The Benefits of a Green Power Grid

Skeptics of clean energy argue that more technology like solar and wind on the grid would mean instability, higher prices, and economic harm. But moving to a more sustainable power grid hasn’t caused the destabilization or issues critics predicted. In fact, the transition has come with many benefits beyond mitigating climate change. These include lower and more stable energy prices, as well as resilience to natural disasters and other interruptions.

California, Massachusetts, New York, and Colorado are a few of the states that have seen a lot of success with community solar programs. They have overcome some of the obstacles in accessibility like pricing and siting that rooftop solar faces, and community solar distributes the financial benefits of solar more equitably than rooftop solar does.

But it’s not just traditionally “blue” states that have had success integrating clean energy. Texas, Alabama, Iowa, and Idaho have also been leaders in installed capacity. Texas is a great example, it hit a milestone with 18% of its energy coming from wind and solar. “The 18 percent number matters because for years critics of renewable energy have argued that grid costs and reliability will spiral out of control before we hit 20 percent wind and solar. But in Texas, retail electricity prices have actually decreased, coming in well below the U.S. average.” If a conservative state like Texas can make wind work to their benefit, it seems like we should be able to follow suite in other states too.

And all signs seem positive that we can move beyond the twenty percent mark with no ill effects. “…a succession of rigorous studies — including a widely cited two-year study conducted by the DOE itself in 2012 — has found that renewables can provide as much as 80 percent of the nation’s energy supply without disrupting a properly managed grid. And that doesn’t mean that 80 percent is the upper limit of renewables — it indicates only that levels beyond 80 percent weren’t thoroughly investigated.” In fact, there are some aspects of solar and wind generated power that make things more stable. Once a solar or wind farm is built, operating costs are low and predictable, helping to even out electricity prices. They are also less vulnerable to major outages as they are more spread out and “modular,” meaning a natural disaster taking out some plants won’t stop overall production.

As we see more success stories, the reasons are piling up to transition to clean energy. Adding lower prices and more stable service to the benefits of renewable power makes it more broadly appealing; climate change isn’t the only motivator anymore.

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Fossil Fuel Giants Acknowledge Climate Change and Begin to Adjust

Traditional fossil-fuel-centric entities are acknowledging climate change and investing in clean energy. This marks an important turning point, and if they believe the future is in clean energy, we should take notice and build on the existing successes, for example the recent boom in community solar in multiple states.

Community solar has seen wide success. Forty-two states have at least one active farm, and there were “…1,226 cumulative megawatts installed through Q2 2018.” Nineteen states have policies and programs to encourage the growth of community solar, and while community solar benefits everyone with lowered pollution and cost savings, increasingly, there are projects that target benefits specifically to low income communities.

Exxon keeps tabs on the outlook for different energy types, and the future is bright for renewable energy. Between 2016-2040, they expect solar and wind to lead the way in global growth. The oil giant has also been in the news recently as shareholders pushed the company to report the risks climate change poses to its business model. And Exxon isn’t the only company; Chevron invested in five solar projects and has announced a commitment to renewable energy. BP has also made some moves: “…much of the company’s strategy update focused on clean energy, which BP said would amount to around $0.5bn of its $15bn-$16bn capital expenditure programme… BP recently bought a $200m stake in Europe’s biggest solar developer.” Shell, another major player in the industry, took things further, pledging to “reduce its net carbon emissions 20% by 2035, and 50% by 2050.”

Although critics correctly point out that these numbers are not large compared to these companies’ overall revenue and we need more action to get where we need to be, there’s a lot of value in what these traditionally conservative and fossil-fuel-focussed organizations are doing. The underlying lesson is that they have acknowledged climate change and the shift in our energy industry and are beginning to adjust. If even the companies that sell fossil fuels are making these changes, it seems like we should pay attention and make changes too. We have the technology and the models we can use for success.

Find out how you can be part of the solution.

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Wildfires in California and How to Build a Resilient Power Grid

Some say the effects of climate change are already upon us. The wildfires in California this year are the most destructive on record. There are already 80 dead and 1,000 missing, and the fires are still going. Changing precipitation patterns, higher summer and spring temperatures, and earlier snowmelt are creating longer wildfire seasons and drier conditions for more intense burns. Aside from what’s going on in California right now, we can expect more droughts, fatal heat waves like the one in Europe earlier this year, more intense hurricanes, water supply shortages, flooding and erosion from sea level rise, and more impacts that we can’t yet predict. The question looms ever larger – what can be done to fight climate change, and how do we prepare for it?

We’re seeing the consequences of how we generate and use energy, and we know things will get worse if we continue with business as usual. How much carbon we emit will impact how extreme the changes we face will be. In addition to changing our fuel source and trying to mitigate future damage, we also need to increase the resiliency of our power grid. It needs to be able to respond to disruptions, bounce back from disasters, and function more independently than it does now.

Community solar solves both the short term need to cut carbon pollution, and it also increases the resilience of our power grid in the long term. Solar farms reduce dependence on the long and interruptible supply chains that currently feed our natural gas and oil power plants. It is also much more flexible to install than other types of power generation. Solar systems are increasingly being installed with batteries and in Massachusetts the new SMART program incentivizes projects that include batteries which provide backup for the grid and support production during peak demand and brownouts. Community Solar has a promising track record so far, and it’s ready to scale up and provide power to much more of our population than rooftop solar or wind farms are. Last year alone our installed capacity nearly doubled from 387 MW to 734 MW, with more in the works and encouraging signs for its growth in many states.

The impacts of climate change have begun, and they’re impacting our safety. We have solutions we can use to mitigate the damage, and we’ve started planning ahead for how to recover. It’s more important than ever to think about our energy future and take action with the tools we have.

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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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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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