solar energy is becoming a financially viable way for millions of U.S. consumers to generate their own electricity — and utilities are doing everything to kill the solar boom before it gains too much traction. Utilities in states such as Florida, Wisconsin, and Nevada have tried to undermine rooftop solar at the regulatory level and in ballot measures. As a reaction, voters have fought back and beaten the efforts to squash solar energy.
The impact on residential solar companies Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA), Vivint Solar(NYSE: VSLR), Sunrun (NASDAQ: RUN), and SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR) shouldn’t go unnoticed. They’re winning the policy war against utilities, and as they do, it’ll open a larger and larger market across the country.
The election earlier this month was accompanied by a number of ballot initiatives that will impact solar energy for years to come. And for the most part, solar energy was a huge winner.
Despite utilities’ spending $26 million to pass a referendum that would have undermined solar economics in the state, Florida voters rejected the utility referendum. The state now looks like it’ll have a bright solar future.
In Nevada, less than a year after the public utility commission essentially killed the rooftop solar industry, residents overwhelmingly voted to break up Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B)-owned NV Energy’s long monopoly in the state. Customers have to be given energy choice, meaning more solar in one of the country’s sunniest states.
In the past, Wisconsin has tried to add fees to utility bills that would kill solar energy before it ever got started, but those attempts were rejected by the court.
There’s an important trend here for utilities and solar companies: When solar energy goes on the ballot or to the court, it wins. That should have every utility in the country frightened because that gives millions of customers choice regarding their energy needs.
Policy wins are important because they lay the groundwork for future innovations to take hold in energy. Today, that means rooftop solar on more than 1 million homes in the U.S. — and that number is growing quickly.
The next step will be adding energy storage to homes, something that Tesla is leading on and that Vivint, Sunrun, and SunPower are all adding, as well. As energy storage is added, customers can use more of their own energy, making net metering less important and providing more flexibility for customers.
The holy grail for renewable energy is allowing customers to cut the cord to the utility altogether. We may be a decade from that being a reality, but the more utilities add fixed fees or demand charges, the more quickly the economics of cord-cutting will become compelling. Long-duration energy-storage technologies are already beginning to be deployed, and before long, a couple of Powerwalls and a long-duration energy-storage system may be a viable option for consumers, making utilities irrelevant.
Utilities are in a tough position, having incentives to apply policies that protect short-term profits but which may undermine long-term competitiveness. It’s clear that when push comes to shove, voters are willing to overturn utility policies, voting for solar energy across the country. That has to be a concern for utilities, and it shows that the future is getting brighter for solar energy companies providing the solutions customers want.
Electric avenues that can transmit the sun’s energy onto power grids may be coming to a city near you.
A subsidiary of Bouygues SA has designed rugged solar panels, capable of withstand the weight of an 18-wheeler truck, that they’re now building into road surfaces. After nearly five years of research and laboratory tests, they’re constructing 100 outdoor test sites and plan to commercialize the technology in early 2018.
The electricity generated by this stretch of solar road will feed directly into the grid. Another test site is being used to charge electric vehicles. A third will power a small hydrogen production plant. Wattway has also installed its panels to light electronic billboards and is working on links to street lights.
The next two sites will be in Calgary in Canada and in the U.S. state of Georgia. Wattway also plans to build them in Africa, Japan and throughout the European Union.
“We need to test for all kinds of different traffic and climate conditions,” Harelle said. “I want to find the limits of it. We think that maybe it will not be able to withstand a snow plow.”
The potential fragility joins cost as a potential hurdle.
“We’re seeing solar get integrated in a number of things, from windows in buildings to rooftops of cars, made possible by the falling cost of panels,” Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Pietro Radoia said. “On roads, I don’t think that it will really take off unless there’s a shortage of land sometime in the future.”’
THE average Jamaican, while being aware of worsening beach erosion, hotter temperatures and an increased mosquito population, does not necessarily know that excessive amounts of green-house gases belched into the air by industrial processes is at the root of the problem. Neither does he know how to address it.
