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Q&A With SolarCity's Chief: There Is No Cost to Solar Energy, Only Savings

'How long will the world and the U.S. continue to tolerate being able to pollute for free?'

Oct 17, 2014

SolarCity Corp., the nation's largest residential solar service provider, has a history of pushing the envelope. It introduced the industry's first leasing program for homeowners, offered discounted solar installations through Groupon, and is pouring money into a solar manufacturing plant in the United States.

In the last two weeks, the company added two financial innovations: a first-of-its-kind nationwide solar bond program to sell bonds directly to individual investors who want to support the spread of clean energy; and a hybrid financing program (MyPower) that gives customers lease-like payments as well as ownership of the solar system.

San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity, founded in 2006 by brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive, has grown to more than 6,000 employees. It is a full-service solar provider—including design, permitting, financing, installation, monitoring and maintenance—with operations in 15 states. So far, the company has installed more than 750 megawatts of photovoltaic solar systems for homes, businesses, governments and schools.

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Motors, is chairman of the SolarCity board—and cousin to the Rive brothers. All three share a sense of urgency about the threat of climate change.

Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius will require reworking how nations produce and use energy—away from fossil fuels to a mix of aggressive energy efficiency, nuclear power, carbon capturing technologies, and renewable power. The International Energy Agency estimates that renewable power will have to supply 65 percent of the world's power supply.

That makes solar a crucial part of the effort to avoid the worst effects of a warming climate. Federal tax credits, which have been a big driver in solar growth, are set to expire at the end of 2016.

Following the launch of MyPower, Lyndon Rive, SolarCity's chief executive, talked to InsideClimate News about the company, the MyPower program and the challenge of spreading solar far and fast enough.

Trucks Hauling Frac Sand Not a Source of Lung-Disease Dust, Data Shows

Just-released state data is just the starting point for understanding the risks posed to the region's air by the growing silica sand industry.

Oct 16, 2014

Trucks hauling mounds of sand into the southern Minnesota town of Winona for delivery to drilling sites across the nation's shale regions are not spewing dangerous dust emissions into the air, preliminary data shows.

This data was released early this month, from a monitor for crystalline silica dust, or frac sand, a known trigger of lung disease. The instrument was placed along Winona's busy truck route at the start of the year in response to local concern.

Dust reached detectable levels only two out of the 38 days measured during the last seven months, according to air regulators at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

Will Climate Change Denial Become a Political Liability? U.S. Treaty Envoy Thinks So

Todd Stern says that mounting public pressure could rapidly force GOP to address global warming, and urged people to demand action.

By Katherine Bagley and John H. Cushman Jr.

Oct 15, 2014

Climate change denial will switch from being a litmus test for major Republican politicians to a liability in the near future.

At least that's the hypothesis that Todd Stern, the United States envoy on climate change, shared with a packed auditorium at Yale Law School in New Haven on Tuesday.

"We have all seen in recent years the abruptness with which hot-button issues can suddenly become the stuff of consensus," Stern told students, faculty and members of the public. "I doubt, even a year from now, whether major political candidates will consider it viable to deny the existence of climate change."

Stern's visit to Yale comes three weeks before a midterm election that has serious implications for U.S. involvement in climate treaty talks taking place in Lima this year and Paris in 2015.

Republicans and Democrats are fighting fiercely for control of the Senate. If the Senate falls into the hands of a Republican majority—as many analysts predict—the body charged with ratifying treaties would be led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who seeks to block EPA climate change regulations.

Will Obama Heed the Science? A Primer on the Coming Ozone Rule

Overwhelming evidence says high ozone levels cause health problems, including aggravated asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks and premature death.

Oct 15, 2014

A high-stakes battle over the nation's ozone pollution rule reached a new milestone last week when the Environmental Protection Agency submitted its latest proposed rule to the White House for review.

For years, EPA science advisers have been urging the administration to tighten the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion to 60-70 ppb to protect public health. But they were repeatedly rebuffed: first in 2008, when the George W. Bush administration adopted the 75 ppb standard, and again in 2011, when President Obama abruptly halted a push from his own EPA to strengthen the rule.

Obama's move provoked fury from environmental and public health advocates who said he had caved to industry ahead of the 2012 elections. "This was the worst thing a Democratic president had ever done on our issues," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, at the time.

Now the administration is faced with the same decision: Earlier this year EPA scientists again recommended tightening the standard to 60–70 ppb, and on Oct.  8, EPA officials delivered the proposed rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The agency is under a court order to reveal the proposed standard to the public by Dec. 1 and finalize it next year.

Germans Line Up Against Fracking, Spurred by Fears of a U.S.-Style Boom

To try to distance itself from U.S. fracking policies, the German government has proposed a ban on fracking for shale gas, but not fracking for tight gas.

By Catherine Stupp

Oct 14, 2014

BERLIN—In Germany debate is raging over whether to allow fracking, and America's example is serving as the cautionary tale for both supporters and critics.

Germany's biggest energy companies and some politicians are using the U.S. drilling boom to argue the country would benefit from tapping shale gas buried under two of its 16 states. Supporters say Germany must greenlight fracking—especially as calls intensify to end dependency on Russia, which supplies a third of Germany's oil and gas. 

