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Q&A: The State of Clean Energy With David Hochschild of the California Energy Commission

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David Hochschild knows a thing or two about renewable energy.

Hochschild currently serves on the California Energy Commission (CEC), the state’s primary energy policy and planning agency. Prior to being appointed to the commission, Hochschild served as a special assistant to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown in 2001, where he launched a citywide $100 million initiative to put solar panels on public buildings.

He went on to co-found Vote Solar and served as executive director of a national consortium of leading solar manufacturers. He worked for five years at Solaria, a solar company in Silicon Valley. And he served as a commissioner at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. 

Fresh off of his recent TEDx talk, Hochschild also sat down for a discussion this month with the solar software company Aurora Solar. Chief of Staff Sunny Wang and Content Marketing Analyst Gwen Brown spoke with the commissioner about the current state of solar and clean energy policy in California and beyond.

Aurora: Do you think that California is feeling an added pressure to double-down on its climate and clean energy efforts?

Hochschild: Oh, absolutely. I think the will has never been stronger than it is right now. California has the sixth-largest economy in the world and is home to 40 million people — we’re larger in many metrics than most countries in the world. I think particularly given recent events, leadership on renewables has shifted to the states.

Fortunately, most of the policies that really matter — in terms of accelerating renewable energy — are actually still made at the state level.

By that I’m referring to renewable portfolio standards, net metering, interconnection standards, rate design, state tax credits, etc., that really dictate the markets for clean energy around the country. I think the will is very strong to continue what we’ve started, and I have actually seen an increase in activity and interest here in California.

Aurora: Speaking of renewable portfolio standards, California’s RPS sets the ambitious goal of obtaining 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Can you provide a quick update on where we are? Are there major hurdles for California to overcome in order to achieve this target sustainably?

Hochschild: Today, 27 percent of the state’s electricity is from renewable sources; that’s up from 12 percent renewables in 2008. And we’re on a path not just to hit 50 percent, but to exceed it.

There are hurdles to overcome, however. One of these issues is renewable energy integration. That involves a number of different levers, including energy storage, regionalization and load control options. Regionalization — having a broader balancing area to be able to draw on and send renewable energy to — gives you more flexibility. Load control enables us to better align electricity demand with times of high renewable energy production. This includes demand response measures, as well as electric vehicles that are designed to charge intelligently and at times of the day that support the needs of the grid.

You could think of the process of achieving high levels of renewables as having two phases. The first chapter of this work was really bringing down the cost of renewable technologies. That work has largely been successful, particularly with solar and wind. The prices of solar and wind have both fallen about 80 percent in the last decade, so we’ve seen really substantial cost reductions, which are very good for the future of the market. The second chapter is integrating renewables successfully onto the grid.

Another related challenge that goes hand-in-hand with renewable integration is electrification. We want to see a migration of services that are now fueled by natural gas, diesel, and gasoline to being powered by this new, clean electric grid. That’s everything from vehicles — we have 275,000 electric vehicles on the road today (a trend I am happily now participating in as of about a month ago) — to all-electric homes, electrified rail, etc.

Aurora: Continuing on the topic of California renewable energy policy, part of the California Solar Initiative that the Energy Commission is advancing is the New Solar Homes Partnership program. Can you share some updates on the program and its successes?

Hochschild: The way to understand this program is that it’s really the glide path for California to reach zero net energy in [building] code. The goal originally was 2020 as our date to mandate zero net energy in code, and you don’t want that to be an abrupt change. You want homebuilders already building a significant number of homes with solar before that becomes a mandate. This incentive program was created to help get that going.

One of the main challenges with new construction is that the homebuilder is not the occupant of the home. The builders’ main goal is typically to contain costs so adding extra features is often not what they are seeking to do.

This program helped kick-start that market, and in Southern California, about a quarter of the new homes being built today are being built with solar.

Aurora: Our energy markets to date have been built around fossil fuels — which differ significantly from renewables. From a market perspective, what will need to change about how we buy and sell electricity in order for our energy markets to function with higher levels of renewables on the grid?

Hochschild: Well, I think the first realization is that along with renewables comes distributed generation and a distributed model. Where California used to have just a couple hundred power plants providing all the electricity, today we have roughly 600,000 when you count all the rooftop solar.

As a result, intelligent infrastructure that’s designed to allow for a friction-free market for distributed generation is essential.

That includes having the ability to meter distributed generation. It also includes having smart inverters that have telemetry and voltage regulation capabilities. So, for example, we can send signals to rooftop solar systems to tell them to adjust voltage to help support the grid. I think that’s one of the main changes that is needed.

I also think you’re going to increasingly see a movement among utilities toward more of a “pipes-and-wires” model, where their focus shifts from generation to managing the interactivity of all these other generators and consumers.

We need the utilities to succeed — I want to be clear about that. I think it’s really in everybody’s interest to have the utilities succeed, but what they are doing is going to change.

I also think that, increasingly, the role of utilities is going to shift toward transportation. I believe the electrification of the vehicle fleet is one of the single most exciting potential developments in the next few years. It offers great promise — not just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation sector, which is California’s greatest source of emissions right now — but also to help facilitate higher penetration of renewables.

Aurora: Do you believe it’s possible to supply 100 percent of our electricity from renewable sources?

Hochschild: I absolutely believe it is possible. I think it’s actually inevitable. The real question is whether we get there fast enough to make a meaningful difference on climate change.

Here’s the big picture. Over the long haul, basic laws of economics hold that as reserves of finite resources like fossil fuels — whether they are reserves of coal, or petroleum, or natural gas — become constrained, the prices go up.

Technology, on the other hand, as it scales, prices go down — whether we’re talking about cell phones, flat-screen TVs, electric vehicles or solar panels.

The foundational technologies of the clean energy future are all going down very steeply in price: solar PV, wind, energy storage, LED lights…that is reason for great optimism about our ability to achieve this future.

There will be a lot of adjustments to be made. We’re going to have to be much more nimble about things like load control, for instance. The traditional model has been that electric load (electric demand) drives electric generation — your factory turns on, and you have to turn on a fossil-fuel burning power plant.

Now, for some subset of that load, it’s actually going to switch; renewable generation is going to drive electric demand. For instance, if you have a fleet of electric vehicles and you have some flexibility in the time of the day you charge them, or you have a building that needs to be cooled but you can do some precooling, you have windows of time for electric demand that can be aligned with renewable generation. That will become a much more refined science.

