2021: Year in review

What’s possible in the clean energy transition has changed dramatically in the last few years — and in no year more so than 2021.

The top 6 ambitious state climate laws passed in 2021

Jeff St. John  . 

(M. Wen/Unsplash)

States have long led U.S. clean energy policy by setting renewable energy targets and requiring carbon emission cuts from their broader economies. The Biden administration has shifted the federal government’s policy toward similar goals, but Congress has not passed a hard decarbonization mandate and doesn’t seem likely to do so anytime soon, so it’s still up to state lawmakers to keep climate policy momentum going. 

A half-dozen states did just that in 2021. Significant laws were passed in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington, all states with Democratic-controlled legislatures — and, in an outlier to the political trend lines, in North Carolina, where the legislature is controlled by Republicans. 

Washington

Washington state already had a strong legislative framework for cutting carbon emissions from electricity generation, buildings and transportation. In 2021 it put a capstone on that framework in the form of the Climate Commitment Act, which adds a carbon cap-and-invest” system, a form of cap-and-trade that will measure and tax emissions and use the proceeds to fund new investments in climate mitigation and adaptation. The aim is to reduce economywide greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent by 2050

Unlike the cap-and-trade program in California, the only other state to create one so far, Washington’s is written to remain in place until its goals are reached, insulating it from the threat of being weakened or done away with in future legislative sessions. It was also designed to avoid some of the problems that have bedeviled California’s cap-and-trade system, such as oversupply of emissions allowances, reliance on hard-to-police emission offset credits, and insufficient oversight of facilities that use offsets to delay emission reductions to the detriment of local communities. And the program’s inclusion of natural gas utilities, emissions-heavy industries, and transport (road, rail, water and air) makes it one of the most comprehensive carbon-reduction systems in the country. 

The new law also includes environmental-justice provisions that set air-quality standards and steer investment toward communities overburdened by environmental harms. 

Illinois

For years, Democrats in Illinois tried to pass a law committing the state to zero carbon emissions by 2050. They weren’t able to get it done in 2019 nor in 2020, when Covid-19 disruptions and splits between different clean energy, labor union and utility factions prevented a compromise from being reached. 

But in 2021, they finally closed the deal — although not without significant delays and setbacks. A major dispute arose over whether or not to offer state subsidies to the financially threatened nuclear power plants operated by home-state utility Exelon. In the end, the nuclear subsidies made it into the bill, but a bribery scandal enveloping Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison weakened the company’s power to set terms for the bill. 

What almost scuttled the legislation was a dispute over the future of two municipally owned coal plants, including the Prairie State Energy Campus, the largest in the state. Representatives of the surrounding communities and workers at those plants demanded that the facilities be exempted from the bill’s planned 2035 shutdown date set for coal plants. Environmental groups balked but then eventually relented in the interests of getting the bill passed, keeping the 2035 closure deadline just for privately owned coal plants.

Even so, Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act represents a significant win for the clean energy industry groups, labor unions and environmental justice advocates that came together to support its passage. Solar developers won more funding for a state program that had ground to a halt after previous funding had dried up. Consumer advocates won provisions subjecting ComEd to more stringent regulatory review. Labor groups got clean energy project-labor agreements and prevailing-wage provisions, and disadvantaged communities got workforce development, small-business support and economic transition programs. 

Oregon

Oregon also went through a yearslong set of conflicts and compromises to get a clean-electricity bill passed in 2021. Previous proposals for an economywide carbon cap-and-trade mandate were strongly opposed by Republican lawmakers, who in 2019 and 2020 actually fled the state to prevent a vote. But the cap-and-trade proposal was also unpopular among business and labor groups and rural communities afraid of its potential impact on the economy and jobs. 

Climate-bill backers regrouped and engaged in a monthslong statewide listening tour” to build a broader coalition behind a different type of climate legislation, which they were able to get passed this year. While the new law doesn’t take on emissions throughout the economy, it does set the country’s most aggressive timeline for decarbonizing electricity, with the state’s two investor-owned utilities pledging to supply only carbon-free power by 2040.

The law also embeds a host of labor and environmental justice protections, including agreements to use union labor and provide prevailing wages and benefits for workers on large-scale clean energy projects. It also funds clean energy projects outside the state’s biggest city of Portland and requires utilities to seek and consider input from lower-income customers, Native American tribes and communities bearing the burden of pollution from power plants. 

Colorado

In 2019 Colorado passed a Climate Action Plan law setting a goal to cut its economywide carbon emissions in half by 2030 and by 90 percent by 2050. But how precisely to accomplish that was left to future legislation, sparking a fight this year between Democratic lawmakers and Democratic Governor Jared Polis.

In simple terms, lawmakers demanded more legally binding carbon-reduction mandates over multiple sectors of the economy. But Polis, whose office developed a policy roadmap to incentivize carbon-cutting investments, threatened to veto any plans that gave state agencies power to set and enforce strict carbon targets.

The compromise reached in June yielded a host of bills that set enforceable emission-reduction requirements for the state’s electricity, industrial and oil and gas sectors, but not for transportation and buildings. Xcel Energy, the state’s dominant investor-owned utility, had already set its own decarbonization targets largely in line with the targets in the bill, but the state’s oil and gas industry will face new targets for cutting emissions of both carbon dioxide and methane. The bill also creates a new environmental justice framework aimed at helping communities hardest hit by pollution.

While lawmakers didn’t impose carbon-reduction mandates for vehicles and buildings, another bill passed in the session will offer incentives for EV purchases and fund EV charging stations and public transit, and four others will address building energy efficiency and set new standards that could encourage switching from natural gas to electric heating. 

