Midterms and the Future of Clean Energy

In light of the recent midterm elections, it seems like a good time to look at what makes good energy policy and what we might expect as a result of voter choices going forward. Policy plays an important role in the success of clean energy. As more states set targets for a future powered by renewables, there’s some trial and error in how to integrate new types of shared power to the existing grid, as well as how to support their growth and ensure ratepayers see the benefit of cleaner, less expensive energy. Community solar, when it’s supported by a state’s policies, is a very accessible and relatively inexpensive solution to these challenges.

Twenty nine states have a mandatory amount of clean energy utilities have to use, called a “Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)” while eight more have a voluntary clean energy target. These regulations have different ambition levels and methods of reaching their goals. Of these, only nineteen states have a shared renewables program.  Shared renewables are those, like community solar, which allow everyone to participate in the benefits of clean power. Shared renewables programs allow new power sources like community solar to scale up. To compare how different states stacked up, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) made a scorecard for states with established community solar programs. They evaluation criteria included such things as if the program is accessible to underserved and low income communities, if all residents are eligible to use the program, if it promotes subscription portability and transferability (being able to “take it with you” or give it to the next resident if you move) and how much benefit residents can get from joining a solar farm.

Massachusetts has one of the strongest programs in place to allow community solar to grow. It allows offset of both distribution and supply charges, targets benefits to low and moderate income customers, and has recently changed its program to remove barriers between utility load zones. This makes farms more accessible and beneficial to more residents, and it makes subscriptions much more portable.

At the polls this week, there was more good news for the future of clean energy. With a shift in congress, Democratic leadership has promised to “resurrect the defunct select committee on climate change.” Nevada also voted for a measure to use 50% renewable energy by 2030, and has seen increasing investment in clean energy recently.

Overall, states, rather than the federal government, continue to lead the charge against climate change. Experimenting with different programs to find the best practices paves the way for other states to follow suit. And as states with strong renewable energy programs reap rewards such as economic growth, financial savings, and environmental benefits, hopefully more policymakers and voters will come around.

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Solar Farms and Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The idea of using clean power is widely accepted. Solar farms are an increasingly popular solution to help combat climate change. Compared to other power generation methods they make good neighbors – emitting no emissions or noise. They can be unobtrusive and very flexible in their install sites. This all makes them a more attractive option to communities than just about any other power generation option.

Massachusetts gets most of its energy from natural gas, which means energy prices here are tied to the volatile price of petroleum. Residents here pay a higher percentage of their income for energy than most other states. Solar farms are cost effective because they enjoy greater economies of scale than roof-mounted arrays on buildings.

In terms of siting, most people can agree that putting solar panels on a capped landfill or a parking lot is a no brainer – and there are even state programs in place in Massachusetts to encourage that. Many arrays have already been built on such sites. Landfills host solar farms in Chicopee, Hudson, Amesbury and there’s an array going up on the decommissioned Mt. Tom Coal Plant in Holyoke, to name just a few projects.  There aren’t many of these so-called brownfield sites left, but we still have a long way to go on Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas reduction targets, so it’s important to evaluate sites that involve tree clearing for solar farm installations.

Massachusetts is both densely populated and heavily forested. It’s the fourth most densely populated state in the US, and has 62% forest cover. According to the Boston Globe, “…nearly 50,000 acres of forest — at a pace of 13 acres a day — between 2005 and 2013…” was used for new housing developments. Any trees cleared for solar projects would not be on conservation land. Solar farms would be hosted on private land designated for agricultural or commercial purposes. If it’s not used for solar, it will probably be used for something else.

The good news is all solar farms, even those that involve cutting down trees, help fight climate change. In fact, solar farms are a more powerful way to fight climate change than trees are. If you compare carbon offset per acre, solar wins out. One acre of solar in Massachusetts offsets about 134 tons of CO2 per year per acre, nearly ten times as much as temperate forest lands, which removes 15 tons of CO2 per year per acre.

