Monthly Archives: March 2016


There’s good news and sour news on climate change in this hefty new report on renewable energy from the UN and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

First, the celebratory stuff. Renewable energy — mainly solar and wind, with a tiny bit of geothermal and biomass tossed in — is growing at a record pace. Last year, the world’s nations plunked down $286 billion on renewable energy, twice what they spent on coal and gas. For the first time ever, renewables made up fully half of all new electric capacity installed worldwide, with 118 gigawatts coming online. Next time someone says renewables are a niche market, toss them this PDF.

All in all, renewable energy (excluding large hydropower dams) provided 10.3 percent of the world’s electricity in 2015, up from 9.1 percent the year before:

(<a href="">Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016</a>)

(Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016)

If you include large hydropower, renewables made up roughly 22 percent of the world’s electricity in 2015. If you add in nuclear, another key carbon-free source, that goes up to around 33 percent. (The catch is that large hydro and nukes aren’t growing as quickly.)

So now comes the sour “yes, but…” This breakneck growth in clean energy isn’t nearly fast enough to drive the sort of sharp CO2 reductions needed to address climate change. Not yet.

For one, the world continues to build lots of carbon-belching coal and gas plants. The fact that wind and solar remain pricey and don’t run 24/7 means there’s still ample demand for fossil-fuel generation. The report estimates that countries added 43 gigawatts worth of coal capacity last year, on net, and 40 gigawatts worth of natural gas capacity. (Countries also added 15 gigawatts of new nuclear, as well as 22 gigawatts worth of large hydropower dams.)

As long as fossil fuel capacity keeps expanding rather than shrinking, it will be tough to push down global CO2 emissions. And this dynamic isn’t set to change anytime soon: the report notes that few forecasters think global power-sector emissions will peak before 2026. (A separate new report from McKinsey & Company, meanwhile, predicts that coal and natural gas will still provide half the world’s electricity in 2040.)

And keep in mind that this report mainly focuses on the electricity sector, which only accounts for 40 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions. If you really want to whip global warming, you’d also need to clean up the transportation sector, too. Plus figure out what to do about cement, steel, and other industries. There are a few encouraging signs along those lines — the report notes that battery prices keep plunging and electric vehicle sales are expanding — but it’s early days yet.

So this chart remains as relevant as ever:Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 12.41.16 PM

There are some amazing things happening in the renewable energy sector. Boatloads of money are being tossed around. Photovoltaic panels and wind turbines are going up at a frenetic pace. But we’re still very far from solving this pesky climate change problem.

Five other neat charts from the renewables report

The full UN/BNEF report has literally dozens of charts and graphs on renewable trends, but I’ll just pull out five that grabbed me.

1) Forget Europe. The real renewable action is happening in China.

Note that investment in renewable energy has actually been falling in Europe since 2011. (See here for more on that crash.) But it’s absolutely soaring in China.

2) Despite the oil price crash, electric vehicle sales are rising

 (Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016, UNEP/BNEF)

Some 462,000 people bought electric vehicles last year — up 60 percent from the previous year — despite the fact that oil prices were plummeting. The US market flatlined, but sales have been picking up in China and parts of Europe. From the report: “Improvements in range, reductions in battery prices, and the availability of tax and other incentives have combined with increasing familiarity to propel sales forward.”

The big question is how far electric vehicles will go. Bloomberg New Energy Finance has predicted that annual electric vehicle sales will rise to 2 million by 2020. Other forecasters have been less bullish. We’ll see. But speaking of which…

3) Lithium-ion batteries keep getting cheaper and cheaper

 (Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016, UNEP/BNEF)

The only way for electric cars to compete with conventional vehicles on price is for batteries to get much cheaper. So it’s excellent news that lithium-ion battery prices fell 35 percent last year. But some analysts argue they have to keep falling further still — to $150/kwh or lower — for electric cars to take off.

