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.” 


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.


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.


The absurd truth about fossil fuel subsidies

October 13, 2021

This article is from the October 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).

October 2021 update: According to a recent IMF report, the burning of coal, oil, and gas was subsidized by $5.9 trillion in 2020. This new way of calculating the proper pricing of pollution takes into account the health costs of air pollution and contributions to the impacts of global warming.

Fossil fuel subsidies are a pivotal problem to tackle if we want to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.

By now, it’s abundantly clear that we need to transition to a clean energy system at “wartime mobilization” speed. But a few key things are preventing us from getting there faster, and here’s one of the worst offenders: continued massive subsidies for fossil fuels. U.S. taxpayers spend tens of billions of dollars a year subsidizing new fossil fuel exploration, production, and consumption, which directly affects how much oil, natural gas, and coal gets produced—and how much clean energy doesn’t.

Despite what the coal, oil, and gas industries (and their entourage of politicians) would have us think, most of us would be shocked at how much we prop up fossil fuels versus renewables. The playing field isn’t even close to level. Here’s a breakdown of some numbers of which every American citizen should be aware.

The high price of subsidies

First, let’s consider just the direct subsidies for fossil fuel production—money that flows directly from the government to fossil fuel companies to support activities like exploration, extraction, and development. A conservative estimate from Oil Change International puts the U.S. total at around $20.5 billion annually, including $14.7 billion in federal subsidies and $5.8 billion in state-level incentives. A whopping 80 percent of this goes to oil and gas (with the rest supporting coal), and most of the subsidies are in the form of tax deductions and exemptions and other “obscure tax loopholes and accounting tricks” that result in massive avoided costs for fossil fuel producers.

U.S. taxpayers spend tens of billions of dollars a year subsidizing new fossil fuel exploration, production, and consumption, which directly affects how much oil, natural gas, and coal gets produced—and how much clean energy doesn’t.

By comparison, direct U.S. subsidies to renewables are much smaller, and renewable energy developers aren’t even able to access many of the same breaks that fossil fuel industries do.  Moreover, most of the tax breaks that renewables get—like the investment and production tax credits for wind and solar—are only temporary (so far), with expiration dates looming. Looking at the permanent tax expenditures alone, these favor the fossil fuel industry over the renewable energy sector 7 to 1, with permanent tax spending for renewables totaling only around $1.1 billion in 2016.

But this is only a small part of the picture. On top of the direct production subsidies, fossil fuels are bolstered by massive additional supports, including an estimated $14.5 billion in subsidies on the consumption side (payments that help consumers with things like paying for home heating oil), and by around $2.1 billion a year in subsidies paid for overseas fossil fuel projects.

Overshadowing all of these are the indirect or “implicit” subsidies for fossil fuels, which range from the infrastructure spending to maintain the sprawling (and aging) fossil-based energy system, to the diverse impacts that burning fossil fuels has on our health and climate. The International Monetary Fund estimated that the costs to the U.S. government from climate change, local air pollution impacts, and infrastructure damage not captured by energy taxes totaled $686 billion in 2015.

Another massive indirect subsidy to fossil fuels? The estimated $81 billion that the U.S. military spends to protect oil supplies around the globe, including the direct military spending on things like protecting oil shipping routes and maintaining troops near strategic oil-producing locations. This figure doesn’t even include the non-budgeted expenses associated with, for example, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their wider costs in terms of higher oil prices, lost lives, etc., estimated at more than $5 trillion. Altogether, this roughly translates to a subsidy of $100 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions just for protecting U.S. oil interests.

Why it matters

Why do subsidies matter? For one, they directly impact how fossil fuel companies make their decisions moving forward, especially when oil prices are low and the economics might not otherwise work out. A Stockholm Environment Institute analysis from 2017 found that at low oil prices of $50 a barrel, tax preferences and other direct subsidies would enable nearly half of new, non-yet-developed oil fields to be profitable when they otherwise would not be. This could result in increasing U.S. oil production by 17 billion barrels over the next few decades, or the equivalent of 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide. In other words, the link between subsidies, oil production levels, and climate impacts is very real.

Coal, too, likely wouldn’t be a “viable” energy source in the U.S. without the ongoing subsidies (tax breaks) and supportive regulatory policies that prop it up. New coal plants are no longer economical, and the costs of converting old coal plants to “clean coal” are exorbitant (many existing plants are essentially being paid just to stay open to maintain reserve capacity). Even though fossil fuels increasingly can’t compete with many renewable energy sources, their continued subsidization keeps them on life support, adding to the risk of “locking us in” to carbon-intensive energy sources and their associated emissions. Fossil fuel subsidies also take public funds from other uses, such as social spending and (of course) funding for cleaner energy options.

Why do subsidies matter? For one, they directly impact how fossil fuel companies make their decisions moving forward, especially when oil prices are low and the economics might not otherwise work out.

But the writing is on the wall. Even with massive subsidies, the vulnerability of oil, gas, and coal companies is hard to ignore. Financial regulators worry about the investment risks associated with “stranded assets,” or high-carbon assets like coal plants, oil fields, and other fossil fuel infrastructure that will no longer be financially viable in the context of the transition to clean energy. Already, between 2011 and mid-2020, 95 gigawatts of U.S. coal capacity was closed or switched to another fuel, and another 25 gigawatts is slated to shut down by 2025. Fossil fuel subsidies and perverse energy policies are essentially enabling the fossil fuel “fossils” to hang on by the skin of their teeth.

