Now that the dust has settled on the COP26 Glasgow meeting, can we say anything has changed? The powers-that-be tell us there are pledges for 85% reduction in deforestation, reduced methane emissions in 80 countries, and an end to financing of overseas fossil-fuel projects by some countries. There was even a call for more US-China cooperation, despite one leader slagging off the other’s no-show. Alas, all a little vague with no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance. Essentially, “the check is in the mail” or more “blah, blah, blah” as Swedish climate crusader Greta Thunberg reminded us yet again. One meme doing the rounds may have put it best, “Number of years leaders have been coming to COP – 26, number of years GHG emissions have dropped – 0.”
Undoubtedly, we are better off for all the agreements, but are we any safer? Is a coming 2.6-degree rise in average global temperatures better than a 2.8-degree rise, when low-lying island nations, at-risk river deltas, and even coastal cities such as Miami will still be swamped, precipitating a migrant crisis unlike we have ever seen? None of us have a crystal ball, but it is well past time to heed the warnings.
Nor do any of us have a magic wand, but some solutions are certainly within our means. Let’s hope that green thinking becomes green reality before it’s too late. Of course, we have had photovoltaic (PV) solar power since Bell Labs engineer Russell Ohl first cut up a piece of baked silicon and shone a flashlight on it in 1939, his colleague Walter Brattain and inventor of the transistor exclaiming, “this was the first time that anybody had ever found a photovoltaic effect in elementary material.” Wind power? — that’s been around since forever.
When the historians look back at the start of solar power in a couple of centuries as we do today at the origins of steam power during the Industrial Revolution, they will wonder why the world was so slow to follow Germany’s lead. Enacting the Renewable Energies Law (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz or EEG) as part of a SDP-Green led-coalition, Germany introduced a novel economic incentive to encourage people to install rooftop solar panels for home use and to sell any excess electricity back to the grid — a so-called “feed-in tariff” (FIT). Signalling to the world the beginning of a renewable, clean-energy, millennium, the EEG bill was passed on February 25, 2000, in Berlin’s newly refurbished Reichstag. Some have called it solar’s Big Bang.
In the first month, applications were received for 35 MW, while the following year broke all records for grid-connected solar installations. Based on an earlier model in Aachen, Germany’s EEG included a feed-in tariff (in $/kWh), a payback period (e.g., 20 years), and a system limit (in kW). With a revised EEG in 2004 to provide more incentive, installations quadrupled in one year from 150 to 600 MW, while Germany’s solar industry grew into a multi-billion-euro industry, employing 25,000 people. By 2008 there were more PV-related jobs than in the coal industry, making Germany the global leader in solar with over 50% of all installations. By 2016, there was over 35 gigawatts of installed solar. Germans are serious about the future and even have a word for “energy transition” — Energiewende.
Although green energy is still a small percentage of worldwide power generation (77% derived from coal, gas, oil, and nuclear), some believe the world can run entirely on renewables given the political desire to remake our old-world infrastructure, using feed-in tariffs, carbon taxes, and the elimination of fossil-fuel exploration and extraction subsidies. In a 2009 Scientific American article, Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi calculated that there is enough energy from renewables to meet a projected 11.5-TW global load in 2030 from a mix of hydroelectric plants, wind turbines, geothermal plants, tidal turbines, wave converters, rooftop photovoltaic, and concentrated solar power (CSP) and PV plants. A joint 2021 US-China study published in Nature Communications noted that wind and solar power alone can power most of the world’s energy needs. The alternative is to build more coal-fired plants, at least 10,000 to cover our growing energy requirements. Or add more natural gas to the mix — a.k.a. methane.
