Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Wind energy is growing fast. While it still accounts for less than 5 percent of the United States' total electricity mix, wind is by far the biggest source of renewable energy other than hydroelectric dams, and it accounted for 23 percent of new power production capacity built last year. Some experts think wind could provide a fifth of the world's energy by 2030. But wind in the US is always in a perilous position, thanks to its heavy reliance on a federal tax credit that is routinely attacked in Congress; the subsidy was allowed to expire at the end of last year, and its ultimate fate remains unclear.
Fortunately, wind won't be subject to the whims of legislators for much longer, according to a new analysis from the Energy Department. The new report found that within a decade, wind will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels like natural gas, even without a federal tax incentive.
Cost reductions and technology improvements will reduce the price of wind power to below that of fossil-fuel generation, even after a $23-per-megawatt-hour subsidy provided now to wind farm owners ends, according to a report released Thursday.
"Wind offers a power resource that's already the most competitive option in many parts of the nation," Lynn Orr, under secretary for science and energy at the Energy Department, said on a conference call with reporters. "With continued commitment, wind can be the cheapest, cleanest power option in all 50 states by 2050."
That would be a huge win for slowing climate change. The report finds that it could also lead to billions of dollars of benefits to the American public, from lower monthly electric bills to fewer air-pollution-related deaths.
On March 20, Europe will experience a total solar eclipse for a few hours in the morning. The last time an eclipse of this scale happened in Europe was in 1999. Back then, Germany got less than 1 percent of its power from solar energy. Today, Germany is the world's most solar-dependent country, drawing nearly 7 percent of its electricity from the sun. So when the passing moon blots out the sun, will the country's lights go out too?
Over the last couple months, that question has gotten plenty of attention in the German media. In September, Der Spiegel reported that some power companies were afraid the eclipse would leave the power grid "dangerously unstable." In February, the business weekly Wirtschafts Wochewarned that factories could suddenly lose power if electric supply doesn't keep pace with demand.
"It's fair to say that this is the most dramatic intersection ever between a solar eclipse and solar energy," one analyst said.
Still, the view among most energy experts is that the eclipse will come and go with no noticeable effect for consumers. That's because the country's utility companies have spent months preparing for what is essentially an unprecedented test of the futuristic German grid, which is a model for clean-energy advocates in the United States.
"Some of the hype ahead of the eclipse served to focus minds," said R. Andreas Kraemer, a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. Power companies "relish the upcoming opportunity to show how they can handle that challenge professionally."
So what's the big deal, exactly? The sun goes down every night, of course, and Germany is quite accustomed to cloudy days (it gets about as much sunshine as Alaska). The difference with a solar eclipse is the speed at which sunlight will disappear from, and then return to, the power system. All electric grids operate on the fundamental principle that supply and demand must always be in perfect equilibrium, second-by-second. That dynamic becomes complicated when so much of your power comes from a source like solar, over which grid operators have zero control. And it's especially tricky when the fluctuation is so rapid and extreme.
Typically, Germans can rely on coal-fired power plants to pick up the slack at night, when power demand is relatively low anyway. But those can take many hours to fire up, and the eclipse is expected to make solar output dip nearly three times faster than normal, according to a recent analysis by energy software company Opower.
"It's fair to say that this is the most dramatic intersection ever between a solar eclipse and solar energy," Opower analyst Barry Fischer said.
Generally speaking, a byproduct of the clean-energy revolution is an increasing need to replace the old grid model—which relied almost exclusively on a small number of big, inflexible power plants—with a highly flexible suite of interconnected options. So the eclipse is a chance to test just how responsive and adaptive Germany's new grid can be. The outcome will be a valuable lesson for US grid managers who are looking to a much more solar-heavy future.
Take a look at the bite the eclipse will take out of Germany's solar production, according to Opower:
The exact change will depend the weather that day; if it's already cloudy, the drop will be less drastic. (The current forecast for Munich—which is in Bavaria, the province with the most solar—is partly cloudy on that day.)
The temporary hole left by the eclipse will be filled by natural gas plants, which fire up relatively quickly, and possibly by the release of extra hydropower. And utilities have the option of communicating directly with heavy power users—big manufacturing facilities, for instance—and asking them to slow down production for an hour to ease the burden. It's a bit like an orchestra conductor calling on an array of instruments in real time to keep up a steady flow of music.
Moreover, Kraemer pointed out that the eclipse won't happen all at once; it's not like flipping a switch. As the moon's shadow moves across the country, the impact on solar will be phased in and out geographically.
A final option is energy storage, where solar power from the previous day could be kept in giant batteries and released during the eclipse. Utility-scale storage is still in its infancy, and it won't be on the table next week. But a spokesperson for Germany's solar-energy trade association said that solution could be up and running in time for the next major eclipse…in 2048.
Scott Walker is killing it with Republicans. The Wisconsin governor is one of his party's rising stars—thanks to his ongoing and largely successful war against his state's labor unions, a fight that culminated Monday with the signing of a controversial "right-to-work" bill.
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
Now (for the moment, anyway), he's a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. At the Conservative Political Action Conference a couple weeks ago, he polled a close second to three-time winner Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), beating the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by a significant margin.
