David Hochschild — California and the Dawn of the Clean Energy Era


David Hochschild

On Wednesday, October 24, David Hochschild, a commissioner on the California Energy Commission, delivered some hopeful news about the progress California is making to reduce climate pollution. His talk, sponsored by Acterra, took place at the Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation in Palo Alto and was titled, “Sunrise from the West—California and the Dawn of the Clean Energy Era.”

Hochschild was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Energy Commission in February 2013 in the environmental position. A longtime solar energy advocate, he worked with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to put solar panels on public buildings, and cofounded the Vote Solar Initiative, an organization advocating for local, state, and federal solar policies. He served as executive director of a national consortium of leading solar manufacturers and worked for five years at Solaria, a solar company in Silicon Valley.

Hochschild’s goal now is to “bring light in dark times,” when the national government is going in the opposite direction from what we need for clean energy development. He believes that California can show the rest of the country—and the world—how it’s done.

First, he showed how predictions of the growth of solar and wind were way too low. While the line on the graph for the prediction of solar implementation barely moves up, the actual installed solar generating capacity jets up at a steep angle.

On a different graph, going down in exactly the opposite direction, is the line representing the value of the top four coal companies. They have lost 99 percent of their value in recent years.

“It’s the beginning of the end of an era,” said Hochschild.

Hochschild disparaged the long history of subsidies to the oil industry—which are still going strong with no end date. Meanwhile, the much smaller subsidies for solar have short time spans.

“This causes a tilted playing field,” said Hochschild. “We’re wasting money propping up the oil industry.”

California’s economy has grown, as has its population, but the state’s emissions have gone down, except in one area—transportation. But with the passage of SB 100 with Governor Brown’s signature in September, the state is on track to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

Hochschild explained that the 100 percent number represents “clean” energy, which is still being defined, but would not include nuclear. To get there, we will need to have diversity in the portfolio, including wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and others.

“For years, skeptics have said that moving to clean sources of energy would ruin the economy, drive up unemployment, and raise energy rates, but it hasn’t,” he said.

California actually leads the rest of the U.S. in renewables installed but has had 46 percent economic growth while over the same period the U.S. has seen 35 percent.

“Because we set energy standards, we use half the energy that the U.S. uses,” said Hochschild. “These old arguments are just wrong.”

Hochschild said that as a large market, California can affect manufacturers’ decisions on what to build. For example, our standards on the energy efficiency of TV sets saves consumers $1 billion a year, but the effect is magnified because companies choose to incorporate those standards into their products for everyone.

Three light bulbs

One easy way to save energy is to switch to LED light bulbs from traditional incandescents, which are being phased out. Starting on January 1, 2018, stores in California were permitted to sell the incandescent bulbs they had in stock but couldn’t order more. As it is, customers are embracing LED bulbs, which cost a little more (prices have been dropping) but last 20 to 25 years and use 80 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs.

Newer LED bulbs are available in a soft white and other shades, so they feel more familiar, emitting a warm glow. The compact fluorescent bulbs, which tended to have a harsh light quality, have faded away now that LEDs have taken over.

Topaz Solar Farm

Topaz Solar Farm in California

Hochschild displayed images of large solar farms in the California desert that are producing vast amounts of electricity. The technology is improving so fast, he said, that they were able to incorporate improvements into the panels and the installation process mid-project.

The major computer and software companies, such as Google and Facebook, are all signing on for 100 percent renewable energy. Hochschild showed an aerial view of Apple’s massive donut-shaped campus, covered with 17 MW of solar panels.

The list goes on. California has the world’s second-largest lithium-ion battery plant (behind Tesla’s giant Gigafactory in Nevada). California leads the nation in energy from biomass, too.

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Block Island Offshore Wind Farm in Rhode Island

Offshore wind farms are developing—we saw the Block Island offshore wind farm in Rhode Island – the first one in the U.S. Offshore farms are easier to construct in the East, Hochschild explained, because the Atlantic shoreline is shallow, while the Pacific’s drops off. However, there is a new way of creating offshore wind energy in the Pacific Ocean by installing floating platforms for the windmills, tethered down to the sea floor. There are some significant benefits.