Unfortunately, most governments continue to hamper efforts to rewire the grid, beholden to the past. Spain is one of the sunniest regions in Europe with 100 times more sun than Germany, but the Spanish government made a mess of its solar power strategy, actively discouraging rooftop installation. Spain originally supported solar power with an overly favourable subsidy for utility-scale farms (both PV and CSP) and a large financial investment, but the premium rate on offer racked up huge deficits, which eventually totalled more than €30 billion (~ €6.5 billion per year). By 2013, the Spanish government decided to discontinue the subsidy, effectively killing the domestic solar market and prompting investors to sue for breach of trust. When it had been originally announced in 2007, Spain’s solar-power buy-back at around €0.68/kWh was the world’s most generous “with few strings attached.” After the government bailed, the breakeven time stretched from 10 to 31 years.
In 2015, the Spanish government announced a further tax on feedback solar and household charge storage (such as a Tesla Powerwall), prioritising monopoly control of electrical distribution, disparagingly known as the “sun tax” (impuesto al sol). A world leader in wind power and CSP — both distributed through utility companies — the authorities claimed that a toll was needed on intermittent household users, essentially blocking rooftop solar from being grid-connected. As one Spanish economist noted, “Two years ago, if a taxpayer put a solar panel on his or her roof and recouped the investment, the electricity produced would be cheaper than that provided by a utility. So why aren’t there more solar panels in our cities? Because the electricity companies are writing the rules.”
Encouraging independent power users is not in the interest of the private utility companies, who are generously underwritten by beholden governments. As such, other countries with much less sun than Spain have taken the lead in solar power, although Spain’s so-called sun tax on self-consumption was repealed after a change in government in 2018, prompting a consumer-based surge in new installations. Getting the balance right is never easy, but others would be wise to follow the German model, building from the bottom-up.
Because of Germany’s enlightened policy, by 2006, 1% of the Bavarian grid was solar powered — a world first — while by 2010 the amount had grown to 25% as even barn roofs across the countryside began sprouting solar panels, dubbed “energy farming.” Heinrich Gartner, a pig farmer from Buttenwiesen, Bavaria, installed 10,000 solar panels on his land, generating 1 million kWh of electricity for his own needs as well as 1,500 nearby homes. The cost was a whopping $5 million, but because of a guaranteed government buy-back rate, the panels were seen as an investment. As Gartner explained, “It was a lot of work to convince the bank, [but] we have a fixed price for the next 20 years that is guaranteed. That means we have every year an income of about 550 to 600 thousand U.S. dollars.”
Availing of guaranteed buyback rates, many of the early adopters were citizen groups, Bürgerenergie who banded together to install local solar panels and wind turbines to save money. Today, 38% of net electricity consumption in Germany comes from renewables (biomass, photovoltaics, onshore and offshore wind, and hydro), 7.5% from PV or about 40 GW distributed over 1.5 million individual systems, compared to 14% worldwide (primarily biomass and hydro) with less than 1% PV. In Germany, the monthly utility bill even comes with a breakdown of green and non-green components. (Of course, biomass and hydro may be renewable but aren’t exactly green.)
The German FIT model was so successful that the government buyback decreased from a high of €0.58/kWh in 2004 to €0.12/kWh in 2017 for small PV roof systems and less than €0.10/kWh for ground-mounted and large roof systems. By 2021, when the guaranteed buyback became too high to continue to support an already mature industry, Germany did away with its groundbreaking FIT in favour of lowest-bid auctions. In part because of Germany’s phenomenal success, the EU is aiming to implement even more solar than originally planned across Europe.
How a government incentivizes budgetary spending is a major indicator of a country’s attitude to industry, innovation, and economic well-being. In the US in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan cut solar spending by more than half ($707 to $303 million), yet increased nuclear funding by $300 million to $1.6 billion, while in 2007 George W. Bush requested just $148 million for a solar initiative program, but continued to provide billion-dollar subsidies to oil and gas ($6 billion), coal ($9 billion), and nuclear ($12 billion). While some complain about solar subsidies — ignoring the billions spent annually to bolster the already mature fossil-fuel and nuclear industries — subsidies are clearly needed to help implement infrastructural change. New energy adoption is as much about the politics as it is about technology. In some countries, the market is all about who’s in charge.
