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OPINIONATED: Do Oil & Renewables Mix?

28 JUL 2016

By Fereidoon Sioshansi

Editor’s Note: This guest editorial points out signs of what’s ahead on the climate protection front, particularly given growing pressure in California, from the U.S. EPA and around the globe to slash greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Sioshansi’s analysis is of particular interest because fossil fueled transportation is the largest source of California’s carbon pollution, almost double that emitted by the electricity sector.

Everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix. The question is whether oil and renewables do?

On this point, opinions vary. Oil companies, while not threatened with extinction any time soon, nevertheless must decide if they need to adjust their longer-term investment plans and business strategies in a future where carbon emissions will increasingly be constrained and/or costly. And if they conclude that demand for their main products are likely to dwindle as global economies gradually shift towards lower carbon alternatives, then should they join the booming renewable bandwagon or stick to their knitting and watch their fortunes fade over time?

While a gradual shift away from fossil fuels appears likely in and outside California, the pace of change and the exact form of the substitutes are not. This partly explains how different fossil fuel companies are charting their future paths.

In May 2016, French oil giant Total acquired Saft for $1.1 billion, signaling its entry into the energy storage business. Saft makes nickel and lithium batteries for transportation, the military and storage of renewable generation. It is the latest in a string of investments starting with the acquisition of SunPower Corp., a manufacturer, assembler and installer of solar PV panels with a growing footprint in the U.S. in 2011.

According to Total’s CEO, Patrick Pouyanne, Saft will be the company’s spearhead in electricity storage.

Why would an oil major be interested in electricity storage? Because the market for energy storage is poised for rapid growth as everyone grapples with better ways to integrate variable generation from solar and wind into the grid – which must ultimately provide reliable service to customers.

Total, which has said it plans to invest $500 million a year in renewables, sees storage as the next big opportunity. And storage is a good fit for anyone in transportation. In California, transportation is responsible for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions.

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  2. TWENTY MILES EAST of Sparks, Nevada, a factory is rising from the red dirt of the high desert. It doesn’t look like much—a few completed structures amid exposed steel girders—but this building, dubbed the Gigafactory, is the key to Elon Musk’s sweeping plan to remake transportation.

The Gigafactory is where Tesla Motors will build the batteries that power its electric vehicles. The company has long imported batteries from Asia, but if it is to meet its CEO’s goal of producing 500,000 cars a year, it must build those batteries here. There’s simply no other way to meet its own demand, because the company expects to use more batteries in 2020 than were produced worldwide in 2013.

“The factory is the machine that builds the machine,” Musk says, sitting in the lobby of his new building.

When finished, the Gigafactory will cover 5.8 million square feet. Musk, never given to understatement, promises it will be beautiful. Plans call for a jewel-shaped building topped by a roof glittering with solar panels.


Crews broke ground in June, 2014, and Musk says EV batteries will start coming off the assembly line next year. That seems optimistic, given that just 14 percent of the factory is finished, but 1,000 people are working seven days a week to hit that deadline.

Those crews work among the Tesla employees already building Powerall and Powerpack home and industrial energy storage units using cells built at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California. (The company plans to start producing cells, which are combined to form the big packs in cars, at the Gigafactory.)

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America’s Next Energy Source: The Water Tank

JUL 27, 2016 @ 10:34 PM 23,673 VIEWS

Michael Kanellos , CONTRIBUTOR

I write about energy, transportation, food and data.

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Mr. Haney from Petticoat Junction would have loved this idea.

The Department of Energy today released a report estimating that the U.S. hydroelectric capacity could increase by approximately 50% by 2050 and we wouldn’t have to dam new rivers.

Instead, the bulk of the new power capacity would come from Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH), i.e. pumping water into a tower or uphill reservoir and letting it rip when the grid demands it. Water  is pumped in the off hours when power is cheaper and released during peak hours.

Under an aggressive technology adoption plan, hydropower capacity could grow from 101 GW today (about 6.2% of the capacity in the U.S. and 48% of the total renewable capacity) to 150 GW by 2050. 13 GW of the new capacity would essentially come from enhancing existing dams—replacing old generators with new compact ones with fewer parts, expanding the capacity at existing reservoirs—while 36 GW would come from PSH.