4) Energy storage is booming, especially in the United States

 (Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016, UNEP/BNEF)

For solar and wind to expand, it’d be great to have large grid-scale storage that can smooth out fluctuations in generation. And there are signs this is happening. Last year, the world installed some 250 megawatts worth of new storage technologies (i.e., excluding pumped hydro and older lead-acid batteries), mainly in North America. Cheaper lithium-ion batteries offer utilities more options here.

5) Fossil fuels are still cheaper than renewables+storage

This chart shows the levelized cost of electricity for various energy technologies across different countries.

As you can see, wind electricity has already become cheaper than coal and gas in many places. And solar photovoltaics have been making stunning gains, with the price dropping by nearly two-thirds since 2009. In China and Germany, solar now beats natural gas.

The catch, though, is that solar and wind have intermittency issues that will ultimately limit their reach. For those sources to truly dominate, they’ll likely need to be paired with low-cost energy storage in the future. But, as the chart shows, wind+storage is still more expensive than fossil fuels everywhere. Solar+storage is even pricier. Getting those storage costs down could prove crucial for renewable energy to become a leading power source.

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Silicon Valley startup Ubiquitous Energy is making the world’s first transparent solar cells, a technology that could greatly expand the reach of solar power. Their technology is an invisible film that can go on any surface and generate power, which could lead to cell phones and tablets that never run out of batteries — or skyscrapers that can use their massive banks of windows as solar panels. Bloomberg’s Sam Grobar reports. (Video by: Alan Jeffries, Justin Beach) (Music by Andy Clausen) (Source: Bloomberg)


Making solar energy available in low-income areas can provide lasting financial relief from high electric bills, as well as expanded employment opportunities and improved environmental health, says a new report released this week.

The Low-Income Solar Policy Guide for strategies to achieve that goal comes from three national nonprofit groups: GRID Alternatives, Vote Solar and the Center for Social Inclusion.

For Ohio, the group estimates that more than 855,000 low-income households stand to benefit. Data released last month by the Ohio Development Services Agency show that approximately one in nine families in the state are currently poor.

According to the new low-income solar report, though, getting solar energy into poorer communities requires policies to promote those efforts and to support solar energy in general.

“You need a healthy solar economy,” stressed Stan Greschner, a vice president for GRID Alternatives. “You need the underlying foundational elements that make solar possible for everyone [in order] to make it possible for low income families.”

That could be a challenge in Ohio.

Growth in Ohio’s solar energy industry slowed after 2014, when the state placed a two-year “freeze” on its renewable energy standards. It’s unclear whether further changes will be made to those standards before their targets resume next year.

Proportionately bigger benefits

In general, energy bills eat up a larger share of earnings for low-income families than for those who are better off. Thus, the new report says, net savings from solar energy likewise yield relatively bigger benefits for low-income families.

Families with solar energy buy less electricity from the grid, so utility bills are lower. Sales of renewable energy credits and excess power supplied to the grid can add to financial benefits.

The new report also argues that environmental justice demands facilitating clean energy in low-income communities. Those communities are more likely to be adversely affected by pollution from fossil fuel power plants, which has been linked to higher rates of asthma and other illnesses.

Adding solar capacity in low-income areas can also stimulate the local economy and add employment opportunities, Greschner noted. He cited his own organization as an example.

“Think of us as the Habitat for Humanity model for solar,” Greschner said. The nonprofit brings together community groups, volunteers and job trainees to install solar panels in low-income communities. Skills learned by those trainees can help them land jobs in the clean energy industry.

“These are good-paying jobs, and they’re very local,” Greschner stressed.

Financing options

Prices for solar equipment have come down dramatically. So far, however, most low-income families who struggle with electric bills can’t afford to buy and add solar panels on their own. To help them, the new report outlines various strategies and policies.

One of those suggestions notes Ohio’s 2009 law for Special Energy Improvement Districts. That law lets local governments set up districts to finance and install improvements for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

In most cases, money for those programs would come from the state’s Property Assessed Clean Energy program, or PACE. PACE allows loans to be repaid in installments with property taxes. The repayment obligations — as well as the benefits — stay with the property.

