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Xcel Energy gets go-ahead to modernize power grid and recoup costs

Utility can recoup costs if customers use less electricit
Andy Cross, Denver Post file Workers prepare large steam pipes at Xcel Energy’s Comanche III Station in this 2009 file photo.
By ALDO SVALDI | | The Denver Post
PUBLISHED: June 21, 2017 at 3:22 pm | UPDATED: June 21, 2017 at 7:18 pm

Xcel Energy will equip homes and businesses in Colorado with state-of-the-art meters that allow customers to more closely track their energy usage under a plan approved by state regulators Wednesday.
The $612 million upgrade over the next six years should make it easier for consumers to conserve energy and generate their own power. It also will smooth out voltage fluctuations on the grid, saving about 2 percent of the electricity now sold that goes to waste.
But that efficiency poses a financial problem for the state’s largest utility, whose revenues rise and fall based on how much electricity it sells.
As a trade-off, regulators also approved a “decoupling” provision that would allow Xcel to recover costs in a special surcharge to all customers if total electricity consumption and sales drop over time.
The technology upgrades will require Xcel to replace up to 1.6 million existing meters with more sophisticated ones that can communicate in real-time. Customers should start noticing that switch in 2020, and they will have an option to stick with the older technology.
The first 13,000 new meters will provide real-time feedback on the voltage traveling through the grid, key to reducing losses.
The meters and other upgrades will also give Xcel advanced warning on transmission problems and pinpoint outages instead of having to wait for customers to call in.
At Wednesday’s hearing of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, chairman Jeff Ackermann said the plan, the result of negotiation between Xcel, regulators and interest groups, allows the utility to modernize its grid while covering costs even if consumption falls.
“There is still a cost associated with having that utility to be there to serve you,” Ackermann said.

Consumers sometimes view their power supplier like a grocery store — you only should pay for what you buy. But a utility is also a power delivery system with costs that need to be covered, he said.
As more customers produce their own energy or turn to energy saving measures like LED bulbs, paying for the system has become a bigger concern.
Nationally, the country’s economic output grew by 33 percent between 2000 and 2015, after accounting for inflation. But electricity generation has risen only 7 percent, according to M.J. Bradley and Associates.
Xcel initially proposed a fixed “grid charge” on all customers to recoup system costs. But environmental and renewable energy groups pushed back, arguing that higher fixed costs on monthly bills made rooftop solar systems less economic for homeowners and businesses.
After months of wrangling, 11 parties came together to craft a settlement with Xcel on grid modernization, and most of those also backed the idea of decoupling in return for dropping the grid charge.

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As Oil and Gas Faces a ‘Last Cycle,’ a Generational Divide Emerges Over Its Future 

Ernst & Young’s poll of U.S. energy industry perceptions finds a generational disconnect. Except over renewable energy—nearly everyone loves renewables.
by Jeff St. John
June 26, 2017

The oil and gas industry is facing its “last cycle,” according to consultancy Ernst & Young.
What does that mean? It's a “time when energy abundance, driven by technology, creates a permanent oversupply that not only keeps prices low but also allows consumers to make new choices about their energy usage."
In this new world, consumer perceptions are critical, writes E&Y in a new report. While most Americans still see fossil fuels playing an important role for decades to come, only about one in three trust the fossil industry -- and the younger the generation, the higher the distrust of the industry.
Those are some of the top-level findings laid out in the report, the first in a series to explore U.S. consumer attitudes toward the oil and gas industries. It's based on polling of consumers of all ages, as well as oil and gas executives, starting in early 2017. And like its subject, the findings are filled with seeming contradictions. 
About four-fifths of adults and three out of four teenagers say the fossil industry is important to the national economy, for example. But only 37 percent of adults and 33 percent of teens “trust the industry to do the right thing.”
And not surprisingly, few people want oil and gas industries to set up shop in their neighborhoods or communities. 
“Energy’s perception rating is respectable but precarious. Its value to consumers is based largely on necessity, a weak attribute for long-term appreciation and support,” the report noted. And “overall, consumers believe the industry is good for society, though they still see it as a problem causer, not a problem solver.”

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Exxon’s support for a carbon tax is the first step in big oil’s long, negotiated surrender

The industry sees the writing on the wall.
Updated by David Jun 27, 2017, 8:20am EDT

What are they up to? (Shutterstock)
It made news last week when ExxonMobil, along with a slate of other big companies, including other oil giants, backed a plan for a substantial, rising US carbon tax.

