Solar Moving Forward Despite Low Subsidies

Despite relatively low subsidies, especially in comparison to the subsidies awarded to other energy sources, solar has been making it’s way as a valuable source of energy .

Incentives Graph

Graph Used From Baker Report and Think Progress .

The federal government provides incentives for every major energy production market and they exist to bridge the “chasm” between early adopters (about 16%) of a certain market and the majority adopters (about 84%). Crossing the chasm doesn’t necessarily mean all companies in the industry succeed, but that the industry itself succeeds. To get from initial adoption to full scale implementation, federal incentives support new energy resources on average for 30 years, including market control for oil, pipeline availability for natural gas, and dams for hydropower. Incentives provide economies of scale in a long term scenario that offer stability during the adoption process with gradual reductions in incentives as the industry matures.

Solar is at the chasm where continued government incentives are critical in assisting the jump between adoption phases. As it is, incentives for solar have been small compared to fossil fuels, according to a report by the Baker Center, “federal investment in solar technologies has been modest in a long-term histroical context relative to other energy technologies”. But, the incentives solar has received have really aided the industry. The growth of solar over the past two years has come with the federal investment tax credit and state renewable energy standards set in place. In addition to the decreasing PV prices, there’s been a 77% growth in the last 5 years.

This growth is spurring innovation, which in itself stimulates growth. Growth means more opportunity for jobs–the Baker Report estimating between 200,000 and 430,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs coming from the solar industry by 2020. There are already 100,000 Americans working in the solar industry. To top it off, solar provides more jobs per megawatt hour than any other energy industry.

Solar has huge potential in the U.S. Rooftop solar alone could provide 20% of America’s energy needs, which would help decrease impacts of price and supply vulnerabilities from fossil fuel supplies. Solar could be an important addition to the American energy portfolio, but continuing incentives will be a crucial factor in perpetuating this.

Incentives are used to move an industry up the adoption curve. Solar has come this far despite relatively low subsidies; imagine what it could accomplish if the federal government channeled incentives usually given to the fossil fuel industry into solar.

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If Not Your Backyard, Then Whose?

There are a multitude of things people don’t want in their backyards, and for good reason…chemical plants, coal fired power plants, nuclear waste facilities, incinerators, wind turbines, solar farms…

Sustainable Sunflowers

Wait, what?

Let’s back up a minute.

Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) is a movement that gained serious momentum in the 1980’s and represents strong community oriented opposition to certain types of development.

This morning I read an article about NIMBY movements going global, and how most of these movements were strongly opposed to the industrial projects (power plants, chemical plants, landfills etc.), and to my great surprise, the renewable energy industry.  The article went on to describe that ‘young’, ‘controversial’ industries are more subject to NIMBY resistance than traditional businesses.

I read this sentence not once, but three times. The way this sentence reads to me is that people would rather have “traditional” forms of energy–like coal–in their backyards instead of this newfangled energy we like to call wind and solar.

In theory, NIMBY a good system. No neighborhood should be subjected to the negative consequences of industry–air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution–so close to their homes and families.

No neighborhood. 

The fact of the matter is, this isn’t the case. Chemical plants, coal fired power plants, nuclear waste facilities, and incinerators do go in someone’s backyard, and that backyard usually belongs to minority neighborhoods with low socioeconomic statuses, and little political clout.

Environmental racism, policies that disproportionately heave environmental hazards on minority communities, is a large part of the NIMBY movement, and at the root of environmental disparities.

If communities are shouting, “Not in my backyard!” to wind and solar projects, will that mean these projects will move to low income neighborhoods? If wind and solar energy is sidled off to low income neighborhoods, is that preferable to a power plant polluting poorer communities despite the mechanisms behind it?

Will large scale wind and solar projects even end up in low income neighborhoods? Does this mean dirty energy will continue to prevail as we are accustomed to it as our main energy sustenance?

I realize people might think wind and solar farms are an eyesore. I personally find them mesmerizing and beautiful, though it’s not my opinion that matters at this moment. The fact is, we need to obtain energy some how and if we’re not developing and progressing in the energy sector, we’re at a dirty standstill–one that puts minorities and low income neighborhoods at a disproportionate risk to environmental hazards–to power our iPhones and Macbooks.

Not In My Backyard is a powerful movement, one that is important to protecting communities from harmful environmental risks. If you’re opposing wind and solar farms in your neighborhood, that is, of course, your choice, but you could do a lot worse. Your opposition could mean that these projects are being sidled off onto poor communities–and that’s practically a good scenario–in comparison to what could happen which is dirty “traditional” energy continuing to ravish the energy sector and communities not being able to resist it being in their backyard.

Thanks to this environmental justice article for supplying a good read and valuable information.