“If this level of growth is achieved, benefits such as a savings of $209 billion from avoided greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be realized, of which $185 billion would be attributable to operation of the existing hydropower fleet,” the report stated.

Overall, hydropower could eventually support more than 195,000 jobs and provide $150 billion in economic benefits.

And, ironically, raising the U.S. hydro capacity to 150 GW would save 30 trillion gallons of water by reducing the need to cool conventional power plants.To help ignite interest, the Energy Department announced $9.8 million in funding for 12 projects.

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CalSTRS steps up pressure in Volkswagen diesel scandal

JULY 28, 2016 10:40 AM

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California pension fund CalSTRS is pushing a shareholder suit against the German carmaker. Dale Kasler The Sacramento Bee


California’s $188 billion teachers’ pension fund is stepping up the pressure on Volkswagen in a European lawsuit over the German automaker’s air-pollution scandal.

The California State Teachers’ Retirement System, the second-largest U.S. public pension fund, has obtained a court order that will enable its attorneys to unearth potentially crucial corporate records relating to Volkswagen’s tainted diesel vehicles.

The order came a month after CalSTRS joined other institutional shareholders in suing Volkswagen in Germany, claiming their investments in the company have been damaged by its diesel pollution scandal. CalSTRS’ shares of Volkswagen were worth $52 million as of Dec. 31.

German law doesn’t permit plaintiffs to rummage through a defendant’s internal records, a process known as pretrial discovery. American law gives plaintiffs that right.

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French Utility to Build Britain’s First Nuclear Plant in Years




The Hinkley Point A power plant in England. A new nuclear plant, Hinkley Point C, is to be built nearby.


Warrick Page for The New York Times

LONDON — The French utility EDF said on Thursday that its board had approved a plan to build the first nuclear power plant in Britain in a generation.

The project for the state-controlled utility has long been contentious. Critics have slammed it as an expensive and risky route to securing emission-free electricity.

But the project — at a cost of 18 billion pounds, or about $23.6 billion — could well be seen as a vote of confidence in Britain’s future, barely a month after the country voted to leave the European Union. It would provide a welcome contrast to poor economic news in the form of plunging consumer confidence, a weaker currency and fears of recession.

The new British government of Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement Thursday evening, however, that it would “consider carefully” the project and make a decision in early autumn, casting doubt on the power station’s prospects.

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The Morphing Role Of The Electric Utility: Investors In The Change To Come

JUL 28, 2016 @ 12:45 PM

Peter Kelly-Detwiler , CONTRIBUTOR

I cover the energy industry.

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

A state of affairs that cannot be ignored - This past month, Fitch Ratings issued a note highlighting the risk of solar energy net metering to the creditworthiness of America’s publicly traded electric utilities. The agency noted that distributed (rooftop) solar now represents 1% of all energy generated, and the potential to further eat into utility revenues is an issue to be concerned about.

Indeed, electricity sales have declined in five of the past eight years. It’s not just solar, though. Efficient end use technologies, such as LED lighting and better HVAC systems further cut waste. The emerging universe of cheap and ultimately ubiquitous sensors promises to further reduce consumption by allowing us to see when, where and how energy is consumed at the end-use level. This holds the promise to do two things:

  1. reduce demand when electricity is more expensive (thereby slashing utility demand charge revenues), and
  2. cut overall kilowatt-hour consumption by creating the opportunity for use-directed consumption (for example, fine tuning where, when and how much lighting and heating/cooling you need). In short, sensors and a pervasive IT network have the potential to substitute intelligence for raw materials.

Finally, the rapidly evolving energy storage market holds the potential to dramatically increase the phenomenon known as ‘load defection’ (which is when a significant portion of your load is served by your own resources, often a combination of solar and batteries, but you’re still connected to the power grid).


Image: US EIA – not a reassuring picture

The utilities’ response - Clearly, there is a tectonic shift going on in energy markets that has already affected utilities and this dynamic is accelerating as costs of alternatives continue to plummet. U.S. utilities and energy holding companies are responding in a number of ways, by:

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Will Trump Quit Mocking Climate Science When He Sees The Viability Of Free Market Solutions?