Moving forward, quicker

So what are our options moving forward? An obvious first step would be to remove direct government subsidies (including tax and accounting loopholes), which is easier said than done. The Obama administration identified $8.7 billion a year in federal fossil fuel subsidies to eliminate, but wasn’t able to get the cuts through Congress, while the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda prioritized speeding up oil, gas, and coal production, which impeded progress on clean energy. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end fossil fuel subsidies, but this is still politically tricky. Another key proposal is to introduce a price per ton of carbon emitted, which would greatly increase the cost of doing business for fossil fuel companies, helping to better reflect the true cost of these fuels.

Meanwhile, more money needs to be directed toward the clean energy transition, particularly efforts to “electrify everything” (especially transportation) and to transition the power grid to renewables, so that our economies (and lives) are increasingly zero-carbon, not fossil-fueled. This includes upping subsidies for renewables. As the Environmental Defense Fund has noted: “Yes, we need to price carbon, but we also need to subsidize cleaner alternatives—in the true sense of what it means to subsidize: to do so for the benefit of the public.” So let’s get to work and start leveling the playing field.


“Decarbing” the Grid with Solar by 2035

October 6, 2021

In early September, the federal government released one of its most ambitious plans yet for the U.S. clean energy transition. The Department of Energy (DOE), in its Solar Futures Study, outlined a blueprint to power the country with a whopping 40 percent solar energy by 2035—a mere 14 years from now. This shift would require dramatically restructuring the electricity system and embracing a whole new perspective on how and where we get our energy, with the goal of eventually reaching a zero-carbon-emissions grid. But how realistic is this solar transition, especially given the short time horizon?

The amount of electricity that the DOE envisions as coming from solar alone in 2035 is more than American homes consume in total today, from all energy sources. To get to such a high solar share in the next 14 years, the U.S. would need to quadruple the amount of solar power that it adds to the grid every year, so that by 2035 around 1,000 gigawatts of installed solar capacity would be supplying our homes and workplaces. To put this in perspective, last year the U.S. installed 15 gigawatts of solar, for a cumulative total of 76 gigawatts. That itself was a record amount, and it represented just 3 percent of the country’s total electricity supply. So we’re talking a full-on solar explosion to get to 40 percent. 

The good news is the DOE says it’s doable, and the benefits would be unquestionable. For one, we’d have a much cleaner power grid, significantly reducing both local pollution from fossil fuel power plants and the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The Solar Futures Study estimates that the health savings alone from reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality would reach $1.7 trillion—far more than the cost of making the entire transition to solar. We’d also transform our economy, with the push to solarize the grid employing up to 1.5 million people by 2035 (3 million if you include all clean energy technologies). And importantly, this could all happen without having to raise electricity prices, because of the savings from improvements in technologies. 

And importantly, this could all happen without having to raise electricity prices…

Getting to 40 percent

It might sound too good to be true, but there’s actually a pretty clear pathway toward making it all happen—at least on paper. The crux of the solar (and wider clean energy) transition involves “electrifying everything”—that is, moving our transportation, home heating and cooling, and other key energy-consuming systems to run on electricity rather than carbon-intensive fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. The key to reaping these benefits is powering the electricity supply itself with clean energy, including the envisioned large solar share, but also wind, nuclear, and other non-fossil energy sources. 

This would require strong, targeted, and immediate decarbonization efforts across the economy. It would also require modernizing our lagging electricity grids to accommodate the variable nature of solar and wind energy—the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. This means ramping up complementary solutions like advanced forecasting, large-scale energy storage (like the massive battery systems now being deployed in California and Florida) and the seamless integration of backup generation from other clean energy sources to ensure flexibility in grid operations.

Key considerations: economics and materials

From an economic perspective, the odds are in solar’s favor. The costs of solar generation have plummeted nearly 90 percent in the past decade, making it the cheapest and fastest-growing clean energy source. (Solar costs have jumped slightly since the pandemic due mainly to supply chain challenges, but this is considered temporary.) Everyone from school districts to government buildings to your next-door neighbor are jumping on the solar bandwagon, recognizing the cost savings. But these opportunities need to expand widely to support populations left behind by the clean energy revolution.

A more practical issue is whether the U.S. will have enough of the critical materials required for an ambitious solar ramp-up, including metals like aluminum, copper, zinc, and lithium, which are used in everything from solar panel frames to transmission cables to batteries. By one estimate, the demand for minerals for clean energy purposes could exceed the supply within a decade. Moreover, production of some metals is highly concentrated geographically—for example, 90 percent of the world’s lithium comes from just three countries—which could lead to price volatility and supply disruptions. 

But even here, prospects seem reassuring. Research suggests that renewable power generation requires fewer materials than using fossil fuels, and the rising demand for certain metals and minerals would likely trigger a sharp increase in recycling. According to one study, recycling or repurposing solar panels at the end of their lifetime could unlock around 78 million tons of raw materials and other valuable components globally by 2050. There is also significant potential to use substitute metals for existing energy applications, like using aluminum to replace copper in electrical wiring.

