To cut carbon emissions, a movement grows to ‘electrify everything’

On March 24, just before the city council of Santa Cruz, California passed an emergency measure to prevent evictions of renters suffering from lost income during the coronavirus pandemic, it adopted another new ordinance: effective July 1, all construction permit applications for new buildings in the city must submit a declaration that their design is “Natural Gas-Free.”

With that vote, Santa Cruz became the 30th city or county in California to enact a measure limiting or prohibiting the use of natural gas in new construction. It was just the latest in a string of victories for the “electrify everything” movement, which is pushing for a rapid transition away from burning natural gas and other fossil fuels in buildings.

In the past year, gas bans have spread with a speed that has taken even some of its most ardent proponents by surprise. Last July, Berkeley became the first city to adopt an outright prohibition on gas connections in most new buildings. A raft of other California cities followed with their own versions, including Menlo Park, home to some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, and San Jose, the tenth largest city in the nation. In November, the movement leapt beyond California when Brookline, a large suburb of Boston, became the first municipality in Massachusetts to pass an all-electric requirement for new buildings.

In the past year, gas bans have spread with a speed that has taken even some of its most ardent proponents by surprise. Last July, Berkeley became the first city to adopt an outright prohibition on gas connections in most new buildings. A raft of other California cities followed with their own versions, including Menlo Park, home to some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, and San Jose, the tenth largest city in the nation. In November, the movement leapt beyond California when Brookline, a large suburb of Boston, became the first municipality in Massachusetts to pass an all-electric requirement for new buildings.

Dozens more U.S. cities are contemplating their own gas bans or all-electric mandates, motivated primarily by climate concerns. In Seattle, a proposed ban on natural gas systems in new construction is being considered by the city council. Bellingham, Washington is considering outlawing gas heating in new and existing buildings. In March, the city council of Takoma Park, Maryland passed a resolution to achieve net-zero emissions by 2035; the next step will be developing specific ordinances, including one potentially phasing out gas appliances. Last week, Ann Arbor, Michigan unveiled a similar plan.

“Twelve months ago, we were in early discussions with just a couple jurisdictions in California,” said Sage Welch, who leads outreach and communications for the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a network of city governments, utilities, and nonprofit organizations advocating for electrifying buildings. “Even the advocates working on this have been really floored by the way that cities have picked this up and run with it.”

City leaders, lawmakers, and climate activists pushing for all-electric policies argue that continuing to rely on fossil fuel-burning furnaces, water heaters, and cooking ranges is incompatible with plans to bring net carbon emissions to zero by mid-century or sooner. They are also making the case that electric appliances are safer and healthier — since they don’t produce combustion byproducts like particulate matter, carbon monoxide, or nitrogen dioxide — and cheaper over their lifespans than conventional gas systems.

Over 60 percent of homes nationwide rely on gas or other fossil fuels for heating. Burning gas or other fossil fuels for heating, cooking, and water heating contributes about 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. — generating 560 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. In California, energy use in buildings accounts for a quarter of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Even as the electricity sector’s carbon intensity has declined in recent years — in large part due to a switch from coal to natural gas as the dominant fuel — emissions from the use of fossil fuels in buildings have held steady. One reason is that local leaders, climate activists, and regulators have overlooked the long-lived appliances used to cook and heat offices and homes as a source of climate-warming pollution. States and cities are now pursuing a variety of approaches to cut carbon emissions produced by their buildings: whole-building energy efficiency targets, system-specific electric mandates, and, increasingly, comprehensive gas bans.

But just as the electrify everything movement has gained momentum, opposition has coalesced in some places. In February, with the support of gas utilities and the homebuilding industry, Arizona’s legislature passed a measure preventing local governments from prohibiting natural gas infrastructure. Lawmakers in five other states — Missouri, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Mississippi — have proposed similar bills preventing the bans.

“The gas industry is extremely powerful and well-resourced,” said Mark Kresowik, eastern region deputy director for the Sierra Club, which has been advocating for policies favoring electrification. “But there’s a growing recognition that electrification and getting beyond the gas system has tremendous benefits for consumers and communities. It’s cheaper, healthier, safer, and ultimately what we have to do for the climate. It is inevitable in the same way moving beyond coal power is inevitable.”

Two key factors have recently aligned to make going all-electric more feasible for policymakers, homeowners, and developers, as both a carbon- and cost-cutting measure. Electricity generation produces far fewer greenhouse emissions than it once did. And electric appliances have become more efficient, user-friendly, and reliable.