North Carolina

North Carolina’s 2021 carbon-reduction law doesn’t move as aggressively as the others we’ve been talking about. Its goals to cut electricity-sector carbon emissions by 70 percent by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050 would only apply to its dominant utility Duke Energy, which has already set its own companywide targets. But the law is still notable for being the only significant one of its kind passed by a Republican-controlled legislature. 

To be clear, the impetus for the bill stemmed from a set of climate and energy policies set out in an executive order from Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. And it’s important to note that Cooper, Democratic lawmakers and clean energy and environmental groups didn’t get much of what they’d hoped for from the compromise bill that eventually passed in October.

What they got, however, was much more than they would have from the first version of the bill introduced in June, which was widely criticized as a giveaway to Duke Energy. Among the most contentious provisions were ones that could have allowed Duke to replace coal-fired power plants with natural gas without review from state regulators. Clean energy and environmental groups successfully pushed to remove those from the final bill. 

Cooper and clean-energy groups did support the compromise bill that eventually passed, but not without misgivings. Industrial trade groups and consumer advocates alike fear that utility rates could rise dramatically because of a provision that will allow Duke to use a multiyear process to set future rate increases. And clean-energy groups supported the bill’s expansion of the state’s large-scale solar procurement program but were disappointed at the lack of policies to create more opportunities for third-party power projects to compete against Duke. 

Massachusetts

While North Carolina’s climate bill was hammered out by a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor, Massachusetts had the opposite dynamic. Republican Governor Charlie Baker opposed the Democratic-controlled legislature’s plan to update the state’s 2008 clean energy legislation. He vetoed the first version of the bill in January. Legislators then drafted a new version that incorporated some of Baker’s proposed amendments, which he signed in March.

The new law sets legally binding emission-reduction targets for electricity, transportation, commercial and industrial buildings, residential buildings, industrial processes and natural-gas distribution. The targets are 50 percent reductions by 2030, 75 percent by 2040 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The law also sets new renewable energy targets for the state’s investor-owned utilities, expands access to solar power for lower-income households and includes programs to increase EV adoption and build EV charging infrastructure. 

The law also establishes new legal definitions of environmental justice communities and strengthens public participation and environmental impact review for energy and infrastructure projects that could add to the communities’ environmental burdens. In addition, it beefs up the state’s clean-energy jobs training programs. 

The top 10 Canary Media stories of 2021

Julian Spector  . 

Welcome to Canary Media’s free newsletter, which explores trends in the clean energy transition and highlights the best of our news coverage. Sign up today.

The end of the year is a time to reflect. We could pause and think back just a few months to a time when life was getting back to normal and landmark national climate legislation seemed imminent.

But that would be a real downer, so instead, I dug into our data to find the 10 Canary Media stories that resonated most with you readers since our launch in April. If you enjoyed these articles when they were first published, consider revisiting them. Or if you missed them originally, now’s the time to catch up. It’s the end of the year. Nobody’s expecting you to work.

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Grid energy storage surged in 2021, as we predicted

Julian Spector  . 

(GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Welcome to Canary Media’s free newsletter, which explores trends in the clean energy transition and highlights the best of our news coverage. Sign up today.

I love the holidays because they offer a chance to mingle with old friends and family members who don’t think about the clean energy transition every day. I get to ask questions like, Does the term energy storage’ mean anything to you?”

I posed that inquiry recently at a wine bar patio, with string lights hanging from the roof that kept the chilly D.C. drizzle off our heads. My friends looked at me quizzically, and then sipped some pétillant naturel. I had to improvise.

Well, we all know that solar power is generated when the sun’s out. But we’re drinking wine by the light of these lamps right now, when it’s dark. That’s going to become a problem when we’re trying to run much more of our grid on renewable electricity.”

Then we were off to the races. 

In years past, I had to frame energy storage as a promising technology that wonks hoped would be a crucial piece of the clean grid puzzle. This time, I could describe it as a rapidly growing energy industry that just closed out its biggest year ever and spawned a small army of billion-dollar companies.

I figure this storage sector deserves some attention as we shift into the new year. After all, Eric Wesoff already tackled the year in solar news, and I recently recounted some surprising success stories in heavy industry and transportation. And y’all clearly gravitated to storage news in our top 10 most-read stories of 2021.

To make this even more exciting, I’ll revisit a list of five predictions I made for the storage sector one year ago. 

Spoiler alert: All my predictions came true. I tell you this not to brag, but to compliment you on the sophistication of your chosen source for clean energy news and analysis.

1. Biggest year ever” 

2021 was indeed the top year for U.S. grid storage installations by far. 

After achieving one gigawatt of annual installations for the first time [in 2020], U.S. energy storage companies just installed one gigawatt of projects in one quarter,” announced Jason Burwen, interim CEO of the U.S. Energy Storage Association industry group, in a December statement. 

That was based on third-quarter data, and the fourth quarter is likely to be even bigger when all is counted. The volume of batteries hopping onto the grid is simply unrecognizable compared to even two years ago. 

That means more batteries charging up in moments when the grid has more power than is necessary and discharging during the hours when electricity is scarce and more valuable. 

Economic fundamentals push for loading up on cheap solar generation and delivering it after the sun sets — buy low, sell high. It doesn’t always play out that way; sometimes batteries charge up from a dirtier electricity mix. 

But the states building the most big battery plants right now — California, Texas, Arizona — are all places with lots of sun and booming solar industries. And in many projects, the batteries are hard-wired to solar plants for tax-credit purposes, which guarantees they’re using clean electricity.

The grid will need orders of magnitude more storage to keep up with the push toward a clean electricity system in the coming decades. Now that the industry has set a new benchmark, it’ll need to keep pushing the pace.