The plan was put forward by the Climate Leadership Council, a new group that is seeking a bipartisan path forward on climate policy. The tax would start at $40 a ton; the revenue would be returned as per-capita dividends to all US citizens.
The Council includes some (retired) Republicans like James Baker III and George Schulz, along with a few centrist favorites like Michael Bloomberg and former Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (For some reason, Stephen Hawking is also a fan.) And among its “corporate founders,” are GM and Unilever, along with ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and Total.
Why would Exxon back a carbon tax that would raise the price of its products?

There’s more to it than you might think. Exxon’s motives on this are complicated — some are short-term and greenwash-y, but others are longer-term and have to do with the industry’s health over coming decades. It’s all a useful lens through which to view the oil industry’s place in warming world.

Big oil has more to worry about than lawsuits
In the near-term, Exxon is embroiled in a messy legal and PR fight, which is why environmentalists were quick to dismiss its gambit as greenwashing.
Critics pointed to a provision within the plan that would shield oil companies from legal exposure to climate-based lawsuits, which is of particular interest to Exxon, as the company is currently being sued by a group of state attorneys general. The lawsuit alleges that the company knew about the risks of climate change long before it revealed those risks to investors, and even when it did, instituting an internal carbon price, it secretly used a much lower price in actual business decisions.

In January, a Massachusetts judge issued Exxon a setback when it ordered the company to turn over 40 years of climate research, based on an investigation by state Attorney General Maura Healey. In May, a Texas judge (Exxon’s home field) dealt the company another blow by transferring the case to New York, where it will be led by dogged NY AG Eric Schneiderman.

MARCH 21: Attorney General Eric Schneiderman speaks beside the Gowanus Canal, which is a designated federal Superfund site, in the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn on March 21, 2017 in New York City. Schneiderman joined area residents, city">
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Greens also pointed out that the plan would repeal a range of environmental regulations targeted at greenhouse gases, something oil and gas companies would very much like to see.
They pointed out that tax is, in the words of’s Jamie Henn, “dead-on-arrival.” There is no chance this Republican Congress will pass it and very few Republicans are willing to speak up in even tepid support.

And they pointed out that Exxon has lied about climate change for years and lobbied against other carbon tax bills, which casts its motivations in some doubt.
All of this is true, and all of it has likely informed Exxon’s effort to position itself as a constructive partner on climate policy.
But there are also bigger, longer-term trends at work, which are pushing all the oil majors to the table on climate.
The oil industry faces enormous risk if the world takes climate change seriously

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Reports: Tesla-Branded Solar Panels Arrive in Stores 

The company reports its first attempts at selling solar via showrooms were a success.
by Julia Pyper
June 26, 2017

Tesla-branded solar panels have officially arrived in Tesla stores, marking another step in Tesla's ongoing integration with SolarCity.
In an SEC filing from March 1, the company stated: "We plan to reduce customer acquisition costs by cutting advertising spend and increasingly selling solar products in Tesla stores." Tesla said it began offering solar products and services "in select stores" as of the first quarter of 2017.
GTM visited Tesla showrooms in Santa Monica, San Jose, Palo Alto and Boston in late March, and found few references to solar products and services. Tesla salespeople in several of these locations were aware of the company's solar offerings -- including the forthcoming solar roof -- but there was no sales pitch or process in place. 
Things have changed. Electrek reported Sunday that "Tesla Solar" displays and actual panels have now been spotted on the West Coast.
Commenter ElectriCourrier shared a photo of a Tesla Solar display in Honolulu, Hawaii. 

And Instagram user raina0624 recently shared a photo of a Tesla Solar display in Washington. 

Tesla's solar shingles have garnered a lot of attention since CEO Elon Musk first unveiled the new product last fall. Musk announced last month that solar roof orders were live and forecast that U.S. deployments would begin later this year. While the true cost of the solar roof is subject to some debate, Tesla claims it has already sold off enough tiles to be out of stock “well into 2018."
Meanwhile, the company continues to sell standard solar panels. Given that the shingles are really aimed at customers looking to build a new roof, there are plenty of other people who are happy to go the more traditional route. But even with a familiar product, Tesla is looking to differentiate itself.

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Opinion: Electricity from natural gas still needed to cool California

By Tom Dalzell
June 26, 2017

Tom Dalzell is the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, which represents thousands of gas and electrical workers across California.

Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle

According to the California Independent System Operator, the primary agency responsible for managing the grid, energy demand peaked at roughly 47,000 megawatts.

Last week was a scorcher across California. It didn’t matter where you were — Sacramento, Fresno, Palm Springs, San Francisco and Oakland all set new daily high temperature records. San Diego County even broke its all-time high temperature at 124 degrees.
The oppressive heat grounded airplanes, stoked wildfires, buckled some roads and even led to deaths — a reminder that our Mediterranean climate sometimes turns hostile. Climate change will only make this worse.