JUL 27, 2016 @ 07:51 AM

Ken Silverstein , CONTRIBUTOR

I write about the global energy business.

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.


A delegate holds a sign that reads ‘A future to believe in’ on the second day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

While Donald Trump is out mocking climate change and those who would seek to mitigate its harmful effects, Hillary Clinton is out discussing the issue and trying to find workable solutions. The irony here — if you can call it that — is that a lot of conservatives are rallying to Clinton’s side, saying that free market fixes do exist.

None of this is to say that reaching a legislative milestone in the U.S. Congress is possible, at least in the near term. For that to happen, the market forces calling for change must become so swift and irreversible that even the biggest skeptics would be swept up by the cause. That point will eventually arrive. But until then, political contributions will carry more weight than the prevailing science.

The Republican Party platform is calling for the abolition of regulations to curtail emissions from coal-fired power plants while also saying that the fuel source is a “clean” energy form. Meantime, its presidential nominee is saying that climate change is a “total hoax.” The Democrats, meanwhile, are calling for the country to generate half of its electricity from clean energy sources within a decade.

“The difference between the parties has a great deal more to do with the potential winners and losers during this transition than it does with the science itself,” says John Farrell, the director of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in an interview. “Follow the money. That’s a good way to understand the party platforms.”

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Finally, the climate teardown of Trump you’ve been waiting for

By Rebecca Leber on Jul 28, 2016 1:32 am

PHILADELPHIA — Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention was dedicated to ripping apart the GOP nominee while extending an olive branch to blue-collar voters and moderate Republicans. With so much material to choose from, perhaps it’s no surprise that Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, Michael Bloomberg, and President Obama stuck largely to their opponent’s character and business record.

So it was left to California Gov. Jerry Brown, as chief executive of one of the most progressive states in the union on climate and energy — and one suffering from a multi-year drought that Donald Trump doesn’t think is real — to make the contrast between Trump and the Dems on sustainability. Brown devoted his entire speech to tearing down the real estate developer’s public statements on climate science, with one-liners earning cheers from the audience.

“Trump says global warming is a hoax. I say Trump is a fraud,” Brown declared. “Trump says there’s no drought in California. I say Trump lies.”

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Poll finds Californians back climate change efforts despite cost

JULY 27, 2016 9:00 PM


Jerry Brown: 'We're not even close to where we need to be' on climate change 0:34

Gov. Jerry Brown says he plans to talk about climate change when he addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.


Climate change policies appeal to a majority of Californians despite the possibility of higher energy costs, a new Public Policy Institute of California poll has found.

“Californians tend to have a hesitancy to support policies that are going to impact their pocketbooks, but in this case they seem to be willing to do so,” said PPIC president Mark Baldassare, calling the findings an endorsement of “the direction (the state) has taken in the last ten years to be a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Environmentalists laud California for its ambitious efforts to fight climate change, and Gov. Jerry Brown has placed the issue at the center of his fourth-term agenda. Last year Brown signed a measure vastly expanding the state’s use of renewable energy.

But the road ahead for California’s cap-and-trade program, which requires businesses to buy permits for the carbon they emit, has become unclear. A recent auction reaped a comparatively tiny amount of revenue. Its legal foundation has come under question. And the program sunsets in 2020, spurring politically fraught efforts to extend it.

Those headwinds notwithstanding, California residents still support cap-and-trade (54 percent) and the underlying goal of reducing greenhouse gases, according to the poll. Around two-thirds of likely voters (62 percent) back the goal of reducing emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020, a target that is central to cap-and-trade’s mission. Helping explain that support are the large majorities (81 percent of adults and 75 percent of likely voters) who called climate change a serious threat.

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PUC is too slow dealing with dead trees

JULY 27, 2016 3:01 PM


State Forestry and Fire Protection firefighters remove dead trees near Cressman. The drought and bark beetles have caused the largest die-off in Sierra forests in modern history, raising fears of catastrophic wildfires. Scott Smith Associated Press



Special to The Bee

Randy Hanvelt is a member of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors and can be contacted at

Julia Levin is executive director of the Bioenergy Association of California and a former deputy secretary at the California Natural Resources Agency. She can be contacted at

When Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Michael Picker as president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Picker announced that his top priority would be protection of public safety. Last October, Brown declared an emergency for California’s forests, where tens of millions of dead trees pose enormous risks for wildfires, the water supply, local communities and more.