A few decades ago, gas furnaces were a cheaper and less-polluting choice than electric space heating systems plugged into a grid dominated by coal-fired power plants. But today’s electric grid is cleaner. In California, more than half of the electricity used by consumers is now zero-carbon; state law requires this share to reach 60 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2045. Nationally, about 38 percent of electricity was generated by zero-carbon (renewables or nuclear) sources in 2019, up from about 23 percent in 1980. Along with new mandates and market trends, recent improvements in energy devices, such as air-source heat pumps that can efficiently keep spaces warm or cool in a wide range of climates, have the potential to make conventional gas-burning heaters — and the vast infrastructure required to fuel them — obsolete.

“Natural gas has long been perceived as the lower cost option” compared to older electric resistance-based space or water heaters, said Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in energy-efficient appliances and technologies for buildings. “But that’s no longer true with heat pumps. They are four or five times more efficient than gas alternatives. That shifts the economics.”

Those efficiencies, he said, unlock huge cost savings over the lifespan of appliances — savings that come on top of the avoided costs of connecting a home to gas lines. “These local codes and ordinances are focused on new construction, because there’s no question about the economics,” Delforge said. “It’s cheaper and faster to build all-electric than with gas because you don’t have to connect the building to the gas main in the street, and there’s no gas plumbing in the building.”

While outright gas bans have proved popular in California, lawmakers in Maine have taken a different tack: last year they passed a law setting a target of 100,000 heat pumps installed in the state’s homes by 2025. “Considering that there only about 500,000 homes in Maine, it’s the most ambitious building decarbonization policy in the U.S,” said Kresowik. To help meet the target, the state’s energy efficiency program recently doubled the rebates it offers for heat pumps.

Meanwhile, large cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are coming up with transition plans for decarbonizing their gas utilities. That entails exploring options for retiring gas pipelines and fully electrifying heating and water heating, and identifying the lowest-cost route to meeting carbon targets. “In D.C., where I live, the public service commission recognizes that you can’t do new gas hookups until we’ve planned for the gas system’s alignment with climate commitments,” said Kresowik. “That’s something every regulator should be doing now.”

In California and elsewhere, policymakers are trying to ensure that low-income households and consumers aren’t left behind in the transition from gas-fueled to fully electrified houses, apartments, and businesses.

They are drawing lessons from the past decade’s boom in residential solar systems. Affluent early adopters embraced solar, kickstarting the market, and incentive programs enabled more and more homeowners to purchase solar systems. The all-electric movement is following a similar path — in fact most of the municipalities that have passed gas bans so far are upper- and middle-class communities. But a more equitable policy approach, such as creating incentives for low-income residents to go all-electric, is needed, said Bruce Nilles, who leads the building electrification program at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

“Everyone has to replace their appliances at some point — water heaters break,” said Nilles. “Let’s make that a seamless process, through incentives and financing.”

In the last two years, California’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has been funding pilot programs to help disadvantaged communities transition to the all-electric future that’s being planned for the entire state. In 2019, it awarded $50 million to electrify appliances in 1,600 low-income households in the San Joaquin Valley that currently lack access to gas distribution lines. And in February, the PUC approved a pilot program, funded by revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade emissions auction, that sets aside at least $60 million in financial incentives for all-electric low-income housing.

These pilots, however, are still limited in scope. For some advocates, securing support for all-electric ordinances from affordable housing organizations has proved challenging.

“There’s a lot of fear about increased costs and barriers,” said Diane Bailey, the executive director of Menlo Spark, a climate-focused nonprofit working on clean energy issues in the Silicon Valley region. “And some of those fears are real because affordable housing developers already have so many different hoops they have to jump through, especially to get the tax credits they need to make projects happen.

“The solutions should be statewide,” Bailey added, “because affordable housing developers are complaining loudly that they’re facing a patchwork of rules and regulations from different cities.”

Gas industry trade groups have launched advertising campaigns opposing city-level gas bans across the country. The American Public Gas Association, which represents local gas distribution utilities, has characterized city bans as “extreme” and “a heavy-handed approach [that] eliminates consumer choice, stifles innovation, and diminishes the flexibility to respond to GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions goals, with the least-cost solutions for consumers.”

Gas utilities, developers, and homebuilders associations have lobbied and testified against some cities’ all-electric mandates, citing the importance of preserving “energy choice” for consumers, and contending that they will drive up electric bills for ratepayers and overall costs for developers, restaurants, and other businesses. Last week, the American Petroleum Institute announced it will restructure its field offices around the country, in part to better push back against the national spread of the gas ban movement.

Advocates say they expected this pushback. But no one, of course, saw COVID-19 coming. Now, like everyone else, policymakers and electrification advocates are trying to figure out how to proceed. The lack of affordable housing was already a chronic crisis in California and many Eastern cities. With the mounting economic fallout of the pandemic, affordability concerns are only likely to loom larger.

