NDN Blog

Nuclear Industry Takes Out NRC Chair Gregory Jaczko, Washington Post Endorses Clean Energy Standard

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko is stepping down, effective upon the confirmation of his successor, according to a statement from Jaczko released today.  Effectively, the Nuclear Industry won a year long battle to oust Jaczko.  Gregory Jaczko's staunch ally Senate Majority Harry Reid plus tepid support from the Administration, was not nearly enough to stop months of  bureaucratic knife-wielding by the other four industry-backed members of the five-person panel.  The industry effort was spearheaded by Democratic Commissioner Bill Magwood. Magwood, led a similar coup against Terry Lash during the Clinton Administration at the Department of Energy before replacing Lash.  Magwood's ally at the time was Alex Flint, then a GOP Senate staffer for Senator Domenic who took the lead on nuclear policy. He's now the top lobbyist for the nuclear industry -- whose criticism of Jaczko coincided with Magwood's dramatic assault.  We just have to pray that the U.S. sees no nuclear accidents during Magwood tenure.

An editorial in the Washington Post on May 19 was  optimistic about Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman's proposed Clean Energy Standard. The proposal would require that utilities derive a defined portion of their electricity from technologies that emit fewer greenhouse emissions than coal,  Critically, any electricity technology — wind, solar, natural gas, nuclear or something entirely new — can get credit, scaled in accordance to the improvement it offers. This clean electricity mandate would ramp up over time, requiring that 54 percent of electricity in 2025 come from such sources and 84 percent in 2035. If this sounds familiar, it’s because many states have similar policies in place.  The plan would slash coal use, boosting natural gas, nuclear and renewables. Total U.S. energy- related carbon emissions would decline to 80 percent of the 2005 level by 2035, the Energy Information Administration estimates.  In spite of the costs, the Washington Post is supportive of this by sayint that a clean electricity standard could hold the most political appeal of any big approach to carbon cutting. It is harder to construe as a tax increase, and it explicitly benefits GOP favorites, such as natural gas and nuclear energy, as well as Democratic ones, such as solar and wind energy. 

Commerce Orders Tariffs on Chinese Solar Panels at 31%, Clean Energy Standard Gets Senate Hearing

On Thursday, the Obama administration ordered tariffs of 31% and higher on solar panels imported from China, escalating a simmering trade dispute with China over a case that has sharply divided American interests in the growing clean-energy industry.  The Commerce Department announced the stiff duties Thursday after making a preliminary finding that Chinese solar panel manufacturers "dumped" their goods — that is, sold them at below fair-market value.  This ruling, if affirmed by U.S. trade officials this fall, is expected to have significant implications for both the global production of solar cells, now largely in China, and the growth of the solar energy industry in the U.S., which employs about 100,000 people in manufacturing, installation and services.  There are some who fear there will be an all-out clean tech trade war. In March, tensions cooled when Commerce announced lower-than-expected tariffs in the first of its two investigations into Chinese solar products, leading officials to suggest the incident might become a speed bump rather than a sinkhole for solar industries on both sides but at 31%, this is another story.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the Clean Energy Standard was packed, very long, informative but ultimately will go nowhere in this Congress.  David Sandalow, acting under secretary of energy, insists that this is a top priority of the Obama Administration.  Although the bill won't move in Congress it will most likely serve as a rallying cry for Democrats and renewable energy groups, which are still smarting due to the defeat of climate legislation in 2010.   The bill requires that large power companies supply increasing amounts of electricity from low-carbon sources like wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas beginning in 2015. By 2035, 84 percent of power produced by large utilities will come from low-carbon sources, according to the legislation.  Sen Murkowski (AK), the top Republican on Bingaman’s committee, has said she will only get behind such a standard if it replaces federal climate regulations.

Partisan Give and Take by Republicans

When it comes to passing Transportation Bill or insisting on the Keystone XL Pipeline, Senate Republicans are refraining from sinking the transportation bill by insisting it be included in final passage. Several key GOP members huddled on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the issue.  Congressman Upton said the meeting was a starting point for establishing a cogent strategy for Keystone supporters. "We were talking about the highway bill, starting discussions to see what we can figure out," Upton said. "Keystone is a priority for the House, period. So we're going to do all that we can to get it included as part of the package. But it's difficult to say how things are going to work out until we really start talking. And that's what we've gone to do." 

The Energy Department’s loan guarantee program (code word Solyndra) will be back in the cross-hairs of Capitol Hill Republicans on Wednesday.  A House Oversight and Government Reform Committee panel will convene a hearing with a title that advertises the lawmakers’ questions: “The Obama Administration’s Green Energy Gamble: What Have All The Taxpayer Subsidies Achieved?”  It will feature top execs from several green-energy companies — such as BrightSource Energy and Abound Solar that have hit financial headwinds ranging from layoffs to a canceled IPO.  Solyndra, the loaded mantra of Republicans, willl be used to launch wider attacks on White House green-energy programs.   “This administration’s Department of Energy continues to make reckless bets with taxpayer funds followed by deceptive claims about the program’s effects on job creation, or lack thereof. This hearing will explain what recipients of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds are doing with the money and the risks associated with DOE’s irresponsible gamble,” said a spokeswoman for Issa.