In the United States, the private-public breakdown of utilities is roughly 50-50, although, in most states, utilities are required to “buy” power generated by solar-connected customers, known as “net metering” — running the utility meter backwards, though only enough to reduce the bill to zero. The state of Hawaii leads the US in percentage rooftop installations, accounting for 12% of the state’s total electrical supply in 2015, 20 times higher than the national average, increasing to 16% by 2020 (California has by far the largest total installed solar at about 30 GW). As noted in a PBS News Hour report, “They’re everywhere on Oahu: on the roofs of businesses, libraries, and one house after another.” Hawaii’s lead is not surprising given its dependence on expensive, shipped-in diesel fuel and a beneficial, sun-drenched tropical latitude (Honolulu is at 21.3°), although most of the US receives more average sun than Germany, the world leader in rooftop solar since its 2000 energy-sector revamp. Alas, in Hawaii, the tax incentive was eventually discontinued. Clean, renewable energy is never about location, but political will.
Just as the rail systems of Europe and the United States were built with government backing, infrastructure requires financing. The Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and the Tennessee Valley Authority were all deemed important national projects worthy of generous federal aid. Not surprising, all are utility run. Solar has not been as fortunate, although a U.S. federal investment tax credit reduces new system costs by up to 30%, various states offer further reductions, and where available net metering pays grid-connected homes for excess energy to allow customers to pay at most nothing. On their own, some companies are installing solar systems for free with customer-friendly leases (e.g., 20 years), while others are building solar-ready homes with no upfront installation costs and a reduction in electricity bills guaranteed for a set time (e.g., a 20% reduction for 20 years). In the UK, one of the world’s fastest growing solar regions, one can get free PV installation, maintenance, insurance, and a reduction in the energy bill for the duration of a guaranteed government feed-in tariff, alas limited by a new tax.
To be sure, power utilities can’t make money if customers are generating their own electricity and receiving government-subsidized higher prices for doing so (for now), but many are legal monopolies, more interested in the bottom line than promoting alternative energy or off-grid schemes. Profit is the main motivation at the expense of a captive customer base. When pressed to incorporate greener systems, the utility companies prefer centrally run power plants — either large solar or wind farms — to independent renewables and certainly not off-grid rooftop solar. Conservation is even discouraged and wasteful consumption encouraged to keep the meter ever rolling over.
Currently providing only a small percentage of electrical use, rooftop solar in the US is such an existential threat to the central-plant model that some states such as Oklahoma and Arizona initiated surcharges (~ $5/month) to discourage growth and maintain the control of electrical distribution by their long-established monopolies, while elsewhere mysterious new grid-connection fees are routinely applied. Political lobbyists from the utility and fossil-fuel industries such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, largely funded by Koch Industries, have also tried to remove net-metering policies in at least 20 states. Conversely, in Germany, a priority connection was granted for any PV system and a competitive FIT guaranteed for 20 years, reduced by 5% per annum.
In Nevada, one of the world’s most plentiful solar regions, receiving 90% days with clear, bright sunshine, the state government discontinued its 1990s’ net-metering policy, essentially destroying a budding rooftop solar market and the hopes of 17,000 homeowners who had installed rooftop systems, some bought outright for as much as $48,000 or leased from SolarCity. One resident blamed Warren Buffet, whose Berkshire Hathaway Energy subsidiary, NV Energy, owns the monopoly power company: “It doesn’t make any sense. Nevada’s bait-and-switch tactics bringing the solar companies in — oh we love you — and then kicking them out so that Warren Buffet can buy an extra airplane.” Actor Mark Ruffalo called the Nevada Public Utility Commission an “anti Robin Hood.” Others wondered about the knock-on effect in other monopoly-run states.
