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Solar companies and utilities spar on ratemaking at Cleantech Forum SF

2013 March 26


Representatives of two solar companies (SunRun and Clean Power Finance), two utilities (SDG&E and National Grid), and a smart grid research firm (Pecan Street) sat down for a civilized discussion yesterday at Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. The discussion on distributed solar, power storage, and the evolving role of the utility quickly became a heated debate, dominated by Brian Miller (VP of Public Policy and Power Markets at SunRun) and Lee Krevat (Director of Smart Grid at SDG&E) with ample contributions from Bert Haskell of Pecan Street.

Pecan Street has the most detailed residential energy database on residences in Austin, TX.  Data includes what firms have fitted with the metering, rooftop solar, and electric vehicle charging stations. In one of their pilot studies, it was discovered that there are 200 homes with rooftop solar and 70 electric vehicle charging stations within one square mile, all connected to one transformer. This is likely higher penetration than seen anywhere else in the U.S. date.

Krevat from SDG&E noted that there are now cases in their service territory where energy is flowing from the substation and back into to transmission lines in areas with high rooftop solar penetration on very sunny days. This is worrisome for SDG&E, as they will need to pay for transmission and distribution (T&D) upgrades if the grid is to provide functions beyond the original purpose of providing power in one direction. How will this affect customers? Krevat is worried that the customers with rooftop solar are saving on their energy bills, while the lower income customers without rooftop solar will see increased bills as regulated (and decoupled) utilities need to pass distribution upgrade costs onto their entire customer base.

Miller of SunRun came with talking points pre-prepared. He’s worked for the Department of Energy. He’s worked for big utilities, like Exelon and Constellation Energy. He called the utilities out for deliberately blocking solar’s progress with arguments like this:

Utilities are by far the biggest obstacle. Utility lobbyists out in the trenches against solar. It is against their business model. It’s written in legislative and regulatory proceedings… When distributed generation is high, they will sell less power on their wires, so their objective is to push rates as high as possible.

Krevat contended that indeed it was a ratemaking issue. They can’t put the growing cost of distribution upgrades on a diminishing number of lower income customer. A different rate model might be needed. Haskell of Pecan Street chimed in:

Our observation is that utilities need to move away from charging for kilowatt hours and towards charging for quality of service. Grid connection fees for distributed generation, the amount of reliability the customer desires (# of 9’s), and the cost of putting energy back on the grid.

Now this sounds like an environment for commercial-scale microgrids, but it would be interesting to see how such a model might work for residential customers. Miller continued to provide the talking points for a distributed solar future:

Things are working in California because there are good legislators and regulators who believe in a distributed generation vision. The governor has a 12 gigawatt DG goal. Hawaii is a sneak peek into the future. 5% of homes and 3% of power is now from solar. The transformers haven’t blown up and the lights haven’t gone out.

He backed up his points with a white paper produced by Vote Solar and Crossborder Energy that found that even lower income ratepayers will benefit from higher amounts of net metering. Yes, the utilities have to pay for some additional distribution infrastructure upgrades, but the benefits (power delivery savings, lower cost of meeting renewable targets, avoided transmission upgrades, reduced electricity losses, etc.) will outweigh those costs by $92 million in California.

Have a look and decide for yourself! Leave your comments below.

Keystone: activists build a movement while wonks say ‘carbon tax’

2013 March 13


After I published this piece, two future classmates from the Goldman School of Public Policy responded with their thoughts on Keystone (the skeptic, anti-Keystone)

When the final decision is made on Keystone XL this summer, activists are hoping that President Obama will put it in the grave for good. After Obama’s soaring promises on climate change in his second inaugural and state of the union addresses, activists are expecting him to walk the talk and reject it. The latest rallies against the pipeline on February 17, which numbered over 50,000 in Washington, DC and over 5,000 in San Francisco, have continued to bring attention to the pipeline and put continued pressure on Obama. Meanwhile, policy wonks and editorial boards say that the anti-Keystone movement is wasting its energy on the wrong fights. They say the movement should focus on a carbon tax, and that the tar sands will be developed regardless of the decision on Keystone XL. Grist’s David Roberts nicely highlighted why the wonks are talking right past the activists: activism and policy are not the same thing.

About a year back, I heard Bill McKibben of speak in Berkeley and asked him: “What policy proposal does focus on in Washington?” McKibben politely answered what may have been a dumb question. He said, “’s sole focus is to build a political movement that demands action on climate change now.” He mentioned his interest in good policy proposals, but it is just not his organization’s focus. For someone who has clearly spent too much time in DC (ahem, one year), this was somehow an a-ha moment for me. It’s not about policy A vs. policy B. It’s not about lobbying to pass one big climate policy. It’s about creating a movement that will continue to demand laws, actions, and leaders on climate change no matter what the prevailing political winds or policy proposals are. Even if we do pass a carbon tax or cap and trade bill, that will be just the first battle in a very long fight against climate change.

Right now, a Keystone rejection would symbolize a win for the movement and validate that Obama can be swayed into action by the powerful group of voices that have spoken. And to be fair, the pipeline has so little going for it. Fellow BERCie Reid Spolek asked my 140-character opinion on the project, and I replied on twitter: “With few jobs, no U.S. energy security benefit, & climate consequences, why would Obama pass it? To protect business interests.” At least that’s what Obama’s golf round with oil execs on the day of the latest rallies indicated.

Jobs: The pipeline would create a couple thousand temporary construction jobs, but reportedly only 35 permanent jobs. Energy security: The tar sands shipped to Louisiana for refining would be sold on global markets with no apparent direct benefit to U.S. energy security (so please don’t try any gas price arguments). Climate: Refining and burning tar sands causes 17% more emissions than regular crude, and building this pipeline locks in their development. If you read the thousands of pages of environmental assessment prepared to date by the State Department, you would probably be left scratching your head as to why anyone would approve this pipeline (State makes no firm recommendation for or against the pipeline). Let’s hope that this summer, Obama doesn’t leave us all scratching our heads.

Crystal Ball: China will not produce more wind energy than the U.S. before 2020

2013 February 27
by susty

This is a cross post from Green Leap Forward

Taken in 2009 at a wind farm near Keshiketengqi, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia

Taken in 2009 at a wind farm near Keshiketengqi, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia

Around this time last year, I blogged about some misconceptions on U.S. and China’s installed wind capacity and wind energy generation, highlighting that the U.S. was producing 64% more wind energy than China in 2011 with the same amount of turbines. I explained the reasons for this including China’s difficulties with their Renewable Energy Law, grid connection bottlenecks, and performance gaps due to technology and wind resource issues. In this blog, I’d like to provide a quick update on the U.S. and China wind energy development using newly released 2012 data, and then offer up a prediction for the rest of the decade.


Using data from China Electricity CouncilBloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), and the EIA, here are the key facts for wind development in 2012:

  • According to GWEC, the U.S. and China installed nearly the same amount of wind capacity in 2012 with 13.1 gigawatts (GW) and 13.2 GW, respectively. This was a record year for the U.S. (previous record was 10 GW in 2009).
  • Of that 13.1 GW installed in the U.S., 5.5 GW was installed in December alone, as project developers rushed to bring their assets online ahead of the expiration of the Production Tax Credit (PTC, which later ended up being extended).
  • China now has more grid connected wind capacity than the U.S. with 62 GW compared to the U.S.’s 60 GW, but the U.S. produced 40% more wind energy than China in 2012.
  • 83% of wind turbines (or 5 of 6) in China are grid connected now, compared with a low of 63% in 2009, providing evidence that China’s grid connection bottleneck is easing.
  • Wind accounted for 3.5% of total electricity generation in the U.S. in 2012, compared to 2.0% in China.


It seems that China is poised to overtake the U.S. in wind energy generation as well. Their year on year growth in installed capacity growth and generation is simply much higher than that of the U.S. Certainly, China has a more predictable development environment with its fixed feed-in tariff for wind, determined wind targets, and consolidated wind manufacturing base. China is expected to continue installing more than 15 GW in the coming three years.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., developers, manufacturers, and financiers alike experience a maddeningly uncertain development environment. To start, the PTC is well-known for its boom and bust cycles, and some say this trend is set to continue. Add to that the threat of low natural gas prices and the layoffs that diminish the political promises of green jobs. Despite these deep uncertainties, there are things to be optimistic about, and there are a number of reasons why I believe the U.S. will continue to produce more wind energy than China through 2020.