“Offshore wind installations out at sea are not only invisible from land, but more important–the wind blows more of the time out there—60 percent versus 35 percent on land,” said Hochschild. “And because it blows at different times of the day from the times when the sun is shining, it can offset times when solar panels aren’t generating electricity,” he added.

Offshore windmills are more expensive to install, but with greater capacity, they catch up by generating more energy.

Regarding employment, there are 86,400 solar workers in California. That’s more than the workers in every other energy industry. And, it’s growing, as solar installations are increasing, reaching about a million in California.

Hochschild believes that the best plan for clean energy would be to electrify all services and run them off a clean grid as we reduce use of natural gas. He talked about how much natural gas is used in homes today for furnaces, stoves, water heaters, and some dryers. But some new homes are being built without gas lines at all.

“It saves $3,000 right away by not having to run the gas pipes,” he said.

The good news continued. One hundred percent renewable energy will power the state’s high-speed rail system, when it’s built. California institutions have taken $6 trillion out of investments in fossil fuels.

Hochschild compared the fossil fuel industry methods now to the tobacco industry in the 1950’s. Service personnel during World War II were given cigarettes as part of their rations, building lifelong habits. Advertisements showed celebrities like Marilyn Monroe smoking, and even a doctor. Hosts smoked on TV. About half of the population were cigarette customers then.

“The industry was selling cigarettes and also doubt about the health risks,” he said, comparing it to the way fossil fuels are denying climate change today. “But with rigorous campaigns and limitations, such as placing warnings on the packs, removing cigarette ads from TV, raising the age to buy cigarettes, and increasing taxes, smoking is at about 15 percent now, and is heading down. We need to do the same thing with the fossil fuels industry.”

Electric vehicles are part of California’s plan to reduce CO2, and the state adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle Action Program in 2013. In January, Governor Brown signed Executive Order B-48-18, which sets goals of building 200 hydrogen fueling stations and 250,000 electric vehicle charging stations for 1.5 million EVs by 2025. The goal is 5 million EVs a year by 2030, which means that 40 percent of new vehicles would have to be EVs by then.

Per the ZEV Action Program’s website, in 2017, 5 percent of vehicles sold in California were EVs. There are now about 474,000 EVs in California, so there’s a long way to go to meet the goals, but sales are increasing, and Hochschild thinks it will accelerate.

“100 percent clean energy is solvable—but it’s not a silver bullet—it’s silver buckshot,” Hochschild said. “It is a combined effort of developing clean energy sources, increasing battery storage, lowering demand, and creating a regional grid,” he added. He also said that it’s likely that the first 80 percent of the way will be easier, while the last 20 percent could be more challenging.

So, although things look dire, California is leading the way, and will be doing a lot more in the future.

Acterra is a San Francisco Bay Area 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Palo Alto that brings people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

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The Last Gasoline Car

Someday, somewhere, the last car powered by gasoline will roll off the assembly line. It should be taken directly to a museum to mark the end of the an era.

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Ford Model T

Cars have been part of our lives for more than a century, and most of them have been powered by gasoline. Now that we know that their emissions are a major source of the carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution that causes global warming, we must switch to electricity–or other options, such as hydrogen fuel cells, bicycles, car sharing, or even not driving at all.

Although the U.S. is not setting a timetable to cease producing gasoline cars, after the Paris Agreement, some other countries stepped up, particularly in Europe. In 2016, Germany said they’d ban new gas cars after 2030. In 2017, Norway, already a major EV-adopting country, said 2025 for them. India says it’s going for 2030, too. France and the UK are talking about 2040. China has a big incentive to clean up their smog, and is moving quickly to EVs, but has not stated a year yet. Naturally, there are some caveats, as items like heavy-duty trucks and buses will not hit 100% as early as passenger cars.

In the U.S., it’s going to take something else. People will have to want electric cars. We will need to provide long-range batteries, convenient charging, plenty of model options, and most of all, a friendly price. From what I hear and read, the day the electric car becomes a better deal than a gas car is coming soon, as battery prices drop and production volume makes manufacturing cheaper per unit.

Of course, we need to have political support for these kinds of limits, but that is neither the policy of the current administration nor the general sentiment of Americans who value freedom of choice. I believe that when electric cars are more appealing and cost no more, a massive shift in the market will take place.