The big wildcard

In sum, the barriers to getting to 40 percent solar aren’t economic, and they’re probably not related to the supply of materials. The big wild card is… drumroll… politics. Supportive policies will be critical in accelerating the clean energy transition (and overall decarbonization) and are necessary both to speed the deployment of technologies and reduce costs. In addition to providing incentives for clean energy, policies will have to dis-incentivize the continued use of fossil fuels (which we have been generously INcentivizing both directly and indirectly for over a century), including by putting limits on carbon emissions and building in the social cost of carbon. Without a strong mix of policies, models show that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to achieve a zero-carbon grid, instead reducing emissions only by 60 percent.

According to U.S. energy secretary Jennifer Granholm, the key decarbonization policies that the U.S. needs in order to get to 40 percent solar are “exactly what is laid out in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.” The administration has set an ambitious and, importantly, measurable goal. But, as climate activist Bill McKibben recently noted, similar efforts have been tried before. As far back as 1979, President Carter tried to advance a goal of generating 20 percent of the U.S. energy supply from solar by the year 2000. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. The Biden team’s ongoing attempts to push through key parts of its agenda show just how hard it will be to get Congress to agree on big clean energy spending—despite the clear path forward.

We have the technical know-how, we have a clear path forward, and we have public support for a clean energy transition.

The political struggle is real, and so too is the urgency. As McKibben puts it so starkly, “2050 is not that far away, and yet a lot of damage can be done by then.” Whether it’s making efforts to recycle more critical materials, ramping up solar installations, or creating more incentives for everyday Americans to embrace clean energy, we need to get moving—now. Fortunately, we can take solace in the fact that at least some things are different now than in the 1970s. We have the technical know-how, we have a clear path forward, and we have public support for a clean energy transition. And, unlike in the 70s, we also have a strong economic case: consider that in 1977, a watt of solar PV power cost $77, compared to a mere 13 cents today—a drop of 600 percent). Of course, solar alone won’t save the planet, but it’ll get us a heck of a lot closer to our clean energy future. We just need to tackle those political speed bumps.


What the f*** is FERC?

June 16, 2021

If you had to name the most influential American government agencies when it comes to clean energy and climate, you’d probably be able to come up with a few acronyms from the federal alphabet soup: the EPA, the DOE, NOAA. (That would be the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

The list goes on: NASA, NHTSA… and of course, we can’t forget FERC. You know, FERC? The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? Yeah, if that one was not right on the tip of your tongue, you’re not alone.

Unless you’re an electric grid operator, your news feed likely isn’t dominated by headlines about FERC and its decisions. But that doesn’t mean the agency isn’t worth your attention. It has a great deal of sway over how, and where, the clean energy transition takes place.

What is FERC, and what does it do?

FERC’s mission, which it puts front and center on its website, is to ensure “economically efficient, safe, reliable, and secure energy for consumers.” Among other tasks, the agency sets policies on how electricity is valued and traded on wholesale markets. It decides whether new interstate gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals can be built. It also licenses and inspects non-federal hydropower projects.

Basically, if electricity, fossil (“natural”) gas, or oil is crossing state lines, FERC likely has something to say about it. The agency is led by up to five presidentially appointed commissioners, no more than three of which can be from the same political party. Recent FERC decisions have related to gas pipeline projects in Louisiana and North Dakota; fees for customers with rooftop solar in Alabama; and the timeline to better integrate electric storage on the grid in the Midwest.

That ’70s Show

When FERC was established in 1977, replacing the Federal Power Commission, computers looked like small, cumbersome televisions, and more than 77 percent of the country’s electricity came from fossil fuels—especially coal.

More than four decades later, fossil fuel’s share of the power mix is down to 60 percent. Renewable energy’s contribution, once confined to hydropower, has doubled to 20 percent, with more than half of that now coming from wind and solar. Today, computers fit into our pockets, and our energy system is also increasingly digital—a fact highlighted by the recent Colonial Pipeline cyber attack, which led to gasoline shortages on the East Coast.

Even 30 years ago, “the times were a lot simpler,” said FERC Commissioner Richard Glick, whom President Joe Biden appointed as FERC chairman, in a 2019 interview. “It was a lot easier to tell what a wholesale transaction was and a retail transaction was, and where distribution facilities stopped and transmission facilities began.”

That’s a fairly wonky way of saying that power used to basically flow one way: From large generation plants across long-distance transmission lines to the distribution system that sends power to homes and businesses.

Enter the Modern Grid

Today’s grid is far more complex. Now power can flow in the opposite direction, from a home or business to the grid, often via rooftop solar panels. Customers can also interact with the electricity system through demand response programs, agreeing to lower energy use at peak times in exchange for some kind of a break on the utility bill.

Another transformation since “simpler times” is in the way electricity gets bought and sold. In the 1990s, many states moved away from the traditional model, where utilities owned both the power plants and the delivery systems. Now, about two-thirds of U.S. customers are served by deregulated markets, where power generators compete at the wholesale level and consumers can choose their retail electricity provider. (The nonprofit Resources for the Future has an excellent electricity markets explainer here.)