Rural Utilities Service Funds Smart Grid, Noted Physicist Jim Hansen Correlates Climate Changes to Global Warming

The USDA has announced that rural electric cooperative utilities in 10 states will receive loans to install smart grid technologies and make improvements to generation and transmission facilities. Examples of funding include a $102.8 million guaranteed loan to the Jackson Electric Membership Corporation in Jefferson, Georgia, to build and improve over 850 miles of distribution line and make other system improvements. The loan also includes $7.2 million in smart grid projects. 

Jim Hansen, a noted NASA Physicist and climatologist, has heretofore refrained from direct cause and effect of climate change.  However, in a peer-reviewed paper, which has been submitted to a leading Scientific Journal and made available to Time.com, Hansen indicates that may be changing. According to the paper Hansen states that scientists can now state “with a high degree of confidence” that some extremely high temperatures are in fact caused by global warming, simply because they occur much more frequently than they used to.  In the paper, the authors show that extreme outliers of more than three standard deviations above the mean temperature covered between six and thirteen percent of the globe during the years 2003 to 2008. If they were normally distributed and similar to the climactic record, that should have been just a 0.1-to-0.2 percent frequency of an extreme heat event.

Conservative Think Tanks Devise 'Subversive' Attack on Wind Energy, Solar Shines as an Energy Source

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that several conservative groups met earlier this year to coordinate a campaign to turn public opinion against wind power. A confidential memo distributed at the meeting outlined a PR strategy that would, among other things, use media outlets including Fox News and the Wall Street Journal to disseminate anti-wind messaging. The goal of the media campaign is to provide "cover" for elected officials to vote against wind power.  The strategy document calls for a national PR campaign aimed at causing 'subversion … so that it effectively because so bad that no one wants to admit in public they are for it'.  Fox New has claimed that wind energy "doesn't work," calling it "pointless" and "the Ted Bundy of bird killers." And the Wall Street Journal is doing its part, calling for the elimination of a key tax incentive for wind in an editorial published earlier this week.  Even Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul behind both News Corp. outlets, is joining the conservative war on wind. Murdoch took to Twitter last month to lambaste wind development in the UK, complainingthat the "English spring countryside [is] about to be wrecked by uneconomic ugly bird killing windmills." Speaking of asthetics, I will let you be the judge - the coal plant to the left or the wind turbine to the right.

Solar, wind and thermal represent about 1.5% of U.S. energy consumption.  According Oil Price - solar is the more realistic for consumers.  The Administration's investment in renewable projects such as the May 4th unveiling of the utility scale plant in Nevada is a boast to the solar industry.  Solar leasing, with no upfront costs, is a breakthrough for solar.  Sunrun Company has installed $1 million in solar power leasing systems since 2010.   Consumers seem not to be  looking at solar in terms of its costs in comparison to coal, rather, they are looking at the costs of installation as compared with the monthly utility bills that come in the mail. To this end, the solar system leasing program stands to make significant gains.

Keystone XL Pipeline Could be Key to Passage of Transportation Bill

The big issue facing Congress as they return from their weeklong recess is to convene a conference committee this Tuesday in hopes of developing a consensus on transportation policy.  Center to the bill will be the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.  The House version of the transportation and infrastructure bill approves the pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries, but  the Senate’s plan omits the provision.  There will be much jockeying by lobbyists and special interest groups for the pipeline to make the final cut.  Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Friday called for Keystone’s approval.  Developer TransCanada Corp. formally reapplied for a federal cross-border permit Friday, which in turn revived industry and GOP calls for the White House to approve the project.  Even with that,  advocates face a tough climb getting mandatory Keystone approval into a final transportation bill.

Democrats outnumber Republicans 8-6 among the Senate negotiators. Among those Democrats, only Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) has voted in favor of including Keystone in the bill, but he has signaled that he’s unlikely to insist on the provision.  As I've often pointed out, environmentalists bitterly oppose the pipeline due to greenhouse gas emissions from extracting and burning oil sands, forest damage from the massive projects in Alberta and fears of spills along the pipeline route. 

Expect lots and lots of partisian posturing.  As my friend and Texas colleague, Billy Moore has points out, the one problem with the transportation bill conference is that few members have experience ironing out the difference between the two chambers.  Congress used to conduct about 75 conference committees a year and Tuesday's highway conference is only the 6th conference committee in 17 months.  Except for the fact that Congress would like to produce one legislative accomplishment before the election, the prospects of this passing are slim. 

