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Seven practical steps to save our planet: An interview with Hal Harvey

November 9, 2022

Regardless of the final outcome of the mid-term elections, there are concrete steps that you, individually, can choose to take right now for clean energy progress.

In The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet, co-authors Hal Harvey and Justin Gillis lay out how and why individuals can make a big impact. In this week’s issue, Gen180 Executive Director Wendy Philleo interviewed Hal–a leading strategist in the nonprofit sector’s efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change–on what he hopes readers take away from the book.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. See the full video interview here.

Wendy Philleo: All right. Well, welcome Hal Harvey, good to see you again. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about your new book, which I have here, The Big Fix: 7 Practical Steps to Save Our Planet that you wrote with Justin Gillis. 

Hal Harvey: Thank you. It’s a delight to be here. And I really appreciate the chance for this conversation.

WP: Great. Can you share a little bit about your background and a little bit about why you came to this decision to write this book. Why now?

HH: Sure thing, I’m an engineer by training with degrees in both civil and mechanical engineering. I got involved in the energy business when I turned 18, because I was obligated to go register for the draft, because Jimmy Carter reinstated it in order to build the so-called Rapid Deployment Force in the Mideast, which was aimed at protecting American interests against foreign oil producers. And so that put a pretty sharp focus on the question of oil and oil imports. What I was doing at the time was home construction solar homes with my brother. And we came to realize that it was not very complicated or difficult to build a solar heated home. 

And to have this dissonance on the one hand between getting ready to go to war, not so long after the Vietnam War wound up in its tragic way – and on the other hand, having readily available technologies to save energy. And this was at the time when cars got an average of 13 miles per gallon. So we weren’t just importing [oil] we were wasting it in just copious quantities, we still are.

WP: Your book felt like almost a call out for a revitalization or renewal of civic engagement, in a way, because you talk a lot about citizens flexing their muscle, exercising influence and finding these levers – sometimes secret levers, because people don’t know about them. Can you talk a little bit about a few actions that you think are most important for people to know about?

HH: So this is the right question, because what motivated us to write the book is to identify the places where citizen actions can make a big difference. I mean, the normal reaction to a political issue that you care about is to write a letter to your Congressperson. That turns out not to be the most effective thing to do. Civic engagement is wonderful, but if you know who makes the decision that most affects the planet, then you can make a strategy for changing that decision. 

And that’s what the book is all about. When you send in your utility bill at the end of the month, does that money land on green choices or dirty choices? Who decides whether your money goes to solar and wind or coal and natural gas? And the answer is the Public Utility Commission (PUC) of your state. How many people have stood before their state’s Public Utilities Commission and said, ‘Hey, let’s get this straight. We need to quit cooking the earth.’ How hard is that? And how complicated is it? And what happened? So we tell in this book, not only how to identify those levers of power, but stories about how people got involved and pulled those levers that made a big difference.

WP: Just how many Public Utility Commission Commissioners are there in the U.S.? 

HH: Just over 200. So roughly five per state. These people control 40% of the carbon emissions in our economy. That’s amazing. That’s a big number, and those 200 people are obligated to listen to you. They’re called Public Utilities Commission’s because they’re supposed to serve the public. They have hearings and you can stand in front of them and make your point. Now, a lot of the conversation at these meetings is a sort of a regulatory patois between utility lawyers and PUC lawyers. And that requires lots of specialized knowledge. 

But let’s say you live downwind of a big coal-fired power plant and your kid has asthma. The PUC is obligated to listen to you and your kid. You can tell them what it’s like to be a mom to have a kid who can’t breathe, and that it’s the PUC’s responsibility for that, and therefore it’s on them to change. You know, the climate change picture is pretty horrifying if you study it closely. My suggestion is people should study it enough to get concerned, but then flip to the solutions as fast as possible.

“People should study it enough to get concerned, but then flip to the solutions as fast as possible.”

Because that’s enabling. It’s energizing as well. And when you focus on solutions, your strategy becomes much more pointed than just raising awareness. It turns into how do I save this planet? How do we keep it from just burning right up?

WP: I think the problem with energy issues is that it feels complicated, and it feels like it should be left to the experts. Right? So what do I know about building codes? Or what do I know about utilities? I do feel like there are barriers around this type of engagement—how does the average person get comfortable doing this?

HH: Well, it’s good to have some logic, I would recommend a couple of days study before working to intervene in one of these decision-making venues. It’s also a great idea to look and see who else is doing this work in your region and if you can piggyback onto them. 

Every good argument has ethos, logos, and pathos. So ethos, this is your ethical standing. Every single National Academy of Sciences scientist has argued for rapid action on climate change. You don’t have to be that scientist, but it’s totally legitimate to point out that they are all saying it, there’s your ethos. Your logos, it’s now cheaper to build a solar farm from scratch than to just pay the operating costs of a coal-fired power plant. It’s amazing. Again, you don’t have to fight every detail there. And pathos – how does it make you feel when your kid has asthma or when soot is sitting on your windowsill at the end of every single day? So take those elements, put them in human terms and present them. It turns out, that’s a very hard combination to defeat.

WP: Love that. That’s very empowering. How has the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act changed the equation for you in terms of the recommendations that are in this book?

HH: We wrote the book before that all happened. So the question is, do those recommendations survive? And it turns out, they not only survive, they thrive. We argued for rapid decarbonization of the electric grid by switching from fossil fuels to renewable fuels. Well, the IRA just made that even easier because economics is now a tailwind instead of a headwind. So across the board, I think it accelerates and emphasizes the suggestions in the book. We have reached an interesting point in the energy economy of the world – it’s now cheaper, I often say, to save the world than to destroy it.

“It’s now cheaper, I often say, to save the world than to destroy it.”

WP: I think one of the things that’s frustrating is knowing that renewable energy is popular across the ideological spectrum – that most (70%) of Americans support climate action. It’s actually a more popular issue than people realize. How do you deal with the disconnect in how people see momentum at the state and federal levels? 

HH: Well, to some extent, the waters have been purposefully poisoned by people who resist change. I mean, if you look at the Koch brothers who have made close to hundreds of billions of dollars in the oil and gas business, and then you look at their political contributions, the answer becomes sort of glaringly obvious in some cases. But we also have some responsibility ourselves to think about civic action and how to overcome this. It’s often counterproductive to talk about climate change, instead of clean energy, because the numbers for clean energy are even higher than for climate change, regardless of the fact that they’re the same thing. Start with interests, bring in local examples, and identify those secret levels of power – there’s still powerful economic interests that will fight this, and we can’t win by being too precious. 

WP: I thought it was really interesting at the end of your book that you added a chapter around religion. That was a surprise to me, and I thought it was really interesting. Can you talk a little bit about why you added that and more broadly about what role you think culture needs to play in terms of speeding up this transition?

HH: You know, there’s a great moral question hanging over all of this, which is, do we have the right, as citizens of today, to leave behind burnt offerings for citizens of tomorrow?

“There’s a great moral question hanging over all of this, which is, do we have the right, as citizens of today, to leave behind burnt offerings for citizens of tomorrow?”

Do we have the right to destroy the topsoil, to alter the weather patterns to extinguish life in the oceans, to let mighty forests burn, to flood out entire towns? More than half of Pakistan was underwater this year, in terms of the population. So I don’t think we have that right. I don’t think we have the right to cheat future generations for our near-term. And I don’t think we have to. We have to make some hard choices. Avoid doing that. So from my perspective, it is an ethical question, not a religious one. I’m not a religious person. But I hope I’m an ethical person – I try to be on a good day. And that’s where the question arises, you know, what is our obligation? 

WP: And from a broader cultural perspective, what do you feel needs to happen on that front? It feels like a real shift needs to take place in terms of speeding up the rate that we need to act. 

HH: You know, we need to first of all be optimistic about the future, rather than harp on problems. A little bit of optimism goes a long way. I had a friend who said optimism is a social change strategy.