In practice PACE has had limited funders, so relatively few Special Energy Improvement Districts have been set up so far. Nonetheless, some successfulprojects have been completed, including ones in the Toledo and Cleveland areas. A financing hub set up last year in Cuyahoga County also offers promise for making more funding available, at least for commercial projects.

Potential residential projects have also suffered from roadblocks to PACE properties’ ability to get mortgage financing from the Federal Housing Authority.Guidance issued last year by the FHA should lessen those obstacles, the report notes.

Meanwhile, a bill before the Ohio legislature could provide more support for Special Energy Improvement Districts by simplifying the process for setting them up and funding them.

That bill, Senate Bill 185, was introduced by state Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) last June. It has not moved out of committee since then.

Economic incentives

Net metering policies and renewable energy standards are also important, the low-income solar report notes.

Renewable energy standards create and support a market for credits, and any sales speed up the payback period for a solar panel investment. Adoption of Ohio’s renewable energy standards sparked an active market for those credits until 2014.

Then a state law relaxed the standards and put a two-year “freeze” on them. The solar renewable energy credit market suffered, and new solar installations slowed significantly.

Gov. John Kasich has said a legislative committee’s recommendation for a continued, indefinite suspension of the state’s clean energy standards isunacceptable, and he recently warned the state legislature not to “gut” them. Yet Kasich has not made clear what revisions, if any, he would approve.

Critics have warned that some changes proposed by that same 2015 lawmakers’ committee report would be clear “giveaways” for industry.

Ohio’s net metering law, which currently compensates solar customers at retail rates, has also been under the microscope. Some utilities and other critics of the policy argue that it amounts to a subsidy for customers who can afford solar.

The Regulatory Assistance Project counters such arguments by noting that distributed solar energy actually provides benefits to the grid that are not otherwise compensated.

And Greschner believes it’s just wrong to try to cut solar energy benefits by characterizing them as something that helps only wealthy people.

“Any reduction in benefit that the solar system produces has a proportionately higher negative impact on a low-income family,” he said. As he sees it, $20 of benefits each month “means a lot more” to a low-income family.

Beyond that, Greschner noted, restrictions on net metering or cutbacks to renewable energy standards limit the overall market for solar energy and keep costs high for everyone. In his view, that would lead to a situation where only wealthy people could afford the systems.

“I would argue that if you don’t have strong policies that are incentivizing broader access to solar across the board, there is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy here,” Greschner said.

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Two decades ago, a section of the Amazon rainforest was flooded for a dam that currently produces little electricity. Engineers now see that artificial lake as an ideal surface for floating solar panels.

The dam, which flooded about 2,400 square kilometers (930 square miles) of rainforest, was ordered built at great expense during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime. The artificial lake is so vast that from the dam’s wall, the horizon barely comes into view.

But when it comes to generating electricity, the dam is a bust: the Balbina hydroelectric plant, inaugurated in 1989 after a decade of work, currently produces a mere fifth of its maximum output of 250 megawatts.

“This is one of the biggest environmental crimes that engineering has committed in this country,” said Energy and Mining Minister Eduardo Braga.

“How can we mitigate the cost of this crime? By improving the cost-benefit relationship of this power station,” Braga said at the ceremony inaugurating the use of the first floating solar panels.

Floating solar panels are not new, but using them on a hydroelectric dam’s artificial lake is novel.

This hybrid system uses the existing — and underutilized — power transmission infrastructure, as well as the flat water surface for the panels with no need to buy or expropriate new land.

Brazil gets 60 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric power plants. But much of the country, including in the Amazon rainforest area, has been enduring a severe drought. Water levels at many Brazilian dams have dropped to dangerously low levels.

The Balbina pilot project, to be completed by 2017, is a large platform with 50,000 square meters (540,000 square feet) of solar panels, about the size of five football fields.

The panels can produce five megawatts of electricity, enough to supply some 9,000 homes with power.

Engineers hope to increase the output to 300 megawatts, allowing Balbina to produce electricity for 540,000 homes.

