“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

tale of two cities“… it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities came back to me when reading today about recent renewable energy policy changes in Britain and France.

The British government announced on Wednesday its plan to cut renewable energy (RE) subsidies. RE generation UK rooftop solarhas doubled in Britain during the last three years, with electricity from solar increasing 60% in the past year alone. Most of this growth is attributed to subsidy support.  Why, then, cut them? David Cameron’s Tory government says that it seeks to bring down consumer electricity bills, which have also risen almost 60% during the last decade. But the Guardian reports that the move will only save 50p a year. The government says that the renewable energy sector no longer needs subsidies to compete; it also admits that the subsidy program has experienced a £1.5bn cost overrun.   According to one RE industry official: “We appear to be entering another dark age where we will return to total fossil fuel reliance, power cuts, low confidence in UK investment, opening the door for fracking activities to maintain energy security.” A season of Darkness indeed. Read more here.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Chunnel, the French government announced yesterday the passage of a new energy sector reform law that willnuclear in france reduce nuclear’s role in the country’s energy mix from 75% to 50% by 2025 and cap its total allowed capacity at the current 63.2 gigawatts. To fill this gap, the renewable energy share of France’s energy pie will increase to 23% by 2020 and 32% by 2030. The new law will reduce French CO2 emissions 40% from 1990 levels by 2030, in line with the EU’s INDC filed with the UNFCCC Secretariat at the end of March.  Just in time for France to welcome the UNFCCC’s 196 parties to “a season of Light” in the City of Light this December for COP21.

Clean Energy to Go Around

Countries, states, and the private sector took center stage last week with an array of energy announcements from around the world.

When visiting the US at the end of June, Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, announced with President Obama that both countries pledged to source 20% of their energy from nonhydro renewables by 2030.  China, when filing its INDC on June 30 with the UNFCCC, kept in line with the joint rousseffannouncement it made last November with the US when pledging to reduce the amount of carbon emitted relative to the size of its economy by 60 to 65% by 2030; it previously had declared that it would reduce it by 40 to 45% by 2029 and is already down 33.8%, so on track to achieve the INDC pledge. Scotland generated 49.8% of its electricity from renewables in 2014, effectively meeting its 2015 target. The country’s next benchmark is 100% renewable by 2020. Scottish wind farms currently produce enough to power some one million U.K. homes for a year and overall renewables make up about 30% of the UK’s total. More than half comes from wind, about a third from hydro, and a much smaller percentage from solar.    A leaked EU Commission paper says that Europe overall is on track to sources 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030.

At the local government level, New York State announced that its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) 2030 targets include a 40% cut in GHGs from 1990 levels and a 50% statewide goal for renewables.  The plan also seeks $5 billion over 10 years to support programs like the NY-Sun solar initiative and the New York Green Bank, and an additional $1.5 billion to promote large-scale solar and wind projects. Some friendly competition for California, given its recent announcement?

On the private side, Google will convert an old coal-fired plant in Alabama to a data center powered by renewable energy. About 46% of Google’s data centers are powered by renewable energy, lagging behind Apple, with 100% clean energy fueling its centers.  BMW is still aiming to convert allbmw of its vehicles to an electric drivetrains.  Bloomberg Business reports that solar power will draw $3.7 trillion in investment through 2040, out of a total of $8 trillion invested in clean energy. That’s almost double the $4.1 trillion that will be spent on coal ($1.6), natural gas ($1.2) and nuclear plants ($1.3). Interestingly, large utility-scale solar will dominate in developing countries while smaller-scale solar will comprise most of the investment in developed countries. And oil and real estate billionaire Philip Anschutz plans to turn his Wyoming cattle ranch into the world’s largest onshore wind farm with 1,000 turbines sited in one of the windiest parts of the country. It is estimated that it would produce more than 3,000 megawatts of power, four times the electricity produced by the Hoover Dam and enough to power every home in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It could also cut carbon emissions by as much as 13 million tons a year. Anschutz’s spokesman, Bill Miller, colorfully put this renewable energy project in perspective: “I just look at it as energy, pure and simple. A wind turbine is just an oil well turned upside down.”