There are plenty of other technology hurdles to cross as well — but there is nothing about the transition to 100 percent renewable energy itself that is outside the realm of a solvable problem.

It’s all solvable; it’s just new types of problems, and our ability to solve these problems has gotten infinitely better.

I look at our capabilities and where we are in our technology development at the moment, and even if innovation were to basically halt and we were just working with current pricing and current technology, we could get to 100 percent.

The good news is it’s actually getting better. Every year, we’re getting larger and more efficient wind turbines, more efficient solar panels, and cheaper batteries with longer duration. The technologies are all getting incrementally better every year, so I have no doubt we will get there.

And now there are cities, like San Diego, and whole states, like Hawaii, that have mandated 100 percent renewable energy. San Diego is the first major city in the United States to mandate 100 percent renewables by 2035, and Hawaii has mandated it by 2045. That’s already underway.

Aurora: The solar industry requires cooperation between different actors, such as businesses, utilities and policymakers. In your career, you’ve worked in the solar energy space from many different perspectives — including public, private and nonprofit. What are your thoughts on the state of cooperation among key solar players?

Hochschild: Well, I think there is room for greater coordination in the industry. Early on, the solar industry was fractured in terms of industry associations; there were multiple overlapping associations. That has gotten somewhat better, but it is not entirely resolved. The parallel is made, for example, to the NRA. There’s not a National Pistol Association and a National Shotgun Association, right? And the NRA is pretty effective.

I think there is more maturing necessary, and I would like to see more “pan-renewables” advocacy and collaboration where everyone unifies around the vision of 100 percent renewable energy and the electrification of almost everything. I think there’s a role for all technologies that serve that purpose, whether it be geothermal, solar, wind, or biomass energy, energy storage or electric vehicles.

Aurora: Where do you think we can expect to see new or significantly refined policies encouraging solar adoption in the next few years — either within or outside the United States?

Hochschild: One area is Mexico, which the California Energy Commission has been working with quite a bit on promoting clean energy policy and sharing best practices. The CEC has signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the Mexican states of Aguascalientes and Jalisco to cooperate around clean energy, and it collaborates with Mexico’s Ministry of Energy under a 2014 MOU signed by California Governor Brown and Mexican Secretary of Energy Pedro Joaquin Coldwell. We’ve seen some very exciting developments in renewable energy pricing, and as a result, we’re now seeing Mexico think seriously about renewables.

For example, they’re now looking closely at energy storage — what its role should be in the future of Mexico and what policies they should adopt. These are things that weren’t under serious consideration about two or three years ago because renewables were seen as too expensive.

Aurora: What developments under these MOUs are you particularly excited about?

Hochschild: One of the most exciting things is how greater participation in clean energy markets is leading to financial innovation. Banks and other financial institutions have to think about how to finance renewables and that has a cascading effect, even to educational institutions. Until recently in Mexico, you could not get a master’s degree in renewable energy. Now a university in Guadalajara, Jalisco just launched the country’s first renewable energy master’s degree program.

All of these changes are happening right now before our eyes. It’s changing so quickly it’s hard to track. For example, the states of Jalisco and Aguascalientes, which the California Energy Commission has signed MOUs with, have both recently adopted fleets of electric vehicles. Those are the some of the first states in Mexico, if not the first, to formally adopt fleets of electric vehicles, and that is thanks to some of the collaborative efforts between the Commission and Mexico.

Aurora: What is the most innovative solar design you have ever come across?

Hochschild: That’s a good question. […] There have been many of them. I’ve been involved in solar for my whole career, and some of the most innovative things I’ve seen were things that didn’t ultimately work in the market.

But, the truth is, the things that I’m most excited about are not what I’d call revolutionary innovation, but rather what I’d call evolutionary innovation.

It’s things that are not particularly sexy or noteworthy, but which are the incremental improvements driving the whole market.

Every year, the efficiency of solar panels and inverters has been going up. The early solar panels had 5 percent efficiency, right? Now they’re roughly 20 percent. The early inverters had about 60 percent efficiency –so you would lose over a third of the power just converting it from DC to AC. Now, utility-scale inverters are at 99 percent efficiency. It wasn’t an overnight change; literally every year they became 1 or 2 percent more efficient, with little tweaks and improvements.

That evolutionary progress is what I find most exciting. That’s what’s been working and I’m optimistic that will continue.


This article was originally published on the Aurora Solar blog



Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Editor - May 26, 2017 at 6:45 am

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US Wind Adopts a ‘New Attitude’ to Confront a Looming Downturn

Wind works. That’s the overarching message — and the Twitter hashtag — at the American Wind Energy Association’s annual Windpower conference and exhibition this week in Anaheim, California.

The industry has followed through on its promises, said AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan in his opening remarks on Tuesday. Wind companies said they could reliably add more wind to the grid, and now five U.S. states are getting more than 20 percent of their electricity from wind energy year-round. At times last year, ERCOT and the Southwest Power Pool delivered more than 50 percent of their electricity from wind. 

With a stable tax policy, the industry boosted employment from 88,000 jobs at the start of 2016, to 100,000 jobs at the end of the year — growing nine times faster than the overall economy. Within that period, the number of manufacturing jobs grew from 21,000 to 25,000 at 500 factories and assembly plants around the country. And the industry could add another 8,000 manufacturing jobs during President Trump’s term.

Wind generating capacity surpassed hydropower capacity for the first time at the end of 2016. At the same time, the industry launched a promising new offshore wind business in the U.S.

This growth has put global wind turbine sales on par with the annual revenue of the NFL, and the wind industry’s success is benefiting underserved communities across the U.S., said Kiernan. Wind companies have invested $14 billion in America each year for the past two years — with most of that in economically challenged rural areas. Over the next four years, AWEA expects the industry to catalyze another $85 billion in economic activity.

“We are big. We are reliable. We are delivering on our promises,” said Kiernan. “And we’re not just here to stay, we are here to grow, and grow, and grow.”

But that growth is not guaranteed. While there’s plenty to celebrate, the U.S. wind industry faces a host challenges — including an unpredictable president and a looming market downturn.

“We’re not planning to ask for an extension”

The federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) has played an instrumental role in growing the U.S. wind sector. But the industry has accepted that it’s time for the policy to phase out.

Tristan Grimbert, president and CEO of EDF Renewable Energy and AWEA board chairman, said the industry will not ask Congress for another extension of the PTC beyond the current sunset date in 2020. 