I am doing everything I can to encourage people to check out EVs and see the benefits. I’ll be hosting an event at my office on September 13th and participating in another one on September 16th as part of National Drive Electric Week. These low-pressure parking-lot meetings let people check out the cars with no salesmen and learn more about the smooth, quiet, quick-accelerating EVs from the owners themselves. I enjoy sharing my Kinetic Blue 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, and people are often amazed at what they see and experience.

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My Chevrolet Bolt EV at the 2017 National Drive Electric event in San Mateo, CA

For me, the last gas car just happened. After 26 and a half years of automotive writing, I have finally said “The End” to testing cars that run only on gasoline. The final car is the new Hyundai Kona small crossover. An electric version with an amazing 258-mile range is on its way, but I wanted to sample the car now, so I drove the gasoline version for a week. The car’s shape, size, styling, and driving feel are what buyers want, so an electric one will be a great choice. It could even be my next car when my Bolt EV lease ends on January 8, 2020. And look at that Lime Twist paint!

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2018 Hyundai Kona

Although I would really prefer to limit myself to testing only pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs), there simply are not that many out there yet, and there are reasons to encourage some folks to opt for hybrids. So, my compromise is–if it has an electric motor, I’ll give it a test, even if there’s an engine in there, too. If it’s a plug-in hybrid, I’ll try to minimize gasoline consumption.

Hybrids and plug-in hybrids still offer significant environmental benefits over traditional cars, and may be the only viable option for some people with limited access to charging. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still a bit of a science experiment, but, if you live near a hydrogen station, they can do the job.

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The latest Prius

The hybrid car has had a good run, thanks particularly to Toyota, who introduced the first Prius at the end of the 20th century. They’ve sold millions of them around the world since. Hybrids can as much as double your fuel economy and half your carbon emissions by pairing a gasoline engine with an electric motor. Sometimes, they enable driving without the engine–while requiring zero effort from the driver.

A plug-in hybrid, with a chargeable battery on board, allows some pure EV miles, often in the 20-30 mile range. This means you can plug it in–even at home in your 110-volt socket in the garage–and get to work–and maybe even back–with no gas.  But with the engine and gas tank still in the car, you can hit the road and go anywhere you want anytime. Downside? When you’re driving it as an EV, there’s still a lot of extra weight with that idle engine in there.

A pure electric car is great, but you need to consider how and where you’ll charge it. Sale and lease prices are a bit higher than gas cars today, mostly because of the high price of batteries, and there aren’t that many model choices yet. But that’s changing as batteries get cheaper and more models are introduced. The lower price of electricity versus gasoline and the lack of significant maintenance both help reduce the costs of driving an EV.

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Of course, hanging over this entire discussion is the issue of where the electricity is coming from. If it’s from the solar panels on your roof, that’s about as clean as it gets. Some communities have plans where you can sign up with your energy provider for sustainable energy from wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal, which is a step forward.  If your power comes from coal, your EV is not going to be as clean, but it will get better over time as the electric grid moves to renewable sources.

It’s taken a century to set up our electrical grid and it’s not going to change overnight. But we need to do what we can, as fast as we can, to move to renewable energy.

For a quick explanation of the climate crisis, please read A Dose of Climate Reality

A Dose of Climate Reality

Me in the circle-edited

Climate Reality Leadership Corps Training

Yesterday, I became a Climate Reality Leader when I completed three days of training in Los Angeles. Now, I am committed to doing everything I can to fight global warming and the climate change it brings, as a writer, environmental activist, and a grandparent.

Here is the mission of The Climate Reality Project:

“Our mission is to catalyze a global solution to the climate crisis by making urgent action a necessity across every level of society.”  

The Climate Reality event I attended was the 39th training led by former Vice President Al Gore, who has spent 40 years studying, writing about, and advocating for this topic. This training was by far the largest, with 2,200 people in the energy-efficient Los Angeles Convention Center. The first one, in 2006 in Mr. Gore’s barn in Tennessee, trained 50.

Over the three days, we covered many areas. We heard from distinguished scientific experts, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, community justice advocates, policy makers, and experts in how to present this crucial message. Amanda Gorman, the 20-year-old Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, read her poem. One young woman described her difficult life living next door to an oil well.

Numerous panels discussed the various aspects of the crisis and the many solutions that are already in process. I met and spoke with dozens of people. And throughout the three days, Vice President Gore was present, usually on stage, guiding the program.

