US solar power is still growing fast — but it's about to hit a speed bump

Solar only accounts for a small 0.6% of U.S. electricity but since the mid-2000s, thanks mostly to Federal tax credits and cheaper (Chinese) panels, solar instillation radically increased (mostly in California). In 2017, the Federal tax credits expire and as Brad Plumer explains, U.S. solar photovoltaic growth might hit a serious speed bump, particularly for residential installation. 

 Image via vox.com

Image via vox.com

Will the solar boom be another false start–like the 1970s–or will the Federal government reinstate the subsidies before they expire in 2017? Will panels prices continue to fall, making unsubsidized or lower subsidies panels affordable? Will Obama's Clean Power Plan make the States pick up the slack? Question to be determined in the coming years.

Apple's Real Carbon Footprint Is In Manufacturing and It's Dirty

Apple Inc. released its 2015 Environmental Responsibility Report this week. In the report, Apple proudly claims that their data centers are running on 100% renewable energy and that their new headquarters in Cupertino will run entirely on renewables (solar plant in nearby Monterey County). Apple is proud to claim that building operations in the USA are moving to 100% renewable. That's great. However, Apple's real carbon footprint is in the vast, vast amount of energy used and CO2 released in manufacturing all of its physical products, mostly in China. 

For example, of the 34 million metric tons of CO2 Apple claims responsibility for in fiscal year 2014, 24.8 million metric tons are in manufacturing and only 0.4 million tons are in facilities. Put another way, 73% of Apple's carbon footprint is in manufacturing, whereas only 1.1% is in facilities. Sorry Apple, switching facilities to renewables is great optics (and still worthwhile) but it is a drop in the bucket of their CO2 footprint. For Apple to meaningfully contribute to reducing global warming they will need to begin to transition their manufacturing partners to renewables. It seems they are now just taking small steps in that direction.

For now, Apple and other manufacturers, and consumers, are contributing both to the localized pollution crisis in China as well as global CO2 emissions. If Apple wants to be a leading corporate environmental steward, as statements by CEO Tim Cook and Lisa Jackson, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives indicate, then it needs to more fully and quickly address the source of their real carbon footprint: the manufacturing of physical products.

Can Louisiana Hold Oil Companies Accountable for its Vanishing Coastline?

A great photo essay series would be "The Political Ecologies of the Age of Oil." A great place to start would be coastal Louisiana. The next place to go would be the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

 Image via thinkprogress.org

Image via thinkprogress.org

CSU Chico Commits to Full Divestment of Fossil Fuel Holdings

Right before the Fall 2014 semester ended big news on the fight against fossil fuels came out of CSU Chico, where I teach: 

Chico State University showed immense leadership as one of the first public universities in the nation to commit to fully divesting from the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies within four years. The resolution, authored by members of Fossil Free California State University, was passed 8 – 4 by the CSU Chico University Foundation.

United States and China Enter Into Bilateral Energy Transition Agreement

An historic deal. We'll have to monitor closely to see what actually happens. Here is the gist as reported by Jeff Spross at ThinkProgress:

The pledge commits the U.S. to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025. This builds on the current target of a 17 percent reduction below that baseline by 2020, and could actually double the pace of emission cuts set by that initial goal — from 1.2 percent a year to as high as 2.8 percent per year. The White House has actually been looking into the possibility of expanding beyond the 2020 target since 2013, and has been involved in occasional interagency meetings to that effect.

For its part, China is committing to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030, and to peak its overall carbon dioxide emissions that same year. China’s construction of renewable energy capacity is already proceeding at a furious pace, and this deal will require the country to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon energy by 2030. For comparison, 800 to 1,000 gigawatts is close to the amount of electricity the U.S. current generates from all sources combined.

In the US, with virtually no solid Congressional support, it will be interesting to see how such a commitment will fair in the short-term, let alone spanning multiple Congressional and Presidential terms. China, on the other hand, with a centralized one-party rule might be able to enable a more consistent and coherent energy transition strategy. It's also important to remember that most of the carbon in the atmosphere now was put there by Europe and the United States over the past 150 years or so. 

Sun and Wind Alter Global Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind

This is a great overview of the energy transition thesis (energiewende, in German). It focuses on the German example and highlights the major disruption renewables will have on utilities markets and business models. Many drastic changes and challenges lie ahead. 

Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.

See also "While Critics Debate Energiewende, Germany is Gaining a Global advantage."