2. Congress offers a mild boost, leaves hard questions unsettled”

I very nearly flubbed this prediction. But Congress came through for my clairvoyance by failing to come through for the ambitious clean energy policies in the Build Back Better Act. 

The infrastructure bill that did become law in 2021 funds storage demonstration projects that Congress approved in late 2020. And it sets up other multibillion-dollar funding buckets that storage projects can access for goals like resilience, grid flexibility and developing domestic supply chains. Those amount to a mild boost. 

But the single biggest ask made by the storage industry — its very own federal tax credit — got kicked out of reach when Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) went on Fox in December to say he doesn’t feel like voting for his party’s signature policy initiative. Manchin’s opposition stalls not just the storage tax credit but half a trillion dollars of climate-related spending, a far more transformational package than what Congress passed in 2021

Build Back Better may not be dead yet, though. The top clean energy lobbyist in Washington tells me that negotiations will continue this year. The Sisyphean cycle of hope and last-minute setback continues.

3. More, and bigger, finance deals for storage companies”

We had strong indicators going into 2021, but I had no idea just how correct this prediction would become. 

Companies that I covered raising $10 million or $15 million rounds a couple years ago transformed into publicly traded entities with billion-dollar market caps. (VC firm Energy Impact Partners maintains a handy index of publicly traded climatetech companies ranked by market cap; much of the list is storage-oriented.)

Many of the recent arrivals to public markets went through the backdoor route of merging with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), avoiding the more rigorous scrutiny that comes with a standard IPO. But Fluence, which puts together large-scale battery plants, did hit the Nasdaq through the traditional route.

SPACs have provided capital to companies with big stories to tell and little tangible deployment to speak of. They’ve also delivered for entities such as Proterra that have shipped product for years and have a real pipeline to fulfill. 

Either way, these companies are now looking at hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank. That should be enough to ramp production, or to create a real product for those SPACs that don’t have one yet. I’m reminded of the words of New Zealander solar analyst Lorde:

But we’re the greatest
They’ll hang us in the Louvre
Down the back, but who cares — still the Louvre

4. Flow batteries lose ground to other emerging technologies”

This one’s about the horse race to be able to store power for many hours — long-duration storage that could smooth out the fluctuations in renewable power.

Flow batteries have long captivated a certain set of academics and entrepreneurs. The decades-old technology stores energy by pumping around liquid electrolytes. It’s supposed to cost less for longer storage timescales than lithium-ion batteries while avoiding unsavory qualities like fire risk and reliance on metals linked to environmental or labor violations. 

Flow batteries continue to draw investment from some respectable industrial conglomerates. But to the extent that they spur merger and acquisition activity, it tends to happen under financial duress. Meanwhile, the other up-and-coming storage technologies competing with flow batteries are actually going into projects at meaningful scale.

Take Energy Dome, an Italian startup that stores energy by compressing and decompressing carbon dioxide gas. This company only launched in 2019, but it already has a commercial demonstration project far enough along that a major utility signed up for a full-scale one. Construction on the full 100-megawatt-hour facility could start this year, and it would be bigger than any flow battery I know of in the West (though some bigger flow projects are reportedly underway in China). Not bad for two years of toiling with turbomachinery.

Another mechanical storage company, Hydrostor, compresses air into underground caverns with water to balance the pressure. That firm is applying for approval to build two truly massive projects in California. Highview Power is developing its liquid air” tech at scale in the U.K. and Vermont. Malta will build its thermal storage in New Brunswick, Canada for 100 megawatts/1,000 megawatt-hours.

Iron-air battery maker Form Energy is still working toward 2023 delivery of a 1-megawatt/150-megawatt-hour demo project for a Midwestern utility. That one won’t inject much instantaneous power onto the grid, but it would be huge for proving out the ability to store power for longer durations than anything on the market today.

Presumably, the flow batteries still under development are hitting some sort of internal technical milestones, and that’s why companies continue to invest in them. Some companies are actually shipping products to paying customers, including publicly traded ESS, which manufactures iron flow batteries in Oregon.

Mass-scale long-duration storage projects remain largely theoretical, and it’s far too early to declare winners. But flow batteries have little success to show for years of effort, while relative newcomers race toward the construction of facilities that could actually make a dent in grid decarbonization.

5. California’s grid mess means good business for batteries”

So true.

To recap, California ran out of electricity for a bit in summer 2020. A record heat wave led to cranked air-conditioner use across the region, and California couldn’t import enough power to meet its needs after the sun went down. Limited rolling blackouts ensued.

The episode ultimately proved more embarrassing than destructive, but it did reveal that for all its years of grid-planning, one of the nation’s wealthiest states lacked enough capacity to provide for itself in a pinch. That kicked off a flurry of efforts by the utility regulator, such as extending the operating lives of gas-burning plants and asking planned power plants to materialize in an improbably short period of time.

Eventually, the state came up with something resembling a strategy, and its strategy is to unleash a biblical flood of batteries.

This past summer, California regulators ordered power companies to buy 11.5 gigawatts of zero-carbon capacity by 2026. Lithium-ion batteries are the favorite to answer the call, though there will be carve-outs to help technologies like geothermal and longer-duration storage compete. To get a sense of the market acceleration here, recall that a total of 1 gigawatt of storage capacity was added in the whole U.S. in all of 2020.

California effectively became one big battery-development sandbox as the state belatedly replaces those gas plants it was supposed to shut down, plus the zero-carbon nuclear baseload it’s getting rid of at Diablo Canyon.

If 2021 seemed like a big deal — and it was — just wait for these contracts to get rolling.

2021: The year clean energy consolidated its political power in Washington

Julian Spector  . 

Heather Zichal (American Clean Power)

The clean energy industry has always been an underdog in American politics. It encompasses numerous, disparate sectors and technologies, yet even their collective financial might pales in comparison to more established fossil-fuel-based industries.

