Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

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.

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Solar Power Is Mostly for the Affluent. Here's Obama's Plan to Spread the Wealth Around.

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 12:33 PM EDT
President Barack Obama speaks after touring a solar facility in Nevada in 2012.

Rooftop solar power systems cost a lot less these days than they did five or 10 years ago, and with many solar companies now offering leases and loans, it's safe to say that going solar is more affordable than even before. That trend goes a long way to explaining why solar, while still making up less than 1 percent of the total US energy mix, is the fastest-growing power source in the country.

But access to solar power is still overwhelmingly skewed toward affluent households. Of the roughly 645,000 homes and business with rooftop solar panels in the US, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000, according to a report earlier this year from the George Washington University Solar Institute. The typical solar home is 34 percent larger than the typical non-solar home, according to energy software provider Opower.

President Barack Obama wants to change that. On Monday the White House announced a package of initiatives to make solar more accessible for low-income households. The plans include a new solar target for federally subsidized housing and an effort to increase the availability of federally insured loans for solar systems.

Of the country's 645,000 solar homes and businesses, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000.

Low-income households face a number of barriers to going solar. They're less likely to own their own roof, less able to access loans or other financing options for solar, and more likely to have subsidized utility bills that don't transfer the financial benefits of solar to the homeowner. And yet, in many ways low-income households stand to benefit the most from producing their own energy: The proportion of their income spent on energy is about four times greater than the national median, according to federal statistics. And because lower-income households tend to use less electricity overall than higher-income households, a typical solar setup covers more of their demand. The GW study found that a 4 kilowatt solar system, about the average size for a house, would cover more than half of a typical low-income household's energy needs and that if all low-income households went solar, they would collectively save up to $23.3 billion each year.

"[This is] aimed at taking directly on those challenges and making it easier and straightforward to deploy low-cost solar energy in every community in the country," senior White House climate advisor Brian Deese told reporters in a call yesterday.

The initiative starts by tripling the target for solar on federally subsidized housing to 300 megawatts by 2020, as well as directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide technical guidance for state and local housing authorities on how to go solar. The White House also announced more than $520 million in commitments from private companies, investors, NGOs, and state and local governments to pay for energy efficiency and solar projects for low-income households. The initiative places particular emphasis on so-called "community" solar, in which groups of households pool resources to build and maintain a shared solar system in their neighborhood.

Some states and power companies are already angling to support solar for low-income housing. Arizona Public Service, a Phoenix-area utility, recently launched a $28.5 million program to install its own solar panels on rooftops in its service area, specifically targeting low-income households. And New York's electricity regulators recently bolstered incentives for power companies that invest in energy efficiency and renewables. Con Ed, the power company serving most of New York City, plans to spend $250 million on such upgrades in Brooklyn and Queens, as an alternative to a $1 billion upgrade to the old natural gas-fired electric grid.

The president's plan builds on a commitment he announced earlier this year to train 75,000 workers for the solar industry (which is already adding jobs 10 times faster than the overall economy). It also dovetails neatly with Obama's larger climate objectives, especially his hotly-contested plan to reduce the nation's energy-related carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, as well as the economy-wide climate targets that form the US bargaining chip for this year's UN climate negotiations in Paris.

For all those promises to work, "the question is how states and utilities can reduce their emissions, and the buildings that they serve are a critical part of that system," said Natural Resources Defense Council financial policy analyst Philip Henderson. "Making those buildings more efficient and using less energy from dirty power plants is a direct and essential way to meet those goals."    

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EPA: Fracking Doesn't Pose "Widespread, Systemic" Danger to Drinking Water

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 12:02 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency today released a long-awaited draft report on the impact of fracking on drinking water supplies. The analysis, which drew on peer-reviewed studies as well as state and federal databases, found that activities associated with fracking do "have the potential to impact drinking water resources." But it concluded that in the United States, these impacts have been few and far between.

The report identifies several possible areas of concern, including: "water withdrawals in times of, or in areas with, low water availability; spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of water."

However, the report says, "We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."

The report considered not only the hydraulic fracturing action itself, but all of the water-related steps necessary to drill, from acquiring water to disposing of it. Here's an illustration from the report:


The report, which the Obama administration had hoped would provide a definitive answer to a core question about the controversial drilling technique, has been five years in the making. During that time, the EPA has faced numerous battles with the oil and gas industry to procure necessary data. Even before the report was released, some scientists voiced skepticism about its findings because of gaps in the data regarding what types of chemicals were present in water supplies prior to fracking activities.

As Inside Climate News explains:

For the study's findings to be definitive, the EPA needed prospective, or baseline, studies. Scientists consider prospective water studies essential because they provide chemical snapshots of water immediately before and after fracking and then for a year or two afterward. This would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers, and the findings could highlight industry practices that protect water. In other studies that found toxic chemicals or hydrocarbons in water wells, the industry argued that the substances were present before oil and gas development began.  

