Dispatches from the clean energy revolution

March 16, 2014

The analogy between the energy revolution and the information revolution is far from perfect.  Energy technology transformation may well be slower, weighted down as it is by Titanics of sunk capital and powerful incumbents with strong incentives to forestall change.fast forward green

But the revolution is clearly underway.  4 recent items:

1)      The Minnesota Public Utility Commission issued a Value of Solar Tariff that includes, among other things, the federal government’s estimate of the “social cost of carbon.”  Solar’s worth more because it’s better… because you don’t have to pay for it with disaster relief and mass extinctions and stuff.

2)      Amory Lovins has a good rundown of how a growing number of states and countries are running their power systems on a high percentage of renewable power.  The idea that renewable energy penetration is inherently limited by intermittency is becoming obsolete.  (Energy demand is intermittent, but no one is suggesting we can’t deal with that.)  The need for “baseload” coal and nuclear is waning fast.   Resource diversity, better forecasting, distributed storage, dispatchable renewables, and demand response are all being used to integrate larger and larger percentages of renewable power — and that’s before you even get to the big storage solutions. Per the savant of Old Snowmass:

“After all, half the world’s new generating capacity added each year starting in 2008 has been renewable; solar cells are scaling faster than cellphones, probably surpassing windpower’s 2013 additions; and Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects solar power to compete with retail grid power in three-fourths of world markets in another year or two. The first part of the renewable power revolution—scaling production—is already well underway. Next comes the interesting part: ensuring that all the moving parts mesh properly.”

3)      Austin Energy signed a long-term deal for 150 MW of solar from a big PV station for $.05 per kilowatt-hour.  5 cents.  A nickel.  Seriously cheap.  Greentech Media reports:

Bret Kadison, COO of Austin-based Brazos Resources, an energy investment firm, said this was “a highly competitive solicitation….This is below the all-in cost of natural gas generation, even with low fuel prices and before factoring in commodity volatility and cost overruns.” He also points out that the original RFP was for 50 megawatts, but the utility ended up buying 150 megawatts “in a red state where hydrocarbons dominate the political landscape.” Kadison suggests that “one of the biggest cost reduction drivers that allowed solar to reach this parity came from the massive reduction in financing costs.”

4) It’s happening…. if we’ll just give it a chance, as a group of young American leaders including Oscar-winner Jared Leto urged Secretary of State John Kerry to do in a letter opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.  They called on Kerry to summon up the courage and moral clarity he used to help end the Vietnam War, when he asked Congress, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”   Say the whipper-snappers to the Secretary:kid fist

“As young American leaders, we are confident in our ability to engineer solutions over time, and we enthusiastically support the Obama Administration’s commitment to advancing these solutions. The urgent climate imperative now – what our generation asks and expects of yours – is to give those solutions time to grow. We must not squander our precious time and capital now on making the problem intractably worse, especially when we are so bullish on the opportunities to make it better!”

Read the letter here.

Clean energy efficacy: “Can’t” meets its match.

June 28, 2012

Climate solutions are not tweaks.  They’re a revolution.

Bob Doppelt at the Resource Innovation Group argues persuasively that big changes – fundamental shifts in beliefs, practices, goals, and results – require 1) dissonance (“this isn’t working”) 2) efficacy (“yes we can”), and 3) benefits (“hey, this is profitable/fun/sexy”).   These are necessary preconditions for the transition from an ecosystem of denial to a culture of responsibility.

There’s work to do on all three points.  But efficacy might be our biggest collective challenge.  Without it, we suppress dissonance and get mired in skepticism about benefits.

It’s hard to imagine how we tackle climate disruption without collective action on an unprecedented scale.  But the traditional vehicles of collective action at the national and international levels seem locked up, captured, kaput.  Congress’ epic failure to deliver a national climate policy was only partly about climate; the bigger factor was the wheels popping off the institution.  Cynicism is rampant (and justified, but useless).

Systemic collective dysfunction is a boon to defenders of fossil fuel dependence, since the clean energy revolution requires loads of collective efficacy.  They’ll never convince us that their way is better, so they have to demoralize us into believing that there is no other way.  That’s why they’re working overtime to undermine confidence in the clean energy revolution and the government’s ability to accelerate it.

Call in the efficacy brigade, intrepidly spearheaded by Climate Solutions co-founder Rhys Roth!  It’s no coincidence that he shares his initials with Rosie the Riveter.   Dude oozes efficacy.  And for the last few months, he’s been pummeling skepticism about the clean energy revolution.  Check out his review of the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Renewable Electricity Futures Study.