But something changed this year. 

In January, a new trade group launched to unify clean-energy advocacy in Washington. The American Clean Power Association (ACP) grew out of the main wind trade group, the American Wind Energy Association, and added solar, transmission and energy storage companies, as well as corporate buyers of carbon-free power. For the role of CEO, the new group chose Heather Zichal, who coordinated climate policy in the Obama administration as deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change.

ACP mobilized to push for policy support as Congress dug into bipartisan infrastructure legislation, which was signed into law in November, and fought for major climate measures in the Build Back Better Act. That legislation passed the House but appears stuck in the Senate due to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s (D) statement of opposition Sunday. 

That development jeopardizes many of ACP’s top policy priorities to accelerate clean energy adoption. ACP nonetheless finishes the year having consolidated renewables advocacy in Washington like never before.

The group now claims more than 800 member companies. Its 39 board members hail from old-school utilities, upstart renewables developers, clean-power equipment suppliers, and the wind power subsidiaries of oil giants like Equinor and BP. In January 2022, ACP will formally absorb the U.S. Energy Storage Association, reflecting the convergence of storage technology with large-scale renewables.

I sat down with Zichal at the Energy Storage Association conference on December 2 to reflect on how she shepherded this coalition and wielded its influence to promote clean energy policy. The interview has been edited for clarity and length, and supplemented with follow-up questions on what comes next after Manchin voiced his refusal to support Build Back Better. 

Julian Spector: You’re overseeing this coalition of storage people, wind, offshore wind, solar and transmission. Do you also get into building electrification and efficiency?

Heather Zichal: We haven’t. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.

At the same time, in Washington, D.C. today, you’ve got the American Petroleum Institute, which is broadly recognized as the voice of American oil and gas. And there’s never been anything close to counter that [on the clean energy side]. We’re still going to be outspent 10 to one. However, I think we need to show up in a way that brings everybody under the tent. 

We’re on a great trajectory, and the more successful we are, the bigger target we have on our back. And so we need to be very strategic about how we grow this industry and how we play our politics. And that has to be well-resourced, and that has to be something that the entire industry buys into. 

I feel like you’re going down the path of, how do you manage all that?

Spector: So how do you manage all that?

Zichal: I want to make sure we’re representing all of the technologies equally, recognizing that we not only have utility people, we have OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], we have the purchasers at the end of the scale. We’ve got a lot of different business models that we’re managing for. 

But at the end of the day, our North Star is what is going to lead to the deployment of more clean energy and deeper decarbonization. That’s what we need to remember to keep us from getting dragged and bogged down into other individual fights, either with Congress or on regulatory issues. We need to be smart, as the leaders of this organization, to pick and choose what we think we can accomplish.

Spector: Have you had to make any tough trade-offs yet? Or has the congressional agenda in the last few months meant that everyone can go for their policy goals at the same time?

Zichal: One of our collective top priorities is passage of the stand-alone storage [investment tax credit]. Being able to work on that together has been great. And then some of the incentives for battery manufacturing. 

Whether it’s storage or hydrogen or pick your favorite, we need to find a way to more effectively communicate with both sides of the aisle and create political space to do big, bold things.

Spector: In your initial founding group, a big name was NextEra Energy. It’s the biggest renewables developer, generally very good at getting what it wants. What was the value of having it as a core launch supporter in terms of showing that you’re the group that’s going to be the voice for the clean energy industry?

Zichal: I don’t think it’s about any one company. I think it’s about what we represent collectively. 

I think where we are successful is by building ourselves as a brand that understands the markets, understands the technology, has a full grasp of the policy, and is able to effectively communicate that to anybody whether they’re a state official, a Republican member of Congress, or a senator from a purple state. That’s what we’re trying to build and grow because that is the path to success for clean energy in Washington.

Spector: The Solar Energy Industries Association has not jumped on board. What does that mean?

Zichal: Candidly, I haven’t had a conversation with SEIA about merging. I have a ton of respect for Abby [Ross Hopper, CEO of SEIA] and the work that they do. But I think the residential solar industry is very different from what we’re focused on, which is utility-scale. We can all look at the scale of the challenge that we have with climate change and recognize the more the merrier that are working on this. 

Spector: In Build Back Better, it seemed like we were going to get a clean energy standard, or Clean Electricity Performance Program. Then that got cut. What’s still doable for American clean energy without having a federal push toward 100 percent clean electricity?

Zichal: I think that coverage of the importance of CEPP was a little overstated in terms of what it was going to provide on the decarbonization front. Is that disappointing? Yes. 

However, if you look at the guts of the package, this will be more than this industry has ever seen before. Which will lead to deeper decarbonization, a lot of job creation, long-term certainty and predictability, which also leads to manufacturing opportunities. I am less worried about the CEPP and more focused on [the fact that] this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that will do more for this industry and more to help us meet the 2030 and 2035 and 2050 decarbonization targets than any other legislative package we could have imagined. 

We just need to get it done. And we’re very focused. For the first time ever, our industries launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, and not only in Washington, D.C., but at the federal level to try to create political space to get this done.

Spector: So you’re targeting specific lawmakers’ home districts and doing the sort of things that other political influencers have found to be effective? Is that the first time that clean energy’s really done that?

Zichal: Yeah.

Spector: How’s it going so far?

Zichal: We got a lot of positive feedback, including from members from the targeted states that we ran the ads in. We had a lot of positive feedback from congressional leadership. And a lot of the climate philanthropy community was like, You guys are in the mix; you’re running ads and fighting for this.” We’re business voices, which was critically important against a lot of the naysayers on Build Back Better. 

