In the rollicking solar industry of the past decade, change and upheaval have been the norm. There have been attacks on net metering, trade wars, technology developments, not to mention perpetual uncertainty about the federal Investment Tax Credit.
Yet through the turbulence there has been one constant: Prices for solar hardware have continued their steady trajectory downward. In February 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that the average cost of solar panels had dropped 60 percent since the beginning of 2010. This consistent drop in module prices — one that is continuing apace — has been accompanied by falling prices for inverters and trackers.
While critical, the cost of hardware is only part of the story — arguably, it’s less than half of the story. According to the DOE, soft costs account for 64 percent of the total price of U.S. residential solar systems.
Stubborn soft costs
The trends in soft costs — which refer to everything from customer acquisition and supply chain expenses to taxes, fees and labor — are not nearly as encouraging as cost trends in hardware. For example, a recent report from GTM Research, U.S. PV System Pricing H2: System Pricing, Breakdowns and Forecasts, found that customer acquisition costs actually grew by 10 percent in the second half of 2016.
This challenge is not a mystery to those in the industry. The DOE’s SunShot Initiative, for example, has a multi-pronged program designed at lowering soft costs. One strategy SunShot employs is supporting business-model and technology innovators able to cut through some of the inefficiencies that add costs to solar.
Both SunShot and venture capitalists have provided funding for entrepreneurs who have utilized software and e-commerce as a weapon in the battle against soft costs. Companies like EnergySage and Geostellar, which both use online platforms to reduce customer acquisition costs, have attracted millions in funding.
Another SunShot grant recipient, EnergyBin, is also harnessing the power of software and e-commerce to create an online business-to-business marketplace that could further reduce soft costs and improve the economics of solar companies.
The concept behind EnergyBin is straightforward: to create a B2B centralized members-only online marketplace where industry players — everyone from large manufacturers and developers to small installers — can buy and sell new and used components quickly and easily.
From IT to solar
The concept behind EnergyBin has already succeeded in the IT world. EnergyBin’s parent company, Broker Exchange, and sister company, BrokerBin, were founded in 2002 as a centralized marketplace where companies big and small can buy and sell routers, servers, motherboards and other computer hardware.
Moving from IT to solar felt like a natural evolution. “We were looking for an early-stage market, rapid growth, [one that is] scalable, and most importantly…the emergence of a B2B broker market for new, excess, used, refurbished and vintage components,” said Doug Westra, EnergyBin’s CFO.
Although BrokerBin has 3,500 member companies in 63 countries and more than 12 million items for sale today, “We see the renewable and solar marketplace opportunity as big, if not bigger, than the IT side,” added Westra.
The solar industry suffers from some expensive supply chain and communication inefficiencies that a centralized marketplace could help address. “What I saw happening in the industry was project estimators and procurement teams spending large amounts of time working their network to obtain what they believed to be the best possible component price for their estimates,” said Keith Bluford, senior vice president of business development at EnergyBin, who previously worked for solar developer Sunora Energy Solutions.
“They believed they were getting the best pricing, but were they, based on having limited vision into the overall supply chain?” he said. “There was no real way for organizations to efficiently and cost-effectively communicate with anyone other than those in their siloed network to buy or sell solar components.”
Promoting transparency and a second life
With a centralized marketplace that includes a critical mass of stakeholders in the solar supply chain, transparency around pricing, location and availability becomes possible and information silos can be broken down. When the marketplace is made up of both industry behemoths and mom-and-pop installers, a centralized platform means all members, no matter their size, should benefit from the visibility and access to the entire solar supply chain.
There are other reasons that a quickly growing — yet still very young — solar industry can benefit from a more efficient supply chain and communication channel. The dramatic decline of solar hardware costs has led to a global building binge of new solar projects. But as the industry ages, there will be a large market for used equipment.
“From utility to residential, there is a developing marketplace for what happens with the second life of components,” said Bluford. Given the volatility of the solar market, the issue of the second life is complicated by companies that have gone out of business. Plenty of installers chose equipment from companies that no longer exist, and a marketplace that connects them to suppliers of used equipment can be a big benefit. That’s especially true when those used components come with added value.
“Like in other markets, when you have equipment that is coming back for a second life, there is going to be a refurbished marketplace and vendors that will provide warranties around that equipment,” said Bluford.
A tool that can evolve
EnergyBin’s first priority after launch was to ensure easy community-wide communication between buyers and sellers, such as being able to create a list of components that you are looking to buy or sell and easily broadcast it to the entire community. Now the focus is on more advanced searches and keeping information current.
“We know those are keys to the platform and the success of the community,” Bluford said. “People want to know when they’re looking for something that the inventory is current, and people want to know they can easily upload and manage inventory that they are looking to monetize. The tool has to be intuitive and easy to use.”
But just as the solar industry is quickly evolving, Bluford insists that EnergyBin will be every bit as nimble — thanks in large part to the lessons learned at BrokerBin as well as the guidance and assistance of EnergyBin’s solar industry advisory board and flagship member companies.
Other features are ready to be deployed. At the moment, the company is concentrating resources and attention on improving the platform’s technical specification library, market intelligence database and reporting.
Another coming feature is called “part history,” which has proven to be very valuable on BrokerBin. “You can click on an icon or graph…[to] pop up the history of that part from 30, 60, 90 days out, detailing the supply and demand for that specific part as well as the pricing and how many people have searched for it,” said Renee Kuehl, EnergyBin’s vice president of sales and marketing. Other coming features could include geolocation and enhanced mobile capabilities.