“No, we’re not planning to ask for an extension,” he said. “The bigger issue for me is having fair market rules.” The plan is to “protect legacy investments and plan for the future — for the grid that we want to have, which will be much more agile, much more decarbonized, much more digital, and much more distributed.”

There was an acknowledgement at the conference this week that the U.S. wind industry could be in trouble if it isn’t proactive. Research firm Global Data projects the global wind turbine market will grow steadily over the next few years, reaching $81.14 billion in 2019, before contracting to $71.21 billion at the end of the decade when the PTC expires.

MAKE Consulting (now a Wood Mackenzie business), projects the U.S. wind market will see tremendous growth in new capacity additions in the near term, but that growth starts to taper off after the 2020 mark. MAKE estimates 73 percent of the U.S. wind industry’s 10-year growth will be concentrated into the next five years.

The firm noted that inaction to fill policy voids dampens the outlook and adds pressure on the industry to accelerate reductions in the levelized cost of energy of wind power.

In the spirit of taking action, AWEA’s slogan for the 2017 Windpower conference is “a brand-new attitude.” The brand-new attitude is “one of confidence,” said Kiernan. “Our brand-new attitude is also one of knowing that wind power of today is not like wind power of 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.”

“The future of the grid is about competitive, affordable, flexible, clean power — and that plays to our strengths,” he said. “These and other facts justify the belief we are number one, and we are adding to the economic and national security strengths of America.”

Kiernan acknowledged predictions of a market downturn in the 2020 timeframe, and laid out a multi-step plan to “prove our critics wrong.” The plan (detailed here) includes leveraging big data to boost productivity, cut costs and reduce downtime. It includes protecting the PTC in the near term and advocating for strong state-level policies. It includes building new transmission projects and working with the Department of Interior on regulatory reform in order to speed up the wind permitting process — an issue that plagued the industry during President Obama’s term.

So far, though, navigating the new Trump administration hasn’t exactly been a breeze.

“Trump’s fossil fuel fetish”

Asked for one word to describe their views on the Trump administration, a panel of wind industry leaders offered up the terms “open,” “interesting” and “hopeful.” But there was also a sense of doubt and uncertainty at the conference that revealed itself more during coffee breaks and happy hours.

California State Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León didn’t hesitate to express his views, however. He said outright that clean energy is facing a “hostile” Congress and administration, and that California is doing everything it can to fight back.

“Trump’s fossil fuel fetish is not just environmentally out of touch — economically, it doesn’t make any sense,” said de León.

AWEA and other pro-renewable energy groups are taking more of a “wait and see” approach. However, these groups have expressed concern that the Department of Energy’s 60-day grid reliability study will be biased against renewables, and have sought ways to weigh in on the research.

“I agree with the question that Secretary Perry has asked,” said Gregory Wolf, CEO of Leeward Renewable Energy. “But I would argue that he’s sort of framed it maybe a little bit one-sided, and so I think that’s a fair criticism as we see it play out.”

Xcel Energy CEO Ben Fowke underscored his utility’s commitment to investing in wind power on Wednesday. He added: “We have successfully integrated wind energy onto our system over the years without sacrificing reliability, and we’re making history in the process.”

Wind actually needs an energy system study

For Grimbert, it makes sense for the DOE to review how energy markets operate. The wind industry actually needs a review of the energy system if it’s going to be successful in the years ahead. 

“The agility of the grid of the future is a tremendous opportunity for wind,” Grimbert said. “The grid can manage wind; there is no question about that anymore. The real challenge for our industry is actually to adapt to a new power condition.”

That means competing with low natural-gas prices, the risk of curtailment and negative pricing. It means using artificial intelligence to improve project output. It means coupling wind with other technologies, like solar, energy storage and fast-ramping natural gas. It’s also essential to building new transmission lines in order for wind to provide reliable power in a low-energy-price environment. And new market structures are equally as important.

“We need a more sophisticated and fair market rule for the ISO to be able to better control and manage the new generation assets, while still preserving the legacy investments,” Grimbert said. Markets also need to financially recognize the ancillary services wind can offer, as well as the capacity and low-carbon energy wind provides.

“These value streams need to be recognized and compensated for,” he said. “I know it sounds like a long-range vision of what the market structure needs to be, but this is my vision…of what I want AWEA to pave the road for.”

This is the strategy underpinning the “wind works” theme being touted at this week’s conference. While companies are busy bidding on, building and financing projects before the PTC window closes, the industry also needs to find ways to capitalize on all of the benefits wind provides going forward. 

“Now is the time to embrace and channel all forms of support that can help us forge the policies and regulation that are needed for new revenue streams to continue to help wind to thrive,” Grimbert said. “A brand-new attitude is that wind works for America, for all Americans.”


Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Editor - at 6:40 am

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Bipartisan Bill Introduced to Fix Neighborhood Floods

As floodwaters from some of the highest tides of the year spilled this week into cul-de-sacs and avenues from Delaware to Hawaii, federal legislation was introduced to ease the growing toll that rising seas are taking on coastal neighborhoods.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from Florida who champions climate action, joined with Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, in introducing H.R.2607, a bill to provide $3 billion a year toward projects that improve wetlands and infrastructure to alleviate “frequent and chronic” coastal flooding.

High tide flooding leads to regular street closures in Atlantic City, N.J., and other coastal cities.
Credit: John Upton/Climate Central

“Although the bill makes no mention of climate change or sea level rise, it’s clear from the language that that’s what its drafters have in mind,” said James DeWeese, a fellow at the Georgetown University Law Center researching climate change adaptation policy. “Flooding is already one of our costliest natural hazards — and climate change is exacerbating the risks.”

Billions of dollars of federal work to reduce flood hazards already focuses heavily on protecting high-value oceanfront property from storm surges. Lower-income neighborhoods built near bays and coastal rivers are being left vulnerable to frequent floods when tides are high.


The new bill could start to tackle this inequity by meeting up to 90 percent of the cost of wetland restoration projects and new and improved floodwalls, dunes, levees and drainage systems — local infrastructure that would help communities tackle their own unique flood threats in different ways.

“It’s safe to say that $3 billion a year is a drop in the ocean compared to the total need, but it’s a step in the right direction,” DeWeese said. “Whether the money leads to smart adaptation choices in the long run is really dependent on how communities decide to spend the money.”