In addition to climate change, we need to consider the impact land use has on the people living there. Forests provide recreational space for residents, maintain healthy ecosystems and habitat for wildlife, filter air and water, protect against land erosion, and provide a buffer against floods.  For those of us that want to protect forests, it’s important to look at the big picture – we’ve already seen changes in our temperate forests due to climate change. This will only get worse in the future – we can expect changes in weather patterns that native species will have trouble adjusting to. If sacrificing a few acres of trees will help preserve all of our forests, it seems like a worthwhile trade.

Then there’s the fact that we can recover the land used for solar arrays after their useful life has ended. The panels can be replaced or arrays removed and forests allowed to return.  Massachusetts has not always been as heavily forested as it is now – historically the state has had heavy industrial use. Most of the state’s forests are only 80 years old. In the 1800s, Massachusetts had used most of its timber and was down to only 28% forest coverage. We’ve bounced back since then, regenerating the state’s forest.  Finally, if we only built solar farms in wooded areas, just 6,000 acres of solar out of the state’s 3 million acres of trees – that’s only 0.2% – could supply all of Massachusetts’ power needs.

We’re in a position where we need drastic changes and actionable solutions now if we want to avoid serious climate change.  Community solar farms boost the local economy, reduce pollution, help regulate energy prices and bring cost savings to residents. Most sites for community solar are not on forested land, and proposed arrays would only require a small amount of acreage. That land would offset more carbon with a solar farm than it can now and it’s better put to use for solar than for other development. Maybe most importantly, moving to clean energy will help preserve our forests in the long term.  

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Energy Awareness Month 2018 – Take Action for a Sustainable Future

October is National Energy Awareness Month! In 1991, President Bush proclaimed the month of October a time to raise awareness and take action to manage America’s energy resources sustainably. It’s an important topic, but often energy efficiency and sustainable energy get forgotten in the background of people’s busy lives. Electricity is everywhere, but we sometimes take for granted all of the things it allows us to use.  We usually don’t stop to think about electricity unless prices go up or a power plant or a new pipeline is installed nearby. How we use energy and where it comes from has a big impact on our wallets, security, economy, and the communities we live in, not to mention what future generations will have to face, so it’s crucial to pay attention and make a concerted effort towards sustainable energy.

There are some energy savings tips that get a lot of buzz – things like upgrading to LED bulbs, replacing old appliances, or washing with cold water. Efficiency is a big part of sustainability, and for most people making these kinds of changes is not too difficult. There are also programs such as Mass Save which will do free home energy audits and install free or discounted energy saving measures such as light bulbs and insulation, as well as make recommendations and educate homeowners on the energy systems in their house.

It’s important to focus on this not just at home, but also at work. As of 2012, commercial use accounted for  “…nearly 20% of US energy consumption and 12% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Public and commercial buildings are often fully powered even when occupancy rates are low. Measures such as motion sensors, more efficient appliances, and encouraging participation and action by the building’s occupants can help with commercial efficiency.

Bringing usage down is a good first step towards a stable, sustainable energy future, but we still get most of our power in the US from non-renewable sources. Just shy of 63% of our energy came from fossil fuels in 2017. Another 20% came from nuclear power. Even the most efficient building can’t run forever on a finite fuel source. This is where renewable energy sources come in. Once power is generated and in our homes and businesses, it’s all the same, but where it first came from makes a big difference in the price we pay, the pollution we see, and the reliability of our grid.

In 2017, 17.1% of our energy came from “renewables” – that’s anything that can naturally replenish itself after we use it to generate power. This includes things such as wood, landfill gas, solar, geothermal, wind and hydropower. Some of these issue more pollution when they’re used than others, and it will take a mix of them to meet our power needs.

Solar Farms one of Top 10 Ways to Combat Climate Change

In light of the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this week, which gives us until 2030 to cut carbon emissions to half of their 2010 level and until 2050 to be “net zero” or on balance removing as much carbon as is emitted, it’s clear we need to act quickly.