“Optimism is a social change strategy.”

And he’s right. That’s one thing we have to do – ‘pull up your socks’, as they say, in England, go get something done. 

WP: I think that’s part of the challenge, right? Like how do we make building codes, heat pumps, you know, Public Utility Commissions sexy so people think about these issues? It’s not an easy thing, but I think there’s a way to do that and starting with the solutions and the optimism and reaching people in different ways is really important. I’m glad to hear that you feel optimistic and that we’re up to the task. If there is one takeaway that you want to leave people with, what is it?

HH: There’s a lot you can do. It seems like a big intractable problem, but there are opportunities in every corner. In order to find those opportunities, you have to know something – not a lot – but something about the energy system in which decisions are the most critical, who makes those decisions, and how you can intervene in those decisions. It takes a couple of days of homework. It pays to look for groups that are similarly strategic in your region, and then jump in without fear. Right? If we have an ethical duty and great opportunity to quit poisoning our children, let’s do that. 

WP: And take advantage of this opportunity of innovation and economic gain as well.

HH: Yes, exactly. It’s all right there in front of us. 

WP: Well, thank you for taking the time. I really appreciate it. 

HH: Thank you Wendy, really delighted to have this chance to catch up.

Blog

Car culture is changing—EVs are the new normal

September 28, 2022

This week’s blog is a firsthand account from the desk of Stuart Gardner, Electrify Your Ride Program Director. With over 10 years of auto industry experience and multiple cars and motorcycles, you could say he’s a “car guy.” 

My first car was a 1971 Volkeswagen Type III Fastback.  A lot has changed since then, but it sparked what has become a lifelong appreciation for all things automotive. This week is National Drive Electric Week, and as more and more Americans consider making their next car purchase electric (see Gen180’s brand new National Drive Electric Pledge campaign here), we thought it would be fun to take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the classically American automotive technological breakthroughs that brought us the electric car.

In the early 1900s, cars were started manually with a hand crank. The driver would turn a crank in the front of the car in order to start the internal combustion process of the engine.  Sometimes, the crank would bend, so a useful tool many drives carried was a hammer to bang it back into shape. I really miss those days. The electric starter ruined everything. 

Until 1914, the bodies and frames of cars were made of wood. Then the Dodge Brothers came along. Steel has since become the standard.

Rowing the boat, three on the tree, four on the floor. Manual transmissions are cool and connect the driver to the vehicle. Then in 1939 General Motors came along and introduced the “Hydra-Matic.” Today, manual transmissions make up only about 2.4% of new cars. Sure, today’s automatic transmissions are more responsive and shift faster than even the quickest manual, but I miss spilling my coffee while trying to drive and answer the phone and shift into third. 

The blast of hot air in the summer, you can see the heat rising up from the tarmac. Feeling my skin stick to the boiling hot surfaces of my seats. Can you believe some nut came around in the 1940s and introduced air conditioning in a car?  Ridiculous.

Did you know there isn’t a new car to be found in the US with a carburetor?  How am I supposed to tune this thing?  Sure, fuel injection is more efficient and prevents many of the issues carburetors have to deal with (altitude, flooding, hard starting, etc.), but what am I to do with all my wooden clothespins to prevent vapor lock? (motorhead alert)  

Seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and the review camera. Can you believe all of these things are now REQUIRED by the government?  Absurd, right?  

Which brings us to cars powered by an electric motor.  They’re insanely fast, amazingly quiet (they can rumble loudly if you’re into that), and require nearly zero maintenance. But they are new. And while new may sometimes mean different, it doesn’t mean bad. Electric vehicles dramatically open the aperture of what’s possible, enabling designers to push the limits beyond what’s already been done with an internal combustion engine. Electric vehicles do not have a drive shaft, fuel tank, or transmission. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for interior passenger space, and of course “frunks.” Cool, right? 

And U.S. car companies are certainly taking notice. General Motors recently launched a marketing campaign, “EVs for everyone, everywhere,” which debuted during the kickoff of the NFL season this month. This complements the eight EV ads that aired during the 2022 Superbowl, not to mention the expectation that more than half of US car sales will be electric by 2030.

New GM spots w/ Fleetwood Mac music

The evolution of something as culturally beloved as the automobile may take time, but we don’t have to fear electric vehicles will kill American car culture. No one is taking away the cool classic cars of the past. We’re talking about new cars. We can embrace electric vehicles for how amazing they are in both design and performance. We can wax nostalgic when we think back to the hand crank, lack of air conditioning–and soon, oil changes.  

Car culture is changing. EVs are the new normal. Don’t fall behind on the trend—sign the Going Electric pledge.

— Stuart (a car guy)

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Our Electric Future: When Will Gas Cars Go the Way of the Horse and Buggy?

September 7, 2022

When Henry Ford unveiled his history-changing Model T in 1908, there hardly was any infrastructure to support widespread transport by car. Paved roads were scarce, gas stations were few and far between, and horse-drawn carriages were the preferred way to travel.

Despite these challenges, it didn’t take long for the clearly better transportation option to go mainstream. In a little over a decade, Model T’s were everywhere, replacing the horses that had moved people for hundreds of years.

Though not a perfect comparison, the switch from the internal combustion engine to the electric one has a lot in common with the horse-to-car evolution. Many automobile prototypes preceded Henry Ford’s version. Combined with the creation of The Office of Public Roads in 1905, Ford’s unique assembly line approach unlocked the broad-based adoption earlier producers only dreamed of.

Thanks to federal and state incentives, EVs are rapidly approaching cost parity with combustion engine vehicles, and are projected to get cheaper as the cost of owning the latter rises each year depending on unpredictable global oil markets. The recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) includes provisions to accelerate the cost reductions for Americans and the nationwide charging infrastructure to support the new models.

However, we shouldn’t declare victory yet. Passenger cars are just one way people get themselves and goods around.

Electric buses and bikes, like EVs, are popping up everywhere. But that’s the low-hanging fruit—electric planes, trains, medium and heavy duty trucks, and cargo ships will be a much harder nut to crack, and spew out a significant amount of GHGs.

So, where do we stand today with the transition to electric transportation? What are the biggest barriers, and how can you play a role in hastening the movement?

To help answer these questions, let’s widen the scope and learn from other tectonic changes in technology.

Shifts in technology happen slowly, then all at once

While no one reading this remembers the horse-to-car conversion, you may remember the sudden proliferation of smartphones at the start of the century. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious—of course computers would get smaller until they fit into our pockets.

But even experts in the field had no idea what was coming. Back in 1980, Motorola expected that “car phones” would dominate the market, and projected a little over 1 million phones would be sold in the year 2000.

The actual number? 109 million.

Widespread adoption of new tech often happens faster than people think, after a long period of low growth. The kicker is usually when the new, better product reaches a competitive price level with the legacy product and consumer demand begins dictating supply. For EVs, industry experts predicted this tipping point would be reached when a vehicle hit the market that could last 200 miles on one charge and cost less than $30k.

Well, Tesla hit that mark in 2017 with its Model 3, and EV sales have been growing exponentially since then, as shown in the chart below.

Credit: EV Volumes

That’s a textbook exponential curve, and a promising sign for reducing GHG emissions from passenger cars. Although EVs represent less than 10% of global car sales, if this trend continues, they’ll make up the majority of new vehicle purchases by 2050.

This is great news, but there’s a catch.

Unfortunately, despite projections of EVs dominating new car sales very soon, gasoline cars are expected to hold onto their lead, even in 2050.

Even if you’re an environmental champion, changing vehicles takes some thought. Most people need to see cost competitiveness and enticing new benefits to make the switch from a current vehicle that works just fine.

Credit: The New York Times

Suggested remedies for this issue include more EV tax credits and government gasoline-car-buyback programs. But, with enough gas-powered cars currently in the world to stretch from Sydney to London many times over, it’ll take a while before gas cars go the way of the horse and buggy.