As you might expect, Californians’ demand for electricity increased dramatically as we relied on air conditioning to combat the heat. According to the California Independent System Operator, the primary agency responsible for managing the grid, energy demand was projected to peak at roughly 47,000 megawatts — the fourth highest in the past 20 years.
In the face of this tremendous demand, California’s electrical grid performed amazingly well. This is somewhat of a marvel, given the complexity of the grid and our dynamic demand for power.
The grid’s performance was also a reminder of the continued importance of natural gas in meeting California’s needs, even as the state transitions to more renewable sources.
For example, despite the growth of solar power, available solar energy on the grid peaked at roughly 10,000 megawatts last week — roughly 22 percent of the needed peak supply — while natural gas provided roughly 50 percent.
Solar power will likely be able to meet a greater percentage of demand as incentives boost its development, but even then there is an issue of matching supply and demand. For example, as the heat lasted well into the night, so did Californians’ demand for electricity. However, electricity generated from solar had dropped to 60 percent of its peak by 6 p.m. and was completely offline by 8:30 p.m. Solar was meeting only 7 percent of California’s demand at 7 p.m. and zero percent by 8:30 p.m. each day.
In the future, storage may play a role in saving solar and wind power for later use. However, power storage technology is still very expensive. We still need natural gas power and will for some time.

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ANALYSIS: OPEC looks bewildered by global oil market

Julian Lee, Bloomberg Published 2:00 am, Sunday, June 25, 2017

Photo: Ronald Zak, STR

Russia's Alexander Novak and Saudi Arabia's Khalid Al-Falih at a reent OPEC news conference

It may be too soon to write OPEC's obituary, but the oil producer club appears in urgent need of late-life care. It shows little understanding of where it is, how it got there or where it's going. While it still manages to collect new members here and there, its core group looks more fragile than at any point in nearly 30 years.
The historic output agreements, put together so painstakingly last year, are failing. Nearly 12 months of shuttle diplomacy culminated in two deals that would see 22 countries cut production by nearly 1.8 million barrels a day. Implementation has been better than for any previous output cut, with compliance put at 106 percent in May. A resounding success? Hardly.

We're now in the final month of those deals and oil prices are lower than when they were agreed. Not only have producers sacrificed volume, but they earn less for each barrel they do produce.

The recent extension of the deals just leaves output restraint in place for another nine months, the best response OPEC could muster. Deeper cuts were barely mentioned. Assertions to do "whatever it takes" ring hollow.
Indeed, there's no appetite for the big cuts that would demand real sacrifices in countries such as Russia, where normal seasonal factors helped it lower production in the first half of the year. Just sticking to current output levels could be difficult for the rest of 2017: early maintenance work has helped several OPEC members meet their targets but that can't continue. Then there's the problem of recovering output from Libya and Nigeria, both exempt from the cuts.

The malaise runs much deeper, though. Beneath a veneer of unity, rifts are developing among core Middle East members. The Saudi-led confrontation with Qatar could create the most serious split since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. As I wrote last week, Iraq might be in Mohammed bin Salman's sights next, as Iran's influence there grows and Baghdad lags the rest in implementing output cuts.

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Solar Costs Are Hitting Jaw-Dropping Lows in Every Region of the World 

How low can you go? Mind-blowingly low 65 cents-per-watt solar system pricing in India.
by Eric Wesoff, Stephen Lacey
June 27, 2017

This may sound a little repetitive, but it's impossible to ignore: the decline in solar costs is not slowing down.  
GTM Research expects a 27 percent drop in average global project prices by 2022, or about 4.4 percent each year. Those improvements are not limited to the U.S. They are occurring globally and, in some cases, resulting in even sharper price declines than America is experiencing.
The data comes from a new PV system pricing forecast from GTM Solar Analyst Ben Gallagher.

The plunges in system pricing won't just come from modules -- they'll come from reductions in inverters, trackers and even labor costs. And every region will benefit.
"Component prices are beginning to lose their price variance from country to country," writes Gallagher. "Beyond a handful of local content requirements, many of the policies that created regional hardware pricing have been eroded by market forces."

In the U.S., it's only stubborn soft costs such as customer acquisition that have actually risen.
And it's seemingly only trade disputes that can derail the price-decrease train.
65 cents per watt? 
GTM Research finds that India’s system of tenders has produced extremely competitive bidding and, as a result, almost unimaginably low system pricing. India is seeing the lowest system prices of any major solar market in the world, ever.
The report finds that India has utility PV system pricing of 65 cents-per-watt.
The secret to these low prices? It turns out that a great way to reduce your soft costs is to pay your labor force and engineers next to nothing. (Markets with low-cost labor are more likely to use fixed-tilt systems, lowering turnkey system prices even more.)
As the report points out, even soft costs in China are 11 cents per watt higher than India.

