Category Archives: Energy

The Message of a Better Tomorrow Resonates Across the U.S. (and the globe)

Last month I spoke with Cyril Dion, a French filmmaker, writer, and activist. Dion co-produced the documentary Tomorrow with the actress, director, screenwriter, and musician Melanie Laurent.

Tomorrow won the 2016 French César for Best Documentary. After a successful release in more than 20 countries, the film made its U.S. debut in the Bay Area the weekend of April 14.  When we talked the following Monday, a tired yet determined-looking Dion said he was encouraged by the overwhelming enthusiasm for the film’s message of solutions and empowerment.

That enthusiasm continues. In a nation beleaguered by uncertainty and antagonism, Tomorrow has clearly struck a chord across the U.S.

As of this writing, Tomorrow is held over in  NY, LA, San Diego, San Francisco, among other cities.

The road to Tomorrow

Like any mother, Melanie Laurant wants a better future for her childrenShortly after Laurent gave birth to her first child, she learned of the  2012 Nature article, Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.  Co-authored by Anthony Barnosky,  a paleobiologist, professor emeritus of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and currently executive director of the Stanford Jasper Ridge Biological Reserve, the paper’s stark warning of a rapidly approaching biological tipping point was an alarming awakening for a new mother in the 21st century.

We can avoid the severely – and suddenly  – altered world that potentially awaits Laurent’s child and the two billion other children expected on the planet by 2050. But the time to act, the article warned, is now. Waiting until after an ecological collapse to find viable solutions will be too late.

Fighting catastrophe fatigue

With that dire message, Laurent, Dion and a crew of four set out to tell a different story. We can imagine a better future for our children. If that sounds improbable, we need only look at what people all over the world are doing right now to shape the future of their families, communities, and the

The film acknowledges the urgent message from Barnosky’s work, and that of many others, but doesn’t dwell on the darkness. Instead, it focuses on active solutions.

Filmmaker Cyril Dion“People feel helpless… that they are too small to do anything about it,” Dion says.

“I really wanted to make a tool to empower people. To show them that we can start where we are and we can also build a movement.”

A better world, the film posits, can rest on four pillars, looking at each one in turn:

    • Agriculture:  For anyone living in the industrialized world and born after 1950, the idea of anything other than industrial farming is an esoteric “niche.” It’s hard to imagine that the exact opposite might be true.

    • Energy: A low carbon energy economy is the right side of history. A continued “business-as-usual” reliance on high-carbon, extractive energy sources is the wrong side of history. Everybody know that. Well, almost everybody.
    • Education: The chances of success for a single individual, and thus an entire society, rests on a good education.

    • Democracy: How we choose our leaders demands an informed and engaged citizenry (see above). Oligarchy is what happens when people don’t know or don’t care, allowing fear and emotion to dictate their decisions.

There are innovative solutions for each. Solutions not only “being tried,” but working and expanding.

People from all walks of life making a better Tomorrow, today

A world reimagined

In another interview yesterday, Barnosky told me he remains optimistic. Messages like the one in Tomorrow are important, he says. It demonstrates  the groundswell of community action globally, suggesting a different narrative for a “global economy.” One that starts with people and communities, connected through a shared belief in their own power to effect change. Not by “saving the world,” but by working in their own communities, their own little plot of land. Think globally, act locally.

But it’s also about being present, here and now, and imagining the kind of future we want.

“If we can imagine the world differently,” says Dion, “it’s going to have an impact on the economic and political structure.”

“We are human beings, so we imagine first. We first need to change the vision, the narrative of the world.”

Tomorrow shows a world reimagined, but real.

Tomorrow – Trailer from Under The Milky Way on Vimeo.

Intersolar North America 2016 – Update

At Intersolar today in San Francisco, I explored three examples of how the industry is working to meet the challenges of solar energy integration:

High Capacity Storage

This morning I met with Bill Sproull of Energy Storage Systems – ESS. In partnership with ARPA-E and others, ESS brings to market a turnkey 100kW/800kWh iron flow battery for long duration, commercial and utility-scale energy storage.

This technology can level and shift energy on demand with 6-8 hour duration for “baseload” renewable energy integration.