Armed with this historical perspective, let’s take a look at where the electric transportation transition stands today.

Range-bound

Electric cars are incredible machines. We didn’t merely come up with a way to get us around sans-combustion. We cranked the power way up in the process.

EVs have better acceleration than gas cars, mainly due to their uncomplicated engines compared to the internal combustion variety. These simplified engines also require less maintenance.

People absolutely love these things, and all signs point to mass adoption in the near term. The question is how soon that point comes.

Two key variables will affect the timeline—price and range. The comfort in knowing that you can refuel at a gas station just about anywhere in the country is important to people. As a result, “range anxiety” will persist until charging stations proliferate, ranges increase, and charge time go down.

Component shortages and other supply chain woes have kept EV prices elevated in spite of tax credits, increasing economies of scale, and other industry tailwinds. An uncertain economic future looms on the horizon, and a recession could set the market back.

As the chart above shows, gas cars will be stubborn to stamp out. For a fully electric future to become reality, gas cars probably have to phase out of the market by 2035. California recently committed to this timeline, reinforcing the world’s fifth largest economy as a leader in shaping our clean energy future.

Renewed hope for federal electrification support

Just when climate change advocates had given up hope on federal action, Joe Manchin came to the table at the last minute and emerged with a deal. The IRA may be labeled as an effort to tamp down inflation, but includes a whopping $370 billion in investments for energy security and electrification.

Labeled as “the United States’ biggest and most ambitious climate change legislation ever,” the IRA marks a renewed commitment from the U.S. to combat climate change. It’s expected to reduce U.S. GHG emissions 40% by 2030, which seemed like a pipedream just a few months ago.

Some of the highlights of the law include tax breaks for new and used EVs, language that strengthens the EPA’s regulatory authority, projected energy bill savings, and investments for new clean energy jobs. Plenty of good stuff!

This law is a game-changer, but we shouldn’t declare victory just yet. Better to think of the IRA as setting the stage for more drastic action, as public and private actors now have the financial incentive to invest in economy-wide electrification solutions.

The U.S. Postal Service made a splash this summer when it announced that half its new mail trucks would be electric. But the IRA enables it to go even further—a $3 billion allocation for more EVs and charging infrastructure sets the stage for a fully-electric mail delivery system in the near future.

Charging stations remain a thorn in the side of EV advocates, and the IRA tackles it head-on. The “Alternative Fuel Vehicle Refueling Property Credit” grants producers a 30% discount on the cost of new charging stations with cities, states, and private businesses already installing chargers.

Even the number of electric school buses, a favorite among Flip the Script readers, stands to grow. Class 6 and 7 school buses are eligible for the $1 billion in funding for new electric commercial vehicles outlined in the law.

The IRA was a historic step forward for America, but a lot of work lies ahead. So, now that the foundation is set, what are the biggest barriers still facing mass electrification?

A great start, but a long way to go

President Biden came into office promising to halve U.S. GHG emissions by 2030. While the 40% reduction estimated post-IRA is great, it falls short of that mark.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a 50% reduction is out of reach, though. Government agencies like the EPA have been empowered to pitch in. The Hill thinks the “EPA should use its expanded capacities to help the U.S. bridge that remaining 10 percent gap.”

While the EPA will look to reassert its authority with this new mandate, utilities across the country need to step up too.

Grids need to be updated to handle the increased loads caused by the EV surge. In its current iteration, the U.S. grid can’t handle massive increases in load demands. Luckily, experts are aware of what’s coming.

Pre-IRA, Biden passed a law promising $5 billion in funding for grid updates that would enable a nationwide charging network. Private and public utilities, along with EV companies, are expected to put some money on the table as well, as all have a shared interest in a well-functioning charging network.

So that’s the current state of the electric transportation transition in a nutshell. Now what can you do to support the movement?

Ways you can plug-in

Similar to the climate change fight, small actions from each of us can make a big difference over time and send the market signal that EV producers need.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Pledge to make your next car electric. Not everyone is able to run out and buy an EV tomorrow, but promising to make your next car electric when the time comes is still a huge step.
  2. Publicly support charging stations for EVs and electric school buses. If you live in a complex without any charging stations, see if you can rally support to put one in. You can ask your workplace to install a charging station, too.
  3. Talk to your local representatives about implementing a municipal electrification program. Cities like Columbus, OH have reached stunning EV adoption rates when considering infrastructure and EV purchases together.

With the tipping point for mass EV adoption right around the corner and the urgency of climate change, we have no time to waste. Let’s use the IRA as a jumping point for even more significant action to make widespread transportation electrification a reality. 

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Let’s celebrate energy independence

July 7, 2022

Every July 4th, the smell of burgers grilling, sound of firecrackers bursting, and sight of sparklers sizzling remind us of the freedom we enjoy here in America.

As we clean up from the cookout and get ready for the second half of summer, another type of liberty is on people’s minds—energy independence.

Across the country, Americans are cranking up the AC and turning on fans to contend with climate change-caused sweltering conditions. Despite falling about 1% in 2020 due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, global energy consumption is set to grow 4% in 2022 driven by urbanization and increased access to electricity. 

To meet this demand, America still depends on foreign oil, which keeps us vulnerable to international crises and tied to dictators who don’t share our values.

We need a new framework for energy independence—an electrified economy powered by locally-produced wind and solar, freeing us from contributing to the problem we’re trying to solve.

What does ‘energy independence’ actually mean?

Energy independence has been relegated to a buzzword, with people choosing to define the phrase in ways that support their arguments. The simplest definition is when a country produces more energy than it consumes.

Even though America technically produces enough oil to meet its needs, it would be inefficient to base all of our consumption solely on domestic production. Foreign oil is often cheaper to get out of the ground, for a variety of reasons. Also, American-drilled oil tends to be light and sweet, so heavier foreign oil needs to be imported for industries that require that type. Pivoting to the growing demand for wind and solar energy would also lessen our reliance on importing heavy crude.

True energy independence in the US would mean freedom from foreign oil producers and insulation against unpredictable price shocks. The key here isn’t to produce more domestic oil to fill the gap—it’s to transition to a clean energy-based economy that would sever our reliance on foreign oil producers who don’t share our interest in creating a healthier future for everyone.

Benefits of renewables-based energy independence

Besides the obvious environmental value of being carbon-free, wind and solar energy are abundant and don’t require harmful drilling.

Anchored by these two sources, renewables can set the foundation for true energy independence in America—the kind where energy is produced where it is used and needed, not shipped from halfway across the globe.

Unlike most issues of our time, this one appeals to both sides of the aisle. The left has been a long-time advocate for the climate-friendly aspects of wind and solar, while conservative states are beginning to embrace, and even lead the way, in adopting these technologies. Texas, long associated with oil production, has by far the most clean power installations in the country – with more growth forecasted. Other agriculture-heavy, Midwestern states like Iowa and Oklahoma are building wind farms at a breakneck pace.

Residents across the Great Plains are finding that wind farms produce just as many, if not more, jobs than fossil fuel power plants. Farmers also enjoy the security that leasing turbines on their fields provides—in a bad crop year, profits from generated wind energy can offset losses. Utility companies see wind electricity costs dropping, unlike those of coal and natural gas, and are investing accordingly.

Whether or not climate change is the reason for renewable energy adoption is beside the point. In the long term, it would be good for the planet if most of society were conscious of and concerned about climate change. Today, the most important thing is that the energy transition happens and it happens fast, regardless of the rationale behind it.

Plus, many Americans are already pursuing energy independence. More than 2.7 million households are generating their own power through a rooftop solar system to meet their energy needs, many of which are using that clean energy to charge their electric cars. By pairing solar with a battery storage system, you can use the excess energy generated from the solar panels during the day stored in the battery, freeing you from relying on the grid. Many hospitals and schools already leverage solar + battery storage to enhance their resiliency during power outages or in the midst of natural disasters when the power grid goes down.