First, let me set up the case I am trying to defeat, depicted below, where China overtakes the U.S. in total wind energy generation in 2017. I’ve set up an optimistic case for China and a pessimistic case for the U.S. For China, there will be 16-17 GW of installations a year, as average capacity factors and the proportion of grid connected wind farms both increase over time. For the U.S., there will be a very slow 2013 with only a few gigawatts installed followed by a stellar 2014 with 12 GW installed (the expiration and extension of the PTC will cause this unevenness), then installations will plateau to 8 GW per year (roughly the average seen from 2008-2012). Average capacity factors will stay steady as improved technology yields decent capacity factors for even lower class wind resources.

2013 scenarios

In reality, I should be more pessimistic for China and more optimistic for the U.S. Through 2020, China will definitely see large amounts of installations and increased grid connection rates. However, poor wind resources, grid integration issues, and contractual violations (see discussion on PPA’s in last year’s blog) will keep average capacity factors low.

And perhaps it’s a bit of American pride in me, but I see significant upside for U.S. wind from 2015-2020. Wind equipment costs continue to fall. Shale gas drilling costs will increase, and natural gas prices will follow. Increasingly, utilities will want to buy wind power, not for RPS obligations, but for reasons of profit (as they already are doing). Offshore wind development will finally start appearing as Cape Wind finally comes to fruition and a mid-Atlantic offshore transmission backbone gets financed and built. Heck, even politicians might get their act together on tax reform and extend the PTC for a few years instead of just one. This time, they would be wise to add a sunset clause, whereby the wind industry is slowly eased off of subsidies for good. Any clean energy standard passed in the coming eight years will provide additional upside. Admittedly, this is a lot of optimism, but even if a number of these developments come true, I believe the U.S. will see 10 GW or more of installations per year out to 2020. The result: China will remain in second place and the U.S. will remain the world’s top wind energy generating country.


Post tsunami, Japan faces a whirlwind of energy policy decisions

2013 February 26


Before the terrible tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011, Japan produced 30% of its electricity from nuclear and had plans to increase it up to 50%. In the wake of the disaster, Japan shut down all but two of its reactors and sought to completely phase out nuclear power by 2040, according to the new energy plan that was released by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in September of last year.

Yet, the plan which was promoted by the DPJ was reportedly a “desperate election gambit” in the run up to December’s election – an attempt to cater to the anti-nuclear voting public. It was the Liberal Democratic Party’s Shinzo Abe who won the election to become Prime Minister, however, and he is in favor of turning the reactors back on.

This move speaks volumes of the power of the business lobby, which does not want to see increased power prices and would like to keep as much cheap nuclear power online as possible. Post Fukushima, electric utility giant Tepco is in an enormous amount of debt, and Japan is in a dangerous position in terms of energy security and costs. It has to import the large majority of its fuel, be it coal, natural gas, or oil. Bloomberg reported last November that Tepco would invite bids for 12.5 gigawatts of new coal fired power. UC Berkeley’s Richard Muller, author of Energy for Future Presidents, relayed to me the danger of such a move in a recent interview:

Switching to coal is terrible is many ways from the mining pollution to the coal ash pollution to the global warming issues. The dangers of coal are far worse than those of a nuclear reactor. And they would have to import the coal, too. They lose on the national security issue… It makes so much sense for Japan to turn its nuclear reactors back on, and that is what I believe Japan will do. They will do it quietly… They give the impression it’s only temporary, but I think the alternative of coal would be far, far worse.

Indeed, reliance on imported coal and natural gas will remain an expensive option, running up Japan’s trade deficit while continued consumption cuts hurt its recovering economy.

One promising alternative is renewable energy, namely solar and offshore wind. The world’s largest offshore wind farm may be built off the coast of Fukushima. Japan’s new feed-in tariff scheme for wind and solar could see a cumulative 20 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity by 2014, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. While Japan benefits as a “latecomer” in solar PV deployment with prices having fallen precipitously in recent years, a significant penetration of offshore wind and solar will still be a costly option. Turning on idle nuclear units in the short-term may buy some time for further cost reductions and technological advances in the renewables arena.

As the world’s third largest economy and an island nation, Japan is certainly providing an intensified test-bed for the energy policy decisions many countries will face as energy security and climate change become center stage issues.

Climate SOTU 2013: All eyes on executive action

2013 February 13
Emission scenarios from WRI’s recent report “Can the U.S. Get There from Here?”

Emission scenarios from WRI’s recent report “Can the U.S. Get There from Here?”

Environmental groups were pleased when President Obama dedicated a whole paragraph to climate change in his second inaugural address. They are now eager to see what executive actions he might take in his second term, after he spoke strongly on the dangers of climate change and the need for action in last night’s State of the Union address, but did not cite any specific plans.

Most immediately, green groups will be watching Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline (very large rallies are planned in DC and around the country this Sunday by and the use of the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 from existing power plants, an executive action to which the Natural Resources Defense Council recently devoted an entire campaign.

Energy and climate analysts seemed divided as to whether or not Obama will reject the Keystone XL pipeline, given his recent focus on domestic energy development, a large feature in both his 2012 and 2013 State of the Union addresses alongside his mainstay manufacturing and education blocks. He proposed an Energy Security Trust funded by “some of our oil and gas revenues…that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” This worries me as it seems like a trade he might offer while he approves Keystone. Also, wasn’t Obama leading the fight to get rid of subsidies for oil and gas companies? What happened to that initiative?

Of course, everyone is focused on executive actions since “Congress is no help as long as right-wing Republicans have veto power” according to Grist’s David Roberts. Obama had a hat tip in his speech to the cap and trade and bill that was once in the Senate, and he encouraged Congress to pursue a “market-based solution to climate change”.

Green groups are not holding their breath for this in the near term. In fact, the World Resources Institute just published an update of their report on the emission reductions that can be made using existing federal laws and state actions (no congressional action). The report outlines regulation of CO2 from existing power plants, a phaseout of HFC gases, reduced methane emissions, and increased efficiency standards as part of a “Go-getter scenario” that would get us a 17% emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. Meeting this reduction could help the U.S. maintain some credibility in the ongoing international climate negotiations while new political coalitions are built (or elections change the composition of Congress) such that a long-term climate change or clean energy bill with market mechanisms can be seriously considered.

The road to an 80% emissions reduction is not yet forgotten, but we still rarely acknowledge its technical difficulty. As National Journal points out: “Today, 95 percent of the nation’s cars are fueled by petroleum, while fewer than 5 percent are electric or hybrid vehicles. Fossil fuels generate 80 percent of our electricity, while only about 5 percent comes renewable sources such as wind and solar.” Of course, those 5 percent might have only been about 1% if not for the actions in Obama’s first term, including the $90 billion clean energy stimulus, doubling of fuel economy standards, creation of ARPA-E, mercury standards for power plants, and increased energy efficiency standards for appliances and equipment. Credit is due to Obama, but we expect more action on one of the most important issues of our time.

While green groups lobby Obama to take meaningful executive actions, Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations reminds us of the unpredictability of energy markets. No one knew that Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, Keystone XL, or the Arab Spring were going to happen when Obama came into office in 2009, and who knows what may happen during his second term to shake up the energy and climate sphere. Levi notes: “There is a tendency to focus on tactical decisions, but when circumstances change, it’s leaders’ much broader strategic outlooks that shape how they respond.” Indeed, we are going to need both near-term tactical decisions as well as a long-term strategic outlook to shape future actions.

Electric vehicles: A clean energy target that China might not hit?