And finally, of course, there’s that other big change we’ve been contending with, more urgently than ever: The one that starts with “climate.” In FERC world, it’s not a given that greenhouse gas emissions or environmental impact will factor into any decision—even though the agency is charged with determining whether fossil gas projects are “in the public interest.” That seems kinda relevant to the planet being on fire—no?

Policies for a Clean Electric Grid

Glick and his fellow Democrat on the current commission, Allison Clements, have argued that FERC not only should, but is legally bound to, consider climate change impacts as part of its decision-making process. Until recently, however, the commission has sidestepped that responsibility, greenlighting dozens of pipelines as if climate change didn’t exist. It’s almost like being back in the ’70s, when U.S. public concerns about oil were more centered on how we could get more of it rather than what we were doing to the planet by burning it.

Each commissioner has a five-year term, and Republican Commissioner Neil Chatterjee’s tenure expires at the end of this month, though he has suggested that without the confirmation of an expected Democrat successor, he might not exit on time. Regardless of personnel changes in the short term, critics argue that FERC needs to get with the modern age. There have been some encouraging developments: The agency recently did include greenhouse gas emissions, for a change, in its assessment of a proposed pipeline project. It also created and filled a new position, senior counsel for environmental justice, aimed at ensuring its decisions do not unfairly affect historically marginalized communities.

On its blog, the Natural Resources Defense Council outlines other steps FERC can take to accelerate, rather than stall, the clean energy transition. Among them, the agency could update policies that prevent renewable generation resources from participating in capacity markets, where generators are paid to be available in case they are needed. It could also reform transmission planning—decisions about what types of lines are needed, and where, to carry electricity from where it is generated closer to where it is used—to improve delivery of renewable energy.

The part where you come in

There’s another noteworthy update at FERC, and this one directly involves you. The agency is finally establishing an Office of Public Participation, which will provide an avenue for communities to weigh in on what’s happening. If you really want to dive into the issues, the Sustainable FERC Project is a good place to start.


Is my utility’s “green power program” bona fide or bogus?

June 9, 2021

This article is from the June 9, 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).

Let’s be super clear: this is not a thrilling topic. It will make for poor backyard BBQ conversation (we’re all a bit rusty, so let’s start with some safer topics like sports or sourdough recipes). AND YET: Most of us, in our desire to support clean energy where we can, have looked at our monthly electricity bill and wondered: is my utility’s “green power program” a total greenwashing scam, or does it actually do some good in the world?

Despite the helpful explainer articles that already exist in the universe (like this one and this one), confusion and mystery around the topic still abound. That’s because energy is basically the largest and most complex system humankind has ever created. So it’s not your fault.

To tackle this complex system, we’re going to try putting a storytelling spin on things. Our story begins with….

Chapter 1: Before the energy transition

A looooong time ago, back in the 20th century, America’s electrical grid was humming along nicely, doing its incredible, invisible thing. A variety of electricity “sources”—coal plants, natural gas plants, nuclear plants, hydroelectric dams, and more—were all dumping electrons onto the grid. Everyone had enough electricity, and no one thought much about where their electricity “came from.”

Chapter 2: The transition begins

As America’s population grew and needed more electricity (and as some old electricity sources—a.k.a. coal power plants—were retired), a few wind and solar farms were built and started contributing electrons to the grid. The electricity industry’s transition had begun! America was beginning to replace some of its fossil fuel electricity sources with renewable energy sources. 

Certain people, governments, and businesses started saying “I want my electricity to come from these renewable energy sources, because they clearly have additional benefits to society and our planet!” Since not everyone could build a solar or wind farm in their backyard (although some did), and since all electrons flowing through the grid are indistinguishable from each other, some sort of accounting system was needed. People wanted to certify that if they just used, say, 100 electrons, somewhere, at some point in time, 100 electrons were added to the grid by a renewable energy source. This accounting system was called “Renewable Energy Credits” (RECs). Every time a renewable energy source put one unit of electricity onto the grid, one REC was created, representing the “green benefits” of that unit of electricity. Voilà. (It was tough to agree on a definition of “renewable energy,” so hydropower, burning wood pellets, solar, and wind all got the privilege of producing RECs.)

Chapter 3: The transition picks up steam

As America got into the 21st century, lots of wind and solar farms started popping up. Some got built because specific people, cities, or businesses contracted to get them built, some were built by utilities because new laws required them to do so, and some were built by utilities voluntarily simply because renewable energy had become the cheaper and smarter way to generate new electrons. In addition to lots of electrons, all this wind and solar was putting a ton of RECs out into the universe—far more “green benefit” credits than were being demanded by people. They started piling up into a massive pool of excess supply, and thus became dirt cheap to buy.

Chapter 4: The present

And that brings us to today: when you say, “I want my electricity to come from renewable energy sources!” and opt-in to your utility’s green power program, the utility simply goes to that massive pool of RECs and buys a handful. (These RECs certify that somewhere, at some point in time, an equal amount of electricity was generated by a renewable energy source). It only costs you a few extra dollars a month because, again, these credits are dirt cheap. And since they’re so cheap, they don’t provide much additional income (or incentive) to businesses that build renewable energy.