The EnergyBin platform is positioning itself to be part of a larger evolution in the solar marketplace toward increased sophistication, efficiency and stronger connections. As that happens, soft costs should move downward, more in parallel with the costs of modules and inverters.
“It’s a paradigm shift in how the industry is doing business today, which is in silos,” said Bluford. “This is a shift to having a centralized community and a platform that provides the tools necessary for all members of the supply chain to communicate directly with each other. It’s really about bringing the solar supply chain together under one network and changing how they’re doing business today, which will ultimately affect how efficient they are and push down the soft costs in a number of areas.”
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Former Texas Governor Rick Perry kicked off his confirmation hearing to lead the Department of Energy this morning by reversing his position on eliminating the agency.
“My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” Perry said. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”
Perry committed to pursuing a true all-of-the-above energy plan, including the advancement of renewables. In another significant policy reversal, he said he believes humans do play some role in influencing the climate. Perry also underscored that he will protect science and support research to bring new technologies to market.
President-elect Donald Trump may have other plans, however.
Hours before Perry made his comments to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, The Hill published an article on Trump’s proposal to slash government spending, including dramatic cuts to the DOE.
The Trump team’s budget blueprint, informed by The Heritage Foundation, would “roll back funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels, eliminate the Office of Electricity, eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and scrap the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” The Hill reports.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) was the first to question Perry on the Trump budget proposal, which he seemed to have little or no awareness of.
“Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true,” Perry joked. He added that he views supercomputing as “incredibly important for this country’s security,” and reiterated his commitment to making decisions based on sound scientific and economic evidence.
Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) brought up the Trump budget again, noting the proposed DOE cuts would make it nearly impossible to pursue an all-of-the-above strategy. Perry responded that perhaps the Trump team “will have the same experience I had and forget that they said that,” referring to the time he forgot the DOE’s name during a debate, while vowing to cut the agency.
Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) also raised the issue of Trump’s proposed DOE budget cuts during Perry’s hearing. Perry said he has a history of defending budgets from his time serving as a budget appropriator in Texas. He said he would also defend the functions of the Office of Electricity, even if those efforts took a different name.
“I am committed to the continuation of using brilliant scientists, the private sector and universities in collaborating on finding solutions to challenges…whether on renewables or use of resources in a more efficient, safe, effective manner,” Perry said, while being questioned by Sen. Duckworth.
“We’re counting on you,” Hirono said during the hearing.
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The U.S. is losing the race on clean energy innovation, despite President Obama’s efforts to boost competitiveness in the sector.
According to a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance study, China invested $287.5 billion in clean energy in 2016, while the U.S. spent $58.6 billion. Earlier this month, China’s energy agency announced a plan to spend more than $360 billion on renewable power sources like solar and wind through 2020.
As Donald Trump assumes the presidency, he has an opportunity to improve on President Obama’s clean energy legacy — and possibly create thousands of jobs in the process. But it’s unclear if he sees this as an opportunity at all.
The word “innovation” came up numerous times during Trump’s transition into the White House. “We want you to keep going with the incredible innovation,” the president-elect told Silicon Valley tech leaders, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, at a meeting in December.
At the same meeting, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, said, “I’m super excited about the possibility that this could be the innovations administration.”
Bill Gates, who recently launched a $1 billion clean energy technology fund, said he emphasized there is “opportunity for innovation in not only energy, but also medicine and education,” at a recent meeting with Trump.
Earlier this month, several lawmakers participated in a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show, where Republican speakers underscored their party’s commitment to “innovation policy.” At the event, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) noted that Trump doesn’t have a strong personal interest in technology, but has made a point of surrounding himself with talented, tech-savvy people.
And when it comes to Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Energy, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, some supporters have said they believe innovation will be the hallmark of his tenure, if he is approved. In the past, Perry has said that energy innovation, including in the areas of energy storage and solar power, is one of “the most exciting” developments in the country. At his confirmation hearing this morning, Perry pledged support for DOE research and clean energy programs, although his comments were overshadowed by a budget cut proposal from Trump headquarters.
While it remains unclear what the Trump administration and new Republican-led Congress will ultimately prioritize, the messaging around invention and technology in the early days of the Trump transition may come as welcome sign to many in the clean energy sector. Could the new government’s interest in growing businesses and creating jobs be a boon for clean energy after all?
Asian countries out-invest the U.S.
A recent paper released by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) argues that next-generation energy technologies are fueling economic growth at home and expanding exports abroad. However, the U.S. is falling behind in the race to capitalize on the burgeoning clean energy market.
According to the paper, 11 other countries around the world spend more on energy R&D as a percentage of GDP than does the United States. China spends three times as much.
Private investments in energy innovation have been weak as well. Venture capital and private equity investment in American renewable-energy companies, for instance, peaked in 2008 at $5.4 billion and dropped to $2.2 billion in 2015. Just a handful of U.S. companies have raised enough private capital to develop advanced nuclear reactors and carbon-capture technologies, while China offers strong support on all of these technology fronts.
A separate study from Bloomberg New Energy Finance found the overall cleantech investment gap to be even more dramatic. China spent $287.5 billion on clean energy in 2016, while the U.S. spent $58.6 billion.
“The United States is losing this race because Asian countries are out-investing the United States and dictating the terms of competition, often flooding the market with low-cost, unimaginative products,” the ITIF report states.