As goes California, so goes the Nation?

California solarJust a month after the U.S. submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the UNFCCC Secretariat, California Governor Jerry Brown has announced new, ambitious GHG emission mitigation goals for the state. While the U.S. is being chided internationally for its INDCs’ lack of mitigation and adaptation “ambition,” California is getting the limelight for stepping up.Brown’s executive order issued on April 29th “sharply speeds up this state’s already ambitious program” to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by 2050 (off the 1990 baseline emissions). This goal, ensconced in California’s first-in-the-nation climate change law, AB32, was viewed as visionary – if not unachievable – when enacted in 2006. Under this week’s order, the state will have the interim goal of reducing emission by 40% – the halfway point – by 2030.

In announcing the new target, Governor Brown highlighted its role in giving more precise direction to the energy industry and the state itself for making investment and regulatory decisions that move one of the top ten economies in the world toward its 2050 goal.

“It’s a real test,” Mr. Brown, a Democrat, said in a speech at an environmental conference in downtown Los Angeles. “Not just for California, not just for America, but for the world. Can we rise above the parochialisms, the ethnocentric perspectives, the immediacy of I-want-I-need, to a vision, a way of life, that is sustainable?”

But of course it comes at a cost. A recent study reports that to reach this new goal, California will need to double the energy efficiency of buildings and industry, source 50-60% of its electricity from wind and solar, and spur a significant increase in hybrid and zero-emission cars. It also projects that doing so will cost each Californian household $14/month.

With these targets, California becomes a major player in the upcoming COP21 negotiations in Paris, in the “ambition” company of the EU. Said Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC executive secretary of the conference, “California’s announcement is a realization and a determination that will gladly resonate with other inspiring actions within the United States and around the globe. It is yet another reason for optimism in advance of the U.N. climate conference in Paris in December.”

For the climate change record book

According to a variety of news sources, several important records were broken in 2014.

2014 hottest year graphHottest year on record.  The Japan Meteorological Association (JMA) reports that 2014 was 0.27°C warmer than the average from 1981 to 2010, and 0.63°C warmer than the 20th century average. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US, and the UK Met Office, also keep track of these climate stats and confirm the JMA’s conclusion.  NOAA just reported that 2014 was 0.5°F above normal, making it the 34th-warmest year for the continental U.S.  As Climate Central titled this news, “the U.S. hot streak is now officially old enough to vote for president as 2014 makes it 18 years of temperatures above the 20th century average.”

As the NYT described it: “Last year was the hottest on earth since record-keeping began in 1880, scientists reported on Friday, underscoring warnings about the risks of runaway greenhouse gas emissions and undermining claims by climate change contrarians that global warming had somehow stopped. Extreme heat blanketed Alaska and much of the western United States last year. Records were set across large areas of every inhabited continent. And the ocean surface was unusually warm virtually everywhere except near Antarctica, the scientists said, providing the energy that fueled damaging Pacific storms.In the annals of climatology, 2014 surpassed 2010 as the warmest year.”

Wind energy increases. Britain’s wind turbines generated enough electricity to power more than 25% of its homes, up 15% from 2013 (comprising 9.3% of the total grid). Germany’s wind power generated more in December than in any previous month.

solar recordsNew solar energy too.  Globally, utility-scale solar installations increased for a fifth, consecutive year. Solar markets in South America and Africa had notable growth, but the largest shares remained in Asia and North America.

Coal demand in China declines.  Chinese coal consumption dropped by around 2.3% in the first eleven months of 2014, compared to the same period in 2013 (and 9% average annual growth between 2000 and 2010). Notably, electricity growth in China has slowed to around half the pace of its economic growth, indicating success at energy efficiency and a transition to less electricity-intensive industrial sectors.