For that reason, the Government has declared November 28 – December 3 Climate Change Awareness Week and plans to engage policymakers, business leaders, academia, the media, young people and the wider public through a series of events.
“Climate Change Awareness Week is designed to build awareness about climate change and its impacts,” chief technical director in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Lt Col Oral Khan told the Jamaica Observer on Monday.
“The climate is changing already and will continue to change and if we’re not prepared the effects will be disastrous for us,” he added.
The slate of activities for the week includes a journalism training workshop, a two-day workshop for the scientific coomunity at the University of the West Indies Regional Headquarters, a meeting with members of the Youth Environmental Advocacy Programme (YEAP) and high school students from across the country, a session with permanent secretaries, and a two-day Climate Smart Expo at Emancipation Park on December 2-3.
The week coincides with a regional outreach visit to Jamaica by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) intended to:
1. Raise awareness in the region about the IPCC, its role, activities and workplan for the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6);
2. Present the outcome of the Fifth Assessment Report AR5 and demonstrate how climate change is affecting the region;
3. Enlist the participation of the local science and research community in climate research and encourage regional participation in AR6; and
4. Foster a better understanding among the news media about climate science, solutions to climate change and the IPCC process.
Khan, as well as project administrator and senior climate negotiator in the Climate Change Division Clifford Mahlung — who was part of Jamaica’s delegation to COP22 in Marrakech over the last two weeks; founder of the Climate Studies Group at the University of the West Indies, Mona, nobel laureate and professor emeritus Anthony Chen; physicist Dr Tannecia Stephenson; and managing director of Environmental Solutions Limited Eleanor Jones were guests of the newspaper at its weekly Monday Exchange
FOUNDER of the Climate Studies Group at the University of the West Indies (The UWI), Professor Anthony Chen, says the unawareness among politicians about the impact of climate change on small island states such as Jamaica is contributing to a lack of sustainability of mitigation efforts.
“We are not going to solve the problem until we get the political directorate involved (and) committed, and that requires awareness. Most of us are not really aware of the full implications of climate change… I think we need to make the politicians much more aware,” Chen said, pointing to the two per cent growth in the economy over the last quarter.
He was among a team of climate change experts from the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation who were guests at the Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange.
He noted that it was the agricultural sector which accounted for this jump, and that this was directly attributable to a significant increase in rainfall following two years of drought. Professor Chen said politicians must take note of developments such as these so that the country can prepare itself for what will certainly come next — another period of harsh drought.
“If politicians understood full understanding of climate change they would know that the next drought may very well be much worse (than the last) and it will continue to get worse,” he said.
“We have to convince the politicians,” Professor Chen insisted, noting his disappointment that the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change team that will visit Jamaica from November 28 to December 1 will not have the opportunity to meet with parliamentarians because of local government election activities.
Professor Chen also argued that Jamaicans, politicians included, are not paying nearly enough attention to the country’s level of greenhouse emissions and the increasing negative consequences.
“In Jamaica we don’t realise this. We concentrate a lot on adaptation, so people believe that taking care of the environment will solve climate change, and it will not. We have to get major developed countries to cut back on greenhouse gases,” he said.
In fact, Professor Chen argued that there needs to be much greater pressure and advocacy at international meetings for developed countries with the highest emissions, such as China and the United States to help fix the damage they cause, such as assisting small island developing states with storage for renewable energy.
Meanwhile, chief technical director at the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, Lieutenant Colonel Oral Khan, emphasised that climate change policy does feed into the Government’s wider economic development. He explained that Cabinet is usually briefed, through the portfolio minister, on any important findings that is expected to have an impact on the economic planning process.
“When plans or projects are put forward, if they are going to have an impact on the environment, or if they have a large footprint, NEPA would usually require that an Environmental Impact Assessment be conducted to see the feasibility of the project to determine the impact on the environment and what mitigating factors or actions would have to be put in place,” he outlined. Khan also noted the recent appointment of a Climate Change Advisory Board to advise the minister and the division on critical climate change matters.