For the U.S. to regain its leadership position, ITIF calls on Trump and the 115th Congress to “make energy innovation a high priority and address the obstacles to developing and deploying new technologies.” The paper goes on to list how this could be achieved, with a particular focus on changes at the Department of Energy.
But does Trump’s view of innovation include making these types of reforms?
“In the four years since he was elected in 2012, I would say Obama viewed his legacy as climate and clean energy,” said former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, speaking at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) annual meeting last fall. “We will not see…a continuation of the Obama legacy. Then the question becomes, how much is it a reversal as opposed to some kind of a course correction?”
How to make the DOE more effective
The Trump transition got off to a rocky start at the DOE with the circulation of a controversial 74-question survey. The questionnaire hinted at the priorities of Trump’s energy transition team, which is led by Thomas Pyle, who runs the Institute for Energy Research and the American Energy Alliance — both of which are primarily funded by fossil-fuel interests.
Several questions asked for information about the status of the DOE’s loan program; there was a question about technologies or products that have emerged from DOE programs that are commercially available without any subsidy; and there was a question about how the U.S. can optimize its advanced nuclear reactor research and development activities. These and other inquiries suggest the Trump administration will reform the DOE’s investments in emerging clean technologies, including electric vehicles and renewables.
According to sources familiar with the matter, the first transition meeting at the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewables focused on three topics: consumer choice, the proper role of the government, and how the DOE determines what to work on. It’s unclear what will emerge from those discussions following this weekend’s inauguration.
Changes at the DOE are significant for the overall clean energy industry because the barriers to market entry are so high, said David Hart, a senior fellow at ITIF. New technologies often have to compete with commodity providers, which means they have to hit stringent price targets. They also have to prove they’re highly reliable, which means the innovation process can take a long time.
The DOE has played a key role in both the early-stage development and commercialization phases of today’s clean energy technologies. For instance, more than half of all solar cell efficiency records have been directly funded by the DOE’s SunShot Initiative. Furthermore, SunShot’s incubator program supported 112 companies with $158 million, and those companies went on to raise more than $3.4 billion from separate sources — a $22 return for $1 in public investment.
But DOE’s work could still be better.
“The DOE isn’t as effective as it could be at playing these various roles, but the Obama administration tried things that were creative, and I think the objective should be to build on those efforts…and expand the level of investment,” said Hart.
One mission the Trump administration could take on is to reorient the national laboratories to pursue commercially relevant RD&D. According to ITIF, that requires setting up “lab-to-market” programs to turn research results into practical applications. It also requires giving labs more autonomy. To facilitate that, the next Energy Secretary should increase the scale of Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) funding from 4 percent to 6 percent of total lab spending.
Hart said that ARPA-E, which enjoys bipartisan support, should also be maintained and expanded. The Trump administration should also do more to encourage private investment in energy innovation. Venture capital investment has receded, while corporate expenditure on both in-house and external R&D has stagnated. “A priority for the new Congress and administration should be to reverse these trends,” according to the ITIF report.
The Trump administration can also improve on programs that floundered under Obama. According to Hart, the DOE didn’t do enough technology demonstrations during Obama’s tenure, particularly with respect for nuclear and carbon-capture technologies. Those technologies were likely neglected because they are particularly rife with challenges, Hart said — “But I don’t think we can give up on them.”
It could also continue matching supply push policies with demand pull policies, to bring more technology into the market. The Department of Defense and the General Services Administration have been leaders on this. “Subsidies of infinite duration are not acceptable,” the report states. “The creation of temporary protected market niches, however, may be vital in bringing costs down while production ramps up, and in providing working capital to early-stage firms.”
ITIF isn’t the only group urging Trump to help American win the energy innovation race. A group of graduate students wrote a letter to Trump this week, calling on the new president to recognize the economic power of clean energy, and continue to offer policy support. Academics have made similar appeals.
“During this time of transitioning federal policy objectives, I and many of my fellow business students hope to see the Trump administration maintain if not strengthen our country’s commitment to progress in the energy industry,” said Kristofer Holz, a graduate student at the Yale School of Management and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “DOE RD&D programs that support entrepreneurs and attract private capital by de-risking novel technologies are critical to maintaining American prominence in the global cleantech conversation, launching the innovative companies that many MBAs hope to work for upon graduation, and helping the Trump administration revitalize American manufacturing.”
Innovation from a conservative viewpoint
Following Trump’s election, many people in the clean energy industry made the case that the sector would not be affected by the Trump administration. Clean energy is on a roll, as President Obama detailed in a recent paper. Clean energy is also creating jobs — so what’s not to love?
On this, it’s important to remember that some conservative groups have a different view of what innovation means.
Following Trump’s election, The Heartland Institute’s Paul Driessen cheered unleashing America’s “energy, innovation, and job-creation capabilities — by reducing taxes and regulations and appointing agency directors who can and will review, revise, and reject the economy- and job-killing regulatory edicts that ignored real-world science.”
Devin Hartman, electricity policy manager at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit promoting limited government, said he was encouraged by the “pro-market” disposition of Trump’s appointees and the opportunity to promote competitive energy markets by unwinding the subsidy regime. “But to do so, they’ll have to avoid the temptation of adopting counter-industrial policy that picks different winners than the current administration,” he wrote in an email.
Ultimately, this pro-market stance could make it easier for the U.S. to adopt a price on carbon, Hartman added. “While the near-term outlook for emission pricing is bleak, if we strengthen competitive markets in the meantime, we’ll be in much better position for the market to respond effectively once emissions pricing becomes reality,” he wrote.