Routine flooding is rapidly getting worse in coastal communities nationwide as fossil fuel and deforestation pollution traps heat, melting ice and expanding water, raising sea levels. Land is also sinking in some areas, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic.

Floods that block roads, damage property and sometimes enter homes are called nuisance floods. Their economic and psychological impacts are difficult to assess but appear to be vast. They can strike during storms, but also occur on calm and sunny days.

A Climate Central analysis this month projected rapid rises in risks for 90 U.S. cities with flat landscapes, such as Atlantic City, N.J., and San Mateo, Calif. Research by the Union of Concerned Scientists has warned that nuisance floods could be striking Washington and other major cities once every three days on average within 30 years — the typical life of a mortgage.

Coastal flooding in Miami.
Credit: Thomas Ruppert, Florida Sea Grant/Flickr

Tides pushed higher by the combined effects of climate change, a new moon and springtime conditions have been spilling into low-lying neighborhoods around the country this week. These tides are colloquially called king tides.

“This time of year we tend to see an uptick in some of the seasonal tides,” said William Sweet, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer. “In some cases the tide alone will be sufficient to cause some minor coastal flooding.”

Coastal experts weary of seeing nuisance flooding overlooked by the federal government welcomed the bill, characterizing its introduction alone as a positive sign, even if it doesn’t become law.

“It’s great to see members of Congress specifically recognizing chronic flooding and the toll it takes on communities,” said Kristina Dahl, an independent scientist who helped produce the recent Union of Concerned Scientists study. “That feels like a huge step forward.”

While the legislation would help fund options for defending property from rising seas, it doesn’t include any provisions to help residents abandon vulnerable areas and move to safer ground. Nor does it provide planning support for local governments, helping them make zoning decisions to reduce building on land where flooding will inevitably get worse.

Seas will continue to rise at a hastening pace in the years and decades ahead, even if immediate steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

“Many of the communities that will be grappling with chronic inundation in the next 20 years will ultimately need to be considering retreat,” Dahl said. “Rather than wait for a big storm to cause catastrophic flooding of these homes, this bill could potentially address retreat and relocation at the individual home level.”

The bill is being introduced at a tumultuous time in Washington. The embattled Trump administration is proposing steep spending cuts to federal programs — including the elimination next year of $70 million a year in coastal management grants that support similar flood-reduction efforts.

When the administration first proposed slashing funds like these, coastal states and leaders successfully united to push back fiercely. Coastal communities traverse political lines, home to rich and poor, conservative and liberal, from Louisiana to Oregon to Wisconsin and New York.

“Flood protection should be a bipartisan concern,” Rep. Curbelo spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said. “We hope to garner and continue building support from areas across the country that are most at risk.”

The $3 billion a year in coastal spending proposed in the new bill may go only a small way to meeting the high costs of flood control projects needed nationwide, but it “absolutely would be a game-changing amount,” said Grant Williams, a government affairs official with the Coastal States Organization, which represents coastal states.

“It’s definitely something that we think is a step in the right direction,” Williams said. “There’s a need out there, especially when you start getting down into the local level.”



Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Editor - at 6:30 am

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Budget Guts U.S. Carbon Capture, Storage Research

Capturing carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants and storing them permanently underground may be among the most important ways countries can prevent climate change from spiraling out of control.

But, as with many other federal climate-related programs, President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget nearly snuffs out funding for carbon capture and storage, or CCS, research and development, possibly dramatically slowing the advancements in that technology.

The Petra Nova W.A. Parish carbon capture and storage project in southeast Texas. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

The budget calls for the U.S. Department of Energy’s CCS programs to receive a 75 percent funding cut. The budget for the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s research program, which administers the CCS research along with the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy, is slated to be zeroed out altogether. The DOE’s fossil energy research and development budget is being cut by more than half.

In raw numbers, the Trump administration is proposing to cut the Office of Fossil Energy’s carbon capture program to $16 million in 2018 from $66 million in 2016. The White House wants to cut the carbon storage program to $15 million from $67 million, and cut the NETL’s $53 million research budget down to zero. All told, DOE’s fossil energy program would see its budget cut to $280 million from $618 million.


“With the proposed budget, CCS research will slow to a crawl and the United States will lose its leadership in a vital area — one that benefits the economy as well as the environment and the people upon which that economy depends,” said Jeffrey Bielicki, a geodetic engineering professor and CCS researcher at Ohio State University.

Cuts to federal carbon storage programs are part of the Trump administration’s vow to eliminate or drastically reduce the government’s efforts to address climate change. Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and Energy Secretary Rick Perry has questioned the role of humans in causing climate change. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has said the administration believes spending on climate change is a waste of money and, he has called much of the Obama administration’s climate-related research “crazy.”

Representatives of the DOE and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

CCS researcher Peter Kelemen, an earth and environmental sciences professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said the DOE and the National Science Foundation have been the main funder for many academic CCS research projects. The NSF is targeted for an 11 percent budget cut, according to the American Geophysical Union.

The White House budget is unpopular in Congress and is unlikely to be approved in its current form. However, Kelemen said that DOE officials have told him that upcoming budget battles in Congress could lead to gridlock in CCS and other scientific research funded by the federal government.

“They said that until a budget is passed, people within the DOE are basically obligated to follow guidelines from the president,” Kelemen said. “In their view, a lack of legislative action should not be perceived as postponing difficult times for CCS researchers within the DOE.”

As the climate warms, CCS research becomes all the more urgent as part of a variety of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry addressing staff at the Idaho National Laboratory on May 8. Credit: Idaho National Laboratory/flickr

CCS may be critical to preventing global warming from exceeding levels scientists consider dangerous — 2°C (3.6°F), according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. CCS projects are being developed at several coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and Canada, and at other sites around the world.

Carbon capture, storage and removal research is becoming more and more urgent because studies suggest that the globe is on a trajectory to blow past atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations within 22 years that make make 2°C of global warming inevitable.

To combat that problem, most of the scientific models that form the basis of the Paris Climate Agreement rely on creating “negative emissions” by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it permanently underground.

Scientists say carbon removal is likely to involve expanding forests worldwide to store more carbon dioxide in their tree trunks and roots while also developing facilities that can suck carbon dioxide directly out of the air — technology that is in its infancy today. The technology that allows carbon dioxide to be captured and stored at electric power plants is different from the kind that can remove climate pollution directly from the air.

