Skip to content Skip to site navigation

Renewable Energy


U.S. military kicks more ass by using less fossil-fuel energy

soldier with solar panelGoing solar in Afghanistan. (Photo by U.S. Marine Corps)

This is my contribution to a dialogue on the military and clean energy being hosted by National Journal.


To understand the promise of renewable energy for the U.S. military, it helps to start as far from Washington, D.C., as possible. (This is true for most forms of understanding.) Start far from the politicians, even from the military brass, far from the rooms where big-money decisions are made, far out on the leading edge of the conflict, with a small company of Marines in Afghanistan's Sangin River Valley.

Not long ago, for a three-day mission out of a forward operating base in Afghanistan, each Marine would have humped between 20 and 35 pounds of batteries. One of the reasons Marines are so lethal in such small numbers today is that they are constantly connected by radios and computers. But radios and computers require a constant supply of batteries, brought by convoy over some of the deadliest roads on earth and then piled on the backs of Marines in highly kinetic environments.

In late 2010, India Company, from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, tried something new. They packed Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy Systems, or SPACES -- flexible solar panels, 64 square inches, that weigh about 2.5 pounds each. One 1st Lieutenant from India 3/5 later boasted that his patrol shed 700 pounds.

"We stayed out for three weeks," he said, "and didn't need a battery resupply once."


Don’t believe the hype: Five things you should know about clean energy investments

Photo by rustman.

A version of this post originally appeared on Climate Progress.

In an attempt to keep the political war against renewable energy in the headlines, Republicans held another hearing to question the value of government investments in the sector.

Looks like 10 political sideshows on Solyndra weren’t enough.

If the hearing were being used as a chance to objectively assess where the industry stands, that would be one thing. But the title of the meeting gave away the real political intent: “The Obama Administration’s Green Energy Gamble: What Have All The Taxpayer Subsidies Achieved?"

Actually, those green energy investments have yielded substantial returns. While the political grandstanding goes on in the House of Representatives, here are five important things you should know about how promotion of clean energy has supported American businesses and consumers:


Power in numbers: Crowd purchasing brings clean energy within reach

When it comes to purchasing clean energy, the more the merrier. (Photo by Hepburn Wind.)

We join together with our fellow humans for the sake of saving a buck all the time. That’s why public transportation exists -- it’s cheaper for 20 people to get on one bus than it is for 20 people to drive their own cars. (Oh right, and buses are also super cool.) Or think of roommates -- sure, they never wash their dishes, but living with them saves us hundreds of dollars in rent.

Groundswell, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., wants to add clean electricity to the list of things that are better off shared.

Groundswell was founded by three guys who worked on President Obama’s campaign in 2008. “They had really seen the impact of community organizing in a political space,” says Elizabeth Lindsey, the group’s managing director. “And after the campaign, they were really interested in seeing how you could take that model and make a tangible difference outside the political sphere.”

To do this, Groundswell helps communities leverage their collective purchasing power to win the best possible deals on clean energy. They bring together nonprofits, community groups, churches, or individuals to make bulk purchases of wind-powered electricity, for example, or energy efficiency upgrades on homes and buildings. Buying as a group allows them to negotiate lower prices, and could potentially make this type of service available in areas where individuals and solitary community groups cannot afford it alone.


Buzzword decoder: Your election-year guide to environmental catchphrases

bees saying buzzwordsDon't expect the environment to be in the spotlight in political campaigns this year. The economy will be the star in 2012, with the culture wars singing backup.

Still, environmental issues are getting talked about, often obliquely as part of larger discussions about energy -- though the words don't always mean what you might think they mean. And the words politicians don't say can tell you as much as the words they do.

Here's a guide to energy and environmental buzzwords you'll be hearing, or not, this election year:


Clean energy as culture war

Not that long ago, some folks were arguing that clean energy -- unlike climate change, which had been irredeemably stained by partisanship (eww!) -- would bring people together across ideological lines. Persuaded by the irrefutable wisdom of wonks, we would join hands across the aisle to promote common-sense solutions. It wouldn't be partisan, it would be ... post-partisan.

Some day, I will stop mocking the people who said that. But not today. The error is an important one and it is still made regularly, especially by hyper-educated U.S. elites. They think clean energy is different from climate change, that it won't get sucked into the same culture war. They are wrong.

On clean energy, the material/financial aspects of the conflict are the easiest to understand. Wind, solar, and the rest threaten the financial dominance and political influence of dirty energy. Last week, the Guardian broke the story of a confidential memo laying out a plan to demonize and discredit clean energy, meant to coordinate the plans/messages of several big right-wing super PACs funded by dirty-energy money.

At the bottom of that same piece, though, is one of the best expressions I've ever seen of the cultural and psychological aspects of the conflict. Witness:

Opposing Obama's energy policies was a natural fit for conservatives, said Marita Noon, a conservative activist from New Mexico who was at the meeting. "The American way, what made CostCo and Walmart a success, is to use more and pay less. That's the American way." The president's green policies however were the reverse, she said.