Politics play a central role in the transition

In the interest of advancing the renewable energy movement, President Biden recently invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to spur domestic manufacturing in various types of clean energy. While this legislation is by no means a catch-all, it does send the right signals to industry and funds projects that are working towards a clean energy economy.

The administration has many reasons beyond climate change to build a robust American energy sector.

First of all, safeguarding a reliable supply of oil is really expensive. The U.S. government spends an estimated $81 billion per year protecting oil supplies around the globe to ensure that American gas stations are always stocked. This astronomical sum doesn’t even include the war in Iraq, which many believe was waged at least in part due to fear of a global energy crisis.

Aside from the expense, foreign oil interests hamper countries’ ability to intervene in unjust government systems abroad due to a fear of trade retaliation. European countries recently found themselves in this precarious position. Russia supplies more than a third of Europe’s gas, leaving European Union members with a bleak choice—either ban Russian oil imports and send gas prices through the roof, or continue to buy Russian gas and indirectly fund their war effort against Ukraine.

If these countries work to meet most of their energy demand with locally-produced renewables, they can avoid similar predicaments in the future. Energy independence creates multiple political wins, including freedom from trade retaliation and built-in domestic energy security.

Let’s celebrate a new kind of independence

Nearly all Americans agree that less dependence on foreign actors for our energy needs is a good thing. The divergence comes from how that independence can be realized—some argue that more domestic fossil fuel production will get us there, but oil prices are still determined by global markets.

Long-term, sustainable energy independence should be built around local power generation, primarily from wind and solar. The closer we get to this goal, the more resilient we become as a country.

So what can you do to celebrate? Take energy independence into your own hands. Pursue your own renewable energy sources by going solar—or contact your elected officials to push them toward state and federal energy independence. We all can step up to help us achieve a clean energy future.

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Why we love heat pumps and induction stoves, and you should, too.

June 15, 2022

Slowly but surely, the American electric grid is getting cleaner. In fact, we’ve added so much renewable energy that this summer, the biggest power generation boosts will come from wind turbines and solar panels. Just last week, President Biden announced an an Executive Order that will spur clean energy adoption, including help to expand manufacturing of heat pumps.

As growing amounts of clean energy come online, the electric grid becomes a key to unlock more climate benefits, because it can power a boatload of other products that historically have run on fossil fuels. This is why the idea to “electrify everything” is a major, common-sense solution for runaway climate change. Even better, it’s one we all have the power to deploy. 

“For the most part, we decide what we drive, how we heat our water, what heats our homes, what cooks our food, what dries our laundry, and even what cuts our grass,” explains electrification advocate Saul Griffith. “This constitutes our ‘personal infrastructure,’ and it is swapping out that infrastructure that will be a key driver of the global transition from fossil fuels to green energy.”

Altogether, tens of millions of homes could be slashing their greenhouse gas pollution by switching out everyday equipment. Griffith’s nonprofit group, Rewiring America, estimates that a big part of reaching net-zero emissions comes down to replacing or installing 1 billion machines.

There are many ways you can put this into practice—Griffith names a lot of them above—but we’ll focus on two here: heat pumps and induction stoves. Why these? First, because more than half of a home’s energy use goes toward space heating and cooling. When it comes to heating, more than half of U.S. homes use some kind of fossil fuel. Second, at least 43% of us are using fossil fuels (again) in our kitchens. Mostly, “some kind of fossil fuel” means methane or “natural” gas, though in some cases, people are using propane and fuel oil.

Heat pumps… or… ‘clean green comfort machines’?

Some have argued that heat pumps need a rebrand, though great alternative names seem few and far between (we could be wrong, but guessing the ideas “Heaty McPumpface” and “Clean Green Comfort Machine,” from the Canary Media team aren’t likely to catch on anytime soon).The name is indeed misleading, since heat pumps aren’t just for heat. Whatever you call them, these magical machines work year-round by capitalizing on the difference in temperature between outside and inside your home. In winter, heat pumps harvest heat energy from outside (yes, even though it’s cold) and move it indoors. In summer, the heat pump funnels warm air out, cooling it with a refrigerant coil and sending it back inside.

Of the three different types of heat pumps, air-source heat pumps tend to be the most common. They’ve been in use for years in areas of the U.S. with mild winters, but the technology has gotten so good that they’re newly viable even in cold climes. And as the U.S. Department of Energy notes, in summer they also dehumidify the air better than standard central air conditioners. 

Because heat pumps are more efficient, they tend to save money on utility bills. In colder climates, one study found, they will save an average of $300 a year. If you’re heating with oil, as millions of homes do, especially in the Northeast, heat pumps could save you close to $1,000. The cost to install one is comparable to that for a furnace: The national average runs $5,676, according to one estimate. (See other handy guides here and here.)

While you save money, you’re making a big difference for the planet. By switching from a gas-fired furnace to an all-electric heat pump, a typical U.S. home could cut its pollution from heating between 45 and 72%, according to a study released earlier this year.  

Heat pumps are hot right now, almost as hot as George Clooney. For a laugh, check out the story behind this viral Twitter thread of heat pumps that resemble Mr. Clooney.

Instant heat, cleaner air with induction

Let’s give credit where credit is due: The fossil gas industry has done an awesome job of marketing gas stoves to us for decades, (laugh along with Samantha Bee and learn how), despite the fact that gas ranges come with dangerous indoor air pollution, potential fire or injury, and explosion risk from leaks. The conventional wisdom for home cooks has been that gas stoves deliver more immediate and precise heat than electric ones. 

Not so fast! Like heat pumps, induction cooktops have been around for a while but haven’t had the same promotional push behind them as gas stoves. That’s changing. As the hazards of cooking with gas become harder to ignore, it’s easy to find chefs and home cooks extolling the virtues of induction cooking, which works by transferring electromagnetically produced heat to the pan you’re using.

They heat-up fast—faster than gas or electric—and they offer the temperature precision you want. The cooking surface stays cool, and no methane-produced fumes end up in your lungs.  Most models on the market cost less than $200—start cooking with magnets by visiting this handy guide on induction stoves.

Choosing an efficient electric heat pump or induction stove will guarantee years of avoided emissions—getting us closer to the clean energy future we want while saving money and making your home healthier. 

Want to go a step further? Find out when you should go solar or buy an EV.

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Story: A Third Generation Coal Miner Turned Solar Installer

February 23, 2022

Matthew McFadden was born and raised in Wise County in southwestern Virginia’s coal country. In the mid-2000s, McFadden was working in sales at a local electronics company, while several members of his family worked as miners in underground coal mines. “I saw what my brother-in-law and my father-in-law were bringing in monetarily and explored that [profession],” McFadden said. 

It seemed like a natural career path for someone who grew up in a coalfield region. “It’s part of who we are,” McFadden said. Eventually, McFadden completed his training certification in underground mining.

Two miners uses pickaxes in a coal mine.
Coal mining in Wise County dates back more than a century. Photo: Virginia Coal Heritage Trail.

As luck would have it, on the day he went to meet a mine foreman for a potential job, he got lost; McFadden didn’t connect with him. He went to his father-in-law’s house afterward and as they sat on the porch, the two men had a heart-to-heart conversation. “He urged me not to pursue underground mining,” McFadden said.

McFadden’s father-in-law had more than 30 years of experience working as an underground coal miner. He lived through the industry’s boom in the 1970s and its bust in the 1980s when demand for coal from Appalachian mines declined significantly. Factors that contributed to that decline included clean air regulations, competition with other fossil fuels, and technological advances that replaced workers with machines

In some ways, a coal miner’s job is not too dissimilar to what their great-grandparents would have done, such as shovel coal deep underground. Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty.

“My father-in-law is a hero of mine,” McFadden said. “He loved what he did... He had fun down there with all the folks he knew, and [he] knew he was providing a good and honest life for his family. Being a life-long miner was something he was really proud of.” 