Professor Chen suggested that an economic unit should be incorporated into the Climate Change Department, to determine the economic cost of climate change in various areas.
Project administrator and senior climate change negotiator, Clifford Mahlung, noted that the Climate Change Division is seeking to streamline and synergise the climate change activities that are already being carried out across all ministries, agencies and departments, to develop sector strategies.
China couldn’t have invented global warming as a hoax to harm U.S. competitiveness because it was Donald Trump’s Republican predecessors who started climate negotiations in the 1980s, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said.
U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush supported the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in initiating global warming talks even before China knew that negotiations to cut pollution were starting, Liu told reporters at United Nations talks on Wednesday in Marrakech, Morocco.
Ministers and government officials from almost 200 countries gathered in Marrakech this week are awaiting a decision by President-elect Trump on whether he’ll pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change. The tycoon tweeted in 2012that the concept of global warming “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” China’s envoy rejected that view.
“If you look at the history of climate change negotiations, actually it was initiated by the IPCC with the support of the Republicans during the Reagan and senior Bush administration during the late 1980s,” Liu told reporters during an hour-long briefing.
While Reagan died in 2004, George Schulz, who served as his secretary of state, has become one of the most prominent Republicans voicing concern about climate change and urging action.
“The potential results are catastrophic,” said Schulz, 95, in an interview with Bloomberg in 2014. “So let’s take out an insurance policy.”
Increased U.S. efforts to curb emissions through investing in new cleaner technologies and manufacturing could actually boost U.S. competitiveness, Liu countered. “That’s why I hope the Republican’s administration will continue to support this process.”
A fortnight of discussions in Marrakech were thrust into the spotlight last week by Trump’s victory. The negotiating texts being drafted by delegates and officials in north African country were suddenly overshadowed by a uncertain political future cast by Trump’s shadow over the two-decade-old process.
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped secure the Paris Agreement last year, said the majority of U.S. citizens back action on climate change and tried to assuage concern.
“No one has a right to make decisions for billions of people based solely on ideology,” he said. “Climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It isn’t a partisan issue for our military. It isn’t a partisan issue for our intelligence community.”
China’s President Xi Jinping underlined the importance of cooperation between the two largest economies when he spoke to Trump on Monday, said Liu, who added China will continue its fight against climate change “whatever the circumstances.”
He added that richer nations should take more responsibility than poor countries for financing the fight against climate change, in line with the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Of course we’re still expecting developed countries including the United States will continue to take the lead on mitigating climate change,” he said.
The earth has warmed barely a single degree Celsius, and yet virtually no place on the planet is unaffected by climate change. That’s the conclusion of both a new study published in the journal Science and a popular-science book out this week, The Unnatural World, by David Biello, the science curator at TED and a Scientific Americancontributing editor.
“This new age is not just climate change,” Biello writes, “it is everything change: the sky, the sea, the land, the rocks, life itself.”
The Science article reviews dozens of field studies and assembles them into a mosaic of ubiquitous change, from the genes of organisms to entire regions. More than 80 percent of the 94 biological and ecological systems surveyed show signs of the changing climate. Led by Brett Scheffers of the University of Florida, a team of 17 scientists trawled academic journals and enumerated observed changes across terrestrial, marine, and freshwater environments. The study’s seven pages are a dense catalog of pervasive, dynamic weirdness that paint a picture of changing ecosystems.
No particular item should strike fear in the hearts of readers but, taken together, the data portray a living world that’s trying to cope. Some highlights: Pink salmon are migrating about two weeks earlier in the summer than they did 40 years ago, spawning in ever-warmer waters and causing the fish’s genome to change. Southern flying squirrels, native to the eastern U.S., are becoming northern flying squirrels, now native to the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and Alaska. Colors—which help determine an animal’s sensitivity to light and consequently its ability to thrive in unfamiliar conditions—are shifting in butterflies, dragonflies, and birds. Some places have new diseases, and old diseases have arrived in new places.