Heat Waves, and Floods, and Droughts, Oh My!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report concluding that climate change will make heat waves, floods, droughts and other natural disasters not only more common, but more intense, in the coming decades. These impending disasters will (hopefully) force nations to rethink the way they deal with natural disasters not only as they occur, but taking preventative measures that could save lives, money and resources.

The IPPC report notes that on a global scale, frequency and intensity of daily temperature extremes will be seen in the coming century. Meaning that it is very likely the length and virulence of heat waves will also increase. Imagine those historically hot days that come around once every few decades, and visualize them happening once a year.

Though the IPCC report found greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have “likely” caused more extreme heat waves and storm surges, it is less sure about the link between man-made climate change and increased floods as river flood causes are complicated to begin with. It’s no secret, however; global carbon emissions rose a record amount last year.

The IPCC report states it is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the coming decades, and though the report doesn’t concretely link man-made climate change with increased floods, I would bet heavier precipitation would lead to increased flooding, especially in low lying areas and areas built in floodplains. Furthermore, a recent study in Nature found that the increased greenhouse gases from human actions are driving heavier rainfall patterns in the high latitudes and tropical regions. Though tropical cyclones may hold steady or even decrease in their frequency, those that do form are likely to be more virulent and mixed with rising sea levels could make for disastrous consequences for low lying island states.

Perhaps the biggest fear with worsening climate predictions might undoubtedly be droughts. With a steadily growing population to feed, 7 billion to be exact, food scarcity might become problematic…to say the least. And with the population expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050, flooding might look trivial compared to millions of starving people.

Of course, critics and skeptics question the IPCC models used to make climate change predictions. But the proof is in the pudding: from Hurricane Katrina, to historic droughts in Moscow and Texas, to rising sea levels swallowing islands whole, I say it doesn’t matter what the skeptics crow. We can see these changes with our naked eyes.

Since anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions aren’t going to disappear overnight, and these climate changes are going to rage along despite our deepest hopes, what can be done?

A preemptive strike is probably our best bet at this time: spending time and money taking action now, instead of waiting til the damage is done. Beef up defenses in vulnerable areas–early warning systems, better land use planning, protecting and restoring buffer areas (like wetlands and marshes), weather proofing infrastructure–and continue taking measurable steps to reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

It would be foolish not to anticipate and act in accordance with the changes we know are coming. Instead of criticizing the IPCC, we should be thankful we even have the opportunity to plan defensive, and preventative strategies, lest we incur worldwide devastation.

Hope Sign

Could Vanishing Tax Credits Dismantle Green Energy?

It would be nice to believe that people take steps to greening their homes for the sole purpose of bettering the environment and not because of financial gain.

Solar Panel Installation

Unfortunately, the evidence is indisputable: more people go green if they get a tax break.

Federal tax incentives play a huge role in jump starting green energy movements. Now, there’s a good change they’ll be cut back, or scraped completely which could have disastrous consequences for energy efficiency progress. For instance, this year, residential tax credits for energy efficient doors, windows and appliances was cut from $1,500 down to $500 ending with a 16% decline in the sale of windows and doors. This incentive–along with a $2,000 dollar credit for builders to construct homes that use 50% less energy than the original standard–is set to expire at the end of this year.

Even if Congress extends these, energy incentives are at risk, especially if Republicans gain control of the White House in the 2012 elections as, “The classical conservative position is that credits and incentives for renewable energy or energy efficiency are not good policy,” says Clint Stretch, director of legislative affairs at Deloitte & Touche.

Many of the Republican presidential candidates have plans to decrease or eliminate tax credits, setting an ominous precedence for renewable energy. According to Stretch, even if President Obama is reelected, “there is still going to be a push to take incentives out of the tax code in the context of tax reform.”

It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of energy tax incentives. For instance, is the 30% credit for solar energy installations provided by federal government the reason why solar installations have exploded 800%? Or is it because solar energy awareness has increased while the cost of solar panels has decreased?

Furthermore, tax incentives are currently structured so that some tax payers may receive a credit where as others might not. Many businesses weren’t able to take advantage of the 30% credit for solar system installations because they had no profits to show with the current economic climate–and businesses must claim the tax credit against profits. To alleviate this problem, Congress allowed businesses in this position to get a grant instead of credit, though this too expires at the end of the year.

84% of energy production in the US still comes from fossil fuels with only a sad 8.2% of energy coming from renewables. It seems if the US is actually interested in moving along the path of energy efficiency, nixing energy efficiency tax incentives is a bit preemptive and may seriously divert the potential of transitioning to green energy.

For more information, check out the article in The Fiscal Times.

Do As The Michiganans Do

Michigan Logo

Perhaps it’s time for California to take a leaf out of Michigan’s book when it comes to crawling out of the hole we like to call: the recession.

