The California Public Utilities Commission decided to postpone the vote scheduled for today on its hotly contested proposal that would boost the electric bills of customers with rooftop solar installations. The proposal would greatly lower the rate of compensation utilities pay for electricity fed to the grid from owners of the state’s 1.3 million rooftop solar installations under its “net energy metering” policy. It would also charge them a big “grid participation fee.”
The voting delay is probably because the proposal—NEM 3.0—is being reworked as a result of intense public reaction. It should be. As it stands, it almost certainly would slow the adoption of rooftop solar that ought to be accelerated. If adopted, the proposal would make ripples coast to coast. As Gov. Gavin Newsom has said, more work needs to be done.
Countless celebrities, prominent officials, activists, a Republican ex-governor, and big and little media have all weighed in on the matter. Over nearly a year, the changes in net metering have been fiercely debated. However, one group never seems to get a mention. That’s the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) funded by oil and chemical billionaire Charles Koch.
ALEC has been out to throttle distributive—that is, small-scale, decentralized—energy for more than a decade. Its first target were the states’ renewable portfolio standards mandating a certain percentage of electricity be generated from renewable sources by a certain deadline. That campaign pretty much failed, so another tack was developed. Since 2012, ALEC’s renewables-busting target has been net metering. To roll it back, the council has written model legislation that seems in part to be the work of the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), an association of investor-owned utilities. What CPUC developed looks very much like that model.
The proposal would allow utilities to stop paying “retail” prices of 20-30 cents a kilowatt-hour for rooftop solar-generated electricity and pay 5-7 cents instead. Solar customers would also have to pay a monthly grid participation fee of $57. The changes would make switching to solar unaffordable for many Californians, according to critics who claim it could cut solar business in the state by 80%. Bank of America Global Research analysts say it would lead to a 20% drop.
Advocates nevertheless say the change is needed because paying the retail rate for electricity from rooftop solar requires utilities to “shift costs” to its non-solar customers by raising rates both for electricity and for recovering the costs of maintaining all their substations, wires, poles, and other equipment related to the grid. The proposed changes, the utilities assert, would allow them to reduce lower-income customers’ bills by about $10 a month.
Overhead costs have always been rolled into per-kilowatt-hour prices, but because more-likely-to-be-affluent rooftop solar customers see zero charges on their bills during some months, the burden for paying these costs lands on the more-likely-to-be-low-income non-solar customers. At Grist, Shannon Osaka has a good explainer of how this works.
Unlike other utility rate issues where it’s easy to know ahead of time what stance various stakeholders will take, the proposed decision has attracted surprising support from one of the nation’s leading environmental organizations, a utility customer advocacy group, an environmental justice group, and a few unions. In opposition are other environmental groups, renewable energy advocates, solar companies, solar trade groups and associations, and homebuilders.
The transition away from fossil fuels should not be achieved on the backs of low-income people. But approving a policy that promises fairness by slowing the adoption of solar shouldn’t be an option either. In fact, the move against net metering as it now exists in many states didn’t arise because utility executives suddenly got religious about fairness. Rather they understood that if distributive energy really took off, they’d lose customers and have to boost rates on their remaining customers, which would drive many of those customers to also install rooftop solar themselves.
In a January 2013 report, Disruptive Challenges, EEI addressed this reality, saying “threats posed to the electric utility industry from disruptive forces, particularly distributed resources, have serious long-term implications for the traditional electric utility business model and investor.” It concludes that, “the industry and its stakeholders must begin to seriously address these challenges, in order to mitigate the potential impact of disruptive force.”
That same year, EEI joined Arizona Public Service Company (APS), the state’s largest utility, in an effort to get the regulatory Arizona Corporation Commission to change its rate structure for rooftop solar electricity exported to the grid. As reported at the time by Reid Wilson at The Washington Post, “The utility industry wants permission to pay rates below market value, and to charge customers who feed electricity back to the grid a monthly fee for maintenance costs.” Sound familiar?
APS had proposed charging solar customers an additional $50-100 on their monthly bills as a grid-use fee. The ACC approved what amounted to $5 a month instead. A far cry from the $57 in CPUC’s proposed decision.
Gabe Elsner at the Energy Policy Institute told The Guardian, "What we saw in 2013 was an attempt to repeal [renewable portfolio standard] laws, and when that failed … what we are seeing now is a strategy that appears to be pro-clean energy but would actually weaken those pro-clean energy laws by retreating to the lowest common denominator."