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Opinionated: Transformation at The Grid’s Edge

By Fereidoon Sioshansi

Opinionated: Transformation at The Grid’s Edge

Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Defense Secretary, referring to developments following the Iraq invasion famously said, in war, “Stuff happens,” suggesting that much of what happens is unpredictable and not necessarily pleasant. Similarly, in the electric power sector these days, stuff is happening – generally characterized by buzzwords including industry transformation, grid modernization and developments at the grid’s edge – broadly referring to the interface between the distribution network and customers’ premises, appliances, devices, distributed generation, storage, sophisticated energy management systems, electric vehicles, etc.

Source: The future of electricity: New technologies transforming the grid edge, World Economic Forum in collaboration, March 2017
The question is why the surge of interest in the topic – which attracted virtually no interest 2-3 years ago?
There are many explanations including the confluence of three major trends further described in The Future of Electricity: New technologies Transforming the Grid Edge, a report by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Bain & Co. released in March 2017:
Decentralization; and
Many sources substitute de-carbonization for the first item, which makes it 3 “D”s, and easier to remember.
These 3Ds are rapidly and radically changing the role of consumers, empowering them and making them more engaged. This, unsurprisingly, means that they will be far more demanding of the distribution networks of the future. This, in turn, explains the massive proposed grid modernization investments.
We can expect this consumer-centric future with increased reliance on the distribution networks to materialize sooner rather than later given the rapid pace of technological innovation, falling prices and – broadly speaking – supportive regulatory environment, although this varies from one place to another.
While technological breakthroughs of the past took 30-40 years or longer to penetrate markets, nowadays, things happen fast, a trend that is likely to accelerate in the future.
And with the rapid penetration of renewables in and outside of California, the energy component of electric service is expected to shrink, making the cost of kWhs relatively trivial compared to the fixed cost of the network, which must increasingly do more to keep variable supply and demand in balance.
Another important issue–widely recognized–is that in a future where an increasing share of generation is coming from variable renewable resources, demand must begin to play a more active and pronounced role. Storage, currently a critical but missing piece, is unlikely to be sufficient to handle large variations in wind and solar – a growing share of the generation pie.
The other critical component is the presence or absence of regulatory schemes needed to provide appropriate incentives for necessary investments – such as in grid modernization and the development of sufficient charging infrastructure for EVs.
Regulation also must provide clarity on the growing role of distributed energy resources, including distributed solar PVs, distributed storage, micro-grids and yet to be implemented peer-to-peer trading and other means of transactions among consumers, prosumers and prosumagers of the future. (Prosumer refers to a consumer who is withdrawing from the grid part of the time and injecting into it at other times. Add storage and a prosumer becomes a prosumager, suggesting that he/she can store the excess energy and/or rely on shift patters of consumption and production at will.)
The current piecemeal and fragmented treatment of distributed energy, for example, has to be resolved. In addition, the value of these resources need to be better monetized and reflected in future tariffs, which must increasingly account for the bi-directional flows of electrons based on time, location and their value or impact on the network.
Finally, regulators in California, Hawaii and New York–with the latter’s pioneering reforming the energy vision  (REV)–must address how the changing role of the distribution network will redefine the role of stakeholders, including better clarity on who can do what, when and where and under what types of rules, rewards and investment recovery.
In the Preface to Innovation & Disruption at the Grid’s Edge, Michael Picker, the President of California Public Utilities Commission explains that he has “… chosen to focus actively at the CPUC on more tangible tasks that can deliver benefits quickly, rather than questioning the fundamental nature of utility business models,” adding,
“The overarching philosophy I have followed in pursuit of more distributed energy future can be described as ‘Walk, Jog, Run.’ ”
With so many distributed energy resources coming on-line at fast pace, the approach is understandable. Picker goes on to say,
“The vision we (the CPUC) are pursuing is that, over time, DERs will be able to benefit from ‘stacking’ multiple value streams.”
This entails improved monetization of the multiple benefits of DERs while acknowledging, paradoxically, their increased demands on the distribution network – for example with high concentrations of PVs and/or EVs on certain distribution circuits. California’s regulators are already sensitized to the new realities of DERs and other developments taking place at the grid’s edge.
On this, Picker adds:
“Targeting DERs to high-value locations also necessitates development of a tool to highlight areas of the distribution grid where DERs can provide location-specific values, such as distribution capacity deferral and voltage support.’
Likewise, in the book’s Introduction, Audrey Zibelman, former Chair of the NY Public Service Commission and now the CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator, explains that:
“The crux of the utility changes contemplated in REV can be summarized into the following 5 areas, many of which are touched upon by authors of the [book’s] following chapters.”
Creation of a Distributed System Platform;
Promotion and encouragement of innovation;
Regulation of the earnings model;
System information and transactive markets; and,
Fair and cost effective universal access.
Two other regulators, Paula Conboy, Chair of Australian Energy Regulator and Johannes Mayer, Head of Competition & Regulation at E-Control Austria, echo similar sentiments in the book’s Foreword and Epilogue, offering perspectives from Australia and Austria, respectively.
The WEF report provides four recommendations for utilities, network operators and the regulators:
Redesign regulatory paradigm;
Deploy enabling infrastructure;
Redefine customer experience; and
Embrace new business models.
The challenge is how to implement the sensible words into actionable strategies given the many moving parts and the complicated and highly unpredictable regulatory environment in which many utilities operate today.
Despite many similarities and universal trends, at the end what works for one utility in one geographical setting may not be suitable to another facing different regulatory constraints as described in several related articles in this issue. Suggesting grand strategies is the easy part. Implementing them is far more difficult and perilous.
Innovation and Disruption at the Grid’s Edge can be purchased here.  A 30 percent discount is available to Current subscribers and free postage using the code ENER317.
—Sioshansi can be reached at t or visit