His father-in-law was frank, too, about the toll underground mining takes on the body and the danger of the work itself. “He said he didn’t want his daughter to have to worry every day – like her mom did – about whether I would come home or not.” 

“He said he didn’t want his daughter to have to worry every day – like her mom did – about whether I would come home or not” 

McFadden’s father-in-law isn’t wrong—Coal mining is a dangerous business. Even with the precipitous decline of coal use in America, seven fatalities have already occured this year, as of the writing of this article. The CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have known for decades about the cancerous effects of the carcinogens in coal mine dust that miners breathe while underground. All the while some coal companies have been found incorrectly denying miner’s medical claims from working in these dangerous conditions.

McFadden heeded his father-in-law’s advice. He continued to pursue a career in consumer electronics as a project and training manager. But this work moved him away from home to jobs in Charlottesville and Richmond. 

McFadden wasn’t the only one moving away from the region either. The coal mining activity in southwestern Virginia continued to decline through the Great Recession of 2008 and beyond. McFadden said many miners attribute those job losses to the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. Coal jobs that went away never came back. 

In part, the health and safety standards that the Clean Power Plan introduced made coal more expensive to produce, and in turn, it began to lose market share. A 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute anticipated that gross job losses as a result of the Clean Power Plan likely would be geographically concentrated, “raising the challenge of ensuring a fair transition for workers in sectors likely to contract due to the CPP.”

While the Clean Power Plan made coal more expensive, coal consumption had been declining from its peak since 2000 across the country, 15 years before the Clean Power Plan was introduced. Since its peak decline in 2007 through 2013, coal-fired electricity generation fell 25 percent. Coal was unable to compete with cheaper energy sources, namely natural gas produced by fracking

“So people moved or they had to try to retrain on something else,” McFadden said. Most of the time, “they weren’t making anywhere near what they were making before. So it was quite a large life adjustment for a lot of these folks and for the towns and businesses.”

Making a living in different cities didn’t feel right for McFadden. He wished the money he was earning could’ve gone back to help his hometown, where he wanted to raise his daughter. 

When he looked into returning home, McFadden learned about up and coming jobs in renewable energy. He found a job with a company that makes commercial-scale solar energy affordable to schools, hospitals, businesses and local governments in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions.

Solar panels on roof of Duffield Regional Jail in Southwest Virginia, near Wise County. Photo: Christine Gyovai.

McFadden loves to work for a company that’s creating jobs with livable wages that support families and encourage young people to stay in town. 

“These aren’t just flash-in-the-pan jobs,” he said. “These are going to be jobs that people are going to be able to make careers out of by building these systems, operating and maintaining them.”

Renewable energy companies working in the region along with his are also working with community colleges to help create internships and training programs. They’re employing long-time skilled professionals, like electricians and construction workers. He thinks the region is well suited to continue its legacy as an energy producer. 

“Why not take advantage of what we’ve done in the past?” he said. “We’ve got areas that have been stripmined where the land is useless. We can take that land and put something that makes somebody’s house light up… that powers their computer. Whatever it is, we can still be an energy powerhouse.”

Creating a livable and brighter future for his daughter also motivates his work in solar energy. “Climate change is real,” he said, “and we need to make the world a better place for not only our children but also our great, great grandchildren… so that the world is not 100 degrees on average and the ice caps aren’t melted.” 

“Climate change is real, and we need to make the world a better place for not only our children but also our great, great grandchildren”

His company will soon install solar panels at his 9-year-old daughter’s school. McFadden’s face lights up at the thought of his little girl looking up at the solar panels at her school. He knows his daughter will feel proud and “know that her dad helped make it happen.” 

Blog

The Energy Transition is about People Power

February 16, 2022

By now, you might have a pretty good sense of what the clean energy future looks like, at least from a technological standpoint. Maybe your neighbors are installing solar panels on their roof, or you’ve started driving a hybrid or electric car for your daily commute. But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes in the energy transition that might be less apparent. A key trend is the shift from top-down ownership and control of our energy system toward greater “people power.” So what does this mean?  

From centralized to decentralized energy

Most Americans still get their electricity from a relatively small number of big power players— utilities that, together with governments, set the rules for how energy is produced, distributed, and valued. But the growth in distributed energy resources—a fancy phrase for technologies like rooftop solar, electric vehicles, and energy storage—allows us to keep energy local, offering a chance to flip the current model on its head. Distributed resources, like solar and energy storage, can save us money on electricity costs, reduce pollution, and boost local economies, while being scalable and ready to deploy now.

Distributed resources, like solar and energy storage, can save us money on electricity costs, reduce pollution, and boost local economies, while being scalable and ready to deploy now.

By 2025, the combined capacity of these energy resources in the United States is projected to reach 387 gigawatts, driven by a whopping $110 billion in investment over a five-year period. Communities are embracing distributed energy as a way to tackle climate change and boost local resilience in the face of extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes. Falling costs for solar panels and batteries have made distributed resources increasingly affordable, especially when coupled with tax credits and rebates that soften the bite for everyday Americans. 

Power to the people

Distributed energy resources empower us in other, critical ways. Under the current energy structure, power monopolies have an outsized voice, not only influencing how the rules are made (and who they benefit), but also holding sway over our elected officials through lobbying dollars. Power companies typically extract wealth from our communities, with our utility bill payments leaving the local economy. The existing energy system isn’t just unfair and undemocratic—it reinforces centuries of structural racism, with the highest energy burdens falling on low-income communities and communities of color. 

The shift to distributed (decentralized) power can change all this. It creates opportunities for more dispersed patterns of ownership and control of energy production. It allows for a more democratic energy system where “we the people”—local communities, businesses, and households—take back our power by producing our own electricity. We gain more leverage in the energy system by being involved in the planning, funding, management, governance, and execution of clean energy projects. 

Greater people power can also lead to more equitable energy outcomes, helping to address race, class, and gender inequalities and enabling a just transition to a decarbonized energy system.

Centralized < Decentralized

Examples of people power

The possibilities for energy democracy are diverse and growing. Here are just a few examples:

  • “Prosumer” households and businesses: At its simplest, we can take back control over our energy supply by installing a few solar panels at our home or business. In our new role as prosumers (both consumers and producers of energy), we can generate all or part of our own energy and even make money selling our excess generation back to the grid (if state policies allow it).
  • Community energy: At a collective level, we can join forces with our neighbors, a community group, or a local utility to create a community energy project, such as a solar array on a local church or a locally owned wind farm. As of 2019, there were around 834 community solar projects in the U.S., dominated by projects in Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota, and Colorado. 
  • Energy storage: By adding a battery bank, we can store the excess electricity we produce on-site for later use. The PowerBank Community Storage System in Mandurah, Australia, enables residents in one neighborhood to store their excess solar production in a shared Tesla Powerpack and then withdraw energy when they want, up to 8 kilowatts a day for a small daily fee. Similarly, vehicle-to-grid technology allows owners of electric vehicles (including school districts that own electric school buses) to store power in their vehicle batteries for later use or to feed back to the grid.
  • Aggregation: Some locales are making it possible to bundle, or aggregate, the power generated by multiple individual or community energy producers in order to make the electricity supply more reliable and consistent, and to make it easier for others to access and trade this power. Some places have combined several smaller distributed wind or solar resources into virtual power plants.
  • Peer-to-peer energy trading: Through this model, distributed energy producers use a digital trading platform to directly sell any excess power they produce to other local residents, essentially sidestepping the traditional utility relationship. For example, members of the Brooklyn Microgrid in New York City use a digital app to buy and sell energy on a local marketplace, helping prosumers profit from their extra production and giving their non-power-producing neighbors access to cheaper, clean energy.

Accelerating energy democracy

Despite the vast opportunity, many distributed energy technologies remain inaccessible or unaffordable to folks who lack the financing or who live in rental properties. To overcome some of these barriers, the 30 Million Solar Homes partnership aims to power 30 million U.S. households (about 1 in 4) with rooftop or community solar over a five-year period, including in historically marginalized communities. 

