Friday, May 22, 2020

This is No Time for Green Giveaways

After spending nearly $3 trillion on everything from stimulus checks to small business relief to bailing out wealthy universities, lawmakers would be wise to take a breather.  But, some members of Congress led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) want to spend yet another $3 trillion. Unsurprisingly, a long line of lobbyists with empty tin cups have (virtually, of course) descended on Capitol Hill looking for perks and favors in the name of “Coronavirus relief.” Solar and wind producers have been at the front of the line, pushing hard for subsidies to “green” technologies that otherwise wouldn’t be able to compete with traditional energy sources. While these companies deserve the same opportunity to get relief as any other business and industry, lawmakers must be weary of narrow handouts that favor some industries over others. And, after $3 trillion already spent on taxpayers’ account, Coronavirus relief efforts must not morph into a grab bag of special interest goodies.

Companies across all industries are struggling to cope with the Coronavirus, and the energy and electricity sectors are no different. According to data from the nation’s two largest Independent System Operators, electricity demand in March 2020 was down about 7 percent compared to March 2017-19. Rail shipments of coal in March were down about 15 percent in March, while oil companies have struggled to cope with low or even negative prices. Meanwhile, solar installations may be 17 percent less than expected this year thanks to an unprecedented drop in demand. All of these technologies, ranging from solar to coal to oil, are a pivotal part of America’s energy portfolio.

But some manufacturers want to tip the scales in favor of some technologies while kneecapping others. Solar and wind manufacturers have long benefited from generous federal tax credits which offer investors up to 30 percent off of system costs and producers 1¢–2¢ per kilowatt-hour of energy produced (over the first ten years of production). In order for project developers to get these lavish credits they need to start construction on projects by a certain date and actually put the projects in service by year-end of the fourth year after the start of construction. Never mind that these tax credits have long outlived their usefulness and wind and solar companies are now well capitalized and more than capable of starting large projects without taxpayers’ help.

Four years is more than enough time to see projects through to completion, but solar and wind developers argue that COVID-related difficulties are holding up projects first started in 2016. And, in a surprising (and disappointing twist), the Treasury Department may extend out the tax credits from four years to five years.  If the Treasury Department doesn’t proceed with their plan, lawmakers are poised to act.

There are many indications that lawmakers aren’t done extending needless subsidies to “green” companies. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) tweeted on May 13, “The next #COVID19 package needs to include support for the clean energy sector, which has been devastated by the pandemic. Our response can’t just be a reaction, it has to be an investment in the technologies & workers who will power this country’s future.” On May 15, House Democrats approved the hastily introduced Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which establishes a 45 cent per gallon payout for biofuel producers. The bill’s backers are determined to usher in a “green” revolution on the taxpayers’ dime, even though biofuels aren’t exactly eco-friendly.

Getting America back to normal requires a free, vibrant market in energy without the government actively picking winners and losers. Over the past 40 years, the federal government has already showered more than $100 billion in tax subsidies on “green” producers and punished affordable alternatives with onerous regulations and mandates. It’s time to end this sorry track-record, and leave the door open to a diverse array of energy sources. Before Congress starts ramping up spending again, lawmakers need to get their priorities straight.


Gemini Solar: A Billion-Dollar Vegas Boondoggle

On May 11, the Interior Department approved Gemini Solar, the largest solar power project in U.S. history. It is to be built by Arevia Power, a California-based energy group, with backing from Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and Nevada’s energy utility NV Energy, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, which will be the customer for the project’s electricity. Gemini Solar will sit on 7,100 acres of public land, the size of 5,369 football fields, in the Mohave Desert, about 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

The estimated $1 billion cost pales in comparison to the trillions of dollars being spent battling the coronavirus and its economy-destroying aftermath. But a boondoggle by any other name remains a boondoggle and, even though it takes NV Energy a step closer to complying with Nevada’s nonsensical law that requires utility providers to get at least half the energy they produce from renewables, Gemini Solar is certainly a boondoggle.

This ambitious three-year project will never come close to its target of 690 megawatts, enough to power 260,000 homes. And the 900 new construction jobs that the Department of the Interior (DOI) boasts will be created by Gemini Solar will quickly shrink to only 19 full-time workers required to operate the plant once it is completed in December 2023, according to the Reuters news agency.

Studies in Europe show that the cost of renewable energy such as solar raises electricity costs for consumer so much that, for every job created in the renewables industry, two to three are lost in the rest of the economy. So much for DOI’s Casey Hammond’s statement that, “This action is about getting Americans back to work, strengthening communities and promoting investment in American energy.”

