Clean energy isn’t just for the wealthy

January 27, 2021

This article is from the January 27, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

There’s a common misconception that electric cars and fancy solar panels are only for the rich. That may have been true a decade ago—but no longer. Technological innovation and the ramp-up in production volume have driven prices down dramatically in recent years. And with better policies and targeted financial support, any of the key solutions available today—from electric vehicles (EVs) and rooftop solar to low-cost energy efficiency—will ultimately help lighten people’s wallets, not tighten them.

It’s an unfortunate reality that households earning the least end up spending a greater proportion of their incomes on energy costs like electricity, heat and fuel. After housing, transportation is the second biggest spending category for the average U.S. family, sucking up more than 15 percent of their incomes.

Outsized energy spending is also a matter of racial equity. Minority communities account for a higher share of low-income households nationwide—and thus also spend a greater percentage of their income on energy. The median energy burden for African-American households is 64 percent greater than for White households, and for Latino households, it’s 24 percent greater. As a result, low-income and minority households have faced a heightened risk of utility shutoffs for non-payment of bills during the COVID-19 pandemic. Geographically, the highest energy burdens among low-income households are in the Southeast and Appalachia, even though these regions have lower average energy rates.

Existing barriers

Adopting clean energy solutions—including EVs, renewable energy, and energy efficiency measures—can help families everywhere reduce their energy bills and take action to fight the climate crisis. Unfortunately, certain groups have been deliberately misinformed by the pro-fossil-fuel lobby. Starting in 2016, the Fueling U.S. Forward campaign, funded by the Koch Brothers, effectively sought to dissuade low-income and minority consumers from buying EVs and investing in clean energy by falsely claiming that these solutions are “only for rich people” and would drive up energy bills for everyday Americans. As environmental justice leader Eddie Bautista has noted, rapidly falling costs associated with clean energy have actually made the shift away from fossil fuels more affordable for everyone.

The median energy burden for African-American households is 64 percent greater than for White households, and for Latino households, it’s 24 percent greater.

While clean energy could be a game changer for families struggling to cover their energy bills, it won’t happen without help. Low-income households face serious barriers to accessing key technologies like rooftop solar, including a lack of qualifying credit scores. Also, because these families disproportionately rent rather than own their homes, landlords may not be incentivized to make energy improvements because they’re often not the ones paying the energy bills. While a growing market for used EVs is making the technology more accessible to many, their higher sticker price is still a barrier for many would-be buyers (despite their cheaper cost of ownership over time). That’s why it’s important for states and auto-makers to offer rebates at the time of purchase for folks who may not have access to incentives such as federal or state tax credits.

Removing barriers

The possibilities abound—if only we’re brave enough to see them. In North Carolina, the rural utility Roanoke Electric helps low- and middle-income customers get into EVs by offering a discount on members’ power bills if they drive electric. The flat rate of $50 for electricity each month (ideal for EV owners who drive < 50 miles each day) is well below the nearly $185 a month it would cost to keep a comparable gas-powered car going for that same distance. “This pilot program allows us to fulfill our mission and keep rates affordable…in a respectful and environmentally responsible way,” notes the co-op’s president and CEO.

Solar installations and energy efficiency can similarly lower energy bills for low-income households, while also bringing improved indoor air quality and safety. To make these technologies affordable to the households that need them the most, utility providers and communities can work together to remove the financial barriers and accelerate the clean energy revolution. Some places are already showing the way. For example, the District of Columbia’s Solar for All program aims to bring the benefits of solar energy to 100,000 low-to-moderate income families in the city. In Colorado, the Colorado Energy Office offers cost-effective low-income solar options for residents who spend more than 4 percent of their household income on energy costs.

Better energy efficiency can also reduce the energy burden for many families. Low-income housing tends to be far less energy efficient than average construction, so even relatively low-cost moves like switching out incandescent bulbs with LEDs and installing better home insulation and windows can help, regardless of climate, heating fuel, or energy price factors. By one estimate, if low-income housing was as efficient as the average U.S. home, customers’ energy costs would decrease by about one-third.