“You ever talk with someone who thinks you’re starry-eyed and gullible because you think a renewable energy future can work? I’ve got your answer….”  Read the rest at the Climate Solutions Journal.

Velkommen to solutions: Going all the way in Copenhagen

June 7, 2012

Was it the end of a world hopelessly tangled in geopolitical futility?  Or the beginning of a world that might heal as a distributed, connected organism?  The logo for the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit (enhanced here with bike love) was prophetic, because it evoked both.

COP-15 may well be remembered as humanity’s big missed chance.  But the Danes aren’t just hanging around crying in their Tuborgs.

They’re riding their bikes on “cycle superhighways.”  They’re retrofitting their buildings.   They’re building wind turbines and mounting solar panels.

Copenhagen has already reduced its carbon emissions 40% since 1990, on their way to zero net carbon by 2025.  Here’s the plan, and a good Climate Wire piece in Scientific American on how it’s being implemented.

Hopenhagen lives!

Coal-zilla attacked by social antibodies

June 5, 2012

The “unleash SOLAR” billboard saved me.  I had just been kicked in the gut by the shocking story of the activist who was questioned by Capitol police about “child pornography” because her testimony to Congress included a photo of a child bathing in water contaminated by coal mining.

Plus I was stuck in traffic on Pico Blvd., right in the belly of the comprehensive unsustainability that is L.A.  Things looked grim.  But then this appeared:

Maybe I was desperate, but “unleash SOLAR” seemed to spring up out of the car-scape like a dandelion busting through concrete.  Its funky commercial vibe was just right:  home-spun, crass, undaunted by the organized weight of what it challenged.

Large-scale institutions clearly lack the will or the ability or both to save humanity from catastrophic climate disruption.  Oil and coal interests have captured them.  We can’t abandon global climate negotiations and the battle for national policy, but neither can we count on the institutions they aim to move.

While we wrestle to regain control of our crumbling democracy, however, something live and green is growing up through the cracks  – a beautiful mess of solutions.  It is driven not by a grand plan, but by local, community-based efforts to affirm and protect life, health, dignity, and beauty.  Large-scale policy (like the California solar incentives that “unleash SOLAR”) can create space for these initiatives, but they are driven from below.

Paul Hawken called this the “largest movement in the world” in Blessed Unrest.   It’s a spontaneous, relentless convergence of thousands of small mobilizations for environmental health, social justice, and cultural integrity.  Hawken likened its decentralized power to the functions of an immune system – resisting collective pathologies by distributing and affirming social health.

Since Hawken first documented the pattern 5 years ago, the growth of the “movement” has been exponential.  It includes businesses as well as non-profits.  In Bellingham, WA, those businesses are prominently represented by Sustainable Connections, which is bigger than the local Chamber.

It’s as small and neighborly as Depave – a community group winning back patches of permeable ground – and as big and bold as Arab Spring.

It’s as inspiring as Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community and Whatcom Docs – local leaders in the growing groundswell of neighbors resisting the coal industry’s scheme to turn the Northwest into a conveyor belt for delivering fuel to stoke the climate crisis.

It’s changing how we heat and eat, give and live, move and groove, measure and treasure.  It’s even changing how we change.

Can it, we have to wonder, respond at scale to the climate challenge?  Beats me.  It’s “point” and its potential resist all estimation.  No one can know what it will accomplish, or who must be silenced or paid off in order to stop it.   It has no mission statement, no strategic plan.  It proceeds directly from first principles and core values, applied in particular to local circumstances.

It is powered by the spirit of “unleash SOLAR” – the rising thirst for freedom from the abusive concentration of economic and political power that fossil fuel dependence wreaks.

….. freedom from the kind of tyranny in which political “leaders,” representing coal extractors, call the cops on a woman for showing a picture of a child who has nothing to bathe in but their poison.

The revolutionary thing about zero energy homes: They’re kinda normal.

May 22, 2012

I went on a tour of zHomes expecting to see exotic, futuristic technology and experimental building systems – Tomorrowland stuff.  Their website says:

“zHome is a revolutionary, 10-unit townhome development that uses smart design and cutting edge technologies to radically reduce its environmental impacts.”