As part of the DOE’s carbon storage program, scientists study how carbon dioxide behaves when it is injected into underground rock formations. The carbon capture program conducts research and development on ways to capture carbon from power plants and scaling up those technologies.

In its justification for the cuts, the White House said most of the DOE’s applied energy research, including the science conducted by the Office of Fossil Energy, is best done by the private sector.

But Bielicki said the economy isn’t yet strong enough for the private sector to support CCS research and development on its own. Private investment in CCS is dependent on government support for inexpensive research into basic chemistry and physics behind CCS and costly real-life demonstration projects that the industry is unlikely to invest in just yet, he said.

Klaus Lackner, director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, said the potential budget cuts’ impact on negative emissions research is complicated because most DOE carbon capture and storage research focuses on sequestering emissions from coal-fired power plants — technology that is not yet compatible with negative emissions techniques under development.

“However, this attempt at budget slashing shows that it will get a lot harder to do research on the topic of managing carbon,” Lackner said, adding that the government should be expanding the scope of carbon storage research. “CCS should not be limited to coal technology.”



Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Editor - at 6:25 am

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NOAA Forecasts Busy Hurricane Season for Atlantic

Less than a year after Hurricane Matthew raked the East Coast, killing 34 people and causing $10 billion in damage in the U.S. alone, coastal areas are once again preparing for the onset of the Atlantic hurricane season.

This year, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are expecting to see above-average storm numbers in the Atlantic, despite the uncertainty of whether an El Niño will develop over the summer. The forecast is currently for 11 to 17 named storms to form, of which five to nine are expected to become hurricanes, and two to four major hurricanes.

Prenille Nord, 42, poses for a photograph with his children Darline and Kervins among the debris of their destroyed house after Hurricane Matthew hit Jeremie, Haiti in October 2016. Matthew killed more than 500 people across the Caribbean, primarily in Haiti.
Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The forecast, though, “does not predict when, where, and how these storms might hit,” Ben Friedman, the acting NOAA administrator said during a press conference, as he and other officials urged coastal residents to begin their preparations.

During Thursday’s press conference, officials also touted the updated models and tools they have to produce better forecasts for individual storms, part of a concerted effort that has greatly improved hurricane forecasts over the past couple of decades. Those comments, though, come just a few days after the release of President Trump’s budget request, which calls for reductions to some of those very programs.

The 2017 hurricane season got off to an early start, with Tropical Storm Arlene forming in April, only the second April storm in the satellite era. Early storms, however, are not necessarily indicators of how active a given season will be.

To gauge the hurricane season, forecasters use various climatological clues, such as the state of the El Niño cycles, as well as expected trends in ocean temperatures and a measure called wind shear, which can cut off storm formation.


El Niño is a key factor in making hurricane seasonal forecasts because the changes in atmospheric patterns over the tropical Pacific that it ushers in have a domino effect on patterns over the Atlantic, tending to suppress hurricane formation.

Whether an El Niño will develop is currently something of a question mark, though, with the odds about even for El Niño or neutral conditions this summer and fall. Also uncertain is whether any El Niño that does materialized will be strong enough to influence the Atlantic.

But sea surface temperatures across swaths of the Atlantic are currently above average and are expected to stay that way, and wind shear is also expected to stay low, both of which would tend to support more storm formation.

So given the signals that forecasters have to work with, they expect a 45 percent chance of above-average storm numbers, a 35 percent chance of near-normal, and only a 20 percent chance of below-normal activity.

Those percentages translate to the ranges of numbers of storms expected at different strengths. The 11 to 16 named storms include those that reach tropical storm status or higher, defined as a storm with wind speeds of 39 mph or higher. Five to nine of those storms would be expected to strengthen into hurricanes, with winds in excess of 74 mph. And then two to four of those hurricanes would be expected to reach major hurricane status, defined as Category 3 or above on the Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane strength, or winds above 111 mph.

An average Atlantic season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes.

NOAA evaluates the accuracy of its seasonal forecasts each year, with the aim of seeing the number of storms fall in the given ranges at least 70 percent of the time, which they do consistently, Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said.

Credit: NOAA

It has been a record-setting 12 years since a major hurricane made landfall on the U.S. coast; the last to do so was Hurricane Wilma during the blockbuster 2005 season.

“While some may think that’s lucky . . . in fact, tropical storms and lesser hurricanes can be just as damaging and just as deadly,” Friedman said, citing Matthew as a prime example. Matthew, which was for a time the first Category 5 hurricane to form in the Atlantic since Hurricane Felix in 2007, had weakened to a Category 1 storm by the time it made landfall in South Carolina last October.

The punishing storm surge that pushed ashore from Florida to the Carolinas and the torrential rains it dropped inland still made it the 10th costliest storm recorded in the Atlantic basin, according to the reinsurance firm Aon Benfield.

Storm surge and heavier downpours are two areas where climate change is exerting an influence on the damage produced by hurricanes. As global temperature rise, sea level rises too, meaning hurricane surges can reach further inland. Rising temperatures also concentrate moisture in the atmosphere, providing more fuel for heavy rains.

The impact of climate change on hurricanes themselves is active area of research; the general consensus is that there may be fewer storms overall in a warmer world, but a higher proportion of them will be major hurricanes. Major hurricanes have already increased in the Atlantic since 1970.

Some research has also suggested that the hurricane season could become longer, meaning more pre-season storms like Arlene.

During the press conference, Mary Erickson, deputy director of National Weather Service, touted the increased accuracy of hurricane forecasts resulting from investments into improving models. In the 25 years since Hurricane Andrew devastated southeastern Florida, the 3-day track forecast for hurricanes has improved by 65 percent, she said.

Two new models coming online this season could improve forecasts even more. One, the Hurricane Weather Research Forecast model includes better resolution of storms, advanced ways of feeding data into the model and more accurate atmospheric physics, all of which could improve intensity forecasts for storms by up to 10 percent and track forecasts by up to 7 percent, Erickson said.

Rainfall amounts over the last seven days in the Southeast, most of which were due to Hurricane Matthew.
Credit: NOAA

Another model replaces the retiring Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Hurricane Model after 22 years, and it also improves track and intensity forecasts.

Many of the improvements to those models have come as part of a concerted effort called the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program. That program was established by NOAA in 2009, in part as a response to the pummeling the U.S. received from a number of hurricanes during the early years of that decade and the relative lack of progress made in improving forecasts up to that point.