Utilities that once shied away from solar have been embracing it for some time now. But they want the kind they can keep control over. That means centralized utility-scale operations and transmission lines. While these can generate electricity for around 3 cents a kilowatt-hour, siting them is no easy matter, and their negative environmental effects on wildlife can be considerable. These large-scale facilities will be needed in our energy transformation, but the fewer of them the better. One way to ensure there are fewer is by installing more rooftop solar. While CPUC commissioners have declared this is also their goal, except for a couple of paltry provisions the proposal doesn’t mesh with the claim.
There are alternatives, but as Jeff St. John reports:
... the CPUC declined to adopt multiple proposals advanced by environmental justice and community groups to increase the compensation that lower-income customers would receive for their exported [to the grid] solar. It also failed to take up multiple proposals to create new community-solar programs for lower-income homeowners, renters and other groups that can find it challenging to tap the benefits of net-metered solar today.
“Today’s proposed decision by CPUC is deeply disappointing as it once again delays action on developing a workable community solar program in California and undermines the state’s distributed energy market,” said Charlie Coggeshall, regional director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access, one of the groups that proposed a community solar program as part of the net-metering proceedings, in a Monday statement.
Do better, CPUC.
"If we don't do the right thing now [about climate change], there are very serious problems that our children and grandchildren will have to face."—Carl Sagan (1986)
TRACKING THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION’S ENVIRONMENTAL RECORD
The online environmental magazine Grist is tracking President Joe Biden’s effort to undo Trump’s toxic legacy. The Washington Post is also tracking the president’s actions to undo Trump’s anti-environmental policies and forge his own. As mentioned in a previous Earth Matters, Evergreen Action has scrutinized President Biden’s progress on 46 executive climate action campaign promises. All three have given the administration mixed reviews, with Evergreen Action noting, “Biden has taken key steps but must push further and move faster to deliver on climate commitments.” At the Post, you can click on individual items in the chart below to see specific policies.
Even without the media deluge of Democrats in Disarray stories helping to spur dismay in the party, the midterms were going to be tough for incumbent and challenger Democrats alike. And if the polls and doomster prognosticators turn out to be right, these three Republicans are in line to chair committees with strong impacts on the environment.
Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, by far the nation’s leading coal producer, would again take over the top post of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee he chaired under Donald Trump from current Democratic Chairman Joe Manchin. That might not seem like a big loss. As problematic as Manchin is, however, Barrasso is far, far worse. He once introduced a bill that would not only prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon pollution, it would also have barred the federal government from even studying what’s going on with the climate. He has voted to remove mercury and toxic air pollution protections. His lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) is 7%.
Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, once a contender for secretary of Interior under Trump, is in line to head up the House Energy and Commerce Committee if Republicans retake the House. She has said, “Scientific reports are inconclusive at best on human culpability of global warming.” The LCV gives her a 4% lifetime rating.
Rep. Bruce Westerman of Arkansas could step up to chair the Natural Resources Committee, replacing Democrat Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona. Westerman said at a 2017 hearing. "I assume if climate's changing, it's changing in Arkansas, as well as other places. So I did a little research and found out the number of forest fires in Arkansas has actually decreased over the past 20 years. It's either held level or slightly decreased as our management has continued to increase. So apparently the climate change isn't affecting forest fires in my state. You would think even though it's a more moderate or temperate climate, if climate change was causing more fires we would see a lot more of them than what's in the baseline." More recently he introduced his Trillion Tree Initiative to capture gobs of CO2, an idea that a number of scientists have shot down. LCV lifetime score: 1%.
In this era of collapsing glaciers, extreme weather, destruction of habitat, failed climate summits, and all the rest, it’s rare to hear success stories. But, like the Nachusa Grasslands of Illnois, those successes offer hope that the Earth isn’t doomed. Now a scientist has mapped data on these successes around the planet:
Last summer, Thomas Crowther, an ecologist at ETH Zurich, launched Restor, a mapping tool that shows where in the world people are doing this sort of restoring or conserving of ecosystems. Think of it as the “nature is healing” meme from the early pandemic, but serious.
We should be angry about climate change and the destruction of ecosystems, Crowther told Vox. “But without optimism, that outrage goes nowhere,” he said. Examples of people restoring land give us all something to root for, and now there’s a spot to find a whole bunch of them — tens of thousands, actually.