Tellingly, in 2013, Buffet’s MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company (renamed Berkshire Hathaway Energy in 2014), bought Topaz, located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the then world’s largest PV solar farm at 550 MW, as well as Solar Star located about 60 miles north of Los Angeles, the then world’s next largest PV installation at 580 MW. Topaz and Solar Star are both large, central power plants, operating under a lucrative purchase power agreement (PPA), which together power more than 350,000 homes in the southern California market. Jim Hughes, CEO of First Solar, noted that “There’s lots of talk around distributed generation, and yet the bulk of the photovoltaics added on a global basis is still utility-scale … [and] will continue to be utility-scale.”
In Cape Coral, Florida, a judge even ruled that off-grid living was illegal, preventing one resident from living in her house without a power-company connection. Using collected rainwater, a cistern, and solar panels instead of public utilities, she became a local cause célèbre, choosing to fight the court order to hook her house up to the city sewer system, and was eventually evicted and jailed on trumped-up animal cruelty charges. The judge also ordered that her solar panels be approved by the city.
You can’t make this stuff up. But solar power has always had a chequered past in the United States. As if a throwback to small-scale power in Edison’s 1882 Pearl Street station, the 1978 Public Utility RPA Act (PURPA) was the impetus for building renewable energy systems, at last permitting clean energy to compete with established utilities to give the American consumer a choice. But although PURPA required utility companies to purchase outside power up to 80 MW, encouraging smaller renewable-energy power generation and distributed resources more suited to local consumers, new installations were still slow to emerge across much of the country. Alarmingly, some utilities even actively worked to stop rooftop solar from growing, rather than adapt their business to provide needed services. As Bob Johnstone noted in Switching to Solar, “[W]hat California’s giant investor-owned utilities especially didn’t like about PV was the prospect of losing market share. They feared an unbridled, customer-driven solar market.”
One pioneering and forward-thinking utility, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), has offered renewable solutions to customers for decades, such as grid buybacks, net metering, and integrated solar panels for new-home construction — half the growth in electrical demand in the California market — but the dominant utility-led fossil-fuel industry was never going to let a local-run, profit-busting, solar paradigm in without a fight. Progressive leasing ideas and feed-in tariffs in the 1990s were thwarted from spreading to Berkeley and Desert Palms, while in the expansionist post-war subdivision building period of the ‘50s and ‘60s alternative-powered homes were even threatened with exclusion from the grid.
To encourage solar installation, one must ease customer anxiety and guarantee a fair rate of return to offset high start-up costs. Just as car loans stimulated the emerging car market in the early 1900s — initially anathema to Henry Ford — some type of guaranteed buyback is needed to encourage PV use. Not everyone can afford the large upfront costs associated with going solar, and thus affordable financing is essential to provide access to the market for all.
In reality, a FIT is just another PPA given to a utility to guarantee a future market. And while rebates encourage sales, such subsidies are regressive if they only end up helping wealthy homeowners who can already afford the high upfront costs. More than half of all states now have an RPS (renewable portfolio standard) to support wind and solar, where utilities must generate a minimal percentage of renewable energy subject to noncompliance penalties, ranging from 8.5% by 2026 in Ohio to 60% by 2030 in California (as of 2021). Encouraging household micro-suppliers, however, has lagged behind utility operators, not surprising given a systematic preference for the top-down, corporate business model.
In California, after many disastrous years of corrupt energy trading and regular brownouts — not least because of Enron’s fraudulent accounting — and following numerous failed initiatives to get solar up and running, including the 2003 Senate Bill 289 that tried to set targets for new residential solar systems and a revamped Self-Generation Incentive Program, California Senate Bill 1 (SB1) finally became law in 2006, jump-starting a stagnating solar industry and turning the sun loose on the open market. SB1 mandated rebates of $3 billion, increased net metering, and standardized solar on all new homes built after 2011.
The change was spearheaded by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the cigar-smoking, 14-miles-per-gallon-Hummer-driving, body-building actor turned governor. An unlikely champion, who cut his environmental teeth in the 1970s after arriving in California and stinging his eyes in the heavy LA smog while pumping iron on Muscle Beach, Schwarzenegger chose a Japanese-style rebate system over the German-style feed-in tariff system, knowing he could never get the utilities to pay their customers.