And therein lies the main problem: All these cheap credits we’re buying don’t move the needle on the electricity industry’s transition from fossil fuel sources to renewable energy sources. This pocket change alone doesn’t convince any utility or entity to, for example, ditch a natural gas plant and go build a wind farm instead. They’ll build it if the big numbers make sense, irregardless of the pocket change from RECs. As usual, journalist David Roberts sums it up well: “It’s like tossing your supermarket change into a Unicef jar. Whatever, it’s better than not doing so, but you’re not ‘curing poverty.’”

The closer you can get to handing your money directly to a renewable energy builder/project, the more impactful you are being.

We’re simplifying a bit here for clarity—of course there’s a whole world of awful acronyms and terminology we’re sparing you (e.g. sRECs, RPS, Green-e certification, bundled vs. unbundled, regulated vs. unregulated utility markets…)

Got any better options?

Here’s an attempt to create a helpful rule of thumb: the closer you can get to handing your money directly to a renewable energy builder/project, the more impactful you are being. Here are two routes you can explore:

  • Participate in Community solar. I’m going to quote David Roberts again here for this concept, “wherein a group of customers go in together on a small solar PV installation. It’s a great way for people who can’t put solar on their own roof (or who rent) to get into the solar game…they [the participants] own a chunk of it and get a small credit on their utility bill each month for their portion of the electricity sold…Community solar is perhaps the most tangible and small-d democratic way to directly support clean energy.” The Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Arcadia Power are two resources to help you investigate community solar options (or the advocacy fight to win the option) near you.
  • Give money to a church, school, or nonprofit that is going solar: Virginia Mercury writes, “If you don’t have a sunny roof, but you’d still like to see your money put solar onto the grid, consider contributing to a church, school or non-profit that is going solar, or to an organization that puts solar on low-income homes…If everyone in Virginia who is currently buying RECs were to choose this alternative instead, it would put millions of dollars to work building new solar in Virginia, and lowering the energy bills of people who most need the help.

What was the key takeaway from this long-winded article, class? That’s right: the closer you can get to handing your money directly to a renewable energy builder/project, the more impactful you are being. Participating in a “green power program” is better than nothing, unless it makes you think you’ve saved the planet and can call it a day. The day, in fact, is far from over—and we’ve got work to do.


Thor’s hammer and the fight against fossil fuels

March 19, 2021

As energy consumers, we’re on the front lines of an important battle. Until recently, we didn’t have much say in where we got the electricity we need to power our lives, or how much we paid for this privilege. Our energy choices were dictated to us from the outside, and we either had to be willing participants in the system or…live off the grid.

But with new energy technologies, we’re gaining the upper hand—and we have a formidable weapon on our side. As distributed solar power gets better and cheaper, we’ve been handed a metaphorical hammer of Thor: we’re literally pulling energy from the sky and into our homes, creating electricity out of seemingly nothing—and in doing so we’re hastening the end of a world powered by fossil fuels.

What’s happening when you tap into the power of solar—more or less.

Vanquishing our past

Compared to distributed solar—generated locally from our own rooftops and from community solar farms—the way we’ve powered our lives for the past 100 years or so seems altogether antiquated. The majority of our electricity today (63 percent) comes from fossil fuels (mainly coal and natural gas), burned in the thousands of large power plants across the country. The electricity then travels along a vast network of high-voltage transmission and distribution lines, and on average 5 percent of it is lost before it even reaches our homes.

Dispatchers engage in a complex logistical shuffle as they deliver electricity from a dizzying array of sources. With so many variables to account for, the price we pay for our daily power fluctuates widely depending on factors like fuel costs, power plant operations, the transmission and distribution system, weather conditions, and overall energy regulations.

With distributed solar, the picture is profoundly different. Because distributed solar is local energy, the electricity never has to travel far from its source, eliminating a lot of the complexity in generation, transmission, and distribution. With rooftop solar, the electricity generated from your panels might travel a few hundred feet to your outlets and switches. In the case of a community solar farm that powers a large apartment or a whole neighborhood, the pathway might be slightly longer, but still nothing like the extensive grid networks we’re used to seeing.


The New…Valhalla?

Why else is distributed solar a hands-down superior power technology compared to our conventional fossil fuel-based power system? Consider the following:

  • Consumer independence: Because the sun’s energy is essentially “free,” by investing in distributed solar anyone can become their own power plant. By not being completely beholden to an outside power authority, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re increasing your control of your own energy destiny.
  • Annual energy costs: Residential solar is the gift that keeps on giving. Once you’ve invested the initial upfront cost, you’re essentially locking in your energy costs at a low constant rate. Over a 20-year period, the estimated savings from solar can range from $10,000 to almost $30,000, depending where you live (check out electricity rates by state here).
  • Pollution: Solar brings big savings for our air, water, and health. The average 6 kilowatt residential solar system in the U.S. reduces about 6.3 metric tons of carbon emissions annually, roughly equivalent to taking one fossil fuel automobile off the road each year.
  • Energy storage: Although most distributed solar systems today are still connected to the grid, new battery storage systems make it possible for households with solar panels to store their excess power for use at times when the sun doesn’t shine, reducing and even eliminating reliance on the grid.
  • Resilience: During a power outage related to a storm or extreme weather event, a solar photovoltaic system with battery storage can be a cost-effective option for keeping the electricity flowing, even compared to running a diesel generator.
  • Energy security: With distributed solar, you aren’t subject to the physical threats to the grid from cyber and terrorist attacks, and you don’t have to rely on energy purchased from potentially unstable locations, such as the Middle East. By “voting solar” with your wallet, you can step out from under the utility monopolies and oil and gas cartels.