Efficiency

A typical silicon solar cell on the market today is about 20 percent efficient. Erik Smith, CEO of Sol Voltaics is in its third round of funding to bring to market cost-effective Gallium arsenide nanowire technology. A thin sheet of nanowires is stacked over silicon or thin-film modules, increasing efficiency by up to 60 percent (for an efficiency rating of 29-30 percent).

Smith expects the first commercially available nanowire sometime in 2018.

Materials and quality

There are 900 million solar panels deployed across the globe. 81 percent of those came online in the last five years. Most of those are made with materials supplied by Dupont, one of the first providers of PV backsheets and silver paste, two essential ingredients in solar PV.

Over 40 years in the PV industry, Dupont has developed rigorous materials testing procedures, “heat and beat” as Dr. Alexander Bradley calls it. These lifecycle testing methods allow Dupont engineers to continually improve the performance and quality of its materials.

As the solar industry continues to mature and shake itself out, the message from Dupont is an awareness of the value proposition of quality, for all stakeholders.

All those hundreds of millions of solar panels won’t be worth the investment if they degrade quickly, and the company that sold them will have long been out of business.

New Generating Capacity From Renewables Outpacing Natural Gas

The first quarter of 2016 is one of lopsided records. First there are the monthly temperature records, with February the most unusually warm on record followed by March, with yet a new record deviation. In the midst of these increasingly worrisome records is another, offering hope that the response to these changing climate patterns is underway.

The latest “Energy Infrastructure Update” report just released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Office of Energy Projects shows a quarterly record for new US electrical generating capacity from renewables. According to the FERC report, renewable energy sources outstripped natural gas for new capacity brought online in the first three month of 2016 by a factor of 70:1.

Gas, swamped

In total, renewable sources provided 1,291 megawatts (MW) of new generating capacity in the first quarter 2016, while natural gas contributed only 18 MW. No new capacity came from coal, oil or nuclear.

Nine new “units” of wind power provided 707 MW, followed by 44 units of solar for 522 MW, 33 MW from biomass and 29 MW from hydropower. Two new units of natural gas provided the final 18 MW of new capacity for the quarter. In January, solar and wind were the only new sources capacity. In march 100 percent of new capacity came from wind, solar and biomass.

Renewables growing share

Renewable energy sources now account for 18.11 percent of the total available installed U.S. generating capacity. Contrast that to FERC’s first Energy Infrastructure Update report released in December of 2010, when renewable installed capacity stood at just 13.71 percent.

Of the 18.11 percent now available, hydro provides 8.58 percent, wind 6.39 percent, biomass contributes 1.43 percent, solar 1.38 percent and geothermal steam 0.33 percent. The share of non-hydro renewables is now 9.53 percent of total capacity, exceeding that of conventional hydro (8.58%), nuclear (9.17%) or oil (3.83%).

This accelerating trend underscores a tendency among some government forecasters to underestimate the growth of renewable energy.

“While often touted as being a ‘bridge fuel,’ natural gas is increasingly becoming an unnecessary bridge to nowhere,” noted Ken Bossong, Executive Director of the SUN DAY Campaign. “As renewables continue to rapidly expand their share of the nation’s electrical generation, it’s becoming clear that natural gas will eventually join coal, oil, and nuclear power as fuels of the past.”


* Note that generating capacity is not the same as actual generation. Electrical production per MW of available capacity (i.e., capacity factor) for renewables is often lower than that for fossil fuels and nuclear power.

According to the most recent data provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, actual net electrical generation from utility-scale renewable energy sources totaled about 14.3 percent of total U.S. electrical production as of January 31, 2016

However, this figure understates renewables’ actual contribution because neither EIA nor FERC fully accounts for all electricity generated by distributed, smaller-scale renewable energy sources such as rooftop solar (e.g., FERC acknowledges that its data just reflect “plants with nameplate capacity of 1 MW or greater”).


The SUN DAY Campaign is a non-profit research and educational organization founded in 1992 to aggressively promote sustainable energy technologies as cost-effective alternatives to nuclear power and fossil fuels.

This post first published in our blog GlobalWarmingisReal.com

Image credit: Sandia Labs, courtesy flickr