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No, Cities Are Not Actually Leading on Climate. Enough With the Mindless Cheerleading 

Sam Brooks, a former director for the D.C. government’s energy division, examines the “cities are leading on climate” myth.
by Sam Brooks
June 21, 2017

The idea that cities are leading on climate change is applauded over and over and over. There’s just one problem.
It's not actually happening.
Retrofit programs for buildings and homes aren't delivering results. Power distribution remains rooted in century-old thinking and technology. And those cities that claim to be on track to go "100 percent renewable"? Not even close.
With the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord, city contributions are needed more than ever. But it’s time to stop with the empty platitudes and face reality.
We’ve a lot of got work to do.
Cities haven’t yet taken on key roles 
The truth is that cities have done little to contribute to recent declines in carbon pollution. Renewable portfolio standards have spurred tons of new renewable generation, but states adopt those, not cities. Transportation-related CO2 is down in many cities, but that's largely the result of improved national fuel-efficiency standards. And urban areas did nothing to create cheap natural gas, which, by displacing coal, has been the leading driver of reduced emissions.
A central issue is that cities seldom have jurisdictional authority over energy infrastructure. There are few municipally owned utilities -- and most regulators are chosen at the state level. Even with respect to the critical issue of building codes, mandates are frequently determined by counties, states, and the International Code Council.
It turns out that when cities claim reductions in greenhouse gases, they're usually taking credit for things they didn’t do.
Minimal progress with energy efficiency and solar
This doesn’t mean that cities can’t play a vital role. They can.
As San Francisco’s Renewable Energy Task Force stated in a 2012 report, "Reaching [100% renewables] will require coordinated action in three main areas: improving energy efficiency to reduce total electricity demand, increasing in-city renewable distributed generation (DG) to reduce the need for imported green power, and providing all customers a 100% renewable power purchasing option.”
Most city climate plans reflect these principles -- focusing on reducing demand (i.e., efficiency) and increasing renewable supply (i.e., distributed solar) within their borders.
With energy efficiency, however, it’s difficult to identify much progress. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently released its 2017 City Energy Efficiency Scorecard. Among the leaders in energy efficiency, you’d reasonably expect improvements with energy efficiency. You'd be wrong.
Electricity consumption, a primary source of carbon emissions, is flat or growing in each of ACEEE's top 20 cities with available information. In a host of frequently lauded cities, building electricity use is up over the last five years of data: Los Angles (+3 percent); New York City (+1 percent); San Francisco (+1 percent); Boston (+2 percent); Denver (+3 percent); Austin (+5 percent); and D.C. (+1 percent).
On a per-capita basis, residential electricity use is down in Austin (-9 percent) and San Francisco (-9 percent), but it’s up in Boston (+7 percent), Los Angeles (+9 percent), and D.C. (+17 percent).
This is bad news. The bottom line is that in urban areas, where new residents often live in highly efficient apartments and businesses operate in increasingly dense office buildings, electricity use must drop. That's not happening.
While potentially less impactful than efficiency, solar is another top priority. But according to the 2017 report, Shining Cities, only a few cities have more solar per capita than the national average. For example, while Los Angeles accounts for 10 percent of its state's population, just 2 percent of California’s solar is in L.A. 
Solar panels may dot farmlands and deserts, but the sun is not yet powering most urban areas. Just 0.3 percent of NYC’s power comes from solar, and the situation is similar in other cities, including San Francisco (1.2 percent); Boston (0.4 percent); Denver (1 percent); Austin (0.3 percent); D.C. (0.4 percent); Chicago (0.1 percent); and Baltimore (0.2 percent).