In a bipartisan move 39 years ago, Iowa chose to support development of the state’s prodigious wind resources. In 2020, 11.6 gigawatts of installed wind turbine capacity generated almost 60% of the state’s electricity. Now, MidAmerican, the state’s largest electric utility, plans to add 2.04 gigawatts to that total with its Wind Prime project to be completed by 2025. It will also install 50 megawatts of solar power at the site. Forty-five percent of the $3.9 billion cost of the project will be covered by federal tax credits. Meanwhile, MidAmerican plans to accelerate the shuttering of its coal-burning power plants.
Last year the Iowa Environmental Council reviewed a dozen studies to determine what would be necessary for the state to power itself from 100% renewable sources by 2050, as detailed in its Iowa’s Road to 100% report. To achieve the 100% goal by mid-century, the review determined that it would take between 30 and 61 gigawatts of additional wind and 5 to 20 gigawatts of additional solar, accompanied by storage and increased efficiency investments.
Like other American Indian tribes in the state, the Sinkyone people of northern California were victims of physical and cultural genocide under more than a century and a half of Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. rule. As vigilantes collected a $5 bounty from the state government for every Native scalp they sliced off, 19th Century settlers and later timber companies in the 19th and 20th drove Indigenous survivors off the land their ancestors had inhabited for thousands of years. But in 1997 Sinkyone descendants created a 10-tribe consortium that formed the intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Park from 3,900 acres sold to it by the Trust for Public Land under a conservation easement.
On Tuesday, the Save the Redwoods League announced that it had donated and transferred ownership of 523 acres of forest it bought in Mendocino County in 2020 to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. In a press release, the league said the area will be renamed "Tc'ih-Léh-Dûñ"—"fish run place" in the Sinkyone language— as "an act of cultural empowerment and a celebration of Indigenous resilience."
Said Crista Ray, a tribal citizen of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians and a board member of the Sinkyone Council, "Renaming the property Tc'ih-Léh-Dûñ lets people know that it's a sacred place; it's a place for our Native people. It lets them know that there was a language and that there was a people who lived there long before now."
Before the arrival of Euro-Americans, the Sinkyone people traveled each summer along a 60-mile stretch of what’s now called the Lost Coast to fish and gather acorns, berries, kelp, nuts, roots, seaweed, and seeds.
As part of their sustainable management practices, they would rotationally burn coastal prairies and woodlands to maintain the health and productivity of the ecosystem, and to ensure their sources of food and medicinal plants. Based on cultural practices informed by centuries of evidence-based observation, they also hunted and gathered rotationally, carefully transplanted various plants and animals, and integrated those activities with spiritual practices. The Redwood tree (called “Kahstcho” in Sinkyone) was considered especially sacred, and was used to create baskets, fish traps, boats, houses, and clothing.
Oregon Road Warriors. For months, a group of youthful climate activists have waged a battle to halt a Portland, Oregon, highway widening—and turn U.S. transportation policy around. The Oregon Department of Transportation plans to add lanes to several highways. The young activists think this is a bad idea and, since April 2021, have been showing up at ODOT’s downtown Portland headquarters to protest the expansion that would add tens of thousands of tons of carbon emissions each year.
They are particularly focused on blocking the Rose Quarter Improvement Project (RQIP), a $1.2 billion plan to widen a stretch of I-5 in the historically Black neighborhood of Albina. Pollution from vehicles there is so bad that four years ago scientists warned that students at Harriet Tubman Middle School should avoid playing outside. But won’t more lanes reduce the risks? Not according to researchers who have scrutinized the impact of induced demand. Economist Anthony Downs gets the credit for coming up with the “iron law of congestion” 60 years ago. In a paper, he wrote, “On urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity.” A recent study of the nation’s 100 largest urbanized areas found that freeway capacity increased 42% from 1993 to 2017, but traffic delays surged 144%. The young activists and their adult allies won one battle in the fight this month when the federal government rescinded its approval of an environmental assessment of the RQIP expansion.
Climate change action demanded by Indiana students. Lawmakers say 'no'. The Indiana legislature has refused to hear any bills about climate change this session, ignoring student demands to take action on the crisis. The state legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, so the students asked GOP state Sen. Ron Alting to sponsor a bill and a resolution on climate. Senate Bill 255 and House Bill 1287 authored by Democratic Rep. Carey Hamilton would establish a bipartisan commission or task force to recommend steps Indiana should take to address climate change. Alting also wrote Senate Concurrent Resolution 3. This simply recognizes the existence of climate change and states that “all Hoosiers, particularly those most vulnerable to changes in Indiana’s climate, must be protected through adaptive climate solutions.” Neither the bills nor the resolution have been scheduled for committee hearings.
