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By Walter Borden

Two recent reports challenge the conventional wisdom that decarbonization via carbon taxes or other methods in concert with divestment from fossil fuel marketers means diminished prosperity. Both reports were widely covered and come from authoritative international groups. Both the New Climate Economy Project  and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) find that robust policy action reducing carbon emissions would have very limited negative effects on economic growth and shared prosperity. They also advance substantive arguments and analysis that such policies may indeed accelerate growth.

Notably and not without a soupçon of irony, economist and vocal climate change climate skeptic Richard Tol, argued in 2013:

In sum, there is no carbon bubble. If there were a carbon bubble, it would not be about to burst. If it would burst, the economic impact would be minimal.

Coal Stocks Lag S&P and its getting worse as momentum builds for divestment

Coal Stocks Lag S&P and its getting worse as momentum builds for divestment

So interestingly, there is agreement from distinct and opposite quarters that decreased use of fossil fuels poses limited economic risk. For example, as Paul Krugman wrote earlier this week in reference to the two reports from the New Climate Economy Project and the IMF:

This might sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses….

On one side, there has been dramatic progress in renewable energy technology, with the costs of solar power, in particular, plunging, down by half just since 2010. Renewables have their limitations — basically, the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow — but if you think that an economy getting a lot of its power from wind farms and solar panels is a hippie fantasy, you’re the one out of touch with reality.

On the other side, it turns out that putting a price on carbon would have large “co-benefits” — positive effects over and above the reduction in climate risks — and that these benefits would come fairly quickly. The most important of these co-benefits, according to the IMF paper, would involve public health: burning coal causes many respiratory ailments, which drive up medical costs and reduce productivity.

And we may be in later stages of divestiture than some opine. For example, Fund Balance has created  an ETF  on the Motif Platform that tracks Coal Stock prices. It was initiated after Stanford University’s signal move to divest from coal stocks. This ETF is down 32% since inception in May 2014 vs. 5.9% return for the S&P 500 and down 77% over the past five years vs. a 109% return for the S&P.

Coal stocks have fallen even further since major Universities began divesting.

Coal stocks have fallen even further since major Universities began divesting.

What of the argument that China and India will continue to rapidly increase their respective carbon emissions even as US and EU emissions fall? We can see now that there are many health benefits and hence productivity gains from cleaner air and water. Factor in the inevitable pressure such efforts will put on these two nations to curb emissions as well as their budding sustainability movements (not to mention pollution so bad that major cities must be shuttered and entire rivers cleaned ever more frequently), and such arguments suddenly reveal their superficiality.

So, critical mass for decarbonization is ever closer as the World Council of Churches, Rockefeller Foundation, Google among many other large scale organizations join in with major universities in their divestment commitments. As Eric Schmidt said when asked about Google’s withdrawal from fossil fuel promoters/renewable energy policy antagonists, The American Legislative Council a.k.a. ALEC:

“The facts of climate change are not in question anymore. Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place,” Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told NPR’s Diane Rehm in explaining the decision. “And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.”

 

By Walter Borden

There are many reasons to celebrate Labor in the U.S. as well as to consider what its role in the 21st Century can be. The American Society of Civil Engineers, when they graded our nation’s infrastructure, assigned a startling D+.

Firstly, our nation’s infrastructure has in most areas been allowed to decline.

Secondly, large public works projects, the W.P.A., NASA, The Internet, and the Interstate Highway system result from the type of investment and resources only the U.S. Government can bring to bear. Wal Mart and Amazon disproportionately use the highway around their distribution systems and drive great financial benefit, Google and Apple have built entire new markets with mobile app GPS driven ecosystems thanks to NASA and its innovations in satellite technology, and the WPA built up everything from Libraries to the Hoover Dam. So even while well established fossil fuel marketers continue to enjoy subsidies, lets apply some to Solar. (The same can be said for large agri-businesses  and our water treatment and delivery systems which I will address in a later post).