Meanwhile, environmentalists and others see the United States as a warning of what may be in store if Germany embraces fracking—but for them the lessons from America involve air, water and climate change pollution. The "negative effects connected" to U.S. fracking are "worth gold" to German activists, said Andy Gheorghiu, a member of the citizens' protest group Fracking Free Hesse.

Critics worry mainly that developing natural gas production would undercut the Energiewende, Germany's shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewable energy. Environmentalism is deeply ingrained in German society and public protests helped prompt the law. Today solar panels and windmills form a distinctive part of the country's landscape. But this transformation came at a cost: In 2013, Germany's household electricity prices became the second highest in the European Union due to clean energy subsidies and high taxes. Despite that, the Energiewende remains widely popular.

Michigan Citizens Rise Up and Force a Gas Pipeline to Skirt Their County

Strong, savvy opponents turned back a pipeline. Now they turn to help their neighbors do the same.

Oct 14, 2014

People in Michigan's Oakland County were ready this time. When a Texas-based company announced plans for a natural gas pipeline that would bisect the county, township boards in Oakland County passed resolutions against it. Rallies stirred locals to action. Federal regulators were bombarded with letters against the project.

With resistance gaining momentum, ET Rover Pipeline Company LLC, a subsidiary of Houston-based Energy Transfer Partners, quietly reversed its plans. Now people in neighboring Genesee and Lapeer counties—the new path of the pipeline—are reeling, and asking the winners for help.

Two months after ET Rover revealed maps showing that its pipeline would cut across pubic land and through backyards in Oakland County—and only a few weeks after the first opposition appeared–ET Rover chose an alternative route north that touches only a tiny slice of Oakland County.

"We weren't going to let this happen again," said Kathy Thurman, the Brandon Township supervisor who heard from community members that they'd had enough of the turmoil caused by earlier pipeline projects. Brandon Township is in Oakland County.

California Heat Delivers a Costly Blow to Coastal San Diego

The punishing heat has tested the region's energy supplier and is a harbinger of things to come as coastal areas get hit hard by climate change.

Oct 14, 2014

San Diego, known for having one of the most desirable climates in the United States, set a record over the summer that will never be broken: It had zero days that were cooler than normal. None. Four were exactly the climatological norm, and 90 were warmer than average.

For 13 days this year, including three days this month, Lindbergh Field, the city's official weather station near the bay, has hit 90 degrees or hotter. The average number of 90-degree days in an entire year: 1.3.

Those stats are no surprise to Carolyn Ingham, who lives in the city's North Park neighborhood, where few people have—or have ever needed—air conditioning.

"I feel like all I've been doing is overheating and sweating," Ingham said. "It really has just been unbearable."

For Ingham and her husband Scott and hundreds of other coastal San Diego County residents, trying to make the weather bearable proved costly. It also tested the region's energy supplier and could be a harbinger of things to come as coastal areas get hit hard by climate change.

Small Study May Have Big Answers on Health Risks of Fracking's Open Waste Ponds

A first of a kind study from West Virginia will help Americans inside the fracking boom understand the dangers of exposure to VOCs.

By Zahra Hirji, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer

Oct 10, 2014

When Mary Rahall discovered that oil and gas waste was being stored in open-air ponds less than a mile from a daycare center outside Fayetteville, W. Va., she started digging for information about the facility's air emissions and protections for a nearby stream.

She wasn't satisfied with the answers she got from state regulators and politicians, so the mother of two set out to find a scientist who could help. Eventually her questions found their way to William Orem, a chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Reston, Va., and he began collecting air and water data at the site last fall. 

Orem's small study could have implications far beyond Fayetteville, because it's among the first scientific efforts directed at how air emissions from oil and gas waste could be affecting human health. He suspects waste disposal might turn out to be "the weakest link of all" in the oil and gas extraction and production cycle.

40% Drop in Solar PV Cost is Brightest Spot of Global Energy Picture

$44 Trillion is needed to make the transition to clean energy, IEA expert tells ICN, but will yield $115 trillion in savings.

Oct 10, 2014

In a world wrestling with climate change and the need to phase out fossil fuels, nothing is more critical than making sure there are reliable and cost-effective clean energy technologies ready to fill the void.

Shift to Low-Carbon Economy Could Free Up $1.8 Trillion, Study Says

A pair of new studies are part of a growing international effort to assess the costs and benefits of moving on from burning fossil fuels to clean energy.

Oct 9, 2014

As governments, businesses and investors ponder a future in which the world moves away from fossil fuels to avert a climate crisis, the implications for the global economy are getting high-profile attention.

The issue dominated the agenda at the UN climate summit, and is being reprised in Washington this week at an annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, where this year CEOs will join talks about how to deal with global warming.

The heightened efforts come amid studies describing the costs and benefits of the shift away from carbon-based energy.

The latest come from the Climate Policy Initiative, which on Oct. 9 published two reports indicating there will be significant financial benefits if the world adopts "the right policies" as it transitions to a low-carbon economy consistent with the safe 2-degrees Celsius target.

One report finds that ridding our electricity and transportation systems of carbon could free up trillions of dollars for investment in green energy.