The administration has been so great — half the Cabinet calls on a regular basis to say how much they appreciate what we’ve done. It feels good. That’s exactly what we should be doing, and we’re going to do more of it.

Editor’s note: The following exchange happened over email this week after Manchin voiced his intent to oppose the Build Back Better legislation.

Spector: Senator Manchin’s recent comments appear to block the pathway for enacting Build Back Better. Do you think this is the end for that legislation?

Zichal: We remain optimistic that the popular energy and climate change provisions can be included in whatever package is negotiated in early 2022.

Spector: What will ACP do to help enact the clean energy policies contained within Build Back Better, in light of Manchin’s stated opposition?

Zichal: ACP and our member companies remain confident that there is still strong support for the predictable clean energy incentives and climate change provisions in whatever form the final legislative package takes. ACP will continue to work closely with members of Congress and the Biden administration as negotiations continue in early 2022 to ensure that programs that accelerate our transition to a clean energy future are included and enacted.

The solar industry in 2021: Big, complicated and kind of weird

Eric Wesoff  . 

(Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Canary Media’s Solar High Rollers column covers big developments and trends in solar.

The U.S. solar market has managed to notch a decade of steady growth despite shifting global economics and oscillating domestic energy policy. Expansion has continued even in this weird year. 

With results reported for three quarters, analysts are estimating that 19 gigawatts of utility-scale solar and almost 4 gigawatts of distributed solar will be deployed in the U.S. this year — record amounts in both categories. The industry is thriving despite high installation costs, worker shortages, supply-chain woes and import tariff complexity.

American residential and distributed solar companies have weathered the Covid-19 storm with software and new online strategies, enabling the market to grow with strength over a tumultuous 18 months. The pandemic put resilience at the front of people’s minds and accelerated adoption of digital sales practices. 

Here’s a guide to the top trends in the U.S. solar market in 2021.

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2021: When the hard climate stuff started looking doable

Julian Spector  . 

(Dakota Roos/Unsplash)

Welcome to Canary Media’s free newsletter, which explores trends in the clean energy transition and highlights the best of our news coverage. Sign up today.

The way we talk about what’s possible in the clean energy transition has changed dramatically in the last few years, and in no year more so than 2021.

Six years ago, around the time of the Paris Agreement, the standard narrative went something like this:

  • Wind, solar and battery technologies were rapidly falling in cost and looked increasingly promising for cleaning up the electricity system.
  • Those cheaper batteries would drive an electric revolution in the automotive industry, sooner or later, cleaning up much of the transportation sector.
  • Decarbonizing heavy industry, sea travel, air travel and long-distance trucking seemed daunting and distant, something to be figured out years down the road. 

As we close out 2021, I’m struck by how the first two premises went from slightly provocative to generally accepted. Renewables hit a liftoff trajectory; automakers around the world are going electric. Meanwhile, the third premise is finally obsolete. 

Certain carbon-intensive processes remain hard problems, but many things that looked impossible to clean up now have clear pathways to real transformation. And the affected industries aren’t waiting until 2050 to put those plans into action — they’re doing it now.

When I mention this to folks who don’t work in these industries, they’re typically shocked and left feeling more optimistic. So I wanted to use the newsletter to flesh out the argument for a few of these tough-to-clean-up areas.

Steel

This dynamic is especially clear for steel production, which single-handedly releases more than 7 percent of global carbon emissions. It’s also a vital building block for much of the other low-carbon infrastructure, so the need for steel isn’t going anywhere. 

Recently, the steel industry coalesced around a two-pronged decarbonization strategy: use carbon-free hydrogen to reduce iron ore, in place of carboniferous approaches. Then melt your metal in electric arc furnaces powered by clean electricity. 

Unlike the companies setting 2050 net-zero targets and doing little right now, a number of steel companies are building clean factories today. 

Canary covered the Hybrit plant in northern Sweden that currently makes carbon-free iron for use in the steel industry:

Instead of soot from unburned carbon and large amounts of CO2, the Hybrit plant emits clouds of water vapor.

Global steel giant ArcelorMittal is building a plant in Hamburg, Germany that will use only hydrogen to reduce iron; once this process is figured out, the company will source hydrogen made by electrolysis powered by nearby wind farms. And it’s not just that company — a 2020 McKinsey report noted, All major European steel players are currently building or already testing hydrogen-based steel production processes.”

Critically, a global coalition of steel buyers now says they’ll pay for clean steel, as everyone from carmakers to ball-bearing producers comes under pressure to cut emissions from their supply chains.

The problem of emissions from steelmaking is far from solved — there’s nowhere near enough carbon-free hydrogen to supply the industry at this point, for one thing. And there’s plenty of work needed to make these processes perform at the levels the industry demands. As ArcelorMittal noted in a release about its Hamburg project, Many technical and practical challenges are ahead of us, which only can be solved in an operational plant.” 

Yet the fact that such plants are coming online now is not something I ever would have guessed just a few years ago.

Marine transport

The conventional wisdom was always that batteries may work for personal vehicles, but they won’t float a boat. Now that’s changing.

Canary Media’s Maria Gallucci recently profiled the up-and-coming electric boat sector. They’re still quite expensive even by boating standards, as wel as fairly limited in how long their batteries run for. 

But the fundamental technology is there for smaller vessels; it just needs to be honed. 

Large cargo ships remain a challenge, but work is underway on using hydrogen or even ammonia to power them across the seas. (Stay tuned next week for more on this.) Others are working on biofuels or synthetic fuels, which will require less of an overhaul of current ship designs.

Aviation

The year ended with some excitement in sustainable aviation: United flew 100 people from Chicago to Washington, D.C. using non-fossil fuel derived from — wait for it — leftover cooking grease and corn sugar.