The changes, large and small, illuminate the overarching global and regional changes that scientists have warned about, and now documented, for decades. The chemical and physical stability of many ecosystems, and therefore biodiversity, are under assault. The consequences for human society are both foreseen and unforeseen. “Losing genetic resources in nature may undermine future development of novel crop varieties and compromise key strategies that humans use to adapt to climate change,” the Science authors write.
They also suggest where to start: “It is now up to national governments to make good on the promises they made in Paris” to cut emissions and keep ecosystems safe. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to leave the historic climate accord, backed by almost 200 countries.
Change is so pervasive that geologists, keepers of the earth’s chronology, are considering the dramatic gesture of creating a new epoch, called the Anthropocene, to mark humanity’s influence.
The Anthropocene is the frame through which Biello peers in The Unnatural World. Read together, the book and the Science article demonstrate the astounding scale of human influence on the natural systems that sustain our planet.
“One of the longest-lived impacts of this new people’s epoch, longer lasting even than all the CO₂ piling up in the atmosphere,” Biello said about the Science paper, “will be our impact on evolution. The question now is: Will the Anthropocene be a blip in the rock record, like an asteroid impact, or can people learn to ameliorate our impacts and lengthen the span of this new epoch?”
On Nov. 4, Walmart announced an aggressive plan to increase its investments in renewable energy, pledging to power half its operations from wind, solar, and other renewables by 2025 and to cut the carbon footprint of its operations by 18 percent over the same period. Ten days later, Microsoft made its largest wind-power purchase agreement ever, with a deal to buy 237 megawatts of electricity from turbines in Kansas and Wyoming to run data centers in Cheyenne.
In between those announcements, Donald Trump was elected president, in part by calling climate change a hoax and vowing to gut most of Obama’s clean-energy policies and revive coal mining. If the actions of Walmart and Microsoft are any indication, a Trump administration will do little to dissuade companies from continuing to invest in renewables. “I think fears of a negative impact of Trump on renewable energy are really overblown,” says Thomas Emmons, a partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private asset management firm focused on sustainable and alternative investments.
One reason is timing. The biggest economic incentives for clean energy are federal tax credits for solar and wind projects. Both were set to expire at the end of last year, prompting a surge in investments as companies raced to get in under the deadline. In December, Congress unexpectedly extended both credits (for solar until 2021 and for wind until 2019) as part of a deal to lift the 40-year-old ban on U.S. oil exports. It’s not clear that Trump will try to persuade Congress to repeal the extensions. Wind power is especially popular across the Midwest, a Republican stronghold; in many cases it’s become cheaper than other sources of grid power.
Sixty percent of Fortune 100 companies have renewable-electricity or climate change policies, and 81 companies globally have committed to get 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Companies tend to invest in renewable energy in one of three ways: sourcing clean power from wind and solar projects through long-term agreements; purchasing a stake in green power projects; or using renewable-energy credits to offset the dirtier power they consume.
Since 2008, U.S. companies have signed agreements to purchase more than $10 billion worth of wind and solar power— about 10Gw, enough to run almost 2 million U.S. households for a year. BNEF expects that pace to increase over the next decade, with at least 50 U.S. companies signing long-term agreements to buy an additional 22Gw of clean energy. “A Trump presidency does not lower our expectations for the growth of the corporate renewable-energy market,” says Nathan Serota, a clean-energy analyst at BNEF. “If anything, a less ambitious stance on renewables at the federal level could encourage corporations to pick up the slack even further.” With the government providing less support, more businesses may decide the best way to ensure clean-power projects get built is to sign long-term purchase agreements. That way, renewable developers have a guaranteed customer, ensuring they can finance new projects.
