San Francisco adopts law requiring solar panels on all new buildings

San Francisco has this week passed landmark legislation requiring all new buildings under 10 storeys in height to be fitted with rooftop solar panels.

The city’s San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the new rule on Tuesday, making the metropolis the largest in the US to mandate solar installations on new properties

Source: San Francisco adopts law requiring solar panels on all new buildings

Renewables: Responsible and Necessary

There are two interesting and related articles on the interwebs today. The first is an article at Climate Central and reprinted in Scientific American that summarizes a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study is titled Integrated Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Supply Scenarios Confirms Global Environmental Benefit of Low-Carbon Technologies. It looks at the life-cycle environmental and climate costs of a continuing shift to renewable energy through the year 2050. The researchers assumed that by then 39 percent of global electricity production will be generated by renewables and asked themselves what the environmental impact would be.

We all know that sources of renewable energy produce less CO2 during their operation than burning fossil fuels, but that’s not the whole picture. The life-cycle analysis looked at the environmental costs and benefits of renewables and traditional sources of power from their inception (such as mining the ores needed to produce the metal parts) through their entire operational lives. For example, wind turbines require more than 10 times the iron needed for comparable electricity generation powered by oil or coal, and solar panels require up to 40 times more copper. That’s a lot of additional mining, with the associated environmental impact. Are renewables really better for the environment?

The answer turns out to be, “Yes.” How could that be? There are two factors. One is that after a solar panel or a wind turbine is manufactured it doesn’t require additional raw materials. Coal, oil, and gas-fired power plants require a continuous input of new raw materials that are extracted, transported, and then burned. The second is that although renewable energy equipment requires more material to produce, the required amount is a small amount relative to global production. For instance, the copper required for the estimated increase in solar panels over the next 36 years is only 2 years of copper production (or 5 percent) at current rates.

An increase in environmentally friendly energy production is good news because the second article, published in the op-ed section of today’s New York Times, says that historical trends in increased lighting efficiency suggest that we may see an increase, not a decrease, in energy consumption in the years to come. The authors explain that as the production of light became cheaper, from coal gas to whale oil to kerosene to electricity, the demand for these cheaper technologies resulted in an overall increase in energy consumption, a process called rebound. They note that

 The I.E.A. and I.P.C.C. estimate that the rebound could be over 50 percent globally. Recent estimates and case studies have suggested that in many energy-intensive sectors of developing economies, energy-saving technologies may backfire, meaning that increased energy consumption associated with lower energy costs because of higher efficiency may in fact result in higher energy consumption than there would have been without those technologies.

That’s not a bad thing. Most people in the world, still struggling to achieve modern living standards, need to consume more energy, not less. Cheap LED and other more efficient energy technologies will be overwhelmingly positive for people and economies all over the world.

But LED and other ultraefficient lighting technologies are unlikely to reduce global energy consumption or reduce carbon emissions. If we are to make a serious dent in carbon emissions, there is no escaping the need to shift to cleaner sources of energy.

Now, the Good Climate News

Ok, the headline is slightly misleading. There’s no good news about the fact of climate change, but there is some good news about the politics and the technology for mitigating it. First, the politics where there are several encouraging developments. First, as I’ve previously mentioned, Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson, and Tom Steyer have launched an organization called Risky Business that focuses on quantifying and publicizing the economic risks from the impacts of climate change. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and this is an example – people from across the political spectrum and with various perspectives on business and the economy coming together to advocate that we act now to do what we can to slow or stop climate change.

The second piece of news happened at a congressional hearing on June 18th (an archived webcast is available at the link). Four former EPA administrators, all republicans, were called to testify before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. All four of them agreed that there is no debate on the reality of climate change and that immediate action is needed. Here are a few quotes:

William Ruckelshaus, first EPA administrator in 1970 under President Nixon: “Inherent in [a list of previously cited environmental challenges] was uncertain science and powerful economic interests resisting controls. The same is true of climate change. In all of the cases cited the solutions to the problems did not result in the predicted economic and social calamity. Scientific uncertainty or the inevitable industry resistance does not mean that nothing should be done unless we are willing to suffer the consequences of inaction.”

Lee Thomas, EPA administrator from 1985-1989 under President Reagan: “The issue of climate change is one that the EPA and the global scientific community have studied and analyzed for decades. And since my time as Administrator, the assessment of risk global warming poses to public health and the environment has continually improved and become more certain.”