That makes no more sense than employing millions of Americans to exercise on stationary bicycles connected to electric generators to make power. At least the bikes would increase our citizens’ fitness and give them long-term jobs.

The government tells us that a massive 380-megawatt lithium ion battery backup will be included to replace the power the solar plant is not able to generate at night. These batteries supposedly generate no greenhouse gases. Yet, even the left-leaning Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) pointed out that “Mining and processing the minerals, plus the battery manufacturing process, involve substantial emissions of carbon.”

In reality, no batteries exist that could take up the load for long when the sun is not shining. And, if they could, it would take hours or even days to recharge them.

Anyone who thinks all this is a ‘green solution’ must not have seen Michael Moore’s brilliant new documentary Planet of the Humans. The film shows how active solar projects such as Gemini Solar are anything but green. Moore demonstrates that, when one considers the materials that are required to build these massive facilities, they produce huge amounts of toxic waste.

The CBC cites Jennifer Dunn at Northwestern University’s Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience who explained: “the material that helps power the battery is produced from a number of different metals, things like nickel and cobalt and lithium.”

And, of course, China controls most of the lithium and cobalt which are often produced with child labor and near-slave labor, and with practically no health, safety or environmental safeguards. For example, CBC reports that “there have been mass fish kills related to lithium mining in Tibet.”

Moore’s film shows that solar stations are, in reality, just a front for more, not less, fossil fuel plants. And the negative impact on the fragile desert environment will be significant. The experts interviewed in Planet of the Humans don’t pull their punches: we have been lied to when it comes to the supposed environmental benefits of solar power and we have allowed ourselves to play-pretend for over three decades.

In The Hitchhiker’s Journey Through Climate Change, a new book by Terigi Ciccone and the senior author of this article, we show that the renewable energy debate is actually over and can be summed up with a simple rule of thumb that states: “in every community electric grid, an excess amount of fossil fuel or nuclear power must be available at the ready to go online in seconds, that is equal to the potential output of all intermittent solar energy considered a portion of the grids electric capacity.”

When one digests this simple rule, one wonders why the arguments over solar energy have gone on for so long without facing a stark reality: solar energy must never be an essential part of any energy portfolio. It must have 100% back up with rapidly variable fossil fuel-generated power to ensure that the communities’ electric grid will not let them down. Las Vegas of all places cannot afford a blackout.

After all, with temperatures at times spiking above 110 degrees Fahrenheit each summer and many hotels, homes and businesses with sealed windows, can you imagine what would happen if a city-wide power failure occurred during a heatwave and all the air conditioning suddenly shut off? Indeed, in such weather, homeless people must often seek cool indoor shelter or at least some will die.

Thinking that batteries are going to save Vegas has been and will be impossible for the foreseeable future. This project most likely will double down on lunacy, as in a few years it will need to build a fossil fuel-powered plant to back up the batteries that back up the intermittent and unreliable solar plant.

On top of that, this mandatory fossil fuel back up will need to run 100% of the time, at near full power, emitting pollution and greenhouse gases while burning almost the same fuel as if the solar plant was never there in the first place. And, when the fossil fuel backup is not at full power, they will be operating at low efficiency and so emit more CO2 and real pollution. Think of what happens to your car’s gas efficiency when driving in stop-and-go traffic.

In the final analysis, private and commercial customers will be burdened with considerable increases in their electric rates due to Gemini Solar. So, other than Warren Buffett and the relatively few people who will have temporary jobs during the construction phase, who will benefit from this adventure? Moore’s documentary shows exactly who the green energy opportunists really are.

The Trump administration must revoke, or at least suspend, the project’s approval until all decision-makers have seen Planet of the Humans and formal inquiries into its real environmental benefits and problems are held. To phrase this gamble in the common vernacular of Vegas, the odds that this plant will be the one that works as intended when so many others have failed is about the same as the odds of winning at the roulette table in your first try—practically nil.


Germany’s solar industry could implode this summer

Germany’s solar industry is in deep crisis and may implode in the summer. Solutions have been around for a long time, but internal power struggles and debates over distance rules between wind turbines are holding back progress. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The country’s solar industry is collecting signatures and writing incendiary letters to politicians to finally abolish the solar cap and thus save thousands of jobs.

According to the latest survey results of the German Solar Industry Association (BSW), the industry’s business expectation index has halved in just three months, and that’s not even due to the coronavirus.

“We have never seen a comparable slump in such a short time. More and more solar companies are having existential fears,” said Carsten K├Ârnig, BSW’s chief executive officer.

The latest figures from the Federal Network Agency show how thin the air under the solar cap has become.