The issues surrounding energy affordability are complicated, and there’s no single solution. But this much is clear: the transition to electric mobility and renewables and greater investment in energy efficiency will be a win-win for families everywhere. As the Climate Reality Project notes, “Low-income families are suffering disproportionately under the current energy landscape.” Accelerating the shift to clean energy will help them reduce their bills while involving them in the all-hand-on-deck action needed to fight the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Special thanks to Climate Reality for their excellent blog post on this topic. Also: stay tuned for an upcoming toolkit tackling one barrier to increased EV access: installing chargers at multi-unit dwellings.


A new chapter in the energy transition

January 20, 2021

This article is from the January 20, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

Okay, America, we made it to Inauguration Day. What does this day mean for clean energy? Potentially, a s***t ton. While President Biden has his work cut out for him, the incoming administration represents a new, hopeful chapter for tackling climate change and transitioning to renewable energy. “We have a window here to act,” observed one climate activist. “This could be a historic presidency in that respect.” But just how quickly we can move on clean energy will depend on a range of factors both enabling and impeding Biden’s ambitions. Let’s break them down.

Topping the list is the new administration’s laser-focus on climate change. Biden is the first president in history to prioritize climate action in a coordinated way, across the federal government and through bold intentions on both the executive and legislative fronts. Biden’s proposed $2 trillion Build Back Better plan aims to revitalize the economy and cut greenhouse gases through wide-ranging measures.

United States White House

Executive actions: Ready, set, go…

Starting now, Biden will be able to tap into his broad executive authority to act on climate. This includes restoring the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement and taking a series of executive actions to impose stricter environmental standards and to reverse at least some of President Trump’s rollbacks of environmental protections. With Democrats now controlling the Senate (albeit very narrowly), Biden should be able to quickly win confirmation for political appointees across the U.S. government who can get to work on realizing his climate plan and shifting policy toward a greener future.

It’s an impressive team. Biden’s proposed climate cabinet will lead executive offices and departments related to energy, environment, public lands, and climate change. In important “firsts,” he’s nominated a Native American to head the Interior Department and will elevate both his chief science adviser and his special envoy for climate (former secretary of state John Kerry) to Cabinet-level posts, as part of an effort to “ensure everything we do is grounded in science, facts, and the truth.”

The nation’s top agencies have legal authority to tackle greenhouse gases immediately (e.g., by regulating cars and trucks). Biden’s inner circle also includes climate-savvy staffers, including eco-veterans of the Obama administration. His decision to assemble the most robust climate-focused group ever in the West Wing “shows how central climate change is to Biden’s foreign and security policy, just as it is to his domestic and economic policy,” said longtime political consultant John Podesta.

Even the Treasury will be climate-forward, working with the Federal Reserve to ensure that the country’s banking and finance systems are in step with wider plans to tackle fossil fuel emissions and shift toward a clean energy future. Things will head in a starkly different direction than under Trump, when the Fed took on billions in fossil fuel debt as part of coronavirus relief efforts. Biden’s Treasury pick, former Fed chair Janet Yellen, has long recognized the widespread risk climate change poses to global financial stability. In mid-December, the Fed voted unanimously to join a global network of some 75 of the world’s central banks addressing the financial risks from global warming.

U.S. Capitol building

Wrangling the Congressional beast

Congress will be a different story, given the razor-thin margin that Democrats now hold in the Senate. The Biden administration’s climate advances probably won’t take the form of aggressive legislative reforms like the Green New Deal or even a sweeping carbon tax, cap-and-trade bill, or clean power mandate. Biden faces an uphill battle trying to meet big campaign promises like rewriting the tax code, eliminating long-standing fossil fuel subsidies, and stopping oil and gas drilling permits on federal land. This is in part because conservative lawmakers could easily block climate legislation by using the antiquated Senate filibuster rule, which requires a supermajority of 60 votes to pass a bill through the chamber.