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Plan To Regionalize Western Power Grid Stalls Post-Trump

 Ben Bradford 
Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | Sacramento, CA | Permalink

cbcastro / Flickr

California energy regulators say the state could benefit from sharing more electricity with its neighbors during heat waves such as this week’s, but a proposal to do so has stalled after the election of President Trump.
While an enormous electric grid carries power throughout the western United States, it’s divided into 38 fiefdoms, where regional operators figure out their own power needs. That can leave solar energy unused in one state while another fires up reserve gas plants to meet demand.
The Brown administration last year looked to create a centralized authority that could plan power use across the west. Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, is a major proponent of "regionalization."
“We will reduce costs for everybody. We will reduce pollution. We will improve system reliability, and these are all reasons to do this,” says Cavanagh.
Last August, Gov. Jerry Brown wrote to leadership in the Legislature that he would look to pass a proposal earlier this year.
“I have directed my staff, the Energy Commission, the Public Utilities Commission and the California Air Resources Board to continue working with the Legislature,” Brown wrote. “The goal is to develop a strong proposal that the Legislature can consider in January.”
That still hasn’t happened, although the governor has maintained he still supports regionalization.
Some environmental groups worry about partnering with coal-burning states, but a larger concern is that a major change in grid operation would create an opportunity for federal regulators appointed by President Trump to influence California’s renewable energy policies.

Ben Bradford
State Government Reporter
As the State Government Reporter, Ben covers California politics, policy and the interaction between the two. He previously reported on local and state politics, business, energy, and environment for WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Read Fu

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Coastal panel spawned by 1930s oil scandal is now a player in California governor’s race 

Ho, Lawrence K. –– – 096410.FI.0421.DRILL.2.LKH Oil platforms off the Southern California Coast in the Santa Barbara Channel. Pic. shows surfers at Sea Cliff with silohuette of oil platforms in the background.


June 22, 2017, 12:05 a.m.

When John Chiang joined the State Lands Commission, it quickly became a platform to showcase his environmental record, starting with his 2007 vote to block construction of a shipping terminal for liquefied natural gas in Ventura County.
The commission has served the same purpose for Gavin Newsom, who often uses his seat on the panel to remind Californians that he opposes offshore oil drilling.
Now that both Chiang and Newsom are running for governor, they are drawing rare attention to the little-known but powerful State Lands Commission.
It oversees 4 million acres of land beneath California waters: the state’s entire Pacific coast and its lakes, rivers and inlets, along with the harbors of San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco.
Shipping, fishing, oil and gas wells, waterfront real estate development — it all falls under the State Lands Commission.
State Treasurer John Chiang, campaigning for governor near the Golden Gate Bridge on June 7, has promoted his environmental record during his eight years on the State Lands Commission as state controller. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

By law, the commission is composed of two elected officials — the state controller and lieutenant governor — and the state finance director.
What does the commission do?
It oversees the land beneath the public waterways that California acquired when it became a state in 1850, including the ocean, up to three miles from shore.
The commission manages these “sovereign lands” as a public trust for the benefit of all Californians. Fishing, boating, commerce, recreation and ecological preservation are the main legal uses.
In places where landfill has extended the shoreline since 1850, such as San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the State Lands Commission maintains control over the added land.
Why was it created?
In the 1930s, state Finance Department officials were accused of taking bribes in return for coastal oil leases.
That and other irregularities led California lawmakers to create the State Lands Commission in 1938.
“The necessity of an independent commission that makes its decisions in public was made apparent by the behavior of these individuals,” the commission says on its website.
Does it make its decisions in public now?
Not always. In a closed meeting in 2014, the commission voted to sue San Francisco to overturn a city ballot measure that restricted the height of waterfront buildings.
Once the suit was made public, the commissioners refused to say which of the three voted to authorize it, citing “attorney-client privilege.”
“It’s confidential information, because it was a vote taken in closed session,” said Jennifer Lucchesi, the commission’s executive officer.
The commissioners also do not disclose their private meetings with paid lobbyists who try to influence their votes.
On May 8, for instance, Newsom, the lieutenant governor, and Betty Yee, Chiang’s successor as state controller, met separately with Barbara Boxer, who was representing Poseidon Water LLC, a water treatment company.
Boxer, a former U.S. senator, urged them to approve Poseidon’s plan to build a seawater desalination plant in Huntington Beach, a project that some environmentalists oppose.
Newsom and Yee, who are likely to vote on the project at the State Lands Commission’s Aug. 17 meeting, disclosed their conversations with Boxer only in response to questions from The Times. Neither has met privately with opponents of the plant.
Sunrise on the Gaviota Coast north of Santa Barbara on Feb. 10, 2016. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
How does the State Lands Commission differ from the Coastal Commission?
Unlike the Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission is in effect a giant landlord, issuing leases and contracts for use of its vast properties, from kayak piers on Lake Tahoe to oil tanker terminals in San Francisco Bay.