Solar Industry Scrambles to React to Technological Innovation and Changing Economic Dynamics

The economic vitality of the solar industry is in question these days.  Two major solar firms tell a tale of a still nascent industry struggling to maintain economic stability amid rapidly changing  innovations in solar technology:  First Solar and Brightsource

Actually things have been going fine until  three things happened:  One, the fracking of natural gas lowered the cost of natural gas below any renewable source.  Two, the Republicans in Congress have completely eroded  tax subsidies for renewables.  Three, China has made solar manufacturing a centerpiece of its economic agenda, sending a tide of cheap photovoltaic panels to American shores dropping the price for panlels by 75%.

First Solar, once among the industry’s biggest and strongest companies just reported a big quarterly loss of $449 million in the first quarter.  In addition they are going through a massive restructuring announced last month that will eliminate 30 percent of the company’s workforce and plan to close their plant in Germany.   First Solar named James Hughes asCEO, replacing interim chief and company founder Mike Ahearn.  Things move quickly in the innovation world and in the previous quarter,  the company earned $115 million, or $1.33 per share.

At issue is that First Solar, along with other makers of solar panels, is struggling to adjust to a dramatic plunge in panel prices. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the boom in the construction of solar panel factories, especially in Asia, coincided with lower demand in Europe created a glut of panels and sent prices tumbling. European demand fell because cash-strapped governments there reduced renewable energy subsidies.  Unfortunately for First Solar, their enormous cost advantage over the competition has eroded. First Solar became the biggest solar company in the world, both by market valuation and panel sales, selling solar panels made with a thin film that were far cheaper to produce than those made from crystalline silicon. Though a thin-film panel is less efficient in turning the sun’s rays into electricity than a crystalline silicon panel, a solar farm with thousands of First Solar’s thin-films could produce the same of amount electricity at a lower total cost.  Now, the cost of the raw material for crystalline silicon panels has plummeted, making it easier for these more -efficient panels, mostly made in China, to compete with First Solar’s thin film on price.

Brightsource Energy - an investor in solar thermal energy, a technology that powers homes and businesses around the clock. (Traditional photovoltaic solar panels transmit power only when the sun is shining.) is also having some troubles  Although there still was no solution to make solar thermal power as cheap as wind turbines or photovoltaics, that was OK because Brightsource had major buyer lined up: the state of California, which has passed laws requiring it to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by ambitious amounts. Brightsource, was planning to go public in early April, but cancelled this offering citing adverse market conditions.  The company says they are still in a position of strength and their $2.2 billion plant in California’s Mojave Desert is fully funded, thanks to investments from NRG Energy and Google and a $1.375 billion federal loan guarantee  Still, BrightSource’s future looks much dimmer than it did just a few weeks ago.

DOD Secretary Panetta States Climate Change is a National Security Issue, Federal Agencies Promote Green Technology

In a May 2 speech to the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading environmental organization, Secretary Leon Panetta made clear the Defense Department views climate change and rising oil prices as a national security concern.  Panetta dismissed any politicization by saying that rising oil prices and reliance on oil supplies from the middle east  has significant implications for the U.S. military.  Analysts have estimated that the Pentagon has spent $65 billion to $85 billion a year protecting Middle East allies and ensuring the flow of petroleum to world markets since 1980.  

“The quest for energy will also continue to shape, and reshape, the strategic environment — from the destabilizing consequences of resource competition to the efforts of potential adversaries to block the free flow of energy supplies,” Panetta said. “These strategic and practical considerations weighed heavily on us as we developed our new defense strategy.”

The Pentagon has requested more than $1 billion for efficient aircraft and aircraft engines, hybrid electric drives for ships, improved generators and micro-grids for forward-deployed bases, and combat vehicle energy efficiency programs. Another $1 billion was requested for energy efficiency.  The Army, Navy and Air Force have committed to producing at least 3 gigawatts of renewable energy at their installations in the coming years.

In the absence of legislative opportunities for a clear energy strategy, the Obama Administration has used the federal agencies to promote green technologies.  In a speech to our Clean Energy Initiative on April 25, Secretary Salazar outlined the Department of Interior's 'All of the Above' energy strategy.  

In the same vein, last December, the Administration launched a their We Can’t Wait initiative, challenging federal  agencies to make at least $2 billion worth of energy-efficiency upgrades over the next two years. Meeting the first of several milestones of the challenge, federal agencies have identified $2.1 billion of projects that will pay for themselves using performance-based contracts.  

The wind industry installed 1,695 megawatts of capacity in the first quarter of 2012, a 50 percent increase from the year before. But the industry remains on pins and needles over the rapidly approaching expiration of the Production Tax Credit, according to the American Wind Energy Association's quarterly market report.