Fortunately, there’s good reason for optimism. Overall, climate change and clean energy issues will be much higher on the congressional agenda. Tackling transportation—the country’s biggest source of carbon emissions—is expected to be a major Democratic priority. But rather than pushing through big measures, lawmakers may have to take a more creative, piecemeal approach. One option to counter Trump-era rulings is using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to nullify a rule within 60 legislative days of its adoption (although this has its limitations). Even with a thin Democratic majority, Biden will be able to press for greater federal support for eco-friendly infrastructure, renewable energy, tax breaks for electric vehicles, and efficiency standards.

Rather than pushing through big measures, lawmakers may have to take a more creative, piecemeal approach.

A critical strategy for lawmakers will be to pair climate policy and climate justice work with existing legislation and spending happening anyway. Under the once-a-year process known as “reconciliation” of the federal budget, certain Senate bills can be passed by a simple majority vote as long they are explicitly connected to the tax code, revenues, and spending. Two reconciliation bills with clean energy elements are: 1) a broad economic recovery bill with tax incentives for electric vehicles, renewables, and energy efficiency; and 2) an infrastructure package with funding for more transmission lines. These will bring renewable electricity distribution and a more efficient smart grid.

Encouragingly, a growing number of corporations are on board with the clean energy agenda and could help to advance related legislation. Big Oil and Gas wants a seat at the table and could be open to greater changes if the new administration can provide assurances about a fair transition for fossil fuel workers. For example, Biden’s team is expected to prioritize plugging methane leaks from pipelines, wells, and other infrastructure, and already oil and gas companies are clamping down on emissions in advance of any new regulations. Meanwhile, renewable energy stocks have soared since the election.

The auto industry has shown minimal resistance to Biden’s plans to reinstate climate and fuel efficiency standards, and companies want greater clarity around the transition away from gas-powered vehicles. “Perhaps for the first time, the auto industry, investors, the federal government and consumers are coming into alignment on the way forward,” observed an auto industry consultant.

Crucially, public support is strong. In a December survey, 66 percent of respondents—including a majority of voters of both major parties—agreed that clean energy sources should be a high or very high priority. With all this support, coming from so many directions, there is pressure on Biden to move quickly and forcefully on his promises. The pathway is clearer than ever before. As Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, observed, “There’s no reason for the Biden administration to scale back an ambitious plan. It makes sense, and it’s wildly popular.”


Is battery storage ready for prime time?

January 13, 2021

This article is from the January 13, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

In case you haven’t heard, battery storage is entering the big leagues. Thanks to high-profile projects in places like California and Australia, we’re seeing a lot more buzz about this “game changer” for our clean energy future. Amidst the high expectations, the emerging arrival of battery storage serves as another occasion to remind ourselves of a critical truth: there’s no silver bullet when it comes to tackling the all-hands-on-deck transition to renewables. If you’re not sure what all the commotion is about, read on for a quick primer on the state of this technology.

What is battery storage?

Battery storage (lithium-ion technology is what we’re focused on here) simply stores and discharges electricity. These batteries are in everything from cell phones and medical equipment to luxury yachts and power plants. When paired with renewable energy sources, batteries store excess electricity generated by wind and solar farms at times of low demand and then discharge this power back to the grid when it’s needed: during peak demand periods, when the sun isn’t shining, or when the wind isn’t blowing. Battery storage systems are essential to enabling power grids to handle lots of wind and solar power in a stable way. (Wondering what the heck a “power grid” is? Learn more here).

Battery storage systems are essential to enabling power grids to handle lots of wind and solar power…

Just how massive are these batteries? As recently as five years ago, a 20-megawatt battery storage project was considered a big deal. But now, the race is on to build new lithium-ion batteries in the hundreds of megawatts that can hold enough renewable electricity to power hundreds of thousands of homes. These days, battery systems can range in size from 100 megawatts (like this 2017 project in Australia) to 300 megawatts (like the brand new project in Moss Landing, CA). Things are getting much bigger, quickly, however, as planned projects in Saudi Arabia and the ASEAN region attest. Utility-scale battery storage is also being deployed in Chile, Japan, Germany, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom (including a 320-megawatt system in London), among other countries.