With such a tight deadline and so much at stake, it can be tempting to give up. But now is the time to double down, we still have time to take action and more and more resources to do it with. Even though at the national level the US has pulled back from efforts to address climate change, there’s a lot that can still be done and there have been some positive developments already.

Combating climate change in a timely way requires creative and accessible applications of the technology we have. According one recent article, “Solar photovoltaics are only two percent of the global electricity mix at present.” This number will have to go up to hit the 2030 deadline. Unfortunately, solar can have a lot of barriers to entry, including high installation costs and difficulty finding suitable candidates who also have the right site for an install. Community solar farms are a solution to this, and made this list of top 10 solutions to climate change. Solar farms are installed at utility scale, and offer benefits including clean energy and cost savings to the communities they’re in. They are a good solution because they have lower installation costs than fossil fuel plants or smaller scale solar installations. They also offer better efficiency, more flexible installs, and they’re accessible to more energy users than a traditional on-site installation.

Solar farms are a great solution, and they come with cost savings in addition to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. So what’s holding us back? What stands in the way are mostly outdated laws regulating the electricity grid. Most of these laws are at the state level, where residents have the ability to influence policy makers with grassroots action and their votes. Another obstacle is increasing awareness and adoption of these types of projects. Several states, including Massachusetts, have laws and programs in place that support community solar installations. Massachusetts’ program is well established, and recent legislation is adding capacity in the state. Check below to see if there are any farms available where you live.

As the second biggest contributor to carbon emissions and one of the highest per capita polluters, action in the US is vital. 28% of our country’s emissions comes from energy production, and 68% of our energy comes from fossil fuels. Clean power generation has been increasing recently, and some of the states that have the most capacity installed are conservative, such as Texas and Alabama. We have the technology and the opportunity in the US to go from leading the world in carbon emissions to leading it in clean energy production and innovation.

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Customer Success Stories

Eric signed up for a community solar consultation today because he, like Margaret Meade, believes “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” According to Eric, “Community solar is a ‘no brainer’ because it saves you money on your electricity and helps the planet by using clean renewable solar energy!”

 

Solar Power from Landfills and Old Coal Plants

Photo: http://www.nepr.net/post/solar-panels-and-now-batteries-site-old-mt-tom-coal-plant#stream/0

Community solar developments have many benefits, but one that is often overlooked is the fact they provide a use for otherwise polluted or unusable spaces. Solar panel installations can be much more flexible and unobtrusive than other types of power generating plants, and existing pollution where they’re built isn’t an issue. This means that they can go on old landfills, highway medians, parking garages, and even decommissioned coal plants, to name a few of the sites that are now powering thousands of households around Massachusetts.

There are many installations already in place on landfills. For example, there’s an 18 acre landfill in Berkley, MA which is now home to an array of more than 11,200 solar panels. Chicopee, MA has 8,000 panels on 6 acres of landfill. There’s a farm on a landfill in Hudson, MA with capacity to power about 1,000 homes, and another in Amesbury with 4.5 megawatts installed. Once a landfill is full, it doesn’t have to be a waste of acreage – instead it can host clean energy to power the towns near it.

While covered landfills are a great choice for an install site, they’re not the only option. The coal plant on Mount Tom in Holyoke was decommissioned four years ago, and is now the site of 17,000 panels plus battery storage. They’re hoping to have the batteries charged by mid-October, which is a huge step forward for clean energy since one of the greatest challenges to date has been storing what’s produced and then distributing that at the times it’s most needed.

Although it’s logical to repurpose hard to use spaces like this, especially with the price of land in Massachusetts, companies are further incentivized to do so with the state’s new solar program. This week, the MA Department of Public Utilities (DPU) issued an order to move forward with compensating new solar projects under the Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program. The SMART program incentivizes projects that make use of “rooftops, parking lots, and landfills…” as well as those that combine storage with a solar installation, which is a first.