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Saudi Prince Has the Throne in His Sights. Now for the Hard Part

By Marc Champion
June 21, 2017 4:01:00 PM PDT

Mohammed bin Salman facing tough challenges at home and abroad
Whatever setbacks are in store, the buck now stops with ‘MBS’

Saudi Arabia's Shake-Up
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman just consolidated his position and power. Now he’ll need all the help he can get.
Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, King Salman announced that his 31-year-old son, widely known as MBS, was now heir to the throne. His older cousin, former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, had been pushed aside to make way.
The move, if not the timing, was expected. Yet bin Nayef also lost his post as interior minister, a powerful role in which he oversaw the nation’s domestic security forces and counter-terrorism efforts. Those areas will now be in the hands of a close MBS ally. The prince already has substantial control over defense, economic and foreign policy.
Power on that scale comes with a catch.

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BRIEFLY Stuff that matters FAMILY FEUD


A battle royale has broken out between clean power purists and pragmatists. Two years ago, a paper came out arguing that America could cheaply power itself on wind, water, and solar energy alone. It was a big deal. Policy makers began relying on the study. A nonprofit launched to make the vision a reality. Celebrities got on board. We named the lead author of the study, Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, one of our Grist 50.
Now that research is under scrutiny. On Monday, 21 scientists published a paper that pointed out unrealistic assumptions in Jacobson’s analysis. For instance, Jacobson’s analysis relies on the country’s dams releasing water “equivalent to about 100 times the flow of the Mississippi River” to meet electricity demand as solar power ramps down in the evening, one of the critique’s lead authors, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, told the New York Times.
Jacobson immediately fired back, calling his critics “nuclear and fossil fuel supporters” and implying the authors had sold out to industry. This is just wrong. These guys aren’t shills.
It’s essentially a family feud, a conflict between people who otherwise share the same goals. Jacobson’s team thinks we can make a clean break from fossil fuels with renewables alone. Those critiquing his study think we need to be weaned off, with the help of nuclear, biofuels, and carbon capture.
Grist intends to take a deeper look at this subject in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Nathanael Johnson

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100% Renewables Plan Has ‘Significant Shortcomings,’ Say Climate and Energy Experts

A new study calls out the assumptions in a leading renewable energy roadmap developed by Mark Jacobson.
by Julian Spector
June 19, 2017

It's a common claim from advocates: We know we can create a 100 percent renewable grid, because Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson said we can.
Jacobson's peer-reviewed studies assert that it is possible to convert all energy use in the U.S. to wind, water and solar -- while maintaining grid reliability, saving money and creating jobs.
It will require a World War II-style mobilization, he notes. But it's possible.
But that conclusion is now being questioned in a big way.
On Monday, a battalion of fellow energy researchers published a rebuttal to Jacobson's plan in the same prestigious journal where his study first appeared. The 21 authors include some of the most prominent climate change and clean energy experts in the country, like Ken Caldeira of Stanford, Daniel Kammen of U.C. Berkeley, and Varun Sivaram of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The lead author is Christopher Clack, a former research scientist at the University of Colorado and current CEO of the grid modeling consultancy Vibrant Clean Energy.
The sheer number of co-authors suggests this is not a battle of egos. Their accumulated expertise has advanced the understanding of climate change and the system impacts of high amounts of renewable energy. They are not industry shills trying to undermine the advance of wind and solar; they are scientists who want to use evidence-based reasoning to optimize it.
And they deliver some pointed academic smack talk.
"The scenarios of [the Jacobson study] can, at best, be described as a poorly executed exploration of an interesting hypothesis," the authors assert.
The broader conflict is over the best way to achieve a low-carbon grid.
Jacobson opted for a constrained system that excludes all but a handful sources of energy. His work shows what could be technologically possible if society prioritizes the "right" things. However, because decarbonization is so hard, it requires a more diversified approach for success, say the group of researchers.
Jacobson's study has already encouraged some lawmakers to propose 100% renewable energy plans. The authors of the rebuttal say those policies are based on flawed science.