Prospective studies were included in the EPA project's final plan in 2010 and were still described as a possibility in a December 2012 progress report to Congress. But the EPA couldn't legally force cooperation by oil and gas companies, almost all of which refused when the agency tried to persuade them.

Well, Well, Well, Look Who Just Endorsed a Bold Fix For Climate Change

| Tue Jun. 2, 2015 4:38 PM EDT
Shell's Arctic drilling rig docked in Seattle last month. The company now supports carbon pricing but hasn't changed plans to drill for oil.

Oil companies are pretty much the last ally you'd think of when it comes to advancing big-picture solutions to climate change. These are the companies, after all, whose product is responsible for causing a significant amount of climate change in the first place—and pretty much every proposed fix for global warming necessarily involves burning less oil.

So it came as a bit of a surprise Monday when six of the leading European oil companies, including BP and Shell, unveiled a letter addressed to the United Nations climate chief calling for a price on carbon emissions (read the full letter below).

"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of ongoing UN-led international climate negotiations, the letter said. This week representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to prepare for a summit in Paris this winter where they hope to produce a powerful global accord on fighting climate change. The letter called on the world's governments to create new national carbon markets where they don't currently exist (like most of the United States, for example), and to eventually link those markets internationally.

"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of global climate talks, a letter from several European oil companies said.

As Bloomberg Business pointed out, the letter is "unprecedented," in that it's the first time a group of major oil companies have banded together to advocate for a serious climate change policy. It was welcomed by the UN's top climate official, Christiana Figueres, who said that the "oil and gas industry must be a major part of the solution to climate change."

Most environmental economists and policy wonks agree that making companies pay for their carbon pollution—whether through a tax or a cap-and-trade system—is a fundamental step for any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The basic idea is that making carbon pollution expensive will drive big polluters to clean up. Policies like this are already gathering steam across the globe, from Canada to China. (California and a few Northeast states have regional carbon markets, but a national carbon price is still a non-starter in the US Congress.) Recently, Australia demonstrated just how effective carbon pricing can be, in a counterintuitive way: Carbon emissions dropped immediately after the country implemented a carbon tax, then jumped right back up when the tax was repealed.

If Monday's letter is any clue, oil companies are reading the writing on the wall, and they know that one way or another, it's time to start planning for a future when carbon pollution is more expensive and tightly regulated. Well, some oil companies: Conspicuously absent from the letter are any US oil companies, like Chevron or ExxonMobil; all the signatories are European. In fact, just last week Exxon chief Rex Tillerson implicitly blasted his European peers for cozying up to the UN on climate issues, saying his company wouldn't "fake it" on climate change and that investing in renewable energy is tantamount to "losing money on purpose."

The head of French oil giant Total addressed the cross-Atlantic schism in comments to Reuters, saying that the European companies were set on throwing their weight behind carbon pricing "without necessarily waiting for an American to come on board."

Although carbon pricing "obviously adds a cost to our production and our products," the letter says, the companies would prefer consistency and predictability over the patchwork of policies that exists now. In other words, it's easier to justify and plan investments in lower-carbon projects, such as replacing coal with natural gas, when carbon prices are stable and "even-handed," the letter said. At the same time, these companies have come under increasing pressure from shareholders to address how they'll stay profitable in the future, as restrictions on carbon emissions are tightened.

To that end, a few of the signatories already have their own internal "shadow" carbon price, where investment options are calculated with a hypothetical carbon price added in, as a way of anticipating future policies.

Still, progressive-sounding statements notwithstanding, oil companies are oil companies, and the letter gives no indication that any of them have plans to replace fossil fuels as their primary product. Shell, for one, is just weeks away from a new foray into offshore drilling in the Arctic. And according to Bloomberg, the European companies are no better than their American counterparts in terms of their actual carbon footprint. So it remains to be seen how committed the companies will be to supporting sweeping changes to the global energy system, or if letters like this are just a clever way to stay relevant as the international climate talks forge ahead. Either way, the paradox of a corporation calling for a carbon price while still pursuing fossil fuel extraction is just more evidence that the free market won't fix climate change voluntarily—governments have to create new policies, like an international carbon price, that energy companies can't evade.

Here's the letter:

Mon Nov. 9, 2015 2:39 PM EST
Wed Nov. 4, 2015 11:38 AM EST
Fri Oct. 30, 2015 2:18 PM EDT
Fri Oct. 23, 2015 12:46 PM EDT
Tue Sep. 22, 2015 3:41 PM EDT
Thu Sep. 17, 2015 12:46 PM EDT
Tue Jul. 21, 2015 3:16 PM EDT