Granted, that was just powering one of its two jet engines. But it was the first time commercial passengers had been carried by a 100 percent fossil-fuel-free engine, and it worked. Today, in 2021. As Maria points out:

Fuels made from waste materials have the potential to start curbing carbon dioxide pollution using the aircraft and fuel infrastructure we have now and will continue to use in the coming decades.

Eyewitness accounts — wait, make that nose-witness accounts — suggest the grease-powered engine did not make the cabin smell like french fries.

This is a far cry from running the whole aviation sector on low-carbon fuels. It’s not clear that even America’s prodigious fast-food consumption could supply airlines with the fuel they need. 

But it’s absolutely clear that we can stop thinking jets have to run on fossil fuels just because they always have. 

The realm of the possible keeps shifting

The point of all this is not that decarbonizing the tough sectors of society is suddenly taken care of. It’s going to require years of hard work and billions of dollars of investment. But in these three industries, and many others I’m not even getting into here, there’s increasing clarity around the path ahead, as well as funding and enthusiasm to make it happen.

We have ideas that we know can work; the risk of failure lies in the execution. Will technologies perform as well as they technically could? Will people accept the changes or fight them? And, always looming, will the rollouts happen in time to avert drastic change to the planet’s climate?

We don’t know the answers to those yet. Until we do, there’s at least some comfort in knowing that smart and well-resourced people have a to-do list and are busy crossing things off.

Rounding up the year in climate politics

David Roberts  . 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks outside of the U.S. Capitol on November 17, 2021. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The year is coming to a close, which means I am obliged to do a year-end post, looking back on the year’s events and looking ahead to what’s next. I’ll be honest, I had second thoughts about whether to publish this post at all — my outlook is pretty gloomy and I don’t want to be a spreader of gloom — but I figure you come to me for the straight scoop. So here it is.

The broad story is that, as bad as it sometimes felt going through it, we are coming to the end of the most productive year of federal climate politics that any of us are likely to experience for a long, long time. I’m not sure it ever really sank in with most people, including Democrats in Congress, but this was the last big shot. After the Build Back Better Act passes (if it passes), that will be it for federal climate legislation.

After that, those of us hoping for climate progress will have to forget about first-best solutions and begin thinking in terms of guerrilla actions, in states, cities and the private sector. That’s a very different mindset than the push for a centralized solution.

Let’s begin with a quick review of the events of the last year.

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The top 10 climate commitments from COP26

Julia Pyper  . 

Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt (center) walks with delegates from Indigenous communities during COP26. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Julia Pyper, host of the Political Climate podcast, attended the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. On the latest episode of the show, she discusses highlights and takeaways from the gathering. This piece is adapted from the podcast.

The COP26 climate summit was busy, inspiring, discouraging and tiring all at once. But despite the mix of emotions, I have to say I left Glasgow fulfilled.

The climate crisis looms large; I think we all know that. Still, I was heartened to be reminded that there are so many brilliant people around the world who have dedicated their lives to addressing this challenge. They bring expertise in so many different fields, from transportation to health, gender, food systems, energy, conservation and so much more. It is inspiring to see this collective come together.

As I walked through a massive climate demonstration led by Greta Thunberg and others, there was a sense of outrage and frustration, but also energy and engagement. Not everyone in the climate community is on the same page, but there was a sense coming out of COP that attendees are at least working from the same book, if you will. And that’s a good thing.

News coverage throughout the U.N. climate summit framed the meeting as win or lose, with headlines like: Can COP26 Save the Planet?” The reality is that COP26 was a meeting, and it did its job in convening government leaders, civil society and the private sector and pressuring participants to raise their ambitions. It can be true that we’re both still losing the climate fight post-Glasgow and better off than we’ve ever been before.

The gatherings work. Unequivocally,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and former CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, speaking at a COP26 side event. You put an ice axe above you, and that’s COP. Then everyone pulls themselves up.”

It must be noted that wealthy countries did not meet their target of providing $100 billion a year in climate finance to developing nations in dire need of assistance. Fulfilling that pledge is already long overdue, while negotiators from Africa and two dozen other developing nations have called for at least $1.3 trillion a year for climate mitigation and adaptation by 2030.

So again, there’s cause for outrage and frustration, but also optimism and inspiration. On the positive side, here are some of the notable commitments that came out of COP26 and its many side events:

  • Over 100 national governments, cities, states and major businesses signed a commitment to end the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 in leading markets and by 2040 worldwide.
  • More than 100 world leaders — including from Brazil, where the Amazon rainforest is under threat — pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.
  • While there are very real barriers for Indigenous communities hoping to influence the COP negotiations, we did see several governments and philanthropies announce $1.7 billion in forest protection and support for Indigenous peoples, specifically in protecting forests and lands under their stewardship, which is where 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is located. 
  • Belize became the first country to do a debt conversion for ocean preservation.
  • The Ikea Foundation, Bezos Earth Fund and Rockefeller Foundation and partners pledged $10 billion to support the clean energy transition.
  • More than 40 countries including Poland, Vietnam and Chile pledged to phase out coal, although China, India and the U.S. are missing from that agreement. 
  • India committed to net-zero emissions by 2070, which was critiqued for being decades beyond the timeframe when nations need to decarbonize, but also commended for its honesty given what it will really take for India to meet that target. Plus, India’s new commitment to deploy 500 gigawatts of renewables by 2030 is nothing to sneer at.
  • While the rest of the world remains dubious, the Biden administration did make a compelling case that the U.S. is back on the scene. The U.S. and EU announced a global pledge to slash methane emissions, and the U.S. doubled its climate finance commitment to $11 billion per year.
  • America also joined 20 other countries committing to stop the financing of fossil fuels abroad.
  • U.N. Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance Mark Carney announced that the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero — a consortium of the largest global financial institutions with $130 trillion in assets under management — are now aligned with net-zero emissions goals (although there’s more to this announcement and other climate finance targets, as we discuss on Political Climate).