William Reilly, head of the EPA from 1989-1992 under President George H. W. Bush: “Markets the world over eagerly seek clean energy technologies. … Technology and innovation are a comparative advantage for our country that will help control what we can and help find ways to replace the most serious contributors to the climate challenge. This is an enormous opportunity for U.S. entrepreneurs and exporters even as we deploy more clean energy at home.”

Christine Todd Whitman, EPA head from 2001-2003 under President George W. Bush: “Congressional action and leadership would be a preferable approach. But since Congress has declined to act, the EPA must.”

It’s getting harder and harder for the conservative crowd to deny reality. Sooner, not later, they’re going to have to admit that we face a global challenge. At that point they’ll have to decide if the U.S. is going to lead or follow. Industry and citizens clearly intend to lead. Consider the following:

On the technology front there’s more good news. In Hawaii the adoption of solar power has been so successful that the local power company can’t handle the power being fed into the grid. Beginning in December of 2013 the Hawaiian Electric Company told contractors to stop connecting solar panels to the grid because there’s so much energy that it may be a threat to the system. Until studies can confirm whether grid upgrade are needed, and what they are, solar panels can still be connected to homes and businesses but the excess energy cannot be fed back into the grid.

One solution to the problem is storage of the excess energy until it is needed. A new type of battery that uses vanadium in a solution of sulfuric acid is being developed that quickly charges and discharges with little loss of performance, even after 20,000 cycles. It’s called a vanadium redox flow battery. Read the article. It’s pretty amazing to read how smart people are able to solve whatever challenges are put in front of them.

ALEC On The Wrong Side Of History

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), with funding from fossil fuel producers and the utility industry, has turned its attention to renewable energy, and not in a good way. Their latest push is to levy a surcharge on homeowners who install solar panels and then feed electricity back into the grid when the panels generate more electricity than the home is using. The legislation has already passed in Oklahoma and Arizona. Known as net metering and required by 43 states, this practice reduces the homeowner’s utility bill and the amount of energy that the utilities have to produce. A win-win, right? Wrong! Because by reducing the homeowner’s bill it reduces the utility companies profits as outlined in a report by the Edison Electric Institute.

ALEC claims that reduced utility company income will prevent them from maintaining the electricity distribution system, and if large-scale adoption of solar takes place we as a society may indeed have to reconsider the way that we finance the maintenance of the system. However, discouraging adoption of renewable energy is not the way to go. We absolutely need more renewable sources of electricity and less reliance on fossil fuels, as made clear by several reports that have been released recently. Consider the following:

  • The latest work by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that climate scientists have high confidence in:
    • Risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding in some regions.
    • Systemic risks due to extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services.
    • Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings.
  • The Carbon Tracker Initiative has estimated that 60% to 80% of the coal, oil, and gas reserves of publicly traded companies are “unburnable” if we are to limit global warming to a somewhat manageable 2°C, as opposed to the catastrophic 9°C that would result from inaction on climate change.
  • The global concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history, as reported by NASA. According to NOAA, CO2 levels measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii have risen by 24% in just the past 56 years.

Clearly, protecting the profitability of utilities and fossil fuel companies shouldn’t be a consideration. Nor should the economic impact of addressing climate change. The IPCC finds that the cost of addressing climate change would result in an average reduction in economic growth of a mere 0.06% for the rest of this century.

Meanwhile, the cost per watt of solar modules is dropping with breathtaking speed. In 1980 the cost per watt was over $16. In 2012 it was $1, just a few cents more than the upper cost for coal and natural gas. From 2011 to 2013 the cost of installed solar systems fell by 50%. Projecting these downward curves forward it’s easy to see that in just a few years solar is likely to be less expensive than fossil fuels.

Of course, one of the biggest problems with renewables such as solar and wind is that they aren’t consistent. This means that to increase our dependence on them we need a way to store energy when it’s produced and retrieve it when it’s needed. Fortunately, brilliant (pun intended) people are working on the storage issue. The latest promising technology uses a recently discovered material, grapheme, to produce rechargeable batteries that can hold at least twice as much energy as lithium ion batteries. You can read about these advancements in The Guardian and Energy Harvesting Journal.

So it seems to me that ALEC and its backers may win another victory or two before the tide sweeps them aside because they are on the wrong side of history. First, science tells us that we as a society must make changes, including a massive conversion to renewable energy. Second, technology is making the adoption of renewable energy possible with ever increasing speed. Third, economics tells us that we as individuals will soon be able to save money by installing solar panels on our homes because we’ll be able to generate electricity cheaper than the utilities.