These agreements are emerging as the preferred way to invest in clean energy. Locking in electricity prices for up to 15 years, the deals let companies hedge exposure to volatile natural gas and coal prices, which have historically determined wholesale power prices in the U.S. As wind and solar get cheaper, companies are able to lock in renewable power for less than the average wholesale power price, says Swami Venkataraman, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service.
“Companies are investing in sustainability, not because they’re making a political statement, but because they have a fiduciary duty to protect shareholders and make money,” says Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a nonprofit sustainability advocate. Even if Trump rolls back Obama’s commitment to the Paris climate accord and his signature clean-energy initiative, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which directs states to lower carbon emissions from power plants, it’s unlikely to influence investment decisions. “Renewable developers weren’t building a business model premised on the CPP,” Serota says.
On Nov. 16, 300 U.S. businesses, including General Mills, EBay, and Intel, called on Trump to support the Paris accord. “The sustainable investing trend has global momentum and big players such as Goldman Sachs and Bill Gates,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director for energy and sustainability at the University of California at Davis, in an e-mail. “Corporate America has lots of millennial customers, and they want to buy from companies with sustainable supply chains and a commitment to renewable energy. I don’t see that changing.”
What will Donald Trump actually do?
It’s a question many Americans are asking themselves now that the U.S. has wrapped up one of its least policy-specific elections ever. The president-elect has offered only the loosest of legislative prescriptions, including whatever plans he may have for the energy industry.
The mystery hangs over turbine manufacturers like Vestas Wind Systems, which fell 12 percent since the election, and coal companies such as Peabody Energy Corp., which soared 73 percent. In his only major energy speech, Trump, 70, said he would rescind “job-destroying” environmental regulations within 100 days of taking office and revive U.S. coal. It’s terrible news for efforts to slow the pace of climate change, but the impact on the renewable energy revolution may be limited. Here’s what it could mean for America’s clean-energy darling, Tesla Motors Inc.:
Tesla is, first and foremost, an electric car company. But on Nov. 17 shareholders will vote on final approval of CEO Elon Musk’s $2.2 billion deal to buy SolarCity Corp. The acquisition would make Tesla the biggest U.S. rooftop solar installer and the first major manufacturer to integrate solar panels with battery backup to extend power into the night.
The swift spread of rooftop solar in the U.S. has been made possible by two government policies. First, most utilities are required to credit homeowners for the excess power they send back to the grid. Those requirements are state-level and shouldn’t be affected by Trump. Second is the 30 percent federal tax credit to offset the cost of installations. The credits were first signed into law under Republican President George W. Bush in 2005 and extended by a Republican Congress late last year. Given their broad support, the subsidies are unlikely to be repealed.
Solar panel prices have dropped, on average, more than 15 percent a year since 2013. On a utility scale, solar power is already cheaper than coal-fired grid electricity across most of the U.S., after subsidies. Even if the incentives were suddenly removed next year—an improbable and economically destructive scenario—the industry would eventually recover as prices continue to fall.
Incentives are designed to make superior new technologies initially affordable, but once those technologies take off, economies of scale take over.
A loss of the federal tax credit could slow the rollout of Tesla’s unusual new rooftop solar shingles. Traditional rooftop panels, however, are almost ready to stand on their own. The payback period currently ranges from about 5 to 10 years, after subsidies and state rebates. If Tesla can achieve the cost savings it hopes for with the merger, it won’t be long before that’s the payback timeline without subsidies.
One of President Barack Obama’s most significant climate achievements was to push through ambitious fuel-economy regulations for U.S. vehicles. The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled next year to re-asses rules intended to double the average efficiency of cars and trucks to almost 55 miles per gallon by 2025. Those goals could be delayed or dismantled under Trump, accelerating America’s shift to trucks and SUVs. Stocks of Detroit carmakers have predictably surged, while Tesla shares fell 4.9 percent in the two days after the election.