“We’re going to transform the hydroelectric power generators, that have limitations due to the weather, into unlimited power producers because they will also use solar energy,” said Orestes Goncalves, president of Sunlution.

His company partnered with French firm Ciel et Terre to install the panels at Balbina.

The engineers have not said how much cheaper electricity could be for local residents, but one of the project’s long term goals is to bring down utility prices.

Separately, engineers will measure the efficiency of this hybrid model with floating solar panels at two very different locations: at Balbina, where the rainforest weather is hot and humid, and at a dam in the hills of the semi-arid northeastern state of Bahia.

If successful, officials hope to expand the floating panel system via public tenders.

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SolarCity, NRG Energy and Whole Foods Market (WFM) are partnering together to install solar power systems on several market locations across the U.S. in order to increase solar power production, offset some need for traditional grid power and help WFM save money on energy costs.

Per the plan, WFM will retrofit up to 100 of its stores with rooftop solar and SolarCity will deliver the solar power services, custom-designing each power system to maximize the amount of grid power offset. After the initial agreement, WFM also contracted with NRG Energy to provide panels for up to 84 of those 100 locations.

WFM expects to save money with the new solar installations by purchasing power from SolarCity at a discount to current electricity costs, locking in low solar energy rates. These power systems, once completed, are expected to place WFM within the top 25 corporate solar users in the nation, according to a recent release.

“This program showcases an exciting step in Whole Foods Market’s efforts to increase support for renewable energy as well as lower energy costs,” says Kathy Loftus, global leader in sustainability at WFM. “We strive to live our core values of environmental stewardship, as well as serving and supporting our local and global communities. This project allows us to continue to meet the needs of all of our stakeholders.”

According to a release from WFM, this move could increase the company’s solar energy portfolio by up to 400%.

SolarCity expects installation to begin this spring.

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Larry Bleymir Gomez

USI: Can you describe your role with the Sisterhood Communities of San Ramon? How did you get involved with them?

Larry Bleymir: It has been almost two years since I started working for Sister Communities of San Ramon (SCSRN),  a non-profit organization.  My current position is Coordinator of Tourism and Advertisement. Every year, we offer Eco tours to Nicaragua. These type of trips are customized to what the participants want, we offer cultural immersion for each traveler.  I am the person who makes all the preparation and plans for each group that comes with us.

I am a Spanish native speaker, and I was born in Nicaragua, a Central American country. I studied English as a second language at the University of Northern Iowa in the Summer of 2011. After my return to my country, I applied for a job. This is my first full-time job.

By the time that I got the job, I was doing volunteer work in my community and working part time at a school teaching kids to use computers. 

USI: On how many projects have you worked with USI and which one was most memorable?

Bleymir: Our first project in partnership with USI was in May 2014. Two solar systems were installed in two community centers in the town of San Ramon. Both systems were the first ones ever installed in this small town. Since then, four other systems have been installed in schools in rural communities in the county of San Ramon. All six systems have been a learning experience and have been successful.

In each installation, members and leaders of the communities, USI, and SCSRN did an amazing job.

One of my most memorable installation was at Mina Verde 2. This is a very rural community and its school has the same name as the village. The community faced the challenge to help to carry materials for the system on their shoulders, it was a 40 minute walk uphill. People were always excited and happy to know that they were going to have lights at the school. This project opened many opportunities for them.  It was an extraordinary team to work with.  

USI: What impact do the solar installations have on the rural communities of Nicaragua? What future do you see for the communities that you’ve helped?

Bleymir: The lives of people in these communities have been changed in many ways. Access to education has been one of the most valuable inputs to their lives. Many adults and youth in these communities do not know how to read or write, and this project has given them the opportunity to attend night classes. A lot of them quit school because they have to work in agriculture to support their families and children. Now, with access to light at night they can get some education.

Furthermore, teachers can teach a wider variety of lessons. Now, children can have dance lessons and watch movies that can teach them in a more fun way what their prior academic curriculum demands. A lot of these children do not have access to TV or to watch an educational documentary.