Rolling Stone Interviews President Obama, DOI Tariff Decision on Chinese Solar Slated for May 17

The Rolling Stone Magazine featured an interview with President Obama in their May issue.  During the interview, President Obama made several references to energy and climate issues.  He pointed out that“getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency” was the “centerpiece” of the House Republicans’ economic development agenda,   The President also emphasized the steps the Administration has taken to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions “within the constraints of this Congress,” but said “we have a lot more work to do.”  He vowed that over the next six months “I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to deal with climate change in a serious way.”   When quizzed about the Keystone XL pipeline, the President stated, "The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem".  He went on to say, "Within the constraints of this Congress, we've tried to do a whole range of things, administratively, that are making a difference – doubling fuel-efficiency standards on cars is going to take a whole lot of carbon out of our atmosphere. We're going to continue to push on energy efficiency, and renewable energy standards, and the promotion of green energy. But there is no doubt that we have a lot more work to do."

On May 17, the Commerce Department will announce a determination on a second round of tariffs on Chinese-made silicon-based photovoltaic cells.  The Commerce Department's May 17 ruling, in response to allegations of dumping by the U.S. unit of a German solar panel maker, Oregon based Solarworld , could fundamentally alter the solar landscape in the United States. Dumping occurs when a firm or industry sells its products below cost to capture the market. If more tariffs are applied, they probably will be much higher than the relatively light first round announced in March, which ran from 2.6 percent to 4.7 percent.

Our Clean Energy Initiative had a panel on the tariff issue, Chinese Tariffs: Smart Policy or Proctionism? with Lewis Leibowitx, of Hogan Lovells,  Elizabeth Drake of Stewart and Stewart and William Morin of Applied Materials.  Some believe that applying more tariffs might may kill jobs because the vast majority of positions in the sector aren't on the assembly line. Instead, up to of 70 percent of U.S. solar employment is in installation, sales, and distribution, and firms that hire those workers argue that solar cells must get significantly cheaper to stay competitive with other energy sources.  According to our friend, John Smirnow, VP of Trade at Solar Energy Industries Association, "Installation is where all the jobs are.There are 5,600 firms in the healthy, vibrant, and growing solar-services sector."  Pro tariff advocates say protecting a solar manufacturing base is crucial to the nation's energy security.  

Clean Energy Initiative Solution Series Remarkable Success

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have helped to make our Clean Energy Solution Series such a brilliant success.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s speech last Thursday on the Department of the Interior’s energy initiatives marked the 10th in our series that began last summer.  Your participation is important to this success and, I’d love to hear suggestions and ideas  for speakers or subject matter for future events. Please contact me at 202-384-1216 or cgiesen@ndn.org.  Check out the following list of our remarkable speakers and panels:

Wireless Technology-Wireless Technology: New Technologies and the Electric Grid

  • Nick Sinai -White House Director of Smart Grid
  • Kurt Yeager – Galvin Electricity Initiative
  • Hassane Bouhia – Verizon 
  • Stewart Kantor – CEO, Full Spectrum

Rooftop Solar: The Speed of Solar: Tremendous Progress of Rooftop Solar Technology

  • Danny Kennedy – CEO, Sungevity
  • Rachel Tronstein –  DOE  EERE
  • Andrea Luecke - Solar Foundation

FERC Order 1000: Transmission Policy Reform: What does this mean for Renewables?

  • Joe Kelliher – NextERA Energy and former FERC Commissioner
  • Nina Plaushin –ITC Holdings
  • Tom Vinson – American Wind Energy Association
  • Bill White – Energy Future Coalition

Wind and Renewable Tax Credits:  Economic Ramifications of Wind and the Relevance of Tax Credits

  • Markian Melnyk – Atlantic Wind Connection
  • Laura Haynes- Senator Tom Carper 
  • Rob Gramlich - American Wind Energy Association 

Electric Vehicles:  Promise and Progress of Electric Vehicles

  • Barbara Tyran –Electric Power Research Institute
  • Miles Keogh – National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners
  • Kyle Davis – Mid America Corporation
  • Genevieve Cullen –Electric Drive Transportation 
  • Mary Beth Stanek – General Motors

Gina McCarthy Asst. Administrator for Toxic Emissions and Radiation, Environmental Protection Agency

  • EPA Regulations on Utilities

DOI Chinese Tariffs: Solar Tariffs: Smart Policy or Protectionism?

  • Lewis Leibowitz – Hogan Lovells, LLC
  • Elizabeth Drake – Stewart & Stewart, LLC
  • William Morin – Applied Materials 

Consumers: Their Critical Rule in Shaping The Future of Energy Use.

  • Michael Sachse – Vice President, Regulatory Affairs, Opower
  • John Ashford – The Hawthorn Group
  • Cliff Majersik – Institute for Market Transformation  

Ken Salazar:  Secretary of the United States Department of Interior 

  •  Interior's All of the Above Energy Strategy

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