In an article in Capitol Weekly, they suggest just that the best solution won’t be fixing California’s problems one at a time, but tying them together, adhering public sector companies, private sector investments and university research.

This approach has been working in Michigan where the state established Centers of Energy Excellence to use the availability of raw materials to create lithium ion batteries, better battery technology and–perhaps most important–jobs…all at once. With a troubling budget crisis threatening to dismantle public education, almost 12% unemployment rate, and Occupy movements condemning growing economic disparities,  it’s arguable California can employ the same technique as Michigan but with solar energy.

California–the sunshine state–has a raw material of its very own…solar energy. Not only that, but solar energy is limitless, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. It could very well be a ray of hope for the California economy.

The state however, needs private investment in the solar energy field. Though the Bay Area already wields a number of solar energy companies, for this trifecta to work solar energy companies need to thrive state-wide. Though grants, tax credits and solar subsidies, California could entice more solar energy companies to set up forts throughout the state.

This funding won’t just go to any solar energy company, but specifically those who have secured the participation of California’s state schools. Involvement from state schools ensures continued solar energy research and growth. It also reiterates the importance of public education, educates tomorrow’s solar energy leaders, and validates the importance of funding public education whose budgets have all but run dry.

The intertwining of the public, private, and education sectors of the state might aid in California declaring solar energy standards for the future, and also help keep the state accountable for those goals as so many parties have a hand in these plans. These sectors are all struggling. Why not initiate a plan that can not only boost the economy, but stimulate environmentally safe and sustainable energy practices?

Hey, if Michigan can do it…

From Plastic To Glass: 5 Reasons To Make The Switch

In a throw away society, people rarely think about what happens after they toss their plastic water bottle in a trash can instead of the recycling. After many years of personally using plastic, I decided to make a small change to a more environmentally friendly life style.

In my first attempts at a more sustainable daily life, I first used a Nalgene bottle. Like most people, upon learning more about the dangers of PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) I retired my trusty UC Santa Cruz Nalgene. Shortly there after, I jumped on the Kleen Kanteen train. Though I still use my Kleen Kanteen from time to time, I decided to shift towards a different kind of reusable water bottle, a corked, 750 ml, glass bottle.

Glass Water Bottle

I would argue using a reusable water bottle of any kind would be preferable to plastic, but here are the top five reasons why I’ve chosen glass instead of plastic or stainless steel:

1. In order to be more environmentally friendly, cut down on the petroleum used to manufacture plastic and to decrease the amount of waste in landfills, I have chosen to opt out of using plastic water bottles. Though recycling receptacles are readily available in most public places such as the park or the mall, and found in most homes and neighborhoods, plastic rarely finds its way to the recycling center. According to an article in Time Magazine, in 2005 the US produced 28 million tons of plastic waste, 27 million tons of which ended up in landfills. A mere one million tons of plastic was recycled, despite recycling containers, despite children being taught to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, and despite many peoples rational that they should use plastic for the sole reason it is recyclable.

2. Plastic was created to be a durable material. Because of this, it’s life span is very long. Approximately 1,000 years of durability. If you think to a thousand years from now, our children and children’s children, will still be burdened by the waste we’ve left in landfills. According to TIME magazine, plastic now take up 12% of our trash in comparison to the 1% in 1960; these bottles are taking up space in landfills that could be designated to other waste.

3. Dangers to my health. When I used plastic water bottles, I would leave them in my car, taken them to school, the gym, work, and use them for days on end. My thinking being of course, that if I was going to use plastic, I was going to get the most out of each bottle. Little did I know, by doing this, I could have been putting myself at unnecessary risk of PCBs. By exposing plastic bottles to heat and normal wear and tear, harmful PCBs were leaching into the water I was drinking.

4. As a recent college graduate, saving money is always a priority. I found myself buying cases of water from Costco, or just getting a bottle or two a day at the store. Say I would buy a case a month, 5 dollars a month, for a year that cost me $60. Now that number won’t break the bank, but if I was buying a bottle of water day from the store at two dollars a day, I was spending $720 a year! Buying a Brita filter for my fridge cost about $15 dollars. Filling up my glass bottle with water from the Brita paid for itself in a matter of days.

5. Glass is an expensive material, however unlike plastic, it can be reused multiple times. When exposed to heat, it does not leach out any undesirable chemicals into my drinking water making it safer for me. In countries like Denmark, refilling glass containers is actually preferable to using plastic containers. In poorer countries like Brazil, refilling glass bottles for things like soda, is cheaper and recommended instead of A) making new glass bottles or B) using plastic.

Reusing glass saves about 315 additional kilograms of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere from the production of new glass. And drinking out of a glass bottle instead of a water bottle is more fun and interesting! It’s a great conversation starter and you can explain to others why you’ve chosen to be more environmentally conscious by making the switch to a safe reusable drinking bottle!