Many communities in the very rural areas of Nicaragua have schools as a community center as well. Usually, schools are the best infrastructures that can be found. With solar, people can gather for their activities and communal reunions.

Little by little the new generation in these communities will have access to a better lifestyle where they can have green energy as a tool for daily life.

I strongly believe that education is the only way a community or individuals can grow and improve their own lives.

Why solar?

Bleymir: One of the main reasons why we go solar is because it is one of the best ways to empower communities with clean energy. Another reason is the access to some of this communities is only walking distance or a short horse ride away.

Nicaragua as a country has made some improvements on expanding its grid to power many places that did not have any source of energy, but a lot of these places have roads that make the access much easier or are also very near to towns or cities.

The communities in which the last four systems have been installed are communities that had no access to electricity at all. Some reasons are because there is a lack of roads and long distances to cities.  

We also want to spread the word that solar is a great source that we as human beings can use to fulfill some or our needs.

Article: Andie Migden

Construction of Europe’s largest floating solar panel array is underway on London’s Queen Elizabeth II reservoir. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Five years in planning and due to be finished in early March, more than 23,000 solar panels will be floated on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir near Heathrow and used to generate power for local water treatment plants

On a vast manmade lake on the outskirts of London, work is nearing completion on what will soon be Europe’s largest floating solar power farm – and will briefly be the world’s biggest.

But few are likely to see the 23,000 solar panels on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir at Walton-on-Thames, which is invisible to all but Heathrow passengers and a few flats in neighbouring estates.

“This will be the biggest floating solar farm in the world for a time – others are under construction,” said Angus Berry, energy manager for Thames Water, which owns the site. “We are leading the way, but we hope that others will follow, in the UK and abroad.”

Divers fix anchors onto the bed of the reservoir. The panels are fixed to floats at the water’s edge, and then fed down onto the water.
Divers fix anchors onto the bed of the reservoir. The panels are fixed to floats at the water’s edge, and then fed down onto the water. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Five years in planning and due to be finished in early March, the £6m project will generate enough electricity to power the utility’s local water treatment plants for decades. The energy will help provide clean drinking water to a populace of close to 10 million people in greater London and the south-east of England, a huge and often unrecognised drain on electricity, rather than nearby homes.

Why put solar panels on water? The answer, according to Berry, is that the water is there, and might as well be used for this purpose. Floating panels, covering only about 6% of the reservoir, will have no impact on the ecosystem, he says.

Though waterbirds, including moorhens and gulls, live on the margins, and a thin scum of litter is visible at the shore, the reservoir is not intended as a home to wildlife, and any fish living here are accidental visitors. Eighteen metres deep, it provides water for Londoners in a constantly churning stream. Although most of the population growth in London tends to be towards the east, most of the water still comes from reservoirs to the west of the city.

But future projects to make use of water companies’ reservoirs in order to provide solar power might be in doubt, Berry said.

The current government has slashed subsidies forsolar and wind power. Berry said that this would not affect the QEII project, but might have an effect on whether follow-up projects could go ahead. “We have had to look very closely at the economics of this, at all stages,” he said. “It is not clear what the future economics would be [for other potential projects].”

A similar floating solar farm with around half the capacity of the Thames Water project is being built by water company United Utilities on a reservoir near Manchester. Construction of an even bigger farm – at 13.7MW more than twice the QEII farm – is underway on a reservoir in land-scarce Japan and due to finish in 2018.

The system will cover around one-tenth of the reservoir.
The system will cover around one-tenth of the reservoir. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Putting solar panels on the water for the QEII scheme has not required planning permission, though big arrays of similar panels on land require official sanction. The government has decided to ban farmers who put solar arrays on agricultural land from receiving EU subsidies for the land.

More than 23,000 solar panels will be floated by developer Lightsource Renewable Energy at the reservoir near Walton-on-Thames, representing 6.3MW of capacity, or enough to generate the equivalent electricity consumption of about 1,800 homes.

The reservoir was commissioned in 1962, and remains one of the biggest serving London. Thames Water said that plans for a “super-sewer” under London would not affect the solar power project.

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