Many economists believe putting a price on carbon will spur innovation in clean energy.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a libertarian advocacy group, has also listed innovation as a top priority. Last month, the group issued a memo calling for Trump to support new technologies by committing to 1) do no harm; 2) be patient; and 3) embrace change. That prescription did not extend to clean energy, however.
“President Trump should also avoid seeking to win favor with the tech sector by offering federal ‘help’ through federal subsidies, favors, and steering, such as President Obama’s ‘manufacturing hubs,’” according to the memo.
Obama launched a network of manufacturing hubs in 2012 with the aim of promoting cutting-edge technologies for the next generation of manufacturing jobs. The program has been instrumental in advancing clean energy, such as with the development of advanced semiconductor components and advanced composites. Last June, Obama announced a new Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute in the Pacific Northwest to accelerate the development and adoption of advanced sensors, data analytics and controls. It’s unclear if or how the new administration will support such programs.
In addition to opposing the manufacturing hubs, CEI rejects the notion that there is a “clean energy race” taking place between the U.S. and China. In a recent blog post, CEI’s William Yeatman challenged a New York Times story that reported China’s “bold claim on leadership” in clean energy with a plan to spend more than $360 billion on renewable power sources like solar and wind through 2020.
“Unfortunately for the green energy industry, political winds are quick to change. As costs mount, politicians will rescind the government’s support, and markets will crash,” Yeatman wrote. “When the renewable energy bubble bursts, the global industry leader will be the biggest loser. With that in mind, the supposed race with China for green technological supremacy is one the U.S. would be wise to forfeit.”
As he takes office, it’s unclear if Trump even believes there’s a clean energy innovation competition worth trying to win. But reports suggest that the White House may back away from the sector. According to the website The Hill, the administration is considering slashing funding for nuclear physics and completely eliminating the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Office of Electricity, and the Office of Fossil Energy.
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Last summer, First Solar and California grid operator CAISO ran a set of tests to show that utility-scale solar PV, instead of being a disruptive influence on the power grid, could actually help stabilize it.
Over a series of days in August, First Solar slightly curtailed power output at a 300-megawatt solar farm in California, enabled its array of inverters, and plugged into CAISO’s system. It then orchestrated the plant’s output to follow CAISO’s automatic generation control (AGC) signals, respond to its frequency regulation commands, and use inverters for voltage regulation, power factor regulation and reactive power control.
The results, according to a report released last week, showed that First Solar was able to meet, and sometimes exceed, the frequency regulation response usually provided by natural-gas-fired peaker plants. First Solar was also able to provide inverter-based services throughout the day — and possibly even at night.
It turned in a respectable performance matching CAISO’s wholesale market price signals — even when clouds appeared on the afternoon of the second day of testing, reducing First Solar’s capacity to shift its load.
All told, the data from CAISO, First Solar and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) indicates that a utility-scale solar farm, equipped with standard inverters and software controls, can serve to smooth out grid fluctuations from the solar itself or from other sources.
And for California, a state with 9,000 megawatts of transmission-connected solar and plans for 20,000 megawatts more by 2030, that could be a valuable resource. “If PV-generated power can offer a supportive product that benefits the power system and is economic for PV power plant owners and customers, this functionality should be recognized and encouraged,” the report noted.
Utility-scale solar PV is already causing California some grid challenges, in the form of the duck curve — a deep midday drop in net load driven by lots of solar flooding onto the grid, and a steep ramp-up starting in the late afternoon that extends into evening as solar fades away.
CAISO is also experiencing “periods of oversupply conditions, especially pronounced during weekends when electricity demand is low and renewable production is high.” Currently, when faced with potentially destabilizing conditions like this, CAISO has no choice but to curtail renewable power.
“Significant levels of renewables curtailment took place during certain days of the spring of 2016,” the report noted, including one day in late April when more than 2,000 megawatts of renewable generation had to be taken offline.
Given the alternative of curtailment, operators of utility-scale solar may find it advantageous to curtail power slightly in advance, in order to provide “headroom” to move up and down to meet grid needs. That’s what First Solar did on two days in August, and the data shows that it was able to follow CAISO’s AGC signal and provide “fast and accurate AGC performance…at different solar resource conditions.”
The only blips came in the afternoon, when clouds passed over the plant, reducing First Solar’s output and shrinking the headroom needed to maneuver. “However, even during these periods the plant was demonstrating good AGC performance by closely following the commanded set point,” according to the report.
Where PV and inverters really shine, however, is in frequency regulation, with inverters that can respond much more quickly than spinning generators. “The plant demonstrated fast and accurate frequency-response performance for different droop settings (3% and 5%) under various solar resource conditions for both under and over-frequency events,” the report found.
CAISO has been increasing its payouts for frequency regulation over the past year, in part to manage the grid instabilities that come with an increasing share of intermittent wind and solar power.
In fact, looking at the test data, “a conclusion can be made that regulation accuracy by PV plant is about 24-30 points better than fast gas turbine technologies.” CAISO is working on implementing national rules that require grid operators to reward fast-responding frequency regulation assets, such as grid-tied batteries, electric vehicles, fast demand response, or, in this case, solar farm inverters, and “data from these tests will be used by the CAISO in future ancillary service market design,” the report noted.
Most of the PV control capabilities used by First Solar and CAISO are technically feasible today and “a few areas throughout the world have already started to request or require PV power plants to provide some of them,” the report said. One example is Hawaii, with utility-integrated projects like the ones that SolarCity and AES Energy Storage are building on the island of Kauai.