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 11.44.11 AMThirdly, all these industries need large volumes of energy from electrical power. With Solar now on parity with coal in many areas, now seems the opportune time for a nationwide solar public works initiative. Solar has much to offer, from energy independence, low carbon emissions and thus greenhouse gas/pollution reductions, and resiliency. This resilience proved itself in the Sandy storm and flooding, as the solar stations at work there stayed online even while diesel ones went down due to flooding and the frequent inability to get diesel to the necessary places. Its important to note that claims that such programs will hurt coal miners are false and misleading; the coal mining industry cut its employment numbers by more than 2/3′s over the last thirty years via the automation of strip mining.

Lastly, a large investment in solar will very likely bring about entire new class of technologies and market opportunities. This is key as start-ups, the traditional engine of the American Economy,  continue to experience more and more difficult times. For example, as Robert Litan of the Broookings Institution and Hatan Hathaway, Ennsyte Economics recently showed:

And its important to note here that its not simply a result of an aging population, as Ben Casselmen of fivethirtyeight.com shows:

 

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By Walter Borden

Its been well documented that solar network power generators held-up during hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. This was true for PSG&E systems as well as those supplied by start-ups. As Walter Meyer of Power Rockaway Resilience pointed out:

“While gas generators sat idle without gasoline in Rockaway Beach, solar generators that David cobbled together have been producing power nonstop from the second they hit the ground. Like a renewable Hail Mary into the impact zone, these devices have already been clutch.” 

Microgrid Growth Across the US. Source: GTM Research

Microgrid Growth Across the US. Source: GTM Research

Now the state of New Jersey is taking steps to further assist the Solar and broader renewable energy industry to deploy in New Jersey. Renewable Energy reports:

“Increasing energy resilience, whether through the [ERB], the [state Board of Public Utilities (BPU)] approved resiliency improvement measures implemented by utility companies or NJ’s Clean Energy Program, will minimize the potential impacts of future widespread power outages due to major storms like Superstorm Sandy,” Dianne Solomon, president of the BPU, said in the statement.”

Noting that Sandy caused extensive damage to the state’s energy infrastructure, the BPU said that distributed energy resources, including combined heat and power, fuel cells and off-grid solar inverters with battery storage, allowed some critical facilities, including hospitals, to remain operational while the electric grid was down. Launching the ERB will allow more such facilities to remain operational during future outages.

Solar Microgrids continue to come online across the United States as well as across the world. Several factors drive their emergence: addressing carbon pollution, the need for uninterrupted power supply during severe weather and other crises, and the need for low-pollution, accesible power in remote areas. Diesel fuel after all must be shipped in.

Another popular feature in urban areas is the ability to sell spare power back to the grid. This is a feature consumers love but many utilities resist. And they are now on the march to charge distribution fees to consumers that generate power for the grid.

Nonetheless, many states are moving to scale back renewable energy support (curiously while leaving fossil fuel subsidy and policy support in place). So there is a long way to go for the U.S. to gain energy independence and ensure that our air and water supplies are safe for future generations.

 

By Walter Borden

Here at the midpoint of 2014, solar power technology continues its advance while its marketplace momentum builds. Economic policy and commercial efforts designed to induce commercial innovation must keep apace.  And there are pockets of progress in the political economics of deploying solar. Take for example this post from Clean Technica: “Solar Energy’s Quiet Invasion Into Professional Sports“. Or consider the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a market-based regulatory program in the United States that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

And in Germany, one of the world’s most important economies, phys.org reports, “The Fraunhofer ISE research institute has announced that Germany set a record high for solar use on June 9—on that day the country’s solar power output rose to 23.1 GW—50.6 percent of all electricity demand. The record occurred over a holiday, which meant less demand, but it still marks a major step forward for the world’s solar power leader.”