This is obviously bad news for human health and the environment, but it’s impact on Tesla won’t be catastrophic. The price of batteries is dropping rapidly, and by the early 2020s electric cars should be cheaper and better performing than their gasoline-powered equivalents across the board. Lowering efficiency standards will make gasoline cars a bit cheaper to manufacture, but it will also make them more costly to drive over the life of the vehicle.
The U.S. push for electric cars was set in motion by a $7,500 federal tax break. The Trump administration could eliminate the subsidy, but the impact would be short-lived for electric pioneers including Nissan Motor Co., General Motors Co., and Tesla. That’s because the electric-vehicle subsidies were already designed to phase out after each automaker reaches its 200,000th domestic EV sale. Tesla may be first to cross that finish line, probably in the first half of 2018.
The incentives were intended to overcome steep startup costs and slow initial demand for new electric vehicles. Removing the tax break now would effectively pull the ladder up behind Tesla and make it more expensive for other automakers to transition to battery power, a result that wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interest.
Some of the biggest incentives in renewable energy are offered by states, not the federal government. Each state has authority over its own solar and wind rebates, credits for power sold back to the grid, renewable-mix requirements for utilities, and electric-car subsidies. These policies cross ideological borders into deeply Republican states. For example, Louisiana residents can get an additional tax credit of almost $10,000 for buying a long-range electric car. In Colorado, it’s an extra $5,000.
Last week, I wrote that OPEC needs friends and a miracle to re-balance the oil market. Could President Trump be that unwitting buddy, providing the miracle by tearing up the nuclear agreement with Iran and removing almost a million barrels a day of supply at a stroke?
Trump’s number one priority is to dismantle the “disastrous” deal — although his to-do list might have changed since saying that back in March. As luck would have it, that daily million barrels is about the same size as the cut OPEC needs to make, as I calculated last week.
Can he do it? Yes, despite assertions to the contrary from Iran’s President Rouhani and a slew of analysts. Here’s how:
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is snappily titled, wasn’t ratified by Congress, but brought into force by President Obama via executive order. Trump could rescind that. The fall-out would be messy, but it could be done (in theory).
There’s another way too, enshrined within the agreement itself. The dispute resolution mechanism allows any signatory to refer a perceived breach of the deal’s terms to the joint commission created to oversee the accord. If the complaining party isn’t satisfied with the outcome and believes the breach constitutes “significant non-compliance”, it can refer it to the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council would then vote — and here’s the killer blow — – not on whether to re-impose sanctions, but on whether to “continue the sanctions lifting.”
That might not sound like a big difference, but it’s critical. By framing the vote this way, the U.S. could, in theory, veto the resolution. All the U.N. sanctions on Iran would then be re-imposed. Simples.
That just leaves EU sanctions, which prohibited — among other things — the importing of Iranian oil into EU countries. We might expect some sort of European backlash against unwinding the deal, but it might not be very effective.
The tortuous process of re-establishing Iran’s oil trade with Europe shows that only too clearly. Although there were willing buyers and a very willing seller, the difficulty came in finding insurers who would underwrite the transactions, or shippers to carry the crude. All the big re-insurers had at least some U.S. involvement and they were extremely hesitant to pick up the business — even with the apparent backing of the Obama administration. They would drop the business like a scalding hot potato if the new president killed the deal. End of Iranian oil flows to Europe.
Elsewhere, important Asian buyers were threatened in the past with the loss of access to the U.S. banking system to persuade them to cut their purchases of Iranian. This tactic would probably work again.
Of course, Iran would treat the move as grounds to abandon its own commitments. Coming shortly before Iran’s presidential election in May, it would be a huge boost to Tehran’s hardliners. You’d expect life to become more difficult for the Americans in Iraq, where it’s engaged alongside Iranian-backed militias in ousting Islamic State from its last stronghold in the country — another Trump priority.
But at least the crude price would recover, which would be great for U.S. oil, if not so good for motorists. I guess the new president will have to choose who to please.