Logistics and legal issues pose a more immediate problem. In December, Emily Norton, a city councilor in the affluent Boston suburb of Newton initiated committee hearings on a potential gas ban ordinance covering new buildings and major renovations. Newton is one of several municipalities in Massachusetts waiting to see how the state attorney general rules on the legality of Brookline’s newly adopted bylaw banning new gas connections.

Despite the challenges of conducting hearings and city business in a time of social distancing, Norton and her colleagues in Newton are pushing their ordinance planning forward and intend to move ahead regardless of the attorney general’s ruling. They hope to get a gas ban passed in the fall.

“Our constituents understand why we’re doing this,” Norton said. “They know we have very aggressive climate goals. At the same time, they want to know, ‘What will it cost? How will it affect me if I sell my house?’”

This story was published by Yale Environment 360 on April 14, 2020. You can find the original article here.

Can you fix ventilators? A fuel cell engineer figures it out

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — It was late when engineer Joe Tavi’s boss called with an odd question: Could their company, which makes fuel cells, learn how to fix a ventilator?

California had a bunch of broken ones, and the governor had asked if San Jose-based Bloom Energy could repair them so coronavirus patients could breathe.

Tavi, an engineer who grew up taking apart the family vacuum cleaner to see if he could put it back together, said he would sleep on it.

But he didn’t sleep. Instead, he made a pot of coffee and downloaded the more than 300-page manual for the LTD 1200, the type of ventilator state officials said they needed repaired.

At 4:45 a.m. the next day, coffee still in hand, his boss called again.

“We can do this,” Tavi told her. “We won’t be able to do it if we don’t try.”

Since then, a company that knew nothing about ventilators has fixed more than 500 of them. It’s a transformation akin to World War II, when manufacturing behemoths used their assembly line expertise to make airplanes and tanks. Now, some companies are tapping their storehouses of brainpower to do the same thing with medical equipment.

While most people with the coronavirus have only mild or moderate symptoms, it can cause more severe illness in some, including pneumonia — an infection that can cause the lungs to fill with fluid, making it difficult to breathe. That’s where the ventilators come in.

The Society of Critical Care Medicine estimates about 960,000 COVID-19 patients in the U.S. might need a ventilator. But there are only about 200,000 machines available.

In California, the nation’s most populous state with nearly 40 million people, Gov. Gavin Newsom is on the hunt for at least 10,000 ventilators. So far, he’s found just over 4,000 of them — including 170 from the federal government’s national stockpile that needed repairs.

Bloom Energy makes fuel cells, which combine air and hydrogen to create electricity through a chemical reaction. To get the air and the hydrogen in the right quantities, the fuel cell uses hoses and valves and fans — similar functions to a ventilator. Chief Operations Officer Susan Brennan says the company isn’t profiting from the repairs; they hope to eventually recoup some of their expenses from the state.

Once he knew he could do it, Tavi gathered with other company engineers to come up with a plan, guided by lots of YouTube videos on ventilator settings and calibrations. The company’s head of supply chain ordered the parts.

There were some anxious moments, especially during testing. As a kid, Tavi said, when he would take apart his family vacuum cleaner, sometimes he couldn’t get it back together correctly. A ventilator isn’t something you want to put together and find a few screws left over.

But once the team got the ventilators hooked up to balloons, hearing the soft “woosh” of air as they expanded and contracted, Tavi said it went from being a machine to something much more personal.

“I would think about my mom or my uncle or a family member of a friend or a co-worker needing one of those machines,” he said. “We don’t view it as a number of units we are turning over. We view it as the maximum number of people we could potentially positively impact by having an extra ventilator that works. Even if it’s just one person.”

The Battle Against Global Warming Is the New Cold War

The Cold War inspired the creation of several key publicly funded organizations, many of them military, that have reconfigured the nation’s economy, and the world’s, through a series of transformative technology booms. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which was founded by President Eisenhower in 1958 as a response to Sputnik, has been credited with laying the groundwork for the internet, Wi-Fi, supercomputing, desktop computing, GPS, robotics, artificial intelligence, drones, and voice recognition. Through the ’50s and ’60s, the Department of Defense learned how to best use its position as a primary customer to spur industries to create better and more innovative technologies—a process that has brought to market three of the most important energy technologies of the past century: nuclear power, sophisticated and efficient turbines, and solar photovoltaic tech. (The depth of the military’s influence on the US economy is so profound that, to understand its role, I found myself reading an economics book titled Is War Necessary for Economic Growth? The answer was, with some qualifications, yes.)

