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Solar power could deliver $ 400 billion in environmental and public health benefits throughout the United States by 2050, according to a study from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory  (Berkeley Lab) and National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

“We find that a U.S. electric system in which solar plays a major role—supplying 14% of demand in 2030, and 27% in 2050—would result in enduring environmental and health benefits. Moreover, we find that the existing fleet of solar plants is already offering a down-payment towards those benefits, and that there are sizable regional differences in the benefits,” said Ryan Wiser of Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area.

The total monetary value of the greenhouse-gas and air pollution benefits of the high-penetration solar scenario exceeds $ 400 billion in present-value terms under central assumptions. Focusing on the existing end-of-2014 fleet of solar power projects, recent annual benefits equal more than $ 1.5 billion under central assumptions.

On the Path to SunShot

The report, The Environmental and Public Health Benefits of Achieving High Penetrations of Solar Energy in the United States, may be downloaded here. The report is part of a series of papers published as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s On the Path to SunShot study. The DOE launched the SunShot Initiative in 2011, with the goal of driving down the cost of solar energy so that it was cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade.

The new reports take stock of the progress already made, and highlight various barriers and opportunities that remain to achieving SunShot-level cost reductions. The full set of reports, including two others involving Berkeley Lab, can be found here.

The SunShot Initiative aims to lower the installed cost of solar by 75% between 2010 and 2020. In their SunShot Vision Study, published in 2012, DOE found that meeting SunShot’s low-cost solar goal could result in solar supplying 14% of U.S. electricity demand by 2030 and 27% by 2050.

The new study follows up on that work by evaluating the greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions reductions, air-pollution health and environmental impacts, and water-use reductions from large amounts of solar. As Trieu Mai from NREL explains, “This study augments the original DOE report by attaching specific numbers to the benefits of solar energy. It also assesses the benefits already being delivered by the existing fleet of solar projects. Importantly, we take great care to describe our methods and highlight underlying uncertainties.”

Benefits of the Existing Fleet of Solar Projects

The study finds that the 20 gigawatts (GW) of solar installed as of the end of 2014 is already lowering annual GHGs by 17 million metric tons, worth about $ 700 million per year if valued with a central estimate of the “social cost of carbon” – the Obama Administration’s estimate of the long-term damage done by one ton of carbon emissions. Over half of these benefits come from emissions reductions in California.

Current health and environmental benefits of solar power. (Source: LBL)

Solar is also reducing conventional air pollutants from power plants – sulfur, nitrogen, and particulates – and the corresponding health benefits are greatest in the eastern United States. Overall, the health and environmental benefits of this pollution reduction are worth an estimated $ 890 million from avoiding premature mortality and a range of other negative health outcomes. “The East has more coal-fired power generation than the rest of the country, and therefore sees greater benefits in reducing conventional pollutants,” explained Wiser, the lead author of the study.

Sunshot enviro benefits by region

Annual GHG and air quality benefits of the 20 GW of solar power installed by the end of 2014 by region or state. (Source: LBL)

Benefits from a High-Penetration Solar Energy Future

Looking further ahead, with solar growing to 14% of demand by 2030 and 27% by 2050, the study finds GHG reductions of 13% in 2030 and 18% in 2050, compared to a scenario of no new solar. These emission reductions are worth about $ 259 billion in reduced global climate damages based on central estimates, or 2.2 cents per kWh of solar.

Health and environmental benefits of reaching the SunShot goals in 2050. (Source: LBL)

Hitting SunShot goals is also found to reduce sulfur, nitrogen, and particulate emissions, delivering $ 167 billion in health and environmental benefits, or 1.4 cents per kWh of solar, again based on central estimates. The most notable benefit comes from reducing premature mortality from sulfate particles. Achieving the SunShot Vision scenario reduces premature mortalities by between 25,000 and 59,000 lives, based on methods developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lastly, solar power reduces water use by power plants. Relative to the baseline scenario, achieving the SunShot Vision scenario reduces power-sector water withdrawals by 8% in 2030 and 5% in 2050, while water consumption is reduced by 10% in 2030 and 16% in 2050. Importantly, states that are sunny, but drought-prone and arid like California and Texas, are among those with the largest reductions in water use.

The research was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative.  Follow the Electricity Markets & Policy Group on Twitter at @BerkeleyLabEMP.

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USGBC Northern California is pleased to present a guest blog by Michael Hummel, who will be speaking at GreenerBuilder 2016. 