Long a leader in clean energy, California has enacted numerous laws over the years to increase its green mix, creating jobs, providing cleaner air, and lowering GHG emissions. The 2006 AB32 (Assembly Bill 32 or the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006) mandated a 25% cut in GHG emissions by 2020 (to 1990 levels), while then governor Jerry Brown signed the 2011 SB2, increasing the amount of electricity generated by renewable energy from 20% to 33% by 2020 (via the 2002 Renewables Portfolio Standard), which was further updated in 2015 to 50% by 2030. In 2017, there were even calls for half of all electricity in California to be generated from renewables five years earlier and 100% by 2045 (SB584). The bill’s sponsor, state Senator Kevin de León, noted that “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”
Lancaster, California, a town of almost 150,000 inhabitants 40 miles north of LA, became the first American city to require all new homes to have at least 1 kW of solar. Encouraging public-private partnerships and a simplified bureaucracy, its mayor stated “In Lancaster, a solar installer is issued a permit within fifteen minutes, but eight miles south in Palmdale, it takes two months.” Hoping to make Lancaster “the solar capital of the universe,” the city changed its building code in 2013 to introduce Creative Renewable Energy Zones (CREZs) that soon generated 27 MW of distributed solar, including 7.5 MW on school rooftops. With new construction part of the game, the hope is that household solar will become even more popular as homeowners expand beyond the mandated 1-kW requirements.
Of course, the private utilities are fighting back, a coterie of well-established fossil-fuel advocates such as Koch Industries, which owns vast interests in centralized power generation, including petroleum, coal, and utility-scale solar. What’s more, many politicians on the right are subsidized by the coal, oil, and natural gas extraction companies that need government support to ensure easy access to land (as are a few on the supposed left). Just as in the days of old, when John D. Rockefeller could change the energy landscape overnight with a little help from his government friends while thwarting all who dared compete with Standard Oil, converting from petroleum to renewables is a hard slog.
There is a fortune tied up in fossil fuels, despite the solar industry ranking second in energy employment with more than 370,000 jobs, passing the 360,000 jobs in the gas industry for the first time in 2017. Although new-energy plants are less job-intensive, since automation requires fewer workers, new infrastructure demands more workers. Energy efficiency is also one of the fastest-growing business sectors, where according to a U.S. government report, there are 2.18 million energy-efficiency jobs, more than double the fossil-fuel industry, all of which are cheaper to create, including jobs in recycling and Energy Star appliances.
Fossil-fuel lobbying continues, however, to support an entrenched political machinery and its vigorous pro-petroleum, anti-global-warming stance. Foremost are those who have spent millions in “dark money” to pay writers to deny climate change (essentially industrial trolls), highlighted by a former Trump-appointed Environmental Protection Agency chief who denied that atmospheric carbon caused global warming. Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute (EPI) states “in effect, taxpayers’ money is being used to subsidize climate change,” while the EPI’s Emily Adams added that fossil fuels are not properly valued, noting “The energy game is rigged in favor of fossil fuels because we omit the environmental and health costs of burning coal, oil, and natural gas from their prices. Subsidies manipulate the game even further.”
Adams cites conservative estimates that global fossil-fuel subsidies were over $600 billion in 2011, half in oil, while fossil-fuel subsidies in the United States may amount to $200 billion “in lost labor productivity, healthcare costs, increased energy expenditures, coastal damages,” not to mention the hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks. A 2017 collaborative report initiated by Oil Change International, entitled Talk is Cheap, calculated that fossil-fuel funding in G20 countries was 4 times that of renewables — 6 times in Japan compared to almost parity in Germany. Even China, which has been curbing coal use and ramping up renewable-energy infrastructure, provided “$13.5bn for fossil fuels but just $85m for green energy,” while Germany “provided $3.5bn of public finance for fossil fuels, compared with $2.4bn for renewables.”