“In the United States, utility-scale PV plants are rarely recognized as having these capabilities and typically are not used by utilities or system operators for electrical grid services.” That’s largely because the economic and regulatory models for rewarding it aren’t in place yet.
That’s important, because the kinds of tasks First Solar performed last summer required it to curtail overall output, to offer some “headroom” to make changes according to CAISO’s commands. For example, it curtailed output by 30 megawatts, or about 10 percent, to give it maneuverability to follow CAISO’s AGC signal — although the report noted that “relatively small and short-term energy storage” could help mitigate cloud impact and other uncertainties in that process.
There are examples of utilities rewarding solar and wind power for curtailing their power based on AGC signals. The Public Service Company of Colorado (PSCO), for example, can use wind reserves, which sometimes make up 60 percent of generation in its system, as an ancillary service for frequency regulation, the report noted. “Similar services can be provided by curtailed PV power plants in California; however, regulatory, market, and operational issues need to be resolved for this to become possible.”
First Solar also had to curtail output to provide frequency regulation, although just how much it would need to curtail would depend on what its service might be worth in CAISO’s coming market redesign.
CAISO, NREL and First Solar are planning to explore the “economic and/or contractual incentives to maximize production and not hold back production to provide reliability services” as one of the next steps in the research.
Join GTM for actionable conversations on the future of electricity in our nation’s most innovative energy state. California’s Distributed Energy Future 2017 will be held in San Francisco, March 8-9. Learn more here.
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The confirmation hearing of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), started yesterday.
Pruitt’s LinkedIn page describes him as “a national leader in the cause to restore the proper balance of power between the states and federal government. […] Scott filed the first lawsuit challenging the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, is a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda, and is leading a multistate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Dodd-Frank financial law.”
Pruitt joins Ben Carson at HUD, Rick Perry at the Department of Energy, and Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education in having rather unorthodox views regarding the direction of the government agencies they could potentially lead.
The American Farm Bureau and Jeb Bush endorse Pruitt. The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, “an evangelical organization with a tangled web of corporate sponsors, including by foundations reportedly funded by the U.S. oil-billionaire Koch brothers,” is also an endorser, according to reports in Quartz.
The science director at The Heartland Institute, a vehemently free-market conservative think tank, writes: “I worked very hard from 1968 to 1971 to convince President Nixon to establish an environmental protection agency because of the past damage to our environment. However, the time is long past to take down an agency that has become a wholly owned subsidiary of anti-capitalist environmental zealots.”
Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, sees things differently, according to this release: “[Pruitt is] unfit and unprepared to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and can’t justify his career full of attacks on the clean air and water protections he’s supposed to uphold. He even forgot to immediately say ‘to protect the environment’ when asked to explain what the EPA administrator’s role is.”
“Republicans only need 50 votes to confirm [Pruitt], and there have been no signs of GOP defections,” according to political news website The Hill.
Green Charge Networks named Fawad Khan as VP of marketing. Previously, he was VP of marketing at an undisclosed “stealth” firm. Sean Kiernan, formerly of SunEdison, joined Green Charge as VP and general manager of solar-plus-storage. Part of immense independent power producer Engie, Green Charge claims to be “the largest provider of commercial energy storage in the U.S. with more than 55 megawatt-hours of commercial energy storage projects in operation or under construction.”
JLM Energy, a renewable energy technology firm, added Ardes Johnson as VP of strategic initiatives. Johnson recently served as director of sales at Tesla Energy, and before that, as VP of sales for SolarWorld. Johnson will focus on projects including utility-scale solar-plus-storage. As we’ve reported, JLM Energy offers a portfolio of advanced energy solutions including both battery systems and control systems for demand management.
John Stanton, SolarCity’s executive VP and regulatory counsel for seven years, is now CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure. Stanton previously served with the Solar Energy Industries Association, the National Environmental Trust, and the U.S. EPA. The ISI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded by the American Public Works Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Council of Engineering Companies to promote sustainable infrastructure.
Amir Bayati, previously at First Solar and Intermolecular, is now CTO at Heliotrope Technologies, a maker of electrochromic glass. GTM’s Stephen Lacey writes: “Heliotrope’s technology differs from the electrochromics being developed by Sage and View. While ‘conventional’ electrochromics can’t filter out light and heat at the same time, Heliotrope is using a material made of indium tin oxide crystals that can do both.”
The California Clean Energy Fund named Kenneth Alston as investment manager. Alston worked in the Obama administration at the White House and as special adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy.
Hyperloop One promoted Brent Callinicos to COO and CFO of the startup. Previously, Callinicos was CFO at Uber Technologies. GTM’s Julia Pyper recently reported, “Forget about high-speed trains — 700-mile-per-hour tube travel could become a reality within the coming months. Hyperloop One announced today it has raised $50 million in new financing as the Los Angeles-based startup prepares to conduct a full-scale demonstration of its ultra-fast, tube-based transportation system in the first quarter of 2017. The latest funding round brings Hyperloop One’s total amount raised to $160 million since its founding in 2014.”
Calif. Governor Jerry Brown Jr. announced that Ashutosh Bhagwat, a Democrat, has been reappointed to the California Independent System Operator Board of Governors, where he has served since 2011. Bhagwat has been a professor of law at the University of California, Davis School of Law since 2011. Angelina Galiteva, a Democrat, has also been reappointed to the board. Galiteva was executive director of strategic planning at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Both positions require Senate confirmation and come with compensation of $20,000.