This record expansion is expected to continue, with an estimated annual growth of 3040 percent over the coming decade. The U.S. could account for nearly half of the global cumulative capacity by 2030, led by huge new deployments in California. Once phase 2 is completed later this year, the Moss Landing project, developed by Tesla, will be able to run for four hours before a recharge, making it possible to power roughly 300,000 homes during evenings, heatwaves, and other times when electricity demand outstrips supply. Pacific Gas & Electric ultimately envisions the system being able to power every home in San Francisco for at least six hours.

Battery storage installation under construction in California
The Moss Landing, CA project under construction in October 2020 (credit: EKM metering/YouTube)

The need for speed

A key promise of energy storage is speeding the transition to a carbon-free power grid. The batteries are reaching a size where they’re becoming an economically viable alternative to replace fossil fuel (usually natural gas) “peaker” plants, smaller generating plants that kick in for a few hours a day to balance the grid when energy demands soar.

Combining battery storage with large solar arrays is especially promising, given the generally predictable pattern of sunshine. A 409-megawatt battery storage project linked to a nearby solar plant is slated to go online later this year in South Florida, replacing two aging natural gas-fired units. In New York City, the recently approved 316-megawatt Ravenswood project, designed to power more than 250,000 homes emissions-free for up to eight hours, will replace 16 natural gas peaker units in Queens. With most fossil fuel power plants in the U.S. expected to reach the end of their working life by 2035, utility-scale battery storage will play a growing role in shifting the power grid to cleaner and less expensive alternatives.

Add to this the rapidly falling prices for lithium-ion batteries, and it’s clear why the outlook for energy storage is bright. Overall, the cost for utility-scale battery storage in the U.S. declined nearly 70 percent between 2015 and 2018, and lithium-ion battery costs could fall another 45 percent between 2018 and 2030.

What’s ahead

Speculation remains high for the potential of battery storage. On the lithium-ion front, companies are working to improve the technology even further, including by using a solid material (rather than a liquid) to conduct electricity, which could lead to benefits like quicker charging and longer battery range. Developers are exploring alternatives to lithium-ion including designs that use more widely available materials (like zinc) and can last longer (like sulfur-based tech). A company in Massachusetts is testing a huge water-based design that can run for up to 150 hours on a charge.

The cost for utility-scale battery storage in the U.S. declined nearly 70 percent between 2015 and 2018.

While most of the growth of battery storage has come from large-scale projects of the sort used by utilities, the little guys are getting in on it too—and their collective impact could exceed that of large-scale projects. Smaller uses, ranging from home battery systems like Tesla’s Powerwall to electric vehicle batteries, are expected to expand rapidly. In Germany, for example, nearly half of recent home solar installations include batteries. Meanwhile Hawaii and California lead the way for solar + storage here in the U.S.

Without question, battery storage will be an important part of our future, and 2021 is shaping up to be a big year in making storage an essential part of the grid. “I feel like we have crossed a threshold… a signpost that we’re moving into a new era,” said Eric Gimon with Energy Innovation. Investing in battery storage could be a key element of post-COVID “green recovery” efforts across all applications, including both stationary and vehicle batteries. As a NREL energy analyst recently put it, “We see storage being a large player across effectively every future we look at. And not just one or two gigawatts… but tens to hundreds of gigawatts.” That’s a lot of juice.


“Local energy” in 2021

January 6, 2021

This article is from the January 6, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).

Phew. 2020 was a year, for so many reasons. With attention fixated on the global pandemic and a contentious U.S. election, it was easy to miss news from the clean energy front. Among other headlines, solar power continued its upward surge and electric mobility took big steps toward going mainstream. Against this backdrop, the paradigm-shifting concept of “local energy” is poised to take even bigger steps forward in 2021.