Should the world ban solar geoengineering? 60 scientists say yes. In an open letter published last week the scientists declared solar geoengineering technology an “unacceptable risk.” They wrote, “Governments and the United Nations need to take effective political control and restrict the development of solar geoengineering technologies before it is too late.” The scientists noted three areas of concern: Risks are poorly understood and impacts would vary from region to region; speculation that solar geoengineering will solve the climate crisis without ending the burning of fossil fuels could slow down decarbonization efforts; and, “the current global governance system is unfit to develop and implement the far-reaching agreements needed to maintain fair, inclusive, and effective political control over solar geoengineering deployment.”
weekly green video
Just as with other material presented in Earth Matters, I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the weekly videos but offer them as discussion prompters.
We can afford to reverse poverty and climate breakdown. What we can’t afford is the alternative. Our global finance system is failing to rise to the challenges we face. It’s time it was reimagined—and grounded in our shared humanity, by Kevin Watkins at The Guardian
Do dividends make carbon taxes more popular? Apparently not. A new study finds evidence that frustrates a common theory. By David Roberts at Volts
If Build Back Better fails, federal climate policy may depend on Republican cooperation. A funny thing happens when you separate out the $500 billion climate portion of the Build Back Better Act from the rest of the package: It starts to look a lot like the kind of climate plan Republicans say they support. By Zoya Tierstein at Grist
Ro Khanna on a Climate-Only Biden Bill: “There’s No Other Option.” The California representative says Build Back Better needs to get pared down to some urgent essentials. By Grace Segars at The New Republic
“Sustainable Forestry Initiative” Greenwashes Unsustainable Logging. SFI’s requirements for logging operations continue to be weak, vague, and risk certifying operations that may have violated Indigenous rights and destroyed large areas of primary forest. By Courtenay Lewis at the Natural Resources Defense Council
HALF A DOZEN OTHER THINGS TO READ
Black Farmers Are Rebuilding Agriculture in Coal Country. Jason Tartt saw opportunity in the terraced hillsides of his native West Virginia, both for restoring the land and for other Black farmers. By Natalie Peart at Yes! Magazine
Leading the charge: Wildlife experts plan for future of Nepal’s rhinos. The one-horned species was nearly extinct before poaching was curbed. Now the climate crisis could pose a greater threat. By Neelima Vallangi.
Reporter idles in EV for 12 freezing hours to test what happens. Adding more data to the backlash against Charles Lane’s fact-challenged Washington Post column arguing that EV drivers would have trouble staying warm if they were trapped for hours in traffic stalled by icy roads. To simulate getting on the highway, journalist Alex Lauer drove to a Starbucks and back. Then, he sat in his car for hours. He didn’t freeze. By Arianna Skibell at Climate Wire.
Old-Fashioned, Inefficient Light Bulbs Live on at the Nation’s Dollar Stores. A Trump administration weakening of climate rules has kept incandescent bulbs on store shelves, and research shows they’re concentrated in shops serving poorer areas. By Hiroko Tabuchi at The New York Times
Nobody is listening to climate scientists. What if they went on strike? There is a bizarre logic of scientists putting a moratorium on science, but frustration is high. In an article published in The Conversation last week, three scientists wrote, “We call for a moratorium on climate change research until governments are willing to fulfill their responsibilities in good faith.” This “offers the only real prospect for restoring the science-society contract.” The researchers call it a “moratorium,” but perhaps it’s better described as a strike—a refusal to persist in basic scientific research until governments of the world get their act together. By Shannon Osaka at Grist.
Old-Fashioned, Inefficient Light Bulbs Live On at the Nation’s Dollar Stores. A Trump administration weakening of climate rules has kept incandescent bulbs on store shelves, and research shows they’re concentrated in shops serving poorer areas. By Hiroko Tabuchi at The New York Times
• Interior revives invasive species advisory panel • Feds reverse course, seek protections for a New Mexico butterfly • How Biden could close coal plants without CO2 regulations • Hackers hit energy companies hard last year. What’s next? • States to receive federal cash for EV chargers this year • Wind and Solar Costs Have Risen. How Long Should We Expect This Trend to Last? • Americans agree on something: Get single-use plastics out of our national parks • For thousands of Americans unhealthy chemical exposures at work are a needless reality • GOP Govs to Biden: Don’t Force Your Progressive Politics on our Highway Projects • Biden’s Electric Vehicle Push Unites Warring Oil and Corn Allies • IMF chief: Climate change is worsening inflation