A new analysis from the International Energy Agency suggests that commitments made at COP26 — if realized — could limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. While other assessments put the number higher, recent pledges show meaningful progress. In some ways, though, pledges are no longer the mark of success. While bolder commitments are needed, the focus must now shift to implementation.

Ice axes have been placed; now it’s time to pull ourselves up.

***

Listen to the full episode, which includes interviews about climate finance with Justin Guay, director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, and Benjamin Bartle, project director with RMI’s Climate Finance Access Network.

Political Climate is a biweekly podcast about the most pressing energy and climate issues of our time, hosted by Julia Pyper, Brandon Hurlbut and Shane Skelton. You can listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get podcasts. Follow the show on Twitter at @Poli_Climate. Political Climate is presented by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute and Canary Media. 

Top 10 state energy legislative issues of 2021

Sarah Steinberg  . 

(Joey Csunyo)

Sarah Steinberg is a policy principal at Advanced Energy Economy, an industry association for clean energy companies. This guest essay represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

Since January, Advanced Energy Economy has been tracking hundreds of pieces of energy-related legislation filed in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the United States Congress. With some sessions already over and some just beginning, a number of trends have begun to emerge. Of course, just getting filed does not mean a bill will become law, or even that it stands much of a chance at all. But the patterns that arise in our survey of filed bills (which is by no means exhaustive) say a lot about what’s on lawmakers’ minds. Here is a look at our top 10 energy issues generating legislative activity across the country. (You can read AEE’s full version here, with links to specific bills.)

(AEE)

Top 10 utility regulation trends of 2021 — so far

Noah Garcia  . 

transmission tower

Noah Garcia is a policy principal at Advanced Energy Economy, an industry association for clean energy companies. This guest essay represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

Although 2021 is only halfway over, state utility regulators and regional grid operators have had their hands full grappling with issues at the cutting edge of the energy transition. How can utilities develop resource plans that align with state policy goals? How do all those mobile batteries in the growing fleet of electric vehicles (EVs) integrate with the grid? How can customers get the support they need to make smarter energy decisions? 

These questions and more are on utility regulators’ dockets in 2021, and Advanced Energy Economy has been tracking how regulators are tackling them. Already, the regulatory trends from across the country suggest that 2021 will be another transformational year. (You can read AEE’s full version here, with links to specific proceedings.)

1. Large-scale renewables are poised for continued growth

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nearly 70% of new large-scale capacity additions in 2021 will come from renewables, including a record 15.4 gigawatts of new solar. In March, Xcel Energy in Colorado filed its inaugural Clean Energy Plan to support a goal of an 80% reduction in power-sector greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. In May, Indiana regulators approved Northern Indiana Public Service Co.’s request for 900 megawatts of new solar capacity under its 2018 integrated resource plan. In the Southwest, Arizona’s Energy Rules proceeding has been a regulatory roller coaster, but the Arizona Corporation Commission has set the stage for a vote in the fall that would require regulated utilities to achieve 100% clean energy by 2070 with interim targets. Other states such as New York, North Carolina, Michigan, Nevada, California and Washington all have active dockets on the procurement of new renewable resources.

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2. Distributed energy resources unlock more value 

Regulators across the country are exploring how distributed energy resources (DERs) such as rooftop solar, storage, energy efficiency, EVs and demand response can provide more grid and customer benefits. Nowhere is the discussion more active than in California. The California Public Utilities Commission approved a new pilot for utilities to procure and compensate behind-the-meter DERs that avoid or defer distribution system upgrades. It also adopted a new metric that captures the grid benefits provided by efficiency and continued to oversee a hotly contested process to update the state’s net-metering rules. The CPUC will also soon initiate a major proceeding to prepare for an energy future defined by high levels of DERs. Other state commissions evaluating ways to bring DER value to the grid include those in New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Arizona, Oregon and Hawaii.

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3. Investments in electrifying transport continue to surge

Transportation electrification continues to be a hot topic among utility regulators. According to Atlas Public Policy, public utility commissions have approved more than $2.6 billion in utility EV programs so far. In Michigan, DTE Energy recently received the green light to implement the second phase of its Electric Vehicle Charging Forward program, providing new opportunities for customer education and outreach, fleet advisory services and EV charging station deployments. Minnesota regulators also recently approved utilities’ 2020 Transportation Electrification Plans and set new requirements for future plans to integrate EV demand onto the grid. California continued to set the bar by approving new rates that support the economic operation of fast chargers, authorizing a new program to deploy more than 2,000 new EV chargers at apartments and workplaces, and laying the groundwork for $240 million in fast-tracked investments to support charging needs of apartment dwellers, low-income residents and other priority groups. In Maine, Central Maine Power sought to push the boundaries of transportation electrification on the water by proposing a pilot to support the electrification of ferries in the region. Other states, including New York, Maryland, Florida, Colorado and Arizona, have also had active dockets on transportation electrification this year.

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4. Efforts to electrify buildings gain ground as natural gas faces scrutiny

There has been much debate over the last several years around decarbonizing buildings and the future of the natural gas system, and that debate has been heating up this year. So far in 2021, Colorado regulators continued their proceeding on decarbonization of the natural gas system as they prepare for utilities to file new electrification plans in accordance with legislation passed this session. The Public Utilities Commission of Nevada plans to open a new proceeding on long-term gas planning in that state. After California’s landmark 2020 decision to establish $200 million in utility beneficial electrification programs, the California Public Utilities Commission continues its proceeding guiding future policies and rules for gas planning; it will conclude in 2022. Utility commissions in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Wisconsin and Oregon are also overseeing proceedings that have planning implications for building electrification technologies.