None of us are omnipotent, but we can all use our power as consumers to move our energy system from an endless cycle of mining, drilling, refining, and polluting to one that requires zero fuel and results in zero air pollution and emissions. In making the transition to distributed solar, we can seize the power of Thor’s hammer and leave behind an outdated, inferior 20th century energy system.


Bigger, better, faster: clean tech’s explosive growth

February 10, 2021

This article is from the February 10, 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).

We’re just weeks into this hopeful new chapter for the climate and clean energy movement. The winter of denial and self-destructive behavior is over, spring is (figuratively) here. On good days, we can feel the wind in our sails. On bad days, the necessary scope and speed of the energy transition still feels pretty daunting. Here’s an important truth nugget worth holding on to:

The pace of progress we’re seeing in energy today isn’t anything like last century’s progress.

Clean energy tech is moving fast. It turns out that harvesting unlimited, ubiquitous energy sources like sunshine and wind enables you to progress more at the exponential pace that Moore’s law and Wright’s law predict. We’re talking about the rate of growth that computers and genetics saw in the latter half of last century. We’re now entering new frontiers that were unimaginable even a decade ago.

Here’s a sampling of a few of the game-changing innovations coming down the pipe. In the words of Samuel L. Jackson’s timeless Jurassic Park character, “hold on to your butts.”


Wind mega-machines and robotic helpers

 The future of wind power is increasingly offshore, where there’s plenty of space to harness the strong, steady breezes that sweep across our oceans and bays. Industry players are ramping up their game, producing new wind turbines that are bigger and more powerful than ever before. In Europe, GE is currently testing the largest offshore turbine ever built, the Haliade-X, with a turning diameter longer than two football fields and a height that’s taller than most buildings. The turbines are being built out of carbon fiber and glass fiber, a combination that makes them lightweight but still strong and flexible.

These mega-machines can pump out unimaginable power. A single turbine alone will have a generating capacity of 13 megawatts, making it about a third more powerful than the largest turbines now available commercially (and 30 times more powerful than the first offshore turbines installed off Denmark in the early 1990s).

In Europe, GE is currently testing the largest offshore turbine ever built, the Haliade-X, with a turning diameter longer than two football fields.

To put this in context, a single Haliade-X unit can generate enough energy to light up around 12,000 homes, and a large array of the turbines could potentially power an entire city. According to one analyst, the turbine’s size and advance sales have “shaken the industry.” Already GE has signed contracts to use the machines in projects off New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Also helping to propel the offshore wind industry are smaller but equally mind-blowing technologies like the new “BladeBUG” robot, which will make it safer and cheaper to maintain turbines that are located out at sea in choppy and unpredictable conditions. The robot, which has been described as “a suitcase that sprouted six legs with suction cup feet,” can be carried by drone to a turbine, where it crawls over the tower and blades and uses sensors to detect (and in some cases repair) issues with the machine’s efficiency. BladeBUG is undergoing commercial trials and is expected to hit the market in 2022. (Sounds like the sentinel robots from the Matrix, but on the good team).

Yes, they’re floating on water

Floating solar islands and hyper-efficient panels

Imagine solar panels on water producing energy and freeing up limited (and often costly) space on land. It’s already happening: More than 60 countries are actively pursuing floating solar photovoltaics (PV) in reservoirs and oceans, and other water bodies. Analysts call it “the third pillar” of solar after ground-mounted and rooftop PV. Although the first floating PV system was installed in Japan in 2007, recent innovations have made the technology more viable, including more durable platforms and new hybrid systems combining floating PV with hydropower dams.

The potential applications of floating PV go beyond just supplying power to homes and industries on shore. Developers are considering new models for using the electricity generated from the systems to support ocean-based activities like offshore fish farming, ocean observation, water desalination, and disaster recovery efforts. In Thailand, proposals to combine maritime fish and shrimp farms with floating PV systems would replace the polluting diesel generators. Floating solar PV has the potential to be more efficient than land-based solar panels because the cooling effect of water and wind can lead to increased energy yield.

Other efficiency breakthroughs are also coming down the PV pipeline. Today’s solar panels, while modern marvels in their own right, only convert around 15-20 percent of the sun’s energy that falls on them into electricity (essentially just the “red” part of the light spectrum). But developers are now working to realize greater efficiency by also tapping into “blue” wavelengths, which can increase the overall conversion efficiency to 30-40 percent. The panels are currently entering production and could be available for use on consumer rooftops within the next few years.

Needless to say, with so much amazing tech coming our way, it’s hard not be optimistic about clean energy in 2021. And increasingly, we have both the political leadership and the business support to make it happen. In a recent opinion piece, the BBC’s Tom Heap mused that “applied human intelligence is the vaccine against climate change.” As we continue to harness our insatiable capacity for progress and innovation, we can look forward to the day when we are all inoculated from the ills of fossil fuels.


