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I see a lot of announcements from companies touting their goals for reducing emissions. Too often, these plans are light on details and leave most of the heavy lifting until well after their current leaders have retired.

This week, we start with a plan that has the makings of a standard-setter because it thinks big and will be taking meaningful steps soon.

I’m Dan Gearino, your guide to the clean energy economy. Send me news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org, and thanks for reading!

— Dan

Amazon’s Move to Electric Trucks Is a Very Big Deal

Sometimes a company issues a clean energy plan that is gigantic in ambition and seems to have the elements to deliver on its promises—pretty close to the opposite of greenwashing.
 
We saw this last week when Amazon announced that it will aim for net zero carbon emissions by 2040. The company is the first signatory of a new initiative it co-founded called the Climate Pledge, in which other companies are encouraged to make the same commitment.
 
The part of Amazon’s plan that jumps out at me is the conversion of its delivery truck fleet to all-electric models. The company will begin using electric trucks in 2021. It plans to have 10,000 electric trucks on the road by 2022 and have converted its entire fleet—projected to be 100,000 vehicles—by 2030.

The trucks will be manufactured by Rivian, a Michigan-based startup in which Amazon is a major investor. Rivian has yet to produce a vehicle for public sale; its all-electric pickup is set to debut in 2020.
This is an opportunity to deal with a stubborn source of emissions. Transportation accounts for 35 percent of carbon emissions in this country, and trucking is 25 percent of the emissions from transportation.

Amazon, one of the half dozen or so largest companies in the world by market value, is so big that its decisions can transform entire industries.

“We’re done being in the middle of the herd on this issue,” said Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, who was under intense pressure from employees to urgently take action on climate change. “We’ve decided to use our size and scale to make a difference.”
 
By buying 100,000 electric trucks, Amazon would single-handedly create economies of scale that will make it less expensive for other logistics companies to convert their fleets. To run all of those trucks, Amazon will need charging infrastructure, a demand that will accelerate the development of charging systems.
 
“If this starts the ball rolling for FedEx and UPS and the Postal Service and other logistics companies and delivery companies using electricity, it changes everything,” said Costa Samaras, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has written extensively about energy and climate change.
Amazon’s plan is about more than electric trucks. It calls for the company to use 100 percent renewable energy and cut its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030. The cut in emissions is a benchmark toward meeting the net-zero target by 2040. To keep its pledge, Amazon says it will have to offset its emissions. The company doesn’t go into detail, other than to say that the offsets will be “quantifiable, real, permanent and socially beneficial.” An Amazon spokesman had no comment on the offsets beyond what was in the company’s news release.

All of this has another major benefit: It puts pressure on other super-sized businesses to be more aggressive in reducing emissions, Samaras said.
 
One example I’ll note is Wal-Mart, which operates its own large vehicle fleet and competes with Amazon. The company has a plan, called Project Gigaton, to remove 1 billion metric tons of carbon by 2030 by making changes in its operations and demanding changes by its suppliers.
 
Amazon and Wal-Mart have deservedly attracted many detractors for their labor practices and their effects on competing retailers. And yet, if these two companies get into a sustainability arms race, that is bound to have wide-ranging benefits.

(Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
 

Here’s Another Record Offshore Wind Project

States continue to one-up each other in announcing plans for offshore wind farms. The latest is in Virginia, where the utility Dominion says it will build a 2,600 megawatt project off the coast of Virginia Beach.
 
The project would go online in three phases, starting in 2024 and concluding in 2026.
 
Let’s review the brief history of record-setting offshore wind projects:

  • Last year, developers and state officials announced Vineyard Wind, an 800 megawatt wind farm near Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. It was the largest, by far, of any project ever proposed in this country.
     
  • In June, New Jersey upped the ante with the announcement of Ocean Wind, with a capacity of 1,100 megawatts.
     
  • In July, New York officials announced two projects. The largest would be 816 megawatts.