Enertech Search Partners, an executive search firm with a dedicated cleantech practice, is the sponsor of the GTM jobs column.
Among its many active searches, Enertech is looking for a Demand Response Operations Manager
The client is one of the world’s leading integrated energy companies looking to expand the team for an internal startup. The parent company is expecting to invest about $1 billion into this early-stage business focused on distributed energy for large energy users. By combining traditional and renewable power, energy efficiency, demand response, generation, advisory services and big data and other digital assets, they help their customers capitalize on the new and more flexible energy landscape and move from consumers to prosumers and even grid service providers.
This client is currently seeking a Demand Response Operations Manager who will reside on the Customer Success Team. They are looking for an individual who will lead the North American team responsible for demand response retail operations in utilities and all ISOs, including PJM, NYISO, ISO-NE, MISO and ERCOT. This will include oversight of all post-sale customer interactions and operational steps and is responsible for the ongoing customer experience.
Executive VP David K. Owens of the Edison Electric Institute, the association of U.S. investor-owned electric utilities, is retiring on June 30, following 36 years of service. Owens began his career at EEI as director of rates and regulation. He “was the first African-American to hold an officer title at EEI” and “had significant responsibility over issues that affect the future structure of the electric industry and new rules in evolving competitive markets.”
ZAF Energy Systems named Randy Moore, previously the president of EaglePicher Technologies, as the battery company’s new CEO. The company claims that its rechargeable nickel-zinc battery is “a competitive replacement for lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries” with “better performance, safety, cost, and reliability.”
From the previous jobs column:
When First Solar acquired Enki Technology for its anti-reflection coatings late last year, Enki’s CEO, Kevin Kopczynski, joined First Solar as a senior director. Previously, Kopczynski was a partner at RockPort Capital Partners. Enki received a seed round from investors including Applied Materials, a Series A led by RockPort, as well as SunShot funding from the DOE. According to this document (PDF), SunEdison was also an investor in Enki. First Solar has made a number of acquisitions over the years, including the purchases of RayTracker and TetraSun, as well as its investment in Clean Energy Collective and apparent investment in a tellurium mine. First Solar acquired developers NextLight and OptiSolar in the aughts.
Solar Energy Industries Association has selected Abigail Ross Hopper as its new CEO. Hopper was previously head of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Before that, she was director of the Maryland Energy Administration and an adviser to former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
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Energy secretary nominee Rick Perry fiercely defended the mission of the U.S. Department of Energy on Thursday, and told senators at his confirmation hearing that while he now believes in human-caused climate change, he questions the extent to which humans are influencing it.
Perry, who as a presidential candidate said in 2011 that he’d eliminate the DOE, told senators that he regrets that remark and that his past positions do not reflect his “current thinking.” He said the department’s scientists and laboratories are “the envy of the world,” and he would court new “scientific minds” and defend their work even in the face of a movement within the Trump administration to threaten federal climate research.
Rick Perry, energy secretary nominee and former Texas governor.
Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr
“I’m going to protect all the science whether it’s related to climate or anything else we’re doing,” Perry said. “I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone that would attack them.”
As governor of Texas for 14 years, Perry was steadfast in his support of the fossil fuels industry, and until Thursday’s hearing, expressed unfounded doubts about established climate science.
If confirmed, a Perry-managed DOE under President-elect Trump could drastically reduce the agency’s emphasis on research on low-carbon energy technology, such as wind and solar power, carbon capture and storage, and atmospheric carbon removal. Perry could alter how America’s electric power grid is modernized to handle electricity generated with wind and solar power, and how climate change is factored into the agency’s priorities.
The DOE oversees all of America’s national laboratories that together form one of the world’s largest scientific institutions — many of them conducting research on climate change. The agency owns the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and funds university research on renewable energy and energy efficiency while also managing America’s nuclear stockpile.
Perry dodged questions about the need for climate action, saying that having an “academic” discussion of climate science is an “interesting exercise.” But, while he admitted that climate change is real, he declined to say the degree to which he agrees with established science showing that human carbon emissions are the reason global warming is happening.
“It’s far for me to be sitting before you today and claiming to be a climate scientist,” Perry said to U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., resorting to an often-used phrase on Capitol Hill to evade questions about human-caused climate change.
“I don’t think you’ll ever be a climate scientist, but you’re going to be head of the Department of Energy,” Franken said.
“That’s right, and I know how to hire really good scientists,” Perry said.
As Texas’ governor, Perry was an ardent supporter of the fossil fuels industry and the fracking boom in the state, which helped to flood the country with inexpensive natural gas, speeding the decline of coal as America’s primary source of electricity. Perry also presided over an unprecedented boom in wind energy development, making Texas America’s top wind power producer.
Yet as the nation’s leading oil refiner and because the state is heavily dependent on cars and trucks for most of its transportation, Texas remains America’s largest per-capita emitter of carbon dioxide causing climate change.
Trump’s energy plan calls for unfettered development of fossil fuels to achieve full energy independence while de-emphasizing wind, solar and other renewable energy, which was heavily promoted by the Obama administration as a way to address climate change. Trump has suggested abandoning nearly all federal climate action, including the Paris Climate Agreement, and his transition team has suggested the administration may eviscerate federal climate programs.
During the hearing, senators grilled Perry on a news report published Thursday morning by The Hill, which reported that the Trump administration plans drastic cuts to DOE and its climate-related programs, eliminating many of them completely. Those include the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Fossil Energy, which studies cutting carbon emissions.
“Do you support these cuts?” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked Perry.