As William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling state in Blowout in the Gulf, “the oil industry gets so many tax breaks that the net result is to ‘reduce economic efficiency,’ or to hurt the overall economy, doing so by diverting money away from other industries that might actually make better use of the investment dollars.” What’s more, generous tax breaks for American oil companies have existed for decades, yet the American taxpayer stills receives less oil revenue than almost anywhere else.
One can certainly argue that Germany was subsidizing solar to the tune of about €5 billion per year via their 2000 feed-in-tariff that guaranteed an electricity buyback for solar-generated power at 6 times the wholesale price. That same subsidy, however, led to a much-improved PV technology and reduced cost to solar power (a.k.a. “the learning curve”), which was repealed after a sufficient maturing period and now undercuts its brown competitors.
Clearly, the oil and gas industry is still being funded beyond an essential level of development as intended by early subsidies and to the detriment of other technologies. Special treatment for fossil-fuel companies is in fact worse than ensuring preferred political access because of deterred innovation. The U.S. Outer Continental Shelf Deepwater Royalty Relief Act of 1995, for example, “allowed lease holders to produce millions of barrels of oil and billions of cubic feet of natural gas without paying any royalties to the American taxpayer,” a policy that encouraged more extraction in a time of diminished supplies while discouraging the development of alternatives.
No industry can develop on its own without investment. But just as Europe turned to diesel cars with government assistance — stopped after NOx contamination became too great and the VW emissions cheating scandal blew the lid off of supposed clean diesel — the same support is needed to help renewable energy, electric vehicles, and storage batteries. As noted in a London School of Economics report, entitled A Global Apollo Project to Combat Climate Change, world-wide publicly funded R&D for renewable energy totalled just $6 billion in 2015, a drop in the bucket compared to over $500 billion dollars in annual subsidies for fossil fuels, and less than 2% of total government R&D expenditure.
Based on the gap between existing and efficient prices (supply costs, environmental costs, and revenue considerations), a 2019 IMF study pegged annual fossil-fuel subsidies at over $5 trillion or 6.5% of global GDP, when a level playing field could have cut global carbon emissions by almost a third, air pollution deaths by half, and increased government revenues by almost 4% of GDP. No one can tackle global warming and pollution with one hand tied behind one’s back.
Even with the enormous imbalance between subsidies for fossil fuels and renewables, however, grid parity is already here, but as Bruce Usher notes in Renewable Energy, grid parity can be a misleading concept between those in favour of renewable energy “who decry the costs of negative externalities arising from the burning of fossil fuels” and those backing continued use of fossil fuels “who point to the implicit value of providing baseload and dispatchable power.” Of course, despite an inherent intermittency and lack of baseload capacity for renewable energy, if subsidies (much more generous for fossil fuels) and negative externalities (pollution and GHG emissions) were included in the accounting the costs wouldn’t be close. The negative externalities cannot be managed (for example by carbon offsets) or swept aside anymore as the cost of doing business, from obvious pollution and global warming to propping up of politically unstable regions or war to maintain supply.
The authors of the LSE report, lead by the former U.K. chief scientific adviser Sir David King, have called for a major programme of publicly-funded renewables research, stating the importance of nurturing new technologies as in the past, some of which are now the foundations of our modern world economy, such as the computer, semiconductors, and satellite communications. They wonder too why a privately funded oil and gas industry remains so protected and preferentially favoured.
One wonders how much faster renewable-energy technologies could be implemented if the political will existed to ensure fair regulation and government aid on par with other industries. More than two centuries after the start of the Industrial Revolution, we are stuck with an outdated mindset of adding to old technologies and maintaining failing systems rather than implementing viable new technologies. Sadly, the immense financial benefit to those in charge provides no incentive to change a failed status quo.
As noted by American abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. Never has and never will,” especially the battle for public control of presumed private enterprise. After COP26, let’s hope something can finally change.
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