Trump’s 2018 budget request currently includes a $5 million reduction in funding “to slow the transition of advanced modeling research into operations for improved warnings and forecasts” including the HFIP.

That budget provision doesn’t jibe with bipartisan-supported Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, which the President signed into law last month and which states that “NOAA must plan and maintain a project to improve hurricane forecasting.”

“I don’t think Congress will take his proposal seriously at all . . . so it can probably be ignored in favor of the legislation that has actually passed,” Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, said in an email. “But supposing Congress did pass his budget as-is, yes, it would be devastating to weather prediction across the board, including hurricanes.”

Forecasters will also be able to use the improved observations of the GOES-16 satellite, which has four times the resolution and updates five times faster than its predecessors. In particular, its lightning mapper will help forecasters better understand how a storm is developing, as lightning often accompanies rapid storm development. When it becomes operational later this year, GOES-16 will move into orbit over the East Coast, in prime hurricane-watching position, Friedman said..

NOAA is also making its previously experimental storm surge watches and warnings operational this year, in an effort to better prepare coastal areas under threat of flooding. Hurricane graphics will also include an experimental visualization of how far damaging winds extend out from the center of a storm.

NOAA will update its forecast in early August, just before the typical peak of the hurricane season.



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Nuclear Regulatory Commission head gets new five-year term

President Donald Trump has selected Kristine Svinicki to lead the panel for another five years


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FERC asks for $368 million in FY 2018 budget

The funding request is an increase of about $48.4 million


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Are Solar and Wind Asset Management Converging?

Increasingly, investors who manage solar assets are taking on wind assets.

The level of overlap between the two sectors varies by market. According to GTM Research and SoliChamba’s new report on solar asset management, there are numerous countries where top PV investors are also investing in wind. They include: Canada (85 percent); France (80 percent); and India (76 percent). Remarkably, all markets exceed 50 percent, except Chile.

FIGURE: Percentage of Top PV Investors Active in Wind, by Key Country

solar pv assets
Source: Solar PV Asset Management 2017-2022

Overlap between the two industries also varies by portfolio size. The figure below shows the net capacity split between PV portfolios held by PV-only investors and those held by multi-technology players investing in both wind and solar assets.

Multi-technology players account for most of the capacity for every single investor ranking group, except ranks 26 to 50. In fact, portfolios from multi-technology investors make up 35.4 gigawatts of net capacity across all investors analyzed in the GTM Research report — approximately 80 percent more than PV-only investor portfolios (19.8 gigawatts). This capacity dominance mostly comes from the top investors: 72 percent of the 25 leading players are multi-technology investors.

FIGURE: PV-Only vs. PV + Wind Investors in Net GW by Investor Ranking Group
solar wind assets

Source: Solar PV Asset Management 2017-2022

Asset managers and software markets also overlap

Among 46 third-party asset managers analyzed in the report, 50 percent are also managing wind assets, and these firms make up 61 percent of the capacity managed by analyzed vendors.

On the software side, half of the 10 vendors analyzed in the report consider the wind industry as a core market, a quarter claim they serve the wind market but see it as non-core to their business, and the other quarter is planning to offer a solution for wind in 2017 or 2018.

For asset management service providers and software vendors, solar and wind convergence seems to be increasing for a simple reason: The two industries are very similar from a business standpoint, and the move from one industry to the next appears logical.

Technical aspects remain more distinct

On the operations and maintenance (O&M) side, the crossover between solar and wind is less noticeable.

Most PV O&M providers are only managing solar plants, although a few large players are managing wind plants as well, like BayWa r.e. Operation Services and EDF Renewable Services.

There are fundamental technology differences between wind and solar plants that make the jump from one industry to the next much more difficult for O&M providers than for investors or asset managers. However, there are strong similarities as well, particularly in the AC portion of the plant, and players that manage both assets may be able to leverage economies of scale in their operations center infrastructure.

Despite the differences in technology, monitoring software is an area where the two industries appear to be converging at a faster pace. In 2015, meteocontrol acquired the DaWinci wind monitoring platform from iTerra; in 2016, Power Factors acquired Ekhosoft, a platform monitoring both wind and solar plants. Several providers of wind supervisory controls and data acquisition systems entered the solar market in recent years, like BaxEnergy and more recently Envision.

GTM and SoliChamba will be watching this trend closely in future editions of their annual Global PV Monitoring and Megawatt-Scale PV O&M reports.


For more information about asset management markets, service providers, and software, check out the new report Solar PV Asset Management 2017-2022: Markets, Investors, Asset Managers and Software.


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Sunrun Denies Allegations That It Delayed Canceling Contracts to Inflate Solar Booking Numbers

A series of reports from the The Wall Street Journal is raising questions about Sunrun’s handling of solar contract cancellations. Sunrun is pushing back against the accusations.

On Monday, the Journal reported that two former employees admitted to delaying the cancellation of hundreds of rooftop solar contracts in Hawaii over a five-month period in 2015. The story suggested that sales managers were purposefully inflating their customer numbers in the months leading up to Sunrun’s IPO in August 2015.

“Around the time of the IPO, Sunrun’s cancellation data influenced at least two of the company’s key financial metrics: its number of customers and its amount of ‘megawatts booked,’ which describes the amount of energy production generated by home energy systems sold to customers,” wrote WSJ.

GTM spoke with two of the former employees quoted in the story. Both corroborated their earlier accounts, saying that regional sales managers were encouraged by their superiors to delay bookings on a conference call. They did, however, say that there was no mention of the IPO or a clearly stated reason for the delays. Rather, they blamed a Wild West sales culture and extreme pressure to hit monthly targets.

“It was never verbally said we were doing this for the IPO. We didn’t feel that we were doing anything wrong or deceitful. But there was directive,” said Darren Jennings, a former Hawaii sales manager, who said he was personally asked to “hold cancellations” by a superior. 

Evan Stockdale, a former regional manager in the Central Valley of California, also said there was “no specific directive” to change numbers leading up to the IPO. But he did describe a chaotic sales environment in which managers would do anything they could to help their numbers. He said one senior branch manager would “blatantly roll over jobs” in order to reach a certain sales target. The manager even ordered an installation at 11 p.m. “with all these nighttime lights” in order to hit installation goals — literally in the final hour of the month.

“There was no standard operating procedure. We were very reactive. I don’t think there was any malfeasance; I would put it on poor management,” said Stockdale.

