Clean Energy Lobby Day: Putting Solar on the Grid?

Great Post from our own Susan R. Happy Independence Day!

The Clean Energy Lobby Day at the State House on June 14th, brought together activists that delivered an urgent message to Massachusetts legislators— Don’t Block Expansion of Critical Solar Programs! 

About 25 energy activists, solar industry employees, students and citizens from across the Greater Boston region lobbied their Representatives on Thursday to update policies in the Green Communities Act to increase renewable energy production.  Among the groups represented were Environment Massachusetts, Boston Climate Action, the Sierra Club, Mass Interfaith Power and Light, as well as students from Northeastern Law School.

We fanned out in small groups to speak directly with legislators, or their staff, about the importance of two bills in particular that address climate action, sustainability, and environmental justice (i.e., CASEJ’s key concerns).  We asked that they sign onto a letter to House Ways and Means Chairman Dempsey urging consideration of S.2214 already passed by the Senate that promotes greater renewable energy production by allowing more net-metering. *See explanation of net-metering below.

Increasing the cap on the net metering program will guarantee that consumers receive financial incentives for the solar energy they produce. S.2214 will restore financial certainty to the solar market and will allow more consumers to take on new and worthwhile solar projects.

Also, we explained the environmental justice merits of H.3897, the so-called “Oil Heating” bill that would require heating oil companies to offer energy efficiency programs to customers as do the electric and gas utilities.  The program would especially benefit lower income households on oil that are stuck with old systems.

(Note:  To follow any bill on line, go to http://www.malegislature.gov/ and use the search feature).

Array of solar panels at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan
For more visit the Solar Energy at Boston Nature Center site!

In Massachusetts, 90 percent of our energy comes from dirty, dangerous sources… 

Here in Massachusetts, most of our energy comes from burning coal, oil and gas to heat and power our homes. Our environment and our health pay the price: these sources emit air pollution that causes smog and global warming, as well as mercury pollution that contaminates our waterways and makes our fish unsafe to eat.

Did you know that enough sun shines on Massachusetts everyday of the year to power the state multiple times over with clean solar energy?  Yet despite the state’s abundant solar potential, Massachusetts produces less than 1% of its electricity from the sun.  Environment Massachusetts, one of the event sponsors, believes at least 10 percent of energy use in this state could come from the sun by 2030.

According to people in our group from wind and solar companies, lifting the cap on net metering is urgent.  Because the current allowable limit for net-metering by small businesses and households has been reached, private financing for new production is unlikely or unavailable to owners and developers of solar and wind.  The renewables industry argues that incentives are needed to level the playing field with the fossil fuel energy corporations that receive subsidies.  Greater economic activity in the renewables industry will eventually bring down the cost per watt of using renewable energy technologies.  Hank Werlin (hwerlin@solardesign.com) related a cautionary tale about New Jersey’s renewables program that failed to continue support, with the result of a crash in renewables economic activity in that state.

Ben Wright of Environment Massachusetts stated, “We can’t let politics get in the way of important net-metering reforms that have strong support among the Commonwealth’s citizens, industry, and our Senators, as well.”  According to the Environment Massachusetts website, some Massachusetts power companies and their fossil fuel allies are attempting to prevent homeowners and businesses from getting easy access to solar. Industry lobbyists want to protect their profits by keeping us dependent on the polluting fuels of the past.

Environment Massachusetts has a goal for the state of getting 10 percent of our energy from the sun by 2030.  To achieve these goals, urges groups to build massive public support for solar and convince legislators to:

  • Expand access to rooftop and onsite solar energy by expanding Massachusetts’ most successful solar program;
  • Establish programs to promote solar hot water;
  • Make all new buildings zero net-energy by maximizing energy efficiency and promoting rooftop solar; and
  • Work with local communities, utilities, developers and large building owners to make solar a centerpiece of Massachusetts’ plan to meet our energy and environmental challenges.

*What is net metering?  *Net-Metering is one of the most effective ways to generate more local, renewable energy in Massachusetts.  Essentially, net-metering allows consumers (residential, commercial or municipal) of electricity to generate renewable electricity on site and sell it back to utility companies.  Since the net-metering program was first enacted (as part of the Green Communities Act in 2008), solar installations in the Commonwealth have increased 24-fold.  Currently, only 3% of all of Massachusetts’ electricity is permitted to be net-metered (1% of all private electricity and 2% of all public).  The bill would raise the cap to 3% for public and 3% of private generating systems).

Here’s an example  of net metering from the Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs website:

Imagine that a residential customer installs a rooftop photovoltaic (PV) system (also known as a solar-electric system) to her home, on her side of the retail meter. Before daylight, her retail meter spins forward as she consumes electricity from the distribution company to power appliances like a refrigerator or computer. During the day, the solar panels generate electricity. If they provide more power than the customer can use, her retail meter will spin in reverse as the excess electricity is sent to the electric grid. At night, when the solar panels are not generating electricity, the retail meter will spin forward again as the customer consumes more electricity than her system generates. At the end of the billing period (around one month), the customer only pays for the net consumption of electricity. 

~ Susan R.

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Sweet Solar Pump!

Talking about environmental problems can get a little gloomy, so here is a link to a lovely design project. It’s a solar charging pump and public seating space designed by Sol Design Lab and SXSW Inc. Sol Design Lab works to “create interactive and inspiring solutions for urban sustainability, public art, and design”. The music in the video is by the band Fool’s Gold (misattributed to their single release Surprise Hotel). I happen to have gone to one of their concerts a few years ago. They were a big group of fun, talented musicians, and it was like watching a traveling party. Nice match for the video…

Some may think that the name “Fool’s Gold” is also a great match for solar and other alternative energies. In fact, there are many people under the impression that these energies simply cost more than they are worth, and that they are ultimately unfeasible at present. I can’t speak to the latter at the moment because, aside from the complication that we subsidized almost all energy in some way (including fossil fuels), it brings up questions of how we distinguish and compare costs, and fundamentally how we judge and determine value. Since that is well beyond the scope of this short post, I’ll just speak to the feasibility. In 2009 Dr. Mark Delucchi, at the Institute of Transportation Studies in UC Davis, and Dr. Mark J Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, published an article in Scientific American outlining how we could rely completely on wind water and sun for our energy by 2030. The brief synopsis of the article explains:

• Supplies of wind and solar energy on accessible land dwarf the energy consumed by people around the globe.

• The authors’ plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations worldwide.

• The cost of generating and transmitting power would be less than the projected cost per kilowatt-hour for fossil-fuel and nuclear power.

• Shortages of a few specialty materials, along with lack of political will, loom as the greatest obstacles.

One of the biggest obstacle was a shortage of materials for things like car batteries. However they say that particular issue might be mitigated by recycling the material. This seems to focus on a straight transition to wind, water, and solar energy, without even factoring in the potential for major changes in efficiency and energy use (like increased use of small scale geothermal).

Speaking of materials, researchers are now exploring the use of fools gold, also known as pyrite, as a possible cheap and abundant semiconductor for use in photovoltaics.

Quick heads up: at 7:00 tonight there is an Occupy Boston book swap and potluck on Copley Square Plaza, and at 7:00 tomorrow there will be a meting on the future and direction of Occupy Boston at the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common. It’s your future and everyone is welcome!

~Nuevaspora