“Maybe they had the same experience I did and forget that they said that,” Perry responded, referring to his previous call for the agency to be abolished. He said he was unaware of the reported budget cuts, but will support all of the DOE’s current programs and mission.
Perry said he regrets calling for the agency to be abolished, and that he has learned a great deal about the DOE’s mission since being nominated for energy secretary.
As top priorities, he committed to keeping Americans “safe” by protecting the country’s nuclear stockpile and focusing on preventing hackers from compromising America’s electric power grid while ensuring that the grid remains “stable” by encouraging the use of “all forms of energy.”
Like other Trump nominees, Perry said the DOE should take on an “all of the above” energy strategy — one that does not favor renewables over natural gas, coal or petroleum. “All of the above” has been a mantra widely used by climate skeptics such as Perry who support the fossil fuels industry.
Perry proclaimed his support for renewables to help reduce greenhouse gases, citing his record supporting Texas’ wind power industry. But he said his support for climate action hinges on whether it affects the economy.
“Don’t get me confused with the previous administration from the standpoint of being an individual who has promoted those sources of energy that can drive an economy and at the same time help our environment,” Perry said.
Many in the Republican Party, including Environmental Protection Agency administrator nominee Scott Pruitt, say that an “all of the above” energy strategy is about “not picking winners and losers” among the kinds of energy the federal government supports, especially as it relates to federal climate policy.
Rick Perry speaking at a 2016 campaign event in Arizona.
Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr
At the same time the government subsidizes the oil and gas industry with 11 fossil fuel production tax incentives and other provisions worth $4.7 billion annually, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Perry said he does not a support any federal government policy mandating the use of renewables nationwide, but he would help any state that wants to develop its own renewable energy standard.
One of the roles of the Energy Department, he said, is to help develop renewable energy technology, such as advancements in the design of wind turbine blades, which could be used in states to build wind and solar farms.
Perry’s “all of the above” commitment seemed weak on coal when facing questioning from U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who tried to get Perry to commit to keeping all of America’s coal-fired power plants operating in the future. Coal-fired power plants are threatened because of prevalence of fracking and the Obama administration’s plan to cut emissions from them as part of its climate strategy.
“Because of fracking, the world’s been changed,” Perry responded, suggesting the oil and gas industry may be forcing electric companies to move away from coal. “The world’s been given a resource that we’ve been able to use to help lower carbon emissions. I’m talking about natural gas. I would suggest sometimes we get ‘siloed’ in our thinking.”
But natural gas is not a clean energy source, either. Using natural gas for electricity is a major source of the pollution causing climate change. Natural gas pollutes the atmosphere with about half the carbon as coal does, but drilling and fracking for natural gas also emits methane, a greenhouse gas at least 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Without being specific, Perry said he is confident, however, that DOE scientists can develop technology that will allow companies to use coal in a “friendly” and “appropriate” way.
Ways to capture carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants and storing it underground are in development, but remain in their infancy.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., asked Perry if he would rely on scientific data when making decisions at the Energy Department. Perry said that his call to evacuate the Texas coast ahead of the landfall of hurricanes Ike and Rita is proof that he uses scientific data to drive his decisions.
“Relying upon data when people’s lives are in jeopardy was one of the things I became well known for,” Perry said.
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President Obama is leaving office on Friday, but scientists will be saying “thanks, Obama” for years to come.
Or more specifically, “thanks, Station Obama.”
Eight years ago on Friday, scientists named a climate monitoring location in a desolate bay off the Antarctic Peninsula after the 44th president to mark his inauguration. They took the step as a way to honor a president they viewed as a someone who would bring scientific integrity back to the White House.
Now they’re returning to the site in the next few days as part of a five-week research cruise underway in the Southern Ocean and plan to make it an annual visit. The data they collect at Station Obama shows how climate change is altering one of the most fragile places on the planet from melting ice to massive ecosystem changes.
The station will help ensure Obama’s climate legacy will live on even as Donald Trump, who has dramatically different views on climate change, will be sworn in as the nation’s new president on Jan. 20.
Obama has increasingly maneuvered to make climate change part of his legacy. Under his watch, the U.S. signed the Paris Agreement, implemented a domestic climate plan and has seen all corners of the federal government, from the Environmental Protection Agency to Department of Defense, take climate change more seriously. Most recently, he wrote a piece for Science, one of the world’s most prestigious academic journals, about how the clean energy revolution is unstoppable.
In comparison, Trump has referred to climate change as a hoax and his cabinet nominees have repeatedly spoken in ways that show a clear misunderstanding of climate science, if not outright denialism. The Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress have both signalled they plan to undo the progress that Obama made at a crucial time when the world needs to do more to combat climate change.
The Laurence M. Gould, a U.S. icebreaker on a five-week Antarctic research trip, will revisit Station Obama “to call attention to the progress the nation made toward addressing climate change during his presidency” according to Hugh Ducklow, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Center for Climate and Life who helped christen the station in 2009.
The view from Station Obama, located off the Antarctic Peninsula.
Credit: Natasja van Gestal, Northern Arizona Univiversity
The site’s name is unique. Ducklow said he’s never heard of another climate or ocean monitoring location named after a president, let alone other people.
“Usually we just have numbers, or maybe just latitude/longitude, not actual names,” he wrote in an email sent from the Laurence M. Gould, which is chugging toward the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station located to the northeast of Station Obama.