It probably won't surprise you to learn that none of the prospective GOP presidential candidates are exactly champions of the environment. Probably the least bad is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who at least acknowledges that climate change is real and caused by human activity. Walker just might be the worst. He hasn't said much about the science of global warming. (In the video above, you can watch him tell a little kid that his solution to the problem will center on keeping campsites clean, or something.) But his track record of actively undermining pro-environment programs and policies while supporting the fossil fuel industry is arguably lengthier and more substantive than that of his likely rivals.
"He really has gone after every single piece of environmental protection: Land, air, water—he's left no stone unturned," said Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. "It's hard to imagine anyone has done worse."
Here's a rundown of Walker's inglorious history of anti-environmentalism.
Attacking Obama's climate agenda: Walker is a key figure in the GOP's battle against President Barack Obama's flagship climate policy—the proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules that are designed to reduce the carbon footprint of the nation's electricity sector 30 percent by 2030. The rules will likely require states to retrofit or shutter some of their coal-fired power plants. That could be a big deal in Wisconsin, which gets 62 percent of its power from coal.
Walker "has gone after every single piece of environmental protection," says Kerry Schumann of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. "It's hard to imagine anyone has done worse."
In a letter to the EPA in December, Walker said the plan would be "a blow to Wisconsin residents and business owners." He cited an analysis from his state's Public Service Commission that predicted household electric bills would skyrocket. They won't, necessarily, since the state has a lot of options—including boosting renewables and energy efficiency—that it could use to meet its EPA carbon target without jeopardizing the power grid. But rather than preparing for the new rules, Walker seems bent on stonewalling them. In January he announced that his new attorney general was already preparing a lawsuit against the EPA, a move that was lauded by the Wisconsin director of the Koch Brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity. Walker has also signed a pledge, devised by Americans for Prosperity, that he will oppose any legislation relating to climate change—presumably a cap-and-trade plan or a carbon tax—that would result in a "net increase in government revenue."
Indeed, Walker has close ties to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who made a fortune in fossil fuels and who for years poured money into groups that cast doubt on the science of climate change. They own paper factories and a network of gasoline supply terminals in Wisconsin, and they have an interest in the state's trove of "frac sand" (more on that below). Koch Industries gave $43,000 to Walker's 2010 election campaign, and just after he took office, the Kochs doubled their lobbying force in Madison. In 2011 and 2012, David Koch and Americans for Prosperity spent $11 million backing Walker's agenda and his successful effort to avoid being recalled.
Turning off clean energy: As much as he apparently supports fossil fuel development, Walker has taken steps to put the brakes on clean energy. Last month, he released a budget proposal that would drain $8.1 million from a leading renewable energy research center in the state. That same budget, however, would pump $250,000 into a study on the potential health impacts of wind turbines. (Wind energy opponents have long suggested that inaudible sound waves from turbines can cause insomnia, anxiety, and other disorders, although independent research has repeatedlyfound these claims are more connected to NIMBYism than legitimate medical concerns.) Walker's budget would also cut $4 million in state subsidies for municipal recycling programs. That, at least, is an improvement over his first budget as governor, which proposed to eliminate recycling subsidies altogether.
Those numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to other types of energy sources. Even though solar still accounts for a small share of US electricity generation (less than 1 percent), last year it added nearly as many new megawatts to the grid as natural gas, which is quickly catching up on coal as the country's primary energy source. (Coal, you can see, added almost nothing new in 2014.)
The report points to three chief reasons for the boom. First, costs are falling, not just for the panels themselves but for ancillary expenses like installation and financing, such that overall prices fell by 10 percent compared to 2013. Second, falling costs have allowed both large utility companies and small third-party solar installers to pursue new ways to bring solar to customers, including leasing panels and improved on-site energy storage. Third, federal incentives and regulations have been relatively stable in the last few years, while state incentives are generally improving, particularly in states like California and Nevada that have been leading the charge.
One more chart worth pointing out: Rooftop solar tends to get the most press because that's where homeowners and solar companies get into tussles with big incumbent power companies and the state regulators that often side with them. And it's true that a new home gets solar more often than a giant solar farm gets constructed. But on a sheer megawatt basis, utility-scale solar is still far and away the leading source, with a few notable projects coming online in 2014, like the Topaz Solar project in the California desert, the largest solar installation in the world.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has a different idea. It involves wolves. Specifically, releasing grey wolves into the districts of 79 of his peers in Congress who had recently called for greater protections for the endangered species.
"How many of you have got wolves in your district?" he asked. "None. None. Not one."
"They haven’t got a damn wolf in their whole district," Young continued. "I’d like to introduce them in your district. If I introduced them in your district, you wouldn’t have a homeless problem anymore."
If you're unfamiliar with Don Young, he is renowned for his outlandish antics, mostly about animals, like that time he brandished an 18-inch walrus penis bone on the House floor or the time he called climate change the "biggest scam since Teapot Dome" (a major bribery scandal in the 1920s involving the Harding administration).
A Young spokesperson told the Post that the comment was "purposely hyperbolic."