2013 February 7

Crosspost from Green Leap Forward

Chinese automaker Chery's EV offering the "QQ"

Chinese automaker Chery’s electric vehicle offering the “QQ”

China’s clean energy targets are usually just temporary placeholders. Targets for wind and solar power installed have been met, surpassed, and updated numerous times. New research from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), however, suggests that China’s 2015 and 2020 targets for electric vehicle (EV) rollout will not be met due to “weak capability throughout the supply chain.” China has become a dominant force globally in wind and solar manufacturing and deployment; their supply chains are capable albeit recently consolidated with wavering demand in an oversupplied market. So why is that EV’s may not find similar success?

China’s medium to long-term development plan for renewable energy had a 2010 wind target of 5 gigawatts (GW) installed and a 2020 target of 30 GW. China had already surpassed this 2020 target by 2010, with 31 GW of grid connected wind. Knowing the target would be surpassed early, China updated its target to 100 GW by 2020…or rather by 2015. Well now, BNEF forecasts that China will hit 100 GW slightly before 2015, while Greentech Media predicts that China will have more than 150 GW of wind capacity by 2015. In solar, an original 2020 target of 1.8 GW was updated to 20 GW, but that also was temporary. Facing weakened demand abroad for solar modules, China has increased the near-term 2015 target to 35 GW. Although China continues to face problems with grid connection and grid purchase of energy produced from all of these wind and solar farms being constructed, the fact remains that China is hitting its targets about 10 years early and increasing its targets by at least fivefold based on revised expectations of industries that have grown mature supply chains and reduced costs precipitously.

In the field of EV’s, China apparently skipped the setting of meaninglessly small targets that would need to be later upgraded. They have set a target for production and sales of EV’s to reach 500,000 by 2015 and 5 million by 2020. Actually, China may find that this target will need a downgrade not an upgrade, if the industry does not make some serious changes. BNEF predicts sales of only 1 million by 2020.

Even with generous consumer rebates offered for EV’s, sales numbers are dwindling. In the second quarter of 2012, apparently only 235 EV’s were sold in China. BNEF estimates “just 13,000 EV’s were sold between 2009 and 2011, including buses and public utility vehicles.” BNEF cites lack of consumer interest, lack of charging infrastructure, and lack of technological expertise as the three main factors plaguing the Chinese EV industry.

Lack of consumer interest is easy to understand. Just take a look at Exhibit A above, the “QQ EV” fromChery. Would you want to drive this toy? Kandi’s 28E looks equally as bad.  China’s new car consumers want status in their vehicle purchase. They are not going to find that from these second-tier manufacturer EV offerings. Coda, a U.S. EV company with manufacturing joint ventures in China, has had bad press lately on their mediocre offering, poor sales, and unpaid bills.

BYD’s main EV offering, the E6, is more attractive, perhaps one reason why BYD recently got pimped out with a Zayed Energy Future Prize nomination in Abu Dhabi. Even if the car is attractive and affordable, a number of fires and accidents with electric vehicles in Shenzhen and Hangzhou have been well-reported in the media, decreasing consumer interest in EV’s further.

Forbes reports that a research institute under China’s State Council has published a white paper addressing how Chinese consumers might more quickly adopt EV’s. Given that battery costs are not coming down very quickly (a point echoed in last week’s interview with Richard Muller), the white paper suggests a business model of cheaper, swappable batteries. It also suggests fleet purchases, rental services, and local government promotion as the main near-term avenues for EV adoption.

Indeed, business models will likely play a critical role in the fate of the Chinese EV industry. While BNEF suggests that China needs to import foreign technology expertise to improve the industry’s prospects, I’m not sure that expertise exists yet. EV sales in the U.S. are nothing to write home, not even reaching 0.5% of total vehicle sales in 2012, and again, that’s with the generous rebates. Charging infrastructure, high battery costs, consumer interest, and business models remain wild cards in all EV markets globally. They just happen to be more pronounced in the immature Chinese market.

2012: year in review and looking ahead…

2013 January 26

2012 was a great year for me. It also marks the first full calendar year that I’ve lived in one place since 2008. In fall 2009, I moved from Beijing to NYC. In fall 2010, I moved from NYC to DC. In fall 2011, I moved from DC to Berkeley. And in fall 2012, well, I stayed right here in Berkeley! Although I didn’t move anywhere, I did do a fair amount of traveling as well as exploring here in the bay area. The highlight of the year was definitely my trip to Mozambique and Malawi, a 16 day journey alongside Peace Corps volunteer and silly friend Jama Joy Bernard. If you missed the photos, check em out here (one of my best photos previewed below). I also got to see Istanbul for a day in transit, and I visited Beijing three times for work in July, October, and November.

On the train from Nampula to Cuamba...

On the train from Nampula to Cuamba…

Aside from all that foreign travel, I visited Tahoe, Park City, Telluride, DC, Chicago, Austin, Bozeman, and NJ/NYC (home for Mom’s bday in June, and two weeks at home for the holidays). I had epic jian bing brunches, started a Kubb coalition in Berkeley, got a little brother, fell in love with the Oakland A’s (and doing the Bernie lean), went to many great concerts (SF Symphony, Paco de Lucia, Outside Lands, local band Shake Your Peace, Wilco at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, The Bad Plus, and the list goes on…), grew and strengthened many friendships here in the bay, went on great hikes in the East Bay and Marin, lectured at my alma mater Northwestern, hosted a bunch of friends here in SF (Amit, Matt, Theresa, Mom + Dad [x2], Tyler, Chris + Nicole, Ella), led a van of 10 friends to Reno on my birthday to canvas for Obama (wooo 4 more years!), and sometimes I went to work. All the while, I was able to maintain this blog, and in total I made about 47 posts (almost one per week on average). I’m gonna break it down for you.

The Hike: I made 32 posts this year in The Hike, my clean energy and climate change thought-dumpster. The year started off with a series of deep analyses on the climate negotiations in Durban, the U.S. China clean energy trade cases (an epic satire in the flavor of Star Wars), and a comparison of U.S. and China in wind energy deployment. Later in the year, I enjoyed writing movie reviews of The Island President and Beasts of the Southern Wild, both of which address the issue of climate change, albeit the former one much more directly. In the fall, clean energy hacking was definitely the theme as I participated in Cleanweb hackathons in Austin (great city) and San Francisco (shorter commute), learning about developing new web apps using clean energy data. After the SF hack, I launched a new category on my blog, The Byte, which only has 1 post so far (I’m working on it!). I was able to convert a lot of my “hike” posts into posts for Berkeley’s clean energy blog too, which helped give me focus and extra exposure.

The Mic: I was not as prolific here as I would’ve liked, with only 8 posts this past year. But the main result was two seriously strong new music videos to add to the eco-rap repertoire: Occupy Rooftops (filmed in Oakland, Berkeley, and SF) and Low-carbon Gangnam Style (aka “Ditan Style”, filmed in Beijing). All I gotta say is: Do you know how many arms I had to twist to get people to dance on an Oakland rooftop for two hours about solar power? It’s not ironic that the most eager participant was my Chinese friend Hongyou, because when I went to film Ditan Style in Beijing, I had 25 volunteers for a couple hours in the morning and a dedicated crew of about 10 friends, committed and excited to film all day, dance in the streets, look like fools, etc. All I’m saying is that Chinese people know what’s up when it comes to getting your freak on for renewable energy and low carbon lifestyles. And my friends here in the Bay are mostly too conservative, not in the political sense but rather in the boring sense.

The Trike: I did it! I set out in January 2012 in pursuit of delicious jian bing and by September, I had launched my trike and sold 60 jian bing in one night! Many of you endured the early taste tests and cheered me on as I brought this dream to fruition step by step. Interestingly, this section of my blog is what drives the most outside traffic to my website via Google search. That just goes to show you that food blogging is popular, and every American that goes to China takes a video of jian bing and puts it on YouTube. Then when they come home, they can’t find jian bing anywhere. Hopefully, I can change that. I’m currently researching Berkeley permits so that I can operate at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market or Ashby Flea Market (right in between the used CD rack and the Chinese massage booth). I’ve got 100 Twitter followers and 150 likes on Facebook. Additionally, the twitterati have helped me discover jian bing popping up in London and in Hong Kong. Finally, I’ll just note that the idea of starting a food bike has opened my eyes to the amazing bike culture of the bay: Rock the Bike, the Bicycle Music Festival (which I blogged), East Bay Bike Coalition, East Bay Bike Party (every 2nd Friday of the month), Hot Bike etc. Thesis: you can do anything on a bike. Try and prove it wrong!