Power companies can support distributed clean energy by embracing new business models, like solar leasing, that share more of the benefits locally. The role of utilities will change with the shift in energy ownership. They may soon be paying us to access the distributed resources in our buildings, rooftops, and cars. As they strive to meet our preferences and demands, their political influence may weaken. 

Governments can facilitate energy democracy by supporting communities in the design, ownership, and management of energy systems. This includes embracing policies like net metering that compensate local producers, and supporting community energy projects through low-interest loans, preferential procurement, and by providing access to public spaces. Governments can also enact regulations that mandate the integration of local, community energy into neighborhood developments.

With the growth in distributed energy resources, it’s time to take control of our energy system. Ideally, we’ll get to the point where we can fully design our own energy mix, selecting the specific projects that generate the energy we want—whether from our own rooftops, from a neighbor’s solar installation, or from a local wind farm. With this shift in power, we could usher in an era of true energy democracy.

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This year, “get clean” by quitting fossil fuels

January 12, 2022

By now, most of us are pretty aware that 1) there’s a climate crisis and that we need to do something about it ASAP, and 2) that we’ve got a whole bunch of solutions—they just need to be deployed much, much faster. The quickest way to avert a worsening climate crisis is, as writer-activist Bill McKibben succinctly put it, to “stop burning things.” Specifically, we need to stop burning the fossil energy sources that are warming our planet—mainly coal, oil, and natural gas—and to adopt cleaner energy sources like wind and solar. 

Cutting fossil fuels out of our lives won’t be easy, since they are embedded in most aspects of our lives (from how we heat and cool our homes, to how we get around, to how our food is grown and transported, to petroleum-based products in our closets, wardrobes, and kitchens) and since the fossil fuel industry has embedded itself into much of our political systems. But we’re no longer completely tethered to fossil fuels; we have choices now, and cutting out major chunks of our fossil fuel consumption can be likened to kicking any other bad habit, like quitting smoking or breaking a sugar addiction. It isn’t as straightforward, and it might take a little longer, but why not try the same plan of attack? Rather than sitting on the sidelines reading dire headlines, why not get in the game?

In the spirit of the new year, we offer some bonafide steps for quitting fossil fuels, modeled on the  CDC’s guidance for quitting smoking. With a solid game plan in place, you can start “getting clean” while also saving money and supporting justice and equity ideals. What are you waiting for? 


Disclaimer: When quitting fossil fuels, you may experience moments of depression, withdrawal, guilt, or fatigue. This is NORMAL. Remember, you’re trying to make changes to your lifestyle that are not always easy, and you should feel proud of your commitment. Also, be aware that your daily habits and actions aren’t shaped solely by your individual choices, but by the physical, social, and political environment in which you live. “The system” may push back hard, making it tempting for you to cling to your high-carbon habits. Stay the course, knowing that you’re doing the right thing.


Before You Quit

Know Your Reasons for Quitting: 

So you want to quit fossil fuels? It’s important to understand why you’re making this change. Do you want to live healthier? Save money? Have more convenience? Support greater energy independence? Leave a better world for your kids? Be on the right side of history? These are all great reasons. Also, think about what you dislike about your current dependence on fossil fuels. Is it the choking exhaust from your morning commute? Worsening floods or wildfires in your region? Whatever the reasons, write them down so you can remind yourself of them every day. Knowing what you’ll gain by reducing your reliance on dirty energy can inspire you to find cleaner alternatives to meet your everyday needs. 

Make a Decision to Quit:

Sometimes, you just gotta say, “enough is enough” when it comes to burning things. But make sure you put it in writing, and (ideally) share it widely. Across the U.S. and worldwide, more and more people are taking the jump and opting for low-carbon lifestyles. They’re joined by thousands of cities, states, companies, and communities that have pledged to quit fossil fuels by going net zero or fossil free. You can set your commitment to clean energy by taking Gen180’s “Going Electric” Pledge (including making your next car an EV) or even divesting from fossil fuels. By making lifestyle shifts that are good for you, your family, and your community, you’re saying yes to a better collective future for everyone. 

Identify Steps to Quit:

Identify the steps that will work for you to quit fossil fuels. Consider actions that have the maximum impact while not costing an arm and a leg, including in areas like home energy use, transportation, and food. Maybe an EV makes sense for you, or a solar array on your roof. Can you start “electrifying everything” in your home? (maybe start with your weed eater or lawnmower and work your way up to swapping your gas furnace for an electric heat pump.) Most of these shifts will improve your well-being while saving you money in the long term. (Need more ideas? See this beautifully illustrated list.)

Build Your Quit Plan:

Now that you’ve identified the steps, start making an implementation plan. This plan will be unique to your lifestyle and needs, but should include some key elements. For one, set a “quit date” for when you want to start taking action. Give yourself time to build the knowledge, skills, and confidence you’ll need to stay committed, but don’t wait so long that you lose motivation. Then, let your friends and family know you’re “quitting fossil fuels,” and be specific about how they can support you. Identify potential obstacles or challenges that may come up, as well as strategies to overcome them, to improve your chances of sticking it through (more on this later). Establish some weekly or monthly goals and set rewards so you can celebrate your “quit milestones” (Met your energy savings goal? How about a tasty locally grown dinner…). Quitting fossil fuels is a process, so enjoy your achievements as they come. 

Implementing Your Plan: Strategies for Effective Quitting

Manage Your Quit Day:

It’s the big day! You’re ready to take dedicated action to better your life (and everyone else’s). Revisit your list of reasons for quitting fossil fuels and shifting to clean energy. Review your quit plan. To avoid distractions, keep the day’s schedule light so you can really focus on the tasks ahead, and how you’re going to implement them. If you’re aiming to cut back on gasoline use, plan out your day to combine trips, or make your car keys less accessible. Be honest about how much you can take on initially (you don’t want to burn out on all your ambition). Ultimately, your “quit day” may be underwhelming, but that’s ok—it just matters that you do something, however small, to move toward your fossil-free goal. 

Recognize Signs of Depression:

Being a clean energy champion can be exciting—and tiring. You’ll face struggle, withdrawal, frustration. You might feel like you’re not doing enough, fast enough, or you might feel guilty about “relapsing” when you fly to visit friends or family (it’s okay, give yourself a break!). Climate grief is real. Mood changes and self-doubt are common when you’re making big (or small) lifestyle shifts. You might feel a sense of loss of your “old” (high-carbon) life. Embrace these emotions and work through them. Remind yourself that you’re shifting to something better—both for yourself and for the planet. 

Reduce Your Stress:

Quitting fossil fuels is not at all about depriving yourself of pleasure. Some things will just work differently. Get excited by the challenge, and be creative. That twenty-minute fast-charging stop for your EV means you can get some exercise, enjoy a meal, or try some meditation. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself (again) why you’re quitting fossil fuels. Celebrate your “quit milestones” with things that bring you joy. Envision that appealing, fossil-free world!

The Long Haul: Maintaining Your Quit

Prevent Slips:

Inevitably, the parts of our system still under the fossil fuel regime will trip you up. This is all normal. Try to anticipate potential “triggers”—the people, places, things, and situations that draw you back into the old paradigm—and find creative ways to deal with them. Create incentives and strategies to keep up your clean energy, low-carbon lifestyle, and make it convenient. Keep your bike by your front door, with your lock, helmet, and saddlebags ready to go. 

Build Support to “Stay Quit”:

It’s easier to stick with something if you’re held accountable. This means tapping into your peer network for reinforcement, and sharing your intentions far and wide to create expectations for success. Surround yourself with folks who understand and support your commitment to getting off fossil fuels, or who are taking similar steps themselves. Try to get family and friends on board (this may involve difficult conversations with that uncle of yours), but explain why this shift is important to you, and get personal about it (check out David Suzuki Foundation’s CliMate tool for tips on conversation techniques). Lend your support to others who have similar goals. 

