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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.

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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.

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We’re half-assing the clean-energy transition

Photo by Hans Gerwitz.

The International Energy Agency recently issued its annual progress report [PDF] on clean energy. Here's the five-cent version:

The transition to a low-carbon energy sector is affordable and represents tremendous business opportunities, but investor confidence remains low due to policy frameworks that do not provide certainty and address key barriers to technology deployment. Private sector financing will only reach the levels required if governments create and maintain supportive business environments for low-carbon energy technologies. [my emphasis]

Progress is inadequate -- relative to the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees C -- on virtually every low-carbon technology except onshore wind and solar (click for a larger version of this chart):

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This crazy bill could eliminate Arizona’s ability to do any environmental work

The Arizona House is about to vote on a totally insane bill that could prevent that state from doing even the tiniest smidgen of environmentally friendly work. Solar and wind projects that used a dollar of government funding would be made illegal. State universities could have to stop all sustainability-related research. State buildings wouldn't even be able to use CFL lightbulbs.

The bill, SB 1507, has already passed the Senate, and the House has given it initial approval. The final House vote is coming on Monday. The bill would make it "illegal for any government entity in the state to abide by any tenet or principle" of the Rio Declaration, the Arizona Capitol Times reports. These are incredibly broad principles like, for instance, "enact effective environmental legislation."

Think about that one for a second. If this bill passes, it will be illegal in Arizona to pass effective environmental legislation. (Ineffective? Hey, go for it!)

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Clean energy: Still a wedge issue that favors Democrats

wedge heel shoesOh, wait, not this kind of wedge?

In his much remarked-upon interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said some (in my view fairly tepid and passive) things about climate change. What interested me more is the very first bit:

Let's talk about the campaign. Given all we've heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what's your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

First of all, I think it's important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don't think there's been a huge change in the country. ...

But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream – and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn't get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that's true. ... You've got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Doesn't all of that kind of talk and behavior during the primaries define the party and what they stand for?

I think it's fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

Obama's contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

If this is true, it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

I'm not sure how many genuine "wedge issues" there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

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India flips the switch on world’s largest solar power plant

The Indian state of Gujarat has built the world's largest solar photovoltaic power plant, a field of solar panels the size of Lower Manhattan. After only 14 months of preparation, they've just switched it on, adding 600 megawatts of power to the grid. That's enough to power a medium-sized city's worth of homes. Thing is HUGE.

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U.S. cleantech support about to fall off a cliff

If you care about cleantech in the U.S., this graph should make your blood run cold:

Boom & Bust: the coming cleantech cliff

That's from a new report -- "Beyond Boom and Bust: Putting Clean Tech on a Path to Subsidy Independence" -- from folks at the Breakthrough Institute, Brookings Institution, and World Resources Institute. It's a welcome and much-needed attempt to put some numbers behind the debate over federal cleantech support.

It's divided into three parts. The first tells the story of cleantech policy over the last five years. Early in his term, Obama unleashed a ton of support for cleantech, mainly via the stimulus bill, but also by funding some programs from the Bush era and earlier. At around $150 billion, federal cleantech spending from 2009-2014 will amount to over three times what was spent from 2002-2008. But that funding is dropping off a cliff:

In the absence of legislative action to extend or replace current subsidies, America's clean tech policy system will have been largely dismantled by the end of 2014, a casualty of the scheduled expiration of 70 percent of all federal clean tech policies. ... Furthermore, many of the remaining programs will end shortly after 2014.

Yikes.

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Earth Day revisited: An environmental patriarch on keeping the dream alive

Photo by Greg Hanscom.

Denis Hayes is about the last person on the planet you’d expect to find walking around a construction site in a hardhat, chatting up engineers and contractors. Hayes is best known as the guy who coordinated the first Earth Day, back in 1970, when he was 25. Since that time, he has earned a reputation as a fierce defender of the environment, raking in every imaginable green accolade. Today, he is honorary chair of the Earth Day Network by night and by day,  president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, a major force in conservation in the Northwest.

But Hayes is full of surprises. He directed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory under the Carter administration and has taught engineering at Stanford. He can talk BTUs-per-square-foot-per-year with the best of them. Which is handy, because at the moment, Hayes is orchestrating the construction of a new, uber green headquarters building for Bullitt. The building sets out to meet the Living Building Challenge, which means, among other things, that it will generate all of its own water and electricity. The latter is no small feat, when you consider that the building is in infamously gray Seattle – not exactly a Mecca for solar power.

With Earth Day 2012 looming (it's Sunday, people!), I caught up with Hayes to talk about the big day, green building, and his prognosis for the planet.

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People power: Crowdfunding fires up local solar projects

Nikki Henderson, executive director of People's Grocery, with the community solar project that is expected to save her organization more than $30,000 over the 20-year lease.

Here’s a not-terribly-novel idea: Get a bunch of people together, pool your money, and invest it in a project or a business that will make enough money to pay you back -- hopefully with interest. Banks do it, right? And it seems like a decent way to fund promising green technology like solar power.

Or you’d think so, anyway.

Banks will fund huge commercial solar projects, but when it comes to community-level solar installation, they won’t touch it, says Billy Parish, president of Solar Mosaic, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company that seeds local solar projects. “When we were first getting started, we went looking for funding from banks,” he says. “Wells Fargo told us, ‘Come back to us when you have a book of $50 to $100 million worth of projects.’”

That just wasn’t gonna happen. And that’s why Solar Mosaic’s seemingly mundane business model is so interesting.

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Solar ‘scandal’ upshot: China is dominating global solar market, for better or worse

Chinese flag against sunBlame China. Or thank China?

Conservatives are going nuts about a "new Solyndra," a gullible media is falling for the hype, and the only voice of sanity is ... Politico?

Wonders never cease. Good on reporter Alex Guillen for noting that the scandal of $2.1 billion in government money going to a bankrupt solar company (Sun Trust this time) looks a little less like a scandal when you note that the government didn't actually give the company any money. Not only did Rush Limbaugh and RedState get that wrong -- getting thing wrongs is more or less their vocation -- but even AP and Reuters left this crucial detail out of their initial stories. Most disturbingly, Guillen notes that Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), who's on the Energy and Commerce oversight committee, didn't seem to know that the company was never actually given money. Guess he's just another Rush listener.

Anyway, the actual, true story behind the latest solar kerfuffle -- related with typical clarity by Todd Woody -- is quite interesting. It's got very little to with the wisdom of Energy Department support for clean energy, but a great deal to do with the big story in solar power today: China.