Vice President Gore gave a special two-hour version of his famous climate presentation early on, and near the end, showed us his compact 14-minute one. That’s the one we will start with ourselves. The message, regardless of length, is compelling, and I will share the essence of it below.

I originally created stevegoesgreen.com to tell about my personal experience of electric vehicles. Now, it will expand to talk about a wider range of environmental and sustainability issues, but will focus on:

  • Replacing gasoline vehicles with EVs
  • Moving from carbon-based energy generation (coal, natural gas) to clean power (solar, wind, hydroelectric, etc.)

We can create a new, better way of life, while keeping our economy strong. In 2016, solar energy employed more than 373,000 Americans and wind energy more than 101,000. Only the coal and oil companies will be unhappy about the move to renewable resources.

Here’s the Problem

The basic science behind global warming is simple, but the processes are very complex and interconnected.

We may look up and think the atmosphere goes a long way out into space, but it’s actually a thin shell. And we are dumping 110 million tons of manmade global warming pollution into it every day.

Sun to earth

Energy comes from the sun to the earth as light, which warms it. Much of the energy bounces back into space, but some remains. This is the well-known greenhouse effect, which you can experience for yourself if you sit in a car with the windows up on a summer day.

Our atmosphere has done a great job of keeping conditions right for us, but the added pollution, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), has thickened it, so now, more heat remains, warming the planet.

There are many sources of global warming pollution, but the largest is from burning fossil fuels for power generation and in vehicles. There’s been a huge spike in emissions since World War II, and that has caused the surface temperature of the earth to gradually rise. Sixteen of the hottest 17 years ever recorded have occurred since 2001.

The oceans are warming, too. Warmer air holds more water vapor, leading to stronger storms. When the land can’t absorb the additional rainfall fast enough, it leads to floods. Extreme rain storms have become more common since the 1950s. And the disruption of the established patterns and flows on the earth leaves some areas with more rain and some with much less.

An additional problem is that as the ocean absorbs the extra CO2, it becomes more acidic, creating problems for shellfish and bleaching coral reefs. It can affect the flow of ocean currents and the lives of fish, too.

The added trapped heat dries out the land, leading to higher fire danger. The fire season in the Western U.S. is 100 days longer than it was in the 1970s. It sure has been awful this year in California.

Another issue is that with higher surface temperatures, glaciers start to melt and contribute to a rise in the oceans. This can flood coastal cities—and it’s already starting. Low-lying Miami is a mess, with flooding even on sunny days.

All of these disruptions can lead to the spread of pandemic diseases, as tropical insects move north, and create water and food shortages. Animal habitats change, and species can become extinct. And beyond all that, as floods and drought displace people, migrations can cause serious refugee crises.

We must change, but what can we do? There is great progress in renewable energy. Wind and solar energy have become dramatically cheaper and capacity has grown exponentially. Countries like Chile have made huge advances. It’s cheaper now to use renewable energy, so why not?

windmills

There’s more than enough sun and wind to power everything, and battery storage is being developed to hold electricity generated when the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing for use when they’re not. Battery tech improvements are essential for EV progress, too.

In the next few years, there will be many more choices of EVs, and prices will go down as batteries get cheaper. Range and charging speed and convenience will go up. Soon, it won’t make sense to drive a gas car.

The ideal situation is to have 100% renewable energy powering an EV fleet.

There’s so much more to deal with, including other global warming pollution such as methane, and the cutting down of rainforests (which reduces the earth’s ability to absorb the CO2), but there are solutions. We need to act on them quickly.

So, we can change. We need to muster the political and social will to do it. And it starts with understanding the problem, feeling the urgency, and taking action. Then we will change.

Carl Pope Calls for Climate Hope

Climate of Hope cover

Carl Pope, longtime environmentalist and former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club, came to Palo Alto on November 2nd to talk to Acterra about his new bookClimate of Hope. The 264-page volume, co-written with financier and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, presents climate change in a different way from what you often hear in the media, which tend to dwell on the most dramatic results of change, such as hurricanes and floods.

It was a fascinating and instructive hour, and I got to meet Carl and speak with him both before and after the presentation. The book is an energizing read, as it deals with real problems but also presents lots of ways that action is already happening. My copy is now autographed.