Buying clean energy = smart biz

August 19, 2020

If you happen to be driving among the corn fields and dairies near Twin Falls, Idaho, you might come across an unexpected sight: a modern building complex, spread over five acres, gleams with a new 2 megawatt (that’s big) solar array, generating enough juice to electrify the equivalent of 280 homes a year. The state-of-the-art system supplies 30 percent of the power needs for a massive commercial bakery owned by snack bar maker Clif Bar, helping the company meet its ambitious climate and energy goals.

Clif Bar is one of thousands of companies going whole hog on a renewable energy future. Last year, the top buyers of wind and solar power in the U.S. were household tech names like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, as well as big retail, telecom, and banking companies like Verizon (which, in April, announced its first-ever clean energy purchase from wind and solar projects in Illinois and Texas). Corporate procurement alone accounted for nearly half (46 percent) of the 20.2 gigawatts of renewables added to the U.S. grid in 2019, according to the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.

The massive solar installation at Apple's new headquarters
The massive solar installation at Apple’s new headquarters

Why & how businesses are doing it

Reputation-wise, it doesn’t hurt to be on the cutting edge of the biggest energy trend of our time while helping the planet. But it also helps the bottom line. Tech and other large industries need cheap, plentiful electricity to operate their power-hungry data centers and manufacturing hubs scattered around the country. With the price of wind and solar power now competitive with fossil fuels in many places, renewables have become smart business.

Corporations generally take one of three approaches to procure large amounts of renewable energy. If the funding (and solar or wind resource) is available, a company may install an on-site system to produce as much local energy as possible. Alternatively, it may contract directly with a developer to build or purchase the electricity from a dedicated solar or wind farm. In many cases, though, businesses aiming for high shares of clean energy buy renewable energy credits (RECs), which enable them to offset their electricity consumption by purchasing an equivalent amount of renewable power. Wells Fargo and Bank of America both use RECs in their push to operate their facilities, financial centers, and ATMs with 100% renewables.

Buying renewable energy is one of the quickest ways for companies to reduce their carbon footprints. General Motors (GM), one of the first big firms to sign on to the U.S. climate pledge for businesses, announced in February that it was moving up (by a full decade!) its target for 100% renewables, aiming for 2040 rather than 2050. GM recently signed two more utility partnerships to use low-cost solar to run its manufacturing plants. “In the long run, renewables are the cheapest form of new generation, and that’s what everyone is looking for from a financial standpoint,” said Rob Threlkeld, the company’s global manager of sustainable energy, supply, and reliability. 

The impact of COVID-19

Certainly, the coronavirus pandemic has altered this year’s outlook for corporate renewables, contributing to tighter budgets, lower oil and gas prices, and unanticipated changes to energy demand as more people work from home. Renewable projects are coming online slower than planned due to construction pauses, permitting delays, and supply chain disruptions. Projections suggest that corporation procurement of renewables will likely fall short of last year’s record high.

But the overall outlook remains bright. Industry experts remain confident that even if financial markets are volatile, investment in renewables—which is generally viewed as low risk with stable returns—will continue. Meanwhile, the number of companies making voluntary commitments to transition to 100% clean energy continues to climb, and ripple effects are being seen across the supply chain. After Apple committed to using 100% renewable energy (a goal it achieved in 2018), at least 23 of its suppliers also agreed to a 100% target.

As consumers and citizens, we should support these forward-thinking companies for their renewable ambitions—and pressure their peers — and policymakers on Capitol Hill — in this direction. Businesses have a critical role to play, and now that clean, renewable energy is such a solid win-win-win for them, this sector of our economy must step on the accelerator.

Originally published in the 8/19/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter


Virginians: submit comments to support EV adoption

June 12, 2020

Own an electric vehicle in Virginia? We’ve got an (urgent) opportunity for you to help shape important regulation in the Commonwealth. Ready to dive into the bureaucratic sausage-making? Read on…

Here’s what’s going on: there’s a State Corporation Commission (SCC) call for public comments concerning electric vehicles, charging, electricity rate design, and more.

What on earth is the SCC?

Most people aren’t aware of this commission’s existence (which is perfectly understandable), but it’s an incredibly influential entity when it comes to Virginia’s transition to clean energy. The SCC is Virginia’s public utility commission, which is a governing body that regulates the rates and services of a public utility, such as an electric utility. Electric vehicles obviously use electricity to charge, and therefore their increased deployment impacts the SCC’s purview of utility oversight. (More on PUCs and how you can engage with them in the Civics section of Generation180’s Boot Camp).

The task at hand

The SCC is currently asking for public comments about EVs, but it’s clear from their tone that the SCC isn’t as enthusiastic about electric cars as we are. From their perspective, increased adoption rates of electric vehicles present “several issues that potentially could affect the affordability and reliability of electricity service.” But where they see “issues”, we see opportunity. This public comment period is an important moment to weigh in while the SCC “explores” a number of areas of possible EV-related regulations. There are three main messages that the SCC needs to hear from EV owners like you:

    1. There’s growing demand for electric vehicles.
    2. Charging more EVs on Virginia’s electricity grid can actually help, not hurt things (for everybody involved!).
    3. EVs play a key role in Virginia meeting its carbon reduction goals.