Massachusetts’ clean energy transition is happening on sites that were previously putting out pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a win on all sides – siting solar arrays this way saves valuable land. It also turns what would have been an eyesore or a waste of land into something that benefits the residents near it with savings and clean energy, provides a revenue stream to that area, and improves the local environment by offsetting the pollution that comes from fossil fuel power production.

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The Local Push to Battle Climate Change

As the United States has drawn back from international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the battle to combat climate change is moving to the state and local level.

California recently set the pace by committing to have the state run on 100% carbon free electricity by 2045. Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown signed the historic Senate Bill 100 which commits his state to run on renewable energy. According to a report in spring of 2018 from the U.S. Department of Commerce, California is the fifth largest economy in the world. This is the highest ranking it’s had since 2002, which gives this bill a lot of weight. In 2017, 29% of in state electricity generation came from renewables, second only to natural gas. On optimal days of 2017, solar alone generated over half of the state’s usage. The fact that California has been a leader in clean energy while also building a thriving economy is a strong counter to the argument that transitioning from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources will hurt economic growth. The size of the state, both in population and in GDP, also means that their commitment will have a big impact and be an example for others.

While California’s decision to push hard for zero carbon emissions is major, it is actually the second state to set this goal. The first was Hawaii, which also committed to going 100% renewable by 2045 back in 2015. In 2017 Hawaii got a whopping 33% of its energy from rooftop arrays alone, and on good days can it hit 60% from renewables more broadly.

Massachusetts has also been a leader in efficiency and renewables. Back in 2008 they set an example with targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, aiming for “…25% below 1990 levels for 2020 – on the way toward an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.” Just this June Mayor Marty Walsh hosted an international mayor’s climate summit in Boston, MA to discuss how cities can become more resilient, prepare for climate change, and take action locally to reduce carbon emissions. The summit also featured prominent business leaders, to encourage cooperation between the private and public sector.

The concept of “net zero” or “100% Renewable” is also becoming more mainstream. According to a recent Greentech Media article: “More than 200 mayors across the country have publicly committed to achieving 100 percent clean energy, and a small but growing number of states are considering the same target.” These goals are getting support from both political parties, and each politician, city, and state that joins in makes a 100% renewable future seem more realistic and achievable.

With the setbacks and change of tone the U.S. has seen on climate change recently, leadership and action has to come from the local level. States and cities concerned by climate change, especially in coastal regions, and consumer preferences for clean energy are pushing change forward. Local change starts with individuals; and residential efficiency and clean energy has been a major driver. Find out below what you can do to change the way we get our power here in Massachusetts.

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Community Solar Can Supplement Rooftop

Rooftop solar has been booming in recent years, but by itself it’s not enough. Even homes with good exposure can’t always produce 100% of the occupant’s usage. According to a recent article from the NRDC, community solar developments could be the solution.

Community Solar is a way for multiple households to access clean energy. Programs differ, but basically each household gets a share of the field and receives credit for that share’s production on their electric bill. The fields are accessible to more residential electric users than rooftop installations, which face obstacles such as roof exposure, upfront costs, structural issues, and shade. The article reported that solar fields are a way to get low cost and accessible renewable energy. “In the study, commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), analysts from the Brattle Group found that community solar could be a more cost-effective and powerful carbon-cutting tool than individual rooftop installations.”

The panels in a solar farm can also be placed for optimal production and generate more efficiently than rooftop installations can. “The study compared 200 hypothetical zero net energy (ZNE) homes in both Minnesota and New Mexico and determined that the cost of installing community solar to power ZNE homes was 30 to 35 percent less than individual rooftop installations… The savings from community solar are due in part to economies of scale, as well the technological advantages of a large, offsite array. Large solar arrays can be adjusted to catch more light throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky, and be oriented in an optimal direction, and thus generate more electricity than rooftop panels. And by offering an offsite location, community solar enables more people to use solar energy, even if they don’t have enough space on the roof or if their rooftop is shady.”