So what lies ahead for 2013? Well, I have put in my second application for the master’s program in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley. I should hear next month. Wish me luck! I’ve got a bunch of great blog posts in the pipeline and my first for 2013 is out already, an interview with Richard Muller, a MacArthur genius who knows a lot about energy. Next weekend, I’m hitting the slopes with my brother Chris and sister-in-law Nicole in Bozeman. Big Sky baby! Lastly, I’d like to announce that I am training for the Climate Ride, a 300-mile bike ride from Eureka, CA back down to San Francisco. It takes place over the course of five days in mid-May, and all the money goes to 50 different organizations working on climate change activism, clean energy support, or bike advocacy. I’ve already had 25 donations, with my total standing at $1,343. Thanks to everyone who donated! Special shoutouts to Julia and Michelle who each donated $100 and Matt who gave the epic $1-per-mile, $320 donation! My goal is to raise twice the minimum of $2,500 or $5,000. So, expect an email or call from me. Every person who donates will get a Jian Bing Johnny’s certificate and free eco-raps (the first one is below). Who could say no to that?

Muller, author of “Energy for Future Presidents”, talks EV’s and natural gas

2013 January 26

Dr. Richard Muller is well-known for his popular science book and UC Berkeley course “Physics for Future Presidents”. While that volume explores a number of science and technology topics that a president might face including bio-terrorism, nuclear war, and space exploration, his latest volume “Energy for Future Presidents” focuses solely on energy through the lenses of energy security and climate change. Muller, a professor of physics at UC Berkeley and Faculty Senior Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has devoted much of the past five years to understanding our climate problem and our global energy system.

Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Muller and ask him a set of questions related to the transport sector and U.S. energy security. While his book is entitled “Energy for Future Presidents”, I also asked him to ponder “energy for current presidents” as well. The video embedded above shows Muller’s responses to the following questions:

1. Who killed the electric car?
2. What is the potential for hybrid vehicles and natural gas vehicles?
3. What was Obama’s best policy in his first term for energy security?
4. What should Obama’s policy priorities be in his second term if he puts an equal emphasis on energy security and global warming?

A flavor of skepticism is consistently present in Muller’s book, and as it should be. Muller advocates for a good dose of skepticism in all scientists, and indeed it was his climate skepticism which drove him to complete an ambitious study of surface temperatures to confirm that climate change indeed was occurring and was caused by humans. He also frequently reminds the reader to be wary of “optimism bias” in the field of energy. We all have our favorite technology, something we prefer even if we know deep down it may not be the silver bullet to affordable, clean energy for all. He warns strongly against support for electric vehicles, due to the question of battery cost and lifetime. And yet, I wonder if he doesn’t also play favorites himself. Given his avid support of California’s climate change bill AB32, you might think he would have highlighted a carbon tax or national cap and trade program as Obama’s top policy priority in his second term. But Muller highlighted incentives for increased natural gas infrastructure instead. Perhaps, this is a stroke of political realism and not technology favoritism.

Throughout the book, Muller also keeps the reader aware of public perception of politically risky energy policies, say for instance the support of nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima or support of energy technology cooperation with a rising China. Yet, he remains a science adviser in this volume, and nothing more. Science has all the answers, but it is the job of the president to communicate these answers — often a delivery of tough medicine amidst a range of misconceptions or mixed priorities. On solar, he says in his book:

Already US solar companies are being driven out of business by the cheaper Chinese cells. What’s the solution? How do you balance the value of a vigorous Chinese industry with the value of a vigorous US industry? Whatever the answer is, it’s beyond the ability of a science advisor to advise. Good luck with this one.

Even if Muller doesn’t have all the answers, you won’t regret reading this book. And all in good preparation because, hey, you might be president one day.

Sick of Gangnam style? Try low carbon style!

2012 December 10

I got the idea to do a low-carbon parody of Gangnam Style back in October. On my last business trip to Beijing, I had the luck of having a long weekend of free time as well as a group of awesome friends who were willing to contribute to the low-carbon cause. My main idea was to communicate a few basic low carbon concepts (biking, public transit, eating more vegetables, saving energy at home) while still having the fun of the Gangnam song/dance. The best parts of this project were 1) being able to write some Chinese rhymes again and 2) everyone’s energy on the filming day.

Green Tea, Sun Zhe, G Ding, Sustainable John lining up for some bike shots

My old colleague from Bloomberg An Na was a large driving force behind the production, bringing in about five friends to help film and dance. My old green brother Sun Zhe from China’s Green Beat brought in his friend who ended up being our choreographer. I called on good friend Tim Quijano to contribute his video skills to our shoot; he also filmed “Occupy Rooftops.” I wrote the lyrics in about 4-5 hours on Thanksgiving, and then performed them at a Thanksgiving dinner that night. My pengyou George Ding aka “G Ding” liked what he heard and offered his help. I put him center stage as our green PSY.

We rented studio space on Saturday afternoon at Busy Bee Studios (忙蜂) in Beijing for CNY 300/hour ($50/hour). The engineer was outstanding and we cut the audio track. I also used a studio for Occupy Rooftops audio, and I believe it is now the standard for all major videos I work on in the future. It costs some extra cash, but audio quality + engineering are well worth it.

We practiced dancing with our choreographer on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, we did all of the group dance shots, about 25 people showed up! The light was a bit flat as it was overcast, but later in the afternoon we got a little sun through the clouds for our shots in the hutongs and streets of Beijing. Probably, one of the funniest scenes was the celery standoff. What’s even funnier was that both actors involved hated the flavor of celery and spit it out after every take, ha! Later, we went into the subway and then to An Na’s house to get all the shots we needed. One irony was that fluorescent lights cause a flicker when you’re filming, having to do with the frequency of those lights and the frame rate/shutter speed you film at. It basically messed up our subway footage and introduced banding which made the video look really bad, so we had to minimize usage of the subway video unfortunately. But that didn’t mess with the awesome photos we took in the subway!

Editing the video took a long time on my busted laptop, with Adobe Premiere often crashing, but I eventually got it done. I’m really proud of what we accomplished and now I’m trying to do what I can to spread it around China! We have 1000 hits on each YouTube and Youku and people are really sharing it around on Weibo! Please share these links around and enjoy the video.

Youtube: (also


Introducing “the byte”: let’s code!

2012 November 15

Serious swagger: CO2 Sturges, Sustainable John, and Sell Efficiently

I’m taking the plunge and joining the crowd: it’s time to learn to code! For whatever reason, it has taken me this long to get on board after watching on the sidelines, as my brother picked up a couple languages, a good friend Tyler re-oriented his entire career in this direction (read his learn to code overview), and the cleantech sector I work in took a major turn in the direction of mobile + data + web + software etc.

So where to begin? I’d say anywhere, just jump in, and start coding to get your feet wet. Then, make a plan to get the skills you want based on your own goals and things you dream of making. For me, this list would be a number of mobile apps: 1) carbon allowance app, 2) YouKubb app to make Kubb a viral sport, 3) Jian Bing Johnny’s app for street food (specifically jian bing + chuanr + anything that’s not on Dianping), 4) The Book of Energy app for energy education. Aaand I introduce to you “The Byte”, a new category on my blog where you can read my posts on coding and app development. It had to rhyme with the rest (trike, mic, hike) so I think Byte was a decent soft rhyme and a great fit!

For some unknown reason, I started with Java. I think it had to do with its platform independence and dominance over the past decade as an object-oriented programming language. It did not end up becoming a useful tool for the web so much, but should remain an important language for desktop software, servlets, and API’s. It also has pretty standard syntax and is useful for learning basic programming concepts and elements, which will be widely applicable.