"President Obama wants us to pay more and use less."

Not for the first time, it strikes me that conservatives understand the stakes of this struggle much better than liberals and centrists do, especially at a gut level. They're on the wrong side of it, but at least they get it.


Lots of solar power may reduce, not increase, electricity prices

A version of this post originally appeared on Energy Self-Reliant States, a resource of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Whether German feed-in tariffs or U.S. tax incentives, opponents of solar rail at its perceived high cost. But a story making rounds this week, "why power generators are terrified of solar," presents a powerful image that may flip this conventional wisdom on its head. Building lots of solar power can actually reduce electricity prices, to the dismay of utilities.

The story comes from Germany, where a decade of consistent policy has resulted in thousands of megawatts of distributed solar installed on urban rooftops and rural barns. This year, it was noted that the surge of "solar PV was cutting peak electricity prices by up to 40 percent." The following graphic of prices on the German electricity exchange -- which Craig Morris calls "the afternoon dip" -- illustrates the effect. The left view is 2008, showing steady, high prices in the market throughout the afternoon. The chart on the right shows the same time period in 2012, where an abundance of solar has sharply cut afternoon power costs.

Read more: Renewable Energy


Will old-school green groups sleep through the Earth Summit?

As you may have heard, President Obama is being cagey about whether he'll attend the Earth Summit in Rio next month. You know, it's just the FUTURE OF THE PLANET that’s up for discussion. Nothing big. Maybe he’ll go. Maybe not.

As it happens, we were in the same situation 20 years ago, as the 1992 Earth Summit approached and George Bush Sr. was giving it the old, "Well, maaaaaybe ..."

Back then, a group of the major, mainstream environmental groups in the U.S. rallied for the cause. To convince Bush he should attend, they enlisted none other than Darth Vader. Well, his voice, at least -- the actor James Earl Jones. They made the spooky film clip below, replete with -- is that the Pony Express or the Horsemen of the Apocalypse? -- and then ran it in movie theaters around the country. Jones did the voiceover. Need I even tell you that Bush Sr. decided to attend?

In my research into the 2012 Earth Summit, I’ve noticed very little action from the major U.S. greens. A handful of them, including EarthJustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Nature Conservancy, and the Pew Environment Group, have been involved, along with groups focused on clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and other issues, but where’s the old guard that sponsored the Darth Vader ad two decades ago? I decided to do a little poking around.


New interactive book could explain everything anyone needs to know about energy

The Kickstarter video for The WATT? An Energy 101 Primer does a good job of explaining why, exactly, people should care about energy:

Energy is everything. It's a part of pretty much every aspect of modern life. wherever you live, whatever you do, however you do it.

Unfortunately, most people know next to nothing about how this stuff actually works. The makers of the The WATT? -- Focus the Nation, a clean energy youth organization, and Friend of Grist List Ben Jervey -- aim to change that by publishing an "users' manual for energy in the 21st century." They're going to publish it as a PDF whether you fund their Kickstarter project or not, but if they raise enough money, they are going to make it a much, much more awesome interactive e-book with charts, graphics and videos.


How wind power fits into our energy diet

Photo by stormcrypt.

There’s a bunch of discussion right now on renewable electricity vs. baseload electricity. David Roberts gives a good German example here. Chris Nelder goes so far as to suggest that thanks to renewables, "baseload is doomed," while John Farrell suggests that renewable energy is the new and sexy iPad, destined to replace the old baseload typewriter. Meanwhile, in utility land, we see issues like the one that took place in the Northwest last year, with Bonneville Power Association (BPA) forcing the curtailment of wind turbines, on the claim that the grid could not readily accommodate the rising percentage of intermittent resources.

So is BPA just a Paleolithic typewriter sales rep, or are these smart writers missing something fundamental about the power grid? I suggest to you that both are right -- but that the debate is focusing on the wrong axis. As evidence, consider that the percent of power generated from renewable energy in the U.S. today is virtually the same as the percent of power we generated from renewable energy 20 years ago. If something dramatic is happening in renewable energy that is disrupting the old paradigm, it hasn’t happened yet. So then why is there so much noise about the sudden challenge integrating renewable energy into our grid?


U.S. coal is on the decline, and utility execs know it

Every week brings a new story about coal's decline in America. Here are two from last week.

One is about American Electric Power, the nation's largest electric utility, based in Ohio but ranging over 11 states in the South and Midwest. AEP is the farthest thing from a good actor in the utility sector. Between 2008 and 2010, the company raised executive compensation by 30 percent, laid off 2,600 workers, spent almost $29 million lobbying the federal government, and paid a tax rate of -9 percent [PDF]. Yes, negative nine. It's that kind of company.

So it's significant that last week, AEP reaffirmed its intention to accelerate a shift away from coal. By 2020, according to CEO Nicholas Akins, coal will fall from 67 percent of AEP's assets to 50 percent.