Imagine a world where all buildings are zero net energy (ZNE). By 2030, this will be a reality for California. New state legislation requires all new commercial buildings to be zero energy by 2030, and for residential, this requirement begins in 2020. The good news is that we have all the technology, financial tools and implementation methods to make zero energy buildings profitable today.

Zero net energy buildings are achievable today. For their new Apprentice Training Center, IBEW Local 595 and NorCal NECA set out to show the industry that ZNE existing building renovations can be a reality today, and their results surpassed their expectations. The upcoming GreenerBuilder Conference will include educational tour sessions of this early 1980s single-story office building, now known as the Zero Net Energy Center (ZNEC).

These sessions, led by Michael Hummel of stok, will highlight the key design and construction features that make this project cost-effective, location-appropriate and a replicable example for other project teams looking to achieve high-performance building results. Michael will also discuss emerging ZNE trends such as triple net zero, resiliency and ZNE Districts.

As consultant for the ZNEC’s energy systems team, Michael will provide insight into the technical solutions and innovative processes used to help this building achieve net zero energy performance for three years running. Having consulted on a half dozen ZNE projects, Michael brings a diverse set of energy and financial analysis skills, integrated system development guidance and project-specific examples of the importance of team relationships and communication dynamics as important elements of high-performance project success.

Attendees will be involved in an open dialogue regarding some of the latest developments in the ZNE movement, including façade-mounted renewables, human behavior modification, building performance feedback systems, hybrid renewables, zero carbon accounting, monitoring-based commissioning and systems tuning. Questions, comments and observations are all welcomed and encouraged, so be sure to sign up for a tour.

stok is a vertically integrated real estate services firm focused on creating a radically better built environment. We balance the financial and performance goals of our projects with social and environmental needs, resulting in restorative buildings, exceptional workspaces, high-performance systems and lasting, trusted relationships with our partners. In all that we do—from tenant representation, project management and strategy to design, certification and quality assurance—we take a broad-thinking, partner-focused approach to solving complex problems. 

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Reactor 4 of Chernobyl (photo Clay Gilliland,2014)

Reactor 4 of Chernobyl (Photo: Clay Gilliland, 2014)

Three decades after Chernobyl, nuclear power remains a mainstay of Ukrainian energy supply, writes Iryna Holovko, campaigner of NGO CEE Bankwatch Network in Ukraine. Despite persistent safety problems, the Ukrainian government has approved lifetime extensions for four of its 15 nuclear units since 2010, and two more could be greenlighted later this year. What is more, Holovko adds, Ukraine’s nuclear sector survives in part thanks to European support. She calls on the EU to stop supporting Kiev’s risky nuclear energy programme.

Three decades after the Chernobyl catastrophe and five years after the Fukushima disaster, Europe appears to be slowly coming to terms with the risk of keeping nuclear power as part of its energy mix. In Ukraine, however, the government is eager to maintain, even enhance, its reliance on nuclear energy as if neither Chernobyl nor Fukushima ever happened.

In fact, generous financial support from the EU now effectively enables prolonging the operation of Ukraine’s Soviet-era nuclear reactors well beyond their original expiry date.

The country’s ageing nuclear fleet has had a disturbing track record of mishaps and failures over the past few years. Yet, Ukrainian authorities only make minimum efforts to ensure due process when extending these nuclear units’ lifetimes, overlooking the risk to people in Ukraine and across Europe.

Since 2010 Ukraine has already approved lifetime extensions for four of its 15 nuclear units. Two more could be greenlighted later this year. (A decision was originally planned for this month, but this has been postponed due to the financial crisis of Energoatom, Ukraine’s national nuclear energy generating company.) Yet, time and again what followed cast serious doubts over the reliability of these power plants and the decision-making processes behind their continued operation.

Expiry dates

Here’s how this atomic debacle unfolded so far. In December 2010 the Ukrainian authorities approved the first lifetime extension. Unit 1 in the Rivne power plant, working since three decades, was allowed to continue operations for 20 more years. Barely a month later an accident happened, and the reactor’s output had to be reduced by half.

Unit 2 in the Rivne power plant was also granted a 20 years lifetime extension. Activists and civil society organisations criticised the decision-making process allowing these nuclear reactors’ expiry dates to be rewritten. In March 2013, the Espoo Convention‘s Implementation Committee ruled the decision indeed was in breach of the treaty, since Ukraine did not carry out assessments of the impacts the project can have on people and the environment in neighbouring countries.