Sunrun is the No. 2 residential solar company in the U.S. Its hybrid model relies on in-house sales and installation teams, as well as local contractors across the country. Efforts to establish standards and quality control brought mixed results during their tenure, said both men. Often, local contractors would poach jobs from Sunrun salespeople.

GTM reached out to several sales managers currently working at the company, but was not able to get a comment.

Sunrun officials are denying the claims, saying an audit found “no evidence” that sales managers changed the dates of canceled contracts in order to inflate sales numbers. They also say that “megawatts booked” — a term that includes customers with signed contracts who have not yet installed solar — is an operational metric that has no impact on financials. Bookings were not disclosed in Sunrun’s prospectus.

The bookings metric was changed last quarter to reflect only customers with a notice to proceed with an installation, not just a signed contract. Sunrun revised its 2015 megawatts booked by 44 megawatts after the new standard was put in place.

The company is staying quiet. It has not released any “material” information to investors related to the stories. In a prepared statement, CEO Lynn Jurich said an internal review has not yet found evidence of reporting delays.

“We take these issues seriously, so when we first heard about these claims from The Wall Street Journal, we reviewed the digital audit trail in our systems. As to your specific claims, our review to date has turned up no evidence that our sales employees changed cancellation dates in our systems to delay the reporting of cancellations,” read the statement.

Vishal Shah, a managing director at Deutsche Bank, wrote in a research note that the news “appears to be immaterial” to Sunrun’s financial performance thus far.

“RUN never disclosed bookings in the IPO prospectus and…the comments refer to only about 200 homes, which represents roughly 1 MW of bookings, a fairly immaterial number in our view. The company has a much more stringent bookings process in place now compared to a few years ago and installations (as opposed to bookings) are the primary driver of valuation. Net-net, this news appears to be immaterial at this point, although it’s certainly something to watch out for,” wrote Shah.

The Journal reported earlier this month that the Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into whether Sunrun and SolarCity should be reporting cancellation numbers more transparently. Neither company reports exact cancellation rates, but they do report customer acquisition costs. 

On Tuesday, Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer filed a class-action complaint on behalf of investors based on the Journal’s reporting. 

Speaking on stage at GTM’s Solar Summit last week, Jurich did not comment directly on the reported SEC investigation or the exact cancellation rates. But she challenged the assumption that Sunrun had done anything wrong. “I think the sales process is misunderstood and mischaracterized,” she said.

Cancellation rates do not influence direct installation reporting or guidance, explained Jurich. “When we report our publicly disclosed bookings, we subtract cancellations out of the period. And I believe that was also mischaracterized.”

Companies like Sunrun have an incentive to ensure the customer actually installs solar. Once a proposal is delivered, the company starts spending money on the customer — “sending a tech out to their house, customizing a system, spending the time educating the consumer on what solar is, how it works,” said Jurich. “All the money we spend on that sales process is seen in our financial statements.”

Journal sources speculated that Sunrun’s cancellation rate is around 40 percent.

“That sounds about right,” said Jennings, when asked about the number.

Stockdale left Sunrun in January 2016 to work for SolarCity. He said SolarCity’s cancellation rate was “astronomical” — far above Sunrun’s. “That’s part of the reason why they are part of Tesla now.”

In a statement, Jurich described her desire to create a strong, customer-centric company culture.

“There is some judgment in determining when an installation might not proceed — my direction to our employees is to make these calls with integrity and always focused on the customer. I’ve been operating this business for 10 years, and I do it because our planet needs it, and not for short-term financial gain.”

Sunrun stock is up 10 cents since Monday’s news broke.


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Electric Cars Becoming Popular As Grid Gets Greener

KNOXVILLE, TENN. — The amount of heat-trapping pollution that’s released every time Bill Williams drives his electric sedan a mile down a road here has fallen by about a quarter in the three years since he bought it.

Williams’ car hasn’t changed, but the electricity that powers it has. In Tennessee, power once generated overwhelmingly by coal has given way to more nuclear and natural gas power. With the rising number of plug-in models available in the U.S., many at increasingly affordable prices, and with electricity getting greener, the climate benefits of electric cars are growing.

Mark Bishop opens the hood of his Honda Insight, which he converted to run on electricity.
Credit: John Upton/Climate Central

Polls show that Tennesseans are among the least worried nationwide about global warming, yet they support one of America’s healthiest electric car markets. One out of every 400 new cars sold in the state in 2016 could be plugged in, Auto Alliance figures show, ranking Tennessee 11th nationwide. Electric car owners here tend to give other reasons for their purchases and view climate benefits as nice extras.

“The car of the future,” said Williams, a retired federal nuclear worker, beaming as he drove his Tesla Model S after punching the gas to show off its acceleration. “When I went and test drove it and saw it personally, I mean, I just liked everything about it.”

Analysis by Climate Central shows that at least one variety of 2017 all-electric or plug-in hybrid electric car will have a smaller impact on the climate after 100,000 miles of driving than any of its gas-fueled competitors in 37 states, including Tennessee. That’s up from 16 states in 2013 as power grids have become greener.

The most climate-friendly car option in any state depends on its electricity grid. This map shows the top 2017 car type for each state in the U.S. based on its 2015 electricity grid.
Source: EIA

In California, the nation’s leading market for electric cars, where aggressive renewables policies have boosted the environmental benefits of the vehicles, one out of every 50 cars sold last year was a plug-in. In Alabama, which shares its northern border with Tennessee, it was one out of every 1,000.

Electric cars are only as clean as the electricity they’re charged with. Solar, wind and nuclear power are the most climate-friendly sources of electricity, while coal is the worst. Gasoline-fueled cars are powered by oil, which is a major source of heat-trapping pollution.

Climate Central’s analysis also considered the pollution released when cars are manufactured. Because producing the battery and the rest of Williams’ Tesla released such an intense burst of greenhouse gas pollution, and because the retiree only drives 10,000 to 20,000 miles a year, it may be better for the climate if he’d held onto his 2007 Toyota Avalon, which is a relatively efficient gas-fueled sedan.

In terms of climate impacts, sometimes “it’s best to just keep driving whatever car you’re driving” — even if it burns gas, so long as it’s an efficient model, said Greta Shum, a Climate Central researcher who led the analysis. “Electric vehicles have this really high emissions rate just before they get on the road.”