As more states and local communities push for “net zero” goals, with California pledging to go 100% renewable and zero carbon by 2045, community solar has an important role to play. Here in Massachusetts, where we have older buildings and lots of trees, many homes only get part of their bills covered by rooftop, or don’t qualify at all. Click below to find out what programs are available to you.

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“Solar should be able to benefit everyone!”

Hancock Community Solar

Community Solar Farm in Hancock, MA

Until now, solar was mostly available to affluent homeowners with a perfectly situated roof, or to large companies. Luckily, that’s starting to change. According to a recent Greentech Media article by Emma Foehringer Merchant, “How to Build Community Solar Projects for the Masses,” community solar is positioned to make clean energy affordable and accessible to previously underserved communities.

“A new report from GTM Research, Wood Mackenzie and Vote Solar, a solar accessibility advocate, notes that 50 to 75 percent of U.S. consumers don’t have access to conventional rooftop installations. But if it is executed properly, community solar can change that… ‘Solar should be able to benefit everyone,’ said MJ Shiao, head of Americas research at GTM Research. ‘But it’s difficult to apply onsite solar to folks who rent, or to low-income communities….’ ”

It’s often difficult or impossible to put solar up on rental units or condos, which bars a lot of customers from the market. Especially in urban areas, where living space comes at a premium and a lot of people rent, this is a serious obstacle for meeting the demand for clean energy. In addition to the environmental benefits of solar projects, there are also some real financial benefit. The savings from solar projects have not been accessible to the populations who arguably could benefit the most from them.

Community solar could go beyond just making solar more accessible; it could be developed to help specific populations: “GTM Research notes in its report that ‘community solar can be used as a tool to target benefits to communities historically have been at the front lines of environmental pollution and negative impacts from traditional energy generation.’”

Analysts recommend job training programs, siting preferences and community-focused incentives to provide benefits to populations that have been sidelined by the electricity system. Baking environmental justice initiatives into community solar development can also have positive impacts on public health.”

It’s a win on all sides – generate jobs in places that need them, offer the financial benefits of solar to new and underserved populations, improve the quality of the environment by replacing polluting power plants, and give more people the ability to choose clean power.

More solar farms are going up across Massachusetts – find out here if there is a community solar project that serves your area!

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The Highest Impact Choices You Can Make for the Environment

Facing climate change can seem overwhelming, but the choices we each make have a huge impact. Supporting clean power over fossil fuels is not only great for the planet, it’s also great for your bottom line. Check out this graphic on the best actions you can take.

Personal Choices To Reduce Your Contribution To Climate Change

What can I do to make the biggest difference?

The study behind this graphic addresses how we perceive the environmental impact of our habits. Choices that get a lot of buzz as environmentally friendly are not necessarily as impactful as you’d hope. In their peer reviewed study “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions,” Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas analyze what widely applicable changes individuals can make to offset the most carbon.

They found that while things like recycling, changing light bulbs, or switching to hybrids get a lot of coverage, there are far more impactful things we can do. For example, they found that eating a plant based diet is four times more effective than comprehensive recycling, and eight times more effective than changing out a home’s light bulbs.

Their top four impactful decisions included having one less child, living car free, avoiding one transatlantic flight, and switching a household to clean energy. However, when compared to recommendations in textbooks and government papers, these changes were mentioned much less frequently than things like recycling, conserving water, and looking at home efficiency improvements.

The study stressed that getting the facts out to well-meaning consumers, especially in developed areas with high carbon footprints, is crucial to mitigating climate change. While some of the recommendations are difficult to fully implement, clean power is one choice that has become increasingly accessible.

Flying or driving might be unavoidable where you live or with the your job, and having children is a very personal decision. But supporting clean power is easy.  You’re already buying electricity.  Why not vote with your dollars to support clean, local energy? At Relay Power we’ve helped hundreds of Massachusetts residents save money and help the environment by educating them on the clean power offerings available to them and helping them choose the best fit.

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