Energoatom is in dire financial straits and it is unclear whether the implementation of all necessary safety upgrades will be completed any time soon

But this did not deter the Ukrainian government. In December 2013 it approved another lifetime extension, this time for unit 1 in the South Ukraine power station. Energoatom, Ukraine’s national energy operator, conducted technical checks of the nuclear reactor prior to the decision, but these might not have been thorough enough. An independent expert assessment released in March 2015 criticised the re-licensing process that led to the approval of the lifetime extension, and warned that the reactor is suffering critical vulnerabilities.

South Ukraine‘s unit 2 was suspended in May 2015 when it reached its original expiry date. But this was only temporary, to allow necessary safety improvements. Seven months later, in December 2015, Ukraine’s nuclear regulator decided the reactor can be brought back online and continue working for ten more years, even though 11 safety measures of the highest priority had not been implemented.

Reckless adventure

Ukraine’s neighbours are also concerned. Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria have sent multiple questions for clarification and requests for participation in trans-boundary consultations. But Kiev, in response, denied its obligation to conduct any.

One might think that this experience, or perhaps civil society’s repeated warnings, would make decision makers reconsider this reckless adventure. But not the Ukrainian government.

The 30 years’ old reactor in unit 1 of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant has reached the end of its design lifespan just before last Christmas and was taken off the grid. Unit 2 in the same power plant, Europe’s largest, was also switched off once it exceeded its original lifetime in February.

Ukraine’s addiction to nuclear energy would not have been possible without the EU’s support

The Ukrainian nuclear regulator will be deciding on lifetime extensions for both units this year. But a series of incidents in late 2014 were Zaporizhia’s latest signs of instability. Blackouts in large parts of Ukraine in November have been aggravated by an emergency shutdown of unit 3 of Zaporizhia following an accident, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk revealed only several days later. The following month unit 6 in the same power station was briefly taken off the grid after one more incident.

These might sound like minor hiccups, but they should be seen as warning signs of these reactors’ precarious state. In fact, Energoatom is currently in dire financial straits and it is unclear whether the implementation of all necessary safety upgrades in the Zaporizhia nuclear units will be completed any time soon.

Frontlines

Even people working in the Zaporizhia power plant, located just 250 kilometers from the frontlines of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, are worried. In April last year the chief specialist on the ground told a Bankwatch team that nuclear power plants were simply not designed to withstand an armed conflict.

Yet, Ukraine’s addiction to nuclear energy would not have been possible without the EU’s support. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and Euratom have each contributed €300 million to a so-called safety upgrades programme, which effectively enables these lifetime extensions.

Ultimately, patching up these ailing nuclear reactors is no sustainable solution

Acknowledging the risks involved, Germany, Switzerland and Italy have already decided to end their nuclear energy programmes without waiting for an accident, small or large, to happen. But taxpayer money from the very same countries is still being used to fuel the Ukrainian government’s nuclear energy fixation.

We reached out to the European Commission’s Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs which oversees half of the EU’s financial support to the safety revamp of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. They argued there is no connection between the safety upgrade programme’s timeline and that of the lifetime extensions project.

Sustainable solution

Ahead of the decision on prolonging the operations of the two nuclear units in the Zaporizhia power plant, the EBRD and the European Commission should reflect on the experience from previous reactors which have been granted lifetime extensions. It is high time for the EU to acknowledge its responsibility and suspend its support until Kiev starts taking into account the safety of both Ukrainians and Europeans beyond its borders.

Ultimately, patching up these ailing nuclear reactors is no sustainable solution. The experience so far shows that the Ukrainian government’s stubborn attempts to keep its nuclear fleet on EU-funded life support are futile at best, and outright dangerous at worst.

If Europe truly wants to stand with Ukraine, both should recognise the urgency in exploring a better, safer energy path. In 2014 nuclear made up less than 30 percent of total installed capacity, and even now, when the share of nuclear power is over 50 percent due to a drop in overall demand and a shrinking share of coal in the energy mix, reactors are not working to full capacity. Materialising the country’s vast wind and solar potential and investing in energy efficiency, particularly to cut losses in distribution grids, could effectively make Ukraine’s outdated nuclear energy array completely redundant.

The alternative might be history repeating itself.

by Iryna Holovko

Iryna Holovko (iryna@bankwatch.org) is a Ukraine campaigner at CEE Bankwatch Network and the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine.

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