I attended my first hackathon at Austin SXSW Eco, which was an awesome experience as I described in an earlier post. I didn’t do too much coding there. I played the role of subject matter expert, data gatherer, and HTML tinkerer with some small help writing some math functions for our Python guy. I came back and told some of my LBL friends about the experience, and my friend Andrew was interested in joining the next one. This past weekend, there was another hackathon, only this time right in San Francisco. I also already wrote about this pre-hackathon.

Well, this hackathon was also a lot of fun and pretty productive (watch the cool video, I’m at 1:54…). The product mockup idea I had, an efficiency sales tool for appliance sales staff, was similar to the one in Austin, but Andrew and I refined the idea, and Andrew was excited to help me begin setting up a strong code base and a slightly different design under the new name “Sell Efficiently” with our web 2.0 domain recently purchased from Libya We also got the chance to pitch the idea to a panel of impressive judges, including folks from Greenstart and Facebook. And we won a prize of $750 for best user interface. This was totally undeserved, but we were still pretty stoked. Our “interface” was built using mostly Twitter bootstrap, a ready made toolkit for making websites look decent on the fly. I was able to contribute a bit more this time on HTML and CSS within this bootstrap framework, and learned about GitHub as a really useful collaborative coding/project management tool. You can check out our comparison tool mockup below or click on the link above and surf around the website.

Award winning user interface of 🙂

We had similar problems as in the Austin hackathon… not enough time to make it look pretty, little knowledge of Javascript for event handling, and lack of hacking skills/time to set up our data on a server and have the website interact with that server via Ajax calls. The good thing is that I work in the same building as Andrew, and he is totally stoked to continue working on this project as am I.

Time to learn some Javascript…hello Codecademy! Oooh shiny trackers and badges… seriously their design/psychology does work in getting you to keep slugging away at this stuff and eventually you will start building awesome websites and apps. A lot of shit is gonna break and go wrong and it’s going to be very frustrating. It seems as I learn to code, I will also be working on my patience. You in? Let’s code.

International Microgrid Assessment: Governance, INcentives, and Experience

2012 November 8

Overview of common components in a microgrid

A new report on microgrids that I worked on has just been published by Berkeley Lab (download here). It’s (awesomely) called “International Microgrid Assessment: Governance, INcentives, and Experience”. We wrote the piece ahead of China’s announcement of its 30 microgrid demonstration program to inform the Chinese government what developments there have been around the world to date in microgrid technology and policy. I previously wrote about the Santa Rita Jail microgrid, which is one of the U.S.’s flagship microgrid projects. Above you can see some of the main components of a microgrid, and the following is the standard U.S. Department of Energy definition for a microgrid:

A microgrid is a group of interconnected loads and distributed energy resources within clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the grid. A microgrid can connect and disconnect from the grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected or island-mode.

One of the main goals of the report is to outline what specifically is stopping microgrids from deployment scale growth. The general gist is that utilities put up a lot of regulatory barriers and add unneeded costs to microgrid development, which inhibits economically profitable development. The map below shows how to get from the “land of penalties” to the “land of payments” where the economic benefits that microgrids provide can properly be accounted for.

From the land of penalties to the land of payments using policy and technology remedies

I’d highly recommend reading the executive summary of the report, since you probably don’t have time to read the full 100 pages. If you don’t have time to read even the executive summary, I’ve made it easy on you, so you can just check out this awesome summary poster. IMAGINE Microgrid Poster To learn more about microgrids and why they’re awesome, please visit:

Hackers and incubators: the future of clean tech?

2012 November 8

#HackCitySF Cleanweb hackathon this weekend!

“Reducing tons with zeros and ones.” This is the slogan of a gathering of hackers, designers, and business minds called CleanWeb, which launched a little over one year ago in San Francisco. Having hosted dozens of “hackathons” around the country (and the world) over the past year, CleanWeb is once again returning to San Francisco to host the #HackCitySF CleanWeb hackathon ahead of the VERGE conference. The idea is to get great minds together to apply web and mobile technologies to clean tech challenges in energy, water, waste, and other sustainability-related areas. This upcoming weekend’s hackathon will offer great opportunities to build new apps, data visualizations, and product ideas with some high-level sponsors, including GM, OnStar, and Johnson Controls.

Lately, many investors in clean tech have been scratching their heads asking why clean energy is not achieving exponential growth rates like the mobile internet sector. Sure, solar technologies are maturing rapidly and being deployed widely, but it still accounts for only a fraction of a percent of our global electricity production. CleanWeb believes the answer to higher growth rates for the sector lies at the intersection of mobile, social, and data. Specifically, they want to use the resource cloud and big data to establish new frontiers in clean tech.

  • Resource cloud: less ownership and more efficient consumption enabled by social and mobile connectivity (think Zipcar and AirBnB)
  • Big data: using information to capture massive efficiency and optimization opportunities (thinkOPower)
  • New frontiers: new business models and applications of IT (think Nest Labs)

The best way to create these ideas is to get all the right minds in the room at a hackathon. I saw this in action back at a Sungevity -sponsored hackathon focused on solar held in June 2012, when my friend Tyler Tringas and friends developed an electric vehicle + solar panel (EV+PV) sales application called SunRide. I had to get in on these hackathons, and so I headed to one at South by Southwest Eco, as told in a previous post. I plan on participating this weekend as well, and all coders, designers, and business minds should come on out!

So, once an idea has been “hacked”, what happens next? Some ideas go straight to the graveyard if the idea doesn’t have business legs. Others go to landing page purgatory, great ideas that have no team to continue contributing. If you’ve got a great idea and a great team, then it’s time to incubate. That’s the modus operandi of Greenstart, a clean tech incubator and design studio located in San Francisco. They take up and coming companies and invest $115,000 in cash for a period of three months, at which point they pitch to larger investors at an event called Demo Day, one of which took place just last week. Mayor Ed Lee was in attendance, and said that “innovation is as infectious as Giants fever!” He highlighted a new initiative called CleantechSF, through which entrepreneurs can test out their new technologies on city assets like street lights, buildings, buses, and parking.

Four companies at Demo Day then got up to pitch their products, which had been incubating for the past couple of months. Root3 implements no-hassle energy software for on-site power plants at larger commercial and industrial facilities like airports, campuses, and manufacturers. Kiwi looks at the intersection of simple yet high-value solar installations, arguing that companies like SolarCity are simple but capture most of the value and just pass on some savings to the customer. People Power is creating the “internet of things” by making all devices smart and connected. Finally, Liquid looks to create a liquid economy with the idea being that you can rent out anything you own (bikes, cameras, tools, etc.). Liquid won the audience award at TechCrunch, and definitely seemed like it was the most likely of the four to have been hatched at a hackathon given its emphasis on social media and the resource cloud.

Discuss in the comments section! Is hacking the new wave for clean tech? Are social, mobile, and web technologies really going to change our energy and sustainability landscapes, and if so, how quickly?

Presidential debates’ main energy content an unproductive exchange on gas prices and drilling

2012 November 1

Obama and Romney getting fired up about drilling on public lands

Green groups across the U.S. are groaning over the lack of mention of climate change in the presidential debates, especially as Hurricane Sandy makes landfall. Some would call climate change the biggest foreign policy challenge of our time, and yet it was not even mentioned once by the moderators or either candidate in any of the three debates (see transcripts 12, and 3).

Yet, while there were 270 minutes of climate silence, energy was featured in the debates, with about 20-30 minutes of exchange on the topic. Unfortunately, the time was not well spent. In the first debate, Obama touted his main boiler-plate talking points on creating new sources of energy here in the U.S. from oil, gas, clean coal, and renewables. This strategy has come to be known as the “all of the above” strategy. Meanwhile, Romney said that half of the $90 billion spent in the green stimulus went to companies that have gone out of business. While Obama did not get a chance to rebuke this claim, it has been debunked by many analysts online, since only three out of 33 companies given loan guarantees have failed, while the portfolio of companies as a whole is performing well. It’s also curious that Romney consistently referred to “North American energy independence,” likely due to his well-pronounced support for the Keystone XL pipeline.

In the second debate, an audience member asked a question on energy:

“Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?”