The emergency order calls on the PUC to accelerate the development of small bioenergy facilities to convert the dead trees to renewable energy. Despite the obvious threat to public safety and the huge costs of wildfire, the commission is dragging its feet.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, there are more than 66 million dead trees in just six counties – and millions more throughout the state – due to bark beetles, drought and other factors. That number is going up quickly.

The dead trees greatly increase the risk of catastrophic fires. California has lost more acres to wildfires in the past five years than in the previous 70. In 2015, it lost almost 1,400 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. In addition, wildfire is a huge source of air pollution and causes 10 percent of California’s climate pollution. Large fires also threaten California’s largest source of water and entire forest ecosystems.

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Dissecting Elon Musk’s Master Plan for Tesla


Photo Credit: lookus /

The Energy Gang asks: Is Musk’s latest plan “idiocy cubed”? Or the right amount of ambition at just the right time?

by Stephen Lacey     July 27, 2016

Last week, Tesla Motors dropped “motors” from its name, and is now calling itself just Tesla. This is an indication that the electric car company is thinking about much more than cars. And Elon Musk went way beyond indicating a shift -- he explicitly spelled it out in his new master plan, published last Thursday.

His first master plan, published in 2006, described the company we know today: build an expensive electric car, improve manufacturing, build a less expensive car, grow manufacturing, and finally build a mass-market EV. While Tesla hasn’t always hit Musk’s ambitious timeframes, it is on a path to achieving his original vision.

Part two is much more ambitious. It includes building a seamless solar-plus-storage offering, dominating grid-scale storage, revolutionizing busses and tractor-trailers, and making shared fleets of autonomous vehicles available to all.

As Musk described in his post: “Starting a car company is idiotic and an electric car company is idiocy squared.”

So is his latest plan idiocy cubed? Or the right amount of Muskian ambition at just the right time? In this week's podcast, we dissect the plan.

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LAST WEEK, TECH wonderboy Elon Musk released his much-awaited Master Plan, Part Deux, a wildly ambitious blueprint to change American mobility as we know it: autonomous buses that might appear on-demand, and new electric big-rigs, pick-ups and SUVs.

Oh, and sharing. Lots of sharing. Anyone will be able to use the Tesla app to add their self-driving Tesla to the wider Tesla fleet, Musk says. It will allow cash-poor wannabe Tesla owners the chance to take one for a spin while its real owner is, say, disrupting the Silicon Valley biotech venture capital ecosystem or whatever. Opening up a car to generate income might make Teslas more accessible to all, Musk argues.

But does anyone really want to share their own, personal car? Much less their Tesla? It’s a question more than a few automakers and car-adjacent firms are scrambling to answer.

Here now are two main of schools thought. The Tesla model: I own my car, you borrow it. The Uber and Lyft model: They own the car, you borrow it. Today, the latter feels more likely. This is how Musk himself put it just two years ago: “I think there will be some amount of car sharing for sure, but I think there’s like a limit to the whole sharing thing. There is an important role for sharing but it’s not—most things don’t get shared.”

Regular ride-hailing service users are already comfortable with hopping into strangers’ vehicles. Lending their own cars out to Internet randos? Not so much. But then again, not so not so much. A decade ago, people might have quailed at the idea of allowing strangers into their homes. Today, Airbnb has a $30 billion valuation.

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Vancouver plans to go 100% renewable. I asked the city’s manager about the challenges it faces.

Updated by David Roberts on July 26, 2016, 9:10 a.m. ET @drvox



Downtown Vancouver, from the air.


Last year, Vancouver, British Columbia, officially adopted the goal of powering itself entirely with clean energy by 2050.

That’s a bigger deal than it might sound. Plenty of North American cities have committed to getting all their electricity from clean sources within a few decades. But when it comes to decarbonization, electricity is the easy part. (Okay, maybe not easy, but easier.)

Vancouver has resolved to get all its energy, not just electricity, from renewable sources.

