The Energy Consumer's Bulletin- a New England energy news blog

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Time & speed are of the essence: the cost of clean energy is not a speed bump

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Massachusetts and Rhode Island are nationally recognized as clean energy leaders. The gains made to date are impressive, but mitigating climate change necessitates even more substantial investment in efficiency, renewables, and emerging technologies.

States like California and Hawaii are taking their clean energy commitments to the next level – increasing the percentage of renewables in their power mix, spending more on energy efficiency programs because they cost less than buying energy, considering a price on carbon, building a smarter grid with dynamic pricing (yes, time varying rates) to enable demand response and incentivize electric vehicles. And yet similar courses of action proposed here are met with reticence, even pushed back against by those who are misinformed and by those who prefer to kick the can down the road.

The former have preconceived notions about the costs associated with stepped up action on climate. They are fixated only on the potential upfront costs of new projects or increased investments without acknowledging the many benefits associated with efficiency and renewables. These benfits include lower wholesale electricity prices, lower energy use (electricity, gasoline, diesel), lower energy demand, reduced GHG emissions, better public health, a more flexible grid, and jobs! 

Those who fall into the latter camp prefer to slow progress, leaving the heavy lifting for someone else. As a testament to their commitment, this group says all the right things, all the while taking insufficient action today. When pressed, they may cite lack of funding or available resources as the primary constraint. “We’ll address it as soon as we find a funding source.” Send out the search party!

Given the severity of the climate crisis, it’s time to deploy clean energy solutions rapidly to move the needle faster.

Given the severity of the climate crisis, it’s time to deploy clean energy solutions rapidly to move the needle faster. To get to 80% emission reductions by 2050, we need to drop emissions one percent every six months. The longer we wait, the more damage we will incur and the harder it will be to achieve reductions.

I’m tempted to say that we should pull out all the stops, but that might be construed as being careless about what, where and how much. We must pick up the pace, but, of course, we should be smart about what we do to optimize economics and fairness.

Since it costs less to save energy than to make it, we should do lots of that first. But even in that world there are measures costing less per unit energy saved than others. Things like: insulation, LED lighting, building codes and appliance standards. And we should continue putting low-income residents at the head of the line for weatherization.

When we buy renewable energy, we should make projects compete on cost and other important values. And note that the cost of wind and solar keep coming down. Building more of them actually helps move down the cost curve – something you do not see with fossil fuels.

As we put EVs on the road we should also replace dirty diesel buses, like this one in Dorchester, with electric buses.

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Our organization has been working for 35 years in Massachusetts and 15 years in Rhode Island to make energy more affordable and sustainable. So we think about the impact of energy costs all the time. But now in 2017, we see the obscene level of income and wealth inequality as being a far bigger problem for all Americans, especially low-income folks.

I won’t drown you in statistics, but here’s one: In Massachusetts, twenty-five percent of all income in 2014 went to the top one percent of the state’s wealthiest workers. That’s compared to 10 percent in 1979. 

Furthermore, inequality has been shown to drive up rents. My mortgage is less than what most people pay in rent and I get to deduct mortgage interest on my taxes. Health care costs also rise much faster than wages and access to affordable health care largely depends upon employment or the fate of Obamacare.

Taken together, housing and health care, along with food and other necessities, chew up just about all the disposable income that some folks might have. Our concern about the plight of the disadvantaged should focus on the pocketbook issues that matter most.

Aside from financial considerations, public health experts are piling up reports indicting fossil fuel emissions and climate change hurt poor people more than anyone. The harm comes in the forms of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, mosquito-borne illnesses, and so on. Asthma to Zika. And recent events from Houston to Puerto Rico show us vividly how when a hurricane hits, it’s a fact that the poor get hit harder and have a more difficult time recovering from the devastation.

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Affect of the hurricane on lighting in Puerto Rico.

By the way, it’s also a non-surprising fact that people of color suffer from air pollution more than whites at any level of income.

Taking all this into account, going slow on the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is not doing any consumer a favor. Compared to inequality and global warming, energy costs are simply not a huge problem. We blogged on that last February. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Americans spent less than 4 percent of average annual household income on energy in 2016, the lowest ever recorded.

Even better, the EPA reports that greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of Gross Domestic Product went down a whopping 40 percent from 1990 to 2014.

And so, when we talk about expanding and speeding up efforts to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, we should understand that we’re in the middle of a huge success story, one that we can build upon to the ultimate conclusion of a decarbonized economy. Unless and until fossil fuels are priced to account for the damage they create – we should not kick the can down the road or wait for some manna from heaven. Clean energy is affordable enough NOW. We will all benefit by making the switch, including, if not especially, the most disadvantaged among us.


Learn more about our local renewable energy initiatives, make the switch today