Dominion’s project—which does not yet have a name—is more than three times the capacity of Vineyard Wind and more than double that of Ocean Wind. That’s enough to power more than 650,000 houses at times of high winds, the company says.

The project would cost $7.8 billion. Since Dominion is a regulated utility, it would pass those costs on to customers, and state regulators would determine whether the costs are prudent.

Will Cleveland, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, spoke of the opportunity and the potential costs of the project.
 
“We believe Virginia can become a hub for offshore wind development across the Eastern Seaboard, but whenever a project is paid for by Virginians, it is imperative—regardless of fuel source—that we carefully scrutinize the project to ensure that unnecessary costs are not imposed in our transition to zero-carbon electricity,” he said in a statement.
 
One complicating factor in any major offshore wind project is that Vineyard Wind has faced delays in obtaining federal permits from the Trump administration, which raises questions about what kind of review these projects will face and whether there might be a double standard at play when it comes to energy development.
 
Vineyard Wind developers said in August that they remain committed to the project, despite the additional costs of these delays.
 
This is relevant to the Dominion project because all of the large projects are looking to Vineyard Wind to get an idea of the costs and time involved in obtaining federal permits.

(Photo: Kentish Flats Offshore Wind Farm, UK. Credit: Chris Laurens/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)
 

A Clean Energy Law Is Under Threat. So, What is PURPA, and Why Should You Care?

Federal regulators have taken a big step toward dismantling a law that has been a big part of accelerating the growth of renewable energy. But the law—the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA—is obscure enough that the process has gotten little attention outside of industry and advocate circles.
 
PURPA, passed in 1978, was created to allow alternative energy sources access to the grid. It has been essential for renewable energy development in states such as North Carolina, where utilities can shut out competing electricity producers.
 
Under PURPA, utilities have to contract with renewable power projects—if those projects can produce electricity for less than the cost of utilities producing it themselves. To qualify, a project needs to be 80 megawatts or less, and it needs to be located in a state with no access to a wholesale market for selling power, with some exceptions.
 
Projects built using the law made up 14 percent of the 103 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity built between 2008 and 2017, according to the Energy Information Administration. This includes most of the solar power in North Carolina and most of the wind power in Idaho.
 
Here’s why that could change: Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave notice of a proposed rule that would create new barriers for energy companies that want to develop renewable energy projects under the law.

The changes would give states greater leeway to alter the way that owners of projects would be paid, among other provisions. The likely result would be that owners would be paid less, or have less certainty in the payment terms, which would make projects less likely to happen.

 
The Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for utilities, has long called for these types of changes, and the group’s president applauded the proposed rule, saying it would “better protect electricity customers from unnecessary energy costs.”
 
Richard Glick, the sole Democrat on the commission, which now has only three members, dissented from the majority vote on the rule, saying that the proposal “would effectively gut the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act.”
 
“It appears that the commission no longer believes that PURPA is necessary. I disagree,” he said. “I believe that the goals of PURPAincluding the need to expand competition and reduce our reliance on fossil fuelsremain as relevant now as ever.”
 
One of the main points of his dissent is that a change of this magnitude needs to come from Congress, and that FERC was overstepping its authority to do this on its own.
 
I asked John Moore, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, to explain why PURPA matters.
 
“The power grid is supposed to be available to all,” he said. “It’s like a playing field. … You want to be able to play ball. You don’t want to be facing a locked gate. Before PURPA, anyone who wasn’t part of the ‘in’ crowd faced a locked gate.”
 
Utilities in recent years have successfully pushed for changes at the state level that make it more difficult to use the law to develop projects.
 
Moore said the proposed federal changes would give states even broader authority to make it difficult for renewable energy projects to qualify.
 
FERC is now taking comments on the rule before adopting it. Moore and others are hopeful that they can make a compelling case to FERC to modify its proposal. If that doesn’t work, renewable energy business groups and environmental advocates can challenge the rule in court.

(Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

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