Now, here was a golden opportunity to set American voters straight on this question and make sure they understand that domestic oil production will have very little, if any, impact on domestic gasoline prices. Here is what Obama should have said. And while he did mention the fuel economy standards he put in place (he could have also pointed out how his opponent is against these standards), he did not answer the question directly, instead offering facts about how oil and gas production in the U.S. has gone up during his tenure. Once Romney responded, the debate turned into an argument on who was going to drill and burn more fossil fuels, and both candidates got very touchy on the issue of who would drill more on public lands specifically. This was really turning into an ugly exchange.

Romney then claimed that the success of an energy policy could be determined by what people are paying at the pump, arguing that Obama’s policies have pushed gasoline prices above $4 a gallon, while they were at their lowest at $1.80 when he entered office. The moderator emphasized this point, asking “If your energy policy was working, the price of gasoline would not be $4 a gallon here. Is that true?” Obama quickly explained that prices were low due to the impact of the recession and that Romney’s policies would bring us into another recession. He then quipped:

“So it’s conceivable that Governor Romney could bring down gas prices, because with his policies we might be back in that same mess.”

While Obama supporters might want to give him a high-five for that one-liner, the fact is that this was an unproductive exchange on energy and a missed opportunity to correct voters’ expectations on energy. What either candidate should have said was that the government can do almost nothing to control the price at the pump, but they can help control overall spend at the pump through mandated fuel economy standards and better urban planning (to encourage walking, biking, and public transit). We need to stop reinforcing people’s belief that the government can lower gasoline prices and start presenting viable alternatives.

While Obama did mention climate change during his speech at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, saying “my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet because climate change is not a hoax”, the debates were indeed devoid of any exchange on climate change, which is worrisome. I touched on Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy and its incompatibility with his oft-neglected climate strategy in an eco-rap penned back in March. My main conclusion: “Obama, come November, you got my support, I just hope for the climate record you don’t fall short.”

The Book of Energy is the “app with the most impact” at SXSW Eco Hackathon!

2012 October 9

my teammates and I at SXSW Eco hackathon…Ashish, me, Justin, and Zach (L to R)

This past week, I traveled to Austin, Texas to participate in the SXSW Eco Conference and Hackathon. With a free pass from Greenstart, I decided to take a couple days off from work, book a plane ticket, and head out to Austin f0r some networking. I only learned about the hackathon in the few days leading up to the conference, as the Department of Energy and the White House jointly held an Energy Datapalooza last Monday, releasing all sorts of new energy data sets as a part of the Open Data Initiative. Then, DOE announced it would be co-sponsoring the hackathon and sending representatives out to provide guidance and support.

So what exactly is a hackathon? Well, this hackathon lasted 24 hours, and the object was to use some of these newly released data sets to create a new app or product idea. Each team comprised a couple programmers and a couple subject matter experts. A novice programmer myself, I assumed the role of team leader and data guru, having worked – at least tangentially – with a number of the datasets previously. I recruited a back-end Python developer and a front-end developer to help make everything look pretty and functional. My teammates were three Austin locals either working in the energy or software space. Prior to Thursday at noon, we did not know each other.

I had an idea going in to create “The Book of Energy,” which would be an app for professionals of all kinds to gain “training and tools in the energy economy”. The idea would be to completely reform and improve how energy education and skills training is done in the energy sector, whether you’re a salesman, a contractor, a tax accountant, a building energy manager, or any other profession that is directly or tangentially involved with the energy sector. My teammates liked my idea, but with only 24 hours, we would only be able to accomplish so much. We narrowed our focus down to creating one tool for one profession: an app for the sales force of Lowe’s, Home Depot, and other major retail outlets to compare the efficiency attributes of various appliances while helping potential customers on the floor. The added impetus was that we learned Lowe’s had just rolled out iPads for all of its sales force.

Current energy labels for efficient appliances include the ENERGY STAR certification label run by the EPA and the Energy Guide yellow label, mandated by the Federal Trade Commission. The yellow label provides info on estimated annual electricity use and annual operating cost, based on an average retail electricity price in the U.S. Our team used an EIA xml dataset of retail electricity prices by city and state to localize that operating cost based on where the customer was purchasing an appliance. An electricity cost of $0.20/kWh in Boston, MA is more than twice the cost in Louisville, Kentucky, and this information should be more easily available to the consumer. We used ENERGY STAR product datasets and price data scraped from retail outlet websites. In the end, our mockup app compared a particular appliance on the floor to a product of baseline efficiency. It showed the incremental cost of the more efficient appliance, as well as payback period and net savings over the lifetime of the appliance in graphical form.

Over six million refrigerators are sold in the U.S. every year, and our app has the potential to increase percentage of efficient refrigerators sold. At the end of the 24 hour period, DOE selected The Book of Energy as the “app with the most impact”. There were four other teams (a couple vehicle/driving apps, and two home and commercial building energy apps) that also received recognition. It was one of those “every team gets an award” situations, but our team was still really happy with our mockup product and award. We hope to continue working on it, and get some demos tested in retail outlets around the U.S. to get real feedback on the product. For more information and the mockup, log on to Click on “energy efficiency sales tool – appliances”. (link may not be working now, trying to figure it out, and get the site back up!) Lastly, I was so stoked about our product and my experience, that I had to write an eco-rap about it. And also below is our Slide Rocket ppt with more explanation of our business idea. Enjoy! And provide feedback!

….and I’m off to Austin for SXSW Eco! (+ other updates)

2012 October 2

I’m off to Austin tomorrow afternoon (my first time!) and will be attending SXSW Eco on Wednesday through Friday, courtesy of Greenstart and their awesome energy haiku contest. I’m excited to party at Patagonia’s opening bash, hear Jigar Shah’s keynote, participate in the hackathon all day Thursday into Friday, catch up with old friends from BNEF, and make lots of new friends as we discuss energy, sustainability, hacking, data, and eco-raps (hopefully). Annie Leonard’s keynote should also be interesting. I’m a big fan of the Story of Stuff, although I detested the Story of Cap and Trade. I’ll be tweeting it up a lot at the conference, and blogging about it either here or at BERC. Look me up if you’re at SXSW Eco, @sustainablejohn.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be tuning in via webinar for an awesome panel in SF on China’s 12th five year plan and the role climate change foundations play in that (strangely I helped organize the panel, but booked this Austin trip a couple months ago).

Next Wednesday, I’m off to Beijing for one week for meetings with funders and partners in China, and then back to the Bay in time for the BERC Symposium and Expo, where I’ll be presenting new research called International Microgrid Assessment: Governance, INcentives, and Experience (IMAGINE) in the poster session and live blogging all of Friday’s activities. I’m also stoked to see Chinglish at the Berkeley Rep before it leaves town. I’ve heard it’s hilarious. It’s going to a whirlwind couple of weeks!

In jian bing news, yesterday I held my first private Jian Bing Johnny’s part for BERC China Focus club. As you can see the customers were really satisfied and we had a great time in the Berkeley sunshine! Everyone mark your calendars for Art Murmur on Friday November 2. That’s also my birthday, so it’s gonna be Jian Bing Johnny’s birthday bash!

Lastly, let’s hear it for the A’s who clinched a playoff berth and have an awesome shot at the AL West division. Happy to say I’ve made it to three games this year, and I’m loving my new hometown team.

SF to offer consumers a 100% green power option

2012 October 2

The City of San Francisco is entering into a five-year, $19.5 million contract managed by Shell Energy to bring more renewable energy to San Francisco residents, but the new contract does not have Mayor Ed Lee’s blessing. The Board of Supervisors passed the bill by an 8-3 “veto-proof” vote, and Mayor Lee left the legislation unsigned.

The new legislation will automatically enroll roughly half of 375,000 San Francisco residential customers into a green power purchase program, known as Clean Power SF. Residents will have five months to opt out of the program, which is set to raise electric bills for the average residential consumer by $10-20 a month. Mayor Lee is supportive of renewable energy, but he will not support the legislation because of the automatic opt-in, saying:

While I enthusiastically support expanding our clean energy resources in San Francisco, I continue to have serious concerns about enrolling San Franciscans into a program without their initial consent that coerces them to pay a premium for electric power from Shell Energy.