At present, Germany has solar plants with a capacity of 50.09 gigawatts.

However, once the 52 GW threshold is reached – probably as early as this summer – the cap will close. This means that smaller plants of up to 750 kilowatts, which make up the majority of newly built plants, will then no longer be entitled to subsidies from the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG).

Postponed, cancelled and ignored

There are no technical reasons why the solar cap has not been abolished despite all the promises made by the grand coalition since last year. The legislative text has long been drafted and is in the hands of the Bundestag’s energy committee, right next to a draft bill by the Bundesrat, which advocated abolishing the cap in October .

But there is no white smoke rising from the Bundestag building in Berlin just yet because internal resistance is blocking the release of the law to the plenary.

Business interruption during the coronavirus crisis has caused a 14% fall in demand for electricity in Europe over the past month. Combined with record solar output, this has caused a 39% drop in related CO2 emissions, according to a new analysis.

An eagerly awaited meeting of the federal states’ premiers on 12 March did not lead to an agreement, and the planned working group between the state leaders and the federal government did not even meet because the coronavirus had paralysed public life.

Little else has happened since then.

“With its blockade policy against renewable energies, the government endangers climate protection and investment security in equal measure. This is even more irresponsible for the economy in times of corona-induced uncertainty,” said Julia Verlinden, energy policy spokeswoman for the Greens and member of the economic committee.

On the last two occasions, there were no results either.

Last week, the federal cabinet passed a “mini-amendment” to the EEG to bolster the energy sector against the pandemic, such as longer implementation periods for solar parks, but ignored the topic of solar caps. Even a video conference of the energy ministers on 4 May did not deal with the topic.

COVID-19 crisis upsets Germany's coal phase-out timetable

In Germany, the coronavirus health crisis is keeping politics on tenterhooks as many legislative proposals are being postponed. Will the country’s coal phase-out carry on as planned? EURACTIV Germany reports.

Economic spokesperson remains silent

In an absurd way, the problem is not the solar cap itself, because there is broad consensus that it has to go. According to a poll by YouGov, more than 80% of voters from all parties, except the far-right AfD, are in favour of abolishing the cap.

The debate has for months been hinging on the controversial distance rules between wind turbines and buildings, for which Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) wanted to set a 1,000-metre minimum distance to reduce the countless civil lawsuits against wind turbines.

While Altmaier has since softened his proposal, this distance debate has long become a power game between the CDU and the SPD. The economic policy wing of the conservative Union of CDU/CSU is insisting the solar cap should only be adopted together with the coal phase-out law and a solution for wind energy, thereby blocking any rapid progress.

The Union’s economic policy spokesman, Joachim Pfeiffer (CDU), was not available to speak on the subject despite repeated requests.


Australian coal mine nears approval

WHITEHAVEN Coal has cleared another hurdle in its push for a $700 million coal mine expansion near Gunnedah, in north-eastern NSW.

The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has recommended the project is "approvable" and pushed the application to the Independent Planning Commission (IPC).

The application seeks to extend the Vickery coal mine, about 25km out of Gunnedah, and develop a new coal handling and preparation plant, as well as a rail spur line to connect to the main railway that leads to the Port of Newcastle. This would mean the end of coal trucks transporting the goods on the road to Gunnedah.

The project - which went on public exhibition in the latter half of 2018 - attracted 560 submissions with 345 in support of the project, and 201 who opposed the plan.

In September last year, Vickery Coal submitted an amended application. It's expected to generate 450 jobs as well as 500 during construction, as well as a net benefit of $1.16 billion to the state.

The Department released its report on Tuesday and highlighted key issues for the IPC to consider which included impacts on water resources, amenity and biodiversity.

The report from the department will now be considered by the IPC who will hold a further public hearing in coming weeks. The IPC must make a final determination on the project within 12 weeks.

Whitehaven Coal issued a statement on Wednesday welcoming the release of the report.

"We know there is strong support for Vickery from the comprehensive community consultation process that has already been undertaken - 60% of public submissions to the Department of Planning and 75% to the IPC called for the Project to be approved," Whitehaven Coal Managing Director and CEO Paul Flynn said

But in April, the mining giant put all expansion decisions on hold due to "volatile financial market conditions", including the Vickery mine expansion.

"While coal markets in the March quarter have demonstrated their resilience, volatile financial market conditions caused Whitehaven to continue to be cautious in allocating capital to expansion," the company said at the time.

Lock the Gate - a vocal opponent of the expansion plan - has long maintained the coal mine "will damage local groundwater, put an iconic heritage property at risk, and worsen the social damage large-scale mining has already inflicted on the local community".



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