Now, I don’t want to screw up their marketing, but the most amazing and inspiring thing about zHomes is that they’re not so whizbang at all.  They’re almost ordinary, in the best possible way.

Yes, they have some construction features that most homes don’t.  Yes, they have solar panels and ground-source heat pumps.  But none of this is eye-poppingly unusual.  I was expecting some kind of high-tech advanced building envelope system, until I walked in and saw the wall cross section display:  a well-insulated 2×6 stud-wall with foam on the outside.  Nice, tight, snug – but nothing fancy.

They have efficient CFL and LED lights – off the shelf; hydronic heating in the slab (hot water in tubes); Energy Star Appliances; energy monitors that are pretty cool but less sophisticated than most video game apps.

The components of a zHome are not unfamiliar.  But the result truly is extraordinary – beautiful, comfortable, affordable homes that use no net energy.  Zip. 

Demonstrating awesome performance, however, does not a revolution make.  The revolution is when everybody starts doing it – when the awesome thing becomes the done thing.

….and lo and behold (CSN fans), “there’s something happenin’ here….”.  What it is is becoming clear.

Brad Liljequist, the Project Manager (and heart and soul) of zHome, says in a terrific post in Dwell:

“Six years ago, when we first started zHome, the concept of true zero energy homes seemed like a far off dream. At about that time, the AIA 2030 Challenge was being championed with a vision for zero energy, zero carbon buildings being mainstream by 2030. At the time that seemed like an aggressive, if not impossible goal. Now, I personally think that timeline is too far out in the future.

Today I see breakthroughs happening everywhere. Numerous buildings, like the Bullitt Center and the Seattle Center House of the Future, are … showing deep green buildings in other contexts. But these high profile efforts are also paralleled by a realignment in more basic, mainstream building as well. Built Green 5 Star homes and LEED Platinum buildings are moving out of the “rare” category and popping up with greater frequency.”

Commercial sector greening too…

Meanwhile, McGraw-Hill Construction reports that the share of green buildings in the commercial sector will rise from 2% in 2005 to 48% by 2015.  Stephen Lacey at ThinkProgress reports that the industry will have to scramble to build up a qualified workforce fast enough to keep up with the demand.  These are the right problems to have.

The Bullitt Center is going to change the game — again, not just by demonstrating what’s possible, but by pushing what’s possible toward what’s done.  Stay tuned….

Sun sun sun, here it comes

May 15, 2012

The mole people of Cascadia began emerging this week, squinting at the bright sun and providing some climate relief by increasing Earth’s albedo as they exposed their pasty skin.  And just as the sun began to peep out, I got my first loan repayment check from the Winthrop Community Solar Project!

Methow Valley community energy goddess Ellen Lamiman spearheaded the project, which attracted 49 investors to finance a 22.8 KW system near the Okanogan Valley Electric Co-op.  The project is going gangbusters, producing enough energy to deliver a 40% ROI by the time the project transfers ownership to the town of Winthrop in 2020.

This past year we’ve seen the most concerted, lavishly-funded attack on clean energy ever.  I guess that means we’ve arrived; clean energy is posing a legitimate threat to fossil fuel dependence-as-usual.  But I don’t think there’s enough money in the world to convince people that accelerating the transition to clean energy is a bad idea.  Not as long as the sun shines and we have people like Ellen building a local culture of responsibility for climate solutions.

Our friends at NW SEED have a terrific Community Solar Guide for the Northwest.  Check it out here, and let it shine.

Book it: Billy and Dev’s “Making Good”

April 16, 2012

Whenever I speak at high schools or colleges, I quote Van Jones:  “Only your generation is diverse enough, loving enough, determined enough, and connected enough to meet the true moral challenge that we face.”  I believe that.  But I also feel a little like a heel when I say it — like I’m making excuses for my generation’s failure to deal!

But now I can deliver more than exhortations to Gen Next.  I tote copies of Making Good:  Finding Meaning, Money and Community in a Changing World.  

When I think of Van’s “Only your generation….” quote, I think of Billy Parish, one of the co-authors of Making Good.  He’s also a founder of Solar Mosaic, a crowd-financing tool for solar that shows how distributed solutions and social networking can disrupt old systems and dissolve barriers to energy transformation.

Making Good is a powerful antidote to cynicism and a great practical resource.  I’m sending copies to my kids and young friends.  I hope I understand half the new ways they’ll create to win collectively and thrive individually.  And for the other half, I’ll try to stay out of the way!