What’s so important about “local energy”? It’s a profound systemic shift, much like “local food” was years ago: you’re still eating a salad, but instead of the lettuce being grown thousands of miles away by ACME Farms, Inc. and traveling on planes, trains, and automobiles to get to you, you picked it up at Rebecca’s farm 15 miles from your house. The economic, environmental, and nutritional impact is largely beneath the surface, but when you stop and think about it—it’s kind of awe-inspiring. After a century of powering our lives with energy from big, centralized fossil-fuel power plants and oil tankers from the Middle East, millions of Americans are now getting electricity from their rooftops and powering their cars at home. We’re bringing power (literally) back to our communities.


Getting energy from your roof: the 2021 update

Residential and community-based solar installations continue to spread across the country, from the sun-soaked roofs of the rural southwest to neighborhoods in New England. With the costs of solar power falling by the day (in 2020, photovoltaic panels were 12 times cheaper on average than in 2010), solar is now the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. Recognizing the benefits of local solar, federal and state regulators are opening markets to affordable, distributed renewable energy, and even utilities are embracing this future

In many states, feed-in tariffs and net metering policies enable homeowners with solar (and other independent power producers) to feed their extra power back to the grid and get compensated for it. In South Carolina, net metering (the policy that lets you sell the power your solar panels make back to the utility) has helped increase the number of homes with rooftop solar from less than 500 in 2014 to more than 20,000 today. Many states and the federal government also offer rebates and/or tax credits for installing solar, and some have pro-solar mandates. For example, in 2020, California became the first state to require that all new homes be outfitted with rooftop solar panels (or, alternatively, meet the requirements by connecting the homes to offsite solar). Part of the broad end-of-year legislation that Congress recently passed included a two-year extension of the solar tax credit that has helped fuel solar’s growth. 

The bottom line? “Local solar” is no longer an isolated trend. Every 90 seconds, another U.S. household goes solar. During the third quarter of 2020, “small” solar (on homes and businesses, or in community solar gardens) accounted for nearly a quarter of the new capacity added to U.S. power grids (throw in big wind and solar farms and you account for 96 percent). Across six southeastern states, the number of homes and businesses with rooftop solar more than doubled since 2018.

Solar installations strengthen our local economies, not only providing “local energy” but creating good jobs and boosting local resilience in the face of volatile energy prices. Over the next decade, “solar installer” will be one of the top 3 fastest growing occupations in America (wind turbine technician is #1).

electric vehicle

Electric vehicles step on the accelerator

When electric vehicles enter the mix, things get even more interesting—and impactful. Imagine meeting your household’s power needs with rooftop solar, then also plugging in your car to solar-charge it for your morning commute. You’ve eliminated your reliance on fossil fuels, which means: you’re saving money, reducing your carbon footprint, and supporting your local economy.

While EVs still only account for a small percentage of new vehicle sales in the U.S., 2021 will be the year when the EV market can finally offer a model for most every lifestyle: commuter hatchbacks, luxury sedans, pickup trucks, family-sized SUVs—even MINI coopers. There are plug-in hybrids (which run about 40 miles on electricity and then switch to gas) and all-electrics that can range up to 520 miles (but typically go about 250 miles). Dozens more models are coming soon, as automakers see the writing on the wall: an estimated 100 new EV models are set to debut by the end of 2024. The long list of benefits (fuel cost savings, quieter ride, no tailpipe emissions, lower total ownership costs) are still not widely understood, however: only 30 percent of American drivers report knowing much about EVs—even though 71 percent are considering buying one in the future. Once more consumers become “EV aware” and get access to a variety of models, it’s expected that adoption will accelerate quickly.  

A new reality is taking hold, made possible with the arrival of low-cost solar power and electric vehicles to the mass market. Everyday people across the country can transform how they power their lives.


WATCH: Do something to make your 7 yr-old self proud (drive electric)

January 5, 2021

To kick off 2021, we decided to have some fun with YouTube creator Esteban Gast. We asked ourselves, “what would we do differently if our past and future selves showed up and gave us some real talk?”

These three videos are the result. Enjoy, sign the Going Electric Pledge, and share.