Key aspects of the report from our perspective:

  • Despite not having a generally sunny climate, Germany has been pushing solar energy, but not from the huge solar farms as seen in other countries. Other nations, like the United Kingdom, report the same.
  • The German government is on track to reduce greenhouse emissions from electric power generation from coal fired power plants while at the same time retiring its fleet of nuclear power plants (scheduled for closure by 2022).
  • The FRG aims for an energy mix of solar, wind and biomass; though solar has become the national leader according to most reports.

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Yet challenges remain, as phys.org also notes:

The move to solar has not been without its problems, of course. The government plans to lower or remove subsidies as soon as possible, and the demand for batteries to store all that home-grown electricity is outstripping supply causing a rise in prices. Also, it’s not clear what sort of role utilities will play going forward. Currently, many homeowners are reporting surplus energy production on sunny days which they sell to electric companies, which now find themselves having to store it for use during cloudy stretches.

There’s another problem though it’s not as obvious: the German government noted recently that almost seven million households in the country are living in energy poverty (defined as having to spend more than 10 percent of income on energy bills). The national energy program, Energiewende, has resulted in some transfer of wealth. Economists note that even with subsidies, it’s generally the wealthy and sometimes the middle class who can afford to put solar panels on top of their houses.  The poor continue to live off the grid paying taxes that provide the funds for the subsidies. There’s also some evidence that the country’s energy program is pushing energy costs higher overall, resulting in more electricity being produced by cheaper fossil fuels.

Energy poverty is also a problem in the US.  As states like Ohio abruptly suspend widely popular solar power policies, working poor, middle class families, and businesses see expenses rise. Manufacturers like Honda and Whirlpool joined consumers in opposing Ohio Governor Kasich’s executive order to freeze its program. Additional side-effects weigh on taxpayers.  As more coal is used public health suffers resulting in rising health care costs, and water treatment costs increase too which is also true of  fracking for natural gas. These costs are passed along disproportionately to small businesses hurting them as well as working families. continue reading…

We honor the sacrifice and dedication of the women and men of the United States Military. The Fund Balance team takes great reassurance from their collective recognition of the realities and risks for our shared peace, security, and prosperity posed by climate change. The US Military’s determination indicates the urgency for a steady, determined transition to green and renewable energy sources. Its organizational and technological expertise as comprised of active and former service members will play a singular and essential role in planetary deployment of renewable fuels.  Leadership in delivering renewable energy and power in the 21st century on mission-critical scales will help us all avoid economic, social, and ecologic entrapment by the carbon-intense fuels of the 20th. We urge our elected representatives to continue to support the United States Military in these efforts.

After a Marine company began using solar panels while deployed abroad, they reported that their diesel fuel usage dropped by a whopping 90 percent. Source: http://solar.calfinder.com/blog/solar-contractors/solar-power-saves-lives-taxpayer-dollars-on-the-battleground

After a Marine company began using solar panels while deployed abroad, they reported that their diesel fuel usage dropped by a whopping 90 percent. Source: http://solar.calfinder.com/blog/solar-contractors/solar-power-saves-lives-taxpayer-dollars-on-the-battleground

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By Walter Borden

There is a canon among many policy makers and their financial backers holding that essentially all regulations diminish prosperity. Yet, evidentiary support for it is sparse. For example, a recent study Aggregate Demand and State Level Employment published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco finds:

What explains the sharp decline in U.S. employment from 2007 to 2009? Why has employment remained stubbornly low? Survey data from the National Federation of Independent Businesses show that the decline in state-level employment is strongly correlated with the increase in the percentage of businesses complaining about lack of demand. While business concerns about government regulation and taxes also rose steadily from 2008 to 2011, there is no evidence that job losses were larger in states where businesses were more worried about these factors.

Why is it important to make note of failures to link regulatory action and weakened job markets? And, why so for a sustainable economics blog? Firstly, widespread adoption of this view has been  annointed with the great advantage of conventionality: policy makers can’t be evaluated per se as acting irresponsibly in terms of managing labor market health, or so-called job creation, when they have the same extreme hands-off bias towards regulation (particularly in the environmental category) as the industries they are meant to oversee. Hence real concerns of lack of oversight. continue reading…