As Arati Prabhakar, who led Darpa from 2012 to 2017, explained to me, “We are very good at innovating in this country for the things that we set out to innovate for in 1945: national security, which led to changes in information technology, and health, which became biomedicine. And I don’t think it’s an accident that that’s what we’re good at now—because those were precisely the things that we focused on.”

The military has been successful at creating tech for a few reasons: As Prabhakar suggested, it sets priorities for problems it wishes to solve and then pursues multiple technological pathways. What’s more, it perseveres without caring excessively about costs.

Take Darpa itself. According to MIT’s Bill Bonvillian, who has studied the agency’s role in innovation for more than two decades, Darpa’s greatest advantage is its uniquely nimble, collaborative, mission-driven culture, where managers move back and forth between research and application, creating communities among researchers and industry. “In most R&D agencies, the critical decision is awarding the grant,” he says. “In Darpa, the managers award the grants and then move into the researcher’s home.”

In addition to providing what economists call the “technology push” by funding foundational science through Darpa, the military also excels at creating a “demand pull” by partnering with industry to develop the products, mounting large-scale demonstration projects, and being an early-adopting customer with deep pockets. Many of these innovations have made their way into civilian life.

Every time you board a 737, for example, you are experiencing the result of the Army’s demand pull in the world economy. In the early ’60s, Army and NASA engineers set out on a program of basic and applied research to radically change the way they understood jet engines, in a bid to make them much more energy-efficient. As researcher John Alic has documented, they went deep into the physics of the machines, studying the way air flowed over the blades and how metals behave at high temperatures. They funded basic research on rare earth magnets at university labs and developed ceramic coatings that are now standard for high-temperature uses. With the Army spending billions of dollars on research and then purchasing expensive products that spun out of it—like Apache helicopter blades—not only did jet engines become more efficient and reliable, the private sector adopted and built off of the new technologies to create civilian products—like that passenger aircraft, the turbines in gas-fired power plants, and even the magnets that run the electric windows in your car.

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The US has wallowed in the politics of climate despair since the late 1990s, so it may be hard to accept what I’m going to say next: We could fairly quickly adapt our existing federal technology innovation system to work on the tech we need to decarbonize energy at a scale that would have real impact. (What’s more, by shifting innovation from military applications to civilian ones, we’d be building a country where war is no longer necessary for economic growth. But that’s a different conversation.)

Here's why we can't let the coronavirus undermine transitions to cleaner energy

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is slowing down economic activity.
  • Governments should take the opportunity to launch sustainable stimulus packages focused on clean energy technologies, writes Fatih Birol, Executive Director at the International Energy Agency.

The impact of the coronavirus around the world and the resulting turmoil in global markets are dominating global attention. As governments respond to these interlinked crises, they must not lose sight of a major challenge of our time: clean energy transitions.

The coronavirus is turning into an unprecedented international crisis, with serious repercussions for people’s health and economic activity. Although they may be severe, the effects are likely to be temporary. Meanwhile, the threat posed by climate change, which requires us to reduce global emissions significantly this decade, will remain. We should not allow today’s crisis to compromise our efforts to tackle the world’s inescapable challenge.

Governments are drawing up stimulus plans in an effort to counter the economic damage from the coronavirus. These stimulus packages offer an excellent opportunity to ensure that the essential task of building a secure and sustainable energy future doesn’t get lost amid the flurry of immediate priorities.

Large-scale investment to boost the development, deployment and integration of clean energy technologies – such as solar, wind, hydrogen, batteries and carbon capture (CCUS) – should be a central part of governments’ plans because it will bring the twin benefits of stimulating economies and accelerating clean energy transitions. The progress this will achieve in transforming countries’ energy infrastructure won’t be temporary – it can make a lasting difference to our future.

Coronavirus Covid-19 virus infection China Hubei Wuhan contagion spread

Image: C2ES

The costs of key renewable technologies, such as solar and wind, are far lower than during previous periods when governments launched stimulus packages. And the technology for both solar and wind is in a much better shape than in the past. Meanwhile, hydrogen and carbon capture are in need of major investment to scale them up and bring down costs. This could be helped by current interest rate levels, which were already low and are declining further, making the financing of big projects more affordable. Governments can make clean energy even more attractive to private investors by providing guarantees and contracts to reduce financial risks.

Taking these steps is extremely important because the combination of the coronavirus and volatile market conditions will distract the attention of policy makers, business leaders and investors away from clean energy transitions. This situation is a test of governments and companies’ commitment. Observers will quickly notice if their emphasis on clean energy transitions fades when market conditions become more challenging.