Prepare to Stay “Fossil Fuel-Free”:  

You’ve got this, now keep it up! Now that you’ve made important changes in your own life, it’s crucial to share your experience with others. This can maximize the your “ripple effect”, working to shift the social norms around you. Remember that you have more influence on those around you than you might realize. Ultimately, these individual actions need to be scaled up and combined with mutually reinforcing changes at the government and corporate levels. Raise your voice within your community and advocate for wider structural changes that enable clean energy adoption. Support efforts by the federal, state, and local governments to enhance EV infrastructure. Encourage subsidies for public transport and greater energy efficiency for buildings. Vote for clean energy.

Enjoy the Benefits of Quitting:

Above all, celebrate what you’re gaining! Hold strong to your vision of contributing to a better world, and embrace your role as a changemaker. Enjoy your rewards, and congratulate yourself. There’s no time like the present to create a better future.

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Five ways to make a big climate impact in 2022

January 5, 2022

Happy 2022, Flip the Script readers! 

With a new year comes a new chance to focus on what matters most. If you’re one of the many Americans feeling concerned about climate change but not sure where to start, we’ve got you covered. 

But first, a shot of inspiration. 

Reading news reports on climate disasters can be paralyzing. Fortunately, there’s much more to the story: the transition away from climate-harming fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources is well underway and has unprecedented momentum. Here are a few examples of what we mean: 

What’s more, individuals aren’t waiting around for broad policy changes to be a part of the clean energy solution. Technologies like home solar and electric vehicles are cheaper than ever and will only get more affordable. If those aren’t feasible, raising your voice to support clean energy policies that make clean energy more accessible is equally important.

Here are five high-impact ways you can take action on clean energy in the year ahead – as a consumer, a community member, and a voter. 

Five ways to make a big impact on climate and clean energy

  1. Consider driving an electric car:  Transportation is the leading source of carbon emissions, so switching to an electric car (with zero tailpipe emissions) will make an immediate impact. In the market for a car? Check out the new and used EV markets. Not in the market? Pledge to make your next vehicle an EV.
  2. Go solar or start a solar school campaign: Like EVs, solar power cuts emissions significantly while saving money. You can explore whether rooftop solar is right for your home or if you rent or live in an apartment, explore community solar here or here. Is your child’s school solar yet? Solar on schools has more than doubled in the last five years. Schools that have switched to solar are reinvesting their energy cost savings into teacher pay, school supplies, and other ways, while teaching kids about STEM and sustainability. Find a solar school near you to get inspired, and check out our Campaign Toolkit or Help Desk to kickstart a solar schools campaign in your community.
  3. Be a clean energy advocate and voter: Show up online by using your voice on social media, engage with your neighborhood and community through conversation, wear your support for clean energy, or share art that communicates the core message that Americans want bold government action on clean energy—now. Among the many issues vital to our country’s future, clean energy will most definitely be “on the ballot” in midterm elections this November. We need to let candidates know we care about clean energy and plan to elect candidates that do, too. Stay up-to-date on upcoming elections in your state and sign up for action alerts from the League of Conservation Voters to speak up for issues that matter throughout the year.
  4. Dig into the action underway in your city, state or region: Dig into the action underway in your city, state or region: What climate commitments have been made? How is energy generated in your state? What is the deal with your utility’s clean energy offerings? What’s the deal with FERC? Write letters to your local papers, to city council, and join local and state clean energy and environmental groups to learn more about how to engage and put pressure on your utility, your city council, your school board, etc. 
  5. Stop funding fossil fuels:  Our financial system has a massive role to play in accelerating a clean energy future. Tell your bank to divest; tell your stock broker you want ESG funds, tell your university to divest (or thank them if they have already), and don’t support businesses that funnel money to politicians that aren’t helping address the crisis.

Lastly, whatever you do, evangelize:  Behavioral science finds social pressure and cues influence others’ behavior toward clean energy. For example, solar has a strong “contagion effect”: when you see your neighbor’s solar panels, it makes you consider getting them too. This kind of peer pressure can also influence your buying an EV and other choices.

Lastly, remember you’re not alone. Our collective actions can influence communities—and ultimately build widespread political will—leading governments and businesses to respond more quickly and effectively. 

Together, we’ve got this.

Blog

Gen180’s Year in Review

December 22, 2021

Whether you’ve been part of the Gen180 community for years or just joined recently, we’re glad you’re on board! You might have joined to get resources from the Solar for All Schools campaign, to attend an Electrify Your Ride event, to get the weekly Flip the Script newsletter in your inbox, or for a variety of other reasons. 

However we first got connected, our goal is to inspire and equip you to take action on clean energy—in your home, your workplace, your community, your state, and beyond. The big idea behind all of our work is that the transition to a clean energy future is not only possible but fully underway—and you have a critical role to play in accelerating it

As 2021 comes to a close, we wanted to offer up a visual overview of what Generation180 has been up to—and why. Some of the work you may be familiar with, and some of it might be new to you. Whether it’s our work around humorous content, illustrative or video storytelling, arts and culture, research, or resources, you might find something that piques your interest. So head over to this page and take a look!

Screenshot of Gen180's portfolio website
Click on the image to visit our portfolio website

Here’s an overview of the work we’ve been putting out into the world:


Humor

Esteban Gast video

Humor is a powerful tool that has been underutilized in the climate movement to date. It can lower defenses, subtly (or not so subtly) provide new perspectives, and travels much further than facts do online. That’s why we’ve made videos, comics, and a recently launched podcast featuring comedians.


Illustrative Storytelling

Where words, facts, and figures fail, images can often succeed. Our illustrative work spans a variety of formats, from weekly comics to long-form pieces. We’re always looking to try new techniques and formats that will surprise and engage our audience. Did you catch our long-form comic covering America’s EV love story’?


Video Storytelling

A key capability from day one, video production continues to be one of Generation180’s strong suits. With a combination of in-house expertise and best-in-class creative partners, our aim is to be imaginative, bold, responsive, and effective. In this example above, we used video storytelling to help raise up the voices of Virginians who care about clean air and clean cars.


Arts and Culture

It’s a well-known fact that politics lives downstream from culture. We take this adage to heart by partnering with artists and helping clean energy advocates integrate their priorities into their lifestyle. It’s why we co-created a children’s book about voting, sponsored the creation of a mural, and have shirts, hats, mugs, and more that you can wear and use out in the world.


Research and Analysis

Our original research, reports, and resources have helped establish Generation180’s credibility as a player in the climate and clean energy movement and an issue leader on solar schools and electric vehicles. We’ve leveraged these assets to earn media coverage, influence policymakers, and equip decision-makers with actionable information. Just last month we published the 2021 edition of our Virginia Drives Electric report.


Ambassador Resources

Inspiring and equipping individuals to impact those around them is one of the fastest and most effective ways to accelerate change. This is at the heart of Generation180’s theory of change. That’s why we’ve provided these “ambassadors” with training, peer-to-peer networking, and occasions to engage with media and everyday audiences. Check out our Clean Energy School Leaders Network or our newly published EV Ambassador Library.

We hope you have a fantastic, safe, meaningful holiday season. Stay tuned for 2022 as we are scaling our work nationally and to new states including, PA, NC and more. Onward!

Blog

Toward the Greater Grid: Modernizing the US Power System

December 15, 2021

You might not think about what it takes to bring power, 24/7, to your home, but the end result is pretty amazing. To get the juice we need to run an appliance or device, any time of the day, we just plug it into an outlet or flip the switch and…voila… instant electricity! But the current power system faces major challenges, especially when clean energy sources like wind and solar enter the mix. It’s overdue for an overhaul. Fortunately, there are solid ideas for how to do this—if we can get our act together.