Electric vehicles emit more pounds of CO2 during manufacturing than gas-powered hybrids. However, over 100,000 miles, the average gas-powered hybrid emits more carbon dioxide per mile than the average all-electric vehicle. Emissions above are calculated for the U.S. national electricity mix. 

Lowering greenhouse gas pollution from electricity generation can offset those heavy manufacturing impacts. About a quarter of the electricity being sold by the Tennessee Valley Authority this year is coming from coal, down from nearly 60 percent in 2007. The authority in the fall began operating the first new nuclear power station in America in two decades, and it has been building natural gas power plants and building and buying power from solar and wind farms. Its staff have been investigating the potential impacts of electric vehicle charging on the grid as the sector grows. “What impacts there are can be managed,” said Drew Frye, a power utility engineer.

The Tennessee Valley Authority may be reducing its use of coal, but all of its power isn’t environmentally friendly. Natural gas is a fossil fuel that releases heat-trapping pollution, while nuclear power creates generations-long radioactive waste problems, and hydroelectricity also releases greenhouse gases. Just 3 percent of the authority’s power this year is coming from wind and solar power.

Still, the energy mix is environmentally friendly enough to mean that the three most climate-friendly cars to operate over 100,000 miles in Tennessee are all-electric vehicles — models made by BMW, Mitsubishi and Fiat. In 13 other states, including Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky and North Dakota, heavy coal use means it’s still better for the climate to operate an efficient gas-powered model.

As their climate impacts have gone down, ownership of electric cars in Tennessee has gone up, bolstered by operations at a Nissan factory in Smyrna, a state subsidy program (which has run out of money), and efforts by local and state governments to roll out networks and corridors of public charging stations.

Knoxville resident Bill Williams behind the whell of his Tesla sedan.
Credit: John Upton/Climate Central

Charging stations dot major cities and line freeways between here and Nashville, helping motorists venture further from home without fear of being stranded. Some chargers were installed by local governments. Others are in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants near off-ramps trying to woo customers.

“I think our role here is helping to make it possible for that whole industry to grow, and to encourage people to be those early adopters,” said Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, whose staff oversees 25 public charging stations in nine locations, often at parking garages. Some 400 customers use the stations, charging their cars for an average of 90 minutes at a time. “We wanted to set an example and make them available.”

In a conservative city in a conservative state (60 percent of voters here in Knox County voted for President Trump, similar to Tennessee voters overall), Rogero was elected to her first term in 2011 after running a campaign that emphasized environmental policies. Opposition to environmental values in Knoxville has eased since 10 to 15 years ago, Rogero said, when opponents of urban planning turned out to rail at public meetings against what they saw as a United Nations conspiracy involving a sustainable development action plan called Agenda 21.

Electric car owners in Knoxville tend to point to concerns about issues other than the climate in explaining why they have embraced the technology — typically local air pollution and the effects of crude oil imports from the Middle East. The role of pollution in raising temperatures and worsening droughts, storms and floods is a scientific fact, but discussing “climate change” is considered political and divisive in many places.

Electric cars, which help protect the climate, carry little such political baggage in Tennessee.

“I think it’s just common sense to a lot of people here that gas prices won’t always be low; that driving vehicles that run on American fuels is important to our security, to our safety, to our air quality,” said Melissa Goldberg, project manager at the nonprofit East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition. “Alternative fuels and clean transportation are a transcendent bipartisan issue.”

Brian Blackmon, a sustainability project manager at the city of Knoxville, at an electric vehicle charging station in a downtown parking lot.
Credit: John Upton/Climate Central

Leslie Grossman converted a jeep to run on electricity in 2009 and has become a prominent advocate for electric vehicles in Knoxville. While the stockbroker acknowledges that climate change is a problem, she identifies strongly as conservative and bristles at the notion that climate concerns might motivate her.

“The reason I did it was to eliminate the imbalance in our trade and get us off fossil fuels, because they’re nasty,” Grossman said. “I chose a jeep for my conversion, because I was so tired of hearing narrow-minded people saying, ‘Electric is for wusses,’ or ‘Electric is for sissies.’”

Nissan is producing Leafs at a factory three hours west of Knoxville, helping to establish electric cars as a driving force in the state’s economy. Leafs comprise slightly more than half of the roughly 200 registered electric vehicles in Knox County — far greater than the car’s market share nationally, the Auto Alliance’s data shows. Automotive students at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology learn to repair and maintain electric, hybrid and internal combustion vehicles.

When the students take lessons in electric vehicles, they’re learning about products that are getting cheaper as battery and other manufacturing technology improves. Although they’re still more expensive than traditional alternatives — putting them out of reach of many car buyers on smaller budgets — they can be charged for a fraction of the cost of a tank of gas.

“It depends on what you’re comparing them with,” said Williams, the owner of the Tesla Model S, which starts at $68,000 for a 2017 model. “If you’re going to get an expensive car anyway, then why not?”

While electric cars might become financially competitive over a vehicle’s lifetimes with gas-fueled alternatives by next year in Europe, where gasoline is more expensive than in the U.S., UBS Financial Services projected it could take eight more years to reach similar price parity in America. Federal and some state subsidies are helping the electric vehicles compete in the meantime.

Credit: Climate-Friendly Car Guide 

“The incentive is designed to help consumers and companies in this new marketplace, and the idea, of course, is that over time, that subsidy, which would run out, would not be necessary,” said Alan Baum, an automotive market analyst. “We’re not there yet.”

The future of incentive programs may be in peril, however. Subsidies for electric vehicles purchases have been running out of cash in some states, including Tennessee, and targeted for repeal in others. California drafted clean car standards that are more stringent than federal rules, mandating plug-in vehicle sales, which it and some other states enforce with the help of a federal waiver — a waiver that may be jeopardized under the Trump administration. Federal subsidies could run out for some manufacturers next year, though Congress is considering extending them.

Oscar Smith, an Audi seller in Knoxville whose some 300 sales last year included three e-tron plug-ins, said subsidies are key for making electric cars more appealing. He also said they come with a “cool factor” that can help with sales.

“I see it as the next evolution in automobiles,” said Richard Thigpen, a doctor in Knoxville who has leased a BMW i3 since 2014. Caring for the environment “wasn’t my primary motivation” in going electric, he said, but he wanted a car that could be fueled with American energy. Most of the coal and gas burned in the U.S. is mined or drilled domestically.

“I really like the cool factor,” Thigpen said. “I’m an early adopter — I like what’s new, and it’s just fun to drive.”


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