While Mayor Ed Lee opposes the program based on its automatic opt-in principle, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission General Manager Ed Harrington says the program is good bang for the buck on carbon reductions. He claims the $19.5 million program would reduce carbon emissions by almost 10 times the amount the city has to date with $93.2 million in spending on solar and other efforts.

So-called community choice aggregation (CCA) programs have gained more popularity across the U.S. in recent years, whereby local governments can effectively form their own utilities. Marin County began a CCA for renewable energy for its residents back in 2010. It offers 50% renewable energy at rates competitive with PG&E or 100% renewable energy for a premium rate.

According to Clean Power SF, legislation to allow CCAs was first approved in California back in 2002, and so it seems like this program has been many years in the making. There are a number of logistical challenges involved. First off, the CCA has to sign a service agreement with the incumbent utility (PG&E), as the CCA will only offer unique generation services, while continuing to use the utility’s wires for transmission and distribution. And since Clean Power SF is serious about purchasing 100% renewable energy, there is some tricky accounting involved, especially with intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar.

There are a number of options for purchasing the output from renewable sources. One option is to purchase Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). In a REC-only transaction, only the renewable attributes of the energy are bought, and not the renewable energy itself. RECs are traded widely throughout the U.S. as a compliance instrument for various state-level renewable portfolio standards. A second option is to purchase the RECs “bundled” with the energy. A third option is to buy the renewable energy “firmed and shaped” (see this CPUC presentation for formal definitions). Since wind and solar are intermittent, the energy has to be “firmed” with backup resources to supplement the output and ensure that it is meeting customer demand. When the intermittent sources are generating more than demand, the supplemental resources can be backed down, and this process is called “shaping”. The “firmed and shaped” have to equal out in order to prove 100% renewable power for a certain amount of customers.

According to my e-mail exchange with Clean Power SF, the contract will provide energy that is 85% firmed and shaped, 10% bundled, and 5% RECs-only transaction. Are you still with me? Good. You wouldn’t mind being automatically opt-ed in for that, right? Well, the truth is, this will lead to an additional demand for renewable energy above and beyond the state’s RPS requirements, so it’s a great thing for the sector and an empowering option – er opt-in – for consumers!

Photo credit:

Bay-BEER #3: Foundation Strategies in the 12th Five Year Plan

2012 September 26

Beijing Energy Networks presents

Bay-BEER (Beijing Energy and Environment Roundtable – Bay Area) #3:

Foundation Strategies in the 12th Five Year Plan

A panel discussion featuring

Charles McElwee, VP of Programs, ClimateWorks Foundation

Jiang Lin, Senior VP, Energy Foundation; and Chairman, China Sustainable Energy Program

Keven Brough, Director of Strategy and Chief Operating Officer, Climate Policy Initiative

Moderated by Alex Wang, U.C. Berkeley Law School

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 6pm-8pm PST (panel begins at 6:30pm)

Location (different from the first two Bay BEERs):

ClimateWorks Office, Asia Conference Room, 235 Montgomery St, 13th Floor, San Francisco, CA

(close to Montgomery BART)

We will also broadcast via webinar. Please click here to sign up for the webinar.

Beijing time: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 9:30am for webinar.


China is now well into its 12th Five Year Plan and has set into motion a number of programs to meet its energy and carbon goals. International foundations were critical advocates, partners, and sources of innovation during the highly successful 11th Five Year Plan, but how do international foundations work in China and what are their strategies for the next five years? We are inviting panelists from climate change foundations ClimateWorks, Energy Foundation, and Climate Policy Initiative to discuss aspects of their work in China including partnerships, sectoral and issue focuses, and overall strategies for reducing carbon emissions and increasing uptake of clean energy and energy efficiency in China.


The event is free, but beer will be served, so bring your ID if you would like to partake. Offerings will likely include one local option and one China option for $1-2 per beer to cover costs.


Reading on 12th Five Year Plan at China FAQs (summary of efforts) and at IIP (map of key policies)

About the speakers:

Charlie McElwee: Charlie McElwee practiced environmental and energy law for over 25 years at an international law firm. Working for the last five years in Shanghai, he developed an expertise in Chinese environmental and energy law and policy and served as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Shanghai Jiaotong University’s School of Law. In 2009, he won the President’s Prize, the University’s highest award, for extraordinary contributions to the University, and in 2008 was awarded the Shanghai Municipal Government’s Magnolia Award, the highest honor the city bestows upon foreigners. He is a board member of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, and his book, Environmental Law in China, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2010. Mr. McElwee has a Juris Doctor from West Virginia University College of Law and a Bachelor of Science from Washington and Lee University.

Jiang Lin: Dr. Jiang Lin is Senior Vice President of the Energy Foundation (EF) and Chairman of EF’s China Sustainable Energy Program (CSEP). Before joining CSEP, Dr. Lin was a Staff Scientist with the China Energy Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in Berkeley, California. At LBNL, Dr. Lin was a leading researcher on China’s energy efficiency and renewable energy policies, serving as an advisor to numerous Chinese agencies, the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program. His research covers energy efficiency standards, low-carbon development scenarios, energy efficiency investment, and energy policy analysis.  He is a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations and the Pacific Council for International Policy. Dr. Lin received his Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Xi’an Jiaotong University in 1984, and his Ph.D. in demography from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992.

Keven Brough: Keven serves as the Director of Strategy and Chief Operating Officer for CPI. Prior to joining CPI, Keven was a Program Officer for the power sector at the ClimateWorks Foundation. He was an early member of the design team for the ClimateWorks network and a member of the startup team for the European Climate Foundation, where he initiated ECF’s successful carbon capture and storage program. Before working with ECF, Keven was a consultant with McKinsey & Company, where he focused on strategy projects involving public policy. Earlier in his career he worked for a Washington, D.C.-based law firm and served as a legislative assistant for a senior member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Keven has a B.A. from Haverford College and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

Alex Wang: Prior to coming to Berkeley Law in 2011, Mr. Wang was a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) based in Beijing and the director of NRDC’s China Environmental Law & Governance Project for nearly six years. In this capacity, he worked with China’s government agencies, legal community, and environmental groups to improve environmental rule of law and strengthen the role of the public in environmental protection. He helped to establish NRDC’s Beijing office in 2006. He was a Fulbright Fellow to China from 2004-05. Prior to that, Mr. Wang was an attorney at the law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York City, where he worked on mergers & acquisitions, securities matters, and pro bono Endangered Species Act litigation. He was selected to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program 2008-10, and is a member of the Advisory Board to the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

About BEN & Bay-BEER

The Beijing Energy Network (BEN) is a grassroots organization with a mission of promoting knowledge sharing, networking, and collaboration in understanding and tackling China’s energy and environmental challenges among individuals and organizations from diverse sectors such as government, finance, industry, media, advocacy, think tanks and academia.

The flagship activity of BEN is the Beijing Energy & Environmental Roundtable (BEER), an approximately twice-monthly happy hour/speaker series in Beijing. BEER events are free and open to all with no RSVP necessary. Bay-BEER is a similar, although less frequent event held in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Please note, we ask that our speaker’s remarks remain off the record unless they otherwise grant permission.

Should we drink the Kool-Aid on natural gas?

2012 September 26

In a column in the BERC newsletter two weeks back entitled “Is the US About to Accidentally Hit Kyoto Protocol Targets?“, BERC team member Allan LeBlanc documented the recent, dramatic drop in U.S. carbon emissions due to the increased use of natural gas, as also noted by Atlantic columnist Alexis Magridal and other analysts including the Rhodium Group’s Trevor Houser. Indeed, there are some profound changes happening in the power sector, and some analysts are saying shale gas is a boon for cleaner power, lower emissions, and a stronger economy. There has been a lot of debate recently about shale gas’s role in a clean energy future with complicated questions surrounding the environmental impacts of fracking and how low prices for natural gas are slowing renewable energy project development. It is important to express caution in drawing any correlation between increased natural gas use and drops in emissions for a number of reasons.

