The Push For 100% Renewables

There’s new blood in the state and federal legislatures, and climate change is at the top of their agenda. Here in MA, fourteen of the twenty four newly sworn in state representatives support aggressive action on climate change. At the federal level, we’ve seen ambitious new proposals and a new committee to address climate change as a top priority.

Massachusetts Fights Climate Change

  • Over half of the incoming state representatives have formed a bipartisan group they’re calling GreenTeamMA
  • The Green Team supports 100% renewable energy sources in Massachusetts by 2050
    • This will be achieved with measures such as carbon pricing and driving up demand for energy sources such as wind and solar
  • They are focussing on a bottom up approach with grassroots action by voters and consumers who are concerned about public health and climate change

The Federal\Climate Crisis Committee

  • The midterm elections saw an infusion of progressive new representatives and a flip to a House controlled by Democrats
  • New members have proposed a “Green New Deal,” an aggressive plan which would combine action on climate change and economic inequality while creating job growth
  • Nancy Pelosi has put together a Climate Change Committee, which has a narrower scope but still emphasizes the importance of preparing for and combating climate change

A key component of all of these plans is encouraging consumers to choose greener options. Legislation is important to level the playing field for clean energy, but there are impactful choices we can make right now to fight climate change, especially here in Massachusetts.

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The True Cost of Fossil Fuels

Skeptics of clean energy often cite high costs and “the need for subsidies” as a reason we shouldn’t or can’t afford to transition away from fossil fuels. But dirty energy has many costs attached to it which are not always readily apparent. Fossil fuel prices can be volatile, and we don’t always use domestically sourced products. Aside from the actual cost to consumers, the fossil fuel industry also receives subsidies, and we pay indirectly for using polluting energy sources in healthcare and pollution cleanup costs. It’s well past time to reframe the conversation around energy costs, and to even the playing field for cleaner energy sources.

While it’s true that most renewable energy sources can have high startup costs, once they’re running they’re inexpensive to keep up – after all, you don’t have to pay for wind or sunshine. In comparison, using fossil fuels for energy means we have to constantly buy oil, gas, and coal at the market rate. And this money doesn’t always stay in the US economy: “In 2007, America spent more than $360 billion importing fossil fuels, with the vast majority of that money spent on crude oil. That money is a direct transfer of wealth from American consumers to oil companies and foreign governments.” Even when we are buying within the country, volatile fuel prices can negatively impact consumers.  In comparison, prices for electricity generated from renewable sources has been shown to be more predictable.  In 2016, we spent $5.6 billion on renewable energy incentives, most of which went to biofuels.  Studies attempting to put a number on subsidies supporting fossil fuels, not including subsidies for things like fuel assistance programs, pegged them at around $20 billion dollars a year including the federal and state levels. The US has been slow to get rid of these subsidies and tax breaks compared to other developed countries, and that’s no coincidence. “In the 2015-2016 election cycle, oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions and lobbying and received $29.4 billion in federal subsidies in total over those same years.” We are already spending a lot to prop up fossil fuels, but it’s taken for granted and doesn’t get much coverage, while any changes to incentives for clean energy are often hotly debated.

While the concrete costs to buy and subsidize fossil fuels are important to look at, arguably more important are the added costs of things like health care for asthma and cancer, cleaning up pollution, and fallout from a changing climate. These are difficult to put a price on, but we do know some of the costs. For example, the BP Deepwater oil spill costed tax payers fifteen point three billion dollars. There has also been impact on agriculture: “A 2007 study by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University found that global production of three of the six largest global crops experienced significant losses due to global warming between 1981 and 2002. The study concluded that global wheat growers, for example, lost $2.6 billion and global corn growers lost $1.2 billion in 2002 alone.” Projections are that these costs will sky rocket if climate change is not mitigated.

The price we pay for healthcare on pollution-related illness is difficult to pinpoint, but we do have some studies that have attempted to put a number on it. Sarah Rizk* and Ben Machol of the Clean Energy and Climate Change Office, U.S. EPA Region 9, in San Francisco published a peer reviewed article attempting to put a concrete price per kilowatt hour that we pay in healthcare. They found costs of “…19 to 45 cents per kilowatt-hour for coal, 8 to 19 cents per kilowatt-hour for oil, and 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for natural gas. “For coal and oil,” Rizk and Machol write, “these costs are larger than the typical retail price of electricity, demonstrating the magnitude of the externality.” This cost isn’t distributed evenly, either – places that are the site of extraction and energy generation pay a higher price in their health.

Clean energy is often dismissed as being too expensive, but really the cost of energy from fossil fuel is artificially low and much of what we pay is hidden or part of the status quo. When you really dig into the numbers, it’s clear that the playing field is uneven. There are many reasons to transition to clean energy, and now we can add the comparative cost of it to the list.

Find out how you can be part of the solution.

Join a Community Solar Farm. Fight Climate Change.
Help Make the Electric Grid More Resilient.

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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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