How it works and where it’s headed

Unless you’ve installed rooftop solar, the way your home is powered probably hasn’t changed much since it was first built. For nearly a century, large power plants (typically fired by fossil fuels like coal or natural gas) have generated most of the country’s electricity, which then travels, via the “transmission system,” over long distances along high-voltage wires. Once it hits the network of substations, this power enters the “distribution system” and is progressively transformed to lower voltage and carried over local lines to homes and businesses. Along the way, key players—from baseload power plants and specialized back-up plants to system operators to local utilities—perform a “perfectly synchronized dance” to ensure that supply matches demand, at the right time and with the optimal mix of resources. 

This model was well and good until we discovered that generating electricity from fossil fuels releases harmful greenhouse gases, which are slowly wreaking havoc on our climate. Electricity itself isn’t the culprit though, and is actually an important part of the solution as we shift to a low-carbon world. By “electrifying everything”—from how we get around to how we heat our homes—and then powering it with clean energy, we can more rapidly wean ourselves from our fossil fuel addiction. The keys to decarbonizing the energy system are clean energy and energy efficiency, in combination with increased electrification. 

Evidence of the energy transition is growing every day. The explosion in cost-competitive clean energy technologies like wind and solar has expanded our options for getting zero-emission power. Emerging technologies like electric vehicles, home batteries, and smart meters—known broadly as “distributed energy resources”—are making it possible to generate, store, and/or manage power at a local scale, as opposed to relying on a distant, centralized location. Combined with advances in information and communications technology, the opportunities seem limitless: from using your electric vehicle battery to store energy to power your home, to networking small-scale solar generators into a “virtual power plant.” 

The grid is… so last century

But this exciting future—which seems to be arriving at warp speed—isn’t a great fit with the current grid structure (and that’s a big understatement). Our existing power system was designed to accommodate the technologies and goals of the fossil fuel era, and the grid was built toward a single end: to support the one-way flow of power from a centralized power plant to consumers. Power markets, in turn, are designed to optimize the buying and selling of “dispatchable” fossil fuels like coal and gas, which can be ramped up or down as needed to harness power from afar at a moment’s notice. 

In contrast, clean energy sources like solar and wind are not easily dispatched, because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. To ensure a reliable electricity supply based on these variable energy sources, the power system needs additional flexibility to fill in any gaps in coverage. Typically, coal and gas plants have provided these services, but they aren’t compatible with a climate-constrained future. That’s where emerging distributed solutions like battery storage, demand-side management, and smart charging of electric vehicles could swoop in, complemented by game-changing digital technologies that can efficiently monitor and manage system operations in real time. 

Wind and solar power have low operating costs, which is a plus for many reasons, including making electricity more affordable and increasing “energy democracy.” But here, too, there’s a poor fit with the existing power system. Today’s grid is designed to support (and enrich) a handful of big players, including the transmission system operators that oversee the dispatching of electricity and compete to supply it on the wholesale market, and the more localized “distribution system operators,” typically the utilities we pay to deliver power to our homes. As low-cost clean energy enters the mix, it messes with this finely tuned market, causing wholesale power prices to drop and introducing costing and valuation challenges. As a result, the big energy players, including regulators, have been reluctant to grant small-scale energy producers (like rooftop solar) access to lucrative wholesale markets. 

A decision point and a better way

Rather than forcing a square peg into a round hole by trying to tweak our misaligned power system, we have an opportunity to take a holistic (systems) approach to reshaping it, focusing on more optimal ways to provide affordable, reliable, and clean energy for all. Fortunately, there are many good proposals for designing a decentralized electricity system that works for clean energy resources and the planet. Most solutions involve flipping the power system on its head and rebuilding it from the bottom up. This means shifting from a top-down system that’s supply-led to one that’s demand-led. The average person goes from being a passive consumer of electricity to being able to play a lead role in its production and distribution. 

Energy writer David Roberts has described what he calls a “layered grid architecture,” in which most of the real action in electricity—its generation, sale, and delivery—would happen at the local (distribution) level, rather than at the transmission level, like it does today. In this decentralized approach, each “layer” of the distribution system (for example, a campus-based mini-grid or a household solar array) is essentially its own separate entity, responsible for finding the optimal balance between supply and demand and ensuring reliability of supply. Only if there is extra (unused) power would this then be fed into the grid and the wider transmission system, aggregated and sold on the wholesale market

In this model, a customer seeking power might first tap into a hyper-local source (like rooftop solar or an electric vehicle battery), to ensure optimal electricity supply and self-sufficiency. But if that supply wasn’t enough, the system would cast a wider net to higher layers of producers (community solar farms, micro-grids, etc.) until, as a last resort, power might need to be purchased from the top-most layer (the transmission grid and big power plants). This way, the customer would be ensured reliable back-up power in case local sources weren’t available, but the transmission grid wouldn’t be the go-to power source. Prioritizing local sources would bring added benefits to the local economy, job creation, and overall decarbonization efforts, and would allow for scalability, citizen empowerment, and innovation

Getting there

Importantly, designing the power system from the bottom up would address one of the biggest myths about the clean energy transition: that variable renewables like wind and solar aren’t reliable enough to provide the power we need, 24/7. In the layered approach Roberts describes, we would never be faced with the black-and-white choice of relying either on big power plants or on small, self-sufficient local production. Instead, the power system structure would have many shades of gray, with the appropriate mix of centralized and distributed assets and a wide range of actors on both the supply and demand sides to provide clean energy and the flexibility required to deliver power where and when it’s needed. 

The decentralized, layered solution is practical, economical, and equitable. That’s also why it might be difficult to achieve in the time frame that’s needed. It requires big changes not just in the grid infrastructure, but also in regulatory and legal structures. It entails radical shifts in control and oversight and a possibly rapid “stranding” of fossil fuel assets, from polluting power plants to gas-powered cars. Already, utilities, regulators, and other actors that could lose out from the energy transition are throwing up roadblocks that make it hard for distributed energy resources to enter the power market. That’s why it’s important for these key stakeholders to get ahead of the curve, so they can identify new roles to play in the emerging (and inevitable) localized markets for power distribution and related services. They have an opportunity to collaborate with the different new actors that are developing and managing distributed energy resources, from back-up storage to electric vehicle fleets. Ultimately we’d all be better off under a revamped, decentralized power structure: with a more resilient and reliable energy supply, stronger local economies and communities, and a more climate-friendly energy system. All told, this will enable us to catapult from the dinosaur age to the clean energy era we need.

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Comedians Conquering Climate Change: our new podcast

November 11, 2021

It’s officially Launch Day for our brand new podcast, Comedians Conquering Climate Change.  We’re pretty sure it’s the funniest, most accessible, and shortest podcast addressing today’s critical climate and clean energy topics available in the podcast-sphere. We’ve published two episodes so far and have more coming each week, so check it out here.

What’s this project all about?

Comedians Conquering Climate Change is the funniest, most accessible, shortest podcast addressing today’s critical climate and clean energy topics. Our host, comedian, writer, and teacher Esteban Gast, is joined each week by a fellow comedian to single-handedly save the planet. Need we say more?

Why did Gen180 make this?

The core of our work here at Generation180 is changing the narrative around climate and clean energy. In order to get to a clean energy future, we’re going to need more than just alarm, doom, and gloom. We need a compelling, accessible vision of the future, a focus on solutions, and a stronger dose of emotions—like hope, resilience, and humor. Humor is a powerful tool that has been underutilized in the climate movement to date. It can lower defenses, introduce new perspectives, and it travels much further than data and pie charts do online.

What’s funny about climate change?

If the above ☝🏽 explanation didn’t convince you, here’s another attempt: Yes, the climate crisis is an existential threat that is deadly serious business. But humor helps us tackle serious topics all the time (there are countless sitcoms, books, standup comedy, and even humor-based protests as examples of this). As comedian Rollie Williams says, “Climate change is an emergency, but it’s not a sprint.” This podcast is a moment to take a breath, have a laugh, and learn something all at the same time. 

Much more to come! Make sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (or your favorite podcasting platform) to catch weekly episodes as they’re released.