First, a recent report by CO2 Scorecard found that only 10% of the CO2 reductions during the period 2006-11 were due to natural gas’s replacement of coal and other fuels. The report says: “Nearly 90% of the cuts in CO2 emissions were caused by: (1) the decline in petroleum use in the transportation sector, (2) displacement of coal by mostly non-price factors, and (3) its replacement by wind, hydro and other renewables.” A warm winter also played a role in lower energy consumption overall thus far in 2012.

Second, I would argue that rapid upticks in natural gas power production is not a recent phenomenon, but based on the back of redundant capacity which has been in development for a decade. Madrigal’s article points out that between 2000 and 2012, natural gas electricity capacity grew by nearly 100%. At first, many natural gas plants were built to run as “peaking” units, to be ramped up and down quickly to meet short periods of demand, like hot summer days when everyone has their air conditioner on full blast when they get home at 5pm. As natural gas became cheaper, however, the operating hours of these plants increased, while the operating hours of coal plants decreased. Dial one up, dial one down. The redundancy of capacity in our grid between coal and natural gas allowed natural gas generation to increase so rapidly.

And that can easily dial back the other way. Natural gas prices are notoriously hard to predict, but the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest Short Term Energy Outlook says that monthly gas prices are already on the rise, increasing 34% over April to August. They predict coal-based generation will increase 9% in 2013, taking back territory it has lost in the past year. Of course, the EIA has been wrong before.

Finally, I’d like to step back to look at our whole economy’s energy footprint — not just the electricity sector — and see how much of an impact natural gas is having on our emissions footprint as a whole. Below is a chart of U.S. primary energy consumption by source (coal, oil, natural gas, and other – which includes nuclear, hydro, and conventional renewables). Since 1990 until the end of 2011, the proportion of natural gas consumption has only increased by 2%. The difference may be another percent or two by the end of 2012, but in the grand scheme of things, we can see that change in our energy structure is very slow.

Compare this to Germany, which has a very similar primary energy source breakdown. Over 20 years in Germany, the proportion of natural gas consumption increased by 7% while the “other” lower-carbon energy proportion has increased 5%. A steady downward trend is seen in Germany’s emissions (and also the economic crisis’s impact in 2009). Since Germany will phase out nuclear power, however, coal-powered generation may increase in the near-term and Germany’s carbon emissions along with it.

In summary, we can see the recent uptick in natural gas generation may very well be temporary and will likely not have a meaningful impact on our long-term emissions trajectory. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid on shale gas. Be a shale gas skeptic.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, I saw it twice and so should you!

2012 September 18

Note: movie review with some spoilers!

I just watched Beasts of the Southern Wild for the second time this past weekend, and I wouldn’t hesitate to see it again. This film is wonderful in so many ways, one of the top five movies I’ve seen in the last decade. A triumph of storytelling and thematic exploration, it was directed by 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin. The movie is about a community in the Louisiana bayou called “The Bathtub” that faces a huge storm (Katrina-like), where their whole community gets washed out. It’s told from the point of view of a young girl, who’s father is dying of an awful sickness. She goes by the name of “Hushpuppy”. Played by Quvenzhane Wallis, a 6 year old natural, untrained actress, there is nothing not to love about this character. She listens to the heartbeat of every animal she encounters, from crabs to chicks. The language scripted for her part perfectly mimics exactly how a child might think and talk. Two of the famous quotes from the movie play in the trailer above perfectly describe the perspective of Hushpuppy throughout this movie:

The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the whole universe will get busted.

In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.

She views the world as a fragile place, but she relies on the strength of her identity, family, and roots as her lifeline and confidence. Climate change and rising sea levels are a major theme in the movie, accompanied by difficult post-Katrina conflicts of adaptation (how will coastal communities survive) and government’s response to disaster (remove everyone from their homes). These conflicts are constantly juxtaposed with both the humility and abundance of the Bathtub community; living off the land is easy when they all take care of each other. To see how an example of how Zeitlin portrays these themes, check out the “Anatomy of a Scene” from New York Times. Like The Island President, the movie excels at making climate change a personal story. Hushpuppy’s father spins inspirational tales of her mother who is no longer around. Fierce, fictional animals called Aurochs, previously frozen by the Ice Age, enter Hushpuppy’s imagination as climate change busts them out of their ice and they’re on their way to ruin everything in sight. Hushpuppy is at first fearful: “If it weren’t for the Iced Age, I wouldn’t even be Hushpuppy. I’d be breakfast.” At the end of the movie, she confronts the beasts, a symbolism of her strength in confronting her father’s passing. 

As if this film didn’t have enough wonderful elements, the music takes it to a whole new level. Amazingly, director Benh Zeitlin also made ample contributions to the score, alongside a fellow named Dan Romer, who is a composer associated with Elton John’s Rocket Music Group. Check out my favorite: “The Survivors” below. The music is so poignant and edited perfectly to key crescendos in the movie’s plot (such as the end of “The Confrontation” when she encounters the fictional aurochs). It’s just so wonderful when the music can elevate the entire story and make this movie so unforgettable. It’s Oscar bound indeed, and I hope it wins big!

Cap and trade round-up: show me the money?

2012 September 13

While a federal carbon pricing scheme has long been declared dead in the U.S., late August saw a flurry of activity in other markets, including Australia, European Union (E.U.), and California. Australia’s cap and trade scheme took a somewhat unexpected turn, as Australia and the E.U. jointly announced on August 28 that their two emissions trading schemes would officially link up starting in 2015 and operate jointly by 2018. Meanwhile later that week in California, 150 major emitters participated in a practice allowance auction mimicking the activity that will regularly occur in the upcoming cap and trade scheme starting in January 2013. The Australia-EU linkup and California’s upcoming launch paint two very different pictures of cap and trade schemes.

In theory, cap and trade schemes exist for two functions: 1) to set a cap on emissions and decline that cap over time such as to reduce emissions of harmful greenhouse gases; 2) to introduce a price for carbon (due to the demand for emissions reductions) that will give various sectors of the economy a signal to innovate better and cheaper low-carbon technologies. It looks as if California’s emissions trading system (ETS) will successfully serve both of these functions, while the E.U. and Australia ETS’s may fail to spur innovation as oversupply of low-priced credits will continue to flood their markets for a while.

The E.U. ETS has seen incredibly low prices this year for both allowances and UN offset credits, dwindling in the range of €8 and €2 per ton of carbon dioxide respectively. The U.S. Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) which covers northeastern U.S. power stations has rarely seen a price above $5 per ton of carbon dioxide. The main reason is that baselines were set before the unforeseen circumstances of an economic crisis and low-priced natural gas came into play. In the E.U., similar factors are at play with the added oversupply of UN offset credits applying further downward pressure. Australia has done away with its carbon price floor as it plans to join up with the E.U. ETS. Its market may be well supplied

What are we to make of all these low prices? Are carbon markets actually working? Will they actually spur innovation needed for long-term deep cuts in carbon emissions? Harvard economist Robert Stavins pleads that we not fret at this point. He argues that the systems are indeed playing the cap function, while low prices are really due to exogenous factors rather than poor design. Other U.S. NGO’s point to the success of RGGI auctions in raising nearly $1 billion, which many states have re-invested into energy efficiency programs. The E.U. has meant to set many reforms into motion to help prop up prices, but these have face delays. Meanwhile, California is looking like a golden opportunity. Bloomberg New Energy Finance notes that the value of California allowances for delivery in December 2012 are already closing at $19.50 per ton, about twice the value of E.U. allowances at a €7-8 per ton value. The firm’s forecast for prices in 2020 for both the E.U. and California markets sits at about $55 per ton.

Perhaps each scheme will have its difficulties, but the number of cap and trade schemes and pilots is rising. South Korea’s scheme was approved in May, while China’s seven pilot schemes are set to launch in 2013. As experience accumulates, hopefully design will improve and carbon prices will rise, guiding the world’s economies to a lower carbon future. And of course, there’s always hope for a federal scheme in the U.S. If President Obama can get re-elected and put some skin into the carbon game, he will indeed prove that “climate change is not a hoax”.

What do readers think? Is the EU-Aus tie up a bad idea? How much longer do we have to wait until carbon prices will actually cause long-term shifts in the way we use and produce energy?

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