5. Considering expansion and reform of wholesale markets 

Well-designed wholesale electricity markets can be a powerful driver for advanced energy development. As states look to reduce utility customer costs, enhance system reliability and meet policy goals, regional transmission organizations and independent system operators serve as critical tools for enabling the efficient use of transmission and generation resources. In the Southeast, several major utilities submitted an application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a new Southeast Energy Exchange Market. SEEM would enable trading of wholesale power among utilities at 15-minute intervals; however, the concept falls short of the typical transmission organization structure, lacks mechanisms to ensure market transparency and leaves potential customer savings on the table. In the West, interest in a regionwide market is growing, as evidenced by recent legislation in several states, as well as ongoing commission investigations in Colorado and Nevada. States in the territories of ISO-New England and PJM have also continued to discuss concerns about discordance between market rules and state clean energy policies. Last but not least, FERC has teamed up with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners to establish a federal-state task force on electric transmission to optimize benefits of new transmission and fairly allocate costs — critical issues for sharing large-scale renewable resources over wide areas of the country.

6. Extreme weather forces regulatory action

A major winter storm in Texas and extreme heat in California were two prime examples of extreme weather this year. Both events underscored the need for flexible, resilient supply-side and demand-side resources that protect customers from prolonged grid disruptions. Amid the regulatory upheaval that took place at the Public Utility Commission of Texas after the winter outages, regulators opened dockets on a wide range of issues stemming from the crisis, including a service disconnection moratorium, weatherization standards, indexed retail electricity plans and ERCOT’s scarcity pricing mechanisms. Moreover, the Texas legislature passed 25 bills that require commission action on an even wider array of issues to shore up system reliability. In the wake of last summer’s regionwide heat wave, California regulators opened a proceeding in the fall of 2020 to address near-term reliability issues. These actions are already having an impact this year: California’s grid operator noted that new demand-response and battery-storage resources helped to keep the lights on during a mid-June heat wave. FERC and states including New York, Arkansas, Colorado and Oregon are also grappling with dockets concerning system resilience and impacts of grid disruptions caused by extreme weather.

7. Quest for zero-carbon firm resources ramps up

With an increasing number of states aiming for 100% clean energy and moving toward that goal by adding variable renewables, regulators are beginning to search for solutions that ensure zero-carbon energy is available around the clock. While battery storage can be used to meet short-term capacity needs, there is growing interest in zero-carbon technologies that can provide capacity and other grid services for extended periods of time. In California, the CPUC issued a groundbreaking decision in June to procure 11.5 gigawatts of new resources by 2026, of which at least 1 GW must be long-duration energy storage and at least 1 GW must come from clean firm” resources such as geothermal power. In New York, grid operators are modeling the use of renewable natural gas and hydrogen from electrolysis at existing gas-fired plants. Evergy’s latest integrated resource plan in Missouri anticipates procuring nearly 4.5 GW of renewable and zero-carbon firm, dispatchable” resources by 2040. Regulators in Massachusetts, Colorado and Nevada are also looking at demonstrating, procuring or studying zero-carbon firm resources.

8. Pandemic-related restrictions on power disconnections expire, but costs are looming

At the time of AEE’s last top 10 regulatory trends post in December 2020, half of U.S. states had some form of disconnection moratorium in place and many had opened dockets to address near-term challenges for utilities and their customers due to Covid-19 impacts. Today, states continue to grapple with pandemic-related issues, including customers behind on their payments and utility cost recovery. The situation is particularly acute in New York, where the total sum of overdue bills across regulated utilities has grown to approximately $2 billion. States such as Massachusetts have continued to extend disconnection bans into the summer, while others, including Texas and Wisconsin, have ended the bans but continue to require regular reporting on utility finances and management of overdue bills. Given the lingering pandemic’s financial impact on customers and utilities, 2021 may see a ramp up in rate-case activity as utilities seek to recover costs.

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9. Data access efforts gain traction

As the grid becomes smarter and more distributed, increased access to data can help consumers make informed energy decisions and give third-party companies the chance to unlock more value from customer-sited DERs. In Washington, D.C., regulators recently issued a decision that requires Pepco and Washington Gas to issue customer home energy reports — similar to existing reports in Maryland and other states — that display detailed usage data as well as associated greenhouse gas information. New York took a big step by requiring the creation of an Integrated Energy Data Resource as a one-stop shop for energy-related data in the state. Colorado is also considering data-access issues in a new proceeding that may amend Xcel’s Advanced Grid Intelligence and Security initiative to allow third-party energy management companies to access customer energy data. Other states, including Maryland, Minnesota and California, also have active dockets on data access.

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10. Performance-based ratemaking seeks to shape utility behavior

Though not a new concept, performance-based ratemaking (PBR) is making inroads among utility commissions that want to enhance traditional cost-of-service regulation by incentivizing utility behavior that drives customer and grid benefits and helps achieve state policy goals. In Nevada, the commission proposed three new performance incentive mechanisms to encourage peak load reduction, transportation electrification and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Hawaii regulators approved a performance mechanism portfolio under a new PBR framework that was adopted in December 2020. It includes three performance incentive mechanisms focused on DER interconnection, low-income energy efficiency programs and advanced metering infrastructure. In Minnesota, the commission is soliciting feedback on a range of performance metrics and incentives tied to utilities’ forthcoming load flexibility pilots. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Colorado are also actively considering PBR in regulating specific utility operations.

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(Lead image by Jason Richard/​Unsplash. Maps courtesy of AEE Communications Associate Cayli Baker.)