Read my detailed report on Carl’s talk on Clean Fleet Report.

Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.

The Clean Energy Revolution Is Coming

wind-turbines

When you read about climate change in the news these days, it’s mostly about supercharged, destructive hurricanes, melting icecaps, and imminent catastrophe. Steve Westly, venture capitalist and former California State Controller, has a brighter vision. He shared it with a receptive group at an event hosted by Acterra at the Foster Foundation Gallery in Palo Alto.

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Westly, a lean, animated man who reads younger than his 61 years, knows his stuff and his audience. He presented images and data to show a world in which energy production is moving towards renewable solar and wind at a much faster pace than predicted. The transportation sector is on the verge of a massive, positive change to electric and autonomous vehicles.

Much as Jeremy Rifkin proposes in The Third Industrial Revolution, Westly is placing his trust in the younger generation of millennials to pull off the work we need to combat the climate crisis.

Westly grew up in Santa Clara Valley, before it was called Silicon Valley, when it was mostly farmland, Stanford University, and not much else. He witnessed the sweeping changes that transformed the valley into the place where much of the technology that can save us is now based.

Westly has been involved for years. He was a board member with Tesla when it was a few dozen people in a small warehouse and has seen much more since. He knows his numbers.

Carbon dioxide, CO2, is invisible, so it’s harder for people to get upset about it increasing, but air pollution is easy to understand. While the skies have largely cleared over the last 30 years or so, they are beginning to darken again, thanks to significant pollution wafting over from China – as much as 25 percent of what we breathe in California originates there.

That’s because to support their economic growth, in recent years China was on a massive coal plant building spree. Now, however, that is changing to renewable energy, as the Chinese people demand an end to the choking clouds of pollution that could kill up to 83 million Chinese citizens over the next 25 years. Now, the Chinese are becoming the green energy world leaders.

Per Westly, coal and nuclear are out, while solar and wind are on the way up—much more quickly than they were projected to rise. Coal is too dirty and nuclear plants are too expensive. Meanwhile, the price of wind and solar continues to drop steadily—it’s at a fraction of where it was—while natural gas, currently a popular energy source, fluctuates.

Storage of solar and wind generated electricity has been a problem over the years, since the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow, but the storage price is dropping quickly. Westly presented a chart showing a steeply descending line, depicting a 35 percent drop between 2016 and 2017 alone.

Tesla Gigafactory

This drop is in part thanks to Tesla’s huge battery gigafactory in Nevada, which when complete will be the largest building in the world. Interestingly, this American plant has pushed the Korean LG and Japanese Panasonic/Sanyo battery makers to become more competitive, all to the consumers’ benefit.

Westly predicts affordable $25,000 electric cars in the next five years as part of a boom in these clean-running models. BMW, VW, and other companies are investing big time. It’s no longer going to be a small, fringe group, as EVs take over.

Westly says three things are going to make leaps of progress happen: The Internet of Things, where everything is connected; Big Data, with the ability to provide the enormous amount of data needed to make connected cars work; and a sharing economy. Together, these factors will contribute to the rise of the autonomous car in just a few years. It’ll be sooner than you think, Westly promises.

Westly is counting on millennials, with their different set of values, to lead the charge. They are now the largest population group, passing the aging baby boomers. Shared values of this generation include having a small carbon footprint, wanting a choice of connections, and having clean air, food, and water.

Other countries are already moving ahead with plans to dump the gasoline-powered car in the next few decades. Norway say it’s 2025. India, with its huge population, says 2030 will be it. Even England and France are talking about 2040 to sell the last petrol-powered car. The U.S. today is lagging, but, as usual, California is leading the way on its own.

Westly is sanguine on the possibilities of rapid, beneficial change to help combat global warming—with answers coming from Silicon Valley. The private sector, not the U.S. government, will lead the charge. It’s a very appealing vision.

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Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet. They put on worthwhile events and other activities in their efforts to get people involved in making a difference.

The Foster Foundation’s mission is to share artist-explorer Tony Foster’s powerful watercolor journeys to inspire reflection, discussion, and education about art, wilderness, and the natural world. Here’s a beautiful image of the Shiprock, New Mexico area, where I lived for a few years as a child:

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