The good news is that public comments actually do help influence the SCC (clearly we wouldn’t waste your time if this wasn’t true!). Below is a response that you can submit using the SCC’s comments portal. Feel free to personalize/tweak as you see fit!

Thank you for the opportunity to support our Commonwealth’s transition to clean energy and electric transportation. As one of more than 15,000 EV owners in Virginia, I am eager to support the growth of electric vehicles in my community. Electric vehicles aren’t just the future, they’re here today.

Now is the time to ensure that we all benefit from the grid stability EV’s can provide. Using managed charging, it is entirely possible to accommodate a significant growth in the number of EVs across VA without raising energy rates or building additional capacity. Key to making this work is properly incentivizing EV owners to charge during off-peak hours, using strategies such as time-of-use rate schemes. This allows EVs to take advantage of an otherwise idle grid, preventing the need for increased total capacity. Off-peak charging also helps prevent the inefficient spin-up and wind-down of excess capacity power plants. Eliminating these inefficiencies results in cheaper electricity for everyone, not just EV owners.

The dynamic charging capability of EVs allows them to capture and store renewable energy like wind and solar. While there is more research to be done, I encourage the SCC to embrace emerging technologies such as vehicle-to-grid (V2G) integration that will allow EV batteries to act as a distributed energy storage network that can be drawn upon to alleviate peak demand.  

To meet the Virginia Clean Economy Act carbon reduction goals, as well as those stipulated in Executive Order 43, Virginia needs to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles. As an EV driver, I’m doing my part to reduce carbon emissions. The SCC has the opportunity to do its part as well by supporting electric vehicles and promoting an equitable transition to clean energy. Thank you for your consideration.

Again, here’s the link to submit your comment to the SCC. We’re aiming for a total of 250 comment submissions, and we’d love to count yours towards that goal. Shoot us a quick message at to confirm once you’ve submitted your comment. Thank you!

Thanks for raising your voice to help drive clean energy action in Virginia. Head over to our Electrify Your Ride Ambassador page to learn about more ways to get involved. 


Why we need to electrify everything

October 24, 2018

What does it take to get fossil fuels out of our lives? A big part of the answer is “the electrification of everything”. No, it’s not just industry jargon—it’s a key concept worth understanding, as it’s playing a key role in our transition to a society powered by clean, renewable energy. 

At its simplest, “the electrification of everything” means that more of the things we use that require energy—from our water heaters to our weed whackers to our cars—can run on electricity rather than directly burning gas and other fossil fuels that we pump or inject into them. When you swap out your old gas-powered hot water heater for a tankless electric system, you’re taking part in the “electrification of everything”.

The (grid) game has changed

For decades, the conventional wisdom was that we needed to move away from electricity because it was inefficient and dirty—and still today, around 68 percent of electric power comes from burning fossil fuels. Together, electricity production and the transportation sector are responsible for more than half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the climatic changes that are affecting communities nationwide.

But as our power grid integrates more renewable energy and as cleaner, electrified products enter the mass market, there’s now broad consensus that using electricity for more of our activities—including transportation—is a critical step toward reducing overall emissions. 

Across the country, utility companies have begun integrating renewable energy sources like wind and solar into the electrical grid, reducing the emissions impact of the power we draw from our electrical outlets. Additionally, we can now generate renewable power locally from our own rooftops or from nearby wind and solar farms. Residential and community solar systems, combined with more affordable energy storage options, are helping to make our electricity supply cleaner and more efficient.

As we move toward a world where zero-carbon electricity is possible, it makes sense to “electrify everything” rather than to continue to rely on fossil fuels. When we all switch to using cleaner electric power, then everything we connect to this power will be cleaner as well.


The electrified home

So what does it look like to electrify everything in our lives?

Already, manufacturers are replacing combustion engines of all sizes—in appliances, power tools, and vehicles—with electrical technologies. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in interest in electrification from electric utilities, equipment manufacturers, and others,” said Trieu Mai, a senior researcher at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Widespread electrification could have major energy, economic, and environmental impacts to the entire U.S. power system and broader economy.”

While most of our cooling systems—like air conditioners and refrigerators—are already electrified, many of our systems for water and space heating aren’t. To heat our homes, we can replace natural gas- or oil-fired furnaces with energy-efficient electric heat pumps. And many households are replacing bulky storage water heaters that run on natural gas, propane, or oil with tankless electric water heaters that provide hot water on demand. 

Then, of course, there are electric cars. By replacing our internal combustion engine vehicles with battery electric vehicles (EVs), we can immediately eliminate the need for gasoline or diesel to fill up our tanks. If we also plug our EVs into power networks fueled by renewables (such as solar from our rooftops), then we’re charging them with clean energy, too. EV batteries can even serve as energy storage, feeding power back to the grid during periods of peak demand. By helping to stabilize the grid, EV’s can make it possible to integrate even higher shares of renewables into the electricity system.

Going electric might seem like a costly proposition—but you’d be surprised. The prices of these technologies are dropping by the day, and the federal government and many states offer rebates and tax credits for installing residential solar, smart appliances, and energy-efficient climate control systems. Electrification is a key way that we’re going to get fossil fuels out of our lives—and we can start today.