When scientists reach Station Obama — ”station” being oceanographer speak for a sampling location where they deploy their instruments — they’ll take a suite of measurements to monitor what’s happening to the climate and ocean in the region. That includes taking the temperature of the ocean as well as looking at indicators of ocean acidification and the ocean’s ability to pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
The data collected at Station Obama are part of a long-term monitoring project in the region that has revealed the stunning ways that climate change has reshaped the bottom of the world. Since 1950, Ducklow said temperatures in the region have risen by 11°F.
That’s contributed to the sea ice season shrinking by three months and caused 80 percent of glaciers in the region to retreat. Rising temperatures and changing ocean chemistry due to climate change are also decreasing krill, which form the base of the food chain, and the population of Adelie penguins, which are important to the ecosystem, not to mention adorable.
The Antarctic Peninsula is also likely to see a Delaware-sized ice shelf disintegrate in the coming months, a change that will speed the flow of land ice to the sea and with it, more sea level rise. It’s hardly the only ice in Antarctica to be suffering the consequences of warmer air and ocean temperatures.
It’s against this backdrop that Station Obama takes on more importance. The data researchers collected there in 2009 and again this year make it clear that huge changes are afoot in the region. That data doesn’t really care what politicians have to say about climate change. Physics will not yield to politics.
“We have one home planet and its habitability for human civilization is maintained by healthy ecosystems,” Ducklow said.
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A surge of warm air and stormy weather has once again invaded the Arctic, sending temperatures soaring and stagnating winter sea ice growth. These repeated incursions have helped keep sea ice area at record low levels for much of the freeze season, and have even contributed to an exceptional cold season retreat.
Sea ice area during the winter freeze-up (in blue) as compared to the long-term average (in gray). Periodic incursions of warm, stormy weather, along with persistent winter warmth, have kept sea ice at record low levels for much of the winter.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: NSIDC
These recent record lows are part of a clear downward spiral of Arctic sea ice caused by regional temperature rise that is happening at twice the global pace, fueled by continued greenhouse gas emissions. 2016, the hottest year on record for the planet, was something of an exclamation point on that Arctic trend, with seven months of record low sea ice levels, as well as record high air temperatures in the region.
“2016 is the most anomalous year we have seen yet and it appears to be continuing,” Julienne Stroeve, of the U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center and the University College London, said in an email. “This is not going to look good going into the melt season.”
This decades-long decline in sea ice has repercussions for native communities and for the Arctic ecosystem, of which the sea ice is a vital component. It is also exposing the fragile region to more shipping and other commercial activity and could be altering weather patterns over parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
The current episode is the third major incursion of warm, stormy weather into the heart of the Arctic during this freeze season, “although really it has just been persistently warm the entire winter across much of the Arctic Ocean basin,” Zack Labe, a Ph.D. student in climate science at University of California, Irvine, said in an email.
The storms are coming up from the northern Atlantic, pulling warmer air with them, as well as bringing increased moisture and stronger winds and waves — all factors that stymie sea ice growth, Labe said.
The first incursion, in November, even caused sea ice to retreat, a virtually unprecedented occurrence during the cold season in nearly 40 years of satellite record keeping.
The incursions are linked to wilder gyrations of the jet stream, the large current of air that guides storms across the Northern Hemisphere. Some scientists have suggested that this wavier jet stream pattern could in turn be linked to the unusually open waters of the Barents Sea, which sits to the north of Scandinavia and eastern Russia, said Mark Serreze, director of the NSIDC.
The idea is that the increasingly open waters of the Arctic could affect the release of heat energy into the atmosphere, altering weather patterns. The idea remains a controversial one, though.
But the fact that the Barents has relatively little ice at present means during these incursions, “that warmer air has longer time over the relatively warm waters in the Barents, which helps the warmth travel farther north into the ice before it starts to cool,” Walt Meier, a NASA sea ice researcher, said.
The unusual “warmth” continues in the #Arctic (80°N+) from the current weather setup. Exceeding that of last winter currently! pic.twitter.com/8V8008K78s
— Zack Labe (@ZLabe) January 19, 2017
This latest bout of warm weather has sent temperatures soaring, particularly above the Arctic Circle. An ocean buoy fairly near the North Pole recorded a temperature of 23°F (-5°C) — still below freezing, but well above normal. The average for the area of the Arctic north of 80 degrees latitude was around -15°C, compared to the 1958-2002 average of -30°C.
That puts this episode on par with those from earlier in the season as well as several periods of exceptional Arctic warmth last winter. During one warm spell last January, temperatures in some parts of the Arctic surged to 23°F above normal.
“In all my years of studying the Arctic, I’ve never seen Arctic Ocean ‘heat waves’ of the magnitude that we’ve observed over the past two winters,” Serreze said.
Right now, sea ice levels are at record levels for January, following a record low average in November and a second place finish in December. But whether the bouts of warm air will continue through the remainder of the winter isn’t clear, Stroeve said.
She and other sea ice researchers don’t think these remarkable winters mark a tipping point for Arctic sea ice — in other words, sea ice won’t drop off a cliff, never to return. If greenhouse gases are reined in and warming is kept in check, as nations pledged to do in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the sea ice could regrow.
But that depends on whether nations follow through on those commitments. There are concerns that the incoming Trump administration could disregard the Paris pact, as the president-elect has pledged to do, disrupting the nascent international efforts to limit emissions.
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The Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors unanimously elected V. Lynn Evans of Memphis, Tennessee, board chair
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The owners of Connecticut’s only nuclear power plant have met with legislators and described their vulnerability to trends affecting the industry nationwide
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