The sharp decline in the oil market may well undermine clean energy transitions by reducing the impetus for energy efficiency policies. Without measures by governments, cheaper energy always leads consumers to use it less efficiently. It reduces the appeal of buying more efficient cars or retrofitting homes and offices to save energy. This would be very bad news, since improvements in energy efficiency, a vital element for reaching international climate goals, have already been weakening in recent years.

Governments can address this by pursuing policies that have already proved successful previously, such as measures to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, which create jobs, reduce energy bills and help the environment.

The recent steep drop in oil prices is also a great opportunity for countries to lower or remove subsidies for fossil fuel consumption. There are around USD 400 billion of these subsidies worldwide today, and more than 40% of them are to make oil products cheaper.

There can be good reasons for governments to make energy more affordable, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable groups. But many subsidies are inefficiently targeted, disproportionally benefiting wealthier segments of the population that use much more of the subsidised fuel. In practice, the effect of most subsidies is to encourage consumers to waste energy, adding needlessly to emissions and straining government budgets that could otherwise be prioritising education or health care.

The coronavirus brings other dangers for clean energy transitions. China, the country most heavily affected by the virus initially, is the main global production source of many clean energy technologies, such as solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric cars. The Chinese economy was severely disrupted during the government’s efforts to contain the virus, especially in February, causing potential supply chain bottlenecks for some technologies and components.

This is why governments need to make sure they keep clean energy transitions front of mind as they respond to this fast-evolving crisis. IEA analysis shows that governments directly or indirectly drive more than 70% of global energy investments. They have a historic opportunity today to steer those investments onto a more sustainable path.

As the IEA announced last month, global energy-related CO2 emissions stopped growing last year even as the world economy expanded by nearly 3%. We need to make sure 2019 is remembered as the definitive peak in global emissions, and that means taking action now to put them into sustained decline this decade.

We may well see CO2 emissions fall this year as a result of the impact of the coronavirus on economic activity, particularly transport. But it is very important to understand that this would not be the result of governments and companies adopting new policies and strategies. It would most likely be a short-term blip that could well be followed by a rebound in emissions growth as economic activity ramps back up.

Real, sustained reductions in emissions will happen only if governments and companies fulfil the commitments that they have already announced – or that they will hopefully announce very soon.

Governments can use the current situation to step up their climate ambitions and launch sustainable stimulus packages focused on clean energy technologies. The coronavirus crisis is already doing significant damage around the world. Rather than compounding the tragedy by allowing it to hinder clean energy transitions, we need to seize the opportunity to help accelerate them.

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Why Clean Energy Stocks Popped Double Digits Tuesday | The Motley Fool

What happened 

Shares of clean energy stocks made a strong recovery Tuesday as the market and oil prices both moved higher. Ballard Power Systems Inc (NASDAQ:BLDP) jumped 17% by the close, FuelCell Energy Inc (NASDAQ:FCEL) finished higher by 12%, and Clean Energy Fuels Corp (NASDAQ:CLNE) closed up 13% on the day.

So what

The two macro trends early in trading were the market overall rising as investors bought back into a market that’s plunged over the last few weeks. The other big factor affecting clean energy was a big jump in oil prices Tuesday.

Hydrogen symbol made of leaves floating over field

Image source: Getty Images.

Oil is indirectly a competitor for Ballard, FuelCell Energy, and Clean Energy Fuels, so when oil prices were plunging that was bad news for their businesses. Now that oil is rising a bit, it’s an incremental tailwind. 

Clean Energy Fuels is most likely to be affected because it’s trying to get trucks and bus fleets to switch from diesel to natural gas fuels. The biggest pitch the company makes is that long-term there are cost savings from natural gas, which has remained cheap even when oil prices rose over the past decade. But if oil, and therefore diesel, prices go down, it won’t make as much sense to make the switch to natural gas. 

Ballard is making hydrogen products that can be powered by oil, so cheap oil is a hindrance but still doesn’t change the cleaner energy hydrogen can provide. And FuelCell Energy, while cleaner than oil power plants, is primarily selling to facilities as an auxiliary or backup power source, and it’s often consuming natural gas that’s common in the power plant business. 

Now what

The stock market moves this week shouldn’t be taken too seriously by investors, especially in the clean energy space. Oil prices go up and down, and long-term the price of oil shouldn’t matter if clean energy technologies are going to win. 

I would pay more attention to the long-term performance of these companies as indicators of where these renewable energy stocks are going. And that’s where my bigger concern comes in. All three are losing money, and until those losses become profits they don’t have sustainable businesses. That’s where I would like to see progress in 2020.