The city’s electricity is already 98 percent carbon-free anyway. It comes from hydroelectric dams, via the province’s primary utility, BC Hydro. So the big problems over the next 35 years will be eliminating natural gas for heating and gasoline for transportation, two of the thorniest decarbonization challenges.



Sadhu Johnston.

Sadhu Johnston helped develop and implement Vancouver’s pathbreaking Greenest City Plan over seven years of work as deputy city manager (during which he also co-authored a book called The Guide to Greening Cities). He was deputy chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley — and Chicago’s chief environmental officer, the first such position created in city government in the US — when Vancouver recruited him in 2009. Now, as of earlier this year, he is city manager, overseeing the whole enchilada.

I spoke with him last month on Cortes Island in BC, where our discussion ranged widely over Vancouver’s challenges. I’ve organized it into roughly five sections: heating and buildings, cars and trucks, density, bikes, and larger social challenges. (Definitely read the final section, even if you skip the rest.) I’ve also edited for length and clarity.

David Roberts: You’re aiming to power Vancouver with 100 percent clean energy by 2050. How are you doing so far?

Sadhu Johnston: We're about 37 to 38 percent renewably powered now in Vancouver, largely because of [clean electricity from] BC Hydro.

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Why Home Solar Panels No Longer Pay in Some States




Elroy Holtmann in his garage in Lafayette, Calif., where the power from his solar panels is used to charge his electric Chevy Volt.


Jim Wilson/The New York Times

LAFAYETTE, Calif. — It was only two years ago that Elroy Holtmann spent about $20,000 on a home solar array to help cover the costs of charging his new electric car. With the savings on his monthly electric bills, he figured the investment would pay for itself in about a dozen years.

But then the utilities regulators changed the equation.

As a result, Pacific Gas & Electric recently did away with the rate schedule chosen by Mr. Holtmann, a retired electrical engineer, and many other solar customers in this part of California. The new schedule will make them pay much more for the electricity they draw from the grid in the evening, while paying those customers less for the excess power their solar panels send back to the grid on sunny summer days.

As a result, Mr. Holtmann’s solar setup may never pay for itself.

“They’ve taken any possibility for payback away,” he said with resignation, looking up at the roof of his 1970s ranch-style house in this suburb a short drive east of Berkeley.

The paradox is playing out around the country. Even as policy makers at the federal and state levels promote clean energy to fight global warming, the economics of electricity can often be at odds with those goals.

Thrust in the middle are utility regulators. Even if they support greening the grid through technology adopters like Mr. Holtmann, the regulators are also responsible for ensuring that the utilities can afford to supply power to the largest number of customers at the most equitable rates. That includes people without the money or inclination to install solar collectors.

“The grid is no longer just a cheap way to get electrical commodities to people,” said Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission. “People want choices, they want customized services,” he said. “And how do you make that fair to everybody, because not everybody is moving as adopters at the same pace?”

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Prosecutor tells jury PG&E was a company driven by greed

By Bob Egelko Updated 5:38 pm, Tuesday, July 26, 2016

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    Photo: Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

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    A massive fire following a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline explosion roars through a mostly residential neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

    Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was “a company that lost its way” and was driven by greed to violate pipeline safety laws both before and after the deadly 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, a federal prosecutor told jurors in San Francisco on Tuesday.

    “For years they trained engineers to act more as businesspeople than as engineers,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Schenk said in closing arguments of PG&E’s 5½-week criminal trial. “The motive was profit over safety.”

    Steven Bauer, PG&E’s lead attorney, retorted that the case prosecutors presented was “an elaborate second-guessing exercise” of a company and its engineers trying their best to follow laws that were often unclear. Despite a six-year investigation designed “to make PG&E look terrible,” he said, prosecutors failed to show that the utility knowingly engaged in unsafe practices.

    PG&E is charged with 11 felony violations of laws requiring pipeline operators to gather information on potential hazards, conduct inspections and tests for risks, and maintain accurate records. Prosecutors dismissed an additional record-keeping charge Tuesday without explanation.

    The company is also charged with obstructing a federal investigation of the September 2010 explosion and fire that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood. PG&E, already fined $1.6 billion by the state Public Utilities Commission for the explosion, faces an additional $562 million in fines if convicted of all criminal charges. The money would be paid by shareholders rather than ratepayers.

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