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California’s a climate leader — if we’re grading on a curve

By Nathanael Johnson on Jun 16, 2017

California’s a climate leader — if we’re grading on a curve

California just got its climate report card and we’re betting the state wants to hide this one from its parents.
The Golden State has been cramming to clean up its greenhouse-gas grades for more than a decade, and Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged to fight President Donald Trump’s efforts to roll back climate action. So when Trump dropped out of the Paris agreement earlier this month, California was all like, “Whatever dude, I’m going to work even harder, and score the winning touchdown, and graduate for all of us!”
To put it another way, California has set lofty goals and now wants to set them even higher.
“There’s support for more aggressive California climate action,” says Meredith Fowlie, an environmental economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “California is determined to step up, particularly as Washington pulls back.”
The problem is, the state has struggled to hit the targets it already set. After psyching itself up to take on the world, California has taken some important steps forward, but it looks like it has also taken a few bong hits and a lot of naps. The Golden State wants to bring its greenhouse gas emissions down to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, but it’s not on pace to get there, according to the state’s annual inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. That target looks so far away, Fowlie says, that it “makes the much-celebrated greenhouse gas emissions reductions we’ve achieved so far look timid.”
Using the California Environmental Protection Agency’s recent report, we’ve created a handy report card, grading California in four key areas.
Getting the economy off carbon: Great effort! (but not fast enough)

California is bringing down emissions even as the state’s population (39 million and counting) and economy keeps growing. That’s great news as well as a monumental change.
Until recently, an uptick in the economy meant an uptick in greenhouse gas emissions; you couldn’t have one without the other. But now emissions are dropping as California’s businesses boom.
However, the state is still burning more than its share of dinosaur slime. The average Californian still emits more than 11 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, a little over twice the world average.
Transportation: Backsliding (see teacher)
Share of emissions: 37 percent

Planes, trucks, cars, and the like are the biggest source of emissions in the state, and their emissions are headed in the wrong direction. That’s because, after years of burning less fuel, Californians are back behind the wheel and most likely sitting in traffic. Cheap gas takes some of the blame.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice a similarity between the orange line above, which tracks total emissions from transportation, and the next graph, which shows how much Americans drive. Hence, Silicon Valley’s dream of a nation getting ferried around in electric-powered self-driving cars.

Electricity: Improving (but stole answers from classmates)
Share of emissions: 19 percent

Every year, it takes less carbon to power Silicon Valley’s smartphones, Hollywood’s cameras, and Humboldt’s grow lights. Hooray! It’s not because the technology is getting greener. California is getting more of its electrons from wind turbines and solar plants. But if you look closely at these graphs, you can see that improvement comes from sucking clean electricity away from other states.
California just hasn’t managed to increase the amount of carbon-free electricity it produces in state.
How can this be? It seems like there are new solar panels going up all the time in California. It turns out that all those new renewables weren’t enough to make up for the loss of electricity when the state shut down nuclear plants and droughts shut down hydropower. Another graph (Figure 10) reveals what’s happening: Natural gas has replaced most of the electricity that was coming from dams and nuclear plants.

Industry: No improvement (please see doctor about unhealthy gas leakage)
Share of emissions: 21 percent
California’s wineries, cement plants, and aerospace companies are mostly just treading water. We could go searching for silver linings here and find some improvement (look, emissions from refineries are falling!) but let’s be real: This is disappointing.

The problem is that most of these emissions come from combustion; that is, industry burns stuff to make other stuff. You’ve got to get limestone really hot to make cement, and you need a fiery forge to turn steel into a Tesla or a BPA-free water bottle. People are starting to figure out more environmentally friendly manufacturing techniques, but they are still new, and therefore really expensive.
Also, remember that big gas leak at Aliso Canyon? It’s captured by these numbers.
Final grade: C-
(Young California has lots of potential, but hasn’t turned ambition into enough progress)
This may seem like a harsh assessment, but we are measuring the Golden State against its own expectations, not against Wyoming or North Korea. Basically, California is great at making big promises about defying Trump and fighting climate change. It’s not yet good enough at walking the walk.
Not to say that California is all talk. Jeffrey Greenblatt, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley Lab who has been studying California’s efforts, says the state has made a lot of significant policy changes. Think green building standards, carbon sequestration efforts, and subsidies for electric cars and renewable energy. “The problem is that, even with all that, it’s not quite enough to get us to our targets,” Greenblatt says.
California’s climate team has a plan for upping the pace that depends on getting a new cap-and-trade law passed. A few weeks ago, one cap-and-trade bill failed a key vote. But there’s still time. The state legislature has a Democratic supermajority, and a Governor Moonbeam who cares deeply about climate change.
“We can’t fall back and give in to the climate deniers,” Gov. Brown said in his State of the State speech earlier this year. “The science is clear, the danger is real. We can do much on our own, and we can join with others — other states and provinces, even other countries — to stop the dangerous rise in climate pollution.”
The world needs this well-meaning slacker to turn into a climate valedictorian. One solid session of summer school could put the state on the right trajectory.

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